Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Daring Bakers' March Challenge - Dutch Crunch Bread

Sara and Erica of Baking JDs were our March 2012 Daring Baker hostesses! Sara & Erica challenged us to make Dutch Crunch bread, a delicious sandwich bread with a unique, crunchy topping. Sara and Erica also challenged us to create a one of a kind sandwich with our bread!

If I had to name types of food that I absolutely could not do without (we’re talking on an ordinary, day-to-day, basic-nutritional-needs-taken-care-of basis, not a desert island scenario), I would have to go for chocolate and bread, with cheese close behind (if I had to survive on a desert island, I’d probably go for black beans, or some other kind of legume). Chocolate is just essential to my well-being – and, according to this New York Times article, it might actually not be as bad for the waistline as you may think, quite the opposite in fact! And I tend to rely on homemade sandwiches for lunch, which makes bread an absolute necessity. Even at the peak of the Atkins craze, I knew I would never be able to go without bread.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I was pretty much raised on what my family calls “American bread”: you know, the white, milky, somewhat sweet, super soft, practically crustless slices that melt in your mouth and barely require chewing. When I visited my Belgian grandmother during the summer, she always had rather heartier bread at the table, and had to literally force me to eat the crust. She would cut it into bite-sized pieces and put jam on every piece, to make it go down easier, but it still felt like I was chewing jam-laden cardboard. I’m pretty sure the bread itself was actually perfectly good: I just wasn’t used to it.

Well, since then, I’ve diversified my tastes in bread. My ideal bread is probably something with a super crisp crust and a cool, white crumb (I’m totally picturing Chad Robertson’s bread right now), but I’ve also learned to appreciate chewier bread such as fougasse, along with hearty whole wheat and fragrant sourdough. But, while I’ve definitely weaned myself off “American bread,” part of me still salivates in front of a pillowy, milk-based roll.

So this month’s Daring Bakers’ challenge was kind of a revelation for me. I had never, not once, heard of Dutch crunch bread, also known as tiger bread. It’s apparently a staple of the San Francisco Bay area. The concept reminded me of Japanese melon bread (melonpan): the bread is baked covered with a layer of something else. In the case of melonpan, it’s cookie dough; with tiger bread, it’s rice flour paste.

I made the regular, white flour based bread. The process was no more difficult than making any other bread, and I was satisfied with the final look of my tiger bread: the top layer was nice and crackled, as it should be. Apparently, Paprika the cat also approved.

But as I sat munching on my chicken salad sandwich (made with leftover shredded chicken, diced celery, mayonnaise, and celery salt – not the most photogenic mixture, but so good!), I was struck with the perfect contrast of textures: the soft dough and crunchy topping made for an absolute delight. The crust was crispy and crackly, something even my child self would have loved. It would’ve made a great transition bread.

A small tip: after a day of storage in a paper bag, the topping had lost some of its crisp. But a few minutes in a low-heat oven brought the crunch right back.

My thanks to Sara and Erica for this cool challenge! Please take a look at the challenge recipes if you’re interested in discovering the charms of Dutch crunch bread for yourselves, and take a look at the Daring Bakers’ blog roll while you’re there!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Daring Cooks' March Challenge - Braises

The March, 2012 Daring Cooks’ Challenge was hosted by Carol, a/k/a Poisonive – and she challenged us all to learn the art of Braising! Carol focused on Michael Ruhlman’s technique and shared with us some of his expertise from his book “Ruhlman’s Twenty”.

I have a confession to make: food is not on my mind these days. At all. I’m working on something kind of big and very time consuming right now, and I just have little energy for the kitchen. I’ll get back to it eventually, hopefully sooner than later, but for now I need to prioritize.

Having said that… you don’t stay in grad school for years and years without having an enduring, compulsory urge to do your homework. You may do it sloppily at times, you may hand it in late – but your inner neurosis compels you to do it, no matter what. At least, that’s how it is for me. And the Daring Kitchen challenges are kind of like homework to me: fun homework, most of the time, but still something I feel I have to do. On the rare times I’ve missed a challenge altogether, I’ve felt awful. And so, I squeezed this one in.

It helped that this month’s challenge was particularly delicious. I’m a long-time fan of the braising technique. Take an oft-maligned cut of meat, simmer it for hours, and end up with something tender, flavourful, and irresistibly comforting: that’s braising. Our hostess gave us many recipes, each more alluring than the next, but I knew right away which one I wanted to try: pork belly with caramel miso sauce.

There’s something about miso that enriches every recipe you can integrate it in. We love it around here: in soups, in salad dressing, in sauces… But I had never tried pairing it with caramel, and was very intrigued by what the result would be. And pork belly is just amazing. It’s a very trendy cut of meat in restaurant these days, but still relatively difficult to find fresh, outside of Asian supermarkets (other stores tend to carry a salt-preserved version, which doesn’t work with many recipes). Usually, I slow-roast it with dry heat, slice it, and use it in ramen, or sandwiches. But I had no doubt it would lend itself well to braising. I also learned that adding acids to the braising liquid, such as citrus or vinegar, helps break down the tough meat fibres and make the meat more tender.

Everything went well, except when the time came to cut the pork belly into large cubes and pan-fry them before coating them in sauce. This should have solved one of the only problems with braises and stews: they are not typically photogenic. Often, you end up with a shapeless blob, covered in sauce. Here, I should have ended up with pretty, golden little cubes, artfully arranged upon my plate – if only I had used a better pan. My old non-stick pan is getting on in years, and it stuck, which kind of ruined the presentation.

But no matter: it tasted great. The sweet-and-salty combination of miso and caramel was amazing, and the pillowy chunks of rich pork melted in our mouths. I definitely recommend trying out this recipe.

My thanks to Carol for this challenge! Please check out the Daring Kitchen to look at all the challenge recipes, and go through the Daring Cooks’ blog roll to see what everyone else braised this month!