Archive | August, 2010

Writing Patents, or, Not Baking

29 Aug

That’s what I’ll be doing for the next couple of weeks.  Writing a patent.

I’m guessing the phrase “good enough for gubmint work” does not apply to those of us who are not actually employed by the government, so I do expect this to be a great challenge: Either I write a patent so bad I’m audited yearly for irritating the patent office with my questionable work; or I write a patent so good I’m audited yearly for proving the patent office to be the pointlessly bureaucratic blackhole I’m sure it is.  Is this paranoid?  In any event I have my work cut out for me.

I will send word when I’m back online permanently, but do check back periodically, if you can.  I do have some work backlogged, and will try to post it for you when I have a break.

Thanks so very much for reading and supporting me thus far.  And my friends, there is plenty of belligerence to come.

Best –


Football or Baking?

26 Aug

Pshaw!  Football, of course!  I know it’s just preseason, but my Green Bay Packers are on right now in a game against the Colts.  What of it?  If you’re not watching, the rest of my site is clearly awesome.  Take a look.


On Food Porn. I Mean, Food Photography

25 Aug

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t have the time to learn how to shoot food in the way that food’s shot these days. You know, expensive camera aside, I don’t have time for retouching and selective focus and that perfectly perfect mess on the plate. Plus, I want to show that food can be made to look as good as it does in those retouched photos. So with me, you get the shots you get.

But according to this Wall Street Journal article, I’m either way ahead of my time, or so far behind it I’ll never have more than nine readers. As food stylist Alison Attenborough says in the article, “people are interested in small butchers, artisan producers, farmer’s markets—a more handmade look.”  See, I just don’t think that’s enough.  Think about it: You remember those shots from old issues of Gourmet? The Julia Child Menu Cookbook? Do you think Martha Stewart serves lopsided cake?  I mean, really.

I’ll give you an example of the problem.  I was in a local bakery recently to find pastries clearly made by someone who has the right touch for it. But the baker stopped short, and I don’t know why: She obviously handled the dough perfectly, but left it looking hamfisted, as though it was destined for a bake sale for the blind.  I understand that this is the trend, but why wouldn’t you want to do more?

So when you’re that close, people, don’t stop. Then you won’t have to touch up your food shots like a Playboy centerfold, and you can save all that Photoshop time for something more important: Making people happy with your bakery–and being the one who can do the very best.

More About Those Brownies

24 Aug

Obviously, I have not revisited my problems with perfectionism yet.  Right now I’m just happy I don’t have a headache, and that I do have replacements for some of the Time-Life Good Cook books lost to a move, plus a new-to-me biography of Anton Chekhov.  I’m just in no mood to get existential about all my shit at the moment.

Now, I say obviously because yeah, I’m still thinking about those brownies.  They really are a massive success, but they do soften up more than I expected overnight.  It’s not a dealbreaker, but I’m not a big fan of it, either.

I thought about how, with such a balanced proportion of fats, wet and dry ingredients, this could possibly be happening.  They really should dry out a bit like any other baked good, yes?  Well, no.  If you recall, these brownies have small jar of jam in the recipe–eight heaping tablespoons.  And guess what’s in nearly all commercial jams and jellies, and in great quantities at that?  No, not fruit.  Please.

Nah–it’s corn syrup.

If you’ve read other posts of mine, then you know that like honey and brown sugar, corn syrup is highly hygroscopic.  And A/C or not, it’s been a humid summer here in the heartland, so there’s plenty of hot hygroscopic action to go around.  I also keep my cake plate near a window of my 120-year-old house, which is dumb.

So there you have it.  Figuring this out solves another issue I was having with the lack of actual fruit flavor in these brownies.  See, in order to prevent the brownies from going soft–and again, it’s not bad by any stretch–the jam can be removed from the mix and instead heated and spread across the top in syrup form.  Well, depending on the humidity, maybe that’s a step to hold until just before serving; even just resting the jam on top will cause far less softening, but there will be a bit of softening nonetheless.  Either way, the fruit flavor will be far more evident if it’s withheld from the mix, as your tasters will be able to better discern the two different flavors.

Until tomorrow then, when I’ll fit in a post between exercising and White Collar.

Baking Wishes and Baking Dreams

23 Aug

I’m at bit of a loss tonight. I don’t know what to write about, except to say that even with the carb-free lifestyle the roommate and I live most days of the week, those brownies are nearly gone. Man, did they ever turn out. Thanks to Penzeys for the great cocoa, and to Cook’s Illustrated and Shirley Corriher for being willing, like so few other resources, to make the science known to us here on the ground. And of course, thanks to me for putting it all together.

I will note, however, that as well as those brownies turned out, like the writing I do, the work’s never done. I’ll continue to think and retest until I’m completely satisfied with the recipe, which will be never.

For example, do I pursue an relatively airy brownie that would better feature the fruit flavor? Do I let that sugar sit and steep for even longer–say, 10 minutes or so?  Would that help?   Do I add chocolate chips?  Is it too chocolatey for most?  How do these resolve overnight?  What about the fruit bits I discussed in an earlier post?  Whipped cream? And if so, do I make a stiff batch of it, or keep it natural?  And so on.

The issues this presents, though, are those of time and purpose. The brownie recipe I’m discussing here is an exceedingly easy one, but there’s time for prep, 30 minutes in the oven and, in this case, a very long time to cool. And all to test what to me are very important changes, but in the big scheme of things really are not that big of a deal at all. It’s personally fulfilling for me to get things just right but I’m wondering if I should rethink the loose limits of my perfectionism.

Do you find yourself wrestling with when to stop?  How do you decide?  When are the changes worth it?  When have you finally done enough?

Fruit Swirl Brownie Test No. 3: Process Changes

22 Aug

Note: This post will necessarily be long. Please read about the flavor changes for more information.

I’m afraid that I’ll be detailing the home version of the Fruit Swirl Brownie with yet another headache. I’ll do my best to keep it together for you, but I wouldn’t expect to win a Pulitzer with this post. I appreciate your patience, which is probably more than I have for myself at the moment.

As you recall, the recipe for the Honeypie Big Fruit Swirl Brownie piqued my interest because of its simplicity, coupled with a richness that as depicted in the photo compelled me to test the concept and the science of the recipe. Because if it actually worked, it would really be a bit of a breakthrough.

But, as you’ll also recall, I did find that although the concept was a great one, the flavor and texture was somewhat lacking in the richness that caught my eye in the first place. I used the same ingredients noted, and went broke buying them, but the brownie’s flavor was a somewhat thin-tasting and sugary slice that overnight became disturbingly spongy and greasy. Which is okay in a bakery, where the goods sell out quickly and are served with accompaniments, but this is not my project. My bakery needs to start perfect and stay perfect. Period.

Now, I do not want to disparage Honeypie’s recipe at all. I wanted to prove the concept to be a great one: That fat can carry cocoa flavor to the extent that a seriously chocolately brownie could be made with cocoa only, rather than with the added hassle and expense of melted baking chocolate. But even minute differences in techniques, air quality, and certainly equipment can create additional issues for a bakery recipe made in the home, so accomplishing this in the home kitchen simply needed a different approach. And I was determined to find it, because I hate being wrong.

In my second test of the recipe, I’d made significant headway in terms of the flavor. Only a couple of tweaks, and I knew the flavor would be sorted. So the texture was my first order of business.

Process Changes

I remembered reading about the types of fats used to give box brownies their chewy texture. (Thank you, Cook’s Illustrated.) I didn’t necessarily need to make a chewy brownie, per se, but I did want to maintain the high fat ratio necessary to create a superior chocolate flavor, but that wouldn’t become greasy overnight. Cooking oil, which is used to make chewy brownies, remains the same no matter the temperature so I could not only maintain the fat ratio, but also create a texture that wouldn’t degrade over time on the cake plate. Rather than use the three sticks of butter used in the original, I reduced the amount of butter a bit, then split the remaining quantity with oil

The seven eggs used in the original recipe also proved to be an issue, if you remember: The high quantity of eggs caused the original batch to bake unevenly because using seven (seven!) eggs properly requires a bain-marie, and that’s too much work for brownies. I also couldn’t really grasp the science that would call for seven eggs, when I really thought about it. I could be mistaken—absolutely possible, that—but rather than force the issue, I cut down the eggs to two whole, plus two yolks. The two whole eggs is a pretty standard quantity that would incorporate more easily and in a proportion that requires no special care in the oven. And if you’ve made chewy cookies, you know why the extra egg yolks will help your cause.

These fixes—the oil, the eggs, plus a higher proportion of dry ingredients—solved the greasiness problem. The sponginess still needed to be addressed, however, but this was solved easily by skipping the creaming step. I’d thought initially that it was necessary to incorporate air into the structure to keep these brownies from becoming too dense, but in the end it created a not-quite-cakey texture that was odds with the flavor and did not adequately support the fats.

Using melted, rather than creamed, butter (and the oil, too) gave me a way to create the intense flavor of melted chocolate, too. This is done by simply adding the sifted cocoa to the warmed butter, the heat from which also allows the flavor to bloom fully. (In a pinch, cocoa and oil can be mixed to create unsweetened chocolate for baking, and sugar can be added to create bitter- or semisweet chocolate right to your taste). Add the espresso paste and the water to this, and you in effect seize it, giving it the actual mass that intensifies the flavor for your final product.

If you’re concerned about what this lump of chocolate will do, don’t be; a tablespoon of oil can be added to decrease the density if you’re more comfortable with that. But that lump does mix in smoothly with the egg/vanilla mixture regardless.

The best part about these process changes? For a more refined look, I do still think it’s important to sift your dry ingredients and process the sugar to a superfine texture. But this isn’t completely necessary. So if you skip that, you needn’t pull out your mixer and all its attendant parts at all. The most complicated thing you need to do in my recipe is melt butter. You could even use the microwave for that if you want. Everything else is mixed quickly and easily by hand.

Please contact me here with questions. You can find the final recipe here.

Fruit Swirl Brownie Test No. 3: Flavor Changes

22 Aug

Note:  This is part one of the test results.  Please read about the process changes for more information.

Flavor Changes

In terms of better flavor, my second test was awfully close, but still not quite there.  So I increased the quantity of cocoa and salt, and reduced the amount of sugar by just a bit.  I put the sugar to use as more than just a sweetener instead.

Part process change, part flavor change, I used the sugar as an activator by allowing the sugar to dissolve and rest in the chocolate-egg mixture for a few minutes.  What happens is that the sugar dissolves fully over time in the available moisture—the egg whites, the water content of the butter—and once heated, the sugar carmelizes, in a way, bringing with it a fuller, richer flavor.  Not to mention some very refined edges when it migrates to the sides and surface.  I intend to incorporate this process, well, wherever possible.

As for your cocoa, I still recommend Dutch-processed cocoa.  (With the success of this test, I will now use Penzeys high-fat Dutch-processed cocoa exclusively. It’s just champion and extremely well-priced.)  I still think you can use a natural cocoa if that’s your preference, but you may have to make some allowances for it.  A bit more fat and espresso paste, a bit less vanilla and sugar… these come to mind.

Finally, I have settled on cherry jam for this, but you can use whatever you want to try.    This does present the last remaining flavor issue, though:  The jam’s flavor still doesn’t come through well enough.  It provides great support for the texture, which in turn supports the flavor; but the fruit flavor’s not terribly evident.  I still recommend using it—it’s certainly in the background–but I also now recommend that you heat some up on the stove, then either drizzle it or spread it over the top.  I haven’t tried this yet, but I’m confident in this as a solution.

Please contact me here with questions.  You can find the final recipe here.

Fruit Swirl Brownie Baking Test No. 3: Success!

21 Aug

UPDATE: Please read here and here for the theory and the thoughts behind these brownies.

It’s 1130p over here, but I’ll tell you quickly that my new recipe–my attempt to make the Honeypie Fruit Swirl Brownie in a home kitchen–is an incredible success.  No, really. I’ve succeeded, too, in fixing the flavor and greasiness issues that occur naturally in the original recipe.  A fully detailed report will follow tomorrow, but in the meantime, here’s a quick breakdown of this phenomenal and still ridiculously easy home version.

1 3/4 c. flour, sifted
1 3/4 c. Dutch-processed cocoa, sifted
2 1/2 c. sugar, processed superfine
2 tsp salt
2 TBL instant espresso paste

1 stick butter, melted
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
2 TBL vanilla
1/2 c. vegetable oil
1/4 c. water
8 or so TBL cherry jam at room temp

*Preheat oven to 350 F. Rack in middle position.  Grease and foil pan for easy removal.

1.  Melt butter.  Add sifted cocoa and oil and mix.  Add water and espresso paste (this will thicken it).  Allow to cool.

2.  In a separate bowl, mix vanilla, eggs, and egg yolks.

3.  Sift flour and salt together.  Set aside.

4.  Add chocolate mixture to egg mixture.  Use a whisk to mix thoroughly, but do not incorporate air.

5.  Add sugar.  Allow to sit for a few minutes.

6.  Add sifted flour all at once; mix with wooden or stiff spatula.  Do not overmix, and note that this will be a stiff batter.

7.  Spread into pan.  Add TBLs of jam to top and swirl into batter with a knife.  Smooth top if necessary.

8.  Bake for 30 minutes, rotating at the 15-minute mark.

9.  Allow to cool for two hours, then use foil to lift out pan (or flip, using cooling racks and a cutting board).

This isn’t a great photo, but check it out below.  I hear they’re the best I’ve ever made and while I don’t know that I’d say that, they are pretty damn amazing.  (I do have one last dilemma/solution to discuss and test before I’ll agree.)  So, please remember to check back tomorrow to find out exactly why I did what I did and when I did it.  Got that?  And if I don’t catch you tomorrow before your visit, be sure to check back Monday.  See you then.

Groceries and Baking Supplies

20 Aug

Off to shop for this shit in the rain.  Still have a neck- and headache.  Please feel sorry for me.

See you tomorrow.

The Baking Life

19 Aug

The baking life includes headaches.  Trying to resist coating myself in Ben Gay.  But resistance may be futile: The nausea as slain me.  I’m out.  I imagine that this is what C3PO felt like on Tattooine, stiff and hurt by all the sand and an unsympathetic little companion.

My last two years of college, and for several years after, I had terrible insomnia and headaches every single day.  Yet somehow I was capable of getting up and doing great things then.  I had three 4.0 semesters in a row.  Then I freelanced and made actual money at it.  With that pain.  Every day.  And I can’t help but feel weak, and useless, because I just can’t do that now.  I don’t remember how I did it.

I’ll see you tomorrow, before my sexy grocery trip.