Issue 30

The Art of Baking Casually

The Art of Baking Casually

I am an eater who loves to cook, not vice versa. But it’s time to ’fess up. I am a lousy baker. You want a rack of ribs? Fresh ravioli with gremolata? A béchamel sauce? Croque monsieur or blanched asparagus salad with a poached egg? I got it. But when my friend Laura called, saying she’d ruined her son’s birthday cake—“It just crumbles! I can’t ice it!”—I told her exactly what to do: “Layer the crumbles in glasses with fruit, pudding, and whipped cream—you’ll have trifle!” I knew this because there is a whole line of crumbly cakes, burned cookies, and underdone fruit breads in my history. But there are a few baked goodies so foolproof even a dolt like me can’t mess them up.

Anyway, you were probably wondering what to do with all those luscious local farm-fresh eggs you have, and all that locally-grown-and-ground flour sitting around your kitchen, so you were thinking of baking, but it was too scary, right? If you look too long at glossy pictures of homemade cupcakes with from-scratch icing and cocoa stenciling, and gold-leafed, hand-sculpted miniature marzipan hedgehogs, you’re likely to get so anxiety-ridden, you’ll go picking fights with people you don’t even know. Or you’ll start hating friends who call to say that, in the city, they can buy those old things any time of the day or night from the corner eco-ethno-bakery. But take heart, you can bake better things, in a casual sort of way, and still impress all of your friends—even those from glamorous locales like Seattle, or Teaneck, New Jersey. We may not live in a city that never sleeps, but then who wants to go without sleep? Give your dear ones some fresh-baked gourmet Italian biscotti or some golden scones made with local ingredients and watch the jaws drop. It’s the Heartland, people! We have eggs and flour—let’s use them!

Ah, biscotti. Forget the butter. Real biscotti doesn’t have butter. If it did, it’d be called a cookie. I didn’t learn that from Italian friends, but from Lorenza de’ Medici on PBS, and I’m pretty sure she knew what she was talking about. In a big bowl, heap up some flour (about 3 cups), salt, brown sugar (a cup), with some grated orange peel, ½ cup of anise seed (go to Penzeys Spices, they don’t grow it much around here), some vanilla, and some grated nutmeg (spice store again), a pinch of baking powder, a cup and a half of ground whole almonds, and mix it. And then stir in about 10 eggs, just crack ’em right in there. Oh, it’s okay! Dietary cholesterol has absolutely no effect on serum cholesterol—it’s the excess calories and fat you eat. In these biscotti, there’s no butter, no oil and no dairy—that’s the beauty. Add a little dry vermouth or grappa, and use your muscles to fold it until no more dry flour is left. Or use a dough hook, but never a mixer or processor: over-mixing bad; lumpy good. Then take this gloppy stuff and scoop it into a line of blobs diagonally across a big sheet pan lined with parchment paper or foil. It should look like under-mixed cookie dough.

Wet your hands, and shape the line of blobs into a flattened log that is only about two inches (or two finger knuckles) thick at the center high-point—this gives you the half-crescent shape when you cut it. Bake it for about 25 minutes in a 375° oven until it is golden on top and sounds hollow when you thump it. Lift the paper and the biscotti onto a rack to cool, then cut it thick for big hunks or thin for dainty slices. The Italians toast the slices (hence “twice-cooked,” or biscotti) to dry them in a low oven (like those hard things at the coffee shop), but I tin mine up in a plastic tub and toast them as I eat them. Best of all is how you can change the flavors without ruining them. Add cinnamon, white chocolate chips, walnuts (instead of almonds) and you have holiday biscotti. Add semi-sweet chips and cocoa powder and you have choco-bliss. Add rum, pecans and more orange zest, and you have praline biscotti. Add crystallized ginger and pistachios with some apricots and milk chocolate, and you have something really good. Add fresh chopped marjoram and you have something to serve in summer with iced tea or white wine that will put a pound cake to shame. In my family, we leave the fatty, processed granola bars at home and take biscotti as hiking food. It stands up to the rigors of backpacks or daypacks and keeps quite well. If you make too much, cut and freeze them. They knock the socks off frozen waffles.

Can’t really identify with biscotti? Maybe the concept is a bit too outré for some; studies do show that touching actual dough with one’s hands can lead to dangerously exotic experimentation with yeast breads…. So, picture my Irish and Scots foremothers in the kitchen with heaps of work and kids and no time, and you’ll see why they favored the down-to-earth scone. In the home-countries, scone rhymes with John and not phone. But however you say it, scones are the fastest, most rewarding thing you can make for breakfast, and any kids running around your house will gobble them up quicker than you can mispronounce them. I have seen scone pans (fine shops have non-stick heavy-duty ones for as little as $85!) and I have heard all about rolling them out and wrestling them into round or triangle shapes. But why anyone would take a perfectly nice biscuit (a scone without egg, basically) and add more flour to it, mush it, manhandle it, and wag it around the kitchen is beyond me. My grandmother always said the more times you touch your biscuits, the fewer people will want to eat them.

Put 1½ cups of flour in a bowl with ½ cup of quick oats, a pinch of salt, 1 tbsp. to 1/3 cup of sugar (depending on how many kids you see running around) and grate in some citrus peel. Or if you make your own candied fruit peels like I do, crumble up some into the flour mixture with 4 teaspoons of baking powder. Cut in about 1/3 cup of butter until it’s crumbly (or whiz the lot in the food pro, but only the dry stuff and the butter). Crack an egg onto your dry stuff and schloop in a cup of yoghurt. Then add whatever dried fruits you like: currants, golden raisins, blueberries or cranberries, and fold everything together gently. Very gently. A heavy hand is death to good biscuits and scones. The dough should look like thick mashed potatoes, and while my grandmother used buttermilk instead of yoghurt, she would have used yoghurt if she’d had any, I just know it.

You’ll need a hot oven, say 425°, a sheet pan and some silicone-coated parchment. I’m not telling how many of those pricy silicone Le Pat-thingies I ruined before I finally learned to just buy a roll of baking parchment. Now casually blop out some of your fluffy dough into unshaped (and unmolested) little mounds of whatever size you like and bake them until they are golden brown—about 15-20 minutes. It’s hard, but wait until they cool a little and serve them with a bit of butter or crème fraiche. If you like, you can glaze the tops half-way through with egg wash, but I don’t really see the point. Sprinkling on a bit of white sugar right before they come out of the oven is nice. Anything dried and fruity that you fancy can go into a scone, and they are sweet enough for those who start their day off with sugar, but savory enough to go nicely with eggs or breakfast protein.

These are old recipes for foods that, respectively, Italian and Scots/Irish grandmothers relied on to comfort and feed families like only fresh-baked goodies can. It doesn’t take much time, and once you get the hang of it, not much effort to produce something truly memorable. Just take a deep breath, and bake well, but casually.

Ann Summers

Ann Summers

Ann Summers is not a 40-umpthing-year old rock climber who got shut down in Boulder Canyon and drowned her failure in a microbrewery. She is neither a mother of two, a fan of Latin plant names nor a lover of fine Italian Grappa. You’ll not catch her shooting guns for fun or hollering like a redneck. She hates Shakespeare, and doesn’t call a certain fast food chain “The Scottish Restaurant.” She turns her nose up at organic yellow beets, eschews fresh oysters, and loathes chubby guinea pigs with Violent Femmes hairdos. She is also a dreadful liar

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