Friday, October 31, 2008

Composite Recipe: Banana Bread

Back when I baked for a living, I formed a theory that the only difference between different quickbreads is the type of pulp used (well, and spices). At the time my brain seemed to think that there was a world of different types of quickbreads, and it held onto that believe until I decided to actually try and prove or disprove it.

The idea was, I would create composite recipes for five different types of quickbreads, and then create a composite recipe based on the composite recipes. The first was easy: pumpkin bread. Banana bread (below) was next. Then I thought I'd try zucchini bread. Then I thought I'd try... um... what was another kind of quick bread? Wasn't there... um. Well, there was... er... gee, what other quickbreads are there?

It was time to hit Google. After a few searches, I had found recipes for pear bread (but oddly, no apple bread) and for Boston brown bread. The pear bread recipes seemed pretty close to the pumpkin, banana and zucchini bread recipes. The brown bread recipes seemed fond of cornmeal, which takes them out of my quickbread theory. Everything else still seems (at a glance) to fit, though I obviously haven't finished my comparisons yet.

The banana bread recipe that I came up with did seem really close to the pumpkin bread recipe. Take a look:

IngredientsRecipe 1Recipe 2Recipe 3Recipe 4Recipe 5Recipe 6Me
oven temp350F350F350F350F325F325F350F
bake time1 hr60 – 65 min45 – 60 min55 – 60 min50 – 60 min1 hr 10 min50 – 60 min
ap flour3 cups4 cups2 1/4 cups3 1/2 cups1 1/4 cups4 cups3 1/2 cups
ww pastry flour    1 cup  
baking soda2 tsp2 tsp2 tsp1/2 tsp1 tsp2 tsp2 tsp
baking powder   2 tsp4 tsp2 tsp2 tsp
salt1/4 tsp1/2 tsp1 tsp1/2 tsp1 tsp2 tsp1 tsp
cinnamon  2 tsp2 tsp1 tsp2 tsp2 tsp
cloves  1 tsp   1 tsp
nutmeg  1 tsp   1 tsp
bananas6 – 8 ea2 1/3 cups6 ea6 ea (3 cups)5 ea6 ea6 ea
butter2/3 cup1 cup 1 cup1 cup1 cup1 cup
shortening  1 cup    
sugar1 1/2 – 2 cups 2 cups1 1/2 cups1 cup2 cups1 1/2 cups
brown sugar 1 1/2 cup     
eggs2 ea4 ea4 ea4 ea4 ea4 ea4 ea
vanilla2 tsp  2 tsp2 tsp 2 tsp
milk     2 Tbsp 
nuts  1 cup2 cups   
banana garnish   1 lg banana   
methodmuffin (kind of)creaming (kind of)creamingmuffinmuffincreamingmuffin

Again, any recipes that were not already for 2 loaves were converted. I looked at mixing methods again this time, and was surprised to find that some recipes used a creaming method instead of a muffin method. Interesting that that didn't happen with the pumpkin bread. But not surprisingly, some of the mixing methods varied enough that I had a hard categorizing them. Welcome to the Internet.

The thing that kind of threw me was the flour. I ended up with 3 1/2 cups instead of 3 cups. I thought about just using 3 cups, which would put it more in line with my pumpkin bread, but I thought I'd keep myself honest and leave it at what seemed like a reasonable comparison with just the other banana breads.

Rather than mushing up the bananas, I got lazy and tossed them in the food processor. That just about liquified them, but it did give me an even consistency that the pumpkin puree had, and that mashed up bananas wouldn't have. The bananas seemed more liquid than the pumpkin, so I thought that maybe the extra 1/2 cup of flour really was accurate. But in the end, that didn't seem to be the case. Still-warm-from-the-oven slices of banana bread were okay, but once it cooled it just seemed a little dry to me. I don't know that dropping all the way to 3 cups is right, but maybe 3 1/4 cups would be more appropriate.

Speaking of liquid, this recipe had something the pumpkin bread didn't: vanilla extract. In retrospect, I think that while it would be a compatible flavor with both, it works far better with banana. And did you notice how the first recipe calls for more bananas, but fewer eggs? Maybe not a bad way to introduce extra flavor, without throwing off the moisture ratio.

The other major difference between these two recipes is leavening. Baking soda vs baking powder. As per the recipes, I went with just soda on the pumpkin bread, but both in the banana bread. Part of me wants to look up acidity values for pumpkin vs banana and do some maths, but the part of me that's too lazy to do so has so far been much more convincing.

