Friday, January 30, 2009


If I had to eat only one food for the rest of my life, it would be samosas. Of course, my life would probably be very short, seeing as samosas are deep fried. But, hey, I would be in heavenly bliss every day.

Winter Term ended three days ago and spring classes start this Monday. That means I cannot fulfill my hopes of deconstructing seitan and other mock meats. Maybe I will get around to this in the future, but for now, I have to start focusing on my last semester in college.

Feeling bad about cutting my project short, I decided instead to show you how to make samosas. The filling and dough are easy enough to make. (I prefer Manjula's recipe, though I used Vegan with a Vengeance's recipe for a long time. Manula's samosa recipe is so much easier, though.) What I'm going to demonstrate is how I roll out the samosa dough and make samosas that look like the restaurant kind. That tends to be the trickier aspect of making samosas.

Step 1: Pinch and roll the dough into large balls (slightly larger than a golf ball).
Step 2: Flatten one of the balls on a floured surface. Roll out with a rolling pin. Pick it up with your hands and stretch it. Roll it out into a circle and until the dough is thin enough to almost see through, but not paper thin.
Step 3: Cut the circle in half with a knife, so you have two half moon shapes. On one half circle, wet half the edge facing you and then wet the other edge touching the floured surface. (Try not to get your surface wet).
Step 4: Take a half circle and form a cone, touching the two wet edges to each other. (See! The wet edges line up and don't get your hand wet). With wet fingers, smooth the creases on the inside and outside of the cone and pinch the bottom shut. You don't want any oil sneaking into the inside, or you'll have greasy potato filling. Hold the cone in your non-dominant hand with the top peaking out.

Step 5: Spoon filling into the cone, pushing it down and packing it in so the samosa rounds out. I use about five spoonfulls of filling, but just watch your samosa to make sure you're not overstretching.
Step 6: Stop when it's just about full.
Step 7: Fold in half of the remaining dough.
Step 8: Wet the inside of the other half of the dough still sticking up. Stretch it over the other part and press down.
Step 9: Wet along the crease and smooth with your finger. Pinch the two points shut. It will look white and pasty.
Step 10: Fry 'em! I recommend a deep fryer because it's safer, but we used a makeshift deep fryer (tiny pot filled halfway with oil) for a long time.
Step 11: Eat plain or with mint chutney, coriander chutney, or tamarind sauce.

Starch (in sauce, soups, cheezecakes, etc)

I promised to explain starch-based starches, and I will. Until I read Cookwise, starches seemed very simple to me. Buy some cornstarch, add a pinch to a thin sauce or soup, and pow! Instant thickness. Starches, obviously, are more complex than this.

What is Starch?

Starch is composed of long strands of sugar (glucose, specifically). Starch comes from plants which store sugar in the form of starch. Some plants store starch in roots or tubers; others, like banana trees, store starch in their fruit. That's why bananas make a great egg replacer! Starch appears in two forms – as amylose or amylopectin. Amylose is found in grains; amylopectin is found in cornstarch, potato starch, and tapioca. (I'm not sure which form is in starchy fruit). While amylose holds its thick form under different temperatures, amylopectin thins when cooled, reheated, stirred too vigourously, or cooked at very high heat. You're probably wondering why anyone would use weak amylopectin, then. Well, there's another important difference between the two starch forms. When they set, amylose is opaque whereas amylopectin is transparent and glossy. While this difference may seem unimportant if you're just adding starch to thicken soup, this difference is very important to bakers. Opaque apple pie filling just doesn't look right.

How Does Starch Thicken?

If you remember only one thing about starch, let it be this: starch needs heat! When starch is heated, its molecules separate from each other, soak up surrounding liquid, and begin to puff. The hotter the liquid, the puffier the starch. Once the liquid nears boiling point, the puffy starch pops, flooding your food with thickening power. (You won't see any puffing or popping). Basically, starch doesn't thicken your sauce or soup until it just starts to boil. (That means you can't dissolve starch in cold water).

