Project Cook: Herbed Fougasse (no recipe)

There’s a new season of a certain baking show out on Netflix which, at least in the US, they are releasing only week by week. I’m salivating to watch it, but because I know I can’t control myself, I’m not letting myself start until I have a good backlog of episodes built up. Instead, I’m watching… wait for it… older seasons of the same show. Surprise!

In a recent episode I watched, the bakers were tasked with making two fougasse loaves as their technical challenge. A fougasse is a bread hailing from southern France, usually flavored with herbs, shaped and slashed to resemble a leaf or an ear of wheat, with a chewy interior and a lightly crunchy crust. It is a bit oily, and is best – in my humble opinion, anyway – when it is topped with some coarse, crunchy salt. It’s the bread N. and I gravitate toward whenever we pick up a loaf from Whole Foods’ bread counter.

If the bakers on the show could do it, even not knowing what the final loaf was or how it should look, I determined I could too. I went for that wonderful, reliable text that is Shirley O. Corriher’s Bakewise, and slightly adapted her recipe for Fougasse with Biga. A biga is a pre-fermentation starter, like a poolish, that adds flavor and helps create a light texture. I subbed in some of my sourdough starter.

Corriher’s recipe doesn’t include any flavoring beyond what’s in the bread itself, but I opted for some mixed herbs – chopped rosemary and dill, and some tiny thyme leaves – to amp up the flavoring.

This is a project cook because the bread requires not one, not two, but three rises before baking. Corriher doesn’t knead much, but uses a stretching and folding method in between rises called autolysis. The dough that results is quite soft and sticky, but results in beautifully chewy, tearable cords of finished bread all the way around the leaf (except, as you can see, in a few spots where the dough stretched a bit too thin – these were aggressively crunchy instead, though still delicious).

All told, these were worth a morning of rises and folds and stretches, and despite that the original intention was to have bread with our dinner, since I wound up with two and they were still warm at lunchtime, we had to at least sample the goods… Next time I will add a little bit more salt to the dough itself – sprinkled on top was good, but the interior was a touch bland – and will not follow Corriher’s instruction to sprinkle the tops with cornstarch before their final rise. I’m not sure what it accomplished, and I didn’t love the look on its way out of the oven. I will add the herbs again, and I certainly will repeat the still-oven-hot drizzle of olive oil and coarse salt, as I did in this iteration.

* quality note: all photos this week taken with my iPhone.

King Arthur Flour (Cherry) Brownies

For several years now, I’ve been pursuing the perfect brownie. Most brownie aficionados battle over fudgy vs. cakey or center vs. edge (speaking of which, are you aware of this piece of kitchen equipment?). My quest, though, is all about the flaky, shiny top. The perfect brownie, for me (aside from being fudgy-but-not-too-fudgy-and-definitely-a-center-piece-thanks-very-much), has a deep chocolate flavor, fairly dense texture, but then a crispy, wafer-like layer that magically forms during baking and, once cool, reflect the light back as you gaze lovingly at it before gobbling it up.

But the recipes I’ve tried don’t always have that result. I’ve definitely accomplished the deep, rich chocolate flavor, but the shiny top crust eludes me. I’ve tried suggestions to beat the eggs a long time, getting them really foamy, and I’ve read several ideas about chocolate chips, rather than unsweetened chocolate, as the source of the flaky shine. I haven’t yet achieved it myself, though.

But as of last weekend, I’ve come really close. There was a hint of a top layer, just barely flaky, and though it wasn’t consistently shiny, I could see the barest shimmer in a few spots. Like the tarte au citron au David Lebovitz a few months ago, this isn’t my recipe. It’s from King Arthur Flour. But I’m offering a suggestion or two and one very worthwhile addition, so that ideally our next pan of brownies comes out perfect.

KAF relies on two sources of chocolate in their mix: unsweetened cocoa powder, and the aforementioned chocolate chips. It seems the chips add just enough additional fat and sugar to the mix to help form that flaky sheen as the brownies bake. KAF also requires you to melt the butter and partially dissolve the sugar before bringing the batter together. It’s a little extra work, but getting the sugar dissolved faster is evidently part of the magic.

The recipe I’m linking to below suggests melting the butter, then stirring in the sugar and bringing it up to 110-120F, mixing that into the egg and cocoa mixture you’ve already created, and then dumping in flour, 2 cups of chocolate chips, and stirring “until smooth.” I surmised this means until the chips have melted into the rest of the mixture, but for me, by the time I was stirring in the chips the rest of the batter had cooled down enough that there wasn’t enough residual heat to melt them, and I didn’t want to keep mixing lest I start developing the gluten in the flour and end up with tough brownies. So next time, and what you might try in the meantime, is to add the chips right into the melted butter and sugar mixture. Stir them up to get them good and melted before combining with the rest of the ingredients. Maybe that, at long last, will produce the shattering shininess I’ve been craving.

