Smashing expectations with simple scones

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I have never met a scone I liked. Every scone I’ve ever had has been dry, plain and crumbly. They were all like eating a stale biscuit. So, for the majority of my life, I’ve avoided them. Last week I decided I make them at home to see whether I would like them better. I did.scones2

The recipe I used was the Simple Cream Scones recipe from The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook. I figure it’s always best to start with something simple. I added a vanilla bean to the recipe and the flavor of the scones was great. They didn’t crumble all over the place when I bit into them like ones I’d purchased from coffee shops did. They were soft and a bit moist inside instead of dry through and through. They were enjoyable, instead of being overly sweet. They were perfect for breakfast.

As with most recipes, I made a mistake on the first try. I left the oven rack in the upper third of the oven and didn’t rotate the scones halfway through the cooking process as instructed. I left them in a little longer than I should have, but they were still good. In fact, the next weekend I made them and added about a half cup of chopped strawberries to the mix and I liked them even more than the vanilla bean scones.

I’m glad I decided to make them at home because now I know that not all scones are dry and crumbly. Not all scones are bad biscuits. Not all scones are worth writing off.

scones4Ingredients
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder (use 3/4 tablespoon if at high altitude)
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces and chilled
1 vanilla bean
1 cup heavy cream

Adjust oven rock to middle position and heat oven to 450 degrees F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment on, stir flour, sugar, baking powder and salt until combined. Add butter and stir until mixture resembles coarse meal with some slightly larger pieces of butter.

Cut both ends off the vanilla bean and cut the bean in half lengthwise. Using the back of a knife, scrape the seeds from inside and add them to the mixture. Stir until just combined. Stir in cream until dough begins to form.

Turn dough and any floury bits onto a floured counter and knead until a slightly sticky ball forms. Pat dough into a 9-inch round and use a knife or pizza cutter to cut into eight wedges.

Place wedges on prepared baking sheet and bake until tops of scones are lightly golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes (10 to 12 minutes if at high altitude), rotating baking sheet halfway through baking. Transfer baking sheet to wire rack and let cool for at least 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Focaccia fresh from the oven

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One of my favorite things about playing around in the kitchen is learning something new. I had been toying with the idea of trying focaccia for a couple weeks, but didn’t think I had the time to tackle something new. When I was making pizza dough using the recipe from the Joy of Cooking, I glanced at the next column on the page and saw a recipe for focaccia. As it turns out, focaccia is just pizza dough baked differently. I usually make half of the pizza dough recipe because I only need one pizza, but I decided to make the full version so I could use half for pizza and half for focaccia.

The first round I made had a tougher exterior than I expected. Then I realized I made the mistake of kneading it with the other half I used for the pizza dough. The bread was still good, but I wanted to see if I could achieve the softer texture. The next day, I made the dough again and stirred the ingredients just until they were combined, without kneading. This time around, I decided to try different toppings on each round. I topped one with Italian cheeses, slices of fresh tomato and sea salt; and the other with a couple cheeses, table salt and a bit of white truffle oil. They baked quite nicely and were softer than my first go-around, but still had a stiffer top crust than I expected. Next time I might try topping it with caramelized onions and bleu cheese and adding more olive oil on top to see if that helps soften the top of the bread a little more.

Now that I know how simple it is, I’ll definitely be baking this bread again. Why buy it from the store when you can have it fresh out of the oven?

foccacia081113-2Ingredients
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 package active dry yeast
3 1/2 to 3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon salt
Up to 1/2 cup of olive oil
2 tablespoons grated cheese, such as Parmesan or Asiago
1 teaspoon herbs, such as chives, sage and basil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Combine warm water and yeast in a bowl and let sit until the yeast is dissolved, or about 5 minutes.

Add flour, 2 tablespoons of olive oil and salt. Mix by hand or on low speed for about 1 minute. Divide dough in half and roll each piece out to a 1/2-inch thick round. Transfer to well-oiled 8- or 9-inch round cake pans or square baking pans. Let rise, covered with oiled plastic wrap, for 1 1/2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Ten minutes before baking, press the dough with your fingertips to make indentations all over the dough. Drizzle with up to 1/2 cup olive oil. Top with cheese, herbs and sea salt.

Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Remove from the pans to a rack. Serve warm or at room temperature, as is, or sliced open horizontally to use as a sandwich bread.

Dreaming of summertime

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When I went home for a visit a couple weeks ago, I was delighted to see the farm stands were already offering strawberries. I bought a box of them — six baskets for $6 — and ate a bowl of them daily for about a week once I returned to Tahoe. Still, I had about three baskets that needed to be baked into something to keep them from going bad. Good strawberries can’t be left to waste. I settled on strawberry shortcake, something I don’t make often, but enjoy quite a bit when it turns out just right.

I have never been crazy about those packaged shortcakes sold near the strawberries at the grocery store — the spongey ones that have somewhat of a dip at the top for the strawberries to sit in. I hadn’t made my own biscuits in a long time, so I turned to the Joy of Cooking to see what it suggested. It had a couple options, but I settled on cream biscuits this time around. They were, by far, the best ones I had ever made for strawberry shortcake. I am not big on rolling out dough; I prefer to shape it with my hands when I can. I divided the dough into eight pieces and formed them into rounds on a baking sheet. You may also roll out the dough and divide it into more pieces if you’d like. The biscuits were easy and the flavor and texture were just how I hoped they would be. Topped with the macerated strawberries (I added some of Penzeys Vanilla Sugar to the mixture for a bit of extra flavor) and whipped cream, this was the dessert I was craving. I was thrilled. Summer will be here soon enough.

Ingredientsstrawberryshortcake3
4 cups strawberries
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder (use 2 if at high altitude)
1/2 to 2/3 teaspoon salt (use one teaspoon if at high altitude)
1 1/4 cups heavy whipping cream

Rinse and quarter the strawberries. Using a potato masher or other tool, partially crush the strawberries. Put them in a bowl with the sugar. Set in fridge.

strawberryshortcake4Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. Add 1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream. Mix with a rubber spatula, wooden spoon or fork until most of the dry ingredients are moistened. Knead until smooth. Divide the dough into eight parts. Shape into 3-inch rounds that are about 3/4-inch thick. Place on a baking sheet with a sheet of parchment paper. Bake for 12 minutes or until slightly browned. Remove from oven and let cool for 15-20 minutes.

Whip the 1 1/4 cups heavy whipping cream until soft peaks form.

To assemble, cut the biscuits in half so there’s a top and bottom. Spoon generous spoonfuls of the strawberry mixture onto the bottom half of the biscuit. Top with a large dollop of whipped cream. Top with the other half biscuit.

Celebrating Easter with traditional Greek bread

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Most cultures have a special bread associated with religious holidays. St. Patrick’s Day has Irish soda bread, Christmas has stollen and Easter has Tsoureki Paschalino — Greek Easter bread.

I first saw a recipe for this sweet holiday bread in a San Francisco Chronicle food section in 2010. I liked the sound of the bread, but I didn’t want to make anything that produced three to four loaves and included a hard-to-find ingredient such as mahlepi, a fruity Greek spice. I opted to search for a more accessible version and found this.

Traditional versions of the bread call for cardamom and mahlepi, but I don’t like cardamom and mahlepi isn’t something most grocery stores carry. The version I made may be less traditional, but I had all the ingredients on hand and I enjoyed the flavor of the final product. I decided to make two 12-inch loaves instead of a 24-inch loaf so I could store one and serve the other one. Everyone enjoyed this sweet bread, especially warm with a bit of butter on it. It has a nice orange spice flavor and the egg adds a nice splash of color.

Regardless of what you eat today, I hope you have a happy Easter.

Ingredients
3 to 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 package instant yeast
1/2 teaspoon salt
Zest of 1 large orange
Pinch of nutmeg
Pinch of cinnamon
1/2 cup milk whole milk, warmed to room temperature
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs, beaten slightly; set 1 tablespoon aside for glazing
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

In a large mixing bowl, thoroughly combine 3 cups flour, sugar, yeast, salt, zest, nutmeg and cinnamon.

In another large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer combine milk, butter, all but 1 tablespoon of eggs, orange juice and vanilla. Add flour mixture and combine well using a large spoon or the paddle attachment on the stand mixer.

