Something odd happened Friday night.
I found myself, at about 9:00, alone in a quiet kitchen. My daughter was at a sleepover and my husband was working late. My 14-year-old son, who had deigned to stick around for our take-out Chinese dinner and a DVR’d episode of The Office, had retreated to his
cave room. The tennis match I had been half-paying attention to, a 2007 clay court square-off between Svetlana Kuznetsova and Anna Ivanovic (yes, I am that addicted to tennis) had ended.
I clicked off the TV and there it was. Silence.
A lovely gift to start the weekend after a busy week. A moment to reflect.
And it was a gift, for a little while. Until it became a burden. Until I started to “reflect” on all the things I meant to accomplish this week but didn’t, on looming deadlines, and queries I meant to send out; on the argument I had over the phone with my mother; on my aging parents in general; on the basket of laundry to my left that needed folding; on all the yard work I’d tried so hard not to see whenever I left the house…
You see how things were threatening to spiral out of control. There was only one thing to do.
Bake. Yes, you read that right. Argument aside (she started it!), I really am my mother’s daughter. Which is to say, I am not good at sitting around for any length of time without feeling completely guilty and worthless and like I should be doing something. And yet, there was no way I was going to turn my Friday evening into an extended workday.
So I baked. It is my way of doing something and relaxing. It always has been. Baking is methodical; it involves soothing, repetitive movements like stirring and rolling and kneading. It is satisfyingly hands-on, and something that looks and smells wonderful usually comes of it. My eye fell upon this book by Kim Boyce (written with Amy Scattergood): Good to the Grain. I had asked for it for Christmas after reading this post about it. And Santa, clearly knowing what is good for him, had kindly obliged and left it under the tree. I haven’t stopped baking from it since.
I am neither a trend setter nor a trend follower. Whole grains may be in, but I don’t really care. I happen to like whole grains and I’ve been cooking with some of them since I started buying them as a kid at Whole Earth Center in Princeton, N.J. in the 1970s. But I don’t go out of my way to shoehorn them into recipes in which they don’t belong. And that is why I am so fond of this book, in which a different grain, from amaranth to teff, is explored in each chapter. Not one of the recipes seems forced. Boyce took great care to get to know the virtues of each grain and to create recipes that showcase their unique qualities.
I made the maple danish on page 158. Actually, I started the recipe, but since it calls for overnight chilling of the dough, I had to finish it in the morning. In the mean time, though, the niggling thoughts, the ones that had been threatening to ruin my peaceful evening, had been chased away as I measured and sifted and mixed and considered the recipe.
What intrigued me about it was the use of rye flour. I suspected my kids, who dislike rye bread, might find the rolls too aggressive in flavor. Wrong. There was just enough rye flour to give the dough character without overwhelming it. I also thought the rolls might be on the heavy side, again because of the rye flour. Again, wrong. Boyce’s technique of grating frozen butter into the flour, and then rolling and folding the dough croissant-style, meant that the baked rolls, a gorgeous burnished golden-brown spirals, were flaky, tender, and light.
You don’t have to take my word for it, though; just look at the pictures, taken by me with my point-and-shoot. My pictures do not lie because I am not nearly a good enough photographer to make them be anything but what they are. So what you see is what we ate (most enthusiastically, I might add). The recipe notes that these danish are best eaten the same day they are made, “ideally within the hour.” This is true, but we had some left over, so I heated them in the oven the next day. Even rewarmed, they were really, really good.
From Good to the Grain, by Kim Boyce with Amy Scattergood (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2010)
Headnote from the book: This recipe is all about technique. This doesn’t mean that it is particularly difficult, merely that it has specific directions you’ll want to follow closely. As in many pastry recipes, the condition and treatment of the butter is crucial. Here the butter is frozen before being grated, as it keeps the shreds of butter separate and prevents them from melting into the flour before the dough is baked. (Don’t try this recipe on a very hot day.) When you stir the yeast mixture into the flour, be careful to do it briefly, barely combining the ingredients. When you master these techniques, the Danish will come out wonderfully flaky.
My notes: I made only two small changes to the original recipe, which called for buttering the rolled-out dough and sprinkling it with maple sugar and brown sugar. I had no maple sugar, but I did have a packet of something called coconut sugar, which I had bought at one of those spice shops that seem to be everywhere nowadays. I used that in place of the maple sugar. But I still wanted that maple flavor, so I melted some butter with maple syrup and brushed this on top of the rolls, once right before they went into the oven and once during baking. Nobody complained.
Butter for the baking sheets
1 cup rye flour
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, frozen
1 package plus 1 teaspoon active dry yeast (3 1/2 teaspoons total)
3/4 cup whole milk, warmed to about 100 degrees F
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1/4 cup maple sugar
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1. Sift the dry ingredients into a large bowl, pouring back into the bowl any bits of grain or other ingredients that may remain in the sifter. Using the large holes on a box grater, quickly grate the frozen butter into the dry mixture—this will ensure that the butter stays cold. With you hands, very briefly stir the strands of butter into the mix and then chill while you continue with the recipe.
2. Measure the yeast and warm milk into a small bowl. Stir and allow the yeast to bloom for about 5 minutes, or until the yeast begins to bubble. (If it doesn’t it may be inactive; throw it out and start over with a new package.) Add the egg and whisk thoroughly. Scrape the yeast mixture into the refrigerated dry mixture and stir to moisten the flour. There will be some drier bits of dough; that’s fine. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and chill overnight.
3. The next day, take the dough out of the refrigerator and scrape it onto a well-floured surface. It will be quite rough, but don’t worry; it will come together as you work with it.
4. Flour the top of the dough and use your hands to shape the dough into a rough square, pressing the loose bits together as you go. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough into a rectangle about 9 inches by 15 inches, keeping the longer side parallel to your body.
5. For the first turn, fold the rectangle of dough into thirds like a letter. Then turn the dough to the right once, so that the long edge of the dough is parallel to your body and the seam is at the top. As the dough is still quite rough, a metal bench scraper will help you lift the dough to make these folds.
6. Flour the surface and the dough and repeat the step above two more times, for a total of three turns. As you do the turns, the dough will become more cohesive and streaks of butter will begin to show throughout. The dough will also soften as the butter begins to warm and the yeast begins to react.
7. To shape the dough, cut it in half with a knife or a bench scraper. Roll each piece of dough into a 12-by-8-inch rectangle, keeping the shorter side parallel to your body. Rub the softened butter over the rectangles, dividing it equally between the two. Sprinkle the sugars evenly over the butter.
8. Roll up the dough, one rectangle at a time, starting a the shorter edge closer to you and keeping a tight spiral as you roll. Slice each log into 6 even slices and lay them on 2 buttered baking sheets, spiral side up, 6 to a sheet.
9. To proof, cover each baking sheet with a towel or plastic wrap and allow to rest in a warm area for 2 hours. While the dough is proofing, preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. After 2 hours, the spirals will be slightly swollen but will not have doubled in size.
10. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through. The pastries are ready to come out of the oven when the sugars are caramelized and the tops of the danish are golden-brown. These pastries are best eaten the day they’re made, ideally within the hour.