Author Archives: joepastry

Caramelization or Maillard Reaction?

I don’t think anyone can say for certain. In a nutshell, caramelized white chocolate is produced by heating white chocolate to around 250 degrees Fahrenheit and leaving it there for roughly 45 minutes, until it turns a pale shade of brown. But that’s easy, you might say, it’s a proven fact that caramelization of sugar doesn’t happen until sugar approaches 300 degrees Fahrenheit. The browning in the white chocolate must be a result of Maillard reactions — protein browning — which can occur below 300.

To that I would say: maybe yes, maybe no. For the fact is some fairly startling scientific work has been done on the subject caramelization in the last two or three years. Case in point a 2012 University of Illinois study by a chemist named Shelly Schmidt. She discovered that caramelization can indeed happen at a much lower temperature. More than that she discovered that sugar can caramelize before it even melts. It was a fairly stunning revelation, one which has been summarized by Harold McGee here. Essentially the idea is that while caramelization occurs only at a high temperature when you prepare it quickly in a pan, the same type of molecular breakdown can happen at a low temperature if the heat is sustained for a long period of time. Neato.

Now me, I suspect that both caramelization and Maillard reactions are occurring when white chocolate is slowly baked. I’m not a chemist so I have no proof of this, just a hunch. I’ve often marveled at the way dulce de leche browns as it’s boiled. The conventional wisdom has always been that the browning is the result of milk protein breakdown (Maillard browning) because caramelization can’t occur at the boiling point. But dulce de leche has unmistakable caramel notes in it, not to mentioned a very deep brown color. Milk is only 3.2% protein. Can such a small amount of browning protein really do all that?

Granted it’s reduced, but still. It seems rather unlikely to me. My feeling is that there’s sugar caramelization going on in addition to Maillard protein browning. I suspect something similar is happening with caramelized white chocolate. Of course I can’t say for certain, maybe some day Shelly Schmidt will have the answer!

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Easy now, chocophiles.

Amazing how even the mere mention of white chocolate is enough to get dark chocolate lovers all riled up. The prejudice is understandable. White chocolate has a reputation for vapidity, one that’s mostly deserved as there is in fact nothing “chocolate” about white chocolate save for the fact that it has cocoa butter in it. For those who relish the rich tang of cocoa solids, white chocolate is a confection without a point. Or worse. When Mrs. Pastry entered the kitchen to discover a pound of Ghiradelli white chocolate on the counter this morning, she reacted as though I’d set a five-pound bag of cow dung there. Disgusting. And you spent MONEY on that???

All I’ll say is: let’s keep an open mind, people. Many who loathe white chocolate love it in its caramelized form, as the rich flavors actually lend dimension and interest to what is essentially just sugar and milk solids bound together bound together with cocoa butter.

On which note I’ll also say something else, and that is that I find it ironic that most chocolate lovers utterly dismiss even high quality white chocolate, which abounds in cocoa butter, as an ersatz sweet, an edible nothing. Cocoa butter is but a flavorless fat! they say. However turn back the clock flour or five years, back when FDA chocolate labeling regulations were up for review, and you’d have found many of these same folks insisting that cocoa butter was the very essence of chocolate, the vital thing without which chocolate could simply not be considered chocolate. Chocolate without cocoa butter? An abomination!

Those positions aren’t entirely exclusive of one another, however I find it interesting that this essence, this utterly indispensable thing, when it stands more or less on its own, is also an abomination. Treasure in one context, trash in another. It’s not hypocrisy necessarily, just…interesting.

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Is sugar really “dry”?

Reader Chelsea writes:

I’ve got what I hope is an interesting one for you. Yesterday I was baking a quick chocolate cake to serve as dessert. As I whisked up the batter, I could tell something was wrong: it was very, very thick, more like cookie dough than cake batter, and not the deep dark cocoa color I knew it should be. I gave it a taste and it was terrible: salty and bitter! I realized I’d forgotten to add the sugar.

This is the part I found strange: when I added the sugar, the batter deepened to the cocoa color it should be, and loosened into a pourable batter – quite different from the thick, shortbread dough consistency I’d been fighting with before. My question is, therefore, why would sugar cause this change? It’s a “dry ingredient” – not dissolved or creamed with butter. Why would it have loosened up the batter and darkened the color?

