This rich sweet bread laced with dark chocolate came about as a bit of an experiment. Leading up to Easter 2021, I started researching breads baked by various cultures around the world. Many Eastern European countries have some version of an enriched bread baked to celebrate Christian or Jewish holidays. Paska, Bapka, Kulich, Challah -- some had fruit, others were spiced and they all varied slightly in shape and design.
My father bought his first boat when I was a young child and most of my summer memories involve sailing -- Lake Superior, fog, quiet anchorages, meeting other boaters, the sound of water tapping against the hull, the wind in the rigging... These memories have crept into my written work in many ways. They've also influenced my baking.
In spite of the fact that I grew up with Finnish heritage and my husband is also half Finn, I didn't really experience piirakka (pe-e'-rak-ka) until I was well into adulthood. These are generally a savoury-salty treat, made with rye dough and filled with rice pudding. The traditional topping is egg butter, but I often use jam to sweeten things up. Of course, these are best served with a cup of strong Finnish coffee, but they make a great pack-along snack for winter adventures.
This was a request from my son for those "monkey balls" I usually make around Thanksgiving.... Hah! How could I refuse that? Monkey bread is a sweet soft pastry that's made by baking pieces of dough that have been dipped in butter and rolled in spices. This version includes pumpkin and is perfect for an autumn weekend. It's best served warm, drizzled with maple glaze. Gather the gang around while the turkey is cooking and pull yourself a monkey ball... I mean delicious morsel of pumpkin-spice gooeyness.
A few years ago, I was fortunate to do a "cooking class" in the summer kitchen of one of my Italian friends' aunt's house. Zia and Nonna taught us how to make pasta, gnocchi and lemon cookies AND sent us home with bags of delicious gnocchi for our dinner. (Thank you Cathy!!) Since then, I've branched out from the basics I learned from them and adapted their recipes. Well, not really recipes, since nothing was written down, but I did my best to capture the "cups of" this the "pinch" of that and the the feel of the dough when it's been worked enough.
We stocked up on dried beans of all sorts as part of our pre-COVID-19 quarantine provisioning. I often use canned chick peas to make hummus or to add to curries and salads, but I had only ever used dried on canoe-camping trips. I made this felafel recipe a couple of times, and the freshness of the re-hydrated (but uncooked) peas makes a tasty difference.
These came about out of necessity -- I had planned my weekly grocery shopping around our menu so that we could have fresh buns on hamburger night. And then I forgot the hamburger buns. (Typical Jean E move.) Instead of going back to the store (which I would have done pre-COVID) I opted to try making buns. They turned out to be delicious. This brioche style bun has ruined us for store-bought forever.
Pretzels are super delicious and quite easy to make. Since it's easier to find fresh yeast right now than traditional or instant, I decided to try out the fresh to see how it worked. Fresh yeast requires "proofing" and making a "sponge" is also recommended. This takes a little bit more time, but the results and taste are worth it. We also decided to add prosciutto and Thunder Oak Gouda to our pretzels to make them a great picnic pack-along. For the plain pretzels, we made a sharp cheddar cheese and Sleeping Giant Brewery dip that was also delicious.
Switching up added ingredients can turn this basic scone recipe into something sweet or savoury depending on what you want. Right now, I'm limiting my trips to the grocery store so try to work with ingredients that I have on hand. The basic recipe can be easily doubled, or prepared as a "biscuit mix" (don't add the wet ingredients) and stored in the fridge (if using butter) or cupboard (if using vegetable shortening). I use a (cold) baking stone to cook these on, which helps create an nicely browned bottom and fluffy texture, but a cookie sheet works fine, too. Any scones/biscuits not eaten the first day should be frozen - scones stale very quickly.
I've made naan bread a few different ways over the years, including cooking it over the campfire, but no matter how you cook it, fresh warm naan is yummy. A traditional East Indian bread, naan is perfect with dishes like butter chicken, dal (I'm think we all still have bags of lentils on hand?) or as the base for "unwraps". If you're cooking at home, it's best to use a cast iron or other heavy frying pan. You can use partial whole wheat flour for extra nutrition and flavour. After cooking, brush with butter and sprinkle with coarse salt and, if you want and have them on hand, herbs like cilantro or parsley. Did I mention how yummy these are?
The aroma alone is worth the work to make these, but the taste is ah-mazing! When I met my husband, his Finnish grandmother, Aune, taught me how to make pulla, a braided loaf of sweet bread flavoured with ground cardamom. It became a staple holiday favourite at Christmas and Easter, and while the smell and taste of homemade bread evokes a sense of comfort, this bread brings with it the sense of family and celebration.
Why is it that we seem to collectively be turning to bread-baking as a way to cope with a global pandemic? Bread is the ultimate comfort food, the essential foundation of sustenance for millennia, and almost every culture in the world has some form of bread in its cuisine. It is simple to make, delicious and only requires a bit of time. Which we now seem to have. Baking also provides us with a sense of accomplishment - I may not have gotten dressed today, brushed my teeth, or made any significant progress with my work, but look what I did - I MADE THAT!
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Jean E. Pendziwol
I live on the north shore of Lake Superior where I write books for kids and adults. I express love and care through food and have a particular fascination with bread! Join me as I explore the cultural significance of bread around the world and experiment with recipes for everything from quick breads to flatbreads, soudoughs and brioche. It promises to be a delicious journey!