Cooking Tips · Techniques

Is it a crisp, a cobbler, a crumble or something else?

My husband has a fruit tree that was supposed to have been an apricot tree or so the tag attached to it said. As it grew and started to produce fruit, it was clear as it was not an apricot but was an apple tree. (I was sad as I love apricots.) We do not know what kind of apple tree it is other than it is an early producer. This year we harvested a nice supply of apples from this tree and I decided to make a cobbler. Or, was it an apple crisp? Maybe an apple crumble? Do you know the difference and does it even matter? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Although not the definitive word, let’s start with some definitions from The New Food Lover’s Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Rob Herbst.

  • Betty (aka brown betty) – Baked puddings made of layers of sugared and spiced fruit and buttered breadcrumbs.
  • Buckle – This is an old term for a single layer cake made with fruit.
  • Clafouti – A French country dessert made by topping a layer of fresh fruit with batter.
  • Cobbler – A baked, deep-dish fruit dessert topped with a thick biscuit crust sprinkled with sugar.
  • Crisp – A dessert of fruit topped with a crumbly, sweet pastry mixture and baked until brown and crisp.
  • Crumble – A British dessert in which raw fruit is topped with a crumbly pastry mixture and baked.
  • Slump (aka grunt) – An old-fashioned New England dessert topped with biscuit dough and stewed until the topping is cooked through.

Now, for a bit more detail.

Betty is a dish similar to a crisp or crumble but has a breadcrumb topping that is layered into the fruit mixture before baking.

Buckles traditionally had a cake-like base with fruit placed on top and as the batter rose during baking, the fruit would fall into it, making the top look “buckled”. Today, the fruit may be incorporated into the batter or sprinkled on top of the batter before baking.

Clafoutis is a dessert with French countryside origins. It is very similar to a buckle in that it has fruit and a batter. Some have a cake-like batter over the fruit while other batters are more custard-like.

Cobbler – This dish seems to date back to the mid-1800s and is generally thought to be fruit baked with a dough. In its origins, it really was a fruit pie and only later came to be defined by a topping either of biscuit-type dough or a cake-type batter. The topping is often just dropped over the fruit in large spoonfuls. When making a cobbler, it is recommended to use firmer fruit as it will take longer to release its juices, allowing the topping to begin cooking without getting soggy.

Crisps have a topping that is a bit crispier and crumblier than cobblers, more streusel-like. This dish dates to the early 1900s in the US. The topping is made of butter and sugar along with a binder. The latter might be flour, oatmeal or a combination. It might also include nuts. This topping bakes up a bit crispy and ends up with a crumbly texture. Because of this, many people will call a crisp a crumble. Crisps are better for your riper fruit and you want to see the filling release its juices and bubble up and into the topping.

Crumbles are similar to a crisp but the topping has a different texture. Oatmeal or nuts are typically not included in the topping, which has a denser texture than a crisp. It is thought to have been created during the time of WWII. Choose fruits similar to those for a crisp.

Slumps/grunts are made by spooning biscuit dough over stewed fruit, which is steamed stove-top until the topping is cooked.

Back to what I made. It truly was a cobbler as it had that cake-like topping. If you want to call it something else, that is fine with me. However, knowing what type of topping you want will help you to find the best recipe for you.

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Homemade Marshmallows — A Real Delight!

I have never been a fan of marshmallows. I do not even like them in my hot chocolate. That all changed, though, when I first made homemade marshmallows. They are such a different creature than store-bought and that is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

I was attempting to make a chocolate covered Easter egg filled with a light and fluffy center. I was using a recipe from Callebaut that had you mix some of their Gold chocolate (one of their specialty white chocolates containing caramelized sugar & milk) into the marshmallow mixture. I did not have that particular ingredient and so, used their milk chocolate. I tempered some chocolate to use in my Easter egg molds and filled them with this mixture. When I bit into them, I remembered how much I love homemade marshmallows. They reminded me of those marshmallow Easter eggs that you can buy but so much better.

According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, these confections were first made in France from the gummy root juice of the marsh mallow, a relative of the hollyhock. Made by mixing this juice with eggs and sugar and then beaten to a foam, it was called pâte de Guimauve.

Making them is not difficult but does require working with gelatin and hot sugar syrup. Because of the latter, you do need to take some care to not burn yourself. Similarly, it is not a good project for children.

All recipes will call for you to soften gelatin in water (for a discussion on powdered vs leaf gelatin, see this Cooking Tip). You also make a sugar syrup with sugar, water and an invert sugar to prevent crystallization. Professional pastry chefs may use something called “trimoline”. Most home cooks use corn syrup or glucose syrup although honey may also be used. One caution with the latter, though, is that some honeys have such a strong flavor that it will dominate your marshmallow. If you want to try honey, use a lighter one. I used a clover honey and that worked wonderfully. The sugar syrup must be brought to a certain temperature (recall temperature adjustments when at high altitude). This mixture is then beaten in a mixer, the gelatin is added and mixing continues until you get a white and thick mixture that has doubled or tripled in volume.

Some recipes you will see call for whipped egg whites but most do not. The addition of whipped egg whites makes the marshmallows extra light, soft and fluffy as well as easier to pipe by slowing how quickly the marshmallows set up. The egg whites also change the mouth feel as well as shortening the life span of the finished product. Plus, there is the concern of ingesting uncooked egg whites.

