Chef Emerson’s Homemade Ciabatta Bread

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(Pictured above is the loaf that was made by my daughter at cooking school)

What is more delicious than the smell of fresh homemade bread? How about fresh homemade bread that is baking right in your own oven? This simple recipe comes directly from the children’s cooking class at Sur La Table that my daughter has participated in for the third year in a row. This recipe requires a little advanced preparation as you need to prepare the “sponge“, a fermented bread starter, the day before but once that is ready to go it’s really a very easy recipe for both kids and adults to make. The end result is a delicious, crusty, warm loaf of bread perfect for sandwiches or as a side to your meal.

Ciabatta, pronounced [tʃaˈbatta], is one of my most favorite breads. I love the crusty cracked outside and the soft, delicate inside. The word ciabatta is Italian in origin and translated it means, “slipper” which is descriptive of this bread’s distinctive flat, tapered shape. Ciabatta bread originated in the region of Italy known as Liguria and quickly spread across the country in popularity. Depending on the region of Italy you are in, ciabatta bread can vary in its texture from soft and porous to a more crunchy, firm crust with a dense crumb. Here in America it is easily found in most supermarkets and bakeries and has what is commonly known as an “open crumb” structure. This is due to the use of a sponge, otherwise known as a “starter“, that is added into the dough preparation. Regardless, it is a wonderful and delicious bread that is the perfect accompaniment to any meal. Enjoy!

Ingredients

For the sponge

  • 1/8 tsp active dry yeast
  • 2 tbs warm water (110°F to 115°F)
  • 1/3 cup water, room temperature
  • 1 cup ( 4 1/4 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

For the bread

  • 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
  • 2 tbs warm whole milk (110°F to 115°F)
  • 2/3 cup water, room temperature
  • 1 tbs extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 cups bread flour OR unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1 1/2 tsp sea salt

Instructions

To make the sponge – In a medium mixing bowl, stir together the yeast and warm water and let stand for 5 minutes until the yeast dissolves. Mix in the room temperature water and flour until well incorporated. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the sponge stand at room temperature at least 12 hours and up to one day.

To make the bread – In a small bowl stir together the yeast and milk and let stand for 5 minutes or until it looks creamy and a little bubbly.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, blend together the yeast mixture, sponge, water, oil and flour at low-speed until the flour is just moistened.

Beat the dough at medium speed for 3 minutes. Add the salt and beat for another 4 minutes on medium. Turn the dough out into a large bowl coated with olive oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let the dough rise at room temperature until it’s doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours. The dough will be bubbly and quite sticky.

Line a rimless baking sheet with a 12X12″ piece of parchment paper and generously dust with flour. Turn the dough out onto a well floured work surface and cut in half using a bench scraper or knife. Transfer the halves to the prepared baking sheet and form into irregular ovals about 9″ long. Dimple the loaves with floured fingers and dust the tops with flour. Cover the loaves with a damp kitchen towel. Let them rise at room temperature until almost doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.

About 30 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 425°F and place a pizza stone in the center of the oven.

Transfer the loaves on the parchment paper sheet to the pizza stone. Bake until pale golden and the loaf sounds hollow when the bottom is tapped with a finger, about 20 minutes. Using a large spatula, transfer the loaves to a wire rack to cool.

Traditional Italian Easter Bread

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Easter bread has been a tradition in my Italian family since before I was even born. When I was a child, my Dad would always make the breads right before the holiday and on Easter we’d enjoy it for breakfast slathered in sweet butter. It was my most favorite thing about Easter since it was the only time this bread was made in my family.

There are many variations of Easter bread out there and the one that I make today for my own family is slightly different from the one that I grew up with. The one I had as a child had a drier more crumbly texture that is very similar to a scone. This recipe, which is all that I have used for years, has a very soft and fluffy texture similar to a brioche or Challah bread. Both are delicious, it’s really just a matter of textural preference.

This is a very easy, non-fussy recipe to make. Just make sure to allow your dough to rise in a warm area that is free of drafts. I really love the “PROOF” function on my oven, if your oven has it as well I highly recommend that you take advantage of it. Also, when you warm the milk and butter be sure it doesn’t get too hot, you want to avoid scalding the milk. In addition, if you add piping hot liquid to yeast you will kill it thus resulting in bread that doesn’t rise properly, if at all. Keep your liquid mixture between 100-115ºF which will ensure enough warmth for the yeast to activate without killing it.

Please note, while the colored eggs are safe to eat once the bread comes out of the oven they will not be edible if you store the bread out on the counter. Discard the eggs if you leave your bread out or alternatively, remove the eggs after baking and refrigerate. I always store my Easter bread on the counter to keep it soft and fresh, as we eat each loaf I discard the eggs. The eggs are fine to leave in the bread on the counter, just don’t eat them if left out.

Ingredients

  • 1 package Rapid Rise yeast (2 1/4 tsp)
  • 1 1/4 cups milk
  • pinch of Kosher salt
  • 1/3 cup unsalted butter
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 – 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
  • 1 egg beaten with 1 tsp water
  • 6 colored eggs
  • nonpariel sprinkles

Instructions

In a small saucepan, warm the milk and butter together until the butter melts and the mixture is between 110-115ºF.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the yeast, salt, eggs, vanilla and sugar. Add the warm (not hot) milk/butter mixture. Add about half of the flour and using the dough hool attachment, beat until smooth. Slowly add the remaining flour to form a stiff dough. If the dough is still sticky, add a little extra flour and it becomes stiff.

Knead the dough smooth either using the dough hook or by hand on a floured board. Place in a lightly greased glass bowl, cover and let rise in a warm place until it is doubled in size, about an hour.

Punch the dough down and divide into 12 equal pieces. Roll each piece to form a 1″ thick rope that is about 14″ long. Taking the two pieces, twist to make a braid, pinch the ends together and form into a circle. Place the formed dough on a baking sheet lined with a silicone mat or parchment paper. Cover and place in a warm place until doubled in size, about an hour.

Brush each bread with the beaten egg wash (egg/water mixture). Lightly sprinkle the bread with the nonpariel sprinkles. In the middle of each bread ring gently place a colored egg.

Bake at 350ºF until golden in color, about 20 minutes. Cool on a rack.

**Tip – You don’t have to hard boil the eggs prior to coloring them however, I find they don’t cook all the way through during the baking process if they are raw. I prefer to hard boil them for a few minutes before coloring so that they are thoroughly cooked after baking.**

 

“How-To” Baking – Proofing

In baking, the term proofing actually has two applications. With regards to yeast, which is a living organism that can weaken over time, it’s a process that is used to determine if the yeast is still active and capable of leavening bread dough. Proofing is also the term that is used to describe the second (or final) rise of a shaped yeast dough.

To proof yeast – Mix the yeast with warm water (between 105ºF and 110ºF) and allow it to sit for a few minutes. If the yeast becomes creamy and foamy, it is still active. If the yeast does not foam and become creamy it is no longer active and should be thrown out as it will not work properly in the dough.

To proof shaped dough – For the final rise of a shaped yeast dough simply place the dough in a warm, dark, draft free area and allow it to rest undisturbed. Many ovens today come equipped with a PROOF function and it works exceptionally well. If you have an oven that has this feature, take advantage of it when proofing dough.

Easy Beer Bread

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Everyone loves beer bread but few realize just how easy it is to make completely from scratch. There are so many boxed versions available and while they are good nothing beats making something completely homemade. It’s fresher tasting and you know exactly what goes into it. The great thing about beer bread is it takes less than five minutes to pull together and it requires NO rising so within an hour you can have a nice, hot loaf of bread ready to serve.

Beer bread is also very versatile so feel free to use this recipe as a base and then change up the flavor profile. Try making a Cheddar Jalapeno, Cheesy Green Onion, or even a Savory herb bread. Click here for a few other great variations that you can try! I prefer to use red ales for this recipe, in particular I like Killians Irish Red, but you can use any beer that you like. The beer bread will have a stronger or milder beer flavor depending on which brand and type that you choose. Serve this bread alongside chili, stew, or any hearty meat dish. It also makes a great, simple appetizer! Cut the loaf into chunks and serve with an herb or spinach dip.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups flour, sifted
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp Kosher salt
  • 1 (12 oz) can of beer
  • 1/2 stick (4 tbs) of salted butter, melted

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Lightly grease a 9X5 loaf pan and set aside.

Sift all of the dry ingredients together in a medium bowl. Slowly add the beer and stir until well combined.

Place the dough into the greased pan. Pour the melted butter all over the top. Bake for 50 minutes to an hour or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve warm or at room temperature.

“Saucy” Italian Sausage and Peppers

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Being Italian it will come as no surprise that one of my top favorite foods, hands down, is sausage and peppers and it just so happens that I make a seriously kick ass version! What makes this meal so good is the way the meatiness of the sausage mingles so well with the flavors of the peppers and onions and when done right, it’s an absolutely perfect dish! Scoop it out onto some warm, fresh Italian bread and you have yourself an out of this world sandwich experience. 

I prefer to make my sausage and peppers with red sauce and well browned slices of sausage over one that is more on the oily side and served with a giant, full sausage link. I find the versions cooked in just oil to be a little flavorless plus, I am just not a fan of biting into a huge hunk of meat either. Therefore, I always brown my sausages first while they are whole, then I slice them fairly thin and throw them back into the pan until they are browned on both sides and slightly crispy. Once the sausage is cooked through I remove them, saute the veggies in the sausage fat, add the sausage back in, adjust the seasonings, and toss with tomato sauce. It’s perfect EVERY single time and it really is super easy to make!

Naturally, the key to any great meal is to start with great ingredients. Cheap, fatty, unseasoned sausage will do nothing but bring the dish down therefore, I always get my sausage at a high quality Italian deli in my area. The sausages are far more flavorful and leaner than anything you will find in the supermarket. Also, I highly recommend getting sweet sausage with fennel because it adds such a nice complexity to the overall flavor of the dish. However, if you’re really not a fan of fennel you can skip it and plain sweet sausage will be just as delicious but give the fennel a try, you might be pleasantly surprised!

Ingredients

  • 2.5 – 3 lbs of pork sausage with fennel
  • 2 green bell peppers, seeded and sliced into strips 
  • 2 red bell peppers, seeded and sliced into strips
  • 2 large sweet onions, sliced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • extra virgin olive oil, as needed
  • 10-12 oz of plain canned tomato sauce
  • Kosher salt and pepper, to taste
  • 2 tsp of oregano
  • pinch of red pepper flakes

Instructions

Drizzle about 2 tbs of olive oil into a pan and turn the heat to medium. Separate the sausage links by cutting the strings in between. Do not cut too close to the base of the sausage or you will slice the casing . When the oil is shimmering and the pan is hot add in the sausage. Cook the sausages, turning frequently, until they are browned on all sides, about 10-15 minutes.

Remove the sausage from the pan. Using a fork to hold each link steady slice it up into 1.5″ slices. Once all of the sausages are sliced, return them to the hot pan. Add in a little more oil as needed so they don’t stick and burn. Continue to cook the sausage slices until they are nicely browned on each side and cooked through, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from the pan, cover and set aside.

Add to the hot pan the peppers, garlic and onion. Saute them in the sausage fat, adding extra oil as needed, until they are tender and browned. Season them with Kosher salt, pepper, oregano, and the red pepper flakes. Once the veggies are done, add the sausage back into the pan along with the tomato sauce and heat through, stirring gently to combine. Adjust the seasonings as needed. If a “drier” sausage and peppers is preferred, use less tomato sauce and conversely, add more to make it moister. Serve hot.

**Tip** – Sausage and peppers is actually even better if made the day before serving because the flavors have a chance to mingle. To reheat simply place the pan of sausage and peppers in a 350 degree oven and stir occasionally until warmed through or heat on low in a Crock-Pot. 

Cinnamon Swirl Doughnut Bread

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I love cinnamon sugar anything!! It’s such a warm, cozy flavor that reminds me of cool, crisp autumn nights. Cinnamon sugar breads are not only a yummy dessert but also a great (not so healthy) breakfast treat that is perfect with a nice hot cup of coffee or tea. To make this bread extra decadent and delicious, simply drizzle a light sugar glaze over the top.

I stumbled upon this recipe on FB, it was posted by Preppy Kitchen however, the original recipe can be found here, Cinnamon Swirl Doughnut Bread , on “Lauren’s Latest” blog. This bread came out amazing!! It was moist and soft with just the right amount of cinnamon and sugar. I followed the recipe as is, making no adjustments to it whatsoever. You can also turn this recipe into fantastic Coffee Cake Muffins which are perfect for a cozy Sunday morning breakfast. Enjoy!

Ingredients

For the bread

  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 1/2 cup softened unsalted butter
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs, room temp
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk*
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp molasses

For the outside coating

  • 1/2 cup melted unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon

*If you do not have buttermilk mix together 1/2 cup milk and 1/2 tsp white vinegar. Let sit for 3 minutes and then add to recipe.

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a lightly colored loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray and set aside.

In a large bowl, mix the oil, butter, and sugar until well combined. Stir in the eggs and vanilla and mix until smooth. Add in the dry ingredients and the buttermilk and continue to mix until a smooth, uniform batter has formed. Scrape down the sides of the bowl to ensure no lumps are present.

Remove 1/2 cup of the batter and place into a smaller, separate bowl. Add to it the cinnamon and molasses, stir to combine.

Pour half of the prepared batter into the loaf pan. Spoon half of the cinnamon batter in small dollops all over the batter. Pour the remaining batter in the pan and dot the top with the remaining cinnamon batter. Using a butter knife, swirl the two batters together.

Bake for 45-50 minutes or until a toothpick comes out with a few moist crumbs. Cool in pan for 10 minutes and then remove.

Towards the last 10-15 minutes of baking, get the outside coating ready. Pour melted butter into a large shallow dish. Stir the cinnamon and sugars together in a separate shallow dish.

Dip each side of the loaf and the top into the melted butter and fully coat it. Transfer the buttery loaf to the cinnamon sugar mixture and press each side and the top into the mixture until fully coated.

Slice into pieces and serve warm or at room temperature.

Nothing Better Than Roasted Garlic

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I love garlic! Not only does it taste delicious but it’s REALLY good for you too! Garlic is packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants and it’s even been proven to lower cholesterol and combat heart disease! Let’s face it, everything tastes better with a little garlic and roasted garlic really ups the deliciousness quotient in spades!

Roasting garlic mellows out the bitterness that raw garlic usually has and after roasting it in the oven it develops a really nice deep, sweet flavor that is just amazing. You can use roasted garlic in almost anything such as: tomato based sauces, soups, vegetables, cooked pasta, salad dressings, meat dishes, and even spread on Italian bread. Pretty much any recipe that calls for garlic, roasted garlic can be used in its place.

This evening I am making braised short ribs for dinner and I thought homemade garlic mashed potatoes would be the perfect side dish. The roasted garlic was super simple to make and will definitely make my mashed potatoes sing!

To make the roasted garlic simply cut the top off of a head of garlic and remove as much of the papery skin as you can. Place the garlic heads in a tin foil “pouch” and drizzle them generously with a good olive oil. (I happen to LOVE the flavored oils from The Amazing Olive in Port Jefferson, NY) Sprinkle the garlic with Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper, seal the tin foil pouch, and bake in a 450 degree oven for about 40-45 minutes.

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When you remove the garlic from the oven, it should look nicely browned and roasted through.

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Let the garlic cool off for a few minutes and then very carefully lift one bulb at a time and squeeze from the bottom until all of the delicious roasted garlic is released. It should slide out VERY easily from its skin at this point.

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Give the roasted garlic a little stir to break everything up and then it’s ready to go! You can store the roasted garlic in the fridge for up to 2 weeks……………….if it lasts that long!

**Quick Suggestion** – Make your own compound butter for garlic bread! It’s so much better than the store bought version that is loaded with odd ingredients to preserve its flavor.

To make the compound butter – Soften a stick of unsalted butter and mix in a whole roasted head of garlic. Stir to combine and then scoop onto a piece of wax paper. Roll the compound butter mixture into a log shape, seal, and place in fridge until slightly firm. If you prefer a stronger garlic flavor, use 2 heads of roasted garlic.

To make the garlic bread – Slice a loaf of fresh Italian bread lengthwise through the middle. Spread each side generously with compound butter, sprinkle with a little grated cheese, salt and pepper and bake at 350 degrees until the bread is nicely browned and the cheese is slightly bubbly. Slice and serve hot.