Author Archives: joepastry

How did rum ever come to be associated with sailing?

So asks reader Bernard, and I love it. Bernard, it all has to do with the fact that in the Colonial era rum was liquid currency. It was more valuable by weight than any other commodity save gold. It kept indefinitely and like the American Express card was recognized at over 15 million locations worldwide. For a short time the English government even recognized rum as money, which no doubt made banking a whole lot more fun.

As highly valued and heavily transported as it was, rum made an excellent target for privateers. What were privateers? Think of them as early military contractors: government-paid out-of-uniform toughs who sailed the high seas settling scores, exacting retribution and collecting debts on behalf of their masters. Unofficially, of course.

As you can imagine privateers tended to collect quite a lot of loot in pursuance of their duties, a bunch of it drinkable. And very often, they drank it. In fact it happened with some regularity that a ship full of privateers would eventually decide they’d just as soon keep all the booty they collected for themselves and continue on robbing and plundering on a freelance basis, at which point they became known as pirates. So that’s where the yo-ho-ho comes in.

Of course rum drinking wasn’t limited to privateers and pirates. Cargo and military ships would sometimes pay their crews with rum. And let’s face it, how many sailors were going to let that stuff sit around until they made landfall? Eventually rum wages became rum rations, a sort of fighting sailor’s fringe benefit. The American and especially British navies maintained that tradition for centuries after Colonial times. Today rum rations are passé, the practice having been discontinued all the way back in 1970.

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Why doesn’t corn meal thicken?

Reader Kati wonders why cornstarch (corn flour) is so effective as a thickener when corn meal makes such a poor thickener. She alludes to some recent kitchen disaster that resulted from an attempt substitute one for the other. Reader Kari, I feel your pain. The answer lies in the way the two flours are processed.

Corn kernels are the seeds of the maize plant. As such, each has a tough outer covering known as a pericarp, which is similar to a bran layer on a wheat berry. Each also has a fatty germ which when pressed yields corn oil. The majority of the kernel is the starchy endosperm.

It’s the starch in the endosperm that gels and thickens liquids, but in order to work it has to be liberated from the confines of the pericarp. Sure, if you simply grind the whole kernel up into meal and immerse it in hot liquid you will get some gelling, but because much of the starch is still attached to jagged pieces of endosperm and germ, the effect will be limited.

Contrast this simple grinding with the way cornstarch is actually produced. The kernels are soaked in water for two or three days, during which time the endosperm gets very soft and the pericarps get very, very flexible. The kernels are then passed through rollers which squeeze out the endosperm (which is mostly just dissolved starch by then) and pinch off the germ. The whole mess is then rinsed and spun in a centrifuge. The starchy water spins out and is dried to make cornstarch.

What you have when you’re done is a powder that’s almost pure starch: small granules that are almost entirely free of all the flotsam and jetsam found in corn meal. Immersed in warm liquid they disperse nicely and gelatinize (thicken) beautifully, much better than meal. But then you recently found that out, reader Kati. My condolences. Better luck next time!

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On Buttercream & Cows

Over my extended absence three different readers wrote in to say they were having buttercream consistency problems, specifically with the Swiss and Italian meringue buttercreams. All three reported that their buttercream was working well for spreading and cake building, but piping was a problem. Their piped decorations were dropping and/or losing their sharp edges. Can IMBC and SMBC be firmed in any way?

I can think of two ways to achieve a firmer buttercream texture. One is to scale back the butter a bit, but just by a little, maybe 12%. That raises the ratio of meringue and gives the buttercream a bit more body. The other thing you might try is to buy higher quality butter, which tends to be firmer. Lower quality butters tend to have lower melting points, which makes them softer at room temperature. That tends to be truer in the winter months when dairy cows aren’t grazing in the fields as much, but inexpensive butter can be soft at any time of year. “Spend more money” is never welcome advice, but where buttercreams are concerned you tend to do better when you pay up a bit. That’s my best advice, gang. Anyone with further/better advice feel free to weigh in!

