Date and Orange Tea Loaf

When we started talking about our theme for Christmas food this year (what? Your family doesn’t theme your holiday dinner? Weird.), we quickly lit on the concept of “spiced,” in part inspired by a gingerbread trifle idea I have for dessert. N., who is not a kitchen maven but does like to be able to contribute, lit up when he heard this concept and said, “I could make a winter spiced beer!” (oops, don’t read this, family; it’s supposed to be a surprise…) My brain immediately went crazy imagining flavor pairings. Weirdly, the first one I came up with was dates and orange, which doesn’t contain any “spice” components at all. We decided that in beer, that might be a little strange, but the combination stuck and simmered.

Dates and orange sounded, upon further reflection, like a duo for a loaf cake, in the vein of banana bread or zucchini bread: not too sweet, equally suitable for breakfast or mid-afternoon. I put my mom on a research mission, imagining such a pairing might show up in one of her old cookbooks. It sounded like a classic, and so right for the approaching winter holidays. The closest she found was an orange and walnut loaf (in, weirdly enough, exactly the cookbook I’d been thinking of when I offered up the assignment), so she sent me the recipe and I started to play.

Walnuts and orange sounded nice, but the recipe Mom sent had an awful lot of orange juice in it, and simply replacing the chopped walnuts with the fruit didn’t seem quite sufficient. Since I was already thinking about thick slices served with tea, I was reminded of my barm brack all studded with dried fruit that had soaked in tea for some time before getting kneaded into the bread itself. That seemed the thing to do here as well. Dates are such sugar bombs, so an hour’s steep in hot tea, with some orange juice as well for good measure, would temper the sweetness and impart some extra moisture just in case.

With that sorted, I replaced some of the granulated sugar with brown sugar, swapped the oil in the recipe for a touch more melted butter, opted for chopped orange peel instead of orange zest for aesthetics and the occasional bitter, marmalade-esque bite, and decided to top the loaf with chopped walnuts and hazelnuts. As a last minute decision and a nod to the original “spiced” concept that planted the idea, I tossed in some cardamom. So, in short, I completely changed the recipe. Oops. It happens.

And I’m glad it did, because despite concerns about quantity – the batter was only enough to fill my loaf pan halfway – and overcooking – it ended up taking about ten minutes longer than I’d expected – this was easily the best baked good I’ve made in a while. The texture is moist and compact but still bouncy, a bit more elastic than a banana bread, and studded with meaty chunks of dates that have plumped and softened during their bath and long bake. The tea flavor is not immediately obvious, but blends pleasantly with the other orange components. I tend not to like chopped nuts inside a loaf like this, but this layer across the top is perfect for a touch of crunch that doesn’t disrupt the even-textured, pleasantly-dense interior. They toast nicely while the loaf bakes (if they seem to be getting a bit dark, cover lightly with a layer of aluminum foil during the last 10-15 minutes of baking), and the nutty flavor adds depth to the rich sweetness of the cake itself.

Originally, I had planned to take this loaf to school with me as a gift for the first twelve or so people to come into the mailroom in the morning. N. has historically not been fond of dates (it’s a texure thing, I think), so he wasn’t feeling too enthused about the outcome and I certainly don’t need to eat the whole thing myself. When, however, I had talked myself down from another full slice to just eating half of the end piece as a second helping, and when I offered N. a few bites on his way through the house and he turned all the way around to receive the rest, I realized there was just no way I could let this loaf leave the premises. Not with the pre-Thanksgiving week I’m about to have. Sorry, work family. Next time, I promise! In the meantime, treat yourself to this one. You won’t be sorry.

Date and Orange Tea Loaf
Makes 1 9x5x3 inch loaf
About 2½ hours (including 1 hour steeping time for the dates)
8 ounces pitted, chopped medjool dates
¾ cup boiling water
1 earl grey tea bag
peel of 1 orange (remove in wide strips with a potato peeler)
¼ cup fresh squeezed orange juice from 1 orange
2 cups all purpose flour
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cardamom
1 egg
4 tablespoons melted butter
¼ cup chopped walnuts
¼ cup chopped hazelnuts

 

