When the urge to bake strikes, I sometimes know exactly what I’m going to bake. But most of the time I have absolutely no idea. On numerous occasions I just bake with the ingredients I have on hand (since I dislike leaving the house to go to buy groceries once I’m settled in for the evening). Luckily, I keep a fairly well stocked baking pantry. I always have the basics like flour, sugar, eggs and butter and I try to keep a decent supply of "flavorings" like chocolate, nuts, fruits, extracts, spices and citrus. So when I have no clear idea, I just take a look in the kitchen cabinets and see what inspires me.
A recent baking session was inspired by a jar of apricot jam. I remembered a peculiar recipe for shortbread that I saw in one of my many cookbooks. The recipe itself was not the peculiar thing. It was the method that was different. After mixing the shortbread dough, the dough is frozen, and then grated into a baking pan. I was so fascinated by this method that I had made a note on my "mental to do recipe list". Now, you may ask, what does this have to do with apricot jam or my pantry? Well, the recipe was for a jam shortbread bar. And the required ingredients, aside from the jam, are just the baking pantry basics: flour, sugar, eggs and butter.
According to the instructions, grating the dough solves the problem of "sticky hands" typically associated with making shortbread dough and gives the finished shortbread a lighter texture. Generally speaking, I've never found sticky shortbread dough to be a big problem (maybe a tiny problem), but I understand that stickiness can lead to overworking which can lead to toughness.
So the results? The thin layer of apricot jam was just enough to cut some of the buttery richness of the shortbread base. And the crispier shortbread topping added some nice texture. Each layer was distinct in its own way, but the whole was much more than the sum of its parts.
Apricot Jam Shortbread Bars
(from Baking with Julia)
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
4 egg yolks
1 cup apricot jam
Sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Set aside dry ingredients.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and egg yolks until fluffy. Add the dry ingredients and mix until the dry ingredients are just incorporated.
Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and quickly form two balls (one just slightly larger than the other). Wrap in plastic and freeze for at least 1 hour (or as long as 1 month).
Preheat oven to 350F. Butter and flour a 9 x 13 inch baking pan.
Take the larger ball of frozen dough and coarsely grate (by hand or using grating disk of food processor) into the bottom of prepared pan. Spread out the shreds of dough evenly in the pan.
Spread the apricot jam evenly over the base layer of dough. Take the remaining ball of frozen dough and coarsely grate over the jam layer.
Bake until golden brown, approximately 35-45 minutes. Cool completely before cutting. Sprinkle the tops with powdered sugar if you like.
I found a recipe for almond cookies that called for orange marmalade to be mixed into the cookie batter. Because of the addition of marmalade and my affection for amaretti, I put this recipe on my aforementioned "mental to do list". The inclusion of orange marmalade may seem unusual, but makes sense because the slightly bitter edge of the mostly sweet orange marmalade matches very nicely with the natural bitterness of almonds.
But I decided to use apricot jam instead of marmalade because I had that open jar of jam and since apricots and almonds have a natural affinity. Almonds and other nuts were once considered luxury items and, therefore, quite expensive. Some people would take the pits of stone fruits (such as apricots), crack the hull and pick out the "kernel" inside the pit. These apricot kernels have a flavor similar to almonds. They were more widely available and an alternative to the more expensive almonds. As almonds became more widely available, the use of these kernels diminished. Although, due to tradition, custom, or pure economics, some liquors, jams and other recipes are still made using these kernels.
The apricot jam added a somewhat unidentifiable but pleasant fruitiness to the almond cookie without overwhelming the almond flavor. The addition of the jam made the cookie soft and chewy which most tasters enjoyed.
(about 36 cookies)
9 ounces ground unblanched almonds
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp baking powder
2 egg whites
1 tsp almond extract
1/3 cup apricot jam
Mix together ground almonds, sugar and baking powder in a large bowl. Add egg whites, almond extract and apricot jam. Stir until well combined. Chill dough for 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 350F.
Form ¾-inch balls of dough and space them 1-inch apart on parchment lined cookie sheets.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until cookies are slightly firm and light golden brown. Cool for 5 minutes before removing cookies to a cooling rack.
I don’t really have a proper pantry (baking or otherwise) in my small kitchen. What I call my "pantry" is actually various cabinets throughout my kitchen (and the refrigerator too). But luckily, most of my baking ingredients are located in one area of my kitchen. Just to satisfy my own curiosity, I took a quick inventory of the items currently in my baking arsenal. Here are just a few of the highlights:
10 pounds unsalted butter
2 dozen eggs
14 pounds all-purpose flour
11 pounds sugar (granulated, brown, powdered, pearl, demerara)
12.5 pounds chocolate (72%, 60%, 54%, bitter, semi, milk, white)
6 pounds dried fruit (apricots, cherries, plums, cranberries)
9 pounds nuts (almonds, peanuts, walnuts, pecans, cashews, hazelnuts)
4 pounds Crisco vegetable shortening
20 ounces vanilla extract
53 ounces Nutella