If mixing by hand, scoop dough out onto a well-floured surface and knead for at least 15 minutes. Adding more flour if needed.

If using a stand mixer, swap to the dough hook. Knead for at least 10 minutes at medium speed, adding more flour as needed to keep the dough from becoming too sticky, although it will be somewhat tacky if kneaded in a mixer. Scoop dough onto a lightly floured surface.

Form dough into a ball by folding edges into the center, turning over and forcing into a ball shape using your palms and fingers to shape.

Clean and dry the largest bowl, then spray lightly with cooking spray. Place dough, seam-side down, in bowl and spray top lightly with oil. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in bulk — 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Once the dough has risen, punch it down and scoop onto a lightly floured surface. Knead by hand for 3-5 minutes.

Shape the dough into a rope 24 inches long, fold in half, and braid. If you wish, place dyed, uncooked eggs in center of the fold before braiding. They’ll end up perfectly hard-cooked but difficult to peel.

Place the loaf on a greased cookie sheet or baking pan, spritz lightly with oil, and cover with plastic. Let rise until doubled in bulk — 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Thirty to 45 minutes before dough has completely risen, heat oven to 350 degrees.

Make an egg wash using the remaining egg and one tablespoon of water. Brush loaf with the wash. Bake for 30 minutes until golden brown. You can tell the bread is done in the center by tapping the top of the loaf. If it sounds hollow, the loaf is finished. Cool on a rack.

The easiest loaf of bread you’ll ever make

Asiagobread1

I tend to shy away from making bread at home. Sure, I’ll make sweet breads such as Oatmeal-strawberry bread or Pumpkin-chocolate chip bread, but a real, hearty bread? I haven’t had much luck with those, and the added challenges that come with being at high altitude tend to make such recipes discouraging. Until I stumbled upon this little gem.

I found it hard to believe that such a delicious-looking loaf of bread Asiagobread2could be made so easily. I had my doubts, but the recipe didn’t require kneading or multiple rounds of rising, so I could try it without being too disappointed if it didn’t work out. That turned out to be a good life decision because, instead of tossing out a failed attempt at bread, I got to devour a successful one.

The first time I made it, I added a chopped head of roasted garlic and some minced rosemary right before shaping it into a ball. I didn’t chop the rosemary finely enough, a mistake I won’t repeat. The flavor was good, but not quite what I wanted. The second time I made this bread, I decided to throw in some cheese. Asiago is my favorite cheese for breads because it holds together well. I prefer the Asiago version, but I noticed the blogger of the recipe also has a cranberry-orange version that I may have to test in the near future.

For those of you who worry your home may be too cold for the dough to properly rise, try this little trick, which was shared with me by a former coworker: turn your oven to the warm setting. Once your oven has warmed and you’ve mixed the dough, turn the oven off and put the plastic wrap-covered bowl of dough in the oven. It works like a charm and gives bread dough a better chance of reacting as expected.

Many Dutch oven instructions advise against heating the pot while empty. Mine carries a similar warning, but it has been OK both times I’ve done it. I put my pot in when I turn the oven on to preheat so it gradually warms with the oven, and I take it out as soon as the oven has preheated. I’ve never done the full 30 minutes, just as a precaution.

The moist inside and beautiful crust have made this my new favorite bread recipe. What type of variations will you come up with? Post yours in the comments.

IngredientsAsiagobread3
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 cup asiago cheese, cut into 1/4-inch cubes

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, salt and yeast. Add water and stir until a shaggy mixture forms (mixture will be loose and sticky; this is what you want). Cover bowl with plastic wrap and set aside for 12-18 hours (up to 24).

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Place a cast-iron Dutch oven with a lid in the oven and heat the pot for 30 minutes. Sprinkle the cheese on top of the dough. Meanwhile, pour the risen dough onto a heavily floured surface (mixture will be sticky) and lightly shape into a round loaf.

Remove hot pot from the oven and carefully set in the dough. Cover and return to oven for 30 minutes. Then, remove the lid and bake an additional 10-15 minutes. Carefully remove bread from oven and from pot and place on a cooling rack.