Ancient Carbs, Part 2: The Year of the Dog

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The Yellow River Breaches Its Course ~ Ma Yuan

 

“The last time we were together we talked about first civilizations and Mesopotamia. Do you guys remember how people settled near the rivers there and started cultivating plants for food?”

“The Tigris and the Euphrates! They grew wheat there!”

“Right! Now we are moving east, to China, where people also settled near rivers. Anyone know which rivers those are?”

“The Yellow River!”

While they had a hard time identifying the Yangtze, they did remember that the people of the ancient civilization in the Yellow River Valley grew rice in the fertile soil near the perpetually flooding river.

Growing rice requires a lot of water, but millet, a naturally prolific crop in China, does not. The fast-growing, small-seeded grass thrives in warm, dry conditions, and is therefore especially well-suited for the more arid climate of northern China. In fact, scientific studies suggest that people there cultivated millet even before rice.

Some of the kids knew what millet was.

“It’s bird seed!”

I told them all about the exciting 2005 archaeological find at Lajia, an excavation of a Bronze Age site on the banks of the Yellow River in central China.

“So, the noodles they found in an upturned bowl were about 4,000 years old!”

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From BBC News (Image: Nature/KBK Teo/E Minoux et al)

 

“Ewww. I don’t think I want to eat noodles anymore.”

My son is sensitive when it comes to food imagery.

I explained how the airless conditions in the bowl had prevented the noodles from decaying. Scientific analysis proved that they were the same age as the excavation site and were made from both foxtail and broomcorn millet.

“So, this provided some evidence in settling a long running argument about the origin of noodles. The earliest record of noodles in China was written sometime between AD25 and 220. Up until the find at Lajia, the question of whether noodles were first invented by the Italians, the Arabs, or the Chinese, had still been up for debate.”

There seems to be an endless variety of Chinese noodles: cut, extruded, flicked, pulled or kneaded, and even shaved. Yet the most basic are made from a simple combination of starch flour, water, and sometimes salt.

We checked out a video of a cook making shaved noodles, and then another fascinating video about the art of making 9-foot long noodles by hand.

“The Lajia noodles were thought to be similar to a pulled type called la mian — la means to stretch, and mian means noodle.”

I showed them yet another impressive video of a la mian noodle master.

La mian noodles are made with flour derived from wheat; the gluten in wheat provides the plasticity and elasticity required for the repeated twisting and folding of the dough. I like to compare the process of kneading dough to straightening out a messy pile of yarn — the goal is to align the gluten strands just like one would line up the separate pieces of yarn.

“Ok, so we’re not making those. Nor are we doing a noodle dance.”

I told them they could go home and do the noodle dance in their own kitchens.

Instead, we would be making an easy pulled noodle based on this recipe.

I had mixed and kneaded the dough in advance because the gluten has to rest and sufficiently relax before it can be pulled.

I filled two pots with water, and while those came to a boil, I cut the noodle dough into strips.

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I showed the kids how to take a strip of dough, one end in each hand, and simultaneously stretch and pull it, bouncing it a little as it lengthened. Then, I took hold of one end and stretched it even more, pulling the noodle through my hands as if I were measuring out a length of ribbon.

“Long noodles are supposed to signify a long life. It’s ok if you break your noodle, but you’re never supposed to cut them.”

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The kids were a bit cautious at first, but they soon got into a groove.

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And then they started cranking out noodles like experts.

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I had them stand away from the stove while they pulled the noodles, moving in only to take turns gently lowering their long strips of dough into the pots of water.

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While we stretched and cooked, we talked about the importance of noodles in Chinese culture and the upcoming Chinese New Year.

“Hey, how can it be the New Year when it’s already February?”

Ah, but they already knew all about it, and informed me that the date of Chinese New Year is dictated by the lunar calendar. (I knew this)

Specifically, the first day of the new year falls on the new moon between January 21 and February 20.

“So it can be a different day every year?”

“Yep! Anyone know which animal is represented this year?”

“The dog!”

We continued chatting, noodling, and cooking.

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I fished the noodles out of the water as they finished cooking and placed them in a nearby colander set over a bowl. They stayed fairly warm until all of the rest were done, but a short dousing of hot water refreshed and reheated them enough to toss with some ginger-scallion sauce and quickly sautéed veggies.

The moment before we ate was a flurry of activity — the kids were absolutely dyyyying to eat the noodles they had so proudly stretched. I felt a little like Kung Fu Panda slinging noodle bowls onto the table in front of eager diners.

The kids further dressed their noodles with hoisin, tofu, and other assorted items.

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The noodles got a hearty thumbs up from all involved. My son requested that we make them again immediately. I guess the ancient noodles hadn’t put him off his lunch after all.

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Hand-Pulled Noodles

Maggie Zhu over at Omnivore’s Cookbook gives excellent and detailed instructions on making this type of pulled noodle. I followed her recipe, mixing the dough in my stand mixer for 15 minutes.

(I highly recommend making the dough the day before you plan on pulling the noodles. I did a practice run, cooking the dough the same day I mixed it, but the noodles made from the overnight dough turned out much nicer and thinner.)

Mix the dough, cover it and let it rest for two hours, then divide it into eight pieces. Lightly coat each piece with oil, cover tightly, and refrigerate overnight. Let the pieces come to room temperature, then pat each piece into a rectangle and place on a lightly oiled sheet pan. Keep pieces covered until ready to pull.

When you are ready to cook the noodles, cut each rectangle into strips on a lightly floured board — remember that they will get thinner as you pull them! Cook them in boiling water for 1-2 minutes. They are pretty much ready when they float. Drain and keep warm.

Maggie advises bringing the water to a “roaring boil” for the most authentic chewy texture. I didn’t do this for the kids’ batch because we had so many arms and hands about, but the noodles turned out just fine. They were a bit softer than my test batch, but nobody seemed to care!

I made a double recipe of Ginger Scallion Sauce that we tossed the finished noodles in. I also quickly sautéed some shredded cabbage and carrots with some chopped garlic and added those to the bowl. We placed extra sauce, some sliced red pepper, hoisin, tofu, soy sauce, and Sriracha on the table and let each kid dress their own noodles.

This was a hit with the kids, and super fun for all involved. Give it a go and make sure you share pictures with me if you do!

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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!

 

A Banana Two-Stage

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No, that’s not a new dance move. We were mixing a cake using a different method — one that would require the kids to do the opposite of what I told them not to do the last time we baked a cake. Simple right?

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

First, let’s talk bananas.

Me: “When you guys go to the farmers’ market right now, what kind of fruit do you see there?”

“Oranges!”

“Tangerines!”

Me: “So, citrus fruits, like lemons, limes, grapefruit…anything else?”

“Apples?”

Me: “Do you see peaches? Or plums?”

“No!”

Me: “Well, why not?”

“Cause they’re not in season?”

Me: “Right! But the kids and I were in the grocery store the other day and we saw cherries. So, where did they come from?”

“From somewhere where the season is opposite of ours?”

Exactly.

We talked about the different foods available to us in California during the different seasons and where those January cherries and plums might have come from. I explained how, as a pastry chef trying to come up with an interesting dessert menu in winter, I would often times turn to tropical fruits…pineapples, mangoes, passionfruit, and yes, bananas. We reviewed which areas would be considered tropical, and I reminded them that our lesson on cocoa took us to those same regions.

But back to the cake.

I’d already heated the oven, so the next step was to prepare the cake pan. For a butter cake, that means greasing the pan, (we used the butter wrapper), placing a round of parchment in the bottom, and dusting the surfaces with flour.

I showed them a photo that Dorie Greenspan, (a famous cookbook author and personal idol of mine), posted on Facebook recently of a “baking fail” in which a chunk of chocolate cake clung stubbornly to the bottom of her pan; the caption read, “should have used parchment”.

I have my own “should have” stories, but bottom line, you won’t ever be sorry for taking the extra few minutes to prepare your pans properly.

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“So is this like banana bread?”

I knew they had all baked banana bread or banana muffins before, so I asked, “How do you guys make banana bread?”

“You put the wet ingredients in one bowl, and the dry ingredients in another bowl. Then you put them together.”

We remembered that this muffin method is what we used when we baked pumpkin cupcakes. The resulting texture of that method is coarser and more open than the fine crumb achieved with the creaming method we used to make butter pound cake.

The process we were using for this banana recipe, called the two-stage mixing method, would result in a similarly fine textured, very tender cake.

Therefore, the difference is the crumb and tenderness — the texture and chew of a muffin versus the texture and softness of a birthday cake.

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We placed a sifter on top of our mixing bowl and placed the whole thing on a scale.

“Don’t forget to zero it out!”

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They took turns placing the dry ingredients into the sifter.

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Then, everything was sifted together directly into the mixing bowl.

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“Hello? Is that you?”

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Cause, bananas.

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Next, the wet ingredients, also measured by weight, were added to a pitcher.

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I was very proud when they remembered, without my asking, that all the ingredients should be at room temperature.

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A couple of eggs…

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Finally, they each took a turn using the microplane to zest an orange.

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A lot of concentration was required to keep a very large orange from tumbling out of small hands.

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“It looks like an ice cream sundae!”

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With all of the wet ingredients in the pitcher, we used an immersion blender to combine them and puree the bananas.

Vocabulary word of the day: immersion.

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This is where I had to instruct the kids to forget everything I had told them about over mixing their batter.

Up until now, I’ve always warned them not to mix the batter too much once the wet ingredients were added; that flour, when combined with liquid and agitation, results in gluten development, which in a cake is not usually a good thing. Gluten development is what gives baked goods structure and chew; strong gluten development is good in bread, not as much in a tender cake.

However, in this two-stage technique, by adding softened butter and a small amount of the liquid in the beginning, we would be coating the flour in fat while the sugar would suck up the liquid that would usually promote the development of gluten.

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And because we were using cake flour, which is softer than all-purpose flour, we could mix away without worry. In fact, we wanted to mix enough to develop some structure; about a minute and a half would do it.

“I need someone to count 90 seconds.”

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They sat silently counting. It was the quietest moment of the afternoon.

We scraped down the bowl with a spatula, added half of the remaining wet ingredients, and mixed for another twenty seconds.

That’s when the chanting started.

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We repeated the scraping, adding, and chanting to “twenty Mississippi.”

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The batter went into the oven for about 30 minutes, and ta-da…cake!

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Everyone agreed that this was way better than banana bread, and just as easy.

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Banana Cake, from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and prepare a 9″ by 2″ cake pan by buttering it, placing a round of parchment in the bottom, and dusting with flour

2 large ripe bananas

1/2 c (4 1/4 oz) sour cream, room temperature

2 large eggs, room temperature

zest of one orange

1 1/2 t vanilla extract

2 c (7 oz) sifted cake flour

3/4 c +2 T (6 oz) sugar

1 t baking soda

3/4 t baking powder

3/4 t fine sea salt

10 T (5 oz) unsalted butter, softened

Combine the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a standing mixer. Set aside. Place the bananas, sour cream, eggs, orange zest, and vanilla in a pitcher and process with an immersion blender, or process them in a food processor. Add the butter and 1/2 of the banana mixture to the dry ingredients and mix on low speed until everything is just moistened. Increase to medium speed, (high speed if using a hand mixer), and beat for 1 1/2 minutes. Scrape down the sides. Gradually add the remaining banana mixture in 2 batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition. Scrape down the sides. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake 30 – 40 minutes or until a wire cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean and the cake springs back when pressed lightly in the center. Let the cake cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes before removing from the pan.

Indigenous and Upside-Down

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“In-dij-en-es”

We were talking about cranberries.  I had asked if anyone knew why people ate cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving.  Besides being a tasty accompaniment to turkey that is.

No guesses.

“Indigenous means native; something that originates or occurs naturally in a particular place.”

I laid some cranberry info on them.  The cranberry, a relative of the blueberry and the huckleberry, is native to North America.  It grows in bogs from Virginia to Wisconsin, and extends all the way to the Pacific coast. Cranberries are harvested in the fall, from September to the beginning of November.

“So does that mean that the Indians and the Pilgrims ate them?”

We all agreed that since the Native Americans were using cranberries, it made sense that the Pilgrims would incorporate them into their harvest feast.

“This is kind of like a history lesson too.”

They had never eaten raw cranberries, so we cut some up to try.

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Yep, they were tart.  But several of the kids asked for more, and I had to cut them off lest we not have enough for our upside-down cake.

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We read through the recipe and I explained that, no we would not be eating the cake standing on our heads, but we would build it upside-down in the pan and then, once baked, flip the whole thing over.

“Ohhh.”

We started with 1/2 pound of room temperature butter.

“One pound of butter is the same as sixteen ounces, and is usually packaged in four sticks. So we need…”

“Two sticks!”

They noted that each was four ounces, and that each stick was marked in tablespoon increments.

“If we need four tablespoons for the topping, that would be…”

“1/2 a stick!”

“Which would be two ounces.”

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That went into a pan to melt.

We placed the rest of the butter into a bowl and used the wrappers to grease a springform pan.

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“I know the recipe calls for a 9-inch pan, but I don’t have one, so we’ll use this 10-inch.  Our cake will just be slightly shorter and should take slightly less time to bake.  I don’t want to use an 8-inch because I don’t want to risk overflowing the pan.  That would be sad.”

They all agreed.

Once the butter was melted, they added brown sugar and cinnamon and poured the crumby mixture into the pan.

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I asked them to pat it out evenly.

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I should have probably designated just one person for that job.

The whole cranberries went on top of that.

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“Our recipe calls for 2 cups.  Instead of measuring we can just look at the bag.  It says a serving size is 1/2 cup and that there are 4 servings in the bag.  So that would mean…”

“We use the whole bag.”

Except they had eaten a good portion of the first bag.  So we opened another and just made an even layer.

Back to making the cake batter.

They took turns creaming the butter, sugar, and salt together, and recalled why that butter needed to be at room temperature.

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Then, one egg yolk was whisked in.

“Can I just crack the egg into a bowl and scoop out the yolk?’

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Whole eggs were added, one at a time.

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“Why just one at a time?”

“So they don’t slosh out!”

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And the last of our wet ingredients, sour cream.

“Now it calls for 2/3 cup.  I’ve got a 1/3 cup measure, but sour cream is kind of annoying to scoop into it.  It’s messy and I don’t have a dishwasher and I don’t like to wash more dishes than I absolutely have to.  Do you think we could just weigh it instead?”

We looked at a chart of measuring equivalents.

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We determined that 1/3 cup is the same as 2.6 ounces.

“But we need 2/3 cup.”

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We placed the whole bowl onto the scale.

“Don’t forget to zero it out!”

And weighed 5.2 ounces of sour cream.  Without dirtying a cup.

Our next ingredient was flour.

