Monday, December 2, 2019

Savory Braided Loaf…Filled with Spinach, Mushrooms & Cambozola

One of the things I enjoy the most about my cooking classes is the fact that people feel free to ask questions.  Good questions make me think more carefully about almost every aspect of cooking (methods, flavors, ingredients, culture, etc.).  This serves to make me a better cook…and a better teacher…and often it gives me great ideas for new recipes.


During my last class—Cooking for Holiday House Guests—I demonstrated the recipe for a Jam and Cheese-filled Yeasted Coffee Braid.  Because I love sweet breakfast breads—for breakfast, brunch, coffee or a late night snack (basically all the time)—that’s what was filling my mind as I discussed the recipe.  Suddenly someone asked if they could use the dough and method for a savory filled braid.  My initial reaction was: of course not…this is a sweet dough.  But then it immediately dawned on me that of course you could make a savory bread…as long as you reduced the sugar in the dough just a bit (although, not too much…the dough actually isn’t that sweet).

Over the next few days I continued to think about all the possibilities of a savory braid.  Then the following week I decided to make one to serve as a snack for a gathering of friends.  I filled that first attempt with a garlic and herb flavored ricotta (in place of the sweetened cream cheese in the sweet version), prosciutto, sundried tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms and goat cheese  It tasted good, but I didn’t use nearly enough of the filling ingredients. 

My mistake was that I still had the requirements of the sweet braid in my head.  One of these requirements is to not use too much jam.  Besides the fact that too much jam filling oozes out all over the baking sheet, a generous amount of bread is what I expect in a breakfast pastry.  This isn’t the case with the savory version. I wouldn’t want to go on record as saying that you can’t have too much filling in the savory braid….but in this version, the filling is the star.  The bread is just a convenient and beautiful vehicle.


Since the recipe makes enough dough for two braids, I had the opportunity to make a second pass at getting the quantity of filling right.  Of course it would have made sense (from a recipe-testing, compare and contrast perspective) to just increase the quantity of all the filling ingredients that I had used the first time. But when I finally got around to making the second braid (one of the nice things about this dough is that it will keep for 3 or 4 days in the refrigerator) I was more interested in making dinner than testing a recipe.  In any case, I had some other ingredients in my pantry that I wanted to use and that I thought would make a nice filling…so I used those instead.  The second braid was delicious.  And the balance of dough to filling was perfect.

When I made the second braid, I still had half of the herbed ricotta left from when I made the first braid, so I went ahead and used it.  Not only does this cheese mixture taste good, it provides a nice base for the other fillings.  But I’m certain that you could use seasoned cream cheese or goat cheese…or maybe Boursin…or even a simple herbed sour cream.  I still had mushrooms, so I repeated the sautéed mushrooms too.  But for the second version I doubled the quantity. 


The biggest change I made for the second braid was that I added some cooked spinach.  And I think the spinach was the key to the success of the second braid.  Even when cooked to the point where the excess liquid has evaporated (which you must do to keep the loaf from being soggy and damp), greens are still inherently moist.  So not only do they add nice flavor, they keep the filling from seeming dry.  Other greens (kale, chard, beet greens, etc) would work too…as long as you cook them in the manner appropriate for your chosen green.  Kale, for example, will need to be blanched and squeezed dry before it is added to the pan of mushrooms.  And while it isn’t a leafy green, it occurred to me that cooked leeks would behave in a similar manner (and would be delicious!). 

I replaced the crumbled goat cheese with some sliced Cambozola (a German, Brie-style, triple cream blue cheese).  I’m very partial to the Cambozola…but it isn’t something I typically keep on hand.  I wouldn’t hesitate to substitute another flavorful melting cheese.  (But if you are shopping for the other ingredients, you should definitely pick up the Cambozola!)

Finally, if you decide to improvise with your savory fillings, I think it’s important to include ingredients that are strongly flavored.  In my braid, mushrooms and blue cheese fill the bill in this regard.  Cured meats (ham/prosciutto, cooked sausage and bacon) would be good.  Brined/salt preserved foods like olives or capers…or anchovies…would pack a nice flavorful punch.   Other strongly flavored items include pesto, tapenade, and sundried tomatoes.  I’m sure I’m forgetting some obvious possibilities…but you get the idea.    

I don’t know if the person who asked if the jam braid could be turned into a savory filled bread will see this post, but if he does, I would love to hear if he took a stab at it.  And of course I would also like to thank him for asking the question in the first place.  It was obviously a great source of inspiration.  I even think it’s possible that this version might make its way into a class someday….



Spinach, Mushroom & Cambozola Filled Braided Bread

1/4 c. (56 g.) lukewarm (105 to 115 degrees) water
2 1/4 t. active dry or instant yeast
1/2 c. (121 g.) sour cream
4 T. (56 g.) unsalted butter, sliced 1/4-inch thick and softened
1 large egg
3 c. (360 g.) unbleached all-purpose flour, divided
1 T. (12 g.) sugar
1 t. salt

1 c. (250g) whole milk ricotta
1/3 c. (30g) finely grated pecorino
1 fat clove garlic, smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt (or grated on a microplaner)
1 t. minced fresh rosemary
1 egg yolk (save the white for the egg wash)

2 to 4 T. olive oil
14 to 16 oz. crimini or white mushrooms, sliced
10 oz. baby spinach, large stems trimmed if necessary, leaves coarsely chopped
7 to 8 oz. Cambozola, sliced a scant 1/4-inch thick and torn into 1-inch pieces 

1 large egg white beaten until frothy with 1 T. cold water
3 to 4 T. sesame seeds

Place the water in a mixing bowl and scatter in the yeast.  Whisk or stir to dissolve.  Add the remaining ingredients in the order listed, adding only 340 grams of the flour and making sure the salt doesn’t touch the yeast-water mixture directly.  Mix and knead (by hand or mixer fitted with a dough hook) until you have a smooth, velvety dough.  The dough will be very dry at first; resist the urge to add more liquid. It'll come together and smooth out as you knead.  Once the dry ingredients are absorbed (and this only takes a minute or two) the dough may begin to stick.  Use small increments of the extra 20 grams of flour…and the help of your bench scraper…to keep the dough from sticking.  It is unlikely that you will need all of the reserved flour.

Place the dough in a lightly buttered bowl or other container, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in bulk (about an hour).  Deflate the dough, cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator overnight (and up to three or four days).  It may or may not look risen when you pull it out to use it.  That's OK.

When you are ready to bake, make the filling: Combine the ricotta, pecorino, garlic, rosemary, and egg yolk.  Set aside.  

Prepare the mushrooms and spinach: Depending on the size of your pan, you may need to sauté the mushrooms in batches—don't overcrowd the pan. Heat a sauté pan (non-stick, if you have one) over high heat. Add oil to coat the pan.  When the oil shimmers, add the mushrooms. Cook, shaking the pan and tossing the mushrooms occasionally, until the mushrooms are browned, tender and any liquid that they have given off has evaporated. If they seem dry at any time as they cook, drizzle in a bit more oil. If sautéing in batches, transfer the finished mushrooms to a plate and season with salt & pepper.  Return the pan to the heat, add more oil and repeat with the remaining mushrooms.  When all the mushrooms are cooked, return them all to the pan and heat through.  


Begin adding the spinach to the pan a handful at a time, turning with tongs to coat the greens in the oil and mushrooms and adding successive handfuls of spinach as the previous one collapses.  Continue to cook until the spinach is tender and any liquid given off has evaporated.  Season well with salt and pepper and set aside to cool. 


Divide the chilled dough into two pieces. Working with one piece at a time (and keeping the other chilled), flatten/pat the dough into a rectangle.  


Flour the surface and dough very lightly and roll the dough out into a 10" x 15" rectangle.  Transfer the rectangle to a piece of parchment paper.

Spread half of the ricotta mixture down the center third of the rectangle.  Leave 1/4-inch of dough bare at each end.  

Spread half of the mushroom spinach mixture over the ricotta.  


Arrange half of the Cambozola over all. 


Using a pizza cutter (or a sharp knife), cut 12 to 13 slightly slanting lines down each side—angling the cuts from the edge of the filling to the outside edge of the dough.  The cuts should be a generous one inch apart and should start about 1/4-inch away from the edge of the ricotta.   Being careful not to stretch the dough, fold the strips of dough over the filling, criss-crossing the strips by alternating a strip from the left with a strip from the right.  


Lightly press/pinch at the two ends of the loaf to seal. 


Transfer the braid (using the parchment to lift it) to a sheet pan and cover loosely with greased/sprayed plastic wrap.  Repeat with the remaining dough and filling ingredients. 

Let the braids rest at room temperature for 30 to 40 minutes.  (Alternatively, transfer the formed covered loaves to the refrigerator for 8 to 10 hours or overnight.)

Whether you choose a traditional rise at room temperature or an overnight cold rise, the loaves will not “double in bulk.”   They might look a bit puffed, but that is all.  This is how it should be.

To finish and bake: Brush the egg white/water mixture over the loaves. Sprinkle generously with sesame seeds. 


Bake the braids in a preheated 375°F oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until they're puffed and golden brown.  The cheese might be bubbling or oozing a bit.  This is fine.   Remove the loaves from the oven and place them on a rack to cool slightly (10 minutes or so). Serve warm.  One loaf will serve 4 to 6 as an accompaniment to soup or salad as a light entrée.  Or, each loaf may be cut into 12 slices and served as part of an appetizer spread.

Store any leftovers, well-wrapped, for several days in the refrigerator or for longer in the freezer. To serve, thaw if frozen, and then reheat in a 350°F oven, wrapped in foil, for about 20 minutes.
 
Note:  Although you can put both of the loaves on one sheet pan, I find that they bake best on two sheets.  When one is done, just slide the second one into the oven…or bake on separate racks, rotating half way through the baking time.
 
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