Trying-to-be-patient Brown Butter Brioche

Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0297It’s always interesting to see what the Twelve Loaves baking group decides on as a January theme. This is a time of renewal, of fresh beginnings, of starting again or trying again or reestablishing. Last year they asked for simplicity, prompting me to try my hand at sourdough, made by weight rather than volume measurements. This year, they asked for something a little more poetic but just as abstract: bake a loaf inspired by a New Year’s resolution.

Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0292I knew immediately I would make brioche. One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2015 is to be more patient. While this would be a good goal in any area of life (or perhaps all of them), for me, it’s very specific. I want to be more patient with Lucy when we take our daily walk. My dog-daughter will be twelve years old in the spring, and though she’s still very energetic and quite healthy, she has slowed down over the years. Some of this is age, but some is insistence on getting what she wants. For her, our outing is not a walk. It’s an extended sniff. She wants to stop at every bush, at every bench, at every blade of grass, it sometimes seems. This can easily push a two mile walk into an hour-long endeavor.

Fall and Winter 2014-0915Like most of us, though, I’m a busy person. At least I feel like I am. When I get home from work, after a brief decompression (read: Facebook and a snack), I want to walk Lucy, do a final check of my email inbox, and get on with cooking dinner. Ultimately, I want to get these things done so I can changed into pajamas and deposit myself on the couch. Sniffing every blade of grass impinges on this plan, so over the past year or so I found myself getting frustrated, and even quite angry when Lucy stopped, and stopped, and stopped again.

Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0265Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0266Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0267Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0268In November I was getting ready to snap at her about such a stop, and instead I stopped. Chelsea, she’s a dog. This is her daily chance to get outside and experience the world. She doesn’t understand what I’m even asking, let alone why I’m asking, and all my impatience is doing is making us both feel bad. And really, what’s the damage to my schedule if I do let her have an extended nasal examination of the things she’s most interested in? All told, three, maybe five minutes.

Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0269I can handle that.

So I am trying to be more patient with her, gently encouraging her to hustle along rather than snapping at her. I’m delivering commands in a calmer voice, and letting the sniff session go on an extra few seconds before delivering that command at all. I’m not at total karmic peace with the extra time spent yet, but I’m working on it.

Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0275Brioche is my bread project, then, because it’s a loaf that requires patience. Rich with eggs and loaded with butter, brioche is the “cake” from the famous quote misattributed to Marie Antoinette. To integrate the massive quantities of butter the loaf requires, most recipes detail a process of bringing the fat to just the right temperature and incorporating it into the dough a maddening single tablespoon at a time. Too cold, and the butter won’t mix in. Too warm, and it will collapse the dough into a soupy mess. Too much at once, and the dough will get greasy and separate unpleasantly. It takes, typically, a 20-30 minute knead time to get the gluten chains in the flour tangling nicely and then incorporate all of that butter. After this, a long, slow, cool rise time is required, in part to build flavor, in part to develop structure, and in part just to make it easier to handle – that butter has to chill down before the dough can be manipulated successfully.

Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0270Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0271Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0272By the time you are finally ready to bake the thing, a brioche has usually been under construction for the better part of a day, if not two (sponges and overnight refrigerated rises are common). But the result – a spongy tender, light-as-air crumb inside a deeply browned crunchy crust – is remarkable. It reminds me of challah, another egg-laden loaf requiring multiple rises, but is more finely textured and even a bit richer. If your gourmet burger arrives on a deeply, perfectly rounded bun so shiny it looks lacquered and leaves a sheen of fat on your fingertips when you set it back down on the plate with a sigh, you’ve had brioche. It’s a frequent choice for a truly decadent french toast, and I was prepared, with a cringe, to sink myself into making it.

Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0273When I looked around at recipes for points of comparison, I came back, as I often do, to Cooks Illustrated, which featured a practically fool-proof take on brioche. To combat the frequent problems associated with the quantity and temperature of the butter, recipe developer Andrew Janjigian opts for a no-knead approach, relying on a combination of gentle folding of the dough (see photo series above), and time, to stimulate gluten production. The very wet dough brioche requires works well for this method, because the moister the dough, the better the enzymes in there activate the gluten. Janjigian explains that this no-knead method leads to another benefit: since we aren’t kneading the dough, we can’t spend 20 minutes mixing in all the butter. Melting it and stirring it in all at once works just fine.

Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0277As I read his explanation of the changes he’d made from the original and recognized the ease involved compared to the traditional procedure, I was almost sold. A small part of me protested that this might be cheating – that if I was really making something to represent the resolve to be more patient, I should go with the typical long knead, slow-and-steady incorporation of butter, and force myself to avoid shortcuts. But in reading the recipe again, I realized this was still going to be a long process. Even before chilling the dough overnight, I would need to perform a series of folds on the sticky, wet mass I’d created to help activate the gluten. Using large chunks of my Friday and Saturday to put this together, attend to timers, coordinate myself through the rising and proofing process, and get through the agonizing final two hours of waiting for the baked loaves to cool enough for slicing, was going to take plenty of patience. I’m only human, and it’s only January. If I’m going to be successful in this resolution, baby steps might be the way to go.

Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0278Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0279Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0280Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0281The nail in the coffin, though, was when I checked Joe Pastry’s version of brioche. He suggests pumping up the flavor by using brown butter. Since I was already going to be melting the butter, this was clearly the right thing to do. Tiny speckles of toasted nuttiness running through my dough? Yes, thanks. Now, please.

Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0282Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0283Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0284Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0285Well, not now. Two long, patient days from now. But at the conclusion of those days, slicing through a softly shattering crust into a pillowy yellow interior laced with bits of brown butter, it was all I could do to eat each slice in more than one bite. Because, you know, patience.

Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0288Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0289Serving suggestions: there’s not much you shouldn’t do with brioche. It can be a bit soft for a sandwich, but makes glorious toast and french toast. My recipe is for one regular loaf and 8 small or 6 large buns, and we used the bun shape for veggie burgers. Because they are more compact, the buns hold up to rough handling a bit better than the slices, so feel free to load them with pulled pork, or crab cakes, or egg salad, or whatever moves your taste buds most deeply.
Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0296

Trying-to-be-Patient Brown Butter Brioche
barely adapted from Cooks Illustrated
makes 1 loaf and 8 small or 6 large buns
16 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 sticks)
½ cup room temperature or slightly warm water
⅓ cup sugar
2 ¼ teaspoons active dry yeast
7 large eggs, divided (but not separated!)
3 ¼ cups bread flour
1½ teaspoons salt + a pinch
  • Day one: melt the butter over medium heat in a small saucepan, preferably not with a dark bottom (it makes it easier to see the butter browning). As it melts, it will sputter and foam up. The foam will eventually subside, but shortly thereafter it will get foamy again. At this point, tilt the pan a little bit (carefully) to see the bottom – little specks of solids should be getting golden-brown. Let them get golden and then chestnut brown, then turn off the heat and set the pan aside to cool. These little dark bits are what makes it brown butter.
  • While the brown butter cools (pop it in the fridge for a few minutes if you are nervous about the temperature), combine the water, sugar, and yeast in a large glass measuring cup or a medium bowl. Stir well, then set aside for 10 minutes to allow the yeast to activate.
  • Meanwhile, whisk together the flour and salt in one bowl (a large one), and 6 of the eggs in another (a small one will do). When the yeast mixture is bubbly and smells like warm bread, add the whisked eggs and stir to combine. Whisk in the cooled brown butter, then dump the whole wet mess into the bowl with the flour and salt. Stir with a wooden spoon until no flour streaks remain. It will be a damp lump that looks more like thick cake batter than like dough.
  • Cover the bowl of dubious dough with plastic wrap and let it sit for 10 minutes.
  • Uncover the dough and pull up one edge with your fingertips (sprayed with non-stick spray or lightly coated with oil, if you’re concerned about stickiness), then fold that edge over the middle of the dough ball (see photo series above). Turn the bowl 45 degree and fold again. Repeat the process until you have made 8 folds.
  • Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 30 minutes. Repeat this folding and rising process every 30 minutes for 3 more times (so you’ll do this folding process 4 times over the course of 2 hours). This helps activate the gluten without the labor intensive kneading process. After the fourth and final folding circuit, replace the plastic wrap and stow the bowl in the refrigerator overnight.
  • Day two: remove the dough from the refrigerator and relocate it to a well-floured board. Divide it into four pieces. Working one at a time, pat two of the pieces of dough into about a 4-inch round. Around the circumference of the dough, fold in the edges toward the center to form a clumpy ball (see photo series above). 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). Repeat with the second piece of dough.
  • The remaining two pieces are for the buns. Divide each of them into equal thirds or quarters, depending upon whether you want 6 or 8 buns. Repeat the flattening, folding, and shaping process with each of these smaller dough pieces, then cover all dough rounds with plastic wrap and let them rest for 5 minutes.
  • Grease one loaf pan and one baking tray (or line it with parchment paper). After the dough balls have rested for 5 minutes, flip them to expose the seam side and repeat the flattening, folding, and shaping process with each one. This creates a finer, more uniform texture in the final product – a step worth doing.
  • Place the two larger balls into the loaf pan, pressing them gently into the corners. They will rise and merge into each other while baking. Place the 6 or 8 smaller rounds on the prepared cookie sheet. Cover both loosely with plastic wrap and leave to rise until almost doubled in size – this should take 1½ – 2 hours. Even after this rise, the loaf may look a bit puny. Don’t worry; it rises quite impressively in the oven.
  • Half an hour before baking, be sure your oven rack is in the middle position and preheat the oven to 350F. Cooks Illustrated suggests placing a baking stone on the rack to preheat along with the oven, perhaps to create a more even shot of heat.
  • When the loaf and the buns have nearly doubled, beat the final egg with the pinch of salt. Remove the plastic wrap and brush the loaves with the egg mixture. Set the pans in the oven (on the stone, if you’re using one), and bake until the tops are golden brown and the internal temperature registers 190F. This will take 18-20 minutes for the buns, and 35-45 minutes for the loaf. If you can remember, rotate the pans halfway through baking.
  • Once cooked through and shiny golden on top, transfer pans to a wire rack and cool for 5 minutes. Then remove from pans, return to wire rack, and cool at least 2 hours before slicing and serving.

Strawberry Irish Soda Bread for #TwelveLoaves March

Though I am reasonably certain I have some Irish blood somewhere in my Northern European mongrel veins, the luck of the Irish has never been particularly strong for me. I didn’t end up at the schools I’d crossed my fingers for, my job, while great, wasn’t my initial choice, and my thumbs are, at the best of times, a sickly pea soup color, not truly green. The bare, arid stalks of mandevilla I need to dig out of that pot on my porch speak wonders. I’m not destitute, and I’m far from unfortunate. Yes, things work out, but they mostly work out through just that: work.

Food Blog March 2014-3476This week was no exception. Bound and determined to make something spectacular, I embarked on this month’s Twelve Loaves challenge with plans to produce a tray of flaky, delicate biscuits, tangy with goat cheese and loaded with strawberries, folded and rolled and folded and rolled in the Ruhlman method to produce at least a dozen fluffy, puffy layers. I was going to call them “puff biscuits.” I’d already started writing a post.

Food Blog March 2014-3359But demanding that a full pint of strawberries get jammed into a biscuit dough containing a mere 9 ounces of flour (a scant two cups, if you’re counting) is apparently a recipe for disaster. The berries, juicy and tart, immediately dampened the dough. Every time I chilled, then folded, then rolled the dough, more juice, more moisture, more sticky sodden mess. And when I baked them, even after correcting my mistake of setting the oven temperature too low, they just didn’t rise. I mean, they rose a little, pushing up a half inch or so, but it wasn’t the sky-high triumph I was looking for. No puff. Maybe “button biscuits” would be more appropriate. An investment of over three hours produced a bowl full of terrifically flavored, flat-as-a-pancake discs I deemed, with dough packed under my fingernails and flour streaked in my hair (it was an emotional moment), a complete waste of time.

