baking

Chestnut Flour Quick, Chestnut Flour Slow

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chestnutWith so many bakers exploring gluten-free options, here’s one to try: chestnut flour.  When this traditional Italian ingredient turned up in local markets recently (fall is the best season for the new crop of chestnut flour), it seemed an interesting alternative for cookies or pastries, like the crescents (a.k.a. Russian tea cookies, Mexican wedding cookies) in which chestnut pieces substitute so gloriously for pecans or walnuts.  (A note: we’re not talking about water chestnut flour here. That’s a totally differet animal).

So, admittedly, chestnut flour’s gluten-free properties weren’t even a factor until the idea of incorporating it into a yeast bread came to mind. Paleo bread recipes, common across the Internet, weren’t the ticket;  the search was on for a more rustic recipe in the Italian tradition.  Chestnut trees were once so  common in Italy that the flour was considered a downmarket ingredient, used in pasta, polenta, cakes and breads to cut the more precious wheat flour.

img_9527-chestnut-flourThat’s how it’s used in this recipe for Chestnut-Walnut Bread which needs some regular flour to develop the gluten, and thus structure. Chestnut flour’s naturally nutty, somewhat sweet character gives gives the bread an alluringly distinctive taste  in a loaf that bakes up with a tender, finely textured crumb —  denser than a typical wheat flour loaf, but not heavy.

On the other hand, chestnut flour’s natural properties make it a more a natural fit for quick breads, like this Chestnut-Chocolate Tea Bread that bakes up beautifully moist and tender.

Sweet Inspiration

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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.

Pie in the Sky

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Thanks, indeed for a beautiful, crisp and clear fall day for the first Thanksgiving at Kate’s first home. This year’s gathering of international and food-obsessed guests was reflected in the menu that blended traditional elements with the tastes of Mexico and the British Isles.

Here’s the menu:

 

  • Squash on Toast.  Amelia took this a step higher by making her own baguettes.
  • Crab and Artichoke Dip
  • Roast Turkey with Chipotle and Apple
  • Chestnut and Tart Apple Dressing
  • Potato-Tomatillo Gratin. A cooking class two days before Thanksgiving, and taught by the charming Eliza Gonzalez, inspired this dish. We took the potato filling from stuffed jalapenos — combining potatoes, garlic, tomatillos and ricotta cheese — and turned it into a gratin for the table (and potato pancakes the next day).
  • Braised Cabbage, with apples and clove.
  • Roasted Beets with Garlic and Cream.
  • Bread Sauce, another British Christmas favorite that was new to the table, a simple sauce heady with clove.
  • Cranberry Salsa with Chilies and Cilantro.
  • Green Bean Casserole. Yup, the delicious, old-school dish we know from childhood, complete with crispy canned onions on top.
  • Little Balls of Happiness (Julia Child’s Oignons Glacés a Blanc).
  • Mocha-Pecan Pie, now our gang’s traditional dessert.
  • Apple Tart. Listening to an NPR special on Julia Child gave us the idea to make an apple tart with souped-up apple flavor. She put fresh apples on homemade applesauce. We laid them over apple butter and brushed them with apple jelly. A tasting of the Genepi liqueur brought from a friend’s home region in France provide the inspiration for a glaze touched with that herbal Alpine liqueur.
  • Cranberry and Pear Hand Pies with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream.

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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!

The Velvet Truth

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Enough already. The out-of-control cupcake craze of the past few years has peaked, leaving a trail of overwrought treats in its wake (and the somewhat frightening prospect of a cupcake vending machine.) Perhaps the most collateral damage has been done to the reputation of the Red Velvet Cake, touted by many bakeries as the ultimate variety, the cupcake supreme. But an office celebration a couple of weeks ago, with cupcakes from one of New York’s most famous purveyors, provided the sorriest sample to date: a Red Velvet cupcake that was so red it looked like it was bleeding, with a hefty dollop of frosting that tasting like slightly sweetened Crisco. “I don’t get it,” one taster said. “Why are people so crazy about Red Velvet?”

To set the record straight about why the Red Velvet Cake/Cupcake is so beloved, we baked up a batch using an old-fashioned recipe via the Waldorf Astoria, and offered some words of wisdom on the side:

  • Yes, a Red Velvet Cake is a chocolate cake, a butter velvet cake recipe that results in a finely textured crumb, incorporating cocoa for a light, chocolately flavor.
  • No, a Red Velvet Cake does not have to be neon red in color. The reaction between buttermilk, vinegar and cocoa in the original recipes gave the cake a reddish-brown tinge, and subsequent recipes began to add red food coloring to emphasize the idea of a devil’s food cake. But newer recipes have bumped up the food coloring to absurd amounts, with some calling for an entire bottle of red color. Who really wants to consume that much food coloring?
  • Yes, there are chocolate cake recipes with beets (which do lend color and moisture) but Red Velvet is not one of them, no matter how much the girls consuming all those cupcakes  might want to think they are getting some nutrition. (Ok, we’ll concede that beets were used during World War II, when food dyes were scarce.)
  • No, a Red Velvet Cake does not always have cream cheese frosting. Original recipes call for an unusual cooked, French butter roux icing, called ermine icing,  that isn’t very sweet. It mimics the lightness of whipped cream, but holds up better without refrigeration, and provides a lovely counterpoint to the chocolate cake.
  • Yes, cream cheese frosting is an option. But to my point of view, it’s a heavy-handed topping. Do give the ermine icing a try.  More than one of those tasting the old-fashioned version after that blood-red commercial cupcake were convinced that they’d eaten cream cheese frosting.
  • Yes, tasters will be delighted, almost childlike in their enthusiasm. A sampling of comments: “This is Red Velvet Cake? I’ve never had one like this.” “It’s so light. It’s not too sweet.” “I don’t have that weird chemical feeling I usually have when I eat Red Velvet cake. This is so much better.”


We feel better too, having launched this salvo into the cupcake war.

WALDORF ASTORIA RED VELVET CAKE

Cooking with Gas

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Hallelujah! My oven works!

My forst foray into baking with my new (to me) gas oven was a tasty melange of almond flour, whole wheat flour, corn meal, apples and the requisite pound of butter. Yum. Simple, crispy on top, oddly light given its contents, and very moist, this single-layer cake improved with age as flavors melded.

The recipe for this butter cake made the Los Angeles Times’ “10 best” list for 2011. I don’t know if it makes my top 10 for the year–probably because I think it needs a hit of ginger or almond flavoring or cardamom–but it was mighty good.  And it will definitely find a place in the brunch rotation here.

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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