I reminded them about the different types of flours.  Finely milled cake flour is made from a softer wheat than regular all-purpose flour, and as a lower-protein flour, it will develop less gluten when mixed with liquid.

“More gluten means chewy, like bread or pizza, less gluten means soft and tender, like birthday cake.  Do we want a chewy upside-down cake?”

“No!”

“That’s why we use cake flour.”

Because it is so finely milled, cake flour tends to clump up.

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Therefore, it needs to be sifted.

We put a sifter on top of the bowl of mixed wet ingredients and placed the whole thing on the scale.  This would allow us to weigh the cake flour directly into the sifter, measure our baking powder and baking soda on top of that, and then sift everything together right into the bowl.

Side note: If you don’t like to wash dishes, get a scale.

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The kids traded off hitting the side of the sifter with their hands or the handle of a spoon.  I think we got most of the dry ingredients in the bowl.

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They took turns incorporating the flour into the batter.

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I showed them how they could still use a folding motion with the whisk.

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The resulting batter was placed atop the cranberries.

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And they used a rubber spatula to spread the batter evenly.

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We had to wait about 45 (!) minutes while the cake baked, during which there were several pleading inquiries about its status.

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Finally it was done.  But we still had to wait!

(Just long enough for the cake to cool slightly, but not so cool that the cranberry syrup would get too thick and stick to the pan.)

They gathered around while I removed the collar from the springform pan and placed a plate on top of the cake.  We flipped the whole thing over and removed the bottom of the pan…

“Ooooh!”

Seriously, the unveiling never gets old.

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It was inhaled.  In fact, the small amount of leftover cake nearly caused a family fight the next day.

Cranberries, who knew?

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Cranberry Upside-Down Cake, only slightly adapted from this recipe.

Serves 12

1/2 lb. (1 cup) unsalted butter at room temperature

1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon

2 cups cranberries, fresh or frozen (thawed, rinsed, and dried), at room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar

¾ tsp. fine sea salt

1 large egg yolk, at room temperature

2 large eggs, at room temperature

2/3 cup (5.2 oz) sour cream, at room temperature

1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

7 oz. (1-3/4 cups) cake flour

1 tsp. aluminum free baking powder

1/4 tsp. baking soda

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F. Lightly butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch round cake pan with sides at least 2-1/2  inches high. (A springform pan will work; just be sure to set it on a foil-lined baking sheet to catch any leaks.)

Combine the brown sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl.  Melt 4 Tbs. of the butter and stir it into the brown sugar and cinnamon until well combined. Spread the brown sugar mixture evenly over the bottom of the pan and spread the cranberries evenly over the sugar.

Put the remaining 12 Tbs. butter in a medium bowl. Using a wooden spoon, cream the butter with the granulated sugar and salt.  Add the egg yolk and mix until well combined.  Switch to a whisk and stir in the eggs one at a time. Whisk until the batter is smooth and the sugar begins to dissolve, about 30  seconds. Whisk in the sour cream and vanilla.  Sift the cake flour, baking powder, and baking soda directly onto the batter. Using the whisk, combine the ingredients until the mixture is smooth and free of lumps.

Spread the batter evenly over the cranberry mixture in the cake pan. Bake until the center of  the cake springs back when gently touched and a skewer inserted in the center comes out with only moist crumbs clinging to it, 50 to 65  min. Set the pan on a rack to cool for 5  to 10  minutes (the cranberry syrup in the bottom of the pan will be too thick if you wait longer). Run a knife between the cake and sides of the pan. Place a serving plate over the cake and invert the whole thing.  Remove the pan or bottom of the springform. Let cool for at least 15 min. more before serving.

Cupcakes Versus the Eclipse

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“There’s supposed to be an eclipse today!”

“That’s right.  When?”

“Around 3:30, I think.”

“Ooh, perfect timing!”

The kids were running around, playing before our baking class.  The moms were thinking we might be able to view the eclipse while eating the cupcakes we would be baking.  A two-fer!

So, you knew this was coming, right?  Pumpkins I mean.  It is October.

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I roasted a sugar pie pumpkin the morning of class; just scooped out the seeds, oiled the cut edge and tossed it in a 350 degree oven for about 45 minutes.

The kids eyed the slightly shriveled halves skeptically.  I’m sure they were thinking, “now how are we gonna make cupcakes with that?”

We set up the food processor, (always a crowd pleaser), and they took turns scooping the softened flesh of the pumpkin into the work bowl.

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We added a couple of tablespoons of water, gave it a whirl,  and voilà!  Pumpkin purée sans the can.

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We didn’t get around to baking many cakes during our previous series of classes.  My plan for this series is to cover the various methods of mixing a cake, starting with the easiest.

“When you guys make muffins, what do you do?”

“uh…”

I clarified.  “I mean when you mix the batter, do you just put everything in one bowl and mix it up?”

“No!” (silly me)

“Well how do you mix your muffins then?”

“You put them in different bowls!”

“So you put your milk in with the flour and the sugar in with the eggs?”

“No! You put the dry ingredients in one bowl, and the wet ingredients in the other bowl.”

“Yes! And that is what we call the muffin method.  Dry ingredients in one bowl, wet ingredients in another, mix them together…cake!”

We looked at our recipe and turned on the oven.

“Why should we turn on the oven first?”

We talked about how it was important to have the oven at the right temperature when the cake was ready to go in, otherwise any loftiness that had been introduced by chemical leavening, (baking powder/baking soda), or by mechanical leavening, (whipping), would be lost as the batter sat waiting on the counter.  This would mean flat cake.  And sadness.

Back to the recipe.  The next ingredient was butter.  Browned butter to be exact.  This would give the pumpkin cupcakes a little extra boost of flavor.  How so?  Butter is an emulsion of water and fat, with milk protein solids suspended inside. As the solid butter melts, the water evaporates and the milk solids cook, settle to the bottom of the pan, and turn brown; the resulting flavor is slightly nutty and altogether delicious.

We cut the butter into chunks and placed it in a light colored pan over low heat.  We could let that cook while we finished measuring the other ingredients.

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The kids weighed the flour.

“You have to zero out the scale so you don’t weigh the bowl!”

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And added baking soda, spices and salt.

They helped each other with the fractional measures.

“I’m using three 1/4 teaspoons for this.”

“You could also use 1/2 teaspoon and 1/4 teaspoon.”

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They measured the two sugars by volume as well.

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“Hey that looks like a face!”

The smell of the cooking butter reminded us that it was nearing the point where we should be paying attention to it.  It can go from brown to black in seconds, so we stopped mixing and stood guard over the pan on the stove.

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It wasn’t quite there yet, but we could see the solids gathering on the bottom of the pan.  We used a spoon to push aside the foam at the surface so we could better monitor the color below.  The goal was a deep nut brown, but we would need to pull it off the flame when it was just a shade lighter, as the residual heat of the pan would continue to cook the butter.  As soon as we took it off the heat, we poured the liquid into a dish to cool slightly.

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The eggs were whisked into the bowl of wet ingredients.

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I explained that while I had forgotten to pull the eggs out of the refrigerator before we started, I was able to bring them to the correct temperature quickly, by placing them in a bowl of warm tap water for 5 minutes.

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Buttermilk, vanilla, and the browned butter were whisked together with the other wet ingredients.

Before we combined the contents of the two bowls, I wanted to work on mixing technique.

“Do you guys remember what happens when we add liquid to flour?”

I reminded them about gluten and how it gives baked goods structure, but also makes things chewy.  That’s good in bread, but not in cake.

“Do you want chewy cupcakes?”

“No!”

“Then in order to keep from developing the gluten in our cake batter, we want to mix it as little as possible; just enough to combine the ingredients, but not so much that we make it tough.”

I filled a bowl with dried beans and demonstrated how to fold, which is the most efficient way to mix the ingredients together. I showed them how to hold the rubber spatula in their dominant hand and use it to cut down through the middle of the bowl, scrape up the side nearest to them and turn the spatula over, so the underside of their wrist was now facing up.  The other hand would rotate the bowl as they continued to fold its contents over upon themselves.

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They each took a turn at folding the beans in the bowl.  Though a bit awkward at first, they had the basic movement down by the second or third flip of the spatula.

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Finally, we moved on to more desirable ingredients.

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I advised against over mixing; little lumps in the batter are just fine.

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We used a portion scoop to divide the cake batter into the pan, filling the cups nearly to the top.

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While the cupcakes baked, we whipped up a bit of cream cheese frosting.

They whisked together room temperature cream cheese, a small amount of softened butter, maple syrup, vanilla and a couple tablespoons of sour cream, all to taste.

“It needs more vanilla!”

“Oh that’s good!”

“Perfect.”

They all agreed when to stop adding maple syrup, deeming it sweet enough.  And it was, pleasantly.  I was surprised, I thought for sure I was going to have to stop them from making it too sweet.

Once the cupcakes had a chance to cool, I spooned a little frosting on top and passed them around.

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They were gobbled up in no time.

The kids ran outside to play while a couple of us moms enjoyed our cupcakes with a cup of coffee.

“Hey, what’s going on with this eclipse?”

“Oh, did we miss it?!”

Engrossed in eating our treats, we had totally missed it.  Homeschool mom fail.

But really good cupcakes!

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Brown Butter Pumpkin Cupcakes, adapted from this recipe

Makes approximately 18 cupcakes

6 oz. (3/4 cup) unsalted butter

9 oz. (2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour

1-1/2 tsp. baking soda

1-1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 tsp. ground ginger

3/4 tsp. fine sea salt

1/4 tsp. ground cloves

1-1/2 cups pumpkin puree, homemade or canned

1-1/2 cups granulated sugar

2/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

2 large eggs, at room temperature

1/3 cup buttermilk, at room temperature

Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F.

