Family Reunion Baking

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Everyone bakes when they are getting ready for a family reunion, right? I know the first thing I think of, even before deciding what to pack, is what I am going to bake. I suspect I might be blackballed if I showed up without at least some baked treats. In fact, this year, one of my aunts called me last weekend to ask what I was bringing. One of my cousins (grown, mind you) wanted to know what I was baking so he could start anticipating. High praise, in any book.

When I was in high school I started baking cookies a week ahead of time so we would have enough for the long reunion weekend. Everyone loved the cookies, but they moaned about all the calories, usually as they were eating another one. I only baked a few the next year, so everyone wouldn’t be tempted. And I was greeted with a chorus of disappointment when I showed up without the cookies. You just can’t win sometimes!

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This year I am taking chocolate oat bars and oatmeal chocolate chip cookie bars. At least the oatmeal chocolate chip bars are semi-healthy – or a little less unhealthy. I am also taking a lemon variation of my whole wheat zucchini muffins (recipe coming soon). I needed to use up some of last year’s frozen produce to make room for this year’s and a double batch of muffins took care of two bags of grated zucchini. On that same note I am taking some of last year’s frozen peaches to make into peach cobbler after we get there. Nothing beats warm peach cobbler, and it isn’t exactly a good traveler.

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I am skipping the huge batch of bread this year – the one that popped the top off its container while it was rising and then baked up into four huge loaves of bread. I figured I could do without a repeat of that adventure. Instead I am taking a homemade mix for hamburger buns. We are arriving a couple of days before the big reunion dinner, so I am waiting to bake the buns there to make sure they will be as fresh as possible.

Now that the baking is done and everything is in the freezer, waiting to go in the car at the last minute, I can think about packing. Priorities, you know.

Homemade Hamburger Buns

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Spring is coming! At least I think it is. It is still mighty chilly here in St. Louis. We have had a few teases of warm weather, but not as many as usual. The leaves on the trees are still no-shows, though the daffodils and crocuses are blooming. Grilling season is coming, which means I will start making hamburgers buns again. I didn’t actually stop over the winter, but we filled them with deli meat or tuna, which I guess makes them sandwich buns instead of hamburger buns.

Homemade buns leave mass-produced buns in the dust – this recipe makes slightly sweet, soft, yeasty buns with none of the too squishy texture store buns sometimes have. Never baked with yeast you say? You can do it. Repeat after me, “Yeast is not scary.” Say it again. Then pick up a strip of yeast packets at the store (and flour if you never bake) and start mixing. You can do it. And you won’t be sorry.

I have to admit, I baked bread for years before I ever thought to make my own hamburger buns. I made bread, cinnamon rolls, bagels, dinner rolls and pizza crust, but never hamburger buns. Now I almost always make our buns. They are that good. And not just for hamburgers, either. Homemade buns raise a humble turkey and cheese or tuna sandwich from ordinary to knock your socks off delicious.

The original recipe is from a fellow member of King Arthur Flour’s online baking forum, The Baking Circle. If you have time, check out the forum. It is a great place to get baking tips, ask questions and share recipes.The original poster’s screen name was Moomie and she came up with the recipe for her bread machine. I further adapted it for hand mixing or a stand mixer. And then I kept changing it. Thanks, Moomie, for the recipe and for free rein to tinker with it.

I have figured out a few tricks after mixing up many, many buns. First of all, make the buns really, really flat when you are shaping them. Otherwise you will end up with small, tall buns, which make sandwiches that require you to unhinge your jaw to bite. They rise after shaping, and they will rise a bit in the oven too, so make them flat. Did I mention flattening the buns?

It also doesn’t matter if the buns touch after rising. You want the sides soft. And commercial buns are usually connected at the sides anyway.

You can make the buns with white flour or whole wheat flour (or any other whole grain flour, for that matter). I make just about everything whole wheat, and the buns are no exception. The original recipe called for only all-purpose flour, but I have tinkered with the technique to make them whole wheat without sacrificing taste or texture.

The first whole grain secret is to use white whole wheat flour. Check my post on whole grain flour to get the full scoop. The second secret is to use milk instead of water. Milk makes a softer bun, no matter if you are making them whole grain or not. Finally, give the whole wheat flour time to absorb the moisture in the dough. This is as simple as mixing up the dough using part of the flour, and letting it sit, covered, for fifteen minutes. After the rest period the whole wheat flour will have absorbed some of the liquid, making it less likely that you will add too much flour during mixing or kneading. Especially with whole grain baking you need to be careful with the flour or you will end up with heavy, dry baked goods.

