Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Easiest Cake You Will Ever Bake

That is Otis, my obese and beloved former street cat, who was (understandably) intrigued by the sudden and unexpected presence of a freshly baked cake on the floor.

I do talk a lot about my beloved Betty Crocker 1961 cookbook.  But as I have said in the past, these dames knew from baking.

My husband and I have a little family tradition that each person is allowed to choose any cake recipe (simple or complicated) on his/her birthday, and the other person has to bake it.  I have occasionally chosen this luscious banana cake recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum's exhaustive tome, The Cake Bible, but I find her recipes, with their three-ways measurements (avoirdupoids, metric, weight) and fussy-to-the-point-of-eye-rolling directions, to be poorly designed for the home baker.  Unless you happen to the the type of home baker who is really interested in food science, which would describe my husband and me.

Anyhow, when push comes to shove, good old Betty usually takes the day.  And here is the best from-scratch cake recipe in the whole book, both for flavor/texture and for ease of preparation.  It tastes, looks, and has the exact texture of a cake mix cake, minus the chemical stuff.  Swear to God.  And it takes about as long to assemble.

[Before writing the recipe, I have to tell you about the cake names and captions in this cookbook.  This recipe I'm talking about is called "New Starlight Cake", and is followed by the caption "Of all cakes baked in homes, this undoubtedly is made most often."  That's a pretty high-falutin' claim.  I love the "in homes" part (as opposed to what? campsites? hotels? homeless shelters?).  Some more gems from the Cakes section of this book:

Miracle Marble Cake
Rich chocolate and dainty white...in intriguing marbled effect. "Guests at my home exclaim over it especially when I serve fingers of it with pink strawberry ice cream on white milk glass plates," says N. Faye Woodward of Lawrence, Kansas.

Burnt Sugar Cake
The real old-time, caramel-rich variety of cake that has always been first choice at church suppers.  Developed by Mabel Martin of our staff.

Sour Cream Spice Cake
Mrs. George Holm of Cuba, North Dakota, says, "What is better with afternoon coffee on the farm...or anywhere else...than Sour Cream Spice Cake frosted with Easy Penuche Icing?"

Applesauce Cake
The old-time quilting bee favorite.

Coconut Angel Food Cake
"For birthdays I sometimes frost it with a yellow icing, add lighted yellow candles and encircle it with a wreath of green leaves," says Mrs. Glenn M. Lewis of Knollwood, Hopkins, Minnesota, an authority on home decoration."

NB: I think Knollwood must be the name of an estate or farm...and it certainly MUST be someplace decorated authoritatively.]

New Starlight Cake
(From the 1961 edition of Betty Crocker's New Picture Cook Book)

2 cups plus 2 tbsp. all-purpose white flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup soft shortening (I use butter)
1 cup milk
1 tsp flavoring (or 2... I like vanilla, but you could use 1 tsp vanilla, 1 tsp almond)
3 eggs

Heat oven to 350.  Grease and flour two 8" or 9" layer pans, or a 9x13 rectangular pan. [If you have never tried Baker's Joy, a grease-and-flour spray in the genus of PAM, you haven't lived]

Mix thoroughly the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.  Add the butter, milk and flavoring.  Mix, with a hand mixer or a stand mixer such as a Kitchen Aid, on high speed for two minutes, or 300 vigorous strokes by hand, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl constantly.  Add the eggs and beat 2 more minutes, scraping frequently, as described above. [And here we have the crux of the cake.  All cakes are made of basically the same ingredients.  It is the order in which you combine them and the manner in which you mix them that differentiates one cake from another.  The length of beating here creates tenderness and structure, loft if you will, and must be done exactly as stated.]

Pour into prepared pans.  Bake 8" layers approximately 35-40 minutes, 9" layers 30-35 minutes, and rectangular pan 45-50 minutes, or until cake tests done**.  Let layers rest in pans for about 2 minutes, then remove to wire racks.  The rectangular cake can remain in the pan, and be frosted and served from the pan. Let all cakes cool completely before frosting.

**There are several ways to test a cake.  The safest for beginning bakers is to take a bamboo skewer, a thin sharp paring knife, or a straw from a broomstick, and insert it deep in the center of the cake.  If the cake is done, the tester will come out clean.  Another method:  Gently touch the highest part of the center of the cake.  If it springs back, it's done.  If you leave an indentation or can tell it's still a little squidgy, put it back in the oven.  You can also eyeball it:  A cake will start to pull away from the sides of the pan a tiny bit when it's done.

If you have a mixer, the actual labor involved in making this cake is virtually nil.  It is fragrant and will make you moan with delight when you pop that first meltingly tender bite into your mouth (yes, I think cake and sex are pretty much on par with one another.)