Food Blog March 2014-3451Except that they were delicious. It took me the rest of the evening, and part of this morning, to decide what had happened, and whether to post about it. In the long run, as I’ve noted, though I want this blog to be about delicious and beautiful food, I also want it to be about learning. In sampling piece after piece (of biscuit after biscuit – honesty is important, people), I was reminded of several puff pastry tarts I’ve made that didn’t cooperate either, and my conclusion is that this is a weight problem. Strawberries, even cut into small pieces, are heavy. Leaking juice and packing the dough, they prevented any kind of substantial rise from taking place, even though, as their flaky surroundings indicated, the baking powder and chunks of butter were doing their work. Additionally, the excessive smears of goat cheese I layered in probably didn’t help matters, overwhelming the dry ingredients with more fat than they could handle. Button-busting biscuits, perhaps.

Food Blog March 2014-3449 Food Blog March 2014-3454 Food Blog March 2014-3456Food Blog March 2014-3460So today, I’m trying my luck in another application that embraces both the strawberry theme and the cultural occasion: Irish soda bread, studded with strawberries, perked up with the added interest of lemon zest and fresh thyme leaves. It’s lousy with springtime.

Food Blog March 2014-3464This soda bread cooks in a pot, rather than on a cookie sheet, a technique I learned a year ago and haven’t gone back on since. Baking in a lidded pot retains the kind of moisture bread likes – the kind that commercial ovens pump in that home cooks have trouble emulating. The final few minutes of baking with the lid off sets a crisp crust, but the dribble of melted butter you brush over the loaf when it emerges from the oven ensures that this crust is tender and flavorful.

Food Blog March 2014-3465When baked like this, strawberries become at once sweeter and tarter (really? tarter? I’d prefer “more tart” but my grammar checker admonished me). Their tartness is enhanced by the lemon zest perfuming this loaf, and the herby note of the thyme makes sure it is not too sweet.

Food Blog March 2014-3467This in-betweennness is, I think, what I like so much about Irish soda bread. It feels eggy and rich, but in fact it has no eggs and only a few tablespoons of butter to it. It feels like a breakfast bread you could spread with jam or honey, but it could just as easily sit beside a thick beef stew (well, maybe minus the strawberries). And you could probably administer a few globs of chocolate hazelnut spread to its tender and willing embrace with no complaints.

Food Blog March 2014-3468In any case, the important thing is that it worked, and it was zingy and springy and delicious. Depending on the juiciness of your strawberries, this loaf may look slightly underdone when you pull it out of the oven. Give it an extra ten minutes, if you must, but once it is between 180-200F it should be fully cooked. The berries may create some doughy-looking pockets here and there, but this is nothing that a quick slick of butter and a toast under a broiler or toaster oven won’t fix.

Food Blog March 2014-3480

Strawberry Irish Soda Bread
Makes one 8-9 inch loaf
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cake flour
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
Zest from 1 lemon (about 1 tablespoon)
5 tablespoons butter, divided
1 ½ cups buttermilk
1 pint strawberries, roughly chopped
1-2 teaspoons raw sugar, optional


  • Position a rack in the top third of your oven and preheat to 400F.
  • In a large bowl, whisk the dry ingredients, including the sugar, lemon zest, and thyme leaves.
  • Using a pastry blender, a fork, or your fingers, cut in or rub in 2 tablespoons of the butter until it is evenly dispersed in pebbly little bits through the flours.
  • Add the buttermilk and bring the dough together with a fork. It should be damp but a bit crumbly. When there is almost no dry flour remaining, add the strawberries and combine gently.
  • Dump out your dough onto a floured board and knead gently, pressing the dough together into a ball with the heels of your hands. We are looking just to bring this together into a rough, sticky ball, not to knead it firmly. Think of scones, not of yeasted bread dough.
  • Once you are able to form the dough into a ball of about 6 inches in diameter, score the top with a very sharp knife – an x shape is most traditional.
  • Using 2 of the remaining tablespoons of butter, grease the inside of a dutch oven or similar large, oven-safe, lidded pot.
  • Carefully place the loaf in the pot, clamp on the lid, and bake in your preheated 400F oven for 30 minutes.
  • Remove the lid and bake an additional 10 minutes, until the loaf is golden and lightly crisp, and an oven thermometer registers between 180-200F. If it still looks doughy when you peer at the score marks, give it an additional 5-10 minutes in the oven with the lid off. Meanwhile, melt the remaining tablespoon of butter.
  • Immediately upon removing from the oven, brush with the melted butter and, if you wish, sprinkle with the 1-2 teaspoons of raw sugar for a sweet crunch.
  • Let cool in the pot for at least thirty minutes before removing to a wire rack or straight to a bread board for slicing.

Chocolate Cherry Bread for #TwelveLoaves February

Food Blog February 2014-3250It’s a good thing I acknowledged and made fragile peace with my own status as an imperfect individual last week, because this week’s cookery was a series of thinly veiled almost-disasters, The sauce mornay I tested for February’s sauce entry was too thin (fix: more cheese!). The battery on my camera pooped out on me just as I was photographing the assembled components for the dish I was testing to go with the mornay (perhaps not a terrible thing after all: see above). I made hummus from scratch using Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe (it was phenomenal) to add to another Ottolenghi recipe: a “mumbo-jumbo,” as he calls it, of fresh crisp salad, hard boiled eggs, and fried eggplant atop a warm toasty pita. The eggplant was brown and soft through the center. Not my fault, true, but still discouraging. It’s a week that has left me feeling more attracted to the idea of eating cheese and crackers for dinner than storming into the kitchen to whip up a grapefruit glaze for some unknowing salmon filets.

Food Blog February 2014-3225Even this recipe I’m about to share left me feeling challenged. To comply with this month’s entirely apropos Twelve Loaves theme of chocolate, I decided I wanted to make a chocolate cherry bread – a rich, moist loaf studded with halved juicy gems and redolent of cocoa, as I’d tried once at a Farmers’ Market in Eugene, Oregon. In text-chatting with my mom, I discovered she’d just made a marvelous chocolate rye bread that sounded like the perfect starting recipe for my February loaf.