Because the dough is so soft, it will probably stick to your hands a bit as you start to knead. If you have a bench knife, dough scraper or even a regular rubber spatula, you can use it in one hand to help work the dough until it is slightly less sticky. If you have a stand mixer, use it to mix and knead the dough – it doesn’t care if dough sticks to it.

Now, repeat it again, “Yeast isn’t scary.” You can make your own buns, and they will be fabulous. Do your hamburgers and deli turkey a favor and try out some buns sometime soon. You won’t be sorry.

Download or print just the recipe.

Hamburger Buns
Adapted from Moomie’s Buns by The Cook’s Life
Makes 10 large buns

I usually use 2 cups of white whole wheat flour, though I sometimes use up to 3 cups. Be sure to give them the rest if you are using the whole wheat. This allows the flour time to absorb some of the moisture in the dough. It also helps you to avoid adding too much flour during kneading, which will make the buns heavy and dry.

If you have a stand mixer  (like a KitchenAid) use it to make these. You can use less flour if you knead the dough in the mixer since stickiness doesn’t matter as much. If you do use the mixer, let the dough rise right in the bowl, covered. If the dough is still sticky after rising, you can knead it briefly by hand before shaping the buns.

3 to 3½  cups all-purpose  flour (use 1-2 cups white whole wheat flour, if desired)
¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 package yeast (2¼ teaspoons)
2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
1 egg
1 cup warm milk

Mix 2 cups flour (add all the white whole wheat flour now, if using), sugar, salt, yeast, oil and egg in a large bowl. Add warm milk and mix vigorously. If using whole wheat flour, let dough rest about 15 minutes, covered.

Add remaining flour until a very soft dough forms. Knead about 5 minutes, adding flour as needed (see headnote). Try to be sparing with the flour, but not so much that the dough sticks to everything. Add flour only until the dough doesn’t stick to your hands or kneading surface.

Let rise in a greased bowl, covered with plastic wrap, in a warm place for 1 hour. Lightly grease a large baking sheet, or line with parchment paper. Set aside.

If the dough is very sticky, knead it for a minute or two, adding about a tablespoon of flour. Divide dough into 10 pieces. Form each piece into a smooth ball. Place each ball on the baking sheet and FLATTEN with your floured hand. You really want them flat so that they are shaped like buns after they rise.

Cover loosely with waxed or parchment paper and let rise 30 minutes.

After 15 minutes of rising, preheat oven to 375 degrees. After 30 minutes of rising, bake 12-15 minutes, or until nicely browned on top and bottom.

Cool buns on a rack until room temperature before slicing and serving. Freeze if not using within a couple of days. They dry out rapidly, which is especially noticeable with hamburgers. Slice before freezing.

Olive Oil Focaccia

 

I love making up names for recipes. It is so easy to make it sound fancy and gourmet. Olive oil focaccia sounds so much better than leftover pizza dough flatbread. Gourmet name aside, this recipe couldn’t be easier. I took half of my recipe of no-knead whole wheat pizza dough and made a killer loaf of bread, if I say so myself– slightly crispy on top, soft in the middle and fragrant with olive oil.

In case you missed the description of this dough in my original pizza post – this dough is truly no-knead, plus you can mix it up in about five minutes, and it can rise for anywhere from two hours to twenty-four. Make the dough fit into your schedule, instead of changing yours to fit the dough’s.

I mixed this up in the early afternoon and left it on the counter for about four hours before I used it. I meant to let it rise in the pan for about half an hour, while I made pizza with the other half of the dough. I ended up getting distracted and it rose for more than an hour. It worked beautifully.

Even if you have never made bread or worked with yeast before, you can make this bread. Buy some yeast, get out the flour and start baking. And please post in the comments to let me know how it worked for you or if you have any questions.

Olive Oil Focaccia
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 2 9 or 10-inch loaves

You can let this rise for up to twenty-four hours before you shape it and bake it. Let it rise in the fridge if you are letting it rise for more than four hours.

3 cups white whole wheat flour (or all-purpose flour)
½ cup all-purpose flour (unbleached preferred)
1 package yeast (2 ¼ teaspoons)
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1-1 ½ cups water, approximately
Olive oil for drizzling and serving

Put all ingredients except water in your largest bowl. Add 1 cup water and stir to combine. If there is still dry flour, add water, a couple of tablespoons at a time, until a very wet dough forms. You aren’t looking for batter here, but a dough. It will be too soft to knead and look quite wet. Once everything is well combined, beat and mix the dough with your spoon or spatula for a minute or so. Cover dough with plastic wrap and put in the fridge or leave on the counter. If it is rising on the counter, you might need to stir the dough down every couple of hours if it is filling the bowl. Stir it a few times and re-cover. If it is in the fridge, just leave it to do its thing.

Lightly grease 2 10-inch cast iron skillets, round cake pans or a baking sheet. Use the pans you have – if you only have 8-inch round pans, your loaves will just be a little taller.  If you use the baking sheet, your loaves might be a little more freeform, and not perfectly round – which is fine.

Sprinkle the dough with flour and work the flour down around the edge of the bowl with a spatula. Divide the dough in half with a spatula or dough scraper. Scrape half of the dough into each pan. Sprinkle the top with flour and pat it to the edges of the pans, or to about 1 ½ inches thick, if you are using a baking sheet. Add more flour if the dough sticks to your hands. Flour your fingertips and poke holes into the surface of the dough. Drizzle the top with olive oil. Set dough aside, uncovered, to rise for anywhere from 30-60 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees about 15 minutes before you want to bake. Sprinkle the loaves lightly with salt and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the top is lightly browned and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped.

Serve hot, with extra olive oil for dipping. Store any leftovers for a day or two at room temperature, in a plastic bag. The crust will soften, but it will re-crisp if you heat the bread in a 300 degree oven for 5-10 minutes, loosely covered with foil. Freeze for longer storage.

Download the recipe here.

The Bread that Ate My Kitchen

I almost forgot that I promised a post on the bread that I made for my recent family reunion. I made Whole Wheat Oatmeal Bread, which is great for sandwiches or toast. It is full of whole grains without that “sticks and twigs” texture. This is the bread that rose so well that it popped the top off its rising container and almost overflowed onto the counter.

Don’t let this scare you off making it – just make sure you have a big enough container for rising. The original recipe makes four loaves of bread, which is a huge amount of dough. And I didn’t have a big enough container. I am posting a reduced recipe that will only make two loaves and will be much more manageable. Even if you have never made bread before, you can do this.

Unfortunately I forgot to take many pictures of the process. I will do a post sometime soon on bread making, with exhaustive pictures, to help you gain confidence if you are thinking of taking the leap into yeast baking.

Feel free to post in the comments if you have any questions at all about baking with yeast. I made my first yeast bread when I was in college, from an illustrated Time Life yeast baking book. I have learned a lot by trial and error, and I am happy to share my tips and hints. If you are in the St. Louis area, I do also offer cooking and baking classes. Contact me and we will talk!

Whole Wheat Oatmeal Bread
Adapted by the Cook’s Life
From “Country Baking” by Ken Haedrich
Makes 2 large loaves

The original recipe was called “Grainy Bread for the Whole Week” but I thought it needed a better name. And it made four huge loaves of bread, so I cut the recipe in half. Feel free to double the recipe if you are an experienced baker, but be aware it makes a lot of dough.

3 cups warm milk or water*
¾ cup rolled oats, old-fashioned or quick
1 package dry yeast (2 ¼ teaspoons)
¼ cup honey
5 ½ cups white whole wheat flour
1 ¼ teaspoons salt
¼ cup canola or vegetable oil
1 ½ to 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, approximately

*Milk will make a softer bread than water. I prefer using milk.

Pour the water or milk into a large mixing bowl or mixer bowl. Add the oats, yeast and honey. Stir in 4 cups of the white whole wheat flour. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let rest for 30 minutes.

After the rest, add the salt, oil and the remaining 1½ cups white whole wheat flour. Mix well. Cover the dough and let rest for 10 minutes.

After the rest, add about 1 cup of the all-purpose flour. When dough gets hard to stir, turn out onto a floured surface to knead, or leave in the mixer and use the dough hook to knead. Knead the dough until it is fairly stiff, smooth and elastic. Add flour if the dough sticks to your hands or the sides of the bowl.

