Citrus Sugar Cookies

I’ve had this recipe in mind for months.  More impressive, though, I’ve had candied citrus peel in my freezer for months and it’s survived snack attacks.

In May I made a Shaker Lemon Pie and a Citrus Pie, from two different cookbooks, to see how they stacked up against each other.  At the time I imaged a beautiful picture of the two pies perched on rocks looking out over the fake lake that blooms in our desert valley when there’s heavy rain or snow runoff.  (This year it’s mid-August and the lake is still there.  It’s not spring fed – it’s actually usually dry; the desert just got that much water this past weird winter.)

However, I misjudged where the big rocks were I was looking for, and found only small rocks, a great view – and a rattlesnake.

When the pies and I made it home, I had a piece of each and then resolutely threw out the rest.  This is because I didn’t need two pies to myself, my mother-in-law lives too far away to take her two pies on a whim (and what would she do with two of them?) and we weren’t headed her way anyway.  My husband hates lemons, and every friend I know who lives local either never, ever eats flour/grains/sweets, or is protein-dieting heavily.  Before I tossed them, I pulled off the toppings and froze them.  They were too bright and pretty – and tasty – to toss.

My plan was to top sugar cookies with them and see what happened.  But I’ve never been able to make sugar cookies that didn’t turn into crumbs before I got them rolled out.  I’ve tried countless recipes.  This time, after thumbing through a well-loved red binger that bulges with my own recipes and family and friend recipes, I settled on my friend June’s recipe, because she indicated when she gave it to me a century ago, that it was no fail.  (Clearly June isn’t a century old, but I feel that way – perhaps our friendship involves time-travel.)

The recipe didn’t fail.  I failed it, a little, by not chilling the dough for 2-3 hours but overnight because I got sleepy and went to bed.  When I took it out 20 hours later it was rock hard.  By mangling and massaging it, though, the butter won through and the dough became soft enough to roll out.

 

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Cold dough is not friendly.

 

The results are mixed.

The sugar cookies themselves are fantastic!  Light, crisp, and if you like a crisper cookie, give them 8 minutes, watching closely, and a more tender crumb (that still crumbles all over as you eat) 7 minutes.

The frozen citrus rounds were covered in the respective pie fillings.  The Build a Better Pie filling is all lemon and a simpler mix.  The Martha Stewart Pies is more complex, and uses oranges as well as lemons.

I baked some of the cookies with nothing on them.  Just because.  (Well, just because of my husband.)

I baked some of the cookies with the rounds of fruit on top, being baked in place.

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I baked some of them with nothing on them and pressed the fruit on as soon as they came out.

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I already knew the baked citrus was chewy.  A sensible thing might be to gently take the rind off when using sugar-dredged citrus as pie toppings, but the aesthetic would suffer.  Biting into a piece of the pie means really biting, or cutting first with a knife, or getting an entire citrus round in one bite.  It’s worth it!

 

So after baking the rounds on the cookies, biting into the cookie with a piece of lemon or orange, the citrus piece came off promptly and the cookie stayed behind with one bite taken out of it.

Oh.  And the ones that I put on the fruit after the cookies came out, they were softer, and mostly stayed in place, but somehow weren’t as interesting, the flavors not as intense.

There was still a chunk of dough left, warming on the counter because not going through that again, the over-chilling business.  Before rolling it out I cut up a bunch of the fruit into ¼ to ½ inch bites, and then when kneading the dough to make it pliable enough to roll out, I kneaded the fruit right into it (and was consequently sticky as hell).  Then the rolling out, which was more challenging, and the forming of cookies, which were more bumpy.

But the results of that batch were really good.  Kind of like citrons in cookies only so much more bright and tangy (candied peel is often very sweet).

I’m not sure what good this recipe does for anyone who hasn’t baked two Shaker pies and encountered a rattlesnake and had a nice hot summer for several months before making sugar cookies to add the fruit to, but there’s no reason candied lemon and orange slices couldn’t be stand-ins.  My own recipe for citrus strips is below.  No reason it wouldn’t work for slices.

The Cookies

1 ½ cups powdered sugar

1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon almond extract

2 ½ cups unbleached flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

Cream sugar and butter until well blended.  Mix in the egg, vanilla and almond extract.  Mix well, then add the dry ingredients, blending them into the creamed mixture.

Refrigerate for two to three hours (apparently it means this).  Probably best to cover the bowl with some plastic wrap, too.

Divide dough in half.  Cover a pastry board with cloth (tea towel tucked under worked nicely) and flour the cloth.  Roll out to 3/16 of an inch thick.  Cut into 2 to 2 ½ inch rounds or whatever shape you like.  I just grabbed a drinking glass which turned out to be 3 inches and ended up with 42 cookies, I think.  They’re mostly gone now….

