Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Doughnuts - fried deliciousness!

A few weeks ago I started teaching a baking class to a group of 7th and 8th grade girls. It has been a great experience so far. The week before spring break, we made bread. During some of the down time (waiting for the dough to rise) the girls were looking through lots of cookbooks, and I issued a challenge: make something with yeast and bring samples and a recipe if possible. All of them wanted to make cinnamon rolls, and thankfully they didn't all bring in samples (I don't think I could have spent enough time at the gym burning off the cinnamon rolls). I decided I should take on the challenge myself and found a recipe for doughnuts.

Now let me start, I've never fried anything before in my life, so I decided to make fried doughnuts, not cake ones - why not challenge myself on two fronts? So, doughnut dough... this was a sour cream based dough, and even though the recipe said it would be sticky, I had never worked with a wet dough before, and was not prepared for how sticky it really was! The first time I made the dough, I only mixed part of it with a stand mixer, and then did the rest on a board. I made a simple mistake the first time I made it, I added too much flour, and overworked the dough, thinking it shouldn't be this sticky. The doughnuts turned out great, but nothing compared to the second batch, made entirely in the stand mixer.

This dough only needed one rise before shaping, so after an hour, I pulled out my still sticky dough, and started to cut. I choose to make doughnut holes instead of the traditional doughnut shape just so I could eat a few instead of just one! After making small little rounds of dough, I rolled them into a ball, and put them on a sheet pan for a final rise. During this time I filled my dutch oven with oil (use canola or peanut oil, it can get to higher temperatures, and therefore the dough will absorb less oil), and let it come up to temperature. The temperature of the oil is an important thing to note in making doughnuts, and really frying anything. If the oil is at the correct temperature, the food will absorb the least amount of oil, and remain blissfully crisp.

So, the oil finally came up to 375* according to the fry thermometer I had attached. I gently placed about 5 doughnut holes in the oil. The amount you can fry at one time depends on the size of your pot. You don't want to overcrowd the pot which would lower the temperature, make the doughnuts take longer to cook, and therefore, absorb more oil. Once the doughnut holes browned on one side, I flipped them over and allowed them to continue frying. After about 2 minutes I removed them from the oil, and placed them on a paper towel to absorb any excess oil. Once the doughnuts were cool enough to handle I rolled them in an assortment of toppings. There was a powdered sugar glaze, melted chocolate, flake coconut and cinnamon sugar. My favorite was the simple powered sugar glaze made with imported Mexican vanilla (if you've never tried Mexican vanilla I recommend finding yourself some, there is no comparison).

Will I try doughnuts again? Probably. It is always nice to have something impressive to make on special occasions, like birthdays and holidays. I'll let you know what I come up with for Easter this weekend!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Brown Sugar Substitute

Last night while my husband was watching TV, I was doing my usual multi-tasking, watching the shows with him, but also perusing my cooking magazines. Looking for something to make for our friends this Sabbath for lunch, as well as seeing is there was any desert I just had to make. Well, I found one: Hazelnut Espresso Cookies (see recipes - thank you Everyday Food!).

So this afternoon, after delivering a meal - and lemon cake - to my friend who just had a baby, I proceeded to get the ingredients out to make these cookies. Let me say, the kids were intent on me making desert, considering I had just dropped off aforementioned lemon cake at our friends house, and they did not get to sample any of it! As I'm bringing out the containers of flour, salt, baking soda, sugars, espresso and hazelnuts, I realize that my brown sugar jar is curiously low on brown sugar. Ack! As you may realize, baking is a science... you MUST have the ingredients in the correct proportions for the chemistry to produce the desired result. Substitutions can occur, but you may not end up with the product you wanted. So what is a girl to do, when the recipe calls for 1/2 cup of brown sugar, and there is maybe 1/4? Make it!

Yes, you heard me right. Brown sugar consists mainly of molasses and white sugar. Sure, there are other ingredients, and I'm positive they do more than mix together large amounts of white sugar and molasses, but in this case, making it was a better option than gathering the kids back in the car, in the rain, just to get brown sugar. So in a bowl I put my scant amount of true brown sugar, some white sugar, and a dollop of molasses (I just love the stuff, especially on pancakes, thanks to my dad!). I stirred it together, mashed the molasses in, and after a while, you couldn't really tell where the brown sugar ended and my additions started. Time to get started on some cookies!

