Breads of the World: Naan-e-komaj

Last week I took you on my own rabbit-hole investigation of a Persian bread called komaj or naan-e-komaj that I had chosen as the inaugural bread for my 2021 project. This week, I present the end result: a set of soft, pillowy, sunshine-yellow date-stuffed buns, and the recipe I used to make them. Since you’ve already got the potential history behind them – I’ll admit, the trail I followed last week could just be a set of coincidences; sometimes different dishes are called the same thing – I’ll try to keep my introductions here short and just give you some thoughts on process and flavor, and plenty of photos to enjoy.

Stretching the dough for the “windowpane test”

Almost there…

These are definitely a “project cook” item, as I suspect most of the breads I offer this year will be. Yeast-risen bread needs time, and these require not the usual two, but three rises before they are ready to bake. I tried to streamline a bit: unable to compromise the length of the rises much, even in my unseasonably warm Southern California kitchen, I settled instead for simplified shaping. The Maloufs, and the baking group who led me to their recipe, shape their buns with a cookie cutter, rolling out a rectangle of dough, brushing with water, milk, or egg to ensure adherence, placing the filling, folding the dough over itself to encase the filling, and stamping out a round or heart shape. I decided instead to go with my usual bun shaping method, which consists of folding, pinching, and rolling a rectangle of dough into a ball using the slight tacky tension between dough and board to seal the seam. You can see this process in my photos below or, if you need a more detailed step-by-step, check out yesterday’s instagram post for a short (awkward, one-handed) video demo of the folding and rolling: over there I’m just blackberryeating.

The only disadvantage to my method is that it can, if you’re not careful, result in the filling starting to protrude through the now-overly-thin top layer of dough. The solution is, I think, to flatten the corners rather than the middle of your dough rectangle before filling and folding, and to execute the roll-to-seal process fairly quickly. The good news is, since you’re making 16 buns you do have ample opportunity to perfect your method.

Shaping the buns: place about 1 teaspoon date filling in the center of a dough rectangle. Keep the center thicker than the corners, if you can.

Fold the corners of the dough rectangle up over the filling, then pinch together into a little purse.

Roll the ball, pinched side down, in little circles on a barely floured board with your fingers in a cage shape.

Rolling in a little circle between your fingers and palm helps close up the bottom seam.

This was my bottom seam – now it’s starting to seal together. A few more rolls and it will be ready!

Ultimately, these were 100% worth the time and the research. They are delicious. The date and cardamom filling, to which I couldn’t resist adding some orange zest, is rich and sweet, but each bun holds only a teaspoon or so, which means it’s also not overwhelming. The bun itself is soft with a slight chew, not too sweet, and on the edge of doughy inside, which makes me think of an almost-underbaked challah, or the perfectly moist interior of a Hawaiian roll. Yours will be slightly less bright yellow than mine – my hand slipped as I was measuring out turmeric and I ended up with a fair bit more in the mix than my recipe calls for. It may seem a bit odd to have cumin – a decidedly savory flavor – along with a sweet date filling, but don’t skip it. The play between the toasty, almost smoky cumin and the sugary dates is lovely, and makes these buns less a dessert item, perhaps, but a definite contender for breakfast, and perfect as a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack with tea or coffee.

(Naan-e-)komaj
Makes 16 buns
About 3½ hours
This recipe is my version of two interpretations: it starts with the recipe from Saraban: A Chef’s Journey Through Persia, Greg and Lucy Malouf’s recreation of the bread they loved in southern Iran, and pulls in some suggestions from SaffronAmbrosia, the site of a participant in the baking group who auditioned and adapted the Maloufs’ recipe. The addition of the orange zest is my own; given the love of rose- and orange-blossom water in Persian cooking, I couldn’t resist a bit of citrus flavor to brighten the date filling.
For dough:
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 tablespoons warm water
pinch + ¼ cup sugar, divided
⅔ cup warm milk (or water)
1½ tablespoons olive oil
1 egg
3¾ cups bread flour
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon whole cumin seeds, toasted and lightly crushed, divided
¾ teaspoon kosher salt (or ½ teaspoon table salt)
For filling:
12-15 medjool dates, pitted and cut into chunks (if they are firm rather than soft and sticky, soak them in hot water for about 10 minutes before chopping)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1-2 teaspoon(s) ground cardamom (start with 1; cardamom is strong!)
zest of ½ an orange, optional
pinch of salt, optional
To finish:
Milk, cream, or egg yolk to brush on top before baking
Optional: powdered sugar to dust after baking