The final mixture is very sticky and will start to set up fairly quickly. You can just spread it out on a baking sheet that has been sprayed with nonstick spray and coated with powdered sugar. The marshmallows should then be allowed to set up for a few hours or even overnight before cutting into your preferred shape. After cutting, toss them in either powdered sugar or a mixture of powdered sugar and corn starch. You can also pipe the mixture into shapes. Or, as I did, you can pipe it into chocolate shells.

Flavorings can be added. The most classic is just vanilla but as I mentioned, I added melted chocolate. A perusal of recipes showed peanut butter & jelly, mint, eggnog, berry-flavored, rose, birthday cake, lemonade, mocha, caramel, gingerbread and liquor flavored. Colors may also be added for variety.

Have you ever tasted homemade marshmallows? What did you think? Have you ever made them yourself? I’d love to know.

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Pastry Doughs Explained

When you hear the word “Pastry”, what do you think of? Some just think of pies while others think of finicky French desserts. Even others think of something made by Sara Lee or Entenmann’s. In reality, the term “pastry” typically means a type of unleavened dough. However, “pastries” is a general term for sweet baked goods. There are different types of these unleavened doughs and they all have different purposes. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Different sources categorize pastry doughs in a slightly different manner. I hope you will find this categorization helpful and accurate. I will put these doughs into five categories.

The ingredient list for all types of pastry dough is very similar – flour, fat and liquid. The flour can be pastry, all-purpose or even bread flour. The fat is typically butter, lard, or shortening. The liquid is most commonly water but could be other liquids. Some doughs (called enriched doughs) may contain eggs, milk, cream, sour cream, crème fraiche or cream cheese. All doughs will probably contain a small amount of salt and sugar may be added to make a sweet dough. Which actual ingredients are used and the technique of putting them together is what makes the difference between these categories.

Shortcrust pastry

This is what most of us think of when we think of “pie dough” and it is the most common type used in our kitchens. I wrote an earlier Cooking Tip on pie doughs. You can get it here.

This type of pastry is probably the easiest to make. It may also be the most versatile. The basic ingredients are flour, fat, water and salt although sugar and eggs may be added if you want a sweetened shortcrust dough. The technique involves rubbing the fat into the flour before adding the liquid. Some recommend rubbing the fat until you get small pea-sized particles of fat coated in flour. Another technique, and one I think is superior, is snapping the flour-covered pieces of fat between your fingers to get flattened pieces. The important thing is to work quickly so the butter does not melt and to stop while you still have visible pieces of fat. Only after this step do you add your liquid and gently form it into a cohesive dough. For variations on this technique, see my prior Cooking Tip.

Puff pastry

This type of pastry contains the same basic ingredients but has a greatly different technique. It is what is termed a “laminated dough”. It has alternating layers of dough and butter. It is rolled out, folded, and repeated for a specified number of “turns”. All should be kept chilled throughout the process. When you bake it, the butter melts, producing steam and thus, flaky and puffy layers.

It is used for pie crusts, wrapping meat (such as a Beef Wellington), palmiers, vol-au-vents, cream horns, and mille feuilles.

Croissants are made from a type of laminated dough that differs from puff pastry in that it contains yeast, milk and a small amount of sugar. Danish dough is another variation of laminated dough that also uses eggs.

Making your own laminated pastry dough is certainly not as easy as making a shortcrust dough and takes much more time. It is also something that takes experience to perfect. It can be, however, a fun and very satisfying challenge.

Flaky pastry

The definition of flaky pastry is one upon which many disagree. Some use it to mean American-style pie crusts and others use it to refer to something called “Rough Puff Pastry.” This type of pastry is what you think of when you put your fork into your pie and you get wonderful, flaky pieces of the crust breaking off. It is hard to get this effect when you make a shortcrust dough. You can do it, though, with this much easier version of puff pastry.

It has all the basic ingredients (flour, butter, water, salt). It is the technique, though, that really sets it apart both from shortcrust and true puff pastry. It is made with cold, diced butter that you toss in the flour and gently smash flat. This is then rolled and folded like puff pastry. To read more about this technique and a link to Stella Parks’ excellent recipe, see this link. For King Arthur’s take on the flaky pastry, see this link. Their recipe is a bit unique as they add baking powder and sour cream to the basic ingredients.

Once again, all the large pieces of cold butter melt in the oven, creating steam and the wonderful flakes we all like. It makes a great crust for sweet and savory pies, sausage rolls and turnovers.

Choux pastry

This is also called Pâte à Choux and is what is used to make eclairs or profiteroles (cream puffs). The ingredients are flour, water, butter, eggs and salt. This type of pastry dough has a very different technique.

It starts with combining water, butter and salt in a pot and heating until the butter melts. This is followed by beating in the flour, which helps traps steam. The mixture is then beaten (usually with a stand mixer) until it is cool. At that point, eggs are added until the desired consistency is obtained. When the trapped steam is released in the oven, it creates a puffed up pastry.

The dough is typically piped onto a baking sheet. Once baked, this process produces a crisp outer shell and hollow interior that can be filled with a variety of fillings, most commonly pastry cream or just whipped cream. The finished pastries are also often topped with chocolate.

Phyllo pastry

This is a type of unleavened pastry composed of very thin, delicate sheets of dough layered with melted butter or oil between them. For more information on this type of pastry dough, watch for the next Cooking Tip.

All of us should know how to make a good shortcrust pastry, which is fairly simple and very versatile. I encourage you to branch out and try your hand at one of the other pastry doughs. If you are unsure about tackling them, contact me and we can arrange a cooking class just for you.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Pumpkin Pie or Squash Pie?

