Daring Bakers: Beautiful Breads


Beauty surrounded the Daring Bakers this month as our host, Sawsan, of chef in disguise, challenged us to make beautiful, filled breads. Who knew breads could look as great as they taste?

Fluted Cinnamon Twist

Fluted Cinnamon Twist

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but thank goodness our taste buds are blind as my “beautiful bread” wasn’t quite sure of its designation.

This month we were given the option of a couple different breads to choose from, mainly focusing on the technique of cutting and folding the sheets of dough layered with sweet (or savory) fillings to make pretty platefuls. Of course I substituted a gluten-free flour blend for the all-purpose the recipe called for, curious to see how this recipe would fare compared to yeast doughs I’ve tried so far.

The basic assembly went surprisingly well....

The basic assembly went surprisingly well….

I was quite surprised at how malleable the risen dough was, as each quarter easily rolled out on a sheet of wax paper into a circle about an eighth of an inch thick. They also released from their respective sheets fairly well after each was buttered, sugared, and cinnamoned, and I thought I was doing so well, even to neatening up their edges a bit before proceeding.

It was just the twisting technique that didn't go quite as planned. More trials will be needed (aw, shucks!)

It was just the twisting technique that didn’t go quite as planned. More trials will be needed (aw, shucks!)

That’s when things got a little dicey. I’m not sure if I used too much cinnamon-sugar, separating the layers too much, or if the dough was still not malleable enough (even with the help of the xanthum gum), but my layers wanted to break rather than tuck and roll, so I sorta kluged it together the best I could, exposing the folds as was the point and giving them a milk bath before placing it into a very hot oven.

The layers do add quite a bit of visual interest, though.

The layers do add quite a bit of visual interest, though.

After 20 minutes and two different temperatures, the cinnamon bread came out of the oven golden brown, but not so much magically transformed–I suppose it’s not my turn for a miracle this month! A drizzle of a coconut oil-based icing (the suggested sweetened condensed milk is a lactose-bomb) and we were ready for the final test: the taste?

Breakfast or dessert, your choice!

Breakfast or dessert, your choice!

It tasted delicious! I went for the optional cardamom in the dough and it pairs nicely with the cinnamon filling. Even though the more demanding fold didn’t work this time (oh, I will prevail, eventually), I think this dough worked well enough that it might be this year’s King Cake dough for Fat Tuesday. Paired with a steaming mug of Earl Grey tea, this is not a bad way to start (or end!) a day.

Pretzel Success, Chemistry Fail


As I mentioned last week, I finally gave in to my intentions of making pretzel bread over the weekend and, let me tell you, it’s definitely too easy to make. As in, I could make a batch every weekend without allotting much time and that’s dangerous.

But before I get into the specifics, I need to tell you how this whole thing got started.

On one of the digital scrapbooking forums I frequent, there was a thread about football foods, and a picture was posted of some doughnut-hole acorns made by dipping the top of a doughnut hole into Nutella, and then rolling them in chopped nuts or chocolate sprinkles. Finished off with a pretzel stick stem, they do sorta look like tasty acorns.

I thought, I can do that!

But I also wondered what sort of savory applications this illusion food technique could apply to. Someone suggested mini-corndogs, so that was a definite option, but I thought if I made mini pretzel rolls, dipped them in a cheese & mustard dip (I was thinking more like a fondue, but it turns out there’s a standard pretzel dip that more than fits the bill), and then rolled the tops in crumbled bacon, it’d be quite a hearty snack for that weekend’s game.

So of course I did all three.

Corndog, Doughnut, and Pretzel Acorns

(sorry about the glare, I was going for easy clean-up and the foil didn’t play nice with the camera)

Rather than re-post other people’s recipes, here are the 2 I used for the homemade portions of this project:

Bretzel Rolls (Bavarian Pretzel Sandwich Rolls) from food.com

Cheese and Mustard Dipping Sauce from countryliving.com

Both of these recipes are simple and straight-forward. I made the pretzel rolls as directed but I divided each of the 12 pieces of dough into 3, for 36 mini rolls. I did change one other part of the pretzel recipe, and that’s where the other half of my title comes in…

Pretzel bread isn’t really that different from any other yeast bread, it’s how they’re cooked that make them pretzels. Like bagels, the pretzels are first poached or par-boiled before baking to give them the chewy exterior. Unlike bagels, however, the water for poaching pretzels gets baking soda added to it, which gives it that distinctive flavor.

I decided, however, that using plain water was boring. Why not use something a little more flavorful, I thought, so for the 2 quarts of poaching liquid, I started off with 12 oz of beer, then made up the rest with water. Sure, once the liquids came to a boil it foamed up a bit (unanticipated consequence number 1), but that was easy to deal with.

It was when I had to add the baking soda to the boiling liquid that I discovered unanticipated consequence number 2.

Who remembers their science classes on combining vinegar and baking soda to make a volcano? The acid in the vinegar reacts with sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) to create carbon dioxide (and some other things), i.e. bubbles. Did you know that beer also contains an acid? Alpha acids, to be specific, found in the hop plants.

Yes, In the midst of making bagels, I made a beer-cano, too.

Alas, there are no pictures of this debacle as I was too busy trying to get the spewing pot from the stove to the sink. In fact, I’m lucky there are pictures of any of the process as my camera was on the counter between points A and B–I’m still cleaning off bits of baking soda out of the lens, but the camera appears to have escaped otherwise unharmed.

And speaking of unharmed, turns out baking soda can be used to treat burns. Which might account for the fact that two fingers on my left hand got doused in boiling, bubbling over water/beer/soda mixtures and only got a little red and puffy, didn’t blister, and were totally fine by the time I went to bed. So I suppose you could call that 2 crises averted, though I could have avoided the whole thing if I’d just given half a thought to the chemical make-up of what I was doing!

At any rate, the pretzels eventually got their dunking in the bicarb’ed water (with remnants of beer) and then baked to a golden brown.

Pretzel Rolls fresh from the oven

They were delicious. So delicious I was a little concerned I was going to eat them all before I could transform them into their acorn disguises!

Enough survived my carb-lust, however, and they made excellent appetizers for Sunday’s game, even if they weren’t as acorn-y as the mini-corndog versions.

MiniCorndog Acorns

mini corndogs, dipped in mustard-cheese dip, and rolled in crushed pretzel sticks

Pretzel Acorns

pretzel bread, dipped in mustard-cheese dip, and rolled in crumbled bacon

Doughnut-hole acorns

doughnut holes, dipped in Nutella, and rolled in chocolate sprinkles

I’d heated the Nutella spread on the stove before starting to dip the doughnut holes, but even then it got clumpy and lumpy pretty quick as the glaze from the doughnuts got mixed in. Unglazed or cake-style doughnut holes might hold up a bit better to this treatment.

And, then, from the just-because-it’s-there file:

doughnut acorns with nutella and bacon

I had leftover bacon crumbles and figured what the hell, right? When first dipped, though, the Nutella totally overpowered the bacon, but once they’d had a chance to sit out for a bit, the flavors equalized and it wasn’t half bad. Not something I’d be seeking out in the future, but I can see why some people are all over the bacon and chocolate craze.


Cake for Dinner?!


While it’s true one of the perks of being a grown-up (notice I didn’t say adult) is the option to have brownies and ice cream for supper now and then, that’s not what I’m talking about, here.

No, while reading through the Weddings folder on my Google Reader I came across this article on Offbeat Bride about SmörgÃ¥stÃ¥rta, Swedish “sandwich cake,” and I was intrigued.

Originally I was going to make this for when friends were coming over for a game day, but plans shifted and I ended up making it for supper this weekend for just Todd and I. Of course, I didn’t even think about scaling the thing down so now we’re testing out how well it freezes! (Will report back should we ever defrost it.

Smorgastarta "sandwich cake" decorated with vegetables

I used a recipe from About.com’s Scandinavian Food selection with very few adjustments for our own preferences. The verdict? Tasty, well-suited for a brunch or baby/wedding shower or pot-luck, and kind of hard to pair up with other foods.

