Braided Blueberry Cheese Danish

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Last week I had the pleasure of spending some time in lovely Madison, Wisconsin.  My dear cousin lives there with his wife and three darling children, and it has been 13 years since I last visited.  It was due time, for sure.  We spent a lot of time at the house, but we also had some chances to check out what Madison has to offer in terms of food experiences.

A couple of friends of mine also live there and gave me an extensive list of places to try.  Sadly, I was only able to check out two of those places, but one of them, La Brioche, was such a home run that I had to try my hand at one of their signature pastries – the cheese Danish.

Their cheese Danish is very straightforward, but I wanted to try something different.  I scoured the Internet to see what I could find that included blueberries (because I had a HUGE container of them).  I found a few, and picked the best elements of each one.

I made my own puff pastry, but I am not going to include that recipe in this post.  Instead, I’ll urge you to buy a puff pastry from the freezer section of your local grocery store.  Why, you ask?  Because this Danish is so good, but took waaaay too long to put together.  If you’re hoping to make this for a brunch or even dessert, take it easy on yourself and just buy a package of puff pastry.

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Chocolate Banana Bread

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If you’re like me at all, you have a collection of overripe bananas in your freezer, destined for bread.  I have a pretty fool-proof (and delicious) recipe for banana bread given to me by my mother, but I wanted to change things up this time around.  And what better way to do that than with chocolate?

I was reminded of a batch of chocolate-banana ice cream I made for my friend Matthew as a Christmas gift.  I asked he and his wife, Sarah, what their favorite flavors of ice cream were, and that is what I gave to them as gifts.  I much prefer giving edible gifts over anything else for holidays and birthdays.  Matthew said he loved the combination of chocolate and banana, and I totally agree.  Why not turn that into a bread?

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The bananas (minus one) are still a little frozen in this photo, my apologies.

I was hoping for a bread that was more dessert-like in texture, and I think this was a success.  It had the dense consistency of pound cake, and the banana flavor was just subtle enough not to be overpowering.   However, I would probably omit the chocolate chips in my next batch of this bread.  I say this only because (as you might know if you read this blog) I don’t prefer overly-sweet dishes.  The chocolate powder was perfect on its own and needed no extra help from the chips.

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All-purpose flour sifted with cocoa powder, granulated sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.

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Challah Bread

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Things have been really busy around here since Thanksgiving.  I’m right in the middle of finals, so writing a final paper on The Picture of Dorian Gray is proving to be much more important than blogging about what silly things I’m trying in the kitchen.

However, I just couldn’t take it anymore, so I decided to take a break and do something I really enjoy: bake bread.

I had all the ingredients I needed to pull off a loaf of Challah, but the question wasn’t ingredients, the question was technique.  Bread takes patience, the right temperature and environment to rise, and it takes a bit of intuition to know when to stop kneading the dough.  If only I could bake bread for my final grade in my Critical Approaches to Literature class!

Challah is a traditional loaf of braided egg bread served on the Sabbath and on holidays.  I’ve tried making challah before, but for whatever reason, it didn’t turn out.  This time I was determined.

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Okay, so I know my strands of dough are not perfectly uniform, but hey, so what?  The smell of bread rising in my kitchen must have clouded my ability to separate the dough into “equal” pieces.

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St. Patrick’s Day (Belated)

So, last week I decided that I wanted to prepare something for St. Patrick’s Day.  I realized how much I love corned beef so I thought, “What the heck, I’ll brine a brisket for the big day.  How hard could it be?”  Ever the culinary optimist, I headed out in search of all the ingredients necessary to perform such a feat.  Luckily, my local Whole Foods had an unadulterated brisket “in the back” that I could buy.  If I had wanted to cut corners, I suppose I could have just purchased a vacuum-sealed pre-brined brisket.  But no, not this girl.  No.  Way.  I was doing it right.