Now... the perfect icing.

Butter Icing

1/3 cup very soft (but not melted!) SALTED butter [salt mitigates some of the unrelenting sweetness and gives balance]
3 cups powdered/confectioners' sugar
about 3 tbsp cream or whole milk
1 1/2 tsp vanilla

Blend butter and sugar.  Stir in cream and vanilla until smooth.  Adjust texture if needed (this is very easy to do with either more sugar or more cream... we all know what frosting's supposed to look like.)

Spread this on your completely cooled cake.  This is what is known in the biz as a "crusting buttercream" (a term, incidentally, I intend to co-opt when it's time to name my future punk band), which is simply to say that it develops a little crackly crust when exposed to air over time.

Store the frosted cake and any leftover frosting in an air-tight container.  Here's an old housewife's trick for storing a frosted cake if you don't have any fancy contraptions like lidded cake plates, etc.:  Poke about 6 toothpicks in the top of the cake and gently drape cling film over it, securing on the underside of the plate.  You keep the frosting looking pretty that way, which is handy if you have done fancy things like write someone's name on it.  Of course, you can mash the hell out of it and it will still taste great.

And now, as a footnote, a recipe from the same page of the cook book for a smaller sized cake of exactly the same flavor and structure.

Kitchenette Cake
A small 1-egg cake that keeps and carries well. "This is just the right size for my sister and me," says Olga Stege of our staff.  [Don't you love the image of the two spinster sisters sitting at their tiny table in their kitchenette, snacking on a slice of cake?]

1 1/3 cups all-purpose white flour
1 cup sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/3 cup soft butter
2/3 cup milk
1 tsp. flavoring
1 egg.

Mix as for New Starlight Cake, but bake in a greased and floured 9" square pan--the kind you make brownies in--for approx. 30-35 minutes.

And a footnote to the footnote...

Dinette Cake

Make Kitchenette Cake, except use 1 1/2 cups Swan's Down or Softasilk Cake Flour in place of all-purpose flour.

God bless Betty Crocker.

P.S.  My birthday cake was actually the New Starlight Cake with a whole bunch of shredded coconut added.  Also, since my understanding husband knows how hard it is for me to stand by and watch someone else baking cake without me, he let me frost the cake and I sprinkled more coconut on top.  You'll see from the picture that I only frosted between the layers and on top.  This is a non-trick I stole from Nigella Lawson, and I think it makes a very homey-looking result.  Plus, you can pile the frosting Really High and make it look Terribly Luxurious, whereas if you had to frost the sides you'd be scrimping and saving to make the frosting stretch, and who wants to do something so miserly with something so decadent?  Fast and sexy, that's MY motto...

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

That CoverGirl Quiche (or, I Should've Been an Alsatian Housewife)

For those of you keeping score, this is really just a footnote for my Tolstoyesque (my husband's choice of word) screed on whole wheat pastry flour.

Here's another reason you should buy Bob's Red Mill 100% Stoneground Whole Wheat Pastry Flour.  It makes unbelievable pastry.  Now, obviously the reason it makes such good pastry has to do with its low gluten content (duh, like EVERYONE knows that), but it also tastes fantastic:  the baking process brings out these luscious, toasty, nutty, earthy notes that you do not get with normal white flour.  This quiche crust has forever sold me, lock stock and barrel, on the notion of whole wheat pastry flour, and thus, whole wheat pastry generally.

I know my beloved friend Stephanie follows this blog and I think it would be fair to say that while she is an internationally celebrated expert in the field of obesity and the psychology of patients undergoing bariatric surgery (did I get that right?), she is ever so slightly less of a badass in the kitchen.  Not because she doesn't have the skills, mind you.  It's just that she's so busy making peoples' lives better, and jetting around the world for conferences and writing papers and publishing articles and generally being Super Woman.

Anyhow, I want to share with you (Steph and everyone, meaning all two of you followers!) this recipe for quiche and I want you to pledge to try it... someday.  You will be amazed at the results and you will stand on your respective fire escapes and sing "I Gotta Crow" when you taste it.  Swear to God.


I know it's incredibly five-minutes-ago of me, but this is the Julia Child pastry recipe.  Yes, from THAT BOOK.  You know, it's a drag when something so good becomes so trendy.  But before you know it, all the dabblers and johnny-come-latelys (johnnys-come-lately?) will have packed their hastily-acquired-then-never-used copies and sent them off to GoodWill, leaving the rest of us in peace.

Note: If you are a piecrust neophyte and do NOT own a food processor, I actually encourage you to NOT try this recipe blending by hand.  It's tiresome, effortful, and frustrating.  Borrow a food processor from your neighbor or invest in one... it makes you into a much snazzier cook than you thought you were.