Considering it was “sandwich cake” (a concept that brings to mind towers of triangular sandwiches at a church mixer), I approached it like you would a sandwich supper. Since it had so many components I considered it a one-dish meal, though it looked kinda lonely on the plate. Of course, the usual sandwich accompaniments felt redundant or just wrong:

  • Chips? While they would provide a texture change, they just didn’t seem right.
  • Veggies? This SmörgÃ¥stÃ¥rta was loaded with veggies and topped with extra ones, it would have been redundant.
  • Potato Salad? Again, redundant, but this time from a texture standpoint.

There’s a lot going on with this dish but, after mulling it over, decided that the perfect accompaniment (when served as a main course) would be a fruit salad. The bight acid of the fruit would cut through the rich creaminess of the SmörgÃ¥stÃ¥rta without fighting for position with the vegetables in and on top of the dish.

Because man do the Scaninavians/Sweedes love their dairy products!

There’s butter and cream cheese and mayonnaise and sour cream positively everywhere in this dish. I’m all for rich and creamy but it was a little too much for Todd–he ended up scraping off some of the side frosting in order to finish his (or should that be Finnish?! okay, I’ll quit while I’m ahead).

Slice of vegetarian Smorgastarta

Like I said, I followed the recipe for the Vegetarian SmörgÃ¥stÃ¥rta pretty closely, so there’s no sense in repeating it here. The few changes I made were pretty minor:

  • For the artichoke spread, I used a 12 oz jar of marinated artichoke hearts, drained, for the 14 oz can of the regular artichokes, mainly because we already had it at home.
  • For the Hungarian liptauer spread I took the option of using cottage cheese and subbed onion powder for the minced onion–the amount of work it would take for 2 Tbsp of minced onion just wasn’t worth it when I was already 2/3 of the way into the 3 separate fillings; I also just stirred everything together rather than using a blender or food processor.
  • I used country white bread and did trim off the crusts, but then turned around and used the trimmings to fill the gaps between the slices. Since I wanted the round look and not a square, I assembled everything within a large springform pan, making my edges nice and neat (which came in handy during the frosting step!), and tore my bread layers to fit.
  • And as much as I love butter, I drew the line at how much it was going to take to butter all interior sides of all pieces of bread for the entire project. I used olive oil spray and it served the same purpose (adding a fat “barrier” to keep the fillings from making the bread soggy).

For decoration I raided my end-of-the-week crisper drawers and found half a cucumber, half a red onion, radishes, and grapes. A quickie radish “rose” placed in the center of the frosted sandwich cake, ringed by black grape halves, and then alternating fans of red onion wedges (my favorite effect) and cucumber “scales” to finish it off. Apparently the brightly decorated outside of the SmörgÃ¥stÃ¥rta is just as important as the variety of fillings within!

Collage of the steps involved in making vegetarian smorgastarta

I had fun making this dish, even though it was a fair amount of work and messed up the kitchen but good (lots of bowls used over the course of the day). I’d only make it again for a large group as part of a buffet, I think, but each of the spreads are worth making on their own the next time you have a reason to make tea sandwiches and don’t fancy the usual egg salad.

Here’s to multiculuralism!

Cupcakery Abounds


This weekend I had the pleasure of attending my first Meet-Up with the All About Food in Tallahassee group. Having found out about the group from a TNG (Tallahassee Nerds & Geeks) member, that makes MeetUp.com 2 for 2 meeting fabulous folks.

As you might have guessed, the theme, flavor and activity of choice for the meetup was cupcakes.

Coffee table filled with finished cupcakes and cookies, at least 60

We had at least 60 decorated cupcakes by day's end.

Our hostess is quite the cake decorator, herself, and I was a happy helper monkey busting out my old supplies and my somewhat-rusty piping skills to make my own creations as well as help others get the hang of things with theirs.

It almost makes me want to teach for Wilton again.

Except for the whole time thing. Or, rather, the lack thereof.

But for a day’s outing, it was a nice return to my old creative stomping grounds.

To host your own cupcake afternoon, here’s the skinny on how our hostess made it so very enjoyable.

1. Start with your supplies.

Steff had plenty of decorating tools for folks to use and the ones I brought made a good back-up when the frosting started flying.

Tables are required since the cakes have to sit somewhere; she put a cover on her pool table as a second table to allow plenty of table-space for everyone.

The table laden with supplies and inspiration.

The table laden with supplies and inspiration, just waiting for us to start.