Food Blog February 2014-3234Food Blog February 2014-3236Food Blog February 2014-3238Food Blog February 2014-3239Food Blog February 2014-3240Food Blog February 2014-3241Except.

I was out of rye flour.

The cherries I bought were less than spectacular (it’s not the season, I know. When will I learn?!).

Food Blog February 2014-3244I didn’t let the loaf rise long enough, or bake long enough, ending up with something a bit doughy in the center and dense (but moist!) besides. Oh, and it’s pretty funny-shaped, isn’t it? I know. And to add insult to injury, I couldn’t even get it together enough to post at my regular morning time.

Food Blog February 2014-3247And yet ten minutes after I’d finished eating my first piece, I found myself back in the kitchen slicing another. And when I got home from a warm, dusty walk with Lucy yesterday morning along a trail that runs just below the grounds of Loyola Marymount University (where other dog owners don’t understand what “all dogs must be leashed” means, apparently), all I wanted was a piece of this bread, toasted, slicked with a layer of cream cheese. And now, I’m thinking it probably won’t spoil my dinner if I saw off a thick slice…

Food Blog February 2014-3254This is not a sweet bread. It is bright with cherries and moist, but barely sweetened with a mere ¼ cup of molasses for that dark, treacle roastiness. The cocoa powder makes it a deep, dark brown and offers a strong flavor, but it doesn’t taste like dark chocolate (somewhat unfairly, I think, since it smells like nothing else!) because it isn’t highly sweetened.

It is, in fact, a good bread for February. It is hearty without being too filling or too rich. It’s a good vehicle for something creamy, to satisfy your need for comfort. It has a perky little reminder of springtime buried inside in little mines of sweetness. If you’re not a fan of the admitted heaviness of the whole wheat flour I’ve used here, you could use more (or even all) bread flour instead. If you don’t like cherries, I suppose you could use blueberries or cranberries or even strawberries, but I do think there is something special about the chocolate and cherry combination that I wouldn’t want to replace.

Food Blog February 2014-3255I think it only fair to tell you that am going to revisit this bread, because I think it deserves some fiddling. I am going to gift it with better cherries. I will try a higher ratio of bread flour to whole wheat, and maybe add some of that rye flour I was missing back in. I might up the sweetness quotient with additional molasses. But in any case, give it a swing through your kitchen and see what you think. Because there’s nothing wrong, when it comes to chocolate, with a little experimentation.


Chocolate Cherry Bread
Makes 1 medium round loaf
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
1 cup warm water (just barely above body temperature)
2 cups whole wheat flour (makes a noticeably whole wheat-y loaf)
1 cup bread flour (exchange whole wheat flour and bread flour quantities for a slightly lighter loaf)
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 ½ teaspoons salt
¼ cup molasses
1 tablespoon soft butter
1 cup halved, pitted cherries
  • Combine the yeast, warm water, and the teaspoon of sugar in a small bowl or a glass measuring cup and set aside for 5-10 minutes to activate. The sugar is not completely necessary, but it does help the yeast get to bubbling a bit faster.
  • While the yeast wakes up in its spa, whisk the flours with the cocoa powder and the salt in a large bowl (or the bowl of your stand mixer) to create a lovely, rich brown dust.
  • When the yeast is bubbling and frothy and smells like bread, add the molasses and the softened butter and stir together before tipping into the dry mixture.
  • If you are using a stand mixer, insert the paddle attachment and mix for a minute or two just until the dough comes together. If you don’t have a stand mixer, use a wooden spoon and some elbow grease to do the same.
  • Once the dough clings together in a shaggy ball, swap out the paddle attachment for the dough hook (or turn the dough out onto a floured board and use your hands). Knead for 6-8 minutes, until the dough becomes shiny and smooth.
  • Set your dough aside in an oiled bowl, covered with plastic wrap, to rise until doubled. Depending on your flour combinations, your yeast, and the temperature of your house, this could take anywhere from 45-90 minutes.
  • When the dough has puffed to double its previous size, punch it down by gently depressing your fist into its center to release collected gases. Let it rest to regain its breath for 5-10 minutes.
  • While your dough gasps, halve and pit the cherries, then lightly flour a bread board to prepare for rolling.
  • Dump your dough out onto a floured board and roll or pat it into roughly a 9×12 inch rectangle or oval. Spread the cherries in an even layer on top of the dough, then either roll or fold the dough up around the cherries. I folded it, as you can see in the photos above. Once the cherries are folded in, gently knead the dough for a few turns to distribute the fruit through it.
  • Shape the dough into a round (or stow it in a greased loaf pan) and let it rise again, covered with plastic wrap, for 1 hour.
  • During the last 30 minutes of rising, preheat your oven to 375F. If you will be baking your bread on a pizza stone, bread stone, or cast iron pan, preheat that along with the oven.
  • When the oven is preheated and the dough has risen again, gently relocate it to whatever baking surface you’ll be using (i.e. a bread stone or a baking tray). Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the bottom feels hollow when thumped.
  • Cool at least ten minutes before slicing, to let the structure solidify a bit and be sure the center is cooked through. Then by all means, slice and eat warm, with or without a good healthy smear of cream cheese.

Simple Sourdough Boule, by weight #TwelveLoaves

Food Blog January 2014-3069Even though I’m getting sauced this year (is that joke already old?), I’m not abandoning my bread ambitions. I love the monthly challenge of Twelve Loaves, and I received a sourdough starter as a Christmas gift that, according to its bequeather, “needs some TLC.” Anxious to do it right, I scoured the internet for suggestions, of which there are no shortage, and in many cases, no consistency, which, delightfully and frustratingly, appears to be no problem at all! I distilled the various directions down into what felt like a successful (read: doable) routine for me. I fed it flour and water, it smells like San Francisco, and I’ve named it Bubblin’ Bertram. Is that weird? Probably.

Food Blog January 2014-3057

Bubblin’ Bertram bubblin’ away

This month’s Twelve Loaves challenge is “Keep it Simple.” As you know if you’ve spent any time on this blog, that tends to be difficult for me. I like a classic. I like a basic, fundamental recipe, but I like to twist it a little, to ask it to shimmy along with me into something fresh and bright and different. To make my predilection for complexity work with the challenge set, and to to celebrate both my new housemate (what? Yeast is alive!) and the kitchen scale Santa brought me (thanks, Mom and Dad!), I decided to face basics in a way I’ve never done before: by weight.

Food Blog January 2014-3058Baking by weight is hardly new. Shauna talks about it all the time, and it is just as true for baking with wheat flour as it is for using gluten-free flour mixes. Michael Ruhlman has written a whole book that relies on it. But it was new for me. There is something bizarrely scary about ignoring your measuring cups, though I’m not sure why, because working by ounces is admittedly so much more precise.

Food Blog January 2014-3059So I threw caution (and habit) to the wind and dove in, dipping up some of my burbling fed starter, glorying in the yeasty sour smell, and kneading it gently into flour, water, salt, and a breath each of butter and honey for a little extra flavor and moisture. It made a lovely soft dough, and I lovingly nestled it in an oiled bowl, covered it with plastic wrap, and set it aside to swell.


"Shaggy" dough

“Shaggy” dough

And then it sat. And I sat. And we sat. And I paced. And it did nothing. For hours. No rising. No bubbling. No noticeable change of any kind. I went back to the internet and searched for solace.

Food Blog January 2014-3061Three hours later, finally, my dough had almost doubled. In my warm home office, this usually takes a maximum of 90 minutes. But I had used no commercial yeast, only what was naturally in the starter. It takes those little guys a while to gulp down all the new food they’ve been handed, and to expel the gas that causes dough to puff and thicken.

Food Blog January 2014-3063Food Blog January 2014-3065Now that I knew time was the real challenge, everything else fell into place. I divided the ball of dough in two, lightly shuffled them around in some flour and shaped them into rounds, and let them rise again for an hour and a half. They didn’t puff very high, but they did expand into fat floppiness, like doll-sized beanbag chairs. But this didn’t seem to matter. Slashed artfully across the top to help gasses escape while baking, coerced into a steam-filled oven for half an hour, and we had a conjoined pair of soft, browned loaves, moist, warm, on the dense side of fluffy, and lightly but noticeably sour. Simple.

Food Blog January 2014-3066Food Blog January 2014-3067Simple Sourdough Boule, by weight
Makes 2 medium rounds
10 oz. sourdough starter, fed and bubbly (about 1 cup)
10 oz. warm water (body temperature or just above) (about 1 ¼ cups)
20 oz. bread flour (3 – 3 ½ fluffed, not packed, cups)
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons honey
2 tablespoons melted butter


  • Place the bowl you’ll be combining your ingredients in onto your kitchen scale. A weight will appear on the display. Press the tare button to bring the display back to zero – you’ll do this every time you add a new ingredient, to make the additions easier to measure.
  • Add enough sourdough starter to bring the weight to 10 ounces, then press the tare button to return to zero.
  • Add enough water to bring the weight to 10 ounces, then press the tare button again: back to zero.
  • Add 20 ounces of bread flour, remembering that, depending on your scale’s settings, it might switch over to pounds when you hit 16 ounces. This caught me off guard. You’ll need, then, 1 pound, 4 ounces of flour.
  • Add the salt, the honey, and the melted butter. Since these are such small quantities, I haven’t given them in weights. Minor adjustments in one direction or the other will not hurt the bread or change the process.
  • With all your ingredients in, use the paddle attachment (for a stand mixer) or a wooden spoon (if you’re working without the machine) to combine the ingredients into a shaggy, rough dough – you’re looking just to incorporate everything. See “shaggy dough” photo above. At this point, if you’re using a stand mixer, switch from the paddle attachment to the dough hook. If you’re using a wooden spoon, now’s the time to dump the dough out onto a floured board and work with your hands.
  • Using your tool of choice, knead for about 8 minutes, or until the dough ceases to feel so sticky, and becomes elastic and smooth. Mine felt a bit lazy. I’m not sure how else to explain that – it moved sluggishly around the mixer, like a sleepy blob.
  • Lightly oil the inside of the bowl (you can use a new, clean bowl for this, but I just shimmy the blob of dough around to distribute oil underneath it), cover with plastic wrap, and set aside to rise in a warm place until doubled. For me, this took about 3 hours. Your sourdough yeasts are a bit sleepier than instant or active dry yeast, and need time to feast. It will happen eventually. You just can’t rush them.
  • When the dough has finally doubled, punch it down by pressing your knuckles into its center and letting the collected gases escape. Let it rest for 5-10 minutes to get its breath back.
  • Dump the dough out onto a floured board. Using a dough scraper, a pizza cutter, or a sharp knife, divide it in half. Shape each half into a round by holding the dough ball in your hands and stretching the top taut, tucking the excess underneath. Each time you stretch and tuck, turn the dough a quarter turn or so. You can also do this while the dough is resting on your board, turning it and tucking the excess, which will form something that looks like a balloon tie or a belly button underneath. Check out this series of photos from the kitchn for helpful illustrations.
  • Place your rounds on a baking sheet and let them rise for another 90 minutes, until they have puffed again (they won’t quite double this time, but you will see noticeable expansion).
  • About 45 minutes before you are ready to start baking, preheat your oven to 450F. Position the rack you’ll be placing the loaves on in the top third of the oven, and if you’re using a baking stone, place that on this top rack to preheat as well. Position the other rack in the bottom third of the oven and, if you have one, stick your cast iron skillet on this bottom rack, allowing it to preheat as well. You’ll see why in a moment.
  • When your bread has risen again and is ready to bake, slit the tops a few times with a razor or a very sharp knife. This helps the loaf swell and rise, since you’re breaking the taut skin you created while shaping. It also looks artful, and we like that.
  • Slide your loaves on their baking tray gently into the oven on the top rack (or, if you are using a baking stone, put the loaves directly on the stone, taking care not to jostle them too much. We worked so hard shaping them; we want to maintain that structure). Then, working quickly and carefully, fill a teacup with ice cubes and empty this into the preheated cast iron skillet you placed on the bottom oven rack. Close the oven door immediately. The purpose here is to collect steam. The ice, going immediately from solid to gas, will create a nice cloud of steam. This helps bread swell quickly and stay moist. You don’t want endless steam, because that would produce a soft crust, but a good blast right at the beginning of baking ensures a soft, nicely textured loaf of a good size, and a crisp crust, which forms as the oven dries out.
  • Bake for 30 minutes, or until the tops are pale gold and the bottoms feel hollow when thumped. These loaves will likely not brown as much as a standard loaf of bread. Here’s why: as it rises, the starches in flour are converted into sugar, which the yeasts eat. The anxious, hungry yeasts in sourdough consume these sugars much faster than standard yeast, so there is not much left to caramelize into that dark, browned surface we are accustomed to seeing on a loaf of homemade bread. No harm done, though, your loaves may just be a bit on the pale side.
  • Remove from the oven and let cool at least 10 minutes before slicing. I know, scorching-hot-just-from-the-oven bread is a glorious thing, but your loaves need a few minutes to set their internal structure. If you slice immediately, the whole loaf will crush and mash against your knife. Wait just a bit. Besides, this way you won’t burn your fingers.

