Daring Bakers Challenge: Danish Braid

For this, my second Daring Bakers Challenge, it has come to laminated dough. Roughly defined, laminated dough is multiple layers of fat and dough; puff pastry, croissant and Danish dough all fall into this category. Essentially the rising or puffing action is a result of the fat melting between the layers of dough, creating a space between said layers that is then lifted by the steam released from the fat. Simple, huh?

Now let's talk Danish. Danish (and croissant, incidentally) dough is a little different in that it contains an additional leavening agent: yeast. This component will produce a pastry that is soft and tender rather than crisp like puff pastry. Let's begin, shall we?

Okay, I won't go into too much detail about the dough. It's quite repetitive (as is the nature of laminated doughs), and I wouldn't want you getting sleepy now, would I? I have had the privilege to work with laminated dough before, so this was not uncharted territory I must say, but for me, the myriad filling options became the challenge.

The original recipe was an apple Danish braid, its crust flavored with orange and cardamom. As exotic as that sounds, I felt the dough flavoring limited me to sweet applications (not that I know what I'm talking about) and I was far more interested in using something a) savory, and b) if fruit, a more seasonal choice. I'm not very good at following recipes, as you can tell. (That is my biggest challenge, telling the cook in me to sit down and shut up while the baker in me tries to flourish.)

So, I left out the flavorings, reduced the sugar in the dough just a touch, and carried on. There were two fillings I had in mind, a savory and a sweet, and then I spied The Silicone Spatula creating a tomato, basil, and cheese filled braid. Okay, duh. I love cheese. And I love cheese with tomatoes and basil. How awesome is that? (Thanks, bel!) Now I would have to make three. Rosemary ham and Gruyere cheese (love cheese), Caprese-style, and something peachy.

The recipe would produce two large braids; while I aimed for three medium sized ones, I ended up with three larger ones. Turns out, I rolled the dough much thinner than I should have (Did I mention the whole following-the-recipe-is-difficult thing?). And I was supposed to let the braids proof far longer than I had (Where is that recipe?).

So how did they turn out?

Ham and Gruyere. So simple, almost boring. I added a sprinkle of caraway seeds; it seemed so naked. Out of the oven, cool for a stint. Um, WOW. Boring, no way; this stuff sang. The tender, buttery, slightly sweet dough was the perfect compliment to the gooey, nutty Gruyere and that hint-of-rosemary ham.

Sure, the dough didn't rise quite as it could have, it was too thin and under-proofed, but the dough to filling ratio was perfect, not too much of anything. And the caraway, "Good call," I was told. Yeah, sometimes I get it right.

Now the one I was ready to love (and inhale), the Caprese-style. I love the flavor combination of tomatoes, basil, and fresh cheese. It began with a layer of tomato jam (whole canned tomatoes slowly baked for several hours in olive oil), topped with basil and fresh ricotta from Belfiore Cheese, then oven-dried heirloom tomatoes, and finally, thick slices of Belfiore's fresh mozzarella. Goosebumps, people.

Unfortunately, this one fell short for me. I didn't season it well enough, and the dough was too sweet and buttery (what?!) for this type of filling. This pastry begged for a few slices of pepperoni; that would have been something. Danish a la Hot Pocket, anyone?

And finally there was the Frog Hollow Farm peach. I read about these peaches years ago, before ever imagined I would be living in the same state as this magical place. A place where the peaches were so sweet, juicy, and delicious you could cut them in half, place a nub of butter where the pit once laid, bake it in the oven, and have peach pie. Yes, at Frog Hollow Farm, the peaches are legendary for their sugar content. So how trilled was I to see them in a local market? Kismet, I tell you. These were eat over the sink peaches, lick your elbows when you're done peaches, like the ones I ate off the tree as a kids peaches. I was a pretty lucky kid.

I made an almond filling for the base of the braid, sliced up some peaches, skin on, and arranged them over the almond mixture. A little sprinkle of superfine sugar and cinnamon over the top of the braid, and I'm ready for the most amazing peach pie Danish I'll ever eat. But alas, it was not so. The almond filling was a bit too toasted and took away from the delicate peaches, and really, it just wasn't sweet enough. It is a little early for that famous Frog Hollow peach, I suppose.

I can't complain one bit. I've made something I probably never would have, if not for the inspiration from the Daring Bakers and this month's hosts, Kelly of Sass & Veracity (and you can get the recipe here), and Ben of What’s Cookin’? And I had great fun doing it, despite any impressions of disappointment I may have allowed. (Just ignore that.) Life is good.


