Back to school, back to baking. Autumn can’t come soon enough for me. The hundred plus degree temperatures of Northern California summers lose their charm long before the calendar says it’s time for a change. Shorter, cooler days, with a promise of warm beverages always sound inviting. Fall combines the baker’s rebirth of spring with excitement of New Year’s fresh, clean beginnings. It is a gentle gateway to the happy madness of the winter holidays.
I may have only turned the oven on three times this summer and each time begrudgingly which is no way to approach our favorite pastime. To renew our baking excitement and celebratory mood, I’ve rounded up some resources and inspiration.
My first step to ready my pantry for fall baking is by surveying the spice cupboard. I recommend fearlessly tossing any spices which are old. I like to dump them right into the compost bin, adding a lovely, spicy scent to my rotting banana peels. I like to purchase small amounts of the finest quality spices I can find. My baker friend, Marie, and my father both use Penzey's for extremely fresh spices, here: https://www.penzeys.com. I just replenished my mace, apple pie spice blend, and ground ginger with Penzey’s. Another favorite I get at Penzey’s is their freeze-dried shallots. They are amazingly aromatic and very fresh shallot-like. I put a few into all my beef and chicken sautés and stews. I even added a few teaspoons to my savory babka recipe which can be found at the end of this blog. It is fun to read the Penzey’s catalog for the sheer volume of herbs and spices available as well as the featured recipes and homey stories of their beloved employees and customers.
I receive Fancy Flours baker’s catalogs several times a year and each one is a little piece of baker’s heaven in my hands. It’s hard to put into words how wonderful the gals at Fancy Flours in Bozeman, Montana, are at picking out unique, beautiful, fun, and creative supplies for decorating and baking. They combine the best brands of home bakeware, seasonal decorations and edible accents, cake stands, nuts and bolts cake decorating supplies and fantastic gifts for bakers of every persuasion. They are the best source for edible wafer paper for every holiday and occasion. Everyone I’ve spoken with at Fancy Flours has been very helpful. http://www.fancyflours.com
Another catalog I like to pour over is the King Arthur Bakers Catalog: https://www.kingarthurflour.com/shop-home. You may have seen their high-quality flour for sale in markets nationwide. It is made in Vermont and now they have a wonderful store you can visit and baking classes on offer. They sell good quality equipment and baking ingredients as well as their whole line of flours and specialty mixes. I ordered the trio of baking cocoas in anticipation of the chocolatey holidays to come. I splurged on real maple sugar, too, so keep an eye out for a maple recipe in the next few months.
One of my big autumn baking drivers is the seasonal fruit available at our local farm stands, farmer’s markets, and on backyard trees and bushes. As I type this, my father’s quince tree is loaded with fuzzy fruit, ripening from green to yellow, almost ready to turn into beautifully pink jelly or a quince and apple pie. Soon I will visit my old ranch out in the country to pick deep orange persimmons and late harvest blush grapes. Even if I can’t find a kid to take, I’ll make a trip to the pumpkin patch for pretty décor pumpkins and unusual squash. Ever a Watsonville girl, I will go out to Corralitos for the first apples of autumn. We never tire of apple pies, cakes, crisps, cobblers, crumbles, muffins and tarts. The fall harvest of local produce is my never-failing inspiration.
Savory Black Pepper & Morel Babka
For my fall Baker’s New Year celebration, I created this savory babka, filled with asiago cheese, dried morel mushrooms, and freshly ground black pepper. Most babka are filled with sweet chocolate or cinnamon fillings, rolled and swirled through the loaf. This bread is a brioche-style, extra rich dough which pairs well with butternut or late-summer tomato soups and makes heavenly toast. My baking partner, Suzi, suggested any leftover slices would make excellent croutons. Dried mushrooms lend a subtle earthy flavor which compliments the tangy asiago and black pepper. I was lucky to be gifted with a large bag of wild morel mushrooms, gathered and dried by friends in Montana. Any dried mushrooms can be used in this recipe. They can be pricey, so it pays to shop around a bit. Trader Joe’s and World Market both have had dried mushrooms in small packages for reasonable prices. My group of faithful testers gave this bread many thumbs up. I think it will become a much-requested part of your autumn repertoire. My brioche dough is based on Nick Malgieri’s recipe from his excellent How to Bake, 1995.
- 18 (about 30 grams) dried morel mushrooms, divided
- 1 heaping teaspoon (about 2 grams) black peppercorns, coarsely ground
- 1 cup boiling water
- 2 tablespoons Penzey’s freeze-dried shallots or dried onion flakes
- ¾ to 1 cup shredded asiago cheese or parmesan
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ cup milk
- 2 ¼ teaspoons (1 envelope) active dry yeast
- 2 ½ cups unbleached flour, divided plus more for dusting
- ½ cup (1 stick) butter, cut into 6 chunks
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 eggs plus 1 yolk
Special equipment: food processor, spice or coffee grinder, medium bowl, 2-cup glass measuring cup or heatproof bowl, sieve, cutting board, sharp chef’s knife, instant-read thermometer, small wooden spoon, plastic wrap, silicone scraper, large, oiled mixing bowl, light-colored loaf pan, sprayed with baking spray or greased and floured, skewer or cake tester, cooling rack
Makes one loaf
- Make the filling: Break open the dried mushrooms and clean out any dirt or sand trapped inside. Take a third of the mushrooms and grind to a powder in a food processor or spice or coffee grinder. In a medium bowl, combine powdered mushrooms with black pepper. Set aside. In a heatproof bowl or 2-cup glass measuring cup, combine the boiling water and remaining 2/3 of the dried mushrooms. Let rehydrate for 10 minutes then drain well and pat dry with paper towels. Roughly chop. Add to bowl with powdered mushrooms. Stir in shallots, shredded cheese, and olive oil. Set aside.
- Make the dough: microwave milk in 2-cup glass measuring cup or heatproof bowl for 20 seconds or until 95˚ to 105˚F, or about baby-bottle temperature. Stir in yeast and 1 cup of flour. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.
- Into work bowl of food processor, place butter chunks, sugar and salt. Pulse until mixture is soft and smooth, scraping down sides of work bowl as needed. Add the eggs and egg yolks, one at a time, pulsing between additions. Process for about 30 seconds (mixture may not look smooth.) Add remaining flour and yeast mixture to food processor. Pulse until ingredients form a soft, smooth dough, scraping down sides as needed. Process for another 30 seconds. Remove blade and scrape dough into prepared mixing bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes to one hour.
- Pat out dough on floured surface to a rectangle approximately 12” by 10”. Spread filling over dough. Roll up firmly from short side. Pinch seam to seal. With sharp knife, halve roll lengthwise. Carefully twist the two halves together and fit into prepared loaf pan. Loosely lay a piece of plastic wrap over loaf pan and let rise 1 to 1 ¼ hours. Preheat oven to 350˚F about 15 minutes before baking.
- Bake until deep golden color and skewer inserted in center feels firm, about 40 to 45 minutes. Cool on rack for 10 to 15 minutes then turn out of pan to cool completely. The loaf is best the day it is made but keeps, tightly wrapped, at room temperature for a few days. Freezes well. Stale bread makes excellent toast and croutons.