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Irish Brown Bread

When my husband and I first started dating, I understood about every third word that came out of his mouth.  Or, if he were telling this story, he’d say, “every turd word…out of my mout“.  His accent was pretty tick back den.  He grew up smack in the middle of Ireland, in County Westmeath, where people don’t like to pronounce their ‘th’s’.  Instead, three becomes ‘tree‘, thin becomes ‘tin‘, though becomes ‘dough‘ and I become crazy trying to translate English to, umm…English.  Don’t even get me started about the year he turned ‘turty-tree-and-a-turd’.

Luckily, not a single ‘t’, nor ‘h’ plays a part in Irish Brown Bread.

Though I shouldn’t worry – little is muttered from my Irishman’s mouth when he sniffs out freshly baked Brown Bread.  (Not to be confused with Irish Soda Bread, which is purely an Americanized version and does not exist anywhere in Ireland).  He can freakishly devour an entire loaf with silent precision and speed.  Slathered with a good helping of salted Irish butter and homemade jam for breakfast, topped with smoked salmon, capers and red onions for lunch and served along side a bowl of soup for a light supper are his favorite variations.  I like mine served simply – warm with butter, along side a big cup of Barry’s Irish tea.

It happens to be Paddy’s Day, but this Irish Brown Bread is baked year round, tru tick and tin, in dis house.  Irish eyes are smiling for it.

Irish Brown Bread, yields 1 loaf

I never have buttermilk when I need it, but for this bread, as the luck of the Irish would have it – Homemade Buttermilk only requires two ingredients I always have on-hand, and produces a far tastier and superior tasting loaf than its pricier supermarket equivalent.

Another thing I love about this brown bread is that I can wake up in the morning, and a mere hour later, pull a fresh loaf of bread out of the oven, just in time for breakfast.  Yeast-free, speedy as can be and like Lucky Charms – magically delicious.

Music Pairing: John McCormack, When Irish Eyes Are Smiling

Ingredients

  • 3 1/2 cups whole wheat flour, preferably stone ground (the coarser, the better)
  • 2 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 4 tbsp cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
  • 1/2 cup finely ground old fashioned oats
  • 1 1/3 cups whole milk
  • 1/3 cup apple-cider vinegar

Method

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a baking pan with parchment paper.  For Homemade Buttermilk:  Mix milk and vinegar in a small bowl, and let stand until thickened, about 5-10 minutes.

Whisk together flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in a large bowl.  Cut in butter with a pastry cutter or 2 knives until mixture resembles coarse meal.  Stir in ground oatmeal.

Pour milk mixture into flour mixture; stir until dough just holds together but is still sticky. Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface. Knead gently about 4-5 times.  Pat, press and shape dough gently into a round, dome-shaped loaf, about 6-7 inches in diameter. Transfer to prepared baking pan.

Lightly dust top of loaf with flour. With a sharp knife, cut an X into the top, 3/4 inch deep. Bake, rotating halfway through, until loaf is golden brown and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 1 hour.  Allow to cool on wire rack.

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On our last trip to Paris, my husband and I rented a little pied-à-terre, graced with a balcony facing magnificent centuries-old buildings, brightly-colored tiny shops, and a friendly street.  Most mornings, straight out of bed, I’d scamper over to the balcony, fling open the vintage double doors to hear, just below, the laughter of school children and, on Sundays, the ringing of church bells.  This was a real Parisian neighborhood, void of tourists and crowds –and full of simple, everyday life (and baguettes).

Baguettes are a stylish accessory in Paris –chic Parisian briefcases, minus the hefty price tag.  More than a handful of boulangeries nestle along our narrow street, filling each turn with the beautifully addicting smell of freshly baked pain au chocolat, brioche and baguettes.  Ou la la…it’s my ultimate version of heaven.  Though simultaneously, it’s torture.  Torture, knowing soon I’d be on a plane and lose access to my vast pool of Parisian pushers, who happily supplied me with my daily fix.  I’m a junkie.  A baguette junkie.  I don’t know when it all started, but I have a sneaky suspicion my loving Dad turned me onto this addiction at an alarmingly young age.  He’s the kingpin, and known to disown family members who consume, at their peril, one too many less-than-stellar baguettes.

homemade french baguette

I’m not that bad.  But I knew I had to get my addiction under control.  More times than I’d like to admit, I tried mastering the elusive baguette at home, testing out crazy antics to achieve a dark-golden, crispy, crackly crust, coupled with the the perfect elongated shape, and failing miserably in the process.  Luckily, I’m as stubborn as I am foolish, so finally, finally, I’ve cracked the code for baking homemade baguettes.  The key?  A long, cold fermentation similar to that used for my favorite whole-wheat bread, with the addition of a hot steamy bath.  I want to (literally) throw a party after pulling these babies out of the oven.  It’s an occasion worth celebrating when four simple, rudimentary ingredients – flour, salt, water, yeast – are capable of such a Herculean feat.  I feel nothing but joy…pure joy!  I’ll invite Dad to the party, as I know even he’d approve of these baguettes, especially served warm with a good slathering of French butter.

