Posted in baking

Southern Buttermilk Biscuits

biscuits

Biscuits are an amazing food with as few as three ingredients, and damn near impossible to get right. They’re supposed to be tender and flaky, which Alton Brown fans will recall are two characteristics at odds with each other. Flakiness requires working the dough, which develops gluten, which reduces tenderness. One approach that I’ve used here is to reduce the gluten content of the flour. This is why White Lily, a naturally lower gluten flour, is so popular for biscuits. I decided instead to sub out 2 Tbsp of my King Arthur all-purpose flour with cornstarch, which is gluten-free.

I had good results with the following recipe, which takes a pretty extreme stance (for biscuits) on folding – creating, in theory, 729 (3^6) layers. In reality, I don’t develop enough gluten before beginning the folding, or flatten out the butter pockets enough, to keep most of these layers distinct. I want to test this recipe with different shaping techniques to see how I really feel about folding and flakiness in biscuits.

My current stance is that tender and flaky isn’t the best way to think of biscuits. The real goal, I think, is fluffy and buttery. Fluffiness comes from enough gluten development to avoid crumbliness but not enough to be tough (this folding technique seemed to be a good amount), enough liquid and a short enough bake time to avoid dryness (the dough can be fairly wet without being unworkable), and enough leavening to provide lift. For leavening, I use baking powder only. That way, I don’t have to worry about whether there’s enough acid for a given amount of baking soda to react with, I get lift during the initial mixing but also in the oven because baking powder is double-acting, and I don’t use my precious buttermilk’s acid on leavening when I want it for tenderness and flavor.

Butteriness is pretty simple – use a lot of butter! And splurge a little on your butter. I got a fancier brand than usual and I think it paid off. Finally, don’t mix the butter in completely. Pockets of butter add flavor and vary the texture.

With fluffiness and butteriness in mind, I referenced Southern Living’s recipe and The Food Lab’s recipe and also took some liberties. I quickly checked the first few sources on baking them in cast iron to get a sense of the temperature; I saw a wide range of temperatures and chose 450F – on the high side to help them brown before they have time to dry out. Here’s what I did, for my best biscuits to date:

  • 265g all-purpose flour (a little over 2 cups, but volumetric measurements of flour are really ambiguous)
  • 15g corn starch (about 2 Tbsp)
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 Tbsp baking powder
  • 1 stick salted butter (1/2 cup, 113g), cold
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  1. Put a cast iron pan in the oven.
  2. Preheat oven to 450 Fahrenheit/230 Celsius.
  3. Mix dry ingredients in a bowl.
  4. Cut butter into chunks.
  5. Mix butter into dry ingredients. I use my fingers, but you can also use a fork, knives, or a pastry blender. The goals are to coat some of the flour in butter to reduce the amount of gluten development, and to reduce the size of the butter chunks without letting them melt or mix in completely so that they contribute to flakiness and interesting texture. I aim for a crumbly end result with no leftover pure flour and chunks around the size of M&Ms.
  6. Chill the dough for 10 minutes in the fridge. I’m not convinced this is necessary in my climate but for once I decided to just follow directions.
  7. Add the buttermilk. Stir it in just enough; the dough should be wet and lumpy but hold together.
  8. On a lightly floured surface, gently pat the dough into a rectangle about 3/4 inch thick and trifold like a letter, left side in then right side in. Then trifold again in the other direction, the top third down and then the bottom third up. Turn over, pat out into a rectangle of the same thickness and repeat. Finally, do it a third time. It will get a little harder to do each time as the gluten develops. If it gets too hard, just stop.
  9. Pat the dough to about 3/4 inch tall and cut out as many biscuits as you can fit. Use a plain round biscuit cutter, not a glass, and cut straight down, not twisting. The idea is that you don’t want to seal the edges together and keep the biscuit from rising. Gather the scraps, pat them again with as little working as possible, and keep cutting biscuits until you run out of dough.
  10. Carefully take the cast iron pan out of the oven, sprinkle flour in the bottom if it’s not super nonstick, and put the biscuits in it. I figure that if there’s enough space that you can choose to smush them against themselves or the sides of the pan, you should choose themselves; my reasoning is that dough against dough won’t form a crust and so it will be able to keep rising for longer.
  11. Bake at 450F/230C for about 15 minutes. You’re looking for lightly browned tops (lacking sugar, they won’t get super brown) and for the quantitatively inclined, a center temperature of 210F/99C.
  12. Carefully remove the cast iron pan from the oven and carefully remove the biscuits from it and definitely don’t forget that the cast iron pan is hot and grab it barehanded like I definitely didn’t do. Put the biscuits on a cooling rack.
  13. Serve warm and enjoy!