Place some distance apart (but they don’t spread that much) on greased or parchment-lined cookie sheets.  Bake in a preheated 375 oven for 7 to 8 minutes.  The bottoms should be turning golden brown.

Should make 5 dozen 2-inch cookies but I’ve never in my life had that happen.  I got 42 3-inch.  If they were a half again bigger, I should have had 45, I think – math and I are not friends – which is actually closer to the recipe-stated numbers than I usually get.  And I didn’t eat more than half a tablespoon of dough, because it’s sweeter than I like.  That didn’t stop me from eating the cookies.

Citrus Peel or Rounds

Short of making two variations of Shaker Lemon Pies and tossing out the pie part, I’d try dredging the thin sliced lemon and orange rounds under enough sugar to nicely cover them in a medium sized nonreactive mixing bowl.  Chill overnight and let me know what you decide to do with the vaguely crusty lemon and orange flavored sugar that will be left over.

You could take another step and briefly bake these as if they were the top of a pie, following the directions for the pies in the blog entry linked above.

Another option: try making candied peel and using that – this is my favorite recipe for candied citrus peel from Martha Stewart.

If you try them, let me know the results in the comments!

Olive Thyme Baguette

I could live on bread and cheese.  With apples and grapes thrown in. During the summer, the hottest weather (my favorite time of year, the hotter the better) that’s what I eat a lot of the time – some kind of bread, cheese sometimes, grapes and apples, water with ice and maybe some lemon.  Sourdoughs are my favorite breads, but I’m still learning how to make an actually sour sourdough (I’ve used all kinds of starters and made good breads – they’re just not sour).

Several years ago I found a recipe for an olive bread that was made in a ring shape and may or may not have had thyme in it.  I can’t remember.  What I do remember is that it sounded heavenly and I made it several times before giving up.  The bread refused to rise.  Sometimes it refused to cook.  There’s something impressive about dough that refuses to finish in an over that’s over 400 degrees – how can it just refuse to bake? How is that even possible?

When I got tired of playing with the recipe and was still longing for something like it, I played around and developed this one.  It’s never failed me and offers up a substitution of a rosemary bread without olives if you choose.  The rosemary bread is good toasted, or not toasted and with butter, or without butter but with cheese.  The olive bread is fantastic just the way it is.

2 cups all purpose flour + ½ cup reserved

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 package yeast (not rapid rise)

1 cup very warm water

1 cup chopped or sliced Kalamata olives, drained (black olives are also good)

Several sprigs of fresh thyme

In a large bowl, combine 2 cups flour with sugar, salt and yeast.  Mix together and make a well in the center.

Stir in the cup of warm water, mixing with a wooden spoon until the dough leaves the sides of the bowl and clings to itself in a sticky loaf.

Turn out onto a floured board – I use the reserved flour to flour the board in order to measure how much flour I’m adding to the dough.  Knead for 5 to 10 minutes, depending on how the dough feels, and add flour by judicious handfuls if the dough is too sticky.  Dough should be just damp enough to stick to the fingers but go back to itself rather than sticking in chunks to your hands.  If it seems to be getting to dry, just keep kneading on one of the less floury sections of board – it should absorb the extra flour and become supple and smooth again.

Place dough in a clean, greased bowl and spin it so all sides are greased.  Cover with a clean dish towel or plastic wrap and leave to rise in a warm place.  First rise will take approximately 45 minutes at high altitude.

When dough is doubled in size, move it to a scraped and re-floured board and gently punch it down.  Let rest for 10 minutes.

Shape the dough into an oval, patting it to about 3/4 –inch thickness with your fingers.  Cover the surface with the chopped olives the way you’d cover dough for cinnamon buns.  Snip the thyme leaves or pull them from the stems, dropping them along the olives.

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Roll up to form a long baguette, tucking the ends under.  This can rise on a baguette pan, which are usually perforated to allow heat to get through at all angles and create a lovely crunchy crust, or on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, preferably without sides.  Allow to rise until double.

Bake at 425 25 to 30 minutes.  Check the loaf at 20 minutes and cover if it’s browning too fast.  Spraying the loaf or the oven with water when the loaf first goes in will create a crispier crust (avoid the lightbulb at all costs – I once made one explode doing this and had to start all over after cooling the oven and cleaning out all the broken glass).  Or brush the loaf with a whipped egg white.

The rosemary alternative substitutes finely chopped rosemary leaves for thyme and leaves out the olives.  It bakes the same, though almost always has an egg white glaze and some rosemary leaves (or are they called needles?) decoratively arranged.  The rosemary version is wonderful with barbecued or lemon-stuffed chicken.