Gingerbread spiced sweet bread with pumpkin pastry cream

Sometimes I agonize over what I’m going to cook. I leaf listlessly through cookbooks and batter my keyboard with demands of something new and fresh and better and, dare I say it? Original. But this month, faced with the Twelve Loaves challenge of baking bread with spices, I knew almost immediately what I wanted to do. I don’t know where the idea came from, but I knew it was going to be a variation on my Nana’s sweet roll dough, stuffed with luscious swirls of pumpkin pastry cream and baked into a decadent loaf.

Food Blog November 2013-2810The problem with this idea, as I started to do some research, turned out to be that no one had done it. I’m not saying this is a bad thing; it’s tough to think you’ve invented something, and then Google it, only to find dozens hundreds probably billions of results that are either more amazing-sounding than you’d imagined, or more beautifully photographed than you have the ability to do.

Food Blog November 2013-2781This one came up with nothing. I started wondering: can you bake pastry cream? If you can, why has no one done this? I tried multiple searches, I leafed through my cookbook collection again, feverishly this time; I even polled friends to see whether this was a thing. One foodie friend speculated unpleasant melting would result. Baking forums promised curdling. Every recipe I located for something remotely similar advocated baking the dough and then piping chilled pastry cream into it. I was contemplating using Nana’s old cream horn molds to wrap little crescents of bread and then shoot pumpkin pastry cream into them, and then I found this. It’s a recipe for something called Torta Della Nonna, which translates to “grandmother’s cake,” and consists of a lovely tender dough, filled sometimes with sweetened ricotta, sometimes with mascarpone, but sometimes with a layer of vanilla or lemon pastry cream!

Food Blog November 2013-2785Victory, if not ensured, at least not a total shot in the dark, I got to work. Pastry cream, if you’ve never made it, is one of those projects that sounds terrifying – hot milk, egg yolks sure to curdle, frantic whisking with scalding and scrambling around every corner – but isn’t really that tricky. It’s another one of those “read ALL the directions first and have your ingredients prepped” kinds of recipes, and suddenly the milk and eggs you were whisking away at thicken into this magical, glossy, extravagant slosh of something an éclair would beg to be filled with. And when you finish eating half of it tasting it to make sure it’s edible, you have only to strain it (in case of accidental scrambled bits), refrigerate it, and then decide what to do with it.

Food Blog November 2013-2790I opted, to be sure the Italian grandmothers I was never lucky enough to have knew what they were doing, to bake up just a little custard cup of it. If it was going to melt all over the place, I’d take a new direction. It didn’t. The top layer formed a thin skin, like custard or pudding left to set without a layer of plastic wrap pressed over it, but below that exposed skin (which, if I’m honest, I don’t really mind) was a tiny vat of this stuff, rich, creamy, better-than-pudding, and I knew we were on our way to great things.

Food Blog November 2013-2783From there, it was a matter of making up a batch of dough, a little more decadent than usual thanks to the addition of an extra egg and a few extra tablespoons of butter (hey, if you’re going to pack it with pastry cream anyway, you might as well go whole hog), and spicing the whole thing with the flavors of the winter holidays: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves.

Food Blog November 2013-2788Food Blog November 2013-2791I decided to make a lattice-top loaf, which entailed rolling, slicing strips along both edges of the dough, spreading the glossy, velvet perfect orange cream inside, and weaving the whole thing together. However, I did this on my bread board (it made sense at the time), not considering that the dough, flexible and buttery already, was about to double or triple in weight thanks to the addition of the cream, and be unwilling to transfer to my baking sheet. Thus, after considerable hand-wringing and fancy spatula work, I ended up with something like a horseshoe, only slightly structurally compromised. I suggest filling and finalizing your loaf on the greased baking tray you’ll be putting into the oven.

Food Blog November 2013-2793Food Blog November 2013-2794Food Blog November 2013-2795Food Blog November 2013-2797My god, this was good. The pastry cream oozed out of the caverns and crevices left by inexperienced and impatient lattice-work, and these parts gained the same skin as my experiment. This is, if we’re going to be picky, perhaps of a slightly compromised texture – it gets slightly grainy and thick – but it’s not enough to be a bother. Because once you get beneath the outer layer and your teeth sink into the delicately sweetened, pumpkin lushness below, you won’t ever want to eat anything again. And the dough itself is no slouch either. It bakes up warm with spices and beautifully textured. The combination is like… well… it’s like nothing I can really think of. The bread is like a sweet roll or a yeasted coffeecake; not as light as a doughnut, but not as heavy as your standard loaf of bread. The cream inside makes it (almost) too decadent to be a breakfast, but it’s a more than suitable dessert or afternoon pick-me-up. To make it even better, this bread actually tastes better the second or third day after you bake it (or even the seventh… I’ve kept our leftovers wrapped in plastic wrap and in the fridge, and a week later it is still moist and perfect).

