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.



Dessert Latkes

One of the great shames of holiday food, I feel, is how assertively we restrict it to holidays. Every Thanksgiving when I eat that first piece of turkey straight off the carving fork (there are privileges to being the cook), I think to myself, “why do I only make this once a year?” Of course, that’s after I’ve already had a glass of wine and a few snacks, so I’m repressing the amount of work I’ve just undergone to get that thing defrosted, prepped and suitably accompanied, and haven’t yet allowed myself to think about the labor to come of denuding its carcass, fabricating broth, and dreaming up leftovers.

But turkey is only one example. There are so many other foods that we reserve strictly for their special day. In my family, the challah my mom taught us to make gets trotted out on Christmas Day, and sometimes on Easter. It was a surprise to me to learn that my aunt N. makes it multiple times a year, whenever she and her husband want a slice. But this is a silly thing to be surprised about. Why shouldn’t we make whatever foods we crave, whenever we crave them? I don’t think gingerbread would cease to be special just because I make a batch in March and in October as well as the night before Christmas. Besides, holding onto these foods as once-a-year-sacred means we don’t get an opportunity to experiment with them, since whatever masses you’re feeling probably want THE dish, not a derivative thereof. And okay, I admit, the old standard is good in itself, but the opportunity to play is one of the great rewards of cooking: what if I added apples to the gingerbread this time around? How would the turkey be with dill and mustard powder rubbed into the butter?

One of the great injustices of this restriction of holiday foods is that people are not, I suspect, ingesting as many latkes as they rightfully should be. While it’s true that these carry a slightly more meaningful symbolic link to their holiday than gingerbread does, indulging their delectable crispiness without pondering on the miracle of the oil lasting a full eight nights feels to me like sensible celebration rather than sacrilege. And once you get into the habit of eating latkes throughout the year, rather than just during Hanukkah, you start to realize that potato and onion are nice and all, but there are other options out there that deserve attention in crispy fried form.

This time around, I wondered what would happen if you moved latkes from the dinner to the dessert course. Sweet potatoes seemed like a natural choice, and instead of onion, I went with apple – it adds a tart sweetness that mellows as it cooks, and it would contribute, I thought, similar water content as the onion in the original. A toss with flour and eggs, some cinnamon to lend extra autumnal feeling, the requisite bubbling fry, and then a stack dripping with maple syrup, or sweetened sour cream, or maybe a drizzle of honey for really tooth-aching indulgence.

When I dug in, I found the combination of frying and sweetness reminded me ever so slightly of funnel cake – the snowy sprinkle of powdered sugar on top would have fit right in. I do suggest using orange sweet potatoes (often marketed as yams) if you are serving these for dessert; they are a little less firm in texture when they cook, but they are definitely sweeter. On the other hand, if you are looking for an interesting, produce-led alternative to pancakes, use the slightly less-sweet yellow or white fleshed sweet potatoes, and these could slide right in as a breakfast – perhaps for the holidays, okay, but in the spirit of not restricting ourselves, perhaps for any cool morning the urge for something special arises.

* though these are designed to be sweet, they could easily edge back toward the savory camp with the addition of black pepper or sage, and a more traditional topper of plain sour cream. Or you could make them even more dessert-like by adding other wintery spices we associate with pies and cakes – maybe even pumpkin (pie) spice in all its polarizing glory, as a nod to the season.


Dessert Latkes
30-45 minutes
Makes 9-10 3-inch latkes
2 medium sweet potatoes – orange fleshed for a sweeter product, white fleshed for less sweetness
1 medium granny smith apple
2 eggs
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½-¾ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Vegetable oil to fry
Maple syrup, powdered sugar, honey, or sour cream mixed with some brown sugar, to serve


