Saturday, September 27, 2008

Bad Daring Baker, Good Lavash Cracker

Imagine my surprise this morning when I checked my google reader list to see all of my favorite daring bakers had updated their blogs with a new Daring Baker Challenge post. Oh yeah, today's the 27th, posting day.

After bring H back from ballet, I set to work putting together this month's challenge. The challenge was hosted by Natalie from Gluten A Go Go, and co-host Shel, of Musings From the Fishbowl and was for a vegan and/or gluten free recipe. They provided both a "regular" and gluten-free version of the lavash cracker recipe and also requested that the accompanying dip be vegan and gluten free.

Luckily for me this month, crackers are not nearly as involved as past challenges. I was able to get this done while the kids napped and still get posted today.

I opted for the with-gluten recipe since I had the ingredients in the house, and I made a vegan dip of chopped/pureed curried vegetables in a wonderfully fruity Israeli olive oil. The crackers are easy and delicious, and if you put the thought into it ahead of time, there is not real reason to go out and buy crackers ever again. The dough of course can be flavored with anything (sundried tomato, cumin, cinnamon and sugar, etc.). I kept it simple this time (given the time crunch) and simple rolled some poppy and sesame seeds and some gray sea salt into the dough right before it went into the oven.

Lavosh Crackers

Makes 1 sheet pan of crackers

1 1/2 cups (6.75 oz) unbleached bread flour or gluten free flour blend (If you use a blend without xanthan gum, add 1 tsp xanthan or guar gum to the recipe)
1/2 tsp (.13 oz) salt
1/2 tsp (.055 oz) instant yeast
1 Tb (.75 oz) agave syrup or sugar
1 Tb (.5 oz) vegetable oil
1/3 to 1/2 cup + 2 Tb (3 to 4 oz) water, at room temperature
Poppy seeds, sesame seeds, paprika, cumin seeds, caraway seeds, or kosher salt for toppings

1. In a mixing bowl, stir together the flour, salt yeast, agave, oil, and just enough water to bring everything together into a ball. You may not need the full 1/2 cup + 2 Tb of water, but be prepared to use it all if needed.

2. For Non Gluten Free Cracker Dough: Sprinkle some flour on the counter and transfer the dough to the counter. Knead for about 10 minutes, or until the ingredients are evenly distributed. The dough should pass the windowpane test (see … ong-Enough for a discription of this) and register 77 degrees to 81 degrees Fahrenheit. The dough should be firmer than French bread dough, but not quite as firm as bagel dough (what I call medium-firm dough), satiny to the touch, not tacky, and supple enough to stretch when pulled. Lightly oil a bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl, rolling it around to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap.

2. For Gluten Free Cracker Dough: The dough should be firmer than French bread dough, but not quite as firm as bagel dough (what I call medium-firm dough), and slightly tacky. Lightly oil a bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl, rolling it around to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap.

3. Ferment at room temperature for 90 minutes, or until the dough doubles in size. (You can also retard the dough overnight in the refrigerator immediately after kneading or mixing).

4. For Non Gluten Free Cracker Dough: Mist the counter lightly with spray oil and transfer the dough to the counter. Press the dough into a square with your hand and dust the top of the dough lightly with flour. Roll it out with a rolling pin into a paper thin sheet about 15 inches by 12 inches. You may have to stop from time to time so that the gluten can relax. At these times, lift the dough from the counter and wave it a little, and then lay it back down. Cover it with a towel or plastic wrap while it relaxes. When it is the desired thinness, let the dough relax for 5 minutes. Line a sheet pan with baking parchment. Carefully lift the sheet of dough and lay it on the parchment. If it overlaps the edge of the pan, snip off the excess with scissors.

4. For Gluten Free Cracker Dough: Lay out two sheets of parchment paper. Divide the cracker dough in half and then sandwich the dough between the two sheets of parchment. Roll out the dough until it is a paper thin sheet about 15 inches by 12 inches. Slowly peel away the top layer of parchment paper. Then set the bottom layer of parchment paper with the cracker dough on it onto a baking sheet.

5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit with the oven rack on the middle shelf. Mist the top of the dough with water and sprinkle a covering of seeds or spices on the dough (such as alternating rows of poppy seeds, sesame seeds, paprika, cumin seeds, caraway seeds, kosher or pretzel salt, etc.) Be careful with spices and salt - a little goes a long way. If you want to precut the cracker, use a pizza cutter (rolling blade) and cut diamonds or rectangles in the dough. You do not need to separate the pieces, as they will snap apart after baking. If you want to make shards, bake the sheet of dough without cutting it first.

6. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the crackers begin to brown evenly across the top (the time will depend on how thinly and evenly you rolled the dough).

7. When the crackers are baked, remove the pan from the oven and let them cool in the pan for about 10 minutes. You can then snap them apart or snap off shards and serve.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Israeli Chicken and Cous Cous

This is a dish from my childhood. My mom would make a similar version with a whole roasted chicken. I have adapted the recipe to be made more quickly with boneless skinless chicken breasts. It is a wonderful mix of sweet orange and caramelized onions, salty olives, and aromatic thyme that soaks into the moist chicken. It is great served on a bed of cous cous with a fresh, vibrant salad (ideally with a citrus vinaigrette and feta).

Israeli Chicken

Adapted and used with permission from mom.
Serves 6 or four with a few leftover portions for lunch tomorrow.

3 large boneless skinless chicken breasts
herb and flour mix to dredge chicken in (flour, thyme, oregano, garlic powder etc.)