Pumpkin season has definitely arrived and I suspect most of us use more of this ingredient during the fall & winter than the rest of the year. Even though it is a very recognizable ingredient, there are some things that most of us do not know about pumpkin. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Pumpkin is a type of squash and according to Harold McGee in his On Food and Cooking, it belongs to the same scientific class as summer squash, acorn squash and spaghetti squash.

Although most of us probably use pumpkin in many different dishes, one of the major pumpkin-based foods that will grace our tables this fall is Pumpkin Pie. Most of us probably grab for the can of pumpkin puree but have you ever thought if there was a better way to make that famous pie?

The first thing you need to know is that inside that can of Libby’s Pumpkin Puree is not what we think of as a traditional pumpkin. It is reported that up to 90% of the pumpkin puree sold in the US is made from a variety of squash known as the Dickinson pumpkin, closely related to butternut squash. The major (although not only) brand is Libby’s and according to them,

All pumpkins, including the Dickinson pumpkin variety LIBBY’S Special Seed were bred from, are a variety of squash belonging to the Cucurbitaceae family or gourd family (which also includes melons and cucumbers). Libby’s proudly uses nothing but 100% pumpkin in our Libby’s solid pack pumpkin. We do not use Hubbard squash, or other types of squash.

Our Libby’s pumpkins don’t look like traditional carving pumpkins, but that’s a good thing because they are much tastier and have a more pleasant texture than your average Jack O’ Lantern!

If you wish to make a pie from a fresh “pumpkin”, you have many choices. Numerous sources have done taste tests using multiple different types of squash. It is very difficult to really come to any sort of conclusion from all these different tests. They did not necessarily use the same types of squash/pumpkin and not all of them compared fresh to canned. Some just compared different varieties of fresh. Despite that, let me share some of those results with you.

The Cooking Channel – They tested Acorn, Sugar, Cheese, Kabocha and Red Kuri squash and compared those with canned pumpkin. Although they felt all made good pies, their favorite was Red Kuri followed closely by Kabocha.

Cooks Illustrated compared canned to sugar pumpkin in both pumpkin pie and bread. Their tasters found the bread made with the fresh pumpkin was “more vegetal and less sweet” whereas in pie, they preferred the fresh as they felt it tasted more of the squash and less of the spices.

Kelly from FoodTasia compared canned to sugar pumpkins, butternut squash and Kabocha squash. When it came to the finished pies, she and her tasters preferred the ones made with the Kabocha and butternut squash, at least partially to what they deemed superior texture. The taste won out, too, and was termed “sweet, deep, rich and pumpkiny”. Between the sugar and canned pumpkins, the sugar’s texture was considered smoother but the tasters preferred the taste of the pie made from the canned pumpkin.

Lindsay from Love and Olive Oil compared Honeynut squash, Kabocha, Pink Banana and Fairytale. Her winners were Honeynut and Pink Banana. They were considered “flavorful with sweet notes of fresh pumpkin and a creamy overall texture.” She felt the Kabocha made a dry pie without much flavor. The Fairytale was watery with a vegetal taste.

Melissa Clark from the New York Times put the following against each other – Acorn, Blue Hubbard, Butternut, Carnival, Cheese, Delicata, Kabocha, Sugar and Spaghetti. Her favorite was the butternut squash. She thought the flavor of the pie made with acorn squash was comparable but she preferred the color of the butternut, making it her number one choice.

Serious Eats is a champion of the butternut squash for your holiday pie. They prefer it over canned pumpkin as they feel it has more pumpkin flavor, a smoother texture and a brighter color.

Joanne, from Fifteen Spatulas found something that many of the other sources noted. That is, even without the flavor difference, they preferred the pies from fresh pumpkin because of a superior texture that was “thicker and more velvety”. She compared canned to only one fresh variety – the sugar pie pumpkin. Besides the textural differences, she also preferred the flavor from the fresh pumpkin.

The test kitchen from Taste of Home prefers canned pumpkin. They felt it was easier, more available and the taste & texture was more consistent. When they did a taste comparison, it was canned vs sugar pie pumpkin. Their tasters felt that the spices were more prominent in the fresh variety but the pumpkin flavor was more pronounced with the canned pumpkin.

So, as you can see, there is not a lot of consensus. One consistency, though, is that you should never try to make a pie using the traditional pumpkin that you would carve and set on your porch. If you want to try fresh, your safest bet is probably butternut squash.

The “normal” pie pumpkin is the Sugar Pumpkin and it is smaller, darker orange, more flavorful and denser and drier than the jack-o-lantern pumpkin. However, not all tasters liked that compared to butternut squash.

As for the rest of the varieties spoken of in the testing, obtaining them may be a challenge. A look on my preferred market’s website shows they carry pie (sugar) pumpkins, butternut squash, acorn squash, fairytale, knucklehead and buttercup squash. That is actually more than I would have expected. Other neighborhood stores did carry Kabocha.

One nice advantage to canned pumpkin puree is its consistency. Each can is assured to taste the same and just like you expect it. Whenever you are using fresh produce, each item can taste different from the same type of item sitting next to it. All you have to do is eat two of the same variety of apple – they are bound to taste different. Second to the consistency is the unarguable convenience and availability of canned pumpkin.

