Yeasty Aromas with Warmth from the Oven = Heaven

Love baking when there’s a chill in the air. Living on my blustery hillside, I must admit I’m a creature affected by the weather. With the preponderance of frigid sleeting storms, my heart and soul yearns to bake in those moments that I’m not working.

 I do need to keep an eye on the power, as my oven ceases its task the moment electricity falters. Our rural telephone poles that traverse the mountain are highly susceptible to the ravages of munching animals, drenching or freezing rain and gusting wind.

Browsing cookbooks and favorite magazines by a blazing fire yielded a wonderful lengthy list of things I’d love to bake and blog about with the highlight for those that could be yanked from the oven and dropped into a hot Dutch oven on gas burners should the need arise.

Neighbors in an oh so scenic rural environment is a tad different concept than in the city. My neighbor Terry traverses the winding single lane dirt road past my house up the hillside another 2 1/2 miles to her own. She goes to and fro to work or errands every day and, as only a handful of homes this high on the hill, we’ve chatted and become good friends. With cabin fever lurking, she and I decided to have a girls’ night of gossip, wine and snacks as a welcome break in our stormy week. This provided the extra incentive to get out that flour, cross my fingers on the electricity and get to baking.

With wine and cheese on the menu, I wanted to try out a new bread. I chose Martha Stewart’s Cornmeal Rolls, a most fortuitous selection as this is now one of my favorite bread recipes. For sandwiches or slicing small rounds for cheese, bake the recipe exactly as presented. For serving plain with butter or toasted with jams, I’d add a bit more sugar or even maple syrup or honey to the recipe. You get the predominant flavors of yeast and cornmeal in this perfectly textured bread. I like to put a pan on the lower shelf of my oven with boiling water to create a nice warm space for my dough to rise. If you do this, use a plastic mixing or storage bowl; ceramic or glass will transfer the heat to the bottom of your bowl creating a spot a tad too warm for simple rising. Although Martha gets 20 rolls from this recipe, I shaped them large for guest size sandwich rolls and a couple as, what they call in New England, hoagie shaped to slice like baguette rounds with the cheese. Homemade crackers are visible in these photos and I’ll blog about them shortly. I’d planned on a nice brie round, but it hadn’t been wrapped well and isn’t supposed to be a blue cheese – I’ll leave it at that. Pepper Jack certainly wasn’t as fancy, but it did make a yummy munchable, especially as we teamed it with small squares of cod baked in parchment to also adorn the bread rounds.

Martha Stewart’s Cornmeal Rolls

1 1/4 cups milk
4 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal, plus more for sprinkling
1 package active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water, 100 degrees to 110 degrees
2 tablespoons dark-brown sugar
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 1/2 to 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
Olive oil, for bowl and plastic wrap or a damp clean dish towel

Place milk and salt in a large saucepan over medium heat, and bring to a simmer. Gradually whisk in cornmeal. Cook the mixture, stirring, until cornmeal is thickened, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat, and set aside to cool. (I did this in the microwave – high for one minute, stir, then high for another, stir and let cool). In the detached bowl of an electric mixer, whisk together yeast, water, and brown sugar. Set aside until mixture is foamy, about 10 minutes. Attach the bowl to a mixer fitted with the dough-hook attachment. With the mixer on low speed, add cooled cornmeal mixture and 2 beaten eggs. Slowly add enough flour to form a soft dough. Knead on medium-low speed until dough springs back when pressed with a finger, about 5 minutes. (You can mix and knead by hand – knead at least 10 minutes – until smooth and elastic). Brush a large mixing bowl with olive oil. Place dough in bowl; cover bowl with oiled plastic wrap. Set aside until doubled in size, about 3 hours.

