Monday, March 23, 2015

Alpha Bakers -- Luxury Oatmeal Cookies

Spring dawns with a slushy Narnia snow, and the Alpha Bakers are back to cookies.

Speaking of Narnia snow, everybody needs to read Anne Ursu's BREADCRUMBS immediately. Before the pain of winter fades. It's one of the darkest, loneliest, most fascinating children's books I've read in a long time. Anyone who loves 5th graders, superhero baseball, or Hans Christian Andersen should really, really read this book. I listened to the audiobook and that, too, is exceptional. Go read it. I'll wait.

In other news, I'm looking for a name for my almost-ready-to-launch library-stuff blog. It should include echoes of public access, children's services, solid strangeness, and delight. The Brecht Forum has already taken, in case you were wondering.

The Luxury Oatmeal Cookies are a fairly classic oatmeal cookie recipe in the cookie-jar tradition, made with granola and chocolate instead of rolled oats. The Baking Bible includes a recipe for granola, but I had almost a cup of granola leftover and needing to be used up, so I used that. I am not sure exactly what was in it, as it was a gift from my cheesemonger friend Pam, who has a tendency to show up at the door with things like hand-dried Maine trompettes. I had slightly less granola than I needed for the quarter recipe I was making, so I subbed in the remainder with regular rolled oats. I included the raisins but omitted the chocolate, as I don't hold with chocolate in oatmeal cookies. Oatmeal in chocolate chip cookies, is, inexplicably, a plus. Something about the different ratios makes it so.

These were good cookies, clumpy and hearty in texture.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Alpha Bakers -- Sour Cherry Pi

Adventures in pie this weekend. March 14 was Pi Day (3.14), always a fun day to celebrate. The Alpha Bakers were making Rose's Sour Cherry Pie, and since that is one of my favorite pies in the world, I was completely on board. I even knew exactly which Russian grocery to visit for my frozen cherries. Of course, it was all the way out on Kings Highway, and before I knew it I had just gotten lazy, and was scouring my local fancy bodegas for jarred cherries. Didn't find them, although I know about forty places where they can be found, so I changed things up and bought frozen sweet cherries and a plum or two to make Rose's Cherry Sweetie Pie. Despite uninspiring plums and a potato starch that thickened a bit too much, the pie was a more than reasonable stopgap for Pi Day. My co-workers, volunteers, and the kid who'd ventured out early for tutoring were pleased.
I had made two batches of crust--one of Rose's cream cheese crust and one of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds butter crust. To fill the second one, I used the bodega blueberries and a peach or two. Out of season fruit. Less than inspiring. Still, I had a bit of crust left, and so I finally caved, picked up a jar or two of sour cherries in syrup, and made two little Sour Cherry Pies, reducing the sugar to 50 grams. Those I ate all by myself. See that flakiness in the pie crust? Now I just want to keep on making pie forever. This always happens. One pie is just not enough.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Alpha Bakers - Very Slow Caramel Buns

Cake is all right, and pie is delicious, but my real passion is for breakfast pastry, from waffles to scones, biscuits to brioche. Sticky buns are akin to the waffle sundae, a good thing taken to heights of unbelievable overkill, then garnished with nuts. I love them, although sometimes I love them better without the caramel. The sticky buns in The Baking Bible are called Caramel Buns, and they are a brioche base rolled with nuts, sugar, and rum raisins, baked, glazed with raisin sugar syrup, and covered in a thick drippy caramel and more nuts. I know. Seriously.
Rose's brioche is a simple but slow dough, one that makes me glad I have a mixer, as it would be a gigantic pain without. It starts with a little sponge, which is then covered with a flour mix and refrigerated for a while.

I ran out of flour so I supplemented with a touch of my gluten free mix, accidentally contaminating the GF mix in the process. I'll need to make a new mix (enriching Bob's Red Mill as usual), but the old one will still be useful for gluten light baked goods and experimental models.
After some overnight rising and then stretching and folding and more rising, the dough is rolled out, brushed with egg, sugar, raisins, and, in my case, walnut bits, and then rolled up and cut. Rose recommends cutting the rolls with a piece of dental floss, which works perfectly and is weirdly satisfying besides. I have a twitchy response to public flossing, as my family knows to their sorrow (seriously, why is this a public event?), but public cinnamon roll cutting is full acceptable.
When I rolled it up, I completely forgot the rum-soaked sultanas, so I poked a few in on top. Most of them were forced up and got a touch toasted, but I really wanted them in there. Not sure what to do with the remainder, but especially with the rum, they'll last a little while in the refrigerator.