biscuits2

I want to compare shaping methods to see how they affect the biscuits. This recipe includes more folds than many do. Does it make a difference? A way to make the layers really come through in the final product would be to flatten the dough with a rolling pin instead of patting by hand – this would increase gluten development as well as flakiness. Is that a good thing? If the layers are really great but the toughness is a problem, more cornstarch could help. I’ve also thought about shaving bits of butter onto a layer before folding it, like a lite version of croissant lamination. That should increase layering without increasing toughness.

Another idea I might try is adding sour cream or subbing some in for part of the buttermilk. It seems like the fat and acid in sour cream is magic for baked goods.

Good luck and happy brunching!

 

Posted in baking

New York Times Chocolate Chip Cookies: The Hype and The Truth

Anyone who’s into chocolate chip cookies knows about the NYT recipes from Jacques Torres.  Some swear by it.  Last night, I was struck with cookie inspiration and decided to finally try it. My overall impression is that it makes for great texture, meh flavor. Here’s what I’ve found out so far:

No need to be so fancy

  •  Flour: It calls for, by weight, half bread flour and half cake flour.  Depending on the flours you use (their contents vary by brand), I think this amounts to using all all-purpose flour.  Perhaps Jacques had some good reason for writing the recipe this way, but until further notice, I’ll assume it was just to look fancy.  I didn’t have enough bread or cake flour on hand (most of my bread flour is whole wheat because most of it goes to making, you know, bread), so I used all-purpose flour, and I was perfectly satisfied with the result.
  • Chocolate: I hope I don’t even have to tell you that you can use whatever bits of yumminess you want in these cookies. High quality chocolate tastes good, but I used regular old chocolate chips and they taste just as good as they always do.
  • Size: The NYT recipe wants you to make enormous cookies.  Well, sure, cookies the size of my head can stay soft for a while, but I like my cookies normal size, and I want a recipe that produces well-textured normal size cookies. So I test mine with somewhere around a tablespoon of dough per cookie.  The results are good: the success of the NYT recipe is not due to a size trick. It makes good normal size cookies, too.
  • Timing: The NYT recipe says to chill the cookie dough for 24-36 hours before baking. What a pain, I wanted cookies last night! So I decided to find out if it really matters. I baked one sheet of the cookies last night right after making up the dough – I stuck them in the fridge for 5 or 10 minutes just because the preheated oven was making the room hot and I wanted them to have a fair chance. Then I put one log of cookie dough in the fridge to be baked tonight, and another log (it makes a lot of cookies!) in the freezer for a rainy day (like yesterday, and today…).  I will report on the results of a blind taste test soon. But already I can tell you, unchilled NYT cookies are plenty good. Not too flat or hard or crispy, pretty much just how I like them.

It succeeds in making a cookie that’s chewy, not crispy or cakey.

  • It uses a little more brown sugar than white sugar, as a chocolate chip cookies should, in my opinion. Brown sugar is brown because it has molasses in it, and molasses has water in it, so it’s a way of making your cookie a little softer.
  • I like to compare cookies to the Nestle Tollhouse recipe, which I’ve had memorized for I don’t know how many years.  My Nestle cookies always come out too hard when cool, and kind of greasy. Here’s approximately how to make NYT cookies from a Nestle recipe (all comparisons are by weight):
    1. Divide the amount of butter in half.
    2. Divide the amount of egg in half.
    3. Subtract one fourth the total amount of sugar.
  • It’s hard to tell that these are the differences between the two recipes, since they make different amounts.  That’s why putting recipes in baker’s percentage is so handy. But the result is that the flour, leavening, salt, and vanilla play a bigger role in the NYT cookies.
  • Why less butter and egg: Cookies that are heavier on flour and lighter on butter stay soft better, but they run the risk of being too cakey and dry.  In fact, I made some like this once and compared that recipe to the NYT recipe.  It turns out that the only difference between the two was that the dry recipe used all white sugar instead of a mix of white and brown, and more egg.  We know that brown sugar makes a cookie wetter and softer, and for reasons I don’t fully understand, eggs make them cakey, even though eggs are wet. So I guess in order to increase the relative amount of flour in the recipe without ending up too cakey, the NYT recipe had to decrease the amount of egg.

