Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Forget the Candy! Make a Traditional Irish Brambrack!

With Halloween approaching, U.S. adults are filling up on ginormous bags of candy to give out to trick or treaters. If we're having a party, there may be candied apples or popcorn balls to eat. But if you're in Ireland, what you're probably enjoying is brambrack.

Why should we care about Ireland? Well, that nation, with its Celtic history, gave us what is now Halloween. It began centuries ago with Samhain, an end-of-harvest festival celebrated on October 31 with bonfires meant to burn out old spirits. People would wear ugly masks to confuse spirits and make noise to frighten them away from their homes. They might also leave food out to appease them.

Eventually, as Christianity spread through Europe, during the eighth century the Catholic Church designated the first day of November as All Saints Day (All Hallows) to commemorate those saints who did not have a specific day of remembrance. The night before was known as All Hallows Eve. And that, over time, became known as Halloween. 

Maeve Rochford of Sugar and Scribe invited me over to learn how to make one of the most cherished of Irish Halloween traditions, brambrack, a dense bread/cake filled with dried fruit soaked in whiskey. In fact, "bram" comes from the old English word "beorma," or fermented. Brack comes from "brac," or speckled (from the colors of the fruit).

Maeve recently visited O'Hara's Bread Bakery in Sligo on the west coast of Ireland. She told me that the bakery makes 2,400 loaves an hour for weeks in anticipation of Halloween. Traditionally, the breads would include little tokens that foretold the future for the person eating it--coins for good fortune, toy rings for marriage, and even death tokens. 

While brambrack is a yeast bread, many, including Maeve's Aunt Margaret, make it without yeast (with eight children, she didn't have time for rising). So that's what Maeve made me. She used baking soda instead and the extra benefit is that you get a stronger crust. This bread is also made with cold black tea.

Now, ideally, you'll bake these bread/cakes in 7-inch cast-iron pans. But you can also make one large one in a Dutch oven. It just may take longer to cook.

While she was making the bread, Maeve also showed me some cool baking tips. First, she likes to refrigerate lemons she's going to zest. That, she said, helps separate the peel from the pith. When mixing the dry ingredients, she uses a spatula and with it folds the ingredients together so that more air gets into the mixture. She keeps an extra bowl of flour around that she dips her blending hand in both to keep the wet mixture from sticking to her hands and to better collect the excess so that there's no waste when she turns the dough into the baking pans.

Once the dough was divided into the pans, Maeve showed me two options for the top of the loaf. One was to just leave it alone (photo above) for a more rustic look. The other was to lightly spread hot water on the top with her fingers for a smooth look (photo below). She also said you could do an egg wash on the top. Just know that with either water or an egg wash, the rise won't be quite as high because of the weight of the liquid.

When the loaves are done, look for a horizontal crack in each. Surprise, that's actually a good thing.

You also don't need to wait for the loaves to cool. When you remove them from the oven, carefully flip the pans to release the brambrack, slice and serve with really good butter and jam. And a cup of Irish tea. That's what I had and, oh, I could have eaten the whole loaf. The bread is dense but not fruit cake dense. Just nice and solid with punches of sweetness from the fruit. Slathered with soft butter and jam, it was the perfect cool weather treat with a cup of Irish breakfast tea.

Tea Brambrack
from Maeve Rochford of Sugar and Scribe
Makes 2, 7-inch loaves or 1 large loaf


2 cups whiskey
2 cups dried fruit (raisins, apricots, figs, cherries)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup self-rising flour
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Zest of half a lemon (refrigerate the lemon the day before to improve zest)
1 1/2 cups cold black tea
1/4 cup melted salted butter, plus another 1/4 cup more to butter the cast iron pans
1/4 cup milk
Extra all-purpose flour 


Mix together the whiskey and dried fruit and let the fruit soak in the whiskey for two days before making the loaves.

To make the loaves, preheat conventional oven to 350°. Put extra all-purpose flour in a bowl just large enough for you to dip a hand in. Coat the cast iron pan/s with butter. Set aside.

In a large bowl, fold together all dry ingredients using a spatula. Smash any lumps of brown sugar. Mix well. Add the lemon zest. Add the tea and melted butter. Mix ingredients.

About three-quarters of the way done mixing, add the milk and stir it in.

Drain the whiskey from the fruit and add the fruit to the mixture.

Put away the spatula and dip your hand into the extra flour. Then use that hand to fold in the fruit and finish blending the dough, turning it into a ball. It will be wet, which is what you want.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes. If you're making a large brambrack, it could take up to an hour. Test the loaf at 45 minutes. When baked, remove from oven, flip the pans to release the breads, slice, and serve.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Buttermilk Brined Chicken

Those of you who know me know that I've come to love making my own butter, especially cultured butter. But what to do with the residual buttermilk?

Sure, you can incorporate buttermilk into sweet breads, pies, and cakes, make pancakes with it, dunk chicken into it to make fried chicken. In fact, there are endless things you can do with buttermilk. But with only one cup at a time... well, I thought about it and decided that with the amount of chicken I make for myself for a couple of meals I could use it for brining.

Now I actually don't usually brine chicken--or turkey for that matter. I guess I'm a lazy cook. But the thought of the chicken thighs and wings bathing for 24 hours in that buttermilk, augmented with some salt and pepper, some garlic, and my favorite smoky Aleppo pepper was irresistible.

It's easy enough to pull all these ingredients together and pour them over the chicken. I started out with them in a casserole dish but realized that a gallon zip-lock bag would be much better for full immersion. In the course of the day, I periodically reached into the fridge and flipped the bag around to make sure the pieces were equally saturated.

Once I was ready to cook them, I heated the oven to 400° and drained the brine, and placed the chicken pieces on a rack over a foil-covered tray. I roasted them for close to an hour, ultimately slicking down the chicken  with honey for the last 10 minutes before removing the tray from the oven.

What the buttermilk brine did was sublime. The chicken was beautifully tender. The flavors were subtle--a hint of the garlic and Aleppo pepper remained--and the skin crispy and sweet from the honey.

I'd love to hear how you use buttermilk! Leave me your ideas in the comments below!

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Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Braised Chicken for Fall

Have you ever worried you've lost your cooking mojo? See that raised hand? That would be mine. After a summer in which I spent very little time in the kitchen--a combination of off-putting hot weather and, well, no time or energy because of family health issues--I've felt off my game.

But this week, with cooler weather for at least a couple of days, I finally felt excited again about being in my kitchen. Finally motivated to pick up a knife, turn on the oven, and make myself a real dinner. But I started with the familiar--braised chicken thighs. This dish is one of my favorite comfort food go-to's at home as the weather cools. The chicken is transformed into melt-in-your-mouth bites by braising in vegetables that release their juices, along with the fragrant herbs and smokiness from the dry Marsala I usually add. The added bonus is the sweet aroma the kitchen takes on when it's cooking. It just makes me feel good to be home.

I make this dish many ways, depending on what I'm craving and what ingredients I have. Braised chicken is so easy and so versatile you almost don't need a recipe. What you do need is the chicken, of course, some vegetables, herbs, spices, and white wine. I veer from tomatoes, red peppers, garlic, onions, and leeks to marinated artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, capers, and fennel. Love carrots and celery? Add them. Winter squash? Eggplant? Go for it. Sometimes I'll bread the chicken, otherwise I'll just sprinkle the pieces with salt and black pepper. I like to include dried herbs like oregano, marjoram, and thyme. If I want heat, I'll add diced chiles or crushed red pepper flakes. Most often I turn to Marsala or sherry, but if I have an open bottle of Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay, in that will go. I usually make this just for myself. Two pieces turns into two meals for me. But I've made it for six people with a dozen pieces and just added more ingredients to a larger pot. No problem. You may just need to brown the chicken in batches and cook the dish longer.

Braised chicken for one or two takes about an hour in a 375° oven. You can use a clay pot (don't preheat in that case so the pot won't crack from the shock of the heat) or a heavy metal pot, like a Le Creuset Dutch oven. Whatever you use needs to be oven ready in terms of the handles and lid top for metal pots and pots that can absorb higher heat for clay.

Prep your veggies. Then add some olive oil to the pot on the stove and add your seasoned chicken, skin side down, with enough space between them so they don't steam. Let the skin brown--don't pull the chicken from the bottom of the pot. Wait to turn the pieces until they lift easily.

Then, once the chicken is skin side up, start layering half the vegetables. Once you have one layer in, add half the seasonings. Add the rest of the vegetables, the rest of the seasonings, and your wine. If you don't drink wine, you can add a little apple juice or chicken broth.

Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and place it in the oven to cook for an hour. Serve it over grains--I made farro for it this week--so you have something to absorb the sweet and salty juices. Make enough for a second meal. It tastes even better the next night!

Braised Chicken with Mediterranean Flavors
Serves 1 or 2
(printable recipe)

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 chicken thighs
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 onion thinly sliced
3 to 4 large cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced
1 dozen or more pitted Kalamata olives
1 dozen quartered marinated artichoke hearts
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme
crushed red pepper flakes
3 ounces Marsala

Place a rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat to 375°.

Heat olive oil in a heavy, oven-ready pot that has a lid.

Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Place the chicken pieces skin side down in the pot. Let brown. Turn only once the chicken easily lifts from the bottom of the pot.

Layer half the onion, garlic, olives, and artichoke hearts over the chicken. Sprinkle with half the herbs and sprinkle in some crushed red pepper flakes. Add a pinch of salt and pepper. Layer in the rest of the onion, garlic, olives, and artichoke hearts. Add the rest of the herbs, more crushed red pepper flakes if you like, and salt and pepper. Drizzle the Marsala over the mixture.

Put the cover on the pot and place in the oven. Cook for about an hour.

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