Sweet Inspiration

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povitica w pistachios (1)

I know, I know, povitica/potica has made a few appearances here at Three Points Kitchen. But the Eastern European nut bread is a family holiday tradition, especially as part of the Easter basket and subsequent dinner. But part of the fun of baking comes from where experimentation and exploration can take you.

OK, sometimes innovation is a matter of necessity. Arriving in D.C. for Kate’s annual Easter feast, I realized I’d forgotten the walnuts needed for the traditional povitica filling. Kate suggested substituting pistachios from a stash she had on hand. My mother would not have approved (she barely tolerated the cheese filling option that is also traditional), but our revolutionary idea proved relevatory. Swapping out ground pistachios for the same amount of walnuts in the basic recipe, keeping the cinnamon and adding a touch of almond extract, took this batch of povitica to a delicious new place. The Turkish turn  it took seemed entirely in keeping with the culinary influences found throughout states of the former Yugoslavia from where our family recipe hails, and the swirl of green pistachio filling lent a springtime touch.

Sorry mom, but this one’s a keeper.  Try the recipe here.


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!