Sunday, September 08, 2013

Adventures in Baking - Mandel Bread ... or how to decipher a recipe.

Crossing the bridge between online recipes and reality.



Recently, we were invited to a Rosh Hashanah dinner, an occasion to celebrate the Jewish New Year.

I offered to bring dessert.

I love opportunities like this. I know, one shouldn't use their friends as guinea pigs for baking and cooking experiments, but I can't help myself. How else does one grow as a cook if one doesn't experiment?

Typically, apples and honey play a big part in desserts for this holiday. I did a cookie plate that included that element (spiced apple cookies, and a four flavor essence pound cake), but I also wanted to branch out.

One recipe that caught my eye was for dark chocolate, orange mandel bread (mandelbrat).

Think Jewish biscotti.

This is the recipe I found online.

Courtesy of Food 52.

Are you an online recipe user?

I am.

I've relied on online sites for years now. Doing so limits my cookbook purchases and frees up counter space.

But.

The trouble with using online recipes from untrusted sources is that you can't always verify the recipes have been put through their paces.  When you buy a cookbook, typically you know the recipes have been tested and edited and reviewed (Read, "My Life in France," by Julia Child; or "The Tenth Muse: My Year in Food," by Judith Jones," for a sense of how a cookbook gets tested.)

Online recipes are another story.

This mandel bread recipe is a perfect example of it.

Problems:
It's sloppy.

Although I liked the brevity of the recipe, if you read it through a few times (which you absolutely must, for any new recipe!) you'll notice a few problems.


- Ingredients: the recipe instructions call for an ingredient not even listed in the ingredients - baking powder.

- lazy writing and no precision.

Sloppy instructions for putting in dry ingredients, no direction for amounts of cinnamon or marmalade. If to taste, then say so! You can't cream butter and sugar together if the butter isn't at room temperature. That's a standard recipe listing... room temperature butter.

- Limited direction:

How does one "roll" this cookie "jelly style?" How much space should be set aside between loaves to permit spreading? What's the best technique for cutting these cookies precisely?

- Confusing instruction:

Although the commentary says the author tweaks the recipe to use yogurt, the recipe itself lists sour cream instead? So which is it?

What do you do with a recipe like this?

Throw it out and find something else? Wing it and see what happens?

Like most amateur bakers, I have significant time constraints. Taking care of my kids, supervising homework and extracurricular activities, driving, volunteering at school, making breakfasts, lunches, dinners, adjusting to ex pat life in a foreign country, getting an occasional work out in, and running my household take top priority.

Baking is that fun thing we do when there's a few moments to spare. I don't want to waste the time on a recipe that will wind up in the trash, or worse.. Eaten half-heartedly out of sympathy.

If you're gonna do it, do it right.

How to manage an online recipe when in doubt:
So.. I did what I usually do with recipes like this.

I compared.

I took a look at several other recipes online from trusted sources (allrecipes.com, food.com, epicurious.com) and noticed what elements they shared:

- baking powder (the missing ingredient)

- a significant chilling time

- a high heat initial bake with close monitoring.

And then I reflected on my own baking experience and used my best judgement:

- high heat bake for less time than the recipe required, because I know my oven.

- letting the loaf crisp on the sheet for a few minutes after the first bake, and then again after it had been sliced. Remember, everything keeps cooking for a few minutes after you take it out of the oven.

- taking it slow. Gently melt the chocolate chips in the microwave at 15-30 seconds so the chocolate doesn't scorch, gently dipping the ends of the cookie into the chocolate with a spatula to hold them up along the back so the chocolate will drip in one spread and not look clumpy, letting everything rest on wax (not parchment) paper till the chocolate hardens, NOT refrigerating it afterwards so thechocolate doesn't bead up...)

- remembering that less is more! Avoid the urge to dip the entire thing in chocolate. You want people wanting more chocolate!

Results:
In the end, it came together.

I loved it. More importantly, the cookies were a big hit - crispy on the outside, moist on the inside with just a hint of orange essence.

I used a serrated knife to slice the cookies after the loaves first came out of the oven so that the shapes would be uniform and pretty. The cookies could sit at room temperature through the whole dinner and not take up valuable refrigerator space.

And they are great the next day too.

Last bit of advice:

Don't give up on recipes you see online. If they appeal to you, take a few minutes to read them through several times and pause long enough to critique them in your mind.

- What appeals to you most about the recipe?

- Do you sense something is missing?

- Do you have time to compare how others have done it? Don't feel like you have to recreate the wheel.. Chances are, someone has done this right the first time! If there are reviews, read some of them. But don't be swayed by the people who insist on changing everything the first time they make a recipe. Darn, that is such a pet peeve of mine.

My tweaks: dark chocolate orange mandel bread.

Ingredients:

1 stick butter, room temperature

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup sour cream

1 egg

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

2 1/2 cups flour

1/4 tsp ground cardamom (optional)

marmalade, approximately 2teaspoon per loaf, spread thinly

cinnamon, to taste.

walnuts- finely chopped (optional)

1 16 oz. bag dark chocolate chips (I used Hershey's.)

zest of 1 orange (optional)

Instruction:

Cream together butter then sugar until light and fluffy.

Add sour cream and egg.

Combine dry ingredients in a separate bowl (flour, baking powder, baking soda and cardamom).

Add dry ingredients to wet.

The dough will be wet.

Technique:

Dust your hands with flour. Using a spatula or a plastic bread scraper, split the dough into four segments. 

Don't over work the dough. Limit how much time your hands handle it. Overworking = tough dough.

Roll each segment into 4 balls and chill 1-2 hours.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Arrange two racks for baking. Cover two baking sheets with parchment.

On a clean, counter, lightly dusted with flour, flatten each ball with your hand, then use a rolling pin, dusted with flour, and roll each ball out into a circle, about 1/4 inch thick.

Spread with a thin layer of marmalade, then sprinkle with walnuts and cinnamon.

Roll each circle lengthwise. If you used too much marmalade, try using a offset spatula to keep the jam inside the dough as you roll.

Pinch the ends together.

Place rolled dough, seam down on a parchment covered cookie sheet.

Do two loaves per sheet with lots of space for them to spread.

Repeat with other balls. Bake for 25 minutes or until brown. Watch closely.

Cool mandel bread slightly and slice 1/2 inch think pieces using a serrated knife. It helps to cut the outside crusts off, so your finished product has a flat edge.

Continue to bake at 375 on each side, about 2 minutes per side.

Let cookies rest out of the oven, on the sheet for at least a minute between baking sides.

Melt chocolate in double boiler or microwave.

If using microwave, set for 15 - 30 second intervals, take bowl out and stir, using a rubber spatula. Return to microwave for more melting, stir with rubber spatula until you have a smooth, glossy consistency.

Add in orange zest if using. (I didn't.) Dip ends of mandel bread into chocolate.

Let dry on wax paper.

Avoid refrigerating.

Once the chocolate has set, you can cover gently with plastic wrap before plating.

That's it!

Thanks for reading that diatribe! Simple is good, but unfortunately, when it comes to baking, sometimes you need the right information the first time around.


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