Also, read the recipe all the way through before you start so you have all your ingredients and equipment handy before you start and know more or less what to expect.

Whole Wheat Pie Crust, with apologies to Julia Child

1 stick of FROZEN*** unsalted butter OR 6 tbsp frozen unsalted butter and 2 tbsp frozen Crisco (JC suggests this, but I am disinclined to use hydrogenated fats.)
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour (or regular unbleached white flour)
3 to 4 1/2 tbsp ICED*** water (make a glass of ice water and measure out of it)
1/2 teaspoon salt

Whack the stick of butter into several chunks.  Put the flour and salt into the food processor, put on the lid, and start it up.  One by one, drop the chunks of frozen butter into the whizzing flour.  It will make a noise like a chicken bone in the garbage disposal, but eventually all will be well.  If all your butter chunks gang up and stop the blade rotating, just shut it off, open it up and poke everything with a knife for awhile and you're back in business.  Once all the bumping around has ceased and the food processor is whirring steadily, your mixture should resemble very uniform, fine bread crumbs.

With the motor still on, start adding the ice water one tablespoon at a time via the chute.  By the time you have added 3 tablespoons of water and incorporated each thoroughly, it's time to assess.  Stop the processor and remove the lid, and pinch some of your crust between two fingers.  The ideal texture you're aiming for is like play-dough.  It should stick to itself, be somewhat firm, and not sticky to the touch.  If it's still a little powdery or flaky-looking, keep adding water with the motor running.  If it sticks together easily but is gooey, add more flour a tablespoon at a time until you get the right texture.  The recipe is quite flexible in this regard.  Sometimes when you really nail it, the dough clumps up and starts rolling around the bowl of the food processor, which is cool.  But if it doesn't, no biggie.

Once you're fairly certain you've got the right texture, take it out of the food processor and squish it quickly together into a flat-ish disc.  Take some extra flour and sprinkle it on your (spotless and dry) countertop.  Put the dough on the circle and roll it out.

[A word on rolling:  You know, everyone ought to have a rolling pin in the house, not only for its obvious purpose, but for tenderizing meat and for correcting errant lovers.  Rolling pins are cheap, too.  However, if you are disinclined to invest in an object you will only use once a year (if that frequently), feel free to use a full or empty smooth-sided wine bottle, or just pat out the dough with your hands.]

Pie and tart pans tend to come in two standard dimensions, 8" or 9".  This dough recipe is suitable for either, but will only make enough dough for ONE crust, i.e. the bottom crust of any kind of open-faced pie or quiche.  (Open faced meaning where you can see the contents of the finished pie, no dough "lid").

Roll or pat the dough into a large, uniformly-thick circle that is about 2" larger in diameter than your pie pan (you can eyeball it).  As you roll, it's important to flip the dough from one side to the other so it doesn't stick to the counter.  Feel free to sprinkle more flour  as needed on top of the dough or on the counter to keep it from sticking.  In addition to flipping it, rotate it from time to time as you roll/pat.  This is to keep the dough spreading evenly in all directions.

***A VERY IMPORTANT thing to do when making pie crust or any pastry crust is to handle it lightly/as quickly as possible so as to keep it as COLD AS POSSIBLE.  Basically, when it stays cold, the fat (i.e. butter) doesn't melt, and thus when the dough bakes that cold butter melts and the moisture in it expands and makes lovely little flat pockets of air... this makes that luscious flaky quality that is the hallmark of good pie crust.  However, if you fiddle around with your dough a good amount an it gets warm-ish and soft, throw it in the fridge for 10 minutes or so and you'll be back on track.  And if you don't care and just leave it be, that's alright, too.

When it's all rolled out, lift it carefully (you can roll it onto your rolling pin or wine bottle and drape it that way, or fold it in half and pick it up, or use a spatula, or roll it out on waxed paper to begin with and just slide it off onto the pan... you get the picture).  Center it inside your pie pan.  Now comes the only tricky part, which is getting it to conform to the inside of the pan without tearing, and you have to just press/tug/pull it until it does what you want.  When you're done, you should have a good inch of overlap hanging over the outside edge of the pie pan.  Incidentally, if you should happen to tear the dough or poke a hole in it, just mash it back together again.  Trim the edge  so it is smooth and uniform.

Now put it in the freezer for about 10 minutes to firm it up.  You're done.

Now for the quiche part.

In case you weren't sure, a quiche is just a savory egg custard tart with vegetables or cheese or meat (or all three) in the filling..  The egg custard part is composed of various ratios of egg to milk or cream, and grated cheese if you want (more on that to follow).  You add to this custard mixture any combination of meats, cheeses ,and vegetables, whatever suits your taste.  

