Ancient Carbs

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“Who wants to take a guess? How long have people been eating bread?”

Hands shot up.

“A million years!”

“A thousand years?”

“Ummm, hmm…”

The random, hastily shouted guesses were quickly followed by more thoughtful inquiries.

“They ate bread during Roman times, right?”  

“Are we talking prehistory?” 

“As long as people have been alive?”

The kids were surprised when I told them that humans have been eating bread for at least 30,000 years.

“But how do we know that?”

Several more guesses, then finally, “Is it the tools?”

Evidence of the processing of grain has been found in archaeological excavations of ancient sites.

“These stones, called querns, were used as grinding tools. Scientists have been able to obtain microscopic amounts of grain flour from the querns and carbon date them to 30,000 BP.”

The kids inspected and chewed on some wheat kernels.

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We discussed the digestibility of grain in that form.

“Eaten raw, those kernels will come out pretty much looking the same as when they went in.”

Knowing looks.

“Grinding might have made the grain easier to eat, but raw flour still won’t sustain a body for very long. But take that same flour and water and make bread. Now that will keep a person alive.”

I mentioned the cooking theory. Kind of science heavy for the youngest of our group, but still good food for thought.

“So these nomadic people, roaming around gathering wild grasses and grains–they start settling in an area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Why would they want to be near the water?”

“Plants!”

“Animals that eat the plants!”

“Animals that eat the animals that eat the plants!”

Ancient history is a new topic for a couple of the kids, so we took a little time here to review the Fertile Crescent and all of its offerings.

“Eventually, people started cultivating the plants for food–grains like barley and wheat.”

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I explained that the first breads were flat and unleavened. Leavened bread was discovered later and most likely by accident.

“Perhaps someone mixed some bread dough using the same bowl that had been used for a previous batch. If so, it probably contained wild yeast. Maybe they realized that this practice of incorporating old dough into a new batch of bread made their loaves lighter.”

While we don’t know for sure how it happened, we do know that the first leavened breads appeared around 6,000 years ago.

“Again, how do we know this?”

Most of the kids recognized cuneiform.

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We made some jokes about this very first collection of recipes.

“Since they were written on clay tablets, you wouldn’t be carrying them around your kitchen like The Joy of Cooking.”

No, these recipes weren’t meant as a “how-to” as the majority of the people couldn’t read anyway; Mesopotamian scribes were recording a culinary ritual.

“And the list of foods they recorded is pretty impressive: 20 different kinds of cheese, hundreds of kinds of soup, and 300 kinds of bread, many of which were leavened by wild yeast, also known as sourdough.”

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Wild yeast, saccharomyces exiguus, is a single-celled microorganism and the smallest member of the mushroom family.

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“It’s a fun guy! Eh, eh?” My son never gets sick of this joke.

The wild yeast is especially plentiful on the skins of fruit and grains. Grind some grain, add a little warmth and water and you create an environment in which naturally occurring lactobacilli bacteria break down the carbohydrates in the grain and allow the sugar-eating fungus to thrive.

“And just like us after we eat a big meal, the yeast will do what?”

“Burp!”

“Fart!”

Yeah, expel gas. Carbon dioxide actually. 

“But why doesn’t the gas just bubble out of the dough?”

And this is where gluten comes in.

“Gluten is a protein that is formed when wheat flour is combined with water. It gives elasticity to the dough, allowing the dough to trap the carbon dioxide and expand like a balloon. But not all wheat flours have the same gluten capabilities.”

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I measured two tablespoons of several different flours into labeled bowls: unbleached cake, bread, whole grain from hard red wheat, and two all-purpose grinds made from the ancient wheat varieties of einkorn and emmer.

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Then we added one tablespoon of water to each.

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I instructed the kids to mush and knead together the mixtures in their bowls.

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The differences were immediately obvious.

“Hey, I think mine needs more water. It’s a lot drier than hers.”

“Mine is really sticky.”

“The dark ones are stiffer.”

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We compared the resulting doughs. Some were soft and stretchy while some were crumbly.

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Each kid washed their ball of dough in a bowl of water. The range of gluten in the different flours became more visible once the starch was rinsed away.

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“You can see that some flours produce doughs that are really elastic while some flours produce doughs that stretch and break or don’t stretch much at all. This is why bread bakers usually mix their weaker flours with stronger flours, and why you would use a weak flour for cakes and pastries.”

“So, bread made with weak flour would be really flat and crumbly?”

“Exactly!”

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They compared and investigated and explored until stomachs started rumbling.

After seeing that both emmer and einkorn were weaker flours, they understood when I explained how I chose to mix each of those flours with bread flour to make the sourdough loaves we were about to eat.

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The emmer loaf was a bit darker and had a slightly grassier aroma. This wasn’t surprising since the flour had smelled really green when we opened the bag.

“It smells like hay.”

The einkorn loaf was warmer in color.

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Lacking gazelle and pigeon, I chose to offer more accessible items taken from the list of foods common in ancient Mesopotamia: yogurt cheese, honey, figs, grapes, and yes, sourdough bread.

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Overall, the kids slightly preferred the somewhat lighter einkorn loaf to the emmer. This however, did not stop anyone from devouring every scrap of bread on the table.

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Personally, I couldn’t tell much difference in the actual flavor of the loaves. It wasn’t until later, when when I ate my third snack that I could detect that slightly grassier flavor in the emmer. Maybe it had needed a chance to develop. Or maybe I was just not shoveling it in eating slower.

Whatever it was, it was delicious.

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I have not included a sourdough bread recipe in this post because, well, it’s a process. But! There are many sources online for getting a starter going and baking some bread. Here are two I would recommend:

King Arthur Flour

The Perfect Loaf

I would encourage anyone who is interested in the world of sourdough to make a starter.  Watch it. Feed it. Make some stuff with it. You don’t even need to bake bread right away–you can make pancakes or waffles. Just get used to having it around and taking care of it. Like a pet. A pet that will feed you for a change!

