Friday, February 29, 2008

A Real Challenge

It's the end of the month, so that means it's time for another Daring Baker's Challenge. This month, our hostesses were Mary from The Sour Dough and Sara from I Like to Cook. The recipe was Julia Child's French Bread.

This recipe was definitely a challenge for me. I don't bake bread frequently, but this was still quite different than any bread I've made before. That's what made it a challenge...while not technically challenging (though it was time and labor intensive) it was just different. But, with careful reading of the extremely thorough instructions, everything came out wonderfully!

I started out by letting my Kitchen Aid do the mixing for me, but I knew I wanted to the kneading by hand. I'm a learn-by-doing kind of person, and I figured I would get more out of hand-kneading than I would by letting the kitchen aid do it. Just 8-10 minutes of kneading made for quite the transformation in the dough!

Next it was time to let the dough rise. The recipe was very specific about having the right temperature for the dough to rise appropriately. Knowing that we like to keep our house cooler than the 72 -74 degrees specified, I tried the tip suggested in the recipe. A few minutes before the dough needed to rise, I turned the oven on to a low setting for about 45 seconds, then turned it right off. When I put the dough in about five minutes later, I had a warm-but-not-hot place for the dough to rise. It seemed to work well!

I punched the dough down, kneaded it a bit, then back in the warm-but-not-hot oven it went for the second rise. At this point, it was late, so I stuck my dough in the fridge to finish it up the next day.

When I woke up on Sunday, it was time to form the loaves. The recipe gave instructions for forming loves of a variety of sizes and shapes. I decided to make two small round loaves and a batard. Round and "long and skinny" are the two primary shapes for French bread, and have very different methods for shaping. I decided this would give me some experience with both shapes.

I divided the dough into three roughly equal pieces and allowed them to rest for a few minutes to relax the gluten. The recipe explains that since French bread bakes free standing, as opposed to any sort of pan, the dough has to be worked and shaped correctly to develop an outer "gluten cloak" that allows the bread to hold its shape while baking. So, the shaping of the loaves is actually critical in getting a good French Bread. The shaping instructions are quite detailed and lengthy, so rather than repost them, check it out in the recipe at the end of this post. First I shaped the batard followed by the two round loaves. Once the loaves are formed, they are placed on a stiff floured cloth to rise one final time. After the final rise, I transferred them to a baking sheet (another somewhat intricate process), and made the tell-tale slits that make a nice French bread loaf.

Into the oven they went. Another important aspect in baking French bread is steam; it is critical in forming the wonderful crusty outside that is what really makes it French bread. Most home ovens are not equipped for steam so we had to improvise. Right before going in the oven, the loaves were spritzed with a fine mist of water. Then, as soon as they went in, some ice was dropped in a pan of hot water on the bottom of the stove. This created a burst of steam for the oven. Then, every three minutes for the first 12 minutes of baking time, I quickly opened the oven door and spritzed the loaves with water. By the time I opened the oven for the final spritz, it was starting to smell really good!! After about 25 minutes in the oven, out came some nicely browned, very crusty loaves of French bread!!

The loaves came out of the oven around 4:00, giving them the requisite 2 hours of cooling time before dinner. I invited my mom and brother over for a dinner of Black Bean Chili and fresh French bread. The chili was the perfect complement to the bread, and between the four of us, we polished off half the pot of chili and just over 2 loaves of bread.

This is probably not a recipe I will make frequently, mainly due to the time and effort involved. But, given that, the finished product is well worth the effort.

For the recipe, visit Mary's blog post about this challenge. She provides the full thorough, detailed recipe with pictures, something I would have loved to have had in figuring out how to shape my bread.

All in all, this was a great recipe, and I think I learned more during this challenge than I have in any of the other Daring Baker challenges I've done yet. Thanks for a great challenge!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hot & Spicy

Since I can't seem to find the time and energy to create substantial content for my blog these days, I guess you'll have to do with fluff :-)

I found this little quiz on another foodie blog, and thought it might be fun.

You Are Cayenne Pepper

You are very over the top and a bit overwhelming.

You have a fiery personality, and you can give anyone a good jolt.

You can easily take things up a couple notches, no matter what crowd you're running with.

Check it out! What spice are you?

Monday, February 11, 2008


Last weekend I made baked stuffed French toast, and I had some filling left over. When pondering what to do with the left-overs, I decided that it would make a great croissant filling. I've been wanting to try my hand at croissants for a while, so this was a great excuse!

A year ago for Christmas, Psycling got me this book. I LOVE it. It is a wonderful source of information on different techniques in pastry making, as well as collection of great recipes. Like most "professional" culinary texts, the recipes are scaled for large scale production, but one thing that I like about this book is that it also provides a "small batch" scale for the recipe. So, when I wanted to make croissants, this was the first place I turned.

If there's one thing I can say about this recipe it's that it's very thorough. It is also very clear that it was written for professionals, kitchens that have things like "proofing boxes" and large working surfaces. But, despite not really having those, I still managed to make this recipe work.

It was a two day process, but the end result was WONDERFUL...nice and flakey with an intense buttery texture and flavor. When you bite into one, you unearth layer after layer of buttery flakiness. Psycling and I found that they made a great afternoon snack, and we definitely couldn't stop at just one! There was only enough filling to make four filled croissants, but they were quite good...just enough filling to add some extra flavor and interest without over-powering the delicate nature of the croissant itself.

I only had one real complaint about this recipe...some of my croissants almost burned. The recipe said to bake at 425 until cooked through or about 25 minutes. When I wennt to check on them at about 20 minutes, they were well past a nice "golden brown" and on their way to black. I know that my oven generally runs pretty true to temperature, so I don't think that was the problem. But fortunately, even though a little dark and crispy, even the burned ones tasted great.

All in all, I really enjoyed making these croissants, and look forward to trying them again sometime. I learned a lot, and while these were quite good, I think I can apply the new lessons and make them even better next time!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Breakfast for Dinner: Stuffed French Toast

I want to apologize in advance for the lack of pictures in this post. I was already done making this by the time I realized that I wanted to blog about it...I guess I should start getting in the habit of taking pictures while I'm cooking on a regular basis.

Last night we had another Tech Chefs dinner. The group is a little smaller now than it was when it was at it's peak last year, and we've changed the format a bit. Someone is in charge of picking a theme, and we are now doing the dinner pot luck style. This month's theme was breakfast for dinner. It was a big hit! We started by toasting the evening with mimosas (don't worry, I had mine with ginger ale instead of champagne), and we made the bacon and sausage. When that was ready, we had our first course: a crab quiche that was AMAZING!! Unfortunately, I didn't make that one, so I don't have a recipe to post, but if I did, I would tell you to forget any dinner plans you might already have and just make this. It was that good!! Next up were the Eggs Benedict. Such a classic hardly needs elaboration! At the end of that course, I was just sopping up the extra hollandaise sauce with an English muffin. With so much butter, you can't go wrong.

Our dessert course was my original Stuffed Baked French Toast. I made 4 different flavors (peach, raspberry, blueberry, and apple), and it seemed like everyone had a different favorite. We pulled the breadmaker out so we could make the French toast with homemade bread. Mmmmmm....I loved having the house smell like fresh bread for 2 days straight!! It made me remember why we used to make homemade bread every week!

Three of the four fillings were cream cheese based. I mixed together softened cream cheese and sugar. If I were making this again (and for less than 8 people), I would use about 8 oz of cream cheese and 3/8 c. of sugar. This is enough to make the cream cheese a little sweeter, but not overly sweet! I divided my cream cheese filling into 3 bowls:

Bowl One: I added just over 1 c. of frozen raspberries, thawed and sprinkled with a little sugar. I mixed it together with a hint of cardamom, some cinnamon, and a sprinkling of nutmeg.

Bowl Two: I added about 1 c. of frozen blueberries, thawed and sprinkled with a little sugar. I mixed it together with about a 3:1 ratio of cinnamon:nutmeg. But I was eyeballing it, so don't quote me on it :-)

Bowl 3: I added about 1 c. of chopped peaches (canned), and sprinkled in some cinnamon, nutmeg, and a hint of ginger.

For the fourth filling I made an apple compote. I diced up an apple (peeled and cored) and sauteed it in about 2 Tbs. of butter, and added 2-3 Tbs. of regular sugar and 2-3 Tbs. brown sugar. I cooked it over medium heat until it was reduced quite a bit and thickened to a nice apple-pie-filling texture. Nice and sweet and sticky and gooey!

Now that you have your bread and filling, you can assemble your French toast. First, generously grease a 9 x 13 baking dish (or two depending on how big your bread is). Thickly slice your loaf of bread (about 1" - 1 1/4" thick). Using a serrated knife, cut a slit in the top of each slice of bread. The slit should be about 1 1/2" deep, or deeper. The bigger the pocket you make, the more filling you can fit in it :-). Spoon your filling into the pocket of your bread, and place it in the baking dish. Repeat for remaining bread slices.

Next, mix up the custard mixture. I used whole milks and eggs in a ratio of about 1 cup of milk to about 3 eggs. For a full 9 x 13 tray, you will probably need about 2 c. of milk and 6 eggs. Add a little bit of vanilla and couple of teaspoons of sugar and whisk until sugar is dissolved. Pour custard over bread slices, and let it sit for about 5 minutes. Flip slices over, and place in refrigerator for another 15-20 minutes, or until bread soaks up all the custard.

Once bread soaks up the liquid, sprinkle with a little bit of sugar (I like to use turbinado sugar for a nice little crunch), and bake at 400 F for about 25 minutes, or until cooked through. I served this with a choice of powdered sugar or maple syrup, though the French toast is sweet enough on it's own that very little of either is needed. Those who aren't pregnant enjoyed this breakfast dessert with some decaf spiked with a little Bailey's Irish cream liquor. It was a rich, filling, yummy end to a wonderful Breakfast-For-Dinner.

A few notes: If I make this again, I will choose only 1 kind of filling, as I have a fair amount of each kind left over (stay tuned for how those left overs will be used up...I have a fun idea!!). Also, this recipe could be simplified by using regular store bought sliced bread. Rather than cutting a slit in the slices, you can "sandwich" the filling a little bit by placing some of the filling on one slice, and then topping it with another. You can then treat the sandwiches just as you would the thick cut slices mentioned above. If you do make your own bread, I discovered by accident that if you use slightly less yeast than called for in the recipe (by about 1/4 tsp.), you get a denser loaf that is easier to slice pockets into. The one loaf I made that had the right amount of yeast tasted great, but since it was a lighter airier bread, it was more difficult to slice good pockets. And finally, the first time I experimented with this recipe, I used a loaf of challah bread, thickly sliced, and it made for WONDERFUL French toast!

If you are looking for a wonderful, over-indulgent breakfast, this is it!