Sunday, December 29, 2013

Salty, Carby Goodness: Pretzel Rolls

Browsing through my "dough" board on Pinterest looking for my next baking challenge, my eyes rested upon one from une bonne vie: Pretzel Rolls. Warm pretzels are pure ecstasy to a salt and carb lover like me, so I decided to make this my next baking adventure.

I had an ulterior motive for making pretzel rolls aside from my rabid drooling. Right now there are only two places in town I know of where you can buy pretzel rolls: The Fresh Market and Schnucks grocery. After hearing some friends wail on Facebook about having to wait for their next trip to Cincinnati to stock up on some decent pretzel rolls, I figured I should try making them and see if I can't become their favorite in-town supplier. So I got to work on these right after I finished all my Christmas cookie baking.

Here is the recipe direct from Une Bonne Vie:
Pretzel Rolls
The Dough
6 - 7 1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour 
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons canola oil
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 1/2 cups milk, slightly warmed
1 cup water, slightly warmed

Coarse sea salt for sprinkling

The "Bath"
7 cups water
1 tablespoon salt
4 tablespoons baking soda

In a small container, mix yeast with warmed milk and let rest for 10 minutes. Whisk 5 3/4 cups of flour and teaspoon of salt in a large bowl. 

Add canola oil and warmed water to yeast mixture. Pour into bowl with flour and salt. Knead in the bowl until dough is mostly smooth. Only add more flour if your dough cannot be easily handled. The dough will be somewhat stiff. Cover the bowl with a dish towel and put in a warm place to rise for one hour.

Punch down dough and knead in bowl for one minute. Cut dough into 15 pieces. (Cut more pieces if you would like smaller size rolls.) Form balls by pulling the dough under. Place on a well-greased surface. Let the dough balls rise for 15 minutes.

While the dough balls are rising, preheat the oven to 400 degrees and get the pretzel "bath" ready. In a large pot, bring water, salt, and baking soda to a rolling boil. Plunge three dough balls into the water and let them "poach" for 1 minute total. Using a slotted spoon, transfer them to a well-greased baking sheet. With a serrated knife, cut 2-3 lines across each roll and sprinkle with coarse sea salt. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until pretzels are a rich brown.  These are best eaten the same day they are made.

Here are my notes and results:

Since it was pouring down rain the day I made these, I think I ended up using about 9 cups of flour before getting the dough stiff enough. (Tip: Humidity affects yeast goods. The damper it is outside, the more flour you're gonna need inside that dough.)

The Big Guy and I scarfed a couple down while still warm, and they were sooo good. I went easy on the sprinkling of sea salt on the top, and I think they could've done with more. But maybe that's just me and my salt craving talking. They were also delicious lightly warmed in the microwave the next day. But after a couple days in a Ziploc bag on the counter, they were definitely not good anymore. I have a bag left in the freezer to test out how they are frozen for later use. Will report back on that in a future post.

The true test, though, was in giving a couple of these rolls to those Facebook-ranting friends. We delivered a roll to each of them along with their bag of holiday goodies, and a few days later I checked in for an opinion. According to Friend #1, who gave me his brutally honest opinion (as always), there was not an even enough distribution of salt throughout the dough, and they were a bit uneven in bake. The center was too doughy to work properly as a sandwich roll. Overall, though, I think he thought I did well for my first attempt. Persnickety bastard.

I appreciated the candid feedback, though, and now I know what to do differently next time. I'll be more diligent in whisking the dry goods together, and I'll make them smaller to try and avoid the doughy center. I think because of the amount of extra flour, the dough was probably larger than the original poster's, so my rolls were probably larger than hers. They did seem pretty big - like a VERY large hamburger bun. But boy, were they pretty. Check it out. *drool*

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Family Traditions

Christmas has come and gone, and it was all such a blur. I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season, whatever you may celebrate. Ours was quiet and peaceful, just the way I like it. Bonus: I managed to revive two family recipes this year.

This year I continued my tradition of making homemade gift baskets and bags for family and friends, though weather and illness prevented me from doing all that I wanted to do and delivering all the finished goods within the necessary timeline. Here's to better success next year!