Then again, I might keep them a secret, so I can close my eyes, and visit our balcony in Paris whenever I need my fix.

homemade french baguettehomemade french baguette

HOMEMADE FRENCH BAGUETTES, yields four 16-inch baguettes
Tweaked from Artisan Breads Every Day, Peter Reinhart

I can’t be entirely sure whether it made the critical difference or not, but I used this pan, instead of a baking sheet.  Also, don’t be alarmed by the extensive instructions – there’s a lot of waiting time and a bit of planning involved, but everything else is pretty simple.  Just please, please be extra careful when pouring in the hot water for the steam pan (see below in ‘Prepare for Hearth Baking’ section for more detail).  Steaming water WILL splatter, so I definitely recommend using a watering can with a long spout, standing back and covering up those arms and hands!

Music Pairing: Yann Tiersen, La Noyee

Ingredients

  • 5 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour
  • 2 tsp salt, or 1 tbsp coarse kosher salt
  • 2 1/4 tsp instant yeast
  • 2 cups lukewarm water (about 95 degrees)

Method

Prep Day: Combine all ingredients in bowl of mixer, set with paddle attachment, and mix on lowest speed for 1 minute until well blended and smooth.  Dough should form a coarse, shaggy ball.  Let rest, uncovered for 5 minutes.  Switch to dough hook and mix on medium-low speed for 2 minutes.  Dough should be smooth, supple, and tacky but not sticky.

Knead dough by hand on lightly floured work surface for 1 minute, then transfer to a large clean, lightly oiled bowl.  Cover with plastic wrap and immediately refrigerate overnight or up to 4 days.

Baking Day: Remove dough from refrigerator 2 hours prior to baking.  Gently transfer to lightly floured work surface, taking care to degas it as little as possible.  Divide dough into 10-ounce pieces for baguettes.

Form Baguettes: Pat each piece of divided dough into a thick rectangle.  Fold the bottom half to the center and seal the seam.  Fold the top half to the center and once again seal the seam.  Roll the top half of the dough over the seam to create a new seam on the bottom of the loaf.  Rock loaf back and forth to extend it to desire length, 6-12 inches.  Let rest for 5-10 minutes.  Repeat the same folding process:  bottom to center, top to center, and pinch to create a seam.  With seam side underneath, gently rock loaf back and forth, with hands moving out toward and increasing pressure at the ends, to slightly taper the loaf until baguette is the length of baguette pan (or baking sheet).

Mist top of dough with spray oil, loosely cover with plastic wrap, and proof at room temperature (preferably in a couche, or improvise on a clean linen towel, dusted with flour – leaving 3 inches between loaves so fabric can be bunched up to create “walls” for support while proofing – I placed my prepared towel and loaves on my baguette pan to further aid in keeping its shape, as shown above) for about 1 1/2 hours, or until increased to 1 1/2 times its original size.

Prepare for Hearth Baking: About 45 minutes before baking, preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Place a sheet pan, which will serve as the steam pan, with a 1-inch rim on shelf under which baguettes will be baked.  Remove plastic wrap from the dough 15 minutes prior to baking.  Gently roll dough onto baguette pan.  Just prior to baking, score the dough 1/2 inch deep with a serrated knife or razor.  Transfer loaves to the oven, pour 1 cup hot water into the steam pan.  Always use an oven mitt and wear long sleeves when adding water to the hot steam pan to prevent steam burns.  It’s also advisable to cover the oven window with a dry dish towel to prevent backsplash from hitting the window and cracking it – but remember to remove the towel before closing oven door!  Using a watering can with a long spout when pouring the water into the steam pan provides control and distance from the hot steam.

Bake for 12 minutes, then rotate pan and bake for another 15-25 minutes, until the crust is rich golden brown, the loaves sound hollow when thumped, and the internal temperature is about 200 degrees in the center.  Cool on wire rack for at least 35 minutes before slicing or serving.  Best eaten the same day, or heated briefly in the oven the next day if crust loses its crispness.

