Bierock and Roll

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Sliced bierockStandard football-watching food in Nebraska and Kansas–a beef and cabbage-filled pocket sandwich called a bierock–comes courtesy of the German immigrants who settled the plains and their ancestors, including my family, who kept the tradition alive.

The bierock’s modest ingredients and homey appearance belie how tasty it is, especially with a dab of horseradish sauce on every bite. The basic yeast dough, enriched with butter and eggs, folds around the three- to four-ingredient filling (if you stick to tradition). Baked to a golden brown, brushed with melted butter, a bierock straight out of the oven reveals steamy deliciousness.  And it is a heck of a lot better than delivery pizza at any party.

The Kings and I

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Rosca de Reyes - sliceChristmas may be a hazy, food-coma hangover, but that does not mean pastry season is over. Indeed, today we have entered King Cake time, the weeks between Epiphany and Mardi Gras–the last night before Lent and its prescription of 40 days of restraint.

In the United States, New Orleans has made King Cake synonymous with Mardi Gras. Named for the visit of the three Magi to the newborn Christ child, the cake comes in so many variations that one needs a few weeks just to fully enjoy them all. It can take the shape of a cinnamon-scented ring of bread sparsely dotted with candied fruit (Spain and Latin America) or an almond-paste-filled circle of layered puff pastry (France). One commonality is a buried trinket–a plastic or ceramic baby figurine or a dried bean to symbolize the infant Jesus–which bestows various honors upon the person who gets the item in her or his slice. Mexico, where I first encountered the bread, has my favorite tradition: The person who wins the baby has to make tamales for everyone on Candlemas, February 2.

Mexico’s cake, rosca de reyes, is a vaguely sweet yeast bread (akin to pan de muerto), formed into a ring and finished with a sugar topping that may also include candied fruit and/or nuts. It is tasty–and lovely with a cup of coffee for breakfast. However, I like my desserts sweeter and have long been drawn to the French version (galette des rois) and its layers of sweet almond filling.

So I pulled together a hybrid to celebrate Día de Reyes, a basic sweet dough filled with a rough almond paste, rolled like cinnamon rolls, shaped and baked into a ring, and glazed when cool with almond icing. I just might call it a rosca des rois.

Bring Out Yer Bread

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It may look like Halloween, but the concept behind Mexico’s Días de los Muertos—for all of its skeleton decorations, sugar-covered skulls and cemetery visits—could not be further from our evening of witches and candy overload. Rather this festival, a mix of pre-Columbian and Catholic traditions marked November 1–2 (All Saints and All Souls Days), is a celebration of ancestors, a national memorial day to the dead.

And like so many Mexican festivals, it cannot be celebrated without food.

The Day of the Dead inspires fanciful and abundant baking, specifically of pan de muerto, a slightly sweet, decorated yeast bread enriched with butter, milk and eggs.  Traditionally baked as a boule, decorated with “bones” and liberally covered with sugar, the bread may also take the shape of skulls or animals. And depending on the baker, it may be orange, cinnamon, nutmeg or anise scented.

Think brioche with a sense of whimsy.

Some recipes call for a slow-rising sponge or other complicated procedures. I do a simplified version of the bread, building on several recipes and using instant yeast, which requires no proofing or dissolving. The key here is to be prepared with room-temperature ingredients and warm milk so the yeast can grow.

The final product is a beautiful yellow loaf with a soft texture and large crumb, perfect for snacking (especially with a steaming cup of Mexican hot chocolate) or as a foundation for French toast—and both a worthy offering to the ancestors as well as a source of comfort to the living (especially straight out of the oven).

UPDATE: Here’s a great pictorial from NPR on the Day of the Dead!

Turkish Delight

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I made every attempt to eat my weight in pastries on a recent trip to Istanbul. Sadly, I did not get to try everything. But I left with a new, minor obsession for a tiny breakfast bread served at my hotel–three bites of soft dough rolled with a sweet tahini filling and covered with finely chopped pistachios.

I am happily immersed in attempting to recreate it.  And while my first attempt was yummy–and close to the original–the end result was not quite exact.

What I am attempting to make may very well be this bread, perhaps just made into small pieces (all the better for package tourists to fill their pockets for the day ahead). The bread also reminded me of povitica / potica  – another nut-filled and rolled bread of Eastern European origin, with the swirls facing sideways instead of upward (as they do with a traditional cinnamon roll).

My first crack at this started with my usual sweet dough recipe, which I stretched then rolled with a tahini filling (1 cup tahini, 1 cup of sugar and a few pats of butter, maybe three tablespoons, melted). I divided the dough into four parts (as if I were making mini cinnamon rolls). The aesthetics were not quite there–cut too large, maybe, or the dough rolled too thickly. The taste was pretty close, though.

I’ll let you know when I hit the mark–which will probably involve a little less yeast and more stretching. But if you are hankering for a new taste at brunch, try the tahini filling in lieu of cinnamon/butter/sugar in cinnamon rolls. It’s delish — nutty, creamy and sweet.

Bread, Fast and Slow

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Easter and the beginning of Passover coincide this weekend, which presents an opportunity to reprise experiments in bread both leavened and unleavened.

A lesson in povitica

Mamma, matzoh!

Long Live the King!

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The weather outside says deep freeze but, inside the house, the iPod pumps tropical music, the oven warms the kitchen, and the smell of cinnamon signals my brain to get out of the winter funk and to laissez les bons temps rouler.

It’s Mardi Gras season, y’all. And while nothing is as good as being in the Crescent City with friends (preferably with a plateful of barbecued shrimp at hand and the hurricanes a flowing), a reasonable substitute is to join the party vicariously—and take a big bite out of one of NOLA’s iconic foods: the king cake.

New Orleans’ bakeries do a mean mail-order business in king cakes this time of year. But—and to some this will be heresy—one can make a delicious (and, I dare say, an even superior) version at home.  

While technique varies, the NOLA cake—a Technicolor version of a traditional pre-Lenten bread made, with some variations, across Catholic communities around the world from Twelfth Night through Epiphany—is essentially a buttery yeast dough filled with cinnamon, formed into a ring shape, finished with a sugary glaze and baked with a hidden “baby Jesus,” in the form of a ceramic baby trinket, bean or pecan, inside. The NOLA version is ramped up with green, gold and purple frosting and/or sugar, usually in over-the-top amounts.

For my first cake of the season, I went with the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s recipe, printed in its post-Hurricane Katrina cookbook, Cooking up a Storm. It called for rolling and filling the dough cinnamon-roll style, then slashing the bread open lengthwise before baking. This exposes the brown sugar and butter to the oven’s heat, giving the cake a great crunch. To finish, I drizzled the top with white glaze, flavored with almond, and followed with a gentle sprinkling of green, gold and purple sugars.

This was: So. Damn. Good. 

Someone get over here and either help me eat or stop me. I fully intend to spend the next nine days testing other versions! 



Savory, My Sweet

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A couple of years ago, looking up my grandparents Croatian villages on Google Maps (amazingly, yes, there were there!), I discovered that they were located so far north and west in that country as to be practically in Slovenia. Grandpa’s  town was a literal stone’s throw across the river separating the two countries.

Which probably goes to explain my affinity for Kate’s former upstairs neighbors, the charming Bojan and Mateja Kavaš, Slovenian nationals who have been stationed in in D.C. at their embassy; we’re practically kissin’ cousins. And Mateja has shared her family’s own wonderful recipes, like potica, that are virtual twins of those handed down in my family (where it’s known as povitica).

But Mateja’s city sophistication always shows in her culinary daring and unusual variations. Like the Prekmurska Gibanica she brought to last year’s Thanksgiving dinner, a marvel of layers alternating strudel pastry with nuts, apples, poppy seeds and cheese.

This year, her contribution of a potica filled with mascarpone and tarragon graced the Thanksgiving table and it was a revelation. I’ve had lots of cheese potica/povitica made with a sweetened cream cheese filling, but employing mascarpone takes it to another level altogether, while fresh tarragon is a clean, light touch that never would have occurred. It  lightens up the sometimes heavy bread, and takes it away from being strictly a dessert item.

Here’s the  step by step, courtesy of Mateja. Photos by Bojan.

The secret ingredient
Fresh tarragon tops the cheese filling.
Wrapped and rolled, using a tablecloth to shape.
Airy oval givees the bread room to rise.
Bake until golden, with a gloss of beaten egg.

Beyond Pumpkin Pie

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This year’s Thanksgiving feast chez Kate focused on new combinations of  traditional ingredients. Case in point: to liven up the pumpkin portion of the meal, Kate served up fresh-baked Slow-Rising Pumpkin-Thyme Dinner Rolls. Warm from the oven, they were a lovely way to start the dinner, spread with some Cheddar-Cava Spread and a glass of sparkling Chevalier Cremant de Bourgogne.

Alongside the Roasted Turkey.

Pumpkin made a final appearance in the form of Ginger-Pumpkin Cheese Tart, spiced up with a cheesecake-style filling, fresh ginger and gingersnap crust, along with the can’t-do-without Mocha Pecan Pie. Simplify the latter recipe a bit by using the pie crust recipe of your choice and basic whipped cream; the filling itself shines by cutting the usual toothache-inducing sweetness of pecan pie through addition of espresso and cocoa.

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Let It Snow

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Serendipity can change a nasty wintery day—in OCTOBER, no less!—into an incredibly civilized and warm afternoon, one for the memory books for its sheer comfort and camaraderie. So much so that I could almost forget the bad omen of snow in DC in early fall: I am still mourning summer and have yet to accept autumn.

Luckily, I have highly talented friends who can adapt to prevailing conditions (we are all international disaster responders, after all). Given the forecast, we skipped the planned road trip to Maryland and opted for a cooking day in. Our Plan B, originally to simply make sweet rolls, turned into a candle-lit luncheon featuring a rich, boursin-laden zucchini velouté soup with a side of whole wheat herb rolls… all on the fly, from scratch and so casual that I almost was so distracted by the result that I lost sight of the cold and darkness that lies ahead—but also knew there was hope.

Our French friend, Sophie, arrived with a sack of cheeses, zucchini, parsley and garlic. (Really, who does not need a French friend?) In no time, she had whipped up a quintessential velouté de courgettes au boursin: a quick soup, garlickly and creamy (with no cream), thickened with plenty of boursin cheese. It tasted and smelled green, like summer, with enough thickness and garlic to ward off winter. And vampires.

As Sophie was chopping squash, we pulled together herb rolls—whole wheat, upon request, riffing on a KitchenAid recipe—laden with a super-fresh Slovenian herb blend (marjoram, thyme, rosemary and wild oregano) that, slathered with the Amish salted butter  I recently brought home from our West Virginia sojourn, added richness and balance to our very healthy main dish.  

As we leisurely ate, we watched the afternoon and thick snowflakes wane, warmed and comforted by the three major food groups—soup, bread and wine—and the knowledge that we could ward off the winter with food and friends.

Springing Into the Season

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To introduce ourselves to Baltimore, Three Points Kitchen threw its second real-world, y’all-come-on-over event this past Sunday. Friends from far and near were kind enough to stop by and sample our kitchen’s offerings.

It was a Mad Hatter Tea Party of sorts, celebrating the arrival of the fresh produce of the season–bright pea and mint soup, roasted rhubarb, pencil-thin asparagus with wasabi dressing, duck egg salad on slices of warm baguette fresh from the oven, and radishes, baby greens, and homemade lemon butter slathered over just-baked rye bread. Plus sweets worthy of the Queen of Hearts, if we do say so ourselves.

We stopped just shy of breaking out the croquet mallets. The local Waverly Farmers Market provided most of the produce, including beautiful strawberries from the Eastern Shore that we topped with a St. Germaine Crème Anglaise. And just a few minutes shy of closing, the always-friendly staff at the Wine Source helped us procure all the parts of the Light Guard Punch we served alongside a watermelon lemonade for the abstainers in the crowd.

Want to try out what we ate? Here are a few of the recipes (if you have questions, just post ‘em in the comments):

Chilled English Pea-Mint Soup

(N.B.: If you have 2 pints of heavy cream, you can make your own butter and use the remaining buttermilk to make this soup. It’s foodie pretension taken to the limit, but also incredibly satisfying kitchen crafting. If you don’t gloat too much about it, it’s really just 100% tasty.)

Asparagus with Wasabi-Mayonnaise Dip

Cornmeal Parmesan and Poppy Seed Crackers

French(ish) Baguettes

Graham Crackers

Rye Bread

Braided Lemon Bread

Spinach and Mushroom Phyllo Dough Triangles

Rhubarb Penuche Tart

Tiger Tea Cakes

St. Germaine Crème Anglaise

Light Guard Punch

Watermelon Lemonade

And finally, this post gave me the idea to embed a peony in a block of ice to float in the punch–a highly recommended decorative touch. Wish I had gotten a photo snap before it melted away.