Articles in Baking w/recipe
The chimney top peeks over a fence just off the main street of downtown Point Reyes Station, Calif., wisps of smoke drifting out. The smell of burning wood is accompanied by the aroma of freshly baked bread on the morning air, as the cottage housing Brickmaiden Breads churns out the day’s loaves.
Where to eat and buy Brickmaiden Bread:
More on Zester Daily:
Inside, the yawning mouth of the wood oven is filled with dancing flame, warming the room while owner Celine Underwood measures out ingredients for the next batch of dough.
“Bread is my passion,” she says. “I started baking it when I was a teenager.”
And her passion has become a thriving business with a dedicated following of restaurant accounts and customers throughout the Bay Area who look forward to Brickmaiden’s flavorful crumb and chewy crust. The process that creates the artisan loaves is at once old-fashioned in technique and thoroughly modern.
Wood-fired oven at work all day
All the loaves are levain leavened, meaning a starter is used instead of yeast. The starter is a living thing, sometimes called wild yeast, which needs to be fed everyday and picks up the terroir of the area in the form of bacteria, imparting a flavor and texture that is particular to Point Reyes. The starter is the very beginning of the bread and contributes to Brickmaiden’s characteristic texture and flavor.
The dough is mixed up, shaped and then left in a retarder overnight, where it slowly rises. The retarding process encourages fermentation, which helps break down the proteins in the flour. This makes the bread easier to digest and the nutrients more readily absorbed by the body.
Meanwhile, the vast oven is heating up. It is an imposing structure that is faced with brick and takes up most of the interior of the cottage. Through its wide opening, the brick-lined ceiling is visible, as is the fire that’s building the heat for that day’s bake. It takes 12 to 14 hours to get the oven fired completely, a process that starts with getting the temperature up to 900 F (measured with a thermocoupler buried in the oven as well as a “heat gun,” a type of laser thermometer).
At this point no more wood is added and as the fire burns down to coals, heat saturates the bricks and the temperature begins to drop. When 600 F is reached, the oven is ready for baking. The coals are shoveled into an ash can and the surface stone is brushed and cleaned off. Now the first batch of loaves goes in.
It seems tricky to depend on such a temperamental, time-consuming device, but Underwood loves baking with fire.
“I’m attracted to the simplicity of it, working with the fire element,” she says.
It is a dance of coordination to have the dough ready at the same time the oven is and to get the temperature to hold long enough to bake the supply for each day.
The Brickmaiden crust and flavor
The oven can hold 70 loaves at a time. Brickmaiden does about six loads per day, baking more than 400 baguettes, rolls, Pullman sandwich bread, and several types of round levain. During the busy summer months, the bakers make as much bread as the oven heat will allow.
“There is a finite production capacity with this type of oven,” Underwood says, hinting that she has been looking at other wood oven systems that aren’t as limiting.
The first couple of loads of bread are more caramelized because the oven walls and dome are the hottest. This creates the signature crust that Brickmaiden fans long for, very dark with a deep flavor and rustic texture. The starter and long rise add a slightly sour flavor and impart a moist, almost fluffy interior that stays fresher longer than other breads.
These initial loads bake in less than an hour due to the high temperature the oven still holds. Gradually that starts to decrease causing the bake time to increase so the last load takes 1½ hours to finish. After the bread is done, there is still plenty of heat left in the oven, giving the bakers a chance to cook off all their other products, which include granola, cookies, crackers, biscotti, scones and croutons.
Great bread is made from great ingredients. Brickmaiden gets most of the flour it uses from Central Milling, the well-regarded artisan flour company, including California-grown whole wheat, kamut and spelt. They have also been experimenting with some of the wheat being grown in Mendocino County and are in the process of forming a Sonoma Marin grain-growers group. With the goal of getting things as local as possible, the group hopes to grow, harvest, mill and bake with different wheat and grains in the near future.
Underwood is looking down the road and has many goals and dreams for her operation.
“I hope to have a retail shop soon, house a stone mill and gardens on the property, provide a place for growth and development of young bakers, and create a place that perpetuates building connection to our environment, sense of place, self and community,” she said.
Once you’ve had your fill of fresh bread slathered with butter or dipped in olive oil, here are a couple recipes to help use up the loaf.
Wild Mushroom Bread Pudding
Makes 7 or 8 puddings
I found an assortment of wild mushroom at the Far West Fungi booth in San Francisco’s Ferry Building. Farmers markets offer good mushroom options. You also can use whatever your local grocer has in the produce section. The puddings make a tasty side dish for pork or poultry and a satisfying brunch or lunch entrée.
1 cup half and half
½ teaspoon salt
5 grinds of fresh pepper mill
⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
2 packed cups ½-inch Brickmaiden bread, including crusts, cut into ½-inch cubes. Their levain breads are especially tasty for this recipe
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 green onions, both green and white parts, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ pound fresh, wild mushrooms, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon parsley, finely chopped
½ cup shredded cheese — blend of Italian varieties like Parmesan, Fontina, Asiago is delicious, but any sharp, hard or semi-hard cheese will work
Olive oil spray for greasing muffin cups
1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease 8 muffin cups well with olive oil spray.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, half and half, salt, pepper and nutmeg until combined. Add the bread cubes and submerge. Set aside while you get the veggies ready.
3. Heat a 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the olive oil and when it shimmers, add the green onions and garlic. Sauté until the garlic is aromatic, then add the mushrooms. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Stir and cook until any liquid mushrooms give off has evaporated and they are golden and tender. Stir in parsley and cook 2 minutes longer. Set aside to cool slightly.
