Tag Archives: kitchen equipment

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.

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Gluten-Free Baking

22 Sep

I know next to nothing about gluten-free baking, except that it’s pretty easy to turn gluten-free baked goods into bricks.  But it’s a challenge, isn’t it, to get this right just for the sake of it: I have no allergies to gluten or anything else, and neither does anyone I know.  I want to be good at it anyway.

Among the myriad issues surrounding gluten-free baking, there’s another significant hurdle to getting it right, and that’s the expense.  Gluten-free ingredients are far from cheap and it’s an enterprise that will require more tests than I can count.  Plus, I have to replace the shocks in my Saturn.  All this together means that I will be using this weekend for research.

Which leaves me with the question:  What should I bake this weekend instead?  I promised a new project, and I meant it.  Tune in tomorrow to find out what it is.

Baking on the Cheap, Test No. 1

20 Sep

Here are some quick first impressions.  A more detailed report will follow.

1. House-brand cocoa is not terribly chocolatey.  The flavor of the batter would indicate that at 1-3/4 c. it cannot compete with 2-1/2 c. of sugar.  The question will be how to adjust for this.  Of course, this point may be moot once they’re done.

2. The house-brand flour I used appeared, felt and behaved like flour with a higher protein content than typical all-purpose flour.  That said, it’s not by much and to be honest, in a pinch, it’ll work better than I’d originally thought it would.

3. House-brand imitation vanilla?  Not as good as the Mexican versions available in more urban areas, but again, it’ll work in a pinch. I still maintain that in something like brownies, oatmeal cookies–less than delicate bakery–imitation vanilla will work even a bit better than pure extract every time.

4. House-brand instant coffee: Wow, I wouldn’t recommend using that stuff if you can help it.  The point here though is to make something great out of next to nothing, so I used 3 TBL to mimic the usual espresso paste.

5. They still smell fantastic!

Stay tuned.  I’ll report on the actual finished results tomorrow.  See you then!

Baking on the Cheap

19 Sep

I’ve got a new project.  Now that I’ve thoroughly tested my perfect brownie recipe, I want to find out if holds up under distressed conditions: House-brand cocoa; house-brand, bleached all-purpose flour ; and seriously cheap, house-brand instant coffee.  All I have left to buy is the generic–and yes, imitation–vanilla.  I’ll be using ingredients that are thought to be maybe a half-step better than that stuff that comes in no. 10 cans with a plain white label, which I’d use for this test if I could find it.

Now, I’m certain several tests will be necessary.  House-brand, bleached all-purpose flour has a protein content than can vary not only by the store, but even from batch to batch in the same store.  It will take some work, I suspect, to develop a general rule for baking with it.

Flavors will likely be an issue as well.  Like the flour, house-brand cocoas,vanillas, and instant coffees can vary in flavor and quality, and all within the same store.  It really just depends where the store sources its products from contract to contract. I plan to keep my methods constant, but I’ll develop all new proportions and adjustments with this variance in mind.

See, one of my goals here is to make baking as accessible as possible.  Not just the directions and the science, but the cost, too,  And while I already insist on using ingredients that are easy to find, it’s time to figure out how to bake great things with the ingredients that’ll make your typical food jag laugh at you behind your back.  Let’s show ’em that real skill and confidence–and taste–has nothing to do with name and price.

I can’t wait.

Have You Heard Enough About the Brownies Yet?

12 Sep

No?  Good.  Because there’s more.

Well, not really.  I just made them yesterday, while the bread was rising.  I decided to use up the last of that organic, natural cocoa I was stuck with from my initial test.  Plus, I had a new Dominican-style vanilla to try, which I’ll discuss later.

But, I also made them without the jam, and failed to pour any fruity syrup of any kind over the top because, well, I forgot.  And I forgot to blend the sugar.   Yeah, I was tired.  I never seem to get to these things until, like, 8 ‘o clock at night.

Anyway, they’re still fabulous.  I do still prefer the flavor of dutch-processed cocoa, but seriously, I’ve got no complaints.  And neither does anyone else.

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.

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.