When I spoke to the butcher, he informed me that 8 days might not be long enough to get the effect I was hoping for, but since I couldn’t go back in time, I chose to forge ahead and see what happened.  I had been wanting to try a corned beef recipe from the venerable Michael Ruhlman, which can be found in his book, Charcuterie.  It’s pretty flawless if you can locate all of the ingredients for the pickling spice.  Even I had a hard time (I had to drive a few places), but ultimately, I procured everything on the list and made my way home to make my very first brine!

After 8 long (refrigerated) days in the brine, today has finally arrived and I was able to start cooking!  Now, I deviated from Michael’s recipe just a bit, and added a full can of Guinness to my braising liquid, along with the water.  It’s bubbling away as we speak, filling the house with most amazing smells.  (Edit: the final product tasted amazing!  It had a lovely flavor courtesy of the pickling spice mixture, and the red pepper flakes included in said mixture really put it over the top.  Unfortunately, we got so excited about eating that I forgot to snap photos!  Forgive me and trust that it was delicious.)

Yesterday, I knocked out my dessert: Guinness Chocolate Brownies.  I have a recipe for Chocolate Stout Cake that I can practically make with my eyes closed, but I wanted to try something a little different, so I went with brownies.  The kicker?  I reduced a cup of Guinness down by half and used some of the concentrated beer in the brownie batter, as well as in the chocolate glaze I poured over the top.

For my final contribution to the dinner was an oh-so-simple (and quick) bread made with Guinness, Irish cheddar cheese, and chives.  As my friend pointed out, it had the consistency of banana bread, but was of course, savory.  Very nice, and I’m sure would be delightful toasted up with some Irish butter spread on top.

My friends contributed a gorgeous sauerkraut soup along with some roasted new potatoes, garlic, and Brussels sprouts.  It was by far one of the best meals we’ve had in long time!  And now I know that I can successfully brine a brisket for all of my future St. Patrick’s Day needs.

Cheddar and Chive Guinness Bread
adapted from The Kitchn

Ingredients:

2 3/4 cup sifted all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 (12-ounce) bottle Guinness
1 cup grated Irish cheddar cheese
1/4 cup chopped chives
6 tablespoons good butter (I used Plugra, but you can use Kerrygold if you want), melted

Method:

Preheat oven to 375ºF.  Line a loaf pan (8 1/2” x 4 1/2”) with parchment paper, or coat with butter (I used Pam for Baking spray).

In a large mixing bowl, thoroughly whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together.  Add the beer and mix until the dry ingredients are evenly moistened.  Fold in 3/4 cup cheese and the chives.

Transfer the batter to prepared pan.  Pour the melted butter evenly over top of the dough.  Bake about 30 minutes, then scatter the remaining 1/4 cheese over the top.  Return to oven and continue to bake for another 15-20 minutes, or until a tester inserted near center comes out clean.  Cool in the pan for 5 minutes and then turn out on a rack.  Serve warm or room temperature.

UPDATE:  As per request, I have included the recipe for the Guinness Chocolate Brownies.  Enjoy!

Guinness Chocolate Brownies
Adapted from Bon Appétit

As you can see in the photos, I chose to use a springform pan, rather than a standard brownie pan.  For whatever reason, my brownies did not fully bake in the middle, so I would urge you to use a square pan.

Ingredients:

1 cup Guinness
16 ounces (2 cups) bittersweet chocolate chips
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 1/4 sticks)
1 tablespoon instant coffee granules
1 1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided

Method:

Preheat your oven to 350ºF.  Line a 9x9x2″ metal (or glass) baking pan with foil, leaving a 2″ overhang.  Bring beer to a boil in a medium saucepan; cook until reduced to 1/2 cup, about 10-12 minutes.  Let cool.  Set aside 1/4 cup of stout.

Stir 12 ounces chocolate and 1 cup butter in a medium metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water until melted and smooth.  This can also be done in a microwave set on low power, but you have to be sure not to burn it.