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On the Many Benefits of Milk Powder

Reader Rob writes:

Hi Joe, I have looked through a lot of raised doughnut recipes, and very few ever seem to use milk powder as an ingredient. I assume this is for the proteins, but how come you use it whereas other recipes don’t? Maybe delve into the science behind it?

Hey Rob! Nice question. Milk powder does a few things in a baking application. As you point out it adds protein, and that along with the extra sugars can be handy in terms of getting a darker, more golden finish. It also add flavor, another nice feature especially in fast rising breads like doughnuts and white loaves which tend to be bland because of the extra-quick yeast action. However the big benefit of dry milk is tenderness. The fats and the milk solids undermine gluten formation so the finished product is less rigid than it would otherwise be. That’s especially desirable in a raised doughnut since the crusts can come out of the oil rigid to the point that they shatter when you bite into them. The longer you let the doughnuts rest the softer the crusts get, but since I generally like to hand them around when they’re warm I go the tenderizer route.

Foiling the action of gluten has other benefits for doughnuts. If the dough isn’t terribly stretchy then the bubbles in it tend not to get very big. That’s good because a big open crumb can be a pain in the neck when you fry. The big open spaces can push the expanding doughnut out into weird shapes, or create giant open cells which can break open and fill with oil. Those big cells are also inconvenient if you’re filling your doughnuts with jam as all the filling tends to pool up in one place. In general in a yeast doughnut you want a fine, fluffy, even crumb. So you see there are a lot of good reasons for milk powder in a doughnut dough.

I should add that the finer your milk powder the better as the solids and fats spread out more evenly through the dough. That translates to a finer structure that is at once more tender, fluffier, taller AND stronger. King Arthur milk powder is especially fine and I heartily endorse it. Thanks again, Rob!

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Making Chocolate Diplomat Cream

Reader Mia asks:

How can i make chocolate pastry cream or diplomat cream? Adding cocoa powder to the whipping cream does not really provide enough chocolate-y flavour

Mia, there are several ways you can tackle this lovely problem. One way to flavor a diplomat cream is to add melted chocolate to the whipped cream portion. You can do that like this. Another route to the same end is to add chocolate to the pastry cream. I’d add about a quarter cup (0.75 ounce) cocoa powder to the milk and sugar mixture and whisk it steadily as it comes to the boil. Proceed as normal, then whisk about another few ounces of bittersweet chocolate into the finished pastry cream when it’s still hot.

If you want to go nuts and add chocolate to both the whipped cream AND the pastry cream go right ahead. I won’t tell anyone.

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The Incredible Disappearing Joe

Hello all! Historically I go through bouts of inconsistency with posting, a week here, a week there. It’s been like that since I set out on this little blogging adventure nine years ago. Lately life has been busier than that, as I’m sure you noticed. My hope is that I’ll be more or less over the hump in the next couple of weeks as I get my new business accounts up and running. After that life should return, more or less, to normal, albeit with a Puerto Rico/Los Angeles flair. Thanks for your patience, I shall post what I can in the meantime!

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Hokkaido Milk Bread Recipe

This milk bread isn’t as sweet as many other recipes. If you like yours sweeter you can add up to 3 ounces of sugar to this basic formula. Note that I’m making twice the amount of tangzhong as I need, but it’s tough to make half of this without overcooking it, much less getting it all out of the pan!

For the Tangzhong

1.6 ounces (1/3 cup) bread flour
4 ounces (1/2 cup) water
4 ounces (1/2 cup) milk

Combine all the ingredients in a medium saucepan. Whisk the mixture over medium-low heat until “tracks” appear on the surface and it thickens noticeably. Set it aside to cool completely. Place plastic wrap over it to prevent a skin form forming. The tangzhong can be used immediately or up to two days later.

For the Bread Dough

4.8 ounces tangzhong, room temperature
12 1/2 ounces (2½ cups) bread flour
2 teaspoons instant yeast
1/2 ounce (1 tablespoon) sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 large egg lightly beaten, room temperature
4 ounces (1/2 cup) milk, room temperature
1.5 ounces (3 tablespoons) melted butter
egg wash (1 egg + 2 teaspoons water)

Combine all the ingredients except the butter and egg wash in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle. Stir on low until all the ingredients are moistened, then switch to the dough hook and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, 5-7 minutes. Add the butter and knead until the dough is once again nice and smooth, about another 5 minutes.

