Category Archives: Pastry

The First American Baking Powder

…was developed in 1856 by a fellow by the name of Eben Norton Horsford. Horsford’s baking powder used calcium phosphate as the acid. That made it not only far less expensive than Alfred Bird’s cream of tartar version, it made it much more dependable. The product was called Horsford’s Cream of Tartar Substitute. Why “substitute”? Because there was something of a “frankenfoods” scare at the time and cream of tartar was thought to be bad for you (nice to know some things never change). Eventually the panic over tartaric acid died down and Horsford renamed the product for an obscure character from American history: one Benjamin Thompson from Woburn, Massachusetts.

Thompson is notable for several reasons. First, he was a loyalist during the American Revolution, which meant he sided with the British on the question of independence. As a result he was forced to flee America in 1776. A science and language prodigy, Thompson had no trouble earning a living in England and in fact accepted a position working for the Crown as a chemist. His successes with an improved version of gunpowder earned him an appointment to the Royal Society at the tender age of 26.

Not long afterward Thompson relocated to Bavaria where took a job for the government. There, in addition to his scientific work, he became something of a statesman, putting the unemployed to work and instigating various public works projects. For this Thompson was eventually awarded the title of Count of the Holy Roman Empire. Nice as that was, he felt that “Count Thompson” didn’t have a whole lot of pizzazz. So he adopted the name of the town in New Hampshire where he was first employed as a schoolteacher: Concord, previously known as Rumford.

But why did Eben Horsford end up naming his baking powder for such an esoteric character? It may because Rumford was semi-famous in his day for inventing the “Rumford” fireplace, the percolating coffee pot and thermal underwear. More likely it was because Horsford held the Rumford Chair of the Application of Science to the Useful Arts at Harvard (which Rumford himself had endowed) the year his baking powder went to market.

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From Baking Soda to Baking Powder

So it’s the mid-1800′s. CO2-producing carbonates are in common use among home bakers, as is cream of tartar. Why not get nuts, put the two together in dry powder form, and sell the whole shebang as a do-it-yourself one-scoop leavening reaction in a box?

That was the inspiration of one Alfred Bird, a pharmacist from Birmingham, England. Saddled with a spouse allergic to both yeast and eggs — but blessed with a talent for invention — Bird created the precursor to modern baking powder in 1843. It was, quite simply, a mixture of baking soda, cream of tartar and cornstarch (which served to keep the chemicals separated as well absorb moisture from the air).

The problem with Bird’s miracle-in-a-jar was that it was expensive. Cream of tartar didn’t come cheaply in those days and that prevented Bird’s powder from being widely marketed. It was however a godsend for those with dietary restrictions, as well as for the English military, for whom it provided “quick breads” in the field.

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On Cream of Tartar

Joe Pastry: I’ll take organic chemistry for $400, Alex.

Alex Trebek: An organic acid salt, this by-product of the winemaking process will also help raise your biscuits.

JP: What is cream of tartar?

AT: Correct!

(CHEERS)

JP: Give me organic chemistry for $1000!

AT: Created under photochemical conditions, this is what results when 1,4-dimethylcyclohexane reacts with an equal number of moles of chlorine gas.

JP: Um…are you freakin’ kidding me?

Sure, you can spend your entire baking life making bubbles by mixing soda with acidic substances like buttermilk or sour cream. More than a few of our ancestors did. The trouble with that approach is it’s inconsistent. The weather might change and acid-producing bacteria in your clabber jar might stop growing or even go dormant. Or you might just run out. The solution? Ready-made, easily storable acid powder, the thing we know in America as cream of tartar. A little of that mixed into your baking soda batter and you get the very same reaction, every time.

Cream of tartar is something that’s been around since antiquity. Known as either tartar or argol, it was nothing more than the crystalline residue left on the inside of wine casks after fermentation. If you’ve ever opened a bottle of wine and noticed little sparkly bits on the end of the cork, that’s it. Scraped off and ground to a powder, it was used throughout the ages as a medicine (a laxative, mostly). Boiled, dissolved, filtered and refined into a white powder, it became tartaric acid or potassium bitartrate, a baker’s best friend.

However baking is just the beginning of tartaric acid’s utility. It can be added to candy syrups to keep them from crystallizing. It helps stabilize whipped egg foams. In cooking it helps keep boiled vegetables green. Around the house you can dilute it in water to clean copper pans or old coins. Combined with a little vinegar it’s a great stove top cleaner. Oh crikey will you listen to me? A little caffeine and suddenly I’m flippin’ Martha Stewart!

