Saturday, March 10, 2018

8: Keeping the "Troubled Child" Happy

You’ll pardon my having disappeared for awhile.  I have been deep into hazelnuts.  It’s what you do as you must when you make a hazelnut biscotti.  

My Hazelnut biscotti may be the most dependable baker of the three biscotti we make at Benish's Bakery, but it is not undemanding.  It requires wonderful ingredients, from fine Madagascar vanilla to rich, dark rum to fresh eggs and organic flour.  It also demands lovely hazelnuts for roasting.

For years, the Turkish hazelnut was both plentiful and dependable.  Their blanched hazelnut was pretty and toasted to a deep brown and gave you that ubiquitous roasted hazelnut flavor.  Turkey produced about 3/4ths of the world’s supply...until suddenly they didn’t.  "Suddenly" came In 2014.  It was beyond anything that could have been imagined.  A late frost took out over half their production just about the time the hazelnut spread Nutella and its cousins went ballistic in popularity.  Supply couldn’t meet demand.  Prices soared.  Quality became unreliable.

Quality is always relative with hazelnuts.  In the best of times, you must pick and sort before and after toasting to remove the odd shrunken, misshapen, and stale ones that over-brown.  After the frost wrecked the world’s supply, I had to spend more time, accept more loss, and occasionally return entire boxes of them.  Meanwhile, the price soared - no matter the quality.

Recently I had to return two boxes of them and scramble to find an emergency supply.  And after that I decided I could no longer count on Turkish hazelnuts and had to see if a more permanent substitute was available.

I had sampled Oregon hazelnuts in the past.  The difficulty was finding a supplier of quality hazelnuts that can supply them year round and who sells larger amounts than one pound bags but more modest quantities than a ton.  The Oregon hazelnut distribution system is developing as their harvests increase.  These hazelnuts are also getting more attention because of the trouble with Turkish hazelnuts and the expanding demand worldwide.

The Oregonians have also been developing new varieties through their state ag department.  I was sent samples by one supplier I contacted of both raw and roasted hazelnuts.  They were of the relatively new Sacajewea variety.  Trees planted in the past decade are just beginning to produce in sufficient quantities to be commercially sold.  The raw turned out to be marvelous if a bit more trouble.  They require skinning after roasting - rubbing to loosen and discard as much of their skins as possible.  But the flavor is worth it.

The Sacajewea variety has more natural sweetness and fewer of the sharp, higher notes.  The sweetness is amplified by toasting.  The flavor is slightly softer and richer.

No one wishes to have supply problems.  But this once, a shortage of Turkish hazelnuts took me on a journey which ended with a better hazelnut for my biscotti.

The hazelnut shortage is not over.  The love of spreads like Nutella will continue to press supply, elevate prices and result in shortages when weather affects crops in Turkey and elsewhere.  But production in Oregon is growing and should help keep My Hazelnut a sweet treat for you to enjoy in the years ahead.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

7: The Aristocrat

Brioche is not the bread I’d start with, but I am ever so happy to have gotten to the point of regularly making it.  It is demanding and magical.  It is rewarding even as you are learning.  And you are always learning.

Every week as I make the dough, I marvel.  Who could have imagined this in the first place?  So much butter and egg in a bread!  Because there is so much, many consider it a pastry rather than a bread dough.  And it can be used for pastries.  It recently became the base of trendy and pricey doughnuts.  It certainly has the pedigree, the ingredients and the work required to have such a special place.

Brioche developed in France over at least the last seven centuries, gradually becoming richer as the levels of butter and egg increased.  It was the “blessed bread” of the church in France then became the favorite of the aristocracy.  Just after America’s Revolutionary War, when the French peasants were starving and rioting because they could get no bread, one princess is said to have suggested, “Let them eat brioche.”  It was translated to, “Let them eat cake.”  And no, it was not said by Marie Antoinette. 

But brioche really is an aristocrat of breads.  You start with either milk or water along with the yeast, sugar, salt and less than half your flour.  It’s a gloppy mess, about the consistency of a sticky pudding.  To this you patiently beat in the butter, the egg and the rest of the bread flour.  There’s almost as much egg as water and almost as much butter as egg.  And as you alternately add the egg and flour to complete the dough, it comes together.  As you knead it, the dough becomes elastic and begins to pull away from and “clean” the sides of the bowl.  

