Machine learning to find a recipe for a baked good that’s half cake and half cookie

Last year, around the time when people were baking a lot of things, Sarah Robinson used machine learning to find a recipe for a “cakie”:

Like many people, I’ve been entertaining myself at home by baking a ton and talking about my sourdough starter as if it were a real person. I’m pretty good at following recipes, but I decided I wanted to take things one step further and understand the science behind what differentiates a cake from a bread or a cookie. I also like machine learning so I thought: what if I could combine it with baking??!

Robinson provides the final recipe at the end, so first, I need to try this recipe. Second, what other foods and beverages can this apply to?

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“…baking IS science”

Editor’s Note: A strip from Danielle Corsetto’s Girls with Slingshots reminded us of Ben’s inaugural post here at The Finch & Pea. Excerpt from post originally published 30 August 2012.

Adapted from "Girls with Slingshots #1882" by Danielle Corsetto (All Rights Reserved - Adapted & Used with Permission)

Adapted from “Girls with Slingshots #1882″ by Danielle Corsetto (All Rights Reserved – Adapted & Used with Permission)

Good food, sexy food is the result of passion and science. We talk a lot about passion in cooking, but passion alone can’t make a chocolate mousse cake. Passion can’t ensure efficient heat transfer, make proteins bind, crystallize molecules, or drive chemical reactions. There is science in your food, even if you don’t know how it got there.

I’m here to introduce you, the patrons of The Finch & Pea, to some delicious nosh, to stoke your passion for cooking, and to help you understand how cooking works.

Understanding the science behind a recipe – what the ingredients really are, how they interact with each other, how they change when you manipulate them – will make you a better cook, chef, and diner. When I go to write a cake recipe, knowing flour type composition, hydration ratios, chemical reactions of leavening agents, and methods for strengthen emulsions drastically affects the success of the recipe. Cooking isn’t just about passion. It’s about words you heard in chemistry and physics class. Words like heat conductivity, melting point, vaporization temperatures, phase transition, pressure effects on physical states, hygroscopic minerals, and density differentials all play an important role in almost every aspect of cooking.

Together we are going to explore the science behind everyday cooking. Why should you salt a steak an hour before cooking, but never right before? Why shouldn’t you use vanilla extract? How can baking soda ruin your cookies? How does granulated sugar “cook” your strawberries when poured over top?


Filed under: From the Kitchen Tagged: Baking, Danielle Corsetto, food, Girls with Slingshots, science

The Devil’s in the Details of the Modern Cupcake

Finished cupcakes croppedI teamed up with Red Ridge Farms – an Oregon Vineyard, olive oil press, and garden nursery – for a wine dinner event. We served a five course meal inspired by street food using Red Ridge Farms’ locally grown and pressed olive oils with wine pairings from Red Ridge’s wine label, Durant Vineyards. I always enjoy developing a menu, especially a tasting menu and especially tasting menus paired with wine (or beer or cocktails).Copy of Notes

While I had fun writing all the recipes, my time as a pastry chef makes me particularly partial to desserts. Therefore, we are going to focus on our sweet selection, the Malted Devils Food Cupcakes with Passion Fruit Cream Filling and Olive Oil Buttercream – and some of the science behind its chocolatey decadence.

From the Kitchen Recipe Header

Click image for the full recipe (PDF – 3.9MB)

The Cake
About every six months for at least the last 8 years I have read about the “cupcake trend”. I have started wondering how long something has to be popular before it is no longer a trend and simply awesome all the time. Cupcakes are so consistently trendy that there is a trend of things being the “new cupcake”. Can you remember a time when people didn’t want cupcakes? It seems to me that the upsurge in things like cupcake shops has more to do with the growing interest in artisan food than some people suddenly realizing how delicious moist cakes with mounds of frosting can be.

Notes (1)The first thing to remember is that cupcakes are cake. A cupcake recipe is just a cake recipe and visa versa. This may seem obvious, but I have caused confusion on any number of occasions by handing out a regular old cake recipe when asked for a cupcake recipe. Though food historians are woefully at odds about the actual origins of the cupcake, there is no argument over the fact they are, in fact, simply cake.

We are making devil’s food cupcakes, which follows almost exactly the same process as most cake recipes. In any cake recipe, we are going to start by beating together our sugar and our fats – typically butter or oil. Butter gives you a moist cake. Oil recipes gives you a tender1 cake. You will see the occasional recipe that asks for shortening. Do not trust this recipe! Do not lend them money. Do not let them take your daughter out for a late night drive. Definitely do not cook and eat them. Because of its melting point, shortening gives you a greasy cake, simultaneously making the cupcake neither moist nor tender. For more on the difference in fats, see my Pumpkin Pie recipe and post.

Once the fats and sugars are beaten together, we add eggs and any flavoring (i.e. vanilla, etc.). The eggs are helping us in a couple of ways. First, they emulsify the mixture. Egg yolks contain the lipoprotein lecithin, which helps bond together fats and liquids. We have plenty of fat and a bit of liquid in these cupcakes for the eggs to hold together in a nice, uniform mix. Second, the eggs are also going to build structure. When eggs get hot, they get firm. This is from the coagulation of the proteins, which is going to help make sure that our cupcakes hold their shape. Fats and sugars are tenderizers, meaning they breakdown structure. We need structure to hold the cake together and trap air for rise. We need tenderness to make that cake dissolve in your mouth. The ideal cake is a deft balance of these two requirements.

