Posted in custard, thickening

I’m a Daring Baker!

The January 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Lauren of Celiac Teen. Lauren chose Gluten-Free Graham Wafers and Nanaimo Bars as the challenge for the month. The sources she based her recipe on are 101 Cookbooks and

This is the point when I came around to making graham crackers - it looks like cookie dough!

In December I found out about the Daring Bakers, and I really wanted to join but I thought, I’m probably not up to speed with them.  But they have deadlines for getting in each month due to the way they all reveal the challenge on the same day, and the thought of missing the deadline and having to wait a long time gave me that extra push.  So I dove in, and here I am doing a Daring Bakers’ Challenge!

Unfortunately I missed the month they did cannoli only to come in right on time for the graham cracker month.  Graham crackers.  I won’t even eat the things if they aren’t in s’mores or pie crusts.  But ok.  I wanted to be a Daring Baker, I’ll do it.

At least there is also a recipe for the graham crackers to go in – Nanaimo Bars.  This is cool because it’s a Canadian recipe I had never heard of, so I’m learning.

A sheet of graham crackerness coming out of the oven.

I’ll be learning about gluten-free cooking, too.  I of course wanted a deeper understanding of the chemistry of gluten-free baking, so I read up on the different kinds of flours at Gluten Free Mommy.  I soon realized these flours replace the starch of wheat flour; the binding action of the gluten is left up to other ingredients, like xanthan gum.  Gluten-free Lifestyle gets a little more into the nitty gritty of it – you need less xanthan gum for products that would otherwise rely less on gluten than yeast breads.  Guar gum is another possible binder.  And adding protein, such as milk powder or gelatin, can be helpful, I suppose because protein strengthens the structure of the baked good.  Apparently, graham crackers don’t really need a binder, because there is no egg or gum in them at all.  I guess they don’t have to support much!

I couldn’t find glutinous rice flour anywhere, so I used white rice flour.  It seemed to work fine.  One of my flours seemed not to be milled quite fine enough, though, and left a grainy mouthfeel that kept me

Some was sacrificed to the Nanaimo bars.

from enjoying them too much, although the flavor was good otherwise.  I don’t know which it was but for some reason I suspect the sorghum.  I also substituted a little 1% milk and a little cream for the whole milk I was supposed to use.   I forgot to make my graham crackers look like crackers, but that didn’t matter for crushing them up for the Nanaimo bars.

It seems kind of a shame to forfeit the lovely texture of a custard, yummy as the mix-ins were.

The bottom layer is a chocolate custard with stuff mixed in – graham crackers, coconut, and almonds.  This is the part I would do differently the next time around.  1) The custard curdled on my first try.  I redid it a little differently: I melted the butter halfway, so it wasn’t too hot, then took it off the heat and added the rest of the ingredients, then put it back on the heat and let it thicken.  If you don’t mind dirtying up another bowl, mixing the egg with the sugar first would be extra protection.  Alternatively, you could cream the butter and sugar and then add the egg, like you’re making cookies.  The point is, if you have fat and/or sugar mixed with the egg, the proteins will be protected somewhat from curdling.  If you add the egg to already hot ingredients, you should remember, unlike me, to temper them first by adding a small amount to

Middle Layer

the egg and then adding the egg to the rest. 2) I think the flavor would be better with melted chocolate than

cocoa powder.  I think this about most chocolate flavored things.

The middle layer is mostly butter and powdered sugar.  Gross to think about, delicious to eat.  The top layer is mostly chocolate.  Delicious again.

I served these at a party I threw recently and they got great reviews.  I happened to have a guest who eats gluten-free, so she was pleasantly surprised!

The finished bars

PS: Apologies for the bizarre look of this page.  I wrestled with WordPress to get my pictures displayed nicely and WordPress won.  Kind of took the fun out of my first Daring Baker post, to be honest.

