In these sticky buns, the traditional raisins and pecans are replaced with dried apricots and pistachios. Shelled pistachios can be a bit hard to find, but I came away from my last flour run to Costco with a big bag, roasted and salted. Of course, just about any nuts and dried fruit will work. Just remember to get a big package of napkins at Costco, too; they’re not called sticky buns for nothing!
I have sung the praises of grissini (thin crisp bread sticks; literally “little snakes”) many times before, but let’s review:
- simple to make
- easy to vary with different flours, toppings, etc.
- look striking in a bouquet or bundle
- great party food; no slicing!
- lots of dough hands-on time, and much more satisfying than Play-Doh
- disappear quickly
- satisfy the “crunchy” food group daily requirement
Sesame and fennel seeds are classic for grissini, but I find I have trouble making mine stay on. I solved that problem here by putting the seeds into the dough rather than on top. (Coarse salt, however, always belongs on top!) Mixing the dough in the food processor, as I’ve done here, chops the seeds, so if you prefer them whole, mix by hand or in a stand mixer.
I adapted the recipe for this lovely Greek Easter bread, Tsoureki, from Anissa Helou’s wonderful book, Savory Baking from the Mediterranean. Helou suggests that if you cannot find mahlep, the spice that traditionally scents these soft, rich loaves, you can leave it out. This would, however, be a most unhappy omission, and if you take my word and try it, you’ll know why.
Mahlep (variously know as mahlepi, mahleb, mahlab) is common in Greek and Middle Eastern baking. Made from the kernels of wild cherry pits, it tastes bitter on its own, but lends the bread a delightful, delicately sweet, nutty, cherry-almond fragrance. I found the spice in my neighborhood Middle Eastern market, but it’s readily available online.
Allow me to reintroduce my old and faithful — but neglected-of-late — friend, prefermented dough.
Prefermented dough (or “pâte fermentée” if you’re a Francophile, or “old dough” if you like short words) is the decorous workhorse of the preferment family. Sourdough starter and poolish and most other preferments dawdle along at room temperature until they’re about to lose it and then childishly demand, “Use me! Right now! Or I’m going to get sloshed and start killing off the yeast! I mean it!” Prefermented dough, on the other hand, after a reasonably short heyday on the counter, retires quietly to the refrigerator and stands patiently by until called upon to do its job, which is to add strength to your dough and flavor to your bread.
Prefermented dough contains the four essential ingredients — flour, water, yeast, salt — in the proportions typical of a basic French bread dough. If you’re baking such a bread, you can save a piece of the dough and use it as the preferment in another bread. Or, as I’ve done for this challah, you can make up the prefermented dough just for that purpose. Simply mix the ingredients (no gluten development required), let the dough ferment at room temperature for one to two hours, and throw it in the refrigerator, where it will keep for up to two days. You can let it warm up for an hour or so before using it, or you can use it straight out of the fridge. In the latter case, make sure your final dough water is warmer.
If you have space for a countertop oven, I highly recommend one. It can replace your toaster, but a good-sized one can also do most of the things your regular oven can do — roast your chicken, broil your fish, bake your cookies, toast your nuts — using only a fraction of the energy of your big oven.
And if you have a baking stone, you can even bake a loaf of bread, or a pizza sized just right for one or two people.
I adored my Cuisinart Brick Oven when it worked, but after I had two of them quit on me in the space of three years (the top element died in one, the door spring in the other) it was time for a change. The Breville Smart Oven came to live here a few weeks ago, and the first hoop I had it jump through, other than toasting bagels (at which it performs marvelously, by the way) was my favorite white pizza — potatoes with rosemary and garlic.
For pizza, the hotter the oven the better, and a stone is essential for a crisp crust. The Cuisinart oven went up to 500F, but most countertop ovens, including the Breville, max out at 450F. Even so, I still got a pretty nice pizza, on the stone I saved from the defunct Cuisinart. Preheating the oven/stone for at 30 minutes gets the stone good and hot; skimp on this step and you risk an underdone crust.
Then there’s the question of how to get the pizza onto the stone in one piece. My regular peels are too big for the little oven, and my giant spatula is too small for a 10-inch pizza. Corrugated cardboard to the rescue! I cut a piece just wide enough to fit into the oven cavity. After rolling the crust out on the counter, I dusted my homemade peel generously with a mixture of white and semolina flours, and assembled the pizza on it. It slid off and onto the stone like a charm.
As with the lemon that studs them, these loaves are one of those breads I thought would be one thing, but of its own accord (with maybe a little bit of gentle and experimental nudging from me) it turned out to be another thing. Sometimes it’s fun to just let things unfold and see where you end up.
The thing I thought it would be was gibassier, a French olive oil brioche traditional during the Advent season, scented with oranges and anise seed, shaped in flat round loaves. It is an amazingly good bread, and ranks among favorite sweet breads for nearly everyone I know who has tasted it.
But thanks to my generous crop of lemons just now, my bread asked for candied lemon peel rather than orange. Because I had lots of lemon syrup as a byproduct of the candying of the lemon peels — and also because I was out of orange blossom water — the bread wanted the syrup to stand in for both the sugar and the orange water in a traditional gibassier recipe. Because I love putting candied ginger in things, this bread begged to be loved that way too. And the shaping was just me playing around to see what showed up, and perhaps longing for the December snow(flakes) I used to know in Vermont but rarely see anymore.
The result turned out to be something slightly less sweet and less citrus-y than gibassier, and a fine way to enjoy a delicately-flavored sweet bread with your morning coffee or tea. The ginger is very subtle, and I might add more next time.