Posted in baking

Questioning Conventional Wisdom: Amish Friendship Bread

This is a dish which is perpetuated as follows: somebody gives you a baggie full of yeasty batter, and you feed it and burp it over a period of ten days, and then you mix it with the rest of the ingredients and make several batches of batter, and then you bake one and give the rest away so the cycle can start again.

My personal opinion is that everything in the name except for friendship should be in scare quotes. Number one, exactly how Amish is a recipe involving instant vanilla pudding mix? Number two, exactly how breadlike is a recipe involving such massive quantities of sugar, as well as chemical leaveners? By bread, I mean something that has a lot of gluten in order to trap the gas slowly released by yeast. Cakes and quickbreads are different. But in fact, “Amish” friendship “bread” is a quickbread. The slowest quickbread ever, perhaps, since you’re supposed to breed yeast for 10 days before baking it. So let’s rename it Slow Friendship Quickbread, and discuss what it accomplishes and what it definitely doesn’t.

First, there’s the issue of gluten. Gluten cannot form in the presence of a lot of sugar. This recipe, and indeed even the starter you get from your friend, before you decide to add anything, contains too much sugar for serious gluten development.

Why can’t I have a bread that’s light on gluten? you ask. Because gluten is what makes yeast-risen breads work. Without it, the long rises needed for yeast-risen breads would result in the gas floating out of the batter/dough (and this is a batter – another reason it’s light on gluten), and the rising power would be largely lost.

“That’s ok!” you say. “I’ll just use baking powder and baking soda instead of yeast to leaven my dough.” Yeah, that’s exactly what the author(s) of this recipe did.mBut then why do you still care for this yeast for 10 days?

I can see three possible reasons. One, because the people who changed the recipe didn’t know better. Two, because that’s where the friendship part comes in, and if you took out the friendship part, well, not only would there be nothing true left in the name, but it would be a much less extraordinary recipe.  Just Vanilla Pudding Quickbread. Three, because, perhaps, just maybe, you’re also raising flavor-creating bacteria. I’m not sold on this, because 1) instant vanilla pudding mix is not an ingredient usually found in recipes that seek to put subtle flavors on display, nor are large amounts of sugar usually a factor in sourdough breads, and 2) we grow the yeast in a bag, and I don’t know if bacteria are ever really invited to the party (Alton Brown-ism!) except by accident. But I like to give people the benefit of the doubt.

Slow Friendship Quickbread is a yummy thing to eat and a fun thing to pass on to your friends (although I suggest you halve the recipe unless you really have a lot of friends who are dedicated to baking). Not to mention the slowest quickbread ever and the only chain letter I know of that is either edible or living. So enjoy it for what it is, and don’t worry about waiting ten days to make it.

Posted in baking

Pie crust on Good Eats!

Just wanted to celebrate the fact that I got home tonight only to turn on the TV and see Alton Brown discussing how to make a good pie crust.  Just what I need!  Hooray.  I’ll edit if I learn anything new that would have saved my melktert crusts.

…AH-HA! He says pie doughs shrink due to gluten formation.  The elastic gluten pulls it all together, or something.  Therefore, go easy on the water, and I assume also on any unnecessary agitation.  Lesson learned.  He adds water with a squirt bottle (you know the one); I should get one of those.  I also really want one of those bench scraper type things.  They probably cost a lot more than they should.  Alas.

He also says that having big chunks of butter is good, so that’s nice, because I had big chunks of butter in mine and – although they did their job, making my crust really flaky – it looked so different from how I thought pie dough should look that I was afraid it was a bad thing.

Ok, one more thing.  Can I tell you how proud I am that I actually have the exact “tailor’s ruler” that he whipped out to measure a quarter of an inch for rolling the dough?  (I sew…that is, I try to sew.  I’m pretty domestic for a raging feminist.)

Posted in porridge

Questioning conventional wisdom: risotto

Being one of those people who thinks too much, I like to try to figure out why we cook things the way we do and how much of the rules are tradition or superstition rather than actual science.  Not that there’s anything wrong with tradition.  But I’d like to know the difference.  I figured that since I already have a blog about food, I’d put these thoughts here.

So, today I have a quote from the Cookstr Blog.  Cookstr is a website that I just found out about approximately two minutes before I found the quote that inspired me to write this.  The main website allows you to search for recipes and chefs and cool stuff like that; it has a simple layout that I appreciate and it looks pretty schmancy.  Next time I want to cook a schmancy entree (I’m bad at thinking those up), I’ll give it a try.

The post I read on their blog is about risotto, which I make with something approaching regularity.  That doesn’t mean I make it perfectly, but the Italians I know identify it as risotto, and I like the way it tastes.  The quote that got me wondering was this:

Don’t use too small or too deep a pot.  You want a generous amount of surface area so the liquid absorbs at a nice brisk, even pace and the rice doesn’t steam.

I wouldn’t cook risotto in a small, deep pot either, but I’m not sure if I know why, and I’m not sure if controlling the rate of liquid absorption and avoiding steaming have anything to do with it.  First of all, I don’t understand how having a thin layer of rice instead of a thick one affects liquid absorption at all; that seems to me to depend only on the properties of the rice and probably the heat.  I guess it’s possible that the liquid wouldn’t reach the lower layers as easily, but…liquid can do stuff like that, and I stir my risotto.  Secondly, I don’t see how steaming enters the equation.  I could see some form of wet heat – simmering, boiling – entering the equation, but I don’t think that is to be avoided at all.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to eat any rice that was cooked purely by dry heat; my understanding of starches is that they need liquid to be what we consider cooked, but someone correct me if I’m wrong.  Furthermore, I don’t think any reasonable size of pan will avoid wet cooking in a dish that you prepare by continually adding liquid. This is not the same situation as when you want to make sure that the water coming out of your mushrooms boils off quickly so they saute instead of stewing.

I’m not claiming that I’m right in being skeptical here.  If anyone happens to know more about the science of risotto-making or can do a better job of interpreting that sentence, please share.  I’ve wondered about other aspects of the risotto process as well; I don’t entirely understand it yet.  What does the saute at the beginning accomplish?  Just flavor, or something more?  How does adding liquid in parts affect the dish differently from adding it all at once?  The answer to this last question may also be the answer to why we shouldn’t use a small, deep pan….

In any case, I like this other tip from their blog:

At the end, add that extra splash  of broth – it should be soupier than you imagine because it will keep cooking and absorbing broth even after you take it off the heat, and if you’re adding cheese at the end, that will thicken it up even further.  The risotto is finished when the rice is tender, but still has a firmness to it, and the risotto it is still quite wet.