Week Forty-Nine: Breads With Cheese
Cheese, for the typical American home cook, is most often thought of as a savory item, and is duly relegated to a supporting role in pastas, salads, or pizzas. Occasionally, a very fine example is offered a prime solo spot, starring as an hors d’oeuvre, with the requisite chorus line of crackers as backup. In most homes, cheese and sweet flavors are rarely combined, the idea of cheese as dessert totally foreign, even approaching unpalatable for many.
But then, there is the Northern predilection to top a slice of apple pie with a bit of sharp Cheddar; and in fine restaurants from coast to coast, it is on the dessert menu where diners will find the assiette de fromage, usually garnished with the intense sweetness of honey or dried fruit. And when you take cream cheese frosting into account as well, without which our red velvet and carrot cakes would surely be naked, the idea of sugary cheese seems far more obvious.
So after five days of savory cheese-laden breads, this last cheese bread revels in the sweetness of cheese, with a cheese you might not typically consider. Ricotta is one of the more overlooked cheeses out there, usually bought only to make lasagna or ravioli. But good ricotta is absolutely able to stand alone, as any brie or blue can; simply combined with honey, a bowl of ricotta can be as sumptuous a dessert as chocolate mousse.
Here, I’ve combined honeyed ricotta with Marsala-soaked golden raisins, and stuffed light brioche buns with the mixture. The resultant bread is certainly far from savory, but it isn’t sickly-sweet, as many desserts can be. Unassuming to look at, the buns’ smooth exterior belies the creamy filling inside, which has the occasional tendency to spill over onto your hands and invite modest finger-licking. The soaked raisins pop with bursts of wine, adding a sultry flavor to the complex honey sweetness.
The dough used is an enriched, mildly sweet one, which produces a soft and fluffy bun, takes just a little more time than the standard straight-dough method, but the excellent flavor is well worth the minimal extra effort. A sort of light brioche, it’s sturdy enough to support the filling and subtle enough to complement the real star of the show, the ricotta.
I recommend finding the best quality ricotta you can for this, as the insipid flavor and watery texture of most supermarket brands will do nothing for you. Or, if you’ve been so inspired as to make your own (which is much, much easier than you might think), this is a perfect application. Perfect for a half-savory dessert, or a quick and special breakfast the next morning, these sophisticated little buns might just charm their golden way into your repertoire.
Honey Ricotta Stuffed Buns
Adapted in part from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, by Peter Reinhart
Makes about 16 small buns
For the filling:
1/4 cup Marsala wine (see note 1 below)
3 ounces (1/2 cup) golden raisins
6 to 8 ounces (about 1 cup) good quality ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons honey, or to taste
For the starter:
2 1/4 ounces (1/2 cup) unbleached bread flour
2 teaspoons instant yeast
1/2 cup milk, at room temperature
For the dough:
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon honey
15 ounces (about 3 1/4 cups) unbleached bread flour
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water, for an egg wash
1. To make the filling, place the raisins in a plastic zip top bag. Add the Marsala, and squeeze as much air as possible out of the bag before closing. (This maximizes the surface area contact between the raisins and the wine, and makes sure no raisins are left dry.) Soak the raisins for at least 2 hours, but preferably overnight. Drain well, and mix into the ricotta with the honey. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
2. To make the starter, whisk together the flour, yeast, and milk in the bowl of a stand mixer. Cover with plastic wrap, and let stand at warm room temperature for about 45 minutes, or until very risen and beginning to fall.
3. To make the dough, whisk the eggs and honey into the starter. Add the flour and salt, and mix with the dough hook on low speed until all the flour is moistened. Turn the mixer off, cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap, and let stand for 5 minutes, without removing the dough hook or the bowl.
4. Turn the mixer to medium-low, and gradually begin to work in the butter, adding about 1 tablespoon at a time. Let each piece of butter incorporate before adding the next one. Turn the speed to low, and continue kneading for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and clears the sides and bottom of the bowl. If the dough sticks to the sides or bottom, add additional flour by spoonfuls until the correct consistency is achieved.
5. Turn the dough out onto a very lightly floured work surface. Pulling the outside edges into the middle, shape the dough into a round ball. Transfer to a large, lightly oiled bowl, turning to coat all sides of the dough with oil. Cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let rise at room temperature until doubled in size, about 90 minutes. Twenty minutes before shaping the buns, set the ricotta filling out at room temperature to take the chill off.
6. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface, pressing gently to deflate. Divide the dough into 16 even pieces, shaping each into a round ball. Cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let rest for 10 minutes. Lightly grease a large baking sheet, or line with parchment paper.
7. Using a rolling pin or your hands, flatten each piece of dough to a flat round. Place 1 to 2 tablespoons of the ricotta filling in the center. Pull the dough up and around the filling, pressing firmly to seal the seam. Transfer the bun seam-side down to the prepared baking sheet, and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Repeat the shaping with the remaining dough and filling.
8. Let the buns rise at room temperature, covered, until doubled in size, about 1 hour. Thirty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 400º F, placing a rack in the middle position.
9. Gently brush each bun with the egg wash, taking care not to deflate. Bake the buns at 400º F for 15 to 20 minutes, or until well browned, rotating the pan halfway through to ensure even browning. Remove to a wire rack to cool about 1 hour before serving.
1. If you prefer, in place of the Marsala, you can use a mixture of 2 tablespoons brandy with 2 tablespoons water; or you may use fruit juice (apple, orange, pomegranate, etc.) for a non-alcoholic option.
2. If your ricotta is very watery, you can drain it in a coffee filter or paper towels, in colander set over a bowl and refrigerated overnight. Otherwise, you can substitute sugar for the honey in the filling, which will not add extra moisture.