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German-style Pretzels

The first Oktoberfest was a wedding celebration.  No wonder it’s basically a giant party where one is expected to consume large quantities of beer and food.

It’s also held in Munich at the end of September, so that the final days are in the first week of October.  In this regard, the Oktoberfest I am planning with a friend next weekend is woefully inaccurate; but I think we can make good on the beer and food part.IMG_2074 color correct

It really all came about because her husband, M, has become quite the connoisseur of homemade mustard.  Naturally, I invited myself over to taste some of the many flavors he has developed over the past year or so.  And, as is wont to happen with people who love food the way we do, one thing led to another, and now we’re hosting our very own celebration of the 1810 wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen.  What can I say, we’re a sentimental bunch.

As we drew up the list of necessary foods (sauerkraut, bratwurst, cheeses, pie), someone made the suggestion to order pretzels from an excellent local German bakery, Fressen.  And, as is wont to happen with someone who loves food the way that I do, I immediately scoffed at that notion and insisted that I would make the pretzels myself.IMG_2084 color correct

I have never made pretzels before but I do know that traditionally they are dipped in lye to achieve their deep brown sheen.  This sounded like the kind of chemistry experiment I wasn’t willing to attempt in my kitchen.  Luckily, my friend the baker, who has yet to disappoint me when I send him strange and urgent requests, was able to turn up a recipe that I could adapt to home-scale proportions.

Rolling the dough out just right to achieve the German pretzel’s trademark fat belly and skinny arms may take a bit of practice; but rest assured that your pretzels will be delicious no matter what shape they take.

I don’t have a homemade mustard recipe yet so you’ll just have to make do with whatever you have in the fridge; but maybe this weekend I’ll learn a thing or two at Oktoberfest, and I’ll let you know.

German-style Pretzels
To make 15 3-oz. pretzels:

16 oz. water, lukewarm
2 ½ t active dry yeast
3 T sugar
5 C flour
1 ¾ t salt

Baking soda solution:
64 oz. water
2 t salt
2 T + 2 t baking soda

In a large bowl, combine the water, yeast, and sugar.  Let sit 5 minutes.  In a separate bowl combine the flour and salt.  Add the flour and salt to the yeast mixture and stir to combine.  Knead until the dough passes a windowpane test*; if using an electric mixer, mix with the dough hook attachment for 5-8 minutes; if mixing by hand, gather the dough into a ball and knead on a lightly-oiled surface about 10 minutes.

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Roll only the ends of the pretzel, leaving a fat section of dough in the center.

Lightly oil a large bowl and let the dough proof, covered, about 45 minutes.  On a lightly-oiled surface, cut the dough into 3-oz. pieces.  If you don’t have a kitchen scale, divide the dough into three pieces, and then divide each piece into five.  Roll each piece of dough out to about 20 inches, leaving a fat bulge in the middle.  Bring the ends around to the inside, give them a twist, and press the twisted ends into the pretzel’s belly (see the top photo for reference).

Preheat oven to 475 and prepare a sheet pan with a layer of parchment paper.  Bring the baking soda solution to a boil and drop the pretzels in a few at a time until they float to the surface, about 30 seconds.  Lift the pretzels out with a large slotted spoon and place on the prepared sheet pans.  Sprinkle with coarse salt.  Bake until dark brown, about 20 minutes, and cool on a wire rack.

*The windowpane test means that when you gently stretch a small piece of dough between your fingers, the gluten bonds are strong enough to allow the dough to form a thin, translucent screen rather than ripping.

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Bourbon Cherry Hand Pies

We have a pretty small freezer, and for someone like me this can be a bit of a problem.  In any given season, you will probably find:

  • Partially-used bags of no fewer than eight and no more than twelve different flours
  • Sauces of all colors frozen into ice cubes, from tomato paste and peanut sauce, to green curry paste and pesto
  • At least one ball of some sort of dough, frozen with the intention of whipping it out at a moment’s notice to impress guests (who have yet to materialize)
  • Recycled yogurt containers full of various soups and broths, well-labeled (and well-hidden behind bags of flour)
  • Several bags of vegetable trimmings, haphazardly frozen on the off-chance that they will be reused in some future soup
  • Gallon bags bursting to the seams with berries, mostly to satisfy A’s compulsion to freeze berries of all kinds, which he will promptly forget about as soon as apple season begins

On top of all that, we now have to make sure there’s room every other month for our 10-lb. delivery of meat from Moomaw Farm.