Spices varied a little, but not much. By and large it seemed that most people were only interested in cinnamon, but a couple added cloves and nutmeg. I kind of liked the idea of adding those two extras, so I went with them. After tasting the batter, I thought that I might want to halve the amount of clove, but I didn't really pick up the nutmeg. But I think something might have been lost without it. It just had that extra non-cinnamon spiciness that my my tasters this time around (I brought a loaf to class to share with my students) seemed to enjoy. They especially loved the clove however, which was somewhat subdued after the baking.

It was interesting to note the garnishes that people came up with. One person went with a lot of nuts, as well as dried banana chips. For my part, I went with semisweet chocolate chips. My tasters really dug those. A couple of people said they provided a really nice balance.

A final thought on this recipe. While the bananas were added in mostly as mush, not all of them got cut up completely. There were a couple of chunks, and when I hit them, they added extra flavor and moistness to the bite. This tells me that either I should go with mashed, rather than pureed bananas, or I should drop the flour and/or add more banana to it. I'm voting for dropping the flour, but I might try mashed next time around.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Implementation Recipes

What do I mean by implementation recipes? Well, you may recall my initial post on composite recipes. That's a recipe that I build based upon other existing recipes. It has the benefit of stealing other peoples' work, while still forming that work into something that I can call my own. That sounds a lot like rationalized theft, doesn't it? Let me ask you: You know that prized tomato sauce recipe that you're so proud of? Are you really going to claim that you invented tomato sauce? Or are you going to admit that you're just standing on a lot of other peoples' shoulders, just like I am?

Okay, with that out of the way, let's talk about implementation recipes. Part of the idea is to take a recipe and turn it into a concept. What is lasagna? Alternating layers of noodles, tomato sauce and cheese. Lasagna may contain other components, but those components (or sometimes variations on them) remain at the base foundation.

The problem is, just knowing what defines a lasagna does not actually help you make a lasagna. That's where my implementation recipes come in. Once you know what defines a recipe at its most basic level, you can build a recipe that achieves the purpose, but little else. It is just a basic set of ingredients and instructions effectively becomes a proof of concept, without having much personality of its own. You could make that recipe and be content with it, but don't expect to be winning any contests anytime soon.

That is what I mean by implementation recipe. This is the most barebones recipe that you can put together, just waiting to be tweaked and hacked and modified by other cooks. Part of my goal with my composite recipes is to learn about the recipe itself, and another part is to take my observations and build them into implementation recipes. Then when an implementation recipe has been created, it can be made available along with suggestions for the cook's own personal improvements. And that is where the cook him or herself can really shine and make that recipe their own.

I'm planning to put together a few of these recipes myself. This is why you've been seeing so many composite recipes from me lately. I've started with bakery recipes because they're extremely formulaic, and very easy to derive my own recipes from. Right now I'm working on a composite recipe for turducken, and it's proven to be a great deal more difficult. But once I have a few of these recipes under my belt (literally and figuratively), I'm hoping to make them available elsewhere on my site in a non-blog-type format. Maybe even as samples for the vaporware Open Recipe Format.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

It's Over

No, I'm not talking about the tragedy of Mother's Cookies going out of business, though that did make me unbelievably sad.

I'm actually talking about the French Laundry at Home blog. I heard about this blog sometime last year, and have been reading it regularly since early this year. It would seem that I missed most of the fun and excitement, though I was happy to read along as Carol finally prepared her last recipe: Cornets. I was surprised that she saved this one for last, since I think that that's the first recipe that I (and a lot of other people who have either purchased The French Laundry Cookbook or have been so lucky to have dined at The French Laundry) think of when I think of either the book or the restaurant. But I like her reasoning. When I read the recipe I thought, "I bet I could do that without too many problems." When she read it she apparently thought, "I'm not going to do this one without making sure I can do it justice." And it seems that she has.

Carol seems to have posted her last post at that blog, but there is good news. She's decided to attack another cookbook: Alinea.

Grant Achatz, the owner/chef of Alinea, served as sous chef to Thomas Keller, owner/chef of The French Laundry, for a few years. I think that as a lot of people (including myself) watched Achatz move up in the cooking world, they started to wish that he would put out a book. When I found out about the book, oh, 6 months or so ago, I don't think 5 minutes had passed before the pre-order site had my credit card number on file.

About a week or two ago, I started reading posts from bloggers who had already gotten their copy. I grew increasingly jealous and worried with each passing day that my copy did not arrive. On Monday, it came. But as a testament to how busy this week has been, I only got to look through maybe a quarter of it before flying out to Pittsburgh for a couple of days. I don't know how many recipes I'll be able to get through; I'm unfortunately fresh out of ingredients like methyl cellulose. But I'll do what I can.

Those of you that are interested in new frontiers of cooking, now's a good time to check out the Alinea at Home blog. It looks like it'll be starting up next week. I know I'm looking forward to it.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Pumpkin + Chicken

This is what happens when I start pretending that I have any sort of avante garde plating skills or recipe ideas. Actually, this one wasn't so bad, but I'm still almost embarrassed to share it. But I'm sharing it anyway.

I asked three people this evening a simple question: "pumpkin + chicken. Thoughts?" Two of them informed me that it didn't sound like such a hot idea to them. One of them responded with, "umm... fajitas?" Clearly, he wasn't opposed to the idea.

Why were the other two so resistant to the idea? Okay, let me give you a partial phrase and have you fill in the blanks. Pumpkin... pie, right? Or pumpkin bread. And that's pretty much it. It's a shame, really. Have we forgotten that pumpkin is a squash? Squash is almost always cooked as a savory dish, not sweet. So keeping that in mind, let me ask you: pumpkin + chicken. Thoughts?

For the past few weeks, I've had part of a dish in my mind. It involves a smear of some kind of pumpkin sauce on the plate, with chile-rubbed chicken on top of it. Unfortunately, that's not much of a dish. It needs something else. So I thought I'd give it a try this evening.

For my pumpkin sauce, I went with pretty much equal parts pumpkin puree and coconut milk. I spiked it with some chipotle powder, and then added some "pumpkin pie spices" that I've used before in savory dishes: ginger and allspice. I think I might have added a touch of cinnamon too, but I've also had that in savory dishes (mostly Greek). The resulting sauce was kind of like a spicy, liquid pumpkin pie. Not quite what I was after. It was also a little thick. More coconut milk next time. In fact, thinking about this in retrospect, I kept thinking about Thai flavors that might go well. Maybe a touch of soy sauce, a splash of fish sauce, and probably a dab of curry paste. That might work well.

The chicken was prepared my favorite way: rubbed with olive oil and chile powder and sauteed. Actually, lately I've been using this cajun blend that a buddy of mine picked up for me from the House of Blues in Chicago. Very garlicky, very good. I sauteed it, added a couple of splashes of Worcestershire sauce, and when it looked like the outside was getting too hot while the inside wasn't done yet, I added some chicken stock to the pan to cool things down a little and intensify the flavors. When the liquid was evaporated, I removed the chicken and let it rest.

I wiped the pan clean with a paper towel and added diced pumpkin, both red and green bell peppers and some corn to some more oil, and kicked up the heat. I seasoned with salt, pepper, more chile powder and after it picked up some color, some Worcestershire sauce. It was just a basic veg medley, and that really was the problem. It was boring. The pumpkin tasted just like another squash.

I plated up anyway, and it was a decent dish. I really need to work on my plate design, but it wasn't too bad. The chicken was seasoned and cooked perfectly. Believe it or not, it actually worked really well with the pumpkin sauce, but I still felt it tasted a little sweet, despite the lack of sugar. The veggies, as I said, were boring. They were greatly improved by getting some pumpkin sauce on them as well, and that's bad. They should have been able to stand on their own.

Thoughts in retrospect: the pumpkin sauce really needed to be more savory. Something in the neighborhood of panang curry might work really well. And to compliment that, I think cooking the chicken kai yang style would be really appropriate. But then we're back to the veggies.

My first thought went like this: pour all the veggies in a Pyrex dish. Add olive oil, balsamic vinegar, bacon, and give it some time in the oven getting all caramelized and good. Then pull it out and serve it with a sprinkle of feta. Now that would be good. And it also would have little to no relation to the Thai flavors in the rest of the dish.

I haven't decided yet what to do with the veg. And I'm ever conscious of the fact that this dish included no starch. Also, I need to find different plates. I love the black triangles, but they're just not big enough for an entree. Better suited for dessert. Kind of ironic, since that's what America seems to think of pumpkin as well.

