Chapter 21: Winter Solstice Loaf
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Heya! This chapter has a recipe attached, like always it's at the bottom. Juniper berries are a fun ingredient, especially if you like gin.

  Vraz demanding time off jabbed into the dungeon’s side like a thorn. So, Regis informed the cook that it was ‘fine,’ and that Wort held a new position as an Assistant Baker. However, that declaration did not enrage his prideful cook. 

  Regis observed dimly as Wort cleared space on the kitchen counter, the hobgoblin enjoyed basking in the warmth of the oven. Still, the oaf obediently set supplies for the upcoming recipe.

  It perplexed the dungeon that Vraz responded to his intended slight not with a roar and tantrum, but by walking to Wort and patting the oaf on the back.

  Did he not understand that Regis declared him unfit for the role?

  How did that not send the scrawny goblin into a fit of rage? Chefs should pride themselves on their abilities. Dismissal from participating in an essential act of cooking would have made himself boil and simmer in the heat of his youth. Yet, Vraz didn't care. He’d asked for a vacation.

  A vacation?! A shipment came tomorrow! Part of Vraz's job included putting away new ingredients. Without an answer of how to deal with the cook's lack of ambition, Regis granted the request. Better to send Vraz away. He'd have to make do with Wort.

  Besides, this turn of events afforded quality time with Wort, the hobgoblin required a grotesque amount of one-on-one training. A threat loomed in the distance. Devoting time to the apprentice baker now resulted in Wort having more competency when it mattered. Once the oaf memorized the fundamentals, Regis would have two sets of hands to put to task. More complex recipes were nearly within reach. He would force them to work in harmony and function as a competent team.

  That meant trusting them to manage their tasks without vigilant guidance. A bitter pill to swallow.

  Regis floated next to Wort. He examined the dull blue juniper berries resting in a bowl, their tone a pleasing contrast to the splash of green of the assorted herbs. Lastly, a stack of vibrant lemons stood nearby, ready for use. Juniper loved citrus, and Regis intended to take full advantage of nature's bounty. Still, the dwarves sought out a few other key ingredients for the future, it behooved a chef to keep a full pantry. 

  For now, he concentrated on expanding Wort’s abilities.  “Mise en place, never forget,” Regis hummed, floating above the hobgoblin’s shoulder. Wort rose a finger aiming it at his nose. Without hesitation, Regis bashed the offending digit with his crystalline form, preventing it from reaching its target. “How many times must I repeat! Once your hands are cleaned, you only touch ingredients! Do not touch anything else! Especially your filthy self. Moronic sack of flesh! A gasping fish would have a better grasp on sanitation than you.” Regis shook in front of Wort’s face. The goblin withdrew and sunk his head, refusing to look at the dungeon.

  “Wort sorry. Nose itch. Do better?” the hobgoblin stumbled around, eyes locked to his oversized feet. Regis stopped shaking and let the anger slip away.

  It might take some browbeating to show the hobgoblin his place, but there was no choice. Wort would have to learn to mind himself if Regis were to ever trust this fool to bake without guidance. The dungeon possessed an unparalleled capacity for attention to detail, but he could not be everywhere at once. Yet, he refused to lower his standards of staff. Even for savage goblins. 

  “Cleanse your hands, donkey.” Wort gave a trembling frown but complied.

  The worst of it was the thread of thought compelling the dungeon to add even more goblins to the staff. Worse, he couldn't refute the idea. Change rushed towards them like the waves of a storm, Regis could either choose to weather them, or capitalize.

  Location and trade contacts. Accumulating both would net him all the ingredients he could want. Including unfamiliar ones. According to the descriptions offered by the dwarves, these lands held untapped natural goods. Regis intended to order piles of them, at the first possible opportunity. 

  With clean hands, the oaf returned His head swiveled in a circle, nose sniffing the air. “Where pet?” Regis felt a thrum of delight. More clever than anticipated.

  Regis had misled the goblin, refusing to mention the starter for the recipe during preparation. A test. While Wort's passing didn’t warrant praise, he'd impressed the dungeon to the same degree of a dog performing a trick for a treat. Still, they could ill-afford another puffed-up ego-driven goblin in the kitchen, not after Gikx. No compliments for the oaf. “Go retrieve it," Regis buzzed, watching the hobgoblin scramble. 

  Out of all the flaws that clung to the oaf, forgetfulness was not among them. For some unexplainable reason, his attention to detail for recipes bordered on supernatural. It upset Regis greatly, but it didn't prevent him from abusing natural talent, and Wort never required a reminder to feed the starter. Wort loved his ‘pet.’ 

  A useful yet strange relationship.

  Wort returned with the ceramic jug, groaning as he pushed it next to the rest of the ingredients. His beady half-lidded eyes scanned everything before him. “Wort meee-see inn pl-a-ce.”

  Imbecile. “Proceed.”

  A grin stretched across the hobgoblin’s face. Bread flour flew into a large bowl in the center. An accurate measurement, one that did not require correction. Effortless. It only took once or twice to drill the correct amount of each ingredient for a recipe into the hobgoblin's head. Wort followed the flour with a dash of marjoram, rosemary, and nutmeg. Each a swift pinch and toss. Littering the bowl with greens and browns, speckled across the off-white flour. 

  His newest shipment from the dwarves would contain several more herbs and seeds, including ‘mana-infused’ ingredients. With Wort now staffing the kitchen Regis required another farmer. Strum’s absence meant no interviews with savages to replace the missing positions, limiting their expansion. Trade with the dwarves alone would not save them from the Dark Lord.

  And Regis fast approached the next big project.

  The Strum situation could not linger unresolved for much longer. There was no option to stall in place, the encroaching army demanded explosive growth. Fame would provide options and privileges. 

  That meant expansion from a kitchen to a true restaurant. 

  Wort grunted, tying a string around a bag of juniper berries, the brute slammed the bag onto the counter then nabbed a wooden mallet. His face screwed up in concentration. BANG. BANG. The smooth wooden side of the mallet cracked into the bag in a frenzy, a frantic and brazen display of pure force. Wort crushed the fuck out of the junipers in quick order.

  The reek of pine grew heavy. As if Regis had unknowingly strode into a forest, overcome by scents of winter. Wort let his mallet clatter on the stone countertop and untied the twine, upending its contents into the bowl. 

  Wort excitedly sniffed the bowl, before stabbing a wooden spoon into it. With surprising delicacy, he began to blend the spices and flour.  Before now, this goblin had been a good for nothing laze-about, who only expressed interest in eating. His enthrallment with food appeared to transcend from consumption to creation, sure. But the capability on display bothered Regis. 

  The toad-like hobgoblin capstoned the first task with a belly-filled belch. He set the bowl down then removed the weighted lid from the ceramic jar containing his ‘pet’. The sweet yet tangy flavor of the starter spread, the yeast hungered like a caged beast, as if sensing its desire Wort freed some of his pet. Throwing a glob onto the flour.

  Love for your starter was a folly. Superstitious and unrequired within Regis’ kitchen. Yeast was a tool and didn’t require trivial things like attention and affection. Wort disagreed.

  The hobgoblin began to slow, and he held a hand to his mouth to suppress a yawn. He lazily mixed the starter into the rest of the flour. Salt would come later after the bread went through autolysis.

  A very simple process that allowed yeast, water, and flour to submerge together after light mixing. Bestowing a plethora of benefits, other than affording his employee an undeserved rest. Slow fermentation resulted in richer flavor and color. His employee worked as quickly as he could manage with a brutish touch, knowing a nap lurked around the corner. His heavy lids closed as he sunk to the ground, still clutching the bowl.

  Wort snored softly. 

  There were other potential steps to lengthen fermentation, but Regis kept in mind who the target customers were. Dwarves held a better palate than goblins. But that was like saying a broke peasant was pickier than a starving bandit. This dough didn’t need a half-a-day rest to satisfy beard-obsessed short people. Autolysis resulted in easier-to-work dough and increased volume when baked, and had an acceptable cost in time to quality. Bigger bread built bigger restaurants. 

  Waiting meant allowing the gluten to form without any manual labor. With multiple batches, he could reduce Wort’s strength spent on kneading. Though, these ‘nap times’ would have to go. 

  Regis allowed the hobgoblin to rest, floating to his pantry and taking stock. The mound of wealth had grown as operation 'steal from the savages' progressed. Each meal sold saw a reduction of goblins paying with 'shinies'. Eventually, they would reach a tipping point. Picturing Rurk squirming before a wave of anger from hundreds of goblins made the dungeon giddy. 

  Of course, that wasn’t priority one. They needed wealth for ease of trade, but the essence the goblins paid held a higher value. More than ever the drive to grab his ambition swelled. He burned with the desire to carve an ornate chamber, decorate its walls with elegant patterns. Attaching a grand entrance from the chamber to the forest.

  Vraz had made this all possible. Without that goblin, Regis would be nowhere near the point he sat now.

  Wort woke with a snort, causing the core to zip out of the pantry into the kitchen proper. His employee mumbled to himself and tilted his head while looking at the dough in the bowl. He grunted and grabbed a spoon, mixing the flour from a crumbled mess into a mix that held together. With a groan, the toad got to his feet and set the bowl down. Eagerly grabbing a knife and slitting a lemon. With a twist, he squeezed the juice into the pine-and-herb-scented dough. 

  Then in went a pinch of salt. 

  Juniper held a special place in Regis’ heart. He’d always been fond of gin, and the piney fruit-like taste made the berry a lively component. Just a bit of citrus brightened the flavor and wed it with the savory and sweet herbs. 

  The winter solstice bread was sure to meet the rustic palate of the dwarves, a meal meant to capture their imaginations. An intent to addict them, and hold them captive. Dwarves tended towards robust and earthy flavors. Their clans were often backed with wealth from rare metals and gem trade. Marking them as creatures with deep pockets and plenty of dwarves rolled in wealth. This wasn’t to be bread for the common dwarf, no. Regis wanted to show these stone cutters he made meals fit for the rich. Not to mention, the irony of dwarven nobles treating goblin cuisine as a luxury tickled the dungeon in a way he couldn’t explain. 

  Wort belched and pulled the dough free from the bowl, diligently kneading. It took the better part of ten minutes to perfect the texture, before covering and allowing the dough to proof.

  Once more Wort slept, his soft snores drifting through the kitchen. It surprised Regis how often the brute napped. Wort slipped into sleep as easily as a hot knife slid into butter.

  Wort awakened an hour later and shaped the dough into a proper loaf,  then cleaned out the stove of leftover ash and embers. Bread baked at a lower heat and required careful temperature management. Primitive though it may be, conduction cooking was reliable. Cooking in this method meant being aware of managing all aspects of the oven, including tainted flavors from ash and coal. Regis did not wish to introduce undesirable bitter tastes.

  For a rustic pizza crust, he’d welcome those flavors. But not on a loaf.

  The process continued as Wort alternated naps between work. Finally waking up in time to slice the top of the proofed dough using a lame. Scoring the dough prevented cracking while it cooked, oftentimes skilled bakers cut patterns into the bread to increase its visual appeal. Regis didn’t bother to press his luck or introduce the idea of ‘creativity’ to the hobgoblin that such designs required. Too many thoughts would surely implode its head.

  Wort stuffed the bread away into the oven and drifted off to dreamland. 

  Pine wafted through the air. Warmth mixed with the winter, flooding the kitchen as juniper twirled in the luscious aroma of marjoram and rosemary. Nutmeg marched below the herbs, holding them on its shoulders, elevating their lush notes. Before that flavor could burn away into a dour overcooked mess, Wort awoke with a start.

  His hobgoblin removed the loaf from the oven and placed it on a thin rack, allowing air to waft from below. Cutting baked bread was a mistake, steam would escape and result in a far-too-dry product. Despite the desperate looks from Wort towards knife to cut himself a piece.  Besides, a whole loaf resulted in a higher price from whatever dumb dwarven merchant purchased it.

  Wort rubbed his stomach and looked between the crystal and the food he’d successfully prepared. “Wort eat?” the oaf asked, eyes bulging as he swayed in place.

  “No. This is but one of many loaves that shall litter my kitchen. You may have one later. Congratulations, you have successfully created a marketable product. We will be selling this to the dwarves. Now, the next step in your learning is increasing production speed. You will make two at the same time. Then three. Then four. We will see how many you can optimally manage. Do not disappoint me. The dwarves shall have as much bread as we can provide” Regis hovered over the bread, analyzing it.

  A perfect symphony of pine and herbs. Yes. This would do quite well, those dwarves didn’t know what was coming. 

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Without further ado, click the spoiler below to reveal the recipe!

Spoiler

Winter Solstice Loaf

Dietary Disclaimer: Juniper should not be consumed by pregnant women and/or women breastfeeding. So be aware! Click here for more information about the health properties of juniper. 

Ingredients:
3 1/4th cups bread flour (All-purpose or any other type can be used instead, but I’d highly recommend bread flour if a substitution is used the ratio may differ, and the loaf will not be as airy) 

1 1/4 cups warm water

1/4th cup freshly squeezed orange juice (Take and give them a squeeze! A little stress ball of citrus.)

2 tablespoons maple syrup (Out of everyone, Jilde has the biggest sweet tooth)

1 tablespoon cave butter (For us, olive oil!)

1 tablespoon juniper berries, crushed (For those of us without mortar and pestles- toss them in a bag, and slam a hammer on them like a goblin clubbing another goblin)

1/2 tablespoon rosemary

1/2 tablespoon marjoram

1/2  teaspoon nutmeg

2 1/4th teaspoons (~1 pkg) active dry yeast (Sourdough started can be substituted as they do here, but it does introduce the flavor of your starter into the mix. So results may vary! Unlike Regis, we can’t cultivate and personally bioengineer yeast ourselves.) 

1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt

Recipe:

Recommended cooking equipment: Dutch Oven. (When I first started experimenting with bread, I used a bread tin. Truly, when cooking homemade bread nothing compares to baking in a real dutch oven, so I’d highly recommend looking into getting one if you don’t have one already) 

1. In a large bowl, combine bread flour, juniper berries, rosemary, nutmeg, marjoram. Stir this mixture well to disperse seasoning in flour.

2. In a separate bowl, combine warm water (100–110ºF/38–43ºC. The water needs to be around this temperature to avoid killing the yeast, yet still be warm enough to activate it) and yeast. (Sometimes I add a pinch of sugar to speed this process.) Wait for the mixture to become foamy, should take 5-15 minutes. 

3. Pour activated yeast into the flour mixture, stir lightly. Allow the mixture to sit for 30 -40 minutes. (This is called the autolyse method. While optional, I’ve found it to be a great technique as it improves quality.)

4. Add orange juice, maple syrup, and sea salt. Stir the mixture as much as possible, then to kneading the dough within your bowl. Continue to work the dough for about 10-12 minutes by hand. Your dough can be considered done when it has a smooth appearance, and if you poke it, it fills back quickly (More flour can be added at this step to get the dough to the right consistency.)

5. Form dough into a ball then transfer to a bowl covered lightly in olive oil. Turn the ball over once, then cover the bowl tightly in plastic wrap or tinfoil.

6. Allow dough to sit on a counter at room temperature for 1-3 hours (until doubled in size). Optionally, the dough can be refrigerated for 12-24 hours instead. (This has the benefit of allowing the dough to develop even more flavor, though usually, I opt to not engage in this method.)

7. Remove dough from the bowl, set on a lightly floured parchment paper, and compress into the desired shape for the loaf, coating outside with dusting of flour. (There’s a few ways of doing this, usually, I chose a ball- or lump. You can make it oblong separate it for two loaves.) and begin to allow the dough to rise once more, covering loosely. (Proofing baskets can be used in this step, Alternatively, you can leave it in a bowl, but I prefer to simply form the bread on the parchment paper for easy transfer to the dutch oven.) 

8. Allow dough to proof, place a dutch oven in the oven (You may want to line the bottom with an extra layer or two of parchment paper to prevent oven) and preheat to 450˚F (230˚C) 

9. When dough finishes proofing, after around an hour (loaf should double in size), remove the cover, sprinkle the desired amount of sea salt on top, and then using a sharp knife score the dough. (There are plenty of ways to do this. Try looking up some basic methods, or even bread art for inspiration. Lame’s are better for this, if you have it.) Immediately after scoring dough, remove the dutch oven from the oven on a heat-safe surface. Remove lid. Transfer scored dough into the dutch oven on parchment paper. Cover with lid, then return dutch oven to heated oven. (If not using a dutch oven, ignore this. Instead, place your loaf on a baking sheet or in a tin. Make sure to place on a floured surface so as not to stick to metal.) 

10. Allow bread to bake in the oven for 40 minutes. Remove the lid from the dutch oven and allow to bake for another 5-15 minutes, remove from oven and allow to cool. (Cooking time may vary if cooking on a sheet or in a tin. Adjust as necessary.)

11. Cut bread and enjoy! Way to go! Cooking bread is no joke. It took many many attempts to really get the hang of developing a good loaf. The best way to learn is through practice, so you can dish out a delicious meal. 

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