I’ve never exactly been a trendsetter. All too often I find myself clambering onto the bandwagon just as all the cool passengers have already transfered. Take fourth grade, for instance. My best friend and I spent weeks choreographing a dance to our favorite song, Ice Ice Baby, for our school’s talent show. When you’re 9, that seems like a really long time. While we looked great in matching black bike shorts, oversized t-shirts, slouch socks and Converse, the performance got off to a rocky start when the sound came on too low and we couldn’t really stick our dramatic and suspenseful opening. We did our best, though, jumping, spinning, popping, locking, and finishing in breathless exhilaration. Afterwards, riding a stellar performance high, a fifth grader sauntered up and, rolling her eyes, notified us that Vanilla Ice was totally last year.
And this one time? at band camp? I baked cinnamon buns for 200 people. No hobart had I, so I kneaded the dough in 6 batches in the kitchen aid. I spent hours shaping the buns late into the night, amidst giant moths, spastic june bugs and drunken musicians; just the usual. The buns finished baking somewhere around 2 a.m. and, knowing many campers would sleep through breakfast (including myself) we tucked into one of the pans. I proffered a bun to my friend, Malaika, but she refused, telling me she didn’t like sweets that didn’t have ‘strong flavors’ in them. ‘Well what d’ya call cinnamon?’ I thought, but I just shrugged and shoved another cinnamon bun in my mouth. (Bet you didn’t think I remembered that, huh?)
Place the rounds in the prepared pan, 3 by 4, evenly spaced, with the smaller, end pieces in the center. Brush the tops and sides with the remaining melted butter. Let rise until doubled, about 30 minutes. The buns are ready to bake when they hold an indentation when poked lightly with your finger, rather than springing back. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until lightly golden on top. Let cool at least half and hour before eating.
At the party, my bars got eclipsed by a (heavenly) pecan pie brought by another talented baker, and Jay and I were stuck (alas and alack!) with a plethora of cheesecake squares. Regardless of how hard we tried get rid of them, we kept finding ourselves in the kitchen with our fingers in the pan and crumbs round the lips. Luckily, these bars work equally well as breakfast, a mid-day snack or a satisfying dessert, as we can now attest.
I’ve written this recipe to be as quick and easy as possible. For an extra-delicious crust, don’t spread the cookie dough directly into the pan; instead, wrap it and chill until firm, about 1 hour. Roll out to 1/8″ thick, and cut into 2″ squares. Place on a parchment-lined sheet pan, spaced 1″ apart, and bake for about 20 minutes, until firm and slightly darkened around the edges. Let cool completely, then grind finely in a food processor. Toss the cookie crumbs with two or three tablespoons of melted butter until they clump together, then press them evenly into the pan. Bake the crust for 10 minutes until toasty, let it cool slightly, then proceed with the recipe.
To ensure smooth cheesecake, have all your ingredients at room temperature. Be patient while mixing the batter, and don’t skimp on scraping down the sides of the bowl and the paddle. Keep the mixer on medium-low; anything higher will incorporate too much air into the batter, resulting in unsightly bubbles in the finished product. I can think of nothing more embarrassing.
1 teaspoon vanilla
My first baking job, during my freshman year at UC Santa Cruz, lasted about three months. Our shift began at 4 am and often as I left my on-campus apartment, frequently still drunk from the night before, my apartment mates, who hadn’t yet gone to bed, would set down their joints and pipes to wave goodbye. I’d work until 11 am or so, then go straight to a day of classes and a night of partying, to repeat the scenario again at 3:30 the next morning. This all makes me sound rather un-bojon and go-getterish, which I assure you is not the case. About once a week, I would turn off my alarm clock in my sleep and be awakened, either naturally or by a phone call, around 9am, 5 hours late for work. Needless to say, my roommate hated me, but my boss let me continue to work there, probably because I was the only female/person under the age of 40 out of the dozen or so employees in the bakery.
Working at College 8, which provided baked goods for the entire campus’s cafeterias, was not glamorous by any stretch of the imagination. Most days, my tasks consisted of mixing canned bright red cherry goo into a waiting hotel pan of muffin batter, then scooping out six hundred muffins; or operating the “cookie machine,” which, when it wasn’t getting jammed, spat out a dozen balls of cookie dough at a time onto waiting sheet pans.
My favorite part of the job was dimpling out the oiled, herb-coated focaccia dough as it slowly rose in multiple hotel pans. But my least favorite part of the job was hearing my burly, mulletted boss pronounce the word “focaccia”. He’d start in with a sort of growl (fuuuhhhh…), then add a hacking sneeze in the middle (“GAH-tchuh”), followed by a redundant, polysyllabic description of what focaccia means in English (“BRAY-ed”). Sort of endearing, I suppose, but the defilement of such a beautiful language made me want scream “Focaccia you! Eh?”
Since that trauma, I’ve managed to avoid early morning jobs for the most part. But I still enjoy making “fuh-GAH-tchuh bray-ed” in the quiet and grammatically correct comfort of my own home. This recipe came about a couple years ago when I wanted to bake a sourdough focaccia but didn’t have the hours and hours to wait for a dough leavened soley with wild yeasts to rise. I tinkered with a recipe for yeasted focaccia, adding sourdough starter and tweaking the rest of the ingredients accordingly. What I pulled out of the pan that day was the best focaccia I’d ever eaten or made; (pathetically) one of my more triumphant moments in life.