Oh well, I’ve gone this far. Combine a cup of baking soda with a quarter cup of cream of tarter and a cup of salt and you’ve got a pipe-friendly homemade drain opener (the bubbling action can clear out minor blockages). It’s also great for removing rust stains from carpet and bathroom fixtures.

What?

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Talk About a TV Dinner!

If you are or ever were a Food Network viewer you’ve surely noticed how the channel has steadily moved away from shows that teach cooking to shows that simply show cooking. That’s deliberate and based on their discovery that viewers don’t want to learn to cook as much as they want to watch people cook. The latter seems to fill a deep-seated human need in a day and age where there’s less and less cooking. And while I miss those old Food Network shows I can’t fault them for catering to their audiences. If cooking voyeurism is what brings in the viewers and viewership is what keeps the lights on, then who am I to complain about it?

Now it seems the South Koreans have taken the basic idea a step further with eating voyeurism. That is, live streaming internet TV shows where people simply watch other people eat. As strange as that sounds it also makes a certain kind of sense. People are not only cooking less, they’re eating together less, so not only do we not get to see food being prepared as much as we used to, we don’t get to see it being enjoyed as much either. That is apparently a deep-seated human need too, at least in South Korea. Very, very interesting. Thanks to Vocativ for the hat tip!

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Whatever got people baking with chemicals to begin with?

That’s a very interesting question, reader Charles. I don’t know the definitive answer to that, save for the fact that Native Americans were doing it well before anyone else. They were the ones who noticed that a little wood ash added to a grain cake batter created bubbles that lightened the finished product. My guess is that colonists to the New World took note of these practices and refined them to create what we now know as chemical leavening agents. These sorts of products would have been especially useful on the American frontier where, unlike back home in Europe, there were no village or estate bakeries where people could easily acquire bread. If Americans wanted bread they had to make their own — and chemical leavening was the quickest and easiest way to do that.

Americans first took to wood ash-based potash and pearlash not because they liked the taste of ashes per se, but because wood ashes were readily at hand. Indeed you might say that back in those days ashes were the one of the pillars of the American economy.

Potash as I mentioned below is critical for the manufacture of glass. Why is that? Well we all know that glass is made by melting down sand (silica) and manipulating it into various shapes. It takes a lot of heat to so that. In fact pure silica has a melting point in excess of 3500 degrees Fahrenheit. A fire that hot was very difficult to create in those days and just as importantly it was extremely dangerous to work around. But what if you could add something to the silica to lower its melting point so you don’t need as much heat? Substances that perform this function are known as a fluxes in the manufacturing world, and that’s exactly what potash was. Added to silica, it lowered its melting point by about 1700 degrees, thus creating a safer, more comfortable, less fuel-intensive working environment for glass-makers.

The trouble for England in those days was that they needed glass but had very little potash due to the fact that they’d cut down most of their trees to make ships. All that changed when the New World was discovered. North America, due to its seemingly limitless forests, became a veritable potash factory as settlers occupied tracts of land and clear-cut them to create farm fields. The old growth trees that grew there were especially rich sources of potassium carbonate. Burned for their ashes, they provided the quick cash infusion that poor immigrant farmers needed to buy seed, supplies, and building materials for their homes.

So then how is potash made? Basically by putting wood ashes into a vessel with a hole at the bottom and soaking them with water. With time the water leeches the impure potassium carbonate out of the ashes and it drips out the bottom of the vessel. This liquid is called…anyone? Anyone? Yes, you at the back with the chemical burns. That’s right: lye. Lye is a caustic alkaline liquid which itself had a variety of uses on the frontier (like making soap). Dried, however, it yielded a black crystalline powder: potash.

It took over an acre of big, old-growth trees to produce a single ton of potash, but then the early colonists weren’t really thinking about deforestation. From their vantage point the forests of North America went on forever. And oh boy were the glass makers of the Old World willing to pay for their burnt remains. No wonder that the very first U.S. patent ever issued went to a gentleman by the name of Samuel Hopkins of Philadelphia for an improved method of “making pot ash and pearl ashes.” Potash was just as important to Canada, of course, and that nation remains the world’s leading producer of potash to this day.

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Baker’s Ammonia a.k.a. Hartshorn

You don’t have to be a chemist to spot a certain pattern in the names of chemical leavening agents. Potassium carbonate. Potassium bicarbonate. Sodium carbonate. Sodium Bicarbonate. All are compounds that release CO2 when they’re either reacted with acids and/or degraded by heat. The logical question at this point is: are there any other carbonate salts out there that do the same job and that you can also safely eat?

