I just don’t know when. It might take me the summer. The demands of a growing business — and especially two growing girls — are translating to less baking and blogging time. Also there’s music. Some old friends have asked me to cover a show or two this coming month back home in Chicago, so I’ve been spending part of my time getting my bass fingers back. The process has been slow as it’s been almost a decade since I’ve plucked a string.
This all may be a hidden blessing, as over the past year or so I’ve had the distinct feeling I’ve been more or less repeating myself. An extended hiatus might give me some new angles on Joe Pastry. But don’t assume I’m going totally silent. I’ll still be putting the off post and of course I’ll be answering questions.
In my opinion yes, reader Bill. Yes, you can bake doughnut batter up in little savarin molds if you like, you’ll get a ring-shaped cake. It won’t be a doughnut as far as I’m concerned. The result you get from the two devices (fryer and oven) are simply too different. But what exactly causes that difference? Why does 365-degree oil produce such a very different product compared to a 365-degree oven?
A big part of the answer lies in the density of the cooking medium. Air is the cooking medium one finds in an oven, and it’s true you can get it pretty darned hot. Yet air is not especially dense stuff. Nowhere near as dense as say, water, which packs about 1000 times more molecules into the same space (cooking oils are actually a little less dense than water, which is why they float in it). If you heated an oven to 150 degrees and stuck your hand in, provided you didn’t touch any of the oven surfaces, it wouldn’t feel very hot. That has to do with the number of excited molecules that are colliding with your skin. Heat a pan of water to 150 degrees and put your hand in — which I do not recommend — and I guarantee it would feel a whole lot hotter. Oil, being nearly as dense as water, performs the same way, dumping huge amounts of heat energy into any object that’s immersed in it.
So why not just boil the doughnut batter then and avoid all that fat? Because of that delectable crunch, reader Bill. As most of us know, oil and water repel one another. Which means that unlike water, hot oil won’t invade the food to any great degree as it cooks. Which on the one hand means the food doesn’t get soggy, and on the other means the surface of the food gets nice and dried out. That dried surface — combined with the residual oil that gets left behind once the food is removed from the oil — is what gives fried food that one-of-a-kind rich and crunchy mouthfeel. A doughnut isn’t a doughnut without it.
…asks reader Gordon. Nice one. Squeeze a load of apple pulp and what comes out is fairly clear, fairly golden. Give it a few minutes and suddenly it looks like the cider we all know: cloudy and brown with a noticeably duller (though still fabulous) flavor. What happened?
In a word: enzymes. Even though it looks like there’s only juice running out of a cider press, there’s quite a bit of apple flesh in there too, albeit in very small pieces. That flesh contains enzymes — non-living protein molecules that perform specific chemical tasks — which are specifically designed to spring into action as soon as they’re exposed to oxygen. Some of them begin disassembling molecules called phenols, transforming them into pigments which turn the bits of apple flesh brown (for more on why they do this, see this post right here). Thus the more bits of apple flesh that get left in the cider, the browner it becomes, which is why commercial juice makers go to great lengths to filter their squeezings as soon as they’re, um…squeezed.
But there are other ways of combating enzymes. Being proteins they’re senstive to temperature and so can be “denatured” (i.e. “wrecked”) with heat. This is a big part of the reason why larger cider and apple juice makers almost always pasteurize their product. The other reason is to kill off any dangerous microbes, but more on that later. The down side of heating apple cider is that it gives you a “cooked” apple flavor, but the compromise is generally worth the peace of mind, especially if you have small children. But I digress…
Reader Amy writes to say that some of her old family recipes call for alum, but what is it and is it really necessary? Great questions. Anyone who’s every watched a Warner Brothers cartoon has probably wondered the something similar. You know those scenes: Tweety Bird somehow manages to pour a box of powdered alum down Sylvester’s the Cat’s throat and his head shrinks up to the size of a golf ball. But what the heck is that stuff and what did people use it for?
Alum is short for aluminum potassium sulfate. It was once a common household item here in the U.S., especially during the war years when people did a lot of home pickling. A pinch of it in a jar of kosher dills or watermelon rinds kept the pickles firm and crispy. Too much and the result was a serious pucker, since alum is both an acid and an astringent (which is to say, a compound that causes shrinking or constricting of blood vessels and/or mucous membranes).
How ’bout an answer to the question, digression king? Right. Alum has another household use: as a chemical leavener. It’s commonly formulated into baking powders as a reactant along with baking soda. This is probably why it appears in your family’s recipe, Amy. Is it strictly necessary? No. You can use some other form of kitchen acid to create your reaction if you like: a little cream or tartar or a teaspoon or two of vinegar or fresh lemon juice will do the trick. Then again baking powder is a lot easier, which is the reason I prefer it.
Of course any baking powder you buy probably has alum or some close variant of alum in it, so if you’re specifically looking to avoid alum or aluminum itself, there are some non-aluminum baking powders on the market that work pretty well.
Reader Simone wants to know if there’s a nutritional difference between corn meal and corn masa (the alkaline-treated dough used for making tortillas). Indeed there is!
Though no one knows exactly how, ancient Mesoamericans long ago discovered that when you soak corn kernels in a mixture of water and wood ashes, the tough outer hulls (pericarps) can be slipped off, leaving just the starchy endosperm and oily germ. The process is called nixtamalization. Without it the Central America of old would have been a very different place.
For in the process of making their corn easier to handle and eat, Mesoamerican cooks accidentally unleashed a torrent of nutrients that would otherwise have been unavailable to them. For nixtamalization it turns out vastly increases the amount of free niacin present in corn. It also makes the protein in corn much more absorbable by the body.
What’s niacin? We know it as vitamin B3. It’s an essential nutrient, without which the body’s metabolism begins to slow down. Left unchecked a severe niacin deficiency leads to a disease called pellagra.
What’s pellagra? Well, Europeans — especially Italians — found out all about it when they imported corn from the New World but not the nixtamalization process. Poor people who subsisted on nothing other than cooked corn meal (polenta) began to exhibit skin rashes (the word “pellagra” is Italian for “rough skin”), weakness and in the worst cases dementia and death. Terrible stuff, pellagra, and it wasn’t just limited to Italy. The southern U.S. had tremendous problems with it until pellagra’s cause was finally identified in 1938.
But back to Mesoamerica. So what happened when the peoples of that region started eating corn that was suddenly rich in vital nutrients? Pretty much what you’d expect. Malnutrition decreased and populations increased. So powerful was the effect of nixtamalization, or so many historians speculate, that it allowed the tribes of Mesoamerica to grow into societies, the societies to grow into civilizations, and the civilizations to build great cities like Tikal and Teotihuacán.
Could a silly thing like a handful of wood ash dropped into a bowl of wet corn do all that? It seems it can. Quite likely, it did. Thanks Simone!
VERY good question, reader Ashley. There are certain similarities but in the end they are quite different things. Popovers are made with a batter that resembles something you’d use for crêpes. Choux batter is a more complex combination of pre-cooked (gelatinized) starch lubricated by fat (egg yolks). What you get in that case an ultra-elastic paste that can increase in volume by up to 600%. By contrast you’re lucky if your popover batter increases threefold. It’s a darn impressive feat still and all.
All that said, you can use popovers and choux in similar ways. Certainly the classic use of a popover is as a “bread” eaten with a main meal. However being hollow, popovers are great filling holders too — you can put custards and mousses inside of them, soups or stews even, especially if they’re left over and stale. A very nice application on a chilly day!
Reader Sue says her Czech mother-in-law-to-be uses the word all the time in the kitchen and she wonders what sort of dish it is. Sue, I only know this because I dated a Czech girl in high school and her mother used that word. “Ham and eggs” is what she’s talking about, and good stuff it is too. In the Czech version it’s usually all fried up in the same pan with herbs on top. Now you know!
Isn’t it bad for you? So asks reader Victoria. Victoria, the main reason pie makers use shortening (or lard) in their pie crusts is to keep the moisture content as low as possible. Butter can be up to 18% water, and that can be a very bad thing for the texture of a crust.
We talk about gluten a lot on the site and for good reason. North American gluten can be a real pain to work with, as it’s elastic in nature and tends to make pastry tough and prone to shrinkage in the oven. Gluten is always present in flour, but it takes the addition of water to “activate” it, i.e., cause the individual gluten molecules to bond to one another in a springy network. So we try our best to minimize the amount of water in the crust, especially at the start of the recipe where we’re working the dough a lot, because agitation also helps activate gluten.
If we were French we could probably find some of their “dry butter” to use, but we aren’t, so we make do with whatever soft-firm fats we can find. Normally that’s vegetable shortening, but historically home bakers have used lard. Some country bakers use 100% lard in their crusts, but that taste can be a little “piggy” for some people, especially with a sweet pie. Vegetable shortening offers a neutral flavor and brings no water whatsoever to the party.
So I guess the short answer to the question, now that I’ve droned on for so long, is that we use butter for flavor and shortening for a flaky texture. Make sense? As for whether shortening is bad for you, I’ve never believed that trans fats are bad for you (there’s not terribly much data to prove it). However if you’re worried about that you can buy trans-free shortening now. Or, for a more home-spun answer, find some leaf lard at a local farmer’s market (it’s milder tasting than store-bought lard), render it and use it! I can tell you that lard is great for biscuits too!
I’m still answering the more than 400 questions I got during my absence. I shall continue to put some of the answers up as posts, because a lot of them are darn good questions. Hope everyone had a great Memorial Day weekend by the way!
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.