Friday, December 25, 2015

Brioche for Breakfast: Merry Christmas Morning!

On Christmas morning, I always treat myself to a sweet yeasted bread. Back in the day, I used to make stollen, which I love, using a wonderful recipe from Pleasures of Cooking, the magazine that Cuisinart used to put out in the first years they (the original company run by Carl Sontheimer) were making food processors.  (You remember, the good ones that didn’t crack or burn out).  Later, when it was just me, I would buy a really good imported Panettone (although when I was in Philly I bought them for a few years from Metropolitan Bakery when they were making them) and eat it, slowly, over the course of a week or so, toasting it as it got stale.
This year, still camping out at my son’s house without any of my own equipment and in the mood for something less sweet, I looked at his shiny new KitchenAid, sitting forlorn on the counter, and decided to make brioche. No specialty pan absolutely required (although I do have the big and little fluted molds in storage), no fruits and nuts needed.

I have been fortunate to live around a lot of good bakeries in my wandering days (which is pretty much all of them), but the one I probably loved the most was the one in Carmel, CA where, at the age of 22, before I had ever been to Europe and American bakeries were still, well, American, I fell in love with brioche. (Do you think, for my New Year’s resolution, I should strive for shorter sentences?)  I still absolutely love it, and it is still, surprisingly, not all that easy to find. So I still consider it to be special.

Brioche can be made in lots of shapes, and is most often seen as individual rolls, but I love the look of a big brioche Nanterre. So that’s what I made.   Cultured butter, Wayne’s eggs, flour, yeast—and patience—that’s pretty much it.  A simple pleasure for the holiday. Hope you have a happy one.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Lotsa Butter: Christmas Cookies

Much as I love my lard, to every item there is its fat, and for cookies (with a few Italian exceptions), that is butter. Gorgeous, fresh, sweet, unsalted butter.

I love cookies, and for decades have curated a collection of those I consider to be true keepers. I am not a chocolate chip cookie girl—literally almost never make them except for kids.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate a good, soft, chewy one made with good chocolate, it’s just that I don’t care, sort of like not caring about cupcakes or gooey layered bars or. . . OK, I think I just figured it out: I don’t like things that are too sweet.  So rich, tender, chewy, crisp-elegant, spicy, all good. Too sweet, no.

This year I am rather limited; all my baking stuff--my vast trove of cookie cutters, sheet pans, rolling pins, decorating tips, pastry bags—are in storage, as is my little collection of prize recipes. Had to order a rolling pin (I only have about 10 in storage, so went for something a little different), and a half-sheet pan (can’t have too many of those, either), and a few cookie cutters.  I borrowed a few recipes, found one of my old faves online, and had one of my more recent acquisitions in my computer.

That is the one I provide below, a Mexican wedding cookie given to me by a doctoral student when I was at Vanderbilt. She brought them to a department holiday potluck lunch, and I was lucky enough to eat many of them and to get the recipe.

While I do not have the time anymore (or maybe it’s the energy) to bake hundreds of cookies of a dozen varieties and give them to friends and neighbors, I still think there is nothing I’d rather have on the holiday table, or sitting on the edge of the counter, than a plate of cookies.  So if not a dozen, at least three different kinds, please.

Mexican Wedding Cakes

Though the recipe came to me labeled as “cakes,” which I retain here, they are not cakey, but tender little butter-nut cookies with some similarity to almond crescents.
In Tucson I could use local pecans; buy the very best whole pecans you can find. Makes about 3 dozen, depending on size.

1 c (4 oz) pecans, coarsely chopped
1 c (8 oz) unsalted butter, softened
¼ tea salt
½ c 10x (confectioners) sugar
2 tea pure vanilla extract
2 c a-p flour

¼ c 10x (confectioners) sugar

Adjust the oven rack into the upper third of the oven. Preheat to 350 F.

Spread the coarsely chopped pecans on a baking sheet and toast in the oven, stirring occasionally, 5-8 minutes until lightly browned. You could do this in a toaster oven.
Cool thoroughly, then grind in a food processor until very fine but not quite powdery and certainly not oily.

In a stand mixer or with a hand-held electric mixer, beat the softened butter, salt, ½ cup of confectioners sugar, and vanilla until very fluffy and well combined.  Gradually add and beat the pecans into the butter mixture.  While beating, sift the flour into the mixture and continue beating until evenly incorporated.
Pull off pieces of dough and roll between the palms into generous 1-inch balls.  Space 1 ¼ inches apart on cookie sheets.

Bake, 1 sheet at a time, in the upper third of the oven for 12-15 minutes, until faintly tinged with light golden color.  Transfer the sheet to a rack and let the cookies firm up slightly.  Then transfer the cookies onto the rack to cool thoroughly. 