  • First, brew the tea: pour the hot water over the tea bag in a 2-cup glass measuring cup. Steep for 1-2 minutes. Use the time to remove the orange peel in thick strips with a potato peeler; reserve these for later. Add the orange juice and the chopped dates to the brewed tea. Stir, then let sit for at least an hour.
  • While you wait, use a thin bladed knife to carefully remove the pith from the strips of orange peel. Mince, or slice across into thin threads as in the photo above, whichever you prefer. I found I wanted the threads for more orange presence.
  • When the hour (or however long you decide to let the dates steep) is almost up, preheat the oven to 350F and grease a 9x5x3 inch loaf pan. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, brown sugar, baking soda, salt, cardamom, and reserved orange peel.
  • With a slotted spoon or small strainer with a handle, remove the dates from the tea and orange juice mixture (reserve the liquid! We still need that). Let them drip briefly, then use your fingers to break them up (they will all stick together) and drop them into the dry ingredient mixture. Use a rubber spatula or your hands to mix them in, taking care to separate them as much as possible. Tossing them with the flour can help them stay evenly integrated in the loaf while it bakes, rather than clumping or all sinking to the bottom.
  • Add the egg and the melted butter to the reserved tea and orange juice and whisk to combine. Pour this wet mixture into the dry mixture all at once and fold together with a rubber spatula just until no white streaks of flour remain. At first it will not seem like enough liquid, but suddenly it will all come together into a reasonably thick, muffin-like batter.
  • Pour and scrape the mixture into the prepared loaf tin. Sprinkle the chopped walnuts and hazelnuts in an even layer over the top, then bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted near the center of the cake comes out with only a few moist crumbs (don’t put the toothpick through the central crack in the top; this will give you a falsely undercooked reading. Aim for about a half inch off). If the nuts look like they are getting too dark, place a sheet of aluminum foil over the top during the last 10-15 minutes of baking.
  • Cool at least 30 minutes before turning out of the pan, then another 30 minutes before slicing. I know it’s a long time to wait, but trust me. The loaf needs a little time to establish structural integrity. Serve warm, or cool, if you can make it that long, perhaps with a cup of tea.

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Dried Cranberry and Seed Pumpkin Loaves

As I noted a few weeks ago, all I want to do in my kitchen, still searingly bright with sunlight from Southern California’s misguided attempts at “fall,” is bake. Luckily, one of the few cool weekend days we’ve had since then corresponded with a break in grading, and I had a chance to see if my dough skills are still in there somewhere.

Inspiration for these pretty, autumnal loaves came from a seasonal box of those lovely raincoat crisp crackers Trader Joe’s puts out, these a bright, turmeric-esque orange from pumpkin and flavored with dried cranberries and sunflower seeds. I decided to see if I could translate them into a bread. The ingredient list on the box of crackers served as my starting point, but for quantities I returned to these loaves from last year, replacing the rye flour with whole wheat, dolling them up with the dried cranberries, a few additional seeds, and some fresh herbs, and running some of the seeds through the dough itself rather than reserving them all for the top. As before, though, the secret is cooking down the pumpkin puree first to dry it out. It adds a little time to the whole endeavor, but makes the dough much more manageable and more aggressive in pumpkin flavor.

The dough here is soft and elastic and slightly sticky, even after its first rise, and the hardest part of the process is convincing yourself not to use too much flour on your board when you shape them, because the dustier with flour they are, the harder it will be to get seeds to adhere to their surface.Internet forums abound with how to get seeds to stick to the outside of a shaped dough-ball; the easiest and most effective method seems to be dampening the surface of the dough slightly by spraying or brushing with water, then gently pressing it into the mixture of seeds and, in this case, oats. It doesn’t guarantee they won’t tumble off while you’re carving thick slices, but at that point, you at least have the option of spreading the slice generously with cream cheese* and sprinkling the rebels back on, where they are sure to adhere.

As for flavor, these delightfully toe the line between sweet and savory. Pumpkin is so commonly paired with sweet flavors, and the dried cranberries and nutmeg seem to push it in that direction, but the woodsy herb flavor (the crackers use rosemary, which I think I’d prefer, but in the moment I only had sage) and the nudge of heat from the black pepper keep it from feeling dessert-like. I’m not sure you would want to use this for sandwiches, but I could imagine it being a starchy side for a roast chicken or a big dinner salad. I find, though, as with many freshly baked loaves, I want it most in mid-afternoon, when it is still just warm from the oven, and I am slightly peckish and starting to dream about dinner.

*goat cheese is nice too, and though I suppose you could make it into frozen slices a la this peanut butter “hack” the internet responded to with hilarity a few weeks ago to prevent tearing your bread, you could also just let the goat cheese come to room temperature, at which point it smears pretty easily across the tender slice.