Another item you will see on the shelves is Pumpkin Pie Filling. As opposed to pumpkin puree, it also contains spices and sweetener. It is basically a shortcut for making pumpkin pie. Either can be used in making pumpkin pie, although I prefer the plain puree and adding my own spices. However, pumpkin puree can be used in many different applications, sweet or savory. That is not true with Pumpkin Pie Filling, which is specifically for pies.

Will there be pumpkin pie on your holiday table this year? If so, will you opt for good ole Libby’s (or another brand) or will you make your own pumpkin puree?

Let me know and Happy Baking!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Vegetarian Alternatives to Gelatin

My last Cooking Tip was all about gelatin, the different forms and how to use it. Because gelatin is derived from animals, it is not suitable for vegetarians & vegans. This Cooking Tip will discuss vegetarian alternatives to gelatin.

Agar – Unlike gelatin, which is protein, agar is a carbohydrate made from raw seaweed. This makes it popular with vegetarians. It is commonly used in Asian cuisines. Although agar can be used in place of gelatin, there are different characteristics.

  • Acidity – Gelatin does not set will in mixtures with a pH below 4. Agar will set up in much more acidic environments with a range of 2.5 to 10. This allows for gelling dishes such as those that are citrus-based. Normally, those would be too acidic for gelatin to work.
  • Temperature – There is a much larger differential between proper setting temperature and melting temperature as compared to gelatin. It sets at about 95°F but doesn’t melt until 175°F. This allows one to serve a warm gel, something impossible with gelatin. This also makes a difference in mouthfeel. Gelatin tends to melt in your mouth as you eat it as it has a lower melting temperature. Agar’s higher melting temperature means it will have a firmer texture as you eat it.
  • Setting time – Agar sets very rapidly once it reaches that 95°F, within minutes rather than hours for gelatin.
  • Texture – Agar gels set very firm and can become brittle. This can be counteracted by the addition of sorbitol or glycerol in an amount of about 1% by weight.
  • Appearance – A gel set with agar can look clear or opaque.
  • Use Percentage – to use agar, you would use a percentage between 0.2% for a standard gel to 0.5% for a firm gel. If you recall the math lesson from the Gelatin Tip, this means using either 2 grams or 5 grams to set 1000 grams of liquid. Gelatin has a use percentage of between 0.6% & 1.7%. Therefore, you can see that agar will have a stronger set at the same amount, but more is not better with agar as the texture can become unpleasant.

    One of the challenges with agar is that its strength can vary from brand to brand. Cooks Illustrated looked at this and found that ¾ teaspoon of the Eden brand thickened one cup of water just as 1 teaspoon of gelatin. They also found that it took more liquid and more time to dissolve. They caution that it will not, however, thicken cream or milk-based liquids.
  • Hydration – Just as gelatin, agar needs to be hydrated before using. The recommended procedure is to whisk it into the liquid to dissolve it and then simmering for about 4 minutes. This is followed by blending it for 15-30 seconds with an immersion blender, straining it and then allowing it to set. The blender step ensures even dispersion and hydration. A regular blender is not recommended as it incorporates too much air into the mixture.
  • Weeping – Agar gels can leak liquid and dehydrate making it less effective in gelling. One work-around for this is said to be adding 0.1% by weight of locust bean gum. Agar will also dehydrate if left uncovered.
  • Tannic acid – An inhibitor of agar gels is tannic acid, a substance commonly found in red wine and tea.
  • High alcohol content (about 40%) – Agar can work in this environment whereas gelatin does not.
  • Fruit – Proteolytic enzymes inhibit gelatin but not so for agar. So, you can use it to make gels with fresh fruits that contain such enzymes.

Carrageenan – Another seaweed-derived product, this is more commonly used as a firming agent in vegan cheese. There are different types suited better to different uses.

Vegetable Gums – These are commonly found in ice creams, chewing gum and gluten-free baked goods. Examples include guar gum and xanthan gum. One brand name is Natural Desserts Unflavored Jel Dessert. This product was tested by Cooks Illustrated in panna cotta and a strawberry gelatin. They found it did work but it was much softer and they recommended using 1½ times of the amount of gelatin specified in the recipe. They also found it to be ineffective in acidic environments. I am not totally sure that this product is still available but there are other brands that would probably be comparable.

If you are wanting to make a switch from gelatin to a vegetarian/vegan substitute, I would start with agar. It has been used and evaluated more extensively than the other options.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Gelatin — Powdered or Leaf?

I recently held a class featuring Italian Desserts. One of the dishes we made was Panna Cotta. This is a wonderful light and silky egg-less custard that relies on gelatin to set up. I like to use something called Leaf Gelatin rather than powdered gelatin. Since many of us have never seen or used leaf gelatin, I thought I would discuss it in this Cooking Tip.

Let’s start with what is gelatin. It is a thickening agent that causes food items to form a jelly-like substance. It is odorless, tasteless and colorless. It is pure protein derived from the connective tissues of animals. I will discuss vegetarian alternatives in a subsequent Cooking Tip.

There are two forms – powdered (aka granulated) and leaf (aka sheet). Although all powdered gelatin is the same, there are different strengths of leaf gelatin. There are four grades. From weakest to strongest, they are bronze, silver, gold and platinum. The sheet size is adjusted with the different strengths. The stronger gelatin has a smaller sheet size. This means that sheet-for-sheet, they will have similar setting properties. One sheet of gelatin will generally set around 100 ml (3.4 ounces) of liquid to a soft set. The most common in professional kitchens is the silver grade. It is also what I use and would be a good choice if you wish to try it.