Yes there is: ammonium carbonate (or sometimes bicarbonate) also known as “baker’s ammonia”. You mean people use ammonia in baking?? Well, sort of. A carbonate (or bicarbonate) salt of ammonia. If you’re German or Scandinavian you’ve probably heard of it: baker’s ammonia, also called hartshorn or “salt of hartshorn.” It gets that name because the original source of the compound was the antler of the male deer (hart). These days it’s industrially produced.

The interesting thing about baker’s ammonia is that it really does make your kitchen smell of ammonia during baking. However if you’re using it right all of the chemical evaporates out leaving nothing but the finished goods behind. What sort of goods? Usually very thin, crispy cookies like German springerle and/or Scandinavian ginger cookies, which owe part of their flavor to the shade of ammonia that the hartshorn leaves behind. I know, it sounds disgusting but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

If you can’t find any baker’s ammonia but want to make a recipe that calls for it, you can substitute baking soda. Since baker’s ammonia is a little more potent than baking soda you’ll need to add about 25% more soda to the mix. So, for every teaspoon of baker’s ammonia you’ll need to use 1 1/4 teaspoons of soda.

Be aware that baker’s ammonia shouldn’t be kept too terribly long as it can “spoil”, i.e. degrade into a mixture of ammonia and ammonium bicarbonate that smells pretty horrible and doesn’t do much for your cookies either.

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Saleratus

Around the year 1775 industrial age chemists discovered that if you expose pearlash (potassium carbonate) to carbon dioxide gas the result was potassium bicarbonate, a compound that’s about twice as potent as regular old pearlash. The creation was dubbed “saleratus”, a Latin word meaning “aerated salt.” The discovery prompted an American entrepreneur by the name of Nathan Read to try making the stuff, which he did by suspending pearlash over vats of fermenting rum which produce — you guessed it — CO2. Very clever indeed. Read’s saleratus came on the market in 1788. But the stuff never really caught on as a leavener, mostly because it wasn’t terribly pure and hence not very reliable.

A purer, higher quality saleratus was available from Europe at the time. It was chemically different but made via a similar process, namely by exposing another carbonate compound — this time sodium carbonate or “soda ash” — to carbon dioxide gas. Since that saleratus was imported, however, it was a more expensive product than most American home bakers could afford. Which is why, in 1846, American entrepreneurs Austin Church and John Dwight decided it was time to make the stuff domestically. Their product, called “Dwight’s Saleratus”, was made in the European style, meaning that it was actually sodium bicarbonate, what we now call “baking soda”. That term didn’t come into common use until the 1920′s however, which is why many cookbooks dating to the era still use the term “saleratus”.

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Pearlash

If you or someone you know is into old (actually very old) recipes, odds are you’ve seen this listed as an ingredient here and there. Pearlash is refined potassium carbonate, an alkaline salt found in wood ashes that also goes by the name potash. Potash was used for a lot of things back in the 1700s and 1800s, especially glassmaking. These days we mostly know it as a fertilizer, but once upon a time it was used to leaven things like corn cakes since it makes bubbles when it gets wet. Given that potash was made from wood ash, its effect on the flavor of corn cakes was as you might expect, but hey, at least the texture was lighter.

The problem was partly solved by a chemist named Antonio Campanella who, in 1745, invented a way to refine potassium carbonate by heating it and burning away more of the ashen residues. That got rid of enough of the burnt wood flavor to make it an acceptable leavener many American home bakers. The first printed recipes containing pearlash appeared in 1796. If you’re in possession of a recipe dating to that time, just substitute baking soda but use about half again as much.

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While we’re waiting…

…for me to make a torte…ehem…reader Ted asked if I’d put up a series on chemical leavers for the Baking Ingredients section. So far the entries on yeasts are the extent of the discussion. I’m happy to do that of course, though I’m wondering how far back in history to go. There were several precursors to modern-day baking powder, and even though we don’t use them anymore there are still some historical recipes out there that call for things like saleratus and pearlash. Maybe those need short entries as well if only to list their modern equivalents. As far as photographs go, I guess I’ll have to improvise…

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Shortage or Just Baking Season?

I can’t find a hazelnut to save my life, so I’m going with almonds for the meringue. Are hazelnuts in short supply does anyone know?

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