Thursday, March 26, 2009

Bread and King Arthur Flour--A Great Combination

Last weekend I paid a visit to the King Arthur Flour Company to make several breads from Kneadlessly Simple, my new bread book. While Susan Miller, my host for the event, and I were readying the doughs to use in the next day's demonstration, the recipes got their first compliment: "Wow, these really are simple to mix up," Susan said, sounding a little surprised. (We were in an out of the kitchen in about twenty minutes.)

The next day, as I went through the method for the onlookers gathered around, the response was similar: "That's it?" said one woman. "No kneading, and no mess--really?" asked another. With the Internet abuzz with talk of no-knead breads these day, I was surprised that only one person was familier with the slow rise, set-it-aside-and-forget-it approach. Apparently, many Vermonters don't spend all their waking hours staring at computer screens!

The proof is always in the pudding, or, in this case, the quality of the bread. And I have to say, modestly, of course, that my offerings passed with high marks. In fact, once the first loaf, the Crusty White Peasant-Style Pot Bread, was cut, it disappeared so fast my trusty photographer (my husband) found nothing left to shoot but a few crumbs! (The bottom pic shows it just before its rapid demise.)

Besides stirring up interest and enthusiam in my book, one great thing about showing off the method and the finished breads is that I can discover what home bakers really want to know. The biggest question from the Satuday group: What kind of pot works best for pot breads?

If you're curious about this yourself, check the posting called "The Dish on the Pot." Since I'm getting a steady stream of questions on no-knead baking, the Kitchenlane blog is going to serve as an informal Kneadlessly Simple help desk. (Note: the no-frills cast iron pot shown is a fine choice, delivering deep browning and excellent crisping every time.)

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Dish on Pots--Choosing a Pot for a Pot Bread

If you're looking for a great holiday gift for a "no-knead" bread baking fan or for somebody who would like to make yeast bread but is a little intimidated, I have a suggestion.  Give them a good bread baking pot, and, perhaps a copy of my popular Kneadlessly Simple bread book. Now in paperback, the book is very affordable, and so are a number of suitable  pots on the market.  Just remember that for nicely shaped boules, the pot should be around 8 1/2- to 9-inches in diameter and hold 3 to 3 1/2 quarts. In larger pots, the bread will spread out too much and yield an overly flat loaf. 
I tested a lot of Dutch ovens and pots in the process of writing my Kneadlessly Simple cookbook:  Cast iron, enamel-coated cast iron,  enamel-coated carbon steel, anodized aluminum, stainless steel, and several  oven-proof ceramic casseroles just to name some. (Only certain ceramic casseroles are safe for baking; see details on stoneware containers like the handsome one shown.) They all worked, even a  light-weight very inexpensive ($20) stainless steel  stewpot that I’d initially thought might be too flimsy.

 So when people started asking which ones worked best it was easy to come up with advice. Here's the same bread, my Crusty Cracked Wheat, baked in a plain cast iron pot (below) and in a blue  enamel-coated cast iron Dutch oven (above) with a light interior. As is usually (but not always!) the case, the darker pot interior surface delivered deeper browning. My white very popular peasant-style no-knead pot bread is here.  A pale ale crusty bread is here. 

Tip: Even though dough doesn't usually stick to pots, it can, and I've never found a way to predict which pots will have sticking problems in advance.  If you're not sure, head off trouble by simply spritzing the pot with non-stick spray just before you put in the dough. (If you grease the pot before you preheat it, it will smoke.)

>Looks Don't Matter--The very pretty but pricey French pots are not the only ones that will work for crusty artisan-style loaves: Seasoned plain cast iron pots, which are much cheaper, are just fine. And some plain cast iron pots come already seasoned and ready to use. Enamel-coated carbon steel and anodized aluminum pots will also do a good job--and they are a lighter, so are easier to lug around. Enameled carbon steel pots tend to have hot spots, so I always bake at a slightly lower temp with them.

> Bigger Is Not Necessarily Better--Many pot bread recipes circulating around today call for pots that are larger than is optimum. Loaves calling for 1- to 1 1/4-pounds (3 to 4 cups) of flour will dome more and look better if baked in a 3 1/2 to 4 quart pot. (A 3-quart pot with a domed lid will work, too, as the dough can expand up into the top.) The 6-quart pot I've often seen called for results in loaves that flatten out too much, although, of course, they taste fine.  (The recipe for the handsome "kneadless" Seeds-a-Plenty Wheat Boule shown below right is here.)

