Project Cook: Apple Spice Cake with Walnuts and Ginger

Sometimes dishes emerge from nowhere – no set, traceable inspiration; just an idea baked or simmered into existence. Philosophical. Cartesian cooking. Sometimes they are more geographical, linked to location and experience – blogs are rife with this, aren’t they? “This cake reminds me of my pilgrimage to…” But sometimes they are more narrative: visible evolution, each major ingredient or element its own origin story, entering the room at a moment that changes the direction of the final dish.

No surprise that the narrative method is one I favor. This magnificent stack began life as a carrot cake. That is, I wanted to make a cake, and after seeing (and resisting) a container of crystalized pineapple at the grocery store, carrot cake with crystalized pineapple sounded perfect. And then I thought about adding crystalized ginger too. And then I wondered whether some apple along with the carrot would be good, because fall, and pineapple turned into a third wheel that rolled away from the party. And then, inspired by old episodes I was watching of The Great British Bake Off, I wondered about adding dried apple, and maybe finely chopped, toasted walnuts to the filling instead of just plain cream cheese frosting, and suddenly the carrots – the very namesake of the cake! – started to feel out of place.

Suddenly I was planning an apple walnut cake. I tore through several cookbooks and a recipe site or two looking at various apple cake recipes – most rely on applesauce for both flavor and moisture, which I wasn’t interested in using – and came upon Deb’s roasted apple spice sheet cake, which does have a fair amount of applesauce, but also chunks of pre-cooked apples that, as she puts it, transform into “soft pillows of apple pie-like puddles.” I didn’t read much past that before deciding I, too, must have such puddles in my cake.

But I still wanted the moisture and freshness I knew shreds of raw apple would bring, and so while I dithered over recipes and quantities I remembered the cake’s initial origins and adapted my favorite carrot cake recipe: a triple layer extravagance from The Bon Appetit Cookbook that calls for pre-toasted nuts and a thick, rich, almost too sweet cream cheese frosting. Not much changes in the cake itself, aside from the significant shift from carrot to apple, except that I subbed in brown butter instead of the as-written vegetable oil, and as usual, it was a worthwhile extra effort.

This cake winds up so packed with threads of grated raw apple, toasted and chopped nuts, crystalized ginger, and the soft chunks of roasted apple, that it almost doesn’t feel like enough batter to encase the additions. The layers when you spread them into the pans are thin, but they do puff as they bake, into lovely, spicy, delicate layers you really do have to let cool for at least 15 minutes before taking them out of the pan. What became my middle layer, which emerged from the pan in six or seven moistly crumbling pieces, is proof positive of this. (Worth noting: if that kind of disintegration happens to you, reform the layer to the best of your ability on a sheet of plastic wrap, enclose it tightly, and put it in the freezer for half an hour or so before stacking and frosting. I was amazed by how well the pieces magically re-adhered.) If you’re worried about the fragility, I think you could get away with adding an additional ¼ cup flour to the recipe and still retain adequate moistness, but I haven’t tried this. If you do, let me know how it works out.

There are all sorts of other fun things you could do with the cake itself to change it up. Tart dried cherries would be lovely along with or instead of the golden raisins I’ve called for. Those raisins could easily be re-plumped in rum or brandy, a step I’m sorry I didn’t think of until my layers were already in the oven. The walnuts could be swapped out for pecans. You could play with the variety of apples you use – I almost always tend toward Granny Smiths or another tart green apple for cooking because I like their flavor and sturdiness, but you could mix and match as you please.

What I really want to talk about here, though, is the filling and the frosting. When I frost a cake, with a few notable exceptions, I typically put the same thing between the layers that I do around the outside. Here, though, whether it was thanks to Bake Off (likely) or just lightening strike inspiration, I wanted some texture in the filling, and the finely chopped mixture of dried apples and toasted walnuts woven through the cream cheese frosting was delightful.

As for that cream cheese frosting, it’s serviceable, easily pipe-able, and as rich and delicious as you could ever want. But N. and I noticed that, at least on the first day and despite the tablespoon of lemon juice I added for mitigation purposes, it is very, very sweet. Not surprising, given the number of cups of powdered sugar my recipe called for, but challenging for an insomniac to consider for an afternoon snack. So I have some thoughts, which I’ll admit I’ve tried exactly none of.

