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Rules and Ratios

August 27th, 2011 by Cocolat

I had tea yesterday with a very young friend who wants to bake. He asked if I would teach him one of my best basic ratios! This got me thinking.
 
I love the idea that cooking and baking has rules and ratios that define the perfect this or that (butter cake, crème anglaise, sponge cake, whatever). But many of the best and most interesting desserts defy the rules. The indescribably decadent flourless and nearly flourless chocolate cakes (upon which I built an entire career) are notoriously lawless (so flexible and forgiving and fun) and aren't they are some of the best desserts you will ever eat? And, wasn’t the recipe for brownies a mistake? You might argue that these recipes are not real cakes.
 
But the Bundt cakes and rich coffee cakes that we bake in tube pans are real cakes. These sweet rich moist crowd pleasers flaunt basic cake ratios too…they usually have too much fat or sugar to perform properly in any pan but a tube pan. It’s the tube that saves them from falling by giving them enough support to rise and stay risen. Just try baking some of these cakes in a regular round spring form pan, without a tube, and watch them sink in the center and become just another “cake failure”. The tube enables us to break the ratio rules. Small pans and cupcake pans do the same. And there are more tricks too.
 
My next book, Totally Easy Sinfully Delicious Melt-In-Your Mouth Desserts (Artisan 2012) is about to go to press and I just discovered that my gingerbread has a tendency to sink in the center. It seemed perfect when I tested half batches in half-size pans several months ago. But even so I made a note reminding me to retest the full recipe before publishing. From experience I know that even if a sample in a small pan works perfectly there is no guarantee that the full recipe in a full size pan will be equally successful. People think baking is all about the chemistry, but what about the physics? So here I am, at the eleventh hour, with delicious but sinking gingerbread. Clearly the recipe is unbalanced: too much sugar or liquid or not enough flour. But when I balance the ratios to prevent that sinking, the cake doesn’t taste as delicious. So I start thinking of ways to fix the problem without “fixing” the ratios. It occurs to me that extra beating (normally to be avoided because it causes extra gluten to develop) might be exactly what’s needed here. Maybe physics can trump chemistry. Maybe two wrongs can make a right.
 
I put all of the ingredients into the food processer and let it rip for a long 15 seconds. I’m rewarded with a cake that rises perfectly and does not sink. It is deliciously sweet and spicy and has a tender velvety texture. AND IT’S SIMPLER THAN EVER TO MAKE!
 
I’m just saying…. Ratios and rules don’t always get you where you want to go.
It would seem appropriate to publish the recipe here, but I can’t do that yet. Wait for it in Totally Easy Sinfully Delicious Melt-In-Your Mouth Desserts coming next spring. And forgive me.

Dulce Dulce

March 19th, 2011 by Cocolat

A couple of readers reported an unpleasantly graininess when they tried my dulce de leche from Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cookies. I had good results when I tested for the book, so I was curious about the feedback. I made the recipe several times in the last few days, paying close attention to what might be going on.
 
Before I get into the details, let me admit that the recipe takes more like 60-90 minutes than the optimistic 45 minutes that I said it would take. And, you might as well use a bigger pot than I called for so that the mixture won’t flow over the moment you turn your back.
 
About the texture, it turns out that tending the pot and stirring frequently is critically important for a smooth sauce. You must stir any foam into the sauce regularly, as well as scraping the bottom and corners of the pot and around the sides, continually incorporating any thickened sauce from the sides and corners of the pot into the rest of the sauce before those thickened parts congeal and toughen. As the sauce thickens towards the end of the cooking, you must stir more often, and then constantly. I use a silicon spatula mostly, but have also used a whisk, though the whisk tends to cause more foam and if you whisk briskly the finished dulce will be lighter in color and texture, which may or may not be what you want. I’ve revised the recipe below with greater emphasis on stirring and with the additional step of straining the finished sauce for a little extra smoothness insurance. And I’ve added a pat of butter…
 
In one of my samples I ran out of whole milk and had to top off the measure with less than ¼ cup of non-fat milk. So, I added maybe a tablespoon of heavy cream to compensate. It seemed like a negligible amount so I promptly forgot about it. Comparing samples later, I liked the texture of that one best. I concluded that I had just been more careful about stirring. But later, I remembered that tiny bit of cream and wondered if such a small amount of extra fat could have softened the proteins (or something?). So I tested again with whole milk and but added a tablespoon of butter. I got the smoothest sauce of all… Of course I also tended the pot as though it were a baby. Clearly this is a recipe to make when you have time or other things going on in the kitchen meanwhile.
 
