The other day, I met a chair. It is solid walnut, and exceedingly handsome, with four sturdy legs and a softly-curved back that cradles the body and encourages the spine to recline. It is worn in places, with dings and nicks from days upon years spent in service.

It is a chair that should belong to a studious sort, one predisposed to a woolen wardrobe, layers upon layers of gray and black. The sort of owner that bears the weight of a long scarf wound endlessly about the neck.

One that would ponder in this chair. Consider. Discuss obscure literature and drink very strong coffee. By candlelight, most likely, or at most an antiquated fixture that would offer the dimmest circle of golden light.

It is a chair that encourages me to change my name, to cast off the trappings of the world, to instead choose to "live in a garret and eat black bread". It would be quite theatrical. And I would be quite comfortable.

That is, as long as you understand that by garret I mean our den, and by black bread I mean bittersweet chocolate scones. This chair inspires scones. Demands them, even.

Slightly austere in their sweetness, and comparitively meager in their fat, these scones revel in their dusky depth. The tenderness of their crumb is mitigated by the edge of cocoa and shot through with bitter chocolate.

You can call me Nina if you'd like.

BITTERSWEET CHOCOLATE SCONES
 

Think of these as the biscotti of the scone world; slightly sandy textured and subtle in their sweetness, and pair well with coffee and tea.

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar, plus additional for sprinkling
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, diced
  • 1 large egg plus one egg white for glazing
  • 3/4 cup 18% cream, chilled
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

METHOD

Preheat oven to 400°F (200°C). Use parchment paper to line a standard baking sheet and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, combine the flour, cocoa powder, sugar, baking powder and salt. On the machine's lowest setting, cut in the chilled butter until the mixture resembles course meal. The butter should be in small pieces approximately the size of peas. Alternatively, sift together the dry ingredients in a medium bowl, then cut in the chilled butter with two knives or a pastry cutter. As before, the blend should be rough, with uneven pieces of butter still visible.

Lightly whisk together the whole egg, cream and vanilla. With the machine running still on low (or stir), pour the liquids slowly into the flour and butter mixture, stirring until just combined. Small bits of butter should still be visible, but almost all the flour should be incorporated. With the mixer still on low, stir in the chocolate. If proceeding by hand, use a wooden spoon or silicone spatula to fold and turn the flour mixture to incorporate the liquids, then stir in the chocolate. Do not overmix.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Working quickly, gently knead the dough, folding and pressing gently until fairly smooth. Divide the dough into three, and shape each ball of dough into a 4" round about 3/4"-1" thick. Cut each round into four wedges, and place on the prepared baking sheet. Once finished, brush each scone with the egg white and sprinkle with extra granulated sugar.

Bake in preheated oven for about 15 minutes, or until the tops are matte and the cut sides look flaky and dry. When fully cooked, scones should feel light for their size and sound almost hollow when tapped underneath. Cool on a wire rack for at least 5 minutes. Best served warm.

Makes 12 smallish scones.

Notes:

• As mentioned, these scones are only modestly sweet. For a more indulgent treat, substitute the bittersweet chocolate for a semisweet or even a milk chocolate. I encourage cutting up bar chocolate rather than morsels as bar chocolate is free from the stabilizers in chips that help them keep their shape. The uneven shards of chocolate will slightly melt into the dough, turning into little puddles of oozing darkness.

• For added richness, substitute 1/2 cup heavy cream for the 18% and use 2 large eggs instead of 1. In this variation you may need more flour for the dough to come together. Add it sparingly, a bit of stickiness to the dough is good.

Posted
Authortara
28 CommentsPost a comment

I am not one to make quick decisions. I never have been. My paralizing inability to make snap judgements is a periodic subject of (loving) mockery amongst those who know me best.

When going out to dinner, I might be inclined to sneak a glance at menu in advance, just to be well-versed in my options. (But then, my best-laid plans are frequently set aside as soon as the specials are announced). Suffice it to say, I am a planner, a ponderer. A girl who likes to know her options.

But in regards to certain things, special things, passion overrules reason and I have my answer ready before you've finished the question. Unsurprisingly, considering my fixation with breads, bagels are one of those things.

In my mind there is but one city that can claim the crown of bagel-making supremacy, and that is Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Full stop. No equivocation. Not a moment's hesitation.

Montreal is home to the best bagels around. There, I said it.

Bring it on New York. I'm ready for you, Toronto. As far as I am concerned, Montreal's bagels are a thing unto themselves, a whole other (perfect) incarnation of bagel. And although I hasten to mention I've not had many bagels overseas, I'm nonetheless willing to cross my heart and raise my right hand to pledge my allegiance to those from the town where I was born. And no, I will not admit a trace of bias there.

I cannot overstate the lure of a freshly-baked bagel from one of the many storied shops in Montreal. To truly understand their greatness, I implore you, get thyself to la belle province as soon as possible and experience them firsthand. You'll thank me later.

In the off chance that you are not willing to take me at my word, let me count the ways that Montreal's bagels are the so divine.

They inspire devotion. Example; I used to know someone whose job would take him from Toronto to Montreal on a fairly-regular basis. On those glorious days when he would return, those waiting for his arrival would set upon him almost immediately, hungry for their fix. Setting upon the nondescript brown bags he held in his clenched fists, they would tear them open, their contents would spill across out, sesame seeds scattering everywhere.

I was one of those people. Sometimes I would stash an extra bagel in my purse to take home. I'm not proud of that fact, but it is true.

The inspire gluttony. Even though nobody, save myself, was "much in the mood for bagels" when I set about baking, our batch of 24 was gone in 48 hours.

You see, Montreal bagels are not the billowing cotton-ball, bite-down-on-a-pillow, overgrown mass of tasteless fluff that so many bagels are these days. These bagels are ropey and irregular in their looks, skinny limbed and gorgeously misshapen. Before baking, the bagels are dipped in a honey-laced bath, the sweetness reinforcing the trace of malt syrup in the dough. They are studded with seeds, sesame or poppy, before being torched in requisite wood-fired ovens. Those seeds get scorched in spots, turning gold and brown, their nuttiness brought forth by the flames full throttle. The interiors are tightly crumbed, dense and chewy. There is no mistaking a these for a glorified roll.

Now which bagel shop in Montreal gets my heart? Don't get me started.

MONTRÉAL BAGELS


While I do not have a wood-fired oven at home, these bagels are a close approximation of those from Montréal. From HomeBaking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Tradition Around the World by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid (Random House Canada, 2003). The ingredient list below is theirs, while the method is my interpretation of their instruction.

As the boiling and baking of bagels is a bit of a procedure, it is best to have all equipment at hand . When ready to begin, have a slotted spoon and baking peel (or a baking sheet to use as a peel) at the ready. Put the sesame seeds or poppy seeds on a large, shallow dish, and have a cooling rack nearby.

FOR THE DOUGH

  • 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
  • 1 cup lukewarm water
  • 1 tablespoons active dry yeast
  • 2 tablespoons wheat malt syrup (see note)
  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 1 large egg, room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • About 4 cups all-purpose flour

FOR SHAPING AND BAKING

  • 3 tablespoons honey
  • About 1 cup hulled sesame seeds or black poppy seeds or some of each

METHOD

In a medium bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer with the dough hook attached, dissolve the sugar in the lukewarm water. Stir in the yeast. In a small bowl, dissolve the wheat malt syrup into the 1/2 cup warm water. Stir in the egg, oil, and salt. Set aside.

If proceeding by hand, add 1 cup of the flour to the yeast mixture and stir to combine. Add the wheat malt mixture and then 2 more cups of flour and stir, always in the same direction, until a smooth dough forms. It will be quite moist. Add the remaining 1 cup of flour and stir to incorporate. The dough will be quite stiff. Turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured work surface and knead for 5-10 minutes, until it becomes smooth and elastic.

