Well, hey! I figure now that it’s April and we’ve all clearly gotten over carb-banning early months of the new year, that we can get real once again and talk about the good stuff in life. Like bread. And let’s just go all in here and talk white bread. YOLOOOOOOO.
Since relocating to my hometown of Chicago from San Francisco a year and a half ago (!!), I’ve gotten deep into the art of Midwestern baking. What it looks like, what it tastes like, what it means, the roots of it all. It’s been good for the brain, the spirit, the soul. When I left the Midwest in 2003, there was so much about this place that I didn’t realize was special, interesting, or different from other parts of the country. I guess that’s to be expected when you grow up somewhere and just take the little things for granted, and I realize this is not a unique story. But what is unique is getting the opportunity to come back, not just after having spent my entire early adulthood on the west coast, but the early part of motherhood, too.
Because now coming “home” isn’t just about me. It’s about making a real home in the place where my earliest memories live, and suddenly recalling those memories, one after the next like I’ve unearthed a dusty box of Polaroids and Beta home videos, with my kids who are currently forming their own earliest memories. TRIPPY. I even might use the word “meta” here if I felt confident enough about using it correctly?
I’m going Hyper-Christmas™ this year, people. I’m talking going to cookie exchanges, lots of baking and candymaking, cranking up the Bublé (is it just me, or is he the new Bing Crosby?), and making my kids wear matching Christmas jammies because I’m their mother and I only have a few good years to get away with such frippery. Fa-la-la-la-la!!
I’m pretty pumped about the whole thing, and now that my girl is getting old enough to really get into baking with me all the way through a recipe and not peacing out right after dumping everything into the mixing bowl, I’ve been thinking about seasonal things we can make together every year, and start a new little tradition of our own. Of course, every holiday season officially kicks off with a batch of my very favorite sugar cookies, but this year I came across a cozy recipe that absolutely screams Christmas–sweet, colorful, a bit of history from my German heritage involved, and just enough of a process to make it holiday-worthy and not something you’d do on any old weekend. Lately I’ve been so inspired by all the amazing German baked goods Luisa has been sharing on Instagram as she writes her next sure-to-be-fabulous book, and now I’m all, GUTEN TAG, LET’S MAKE ALL THE KUCHEN, BITTE. It’s pure magic, the things she’s been turning out.
In my last post, I raved about my love of the one-pan wonder at dinnertime. Which, of course, immediately got me thinking about one-bowl/one-dish wonders when it comes to baking. As much as I love pulling out every crazy baking pan and gadget and really getting into it in the kitchen, after months and months of recipe development and testing (and an appalling amount of dishwashing), there’s nothing better than the feeling of a throwing together a recipe that feels as easy-breezy and dump-and-stir as a boxed cake mix, but isn’t…a boxed cake mix.
There are a few one-bowl, minimal dish-dirtying favorites in my arsenal that I go back to time and time again, like these brownies, or this banana bread, that are so simple and satisfying, it’s as though you can feel your all the scraggly edges of your weary soul fusing back together as you stir. In a busy life that sometimes make you want to punch yourself in the face from all its pressures, that’s the good stuff, right there. They’re the kind of recipes that remind me why I love to bake. I just dump everything in and stir, stir, stir my way back to sanity.
Maybe it’s because I’m a late February baby, but I’ve always had a thing for Valentine’s Day. Abundance of twee notwithstanding, I just sort of love the idea of a Love Day. Granted, there have been years when I was Valentine-less, but even then I guess it was the hope that one day I would have a Permanent Valentine that buoyed me, along with a legit excuse to get chocolate wasted. These days, I still get chocolate wasted on Valentine’s Day, and this year in particular I’m pretty excited about celebrating some Big Love with our Little Family. There’s a lot that’s happened in the past several months, plenty of ups and downs and stressing until I think I might lose it (and on a couple of occasions I totally have). But we might (maybe? Please, universe?) be entering a bit of sweet spot right now, a little calm before the next inevitable storm. And so I say, bust out the chocolate. Turn dessert into breakfast, or vice versa. And good grief, don’t forget the Champagne.
While I hesitate to call it an all-out phobia, I will say that my, um, reticent nature towards baking with yeast has been well-documented in the past. I know I’m not the only one out there who suffers from this fear, and let’s face it–yeast is a funny thing. I mean, it’s ALIVE, for cry-yi. Unpredictable, with a mind of its own! And how do you choose the right type of yeast? What if you only have active dry and the recipe calls for instant? How can you really know for sure if the dough has doubled? The world could explode with such Oprah-esque Life Questions.
Well. Recently I’ve tried to tackle that fear for good, experimenting with different breads, rolls, even cakes that use yeast as their puffing (and flavor) agent. I’ve been inching closer to becoming One With the Yeast. Baby steps.
The time is upon us: It’s just about fall, y’all! Soups and stews are about to be all up in my area on the regular. It’s about dang time. To celebrate, I want to share with you the ultimate carb-y accompaniment that is my new obsession. Pretzel Rolls. Like the perfect shopping mall/ballpark soft pretzel, in a totally different form. You’ve never met a more addictive dinner roll, I’m telling you.