This is a very important point. Many people, including myself, add starch to something, stir, and wonder why it doesn't feel thicker. So they add more starch. When the starch finally pops and thickens, they have a gluey, starchy mess. Before you add more starch, first bring your starch-based food to a boil and then determine whether it's thick enough to your likening. (With sauces, you'll know it's boiling when bubbles appear).

Some other quick tidbits about starch: (1) Starch doesn't work with acidic sauces. (2) Salt increases the temperature at which starch molecules puff and pop.

Methods for Adding Starch to Food

There are three methods: slurry, beurre manie, and roux. The point of each method is to prevent lumps from forming when you add the starch to the hot food.

A slurry is a mix of starch and cold water that is then added to the food. When I read this in Cookwise, I was instantly reminded of A Vegan Ice Cream Paradise's soy cream recipes. Her recipes call for mixing 2 tablespoons cornstarch into ¼ cup of soy milk. The rest of the soy milk is heated to a boil with the sugar. Then you turn off the heat, add in the slurry, and stir until slightly thicker. Her recipes are awesome, and now I understand why the cornstarch is set aside.

Beurre maine is butter and flour kneaded together, and then added to the food. As the butter melts, it releases the starch grain by grain. Pretty interesting, huh? Could it be done with Earth Balance? I find that learning about cooking usually brings up even more questions about cooking.

Roux is a cross between beurre maine and a reduction. It can only be used when you have leftover hot fat in a pan from something you just cooked. (For omnis, this is the nasty grease left behind from browned meat.) Roux is the result of vigorously stirring flour into the hot fat, which causes the starch to separate grain by grain. A roux should cook for several minutes. Gravies are rouxes. And, actually, the Chana Masala recipe from my last post has a roux twist to it. You stir in besan (also known as chickpea flour or gram flour) to the spiced oil before adding the puree. Who knew a sauce could be two types of sauces combined?! Cooking is deceptively complex sometimes.

How Much Starch to Use

If using flour:

Thin sauce: 1 T flour per 1 cup liquid

Medium sauce: 2 T flour per 1 cup

Thick sauce: 3 T flour per 1 cup

If using cornstarch:

Thin sauce: ½ T per 1 cup liquid

Medium: 1 T + 1 teaspoon per cup

Thick: 1 ½ T per cup


So there's this food called Cheezish. It's pretty popular at the Vegan Represent forum, and for good reason. This vegan mac and cheese looks like the Kraft stuff, and it tastes very good, too. Personally, I have been scarred by too many bad mock cheese sauces, so I made this for Jeff, who is always eager to try new vegan cheese sauces. I don't have a picture of this dish. My blender didn't puree the pimientos finely enough, so the cheezish didn't look so beautiful. It was a bright orange sauce flecked with red. However, someone else has posted mouth-watering pictures of Cheezish here.

Knowing how starch works in a recipe made a world of difference when I approached this recipe. Just looking at it, I could see where I would have failed.

The cornstarch-based sauce begins as a slurry and is heated in a pan until thick. I stirred the sauce constantly to prevent lumps. (I did not stir vigorously because of the finicky amylopectin.) I waited for bubbles to appear. This point in time is when stupid Gabe would have added starch. The sauce wasn't thickening after a few minutes over medium heat. But I waited patiently, and then, a bubble rose lazily to the surface and popped. Suddenly, there were many bubbles and the sauce began to feel thicker! I let it bubble for a minute as I stirred the thickening sauce.

A success! My first starch-based sauce that wasn't lumpy, gluey, or starchy.

Samosa Teaser

Expect two posts today! (Not including this one)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Purees and Reductions

I have always considered sauces to be my weak point in cooking. This weakness has frustrated me to no end because I love a good chili garlic sauce or a sweet teriyaki. Yet whenever I try my hand at a new recipe, I create lumpy, thin glazes that don't stick to the vegetables and rice in the pan.