Composite Recipe: Pumpkin Bread

I played around with another composite recipe over the weekend: pumpkin bread. You might have guessed if you read my blog around this time two years ago that I love pumpkin. I even have some IQF diced pumpkin in my freezer right now. But since I was spending so much time comparing recipes (you believe me, right?), I got lazy and used canned pumpkin puree. That means that it's okay for you to too.

First, the ingredients:

IngredientsRecipe 1Recipe 2Recipe 3Recipe 4Recipe 5Me
oven temp350 F350 F350 F350 F350 F350 F
bake time50 – 60 min1 hr 10 min1 hr50 – 60 min1 – 1 1/4 hrs1 hr
ap flour3 cups3 cups3 1/2 cups3 cups3 1/3 cup3 cups
salt1 tsp1/2 tsp1 1/2 tsp1 tsp1 1/2 tsp1 tsp
baking soda2 tsp1 tsp2 tsp2 tsp2 tsp2 tsp
baking powder 1/2 tsp  2 tsp 
sugar2 cups3 cups3 cups2 cups3 cups2 cups
pumpkin puree2 cups16 oz16 oz2 cups2 cups2 cups
olive oil1 cup     
vegetable oil 1 cup1 cup1 cup1 cup1 cup
eggs4 ea3 ea4 ea4 ea4 ea4 ea
water1/2 cup 2/3 cup1/2 cup  
nutmeg1 tsp1 tsp2 tsp1/2 tsp1 tsp1 tsp
cinnamon1 tsp1 tsp2 tsp2 tsp1 tsp1 tsp
allspice1 tsp  1/2 tsp1/8 tsp1/4 tsp
cloves 1 tsp 1/2 tsp 1/4 tsp
mace    1/8 tsp 
ginger    1/4 tsp1/4 tsp
nuts1 cup1 cup1 cup1 cup1 cup1 cup + 1/2 cup
mixing methodmuffinmuffinmuffinmuffinmuffinmuffin

Note: Not all of the recipes yielded the same amount. Some were for one loaf, some for two. For ease of comparison, I have scale all recipes to yield two loaves. If you just want one, cut it in half.

This was an interesting recipe. The oven temps were the same across the board, and I can't say the bake times were all that different either. Flour, also largely the same. Salt, the same. Baking soda only deviated when baking powder was introduced into the picture.

And that's where I started wondering: which would be better? Baking soda or baking powder? Perhaps both? The baking soda, being a base, needs some sort of acid in order to actually produce any gas to provide lift. Baking powder has both a base and an acid, so it only needs moisture to activate. And bonus, I've found it near-impossible lately to find baking powder in the store that isn't double-acting. Double-acting baking powder adds a second lift when it meets the heat, which would add just a little extra lift in the oven.

Does pumpkin bread need all that much lift? It gets plenty from steam. How much acid is in pumpkin, anyway? I don't know. I kind of wonder if it actually does me any good to provide any sort of leaveners in the first place. Maybe I'll check it out... eventually.

I found it interesting that sugar was always at either 2 or 3 cups. Clearly, it didn't matter a whole lot, so I went with 2. The third cup adds sweetness that isn't needed, and when scaled for a commercial kitchen would just add extra cost for little to no benefit. America may be used to overly-sweet confections, but I prefer balance. Maybe with future batches, I'll be able to get it down to a cup and a half or less.

I found it interesting that the first recipe called for olive oil instead of veggie oil. This is also a recipe that calls for you to make your own pumpkin puree. I'm sure it was designed to be some sort of high-quality, better-than-sex pumpkin bread, but hey! I'm gonna feed this stuff to my kid! With any luck, it'll be a good couple of decades before she starts making that kind of comparison. Besides, olive oil is going to detract from the star of this dish: pumpkin. So I stick with veggie oil. (Irony: the recipe comes from some chick named Elise, which also happens to be my daughter's name.)

Eggs. Same across the board. Are we noticing a pattern here? But interestingly, the eggs apparently didn't add enough moisture for some people, so some recipes added water. I don't believe that water is going to bring anything to the table, either in terms of flavor or physics, so it stays out. It would probably just add to the cooking time anyway.

The place where each recipe really differed was in the spice arena. People have some very different feelings as to what constitutes a pumpkin spice blend. Everyone used nutmeg cinnamon, but that's where the similarities end. Allspice, cloves, mace and ginger all make appearances. The only one that I left out of my recipe was mace. I just don't have enough experience with it... yet. That will need to change.

