Your mission, should you choose to accept it: bake something that includes the five top-selling ingredients on our Baker's Catalogue Web site.
CHOOSE to accept it? How could I resist picking up this particular gauntlet, and be Iron Baker for a day?
Obviously, the "top 5” ingredients on our site is a moving target, changing not only day-to-day, but minute-to-minute. But the following are perennial top-10s, shifting positions as new recipes and blogs appear, but always staying close to #1: SAF instant yeast, Vietnamese cinnamon, espresso powder, Baker's Special Dry Milk, and (of course) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour.
Something sweet, yeasty, and filled with goodies, coming up!
Ponder, ponder, ponder... after much thought, I narrowed it down to babka, and St. Louis Gooey Cake.
And in the end, babka was the better fit for this particular ingredient assortment.
Since these are so popular, let's take a closer look at these key ingredients.
First, King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour – the cornerstone of the test kitchen here. And, of course, our best-selling ingredient by far – if you count the millions and millions of bags we sell at supermarkets every year.
Most national brands of flour are bleached. Do you know what that means?
It means guys at the mill dumping powdered bleach into the flour before it's bagged.
No joke! Is that what you want to feed your family? Didn't think so.
One of our King Arthur salesmen was at a mill once, and stuck his hand towards the container of bleach being added to the flour. One of the mill workers called out sharply to watch out - because bleach is dangerous.
So, if bleach is dangerous, why do manufacturers add it to their flour?
Here's what Tom Payne, our marketing director, says. “Bleaching is done primarily to whiten flour. The reason others do it is they are milling more of the wheat berry (whereas we mill only the heart, the whitest part, the part with the best baking quality and highest protein). Because they mill closer to the bran, they inevitably get little flecks of darker particles in their flour. They bleach it to get a uniform, white color to the flour.
“This method of production worsens baking quality. You have more bran particles in the flour (which cut away at gluten), and less protein as a percentage of weight, because you're milling non-endosperm parts.”
As Tom says, only the very heart of the wheat berry goes into King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour. Thus, King Arthur costs more than run-of-the-mill flours – and, if you care about consistency and baking quality, it's worth it.
Maybe you can't afford the best car on the lot, or fancy jewelry, or a meal at Chez Panisse. But paying $1 extra for a bag of flour that'll make 6 big loaves of bread? That's about 17¢ per loaf. You can afford that - yes?
SAF Red instant yeast: an absolute must in the King Arthur test kitchen. I'd guess not a day goes by when someone here isn't baking with yeast. And when you use as much yeast as we do – you want something you can rely on.
SAF Red is instant yeast, which means it can be added to the dry ingredients in your recipe – no “proofing” (dissolving in water) necessary. It's convenient, and starts working fast. We store it in the freezer, for ultimate freshness; no need to warm it up before using, just spoon it right into the bowl with your flour.
Is instant yeast different than Fleischmann's RapidRise? While Fleischmann's says its RapidRise, instant, and bread machine yeasts can all be used interchangeably, we find that RapdiRise works very quickly, but lacks staying power. SAF works very quickly, and also is good for the long haul: it stays strong and active in yeast doughs that need to rise for several hours, overnight, or even for several days in the fridge.
Milk is a key ingredient in sandwich loaves, sweet breads, and other fine-textured, soft yeast breads. Baker's Special Dry Milk is specially formulated to yield a higher rise than regular liquid milk or other nonfat dry milks.
Making crusty baguettes or chewy pizza crust? Leave out the dry milk. Making a classic sandwich loaf, or this sweet babka? Reach for the Baker's Special.
Next: espresso powder, a.k.a. chocolate's best friend. This super-strong, finely ground coffee dissolves instantly wherever you add it. And when you use just a touch, it doesn't add coffee flavor of its own; it simply heightens the flavor of chocolate, just as vanilla does.
We discovered this secret in the test kitchen years ago, and have been adding espresso powder to our chocolate recipes ever since.
Ground Vietnamese cinnamon – cassia – is different than the lighter-colored, milder-flavored Ceylon cinnamon typically found in the supermarket spice section. It's stronger, sweeter, and with a higher oil content, which brings out its flavor, and disperses it more fully throughout whatever you're baking.
OK, this isn't named on the “top ingredients” list, but it should! Vanilla Bean Crush is my favorite vanilla in the whole world. Why this particular vanilla? Because it includes crushed pods and seeds, for super-rich flavor.
And because Dave at Sonoma Syrup, who makes the stuff, donates part of the proceeds to breast cancer research. Win-win, in my book.
OK, enough proselytizing. Let's get to the babka.
Put the following in a mixing bowl:
2 large eggs
6 1/4 cups (26 1/2 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1/3 cup Baker's Special Dry Milk or nonfat dry milk
2 tablespoons instant yeast
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, Vietnamese preferred
1/2 cup sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Reduce the salt to 2 1/4 teaspoons if you use salted butter.
Add 1 to 1 1/4 cups lukewarm water. Use the greater amount in winter or in a dry climate; the lesser amount in summer or a humid climate.
Combine all of the dough ingredients, just till everything is moistened. Cover the bowl, and let the dough rest for 20 minutes. This will give the flour a chance to absorb the liquid, making it easier to knead.
Scrape the dough into the center of the bowl...
...then knead for about 7 minutes. It's OK if it sticks a bit to the sides of the bowl.
Just scrape the sides, and knead a few more strokes to fully incorporate all the bits and pieces into a nice, round ball.
Cover the bowl, and let the dough rise till doubled, 1 to 1 ½ hours.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly greased work surface; a rolling mat makes cleanup easy.
Divide the dough into two equal pieces. I know, these don't look equal – unfortunate camera angle!
Set the pieces aside, covered, while you make the filling.
OK, back to our filling. Combine the following in a bowl:
Add 1/4 cup melted butter.
Stir to combine. The mixture will look chunky and oily; that's OK.
Shape each half of the dough into a 9” x 18”, ¼”-thick rectangle. Don't be fussy about this; 19” or 20” is as good as 18”.
Smear each piece of the dough with half the filling, coming to within an inch of the edges.
Scatter 1/2 cup chopped nuts over each piece; I'm using pecans here.
Then scatter 1/2 cup chocolate chips over each piece of dough.
Starting with a short end, roll each piece gently into a log.
It's OK if some of the filling falls out; just tuck it back in as best you can.
Seal the bottom seam and ends; all you really need to do with the ends is tuck them under.
Place each log of dough into a lightly greased 9” x 5” loaf pan.
Tent each pan with plastic wrap, and let the loaves rise till they're very puffy and have crowned a good inch over the rim of the pan, 2 to 2 1/2 hours.
Towards the end of the rising time, preheat your oven to 300°F.
Just before baking, brush each loaf with a glaze made from 1 large egg beaten with a pinch of salt. Pop any air bubbles with a toothpick.
See those flecks of vanilla bean in the dough? I know, I'm kind of over the top about this; I just like the look.
Now, this may feel just plain wrong; but cut a deep vertical slash the length of each loaf.
Cut through at least three layers. this will allow the loaf to expand straight up, rather than blow out at the sides.
Bake the bread for 35 minutes.
It should be golden brown and shiny – egg glaze at work!
Tent lightly with foil, and bake for an additional 15 to 25 minutes (for a total of 50 to 60 minutes); the loaves should be a deep-golden brown.
Remove them from the oven.
To ensure the loaves are baked through, insert an instant-read thermometer into the center of one loaf. It should register at least 190°F.
Remove the loaves from the oven, and immediately loosen the edges with a heatproof spatula or table knife.
Let the loaves cool for 10 minutes, then turn them out of the pans onto a rack to cool completely.
This isn't a “smooth” coffeecake; it's craggy and slightly misshapen, melted chocolate and nuts separating the layers of tender bread.
No, not beautiful.
But with chocolate, espresso, cinnamon, flour, vanilla, and butter – you just can't go wrong.
Read, rate, and review (please) our recipe for Chocolate Babka.