Diary of the Bread

Baking, Writing and Zombies.

The Wimbledon Post

I wanted to do something a little different this year for my Wimbledon dessert. I often try for a cake, something a little light and fussy. I have also tried variations of strawberries and cream. Yawn. I wanted something small and flavor-packed, nuanced but not so complicated that I couldn’t eat it while watching tennis. So I tried to make a truffle.

This might seem like an obvious choice but I should confess that chocolate and I don’t get along. Unlike dough, chocolate seems to work by its own rules. Despite reading up on how to work with it,  I am surprised when my end product has an awkward bump here, or won’t conform to the shape I want it to, or  doesn’t quite demonstrate the flavor profile I want it to. (I spent two weeks and a great deal of very nice chocolate trying to make a chocolate mug. It did not go well. That’s a story for a whole other post.)

I also wanted something Scotland themed for the tennis player, Andy Murray, who was competing for the championship (and won!).

So here is my recipe for Scottish Breakfast and whiskey truffles.

1 ½ cups of heavy whipping cream

2 ½ tablespoons of Scottish breakfast tea ( 1 tablespoon more if  you want a stronger flavor)

2 tablespoons of Scottish whiskey (I prefer more balanced whiskey, not something too smoky)

2 ½ lbs bittersweet chocolate, chopped or grated

¼ cup of hazelnuts, finely chopped

Cocoa powder

Bring the cream to a boil and then add the tea. Remove from heat and let sit for 20 minutes.

Strain the cream and then reheat. Remove from heat and add 1 lb. of the chocolate into cream. Whisk until combined.  Move to a bowl, cover, and let cool to room temperature. You will want to wait for this to thicken, so it may take 5-6 hours on the counter, less in the fridge. From here you really just need  to keep the chocolate from getting too warm when you handle it. You must work quickly and keep putting the chocolate in the fridge or freezer between stages.

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Use a small chilled scoop  to make 1 inch mounds.  Cover and put the mounds into the fridge for 5-6 hours (or you could put them into the freezer).

Remove from the fridge, coat your hands with cocoa powder and roll the mounds into balls. If you don’t work quickly this will be messy.  Afterwards, return to the fridge.

Take the balls from the fridge.  Remove the parchment paper from the baking sheets and reline them. Melt and temper the remaining chocolate. Coat the chocolate mounds with the tempered chocolate. (I use a fork to dip them and shake off the excess.)

Sprinkle the truffles with hazelnuts and refrigerate.  Eat with tea (or champagne).

The flavor profile for this truffle was unusual. When cold the tea flavor was clear and rich. When the chocolate reached room temperature it demonstrated a much sharper whiskey flavor. I liked this aspect of the recipe, but you should modulate the amount of whiskey to your taste.  

I hope you had a happy Wimbledon!

Olive Oil Joy

I live in a state where olives are abundant. My street is lined with olive trees that are right now in full bloom (if that’s what you call it). They are laden with fruit, so full that what drops onto the ground gets ground underfoot and forms slightly sticky pools. And so there are half a dozen olive oil makers in the area, each of whom swears that their product is distinct, the stuff of terrior and  the right angle of the sun. For most of my life, olive oil has been an afterthought, one of those things you keep around because you heard it was healthy and you figure is easier to eat that than to work out.

But now, I have started to seriously shop for olive oil.  I have found myself going to my local farmer’s market and poking around, looking for a good price and  just the right taste. When I first started to do this, I had uncomfortable memories of being a child, when my mother would tip cod liver oil into my mouth to ward off some vague ailment I was otherwise sure to get. It took some doing to approach this task without a Pavlovian retch.

When I finally got up the courage, I approached the lineup of oils, in varying colors of a verdant hue, some green as grass, others the color of hay. The oils were served sometimes with bread, but often without, each a healthy pour in a little plastic cup that looked like a squat shot glass. The farmer eyes you as you sip pensively. Do you taste the nuttiness? The earthy finish? Did you notice that this was astringent and that was buttery? And, the funny thing is, yes, you really do. Unlike wine-tasting, which I find tedious and frankly, uncertain about what it is I am supposed to identify out of a veil of bitterness or sweetness, the flavor of a good olive oil announces itself like a rung bell.