By this time the boys had gotten my mixer on the counter, plugged it in, and were ready to bake. In goes the softened butter (don't take short cuts with a microwave, remember that chemistry comment earlier - melted butter will not fluff up with sugar as will softened butter), and sugars. My youngest was eager to turn on the mixer and get as close as I'll let him to watch the magic. After several minutes of mixing, in goes the eggs, then the most delicious part... ESPRESSO! I happened to have instant espresso powder on hand from a batch of tiramisu made earlier in the year, so I was eager to use in these cookies. Next the dry ingredients got mixed in, and finally the chopped hazelnuts.

The boys each got handed something to lick, and I grabbed my ice cream scoop and started to make my cookies. Baked in the oven for 10 minutes, they came out warm and delicious. I had to force myself to stop eating them. I figure it might keep me up at night! For those of you who are just dying for the recipe, check out the tab at the top, I've included it. Not sure how long they'll last in my cookie jar, may be gone by tomorrow!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Striving for Perfection

Well, I'll never think I, or anything I make, can actually reach perfection, that is saved for one man alone. However, I will certainly try to perfect something I love to bake. This time around it is cinnamon raisin bread. Maybe it was the cinnamon rolls that got me started, or the question from a friend on how to make it, but something got me on the path of cinnamon raisin bread. Today I'm working on my 3rd and 4th batches. Did I mention the first batch was on Wednesday? Yeah, I have a bit of a problem right now!

So, instead of using my favorite wheat bread recipe (see first post) I hauled out my tome of Baking by renowned baking instructor James Peterson, and went in search of a bread recipe. I picked his basic white bread, but used a sponge starter instead of just a basic starter. In essence the difference is letting the yeast proof with all the liquid and some flour before mixing in the remaining flour. By allowing for this additional proofing phase, you incorporate more flavor into the bread, and when you are working with the most basic of ingredients - flour, water, milk, yeast - flavor is everything. This additional stage of proofing, only added 2 extra hours to my bread making process, but the result was worth it! I've even started saving some of my dough to use in the next batch, it cuts down on yeast, and produces incredible flavor.

Back to cinnamon raisin bread. So, my goal was to make the classic swirl of cinnamon and raisins in the middle of my loaf, just what I want in the morning with hot coffee. Of course soft butter and cinnamon sugar are good accompaniments. I went through all phases of letting the dough rest and rise - a total of 4 1/2 hours. Then it was time to shape the dough. This is where the cinnamon and raisins were added. I started with the envelope fold (create a rectangle with your dough, fold in one side, then the other over it, so your dough is in thirds), filled the middle with cinnamon, sugar and raisins, then rolled it all up, and tucked under the ends. This had to rise for an additional 2 hours, then into the oven for one more hour.

The loaf came out looking beautiful with a pretty spiral of cinnamon and raisins. But... it just wasn't as good as I wanted. So I made another batch just yesterday. This time I used some left over dough, and didn't start it until nearly 7:30 at night. I did the initial proofing last night, added the remaining flour, mixed and kneaded, rested and kneaded some more. After a 30 minute rise I let it finish in the fridge and went to bed. Slowing down the rising process also adds more flavor to the dough, and fresh bread in the morning is delicious! So this morning I brought out my bowl of dough, and instead of pressing the dough out with my fingers, I used my rolling pin to make a large rectangle, which I proceeded to shape. Once I had my envelope fold completed, I rolled it out even more and then added a generous amount of cinnamon sugar (delish!) and re hydrated raisins (steeped in boiling water for 10 minutes then drained). I rolled this super tight, tucked under the ends, and put it in my loaf pan. After the 2 hour rise I popped it in the oven and it was ready just in time for breakfast (did I mention my boys wake up at the crack of dawn?). This loaf was incredible. The swirl encompassed the entire loaf, and it didn't need additional cinnamon sugar, just warm butter. It was great after my morning run!

Now, why am I making loaves 3 and 4 today? Well, my friend just had her 4th baby girl this morning, so one is for her family to enjoy, and the other... we'll see whose doorstep it lands on. That is one of my favorite things about baking, sharing the results. Sure, the process of baking is fun and relaxing and makes the house smell wonderfully, but I enjoy even more sharing the fruits of my kitchen.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Indulgent Treat

So today, I had to indulge. This morning we woke up bright and early, with the time change, and went to run one of, if not, THE biggest foot race in downtown Portland. Lot's of friends joined us, some ran, some walked, and we all had a great time enjoying the sunny morning.

No, that wasn't the indulgence!

Indulgence came afterwards, with a big pan of cinnamon rolls! My husband is a HUGE fan of cinnamon rolls, but I rarely buy them, and have never made them. Today, with a little prep last night, I made 1 big pan, and 3 smaller ones, 2 of which are headed to his office tomorrow. They were from one of my favorite blogs: www.thepioneerwoman.com and they were great. I had to use real butter cream frosting on my husbands, he just loves the stuff. The kids are now bouncing off the walls from a sugar high.

For those of you who have never tried making cinnamon rolls, they are pretty simple. A basic dough - though lots more cream or milk - and plenty of butter, cinnamon and sugar. The kids were even able to get their hands in there with rolling the dough, which they just loved.

With a little prep work the night before, you can easily have a fresh pan of cinnamon rolls in the morning!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Back to Basics

One of my first memories of baking as a young girl was kneading bread with my mom. There is something homey about the smell of yeast and flour in a warm kitchen, just takes me back. I'd stand on a stool next to my mom, and knead the bread with her, getting my hands covered with flour, and having a great time. Then I'd wait anxiously while the bread went through several rises, always wanting to punch it down, and watch it fill the bowl again. Finally when we would put the bread in the pan, wait for one last rise, then pop it in the oven. My mouth would start watering almost instantly. I kept checking the timer, seeing if the bread was ready yet. Finally we'd take out a warm loaf of bread, cut generous slices, slather it with soft butter, and eat it up! Ahh, the joys of a childhood spent in the kitchen.

Yesterday I finally decided to share making bread with my two boys. They, like myself, love to bake. Every time they see me bring out the bowls, or the mixer, they get excited, running to the kitchen to help mom. In the morning we got out the yeast and flours, got the bowls ready, and of course some stools for the boys so they could help. We put the first batch of ingredients together, yeast, water, molasses and some flour, stirred it, and waited. If you've ever made bread before, you know this is where patience comes in, and if you've ever had two little boys before, you know patience isn't something they've practiced much of! So after an hour of watching the sponge proof, they asked if the bread was ready... not yet boys was all I could say. We added more flour, got to knead the dough - which of course they loved because they got to get their fingers in there and get dirty - and then sat and waited. Is it ready to eat now mom? Not yet boys... Now here is where things got interesting.

I put the bowl on the stove and waited my hour... lifted the damp towel... and nothing had happened! Argh! I always remembered the stove being the warmest spot for the dough to rise, but it didn't seem to hold true in my house. Oh yeah, I keep my home at about 67* during the day, so it isn't warm like the bread needs... and I don't have a pilot light for my gas oven, so it isn't warm either. Dang, now what? Well, this is where ingenuity comes in. I turned the oven on to 170* left the door open, and put the bowl back on top of the stove. Yes, this may be warmer than it needs, but it is the only way for the dough to rise. So, back to the bread lesson.

After the boys had already waited for 3 hours, they finally got to punch down the dough, they loved it! Is it ready now mom? Not yet boys... Thankfully, it was nap time for them, so the interminable waiting wouldn't seem to take so long. After they woke up, we got to shape it into loaves, put them back on the stove and wait again, but not for nearly as long this time. Finally, at 3:30pm, 5.5 hours after having started the process, we got to put the bread in the oven! My youngest sat in front of the oven door, watching the bread cook. As soon as it came out of the oven, I let them each have a slice, with soft butter melting down into all the yummy goodness of fresh bread warm from the oven. That night we made garlic bread with one of the loaves, and today they ate their PB & J sandwiches on homemade bread. Unfortunately it disappeared so quickly there was none left by the time I thought of taking a picture!

Making bread is one of those activities that can bring you back to the center. The natural process of yeast rising, adding just a few ingredients and coming out with a delicious result. The slow nature of it forces you to slow down for a day, not always having to be rushing out the door. Working the dough can relieve any number of stresses in life. Let's not forget the sumptuous result after a day of letting nature take its time, warm homemade bread. Yes, there are ways to speed up the process, bread machines that do everything for you, mixers that take all the fun out of kneading, and even rapid rise yeast that proofs in half the time; but sometimes it is best to slow down, take our time, and let nature work at it's speed instead of ours.