The buns are proofed for a while (it was a snow day so I let it run a little longer), and then baked with a Ball jar in the middle. The jar is filled with water--boiling water. I almost missed that the water was supposed to be boiling but caught it at the last minute.
While the buns were baking, I made the glaze (mostly raisin, rum, water, and sugar) and the caramel. The caramel was a pretty basic sugar/cream/butter shake-up, but I got a little creative and threw some cloves, Meyer lemon slices, and half a vanilla bean in with the boiling sugar, straining them out afterward. This gave the caramel a sort of 'Christmassy' flavor, as one taster said. Candied Meyer lemon slices were a good cook's treat.
 I overbaked the buns a bit, or they would have benefitted from the leftover raisins, as they were a little dry. Now that I think about it, that might have been the non-wheat flours, too. Next time I might make them larger.  Perfect baking for a snow day.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Alpha Bakers -- Hamentaschen

Chag Sameach. Purim. That holiday of costumes, noisemakers, bad jokes, drinking, and miracles. Or sheer blind chutzpah. And tiny little triangular cookies.
My go-to hamentaschen recipe, saved from a million Purim carnival bake-a-thons in my teens, has orange juice, so the only change I made to Rose's recipe, which is a soft, buttery sugar cookie dough, was to added about one and a half tablespoons of powdered Meyer Lemon zest, leftover from the posset. The flavor effect was subtle.

For fillings this time around, I went with prune butter and the pear jelly I got last week, and I made very small cookies. My teen book discussion group approved.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Alpha Bakers - Lemon Posset Sponge

A quick and easy recipe this week--or at least easy. One sponge cake (let's not kill ourselves and call it shortcake), covered in a quick lemon cream. Right up my street. A few special things:

1. The sponge included brown butter. Brown butter is a very good idea. Deb over at Smitten Kitchen tends to suggest brown butter even when it isn't called for. Since I have some leftover, I will probably take her advice soon.

2. The sponge is brushed with lemon syrup and then with apple jelly. There was no apple jelly to be had at the approximately 17 gourmet stores and delis near me, so I settled for pear. Pear jelly is also a very good idea.
The recipe was for individual sponges, but my Maryann pan is a single, and I was taking it to work anyway, so I just made the one. I had a few flour balls in the bottom but just picked them out with a knife tip.
3. Posset is fun. Posset is all of the medieval children's books I used to read. Posset is nursery sponge and jam and mysterious things people in books eat that I never really knew were things. Posset is just cream thickened with, in this case, sugar and Meyer lemon juice. Posset posset posset. Drink your posset. Posset is fun. My posset was creamy and nice, and a little mild for my taste. Regular lemons next time.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Alpha Bakers -- Chocolate Pavarotti with Wicked Good Ganache

The wind is howling outside, the radiator is gurgling, and it's good to be inside. It seems like the ideal time for oatmeal, or cocoa. Instead, I bought two kinds of ice cream yesterday and made chocolate cake. I might be the only person in the world who likes oatmeal and cocoa more than chocolate cake, though not more than strawberry ice cream. Strawberry ice cream is fantastic. Why would anybody ever eat any kind of ice cream other than strawberry? My deviant predilections aside, the Chocolate Pavarotti (so-called because it 'sings in the mouth') is a very nice cake. 

If you detected a bit of damning with faint praise there, your detector is working. The Pavarotti is a smooth, almost dense single layer, made with the addition of melted white chocolate (I used Trader Joe's chips). Perfectly delicious, a bit forgettable. More like my response to opera than Rose's. I always want to love opera more than I do. It's such spectacle, such grand location, such mystique and heavy wigs and wild feats of vocal daring, but ultimately, I find it slow. I want more choreography. I want the story to move more quickly. I was raised on the American musical, not the opera, and there's very little help for it now. 