You'll notice that while everyone else called for 1 cup of nuts, I call for that plus another half a cup. This is because when I actually baked for a living, we had a rule: no quickbread left the oven without some kind of garnish. This usually meant muffins, but pumpkin bread, banana bread, that kind of crowd also got something sprinkled on top. Usually nuts. In addition to adding a little something extra, it also gives the diner a clue as to what is actually in the confection. But I have a confession: while I did sprinkle pecans on top, I didn't stir any in. I chopped up a couple of discs of Mexican chocolate and stirred that in instead.

For those of you not familiar with it, Mexican chocolate is not the same as the chocolate that you're probably used to. It is not silky-smooth; it is gritty. It has maybe just a little too much granulated sugar in it, and is spiked with a bit of cinnamon. Most people I know only use it to make hot chocolate. I thought it might be complimentary to the pumpkin bread.

Okay, so I looked at the mixing instructions briefly on these recipes. Everything was more or less a muffin method, which is normal for quick breads. The procedure is easy: mix together all of the dry ingredients (not including sugar) in one bowl, mix together all of the wet ingredients (which includes sugar) in another bowl, then mix together the two bowls.

I think that other than the questionable spices, my recipe is a pretty basic implementation recipe. It will give you a basic pumpkin bread recipe that is easily adaptable to your needs. Other than the Mexican chocolate (which proved to be too sweet with the larger chunks), the sweetness balance was pretty much perfect. I'm going to have to spend some more time with pumpkin spices, but I thought the mix that I went with was pretty decent. Feel free to adapt it to your own liking.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Conversion Factors

Let's face it: not all restaurant recipes were conceived at the volume that is needed in a professional kitchen. In fact, most recipes were initially developed for a much smaller group of people, and then adapted for large-scale use. Converting these recipes isn't difficult, and it gets easier with a little knowledge of conversion factors.

To find the conversion factor (CF) of a recipe, you need two factors: the amount that the recipe currently yields, and the amount that you need it to yield. For instance, let's say you have a recipe that yields 6 servings, and you need to feed 50 people. 50 divided by 6 is 8.333, so you have a CF of 8. If you needed to go the other way, you would have 6 divided by 50, which is 0.12.

But that's only part of the process. Let's look at the ingredient list on my oatmeal cookie recipe:

1 cup butter
1/2 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
3 cups oats
1 cup raisins

This recipe yields 38 cookies. Let's say I want to convert it to a nice round number, like 250. This gives us a conversion factor of 6.578947368. You can round it if you want. In fact, a lot of bakers would look at this number on the calculator and just call it 6.5, which is probably okay, as long as you use the same CF for each ingredient. In a computer program, you might want to hang onto the unrounded number. For now, I'm going to stick with 6.5.

Your next task is to convert each individual ingredient. This is easy. Multiply the old amount by the conversion factor to get the new amount.

The problem with this is that converting some amounts is non-trivial. 1 1/2 tsp times 6.5 = 9 3/4 tsp. What the heck do you do with that? It gets even more fun when you do it with a lot of commercial software. First, the software requires you to enter decimal values, not fractions like we're used to seeing in recipes. 1.5 X 6.578947368 = 9.868421053. Yeah, good luck with that. Does it help to know that 9 3/4 tsp = 3 Tbsp + 3/4 tsp? It would have been nice if the computer gave us something like that.

Here's the best thing to do: convert each amount to ounces first, apply the CF, and then convert back to the most reasonable value. This is nice, since we have an ounce measurement in both weight- and volume-based recipes. Of course, if you just used metric, this would already be tons easier, but that's just not as common in America as we might like it to be. Let's go ahead and do the whole ingredient list:

Ingredientsold amount
old amount
 CF new amount
new amount
butter1 cup8 fl ozX6.5=52 fl oz6 1/2 cups
white sugar1/2 cup4 fl ozX6.5=26 fl oz3 1/4 cups
brown sugar1 cup8 fl ozX6.5=52 fl oz6 1/2 cups
eggs2 ea2 eaX6.5=13 ea13 ea
vanilla1 1/2 tsp0.25 fl ozX6.5=1.625 fl oz3 Tbsp + 3/4 tsp
ap flour1 cup8 fl ozX6.5=52 fl oz6 1/2 cups
baking soda1 tsp0.1667 fl ozX6.5=1.08333 fl oz2 Tbsp + 1/2 tsp
salt1 tsp0.1667 fl ozX6.5=1.08333 fl oz2 Tbsp + 1/2 tsp
cinnamon1 1/2 tsp0.25 fl ozX6.5=1.625 fl oz3 Tbsp + 3/4 tsp
oats3 cups24 fl ozX6.5=156 fl oz1 gallon + 3 1/2 cups
raisins1 cup8 fl ozX6.5=52 fl oz6 1/2 cups

Well, if you ever need to scale that recipe to make 250ish cookies, I've just done the work for you. But some of you are out there looking at the decimal points, wondering how the heck I got "1/2 tsp" out of 0.08333 fl oz. Some of you are also wondering why I said "fl oz" instead of just "oz".

First, let's talk about ounces. We have two types, ounces by weight (a.k.a. dry ounces or oz/wt) and ounces by volume (a.k.a. fluid ounces or fl oz). As far as water is concerned, there are 16 oz by weight in a pound and 16 fl oz in a pint. You've heard the saying, "a pint's a pound the whole world round", right? Well, it's not entirely true. First of all, the saying is only in reference to water. A pint of flour will not weigh a pound. Interestingly, a pint of butter will weight a pound. Secondly, it's also slightly inaccurate. A pint of water actually weighs approximately 16.7 oz. Even worse, the weight of the pint of water will vary even more, depending on its temperature. At commercial volumes the difference is certainly enough to matter, but for home use it's not usually a big deal.

Let's talk about the 0.08333 fl oz thing. I could just tell you that it's 1/2 tsp and hope you believe me, but I'd like you to know why it's 1/2 tsp. First, let's look at our standard volume conversion chart.

1 gallon = 4 quarts
1 quart = 2 pints
1 pint = 2 cups
1 cup = 8 fl oz
1 fl oz = 2 Tbsp
1 Tbsp = 3 tsp
1 pinch = approx 1/8 tsp (usually non-liquid)
1 dash = approx 1/8 tsp (usually liquid)

That tells us that there are about 16 pinches in a Tablespoon and 32 pinches in a fluid ounce. If we were to convert our standard measurement chart to decimal, and use only ounce conversions, here's what we'd get:

1 gallon = 128 fl oz
1 quart = 32 fl oz
1 pint = 16 fl oz
1 cup = 8 fl oz
1 Tbsp = 0.5 fl oz
1/2 Tbsp = 0.25 fl oz
1 tsp = 0.16667 fl oz
1/2 tsp = 0.08333 fl oz
1/4 tsp = 0.0416667 fl oz
1 pinch/dash = 0.0208333 fl oz

This actually gives us a pretty good baseline for writing recipe software. The user tells the program how much a recipe currently yields and how much they want it to yield. The program converts the entire recipe to ounces, performs the CF calculations, and then converts it back to the closest measurement.

Even if you're not planning on writing recipe software, the above chart is still handy. I know I would be lost in the kitchen without a calculator, but the calculator is still going to give me decimals. Why not print out the chart above and keep a copy with your kitchen calculator? That will save you a little bit of time when scaling your recipes.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Baking Percentages

In the professional bakeshop, recipes are often referred to as formulas. This makes sense if you've ever heard that baking requires exact adherence to the recipe, as any deviation may cause catastrophe. As it turns out, there is another reasons. Many professional bakeries will use a system of baking percentages, which is actually pretty straight-forward and extremely useful.

First of all, you need to remember that bakeries like to do everything by weight. This creates for a much more accurate product, since there are so many deviations with volume. A cup of flour will weigh differently, depending on whether the flour was sifted into the cup, scooped into the cup, packed into the cup, etc. But a pound of flour is always a pound of flour.

Speaking of flour, since it is the most common ingredient in a bakery, it is also the baseline of a baking formula. Each ingredient is given a percentage value. These percentages don't all add up to 100%. In fact, one ingredient will always be equal to 100%. If flour is present, then it is 100%. If there are multiple types of flour, the total weight of all flour is 100%. The percentage of the other ingredients is based on their weight compared to the flour:

The following list of ingredients:

8 oz/wt butter
16 oz/wt flour
20 oz/wt water

...would result in the following formula:

50% butter
100% flour
125% water

...because there is half as much butter as flour, and 25% more water than flour. If you had five pounds of flour, the formula would look like this:

2 lbs 8 oz butter
5 lbs flour
6 lbs 4 oz water

This makes it easy to scale recipes to any yield. Of course, as soon as you start adding anything to the formular that isn't weight-based (like number of eggs, or teaspoons of vanilla extract), the complexity goes up. Fortunately, any ingredient can be weighed, so it's easy to convert a recipe to a baking formula.

