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.

Spice and Everything Nice

Pumpkin Bread is in the oven as I write this, filling the house with the scent of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and everyone’s favorite Thanksgiving squash that begins with a ‘P.’ I haven’t had breakfast or lunch yet today — it’s 1:45 p.m. EST — and I will be hard-pressed not to do things to that bread that I really shouldn’t. Things like slicing it fresh out of the oven. Or burying my face in it. Or licking it.

But I won’t.

I’ll let the loaves cool on wire racks — completely — before swaddling them in plastic wrap and aluminum foil. I’ll let them hang out for a day or two before I ravage them. I won’t lick them so that I might share them with others.

Pumpkin Bread
(I copied this recipe out of a magazine several years ago; wish I could give proper credit. … It makes 2 standard-size loaves.)
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 3/4 cups brown sugar, packed
15 ounces pureed pumpkin
1 cup vegetable oil
4 eggs
2/3 cup water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and lightly flour two standard-size loaf pans (9×5-ish inches).

Whisk together dry ingredients in small bowl. Set aside.

Gratuitous Pig Butt Shot

In large bowl, mix brown sugar, pumpkin, oil, eggs and water.

Stir in dry ingredients until thoroughly combined.

Divide batter equally between prepared pans and bake at 350 degrees for about 1 hour.

Remove loaves from pans and let cool completely on wire racks.

Quick! Make Quick Bread!

What do you do when you have a bunch of fresh rhubarb and you’re not altogether sure, um, what to do with it? And those with whom you share close quarters tell you they don’t like rhubarb? Even strawberry-rhubarb pie? And you, upon gnawing on a stalk, wonder if you, too, don’t hate rhubarb?

You make quick bread, of course.

Diced and folded into a batter of brown sugar, fat, flour and homey spices, those celery-like stalks shine. They are still themselves (tart) but eaten within the trappings of quick bread, it was decided: We all love rhubarb.

Fresh rhubarb, thanks to a dear friend’s garden

Try this recipe if you’re unsure about rhubarb. Hell, try it even if you’ve never been more sure about anything in your life. This moist quick bread is soul-satisfying on its own, or over-the-top delicious lightly toasted and smeared with quick bread’s best friend forever: cream cheese.

Rhubarb Quick Bread
(adapted from a recipe I found in a little booklet titled “Old-Fashioned Bread Recipes,” published by Bear Wallow Books)
(recipe yields 2 standard-size loaves)
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 /1/2 cups fresh rhubarb, diced
1/2 cup pecans, chopped
1 tablespoon butter, melted
2 tablespoons granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease two standard-size bread loaf pans.

In small bowl, sift together dry ingredients (flour, spices, salt and baking soda). Set aside.

In large bowl, mix oil, brown sugar, vanilla and beaten egg. Add buttermilk and mix until fully incorporated.

Fold dry ingredients into wet.

Gently fold in diced rhubarb and chopped pecans.

Pour batter into prepared pans.

Mix together melted butter and sugar for topping.

Drizzle topping over batter. (This step gives the top a nice crunch.)

Bake in preheated 325-degree oven for 45-55 minutes. Breads are done when toothpick inserted in center comes out gunge-free.

Leave in pans for about 5 minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool completely.


Bun Love

Lightly spiced Hot Cross Buns with orange juice-infused icing. Good morning to me.

Wow. This post is late. Really late. Easter was yesterday. I made these buns Saturday afternoon, with all good intentions of posting that night. But, as it often does, life got in the way. Specifically, a malfunctioning computer keyboard got in the way.
But here we are at last. All systems are go. Save this recipe for next Easter, if you must, or make any old time. There’s no good reason Hot Cross Buns can’t be enjoyed year-round.
I’ve always thought of Hot Cross Buns as old-fashioned, and rightfully so. An Easter tradition, bakers have been making them for centuries. In my mother’s house, when I was a child, the buns were store-bought. My mom was busy making a gigantic coconut cake in the shape of a rabbit, hiding eggs and baskets, and preparing an elaborate Easter dinner with lamb (or ham). Who had time to bake buns?
Well, I have time now. My Easter doings are minimal. There are no children about. No egg hunts. No elaborate dinners to prepare. No church. 
Over Easter weekend, I cleaned the house, walked with a friend, helped set up the badminton net, and thought about my mom. She died six years ago, a few days after Easter. I thought about the last meal she and I shared, Easter dinner (not knowing it would be our last). As it turned out, my mom didn’t want lamb. Or ham. Or fancy brunch. She was craving eggplant parmesan, so we had that.
But that’s another post, for another day. Back to the bun-age: lightly spiced and spotted with currants or raisins, Hot Cross Buns are a perfect brunch bun, coffee-talk bun, random walk-by-the-kitchen-and-feel-like-a-nosh bun. Really, they are good anytime.
I prefer my buns warm, though. If you’re faced with day-old buns, wrap them in aluminum foil and pop them in a warm oven for a few minutes.
Hot Cross Buns
(for Easter, for anytime)
1 package (1 ounce) active dry yeast
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 cup lukewarm water
3/4 cup lukewarm whole milk
3-3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon clove
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
6 tablespoons butter, melted
1 tablespoon orange zest, optional
1 cup currants or raisins
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon water
3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon orange juice
In large bowl, thoroughly mix yeast with milk, water, 1 tablespoon sugar and 1 cup of the flour. Set bowl in a warm place for a few minutes to get the yeast working. (I placed mine in a warm oven.) Mixture will become frothy.
Once the mixture is sponge-like, mix in 1/4 cup sugar, melted butter, salt and spices. Beat in eggs and vanilla.
Stir in currants (or raisins) and orange zest.
Add remaining flour, 1 cup at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon until a soft dough is formed.
Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and satiny, about 10 minutes (or knead using a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook on low speed for about 4-5 minutes).
Place dough in greased bowl, cover and let rise in warm place until double in size, about 1 1/2 hours.
Punch down dough (my favorite part) and knead for a minute or two.
Roll or shape/pat dough into a rectangle. Cut dough into 18 squares.
Place dough squares on greased baking sheet, evenly spaced, and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
When dough buns have doubled in size (after about 45 minutes), slash each bun with a cross using a sharp knife.
Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, beat egg yolk with water to make a wash.
Remove buns from oven. Brush with egg wash. Return to oven and bake another 10-12 minutes until golden brown.
Transfer buns to wire rack to cool. 
Mix confectioners’ sugar with OJ to make icing. Ice buns, following the lines of the cross.
Eat ’em up.

Dill: The Oft Neglected Herb

Dill and Onion Bread, fresh from the oven

I love dill, but I am not a faithful lover. In reality, I forget about its existence for months on end. It tends to take a backseat to the other herbs in my life: rosemary, thyme, basil, sage, cilantro … I neglect it. And then I regret it. And then I try to make up for my neglect by showering it with attention. It takes only one whiff of the weed to bring back savory memories of dill deliciousness: I love it in salads and with potatoes; mixed with sour cream as an impromptu dip or dressing for garden-fresh cucumbers; with fish; and kneaded into bread dough with its ever-faithful companion, onion.
This time of year, fresh dill is out of the question, in these parts anyway, but dried dill weed and dill seed have been lurking in the back of my cupboard for a while now, neglected but not completely forgotten. This weekend, wanting to take a gift to our Sunday dinner host who is trying to eschew the sweet stuff, I decided it was time for dill to shine. I baked off a loaf of old-school Dill and Onion Bread, then immediately regretted not making two so that we’d have one to scarf down at our house. Thankfully I had the presence of mind to bake another one this morning.
Dill- and onion-flecked dough is ready for its first rise.
Dill and Onion Bread
(eat as is, smeared with butter, or as sandwich bread)
1 (1/4-ounce) package active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1 cup low-fat cottage cheese, room temperature
2 tablespoons butter, melted
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2-2 1/2 teaspoons dill weed OR 2 teaspoons dill seed
1 tablespoon dried minced onion
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2-2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Dissolve yeast in water.
In large mixing bowl, or in bowl of stand mixer, combine yeast/water mixture with cottage cheese, melted butter, sugar, dill, onion, salt and baking soda.
Stir in 1 cup of flour, then gradually add more until dough begins to take shape. Knead in remaining flour, by hand or switch to stand mixer’s dough hook, to form a stiff dough.
Transfer to lightly greased bowl, cover with a clean towel, and let rise in warm place for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until dough has doubled in size.
Punch down dough, shape, and transfer to a loaf pan. Let rise again for about 45 minutes.
The dough, after its second rise
Preheat oven to 350 degrees (a few minutes before dough has finished its second rise).
Bake in preheated oven for 30-35 minutes.
Remove from pan and let cool completely on a wire rack before devouring.