And so I have decided to take the next step. I have decided to make an olive oil cake.  Would this just be a substitute, kind of a waste of a fine thing? Or would this revolutionize my perspective on cake making? The answer was somewhere in-between.  

The cake I made was packed full of lemon and topped with almonds, and so the olive oil itself had a little competition  for making its presence heard, but it certainly provided a nice complementary nuttiness to the almonds, a trace of something at the edges of your awareness, which might be frustrating in another food, but is kind of lovely in a cake, particularly because this has the most luxurious   texture of any cake you will make. It has a fine crumb and was  moist without feeling undercooked (in fact I slightly overcooked mine). This is the perfect companion for tea, or just something to snack on. And besides, olive oil is good for you, right?

This recipe is adapted from the NYTimes blood orange olive oil cake recipe:

Juice and zest of 2 lemons

1 cup of sugar

3 large eggs

Plain yogurt

1 ¾ cup of all purpose flour

1 ½  teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

2/3 cup of olive oil

Toasted almonds for topping cake

Preheat oven to 350.

Prepare baking pan (I used a 9-inch round pan.)

Grate lemons and mix into sugar.

Combine other dry ingredients.

Juice lemons and  add to enough yogurt to make 2/3 cup. Mix with sugar, then whisk in eggs.

Whisk dry ingredients into wet ones. Then fold in olive oil. (Be gentle, but know that this will take a little bit of doing.)

Arrange the nuts on top of the cake.

Bake for about 50-55 minutes.

Chocolate Evanescence

In my last post I, perhaps glibly, certainly prematurely, suggested that the  Great British Bake-off was both elitist and  full of arbitrary challenges, such as being able roll a sponge cake. I meant to have a follow-up  post that would show how easy that task was to prove that baking didn’t need that sort of drama. And, of course, when I baked my perfect cardamom and honey cake, then tried to roll it, it tore asunder like some Old Testament punishment sent from Mary Berry herself.  To salvage the whole thing, I needed to cut the cake down to size and pawn it off as an intentional layer cake.  But that isn’t really the point of this post. 

What I found to be most enlightening was learning the highs and lows of working with chocolate. I then tried to reproduce the beautiful flowers I saw in the show, which involved learning how to temper chocolate properly and moving faster than I ever had in the kitchen. (Instead of piping flowers onto acetate, I used the method suggested by Ann Reardon, which involves laying fast, precise chocolate dollops, making gentle swipes with your finger across them and then, pulling layers of wax paper apart with a dexterity I could only muster about half of the time. (If you don’t pull it just so, you end with a smear that looks like a Pollock painting.)  After all of this, you have to still assemble the petals, which was half part jenga puzzle, half zen haiku:  The chocolate melts/ over my apron, too fast/ like snow in Mid-March. After I had cobbled together a flower, I realized that I had no good way to photograph it. (It was so dark, little of the detail shows up.) 

After a week of thinking about just giving up baking forever, I rolled up my sleeves an tried again. This time, something more straight-forward. Pistachio cake with chocolate ganache and buttercream frosting. Easy. Until I got to the buttercream. Something happened while making it. It broke, and that nearly broke me. After looking promising and smooth, it got clumpy.  After staring down at it in disbelief, I tried a dimly remembered trick. I poured  some of my ganache directly in the buttercream. The unsightly bumps disappeared and  the whole thing  looked, well, like it’s supposed to. 

To top it off I poured the remaining chocolate over the layered cake. There is something about when you make something well with chocolate that lends itself to cliché’s so forgive me, but the ganache was silky, meltingly delicious, maybe even haiku-worthy.

