Easter bread woes

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For all but a few of the last 20 or so years, I have faithfully used the same recipe for Easter bread, from my beloved Roseto Cookbook,* Anna Marie Ruggiero’s culinary homage to the life and times of the Italian immigrants, their children, and their children’s children, in a tiny town in the Slate Belt of Eastern Pennsylvania. Read Adriana Trigiani’s Queen of the Big Time and you will understand the community and the culture; use the cookbook and you will eat not lavishly but very well. Peasant food, la cucina povera, is always the best.

The Roseto Cookbook contains two recipes for Easter bread, or pane di Pasqua**.  I chose the second, because it seemed more direct. Recipe #2 always gave me great results, and even though it called for loaf pans, I was able to braid the loaves and insert the colored eggs for a more festive presentation. Recipe #1 always seemed too involved; it starts with a sponge that requires proofing time and three subsequent rises—one after kneading, one after the “punch down,” and the final for the formed loaves. In other words, an all day adventure.

This year, however, I wanted a bigger yield. Forgetting the lesson of roughly five years ago when I defected to a disappointing recipe on a popular Italian cooking website, I decided to try Recipe #1. Let me just say, to begin with, that it was no mean task to isolate four pounds of flour without having to weigh it all out on my teeny tiny kitchen scale. Flour, flour everywhere, and I hadn’t even gotten started yet.

The sponge frothed up nicely, but despite all the flour, the dough was very wet. Sweet dough is sticky, but this dough was trickier and wetter than I was accustomed to with good old reliable Recipe #2. It was also a LOT of dough to manage, and my awkwardness made me feel like a rank amateur. Eventually, though, it came together and successfully went through the next two rises. When it came time to shape the loaves, I worried that the dough would be too sticky and wet to shape the braids. But as the gluten developed it became a bit easier to work with. As long as I gave the dough a rest now and then, I was able to create the ropes and braid them, and to nestle the colored eggs in between.

One more rise and a few hours later, the loaves came out of the oven. They are BIG. No, they are HUGE. They are CLUNKY. They are too BROWN. There is nothing delicately pastel and Easter-y looking about them. There’s a split in one of the bigger loaves, and that egg I dipped in juice from a can of Wyman’s Wild Blueberries basically sank***. Although I’ve never been a picture-perfect baker, this is definitely not my best work.

Hubby graciously said he thought the four loaves looked great. When I grimaced, he said, “How do you want them to look?” “Not like that,” I muttered. This conversation was not unlike one we might have had if I’d come home from the salon unhappy with a haircut I’d just paid through the nose for. “But I think it looks great,” he would say, ostensibly trying to make me feel better but with a tentative quality in his voice, as if he were about to walk on hot coals.

There’s nothing really wrong with Recipe #1—this was a matter of my lack of skill in handling a huge quantity of sticky dough. Next year, please remind me that change for the sake of change isn’t always a good idea. In the time I spent today, I could easily have managed two batches of good old reliable Recipe #2. I might have ended up with less of mess, a better looking product, and some spare energy to make the cake I promised. All these things considered, though, it will taste fine.

I know that many of you wonder why I would go to so much trouble. I could certainly buy a picture-perfect loaf of Easter bread at the grocery store and no one around the table tomorrow would be likely to care, or even notice. But, of course, it’s not about the bread at all. As I made those not-so-perfect-looking loaves of Easter bread today, my mother, my grandmother, my Auntie Teresa, and my Auntie Anna were all right there with me. This is a tie that binds.

Wishing you and yours a blessed Easter… or a blessed Pesach. Easter bread, it turns out, is a lot like Challah.

* You can purchase this gem of a cookbook from Ruggiero’s Market in Roseto, PA. Anna Maria Ruggiero did the painting on the cover, too. http://www.ruggierosmarket.com/the-roseto-cuisine-cookbook.html

**  Easter bread is called by many other names from region to region—for example, in Calabrai, cuculi.

*** Nor were my “natural” dyes a huge success this year.  

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Apple season

Oh, the apples of fall! Pies, sauce, dumplings, cake, Waldorf salad*…  or, to keep it simple, an unadulterated apple, all by itself.

Last year at this time, we were in Maine at beautiful Cayford Orchard, outside of Skowhegan, picking Northern Spys under a gorgeous October sky. Four years ago, Facebook recently reminded me, Hubby found Northern Spys in northwestern Pennsylvania and surprised me a week or two later with a generous shipment that lasted right through the winter.

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This year, I’ve been fretting about Northern Spy deprivation. I even emailed the folks at Cayford to see if they would ship some to me. They were gracious but not anxious; if shipping isn’t your normal routine, it’s a lot of bother just to satisfy one frustrated Pennsylvania pie-baker. While I would have spared almost no expense to have my favorite pie apples in time for Thanksgiving, I agreed and gave up.

Try, now, to imagine my delight when, while wandering yesterday through a local farm market—one that is not my usual haunt— I saw this:

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“Where are these from?” I called out to the woman at the register. “They’re from a local orchard,” she said. “But they’re not supposed to grow this far south,” I replied. She smiled and shrugged. They were big and healthy looking. We loaded up. I’ll be baking pies very soon.

Truthfully, while I personally prefer apples from New York State and points north, Pennsylvania does grow some pretty great ones. Our friends had just brought us a bag of eating apples from Hollabaugh’s in Biglerville, PA, near Gettysburg—every one a crunchy, delicious treat. Miss Pup particularly enjoys her visits there, too, as you can see in this priceless photo with one of her two Aunt Sues:

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* Just in case you’re too young to remember, or Waldorf Salad is outside your experience, here is the recipe that I favor, from my much loved, highly tattered copy of  The Joy of Cooking, 1967  printing:

Prepare:
1 cup diced celery
1 cup diced apples
(1 cup Tokay grapes, halved and seeded)
Combine with:
1/2 cup walnut or pecan meats
3/4 cup mayonnaise or Boiled Salad Dressing

The parentheses indicate an optional ingredient. I add them if I have them on hand. I use mayo rather than take the time to make a boiled dressing, and I add about 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla. You can add diced or shredded cooked chicken, too, and serve in a cream puff shell for an authentic “vintage” presentation.

 

 

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.

On Bread

I don’t think for a minute that anything I have to say about making bread is more insightful or original or important than what has been said for centuries. But this blog is largely about things I love (and consequently, love to share), and making bread for me is both entertainment and fascination. Plus, it is a pastime that produces an edible result!

Some form of bread has been the staff of life for thousands of years. It happily crosses one cultural chasm after another, so that one person’s naan is another’s matzoh is another’s communion wafer. Every French village by law still has to have its own boulangerie. Challah is the same sweet, egg-y dough as Pane di Pasqua. Chapati and other flatbreads can be found throughout Africa and Asia. All of this has been accomplished, by the way, without preservatives, artificial flavoring, dough enhancers, or that squishiness that sticks to your teeth.

I started making bread in roughly 1970—in an earlier wave of the organic movement spurred by writers like Adele Davis and Francis Moore Lappé and the Rodales. I was still a relatively inexperienced cook, but yeast didn’t intimidate me. I had helped my mother make cloverleaf rolls for company and pizza dough for my high school friends, so I had at least some knowledge of how yeast behaves. Several of my friends were also experimenting with bread at the time; they sent me recipes that I tried with decent success. My only failure, as I recall, was my first (and so far only) attempt at a baguette, the recipe taken from The New York Times Cookbook. I set it to rise and, thinking the more rise time the better, went to the movies. I baked it when I returned three hours later, and it was as hard as Yogi Berra’s bat.

After the kids came along, I graduated to “No Excuse Bread” from the LaLeche League cookbook; it’s a nutrition-rich overnight refrigerator rise that I still use to this day (see the recipe below—you will love it, and you can vary the flours). I began making Pane di Pasqua—Easter bread—on Holy Saturday. It continues a prized Italian tradition and makes a beautiful centerpiece for the Easter Sunday table.

Inspired by my daughter and my cousin Dorothy, I began experimenting with a sourdough starter when we came back from New England last fall. The sourdough lives in my fridge save for when I am feeding it, when the crock sits on my counter as the yeast grows frothy and pungent on the counter. Thus far, I have only made the King Arthur Flour (more about KAF in the future) recipe for s simple rustic white loaf. It has the taste and texture of what I like to call “Italian restaurant bread”— a delightful taste memory from the Italian “hole-in-the-wall” restaurants of my childhood, a few of which still exist in small-city neighborhoods of modest means.

Getting your hands in warm, gooey bread dough is something you have to experience to appreciate. It is, for me, the most therapeutic of kitchen endeavors. Watching it rise in the bread bucket is thrilling. The aroma of baking bread, for my money, is one of the most inviting on the planet. And what surpasses the taste of bread, almost any kind, still warm from the oven, slathered with good butter? If you haven’t tried making your own, you really should.

Here’s my La Leche League cookbook standby:
2 pkgs. yeast (I use only SAF instant yeast from King Arthur—1 packet = 2-1/4 teaspoons)
2 tsp. salt
1/3 c. oil or butter
1/3 c. honey or sugar  (I prefer honey)
2/3 c. powdered milk
2 eggs
1 c. wheat germ
2 c. warm water
7 c. unsifted flour (you can mix unbleached white with 100% whole wheat, white whole wheat, or sprouted wheat–i use ONLY King Arthur flours)

Have all ingredients at room temperature or slightly warmer. Put first 8 ingredients, plus 3 cups of the flour in a large mixing bowl. Beat 5 to 10 minutes at medium on mixer. By hand, stir in 2 cups of flour, no need to make it smooth. Sprinkle 1 cup flour in 10 inch diameter on kneading surface.Turn out dough, oil hands and knead only with fingertips until dough stiffens. Knead 5 to 10 minutes more until smooth. Add flour as needed. Cover with plastic wrap and towel. Let rest for 20 minutes. Punch down and knead a few strokes. Divide into 2 equal portions.

On oiled surface, with oiled rolling pin, roll dough to 8×12 inch rectangle. Roll small end towards you jelly roll fashion. Seal well. Place seam side down in greased bread pans or form rolls and place in greased pan. Brush with oil; cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate 2 to 24 hours. (I make it in the evening after dinner and bake it the next morning. I usually freeze the second loaf.)

Note: I love this recipe so much that, out of curiosity, I googled  the woman who contributed it to the La Leche League book. I found that she had passed away—no surprise—but she definitely seemed like someone I’d have liked!