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What Can Brown (Cookies) Do for You?

2 Jan

Chocolate-chips cookies are a holiday staple.  Scratch that: They are a staple, period.  You can, for example, buy chocolate-chip cookie cereal, which is a grain and, according to the MIT food pyramid, one needs six to 11 servings of grains per day to live a wonderful life.  Suck it, gubmint food nannies.

Anyway, despite the fact that I have developed a foolproof, infinitely adaptable chocolate-chip cookie recipe (see here for a maple version), I decided that having had success fiddling around with saturated/unsaturated fat ratios in brownies, I would try to replicate that same, very desirable chew in cookies.  I have been close using combinations of butter and lard, but the chew eventually gives way to softness and while that’s still good, I wanted to bake a cookie that remained chewy over time.

So, here’s what I did, using a standard quick-bread mixing method:

2 c. all-purpose flour
2 c. oatmeal
1 ½ c. dark brown sugar
8 oz. semisweet chips
2 tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder
Raw sugar for decorating

1 lg egg
2 TBL vanilla
12 TBL butter, melted
2 TBL lard (melted with butter)
2 TBL vegetable oil

These did turn out chewy… after biting through the tortoise-like shell.  What’s more, the dark brown sugar made these things very, very brown and combined with the oatmeal, they tasted a little like granola.  Here’s what I think happened:

Because I was using cooking oil, I omitted some of the ingredients used to soften cookies, thinking that it might be too much, like when I added too much honey to a previous batch.  And while the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats might be right for creating that awesome grocery-store chew, not all saturated fats behave the same.  That’s why and additional egg yolk is often used to soften cookies and encourage some chew.

I also omitted a TBL of corn syrup, also useful for softening and chew, given its hygroscopic properties.  But plainly, one or the other or both should have remained in the recipe.  Or, one of the two, and only one TBL of vegetable oil… you get the idea.  I have to continue experimenting, and I’m just not smart enough to know what will happen, exactly, before I do it.  (Off the top of my head, though, I think the best bet’s to add one egg yolk, and reduce the oil by one TBL.  The egg yolk will emulsify–suspend–the water in the butter and the oil together.)

The quantity of dry ingredients is also just a bit too high, I think, also evidenced by the cookie’s stiffness and granola flavor.  Reducing the flour and oats by a ¼ each would probably do the trick.  The dark brown sugar, which contains a very high quantity of molasses, also added to the granola flavor.  And of course, the ridiculous brown color.

They were still quality cookies, though.  I put them out at the office without owning up to them–they were too brown and I’m too vain–but they were gone in an instant.  But that could also be because, as one of the least favored in my work group, no one knew the cookies came from me.

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Sunday Fudgy Sunday

2 Jan

The original plan was to help out an old man with a sweet tooth.  I mean, a real sweet tooth.  I’m not talking about the coworker who cuts a quarter off a muffin with a butter knife, proclaims herself to be naughty, then pukes it up in a bathroom on a different floor.  No, I mean I think that old guy eats sugar packets when we’re not looking.

This makes him an easy target for fudge, seeing as how that stuff, no matter how you make it, is nearly all sugar.  Personally, I’m not much of a fan; the kind I’ve had is the kind of fudge sold in cute country stores and is always, and unrepentantly, dried out.  Can’t figure out why a proprietor would leave a large, uncovered tray of fudge in a refrigerated case.  Transmission fluid would dry out if left uncovered in a refrigerated case.

And traditional fudge can be tricky as it is: Like all candy, the temperature to which you heat your sugar will determine its characteristics and in this, precision is key.  If your candy thermometer is off, your candy will be off.  If your timing is off, your candy will be off.  In this case, heating the sugar component of fudge too high will produce a dry, crumbly fudge, which is how I suspect a lot of fudge is sold at the start.

(On a side note, I would like to meet the people who will pay American dollars for what tastes like candied sand, because boy, have I got some serious rejects available for those fools.)

So while all of this is true, there actually is a very easy way to produce better-than-average fudge without regard to precision, temperature or technique.  I can’t take credit for it; it’s a Cook’s Illustrated recipe that uses sweetened condensed milk, chips, and a little baking soda to add just enough air to keep it from being too dense.  (I’m sorry, but the recipe is not free, so I can’t reproduce it here.  But if you search for “15-Minute Walnut Fudge,” you might get lucky.)

The recipe is in fact so easy, I thought I could substitute just about any flavor chip I wanted to make the fudge.  It’s the sweetened condensed milk and baking soda doing the work, both of which could hide a multitude of sins considering that precision and temperature were not involved.  With that in mind I decided, having made plenty of chocolate fudge for our favorite old guy in the past, I’d make butterscotch fudge for him using butterscotch chips, marshmallows, and chunks of Werther’s.  Pretty damn sugary, that.

This did not work out at all.

First, although the largest constituent of all chips is sugar, all bets are off after that.  Naturally, I didn’t bother to check this or even think about it knowing full well that if the type and amount of fat varies greatly between white and dark chocolate, maybe I ought to check out the content of the butterscotch chips because, you know, they’re not chocolate.  But whatever, right?

The butterscotch chips I used (purchased from Aldi and believe me, that store brings it in sweets department) actually have a remarkably high amount of palm oil in them, nearly as much as the sugar.  If you’ve worked with palm oil, then you know that while it solidifies at room temperature, it’s still very malleable.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  It’s a superb idea to use palm oil for this purpose.  White chocolate coatings will use more palm oil than shortening, making it cheaper and easier to work with; better peanut butters use palm oil instead of shortening, too, to give it that creamy texture.  As for butterscotch chips, there’s a huge gulf in taste between those made with palm oil and those made with shortening.  That said, the crappier-tasting, shortening-laden butterscotch chips would’ve been better suited to making this variety of fudge.  Here’s why.

Once mixed, melted and cooled with the sweetened condensed milk, baking soda, salt and vanilla, it never set properly.  Palm oil, though it’s solid at room temperature, is still 49.2 percent unsaturated fat.  The stuff is, like, half cooking oil, basically.  Combining this with gooey sweetened condensed milk made it impossible for it to set.  Chips made with shortening, which is a fully saturated fat, would probably set up just fine.

Then there were aesthetic issues I didn’t anticipate, but should’ve.  Butterscotch chips are an orange shade of tan and to combat this, I thought adding white marshmallows would add a nice contrast.  Except that the marshmallows ended up coated in orange-tan goo and were too large even in the miniature variety.  This made for orange-tan goo with lumps.

No problem, I thought; these shiny Werther’s chunks I just pulverized with a stubby hammer will look shiny and great even though the bag broke and there’s butterscotch dust everywhere.  Okay, that’s a lie.  “Oh shit!” was what I thought immediately.  But I added the Werther’s bits to the top anyway, which made for orange-tan goo with lumps and chunks.

I pretty much knew there was no hope at this point.  But I thought that maybe I’d get lucky–that cutting into them would reveal this marvelous contrast of colors and textures and regardless of what the tops looked like, maybe that’s what people would see first.  And maybe it would’ve been if my orange-tan goo with lumps and chunks had solidified at all.

Instead, it’s sitting in my uninsulated mudroom, held back in an old Tupperware container like some slimy alien, its nasty gooey arms clinging to the sides as if it’s going to kill me for this when it breaks out.  This fudge could be the end of me.

Please note that despite all this it is ridiculously delicious, so I will do something with it someday.

Peanut Butter Cups: I Failed

3 Oct

Update:  I’m just gonna say it.  This looks like a vagina.

Maybe it was because I wasn’t in the mood, or maybe it was because I filled the house with chlorine gas the night before.  I don’t know.  But I performed a thoughtless and poorly planned test of these peanut butter cups.  And it shows.  I’ve attached a photo, and will detail my failure for you this week.

I will take your pity, if you wish to give it.

Yeesh!

I am challenged.

29 Sep

Yes, I said that on purpose. But I’m sure I don’t need to remind you folks of just how challenged I am.  Oh, so many challenges, and so little desire to take them on.

Except for one.

A friend of mine constantly sends me recipes from Instructables, and while I won’t break bad on the good and honest hard work of most of the posters, I will happily point out the faults of those corporations that post recipes there as though they’ve got some great insight to share.  They don’t.  They’ve got a vested interest in keeping their secrets, which annoys the shit out of me because I firmly believe that nothing, and I mean nothing, should be a mystery for the home cook.  Plus, hardcore capitalist though I am, I do not appreciate it when The Man invades a creative space with finally accessible information. I fear it won’t be long before the site is just filled with commercials.

Anyway, when he sent me this recipe for Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups, I was excited to maybe get some tips for making this sort of thing at home. The video’s not bad, to be honest, but still: Imagine my annoyance when I discovered a video from Pepperidge Farm instead of great, practiced advice from someone who’d labored over these things forever because for her, Reese’s are all right, but they’re just not good enough.  You know the type.

Instead it’s a recipe that calls for Pepperidge Farm puff pastry (natch), and gratefully unbranded peanut butter, chocolate, and marshmallows. Not a bad idea, I’ll grant. But if you sit through the video as I did–it’s short, so you can still respect yourself–you’ll note a couple of problems.

