Bread 23: knäckebröd from Sweden

I’ve been trying to care less about my bad photography. Working all week on a magazine where Everything Must Be Good can do things to you. A friend suggested that I deliberately take some WTF shots to counteract this, and it’s in this spirit that I present to you the kitchen sink crackers.

I put them on the rack to cool, and thought they looked charmingly ridiculous.

cracker bread 1These, like my last loaf, are from a recipe on Bread and Companatico. Barbara says the breads were first made for Viking explorers, who needed bread to last on the long weeks out at sea. Traditionally, crackers are baked with rye flour and hung from the ceiling through a hole in the middle. Apparently, a good cracker bread can last for up to a year.

Air used to be introduced into unleavened doughs by adding snow into the dough, which evaporated away during baking. These, however, are made with yeast.

cracker bread 2Not a super-traditional recipe, the one I made. There’s cumin in there, and lots of interesting seeds. It’s a far cry from the rye, salt, water that mixture the sixteenth-century Swedish peasant would have used. That’s the thing I’m discovering: the most authentic, most traditional version of a recipe is most often made out of nothing but the very simple staples of the poor. Sometimes it’s more fun to raid the spice rack.

These are more difficult to make than you’d think. You have to roll them out super-thin, watching carefully for big seeds that will tear a hole in your delicate film of dough. Then you have to bake them just long enough so the chewiness is gone and but the crackers haven’t burnt.

cracker bread 3

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Loaves 21 & 22: Romanian country bread and Danish rugbrød

I haven’t been blogging much, but I have been baking. Out of the oven last week came a plaited wreath of chocolate and vanilla sweetbread. (I didn’t get a chance to take a photo of that because I was already late for a party.) On here, I’ve added a resources page, which is very much a work in progress and I’m sure contains some things I will look back and laugh at after a few more months of baking.

Loaf 21 is a Romanian loaf called țară pâine from here. Polenta is a staple dish in Romania, so it’s no surprise that this mixes in a cup of yellow cornmeal. The internet is pretty quiet about everyday Romanian bread apart from some legendary and mysterious loaves from Pecica, which are baked over wood fires. So I am more ignorant about this than I’d like to be. There are a couple of sweetbreads I’d like to try – cozonac and Easter bread – but I’ve learned my lesson about not making sweetbreads except when there’s a hearty number of people around to eat it (Hungarian kalacs took forever to get through).

romanian country breadThis bread tastes like a simple white, with softness from the butter and a touch of that interesting texture you get by adding corn flour: a little gritty and grainy, almost squeaky.

Next up was this Danish rye beauty from Bread & Companatico. I must have mentioned this blog before: the writer, Barbara, is an Italian living in Scandinavia. She shares my obsession with authentic regional recipes, and brings a superior knowledge to it. So I’m always hunting for treasures on there, and discovered one in the shape of this old-fashioned Danish Rugbrød.

danish ryeThis is a good hearty rye recipe, with a soaker of chopped rye and a sourdough leaven. It also has a whole dark malty beer inside it (the recipe makes three loaves), and a spoonful of barley malt syrup. This gives it some interesting depths to the flavour and softens the tang of the rye, which in any case is not too strong.

The recipe gives the slightly odd instruction to leave the loaves in the fridge for 20 hours after they’ve had 4 hours or so to rise. I chickened out of this step, I’m afraid. I was too worried that my loaves were already fully risen and my temperamental fridge would do goodness-knows-what to them. I’ve also read that you’re not meant to retard rye dough. Can anyone shed light on this strange step?

If you do make the recipe on Barbara’s blog, beware that you don’t make too much. I have ended up with four times the amount of bread shown above! A good job rye lasts forever.

Loaf 20: Genzano bread from Italy and Mexican conchas

So, I made Genzano bread. It comes from a small town about a 35-minute drive from Rome. Special characteristics: very wet dough, a blackened exterior and enormous size.

I used Daniel Leader’s recipe and kneaded by hand, despite the “courage, strength, and patience” he warned it would take to knead something so wet. Boy, am I sick of kneading by hand. Still, courage, strength and patience? No. That is what it takes to, say, scale K2.

genzano 2You can see the wetness of the dough in the open texture of the crumb.

What I want to talk about more, though, is this recipe for Mexican conchas by Virtuous Bread. Virtuous Bread is a great site, and I am pining after this book by its author, Jane Mason.

Conchas are sweet breads that taste like brioche topped with a layer of crunchy sweet topping. The toppings usually come in chocolate, strawberry or cinnamon.

‘Concha’ literally means seashell. As What’s Cooking Mexico tells me, lots of Mexican pastries have similarly fantastical names: “We have besos (kisses), calzones (underpants), cuernos (croissants, literally horns), trenzas (braids), corbatas (ties), pellizcadas (pinched bread).”

conchasThese are laborious, but delicious enough to be worth it.

I liked Virtuous Bread’s recipe, but I thought it made things overly hard work at the kneading stage (10 mins plus 30 mins? no thanks). I also couldn’t make the topping come together with the amount of water recommended. So a tweaked version is below and you can find the original with some useful photos here.

Ingredients:

for the dough
500g plain white flour
125g sugar
10g salt
120g butter (melted and cooled but still liquid)
4 eggs
5g active dry yeast
100ml full fat milk (room temperature)
1/2tsp of ground anise (optional)

for the topping
240g plain flour
125g icing sugar
125g butter
2tbsp cold water
2tsp cocoa powder (optional)

Method:

1. First make the dough. Put the flour in a large bowl, and make a well in the middle. Add the sugar, yeast and milk into the well, and flick some flour over the top of the liquid to cover it. Leave it until the mixture bubbles up through the flour, which takes between 10 mins and an hour depending on who you read.*

2. Add the eggs, butter, salt and anise (if using). The dough will resemble what is known as “a horrible mess”.

3. Knead boldly until the dough comes together and passes the windowpane test. The best kneading technique for this is Bertinet’s, which works brilliantly on very soft sweet doughs. At the start it will feel like you’re wrestling in oil, Greco-Roman style, but give it 15 mins.

4. Cover the dough and leave it until it doubles in side. Virtuous Bread says this will take 6 hours. (I’m not sure, because I left in the fridge overnight instead.)

5. To make the topping, cube the butter and rub it in to the sugar and the flour. Then add the water, and bring together into a pastry-like dough. Don’t over-handle the dough. Refrigerate until you need it.

6. When the dough is ready, divide and shape it into 9 balls. Place them on a sheet of parchment paper, and leave to rise until doubled, 1.5-2 hours.

7. When the dough is risen, pre-heat the oven to 220 degrees. Pull the topping out of the fridge, then divide and roll it in your hands into 9 balls.

8. Gently flatten the buns a little, so that they look like burger baps. Then roll out the topping balls with a rolling pin until they are the same size.

9. Brush the buns with milk, and pop the disk of topping on top. With a knife, cut 3 or 4 lines in the topping (or make cool shapes).

10. Bake for 15-20 mins.

*If I were to make this again, I’d try replacing steps 1 and 2 with the following: mix all the dough ingredients together except the flour, then add the flour gradually and knead. Would it make a difference? My money says no. And it’d be a lot simpler. [Update: see comment from Jane at Virtuous Bread below.]