Dried Cranberry and Seed Pumpkin Loaves
Makes 2 round loaves 7-8 inches in diameter
4 – 4 ½ hours
1 15-ounce can of pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling)
1½ cups warm milk
pinch granulated sugar
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
¼ cup molasses
2 tablespoons melted butter
1¼ cups rolled oats, divided
1½ cups whole wheat flour
2-3 cups bread flour
1 cup dried cranberries
¾ cup sunflower seeds, divided
¼ cup flax seeds
2 tablespoons finely chopped rosemary or sage
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon salt
½ cup raw pumpkin seeds

 

  • In a small skillet, cook the pumpkin puree over high or medium-high heat for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until the color has deepened and the puree has dried and has a texture something like a thick frosting. Set aside to cool.
  • While the pumpkin comes to room temperature, add the pinch of sugar to the warm milk, then stir in the yeast and let it sit to burble for 5-10 minutes, until it is bubbly and smells like bread.
  • Pour the yeast and milk mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add 1 cup of the oats, all of the whole wheat flour, the molasses, the melted butter, and the cooled pumpkin. Stir with the paddle attachment to combine.
  • Now add 1½ cups of the bread ½ cup at a time, paddling in between, until a soft, sticky dough is formed. Dump in the rosemary or sage, the nutmeg, the pepper, the salt, the dried cranberries, ½ cup of the sunflower seeds, and all of the ¼ cup flax seeds, and paddle again just until integrated.
  • Switch to the dough hook and knead at medium speed until it comes together into an elastic but slightly sticky dough, 8-10 minutes. If it doesn’t seem to be coming together, continue adding the bread flour ½ cup at a time as needed, kneading a minute or two in between each addition. You may not need all of the bread flour.
  • Cover the bowl of kneaded dough with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm spot to rise until it has doubled, 60-90 minutes. While this is happening, combine the remaining ¼ cup rolled oats, ¼ cup sunflower seeds, and the ½ cup pumpkin seeds in a large, shallow bowl.
  • After it has risen, punch down the dough by gently depressing your fist into the center of it. Pour and scoop it out of the bowl onto a lightly floured board and divide in half using a dough scraper. One at a time, shape each half into a round by holding the dough ball in your hands and stretching the top taut, tucking the excess underneath. Each time you stretch and tuck, turn the dough a quarter turn or so. You can also do this while the dough is resting on your board, turning it and tucking the excess, which will form something that looks like a balloon tie or a belly button underneath. Check out this series of photos from the kitchn for helpful illustrations.
  • When you have a round loaf that is reasonably taut across its domed top, spray or lightly brush it with water, then gently press all sides of it into the mixture of oats and seeds you’ve prepared. Repeat with the other half of the dough.
  • Gently place the seeded loaves on a baking tray lined with parchment paper, lightly cover them with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel, and set them aside to rise again for about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375F.
  • After 45 minutes, with the loaves swollen, place them carefully in the oven and bake at 375F for 35-45 minutes, until they reach an internal temperature of 180-200F.

Roasted Apple and Onion Biscuits

I think it’s like this every year. I’m sure I’ve said that before. The first week of the semester goes by and I think “well, that was fun,” and then I think “oh, I have to do that fifteen times more in a row!” The second week goes by, and I’m exhausted, but grateful for the bonus day Labor Day provided.

Then week 3 hits. The add period is over, so my classes stabilize and become the “real” group that will soldier through the semester with me. The serious assignments begin. The bedtime and alarm start to feel like normal and not like torture.

But the work. At this point, yes, classes have stabilized, but in almost all cases they are still at their enrollment caps, which means the first paper I collect comes in a dose of sixty. And even when you parse that out in stacks of ten, boy does it feel like a lot. By the time the weekend following week 3 hits, I need comfort food.

Fortunately, our weather has cooled into something that feels surprisingly like fall. Mid September is usually stifling, but we are descending into temperatures in which it’s not suicidal to have the oven on for a half hour or so. When I saw that windfall on our weather forecast, I thought of biscuits.

I realize, of course, that there is no shortage of biscuit recipes here, and if I’m quite honest with you, almost every one has the same base. The magic, though, is in what extra flavoring agents you add. This time around, the fall combination of apples and onions hit me hard. I’ve done this before, in a meatball that was really just an excuse to eat more breakfast sausage, but in biscuits I wanted less tartness, less crisp-tender bite, and just melting sweetness with a touch of roasted flavor. Green apple and red onion get roasted in chunks for a half hour before they are tossed with the dry ingredients, then blended in with butter and buttermilk or soured cream. Roll, fold, and punch out rounds from the wet dough, and you are only fifteen minutes from hot, flaky biscuits.

As we chatted during our weekly viewing of Project Runway, my friend T. and I speculated additions to these biscuits. You could add plenty of black pepper, or amp up the savory with herbs: sage is quintessentially autumnal, and thyme also goes well with apple and onion. Where our minds went immediately, though, was blue cheese. Think about it: crumbles in the mix leaking out during baking to form little lacy puddles around the edges of the finished biscuit. Or, if you don’t want more busyness in the biscuit itself, T. suggested blue cheese butter to spread in the center.

These are not doctored, though, any further than the original pairing, and honestly, they don’t need to be. Even the tartest apple, as were the two tiny granny smiths I cubed up, mellows as it cooks, playing with and enhancing the sweetness of the onion. You could have them as we did: the “bread” of a breakfast-y sandwich (I mixed bulk sausage with maple syrup, red pepper flakes, and a squeeze of Dijon before frying in patties to put in the center), but I bet, especially if we are thinking seasonally, that they would be perfect cut a little smaller and swaddled in a basket to be served alongside a Thanksgiving turkey.

Roasted Apple and Onion Biscuits
About 60 minutes, including cooling time
Makes 14-15 2½ inch biscuits
2 small or 1 large tart green apple (I like granny smith), skin on, cut into small cubes
½ large red onion, skin, root, and stem ends removed, cut into large chunks
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 cups all-purpose flour + more for sprinkling on your board
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons baking powder
6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into chunks
6 ounces buttermilk, or whole milk or cream soured with about a tablespoon of vinegar

 

  • Preheat the oven to 400F. On a baking tray lined with aluminum foil, toss the apple and onion chunks with the olive oil, the ¼ teaspoon salt, and the pepper. Roast for 15 minutes, toss gently with a spatula, then roast another 15 minutes, until just a few edges are taking on a toasty brown color. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
  • While the apples and onions cool, combine the flour, sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, and baking powder in a medium bowl. I like to use a whisk for this to keep it all light and well mixed.
  • Add in the cooled apple and onion pieces and toss to ensure they are well coated with flour – this will help them stay evenly distributed in the biscuits rather than sinking to the bottom. Dump in the cubes of cold butter and use a pastry blender or your fingers to work the fat into the flour mixture. You are looking for butter bits the size of small peas.
  • Pour in the buttermilk or soured cream and use a fork or your fingers to mix it through the flour and butter mixture and bring the whole thing together into a shaggy, soft ball of dough (if it seems too dry and is not coming together, just set it aside for a minute or three – this will give the flour time to absorb the wet ingredients a bit more).
  • Turn the dough out onto a well floured board, sprinkle some more flour on top, and knead with your hands two or three times just to catch any loose bits. With a rolling pin or your hands, press or roll the dough into a rough rectangular shape about ½ an inch thick. Fold the dough into thirds, then roll out again. Repeat, again folding the dough into thirds and then rolling it out; this creates more flaky layers. If the dough sticks to your board, use the flat blade of a butter knife or a pastry scraper to help you lift it free. This is a fairly wet dough, so you’ll need to be stern with it, and you may need to sprinkle on more flour as you go.
  • After you’ve rolled and folded, rolled and folded (so you’ll have done a total of six folds), roll out once more, this time to a thickness of 1 inch, and use a 2½-inch round cutter (or the floured lip of a glass) to punch out biscuits. Push the cutter straight down through the dough; don’t twist until you are all the way through to the board, or you’ll crush the flaky layers! Repeat until you can’t punch out any more rounds. Re-roll the dough scraps (no need to fold again unless you want to) and repeat – with a 2½-inch cutter, you should be able to make14-15 biscuits around an inch in thickness.
  • Replace the aluminum foil sheet on your baking tray with parchment paper, and arrange the biscuits on it, evenly spaced. I like to do about 8 at a time, but they don’t spread much, so you can crowd them a little. Bake 15 minutes (still at 400F), until they are puffed and the tops are golden and slightly dry. These won’t climb sky high because the apples and onions are wet and add extra weight, but they will still rise a bit.
  • Let cool for a minute or two, then serve warm (see suggestions above for accompaniments).

Melinda’s Perfect Oven Poached Cold Salmon

A few weeks ago I attended a retirement luncheon for a now-former colleague (there are a lot of now-formers here lately, aren’t there?) at the home of one of her friends (and one of her now-former colleagues!). Our hostess made, among other perfect, not-too-heavy dishes for quite a warm day, a cold side of salmon so buttery and moist and perfectly cooked that a day or two later I had to email her to find out how she had done it.