One other adjustment to KAF’s already delicious recipe: for added interest and to cut sweetness a bit, I dumped in a heaping cup of tart dried cherries along with the chips and flour. My tasters found this an extremely worthwhile addition; studded with tart little pops, the brownies become more complex in flavor, and the cherries plump a little during baking and stay moist for several days afterward. I considered steeping the cherries in brandy for a half hour or so before mixing them in, but one of my taste testers is pregnant, so this time around I skipped the booze and was perfectly satisfied.

You can find the King Arthur Flour recipe I worked with here.

If you would like to add cherries, as I did, mix 1 heaping cup of tart dried cherries (such as Montmorency) into the batter along with the flour, then proceed as in the KAF recipe.

Crouton Cook-off

The problem with spending your whole Sunday thinking it’s Saturday is that you arrive to Monday morning out of breath and without a post to share! Good thing it’s still summer for this absent-minded professor.

This week, instead of a complicated recipe, I thought I’d do a little experiment. Since I can’t make bread pudding all the time (fitting into my summer wardrobe is nice), and I refuse to toss the crusts from my weekly sourdough loaves* but I do still need room in the freezer for other things, I’ve been playing a lot with seasonings and cooking methods for croutons. My favorite way to flavor them, besides good old salt and pepper is, curiously enough, a healthy shake of poultry seasoning. The mix of herbs adds depth, and it’s nice to use that little canister more often than just on Thanksgiving Day. To lighten them up, lemon zest is also a frequent addition.

As for cooking method, I vacillate between baking the seasoned cubes and frying them in a skillet. Since in between salads I forget which I prefer, I decided to conduct a cook-off experiment, seasoning the whole batch exactly the same and then baking half the cubes and pan-frying the other half.

Ultimately, although the oven version came out a fraction crunchier, we determined the main difference between cooking method lies not in end result, but in investment of effort. The oven batch had merely to be tossed onto a cookie sheet and stowed in a preheated oven for about 20 minutes. The stovetop version had to be stirred frequently for about the same amount of time; leaving it unsupervised resulted in quickly burned bread. So we wind up with a win some, lose some set of options. On one hand, preheating and baking probably heats up your house more, but produces a slightly crisper end result with less effort from you. The stovetop method probably doesn’t warm up the room as much, and it doesn’t require as long to preheat, but if you aren’t willing to babysit the croutons, there’s less margin of error for achieving an even crunch without burning any edges. So… for perfect crisp croutons and very little effort on your part, bake your seasoned bread cubes. If it’s summer and you don’t have or want to use air conditioning, bake them in the morning, cool completely, and store in something airtight until the rest of the salad is made.

* If you still have more crusts than you know what to do with, I recently learned stale bread can be composted; see here for a short how-to.

Crouton Cook-off
Enough for 3-4 salads
zest of 2 small or 1 large lemon
1 teaspoon kosher salt or ½ teaspoon table salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
¼-½ teaspoon poultry seasoning
generous ¼ cup olive oil
2 cups bread, torn or cut in cubes of your desired size
  • If you are baking your croutons, first preheat the oven to 350F.
  • Whisk all ingredients except bread together in a large bowl.
  • Add bread cubes and toss well for even coating.
  • To bake, spread seasoned cubes on a cookie sheet and stow in the oven for 15-25 minutes, depending on how crunchy you want your end product. 15 minutes preserves some give in the middle; 20-25 minutes results in fully crunchy cubes.
  • If you are pan-frying rather than baking, heat a skillet over medium heat and add the seasoned cubes. Cook 15-20 minutes, stirring and flipping frequently for even browning.
  • For both cooking methods, set croutons aside to cool before serving. They will crisp just slightly more as they cool down, but not significantly.

Perfect Pizza Crust (no recipe)

I am deep in the final hurricane of grading at present and as such, though I have been cooking and eating (oh, so much eating. And drinking. But mostly eating), I have not been photographing or taking note of quantities. No recipe then, today, but I do have words to offer. That’s the main difference, I think, between food blogging and food writing: the blog has become dependent on artful photography, clever lighting, cunning props and ingredients arranged just so… and a recipe that is easy to follow, doesn’t take too long, and is introduced but not overshadowed by story.

Food writing, though, is about the words. The images, the measurements, the ability to remake the dish in question: that’s not the goal. The aim is to submerge oneself in the language of food. This is, then, a roundabout way of saying there won’t be any pictures on this post. Instead, let me at least plunge you into the shallow end.

We are, it transpires, fond of pizza. Over the years I’ve worked up a dough recipe that offers a flavorful crust with cracker-crisp base and puffy top edges golden with cheese. It rises overnight with the help of just a smidgeon of active dry yeast, and it collects some of its deep flavor and texture from heaping helpings of semolina flour and cornmeal. This is not it.

See, here’s the thing: it’s a good recipe. Really good. Everyone who has tried it has cooed over it. But it’s not the pizza dough of my dreams. It’s too… bready. My dream dough is perfectly crisp outside but chewy and yeasty with a perfect, pulling tear. It’s artisanal pizza dough that bakes up fast and chars perfectly as it faces off against an 800 or 900 degree wood burning oven. It can’t, I must concede, be made at home.

But oh how I’ve tried. I’ve played with Italian double zero flour. I’ve increased kneading time. I’ve added and deleted quantities of olive oil. I’ve played with more and less semolina, bread flour, honey vs. sugar to rouse the yeast; I’ve even tried cautiously tossing the dough (this did not go well). Results (once I cleaned up a bit) were good, but in every case, they weren’t what I wanted.

Until this weekend. In addition to all of the above, as you might expect, I’ve asked the internet. I’ve found all kinds of advice, most of it not useful, but in my most recent explorations two ideas stood out. One was, as I’ve read before, that the oven just has to be hotter. Commercial pizza ovens burn hundreds of degrees above what a standard household gas oven can manage, even if, as Molly Wizenberg describes in her first book, your boyfriend somehow manages to bypass limitations and crank your old machine up to near-restaurant degrees. The other was using sourdough to make the crust. Think about it: breads that use a starter of some kind, whether that’s a sour burbler that gets fed every few days or a biga for ciabatta, tend to produce lovely, chewy interiors with big holes and irregular structures – perhaps just what I was after.

Lucky for me, I was making my regular sourdough loaves this weekend, and determined to feed up a little extra to use in a pizza experiment. Unlucky for all of us, I tinkered and tossed and measured nothing, so my ability to recreate the revelation that happened remains in question. There are too many variables to know for sure what caused it, but this weekend’s pizza was as close to my dream dough as I’ve ever gotten. And it was close. Made with a generous glob of my fed sourdough starter, it rose very little in the refrigerator overnight, but after a few hours to warm up at room temperature, it was puffy and pliable and full of bubbles, and just a little bit sticky. Baked, it had gorgeous oven spring, and though it crisped well and retained crunch on the bottom of the pie, the inside – oh the inside – was everything. Swollen and soft and full of air, and chewy! And because I heeded the other suggestion as well, holding my breath and setting my oven at 500F and consequently cooking the loaded crust for less time than I usually would, I can’t say for sure which variable was most necessary for the miracle that was the pizzas we had Saturday night, easily the best homemade crust I’ve ever made.

So this winds up being a big tease of a post, then, since not only are there no pictures and no recipe, but no way of exactly recreating what I’ve done – even for me! But I can pass along the suggestion that if your homemade pizza dough isn’t doing what you want, and what you want is a chewy interior, use bread flour (or another flour with high protein content), consider raising the baking temperature and consequently cooking for less time, and consider also using some kind of starter and an overnight ferment for both chewier texture and more flavorful crust. And then call me, because I want to come over and help you eat it.

Okay, enough of this words business. There’s leftover pizza sitting made with this amazing crust in my refrigerator, and I’m going to say we’re within safe striking distance of lunch time.

Project Cook: Espresso Cake with Cardamom Buttercream

Theologically, pride is commonly understood as the most serious of the seven deadly sins. For medieval Christian thinkers, it was the wellspring: the sin from which all other sins derived. Some writers interpreted that Lucifer – the morning star, the best and most beautiful of the angels – was ousted from Heaven because he exhibited pride: in trying to rise above his station, rule over others, or see himself as equal with God, he was guilty of pride and thus cast out. In Paradise Lost Milton famously equates Lucifer with Satan, showing the extremes of pride as a sin: rather than simply being cast out of heaven, he is thrown all the way to Hell.