  • Peel the sweet potatoes. If using a box grater, shred them with the large holes. If using a food processor, cut them down into large chunks that will just fit in the feed tube. Quarter and core the apples. Use a box grater or food processor fitted with the shredding disc to shred the sweet potatoes and apples. Scrape the shreds straight onto a clean kitchen towel and wring it out vigorously into the sink. When you’ve exhausted your arm muscles, let the towel-wrapped shreds sit for two minutes, then squeeze again. You should be able to extract a little more.
  • In a large bowl, beat together the eggs, the flour, the baking powder, the salt, and the cinnamon. Dump in the drained sweet potato and apple shreds and mix well – I find a fork works reasonably for this, but nothing is as good as your fingers to ensure even integration.
  • Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat; you want enough to come about ½ inch up the sides (the quantity will vary depending on the size of your pan). Cast iron is my vessel of choice for latkes.
  • When the oil is shimmering, carefully place small heaps of the latke mixture straight into the skillet – I use my hands for this, but of course you’ll need to be very careful. Ensure the small heaps don’t touch one another. Use the flat side of a spatula to gently flatten each heap.
  • Cook over medium-high heat 4-5 minutes, until the bottoms are crisp and well browned. Flip and cook another 3-4 minutes, then remove from heat and repeat with remaining mixture.
  • While you are cooking the latkes, it’s useful to store each batch in a 300F oven on a wire rack placed over a cookie sheet. This keeps them warm and lets any excess oil drip off.
  • To serve, stack up a pile of latkes and drizzle, sprinkle, or pour on your desired topping. Eat hot.

Zucchini Crepes with Mascarpone Almond Cream

food-blog-february-2017-0288There is no way I can connect this recipe with Black History Month. I’ve tried. The transition just isn’t there. But when this issue of The New Yorker showed up on our doorstep, with this beautiful new imagining of the iconic Rosie the Riveter staring confidently back at me on the front, I wanted to make sure you saw her. Clearly a response to the Women’s March, she is also a powerful image of intersectional feminism, replacing the white WWII era working woman with an African American marcher, pink pussy hat and all. And though the cover doesn’t bear Rosie’s original accompanying phrase – “We can do it” – there’s no way to divorce that message, with all its connotations, from this new version.

There is so much to do, but we can do it.

food-blog-february-2017-0260These started not as crepes but as a desire to modify my favorite zucchini spice bread recipe into a pancake (I told you there was no transition. I just wanted to show you my magazine cover and remind you about the history we should be celebrating this month). There would be nutmeg and cinnamon, there would be caramelized crisp edges, there might be golden raisins… and then I made the mistake of searching for “zucchini bread pancakes” online, and of course the first hit was Deb’s recipe, deepening, as ever, my intense love-hate relationship with her and her site. Let me be clear, before you start emailing me: I adore Smitten Kitchen (look, Deb, I’m even giving you traffic!). I have the cookbook, I went to a signing and thoroughly embarrassed myself, and I trawl through her archives all the time, because she has tried everything! But there’s the hate part (or, at least, the jealous part): she’s tried everything! I certainly wasn’t going to make zucchini bread pancakes if she already had the consummate version (which, of course, I just automatically assume she does. Being a jealous fan-girl is weird).

food-blog-february-2017-0263food-blog-february-2017-0267So I had to go with something different, and somehow something different became crepes. I wasn’t sure how they would work, given the sodden heaviness large quantities of shredded zucchini often contribute to a dish, but the zucchini were already in the fridge and the milk on the door was begging to be used, so the experiment had to move forward.

food-blog-february-2017-0255I’m calling these crepes, but they don’t share ratio or ingredient quantities with other crepe recipes. My grandfather called them Swedish pancakes, probably more because he was Swedish than due to any recipe authenticity. They are a bit moister than some crepes – a little less papery around the edges, maybe a bit heavier, and we’ve never been particularly fussy about getting them wafer thin. Here, the addition of the zucchini makes these qualities important, since the batter has to be substantial enough to hold up to the extra weight of the vegetation.

food-blog-february-2017-0268food-blog-february-2017-0272As I always yell at food competition contestants when they scrunch or tear or mangle their first crepe, the first one probably is going to be ugly. Maybe the second one too. But you have to persist. Crepes require a bit of a rhythm – you have to get a feel for how much batter goes into the pan, how steeply to tilt your pan while you swirl to get an even coating of batter, and how long it really does need to cook before you can flip that delicate, eggy circle. And ultimately, really, it’s okay when that first one rips, because now you get to eat it surreptitiously and make sure it’s good. Cook’s prerogative.