  1. You could decrease the quantity of powdered sugar down from 4 to 3 cups (you might end up wanting to add less vanilla as well, if you do this). This will produce a wetter frosting that might be harder to pipe, if that’s what you’re going for, but I think it would probably still spread successfully and stay where you put it.
  2. You could make the frosting a day ahead (would that make a difference? I don’t know…). Or, perhaps more logically, you could plan to make the whole thing a day before you serve it. We thought the whole cake tasted great – maybe even a bit better – after a night in the fridge.
  3. You could add a dried spice or herb to the frosting for an additional, not-so-sweet flavor. I thought first of ginger, which would make sense with the spices in the cake, but then, quite unconventionally, I thought of sage. Good with apples, decidedly savory, and about as stereotypically Fall as you can get, would a teaspoon or so of dried sage, finely crumbled and beaten into the frosting, tamp down that sweetness a bit?
  4. You could go the “naked” or “semi-naked” route, using only a small amount of frosting and spreading it on such that the sides of the cake artfully show through. You’ll have a fair bit of frosting left over if you opt for this route, but cream cheese frosting freezes quite well so I don’t see that as a bad thing. Emergency back-up frosting feels like a good idea.

Since I’m sure you’re limiting your social gatherings at this point and thus you might not be sure you really want a triple layer cake sitting around, you’ll be happy to know that this cake is a good candidate for freezing. We ate, over the course of I’m-ashamed-to-admit-how-few-days-it-was, about half of it, and then I carefully plastered over the cut portions with some extra frosting so no cake was exposed. Leaving the fully frosted cake in the fridge overnight ensures the frosting crusts a little bit, which makes it easy to wrap securely in plastic wrap and deposit in the freezer until you next need a rich, spicy, sweet reminder of fall.

Apple Spice Cake with Walnuts and Ginger
Adapted from The Bon Appétit Cookbook
Makes 3 9-inch layers, serves 10-12
About 90 minutes, plus cooling and frosting time
For the cake:
1 cup walnuts, divided (see filling and frosting ingredients, below)
4 large, tart apples, like Granny Smiths, peeled, divided
1½ cups unsalted butter (3 sticks)
2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour (as noted above, if you’re worried about very fragile layers, you could probably get away with 2¼ cups flour, but I haven’t tried that yet)
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
½ cup golden raisins (optional: soak in warmed rum or brandy for 10-20 minutes to rehydrate, then drain)
¼ cup chopped crystalized ginger
For the filling and frosting:
½ cup dried apples, finely chopped or cut with kitchen scissors
¼ cup finely chopped walnuts, from the 1 cup total listed above
½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick), at room temperature
16 ounces cream cheese, also at room temperature (I prefer Philadelphia brand)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon lemon juice
4 cups powdered sugar (see numbered thoughts on frosting sweetness, above recipe)
Optional: extra dried apples, crystalized ginger, and cinnamon, for decoration
  • To make the cake, preheat the oven to 375F and put the walnuts on a baking tray in the oven to toast while it is preheating. When they smell fragrant and have darkened slightly in color, they are ready. Remove and set aside until cool, then chop roughly.
  • Quarter and core 2 of the peeled apples, arrange on a foil-lined baking sheet and roast in the preheated 375F oven until they are browned underneath and dry to the touch, about 20 minutes. When done, set them aside to cool, then chop them roughly into chunks of your desired size.
  • Meanwhile, brown the butter and prepare the remaining apples. For the butter, melt all 3 sticks in a medium saucepan and let cook over medium heat until the solids on the bottom take on a toasty brown color. First it will foam up, then subside, then brown. It’s easiest to use a pot that does not have a dark surface, since you can see color changes in the butter more easily. Once those bits have browned, remove the pot from the heat and let cool.
  • For the remaining two apples, grate on the large holes of a box grater or use the shredding disc of a food processor (be careful to avoid stems and seeds). Gather the shreds into a clean kitchen towel and give them one good squeeze, then set aside. Don’t squeeze them out too much; we want some of that moisture for the cake.
  • Once all your pre-cooked ingredients have cooled down, lower the oven temperature to 325F and make the batter. In a large bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer), beat the sugar and the cooled brown butter together. Be sure to scrape in all of those browned bits from the bottom of the pot – that’s where much of the toasty flavor resides! Add the eggs one at a time, beating well.
  • Add the dry ingredients, sifting if you want to bother. I never do.
  • Stir in the golden raisins, ¾ cup of the toasted, roughly chopped walnuts, the crystalized ginger, and the grated apple. Finally, gently fold in the chunks of roasted apple.
  • Divide the mixture evenly between 3 well-greased 9-inch round baking pans. You can line with parchment paper too, if you want the extra insurance. The layer of batter in each will be thin. If you, like me, only have two 9-inch pans, bake two layers first, then use one of those pans again for the final layer after the first batch has cooled a bit.
  • Bake in the preheated 325F oven until a toothpick inserted comes out with just a few moist crumbs, 30-35 minutes.
  • Cool layers in pans for at least 15 minutes, then remove from pans and cool completely. I’m serious about that 15-minute thing, by the way. Trying to take them out before that could result in disintegration!
  • To make the frosting and filling, finely chop the remaining ¼ cup of walnuts and combine with the finely chopped dried apples in a small bowl.
  • In a large bowl, beat together the room temperature butter, cream cheese, vanilla, and lemon juice until well combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the beaters to ensure full integration.
  • Add the powdered sugar ½ cup at a time, to prevent cough-inducing clouds, and beat well after each addition, until the frosting reaches your desired thickness.
  • Scoop out about 1 cup of the frosting and add it to the small bowl with the walnuts and dried apples; use a flexible spatula to mix in. This is your filling.
  • To fill and frost the cake, position one fully cooled cake layer on a plate or cake stand. (If you are messy like me, you might want to arrange strips of wax paper to cover the exposed parts of the cake stand or plate while you frost.) Using a flexible rubber or an off-set icing spatula, spread about ½ of the filling evenly over this first layer of cake, going all the way to the edges. Add the next layer of cake and repeat, then top with the final layer of cake.
  • Use the remaining cream cheese frosting to frost the cake as desired. If you want to do a crumb coat, use a small amount of frosting to coat the entire cake, not worrying about full coverage. When done, pop it in the fridge for a few minutes to let any crumbs that have come unstuck from the cake set into the frosting as it chills. Then remove from the fridge and continue. I usually scoop about two thirds of the frosting right onto the top layer of cake, then use an off-set spatula to gently push it toward the edges of the cake and down the sides, filling in any uneven gaps and creating as smooth a surface as I can. You may end up with extra frosting, which is convenient if you are thinking of freezing part of the cake, as explained above.
  • This looks lovely with just the frosting, but if you want to decorate a little, consider artfully arranging a few dried apple rings and chunks of crystalized ginger in the center of the cake, then dusting the top edge with cinnamon before slicing and serving.