Crying over Cake

Am I the only person that doesn’t love The Great British Bake Off? Don’t get me wrong, it’s not about the British part. I love nearly everything British from country home locked-room mysteries to Benedict Cumberbatch. I also, obviously, love baking. But when people who know that I love those things ask me if I am plowing through the show on Netflix, I can’t help but feel befuddled. There are two ways that I think about my disdain for this show. One, is it possible for something to be too British? You know how good British shows can be at ratcheting up tension to piano-wire tautness and never giving any real resolution to their problems. (Think The Office, or Eddie Izzard talking about Sebastian arranging matches.) For me the slow burn turned to full-fledged smolder (they’re British, they don’t do infernos) when Claire, sitting by an idyllic stream with tears pouring down her cheeks says, “I don’t know why I’m crying over cake.”  Her cakes were imaginative, exuberant, fantastic and unruly. She was clearly a goner. She wasn’t crying over cake, she was crying over well-honed British smugness baked into a sponge.

Second, we’ve all cried over cake and the show seems to pretend that this is a type of weakness. (I am not speaking metaphorically now, but yes we have all done that too.) It humps in the middle, or clots in one spot, or the carefully folded flour has left a tale-tell streak right through the heart of an otherwise magnificently constructed cake. So far I have by and large avoided making cakes for this blog, but Claire crying over cake has inspired me to try to let my cake flag fly.  For the next few weeks I am going to try to learn how to make cakes and to mention all of the cry-worthy moments.  

Angel Food Cake with Orange Icing

Just because I don’t like the show, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t taken inspiration from it. I really loved the icing on the sponges in the first episode, even though the cake that they made looked dreadful (Cherry Boring cake, I think it is called). So I tried to make a good-looking icing on a fun cake.


Try this one I have modified from Richard Sax’s   Classic Home Desserts:

For Cake:

1 cup of sifted cake flour

1 ½ cups of superfine sugar

pinch of salt

12 large egg whites

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon cold water

1 tablespoon Drambuie

1 teaspoon cointreau

Butter a Bundt pan or tube Pan.

Sift flour together with 1/3 cups of sugar and salt. (Super important! You don’t want clumps.)

Beat egg whites until foamy. Add lemon juice and cream of tartar, Drambuie and cointreau. Beat again until you get near to stiff peaks. Then slowly add 1 cup of sugar. (I am a firm believer in the copper bowl for beating egg whites, but it takes a lot of dexterity to do this without a mixer.)

Fold in the flour mixture in four batches. (Take care on this step, because of the clumping. Don’t dump the flour into bowl. )

Bake for about 40-45 minutes, remove and then let cool.

For the glaze

Whisk the juice and zest from ½ of a Cara Cara orange into 1 cup of confectioner’s sugar. (You might need the second half if the mixture is too thick.)

Pour in a artistically satisfying way over the top of the cake.

You can also toast some almond slivers for the top of this to give a little contrast to the cake.

The cake is everything you want from Angel’s Food Cake and then some. The Drambuie lends some complexity to what I think is normally a satisfying but kind of dull cake. The icing is tart and not at all overwhelming. Of course, as you can guess from my parentheticals, there was clumpage, which you can avoid by being more conscious of how you introduce the flour to the egg whites than I was.

On to next week!

Watermelon Margarita Plus

I know this is cruel. I meant to get this post up at the end of summer. I saw the last of the watermelons of the summer in the grocery store and I knew what it meant: watermelon margaritas. Two cups watermelon, 4 oz of tequila, one/two of Cointreau, a splash of lime and a healthy amount of crushed, run through a blender. But as I walked away with my plump, late summer melons, I wondered about something that has always bothered me about margaritas. I think that there are two types of margarita people in the world: those who like the spike of salt before the first sip and those who would prefer to keep salt far away. I am one of the latter. It feels almost like…well, a mouthful of salt whenever the margarita I order at  a bar (which I have, kindly I hope, insisted not arrive with salt)  arrives encrusted and unpalatable. Is there a solution for those of us who hate salt, but kind of want a little bit of what salt-lovers are getting.