1. This is truly a pet peeve of mine: There’s no mention of just how cold the kitchen needs to be in order to work properly with pastry. I understand that this is processed puff pastry, and if you’ve ever made it, there’s certainly no shame in using the prepackaged stuff. I’ll never judge. But even as processed as it is, for the best results, you need to set your A/C very low. Or, if it’s winter, open a window. If you think you’ll get cold, well, you will. But you won’t die. So suck it up and move fast.

This reminded me of the current restaurant habit to, um, artfully pile all your food in the middle of a white plate, like a very expensive recreation of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Not a fan of either.

2. The three remaining ingredients are placed in the middle of the dough in a little pile, and in this order: Peanut butter, chocolate, marshmallows.   The video also advises you to use sweet chocolate, but combined with marshmallows this will most assuredly be a cloying mistake. You’ll want to use 60% at least or, better yet, a Special Dark bar. Everybody loves those things.

3. You can probably predict the next problem: Light-brown puff pastry… light-brown peanut butter… and marshmallows that carmelize to a lovely shade of… light brown. That’s a lot of brown, people.

What can brown do for you? Nothing.

I think the marshmallow is a nice counter to the peanut butter–I’m fascinated by the combo, actually–but it’s got to be incorporated in a better way. Easy solution: Mix the peanut butter and some marshmallow fluff together. This would also offer more stability to the peanut butter, which has a rather unattractive melt.

Breaking this apart on film was a mistake, no?

Finally, I really don’t think puff pastry is the best, most attractive vessel for these three ingredients. Puff pastry is awesome, yes, but a tartlet, I think, would be far superior. It’s more work than dumping stuff on prepackaged puff pastry, yeah. But a nice, bright shortcrust, filled with a sweet-salty peanut butter mixture and topped with, say a medallion of dark chocolate? Now, that would be pretty.

I think I’ll do it.

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.

The San Diego Chargers Ruined My Baking Dreams

17 Aug

Due to the fact that the fight song for the San Diego Chargers has given me brain damage, I will be unable to post any superbly written baking news today. I will however return tomorrow after a full 24 hours of not hearing that song.

See you tomorrow.

Brownie Baking Test Post-Mortem

16 Aug

Just to start, you should know that I pulled out the AP Style Guide to figure out if “post-mortem” takes a hyphen. I guess it does, but I think it looks like shit. Why do I continue to follow AP style when I truly think it’s kind of crap? This is what happens while I wait for my similarly shitty brownie photos load up, I guess. Ah, yes, things are already going as well as can be expected for your Belligerent Baker. But here goes.

I’ve discovered now with test no. 2 that there are more complications to creating what appears to be the same, professionally made brownie seen here. As I mentioned in the last post, these are good brownies for such an easy recipe, but I think that making that brownie at home will require more complex preparations.  One of my goals has always been getting to what’s in the picture, no matter how stylized or retouched, and I’ve found that it can certainly be done with the extra work and research; but for reasons I’ll get into here in a minute, this recipe’s no different despite its very smart premise.

My tasters and I are also experiencing a bit of a disconnect between the texture and density of the brownie, and the actual chocolate flavor.  Now, I was able to mature the chocolate flavor quite a bit with some easy substitutions, but that doesn’t change the fact that generally speaking, chocolate baked goods made with solely with cocoa taste like cake, not like a brownie.  See, when you’re testing, you can finagle the flavor or the texture, depending where you are in the process.  But when you want to perfect a recipe, you’ve got to balance both.  I did not account for this in test no. 2 because I’d hoped the flavor adjustments would be enough.  You’ll be happy to know I’ve got a really simple fix for that.  But first?  The breakdown.

Ingredients

I’ll not bore you with a diatribe about the original recipe’s instructions to use organic, local crap.  Although I would dearly love to, because I’m broke from it and anything that cuts into my soda budget makes me mad.  Anyway, I’ll just reiterate here that I noticed absolutely no difference in performance and taste from either the $4 dozen of eggs or the $5 pound of butter.

The cocoas?  This is just a matter of taste and appearance; you may prefer the flavor and color of natural cocoa, and that’s fine.  I prefer Dutch-processed.  (You may also like Saco and Special Dark as well, both of which are a combination of natural and Dutched cocoas.)  Whichever one you choose, though, what is absolutely essential is the addition of the espresso paste.  Without it, the top note is truly just the three cups of sugar.  If you can’t find instant espresso, instant coffee will do in a pinch.  Just keep it small, so you don’t change your proportions.

2 TBL instant espresso, a splash of boiling water, and a wee whisk is all you need here.

A baker's best friends.