And this is only the beginning of the preparation.  It has to be allowed to rise, punched down, then refrigerated and allowed to rise again overnight before being briefly kneaded, portioned, shaped into loaves or buns or whatever it is to become then allowed to rise yet again.  During this final rising, the loaves are brushed with an egg/milk wash three times.

It is worth all your work.  As the aroma comes from the oven, it is intoxicating.  When it is pulled from the oven, you see the bright brown sheen the brushing with egg and milk created and you smell all the goodness that has gone into it.  It almost begs to be eaten.

Brioche teaches you about a cooler beginning and slower rise.  The flour mellows.  The braids have more strength.  The loaves hold their shape and have better definition.  It is a happier bread.  It practically begs you to set a bit of dough aside to try something new.  

Brioche teaches patience from beginning to end.  You get faster as you go along because you learn the right consistency for the butter - soft but not mushy, learn the developing textures, learn to take the time to fully incorporate the butter and egg and flour with each addition, learn to love a slower rise for the texture of the finished bread. 

It is not so different from other breads in wanting you to wait until it is ready.  It just has so many more steps as you build the dough. Every step given the proper time makes the next step easier and quicker while hurrying through one makes the next step take longer.  If you plan to make brioche, you must allow about two hours from beginning the prep to the time you put finished dough into a bowl or tub to let it rise the first time.  But the next morning, when you take it from the fridge then shape your loaves, let them rise, then bake them, the reward is amazing.  Your patience is rewarded many times over.

As with so much in life, patience is the first tool of baking.  Without it, you can’t be a happy baker. 

Be happy.  Take your time.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

6: Great "Instant" Hot Chocolate!

As I write, the temperature is zero.  The sun hasn’t even begun to tint the darkness with shades of deep purple.  And my mind immediately turns to my father’s fabulously easy hot chocolate recipe which can be made by the mugful.  You'll need nothing more than boiling water, a mug, a spoon for mixing and stirring, and the right ingredients.  You will probably need to get the heavy (whipping) cream.  You may also need Dutch type cocoa.  

This recipe is an inheritance from a man for whom food was a way of life.  He grew up in the restaurant business in St. Louis,  He gave the same gift to his family he was given - a belief in the joys of herbs and spices, honest ingredients, gas flames, and time to let the fire work its ways.  Fortunately, his hot chocolate requires little time, only a kettle on the stove, and less mess than just about any recipe I can think of.  It can be made by the mugful as you ready to curl up with a blanket and book, or by the pitcher for a family gathered in the living room for the warmth of a fire in the hearth.

You will need:

Sugar, Dutch style cocoa, heavy cream, salt, boiling water.  The optional ingredients are vanilla, booze and other flavorings of choice, (such as peppermint for kids.)  You will also need a mug and spoon.

For a mugful, measure and mix in the mug:

1½ Tb sugar
1½ Tb Dutch cocoa

Make sure to mix to fully blend the cocoa and sugar to avoid cocoa lumps.  Stir in and blend:

3 Tb         heavy cream

Take care to mix well to blend in lumps.  It will be thick and soupy.  Add:

Pinch salt
¼ to ½ tea pure vanilla extract

Stir to blend then

Fill mug with    boiling water

Stir from the bottom to fully blend.  This is also where you can add a shot of rum or Gran Marnier or whatever suits you.  For best results, preheat the mug with some of the boiling water then dry thoroughly before mixing.  For a pitcherful, you can warm the pitcher and mugs in a low oven.

I will also recommend using pasteurized rather than ultra-pasteurized cream.  The pasteurized has better flavor than the ultra-pasteurized version.  It also whips better.

As to something to accompany the hot chocolate, I’m partial to My Hazelnut.  But the spices and cocoa baked into Trade Winds is a tough pairing to fault.  The richness of the biscotti and cocoa is just what’s needed to take the edge off the chill this winter morning in this new year.

So from my father to you, hot chocolate that’s about as easy as “instant” and so much better.  Real ingredients to make a sweet indulgence a body needs on a bitter cold morning.  

Let me know how you like Poppa Bob’s hot chocolate.  And don’t be afraid to steal the recipe and make it your own family tradition.