 

  • Combine the yeast and 2 tablespoons warm water in a large bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer) and let sit for 10-15 minutes, until the yeast is bubbly and smells like bread. Using a wooden spoon or the paddle attachment, stir in the remaining sugar, warm milk (or water), olive oil, and egg.
  • Now add 3 cups of the bread flour, the turmeric, 2 teaspoons of the cumin seeds, and the salt. Stir with a spoon or the paddle attachment until the dough is starting to come together – it will have a rough, shaggy consistency. Switch to the dough hook or, if you aren’t using a stand mixer, tip the mixture out onto a well-floured board and knead until the dough becomes smooth and pliable and is no longer sticky. If it seems too wet, add the remaining flour ¼ cup at a time as needed – you might not use the whole amount. I ended up using only 3¼ cups total. When your dough is smooth and elastic, set it in a lightly oiled bowl, cover it with a clean cloth or plastic wrap, and set it aside until it has doubled – about an hour, depending on how warm your kitchen is.
  • At the end of the first rise, when the dough has doubled in size, “punch it down” by deflating it gently with your fist, then re-cover and set it aside to rise again for another hour. During this second rise, make the filling: combine the dates, butter, cardamom, orange zest, and optional pinch of salt. You can just mix them in a bowl if you want a chunky filling, or if you want something smoother, like a paste, use a food processor and pulse until the filling reaches your desired consistency.
  • When the dough has finished its second rise, turn it out onto a lightly floured board and divide it into 16 even pieces. I find this is easiest by first dividing into 4 large pieces, then cutting each in half and then in half again. Working with one piece at a time, roll or gently pull to flatten into a rough rectangle. There are two approaches you can use to shaping these. My method is to roll round buns, which I think is slightly easier but your filling may end up off-enter. The Maloufs and the baking group stamp out theirs with a round or heart-shaped cookie cutter, which is pretty and results in a centered filling, but requires rerolling the scraps. If you’d like to use that method, go here for instructions.
  • If you’re using my method, working with one piece of dough at a time, add a teaspoon of filling into the center of the dough rectangle. Fold each corner up and over the filling, trying not to stretch the dough too much. Pinch together the folded corners into a seam, but don’t press too hard, or the filling may start to poke through the top. Turn the dough ball over and form your hand around it like a cage, then roll gently with very little pressure in light circles on the board to form a smooth, taut round (see Joe Pastry’s excellent tutorial if you need help with this, or check my  instagram post from yesterday for a video demo). Let the shaped, sealed buns rise, covered, on the cookie sheet for about 15-20 minutes.
  • While the buns have their final rise, preheat the oven to 400F. After this final rise, paint the tops of the buns lightly with milk, cream, or an egg wash (egg yolk combined with 1-2 teaspoons water). Sprinkle the remaining 1 teaspoon cumin seeds over the top of each one, then bake in your preheated 400F oven for 8-10 minutes.
  • Let the finished buns cool on a rack for at least 10-15 minutes, then dust with powdered sugar if you wish. Serving with tea, like a spicy-sweet chai, or a cup of Turkish coffee would be ideal. Like many sweet buns these are best the day they are made, but leftovers are easily and deliciously reheated.