>Hot Enough for You?--Some pot bread recipes call for preheating the pot at high heat (450-500 degrees F), so be sure the knob or handle of the pot you choose is heat-tolerant. I've bought several great pots only to discover the knob or handle could only be heated to 400 F or so degrees. In one case, I just unscrewed the phenolic knob and replaced it with a brass one purchased at the hardware store. The preheating step means that pots made of glass and ceramic can be a risky proposition: They may crack or shatter when the cooler dough is dumped in.  Skip them unless the manufacturer specifically says it's safe go directly from freezer to oven.

You'll find  more helpful info on selecting bread pots here.  For more bread pics and hotlinks to more free bread recipes, click here.  The recipe for the crusty wheat bread at the bottom left is here.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Baking Bread on the Radio

I have done many television and radio interviews over the years, but never cooked on the radio until last week. Then NPR sent a producer and host to interview me as I baked my Kneadlessly Simple Crusty White Peasant-Style Pot Bread. (It's pictured at left.) It's tricky to remember to describe the things that the audience can't see going on, but also be aware that they can pick up a lot from hearing the wonderful cooking sounds--the cast iron lid clanking, the pot sizzling, and finally, the thick, crusty bread being cut into slices. Another tricky part is working while the producer holds a microphone right down in the middle of the action--this makes tasks like measuring, stirring and cutting a bit more challenging than normal!

Considering that I was new at bread baking the radio way, I thought the interview, which ran on "All Things Considered-Weekend" on March 22, went well. (The producer and host deserve the credit for that!) If you'd like to hear the interview, or get my recipe for the bread: Click here: No Need To Knead: A Simple Way To Bake Bread : NPR
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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Smooth as Silk Maple Custard Pie

Just thinking about visiting New England maple country (see more pics & story here) has put me in the mood for the sweet, mellow taste of maple syrup. February and March are when the trees start to come to life again. In a phenomenon scientists still don't fully understand, the sap, which has been stored in the roots during winter flows up into the limbs during the warmer days, then drops back into the roots at night. This is what maple harvesters mean when they say the "sap is running," and it's the only time of year the trees can be tapped. Once the weather warms to the point the branches start to leaf, the sap develops a strong unpleasant taste and the harvesting ceases for another year. 

After seeing the maple syrup samples in the window (left) and watching sap being boiled down (pic below) at the Morse Farm in Monpelier, Vermont, I decided to do a maple version of the old-fashioned American favorite, custard pie. (For another homey seasonal sweet that skips a pie crust, check out my Maple-Nut Bars or the Morse Farm Maple Kettle Corn.)

Tip: In the following recipe and other baked goods, it’s best to use medium or dark amber grades of maple syrup like the darker colored samples in the window: They have a more intense flavor and deeper color than the fancy, grade A light syrup. They are usually less expensive, too.

Smooth as Silk Maple Custard Pie
Boasting a silky-smooth texture and faintly tawny color, the custard is mild enough to enhance, not overpower the maple taste. The flavor of the real thing is milder than imitation maple flavoring, but so-o-o much better.

1 recipe all-purpose pie dough (enough for a 9-inch pie)

3/4 cup half-and-half or whole milk
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup maple syrup, preferably, medium or dark amber, plus additional for garnish, optional
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

To shape the crust: Lightly grease a regular (not deep-dish) 9-inch pie plate, or coat with nonstick spray. Unwrap the chilled dough. If it seems too stiff to roll, let it stand to warm up just slightly. Very lightly dust each side with flour. Lay the dough between sheets of baking parchment. Roll out with a rolling pin into an evenly-thick 13-inch round. Carefully peel off and discard one sheet of paper from the dough round. Center the round, dough-side down, in the pie plate. Gently peel off the second sheet and discard. Adjust the position, smooth the dough into the plate, and patch any tears, if necessary. Trim the pastry overhang to a generous 1-inch using kitchen shears or knife. Fold under the pastry overhang to form an even edge that rests on the lip of the pie plate; crimp with the fingers or decorate with the tines of a fork. Prick the pastry bottom and sides with a fork. Loosely cover the pastry and return to the refrigerator until cool and firm again, at least 15 minutes.

To par-bake the crust: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Insert a large square of nonstick aluminum foil (or spray-coated regular foil) into the chilled shell, smoothing the foil over the bottom and sides and folding it out over the rim to cover the pastry. Fill the foil with dried beans or pie weights. Set the pie plate on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake in the lower third of the oven for 25 minutes. Very gently remove the foil and beans from the shell. Continue baking until the shell is lightly browned, about 5-8 minutes longer. Transfer to a wire rack.