I think, though, that as dangerous as pride may be, I have a right to feel it about this dish. I’ve been rewatching the first two seasons of The Great British Baking Show with its new cast (quick assessment: I love and miss Mel and Sue dearly, but I think Noel and Sandi are doing a fine job, and I think I might prefer Prue to Mary Berry just a tad – she doesn’t let Paul get away with as much. Happy to hear your thoughts, fellow obsessors…), and I’m certain that was the source of my inspiration. Certainly it was how I came to the combination of coffee and cardamom.

This is a glorious play of flavors. Each component of the cake – the sponge, the filling, and the buttercream – has its own star. Together it is a layered, complex combination, but each part is uncrowded. The cake, one of the moistest I’ve ever made, pulls together buttermilk, vegetable oil, and eggs to ensure a tender, luscious crumb. Strong black coffee and instant espresso add flavor, but surprisingly, that flavor is subtle – a suggestion with a sneaky kick of caffeine rather than the bitter slap a cup of the stuff can have.

Cardamom flavors the buttercream, and here I decided I wanted something new. I’ve dabbled in American buttercream before, and though I’ve achieved praiseworthy fluffiness and pipe-able texture, it remains as a product overwhelmingly, tooth achingly sweet. There are other buttercreams out there – French and Swiss and Italian – that rely on eggs, rather than pounds of powdered sugar, for their structure. In part to assuage the sweetness problem but in larger part because I have all this meringue powder left from my royal icing experiment a few weeks ago, I decided to try one out, and I was magnificently rewarded: the Italian buttercream that enrobed the cake was fluffy and rich but surprisingly light, spicy from the cardamom and not overly sweet, and it spread and piped like a dream (the first time I typed cream. Appropriate I’d say, Mr. Freud).

Italian buttercream, for all its advantages, is a bit of a terrifying bother to make. I used a King Arthur Flour recipe, which worked perfectly, but this component is a project in itself as it requires bringing a sugar syrup up beyond boiling temperature, making a meringue, pouring the molten sugar syrup carefully into the bowl of meringue while mixing, and then running your mixer until the whole thing cools by more than 100 degrees. Even then, you aren’t done: you next have to incorporate masses of butter, which can be neither too hot nor too cold, and you have to sit patiently through what looks like certain disaster as the whole bowl you’ve now coddled along for the last half hour suddenly turns into a sloppy, almost curdled-looking mess. But you have to be strong, and keep mixing, and eventually it does start to smooth and fluff and turn into buttery clouds.

With all this richness, the filling in between needed to be sharp and fresh, to provide contrast and keep the dessert from getting sickly. I went with plums: stone fruit of any kind works beautifully with the slight citrus notes of cardamom, but I think plums, with their sometimes surprisingly tart bite that I’m convinced comes from the oh-so-thin layer of bright red in between their skins and flesh, are the best pairing. Simmered down with a bit of sugar and a healthy squeeze of lemon, they made a successful quasi-jam to spread between the layers.

You may have noticed there are no pictures of slices, or of the artful “cake with a section missing” to show off the layers. There’s a very good reason for this: I had no real occasion to make this cake. I just wanted to bake, and with a surprisingly free weekend as a result of – ahem – not very many assignments turned in on time, I launched into the creation of what sounded like a delightful dessert. To avoid, therefore, eating the whole thing ourselves, I took the whole cake to work and left it in the mailroom for my colleagues to enjoy. I left it there in the 7am hour, and when I went to pick up my dish in the early afternoon, only crumbs remained. Don’t feel bad for N. and me, though. I always carve off the rounded tops when I’m going to make a layer cake, and those can’t go to waste… we sampled and then resampled and then decimated them (pride giving way to gluttony?), with a fair sampling of both the jam and the frosting. And let me tell you something: for years, despite my experiments with whisky, with champagne, with fruit, with mousse, N. has demanded only one cake for every birthday, anniversary, or what have you. But after our sampling-turned-gorge, he said it might be okay to sub this in for The Cake once in a while. So sin or not, wellspring or not, I must admit feeling justified in my pride.