Here is my tentative suggestion: try pickling your own watermelon. This was a strange idea when I first learned that it is possible, particularly because you use the rind,  a part of the melon that I have always considered inedible. However, the pickled watermelon rind is satisfying in ways that a salt rim can never be. You can get the pickling brine just as you would like it. You can use pre-packaged pickling spices (and I recommend this as a base), but you can add red pepper flakes  or a little cinnamon which would give your watermelons a little zing that is welcome in a watermelon margarita, which can be too sweet and uncomplicated.

Set a large pot of water to boil. Then you need to remove the flesh and skin from the rind and cut the rind into squares.  Boil the watermelon until a little tender. This should take 7-10 minutes. In a separate sauce pan combine 2 teaspoons pickling spices,  2 tablespoons of salt, 1- ½ cup of high quality vinegar, a few cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, several slices of ginger and red pepper flakes (if you wish). Set these to boil. Once both the watermelon and the brine are done, put the watermelon into a clean bowl and cover with the brining liquid. Let sit over night. The next day sterilize several pickling jars. Then set the watermelon mixture to bowl in a large pot. Once it reaches a boil, put the watermelon pieces and liquids into the prepared jars.

You will notice that as it sits it in the fridge the flavors will become more subtle and complex. Watermelon rind makes the ultimate complement to what is nearly a perfect drink.

The Shrub: Soda with no Fear

I was the kid that could drink two liters of soda in a day. One glass cup at a time, each topped with ice. I used to really love the fizz and punch of pop, and to be honest, above all I loved the sugar. But then I hit that point when the sugary taste ceased to be yummy and started to be insipid and unhealthy. I grew out of soda and gave it up (except for the occasional Dr. Pepper, for some reason, and the less credentialed Mr. Pibb).  Since then I have wondered about  trying to recapture some of those sensations, without the cloying sweetness and without the fear that the soda will do horrible things to my insides.

This summer, I discovered the answer: shrub soda. Not only does it have the same sensations of a good soda, and a number of ingredients you can count one hand, it also has a cool history. (If wikipedia is right, it was the preferred drink of smugglers in the 1600s, which in itself makes the whole endeavor of making it worth it.) Beyond that, these sodas are a good way of preserving a little of the brightness of summer even as the nights lengthen and become cold. 

The heart of the shrub soda is a syrup that you make which  combines fruit, vinegar, and a sweetener like sugar. The resulting mixture should nicely balance the tartness of vinegar with the mellow sweetness of the fruit: a complex flavor combination for a grown-up palate.

All the shrub syrup takes to make is a little time. Combine an equal amount of sugar (I haven’t tried this with honey yet) and fruit that you have washed thoroughly and slightly crushed. (I know that this is a lot of sugar, but you are only going to use a little bit of it in the soda, and  you can always use less. I use ¾  cup to 1 cup of fruit.) Combine these and let them sit in the fridge for a day to macerate. At this stage you can add a few flourishes, like citrus peel or spice, although I like to keep the flavor simple.  Then you strain out the fruit the next day, whisk in the vinegar, and put the whole mixture into clean jars.  

(Some notes:  Did you know that there is such a thing as artisanal vinegar? I didn’t until I tried this project. Don’t use the stuff you might also use to clean out your sink, it will end in tears.  Look for vinegar that has been slow-processed and then aged. I like this company a lot.

You can also boil the fruit, sugar, and vinegar together, which works just as well, although  you should be judicious. I think the boiling method makes more sense with fruits that will yield their juice less readily. The cold method works well for softer fruits like strawberries.)

Then you play the waiting game. It should take about 2 weeks in the fridge from the time you bottle your syrup for the liquid to go from being sharp and crisp, to being rich and nuanced. Try a little bit after a week and then a little bit more a week later and you will see what I mean. The flavors will change slightly the longer you keep it, but the syrup itself will keep for a good long time.