Once the eggs are well incorporated, we add the dry ingredients – flour, cocoa powder, malt powder, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. We are going to focus on the cocoa powder and baking soda, but all these ingredients are important and doing something sciencey in the recipe. Most baked good that contain cocoa powder will also contain baking soda due to the way they react together. Baking soda is a base that releases carbon dioxide when mixed with an acid, such as vinegar. This reaction  can create the eruption of a kitchen volcano, bubbles in soda water, and rise in baked good. Some recipes, like most red velvet cakes, actually use vinegar to react with the baking soda.

Notes (2)For devil’s food cupcakes, however, we don’t need vinegar because cocoa powder is acidic (the exception is Dutch processed or Dutched cocoa powder). The cocoa powder acids will also damage the glutens in the all-purpose flour2. Without the acids in the cocoa, we will have dense, tough cupcakes.

The recipe does not tell you to sift the dry ingredients together. Sifting is supposed to aerate and mix ingredients. In theory, this is true. In practice, I have never found that it makes a lick of difference. The only time I would insist on sifting is if you are making a cake lightened with meringue (eg, angel food cake).

Last step, we bring the milk and water to a boil, then slowly stream it into the mix while the mixer is running. We heat the liquids for the texture of the cake. The hot liquid gelatinizes some of the starches in the flour and cocoa. The starches absorb water, swell, and become viscous. This creates the signature thick, rich, almost gooey consistency of devil’s food.

Distribute the mix, place it in the oven, bake and we’ve got cupcakes. Now it is time to prepare the elements that are going that will make these cupcakes show stoppers.

The Filling
Notes (3)It is not a secret that chocolate and orange taste great together. What many people don’t know is that it is not just oranges, but the whole array of citrus and, for that matter, sour things. The richness chocolate and the sharp, cleansing quality of sour flavors balance each other beautifully. For our cupcakes, we are going to use passion fruit, which has a delicious, citrusy flavor. For the less adventurous or those who can’t find passion fruit or passion fruit purée locally, lemon curd is a good replacement for this filling.

We are making a creme patisserie, which is the fancy French way of saying pastry cream, which is the fancy chef way of saying pudding. Don’t think of this as the same pudding you get in a snack pack and don’t even consider replacing this filling with instant pudding or I shall banish thee from the land. Pastry cream, as the name suggests, is used throughout the world of pastry in everything from eclairs to cream pies. Pastry cream is not creamy, rich, and delicious, it is also versatile and resilient. Pastry cream is a uniquely heat-resistant custard due to its starches and can be thawed its original consistency after months in the freezer.

Notes (4)To make our pastry cream we start by simply whisking together egg yolks, sugar, and cornstarch. We then whisk in our liquids, cream and passion fruit purée3. I whisk everything right in the pot I will be cooking in so I have one less bowl to clean later. Most recipes for pastry cream will tell you to warm the milk first with idea that you are tempering the eggs. Once again, true in theory and unnecessary in practice. Just get it mixed, on the stove, and start cooking.

We need to whisk our pastry cream constantly as it cooks to make sure we don’t get lumps. It is going to look like nothing is happening for a while and then – wham – just before it reaches a boil, it will start thickening until it looks like pudding. That’s it. Done.Transfer the pastry cream to a container, press plastic wrap directly onto the surface to prevent that skin pudding loves to form, and put it in the fridge.

Why did the pastry cream turn thick all of a sudden? Our old friend gelatinization. And a bit of coagulation as well, I suppose. The starches in the cornstarch swell, absorb water, and thicken as they heat making it harder for the molecules to move past each other and making the mixture viscous. The longer carbohydrate molecules also interfere with the egg yolk coagulation. So, while the egg yolk proteins will be able to help thicken the pastry cream by coming together slightly, they will not curdle.

Icing on the Cake
We are going to make a French buttercream frosting. There are several different butter creams that are used in cake making and decorating. Italian is made with Italian meringue. Swiss is made with Swiss meringue. American is basically butter and powdered sugar. Our olive oil buttercream needs French buttercream’s unique ingredient: egg yolks.

For a French buttercream there are essentially three elements: egg yolks, sugar syrup, and fat. Usually the fat is butter. In our buttercream, we are replacing a small amount of the butter with olive oil for flavor. Be sure to use a good, flavorful olive oil since we are not using much of it.

Adding sugar syrup to egg yolksThe sugar syrup is a mixture of sugar and water cooked to exactly 240 degrees Fahrenheit (115.5C). At 240F, sugar reaches the soft ball stage, which means that we have cooked out enough water to allow the saccharide molecules to tangle into a soft, pliable sugar when cooled (think soft, chewy caramels). When we whip this into the yolks, the syrup will slowly cool and trap air in its gradually thickening network causing the mixture to be lighter.

Consistency after olive oilThe real key to this particular buttercream thought is the egg yolks. Since we are adding a liquid fat (olive oil), we need to ensure that it will incorporate smoothly into the rest of the mix. Solid butter is already in an emulsified state. So, we don’t have to worry about it. Once again, the lecithin in the yolks helps combine the oils with the liquids. We’ll start by adding about half the butter first. This will create an emulsified base, which will make it easier for the oil emulsify itself. We then slowly drizzle in the oil while the mixer is running. Our mixture should look a bit like mayonnaise once all the oil is added, because what we have here is not extremely different in structure than mayonnaise. Add the rest of the butter and we’re there.

cupcake corer croppedNow we just have to put everything together. Simply take the core out of the cupcakes (a small round cutter works well for this or they do make actually cupcake corers for this exact type of thing), fill it back in with the passion fruit filling, pipe the frosting over top, and enjoy.

Cupcakes in progress cropped

Yet again, science makes life more delicious. Happy sciencing and happy cooking!

CHEF’S NOTES
1. “Tender” in baking refers to a lack of structure. Shortbread cookies are tender because they fall apart easily. Breads tend not to be considered tender by bakers no matter how soft they are, because they don’t fall apart.
2. Most cakes are made with cake flour, whose gluten has not only already been damaged, but there is less of it. This gives softer, more cakey results. Cakes made with cocoa powder are often made with all-purpose flour, because the cocoa powder will damage the gluten for us.
3. You can make pretty much any flavor of pastry cream or pudding by simply changing what liquids are added as long as you maintain the ratio of liquids to starches. Most any fruit purée and be substituted or simply use all milk and add flavorings. For chocolate, just add chopped chocolate at the end of the cooking process and whisk until melted.


Filed under: From the Kitchen Tagged: Baking, buttercream, cake, cupcake, devil's food, food science, olive oil, passion fruit, pastry cream

The Devil’s in the Details of the Modern Cupcake

Finished cupcakes croppedI teamed up with Red Ridge Farms – an Oregon Vineyard, olive oil press, and garden nursery – for a wine dinner event. We served a five course meal inspired by street food using Red Ridge Farms’ locally grown and pressed olive oils with wine pairings from Red Ridge’s wine label, Durant Vineyards. I always enjoy developing a menu, especially a tasting menu and especially tasting menus paired with wine (or beer or cocktails).Copy of Notes

While I had fun writing all the recipes, my time as a pastry chef makes me particularly partial to desserts. Therefore, we are going to focus on our sweet selection, the Malted Devils Food Cupcakes with Passion Fruit Cream Filling and Olive Oil Buttercream – and some of the science behind its chocolatey decadence.

From the Kitchen Recipe Header

Click image for the full recipe (PDF – 3.9MB)

The Cake
About every six months for at least the last 8 years I have read about the “cupcake trend”. I have started wondering how long something has to be popular before it is no longer a trend and simply awesome all the time. Cupcakes are so consistently trendy that there is a trend of things being the “new cupcake”. Can you remember a time when people didn’t want cupcakes? It seems to me that the upsurge in things like cupcake shops has more to do with the growing interest in artisan food than some people suddenly realizing how delicious moist cakes with mounds of frosting can be.

Notes (1)The first thing to remember is that cupcakes are cake. A cupcake recipe is just a cake recipe and visa versa. This may seem obvious, but I have caused confusion on any number of occasions by handing out a regular old cake recipe when asked for a cupcake recipe. Though food historians are woefully at odds about the actual origins of the cupcake, there is no argument over the fact they are, in fact, simply cake.

We are making devil’s food cupcakes, which follows almost exactly the same process as most cake recipes. In any cake recipe, we are going to start by beating together our sugar and our fats – typically butter or oil. Butter gives you a moist cake. Oil recipes gives you a tender1 cake. You will see the occasional recipe that asks for shortening. Do not trust this recipe! Do not lend them money. Do not let them take your daughter out for a late night drive. Definitely do not cook and eat them. Because of its melting point, shortening gives you a greasy cake, simultaneously making the cupcake neither moist nor tender. For more on the difference in fats, see my Pumpkin Pie recipe and post.

Once the fats and sugars are beaten together, we add eggs and any flavoring (i.e. vanilla, etc.). The eggs are helping us in a couple of ways. First, they emulsify the mixture. Egg yolks contain the lipoprotein lecithin, which helps bond together fats and liquids. We have plenty of fat and a bit of liquid in these cupcakes for the eggs to hold together in a nice, uniform mix. Second, the eggs are also going to build structure. When eggs get hot, they get firm. This is from the coagulation of the proteins, which is going to help make sure that our cupcakes hold their shape. Fats and sugars are tenderizers, meaning they breakdown structure. We need structure to hold the cake together and trap air for rise. We need tenderness to make that cake dissolve in your mouth. The ideal cake is a deft balance of these two requirements.

Once the eggs are well incorporated, we add the dry ingredients – flour, cocoa powder, malt powder, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. We are going to focus on the cocoa powder and baking soda, but all these ingredients are important and doing something sciencey in the recipe. Most baked good that contain cocoa powder will also contain baking soda due to the way they react together. Baking soda is a base that releases carbon dioxide when mixed with an acid, such as vinegar. This reaction  can create the eruption of a kitchen volcano, bubbles in soda water, and rise in baked good. Some recipes, like most red velvet cakes, actually use vinegar to react with the baking soda.

Notes (2)For devil’s food cupcakes, however, we don’t need vinegar because cocoa powder is acidic (the exception is Dutch processed or Dutched cocoa powder). The cocoa powder acids will also damage the glutens in the all-purpose flour2. Without the acids in the cocoa, we will have dense, tough cupcakes.

The recipe does not tell you to sift the dry ingredients together. Sifting is supposed to aerate and mix ingredients. In theory, this is true. In practice, I have never found that it makes a lick of difference. The only time I would insist on sifting is if you are making a cake lightened with meringue (eg, angel food cake).

Last step, we bring the milk and water to a boil, then slowly stream it into the mix while the mixer is running. We heat the liquids for the texture of the cake. The hot liquid gelatinizes some of the starches in the flour and cocoa. The starches absorb water, swell, and become viscous. This creates the signature thick, rich, almost gooey consistency of devil’s food.

Distribute the mix, place it in the oven, bake and we’ve got cupcakes. Now it is time to prepare the elements that are going that will make these cupcakes show stoppers.

The Filling
Notes (3)It is not a secret that chocolate and orange taste great together. What many people don’t know is that it is not just oranges, but the whole array of citrus and, for that matter, sour things. The richness chocolate and the sharp, cleansing quality of sour flavors balance each other beautifully. For our cupcakes, we are going to use passion fruit, which has a delicious, citrusy flavor. For the less adventurous or those who can’t find passion fruit or passion fruit purée locally, lemon curd is a good replacement for this filling.

We are making a creme patisserie, which is the fancy French way of saying pastry cream, which is the fancy chef way of saying pudding. Don’t think of this as the same pudding you get in a snack pack and don’t even consider replacing this filling with instant pudding or I shall banish thee from the land. Pastry cream, as the name suggests, is used throughout the world of pastry in everything from eclairs to cream pies. Pastry cream is not creamy, rich, and delicious, it is also versatile and resilient. Pastry cream is a uniquely heat-resistant custard due to its starches and can be thawed its original consistency after months in the freezer.

Notes (4)To make our pastry cream we start by simply whisking together egg yolks, sugar, and cornstarch. We then whisk in our liquids, cream and passion fruit purée3. I whisk everything right in the pot I will be cooking in so I have one less bowl to clean later. Most recipes for pastry cream will tell you to warm the milk first with idea that you are tempering the eggs. Once again, true in theory and unnecessary in practice. Just get it mixed, on the stove, and start cooking.

We need to whisk our pastry cream constantly as it cooks to make sure we don’t get lumps. It is going to look like nothing is happening for a while and then – wham – just before it reaches a boil, it will start thickening until it looks like pudding. That’s it. Done.Transfer the pastry cream to a container, press plastic wrap directly onto the surface to prevent that skin pudding loves to form, and put it in the fridge.

Why did the pastry cream turn thick all of a sudden? Our old friend gelatinization. And a bit of coagulation as well, I suppose. The starches in the cornstarch swell, absorb water, and thicken as they heat making it harder for the molecules to move past each other and making the mixture viscous. The longer carbohydrate molecules also interfere with the egg yolk coagulation. So, while the egg yolk proteins will be able to help thicken the pastry cream by coming together slightly, they will not curdle.

Icing on the Cake
We are going to make a French buttercream frosting. There are several different butter creams that are used in cake making and decorating. Italian is made with Italian meringue. Swiss is made with Swiss meringue. American is basically butter and powdered sugar. Our olive oil buttercream needs French buttercream’s unique ingredient: egg yolks.

For a French buttercream there are essentially three elements: egg yolks, sugar syrup, and fat. Usually the fat is butter. In our buttercream, we are replacing a small amount of the butter with olive oil for flavor. Be sure to use a good, flavorful olive oil since we are not using much of it.

Adding sugar syrup to egg yolksThe sugar syrup is a mixture of sugar and water cooked to exactly 240 degrees Fahrenheit (115.5C). At 240F, sugar reaches the soft ball stage, which means that we have cooked out enough water to allow the saccharide molecules to tangle into a soft, pliable sugar when cooled (think soft, chewy caramels). When we whip this into the yolks, the syrup will slowly cool and trap air in its gradually thickening network causing the mixture to be lighter.

Consistency after olive oilThe real key to this particular buttercream thought is the egg yolks. Since we are adding a liquid fat (olive oil), we need to ensure that it will incorporate smoothly into the rest of the mix. Solid butter is already in an emulsified state. So, we don’t have to worry about it. Once again, the lecithin in the yolks helps combine the oils with the liquids. We’ll start by adding about half the butter first. This will create an emulsified base, which will make it easier for the oil emulsify itself. We then slowly drizzle in the oil while the mixer is running. Our mixture should look a bit like mayonnaise once all the oil is added, because what we have here is not extremely different in structure than mayonnaise. Add the rest of the butter and we’re there.

cupcake corer croppedNow we just have to put everything together. Simply take the core out of the cupcakes (a small round cutter works well for this or they do make actually cupcake corers for this exact type of thing), fill it back in with the passion fruit filling, pipe the frosting over top, and enjoy.

Cupcakes in progress cropped

Yet again, science makes life more delicious. Happy sciencing and happy cooking!

CHEF’S NOTES
1. “Tender” in baking refers to a lack of structure. Shortbread cookies are tender because they fall apart easily. Breads tend not to be considered tender by bakers no matter how soft they are, because they don’t fall apart.
2. Most cakes are made with cake flour, whose gluten has not only already been damaged, but there is less of it. This gives softer, more cakey results. Cakes made with cocoa powder are often made with all-purpose flour, because the cocoa powder will damage the gluten for us.
3. You can make pretty much any flavor of pastry cream or pudding by simply changing what liquids are added as long as you maintain the ratio of liquids to starches. Most any fruit purée and be substituted or simply use all milk and add flavorings. For chocolate, just add chopped chocolate at the end of the cooking process and whisk until melted.


Filed under: From the Kitchen Tagged: Baking, buttercream, cake, cupcake, devil's food, food science, olive oil, passion fruit, pastry cream

Pumpkin Pie

For me, Autumn doesn’t start with the first chill in the air or the changing leaves or paper cut outs of pilgrims and turkeys covering grade school walls. It starts with pie – pumpkin pie. I can get behind apple pie as the all-American pie and will commit unspeakable acts for a well made cherry pie; but for seasonal deliciousness, you can’t beat pumpkin pie.

Click for printable recipe card (PDF – 11kb)

There are a few secrets to perfect pumpkin pie. Maple syrup and bourbon are the easy ones. Adding maple syrup and bourbon to anything is like adding a double dose of awesome. You should seriously question the baking qualifications of anyone who leaves out the maple syrup and bourbon (I’m looking at you Betty Crocker).

The other secret is pretty easy too – the crust.

The secret to good pumpkin pie – to good any pie, in fact – is the crust, flaky, golden, crisp, melt in your mouth crust. The ingredients – flour, salt, fat, and liquid – may be simple, but the science of pie crust is still pretty interesting. As we examine the science of the flaky pie crust, we are also going to answer the long-standing debate over the best fat for pie making. Let get baking.