food-blog-february-2017-0277These were indeed good. The zucchini is mild, so don’t worry if it’s not your very favorite vegetable flavor, but it cooks so quickly that every bit of grassy rawness was gone. They could go in a sweet or a savory direction, but I opted for sweet, whisking mascarpone cheese with some honey, some lemon, and roughly chopped toasted almonds for a bit of crunch. Lemon and zucchini play well together, as do zucchini and almonds, and it’s nice to have some texture in with the softness of the cheese and the pliable delicacy of the pancake.

food-blog-february-2017-0280We had these for dinner as a decadent response to a rainy day, but they would make an indulgent breakfast or a superb brunch course as well. You can fold the crepes up into a triangular, handkerchief-like packet with a mound of cheese inside, or you can roll up into a cylinder, which is what my family has always done. I found I liked a few almonds sprinkled over the top, and an extra drizzle of honey as well. Any extra crepes keep fine covered in the fridge for a day or two, until you take them out, reheat them with a bit of salted butter, and smother them with cinnamon sugar, because some days require that kind of solid self care, so you can get out there and keep going.


Zucchini Crepes with Mascarpone Almond Cream
Makes 10-12 crepes in a 10-inch skillet
30-40 minutes
For the filling:
½ cup whole raw almonds
8 ounces mascarpone cheese
1 tablespoon heavy cream
2 tablespoons honey
zest of one lemon
1-2 teaspoons lemon juice
additional honey, to drizzle
For the crepes:
2 cups shredded zucchini, from 2 medium zucchinis
2 cups milk
2 tablespoons melted butter
3 eggs
1½-1¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sugar
⅛ teaspoon salt


  • First, make the filling. Preheat the oven to 350F. While it heats, roughly chop the almonds – it’s okay to have some uneven sizing. Spread them out on a baking tray and toast in the oven 10-15 minutes until they are golden brown. Start checking at 10 minutes; keep in mind they will continue to cook after you take them out of the oven.
  • In a bowl, whisk the mascarpone cheese and the heavy cream together until light and fluffy (I used the whisk attachment of my stand mixer). Add the honey, the lemon zest, and the lemon juice, whisk again and taste for seasoning – you are looking for something lightly sweet, and rich but not overwhelming. When the almonds cool, fold ¾ of the amount into the mascarpone mixture, reserving the remainder to sprinkle atop the crepes.
  • To make the crepes, shred the zucchini in a food processor or with the large holes on a box grater. Collect them on a clean kitchen towel and squeeze to remove as much liquid as possible. Let it sit for 2 minutes, then squeeze once more.
  • Warm the milk slightly in a bowl or large glass measuring cup and add the melted butter, stirring to incorporate. This ensures the butter will integrate evenly, rather than hardening back into chunks. Let cool to room temperature and whisk in the eggs, then 1½ cups of the flour, the sugar, and the salt. Finally, whisk in the zucchini shreds. You should have something like a thin cake batter, probably thinner than your average pancake batter. If it seems too liquid, add the remaining ¼ cup of flour.
  • To cook the crepes, heat about 2 teaspoons butter in a 10-inch skillet or crepe pan over medium-high heat. Pour in about ⅓ cup of batter, turning and swirling the skillet as you do so to allow for a thin layer of batter to coat the entire surface. Try to spread out the zucchini a bit – it has a tendency to clump up in the middle, which results in uneven cooking.
  • Cook 1-2 minutes per side, until golden and almost dry. Don’t be alarmed if the first crepe tears or is otherwise mangled – they are delicate, and you have to get a rhythm going. After every two crepes, add another few teaspoons of butter to the skillet.
  • As you finish cooking each crepe, remove from the skillet to a covered plate to keep them warm. They won’t stick together – there’s enough fat in them to prevent clinging.
  • To serve, spread out one crepe on a flat surface and spread a few tablespoons of the mascarpone and almond mixture in a line a bit to the left of the center. Use the tines of a fork or your fingers to lift the edge of the crepe over the mascarpone filling, then continue rolling up into a tight burrito shape. Remove to a serving plate and continue with remaining crepes and filling. Sprinkle the finished rolls with the remaining almonds, and if desired, drizzle with more honey before serving.