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Sunset hike

Tonight was my second hike this year. Our house butts up to open space and rolling Nevada foothills – go outside and head into the hills.  But I’ve been out once earlier this week and once a couple months ago for a hike so freezing I’m kind of not counting it. This has been a long, wet winter, with a normal year’s allotment of rain and snow already by the time we got to March if I remember correctly. This is a desert, but spontaneous lakes have been appearing, and ravines are cut into the desert hardpan in unexpectedly deep cuts.

It was 61 degrees when I left a little after 7 p.m., with roughly 30 minutes until sundown for Reno, though in the hills I had about 20 minutes. The sun had already dropped by the time I got back. The dirt gives up the day’s heat and the sage smells strong in the mornings and evenings. I was out for half an hour, leaving later than I meant to because there was a cottontail in the front yard asking for apples. I took to feeding them when it kept snowing later and later into the year, and am trying to convince them now to eat the plentiful weeds in our dirt-filled third of an acre.  Still, when wild rabbits come running when you call “Rabbits! Rabbits!” it’s hard to resist.

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There were three jackrabbits, two cottontails and one stick I thought might be a snake on my hike. To date I’ve only heard one rattlesnake and I’m coming up on my fifth summer of rambling through the foothills. I thought I’d heard one before but once you hear the real thing, there’s an atavistic response that can’t be mistaken for anything else. I believe I levitated off that part of the trail that day, and remained leery of passing the area for the next many hikes.

Another fake snake alert last summer: I was directly opposite a very large sage, very close, on a slippery, rock-covered, very steep foothill when there was shaking and vibrating of the bush. I was too close and on too uneven of ground to escape well, so I panicked and froze. Seconds later one of the biggest jackrabbits I’ve seen exploded out of the bush and tore off across the foothill.  They’re lovely and enormous and for once, one of them scared me more than I scared it.

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Not the most dramatic skies, but soft and still. There’s almost always wind in Northern Nevada, especially if you’re a runner (I take this personally – it should be impossible to choose a route that leads in a square and have the wind in my face in every single direction). But tonight it was still and the contrails stayed in the air and frayed, turning fainter colors and dying away.

The blue jays I feed by hand – one sits on my hand, the other makes strange sounds like something out of The Ring and comes close but to me – are nesting. I’m not seeing much of them and when I do, Blue takes the roasted peanuts, cracks them from their shell, and carries off most of it to Scrawny.

The quail are nesting, and a squirrel yelled at me from our side yard, so I assume they’re hatching in burrows, if that’s where they live. It’s spring. Time for light sweetbreads and lemon everything and just over a month away from farmer’s market and chocolate cherry pies and peach pies and berry tarts and apricot cakes and just plain fruit eaten in the backyard while reading a good book.

Happy Spring.

Finnish Easter Bread

My house smells heavenly tonight. Enough so the new scent totally eradicated the terrible odors from the morning’s attempt to dye Easter eggs naturally.  (I mean, I suppose that worked – they’re definitely natural colors: tan and hallucinatory pink.)

The loveliness in the air is Finnish Easter Bread.  It’s from Bernard New Clayton’s Complete Book of Breads (1973, Simon & Schuster). I made it because I wanted to see if it was any different at 5000 feet elevation and because – well, because it sounded utterly glorious.

And it is. This is an enriched yeast bread, enriched with the triad of eggs, butter and milk – more than one kind of milk even. It’s seriously, beautifully enriched. It’s also stuffed with chopped almonds, golden raisins, orange and lemon peels and cardamom, which happily is lovely because it’s awfully expensive.

The bread took a long time, even in my fast-rising high altitude aerie. Even so, most of the individual rises did move faster than the recipe indicated, because that’s what happens up here in the foothills. Most of the time I’m not in a hurry for my bread to rise faster – I dislike the idea of the rapid rise yeasts because I want the bread to develop with fuller flavor of a slower rise. Also, reading through one fat cookbook on baking, either a test kitchen or the King Arthur Flour baking book, I now don’t remember which, I ran into the fact that it’s perfectly all right to add extra yeast to something if you want it to rise faster. Never knew that. I did know about retarding the rise by leaving it in the fridge, either so it can be baked at a specific time, or to let the flavor develop.

his one starts with a sponge, then goes to a beautiful healthy rise, then forms into two loaves.  The recipe says it can be baked as one loaf – I can’t imagine doing so – I’m pretty sure that mass of dough weighed 5 pounds. It calls for pails (like milking pails, which I don’t happen to have laying around) or large coffee cans (ditto) so I used Panettone wrappers from King Arthur Flour.  They’re wonderful though I do put a piece of foil or a baking tray under them, especially in a recipe loaded with butter, just in case something leaks. (I have a history of setting my oven on fire.)

Only good things can come of a tall, proud, aromatic bread that comes out of the oven and gets brushed with butter while still hot. It took somewhere between five and six hours, but it’s worth it!