Sift the ¼ c confectioners sugar onto a sheet of wax paper. Roll the cookies in the sugar to evenly coat; if you are planning to freeze the cookies, freeze unsugared and thaw and sugar before using. Sugared cookies will keep in an airtight container for 2 weeks; you can freeze the baked cookies for a month.


Sunday, December 6, 2015

Leaf Lard + Stayman Winesaps = Iconic Apple Pie


Trendsetter that I have always been, my beloved fat of choice for fruit pies is, at long last, making a comeback. It had gotten to the point where it was near-impossible to find even the commercial (hydrogenated) lard, and recipes that once called for lard—Mexican dishes and many old-fashioned baked goods—had been rewritten to call for Crisco or oil: for shame! But now, lard, like butter, is enjoying a resurgence as a natural food. People are actually making lard again! I have not yet found a local source—I am confident, or at least hopeful, that there is one—but carefully rendered pure leaf lard is increasingly available by mail order.   Thank you, sane and dedicated pig farmers.

Leaf lard is the exceptionally white and pure visceral fat from around the kidneys of the pig. A few words about lard, and leaf lard in particular, will, I hope, do its bit to help restore lard to its rightful place in cooking and baking. Lard was, of course, the most common fat in America before the development of stable oils, widely available commercial butter, and (don’t get me started) margarine. It was used just as one would use butter, not merely for baking or cooking but also to spread on bread (think lardo as served now as a special item in some Italian restaurants).  But lard’s decline in demand was not simply a matter of new, improved products replacing the old; its disappearance had as much to do with smear (no pun intended) campaigns as anything else.

This was ironic, given lard’s properties and characteristics versus many oils, butter, and margarine. For example, pure rendered lard has zero (that’s 0) transfats; it has a much higher percentage of “good” fat (monounsatured), and lower percent of saturated fat (the “bad”) than butter and the trendy coconut oil. It yields a flaky, rich pastry that has particular affinity, in my opinion, for pome and most drupe fruits, poultry and meats (as in empanadas or meat pies), and most berries. It is excellent for frying chicken and potatoes, and as a fat in old-fashioned cakes, cookies and breads, from biscuits and rolls to those containing fruits and nuts.  It adds depth without flavor; no, it doesn't taste like pig. And last but not least, lard, as an agricultural by-product of pigs that can be raised and produced locally, is sustainable and reflects a minimal-waste philosophy.

In time for the holiday baking, I had recently ordered my leaf lard (and some interesting smoked lard that makes very nice roasted potatoes) from FannieandFlo, when I spotted some Stayman Winessaps among the many apple varieties at the store. They were a local offering, unadorned by stickers or shine, priced 20 cents below any other variety. While everyone else grabbed their new-fangled Galas, I grabbed those. Along with Gravensteins and a few other old varieties, the Stayman Winesap is a fine baking apple.  With lard and good local apples in hand, there was only one thing to do: make a pie.

Classic Apple Pie with Lard Crust

You can make a butter and lard crust like this one, or, as I did for this pie, an all-lard crust.  Don’t put a lot of spices in your pie (especially clove or allspice); cinnamon, perhaps a touch of nutmeg if you  must, is all an apple pie needs.

Pastry for a double-crust 9” pie

2 ¼ c a-p flour
2/3 cup cold leaf lard
1 tea salt
6 T ice water

8 large apples (Cortlands, Macouns, or other crisp and tart-sweet baking apple can be used)
scant cup of sugar
cinnamon to taste
3 T a-p flour
pinch salt
1 T lemon juice
2 T unsalted butter

Make your crust in the usual way, by cutting the fat lightly into the flour and salt, then bringing it together with the cold water. Divide and chill, wrapped in plastic or wax paper. I prefer to make my pastry a day or more ahead (freeze it if you don’t plan to use it for a few days, then thaw in the refrigerator.

While the pastry is chilling, put the sugar, flour, cinnamon, and a pinch of salt into a a large bowl. Peel, core, and slice your apples about 1/4” thick, tossing them into the sugar mixture as you go. Add the lemon juice and toss. Always taste the juices before you fill your pie, adding additional cinnamon or a speck of salt if needed; you don’t want your pie to be over-spiced, but you don’t want it bland either.

Preheat the oven to 375F.

Roll out and fit the bottom crust into the pie plate; fill with the apples and pour in the juices. Dot the apples with the butter. Roll out the top crust and fit it over the apples. Trim the pastry as needed; turn it under to sit on the rim, and crimp. With a fork or small skewer, poke some holes into the crust to vent steam. If you have time, refrigerate the filled pie for 10 or 15 minutes.

Bake the pie in the middle of the oven for 45-60 minutes, or until it is golden, fragrant, and the juices begin to bubble through the vent holes. You can use a tiny bamboo skewer inserted into one of the vent holes to check that apples are cooked if you are not sure. Remove the pie and let cool completely before serving.