Ubiquitous Banana Bread

Bananas and bittersweet

Despite the fact that banana bread and banana bread recipes seem to be everywhere, all the time, I will share mine here, if for no other reason than for the sake of full disclosure: I bake a batch of banana bread at least once a month, so how could I maintain a baking/random ramblings/food love blog without a banana bread post?
Not so attractive at this point

The man in my life eats a banana every morning. Bananas are tasty and good for you, after all. Still, he can’t keep up with supply, and several mushy bananas find themselves in the deep freeze awaiting their fate at the hands of my potato masher and 350-degree oven. Some end up in muffins, others in quick bread studded with bittersweet chocolate chunks.
So, if for some inexplicable reason you can’t find your own trusty, go-to banana bread recipe, have a go at this one. It makes four (4) mini-loaves, which I find more manageable than full-size loaves for our household of two.
Banana Bread with Bittersweet Chocolate Chunks
4 large over-ripe bananas, mashed
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk
1/3 cup plus 3 tablespoons oil
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
scant 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup bittersweet or semi-sweet chunks (feel free to add chopped walnuts or pecans, instead of or in combination with the chocolate)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease and flour baking tins (my mini-loaf pans are about 3 x 5 1/2 inches).
Whisk together dry ingredients. Set aside.
Mix mashed bananas with eggs, sugar and wet ingredients, combining thoroughly.
Fold wet ingredients and chocolate chunks into dry to combine, but don’t overwork your batter.
Fill prepared tins about 3/4 of the way and bake for 35-40 minutes.
Leave in pans to cool for about 5 minutes before transferring to wire rack to cool completely.
When cool, wrap in layer of plastic wrap and layer of aluminum foil. It’s best to leave them alone for about a day before scarfing. Also, these breads freeze well.
P.S. Some folks use mini-chocolate chips in their banana bread, if they use chocolate at all. This method is not for me. I like to go whole hog and prefer an infrequent burst of bittersweet to overabundant mini-chippage.

My Savory Valentine

Rosemary focaccia with garlic-infused olive oil, sea salt and a sprinkling of parm — soon to be pressed either side of grilled chicken, pesto and smoked gouda.

Not everyone has a sweet tooth. Not everyone likes chocolate. Not everyone raids the local CVS for 70-percent-off candy the day after Valentine’s, Easter, Halloween. 
People have told me these things. And while I don’t necessarily believe them, I play along. After all, my love of food has no borders — well, it may stop dead in its tracks faced with cauliflower, but even then it may be turned on if a nice Indian curry is brought into the mix — and my kitchen doings aren’t all about the sweet stuff. In that spirit, bolstered by the knowledge that I’ll be making a mile-high chocolate cream pie for Valentine’s Day, I played to all the savory teeth out there and baked off some rosemary focaccia with garlic-infused olive oil, sea salt and parmesan cheese.

Now, I do not claim to be a focaccia expert (though I’ve made it several times). My forefathers and mothers did not make focaccia in their Swedish, Irish and German kitchens (Well, maybe they did. Who am I to say?). But focaccia, my point is, has to be one of the easiest breads to make. And so satisfying. Not to mention amenable to any changes/additions your heart may desire or your pantry/fridge may necessitate (sea salt and olive oil may be all you want, but pancetta and caramelized onions have made their way onto my focaccia and I’ve never regretted their arrival). Have it your way. My way usually involves rosemary, because I have this wild thing taking over our home:
Yes, there is someone playing a Wii behind the rosemary.

At our house, we like to eat focaccia warm, fresh out of the oven; as the foundation of our sandwiches, slathered with pesto; or in hearty slabs while we contemplate what to make for dinner.

Rosemary Focaccia with Garlic-Infused Olive Oil, Sea Salt and Parm
(makes one 11×17-inch flatbread)
2 teaspoons granulated sugar or honey
1 cup plus 2-3 tablespoons warm water
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons instant dry yeast (see my rant about instant dry yeast — still not over it)
2-3 tablespoons olive oil (mine is infused with garlic, but regular is fine, of course — you can always rub the dough down with raw garlic or sprinkle it with granulated garlic, if that’s what you have handy)
generous shower of sea salt (to taste)
rosemary (to taste — I used 3-4 large sprigs), coarsely chopped
2-3 tablespoons freshly grated parmesan cheese

In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large mixing bowl), stir together the sugar, 3/4 cup water, 2 tablespoons olive oil and salt.

