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No-Knead Apple Bread

23 Dec

It’s possible that there has never been a recipe as wholeheartedly embraced, and universally loved, as Jim Lahey’s recipe for no-knead bread that appeared in the New York Times half a decade ago.  There’s good reason, too.  Being able to make a delicious, totally foolproof artisan bread in the comfort of your own kitchen is a seemingly miraculous achievement.  And just when you thought that Lahey’s recipe, perfect as it is, could never, ever be improved upon, here comes this great tutorial from Savory Sweet Life  (our sites have very similar names, but that occurrence is nothing more than a weird coincidence) about how to make Lahey’s bread an even more foolproof affair.  By removing the least pleasant aspects of Lahey’s recipe (the very messy resting period atop a floured cloth, the even messier transfer of the rested dough into a wicked hot Dutch oven), Alice from SSL somehow managed to improve upon what I’ve always considered to be a nearly flawless recipe.

That said, a perfect recipe is still open to fiddling, and in my own kitchen I’ve recently taken to making Lahey’s bread, via Savory Sweet Life, with a bit of my own twist.  On a whim, I one day decided to fold some very lightly spiced apples into the bread dough, thinking that if I was lucky, the apples would settle nicely throughout the bread and bake up perfectly tart and sweet; if I was unlucky, the apples would sink to the bottom of the dough and form a terrible, congealed mass of wet, doughy disaster.

Success prevailed!  And I’ve now baked this bread enough times to declare it my favorite morning bread.  It’s perfect as toast, with a slice of sharp cheese, or smeared with almond butter.  Because Alice’s method of making the bread eliminates both the second rise and the step of heating up a cooking vessel in a preheated oven, you can wake up early, chop up an apple, fold it into the bread, then plop the bread straight into the oven.  An hour later, after you’ve showered, had a cup of coffee, read roughly two dozen books to your child, and managed to prepare yourself for making some breakfast, your bread is done.

Having a small child, our Christmas morning is guaranteed to begin well before the sun rises.  My plan this year is to mix up a batch of no-knead bread dough (which takes all of three minutes, if that) on Christmas Eve, leave it to rest overnight, and then fold in some apples on Christmas morning while I am preparing some coffee.  The bread will go in the oven, my son will pace around the Christmas tree, eventually tackling the presents underneath like a ferocious lion attacking a gazelle, and then, when the mayhem subsides, the bread will be ready.  Just in time for a family breakfast, we’ll have fresh bread.  Crisp on the outside, piping hot in the middle, the apples strewn artfully about the loaf, it’s a great complement to any meal, on any day.

No-Knead Apple Bread

Adapted from the New York Times and Savory Sweet Life

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon instant, rapid-rise yeast

1 ¼ teaspoons salt

1 5/8 cup of warm water (this essentially equals 1 ½ cups plus 2 tablespoons of water)

1 apple, cored, peeled and diced into ¼-inch chunks

¼ teaspoon dark brown sugar

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

extra flour, for dusting

Note: You will NOT be preheating the oven while you prepare the bread dough.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, yeast, and salt.  Don’t let the salt come into direct contact with the yeast, as it might kill it.  Add the warm water, and stir everything together.  The dough will appear quite wet and shaggy.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let rise at room temperature overnight for at least 12 hours, preferably closer to 18 hours.

The next morning, cut a small round of parchment paper and fit it inside the bottom of a large heavy pot or Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid (I use an enameled cast iron pot, which works perfectly).

When you have diced up the apple, sprinkle the dark brown sugar and cinnamon on top of it.  Don’t even bother putting them in a bowl to do this—just sprinkle everything on top of the pile of apple chunks and mix it together with your hands.

With the dough still in the bowl, place the spiced apple chunks in the middle of the dough.  Sprinkle a good amount of flour around the perimeter of the dough, then, using a flexible spatula or silicone spoon, fold the edges of the dough over the apples in the middle of the dough, turning the bowl to follow your fold.  If the dough absolutely won’t let go of the side of the bowl, sprinkle a bit or flour over the stubborn spots.

Carefully turn the dough out into the heavy pot.  It will not look terribly attractive at this point, and it might have gotten a bit ripped in the process, but that’s fine.

Place the lid on the pot, and place the pot in the cold oven.  Turn the oven on to 450 degrees Fahrenheit, and set a timer for 30 minutes.  After 30 minutes have passed, carefully remove the lid from the scorching hot pot, and continue to bake the bread, uncovered, for an additional 30 minutes.  When the bread is done, it will be deeply browned on the outside, with a visibly crackly crust.

