Archive for the ‘Baking’ Category

Two Easters and Bulgarian brioche

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

Easter is quite an event in my family and when it happens in April it becomes really complicated. As an Orthodox Christian, I usually celebrate Easter a week later than most. My “name day” falls on Palm Sunday and when you add my daughter’s name day, my birthday and my wedding anniversary, it gets really messy. All those holidays require a lot of planning, cooking and my favorite – baking. I usually go through several pounds of flour, huge amounts of butter and eggs – and I love it.

This year we had two full-blown Easters, including two rounds of egg coloring, a traditional Polish Easter breakfast, an American egg hunt and – a week later, as the Bulgarian tradition requires – roast leg of lamb, stuffed with rice and fresh herbs. I was in charge of the kozunak – the Bulgarian cousin of Jewish challah bread and French brioche. Though in Bulgaria you can buy it all year round, the Easter one is special and no celebration is complete without this sweet bread, heavy on the eggs and butter, and stuffed with dried fruits and nuts. The butter-vanilla-lemon zest aroma of the kozunak is one that defines this holiday for me, as are the blanched almonds that decorate its top and the eggs done up in psychedelic colors by my kids.

The recipe I have used for more than ten years now is from a cookbook first published in the thirties, which belonged to my grandmother. At first I was quite afraid, as the description and ingredients were very vague, but I was stubborn and wanted to feel that Easter aroma even if there were no almond trees blooming outside our Warsaw apartment. The first year the breads were flat and a little dry, but we ate them anyway. Besides, nobody knew the real thing except me and that was an advantage in my favor.

I was expecting to engage in serious combat with the dough, as I’d heard legends about how hard it is to knead and how long it has to be worked on. To my surprise it was actually easy, and as good a stress reliever as any bread dough. The recipe is for one kilo of flour and this may put some people off, but it’s worth making the whole amount. You can use different stuffings, make one plain and toast it for breakfast like brioche or freeze the extra dough for croissant-shaped rolls for weekend brunches to come.

Ingredients for the basic bread:

  • 10 cups (1.3 kg) all-purpose unbleached flour + extra for adding when kneading the dough
  • 30-40g (1-1.5 oz fresh yeast or 2 packages of instant yeast
  • 6 large eggs
  • 2 sticks butter (200gr) butter melted + extra for rolling surface
  • 1 ¼ cups milk (250ml), warm
  • 1 1/3 cup sugar (dark brown and white mixed)
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 tbsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp rum or brandy
  • 1 egg for egg wash + 1 tbsp of milk
  • 1/2 cup blanched almonds
  • sugar for sprinkling

Preparation:

Sift the flour in a big mixing bowl and make a well in the middle.

Crumble the fresh yeast, or pour in the dry, into a small bowl with 1/2 cup warm milk, add 1 tbsp sugar and enough flour to make a thin batter. Cover and leave in a warm place until it starts bubbling – about 10-15 minutes depending of the air conditions. Keep an eye on it, as it tends to explode!

Whisk the eggs with the sugar and add the rest of the warm milk, zest, vanilla and rum.

When the yeast is ready, add it to the flour, than the egg mixture and 1/2 tsp salt. Start making the dough adding the melted butter little by little or dipping your hands in it (that’s how I do it) and working the dough until all the butter is incorporated. When kneading the dough instead of pushing, pull and stretch it on the side of the bowl and then roll it into a ball and stretch again until it’s smooth, doesn’t stick to the walls of the bowl and little bubbles appear on the surface. Add some extra flour while kneading if the dough is too sticky. Form a ball, place it in a buttered bowl, cover with a clean tea towel and put in a warm, draft free place to rise – until double its size (around 1 hour). Or place it on a floured wooden board and cover with a big glass bowl like for the pizza dough.

Preheat the oven to 375°F (200°C).

The amount is enough for several loaves depending on the sheets and pans you are going to use. Pull three equal dough balls, roll them into logs on a buttered surface and make a braid, place on a baking sheet or cake pan lined with parchment. Leave it to rise again covered with a clean moistened towel. When it doubles in size, brush with the egg wash, push some almonds into the top and sprinkle with sugar. Bake until golden brown and a tester comes out clean – 20-30 minutes. Take out before it has cooled completely.

Kozunak can be stored in an airtight container, but is best eaten fast.

You can also make a roll with the dough. Roll 1/3 of the dough into a square around 1cm (half inch) thick. Mix one jar of jam of your liking (mine is fig) with handful of chopped walnuts and the same amount of raisins, dried cranberries or cherries, and spread over the dough, leaving 1cm free on the edges. Roll it and place into a cake form to rise. Brush with the egg wash, place almonds and sprinkle with sugar, then bake as before.

You can make little croissants, either plane or with sweet stuffing like for the roll. After shaping them, place on a baking sheet, leave to rise and do as before (skip the almonds). Or you can stuff them with a mix of ½ pound crumbled feta and one big egg for about ¼ of the dough. Those are the ones my kids fight for – often with me.

Crisis luncheon – tomato and eggplant tart

Monday, March 30th, 2009

Being a freelancer has its ups and downs. One of the ups is that you can have a mid-week break from reporting on the effects of the financial crisis on a small European country and cook lunch for a friend who lost her job because of the very same crisis. As she is one of the most cheerful people I know, I decided to make an equally cheerful savory tart, with tomatoes and grilled eggplants topped with goat’s cheese. It was accompanied by one of my favorite salads – Lebanese tabbouleh, to bring the spring back to our recession-ravaged lives.

By now I’ve learned how to navigate my sorry excuse for a kitchen and on that sunny March morning even the temperamental gas oven wasn’t a match for me. Tart crust is easy if you don’t panic, and is ready in a breeze. This tart calls for a pre-baked shell so you can make it ahead of time.

I used small Sicilian eggplants, which are extremely beautiful with their light purple and white stripes. I don’t salt the eggplants and don’t wait for 20 minutes when they don’t have many brown seeds – it’s a waste of time. The bitterness is in the seeds. The tomato sauce I use for pizza and spaghetti with meatballs, which I usually make in batches and freeze afterwards, made the whole operation faster. I wish I could have served it all with a crisp and fruity Portuguese Vinho Verde, but didn’t have time to get any that day.

Tomato tart with eggplants and goat’s cheese

For the tart crust see my cranberry tart recipe. Keep the remaining part of the dough in the freezer for future use. Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Pierce the shell with a fork to keep the crust from rising. Place aluminum foil on top of the tart shell, weigh it down with dry beans or tart weights if you have some and bake for 15 minutes on racks positioned in the middle. Remove the foil and bake for another 15 minutes or until the shell is golden brown. Take out and leave to cool.

Filling

  • 2 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • ¾ cups tomato sauce
  • 3 small Sicilian eggplants, cut in half lengthwise and then quartered – you should have eight strips (or 1 medium size Italian eggplant – cut in ¼ inch rounds)
  • 1/8 pound fresh goat’s cheese (or feta)
  • salt, freshly ground black pepper
  • chopped parsley (or dill) for garnish
  • 2 tbsp olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan over medium heat, add the eggplants in batches if they don’t fit in single layer and saute until soft and slightly brown. Transfer to a plate covered with a paper towel to soak up the extra oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss.

Spread the Dijon mustard over the bottom of the tart – it gives a nice sharp bite to the sweet tomato-and-eggplant filling. Spoon in the tomato sauce and spread it evenly. Arrange the eggplant strips in a fan (or if using rounds – starting from the outside lay them in overlapping circles). Crumble the cheese on top, sprinkle with more black pepper and bake for 10-15 minutes or until the cheese starts melting and the eggplants are warmed through. Serve warm with a salad and a nice crisp white wine. It will really make a difference to your mid week or light weekend lunch.

The eggs I love – Spanish tortilla with potatoes, ricotta and sausage

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

Until my early twenties I was a dedicated egg-phobe. Then I was suddenly converted, and though I still won’t touch an underdone egg, I love ingredient-loaded omelets. When I discovered Spanish tortilla (not to be confused with the flour and corn tortillas of Central America), I fell in love from the first bite. This is the universal crowd-pleaser and my brunch or weekend dinner staple.

Thicker than the Italian frittata and usually containing my other favorites – potatoes – this Spanish omelet has as striking a flavor as its looks. It’s easier to make too, as you don’t have to fight to flip it over, but simply bake it in the oven. It can stoically take on whatever you throw at it, and no fridge push-around need be wasted again. The classic one with potatoes is great, but I’ve done it with zucchini, parsnip, feta cheese, Parmesan, bacon, various types of dried and fresh herbs, and combinations of the above. It’s a successes every time, and the only person who refuses to eat it is my daughter – the new egg-phobe in the family.

I finally have a cast-iron paella pan, perfect for tortillas too, which I put to heavy use. The recipe is enough for four as a weekday supper, or for eight as part of a weekend brunch with friends. If there are leftovers, they are very good the next day and make a great lunchbox item. I often wrap them in whole-wheat tortillas with Tabasco’s Chipotle sauce and fresh cilantro (coriander). I love to answer the what’s-for-lunch question – tortilla in tortilla.

For a vegetarian version skip the sausage.

Spanish tortilla with potatoes, sausage, ricotta and fresh herbs

serves 4

  • 6 – 8 large eggs – free range or organic
  • ½ cup fresh ricotta (or thick sour cream)
  • 3 medium potatoes, peeled, cubed or sliced into thin rounds
  • ½ pound good quality sausage (I use Polish sausage with thyme and garlic and no preservatives added) – cubed the same size as the potatoes
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped (optional)
  • 1 cup mixed chopped dill, mint and parsley (or cilantro)
  • 3 green onions, thinly sliced
  • salt, freshly ground black pepper, Spanish smoked paprika
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp olive oil

Preheat oven to 375°F (200°C) – with racks positioned in the middle. In a heavy-bottomed oven-proofed frying pan (cast iron is best), melt the butter and olive oil over medium high heat. Saute the potatoes until slightly brown and tender – about 10 minutes. In the meantime beat eggs in a bowl to break the egg yolks. Add the ricotta and beat well – though some cheese lumps are OK. Season with salt and black pepper to taste, add the herbs and green onions and mix.

When the potatoes are ready, take them out of the pan with slotted spoon and stir into the egg-cheese mixture. Add sausage to the pan and fry for 5 minutes, until sightly brown. Add onion and garlic and cook for 2-3 more minutes. Pour over the egg-cheese-and-potatoes mixture, stir well, and let cook on medium low for 10 minutes. Sprinkle with smoked paprika and transfer the pan to the oven to bake for 10-15 minutes or until the top of the tortilla is set and slightly brown.

Serve warm with the pan (makes a great impression) with rustic bread and simple green salad. My son loves it with a few drops of Tabasco Chipotle sauce. I have it with extra Bulgarian cheese, feta style.

Goes great with a light, bubbly Portuguese Vinho Verde or Italian Prosseco for a more elegant experience.


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