Whisk sugar, eggs, and vanilla in a large bowl to blend.  Gradually whisk in chocolate mixture and coffee granules, then 1/4 cup beer from saucepan.  Fold in the flour and 1 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt.  Pour batter into prepared pan.

Bake brownies until surface begins to crack and a tester inserted into center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached, 35-40 minutes.  Transfer pan to wire rack and let cool for at least 20 minutes.  Stir remaining 4 ounces chocolate in a medium metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water until melted and smooth (again, you could do this in the microwave).  Add reserved 1/4 cup beer, remaining 2 tablespoons butter, and 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt; whisk until well-blended.

Pour warm glaze over brownies.  I found that the glaze made a bit too much for my taste, so I didn’t use it all, but hey, go for it if you want!  Let the brownies sit at room temperature until glaze is set, about 40 minutes.

Using foil overhang, lift brownie from pan; cut into squares.


Sunday Afternoon Culinary Therapy

As I’ve said before on this blog, this semester has been rough, to say the least.  I feel like I’ve not any extra time to do anything besides study, let alone cook and blog about it.  Just so you know, I haven’t forgotten about you (those of you who read this).  I appreciate your sticking with me and being patient.

With that, I’ll say that I took part in some much-needed culinary therapy this past Sunday.  I woke up knowing that I wanted to bake, and more specifically, I wanted to bake bread.  I only knew that I wanted it to have a nice texture, not take forever to rise, and include black strap molasses.  I love love love molasses, and don’t utilize it as much as I should.  So, recipe hunting I went!

I ran across a recipe for a bread popular in New England called Anadama Bread.  Now, legend has it that a woman named Anna was quite a lazy cook and, much to the dismay of her husband, baked the same bread daily, or oftentimes, did not even finish the bread. The horror!  One day, her husband either threw a bag of cornmeal at her and missed, with some spilling into the dough, or he got fed up and attempted to finish what she started – accidentally grabbing cornmeal instead of flour.  He’s said to have muttered, “Anna, damn her!”

Now, I can’t say for sure if any of this is true.  But what I will say is that I happened to have the majority of the ingredients in my house, so the decision was made.  Anadama Bread it was!

The recipe called for dry milk, which, let’s face it, who really has that?  In lieu of the dry milk, I used whole milk (replacing the boiling water required for the dry milk).  I also replaced the whole wheat flour with bread flour.  Not because I didn’t have whole wheat, because I did, but because I hadn’t used my bread flour since I bought it and I wanted a slightly chewier texture in the end.

This bread smelled so lovely as it was rising, and smelled even lovelier while it was baking.  For a bread that required at least 2 1/2 hours of rise time, it was relatively stress-free and went by rather quickly.  And let me tell you, it turned out to be exactly what I was looking for.  It had a crunchy texture from the cornmeal, a slightly sweet flavor from the molasses, and a lovely chew due to the use of bread flour.

New England Anadama Bread
Adapted from the King Arthur Flour website

Yield: 1 loaf

Ingredients:

3/4 cup coarse yellow cornmeal
1 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons butter, cut into cubes
1/4 cup dark molasses
1 cup whole milk
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup bread flour
2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast

Method:

In the bowl of your stand mixer, whisk together the cornmeal and salt.

Add the butter and molasses to the bowl.

Put the milk in a saucepan over med-high heat until it begins to boil, but be careful not to scald it.

When it comes to a boil, pour into the cornmeal mixture and stir until the butter has melted.  Let stand for about 10 minutes, or until it is lukewarm.

To the cornmeal mixture, add the flours and yeast and stir until combined.  Let the dough rest for about 20 minutes.

With dough hook attachment, knead dough for about 6 1/2 – 7 minutes at medium speed, until it’s smooth and pulls away from the bowl.  Cover bowl with cling film and let dough rise until it’s just about doubled, 1 hour.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, shape into an 8-inch log.  Place the log in an 8 1/2 x 4 1/2-inch loaf pan, cover with cling film, and let the dough rise until the center has crested about one inch above lip of the pan, about 90 minutes.