Imagine my delight when, rather than a quick overview or an inexact “oh I just…” response, she sent me a page long, detailed explanation of both how she’d prepared the massive six pound piece of fish for that day, but how she does so when she’s only making a portion or two. Every step was well explained and justified, and she also told me where she gets her fish (a bit pricey for me at the moment, but maybe someday).

Because salmon is delicious cold, and because the actual cooking phase for this dish only takes about half an hour including the time spent preheating the oven, it’s a perfect dish for summer, when you don’t want to be cooking anyway (well, unless you’re me), and you can take care of the house-heating portion in the morning and stow the flaky, fatty main course in the fridge for the rest of the day.

My hostess explained that she disguised a few cracks that formed during cooking with cucumber “scales,” and this struck me for two reasons: one, wouldn’t it be gorgeous to plate more of the filet with vegetable scales of different colors – green from cucumbers, florescent pink and white from radishes, maybe even yellow from baby golden beets – and serve a fish still enrobed in imitation of its original form? (Answer: yes, and a Google image search puts my meager shingling skills to shame.) Second, the idea of vegetables atop the fish made it seem only a step or two away from a salad. To complement the “scales” and disguise any possibility of dryness caused by potential overcooking, could you add a brisk, herby lemon vinaigrette right at the last minute, drizzling over fish and vegetables alike, and thus layer on one more fatty component to ensure moistness?

I decided to find out. Following my foolhardy practice of testing out new recipe ideas on guests, I determined to showcase M.’s fish – with a few of my adjustments – for some friends joining us for a weekend dinner.

If you like salmon at all, you have to try this one. The pan, lined with aluminum foil for ease of fish manipulation and clean-up, preheats with the oven. Wine, garlic, lemon slices, thyme, and a few cubes of butter make the fragrant bath this cooks in, and though they lend subtle flavors, the star remains the salmon. The high heat of the oven does the job quickly, but the liquid bath means the method of cooking here is somewhere between steaming and poaching, which keeps the flesh of the fish tender and – not to overuse that word my former college roommate castigated as “too descriptive” – moist throughout. Slapping the fish straight onto the hot pan before adding the liquid and aromatics means the skin sticks to the hot surface, and when you remove the fish later you can peel the flabby skin right off along with its foil lining with little trouble.

What you are left with under all that, once it has cooled and you’ve meticulously shingled on some bright, thin vegetable slices (or not – up to you!) and then drizzled the whole thing with a bright, herby lemon vinaigrette, is a filet that is just cooked through, so the fish doesn’t so much flake as it does sigh into tender, buttery layers. Cold, you can taste the richness of the fish but the whole thing still feels light, and if you’ve been wise enough to plan out the rest of your dinner with make-ahead options, you only have to leave your guests for five minutes while you sweep into the kitchen and emerge with a gleaming, laden platter they will exclaim over (and, if you’re anything like me, immediately try to recreate!)

And if all that’s not enough for you, should there be any leftovers, stacked onto some soft, fresh slices of French bread that you’ve liberally spread with mayonnaise, or salted butter, or some whipped cream cheese, they produce a perfect lunch the next day that gives you enough strength to face the sink full of dishes that is the worthwhile consequence of every dinner party.

Melinda’s Perfect Oven Poached Cold Salmon
Serves 4-6
Prep and cooking time: about 30 minutes before, then another 15 after chilling, to decorate
Chilling time: 2-6 hours
For the salmon:
1½ pound filet of salmon, skin on
1 cup dry white wine
6 cloves garlic, lightly smashed
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 small lemon, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons butter, cut into small chunks
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
For the “scales” and vinaigrette:
About ½ a cucumber, skin on, cut into very thin slices
2-3 radishes, cut into very thin slices
zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon minced chives
1 tablespoon minced dill
1 tablespoon minced parsley
2 tablespoons lemon juice
¼ cup olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
additional dill, to serve (optional)
lemon wedges, to serve (optional)

 