 

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Chocolate and Elbow Grease

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Scrape down three ounces of the best and purest chocolate, or prepared cocoa. Cut up, into a deep pan, three-quarters of a pound of fresh butter; add to it a pound of powdered loaf-sugar; and stir the butter and sugar together till very light and white. Have ready fourteen ounces (two ounces less than a pound) of sifted flour; a powdered nutmeg; and a tea-spoonful of powdered cinnamon–mixed together. Beat the whites of ten eggs till they stand alone; then the yolks till they are very thick and smooth. Then mix the yolks and whites gradually together, beating very hard when they are all mixed. Add the eggs, by degrees, to the beaten butter and sugar, in turn with the flour and the scraped chocolate,–a little at a time of each; also the spice. Stir the whole very hard. Put the mixture into a buttered tin pan with straight sides, and bake it at least four hours. If nothing is to be baked afterwards, let it remain in till the oven becomes cool. When cold, ice it.

— Eliza Leslie, The Lady’s Receipt-Book, 1847

“This is the first chocolate cake recipe ever published in America.”

I don’t know if the kids were more intrigued by the novelty of the recipe or by the main ingredient, but I did notice that at least one of them recognized Miss Leslie’s name from our last baking project.

They also knew, from a previous session, that by 1847, chocolate had been around for a very long time.

“I wonder why it took them so long to work it into a cake?”

It turns out that the method of chocolate consumption hadn’t changed much from the 16th century, when the Spaniards brought it from Mesoamerica to Spain and, by extension, to the rest of Europe.

Two hundred years later, people still drank their chocolate — hot, with milk and sugar. It was considered healthful and they drank it as often as possible despite it being very labor intensive:

A portion of one of the cakes must be scraped fine, added to a sufficient quantity of water, and simmered for a quarter of an hour; but milling is necessary to make it completely smooth. For this purposes [chocolate pots have] a circular wheel of wood or metal within, fixed to a stem that passes through the lid, and which, being whirled about rapidly by the palms of the hand, bruises and mixes the chocolate with the water. The chocolate must be milled off the fire, then put on again to simmer some time, then milled again until it is quite smooth. From the fineness there should be no sediment, and the whole should be drunk; cream is generally used with it … Sugar may be put in with the scraped chocolate, or added afterward.

— Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy, 1845

We checked out some pictures of these special chocolate pots and mills.

“They had to use the stirring rods in order to keep the chocolate from separating. Cocoa beans are 53% cocoa butter, so that fat will want to rise to the surface unless you keep mixing it. Otherwise, you’d have a bit of an oil slick on top of your hot cocoa.”

The kids remembered trying cocoa nibs and happily dug right in.

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“People could buy ‘prepared cocoa’ which meant cocoa nibs that had been ground into a powder, or they could purchase chocolate in tablets, where the nibs had been ground into a paste and let harden. Even Ben Franklin sold chocolate tablets in his print shop.”

I explained that the process of manufacturing chocolate was even more labor intensive than the lengthy preparation of hot cocoa — many chocolate makers still ground their beans by hand, though some used rudimentary machines or even grist mills.

“Like the Indian corn?”

“Yeah, just like that. Then, factories started popping up. The first was Hannon’s Best Chocolate in Massachusetts in 1765.”

None of the kids had heard of Baker’s Chocolate, so my story of how Hannon’s became Baker’s, which is still in business to this very day (!), was met with blank stares.

Moving on.

“So all this industrialization made chocolate that much more available and affordable.”

A Dutch chocolate maker’s patent of a press that removed the cocoa butter from ground cocoa nibs was the next major development in the chocolate world. Casparus van Houten’s hydraulic press removed the cocoa butter from the ground chocolate mass to create a “cake” that could then be pulverized into what we now call cocoa powder.

Then, van Houten’s son, Coenraad Johannes, developed a process  in which cocoa is treated with alkaline salts to reduce its natural acidity. This “dutch process” results in a product that is much darker than natural cocoa due to the chemical reaction of the salts and the cocoa.

“So when you bake with cocoa you need to pay attention to the recipe and whether it calls for dutched or natural cocoa — that tells you which leavening to use: baking soda for the acidic natural cocoa, or baking powder for alkalized cocoa.”

They examined the two powders, smelling and sampling each.

“Yuck.”

I promised that, once we got our cake mixed and in the oven, I would make sweetened pastes with both kinds of cocoa so they could have a more pleasant tasting experience.

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While Miss Leslie’s original recipe called for either prepared cocoa or “scraped” chocolate, the updated recipe we were using called for grinding unsweetened chocolate in a food processor — because now we have electricity and modern appliances, and for that I am thankful.

“Can we taste the chocolate?”

Sour faces.

I warned them it wasn’t sweetened!

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“So, Miss Leslie would have grated her chocolate by hand. She would have also mixed this cake by hand. Notice there is no chemical leavening in the recipe.”

We discussed how a cake of this kind gets its loftiness, and how much muscle would have gone into mixing it without a machine: first beating the butter and the sugar, then whipping the yolks, and finally, whipping the egg whites. Whew.

“I bet you’d have one arm a lot bigger than the other!”

Ah, but we did have a machine. And we were more than happy to use it.

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The kids took turns gradually adding sugar to the creamed butter and chocolate mixture.

“We are trying to create as many air bubbles in the butter as possible. The edges of those sugar crystals rubbing against the butter will do that.”

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Once all the sugar was added, we continued beating the mixture for several more minutes to aerate it even further.

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Then, they added the eggs.

“That’s a lot of eggs!”

I explained that the original recipe called for even more eggs because, when whipped, they act as additional leavening; since our electric mixer had the ability to incorporate a lot more air into the batter than mixing by hand, we could use fewer eggs.

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And finally, they added the flour.

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We popped the cake into the oven and the kids made short work of the mixing bowl.

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While the cake was baking, I kept my promise to provide the crew with a better taste comparison of the two cocoas by mixing up a bit of each with sugar and hot water.

They were unanimous in their preference for the natural cocoa.

“It tastes more chocolatey!”

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And we were all unanimous in our approval of Miss Leslie’s cake.

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Whatever it was that prompted Eliza Leslie to incorporate chocolate into a pound cake recipe, we approved wholeheartedly.

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Eliza Leslie’s Chocolate Cake, 1847

Adapted slightly from Greg Patent’s recipe in Baking in America

Makes one 10-inch bundt cake, about 12 servings

3 cups sifted cake flour

3/4 tsp sea salt

2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

3 oz unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped

2 cups sugar

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter at cool room temperature, (about 70 degrees)

1 T vanilla extract

8 large eggs at room temperature

2 T whole milk

Adjust the oven rack to the lower third position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and 10-inch (12 cup) bundt pan and flour it, set aside.

Place the cake flour, salt, and nutmeg in a bowl and whisk to combine.

Process the chocolate with 1/4 cup of the sugar in a food processor until the chocolate is chopped into very small granules and set aside.

Beat the butter in a large bowl with an electric mixer until smooth and creamy. Add the ground chocolate mixture and vanilla and beat for 1 minute on med-high speed. Beat in the remaining 1 3/4 c sugar about 1/4 cup at a time, beating for 20 to 30 seconds after each addition.

When all the sugar has been incorporated, beat for 5 minutes.

Beat in the eggs two at a time, beating for 1 minute after each addition; stop to scrape the bowl and beaters occasionally.

On low speed, gradually add half the flour mixture, beating only until incorporated. Beat in the milk, then the remaining flour. Use a rubber spatula to finish folding the mixture together.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and gently shake it to level the top.

Bake for 55 to 60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the thickest part comes out clean. Cool the cake in its pan for 20 minutes.

Gently loosen the edge of the cake from the pan and cover it with a wire rack. Invert the two and carefully lift the pan from the cake. Let cool.

 

For more on this historical cake series:

Cake As a Lens

I Vote For Cake

Redemption of a Sad Paste

Best Laid Plans

Fit For Angels

Chocolate Cake For a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

A Cup is a Cup is a Cup

 

Rich Bread From Tiny Creatures


And when I say “tiny creatures,” I don’t mean the kids. I mean Saccharomyces cerevisiae, also known as baker’s yeast.

“It’s been a while since we’ve baked anything with yeast. The last thing was…”

“Pizza!”

“This time we’ll be making a yeasted French bread called brioche. It’s a rich dough, meaning it has a lot of fat in it. Doughs that become sourdough, or baguette, or even pizza crust are called lean doughs because they are made with little to no fat in them. This brioche has quite a bit of butter in it, as well as fat from lots of egg yolks.”

We took a look at a very traditional baking and pastry book. They could see that brioche can come in many different forms: loaves, braids, baked in large molds or as little knots.

“This version even has a little head.”

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We reviewed what yeast was and how it works.

“So these little guys, these simple organisms, they eat the sugars in the dough. They eat and eat and eat, and then they do what?”

“Fart!”

“Poop!”

I waited for the giggling to die down.

“Or burp. Yeah, they expel carbon dioxide, which gets trapped in the dough and causes it to rise. The thing is, fat slows down the action of the yeast. So, in order to give them a head start on their work, we’ll make a sponge with some of the ingredients, then add the rest once we can see that the yeast are really active. Finally, we’ll beat in the butter.”

We heated some milk to about 110 degrees, warmer than body temperature, but not too warm for dunking fingers into.

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They added the yeast, an egg, and some of the flour. We mixed this together to get a shaggy dough, then sprinkled more flour over the top. We covered the bowl with cling film and set it aside to ferment.

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We were using fresh yeast for the first time, so while our sponge was rising, we took the opportunity to compare different kinds of yeast.

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First up, the yeast we couldn’t see.

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Though the yeast that had made the bubbles appear in my starter wasn’t visible, there were other signs that fermentation had taken place.

“It smells like sourdough.”

We talked about how the yeast in the jar, wild yeast (Saccharomyces exiguus), is always out there in nature. The only time we see evidence of its presence might be the funkiness on a piece of fruit left too long on the counter or on the tree in the backyard — after the yeast has already started the fermentation process, feasting on the fruit’s sugars, then excreting carbon dioxide and alcohol.

Then we checked out the yeast we could see: fresh, active dry, and instant yeast.

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“These forms of yeast are produced in big factories. They grow it in vats on sugars like molasses.”

“So kind of like yeast farmers?”

“Right! They end up with something like yeast soup. Then they remove the liquid and either compress the results to make cake (fresh) yeast, or dehydrate it to make either active dry or instant yeast.”

We examined the three piles.

“Can we taste it?”

“Sure?” I mean, I wouldn’t want to eat straight yeast, but I figured a tiny bit couldn’t hurt. “If anything, it might make you gassy.”

Giggles.

They inspected and sniffed and poked. And tasted. A little.

“This one is bigger and kind of round.” (Active-dry)

“This one is tinier, and sort of longish.” (Instant)

Fresh yeast resembled a crumbly eraser.

“Fresh yeast will work the fastest because it doesn’t need to be rehydrated. But fresh yeast doesn’t store well for very long and is harder to find in the market. You can substitute one for the other as long as you use the correct converted amount.”

There was some discussion about the need for rehydrating dried yeast. Yes, it is alive in the package, but dormant, kind of like the tree in my yard during the winter. Yes, it is alive in the bread dough. And yes, we kill it when we bake it. Poor yeast.

The yeast in our sponge was definitely alive and moving fast.
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The kids agreed that it already smelled like bread.

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They added the rest of the eggs and dry ingredients to the rising sponge.

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“It doesn’t look very yummy.”

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This dough requires a long mix, about 15 minutes on medium-high speed.

“Can you believe they used to mix this by hand?”

While the dough was mixing, I pulled out a batch of brioche I had made the night before.

“Because brioche contains so much butter, it is really impossible to work with unless it’s cold. I have dough ready and chilled so that you can see how to portion and shape it.”

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We divided the dough into 3 ounce pieces.

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I showed them how to cup their hands around the dough to shape and round it.

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Ok, so it takes a bit of practice. We got mostly rounded dough pieces.

