Monday, December 5, 2016

Christmas Before Thanksgiving: Three Breads and Strata










Santa arrived early this year. On his way to my chimney, he first visited the good folks from Wolf Gourmet -- to pick up the goodies -- which he then delivered to my doorstep a couple of days before Thanksgiving. (As it turned out, the chimney was too narrow for the package, so the jolly old man had to go the traditional route.)

As soon as he left, Miss Pain ran to unpack the box.

"Oh Mama, look, it's an oven, it's a little oven," she cried as my present finally emerged from a towering amount of cardboard and styrofoam. "And it has red knobs, Mama, it has red knobs!!!"

The apple does not fall far from the tree.

Remember the story about red knobs? And the very special warm and fuzzy feeling they tend to induce in my persona. Needles to say, when two weeks before Thanksgiving the good folks from Wolf Gourmet sent an email, asking if I would be interested in a brand new Wolf Gourmet Countertop Oven to play with (and keep), they did not have to ask twice!

"Don't you already have two ovens," asked my husband. We've been married for over 17 years (OMG, can it be that loooong???), and by now I have gotten used to his silly questions and extreme levels of culinary ignorance. It's all fine and dandy, because, I know the truth! And so do all relentless kitchen enthusiasts like me, those culinary Don Quixotes on a never-ending quest for food adventures, the folks in a perpetual state of excitement over the next dish they are going to make, those who would much rather live in their kitchen fantasies then in reality, those who live to cook instead cook to live, they will understand.

One can never have too many ovens!

If you still find three ovens a bit excessive, to my defense let me also say that: A) My new oven is cute, countertop friendly, very equipped, and comes with red knobs, and how can anyone say "no" to such a darling? B) My other two ovens, made by The Famous Appliance Manufacturer, both died within six months of purchase. Although The Famous Appliance Manufacturer promptly sent a whole crew to repair them, and as a courtesy gesture extended warranty on both items, I still live in a state of perpetual, all-consuming fear that the double incident will happen again and I will not be able to bake. Now that I have a back up, it feels as if someone unplugged a giant vent from the top of my lungs and I can finally breathe.

It's priceless.

So, in case you've been looking for me recently, worried that I might have disappeared from the face of the earth, please worry no more. I've been baking. It all started over the Thanksgiving holiday, when I decided to put my new oven to the test. I thought of first doing a crostini dish or a small roast, kind of like a warm up, and then perhaps a strata or a quiche, and a batch of savory cookies, but I read the manual and there it was, the bread proofing function, which frankly, is a very cool thing, so I figured, "let's proof some bread."

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am not a top-notch baker. When my grandmother was alive, we used to do a great deal of cakes, pastries, and small cookies because she and Mom, they were the gurus. I had done pastries for a decade, before coming to the States, where the entire new culinary world opened up, and there were so many new things to cook (and bake), so I put the pastry making skills into a drawer. By now, they are probably gone. But I still enjoy baking, perhaps more so than anything else. As far as breads are concerned, I am definitely not a serious player. Every once in a while, I succumb to the temptation of practicing the art and science of making sourdough, growing my own personal chef, and that kind of stuff, but I have a job to do, and a real science to practice, and a kid to take care of (and she comes with a lot of homework and after-school activities), so I've put my sourdough dreams in the drawer too. But I can still put up a decent, easy-going, no-fuss loaf of bread, and that my friends, is what I've been doing since Thanksgiving. My kitchen is covered in flour, our apartment is perfumed with yeast and freshly baked loaves, and it feels so good that I intend to stay in this state at least until Christmas. Speaking of which, I am also contemplating packing my new oven into the trunk of our car and taking it to our Annual Holiday Pilgrimage to Adirondacks, because there is only one oven in Master Achilles's lodge, and a lot of aspiring and ambitious cooks, who are dying to demonstrate their kitchen supremacy. Every once in a while it crosses my mind how our Adirondacks kitchen looks less like a kitchen, and more like a mythological battlefield of culinary giants. And I simply cannot help but rub my hands with glee as I envision all the glorious dishes I will be able to produce, while my buddies line up in front of the OTHER oven waiting for their turn. And no, I do not intend to share, because when one is in a position of competitive advantage, one should be a real dummy not to exercise it.

So let me take a moment between two bouts of baking and share my current favorites. Guinness and molasses bread was an absolute winner this Thanksgiving holiday. It's dark and stormy, sweet and malty, complex yet simple and very friendly. It absolutely loves, loves, loves aged cheddar. Another of its favorite activities is being turned into savory French toast and "French onion soup" strata. Now, let me tell you about apricot, caraway and rye bread. That's a playful little soul, a tiny bit German-proper, but with a huge personality and tendency to befriend anything it might encounter on a plate. And last, but not the least, is the ancient grains bread with nigella; a tad antiquated and a tad nutty, but in a really cute way, like a nutty professor across the hallway, kind of edgy, curious and borderline New Age.