Place the dough in a large greased bowl or container that has enough room for the dough to double in size. Cover with plastic wrap or the lid and let rise in a warm place for 45-60 minutes, or until doubled.

Grease a baking sheet, or line with parchment, if you are making freeform loaves. Or grease two 9 by 5 inch loaf pans.

Turn risen dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead briefly, for about 30 seconds. Divide dough into 2 pieces and form each into an oblong, football-shaped ball. Place loaves on prepared baking sheet, leaving room between them, or in loaf pans. If using loaf pans, press dough firmly into corners. Cover loosely with parchment or waxed paper and allow to rise until doubled. This should take 20-30 minutes, or about half the time the dough took to double the first time.

About 15 minutes before the bread is risen, preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Bake the loaves 30-45 minutes, or until they are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped. Freeform loaves on a baking sheet will take slightly less time to bake than those in loaf pans.

Remove bread from the pans and let cool on wire racks. When completely cool, store leftovers in an airtight container or plastic bag. Freeze if not eating within a few days. Homemade bread dries out faster than commercial bread, but if you slice it before freezing, you can remove slices as you need them. They thaw in a few minutes, or you can toast them.

 Download the recipe here.

Zucchini Muffins

I think I have mentioned that my parents grow a large garden. It is my dad’s baby more than my mom’s, but she is out there, doing plenty of the watering, weeding and planting. She just doesn’t get into it as much as Dad does. Vegetable gardening is Dad’s passion (one of them) and Mom prefers the flowers, I think.

We can count on coming home with a bounty of vegetables almost any time we visit my parents during the gardening season (which we totally appreciate!). We were at their house a few weekends ago and the zucchini was growing like gangbusters. They had several on the counter, waiting for us to take home, and we found several more in the garden when we walked out for our customary tour. One had grown overnight into baseball bat size, as zucchini tends to do. We took them all, from babies to bats.

I decided that zucchini muffins or bread were in order. I paged through cookbooks and found a recipe I liked. Of course it only called for one cup of zucchini. I needed something that called for pounds of zucchini. But I settled for doubling the recipe.

The muffins were very good, though I was adapting a bread recipe and should have watched them more closely. They got a little brown on the bottoms and were a little dry. But they were tasty and I am going to make them again, maybe today. The bat sized zucchini grated into six cups and a slightly smaller one came out to five. I froze several bags of grated zucchini, ready for recipes. And we have eaten zucchini at least every other night with dinner for the last two weeks. I think we are down to two zucchini in the fridge. Any takers?

Whole Wheat Zucchini Muffins
Adapted by The Cook’s Life
From “Country Baking” by Ken Haedrich
Makes 12 muffins, easy to double

The original recipe was for bread, baked in an 8 ½ by 4 ½ inch loaf pan. Baking time was 50 minutes.

1 2/3 cups white whole wheat flour
2/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons cinnamon
2 eggs
1/3 cup canola or vegetable oil
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice (optional, I didn’t use it)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup grated zucchini (don’t peel it and don’t squeeze it dry, you want all the moisture)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease 12 muffin cups. Mix the white whole wheat flour, the all-purpose flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon in a medium bowl.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs; then add the oil, brown sugar, lemon juice (if using) and vanilla. Mix well, then add the zucchini and mix again.

Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and mix gently until all the flour is mixed in and there are no dry streaks. Do not beat. Batter will be very thick.

Divide the batter evenly between the muffin cups. Bake 15-18 minutes, or until the centers are firm when pressed or a toothpick inserted in the middle of a muffin comes out clean.

Cool the muffins in the pan on a rack for 5-10 minutes, then remove from the pan and let cool on the rack. The muffins will get moister the next day from the zucchini. Store in an airtight container for a few days or freeze for longer storage.

 Download the recipe here.

I Can’t Stop Baking

My dad’s family is holding a family reunion this weekend in rural southeast Missouri, where he and his siblings grew up. Two of my aunts still live in the area and the rest of us are headed there for the festivities. Calvin and I are driving with my parents on Thursday and Rich is coming after work on Friday. It will be one long weekend of cooking, eating, talking and playing games (probably board games since it is supposed to be HOT this weekend).