Ginger Blackberry Scones

2016 Food Blog March-0656It’s going to sound a bit cliché to do this – a literature major starting a post with quotes about April – but it has again proved itself to be the cruelest month. Really, as a medievalist I should be referencing Chaucer, and I do prefer his April – with its sweet showers and sleepy birds and waking pilgrims – to T.S. Eliot’s earthy disturbance of memory and desire, but this year Eliot is unfortunately more apropos. April is a thief. It stole things from me, and from others I love. It sapped me on a personal and a professional plane, and on levels both trivial and profound.

2016 Food Blog March-06192016 Food Blog March-06242016 Food Blog March-0625In the wake of April’s larceny, which began on the very first day of the month, something had to give, and that something was this something. The ease with which I slipped in a substitute post was insidious, and to manage my own needs, I had to allow that ease to linger.

2016 Food Blog March-0627Now that April has blustered its way out of our lives, now that I’m picking my way delicately up the slope that everything I dropped created, I think we need something warm and comforting, but bright. Something to wake up those sleepy birds and push us forward on our pilgrimages. There are several search terms for the 2016 project that involve blackberries, which is no surprise. However, I just couldn’t see my way ‘round “blackberry sauerkraut party meatballs” (any ideas?), so I settled on “ginger blackberry scones” instead, borrowing a bit from a Bon Appetit base recipe for cream scones.

2016 Food Blog March-06382016 Food Blog March-0641There is much, and also not a great deal, to say about scones. Richer than a biscuit, drier than a cake, they are a crumbly compact package I would eat at any time of day. Studded with chopped crystallized ginger, bright with citrus zest and weeping with the purple stain of lurking blackberries, they are capable of offering comfort even in the final days of the “stony rubbish” that is that cruelest of months (Eliot 20).

2016 Food Blog March-0647Ginger Blackberry Scones
Makes 8 large, 16 medium, or 24 small
Adapted from Bon Appetit
¼ cup granulated sugar
zest of one lemon or one lime
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon kosher salt
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting your board
½ cup (8 tablespoons or one stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1¼ cups (about 12 ounces) fresh blackberries
¼ cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
1 large egg, beaten
1¼ cups heavy cream, plus more for brushing
raw sugar, optional, for sprinkling


  • Preheat the oven to 375F. In a medium bowl, rub the sugar and citrus zest together until the zest is evenly integrated and the sugar and your hands smell of its brightness. Whisk the zested sugar with the baking powder, baking soda, salt, and three cups of flour.
  • Add the butter chunks and, using a pastry blender or your fingers, work the butter into the flour until only small pieces remain – some will be the size of oats; some will be more like peas.
  • Add the blackberries and chopped ginger and toss gently to incorporate.
  • Make a well in the center of the mixture and add the egg and the 1¼ cups cream. Use a fork to mix, incorporating the wet and dry ingredients gently, until a shaggy dough forms. Lightly knead in the bowl just until it comes together – a few dry patches are fine. Some of the blackberries will lose integrity, bleeding through the dough. That’s okay too.
  • Turn the sticky, shaggy dough out onto a floured board and pat it into a round (more traditional) or a rectangle about 1 inch thick. Cut into wedges/triangles (a pizza cutter works well for this), or punch out rounds with a cutter, and transfer to a parchment lined baking sheet.
  • Brush tops of scones with a bit of cream, then sprinkle with raw sugar if desired. Bake at 375F: 25-30 minutes for large scones, 20-25 minutes for medium or small. They will blush pale gold when they are done, and the bottoms will bronze a bit darker.
  • Remove gently to a wire rack and let cool a few minutes before eating. If desired, you can leave off the brush of cream and sugar, and instead, when the scones are cool, drizzle them with a well-whisked mixture of 1 cup powdered sugar, ¼ cup lemon juice, and 2 teaspoons vanilla.

Barmbrack with Plums

2016 Food Blog March-0543I’m not sure whether it’s a blessing or a curse that, as the semester picks up, this recipe happens to fill both of my current projects for the month of March: the Twelve Loaves assignment, and my own search term theme. It’s a blessing, in that it’s only one loaf that needs to be baked, which is certainly all I can handle in one weekend. It’s a curse, in that it means I have to come up with something else to make this month, since combining these two leaves an extra week out in the open.

2016 Food Blog March-0511Still, though, it’s fortuitous in an utterly delicious way that these work together. The Twelve Loaves theme for the month is “Irish Breads,” and last year someone found my little site searching for “Irish bread with plums.” Aside from soda bread, the standard go-to Irish loaf, I knew nothing about Irish breads at all. Well, I suppose I knew about scones, but those are really British Isles in general to me, and not as specific to Ireland as I wanted to get.

2016 Food Blog March-0509After a little research, I hit upon barmbrack, or barm braec. In Gaelic, “braec” means speckled, and so this lovely rich bread is threaded through with dried fruit. Usually the speckles are raisins and sultanas (or golden raisins, as we somewhat unimaginatively call them in the U.S.). This seemed, though, like a perfect place to add the requisite plums from the search. They would need to be dried, both because it’s not stone fruit season yet and because the moisture levels of fresh plums would make the bread too wet. Still, though, chopped prunes along with the traditional raisin component seemed promising. I love prunes, with their rich, concentrated flavor and their dense, almost meaty texture, but they don’t often find their way into baked goods, which I think is a shame.*

2016 Food Blog March-0510Barmbrack can be made both as a yeasted loaf and as a simple round raised with baking soda. I decided on yeast, since sometimes I find soda breads a bit too dense for my taste. Since this was already going to be weighed down by the fruit, I wanted to give it a good bit of lift. In either case, it’s usually a holiday bread celebrating the harvest season, and there are sometimes small treasures like rings or coins baked into it as part of a fortune-telling game (I must admit I skipped this part).

2016 Food Blog March-0515I surveyed a number of recipes, and finally combined two with features I liked. Interestingly, this bread is often made with tea: the dried fruits, and sometimes candied or fresh citrus zest, are soaked in strong black tea for a few hours, or even overnight, before being kneaded into the spiced, slightly enriched dough. I didn’t have any Irish Breakfast Tea, so I gritted my teeth and chose between Earl Grey and English Breakfast. In the end, I went with the Earl Grey. I realize the reference to British politics and aristocracy might ruffle some feathers, but at least it didn’t outright have the word “English” in the name. In any case, do forgive me, and use proper Irish tea for your loaf.

2016 Food Blog March-0527Because there is a lot of moisture from the fruit in this loaf, you can expect a quite sticky dough. Don’t be afraid of it, though; just add some more flour to your board and knead away. You’ll be rewarded, after two rises and the better part of an hour in a hot oven, with a deeply browned loaf studded with a rubble of raisins and prune pieces, moist and richly chewy, but with a firm and almost crackly crust. Because it is baked in a round cake pan, it rises with a glorious even dome, and just around the edge where the loaf leaves the pan, there’s a curiously lovely pale golden stretch mark encircling the bread.

2016 Food Blog March-0535The Saveur recipe I borrowed from suggests, as the end of the baking time nears, brushing the top of the loaf with warm honey and then baking for an additional two minutes. I did not do this, in both an effort avoid too much sweetness and to maintain its lovely crusty exterior. If you should want to, though, they recommend ⅓ cup.

2016 Food Blog March-0542Despite wolfing down a thick slice the day I baked it, N. has since forgotten about this homely little loaf, and I haven’t bothered to remind him, because that means more for me. Even after a few days wrapped in aluminum foil, the interior remains moist and rich but not too dense, and the outside stays perfectly crusty – a rugged, deeply browned layer that I’ve tried all week to think of ways to describe. “Imagine if a brown paper bag were a crust,” I said to N. at one point, but we agreed that didn’t sound particularly delicious. “Perfectly crusty” remains the best thing I can come up with, and you’ll have to believe me that it’s part of what makes the loaf worth hoarding. Perfect still warm from the oven, great at room temperature, and glorious toasted, this is good plain but revelatory with a thick pat of salted butter and, obviously, a cup of tea.

2016 Food Blog March-0551* if you aren’t a prune fan, you can stick with the traditional raisins and sultanas, or test out other dried fruit options: currants would be great here, and dried cranberries or dried cherries might also be good. Dried apricots also sound promising to me along with the sultanas, provided they were quite finely chopped. Perhaps a dollop of clotted cream or even mascarpone cheese over the top of the slice wouldn’t go amiss.

Prune and Sultana Barm Brack
Adapted from Saveur and RTÉ Lifestyle
Makes one 8-inch round loaf
About 5½ hours, including steeping and rising time, or overnight
2 cups strong black tea (I used 2 tea bags)
¾ cups chopped prunes (dried plums)
¾ cups sultanas (golden raisins)
2 tablespoons each orange and lemon zest, plain or candied
¼ cup whole milk, warm or at room temperature
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2-2½ cups bread flour
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup light brown sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
8 tablespoons softened unsalted butter, divided
1 egg
(optional: ⅓ cup honey, warmed, to brush over the loaf)


  • In a medium glass bowl (I used my 4-cup measuring cup), pour 2 cups of boiling water over 2 teabags and let steep for 4-5 minutes. Add the chopped prunes, the raisins, and the mixed zest, and let soak for at least 2 hours, or as long as overnight. When you are ready to make the dough, drain the fruit and zest in a strainer, but reserve the soaking liquid.
  • Meanwhile, sprinkle the 2 teaspoons active dry yeast and a pinch of sugar over the warmed milk and let sit for 5-10 minutes until the yeast fizzes and foams up. Mine raised quite a dome.
  • While you wait for the yeast, combine 2 cups of flour, the salt, the brown sugar, the cinnamon, the nutmeg, and the cloves in the bowl of a stand mixer, or another large bowl.
  • When the yeast is foamy, add the egg and mix briefly, then pour into the dry ingredients, add 6 tablespoons of the softened butter, and mix with the paddle attachment to bring together. Mine was a bit crumbly at this point.
  • Switch to the dough hook and knead at medium speed for 5-7 minutes until you have a smooth but slightly sticky dough. If the dough seems too dry and is just not coming together, add a tablespoon or two of the reserved tea. If it gets too wet, add flour a tablespoon or two at a time until it is a workable consistency.
  • When your dough is smooth and elastic but still a bit sticky, turn it out onto a well-floured board (I’m not kidding). In three or four additions, knead the drained fruit into the dough. I tried this in the mixer bowl with the dough hook, but it made a huge mess. By hand with flour and a dough scraper nearby is the best strategy.
  • With the fruit incorporated, form the dough into a loose ball and deposit it into a large bowl you’ve buttered with 1 tablespoon of the remaining softened butter. I used the stand mixer bowl; you don’t even have to rinse it out in between. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and set aside to rise for 1-1½ hours, until nearly doubled.
  • Punch down the risen dough by depressing your fist gently into the center; the dough will spring back only slightly. Turn it out onto a floured board and knead lightly 2 or 3 times, then shape it into a tight ball and position it in an 8-inch cake pan, which you’ve buttered with the last remaining 1 tablespoon of softened butter. Drape lightly with plastic wrap and let rise another 30-60 minutes. Mine was ready to go in 45 minutes.
  • About 30 minutes before you are ready to bake, preheat your oven to 400F with a rack in the middle position. When the loaf fills the pan and is nicely domed, remove the plastic wrap and carefully place in the oven to bake for 35-45 minutes, until the bottom sounds hollow when thumped, or an instant-read thermometer measures 180-200F.
  • If you wish, now is the time to remove from the oven, brush on the ⅓ cup warm honey, and return to the oven to bake an additional 2 minutes. I skipped this because I wanted the crust to stay, well, crusty.
  • Let cool in the cake pan at least 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool an additional 20 minutes before cutting into unapologetically thick slices, slicking thickly with butter, and eating alongside a strong cup of tea.