After studying sauces in Cookwise and cooking up some familiar dishes, I realized that I do not, in fact, suck at making sauces. I'm actually quite good! We make these dishes regularly, all of which depend upon a good sauce: Chana Masala (tomato gravy puree), Garlicky Pasta (herb and garlic butter reduction), and Peanut Butter Broccoli (spicy peanut sauce). The truth is that I suck at making starch-based sauces, specifically for Asian dishes.

There are three basic sauce types – purees, reductions, and starch-based. Each works in a different way and complements certain dishes. Let's start at the top.


A puree is any food, cooked or raw, that has been blended to a thick consistency. Purees rely upon vegetables, fruit, cooked grains or beans, seeds, and bread crumbs for thickening. Purees should have a minimal amount of liquid since it can interfere with the blending and the final texture. In this Peanut Butter Broccoli dish, very hot water breaks down the peanut butter into a thick consistency. I only use a quarter cup of water and I keep whisking the peanut butter with a fork even when it seems the water is mostly absorbed.

Right now, you may be conceptualizing purees as those colorful sauce puddles next to gourmet meals. (See picture of bad puree at right). At least, that was my initial idea of a puree. Sure, it's tasty, but isn't it more of a decoration? No, actually. Marinara and mole are famous purees that aren't secondary to the dish they flavor. And that's really the point here.

Purees infuse a dish with flavor. They should be used in dishes where the sauce is a critical component of the dish itself. You can use soy sauce instead of chili garlic in a stir-fry, for example, but you cannot separate Chana Masala from its signature tomato gravy, a puree. The Chana Masala recipe I use requires pureed tomato, chili, and ginger that is cooked with Indian spices and water. Purees must ramp up the flavor of their bland vegetable or grain base. You can add in spicy chilies, ginger, roasted nuts, Earth Balance, nutritional yeast, or something else with an intense flavor. In the Peanut Butter Broccoli dish, cayenne, soy sauce, and Worcestershire enhance the peanut butter base.

Puree Recap:

  • Veggies, fruit, rice, beans, seeds, and bread crumbs can all make the thick base.

  • Use a minimal amount of liquid.

  • Seek an intense flavor with chilies, ginger, or distinctive seasonings.


OK, I want to give you a quick taste of reductions. A reduction sounds fancy, but the concept is simple enough. (Even if making a reduction may induce cursing).

A reduction is a sauce created from leftover flavors in your pan. Say you sauteed some vegetables in sage and oregano. Instead of throwing the vegetables over pasta when you're done, you could add some Earth Balance, scrape the seasonings off the pan, and add in new things to make a small amount of sauce for your dish. This is what I do when I make Garlicky Pasta. (No picture, sorry!)

To make a reduction, you must have already cooked something in the pan. (That something can stay in the pan if it's small or can be set aside if it's larger like a seitan cutlet). Deglaze the pan over medium heat. Deglazing is adding a liquid to the pan (wine, water, melted Earth Balance) and using it to scrape off seasonings that are stuck to the pan. Add in other flavors if you wish. Stir the sauce constantly, forcing it to touch all parts of the pan. Stirring infuses your reduction with more flavor as it grabs more and more flavor from the pan. Eventually you'll have a small amount of sauce to drizzle over seitan cutlets or stir-fry with cooked pasta.

If you're curious as to why reductions work: Chemical changes occur as the pan heats up; ingredients break down into new flavors. In my Garlicky Pasta dish, the sage and oregano intensify in flavor and the onions caramelize. The flip side of reductions is that the liquid removes bitterness. As water reaches its boiling point, part of it evaporates and carries away acids and other bitter molecules that have lower boiling points. Pretty cool, huh?

Redux Recap:

  • Use a pan you just cooked something in
  • Deglaze the pan with a liquid like water, wine, or margarine
  • Stir constantly, touching all parts of the pan
  • Add in other ingredients, if desired

Starch-Based Sauces

I'll save this for next week. I'm going home for the weekend and won't be in the kitchen for awhile. Don't worry, I am looking forward to a cooking break and lots of Indian takeout from Madison.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Week 2: Cakes

Cake is my great nemesis in baking. They take so much time and effort to assemble; you need the perfect batter, frosting, and decorations while also fending off saboteurs trying to sneak a bite. And when you step back to look at the final product, there is always something off. The center is underbaked, or a crust formed along the edges, or the frosting was runny. Just how do you achieve that sugary, melt-in-your mouth bakery frosting?