Form the dough into a ball and place it into a lightly oiled bowl. Cover it with a towel and let it rise until it’s doubled, 45 minutes or so.

After the initial rise transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and divide it into four equal pieces. Using a rolling pin roll each ball into a long oval. Fold in the long sides of the oval, then the top sides to make a long strip about 3″ wide. Flatten the rectangles and then roll them up, placing them side by side in a 9″ x 4″ loaf pan.

Proof the dough for about another hour until it has once again doubled. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Brush the loaf with egg wash and bake 30 minutes until golden. When the bake is finished, remove the loaf pan to a rack and let it cool 15 minutes before turning the loaf out of the pan.

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“Hokkaido”, “Milk”, “Bread”…Doesn’t Add Up

So writes reader Ireney. When did the Chinese and Japanese develop a taste for bread? she asks. That’s a good question. For while we’ve already established that wheat has been a part of the Asian diet for many thousands of years, bread is a very different matter. Today Western-style breads are quite popular in places like Japan, but this was not always so.

A lot of popular food history posits that it was American agribusiness that forced white bread down the gullets of Japanese schoolchildren when we occupied the country in the years following World War II. That’s not true strictly speaking, for Western-style bread enjoyed broad popularity in Japan as far back as the late 1800′s.

In fact in about 1900 the Imperial Japanese government tried to establish both bread and milk as staple foods, believing they would make nutritious and “modern” additions to the Japanese diet. That effort failed in broad terms, but it led to a steady rise in the Japanese appetite for fluffy white bread. So much so that by the end of World War II during the American occupation some Japanese people complained that the bread that was being given to their children by the Americans wasn’t fine or white enough.

All that said, bread has never been seen as a staple in Japan. Even well after reconstruction was over, when a large-scale homegrown bread industry became established in Japan, commercial bakery executives despaired of ever making wheat bread as popular as good ol’ polished Japanese white rice. So popular as it is it’s never been their apple pie, as it were.

China is a somewhat different matter. While the Chinese have been rice eaters for millennia they’ve never been big bread eaters in the Western sense. They make buns, fried bread sticks and many other traditional foods out of wheat dough, but sandwich bread — at least as far as I know — isn’t terribly popular even to this day. I know I have quite a few readers in Hong Kong so maybe they can weigh in here as there’s a lot more documentation about white bread in Japan than there is about white bread in China. Any help there folks?

But suffice to say that in the battle to establish where the tangzhong method originated, I’d be tempted to give the nod to the Japanese, if only because they are more avid loaf bakers. I could be wrong.

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Say it ain’t so, Joseph

Are most French restaurant meals purchased frozen and reheated in microwaves? That’s the incendiary charge leveled by Parisian restauranteur Xavier Denamur in last week’s European Times. If true, it would indicate that even French chefs aren’t immune to the pressures of time and cost. Dare I say that just because the meals are frozen it doesn’t mean they’re bad. The great Gaston Lenôtre pioneered the use of freezers in French cuisine. Of course it’s one thing to microwave food, it’s another to be less than forthcoming about it. Still I bet the typical frozen boeuf bourguignon beats the heck out of a Riblet dinner at Applebees!

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Watching Those Wishes

I’ve been working for some time to get more local projects so I don’t have to travel up to Chicago, Madison and Milwaukee as much as I’ve been doing the last few years. More time for parenting and blogging, donchaknow. As things turned out, I did succeed in getting work outside of the Upper Midwest: in Los Angeles, Orlando and Puerto Rico. Not what I was expecting, though far be it from me to turn work down, I don’t care where it comes from. Getting these new accounts up and running has been a whole lot of work, hence the semi-extended silence. More from me soon thou I promise. The weather is improving also, which will no doubt inspire me to start snapping some pictures. April showers have been here with a vengeance!

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