I tried some new cookie recipes and was sadly disappointed. If any of you have any tips or tricks for successfully using a cookie press, please share them! I just ended up with a glob of cookie dough hanging from the end of the press without releasing to the cookie sheet. It reminded me of the old Play-Doh Fun Factory...minus the fun. Maybe it was the dough I used (though the recipe specifically stated it was for use in a cookie press), but I ended up so frustrated I quit and tried rolling and cutting my shapes instead. That was spectacularly awful as well. My dough spread out into shapeless blobs of chewy grossness instead of the light, buttery, whimsical shortbread cookies I was going for. This photo I saw on Pinterest kind of depicts my cookie strife:

Disclaimer: This is not me. I am not a skinny blonde. (Though my kitchen is exactly this shade of green. Weird.)
This is some random chick from Imgur:

So, in true Krista fashion, I got pissed off, threw it all away and moved on to the next recipe.

One family recipe I revived this Christmas was my grandmother's sugar cookies. Again, they spread out more than I wanted, which I didn't understand. Mom and I used to make them every year, and every year they were beautiful. This year not so much. I might try them again for Easter or something and see what I did wrong. But they were tasty, if a little flat. My goal for this year had been to learn to make royal icing. I had visions of my grandmother's sugar cookies lovingly decorated with fancy hard icing, but as happens so often, life got in the way and I ran out of time.

Our freezer cooking group had planned to meet mid-month to make goodies to swap for our homemade gift baskets and help one another with some larger tasks, like making my grandmother's Swedish meatballs - my favorite family food tradition. Sadly, sickness and work got in the way - though surprisingly it wasn't MY illness or work this time! My mom also lacked the spare time to make these delicious bites of meaty goodness as well, so for the first Christmas in memory, we didn't have them, which made me very sad. We still had the cocktail wieners and some frozen meatballs in grandma's traditional beer/chili sauce, but it wasn't even close to the same. I may have to schedule a game night just as an excuse to make some damn meatballs. They are so time-consuming, with all the rolling and browning, but every savory bite is worth the effort.

In an effort to make up for the lack of meatballs - and in the spirit of trying new yeast recipes - I reached out to my Great Aunt Ethel for her yeast roll recipe. I've heard about these light and fluffy "biscuits", as she calls them, for decades, but I've never had the opportunity to taste them. When my grandmother was alive, she and my Pa hosted dozens of extended family and friends on Christmas Eve, and according to Mom, Aunt Ethel would bring her delicious rolls to town with her, already risen and ready to pop in the oven for dinner. After my grandmother passed away (before my second birthday), our family's Christmas Eve traditions changed and slowly each part of the extended family began to form their own annual traditions closer to their homes across Indiana and Kentucky. I know how much my mom misses these Christmases that pre-date my memory, so I decided to bring a piece back to her.

It's been many years since Aunt Ethel (now near 90 years of age) attempted to make her biscuits but, bless her heart, she gave it a go after Thanksgiving just for me, since these rolls were never made from a written recipe. It was always just one of those "use about this much flour and knead until it feels like this" processes. Unfortunately, too much time and memory had faded for her to make them successfully, but she knew she had taught her daughter Pam to make them several years ago. Though she warned me, Pam makes hers differently now.

Hip-hip-hooray for Pam taking notes on the original process and then saving them where she could easily find them! A few emails later and I had Pam's notes on Aunt Ethel's original yeast roll method. They were loose, and I was a little nervous starting out, but as I carefully walked through the process I could see and feel what was conveyed in the notes, and I knew I was on the right track.

Once you start working with yeast recipes, you get a feel for what's right and what's not right. Like I talked about in an earlier post, your fingertips come to learn what "lukewarm" feels like exactly, and you just know it's right. So I credit my recent baking experiences with giving me the knowledge I needed to successfully make these rolls. They were so beautiful as they were rising.

When we baked the first batch up at Mom's house on Christmas Eve, though, they were HUGE (like Grands biscuits on steroids) and ever-so-doughy in the middle. But everyone agreed they were delicious, and Mom said they tasted "just right." Score! The Big Guy liked them so much he sweetly asked me to go through the entire six-hour process again on Christmas Day for dinner with his folks. I couldn't say no to those big blue eyes, plus I wanted to try again with smaller rolls and a little melted butter after baking. So, on Christmas Day, I made them half the size of the previous day, and when I pulled them out of the oven (at the Big Guy's suggestion), I brushed them with some melted butter before serving. HOLY YUM! We were so excited to tear into them (and the rest of the meal) that I forgot to take a picture until we were digging into the second pan. Now, mind you, there were only four of us eating these things, so I think I can safely say they were a hit!

So, here is a great big THANK YOU to Aunt Ethel and my cousin Pam for helping me bring back this yearned-for recipe and Christmas tradition in our family.

I hope all of you enjoyed your holiday traditions this year - and maybe even added a new one or brought back an old one. Here's to a happy and healthy 2014, y'all!

Top of page photo credit: Mukumbura via photopin cc

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Chicago Eats

This year the Big Guy and I decided to celebrate our 13th wedding anniversary with a trip up north to his hometown: the Second City, city of big shoulders, Sweet Home get the picture. It's a city of myriad cultures, monikers, personalities and peoples - a true Midwestern melting pot. When you combine that many people from so many places, you end up with some seriously good eats.

One of my favorite parts of our trip was the mode of travel. This marked my first U.S. passenger rail trip. (I don't count the commuter rail from Princeton, N.J., into NYC. It was like being on a subway car.) And we traveled Business Class...oh yeah. That's how we roll. If you've never traveled Amtrak and you have the opportunity, I encourage you to look into it. We saved a boatload of money by driving 90 minutes over to the closest station and taking the rail, then using public transportation once we arrived in the city. You can get an unlimited seven-day bus and train pass from the Chicago Transit Authority (the actual government agency, not the band) for around $25. In a city where overnight parking can cost you $65/day and just a few hours can cost $10, public transit is the way to go. Add in the savings on gas to drive 600 miles round trip, and it just made sense all the way around.

We chose to take an afternoon train on our way up, which meant we didn't arrive in the city until late. Once we were checked in to the hotel and starving, it was almost 11 p.m. That late in the Gold Coast neighborhood where we stayed meant our dining options were limited. And the poor desk clerk was used to business travelers with bigger budgets than ours, so he directed us to the trendy dining district. Little did we (and he) know, there was an OUTSTANDING dive bar and hot dog takeout joint right around the corner, which we discovered a day or so later. More on that later.

On the plus side, we got in a nice mile or so walk that night - much needed after several hours in the truck and on the train. We ended up at a little Irish bar called Dublin's. It was just what you would expect - loud, dark, hot and jammed full of slightly intoxicated business people. And the food was just meh. A little on the pricey side as well. I had a breaded chicken sandwich with little to no flavor, but the Big Guy said his corned beef was pretty tasty. The portions were way too big for a midnight snack, but hey - beggars can't be choosers. The interior was kind of cool, though, if you don't mind a weird green tinge to everything from the rope lights against the stainless steel ceiling tiles. The place appears to have maybe been a diner at one time, and it retains some of that flair.

The next morning we went on a mission to find the legendary Billy Goat Tavern. If you've ever seen the SNL Cheezborger Cheezborger skit, you know what I'm talking about. We found this gem hidden underneath Michigan Ave. in a basement, serving up the cheapest and best breakfast in the city. What struck me most as we sat in the quiet, near-empty bar, long before most patrons would arrive, was how much it reminded me of our favorite local neighborhood bar - Fred's. I'll have to ask Fred the next time we're there whether he's ever visited the Billy Goat. The similarities are so striking that, in my mind, I imagine Fred modeled his place after this historic underground watering hole.

Our next stop after the Billy Goat didn't have any food for consumption, but what a feast for the eyes it was! When the Big Guy - not usually one for the fine arts - asked me if I wanted to go to the Art Institute of Chicago, my mouth dropped open. Big Guy? Volunteering to go to an art museum?? This is one of those times you just say yes. Don't question it too much lest he change his mind. So off we went to visit the lions and get some culture. Our plan of eating our way through the city actually married well with the featured exhibit - Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture and Cuisine. Sadly, this was the one place in the museum where photos were prohibited. But I'll forever treasure the memory of walking through the doors of the gallery and being greeted by Norman Rockwell's Freedom from Want - the iconic Saturday Evening Post cover featuring a family sitting down to their Thanksgiving feast. Like so many infamous paintings, it was much larger than I expected. And the stunning photographic quality was amazing. I could've stared at it all day. But there was much, more more to see and explore.


After digesting all of that rich history and beauty, we were starving again. Our breakfast sandwiches were good, but we'd missed the lunch hour in the museum and needed to refuel. Being in the city and relying on public transit burns calories, yo! So we made our way back to that trendy dining district near our hotel, where we had seen a location of our favorite Chicago-style pizzeria the night before: Lou Malnati's. A former Anthropologie store, this location has more urban flair than the last location we visited, down near the Merchandise Mart. And it being mid-afternoon, the joint was empty. No three-hour wait like at dinner time! A small deep dish is all two people need - leaves room for a fantastic stuffed spinach bread appetizer.

After a little post-pizza nap, we headed down to the Daley Center - you know, the plaza with the Picasso sculpture - for the city's annual Christkindlmarket. Cozy little Bavarian huts are lined up all through the plaza with vendors selling their handmade wares - from painted glass ornaments to beautiful wood carvings. And in between in a throng of people drinking, wandering around lost, and generally getting all up in my personal space. About halfway through, I needed some hot cocoa and a break. Thankfully, I got both. One in a tiny $7 souvenir mug and the other in the form of benches outside the plaza being entertained by a couple of super-talented street musicians. Christmas carols on the tuba, anyone?

Now, remember that dive bar and hot dog joint I mentioned earlier? At some point in this day, we had discovered it while walking between the hotel and the "L" (train) station. It's tiny. It's loud. It's cheap. It's open until 4 a.m. Its menu is from the hot dog joint next door. And it may just be the best little slice of heaven in Streeterville/Gold Coast. It's Pippin's Tavern. Go there, get a drink, get a dog, and just sit back, listen and enjoy the show of locals and regulars.

The next morning, we ventured down to the Merchandise Mart just to see what was there. Much to our delight and surprise, we found a food court location of the Billy Goat! I had the best Monte Cristo that morning. Not exactly what you would expect to eat from a food court version of a tavern known for its greasy cheeseburgers and surly Greeks, but there you go. After wandering around a bit looking at ridiculously gorgeous kitchens and baths we'll probably never have, we decided to head up to the River North area and stroll around the neighborhood near the old Cabrini Greens housing projects. The Big Guy remembers this area well, as his dad was a student at Moody Bible Institute when my guy was a kid. He knew the old projects were gone and the area had come up, but we were both blown away by how decidedly hipster this neighborhood had become. One of the things that drew us to the neighborhood was a chance to sample the Truffle Fries at BIG & little's - a cool little sandwich shop featured on our favorite Food Network show, Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives. Foie Gras & Fries might seem like an odd menu item at a place with picnic tables and a walk-up counter, but being located next to Le Cordon Bleu brings it all into perspective. Good eats at this joint. For sure.

I'm not sure how many miles we walked this day, or how many calories we burned, but I promise you it was a lot. We decided to check out the store windows and beautiful Christmas decorations at Macy's - the former Marshall Field department store. The giant tree in the storied Walnut Room did not disappoint. And neither did the stroll through the candy shop in the basement or the touchy-feely turn we took through the Fur Vault. Mmmmm...furrrrrrr. (Animal lovers, don't hate.)

That evening brought the opportunity for a night out with friends and some delicious burgers, fries, and fried green beans up in the Andersonville neighborhood. We met up with one of my old college friends and his partner to catch up and chow down. Hamburger Mary's was the destination - a little bit gay sports bar, a little bit restaurant, a little bit drag show venue and a whole lotta good eats. We hung out in Mary's Rec Room - the sports bar side - so Steve could catch the Blackhawks game at the same time. Priorities, you know. Andersonville was a long bus ride up from the hotel - nearly an hour - but worth it. We had planned to meet up again a couple days later with my college buddy to check out the Swedish festival, the Swedish bakery, and explore the neighborhood a bit more, but the weather report back home was looking bad and we decided we needed to cut our trip a little short. We'll definitely be checking this area out more on a future trip. In addition to the cultural draw (the Big Guy has Scandinavian roots), two of the most historic cemeteries in the area are along the same bus route and are on our list of sites to visit during warmer months.

Slightly hungover, we started our next (and sadly, final) day in Chicago with an incredibly decadent breakfast at Toast, near DePaul University. This tiny breakfast and lunch spot with way-cool signage is just across from Oz Park - a nice green space featuring statues of characters from the Wizard of Oz. The coffee was strong, and my stuffed French toast was out of this world. The guy who decided to fill a piece of bread with mascarpone cheese, dunk it in egg and fry it is a frickin' genius. Another piece was loaded with Mexican chocolate, and the third featured pureed strawberries. The strawberry one was ok, but the other two blew my mind. Definitely going to visit this place again. I'm glad I ordered the ridiculously overpriced side of Applewood bacon to go with it, though. The salt and smoke kept the sweetness from becoming too overpowering.

We spent the rest of our final day - not yet knowing it was to be our last - wandering around neighborhoods and checking out more local food establishments. One of these some might even call an institution. Dinkel's Bakery opened in 1922 in the Lakeview neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago. And though they've moved a few times (all along the same street), the store looks much the same now as it did 80 years ago. Glass case after glass case displaying mouth-watering delectable desserts and pastries. The shelves behind the counter are home to dozens of loaves of freshly baked bread, and a little dining room off to the side is a haven for breakfast or lunch on a cold winter's day. Walking through the doors, my nose was filled with the scent of memories. My mind was flooded with thoughts of being seven years old, walking with my mom to our now-extinct neighborhood supermarket, Great Scot, and smelling the fresh bread and donuts. Until that moment, I had forgotten Great Scot even had a donut counter! Scent memory is a wonderful, amazing thing. The Big Guy and I ordered a pastry each and cups of their house recipe hot cocoa to try to warm up, while my mind was still spinning with nostalgia. We sampled bits of Christmas cookies they left on a tray near the register, and I have to say - not to brag or anything - but my cookies are way better. No contest. I'll give them credit where credit is due on the hot cocoa and pastries, though. Delicious! And I can honestly say I've never made a cake as beautiful as theirs. But they've been at it a lot longer than I have.

After another nap to sleep off the sugar coma and rest our weary legs, we took another look at the weather. A nasty winter storm was moving in to our home area, and I was beginning to dread that 100-mile drive back home from the train station more and more with each ice warning. So the Big Guy and I decided it was time to call Amtrak and see what could be done. We changed to a much earlier train, leaving just after daybreak the following morning, and started packing. We still had a few places to explore that evening, so it was time to kick it into high gear. The first stop was dinner at Wow Bao in Water Tower Place. My first bao experience was a bit disappointing, but the side of Thai curry noodle salad wasn't half bad. The Christmas lights in the mall were pretty, though.

We bundled up tight and headed back out into the cold to catch the bus to our next destination - Christmas lights at Lincoln Park Zoo! I gladly paid for another overpriced cup of hot cocoa to keep my gloves warm as we shivered our way along the brightly lit paths. So thankful I bought one of those little headband/earwarmer thingies before we left town! We were icicles when we got back on the bus and headed for Michigan Ave. But the light display was worth it. Best part? Free.

Back down in Gold Coast, we were on a mission for Garrett's Popcorn. The line was out the door, but we made lots of folks back home happy with giant bags of the best cheese and caramel corn I've ever put in my mouth. By this time I was starving and needed to warm up. Those hot Asian buns didn't stick with me long. (I guess because I didn't eat more than a couple of bites.) So we ventured back around the corner to our new favorite tavern and dog shop for our last meal in the city. The bar was just too packed, so we ducked in next door at Downtown Dogs and pulled up a barstool at the counter to people watch and dig in to our insanely delicious Polish sausages and RC Colas (which I was totally shocked to find in Chicago, by the way).

We were sad to have to leave so quickly, but the trip was everything we had hoped and more. New places discovered and more to-dos added to our list for future adventures. Can't wait for our next trip in March for the St. Paddy's Day parade! I'll have another post for you then for sure. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


As we left Chicago Saturday morning, these words of Carl Sandburg are what I envisioned in the Big Guy's head...

Sobs En Route to a Penitentiary

GOOD-BY now to the streets and the clash of wheels and
     locking hubs,
The sun coming on the brass buckles and harness knobs.
The muscles of the horses sliding under their heavy
Good-by now to the traffic policeman and his whistle,
The smash of the iron hoof on the stones,
All the crazy wonderful slamming roar of the street--
O God, there's noises I'm going to be hungry for.

We've only been back a few days and I miss the city so much already. All the hustle and bustle, the variety of people and places and things and eats. Oh, the eats! A look back at my Foursquare check-ins makes it seem we ate our way through the city.

Check back in a few days for a breakdown of where we ate and walked and ate and shopped and ate some more. We've already decided on the dates for our next two trips to Chicago, and we're working on our list of things to do then. 

photo credit: Chicago Man via photopin cc