basic biscuits

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I just got back from two weeks in Italy, which I spent eating: croissants for breakfast, baskets of bread for lunch and dinner (and not a whole grain in sight), wine with lunch and dinner, gelato at least once a day, and so on and so on and so on. And guess what? I came home exactly the same size I was when I left.

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I wish I could use this as justification to throw all of my healthy eating ideals to the wind (I accidentally typed “wine” at first – I’m still in vacation mode) and just eat what I want to eat. And maybe I could, if I spent hours upon hours walking in my normal life, walking until my feet ached and then ached more, and then they kept aching hours after I’d stopped walking. Instead, I spend hours upon hours of my normal life sitting at a computer, both at work and at home, and that, my friends, is the difference.

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Biscuits, and their buttery bready cousins croissants and scones, become a weekend treat. Usually I make biscuits to sandwich with eggs and ham for breakfast, but occasionally I serve them alongside crab cakes for dinner. But just occasionally. If only my normal life burned as many calories as my vacation life, I could – and would! – eat biscuits almost every day.

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Jennifer chose these for Tuesdays with Dorie, and she has the recipe posted. I…made no changes? Maybe? I don’t know, I made these a while ago. It seems likely that I followed the recipe exactly, except I definitely used the cake flour option, because I love how light biscuits are when they’re made with cake flour.

One year ago: Fold-over Pear Torte
Two years ago: Split-Level Pudding
Three years ago: Lenox Almond Biscotti

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croissants (tartine bread)

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My coworker seemed surprised when I told him I was going home at lunch to work on croissants. He wondered if all croissant recipes are so complicated. No. But I chose the most complicated one.

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I seem to have convinced myself that the recipe with the most steps must produce the best result. By no means is this rule always true, but in this case, it was. Spending my lunch break rolling and shaping buttery dough was a small price to pay for croissants this good.

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And that’s just the beginning (well, it’s the end of the recipe, but it’s the beginning of me telling you about the recipe). The process starts a couple days earlier, when you feed your starter. If you don’t have a starter, you should make one! It isn’t hard, and I’m more proud of my all wild-yeast bread than anything else I’ve accomplished in the kitchen this year.

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Once your starter is awake and you’ve mixed up another pre-dough with instant yeast, you’ll make your dough, but instead of kneading it, you’ll spend a minute or so fussing with it every half an hour for a few hours. Once it’s risen and chilled, you can roll it out and start working in the butter, and this process takes a few minutes of fussing over the course of several hours too. Then chill the dough some more. Then roll it out some more. Then, finally, you can shape your croissants! But then you have to let them rise for a couple hours before baking.

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I actually love recipes like this. I love getting to play with dough for just a few minutes at a time, and because the dough is chilled in between, it’s adaptable to my schedule. And in this case, all that fussing paid off with the best croissants I’ve made yet. My coworker grabbed two, and then he didn’t seem to doubt my lunchtime fussing at all.

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More experiments with croissants:
Tartine Bakery (the recipe in their first book is different than the recipe in their bread book)
Martha Stewart (using fresh yeast)
Martha Stewart (using instant yeast)

One year ago: Taco Pasta Salad
Two years ago: Green Chile Huevos Rancheros
Three years ago: Pan-Seared Steak with Red Wine Pan Sauce

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Croissants (adapted from Tartine Bread)

Makes 16 croissants

I’ve shortened the instructions and added volume measurements. Keep in mind though, that the weight measurements are more precise, so if you have a scale, use it (as always).

The original recipe recommends an egg wash made from 2 egg yolks and 1 teaspoon of heavy cream, but I used a whole egg whisked with a pinch of salt (which loosens the protein structure of the egg) because I didn’t want 2 extra egg whites to use up.

I wouldn’t have minded the croissants being just a little bit sweeter. Next time I’ll increase the sugar to ½ cup (100 grams).

You don’t use all of the leaven, because the leftover leaven becomes the starter that you keep and feed and use in the future.

Poolish:
200 grams (1½ cups) all-purpose flour
200 grams (⅔ cup) water, room temperature
3 grams (1 teaspoon) instant yeast

Leaven:
1 tablespoon starter
220 grams (1⅔ cups) all-purpose flour
220 grams (¾ cup) water, room temperature

Dough:
450 grams (1¾ cup) whole milk, room temperature
300 grams leaven
400 grams polish (this is all of the poolish)
1000 grams (7 cups) bread flour
28 grams (4½ teaspoons) salt
85 grams (7 tablespoons) sugar
10 grams (1 tablespoon) instant yeast

400 grams (28 tablespoons, although I used a full pound (32 tablespoons)) unsalted butter
½ cup all-purpose flour
Egg wash

1. To make the poolish: In a small bowl, mix the flour, water, and yeast. Cover and let stand at room temperature for 3-4 hours or store overnight in the refrigerator.

