Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Olive bread

Huh. I realized I made baklava this month, too. Guess April is Greek month here.

So this Greek restaurant near my workplace has great olive bread. I've never had olive bread before -- I don't even particularly like olives -- but I loved this stuff. It had a nice thick crust, dusted with salt, and a good soft chewy center. The olives added a different layer of flavor.

And lo! I found an olive bread recipe in my Williams-Sonoma baking book. I modified it a little bit (an extra knead, less flour, and some more salt), with good results.

The first knead was sans salt and olives. I find that cookbooks never tell you to knead bread dough enough. The more you knead, the better. That's where the bread consistency comes from -- the kneading relaxes the gluten in the wheat and creates the chewy texture. Otherwise, you'd be making a cake. And! Cookbooks always tell you to add salt immediately into the dough -- which is not a good idea, since salt inhibits the yeast.

Here's me, kneading the dough. This is the second knead, just after I added the Kalamata olives and a bit of sea salt.

Then, I let the dough rise some more. Then, there was a little bit MORE kneading. I shaped the dough into a free-form loaf and let it rise some more on the baking sheet. After that final rise, I dusted the top with flour, coarse sea salt, and cut a slash into the top of the dough. (The cut helps the crust to develop by giving the dough room to expand.)

After baking:

Pretty no?

What it looks like inside:

How does it taste? Oh my GOD. It was so great. Don't need anything else -- except maybe a nice thick stew for dunking the bread. This turned out exactly like the restaurant's. I could eat this stuff all day long, no joke.

Raspberry Crumble bars

Who doesn't love crumble bars? My sister likes them a lot (it's her favorite dessert at Starbucks), so I made them for her. I can outdo Starbucks any day, pshah.

They're actually very easy to make. The only slighty complicated part is "cutting" the cold butter into the flour and oat mix. I found an easy way to cut the cold butter down into more managable pieces is to use a box grater.

After that, it's smooth sailing. About 2/3 of the flour-oat crumble mixture is pressed down into the bottom of the baking sheet. I suppose you could use homemade jam at this point, but I just used store-bought raspberry jam. If I was being really ambitious, I would've probably mashed some fresh raspberries in, to add texture and taste.

Then, loosely sprinkle the rest of the flour-oat mix on top of the jam, and you're ready to bake! Totally easy, right?

As the bars cool. The light on my stove make them look yellower than they are.

These guys didn't last long in my house.

Maximum satisfaction from minimum effort. I love it!


Baklava is a traditional Greek dessert, made of layers of pastry sheets (phyllo), butter, and chopped nuts.

I really wanted to make baklava using chopped pistachios, but alas, I couldn't find any shelled pistachios in bulk at the grocery store. Bah! So I made it with walnuts, instead. Equally tasty.

First off, I made a sugar syrup using white sugar, water, some lemon juice, and a bit of cinnamon. I let it come to a boil, and then set it aside to cool.

Then, I needed some clarified butter. I melted down some unsalted butter in a pan, over low heat -- just until it was foamy. I poured the melted butter into a glass bowl (so I could see through it), and let it sit for a few minutes. Eventually, the butter settles into 3 layers, like so:

The bottom layer is the milk solids, the middle is the clarified butter, and the top is the foam. I scooped off the foamy top layer with a spoon, and poured out the clarified butter into another bowl, leaving the milk solids behind.

I had some thawed phyllo dough (just the normal stuff you get in the freezer section of the grocery store). I unrolled the sheets and covered them with a towel to keep them from drying out as I worked. Then, layered down one phyllo sheet in the baking pan, brushed it all over with a thin layer of clarified butter, and repeated until I had three sheets stacked. Like so:

Then, I scooped about half a cup of chopped nuts on top. (This bowl looks kinda empty, but I had a LOT more before -- I just forgot to take the picture until I was towards the end.) There's a little bit of white sugar and lemon zest mixed into the chopped nuts, too, by the way.

I kept going -- sheet, butter, sheet, butter, sheet, butter, nuts -- until I ended with a top layer of sheets. I buttered down the top layer, and cut through JUST the top sheets with a sharp knife -- cutting them like you would if you were really cutting up pieces. It is my theory that this makes the top layer nice and crispy as it bakes.

The baklava went into the oven. Then, when it was done, I immediately poured the sugar syrup I first made (now cool) all over the hot baklava.

The syrup has a sort of... deglazing effect? The cool sugar syrup shocked the hot baklava, sizzling all over the bottom of the baking dish, and absorbed into the pastry.

Then, cut through the initial cuts, all the way down, and set the pieces out to cool completely before eating.

Yum. Gosh, I love these things.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Bread alone...

I've been on a bread-baking kick lately, and I found this link (actually, I enjoy reading her blog in general) and this link provide some useful tips for bread baking.

Why am I baking bread, when it requires so much time and effort, and when it costs just a few dollars a loaf at the store? Well, why do you bake anything? I find it satisfying to bake my own bread. It's very... basic and hands-on, you know?

(And take a look at the ingredients list of your next store-bought loaf of bread. Bet you a dozen cupcakes that there's high fructose corn syrup and a bunch of other things you can't even pronounce in there.)

I love baking. I like baking better than cooking, honestly. There's a sort of... magic in baking. You put a whole bunch of stuff together and it all transforms into something completely different. Sometimes, I feel that, with cooking, you get what you started off with -- just cut-up and hot. There's no surprise element in cooking. And you can fuddle with cooking as you go. But baking? Now that's a horse of a different color.

Confetti cupcakes

Confetti cake with vanilla buttercream icing and rainbow nonpareils.

Confetti cupcakes are not the most complicated cupcakes around, but they're a crowd pleaser. Sure, you can use a box mix to make confetti cake -- but if you're looking to use box mixes, you're reading the wrong blog, buddy.

I use a normal yellow cake recipe. Right before I scoop out the batter into the cups, I fold in a little under 1/4 cup of rainbow sprinkles. I advise against trying to use any more. As the sprinkles melt, they change the composition of your batter, and will cause your cupcakes to collapse under the extra sugar as they bake. This way, you get the confetti effect without sacrificing your batter.

If you use the small nonpareils (the tiny balls), it's important that you fold them in JUST before you're ready to scoop, because they're small and the sugar melts quickly. You can see that the sprinkles are already disintegrating below:

Voila! The baked cupcakes. Cute, eh?

Since this is such a straightforward cupcake, I like to do something different with the decoration. I piped on the icing with a large star tip (you can just use a knife to spread it on, too). It's important to go right to the edge of the cupcake. Then, use a butter knife or a spatula and hold it perpendicular to the circumference of the cupcake, and run it around the edge to smooth out the frosting. You're trying to make a smooth "fence" around the icing.

Why? To roll the edges in sprinkles!

Just pour some sprinkles onto a sheet of parchment paper, and roll away!

If you're curious, this is what it looks like when you bite into the cupcake. You can see the confetti inside! And outside! Will wonders never cease.

I always have to end with a cupcake glamor shot. Confetti cupcake, ready for its close-up.

It's definitely a fun cupcake to eat, although not the fanciest. Everyone seems to like them a lot!

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Who bakes bagels, when you can buy them 90 cents a pop?

I do, apparently.

So I just wanted to try it, because the recipe for bagels is not that hard. It's a pretty straightforward yeast dough -- with the exception that my recipe called for potato starch water for the yeast, but I'm sure normal sugar water works as a substitute. So I made the dough, let it rise, and then punched it down and made bagels.

I made them by rolling the dough into a rod and then pinching the ends together. With good results!

Then, I boiled them. I am a fan of the nice, chewy boiled bagel. I got this pot of water (with a teaspoon of molasses -- the trick to getting that nice shiny crust) going to a good boil. Then I lowered in the bagels and let them simmer for 1 minute before turning them over to simmer for another minute.

You'll see when you do this for yourself (if you ever attempt this). The boiling activates the yeast a little bit, so the bagels get bigger. They also get kind of... locked in? To their shape. You poke them, and they no longer have any give. Which is the beginnings of the crust.

I put the bagels on a baking sheet that I had lightly oiled and dusted with cornmeal. Then, I coated their tops in an egg wash and sprinkled them with sesame seeds (a big favorite in my house). I also made one cinnamon sugar bagel for kicks.

Bake for about 25 minutes, and there you have it! Bagels! They were beautiful, oh my god. And tasty, to boot. Great crust. I was so pleasantly surprised they turned out so well.

Now I can make my favorite bagel! This place near UMCP used to have Old Bay bagels, and I miss them terribly. I can make my own now! Whoo-hoo.

And honestly? It wasn't that much work, guys. Much simpler than making those Samoa cookies, let me tell you.

Samoa cookies

Butter cookie with chocolate coating and coconut caramel.

So Samoas are a type of Girl Scout cookie. They're also known as Caramel deLites (which I think is a much more PC name, but that's a rant for another day). They're a vanilla cookie with a coconut caramel on top, drizzled with chocolate, with a chocolate covered bottom.

They're one of my favorites of the Girl Scout repertoire, and I thought, "Hey, it can't be that hard to make these myself." So this is my attempt.

First off, I made a normal shortbread cookie. But I added an egg to the dough, because shortbreads are a little too crumbly for this recipe. (Looking back, I might not use a shortbread next time because the cookie part was not quite the same as the Girl Scout version. Still tasty, though.)

While the dough for the shortbread cookie was chilling in the fridge, I made the caramel.

I thought the trickiest part would be to get the coconut caramel right. But it was actually pretty easy! I eyeballed my own caramel formula. I melted down some tablespoons of unsalted butter and I added in a good amount of light brown sugar (half a cup?). Then I added a dash of salt, some milk, and a little bit of vanilla extract, and let the mixture thicken. It thickens quickly, so you can always add more milk if it gets too solid to work with.

I say a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, because I kept tasting as I went. I just played around until it tasted right. Then I added in sweetened shredded coconut (which I had roughly chopped before I tossed in, to get the pieces smaller).

By then, the dough was ready, so I rolled it out and used a cookie cutter to get consistent circle shapes. I also used a heart-shaped fondant cutter to take out a hole in the middle of each cookie. (Because Samoas have holes in them.)

By the time I was done cutting, the caramel was cool. The caramel was a bit too thick to use a pastry brush to spread on top of the cookies, so I just dunked them into the caramel upside-down. Whatever coconut didn't get picked up, I spooned on top of the cookies.

As they bake...

While the cookies baked, I made a chocolate ganache. I melted down a bar of good semisweet chocolate in a double boiler. I added some milk and vanilla and a little bit of butter (to get a glossy look).

Once the cookies were baked and cooled, I put them on a wire rack upside-down. Then I used a pastry brush to cover the bottom with chocolate.

Then I put them in the fridge for about half an hour to let the chocolate harden and set. Once the bottoms were hard (you can test by seeing if your finger leaves an indent when you poke one), I took them out and flipped them over. I put the remaining ganache in a piping bag and drizzled the tops with chocolate.

Once more, into the fridge, to let the tops harden. And there you have it! Homemade Samoas.

Or, you could just buy them from the cute little girls at the grocery store. I GUESS.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

To Bake - April

Ermmm. I've recently purchased a few baking books, so I have many new recipes I want to try! My list is long, but who knows if I'll actually accomplish it all. I will try!

- Samoa cookies for work

- Bagels

- Confetti cupcakes for a dinner party

- Baklava for meeeeee

- Olive bread

- Raspberry crumble bars for the fam