You know, there's a good reason quiche became so popular in the 1970's.  It is incredibly easy and forgiving.  You can put literally anything in it (even black Necco Wafers, Steph) and it's going to come out fabulously.  You can eat it hot or cold and it's equally tasty.  It's practically as easy to make 5 at a time as it is to make 1.  It's portable.  Depending on your ingredients it can be very healthy or utterly decadent.  It is quite possible the perfect food to serve company at any time of the day or night.  And if you have no company, you can make one, eat it hot for dinner the first night, have a slice for breakfast, take a slice to work for lunch, and so on.  

So the quiche I created last night contained tomatoes, broccoli, bacon and Swiss cheese.  But you can add what you want.  Here are some additional suggestions.  As you can see, anything that goes in an omelet also works well in a quiche:
  • Small cubes of ham
  • Sliced or chopped onions
  • Chopped or dried herbs (but no dill or rosemary, too strong)
  • Savory spices (such as paprika, pepper, etc., but no sweet ones like cinnamon)
  • Diced chicken
  • Lardons (small cubes of cooked slab bacon, which you can buy raw at the deli)
  • Mushrooms of any sort, either raw or cooked
  • Diced peppers of any color
  • Any sort of cheese, cut or grated or crumbled into meltable bits
  • Chopped cooked spinach (buy a frozen box, follow the directions, drain & squeeze dry)
  • Chopped artichoke hearts
  • Chopped olives
  • Chopped roasted red peppers
  • Chopped sundried tomatoes
  • Chopped anchovies
  • Chopped smoked salmon
  • Capers
Here are few suggestions of things that DON'T really work in quiches:
  • Cauliflower
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Tofu
  • Fruit (fresh or dried)
  • Uncooked greens
  • Large chunks of anything--small is the key.
  • American cheese or Velveeta (the less said of this the better)
  • Raw meats- you want to cook everything ahead.  Bacon should be crip & crumbled
  • Deli meats like roast beef or mortadella

For a 8" or 9" quiche, you want a TOTAL of about 2 cups of add-in ingredients.  You can get these ready while the pie crust is chilling or while it is blind baking (more on that in a moment).  For example, I used about 3/4 cup of very small broccoli florets, 1/4 cup diced crisp bacon, 1/2 cup grated Swiss, and 1/2 cup halved grape tomatoes. 

Now, what in the sam hill is blind baking, you ask?  It is actually a very easy, sexy trick that will make your quiche well-nigh perfect.  It simply means you bake the bottom crust of (what will be) a fairly liquid-y pie (like quiche, or custard) so the crust maintains some crispness once the whole thing is done.  If you DON'T blind bake, the bottom crust can come out doughy and leaden, which isn't very nice.  If you elect not to blind bake it will not be the end of the world as we know it, but the blind baking step is a very nice little addition that makes for a very toothsome result.

Once you've chilled the rolled-out crust, pop it in a pre-heated 375 degree oven for about 20 minutes, and keep an eye on it.  Often, big pizza-like bubbles will form while you're baking, and if you're nimble you can deftly reach into the oven and prick the bubbles with a skewer/knife point/toothpick before they've permanently baked into shape.  The reason you have left a big overlap of pie dough around the edges is because pie pastry often shrinks during the blind baking. Hence, your dough might just pull itself in. Take out the crust when it's beginning to look and feel firm, but is NEITHER browned NOR squishy to the touch. Leave the oven on.

You've chosen and prepared your fillings by now, so all that's left to do is scramble some eggs.  Happily, the proportions for quiche filling are surprisingly flexible.  The basic formula is 2 eggs and 1/2 cup cream beaten together.  You can substitute whole milk or half and half, but fat-free milk is just gross and watery (heck, you're about to eat a buttery pie crust, a mess of melted cheese, and a bunch of eggs... just use the #$%@ cream).  Whatever you do, just be sure use both eggs and some sort of milk (using ONLY eggs doesn't work... the filling is supposed to be soft and custard-like, not hard and frittata-like).  If you only have a couple of tablespoons of cream left, make up the rest with milk.  You can even substitute equal parts sourcream and water for the cream... very tasty!  You can use 2 or 3 eggs, doesn't really matter.  

Once you beat the custard mix thoroughly, add a pinch of salt and lots of pepper.

Arrange the add-in ingredients for the filling inside the pre-baked crust.  The goal isn't to make a pattern...sometimes things float!  Just array them so they will be spread more or less evenly throughout the crust.  Think of how one arranges pizza toppings and you're on the right track.  Once that's in place, gently pour the custard mixture over the add-ins. Fill the crust to within 1/4 of the top edge.  When it's full, you can pitch anything left over.  To safeguard against any overflow, put the filled pan on a baking sheet that has been lined with foil (or just throw a sheet of foil on the oven rack and put the pan on top of it. 

