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2009 will be a good cooking year for me if the past several weeks are any indication. I finally overcame a decade-long fear of baking with yeast, after a baking experiment gone terribly awry in an old boyfriend’s Red Hook apartment, and took the plunge with that No-Knead Bread everyone was talking about, well, forever ago. For any of you who placed “yeast baking” on your list of New Year’s Resolutions or bucket list or what-have-you, I heartily recommend you try this method. For such a teensy bit of effort, such glorious results.

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No-Knead Bread – Shana’s Way
Yield one 1 1/2 pound loaf

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting [I used King Arthur’s all-purpose flour]
¼ teaspoon instant yeast [I used Red Star brand]
1¼ teaspoons salt [I used Baleine fine sea salt]
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed [I used coarse-ground yellow cornmeal]

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees. [I let my dough rest at least 18 hours both times I’ve made it.]

2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth)–or a piece of parchment paper, if you want to avoid washing extra towels– with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal [as above, I used coarse cornmeal]; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel or piece of parchment paper and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. [I used my Le Creuset 6 quart dutch oven–it’s enameled- coated cast iron and works beautifully for this.] When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. [I notice that my oven runs hot, so I only do 5 minutes with the lid off.] Cool on a rack.

* * *

The other small miracle I’d like to share with you was the side of salmon I roasted over the holiday. Again, it’s a tiny bit of effort with awesome results: my favorite style of cooking. You can easily halve the recipe for an easy weeknight meal, and serve it with some roasted potatoes and a salad. Or you could make the whole recipe for an easy yet elegant dish for entertaining; try it with wild mushroom risotto and braised fennel.

Roast Side of Salmon with Mustard, Tarragon, and Chive Sauce
Epicurious

2/3 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup spicy brown mustard (such as Gulden’s)
6 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
6 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
2 tablespoons (packed) golden brown sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon peel
1 3 1/2-to 3 3/4-pound whole side of salmon with skin (about 1 1/2 inches thick at thickest part)

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 450°F. Line large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Mix first 7 ingredients in medium bowl. Season mustard sauce lightly with salt and generously with pepper. Place salmon, skin side down, on diagonal on prepared sheet. Spoon 1/2 cup mustard sauce atop salmon, then spread over, covering completely. Sprinkle salmon generously with salt and pepper. Roast just until salmon is opaque in center, about 15 minutes. Using parchment as aid, transfer salmon to platter. Cut crosswise into pieces and serve with remaining mustard sauce. Can be served right away or at room temperature.

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A little over a year ago,* I tempted you with a tantalizing description of these brown-black beauties, the Williams Sonoma Chocolate Crinkle Cookie. I wrapped it up in a tale about how I hadn’t been able to cook in my kitchen, due to a nasty roommate situation, which was a rather lame thing for me to write about. Even more lame — I hid them from your sight, and didn’t even share a recipe with you. Shame on me. Do you (few, brave) readers come here looking for stories about unpleasant roommates? I believe that you do not.

Today, I remedy these wrongs.

I can hold out on you no more.

Behold, the recipe:

Chocolate Crinkle Cookies
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Baking

4 oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1/4 cup unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
1 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1/2 c cocoa
2 t baking powder
1/4 t salt
4 large eggs
2 c granulated sugar
1 t vanilla extract
1 1/2 c chocolate chips (I use Ghiradelli bittersweet)
1/2 c confectioners’ sugar

Melt the butter and chocolate on top of a double boiler, over simmering water, and stir often. Remove and set aside to cool a bit.

In a small bowl, stir together the dry ingredients — flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine eggs, granulated sugar, and vanilla. Beat on medium speed for about 3 minutes. Beat in the melted chocolate mixture on low speed until blended. Add the dry ingredients and beat until incorporated. The dough will be stiff, but you must persevere: mix in the chocolate chips by hand.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a good long while, at least 2 hours. I sometimes leave the dough in the fridge overnight.

Place rack in center of oven and preheat to 325, though if you have an old, tempermental oven like I do, you might need to settle for 350. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Sift the confectioners’ sugar into a small bowl.

Roll a rounded tablespoon of dough between your palms into a 1 1/2 inch ball, and toss it around in the powdered sugar. Place the cookies about 3 inches apart on the cookie sheet.

Bake the cookies, 1 sheet at a time, until the tops are puffed and crinkled and feel firm when lightly touched, about 13-17 mins. (My oven usually gets them done in about 15 mins.) Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer the cookies to wire racks to cool completely.

*Yes, you read that right. G3 is a year old (plus a little bit). Thanks for reading!

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More, please

Well, that certainly didn’t last long.

Yep, I’m (half-) sorry to report that my post-holiday plan to eat more modestly was scuttled the other day, when this chocolate bread pudding popped out of my oven.

chocolate bread pudding

I had really good excuses for baking up this dessert, like:

  • When the temperature dips down to teeth-chattering levels, my drafty apartment feels best when the oven is on.
  • A half a loaf of bread was going stale.
  • Half of a carton of heavy cream was ready to be used, or else.
  • Ditto for a carton of whole milk.

Something had to be done. And when you think about it, making this dessert was a virtuous act — using up all these ingredients in such an efficient way. Is it my fault that it was also ridiculously decadent?

