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Monday, December 17, 2007

The Agony and the Ecstasy

My hands were hurting and I was feeling surly. Not a single present was wrapped, a dozen errands were waiting and I had been rolling out cookie dough for over an hour. Steve and the dog hightailed it out of the apartment, no doubt trying to get out of the way of Angry Baker. What possessed me to make roll-out, decorated cookies?
I have a very complicated relationship with baking,
and these cookies were not helping matters. After much wrestling with a tricky dough, which was unhappy as it warmed up and made me miserable trying to roll it out when properly chilled, I realized the job was not over. There was icing to make and decorating to do. Aaargh…

To make things worse, the results were a major disappointment. The vanilla cookies were bland and hard and the chocolate version not much better. Definitely not worth all that trouble.

That’s the thing about holiday baking. It’s a ton of trouble. And all that trouble comes tangled up with too many other things to do, in a month that has started to feel like one big hangover. With store decorations up in October, and holiday festivities beginning mid-November I am already cranky by the first week of December…with weeks of merrymaking to go.

For the past five or six years my angst over holiday overload has found an outlet through baking. Not only do I end up with wonderful, edible gifts for friends and loved ones, but the process itself, puttering alone late at night in the kitchen, gives me a small oasis of peace and quiet in the midst of all the holiday madness. The key is finding the right thing to bake, and here it is: biscotti. They keep for a long time and can be packed with a half-pound of your favorite coffee for a delicious gift to be enjoyed for weeks.

The outstanding biscotti recipe I have been making for years now (friends and neighbors want nothing else!) originated with my childhood friend, The Uber-Baking Goddess, Michaela. She is like the Tiger Woods of baking – making it all look effortless…with grace and good humor. To stand over one of her freshly baked, homemade stollen, inhaling the intoxicating aroma is to understand that she is a true master.

Years ago, Michaela mentioned that she was making cookies as gifts for her daughter’s teachers at school and that she had an excellent biscotti recipe. (We seem to talk about food a lot...big surprise.) They sounded delicious…packed with dried apricots, white chocolate and toasted almonds. A unique, tasty-sounding combination and something I thought would make me happy if I got it as a gift. Michaela had made some genius tweaks to the original, sent along the recipe and I’ve been making them every year since, to universal acclaim.

The weekend before Christmas is when I begin “biscotti production”, making two batches at a time. The extra trouble with biscotti, of course, is that they are baked twice. First, in long logs and then after being sliced, a second time, to dry them out. The first couple times I made them I couldn’t believe how much work they required. (Angry Baker, yet again…) There’s a whole lot of chopping…sticky apricots and messy chocolate and hard-to-control almonds rolling around the cutting board, then a dry-ish, crumbly dough to be shaped into logs, some baking, then slicing the crumbly logs and then baking a second time, with extra time to turn the cookies so each side toasts.

But do not let this deter you!! Yes, there is all that trouble…but you will be rewarded with something amazing. The texture is chunkier than a store-bought biscotti and the flavor combination is divine. Believe me…people will be genuinely moved by the fact that you’ve taken the time to make them something. And…they will not let you forget how much they love them, hinting…the following November, how they are looking forward to having those incredible biscotti again.

On those biscotti-baking nights…near midnight usually, I’ll look out my kitchen window at the city lights twinkling, marveling at how much work this all is, but then picturing my first cup of coffee in the morning, accompanied by a biscotti from the small stash I’ve saved for myself. Angry Baker, mellows and becomes Satisfied Baker…because they are sooooo worth it.

Almond-Apricot Biscotti
adapted from Bon Appetit
Makes about 40

2 3/4 cups sifted all purpose flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled, unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3 1/2 ounces imported white chocolate, chopped by hand
1 2/3 cups whole almonds, toasted and chopped coarsely, by hand
2 large egs
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon apricot-flavored brandy
2 teaspoons almond extract
6 ounces dried apricots, diced

Line 18 x 12 x 1-inch cookie sheet (or jelly roll pan) with foil. Butter and flour foil.

Combine flour, sugar, butter, baking powder, salt and ground ginger in a food processor. (The bowl of a standard processor will be pretty full, so I insert a layer of plastic wrap between the lid and bowl to keep a tight seal.) Process until a fine meal forms.
Add white chocolate and pulse 4-6 times to combine. Add chopped almonds and pulse again, 4-6 times.

Beat eggs, brandy and extract to blend in a large mixing bowl. Add flour mixture from the food processor and apricots. Using a flexible plastic dough scraper if you have one (it makes combining the dough much easier), stir until a moist dough forms, and you feel your bicep bulging!

Drop dough by spoonfuls in three 12-inch-long strips on the prepared baking sheet, spacing evenly. Moisten fingertips and shape each dough strip into 3 inch logs. Refrigerate until dough is firm (this is important -- don't skip it!) 2-3 hours, or even overnight.

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. Bake until logs are golden, about 30 minutes. Transfer sheet to rack and cool completely. (If you are making more than one batch, bake the sheets one at a time.)

Reduce heat to 300 degrees F. and once the logs are completely cooled, peel from the foil-lined pan and transfer to a cutting board. (I made the mistake once of putting them on a cutting board used for chopping onions. Big mistake. All the biscotti ended up with a faint, mysterious whiff of onion.)

Using a heavy, sharp knife, cut each log, crosswise into 3/4-inch wide slices. Arrange half of cookies, cut side down on a cookie sheet. Bake 10-15 minutes. Gently turn cookies over and bake 10-15 minutes longer. Transfer cookies to racks to cool. Repeat baking with remaining cookies. Cool cookies completely before packing in airtight containers.
(Large, glass mason jars look charming with the biscotti packed vertically.)

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Bakery Unlike Any Other

MAKE LOAVES, NOT WAR, says the banner stretching the width of the Arizmendi Bakery in San Francisco. Two cyclists in serious riding gear are filling their travel coffee mugs. A woman in the corner is reading The Art of Persian Cooking as she sips her coffee. I’m munching the most amazing cheese roll, ever… and pondering how it is that San Francisco has such an abundance of wonderful bakeries. My neighbor back in Chicago told me about Arizmendi, and now I understand why she and her family come every day when visiting friends here.

That cheese roll, for example. Chewy and yeasty, with a golden crusty top, it looks like it is made with whole wheat flour. I’m hungry now, just thinking about it.

For years, there was one cheese bread which held first place in my heart. It was a cheese and bacon roll, mind you, so it had that bacon thing going for it. My friend, Darcy, introduced me to it one day when I was visiting her in London. She lived a few blocks from Harrods and we’d wandered through the legendary food hall, where she steered me to the baked goods. We bought two Cheddar Bacon Twists – gorgeous, golden brown, knotted rolls speckled with cheddar and bacon – and proceeded to a park bench nearby. There was silence as we ate. I announced that this was the most delicious bread I’d ever had. Darcy guiltily admitted to eating them on a regular basis during her first few months in London. I was prepared to move there, just to be near the Cheddar Bacon Twists. Well, more plotting trips to London, just to have one of those twists. I'm all about this tiny, worker-owned, cooperative bakery in the Inner Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco. Made in the U.S.A. baby!

I move on to the currant scone.

Oh my. The scone is sensational. Not too dense, with a gorgeous, crunchy, melt-in-your-mouth top. I've drifted away from scones these past few years, but this! This scone will renew one's faith in the power of baked goods to produce pure, elemental joy!

I'm still sitting there in a state of quiet, scone-induced happiness, thinking I really should get going, when I hear a woman in line telling her friend about the incredible pizza they make here come lunchtime.

Wait, they make pizza too???
Hmm, maybe I can work out my schedule to be able to return tomorrow, for lunch...

Arizmendi Bakery
1331 9th Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94122
(415) 566-3117