#TwelveLoaves is a monthly bread baking party created by Lora from Cake Duchess and runs smoothly with the help of Heather of All Roads Lead to the Kitchen, and the rest of our fabulous bakers.

This month we are baking Irish Breads. For more bread recipes, visit the #TwelveLoaves Pinterest board, or check out last month’s inspiring selection of #TwelveLoaves RED Breads!

If you’d like to bake along with us this month, share your Irish Breads using hashtag #TwelveLoaves!

Chai Spiced Sweet Rolls

2015 Food Blog December-0645Last week the Twelve Loaves bakers turned out an impressive collection of holiday breads. I had my plan in place, but as I noted on last week’s cheat entry, holiday weekends ironically don’t always allow for baking projects. Now that I’ve had an extra week to get myself in order, I can show you what I intended to contribute: tiny sweet rolls, one to two bites for easier consumption, threaded through not with the classic pairing of cinnamon and brown sugar, but a more complex combination of spices drawn from the wonderful, warming blend that is masala chai, or chai tea. It’s not a traditional holiday bread, but the layering of slightly spicy flavors in chai has always reminded me of gingerbread. By the power of association, then, here we are.

2015 Food Blog December-0619Like many spice mixtures, chai does not have a set blend – many warm notes are added to the black tea leaves to produce the complex, slightly spicy flavor. Cardamom plays a dominant role, and cinnamon, ginger, and black peppercorns are usually present as well. Star anise contributes a subtle licorice note, and cloves and fennel also sometimes make an appearance.

2015 Food Blog December-06262015 Food Blog December-0633For mine, since I used standard aniseed instead of the more traditional star anise (sometimes the grocery store is out and you’re too lazy busy to walk down to the Indian market), I omitted the fennel – a breath of licorice flavor is more than enough for me. Balancing these strong spices can be a tricky task – I wanted my blend to lead with the sweeter cardamom and cinnamon, and be backed up by the depth of the cloves and aniseed. The black pepper and ginger should be subtle – a warming heat rather than aggressive spiciness.

2015 Food Blog December-06272015 Food Blog December-0630I used my Nana’s sweet dough recipe for the base here, amping up the butter a bit and adding an extra egg, but I substituted honey for the sugar the original recipe calls for, since my favorite chai blend incorporates it. The floral notes of the honey make for a slightly more flavorful dough. A splash of vanilla, too, plays well with the spices and the honey.

2015 Food Blog December-0635Many cinnamon rolls are dripping with melted brown sugar and pack a sugar-overload punch that can get you through an entire crowded mall and its parking lot at Christmastime before you come down from your high. These tiptoe a bit more subtly into the holiday air. They are sweet, yes, but tempered. The spices come through, but you can still taste the honey and vanilla in the dough.

2015 Food Blog December-0637These would be perfectly fine on their own – in fact, N. and I bull-dozed through three of them quite unadorned when we did our quality control test, but I can’t help feeling, since they are inspired by a call for holiday breads, that a little excess is needed. A cream cheese frosting, then, lightly sweetened with honey and vanilla, seemed appropriate to smear over the top. And lest it begin to feel too heavy, a scattering of finely chopped crystallized ginger or orange zest brightens them up so you can almost – almost – get away with calling them breakfast.

2015 Food Blog December-0643

Chai Spiced Sweet Rolls
Makes 32-36 mini rolls
Approximately 3 ½ hours start to finish (unless you refrigerate overnight for the second rise)
For dough:
½ cup warm milk
pinch granulated sugar
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
¼ cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
¼ cup room temperature or just melted unsalted butter
2-3 cups all-purpose flour (you may not use all of it)
½ teaspoon salt
For filling:
¼ – ½ cup unsalted butter, melted
½ cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon cardamom
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¾ teaspoon ground star anise or ½ teaspoon ground aniseed (be sparing; it’s strong stuff)
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cloves
For frosting:
8 ounces full fat cream cheese, at room temperature
¼ cup honey
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
1 tablespoon milk (optional – to thin)
1-2 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger or orange zest, optional
  • In a 2-cup glass measuring cup, warm the milk to just about body temperature (when you dip your finger in, it should feel neutral or barely warm). Sprinkle in the pinch of granulated sugar and the active dry yeast, stir briefly, and set aside to bubble for about 10 minutes.
  • In the bowl of a stand mixer, use the paddle attachment to combine the honey, vanilla, eggs, and softened butter. Once the yeast and milk mixture is bubbly and smells like bread, add it to the other wet ingredients and combine.
  • Now add 2 cups of the flour and the salt, and mix with the paddle attachment until evenly moistened. Switch to the dough hook and knead on medium speed for about 5 minutes, adding more flour ¼ cup at a time if the dough seems too wet. I used just over 2 ½ cups of flour. When adequately kneaded, it will be the consistency of slightly sticky play-dough.
  • Spray or oil the inside of your bowl with non-stick spray, turn the dough ball over to coat it, and then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it aside, preferably in a warm place, to rise until doubled: 1 ½ – 2 hours.
  • While the dough rises, prepare the filling ingredients. Melt the butter, measure out the brown sugar, and combine the cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, star anise, black pepper, and cloves in a small dish. This is also a good time to butter or grease two round 9-inch cake pans.
  • After the dough has doubled in size, punch it down by depressing your fist into the center to release the air, then let it rest for 5-10 minutes. This will make rolling much easier. Turn it out onto a floured board and cut in half with a dough scraper or a sharp knife. Return one half to the mixing bowl and, with a floured rolling pin, roll out the other as thin as possible without tearing, or at least to a 12×16 inch rectangle. If it seems sticky, use a dough scraper to release it from the board, sprinkle a little flour underneath, and rotate the dough 180 degrees before rolling again.
  • Smear your 12×16 inch (or bigger) rectangle with melted butter, then crumble on half of the brown sugar in an even layer. Sprinkle on a heaping tablespoon of the chai spice mixture, then use your fingers to spread the spices and sugar evenly over the surface, leaving a ½ inch border on one long edge of the dough. This will be the end of the roll.
  • Starting in the middle, begin rolling up the long edge of the dough (opposite the side on which you left the border), moving outward to the edges and trying to keep the roll even. You want to roll this tightly – the tighter the roll, the better it will stay together when sliced. As you get to the end of the roll, start to stretch the edge on which you left the border up over the existing roll, pinching it lightly into the roll to adhere. When finished, you should have a long, skinny log only an inch or two in diameter.
  • To slice, use a serrated knife and saw back and forth applying as little pressure as possible. Slice the long log into 1-inch segments, and position each cut side up in one of your prepared 9-inch cake pans, spacing them slightly to give them room to puff.
  • Repeat with the other half of the dough.
  • Cover the filled cake pans with plastic wrap and let rise for 45-60 minutes until doubled again, or, if you are short on time, stow them in the refrigerator overnight (bring to room temperature before baking).
  • 30-40 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 375F. When the little sweet rolls are puffed and ready, remove the plastic wrap and bake until pale gold on top and just barely set in the middle: 10-12 minutes.
  • While the rolls cool, make the frosting. Use a handheld electric mixer, or a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, to blend together the cream cheese, honey, and vanilla until fluffy. This will take 1-2 minutes, and at first the cream cheese will get clumpy and look separated – don’t worry! Just keep mixing and it will come back together. If it seems too thick, dribble in 1 tablespoon of milk and mix again to desired consistency.
  • When the rolls have cooled, spread on the cream cheese frosting using a small rubber or offset icing spatula. If desired, top each with a spare sprinkle of finely chopped crystallized ginger or grated orange zest.
  • Best served warm or at room temperature.