Here’s to you, Mrs. Roosevelt

Were it not for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the home baker might still be suffering under the culinary tyranny of bland dinner rolls. Luckily, the presidential couple–evidently enamored of the Parker House Hotel’s extravagantly buttery bread offering–requested that a copy of the guarded recipe be sent to the White House kitchen. I can sort of see the appeal of recipe secrecy, but when the president of the United States rings you on the telephone and says he really likes your dinner rolls, and would you be so kind as to share your state secret with him, the game is kind of up. Needless to say, since this happy day in 1933, the Parker House roll recipe leaked into the home kitchen in various forms and to various degrees of authenticity, and began to butter people up all across the country.

I know I posted about rolls in the not-too-distant past, but I’ve been wanting to see what the fuss is all about with these Parker House rolls for a long time. According to the Parker House’s rather distinguished guest list (as culled from a brief online history blurb) it is quite possible that the following people munched merrily on this delicacy at one point in time: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Charles Dickens, Babe Ruth, JFK, Ulysses S. Grant, the aforementioned FDR and his lovely wife Eleanor, Judy Garland, and the infamous John Wilkes Booth. What’s more–and this really floors me–Ho Chi Minh worked as a baker in the Parker House kitchen, and Malcom X as a busboy. So I would suppose that they were also munching on Parker House rolls on their lunch breaks. The list of famous potential roll-eaters goes on and on, which is to say that if all of these distinguished folks were fueling their political, poetic, theatrical, philosophical and literary conversations with these rolls, then they must be packing a hell of a punch.

Before it occurred to me that I could likely find the original recipe online and make the rolls in their most authentic form, I found a nice little recipe in Beard on Bread. I am glad that I decided to work from this version, because it turns out that the original calls for an even more absurd quantity of butter than that with which I was currently confronted.

I cut Mr. Beard’s version of the Parker House roll recipe in half, measured in ounces rather than cups, and generally mucked about with the construction of the dough, but the recipe is still fundamentally his. To begin, I made a small poolish, because even when you’re creating an enriched dough, it’s always worth it to add extra fermentation flavors. I combined 1 tsp. yeast with 4 oz. water and 4 oz. flour and let the whole thing get nice and bubbly over the course of a few hours.

Instead of making a sponge, as Mr. Beard next instructs, I finished mixing my dough completely after adding the poolish, since using both a sponge and a poolish would be unnecessary and would exhaust the yeast. (I suppose I could have just followed his instructions and skipped the poolish, but I wasn’t reading far enough ahead to realize that he already had this step covered).

I added 1 1/4 tsp. yeast to 8 oz. warm milk. To this I added my poolish, 1/4 stick melted butter, 1 1/2 tsp. sugar, 1 tsp. salt, and about 13 oz. flour.

I kneaded away on a nice spacious counter top in a not-so-tiny (i.e. not my) kitchen until the dough was soft and supple.

I had made the dough early enough in the day that the final rise could be a colder, slower rise, allowing a few more flavors to develop during this step. Since the day was so warm, it was actually a challenge to find a cool enough spot for the dough to rise slowly. Luckily, my guest kitchen was outfitted with a handy little tool that I now wish to add to my own collection of trusty gadgets, and that aided my quest for the perfect temperature.

After taking a nice long while to double in size, my rich dough was ready for some exercises.

Instead of shaping each roll into the traditional Parker House shape, I stuck with my personal favorite–the pull-apart roll–and forced all the little dough balls into cramped quarters.

Again, I made use of some cooler temperatures to slow down this final proofing stage, and stuck the whole unit in the fridge until it was baking time. The rolls were clearly very eager to hop in the oven because even in the fridge they climbed rapidly up the sides of the baking dish and rose with alarming speed. At the last minute, I brushed the whole lot with a slather of butter (just to appease the Parker House roll gods) and stuck them into a refreshingly large oven, set to 375 degrees.

After maybe 20 minutes or so, a golden island of dough had begun to peek over the top of the dish and the sight was most pleasing.

Unfortunately, at this point, I became so engrossed in the act of eating dinner that I neglected to photograph the beauty of the interior bits. Suffice it to say that this roll is not for the faint of palate. The light, fluffy, tender crumb with a brilliant network of tiny air holes disguised a killer rich flavor, replete with sweet, milky, buttery goodness. As the reigning vegetarian at the table, I found that the rolls became my primary meat substitute–not for lack of other delicious dishes, but simply because they seduced my taste buds. I now completely understand why, according to the record, composer Jacques Offenbach broke into song when devouring these lavish rolls at the Hotel, singing “Parker rolls, Parker rolls, how I love you.”

Let them eat brioche!

Forgive me, history buffs. I’m going to hop on the misinformation train and rehash Marie Antoinette’s catchy but probably completely bogus little phrase “let them eat cake,” or, as in my favorite Gary Larson cartoon version, “I said, ‘let them eat cake and ice cream!'” Sure, she probably never said it. Especially not in English. But, somewhere in history, that fun little phrase cropped up, and regardless of its misattribution, or complete fabrication, the English translation got all mixed up. Whoever was trying to solve France’s hunger problem with a zippy one-liner actually said (so they say) “let them eat brioche.” Brioche occupies a happy little space somewhere between bread (of which the peasants had none) and cake, or pastry. I suppose this means that it’s slightly less offensive to snarkily offer up brioche as a solution to the hunger of the masses than it is to offer cake. However, the more money in one’s pocket, the more butter in one’s brioche, making this a universally eaten but not a universally rich foodstuff. According to Peter Reinhart, a “poor man’s brioche” was only 20-25% butter, whereas as a “rich man’s brioche” was upwards of 70% butter.

What I made today would qualify as a poor man’s brioche by these standards, weighing in at exactly 25% butter. Just as I got to feeling sad for the poor men and their butter-deficient brioche, I tried a nibble. I’m not sure what kinds of taste buds these folks had, but 25% butter was pushing even my butter limits, and I consider myself to be way beyond the realms of the butter tolerant. What’s more, I had enough trouble hand mixing this “small” amount of butter into my dough, and I can only imagine those poor French bakers, without the help of a nice retro-blue Kitchenaid, trying to hand knead a dough composed of 70 or 80% butter.

The recipe I used today comes from Linda Dannenberg’s exquisite and endlessly tempting Paris Boulangerie-Pâtisserie–a book that is on loan to me and that makes me want to buy a one-way ticket to Paris every time I open it up. This pain brioché recipe comes from Bernard Ganachaud of La Flute Gana boulangerie in northern Paris. I cut the recipe in half, and measured in ounces rather than grams.

To begin, I mixed 1 tsp. yeast into 1 TB warm water while I heated up 3 oz. milk. In a bowl, I measured out 8.8 oz. all-purpose flour. I made a well in the flour and poured in the milk and the yeast mixture, as well as 3/4 tsp. salt, 1 large egg and  3/4 tsp. vanilla sugar (I had no vanilla sugar, so I followed the instructions and added 3/4 tsp. sugar and 3/8 tsp. vanilla). It was at this point that one step went very wrong, and one step went very right.

First, my large egg, which was previously sitting happily on my countertop, decided to succumb to some odd horizontal gravitational force, and rolled at least a foot across my counter before the more legitimate vertical gravitational forces facilitated a nice downward fall and a satisfying splat. This wouldn’t have been terrible if I had just scrapped the egg and grabbed a new one out of my fridge. Instead, I thought that the shell had remained intact enough to be salvaged, and I scooped it up, finished cracking it open, and added it to my dough. As soon as I did this, I looked on the floor and realized that a pretty substantial amount of egg white had sneakily leaked out, and that my dough would probably suffer from this small but important lack of moisture. Nevertheless, for some reason, I didn’t try to accommodate for this blunder. Hmm. Possibly because I was too distracted by the next happy event that occurred: I opened up my brand new bottle of Tahitian vanilla extract, having come straight from Tahiti itself, courtesy of my generous big bro. The hue was a rich golden amber, the liquid was almost as thick as a syrup, and it smelled like heaven. I wanted to tipple from the bottle, but remembered my own (and everyone else’s) disappointing childhood discovery that vanilla is not really for lone consumption.

Giddy on the fumes of this lovely stuff, I gave the dough a rough mixing with my fingers, and of course found that it was a bit too dry. Clearly I didn’t have the presence of mind to crack open a new egg and lend a little more egg white to the mixture. Instead, I moved on to my next step, which was to combine 2.2 oz. soft butter with 1.6 oz. granulated sugar. I then added this to my overly dry mixture, bit by bit, until it came together into something resembling a dough. The whole thing then went into the fridge after sitting out at room temperature for a little over an hour. In retrospect, I know that I didn’t really execute this whole thing properly–I didn’t knead enough at either stage to get a properly soft and elastic dough ball, but tried to make up for this with a brief kneading session this morning when the dough came out of the fridge. I’m not really sure what I was thinking at the time, but all’s well that ends deliciously.

The dough sat at room temperature this morning for about an hour, at which time it decided not to do much at all, and I was afraid that I hadn’t developed the gluten enough during my vanilla-induced haze for the yeast to work its magic. I forged ahead fearlessly, and began forming my dough into brioche à tête using a muffin tin instead of the pretty little fluted tins, which are absent in my kitchen. These rotund little fellas with their small dough heads got a quick egg wash, and spent some time in my 350 degree oven.

After maybe 15 or 20 minutes, the coils on the roof of my oven had toasted the little guys’ heads pretty seriously and so I pulled them out, the larger body of the dough thankfully having finished baking too. Miracle of miracles, they still puffed up nicely despite my less than superb dough handling.

To keep myself from popping a piping hot brioche straight into my mouth, I put some espresso on to brew while I waited for things to cool off. I definitely wasn’t expecting magic when I took my first bite of the shiny brown brioche nubbin, having felt pretty skeptical about my treatment of the dough the night before. However, my first bite was pretty darn exciting. To begin with, there is something very satisfying about eating that little round top bit–it just tears off so nicely and is cute and bite-sized and tantalizing. I wasn’t so surprised about this fun-factor, though. It was more the actual flavor of the dough that played a belated April fool’s joke on me. The bread looked ok, but it wasn’t as soft and fluffy and rich as I imaged a brioche might appear, and so I just assumed that the flavor would follow suit and be a bit boring. I also thought it would be a bit chewy from a late kneading. Considering the amount of butter, sugar, and milk that went into the dough, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, but the flavor was absolutely delicious! There was a nice soft crunch on the crust, and the crumb was as moist and tender as the day is long. I kept tasting the dough trying to put my finger on what made it so pleasing, and I finally realized that it was the vanilla that kept cutting through the richness of the butter and the sweetness of the sugar to put on a private show for my taste buds. The flavor of the vanilla had a depth and complexity that I’ve never experienced before, and that held up spectacularly through the whole ordeal. Paired with a fresh cup of espresso, this was a pretty serious way to wake myself up on a lazy Sunday morning.

Whether or not anyone actually suggested that the hungry French peasants eat brioche in lieu of normal bread, I can see how this would be a bit of a kicker–who wouldn’t want to eat butter drenched sweet breads shaped like little round people if given the choice?

The name game–vaguely Victorian bread

“Here is your plate of green stuff, sir, and here is your bowl of warm mushy vegetables in water.”

“Ah, yes, thank you very much. For my entree I think I would like the ribs of the cow please.”

“Very well, that will come with a side of cooked cereal grain, and I will refill your glass of musty juiced grapes in just a moment.”

I suppose it makes a lot of sense that we don’t speak about food so literally, there being a pretty staggering number of edible items to distinguish between, but sometimes I wonder a bit about the names we come up with for the things we ingest. For example, the recipe I looked at for today’s bread is entitled “Victorian Milk Bread.” I am sure that the Victorians loved putting loads of milk in their bread, and that the S-shape of this particular loaf may have been popular at the time, but I don’t think that I was really reliving the Victorian glory days when I mixed together these few simple ingredients and let them ferment. Sure “Victorian Milk Bread” sounds much better than its generic brother “Blah Bread from Nowhere,” and it conjures romantic images of ladies with fans at fancy parties munching on milky bread. And while there are certainly very many legitimately named historical breads, I think if we are being honest here, the Victorian ladies probably weren’t nibbling on this particular loaf.

Perhaps I’m completely off base, and I have just verbally defiled a sacred and historic bread formula. Or perhaps we really do just feel a burning desire to whip out our thesauri and pull vaguely historical names and foreign sounding terms out of chef’s caps when we whip something up in the kitchen. After all, making and eating food is an art, and naming it might as well be an art too. Either way, as a kid who wanted each piece of broccoli named after a tree before it could be consumed, I am really in no place to judge. Also, this bread tastes really good, so Victorian or not it is a worthwhile endeavor.

This lovely loaf came from Bread by Eric Treuille &Ursula Ferrigno (and I mean no disrespect to these brilliant authors in my namemongering!)

I cut the recipe in half in order to avoid having great excesses of bread such as those that kept me from making more bread this last week. I also gave this dough the Reinhart treatment as I am wont to do these days. Last night, I mixed together:

1 tsp. yeast

1/2 tsp. granulated sugar

6 oz. warm-ish milk

3/4 tsp. salt

9 1/2 ish oz. bread flour

I kneaded this soft ball of dough for nearly ten minutes, as it grew only softer and more pleasant to handle. This supple quality was most directly due to the dairy, but I would like to think that my new Bob’s Red Mill flour added some magic to the mix.

The sugar that is added to this dough is almost negligible, so the milk is the only real enrichment. Although milk is certainly flavorful, it is not overwhelming and it affects the texture of the bread more than the flavor. What this meant to me was that it would still be important to draw out as much flavor from the flour as I possibly could–something that is not often as important in enriched breads. With this in mind, I departed from the recipe’s procedural guidelines and stuck the dough in the fridge overnight for a nice slow fermentation.

As per usual, I took the dough out of the fridge after work today and let it finish doubling in size at room temperature. Once the dough had become nice and lofty–a process that took a few hours–I began shaping. It was at this point that I decided to give my bread further fodder for an identity crisis by abandoning the Victorian S-shape. I really wanted dinner rolls, and I could tell that this supple puffy milky dough really wanted to be made into dinner rolls too. So I listened, and I rolled a bunch of little dough balls into a happy dough ball family that proofed nicely into a bigger dough ball family in about 45 minutes.

After a nice little vacation in my 375 degree oven, the dough ball family returned all tan and beautiful, smelling pleasantly.

In a very satisfying little maneuver, I tore off a hunk of bread and saw a dreamy, steaming interior, the likes of which I envisioned when I jumped ship on the S-shape idea in favor of dinner rolls.

They tasted dreamy too–a really excellently developed wheat flavor balanced by a mild yeasty kick, all wrapped in the warm embrace of soft fluffy milk magic. A little salted butter melting into the beautiful network of tiny air holes was really excessive and delicious. So delicious, in fact, that I was seized with the sudden urge to flip through my thesaurus and to google vaguely historical reference points in search of the perfectly noncommittal epithet.

Holy croissants, Batman–a study in butter

First of all, I said I would leave Peter Reinhart’s recipes alone for a while, and I lied. Secondly, I said that croissants lived in the “scary pastries” category of my baking brain, and that is now also a lie. Two falsehoods, yes, but of the most delicious variety.

After tackling my irrational fear of bagels, I figured I might as well pull another monster into the light and try my hand at croissants–my fear of which seemed a little more conspicuous and rational. After all, croissants require a French accent for correct pronunciation and are known to inspire fits of euphoria when made well. There’s something about all those buttery layers that inspires a sense of unsurpassable culinary intimidation. Of course, with my trusty Artisan Breads Every Day, the only seemingly unsurpassable challenge was getting over my guilt of publicizing one too many Reinhart recipes–a guilt that I am assuaging by telling you that my sophomoric explanations of these recipes in no way equate to actually owning this book!

Not to be deterred by the 7 page recipe, I began making the dough, or the detrempe, last night. This consisted of mixing 21 oz. flour, 1 3/4 tsp. salt, 1/4 cup sugar, 1 TB yeast, 7 oz. milk, 8 oz. water, and 2 TB melted butter. After a very brief mixing, the sticky, rather awkward looking dough went straight into the fridge for the night. It was hard to imagine a sleek, French-ish pastry emerging from such a sight, but I put all my eggs in the croissant basket, as it were, and carried on unphased.

I left three sticks of butter out overnight in preparation for the aptly named butter block. Since I don’t have a mixer, I knew I would need the butter to be a bit softer than it probably should be, enabling me to manipulate it into block shape more easily with my hands. When I got home from work today, I set to work making this square of fatty doom. I stuck the three sticks of butter into a bowl with 2 TB flour and squished sickeningly away with my fingers until everything was nice and pasty and my hands were sufficiently moisturized. I then formed the paste into a 6″x6″x1/2″ square, which was great fun. I couldn’t find any measuring devices, so I used my squint-and-guess ruler.

I then pulled the dough out of the fridge, rolled it into what I guessed to be (and probably was nowhere near) a 12 1/2″x6 1/2″ rectangle, and laid the butter block on top.

Then began the “laminating” process, in which the butter and dough became very intimately acquainted through a series of fun little folds. This has to be the most thoroughly entertaining kitchen technique ever. I began by sealing my little butter love letter in the big doughy envelope.

I then attempted rather clumsily to roll this out into a 16″x9″ rectangle. I found it difficult to enforce even butter distribution, and to maintain 90 degree angles at the corners of my dough, but I ended up with something roughly rectangular and buttery.

Then the first really fun step took place, and the whole unit was folded up like a fancy business letter–turning 3 layers of butter and flour into 9 layers.

This fatty layered fellow then rested for a while before being rolled back out into another big rectangle. The rectangle was again folded letter-style, making the 9 layers of love transform into 27 even thinner layers. After one more rest for the dough, the final letter-fold took place, and 81 layers of pure fat and doughy fat were nestled together ready to go to croissant town after a little nap. The little buttery bits were visible through the translucent top layer of dough, and were most tantalizing.

I rolled the dough out into an even bigger rectangle than before, and began cutting out elongated triangles–all of which turned out quite unevenly without a proper measuring stick, and would probably make any self-respecting Frenchman gasp with horror. I didn’t care about that so much as I cared about being able to see all of the beautiful layers revealed in the cross-section of the dough, once cut. A health hazard in the making, but so very pretty.

I rolled up each lumpy triangle, and let them proof for a little over 2 hours. They looked like silly little slumbering creatures on my countertop.

While I got things heated up, I brushed each little fellow with an egg wash, and then popped a select few into the 375 degree, magic-rendering oven (while the others went straight to the freezer for safe keeping). Twenty or thirty minutes later, the golden crescents emerged from the oven in a pool of bubbling butter, and it was at that point that I was slightly disgusted, and also slightly pleased. On the one hand, there was enough butter in each croissant to singularly create an entire batch of cookies. On the other hand, they looked like croissants and that was rather nice.

I confidently ignored the pool of butter and eagerly cut the first sucker open, also ignoring the fact that they were still internally hotter than the sun, and should be left alone to cool and finish baking. My heart melted just like all the butter I was about to ingest when I glanced inside my first croissant.

I closed my eyes in order to bypass my more health-aware observation systems, and took a heavenly first bite that unleashed a plethora of happy sensations. The outside crunched between my teeth like a good crispy snowfall crunches underfoot, only with 3/4 lb. more butter. The buttery, light, flaky exterior yielded a soft, yeasty and slightly chewy inside, and then the first croissant was gone.

Next time–and there will most certainly be a next time–I hope to achieve a more uniform, thin, and less lumpy lamination so that more butter stays in, and less leaks out in the baking process to remind me of exactly what I am eating. I also am going to try to handle the dough even less so that the inside dough is just slightly less chewy, and more all-around light and flaky. I am not sure what a French person would say about these particular pastries, but I know what I say about them, and that is “yum.”