Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Apple Strudel - Daring Bakers Challenge

As with so many Daring Bakers challenges, this was delicious, a great opportunity to learn a new technique (strudel-rolling in this case), and most likely something I will not be making again for quite some time!

Not because it wasn't absolutely wonderful, but simply because it was so much work! Thank goodness my mom was there to help me roll up the strudel (which then ended up being her Mother's Day dessert); otherwise, I'm sure it would have been a disaster. As it was, there was a significant amount of dough-patching, but after it was all baked, you couldn't tell at all!

The May Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Linda of make life sweeter! and Courtney of Coco Cooks. They chose Apple Strudel from the recipe book Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague by Rick Rodgers.

Though the recipe given was for apple strudel, we were actually allowed to make pretty much anything we wanted, as long as it was a strudel. Now, I usually love when we're given the freedom to experiment and be creative, but in this case, the recipe given for apple strudel looked so good that I really couldn't bring myself to make anything else. Besides, as this was my first strudel, I kind of wanted to start with a classic. Luckily, there were still some apples being sold at the farmer's market, so I bought a couple pounds as soon as the challenge was announced - May isn't really apple season, and I wanted to make sure I got them before they ran out!

I used pink ladies, but they weren't quite tart enough for my taste, so I added a bit of lemon zest to the recipe, which you'll see in my modifications below. As usual, any of my notes will be in purple.

Preparation time
Total: 2 hours 15 minutes – 3 hours 30 minutes

15-20 min to make dough
30-90 min to let dough rest/to prepare the filling
20-30 min to roll out and stretch dough
10 min to fill and roll dough
30 min to bake
30 min to cool

Apple strudel
from “Kaffeehaus – Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague” by Rick Rodgers

2 tablespoons (30 ml) golden rum
3 tablespoons (45 ml) raisins
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon *I used a whole cinnamon stick, which I first pan-roasted for a few minutes and then crushed with a mortar and pestle. The flavor was fantastic - much more complex that what you get in pre-ground cinnamon.
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon (80 g) sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick / 115 g) unsalted butter, melted, divided
1 1/2 cups (350 ml) fresh bread crumbs
strudel dough (recipe below)
1/2 cup (120 ml, about 60 g) coarsely chopped walnuts
2 pounds (900 g) tart cooking apples, peeled, cored and cut into ¼ inch-thick slices (use apples that hold their shape during baking)

1. Mix the rum and raisins in a bowl. Mix the cinnamon and sugar in another bowl.

2. Heat 3 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet over medium-high. Add the breadcrumbs and cook whilst stirring until golden and toasted. This will take about 3 minutes. Let it cool completely.

3. Put the rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Line a large baking sheet with baking paper (parchment paper). Make the strudel dough as described below. Spread about 3 tablespoons of the remaining melted butter over the dough using your hands (a bristle brush could tear the dough, you could use a special feather pastry brush instead of your hands). Sprinkle the buttered dough with the bread crumbs. Spread the walnuts about 3 inches (8 cm) from the short edge of the dough in a 6-inch-(15cm)-wide strip. Mix the apples with the raisins (including the rum), and the cinnamon sugar. Spread the mixture over the walnuts.

*I added lemon zest from one small lemon to the apple-cinnamon-sugar-raisin-rum mixture. I also let it sit for a few hours to let the flavors really get into the apples.

4. Fold the short end of the dough onto the filling. Lift the tablecloth at the short end of the dough so that the strudel rolls onto itself.

Transfer the strudel to the prepared baking sheet by lifting it. Curve it into a horseshoe to fit. Tuck the ends under the strudel. Brush the top with the remaining melted butter.

5. Bake the strudel for about 30 minutes or until it is deep golden brown. Cool for at least 30 minutes before slicing. Use a serrated knife and serve either warm or at room temperature. It is best on the day it is baked.

Strudel dough
from “Kaffeehaus – Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague” by Rick Rodgers

1 1/3 cups (200 g) unbleached flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons (105 ml) water, plus more if needed
2 tablespoons (30 ml) vegetable oil, plus additional for coating the dough
1/2 teaspoon cider vinegar

1. Combine the flour and salt in a stand-mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix the water, oil and vinegar in a measuring cup. Add the water/oil mixture to the flour with the mixer on low speed. You will get a soft dough. Make sure it is not too dry, add a little more water if necessary.
Take the dough out of the mixer. Change to the dough hook. Put the dough ball back in the mixer. Let the dough knead on medium until you get a soft dough ball with a somewhat rough surface.

2. Take the dough out of the mixer and continue kneading by hand on an unfloured work surface. Knead for about 2 minutes. Pick up the dough and throw it down hard onto your working surface occasionally.
Shape the dough into a ball and transfer it to a plate. Oil the top of the dough ball lightly. Cover the ball tightly with plastic wrap. Allow to stand for 30-90 minutes (longer is better).

3. It would be best if you have a work area that you can walk around on all sides like a 36 inch (90 cm) round table or a work surface of 23 x 38 inches (60 x 100 cm). Cover your working area with table cloth, dust it with flour and rub it into the fabric. Put your dough ball in the middle and roll it out as much as you can.
Pick the dough up by holding it by an edge. This way the weight of the dough and gravity can help stretching it as it hangs. Using the back of your hands to gently stretch and pull the dough. You can use your forearms to support it.

4. The dough will become too large to hold. Put it on your work surface. Leave the thicker edge of the dough to hang over the edge of the table. Place your hands underneath the dough and stretch and pull the dough thinner using the backs of your hands. Stretch and pull the dough until it's about 2 feet (60 cm) wide and 3 feet (90 cm) long, it will be tissue-thin by this time. Cut away the thick dough around the edges with scissors.

The dough is now ready to be filled.

A few additional notes from me:
I let the dough sit for a lot longer than 90 minutes (more like 3 hours), and it was extremely stretchy and easy to work with. That being said, my rolling/stretching technique needs a bit of work, and I ended up with some rather large holes. Luckily, I had a bunch of extra dough around the sides that I could roll up to patch the more major holes.

The strudel is even better with vanilla ice cream!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Stovetop Naan

This is quite possibly the best bread in existence, and I don't think I'm the only one who would say that; I have yet to meet a person who will not happily devour a slice (or two, or three, or six) of hot tandoor-fresh naan.

Of course, most of us don't have tandoors in our homes, and many naan recipes I found were quite pessimistic about the results of making naan in a regular oven. I'm not sure how naan would turn out if you baked them, but I cooked these in a griddle and they were really fantastically scrumptious. Perhaps not quite as good as the naan you'd get from using a tandoor, but pretty darn close!

The recipe I used was pretty simple, but you can certainly play around with this, substituting baking soda for the yeast (or using both, which I saw in some recipes), using more or less water, adding oil or ghee or butter, etc. You could also try making whole wheat naan, which is next on my list of exciting breads to make.

Ingredients (makes 3-4 naan):
100 g. bread flour
100 ml whole milk, at room temperature
1 small spoonful of salt
1 spoonful of sugar
Dry active yeast (about 1/3 of a package)
A couple spoonfuls of warmish water
Olive oil/ghee (for serving)
A couple spoonfuls of nigella seeds*

*Nigella seeds are an Indian spice that are often sprinkled on naan. They may be difficult to find, so if you can't find them you can simply eliminate them, or use black sesame seeds, which do not have the same flavor but also work well.

Add the yeast and the sugar to the water and let sit until a thin film develops on top (about 10 minutes). Sift the flour into a bowl and form a well in it. Sprinkle the salt around the edges of the flour.

Pour the yeast mixture into the center of the well, and stir from the inside out to combine. As you stir, pour in the milk a bit at a time, until everything is mixed together and you have a sticky ball of dough. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and resistant.

Place the ball of dough in a bowl, cover, and let sit in a warm non-drafty place for 2-3 hours to rise.

After the dough has risen, place a cast-iron griddle on the stove and turn the heat under it to high. Take out the dough and divide it into small balls, about the size of golf balls. Prepare for the naan-baking by having ready a bowl of water (for brushing over the naan), a pastry brush, and the bowl of nigella seeds with a spoon. Also, it's a good idea to have a plate ready with a clean towel to put over the naan so that you can keep the first ones hot while you bake the later ones.

Roll out the balls into discs - technically, naan are supposed to be in sort of tear-drop shapes because they are traditionally made by slapping the dough against the walls of a hot tandoor, so they sort of fall down the wall a bit to form that shape, but you can make whatever shape you want to here. I just sort of let them form whatever shape they wanted, but if presentation is important, you can take more time to work on this.

Take the first naan and brush one side of it with water. Place it in the hot griddle, water side down. After a couple minutes, brush the other side (the top) with water and flip the naan over. Brush the top (which was the bottom) with water again and sprinkle with nigella seeds. After another minute or so, remove the naan from the griddle and place on the plate. Cover with the towel and repeat for all remaining naan.

Serve immediately. While these are great as an accompaniment to other foods, they are also really fantastic just by themselves with a generous dose of olive oil and salt sprinkled on top. Mmmmm...

Friday, May 1, 2009

Malfatti (spinach and ricotta gnocchi)

Just when you think you've exhausted every possible way of combining spinach and ricotta, along comes another recipe that makes you rediscover just how good these two ingredients are together!

As I was savouring these last week, I started wondering what it is that makes gnocchi (of any sort) so delectable. There really are very few sensations as satisfying as biting right into a warm gnoccho. I think it has to do with their density - you're basically taking a big bite of flour, with some other stuff mixed in (sort of like a very condensed sandwich?) - but that's just a hypothesis.

In any case, malfatti are truly wonderful, and a nice variant on the typical potato gnocchi. "Malfatti" means "badly made" in Italian, which is an odd name, considering how good these are! I think it may be because normally you'd put the spinach and ricotta inside the pasta (like ravioli for example), but here you just lazily mix them all up with flour and dump them into a pot of boiling water - far less time-consuming and tastes just as good, if not better!

300 g. spinach
150 g. ricotta
All-purpose flour (as much as is necessary to get the dough to the right consistency - will vary depending on how watery the spinach and ricotta are)
1 whole nutmeg (or pre-ground nutmeg if you can't get a whole one)
A heap of parmesan
Butter (for the topping)
Fresh sage leaves or parmesan (for the topping)

Thoroughly wash the spinach, and tear off any thick stems. Steam the spinach, in batches if necessary, until it wilts and reduces substantially. Let cool, squeeze dry, and then chop into little bits.

Grind the nutmeg to a powder and grate the parmesan. In a large bowl, combine the spinach with the ricotta, nutmeg, parmesan, salt, and pepper (you just need a pinch of the salt and the pepper). Mix in the flour, adding in just enough to get an elastic ball of dough.

Turn the dough out onto a well-floured board and knead a few minutes to thoroughly combine everything. Cut off bits of the dough and roll them into long strips about the width of your thumb. Cut each strip into little bits (the gnocchi), also about the width of your thumb, so you have roughly square-like lumps of dough. If desired, shape the gnocchi by pressing them into a cheese grater or other such implement and wrapping the ends around your finger as you do so.

I took this opportunity to make use of my gnocchi-maker (I don't think they're actually called that), which I bought in Italy the last time I was there. It's a little wooden board with rows and rows of indentations, so that when you press the gnocchi against it, you get the lovely little striped pattern that you see on gnocchi in stores and restaurants. Not really necessary, but lots of fun!

At this point, you can let the gnocchi sit out to dry for a bit, or you can make them right away. They also keep fine in the refrigerator for a day or so, in case you want to make them in advance.

When you're ready to make the gnocchi, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt it, and add the gnocchi, making sure not to crowd the pot - cooking the gnocchi in batches of 10-15 works well for me, though with a bigger pot you can cook more at once.

The gnocchi don't take long to cook - about 5 minutes. When they rise to the top they are done, although I usually let them cook another minute or two there. Remove the gnocchi with a slotted spoon, place in their serving dish, and add more to cook as you remove the first batch.

If using sage as the topping, wash the sage leaves and chop them very finely (do this while bringing the water to a boil). Heat some butter in a small saucepan and add the sage, if using. When all the gnocchi have finished cooking, place them in their serving plates and pour the butter & sage over them. If you prefer to use parmesan, simply place a pat of butter over each plate of gnocchi and add the parmesan over it, and then mix. The heat of the pasta will melt the butter and parmesan, resulting in a wonderfully rich condiment for a wonderfully rich dish!