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.

Corn Bread vs. Cornbread

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Corn bread or cornbread?
Corn bread or cornbread?

Over the years a vendor at the local farmer’s market has occasionally offered a corn bread. Not a cornbread, the often sweet quick bread, but a yeast bread with some cornmeal added to the dough that was baked into a round loaf. During the summer it made a marvelous BLT. But its appearance was sporadic, and I hadn’t seen it in quite awhile. Or thought much about it. Until a trip to Slovenia, where, lo and behold, a yeast-raised corn bread was part of the bread basket wherever we went. Toasted, it was fabulous for breakfast, with a drizzle of honey.

Sure, cornbread, that American staple, is a great option to accompany chili, stews and other hearty winter fare. But you really ought to give corn bread a try. 

Two favorites for a Corn Bread/Cornbread Throwdown: 

Maple Cornbread: Via King Arthur Flour, a ,moist easy-as-pie recipe that smells heavenly when baking, thanks to a touch of maple syrup.

Rhode Island Corn Bread: From the Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant cookbook. The name says New England, but this recipe captures the taste of those wonderful Slovenian bread baskets.

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!

Bless This House

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Bread, that this house may never know hunger. Salt, that life may always have flavor. And wine, that joy and prosperity may reign forever.

I’m not sure how the tradition of bringing bread, salt, and wine as a housewarming gift got started among my highly transient cohort (I guess, like most people, we heard it one too many times during the annual Christmas screening of It’s a Wonderful Life). Regardless, two sets of wonderful Baltimore friends made moves at the end of April, so I cracked open Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice yesterday and got to work on a couple of challah loaves to celebrate these new homes.

Like all traditions, variations pop up. I just came across a version that substitutes a new broom for the wine, “to sweep your troubles or sorrows away,” which sounds both poetic and practical. Honestly, with friend’s like mine, I’d always thought we had added the wine part on ourselves (along with a nice cheese and a container of olives, of course).

Cuckoo for Coco Bread

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The best cure for a wintery mix—weather-speak for wet, cold, sloppy misery from the sky and DC’s current forecast—is a tropical diversion. If I could get on a plane headed south this second, I would. Alas, my accursed responsibility gene is keeping me from the sun-delivered Vitamin D, ridiculously sweet cocktails and tropical-fruit-laden foods of the Caribbean that I so obsessively crave. Recreating my favorites at home, then, seems to be my best, current option.

When I was in Roatán, Honduras, a century ago (read: 1.5 years), we greeted morning every day at one of the many laid-back food joints lining the turquoise water at Half Moon Bay. The breakfasts themselves were unspectacular—except for a delicious, toasted bread that came with every meal. We raved about it to our unimpressed wait staff. They told us, “It’s just bread.” The look on their face said, “Ridiculous gringas.”

But it wasn’t just bread. It was airy, cakey, with a large crumb and, while not sweet, definitely had something more going on than water, flour and yeast.  We asked and asked for a recipe or at least the secret ingredient. Finally, some poor woman took pity on us and let on that it was made of coconut.

Honduran pan de coco is a staple on the Bay Islands and, if my research holds, the brainchild of the Garífuna people who inhabit the area. It is bread, not pound cake, with flour and yeast transformed by unsweetened shredded coconut and/or coconut milk. (The recipe, like any staple handed down over time, varies on this and other points.) The coconut neither overwhelms nor weighs down what is definitely a white bread—a slice of which will make the best toast you’ll ever eat. Slathered with butter, it has changed my latitude.

Meanwhile, speaking of tropical drinks, the poison of choice on Roatán is the Monkey La La. Sweet enough to crack your teeth, it is the house specialty at the Sundowner, despite frequent island power outages. (The La La allegedly contains ice cream.) Try at your own risk and plan on a hearty breakfast–with pan de coco!–to soak up your sins and bring your glucose down to a more reasonable level.

Miles To Go

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I feel as if I’m getting to the point in my bread-making experience where I’ve done just enough to know how very far I have yet to go before I’m really good at it. I take some small comfort in the idea that, having learned to play the violin as a child, the patience to pursue this slow curve is already trained into my hands. Here’s hoping the muscle memory kicks in as easily as it did when I was ten.

Feeling confident but not yet cocky about my basic country loaf, for try #4 out of the Tartine bread book I decided to mix it up just a bit and do a run of the baguette recipe using the fendu shape (also the version that appears on the cover of the book, I believe). In the end, I got bread alright, and plenty of it, but I also learned a lot of things. While nothing I did destroyed the end product, I think it will be a lot better next time when I mix the initial dough a bit more carefully (myself and my available bowls were overwhelmed by the sheer weight and volume of dough on the table) and, now that I have a a better feel for the flour and crease shape, I think I have a clearer understanding of how to get the correct look from the final loaf. Alas, I’ll just have to do it again. And again. Not to mention start purchasing flour in the large burlap-sack size.

I used to get seriously distressed when recipes didn’t work for me the first time out, and yet I have trouble following instructions to the letter. I learned to play music by ear and I find myself cooking more by picture and smell and feel than by any amount of typed direction. The more comfortable I get in my kitchen, the more value I place on making time to practice and play around with what I’m doing so that I’m actually learning something for the takeaway–risking mistakes for the chance of stumbling onto something more personally satisfying. It doesn’t make the occasional complete failure  any less frustrating, but I’m just starting to understand that I’ve been in this place before.

Whip It Good

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With all the fresh bread hanging around my kitchen these days, my mind often strays to toast. So when I happened to catch a video online outlining how to turn a pint of heavy cream into fresh butter (plus a cup of leftover buttermilk, should you want to, say, crack out a nice soda bread to go with it) I couldn’t stop myself. Oh, did I just cross a line into DIY craziness there? I didn’t feel a thing.

There are many posts out there in blogland already covering this simple transformation, and quite a few of them advocate simply pouring a bit of cream into a jar and conscripting one’s children to shake said container until butter results. I, having no such servants on hand, went straight to the stand mixer. As long as you cover  the open area between the bowl the mixing arm with plastic, this seems to me to be the way to go. (I was warned that skipping this prophylactic step could result in the need to clean spaces in your kitchen that you did not previously know existed, so fair warning.)

With only a switch to turn on and off, the production was painless and entertaining to watch (if you’re onto that kind of thing). A good rinse of the resulting butter in ice water and a massaging in of a pinch of salt resulted in a delectable topping for my second try at the Tartine bread recipe.