Bread Bakeries of Fez

One of the highlights of our National Geographic trip to Morocco last fall was the time we spent in Fez, the country’s cultural capital. Inside the walls of the medina, the ancient and unbeliveably vibrant traditional city, 150,000 people maintain a way of life that is, in many ways, much like it was hundreds of years ago.

Jay and I asked out tour manager, Andrew, how we might find our way out of the medina’s intricate labyrinth of narrow, brimming pedestrian streets if we were to venture inside on our own, without a guide. “Leave a trail of breadcrumbs!” he answered helpfully. If we had indeed needed them, breadcrumbs would have been easy to find; the medina abounds with several hundred bakeries whose wood-fired ovens collectively produce tens of thousands of khobz — the ubiquitous, flattish Moroccan loaves — every day.

Our guide Rashid turned out to be far superior to a breadcrumb trail. He told us that the bakery — along with the fountain, the hammam (bath), the mosque, and the Koranic school — is one of the five traditional elements of each of the medina’s hundreds of neighborhoods. He also helped us negotiate the etiquette of tipping in exchange for permission to take photographs inside — not an easy feat in these small, windowless grottoes.

The cool thing about these bakeries is that, in addition to baking their own khobz, they bake the loaves of the neighborhood women who prepare the dough in their own homes. We saw many women like this one wearing a jalaba (the hooded robe that is the everyday garb of most women and many men), carrying their unbaked bread on a cloth-covered wooden tray to the bakery, where they would pick up the baked loaves later in the day.

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Overbaking in Babeland

This was supposed to be the month I redeemed myself. After being an utter Slacker Babe for the past three months, I wanted to get back into the good graces of the (ever-gracious and never-guilt-tripping) Bread Baking Babes with these Oatmeal Twists. I’m sorry to say I have failed.

They look nice, but in case you were wondering if the bread-is-very-difficult-to-overbake principle also applies to rolls: it doesn’t. Or perhaps it does, and I have acheived the near-impossible. In any case, Elle (FeedingMy Enthusiasms) selected a wonderful recipe for us, her adaptation of Farine’s Morning Cuddles. Thanks to about 15 superfluous minutes in the oven, mine were nothing like a cuddle at all. Try morning whack upside the head.

I promise you, the flavor of these twists is just lovely. So I encourage you to be a Bread Baking Buddy by 1) reading the recipe more carefully than I did, and 2) sending the photo of your cuddly-soft twists to Elle by June 29.

Semolina Sourdough with Plums, Walnuts, and Fennel

I am notoriously bad at planning. I’ll be in the market when I’m hit with the overwhelming urge to bake with, say, pumpkin seeds. So I buy some up, oblivious to the fact that I might have three or four small remnant bags of same lurking in the recesses of my freezer. And now my freezer is starting to complain about the buildup.

So I made a deal with myself: I am not to buy any new dried fruits, nuts, or seeds, but I can buy as many flours as I like so I can bake away until my odd lots are used up. (I tried to negotiate different terms — something involving a new sports car in exchange for ingredient restraint — but I couldn’t manage to sell it to myself. Clearly I need a better agent.)

Fortunately, I have some workhorse recipes that work wonderfully with the “one from Column A, one from Column B” approach. This semolina-fennel sourdough recipe, originally conceived with currants and pine nuts, baked beautifully with dried plums (commonly, but less charmingly, known as prunes) standing in for both currants and caramelized fennel, and walnuts for the pine nuts.

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National Doughnut Day!

Some people keep lists and calendars to remind themselves of food holidays: National Raisin Bran Cereal Day, International Nacho Day, Lobster Thermidor Day, and so on. I prefer to keep track of these things the way nature intended: by taking a morning peek at Facebook and noticing doughnuts everywhere. Doh! It’s national Doughnut Day! I was caught off-guard, but it was early in the day so I had time to recover.

I made baked yeasted doughnuts that you can really sink your teeth into. If you like those soft, lighter-than-air Krispy Kreme things, don’t make these. These are to those what Guinness Stout is to cotton candy (it’s also National Mixed Metaphor Day, by the way).

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Blueberry Sourdough Scones

blueberry-sourdough-scones-wild-yeast

In baking school I learned that freezing scones prior to baking makes the dough easier to cut and helps them retain their shape during baking. At home I learned that it’s also a great way to have freshly-baked scones for Sunday morning breakfast.

I baked these in my minimalist sometime-weekend-kitchen. By minimalist I mean a kitchen in a town whose one market doesn’t carry parchment paper… a kitchen whose oven temperature I can only guess at… where you make do with the ingredients you have… where fingers substitute for a pastry brush… where the ellipsis has free rein…. But I still have the best 25-year-old Robot Coupe food processor in the world. A food processor is not absolutely necessary, but it makes short work of cutting the butter into the dry ingredients.

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I Bake, Therefore I Freeze

I bake a lot of bagels. I freeze a lot of bagels. It took me a while to get the freezing routine right, to avoid 1) freezer burn; 2) undue time spent wrapping and thawing; and 3) throwing away a lot of plastic wrap. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

  • Make sure the bagels are completely cool before preparing for freezing. Freezing while warm guarantees ice crystals. Letting them sit for a few hours even after they are cool makes them slice  more cleanly.
  • Slice the bagels. A bagel guillotine saves time and emergency room visits.
  • Place each bagel in a zip-top sandwich bag. Try to squeeze air out as you close the bag, but don’t be fanatical about it. These bags can be reused for the next batch, and the next …
  • Place the bagged bagels in a larger zip-top plastic bag. This does not have to be a heavy “freezer bag,” since you have the additional protection of the small bags. Of course, these bags can also be used multiple times.
  • Our bagels are usually eaten within a week, but they will keep in the freezer for several months.
  • It is not necessary to thaw the bagel before popping it in the toaster or toaster oven; just toast for a little longer.
  • Don’t forget to save and reuse your plastic bags!

In case you have a lot of plastic bags sitting around with nothing to do, may I suggest: