Back in the [bread-baking] groove

Summer is looking a bit care-worn by now, even though this year, for the first in many, the grass has stayed a bright Irish-green throughout, and our little patch of herbs is so abundant that it looks downright provençal. I can see a few leaves starting to turn here and there, and, although I will keep the sun-loving geraniums to their last bloom, I know it’s soon time to trade them for mums.

Heat-averse, I stayed away from the oven most of the summer. In the last week, I realized how much I’ve missed making bread. Time to get my groove back. Partly to use up what I had on hand, I started with a no-knead semolina. I mixed the dough in my bread bucket, using my trusty dough whisk (there’s the King, back in my kitchen again!), on Friday morning and refrigerated the dough. Earlier today—Sunday—I formed the loaves, brushed them with a slurry of corn starch and water, slashed, sprinkled them with sesame seeds, and set them to rise while the oven heated up.

I’m accustomed to letting loaves rise on a parchment-coated peel, then sliding them, parchment and all, onto the pre-heated stone. Alas, I remembered too late that I was out of the pre-cut parchment that comes in so handy for making bread and baking cookies. I coated the peel with corn meal, but because some bread dough is wetter than others, and this one was, I still had a hard time maneuvering the loaves onto the pre-heated stone.

However, as Shakespeare so wisely advised, “All’s well that ends well.” Is there anything more luscious than the scent of baking bread? The crust browned and crisped nicely. I could hardly wait to try it. Five minutes after taking the loaves out of the oven—a bit too soon, I concede—I sliced off the heel. The crumb was decent. Slathered with butter, it was good, as only fresh-baked bread can be. Not my best effort, but not bad for a three-month lapse. We’ll enjoy it toasted for breakfast, with cheese for lunch, and with soup tonight. I’ll stash the second and third loaves in the freezer for another day.

Three loaves to the good, and I’m back in the groove.

Routines like this are as comforting, and comfortable, as a pair of mukluks in a November chill. We’re not quite there yet, but I’m gearing up.

Rainy-day baking

Despite yet another gloomy day, I’m assuming that the pleasures of outdoor dining are just around the corner. We’ve had crazy weather for months, with the temperature spiking into the 90s long before it should have, then taking a 20-degree fall—sometimes in the space of an hour or two. I know I’m not the only one longing for a steadier state.

Yesterday started out an idyllic, sunny spring morning. Unfortunately, the sky had turned  a dull gray by noon. The rest of the day was bleak, with wind and rain during the night, and today it’s pouring. More gloom is expected for the holiday weekend. Still,  I persist with the optimistic view that we’ll be dining al fresco some time soon. At least some of the time, that means burgers on the grill.

Which brings me to the actual purpose of this post, to share my very favorite recipe for sandwich rolls. I don’t know about you, but I despise supermarket hamburger rolls. They’re full of dough enhancers, preservatives, and artificial flavors; they’re gummy and just about tasteless. Hubby calls this “chemical bread” in all its iterations, which is both pretty cute and pretty much on-target.

Since I love to bake bread, last summer I decided that we were done with packaged supermarket rolls and began looking for sandwich roll recipes on my go-to King Arthur Flour website. Beautiful Burger Buns, Click to link to the recipe. I discovered, are lovely looking, good tasking soft buns. I highly recommend this easy recipe if you prefer a very traditional soft bun—for example, for brisket sandwiches with an au jus, pulled pork, for Sloppy Joes or Wimpies or whatever-they-call that old reliable delight in your part of the world. Maybe even for a chicken salad sandwich. If you try this recipe, however, be mindful that it calls for a fair amount of sugar, which helps to achieve the lovely golden brown color. It’s a bit too sweet for my taste, so I suggest cutting back a bit on the sugar—perhaps from ¼ cup to two tablespoons, per King Arthur notes.