2. To make the leaven: In a small bowl, mix the starter, flour, and water. Cover and let rise overnight.

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3. Add the milk, leaven, and poolish to a large mixing bowl; stir to break up the doughs. Add the flour, salt, sugar, and yeast; mix thoroughly until there are no bits of dry flour. Cover and let rest for 25-40 minutes. Fold the dough a few times by using a dough scraper to scoop up one side of the dough and drape it over the rest of the dough.

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4. Allow the dough to ferment for 3 to 4 hours and give it another few turns every 30 minutes. This takes the place of kneading. Be more gentle with the turning toward the end of the rising time. The dough is ready when it’s slightly increased in volume and is full of air bubbles. Flatten the dough into a rectangle, wrap it in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 2-3 hours.

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5. Just before rolling out the dough, cut the cold butter into cubes. Gradually adding the ½ cup flour, pound the butter with a rolling pin until it comes together into a cohesive mass. Alternatively, use a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment to mix the cold butter and flour. Mold the butter into a rectangle measuring 8 by 14 inches.

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6. On a work surface dusted with flour, roll the dough out to a rectangle measuring 12 by 20 inches. Lay the butter block over the dough so that it covers about two-thirds of the dough. Fold the uncovered third of dough toward the center over the butter. Fold the other end of the dough, with the butter, over the center, as if you’re folding a letter. Turn the dough a quarter turn; roll it again into a 12 by 20-inch rectangle, then fold it in thirds. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour. (You can chill the dough longer, but you’ll need to let it warm up a few minutes before rolling so the butter isn’t too stiff.)

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7. Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Roll it out to a 12 by 20-inch rectangle, fold it in thirds, rotate it a quarter-turn, and repeat the rolling and folding. Chill for an hour. Repeat the rolling, folding, rotating, rolling and folding once more. Wrap the folded dough in plastic wrap and freeze it for 1-2 hours. If you don’t plant to finish the croissants until the next morning, transfer the dough to the refrigerator after a couple hours in the freezer. (You can store the dough in the freezer for several days at this point, letting it defrost overnight before using.)

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8. Roll the dough into a rectangle that is 18 by 24 inches and is about ½-inch thick. If the dough becomes very elastic, let it rest (preferably in the refrigerator) for several minutes before continuing the rolling. Cut the dough in half to form two 9 by 24-inch rectangles. Cut each rectangle into 8 triangles. Roll up each triangle, starting at the wide side. Transfer the croissants to a parchment-lined baking sheet, spacing them at least an inch apart. Cover them loosely and let rise until they are about 50 percent larger than their original size, about 2 hours. They will be firm, but puffed. (You can also refrigerate them overnight at this point, which is what I did.)

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9. Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Brush the croissants with the egg wash. Bake until they are deep golden brown, crisp, and flaky, about 30 minutes. Let cool slightly before serving.

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cooks illustrated’s ultimate banana bread

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I’ve always wanted to do a banana bread comparison post, and I still plan to someday, but usually I make banana bread for one primary purpose: to use up old bananas. And this recipe is the best for that, because it uses five bananas (six if you include the garnish, which I usually don’t), which is about twice as many as most other banana bread recipes. Furthermore, this recipe actually works better with previously frozen bananas, which mine always are.

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It manages to fit so many bananas into one loaf because the liquid is extracted before the batter is mixed. I love sucking the liquid out of ingredients before using them in recipes, especially quick breads like this zucchini bread. But I have to admit that I hadn’t realized bananas contained so much water. With zucchini, it’s obvious because water droplets immediately appear on a newly cut surface, but bananas had always seemed relatively dry to me.

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That’s until you freeze and then defrost them, when they turn into a pile of gross brown mush soaking in gross brown liquid. And this is perfect, because the mush is ready to mix right into the batter, and the liquid can be simmered down into a concentrated banana syrup, so not one bit of banana flavor is wasted. And if you don’t constantly have a bag of bananas taking up space in your freezer, of course you don’t need previously frozen bananas for this recipe – a quick trip to the microwave achieves the same effect.

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The end result is a banana bread that’s moist and tender, even if I go ahead and utilize my favorite quick bread tricks of subbing half whole wheat pastry flour and reducing the fat by 25% by replacing some of the butter with oil. Plus I figure that all that extra fruit in there contributes more fiber and nutrients. It’s not over-the-top banana-y either, despite containing so much more banana than most loaves. It’s so good that it’s actually worth making just for the sake of eating it, not just to use up the ingredients!