To make the filling: Reset the oven to 325 degrees F. In a medium non-reactive saucepan whisk together the half-and-half and cornstarch until well blended and smooth. Whisk in the cream. Heat, whisking, over medium-high heat until it boils and thickens slightly, about a minute. Set aside to cool for 5 minutes. Using a whisk, beat together the maple syrup, eggs, salt, and vanilla in a large, heat-proof bowl until very well blended. Whisking, very slowly pour the hot cream mixture into the egg mixture in a thin stream to avoid overheating (and possibly curdling) the eggs. Strain the custard through a fine sieve into the pie shell.

To bake the pie: Place on a rimmed baking sheet in the middle third of the oven; bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 300 degrees F., and continue baking until the filling appears set except in the center when the pan is jiggled, about 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer the pie to a wire rack until cooled, then refrigerate, covered, at least 2 hours and up to 3 days before serving. Serve chilled, cut into wedges. For a slightly sweeter taste, drizzle the tops of the servings with a little maple syrup. Add a dollop of whipped cream, if desired. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

 Perhaps you would also like these easy maple sundaes.
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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Maple Time in New England

The sap is running in America's maple country, and as I found during my own trip, it's fun to be there during the harvest season. If you are interested in this culinary-related outing, start planning right away. Do call and check on the weather though; the sap doesn't run when temps are too low.

The picture on the left shows how the sap used to be collected--with thousands of buckets that were emptied by hand. Nowadays, most sugaring is done by running tubing from the trees to collecting tanks; a lot more efficient, but lacking charm!

The pic above right and here show the Butternut Mountain Farm retail "sugar shack" in Johnson, Vermont, which I visited some years ago. It's owned by David Marvin, one of the regions "maple moguls," and is one of a number of New England shops featuring all things maple. Products range from maple cream, to syrup, to mustard, to numerous confections. Some places even sell fresh maple doughnuts and soft maple ice cream--yum!

In the top floor of the shop shown, a small staff makes the fresh maple leaf candies pictured here each week. Some families in Vermont own their own molds and make the candies at home. They also make Sugar on Snow, a pure maple taffy cooled and eaten over fresh snow. (There's a recipe for the simple taffy, plus all kinds of other American specialties in my All-American Dessert Book.)

Pure maple syrup is also wonderful in my Maple Custard Pie and Maple Bars recipes; click here for the pie, pictured below, and here for the bars.

For more on Vermont maple season, check out the maple sundae recipe below, or my maple kettle corn recipe, plus story and pics on Montpelier maple man Burr Morse.  

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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Kneadlessly Simple Crusty White Pot Bread

Since Jim Lahey's crusty white pot bread was published back in 2006, thousands of home baker's have tried their hand baking this simple, but spectacularly good bread. I liked his version, but wanted to come up with a larger loaf and one that had even more flavor. And I wanted to completely eliminate the hand-shaping and all the kitchen counter mess.

That's what I did with the recipe below. It's in my new bread cookbook,
Kneadlessly Simple. The very basic ingredients--just flour and a little yeast, salt, and sugar are mixed together in a large bowl. Then ice cold water is stirred in. Yes, ice cold! (Be sure you use fast-rising, instant, or bread machine yeast with the cold water though.) It won't hurt the yeast and it improves the flavor and texture of the finished bread. As you can see, the dough is moist, but not wet like batter bread. It should hold some shape and be hard to stir.

Next, the dough is covered and just sits and kneads itself. For convenience and the absolute best flavor, it can be refrigerated for a while. This is entirely optional. Then it goes on the countertop for a slow, cool rise of about 18 to 24 hours. A little more or less won't hurt.

It's the natural bubbling action, caused by the yeast fermentation, that actually kneads the dough. The bubbles actually move the dough, bringing together the two proteins that form gluten on the molecular level in much the same way as the pulling and pushing of traditional kneading brings them together in a more obvious way. The long, slow rise also allows plenty of time for the dough to develop a rich aroma and complex flavor that can't be achieved with a hurried rise.

The next step is simply to fold the dough into its center until partially deflated, and after it rises again, invert it directly into a preheated 3 1/2 to 4-quart Dutch oven to bake. Absolutely no shaping of the loaf or other fiddling is required. The surface smooths out and the dough browns and forms a lovely boule on its own.
And finally there's the bread, still warm from the oven and boasting a beautiful, crusty top and creamy-soft interior.