Allow bread to cool for at least 15 minutes before cutting into it. The apples are super hot when the bread first emerges from the oven, and they need time to calm down so you don’t burn yourself when you bite into them.

Makes 1 loaf.

Ginger Almond Toffee

12 Dec

It’s not tough to find a specialty chocolate shop in Portland, or in most any other city, I suppose, but it is certainly not easy to find a shop that is not only staffed by some of the friendliest, most knowledgeable chocolate fans around (sidenote: I once knew someone who worked in a chocolate shop and was allergic to chocolate, which is just absurd when you think about it, because wouldn’t you think, and hope, that a chocolate shop, selling chocolate and all, would want to hire people who could, you know, readily sample and talk honestly about  their product without breaking out in a rash?) but also offers a truly creative selection of chocolate treats.  Alma Chocolate, in Northeast Portland, is that chocolate shop.  Sure, everyone makes salted caramels nowadays, but how about habanero caramels?  Or a Thai peanut butter cup, a dream of a chocolate confection that layers your mouth with hits of lime, chili, and ginger?  How about a chevre and black pepper truffle?  Do you see what I mean?  It’s chocolate taken just a step further, from pleasingly creative to utterly inspired.

Though not their most unusual of offerings, Alma’s ginger almond toffee bark is a great example of the way their take on confections can be given a bit of a lift.  The toffee is perfectly melt-in-your-mouth, enveloping large chunks of spicy candied ginger and toasted almonds.  Most people take the timid route with this type of toffee, unfortunately, peppering it only moderately with tiny little bits of ginger, and pulverizing the almonds into an almost powdery layer that only hints at its presence.  But Alma knows better, and they know that if someone wants to eat ginger almond toffee, they want to eat ginger, and almonds, and toffee, each component standing front and center.

It might seem odd to wax rhapsodic about a chocolatier and then immediately turn around and attempt to make their product at home instead of heading out and buying something to support that chocolatier, but, when I have an affection for something, this is how I show it.  If I am truly enamored of something, I like to make it a part of my life, and a toffee of this caliber is most certainly worthy of being part of my life, and the lives of other people I know who happen to be partial to smooth chocolate, rich toffee, snappy ginger, and crisp almonds.

Ginger Almond Toffee

Inspired by Alma Chocolate

1 cup toasted whole almonds

heaping ¼ cup crystallized candied ginger

1 ¼ cups white sugar

¼ cup light brown sugar

3 tablespoons water

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

1 teaspoon molasses

¼ teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

¼ teaspoon baking soda

5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

Separate the almonds into ¾ cup and ¼ cup piles.  Chop the ¾ cup pile very roughly, basically just chopping each almond roughly in half (you want these almonds to maintain a good bite).  Chop the remaining ¼ cup pile into a medium-fine dice and set aside.

Coarsely chop the heaping ¼ cup of crystallized ginger.  Line the bottom of an 8”x13” baking pan with a sheet of parchment paper, and evenly scatter the ¾ cup of almond chunks and the chopped crystallized ginger over the parchment.

In a large, heavy saucepan, combine the white sugar, brown sugar, water, butter, molasses, and sea salt.  Over medium heat, cook the mixture, stirring occasionally with a heatproof spoon or spatula, until it turns a rich, dark golden brown and just reaches a heat of 300 degrees.  (This process can take anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the heat of your stove’s burner and the heating capabilities of the saucepan you are using.)  Immediately remove the pan from the heat and quickly stir in the vanilla and baking soda.  The mixture will bubble up when the baking soda is added, so be sure to stir carefully but thoroughly.

Quickly pour the mixture evenly over the almonds and ginger.  When the toffee is still hot but just starting to set (about 2 minutes later), sprinkle the chopped chocolate over the surface of the toffee.  Allow the chocolate to melt from the heat of the toffee, then spread the chocolate evenly over the toffee.  Sprinkle the remaining ¼ cup chopped almonds over the chocolate.

Allow the toffee to cool completely before breaking into pieces.  If you want to speed up the cooling process, you can place the toffee in either the refrigerator (more patience) or the freezer (less patience).

Crisp Spiced Nuts and Kicking Off the Holidays

30 Nov

Many years ago, I worked in the book industry.  Part of my job entailed getting to know as-yet-unpublished books, then promoting them as I (read: my employer and the publisher) saw fit.  When you receive an advance copy of a book that is not yet published, you tend to get a slightly different view of the book than most of the other people who later read the book will receive.  Sometimes your advance copy arrives in the form of a simple advance reader, a paperback copy of the book with a mostly spot-on version of the to-be published cover and words contained within. You might also receive an uncorrected proof of the book, meaning a copy of the book that is intact as a story, but not yet fully combed over by its editors and proofreaders (yes, those are two very different jobs) in order to purge the book of slight inconsistencies or errors.  If you are truly ensconced in the game, you might get your hands on a manuscript of a book, which could come in a form of a veritable ream of paper that has either been bound with glue and given a makeshift cover (fancy), stuck into a 3-ring binder (medium fancy), or neatly filed away in a padded manila envelope (not so fancy).