Getting Picked up in Brentwood

I should be keeping this a secret, but it's just too good. And it was passed down to me, after all, it would be selfish not to fess up. I went picking in Brentwood, a small town in the California Delta graced with fruit trees, corn fields, and a farmstand on every corner, once you get past the newly planted suburbia, that is.

Not having been there before, I wasn't quite sure what to expect; it is, or so I thought, that awkward time when the bounty of spring is long gone, and the fruits (and vegetables) of summer are not quite ready.

What seemed roughly 20 pounds of fruit plucked by hand from the first farm turned out to be closer to 40; apricots, peaches and nectarines, oh my! Some so ripe, they began to split and burst before even making it to the car. Could these beauties survive the long trek home, I wondered? At that, not before a few more stops out of town; there are berries, corn, beans, and tomatoes to be had.

And in answer to my question: barely. Such tender little babies, a good third of them destined for cobbler and sorbet before nightfall. I'm hoping the rest might stick around for at least a few more days. I've got plans for them.

There is nothing that compares to ripe fruit from the tree. Nothing. And these days, there's really no other way to get it than to do it yourself. They may have suffered bruises along the way, but the beauty here is on the inside. They are fresh, juicy and delicious. Nectar dripping to the toes. Eat these in the kitchen, it's easier to clean up afterwards.


A Lazy Day Dessert

I have a sweet tooth. I didn't actually, for quite some time, but when it found me again, it had become insatiable. In order to keep this part of myself under a certain control, and let me start by saying will power is not involved here, I tend to limit my purchases of those things sweet. By this I mean all of the wonderful little snacky things you might buy from the bakery down the way or the candy maker across the street (fortunately, or not, as the case may be, I do not exaggerate).

So when the sweet tooth does rear its ugly crown, I turn to my own creative efforts. And not because I can not justify buying myself a confectionary treat; but because often, my pajama-bottomed bottom just doesn't want to go anywhere.

On this particular day, I was inspired by a recipe I happened to find in a book all about small plates. Normally, I eschew this kind of cooking, as it is something I enjoy eating much more than taking the trouble to prepare. But this recipe was just as easily made in a baking dish (as opposed to individual ramekins) and I just happened to have all ingredients on hand (I knew I had that buttermilk in the fridge for something).

I had some blackberries, nearing their end, and decided they would be the perfect addition to this simple lemon pudding cake. The cake, leavened by whipped egg whites, is so light and airy that you can hear little bubbles bursting with each nudge of your fork. Such a lovely, bright dessert, reminiscent of a luscious lemon curd. And, oh, how the soft, silky richness melts in your mouth; when I say cake, I really do mean pudding.

The lemon flavor in this cake is not for the faint of heart; it is very tart. If you prefer sweet over sour, substitute Meyer lemons or add another tablespoon (or two) of sugar to the batter. The berries may be omitted all together if you prefer a plain lemon pudding, and if you have no interest in turning the berries into sauce, simply scatter fresh berries across the bottom of the baking dish before adding the batter.

Berry Bottomed Pudding Cake
adapted from Big Small Plates

6 oz. fresh blackberries, rinsed
¼ cup water
2/3 cup + 1 Tablespoon sugar
½ cup fresh squeezed lemon juice (approx. 3-4 lemons)
Zest from juiced lemons
1½ cups buttermilk
4 Tablespoons butter, melted
3 large eggs, separated

This recipe requires a water bath for a small baking dish (8 x 8 or 9 x 13, for example) or eight 4 oz. ramekins.

Preheat oven to 350°.

1. Combine blackberries, water, and 1 Tbsp sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat. Smash berries with a potato masher or slotted spoon; cover and cook until slightly thickened. Remove from heat and strain berries through a fine meshed strainer, pressing on the solids to push as much through the strainer as possible. Pour berry sauce into the bottom of a 9 x 13 (or similar) baking dish.

2. In a large bowl, combine the 2/3 cup sugar and flour. Add the lemon juice, zest, and buttermilk.

3. In a separate bowl, combine the egg yolks and melted (but not hot) butter; add this to the buttermilk mixture.

4. With a stand mixer (or by hand) whip the egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold the egg whites into the batter with a whisk.

5. Pour the batter into the baking dish straight away (the egg whites will begin to deflate as soon as they are added to the batter).

6. Place the baking dish in a water bath (the water should come at least halfway up the sides of the dish). Bake for 25-30 minutes; the cake should just begin to crack yet still be jiggly. Cool to room temperature.

Serve with fresh whipped cream if desired.