A few days ago, as I sat in the same spot where I am now, windows open and the cool autumn air breezing in, I could hear my younger son's high school marching band practicing in the distance. They were already outside the school at 8 a.m., their band class well underway, polishing things up for their next performance. Though at least half a mile east of my house, I could clearly hear the telltale thump of the percussion players and the brassy wail of the trumpets.
I love this kind of thing.
I love the fact that I live in a city small and compact enough that this is even possible. From the other direction, to the northwest just a couple of blocks, I can also hear little kids squealing at recess later in the day, outside of the elementary school my boys attended years ago. Then, each evening precisely at 6pm, bells reliably ring out from a church nearby. It's a cozy feeling.
This comparatively tiny community that we occupy just north of Detroit is, in fact, remarkably unlike the huge suburb where I grew up, which was sprawling and seemed to me, back then at least, to be a rather characterless place that had no discernible center.
It's comforting living in a small place, especially when bigger cities and all they offer aren't far away. You never have to feel lost here, either literally or figuratively. It's practically impossible to go outside without seeing someone you know well enough to chat with or, at the very least, someone you recognize. This little metropolis isn't fancy by any means but, as corny and cliche as this must sound, it's loaded with heart.
And what does that preamble have to do with today's recipe? Well, if I hadn't been alone in my kitchen with the windows open, working quietly on this chocolate almond braid, I wouldn't have heard that music or the joyous shrieks and squeals later in the day. Nor would I have had yet another opportunity to experience the simple satisfaction of actually liking where I live.
And, so, once more I realize that baking offers benefits beyond the obvious. It can be calming and contemplative, sort of like gardening or taking a long walk. I don't think it would be stretching it to say that I find the activity of baking restorative. I seem to turn to it for all sorts of reasons.
Is it like that for you, too?
About this recipe . . .
Remember the collapse of that giant bookshelf I told you about in my last post? That event catalyzed my husband and I to do long overdue sorting, discarding, and reorganizing. (Let's just say the garbage man must be wondering what the heck happened around here, and my paper shredder is considering joining a labor union.) Anyway, while sorting this and that, I found a faded magazine clipping bearing this recipe among a pile of stuff I'd saved in an old file cabinet. From the February 1989 issue of Good Housekeeping magazine, this is the kind of baked good that many such magazines don't seem to print anymore. It's beautifully old-fashioned, like something one of your favorite aunts would famously bring to big family parties when you were a kid. It's a not-too-sweet yeast bread filled with a mixture made of cream cheese, almond paste, and semi-sweet chocolate.
I changed very little in the recipe, but substantially reworded it to reflect exactly how I customized its preparation. I used an instant yeast specifically designed for rich, sweet doughs vs. regular active dry yeast (though I have no doubt it would be fine with the latter). Part of my almond paste was homemade vs. purchased, because I only had about 5 oz. of the store-bought stuff on hand. (I do think professionally produced almond paste tastes better, is more concentrated, and has better texture and color than most homemade versions. I haven't yet perfected making the stuff at home.)
Beware: This makes a really large loaf! You will get at least 16 very generous slices out of this baby, easy. And it's not shaped into a real braid--it's just a faux braid, so don't get scared; it's really easy to make. The loaf I made was probably 18" long and 7" wide, after baking. Next time, I might cut the dough in half and make two smaller loaves, though the big loaf is certainly impressive in its own enormous way!
Makes one large 18" loaf (at least 16 thick slices).
For the dough:
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. salt (I used coarse kosher.)
1 and 3/4 tsp. instant yeast (I always use instant, but it's fine to use 1 pkt. active dry yeast instead.)
Approx. 5 cups all-purpose flour (I used unbleached.)
3/4 cup milk (I used 2 percent.)
5 Tbsp. butter, unsalted
2 eggs, large
1 egg white (to mix with water and brush on the unbaked loaf)
2 oz. semi-sweet baking chocolate (to melt and drizzle on the baked loaf)
For the chocolate-almond filling
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
7 to 8 oz. almond paste (not the same thing as marzipan, just fyi!)
1 egg yolk
3 oz. of semi-sweet baking chocolate, chopped into very small pieces
For the streusel topping:
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature
3 Tbsp. sliced almonds
To prepare the dough:
In the large bowl of your mixer, using the paddle attachment on low speed, combine the sugar, salt, yeast, and 1 cup of the flour.
In a microwave safe bowl, or on the stove top in a saucepan, slightly warm the milk, butter, and 1/4 cup of water until just lukewarm. You don't need to fully melt the butter. With the mixer on low speed, pour the liquid into the dry ingredients; beat only until blended. Now at medium speed, beat for about 2 minutes, stopping to scrape now and then. Beat in the eggs, along with 2 more cups of the flour; blend for 2 minutes.