4. Add shredded cheese to egg mixture then stir in mushrooms, mixing well until all ingredients are evenly distributed.
5. Spoon mixture into greased muffin cups, mounding bread cubes slightly and adding liquid to just under the lip of each cup.
6. Place muffin tin on a sheet tray to catch any drips. Bake until tops are golden and crusty and knife inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 minutes
7. Run a sharp knife around the edge of each cup then allow to cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Remove and serve warm. These puddings can be reheated in the microwave for 30 seconds.
Fresh chives add a springy note and the crusty goodness of the Brickmaiden levain style breads work well in this recipe.
Serves 3 or 4
1 large clove garlic
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon chives, finely sliced
¼ teaspoon Gray Maldon sea salt
2 (1-inch) thick slices artisan bread
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Rub garlic clove on both sides of each bread slice. Set on a small sheet tray.
3. Mince garlic clove and combine with butter, oil and chives in a flat, microwave-safe pie plate.
4. Microwave on high in 10-second bursts until butter is fully melted then stir to combine ingredients.
5. Dip one side of each slice of bread in the butter mixture, scraping garlic mince into the nooks and crannies of the bread. Sprinkle each slice evenly with the salt.
6. Bake for 5 minutes until slightly crisped. Cut each slice into three pieces and serve.
Top photo: Bread at Brickmaiden Breads in Point Reyes Station, Calif. Credit: Brooke Jackson
Danish is famous. It comes in many forms and with a lot of things that are copied but have no resemblance whatsoever to the real thing.
In Denmark, Danish pastry is called wienerbrød, meaning “bread from Vienna.” That is the general term, but there are individual names for each particular kind. When you go to the baker in Denmark in the morning, there will be a variation of Danish — all sweet and never savory. We Danes do not do savory and Danish together.
Danish is mostly sold in the mornings. Many kinds will be sold out before afternoon, as bakers don’t make new ones because Danes eat different cakes in the afternoon. A Danish is really a morning pastry, just like the croissant in France. People tend to buy wienerbrød from the baker and not make them at home because it takes time, particularly to make the dough. Most Danes have one or two favorites they always eat, so when sent to the baker on weekend mornings it’s a big responsibility to get your family’s wishes right.
Eating Danish is part of Danish culture
Wienerbrød is really embedded in Danish culture and remains very popular. It’s not eaten every day; it’s mostly reserved for weekends or special occasions. At work, it’s common to have Friday breakfast together with colleagues, and wienerbrød is often part of that. Sometimes it is exchanged for a multigrain bun, for health reasons.
Excellent wienerbrød in Copenhagen:
I recommend you try to make wienerbrød yourself. The results are worth it. If you happen to travel to Copenhagen, below are a few of the best places to buy wienerbrød.
Visit Brød for the cinnamon bun called kanelsnegl.
Try Lagekagehuset, a bakery chain with an outlet in Copenhagen Airport, among other locations, for chokoladeboller, spandauer, frøsnapper and tebirkes.
Café Europa, located in central Copenhagen, has excellent cinnamon Danish, or kanelsnegl.
La Glace, which is a time capsule where you can get a sense of old Copenhagen and have morning coffee, makes terrific wienerbrød.
More from Zester Daily:
Wienerbrød is similar to a croissant; it’s a yeast dough folded with butter three times. Some bakers use margarine because it’s easier to work with, and they claim it gives a better texture. I don’t agree. I like butter best.
It’s important to make Danish in a kitchen that is not too hot; otherwise the butter melts. With a basic dough you can make all the varieties of wienerbrød. The variation comes in the remonce, which is a mixture of butter, sugar, sometimes marzipan, custard, jam and different nuts and seeds.
Different types of wienerbrød have names like spandauer, tebirkes, frøsnapper, snegl, rosenbrød, tryksnegl and chocoladebolle. The baker who comes up with the idea for a particular type usually also gives it a name.
If served in the afternoon with coffee, the cake has different names and is bigger. The most common name would be wienerbrødsstang, where the last part of the word, -stang, means “long piece.” Borgermesterkrans is another variant: borgmester means “mayor,” and -krans means it has a circular shape. They are cut out and eaten in pieces with your fingers, so they’re very handy. Often they are part of a bigger cake selection, like cream cakes and butter cookies.
Many stories exist about how the wienerbrød started in Denmark. The stories probably all have some truth to them, but it is difficult to pinpoint who was the first to bake wienerbrød. The inspiration most likely came from Vienna. One of the stories goes that the tradition started in 1843 in Copenhagen by a local baker who had visited Vienna and learned how to make croissants. Knowing how the locals loved sugar, he added some remonce, that is the sweet paste made of sugar and butter. It was an instant success, and the pastry’s local name became wienerbrød after the origin of the recipe. It was sold from the baker’s bakery in central Copenhagen, and initially, only the originating baker had the right to sell wienerbrød. However, in 1850, the magistrate allowed five conditors (bakers that only bake cakes) to bake wienerbrød.
For the dough:
1 ounce fresh yeast
⅔ cup lukewarm water
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon superfine sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2⅓ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cold butter, thinly sliced
For the filling:
1 vanilla bean
1 cup light cream
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons superfine sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
For the icing (optional):
1½ cups confectioner’s sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
For the dough:
1. In a mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast in the water.
2. Stir in the egg, superfine sugar and salt. Add the flour and stir until the dough comes together and leaves the edge of the bowl.
3. Turn the dough onto a floured counter and knead for five minutes, until it is shiny but not sticky.
4. Put the dough back in the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
5. Roll out the dough into a 20-inch square. Spread the thin slices of butter over the dough about 4 inches in from the edge, so the square of dough has a smaller square of butter on top.
6. Fold the corners of the dough over the butter to meet in the center, making a square package.
7. Carefully roll the dough into a 16-by-24-inch rectangle, making sure it doesn’t crack and the butter stays inside the dough package. Next you want to fold the dough so the butter becomes layered within it: Fold the bottom third of dough over the middle third and fold the top third down over that.
8. Roll out the dough again and fold the same way.
9. Put the dough in the refrigerator for 15 minutes, then repeat the rolling and folding process three times, remembering to let the dough rest in the refrigerator for 15 minutes each time.
For the filling:
1. Cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with the tip of a knife.
2. Put the vanilla seeds and cream in a pan and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks and superfine sugar together until the mixture is pale and fluffy, then stir in the cornstarch.
3. Pour a little bit of the hot cream into the egg mixture to temper it, then pour all the egg mixture into the pan.
4. Return the pan to a decreased heat and whisk until the custard starts to thicken. Take care not to let the custard boil, and beat continuously to avoid scorching. Remove from the heat and let cool before use.
5. Roll out the dough to a 20-inch square, then cut it into five rows of 4-inch squares. Place 2 teaspoons of the filling on each square. Take each square’s corners and fold them into the middle over the filling, pressing the edges together to seal. Turn each pastry upside down and place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover with a dish towel and let rise for 20 minutes at room temperature. Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Brush the pastries with a little beaten egg and bake them for 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Let cool on a wire rack.
For the icing:
1. Mix the confectioner’s sugar and cocoa powder together in a bowl, adding a little bit of hot water, and whisk to make a smooth, dark brown paste.
2. Place a spoonful of the icing on each pastry and let set for 10 minutes before serving.
Top photo: Danish, or wienerbrød. Credit: Trine Hahnemann
Lime ought to show up more often in cakes; that’s my philosophy. Lemon is great, sure. But there are already plenty of lemon cakes and lemon frostings. No doubt lemon is a cheery and optimistic flavor. But lime is rich and exotic.
Following this line of thought, I ended up with a cake with a lime butterscotch cream cheese frosting and a filling of fried bananas. The palate just wants what it wants.
The evolution of cake experiments
My first step down the lime path was obvious — coconut cake with lime zest and a bit of lime juice in the frosting (because I believe fruit-flavored frostings should be sweet-sour). Lime in the coconut, get it? I’m referring to “Coconut,” that 1970s hit song about a woman who mixed lime and coconut juice, got a stomachache and called her doctor, who surprisingly prescribed drinking more lime and coconut.
More from Zester Daily:
The doctor in the song sounded a little peevish because she’d called him in the middle of the night. Still, everybody in the song seemed fine with this prescription, and so did everybody who tasted my lime in the coconut cake.
Next I made a lemon poppy seed pound cake substituting lime juice and zest for the lemon. It was a big hit, because people who love pound cake love it passionately, and because I’d topped it with a cream cheese frosting. I’d noticed that people who love pound cake passionately also have a thing for cream cheese.
When I frosted a cake with lime butter cream and filled it with lime curd, it struck me that I might be binging on limes. Meanwhile, I’d gotten interested in ways to use bananas in cake, but not as banana bread, of which I’m not a big fan. However, I am a big fan of butterscotch, an unjustly neglected flavor in my book.
Finding flavors that complement each other
So I decided to make a lime butterscotch cream cheese frosting, just to check off all the possibilities. It was pretty good because this butterscotch cream cheese frosting takes other flavors, such as ground instant coffee, beautifully.
Cream cheese frosting is mostly used on dense cakes like carrot cake, rather than on butter cake, and the recipes tend to make just barely enough to frost a cake. Here was where my banana experimentation paid off, apart from the fact that banana and butterscotch go together beautifully.
Fry some bananas soft with butter and brown sugar, and they make a terrific filling, suavely giving you more cream cheese frosting to cover the outside of the cake.
In retrospect, this was all obvious, so obvious. I’m almost embarrassed to mention it. But just almost.
Lime Butterscotch Cream Cheese Banana Cake
Makes 1 two-layer cake
For the cake:
3 cups flour plus about 2 tablespoons for flouring the pans
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup milk
2 sticks butter, softened, plus more for greasing cake pans
2 cups sugar
For the banana filling:
3 ripe bananas
About ½ stick butter
2 tablespoons brown sugar
The juice of ½ a lime
For the lime butterscotch cream cheese frosting:
½ stick butter
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese
¼ cup brown sugar
1 pound confectioner’s sugar
Juice and zest from ½ a lime
For the cake:
1. Turn on the oven to 350 F.
2. Mix 3 cups of flour, salt and baking powder and set aside.
3. Add the vanilla to the milk and set aside.
4. Grease two 9-inch cake pans. Put the remaining 2 tablespoons of flour into one pan and shake around until the interior is floured, then pour the remainder into the other pan and repeat.
5. Beat the butter until light and fluffy, then pour in the sugar in a thin stream while beating until the mixture is light and the mixer’s motor has reached its highest speed.
6. Add the eggs one at a time, beating 20 seconds after each addition.
7. Add 1 cup of the flour mixture and beat at medium slow speed, encouraging the absorption with a spatula, just until the flour is absorbed.
8. Add half of the milk and repeat, then another cup of flour, the rest of the milk and the rest of the flour.
9. Divide the mixture equally between the two cake pans and bake until the layers are lightly browned and pulling away from the sides of the pan, about 35 to 40 minutes. The tip should spring back if touched and a toothpick inserted in the cake should come back without any damp crumbs on it.