Lots of people put these in cocktails to give them extra zip. I prefer mine to be more innocent. Put a tablespoon of syrup in flavored tonic water with a sprig of  an aromatic, of course with a giant hunk of ice.

Try it! One glass cup at a time. 

Peaches and Peaches

Last summer I wrote a post that pretty stridently said that I you don’t ever need to do anything to improve a peach. I thought that they were the perfect fruit. And don’t get me wrong, I still do. Kind of. But have you ever roasted a peach? Put it in the oven, let it soften and turn into a syrupy, sweet goo with the slightest bit of firmness at its core? That’s a peach. 

Try this. Turn your oven on to hot. Let’s say 400. 

Slice your peaches in half and pit them. They should be ripe, but not over-ripe. Arrange them on a skillet and top them with a little (not too much) of brown sugar, a sliver of butter, and a healthy amount of vanilla. While you are baking this, you can also toast some slivered almonds to top the peaches. 

When this is done (in about 15 minutes) the juices of the peaches will form a lovely thick syrup that you can use to top the peaches. I think we can make this an exception to the rule about not trying to improve peaches. This only draws out and intensifies the flavors of the peach, so it’s not really gilding the peach.

What might be a step too far is this: agua de Jamaica. Hibiscus flowers (two cups) dropped in 2.5 liters of boiling water along with ½-1 cup of brown sugar. Let this steep for about an hour, strain it, then cool it overnight. This is a little tart but refreshing and works as a nice complement to the pleasant sweetness of the peaches

This is the perfect dessert for the summer. 

Harissa, the perfect partner

Do you ever just get swept up in making a meal and find that the side dish, the afterthought, has stolen the show. Don’t get me wrong: I love the pork. I made my own harissa and that was supposed to be the subject of this post. Harissa, in large part because of the fine cookbooks of Ottolenghi, and particularly his book Plenty have kind of reminded people about how great the seasoning is. Ottolenghi’s recipes often call for the dry stuff and I’ve learned that a judicious use of it can add complexity to nearly any meat, or vegetable, or even garlic toast. It just seems to go with everything.

The fresh stuff is yet better. You can make it to taste, store it in your fridge for about a week or two, which will all the flavor to develop. It’s also not at all a chore to produce (after you have picked up the seasonings). Here is how you make it:

2 tablespoons coriander

2 tablespoons caraway seeds

1 tablespoon sugar (not necessary, but it’s nice)

2 teaspoons of peppermint (dried)

2 teaspoons crushed red peppers

4 garlic cloves diced (or 2 teaspoons dried)

2 teaspoons tumeric

1-2 tablespoons paprika

5 tablespoons tomato paste

Toast the coriander and caraway seeds until fragrant. Set aside.  Sautee the garlic in a little bit of olive oil, if using. Combine all of the dry ingredients and grind in a blender. Mix in tomato paste.

From there you can do anything with the harissa. I recommend searing a pork loin then smothering it with harissa before cooking it in the oven. That all was great. I love pork medallions. And to complete the dish I  wanted to make a simple pasta sauce: melt 6 tablespoons of butter, add a little salt, and then the juice of a lemon when the butter clarifies. I used this to top the pasta, and studded it with some almonds that have been toasted and chopped and a few sprigs of cilantro. But when I did this, something alchemical happened. This combination: the clarity of the lemon, the richness of the butter, the nuttiness of almond perfectly pair with the smoky, meaty pork loin, so much so that you kind of forget how amazing the harissa is. It was only when I was polishing off the final noodle when I began to I wonder if this is a secret part of the magic of harissa; it becomes the perfect complement, subtly complex but able to give up the spotlight to its simpler partner.

Extracts and Tinctures

 Sure, you can buy scandalously-priced bourbon. Yes, there are different types of vermouth. Lemon peel or orange peel? It can go either way. But really, if you want the superlative, unforgettable Manhattan, what you really need is in the magical little bottle, off to the left, the thing that transmogrifies the middle of the road bourbon you can afford, the vermouth you can find, and the lemon peel (and juice) which you will use into something perfect. 