Toward the end of the second rise, preheat oven to 350ºF.

Bake the bread in the center of the oven for about 35 minutes, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center registers at least 190ºF.

**If you want a lighter crust, tent the bread loosely with foil for the last 15 minutes of baking.


Beer and Bread

Ever since I started taking food and cooking seriously (about 8 years ago) I have always tried to adapt recipes to suit me or whatever ingredients I happened to have on hand.  I would scour cookbooks (old and new), browse blog after blog, and question interrogate friends, family member, and sometimes strangers, in order to formulate a recipe that suited my tastes.  I was never afraid of trying new things, and luckily, that fear has remained at a distance. 

Sometimes, though, a recipe comes along that needs no alteration.  The ingredients and process are so thoughtful and perfect that it would be a crime to make any drastic changes.  The recipe I offer to you in this post is exactly that.  And it comes from one of my most favorite food bloggers, Deb at Smitten Kitchen.  I’ve been reading her blog since 2007, and have adapted many a recipe in whatever small apartment kitchen I had at the time.  Now, I share a house with my lovely fiancé, Scott, and although our kitchen is not large by any means, it is more workable than the broom closets of my past.

The other night, Scott and I attended a birthday/poker party at the house of a lovely couple we’ve known for awhile.  The charge was to bring “finger foods” and oddly enough, I had just read her post about Beer, Mustard, and Cheddar Pull-Apart Bread.  Truthfully, I needed no occasion to make this bread, but a birthday/poker party was the perfect “excuse.” 

For the last two or three years, I’ve really gotten into baking; everything from brioche, to cakes, to pies, to tortes, to the occasional cupcake.  Baking gives me comfort and when I saw this recipe on Deb’s site, I absolutely could not pass it up.  There’s something so satisfying about the smell of bread baking away in the oven.  And who could say no to anything with beer and mustard in it??  And cheese??

If you don’t already know about Smitten Kitchen, you should.  Please.  Visit her blog, marvel at her gorgeous photographs, and be grateful for her thorough instructions.  When I consult with Smitten Kitchen, I feel like I’m talking with a friend, and when I adapt her recipes, or in this case, bake by the book, I really feel like she’s here in my kitchen, cheering me on. 

So, thank you Deb, for being my go-to mentor in my time of need.  Thank you for the inspiration I need when I feel my life is just too busy and I can’t be bothered to switch on the oven.  We share an affinity for bourbon in food, conquering culinary obstacles like homemade pasta, and indulging whatever our current craving might be.  In my book, that’s as good as gold.  Cheers to you, Deb.

You can find this recipe for Cheddar, Beer, and Mustard Pull-Apart Bread, here.  While you’re there, stay awhile and look around.  You won’t be sorry.


Labor of Love

To me, there is nothing more divine than the smell of bread baking in the oven.  Okay, well, actually, the smell of yeast mixed with warm milk and sugar sends me into an almost coma-like state of joy, but for this post, I’ll settle for bread right out of the oven. 

I really enjoy baking bread.  Yes, there are quick breads out there that one can put together in an afternoon.  But the breads I enjoy making take at least two days out of my life.  Brioche is one of those breads – if you do it right.  And trust me, it’ll be worth the wait.

When I was living in France (almost 8 years ago – wow!) I was an Au Pair for a family with three young girls.  I was absolutely terrified when I first arrived and became a part of their daily lives, but soon enough, I was settled in and not a day passed when I didn’t learn something about them and myself.  Fiona, Amandine, and Aurelie were easily some of the most influential people in my life and I miss them all the time. 

Among my daily responsibilities was the task of meeting the girls at their school (usually with snacks in my bag) and walking them back home.  If, for any reason, I didn’t have a snack with me, I knew there would still be a loaf of brioche and a container of Nutella waiting for them at the apartment.

