I am More an Antique Roman than a Dane, but Even So. . . .

Waaaay back at the beginning of September, when we were still in the middle of a heat wave, public schools jumped back into session and Teacherman went back to work.  To celebrate/console, I made him a special breakfast–cherry Danishes. 

I’d never made Danishes before, and always had an impression of them as Way Too Much Trouble.  I had a vague desire to someday make croissants from scratch (I’ve read so many recipes that I technically know how to do it, I just never have), but Danishes, for all that the technique of preparation is so similar, seemed over the top.

As so often happens, though, one day in mid-August I was re-reading a Nigella Lawson cookbook (the particular one I don’t recall–I just know it was one that I don’t own).  Lo, there in the breakfast chapter was a recipe for Danishes, and it seemed extraordinarily easy.

One simply cuts butter (a huge quantity of butter) into a mixture of flour, a tiny bit of sugar, a packet of yeast, and a pinch of salt, then mixes the dry ingredients into a lumpy sludge with some milk, and egg and some water.  The mixture goes into the fridge overnight, then the next day goes through a series of foldings and rollings-out, until one has perfect Danish pastry.

The recipe acknowledges that the result isn’t a ‘pastry shop-type’ Danish, but rather the sort of Danish that actual Danes make in actual Denmark.  The butter is cut into the dry ingredients, rather than formed into a square and rolled in (just as for croissants), and all the rolling and folding happens at once, without interminable periods of refrigeration between each one (just as for croissants). 

The recipe recommends cutting the butter in with a food processor, but mine has been acting rather dodgy lately, so I did it by hand.  It only took five minutes, and it reminded me that the smell of pie dough (for that is essentially what this is, only with twice as much butter and a packet of yeast added) is one of the best smells in the world.

The next day I squoodged the dough together into a ball and rolled it out on a heavily (HEAVILY) floured board, marvelling all the while at how smoothly and easily it rolled out.  (Unlike pie dough, this took absolutely no effort to roll, and the gluten didn’t activate and elastisize the dough back into a postage-stamp-sized square.  It did require an inordinant amount of dough on the board, though).

I folded the dough in thirds like a business letter, turned it 45 degrees, rolled it out to cover the board again, folded it, turned it, rolled it, folded it, turned it, rolled it, then cut it in half.  One half I wrapped in foil and stuck into the freezer, the other I rolled out to cover the entire board again (can you believe that it was that easy?  What other dough would DO that??)  

I cut the dough into 6 more-or-less (mostly less) equal pieces, dolloped a little cherry preserves into the middle of each piece, then folded the corners to the middle and squished them together.  They looked a little more like enormous hamantaschen than Danishes, but whatever.  All that remained was to let them rise for an hour at room temperature, then bake them for 20 minutes.  Voila, Danishes.

Nearly a month later, Teacherman went to a breakfast tailgate, and I went along, too.  I had never been to a tailgate before (and I probably won’t ever go to one again), but it gave me a wonderful opportunity to make lotsandlots of food to feed to unsuspecting university marching band alumni.  I made sausage and mustard and bacon and all the things that have become my standards, but I also pulled that second batch of Danish dough out of the freezer. 

This time I cut the dough into 12 pieces (which didn’t make them small, just not ENORMOUS) filled each one with a sweet, cheesecake-like filling.  Feeling uncreative, I shaped them the same way–into little pyramid/hat/knob things.  They were devoured.  Among the devourers was Teacherman’s mother, who raved and moaned and fell about and made broad hints about her birthday. 

Last Tuesday was her birthday and, for a myriad of reasons, this Saturday we will be visiting her in Detroit.  Danishes?  Coming right up.

Back before the power of the Danishes became manifest, I was planning to bake an apple cake for my mother-in-law, and take it along to Detroit to surprise her with, but with Danishes specifically requested, I had to change my tune.  Apples, though, were stuck in my mind.  It’s fall–perfect apple season, even for the supermarket scary varieties, and even better for the exciting antiques from the farmer’s market*.  I determined to make apple Danishes.

I made an applesauce with Wolf River apples, a little cinnamon and a little cider, the heat turning the apples into such a fluffy, perfect mush that I didn’t need to puree them at all.  I cooked the sauce down a little farther than I might have for regular eating applesauce, just so it wouldn’t run when used as Danish filling.  The final filling was considerably stiffer than a commercial applesauce, but not as far gone as apple butter.

On Thursday night I made the strange, knobbley batter, and on tonight I rolled and folded and filled until I had eight little apple-spiced pillows (why not twelve?  Birthdays call for a little indulgence).  Tomorrow we are off to Detroit, where I will let the Danishes speak for themselves.

* Do not trust all antique apples, though.  I bought one type, untasted, this last weekend, only to discover at home that they tasted like bug spray.  I am not kidding.  Even washed, even peeled, even cooked and sweetened: bug spray.   Yech.

Published in: on October 12, 2007 at 8:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

Still Life With Lunch, Vie Francaise

There is a lot of food in France.  Significant portions of the whole are in Strasbourg.  I think I may have eaten most of it.  Due to such exceptional greediness, we didn’t take pictures of any of our picnics, and we were too afraid to take any pictures of restaurant meals (in spite of the utter transcendence, of, say, the choucroute avec confit de canard et lard fume at the restaurant overlooking Strasbourg cathedral, or the restaurant devoted to using cheese in every way humanly possible [not to mention the attached boutique de fromage, where we practically lived]).  Strasbourg farmer's marketInstead, we have a sole picture of the Strasbourg farmer’s market–or rather, a picture of a cheese stand therein (a cheese stand that also sold bacon, as one can see in the foreground, and stationed next to a sausage cart, which you can see in the background).  Just out of the frame is the stall where we bought the most intriguingly flavored wild blueberries I’ve ever tasted–they were so concentrated and winey in flavor that they tasted like raisins.  Yes, they were definitely blueberries.  Yes, they were definitely fresh, not dried.  They were exceedingly good, not to mention tres unique.  (And it didn’t hurt that we ate them sitting in a churchyard in the Vosges mountains looking towards a misty Romanesque mountain settlement).

Also, in Selestat, a town just down the road from Strasbourg, we found The House of PAIN.  Strasbourg farmer's marketYes, I know that pain is just the French word for bread.  Allow me to be self-indulgent: when I was in high school I edited the literary magazine.  Faced with a never-ending stream of missives on the blackness of everyone’s SOUL, another board member and I, both of whom were in the same French class, came up with a silly method of diffusing the adolescent angst surrounding the discussion of such literary gems at board meetings.  The poems, you see, were really about bread, not pain.  Thus, while Teacherman found the Maison du Pain funny purely on an English-cognate level, I doubled over in wheezing giggles at the memory of those long-ago meetings.  I may have even produced a few scraps of remembered scholastic verse, to mark the occasion.  It’s a good thing Teacherman didn’t leave me there on the curb.  The bread looked excellent, I must admit.  

Too be continued, of course. . . . 

Published in: on July 14, 2007 at 8:19 am  Leave a Comment  

The Last of the Buttermilk

Admittedly, two big loaves of soda bread does use up a fair amount of buttermilk.  It does not, however, use up as much buttermilk as comes in the very smallest container a body can find in the entire metropolitain area.  It doesn’t even use up half of that. 

As previously mentioned on this blog, I have a horror of wasting food.  After a week of opening the refrigerator to a glowering bottle of buttermilk straining for its expiration date, I gave up waiting for a dairy-based miracle, and baked.  Or rather, I forced Teacherman to bake.  Right around the time that I determined that the buttermilk MUST be used, I came down with the latest iteration of the cold I’ve had all winter (very irksome when the temperature has finally reached 70).  I didn’t have the strength to knead two loaves worth of the whole wheat buttermilk bread* that I’d decided to make, so I measured the ingredients, called Teacherman away from his computer and bade him roll up his sleeves. 

That man can knead dough like no one I’ve ever seen.

It is a fact that he is well-muscled, due to intense bouts of weekend fencing, but more than that, he seems to have unlooked-for skills.  The Touch, even.  When I knead bread dough, the goopy mixture crawls up the not-inconsiderable distance to my elbows, I need to add extra flour and stop for breaks to catch my breath, and I never get the dough to the consistency that I truly want it.  Teacherman added no extra flour at all.  None.  He spent only slightly more than half as much time as I do to knead the dough 600 strokes, and the dough was beautiful–soft and elastic, springy to the touch and not remotely sticky on the outside.  And, due to the lack of extra flour, not at all dry, some thing my own loaves are prone to.  The bowl he’d kneaded in was clean on the inside–it didn’t even need to be wiped before we set the dough to rise in it.

And rise it did.  It rose so much that I was worried that it would over-proof and turn sour, so I gave the dough its second rise in the refrigerator (something I like to do anyway, since it allows the yeast to develop an almost sourdough-like flavor).

The next morning I took the dough out of the fridge, punched it down and formed it into four small half-loaves.  They whooshed up into almost straight-sided tuffets on their baking sheet, and might have risen more if I hadn’t been too nervous to let them.  Into the oven they went, where they browned (but not as appreciably as white-flour loaves would) and became crusty. 