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“Winter must be cold for those with no warm memories”.  I don’t know how many times I’ve watched and recited this line, in perfect unison, with Deborah Kerr from the classic An Affair to Remember.  I love watching old movies for the feeling of nostalgia and reminder of simpler times, simpler lives (plus, it’s Cary Grant, for goodness sake).  When it’s brrrrrrr cold outside, time spent in our kitchen increases exponentially – soups stewing, lamb braising, bread baking, holiday music blaring and the hot oven warming our souls.  With a hot oven, hotter desserts are never far behind.

These Ultimate Peppermint Ganache Brownies are no joke.  There’s heaps of chocolate, cocoa and cream involved.  Look up rich and decadent in the dictionary and you’ll see a photo of these brownies.  But ganache happens to be one of my all time favorite words.  Ever.  Just saying it out loud makes me happy.  Ganache.  Ganache.  Ganache.  Ganache. Ahhhhhhhh.  These babies are a bit labor intensive, but in a good way.  You’ll get to spend precious hours in the kitchen with the ones you love, creating your own warm memories, playing with candy and fighting over who gets the last licks from the chocolate laden bowls and spatulas.

Besides being curled up, under a blanket, in flannel pajamas, next to a roaring fire, with eyes glued to Terry and Nickie bantering away for 2 hours, I can’t think of a better way to spend the day, when it’s cold outside.  Winter feels warm today.  More memories hatched.  Serve along side a tall glass of homemade soy milk for Santa.  Hope you have a joyous, sweet, and wonderful holiday!

ultimate peppermint ganache browniesultimate peppermint ganache browniesultimate peppermint ganache browniesultimate peppermint ganache brownies

ULTIMATE PEPPERMINT GANACHE BROWNIES
Tweaked from Sunset Magazine, yields about 30 small brownies (small goes a long way with these)

Don’t let the brownies sit out on the counter or serving tray for too long as the lovely peppermint tops will slowly start to melt.  Enjoy!

Music Pairing: Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Jordon, Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Ingredients

  • 8 tbsp butter
  • 6 ounces good-quality bittersweet chocolate, broken into large chunks
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3/4 tbsp vanilla
  • 1/4  teaspoon  salt
  • 3/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 1/2  tsp baking powder
  • 40 or more Starlight mints (melting varies depending on size)
  • 1/3 pound semisweet chocolate, chopped
  • 3/4 cup whipping cream

Method

Preheat oven to 350°. Butter a 9×13 inch baking pan. In a medium saucepan, stir butter and bittersweet chocolate over very low heat with a heatproof rubber spatula until just melted (do not let simmer or boil). Remove from heat and let cool slightly, about 5 minutes.

In a large bowl, whisk eggs, sugar, vanilla, and salt. Slowly pour chocolate-butter mix into egg mix, whisking constantly. In separate bowl, sift flour, cocoa powder, and baking powder.  With a clean rubber spatula, gently fold flour mixture into egg mixture until just combined.  Spread batter evenly in baking pan. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, or until brownies are firm, beginning to pull away from sides of pan, and a toothpick inserted in center emerges with only a few crumbs clinging to it. Let brownies cool completely in the pan on a wire rack.

Reduce oven temp to 300°.  Line a level, rimmed 11 1/2×16 inch baking sheet with parchment. With a pencil, draw a grid of 1 1/2 inch squares on parchment, leaving about a 1 inch border, and turn parchment over. Place a mint in the center of each square. Bake 15 to 25 minutes, or until completely melted into 1 large sheet, but remove before candy begins to turn yellow. Immediately score peppermint squares with a pizza cutter, using pencil lines as your guide. If scored lines don’t hold, rescore quickly. Let candy cool completely. Gently break into squares along score lines.  (You may want to make a test batch with 12 mints to see if you need to adjust oven temperature or spacing of candies).

In the top of a double boiler, combine chopped semisweet chocolate and whipping cream. Cook, stirring often, until melted and blended. Remove from heat and let ganache cool until just warm.  Pour ganache over cooled brownies in pan and allow to set until firm, about 1 hour in the refrigerator.

Place peppermint squares bottom side up on ganache, leaving enough room between squares to cut brownies. Cut brownies into squares along edges of peppermint tops, wiping knife clean between cuts. Remove brownies from pan, eats scraps, and return brownies to pan. Cover with plastic wrap, making sure wrap does not touch peppermint, and refrigerate 3 hours (to soften candy a bit).  Serve slightly chilled with a tall glass of homemade soy milk.

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