Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Hot Cross Buns


Have I ever told you that my husband and I kind of got engaged on Easter Sunday? And that homemade Hot Cross Buns may have sealed the deal?

I say "kind of got engaged" because there wasn't a proposal at all, really, so much as a conversation about the future; a future we committed to create together as a married couple.

But there were Hot Cross Buns -- the first batch I ever made, and the first my husband had tasted since leaving South Africa seven years prior. You see, Hot Cross Buns are everywhere in South Africa -- at supermarkets, convenience stores, gas stations -- especially at Easter. But they're nearly impossible to find in Southern California, so I did what I tend to do: I made my own.

I don't recall the recipe I used. They were good, not great. I remember thinking they needed more raisins, sugar and spice. But hey, my husband ate them and decided to marry me, and now we have an Easter tradition and a cute story.

When I made Hot Cross Buns this year, I used Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond's recipe. It's brilliant in that she calls for layering spiced sugar and raisins in the dough, which by the way is probably the easiest yeast dough you'll ever make. I made it entirely by hand, and as long as your yeast is fresh, it's foolproof. I took only two liberties with Ree's recipe: I doubled the raisins (we really like our raisins) and was more generous with the sugar-spice mixture (mine was heavy on cinnamon, with a dash of freshly ground nutmeg and a pinch of ground cardamom).


Monday, April 25, 2011

Whole Grain & Seed Bread

I wanted something hearty and healthy to pair with the walnut butters I made this weekend, and this Whole Grain & Seed Bread was just the thing. The recipe yields two loaves; I sliced and froze one, though you could halve the recipe if desired.


Whole Grain & Seed Bread
Makes two 9x5" loaves

This bread is dense and substantial (verging on heavy) and therefore better suited to toast than sandwiches. You could lighten it by substituting unbleached all purpose flour for half the whole wheat flour, but you'd be diminishing its whole grain benefits.

4 cups warm water (It should feel neither hot nor cold when you dip your finger in it.)
1/3 cup honey
2 packages (4 1/2 teaspoons) active dry yeast
6 cups whole wheat flour
2 cups old fashioned oats (not instant)
1 cup sunflower seeds
1/2 cup coarse cornmeal
1/2 cup flax meal
4 generous teaspoons sea or kosher salt
Unbleached all purpose flour for kneading and shaping loaves (about 1 cup)
Cooking spray

1. In a medium bowl or large measuring cup, stir the honey and yeast into the water and let sit for about 5 minutes or until the mixture is foamy. (If your mixture fails to foam within 10 minutes, your yeast isn't active and you'll need to start over with new yeast.)

2. Meanwhile, in a very large bowl, whisk together the whole wheat flour, oats, sunflower seeds, cornmeal, flax meal and salt. Add the liquid yeast mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until a stiff dough forms. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 8 minutes, adding small amounts of all purpose flour (no more than 2 tablespoons at a time) as needed to prevent it from sticking. (Note: I divided the dough and used my KitchenAid mixer to knead it in two parts.)

3. Unless you have a bowl the size of a cauldron (lucky you for having the cabinet space), divide the dough (if you haven't already, as I did in Step 2) and place each piece in a large bowl coated with cooking spray. Cover with towels and set the dough in a warm place to rise for about 45 minutes, or until it's doubled in size and indentations remain when you press it with your fingers.

4. Working with one portion of dough at a time, punch it down and turn it out onto a well-floured surface. Dust with flour and roll into a rectangle about 10 x 15 inches. Starting with the short edge, roll up the rectangle tightly, pressing to rid it of air pockets. Place each roll in a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan coated with cooking spray, seam side down, tucking the edges of the roll under if needed. Cover with towels and set in a warm place to rise for another 45 minutes or until doubled again in size.

5. Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Uncover loaves and place in oven on center rack; bake for about 40 minutes or until they're browned and sound hollow when tapped.