Melt the butter in a heavy-duty 1-quart saucepan over medium heat. Cook, swirling the pan occasionally until the butter turns a nutty golden-brown, about 4 minutes. Pour into a small bowl and let stand until cool but not set, about 15 minutes.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, salt, and cloves. In a large bowl, whisk the pumpkin purée with the granulated sugar, brown sugar, eggs, and buttermilk until very well blended. Gently whisk in the brown butter until completely incorporated.  With a rubber spatula, fold in the flour mixture until just combined.

Divide into pan and bake until cupcakes are well risen and spring back to the touch.

Cool before frosting.

 

Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

Ok, so I always make my frosting to taste.  I don’t like the taste of powdered sugar so I use maple syrup.  Just make sure your cream cheese and butter are at room temperature so they are easy to whisk together.

8oz cream cheese, room temperature

4 T unsalted butter, room temperature

pure maple syrup, to taste

sour cream, about 2 T

vanilla extract, to taste

Whisk together.  You are supposed to frost the cupcakes with this, not eat it in spoonfuls out of the bowl.

 

 

Back to homeschool pizza baking party, and the 411 on wheat

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Summer break has officially ended and we are back in “school mode”.  Right. This would require a celebration.

For my kids, this meant pizza with their friends. And lemonade.

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Looks like we may need to brush up on spelling.

But first things first…pizza!

The kids took up their regular “baking class” spots around the table, and we talked about how pizza dough was a simple mixture of water, flour, salt and oil, leavened with yeast.

“Anyone remember what yeast is?”

A little nudge from me: “Is it a living thing?”

“Yes!”, “It’s a fungi.”

Me again, shaking the little packet of yeast: “Anyone want to guess what we need to do first when we make any yeasted dough?”

“Wake it up!”,  “Put it in water!”

“And what does it do when we put it in our dough?”

“It eats and burps gas bubbles!”

Exactly.

We checked the temperature of our water.  I explained that yeast, like humans, need warmth, but not too much.  The temperature of the water should be about 100 degrees or so, definitely no more than 140.  They should be able to hold their fingers in the water without wanting to pull them out.

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“Ow!”  They thought it was too hot.

I added a little cool water  and checked the temperature with an instant read thermometer so they could get a clearer idea of what it should feel like.  They all agreed that, at 107 degrees, it was “much, much better.”

We stirred the yeast and some of the water together in a bowl and let it sit for a few minutes .

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Then we added the rest of our water, some olive oil, and salt.

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Next, we started adding flour, about a cup at a time.  I shared my thoughts on measuring and adding flour to pizza and lean bread doughs, as in, I don’t measure exactly, but prefer to go by the feel of the dough.  Sure, it is good to have an idea of how much flour you need to have on hand, but depending on your flour, you may use less or more in the end product, and it is a good idea to learn to gauge its quality by touch.

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We continued to add flour until the mixture became too stiff to stir with a spoon.

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I encouraged the kids to put their hands in the bowl to feel the sticky, elastic dough.

“Does anyone remember what makes the dough so stretchy?”

I reminded them of the composite protein, called gluten, that forms when water and glutenin and gliadin, the two proteins present in dry wheat flour, mix.  The action of kneading actually realigns the gluten molecules so that they run roughly in the same direction.  I like to think of a messy pile of yarn, and the kneading is the motion of straightening all the strands into a nice, neat bundle.  The resulting network of protein gives bread its structure by creating an expandable barrier that will trap the carbon dioxide gas given off by the feeding yeast, much like a balloon filling with air.

I think they get the balloon part.

Next, we scraped the resulting shaggy mass of dough out onto the generously floured table.

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We would be kneading more flour into the dough at this point, precisely why we didn’t want to add all of our flour in the very beginning.  Dough that is too dry and floury is harder to stretch into pizzas and bakes up bready.  Slightly wetter doughs bake up lighter with bigger bubbles in the crust.

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The kids took turns kneading, adding only enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to their hands.

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We could feel the dough becoming more uniform, and stopped after a few minutes when it was smooth and still slightly tacky.  It was placed in a lightly oiled, covered bowl where it would rise for an hour.

While the yeast worked their magic, we turned our attention to wheat, the grain our flour was made from.

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A member of the grass family, wheat produces a dry one-seeded fruit called a kernel.

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The kids enthusiastically examined the wheat, pulling apart the head and harvesting the wheat berries.  As they gathered the kernels, “This takes a long time!”, we talked about the traditional ways the edible part of the wheat was separated from the chaff before winnowing, and the ancient and modern ways of milling it into flour. We looked at a diagram of a wheat kernel and discussed how different wheat flours are made not only from different kinds of wheat, but from different parts of, or, in the case of whole grain, the entire wheat berry.

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They examined and compared various kinds of flour: all purpose, whole wheat, whole wheat pastry, bread, cake, and buckwheat, and drew tables where they could record their observations.

“This one feels soft…

…gritty

…rough”

or “This one smells good…

…sweet

…like grass”

One of the girls pushed some whole wheat flour through a fine mesh strainer and discovered what she had left was the extracted bran.  Another attempted, unsuccessfully,  to grind the sturdy wheat berries into flour with a mortar and pestle, “These are hard! It would have taken forever!”