And yes, I forgot to mention the strata, in case you ever happen to find yourself in a position of having too much bread. Although I kind of wonder how could such a thing possibly happen?





Guinness and Molasses Bread


* 2 cups (10 oz) whole wheat bread flour, plus more for dusting
* 1 cup (5 oz) white bread flour
* 2 1/2 tsp salt
* 1 1/2 tsp instant yeast (I used SAF Red)
* 3 tbsp molasses
* 2 tsp vital wheat gluten (optional)
* 1 cup Guinness (or other similar stout)
* about 1/3 cup water



Bring the Guinness to room temperature. Warm the water to about 100F. Add the molasses and let it dissolve completely. In a large bowl, mix the flours, yeast and salt. Add the Guinness and water. Mix well. (You want the dough to be a bit sticky, but manageable. If the dough is too stiff, add a bit more water. My apartment is kind of dry in the winter so I always have to add more.) Knead with a mixer for about five minutes and then for another five minutes by hand, until dough is smooth, elastic and no longer sticky.

Form the dough into a ball and place it in a greased bowl, turning it over so the top has a thin film of grease on it as well. Cover the bowl with a damp towel or a piece of plastic wrap. (Grease the underside of the plastic, so that it won't stick if the dough comes in contact with it.) Place the bowl in a cozy place, and let the dough rise until it has doubled in volume (it will take about an hour to two hours, depending on your environment).

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Turn the dough out onto lightly floured surface. Press it gently to expel air and shape it into a boule. Place the loaf on a baking sheet. Cover the boule with a damp towel and let it rise until it has doubled in volume, about an hour.

Preheat the oven to 400F (375F convection). (I usually do so at least an hour or two before baking the bread.)

Before putting the bread in the oven, dust it with flour and score it with a sharp knife about 1/4 inch deep. Place the bread in the oven and bake for about 40-45 minutes. Remove the bread from the oven and transfer to wire rack to cool. 







Apricot, Caraway and Rye Bread


for the starter

* 1/2 cup rye flour
* 1/2 cup whole wheat bread flour
* 1/2 cup white bread flour
* 1 1/2 tsp (5 g) active dry or instant yeast
* 2 tbsp honey
* 1 cup of water


for the bread

* 1/2 cup rye flour
* 1/2 cup whole wheat bread flour
* 1/2 cup white bread flour
* 1 tbsp vital wheat gluten (optional)
* 1/2 cup dried apricots, cut into 1/4-inch dice 

* 2 tsp caraway seeds
* 1 1/2 tsp salt
* 1/2 cups of water



First, make the starter. In a large bowl mix all dry ingredients. Warm up the water to about 100F. Add the honey to the water and let it dissolve completely. Gradually whisk in dry ingredients, continuing to mix until all lumps are gone. Cover with a towel, and leave overnight at room temperature.

To make the bread, in a large bowl, stir together the remaining flour, salt, vital wheat gluten, apricots and caraway. Mix in the starter using a wooden spoon, then stir in 1/2 cup of lukewarm water. Knead with a mixer for about five minutes. (If the dough is too stiff, add a bit more water.) Transfer the dough to floured work surface and knead by hand for another five minutes, until dough is smooth. Form the dough into a ball and place it in a greased bowl, turning it over so that the top has a thin film of grease on it as well. Cover the bowl with a damp towel or a piece of plastic wrap. (Grease the underside of the plastic, so that it won't stick if the dough comes in contact with it.) Place the bowl in a cozy place, and let the dough rise until it has doubled in volume (it will take about an hour to two hours, depending on temperature and humidity).

When the dough has risen, scrape it out of the bowl and put it back onto a floured surface. Shape the dough into a loaf and place on the baking sheet. Cover with damp kitchen towel and let it rise for about one hour.

Preheat the oven to 450 F (425 convection). Bake the bread for about 40 minutes. Allow the bread to cool completely before cutting it.






Ancient Grains Bread with Nigella


* 2 cups white bread flour, plus more for dusting
* 1/3 cup amaranth flour
* 1/3 cup millet flour
* 1/3 cup sorghum flour
* 2 tbsp quinoa flour
* 1/4 cup milk powder
* 1 tbsp vital wheat gluten
* 2 1/2 tsp salt
* 1 1/2 tsp (5 g) instant yeast (I used SAF Red)
* 2 tsp nigella
* 4 tbsp butter, melted
* about 1 1/4 cup water
* 2 tbsp honey



Warm up the water to about 100F. Add the honey and let it dissolve completely.

In a large bowl, mix all dry ingredients. Add the butter and water. Mix well. (If the dough is too dry, add a bit more water.) Knead with a mixer for about 5 minutes, and then another 5 minutes by hand, until dough is smooth and elastic. Form the dough into a ball and place it in a greased bowl, turning it over so the top has a thin film of grease on it as well. Cover the bowl with a damp towel or a piece of plastic wrap. (Grease the underside of the plastic, so that it won't stick if the dough comes in contact with it.) Place the bowl in a cozy place, and let the dough rise until it has doubled in volume (it will take about an hour to two hours, depending on temperature and humidity).

Line a baking sheet with parchment.

Turn the dough out onto lightly floured surface. Give it a punch or two to expel air and then knead out any leftover bubbles. After you've kneaded all the bubbles out, let the dough rest for several minutes. Shape the dough into a boule. To do so, on a lightly floured surface roll the dough out with the flat of your hands gently, then carefully wrap the edges towards the center. Turn the loaf over and tidy it up if necessary. Place the loaf on a baking sheet. Cover the boule with a damp towel and let it rise until it has doubled in volume, about an hour.

Preheat the oven to 360F (385F convection).

Before putting the bread in the oven, dust it with flour and score it with a sharp knife or razor, about 1/4 inch deep. Place the bread in the oven and bake for about 45-50 minutes. Remove the bread from the oven and transfer to wire rack to cool. 






"French Onion Soup" Strata


* 2 1/2 lbs yellow onions, sliced into thin ribs
* 4 tbsp vegetable oil
* 18 oz Guinness and molasses bread (about 9 cups), cut into 3/4-inch cubes
* 6 oz finely grated Gruyère (2 cups)
* 3 oz finely grated Emmentaler (1 cup)
* 3 cups milk
* 8 eggs
* 1/4 cup white wine or dry sherry
* 2 tsp finely chopped thyme 

* 1 tbsp dijon mustard
* about 1 tbsp butter for greasing the dish
* salt and freshly grated black pepper


hardware

* 11x9-inch baking dish


In a large pot over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the onions and mix them well so that they are evenly coated in oil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the onions are caramelized and soft, about 45 minutes. Deglaze the pot with white wine. Remove from the heat and season with thyme, salt and pepper.

In a small bowl, mix the grated cheeses.

Butter the baking dish. Spread one quarter of bread cubes in the dish. (You want the bottom of the dish lightly covered in cubes, do not pack them too densely.) Top evenly with one third of onion mixture. Sprinkle with one quarter of cheese mixture. Repeat layering twice (ending with cheeses). Spread the remaining bread cubes on top and give them the final sprinkle of cheese.

Whisk together milk, eggs and mustard. Season the mixture with salt and pepper. Pour evenly over the strata. Chill the strata, covered with plastic wrap, at least 8 hours, or until the bread has fully absorbed the custard.

Preheat oven to 350°F (325F convection). Remove the strata from the refrigerator one to two hours before baking. Place the strata on the middle rack of the oven and bake, uncovered, until puffed, golden brown, and cooked through, for about 45 minutes.

Let the strata stand about 10-15 minutes before serving.

Serves 8-10


7 comments :

  1. Oh my god, I love that little stove and know just the person that needs it. Those are wonderful looking breads.

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    1. Oh my, that is so thoughtful of you. You'll make someone really happy!

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  2. You don't know how happy I was to see your post in my email, yay! And I just LOVE your new little oven, it would go most perfectly in my black and white kitchen which is accented in all things red. That French Onion Bread looks to die for. Yay for you on all the baking, I can barely bake a muffin.

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    1. Kathryn, it is so good to hear from you! Hey, I am not good with muffins either -- we all have out strengths and weaknesses -- and it is all fine and dandy, as long as we do not stress about them :) Have a great holiday!

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  3. Truly an amazing post. We're so trying out your Guiness bread. Molasses are a bit rare here in Greece, have you ever tried something similar using lets say, a dark pine honey? Does that sound like something that could work? Sorry in advance for asking this, we know, the recipe calls for molasses!:):)
    Thank you for the awesome post!
    Greetings from Athens, Greece
    Mirella and Panos

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    1. Hi Mirella and Panos, thank you so much! Yes, you can absolutely use dark honey, the darker the better. I often use it too, molasses is not carved in stone :) You could also use dark brown sugar. Good luck!

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