THE BASICS

Click for printable recipe card (PDF – 90kb)

I’m going to take us through this recipe a little differently than I usually do. Normally, I would go step by step, examining the science of each step and the importance of the ingredients. With pie making, the ingredients can vary a bit, highlighted by the three-way debate between butter, shortening, and lard. We have all seen many variations on the basic pie crust recipe. We are going to discuss these variations, how varying the ingredients affects the crust. This week’s recipe does very specific ingredients, simply because my version is best. We’ll explore why my way is the best as well. To do that, we’ll start by walking through the basic pie crust technique, which will be used no matter the tweaks in ingredients. With that basic framework in mind, we can then talk about the different ingredients and what science can tell us about what they will do to our crust.

Hopefully, we all know what flaky pie crust feels like, but what is its basic structure? Flaky pie crust is really separate, thin, overlapping pieces of dough. Imagine the crust as a pile of playing cards swirled around on a table top. While you may have a solid-looking surface of cards with no gaps, it is actually individual pieces (flakes) overlapping each other. The ideal flaky crust has the same structure. The fat forms a barrier between the flakes of dough preventing them from sticking together and allowing the overlapping pattern. The same principle is used to create puff pastry and flaky croissants. Pie crust is just less time intensive.

Here’s how we achieve delicious overlapping flakes of dough and fat. First, we start with a solid fat, either our butter, shortening, or lard. A liquid fat, like oil, will mix with the dough and create a uniform product rather than the disparate flakes we are looking for. We cut the solid fat into small pieces about ¼ – ½ inch cubed. This is easy to do with cold fats. Refrigerating butter or freezing shortening and lard will give you cuttable consistency. We add the fat cubes to the dry ingredients (flour and salt) and lightly toss to get everything evenly distributed. Now we flatten the fate. That’s right I said FLATTEN the fat, not “cut it in”. Whatever gremlin is responsible for insinuating pastry blenders in to pie cookery should found and held under a bright light.

We want disks, not crumbs. And, yes, “pea-sized” pieces are crumbs.
Crumbs aren’t going to do us any good in creating flakiness. Crumbliness, yes. Flakes, no. Let’s use the deck of cards example again. Imagine that those cards spread over the table are the ones you’ve been using for poker night for the last several years. They’ve lost their slippery, glossy coat. They’ve had beer spilled on them a few times…maybe some nacho cheese. Much like the dough flakes of our crust, the cards are going have the tendency to stick a bit. Now imagine that we added a bunch of slippery new cards into the mix. Suddenly, the old cards aren’t sticking together, because the new cards are preventing contact between the sticky, old cards. This only works because the new cards and the old ones are the same shape (ie, flat). It would be much harder to try to mix something round like marbles into the cards. When we try this with dough, not only do the fats get smaller, but the dough pieces do as well, crumbs instead of flakes.
So, put down the pastry blender or pair of butter knives or whatever fiendish device that gremlin recommended. The only tool we need is attached to our arm just below the wrist. With the chunks of fat distributed through the flour, we are now going to get our hands dirty and start smashing the fat flat. Simply pinch the fat pieces between thumb and finger so that they are flat disks roughly the size of a quarter.

That’s it. Done. Stop playing with it.

I mean it. If you keep playing with it you’re going to break it.

Remember, we want the fats to be solid. If they become liquid, they will mix into the dough and destroy our flakes. All of our fat types will soften and some will melt (especially butter) from body heat. So, it is important to work fast. This is also why starting with cold ingredients – cold fats and cold liquids – is important. Now that we have flattened disks of fat evenly dispersed through the flour, it is time to add the liquid.

You will notice that, like many pie crust recipes, our recipe has a range for the amount of liquid. This is because the amount of liquid your flour can take will depend on the day. The starches and proteins in flour want to bond with water. In fact, they are so desperate for water that they will actually pull moisture out of the air. On a wet or humid day, the flour has more access to water in the air and will pull more out of the air. Because the flour now has added moisture to it, we will have to add less liquid when we make our dough. Unfortunately, there is no great way to predict how much liquid your flour is going to take on any particular day. We are just going to have to add the liquid slowly and look for our dough to tell us.

We’ll start adding the liquid by drizzling about 1/3 of it over the flour/fat mixture. Then, with our hands, we will toss the mixture like a salad. Light hands. We don’t want to mix the fat into the flour anymore, just distribute the liquid throughout. Again, think dressing a salad. After that first third, we continue to slowly add more liquid until the dough is in ragged clumps. These will be big chunks that almost stick together when pressed, but don’t end up holding. At this point, we need to let the dough rest before doing anything else. This resting time will let the glutens relax making for easier rolling, allow the water to more evenly distribute itself through the dough, and let the butter chill down again. So we pat our dough into a disk, wrap it in plastic wrap, and place it in the fridge for one hour.

At the end of that hour, our dough is ready to roll and bake. With pie crust there are three different types of baking that we could do. Baking the raw crust and filling together, is one that I almost never use. The moisture of the filling never really allows the bottom crust to bake thoroughly and become flaky and crispy. Fully cooking the crust (known as blind baking)can give a better crust. I typically only use blind baking for an unbaked filling. While we don’t want soggy undercooked crust, we also don’t want the crust to overcook and burn on the edges. Partially cooking the crust (known as par-baking) is a good compromise, and our choice for our pumpkin pie.

To par-bake (or blind bake) our crust, we are going to roll out the dough, form it into the pie dish, trim off excess dough and then line the inside of the dough with parchment paper1. We then want to fill the crust completely with pie weights2. It is very important to fill the pie completely, not just the bottom. The weights not only hold down the bottom of the crust, but also hold up the sides. Remember, we’ve got a lot of fat in the crust that tends to melt. Fill the crust with pie weights or risk melting the sides of your crust. Now, put your crust into the oven at 350F. After 20 minutes, we can remove the weights and paper (for both blind and par-baking). Our crust is ready for the pumpkin filling. To continue blind baking our crust, all we have to do is place the crust back in the oven for another 10 minutes.