So occasionally a kitchen project is determined by how to create as much empty space in the freezer with as little effort as possible.  Thus it happened that today, as fall announced its undeniable presence with blustery downpours, I found myself baking with decidedly unseasonal sour cherries.

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Sour, or pie, cherries have a limited growing season, and since they don’t travel well, they need to be used quickly.  I managed to get my hands on 4 lbs. of fresh cherries back in July, but was about to head out of town, so I pitted and froze them all immediately.  And as you might imagine, they got a bit lost in our crowded freezer—that is, until I was musing aloud that I might make a pie soon, and A asked for a cherry pie.

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Well, I’ll do you one better: twelve cherry pies!  Hand pies, that is; smaller than a turnover (so you can eat two without feeling guilty), and with quite a large pie crust-to-filling ratio.  Hand pies really are the cream of the crop; both your crust and your filling have to be top-notch to stand up to that ratio.  That little bit of filling has to be immensely satisfying, and the crust needs to be so flaky and flavorful that you don’t mind eating a handful of it.

Of course, twelve hand pies are still more than A and I can (or should) eat in a couple days.  So six of these went back into the freezer, to be baked off some other rainy afternoon when A least expects it.  And I made more cherry filling than I needed, so that went back in the freezer as well, and it really doesn’t seem any emptier than it was this morning….

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Bourbon Cherry Hand Pies
Crust:
2 1/2 C flour
2 T sugar
1 t salt
1/2 C cold butter, diced
1/2 C cold shortening, diced
½+ C cold water

Combine flour, salt, and sugar in a large bowl.  With a fork or pastry cutter, cut in the butter and shortening until mixture is crumbly.  Quickly work dough into a ball, then divide into 12 portions and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.

Filling:
1 1/3 lbs. fresh pitted pie cherries (or 1 ½ 14.5-oz cans)
1/4 C sugar
1 T bourbon
1/2 t orange bitters
1/4 t vanilla
1-2 T arrowroot powder, or 3 T flour or cornstarch

Combine all ingredients except the arrowroot in a saucepan and bring to a simmer.  Cook until cherries break down, 10-15 minutes.  Lower heat and add the arrowroot powder, one teaspoon at a time, mixing completely after each addition to avoid lumps.  When syrup has thickened, remove from heat and cool completely.

Preheat oven to 375° and prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper.  Set a small bowl of water by your work space.  On a floured surface, roll each ball into 5-6” circle.  Place 1 heaping tablespoon of filling in each circle (resist the urge to add more or you won’t be able to seal it cleanly), dab edge with water, and crimp shut.  Slice off any ragged edges.  Place on prepared baking sheet.  Cut slits to vent, and sprinkle the tops with sugar.  Keep chilled until ready to bake.  Bake until golden, about 20 minutes, and cool on a wire rack.

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Zucchini Bread with Coconut Crust

The sad thing about zucchini bread is that it doesn’t actually use up that much zucchini.  Every summer, it’s touted as the answer to everyone’s zucchini problems, as if all we need to do to rid the world of the shiny green invasion is to each make a loaf or two of zucchini bread.  But most recipes, including mine here, only use about a cup of grated zucchini per loaf–which in whole-zucchini terms, isn’t even one regularly-sized squash.

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A young British woman once told me that in England, when the zucchini (which they call courgettes to begin with) get too large and watery, they’re called marrow, and everyone makes marrow jam.  This is, in fact, a terrific way to get rid of lots of zucchini, but the jam is typically British, and by that I mean tooth-achingly sweet and thick with chunks of ginger and caramelized squash.  I made a batch last year and will probably be wiping out the last jar in 2020 or so.  I find it hard to imagine that even in the empire of treacle people are able to go through a batch of marrow jam every year, but I suppose one has to eat something with your afternoon tea.

