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!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Cookie Success

Do you love to make cookies for the holidays? Many of us do and we especially delight in the satisfied look on faces as they devour those cookies. Because we are embarking upon this cookie making time, I thought I would re-run a Cooking Tip on Cookie Success that I wrote earlier. I have added a few additional tips for you. Here it is!

Do you prefer your cookies chewier or crispier? Did you know that there are modifications you can make to your cookie recipes to get the result you prefer? This tip will outline some of those changes.

For those of you (including me) who prefer chewy cookies, try the following.

  1. Keep things cold. Chilling the dough will slow down spreading of the cookies. Chilling the baking sheet helps even more.
  2. After removing one baking sheet of cookies from the oven, do not immediately put more cookies on the hot sheet. Wait for it to cool thoroughly. You may want to running cold water over the baking sheet. If the baking sheet is still warm, the butter will melt faster resulting in spreading of the cookies and a thinner, crispier result.
  3. Use solid shortening. Since butter melts faster than solid shortening, cookies made with butter will spread more. If you really want the taste of the butter, try half butter and half shortening.
  4. Adjust your sugar. Use a larger proportion of brown sugar to white. Using dark brown sugar attracts more moisture from the air, thus resulting in a chewier cookie. Also, cookies made with honey will become soft as they stand after baking.
  5. Use yolks only or add one extra yolk. Egg whites are drying. If a recipe calls for two eggs, only use one egg plus one egg yolk.
  6. Use baking powder rather than baking soda. This gives a more acidic environment, which spreads less. Use 1 teaspoon per cup of flour.
  7. Watch your baking time carefully. Don’t over-bake and consider taking them out of the oven one or two minutes before the recommended time.

For crispy cookie fanatics, here are your tips.

  1. Use butter rather than shortening.
  2. Use a bit more liquid in the batter as this helps the cookies spread more.
  3. Substitute 1 tablespoon corn syrup for 1 tablespoon of the sugar.
  4. Replace the egg in the recipe with milk.
  5. Using baking soda rather than baking powder. Use ½ teaspoon baking soda per cup of flour.

Here are some more tips for all cookies.

  1. If possible, use light-colored baking sheets. This ensure more even cooking. Dark cookies sheets can also lead to over-baked bottoms.
  2. Baking sheets should be heavy and preferably, not non-stick.
  3. If your recipe calls for room temperature ingredients, make sure your ingredients are really at room temperature. There are scientific reasons for this but let’s just say it will give you superior results.
  4. If you have the time, let your dough rest before baking. It will improve the flavor and color of the cookies. Refrigerate the dough in an airtight container at least overnight and up to 3 days.
  5. If your cookies are browning too quickly, put a second baking sheet under the first while they are cooking.
  6. Cool your cookies on a wire rack, not directly on the counter or on a plate. There needs to be room for air to circulate around the cookies to prevent condensation and soggy bottoms.

There are more tips/techniques out there but, for now, try these tips for your favorite cookie recipe. If you are making chewy ones, save one for me!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

The final step to a great pie — blind baking

In the last few Cooking Tips, we have been discussing how to put that perfect pie on your holiday table. We looked at ingredients and techniques for making a great pie crust. You are now ready to put it in the oven but there is another subject to discuss – blind baking your pie crust. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Blind baking a pie crust is simply pre-baking your crust (either partially or totally) before adding your filling. So, when do you blind bake your crust? The simple answer you might say is – when the recipe tells you to do so. Yes, that is true, but there are general guidelines to let you know whether you should do this.

Pies that have fillings that are not baked require a fully baked pie crust. An example is a yummy French Silk Pie. Since the pie is not going into the oven after adding the filling, the pie crust needs to be fully baked.

Other times you want to blind bake is with custard pies or pies with delicate fillings. With custard pies (such as pumpkin), the moisture in the filling might make the crust soggy before the crust is fully baked. Partially baking the crust before adding the filling helps to prevent this. There are also some delicate fillings that are only briefly cooked on the stovetop. If you do not blind bake the crust but rather put the filling in an unbaked crust, the filling would be over-cooked before the crust is fully baked. An example is Chocolate Cream pie.

One time you do not want to blind bake is if you are making a double-crust pie. If you blind bake the bottom crust, your top crust won’t adhere to the bottom crust. If your filling is such that you would prefer a blind-baked crust to prevent sogginess, you can place decorative pieces of crust over the top to give you a type of open double crust such as in this Gooseberry Pie recipe.

Blind baking is not as simple as putting your unfilled pie crust in the oven. If you do that without adding some weight, your pie crust will puff up – not ideal if you want to put a delicious filing into it. It also makes it much more likely that the sides of your crust will droop before it sets.

Now we know why we need to blind bake a crust, how do we do it? There are three recommended ways depending on what you are looking for in your finished pie.

If you want a pie with a pretty crimped edge or you have a tall crust, line the unbaked crust with foil or parchment making sure it fully covers the crust and the edges of the pie crust. Foil is often preferred over parchment as you can get it into the corners better as well as folding over the crust to prevent overbrowning. Fill the crust at least 2/3 full with something to weight the crust down as it bakes. I love ceramic pie weights. They conduct heat well and fill up the entire crust. Just make sure you have enough to fully cover the crust. I tend to use two boxes of these for one pie crust.

You have probably heard that you can use dry beans or rice. Those are poor heat conductors resulting in a longer baking time to get to the proper stage.  Another option is granulated sugar, an excellent heat conductor.

Stacey Ballis with MyRecipes.com did an experiment testing different types of weights. Her favorite method was granulated sugar, which conducts heat as well as the ceramic weights but gets into the corners of the pie crust better. She uses the sugar a couple of times and then uses it in her baking. Since it has slightly caramelized by being in the oven, she recommends using it for meringues. SeriousEats.com agrees with this choice. If you don’t want to use sugar, the ceramic weights are a close second.

As I discussed in last week’s Tip, you should have chilled your pie crust. If you haven’t done that by this step, you may chill it with the weights in place. After chilling, place it in a 375° oven for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and carefully remove the very hot pie weights. Prick the bottom with a fork and return crust to the oven. If you will be baking the pie filling, bake the crust for another 5-8 minutes. If you are not baking the filling, bake the crust for another 12-20 minutes until fully baked. This method should work for most pie crusts but some recipes may have slightly different baking temperatures and times.

A second method is called the “Low & Slow” method. With this method, the pie crust is baked at 350° with pie weights in place for an hour. Baking at a more moderate heat is said to reduce shrinkage & puffing.

A third method is to sandwich the crust between two pans and bake upside down. This method is good for pies with a flat edge that do not need the extra height or when you are not looking for a decorative edge. To use this method, place the crust in the pan and flatten its edge. Spray the outside of another pie pan and nestle into the crust. You may also line the crust with parchment before putting pans together. At this point, chill for 30 minutes to solidify fats and prevent shrinkage.

Now, place the pans upside down on a baking sheet so that the empty pan is on the bottom. Bake for 20 minutes in 375° oven. As the proponents of this method say, “Gravity ensures that as your crust slips “down” the side of the pan, it’s actually moving up!” When baked, remove from the oven and use a spatula to carefully turn over and prick with fork. Return the crust to the oven right side up without second pan and bake for 15-20 minutes until golden brown. You may now fill the crust. When would you want to do this method? It is ideal for pies where the edge of the pie is not as important as its top, such as Lemon Meringue.

What about your pie plate? SeriousEats.com looked at the types of pie plates and recommends either tempered glass or aluminum. They found that ceramic pie plates conduct heat too slowly resulting in more melting of the butter giving you a more mealy and less flaky crust.

Now you have all the information you need to make that beautiful and delicious pie. Get into your kitchen, give the many recommendations a try and let me know what works best for you. And, send me a photo of that wonderful pie!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

A Great Foundation for your Pie

In last week’s Cooking Tip about apples, I mentioned the foundation for any good pie is a great pie crust. Do you make your own or do you use Pillsbury? Making a pie crust is so incredibly easy. In fact, I made four different pie crusts today in only about an hour. They are now chilling in the refrigerator waiting to be topped and turned into beautiful pies. Although pre-bought crusts may be fine in a pinch, I encourage you to start making your own. They freeze beautifully and you will always be ready for pie. There are really two parts to making a great pie crust – your ingredients and your technique. In this week’s Cooking Tip, we will discuss the ingredients. The technique will come next week.