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One year ago: Pappa al Pomodoro
Two years ago: Risotto with Swiss Chard
Three years ago: Gazpacho

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Ultimate Banana Bread (from Cooks Illustrated)

I’ve reproduced Cooks Illustrated’s recipe exactly below. However, I don’t particularly care for the sliced bananas on top. They’re pretty, but they’re too sweet and candy-like (which really doesn’t sound like me, come to think of it).

You can slightly healthy up this recipe by replacing half of the flour with whole wheat pastry flour, and using 4 tablespoons butter plus 2 tablespoons canola oil instead of 8 tablespoons butter. The oil helps keeps the loaf moist, and of course leaving all that butter in contributes flavor.

1¾ cups (8¾ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon table salt
6 large very ripe bananas (about 2¼ pounds), peeled
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
2 large eggs
¾ cup packed (5¼ ounces) light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped (optional)
2 teaspoons granulated sugar

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8½ by 4½-inch loaf pan with non-stick cooking spray. Whisk the flour, baking soda, and salt together in a large bowl.

2. Place 5 bananas in a microwave-safe bowl; cover with plastic wrap and cut several steam vents in the plastic with a paring knife. Microwave on high power until the bananas are soft and have released liquid, about 5 minutes. Transfer the bananas to a fine-mesh strainer placed over a medium bowl and allow to drain, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes (you should have ½ to ¾ cups liquid).

3. Transfer the liquid to a medium saucepan and cook over medium-high heat until it’s reduced to ¼ cup, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, stir the reduced liquid into the bananas, and mash with a potato masher until fairly smooth. Whisk in the butter, eggs, brown sugar, and vanilla.

4. Pour the banana mixture into the flour mixture and stir until just combined with some streaks of flour remaining. Gently fold in the walnuts, if using. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Slice the remaining banana diagonally into ¼-inch-thick slices. Shingle the banana slices on top of both sides of the loaf, leaving a 1½-inch-wide space down the center to ensure an even rise. Sprinkle the granulated sugar evenly over loaf.

5. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean, 55 to 75 minutes. Cool the bread in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then remove the loaf from the pan and continue to cool on a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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cornmeal and bacon loaf

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It’s impossible to get burned out on food fads in smalltown southeastern New Mexico. There are no cupcake shops (heck, there isn’t any kind of bakery), no restaurants topping their food with foam, and bacon stays where it belongs – next to eggs, not in desserts.

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Not that adding bacon to cornbread is particularly trendy, but I naively fell for the naming trickery of this bread and didn’t realize until I was eating it that “cornmeal loaf” is cornbread. In this case, cornbread with bacon and without any fruit, as I didn’t want to confuse the issue of whether this was a dessert or breakfast. With a poached egg on top and savory bits of bacon mixed in, this is classic breakfast all the way.

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Caitlin, who evidently can’t resist the combination of fruit and cornmeal, chose this for Tuesdays with Dorie, and she has the full recipe posted. I substituted whole wheat pastry flour for half of the whole wheat flour, left out the fruit, reduced the sugar to ⅓ cup, and added 6 strips of cooked chopped bacon, as recommended by Dorie in her savory variation.

One year ago: Espresso Chocolate Shortbread
Two years ago: Lime Meringue Pie
Three years ago: Chunky Peanut Butter and Oatmeal Chocolate Chipsters

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grilled pita

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It’s news to no one that homemade pita is a hundred times better than storebought pita. But it might be news to some that grilled homemade pita is a hundred times better than baked homemade pita. True story.

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Pita dough and pizza dough are so similar that I keep batches in the freezer (actually lately I’ve been using Tartine’s country bread dough) and use them interchangeably. Both are rounds of dough that are stretched out thin, and when cooked, are expected to be spotty browned but still tender. So if grilled pizza is so popular lately, why not grilled pita?

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Grilling pita is particularly convenient for me because all of my favorite pita fillings are grilled. So once the chicken comes off the grill and is resting, I plop a round of dough on the hot coals, wait a minute until it bubbles and browns, then flip it. Your pita breads likely won’t be perfectly round, because transferring sticky stretchy dough to hot hot coals isn’t a trivial process. But what they might lack in symmetry, they make up for in grill lines – not to mention crisp edges, soft middles, and that touch of smoke that only the grill can provide.

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One year ago: Baked French Toast
Two years ago: Pasta with No-Cook Tomato Sauce and Fresh Mozzarella
Three years ago: Blackberry Swirl Ice Cream

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Grilled Pocketless Pitas

12 pitas

2½ pounds pizza dough, fully risen
nonstick spray or olive oil

1. Working on a damp towel, cut the dough into 12 pieces. Shape each into a ball by gently pulling the edges toward one side and pinching the seam to seal it. Roll the ball of dough on the towel to smooth and even the shape. Let the dough rest for 15-30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the grill to medium-high heat.

2. Pick up one ball of dough by an edge; stretch and pull it into a 5- to 6-inch round. If it becomes too elastic to shape, set it aside, loosely covered, for 5 minutes before trying again. Spray the tops of the shaped rounds with nonstick spray or brush with olive oil.

3. Carefully lay the pita rounds, oiled side down, directly on the grill. When the pita bubbles and the bottom is spottily browned, after 1-2 minutes, use tongs to flip the pita. Continue cooking until the second side begins to brown, about 1 minutes. Serve immediately or wrap in a kitchen towel for up to 30 minutes.

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golden brioche loaves

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Saturday I had a cooking extravaganza. I chose five fun recipes and spaced out the eating and the cooking over the course of the evening. I spent hours in the kitchen, and I had a great time.

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I spent most of Sunday in the kitchen as well, but it wasn’t planned, so it wasn’t as fun. Plus, I made bread dough for three types of bread, but one (completely delicious) grilled pita was the only bread I ate all day. It’s a good reminder that the best part of cooking is eating.

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Of course it’s worth it in the end. I was thankful for the Sunday’s batch of bagels at work Monday morning, and I was grateful for the brioche on Tuesday. My coworkers were particularly grateful for the brioche. Who can say no to bread that’s this flakey, and most importantly, buttery?

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Margie chose brioche for Tuesdays with Dorie, and she has the recipe posted. Despite Dorie’s recommendation that the full recipe (enough for two loaves) of dough be made at once, I was able to make only half the recipe with no problems. For tiny brioches baked in a mini muffin pan, I divided the half recipe into 36 portions and baked them at 450 degrees for 12 minutes.

One year ago: Crunchy and Custardy Peach Tart
Two years ago: Applesauce Spice Bars
Three years ago: Chocolate-Banded Ice Cream Torte

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carrot spice muffins

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I am against vegetables in cake, but I am pro vegetables in muffins. I am against raisins in cake, but I am pro raisins in muffins. The same goes with nuts. Basically, carrot cake is an abomination, or at best just a vehicle for cream cheese frosting, but carrot muffins are awesome.

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Awesome to eat, that is; they’re a bit of a pain to make, what with the carrot shredding and nut toasting and spice measuring. But they’re worth it in the end, hearty and moist and studded with sweet raisins and bitter pecans. I have to confess to wondering if they would be even better topped with cream cheese frosting though.

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Nancy chose these for Tuesdays with Dorie, and she has the recipe posted. I reduced the oil to ½ cup, replaced 1 cup of all-purpose flour with whole wheat pastry flour, doubled the salt, and increased the carrot slightly.

One year ago: Chocolate Ganache Ice Cream
Two years ago: Banana Bundt Cake
Three years ago: Blueberry Sour Cream Ice Cream

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peanut butter and jelly muffins

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I used to make a recipe similar to this – but without the peanut butter – and I loved it. Something about a dollop of jam baked inside of a muffin tastes so much better than a spoonful of jam spread over it once it’s baked. My old recipe also had a warm overtone of nutmeg I enjoyed.

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The only thing that wasn’t perfect about it was that it seemed too cakey, too dessert-like. These days, I like a heartier muffin. I also like to squeeze protein in wherever I can, and besides, everyone knows that peanut butter is a perfect partner for jelly.

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These peanut butter muffins are mixed a little differently than a standard muffin, in that the peanut butter is cut into the dry ingredients before the remaining liquids are added. Maybe this contributed to how light and soft the muffins were once baked, or maybe it was just the fat content of the peanut butter. Either way, with a good proportion of whole wheat flour and a layer of fruity jam in the middle, these are even better than my old favorite.

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One year ago: Lemon Curd Tart
Two years ago: Puff Pastry Dough
Three years ago: Pain a l’Ancienne

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Peanut Butter Jelly Muffins (adapted from Real Simple and Jeanne Lemlin’s Vegetarian Classics)

I used half whole wheat pastry flour.

Update 5/5/2014 : I made these again and think they needed more sugar, so I’ve doubled it from the original ¼ cup.