Fortunately, I was feeling confident about my next baking endeavor. Armed with Bakewise and Betty Crocker, I figured almost nothing could go wrong. I have split this post into three sections: The Cake Itself, The Frosting, and The Final Product.

The Cake Itself

Bakewise says that cake should have four ingredients: flour, sugar, eggs, and fat. But Shirley Corriher also recognizes that eggless cakes are possible with a little extra flour and some tricks to support structure and gluten formation. Making a cake takes some baking math. The weight of the flour should be equal to or greater than the weight of the sugar. The weight of the eggs should be equal to or greater than the weight of the fat. And finally, the weight of the total liquid should equal the weight of the sugar. In order to test this math, I selected my favorite chocolate cake recipe. It's from The Joy of Vegan Baking, but I will reprint the ingredients here since it is published on the author's website.

1-1/2 cups (188 g) unbleached all-purpose flour

3/4 cup (150 g) granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 cup (30 g) unsweetened cocoa powder

1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/3 cup (80 ml) canola oil

1 tablespoon white distilled vinegar

1 cup (235 ml) cold water

This recipe compensates for eggs by adding water and vinegar, whose acidity is neutralized by the baking soda. (See my Cookie post for more about baking soda). Corriher explains why these so-called wacky cakes work. "When you add the water, the oil floats, which allows the water to get to the flour and form gluten when you stir. The acidity from the vinegar helps flour proteins to coagulate and set the cake nicely," (Bakewise, 82).

The first math rule checks off for this chocolate cake. The flour weighs more than the sugar. The second math rule doesn't apply. The third math rule is violated; the total liquids weigh double what the sugar weighs. For this reason and others, I stopped reading the math section in Bakwise. I have cake recipes that work and not being a big cake person, I was willing to let the knowledge of perfect cake-making slip by.

The Frosting

Not all frostings are the same. There are seemingly endless variations from ganache to fondant to glazes. For now, I am only going to discuss buttercreams. In my experience working at a bakery, they used the same frosting to frost the cake as they did to make roses and other small decorations. Personally, I don't know how they made such a multi-purpose icing, but I wasn't able to replicate it. Instead, I discovered that I needed two frostings. Why? Because of how they're made.

Butter gives the aptly titled buttercream its rich, warm flavor. The blueprint for vegan buttercream is one cup Earth Balance to eight cups confectioner's sugar. (You could probably subtract one or two cups for a less sweet buttercream). However, because butter is also soft, frosting made with only butter will be too soft to use for decorating. Your roses will soften into blobs before you're done making the last petal. You should use an Earth Balance based buttercream to frost the cake and a shortening based buttercream to make decorations. If you want a more flavorful decorating frosting, add a ¼ teaspoon of butter flavoring to it.

Fine confectioner's sugar is important to good buttercream. Bakers use 4X to 10X powdered sugar. Bakewise neglects to reveal whether store-bought confectioner's sugar falls in that range, so to be safe, you should sift your powdered sugar. Besides ensuring your sugar is fine, sifting removes any lumps in the sugar. (Confectioner's sugar contains three percent cornstarch, so lumps will happen).

A final important point about buttercreams is to beat the frosting for three to five minutes. Beating it adds air to the frosting. And the longer I beat the frosting, the creamier it became.

The Final Product

Frosting and decorating a cake requires the proper tools. If you're serious about cake decorating, you should buy a turntable, spatula, flower nail, and pastry bag and tips. A turntable allows you to turn the cake easily and quickly to reach all sides, allowing for a smooth finish since you don't have to stop frosting and walk around to the other side to finish. (In all honesty, I used a pizza pan turned upside down!) A spatula for decorating cakes is different than the kind you use to serve pizza or scrape down bowls. It is flat, wide, and about six inches long. The flower nail is essentially a mini-turntable for making roses. When I worked at a bakery, I loved to watch the cake decorators make roses. They sat there chatting as they spun the nail in their left hand and made frosting petals with their right. Amazing.

Now that you have your tools ready, make sure you have frosting on hand and you have removed your cake from the pan in a way that creates as few crumbs as possible. A cake with crumbs on the sides or with chunks out of it is very difficult to frost. You should wait at least 10 minutes before removing the cake from its pan, and the cake should be mostly cool to the touch. Run a paring knife around the edge of the cake two times, turning the pan with your left hand. Don't stop and start over. Now hit the bottom of the pan on your counter a few times to loosen the cake bottom. The cake should be ready to come out. Put your right hand on the top of the cake and flip the pan over, catching the cake with your right hand. It's OK to shake the pan a little if it is still sticking. Quickly flip it over onto a cutting board or parchment paper, or onto your turntable. I learned this technique while working at the bakery. They only let me do it when the main cake flipper was gone, and boy was I nervous every time!

My chocolate cake domed a bit. (Betty Crocker says my oven temperature was too high – I believe that). If this happens to you, simply slice off the hump so your cake is flat. This YouTube video showed me how to cut through the cake without creating a lot of crumbs. Basically, take a long serrated knife and make small cuts inward using sawing motions. Cut all the way around the cake before slicing through the entire layer. Watch the video to see what I mean. For me, the hump came right off. I wouldn't recommend doing this to your top cake layer as there will be crumbs and frosting will be very difficult.

OK, so now everything, including the cake, is ready to go. Let's frost the cake.

Step 1: Making the Layer Cake. Put two dollops of your buttercream on top of the first layer. Spread it almost to the edges before placing the second layer on top.

Step 2: Sealing the Crumbs In. Crumbs ruin frosting by collecting

in it. To prevent this from happening to you, put two dollops of frosting on top of the cake. Using your spatula, spread it all overthe cake in a thin layer. You should still be able to see the cake below. Don't worry about it looking pretty. No one will see this layer. Now put the cake in the fridge for 10 minutes for the frosting to dry.

Step 3: Frosting It. Take the rest of the buttercream and dollop it on top of the cake. Spread it all over. Utilize your turntable and spatula to smooth the frosting on the sides. Slowly spin the turntable with your left hand while holding the spatula steady on the side of the cake with your right hand (Reverse if you're left-handed). For the top, move the spatula back and forth for a final smooth finish. You're done! Now you can get down to the business of decorating.

Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to learn how to make roses because my rose tip had rusted out! There are many self-help videos on YouTube and ExpertVillage which show how to make roses. I can offer this advice: do not make your decorating frosting too stiff. Because it might break your pastry bag. Um, like I did with mine. Who knew frosting could be too stiff?! All this time my problem had been that it was too runny! Anyway, piping was not easy, especially after it broke!

My only other mistake with the cake was that somehow it slanted. Maybe my slicing through the hump wasn't even enough. See the slant below.

Still, it was VERY good! Credit must be given to Joy of Vegan Baking (cake recipe), The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook (pre-veganized buttercream recipe), and Wilton's Pure White Icing recipe (pre-veganized decorating buttercream; make sure to use the shortening-only variation).


Cake post to come soon!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Week 2: Cookies

Cookies are my go-to dessert. They are easy to whip together when you're up late studying or writing a paper. You don't need a plate and fork to eat them. And they are sweet enough to satisfy a craving, but not so decadent that you can only eat a few bites. I usually make cookies once a week, much to my boyfriend's chagrin.

When I looked over this week's reading, I immediately gravitated toward the cookie section in Bakewise (Shirley Corriher). Corriher deconstructs cookies into four parts, which coincidentally reminded me of Harold McGees four protagonists in cooking – protein, water, fat, and carbohydrates. Cookies need flour, fat, sugar, and baking powder or soda.