 
DULCE DULCE DE LECHE

(Revised from Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cookies)

Makes 1 generous cup

Ingredients:

½ vanilla bean

1 quart whole milk

1 tablespoon butter

½ cup (3.5 ounces) sugar

½ teaspoon baking soda

Pinch of salt (optional but really good…)

Set a fine or medium fine strainer over a heatproof bowl.

With a sharp paring knife, cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise. In a large heavy bottomed pot (that holds at least 6-quarts) combine the vanilla bean pieces with the milk, butter, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring frequently, especially around the sides of the pot. At first the milk will foam dramatically, and it may curdle, but will eventually smooth out. Continue to cook, frequently stirring in any foam on top and sweeping the sides, corners, and all over the bottom of the pot with a silicone spatula. Keep the mixture boiling briskly but not furiously without letting it overflow. The mixture will gradually turn a deep caramel color as it thickens. This may take from 60-90 minutes, depending on your stove and the size of your pot. The mixture becomes especially bubbly and foamy in the last stages of cooking: adjust the heat so that it bubbles actively but not violently and stir it very frequently, and then constantly (especially around the sides and corners of the pot) until done. It is done when the mixture is reduced to a generous cup and a little spooned over an ice cube thickens to a soft gel. Scrape the sauce into the strainer and stir and press it through. Be sure to scrape the sauce from underneath the strainer into the bowl. Cool the sauce slightly, then taste and adjust the salt. You can put the spent pieces of vanilla bean back into the mixture if you like. They will either keep on giving flavor or at least look as though they are. May be kept in a covered container in the refrigerator for at least 1 month

The old author as new blogger

August 18th, 2010 by Cocolat

My 8th book, Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Cookies, will be out this fall. I'm excited to be finished with it. Now it's been "suggested" (didn't I put that delicately?) that the best way to celebrate the completion of a new book is to blog about it.

What a surprise to learn that starting a blog is more intimidating than writing a book. It’s immediate. Where is the editor to prevent one from making a fool of oneself or committing atrocious grammar? The spontaneity goes against my nature, which is to write (or test) and rewrite (or retest) and rewrite and retest again. To ease into it, I planned a little essay on the creative process. I love to hear any artist (writer, painter, dancer, musician, chef) discuss their work. Even the most mundane details of how they actually do the work has a voyeuristic fascination for me. National Public Radio is a staple in my kitchen. I love Terry Gross and City Arts and Lectures. I planned to cite Malcom Gladwell’s descriptions of artists and their work styles from his New Yorker piece, “Late Bloomers”.

But by the time I sat down to write that essay, I was overcome by my own process. All kitchen counters and the dining room table were covered with labeled samples. The actual work area was a landscape of drips, greasy spatulas, and bowls full of goop flanked by clipboards with handwritten notes coded to match (I hope) the labeled samples. I start a clipboard at the beginning of each project (book, magazine article, client) and after a while I move pages from the clipboard into a binder so I can put tabs on groups of pages to keep some order. I try to remember to date every page and I put the most recent page on top, like a legal brief. I used to be able to have three or four clipboards in play at one time. But lately not so much. After scribbling tasting notes on the wrong clipboard a few times, I refined my process. Now it’s one or possibly two clipboards at a time, and NPR stays on.

I have a reputation for testing. A lot. Anyone who has read or cooked from my books, Bittersweet or Pure Dessert knows this. I thought I was normal until Dianne Jacob described my testing mania in her book, Will Write for Food (a wonderful manual for budding food and cookbook writers, btw). Then I felt self-conscious. But, some times multiple trials are necessary to get flavor, texture, and visuals of a dessert right to begin with. Other times I retest because I’m stubborn or curious. Even when I like my results, I catch myself wondering what would happen if I made this little change, or that one. I love how small details make a difference. “What if this, what if that” is the hallmark of my process and perhaps my greatest professional and artistic asset and also my biggest liability. If I take more time on a recipe than I think I should, I figure it’s an investment for a future project. You can imagine where that leads…

Welcome to my blog, I promise recipes and photos (and shorter posts) in future, but meanwhile check out Malcolm Gladwell’s “Late Bloomers” to find out if you are more like Picasso or more like Matisse. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/10/20/081020fa_fact_gladwell?printable=true