[A word on the cheese (if you're using it, and I hope to God you are):  you can either chop chunks of cheese and arrange them with the rest of the add-ins inside the pre-baked crust, or you can grate your cheese and scramble it with the eggs.  The former technique will result in little pools of melted cheese in the final product (think what a warm chocolate chip cookie is like), whereas the latter will give a slightly firmer and more amalgamated texture to the entire quiche, and imbue the whole thing uniformly with cheese flavor.  Whichever method you use, I highly recommend sprinkling some additional grated cheese on the very top of the assembled quiche before you put it in the oven.  It tastes great and makes a lovely brown color.]

Bake for 20 minutes at 375, then check.  By that point it should've begun to firm up but not brown, but everyone's oven varies slightly... your quiche may be done at this point.  Continue baking if necessary, checking every 5 minutes, until the filling looks puffy, a little browned/toasty, and the crust looks golden brown.  Take it out and let it rest for a few minutes (it will de-puff slightly).

Serve this dazzling creation alongside torn Boston lettuce, dressed with a little homemade vinaigrette or just splashed with oil and vinegar, salt and pepper.  I love a Riesling or a Sancerre with this, but really, any wine you like would work just fine.  Refrigerate leftovers covered with foil.  You can nuke leftovers, or just eat cold.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A smooth 'n sleek January to you.

So here's something I just discovered.

I have hair that has inspired, in equal parts, envy and pity.  Those with hard-to-curl fine hair (like my friend Doris) have expressed envy over the abundance and get-up-and-go of my tresses (I define this, of course, as bushiness and unwieldiness).  Others, who shall remain nameless, have clucked their tongues sympathetically when observing my hair hitting humidity in real time.  You can actually watch it sieze up into an uneven, wholly unflattering semi-afro.  

As a vocalist and the wife of the owner of many sensitive, handmade wooden musical instruments, I abhor atmospheric dryness and work doggedly to counteract the life-sucking forces of low humidity in our home.  However, there is one very big reason I dig the dryness of a cold winter day, and that has to do with my hair.  For when it is bone-dry outside and in, I can blow-dry my hair to a swooping, silky sheen that lasts for days, sort of.

Why sort of?  Because once I work out or sleep on my hair, some pesky bend and fuzz resumes and each morning I must wield my blow dryer anew to yank the personality out of those bits and get them back with the program. but last night I had a revelation.

I'd just been reading (in Allure?  in Lucky? in Bazaar?) a few tips for the erstwhile blow dryer, and among these was the suggestion that one use a heat protective spray on damp hair before drying.  Preparing for a rare evening out last night (to the High Line Ballroom, to hear the luminous Carrie Rodriguez), I recalled this tip and realized I had some of this very stuff on hand.  I applied it, dried my hair, and went out.  

Arriving home some hours later, I lamented (internally) that I was merely hitting the hay when my hair looked so nice--such a waste! I should go out and hit a few clubs or Vogue photo shoots or something--but reasoned that it shouldn't take too much effort to get it back into fine fetter in the morning, since I was working with decent raw material for once.

My enchanting husband allowed me a very, very long lie-in this morning.  When I woke, eleven hours later (!!!), I glanced in the bathroom mirror to assess the damage and my jaw hit the ground.  My hair looked Exactly. Like. It. Did. When. I. Went. To. Sleep.  This in spite of the usual flopping around, smashing my head into the pillow, perspiring in my sleep, etc.  The texture of my hair was totally different, which I can only attribute to the application of this product.  

So I shall share it with you:  It is made by Schwarzkopf, from their göt 2b line, and is called Crazy Sleek hot smooth flat iron & blow dry lotion.  It apparently won a superstar beauty award in 2007 (whatever that is).  It comes--or may still come, since I bought it awhile ago and you know how beauty products change packaging constantly--in an orange plastic bottle with an exaggerated hot pink sprayer.  I haven't the faintest idea what the secret ingredient is, otherwise I'd advise you to go out and buy any heat protective lotion for hair containing that ingredient, so all I can do is recommend this one product.  But it's sensational.

A few more very useful tips:

-  Invest in an ionic blow dryer.  They actually now cost no more than a regular one.  Also, buy the highest wattage you can find.  Few drugstore blow dryers go above 1850 watts, but sometimes you can find 2000.  Higher heat + more power = less time drying (i.e. less annoyance) and less damage to hair (i.e. fewer expensive haircuts)

- Invest in a ceramic core natural bristle brush.  Ceramic reacts well with ionic dryers and reduces drying time.  Natural bristles pull the hair more gently and help distribute product and natural oils.  Also, if you're going for a super-sleek look, nothing beats natural bristles.  Get the largest diameter you can comfortably handle with your length of hair.