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Nevertheless, before the end of every summer I do feel a driving need to make zucchini bread.  And even if it doesn’t use up very much zucchini, no one around here is complaining.

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You can substitute whole wheat flour for up to 1 C of the white flour.  Like most sweet breads, this freezes well.

Zucchini Bread with Coconut Crust
Makes 2 loaves

3 eggs
1/2 C coconut oil, melted
1/2 C apple or pear sauce
2 C sugar
2 C grated zucchini
1/2 C chopped walnuts
2 t vanilla
3 C flour
3 t cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
1 t baking soda
1/4 t baking powder
1 t salt

Coconut Crust:
1/2 C shredded coconut
3 T sugar
1 t cinnamon
2 T coconut oil, melted

Preheat oven to 325° and grease 2 loaf pans.  In a large bowl, beat eggs until light and frothy.  Mix in the oil, applesauce, and sugar.  Stir in the grated zucchini, walnuts, and vanilla.  In a separate bowl, combine the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.  Mix into the large bowl.  Distribute evenly into the prepared pans.

To make the crust, mix the shredded coconut, sugar, and cinnamon.  Work in the coconut oil with a fork or with your fingers.  Crumble the topping evenly over both loaves.

Bake 60-70 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.  Rotate the pans halfway through for even baking.

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Blue Cheese and Buckwheat Honey

I fear it’s just not in me to master the art of French cooking.

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It’s not that I think it’s beyond my abilities.  It’s just that I don’t really care.  This may be one of the more blasphemous moments in the history of food writing, but there it is: I don’t really care about French cooking.

It could very well be that I just haven’t fallen in love with French cooking yet.  I had that experience with Italian cuisine; for years I was only vaguely aware of it, not particularly intrigued nor impressed.  Then I visited Italy.  Now the sight of obscure Italian greens at the farmers market stops me in my tracks.  I learned how to make risotto–and I like it.

So I am entirely willing to accept that somewhere in my future lies the inimitable moment in which I will discover French cuisine.  But for now I find it fussy and heavy, and lacking dynamism, the contrasting flavors and heady spices of my preferred cooking styles.  That being said, every now and then I do get a yen for something rich and heavy, slightly luxurious, and perhaps even fussy.  And when this feeling comes on, French cuisine is there for me, waiting patiently and not at all upset that I spend so much time ignoring it.

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On this particular occasion, I was yearning for something luxurious to celebrate my discovery of raw buckwheat honey.  It thrills me that after so many years of eating farm-fresh, local foods, both the mundane and the unusual, I can still experience something totally new and be blown away.

Buckwheat honey is a relatively rare single-flower honey, but if you fancy yourself a connoisseur it’s worth seeking out.  Almost as dark and thick as molasses, it has a full, malty flavor and a lingering aftertaste. My first taste of buckwheat honey was drizzled over an apricot half with a nugget of blue cheese.  The tart apricot, sharp cheese, and rich honey were an amazing combination, and I immediately wanted a honey jar of my own, and countless things to drizzle it over.

It was one of those wants that took me over single-mindedly, and satisfying it turned out to be, if nothing else, a bit fussy.  I’ve only been able to locate buckwheat honey from one local producer, Boyco Foods, at one farmers market, which I’m never able to attend due to work.  Luckily an understanding friend was willing to fetch the elusive dark honey for me.

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Blue cheese is another flavor I can’t get enough of, so knowing that the two were lovely together I decided to try out David Lebovitz’s version of Julia Child’s blue cheese biscuits.  These tiny, flaky crackers are almost entirely butter and blue cheese, and just as good as you would expect.

Heady blue cheese, a bite of cayenne, and deep, sweet honey–biscuits and honey were never more luxurious.

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Like most buttery, flaky things, these are best fresh-baked.  You can freeze portions of the dough up to 2 months, and bake them up at a moment’s notice for a quick, fancy snack.

David suggests topping these with an egg wash but that was one step too fussy for me, and mine still turned out attractive. 