A small hungry helper who protests that she did not get any komaj to sample…

Breads of the World, part 1: naan-e komaj research (no recipe)

*** This is not a recipe post. Instead, it details background and findings from research I did on the first bread I’ll make for my “Breads of the World” 2021 baking project. If you’re not into that, check back next week when I expect to have the recipe and photos up. ***

In the lead-up to the 2004 election, I was traveling with my then-boyfriend (now husband) around the East Coast, visiting graduate schools we optimistically thought we might have a chance of getting into. (Also sightseeing, but very virtuously telling ourselves that wasn’t our main objective.) One evening, I remember getting into bed at our hotel and watching The Daily Show, then hosted by Jon Stewart, and his plea to his audience and to the country: he wanted us to make his job – and the jobs of all comedians – hard, by electing John Kerry rather than incumbent George W. Bush, insinuating Kerry would be more difficult to satirize. Well, we didn’t. But I think of that now and then, as what happens in this country continues to make my “job” here hard. Too many times I have tried to weave together current events and food in a respectful and hopeful way. Too many times I have sat at my keyboard wondering how and whether to acknowledge what is happening, and what to say, and how to transition from that into whatever I have to share with you, because to not acknowledge it is to live in a dream world that too easily slides into complicity.

Today I can’t do it. There’s no transition. It doesn’t work. As Deb said on her instagram feed, “There’s not and never will be a ‘I like to unwind from watching an armed insurrection on live TV by roasting chicken.’ There’s no ‘Wow, really, they didn’t see this coming? Welp, let’s go slice some cabbage!’… But I am here, in the same place as the rest of us, angry and worried. And also, I still need to make something for dinner. Hope you get to refuel with something delicious tonight; we all need it.”

We need it. I need it. And in my attempts to avoid watching the news all day or doom-scrolling or refreshing that feed one more time, I fell down a rabbit hole researching the first bread I wanted to make for my “Breads of the World” project. And I got so interested by that and so excited about the bread itself that I want to share that research with you. No recipe today, thanks to the half-a-pie, the pitas, the pizza, and the sourdough loaf I already have kicking around my house (I’ve been retreating to the kitchen a lot lately), but hopefully next week after we’ve demolished a few of my current bakes and are ready for another.

My first entrée into this project is a Persian bread called, by turns, komaj or naan-e-komaj. According to Wikipedia this is similar to an Armenian sweet bread called nan e gisu (and sounds similar to another one called noon-e sheereen or Gata), which I’d also never heard of (but you can bet it’s on my list now). Like the bread’s history and origins, the recipe I’m planning to use was difficult to track down. I first ran across this bread, golden from turmeric and sprinkled with an intriguing combination of both cumin seeds and powdered sugar, through a search for Persian breads on pinterest, and gradually wound my way backward to a recipe from Saraban: A Chef’s Journey Through Persia by authors Greg and Lucy Malouf.

The Maloufs acknowledge the recipe in their book is their own interpretation of a bread they ate, and so I wanted to see if I could trace back to a source recipe, maybe something more authentic or traditional. As these things often go on the internet, not only did I not find an “authentic” or “original” recipe, likely because there isn’t just one; I found a pile of conflicting information to sort through. Komaj, or naan-e-komaj, seems to come in broadly two iterations: stuffed and unstuffed. The food site Persian Good calls komaj a “Persian oatcake” and provides a recipe for a fairly simple yeasted dough that, after it has risen, is treated like a cookie rather than a bread: stamped out with a cutter and sprinkled with sesame seeds before being baked. Conversely, in a list of Middle Eastern recipes from the Lorna Sundberg International Center, a division of the University of Virginia’s International Studies Office, I found a version of komaj that is unyeasted, but stuffed with date paste. The Malouf recipe seems to combine these alternatives, meeting in the more complicated middle with a fluffy, yeasted bun enclosing a filling of dates and cardamom, stamped out with a heart-shaped cookie cutter.

This sounded too good to pass up, but I wasn’t done with my research yet. Given the differing versions of the bread, I wanted to know more about it. The result was, of course, yet more tangled threads that don’t quite connect. Forgive the hashed metaphor, as O. Henry would say. The Maloufs’ recipe is for a wheat-flour based bun that they tasted “in the oasis town of Mahan in the south-east of Iran.” However, my searching turned up an article from the Journal of Ethnic Foods that cites komaj or “naan-e-komaj” as one of the “most important rice flour–based breads in the north of Iran” (Gharibzahedi). Rice flour based? North of Iran? Further, the article cites komaj as a bread from the Mazandaran province just south of the Caspian Sea, and here it is not baked, but fried in oil. Yet the description – “A Persian date bread with cumin and turmeric” – sounded like the same product I’d been chasing, and the ingredient list, which included not only rice flour, but wheat flour, milk or yogurt, egg, baking powder, and vanilla (cumin and turmeric are optional here, and sometimes raisins, cinnamon, and walnuts are incorporated as well), was fairly similar aside from being chemically leavened rather than with yeast (Gharibzahedi).