Obviously, all-purpose flour is called for here. What happened, though, is that the first batch, made to spec, produced a brownie that was dense, sure, but still had a rather unrefined crumb. The color of the natural cocoa didn’t help this, and the result looked a bit amateurish. Cocoa can also clump together, not necessarily in visible balls, but just several grains at a time; this will also affect the crumb. After setting, too, will such a high quantity of fat in the recipe, the brownie itself became a bit spongey. So for test no. 2, I sifted the cocoa and flour after measuring. This, along with the processed sugar, certainly helped refine the crumb a great deal, but the issue of sponginess after setting remained.

But that’s not the only issue the developed upon setting. As we all know, fat carries flavor, and the great quantity certainly works to that effect here.  I will say again that this is a great idea, although it may not work quite right in a noncommercial setting.  Here’s what I believe happened.

There’s not a great deal of dry ingredients vs. wet/fat in the proportions.  The purpose, of course, is to make a rich, fudgy brownie without the added work of melted chocolate.  But with such a low proportion of dry to wet/fat ingredients, the brownies in effect become greasy after setting.  Yes, you read that right: Greasy.  In a bakery, these things don’t sit around too long, so no great shakes, I guess.  And of course, you can skirt this issue by serving it with a fork and plate, but this doesn’t fit my definition of a brownie.  Or of perfect.

As it happened, the recipe developed an issue with the seven eggs as well.  And that brings us to the process.

Directions and Process

I should say first that for the most part, the directions here are spot-on.  The creaming of the butter and sugar is a brilliant idea, and gives the brownies a structure I’m certain they wouldn’t have otherwise. Without a way to bloom the cocoa, I do recommend adding the salt, and full two teaspoons at that, to the butter and sugar mixture as an activator.  I also recommend sifting and processing the dry ingredients, but it’s not criminal if you don’t.  But what is criminal is my failure, as well as the original’s failure, to take into account the seven eggs in the baking process.  Eggs are delicate ingredients, but adding one or two to an already big mix will require no special treatment.  But seven?  I’m an idiot.

If you’ve ever made a custard, a mousse, or a proper cheesecake, then you know you need bake these things in a bain-marie–a water bath–so the whole thing bakes evenly.  Failing that, the high quantity and delicacy of the eggs will allow for the outer edges to bake far faster, causing them to crust up and pull away from the pan.  Which is so amateur-hour, I can’t even say.  This happened in both tests, and I could smack myself for failing to make the adjustment the first time.  I guess I just wanted to believe that I could still manage this without adding excess trouble for you, and trust me, baking in a bain-marie is a bitch.  But check it out:

Wow, that's ugly.

The edges are soft, to be sure, but I’d like to know how–or if–the bakery managed to avoid this ugly problem. Or do they just cut the edges off before serving? (Not that this is bad; it’s important to be able to disguise your mistakes.) But it’s the omission of this enormous little detail that drove me to start this project in the first place. I mean, I know these are satisfactory, and a lot of people will love them just as they are, but give us the chance to do the best we can with it. Tell us what’s really going to happen.

Further Improvements

Of course, I’ll be doing these again to create a better home version.  I don’t want you to have to use a water bath for what are proper-looking but still just a stupid pan of brownies, and I don’t want you to mess around with melted chocolate if you don’t have to.  But this just still isn’t right for home use.  Just off the top of my head, here’s what I think needs to happen:

  • Different fats, fewer eggs: A lot of the gloss and chew evident in the original photo can come from splitting the butter with some oil; this will also settle far better over time.  Put the oil over a low heat, too, and you can bloom the cocoa in it for a richer flavor.  As for the eggs, I just don’t think seven is necessary for either structure or flavor.  And omitting several will eliminate the need for a bain-marie.
  • Slightly cakier texture: The oil will help encourage a somewhat lighter texture, but that sponge business aside a new texture is mostly for flavor improvement, to be honest.  That’s because the cocoa flavor is better suited to a slightly lighter texture, and the fruit jam–yeah, remember that–will pop more in a lighter brownie, too.  I don’t mean that these need to be airy, per se, but this recipe needs to lighten up a bit to make more sense.
  • Intensified bites: This one’s important.  If you choose to go with this recipe as is (including my necessary substitutions), this is the easy flavor fix I mentioned early on.  To create a flavor that will be in balance with the heavy texture, simply add a bag of chocolate chips, or a couple of chopped up candy bars or baking chocolate–whatever’s handy.  I might even say milk chocolate’s your best bet, assuming that you’ve added an espresso paste to your mix.  You may even want to throw in a bag of frozen berries just before baking, too.  Just be sure to fold them in gently.

Lastly, here’s a shot of the finished product.  Please let me know if you have any questions, and apologies for the bad grammar.

Do remember to check back, since I’ll keep thinking about this one.

Obviously shot on the good side.