Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Finnish Pulla Bread with Apricots and Pistachios


Have you had the pleasure of watching The Great British Baking Show (a.k.a., Bake-Off)? If you like baked goods and you like seeing a more positive side of humanity, I absolutely recommend it. Unlike U.S. American food competition shows, the contestants and judges are actually genuinely nice to each other, and they genuinely seem to care more about having fun with their creative outlet than with winning.

Well, several months ago I watched all the seasons of Bake-Off that Netflix would allow, and though I was thoroughly wowed by every episode, I found myself most inspired by the enriched breads, as these bakers kept creating succulent doughs studded with fruit and spices and shaped into intricate braids and knots that shimmered with sticky sweet glazes. This past weekend I finally went for it!

Based on the numerous pulla recipes I read during the last 48 hours, pulla is a traditional Finnish bread. It's a yeasty cousin to brioche and challah; flavored with cardamom; generally shaped into a braid, a wreath, or buns; and traditionally served with coffee. Some recipes included fruit or nuts, while others were more basic. So I wound up making a more plain, traditional loaf and a more jazzed up loaf.


Finnish Pulla Bread with Apricots and Pistachios
Yield: 2 loaves/braids*
Source: I referenced many recipes but mostly followed the ingredients from Around the World in 80 Bakes and the process from All Recipes

Ingredients
6 Tbsp. butter, melted, at room temperature
1-1/2 cups milk (at least 2%; I used part 2%, part half-and-half)
4-1/2 tsp. active dry yeast (or 2 packets, 7 g each)
2 tsp. salt
6 Tbsp. sugar (1/4 cup + 2 Tbsp.)
3/4 to 1 tsp. ground cardamom**
700 g all-purpose flour (for me this ended up being about 4-2/3 cups)

Zest of 2 oranges
16 dried apricots, finely diced
40 g pistachios, finely chopped

1 egg

Directions
Melt the butter and allow it to cool to room temperature. Warm the milk to 110 degrees.*** Go ahead and measure out your flour into a smallish bowl. You'll add it in increments, so it's easy to measure once and then eyeball it throughout the different steps in the recipe.

To a large bowl add the milk, yeast, salt, sugar, cardamom, and about 1 cup of flour--enough to make a runny batter. Beat the batter until it's really nice and smooth. (For me, this was a couple of minutes on medium speed with my little handheld five-speed mixer.)

Add some more flour (1-2 cups) and continue beating until it's again smooth and elastic. If you're using a hand mixer like mine, aim for more like 1 to 1-1/2 cups flour. I added close to 2 cups, and it made the dough too thick--it just kept climbing up the beaters!--so I had to switch to beating by hand.

Now add the melted butter. Beat the dough some more, until the butter is fully incorporated and the dough looks smooth and glossy. Add the rest of the flour and keep on mixing until it's fully incorporated. If you have a good quality stand mixer, rejoice! If you don't, you'll get a good arm workout!

Now, lightly flour a clean countertop, and turn the dough out onto it. Invert your mixing bowl over the dough, and let the dough (and your arms) rest for 15 minutes. When those 15 minutes are up, knead the dough for a good 10-15 minutes, until it's nice and smooth.****

Remember your mixing bowl? Spritz it with a bit of cooking spray, put your ball of dough inside, turn the dough so all of it gets lightly coated with oil, and cover the bowl with a damp, clean kitchen towel. Let the dough rise in a warm, undrafty place until it's doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Punch down the dough. If jazzing up your bread, add your orange zest, apricots, and pistachios now. Knead them into the dough. Let it rest for another 5-10 minutes (on the counter is fine, covered with that damp kitchen towel you used earlier).

Divide your dough into 6 portions, as equal as you can get them. Roll each portion into a long rope, about an inch in diameter.

Gather up 3 ropes, and pinch them together on one end. Gently braid the 3 ropes together, and when you get to the end, pinch those ends together as well. Tuck both ends (top and bottom) under the braid, so you have a nice, tidy-looking loaf braid. Repeat this process with the other 3 ropes to make your second loaf braid.

Place braids on a greased baking sheet. Spray the tops with oil, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise for about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400. Beat an egg really well, until it's super smooth. Remove the plastic wrap from the loaf braids and very gently brush some beaten egg over the loaves. Bake for 25-30 minutes, rotating the pan half-way through the baking time, until the loaves are browned, glistening, and look like they should be in a bakery display case!

Notes
*Initially I planned to make just one braid, but one recipe I read made an excellent point: if you're going to go to the trouble of making a homemade yeast bread--including all the kneading and rise time, you might as well make two or more loaves and have plenty to share. Your friends and coworkers will thank you.