What can be found in any of these copies of pre-published books is sometimes extremely memorable, though more often than not you tend to forget what you’ve seen in them once the final, published version of a book comes out.  Once I read an advance copy of a book that boasted an entire chapter that ended up being removed from its final form.  Sometimes, if you are really paying attention, you can even notice certain sentences or phrases that ended up being altered.

Such was the case for one book that came out over a decade ago and happened to catch my fancy.*  In one particularly memorable paragraph, there reads an opening statement meant to convey a particular person’s penchant for Christmas.  The published line ended up reading, “Our mother was a Christmas extremist.”  To the point, for sure, but the opening sentence in the advance copy I read months before the book came out had me laughing out loud.  The original opening sentence?  “Our mother was a Christmas crackhead.”

Now, I can see why an editor would want someone to change that line.  If you are coming from the standpoint of someone who thinks you can convey that thought in a more conventional manner, with words that are perhaps not as hilariously pithy (to some, perhaps not to others), then sure, by all means, there is a case for changing the last word.  But coming from a strictly deadpan comedic standpoint, the original line is a total keeper.  To this day, I still remember that original sentence.  Every year, right around December, it never fails to pop into my head.  And the reason is because I, too, am a total Christmas crackhead.

I freaking love Christmas.  I love Christmas baking.  I love Christmas lights.  I love Christmas trees.  I love seeing throngs of people walking around wearing scarves and wool coats and complaining about the crowds of people pulsing around them.  I love Christmas display windows, I love Christmas toy drives, I love thinking up as many reasons as I can to surprise someone with Christmas treats.  See what I mean?  Total Christmas crackhead.

Which brings me to the point of this whole post.  My friends, have I got some Christmas recipes for you.  Using Christmas as my excuse, I am here to pummel you with recipe after recipe for the holiday season.  You want pies?  There will be pies.  Tarts?  Yes.  Snacks?  Oh, yes.  It is my sole intention to completely exhaust your kitchen this Christmas season, and to share with you all my complete and utter devotion to the joys of Christmas as it relates to your kitchen.  And your belly.

To start things off, I’ve got this superb recipe for crisp spiced nuts.  With their spicy cayenne kick and savory-sweet glaze, they not only make a perfect snack to nibble with a glass of wine or a cocktail, but, portioned out and dressed up in a nice gift box or jar, they make a fantastic host or hostess gift.  Keep in mind, however, that if you intend to share these nuts, you’d better start giving them away as soon as you possibly can after making them.  Wait too long, and you are likely to end up eating them all yourself, such is the sheer intensity of their tasty allure.  I have been known to (inadvisably) eat these for breakfast.  While I can’t say it was the best decision I ever made, I also can’t admit to completely regretting it, since, god help me, it was a mighty delicious breakfast while it lasted.

*I am really sorry, but I am fairly certain that I would upset someone by revealing which books this is.  The line was changed for a reason, so I probably shouldn’t be waxing nostalgic about something not meant to see the light of day.  I do not wish to cause any hurt feelings.

Crisp Spiced Nuts

(a recipe from my husband’s family)

2 large egg whites

1 teaspoon flaky sea salt

¾ cup sugar

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

2 tablespoons sweet Hungarian paprika

1 to 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper (the determined amount will depend a lot on the heat of your cayenne pepper—ours is quite hot, so I tend to use 1 heaping teaspoon, which provides enough heat to flavor the nuts without making me uncomfortable while I eat them)

4 ½ cups nuts (I like to use a mix of almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans)

¾ stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a large bowl, beat egg whites until very foamy.  Gradually beat in sugar, Worcestershire, paprika, salt, and cayenne.  Stir in nuts and melted butter.

Spread nuts in a single layer on a large baking sheet or roasting pan.  Bake in middle of oven, stirring every 10 minutes, until the nuts become crisp when cooled, about 25-40 minutes.  To test a nut for crispness, carefully remove it from the oven and allow it to cool slightly.  The nut’s glaze should turn firm and crisp after 2 or 3 minutes.

Remove nuts from oven when they still appear sticky, but a tested nut confirms that the glaze will turn crisp when cooled.  Spread the nuts on a sheet of foil to cool, separating the nuts as much as possible so they don’t harden into big clumps.

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