Next, we added water to each bowl and observed what happened.

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“This one sucks up a lot of water!” (whole grain absorbs more than white)

“This is stretchy.” (Indicating the presence of gluten and its level of strength)

“This turned out kinda runny.” (Lower protein cake flour)

“This one doesn’t stretch at all!” (The only gluten-free one we had, buckwheat, isn’t wheat, but a plant used for it’s edible seeds)

They poked, prodded and tasted the resulting mixtures and shared their various opinions.

“This one tastes like dirt.” Fair enough.

“This one tastes like peanut butter.” Okay…

And, “this one tastes like mouth-blood.” Huh?

It’s a good thing our pizza dough was ready because I was beyond hungry.

We could see that the dough had doubled in size.

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And that the yeast had indeed eaten and burped.

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It was time for stretching!

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They enjoyed deflating the dough.

I divided it into 8, 4 oz. pieces and rounded those into balls.  Ideally we would let the dough rest for a bit to let the gluten relax after the trauma of being man kid-handled and divided, but my empty tummies called.

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I showed them how to press the balls into rounds and then stretch them on the backs of their fists, letting gravity do its work.

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I advised that if the dough wasn’t stretching much, or was fighting back, they should just leave it alone for a minute to let the gluten relax.  Easier said than done.

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They also tried to stretch the dough by holding the discs up by the edges and quickly rotating it to keep the circular shape.

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Some were rounder than others.

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A little sauce…

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toppings…

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then (a late) lunch!

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And they were all very pleased with their creations.

 

Pizza Dough (makes enough for about 8 individual pizzas, or 2 – 3 large rounds, depending on the thickness of crusts)

A note about this recipe:  I use this dough when I’m making it for dinner during the week and I haven’t planned very far ahead.  It happens.  More often than not.  Having said that, when I can think more than a day in advance, I really like this recipe, (with a bit more salt), for its more developed flavor and good chew.  Obviously, explaining to the kiddos that they’ll have to wait 3 days to bake the pizzas might be a tough sell.  This one is definitely kid friendly.

1 1/2 cups warm water

2 t active dry yeast

2 t fine sea salt

2 T olive oil

About 4 cups unbleached all purpose flour, bread flour, or a combination of whole wheat and one of the others

Place 1/2 cup of the water in a large bowl and stir in the yeast.  Set aside for a few minutes to rehydrate. Add the rest of the water, salt and the oil.  Add the flour about a cup at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon after each addition. Stop adding when it becomes too difficult to stir.  Remove the shaggy mass of dough to a floured surface.  With floured hands, knead until fairly smooth and stretchy, using only enough flour to keep the dough from sticking.  Tacky is fine.  Place dough into a lightly oiled bowl and cover.  Set aside for 1 hr.  When the dough has risen to about double, remove to a lightly floured surface. Divide dough and form into balls.  Let sit for 10 minutes.  Stretch dough into rounds, letting dough rest longer if it is hard to stretch or springs back.  Top pizzas and bake in a very hot oven, (I heat mine, including a baking stone, for at least 30 minutes in advance to 500 degrees.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Small Pies for Small Fries

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Hand pies to be exact. And apple because Thanksgiving is coming up!

People love pie. However, the idea of baking a pie from start to finish makes many people anxious. One need only peruse the aisles of the grocery store for the evidence: multiple buying options for ready made crusts.

The kids found this funny, the notion that anyone would be hesitant to make pie dough. Five ingredients that they’d already manipulated in three other projects; this would be a piece of cake. Or pie, rather.

“The most important thing about making an all butter pie crust is to always keep the dough cold, but how can we keep it cold while we’re working with it?”

Kids reading recipe…

“Start with cold ingredients?”

Bingo.

I showed the kids how to cut the butter into cubes. First in thirds, lengthwise.

“Does everyone know what I mean by thirds?”

“In three pieces!”

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Then we rolled the whole cube of butter onto its side and repeated the process. This gave us nine skinny rods. Next, we cut the cube in half, crosswise.

“Anyone want to guess what I’ll get if I cut each half in thirds?”

“Six?”

“Yes, sixths!”

Now we had perfect little cubes to put in the freezer to chill while we measured out the other ingredients.

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A pitcher of cold water went into the refrigerator to chill down even further.

The kids measured the flour, salt, and sugar into a heavy, shallow bowl.

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I placed the pastry cutter on the table and somebody said, “oh we’re going to make it like we did the pumpkin cake.”

I explained that yes, we would be cutting the butter into our flour mixture, though not as thoroughly as in the last recipe. Our goal was to blend some of the butter in with the flour, keep some of the butter separate, in bigger pieces, and leave a bit of the dry ingredients uncoated by the fat.

The best way to achieve this is to keep the butter, you guessed it, cold.

I pointed out that if we took a long time to cut our butter in, there was a good chance it would start warming up. Not that I wanted them to move so fast that we had flour flying everywhere, but…

“Should we each take a quick turn then?”