If using a stand mixer, add 2 cups of flour to the yeast mixture and mix on low speed for about 1 minute. Add the wheat malt mixture and the remaining 2 cups of flour, and stir on the lowest speed for 3 to 4 minutes. Turn out onto a lightly-floured work surface and knead briefly, until the dough is smooth and elastic.

Place the dough in a clean medium bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise for 1 3/4 to 2 hours, until the dough has doubled in volume and is soft. Punch down the dough gently, recover and let rise for another 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

If you have one, place a baking stone or unglazed quarry tile (see note) on a rack in the upper third of the oven. Preheat oven to 450°F (230°C).

Cut the dough into quarters, working with one piece at a time and covering the remaining in plastic wrap. Divide the piece of dough into 6 equal pieces (weighing approximately 2 ounces each). Roll each small piece out into a skinny rope, around 10 to 12 inches long. Press down on the rope, rolling it back and forth under your palms against the work surface, pushing out and gently towards the ends. The dough is very elastic, shrinking back if overworked. It is easiest to work two ropes at a time, alternating between the two and allow each to rest in between.

When the rope is to the appropriate length, lay the dough over one hand, with one end across your palm and the other hanging free. Bring this second end across the back of your hand to form a loop, and bring the two ends together, overlapping by about an inch. Pinch the ends together, then bring them down under your hand against the work surface, rolling them together gently. Place bagel on a parchment-lined baking sheet and repeat the process with the remaining 5 pieces of dough. Cover with a cotton cloth and let stand for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring 8 cups of water to a gentle boil in a wide 4-to-6-quart pot. Add the honey and stir to dissolve. Gently slide 3 bagels into the boiling water; they may sink for a moment, but should break the surface within 10 seconds. Use the back of the slotted spoon to gently press the bagels back under the water now and again, letting them boil for a total of 45 seconds. The should be slightly puffed. Remove the bagels using the slotted spoon and move them directly to the sesame or poppy seeds. Roll and press the bagels into the seeds, coating well, then place them on your baking peel or a parchment-lined baking sheet, leaving about an inch between them. Repeat the process with the remaining 3, placing them beside the first 3.

Bake for about 8 minutes on the baking stone or parchment-lined baking sheet, then use a long-handled spatula to turn them over and bake for another 5 to 7 minutes, until golden brown.

As soon as you put the bagels in to bake, start shaping the next batch of 6. Remove the baked bagels from the oven to a cooling rack, allow the stone to recover for a couple of minutes, then bake the second batch. Repeat until all of the bagels have been shaped, boiled and baked.

Makes 24. Best eaten the day they are made, or can be split and frozen in a well-sealed freezer bag.

Notes:

• I do deviate from Alford and Duguid's direction regarding size, upsizing their bagels slightly from (when raw) 1 1/2 ounces to 2 full ounces. To follow their lead, cut the quarters of dough into 8 pieces instead of 6, resulting in 32 finished bagels.

• For those who do not have a baking stone, I remembered a tip from ages ago regarding the use of cast iron pans for pizzas. I tried the method, using my basic 10-inch skillet, to particularly fine results. Michael Ruhlman suggests inverting the pan, but I didn't. A flat top cast-iron griddle would be ideal.

• Wheat malt syrup is a grain product used in bread dough to assist in rising and to develop a deeper, more complex taste. Wheat malt syrup is available at specialty and natural food stores.

• A thorough discussion of Montreal's bagels can be found at Tasting Menu.

I love a good backyard.

Don't get me wrong, a front yard is a wonderful thing. A front yard, and specifically a good front porch, is the place to watch the world go by. It is see and be seen territory, the perfect vantage point to watch the life of your neighbourhood play out in front of you.

In childhood, a front yard is where you meet your friends. Its the soccer field and the skate park. And, in my personal experience, the backdrop for Barbie-related-dramas.

In University the front yard was home to the living room couch, yanked from its indoor confines and released to the great outdoors. It was the spot to lounge away the first sunny days of the season, preferably with beverage in hand.

After that, my front yard was first a fire escape and then a modest balcony, where we sat drinking "classy" wines and pretended to be worldly.

Now, I survey the front yards on our quiet street, with chalk drawings that tattoo the pavement, the toys and bikes and soccer balls left out on the lawns. Gardening tools are nestled by the front door. A watering can sits, stainless steel and gleaming, jewel-bright. Artifacts of the day's adventures and plans for the days ahead.

From our front step I nod to the neighbours, and Benjamin's own technicolour hieroglyphs decorate the pavement.

But a backyard is a whole other world. Even though it is outside, it feels more intimate, more like an extension of your home. The front yard is about show and the backyard is about substance. It is where we really live out of doors, and where others must be invited to gain entry.

This is only our second summer with our backyard, and were becoming fast friends. Last summer we were occupied with the business of having a baby, so this feels like our first opportunity to truly understand its rhythms; the way the light falls throughout the day, the cycle of plants we've inherited, and the time to revisit the haphazardly-laid plans we made a year ago.

It's got good bones, our backyard does, but is in need of a bit of a facelift. If our yard were in a movie, it would be cast as the "plain" girl who has a messy ponytail and always keeps her head down, the one that is suddenly altogether gorgeous once someone takes the time to look.

Its there. I am sure of it. The possibility of specialness, the promise of nooks and crannies for little boys to find magic, a home for a little vegetable patch, and most surely a hammock. We're almost there, our heads full of plans and with days circled on the calendar devoted to the endeavour.

All of that will come in time, and right now I am more than happy with this space outside we have all to ourselves. The lilac is in bloom, and the leaves that form our summertime roof are slowly beginning to unfurl. There is space to run and crawl and cook and dig and plant. And there is my spot, just a beeline out the back door, four strides at most, at the top of the two stairs that lead down from the deck. Sit down with a snack, and suddenly its a picnic. Stretch out, and your toes can reach the grass.

JULIA CHILD'S HOMEMADE WHITE BREAD (OUR WAY)

Another thing that is almost there is my attempts at making the perfect sandwich bread at home. I have been experimenting away, fiddling with yeast and rising times, with quantities of butter and sugar. Sorry about the wait, but one family can only eat so much bread at a time, and we're not a one bread sort of household.

I have realized that we like our bread plain enough not to overshadow what's put on it, but with enough personality that it is not merely a mode of transport for other ingredients. Right now, this variation on Julia Child's recipe is our usual as far as sandwich-style goes. The longer rise gives more substantial texture, and the reduced amount of yeast is preferable to our tastes. Previous columns regarding sandwich bread are here and here.

Recipe (via Slashfood)

Current changes:

  • Use only 1 teaspoon of active dry yeast, allowing the dough to rise for about 2-2 1/2 hours for first rise, or until doubled in size. The second rise time will also be longer, about 90 minutes to 2 hours.
  • Use 2 teaspoons of sugar instead of 1 tablespoon.
  • Use 6 tablespoons of butter instead of 4 tablespoons.
  • I usually dust the tops of the loaves with a bit of flour before baking, and sometimes melt 1 tablespoon of butter to brush on the loaves after the flour.

Lightly toasted; an adapted Irish soda bread slathered with butter and black raspberry preserves, served on my Grandmother's china.

When I married my husband, I adopted his surname. Lucky for me, attached to that marvelous man was a name that suited my own and came with an added bonus - an apostrophe as its crown. And so, on our wedding day, my Indian self became an Irish girl.

At birth each of our sons were claimed by their history, given names which carry meaning in our respective families. As the boys grow, I am time and again amazed by the echoes of their heritage as they become evident. William's smile is the replica of his father's at the same age. Benjamin's eyes carry my expressions. Family members tell stories of relatives we have never known, and how they are mirrored now in our children.

I am struck by the wonder of it, the way that traits find their way through bloodlines, inextricably weaving generations together in repeating pattern. It is an unending chorus, sung in round, sung back.

Our sense of identity is in constant evolution; carrying on and adding on, as we move forward in lives and relationships. Despite this change, we often remember back as we move ahead - gesture a nod of acknowledgement to the clans, countries and cultures from which we came.

Although I cannot pretend to be an expert Indian cook, I do attempt to speak that language of spice in our kitchen. My chicken curry might not exactly be my father's, but it is the one my children will know as "theirs". I have made a refrain of my commitment to maintaining that vocabulary of food, so that it will remain familiar.

With the day for St. Patrick approaching next week, my thoughts took a Gaelic turn. Irish might make up only a fraction of our family, but its brand upon us is indisputable - therefore it seemed proper to herald the feast of the patron saint of Ireland. Ever-present on the Irish table, hearty, satisfying soda bread made its way to our plates, with its unassuming stature and nubbled crumb. Although its rough-hewn crust seems substantial, its cheeks are tender. Soda bread is heavier textured than a scone, and with a flavour more subtly-complex than the all-out buttery-ness of a biscuit.

The romantic side of me wants to say that the reason my sons and husband enjoyed this bread so much was because of some genetic predisposition - a subconscious recognition of an ancient root in their geneology. That may be the case, or it might have just been some good bread. Either way, the intent was there; a meal to celebrate not one day, but all those that had passed before.

IRISH-ISH SODA BREAD

Traditional Irish soda bread only contains flour, buttermilk, baking soda and salt. This version uses a mix of flours, along with oats for texture, and an egg for richness. Since I more often than not have yogurt in the fridge, I have used it as my liquid. A quick bake in high heat allows you to have bread on the table, from start to finish, in about an hour.

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup old-fashioned rolled oats (large flake, not instant)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons golden (light) brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 1/2 cups yogurt (I use non-fat)
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 4 tablespoons (1/4 cup, 1/2 stick) cold, unsalted butter, diced

METHOD

Preheat oven to 425°F (220°C). Line a standard baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, oats, salt, sugar, baking powder and baking soda.

In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt and egg. Set aside.

Using a pastry cutter, two knives or your fingers, cut the butter into the flour cutting and work the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in the yogurt, mixing until you have a rough dough. Use your hands to turn and lightly knead the bread in the bowl, incorporating all the dry ingredients.

Working quickly, turn the dough onto a lightly-floured work surface and knead gently for about 30 seconds; the dough should be soft and elastic. Form the dough into a boule, about 8-inches across with a gentle dome and slightly-flattened top. Dust the surface of the bread with a sprinkling of flour, then use a sharp knife to slash a shallow cross from edge to edge of the loaf. Transfer bread to prepared baking sheet.

Bake for 35-45 minutes, or until the bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. If the crust gets too dark during baking, tent loosely with foil. Cool on a rack for at least 10 minutes, then enjoy.

Makes 1 loaf.

Notes:

• The dough make take a few turns in the bowl to fully come together. If only absolutely necessary, add a bit more yogurt, a teaspoon at a time, to incorporate all the dry ingredients. Work the dough as gently as possible.

Quick to make, pretty tasty to boot - but not the loaf for me; Ina Garten's Honey White Bread.

What can I say that has not already been said in the adoration of bread?

To many, good bread is the cornerstone of their idea of good food. It is a basic staple of life, one that manages to not only nourish the body, but also inspires passion in the soul. The process, the crust, the crumb, the aroma, the texture, the colour, the taste ... each and every aspect of bread, its ingredients, its making, and its consumption, has been examined and often exalted.

I will not presume to think that I could add any more eloquence to its chorused praise; instead, I can only speak of how bread and its baking has become a part of the rhythm of our days.

