Friday, August 28, 2009

BBA Challenge Week 15—Italian Bread

We went international again in the Bread Baker's Apprentice Challenge, this time baking Italian bread.

I'm baking my way through Peter Reinart's award winning book along with 200+ other amateur bakers. Want to join in the madness, or just learn more about this semi-crazy undertaking? Check out the following links:

Italian bread, while much like French bread, has its own distinguishing characteristics. Because it is an enriched dough (contains some olive oil and the option to make with milk instead of water), Italian bread is softer than French, less crusty. But the flavor—oh, the flavor. It's all there. The use of a pre-ferment (biga, in this case), helps maximize the flavor of the dough, bringing out the natural sweetness and complexity of the flour.

A biga is about as simple as it gets: bread flour, a small amount of yeast and some water. That's it. Mix it together, knead, let it proof, then put it in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or freeze up to 3 months.

Here's something new, at least for me. Diastatic malt powder. According to Peter Reinhart, the diastatic malt powder "produces better color because it will accelerate the enzyme activity and thus promote sugar breakout from the starch." Sounds good to me.

So I added the optional 1 teaspoon of powder along with the rest of the ingredients, mixed, kneaded and proofed. I divided the dough roughly in half, or what looked like half. It seemed like the pieces took on a life of their own and I ended up with two very different shapes without even trying. I didn't want to over-handle to dough and completely degas it, so I just went with it.

I scored these loaves using my trusty razor blade. I actually scored them twice, opening up the slit that much more. The razor makes such a clean cut that it's no problem going back over it. No tugging, no jagged edges. Love it.

And just LOOK at how they baked up. Oh my goodness, I was so happy with these loaves. They're the first ones I've made that really look like artisan bread. The flecks of flour, the rustic-looking scores, the COLOR of that crust. I'm guessing that the diastatic malt powder had a hand in that. I made sure to crank the oven to the full 500°F to start, misted inside the oven at the required times and reduced the temperature when directed to in the recipe. I wasn't going to risk a pale crust like I had with the French bread.

I didn't get a terribly open crumb, but I didn't mind. I thought it tasted great. The texture was a bit chewy and a little soft. It was superb dipped in olive oil and dipping spices and made incredible toast. It was decidedly different than toasting a regular white or sweet bread. It was crispy and light and perfect with a light spread of butter. Simple. Delicious.

Can't get enough Italian bread? Check out some other BBA bakers' breads:

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ganache-Filled Vanilla Bean Cupcakes with Ganache-Dipped Strawberries

First things first, I want to give a shout out to Stephanie at Wasabimon for the inspiration for these cupcakes. Stephanie is a fabulous food blogger with gorgeous photography and tons of great recipes, many gluten-free. I know plenty of people out there have gluten allergies, including my sister, so it's nice to have resources like Wasabimon out there.

No beating about the bush with this post, we're going to get right to it. The title is a mouthful as are the cupcakes. And OH, what a mouthful they are. Here's how to make your own.

The Recipes

Vanilla Bean Cupcakes
reproduced with permission from Rachel Rappaport, Coconut & Lime
Thanks, Rachel!

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
  • 1 egg, at room temperature
  • 1 vanilla bean, cut length-wise
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt


In a small saucepan, heat the milk and vanilla bean together until the milk just boils. Remove from heat and let cool for about 1 hour. Then remove the vanilla bean. Scrape out the seeds from the vanilla bean and add them to the milk. Discard the remaining bean pod. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350. In a medium bowl, whisk together the salt, flour and baking powder. In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and beat well. Alternately add the flour and milk mixture until well combined. Divide batter into about 20 lined or greased cupcake wells. Bake 15-20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the middle cupcake comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack and then ice.

Vanilla Bean Buttercream Frosting
  • 1 lb. confectioners' sugar
  • 1/2 c. butter, softened
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 Vanilla bean, scraped
  • 3 tbsp. milk
Beat together sugar, butter, vanilla, seeds from vanilla bean and milk until smooth. If necessary add more milk until frosting is spreading/piping consistency.

