How does bread go stale?

Thanks for that excellent question, reader Cindy! In fact the word “stale” is akin to “aged”, but in a good way. “Ripened” is more like what it means. We moderns, addicted as we are to perfectly fresh bread, would scarcely think of applying a world like that to a past-its-prime loaf. But the ancients (and not-so-ancients) did, mostly because they had no alternative.

But what is staling exactly? Most people think of it as the “drying out” of bread, but that’s not the half of it. If it were, fresh bread kept in a tight sheath of plastic wrap would never go stale. I think we’ve all experimented with double and triple layers of Reynold’s Wrap long enough to know what a fool’s paradise that is. So what is it with bread that it starts to harden the moment it’s removed from the oven? It all has to do with the behavior of starch molecules.


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On a completely unrelated note…

…have a look at this very unusual mushroom that little Joan just pointed out to me in the yard. I thought it was a piece of an old toy someone had left out in the yard, but it’s actually a fungus. I guess it’s something called an “Earth Star”, not edible but certainly lovely, pale pink with a white center. A…

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Pears in a Cage (Tarte aux Poires en Cage)

I’m not normally this seasonal, but I’ve been wanting to try these little individual tarts for a while and the pears at the local Kroger look darn good. You’ll need a lattice cutter for this, the good news is that they’re cheap!

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You’re actually going to EAT that?

My favorite tomato story concerns one Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, a wealthy one-time resident of Salem County, New Jersey. It’s said that after a long journey abroad Johnson became convinced that the tomato would make an excellent cash crop in America, and he was determined to introduce it as such. Unfortunately the locals remained convinced that the tomato was poison. So, on the 26th day of September, 1820, Johnson posted a notice declaring that he would consume an entire basket of tomatoes in front of anyone who’d care to watch. Some 2,000 people turned out to witness the spectacle. On that bright sunny autumn morning Johnson strode out onto the courthouse steps, raised a tomato to his mouth and took a big juicy bite. Men gasped in horror. Women screamed and fainted. Doctors rushed to the scene…yet Johnson did nothing but smile and — occasionally — belch. It was the dawn of a bright new day….

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A Little Tomato History

Happy to oblige, reader Leeza. Xtomatl is the original Aztec word for the tomato. The “x” is pronounced as sort of a guttoral “h”, or so I understand, making the word sound something like heetomatl. Of course I’m no speaker of Nahuatl. Neither were the Spaniards as it happened. They simply called the things “tomat-es”.

By now you’ve no doubt deduced that the tomato is a New World fruit. Like corn, it was identified as a potentially viable cash crop by the Spaniards. But unlike corn, it took considerable time for the Old World to fully adopt it. For tomatoes (along with eggplant and potatoes) are members of the nightshade family, a group of plants that were known to contain a host of toxic (sometimes deadly) alkaloids. The same was true of the eggplant and the potato, which were likewise greeted with, shall we say, reserve, when they arrived in the early 1500′s.


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On the Kentucky Pie Crust Scandal

Reader Linda writes:

What can you tell us about the Great Pie Scandal at the KY state fair? It was one of the news headlines this weekend on the broadcast of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me but I heard nothing else about it. Something about a store bought crust winning a blue ribbon??

You stole my thunder, Linda! I was waiting for the State Fair verdict before I wrote a post about it. In a nutshell, it turned out that a store bought (Pillsbury) crust was used for this year’s blue ribbon-winning pie. It was a buttermilk pie, and evidently it didn’t occur to the maker of said pie, one Mrs. Linda Horton, that she was breaking any rules by using store bought pastry. …

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The Tomato as a Sweet

Well sure, why not? It’s a fruit after all, just a big plump berry. Oh yes I understand that it tastes more like what people think of as a vegetable, but there are lots of berries like that: cucumbers, peas, squash, even beans.

The real question is why doesn’t a tomato taste like the berry that it is? Mostly because the tomato is so low in sugar compared to other berries. Your typical farm stand tomato has about as much sugar as a Brussels sprout. On the other hand it’s high in acid, like many fruits. The problem is that a higher than normal proportion of that acid is glutamic acid. And if that word is evocative of the word glutamate to you, it’s because glutamic acid and glutamates are pretty much the same thing (glutamates are salts of glutamic acid). …

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Making Green Tomato Pie

Green tomato pie isn’t something you see very often in pie cases, but it’s a farm kitchen staple in many parts of the US. It’s a handy thing to have in your repertoire when either a.) your patch gets too prolific, or b.) cool weather and/or an early frost puts the hammer down on tomato ripening. All you need is 4-5 medium green tomatoes, or about 1 3/4 pounds, sliced about 1/4 inch thick.


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Filed under:  Green Tomato Pie, Pastry | 23 Comments

Making a Fruit Mousse Bavarian

As I mentioned below, Bavarians are a very large family of mousse (or cream) desserts. This particular style has been in vogue lately, and who am I to fly in the face of fashion? Plus it was fun. I hope to do more Bavarians in the future, so stay tuned for an expanding menu. This one can be made with any sort of fruit mousse, I chose peach because the fruit was in season. To begin, prepare your components. As with any multi-component pastry it’s best to make the various pieces-parts over several days leading up to the assembly. Save the last day to make it since you’ll need a couple of hours of build time and at least five hours of chill time to get it done. …

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In Praise of Odds and Ends

Not terribly often, but often enough that it bears remarking upon, I get comments that this or that recipe has created “leftovers”. I do my best to avoid that, especially in cases of spare materials that don’t freeze well. Pastry cream springs to mind. That said, there’s much to be said in favor of leftovers, especially if you engage in the pastry arts with any regularity. A few cups of random buttercreams, some poured fondant, bits and pieces of various cakes, even crumbs can come in handy for who-knows-what. …

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