Protein in flour provides structure for the cookie. Flour holds the cookie together and gives the cookie its form and texture. When flour is mixed with a liquid (water or soymilk), it forms glutenous strands of protein. If your flour has a lot of protein, your cookies will be tougher and you will need to add more liquid to achieve a soft dough. On the other hand, low-protein flours yield tender cookies and require less liquid. Ideally, you want flour to consist of eight to 10 percent protein.1

Obviously, you don't want a lot of gluten in your cookies. That's where fat and sugar come in. Fat (butter, margarine, shortening) coats the flour proteins, preventing all of them from binding with the liquid and forming gluten. Sugar also repels liquid from protein, combining with the protein rather than coating it like fat.

Fat and sugar work in other ways, too. They add flavor. They might even leaven and soften. A fat like shortening, while lacking flavor, enhances leavening and reduces spread. One of the downsides of butter and margarine is that both have low melting points; in other words, when butter-based cookies enter the hot oven, the butter melts and causes cookies to spread or flatten. Shortening can withstand heat better and cookies made with shortening will be thicker, softer, and puffier (puffy is Corriher's word choice). You can use a buttery margarine in cookies and still achieve soft cookies. The trick is to cream the butter when it is soft enough that you can leave a fingerprint in it, and to keep the cookie dough cold until you pop it in the oven.

Sugar also adds moisture to cookies. Remember those soft Mrs. Fields cookies? Moisture keeps cookies soft after they cool down. One way to increase the moisture in your cookies is to use brown sugar. Brown sugar is made of sugar and molasses. It's why you have to pack brown sugar to measure it accurately.

Finally, baking powder/soda provide the leavening in cookies. What is leavening? I had to Wikipedia it, actually! Leavening is the process by which the leavening agent, moisture, and heat interact to create bubbles in the dough. Leavening causes cookies to expand and rise a bit. Now you're wondering, what is the difference between baking powder and soda? I have often asked myself this while dumping both into cookie mixes. According to The Joy of Vegan Baking, baking soda becomes active when it comes into contact with moisture and an acidic food. (Acidic foods include vinegar, citrus juice, nondairy yogurt, chocolate, cocoa, molasses, brown sugar, fruit, and maple syrup). Baking powder is a combination of baking soda, acid(s), and corn starch.

Technically, baking powder is a time-saver because you don't need to think about how to activate it. It's simply one teaspoon of baking powder to one cup flour. (Baking soda is a half teaspoon.) The catch is that if you are making something that has an acidic food in it, like ginger cookies (molasses) or a citrus-based dessert, the baking powder won't neutralize the acid. So in the instance that you're making cranberry orange scones, you should probably opt for baking soda which will neutralize the acid by interacting with it. Did that make sense? I hope so. Colleen Patrick-Goudreau explains it very well in Joy of Vegan Baking.

PS – Salt is important in recipes, but its role is mainly for increasing sweetness (and reducing bitterness) in baked goods. Who knew?

That brings me to the cookies I made! I'll go in reverse order. On Tuesday, I made Chocolate Crinkles (Joy of Vegan Baking). These are fudgy chocolate cookies rolled in powdered sugar for their black-and-white look. I read in Bakewise that Chocolate Crinkles need to be rolled in granulated sugar before they are rolled in powdered sugar. Why? Two reasons. First, it prevents the powdered sugar from soaking into the dough. I had this problem when I previously made Chocolate Crinkles because Joy of Vegan Baking only tells you to roll in powdered sugar. Second, granulated sugar increases the crunchy cookie surface because not all of it dissolves while baking.

So I made enough dough for a dozen crinkles – six rolled only in powdered sugar and six rolled in granulated sugar before dipped in powdered sugar.

Bakewise was correct! The double rolled crinkles had more powdered sugar stick to the final cookie and had a crisp exterior. They reminded me of the glaze on donuts.

At left is the single rolled; at right is the double rolled.