Blue Cheese Biscuits
á la David Lebovitz á la Julia Child

5 oz. blue cheese, at room temperature
4 oz. butter, at room temperature
2 T heavy cream
1 egg yolk
3/4 C flour
1/2 t salt
1/4 t cayenne
2 sprigs fresh thyme

Mash the blue cheese in a large bowl with a fork.  Add the butter, cream, and egg yolk, and mash together with fork or electric beater.  Add remaining ingredients and mix well.  Form into a disk, wrap in plastic, and chill at least 1 hour and up to 3 days.

Preheat oven to 400° and line 1 or 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.  Roll the dough out on a floured surface to about 1/4″ thick.  Cut out biscuits with a cookie cutter of your desired size (I used a 1 1/2″ cutter).  Space evenly apart on the baking sheet.

Bake 10-15 minutes, rotating the baking sheet halfway through, until puffed and golden.  Cool on wire racks.

Makes about 45 small biscuits.

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Afghan Snowshoe Naan

I’m not sure it really needs to be said, but in the interest of full disclosure: I love bread.  I love its universality, that every culture throughout history has developed some method of combining grain, water, and fire.  I love what bread can symbolize, whether thanks for an abundant harvest, or an offering of welcome to a stranger.  I love how we eat it, alone or accompanied, plain, stuffed, or flavored.  I love that it’s difficult to make just one serving of bread; we bake bread to share, to nourish others, to feed a crowd.

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Maybe even more than eating bread, I love baking bread.  No matter how many loaves of bread I bake, there will always be more recipes to try.  No matter how many times I make a certain recipe, the process will always be different: the texture of the dough, the ambient temperature, countless variables demanding my attention.  Baking bread is both an art and a science, a set of strict, yet fluid, rules waiting to be interpreted.  And amidst all of those rules, sometimes there is just you and the dough, and the act of kneading, meditative and satisfying.

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So this afternoon, on one of my rare days off when I actually had little to do, with the fridge already full of leftovers and no need to cook, I pulled out the rather dully-titled but endlessly fascinating Flatbreads and Flavors by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid.  With recipes collected from over 20 years of travels, this book is not just about traditional flatbreads from all over the world, but also the sauces, dips, chutneys, and stews that accompany them.  It’s the kind of cookbook I love to curl up with when things are feeling a little mundane, a book that conjures up images of Mongolian steppes and five-foot deep tandoor ovens, of Bedouin camps and Malaysian street bazaars.

I’m not sure if this bread is called snowshoe naan because it’s long and narrow like a snowshoe, or because when you shape the dough, the indentations from your fingers stretch out like snowshoe tracks.  Either way, it amused me to think about it as we ripped off pieces of bread and dipped it into olive oil and then the dukkah, an Egyptian dry spice mix.  If there is a shape that dough can be coaxed into, people have done it, and I hope that the first person who tentatively dimpled and stretched their naan felt a little thrill of creativity, something a little exotic and different to liven up their day.

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Alford and Duguid recommend baking on unglazed tiles to replicate the radiant heat of a clay tandoor.  I used a perforated pizza pan and didn’t quite get the golden crust I was looking for, but was still happy with the results.

Dukkah refers to any dry spice mix used, with olive oil, as a dip for bread or vegetables.  Being in Oregon, I felt it was appropriate to try Heidi Swanson’s hazelnut dukkah recipe.  I think this dukkah would also make a fantastic crust for lamb or maybe even a white fish such as halibut.

Afghan Snowshoe Naan
Adapted from Flatbreads and Flavors by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

2 ½ C lukewarm water
1 t dry yeast
2 C whole wheat flour
3-3 ½ C white flour
1 T salt

Combine lukewarm water and yeast in a large mixing bowl.  Add whole wheat flour and stir well, then stir constantly for one minute in the same direction to develop the gluten.  Cover and let sit at least 30 minutes and up to 3 hours.

Sprinkle salt over the mixture then add 1 C white flour and stir well.  Continue adding white flour in ½ C increments until dough is too stiff to stir.  Turn out on a floured surface and knead until smooth and strong, about 10 minutes.

Lightly oil a clean mixing bowl and place the ball of dough inside.  Cover and let rise 2-3 hours.

