Project Wonderful

Monday, March 17, 2014

Irish Soda Bread

St. Patrick's Day is upon us here at the pillow fort, and we follow a traditional Irish meal of corned beef, cabbage and soda bread.

The corned beef and cabbage were just tossed in the slow cooker with enough water to cover everything and some beer. Traditionally I would use Guinness, but having none at hand, I went with a bottle of Shiner Bock. After all, this is Texas and you have to inject some Texas flavor in everything you cook. I think it's in a rule book somewhere.

Soda bread is a type of "quick bread" that uses baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) instead of yeast to make the bread rise. This recipe uses buttermilk, and for a couple of reasons: 1, the baking soda reacts with the lactic acid of the buttermilk to make bubbles which helps to give the bread a light, tender consistency. And 2, it's awesome for flavor.

Fair warning: If you've never worked with buttermilk, you would swear it's just nasty, spoiled milk. It's thick, clumpy and not something you'd want to drink. But for baking, this, my friends, is the nectar of the gods. Buttermilk is one of those little secret ingredients in baking that will make whatever you bake with it stand out from the rest. Trust me: it's awesome.  

Don't have buttermilk? No worries! You can easily make it at home with milk and lemon juice. Just mix one cup of milk (whole or heavy cream work best) with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and let it stand for 5-10 minutes. The lemon juice curdles the milk - which, as gross as this may sound - is what actually makes this recipe work great for baking. 

This soda bread recipe is probably one of the easier breads to make. It doesn't take much work and you don't need to let the dough rise, knock it down, then let it rise again like typical yeast breads. Total time from start to finish is about 2 hours. 

So roll up your sleeves and let's bake some bread!

4 cups all-purpose flour
4 Tbs granulated sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 Tbs baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg
1/2 cup dried currants (or raisins)
1/4 cup butter, melted
1/4 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 375º F. 

Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper. 

In a large bowl, mix together flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt and softened butter. 

Stir in 1 cup of buttermilk, the egg and the currants. It will be dry, slightly clumpy and a mess. Resist the urge to add more milk or liquid to the mix. This is the consistency you want. Seriously. 

Dump the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead slightly, just enough to get all the ingredients to combine. Any more kneading will only make for tough, heavy bread. 

Form the dough into a round and place on the baking sheet. 

Use a sharp knife to cut an 'X' into the top of the loaf. Some people say this is supposed to be a cross for a reminder of Christ or something. BALDERDASH. Cutting an X into the dough helps it to expand and rise when baking. That's all. Plus it looks cool.

In a small bowl, combine 1/4 cup melted butter with 1/4 cup buttermilk and brush the loaf with this mixture. You will have a lot left over. This is OK. Just brush the loaf with the buttermilk mixture as it bakes.

Bake in preheated oven until a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean, about 45 to 50 minutes, but check for doneness after 30 minutes. 

Brush any of the leftover buttermilk/ butter mixture on the loaf as it cools. 


Monday, March 3, 2014

Apple Goat Cheese King Cake

The other day I posted a recipe for a traditional king cake to share with office workers in the weeks before Mardi Gras. Most king cakes are a fairly simple, albeit a somewhat time-consuming endeavor: A sweet dough, rolled with cinnamon and pralines and doused in multi-colored sugary goo. Which is not to say that this isn't fantastic! But since tomorrow is Mardi Gras, I figured I should pull out all the stops and share a recipe for a king cake that truly tips the scales of decadent. If you really want to kick your Mardi Gras party up a notch, you have got to give this one a try.

On Chartres Street in New Orleans, just a few blocks away from Washington Square, there's a tiny little bakery called New Orleans Cake Cafe. Right about now, owner and head baker Steve Himelfarb and his crew are working overtime to meet demand for this, their signature cake. They make over 100 of these incredible confections per day as Mardi Gras draws near and the cakes go quick.

My recipe is a tip of the hat to Cake Cafe's wonderful creation, and if you are looking for a way to up your baking cred, this one will have people begging you to bring it to the Mardi Gras parties every year.

