BBA #10: Cornbread

Cornbread - sliced

For the second week in a row, the Bread Baker’s Apprentice has taken on a couple of family-favorite foods.  I have to admit, when I saw cornbread in the Bread Baker’s Apprentice, I was immediately skeptical.  This cornbread was baked in the oven in a cake pan, had tons of sugar in it, used four bowls, whole corn kernels, and was made by a dude from California.  With my typical bullheaded-ness, I wondered how it could be corn bread if it wasn’t: made on the stove top in a cast iron skillet, having anything more than the merest pinch of sugar, using a single bowl, smooth in texture, and made by my grandfather.  The saving grace of this recipe in the beginning was the liberal use of bacon and the greasing of the pan in bacon grease.

Once I resigned myself to making the recipe as written, I made the most of its use of corn.  Sweet, white corn is in season right now, so it was the perfect side dish to some beautiful fried pork chops I made.  The leftover corn got trimmed from the cob and saved in the fridge for the cornbread.  The night before I made the cornbread, I proceeded to make the soaker out of polenta and buttermilk.  A two day process for cornbread?  Really, now, it seems excessive.  But, I tried not to be a skeptic.

On the day of the cornbread making I pulled out my package of perfect, thick-cut bacon.  I prepared to bake it in the oven– which shocked me.  However, after 20 minutes, I had crispy strips of bacon and lots of bacon grease.  YAY.  It crumbled up really easily, so that was great for this recipe.  I tend to prefer chewy bacon, so I’m still not convinced of this bacon-in-the-oven business for singular consumption.  However, it was perfect for the recipe.  Just look at it.

Cornbread - crumbled bacon

While the bacon crisped up, I proceeded to sift (SIFT! all this work…) the dry ingredients together in a bowl.  I love the way sifting looks.  So fluffy.

Cornbread - sifted flour

Then you ruin it by plunking in the brown sugar. (I thought this looked really cool).

Cornbread - dry ingredients

Look at all that sugar.  In cornbread!  So, you’ve got all these lovely dried ingredients in a large mixing bowl, you’ve got some crisped bacon hanging out and draining on a plate, a buttermilk-polenta soaker going on in something (I used a huge measuring cup so I could measure the buttermilk then mix the polenta right in), oh– and your bacon grease reserved in a stainless steel bowl.  And then, then you get to start making some more dirty dishes.

Cornbread steps - lots of bowls!

In a small bowl, you dissolve honey into melted butter.  In a medium bowl, you lightly beat some eggs.  Then, you slowly whisk the honey-butter mixture into the eggs (temper it first!).  After you whisk the honey, butter, and eggs up, you stir them into the polenta soaker.  At last, you have your wet ingredients ready.  And no, you can’t just go ahead and mix the honey, butter, and eggs in the same bowl unless you want some scrambled eggs.

Finally, you whisk the wet ingredients into the dry ones, then stir in the corn kernels.  It ends up about like pancake batter, so it’s really easy to make by hand.  Here’s the final batter:

Cornbread - final batter

Next comes the fun part: greasing the pan.  Reinhart suggests you heat the bacon grease up in the baking dish in the oven until it’s really hot, then tilt it around (while wearing super-duper oven mitts) to coat the pan.

Um, no.  I am WAY too klutzy for that.

So, I brushed the entire pan liberally with bacon grease and heated it up until it was nice and hot in the oven.  Very easy.  Minimal burn risk.  Look at that bacon grease.  My heart is just racing with excitement (or hypertension).

Cornbread - bacon grease for the pan

After your pan is well-greased, pour in the batter.  Get it all in there, then sprinkle the crumbled bacon over the top of the batter.  Oh, MAN, now I’m starting to forget about all that sugar and get excited!

Cornbread - before baking

Bake the cornbread in a 350º oven until it registers at 190º in the center.  I used a 9″ x 13″ baking pan for the cornbread, so my baking time was twice as long as that listed in the book for a 10″ cake pan.  When it’s ready, pull that goodness out and admire your work.

Cornbread - fresh from the oven

Look at that bacony goodness!  Those golden, crusty edges!  But wait, aren’t I supposed to skeptical?

Well, no.  No, not really.  It was awesome.  It’s tender and mildly sweet.  The buttermilk soaker gives the bread tang, and the bacon and bacon grease add a strong salty note.  I didn’t mind the corn kernels at all.  This was really, really delicious.  It might not be my grandpa’s cornbread, but this would be great for holidays.  It would also be a great way to dress up a Southern meal and make a plate of simpler fare a little more special.  Was it worth all the dishes?  YES.

This is some more yeasty goodness I’m sending over to Yeastspotting.

The Bread Baker’s Apprentice challenge was developed by Nicole of Pinch My Salt. You can see what we’re baking this week at our Flickr group, on Twitter (#BBA), or check out the challenge page.