Project Cook: Fig Olive Stout Country Loaf

Well. I know it’s been a while, and I know Halloween is over, but here we are just one agonizing day away from a nation-altering election that promises to be either a trick or a treat. If you’re an American, I hope you’ve voted. It’s too late now to mail in your ballot, but you can still drop it off at an official collection station, and you can still go in person tomorrow.

This loaf, too, which I baked on Halloween, has elements of trick and treat. The inspiration came from a snack we had a few years ago at a local brewery: a fig and olive version of that perfect Trader Joe’s savory-sweet raincoat cracker, spread with brie, was perfect with our nearby Scholb Brewery’s then-on-tap Contemplation Porter. I dutifully recorded this as an idea for a loaf in my “blog ideas” file, and promptly forgot about it until a week or so ago, when I decided it was time to see what kind of crackly crust I could get baking in my dutch oven.

The treat is, of course, the sweet and savory combination, surprisingly good, of dried figs and briny kalamata olives. In a nod to its brewery muse, to help out the yeast and amp up the roasty flavors of the finished product I’ve used stout in the dough instead of water (but you could certainly sub water back in if you prefer). The final loaf is dense but still bouncy, with a lovely chewy interior and bursts of sweet and salt from the olives and figs. Baking in the dutch oven results in a wonderful crust – thin but still crisp, with none of the leathery heaviness a homemade boule can sometimes produce.

The trick came, at least for me, in the handling. I adapted this recipe from Baking Illustrated’s basic Country Loaf. It’s a wet dough from the outset, not one I’d want to attempt without my stand mixer – kneading by hand would be quite sticky. It starts with a biga or sponge for overnight rise (a biga, sponge, or poolish is a form of a leavening method that operates similarly to sourdough, except you offer a bit of yeast for the flour and water to start with and only allow it to work overnight so there’s no true sourness. Depending on how long it works and how active the yeast is, this can affect moisture levels). On top of that, I went and added more than a cup of fruit. This rendered the shaping and scoring all but impossible, yet I still somehow wound up with a nice boule, its crust flour-dusted like a good artisan loaf, such that you’d never know the first rise produced a worryingly floppy puddle of goo. You’ll notice there are no photographs of the folding and shaping procedure. That’s why.

Lots of heaviness in this recipe – fruit aside, it also has a healthy dose of rye flour – means rising and baking take a good while, not to mention that whole starting the night before business. Baking Illustrated recommends a final internal temperature of a staggering 210F, and then you’ve got to twiddle your thumbs while it cools so the crumb structure inside can set up nicely. But accompanied by a pint of the same beer I used inside it, with a smear of triple cream brie on top, it was a late afternoon treat worth both the wait and the trickery.

Fig Olive and Stout Country Loaf
Adapted from Baking Illustrated
This is a 2-day project: day 1 = about 20 minutes, plus overnight rise. Day 2 = about 6 hours, including rising times + 2 hours to cool
Makes one large, round loaf
Sponge/biga
½ teaspoon instant or active dry yeast
1 cup room temperature water
1 cup bread flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
Dough
3–3½ cups bread flour, plus plenty of bread flour or all-purpose flour for shaping
¾ cup rye flour
1⅓ cups room temperature stout or porter (or water)
2 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons salt
½ cup quartered (if you’re feeling fussy) or coarsely chopped (if you’re not) kalamata olives, patted dry on a paper towel
¾ cup stemmed and sliced (again, if you want to fuss) or coarsely chopped (if you don’t) dried figs

 

  • The night before you bake the bread, stir together the biga/sponge ingredients in a large mixing bowl. I used the bowl of my stand mixer, since that’s where I made the dough. Cover with plastic wrap and leave overnight.
  • The next day, the biga should look bubbly and smell slightly fruity. Add 3 cups of the bread flour, all of the rye flour, the beer, and the honey, to the biga and stir it together with a rubber spatula. Switch to the dough hook of a stand mixer and knead on the lowest speed for 15 minutes, adding the salt, the olives, and the figs during the final 3 minutes. If the dough is extremely sloppy, add the remaining ½ cup bread flour 2 tablespoons at a time, until it reaches a consistency you feel more comfortable with. It should be smooth, but still fairly relaxed and sticky. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until tripled, at least 2 hours.
  • To prepare for shaping, flour a surface extremely well. Line a baker’s brotform, a basket, or a colander with a heavily-floured square of muslin or linen (I used a linen napkin). Flour your hands too; this is going to be sticky.
  • Turn out the dough onto the floured surface. If it’s anything like mine, it will puddle out somewhat distressingly. Be brave. Dust the top with flour, then lightly encourage it into a round by folding the edges of the dough into the middle from the top, right, bottom, and let, sequentially. Gather it loosely together. With the help of a bench scraper, if needed, transfer it quickly to your lined vessel, smooth-side down. Cover loosely with a large sheet of aluminum foil (we want the dough to be able to breathe a bit), and let it rise again until almost doubled in size, at least 45 minutes.
  • While the dough is rising, preheat the oven to 450F with a pizza stone or the bottom of a dutch oven on a rack in the middle position.
  • For baking on a pizza stone: place a small, empty baking pan on the bottom rack or the bottom of the oven, and prep 2 cups of water in an easy-to-pour container. Cover a pizza peel or the back of a large baking sheet with a large piece of parchment paper. Invert the risen dough onto the peel and remove the muslin or linen cloth carefully. Use a razor blade or very sharp knife to score the top of the dough. With scissors, trim the excess parchment until there is just an inch or so on all sides. Slide the dough, still on the parchment round, from the peel onto the preheated pizza stone, removing the peel with a quick backward jerk. Pour the 2 cups of water into the preheated pan at the bottom of the oven, being careful to avoid the steam, and close the oven door quickly. Bake until the internal temperature of the bread reaches 210F and the crust is very dark brown, 35-40 minutes.
  • For baking in a dutch oven: remove the preheated pot from the oven and set carefully on the stove. Place a large piece of parchment paper over the bottom of the dough in the colander. Hold the excess edges of the parchment and quickly, carefully invert so the round of dough drops directly into the dutch oven with the parchment underneath it. Don’t worry about the excess parchment edges. Use a razor blade or very sharp knife to score the top of the dough. Put the lid on and place the whole thing in the oven. Bake for 25 minutes with the lid on, then remove the lid and bake another 15-20 minutes, until the internal temperature of the bread reaches 210F and the crust is very dark brown.
  • For both methods: after the bread reaches an internal temperature of 210F, turn off the oven, open the door, and let the bread remain in the oven for 10 more minutes. Remove to a cooling rack and let it sit for at least two hours before slicing.
  • Serve with beer and creamy, spreadable cheese, or as desired.

Sourdough Soft Pretzels

I think it took me a little longer to fall into the sourdough-everything craze than it did some people, but that could be because I’ve been nurturing a little starter for some time now. Left with a bit of discard, though, from a (semi)weekly bake of my standard sourdough loaves, I decided to branch out from pancakes, and revisited the humble-but-stellar pretzel. Thus although I don’t have a clever or nostalgia-laced story to offer today, in an effort to get myself back into this blog-thing I supposedly have and considering that we mowed through the first batch of these in about twenty minutes and were already planning a second, they certainly seemed worth sharing!