Teacherman took the first loaf for lunch today, thereby, he tells me, inciting the envy of all the Teacher’s Lounge denizens, who covetously watched the fall of each crumb.  Maybe if they’re lucky, he’ll bake for them sometime. 

*(The bread, I must point out, is from The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book, a tome that I basely stole from my mother when I left for graduate school.  It is the only book that I really trust when it comes to 100% whole wheat or other-interesting-grain bread, and I’ve never had a failure.  Some other favorite loaves therefrom are the Loaf for Learning, a yogurt-based yeast bread, and Fruited Loaves, for which one steeps dried fruit in tea before adding the tea-infused fruit [and the fruit-infuseded tea] to the dry ingredients).

Published in: on March 26, 2007 at 7:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cakes and Mistakes

Would you believe that I forgot to give them the mustard?

Indeed, a fabulous party has come and gone, and more than six pounds of corned beef were consumed all without the benefit of mustardy accompaniment. I think I received more astonished praise about this party’s food than I have for that of any other event. The two biggest hits, though, were the baked items: the soda bread and the dessert.

The soda bread recipe I settled on, after brief guilt induced by the article in last Wednesday’s New York Times about what does and does not become a “true” soda bread, was in almost no way traditional. The recipe, from the February 2006 issue of Bon Appetit, contained no eggs (traditional!) but did include browned butter, fresh rosemary and black pepper. I itched to fiddle with the recipe even more (whole wheat flour! maybe some mustard seeds!) but I restrained myself. The rosemary bush on the front porch, after several months of subzero temperatures and no water, is miraculously still alive, and yielded up ample fresh needles–on soft stalks, even–to chop into the dry ingredients.

The flour, baking soda, salt and seasonings were mixed with the buttermilk and browned butter. The dough was shaggier than I anticipated–far too sticky to even contemplate cutting fancy crosses on the top of. I just glopped two mounds onto an ungreased baking sheet, shoved them into the oven, and hoped. After 45 minutes the breads looked lovely (pristine white dough with deep golden spikes on the top, flecked through with black and green from the rosemary and pepper) and smelled quite divine. I usually don’t like the smell of melted butter (an interesting abberation, since I’m certainly willing to scarf it down in great quantity), but browning it first eliminates that problem. Cooking something with browned butter already in it further intensified the nuttiness that the browning brought out, ending with an aroma that noticeably filled the mouth sooner than the nose, the very definition of mouth-watering. The breads hadn’t risen nearly at all, however, so it was with great trepidation that I whisked them onto the cutting board on the serving table.

The locusts descended. Silence reigned. I picked at the cheddar and looked at other things.

“Wow,” said somebody. “This is really good!”

The soda bread was the first thing to disappear from the buffet table, and there were plenty of people hovering nearby to vulture up the crumbs after the last slice was consumed. I don’t make soda bread very often–on St. Patrick’s Day every few years, if then–but I may be required to make this bread for all future parties of any persuasion. I think, though, that now I can trust myself to try variations. No mustard seeds do I see in my future, but whole wheat flour is definitely in the offing.

The second slavered-after baked good was my dessert. I made my standard flourless chocolate cake (10 oz unsweetened chocolate, 1 stick butter, 1 cup liquid of some variety, 1 cup sweetener of some variety, 4 eggs, 1 Tbsp vanilla and other flavorings as desired). Inspired by the visions of Irish Coffee that Teacherman had been having all week, I flavored this one with espresso and Irish whisky, which each made up half of the liquid element. The cake came out very dark and very bitter, rich enough to be a confection rather than a cake. I made it in a ten-inch springform pan (as opposed to a six-cup Bundt pan, my usual receptacle) and cut it into 20 pieces, each about an inch wide and equally high. Given the fact that it was almost a triangular truffle, this was the perfect size for the corner left in everyone everyone’s stomach and the cake was consumed (along with strawberries and clotted cream) with great alacrity.

I had hoped to have a few pieces left over (there’s always someone who doesn’t want dessert after a hearty dinner), but there weren’t even any crumbs left when I glanced at the platter, halfway through my own piece. The cake wasn’t as popular as the soda bread, but my favorite compliment of the evening resulted therefrom. “This is so adult,” said my choir director, a description that is rarely applied to me or my accoutrements by anyone. I’m absurdly pleased by that, and it makes up entirely for the fact that tonight’s dessert was half an apple.

Published in: on March 18, 2007 at 7:43 pm  Leave a Comment