Easy Scones

Today the sun is out in full force. The air is warm. The snow that fell last weekend is melting at a rapid pace. Stepping outside you can believe that spring is near.

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Perfect White Bread

We've been spending a lot of time working on the house this winter, and the only thing exciting happening in the kitchen has been bread. We've continued experimenting with the basic bread recipe we shared back in January with some failures, some successes, and a lot of learning, the most interesting one being the amount of time your bread can rise before it actually collapses back on itself (for us this was a second rise that exceeded 24 hours). One of our more brilliant successes is good old fashioned white bread.

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18-Hour Rise Artisan Bread

Last month my counterpart started baking bread again with the intention of crafting a variety of basic bread recipes that we could share. This is the first in what will hopefully become a series on different types of breads you can make at home.

This is a variation of the Sullivan Street Bakery's No-Knead Bread. This bread has a long, slow rise and is steamed while it is baked in a cast iron skillet or dutch oven, creating a loaf with a thick, chewy crust and a dense, slightly doughy flesh. It has a nice wheat flavor and keeps well when wrapped in freezer paper and left on the counter.

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Bread for St. Brighid

February 2, or Groundhog Day, falls between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox and from a solar perspective is the midpoint of winter. Before the legend of the groundhog and his shadow, it was a very different time. It was a time of cold and dark and hunger giving way to light and warmth as the days steadily grow longer. It is a time to look forward to the coming spring, to begin preparations for the planting when the cold fades away and the earth is once again soft and warm and open.

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Mary Bakes Potato Bread

After a series of increasingly bad dinners that culminated with me being assured that I never actually have to cook ever again, I decided to return to more familiar kitchen terrain, and today I am baking bread.

I learned how to bake bread at my mother's bosom. It was Green Bay WI in the 1970's and grocery stores didn't have bakeries and she had seven mouths to feed on one income. Making bread at home was cost effective and probably more convenient than buying it. Later, when she re-entered the workforce and there was less time and more money, we would frequent the Dolly Madison outlet off of East Main in what is now known as the Three Corners neighborhood. But before such cushy times, I remember a childhood full of a different type of comfort - the smell and taste of home made bread.

This was also before bread machines, and my mother made her bread by hand. I follow this practice even with such modern conveniences as the Kitchen Aid (complete with dough hook) in the house. What I learned from my mother is that it's not just about the finished product. I learned that bread is about family, and that a lot of love goes into it. Bread is also about the process. And the process you follow shapes the end result.

I also learned that dough feels good. I learned this when I was four. Making bread was a family ritual shared by me, my mom, and eventually my younger sisters while my dad was at work and my older brother and sister were at school. Only we younger ones got to punch down the warm dough after the first rise and help knead out the air created by the yeast. And once the bread had baked, only we got slices of still-steaming bread covered with Mom's home made jelly, often made with fruit growing wild in our back yard.

Mis en place

While my mom made a very nice, hearty loaf of white - and then later whole wheat - bread, I make potato bread. I use the Joy of Cooking recipe as my guide. Bread is one of those things that, because it so hands-on, absorbs the energy you put into it. If you knead the dough to work out your anger and frustration, the dough won't rise properly. You also get better results from your yeast when the moon is full. And, all ingredients should be at room temperature when you start as cold eggs or milk will result in sluggish yeast. For potato bread, the type of spud you use also has an impact based on the starch content. I get results that I like best with red potatoes. They have a strong potato flavor and are not too starchy.

Sweating eggs are still too cold

Buttermilk Potato Bread

3/4 cup mashed potatoes, still warm

1 stick very soft butter

4 tsp active dry yeast

2 cups buttermilk

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

2 tbsp sugar

2 1/2 tsp salt

about 6 1/2 cups flour

I'll start with reheated left-over mashed potatoes if we have any. If not, I'll make my own. a couple of good-sized potatoes should be enough. I don't usually measure them out but then add enough flour at the end to make it work. I also season the potatoes with salt, pepper, butter, cream, and herbs.

Using a large bowl, mix the softened butter into the potatoes until fully integrated. Add the yeast, buttermilk, egg, sugar, and salt.


If you don't have buttermilk on hand - I know I never do - you can make your own by adding a couple of dashes of a light vinegar - not Balsamic - to regular milk.

Regular milk

Add some vinegar to curdle slightly

Add the first three cups of flour and blend in with a spatula or wooden spoon. Once integrated, begin adding the remaining flour one cup at a time. After for or five cups of flour have been added, you'll need to give up the utensils and mix by hand. This is a wonderful experience. If the dough is still sticky after all the flour has been added, add a little more until the dough is smooth and elastic.

Smooth and elastic dough

Once it's the right texture, shape it into a ball and place it in an oiled bowl, flipping it to coat with the oil. Cover with a towel and leave it alone to rise until it has doubled in size, about an hour or so. This can be done at room temperature. However, if  the various factors cited above prevent you from getting a rise out of the dough, place it in a warm oven (175 or lower) with the door ajar.

Doubled in size

Once the rise is complete, knead out the air, using additional flour if the dough becomes sticky. Shape the dough into two loaves and place into greased loaf pans with any seams or creases facing down. I am partial to Pyrex glass pans as the glass provides an even baking temperature and creates a nice crust. I also recommend using the full 8- or 9-inch loaf pans rather than mini-loaf pans for a yeast bread.

Cover and let rise again, keeping an eye on things as this rise is usually quicker - about 45 minutes or less.

Bake at 375 for 45 minutes to an hour, depending on how your oven behaves. Pay attention to things after the first 30 minutes. Things baked in my oven tend to develop a dark outer crust before the insides are completely cooked. When the upper crust is just about the right color, I cover the loaves with foil until the rest of the bread catches up. Once I see a golden brown crust forming on the bread in the pan (I can see this because I'm using Pyrex), the bread is done.

Fresh from the oven

Cool in the pans on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes before cutting a piping hot slice, slathering it in butter, and enjoying thoroughly.

Holiday Baking: Blonde Fruitcake

There's one in every crowd - a holiday traditionalist who loves and looks forward to fruitcake. This has always mystified me as every fruitcake I have ever had has been heavy and chaotic and boozy and not very well thought out. I'm sure at one time someone came up with a very nice recipe that called for a rich cake full of fruit and nuts but over the years it has evolved into what can only be described as a culinary clusterfuck of the highest magnitude. It takes some genuine skill to pull off a confection of candied fruit and hard liquor and quite honestly for most of us at-home bakers it's pretty far out of reach, especially if you only bake in December.

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Holiday Baking: Lemon Tea Bread

So now that we are clear of Thanksgiving, I am full Holiday Baking mode. Every year I have a theme. One year it was Spice - gingerbread, cardamom cookies, etc, - another year it was color - lots of decorated cut cookies. When I asked my counter part about this year's theme, he recommended Blonde - light colored treats that would be visually appealing when packaged together. He also requested a lemon tea bread, sans poppy seeds.

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