1 cup whole milk
1 egg, beaten
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups (9.6 ounces) all-purpose flour
½ cup (3.5 ounces) sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
Pinch nutmeg
⅓ cup (3 ounces) peanut butter (crunchy or smooth)
About ¼ cup jam

1. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 375 degrees. Spray the bottoms of a 12-cup muffin pan with nonstick spray or line with paper liners. In a large measuring cup, whisk together the milk, egg, butter, and vanilla.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large mixing bowl with a hand mixer), combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg. Add the peanut butter; mix until evenly combined. Turn the mixer off, add all of the milk mixture at once, and mix on low speed just until combined (small lumps are fine).

3. Place one heaping tablespoon of batter into each muffin cup. Spoon about a teaspoon of jam over the batter in the cups. Divide the remaining batter evenly between the cups.

4. Bake until a toothpick inserted into a muffin comes out clean, 15-20 minutes. Set the pan on a rack to cool slightly, about 5 minutes, then use a thin-bladed knife to remove the muffins from the pan.

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peaches and cream scones

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Scones are just an excuse to eat dessert for breakfast. It’s a better disguised excuse then chocolate muffins, I will grant you, but in the end, equally bad for you. I think I might sound like I’m complaining. I’m not complaining.

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Cream scones are one of my favorite weekend morning accompaniments to coffee. The cream makes them so tender, and when they’re only lightly sweetened, like these, they’re perfect either topped with jam or baked with fresh fruit. A sweet biscuit, peaches, and cream – you can’t tell me that doesn’t sound like one heck of a dessert.

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Lynne chose the cream scones for Tuesdays with Dorie, and she has the recipe posted. I left out the currants and added one peach, peeled, chopped, and frozen, to the dough after the liquids were partially mixed in.

One year ago: Brrrownies
Two years ago: Brioche Plum Tart
Three years ago: Chocolate Pudding (comparison of 2 recipes)

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chocolate chocolate chunk muffins

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How is a muffin different from a cupcake? Let me count the ways.

1) Frosting: A cupcake without frosting is just wrong. Muffins, while sometimes glazed, are never served with a tall swirl of sugary icing. But cupcakes with a coating of soft glaze are beautiful as well.

2) Add-ins: Many muffins have some textural contrast, whether it’s chunks of fruit or bran or poppy seeds. Most cupcakes are smooth-textured; fruit is pureed, chocolate is melted. But what about pumpkin muffins? Or carrot cake?

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3) Mixing method and texture: The classic cake mixing method starts with sugar beaten into softened butter, which is smoothed with egg, then thickened with flour and leaveners. It results in an even-textured, fluffy cake. Muffins, by contrast, are usually made by whisking together the dry ingredients, separately whisking together the wet ingredients, and then folding the two together. The resultant texture is coarse with large air pockets. But not all cakes are mixed with the cake method, and not all muffins are mixed with the muffin method.

4) Course: Cupcakes are dessert. Muffins are breakfast.

So while, by this set of guidelines, these chocolate chocolate chunk muffins do seem to be muffins, they could certainly pass for dessert. Or, if you can’t get enough of their sweet, tender, moist crumb and rich bites of solid chocolate, enjoy them for both breakfast and dessert. I know I did.

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One year ago: Tarte Noire
Two years ago: Tribute to Katherine Hepburn Brownies
Three years ago: Blueberry Pie

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Chocolate-Chocolate Chunk Muffins (from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours, for Tuesdays with Dorie)

Makes 12 muffins

Two ounces of chocolate chunks mixed into the dough is a restrained amount that reflects the breakfast intentions of these muffins. For more richness, feel free to increase that up to as much as 6 ounces. I mixed in some white chocolate as well.

6 tablespoons (¾ stick) unsalted butter
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 cups (9.6 ounces) all-purpose flour
⅔ cup (4.67 ounces) sugar
⅓ cup unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1¼ cups buttermilk
1 large egg
2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Butter or spray the 12 molds in a regular-size muffin pan or fit the molds with paper muffin cups. Alternatively, use a silicone muffin pan, which needs neither greasing nor paper cups. Place the muffin pan on a baking sheet.

Melt the butter and half the chopped chocolate together in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water; or do this in a microwave. Remove from the heat.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a large glass measuring cup or another bowl, whisk the buttermilk, egg and vanilla extract together until well combined. Pour the liquid ingredients and the melted butter and chocolate over the dry ingredients and, with the whisk or a rubber spatula, gently but quickly stir to blend. Don’t worry about being thorough — a few lumps are better than overmixing the batter. Stir in the remaining chopped chocolate. Divide the batter evenly among the muffin molds.

Bake for 20 minutes, or until a thin knife inserted into the center of the muffins comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool 5 minutes before carefully removing each muffin from its mold.

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