I am baking like a crazy woman for the festivities. I can’t seem to stop myself. I guess it is the life of a baker to keep thinking of things I want to eat, things I think will help out the hosting families and things that will round out the menu. Early in the week I made a batch of zucchini muffins and two batches of cookie bars – chocolate chip and chocolate oat bars.

Today I made a recipe that makes four loaves of whole wheat oat bread. As you can imagine, it makes a massive amount of dough and it just barely fit in my big Kitchen Aid stand mixer. I had to use my biggest container to let it rise and boy did it rise! It popped the top off and would have gone on to take over the kitchen if I hadn’t heard the POP from the other room. It kind of turned into the bread dough that ate St. Louis. If I had listened to myself and made six loaves I would have ended up with normal sized bread. The four giant loaves I ended up with should keep the gang in carbs for a few days.

I think I am finally done baking. I am out of room in the freezer and I really need to get the packing done before we leave tomorrow. I might just have calmed the baking urge for a few days, but who knows what I will end up cooking at my aunts’ houses. We are stopping by a peach orchard on the way. Peach cobbler anyone?

Flatbread that isn’t so flat

One of our favorite bread recipes is Middle Eastern Flatbread. This bread isn’t flat like a pita, but it is flatter than a loaf of sandwich bread. And it tastes absolutely fabulous, warm out of the oven, with a nice saucy pasta or soup. We sometimes split small loaves horizontally and make sandwiches or panini with them. They are also good sliced and toasted, with butter and jam. Can you tell we like this bread?

This is truly an easy and fast recipe – I can start it at 5:00 and have fresh bread for dinner. Of course, we eat late because of our schedules, but my point is you can have fresh bread in a little more than an hour. And it rivals any bakery bread, hands down.

The original recipe is from Bernard Clayton’s “New Complete Book of Breads.” This was one of my better purchases – $11 for the hardback at an outlet mall because it had a stain along the edge of the pages. Of course, that was almost 20 years ago, so I have gotten my money’s worth out of it! I have tinkered with the recipe just a bit, and simplified the directions, but it all started with Bernard Clayton.

I find that I use almost two cups more flour than the original recipe calls for. The more I think about it, I use more flour than Bernard Clayton calls for in almost all of his recipes. Either he plans on using a lot of flour for kneading, and lets “approximately” cover it, or he measures his flour differently than I do. Check out A Word on Measuring Flour for the sprinkle and sweep method I use. It is always a good idea to check out the introductory notes in a cookbook to see how the author measures the flour, but they don’t always tell you. Anyway, you can benefit from my trial and error with this recipe and hopefully will get good results.

As always, I have made this into a whole wheat recipe. I am always touting white whole wheat flour, and I make no promises to stop. It really is a great way to get whole grains into your diet. If you haven’t already, buy a bag and see how you like it. If you absolutely can’t stand the thought, you can always make this with all-purpose flour, as originally written.

The original recipe calls for either butter or olive oil. And this is one case where I don’t think butter makes it better. It makes good bread, but the texture and flavor really are better with olive oil. Now butter on the finished bread is another story…

Middle Eastern Flatbread
adapted by The Cook’s Life
from “New Complete Book of Breads” by Bernard Clayton
makes 3-10 small loaves

3 cups white whole wheat flour*
1 package active dry yeast (2 ¼ teaspoons)
2 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups very warm water
3-4 cups all-purpose flour, approximately

Seed topping:
1 egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon water (optional)
Sesame or poppy seeds (optional)**

Place 3 cups of white whole wheat flour in a large mixing bowl. Add yeast, salt and sugar and stir to combine. Add olive oil and water and mix vigorously until well combined. Let dough rest for 5-10 minutes. Whole grains are slower to absorb moisture than white flours, so this will give the whole wheat the time it needs. The rest will help you avoid adding too much flour and ending up with dry, heavy bread. After the rest, start adding the all-purpose flour gradually, until a soft ball of dough forms. Be sure to add enough flour that the dough is not too sticky to knead.

Heavily flour your kneading surface. Scrape dough from bowl to floured surface. Sprinkle dough with flour and begin kneading, gently at first: pull the far side of dough toward you and fold over, pressing it away from you with the heels of your hands. Turn dough a quarter turn and repeat. When dough is less sticky, you can be less gentle. At first, scrape your kneading surface with a rubber spatula if dough sticks. Add flour as necessary to the dough and your hands to prevent sticking. Knead 6-8 minutes, or until dough is smooth and elastic.