To finish off our pumpkin pie, mix all of the filling ingredients together. No secret chef trick here or crafty science – everything in a bowl and whisk. The mixture pours into the par-baked crust and back into the oven at 325F for about 45 minutes. We can tell when it is done by tapping the pan. Liquidy waves in the center equals not done. Jello-like shimmy in the middle equals done.

Now that we know how to make our pie no matter the fat or liquid we choose, let’s talk about which ones are the best.

THE FAT
As we’ve already discussed, the purpose of the fat is to separate the flakes of dough. It is doing this job both before it hits the oven and while it bakes aways. However, it is the time in the oven that really makes a difference in flakiness. This all comes down to melting temperature. Quite simply, we need a fat to stay solid long enough for the dough flakes to cook into crust flakes.

The higher the melting temperature, the longer the fats stay solid. The longer the fats stay solid, the longer the dough is held apart. The longer the dough is held apart, the more flakes in our crust.

If high melting temperature were our only criteria, shortening would be our fat of choice. Thanks to the engineering prowess of Proctor & Gamble, we have a solid fat that melts at a high temperature, making it ideal for creating a flaky crust and greasing squeaky hinges. There is, however, a dark side to such a high melting temperature fat: mouthfeel. One of the reasons butter crusts are so popular is mouthfeel. Whenever you hear someone mooning over how buttery a crust is, what they are really experiencing is a “melt in the mouth” quality. Because butter melts well below body temperature, it melts away when we eat it, giving a smooth, clean feel. Shortening, on the other hand, with its high melting temperature, will not melt in the mouth. This tends to leave us with a greasy feeling in the mouth and a drier texture to our crust. A lot of chefs and home cooks compromise by making their crusts with half butter and half shortening. A common, if not ideal solution. But there is another contender, the Rocky Balboa of the fat world: lard.

A few generations ago lard was the fat of choice for pie crusts. And guess what? Great-grandma was right. Despite the fact that lard is hardly ever used anymore, it will make a better crust every time. Lard’s melting point is midway between that of butter and shortening, and still below body temperature. This means that lard will last longer in our crust than butter (more flakiness) and melt in your mouth, giving the “buttery” feel. Magic? No. Just another example showing that pigs, not sliced bread, may be the greatest culinary invention ever.

I can hear some of you cringing at the thought of putting lard in your crust. No, it will not make your pie taste like bacon. Even if it did, bacon is tasty. But, no, lard is refined to remove any kind of pork flavor. Even more common is the comment, “But lard is so bad for you”. First, we are making a pie. This is not exactly health food. This is a delicious, delicious indulgence. Enjoy in moderation. Second, just how bad is bad compared to our other options? Is lard better or worse than butter?

If you guessed better than butter, you win. A tablespoon of butter contains 12 grams of fat. Of those 12 grams, 50% (6g) is saturated fat and only 30% (3.6g) is monounsaturated fat. Compare that to lard’s 13 grams of fat, composed of 39% (5g) saturated and 45% (5.9g) monounsaturated fat. With lower levels of the saturated fats we’ve all been told to avoid, lard turns out to not be as bad as butter for you. Again, not a healthy option, just not as bad. So, why does lard get the bum rap? The advertising campaign from Procter & Gamble, makers of Crisco, when they first developed their vegetable shortening, may have helped put a black mark on lard for generations to come.

With lard our winner in the fat debate, let’s move on to the liquid and answer the question, “Why wouldn’t you just use water?”

THE LIQUID
Recipes for pie crust almost universally choose ice water for the liquid component. More savvy recipes call for water with a little added vinegar. The problem with the ice water option is that it doesn’t account for the dual role of the liquid in the recipe. These recipes assume that the liquid is only there to bind the dough. But the liquid can also help separate the flakes. As the dough heats, liquid evaporates, creating steam. The increasing volume of steam pushes against the fat separated flakes and holds them apart on a cushion of air. Water is not a very good liquid for this job. By the time water reaches its boiling point, the flakes are mostly set.

This where the vinegar comes in. As one of our savvy patrons has pointed out, vinegar actually has a higher boiling point than water, raising the water from a 212 degree boiling point to a 213 degree boiling point (dramatic, I know).  This pretty much debunks the kitchen myth of the vinegar solution creating more “puff” between the flakes. The belief behind the vinegar creating more flakiness likely arises from the fact that vinegar acts as shortener for glutens, reducing how tight and tough they bind. Great in theory, but I’m a little skeptical on how much good the vinegar really does. Let’s remember, that we have quite a bit of fat going into this crust, which happens to be the best gluten shortener on the block. The vinegar is like the outfielders at a pee-wee tee-ball game. Great back up, I guess, but really unnecessary. Besides, we don’t want our pie tasting like vinegar, right? (Thank for the contribution Trent).

The solution? Vodka.

Yes, vodka. Not to drink away our sorrows, for our pie. Mostly for the pie. Alcohol has a low evaporation point. In fact, at room temperature, alcohol will be merrily evaporating away. With its high alcohol content, vodka provides an early and consistent vapor source throughout the pie baking, pushing apart our dough flakes. Because vodka is essentially flavorless, it will also not contribute negative flavors to the pie. And, as a kicker, vodka will stay liquid in the freezer. This means that we can use ice-cold vodka to help the fats stay cold and solid. Perhaps not grandma’s recipe, but it gets the job done.