The Sponge

2 cups all purpose flour

2 packages active dry yeast (not rapid rise)

1 ½ cups Carnation canned milk

½ cup hot water

 

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The sponge, rising

 

The Dough

5 egg yolks

1 cup sugar

2 sticks salted sweet cream butter, softened

1 ½ teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons cardamom

2 teaspoons grated lemon peel

2 tablespoons grated orange peel

1 cup golden raisins

1 cup chopped almonds

1 cup milk, room temperature

2 cups light rye flour

4 to 5 cups all purpose flour (I used 3 ½ )

Butter, melted

Even on a wet, fresh, kind of cold day like this was, the desert atmosphere only used 3 ½ of the 4 to 5 cups of flour. Calls for bread flour. I used all purpose. For the rye flour I used light.

The sponge is supposed to take an hour – I think it took half an hour to more than double at 5000 feet. It really, really rises – use a big mixing bowl.

Mix flour and yeast, stir in the canned milk and hot water, and mix with a wooden spoon until the lumps are out of the mixture. Cover with plastic wrap (I was out, so slit open a gallon sized zipper baggie and put that over it). Allow to rise until double.

Before starting the dough, grease a large mixing bowl and set aside.

For the dough, stir down the sponge and add the egg yolks, sugar, butter, salt, cardamom, lemon and orange peels, raisins and almonds. Stir until well mixed.

Stir in the rye flour and the milk. This is a very soft, sticky dough at this stage. I added about a cup of the all purpose flour before turning it out onto the floured board and working in about 2 ½ more cups of flour.

Recipe calls for kneading for 10 minutes. I did 6 because I have no patience and because by then it felt right – not clinging all sticky to my hands, not dry and hard. In fact, this is a wonderful dough to knead, very elastic and bouncy, and very large – it weighed a ton. Transfer to the prepared, greased bowl, cover and let rise for about an hour, or until doubled.

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Once the dough has risen, turn out onto the floured board and punch down. The recipe calls for 4-quart pails. I used two King Arthur Flour’s bakeable paper Panettone pans, which were about perfect. The dough is only supposed to go halfway up the pan – I think I was at 2/3 of the way up and I’m very happy with the way they turned out.

This rises very fast, covered with a sheet of wax paper. Preheat oven to 350, and bake for one hour. One of the few breads I’ve seen tested with a metal skewer or straw for doneness. Remove from oven and brush with butter. I let mine sit on a rack for about 20 minutes, then peeled the paper off them.

They’re lovely. And they smell far, far better than the muddy naturally dyed Easter egg experiment of this morning.

Brown Butter Cookies

So I did everything wrong while creating this recipe and ended up with a delicate, crispy-bottomed, soft-topped little cookie.  Go figure!

Not sure what I was even aiming for.  I love butter.  My Grandmother used to nibble it, just butter, and I tend to do that also.  In the long run, I suppose it cuts down on the carbs.  No middleman necessary for our butter.

I also love salted sweet cream butter.  Many, many recipes advise not using salted butter.  I only use salted butter unless whatever store I’m in is totally out of the good brands of it.  My favorites, in order, are Land o’ Lakes, Challenge, Tillamook, and out of order, Costco’s brand is really good and really inexpensive.

I browned the butter first, and did that wrong.  Because it’s salted butter, the milk and salt solids rose to the top in the pan, and stayed a frothy cream color.  I kept stirring and picking the pan up and swirling until I looked beneath the froth and discovered my brown butter was deep brewed tea brown.  I thought I’d have to start over, but it just tasted stronger, and sweet, and lovely – and burned my lips thoroughly.  (Patience is not my strong suit.)

Let the butter cool, then broken two large eggs, room temp, into the bowl of the standing mixer, poured in the butter and one cup granulated sugar.  Beat until frothy, then mixed in the dry ingredients alternately with what ended up being 1 cup milk (also room temp).  Probably should have had a teaspoon of vanilla, but I’m always, always out of vanilla, and I quite like these cookies without. 

The resulting batter was so liquid-y I added another half cup of flour to the one-and-a-half I already had.  It was still so soft the half I wrapped in wax paper to try chilling was a pancake in the fridge.  If I bake it at some point, I’ll check back with how it did.

The half of the batter I baked I doled out in goopy one tablespoon ice-cream-scoops onto a parchment paper-lined sided cookie sheet and baked at 350 for 13 minutes.  They’re actually pretty amazing. 

 1 stick salted sweet cream butter, melted and brown, cooled

1 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs, room temperature

1 cup whole milk, room temperature

2 cups all purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

 Break the eggs into a mixer bowl.  Add the sugar and melted butter and beat until well mixed. 

 In a small bowl, mix the flour with the baking soda and salt.  Add alternately with one cup milk until well mixed.  Drop by tablespoonsful onto a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet.  Set wide apart – they spread.

