Friday, December 28, 2012

Polish Holiday Sweet Bread

My grandmother was a talented baker. Making treats for everybody, especially for Christmas, Easter and weddings, was her vocation. She made this bread for both Christmas and Easter. She was Polish, so this recipe sort of is too, although I've never found anything quite like it in a book or through any online search. 

A sandwich made with this bread, thick slices of holiday ham and nothing else is one of things I most look forward to eating. Of course, my grandmother didn't really follow a recipe when she made it. Starting with the version lovingly documented by my aunt, I've made the bread successfully in past years. Still, it was finicky stuff and the stress of worrying whether it would turn out made the cooking process overwhelming.

This year, I decided to get rid of the guess work and develop a precise version of the recipe that anybody could follow. Yes, you need some tools and lots of time, but it works! It also tastes just like my grandmother's. The closest thing I can compare it to is babka, but I believe this uses more eggs, and we would never fill it with chocolate. The filling is amazing by the way, but I love the bread plain as well, without the jelly roll-like swirl. As I mentioned, the sweet bread paired with salty smoked ham is out of this world, but I also like it lightly toasted with salted butter for breakfast.

I don't think I've ever made a blog post with so many step-by-step photos, but in this case, I think they are useful. The recipe itself is also long and very precise, but once you do it, it's not a big deal. Enjoy! 

First some essentials: An instant-read thermometer (with my green scale in the background); active dry yeast packets and candied cherries.

Activated yeast should look this foamy; checking the water temp helps. 

 After adding 7 cups of flour. Dough will still be sticky and won't pull away from sides of the bowl.

Transfer the dough to a well-oiled mixing bowl. 

After rising for 3 hours in a dry, chilly kitchen. 

 The filled dough just before rolling it up.

And we're done!

Polish Holiday Sweet Bread
Inserting an instant-read thermometer into the center of the loaves is essential to avoid over or under baking the bread. A kitchen scale lets you quickly and accurately measure the flour, so I highly, highly recommend it. If a scale is unavailable, measure the flour as follows: Fluff up the flour in its container, then lightly spoon into a 1-cup measuring cup, taking care not to shake the cup; level with a knife; repeat, fluffing the flour every time. This method will get you as close as possible to the correct weight of flour. Either way, measure all of the flour into a bowl before you start adding it to the dough.

This bread tends to stick to the pans (sugar will do that) no matter what, so here’s the ultimate fix: Buy some nonstick foil (Reynolds--it’s right by the regular foil; you will love this stuff!) and line the pans with it. Coat with cooking spray (or oil) for extra insurance.

My grandmother used melted Crisco for the filling, however, I can’t see any advantage to doing so. As a compromise, I use half Crisco and half butter. If you don’t have shortening in your pantry, feel free to use all butter. The candied cherries are the kind used in fruitcake and are easy to find around the holidays, or online; do not substitute maraschino or dried. For the very detailed bakers, the flour I prefer for this particular recipe is either Pillsbury or Gold Medal, both unbleached, all-purpose.
Update: I read a trick in this Cookie Madness post about how to prevent fillings from separating from the bread. I will try it by replacing the melted butter/Crisco with 1 egg beaten with 1 tbsp water.

Yield: 2 (9” x 5”) loaves
Total time: All day, or around 8 hours, mostly hands-off


Nonstick foil
Pastry brush
Instant read thermometer


For dough:
3/4 cup milk (2% or whole)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 3 chunks
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 packets (4 1/2 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
5 large eggs, at room temperature
7 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (910 grams)

For filling:
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 tablespoons Crisco
1 cup (loosely packed, approx.) dark brown sugar
3/4 cup (approx.) candied/glazed cherries, quartered or chopped
3/4 cup (approx.) toasted, chopped pecans

For egg wash:
1 large egg
Pinch of salt


1. Heat the milk and butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir frequently (do not boil; adjust heat if necessary) until butter is melted. Add 1 1/2 cups sugar and salt and stir frequently until dissolved. Cool slightly.

2. Fill a glass measuring cup or small bowl with 1/2 cup of hot, but not steaming, water. Use instant-read thermometer to make sure water temperature is 110F to 115F. Add yeast and 1 tsp sugar and stir gently. Set aside until yeast is foamy, about 5 minutes.

3. In the bowl of a stand mixer, thoroughly whisk the eggs. Slowly whisk in 1/2 cup of the cooled milk mixture. Add another 1/2 cup in the same manner, then slowly whisk in the remainder of the milk mixture. Fit the dough hook onto the mixer. With the mixer off, add 2 cups of the flour and the yeast mixture. Mix on low to medium-low speed until just combined, scraping down the bowl as needed. Do this two more times, until you have added 6 cups of the flour. Add 1/2 cup of the remaining flour and mix. Dough should have an elastic, slightly glossy appearance; it should feel moist and sticky to handle, but not wet; it will not pull away completely from the sides of the bowl or form a ball. Add remaining 1/2 cup flour if necessary to achieve this texture.

4. Coat a large mixing bowl with canola cooking spray or brush with a light coat of canola oil. With floured hands, transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and shape into a ball. Place dough in bowl, then flip the dough over so that both sides are coated with oil. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and drape a kitchen towel over it. Let the dough rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, 2 to 3 hours.

5. Line two 9” x 5” baking pans with NONSTICK foil, dull side up, and mist with cooking spray; set aside. Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and knead for about 1 minute. Divide into 2 pieces. Return one piece to the bowl and cover with the towel while you work with the other piece. On a floured surface, roll dough into an approximately 9” x 16” rectangle, with the shorter sides parallel to your body. Use a rolling pin as well as your hands and knuckles, picking up the dough and stretching it gently as needed. It is difficult to roll this dough evenly, and there is plenty of excess, so trim a chunk off of each short end and trim any thick edges and corners to form your rectangle. Ideally, each loaf should weigh about 1 1/2 pounds (24 ounces), so you can easily trim about 6 ounces of dough off of each loaf.

6. Microwave the butter and Crisco together in a small bowl until melted. With a pastry brush, lightly coat the dough with about 1/2 the butter/Crisco, leaving a 1” border on the short side closest to your body. Sprinkle with 1/2 the sugar and rub over the dough to coat evenly. Sprinkle with half the cherries and half the pecans (use more or less filling, depending on how sweet and chunky you want it to be).

7. Have a small bowl of water at hand. Beginning with the short end of the dough furthest away from your body, roll it up like a jelly roll. When you get to the end, dip your fingers in the water and lightly coat the edge of the dough to seal the roll. Transfer to one of the baking pans, seam side down. Repeat with the other piece of dough. Cover both pans with a kitchen towel and let the dough rise until noticeably bulkier and filling out the pans, 2 to 3 hours.

8. Preheat oven to 350F. In a small bowl, whisk the egg and salt. Lightly brush egg wash over the dough with a pastry brush. Bake loaves side by side in the center of the oven for 30 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 325F and continue baking until loaves are deep golden brown and internal temperature reaches 180F to 185F on an instant-read thermometer, 20 to 35 minutes more. If you are using nonstick or dark-colored baking pans, place the pans on a large rimmed baking sheet after the first 30 minutes to avoid over browning the bottoms. Cool on a wire rack for about 20 minutes. Use the foil to lift the bread out of the pans and cool completely. Peel off foil when cool enough to handle. Slice when completely cool, at least 2 hours.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Bourbon Balls

I made bourbon balls for the first time, and they became an instant classic. So delicious, so easy, so boozy. Bourbon balls, or sometimes rum balls, are a Southern thing, but now they're MY thing because I'll be making them every Christmas.

So here's what you do: crush up vanilla wafers and toasted pecans in a food processor, add sugar and cocoa powder, and bind it all together with Karo syrup and bourbon. Then roll in powdered sugar. They're not very sweet, but they sure do taste like alcohol. One last thing: they keep best in the refrigerator, but we like eating them at room temperature because the bourbon-y flavor is all the more intense.

Do you make bourbon balls? What's your recipe? Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Bourbon Balls
Adapted from Joy of Baking.

Makes 36 to 44 depending on size

1 cup (100 grams) toasted pecans
2 cups (220 grams) Nilla wafer cookies
1/2 cup (55 grams) confectioners sugar
2 tablespoons (15 grams) Dutch (or regular) cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt or up to 1/2 teaspoon to taste
1/4 cup bourbon
3 to 4 tablespoons light Karo syrup
Confectioners sugar for coating

In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, finely chop the pecans, scraping down bowl and taking care not to turn them into a paste. Transfer to a large bowl. Add Nilla wafers to processor and finely crush. Add to bowl with pecans. Add 1/2 cup confectioners sugar, cocoa powder and salt to bowl; stir to combine. Add bourbon and 2 tablespoons of the Karo syrup and stir until thoroughly combined.

Transfer mixture to the food processor (no need to clean between uses). Add 1 tablespoon of the Karo syrup and process until ingredients become very finely chopped and mixture becomes a soft, sticky mass (the mixture will not form a ball) that you can easily roll into balls between your palms without crumbling. Add the extra tablespoon of Karo syrup as needed.

Shape mixture into slightly smaller than 1" balls and roll in confectioners sugar to coat thoroughly. Store in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to two weeks. Serve at room temperature.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Slow Cooker Beef Brisket with Beer Barbecue Sauce (and Oven version)

Updated December 17, 2012! I just made this old favorite in the slow cooker and loved it, so I thought I should bump the recipe up on the blog. Below you can read my old post from 2011, or scroll down for my new preferred method, as well as the oven version.

This was my first brisket ever, and I loved it. I had always thought of this cut as a flabby, frumpy roast, but it's far from it. For starters, this is the meat that's most often the choice for Texas barbecue. It's popular with slow cooker fans too, but I wanted a simple, oven-braised dish. What I found was that this cut of meat is highly forgiving, very lean, and perfect for low and slow roasting.

There are many, many recipes for braised brisket. It seems that everyone has their own favorite touch or recipe that they consider the best. I was focused on making the meat tender and moist with a savory, slightly tangy red sauce. I equated brisket to pork butt (scroll down for recipe), which is amazing after several hours in the oven wrapped in a tight foil packet. Both are tough cuts of meat that need slow, moist cooking to become tender.

After reading a ton of recipes, I went with what was probably the simplest one: you smother the roast with onions and celery and braise it in beer and Heinz chili sauce. It is so easy. The recipe comes from fiction writer Stacey Ballis, who I interviewed a while back about her latest book, Good Enough to Eat. The book includes this recipe, as well as the one for her excellent banana-chocolate chip muffins.

I also discovered an essential (in my mind) key to the brisket-making process, which Stacey and many other recipe writers (including the people at Cook's Illustrated) agree with: Cook the brisket a day ahead. Since the cooking process is so easy and requires minimal hands-on time, this is very do able. Refrigerating the brisket in its roasting pan overnight allows it to keep absorbing flavor from the cooking liquid, AND it allows the fat to harden, so you can easily skim it off. You want to remove all that fat because you're going to turn those juices into a wonderful sauce (don't worry, it's simple). Furthermore, it's very easy to trim the fat from a chilled brisket, and you'll be able to slice it without the meat falling apart, like it would when hot. Finally, you'll also get the opportunity to smother the sliced meat in your wonderful sauce and reheat it in the oven, so that every bit of meat is covered in goodness.

It's a great thing to cook, and I love that the recipe isn't complicated in the least. So, how do YOU cook your brisket? I'd love to hear about it in the comments.

Slow Cooker Brisket with Beer Barbecue Sauce
Very Loosely adapted from Good Enough to Eat by Stacey Ballis

Look for “flat cut” or “first cut” brisket; it’s the leanest part of the brisket, and seems to be what is predominantly sold at markets. I like a mild-tasting lager for this recipe (I used PBR). If you only have 12 oz. beers that’s fine; just use an extra 1/2 cup of water.

Serves 6 to 8


4 1/2 pounds (approximate) beef brisket, trimmed of as much visible fat as you want
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cayenne pepper to taste or chili powder
Dried oregano
1 to 2 tablespoons canola oil
12 ounces bottle Heinz chili sauce
4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed with the side of a knife
16 ounces lager beer
2 medium onions, sliced thick
4 celery ribs, peeled and chopped


1. Cut the brisket into 3 pieces, cutting against the grain. Rub the meat all over with salt, pepper, cayenne  or chili power and oregano. Don’t over do it with the salt, as the chili sauce will bring some salt to the mix.

2. Heat half the oil in a Dutch oven or large, heavy skillet on medium-high heat. Add one or two pieces of the brisket, whatever can comfortably fit without crowding, and sear until both sides are browned. Transfer to slow cooker and repeat with remaining brisket, adding more oil as necessary (meat does not need to sit in slow cooker in a single layer). Add beer to Dutch oven and bring to a simmer, scraping up any browned bits from the pot. Add to slow cooker.

3. Add chili sauce and garlic to slow cooker. Fill the jar of chili sauce about halfway with hot tap water, close the bottle and shake vigorously to loosen remaining sauce; add to slow cooker (liquid may not completely cover the meat, but it should cover the highest piece about two-thirds of the way; if not, add more water). Place onions and celery over the meat. Cook on HIGH for 4 hours, or until meat is slightly tender when pierced with a fork, but not falling apart. After 2 hours, reverse positions of the pieces of brisket, so that any piece on top is now on the bottom.

4. Transfer meat to a cutting board and cool. Slice against the grain and transfer to a 2 1/2 to 3-quart baking dish. With a slotting spoon, scoop out about half the onions and spread over the meat. Pour the cooking liquid through a strainer into a large bowl, reserving solids. If making at least 6 hours ahead of time, cover loosely and refrigerate until fat separates and forms a solid layer. Skim it off with a large spoon. If you don’t have time to wait, use a fat separator or place the bowl in a bigger bowl or roasting pan filled with ice water. Stir occasionally until very cold, then place bowl into freezer until fat solidifies.

5. Transfer cooking liquid to a medium saucepan and add reserved solids (onions, garlic and celery). Puree with an immersion blender or in a regular blender. Bring to a simmer and cook until thickened to desired consistency (I aim for a thick gravy). Pour as much as you want over the meat and onions in the baking dish and reserve the leftovers for serving or another use. May be done up to this point one day ahead.

5. To reheat and serve: Preheat oven to 250 F if meat and sauce are at room temperature or hot. If meat and sauce are cold, preheat oven to 300 F. Cover baking dish with foil and bake until heated through, 30 to 45 minutes. Serve right away or lower oven temperature to 200 F for up to 30 minutes.

Oven-Baked Beef Brisket
Adapted from Good Enough to Eat by Stacey Ballis, and buoyed by lots of recipe research.

Requires overnight refrigeration; Serves 8 to 10

This recipe calls for what is technically a half brisket. It should weigh in between 4 and 5 pounds (mine was 4.25). If you only have 12 oz. bottles of beer, that's fine; I had pint cans in the fridge, so that's what I used. Heinz brand chili sauce isn't required, but I figure it's the classic choice. I served this with braised greens and caramelized onions and whole wheat beer bread (recipe coming soon!).

4 1/2 lb. beef brisket, untrimmed
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cayenne pepper
Dried oregano
4 cloves garlic, smashed with the side of a knife
2 onions, sliced
4 celery ribs, chopped
12 oz. bottle Heinz chili sauce
16 oz. beer (lager is a good choice; nothing too bitter)
1 to 2 Tbs. apple cider vinegar

Day One: Preheat oven to 350 F. To a large roasting pan, add enough water to equal a depth just under half an inch. Rub brisket with salt, pepper, cayenne and oregano according to your taste. Although this thick piece of meat requires a good salting, don't go crazy, as the chili sauce will contribute a lot of salt to the dish. Rub some of the smashed garlic over brisket, place in roasting pan fat side up, and tuck garlic cloves around and under the meat. Cover brisket with sliced onions and celery and pour chili sauce on top. Bake, uncovered in the center of the oven for 90 minutes.

Reduce oven temp to 300 F. Take roasting pan out of oven, and add the beer and 1 Tbs of the vinegar. Cover the roasting pan tightly with foil. Return to oven and cook until the meat is very tender, 3 to 4 hours (mine was done in 3.5 hours). Brisket is done when you can stick a fork in the center and pull it back out feeling no (or very little) resistance. Cool partially covered at room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight.

Day Two: Preheat oven to 300 F. Lift brisket out of pan and place on cutting board. Skim the hardened fat off the top of the cooking liquid in the pan. Pick all the veggies off the top of the brisket and add to pan. Transfer the contents of the pan (all the cooking liquid and vegetables) to a medium saucepan and place over medium heat. Heat the sauce, stirring often, until it loosens up and is warmed through (do not boil). Remove from heat and puree with an immersion blender or in batches in a regular blender. At this point, you may want to add 1/4 cup to 1 cup water to thin the sauce to your desired consistency and ease blending. Taste and add additional vinegar if desired.

Trim all visible fat from the brisket and slice against the grain. Transfer meat to 9 x 13-inch (or similar) baking dish. Pour sauce over meat. Cover with foil and bake until meat is heated through, 30 to 45 minutes. Serve immediately.