-  Let hair air dry awhile before applying your heat protective spray.  If you apply it to dripping hair, it's just going to slow the whole process down.

-  When you have blown and coiffed yourself to perfection, turn the dryer on cold and blast your hair all over for a couple of minutes to remove all traces of warmth from your hair.  This precipitous drop in temperature helps close the cuticle of the hair and lessens the likelihood that your hair will suck up humidity at the slightest provocation.  Once hair is cold, brush again and style.  You can also do the cooling-off step in front of a fan or an air conditioner, or by sticking your head out the window on a day like today (brrr.)

-  If you have intractable, frizz-prone bangs and temples, like me, once you achieve your nicely styled, cold hair, you should give it a blast with humidity-busting hairspray.  I actually brush my bangs back with spray and secure them with the lightest spray possible.  Then I let them hang out there and dry/further cool off.  When I brush it all out in a few minutes, my hair is further humidity-proofed, soft and non-hairsprayed-feeling.  

For those of you interested in the usual type of posting I do, I ask, well, why can't a blog on the gentle arts of the home not include tips on personal grooming?  I think the care of one's appearance is part of the whole thing.  In fact, I totally eschew the image of the Crafty Mom or the Home Baker or the Doting Wife as being dowdy, poorly groomed, uncoiffed.  I say, let us forge a new image of the modern woman, one who is not only a Dedicated Follower of Fashion (with apologies to Ray Davies) and up-to-date on the latest in skin and hair care, but one who also knows the difference between a blackberry and a marionberry, how much a perfectly baked muffin should spring back when touched, how to best clean her drapes.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Fast homemade bread... the Whole Wheat Pastry Flour Sessions.

We are trying to eliminate white sugar and highly refined carbohydrates like white flour from our diet (and props to my nutritionally-minded husband who, since we met nine and a half years ago has lost approximately 1/3 of his entire body weight and looks altogether yummy) and this has led to a whole bunch of kitchen experimentation on our part.

So far we have fiddled around with various sweeteners (agave syrup, sucralose, stevia, etc.) with varying degrees of success.  Now it's on to flour.  As those of you who have ever attempted it realize, most whole wheat flour is completely useless on its own.  It makes leaden, dry yeast breads, and cannot be used by itself for anything as light or tender as pastry or quick breads.

I am happy to report that we have discovered a secret baking weapon, made by the consistently great Bob's Red Mill (found in better/more comprehensive regular grocery stores like Wegmans and Stop & Shop, natural foods stores, Whole Foods, Fairway and the like).  This product is Organically Grown & Certified 100% Stone Ground Whole Wheat Pastry Flour.  While not very mellifluously named, it is a wonderful substitute for plain old white flour in things such as pie crusts, pancakes and other quick breads, and cookies.  In combination with all-purpose flour, it is also tasty in whole wheat bread, particularly the recipe I will discuss presently.

Now, for those of you not geeky enough to have actually looked into this, there is a distinct difference between the various kinds of flour you find on your shelves.  For a more elegant parsing out of the subject of wheat, gluten, and flour generally, I turn to the great Shirley O. Corriher, author of my favorite (heck, my only) book on food science, CookWise, and a frequent contributor to Alton Brown's great Food Network show, Good Eats:


When you add water to wheat flour and stir, two proteins in the flour, glutenin and gliadin, grab each other and water.  As you continue to stir, more and more of these proteins connect and cross-connect to form sheets of gluten.  These remarkable elastic sheets trap and hold air and the gasses made by yeast, and enable yeast bread to rise...only wheat flour contains enough of these proteins to make good sheets of gluten.

This stretchy gluten film traps and holds air bubbles as the dough is mixed and kneaded.  Yeast, a one-cell plant that feeds on simple sugars from the dough, oozes out a liquid filled with alcohol and carbon dioxide.  When this liquid touches the trapped air bubbles, it releases carbon dioxide gas and enlarges them.  The dough becomes lighter and begins to rise.  The yeast continues to feed.  As long as there is oxygen in the dough yeast divides and multiplies to produce even more carbon dioxide.

After the dough rises, it is punched down.  The clumps of yeast are broken up and spread so that each cell is surrounded by a new food supply.  Then the dough is shaped and set aside.  Because of all the well-fed new yeast cells, the bread rises faster during the second rise.

Finally, the bread goes into a hot oven and rises even more.  Yeast makes carbon dioxide faster as it warms.  Also, the alcohol that the yeast has made from the beginning bets hot and changes to a gas, providing more gasses to inflate the bubbles, and heat alone makes the gasses expand, enlarging the bubbles.  This last great rise, called ovenspring, continues until the yeast gets so hot that it dies.