Grease a large bowl. Place dough in bowl and turn over to coat top with oil. Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and set aside to rise until doubled – about 30 minutes.

When dough has doubled, turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Cut into 3-10 pieces, depending on size desired. Ten pieces make small loaves, perfect for making sandwiches.

Grease a large baking sheet, or line with parchment paper. Place dough pieces on baking sheet, leaving space between them. Flour hands and flatten dough pieces as much as possible, to around an inch thick. It is fine if they touch at the edges, or you can use two baking sheets.

Flour the handle of a wooden spoon and press holes in tops of loaves, to make dimples that cover the surface. You can also press the handle of the spoon, or the side of your hand, in lengthwise, to make furrows instead of dimples. Cover loosely with waxed paper or parchment and leave to rise for 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees while bread is rising. After 20 minutes, loaves will be puffy, but not necessarily doubled. Gently redefine dimples or furrows.

It is hard to tell, but these are risen and ready for the oven. They are definitely puffier than they were right after shaping.

If using seed topping, brush dough gently with beaten egg and sprinkle with sesame or poppy seeds. Bake 10-20 minutes depending on size. When they are done, loaves will be golden brown and sound hollow when tapped. Cool on racks or serve warm. These freeze well.

*You can use all-purpose flour instead of white whole wheat, if you prefer. You can then skip the rest after adding the first 3 cups of flour.

**Toasting your seeds gives them a nuttier flavor. Use a small, ungreased skillet, over low to medium heat, and toast the seeds for about 10 minutes, or until they smell nutty. Watch the seeds and stir them often to avoid scorching them. Let them cool before using them on top of the dough.

Download the recipe here.

Bread for everyone

Cinnamon rolls made with this recipe. I will take a picture of the bread and post it soon.

I haven’t done a post on yeast bread because I didn’t want to scare off any novice bakers. But I think it is time to bring on the yeast.

I taught a bread baking class this week, and while everyone there had baked at least something with yeast in it, they were eager to learn more about the process. I talked about the science of yeast, different flours, how various ingredients affect yeast growth and a host of other things.

I think the most important thing the students took from the class was that yeast bread is very forgiving – we didn’t exactly follow the recipe, the dough rose really quickly because the kitchen was warm, no one wanted to stop having fun long enough to pay attention and everyone had different ways of measuring, mixing, stirring and kneading. But in the end, we had beautiful baked goods and everyone learned a little more about yeast baking.

In the class, I used a recipe that I originally got from a Farm Journal bread book I found on the bargain table at a bookstore. I have adapted it a bit, and changed the directions to make it easier for the novice baker. I like the recipe because it is quick (which makes it ideal for a class), it teaches all the steps of yeast bread, and you can make so many things out of it. I have included directions for braided loaves, dinner rolls and cinnamon rolls.

Enjoy, and please comment if you try the recipe, or if you have any questions at all. I’ll end with the “blessing” that Rich and Calvin gave me when I left to teach the class last night – May your dough rise and may your loaves bake up golden brown.

Shortcut Sweet Dough
Adapted by The Cook’s Life
from “Farm Journal’s Homemade Breads”

 This recipe has a lot of yeast for the amount of flour, but you need this much for it to rise quickly. Experienced bakers, feel free to reduce the yeast, but you will probably lose the “shortcut” part of the recipe.

1 cup milk
2 packages active dry yeast (1½ tablespoons)
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg
3 3/4-4 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, approximately*

Heat milk until almost boiling, either in microwave or on the stove. Pour milk in a large mixing bowl and let cool until warm, no more than 115 degrees. Sprinkle dry yeast and sugar over warm milk. Stir until dissolved. Add oil, salt, egg and 2 cups flour. Stir vigorously for 2 minutes. Stir in enough of the remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until a soft dough forms. You may not use all of the flour, but the dough should not look wet. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about one minute. Lift dough and flour surface. Cover with the upside down mixing bowl and let rest for 15 minutes. Proceed with your choice of following recipes.

*For whole wheat dough, substitute up to 2 cups whole wheat or white whole wheat flour for the same amount of all-purpose flour. Add the whole wheat flour first, as the first 2 cups of flour. Mix in other ingredients and then cover and let rest for 5-10 minutes before adding more flour and kneading. This allows the bran in the whole wheat flour to soften and absorb liquid.