**I saw widely varying cardamom measurements and settled on 3/4 tsp. When I nibbled some dough (I'm weird like that) the cardamom flavor was pretty subtle. So I added another 1/8 tsp. or so to the loaf I made with apricots, and kneaded it in along with the apricots, pistachios, and orange zest. That was still a nice amount of cardamom without feeling overwhelming.

***Some recipes I read said to scald the milk by bringing it to a near boil on the stove and then letting it cool to 110 degrees. I simply warmed mine in the microwave until it felt warm but not uncomfortably hot.

****I was expecting mine to reach a super smooth, satiny texture like I get with cinnamon roll dough ... but my pulla dough never got to that stage, even after 15 minutes. It was smooth, but the dough felt denser and heavier than I'm used to. I don't know if it's supposed to be that way, or if it got thrown off by some combination of my technique, the temperature and humidity of my kitchen, the flour measurement in the recipe I followed, or the general mood of the bread gods that day.




Sunday, May 14, 2017

Vietnamese Shrimp Noodle Bowl (Bun Tom Xao)


The first time I remember having Vietnamese food, it was at a pho restaurant in Los Angeles. My family got pho on my brother's recommendation, but I ended up ordering some other dish. Though I don't recall the name of the dish, I remember that it smelled gross but tasted pretty good. The gross-but-good culprit? Fish sauce. It truly does smell terrible. But when you mix it with something sweet, something acidic, and something spicy, it somehow transforms into this tasty thing that leaves you wanting more.

This dish comes from the Global Kitchen cookbook. And I'm happy to report that I could find all the ingredients locally. I've found fish sauce, rice vermicelli, and serrano peppers at both HEB and the north Walmart. If you don't see rice vinegar with other vinegars, look in the international and/or Asian section of your grocery store.


Bun Tom Xao (Vietnamese Shrimp Noodle Bowl)
Slightly adapted from Cooking Light, as seen in Global Kitchen cookbook
Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients
1/2 cup warm water
3 Tbsp. granulated sugar
1/4 cup fresh lime juice (about 2 limes)
1 Tbsp. rice vinegar
1-2 serrano chiles, thinly sliced

3 cups sliced cucumber (about 1 large cucumber)
4 cups green leaf lettuce, chopped
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves
1/4 cup torn fresh mint leaves
1/4 cup torn fresh basil or Thai basil leaves

5 oz. rice vermicelli noodles
1/2 cup peanuts, coarsely chopped (toasted if desired)
1/3 cup sliced green onions (1/4" slices) (about 2 green onions)
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 tsp. cornstarch
1 tsp. dark brown sugar (I used light brown)
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
3/4 tsp black pepper (or white pepper if you have it)
1 lb. shrimp, peeled, deveined, and tails removed (thawed if frozen)
Canola oil

Directions
In a two-cup measuring cup or small bowl, combine warm water and sugar, stirring until sugar dissolves. Add lime juice, rice vinegar, fish sauce, and serranos. It's going to smell seriously funky, so cover it with plastic wrap to keep that funk at bay, and set aside while you prepare the rest of the meal.

Peel cucumber if it's bitter. Cut into quarters lengthwise, then slice thinly. Toss with the lettuce, cilantro, mint, and basil.

Cook the rice vermicelli according to package directions. Rinse very well in cold water, and set aside to drain well. These noodles are super starchy, so if they're sitting for very long, give them another good rinse if they start to get sticky.

While the noodles are cooking, toast your peanuts, if desired, and allow them to cool before chopping. Slice your green onions and chop your garlic.

Combine cornstarch, brown sugar, salt, and pepper in a bowl. Add the shrimp and toss to coat well. If you have a wok, now is its time to shine. Otherwise, a large skillet will do quite nicely. Heat your wok/skillet over high heat, and add a swirl of canola oil. Add the shrimp to the pan, and cook until they start to develop a nice sear. When they're almost done, add the green onion and garlic, and stir-fry for about 30 seconds to 1 minute more. Remove from heat.

To serve, put a generous portion of the lettuce mixture in the bottom of each bowl. Top with noodles, shrimp, and chopped peanuts, and about 1/4 cup of the fish sauce-lime mixture.

Notes

  • I've also made this with boneless, skinless chicken thighs, chopped into small, thin slices about the size of medium shrimp. And I actually liked it better with the chicken. If you use chicken, prepare and cook it the same way; you'll just need to cook it a bit longer than the shrimp.
  • When I made this for just myself, I used only 1 serrano chile. When I made it with a friend I put 1 serrano in the sauce and sliced the other for an optional addition at table.