Remove the bowl from the mixer, and add in 1 and 1/2 cups more of the flour, stirring by hand with a wooden spoon or a dough whisk (I love my dough whisk). The dough will be pretty soft.
Flour your work surface and dump the dough onto it.
Keep 1/2 cup of flour close at hand. Knead the dough until its texture is smooth and elastic, adding more flour to your surface and to the dough as needed; this could take up to ten minutes. (If you decide to do this step on your mixer, using the dough hook, cut the kneading time in half. Be watchful, in any case, not to overwork the dough. You'll know you've gone too far if the dough suddenly seems slack, lifeless, and lacks elasticity; if this happens, the dough can't be salvaged and there is nothing to be done but to start over. Over-mixing is more likely to occur with a rich dough like this than with a lean dough like that for a simple white bread.)
Round the dough into a ball and place it into a well-greased or oiled bowl, or spray the bowl with vegetable oil spray, like Pam--that's what I use. Turn the ball over in the bowl so it's coated. Spray/grease a sheet of plastic wrap on one side and put that, sprayed side down, over the bowl.
Cover the whole thing with a lightweight dish towel and place it in a warm, draft-free spot to rise. The dough should approximately double in size within about one hour.
While the dough is rising, make the chocolate-almond filling and the streusel.
To make the chocolate-almond filling:
Put the cream cheese, almond paste (broken into chunks), and 1 egg yolk into the large bowl of your mixer. Using the paddle attachment, blend together until on low speed until the mixture smooths out. Add the chopped chocolate and blend it in. Store the filling in the refrigerator until you're ready to use it.
To make the streusel:
Mix the flour, sugar, and butter together in a small bowl using your fingers. You want the streusel to look like big, coarse, uneven crumbs. Add in the sliced almonds last, being careful not to break all them into bits. Store the streusel in the fridge until ready to use.
When the dough has doubled in size:
Dump the risen dough out onto a very lightly floured surface and press it firmly but gently with the palms of your hands. You are just trying to deflate it (or "de-gas" it as a baking teacher would tell you!). Lightly cover the deflated dough with the greased plastic wrap and let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes.
Prepare your workspace for rolling out the dough. You can roll it right on a large baking sheet if you prefer, but I wanted to roll out my dough on the piece of parchment on which it would actually bake (you can then just slide the whole thing, paper and all, right onto your baking sheet). To keep the parchment from sliding around, I clipped the edge of it to my worktable with a big, strong, binder clip.
Flour your rolling pin. Put the rested dough onto your surface and roll the dough into a rounded rectangle about 16" long and 12" wide.
Remove your filling from the fridge, give it a good stir, and spread all of it in a 4" strip down the center of the dough, lengthwise.
Using a pizza/pastry wheel, cut slits in the dough on each side, almost up to the point of the filling (the strips created by the slits can be narrow or wide, as you prefer; my strips were slightly over 1/2" wide).
Then, starting at the top, lifting the strips one by one alternately from each side, fold them over the filling. Do this for the whole length of the loaf, then pinch the two far ends tightly closed with your fingers.
Cover the loaf again with greased/sprayed plastic wrap and cover it with the dish towel. Let it rise again (ie., let it "proof") in a warm spot; this time for 30 minutes. It will expand, but not necessarily by much. Don't wait for it to double in size.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Mix the egg white in a little bowl with a tablespoon or two of water. Using a pastry brush, gently and lightly coat the unbaked loaf when it's done proofing (that is, when it's done with its final rise).
Sprinkle all of the streusel evenly in a strip down the center length of the loaf.
Bake the loaf on a large sheet pan (it will expand in the oven, so plan accordingly!) for about 30 minutes, until it's golden all over. Check it about 20 minutes into the baking time and, if it's browning quickly, cover it lightly with foil. Also, reverse the pan from back to front for more even heat and color.
When the loaf is done, let it cool on the pan for a few minutes, then move it to a cooling rack. When the loaf is cooled, melt the semi-sweet chocolate carefully in the microwave (chocolate burns really quickly), and pour it into a zip-lock sandwich bag. Using a sharp pair of scissors, cut an extremely tiny hole in one of the corners of the bag. Cut it just enough to let a dinky little stream of chocolate flow through when you squeeze the bag. Drizzle the chocolate back and forth over the entire loaf.
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Jane's Sweets & Baking Journalwas born of my ever increasing desire to learn more about the baking and pastry arts, and of my love for anything and everything related to baking. Just as food is meant to be shared, so is knowledge among bakers and among those who enjoy delicious foods prepared from scratch. So, please partake, and feel free to share your thoughts and comments. I'd love to hear from you.
If you'd like to know a bit about me please click here, or look for the tiny photo of a pink cupcake topped by a strawberry, further down, in the "About me"section. You can also reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org . . .
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JANE'S FAVORITE BAKING BOOKS
About Professional Baking: The Essentials, by Gail Sokol. This is a textbook, but not one that's intimidating. It contains lots of useful info, including interesting personal profiles of professional chefs.
All-American Cookie Book, by Nancy Baggett. Another winner of the IACP award. Loads of good looking cookie recipes with lots of very appetizing photos. (Don't you love cookbooks with tons of pictures? I do.)
All-American Dessert Book, by Nancy Baggett. Wonderfully detailed, with very reliable recipes, Baggett does it again in this valuable cookbook. Definitely worth your time!
Art & Soul of Baking, by Cindy Mushet. This large Gourmet Cook Book Club Selection is a feast for the eyes. I love the page layout, the photos, and the author's reassuring tone. Recipes range from the quotidian ("classic sugar cookies") to the ridiculous ("Moroccan-spiced sweet-potato tiropetes") to the absolute sublime ("duo-tone chocolate pots de creme"). Worth acquiring.
Baking and Pastry: Mastering the Art and Craft, by the Culinary Institute of America. This is a heavy duty textbook, not for the faint of heart. Intimidating, sure, but also kind of fascinating if you're an obsessive bake-a-holic like me.
Baking with Julia, written by Dorie Greenspan and based on the PBS series hosted by Julia Child. Yet another hefty and dazzling coffee-table-worthy cookbook. Wonderful to have around. (My copy was autographed by Julia herself!)
Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook, published in 1950 and available in a facsimile edition, holds a special place in my heart. This is the book my mom primarily used, or so it seemed, when I was a kid. The photos are such period pieces, and the little notations that accompany recipes are pricelessly cute and corny. I have an ancient copy that I still use. Every girl needs a copy of this in her house, for good karma if nothing else.
Bitter Sweet -- Recipes and Tales From a Life in Chocolate, by Alice Medrich. Much more than just a cookbook with a focus on fine dark chocolate, this is also a memoir of sorts from a legendary chocolate-dessert creator. Medrich is often credited with awakening American tastes to the finest aspects of superior chocolate. Very interesting read!
Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes,by Jeffrey Hamelman. An indispensable book for anyone who is seriously interested in learning to make fine yeast breads, Hamelman shares far more than just technical knowledge. Like fellow bread guru Peter Reinhart, his warmth of spirit and deep love for the tradition of bread baking shines through on every page.
Breakfast Book, by Marion Cunningham. Not to be confused with the character of the mom on Happy Days, the real Marion Cunningham has a long list of writing accomplishments, the most well known being that she completely revised The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. A contemporary of the late James Beard's, she is still held in high esteem.
Cake Bible, by Rose Levy Beranbaum. Rose is really into the science of baking, which can be helpful in some respects and off-putting in others. Like gardeners who talk mostly about soil components without conveying their joy in the plants themselves. Maybe I'm too sensitive? Probably so, as many consider this to be an invaluable classic. Despite my reservations, I wouldn't part with my copy. One of several highly detailed books by Rose. Her latest book, Heavenly Cakes, is much more down to earth, loaded with photos, and truly beautiful.
Cake Book, by Tish Boyle. I've called it a treasure trove before and please allow me to say it again here. This book is jam packed with wonderful stuff that's well explained. I used the Sacher-torte recipe in the fall of '09 for a culinary school project and it didn't let me down. I can endorse this book without reservation. I love it.
Complete Book of Pastry Sweet & Savory, by Bernard Clayton, Jr. When this book appeared in 1981, famed food editor Craig Claiborne praised it in the NYT as "one of the most important cookbooks of this year, if not of this decade." No photos, but don't let that dissuade you.
Craft of Baking, by Karen DeMasco & Mindy Fox. In 2009, some great new cookbooks were published and this was one of them. Down to earth, straightforward without being condescending, this smart guide offers creative and simple twists on dozens of diverse and well-proven "cakes, cookies, and other sweets."
Dessert University, by Roland Mesnier. As the White House executive pastry chef for over two decades, Mesnier has a lot of wisdom to impart. He does so well in this book, which is designed specifically for home bakers. A good book!
Grand Central Baking Book, by Piper Davis and Ellen Jackson. Readers are welcomed into these pages with a tone of warmth and familiarity. The photos alone will have you scribbling a grocery list. Try the berry kuchen recipe--simple and scrumptious.
Hershey's Chocolate Treasury, published in 1984 by Hershey Foods and chock full of old reliables. The recipe for Black Magic cake is one I've used again and again--invaluable!
How to Bake, by Nick Malgieri. The writing style is matter of fact and fairly informal. That's one of my favorite things about Malgieri's books.
Magical Art of Cake Decorating, by Carole Collier. Sometimes at a used book sale you find an old gem like this. Published in '84, I found it very encouraging when I first began decorating cakes. The recipes are rock solid reliable.
Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts, by Maida Heatter. Famed baker (apparently her "Palm Beach Brownies" are known far and wide), whose work has centered on wondrous chocolate desserts, Heatter received a James Beard award for this book, one of many she's published over several active decades.
Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook, by Martha Stewart. Beautiful photos, but I must admit I've come to have reservations about the reliability of some of the recipes. Is it just me? Though I love flipping through the book for ideas, I'm a bit on the fence with this one when it comes to actual usage.
Martha Stewart's Wedding Cakes by Martha Stewart. Talk about a stunning and inspiring book! Chances are you may never decide to actually make one of the cakes from this glorious volume, but it's enough just to page through the gorgeous pictures and interesting recipes. Expensive? For sure, but worth it.
Passion for Baking, A by Marcy Goldman. If you're curious about how professional bakers manage to make things come out nicely every time, you'll appreciate this book. Goldman, in her highly approachable style, divulges many of their simple--but enormously helpful--tricks and techniques, and shows readers how to implement them throughout the wondrous array of down-to-earth recipes that pack this great book. Loads of enticing photos, too! I love this book!
Perfect Cakes, by Nick Malgieri. Can't say enough about Malgieri's books. Absolutely worth using, versus just reading! The white and dark chocolate cheesecake is to die for; I've made it a few times, along with many other recipes from this book, and it is superb.
Peter Reinhart's Artisan Breads Everyday, by Peter Reinhart. This book is a revelation for anyone who approaches yeast recipes like a vampire approaches the dawn. Talk about down to earth, encouraging, and flexible! This guy knows how to talk to rookie breadmakers. Well worth reading, and using, this volume will find a comfy place in your cookbook collection--a worthwhile purchase, undoubtedly!
Professional Cake Decorating, by Toba Garrett. I get the impression that this book is perceived as the most thorough and comprehensive text available for serious students of cake decorating. This is the text that we used for my culinary school Beginning Cake Decorarting class (which means I finally own my own copy!).
Sarabeth's Bakery: From My Hands to Yours, by Sarabeth Levine. Almost too pretty to use, but use it anyway! This big book is so appealing, and the photos so remarkably enticing, you'll want to pick it up like a sandwich and bite right into it. Fine recipes for updated classics, well explained, from the famous Manhattan bakery. Worth buying. (You'll love it!)
Secrets of Baking, by Sherry Yard. A must have, bakers! This cookbook's forte is the way it's organized; master recipes are presented with full explanations of how they can be used, and related recipes follow, section by section. An exceptional manual to refer to. Get your own copy!
Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes, by Alisa Huntsman and Peter Wynne. Huntsman is the professional pastry chef behind this beautiful book, filled with many tempting recipes, all designed specifically and scaled perfectly for three layers. I've made the Devil's food cake thus far, and it was exceptional--it rose well, was very moist, and had great depth of flavor. I'll be using this book more in the future, without a doubt. Love the photos also!
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. . . to never endorse a product of any kind on Jane's Sweets & Baking Journal that I do not believe in. I've never done so thus far, and I vow never to do so. If I tell you I think something is great, or that I think it is worth spending real money on, then I mean it, rest assured. I promise. And, if I ever talk about a product that I've been given to review or try out, I will disclose that in the post.
I'm a mom with two great sons (both now in college), and a really nice husband. I left a long editorial career in reference publishing a few years ago and I've had nary a regret. I recently finished (after four part-time years!) a Baking & Pastry Arts Certificate program in the Culinary Studies Institute at a local community college. It was a lot of fun, a lot of work, and I am so glad I did it. These days, I do a lot of freelance editorial work, something that I really enjoy.
"Jane's Sweets" was the name of a very small baking enterprise that I started in late 2007. It bloomed a bit, for a little while, with encouragement from my husband, my aunt, and my first cake decorating teacher, Cindy. Because my Aunt Lydia was my most ardent female supporter in this baking endeavor (she was a lifelong independent business owner herself), this blog is dedicated to her memory. If heaven is real, then I know she's there with my mom, baking up a storm. Like Lydia said one day, just before her 80th birthday, while she and my mom and I were baking in my mom's kitchen, "It's been a fun ride. I'd do it all over again!"
If my house were on fire, I'd grab my family, then I'd grab my KitchenAid mixer.
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