Soft starch granules trapped in the film bend and curve themselves around and between the gas bubbles.  The dough becomes hotter;the protein gluten film cooks and becomes fim.  There are now millions of air cells with delicate thin linings-the incredible texture of bread.


...High protein wheat flour containing good quality glutenin and gliadin, sometimes called strong flour, makes good yeast breads.  Strong flour is from the hard spring wheat grown in colder climates--in the great northern plains and Canada during the spring and summer.  Soft winter wheats, grown in moderate climates where the ground never freezes to a depth greater than 10 inches, have much less glutenin and gliadin.

...Wheat kernels, sometimes also called wheat berries, contain the bran, the germ, and the endosperm, which is starch and protein.  In milling, the kernels are cleaned and tempered (soaked in water) for easier removal of the germ and bran.  The kernels are crushed and the germ and bran removed.  The endosperm goes through one set of rollers and sifters after another, and these grind, sit and separate the endosperm into fractions called streams.  It is hard to imagine, but a kernel of wheat may be separated into eighty or more streams.  Some streams are high in glutenin [responsible for elasticity] and gliadin [responsible for softness], while others are high in starch.  Every stream is analyzed so the miller knows exactly what is in it.  

...Just as winemakers blend juices from different vineyards to make fine wines, millers blend flour from different streams of wheat to make different flours.    For a bread flour, a miller includes a lot of flour from the high-protein streams.  This flour will form good sheets of gluten and make light yeast bread.  For a pastry flour, the miller includes very little protein, since too much gluten will make a pie crust tough.  

Whole wheat flour contains germ and bran.  Cup for cup, whole wheat will have less of the gluten forming proteins than plain flour from the same wheat just because it contains the other parts of the kernel.  Whole wheat flour will make a heavier bread and is frequently blended with a high protein plain white flour for lighter loaves."


The gluten-forming proteins affect the cook in two different ways.  First, a high-protein flour will absorb a lot of water compared to a low-protein flour.  This has a major impact on all recipes containing flour: the same amount of flour and water that makes a firm dough with a high-protein flour makes soup with a low-protein flour.

...The presence of gluten is perfect for yeast breads but disastrous for quick breads, cakes, muffins and pancakes [NB: all the latter are made with baking soda and/or baking powder as leavening]... in general, gluten proteins are a blessing when you need strength, but a disaster when you need tenderness."


YES (meaning you want gluten, aka use high-protein/hard winter wheat/northern/strong/all-purpose/bread flour)

- yeast breads
- Strudel
- cream puffs, popovers, yorkshire pudding
- puff pastry
- pasta

NO (meaning you don't want gluten, aka use low-protein/soft/southern/pastry flour)

- quick breads (leavened with baking powder and/or soda)
- cakes, muffins, pancakes
- pie crusts
- dumplings, Asian soft noodles
- genoise


-Cake Flour (8 grams protein/cup or 7.5-8.5% gluten) for cakes, quick breads, etc.

-Bleached Southern All-Purpose Flour (9 g/c or 9%) for pies, quick breads, etc.

-Any brand UNbleached All-Purpose Flour (12+ g/c or 10-12%) for yeast bread

-Northern (Robin Hood or Hecker's) (11-12 g/c or 11-12%) for yeast bread, pastry

-Northern (King Arthur) (13 g/c or 11.7%) for bread, pastry, pasta, pizza

-Bread flour (13-14 or 11.5-12.5%) for bread, pasta, pizza

-Durum wheat/Semolina flour (13+ or 13-13.5%) for pasta only and some breads.

Shirley's a genius.  As Kanye said, go on, girl, go 'head, get down.  

So... back to the subject of my beloved whole wheat pastry flour.

Whole wheat flour (and any whole grain product generally) has a lower glycemic index than its refined equivalent, thus keeping blood sugar levels from spiking and keeping one's energy on a more even keel. In addition, whole wheat flour is more nutritious, contains fiber which positively affects appetite, and tastes more interesting/complex.  My Bob's Red Mill Whole Wheat Pastry Flour is labelled as being good for "any recipe calling for baking powder or soda as a rising agent".  In other words, it's the protein equivalent of a soft wheat/southern/low-protein white flour.  In other words,  whole wheat flour does not BY DEFINITION make tougher breads, because there are low-protein and high-protein WW flours!!  This was news to me.

So we now make lovely, tender, low glycemic index, more nutritionally sound quick breads with little sacrifice in tenderness.  However, I do find that if you choose to substitute whole wheat PASTRY flour into any quick bread-type recipe calling for regular all-purpose or pastry flour, you should eyeball your finished batter/dough and see how much it resembles the regular version.  Usually you will need to add additional moisture to compensate for all the extra stuff (the bran and the germ) in the WW flour that grabs water.