Sprinkle two 13-by-18-inch baking sheets with cornmeal (I didn’t do this as I didn’t wasn’t a gritty texture on the rolls). Turn dough out onto a floured work surface. Divide dough into 3-ounce portions. Roll each portion of dough into a ball. Place balls of dough 1 1/2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets. Cover with oiled plastic wrap or the damp clean dish towel. Set in a warm place to rise until dough does not spring back when pressed with a finger, about 30 minutes. (The puddles you see are from brushing them with the egg wash). Heat oven to 375 degrees. Brush the top of each roll with the remaining beaten egg (I added a tablespoon of water to my beaten egg – habit) and, if you like, sprinkle with cornmeal. (Optional: using a sharp knife, cut two parallel slits in the top of each roll). Bake rolls until they are golden, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool for at least 5 minutes before serving.

 The rolls freeze and reheat beautifully. Take the frozen roll and very lightly mist with water from a spray bottle, put on the rack of a toaster oven at 350° for nine or 10 minutes. They emerge warm and as wonderful as fresh out of the oven. Here’s my pepper jack lunch cheese sandwich that is so much more than if it were simply on plain old bread. The agate plates are from our local, Angel’s Camp, Stories in Stone.

 I have been babbling bit about the weather, but has gone from 80s to freezing with deep snow and back again a few times. Our local vintners have also been posting their pictures of the last few weeks (Irish Vineyards FB post, Love this – as someone said the road closed sign is a tad redundant, Jeff of Twisted Oak).

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Sunday in my Town, Murphys California

The rain’s been sniveling all day after screaming with passion throughout the night. Nature’s begun her unimaginative winter rut of rain, rain, rain, tiny glimpse of sun, more rain in Northern California. We’re not allowed to really complain with the threat of drought always on our horizon. For those of us lower than snow levels, the end of December through March means cold damp rain (as opposed to May through November – then we might not see a drop). When the sun does peek out, we all understand Shakespeare’s analogy “Love Comforteth like Sunshine after Rain” (Henry VI). Those glimpses of sunshine are coveted and seem to warm to the bone. Made an effort earlier this week to capture a few of my glimpses on film for Sundays in my town (or city). Above you see some folks around Murphys are not yet blessed with the cessation of rain for the evening.

Love the play of light on clouds. My meager efforts were able to capture a few visions I’ll keep. Composition may not be perfect as I’m working with the limited venues available from the back deck.

The touch of light on the trees lets you know dusk is near.

Still playing with light.

So yes it’s clichéd, and yes regardless I lit a nice fire and have been humming about the house “Oh the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful”. What can I say – I like a good fire, I like to sing while I work. It’s a perfect day for having the oven on and staying inside – in honor of my “more good grains in 2011” resolution, I threw together a batch of my favorite cornbread muffins (blogged with recipe here– note in the large muffin tins it only makes 6) and curled up with a my fav bev – halfway between a latte and cappuccino (more milk than one and less than the other). Once this is posted, it’s off to a corner with a blankie and a good book.

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My “go to” Shortbread Cookie

Those of you who’ve read a bit of my blog will notice I like “go to” recipes. Years ago I’d tried a “new recipe” at Christmas Eve – pasta with a cream sauce and chestnuts from a favored magazine source. It was horridly bland in the most unpalatable way. That was the first and last time I served a recipe I hadn’t tried first (yes, everyone does learn this lesson and luckily 1. It was a side dish and 2. They were very close friends, so they didn’t write off having dinner with me in the future).  It had looked so good in the magazine.  Lesson learned, I have and continue to build my arsenal of recipes I want to repeat. These are the recipes I share, the food I serve guests or add to baskets as gifts.