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Asparagus and Garlic Scape Tart with Polenta Crust

Asparagus Tart

Last weekend I found myself in Blacksburg, VA on Saturday morning, with a long drive ahead of me back to West Point.  I decided to check out their farmers’ market so I wouldn’t miss out on a week of local shopping.  It was quite possibly the best market I have been to.  After making the rounds at the Blacksburg Farmers Market, I ended up with a huge bounty of beautiful produce to take home, and we only went $2 over our $20 spending limit!  (I have to impose spending limits at the market, or else I will buy more food than we can eat before it spoils).  Strawberries, raspberries, cherries, apples, rhubarb, butter lettuce, asparagus, garlic scapes, radishes, herbs– I couldn’t believe what I came away with.  I knew I would use these foods to concoct a meal for this year’s One Local Summer challenge.

Now, I have to admit I cheated a bit with the meal.  Generally, the meals are restricted to only local foods with spices, oils, vinegars, and things of that nature also allowed.  I am a little fuzzy on the rules for dry goods, but as I had them filling my pantry, I decided I would go ahead and use them.  After my Anadama Bread, I have a lot of polenta left, so I wanted to use it.  You can use any polenta recipe you like to make this tart crust.  The polenta is full of flavor and adds texture to the recipe, bringing a richness to the tart.  This plays off the green flavors of the asparagus and garlic scapes, which are slowly roasted in the oven as the tart cooks.  This tart is a simple concotion, but it bursts with spring flavors.  It’s a great way to show off new produce!

Asparagus and Garlic Scape Tart with Polenta Crust

for the polenta crust:

  • 1 C polenta
  • 1/2 C chicken stock (veggie stock to make it vegan)
  • 2 1/2 C water
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp Italian seasoning (or a blend of rosemary, thyme, parsley, sage, and oregano)
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • pinch of red pepper flakes

for the tart filling

  • 1/2 lbs of fresh asparagus
  • 1/2 lbs of garlic scapes
  • 1 onion
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Start by cooking the polenta.  Bring the water and stock to a boil.  Slowly pour in the polenta while whisking constantly to prevent lumps.  Season the polenta with the salt, Italian seasoning, and peppers.  Reduce the temperature on the polenta so that it is barely simmering.  Cook, stirring very frequently for one hour.  Be careful, as the polenta will have a tendency to bubble and pop, and it will be very hot and sticky!  After an hour, remove the polenta from the heat and let it cool a bit.  You may drizzle in some olive oil or add some butter if you’d like.  Spray a tart pan with spray oil.  When the polenta is cool enough to handle, spread it about 1/4 inch thick on the bottom of a tart pan with a removable bottom.  Press polenta up the sides of the pan, as well.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate the crust until you are ready to bake the tart– up to one day.  You can also double the polenta recipe and use half for the tart crust and the rest for another recipe.

When you are ready to begin preparing the tart, preheat your oven to 425º.  Remove the crust from the refrigerator, dock the bottom with a fork, and lightly drizzle olive oil on the crust.  Bake until the crust is golden and crispy– about 25 minutes.

While the tart crust bakes, trim the tough ends from the asparagus.  Cut all asparagus to roughly the same length.  Then, cut the garlic scapes to match.  Toss with olive oil and lemon juice, season with salt and pepper, and set aside.  Slice the onion into thin half moons.  Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a medium skillet, and saute the onion until it is very clear and translucent, and just beginning to caramelize– about 10 minutes.  Remove the onion from the heat.

After you remove the tart crust from the oven, fill the tart with the onion.  Arrange the garlic scapes on top of the of onion in a circle.  Then, layer the asparagus on top of that with the tips facing the same direction.  Bake the tart at 425º for 15 minutes.  Reduce the heat to 350º and continue baking for another 30 minutes.  Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 minutes before slicing.  The tart will be a little tricky to slice, so use a sharp knife and have something to lift it out of the pan.

Serves 6 as part of a meal, or 2-3 as a standalone dish.

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BBA #1: Anadama Bread

 A couple of weeks ago, Nicole over at Pinch My Salt threw out the idea on Facebook that she was thinking of forming a group of people to bake their way through Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.  I thought this was a great idea, and threw my name in immediately.  I have been wanting to start baking my own bread exclusively, so I thought this would be a great way to practice, try different kinds of bread, and meet other people baking the same things.  It’s gone from a small group, to over a hundred bakers.  Apparently, people like bread.  If you’re interested in following the challenge, finding out about where we are on Twitter or Facebook, or want to see the Google Map of the bakers, head on over to the main challenge page at Nicole’s.