10. Set the cake pans on a cooling rack for 10 minutes, then remove from the pans and return to the rack until cool.
For the banana filling:
1. Peel the bananas and slice each in half lengthwise.
2. Melt the butter in a large frying pan and arrange the slices on it. Cook over medium low heat until the bananas soften, about 15 minutes. Turn them over with a spatula, sprinkle with the brown sugar and fry another 5 to 10 minutes.
3. Sprinkle with lime juice and leave to cool.
For the lime butterscotch cream cheese frosting:
1. Melt the butter in a small pan over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until most of the foam has settled and the butter has a cooked, but not browned, flavor. Pour the butter off into a bowl and return to the refrigerator until solid, about 10 minutes.
2. Whip the cream cheese in a mixer until quite fluffy.
3. If you have a mortar, grind the brown sugar as fine as possible. Add the brown sugar to the cream cheese and whip until the mixture looks smooth. Add the butter and beat until smooth. Add the confectioner’s sugar and beat at the lowest speed until the sugar is incorporated. Add the zest and juice of the lime and beat until smooth; you may add more zest or juice to taste.
To assemble the cake:
Set one cake layer upside down on a plate. Spread a very thin layer of frosting onto the exposed side. With a spatula, transfer the fried bananas onto the cake layer, then top it with the other cake layer, right side up. Scoop all the frosting onto the top of the cake and work down over the sides with a spatula.
Top photo: Lime Butterscotch Cream Cheese Banana Cake. Credit: Charles Perry
I almost skipped my first chance to visit Valley Malt, New England’s first malthouse in a century. Although I love learning about people who are using grains, I don’t drink anymore, and I never made beer. What use could I possibly have for barley malt?
More on Zester Daily:
Lucky I reserved my reserve, and met malt pioneers Andrea and Christian Stanley. They showed me their first malting system and how they germinated grain — mostly barley — for brewers and distillers.
I stuck my nose in a bag of malted barley and I smelled Grape Nuts. Criminy. Let me at the kitchen. Here was an ingredient I could use.
Grape nuts is quick bread made in a sheet pan, baked, crumbled and baked again. I’d only used whole-wheat flour in my experiments, not the cereal’s mainstay, malt. That ingredient just isn’t on the market. Bakers use active and inactive malt powder for sweetening and to help boost yeast performance. Barley malt flour, however, is a DIY deal.
So there I was, in a garage that had once been a potato processing site, in Hadley, Mass., sniffing cereal. “Grape Nuts!” I said to Andrea. “You can use it in pancakes, too,” she said. If I wasn’t already sold on the stuff, that was the kicker.
I have long had an obsession with pancakes. Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix ushered me into my love affair at the stove. Decades later, pancakes were the first meal I made the man who would be my husband. Ages ago, I calculated we had them about 250 times a year. The serving ratio went up to daily when I found malt.
The best of brewing makes baking better too
Malting is germination. The same stuff that happens in the ground when you plant a seed, or on your counter when you make sprouts, is what maltsters like Andrea or Christian seek. Steeping grains in water starts the growing process. Kilning stops it once the seeds reach a certain point.
What brewers love about malt is that the process loosens up the starches in the grain’s endosperm and readies those them for conversion to sugar. That makes the starches available to feed the yeast in fermenting beverages.
Malt is often used in the food industry as a sweetener and sometimes as a flavor. Ovaltine takes advantage of both properties, the sweetness and flavor. In bagels and other breads, however, malted barley is added in tiny amounts to take advantage of malt’s enzyme activity and make yeast more muscular.
I am still figuring out exactly what properties I’m using. I know that malt is a boon to my pancakes, adding flavor and helping the whole grain flours I use rise a little bit.
I don’t make sourdough or yeasted pancakes, so I’m not certain all the chemistry that the malt is achieving. I just know I see a marked difference.
Experimenting with pancakes and other baked goods
The pancakes are such a hit that I started making mixes for Valley Malt: malted cornmeal with rye, spelt and buckwheat with malt, and of course, whole wheat with malt, my absolute favorite.
When Andrea and I were making mixes in December, she asked me to make pancakes and snacks for the Farmer Brewer Conference she and Christian organize. I love to spread the gospel of what malt does on the griddle. Plus any excuse to play in the kitchen is great.
So I’ve been fiddling with malt in more than pancakes. I’ve figured out how to use the pancake mixes to make biscuits. They take tons of butter and less milk. I added cornmeal made from malted corn to shortbreads, cornbread, and pie crusts, all with fine results.
Adding malted barley to whole wheat shortbread stumped me, though. Fresh from the oven, the cookies were adored. A few days in, I opened the tin where I’d stored them, and I could smell the butter was going off. Had I used bad butter? Was the tin a funk fest? Help! I’m still not sure what went wrong, but I managed to make my recipe work by not refrigerating the dough, and by freezing the cookies immediately after baking.
At the conference, I found people to help me figure out what’s happening in that recipe, and in my other experiments. While the presentations focused on malting for brewing, people who study malt are also curious about what it does in baked goods.
The snacks I made — crackers with malted barley, almonds in a barley meringue, and those shortbreads — went down just fine. The biscuits and pancakes for breakfast were a hit, too.
As I mentioned, this is real DIY territory. If you want to play with malt, and you are lucky enough to have a local maltster, get a little bit and start experimenting. If you don’t have a maltster to befriend, you can use malts from a brewing supply place. Either way, grinding is the way to go. I use my blender for the first grind, and a milling attachment on my Kitchen Aid to finish the job.
You can’t use malt like flour, because the enzyme activity changes the gliadin and glutenin in the grain, interfering with their gluten-forming capacity. But you can add bits of it for flavor and sweetness. Here’s a recipe to get you going.
Making your own malt flour
To make your own malt flour, start with a pound of barley malt from your maltster or from a home brew shop. Your maltster might have a mill that will make flour. Ask her or him to grind it as finely as possible, husks and all, for your baking fun.
Home brew stores are used to grinding grain, but not into flour. They crack grains for brewers, who only need the starches released for access in the brewing process.
If this is your scenario, ask the store to crack the malted barley, and bring it home and put it in a coffee grinder or sturdy blender and go to town. Sift off anything chaffy with a strainer.
In my house, I grind the malt first in my blender, and then put it through the mill attachment for my Kitchen Aid stand mixer. Otherwise, the malt gums up the works and I don’t get flour. Other types of table top flour mills should handle the challenge better.
Based on Laura Brody’s multi-seed crackerbread recipe from “King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking”
3 cups (12 ounces) whole-wheat bread flour
3 ounces home-ground barley malt flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoon olive oil
1 cup water
1. Preheat oven to 450 F.
2. Mix together the dry ingredients, and stir in oil.
3. Add water gradually. You may need more or less than 1 cup, depending how much water your flours absorb. If you’re using local flours, the moisture content of the flour can vary a bit. Add enough to make a stiff, but not dry, dough.
4, Knead a bit until the dough is smooth. Cut into 8 sections. Roll into balls and, on a barley-malt-flour-dusted surface, roll very, very thin. I shoot for something like thick paper, less than the width of a cereal box.
5. Bake for 5 to 7 minutes. Watch carefully, as edges darken easily.
6. When cool, break into pieces and serve. Store in a container that closes tightly.
Top photo: Barley germinating. Credit: Amy Halloran
Making a healthy start to 2014, I went into the kitchen on New Year’s Day to cook with olive oil. Now I know there are all sorts of people, chefs among them, who will claim “you can’t cook with extra virgin olive oil.”
Where they get this from is a mystery, but it’s a myth that’s passed around with great regularity. (I have my suspicions as to its origin, but I’m not free to issue a j’accuse just yet.) And the charge against olive oil simply is not true — as I’ve seen over and over again in kitchens large and small, domestic and thoroughly professional, all over the Mediterranean world, where chefs and cooks alike use nothing else.
It’s fine for your spaghetti with clam sauce, your ratatouille, your paella valenciana. But pastries? Cakes? Cookies? Don’t they fall apart? Don’t they taste peculiarly of olive oil?
Olive oil adds rich dimension to brownies
Not at all! You might detect the taste of extra virgin in the raw batter, but I defy you, once they’re cooked, to tell me from the flavor which fat has been used. And there’s an advantage too, which was most prominent in the olive oil brownies — a lush, rich, fudgy, almost gooey texture that is such a delicious hallmark of brownie perfection. I found agreement from Leslie Revsin, a wonderful cook and chef who died almost 10 years ago at much too early an age. Writing in the magazine Fine Cooking about her experiments using vegetable oil or olive oil, she said the olive oil versions of classic chocolate and carrot cakes had a strikingly richer, deeper character: “The olive oil seemed to act like an invisible helper,” she said, “somehow coaxing superior savor and clarity from the ingredients, weaving them together to create a richer, more alive whole.”
More from Zester Daily:
I’m not going to tout chocolate brownies or cranberry almond cookies as health food, but certainly they are minimally better for us if we use olive oil. And the walnuts in the brownies add a powerful quotient of Omega-3 fatty acids, while the almonds in the cookies are demonstrably heart healthy, loaded with vitamin E and other beneficial nutrients. Truly, though, forget about health food for the moment and just enjoy these luscious treats for what they are, made even more delectable with olive oil.
What olive oil should you use with these recipes? Stay away from aggressively flavored oils and especially from fresh, new oils, which are naturally more pronounced in aromatics than older oils. This is one time when you can look at the date on a bottle and happily use a 2012 or even a 2011 harvest oil — just so long as it has been handled properly and not subject to anything that would develop rancidity or off aromas. If the oil smells good but is perhaps a little bland, if it tastes good but without any immediately discernible flavors — that’s the oil you’ll want to use.
The source of the oil is not so important. It could be from California or Chile, from Spain or Greece or anywhere in between, and it could be made from a single cultivar like arbequina (noted for its soft flavors) or from a mixture of oils carefully blended by the producer to make an unassertive oil, much as a winery will blend softer, sweeter varietals with rougher wines to create a pleasant assemblage. (And note that I unashamedly use butter for the brownie pan — olive oil just doesn’t stick to the sides in the same way.)
Olive Oil Brownies
Makes 16 brownies
Butter for the pan
4 ounces dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa)
⅓ cup fruity olive oil
¾ cup sugar
½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup chopped walnut meats
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter an 8-inch-by-8-inch square pan.
2. Break up the chocolate in small pieces and set it in an oven-safe dish, then put it in the oven to melt thoroughly. When it is completely soft, combine it with the olive oil, beating with a fork to mix thoroughly. Set aside to cool, but do not refrigerate.
3. Beat the eggs until they are thick and foamy, then beat in the sugar, about ¼ cup at a time. When the sugar is thoroughly incorporated and the chocolate mixture has cooled down, combine the two, stirring them together with a spatula or wooden spoon (do not beat).
4. Using a rubber spatula, stir in the flour, vanilla and walnuts. Spread the mixture in the prepared brownie pan and transfer to the preheated oven.
5. Bake 25 minutes or until the edges start to pull away from the pan. Remove from the oven and set on a wire rack to cool completely before cutting into squares.
Mrs. Fancelli’s Olive Oil Cookies With Almonds and Cranberries
Feliciano Fancelli runs an oil mill, or frantoio, in the hills behind Assisi in Umbria, Italy. It is one of the last old-fashioned, crush-and-press mills still functioning, and it has been in his family for umpteen generations. Mrs. Fancelli gave me this recipe for a simple cookie that is typical of Italian country sweets. For sweet wine, she uses a local sagrantino passito from nearby Montefalco, but a sweet moscato will do very well instead; I sometimes use a Tuscan vin santo, one that is rather drier than sweet. If you don’t want to use alcohol, you could substitute a not-too-sweet apple cider.
Toast the nuts in a 350 F oven until they are golden; when they are cool enough to handle, chop or process briefly in the food processor to make a coarse mix, not at all pasty.
Makes 34 to 40 cookies.
2¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
Pinch of sea salt
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1½ cups chopped toasted almonds or hazelnuts, or a mixture
1½ cups raisins, coarsely chopped
⅔ cup extra virgin olive oil
⅔ cup sweet wine
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Spread sheets of parchment paper on two or three cookie sheets. Have ready a wire rack for cooling the cookies.
2. Toss together in a bowl the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder, then stir in the nuts and raisins.
3. Whisk together the eggs and combine, whisking, with the oil and wine. Pour over the flour mixture.
4. Stir and knead slightly with your hands to mix the liquids thoroughly into the flour.
5. Drop the cookie mixture by tablespoons onto the prepared cookie sheets and transfer to the preheated oven.
6. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the cookies are lightly golden. Remove and transfer immediately to the wire rack to cool.
Top photo: Brownies and cookies made with olive oil. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
My family’s annual Christmas cookie platter always includes classic, buttery shortbread. Growing up, I anticipated the round or flower-shaped shortbread almost always garnished with half a maraschino cherry in the middle, bringing a small, sweet punch of fruit to the cookie.
More from Zester Daily:
But over the past few years I have broken with tradition by changing the flavor profile of this timeless holiday treat. We still have shortbread, but now I turn to a combination of citrus fruits, herbs and spices and a couple of easy culinary techniques to bring some nuanced flavors to these holiday treats.
Deciding which flavor combinations to use is the fun part. Look to drinks, desserts or other concoctions you like to help guide you. My advice is to limit yourself to two or three flavorings so as not to lose the personality of each. And don’t go overboard. Remember to use a little restraint because you are already working with a classic cookie canvas.
To maximize the citrus flavor, two key steps are required. First, use a sharp microplane zester to ensure no bitter pith is added. Second, pulse the grated zest with the sugar in a blender or mini food processor. This enables the essential oils in the zests to mix with the sugar granules and become more evenly distributed throughout the dough. Orange and lemon zest complement many flavors, while the zests of lime and grapefruit should be used sparingly as their flavor can be too aggressive.
Herbs and spices
Stronger herbs such as rosemary, thyme and lavender are great on their own or paired with citrus flavors. Finely chopping theses herbs and mixing them together with the flours in a food processor for 30 seconds, while not essential, rounds out their flavors in the shortbread.
More delicate herbs such as basil, mint and tarragon can make an appearance, but don’t count on them to have a similar starring role. If you want to add a light green seasonal hue to your cookies, blanch these leafy herbs in boiling water for 5 seconds, to set the chlorophyll, then quickly spread them on a plate and put them in the freezer for about 5 minutes. Lightly squeeze out any liquid and finely chop. Then add them to the sugar and zests, if using, and pulse them in a blender. The sugar will be emerald green and the resulting cookie dough a shade lighter. It is best to roll out the dough, cut the cookies out and then bake them at a lower temperature for a slightly longer period to try to preserve the color.
When it comes to looking to your spice drawer for inspiration, sticking with the sweeter spices typically associated with baking, such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and nutmeg, guarantees a crowd pleaser. For more adult palates, reach toward savory spices such as fennel, fennel pollen, coriander or ground star anise. Toasting them over moderate heat for a couple of minutes then lightly crushing them in a mortar and pestle helps to release their natural oils.
Here are some combinations to get you started. Simply add these ingredients to the shortbread recipe as directed below to add new flavors to your cookies.
Lemon, Candied Ginger and Rosemary
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest (5 grams)
2 tablespoons finely chopped candied ginger (30 grams)
1 tablespoon rosemary sprigs, chopped (4 grams of sprigs)
Orange Cardamom Basil
2 teaspoons orange zest (5 grams)
1 teaspoon ground cardamom (2.5 grams)
3 tablespoons chopped basil (15 grams or 15 large leaves)
Grapefruit, Fennel and Mint
2 teaspoons grapefruit zest (5 grams)
1 teaspoons fennel seeds (2.5 grams)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint (6 grams)
To guarantee a short, buttery, crumbly texture, I have written this recipe in weight measurements. Zester Daily contributor Martha Rose Shulman wrote a convincing piece about why bakers should use a scale for consistent results, something I have always done with breads, but I am now a convert for other baked goods as well.
187.5 grams all-purpose flour (1½ cups)
100 grams rice flour or cornstarch (½ cup plus 2 tablespoons)
4 grams salt (½ teaspoon)
100 grams sugar (½ cup)
227 grams butter, room temperature (1 cup)
1. Preheat oven to 325 F.
2. Sift the flours, salt and any ground spices you have decided to use into a medium sized bowl. Toss in any lightly crushed spices or chopped herbs (such as rosemary, thyme, lavender).
3. If using citrus zest, place sugar and grated zest in a blender. Blend for 30 seconds. Stop and use a spatula to break up any clumping of the sugar. Cover and turn on for another 10 seconds. If using any blanched herbs, such as basil, mint or tarragon, add the blanched, chopped herbs now and blend for another 15 seconds. You may need to give the blender a gentle shake as it is blending to help incorporate the herbs with the sugar. If they are not mixing well, stop and use a spatula to loosen the mixture and blend for another 10 seconds.
4. Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer and pour in the blended sugar mixture. Beat the butter and sugar together for a few minutes until light and fluffy.
5. Add a third of the flour mixture to the creamed butter and use a spatula to incorporate the flour. When the first addition of the flour is almost fully incorporated, add in another third of the flour mixture. Repeat one more time until all of the flour is well mixed with the butter to make a soft, homogeneous dough.
6. You have two options to prepare and bake the dough: Rolling the dough produces a thinner cookie that takes less time vs. pressing the dough into a pan and then cutting the baked dough into thicker finger length or wedge cookies.
Rolling and cutting out the dough:
1. If you want to roll and cut out the cookies, divide the dough into two. Wrap each half in plastic wrap and flatten with your hands into discs and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.
2. Roll each half on a lightly floured surface to a ½-inch thick and cut out using a cookie cutter. Gather the scraps together and roll and cut out shapes until all the dough is used. Prick each cookie several times with a fork and bake in the center of the oven for about 25 to 35 minutes or until lightly golden.
3. Remove from the oven and let cool for about 20 minutes to allow the cookies to firm up.
Pressed and hand-cut cookies:
1. Alternatively, line the bottom of an 8-inch square or a 9-inch round baking pan (I prefer using a springform cheesecake pan) with parchment paper and press the dough evenly with floured fingers and palms.
2. Using a fork, prick the dough all over and bake in the center of the oven for about 35 to 40 minutes or until the dough is lightly golden.
3. Remove from the oven and let cool for about 10 minutes before cutting into finger-sized cookies (for the rectangle baking pan) or wedges (for the round baking pan).
4. Store the cookies in an airtight container for a few weeks.
Top photo: Citrus fruits and savory herbs and spices can put a twist on classic shortbread. Credit: Cameron Stauch
Fast-and-easy puff pastry, known as “rough puff,” is one essential recipe to put in your holiday bag of tricks. Homemade ready-to-bake rough puff pastry in my freezer has saved me many anxious what-to-make moments each December.
More from Zester Daily:
With this one technique, I can make any savory appetizer, including Parmesan-black pepper twists; ham, cheddar and red pepper quiches; blue cheese, pear and walnut mini-tarts; and a host of other buttery, light creations ideal for serving with any holiday libation.
Classic French puff pastry’s laid-back relative, rough puff requires no culinary degree. In fact, it’s what pastry chefs make at home because there are so few steps and big payoffs. And while rough puff is less lofty than the laborious puff pastry, it performs perfectly for every use from palmiers to empanadas.
In this video, French pâtissier and baking book author Michael Roux demonstrates how to make rough puff by hand.
I prefer to use my food processor based on a method I learned from pastry master Nick Malgieri. In this series of photos, I’ll take you step by step through the process for making your own rough puff pastry. This is an unbeatable substitute for any recipe calling for store-bought or homemade puff pastry without the premium cost or the time investment.
Once you have rough puff, the options span a world of appetizers using any cheeses, marinated or cooked vegetables and meats (leftovers, too) you have. In fact, with rough puff on hand, the only other item I need to stock for an impromptu festive gathering of friends is a stash of something bubbly.
Rough Puff Pastry
Makes 1½ pounds of dough
½ stick (2 ounces) unsalted butter, chilled and roughly cut into small pieces
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, chilled and diced into ½-inch pieces
½ teaspoon salt
⅔ cup cold water
2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour
1. Make sure you divide the 10 ounces of butter necessary for this recipe into two groups. Two ounces should roughly chopped and 8 ounces should be diced into ½-inch pieces.
2. Dissolve the salt in the cold water. This will allow for better distribution in the dough. Keep the saltwater chilled until ready to use. Cold ingredients are the key for easy to handle pastry that comes out flakey.
3. Put the flour into the bowl of a food processor. Add the roughly cut 2 ounces of butter and blend with 4 to 5 pulses until well combined. Add the 8 ounces of diced butter and pulse 2 to 3 times for 2 seconds each until the butter is the size of hazelnuts. These larger pieces of butter are what make the dough puff up when baked.
4. Dump the mass of crumbly dough onto a smooth work surface. Use a dough scraper to collect it into a rectangle. Dust a rolling pin and roll into a rectangle about 5 inches wide and 14 inches long. Use your dough knife to keep the edges straight.
5. Use a dough knife or spatula to lift the dough and fold it in thirds, like a business letter. Match the corners and side up as evenly as you can. Turn the dough “letter” 90 degrees so the folds are facing you and roll it out once more into a 5-by-14-inch rectangle. Now, roll up the dough like a scroll and then use the palm of your hand to flatten it into an even, wide log shape.
5. Chill for at least 30 minutes.
6. Dust the work surface and the rolling pin lightly with flour and roll out to ¼-inch thick, turning the dough and dusting underneath with flour to prevent sticking. Brush off any excess flour and use a pizza wheel, biscuit cutter or a knife to cut the dough into any shape you desire. (Gather any scraps of dough and re-roll or chill for future use. They will not be as airy but are perfect for tarts, quiche or pizza.)
7. Place the pastries on an ungreased baking sheets or in tart pans or muffin tins. For immediate use, top or fill the pastries (an egg wash helps ingredients stick and makes the pastries pretty, but is optional) and chill for at least 15 minutes for best results.
Or, for future use, freeze the unfilled pastry shapes on their pans. Once firm, transfer them into labeled freezer bags. Fill them straight from the freezer with the toppings and fillings of your choice and bake right away.
8. To bake the pastries, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Bake until golden brown (frozen pastries will take a few more minutes than chilled) and serve immediately.