Ganache (feel free to halve!)
adapted from Alton Brown, Food Network

  • 3 tablespoons corn syrup
  • 6 ounces heavy cream
  • 12 ounces dark chocolate, chopped into small pieces
Put chopped chocolate in heat-proof bowl. In a small saucepan, combine the corn syrup and heavy cream. Bring to a simmer. Pour over chocolate. Stir until smooth. Cool to room temperature before using.

Bring it all together

After the cupcakes and ganache have cooled, fill a pastry bag fitted with a small star tip with the ganache. Push the tip all the way into the cupcake and gently squeeze the bag until the top of the cupcake rises and the ganache starts to push back. It will pop out of the top a bit. No problem. You'll be covering that up with the buttercream. Speaking of...

After filling all of the cakes, clean out the pastry bag and tip and fill with the buttercream. Pipe as you see in the photos, or in your preferred style.

Clean and dry your strawberries. Gently reheat your ganache in the microwave until it's just thin enough to allow for dipping. You don't want it too thin or warm, just just a few seconds should do it.

Take the berries by the tops, dip and swirl in the ganache. Let most of the extra to fall back into the bowl, then gently place the berry on top of the cupcake, pushing part way into the buttercream. The little bit of extra ganache will puddle on top of the frosting.

Pop in the fridge if not eating immediately. Remove from fridge at least 20 minutes prior to serving so that they're not cold.

Trust me. These are as good as they look. The cupcake recipe is so easy and oh-my-goodness delicious. It would be great with just about any frosting/flavor combo you can dream up. The ganache filling and dipped strawberries really put these over the top.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

BBA Challenge Week 14—French Bread Ooh la la

We went international again in the Bread Baker's Apprentice Challenge, this time au français. French Bread, ooh la la!

I'm baking my way through Peter Reinart's award winning book along with 200+ other amateur bakers. Want to join in the madness, or just learn more about this semi-crazy undertaking? Check out the following links:

Peter Reinhart describes this as a "lean, standard dough; indirect method, commercial yeast". Translation: it doesn't contain added fat or sugar, has less water (lower hydration percentage); it uses a preferment (in this case a pâte fermentée), with instant yeast (as opposed to a wild yeast/sourdough).

This is the pâte fermentée, warming up a bit before adding to the rest of the ingredients. This preprement is basically a French bread dough all on it's own. The reason you make this ahead is to develop the flavor and bring out the natural sweetness in the flour. Because this is a lean dough, you're not relying on sugar or eggs or fat for flavor; it all needs to com from the flour.

My pâte frementée was a bit slack and sticky, but it's easy to adjust hydration during the rest of the mixing process.

I actually had three pieces but had already shaped one into a baguette. I handled the dough more than I should have and it was resisting the shaping. I had a feeling I was creating some dense loaves, but soldiered on.

I bought a baguette pan months ago with some fun money I had set aside, so I decided to put it to use rather than bake on a stone.

Slashing the dough adds decoration, but it also releases some of the trapped gas. Reinhart explians,
"Often, they protet against trapped gas making tunnels or caverns in the bread. When done artfully, the cuts greately enhance the line of the bread. Strong lines, weather straight or curved, are a hallmark of all food presentation."

I've tried many different kinds of knives, making sure they were sharpened right before using, but they still wanted to tug at the dough. That makes for less attractive scores and degasses the dough. I've found that the best, easiest and cheapest method is using a razor blade. They're super sharp, easy to find at any hardware or big-box store and cheap.

The bread turned out reall good, for the most part. I made a few mistakes which made for less asthetically pleasing bread, even though the taste was great.

First, I man-handled the dough and it made for a dense crumb. Second, I mis-read the directions and had the oven set too low. This meant a much lighter colored crust that I would have liked.

Overall though, it was delicious. With some practice (and following directions), this will be an amazing bread.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Yes, I buy wine for the label

Well, not ALL wine, but this one? Yeah. Pretty much.

A few weeks ago, Dwight and I made a valiant attempt to buy out the liquor section of Super Target and I happened upon this wine. If you don't already know, I am, in fact, a middle sister: older sister, younger brother. So naturally, I was drawn to this winery's selection.