THE SECRETS: A POETIC RECAP
For those of you keeping score, the secrets to pumpkin pie number four: maple syrup, bourbon, lard, and vodka.

Happy eating, and drinking, if you have any “secrets” leftover.

CHEF’S NOTES
1. Large coffee filters work particularly well for this too.
2. Dried beans also work, but are not ideal. After a few bakes, they start to give off beany smells into the crust. If you like making pies, invest in some ceramic pie weights.


Focaccia: Are You a Yeast Sniffer?

Ever been  called a yeast sniffer? What would your reaction be? Shakespearean indignation?

Blackguard! I challenge you to a duel.

Catholic guilt?

It was only once…in college…everyone else was doing it.

Sinful pride?

Damn straight. I’m growing some premo stuff right now.

For a distinct group of pastry chefs, sinful pride is the correct answer.

According to one of my culinary school instructors, there are two kinds of pastry chefs: plate jockeys and yeast sniffers. Plate jockeys are responsible for composed desserts at restaurants. Yeast sniffers fill bread baskets. There is very little crossover among professionals. I myself have primarily been a professional plate jockey; but I find few things more therapeutic than baking fresh bread. This one is for that little chef in all of us that likes to sniff a little yeast, if only recreationally.

Click image for printable recipe card (PDF – 111kb)

The home bread baker faces two main road blocks: equipment and knowledge. Home ovens are not designed for baking bread. Commercial bread ovens generally use a stone base with the proper heat transfer for creating a crisp crust, releasing moisture, and allowing the appropriate rise. We can overcome this handicap with a few supplemental tools and our choice of bread. While I can’t install a bread oven in your home, I can share my baking knowledge – delicious, warm, fresh baked knowledge. Lets make some focaccia.

The Mix
I chose focaccia because it is (1) awesome! and (2) requires very little equipment –  all we need is a baking sheet or a large cake pan. I fell in love with focaccia while living in Italy. The streets of Linguria1 are littered with bakeries making huge slabs of focaccia with toppings as simple as sea salt and olive oil or veritable meals of pesto, tomatoes, and anchovies.

Our first step in the making of focaccia, or any bread for that matter, is the mix. This is the stage at which you…wait for it…mix everything together. This is also the only stage of the bread making process where it is permissible to use your standmixer. We are going to start by dissolving our yeast in warm water between 105 – 115F, about the temperature of a warm shower. Yeast thrives at 95F, but dried yeast2 needs slightly hotter initial temperatures to activate. I also like to feed the yeast a bit of sugar or honey. Dried yeast includes some food, but I like to treat my yeast to a good meal before asking it to work for me.

The water should start to foam.  This stage is called proofing – quite literally a proof of life. We are proving that our yeast is still alive by seeing if it processes gases. No foam means our yeast is dead. In that case, the only thing to do is hold a modest wake with plenty of beer and start over with new yeast. As we wait for our yeast to proof, we can stir all our dry ingredients (flour, salt, etc.) together. High concentrations of both salt and sugar can kill our yeast. So, we don’t want to have our salt and sugar just sitting on top of our flour when we pour in the yeast. Now that our yeast is a happily bubbling away and our dry ingredients are safely mixed, we can pour our yeast into the dry ingredients and mix them slowly with a wooden spoon or the paddle attachment on a standmixer.

As we mix, a few important things are preparing our dough to become a delicious loaf of bread. The yeast is spreading through the mix and feeding on both sugars and starches from the flour. Gluten proteins3 start to unfold as they come in contact with water. Finally, damaged starch in the flour absorbs water and swells into a structure on which our gluten network will form.

The Knead
Once all the ingredients are incorporated, it is time to get our hands dirty. The amount of kneading we do is the key factor in determining the final texture of our bread. As we knead, we unfold the glutens and slowly weave them together into a network, like threads in a piece of cloth, which is crucial for our bread’s structure.  More kneading means a tighter weave, creating more stability and trapping more air. A hand-knit blanket has more give than an 800 count sheet because the blanket’s looser threads slide and stretch over each other. The sheet traps more air when thrown over a bed because the spaces between its threads are so small.

As we fold the dough and compress it, we create air pockets in the dough. The more we do this the smaller and more evenly distributed the bubbles become. The yeast will not create new air cells in the bread. They release gas too gradually for that. The yeast will only fill the air pockets that are already in the dough. It is up to us to make sure we are folding the dough over on itself as we knead it to create those pockets of air. Less kneading means fewer, larger air pockets and looser crumb4. More kneading means more, smaller air pockets and tighter crumb. This is why I banned mixers, including your bread machine. Standmixers, bread machines, and food processors do a great job when you are looking for a dough with a tight, cake-like crumb, because they knead so efficiently. If, however, you want less aerated dough for baguettes, ciabatta, sour dough, or focaccia, your machine will fail you. For softer, sticker doughs, like our focaccia, using a bench scraper5 can make this job easier and less messy.

We want to be sure we end up with the right amount of knead on our dough. Though most home bakers suffer more from under-kneading their doughs, it is possible to knead so much that we start to destroy the glutens and squeeze the water out of them, making a sticky mess. What we are looking for is “bounce back”. In soft doughs, like focaccia, it will not be as pronounced as in firm doughs. If we make a dimple in our dough with a finger, it should immediately start to spring back and remove the dimple.

The Ferment
And now we play the waiting game.

Once our dough is kneaded, we now have to let it rise. This is where we let the yeast take over. Yeast are single-celled fungi with about 1500 different species.  Not all of those species will work for bread baking. We want “sugar yeast”6. Sugar yeast get their name from their food – sugars. The yeast consumes sugars (added sugars like honey or sugars from broken down starches) and converts them into carbon dioxide, alcohol, and a variety of flavor molecules. The sugar yeast used in bread baking produce more carbon dioxide and less alcohol than those used in brewing. That carbon dioxide fills the air pockets created by the kneading, makes your dough rise, and controls the final texture of the  bread7. I once asked my brother the scientist, who happened to be studying yeast, to genetically engineer a strain of super yeast for baking. His reply was along the lines of:

That’s not really what I do. I work with the wrong kind of yeast, and I don’t trust that you won’t go all Captain Planet villain with your super yeast.

So, for now, we’ll have to settle for good, old-fashioned sugar yeasts.

Our dough is kneaded and ready to rise. Since we are diligent and following the recipe, we have or dough in an oiled bowl to prevent a crust from forming and have covered the bowl. At this point, many recipes say to place the bowl in the warmest spot in the kitchen and let it rise. They might even reiterate the 105–115F as the ideal temperature. Wrong! In fact, the colder the better. Active yeast, thrives at 95F, but that is not our ideal rising temperature. At 95F, the yeast is multiplying throughout the dough and puffing out carbon dioxide, but it is also producing sour by-products. At 80F, sugar yeast finds that perfect balance among multiplication, gas production, and the creation of pleasant tasting by-products. If time is not an issue, go colder. Colder temperatures slow the fermentation process. Our dough will take longer to rise, but we’ll get more flavorful by-products. I am a fan of refrigerator rising. Freshly kneaded dough may take 8-12 hours to fully rise in the refrigerator, but the flavor will be better.

In the focaccia recipe, we have two rises to increase the flavor output of the fermentation process. We intentionally added more sugar than in a traditional focaccia recipe to make sure the yeast has enough food for a second round.

Once our dough has doubled in size (size, not time, tells us when the rise is done), we punch it down. This is exactly what it sounds like. We are literally knocking the air out of the dough.  Why spend all that time getting air into the dough if we are just going to punch it out? Fermentation is for flavor, not air8. If we don’t punch the dough down, those carbon dioxide filled air pockets in the dough will burst like balloons.

Once we’ve had our second rise, it’s oven time.

The Bake
As I said earlier, one of the great things about focaccia is that it is a pan bread. We don’t need equipment like baking stones or pizza peels. We just need to plop it into a sheetpan. For the sake of even baking, be sure to press you dough evenly into the pan. We are going to give it one last rise.  This one is lets the air pockets start to fill.  The dough should not double in size. If it does, our air pockets will rupture in the oven and your bread will collapse. The dough should look like it took a breath in.

Now comes the part that makes focaccia so sinfully delicious. We are going to press our fingers into the dough to make dimples and then coat the top with oil. Lots of oil. Pools of oil. The oil helps evenly distribute heat over the top of our focaccia to produce a crisp, brown crust and it soaks into the baking bread until every bite is dripping with delicious oil.

Once we our dough is in the oven, the bread is going to undergo changes in three stages.  In the first stage, the increasing heat causes the yeast to become more active. This is when we see the bread rise-up in the oven, known as oven spring. In the second stage, the yeast die when the bread reaches 140F and the bread stops rising. The starches solidify (gelatinize) creating a support structure for the glutens. At 160F, the glutens coagulate and the structure of the bread is set. In the final stage, Maillard browning9 makes the crust crisp and brown and infuses the bread with characteristic toasted flavors. We add oil over the crust for a second time between the second and third stage to facilitate the browning reaction. Once we have that beautiful brown crust, we can check our loaf is done with a thermometer. Like meats, breads have internal doneness temperatures: 180-190F for soft breads and 190-200F for crusty breads.

The last step is the best. Cut off a piece of that bread, warm and fresh from the oven, and enjoy.

*Pastry recipes generally use masses, not volumes. It’s more accurate, and this is a science pub after all. When possible, I’ll also give volumes, but mass will yield better results. If you like to bake or do pastry, treat yourself to a kitchen scale.

CHEF’S NOTES

  1. Linguria is a region on the Northwest coast of Italy. Famous for the coastal cities of Cinque Terra, Linguria is also the birth place of pesto and Pinot Grigio.
  2. Most recipes use one of three types of yeast: instant, dry active, or cake. Our focaccia recipe and the post refer to dry active because that is the most common kind found in stores. Instant yeast does not have to be rehydrated before use, but provides less flavor to your food. Cake yeast provides more more flavor, but spoils quickly in the fridge. For greater longevity from your cake yeast, freeze it.
  3. Gluten is a protein found in the endosperm of wheat. Both whole wheat flour and white flour contain gluten, but the ratio of gluten in whole wheat flour is lower, because it also has the bran from the wheat in the mix.  This is why whole wheat breads tend to be more dense. Less gluten, means less structure to trap air. The bread doesn’t rise as well and doesn’t have the strength to keep from collapsing on itself.
  4. Crumb refers to the interior of the bread. Tight crumb means that the air pockets are very small and evenly dispersed as in sandwich bread. Loose crumb means the air pocket are large and rather random throughout as in ciabatta. Tight and loose crumb have nothing to do with how soft the bread is. That is affected by the ratio of water in the recipe.
  5. A ridged plastic or metal tool generally used to scrape things off your table. Not unlike a putty or spackle knife.
  6. Bear in mind that I’m talking about yeast the way bakers talk about yeast. This is not the way Josh and Mike talk about yeast. They are probably rolling their eyes right now, because they are humorless pedants.
  7. Despite the fact that yeast leavened breads have been around for more than 6000 years, it wasn’t until Pasteur’s studies just over a century ago that we started to understand the leavening process.
  8.  The pressure from the air does continue to knead and strengthen the gluten as well.
  9. A reaction between proteins and sugar under heat that creates browning and flavor. For more details see the post on making stocks.