Decorating, Ingredient Insights

Fun with Fondant

Now this is something I never thought I would say, ‘fun with fondant.’ Not because I don’t like working with it for design purposes, but because generally rolled fondant tastes terrible. And I’m big on not putting terrible tasting things on my tasty baking. For the most part I have been using marzipan for any decorative figures and cake coverings. It’s delicious, has minimal ingredients (if you get a good brand), and I have found it works just as well for modeling. But it is expensive, so not necessarily the economical choice for larger cake and decorating projects.

Cue my friend Yvonne at Ms. Adventures in Baking. She shared a recipe with me for a homemade fondant that uses marshmallows as the base, and it is amazing! Moment of confession, I have an addiction to those marshmallow peanut candies, and this tasted just like them. It was a bit of an issue with the leftover fondant, but I digress. This fondant was easy to make, easy to work with, cheaper than marzipan, not to mention cheaper than pre-made store-bought fondant and it was delicious. Win, win, win!

There is a bit of an issue with it in that marshmallows are not vegetarian, since they contain gelatin, so if you plan to try this fondant make sure your consumers are not vegetarian. I’ll have to keep looking into a homemade vegetarian option for fondant. Until then, I will stick with the marzipan for them.

I do need to practice with it a bit more, I ended up with some cracks, likely from it being dry, and there was a lot of bunching at the base of the cake, which made for a very thick layer of sugary sweet fondant on the outside edge of each cake slice. But practice makes perfect, and any leftovers will be given a good home 🙂

You can find the instructions for making marshmallow fondant here.

Ingredient Insights

Free Range Eggs and their Effect on Baking

We recently started getting free range eggs from a local farm, Rotherfield Farms. As a baker it is very exciting to get fresh free range eggs. However, I was surprised to see just how different the eggs can be; small, large, enormous, single yolk and double yolk. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, eating eggs in everyday meals is made better by big eggs. But it can prove a bit more challenging to the baker.

Free range eggs of all shapes and sizes.

You’ve probably noticed in the grocery store that you can buy different sizes of eggs, all uniform in their cartons: small, medium, large and extra large. Obviously different sized eggs have different weights and masses. Most baking recipes are based on eggs that are categorized as large, so if you use eggs that are smaller or larger your final product may not come out as you expect. Large eggs weigh, on average, 50 grams. As you can see from the photos in this post the odds of all these free range eggs being the same 50 grams is pretty slim. Out of curiosity I decided to weigh one of the large ones, which had a double yolk. It weighed 85 grams. That’s almost twice the size of a regular large egg, almost like using two eggs instead of one in a recipe! Even when I took one of the yolks out, it was still 70 grams, meaning there’s not just an extra yolk, there’s extra white as well. A few grams up or down probably wouldn’t make a big difference, but 35 extra grams of egg is going to change how things bake.

A double yolk from a really big egg.
A double yolk from a really big egg.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you can’t use free range eggs for baking. Quite the opposite, I love using the free range eggs, they have a rich colour and flavour that store bought eggs lack. I am saying, though, that you might need to tweak recipes in order to make them work. If the egg is larger you might need to add a bit more flour to accommodate the extra moisture. In ‘professional’ recipes there are ingredient percentages listed so you can calculate the proportional amount of ingredients you need if one is increased (or decreased), but since most recipes in everyday baking don’t list these percentages you just have to wing it. With most common recipes the odds of your final product being totally ruined are pretty slim, it will still be tasty; a little extra egg is not going to affect the flavour in the same way as adding baking soda instead of baking powder (which will also affect how something rises), or salt instead of sugar. It will most likely affect the texture; a little more egg will give you a wetter, chewier final product, and it may need a bit more oven time, and a little less egg will give you a drier result.

My suggestion would be that if you are making something for an important occasion, don’t shy away from the free range egg. Like all natural, whole ingredients, they really do add a delicious flavour and rich colour. Just weigh the eggs first to ensure you have the right  amount for the recipe, and that way you know the final product won’t give you any surprises.