Espresso Cake with Cardamom Buttercream
Cake and buttercream adapted from Molly Yeh and King Arthur Flour, respectively
Makes a 4 layer cake from two 8 or 9 inch rounds
For the cake:
1½ cups sugar
2½ cups flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1½ teaspoon baking powder
2-3 teaspoons instant espresso powder
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon vanilla
¾ cups strong, cold coffee (I used a cold brew concentrate from Trader Joe’s)
For the filling:
6 plums
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ cup sugar
For the Italian buttercream:
¼ cup water
⅝ cups sugar
¼ cup meringue powder
½ cup water
pinch salt
3 tablespoons sugar
3 sticks butter (24 tablespoons or ¾ of a pound) at a cool room temperature, cut into chunks
1-2 teaspoons ground cardamom

 

  • To make the cake, first preheat the oven to 350F and butter or spray two 8 or 9 inch cake pans with nonstick spray. In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients: flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and soda, and instant espresso. In another bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients: eggs, buttermilk, oil, vanilla, and coffee. Carefully pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture and fold together just until everything is well incorporated. Be sure to scrape down the sides and check the bottom of the bowl for hidden clumps of flour.
  • Pour and scrape the batter into your prepared cake pans so each holds an even amount. Bake in the preheated 350F oven for 30-35 minutes, but begin checking for doneness at around 28 minutes. When done, a cake tester or toothpick inserted should have only a few moist crumbs. Remove from the oven and cool in pans for at least ten minutes, before removing from pans to cool completely on a wire rack.
  • While the cakes are cooling, make the filling. I opted not to peel the plums because I like the color and the texture the skins offer, but you can if you want: cut a small x in the bottom of each whole plum and immerse in boiling water for about 30 seconds. The skin should peel off fairly easily. Slice and pit the plums and dump them into a medium pot.
  • Skins or not, slice and pit the plums and add them, the lemon juice, and the sugar to a medium pot. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, and cook until the plums have broken down and the mixture has slightly thickened. For me, this took around 20 minutes. Scrape out of the pot and into a bowl (to cool faster) and set aside to cool completely.
  • Once both cakes and jam have completely cooled, you can set to work on the buttercream. Start the ¼ cup water and ⅝ cups sugar cooking in a small pot. Check the temperature occasionally – it needs to come to 240F. While that is heating, make the meringue by whisking together the meringue powder, the ½ cup water, and the pinch of salt in the bowl of a stand mixer on high speed until you can see tracks forming in the fluffy white mixture. With the mixer running, sprinkle in the 3 tablespoons sugar and continue beating until the mixture is stiff.
  • When the sugar syrup has reached 240F, carefully remove it from the heat and even more carefully, with the mixer running on medium-low speed, pour all of the hot syrup slowly down the side of the bowl. Once it is incorporated, turn the mixer speed back up to high or medium high and continue whisking until the meringue mixture cools to at least 80F. KAF suggests you can speed this up by wrapping the bowl in ice packs, and I found this worked well.
  • As soon as the meringue cools the 80F (and no sooner!), turn the mixer speed down to medium and begin incorporating the butter a few pieces at a time, allowing them to fully integrate before adding more. When most of the butter is in the mix, add the cardamom: 1 teaspoon if you want a mild flavor, 2 teaspoons for a more assertive flavor.
  • After all the butter is added, keep on whisking. At a certain point the mixture will collapse on itself and look like a greasy, clumpy mess. Don’t despair. Just keep on mixing. As long as your meringue was no warmer than 80F when you started adding and your butter wasn’t melted, eventually it will start to smooth and get fluffy, and you’ll have frosting.
  • To assemble the whole thing, use a long serrated knife to carefully carve the rounded tops off each cake, then slice each in half for four thin layers. On a cake plate or cardboard round, place the first layer bottom side down (that is, the side that touched the bottom of the cake pan). (Reserve the other bottom for the very top layer; this allows for a flat, less crumb-y layer on the top.) Scoop a generous amount of buttercream into a piping bag fitted with a tip that has a wide opening of any shape. Pipe a circle of buttercream around the top edge of the bottom cake layer to create a border so the filling won’t escape. Inside this border, spoon about ⅓ of the plum jam and use the back of a spoon to carefully spread it out just to the buttercream.
  • Place another layer of cake on top of this buttercream and jam, lining it up carefully so it’s even with the one below. Repeat the border of buttercream and ⅓ of the plum jam.
  • Repeat for the third layer – you should now have used up all of the plum jam.
  • Stack the final cake layer with the bottom side (that is, the side that originally touched the cake pan) facing up.
  • To create a crumb coat, use an offset spatula to smooth a thin layer of frosting all the way around the cake. The idea here is to catch any crumbs that detach from the cake in this thin layer so when you add the rest of the frosting it will not have any tell-tale cake crumbs in the smooth frosting.
  • Scoop and pile all but about 1 cup of frosting onto the top of the cake and use an offset spatula to gently move it toward, down, and around the sides, until you have a smooth, even layer all the way around. Scoop the remaining cup or so of frosting into a piping bag fitted with a tip of your choosing – I used a large star tip – and decorate as desired.