On Monday I created my first recipe! And I will share it with you. I love soft cookies (hence the Mrs. Fields reference). So I set out to make a classic soft chocolate chip cookie. Then some chocolate lentils (MnM's) and white chocolate chips came in the mail, and I decided to make monster cookies. To make these cookies soft and buttery, I used a combination of shortening and Earth Balance margarine. To that end, I also used a disproportionate amount of brown sugar to white sugar to increase the moisture. (I didn't use all brown sugar because I didn't want it to leave an aftertaste). Because I used so much brown sugar and chocolate, I decided throw in some baking soda in addition to the baking powder to neutralize an acidic taste.

Monster Cookies

½ c. Earth Balance margarine

½ c. shortening

½ c. white sugar

1 ¼ c. brown sugar, packed

3 egg equivalents (4 t Ener-G Egg Replacer + 4 T water*)

1 ½ t vanilla extract

2 ½ c. flour

¾ c. rolled oats

¾ t salt

1 t baking powder

1 t baking soda

½ c. chocolate chips

½ c. white chocolate chips

½ c. chocolate lentils (MnM's)

Cream together the Earth Balance, shortening, sugars, egg replacer, and vanilla for a minute on medium-high speed.

In a separate bowl, mix together the dry ingredients (flour through baking soda). Beat together the wet and dry mixes, adding the dry to wet in two increments. Mix in the chocolate chips and lentils.

Cover the bowl of cookie dough with plastic wrap and put into the refrigerator. Meanwhile, grease two baking pans and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. When the oven is ready, take out the chilled cookie dough. Roll dough into golf-sized balls and drop onto the pan two inches apart. Slightly flatten with your palm. Bake for 10 minutes only. They may look undercooked, but press forward knowing they will firm up and that cooking a minute longer will make them too crisp.

Keep dough in the fridge, covered, while one pan of cookies is baking. In the last minute of baking, take out the chilled dough and prepare the next cookie pan. Once out of the oven, cookies should stay on the pan for a few minutes before being moved to a plate or cooling rack.

* If you use a different egg replacer, keep in mind that the cookies need that 4 tablespoons of water. If your cookie dough is dry and crumbly, try adding a tablespoon of water at a time until the dough reaches a smooth consistency.

Questions remaining for this week:

  • Where do oats figure into the dry ingredients? Are they like four in that they add protein to the dough? Or are they like chocolate chips – just add-in's that don't affect the dough?

1Pastry flour is low-protein, but all-purpose flour can range from 10 to 12 percent protein!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Food Composition and Cooking Method

Last week I studied food composition and cooking method, subjects which didn't interest me as much as I expected. I spent most of last week going back and forth between Harold McGee's book, On Food and Cooking, and Shirley Corriher's Cookwise. Usually, what I read in McGee made no sense because it was overwhelmingly science-oriented and he did not connect it to cooking. But what I read in Corriher lacked details. By Friday, I had bits and pieces of new cooking knowledge, but I was struggling to understand how it all fit together.

Which is why I put off posting for so long. Rather than try to create a new meal, I ended up paying closer attention to what I was already cooking for meals. For example, I made black bean and acorn squash empanadas on Saturday (Veganomicon). As I was about to put the squash in the oven to cook, I realized that I could caramelize it. I already had the basic preconditions for caramelization: high temperature (400 degree oven), long cooking time (50 minutes), a non-acidic environment, and proteins. All I needed was some glucose for browning. I brushed maple syrup onto the squash, and popped it in the oven. Fifty minutes later I was surprised that it had browned. It was too crispy to mash up for the inside of empanadas, so I scraped it off and we ate the caramelized part as it was. It was sweet and delicious.

On Sunday I sautéed chopped white onion to go on a pizza. It wasn't cooking quickly enough, so I thought back to a passage from Corriher that recommended salting boiling water to hasten the cooking time of some vegetables. (Cooking time is 10% faster with salted water). I wasn't boiling the onions, but I still tossed in a ¼ teaspoon of salt into the pan. I noticed the onions did cook a little quicker, but even more noticeable was that the onions softened considerably. They were very translucent. I'm not sure, but I believe salting forced the water in the onion cells to leak out faster, causing the chopped onion to soften and become translucent in a few minutes over medium-heat.