Before sharing the recipe, I should note that bread pudding has only recently made its way into my repertoire. It never really spoke to me, probably because it has a tendency to get mushy; however, any doubts I had are now a mere memory. This bread pudding, with a healthy sprinkling of raw sugar, makes the top all sparkly and crunchy–a nice counterpoint to all that chocolate-custard-y goodness lurking underneath.

3/5 chocolate bread pudding

And did I mention it has tendency to disappear on you?

Consider yourself warned.

Chocolate Bread Pudding
adapted from Bon Appetit, March 2003, by way of Epicurious

1 c whipping cream
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup whole milk
1 1/4 cups bittersweet chocolate chips (or semisweet, depending on your desired level of intensity)
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 cups bread with crust, cut into 1-inch cubes (I used stale Zingerman’s farm bread — French bread would be great too)
2 tablespoons turbinado sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Bring cream, 1/2 cup sugar, and milk to simmer in heavy medium saucepan, stirring until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat.

Add 1 cup chocolate chips and whisk until melted and smooth.

Whisk egg and vanilla in large bowl to blend. Gradually whisk in hot chocolate mixture. Cool chocolate custard 10 minutes, stirring often.

Add bread cubes and remaining 1/4 cup chocolate chips to custard and toss to coat. Let sit for 10 minutes or so.

Transfer to 1 1/2-quart-capacity shallow oval baking dish. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons sugar over mixture. Bake until custard thickens and center is just set, about 50 minutes. Serve warm.

Try to keep yourself from picking at the crusty, sparkly bits with your fingers. Save some for your significant other, children, friends, and you will earn their devotion many times over.

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Perfectly Imperfect

I am not the kind of woman who makes Pear Croustade with Lemon Pastry and Almonds. No way. That kind of woman, I’d venture, does not have a towering stack of tupperware lids ready to lurch out of the cupboard every time she opens it. She probably does not let a half-peck of pears from the market sit around in the fridge for a week before she realizes she really ought to get around to doing something with them. I’m certain she doesn’t leave her dirty dishes in the sink till morning. And I’d bet you a dozen Tahitian vanilla beans that she follows recipes exactly, especially when pastry is involved, which she would be keen to do.

Me? I’m the lady baker who will blithely substitute ingredients when I don’t have something on hand — cardamom for cinnamon, brown sugar for white, bittersweet chocolate for semisweet. Only one stick of butter left in the fridge rather than a stick and a half? That’s what oil (or some other fat) is for. Sometimes I use a food processor to cut butter into flour; other times I use my fingers. As you seasoned bakers could well predict, this sometimes results in less-than-desirable results: an oddly-spiced apple pie; flatter-than-desirable banana bread; under-sweetened cookies. This is because I try to bake like I cook–with improvisation, instinct, and–ok, I’ll admit it–a bit of laziness. Or, to put it a bit more charitably, a certain un-fussiness.

Sometimes, though, the lazy-lady-baker gods reward me for my modifications, like my use of sour cream and milk instead of buttermilk in pancake batter, which creates these tangy, rich, almost muffin-like, little cakes. Most recently, it resulted in a rustic pear tart with almonds–the less pretentious cousin of Pear Croustade with Lemon Pastry and Almonds.

pear-almond rustic tart

Why the Epicurious recipe uses “croustade” in the title–which, my handy food reference book describes as “an edible container used to hold a thick stew, creamed meat, vegetable mixture, and so on,” remains a bit opaque to me. I suppose a free-form tart shell is an “edible container” of sorts; I see where they’re coming from. But isn’t that sort of like calling a glove a hand-sock?

With that appetizing segue, let me offer my take on the recipe, which resembles the original but is a bit more relaxed about things.

Rustic Pear Tart with Almonds
Pastry:
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices
1/4 cup whipping cream
A few teaspoons of water (if needed)

Filling:
2 pounds ripe pears, peeled, cored, thinly sliced (I used Bartlett, and I’d have liked them to be a bit more firm)
3 tablespoons sugar (depending on how ripe your pears are)
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons all purpose flour
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon (generous) ground nutmeg
heavy cream (for brushing)
a small handful of sliced almonds — though pine nuts could work here nicely as well

For pastry:
Whisk flour, sugar, and salt in medium bowl. Add butter; using fingertips, rub in butter until coarse meal forms. Incorporate 1/4 cup cream, and toss with fork until moist clumps form, adding some water by teaspoonfuls as needed if dry. Gather dough into ball; flatten into disk. Wrap in plastic and chill 1 hour. [You could also do this in the food processor if you’re so inclined.]

For filling:
Preheat oven to 400°F. Combine pears, sugar, flour, lemon juice, and nutmeg in large bowl to coat. Roll out pastry on floured surface to 14-inch round. Fold crust in half, and then half again, and transfer to rimmed baking sheet. (For some reason that I can’t recall, I like baking my free-form tarts on the back of the baking sheet, but this just might be me trying to be different.) Mound pears in center of pastry, leaving 2-inch border. Fold pastry border over pears. Brush pastry edges with cream; sprinkle with sliced almonds, pressing them ever-so-gently into the pastry.

Bake until filling bubbles and almonds are lightly toasted, about 1 hour. If you oven is crazily uneven like mine is, keep checking the temp and sniffing for signs of burned crust.

Cool slightly. Best served the next day to surprise guests, with modest pours of Woodford Reserve Bourbon or a mug of hot tea.

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