Checkerboard Cookies (with recipe)

Mark’s mom, a.k.a. “Grandma Chicken” (so nicknamed because her kitchen is festooned in chicken prints, chicken towels, chicken nicknacks, anything chicken themed…) signed up for a cookie exchange this Christmas, which happened to be taking place the next weekend. Everyone should make a large batch of cookies, all gather together, and share the goods with each other.

Grandma Chicken

There’s only one slight problem with this plan: Gran doesn’t actually much care for making cookies at all. Chocolates? You bet! She’ll happily spend days, nay – weeks, making fillings and hand dipping hundreds (yes!) of delicious chocolates. Cookies however… uhhh… not so much. Hearing that I was into baking, she asked me to find a good cookie recipe that would impress the neighbour ladies.

I looked up some festive cookies and found three good potentials for the event. We needed to keep in mind that because this was a cookie exchange, the visual appeal had to be rather high.

Once I presented her with these choices and we zoned in on one, she pondered if I would be interested in making them for her. So that’s how I came to make Checkerboard Cookies.

The original recipe I went with can be found on JoyOfBaking.com although I have (of course) made a few changes along the way. But here is my take on it. Let’s start with the Mis en Place.

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Pane Al Fromaggio

… or more simply Cheese Bread, as it’s actually called in Jeffrey Hamelman’s Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes This is bread #21 in the Mellow Baker’s Challenge to get through all 84 recipes in the First Edition book. Yes, we’re now at about the 1/4 mark. If you have the book and want to give it a go, it can be found on page 180 from the Levain section (page 190 of the 2nd Edition).

Those of you following along here and on MellowBakers.com will notice that this is in fact a September bread and I’m posting it in mid-October. The reason for the tardiness is that there’s been a refocus in our household of late that’s been taking all our attention; more on that later.

I chose a good Italian Parmigiano Reggiano cheese as the bread’s final flavour can only improve with the quality of cheese you use. The dry Kraft pre-grated stuff would not be a good choice here. An alternative, to save a bit of money, would be to mix the Parmigiano with some Asiago or whatever grateable “dry” cheese you prefer.

Let’s get started…

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Soft Butter Rolls

Easy, simple dinner rolls. Quick to make and lovely to bite into. This is what I was looking forward to when I started into the Soft Butter Rolls, one of the September Breads from the Mellow Bakers challenge. You can find this recipe on page 326 of Jeffrey Hamelman’s book Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes.

(Yes, this post is late seeing as I’m finishing it up in October. But then, we’re MELLOW bakers for a reason!)

Looking over the recipe, it seemed to be the case. However, looking over the posts other bakers had put up as they were pumping these guys out, it seemed there were a few steps one needed to be wary of. I took these into consideration and went ahead; I’ll point out where one needs to divert from the recipe a little. Nothing major, however.

Let’s start with our Mis en Place. Or actually, let’s not and cover what that is and why you would want to do it first.

What is a “Mis en Place” anyway?

Mis en Place (pronounced “meez awn plass”) is a french term meaning “Put in its place” and refers to the setting out of your required ingredients, all measured and ready, before you start building your bread (or whatever you’re baking or cooking). So you’d go through your recipe, measure and weigh out your flour, water, butter, salt yeast and so forth ahead of time, making sure you aren’t short of anything and everything is right there for you. You’ve seen this on a million cooking shows, the host always has everything ready and pre-measured.

Why do it? To avoid surprises mid-baking and the potential of missing an ingredient if you are in the habit of scooping or spooning out as you go along. Did you add those three teaspoons of butter already? Did you forget to put in your salt? If the salt is still on the counter then it’s easy to see you did not. If the little salt bowl is empty, it’s easy to see you did. If you normally pour it into the bowl from the container, you may not recall.

And yes, that does happen. I’ve had it happen, other big-time bread folks mention it’s happened to them… No one is immune from the “did I or didn’t I?” slip up. A momentary distraction, you lose your flow and now you miss an important ingredient. It may not be until you server your fresh loaf that you suddenly realize that bread with no salt can be incredibly odd tasting.

It also lets you confirm you do in fact have that cup of buttermilk on hand so you don’t go to the fridge and suddenly realize you need to rush to the store when you’re halfway into mixing the dough. All in all, it’s a simple way to be prepared so you can focus on simply putting your dough together.

And here’s the Mis en Place for our rolls:

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Rye with Caraway: Learning when to say when.

I’ve noted here and elsewhere that I will include recipes even when they go wrong so as not to give the impression that I am some expert (so not true) and never have a failed bread.

This would be one of those times when something goes wrong.

MellowBakers.comOh, this is MellowBakers.com’ 19th bread from Hamelman’s book “Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes“. For those who didn’t know, we’re a bunch of crazy breadheads who decided to do all 84 recipes in the book but in a casual, relaxed, dare I say “mellow” fashion. If you’re a bit bread crazy too, join us, jump in at any point and play along. Or just read up on our adventures, lots of talk, lots of photos and links to members’ great blogs too.

Now I’ve done this bread or at least a couple of recipes very close to this bread before and they came out very nicely. The very similar 40% Rye with Caraway based on the Back Home Bakery recipe, for example. This came out so nicely, I’m using photos of that bake as the main graphic for the site.

That looks like I know what I’m doing, doesn’t it?

Let’s put that theory to the test, shall we?

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Baguettes with Poolish

Here we are at bread no. 17 for the Mellow Bakers, Baguettes with Poolish from Hamelman’s amazing book, Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes

“What, baguettes again? Didn’t you just do these last month?” Yes indeed, I did baguettes last month. However, these are different!

This time around, the dough is made with a poolish pre-ferment (equal parts flour and water plus a tiny smidgen of yeast, left to mature for several hours). Last month’s French Bread was a straight dough and came together in about 4 hours.

So what does the poolish accomplish for us? Because it’s allowed to sit for 12 to 16 hours, it’s got time to ferment the flour and in so doing, develops a stronger dough, superior flavour, better keeping quality and actually shortens the time it takes to make the bread, in spite of requiring a long pre-ferment period. By mixing the pre-ferment ahead of time, taking just a couple of minutes, the action of the enzymes on the dough, when mixed together, speed up the bulk and final proofing considerably.

Of all these aspects, the one that will stand out most to those who eat it is the improved flavour.

Let’s move ahead then and see if this is indeed the case.

The night before, I mixed the poolish, 300 g flour + 300 g water + 1/8 teaspoon of instant dry yeast. This is left overnight to ferment. (Imagine I took pictures here.) So next day…

We have bread flour, water, salt & yeast and our now well-developed poolish which is easily twice its original size. Amazing how a teeny amount of yeast can do that.

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