 Bake for 12 to 13 minutes, until bottoms of the cookies show golden brown and the tops gently set.  Cool on the pan on a rack for five minutes, then transfer to the rack to cool.

 

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The injured looking cookie is one I poked to see if they were set at that moment.  They weren’t.

 

 

A Blustery Night’s Chili Braid

Friday, April 7, was a blustery day in my high desert.  Rain in the morning to add to all the flooding that’s been going on all winter.  There are impromptu lakes and streams everywhere in our foothills.  The rabbits, birds and squirrels don’t need the glass pie plate of water I keep out for them in the back yard.  Wind rocked the house most of the day and by evening rain started.  Hard.  Lots of rain.  Because that’s what everyone wants when we’re already flooded.  The world smelled good, though, and around 6 or 7 p.m. when I went outside, the even felt like a brisk October.  Pretty – just out of place.

Good night for chili.  If there’s someone in your household who reacts to beans of any sort the way my husband does (Toxic sludge! Run!) this is a filling, hearty chili that would lend itself easily to all sorts of variations.  I’ve fallen in love with it for the simplicity of having a one-piece meal – anything added for a side dish could be equally easy but this doesn’t even require garlic bread: it’s all part and parcel.

On really lazy nights I just make the chili and toast garlic bread with it rather than making the yeast bread to wrap around the chili and bake.  When that’s the case I top my bowl with grated sharp cheddar and chunks of tomato.  Rick adds just grated parmesan.  There’s a slight sweetness to it when it’s made in the braid so possibly a green salad (we kind of don’t do green salads here) or sharp apple slices or green grapes would be nice on the side.

Overnight the rain became that white fluffy kind of “rain” that sticks to the ground and powders the foothills.  I foresee having the leftover chili loaf for lunch.  It’s that kind of brisk day in April.

The Chili

1 pound lean ground beef (we choose 93 percent lean or leaner)

Olive oil

½ yellow onion, chopped

1 cup tomato sauce

1 ½ teaspoons chili powder

½ teaspoon dried basil

½ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

¼ teaspoon salt

½ cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated

 

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil (about a tablespoon’s worth) while you chop half a yellow onion.  Sauté until soft.  Break up the ground beef while browning in the pan.  While the meat is browning, add the seasonings to the tomato sauce.  This is a tasty chili with moments of hot as in spice – for a hotter chili, add more chili powder in judicious increments.  Once the meat is browned and broken up, mix in the tomato sauce and remove the pan from heat.  Set aside.

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The Bread

½ cup warm water

1 package active dry yeast (not rapid rise)

1 teaspoon sugar

½ cup warm milk

1 tablespoon oil (canola or vegetable or olive – I’ve never tried it with olive)

1 teaspoon garlic salt

2 to 2 ½ cups unbleached flour

To make the bread, dissolve the yeast in the warm water in a large bowl.  Once the yeast is dissolved, add the milk, sugar, oil and garlic salt.  Stir well.  Depending on the humidity, the bread can take up to 2 ½ cups of flour but despite the wet and wild day outside mine only used two cups and a scant handful last night.  Stir until the dough is slightly sticky, then turn out onto a floured board and kneed for 2 or 3 minutes.  This is a soft dough.

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Oil a flat cookie sheet and sprinkle corn meal over the surface.  Roll out the dough on the cookie sheet (a towel underneath will mostly keep the whole thing from shifting around as you roll it out).  Roll into a roughly 12×14-inch oval.  Scoop the meat onto the bread dough, and sprinkle the cheddar over.

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At an angle, using a serrated knife, make cuts in the dough about once every 1 ½ inches on each side, leaving a chunk at either end uncut.  Fold the “wings” up to meet each other over the filling, bringing the ends up to create heels.

Cover and let rise for 30 minutes.  Bake in a 350 degree oven for 35 minutes or until golden.

IMG_4346Didn’t manage to get a photo of it once baked – we kind of ate it.  Next time!

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Victorian Milk Bread

Sometimes a yeast dough kneads like a bowling ball and sits there uncooperative all the way through the suggested rises, its back to you like a cat that’s sulking.

Very rarely have I had a yeast bread fail. I don’t think this is so much my prowess as a baker as it is that yeast bread is pretty forgiving. I’ve forgotten to add ingredients from butter to eggs to the rest of the liquid and added them in as late as when I’m kneading on the board and thinking This dough feels strange….

It would be nice if recipes noted when the bread is one of those come-from-behind late bloomers. This one sat sullen in the favorite brown bread bowl. It sat sullen through its second rise, too, looking so unhappy I left it for more than 90 minutes when the usual Northern Nevada 5000 feet above sea level rise is 45, 60 minutes at max.

Outside the day was sunny, but only 48 degrees. This is a very strange winter that doesn’t seem to want to go away, and the humidity was 40 percent. I’m used to summer humidity of 15 or so. It was 66 degrees in the house, and apparently the bread dough didn’t like that, either.

Eventually I got tired of waiting for it and abused it into the S-shape the cookbook calls for, then preheated the oven to 400 and let the bread rise in the pan on the stove top. At which point it rose nicely and in about 45 minutes.

This was a bread that – as some do – caused my husband to comment that most breads are just bread, homemade or not. Which is all I was looking for – bread – but still, when you fight with something for half a day, you expect a payout.

Which I got. We ended up finishing most of the loaf because when it was cold it was very good. I never tried toasting it, but the bread held together well, without crumbling, and probably would be great toasted. It had a nice, tight crumb and a crispy crust. I tried to forget the wash that goes on it and ended up brushing it on minutes after it went into to the oven.

The egg wash made for a crispy crust but was a little bland. Next time I’ll either try salt in the wash or once the bread is out of the pan and on a rack, brush it with salted butter.

The recipe comes from Ultimate Bread, Eric Treuille & Ursula Ferrigno, 1998.

2 teaspoons active dry yeast (not rapid rise)

1 teaspoon sugar

1 ¼ cups lukewarm milk

3 ½ cups unbleached flour

1 ½ teaspoons salt

Egg glaze – 1 egg and 1 tablespoon milk

Start by sprinkling the yeast and the sugar over ½ cup of the lukewarm milk in a small bowl. Allow to sit for 5 minutes, then stir to dissolve the yeast completely.

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The recipe calls for all the flour and salt in a large bowl. I scooped 2 ½ cups of the flour into the bowl and mixed in all the salt, holding out 1 cup of the flour because of the dry desert.

Make a well in the flour and pour in the milk, sugar and yeast mixture. Draw flour in from the sides of the bowl as you stir, creating a sticky dough. I ended up using all of the remaining milk and not all of the remaining flour, even with 40 percent humidity for the day.

The dough needs to be cohesive enough it can be lifted from the bowl while leaving some sticky bits behind, but not so dry it’s flaking off flour and pieces of itself. It’s better to under flour than to get carried away – you can always add more flour; you can’t add less.

Move the dough to a dry, floured surface and knead for 10 minutes. I actually came closer to kneading for the full 10 minutes than I usually do because it was such a rock-hard dough.

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Place the dough in a clean bowl and cover with a dish towel. Allow to rise for 45 minutes, unless your bread behaves like mine. Then keep checking on it and giving it pep talks until it grudgingly rises. The photo shows the unwilling dough after 50 minutes.

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Once the dough is risen, punch it down and leave it to rise a second time. This bread really benefited from being in the sun on my kitchen table, and even more so when it moved to the top of the preheating oven. If you discover your bread is sluggish, try putting the bowl on the top of stove while the oven preheats. Or instead of the 2 teaspoons of yeast, maybe start with 1 tablespoon of yeast (the equivalent of 3 teaspoons).

After the second rise, punch the dough down gently and shape into a roll, then twist into an S-shape. I just used my standard sized light nonstick bread pan and oiled it gently. Nonstick is a nice idea and sometimes it even works. No reason not to help it out a little. Let the bread rise or proof in the pan covered with a tea towel until risen an inch over the top of the pan.

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The authors suggest adding a little sugar to a milk glaze before applying, but this is an egg glaze with milk in it. Seems like the top would brown very quickly if both milk sugar and actual sugar were in the glaze. Even without the sugar I covered my bread at about 30 minutes, just laying a piece of foil across the top.

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When I try the bread again, I may try two small loves, free form, and brush one with the egg glaze with sugar added, and the other with the egg glaze and salt added. Or make three micro loaves and brush the third with salted butter once it’s out of the oven.

Or just try the recipe three more times, one wash for each. It turned out a tasty loaf that would make good sandwiches – no reason not to experiment.

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Beer Batter Maple Bacon Spring Break Cupcakes ~ a la Two Broke Girls

I love the show Two Broke Girls, love the relationship between the friends and the entire concept (at least through the second season, which is as far as I’ve binged so far). The idea of owning a bakery has been a dream of mine for a long, long time. The virtual bakery is a way to write my way into the dream, because I’m always going to be a writer first and neither bakery owner nor writer sounds like something that could be added part time.

When I first saw the first season’s two-part finale with Martha Stewart, I became enamored of Max’s Homemade Beer Batter Maple Bacon Spring Break Cupcakes. I went looking for a recipe and found one online that led me to the beer I’m using (a light, citrusy brew) and the idea for a white cake, not chocolate. Have to admit, I didn’t realize Max’s was chocolate and I’m not a fan of chocolate. I made the one I found online [https://londonfare.wordpress.com/2013/03/01/beer-batter-maple-bacon-spring-break-cupcakes/] and it’s good, but I wanted to try it with my own cupcake recipe, a 1-2-3-4 cake, and add in the high altitude parts.