  • Preheat the oven to 425F with a foil-lined cookie sheet inside. As soon as you turn on the oven, take the salmon and wine out of the refrigerator to warm up a bit for more even cooking.
  • When the oven is preheated, remove the pan and carefully place the fish skin-side down on the hot foil. Pour the wine over the fish, then scatter the garlic, lemon slices, thyme sprigs, and butter on and around the fish. Sprinkle salt and pepper onto the fish, then carefully slide the whole pan back into the oven.
  • Cook in the 425F oven for 12 minutes, or until the fish reaches and internal temperature of 120-125F. It will be pale pink with some white splotches, and look slightly fatty on top. Remove the whole pan carefully from the oven and set on a wire cooling rack. Immediately, using a large spoon, baste the salmon with the cooking liquid, then let the whole thing sit for 10 minutes.
  • After 10 minutes, baste again, then drain off the liquid. Lay a cooling rack top-side-down over the top of the salmon, then, holding both cooling rack and cookie sheet, carefully flip the whole cookie sheet over (it’s a good idea to do this over the sink). The salmon will now be top-side-down on the cooling rack. Remove the cookie sheet and peel back the foil a little at a time – the salmon skin should stick to the foil and come off cleanly (mine stuck in one place and necessitated a little cajoling).
  • When the skin and foil are removed, place your serving platter serving side down over the top of the salmon (so the bottom of the salmon is on the part of the plate that will be facing up). Carefully, holding both serving vessel and cooling rack, invert so the salmon and the serving plate are now right-side up. Remove cooling rack.
  • Cover the platter, salmon and all, with aluminum foil and refrigerate until cold.
  • 30-45 minutes before you intend to serve, remove the salmon from the refrigerator. We want it cold, but not chilly. While you wait for it to climb a few degrees in temperature, prep the cucumber and radish slices and make the vinaigrette: in a small measuring cup, combine the lemon zest, minced chives, dill, and parsley. Squeeze in the 2 tablespoons lemon juice, then whisk in the ¼ cup olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper and set aside until needed.
  • To decorate, shingle the sliced cucumbers and radishes over some or all of the fish in a pattern you like – you can see what I did above, and the internet has, as always, many gorgeous alternatives. If you wish, arrange some bushy dill sprigs in the corner of your platter and pile some lemon slices on them for diners to choose at their whim.
  • Just before serving, drizzle the fish and its vegetable “scales” with the lemon vinaigrette, using a whisk or a fork, if needed, to distribute the herbs evenly (they may come out in little clumps). Serve with a large fork or a wooden spatula.

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Ranch Biscuits

We are still awash in boxes (and the desktop computer that I use for photo editing is still sitting in a closet, so these are straight from the camera shots) in this new house that is our house (our house! That is ours! No more landlord! I’m just a little bit excited about this…), but it is starting to feel like home. This “like home” is a different kind of “like home” feeling, though – unlike any I’ve felt thus far in my adult life. Previously, “home” meant “a place I will live for a few years.” It meant “this space I occupy but will, at some point, move on from.” While there is certainly the possibility that at some point, some day, we will dislodge ourselves from this house, it won’t be for a while. This is a place to actually do all those “maybe someday” things we’ve put off: lining drawers. Acquiring “grown-up” bookshelves (read: shelves that actually cost more than $30 or so). Planning and planting a vegetable garden. Finally framing those diplomas. And as anxious and antsy as I am to have it “finished,” we don’t have to do those things immediately, because we’re going to live in this lovely, quirky little house for a long time.

None of that is a beautiful transition into these biscuits, though don’t they look nice against that backsplash? (I promise I’ll stop talking about the backsplash soon.) They’ve been hanging out at the back of my consciousness for a while now, poking at me, and now that it’s grilling season and all I want to do is sit out back with a very cold drink and watch N. manhandle well marinated beef on the grill, I thought these would make a nice accompaniment to anything barbecue related. The flavors of ranch dressing in a sky-high biscuit make sense. I mean, they already share buttermilk in common, and herbs like dill and chives are a lovely way of perking up your average biscuit and making it more interesting. The kick of garlic, of onion powder, and of a little dry mustard could do nothing but improve the whole situation.

Aided by my adaptation of Ruhlman’s folding and turning method for biscuits with well-puffed layers, these inflated gorgeously in the oven and found their way in multiples to our plates (the first set we tore through were still so warm it was hard to discern the individual flavors). We inhaled the batch in a day and a half, and while they were delicious – herby and kicky and tangy from the buttermilk – we realized while devouring our second helping that we weren’t sure precisely how closely their flavors mimicked ranch dressing, since it had been so long since either of us had tasted that childhood standby.

So here’s my thought for you, as the fourth of July, that ultimate of grill-based holidays, approaches: if you try these, as a side for your ribs or a mop for your baked beans or an ever-so-tolerant napkin for the drips of melted butter coursing from your corn (oh, or maybe even as a sandwich base for the leftovers, with a slick of mayonnaise on both split sides to add that final missing ranch-y ingredient), will you let me know, friends, if they remind you of ranch dressing?