Because the dough uses commercial yeast, this is a great way to use up starter that isn’t strong enough to raise bread on its own, such as young or neglected starter, or what you would throw away while feeding your starter to build it up. Just be sure the starter still smells nice. I’ve experimented with a few different flours and found that all spelt makes a spongy, springy focaccia, while bread flour makes a chewier dough with bigger, more irregular air pockets, as shown in these photos. You can vary the herbs and toppings to your liking. I plan to try pressing whole, roasted garlic cloves into the top next time. The dough is extremely wet, and probably impossible to knead by hand, so use a stand mixer for sure.
1 teaspoon instant, rapid rise yeast (or 1 Tablespoon fresh yeast)
1 cup (4 1/4 oz.) whole wheat flour
1 3/4 cups (8 oz.) all purpose or bread flour
1 1/4 cups (10 oz.) water, lukewarm
2 teaspoons sea salt
1/4 cup good olive oil (I like Sciabica’s)
1/4 teaspoon or so crunchy salt, like malden or fleur de sel
optional toppings: 1/2 cup halved pitted black olives; chopped thyme, rosemary, or sage; whole roasted garlic cloves; anything else you can think of
Combine the starter, yeast, water and flours in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low a couple of minutes until combined, scrape down the sides of the bowl, then increase to speed 3 and beat for 8 minutes. The dough should be very wet and sticky, almost batter-like, but not liquid. Add more flour or water as you knead if the dough seems overly wet or dry. Sprinkle on the salt, and beat on 3 for another five minutes. The dough should still be sticky, but should pull away from the sides of the bowl while it’s mixing. Leave the dough in the bowl, cover tightly with a lid or plastic wrap, and let rise 1-2 hours until doubled or tripled in bulk.
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and place a baking stone on top, if you have one. Place a sacrificial metal or cast iron pan on the floor of the oven – you will put ice in it to steam the oven, and it will become rusted and nasty. Preheat the oven to 500º.
Line a 9×12″ (1/4 sheet) pan with a sling of parchment paper (the paper should lay flat in the bottom with the long ends sticking out.) Drizzle 2 tablespoons of the olive oil all over the bottom and sides of the paper. With a plastic scraper, turn the dough over in the bowl a few times, tamping out some of the air bubbles, then blob it onto the center of the oiled parchment. Drizzle the remaining oil on top and use your fingers to dimple the dough outwards towards the sides and corners. Let the dough rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour, until it mostly fills in the pan, dimpling out the dough a few more times to fill in the corners. The olive oil will pool in the corners, so use a teaspoon to “baste” the top of the focaccia with that oil. Sprinkle a bit of crunchy salt over the top, and any other toppings you like, and give the dough a last dimpling.
Fill a 1 cup measure with ice cubes. Quickly place the focaccia pan on the baking stone and toss the ice cube into the sacrificial pan on the floor of the oven. Close the door and don’t open it again for the next 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, rotate the focaccia, then turn the oven down to 450º and bake for another 15 minutes or so, until golden and lovely on top. Remove to a cooling rack for 10 minutes, then lift out of the pan and cool completely before snarfing.
Store the focaccia at room temperature in a plastic bag for up to a few days (but I doubt it will last that long!)
My absolute favorite type of dessert is one made with ripe, seasonal fruit, hot from the oven, with a buttery flakey crust or topping and a big scoop of melting ice cream. For this reason, nothing beats a fruit crisp for ease, speed and sweet tooth satisfaction. Nothing, except maybe that same, gooey, buttery fruit crisp contained within a tidy, crispy tart shell.
I adapted this recipe from one I clipped from Gourmet a couple years ago. While it may look complicated and time consuming, it is delightfully simple to make and comes together quickly and efficiently; just the sort of recipe I like. You make the beginnings of a pie dough, then set aside a portion of the butter-flour mixture to which you add sugar for the crumble topping. Roll out the dough, toss the fruit with cornstarch and sugar, lay it in the unbaked shell, then crumble the topping over. Stick it in the oven and forget about it for a while (I recommend rewarding your hard labor with a glass of wine), and you’ve got yourself an impressive and swoon-worthy dessert.
The beauty of this recipe is that it can be adapted to use any fruit you like throughout the seasons. I decided to add lemon juice to the fruit in order to complement the figs and huckles, but you could add 1/4 teaspoon or so of cinnamon, nutmeg or cardamom, or use orange zest or vanilla bean seeds. The original recipe called for nuts in the topping, but I omitted them this time; oats would work well, too. A few nice combinations might be:
My favorite thing about this recipe is that the fruit and topping go into an un-baked crust – yay! I made this in an 8″ tart pan, but I think a 9″ pan would work fine, as well. See below for a Rhubarb Berry variation with Cardamom Oat Crumble.
Makes one 8 or 9″ tart, 8ish servings
Tart crust and crumble:
Bake about 1 hour, rotating once, until the fruit is bubbling thickly, and the crisp topping and tart shell are nicely browned. Remove from the oven. Let cool at least 20 minutes. Remove sides and slide the tart onto a cutting board or serving platter. Slice and serve with ice cream, whipped cream or creme fraiche.
Variation: Rhubarb Berry Tart with Cardamom Oat Crumble
Add 1/3 cup quick (baby) oats and 1/2-3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom to the crumble topping. For the fruit, use 1 1/2 cups rhubarb cut into 1/2″ dice, 1 1/2 cups blueberries, and 1 cup raspberries. Increase the sugar in the filling to 1/3 cup. Serve the tart with vanilla ice cream.