Aromatherapy: Buttery Yeast Rolls

Today has been one of those filthy days we’ve been having so much of this winter  which, frankly, I’m sick of. Intermittent rain showers, spurts of hail mixed with tentative peaks of watery sunshine until the afternoon deteriorated into a somber steady rain.  Only an emergency could have roused me out of my house. I finished a book, did some light tidying, and pruned my unread emails, but as the day got grimmer, I began to feel that depressed lassitude that prolonged lack of sunlight causes. Then I remembered the homely smell of fresh-from-the-oven bread that had greeted me when I walked into a friend’s house yesterday and knew immediately what I should to try to do- bake yeast rolls to go with my lentil soup for supper.

Having a mother that baked bread while I was a child had given me the sort of nebulous “muscle memory” of bread making- the foamy awakening of live yeast, the strands of gluten that form as dough is kneaded, the texture of properly kneaded dough, the satiny sheen on the outside of a taut ball of dough set to rise, and the thump on the crust and smell to announce a “done” loaf.   But knowing what to look for is different from knowing how to get there and my independent attempts at baking with yeast have had mixed results. My pizza dough is well in hand, and oddly, a complex hearth loaf involving a two-day dough fermentation and a “poolish” has always been successful. But regular sandwich loaves have usually been damp and heavy and all of my attempts to make my favorite eggy challah bread have been horrible with none of challah’s characteristic pull-apart strands.  So unlike other types of cooking with which I feel a strong degree of confidence, I always approach bread baking with trepidation.

Looking through my cookbooks, I found a recipe that required a two-day rise in the refrigerator, one that needed powdered milk and potato flakes, and another that made about forty rolls. I’ve heard eternity described as “two people and a ham” and I think that “two people and forty rolls” could come pretty close.  I’ve had good and consistent results with Southern Living cookbooks and used their basic roll recipe divided in half.

Southern Living Buttery Pan Rolls

Ingredients ( I halved these measurements)

5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons white sugar

2 teaspoons salt

1 package or 2 ¼ teaspoons  active dry yeast

1 ½ cups milk

½ cup water

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons butter, divided

Directions

Combine 3 cups of the flour, the sugar, salt and yeast in a large bowl of a stand mixer.

Combine milk, water and 1/4 cup of the butter in a saucepan and cook over medium heat until butter melts, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and let mixture cool to 120 to 130 degrees F (49 to 54 degrees C).

Gradually add milk to flour mixture and beat at low speed of an electric mixer for 30 seconds. Then beat for 2 minutes at high speed. Gradually stir in the remaining flour to make a soft dough.

Replace the whisk attachment on your mixer with the dough hook and knead for about 5 minutes until dough is smooth and elastic. Place dough in a well greased bowl, turning to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm place for about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Punch dough down, cover and let rest for 10 minutes.

Melt remaining 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons butter.

Shape dough into 40 balls and dip each one in the melted butter. Place the balls in two greased 9 inch square baking pans. Cover and let rise for 45 minutes.

Bake in a preheated 375 F oven for 15 minutes or until rolls are golden. Brush warm rolls with any remaining melted butter.

The only departure I took from the instructions was in forming the rolls. After the first rise, I punched down the dough and began squeezing grape sized balls off of the big ball of dough. Each piece was rolled smooth between my palms and dipped into a bowl of melted butter. I put three small dough balls into each hollow of generously buttered muffin tins to form a cloverleaf roll. If you’ve ever had monkey bread, the cloverleaf roll is the same concept, a pull-apart loaf, on an unsweetened and miniature scale.

Since one of the most common problems that bakers have is incorrect oven thermostats, resulting in too low temperatures and under baked bread, I recently got one of those little low tech oven thermometers to get a more accurate read. My oven varies from between 15 and 25 degrees off! No wonder my loaves had been doughy! It’s really helpful to be able to adjust the oven to the correct temperature for almost any type of cooking but it’s pretty crucial for baking. You can pick one up for about $4 at most hardware stores.

So, rolls are rising and the oven is preheating to the correct temperature. Soup is on the stove and already the day seems a little less grim. It’s remarkable what good smells can do for a bleak mood.

Fifteen minutes before suppertime, I hopefully slide my muffin tins into the oven and hope for the best. Golden, buttery, and yeasty, they emerged to be immediately fallen upon like a pack of hungry wolves. We’re burning our fingers and tongues to get at them- they smell so good! They have that golden top and lightly crisp buttery outside while the interior pulls apart to a light and airy texture that yeast and gluten combine to make. Mmmm. Maybe I’ll actually be able to crack this baking thing.

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Semolina Pizza Crust

It would be my guess that in the history of food wars, a fair number of skirmishes have taken place in the name of defending what is good and proper in pizza. Flame wars have erupted on discussion boards on chowhound.com over whether a beloved joint’s crust is tasteless or delicious, soggy or cardboardy. Some think that pizza should be on a thick layer of pillowy foccacia-like crust, while others won’t touch it unless it’s crisp bottom bears the char of a wood fired oven. Deep dish or thin crust, sauce, cheese: all topics of passionate and sometimes vitriolic debate. And that’s all before we reach the question of whether or not pineapple in any form ever belongs on a pizza.

I began this post with the previous acknowledgement in order to explain why my recipe for semolina pizza crust is not being introduced as a polemic. It’s just what I like. Whether or not you recognize my impeccable taste as authoritative is your own personal decision to make. I prefer a thinnish crust that doesn’t collapse en route to the mouth under the weight of its burden. I like a crust that tastes like something, one that is chewy and dense but not ply woody like a frozen pizza crust. I have found that semolina adds a crunchy, chewy texture and more flavor than regular all purpose or bread flour alone. Like I said, just my preference. If any of you are beginning to get an indignantly elevated heart rate or if any hairs on the neck’s back are rising, now might be a good time to look away.

Deciding which crust camp to ally oneself with is the first step. Topping philosophy is the next. I’ll confess that the image of a united front that my nuclear family presents to the world is a façade when it comes to pizza topping. Someone in my house (I won’t name names, but let’s just say it’s not me) has big liquid tears pool up in his eyes when pizza emerges from the oven without pepperoni on it. The classic combination of tomato sauce, pepperoni, and cheese with an occasional guest appearance by olives or mushrooms is the preference of what I’ll refer to as the “red” sauce camp. In fact, the comment that I got when discussing the topic of this post was “chicken on pizza is for idiots.” Ahem. In the more liberal pizza-topping (“blue” sauce camp, anyone?) category are those of us who in summer like a skim of olive oil, corn, fresh tomatoes, slivers of onion, goat cheese, spicy sausage and whatever herbs you have in pots on your patio, or in winter, strands of salty prosciutto, hedgehog mushrooms, tomato sauce, arugula, and Asiago cheese  blistered and browned from the oven. Unlike the classic formula, which given good ingredients and a couple of reliable tools is almost guaranteed to be successful, experimental versions can sometimes go badly (Pineapple on pizza? Really?) But like the girl in the nursery rhyme, when it’s good, it’s very good.

I humbly submit my personal favorite pizza crust recipe. Top it as you see fit.

Semolina Pizza Crust

1 1/2 cup warm water, divided

1 envelope (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 cups flour (regular unbleached is what I use)

3/4 cup semolina flour, plus a little more to keep it from sticking to the baking sheet.

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

oil for oiling bowl.

1. Pour about half a cup of warm water into the bowl of a stand mixer. Sprinkle the yeast over the water and leave it for about five minutes until it dissolves and swells. Add the rest of the water and olive oil.

2. Add in the flour and salt and stir into water mixture. Use the kneading hook attachment to stir the ingredients until a smooth ball forms and it has pulled away from the sides of the bowl- 5 minutes or so.

3. Place dough into an oiled bowl and cover with plastic or a clean dishtowel, allowing the dough to rise until it is double in size for about 2 hours. (Now would be a good time to get your toppings of choice ready, listen to some music, have a glass of wine, chat etc)

4. Punch the dough down to collapse the air bubbles inside. Divide the dough in half and roll into two balls. (At this point, I usually wrap one piece tightly in plastic and freeze it for later)

5. Heat the oven to 475° and get a large sheet pan out. Sprinkle a thin layer of semolina on the pan and form the dough into a thin rectangle. By grabbing the edges of the dough and gently squeezing, you allow gravity to stretch the dough out. Keep turning the dough around in your hands, squeezing and stretching it into shape. Lay it on the sheet pan and stretch it to fit completely.

6. Top as desired and bake in the scorching hot oven for 12- 15 minutes or until the bottom is golden and spotted with darker brown when the edge is lifted.

Sweetart: Lemon Curd Tart

We drove up into Napa Valley for dinner tonight. We waited for our table out on the patio with a gin and tonic, enjoying the last of the February sunshine. After dinner we headed home for a slice of sunshine I had made earlier today, a Valentine’s Day lemon curd tart for my sweetheart. I love the tangy curd with a buttery, nutty crust, the sunshine yellow contrasting the bits of green pistachio.

Lemon Curd Tart in Pistachio Pastry

I used this recipe from Fine Cooking for lemon curd. The technique is unusual but makes a smooth lemon curd almost fool-proof.

Pistachio pastry

1 1/4 cups all- purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar

½ cup coarsely ground toasted pistachios

1/4 teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened but still cool

2 ounces cream cheese, softened but still cool

Lightly grease your baking tin. Whisk flour, sugar, pistachio meal, and salt

together.

Beat butter and cream cheese together with your electric mixer at medium-high speed until completely homogenous, about 2 minutes. Add flour, sugar, salt, and pistachios  and combine on medium low until the mixture looks like coarse cornmeal. Increase mixer speed and beat until dough forms large clumps and pulls away from the bowl.

Form into a disk and press into the pie tin with your fingers, working out from the center and up the sides until the dough is evenly distributed.

Wrap well and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Bake at 325 for 35- 40 minutes for a fully baked crust or 20-25 minutes for a partially baked crust. remove from the oven and allow to cool on a wire rack.

I made the lemon curd while the crust was cooling so that it wouldn’t have time to cool and set before pouring it into the crust. For a really good basic pie or tart crust, omit the pistachio meal. I use this recipe for a pecan tart at Christmastime and for any other pies or tarts I need to get right because I am not a confident baker and have yet to fail spectacularly with this recipe.

Chill the tart to firm up the filling. A spoonful of whipped cream or whipped crème fraîche and a shower  of acid green pistachio slivers and let love abound.