Monday, 2 May 2011

Look for shortcuts: Bread, pecan caramel sticky rolls, pizza crust and faux-caccia

I love bread. No seriously -- the Atkins diet would be the diet in my personal hell. I will eat bad bread or mediocre bread, but there is hardly anything I like more than good, fresh, hot-out-of-the-oven bread.

I've made bread plenty of times from the Betty Crocker book, from web sites on the internet, and I've even captured wild yeast to make sourdough. But you know what sucks about making bread? It takes SO LONG!

Most recipes ask you to proof the yeast, let the bread rise, knead it, punch it down, let it rise again. I could only make bread on my days off, and even then, I would have to schedule my errands around bread tasks. I would wake up in the morning and think, "You know what would be good for breakfast? Bread." And then I start looking at the work involved and decide we're having bread... for dinner.

So I started looking up recipes for no-knead bread. That's today's lesson. If you don't like the amount of work or time involved in some cooking task, find a shortcut. And find one I did.

First, I found a lengthy article on Mother Earth News. I read through it several times (it wouldn't have hurt them to do a Cliff's Notes version), then tried the bread recipe. In short, you mix up four loaves' worth of bread at once, then refrigerate it. There's no kneading, proofing... you mix four ingredients, let them double, then throw it in the fridge and take out some dough when you're ready to cook. On cooking day, you spend about 10 seconds forming it into a ball, then let it rest, then bake it. And there you have it: bread. I discovered I could do this all in the morning while I got ready for work and have fresh bread to take with me to my once-a-week potluck lunch.

Do you remember this commercial?

Bringing fresh bread that you baked in the morning before work is a little like that. People assume you slaved for hours and woke up at an ungodly hour, but in fact, it took about 5 minutes of actual work. Let them think what they will...

Anyway, I liked the recipe so much that I decided to get the book*.

My recipe is based on the Artisan Bread book and on some suggestions from their web site, mostly from the FAQ. But I made my own changes, too. For example, their whole wheat recipe calls for a couple extra ingredients, like milk and honey, and I really liked the simplicity of the basic recipe, so mine is a blend.

3 1/2 cups warm tap water
1 1/2 Tbs active dry yeast
1 1/2 Tbs salt
6 1/2 cups white whole wheat flour (regular whole wheat works fine, too)
1/3 cup wheat gluten**

Mix everything up in a large container.

My favorite flour.

The other stuff.


Let it sit for two hours with a cover on loosely.


Put it in the fridge.


Okay, not done, but pretty close.

When you're ready (any time within the next two weeks), get your dough out. Throw some flour on it and some more on your hands.


The book says this makes four loaves, but to be honest, we really like bread, so I usually get three loaves out of it. I take about a third of the bread and just tear it away from the rest. Then, taking only a few seconds, sort of tuck the outsides of the chunk into the bottom. When it's roundish, put it on a floured something (a cookie sheet is fine, a pizza peel is fine... I usually put it on a sheet of parchment paper).


Let it rest for 40 minutes. Pre-heat your oven to 375, and when it's ready, bake the bread for 35 minutes.

You can dust the top with flour and cut a design into it for extra-fancy-pants-ness.

I don't have a pizza peel (just one more thing to store), so I use a cookie sheet with no lip. I put the dough ball on parchment paper and then both on the cookie sheet. I pre-heat the oven with a pizza stone inside, and when it comes to temperature, I position the cookie sheet over the stone, give it a little backwards jerk, and the bread should slide onto the stone.

They recommend putting another pan in the oven with some water in it to steam the crust. This works well, but so does just throwing a shot glass of water at the side of the oven, then closing the door really fast.

It also seems to result in a slightly lighter crumb (the airy softness of the bread) to form the ball the night before, cover it lightly with cling wrap, then let it rest in the fridge until you're ready to bake it.

I cook mine on a pizza stone most of the time (they're $20 or so at Target), but it works fine in a bread pan, too, or on a cookie sheet.



And there you have delicious, soft, homemade bread. My husband was hovering over it in the kitchen with a bread knife, a stick of butter and two jars of jam waiting for me to give the go-ahead. It's that good.

Pecan Caramel Sticky Rolls
Also in the book is a recipe for Pecan Caramel Sticky Rolls, and my husband LOVES those, so I decided to make them, too.

You take the chunk out (again, about a third of the dough), form it into a ball...

then roll it into a rectangle. Be super-duper generous with the flour on the board where you're rolling it out, your hands, the rolling pin... It'll stick otherwise.

For the topping:

6 Tbs softened butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
30 pecan halves

Mix up the softened butter with the brown sugar. Spread the mixture into the bottom of a 9" round cake pan and sprinkle the pecan halves over it. This is what 30 looked like...

So I sprinkled a bit more. Incidentally, pecans are fairly expensive, so I buy them at a warehouse store when I find them at a good price and store them in the freezer.


For the filling

4 Tbs salted butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 cup chopped toasted pecans
pinch of ground black pepper

We didn't have whole nutmeg to grate, and my family could really tell the difference and were sorely disappointed. Just kidding! We used powdered and nobody gave a shit. Mix all that stuff up and spread it over the rectangle of dough. At this point, it looks like there isn't much, but don't worry; you're going to roll it up, so every bite will have some filling. Also, because I am so very lazy, I considered not toasting the nuts, but it actually does add a lot of flavor. I just put them in a pan on the stove over medium heat while I stirred up the other stuff, and I shook it every once in a while. When it smelled good, it was done. (A note here -- to save myself some bother, I chopped the nuts in a food processor. Chopping nuts takes me a long time. It works fine with a knife, though.)

Now starting with the long side, roll it up. When it's a big log, cut it into eight pieces.


Arrange the pieces swirly side up in the pan, loosely cover it with plastic wrap, and let it sit for an hour. Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees and bake them for 40 minutes. Serve hot.


Normally, pecan sticky rolls would be made with white flour, and I know you're thinking that whole wheat sticky fat treats seem like they'd be disappointing, like they'd taste healthy. But I swear they're as sticky and sweet and delectable as they would be with white flour.

And now for two not-quite-additional recipes.

Pizza crust

To make this dough into pizza crust, tear the chunk, form the ball, and let it rest 40 minutes. Roll it into a circle(-ish) about 12" in diameter. Put the toppings on, then bake at 450 degrees for ten minutes. It's best on a pizza stone but can be done on a cookie sheet.

I call this faux-caccia, because sometimes people get hella picky over what is and isn't worthy of a name. Champagne vs. sparkling wine, for example. Or the small amounts of strong, dark coffee I make with my Aeropress which, the coffee nerds are quick to tell you, is NOT real espresso. I digress. Anyway, most focaccia has olive oil in the dough, so this is not a traditional focaccia. But it's delicious and will fool most people.

Tear a chunk, form it into a ball, rest it for 40 minutes. Then smush it out into a rectangle-y thing with your fingers. Go ahead and leave finger-dimples in the dough. Brush it generously with olive oil, then some sea salt and whatever else you like. I like a lot of finely chopped fresh rosemary, but dried herbs are fine, minced garlic is good, even thinly sliced tomatoes and asiago or parmesan. Bake it at 425 degrees for 13-15 minutes.

*I should probably note that I'm not selling anything, I don't get any kickbacks for anything, and I think that buying Rice Krispy Treats pre-made is silly.

**If you don't have gluten, can't find gluten, are afraid that you have a gluten allergy or that gluten is the root of all evil, or you just don't feel like shelling out a couple bucks, don't bother. It does, however, result in a fluffier loaf if you're using whole wheat flour.

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