I’m adapting two recipes here: one from King Arthur Baking Company (have you seen they’ve updated their name?!), and one from Smitten Kitchen, which she in turn adapted from Martha Stewart. The KAF (or, I guess, KABC?) recipe doesn’t include the traditional boiling step, moving their shaped dough straight into the oven after a single rise. I wanted the extra browning and chewy texture the baking soda boil offers (I have neither the materials nor the courage to use food grade lye… at least not yet…), so I used SK’s procedure for that part.

We had our half dozen chewy, slightly tangy results dunked in a beer cheese sauce – a simple, roux-thickened mix of stout, milk, mustard, and cheddar whisked into a smooth, thick cheese gravy,* and, in an attempt to be slightly virtuous, a side of sautéed cabbage.

Enjoy the sequence of pretzel-shaping shots below, featuring N. as my arm-and-hand model (he was also very keen to perfect his technique, so even though I told him he only needed to shape one pretzel while I photographed, he did three of the half dozen we made that night before I pushed him aside – I wanted to play with dough ropes too!).

* cheese gravy sounds weird, I know. But this had more body than just a sauce; it clung thickly to the pretzels and could have made a great macaroni and cheese base. It didn’t have the right ingredients or flavors to be a queso (Tex-Mex) or a fondue (Swiss), so I’m going to embrace the weirdness. Cheese gravy it is.

 

Sourdough Soft Pretzels
Adapted from King Arthur Baking Company and Smitten Kitchen
Makes 12 (but easily halved; I’ve included quantities for both below)
2-3 hours (it will take longer to twist and boil 12 pretzels than it does for 6)

 

For 12:
¾ cup + 2 TB water
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 TB honey
1 cup sourdough starter, unfed / discard
3-3½ cups bread flour
¼ cup milk
1 TB butter
1½ teaspoons salt

 

For 6:
⅜ cup + 1 TB warm water
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
½ TB honey
½ cup sourdough starter, unfed / discard
1½-1¾ cups bread flour
2 TB milk
½ TB butter
¾ teaspoons salt

 

For the boil:
water to fill a 12-inch skillet
¼ cup baking soda
2 TB brown sugar

 

To bake:
Coarse salt or pretzel salt

 

  • Combine the yeast, warm water, and honey in a medium bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer). Let them sit for 5-10 minutes, until the mixture is bubbly and smells like bread. Add 1½ cups of the flour, and all of the sourdough starter, milk, butter, and salt.
  • Using the dough hook, knead into a smooth but slightly sticky dough; for me this took about 5 minutes on medium speed. If it really seems like it is too wet (too sticky), add the remaining ¼ cup of flour and knead at least 2 minutes longer.
  • Cover the dough and leave it to rest for 45 minutes, ideally in a warm place. It will only rise a little bit, so don’t be alarmed.
  • Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, then dump and pull your risen dough out onto a lightly floured board. Using a knife or a bench scraper, divide the dough into 12 even lumps (or 6 if you are making a half recipe).
  • Now the part that can seem intimidating: shaping the pretzels. Working with one piece of dough at a time, use your fingers and the palms of your hands to roll the lump or ball of dough into a long, even rope about 18 inches long. Above you can see N. measuring the one he’s working on. Note: too much flour on your board here is not a good thing. You don’t want the rope to stick (as you can see some of ours did), but you do need some friction or the dough will just slide around on the board instead of rolling and elongating.
  • Drape the 18-inch rope into a U shape on your board. Holding each end between your thumb and forefinger, but leaving the bottom of the U on the board, gently cross the left side over the right side about 2 inches from each end. Repeat, again crossing the (new) left side over the (new) right side so you have two twists in your pretzel. Now, again holding one end in each thumb and forefinger, flip the ends down to the bottom of the U shape to form a pretzel. Pinch the points where they intersect with the U a little bit to keep them in place. Gently but quickly, relocate your shaped pretzel to one of the lined baking sheets. Repeat with the remaining dough.
  • When you have twisted all 12 (or all 6) pretzels into shape, stow them in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. This is a pretty soft dough, so plunging them right into the boil might result in disintegration.
  • While the pretzels chill, fill a 12-inch skillet about ¾ of the way with water and bring it to a boil. This is also a good time to preheat the oven to 350F, and to line an additional baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • After at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator, remove the tray(s) of pretzels and set them near the stovetop. Carefully, (carefully!), add the baking soda and brown sugar to the boiling water. There will be a lot of abrupt bubbling and fizzing! Stir gently to disperse and dissolve, then carefully add the pretzels 2 or 3 at a time. I find this should be done gently but with speed, to prevent the dough from stretching out of shape.
  • Let the pretzels boil in the bath for about 30 seconds, then use a strainer or spatula to flip. Boil another 30 seconds on the second side, then carefully, again using the strainer or spatula, remove the pretzels from the water and arrange them with space in between on the empty parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining pretzels, letting the water come back to a boil between each batch. They won’t grow too much in the oven, but you don’t want to overcrowd them; I would suggest no more than 4 on each baking sheet unless they are very compact.
  • While the pretzels are still wet from the baking soda bath, sprinkle on some coarse salt or pretzel salt, then slide into the preheated oven and bake 25-30 minutes, until they are deeply golden and have a slightly crisp crust.
  • Remove from the oven and consume, with glee, as soon as they are cool enough to handle (or, if you’re me, a few minutes before that…).