All this leads to some food truths I already know, and imagine I will continue to uncover as this project continues: food moves. Food changes. Food is adapted. As Naz Deravian says in the headnote to her recipe for Dahate Naan or “peasant bread” in Bottom of the Pot, “Stuffed ‘peasant’ or ‘rustic’ breads are common in all parts of Iran with slight variations to the recipe, usually in the filling, which distinguishes its provenance” (186). Her recipe, which has cardamom in the filling like the Maloufs’ but exchanges dates for walnuts, is also from the Caspian region, but a different province and ethnic group than the fried, rice flour-based Mazandaran bread I’d been chasing. A traceable step in the bread’s evolution? Or a happy coincidence of similar flavors? Perhaps both. Perhaps neither. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The combination of savory-sweet here, with cumin, turmeric, dates, cardamom, and the orange zest I’m thinking of adding, making yet another version, is intriguing enough without knowing how and whether it moved from northern to southern Iran, acquiring yeast, stuffing, and the need for an oven on the way.

Until next week, then, when I hope to have a recipe and results to share. In the meantime, please be well, and if you know anything about this bread in particular or others like it, do leave a comment letting us know more about it!

 

2021: Project “Breads of the World”

The tree is down, the gifts are stowed (and a few more, of the monetary variety, used for items presently on order), and all of the ornaments are packed, except for a small nutcracker who hid beside one of my houseplants. I’m working on being hopeful about this year, and that’s about the closest I’m going to get to “resolutions.”

But I do want to post here more regularly, as always, and the years have shown me that this is more likely when I have an annual project to work on. This year, behind the trend as usual, I’m going with bread. I know, we spent a good portion of the year getting into (and probably out of again) sourdough and its discard potentials, and pizza crust, and perfecting decorative scoring. I hopped on the bus a bit later than many people did, as I noted a few months ago, but I’m firmly on board now even as many are disembarking in favor of whatever the next big thing proves to be.

My primary inspiration for this year’s project is a lovely man named Brendan Lynch. In case you’re behind, I’ll say only that he was a contestant in the third UK season of The Great British Bake-Off, and during his tenure there he explained he was engaged in a project to bake a number of “breads of the world.” That sounded so rewarding to me that I’ve latched decidedly onto the idea. 2021: Project “Breads of the World.” It’s an opportunity to cook and eat, but also to research and learn as I choose and develop recipes.

Before I blanket my kitchen in flour, though, two considerations. First, I want to be sure I really am looking worldwide. There are so many European breads, and as I noted to R. the other day, it would be easy to sit comfortably in France and Italy for the whole year (and not just in terms of baking, if I’m honest). But that’s not the world. It never has been. So even though I know some loaves of European origin will make their way in, I want to be sure I’m looking south and east as well. Injera from Ethiopia and sabaayad from Somalia. Persian komaj. Turkish simit. Filipino ensaymada. Buñuelos and pão de queijo and arepas and conchas and… you get the idea. And those are, I know, only a few of my options.

Second, I need to think a bit about what counts as bread. I’ve already decided quickbreads like banana or zucchini bread are exempt from this project. Despite their names, they are basically cake, and that isn’t what I’m after here. But I’m not sure I want to restrict myself solely to yeast-risen options. Biscuits aren’t bread, but naan or pita made with baking powder instead of yeast is. Parathas are bread, which means tortillas are too, though I don’t always think of them that way. And I don’t want to stay only in the savory realm either. Pannetone and sufganiyot and babka are breads, even though they are decidedly sweet.

So, while I restock my kitchen post-holiday-baking, let’s discuss. What do you think should count as “bread” for the purposes of this project? More importantly, what breads would you like to learn about and see here as I bake my way through 2021?

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.