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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Leaving Your Comfort Zone

I used to have one iron-clad rule when it came to cooking.

If, when reading through a recipe, I came across the words "candy thermometer"...
well, in the words of 30 Rock's Liz Lemon... "Deal Breaker!!".

My candy thermometer neurosis was not caused by any traumatic event that I can recall.  Candy thermometers are pretty affordable, and even easily found in the cooking utensil aisle of one's local supermarket.   

So what was up?  

By banning any kind of cooking that required a candy thermometer, I figured I was saving myself from certain heartbreak and disaster.  Recipes that require candy thermometers somehow seemed daunting with the odds of success definitely not in my favor.  We're talking about things like caramel and syrups and fudge and things needing to "set"...  Yikes.  If I'm going to be absolutely honest, I should tell you there's something about culinary failure that, unlike in other aspects of my life, really throws me for a loop.  I sulk.  I brood.  I keep going over and over it in my mind...what went wrong?  I boycott the stove.  We eat out for a stretch.  And then gradually, I get back on the horse, so to speak.  So, isn't it understandable if I go out of my way to avoid messing up in the kitchen? 

The thing that initially did me in and led to the purchase of a...(ahem)...candy thermometer (shocking, I know!) was fried chicken. Go figure.  Over the past few years I have been gradually preparing myself to make fried chicken.  This plan was part of my 2007 obsession with Southern cooking--our Christmas meal that year was a full, Southern brunch, which left my Eastern European family, vaguely puzzled, yet amenable to exploring the world of pickled green onions and shrimp-and-grits.  Sigh.  I should also mention, there was ham...welcome and familiar to everyone.  But, I digress...

So...I have yet to make fried chicken.  (Still researching.)  But, get this... I did buy a "deep fry" thermometer, in preparation for said Fried Chicken Experiment, which, lo and behold, is also a "candy thermometer".   Baby steps, people...baby steps...

Just having it in the kitchen drawer somehow made the possibility of using it slightly less menacing. 

It was a simple buttermilk cake with caramel glaze and the encouraging words of fellow blogger Deb, of Smitten Kitchen, that got me to go out on the limb.  (Oh, the beauty of food blogging!  I can't tell you how many times I've been willing to try a recipe based on the honest appraisal of a trusted food blogger.)  The cake worked out like a charm--of course!-- and was incredibly delicious to boot.  And the candy thermometer?  I'm happy to report, it was no big deal!  Ahh, confidence.

This is the path that led me to boldly tear a recipe for panettone from the pages of December's Martha Stewart Living.  Something like panettone would suffice in the 'high-difficulty' category I like to tackle for holiday baking and this looked like an exceptionally delicious version.

You know panettone, right?  Usually mass-produced and kind of blah-tasting, it's an eggy, brioche-type bread that always has golden raisins and some other type of too-chewy candied fruit, sold around the holidays at your local Italian grocery.  It's always packaged in those odd-shaped boxes...essentially, it's the Italian version of fruitcake.  Even Trader Joe's sells a version.  Panettone, I thought, could be like the holiday biscotti I make -- not something I would ordinarily like when someone else makes it, but customized... it could be heavenly. 

The recipe I tore out of the magazine called for candied orange peel, bought ready made, but I was convinced the way to go was to make my own.  Oh dear.  Cocky, no?

After a little internet research, I settled on David Lebovitz's recipe for the orange peel from his ice cream book, Perfect Scoop.   (Candy thermometer alert!!  Candy thermometer alert!!)  Unfazed, Operation Panettone marched onward.

A couple weekends ago it was time to seize the day, or rather, TWO days...step out of my comfort zone and look the possibility of failure straight in the eye.

It was a roller coaster ride that weekend.  The 'candied orange peel making incident' probably shaved a few years off my life, but was at the same time...exhilarating.  I overcooked it, thinking the syrup the orange peel was in was not look quite thick enough, (err, kind of disregarding the target temperature on said candy thermometer) and in the blink of an eye, the orange peel 'syrup' seized up and almost fully hardened.

Much frantic tugging, cursing, and scraping the now-near-taffy-like orange peel ensued, and I finally managed to dump it into the dough.  With a few swirls of the mixer paddle, the orange peel then balled itself up into a bowling ball sized lump in the center.  More cursing... then yanking of the gigantic orange peel ball from the dough followed.  Improvised step:  grab scissors and start snipping up the orange peel ball!  This seemed to work and it was with true relief that I folded the snipped orange peel into the dough and shoved the whole mess into the refrigerator for an overnight rise.

Long story short -- the panettone baked up the next day into two, (and I say this with all modesty) magnificent loaves.  The flavor combination of orange and bittersweet chocolate is one of my personal favorites and incorporated into the lovely moist brioche-style dough it turned out to be blockbuster. I don't know that I've ever had so many compliments on a baked good like this, and I must tell you the pride of seeing those two beautiful loaves resting out of the oven nearly made me burst.

So, heading into a new year, with all the talk of resolutions etc...I'd suggest instead of the usual half-hearted pledges to lose weight, or exercise more, blah blah blah...simply commit to the occasional stepping out of the comfortable, nothing-will-go-wrong routines you trust and do something that just might give you an unexpected outcome...and some thrills along the way.  Whether that does, or does not include a candy thermometer, is up to you.

Happy New Year.



*          *          *

NOTES:
1)  Recipe for homemade candied orange peel is below, although that's what I started working on first, during Operation: Panettone--Day One.

2)  I just might try soaking some golden raisins in hot water and adding them to the mix next time.

3)  Pretty (and festive) paper panettone molds with cardboard bottoms can be found at Sur La Table for 50 cents each, but my colleague and fellow baking afficionado, Mike G. suggested the option of a brown lunch sack, rolled down to about half height.

4)  The flour's weight is more important than its volume, so the recipe suggests using a kitchen scale for measuring your flour.

5)  A sturdy, stand mixer is a must with this recipe and get that dough-hook attachment ready! (This was my first-time-ever using it, since I'm not really a bread-baking type.

Panettone
adapted from Martha Stewart Living and John Barricelli, host of Everyday Baking From Everyday Food
Makes two 5 1/4 inch round loaves

1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast (two 1/4 oz. envelopes)
1/3 cup whole milk, warmed
14 oz. unbleached bread flour (about 3 cups), plus more for surface
1/4 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs, lightly beaten, plus 1 large egg (for glaze)
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
10 oz. (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
5 1/2 oz. bittersweet chocolate -- coarsely chopped -- about 1 1/4 cups (Valhrona is my favorite)
1 cup diced candied (glazed) orange peel)
1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract
1/2 teaspoon pure orange extract
Vegetable oil -- for the bowl

For the top: 
2 teaspoons best-quality unsweetened cocoa powder
Pearl sugar, for sprinkling (I couldn't find this anywhere, so didn't use it)
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sliced almonds, for sprinkling

1.  Sprinkle yeast over milk in the bwl of a mixer fitted with the dough-hook attachment.  Let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes.  Sprinkle 2 ounces flour (about 1/2 cup) and 1 tablespoon granulated sugar over top.  Cover with plastic, and let stand for 1 hour.

2.  Add remaining 12 ounces flour and 3 tablespoons granulated sugar, the beaten eggs, and the salt.  Mix together on medium speed until dough forms a smooth, stiff ball, about 5 minutes.
Add butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing well after each addition.  (this takes a while, and there are moments where it almost seemed that the mixer was going to give out on me!)

3.  Switch to paddle attachment, and mix dough on medium-high speed for 5 minutes.  Reduce speed to low, and add chocolate, orange peel, and extracts.  Mix until combined.

4.  Turn out dough onto a clean surface, and form into a ball.  Transfer to a lightly oiled bowl.  Cover with plastic, and refrigerate overnight.

5.  Bring dough to room temperature, and divide in half.  Form each half into a ball; place each in a 5 1/4-by-3 3/4-inch paper panettone mold.  Transfer to a baking sheet.  Let stand in a warm place until doubled in volume -- about 2 hours.

**by this time it will feel like you have been making panettone for an eternity...but do not lose hope -- write some holiday cards... have a glass of wine... the fun is only getting started.

6.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees (finally!!).  Lightly beat remaining egg and the cocoa powder together.  Brush glaze mixture onto panettone dough, and sprinkle with pearl sugar (if you've got it) and sliced almonds.  Bake until golden brown, about 50 minutes.

7.  Remove molds from oven, and run a wooden skewer horizontally through the bottom of each panettone loaf.  Hang loaves upside down (wacky, I know!!) by propping ends of each skewer on 2 large heavy cans, or your flour/sugar cannisters.  Let cool completely.

Step back and admire.  You've done it!!

Panettone can be stored, wrapped in plastic, at room temperature for up to 3 days.
(I've been told it makes tremendous base for bread pudding, but alas, ours did not last that long.)


For the bold and unafraid -- 
Candied Orange Peel 
adapted from The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz

(makes about 1 cup)

4 large oranges, preferably unsprayed--washed
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
Pinch of salt

With a vegetable peeler, remove strips of peel 1 inch wide from the oranges, cutting lengthwise down the fruit.  Remove just the colorful outer peel, leaving behind the bitter white pith.  Using a very sharp knife, slice the peel lenghtwise into very thin strips no wider than a toothpick.

Put the strips of peel in a small, nonreactive saucepan, add enough water to cover them by a few inches, and bring to a boil.  Reduce to a gentle boil and cook for 15 minutes.  Remove from the heat, strain the peel, and rinse with fresh water.

Combine the 2 cups water, sugar, corn syrup and salt in the saucepan.
Fit the pan with a candy thermometer (!) and bring to a boil.  Add blanched peel, reduce the heat and cook at a very low boil for about 25 minutes, until the thermometer reads 230 degrees F.  Turn off the heat and let peel cool in the syrup.

Once cool, lift peel out of syrup and snip into small pieces with scissors before adding to panettone dough.

Pan cleaning note:
This was a great tip I got from my aunt after I told her of the disastrous, sticky mess left behind in my fancy All-Clad saucepan.
Add tablespoon of Cascade dishwasher liquid to the pan with hot water and place over very low heat.
Stir and voila -- watch as the glued particles pull away from the pan.
Probably the best advice I've received in years!! Thank you!

1 comment:

Jane said...

I love the overhead image of the panettone dough rising. It looks like it feels.

I'm so surprised that candy-making is outside your comfort zone, or even that any cooking technique could potentially fluster you! Very interesting.

Perhaps you will inspire me to leave my comfort zone: pie crusts. I always buy the dough pre-made. I love pie, so perhaps it's time I stepped up to the plate and made one start to finish.