TIP: To get a brown and chewy crust, use a spray bottle to periodically (about every 10 minutes) spray the bottom and sides of the oven with water. (Open the oven door just enough to spray the water into the oven, then close it immediately.) Steam is an element you can easily add to your home baking repertoire to make your bread more bakery-like.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Homemade Walnut Butter, Two Ways



Have you ever noticed that, generally speaking, jarred walnut butter isn't readily available? I often find myself optimistically scanning store shelves for it, only to be disappointed by its continued absence from retailers in my area. (In case you're wondering, I'm talking about Trader Joe's, Grow, Whole Foods and Bristol Farms. Let me know if you've seen it elsewhere.)

I'm not the only one scratching my head at its omission from an ever expanding lineup of nut and seed butters. Fellow foodie (and Bar Method devotee) Diana, of Diana Takes A Bite, feels my pain, as evidenced by our recent Twitter exchanges.

Search Google for "walnut butter" and you'll find a handful of online sellers and Amazon shops (see: Artisana and Fastachi), but mostly you'll find recipes and tips for making it yourself. Which is exactly what I did.

You should, too -- it's easy, healthy and tremendously satisfying. All you need are walnuts, a food processor or blender, and maybe some sea salt, cinnamon and honey.

I'll never long for commercially prepared walnut butter again. And, to be honest, this exercise proves there's no reason to buy jarred nut or seed butters, period.


I made two batches, neither of which involved a recipe so much as tasting and experimenting along the way, so be prepared to be the same. There are worse things, right?

Toasted Walnut Butter with Sea Salt
Makes about 2/3 cup
The following quantities are approximations.

2 cups walnut halves and/or pieces
Heaping 1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees F and spread walnuts evenly on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Toast walnuts for about 10 minutes, stirring them around halfway through.

2. Allow walnuts to cool before transferring them to a food processor or blender. Add about 1/4 (generous) teaspoon sea salt and process until a butter forms, stopping the processor occasionally to scrape down the sides and bottom. Be careful not to over process, or the butter will quickly become a paste. Store the butter in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Raw Walnut Butter with Cinnamon & Honey
Makes about 1 cup
The following quantities are approximations.

2 cups raw walnut halves and/or pieces
Heaping 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/3 cup honey

1. In a food processor or blender, combine all ingredients and process until a butter forms, stopping the processor occasionally to scrape down the sides and bottom. Be careful not to over process, or the butter will quickly become a paste. Store the butter in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

This walnut butter begs to be spooned onto oatmeal, stirred into quinoa or spread on toast. (For the latter, I made hearty whole grain bread.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Cape Winelands


I began drafting this post on February 24, which was in itself neglectful, and then I let it go missing until now. To be honest, I've been reluctant to publish this because the photos are so wretched and my writing, so uninspired. Truly, this post does not begin to do justice to the beauty of the Cape Winelands and the wonderful times we had there with our family.

Now that it's been ages since we returned from South Africa, let's get back to talking about the trip. Specifically, the Cape Winelands.

South Africa's largest wine producing region, the Cape Winelands boasts six distinct areas, each with its own wine route and renowned restaurants. Among the areas I've visited, Stellenbosch (where my husband went to University) and Franschhoek are the most famous, and Constantia is the oldest and closest to Cape Town (it's also where much of my husband's family is from and still lives).

During this trip we were privileged to eat at arguably the best restaurants in each of those three areas. First up was Bread & Wine at Moreson Wine Estate in Franschhoek. (Tip: Franschhoek has more award-winning restaurants than any place in South Africa. If you're able to travel to South Africa and are into food, go there. You won't be disappointed.) Bread & Wine was specially selected by my in-laws because of Miss Molly, the Moreson Weimaraner.



We went on quite a mission to find Miss Molly, but she was nowhere to be found. We did, however, find some Miss Molly wine. Several of the wines are named for "Weimaranerisms" familiar to anyone who has shared a home with a Weim: In My Bed, Hoity Toity and Kitchen Thief.

In My Bed and Hoity Toity
Kitchen Thief
There's also Bubbly for celebrating your good sense to live with a Weimaraner.




Given that it was 45 degrees C (113 degrees F) in the shade that day, Molly was most likely keeping cool in a wine cellar or at the  pool. (Weimaraners are nothing if not smart.)

To give you an idea of what 113 in the shade looks like, this is what happened to our butter in the blink of an eye:


And this is what your photos look  like when you're equipped with a point and shoot (and no bounce or diffuser) and are dining in the shade of a giant tree.

Pork Belly with Avocado Cream

Dessert. Always.

No matter. The food was lovely and the company, even better.

Speaking of lovely, we had the privilege of lunching with my mother-in-law and her husband at Terroir, the award-winning restaurant on the Kleine Zalze wine estate in Stellenbosch. We dined on the restaurant's patio where we enjoyed views of the estate's golf course, gardens and vineyards and, of course, impeccable food and wine. The menu changes weekly (if not daily) based on what's in season and locally available.


Don't be fooled by the prices; they're in Rand. Terroir is quite affordable in U.S. Dollars.

Escalopes of Salmon with Sesame and Soya Dressing

Tomato and Avocado Tian

Grilled Fresh Line Fish with Herb Crust, Asparagus and Truffle Vinaigrette. The herb crust was brilliant. Rather than being crusted with herbs, the fish was topped with an herb cracker of sorts.

Braised Belly of Pork with Truffle Sauce and Crackling

We of course saved (or found, rather) room for dessert.


Tellingly, I snapped this photo before I photographed the lunch menu board.

This Hazelnut and Milk Chocolate Bar with Nougatine Ice Cream was reminiscent of Breanne Varela's Snickers Bar at Tavern.

Have you noticed that lunch is kind of a big deal in South Africa? Unlike Americans, who mark special occasions with suppers and dinners, South Africans celebrate holidays and special occasions over lunch. (The practice is quite genius in that it leaves you with a half day to digest and work off your meal, as opposed to staggering to the sofa or bed in a food coma.)

So, in celebration of my mother-in-law's birthday, we enjoyed a glorious lunch at Constantia Uitsig. The restaurant occupies an original Cape Dutch homestead and is absolutely breathtaking. Also breathtaking were the food and service. The leisurely meal was flawlessly timed, prepared and served -- without the slightest hint of pretension (save for the decidedly ostentatious diners opposite us, but that's another story).

Caesar Salad
Smoked Tuna Carpaccio with Avocado
Chalmar Beef Fillet
Special Birthday Malva Pudding

Oh how I miss Cape Town: its beauty, culture, food, and, most of all, our wonderful family. {sniffle}

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Bake Sale Success!

Have you heard? Bakesale for Japan has raised $120,254.38 and counting! This is no surprise considering how flawlessly the event was orchestrated by Samin Nosrat (San Francisco Bay Area and nationwide) and Breanne Varela (Los Angeles).

I was thrilled to participate at the Akasha Restaurant location along with the lovely Akasha Richardson, her husband, Alan, and a team of talented and enthusiastic bakers and volunteers. Together, and thanks to the generosity of those who showed up to buy our sweet treats, we met our goal of contributing $2,500 to L.A.'s total of $15,484.

Samin, Breanne, Akasha, Alan, Karen, Yvonne, Adriana, William, Craig, Shawn, Yuko, Mika and Becca: you are amazing.


 


I donated 96 Browned Butter Brownies to the bake sale and bought a bag of other bakers' goodies, including Chocolate Peanut Butter Macarons from Secret Marmalade, Lingonberry Shortbread and Whoopie Pies from Hummingbird Catering, Breanne's Granola Cookies from The Larder at Tavern, Craig's Lemon Bars, and Milk Chocolate Almond Toffee from Truly Toffee. My heart and tummy are full.