Saturday, February 26, 2011

Orange vanilla scones.

I don't know if it's their resemblance to biscuits, their versatility, or because one line of my ancestry is from the British Isles, but I really love scones.
And today, because I totally reorganized my kitchen yesterday, I felt like a treat. This recipe for Orange Cream Scones originated in Tea Time magazine. The addition of actual fruit and the taste of vanilla was my idea. Obviously, these little guys came from a can and were left over from a salad, but when I have a Tangelo or navel orange in the fridge, it's pretty awesome to use the fresh segments, zest and juice. To this, you could also add chocolate chips and, I'm guessing, be pretty satisfied.

Speaking of satisfied, something else orange, as well:
On a recent trip to Asheville, North Carolina, I found powdered vanilla bean at The Spice and Tea Exchange and will likely be putting it in everything from now on, so be warned. My research says it's nice to use when you don't want to add liquid to a recipe and that it retains flavor, which is sometimes evaporated out of vanilla extract in baking. The recommended conversion is to use half as much powder as extract.

Recipe for Orange Cream Scones

2-1/2 C. all-purpose flour
1/2 C. plus 2 T. sugar, divided
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1/2 C. butter, cut into pieces
1 T. orange zest
1/2 C. mandarin oranges, drained well
1/2 t. vanilla powder
2/3 to 3/4 C. heavy cream
2 T. orange juice

Preheat oven to 375. Line baking sheet with parchment. In large bowl combine dry ingredients including vanilla and orange zest. In a measuring cup, I first add the orange juice, then enough cream to make 3/4 of a cup. You may need less, depending on how juicy the oranges are. Let this wait while you cut the butter pieces into the flour mixture.
Sometimes a pastry blender works best to break up the initial chunks, and then just rub the butter bits between your thumb and other fingers until all is crumbly. Add the cream mixture to the dry mix and stir gently with a fork just until incorporated, adding the orange pieces last.

This is another time that I heavily flour my cutting surface. Because of the oranges, this recipe tends towards moisture and you'll probably want to knead just a little to be able to shape and cut the dough. Make whatever shape you like. Today, I made big wedges.
Sometimes I use a round biscuit cutter (or just a glass) or one with scalloped edges to be fancy, or cut into squares with a knife. If you're expecting Camilla and Charles for tea, you may want to read some other blogs. These orange-y, flaky scones are for you and people you love, because they taste good. Place them on the baking sheet and brush tops with the extra cream and sprinkle with sugar before placing in oven.
The original recipe instructs to bake for 18 to 20 minutes; perhaps because of the added fruit, mine took more like 25 minutes. Just keep an eye on them. When lightly browned, remove from oven.
Hopefully, you've got the coffee made.

I like mine with the Sunday paper, or outside, if the sun is shining.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Ciabatta amore. Finally.

There's something about rising at 4:00 a.m. and making your way down dimly lit streets to start baking bread before anybody else has even thought of getting up and going to work. There's also a rhythm to bakery life - the groan of rotating ovens coming to life, the metallic clank of measuring cups against mixing bowls and the slow, eventual filling of the air with the best aromas known to humankind - yeast and coffee.

There's also the occasional Frenchman who drops by to instruct you on the perfect baguette:
I loved every aspect of bread and cake baking, every ingredient, every recipe. Except one. Okay, maybe two, counting the dreaded holiday tea ring, but don't look for that recipe here. Because of its wet, sloppy, impossible-to-form dough, I did not love ciabatta. It was the only bread that had to be poured out of its rising bucket "into a rectangle" that could then be cut into 16 similarly sized loaves. Right. Who can't pour a perfect rectangle of gooey dough?

Now that I bake mostly for myself, my friends and family, and the occasional client, I've learned to love ciabatta. This love did not come easily. It came after months of my parents' insistence that Kroger ciabatta was their favorite bread. It made the best toast, they exclaimed. Toast? How can you make toast with a 1-1/2 inch tall slice of bread? Much less, a sandwich. Initially, their comments just fueled my dislike. Until one day, when they pushed a buttery, crunchy piece of toasted ciabatta into the hand that wasn't holding my coffee and I gave it a try. Like an English muffin, there seemed to be flavor (and by that, I mean melted butter) in all the holes, but with a decidedly Italian essence that comes from baking with olive oil. So began my search for a ciabatta recipe I could work with - not prohibitively gooey, with that great Mediterranean flavor, that baked up crunchy and airy. After much trial and error with flavor and texture, the one below, from Gourmet magazine's March 1998 issue, is dependable and immediately replaced my parents' store-bought product. Start this bread 18 to 24 hours before you want it to come out of the oven. The sponge stands 12 to 24 hours. The first rise of the dough in the bowl will take about 2 hours and the second rise of the shaped bread, maybe 1-1/2 hours. Bake time is 25 to 30 minutes.

For the sponge:
1/4 tsp. yeast
1 C. room-temperature water (add more if it's stiff - flour and weather can affect this)
2 C. bread flour (if all you have is all-purpose, use it)

I mix this part in a piece of crockery that came with a lid, from Big Lots for $3. It lets the sponge breathe without drying out and has just enough room for the rise. Let rise for 12 to 24 hours, depending on your schedule - 12 is enough but 24 won't hurt it. The yeast does not need warm water to activate - the long, slow fermentation process is what gives the bread its wonderful airy texture.

For the bread:
1 tsp. yeast
4 T. warm milk (105-115 F)
1-1/3 C. room-temperature water (see below for adjustments)
2 T. olive oil
4 C. bread flour (again, I've used all-purpose when I had to)
1 T. salt

When the sponge is ready, place it with remaining ingredients in moderately powerful stand mixer with dough hook. (Or put it on a floured surface and dig in, but do not scoff at my Kitchenaid - we'll see what your rotator cuff has to say in 10 years.) Knead for at least 7 minutes to develop the gluten, and up to 10 minutes to incorporate all ingredients into a smooth, sticky dough. As you can see, this dough does not ever cling entirely to the hook. If it does, it's too stiff. It's important that any needed additional water be added early on, before any hard balls of dry or oily dough can form. If this happens, just crank the mixer up to the third or fourth power setting and let it go. When you see ciabatta start flinging dough from the hook to the sides and don't see any lumps, it's happy again.
As with the sponge, the secret to ciabatta's chewy texture is in the gas bubbles that form with a slow rise - allow at least 2 hours. On this day, my house was not overly warm so I left the dough for 4 hours.

It will be gooier than when it went in to rise, so LIBERALLY flour your counter or cutting board surface. This is not a bread to make in a square foot of workspace. It likes to spread and it likes to stick. So again, LIBERALLY flour that surface. If you greased the bowl plenty, you'll still have to help the dough out into its approximation of a rectangle. This recipe makes 2 loaves, so once it's on the counter, use floured fingers to push the sides into shape. Sprinkle the top with flour to further form the dough. A bench scraper comes in very handy here, as well. Use it to push the sides of the dough, but most importantly, it's great to then cut the rectangle roughly in half.
Again, with floured hands, lift each loaf, sliding fingers underneath the ends to gently pry up and over to the parchment-lined baking sheet. I have stones on one rack of my oven and therefore place my loaves on parchment paper on the back of the baking sheet and when risen, slide them onto the hot baking stones for an even crisper crust. If you're brave or bored, feel free to try this, but make it the easy way at first so you can learn the other aspects without stress.

This is a "hearth bread" and therefore likes a hot oven. Preheat to 425 and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, letting the crust get nice and brown and caramelized. Having no resistance, I always cut into one loaf immediately.
Later, when your loaves are nice and cooled and easily sliced, again with a sharp, serrated bread knife, use them for extra-special toast (2 slices per slot, it turns out), or bruschetta, or any kind of sandwich that supports a crusty full-bodied bread. I like mine with braised kale and Asiago cheese, under the broiler for a minute.
Oh, did I mention that ciabatta makes excellent croutons? Toss with melted butter, salt, pepper and garlic powder and broil to crispy goodness, then throw some on your next bowl of soup.
Another personal favorite and late-night guilty pleasure, inspired by Giada De Laurentiis, is Nutella between 2 slices of ciabatta and grilled in the pan with a touch of olive oil. A slightly more substantial version is brie and dark chocolate on ciabatta, either grilled or pressed into a panini. It's sweet and savory and buttery and, well, what are you waiting for?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Valentine biscuits, y'all.

A lot of people seem to think there's a secret to making good biscuits. Yankees A lot of others probably never gave it a thought. For me, there was always a bit of mystique because my mother's biscuits are so good.

In my twenties and married, I finally got up the courage to try my hand. She gave me the recipe, told me how she made them and I bravely assembled my ingredients.. I rolled out my dough, cut nice circles, loaded the oven and waited. The results were decidedly underwhelming. Nothing like my mother's fluffy, mile-high, cat head biscuits, so called by her slightly older brother, my uncle Ben. I tried a number of times more over the years, always with the same flat, dry, crunchy results. I even used what she claimed to be the secret to husband-catching biscuits - Virginia's Best self-rising flour, milled only 15 minutes from my house and the freshest product available in the Blue Ridge. I did not do them proud.

Unwilling to accept my failure at this most basic of Southern recipes, one Christmas, I finally caught my mother in the kitchen, about to make the biscuits. Well, she measured everything just as she'd told me (the usual culprit when my recipes don't meet expectations). But then I noticed two very distinct differences in our technique.

One, after only a couple of turns at kneading the dough on the counter, she very gently patted it into a circle, almost reverently, so as not to toughen it texture. And two - this is the big one - the dough she was cutting out was almost an inch thick. Duh! It seems that if you want tall biscuits, you have to cut them out that way. My embarrassment at missing this important detail was easily overshadowed by my delight at having discovered her secret!

Below is her recipe and if you have any doubts at all about your ability to re-create it, be assured that if she can teach my pa (he's from New York) to make biscuits so good that their B&B guests don't know the difference, yours will not be shabby. Pay no attention to the abundance of cheese and green onion I added for today's breakfast, unless you like that sort of thing.

Biscuit ingredients:
2 C. Virginia's Best Self Rising flour
1/4 C. shortening
1 C. buttermilk

Use a pastry blender to cut the shortening into the flour pretty well. Not pea-sized or corn meal in texture, but keeping the softness of both ingredients. Use a fork to stir in the buttermilk, again looking for a nice, soft, but not too wet, dough. Do not over-stir. (This is where I added a mountain of cheddar, Asiago and green onion, but again, you don't have to, especially if you're craving jelly biscuits.)

Turn the soft dough onto a well-floured counter or cutting board, knead a few times to make sure it's not wet, just soft, pat out a circle, and cut like so:
I told you they were tall. Place on an ungreased baking sheet and bake at 450 for 10 minutes or so, as always, depending on your oven. Try to resist grabbing hot biscuits from said oven because if you're like me, you'll be hungry and the coffee'll be ready and, well, you know.
So, I baked these biscuits in heart shapes because I like hearts. Also, it's the Valentine holiday.

If you're looking to find the way to someone's heart through their stomach, start picking out dresses right after you serve these hot with butter melting down the sides.

If you're like me and currently baking biscuits for one, don't you dare forgo the pleasure. Instead, ask yourself Willa Cather's most appropriate of questions, "What if life was meant to be our sweetheart?"

Oh, and then there's day two of biscuit love with some salty, savory North Carolina country ham...

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Cobbler, the humble pie.

I don't know about where you live, but in the Blue Ridge, we've had a lot of this lately:
I admit to having grown weary of driving in the snow, but when I saw this beautiful old barn in my recent travels, out came the camera. Later, I would want to pull up that photo of claret-colored boards and heavy silent snow and remember how scenic the Tennessee mountains were that day, how much I enjoyed having lunch with my boy, and the drive home to Virginia with my thoughts and gratitude for company.

Sometimes a recipe card is like a piece of history or a photo, with its memories attached. Take this one, for example.

It is written in my former mother-in-law's hand, butter-stained and well used. The recipe outlives her and belonged to her mother-in-law. It reflects a thrift that comes of feeding many mouths with few resources, but also a dependably good flavor. Great-Grandma Speaks raised her family on cobblers and such, but mostly a large pan of biscuits baked every morning to get them through long days of farm work. As humble as her recipe, I still remember the tears she cried when we delivered a new range to replace her worn-out old one. I like to think about all the homegrown and canned fruit she added through the years - peaches, apples, berries - and my own compromise version with one fruit on each side of the baking dish, to please any divided household.

The recipe really could not be simpler and starts with a stick of butter melted in a 1-1/2 quart casserole or 8 x 8 baking dish while the oven preheats. Then, make a batter of:
1 C. sugar
3/4 C plain flour
2 t. baking powder
1 t. vanilla (my addition)
1/2 t. cinnamon (my addition)
pinch of salt
3/4 C. milk
Pour this over the melted butter. Stir 2 cups of fruit with 1/2 to 1 cup of sugar, as desired, and pour the fruit over the batter like this:

Today, I chose tiny, wild Maine blueberries and, because they're so sweet and I'm trying to be good, I did not add any sugar (though I sneaked in several raspberries looking for a home).

Bake at 350 for one hour, until golden and bubbly. I found these adorable heart-shaped baking dishes on another trip to Michael's for an unbelievable 99 cents and note that I divided one recipe in half and cut the baking time to 45 minutes:

Now, as if this wasn't sweet and warm and gooey enough, I took a quick Google trip, looking for chocolate cobbler recipes and found the amazing and mouthwatering blog:
Go there now - it will make you smile. But come right back, because there's more.

Anyhow, I'd always fancied trying chocolate cobbler and their proportions were close enough to Great-Grandma Speaks' recipe that I felt comfortable taking it for a spin. I therefore substituted Ghirardelli 60% cacao chips, leftover Madagascar milk chocolate, and some southside Virginia pecans instead of fruit, plopped in a tablespoon of Nutella for good measure, and about that, let me just say this: