A Writer at Home: In the Swing, Part 1

(That’s my very sharp lame.  More on that later.)

What am I in the swing of, you ask?  Why, holiday gift baking!  Finalizing the goodies list, stocking up on ingredients and equipment, the actual cooking – all the activities that make this period from Thanksgiving to Christmas my favorite time of year.  I’d rather give than receive, and I’d much rather cook than buy.

Some things are already in the freezer; others are tightly sealed and stored in cool (but not freezing) places.  Here’s a peek at what I’ve cooked up so far.

Mini Pumpkin-Coconut-Pecan Pound Cakes:

Sugar and Spice Almonds:

Milk Chocolate Chunks with Dried Cherries and Salted Pistachios:

Pandolce Alto:

Pandolce translates to sweet bread, and what sweet bread this is.

I started making this bread to include in my  holiday gifts two years ago, after reading about it in Saveur (December 2008).  Hailing from Genoa, pandolce comes in two forms: alto, or high, made with yeast to rise; and basso, or low, made without.  Both are studded with golden raisins, candied orange peel, and pine nuts, and loaded with butter.  The yeast version yields the softest, most velvety dough you will ever hold in your hands.  I would make pandolce alto for the pure tactile pleasure of handling and shaping the dough, but it’s also really good to eat.  It makes the best toast for breakfast, but is just sweet enough and rich enough to slice for an afternoon treat with tea or coffee.

But don’t take my word for it.  Try it yourself.

Please note that you’ll need to start the bread the day before you wish to bake it.  I omit the fennel seeds, but add them if you like.  Your bread will be more Genoese with them.

With a few minor modifications, here is the Saveur recipe.

Pandolce Alto

  • 1 1/2 cups warm (105 degrees) water
  • rounded 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast
  • 6 cups bread flour (although all-purpose will work fine), divided
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 3 Tbsp. fennel seed
  • 1/2 cup tepid water
  • 10 Tbsp. sugar
  • 13 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened and cut into 13 pieces
  • 2 1/4 cups golden raisins
  • 1 cup candied orange peel, chopped
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts

In a medium bowl, combine 1 1/2 cups warm water, yeast, and 2 1/2 cups of the flour.  Mix to form the bread starter.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let the starter sit at room temperature until foamy, about 4 hours.  After the 4 hours, refrigerate the starter overnight.  (Starter keeps refrigerated up to 3 days.)

The next day, when you are preparing to bake, put fennel seeds (if using) into a small bowl.  Pour in enough boiling water to cover.  Let the seeds soften for 20 minutes.  Drain them and set them aside.

Transfer the starter to the bowl of an electric stand mixer fitted with a dough hook.  Add to the starter 1/2 cup tepid water and the sugar.  Mix on low speed to combine.  With the mixer set to kneading speed (speed 2 or 3, depending on your mixer), add the salt and the remaining 3 1/2 cups of flour in 3 additions, mixing well after each until a dough forms.  Knead the dough for 5 minutes.

After these 5 minutes, add 5 Tbsp. of the softened butter and knead to incorporate for 5 minutes.  Repeat with 4 more Tbsp. of butter and knead for 5 more minutes.  Add the last 4 Tbsp. of butter and knead for 5 more minutes.

Add fennel seeds (if using), raisins, orange peel, and pine nuts.

Mix until incorporated.  Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface.  Form it into a ball.

Cut into 4 equal pieces for traditional round loaves, shaping each piece into a smooth ball.  Divide the balls between two parchment-lined baking sheets, evenly spaced.  Let rise, uncovered, in a warm place until doubled in size, about 2 – 3 hours.

Alternately, divide the dough into 6 equal pieces for mini bread loaves.  Shape each piece into a small torpedo and place each in a greased bread tin or ungreased paper baker.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  Using a razor blade, or the equally sharp but marginally safer French lame (pictured above), slash a triangle into the tops of each round, or a single slash through the tops of the rectangular loaves.

Bake until golden.  The rounds will take about 50-55 minutes; the smaller, rectangular loaves, about 40-45 minutes.

Let cool, wrap in pretty packaging, and bestow.

©2010  Jane A. Ward