Project Cook: Garden Focaccia

A garden path sentence is one in which the reader is misled, usually by a word or two that function(s) as a different part of speech than the reader expects, making the rest of the sentence seem incomplete or nonsensical when it is in fact grammatically correct. It takes its name from the idiom “to lead [someone] down the garden path”: essentially, to mislead or deceive them.

Here’s an example: “the old man the boat.” We initially see the phrase “the old man” and think that’s the subject of the sentence. Therefore, the ending “the boat” makes the sentence feel incomplete. But when we realize “man” is actually the verb and the subject is “the old,” suddenly it makes sense: this ship is being sailed by retirees.

Here’s another: “the horse raced past the barn fell.” Here, everything makes sense up until the last word if we’re reading the sentence with “the horse raced” as an active phrase. But it’s not, and it’s not the barn that fell either: the sense of the sentence only emerges if we understand what’s really being said is “the horse [that was] raced past the barn fell.”

Garden path sentences were introduced to me by one of my students a few years ago, and they blew my mind a little, but they shouldn’t have. Not only do I know full well as a student (and teacher) of words that sentences haven’t truly completed their meaning until their final punctuation mark is reached, but as a lover of food, I know that an expected direction, or perhaps being “led down the garden path” with an illusion or a twist, sometimes makes the dish that much more enjoyable.

It seems a bit cruel, perhaps, in a world in which the baking aisle of so many grocery stores has been ransacked, to show you a loaf of bread, but I was so taken with the images of decorated focaccias my Pinterest page was suddenly showing me, as taken as I was with the idea of garden path sentences, that here we are: a loaf literally studded with deceptive visuals, turning carefully placed herbs and vegetables into an edible flower garden.

I started with Anne Burrell’s recipe, making only the smallest of adjustments: she uses AP flour; I went with bread flour, reduced the olive oil a touch, and subbed in honey for the sugar used to start up the yeast. As for process, I added a step I’ve always done with my mom’s challah, letting the mixture – more batter than dough at that point – rest for 15-20 minutes after adding about half the flour. I think this gives a truer sense of how much flour is really needed, since the initial addition has a chance to start hydrating. It’s not 100% necessary, but I notice it means I wind up using a bit less flour overall, and that’s not a bad thing these days.

The real magic here – where we verge into complexity and deception – is during the rising: while the first rise is standard, letting the dough swell and double in a bowl, the second requires more unusual methods. You spread the risen dough out on an oil-drenched baking sheet (be sure yours has sides!), coaxing it with your fingers to spread reluctantly all the way into the corners. You press and stab your fingers all the way – all the way! – through the dough, making dozens of small holes straight down to the baking sheet below, to create that characteristic bubbled texture of a focaccia, before allowing it to rise again.

Halfway through this second rise comes the fun part – or the fiddly part, depending on who you are. Assorted herbs, thinly sliced vegetables and citrus zest, get pressed gently but firmly into the partially risen dough to form whatever patterns you desire. I used chives, parsley, and dill for “stems” and leaves, and then slender segments of olives and cherry tomatoes for “flowers,” and some curls of lemon zest for extra flair. I tried to roll a few tomato roses, but for me at least, cherry tomato skins provided not quite enough material to work with.

The finished loaf is quite the spectacle – the brightness of your “garden” fades a bit in the baking (there’s a metaphor here for spring into summer, perhaps), but the bake isn’t quite long enough for the delicate herb stems and leaves to burn – instead they crisp and frizz as residual oil soaks into the bread. You have to saw carefully with a bread knife to keep everything in place as you carve off big slices perfect with a salad, or a bowl of soup, or the base of a sandwich, or just straight out of hand. There’s a joke here about a garden variety of options, but I’ll leave you only with this: as he baked the bread disappeared.