Ranch Biscuits
Makes 9-10 3-inch biscuits
30-40 minutes
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sugar (I like turbinado, but any granulated sugar will do)
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon dry mustard
¼ teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped dill
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into chunks
6 ounces cold buttermilk (about ¾ cup)

 

  • Preheat your oven to 400F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, onion powder, dry mustard, paprika, and black pepper. Add the finely chopped herbs and the garlic and whisk well to ensure even distribution (these wetter ingredients will want to clump together).
  • Plop in the cubes of cold butter and use a pastry cutter or your fingers to work the fat into the flour mixture. You are looking for butter bits the size of small peas. Pour in the buttermilk and use a fork or your fingers to mix it through the flour and butter mixture and bring the whole thing together into a shaggy, soft ball of dough (if it seems too dry and is not coming together, just set it aside for a minute or three – this will give the flour time to absorb the buttermilk a bit more).
  • Turn the dough out onto a well floured board, sprinkle some more flour on top, and knead with your hands two or three times just to catch any loose bits. With a rolling pin or your hands, press or roll the dough into a rough rectangular shape about ½ an inch thick. Fold the dough into thirds, then roll out again. Repeat, again folding the dough into thirds and then rolling it out; this creates more flaky layers. If the dough sticks to your board, use the flat blade of a butter knife or a pastry scraper to help you lift it free.
  • After you’ve rolled and folded, rolled and folded (so you’ll have done a total of six folds), roll out once more, this time to a thickness of 1 inch, and use a 3-inch round cutter (or the lip of a glass) to punch out biscuits. Push the cutter straight down through the dough; don’t twist until you are all the way through to the board, or you’ll crush the flaky layers! Repeat, placing the biscuit rounds on your parchment lined baking sheet, until you can’t punch out any more rounds. Re-roll the dough scraps (no need to fold again unless you want to) and repeat – with a 3-inch cutter, you should be able to make 9-10 biscuits about 1 inch thick.
  • Arrange the biscuits, evenly spaced, on the parchment lined baking sheet and bake for 18-20 minutes, until they are well puffed and the tops are pale golden and slightly dry.
  • Let cool for just a minute or two, then wrap up in a basket or stack on a tray, and watch them disappear.

Potato, Roasted Garlic, and Rosemary Focaccia

Are you as obsessed as I am with the Great British Baking Show / Great British Bake-Off? Originally aired on BBC, a few precious seasons have traveled across the pond courtesy of PBS (seriously, how great is PBS? Let’s keep it, even if that means making a few phone calls). I devoured the first season that became available in the U.S., then was forced with the second (which PBS called season 3) into consuming only in bite-size chunks, since I watched as it aired week by week. It was excruciating – all I really wanted was to binge. So when our friend D. told me she had bought season 2 (in Britain, season 4 [yeah, we’ve made the numbering all kinds of weird]), I couldn’t resist but do the same (and then, of course, it became available on Netflix a week or two later. Typical).

I won’t tell you who wins, in case you haven’t watched it, but I quickly developed some favorites, and one was Beca, the Welsh army wife who spun beautiful homey recipes into her bakes. One week, the bakers were asked to create breads with unconventional flours, to test their skills when gluten development was off the table. Beca made a focaccia using spelt flour and mashed potatoes, topped with rosemary sprigs and more potatoes, and I couldn’t hold myself back from the kitchen.

My version goes back to standard old bread flour, since when I wanted the bread I wanted it nowthankyouverymuch, and wasn’t willing to wander the grocery aisles looking for spelt. I’ve simplified just a touch, using the same kind of potatoes for both the dough and the topping, and I’ve replaced her suggestion of gorgonzola with whole cloves of roasted garlic. Upon consultation with another recipe or two, I bumped up the quantity of olive oil for a lovely oily crustiness that is a good reminder that focaccia really is just an extremely thick-crust pizza.