It feels like approximately 50 years ago, but once upon a time I had a job as a makeup artist for a very fancy, stylish cosmetic line. I would travel around to upscale department stores like Saks and Neiman Marcus where I ordinarily would have no business being, and design new makeup looks for ladies of all shapes, sizes and colors and promote the brand. It was a pretty rad job, I have to say. But my favorite days were the ones in my hometown of Chicago, when I visited what used to be the historical Marshall Field’s on State Street (which is now a flippin’ Macy’s, DON’T EVEN GET ME STARTED). It was a beautiful store with fun clientele and a gorgeous cosmetics department. But what I really loved was my lunch break there, because the top floor had a café with floor-to-ceiling windows, a stunning city view, and a place that had the most glorious seasonal salads, all served with a moan-inducing pretzel roll. Deeply golden with a chewy crust, smattered with crunchy coarse salt. Huminuh.
All right, so I know I’ve told all y’all more than once about my totally irrational fear of yeast-raised doughs. I don’t know what it is–I suppose perhaps I lack a Bread Thumb or somesuch. Or maybe my standards are too high (insert witty comment from husband here). But for whatever reason, I’ve had way more misses than hits when it comes to making bread. And with all of the amazing artisanal breadmakers here in the Bay Area, there’s little reason to make some myself, other than that nagging voice in the back of my head telling me that I need to conquer my baker’s Achilles’ heel. Oddly, that voice sounds a lot like Justin Bieber. I still haven’t figured that one out.
Anyway, when it comes to breads, I tend to be drawn to recipes that are of the Bread for Dummies sort. The kind that have millions of positive reviews or have things like “Foolproof”, “No-Knead” or “Easy” in the title always catch my eye. And if the recipe is by a baker I love so much I have him at the table of my long, loud lunch daydream along with Lynne Rossetto Kasper, Ina, Shirley Corriher and Christopher Kimball, then all the better. Enter Nick Malgieri’s Quick Brioche.
I am a sucker for brioche. My first real taste of it came from the legendary LaBrea Bakery in Los Angeles and it pretty much ruined me for life–I’ve never tasted one so light and delicate, and yet so buttery and rich. Toasted with blackberry jam, oh my Lord, you may never eat anything else again. I didn’t hope to reach such great heights with this particular recipe, but nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised with the results. The day it was made, you could find at least one person, full grown or tiny, with a hunk in his or her hand at all times–the whole loaf disappeared within a day.
For a dough that comes together in a flash in the food processor, the flavor and texture here is especially impressive. I’m talking big results for very, very little work, guys. It baked up all fluffy inside and deeply golden with a beautifully glossy crust. Afterwards, the only thing Justin Bieber was dogging me about in the back of my head was the fact that the nice little braid I had going when it went into the oven sort of stretched out and pulled apart unattractively down the center–other than just putting it in a loaf pan next time, any pointers as to how I can remedy this and get this whining, shaggy-haired teeny bopper off my back, friends?
Adapted from Nick Malgieri’s The Modern Baker
Note that the butter used here is cold, not softened as in other brioche recipes. Keeping the butter cool here will help it withstand any heat from mixing in the food processor. You can make one large braid, or divide the dough in half and make two loaves with it in two buttered 9×5 inch loaf pans, which may take a few more minutes to bake.
Makes 1 16-inch long braid, or 2 standard-sized loaves
1 /2 cup milk
2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
8 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1 additional large egg, beaten with a pinch of salt
Heat the milk in a small saucepan or in the microwave until it is just lukewarm, about 110 degrees F. Pour the milk into a small bowl and whisk in the yeast. Use a spoon to stir in 1 cup of the flour. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside until it is bubbly and slightly risen, about 20 minutes.
In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade (or the dough blade, if you have one), combine the butter, sugar, salt, eggs and egg yolks. Pulse until the butter is finely chopped and equally distributed throughout the mixture, which will appear curdled and separated (but won’t worry–it will come back together when flour is added).
Scrape the yeast mixture into the food processor and pulse 6 times to mix. Add 1 cup of the remaining flour and pulse until the mixture is smooth. Scrape down the bowl. Add the rest of the flour and pulse again until well-mixed. Let the dough rest in the food processor for 10 minutes.
After the rest, start the processor and let it run continuously for 10 seconds. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface. With the help of a bench scraper, knead the dough 5 or 6 times, or until it is slightly more elastic.
With the bench scraper or a knife, divide the dough into 3 equal pieces. Roll each each piece into a thick, even rope about 12 inches long. If the dough is too sticky to work with, refrigerate it for 20 minutes and start again.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the three ropes lengthwise on the sheet, with about 1/2 inch in between them. Starting in the middle of the loaf, braid the ropes together towards you, pinching the ends together gently and tucking them under the loaf. Rotate the pan and repeat, braiding the rest of the loaf.
Cover the braid with a towel or buttered plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in bulk, 1 to 2 hours, depending on how warm the room is.
When you’re ready to bake, position a rack to the center of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees.
Just before baking, brush the braid lightly all over with the egg wash, being careful not to let it puddle in the creases of the braid. Bake until the bread is well risen and beautifully golden and glossy, about 35 to 40 minutes. Slide the parchment onto a wire rack to let the bread cool before slicing.
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