Sunday, December 28, 2008

Potato Rosemary Bread

Last holiday season, Kurt bought me all the tools I needed to become a real bread baker. He got me a nice, big, sturdy wooden bread board for kneading, and a DVD that showed me, step by step, how to make bread by hand. At the time, I wasn't a complete stranger to bread baking. I had made lots of it in my bread machine, and one or two loaves using my Kitchenaid stand mixer. Still, I considered these "cheating," due to all the mechanical help.

Over the course of the last year, I have developed somewhat of an obsession with yeast. I've acquired more bread baking books than I care to admit. I've read through recipes, absorbing the process until it is as familiar as my multiplication tables--mix, knead, rise, punch down, shape, rise, bake, cool. I've learned why breads rise, and what is really happening while kneading. I've started to understand the chemistry behind the process.

However, throughout all of this, I haven't baked all that much. I have baked a fair number of the breads from Artisan Breads in Five Minutes a Day, and have been happy with the results and fully endorse it to those who want to bake fast, easy, REAL bread. But, for me, it still fell into the "cheating" realm, somehow, because not all the steps were included.

Over the course of the last two weeks, I have turned a corner in my bread baking and have somehow become a little less intimidated. Last Sunday, I made Cinnamon Rolls from The Bread Baker's Apprentice. They came out very well. I was bolstered. I made the Chocolate Swirl Wreath from my last post. It turned out very well. So, I continued.

On Friday, I started a seed culture for a sourdough starter. It's on day three now, and has risen significantly. I can't wait to start baking with a real sourdough starter. And today, I made the Potato Rosemary Bread from The Bread Baker's Apprentice. Actually, I started this bread on Friday, by making the biga. Today, I finished it.

This bread was a long, involved process. I started first thing this morning, by setting a head of garlic in the oven to roast for an hour. At this time, I took the biga out of the fridge, to take the chill off. In the meantime, I made a dozen Ginger Rum Muffins from Granny's Muffin House for breakfast. Then, I boiled the potatoes to make the mashed potatoes. By the time the garlic was done roasting, the potatoes were ready for mashing.

Kurt was busy getting himself on Facebook (finally), so I let the Kitchenaid do the kneading, so that I didn't have to move Kurt in favor of my bread board. This dough rose nicely, and was ready to be shaped after the two hours expected. The boules doubled in size after about an hour and a quarter. Then, I baked them.

The smell alone was worth making this bread. The roasted garlic and rosemary blended together to make my house smell amazing. The taste even surpassed the smell, though. The crumb is tender, the crust crunchy. The roasted garlic and rosemary meld with a hint of potato, and some bite from the ground pepper. Paired with a slice of aged cheddar, this bread is pure enjoyment.

I am probably inordinately proud of this bread. With the biga, and all of the prep work, I finally feel like this is the real thing--even if I did let the Kitchenaid knead it. I will definitely make this one again.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Bread for Christmas

As a young Jew, I was always very secure in my religious identity. The only times I began to see cracks in the surface involved certain Christmas traditions. To this day, I cannot be in the same room with a Christmas tree without being completely transfixed with it. I have to inspect all of the ornaments, and watch the lights intently as they run in different patterns.

Around the time of college, there was another Christmas tradition that came to my attention that has invoked a sort of envy. That tradition comes in the broad category of "special food," and, very specifically, "celebration breads." There is something about the idea of a bread that is only made once a year--a bread that is enriched with decadent ingredients--that has always appealed to me. So many cultures have their own Christmas breads--stollen, pannetone, etc. I love their festive shapes and sparkling sprinkle of candied fruit. I don't actually like the taste of citron, but boy, is it pretty.

Perhaps it all comes full circle, and the reason Christmas breads appeal to me is really related to my Jewish-ness. After all, the ceremonial or symbolic bread is not exactly a foreign concept to me. Between the challah and the matzoh, the idea has been pretty ingrained in me. Once, I asked Kurt why he thought I am so attracted to cooking and baking, and he told me he thought it was because I love exploring the nuances of other cultures, and food is one of the most direct ties to that. Whatever the reason, this year I wanted to make a Christmas bread.

Luckily, King Arthur Flour provided me with the perfect opportunity. On their homepage last week, there was a picture of a grand bread wreath. It was beautiful--round, swirled with chocolate, and glazed with confectioners' sugar. The minute I saw it, I knew I wanted to make it. I knew that it was going to stretch my abilities as a bread baker, but I was willing to take on the challenge.

Last night, I embarked on my journey. I let my Kitchenaid do all the kneading, because the dough was very sticky, and I didn't want to toughen it with too much flour while kneading by hand. I let it rise while we ate dinner, and then rolled the dough out. I sprinkled it with semisweet chocolate chips. It called for chocolate schmear, but I didn't have any (or time to order it), so I used the chocolate chips instead. I was liberal with them, using far more than the 1/2 cup suggested. On went the sugar, and the almonds. I had Kurt roll it up, since he has become rather proficient at the task after years of making our cranberry-pecan spiral cookies. We sliced it, and made it into a pretty circle, and let it rise again while I chatted with my family on the phone.

I took the pictures after pulling the bread out of the oven, but before glazing it. I am sorry that I do not have final photos, since the glaze made it even prettier (and then removed it from the filling-encrusted baking sheet, which also improved the presentation).

The end result was a dessert bread that tasted like a dense Danish ring. The chunks of chocolate chips provided a nice bite, and the almonds melted to a near-marzipan quality. I will definitely be making this one again.

If you are interested, here is the recipe, courtesy of King Arther Flour. I replaced the Hi-Maize with regular all-purpose flour, and used semisweet chocolate chips in place of the chocolate schmear.

Happy holidays!