Today for lunch, I sliced four large waxy potatoes into French fry sticks to make spicy Cajun oven fries (Vegan with a Vengeance). Two potatoes were room temperature, like I always use when making oven fries. The other two had been sitting in the refrigerator for a day, as per Corriher's suggestion for making crispier fries. When chilled, starch converts to sugar. Sugar burns at a faster rate than starch. For deep-fried French fries, this conversion is a disaster because the outside will brown before the inside if truly cooked. For oven fries, this conversion is genius. They will brown and cook at equal rates, but will ultimately brown better than room temperature potatoes. Another trick Corriher suggests is to pat dry the potatoes before cooking in the oven. Drying the potatoes removes water that starch would otherwise absorb. If the potatoes are dry, the starch will suck moisture out of the potato until the surface is dry. Corriher describes this as "sealing" the potato. It also prevents grease from soaking into the potato sticks. So, I placed the room temperature potato sticks on one pan, and the chilled potato sticks on another. I expected the chilled potatoes to be crisper and less greasy.

I was right! At left are the room temp potatoes; at right are the chilled. The room temp potatoes browned, but it was uneven. The inside was also crumbly compared to the chilled potatoes – perhaps because the starch didn't seal the exterior?

This past week I learned a lot, but it will take time for me to apply everything in my cooking.

I learned...

  • why steaming is so effective

  • why lipids don't dissolve in water

  • why some vegetables are refrigerated and others are not

  • that cooking is literally cell death by rupturing membranes and leaking out water

  • sugar helps fruit retain its shape when cooked by slowing down the conversion of pectin around the cell walls. (This must be part of the reason why you toss apples and sugar together to make apple pie filling?)

  • blanching is not a cooking method, but rather a technique to brighten up vegetable colors and to loosen fruit skins

  • why my mashed potatoes fail consistently: I haven't been precooking and rinsing off starch!

But I was still confused and/or need to learn more about...

  • why roasting carrots makes them sweeter but pan-frying them doesn't. Why do sugars break down from double compounds into single compounds in the oven but not in the pan?

  • braising meat. Will it work with mock meats?

This week is baked goods! Get ready for food porn. I bought a used digital camera, so the photos ought to be decent. Don't worry – I won't post anything that's blurry or dark.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Blog Voice

After reading my first post, my boyfriend, Jeff, told me that the writing was slightly hokey. OK. I confess that I usually don't say "magical" and "mysterious" in everyday conversation.

The thing is, most food blogs have their own unique voice. For some, it's writing with an attitude, or with curiosity, or with grace. Now that I have my own blog, I wonder at how they do it. How do you find a voice that is you, but still interesting? My tendency is to be straight-forward, a voice that isn't exactly attention-grabbing. Either I'm not cut out for blogging or I need to find a fascinating part of myself to exaggerate in my writing. Anyway, I promise not to use words like "magical" to ever describe food, but I will try to spice up my writing so no one tunes out while I'm explaining chemical bonds and browning. (Oh, just you wait. The chemistry posts are coming).

Getting Started

For someone who cooks regularly, I know surprisingly little about it. For example, I have no idea why onions turn brown and delicious when I cook them for a few extra minutes, or how a sticky blob of dough transforms into seitan when boiled for an hour. There is something magical about cooking, but should it be so mysterious? Are unburned cookies really just luck?

I have one month to unlock the secrets of cooking and baking. It's called Winter Term. Every January students at my college disappear from campus to undertake internships, service trips, and fascinating projects. This year, my last, I decided to stay put and learn more about vegan cooking. In doing so, I hope to improve my results in the kitchen and to start creating my own recipes eventually.

To begin my project, I wanted to spend a week simply learning about different cooking methods (parboil vs scald vs poach, and so on) and how common veggies like broccoli, onion, and potato act under different temperatures. How do these raw veggies become soft, palatable food?

Future weeks will explore baking, decoration, sauces, and mock meat. Stay tuned (if anyone's actually out there)!