It must have been delicious.

Project Cook: Garden focaccia
Adapted from Anne Burrell
Makes 1 large 9×13 inch loaf
1¾ cups warm water
2 teaspoons yeast
1 TB honey
4 ½ – 5 cups bread flour
½ + ⅓ cup olive oil
1 TB kosher salt + more for sprinkling
Assortment of herbs, vegetables, and/or edible flowers to decorate
  • Mix yeast, water, and honey in the bowl of a stand mixer and let sit 10-15 min, until the yeast is foamy and puffed. Add 3 cups of the bread flour and ½ cup of the olive oil, beat on slow speed with the paddle attachment just until the mixture comes together, then loosely drape with a clean kitchen towel and let sit 15-20 min. This allows the flour to begin hydrating and the yeast to start working.
  • Add 1 cup more flour and 1TB salt, then knead at medium speed with the dough hook 5-7 min until smooth and elastic. Sprinkle in remaining flour ¼ cup at a time if dough seems very sticky while kneading. I ended up using the full 5 cups of flour.
  • Cover with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour in a warm spot. “Punch down” the risen dough by gently depressing your fist into the middle.
  • Pour the remaining ⅓ cup olive oil onto a 9×13 inch cookie sheet with sides and tilt the sheet back and forth until the bottom and sides are well oiled. Flop the risen, punched down dough onto the oiled sheet, then use your fingertips to coax it toward the sides. As you stretch the dough, create focaccia’s characteristic dimples by pressing and stabbing all the way through the dough all over its surface. You have to create actual holes, not just depressions, to retain the texture. Some of the olive oil from the baking sheet will lap up over the surface of the dough – that’s okay.
  • Cover the dough with your towel again and let it rise for another hour.
  • 30 minutes into the second rise, preheat the oven to 425F and add your decorations to the loaf: press in herbs, vegetables, and/or flowers in a pleasing pattern. Finish the rise, sprinkle on some kosher or coarse salt, then bake in the preheated 425F oven for 25-30 minutes until bronzed and crusty. Mine was quite well browned after 25 minutes.
  • Remove to a wire rack to cool before slicing carefully and devouring.

Dalgona Experimentation

I hope you are well and finding ways to keep yourself and your loved ones – perhaps not joyful or fulfilled – but safe and satisfied – during this strange time. I have not yet – and the “yet” is important – succumbed to the siren call of quaran-baking, but I have, thanks to a friend and former colleague, been introduced to the fluffy, caffeine-laced clouds that are Dalgona coffee. Basically equal parts instant coffee, sugar, and hot water, whipped together until they froth and then fluff into a mound of something like meringue, this confection is then scooped over very cold milk, and your tongue gets a play of temperatures and textures, not to mention an intense hit of sugar and caffeine.

I tried the original first, and, as I mentioned previously, I’m a fan. But immediately I had questions: why settle for instant coffee? Why not a strong brew of something high quality? Why water, when you could get extra creaminess from scalded milk? What about adding cocoa powder or vanilla or almond extract? Where would chai spices fit in? To what other application could this be put, aside from a float atop a glass of milk (or, as my siblings have discovered, iced irish cream liqueur)? With raw materials at hand and plenty of time, this would require experimentation.

My first thought was how this could work as cake frosting or filling. To get everything in there together, I would replace the water with hot milk, and following a suggestion I saw here, I would use twice as much milk “for a creamy texture.” What I can tell you today is that if you use 2 parts very hot milk to one part each instant coffee and sugar, it takes a very long time to whip up. It might become marshmallow-y clouds eventually, but I wasn’t quite patient enough for that.

The lightly thickened, foamy concoction I ended up with wasn’t nearly thick enough to serve as a filling or a frosting for anything – it just wasn’t spreadable. But it was certainly capable of draping itself thickly over a slice of still warm chocolate cake. And when shaken up thoroughly the next morning and stirred into to a glass of milk with a little bit of chocolate syrup, it was an intense – and intensely satisfying – replacement for an iced mocha.

Contrarian Chewy Not-Chocolate-Chip Cookies

As I’ve noted here before, I can be a bit contrarian about food. I like my risotto with anything but rice, somehow I always find myself frying food in the most disgusting heat of summer, and I’m that person who, instead of making something practiced and reliable for a dinner party, always somehow ends up trying something untested.