Posted in candy, dry heat, foam

Meringue cookies, or as much sugar as I could fit in two square inches

Plan A for this endeavor was to make itty bitty meringue shells with cranberry curd, a curd I had never thought of until I saw this on Supper in Stereo.  But if this went exactly as planned it wouldn’t be much of an adventure, now would it?

I have a terrible history with meringue shells, but I figured if I planned ahead for lots of drying time and made them really small for minimal potentially sticky inner area, I might be able to pull them off.  I also decided to try Swiss meringue, which is supposed to end up drier than the French meringue I usually make.  Here’s a typology of meringue:

  1. French meringue: the one I’m used to, in which you beat the egg whites a little bit, then add sugar, and just keep beating.
  2. Swiss meringue: Whisk the egg whites and sugar in a double boiler until they get hot – I’ve seen 120F, 130F, and 160F as target temperatures.  Use 160F if you’re not going to bake it later, but otherwise I’d stay lower to avoid any risk of coagulation.  Then remove from the heat and keep beating until they’re the right stiffness.  This takes more sugar than the French way, is more stable, and is said to make a harder product.  Among those who know all three ways, it appears to be a favorite.
  3. Italian meringue: Heat sugar and water to the firm ball stage, drizzle the hot syrup into egg whites that have been whipped to soft peaks.  This is widely regarded as an unnecessarily difficult way to make meringue.  I secretly think this is the method that’s actually French.

Apple Pie, Patis, & Pate says that the ratio of sugar to egg whites for Swiss meringue is 2:1 by weight.  (By volume, several websites say 4 Tbsp per egg white.)   A little acid, in the form of cream of tartar or white vinegar, is good for French meringue; I don’t know if Swiss meringue makes that obsolete, but I have some so I’ll give it a shot.  I also think cornstarch is a good idea because it absorbs moisture so the meringues don’t come out too sticky.  So my recipe ended up like this:

  1. about 4 egg whites
  2. twice that weight in sugar (around 240g)
  3. about 1/4 tsp cream of tartar (they say 1/8 tsp per egg white, so I could have used 1 tsp, but…I didn’t)
  4. about 2 tsp cornstarch

Whip to…

…well, my whites never got past the soft peak stage.  I was shooting for stiff.  I was using a handheld electric mixer and the poor motor was hot and I was so tired of mixing that I moved the bowl to where I could sit down and then finally I decided, this just isn’t going to happen.  I don’t know if my whites suffered from being frozen (something weird did happen to them that I haven’t seen anyone talk about before, my guess is freezer burn, but I threw that part away) or if I did something else wrong, but that was that.  So I piped them from a zip-top bag with a tip cut off onto two parchment-paper lined baking sheets, sprinkled a little powdered sugar on them for extra moisture-insurance (it contains cornstarch) and put them into a 200F oven for two hours.

Although the soft peaks meant they wouldn’t really hold a shape besides flattish blob, they baked beautifully.

Snowy Backyard
View outside the kitchen
Unbaked meringues
View inside the kitchen

They stayed quite white, and they have a completely dry, crispy outside with an inside not unlike marshmallow creme.  I baked them a little longer than I would like for myself so that no one would think I was going to get them sick with the soft center, though.  Next time I’ll bring them to a safe 160F when I’m heating them in the beginning and then I’ll take them out when they’re still marshmallowy on the inside.

The sight of these was especially cool because this was the day that we got our first heavy snow, and for a Florida girl like me, it was amazing.

Sad attempt at pomegranate curd
I'll have to try again with whole pomegranate...I know it's possible!

Then it was time to make the curd.  I was planning on using cranberry juice (I don’t have a food mill so I thought whole ones would be too much trouble), and then on a whim I bought pomegranate juice instead.  I substituted that in for lemon juice in my my trusty lemon curd recipe, which I’ll post soon – promise.  I held back half the sugar so I could adjust according to how much the pomegranate juice needed.  I failed to remember that when you mix eggs, butter, and red liquid (like when I made zabaione one time), you get brown.  This brown was so ugly, I couldn’t even squint and see it as burgundy (like I could with the zabaione).  Nor did it taste particularly great.  So I tossed it.  Very sad.