A few months ago, I noticed another KAF recipe, No-Knead Sandwich Rolls, on the KAF Flourish blog. I had a feeling, reading through the directions, that they’d be perfect, which they have been, without fail. They have a more European texture, with a nice airy “crumb.” They’re substantial enough to shape any way you want to—long, for example, for a sausage and pepper sandwich, or smaller than usual, for a dinner roll. Rather than repeat the recipe here, I opted once again to rely on the link, where you will find detailed instructions with photos. Don’t skip dusting them with flour—I’m convinced it helps to produce that lovely crust. Use a sieve, and dust each tray immediately after shaping. One other tip—although the KAF photos show different shapes on the same tray, I suggest doing all the round ones on one tray, and longer ones for hoagies (subs, to you folks who call them that) on another, just in case there’s any minimal variance in baking time. Check at 20 minutes—mine were sufficiently brown by then.

These rolls are truly worth the minimal effort. They’re good enough on their own, as a European-style breakfast treat with butter and jam. What’s more, they freeze beautifully. You can make them ahead (in the evening, perhaps, when it’s not so hot), cool them, and freeze them in a bag, then take out just what you need every time. For sandwich rolls, slice them as soon as they’re completely cool, before freezing. When you’re ready to serve, defrost on the counter and warm them up a bit, and they’ll be just as good as they were right out of the oven.

And here’s another plus—you can make the dough ahead of time, all in the same bowl, which means no mess on the counter— and refrigerate it after the rise. It will store covered in the fridge for up to seven days, which is true for no-knead recipes in general.

They say you shouldn’t bake on a rainy day, but I can’t think of anything I’d rather do to chase away the gloom. Once I heat up that oven, all will be well.

I use the KAF dough bucket and KAF dough whisk when I make no-knead bread in particular. The bread bucket has measurements so that you can see when the dough has doubled in bulk. Plus, no mess on the counter! The whisk is great–the gooey dough doesn’t stick to it. I bought one elsewhere as a gift once, but the KAF is definitely superior.

I used my go-to KAF unbleached white flour for both, but there’s no reason you couldn’t mix it with white whole wheat, or add wheat germ or flax, for extra nutritive value.


Yes, we have some bananas

Although I typically wouldn’t make bread, pizza, or fresh pasta on a miserably damp winter day, nothing motivates the goodie baker in me more. This morning there were three over-ripe bananas in the fruit bowl. Much as I don’t mind them, Hubby likes his bananas firm and even a few speckles put him off. So I regularly intervene to save any that he’d be tempted to toss. I often freeze them for future baking. You don’t even have to wrap them—they will turn black but will be fine in cake, bread, muffins, whatever. But today, banana bread was calling out to me.

Lately, my go-to-cookbook is Canadian Living magazine’s The Ultimate Cookbook. Canadian Living is the only magazine I follow online. I found it a few years ago, while doing some destination research for one of our trips to Quebec, and have been a huge fan ever since. The recipes are interesting, relatively easy, and reflective of Canada’s multi-faceted cultural heritage. Just an aside: if you knit or crochet, you’ll also find great free patterns on that site as Canadians, of course, need to keep warm!

This banana bread recipe is distinctive for two reasons: #1, It contains buttermilk. If I had Hermione Granger’s magic wand, I would put a bottomless carton of buttermilk in every fridge. It’s cheap, it lasts for weeks, and it is pure MAGIC for cakes, biscuits, and, of course, fried chicken. #2, You don’t just add the buttermilk—you soak the mashed bananas in it before combining the ingredients.

The recipe, which I’ve copied for your convenience with the website link below,  suggests chocolate chips or cinnamon as variations. You could do neither and it would still be very good. I added King Arthur Flour’s Vietnamese Cinnamon (try it and you will eschew ordinary cinnamon forever), grated orange rind, and the last half cup of golden raisins leftover from holiday baking.

Tender Banana Bread


3 ripe bananas, mashed
1/2 cup buttermilk
1-1/2 tsp baking soda

2-1/4 cups flour (I used about a third KAF white whole wheat flour with all-purpose)
1-1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
[1/2 tsp cinnamon – recommended variation]

3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
[1 tbsp grated orange rind – my addition ]
[1/2 cup raisins – my addition]


[Preheat oven to 350 F – my addition; I hate it when the oven temperature’s at the end.]

Stir together bananas, buttermilk, and baking soda. Let stand for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt [and cinnamon].

In large bowl, beat butter with brown sugar until combined. [Note: I used my Kitchenaid.] Beat in egg, vanilla, and banana mixture. Stir in flour mixture until combined. [Stir in orange rind and raisins.] Scrape into greased 9×5″ loaf pan.

Bake at 350 F until cake tester inserted in center comes out clean. 60-70 minutes.

Let cool in pan for 15 minutes. Turn out onto rack; let cool completely.







In the kitchen with the King

My love affair with King Arthur Flour started back in the early 80s, when a dear friend—the one who introduced me to the sublime taste and creamy texture of real Cuban-style black beans—took up bread baking. I’d been using unbleached, non-bromated flour for a decade at that point, but after Jorge raved about KAF, I switched. I have never, repeat never, looked back. And I still have, and use, the worn KAF souvenir dough scraper he gave me.

About eight years ago, my husband’s brother and his wife—my beau-frère and belle-soeur, as the French so elegantly say—moved to Vermont. Needless to say, I was beyond excited when we made our first visit to headquarters in nearby Norwich. My sister-in-law is an avid baker, so we were well-matched partners in crime. Since that first visit, our KAF pilgrimage is an annual event.

In between those trips, there have been countless mail orders to keep the pantry full. Just about everything in my baking cupboard bears the King Arthur label (except, maybe for Bakewell Cream®, which I purchase from KAF and about which you will hear more eventually). In fact, I call the KAF catalogue “my wish book”, which is what the original Sears-Roebuck catalogue was called before most of us were born. In the cabinet that holds my baking equipment,  you will find dough buckets, bread pans, sheet pans, and cake pans,  purchased from King Arthur. I have always found these products among the most reliable on the market; it is obvious that care goes into the product selection process.

With #retired time on my hands, I’ve spent much more time baking. In the last three months, we have purchased only one loaf of bread. I’ve experimented with many different KAF flours and blends for bread, pizza, and pastry. The pizza flour blend is terrific. The white whole wheat is a great way to add whole-grain fiber and nutrition to quick breads, muffins, and substantial cookies (oatmeal raisin, chocolate chip, for example), for which I typically use half white whole wheat and half unbleached all-purpose. For pies, KAF makes a nice whole wheat pastry flour; but I still prefer unbleached all-purpose. The buttermilk and baker’s dry milk powders are great staples to keep on hand. I could run on and on, but this post already sounds like shameless commercial promotion.

Taking a class at KAF is on my #retired bucket list. Occasionally, their baking educators hit the road; the website has that information. I attended a session near my home about a dozen years ago. Classes are now available online if you can’t get to Vermont or find one in your area.

If you like to bake, and you haven’t visited the KAF website, please treat yourself. The recipes are sensational, and if you have a question or problem, there’s a Baker’s Hotline as well as online recipe reviews. Did I mention, by the way, that KAF was founded in 1790??? Who else can claim that kind of success? Plus, in 1995, owners Frank and Brinna Sands, contemplating being #retired, sold the company to their employees. See for a complete history. What’s not to like?

Wow! You have a lot of cookbooks!

More than one visitor has said that over the years.

It’s absolutely true that I’m obsessed with cookbooks—not with the recipes,  but with how they shape what and how you like to cook and eat, and how you think about food in general. Your food persona.

At the peak of my powers, I probably had almost 200. They’ve taken up most of the bookshelves in every house I’ve lived in since the 1970s. Although the collection has waxed and waned over the years—some gone to the library book sale, some given away to family and friends, some added to spark a  new interest or fortify a lingering one—a solid, decently organized library remains.

To understand how this obsession developed, note that my lineage is 100% Italian. My mother and father loved to make and enjoy good food.

Even though when growing up my kitchen adventures were largely limited to helping Mom produce her tour de force ravioli and other extravagant Italian “company” dinners, by 10 or so I’d already acquired what became a habit of “reading” cookbooks. Mom didn’t cook from books—she learned from her older sister and used mostly recipe cards and the Pillsbury Bakeoff booklets for cakes and cookies. She didn’t need a recipe for pie (I don’t either). Her cookbook collection was minimal: Ruth Wakefield’s Toll House Cookbook, a collection of recipes from the late and beloved Toll House Inn in Whitman, MA (yes, that’s where the cookie you adore came from); Ada Boni’s The Talisman Italian Cookbook, the most popular cookbook in Italy, brought to the US in 1950; and a truly vintage collection of pamphlet style cookbooks from the Culinary Arts Institute, each on a different subject. My husband and I discovered not long after we met that his mother had this set, too. I’m guessing it was a preferred gift for brides in the 1940s.

When I was about 10, one of my mother’s beauty shop customers, the ebullient Mrs. Lavine, gave me a little spiral bound wonder called A World of Good Eating. It had delightful original illustrations and select recipes from a number of other countries, with a brief, light-hearted bit of commentary for each. I have a fond memory of the first time I made butter-rich Scottish shortbread, which the sweet little book said was to be served to friends at Christmas with “fruitcake and a wee drap.”

When Franco and Margaret Romagnoli, following Julia Child’s French Chef success, showed up on PBS with an Italian cooking show that went way far beyond spaghetti and meatballs, their book, The Romagnolis’ Table, was added to the tiny collection. My parents’ favorite Romagnoli recipe was gnocchi verdi. Mom made batches of these very delicate gnocchi with spinach. She quick froze them on cookie sheets and then removed them to a recycled ricotta container so she’d always have some on hand for special dinners.

Fast forward to 1969. Among my acquisitions in early adulthood were The Joy of Cooking and The Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery. I read them like novels, the little vignettes from the Rombauers (Irma told Julia they never tested the recipes!) and the detailed entries about “foreign” cuisines and many delightful essays contributed to the encyclopedia by noted writers and food gurus of the period. My Joy is tattered and splattered. Some of the encyclopedia volumes are falling apart. But I read, use, and enjoy them still. In fact, recently I went back to the “Christmas” section of the Woman’s Day set and read author Jean Hersey’s account of making 42 loaves of bread for holiday giving. I decided to try her recipe and found that it was just delish—especially made with raisins, honey (two of her suggested variations), and a scattering of King Arthur Flour’s European Candied Orange Peel (my idea). I baked four loaves—I marched three around to neighbors, and we ate the other.

My parents were first-generation Italian immigrants, born and raised in factory towns. Each of them grew up with Italian food, but their palates were also influenced by the regions where they grew up—Daddy in western Maine (Yankee), and Mom in central Pennsylvania (PA Dutch). Our summer trips to New England were among the most important memories of my childhood and adolescence, and they were reinforced every month when Yankee Magazine arrived in the mail. Yankee was half-size at the time, on very basic stock, with type that seemed old-fashioned even then. I devoured it every month—the features, the ads, every single classified, and, especially, the recipes featuring favorites of “real” New England cooks.  It kickstarted a lifelong fascination with American regional cooking and remains a favorite to this day. The New England Yankee Cookbook, which I acquired in about 1971, was a reprint of a 1939 book compiled by Imogene Wolcott. It had the same approach to recipe compilation as the magazine, with contributors’ names and hometowns listed for each recipe, although there was apparently no connection.

For more good reading and information, see the links below, and please do post a comment about the cookbooks that helped shape your approach to cooking and good food.

Ada Boni

Toll House cookies

The Romangolis

The New England Yankee Cookbook

European Candied Orange Peel