This is the result. I made them on March 21, following intermittent desert rainstorms when our humidity is about as high as it ever gets – 90 percent. The temp was around 40 and while there wasn’t a lot of wind, what there was held icy raindrops even as the sun continued to shine. Because that’s what it does here.

The cakes

6 tablespoons shortening (I used stick Crisco, not the butter flavored)

1 cup sugar minus 1 tablespoon

2 tablespoons hot water

2 eggs, room temperature

1 tsp vanilla

1 ½ cups cake flour plus 2 tablespoons (I’ve never used cake flour in my life – this was unbleached)

7/8 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup beer plus 2 tablespoons plus 3 teaspoons

Cream shortening and sugar thoroughly. Add hot water and beat until mixture is light and fluffy. Add eggs, unbeaten, one at a time, and beat mixture well after each addition. (Note: Breaking the eggs into a glass dish before adding to the batter gives you a chance to check for and pick out any shell fragments.)

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Sift dry ingredients together into a medium sized bowl or if, like me, you don’t have a sifter, put the flour, baking powder and salt into a sieve and shake it into the bowl. Add to the eggs, sugar and shortening alternately with the beer, making sure the batter is always soft enough to stir easily. When dry ingredients and beer are both added, add the vanilla.

Spoon or pour the batter into prepared cupcake tins; makes 12. Bake in a 365 degree oven for 22 to 25 minutes. Check by inserting a sharp knife or toothpick into the center of a cupcake or two to check for doneness; cupcakes are baked when no batter sticks to the tester.

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The frosting

1 ½ sticks butter, softened (I use salted butter for pretty much everything – YMMV)

2 cups powdered sugar

3-4 (or even 5) tablespoons maple syrup

Beat the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer until smooth and well beaten. Add the first cup of powdered sugar and 1 to 2 tablespoons of the syrup. Run the mixer until fairly well mixed, then add the remaining sugar and the other 1 to 2 (or even 3) tablespoons of syrup, one at a time. Frosting should be thick enough to easily frost the cupcakes, not runny.

While the cupcakes are cooling on a rack, cut up as many strips of bacon as desired into half-inch strips. Cook in a frying pan until crispy, drain thoroughly on paper towels.

When the cupcakes are cool, frost with the maple frosting. There’s no rule that requires you to use a decorator bag. A tablespoon, knife or spatula will probably work just about as well. When the cupcakes are frosted, either sprinkle on the bacon, place it artfully, or turn the cupcakes upside down in the bacon bits. There’s no way to do this wrong, and definitely no way to lose.

Devour. Everybody loves bacon.

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Spring Equinox

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Welcome to High Desert Bakery, a virtual bakery imaginarily nestled

in the very real Sierra Nevada foothills.

Spring in Nevada is ephemeral, there one minute and buried under eight inches of snow the next.  The sky pales from the hard blue of winter before hitting the electric blue of summer.  Robins return, cliché harbingers of the season.  Rabbits begin courtships in our cul de sac.  On the foothills, tiny yellow, pink and white flowers bloom among the sage.

On the Equinox and the days surrounding it, day and night are supposed to be of equal length.  I always imagined the equinox itself meant exactly 12 hours of day and 12 hours of night, but it’s not quite that neat. The closest Reno is coming is day length of 11 hours, 59 minutes and 5 seconds on the 16th and 12 hours, 1 minute and 42 seconds on the 17. I thought maybe there would be some place on Earth where the days and nights were exactly even and the variations were because of location, but apparently not. According to The Old Farmer’s Almanac,

“Day and night are not exactly equal at the equinox for two reasons.  First, daytime begins the moment any part of the Sun is over the horizon, and it is not over until the last part of the Sun has set. If the sun were to shrink to a starlike point and we lived in a world without air, the spring and fall equinoxes would truly have ‘equal nights.'”

That we’re only coming close to being perfectly balanced seems just right.  The seasons change because Earth’s relationship to the Sun changes as our tilted orbit spins us.

Today is the last of the days the Equinox could have fallen on.  Spring and fall the seasonal change can vary anywhere from the 20th to the 23rd; the Solstices only happen on different days because a time zone is far enough out from UTC.  I like that fit, too, the uncertainty of spring and fall, the dead certainty of winter and summer.

High Desert Bakery is opening for virtual business today, celebrating spring with Black & Whites to represent the Equinox in all it’s mostly even glory.  The recipe is from The All-American Cookie Book by Nancy Baggett (2001).  Mine are a little less glossy and a little more lumpy looking than hers.  This is due to my running out of time (a constant in my life) and thinking that surely sifting the powdered sugar was for bakers in climates with more humidity than my high desert.  But they did come out roughly half black and half white – Equinox cookies!