Enter Barefoot Contessa Pecan Shortbread Cookies. You’ll find that although traditional shortbread is flour, sugar and butter plus flavorings, recipes and variations abound. Some use superfine sugar, some confectioner’s sugar and others plain ol sugar. Some add cream cheese (is it even then a shortbread or should it be called a sugar cookie? I’m not the food police, although these musings cross my mind). Flavorings run the gamut of extracts, citrus rind, nuts, cocoa, dried fruits and more. You can dip in chocolate, drizzle icing or serve with neither – plain being oh so perfect with a cup of tea. Rolling the dough instructions can be very thin or thick (Martha’s shortbread hearts say 1/16 to 1/8 inch thick, Ina’s recipe on Food network ½ and Ina’s recipe at Martha’s site ¼). I like the thicker style and it’s nice to know you don’t have to be perfect in rolling them out – just cut them all the same size and watch your cooking time. Oven temps also vary.  Originally, I’d planned to use a shortbread mold I have (I have this ‘thing’ for bakeware). I’ve used the recipe from Brown Bag Cookie Art in the past, based on the consideration that it’s in their best interests to have a super recipe so you bake shortbread often and therefore want to use more and more of their molds. I liked their plain shortbread cookie (requires confectioner’s sugar) but the mold didn’t capture the detail as much as I liked. I’d browsed the web and found a blog showing pics of that blogger’s cookies from the tart size molds noticing that, although she professed to making cookies in these molds all the time, hers also didn’t capture the mold detail. It’s something I’ll pursue later (refrigeration I hear is the key plus pressing the hell out of it when you put it in the mold). Given the crunch of holidays, I decided I’d use Wilton’s mini multi cutter (looks like it’s supposed to cut three oblong brownies from one pressing) to give myself a standard shape.

I wanted a classic shortbread recipe when searching what to settle on. The Brown Bag Art recipe was good, but I knew there was something a bit better out there. Searched Food Network, Martha and various web sources. Narrowed my search at Martha Stewart to “published prior to 2004” as those are the recipes her empire was founded on. I sometimes think with the proliferation of recipe mags and shows and blogs there are those who run out of really good ideas and just throw together more combinations of spice or more and varied ingredients into standard recipes – sometimes it may work for a flavor palette that builds, but the majority of the time I find I prefer the simpler, cleaner taste without tumbling too many strong flavors together. (I do like Indian food, but if I had it more than a few times/week I’d be craving something like steamed broccoli with butter and a dash of salt only).  

Found the recipe published in the magazine in 1992, before Ina had a following more than her store and she was a guest on Martha’s show. The notation “These cookies were always the first thing to sell out at the Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten’s gourmet store in East Hampton, New York” sold me. The interesting bit is that Martha’s site just has a 2 by pure almond extract – so I added 2 teaspoons. In checking a similar recipe on food network, Ina adds the equivalent of ½ teaspoon (Food Network recipe is this doubled without the sugar sprinkled on just before baking). I really like the strong almond extract flavor. I like it when the cookies are still slightly warm from the oven and that sweet almond taste is very strong and I love it a day later when the almond taste has mellowed but still comes through in the cookie’s flavor.

Barefoot Contessa Pecan Shortbread Cookies

Makes about 1 1/2 dozen
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
2 1/4 ounces pecan halves, toasted
½  to 2 teaspoons pure almond extract (depending on your tastes, I’ll always go full 2 teaspoons)
  1. Cream together butter, 1/2 cup sugar, and vanilla in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, until mixture is light in color, 3 to 4 minutes.
  2. Add flour, salt, pecans, and almond extract, and mix until combined and the pecans start to break up.
  3. Wrap dough in plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator at least 1 hour or overnight. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to a 1/4-inch thickness. Using 2 1/2-inch diameter fluted cookie cutters, cut cookies, and place on parchment-lined baking sheet. Return to refrigerator 1 hour more.
  4. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Sprinkle cookies with remaining 2 tablespoons sugar, and bake until lightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack, and let cool.

I like to cook them just until you can see very light browning at the edge. For molds, this is a must. For shaped, some folks demand they’re taken from the oven before any coloration from baking, others, like me, go with the slight toasting color. I wrapped these simply using the paper liner that is used to separate the foil cupcake liners (just press the opposite sides with your finger and you have a perfect oblong) and holiday treat bags. These aren’t going in the mail and the light bags can easily be placed around your food basket without crushing items beneath.
Pecan Shortbread Cookies – Martha Stewart Recipes

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 This post is being resurrected for Ina’s Garden over at 21st Century Housewife (shortbread is good for Indian Summer afternoons as well as holiday baking!) and participated in the following linky parties: