Cold winter days bring out the baker in me. The smell of cookies or bread in the oven evoke memories of my childhood and warm my heart, even when there is snow on the ground. It never ceases to amaze me how combining flour, sugar, butter and eggs can be transformed into so many different things based on different measurements or the addition of other ingredients.
In my latest experiment, one of those additional ingredients was yeast, and the result was a beautiful coffeecake filled with a deliciously sweet filling.
Lately, I have been experimenting with yeast and am proud to share, albeit somewhat surprised, I am having success. Last month's column included a recipe for focaccia, and am happy to report, I have made the recipe four times since and I can endorse the phrase, practice makes perfect. Each time I made the Italian loaf of goodness, it became easier and easier, so please don't give up if your loaves don't turn out perfectly the first time.
My mom tried over and over to make a homemade bakery style coffeecake but never found success. Most often her attempts resulted in something more bread-like than pastry. Thanks to a pile of cookbooks, and of course the internet, I think I now understand why.
The flaky pastry, my mom's real goal, is made more like croissant dough. While this is also made with yeast, it is unique due to its lamination, or layers of butter that have been carefully incorporated by a repeated folding process requiring chilling in between folds. This process, too, becomes easier the more often you do it, but I didn't have the time, nor the amount of butter necessary, when I realized I needed to bring a morning treat to a recent meeting.
My compromise was a slightly sweet yeast dough enriched with eggs, butter and yogurt, along with a sweet filling. The crowning glory of this delicious recipe is its beautifully browned braided top and a sprinkling of coarse sparkling sugar.
I am fortunate to have a stand mixer to help with most of the kneading, but usually, finish by hand, so if you are doing it all on your own, know this dough is silky and smooth. This texture makes the kneading, and subsequent rolling of the dough, much easier than working with more traditional yeast dough.
The best part of this recipe, it makes two 17-inch long coffeecakes you can fill with whatever you want. When contemplating my filling choices, I thought of some of my favorite bakery combinations and ended up with two different flavors; the first, cheese topped with seedless raspberry jam, and the second, blueberry jam topped with homemade lemon curd. (I like Ina Garten's recipe.)
Next time I plan to try cherry pie filling but will be careful not to use all the liquid. Too much moisture in the filling results in a soggy dough. I think any flavor of jam or pie filling would work, and would also include canned almond and poppy seed paste (sold in the baking aisle of the grocery store) as an option.
Braiding is up next. To be clear, this is not really braided, but rather folding strips of cut dough over the filling to create a braided appearance, so don't worry if you've never mastered the art of braiding. The recipe instructions are pretty straightforward and note to be sure to cut the same number of strips on each side. I confess I ended up with an extra piece on one side, but just tucked it in with another and you couldn't tell, so don't let this intimidate you.
At this point, you are ready to brush on some egg wash and sprinkle with sugar, allow to rise a bit more and bake. Or you can put the loaves in the refrigerator overnight and bake in the morning. This is what I did. I brushed the pastry with egg wash and sprinkled with sugar. While my oven was preheating, the loaves, having already risen in the refrigerator, warmed up a little and were ready to bake a short time later.
The beautifully browned exterior along its tender and airy texture, sweet filling, and the slight crunch from the sugar made this a visual and tasty success. I will definitely make this again. I may even consider a savory filling, maybe sausage, spinach and cheese. No matter what, I know it will look great.
This pastry would be a great addition to any morning meeting (or kitchen table) and will impress your family and friends. Enjoy!
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the 2011 Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge.