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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Orange Pan di Ramerino for Twelve Loaves April

Head above water. That pretty much describes where I’m at these days. I’m about a month out from completing my first year as a full-time faculty member at my college: my first real professorship! This means my desk is somewhere underneath a pile of research proposals from one class, reading responses from two more, and the weight of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene providing a ballast (read: another thing I have to work through) in one corner. My world is scattered with attendance sheets, evaluation materials, paperclips, and an amazing image of the shield from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that a student drew for me in February and I still haven’t gotten around to hanging on my wall.
Food Blog April 2014-3697This means that every week when it comes time to sit down and write a post, I scramble. At least it’s getting lighter outside every night, which means the moment when I can photograph the intricacies of one of our dinners – perhaps even on a week night – is coming. But for now it usually means making and photographing something on a Saturday, editing the photos (I do a little fiddling with white balance and noise reduction) and cobbling together a few things to say about it on Sunday, and scheduling it to go live as usual Monday morning.
Food Blog April 2014-3689It’s only a very few things, I find, that I have to say this time around. The Twelve Loaves challenge for April was oranges. Bake a bread, any bread, whether it be yeast, quick, muffins, biscuits, savory or sweet, and incorporate orange in some way. This one stumped me for a while until I read a post from my new blog obsession, Joe Pastry. Do you guys know Joe? He runs a delightful site in which he pulls inspiration for post topics from questions his readers ask, and along with some really interesting recipes, he explains the science behind baking.
Food Blog April 2014-3680Food Blog April 2014-3683Recently, Joe posted a procedure and recipe for Pan di Ramerino, a Tuscan take on the hot cross bun that incorporates rosemary and raisins. It’s a not-quite-savory-not-quite-sweet bun as welcome in a breakfast basket as on the dinner table. Joe provides a bit more history about it, but I’ll let him tell you that if you’re interested.
Food Blog April 2014-3686Food Blog April 2014-3691Remembering how much I like the combination of orange with rosemary from one of the first loaves I baked during my dough project, I decided to add a hefty scattering of orange zest to the dough, and replace the apricot glaze Joe advocates for an orange one instead to tie things together. Though I let mine rise a little too long (the room was quite warm and I was distracted by lesson planning) and thus the final product was a bit less puffy than I’d hoped, we scarfed our way through the first bun, and then bun-and-a-half, and then two, in little time. They are a soft, moist offering, not as eggy as challah but reminiscent of it in the sticky elasticity of the dough, with an intriguing herbal note that keeps them from turning resolutely into dessert.
Food Blog April 2014-3695Food Blog April 2014-3693The recipe to follow is adapted very slightly from Joe’s. I ended up with eleven buns, but that was just carelessness and poor counting on my part (thankfully I’m not a math professor…); you will easily be able to make twelve. Easter is over now, I know (head above water, people), but these are a lovely expression of spring for your kitchen, and would make really nice offerings for a bridal or a baby shower. Or, you know, roast a chicken stuffed with a sprig of rosemary and half an orange, and serve these up on the side.

Food Blog April 2014-3697

Orange Pan di Ramerino
Adapted from Joe Pastry
Makes 12
3 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
¾ cups warm or tepid water (at or just above body temperature)
¼ cup olive oil
3 sprigs rosemary (about 3 inches each) plus an optional extra 1 tablespoon, finely chopped
⅔ cup golden raisins
3 ¼ fluffy cups bread flour (that’s 17.5 ounces, if you’re being disciplined about it)
1 teaspoon salt
1-2 tablespoons orange zest from one large orange
2 eggs
1 additional egg, for egg wash
Additional dribble of water, for egg wash
Orange glaze, recipe follows

 

  • In a 2 cup glass measuring cup or a small bowl, combine the yeast, sugar, and ¾ cups warm water, and set aside to burble for 5-10 minutes.
  • While the yeast activates, heat the olive oil in a small pan over medium low heat. When it just shimmers, add the 3 sprigs of rosemary and sauté for 30 seconds. They will barely brown and the leaves will start to look a little weary. Remove and discard.
  • Add the raisins to the same olive oil and sauté them for 30 seconds. Remove and drain, reserving the oil. Let the raisins and the oil cool.
  • In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the flour and salt using the paddle attachment. Chop the remaining rosemary, if using, and zest the orange.
  • By this time your yeast mixture should be assertively bubbling and smell like fresh bread. Add the cooled oil and the two eggs to the yeast mixture and whisk lightly.
  • Add this collection of wet ingredients to the flour and salt and mix with the paddle attachment until most of the flour is moistened. Exchange the paddle attachment for the dough hook and knead at medium speed for 3-5 minutes. The dough will become lovely: supple and elastic.
  • Add the additional rosemary, if using, the orange zest, and the raisins to the dough, and knead again until these flavoring agents are incorporated. This will take a good minute or two, since the first inclination of the raisins will be to hang out stubbornly at the bottom of the bowl. You may have to stop the mixing and fold them into the dough by hand a few times to get them to behave.
  • Once things are nicely incorporated, the dough will be a bit on the sticky side, but that’s okay. Transfer it to a clean, oiled bowl, or just smear some olive oil around the sides of the bowl you’ve been using, and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Set it aside to rise until doubled. This could take as many as 90 minutes, or it could take more like 60. It depends on how warm your house is.
  • When the dough has doubled in volume, turn it out onto a floured board. You may find it is still a bit sticky, so you want to be sure you have enough flour down to prevent frustration.
  • Using a dough scraper, a pizza cutter, or a reasonably sharp knife, divide the dough into 12 equal pieces. If you want to be precise about it, this should mean each chunk will be 2.75 ounces.
  • With the palm of your hand, gently roll each chunk into a soft round. Joe has an excellent method for this – take a peek at his instructions if you want a method to work with.
  • Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and load them up, six buns on each. Lightly oil the tops of the buns, then cover with plastic wrap or a clean cloth and let them rise again for 45 minutes. At this point, you should also preheat the oven to 400F.
  • Once the buns have risen again and the oven is hot, brush the tops with egg wash, made by beating the remaining egg with a tiny dribble of water. Then, with a sharp serrated knife, cut a criss-cross pattern in the top of each. As Joe notes, this produces something less than aesthetically perfect, but it’s traditional.
  • Bake in the upper third of a 400F oven for twenty minutes. At this point the tops of the buns should be nicely bronzed. Take them out and let them cool for a bit before topping them with a light layer of orange glaze.

 

Orange glaze
Makes enough for at least 12 buns
Juice of one large orange
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon orange marmalade

 

  • Combine all ingredients in a small pot or saucepan and let simmer for 10-15 minutes, until slightly thickened. Cool slightly before brushing onto the warm pan di ramerino.