Braided Loaves
Divide dough in half. Set one half aside. Divide the other half into 3 or 4 pieces and shape each into a fat rope 12-15 inches long. Put side by side on counter and braid loosely. Pinch ends tightly and place on lightly greased baking sheet. Repeat with other half of dough. Be sure to leave room between the braids for them to rise.

Cover loaves loosely with plastic wrap and set aside to rise for 30 minutes. Fifteen minutes into the rising time, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake 20-25 minutes, or until loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped with a finger. Cover with a tent of aluminum foil after 15 minutes if the tops are browning too rapidly.

Using a spatula, carefully lift the loaves onto a rack for cooling. They will be fragile while hot. Cool completely before wrapping tightly in plastic wrap or a zip top bag. Makes 2 loaves.

Dinner Rolls
Divide dough in half. Roll one half into a log and cut log in half and then into quarters. Cut each quarter into three pieces. Roll each piece into a smooth ball and place 1-2 inches apart on a greased baking sheet. Repeat with second half of dough. Cover balls and let rise for 30 minutes, or until doubled in size. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees fifteen minutes into the rising time. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until golden brown. If rolls rose to touch each other, they might need an extra 5 minutes to bake. Cool on racks or serve warm. Makes 24 small rolls.

Cinnamon Rolls
¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup brown sugar
2-3 teaspoons cinnamon
2-4 tablespoons butter, melted

In a small bowl, mix sugars and cinnamon together. Set aside. After the 15-minute rest, divide dough in half on a lightly floured surface. Flatten one half of the dough with your lightly floured hands to make a rough square. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough out to about ½ inch thick. Drizzle with melted butter and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Roll up loosely from the long side and cut into 8-12 pieces. Place the pieces cut side up on a greased baking sheet. Repeat with other half. Let rise 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees fifteen minutes into the rising time. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve warm or room temperature, glazed or plain. Makes 16-24 cinnamon rolls.

Vanilla Glaze
1 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1-2 tablespoons milk, approximately

Mix powdered sugar, vanilla and 1 tablespoon milk together in a bowl. Gradually add more milk until the glaze is the desired consistency. Add milk very gradually to avoid lumps.

Download recipe here.

Cornbread in a jiffy…from scratch

Yes, you can get Jiffy cornbread mix for not much money. But you can also make it, and
yours will be so much better. And it will be yours. Nothing like pulling piping hot cornbread from the oven right before you sit down to dinner.

When I was younger, Mom did most of the cooking, but as I got older and she was working more, Dad shared in the cooking more. Mom usually made cornbread in a square glass pan, but Dad usually used a cast iron skillet. I haven’t ever really asked why. Probably that is how his mother did it.

My dad has six brothers and sisters and they were all in the kitchen a lot when they were growing up. And it seems they all have different memories of how my grandma did things. Some of the most interesting conversations at family reunions revolve around their different memories. Some of them remember their mother melting the shortening in the cast iron skillet and then pouring the hot, melted fat into the cornbread batter. Others swear she never did this. And was it butter or shortening? Theirs was a large, spread out family, so it could be Grandma changed how she did things over the years. Or she could have done it different ways, depending on her mood. I am still looking for the aunt or uncle who has any of Grandma’s written recipes, but I don’t think many of them ever made it to paper.

I do know that a cast iron skillet makes a wonderful crust on the bottom of the cornbread. And I always feel a connection to my grandmother when I bake in cast iron. I even have one of her griddle/bakers that she gave to Dad and he gave to me. Hmmm, I think I need to do another post on cast iron cookware.

But back to cornbread – Dad is from southeastern Missouri and his parents were from Tennessee and Mississippi. You could definitely say there is a Southern background there. And Southern cornbread is not sweet. At all. My dad and his family usually only have butter on cornbread, or use it to soak up the juices from greens, beans or soups. Sometimes they even put jalapeño or other hot peppers in it (definitely not my favorite when I was a kid). When Dad married Mom and saw her put jelly on her cornbread, he was a little surprised. But time, and marriage, change all things – I have witnessed Dad putting jelly or honey on his cornbread. I like my Southern cornbread with butter and honey or jelly, but without sugar in it. Try it this way once, and then if you must put sugar in it, you can. But don’t tell my dad.

