Walnut Rolls

I’ve been spoiled…by my bread machine. Freshly baked bread – cinnamon raisin swirl, cheddar onion, honey herb, pizza dough and even focaccia – all without getting my hands doughy. It’s easy and without the fuss and mess. But yes, if you want to get into the details of it all, there are slight textural changes to the bread depending on how it’s kneaded. The science of it, gluten develops no matter how you knead the dough. But machine-kneading is rougher than hand-kneading. So glutens strands get linked together only to be torn apart. This leads to a slightly denser bread; when you slice the loaf, the holes are smaller and compact. Hand kneading is a gentler process where gluten once formed stays together. This leads to a chewier texture and larger holes. Both methods are fine; and of course there are ways of making bread machine bread less dense (type of flour used, flat beer instead of water, etc.).

But for these rolls, I went back to the roots and made them by hand. I wanted to make them right, especially since they’ve been requested for a long time. I’ve just been (lazily) putting it off. This recipe calls for walnut oil, which probably won’t be found in your basic corner store. I bought mine (Roland brand Walnut Oil, 8.5oz for $6) from New Kam Man in Chinatown. You can also get it on Amazon and (I assume) Whole Foods. Just remember to refrigerate it after opening so the flavor lasts.

These walnut rolls are very soft, chewy and impart a deliciously nutty flavor, which is perfect for Fall. The addition of cracked black pepper adds a hint of spice and zing. As with all hand-made bread, it takes patience and time since you need to wait for the dough to rise, a few times actually. But if you have a free afternoon, give these a shot.

Directions

-To make the Sponge-

  1. In a large bowl, mix together the water, yeast and sugar.
  2. Let stand until it looks creamy and the yeast is activated, about 3 minutes.
  3. Stir in flour, cover loosely with plastic wrap and let stand in a warm place for about 1 hour.

-To make the Rolls-

  1. Stir in the walnuts, water, yeast, salt, honey, walnut oil and black pepper into the sponge.
  2. Add in the flour and stir with a wooden spoon.
  3. If needed, add in up to 1/2 cup more flour to make a slightly sticky dough.
  4. On a lightly floured surface, knead the dough until smooth and elastic. Add in additional flour only if dough is sticky.
  5. Place the dough back into the bowl and cover with pastic wrap.
  6. Let rise in a warm place until it doubles in bulk, about 1 to 2 hours.
  7. Deflate the dough and cut it in half so it is more manageable.
  8. For each half, roll the dough to 1/4 inch thick, using as little additional flour as necessary to keep the dough from sticking to the work surface or rolling pin.
  9. Cut the dough into 12 pieces and shape each one into a ball.
  10. Place the balls onto a foil or parchment lined baking sheet.
  11. Cover with an oiled plastic wrap and let rise for at least 30 minutes.
  12. Preheat the oven to 450F.
  13. Use a sharp knife for scissors and cut a 2 inch long slash into the top of each roll.
  14. Place the rolls in the oven and toss 6 ice cubes onto the oven floor and quickly close the door.
  15. Bake for 10 minutes or until nicely browned.

Cook’s Notes

Microwaving the water for about 40 seconds will get it lukewarm.

The dough will initially turn out quite sticky; it did when I made it. I added in about 1/2 cup extra flour, a little bit at a time. When kneading the dough, it’s fine if it is a little bit sticky, just as long as it is not overwhelmingly sticking to your fingers. The dough will smooth out as it rises. You don’t want to add too much additional flour; otherwise the rolls will become tough and not soft.

I like to keep our apartment pretty cool, which means it’s hard to find a warm place to let the sponge and dough rise. I preheat the oven for about 20 seconds, turn it off and then place the bowl in there to let the contents rise.

To reheat these rolls, cover with a slightly damp towel and microwave for about 10-20 seconds depending on how many you’re heating.

Braised Chicken with Butternut Squash and Cranberries with Couscous

The days are getting cooler and closer to my favorite temperature for running outside. I can almost feel Fall slowly bleeding into the trees in Central Park and gradually turning their leaves red and orange. Early Fall is definitely one of my favorite seasons. It’s perfect for outdoor adventures…and breaking out the equestrian boots. Food wise, early Fall is the great in-between where there are still remnants of light, late Summer produce but the slower-cooking, heartier dishes are making their way onto the stovetop.

At the farmer’s market in Union Square, we’re seeing the first signs of Fall: pears, broccoli, brussel sprouts, apples and squashes like butternut and acorn were all spotted last week. Sometimes I feel Summer is too fast-paced – we’re always on the go, traveling, and soaking in the sun. But as the days get shorter, we slow down and prepare for winter. We dust off the slow cooker and Dutch oven. Braising is the method of cooking that is synonymous with Fall. And it’s exactly what I did here. The sweet and savory flavor of the sage infused with the chicken while the flour thickened the broth that boiled down and became a sweet and nutty sauce from the butternut squash and cranberries. Even the colors of the dish look like Fall. This is definitely starting the season right.

Directions

  1.  In a Dutch oven or heavy pot, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over high heat.
  2. Rinse and pat dry the chicken thighs. Season both sides with salt and pepper.
  3. Cook chicken thighs, skin side down, until skin is golden and crisp, about 5 minutes.
  4. Remove from pot and transfer to a plate.
  5. Pour off some fat from the pot but leaving about 1 -2 tablespoons in it.
  6. Add to the pot the butternut squash and onion.
  7. Cook until they start to become soft, about 5 minutes.
  8. Add sage, flour, coriander and nutmeg. Cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes.
  9. Add in broth and stir to pick up the browned bits at the bottom of the pot, about 1 minute.
  10. Nestle chicken, skin side up, in the pot and sprinkle in the cranberries.
  11. Bring the liquid to a boil and then reduce heat so that it becomes a simmer.
  12. Partially cover and simmer chicken until cooked through and squash is tender, about 25 minutes.
  13. Serve with couscous cooked according to package instructions.

Italian Ciabatta Sandwiches

Last weekend boasted perfect picnic weather. 75F and not humid. I think if you live in New York in the late Spring, you feel almost obligated to picnic at least once. So take a Claritin (like I did), pack some food and drink, and stake out a nice green patch. Few things make me feel more “New York” than picnicking on the Great Lawn in Central Park surrounded by the skyline of midtown Manhattan. And I think a sandwich is quintessential picnic fare.

 My picnic sandwich preferences deconstructed:

Bread: Crusty exterior, soft and chewy interior. My preference is for rolls but toasted sliced bread is fine too. The crusty exterior of these breads make for sturdier transport and also holds up well if the sandwich is not eaten right away. It also soaks up dressings without making the bread soggy. There is also a nice textural contrast with the crunch of the crust. Wraps are okay only if the filling is not soggy so it won’t soak through. My favorite picnic breads are french baguettes and ciabatta rolls.

Main filling: Almost everything is fair game, maybe except for tuna. My go-to is cured meats; although they can make the sandwich a bit salty. Cold cuts are great too. Fried fish (I’m thinking Po’ Boy) is good if it’s freshly made and eaten right away. I tend to stay away from tuna since it doesn’t keep well in the sun’s heat. Great vegetarian options include hummus, veggies, and watercress.

Supplementary filling: I love fresh basil, especially in Italian sandwiches. Marinated artichoke is a good option as well. Most supplemental fillings are fine as long as they don’t produce too much liquid and make the sandwich soggy. I pull out the seeds when using sliced tomatoes.

Cheese: Optional but perfectly fine in picnic sandwiches. However, if you’re not eating the sandwiches relatively soon and if they’re not stored in a cooler, the cheese will soften a bit. I usually go with fresh mozzarella.

Dressing: A great boost of flavor for any sandwich! Basil pesto is a safe choice. It also takes very green and vegetal – perfect for a picnic! Lemon aioli is also a good choice, especially on toasted sliced bread with watercress and hard boiled eggs. And you also have your traditional mustard.

There are no measurements and directions for the ingredients in the sandwich recipe since it’s totally up to you how much meat, cheese, pesto you want. For cured meats, I only use one layer of each meat since the flavors are concentrated and it gets salty quickly.