There’s also a recipe for ginger cookies I made during the last insane snowstorm, eight inches in our mountainous valley.  High Desert Bakery is high desert – located in Reno’s North Valleys, we’re at 5000 feet, cooler than Reno year-round.  Two days after the snow came down it melted off in 60+ degree days.  For that, the celebration is a summery sharp lemon tea bread.  Following that is my take on a bread pudding using the last of the tea loaf.

I’m hoping High Desert Bakery becomes a place to hang out and talk about baking, drink tea and share outrageous successes and abject failures – there are plenty of both in my kitchen (some day I’ll share the Balleymaloe Brown Bread from two weeks ago and whether or not it would have been thrifty and economical to save it in case I needed a brick for something), what works for high altitude baking and for tricky recipes at sea level.  A place to ask questions of each other and offer suggestions and share recipes and a love of baking.

Welcome!  Pull up a cookie and stay a while.

Celebrating the Equinox with Black & White Cookies, the recipe taken from The All-American Cookie Book by Nancy Baggett (2001).  Mine are a little less glossy and a little more lumpy looking than hers.  This is due to my running out of time (a constant in my life) and thinking that surely sifting the powdered sugar was an instruction far more important for bakers in climates with more than 14 percent humidity on any given day.  Still, the cookies came out roughly half black and half white – Equinox cookies!

I didn’t make significant changes to the recipe as it stands, and high altitude baking doesn’t really apply to cookies – I made these to celebrate the Equinox and balance of light and dark.  Here’s how I did the Black and Whites:

The Cookies

3 cups flour (all purpose)

¾ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon baking soda

1 1/3 cups sugar

2/3 cup salted butter

½ cup (8 tablespoons) vegetable shortening

2 eggs

2 teaspoons light corn syrup

¾ teaspoon lemon extract

1/3 cup sour cream

 

The Fondants

¼ cup light corn syrup

5 cups powdered sugar

¾ teaspoon vanilla extract

2 ounces unsweetened chocolate

 

Mix flour, salt, baking soda in a bowl and set aside.

In a mixer bowl, mix butter and sugar on medium until light and fluffy.  Add eggs, one at a time, and mix well.  Add corn syrup and lemon extract and mix well.

Add flour and sour cream alternately, beginning and ending with flour and mixing until ingredients are just incorporated.

The dough should now stand for a few minutes.  I was in the middle of multiple projects and gave it 20 minutes rather than the suggested 5 and it survived quite well.

Preheat the oven to 350 with racks in the middle.

These are big cookies.  Line 2 or 3 cookie trays with parchment paper.  The recipe I followed suggests ¼ cup of dough per cookie.  That’s what I followed, and rolled them into balls before placing them well apart from each other on the tray.  On the largest cookie sheet I think I had 6 cookies.  Let them stand while you’re shaping all of them, then press them gently flat with the palm of your hand.

Bake for 10 to 15 minutes or until the bottoms are gently golden brown.  Mine took 14 minutes.  Cool on cookie sheet on wire racks for a couple minutes, then transfer to wire racks to finish cooling.

Making the base/vanilla fondant:

Mix the ¼ cup light corn syrup and ½ cup water in the same measuring cup if you ever hope to get all the corn syrup out of the measuring cup.  Pour into a saucepan and bring to a boil.  Remove the pan from heat and stir in the vanilla, and then the 5 cups of powdered sugar (yes, sifted!).  Stir until smooth.

For the chocolate fondant:

Break up the 2 ounces of unsweetened chocolate in a small to medium sized bowl.  Pour 2/3 cup of the vanilla fondant over, followed by another ½ cup as the chocolate melts.  Mix until smooth.

Let the fondants sit until thicker and cooler.  Place waxed paper or parchment paper under the wire rack and spoon the vanilla fondant over one half of each cookie and the chocolate fondant over the other half of each.  Let the cookies sit until well set or they’re really messy to eat.  I speak from experience.

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Notes:

Being short on time I tried icing these when the cookies were cool but the fondant wasn’t.  They dripped and broke and bent and acted obnoxious.  Finally I made myself stop messing with them and ran some errands, coming home to stir the fondants (covering them with cling wrap would have prevented the slight crispiness of the surface, but stirring it back in worked, and besides, I am forever running out of cling wrap which usually only clings to me anyway).  This time I iced the cookies by dripping the cooled fondant over each half, making sure the edges were covered.

They’re sweet, very lightly lemony, with a very sweet icing, and they’re nice big soft cookies – and evenly balanced black and white, for the moment the Northern Hemisphere stands between winter and spring.

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