They were all very agreeable to this and after I started the ball rolling, the kids each took a few passes with the pastry cutter before pushing the bowl towards their waiting neighbor.

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Luckily, most of the ingredients stayed in the bowl.

The whole process took just a few minutes and the butter stayed quite firm. I explained that if we could squish a piece of butter between our fingers without it leaving a melty residue, then we could keep going. If the butter had gotten soft at any point we would have needed to refrigerate the mixture for 10-15 minutes before moving on.

We took a look inside our bowl. There were three different things going on in there: coarse sand, slightly larger bits like lentils, and finally, bigger chunks, about the size of large peas.

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Time to mix in the water.

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Using a rubber spatula, I gently folded and pressed the ingredients together while each of the kids took turns dribbling in tablespoons of water.

We stopped adding water when large clumps of dough began to form, after about 6 tablespoons in all. They could see that there was almost no dry flour left in the bowl.

A few pushes of the hand was all it took to gather it into a ball.

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We could still see chunks of butter in the dough, exactly what we were going for. This went back into the fridge so we could ready the table for rolling out our crusts.

Why wouldn’t we want the butter to be fully mixed in?

We talked about the texture of pie dough.

“Is it crumbly and sandy like a shortbread cookie? Or is it flakey?”

Careful consideration…”flakey!”

We discussed gluten, and how it makes baked goods like bread chewy. We reviewed the ways to avoid activating the gluten in flour: by using a gentle hand in mixing, and by coating the flour with fat so that it doesn’t absorb water, which we did, partially. This keeps the crust tender. The little bit of flour that was left uncoated does mix with water to kind of glue the whole mess together. When the resulting dough is rolled out, the pea-sized chunks of butter get flattened out and sandwiched between the thin sheets of slightly glutenized dough. When the pie crust is placed in a hot oven, the water in the butter converts to steam and causes the dough to puff up. Flakes!

We divided our ball of dough in two and flattened each half into a disc. (These would normally be the top and bottom crusts). Then each disc was divided into four even pieces for a total of eight.

My five year old son: “Hey, this is math!”

We would need to take turns with the pin, so the portions we weren’t working with went back into the fridge. I know, I know, but we have to keep the dough cold so the butter never melts into the flour.

Onto rolling.

“Give yourself plenty of elbow room!”

I grabbed a handful of flour and flung it across the table, not just a little sprinkle of flour, but more like a spray, like rolling a pair of dice.

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The rounded portion of dough went on top of the flour and the top got dusted as well.

I showed them how to roll from the middle of the circle out, but not back and forth, and “around the clock”: 12, 2, 4, and so on. I slid my hand under the dough to make sure it wasn’t sticking and gave the dough a quarter turn.

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I explained that the flour acts like little ball bearings under the dough, so they should flour the table as needed. The bench scraper would come in handy in the event the dough did stick.

I reminded them to use the dry hand towel to wipe off any bits stuck to the rolling pin as they would encourage the dough to stick to it even more.

When my dough was about 1/8″ thick overall, I stopped rolling and encouraged the kids to try.

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We didn’t worry so much about getting a perfect circle, we just worked towards an even thickness.

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Any excess flour got brushed off with a dry pastry brush.

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We piled sliced, cinnamon-sugared apples onto the dough circles shapes, leaving enough space to fold it over onto itself.

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The kids squeezed and sealed the edges together, some even getting a bit fancy with the pleating.

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Once all the hand pies were placed on a sheet pan, we used a pastry brush dipped in milk to brush over the tops. A sprinkle of turbinado sugar would make the crust extra crackly.

A sharp knife was used to cut a few steam vents, and the whole tray went into a 400 degree oven.

About 25 minutes later we spoiled our dinners with warm apple pies.

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It was the quietest moment of the entire day.

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All Butter Pie Dough

2 cups all purpose flour
2 T sugar
¾ t sea salt
8 oz, (2 sticks) sweet butter
water
ice cubes

About ten minutes before mixing the dough, cube butter and place in freezer. Fill a measuring pitcher with 1 cup water (you won’t need it all, but it’s better to have more than enough ready), and place a few ice cubes in the pitcher, refrigerate while you measure the remaining ingredients. Place the flour, sugar and salt in a heavy, shallow bowl. Whisk to combine. Cut butter into flour with pastry cutter until largest chunks are no bigger than pea size. You are looking for a mixture of sand, small bits of flour and butter combined, and larger chunks of butter coated in flour. Check to make sure that the butter is still fairly firm. You should be able to squeeze a piece between your fingers and feel some resistance. If the butter is soft, place the bowl in the refrigerator for 10 – 15 minutes. Sprinkle ¼ c water over the flour mixture and toss together with a spatula. Add more water as needed, 1 T at a time. Stop adding when you see clumps of dough form, with little to no dry flour at the bottom of the bowl. The dough should just hold together in large clumps. Remove dough to a lightly floured board. Press dough together and divide in half. Form into rounds. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate if not using immediately, for up to 3 days.

Photo credits: 4, 7, 10, 12, 14-16 by Helena Ottoson