According to their website, Middle Sister has 6 wines. I happen to prefer white wines, so I looked at the Smarty Pants Chardonnay, Drama Queen Pinot Grigio and Wicked White, a white blend. I went with the Wicked White because I was digging the sound of the blend—Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Gewürztraminer. I love me some Gewürztraminer, so that sealed the deal.

I quite like it. I'm terrible at describing wine, this despite the fact that I took a 6 week wine appreciation course. I still pretty much stick with the varietals that I know I like and let the guy at the wine shop stear me in the right direction. He hasn't let me down yet.

But sometimes I'm on my own and just go for it. I'm a wild women. But since I'm crap at saying something other than, "It's good, I like it" or "It's citrusy...I think, definitely acidic" (SEE, part of the wine class stuck with me), so I'll let the good folks at Middle Sister do the talking.

From their website:

smells like
…melon, pear, tangerine, rose petals, lychee, lemon zest.

tastes like
…the same fruit flavors that you smell – explode in your mouth. After a second or two, lush melon and sweet pear melt on your tongue. A lingering note of minerals finishes the sip.

Yeah, you know what. That is EXACTLY what I was going to say. Actually, I WAS thinking melon, but wasn't sure. "Is that melon?? *smacking lips then shugging* Maybe..."

Regardless, it's enjoyable and I'm definitely keeping the bottle. After all, I DID buy it for the label.

By the way, your eyes are not playing tricks on you and I didn't do some sort of weird perspective thing with the wine glass. It really is that huge. It's big enough to hold an entire bottle of wine. Oh, yeah.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Fairy Garden Party

Although planting season is long over (sorry it's taken me 2 months to post about this), I wanted to share images and ideas from my very fun and very successful Fairy Garden Party.

I've been wanting to have such a party since I saw an article about "fairy gardens" in Better Homes and Gardens. I cut the pages out of that June 2004 issue and tucked them away in my idea binder. I thought they were so cute and the perfect kid-friendly project. I finally got around to planning and executing a party this year.

My sister, mom and niece looking over the magazine pages.

It just so happens that one of the blogs I love and subscribe to, tiny happy, featured what Melissa called "flower-crowns" and I knew it would be perfect for my as yet unplanned fairy garden party. I bookmarked the blog post and tucked it away, much like I did with the magazine pages.

I took the spirit of the flower crown and made just some minor adjustments. Rather than sewing elastic to the back of the ribbon to make a head band, I left the ribbon long to tie at the back of the head. I kept each "crown" unique, using just one kind of silk flower for each. I made plenty so that my nieces would have fun choosing her favorite.

The secret to a proper fairy garden is choosing small plants and whimsical planters. I found most of the plants in the "walk on me" section at the nursery. Things like mosses, short grasses and tiny succulents work the best, as well as any diminutive flowers and low growing herbs.

I found all of the baskets and containers at Goodwill. It just so happened that I went in on a discount day, so I got all of the containers you see here for just over $6.

I decided to use our old TV trays for work tables. We used to use them all the time, but now they're relegated to the attic. They ended up being perfect for our party.

First the girls picked out their container of choice, then the filled them with potting soil.

I had a bunch of old aquarium stones in iridescent pastel shades that worked perfectly for secret paths and decorative elements. Here M is picking out just the right ones for her path.

She decided to do an entire road with the stones. Thank goodness I had a lot!

Lisa is helping C pick out just the right stones for her garden.

Putting on the finishing touches

K is all done with hers and watering it all in.

This is my mom's basket. Isn't it beautiful? She picked up small sticks from the yard (of which we always have many!) and was taking them home to make a small fence for her garden.

This one is mine. I have a short wandering path to the enchanted garden and the sticks in the back are the forbidden forest.

This is M's garden. (I'm not sure why I didn't get a better shot of it.) You can see that she made a little stone circle decoration with one in the center. A fairy stonehenge, perhaps?

Here is C's lovely garden.

This is K's. She spelled out "love" with her rocks. It's the image I'm currently using for the blog header. Utterly charming.

And this is Lisa's. Again, another beautiful, tiny garden, ready for its fairy inhabitants to arrive.

Although it's too late to have your own fairy garden party this year (if you live in the northern hemisphere, that is), there's always next spring. I can tell you that it is a lot of fun—for all ages.
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