My one complaint is the flavor.

  • What I don’t know about is the sugar. Does it have to be decreased?  The combination of less sugar and more salt seemed to trick my taste buds into thinking I was eating peanut butter cookies, which I’m sure is right up some people’s alley, but I’d rather have the regular old sweet flavor. So my next task will be to replicate this recipe but with more sugar and less salt. (In Jacques’ defense, I had to estimate the amount of salt, because I was using kosher instead of sea salt, which is less coarse.)
Posted in baking, foam, freezing

Daring Baker Challenge: Baked Alaska

The August 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Elissa of 17 and
Baking
. For the first time, The Daring Bakers partnered with Sugar High Fridays for a co-event and
Elissa was the gracious hostess of both. Using the theme of beurre noisette, or browned butter, Elissa
chose to challenge Daring Bakers to make a pound cake to be used in either a Baked Alaska or in Ice
Cream Petit Fours. The sources for Elissa’s challenge were Gourmet magazine and David Lebovitz’s
“The Perfect Scoop”.

The pdf with all the recipes is here.

Brown Butter Pound Cake

I had never browned butter before and was a little nervous about burning it, but it went fine.  I just put it all in the pan – didn’t even worry about cutting it up – and heated and stirred and heated and stirred until the milk solids turned brown.  Then got it out of that hot pan quick, because they get browner and browner really fast.

The annoying part is cooling the butter just enough to where it’s solid but soft for creaming with the sugar.  From there, it’s just a regular creaming method pound cake.  A breeze in my stand mixer :).

Cake and ice cream layers

Zabaglione Ice Cream

I thought a French vanilla would go well with the brown butter cake, and I looked through The Perfect Scoop for something like that but a little more exciting.  Enter zabaglione ice cream.  Zabaglione is a poured custard made with egg yolks, marsala wine, and sugar.  I adore it.  We used it in the DB tiramisu challenge.  But Lebovitz’s recipe says to use 1/2 cup of dry marsala for a 1 quart recipe (he just substitutes it in for 1/2 cup of the dairy), and that seemed like a lot.  Alcohol makes ice cream softer, and I wanted mine to stay frozen during the baking and flambeing, plus I wasn’t sure if my guests would love the flavor as much as I do; some people don’t go for it as much.  So I used 1/4 of a cup.  This is even less when you consider that I increased the recipe to make 1.5 quarts.  I still tasted it, though; I think it might have been a little overpowering if I had used as much as he said, but a little more would have been fine.

Besides that, I followed his recipe, egg yolks and all.  I found that when I use light cream, as I am wont to do instead of all heavy cream or Lebovitz’s mix of whole milk and heavy cream, the yolks don’t make it too fatty.  I had some freezing issues due to not having frozen my ice cream maker’s core early enough, so I couldn’t judge this ice cream very accurately, but I think it turned out pretty well.

Unbaked meringue on the first one
Baked meringue on the second one

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meringue

I could make meringue in my sleep, which was good to know because I decided to wait until my guests had arrived to make it.  That was a Good Idea; I piped, baked, flambeed, and served one baked Alaska before doing the same to the next one, and in the meantime, the quality of the meringue had noticeably declined.  It was less satiny, starting to separate I guess.  But not too much – purely an aesthetic issue at that point.  Having the stand mixer do the beating for me made doing this mid-party less of a hassle.

I tried to do some pretty piping but I wanted to make sure to cover every little cranny since the meringue is an insulator for the ice cream, and that necessitated going over some spots multiple times.  But all in all, not too bad.

Don’t know how to make meringue?  Commit this to memory:

Beat room temperature egg whites with a few sprinkles of cream of tartar and cornstarch.  When they start to turn opaque, add sugar (1/4 cup or 60 g per white is customary for meringue shells; in this case, about half that much*) and keep beating.  Stop when they stick out pretty straight from the beater when you stop it and pull it out of the foam.

There, now you can make meringue in your sleep, too.

*1/4 cup or 60g per white is twice as much sugar per egg white by either volume or weight.  This recipe used slightly less than an equal weight of egg whites and sugar.  It was a nice amount.

Bake

Heat up the broiler and put the Alaska under it for five minutes.  My ice cream was definitely starting to melt at this point, which didn’t matter since my Alaskas were so horizontal, but one of those tower-type ones might have had trouble.

Flambeing

Flambe

I was kind of afraid to flambe them, because I had never done it before, but it’s so easy.  Just pour a little alcohol – at least 40% abv, I think; I used cognac – into a pan, heat it until it just starts to bubble, pour it on the dessert, and light it with a long match.  I had better luck lighting the pan of alcohol, actually, and then poured the flaming alcohol onto the dessert.  It sounds dangerous, but it went fine.  It looks really cool if you turn out the lights.

This part is unnecessary and actually not traditional for baked Alaska; mine were technically bombe Alaska because I did this.  But it makes a great show! And the leftover booze that soaked in tasted good.

Posted in baking, emulsion, foam

Yellow cupcakes with chocolate Swiss meringue buttercream frosting

Two of the professors in my department just emailed me saying they have a KitchenAid stand mixer they never use and would I be able to give it a home and make it feel used?

Just take a minute to absorb that.

Within 48 hours, it was in my kitchen making cupcakes for them.

Yellow Cupcakes

cake batter in the mixer
The batter after mixing.

I’ve made yellow cake once before, and as I remember it was good, but it took an awful lot of egg yolks.  Instead of going back to that recipe, I just foodgawked yellow cake and found four recipes that looked good and came from reputable sources.  I ran these through my baker’s percentage program to make them easier to compare and then picked Smitten Kitchen’s, because it looked like an especially moist recipe, and not one that contained egg whites.  (Who puts egg whites in a yellow cake?  The Culinary Institute of America, apparently.  Shrug.)

I won’t copy the recipe here, but I will tell you that I used lowfat milk instead of buttermilk because that way I didn’t have to go shopping, and since I wasn’t going to have the acid of the buttermilk in the recipe to react with the baking soda, I replaced the baking soda with baking powder (the internets say amount of baking powder = amount of baking soda divided by three).  Baking powder contains both baking soda and an acid for it to react with – gotta remember to balance your acids and bases, or your cake won’t rise and will have a metallic taste.  Then I halved the recipe.  It made 48 mini cupcakes, exactly two pans’ worth.  I seem to have underfilled the cups, because most of them didn’t rise enough to make little tops for themselves, so maybe it should actually make less than that.

You’re supposed to bake the cake for 35-45 minutes, but the mini cupcakes baked in about 18 minutes at the same temperature, 350F.

The review: Wow.  First of all, making a cake with a scale and a stand mixer is a lovely experience.  Everything was so easy and fast.  Secondly, this is a great cake recipe.  Soft (cake flour is a good thing), moist, fluffy.  The tops are flat; I have no opinion on the optimal shape of the top of a cupcake, but now you know what you’ll get out of this recipe.  They’re losing moisture fast, though, so if you make them, eat them forthwith.

cupcakes
Some baked mini cupcakes.

Chocolate Swiss Meringue Buttercream

meringue in mixer
The meringue just after whipping.

Buttercream frosting and I have a shady past.  I tried to make it three times in a row to no avail.  First, a whole egg buttercream that fell flat.  Then, an egg yolk buttercream that was unacceptably salty because I used salted butter (normally you can get away with salted butter; not in buttercream!) and that really had too much butter in it, anyway (it got so hard in the fridge that I was able to pick up the entire mass by one edge and throw it away).  Finally, another whole egg buttercream that just never came together, no matter how long I beat it with my hand mixer.  It seemed to me that buttercream frosting was one of the few things that I couldn’t figure out how to make without a stand mixer.  So it was the perfect recipe to welcome my new toy to my kitchen.  But this time, I decided to make an egg white buttercream, because I imagined the meringue would be better at balancing out all that butter than the egg yolks had been.

I used a recipe from My Buttery Fingers which is based on a vanilla buttercream from Smitten Kitchen (whence all good things come, apparently!) and a chocolate espresso buttercream from Use Real Butter.  The only changes I made were to beat the egg whites to fairly stiff peaks before adding the butter, rather than adding it as soon as the meringue was cool, and to use 150g of butter rather than 180g, which Wendy suggested.  I think it was absolutely the right choice.

The recipe worked perfectly.  It’s normal for buttercream to separate into a chunky solid phase and a liquid phase before coming together again, but mine never even did that.  It was just perfect the whole entire time.  My hand mixer couldn’t quite get Swiss meringue to stiff peaks; I tried once for long enough that I ended up moving the bowl and mixer to a table so I could sit down, and all I got was an overheated mixer and soft peaks.  So expect to see some piped meringues in the future.

As for the flavor of the frosting, I think it was a nice amount of chocolate.  You could go chocolatier, but only if you want to really make a statement.  This was a nice, classic yellow cake-chocolate frosting combo.

finished cupcakes
Thanks, John and Ellen!
Posted in baking

Peach Cobbler

peach cobblerMy friend had an awesome birthday party today.  We went tubing on the Deerfield River, then went home and showered and changed, and reconvened for a barbecue and finally, a bonfire.  Now there’s a dude who knows how to celebrate the passage of time.  He mentioned that peaches were in season when I asked him what I could make, so at first I was thinking of a peach pie, but I’m not great with pie crusts and I was low on time to experiment, so I decided on a peach cobbler.  I haven’t actually made a cobbler since I was pretty young and made a blackberry one with my grandmother in North Carolina (fond memories), so I was a little iffy on what I was shooting for.

I used Paula Deen’s recipe, reprinted here in baker’s percentage and all that good stuff:

257.1 B%        383.3 g        2 cups sugar, divided
79.4 B%            118.3 g        1/2 cup water
77.0 B%            114.8 g        1/2 cup butter
100.0 B%        149.1 g        1 1/2 cups flour
5.7 B%            8.4 g        2 1/4 tsp baking powder
245.2 B%        365.5 g        1 1/2 cups milk
4 cups (7-8) peeled, sliced peaches
Ground cinnamon, optional

I threw in a little ground nutmeg and changed the self-rising flour to flour and baking powder.  Her recipe doesn’t have salt, but my butter was salted.  Here’s my paraphrase on the instructions, plus my instructions for the peaches:

  1. Blanch and shock peaches.  (Put them in boiling water for 45 seconds to a minute, then put in ice water to cool.)
  2. Peel off whatever skin will come off.  Cut off the rest; it will still come off more easily than if they weren’t blanched.  But, they will have a slightly cooked outer layer that might not be as pretty as if you had just peeled them.  Your call.
  3. Slice peaches.  I tried slicing one radially, you know, like how canned peaches come sliced, but it’s hard to do thanks to the pit.  So I hacked off one cheek, the other, then the sides, and then the bottom.  Sliced the cheeks in half.  Works for me.
  4. Turn oven on to 350F.  Put butter in pan and pan in oven.
  5. Put peaches, 1 cup sugar, and water in a saucepan and simmer for 10 minutes.
  6. Mix flour, baking powder, 1 cup sugar, and milk.
  7. Put batter, then peaches and syrup, in the pan with the butter, without stirring.
  8. Bake 30-45 minutes.  I baked mine for 35 minutes.

I think it needed to be baked longer.  I was skeptical about this but thought the top looked and felt done, but when I tried some at the party it was definitely doughy beneath the surface.  With no eggs, it’s not dangerous, but I imagine doughy isn’t the goal.  I should really eat more cobblers.

That said, get yourselves to Whole Foods and buy some ripe peaches pronto.  Eating the leftover bits of peach was magical.  I don’t think I have properly appreciated peaches in the past because I haven’t normally had really good, really ripe ones.  I also got rainier cherries after 1) having them stare at me on my computer background for months and 2) not finding any at the store until recently, when my usual grocery store started having them, but first they looked really bad, and then they looked ok but where EIGHT dollars a pound, and 3) finally happening upon them at Whole Foods, looking perfect and costing something I could stomach. And man. are. they. good.  I can’t even tell you.  You’ll just have to go buy some yourself.

Posted in baking

Pancakes

I have been craving pancakes for sooo long. Yesterday when I got home from class, I was starving, and when I’m starving, I tend to get in a bad mood. What better way to solve both problems than to make pancakes?

I used a recipe from dakota kelly at Allrecipes, which was fine although the batter seemed way too thick.  The pancakes turned out just right though, so I guess it didn’t matter much.  It may have been due not to the recipe, but to my way of mixing.  When I have to mix melted butter with milk, I melt the butter with the milk in a double boiler (the metal mixing bowl I’m using over a pot of a little boiling water) so that the milk gets warm and doesn’t make the butter solidify when I mix them together.  But this probably makes some of the milk evaporate.  I doubt it evaporated enough to make a big difference, though.  I put the recipe on metric so I could use my scale to measure, which speeds things up.  I made the pancakes in my cast-iron skillet, which was fun.  Unfortunately my stove only heats a small part of it, so I had to keep the pancakes right in the middle for them to cook evenly.  I wonder if it would help if I preheated the skillet in the oven first so that the whole thing was hot.  At any rate, my stove definitely heated that center part, because the pancakes cooked faster than I remember them cooking at home.  I was always afraid they wouldn’t be done on the inside, but they always were.  It got too hot at one point and I burned some of the butter, which gave the outside of a couple of pancakes a gross burnt flavor, but the rest came out just right.  The recipe made about 10 medium-small pancakes.

When my roommate came in and saw me making them, she asked if they were hard to make (they’re not), and I have to say I was kind of shocked at the idea of anyone not knowing exactly how hard or easy it is to make pancakes from so many Sunday mornings with their mom.  I made sure to call my mom and thank her for all the good breakfasts.  My usual breakfast is cold cereal, and I have no problem with that (I quite enjoy my Frosted Mini-Wheats, and even when I was in France, where they really do not understand the concept of sweetened cereal, the Monoprix brand tasteless cereal + hunks of milk chocolate really grew on me). But on some Sunday mornings, the mornings before big standardized tests, and other special occasions, my mom, sometimes with the help of my sister and I, would make one of the Breakfast Trinity: pancakes, waffles, or French toast.  (The French did get some things right.)  Yes, I left out biscuits, but perhaps that’s because we never quite perfected those.  Biscuits and cinnamon buns usually took the place of a member of the Trinity when we had breakfast for dinner.

Despite my love of pancakes, I have to say that I always preferred French toast.  I realized that maybe this is because my family uses powdered sugar on French toast as opposed to maple syrup.  (And keep in mind that by “maple syrup” we always meant “maple flavored corn syrup” in the form of Aunt Jemima’s Lite.)  I tried powdered sugar on my pancakes, but it was too dry.  I think French toast has more moisture.  So I mixed a little milk in with the powdered sugar.  I think it would be better if you warmed the milk a little first, but it did the trick for me.  Never mind that this means I eat my pancakes with icing on top! It’s yummy.

Posted in baking

Buttermilk biscuits without buttermilk

Flat but yummy whey biscuits
Flat but yummy whey biscuits

One of my life goals is to learn how to make really good biscuits – and by biscuits I mean the soft, buttery, flaky things you eat in the South.  They’re traditionally made with buttermilk, but you can also use other liquids in them, such as whey.  I recently made yogurt and had drained off some of the whey – I didn’t want it to be too liquidy – so biscuits were a good use for that.  I found this recipe on RecipeZaar and it sounded authentic enough that it might help me to finally get past my biscuit rut, because all my previous attempts have ended up yummy, but not at all resembling Southern biscuits – too flat and tough, not flaky at all.  It got me two out of three – the right taste (I think the whey helped give it that tang but the butter is definitely to thank here), and the right texture, but I didn’t get enough rise.  I think it’s because I rolled out my biscuits before reading the part of the directions that says not to roll with a rolling pin!  Whoops.  It’s kind of ironic, too, since I don’t even own a rolling pin.  I used an empty wine (or, limoncello-to-be) bottle, thinking the rolling was necessary.  Next time I will pat my biscuits by hand.  Promise.

So when I stocked my new apartment with staples, I bought bread flour and cake flour but not all-purpose flour.  The complement of most people’s flour holdings, I guess.  I figured bread and cake were better for well, bread and cake, and when I needed all-purpose I’d just mix the two.  So that’s what I did for these biscuits – half and half.  Seems to work ok.  Maybe someday I’ll do a taste test with different kinds of flour.