1-2 large yellow onions sliced into thin half moons
olive oil
1 cup sliced green olives
1 cup sliced black olives (kalamata or even plain black)
1 Tbs brown sugar
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp paprika
6-8 oz OJ concentrate
salt and pepper

Set oven to 200 deg. F

Heat olive oil and butter in a large saute pan. Dredge chicken in flour mixture and add to hot pan. Sear chicken on both sides and then place on a cookie sheet in the oven to stay warm.

Add onions to pan without cleaning it first. If there is not enough fat, add a touch more butter. Add a pinch of salt and pepper. Saute onions over medium heat until starting to caramelize. Add sugar, and most of green and black olives (reserving 1/4 C. total to add in the final minutes), thyme, paprika, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Stir to incorporate. Add OJ and 8 oz. water. Cook with the cover on, but slightly ajar for 15-20 minutes. Add chicken to the sauce mixture and cook with lid on until the chicken is cooked through. Remove lid, add remaining olives, taste for salt and pepper and cook for several minutes so sauce thickens.

Serve over a bed of cous cous.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Refreshing Watermelon Cocktail

What to do when you have a bumper crop of watermelons in the yard? Make a mint simple syrup, juice the melon and mix it with a splash of vodka topped with sparkling water. But why stop there?

Somehow I failed to get a photo of the Watermelon Granita-Tinis we also made. Take the watermelon/mint mixture and put it in the ice cream maker. When it is granita/slurpee consistency, drop a spoonful into a chilled martini glass and top with ice cold vodka - we like the Tino's Handmade vodka from Trader Joe's. The fresh watermelon juice was also really good with a splash of champagne. A delightfully refreshing cocktail as summer (hopefully, please, someday) draws to a close.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Throwdown :: Challah

Before I give away the results, let me just say that the first official Throwdown:: was a blast. I of course enjoyed the baking, but I especially enjoyed the friendly competition with my good friend Cat and the competitive judging/eating/excuse to get together with friends. I can be a bit on the competitive side, so I am often cautious about competing in events if I don’t think I have a very good chance of winning. I know that’s ridiculous, but it is the truth. It is even the case when I am “competing” against myself – as in trying a new, complicated recipe. I have been known not to try if I feared “defeat”. (This is why Daring Bakers is good for me – forces me, with the threat of public shame to attempt new things that I certainly would not try on my own.)

That said, I had no real fear of losing to Cat – no, not because I thought I was totally going to win – but because I know Cat is a great baker and a wonderful person, so who could be upset losing to those qualifications? Now, that being said (here comes that obnoxious competitive side) let me note that I was in fact the only Jew present at this competition that was, afterall, about Challah-- you know, that traditional braided bread served at Jewish holidays and on the Sabbath?

All hedging aside, and without further ado…I got trounced. The Earhearts, Heath, and my very own wife, all voted for Cat’s Challah - which was quite delicious. Congratulations Cat on a complete domination of what will hopefully be the first of many Throwdowns:: !

When we compared recipes a few things stood out. Her recipe uses butter instead of oil (which of course tastes better, but doesn’t work if you’re having a fleishig meal), and had several more eggs and more sugar (I actually used honey). The increased eggyness and sweetness gave the finished product a very Brioche texture and taste. And who can complain about, or for that matter, vote against, Brioche? I might argue that my bread was a more classical Challah, but there is no way to argue with the fact that Cat easily won this taste test.

After all that, I imagine you would prefer that I list Cat’s recipe instead of mine (she used the recipe from William Sonoma’s Essentials of Baking ), but I'm including the recipe I used as what I still believe is a great recipe for a traditional Challah. The recipe is from the Moosewood series of cookbooks from the famous vegetarian restaurant by the same name in Ithaca, NY. This particular recipe came from Still Life with Menu and you can actually find the recipe by using Google’s book search, so I won’t reprint it here – but I do highly recommend purchasing the cookbook.

The recipe makes two substantial loaves of challah, and ends up incorporating nearly 9 cups of AP flour. Needless to say, this should be kneaded by hand, and not by the woefully inadequate (only for this recipe, I didn’t mean it, really, I love you) 5 quart KitchenAid stand mixer. However, although I fear defeat, I do occasionally like to live on the edge, so I tend to push the mixer's limits a bit. As you continually add flour, the dough starts to taunt the KitchenAid…

…until finally, the dough wins, and you are forced to finish kneading by hand. Something I actually quite enjoy doing, which then begs the question, why did I bother overfilling the stand mixer in the first place?

I have not perfected my braiding skills yet, so I continue to experiment with different techniques. I read somewhere about starting from the middle and braiding out to the two sides in order to get a more uniform shape, but I ended up with an odd, stretched band across the middle. The other loaf was just a little sloppy on my part – too much handling while trying to move from counter to baking sheet, then deciding it should go on a different baking sheet, etc.

My guess, is that the softer texture of Cat’s loaf (on the right) allowed for a little more sideways slide while it baked. Regardless, this here was one fine night of carb loading deliciousness.

We did our best to keep the taste test blind. Torn up, the breads looked enough alike that we were able to plate them on different colored dishes and then have each person taste them side by side.

We did two rounds, and a few voters changed votes in between rounds, but when the vote was made, I was a 4-0 loser. In the end, I had fun baking, I had fun hanging out with friends, and I am looking forward to our next challenge, Throwdown::Chocolate Cake, also with Cat…stay tuned!