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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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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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Tartine Bread

A couple weeks ago I wrote about how much I dislike making the same recipe again in a short period of time.  So you’ll know I’ve gone off the deep end when I tell you that I’m working on the same bread recipe I made less than three days ago.  It’s not because it’s the best bread I’ve ever made (though I admit begrudgingly that it’s pretty great) but rather because I didn’t get it right the first time and I am now a woman obsessed.

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This is unlike me.  I am not a perfectionist and I don’t strive for immediate mastery of anything.  I am an experimentalist, and a note-taker, and when a recipe doesn’t go well I write down what I think went wrong, and then months down the road when the recipe pops into my head, I go back and try again.  If I can’t get it right a second time, I usually file it away mentally in the ‘At Least Now I Know’ drawer, and close the door.

In fact, when I first started leafing through Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread, the book divulging all the baking secrets of his successful San Francisco artisan bakery, I thought I’d never attempt such a recipe.  His “Basic Country Bread” recipe is 37 pages long.  No joke.  37 pages of minute detail and moment-by-moment photographs that are supposed to guide you in creating a naturally-leavened artisan loaf the likes of which would make the angels sing.

This is Robertson’s premise: if you follow his excruciatingly-detailed recipe to the letter, you will bake bread at home—yes you!  in your own home!—as good as any ever baked by a professional artisan.  He writes as though he wishes to empower home bakers, but his method is technically challenging and requires specialized equipment; certainly not a book for the beginning baker.

I was put off at first.  I disliked his implication that this method would be easy or intuitive for people who had never worked with either natural leavens or artisan-style doughs before, probably setting beginners up to feel like failures if they couldn’t manage it.

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But he got under my skin.  His doughs are unusual in that he utilizes a high water-to-flour ratio, or what is called hydration percentage.  I found myself wondering what a 75% hydration dough would feel like under my hands, how it would rise, what the crumb would look like when I cut into it, steaming and hot from the oven.  I had also never before fussed about proofing temperatures; I just let the dough rise until it was ready, longer in the winter, shorter in the summer.  But what if I actually maintained a constant temperature?  What flavors were I missing out on with my unstructured approach?

So I made a mixing schedule.  I took dough temperatures and timed every step as Robertson suggests.  I committed 24 hours of my life to coaxing this shapeless mass of flour and water into something to put my name to, something I would be proud to score my initials into before it went into the oven.  And it kind of, sort of, failed.  I mean, it tastes great.  But it’s not right.

I’m lucky enough to have a good friend who’s spent most of his adult life as a professional baker.  We had a long conversation via text in which I utilized a lot of capital letters and emphatic punctuation.  He told me I might try with a different flour, change the dough folding schedule, work the dough a little more attentively.  I told him I never wanted to make this bread again.  “More to learn, grasshopper,” he said.  And then, about 10 minutes later, I told him I was going to try again in two days.

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As I told A the other day as I was comparing the two cookbooks I’m currently reading, I wouldn’t want to hang out with Chad Robertson.  I don’t think I’d enjoy his company.  But I feel like if I pay attention, I’m going to learn something important.  And that’s a feeling I rarely get from a cookbook.

In case you were waiting for a brilliant summary of a 37-page treatise, I’m not going to share the Tartine bread recipe here, even if I master it to my own satisfaction.  It’s technical and difficult, and that’s not the kind of food writer I want to be.  But I wanted to share the story with you, to help us all keep in mind that, no matter how uncomfortable, or frustrating, or just plain maddening, sometimes it’s important to be a grasshopper.

 

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Ulster Fry

One of the perils of living with someone is that when A has trouble sleeping, I have trouble sleeping.  The up side of this is that here is what I accomplished today before noon:

  • cooked potatoes and made potato bread
  • cooked beans and made baked beans
  • made soda bread
  • mixed and proofed cinnamon currant bread
  • drank caffeinated tea for the first time in weeks and bounced around a bit

Why all the commotion on a Sunday?  It’s St. Patrick’s Day, of course!  And we had to practice my St. Patrick’s Day tradition.

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It all started one chilly October afternoon in Belfast in 2007.  A friend and I were backpacking through Ireland and we had a few hours in between buses on our way up to the Antrim coast.  Under threatening gray clouds, we explored the neighborhood around the bus station, wandering up to Sandy Row, an infamous loyalist stronghold during the Troubles.  Sooner than later, the skies opened up, and we sought refuge in a bright cafe, a pair of drenched, weary, excited Americans.  I ordered the Ulster fry and was unprepared for the magnificence that was to come.

There are many variations on an Ulster fry, but the most basic ingredients are fried eggs, soda bread, and potato bread, all of the ingredients being fried in the same pan.  Mine have always been vegetarian, but it is traditional to have bacon or sausage in your fry, in which case you use the bacon grease to cook the remaining ingredients.

My first Ulster fry contained eggs, soda bread, potato bread, fluffy buttermilk pancakes, baked beans, mushrooms, and tomatoes, a giant plate literally overflowing with hot, hearty goodness.  We caught our bus feeling full and uplifted, and when we stepped off the bus again, the sun was setting in cloud-streaked skies over the coastal moors of Antrim.

Antrim 2007

Ever since then, I have marked St. Patrick’s Day with a breakfast approximately three times the size of any I would even consider eating the other 364 days of the year.  I firmly believe it is good for the soul (and arguably healthier than consuming the same quantity of calories in the form of green beer).

The version I make now contains fried eggs, soda and potato farls (triangular breads cooked on a griddle), fried mushrooms, baked beans, and plenty of tea.  (I used to include fried tomatoes but it just made me sad to eat tomatoes in March.)  The soda bread and potato bread need to be homemade; the baked beans do not, though this year I decided to go for it and was not disappointed.  The eggs should be fresh and organic so that the bright orange yolks burst with thick goodness upon your breads.  The tea should be a traditional black, Darjeeling or Assam, hot and strong and not at all averse to a spoonful of sugar and whole milk.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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The breads can take some time to cook, especially if you only have one small griddle as I do, so feel free to make them a day ahead.  The soda farl and potato farl recipes listed here will provide enough for Ulster fries for 4 people.  It is also acceptable to put jam or marmalade on your bread. 

If you’d like to include bacon or sausage in your fry, cook them first and cook the rest of the ingredients in the bacon grease.

Irish Soda Farls
2 C white flour
1 t baking soda
Pinch of salt
1 C buttermilk

Preheat heavy griddle on medium.  Mix flour, salt, and soda in a medium bowl.  Make a well in the middle and pour in the buttermilk.  Mix quickly and thoroughly, then turn out onto a well-floured surface and knead lightly.  Roll out into a circle 1/2″ thick and cut into quarters with a floured knife.  Sprinkle a little flour on the griddle and cook each farl 6-8 minutes, flipping halfway, until both sides are golden brown.

Irish Potato Farls
1 lb. waxy potatoes
2 T butter
1 t salt
Up to 1 C white flour

Peel potatoes and cut into chunks.  Boil until soft, about 20 minutes.  Mash well, then while still warm mix in butter and salt.  Work in flour gradually, using just enough to make a pliable dough; do not add so much flour that it becomes stiff (I used about 3/4 C this time).  Turn out onto a well-floured surface and roll out into a circle 1/2″ thick.  Cut into triangles.  Cook on a hot floured griddle, flipping halfway, until golden brown on both sides.

Ulster Fry
1 batch soda farls
1 batch potato farls
2 eggs per person
10 button mushrooms per person, halved
baked beans (I used this recipe)

Preheat oven on lowest setting and place an oven-safe paper towel-lined platter in the oven to keep food warm.  Heat butter in a large frying pan.  Fry mushrooms until heated through but not mushy.  Transfer to oven.

Cut soda farls in half through the middle (the way you cut an English muffin).  Fry farls and potato bread until golden and transfer to oven.

Add butter to the pan if necessary.  Fry eggs and season with salt and pepper.  Heat baked beans in a saucepan.  Divide all the food onto plates and serve immediately with black tea.

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Portuguese Sweet Bread

I carry a lot of memories through food.  Though I haven’t had an experience quite as intense as Proust’s madeleine, mussels and fries will always make me think of a certain stone plaza in Belgium, fresh crab in the shell puts me back in Alaska on a rainy summer day, and certain flavors will always remind me of home.

Growing up on the east coast, the flavors of everyday living were so different from the Pacific Northwest.  Dense, chewy bagels were easy to come by, doughnuts were cakey and dippable, and we ate ice cream all winter.  Many of the flavors I remember were thanks to the more recent immigrants to New England, and when I was young they were still coming from eastern Europe, Portugal, and the Caribbean, to say nothing of the Italian that you still hear walking through Boston’s North End.