Top photo: Parmesan-black pepper twists and mini-tarts with blue cheese, pear and walnuts made with rough puff pastry. Credit: Lynne Curry
In a season filled with rich, heavy foods and cloying sweets, I like to take a page from European cookbooks and bake a few dozen spiced cookies. Fragrant and peppery treats such as Dutch speculaas, Swedish pepparkakor and Spanish biscochitos provide a welcome break from the usual honeyed confections.
Many spiced cookie recipes date to the Middle Ages, when ingredients such as pepper, cinnamon and cloves were rare and expensive commodities. As a result, the seasonings were used sparingly and for special occasions. That is why you’d encounter them at Christmas and hardly ever else.
Among these confections, the most familiar to me is pfeffernüsse. German for “peppernuts,” the bite-sized, ball-shaped cookies are an age-old Christmas favorite in Germany and German-settled parts of the U.S.
More from Zester Daily:
On Philadelphia’s Germantown Avenue, Bredenbeck’s Bakery makes pfeffernüsse just as Lauren Boyd’s great-grandmother used to bake. Rolled in confectioner’s sugar, the aromatic, half-dollar-sized balls are a holiday standard at the 124-year-old bakery. Over the decades, Bredenbeck’s ambrosial cookies have become such a draw that they are ordered and shipped in festive tins around the country, Boyd says.
“Our pfeffernüsse is made with allspice and a mix of cloves and cinnamon and diced candied fruit. If you’re making the cookies at home, you want to be sure to finely dice the fruit so that it blends in with the dough,” Boyd says.
Although chocked full of luscious ingredients, what Bredenbeck’s pfeffernüsse doesn’t include is its namesake, pepper. The same holds true for many pepper cookie recipes. At one time costly and hard to find, black pepper was often replaced with ginger, cloves and other more commonplace flavorings.
Some, such as the round, stamped, Russian spice cookies pryaniky, evolved into lavishly seasoned goodies. In the ninth century, pryaniky contained rye flour, fruit juice and honey. After the arrival of spices from India, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, the cookie dough was enriched with cloves, anise, black pepper, nutmeg and ginger. What began as a mild biscuit became a scrumptious, well-spiced treat.
St. Nicholas cookies a tribute to the Dutch trade route
Like pryaniky, Dutch speculaas, or St. Nicholas cookies, benefited greatly from the medieval spice trade. Redolent with the rich scents of cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, mace, white pepper and cinnamon, speculaas served as a testament to just how successful the 17th-century Dutch trade route was.
Speculaas are baked in decorative, wooden molds or shaped into windmills. Usually consumed Dec. 5 — St. Nicholas Eve — and alongside mulled wine and hot cocoa, these crisp, wheat biscuits cap off the traditional Dutch St. Nicholas Eve feast.
The Dutch cookie purportedly gets its name from the Latin word for mirror, speculum. It is thought to refer to the cookie’s mirror image of the embossed baking mold. A beauty to behold, it is even more delightful to bake and eat.
Don’t have a collection of carved molds for pryaniky or speculaas? Then consider creating a batch of crunchy, cut-out pepparkakor. Featured in Astrid Lindgren’s “Pippi Longstocking” tales, this zesty, Swedish cookie dough gets rolled and cut into the shapes of pigs, horned goats, reindeer, bells, stars, hearts and a bearded, gnome-like man known as “Tomte”; think of Tomte as the Swedish version of Santa Claus. Of pepparkakor, “Very Swedish” cookbook author and journalist Annica Triberg says, “Christmas isn’t Christmas in Sweden without ginger biscuits!”
Reminiscent of pfeffernüsse, pepparkakor contain ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and occasionally cocoa. Often they are decorated with a thin layer of royal icing, which provides a nice balance to the dough’s piquant taste. When rolled into hazelnut-sized balls, these gingery gems are called Swedish peppernuts.
New Mexico’s favorite is biscochito
From Spain comes a small, anise-flavored, cinnamon-dusted, cut-out cookie known as biscochito, or “little biscuit.” Thought to have descended from eighth-century Moorish sugar cakes, biscochitos remain a beloved Spanish Christmas treat.
Buttery yet light, these fleur de lis-shaped cookies have become exceedingly popular in New Mexico. In fact, in 1989, the state made the biscochito its state cookie. Historians believe 16th-century Spanish explorers brought the confection to the new world, where it won fans in Mexico and later enamored the residents of New Mexico.
With a wealth of spiced cookies from which to choose, why not take a break from all those sugary sweets this holiday season and try a palate-pleasing, European-spiced treat?
Swedish Spiced Cookies
Makes about 3 dozen cookies
½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
3 tablespoons light corn syrup
3 tablespoons water
1½ cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling the dough
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon cardamom
½ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Pinch of fine ground black pepper
Confectioner’s sugar for dusting over the cookies (optional)
1. In a large bowl, beat the butter until soft and creamy. Add the sugar, syrup and water and beat until well combined.
2. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg and pepper. Add the flour mixture to the creamed butter and beat until a soft, sticky dough forms.
3. Shape the dough into a ball, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a minimum of three hours or up to two days.
4. When you’re ready to make the cookies, preheat the oven to 425 F. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
5. Place the dough on a clean, floured work surface. Using a floured rolling pin, roll out the dough to ¼-inch thick.
6. Using cookie cutters, cut out the cookies and place them 1 inch apart on the baking sheets. Bake the cookies for four to six minutes or until golden brown. Allow the cookies to cool slightly before moving them to wire racks.
7. Sprinkle the cookies with confectioner’s sugar if desired and cool completely. Store in an airtight container.
Top photo: Swedish spiced cookies. Credit: Kathy Hunt