Saturday, October 29, 2011

Mise En Place

A freak October blizzard howls outside, tearing down trees and bringing to an over-dramatic close the spectacular mushroom season of 2011. Hardcore foragers will scoff, but when my favorite fleshy basidiomyces freeze solid, I head for the stack of postponed non-fungal projects. Unlike true myco-fanatics (some of whom foraged in NYC's infamous Boxing Day Blizzard of 2010), I'd rather bake than study slime mold scraped from an icy log.

Mushroomer Jason Cortland

So it's back to the two-bite dessert project, but this time with a vengeance. Uninterrupted by reports of momentous blewit outcroppings, I can concentrate on the next phase: cookies.
Before I do, though, I'd like to set some things right. That is, provide a bit of mise en place about tools and texts.
Texts first. You can't love baking without loving cookbooks. Set me down in a big-box bookstore, or better yet, Powells in Portland Oregon, and I'll gravitate to the cookbook section like an iron chip floating to magnetic north. I don't buy much, but the pictures entice me, the ingredients and techniques astonish me, and the authors' credentials impress me. It's like visiting an X-rated video store, but without the fantasy and humility. (I could acquire author credentials!)
Several weeks ago I found myself in a cookbook section of a Barnes and Noble in Carmel Indiana. There I found, tucked among the food porn, a slim and almost-unillustrated volume that has changed my baking life. The book is Michael Ruhlman's Ratio, and it is pure magic.
What Ruhlman has done is assemble universal cooking ratios in a single, clearly written and easy-to-understand volume. Ratios are the hidden engine behind recipes; anyone who's done anything in the kitchen has used them. (Example: to make coffee, use 1 heaping tablespoon of ground coffee for every 6 oz of water.) However, Ruhlman has reduced them to mathematical simplicity, removing gibberish (how does a "heaping tablespoon” of solid relate to 6 oz. of liquid?) and pointed out their universality. This elevates ratios to the status of architecture - ie, the underpinnings of everything we cook - while at the same time de-mystifying them.
A bit of caution before you rush out and buy your copy: Ruhlman's ratios are based on wheat flour, and they don't always hold with gluten-free blends. Nonetheless they are close enough to provide useful starting points, plus they are conceptually revelatory. Understanding that all cookies, for example, are based on the same ratio of sugar-to-fat-to-flour liberates the mind from slavishly following others' recipes and frees it to work on one's own. The foundation established, secondary flavors become variables that any creative cook can adjust with confidence.
There's a caveat, however, and it's this: ratios are based on weight, not dry measure. Ruhlman might tell us that biscuits are all 3:1:2 (flour to fat to milk), but you can't put together a reasonable facsimile of anything biscuit-y if you use cups or tablespoons to proportion these ingredients. However, if - for example - you make the biscuits with 300 grams Bette Hageman's Featherlite Gluten-Free flour blend, 100 grams pinched, unsalted butter, and 200 grams buttermilk, you're golden.
Which leads me to the most important tool in my kitchen these days, a digital scale. Like most other home bakers I balked at the prospect of weighing, rather than scooping and eyeballing, ingredients, and then I remembered my Photography Chemistry courses with the late Paul Krot, and how crucial it was to get the quantities right with home-brews. There's little chance a cook will expose himself to such photography hazards as chlorine gas from improperly proportioned bleach, but the more I thought about the unknown territory I was traversing (onward to perfect gluten-free bread!) the more I realized I needed - wanted - reliable instruments. 
My digital scale cost all of $30, and was a sacrifice at the time (2008). Shortly after I bought it I realized how unerring my formulas had become, and acknowledged it was the best investment of the summer. Not only that, it was easy to use. Set a bowl on the scale, turn the scale on, pour an ingredient into the bowl until you reach the desired amount, and, bingo. If the ingredient was damp or sticky and adhered to its bowl, the next ingredient could be measured in a new bowl after pushing the button called "tare", which means, "cancel the weight on the scale now so you're measuring only what you add." 
Three years later I still use these scales daily, though they're rimmed with flour, nicked and marred. I haven't even changed the batteries! 
I've been happy to see a slow public drift toward weighing, rather than dry-measuring. Concurrent with this is the increased use of weight in determining the dietary impact of foods. Hence you can now buy very good scales in places like CVS pharmacies and Bed, Bath and Beyond. I've seen them for less than $10.
Scale and Ruhlman at the ready, I'm about to develop cookie recipes. From the gluten-free perspective this will be a far more interesting and complex project than it would be for wheat-eaters. My pantry doesn't just have one or two flours, but 11 - not counting variations of grains, like blue, red, white and yellow cornmeal. When I apply a sugar-fats-flour ratio to each of these I'll have a wide-ranging pallet of flavors, each of which could be further amplified, riffed upon, or counterpointed with such ingredients as nuts, vanilla, butterscotch, fruits, seeds and so on.
However, before I begin I need to go shopping, and that brings me to two essential ingredients for my mise en place: sugar and butter. 
Just listing these makes me chuckle, since I can sense the wince they induce in some readers. Both have been "food villains" in decades past - sugar in the 70's and dairy in the 80's - much as gluten is today. In fact, every health problem the "alternative health" folks now lay at gluten's doorstep (except celiac disease, which is a scientifically documented disorder) has been previously assigned to sugar or dairy. Which is not to say these ingredients can create problems for a minority of individuals. Diabetics need to monitor sugar intake, and sugar can induce tooth decay. (No, it will not speed up your kids - that's a myth). Some people are allergic to dairy, and lactose intolerance is a problem for a few people (contrary to myths circulating the internet, the majority of humans DO have the gene that allows digestion of cows' milk). Finally, some folks don't eat dairy on principal.
If your belief system eschews dairy, by all means don't use it. And if you've got diabetes, sugar, whether in cookies or cakes or most other desserts, is problematic. Finally, butter is a fat, and fats pack a calorie punch. There's also some "bad fats" in the complex structure of butter, so folks with heart problems also need to use discretion. But if you're lactose intolerant (diagnosed by an MD or a DO, not a Facebook post), I say grab the Lactaid and make your desserts with butter, for there's nothing finer.
Taste is not the whole part of it. Unique among fats, butter contains water. When hit with oven heat, butter produces steam. This steam lifts the dough, and if you've figured out a formula that traps the effect, your products will have light, open crumb, or, alternatively, flaky light crumb. Thus they'll be more toothsome than would be the case with any other fat. 
Butter also offers some unique structural properties, creaming easily with sugar when it is @ 60F, flattening wonderfully when it's around 40F and melting at about 80F. Before it melts it can flake or raise doughs but afterward it's not so good at this trick. And once melted it can't be returned to its original structural quality no matter the temperature.
Fun with butter, sugar and flour will commence once the pantry is re-stocked. For now I'm watching the snow fly and baking some spaghetti squash. What's on my mind as the afternoon winds down is the evening's main course: a vegetarian pasta. But that's a different blog, as the saying goes.

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