This recipe makes one seriously awesome king cake:

1/2 cup milk
2 Tbs. butter
1 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast (or 2 1/4 tsp)
1/3 cup warm water (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
3/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. apple pie spice
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2-3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 (8-oz.) package cream cheese
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 pinch salt (about 1/16th of a teaspoon)
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
8 oz crumbled goat cheese
1 large or 2 small Granny Smith apples, cored and sliced

1 cup powdered sugar
1 Tbs. spiced rum
Green, yellow and purple sugar sprinkles
Toy baby

To make the pastry:
Scald the milk as I described in my previous king cake recipe, remove from the heat and stir in 2 tablespoons of butter. Allow this mixture to cool to room temperature. 

Dissolve the yeast  in 110º  water with 2 teaspoons of the white sugar in a large bowl. Stir gently and let stand until the yeast starts to bubble and look creamy, about 5 - 10 minutes.

When yeast mixture is bubbling, add the cooled milk mixture. Whisk in the egg and stir in the remaining white sugar, salt and pie spice. Beat the flour into the mixture 1 cup at a time. The dough is going to look crumbly and dry, but work it with your hands to get everything incorporated. When the dough starts coming together, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it until it's smooth and elastic, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Spray a large bowl with a good cooking spray, place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat it. Cover with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm place for two hours. A good suggestion would be to pre-heat the oven to "warm," then turn it off, put the dough in the oven, and turn on the oven light. This provides the perfect environment for the dough to rise.  

To make the filling:
Add the cream cheese, sugar, salt and vanilla extract to a medium sized bowl. With a hand mixer, (or if you are one of the cool people that have splurged and bought a stand mixer) beat the ingredients on high speed until everything is fully combined. Initially, it's going to clump and not do much of anything, but after a few seconds the cheese will start to soften and suddenly it will all come together. After about two minutes, set this aside.

In a separate bowl, stir together the brown sugar and cinnamon, and set aside.

When the dough is ready, preheat oven to 375º  and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

Roll the dough into a large rectangle about 8-10 inches wide and about 18 inches long.

Spread the cream cheese and sugar mixture evenly across the entire surface, then sprinkle the goat cheese crumbles over the cream cheese. You can use regular goat cheese if you want, but the crumbled stuff is so much easier to work with and covers the dough nicer. 

Lay the apple slices evenly down the center of the dough and sprinkle them with the cinnamon and sugar mixture.

Now the tricky part:
Fold the dough over the filling. To do this, take the front 1/3rd of the dough lengthwise and pull it to the center. Then take the back 1/3rd of the dough and pull it to the center too. Press the edges together to seal everything in. 

Gently roll the dough into a tube shape, being careful not to have the apples pierce the dough. Transfer the dough to the baking sheet and bring the ends around, pinching them together to form an oval shape. 

Here's a little trick:
When the dough is ready, place it on the oven rack in the pre-heated oven WITH THE DOOR OPEN for 3-5 minutes. This will give the dough a second rise, making it much more light and airy when it's finished. You don't have to do this, but its the little things like this that will really set the cake apart from the store-bought stuff.  

After 5 minutes, close the door and bake for about 35-40 minutes. You'll want to keep checking it to make sure that it doesn't over-cook. You're looking for a nice even golden color across the top of the cake.

When it's ready, pull it out and let it cool a bit, then carefully lift up the cake and insert the toy baby from underneath. 

To make the icing: 
Mix the cup of powdered sugar with the tablespoon of spiced rum until it's syrupy and pour-able. Drizzle this glaze over the top of the cake and, while its still wet, shake on the colored sprinkles.

We don't go for presentation too much here at the pillow fort, so I just served the cake as-is, on the parchment paper and used the baking sheet to support it. You will have curious fingers scooping up the pool of molten sugar and cheese that congeals at the base of the cake, but that will help tease people until the cake is ready to be served. 

BTW, you'll notice in the photo below that there's a plastic rooster in the center of the cake. I ran out of babies, so we decided to call this a "king cock."  Uh, you may not want to use that name.

This cake is amazing. The flavors combine together so nicely and while it is very sweet, the goat cheese adds a nice bit of tanginess that works great with the apples. It's a winner.

And if you're ever in Nola, go to Cake Cafe and give the folks there my regards.


Cake Cafe Photo credit, Jeffery Johnston,