2. Gather the troops and get them to bring things.

Several people brought un-iced cupcakes and a few people brought cookies. Others brought candies and toppings to be used in decorating.

Of course, meetups can’t live by sugar alone! There was also plenty of savory snacking to be had to fend off the sugar coma pure icing would have otherwise caused.

Savory foods laid out for snacking

Savory foods laid out for snacking

This meant that we didn’t actually start decorating for a while, instead we had the usual nosh and nose-around-people’s-lives until the last folks had arrived.

3. Give ’em their marching orders and let the wild cupcaking begin!

A few words of guidance from Steff and it was pretty much catch-as-catch can. The cupcakes were moved around to make room for people to work, tools were grabbed and the icing started to flow.

Scraps piping fishnet stockings onto a cookie

Piping fishnet stockings onto a cookie.

One enterprising attendee made peanut butter cookie people (and his own cutter/mold, too) and decided to make both the girls and the boys. Alas, when presented with such a start, there was nothing else to do but dress the boobalicious peanut butter girl in some fishnets and lingerie.

Then someone wanted some guidance building a cupcake pooch from one of the books available for inspiration. She did such an amazing job–I was so proud.

An excellent student and her creation

An excellent student and her creation

4. After about 4 hours, send everyone home with as many cupcakes as they can carry!

Oh, there were so many cupcakes. In addition to the 60 or so that were decorated, there were easily 3 dozen that left as naked as they arrived. They were divvied up and everyone who wanted had a little something extra to bring home.

Tip: Disposable carry-out containers are available at most warehouse and restaurant supply stores. Having some extras on hand for these sorts of things never hurts.

An afternoon spent cupcaking, cooking, or crafting with friends is a fantastic way to pass a day. And if you don’t have a group of like-minded individuals to do that with, already, check out MeetUp.com and find some new ones.

To see the rest of my photos from the day, check out my Google+ album.

Hasselback Sweet-and-Spicy Potatoes


Faced with yet another batch of sweet potatoes from the farmers market, as I made the menu for last week I wondered what I could do with them that wasn’t the same old same-old. As much as we love sweet potatoes, it’s easy to fall into the baked or mashed rut with them.

Hasselback Sweet Potatoes

Enter the Hasselback.

Hasselback potatoes have been making the blog rounds with a variety of toppings. But they all feature skin-on potatoes cut into fans, crispy edges and lots of flavor. The most enticing I’ve seen include slivers of garlic slipped between some of the potato leaves.

What I hadn’t seen a lot of (though they do exist) are versions using the yam or sweet potato, but I saw no reason to let that stop me.

I did see one potential obstacle: the skin. While eating regular (brown or red) potato skins isn’t a problem, sweet potato skins can get quite leathery and unpleasant when baked–not exactly appetizing. And, yet, the skins help keep the fanned potatoes from falling apart. My solution was to peel 3/4 of each potato, leaving only the bottom of each au naturel. Since sweet potatoes tend towards irregular shaping, finding each’s natural base before peeling helped.

Semi-peeled sweet potatoes

After that, the procedure was the same as any other Hasselback potato:

  1. Slice
  2. Season
  3. Bake

When it comes to slicing, the idea is to slice almost all the way through. The best tip I’ve seen for this calls for using a guide–like a pair of wooden spoons or even chopsticks–to keep you from cutting all the way through the potato. This worked so well, I can’t imagine doing it any other way.

Cutting the sweet potatoes with wooden-spoon guides

For the seasoning, instead of garlic, I placed 3-4 slivers of fresh ginger into each potato, drizzled with some olive oil then mixed up some Demarara sugar, cinnamon, chili powder and salt (just eyeball the proportions) and sprinkled it all over. It doesn’t hurt to spread some of the leaves apart and make sure some of the seasoning makes it way in.

Sliced, stuffed and ready to season sweet potatoes

Finally, an hour at 350° F and the potatoes were ready to eat.

Finished Hasselback Potatoes

After stuffing, one potato didn’t want to sit nice and pretty, so it got a foil cradle but otherwise the rest behaved quite well. The end result was lovely coins of sweet potatoes that peeled away from the remaining skin without too much effort and were definitely the sweet and spicy flavor I was after.