Food Blog November 2013-2798Food Blog November 2013-2808

Gingerbread spiced sweet bread with pumpkin pastry cream
Makes one 14-16 inch lattice-top loaf (and about 2 ½ cups pastry cream to fill)
For pumpkin pastry cream:
2 cups half and half (or, if you’re me, nearly 1 cup heavy cream and a little over 1 cup whole milk)
½ cup sugar, divided
Pinch salt
4 egg yolks
3 tablespoons cornstarch
½ cup pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling)
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons cold butter
  • In a medium saucepan, heat the half and half, 6 tablespoons of the sugar, and the salt to a bare simmer over medium heat. Separate the eggs and mix the yolks with 2 tablespoons of the sugar, beating until you can only feel a slight graininess from the sugar in the mixture. Whisk in the cornstarch until combined. The mixture will become pale yellow in color and thicken noticeably.
  • Dribble about two tablespoons of the simmering half and half mixture into the egg yolks, whisking quickly as you go. This tempers the yolks, warming them up just enough to prevent them from scrambling when they hit the heat of the milk.
  • Add the yolk mixture to the half and half in the saucepan, whisking constantly as it returns to a simmer over medium heat. The whole mixture will become thick and glossy, and a few reluctant bubbles may sputter to the surface.
  • Turn off the heat and add the pumpkin, cinnamon, vanilla, and butter. Whisk until incorporated and smooth.
  • Position a wire or mesh sieve over a medium glass bowl and dump in the hot pastry cream. Using a spatula, stir and push the cream through the sieve down into the bowl. If there are any scrambled bits or undissolved material, this will catch it and prevent anything from marring the divinely perfect texture.
  • Place a layer of plastic wrap flat against the pastry cream and refrigerate until cold. This thickens the cream and lets it achieve its most glorious texture.
  • While it chills, make the bread dough.
For dough:
2 teaspoons yeast
½ cup warm milk
Pinch sugar
¼ cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 eggs
6 tablespoons room temperature butter
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon cloves
3 – 4 cups flour (all-purpose or bread flour both work well)
  • Combine the yeast, ½ cup warm milk, and a pinch of granulated sugar in a small bowl. Let sit for 5 minutes while the yeast wakes up a bit.
  • Meanwhile, add the brown sugar, salt, and eggs to the bowl of a stand mixer and beat with the paddle attachment into a sludgy homogenous mixture. Add the yeast mixture and the butter and mix again until mostly combined.
  • Add the spices and 3 cups of the flour, and mix with the paddle attachment just until a wet dough comes together.
  • Switch from the paddle to the whisk attachment and knead 6 – 8 minutes, adding more flour, if needed, in ¼ cup increments. Try not to add too much flour, as with each addition the dough becomes a bit denser and tougher.
  • After 6 – 8 minutes of kneading, the dough will still be sticky and loose. Cover it with plastic wrap and let it sit in a warm place for 90 minutes, or until it has doubled in volume.
  • Punch down the dough by depressing your knuckles gently into its center to release the accumulated gases.
  • Turn out the dough onto a well floured board (I did this by just inverting my mixer bowl and letting it sit until the dough flopped out). Flour the dough lightly as well, and roll with a rolling pin into a 12 x 16 inch rectangle. If the dough springs back on itself immediately, let it sit for 5 minutes and then try again.
  • To create the lattice-top look, use a sharp knife to cut slits at a slight angle in the outer edges of dough at 1 inch intervals. Each slit should only be about 2 inches in – you need plenty of room in the center for the pastry cream, and the dough will stretch as you weave it. See photo above for a visual.
  • Transfer your dough to a lightly greased cookie sheet so you can shape it without having to move it again. Spread about 2 cups of the pastry cream onto the uncut center panel of dough, leaving about a ½ inch margin on all sides (what you do with the remaining cream is up to you. I won’t tell anyone). Then, fold up one of the end pieces over the top of the pastry cream and start weaving: fold up one dough strip at a time, taking one from one side and one from the other in turns, the way you would lace a shoe. Fold over the center gently – if you push down too much, pastry cream will go everywhere.
  • When you get to the end of the latticework, fold up the remaining edge and pinch it with the final set of folded strips to seal it. Cover it with plastic wrap and let it rise for 30 minutes.
  • During this final rise, preheat the oven to 350F.  Now, here’s where I must be honest. In the excitement of how firmly I believed this was going to be the best loaf of sweet bread ever, I failed to write down how long I baked this for. But I’m going to say you should start with 20 minutes, and see how things look. The top should get dusty and browned and feel slightly hollow when you knock against it. If it isn’t browned at all or still looks conspicuously raw, give it another ten minutes.
  • When done, remove from oven and cool completely before slicing. To store, wrap in plastic wrap and keep in the refrigerator. To snack, I preferred my slices straight out of the fridge, where the cream was cold and glossy and the bread was chewy and thick.

Sweet Potato Apple Oatmeal Bread

I seem to be increasingly fond of dishes with long titles. There’s nothing particularly extravagant about this quickbread (though I must admit, the prep work involved makes it not all that quick), but the title is lengthy because it does have a lot going on.  Harvest color from a baked, mashed sweet potato, juicy chunks of apple, a hearty, wholesome boost from the oats, plus a hefty dose of brown butter, buttermilk, cinnamon, and a streusel topping crammed with walnuts and dried apple rings. But I didn’t want to overload you, so sweet potato apple oatmeal bread it is.

Food Blog October 2013-2708This bread turned out to be a lovely little response to October’s Twelve Loaves theme: root vegetables. Upon first reading this mandate, I was a little concerned. I’ve already done loaded potato biscuits. Carrot cake is, eponymously, not bread. Beets and rutabegas and parsnips and all those other decidedly savory tubers I’d welcome in a roasting pan or in a latke just don’t seem like a good fit in bread, yeasted or otherwise.