Dad’s Cornbread
8-10 servings 

Shortening (Crisco) to grease pan
1 cup cornmeal (stoneground is best)
1 cup all-purpose flour*
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder**
1 egg, beaten
¼ cup vegetable oil, melted butter or melted shortening
1 cup milk or buttermilk**

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 8-inch square pan or 10-inch cast iron skillet heavily with shortening. If using a skillet, place in oven to preheat.

Mix cornmeal, flour, salt and baking powder in a medium bowl. In another bowl, mix together egg, oil and milk. Add to cornmeal mixture and mix well. Make sure there are no dry pockets of cornmeal or flour.

Remove hot skillet (if using) from oven and add batter. Spread batter to edges of skillet or pan, leveling top. Bake 15-20 minutes, or until just starting to brown on top. Serve hot from the oven with butter, and desired toppings. Best served hot.

Leftovers make great breadcrumbs for breading fish, as you can see in the picture. I pan-fried these filets in just a little olive oil and they tasted like they had been deep-fried. Calvin said they were “awesomely good.” From the mouths of pre-teens…

*I sometimes use ½ cup white whole wheat flour and ½ cup all-purpose flour.
**You can use buttermilk, but if you do, use 1½ teaspoons baking powder and ½ teaspoon baking soda instead of the 2 teaspoons baking powder. You can’t really taste the tang of the buttermilk, but it makes the cornbread a little lighter.

Download recipe here.

Breakfast for Dinner, or Breakfast

We like to have breakfast for dinner, probably a little too often, but the food police haven’t found us yet. French Toast Casserole is one of our favorites. It started out as a recipe from a Cooking Light magazine several years ago. I have since adapted it just a bit.

The original recipe made 12 servings, which is just too much for our family of three, unless we are having company. I cut the recipe in half, but you can easily double it for a crowd. Bake it in a 9 by 13 inch dish or pan, and add a few minutes to the cooking time. I also added the cinnamon and quadrupled the original amount of vanilla. I play around with the milk and half and half, depending on what we have in the house. When I made it this time we had cream and skim milk (I know that sounds weird). So I used skim for the milk and about ¼ cup cream with the rest skim milk for the half and half. Turned out just fine. We have tried making it with all skim milk, but that little bit of richness from the half and half really adds something. If you don’t care about the fat, you can use regular cream cheese, whole milk or whatever dairy product you like for the milk and half and half.

We usually have this with a couple different kinds of fresh fruit and, if we are really going all out, bacon. Enjoy, for dinner, or for breakfast.

French Toast Casserole
Adapted from Cooking Light
4-6 large servings

8 slices hearty white bread (not Wonder Bread), whole wheat or a combination of both, about 5 cups of 1-inch cubes
4 ounces (1/2 block) 1/3-less fat cream cheese, room temperature
1 teaspoon cinnamon, optional
4 eggs
¼ cup maple syrup
¾ cup milk (2%, 1% or skim)
1/3 cup half and half (or milk)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Powdered sugar, for serving
Maple syrup, for serving

Tear or cut bread into 1-inch pieces. You don’t have to be precise. Heavily grease an 8-inch square baking dish. Place bread cubes in dish and set aside.

Beat cream cheese at medium speed of a mixer until smooth. Add cinnamon, if using, and beat until well combined. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each egg. Add maple syrup, milk, half and half and vanilla. Beat until combined.

Pour mixture slowly over bread in prepared dish. If there are any large pieces of cream cheese (which can happen if your cream cheese isn’t quite warm enough), use a knife to spread them over the surface of the bread, otherwise they will bake into hard lumps. Cover with foil and place in refrigerator for several hours, or overnight. If time is short, an hour or so is fine. If you are going with the shorter time, use the back of a fork or spoon to gently push the bread under the egg mixture after you pour it on. Repeat right before baking.

Remove casserole from fridge for 20-30 minutes before baking. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake casserole, covered tightly with foil, for 40 minutes. Remove foil and bake another 10-15 minutes, or until casserole is set and browning on top.

Let casserole cool for 5 minutes before cutting into serving pieces. Pass powdered sugar, maple syrup, or both. Store leftovers in the fridge, or for longer storage, in the freezer. Reheats well. I like it for lunch the next day, though my waistline says differently.

Download recipe here.