Hey Chelsea! Would you believe that in much of the baking world sugar isn’t actually considered a “dry” ingredient? It’s true, and for reasons you just discovered. As soon as sugar is introduced to a wet mixture like a batter the granules (crystals) bind up the water, dissolve into it and start to flow as syrup. The practical effect is very much like adding more liquid to your batter. Pretty cool, isn’t it? I count sugar as a dry ingredient in Joe Pastry posts because, well, calling it a wet ingredient is just too weird (even though that’s more or less what it is). Thanks for an excellent question, Chelsea!

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Next Up: Caramelized White Chocolate Something-Or-Other

I haven’t decided what I’ll do with my caramelized white chocolate once I make it, but there are all sorts of applications for this unusual component: mousse, ganache, pastry cream, truffles, ice cream, cake. Caramelized white chocolate has been around several years but only seems to have gotten really hip in the last eighteen months or so. A few of you have been asking about it lately so it seems like a good time to make a little of it. Or a lot.

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Making Sticky Toffee Pudding

British puddings as a rule are moist, rich and dense. Oh: and sweet. Stick toffee pudding doesn’t disappoint on any of those fronts, though the pudding itself is lighter than it may appear. Together the dates and the espresso give the pudding a deep, almost chocolate-like flavor that’s as delicious as it is hard to place, especially if you really process the fruit mixture into a fine purée. If you’re looking for an indulgent finisher for a meal, something a little different but also comforting, sticky toffee pudding is your ticket. This is of course an individual baked pudding, not a classic large steamed pudding, and I confess I quite like it. Gives you more serving and plating options.

Start by assembling your ingredients and preheating your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter six 1-cup ramekins or eight 3″ x 2″ ring molds. Put the dates in a medium bowl and pour on the boiling water. Let them soak for at least 20 minutes.

At that point place them in a food processor with the water and chop them to whatever degree you like. I chopped mine relatively fine but left a few larger pieces because I like dates.

When your date are to the point you like them add the vanilla, espresso and baking soda.

Give that a spin for a few seconds. You’ll notice the mixture increasing volume and changing color to light brown. This is a leavening reaction from the baking soda. Who knew dates were so acidic? Not me I’ll tell you.

Anyway, begin the batter. Beat the sugar and butter in a mixer (or in a bowl with a wooden spoon) until they’re light and fluffy.

Beat in the eggs one at a time.

Scraping from time to time of course.

Next, sift the flour into a medium bowl.

Add the salt and baking powder and whisk everything together.

Gently stir that into the egg mixture, you don’t want a lot of activated gluten here. Easy does it.

Once you have a homogenous batter, add the date mixture and stir that in.

And there’s your batter.

Spoon that into your molds. For a 1-cup ramekin you’ll use about 5.5 ounce of batter. For a 3″ ring mold you’ll want about 3.75 ounces.

Bake 25-35 minutes until the tops are firm when you tap them. Put the pan on a rack for five minutes to let them cool a bit…

Then unmold them. Owee-owee-ow!!

Yikes those are hot. So then at this point you can hold them for several hours before serving or you can freeze them for up to a couple of months. Refrigeration doesn’t accomplish much. But whatever you do, when you’re ready to serve, place them on a sheet pan under the broiler with a large dollop of semi-liquid toffee sauce on top.

Let it bubble and run, the top edge of the pudding should toast a little. Forgive the focus, my cheekbones were starting to char.

Serve however you like. I favor a puddle of melted ice cream or chilled lightly sweetened cream and a few squeezings of leftover toffee sauce with some walnut pieces as a garnish. You can do what you like.

Serve immediately and await copious praise.

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The Difference Between Dark and Shiny Baking Pans

Reader Robert wants to know what the practical difference is between shiny baking pans and dark-colored nonstick versions (other than the fact that one is nonstick of course). The main difference, Robert, is that dark colors absorb more heat. That’s as true of pans as it is of clothes, even in the lightless environment of an oven. It’s why a tent of shiny aluminum foil does such a great job of preventing excess browning in a hot oven. It reflects heat energy.

A dark pan does the reverse and that’s not usually a good thing. Dark pans can not only create excess browning on edges, they can contribute to the premature hardening of surface crusts, and that can hold in rising or crust expansion. This is not to say that nonstick can’t be a good thing, however tart and pie crusts are very buttery to begin with. As a result they tend not to have a problem releasing from pans, so in that case the nonstick surface is really unnecessary. Properly prepared, just about any pan can be made to perform like a non-stick pan, so my feeling is that in general you should prefer the lighter finishes. They’re more versatile, cheaper and you never have to worry about the coating wearing off. Thanks for the excellent question. Robert!