The ingredients that go into most pie crusts are minimal – flour, fat and water. Some will also have a bit of sugar, eggs, dairy (such as sour cream or cream cheese) or even nut flours. Let’s address these one by one.

Flour – most of us are going to use all-purpose flour for our pie crusts. I recommend mastering the technique with this flour before branching out as other flours will act differently.

Fat – the main fats used in pie crusts are butter and/or shortening. Lard used to be a stand-by but, today it is hard to get good quality lard. This is a subject for another Cooking Tip. For now, let’s stick with butter and shortening.

The main advantage of butter is flavor. It will give you a flaky crust since as the water in butter converts to steam, it puffs up the crust. The downside is that because butter has a low melting point, it is hard to maintain a nice crimp to your pie crust.

Shortening has a higher melting point allowing it to stay in solid form longer. Therefore, the crimp has a chance to set before it melts. There are those that think that this higher melting point also leads to a flakier crust than butter. It does lack, though, the wonderful flavor of butter.

This contrast is what leads to the recommendation of using both butter and shortening. They claim that using a ratio of 3:2 butter to shortening gives you the best of both worlds.

Personally, I think there is nothing better than an all-butter crust. Yes, the crimp does slump but you can try to somewhat prevent this by proper chilling of the dough, discussed in next week’s Tip. What about you? What is your favorite?

Water – all pie doughs need some sort of liquid to pull everything together. It is usually, although not always, in the form of water. Occasionally the liquid will be provided by another ingredient such as eggs, sour cream or other dairy. One point that is very important is that in order to keep our fat in the dough solid as long as possible, the water should be very cold.

There is a debate about how much water to add to the dry ingredients. Because water leads to the development of gluten, some say to add your water gradually just until you have a cohesive dough. They caution that too much water will result in a tougher crust due to the increased gluten. Others say that gluten is not necessarily a bad thing as it helps your dough to be stronger and less prone to tearing as you roll it out. I will discuss this more in next week’s Tip on the proper techniques of making pie dough.

This balance of too much/not enough water is what leads some experts to recommend adding vodka or any 80-proof spirit for part of the water. There is no discernable alcohol taste but they claim it is easier to roll out. The reasoning is that although gluten forms with the water, it does not with alcohol. They recommend mixing ¼ cup of water with the same amount of vodka and using this mixture in your pie dough. A tender but very easy to roll out dough is the result. I must say that I have not noticed this is much of an advantage when I have tried it.  Have you tried it?

What about the old recommendation of adding vinegar or lemon juice to your pie dough? The sources that recommend this say it reduces gluten development. However, when put to scientific tests, it has been found that slightly acidic doughs actually have more gluten. To get the desired tenderizing effect, you would have to use about ¼ cup, which would give your dough a very sour taste.  So, this is one “old wives’ tale” that we can put to rest.

For basic pie dough, called Pâte Brisée (translated broken paste or dough), the only ingredients are flour, fat and water. An easy to remember ratio is 3:2:1 – 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat and 1 part water where 1 part is 4 ounces. Another recommendation is 2 parts flour to 2 parts fat with 1 part water. As I mentioned above, I use all butter as my fat but you could also do a mixture of butter and shortening. This type of pie crust can be used for any application.

There may be times when you want a sweeter dough, called Pâte Sucré (sugar paste/dough). Although recipes vary, the one I like to use contains flour, fat, sugar and eggs. The latter is what provides the liquid. Any sweet pie or tart filling works great with this dough. A delicious example is a Lemon Tart.

A third version is Pâte Sablé (sand paste). In this type of dough, you use a nut flour in addition to your AP flour. Other ingredients are sugar, butter and eggs. This is the only pie dough of these three where the ingredients are better at room temperature as they will be creamed together in a mixer. This dough can be made into cookies or used in other sweet pastry applications.

Now that you have the necessary ingredients, stay tuned for next week’s Tip on technique. Although ingredients are important, it is really the technique that will make or break your pie crust. It sure is getting delicious around here, isn’t it?  See you next week!