Gently punch down the dough and turn out onto a floured surface.  Cut into 4 equal pieces and stretch each piece into a flat oval about 6” wide by 8” long.  Cover with plastic and let rise 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 450 (if using a pizza stone or unglazed tiles, preheat them now as well).  To shape the bread, dip your fingers in a small bowl of cold water and make deep indentations all over the dough.  Stretch the dough into a long oval by draping one end over each hand and pulling gently.  Don’t worry if the indentations stretch out into holes.

Place the bread on a baking sheet or the preheated stone and bake 4-6 minutes, until the top has golden patches and the bottom is crusty.

Hazelnut Dukkah
Adapted from 101 Cookbooks

½ C hazelnuts
¼ C coriander seeds
3 T sesame seeds
2 T cumin seeds
1 T peppercorns
1 t fennel seeds
1 t dried mint
1 t salt

Heat a heavy skillet over high heat and toast the nuts and seeds individually until fragrant.  Cool completely then pound in a mortar and pestle, or process gently in a food processor or spice grinder (do not let it break down into a paste).  Store refrigerated up to 1 month.

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Salt and Chili Crinkle Cookies

Sometimes a grown-up sort of party calls for a grown-up sort of cookie.

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A and I were invited yesterday to a cocktail potluck–the idea being that guests bring their favorite liquor, mixer, or pre-mixed cocktails instead of a food dish.  In my completely unbiased opinion, A is a master bartender.  His liquor cabinet has been known to make grown men swoon at his feet.  He was planning to bring a quart of classic daiquiris; with full-flavored rum and fresh-squeezed lime juice, it’s a cocktail that creates summer wherever it goes.

I’ve never been very good at mixing drinks.  I didn’t know much about cocktails before I met A, and now the most I can say is that I know which liquors and flavors I like.  Sure, I can follow a cocktail recipe, but I’ll forget the proportions immediately, which is never very helpful when trying to impress your friends.  Luckily for me, A is always happy to whip up a cocktail for me or any visiting dignitaries who might be around.

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I didn’t even bother trying to think of a cocktail recipe to bring to this potluck.  I decided instead to focus on what I know I’m good at: feeding people.  Since it was a birthday party, I wanted to bring a sweet treat; but I also wanted something that would do well followed by a strong sip of something, whether it be rum or whiskey or gin.  Reflecting on classic bar snacks, I knew I wanted salt and spice to be involved; and if there were ever a fan of the modern romance between salt and chocolate, it’s me.  Chocolate and chili get along quite well, so all that remained was how to put the flavors together.

I didn’t have many ‘extra’ ingredients on hand–no nuts, no chocolate chips, no dried fruit–so I settled on the relatively lean and simple crinkle cookie.  I made them mini-sized, to be eaten in a bite or two in between sips of cocktail, but regular-sized cookies would be just as tasty and slightly less tedious to form if you’re not into the zen of rolling cookies between your palms (which I kind of am).

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If you just want a hint of spicy rather than a full-blown kick, dial down the cayenne, but keep the ancho where it is.  It adds an earthy bass note to the chocolate.

Salt and Chili Crinkle Cookies
1 2/3 C flour
1/2 C unsweetened cocoa powder
1 T ancho chili powder
1 1/2 t baking powder
3/4 t ground cayenne
1/2 t salt
8 T (1 stick) salted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 C granulated sugar
2 eggs
1/2 t vanilla
1/2 C powdered sugar
1 t coarse salt (I used Celtic gray)

Preheat oven to 350° and prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper, or lightly grease.

In a medium bowl, mix flour, cocoa, baking powder, ancho, cayenne, and salt.  In a large bowl, beat the butter and granulated sugar until creamy.  Add eggs one at a time, mixing fully in between additions.  Add vanilla and mix well.  Pour flour mixture into the butter mixture and mix well.

On a plate or baking dish, mix powdered sugar and coarse salt.  Roll cookie dough between your hands into balls–teaspoon-sized for mini cookies or tablespoon-sized for regular–and roll each cookie in the powdered sugar/salt mixture.  Place on prepared cookie sheet, 1 inch apart for mini cookies or 2 inches apart for regular.  Bake 8-10 minutes for mini cookies and 10-12 minutes for regular.  Cool 10-15 minutes on cookie sheet, then transfer to wire rack.

Makes 75-80 mini cookies or 25-30 regular cookies.

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