As for the 'Wicked Good' ganache, it is indeed very good ganache. I find this unsurprising, because the name indicates that it is clearly from Massachusetts, and all things from Massachusetts are excellent, including yours truly. While I continue to refuse to make ganache in the food processor if it is not a special occasion, I followed all of the other meticulous steps to make this one carefully. Corn syrup makes it shiny, cream makes it rich. In this case the cream was not dairy but coconut cream, lightened with a bit of coconut milk. I've found that for most things coconut will make a good substitute--it's fatty and coconut oil hardens up nicely at a cool room temperature. The substitution wasn't a matter of avoiding dairy, just a matter of realizing that there was no cream in the house and I wasn't going out for groceries again.

We ate the cake as part of an impromptu Valentine's Day celebration that included a feverish and cranky baby, sauteed greens and macaroni and cheese, and highlights from High Fidelity ('it. was. called. James') and X-Men: Days of Future Past. I can't talk about High Fidelity right now, that would take most of seven more posts and some sobbing. X-Men, on the other hand, is great fun, but apparently impossible to follow if you have never seen or read anything about it before. Days of Future Past spends an absurd amount of time on expositing its own absurd plot, but expects you to know exactly who its characters are and what they're up to already. I do, but a certain friend who shall not be named Miriam was unable to master even the basics of their names and relationships. "They all have three names and two ages," she very reasonably complained, and "also Katya WHY is it called a Pavarotti?" 

A little recourse to the book and I was able to answer that question (see above), but I couldn't convince her not to call Magneto 'Cogneto' (actually a very decent amalgam of Professor X and Magneto) or Incognito. Everyone liked the cake, at least. One person said that its dense texture and very sweet filling (I added some raspberry cream cheese frosting) made it taste 'like a candy bar.' So there you have it. Opera plus comics plus indie geekery = chocolate cake that tastes like candy bars. Don't say you weren't warned.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Alpha Bakers: Swedish Mango Mixed Nut Bread

My to-do list is reaching frightening heights. Small tasks such as 'tidy the desk' and 'put away the laundry' are piling up under larger ones ('write book review', 'find new roommate,' 'do taxes') and even larger ones ('buy apartment,' 'improve job performance,' and 'evaluate books for major award'). I might be starting to panic a bit. In fact, the only time I make to-do lists is when I'm on the verge of panic. They do help, although I rarely remember to actually check things off. Not really a to-do list kind of person.
One thing I am quite good at, though, is making bread. Somehow, I had gotten it into my head that the Swedish Apricot Walnut Bread from The Baking Bible was a rye bread, and I held off making it for a week so I could get my hands on some good rye flour. And so I could traipse around frozen Chicago with a lot of librarians in brightly colored cardigans and cool tights

The Chicago thing went very well--I met some lovely people, ate and drank with some special people I've already met, got heavily snowed on, got a dose of Midwest nice (THANK YOU, Metra conductors who held the Sunday 6:12am train for me when I was on the wrong platform with my giant suitcase and there were 8 inches of snow and counting and the next train was not for two hours), and got to hear LeVar Burton and one of my library inspirations Scott Bonner speak. The Youth Media Awards were announced, including the Newbery and Caldecott Medals. There were some surprises, and as usual, some excitement. Here is a good roundup of what the children's librarians in your life were talking about last week. Here is a good round-up of what we'll be talking about for the rest of our lives if we do our jobs properly.
Speaking of jobs, here's the bread. As it turns out, the bread uses a miniscule proportion of rye flour to regular bread flour (or in my case Hecker's unbleached, which has a reasonably high gluten content). The dough begins with a biga starter, to which I added about 1.5T of leftover sourdough starter, for flavor. The biga then spent about 9 hours out on a table, followed by a few hours in the refrigerator. Then it was mixed into a dough with additional yeast, given a two hour rise, stretched and folded, and left overnight in the refrigerator for a second rise. 
I stretched it out, laid in a pattern of soaked dried mango (standing in for the apricots, golden raisins and mixed nuts had already been added to the dough), and folded and rolled the dough into a reasonable batard, which I then left to proof in the refrigerator while I was at work. Finally, I gave it a short time on the counter while I pre-heated the oven and the baking stone, slashed and baked, and there it was. I like this bread, but I would never make so small an amount again. If you're going to all the trouble of making a bread dough, make more than one wimpy batard. Also, if we're advertising this as a nutty bread that's good with cheese, I'd like a slightly more dense, rye-heavy bread. A friend has requested that we try out this Scandi Rye from Food & Wine next. Any ideas on good wheat-free replacements for the bread flour? She can have gluten, just not wheat.