In a separate bowl, mix flour with instant dry yeast. Let sit for about 30 seconds.

Add flour/yeast combo in batches to other ingredients, alternating with remaining water, mixing as you go. Work it until dough neatly clears sides of the bowl.

Switch to dough hook and knead for about a minute (or knead by hand on lightly floured board).

Transfer dough to lightly oiled bowl, turning to coat. Cover with a damp cloth and let rise in a warm place for about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Lightly grease a baker’s half-sheet pan (11×17 inches).

Punch down dough, kneading briefly, then place it on the prepared pan, pressing and patting it to fill the pan.

Now the fun part: use your fingertips to make dimples (indentations) all over the dough. (I read online that some people actually have a kitchen tool called a “dimpler.” I love it for its name alone, but I won’t be buying one. My fingers are my dimpling agents.)

Brush dimpled dough with olive oil. Liberally sprinkle with sea salt, garlic, chopped rosemary and grated parmesan.

I am a lover of all things dimpled.

Bake in preheated oven for 12-15 minutes, rotating pan at the 7-minute mark.

Eat as is, warm from the oven, or as sandwich bread. (I couldn’t help myself and cut some of the flatbread into hearts, as seen in the opening photo, but I understand if that’s too adorable for you.)

Crazy for Cardamom

Voluptuous cardamom-y goodness.

Once upon a time, in a world far less perfect than the one I currently inhabit, I baked this bread only around the holidays. I’ve changed my ways. There’s no wrong time for cardamom bread. I made three loaves last week, and we (all two of us) have demolished them. 
Cardamom bread is a good idea anytime: as a snack with or without butter; for breakfast as is or made into French toast; in the middle of the night, hunkered over a loaf in the dark. And remember, coffee loves cardamom bread. And cardamom bread loves coffee.
It’s a simple braided bread. Ingredients are below. I’ll be back later to add my method.
Cardamom Bread (1 loaf)
3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into small chunks
1 large egg
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups all-purpose flour (I use King Arthur’s)
3-4 teaspoons ground cardamom (this is a matter of personal preference; if you have whole cardamom pods, use 4 or 5 pods — remove seeds from pods and crush with a rolling pin)
2 teaspoons yeast
1 large egg
1 tablespoon milk
a sprinkling of granulated sugar
It is now later.

(Truth time: I used instant dry yeast for this recipe. I had never used it before, so bear with me, but somehow the stuff ended up in our cart at a nearby wholesale warehouse establishment that will remain nameless. “Somehow” meaning that in my free-food-sample-induced craze while roaming the aisles, I blindly threw the jumbo pack into our otherwise well-thought-out mix of goods. And as it looks like instant dry yeast will be in my pantry for months, if not years, into the future, here’s to using it with a smile on my face.)
Combine butter cubes with milk and microwave for a minute (if no microwave, melt butter into milk in a saucepan over low heat). 
Add milk/butter combo to bowl of stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment along with 1 egg, sugar, salt, cardamom and 1 cup flour. Mix until combined.
In separate bowl, mix instant dry yeast with remaining 2 cups flour (for 30 seconds, according to the Fleischmann’s package).
With mixer running, gradually scoop flour/yeast mixture into other ingredients to combine.
Switch to the dough hook and knead on low for about 4-5 minutes (or knead by hand —much more rewarding).
Place dough in a greased bowl (a deep one) and cover with plastic. Leave to rise at room temperature for 45 minutes to 1 hour. (My house averages about 55 degrees, so I cheated and left my dough to rise in a warm oven.)

Divide dough into 3 parts and roll into ropes. Place on a baking sheet, cover with a cloth and let rest for about 10 minutes.
Braid the dough, then let rise (covered) for another 45 minutes.
Whisk 1 egg with 1 tablespoon milk to make glaze; brush over braid. Sprinkle sugar over top. (You will have leftover glaze; go glaze something else.)
Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 20 minutes or so. (Tap the bread with your finger; it is done when it sounds hollow.) 
Let cool completely on wire rack before slicing. 

(Gluttonous on occasion, never meaning any real harm, I sometimes convince myself that the bread is cool enough to have a go with me and my knife a wee bit prematurely. Nothing bad happens. We all enjoy ourselves.)