Crusty White Peasant-Style Pot Bread

Pot boules — round, peasant-style breads that are simply popped into a sturdy, lidded pot and baked — are about the easiest loaves possible, but among the most gratifying. They puff up well, brown beautifully and always come out crusty, due to the moisture trapped inside the pot during the first few minutes in the oven. (In fact, the pot actually serves as a minioven.) Still, if you don't have a pot, here's a popular crusty cheese bread that just uses a loaf pan.

For another pot bread, my crusty seeded pale ale pot boule, go here.
For one very economical pot I like a lot, go here; or lots of useful info on various kinds of pots to use, click here .

Like the basic black dress, this basic white loaf is always appropriate and in favor. The interplay of light mild crumb, crunchy golden crust and deep, sweet yeast taste and aroma (coaxed out by long, slow rising) is downright amazing. In fact, eating this bread is a far more complex and exciting sensory experience than one might expect from the simple ingredients.

If you’d like to listen to an interview of me and an NPR commentator making this bread in my kitchen click here .

Tip: A cast iron Dutch oven makes a good baking pot. The bread usually doesn't stick to seasoned plain or enameled cast iron, but if you aren't sure about your pot, spritz the interior with a little nonstick spray immediately before you turn out the dough into it.

Makes 1 large loaf, 12 to 14 slices.

4 cups (20 ounces) unbleached all-purpose white flour or white bread flour, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
2 teaspoons table salt
3/4 teaspoon instant, fast-rising or bread-machine yeast
2 cups ice water, plus more if needed
Corn oil, canola oil or other flavorless vegetable oil or oil spray for coating dough

First Rise: In a large bowl, thoroughly stir together the flour, sugar, salt and yeast. Vigorously stir the water into the bowl, scraping down the sides and mixing until the ingredients are thoroughly blended. If the mixture is too dry to incorporate all the flour, stir in more water, a bit at a time, just enough to blend the ingredients. Don't over-moisten; the dough should be very stiff. If necessary, stir in enough more flour to yield a hard-to-stir dough. Brush or spray the top with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. If desired, for best flavor or for convenience, you can refrigerate the dough for three to 10 hours. Then let rise at cool room temperature for 18 to 24 hours. If convenient, vigorously stir the dough once about halfway through the rise.

Second Rise: Using an oiled rubber spatula, gently lift and fold the dough in toward the center, all the way around, until mostly deflated; don't stir. Brush or spray the surface with oil. Re-cover the bowl with plastic wrap that has been coated with nonstick spray. Let rise using any of these methods: for a 1 1/2- to 2 1/2-hour regular rise, let stand at warm room temperature; for a 1- to 2-hour accelerated rise, let stand in a turned-off microwave along with 1 cup of boiling-hot water; or for an extended rise, refrigerate, covered, for 4 to 24 hours, then set out at room temperature. Continue the rise until the dough doubles from the deflated size; remove the plastic if the dough nears it.

Baking Preliminaries: 20 minutes before baking time, put a rack in the lower third of the oven; preheat to 450 degrees. Heat a 3 1/2- to 4-quart (or larger) heavy metal pot or Dutch oven in the oven until sizzling hot (test with a few drops of water), then remove it, using heavy mitts. Taking care not to deflate the dough (or burn yourself), loosen it from the bowl sides with an oiled rubber spatula and gently invert it into the pot. Don't worry if it's lopsided and ragged-looking; it will even out during baking. Generously spritz or brush the top with water. Immediately top with the lid. Shake the pot back and forth to center the dough.

Baking: Bake on the lower rack for 55 minutes. Remove the lid. Reduce the heat to 425 degrees. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes longer, or until the top is well browned and a skewer inserted in the thickest part comes out with just a few crumbs on the tip (or until center registers 209 to 212 degrees on an instant-read thermometer). When it seems done, bake 5 minutes longer to ensure the center is baked through. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the loaf to the rack and cool thoroughly.

Serving And Storing: Cut or tear the loaf into portions; it tastes good warm but will cut much better when cool. Cool completely before storing. To maintain the crisp crust, store draped with a clean tea towel or in a heavy paper bag. Or store airtight in a plastic bag or wrapped in foil: The crust will soften, but can be crisped by heating the loaf, uncovered, in a 400 degree oven for a few minutes. The bread will keep at room temperature for three days, and may be frozen, airtight, for up to two months.

VARIATION: Crusty Rosemary And Olive Pot Bread — Stir 1 cup pitted, coarsely chopped kalamata olives (well drained) and 3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh (not dried) rosemary needles (discard the stems) into the dough along with the water. Proceed exactly as directed. The loaf is shown below.

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