To make bitters, you’ll need an assortment of handsome bottles (or jars), a place away from the sun for your flavors to develop, a neutral-ish alcohol, and bittering agents. It’s really that last bit that will make you feel like you are in a Hogwarts potions class. Go to your local natural foods store and you will find in the bulk section: cherry bark, wormwood, burdock root, angelica root, artichoke leaf,  dandelion root, licorice, horehound, and citrus peel- all sorts of things that you can experiment with for making your bitters. 

You should clean your bottles and then add your bittering agents to them. (How much really depends on the amount of alcohol you will be using and the strength of the bitters you intend to make. I will give a recipe for about 1 liter of rum.) Then you should put the alcohol into the bottle, cover, put it someplace cool and away from direct sun.  Then wait. 

That’s it? Not quite. You also need to taste it. Every few days, treat yourself to a tipple. Once the bitters reaches its perfect state, you’ll know.  Strain it and enjoy.  

The real trick is picking the right combination of bittering agents for the drinks you might want to make. (Dandelion and burdock is a natural combination. I still haven’t figured out wormwood or angelica root.) The clear winner for the Manhattan is a combination of cherry tree bark (2 tablespoons), citrus peel (1 tablespoon) and a vanilla bean (which is a little bit of cheating). Put all of these into a liter of white cane sugar rum until it matures. It should take about 2 weeks. This combination will heighten all of the flavors that you expect in a Manhattan, without being too intrusive. The cherry bark will also add some additional depth to the cocktail, which is often at risk of being too sweet.

For the Manhattan itself, I usually make it with 2 oz. of bourbon, 1 oz. of vermouth, a brandied cherry, a peel of lemon, a spray (yes a spray across the glass) of lemon juice and a few drops of bitters.

Try this and you will have the prefect beverage and, if you are feeling generous, the perfect gift for your friends with well-stocked bars. It’s like magic!

P.S. The other hero of the Manhattan is your handmade, brandied cherries (of course). But that’s another post. 

Hello, Mayo

May as Mayo month? Can we make this a thing? 

I have been a mayo denier for most of my life. You know what I’m talking about. When the conversation turns to how gross the condiment is, I would be the first to fervently agree. Or when ordering a burger at a restaurant, I might slip in, as though it was an after thought, “Could I get a side of mayo with that?” But really my heart has long belonged to mayo ever since Vincent told Jules what they put on fries in Amsterdam, or since my first wedge at Pommes Frites. Sometimes all I really want is the off-white stuff that comes out of the jar as happy as a cloud.  As I have become older and wiser,  I have come to appreciate mayo’s sophisticated cousin, aioli, which I think is a bit more versatile than mayo and I am less ashamed to be seen with.  

Here is my recipe for Harissa Aioli: 

2 Cups of a neutral-tasting oil (I use sunflower, you can also use olive oil, although I think that once you add garlic, you start to mask the flavors of olive oil)

2 bulbs of garlic (I have been using spring garlic which has a lighter, more buttery flavor than the more mature stuff)

2 egg yolks (room temperature)

2 tablespoons of lemon juice

2 teaspoons of dijon mustard

2 teaspoons of harissa

Finely chop the garlic and put it in a large measuring cup.  Pour the oil over it and let it sit over night in the fridge.  

The next day, separate the eggs and whisk the yolks, mustard, lemon juice and harissa together. 

Then slowly add the oil to the mixture in a thin, steady stream, whisking the whole time.  

The result should be a pillowy,  creamy aioli. The harissa is a natural complement to the lemon-garlic flavor of the aioli. 

This iteration of aioli pairs well with sweet potato fries (shown above), or with burgers, or lamb, or really anything. 

I guess “aioli” throws off my alliteration with May. Maybe April as Aioli month? 

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