Large and extra, extra large eggs!
Large and extra, extra large eggs!
Baking - Breads, Ingredient Insights

Finding Local Flour

When we lived in Nova Scotia I enjoyed baking with a local rye flour from Longspell Point Farm in Kingsport, NS; I actually stocked up before we moved so I can keep making my favourite rye breads!

20140917_093719Now that we’re in London, ON, and getting to know this new area, I have to start over with finding good local ingredients. Luckily I didn’t have to wait too long to find some good flour. One of my husband’s colleagues told me about a flour mill just north of the city, so a few weeks ago my kids and I paid a visit to the Arva Flour Mill.

They offer several types of wheat flour, including pastry flour for cakes and pastry, and hard flour for breads. I picked up a bag of hard bread flour and have been enjoying the results ever since. It worked especially well in my favourite buttermilk rye bread recipe.

I tried making a batch of no-knead bread with it, and it actually didn’t come out very well. It seemed to be too sticky, so next time I may need to try it with either a bit less water, or a bit more flour. I also wonder whether the higher protein content of hard flour makes it need the kneading. Something to investigate in a future post! Until then, I will enjoy my regular breads made with this local flour, and look forward to trying some of their other flours in the future!


Baking - Cookies, Ingredient Insights

Not All Sweeteners are Created Equal

Honey, Molasses and Maple Syrup, some yummy sweeteners!
Honey, Molasses and Maple Syrup, some yummy sweeteners!

One of my favourite kind of cookies growing up was called Chewy Honey Cookies. I love chewy cookies to begin with, and also love honey, so when I would bite into a chewy honey cookie it was the best of both worlds. I can remember sucking the honey out of the cookie as I chewed it, like an extra shot of sweet with every bite. So yummy!

I once wanted to make a nice chewy molasses cookie, so I asked my mom if she had a good recipe. She copied it down for me, and as I looked at it I noticed that it was almost the exact same recipe as for chewy honey cookies. The only difference, other than the molasses/honey, was that it called for ginger instead of vanilla.

We recently bought a very big jug of maple syrup, and as I craved some cookies the other night I thought I might try substituting maple syrup for the honey to see what would happen. It’s a pretty similar consistency, and since you could do it with molasses I figured it might work just as well; and it did! They came out very soft and chewy, with a very subtle maple flavour. But there was something about them that wasn’t quite as satisfying as the honey and molasses ones. It took me a while to put my finger on it, or my tongue as the case was.

The recipe calls for two teaspoons of baking soda as the leavening agent. If you have ever accidentally used baking soda in a recipe instead of baking powder, you may have noticed your baking had a strong kind of bitter salty taste. I really don’t like that taste, and that’s what I was tasting. I don’t remember tasting it when using molasses or honey for these cookies. I think because molasses and honey have pretty strong flavours of their own, they are able to cover up the taste of the baking soda; however, maple syrup has a more delicate flavour, so it can’t cover it up in the same way. If I make them again I will probably try to use baking powder, adjusting the quantity accordingly, to see if that makes a difference and makes the maple flavour pop out a bit more. I think it would be similar if you substituted agave, which also has a very mild flavour. So if you decide to substitute the sweetener in a recipe, make sure you test it to see how it works and tastes!

Chewy Maple Cookies
Chewy Maple Cookies
Baking - General, Decorating, Ingredient Insights

Should Buttercream be Copyrighted?

When I made some royal icing for the dominoes cookies last week I used the recipe from a pack of meringue powder. There are several icing recipes included, one of which really caught my attention: Snow-White Buttercream Icing. My first thought was, “That’s impossible, butter isn’t white, so why would buttercream icing be white?” When I read the ingredients it calls for 1 1/4 cups of shortening, and no butter at all. A very bland icing, you say? Well, not when you add the 1/2 teaspoon of butter flavour! As a baker who tries to use as many pure/natural ingredients as possible, I cringed, and thought there should be some kind of regulation. There was really nothing natural in the recipe; even the vanilla that’s called for is a clear vanilla extract, which is artificial. Pure vanilla should be a dark brown colour (but remember, not all dark vanillas are natural).

I learned a few years ago that authors of recipes do not have the same rights and privileges as other authors. The author of a textbook needs to be acknowledged appropriately if you use his/her work in an essay, and if that person and his/her work is not acknowledged it’s considered plagiarism. Not so for recipes. Maybe if you used a recipe from a published cookbook and put it into your own published cookbook; but if you’re preparing a recipe to eat, whether it be for yourself or for others, it is not required to acknowledge the author. This may be why so many families have secret recipes handed down generation to generation!

It's not snow-white, but at least it's tasty, naturally!
It’s not snow-white, but at least it’s tasty, naturally!

Back to the buttercream… Although I don’t think it’s practical, or really necessary, to actually copyright a recipe for buttercream, I do think that if a recipe title has the word ‘butter’ in it, it should call for butter as an actual ingredient. If you don’t care enough to put natural butter in your icing, why would you care if the word butter is in the title? You can just call it ‘Snow-White Icing’ and save yourself some syllables. Now, I am a bit biased, I haven’t actually tried using butter flavour, but I can’t imagine it’s better than the real thing. And even if the flavour is right, the mouth-feel of the shortening would be much less desirable than the real thing.

I realize there are people – especially a lot of brides – who, for decorative purposes, might want a ‘snow-white’ icing. If you are aware that the only way to get that is artificially, then that’s fine; it’s obviously not my preference, but if the presentation is more important than the taste, so be it. But I think it is unfair to mislead people into thinking they have an authentic buttercream on their pristine white cake when there’s actually no butter in it.

Perhaps I have become a baking snob, but when I make a cake (or anything, for that matter) for someone else, I do my best to make it with ingredients that I am comfortable eating myself. Sometimes that means sacrificing a pristine appearance, but when that cake is all cut up into pieces, no one is focused on the appearance anymore, they’re all focused on the taste. And I want them to taste something unforgettably rich and delicious, naturally!

Baking - Breads, Ingredient Insights

Gluten-ous Maximus

Wow! I was talking with my mom recently about oats, and we were both wondering if oats contained gluten. I thought it would be interesting to do a post about gluten, but do you have any idea just how much information (legitimate or otherwise) is out there about gluten? You probably do. I figured there would be a lot, given the abundance of gluten-free hype and products these days. It’s pretty overwhelming, and much of it seems conflicting – like so many things (fats, sugars, meat, dairy, etc.)

What's in a flour? Depends on the flour, but all the flours in my bin contain gluten.
What’s in a flour? It depends on the flour, but all the flours in my bin contain gluten.

Let me re-ground myself. Here’s what I knew about gluten before. It is produced by two proteins in wheat flour when liquid is added and worked around. The more the dough is worked, the more gluten is formed. It gives breads their structure and strength. Hence why so many gluten-free things end up crumbly (in my experience).

Here is a very little bit of what I know now that I have tried to find more information about it. These proteins that produce gluten are present not only in wheat, but also in barley and rye flours; and there are A LOT of different varieties of wheat (spelt, semolina, kamut and graham to name a few). There are many conditions that can be aggravated by gluten, including celiac disease and many skin conditions. I’m not going to formulate any opinions or conclusions right now, as I have not done nearly enough reading to do so in a truly informed way. And I don’t have the time right now to read everything and decide what’s legitimate or not. It’s a lot to process. I do know that I really love bread, and am very grateful that I don’t have to worry too much about what I’m eating in that respect.

To the original question of oats, I learned that pure oats do not contain gluten (meaning the proteins that produce gluten), but they do contain another protein (avenin). However, many oat products cannot guarantee that they are totally gluten free, especially if they are processed in an environment that also processes wheat, barley or rye, so for people who have serious reactions to gluten they still need to pay close attention to package labels; and if you are preparing something for the gluten-free person at the party you’re going to, make sure the oats are pure, because it can only take a little bit of gluten to cause serious repercussions for some people; and a certain percentage of people with celiac disease actually react to the avenin in oats the same way they do to gluten, so if you’re not sure then it’s probably best not to use oats as a gluten free option.


Baking - Breads, Ingredient Insights

Water Temperature for Yeast

My post this week comes from a friend who asked:

How warm does the water have to be for the yeast to proof right? (Is, in fact, the temperature of the water related to the proofing of the yeast?) I was always taught to do lukewarm water (it’s possible my water is generally more than lukewarm—does that kill the yeast?) and then add some kind of sugar/honey for the yeast to eat, and then it will all work out right. But it never seems to bubble up quite like I want it to. How to change this?

This question made me automatically think back to the classes I took, and a formula we had to use whenever we made yeast breads. To get very technical for a moment, the recipes we used in our ‘professional’ book listed a temperature for the dough, usually anywhere from 78°F to 86°F. This is the temperature at which the dough should be for the best fermentation/proofing results (yeast has its best growth from 70°F-90°F). To figure out the right temperature for the water we had to multiply the desired dough temperature by three, then subtract the room temperature, the flour temperature and the machine friction temperature.

IMG_4168For example, a recipe for brioche in my book says that the dough temperature should be 84°F. Multiply that by three to get 252. The room temperature was 64°F, the flour was 58°F, and we always used an average temperature of 20°F for the machine friction. Take 252 and subtract 64, 58 and 20, and we get 110, so the temperature of the water should be 110°F. I can remember holding my thermometer under the water until it reached the right temperature, filling the measuring cup, and taking the temperature of the water again in the cup just to be sure. We also used fresh yeast for our recipes, so it didn’t need the initial proofing. However, the book instructs that if you are using active dry yeast, it should be “rehydrated in four times its weight of warm water (about 110°F).”* If the water is too warm it can definitely slow down the yeast’s growth, and warmer still will kill the yeast (140°F).

If you don’t have a digital thermometer, don’t worry. It would give you a more exact temperature, but it’s certainly not mandatory in order to get good bread. You can measure the temperature of the water like you would for a baby’s bottle. If the water feels hot on the inside of your arm, it’s probably too hot for the yeast; if it feels lukewarm on the inside of your arm, it’s probably okay; and if it feels cool on your arm, it’s probably too cold.

There are several other factors that can affect how your dough proofs.

  • Adding sugar or honey will definitely help speed up yeast’s growth. Yeast consumes the sugar and turns it into carbon dioxide and alcohol – the gas contributes to the leavening, and the alcohol is evaporated while baking. Extra sugar is not absolutely necessary, in fact many of the recipes I have don’t even call for sugar when you’re initially softening the yeast. As you make the dough the yeast feeds on sugars in the flour, but added sugar (as long as it’s in the recipe) can speed things along. If you have too much, it may make it go too fast, which can cause it to over-ferment and not come out very well.
  • Dough proofs best from 78°F to 86°F, so if you have the dough in a cool room it may not rise as well; conversely, if it is too warm it can slow growth, or kill the yeast (so don’t proof it on the vent of the oven as it preheats like I used to). I’ve heard several people say they use the top of their fridge, as it is generally warm to being with, and it is higher up in the room (warm air rises).
  • The length of time needed can vary. It is important to follow the recipe’s guidelines, but if your proofing temperature is higher than normal it will likely take less time than what the recipe calls for. It’s best to just pay close attention to the dough and watch for when it has actually doubled in bulk.

The most important thing is to keep trying. If it didn’t work well, adjust something for the next time and see if it makes a difference: add a little more (or less) sugar; try letting the dough rest in different places; try different temperatures of water; try different types of yeast if you have them available (active dry, instant, or fresh). Just make sure you keep track of what you did so you remember what works well. Happy Baking!

*Gisslen, Wayne (2005). Professional Baking (4th edition). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. p. 51.