Eat 1, Freeze 1, Gift 1

Rachel’s Bread, pre-decorations.

I am pretty loose-y goose-y when it comes to holiday traditions.Very few things recur from year to year: I may or may not have a Christmas tree (even though I love a good tree); I may or may not send out cards; I may or may not make a Christmas dinner.
It’s not that I’m a Scrooge, but because there are no kids around, the man and I tend to lean toward the side of doing whatever we feel like doing. (Last year, we made homemade pizza on Christmas Eve and binged on cookies on Christmas Day, before and after a big breakfast starring French toast.)

There is one thing, though, that I have managed to do most every year since I was 15 years old, thanks to a recipe shared with me by my best friend growing up, Rachel.

When I say best friend, I mean best friend. Rachel knew me inside and out and loved me anyway. She was the one person who “got me.”

Years ago, I tucked away our many notes from high school, passed during biology lab and complete with illustrations, in a greeting card box — to be whipped out whenever I needed a good laugh or even a good cry. This box of notes is one of my prized possessions. It’s moved with me from Connecticut to Maine to Maryland to Florida to Connecticut (again) and finally here, to Vermont.

In these notes, we referred to each other as “Fat Ass” and “Jelly Belly.” We drew pictures of where we’d rather be. We talked about the boys we liked — actually, usually men — really attainable chaps like those who starred opposite Julia Ormond in period films like “Young Catherine” and the 25-year-old substitute teacher. We trusted each other with our deepest, sometimes dark, secrets.

We cried in each other’s arms, and I have never laughed as much as I did while hanging out with Rachel.

When Rachel became a vegetarian, I decided I would still love her. And when I moved out of state and left all my friends behind, Rachel decided she’d still love me.

Not long after we graduated college, Rachel died.

It’s still somewhat unbelievable to me that my young, beautiful, intelligent, compassionate best friend is gone — I miss her every day — and for a long time I couldn’t forgive myself that I wasn’t there with her at the end. Maybe I haven’t yet.

I was far away, in the throes of my early 20s, out of touch with the people in the small town we had grown up in, and I had no idea she was sick.

It happened that fast.

Making Rachel’s Bread, a braided breakfast or coffee bread, is the one tradition I manage to continue from year to year. Rachel taught me how to make it in her mother’s kitchen. She showed me how to fake a braid and turned me on to dried apricots. She also showed me that a little Christmas kitsch with maraschino cherries and white icing is a good thing.

Braided “candy cane” bread filled with dried apricots and maraschino cherries is perfect for breakfast or coffee talk. Each recipe makes 3 loaves, so you’ll have a couple to gift if you tire of the ubiquitous cookie tray.

Rachel’s Bread
(makes 3 loaves)
Note: Rachel’s original recipe uses active dry yeast (2 packages), mixed with water. I use instant dry yeast, so I mix it with the flour first before adding to the rest of the ingredients.

2 cups sour cream
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
1/2 cup warm water
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 eggs

6 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons instant dry yeast
1 1/2 cups dried apricots, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups drained maraschino cherries, finely chopped
melted butter, for brushing on baked bread
icing (2 cups confectioners’ sugar mixed with 1-2 tablespoons water)
In a bowl, combine instant dry yeast with flour. Set aside.

Over low heat, melt 1/4 cup butter with sour cream, stirring until combined. Remove from heat.
Transfer sour cream mixture to a large mixing bowl. Add water, eggs, sugar, salt and a bit of the flour mixture. Beat until smooth.
Add the rest of the flour, kneading until smooth, about 10 minutes.
Transfer dough to a lightly greased bowl, flipping so that it’s grease side up, cover and let rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Punch down dough. Divide into 3 equal parts.
Roll each part into a 15×6-inch rectangle.
With a sharp knife, make 2-inch cuts at 1/2-inch intervals up each long side of the rectangle.
Place fruit in the middle and criss-cross the dough strips over top.
Stretch loaf to 22 inches and twist into candy cane shape.
Place breads on greased baking sheets and bake at 375 degrees for 15-20 minutes.
Transfer to wire racks.
Brush with melted butter. Once mostly cool, drizzle breads with icing and decorate with extra cherry slices.
Eat one. Gift one. Freeze one for Christmas morning.

Sweet Deal from The King

Love & Scraps fans: This post is especially for you.

King Arthur Flour shared with me an exclusive offer to share with you — 20 percent off a $90 (or more) order. Quick! Stock up your holiday baking supplies! This offer is valid through November 6 (that’s Sunday, tomorrow, so get on it).

I don’t normally put myself out there for products/brands/companies, but I make an exception for employee-owned KAF — generous, warm-hearted people and phenomenal products.

Follow this link to shop for your favorite baking goodies!

King Arthur Flour: The People, The Place, The Pie

Instructor Michelle Kupiec demonstrates how to make pizza margherita during Blog & Bake 2011 at King Arthur Flour’s Baking Education Center in Norwich, VT.  (By the way, Michelle didn’t laugh at me when I somehow managed to drop my pizza on the floor before making it to the wood-fired oven. Michelle told me to make another one. Michelle’s nice like that.)

Over the course of the last two days, I have accumulated 297 new photos, developed dozens of girl crushes, added 5 pounds to my derriere (I’m sure, but I didn’t really check and I don’t really care), received baking instruction from The Source of all sources, garnered a reputation as a pizza dropper (more on this calamitous act later), cultivated fresh friendships over dinner (thank you, Sara Moulton, for showing us how to make it and for being so generous of spirit) at an historic Vermont inn (if you haven’t been, get thee to the Norwich Inn post haste), produced pages of chicken scratch that I like to call “notes,” and been given an inside look at operations at the world’s best flour company — I’m sure you’ve figured this out by now — King Arthur Flour.

Bread, fresh from the oven at King Arthur Flour. Need I say more?

Gratuitous Strawberry-Rhubarb Tart shot. (I’ll tell you more about this little round of heaven later.)

You see, The King invited a handful of food bloggers and writers from across the country to Blog & Bake 2011, and I was lucky enough to be among them.

B&B ended late yesterday afternoon (sniff), and I told myself I wouldn’t shower this morning until I told you about the fabulous goings-on. And so here I sit with frizzy hair, caffeine coursing through my veins, wearing the most forgiving of my elastic-waist pants, trying to figure out how to tell you everything without driving you (and me) crazy.

With that in mind, I’ve decided on a three-part series — King Arthur Flour: The People, The Place, The Pie (and bread, and scones, and pizza, and … ). Anyway, I’ll try not to deviate from this plan for sanity’s sake. Here goes:

The People
I fully embrace the risk of sounding like a schmaltzy brown-noser when I say the folks at King Arthur Flour are smart, warm, generous, funny and spunky. The same goes for my fellow bloggers/writers. The same goes for chef Sara Moulton. I learned from all of them, and I hope to share some of that with you here at Love & Scraps.

And so we begin:

Our fearless leader, King Arthur Flour’s Allison Furbish, guides us on a tour behind the scenes at KAF. (Allison made Blog & Bake happen. Allison invited me. I heart Allison.)
Smiling Jean Kerr from Northeast Flavor magazine was on my pizza-dough-making team (Go, Team Brilliance!). If you haven’t checked out the mag, do it. It’s beautiful.

Corin Hirsch, a friend and food writer at Vermont’s Seven Days, has her way with a mini-muffin. (Back story: KAF baking instructor Susan Reid encouraged us to “take as many nibbles as we can stand” from several batches of mini-muffins — each made with a different type of flour — to compare/contrast properties. … Susan said nothing about pushing muffins into our eye sockets.)

King Arthur Flour’s MaryJane and Northeast Flavor‘s Bonnie listen intently to … um, something … during a visit to the KAF test kitchen. MaryJane kicks booty on both the decorating and dinner conversation fronts. Bonnie kicks booty, too.

King Arthur Flour’s Robyn Sargent teaches us basic bread-baking skills during Day 1 of B&B. Robyn is an awesome teacher. Too bad I didn’t have Robyn for calculus in high school; it may have gone better …

Blogger Amber Bracegirdle portions out pizza dough. Amber is a Texan, married to a Brit, and now lives in Jersey. Amber gave us each a present of cookies on Day 1. Amber’s a sweetheart.

I’ve long been a fan of chef Sara Moulton. My fanaticism has only grown since Blog & Bake: she joined us for class (during which she kindly pointed out after surveying my braided bread that hers, too, was bulbous on one end — gotta love her); demonstrated how to make a scrumptious dinner; and feasted with us at the Norwich Inn, where the chefs did her menu proud.

Fellow New England bloggers Aimee and Fiona light up the room during Day 1 of Blog & Bake. (Some peeps knew each other before B&B; most didn’t. … Let no man put asunder what King Arthur Flour joined together.)

Meet Donna from Colorado. Donna and I sat together for much of B&B. Lovely though she is, Donna scared me at first with her breezy, seemingly effortless bread-baking skills. (I’m more slow and methodical.) Donna kicks serious booty.

King Arthur Flour’s Susan Reid gives us the lowdown on flour — the types, the properties —while throwing in a few colorful stories. Susan knows how to have a good time while engaging her students. I mentioned “spunky” in the intro to this post. That’s Susan.

“Busy at Home” blogger Glenda chills out during coffee & pastries to kick off Day 1 of Blog & Bake. Glenda traveled from Nebraska for B&B.

King Arthur Flour instructor Susan Miller pulls together pastry dough for KAF’s luscious Tomato Pie (more about this later). … Warm and funny, Susan also instructed us in making “poolish” for our pizza dough (more about that later) and pastry for our Strawberry-Rhubarb Tart (you guessed it, more later). … Oh, and last but not least, there’s Savor the Thyme’s Jennifer in the background, studiously checking out Susan’s method.

PJ doesn’t seem to mind when we interrupt as she puts the finishing touches on some lime cookies in the King Arthur Flour test kitchen on Day 2 of Blog & Bake. You probably know smiling PJ from KAF’s online community and blog. I nominate PJ for Best Smile at Blog & Bake 2011.

Writer/blogger Casey, KAF’s MaryJane and Northeast Flavor’s Bonnie hang in the test kitchen. My peeps!

If you need a volunteer for something, anything, may I suggest the services of Casey Barber? She likes to get a job done. She speaks up when the rest of the room goes quiet. She has awesome facial expressions — and isn’t afraid to use them.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into the people who brightened the last two days of my baking life. More posts (with lots more photos) are in the works, but now it’s time to wash my crusty-the-clown self. Until later, then.