Cup of tea

I think about that a lot living in Portland, and will never forget when I first moved to Oregon and found out that my new friends mostly just identified themselves as ‘white.’  “Yes, but what kind of white?” I would ask, and the question didn’t mean anything to them.  In Boston, everyone knows who’s Irish and who’s Italian, but I also remember the Portuguese students in my elementary school’s ESL program, the Polish girl with snowy blond hair, and the annual clam bakes at the Franco-American Club.  I’ve since learned that there is a Sons of Norway hall in Portland and a Ukrainian community in the metro area among others, but it still seems to me that the old country will always be closer to people’s hearts on the east coast than out here.

Portuguese sweet bread was one of those occasional treats with such a distinctive flavor that it sticks with me to this day.  Every now and then I would come home and find a little bag of the dark golden rolls in our bread box.  Their insides were yellow and rich with a hint of citrus, the perfect sweet roll to eat with jam for breakfast or with tea before bed.

So when I got a hankering for that eggy sweet citrus flavor the other day, I turned to the man I trust most when it comes to bread, Peter Reinhart.  His introduction to the recipe talks about how it was tweaked and polished by his students for years, all of whom had childhood memories of that flavor and texture.  It seemed I was in good company.

Portuguese sweet bread

But though the bread was good, and especially so with some boysenberry jelly made by a friend, it still wasn’t the same.  He calls for round loaves, but I remember only rolls.  The breads were a little dry (maybe my fault), which led to a thicker crust rather than the thin, springy crust I was looking for.  I omitted the lemon extract because I didn’t have any, but in future I’ll be sure to include it.  The citrus flavor fell a little flat for me, and though A didn’t notice because he’d never had it before, it just wasn’t close enough to the flavor I remember.

I guess, like they say, you can’t really go home again, but I don’t think that should keep you from trying every now and then.

 

I’ve heard tell that Hawaiian sweet bread is merely Portuguese by a different name, but I can neither confirm nor deny these rumors, even though I’m pretty sure you can get some commercial versions of Hawaiian bread out here.

A sponge is a type of starter dough, and in this case you let it rise before mixing in the other ingredients because the milk, eggs, and butter will weigh it down.

Portuguese Sweet Bread
Adapted from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart

Sponge
1/2 C/2.25 oz. unbleached white flour
1 T sugar
1 1/2 T active dry yeast
1/2 C water, room temperature

Mix the yeast into the water with a pinch of the flour and sugar and let sit about five minutes to hydrate.  In a small bowl, mix the remaining flour and sugar, then pour in the yeast mixture.  Stir until smooth, cover with plastic wrap, and ferment at room temperature 60-90 minutes, or until foamy.

Final Dough
6 T sugar
1 t salt
1/4 C/1.25 oz. powdered milk
2 T unsalted butter, room temperature
2 T vegetable shortening
2 eggs
1 t lemon extract
1 t orange extract
1 t vanilla extract
3 C/13.5 oz. unbleached white flour
about 6 T water, room temperature

Egg Wash
1 egg, whisked with a little water until frothy

Combine the sugar, salt, powdered milk, butter, and shortening in a mixing bowl.  Cream until smooth, then mix in the eggs and extracts.  Knead by hand or with the dough hook of your mixer, and mix in the sponge and the flour.  Add water as needed to make a very soft dough.  It should be easy to knead but not wet or sticky; I ran my electric mixer for 10 minutes to achieve this consistency.  Take a little piece and stretch it gently between your fingers; you should be able to create a ‘windowpane,’ or a very thin but strong sheet of dough that you can see light through.  If it breaks before forming a windowpane, continue kneading.  When fully kneaded, put the dough in a lightly-oiled bowl, turn to coat with oil, and cover with plastic wrap.  Ferment at room temperature about 2 hours, or until it doubles in size.

Divide the dough into two equal pieces.  Form each piece into a boule (check out the photos here if you’re not familiar with forming that shape.  I also drag the seam-side of my boule against the work surface a bit to squish the seam together.)  Lightly oil two 9″ pie pans and place each boule, seam-side down, in a pan.  Lightly oil the surface of each boule and cover with plastic wrap.

Let rise 2-3 hours, or until the dough fills the pan.  Brush the top of each loaf with egg wash.  Preheat the oven to 350°.  Bake the loaves 50-60 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through.  The loaves will be a dark brown when they are done due to the high sugar content; don’t worry if they seem to brown too quickly.

Place on a rack to cool, and cool at least 90 minutes before slicing.  Store in plastic to keep soft.  Makes 2 loaves.

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