Now (at last!) my groovy bread recipe.  Let it be known that this bread withstood 100% substitution of WW pastry flour for regular, all-purpose flour because it is a VERY WET DOUGH (meaning, compared with the average bread recipe, there is a much higher proportion of wet ingredients to dry, which compensates nicely for the extra bran and germ in the WW flour).

The recipe comes from my favorite cookbook of all time, the somewhat-rare 1961 edition of the Betty Crocker New Picture Cookbook.  It features many fabulous period pen/ink drawings of peppy, slender, cutely-coiffed 1960's era Caucasian housewives effortlessly churning out pies, cakes, breads, roasts, punches, etc. for adorable freckle-faced children and strong-jawed, Mad Men-type husbands ogling the wives and the provender of their kitchens.  There's a smashing section of color photographs in the beginning of the book of "The Betty Crocker Kitchens in Golden Valley" (of course they're in a place called Golden Valley), depicting "the reception area with a gay paprika-colored sofa", a "bright, new-as-tomorrow kitchen" (that looks like the "before" picture in a decor magazine), and of course the "Kamera Kitchen" where "picture-perfect foods are readied for the photographer."  All the home economists (sic) are as neatly coiffed as the housewives in the illustrations, and are clad in crisp white skirted uniforms and sensible white shoes.  

All this period silliness aside, these dames knew from baking.  While I would not recommend anyone cook meat from this cookbook (the cooking instructions generally translate to "incinerate"), the baking segments are extraordinary and the book is worth it just for that.  Bear in mind that a team of crack Home Economists toiled 40 hours a week to make sure YOUR cake (or stollen, or cranberry nut muffins, or parker house rolls) came out picture-perfect each time.

This is a recipe for "whole wheat bread", but it actually contains 50% whole wheat flour and 50% white, for the reasons described above by Ms. Corriher.  It's wicked easy.


1 1/4 cups warm water (110-115 degrees)

1 package dry yeast
2 tbsp soft butter
2 tsp salt
2 tbsp honey, brown sugar or molasses
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups unbleached white flour

In mixer bowl (Kitchen Aid style) dissolve yeast in warm water.  Add butter, salt, sugar and half the flour.  Beat 2 minutes on medium speed in the mixer, or 300 vigorous strokes by hand.  Scrape sides and bottom of bowl frequently.  Add remaining flour and blend with spoon until smooth.  Scrape batter from sides of bowl.  Cover with a wrung-out damp tea towel and let rise in a warm place (85 degrees) until double, about 30 minutes.  (For maximum rising, I recommend filling a bowl with boiling water just off the heat, putting a rack on top, and putting the dough bowl on the rack, covering the entire contraption with the towel to catch the heat/steam.)

Stir down the batter by beating about 25 strokes and spread evenly in greased loaf pans.  Batter will be sticky.  Smooth out the top of the loaf by flouring your hand and patting into shape.  Let rise again until batter reaches within 1 inch of the top, about 40 minutes.  (NB: if your batter gets too tall and overshoots the top, punch it down and let it rise again.  If you put it in the oven in its overshot state, it will sag in the middle while baking because it won't be able to support itself.)

Heat oven to 375 degrees.  Bake 45-50 minutes or until browned.  To test loaf, tap top crust; it should sound hollow.  Immediately remove from pan and cool on rack or across empty pans.  Brush the top with melted butter if desired.  Allow to cool away from drafts, and do not slice until bread has cooled.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

And we're back... Holiday Craft Wrap-Up

Well, as any sensible adult would probably concur, it wasn't an entirely merry Christmas from the human-relationship point of view, but I'd say that where engaging craft projects were concerned, it was a banner year altogether!

Chief among my favorite new discoveries were embroidery, making new stuff out of old sweaters (the photo at the left shows my father demonstrating his new scarf!), decorating cookies with royal icing, and rediscovering the joys of découpage.  I'm looking forward to making more stuff along those lines.

In the new year (with my new sewing machine... sigh!) I am going to get serious about dressmaking.  I have had some really lovely wool crepe in deep teal blue, and another batch in deep plum, and I mean to make myself a couple of work-friendly dresses.  This will involve learning two skills I have always avoided (namely setting in sleeves and learning how to line... shudder), and how to alter patterns for better fit.

I'm not quite ready to tackle upholstery, but some day I can envision getting into it.

Now it's time to think about starting seeds for next spring!  We failed completely last year.  Between cold drafts and inadequate sunlight indoors, I wound up with pale, leggy sproutlings that the cats stomped all over and killed anyhow.  This year I may have to invest in a gro-light and see what happens.

My real experiment this spring, however, involves getting fit.