We set the pan of dough balls aside to rise again, and turned our attention back to our mixing brioche.

It was smooth and sticky and very well mixed. Time to beat in the butter.

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“Here you guys, feel this butter. It should be somewhat soft, but not melty or oily.”

They pressed their fingertips into the butter.

“Now we’ll add it to the dough, a few tablespoons at a time.”

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They were really eager to throw their pats of butter into the mixer, but they patiently waited until I gave each person the o.k.

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Once all the butter was incorporated, we dumped the brioche dough out onto the lightly floured table and gathered it into a ball. We placed it into a buttered bowl so that it could rise.

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Our brioche rounds were ready.

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They pressed the spongy rounds flat, leaving a little raised rim around the edge.

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We spooned some crème fraîche into the center.

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Then we topped the crème fraîche with macerated strawberries and brushed the edge of the dough with a bit of egg wash.

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A sprinkling of sugar topped the whole thing off.

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The brioches went into the oven and emerged golden and puffy and smelling like butter and hot strawberries. And yes, they tasted as good as that sounds.

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But what of the first batch of dough? The one the kids actually mixed?

It was still happily rising on the counter.

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I pressed that out into a sheet pan and dusted it with flour before placing it in the refrigerator to chill.

We had needed extra dough for demonstration purposes. This batch would become cinnamon rolls for breakfast the next morning. The lengths I go to for the kids’ benefit. That’s the story I’m sticking with anyway.

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Brioche from Pastries From The La Brea Bakery by Nancy Silverton

yield:  2 1/4 lbs of dough

Note: This recipes takes 2 days because it must be chilled for at least 6 hours, but my preference is overnight. Also, the dough requires a lengthy mixing time to properly develop — keep an eye on your mixer so that it doesn’t shimmy its way off the counter while it’s working, and don’t let it overheat.

3/4 ounce (1 T) packed fresh cake yeast or 2 1/2 t active dry

1/3 cup whole milk, warmed to 110 degrees

6 extra-large eggs

3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 t kosher salt

2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, soft but not melting or oily

Place the yeast in the bowl of a standing mixer and pour the milk over, letting active dry yeast proof for 10 minutes. Add 1 of the eggs and 1 cup of the flour and stir to combine. Sprinkle 1 more cup of flour over the mixture without stirring. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and set aside until the surface cracks, about 30 minutes.

Add the remaining eggs and dry ingredients to the sponge. Using the dough hook, mix on low for 1-2 minutes, until combined. Turn the mixer up to medium-high and continue to mix for about 15 minutes, until the dough wraps itself around the hook and is smooth, shiny, and slightly sticky. It may be necessary to add another tablespoon of flour to encourage the dough to leave the sides of the bowl.

Turn the mixer down to medium-low and add the butter, a few tablespoons at a time. After all of the butter has been added, turn the mixer up to medium-high and beat the dough for about 2-3 more minutes, until the dough wraps itself around the hook. If necessary, add a few pieces of flour to encourage the dough to leave the sides of the bowl. The dough will be smooth and shiny, but not oily.

Remove the dough from the bowl onto a lightly floured surface and gather into a ball. Place the dough into a buttered bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size, about 2 – 2 1/2 hours.

Spread the dough out onto a floured parchment-lined baking sheet. Dust with flour, cover, and refrigerate at least 6 hours or overnight.

For fruit-topped brioche:

Separate the chilled dough into twelve 3 ounce pieces. On a lightly floured work surface, roll the dough into balls. Flatten into discs and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Set aside to proof until spongy to the touch, about an hour. Make a depression in the center of the discs and spoon way more crème fraîche than you feel is reasonable in the center, (trust me, we used about 1T per bun and it was not close to enough). Top with fruit, (we used strawberries macerated with sugar and orange zest), brush the edge with egg wash, and sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 – 30 minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

Choose Your Own (Baking) Adventure

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“Can we just make something up?”

My son and I were standing in the kitchen chatting before our guests arrived.

“Well yeah, but you probably wouldn’t want to just throw a bunch of stuff in a dish and bake it –”

He cut me off: “Oh I know — you would want to know what the different ingredients do first.”

This little conversation got me thinking about our recipe-less baking lesson for the day. We really wouldn’t be winging it — it would be more structured than that. It would be more like one of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that my kids enjoy: “If you choose scenario A, then turn to page X…”

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“You guys have baked a lot of things so far. And even though you’ve used the same ingredients over and over, the products have been very different.”

Together, they identified the familiar ingredients on the table: “flour, sugar, butter, eggs, baking powder, baking soda, salt…and vanilla!”

“So what makes the end result so different if the ingredients are mostly the same?”

“How much of an ingredient you put in? Like maybe something more in a cake. Or something?”

“Yeah. Remember when we made ganache and talked about ratios? A ratio tells how much there is of one thing in comparison to something else. So if we wanted to make truffles with a ratio of 2 parts chocolate to 1 part cream, how much cream would we need if we had 1 pound of chocolate?”

“One-half of a pound?”

“Right. And say we wanted to make a ginormous batch of truffles and we had one hundred pounds of chocolate. How much cream would we need?”

“Fifty pounds?”

We looked at a chart I had drawn up that morning that showed some time tested ratios for batters and doughs.

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“Pie dough is known as 3-2-1 dough because it is made from about three parts flour to two parts fat and one part liquid. Now compare that to the ratios for a biscuit or scone, which are made the same way — by cutting the butter into the flour; those ratios are about three parts flour to one part fat and two parts liquid.”

“Oh, I see! Like the pancakes, they have the same amount of flour and eggs as a muffin, but there is just more liquid. Oh, and a little less fat.”

I explained that the ratios I had listed were very general, and that specific recipes are built from those ratios.

“Recipes are just ratios that somebody has adjusted to their own liking. There’s no reason you couldn’t change a recipe to your own liking, provided you didn’t mess with the ratios too much — you’d still want a cake to look like a cake and not a soupy pudding. If you know what the function of the ingredients are, there’s no reason you couldn’t just make up your own recipe.”

Which is what we would be doing. It would be a simple cake. But I suggested that we have a plan to work towards.

“These are the fruits that are in season right now.”

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There was immediate talk about lemon. Then tangerine. Somebody pointed out the blood oranges and I mentioned that my son and I had talked earlier of an upside-down blood orange cake. A couple of the kids really seized on that idea. There was also a suggestion of a blood orange layer cake with frosting, “maybe pink?”, that we had to reject because of time constraints. After some additional chatter about icings, we returned to the upside-down cake idea.

We looked at our chart again. The ratio for a cake was 1:1:1:1, flour to fat to sugar to egg.

“This ratio would produce a pound cake.”

Now pound cakes are delicious, but we wanted something a bit less dense. We would definitely need to tinker.

“Flour and egg whites are the protein ingredients. They provide the structure for the cake, while sugar and fat weaken the structure. In order to create a cake that will hold itself up yet still be moist and tender we have to have a balanced recipe. What do you think would happen if we had a lot of flour and not much fat?”

“Would the cake be dry?”

“Yeah, it would be dry and crumbly. And if we had way too much fat or sugar?”

This one was harder for them.

“It would be too sweet!”

“Yes, it would be way too sweet, but sugar doesn’t just make things sweet, it also contributes moisture, so the cake might be really wet and soggy inside. So to avoid that, one well-tested formula for this kind of cake would be to make sure the weight of the flour equals the weight of the sugar.”

I suggested we just measure out one and one-half cups of flour, (good for a cake that would serve eight people), and weigh it.

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“Seven and one-quarter ounces!”

They used a separate bowl to weigh an equal amount of sugar.

“Now, the weight of the eggs should be about the same weight as the fat.”

We had already decided that we didn’t want a pound cake, so we reduced the amount of butter to a reasonable four ounces, or one stick. Also, convenient.

They cracked two eggs into a bowl on the scale.

“Three and one-half ounces! But that’s not the same as the butter.”

I explained that eggs have two parts: the whites provide structure, but also make baked goods dry, and yolks, which are mostly fat and therefore add moisture and help create a velvety texture.

“So we could add just one yolk. It would bring up the total weight of the eggs to equal that of the butter — actually it would be slightly over, but we don’t need it to be exactly the same.”

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“Next, we need the weight of the eggs plus the liquid to be about the same as the sugar.”

I suggested buttermilk just because I like the tanginess of it, but they voted unanimously against that and opted for milk.

“How much did the eggs weigh again?”

“Just under three and a quarter, ” I reminded them.

“So we need about four ounces of milk.”

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“We still have to think about leavening.”

We reviewed the differences between baking soda and baking powder. I even poured a little vinegar over some baking soda to remind them how the soda reacted with an acid to create carbon dioxide, which in turn would create bubbles in the cake batter. Those bubbles would grow larger in the the heat of the oven, thereby leavening the cake.

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But we had not chosen to use buttermilk, so we would use baking powder instead — one teaspoon per one cup of flour.

“Now sometimes recipes will have both baking powder and baking soda because the amount of soda necessary to react with the acidic ingredient, (one-quarter teaspoon soda per one-half cup of an acid), is not enough to leaven the total amount of batter.”

Finally, we added the flavor enhancers: vanilla, orange zest, and most importantly, salt.

“Baked goods aren’t very tasty without salt. I left it out of some muffins once and how were they?”

My daughter wrinkled up her nose. “Blah.”

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We prepared our pan by buttering it, dusting it with flour, then sprinkling some granulated sugar over a round of parchment set in the bottom of the pan.

Then we got to review some knife skills.

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The kids each took a turn removing the peel from an orange.

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Then we sliced the blood oranges into rounds.

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They arranged the brilliant red wheels on top of the sugar in the pan.

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Finally it was time to mix the cake.

We creamed the butter with the sugar, salt, and orange zest until it was fluffy, then added the eggs a little at a time.

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We had a very conscientious baker on hand who scraped the bowl after every addition.

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Milk was added next.

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The flour and baking powder came last. We mixed those on the mixer just until there were a few streaks of flour, then we finished mixing it by hand.

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They each got to dip just one finger to taste the batter.

“Yum!”

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We could see lovely red and orange specks of zest in the fluffy batter.

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The top of the baked cake was nice and golden, but we were all more interested in seeing the bottom.

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It did not disappoint.

“Oooh, so pretty!”

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And they all agreed that the cake was delicious and beautiful. And theirs.

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Blood Orange Upside-Down Cake

7 oz all purpose flour, (about 1 1/2 c)

1 1/2 t aluminum-free baking powder

4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature

7 oz granulated sugar, plus more for the pan

1/2 t fine sea salt

2 large eggs plus one yolk at room temperature

4 oz whole milk

1 t vanilla extract

zest of one blood orange

several blood oranges to slice

Heat the oven to 350 degrees and butter and flour a 10″ cake pan, preferably springform or one with a removable bottom. Place a round of parchment in the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle about a tablespoon or so of sugar over the parchment and arrange the blood orange slices on top of that.

Whisk the flour and baking powder together and set aside.

With the paddle attachment, cream the butter, sugar, salt, and orange zest together until fluffy. Add the eggs, about one at a time, mixing well then scraping the sides of the bowl with a spatula after each addition. Add the vanilla to the milk and then mix that into the butter and egg mixture. It will look curdled but will smooth out once you add the flour. Add the flour and mix on low until most of the flour is incorporated. Finish mixing by hand until no streaks of flour remain.

Gently spread the batter over the blood orange slices and level it as much as you can.

Bake the cake in the middle of the oven for about 35 – 40 minutes or until the cake is golden brown and springs back when pressed in the center. A toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake will come out with moist crumbs attached.

Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove the sides of the pan, invert the cake, and remove the parchment.

 

Formulas for cake creations:

Butter = Sugar

Eggs = Fat

Eggs + Liquid = Sugar

Leavening guidelines:

1 t baking powder per cup of flour

1/4 t baking soda per cup of flour and 1/2 cup of acidic ingredient

 

 

 

 

 

Puffed

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“Soufflér. That means to puff, or to breathe.”

The past participle of soufflér is soufflé. And that’s what we were making.

Most of the kids had eaten a savory version of a soufflé before; only one had not.

“It’s kind of fluffy.”

So we talked about how a soufflé becomes so fluffy or puffed up.

“What do you guys think? How do we get all that air in there?”

They had great responses:

“Yeast?”

“Baking soda and vinegar?”

“Baking powder!”

“A bicycle pump?”

I was incredibly happy they remembered that all those things, aside from the bicycle pump, were leavening agents.

“What about eggs?” I asked. “Remember when we made the meringue mushrooms? Or the chocolate cloud cake?”

“Oh yeah!”

“We were able to whip those egg whites until they were nice and fluffy, right? The proteins in the whites formed a network that trapped a lot of air. That is exactly what we’ll use to leaven our soufflés; all those air bubbles will expand in the heat of the oven and cause our soufflés to push up.”

But first, we needed to make the base. This one would be made with pastry cream and flavored with bananas.

They had made pastry cream once before.

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They combined the egg yolks with sugar, flour, and salt to form a kind of thick paste.

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Then they whisked in a bit of milk that we had heating on the stove.

“Do you guys remember why we don’t just dump everything into the pot of hot milk?”

“Because the eggs will get clumpy?”

“Right! So we introduce the heat gradually, that’s called tempering the eggs, then we cook everything together.”

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Once the mixture had thickened and come to a boil, they strained the resulting custard into a bowl.

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We set the pastry cream aside while we prepared the soufflé dishes.

“Straight-sided dishes are best because they will help the soufflé rise up, not out. And we need something for the soufflé base to cling to as it climbs the sides, so we’ll brush the insides of the ramekins with soft butter and coat them with sugar.”

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With the dishes ready, we turned our attention back to finishing the base.

Of bananas.

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They mashed the fruit into the pastry cream and added some vanilla.

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We inspected our egg whites.

“No goldfish, right?” Meaning there were no bits of yolk floating around in the whites. “The yolks contain fat, which would interfere with the whites’ ability to form that network we talked about — the one that traps the air. Any fat will make it difficult, or even impossible, for the whites to whip.”

We started whipping the whites, and when we could see that the whip was leaving trails as it passed through the egg whites, they began adding the sugar.

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It took only a few minutes for the meringue to reach a firm peak. Actually, we could have whipped it even less, we were just on the edge of being over whipped. A little dipping of the tip of meringue, like a soft serve ice cream cone, would have been better. 

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They took turns folding the meringue into the soufflé base.

“Remember, when you’re folding, down through the middle and up the sides.”

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“It’s better to have a little bit of whites still streaky through the base than having an overfolded soufflé. The more you fold it, the more air you knock out of it.”

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We portioned the mixture into the sugared ramekins, filling them to the brim.

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I leveled them off with a spatula so they would have a nice, flat top.

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“You can run your thumb around the inside of the dishes so that the mixture doesn’t stick on the edge as it’s baking and give you a lopsided soufflé.”

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We popped the tray into the hot oven, and after about 10 minutes I called everyone over to take a peek.

“That’s amazing!”

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Soufflés, especially those made from a starch or chocolate base, are not as temperamental as the movies would have you believe. You can even take one out of the oven, test it for doneness, and put it right back in.

These were ready though.

Everyone sat down and we passed out the soufflés. They had their choice of raspberry or chocolate sauce to pour in.

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Or both.

And they were eaten before they even started deflating.

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Banana Soufflés adapted from a recipe in Room For Dessert by David Lebovitz

Note: These can be made a few hours in advance and held, unbaked, in the refrigerator.

4 servings (can be easily doubled or tripled)

2 medium bananas (equal to about 1/2 cup mashed banana pulp)

2 t vanilla

1/2 t lemon juice

1/2 c pastry cream

4 large egg whites, at room temperature

pinch of cream of tartar

1/8 t fine sea salt

2 T sugar, plus more for coating the ramekins

Position the oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees. Butter the insides of four 4-ounce ramekins and coat with a fine layer of sugar. In a large bowl, mash the bananas into the pastry cream and add the lemon juice, vanilla, and salt. In the bowl of a standing mixer, whip the egg whites on medium speed until frothy then add the cream of tartar. Increase the speed to medium-high and continue whipping until soft peaks form. Begin adding the sugar and whip until the meringue forms a firm but not dry peak. Add about 1/3 of the meringue to the banana mixture and fold gently to lighten it. Fold in the remaining meringue until combined. Spoon the mixture into the prepared dishes, filling them to the rim. Level the tops with a spatula and use your thumb to create a shallow indentation around the inside of the ramekin. Set the soufflés on a baking sheet and bake for about 10 minutes or until the tops are nicely browned and the soufflés are firm but still slightly jiggly. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.

Pastry Cream  (makes about 1 cup)

1 cup whole milk

3 T flour

4 T sugar

1/8 t fine sea salt

3 large egg yolks

1/4 t vanilla

Warm the milk in a saucepan. Meanwhile whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, and egg yolks. When the milk is hot, whisk about 1/3 of it into into the egg mixture. Pour everything back into the pot and cook over moderate heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture is thickened and just begins to boil. Remove from heat and strain into a bowl. Stir in the vanilla. Cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

 

Stovetop Alchemy

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“Do you say care-a-mel or car-mel?”

We were divided on the pronunciation of the word, but we were united in our appreciation of it.

“We are making a caramel sauce.”

Somebody sighed.

Now, I am not above eating caramel sauce with a spoon, straight out of the pot, but I felt that in order to maintain some sense of propriety we should also make something to eat the caramel on.

“And apple crêpes.”

Now, a cheer.

Since crêpe batter should sit for 30 minutes or so before using, we decided to make that first.

The easiest way to make the batter is in a blender or, in our case, with an immersion blender.

They measured the milk into a pitcher.

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And added the eggs.

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The butter we had put on the stove to brown was ready and it smelled amazing.

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After mixing the browned butter into the other ingredients, we set the resulting batter aside and the kids gathered near the stove to start caramelizing the sugar for our sauce.

Except nobody could see into the pot. So, some chairs were brought in and children were rearranged.

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“What does sugar smell like?”

“It’s sweet!”

“And caramel? Does it smell the same, or different?”

They considered the question.

“How can caramelized sugar smell so different from regular old white sugar?”

I explained that granulated sugar, or sucrose, is made up of fructose and glucose, and that when heated, it breaks down into these two component sugars. Eventually, these molecules break down into other molecules that react with one another to form new compounds that make up the delicious aromas and flavors of caramelized sugar.

There are two classic methods to making caramel: wet and dry. The wet method involves moistening the sugar with water and cooking the mixture. As the water boils away, the sugar breaks down and caramelizes.

The dry method is simply sugar cooked in a dry pan. Because sugar is partially water, heat easily liquifies it.

Of the two methods, I personally prefer the dry caramel. I am an impatient person and because of the added water, the wet method takes longer. A wet caramel is also more prone to crystallization. Again, as an impatient person, I just don’t have time for that.

I reminded the kids that melting sugar is very, very hot. They agreed to be mindful of each other at the stove.

We sprinkled an even layer of sugar into the pot and began cooking it over moderate heat.

After just a few minutes, we could see some sugar liquifying at the edges and a little browning under the surface, near the center.

“Wow, that happens fast!”

As the browning and melting continued, we used the spoon to pull the sugar from the outside of the pot towards the middle.

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The kids took turns using the tip of the spoon to mash and distribute chunks of sugar, allowing them to melt into the darker liquid.

While we didn’t want any one spot to get too dark, (you can’t salvage burnt sugar), I cautioned against stirring too much to avoid excessive lumping and crystallization.

We did end up with some chunky bits, but we lowered the heat and those soon softened into the rest of the caramel.

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The color of caramel at its tastiest point is something like that of an old copper penny. Smell is actually the best indicator of when the sugar is ready. We kept smelling the pot, and as the familiar scent of rich caramel wafted up, we watched the darkening sugar like hawks. Once we could see the caramel start to smoke, we turned off the burner. The caramel would continue to cook from the residual heat of the pot.

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We had butter at the ready and carefully dropped it into the molten sugar.

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Cream went in next.

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The cold cream caused the caramel to seize up a bit, but as we did earlier, we just turned the heat to low and stirred everything together.

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“That smells so good!”

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Now that the sauce was finished, we could turn our attention to cooking the crêpes.

We strained the batter and poured it into a jar tall enough to accommodate a 2-ounce ladle.

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I demonstrated how to deposit the mixture onto the hot pan, tilting and swirling it to cover the surface with a thin layer of batter.

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I used a small offset spatula to loosen the edges of the crêpe and quickly flipped the thin pancake over.

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A few seconds on the other side, and the crêpe was cooked enough to turn out onto a cooling rack.

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I handled the ladling for the first round, while the kids focused on tilting the pan.

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They were more confident the second time around, and did most of the ladling themselves, though they still needed a little help with the flipping of the crêpe.

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We had a bit of fretting over the lack of coverage, but I assured them that we could add a little batter and smooth it with the spatula, and if that failed to produce a perfect crêpe, they wouldn’t notice the difference once the crêpes were filled and folded.

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I quickly sautéed some apples and reheated the crêpes briefly on the pan.

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With the addition of a scoop of the cooked apples and a little of the still warm caramel sauce, everyone was happy.

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It was definitely a clean plate kind of day.

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Salted Caramel Sauce

1 cup granulated sugar

6 T butter, cut into pieces

1/2 cup heavy cream, warmed just slightly

1 t sea salt

Have all ingredients ready and near the stove. Place the sugar in a heavy-bottomed pot and shake it to make a fairly even layer. Cook the sugar over moderate heat, using a wooden spoon to help push and pull the solid sugar into the liquid sugar. You don’t want any one spot to get too dark or burnt. If the sugar gets really clumpy, just turn the heat to low and continue cooking it and it will eventually smooth out. Keep a close eye on the color, it should be the color of an old copper penny when it’s ready. It should smell strongly of caramel and the pot will start to smoke. Immediately turn off the heat and carefully add the butter, followed by the cream and salt. Return the sauce to low heat to incorporate all the ingredients. Cooled sauce can be rewarmed over low heat.

Crêpe Batter

Makes about 15 crêpes

7 T unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 3/4 c whole milk

4 large eggs

1/2 t sea salt

1 t vanilla

1 1/2 c unbleached all purpose flour

Brown butter over low heat until quite dark (see here), immediately pour into a small dish to stop the cooking and cool slightly. Measure milk, eggs, salt, and vanilla into a blender and combine. Add the flour and blend until smooth. Add the butter and blend again. Set aside for 30 minutes or up to 24 hrs in the refrigerator. Strain batter before using.

To cook the crêpes:

I use an 8″ crêpe pan, but you could use a similar size skillet. Heat the pan over moderate heat and lightly butter it, (I only do this for the first crêpe). When the pan is hot but not smoking, (a few drops of water should skitter across the surface), pour or ladle 1/4 cup of batter on it near the center while simultaneously tilting and swirling the pan. It takes a little practice, and it usually takes me a crêpe or two to get into a rhythm. You should hear it sizzle. Any excess batter can be poured back into your container and the resulting “tail” can be cut off. Once the top of the crêpe is set, you can use a small spatula to loosen the sides. I use my fingers to flip the crêpe over, but you could also use a larger spatula to do so. Let it cook for a few seconds and then turn the crêpe out onto a cooling rack. The first crêpe is always a throwaway for me, well, we eat it, but it’s generally an ugly one. You can begin stacking the finished crêpes as they cool. Any unused crêpes can be wrapped and frozen.

 

 

A Bowl Full of Sunshine and a Nod to the Irish

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It was baking class day and St. Patrick’s Day. A two-fer! In that case, we’d need to make two things: scones, for a little celebration of Irish culture, and lemon curd, to make good use of the beautiful citrus piled up in the markets right now.

“What are scones?” my son asked. I think I may have gasped. Clearly I have been remiss in providing my children with a proper education in baked goods.

“They’re kind of like sweet biscuits. But not too sweet. They’re usually eaten with tea and jam, clotted cream, or some kind of fruit curd.”

I explained that scones, while not originally from Ireland, are made and enjoyed all over the British Isles. The original scone, from Scotland, was round, flat, and unleavened, and cooked on a griddle.

“This is like history!” (My son again)

“When chemical leaveners became available in the 19th century, the breads could be made a bit lighter. Now we use baking powder and bake the scones in the oven.”

We took a look at the recipe.

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We had baked biscuits together in a previous session, so they understood why we would need to cut the butter (Irish, of course!), into cubes and put it in the freezer while we measured out the rest of the ingredients.

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Somebody finally discovered the backlight feature on the scale, so we had many eager hands involved in the weighing process.

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Flour, salt, sugar and leaveners went into the bowl.

“Make sure you pay attention to the baking soda and baking powder measurements,” I reminded them, “as they aren’t interchangeable.”

They remembered some differences in the two ingredients, for instance, baking soda requires an acid, while baking powder does not.

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All of the dry ingredients were whisked together.

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Then they used a pastry blender to cut in the cold butter.

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Just like biscuit dough, scone dough turns out best with minimal handling.

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We wanted to cut the butter into the dry ingredients just enough to end up with a hodgepodge mixture of bits and flakes no larger than pea-size.

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The addition of cold buttermilk would bind everything together and bring tenderness and tang to the finished product.

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“What is buttermilk?”

They had each tried the kid activity of shaking heavy cream in a jar to make butter, and remembered that there was liquid left over once the butter had formed. I explained that the leftover liquid is what we used to call buttermilk; the buttermilk of today is a cultured product, like yogurt.

They were all interested in trying it by itself, so I passed around some half-full cups.

“It’s sour!”

I reminded them that yes, it is acidic which is why our scone recipe called for baking soda in addition to the baking powder; the soda was there to neutralize it.

It got 4 thumbs-up from 5 tasters.

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Just like all heritage recipes, some scone recipes call for buttermilk and some don’t; it all depends on the baker’s preference. In our case, bring on the buttermilk!

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A quick and gentle stir would bring all the ingredients together.

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Our mixture still looked a tad dry and floury, so we chose to add a little more liquid until the dough formed slightly moist clumps.

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We dumped the dough out onto the lightly floured table and quickly pushed and patted it into one mass.

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Then we divided that into two halves sort of equal rounds.

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We discussed how to further divide each round into sixths.

“In half? Then two more cuts?”

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The second round ended up in eighths, but it was the larger of the two anyway.

We had a tray of not exactly evenly portioned scones, and even though some of our wedges had become rounds there were no worries as we placed the tray into the fridge to chill.

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Time to whip up the lemon curd.

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Separating eggs is always fun.

And sometimes gross.

“It looks snotty.”

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Egg yolks, sugar and salt were beaten together in a pot.

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Then we added lemon zest, lemon juice and cubes of butter before everything went on the heat.

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A little ro-sham-bo would decide the order at the stove.

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The kids took turns stirring the mixture over low heat.

Somebody made a remark about scrambled eggs, and I pointed out that even though we had the pot over a direct flame, our eggs were far from scrambled. I explained that the sugar in the mixture raises the temperature at which the eggs would start coagulating. The result? Silky smooth lemon curd.

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The curd needed so little time on the heat that we barely got through the queue. In fact, I had to surreptitiously turn off the flame so the curd wouldn’t overcook as the last two kids in line took their turns at stirring.

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It was sufficiently cooked when the curd coated the back of the spatula. We drew a finger across it to test the thickness. Done!

We strained the lemon curd into a bowl and set it aside to cool.

I brushed the chilled scones with milk and then sprinkled the tops with a bit of crunchy turbinado sugar before sliding them into a hot oven.

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Twenty-five minutes later we had lovely sandwiches of warm scones and tangy lemon curd.

Once the kids had devoured theirs, the moms were forced to defend their own plates from greedy little hands.

We so love our kids, but we do have our limits.

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Buttermilk Scones adapted slightly from a recipe in Tartine, makes 12 large wedges

4 3/4 cup (24 oz)  all-purpose flour

1 T aluminum-free baking powder

3/4 tsp baking soda

1/2 c (3 1/2 oz) granulated sugar

1 1/4 tsp salt

1 cup (8 oz) unsalted butter, cold and cut into approximately 1/2″ cubes

1 1/2 cups (12 oz) buttermilk, cold

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Whisk the dry ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Scatter the cold butter over the mixture and use a pastry blender to cut it in. The finished mixture will be coarse, with bits of butter no larger than pea-size. Add the buttermilk all at once and mix gently, the dough should form slightly moist clumps. If the dough seems dry, add more buttermilk a little at a time. You should still be able to see some butter pieces. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into two portions and pat each into a round about 1 1/2″ thick. Cut each round into 6 equal wedges and transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Chill for 15 minutes. Brush the top of each scone with a little milk and sprinkle them with coarse sugar. Bake until the tops are lightly browned, 25 – 30 minutes. Serve warm.

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Lemon Curd, original recipe by Russ Parsons

2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice
Zest of 1 lemon
6 tablespoons ( 3/4 stick) cold butter, cut into pieces

Put a small bowl in the refrigerator to chill. (You will use it later to cool the hot lemon curd.) In a small saucepan, beat the eggs, yolks, salt and sugar until smooth and light-colored.

Add the lemon juice, the lemon zest and butter and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the butter melts, about 2 minutes.

Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue cooking and stirring until the curd is thick enough that it coats the back of the spoon and when you draw your finger across the curd it leaves a definite track, about 5 minutes. The curd should be the consistency of thick hollandaise sauce. Pour it through a fine strainer into a chilled bowl and let stand to cool to room temperature.