Thursday, December 11, 2008

Cookie Melt-Down

You win some, you lose some, they say. I've continued to attempt to bake despite the fact that my thermometer and my food scale hasn't come yet, this being a hindrance because measuring flour by volume makes for wildly inaccurate proportions.

This week, the blueberry muffins and the pizza have been successes, though I'm still working on the pizza. It's coming out as a thin-crust pizza, and I like slightly more bread-like crust. What failed were the pomegranate and chocolate chunk cookies. The idea is fabulous, and in the oven the pomegranate's seeds turn nut-like in consistency while continuing to add a tartness to the buttery, sweet cookie. The recipe doesn't specify the type of flour, and being the geek I am, I now have bleached and unbleached all-purpose flour, bread flour, and pastry flour, these all having different proportions of starch and protein and having different characteristics. Now scientist and baker Shirley Corrhier has a book called Cookwise, which applies food science to recipes. So I looked over her chart of how to adjust cookie recipes to get the kind of cookie you want: tender, chewy, puffed, flat, etc. There was a lot of ways to do this, but I decided to used pastry flour to get puffy cookies.

Of course, life intervenes, and the baby cried for food just as I was getting the pizza out of the oven to add toppings. I gave Sunny some quick instructions for finishing the pizza, and told him to turn down the oven before making drop cookies from the cookie dough I'd finished. The recipe is a whole stick of butter and a whole cup of sugar, and just enough flour to keep it from becoming candy. I don't know what happened next, but when I came out, the cookies were a series of melted disks on the baking sheet. They'd flattened out and spread out until the whole sheet was one very thin cookie.

Well, Sunny scraped the cookie off of the wax paper and we've been eating the very yummy chunks of chocolate and pomegranate butter cookie. I'm debating whether I should try all-purpose flour next or bread flour, but at this point I'm feeling the urge to try my hand at Japanese cuisine again, so I've shelved my baking supplies until the thermometer and the scale get here.

Friday, December 05, 2008

From Cooking to Baking

I view cooking as a process that provides delight both gustatory and creative while additionally nurturing and sustaining my self and my family. In very little time, I can whip up a meal borrowing Italian, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Californian elements. I don't even have to pre-plan much; I just keep a running list of what staples I need at each of my favorite food stores and stock up when the baby allows me to go there. Then, I just create at whim. However, this week I've embarked upon a journey into that unknown and reportedly fussy land called baking, where doing things ad hoc can result in disaster.

As a chemistry major, I was one of those people who knew what to meticulously measure and what I could just slop into the reagent and save some time. While the journey to the end product was fascinating, I didn't worry too much about getting every detail perfect. As you can imagine, I considered myself a "qualitative" person as opposed to a "quantitative" person. I did really terribly in analytical chemistry, the flavor of chemistry where one tries to perfectly measure things.

Now that I'm trying to teach myself how to bake, I find myself reaching back for some of those quantitative lab skills. I haven't yet broken out a lab notebook to diagram out a bread-making experiment, but I'm tempted to, given that I've forgotten about steps that take an hour or more, delaying dinner (pizza) by an unacceptable amount of time. It's a strange mental shift away from my slap-dash cooking, but it's refresh ing. I'm buying a scale and a thermometer, and with increased accuracy of measurement and execution, I'll be able to make breads that are consistent; once that is achieved, I can then move on to refining the bread to suit my personal taste and circumstances.

Yesterday, I tried to replicate the amazing muffins at The Standard Diner, actually a swank joint here in Albuquerque. Now, I despise blueberry muffins for their heavy texture and cake-mix taste with sour berry remnants. These were amazing and converted me with their small size, actual muffin texture with holes larger than a cake's, a crunchy and sweet top, and fresh blueberry taste. I used the recipe from The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum, which took about twenty minutes to assemble.

This week I learned why the "room temperature butter" is supposed to be at room temperature: if you pull it out of the fridge, it's too hard and resists the incorporation of other elements. Elementary? Yes, but I had to experience it before I could believe it could resist the wiles of a stand mixer. Yesterday, I pondered the instruction "fold". Why not just mix? So I did. The muffins were yummy, but they rose oddly, and the texture was uneven. Alton Brow's baking book suggests that an uneven crumb is due to overmixing causing more gluten formation, making the walls of the air pockets too strong. But why are the air pockets uneven? I'll have to try the muffins again, and I'll fold this time.

Today I started a pizza dough and a baguette dough. For more flavor and longer shelf life, I'll let them rise overnight. Both are further recipes from The Bread Bible. Pictures of rising dough to come!