Professional chefs like leaf gelatin because they think it results in a clearer and cleaner result. I find it gives the final product a smoother and silkier texture.

All gelatin needs to be rehydrated before using it. This is called “blooming” the gelatin. In the case of powdered gelatin, it is normally sprinkled over a bit of cold water or other liquid. If your recipe doesn’t specify how much liquid, use about ¼ cup liquid for every 2 teaspoons of powdered gelatin. After it sits for 5-10 minutes, the granules absorb the liquid and swell up. After that step, the gelatin is melted by stirring it into the hot liquid of your dish.

Another method that some recommend is to whisk the gelatin together with the sugar (or other dry ingredient) in your recipe before mixing it into the liquid. The supposed advantage of this is that mixing it with a dry ingredient separates the granules so they can rehydrate more evenly.

Leaf gelatin is hydrated by putting in a bowl and covering with cold water. Once the sheets are soft, they are squeezed to remove excess water and then added to your hot liquid.

Many ask how to substitute powered gelatin for leaf. There is much debate on this issue with recommendations varying between 3½ sheets to one envelope of powdered gelatin to as much as 5 leaves for one envelope. Since one envelope of Knox gelatin (the one we most commonly have in our pantries) contains about 2½ teaspoons of gelatin, you will often read to use 1 tablespoon of powdered gelatin for every four sheets of leaf gelatin as it is sort of an average. If you use a different brand of gelatin, you will need to measure to make sure you are using the proper amount.

Gelatin is a great ingredient but it does not work in all situations. It does not hold up well in an acidic environment. For setting gelatin, the ideal pH is between 4 and 10. Because of this, gelatin is not the best choice for a citrus dish as the pH will be less than 4 and it will not set.

Temperature is also another concern. If the temperature of your liquid is too high when you add the hydrated gelatin, it can interfere with the gelling ability. You do need to heat the liquid to about 120°F to ensure the gelatin is fully dissolved but you do not want to go over 140°F. So, let your hot liquid cool a bit before adding the gelatin.

For gelatin to set, it needs to cool to about 59°F and needs to be kept there for 6-10 hours. That is why many of these dishes recommend that you make them the day before or at least the morning of the day you are going to serve it.

Another temperature-related concern is that gelatin starts to melt at about 77°F and it will soften at temperatures below that. Keep this in mind when serving a gelatin-based dish so the texture is not compromised by too high of an ambient temperature.

Other inhibitors to proper gelation include salt, high alcohol content (above 40%) and proteolytic enzymes such as are found in fresh kiwi, papaya, pineapple, mango, peach, guava and fig. These enzymes, though, are inactivated by simmering. This means you can set a fruit-based dessert with gelatin but only if you first bring it to a simmer, not if you are trying to use fresh fruit juice.

If you are not someone who is on friendly terms with math, you may want to ignore the remainder of this Cooking Tip. For those of you who might want to create your own gelled dish without a recipe, there is some math that you need to know. You will also need a food scale as this is all based on weight, not volume.

You need to be aware of something called “Use Percentage”. This tells you how much gelatin you need to add to a certain amount of liquid to get a proper gel. For gelatin, the use percentage is 0.6% to 1.7% of the liquid’s weight. For example, if your liquid weighs 1000 grams, the amount of gelatin required would be between 6 (0.6%) and 17 (1.7%) grams. For ease of use, just take a number in the middle – 1% – and that will give you 10 grams of gelatin is required to gel 1000 grams of liquid.

Have you ever tried leaf gelatin? Let me know what you think of it. If you haven’t tried it and want to, you will most likely need to get it online. I use the product from ModernistPantry.com but there are others out there. Stay tuned for a discussion of vegetarian alternatives.

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Homemade Ice Cream is so Special!

The weather has really warmed up here – with highs nearing 90°F. That is perfect weather for Ice Cream. Sure, there are a myriad of choices at the stores but why not make your own? Advice to help you make great homemade ice cream is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

The basic ingredients for ice cream are simple.

  • Cream
  • Milk
  • Sugar
  • Eggs (usually)
  • Flavorings (vanilla, chocolate, fruit, etc.)
  • Ice cream pro Andrew Hingston says his secret to great ice cream is skim milk powder. He claims the protein in the milk powder helps stabilize the ice cream emulsion without adding extra fat. It absorbs most of the extra water in the mixture. Your ice cream remains creamy in your freezer rather than icy and lasts for a few weeks rather than a few days.

There are many different styles of ice cream but we will just discuss a few. There are so many other styles such as gelato, semifreddo, sorbet, sherbet, etc. Due to space limitations, I will not include those in this Tip.

The Custard Style

This is also called “European” or “French” style ice cream and is the classic cooked ice cream. It is made just like any custard with dairy and eggs. The dairy is heated, it is tempered into the eggs/sugar and the mixture is cooked until it is thickened. If using a thermometer, heat it until it is between 165° and 180°F. Carefully watching the temperature, keep it in this range for about 10-15 minutes.

The Philadelphia-Style

This is also known as “New York” or “American” style ice cream and is made without eggs. It is made with just cream, sugar, and flavorings. Many recipes just have you mix the ingredients and proceed to churning. Others recommend heating the ingredients. Heating helps the sugar more fully dissolve, it helps with infusing flavor (if desired) as well as causing protein denaturing, leading to a better quality ice cream. This style of ice cream is delicate and smooth and allows the flavor of the cream to shine. It does, though, have less richness due to the absence of the eggs.

The Egg-Free Style

This base was made popular by Jeni Britton Bauer’s Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home. Like the name implies, this base skips the eggs (similar to Philadelphia-style), but relies on cornstarch as a thickener, along with a small amount of cream cheese for richness and smooth body.

The No-Churn Style

Unlike the other three bases, this one doesn’t require any cooking, nor does it require an ice cream maker. Sweetened condensed milk acts as the base. Then, cream is whipped and folded in to give you that light, airy texture.

There is a version that uses eggs rather than the canned milk that is recommended by Serious Eats. It does require a bit of cooking in that the eggs must be heated to make them safe to eat. It relies on whipping of this base as well as the cream but no churning.

The technique for making great ice cream is almost more important than the ingredients. At its most basic, ice cream is composed of ice crystals, concentrated sweetened cream and air cells that are trapped in the ice cream when it is churned. The ice crystals form when the water in the mixture freezes. The size of the crystals determines the texture of the ice cream. The smaller the crystals, the creamier the ice cream. Much of what you should be doing when making the ice cream is to minimize the development and size of ice crystals.

There are three necessary steps and two optional but recommended steps.

Preparing the base

  • The base is made up of at a minimum milk, cream and sugar. Sometimes there are also egg yolks, condensed milk, milk powders and/or other sweeteners.
  • A higher fat concentration results in more richness to a point. Too much fat will mean it will taste fatty, coat your mouth and not freeze well.
  • Milk is mostly water and thus can make your ice cream icier and harder. Milk is necessary to get the right balance of fat/dairy but don’t use too much.
  • Sugar improves the flavor and softens the ice cream. Too much and it won’t freeze at all and will taste too sweet.
  • Eggs – although it is possible to make ice cream without eggs, the eggs do play an important role. They make the ice cream denser, smoother and more custardy as well as decreasing the iciness. Eggs also improve the stability of the ice cream so it doesn’t melt as quickly. They also prolong the shelf life.

Prechilling

  • Once the base is finished, it should be refrigerated until it drops to 40°F. This means that the churning/freezing will be faster resulting in less ice crystals.

Aging (optional but recommended)

  • This will improve the body, texture and flavor. It helps trap air bubbles and results in a softer ice cream.
  • Allow it to rest in the refrigerator before churning for 4-12 hours with 6 hours being optimal.

Freezing

  • You want to freeze your chilled (and aged) base quickly while it is being churned to reduce the size of ice crystals. There is only so much you can do to control this with home ice cream freezers. That is why keeping everything as cold as possible is so important. As you churn, ice crystals form very quickly on the edge of the churning mixture. The agitation from the machine helps to distribute this. The fat coats the ice crystals. You want to keep churning and moving the mixture around so the air is worked in before putting the mixture in the freezer. As the air is incorporated, the mixture increases in volume – called overflow. This helps you to know when your ice cream is ready – it should have increased significantly in volume and should be the consistency of soft serve ice cream.

Hardening (optional)

  • After the churning is finished, it may be hard to resist not eating it right then but it is best to scoop it into a resealable container and freeze it for a few hours.

Fruit Swirls

Adding a fruit swirl to your ice cream is not as simple as just folding in fresh fruit. Because fruit is so full of water, if you add it plain to your ice cream, it will freeze solid. To prevent this, use either fruit jams or make a fresh fruit puree.

Making a fresh fruit puree by adding sugar and cooking the mixture is easy. The sugar lowers the freezing point and cooking reduces the water content. After prepping the fruit, put the fruit along with sugar and a splash of an acidic ingredient (such as lemon juice) in a pot and place over heat. A good ratio to start with is 8 ozs fruit, 1 oz lemon juice and 6 ozs sugar. Depending on how thick you want it, cook until about 4-5 ounces of water evaporates (a food scale will help you here) or until it reaches 220°-224°F. You may strain the syrup after cooking if desired.

To get a ripple effect, you want to layer. This also works for adding caramel or fudge. Start with a chilled long, wide container such as a loaf pan. Place a layer of ice cream on the bottom. Dollop your desired filling on top of that layer. Add another layer of ice cream and filling. Gently and quickly swirl the topping in and place in freezer as soon as you can.

Chunky add-ins

If you like ice cream that has chunks of nuts, chocolate, etc. in it, you may do this with your homemade ice cream. Go for between 2 & 4 ozs for one recipe. Chop them into the desired size and then put them in a sieve to shake out the dust that results from chopping. That will just taste gritty in your ice cream. Because ice cream is so temperature-sensitive, chill those add-ins in the freezer while the ice cream churns.

Chocolate

For a chocolate ice cream, use a combination of cocoa powder with very good quality chocolate. Cocoa powder helps to absorb the excess water although it doesn’t pack the flavor punch that good chocolate does. So, using both will give you the best result.

What if you want chocolate chips? You may certainly use purchased chocolate chips. However, they contain a stabilizer to help them maintain their shape. This means you will just end up with a waxy, frozen chip that doesn’t melt well in your mouth. You could chop up good quality chocolate and add it but as chocolate cools, it turns brittle and somewhat chalky.

A nice option is to shave small pieces of chocolate with a vegetable peeler. This will give you lighter flakes that will melt in your mouth.

You could also make what the Italians call straciatella, which means “shreds”. To obtain this, add a tiny bit of a neutral-flavored oil to your chocolate while it is melting – no more than one teaspoon for every two ounces of chocolate. In the last minute or two of churning, drizzle in this warm chocolate. This creates little threads and shards of chocolate that are delightful.

Homemade ice cream is such a wonderful treat during the summer. Do you have a favorite style or a favorite flavor? My husband loves Rocky Road and so, that is next on my To Do list!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Water-Based Ganache

I am taking my own advice and that which I shared with you in a prior Cooking Tip. That advice is to try a new recipe. I have been wanting to experiment with water-based ganache and I decided there is no better time than now. My experience is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

I’m sure you have heard the old adage (and I’m sure I have even repeated it) that you should not get water in chocolate or it will seize. Well, as it turns out, that is only partially true. I began to wonder about this when I first learned that the chocolates from one of my favorite chocolate shops, The Chocolate Therapist in Littleton, Colorado made their signature “meltaways” with a water ganache. So, I decided to do a bit of research.

It is true that if you get water into your chocolate, it will seize and turn grainy. Many “experts” will tell you that if that happens, there is nothing you can do. You must throw it away and start again. As I said, that is only partially true. If you get a small amount of water into your chocolate, it will indeed turn grainy. However, if you add a bit more water and stir, it will turn into a beautiful glossy mixture. Why is that? If you want a scientific discussion of this phenomenon, see this link from Fooducation.

Why use water rather than cream for your ganache? The pure & simple answer – Flavor. Dairy actually mutes the flavor of chocolate. By not using cream, the true flavor of the chocolate shines through. Of course, that means you want to use a high quality chocolate. There are so many artisan chocolate makers around today and their chocolates have complex & varied flavors. With a water ganache, you can actually taste those wonderful flavors.

Another reason is for your lactose-intolerant friends or family members or for those who choose not to eat dairy. As long as you use a good quality dark chocolate without any milk in it, they also can enjoy these treats. A final advantage is that the caloric content is 40-50% less than in a cream-based ganache.

The method for making water-based ganache is similar to that based on cream. Start by chopping your chocolate into very small pieces. You can heat your water (or other liquid), pour it over the chocolate, allow it to melt the chocolate and stir vigorously. Alternatively, you can melt your chocolate, heat your liquid and then mix together.

The ratio of chocolate to water you use depends on the final product you want. Some will tell you to start with a 1:1 ratio and that will work if you want a pourable chocolate. However, if you want something that you can turn into a truffle, you will need a minimum of 2:1 (chocolate to water) or even a bit higher.

You can also add a bit of fun by using not just plain water but flavored waters in all forms. For instance, citrus-infused water, steeped tea, juices or even liqueurs.

My first attempt was with white chocolate and lemon juice. The person who shared that recipe with me said it reminded her of lemon curd and they truly do taste like that.

I next tried dark chocolate with orange. Instead of juice, I used an orange liqueur. However, I felt like I wasn’t getting enough orange flavor. I did not want to add more liqueur as it would thin out the chocolate and make the result taste a bit too alcoholic. So, I used just a bit of orange oil and that did the trick.

My final truffle was chai flavored. I brewed very strong chai tea and used that as my flavoring liquid. The chai flavor was evident but not extremely pronounced. I may try another method that I found. Put your chocolate in a plastic container and add the dry tea to that container. Since I only use loose-leaf tea, I would put it into a disposable spice bag or something similar. Leave it for about a week, stirring it around every so often. The tea flavor is said to infuse into the chocolate. When you are satisfied with the aroma, use hot water to make your ganache and enjoy.

Let me know if you try these. I enjoyed them so much that I am not sure if I will ever go back to the cream-based ganache!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Buttercream – A Rich Delight

Buttercream – Just the word sounds rich, doesn’t it? Are you the type that licks the buttercream frosting off the cake because you think it is the best part? Or, is it too rich for you and you prefer the underlying cake? Whichever you are, how to make buttercream is an excellent skill to have and is the subject of this week’s Cooking Tip.

Buttercream is a type of frosting/icing that can be used as a filling, an icing or for decorating cakes or pastries. There are different types of buttercream that require different ingredients and techniques.

As the name indicates, butter is a major ingredient in buttercream. So, be sure to use a high quality butter. Unsalted butter is recommended to prevent your buttercream from tasting salty. The butter needs to be softened to incorporate properly. You should be able to press an indentation into the butter. According to Cooks Illustrated, softened butter sold be 65-67°F.

I like the way that Serious Eats categorizes buttercream. They put all buttercreams into two types.

  1. Beaten-butter method. This method has you adding some sort of sweet base into beaten butter. You start by beating softened butter until fluffy. Then, you add your base, which will differ according to which type you are making. (More details below) Finally, you mix in any flavorings you want. Examples include American, flour and German buttercream.

  2. Cubed -butter method. This is made by adding cubes of softened butter to a sweetened egg foam. These would be French, Italian and Swiss buttercreams.

The easiest and quickest type of buttercream is sometimes called Simple Buttercream or American Buttercream. It has three main ingredients: softened butter, powdered sugar and milk/cream. Some like to whip the butter before adding the powdered sugar and then add the cream. Others just cream the softened butter and powdered sugar together and then add milk/cream until the desired consistency is reached. The powdered sugar helps to thicken the mixture without the need for eggs. Flavorings such as vanilla may also be added. This is definitely the easiest buttercream but is also the sweetest. It is the firmest buttercream but the butter tends to melt in very warm environments. If you want to serve this outside on a warm day, this buttercream may not be your best choice.

Flour buttercream has a pudding base made of milk, sugar and flour. This is cooked but then cooled before being mixed into the whipped butter. It results in a buttercream this is less sweet and more stable in heat.

German buttercream uses a custard or pastry cream in place of the simple pudding as in the flour buttercream. Because the custard contains eggs, it will be more yellow than others. It tends to be softer than other buttercreams but you can use a thicker custard base to counteract this. It is another choice not well suited to warmer temperatures.

The buttercreams made by the cubed-butter method are also called European or meringue-based buttercream. Meringues are a topic in and of themselves and one on which I wrote an earlier Cooking Tip. There are three types of meringues – French, Swiss and Italian. peaks. For more detail, see this Cooking Tip. Each of these meringues can be used to create a different type of buttercream.

Swiss method – this starts by cooking egg whites and sugar over a hot water bath until the sugar has dissolved. This is whipped to peaks and then soft butter is beaten into the mixture until it is smooth. This method is quick and easy and yields a very light and fluffy buttercream. It is a very stable buttercream that can be used to ice a cake or pipe decorations.

French method – this is made by whipping whole eggs or egg yolks to a thick foam with a hot sugar syrup and then whipping in soft butter. As you are using eggs or yolks, it will yield a richer buttercream. Because of the egg yolks, this buttercream will be more yellow in color. It is a decadent buttercream but does not hold its shape very well, especially in warm environments.

Italian method – Similar to French with the substitution of egg whites for the whole eggs or egg yolks. Because there are no yolks, this buttercream will be whiter in color. It tends to hold up well in warm temperatures.

According to The Professional Pastry Chef, buttercream can be stored at room temperature for three to four days and in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. For longer storage, freezing is recommended. You will need to remove it from the refrigerator with enough time for it to soften before using it. To speed up the softening, you can break it into small pieces (as you would with cold butter) and place in a warm location. You may even warm these pieces in a bain marie, stirring vigorously until it is smooth and shiny. Continue to stir after removing from the heat as the bowl will remain warm and start to melt the buttercream on the sides of the bowl. Do your best to not overheat

Do you have a favorite buttercream? Or, does it depend on how much time you have or its intended usage?
Let me know.

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Sweet Petals

As Valentine’s Day approaches, many people think of flowers and candy. In just a day, I am doing a demonstration for Hudson Gardens (a private garden and event center) that combines the two. The class is called Sweet Petals and in this Cooking Tip, I thought I would share some of what I will be teaching.

Just how can you combine candy and flowers? The first thing you could do is to make candy with floral flavors. Two of the most common are lavender and rose. To impart these flavors to your candy, you could use either the actual dried flowers or an extract/flavoring. For example, let’s look at chocolate truffles. To make a truffle, you first make a ganache, which is the interior of the truffle. This is then coated in more chocolate, cocoa powder, or other items. A ganache is usually made by pouring hot cream over chopped chocolate and then mixing those together when melted. Prior to doing this, you can infuse either dried lavender or rose buds into the warm cream. This imparts the floral flavor to the cream, the flowers are strained out and the result is lovely floral-flavored truffles. You might finish the truffle by sprinkling lavender or rose buds on the finished truffle. This helps the consumer know the flavor of that truffle.

If you do not want to use real flowers, you can also use flavorings. Taylor & Colledge offers a lavender paste. Savory Spice offers a lavender extract. Wild Flower Hibiscus Co offers rose and other floral extracts. Use these sparingly, though, as floral flavors can be overwhelming.

If you do not care for floral flavors in your chocolate, how about chocolate in the shape of a flower? There are numerous ways you can do this. The easiest is to use a mold such as this daisy-shaped lollipop mold.

You can also just form the chocolate into flower forms. One of my favorite projects involves making petals by coating the bottom of plastic spoons with chocolate, allow them to set up, remove from the spoon and form them into the shape of a flower.

If you wish to use true chocolate, you are limited to one color – brown. If you want color, you can use white chocolate and add food coloring. Or, you can use Candy Melts such as made by Wilton or Make ‘n Mold, which come in numerous colors. The other difference between using real chocolate and another product is that real chocolate will need to be tempered whereas candy melts do not. Tempering is a process whereby the chocolate crystals are aligned in such a way that you get a product that is shiny, snaps when you break it, does not melt in your hand, and importantly for this purpose, easily pops out of the mold. There is a trade-off between the ease of candy melts and the wonderful taste of real chocolate.

Hard candy is another category that pairs well with flowers. Once again, you could flavor your hard candy with floral flavors or make it in the shape of a flower.

You can even place edible flowers inside your hard candy. If using edible flowers, you want to be totally sure that the flowers you use are in the edible category. Not all flowers are edible and the entire plant may not be edible. Know where they come from and beware of insecticides and fungicides. Avoid flowers from florists, garden centers, nurseries or from the roadside. Another consideration is pollen, which may be a concern for people who have hay fever, asthma or allergies. Some experts recommend against eating flowers that have been exposed to untreated animal manure in the prior 4 months.

Making hard candy is not difficult but does require some adjustments if you live at a high altitude. See a prior Cooking Tip for a discussion on this topic.

Other fun things you can do is to roll out gumdrops and form them into roses. Place them on top of your cupcakes for a wonderful presentation. You can even use Starbursts to do the same if you gently soften them in the microwave first.

If you want actual recipes or links to these projects, let me know.

Have a very happy Valentine’s Day!