One more note: if any ingredient other than flour is used as the baseline (such as when flour isn't present in the recipe), it should be noted at the top of the recipe which ingredient is now 100%.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Composite Recipe: Oatmeal Cookies

Somebody asked me once at a cooking demo how I come up with my recipes. A lot of them are what I call composite recipes. I collect a few recipes that are close to what I want, and then contrast and compare. What I'm looking for is an implementation recipe: a basic, no-frills version of the dish that can be tweaked to my liking.

This is one such recipe. I don't know why I decided upon oatmeal cookies. They're not my favorite type of cookies, not by a longshot. But I do like them. And I like oatmeal. And I like dried cranberries, which I planned to use instead of raisins. So it worked out that I made oatmeal craisin cookies. First, the recipes:
Ingredients Recipe 1 Recipe 2 Recipe 3 Recipe 4 Recipe 5 Me
oven temp 375 F 350 F 350 F 350 F 350 F 350 F
bake time 8 - 10
11 - 13
10 - 12
12 - 15
butter 1 cup   ½ cup ¾ cup   1 cup
butter flavored
    ½ cup      
shortening   ¾ cup     1 cup  
white sugar 1 cup ½ cup ½ cup   1 cup ½ cup
brown sugar 1 cup 1 cup 1 cup 1 cup 1 cup 1 cup
eggs 2 ea 1 ea 2 ea 1 ea 2 ea 2 ea
water   ¼ cup        
vanilla 1 tsp 1 tsp 1 tsp 1 tsp 1 Tbsp 1 ½ tsp
ap flour 2 cups 1 cup 1 ½ cups ¾ cup 1 ½ cups 1 cup
baking soda 1 tsp ½ tsp 1 tsp ½ tsp 1 tsp 1 tsp
salt 1 tsp 1 tsp ½ tsp ½ tsp 1 tsp 1 tsp
cinnamon 1 ½ tsp   1 tsp ½ tsp 1 Tbsp 1 ½ tsp
oats 3 cups 3 cups 3 cups 3 cups 3 cups 3 cups
ground cloves     ½ tsp      
raisins     1 cup 1 cup 1 cup 1 cup
chopped nuts       1 cup ¾ cups  

What was interesting was the second recipe, which turned out to be from Quaker Oatmeal. Talk about a pure, unadulterated implementation recipe. Unfortunately, it also looks to taste somewhat horrid. Rather than real butter, they went with shortening and water. Because that didn't rob the recipe of enough flavor, they only used a single chicken egg and completely left out the cinnamon. Still, very tweakable. Part of me is pretty impressed. It's almost like it came out of a laboratory, with almost as much flavor.

There were interesting similarities between the recipes. All of them contained 3 cups of oats. I thought that was a good baseline, so I went with it. Each also contained 1 cup of light brown sugar. That was where the similarities started to diminish.

The recipes which included raisins all called for 1 cup. All but one recipe used 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. One used a full Tablespoon. Each recipe used either one or two eggs. Baking soda and salt both ranged between 1/2 and 1 teaspoon. Flour varied wildly, as did white sugar. Some preferred butter, some shortening, some a mix. One person decided that the addition of cloves made their recipe "spicy". A couple of people decided to add nuts.

Lastly, oven temp was 350F for everything except for Recipe 1, at 375F. Not surprisingly, the cooking time dropped on that recipe too. Everything else seemed to like being in the 10 to 12 minute range.

I completely ignored the directions on every recipe. I knew I was going to use the creaming method. At the time of this writing, I still have not looked at anything on the recipes other than ingredients, oven temps and cooking times.

You can see my recipe on the side. Obviously, shortening was out of the question; I went with unsalted butter. I completely guessed on the flour. There was nothing scientific or mathematical about it. I went with a lower amount of white sugar because I didn't want the cookies to be too sweet. That's also why I went with a full teaspoon of salt. Instead of light brown sugar, I used dark. I think I got the perfect balance. My wife didn't taste the salt, but I caught just hints of it. As far as sweetness, it wasn't too much or too little. Just right.

My measurement of cinnamon was a compromise. It seemed like a good mid-point. I didn't end up really tasting it, but my wife did. My vanilla measurement was a bit of a mistake; I poured it into the measuring spoon right over the bowl, trying to get just 1 teaspoon. At least another 1/2 teaspoon made it in. Honestly, I wouldn't lower it at all. It was good.

I thought that only one egg was going to add way too little moisture, so I went with two. The cookies had a lot of spread, which I'm going to blame on that. In the future I might drop it down to one egg plus one egg yolk, but the spread with two whole eggs wasn't objectionable at all.

Like I said, I used craisins instead of raisins. I also decided not to add nuts. They have no place in such a cookie, at least not in my kitchen. If you want 'em, go for it.

350F looked good to me, so I went with it. Each of my batches baked for exactly 12 minutes and came out perfect, at least to my liking. I let them get a little dark, but not burnt. Just nicely caramelized. If you're like my friend Delanie who seems to be afraid of burning anything, drop down to 11 minutes and you'll be okay.

All in all, it ended up a really good recipe. If I made it exactly the same way over and over again, I don't think I'd be disappointed. Really, it was a lucky first attempt. But I think you kind of get the idea now what goes into one of my composite recipes.

Um. Yeah. I, uh. Had to do some QA on the cookies. It might have been before I thought to take a picture. You know how it goes. This recipe yielded 38 cookies scooped with a #40 disher.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Arbitrary Rules

I read an interesting post today on my sister-in-law's blog. The post, which contained a list of 100 books, is designed to be a meme. You mark which books you've read, which ones you haven't read, which ones you loved and which ones you hated or intend never to read.

With a list like this, one might expect to see several "classics". And sure enough, the first book on the list was Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. There are few Americans that have not heard of this book, and your knee-jerk reaction was probably one of the two: delight if you are female or some kind of groan if you are male. Being male and having attempted to read this "classic" once, I fall squarely into the "groan of pain" camp. But that's not my point.

Book 2 is The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. This also falls into the "if you have never heard of this book, it is because you live under a rock" camp. The list goes on and on, inluding The Harry Potty Series by JK Rowling (like The Lord of the Rings, it is no longer classified as a single book, apparently), The Chronicles of Narnia (seven more books just became one), The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (didn't we just cover that one?), Brave New World, Moby Dick, Oliver Twist, you name it. One of my favorites was On The Road by Jack Kerouac. Hailed by The New York Times as "the most beautifully executed, the clearest and most important utterance" of Kerouac's generation, Truman Capote dismissed it by saying, "That's not writing, that's typing."

Hey, how did Harry Potty make it to the list, anyway? The Da Vinci Code? Don't get me wrong, I liked those too. But aren't those a little recent to be on the list? Why are they on the list? Because whoever made the list liked them, and they included them. And now that the list is on the move, making its way from blog to blog, somebody (notably the people that post it) will start to see it as an authority.

Where does this kind of authority come from? Easy. Somebody said something and we believed them. Why does red wine go better with red meat, and white wine goes better with fish and poultry? Because somebody that we thought knew a lot about wine said so, and we believed them. It turns out there are red wines that go well with fish and chicken, and there are white wines that go well with red meat. How do we remember what goes with what? Those are a lot of rules to remember. Let's ask somebody smart for a simple answer, and just go with that.

My sister was on a bus once that was testing a new TV system. They would post various anouncements on the screens to help riders stay informed. When they ran out of important things to say, they literally started making things up. Her example: "For a healthy alternative to soda, try drinking diet soda." WTF, mate? Article after article has been published about the health risks of diet soda. Then again, why do we believe those articles? Because somebody smart-sounding wrote them, or we believe that the person who wrote them got their facts from somebody smart.

There are a lot of good books on the list. There is also a lot of crap on that list. Which ones are crap depends on who you are. As a (straight) male, I am wired to consider anything by Jane Austen a waste of time. Then again, I get my kicks out of reading books with titles like Mastering Regular Expressions and Perl Best Practices. Again, that's how I'm wired. If you're wired differently than me (and for the love of all that is good and holy, I hope that you are not) then my literary opinions should be of little, if any concern to you. And my own personal opinions on anything should never be taken as gospel or any other sort of authority, unless you're looking to buy me a Christmas present or something.

All that I'm saying is, maybe we should stop believing things just because somebody that appeared smart said it. Maybe we should look into things ourselves. And maybe we should stop considering ourselves "educated" just because we read some book that some guy (or girl) wrote. And most importantly, we need to stop giving people authority just because they said they had authority. The only reason some people have authority is because they got people to believe that they do.

Okay, enough of my anarchistic rantings. As you were.