Food Blog October 2013-2701Los Angeles has recently decided that, since it’s almost the middle of October now, Fall might be okay. It might be acceptable to hover below 80 degrees during the day,* and nights could, possibly, occasionally, fall to the chilly (hah!) mid-50s. This has put me in mind of all the harvest flavors I love which, predictably, takes me to Thanksgiving. Once there, it’s only a tiny hop to the humble sweet potato.

Food Blog October 2013-2687Sweet potatoes are true root vegetables. Unlike taro or ginger, which are technically modified stems, or even the grand old potato itself, which is a tuber but not a “true” root (I know, I was shocked too!), sweet potatoes are the root of the plant.

Food Blog October 2013-2680Food Blog October 2013-2685Food Blog October 2013-2682Thankfully, they are also delicious. I love their mellow, starchy sweetness in savory and sweet applications, but I’d never tried incorporating them into bread before. I knew almost immediately I wanted a quickbread rather than a yeasted loaf, and from there it only remained to pair a few flavors. Apples seemed like a nice match for sweet potato: big, fresh Honeycrisps have been showing up at our Farmers’ Market lately, and their juicy tartness would be a good foil for the dependable mellow of my main player. Oatmeal would bulk up the bread a little, giving it strength to support the onslaught of apple and sweet potato I had in mind. I found an oatmeal quickbread recipe that sounded promising on Flour Child, but things really cemented when I read Irvin’s post on Spiced Brown Butter Apple Walnut bread on his blog Eat the Love.

Food Blog October 2013-2688So, sweet potato, baked rather than steamed or boiled to cut down on moisture, an excessive mound of apples, left in sizable chunks that, when you start to mix them in will seem like far too many, rolled oats to bake into a breakfast-worthy slice, and the usual players – brown sugar and cinnamon and just enough salt – get topped off by a streusel you will want to eat not just on this bread, but on everything.  Walnut pieces, more oats, cinnamon for flavor and flour for texture, enough butter to hold things together, and the crowning touch: roughly chopped dried apples that, when baked, dehydrate even more into crispy, gloriously tart-sweet candy. I’m already imagining it on oatmeal, or pancakes, or baked on its own into a take on granola.

Food Blog October 2013-2699This is a moist loaf, and hearty, but not particularly dense. It can’t quite support its own weight, which means slices collapse easily on themselves because they are groaning under the quantity and size of the apples. It is also not terrifically sweet. I was aiming for a breakfast or a mid-morning snack kind of loaf. If you want something more dessert-like, or if you just have a determined sweet-tooth, try increasing the quantity of brown sugar by a few tablespoons.


* This morning’s meteorological news, however, may have made a liar out of me.

Food Blog October 2013-2707

Sweet potato apple oatmeal bread
Adapted from Flour Child and Eat the Love
makes one large loaf
For bread:
1 ½ cups flour
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup butter (8 tablespoons or 1 stick)
½ cup buttermilk
2 large eggs
½ cup brown sugar
1 cup baked, mashed sweet potato (from one medium)
2 apples, peeled, cored, and cut into generous ½ inch pieces (I used Granny Smiths)
For streusel:
2 tablespoons oats
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons brown sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ cup roughly chopped walnuts
¼ cup roughly chopped dried apple rings
2 tablespoons softened or melted butter


  • If you have not already baked your sweet potato, preheat your oven to 400F, pierce the flesh of the sweet potato a few times with a knife or the tines of a fork, and bake until the potato is evenly soft – anywhere from 35-60 minutes, depending on the size of the root.  When done, remove from the oven and cool completely before halving lengthwise and mashing the flesh. Discard the skin (or just eat it – it’s sweet and soft and good for you!).
  • Turn the oven down to 350F (or, if you haven’t just baked a sweet potato, preheat it to 350F) and butter, grease, or spray a loaf pan.  Set aside.
  • Begin by browning the butter. Melt your ½ cup of butter in a small pot over medium-low heat. As it melts, it will foam and sizzle a bit and some scummy stuff will appear on the surface. That’s okay. Water is evaporating and leaving us with a more concentrated product. After a while, little brown bits will begin to form on the bottom. This is what we want, but watch carefully – it takes a matter of seconds for butter to go from perfectly brown to burned. When the brown bits are nice and toasty, turn off the heat and set aside to cool.
  • While the butter cools, it’s a good time to make your streusel so you’re prepared later. In a small bowl, combine all streusel ingredients except the butter and whisk lightly together with a fork. Add butter and toss with the fork again or with your fingers until the mixture begins to stick together in clumps. Set aside.
  • Now, back to the bread. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, oats, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. I like to use a whisk for this – it aerates the flour and evenly disperses the leavening agents.
  • In a large bowl (or the bowl of your standing mixer), combine the buttermilk, eggs, brown sugar, and mashed sweet potato. Add the brown butter and beat until a soupy, homogenous mixture is formed.
  • Add the dry ingredients to this wet mixture in two batches, beating just enough to combine after each. Once the flour mixture is incorporated and you have a thick, stiff batter, fold in the apples using a stiff spatula. It will seem like there are too many for the quantity of batter, but don’t worry. It will all work out.
  • Scrape the batter, which might seem more like just battered apple cubes, into the loaf pan.  Tap it once or twice on the counter to release air bubbles and help it settle a bit.
  • Pack on the streusel.
  • Bake in a preheated 350F oven for 1 hour and 30 minutes, or until the topping is deeply bronzed and a toothpick or knife inserted in the center of the bread comes out with just a few moist crumbs. Since the size and juiciness of your apple chunks may vary, check for doneness the first time after an hour, so you can gauge how much more time you might need.
  • If your bread is not done yet but outlier edges of dried apple or walnut threaten to burn, treat this like you’d treat a pie crust: tent the offending areas loosely with aluminum foil to keep them from getting too dark.
  • Cool completely before attempting to slice or remove from loaf pan.  Trust me.