Saturday, December 15, 2007

Split Decision

I woke up late this morning, feeling a little complacent. Christmas may be fast approaching, but my list of baking tasks has dwindled rapidly of late thanks to division and distribution of those holiday goodies already baked.

I started off the day's baking by trying a new recipe for a Hungarian Christmas bread. I had my misgivings about it since I'm not a huge fan of poppy seed filling (and there's a lot of poppy seed filling in Hungarian pastries, if I go by what I see at the local pastry shop), but I thought I should still give it a try.

Unfortunately, this recipe seemed determined not to cooperate with me. I confess that I did change a few things -- using milk instead of water and dry milk, melting the butter in the heated milk, using a cup of spelt flour and cutting back on the regular flour -- but the dough turned out surprisingly dry and resistant to kneading. I know that Hungarian pastries, at least as the Pastry Lady makes them, tend to be less moist and sweet, but are they always this difficult to handle?

Anyway, once I gave up on kneading the dough, I turned my attention to cooking the ground poppy seeds with sugar, milk, raisins, and a splash of lemon juice, stirring constantly until it all thickened. After that, I ran off to the Inn for my last-minute marching orders from the Innkeeper (since I'm filling in for her over the holidays).

By the time I returned home two hours later, the dough had risen only a tiny bit, but I decided to forge ahead. After rolling out the dough, I spread the sticky poppy seed and raisin filling over it and rolled it up.

I tucked in the ends, brushed the loaf with a beaten egg, and slid it into the oven, thinking that I had managed to salvage the recipe after all. Weeeeellll......

Hmm. I was definitely not expecting the loaf to split down the top! It has a certain attraction, but it's really not the way the loaf should look. Still, the first slice proved that the taste was pretty good, even if it wouldn't win a bread-baking beauty contest.

In the meantime, I put my new mixer to work again, churning out dough for the second batch of biscotti for the season. Instead of making my usual cranberry-orange biscotti, I decided to adapt the recipe to use my oven-dried cherries and a sprinkling of bittersweet chocolate chips.

Again, all went well until I pulled the pan out of the oven and discovered that the loaves hadn't baked all the way through. So, after much finagling with the baking times, I ended up with toasty brown (but fully cooked) and crisp biscotti that still served up a delicious combination of rich cherry flavor and deep dark chocolate.

All throughout the baking time, I caught up with various friends and family members on the phone, working out the last details of upcoming holiday visits. As I digested the information they gave -- and watched the slowly but steadily drifting snow flurries that heralded the start of a storm -- I made a decision. As of today, I'm done baking for the holidays aside from three exceptions: one last pan of baklava (to be made Tuesday with the assistance of the faithful Persephone and She Who Will Not Be Labeled), the annual cookie baking with My Adorable Nephews, and the remaining holiday yeast breads.

Really, it's not a difficult decision to make. I've given most of my Christmas baked gifts by now. I still can't eat many of them myself thanks to the lingering effects on my appetite from my recent infection. And as I watched the snow cover everything in sight this afternoon, I thought how lovely it was to have that reminder of what's important and what isn't. (Hiking out in the cold snow for an orange just to make another batch of cookies isn't that important.)

A minor weight lifted off my shoulders with that decision, and now I can focus my baking over the next couple of weeks on the breads I want to give to my family and to serve at the Inn while I'm working.

And I think I might just sleep in tomorrow, too, before starting anything new.


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