As we are a family of bread lovers, I bake bread. To be specific, I bake bread often. Every few days, I am dusted pale with flour as I set about putting up some dough. I have made naan, I have made yeasted crescents laminated with butter, I have made soft and open-crumbled breads meant for sopping up soups and stews. I have made hearty, nubbly-textured seeded rolls. I have made foccaccia, both savoury and sweet. I have explored the personalities of rye, whole wheat and flax, of oat bran and wheat germ.

But most often, I make this. That is what my husband and I consider our bread, my variation on Jim Lahey's No Knead Bread. Yes, that bread, the one that seemed to set the entire food community a-baking in late 2006. Our version has bit of extra flour to suit the size of our cocotte, and a bit of extra salt to best suit our tastes. We have tried different flours to perfect our brand and blend. I make it without a specific measurement of water, as through our long and loving relationship I have learned the quirks of the dough's texture well enough to determine by eye how much is needed. It is not very difficult to make, but it is very rewarding.

Oh, and despite its name, I do knead it, just a bit, so that it springs back ever-so-slightly before its last rise. Every time I make it I still have a slight swell of pride at the thought that something so satisfying could come from my oven.

It is a staple, a without-thought routine of our day-to-day. This bread has often made command performances at extended family events, in its original form and multiple grain variations.

Which brings me to my dilemma. While I am more than happy to munch on a (generous) slice of this crusty boule, there does come an occasion where only sandwich-style bread will do. Pleasantly squidgy, the grocery-store classic is the stuff of many a childhood peanut butter and jelly lunch, of open-faced, gravy-soused hot turkey sandwiches made with Thanksgiving's leftovers, and the basis of a perfect grilled cheese. (Nigella Lawson specifically encourages its use for her Mozzarella in Carrozza.) There is a familiar comfort to its blandness, a charm in its yielding texture.

My trouble is, as much as this sort of bread is a standard in my memory, it is not one in my home. I just cannot seem to find a recipe that I adore. I like the Soft Sandwich Bread, American Style from Homebaking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Tradition Around the World (Random House, 2003) by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. I have made it rather often, with our eldest son Benjamin taking delight in the loaves as they rise on a sunny windowsill. It a pre-fermented starter called a biga, which adds a deeper complexity to the final product. But, as delicious as this bread is, it did not stop me from trying my hand at other versions.

My most recent attempt was Ina Garten's Honey White Bread, from Barefoot Contessa at Home (Random House, 2006). My affection for Garten's recipes is nothing new; and this one looked a treat. Garten's recipe left most of the work to a stand mixer, with minimal hands-on effort required. And although I do enjoy a bit of kneading, it seemed novel to allow the machine to do the heavy labour. After a whirl around the mixer, it took only a few turns for the dough turn silken under hand. Into the buttered bowl it went, rising up enthusiastically after an hours rest. I punched it down, formed two generous loaves and waited again. I was convinced that Garten's assurance of "foolproof good bread" would deliver me to sandwich nirvana. But alas, I was left unsatisfied.

Now that is not to say that this is not a good bread. In fact, I am sure that many people would hazard to say that it is great. After baking, the loaves emerged bronzed and beautiful, with a proud, Dromedarian hump. When sliced, they were soft, pleasantly dense, with an even-textured and tight crumb.

Where I was disappointed was the taste. Maybe it is just me, but while I appreciate the relative brevity of its preparation (just under three hours from start to finish), the amount of leavener and honey used to achieve that speed were all-too-evident in its sweet, yeasty flavour. This, coupled with the richness of egg yolks and butter, resulted in a bread that would surely be perfect as a substitute for challah or brioche for pain perdu or summer pudding, but seemed distractingly-sweet when eaten alone. It just was not what I was looking for.

And so, it was back to my boule for us and back to the recipe books for me. And although there is a half a loaf in our breadbox just now, I am still thinking of the perfect sandwich loaf. I am more than open to suggestion, and any guidance would be appreciated and welcomed.

HONEY WHITE BREAD

From the book Barefoot Contessa at Home by Ina Garten.

The recipe can be found online.

Posted
Authortara
12 CommentsPost a comment