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Making Toffee/Butterscotch Sauce

I use the slash because, while there is a clear difference between toffee and butterscotch candies there is little if any difference between toffee and butterscotch sauce. Butterscotch is generally a bit lighter in color I suppose. To produce that effect all you need to do is use light brown sugar instead of dark brown. Otherwise the procedure is the same. You’ll need:

7 ounces (scant cup) dark brown sugar
2 ounces (4 tablespoons) butter
pinch salt
3 ounces (generous 1/3 cup) heavy cream

Combine all the ingredients in a small saucepan and bring it to a simmer.

Simmer it gently until the sugar is completely dissolved. Allow the to cool and thicken somewhat before using. It will also hold almost indefinitely and can be refrigerated for several weeks. For a smoother sauce that will flow better at lower temperatures, double the cream (at least).

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The Difference Between Candy and Sauce

My failure to distinguish between toffee, caramel and butterscotch sauces and their candy equivalents in an earlier post got me into some well-deserved hot water (syrup?). I confess it had never really occurred to me before, not being much of a confectioner, but caramel sauce is not necessarily just melted or diluted caramel. Indeed, chewy caramel candies are made by cooking caramel to the firm ball stage (248F). Caramel sauce is made by cooking sugar until it practically burns (300 – 330F or even more if you like it smoky!).

Similarly, toffee candy is made by cooking butter, brown sugar (and often some white sugar) to the hard ball stage (265F or so). Butterscotch candy, by cooking roughly the same ingredients to the soft crack stage (290F or so). This is what gives these candies different textures at the candy store. Butterscotch and toffee sauces, at least to my mind, are all but indistinguishable as they call for mostly the same ingredients (butter and brown sugar plus cream and maybe some vanilla) cooked until the mixture is homogenous and maybe a touch reduced.

So: candy, sauce. The processes for making each are surprisingly different. Shame on me for not calling that out sooner!

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Back, but…

…settling in again is about as time consuming as vacationing. I returned yesterday to 134 questions in my in-box, many of them true head scratchers requiring detailed replies. I’m about half way through…then there’s my regular mortgage- and tuition-paying job to catch up on. Such an inconvenience! I’ll do my best to get my puddings made in the next day or so. If I’m not back in earnest before the weekend try not to hold it against me!

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Farewell to the Final Ramone

By 1975, rock music had become a parody of itself. The Beatles were split up, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison were dead. A lot of the great bands from the 60′s were still playing (The Who, the Stones, The Band and the Grateful Dead spring to mind) but most of the vitality was gone from the form. Popular culture had moved on to disco and lite rock acts like Seals & Crofts and England Dan & John Ford Coley. Little kids like my sister and me were listening to the Partridge Family, the Bay City Rollers, Wings and Leif Garrett. Concert goers were thrilling to the theatrics of KISS. Intellectual types were swooning to pompous art rock bands like Spirit, Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Some of it was fun, a little of it was artistic, none of it was rock n’ roll.

…as four geeks from Queens reminded us when they turned their amps up to 20 and belted out blistering four-chord, triple-speed two-minute rock anthems like Blitzkrieg Bop and I Wanna Be Sedated. They were the Ramones. They invented punk (a label they despised) and in the process revived true rock music, as defined by volume, simplicity and schlong. They never hit pay dirt in the music industry, never got to be a household name, never made any real money. But only the Beatles were more influential, and that’s not just my opinion. They were The Band That Saved Rock before Nirvana came along and did it again in 1991.

Everyone in the band had a fictitious name, which is to say they all assumed the surname “Ramone”, one of Paul McCartney’s aliases. Over a particularly bad three-year stretch at the turn of the millennium we lost three of them: Joey, Dee Dee and Johnny, my personal favorite Ramone for a long list of reasons. Tommy, the original drummer, died over the weekend. Tommy Ramone was only with the band for the first four years, but he established the seminal Ramones beat (ably imitated by his replacement, Marky). His death, how can I put it, is a real bummer. Nothing to do now but put on the It’s Alive at the Rainbow and raise a glass of the good stuff. ONE TWO THREE FOUR!!!

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