Including cooked and mashed potatoes in focaccia is not unusual, resulting in a dough with some heft and stickiness, but it bakes into such a satisfying, warm, golden rectangle that the clingy dough is ultimately worth dealing with, especially if you use a stand mixer to knead it. Unlike a regular loaf, this focaccia gets spread onto a well oiled baking sheet after its first rise, and prodded and stretched over the course of half an hour or so as it settles across the tray. As you persuade it to spread, you also aggressively stab at it with your fingertips to give it that classic dimpled look, which is somewhat satisfying if you’re, I don’t know, going through withdrawal because you don’t have any more episodes of a certain show to watch…

Since I ended up irregularly shingling the top of this bread with potato slices, I was a little bit concerned that it wouldn’t rise well in the oven, and that the moisture of the potatoes would make the spots underneath them seem a bit doughy and under baked (Paul Hollywood would not be pleased). Delightfully, the whole thing rose nicely, and yes, the surface underneath the potatoes did look a little anemic compared to the well browned exposed parts in between, but it was cooked through and made for a pleasant textural contrast with the crunch of the bread and the crispness of the baked rosemary sprigs.

Since it is – perhaps with the addition of some cheese – a near equivalent of a pizza, focaccia is practically a meal in itself. But it also pairs well with roasted chicken, or a bowl of soup, or a crisp salad. We even sliced the last few pieces horizontally, toasted them for a few minutes, and used them as the base for sandwiches. Much of the stress of shaping, scoring, and steaming associated with a boule or baguette is eliminated, making this a perfect project for a slow, easy day, and perhaps a glass of sparkling wine or an amber ale as an accompaniment for the warm, well-oiled square you can hardly wait to cut for yourself.

Potato, Roasted Garlic, and Rosemary Focaccia
Makes one 9x13x3 inch loaf, depending on how much yours rises
4 medium Yukon gold potatoes, sliced thinly (about ¼ inch)
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon salt
3-4 cups bread flour
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary sprigs, divided
1 bulb garlic, bashed into separate cloves
1 cup warm water reserved from cooking the potatoes
¾ cup olive oil + 2 teaspoons, divided

 

  • Cook the sliced potatoes in plenty of boiling water until they are tender but not falling apart, 10-15 minutes. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water, and set aside half of the potato slices to cool. Mash the other half as smoothly as possible (I leave the skins on, so there will always be some shredded potato skin in there; that’s okay).
  • Once the potato water has cooled to just warm or room temperature (110F at the hottest), stir in the yeast and the sugar and let it sit about 10 minutes to dissolve and bubble.
  • Meanwhile, combine 3 cups of the bread flour, the tablespoon of salt, and 1 tablespoon of the rosemary leaves, finely chopped, in the bowl of a stand mixer. With the mixer running at low speed and the paddle attachment affixed, drizzle in ½ cup of the olive oil. Add the bubbling yeast mixture and 1 cup of the cooled mashed potatoes and mix with the paddle attachment to bring together.
  • Switch to the dough hook and knead until smooth but still slightly sticky, around 5-8 minutes. If the mixture is not smoothing out or coming together, or it looks impossibly wet, add more flour ¼ cup at a time, mixing well in between additions.
  • Once the dough has come together into a smooth, slightly sticky ball, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise at warm room temperature for about 1 hour, until it has doubled in size.
  • While the dough rises, heat the oven to 300F, put the garlic cloves in a small, oven-safe dish and drizzle them with salt, pepper, and 2 teaspoons of the olive oil, then cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake until the garlic cloves are soft and aromatic, around 20 minutes. Set them aside until they are cool enough to handle, and raise the oven temperature to 425F.
  • When the dough has risen, oil a 9×13 inch baking tray with the remaining ¼ cup of olive oil (I know, it sounds like a lot of oil, but this is that sort of bread. Trust me). Spread it out with your fingertips to evenly coat the tray, then tip in the risen dough. Stretch and push it out over the width and length of the tray, dimpling it with your fingers as you do so. It will be reluctant.
  • Let the dough rise on the tray for 30-45 minutes, stretching it and prodding it and dimpling it as it rises. Though it will spring back at first, after the first 15 minutes or so it will relax and stretch more willingly as it puffs. You want to encourage it all the way into the corners, and be aggressive with your dimpling, stabbing right through the dough with your fingertips, otherwise the impressions will bake right out and you will end up with a smooth loaf, not focaccia’s characteristic cragginess.
  • After 30-45 minutes when the dough has puffed and stretched to fill the baking tray entirely, peel the roasted, cooled garlic cloves and press the whole cloves into the bread at random intervals. Add the reserved potato slices, leaving some space in between them, then add the remaining 1tablespoon of rosemary in small sprigs or individual leaves. If you wish, a final drizzle of olive oil over the top and a sprinkle of coarse salt is a nice final touch.
  • Bake in the preheated 425F oven for 20-30 minutes, or until the focaccia is nicely puffed and a tawny golden-brown color in the spots between the potatoes.
  • Let it cool on a wire rack for at least ten minutes before slicing in.

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