But perhaps my most blasphemous contrarian food tendency is this: sometimes I don’t want chocolate chips in chocolate chip cookies. I love the cookie part – the depth of the brown sugar, the butter, the just-crisp edges – and then that chocolate gets in the way. Don’t get me wrong: I do like chocolate. I’m not a total monster. But in a cookie, especially after it cools and the chunks or chips or boulders of chocolate solidify again, I could do without. I sometimes find myself looking forward to the cookie that comes from the very last scrapings of batter from the bowl, since it probably won’t have much chocolate in it.

Last month N. ran a half marathon and I, following what is becoming a tradition, decided to have cookies waiting for him when he came home. Not so contrarian as me, N. loves a good chocolate chip cookie (and a mediocre chocolate chip cookie too – in fact, let’s be honest: he’ll take just about any chocolate chip cookie). Inspired by a recent trip to Le Grande Orange Café in Pasadena, I decided I wanted to do a batch of thin, crisp-but-chewy cookies with a sprinkling of salt on top. Good for helping my runner rehydrate a little. I started with a Bon Appetit recipe, but played a little: almond meal replaced some of the flour, I was out of chocolate chips, so I chopped up some dark chocolate covered pretzels and, just for fun, couldn’t resist a little instant espresso powder to the dough as well. A little buzz of extra caffeine wouldn’t hurt N. as he unwound from a thirteen mile morning.

We both loved the cookies. But again, I found myself thinking how good they would be if they just… didn’t have chocolate in them. So I did another batch here, retaining the almond meal, but eliminating all hints of chocolate. These are designed to be crisp at the edges and chewy at the middle, and several elements of the recipe contribute to that: the almond meal is always going to add some pleasant texture, as is brown sugar. The powdered sugar allows for a denser final result, which contributes to chew in that not as much air is trapped in the dough. And using egg yolks instead of just whole eggs seems to help too, though opinions seem divided on this.

My contrarian cookies were simple. As I was mixing them up, I found myself thinking, “could I add anything? What about dried cherries? What about lemon zest? Could I put in some cardamom or cinnamon, or maybe chopped nuts?” And of course the answer is yes. I could. You could too. Toss in a teaspoon or so of some warm spice. Toast and chop and fold in about a cup of nuts or dried fruit. If you’re feeling particularly contrary with me, you could even reverse hack all the way into putting the chocolate back in; you’ll want about 8 ounces.

But when I chewed my way through the first, and then the second, of these simple, too-spread-out, just bendable,* still warm offerings, I wanted none of that. The texture was right: crisp around the edge, a chew similar to a good snickerdoodle in the middle, and the occasional delightful crunch from the sea salt. And nothing, nothing at all, disrupting that deep, lovely, buttery brown sugar taste.

 

* because these cookies spread so much while they bake, and because they are so soft when they first come out of the oven, I’d wager you could successfully cool them over the back of a muffin tin or ramekin for little cookie bowls to fill with ice cream or custard or fruit, or maybe even a deep, rich mousse to get the chocolate back in there…

 

Contrarian Chewy Not Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from Bon Appétit
Makes about 18 cookies
½ cup (1 stick, or 4 ounces) room temperature unsalted butter
¾ cup brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup powdered sugar
2 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1½ tsp vanilla
1 cup all purpose flour
½ cup almond meal
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
½ tsp kosher salt + more for sprinkling

 

  • Preheat the oven to 375F and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper or nonstick spray
  • In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter with the paddle attachment or with an electric mixer until it is soft and the big pieces have broken down. Add all three varieties of sugar and continue mixing until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the egg yolks, the whole egg, and the vanilla. Beat again, stopping once or twice to scrape down the sides of the bowl, until the whole mixture is pale and fluffy, about 4 minutes. This seems like a long time, but it does make a difference. It will look like buttercream frosting when it’s ready, and really, it basically is.
  • If you want to, whisk the dry ingredients (flour, almond meal, baking powder, baking soda, salt) together in a smaller bowl, then slowly add to the wet mix in three additions, mixing just to blend in between. If you don’t want to bother with the whisking, just add in stages: ½ cup flour, mix to blend, ½ cup almond meal, mix to blend, then remaining ½ cup flour with leavening and salt, mix just to blend.
  • Spoon tablespoonfuls of dough onto your prepared cookie sheets, spacing them at least 1 inch apart. They will spread. I wouldn’t do more than about 6 dough blobs on each sheet. Sprinkle the tops sparingly with kosher salt or flaky sea salt.
  • Bake in the preheated 375F oven, rotating the sheets halfway through, until golden around the edges, 12-13 minutes. The middles will seem very soft, but will firm as they cool. Let sit on baking sheets 3-5 minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool completely (unless you want to mold them – see * above).