Meanwhile, let’s talk bread.  When I began this site, I committed to posting only original recipes here.  That’s not changing, as I’m not posting the recipe to the breads I’m baking.  I know; it’s a technicality.  Still, I think a lot is to be gained from following the process.  Instead of recipes, I’m providing pictures and commentary about the baking process for each loaf.  If you want the recipes, you can find the book on Google Books, visit your library, or buy the book.  The book is wonderful, with 100 pages of writing devoted to the art of bread making, followed by 43 formulas for breads.  Think ratios a la Michael Ruhlman, but with specific amounts and recipe text.  

As we are baking our way through the book alphabetically, the first bread is Anadama Bread, a traditional New England loaf.  It’s enriched and sweetened with molasses and butter.  I’m not a huge fan of molasses, but I can assure you that if you use a light flavored brand such as Brer Rabbit, you won’t be disappointed in the bread.  The bread is soft, and it would make an excellent sandwich bread.  We ate it plain, or with some peanut butter or jam.  It was great for breakfast.  Since the recipe makes two loaves, I froze one.  When I run out of sandwich bread next, I’ll be defrosting it to use.  

The bread starts with a cornmeal soaker.  To add texture, I used polenta:

Polenta - Anadama Bread

The polenta adds flavor, texture, and a very subtle crunch to the bread.  This soaks overnight in water, and is added to the dough the next day.  Being something of a bread purist (translate: I don’t own a Kitchenaid), I mixed and kneaded my dough entirely by hand.

Mixing dough - Anadama Bread

This actually isn’t hard. The key is to have a large mixing bowl and a good, sturdy wooden spoon. After it was well mixed, this inital sponge rested for an hour to ferment. The holes you see in the sponge indicate that the yeast is working and the dough will rise.

Mixed dough - Anadama Bread

After the fermentation, all ingredients for the bread are added to the sponge to make the dough. More stirring ensues, and then comes the fun part: the kneading. Reinharts suggests that it will take about 10 minutes of kneading until the dough registers the appropriate temperature and passes the windowpane test. However, it took my dough about 25 minutes. I used an instant-read thermometer to gauge the temperature of the dough so I could be certain it was ready for its first rise. Hopefully next time I can get some shots of kneading the dough, the windowpane test, and also shaping the loaves. After an hour and a half, I came back to find this:

First Rise / Fermentation - Anadama Bread

Needless to say, the bread rose beautifully. I shaped the loaves and placed them in oiled pans. However, as I was heading out of town for an impromptu overnight trip, I popped the dough in the fridge to retard it before proofing the loaf. I did this at the stage Reinhart suggested; he says it will last for two days.  When I returned from Virginia Beach, I went straight for the fridge to remove the dough and let it come back to room temperature for proofing. Apparently, my fridge doesn’t retard dough well, because the loaves had still risen completely! They were a mess, spilling over the sides of their pans. I removed them from the pans, kneaded them again to completely de-gas them, and reshaped them again. I then placed them in their pans to proof for four hours since they were well-chilled. Later that evening, I baked off the loaves. To develop the crust on the bread, I placed a pan of hot water on a rack positioned at the floor of my oven. I preheated the oven to 450º, even though the bread bakes at 350º.  I did this so that when I misted the interior of the oven with water, I wouldn’t lose too much heat.  Just before putting the bread in the oven, I misted it with water and sprinkled it with cornmeal.  I misted the interior of the oven fully after putting in the bread, and once again about a minute later.  I then reduced the heat to 350º.  Before removing the loaf from the oven, I checked the internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer to make sure it was at least 180º.  It took my loaf 25-30 minutes to reach this temperature rather than the 20 minutes Reinhart suggests.  I hated putting the hole in the loaf, but I was glad I did as my bread needed to bake longer.  I bake my sandwich loaves in thick, commercial grade pans, so they may take a little longer to heat up.

Finished loaf - Anadama Bread

The photo is a bit orange as it was snapped at night in my kitchen, but it is an Anadama loaf fresh from the oven. I garnished the loaves with yellow cornmeal, which looked beautiful and added a little texture to the crust.  I removed the loaves from their pans and cooled them on racks.  They remove from the pans very easily, so Reinhart’s spray oil trick has instilled me with confidence!  It was hard to keep from slicing them, but I waited the requisite hour. Here’s a shot of the cooled, sliced loaf:

Sliced loaf - Anadama Bread

As Kelly at Sass and Veracity described, the loaves look a bit “baggy.” (You can see her pictures at her Flickr page).  They are not perfectly rounded on top. The crumb is a little loose, but the bread is sturdy and should work well for sandwiches, toast, or general snacking.  I had it for breakfast with a bit of jam, and it was divine.

Crumb - Anadama Bread

Since it’s yeasty, I’m submitting my Anadama post to Yeastspotting. Fun!