I still wanted some kind of topping, though, so I thought about what could give me a pretty color.  Fondant is both yummy and white.  So I decided to make cranberry flavored fondant (I went back to cranberry because I was not impressed with the flavor of the pomegranate juice I bought, and I figured cranberry juice would be redder, anyway).

I used Joe Pastry’s recipe for poured fondant:

  1. 496, so about 500g sugar
  2. 113 g water
  3. 85g corn syrup

Heat to soft ball stage (238F). Cool, stir.  Mix with 2:1 sugar: water syrup to pour.

Joe Pastry didn’t say whether he meant 2:1 by weight or by volume, and when he wrote about cake syrup (not the same thing, but I was hoping to find out if he tended to use one or the other) he mentioned the same ratio with “by weight” one time and “by volume” another time.  Maybe because it doesn’t make that much of a difference.  So I chose volume – out of character for me, but I cringe a little whenever I have to put my pot on my scale, even though I know my scale can handle it.  He said he used about half a cup of the syrup, so I used half a cup of cranberry juice and a cup of sugar.  Assuming I didn’t make a mistake in measuring my cranberry juice, this yielded about a cup of syrup.  I poured half a cup into a bowl and let it cool to 110F, then added the fondant.  There was no dissolving going on, so I put it on a pot of boiling water.  After a few minutes, the part of it that was liquid got above 110F, and I took it off the heat and stirred like crazy.  It was harder than making the fondant in the first place!  But eventually I got almost all of it “dissolved”.  Some little pieces stayed hard, though; I’m guessing those are the little pieces that got the hardest when I was originally making the fondant.  Maybe they shouldn’t be saved.

Glazed Meringues
You can see the puddles of syrup that dripped off...

My ruby syrup mixed with the white fondant to make the perfect color for an Easter egg. I knew I’d end up with pink, but I didn’t realize it would be so pink.  I hope the male speaker in whose honor I’m making these won’t mind.  I dipped the meringues into the fondant, which worked just fine.  Then I realized that I had some cranberry syrup left over, and I dipped the already dipped meringues into the syrup to see if I could liven up the flavor and color.  It mostly dripped off of the shiny surface of the fondant, though.

I think the color and flavor would have come through better if I had used more cranberry juice – I should have used it in the fondant and in the syrup I mixed with the fondant instead of just in the syrup.  But I was so frazzled after going through Plans A through C that I’m just glad I ended up with something edible!  They went over well, but my original plan to have a curd would have balanced the sweetness of the meringue better.

Posted in baking

Crepes: Guess what isn’t on the ingredient list?

One of the better contestants on Food Network’s Worst Cooks show was making crepes and he said “When it calls out to you that it needs to be flipped, that’s when it needs to be flipped.”  He said this completely seriously.  He’s on TV for sucking at cooking, and these words came out of his mouth.  If only he had thrown in a completely unnecessary French term!  It’s a perfect example of what can go horribly wrong with people who are into food and cooking.  The explanations that explain nothing, the implications that the cook understands food in ways that mere mortals cannot…I guess it’s clear that this is one of my pet peeves.

I had a crepe party for my birthday last semester.  I totally forgot to post about it, but this seems like as good a time as any.  I made like four batches of crepes for about 30 people.  It was awesome.  Everyone brought a filling; I now have a ton of jam.

I used David Lebovitz’s recipe from his book on ice cream, The Perfect Scoop.  (I don’t want to copy the recipe here, but as a consolation prize, here’s his buckwheat crepe recipe.)  It uses the following ingredients:

  1. butter
  2. milk
  3. flour
  4. eggs
  5. salt
  6. sugar

Notice anything?  That’s right, douchebaggery is not an ingredient in crepes.  Remember that, aspiring chefs and francophiles.

Incidentally, Lebovitz’s recipe comes out too thick (probably great if you’re putting ice cream in them, but I wasn’t), so I add more milk, and sometimes a splash of white wine.  I’ll have you know I learned how to flip crepes in the pan.  It’s not that hard after all.  They never called out to me to be flipped, but somehow I managed.  Slash, you can tell when they’re ready because the color changes a little as they cook (even before they brown) and the edges curl up a little bit, too.

Edit: I checked his recipe and I now remember precisely how much liquid I use.  His recipe calls for 3/4 cup of milk; I use 1 1/4 cups.  It sounds like a lot, I know – 400 baker’s percent! – but then I remember the time I tried to make crepes in Paris, and how I kept adding milk, and adding, and adding, and even though the batter seemed awfully thin it just didn’t make proper crepes!  They require a lot of liquid, so if you’re used to pancakes, just suspend your disbelief.

Posted in baking

Yeast-risen donuts, or how I learned to stop worrying and love cornstarch

I have some European friends whose estimation of the USA rose immensely when they discovered Krispy Kreme Donuts.  They made up a song about them:

I have a hole

In the middle

And I’m glazed

All a-round!

Whenever a new international student would arrive in Atlanta, we would ceremoniously take them through the Krispy Kreme drive-thru in the middle of the night (“We can get donuts now? Without even leaving our car?”) and have them try The Proof of Existence of God.  They were all duly impressed.

Imagine my distress upon moving to Massachusetts, a Krispy Kreme-less wasteland but otherwise lovely state.  I had always thought to myself, as a person who grew up having Krispy Kreme donuts every Sunday (well, every Sunday that I got up early enough to go to the morning church service), a person who remembers when the local Krispy Kreme burned down, a person who once nearly got in an accident trying to change lanes upon seeing the Hot Now sign, that donuts were one food I need never learn how to make, because the perfect donut already existed.  Alas, now it’s up to me.

I didn’t attempt donut making until my friend threw a Hannukah-themed party and told us that fried foods like donuts were traditional.  She mentioned lots of other things, but I knew my calling. I decided to go for a Krispy Kreme copycat recipe by the 99 Cent Chef, which I doubled.

I thought 3/4 cup of milk per batch sounded like a lot, but I shrugged and went on.  Turned out that was probably one of those moments when I should have listened to my instincts.  My dough rose beautifully, but it wasn’t actually dough.  It was definitely batter.  Rolling it out was unnecessary; cutting out shapes was impossible; picking them up and dropping them in oil was laughable.  So I started adding flour – cake flour, so it wouldn’t get too tough from an excess of gluten.  The flour wasn’t helping much, so I started adding cornstarch.  Lots of it.  Cornstarch is great stuff.  I think it’s really underutilized by average home cooks.  You know when you try to sprinkle flour on wax or parchment paper before putting a dough on it?  But you just end up with specks or streaks of flour and then a lot of uncovered space?  If you spread out cornstarch, it actually spreads.  And it turned my batter into a dough, slowly but surely.  It was still plenty sticky, but having tried to make ciabatta bread, I knew that good things rarely come of doughs that are actually comfortable to handle.

I cut out the donuts with my roommate’s cookie cutter and I cut the holes with the top from my bottle of canola oil, which was about the right diameter but not really high enough.  Speaking of which, the dough didn’t rise as much the second time as I had hoped; maybe the yeast were freaked out by everything I was doing to the dough.

DonutThe frying went fine.  I put a bunch of canola oil in my very favoritest stainless steel chef’s pan with my very unfavoritest candy/fry thermometer – unfavoritest because its sensor is higher up on the thermometer than anything I make ever reaches to, so I had to use extra oil just to get a decent reading. (This was before my Christmas present!)  I kept it in the ballpark of 180°F, which was probably a little high, but it seemed to keep things bubbling fast like I wanted.  That’s supposed to mean your fried foods won’t turn out too greasy.  My stove is, like my oven, overzealous, so I had to constantly turn it off and on to keep the temperature in the right ballpark.  I used a metal slotted spoon to handle the donut holes and unpainted chopsticks to handle the donuts (after putting them in with my hands, and a lot of difficulty).  I read about the chopsticks online, and it is brilliant.  I don’t know how else I would have managed.

The donuts came out a deep golden brown, soft on the inside, and a little denser than Krispy Kremes.  I wouldn’t quite put them in the same category as Krispy Kreme donuts – the search is still on – but I’d say they’re yummy fritters.  Maybe less egg would be closer; maybe a better second rise would have helped, too.

Ginger and Cranberry Glazes
You can see some pieces of candied ginger left in the syrup.

I served them with ginger glaze, aka the syrup left over from when I candied ginger, and cranberry glaze, aka the fondant diluted with cranberry sugar syrup that I made for my meringue cookies.  My friend Claire, who adores ginger, thought ginger donuts were an excellent idea.  I was just happy to get to use more of those glazes up.

Posted in wet heat

Mashed Rutabaga

Another thing I got from the farm that I had never tried before was rutabaga.  My only familiarity with rutabagas was seeing a neglected one sit on our countertop for a few months in college.  I wonder if my roommate ever ate it.  I neglected the first one we got on my countertop, but it wasn’t as hardy as my roommate’s and it withered up pretty quick.  So when we got another one, I put it in the fridge and I’ve been determined to do something with it.  A google search showed me that mashing is the popular approach to rutabagas, although I found that you can also eat them raw and pan-fried.  Although I was tempted to make one of my pasta sauces, I decided to go for the mash.  Haven’t done that in a while.

Mashed RutabagaYou hardly need a recipe to mash a root vegetable.  I diced it fairly small, so it would cook fast, and boiled it with salted water until it felt tender when I pierced it with a fork.  In the meantime, I minced a clove of garlic and one of my little red peppers – it was like Return of Aglio (Olio) e Peperoncino.  Just with butter instead of oil, which I let sit out while the rutabaga cooked so it would be a little soft when it came to mashing time.  I had a little low-fat milk, but none of the stuff you should really use in a mash, so I decided to just skip that.

It mashed up fine and I added a little butter and then tasted it.  Really quite delicious!  I didn’t really expect to like it that much.  But I figured I would get bored of it by the end if I didn’t go ahead and add my flavorings, so in they went.  That was my downfall.  Those peppers are just out of my tolerance zone.  How can something so pretty be so evil?  I think I got a lot tougher with spicy food in college, but these things are ridiculous.  Breathing fire gets in the way of enjoying your food.  I also think the garlic would have been better lightly cooked, which I kind of knew, but didn’t want to bother with since they were the only things I had to saute.  But according to some websites, I’m less likely to get cancer because I ate raw garlic.  Anyway, now I know: I like rutabaga.  And I get to add something to my list of quick starch-based dinners: risotto, pasta, pizza, and mashed roots.  Of course, I had made mashed potatoes (not real roots, but anyway) and mashed sweet potatoes before, but those always seemed a little trickier.  This was super easy.  I’ll just have to find something different to throw in next time.

Posted in baking


The etymology of biscotti is such that it means twice-cooked, which they are.  But biscotti is an Italian word, and in Italy they use it to refer to cookies in general, which are not cooked twice.  Similarly, what we call biscuits (same etymology) are only cooked once. Go figure. In Tuscany, they call those things that are cooked twice and that we dunk in our coffee cantucci, and they dunk them in vin santo.  Smart folks.  They also make theirs a lot smaller than ours, unsurprisingly.  I intended to make mine Italian-sized (like the ones from Trader Joe’s), but they ended up sort of in between.  I didn’t expect such a stiff dough to spread that much.

I used a recipe sent to me by an Italian friend, Agnese.  Here’s my translation:

  1. 150 g almonds (look at the amount on the package and estimate)
  2. 250 g flour (about 2 1/2 cups)
  3. 250 g sugar (about 1 1/3 cups)
  4. ½ tsp vanilla
  5. zest of one orange and half a lemon
  6. 2 eggs
  7. ½ tsp baking powder

Peel, lightly toast, and chop almonds.
Mix sugar, flour, vanilla, zest, salt, and leavening.
Add lightly beaten eggs, mix.
Add almonds, mix.
Form dough into little logs 3cm in diameter.
Bake 15-20 min at 200C/ 390F.
Cool, slice 1cm wide.
Bake 10 min at 160C/ 320F.

I intended to follow it exactly, really I did.  But I ended up not toasting the almonds (I used slivered ones) and adding about a tablespoon of almond paste, because I had some and I thought it was cool and the dough seemed too dry to come together at first.  I’m not sure if the almond paste actually helped the consistency or if the dough just got more cooperative after sitting for a minute – the almond paste was really hard to distribute evenly, so I’m doubtful that it had much of an effect.


The baking went a little weird, too – I put it in for about 25 minutes at 350F (the Joy of Baking website influenced my temperatures), then let it cool, sliced it (didn’t think about how that’s actually kinda hard – see the broken tops on mine), and cooked the slices at 300F for…a long time.  I think I had them in for 10 or 15 minutes on one side, then I flipped them, another 10-15 minutes, and then stood them upright and baked for another 10-15 minutes.  I just kept going because they seemed really soft and I wanted to have real cantucci/biscotti, which everyone knows are hard and dry (so unusual to want that in my food, but I did!).  When I did take them out, they were slightly golden but really not very brown (since I kept the temperature fairly low), and still slightly soft.  After cooling, though, they were hard as rocks.  I guess that’s the trick; I won’t second-guess myself so much next time.

I found out, after a mimosa, that they taste pretty good dunked in champagne.  I personally don’t like dunking them in vin santo – I’d rather just drink the vin santo!  But the champagne was just right. Coffee, of course, will also do.

Edit: I had some left over when I went home for the break so I smuggled them to Florida (ok, it’s not technically smuggling, but with the way airport security is, I feel like I’m smuggling), and my dad tried them.  He approves but requests softer ones.  They will await him on Christmas – don’t tell!

Edit #2: My dad (and everyone else in the family) likes the new biscotti.  I followed the times and temperatures in the recipe exactly and used about 2-3 Tbsp of almond paste in addition to the regular ingredients.  I also forgot to add in almonds so I just pressed them onto the top.  They turned out soft enough that there’s no need to dunk them in anything, and the inside has a taste and texture not unlike almond macaroons.  (No surprise, since almond paste has the same ingredients). Yum. It kind of makes me want to forget about making biscotti and just make macaroons, but whatever.  Anyway, I won’t say that it’s a completely un-authentic way to do it – when I tried biscotti from my (extended) family’s store – best biscotti I have ever eaten, including, I must admit, mine – I noticed that they had a macaroon type of flavor, with a texture slightly but noticeably different from your average Starbuck’s biscotto.

Posted in dry heat

Pan-fried cauliflower

CauliflowerSo we got some cauliflower from the farmshare and I almost never eat the stuff.  I had an amaaaazing cauliflower soup at my friend’s parent’s restaurant on Anna Maria Island one time, and that’s the only memory I have of ever eating cauliflower.  I don’t know how to recreate the soup, nor do I feel like working that hard, so I googled cauliflower recipes and I found that, to my surprise, people seem to prefer dry heat to wet heat.  (I was just working on analogy to broccoli, which probably isn’t the best idea).  Since I like pan-frying, I decided to try that, following 101 Cookbooks.  Well, sort of following it.  I’m using whatever I have on hand rather than what she calls for.  What I have on hand happens to be garlic and leeks from, you guessed it, the farm.  We’ll call it a white dish.  I keep some lemon juice ice cubes around and everyone seems to like lemon with their cauliflower, so I threw in some lemon juice, too.

It turned out pretty good, but I give most of the credit to the lemon juice.  Somehow nothing else seemed that flavorful. But sure, I’ll add cauliflower to the list of vegetables I eat.