Now, I’d never eaten brioche before and I had no idea it could be purchased at the store, pre-sliced, in a plastic bag, like Wonder Bread.  Magnifique!  So began my love for brioche.  Clearly, the bagged brioche couldn’t hold a candle to the real deal, and I understood that as soon as I stepped into a Pâtisserie and saw one on the shelf. Ooo, la la!  So buttery, so light, and with just the right amount of sweetness.  I was in heaven! 

Making brioche at home is an activity that requires a great deal of patience, attention to detail, as well as a love for the process of baking bread.  Carefully adding yeast to warm milk and sugar and watching it bubble is one of the simple joys in life, if you ask me.  The hard part is waiting for the lovely dough to rise, only to be deflated in order to rise, yet again.  After a night chilling in the refrigerator, the gorgeous, golden, and buttery dough is ready to be rolled carefully into balls, situated in a pan, and what? – more rising?!  Yes, once it’s in the loaf pan, one must continue to wait for a final rise.  Then and only then can it be brushed lightly with egg wash and spend some quality time in the oven.  Thirty (or so) minutes later…bread!

My experience with those three girls in France changed me in a profound way.  They were a labor of love, and every time I bake brioche, I think of them and what they added to my life. 

Brioche
Adapted from Gourmet, May 2000

Yield: 1 standard 8 1/2 X 4 1/2 X 2 1/2-inch loaf

Special equipment:  a stand mixer with dough-hook attachment

For starter:

1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/4 cup warm milk (at least 105ºF)
1 (1/4-ounce) package active dry yeast (2 1/2 teaspoons)
1/2 cup sifted all-purpose flour (sift before measuring)

For dough:

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon hot milk
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour (sift before measuring)
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch dice, well softened
1 egg, mixed with 1 tablespoon milk and 1 teaspoon sugar, for egg wash

Make starter:

Stir together sugar and milk in a small bowl.  Sprinkle yeast over the top and let it stand until foamy, at least 10 minutes.  Stir flour into yeast mixture, forming a soft dough.  Let starter rise, covered with cling film, at room temperature for 1 hour.

Make dough:

Combine salt, sugar, and hot milk in a small bowl and stir until salt and sugar are dissolved.

Fit your stand mixer with the whisk attachment and beat 2 eggs at medium-low speed until frothy.  Add the sugar mixture and beat until combined well.  With the motor running, add in order, beating after each addition: 1/2 cup flour, remaining egg, 1/2 cup flour, about one fourth of softened butter, and remaining 1/2 cup flour.  Beat mixture 1 minute.

Remove bowl from mixer and fit mixture with dough-hook attachment.  With a rubber spatula, spread the starter over the dough and return the bowl to mixer.  Beat the dough at medium-high speed for at least 6 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic.  Add remaining butter and beat for 1 minute, or until butter is incorporated.

Lightly butter large bowl and scrape dough into the bowl.  Lightly dust with flour to prevent a crust from forming.

Cover bowl with cling film and let it rise at room temperature until more than doubled in size, at least 2-3 hours. 

Punch down the dough and lightly dust with flour.

Cover bowl with cling film and chill dough, punching down after the first hour, at least 12 hours.

Bake brioche:

The next day, remove dough from refrigerator, gently punch down and turn out onto a lightly-floured surface. 

Work the dough gently into a disk and divide into 8 equal portions.  Roll each portion into a ball and place side by side in a greased loaf pan.  Cover with a damp kitchen towel and allow to rise at room temperature until the dough has doubled in volume, about 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 375ºF.  When the dough has risen, brush with egg wash mixture and bake for 35-40 minutes until the top is golden brown and it sounds hollow when tapped.  If, for any reason, the top begins to brown too quickly, cover gently with foil.

Turn loaf out onto a wire rack to cool.