Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Something unique and wonderful is happening in desserts today: a trend to smallness. Every time I pick up a catalog or menu I notice something micro or mini. It does my heart good - and not only because I find a nation of porcine humans revolting. I’m equally revolted by giant slabs of anything on my plate. No matter how wonderful the dessert, if there’s too much of it my gut goes into over-bloat and my tastebuds shut down.
From the perspective of the home baker, however, the micro/mini “movement” presents challenges. Older cookbooks published dessert recipes in the farmhouse tradition - ie - for hungry families of 12; and contemporary recipes, which were often based on the traditional ones, are frequently oversized. OK, so anyone with a calculator and basic math skills should be able to reduce recipes. But downsizing falls short when measurements are in dry volume. (When, for example, was the last time you saw a 3/32 measuring spoon?) 
And then there’s eggs.
I’ve campaigned against dry volume measurements elsewhere, even posted a conversion table on my website. But the problem of eggs is more significant.
Eggs are an essential part of many pastries. Their role in structure and flavor is indisputable, and I feel sorry for folks who are allergic to them. When it comes to dividing a recipe into small quantities, however, eggs get in the way.
If a cake requires 4 eggs and will be 6” high, and we know that a 1 and 1/2” high cake which is cut and presented nicely will be perfectly satisfying, most of us can do the math. But what if that 1 and 1/2” cake is still too big? What if we want it to be 33% less, or just 1” tall? How do you cut an egg into thirds?
OK - you could make the batter and then throw away 1/3 of it. Call me Presbyterian (I am), but that seems incredibly wasteful. There’s also no need, if you just get a bit flexible with eggs.
Your kitchen scale continues to be your friend. You can put a bowl on your scale, zero out the scale, break the egg into the bowl, mix the egg gently, and then take out what you do not need. A turkey baster helps in this, but arm yourself with a sharp knife, ‘cause you’ll have to slice through an eggy drool at the nozzle end to get exact weight. If the egg must be separated you’ll need to use two bowls. When using the baster to draw up discard, start with the egg white, since yolk contaminating white will make it impossible to whip peaks.
Mise en place for cookies, with a single medium egg
Another alternative is to use smaller eggs. Almost every recipe that uses eggs calls for “large.” Our national obsession with excess has provoked grocers into stocking “extra-large” and “jumbo”, but some stores - notably in poorer neighborhoods - carry “medium”. (I have yet to see “small”, though my local upscale market carries quail and pheasant eggs, which are quite tiny.)
I recently worked my way through a carton of medium and another carton of large eggs, weighing each. Shell on, larges weighed an average of 65 grams and mediums, 50 grams. Put another way, if you substitute a medium for a large you can reduce the rest of the ingredients down 77%.
Medium eggs were very helpful when I baked a first-try of Bennecake cookies. The published recipe, built around one large egg, promised a yield of 22, 3 1/2” cookies. - great for a party but not so great for two middle-aged people not interested in gaining weight. Cutting back to a medium egg brought the recipe down to 14 cookies, which were dispersed as follows: 2 for Leslie and I to taste-test, 4 to set aside for dessert the following evening, 4 to give my skinny, young, ice skating coach, and 4 to bring to my mother when I drive to Ohio. (She weighs only 114, is 91 years old, and could stand to put on some weight. Or not care if she does.)
Bennecake cookies, ready to bribe my coach
I happen to think that such dispersal is cheating, since the objective of home micro-recipes should be just enough for one small dessert, but when you try to bake really small, other problems creep in - such as finding a bowl-and-beater combination that will let you cream the butter efficiently, and measuring tiny amounts of baking powder, salt, etc. with precision.
I’ll suggest precision methods and do some of the math in another post, but since you’re all by now more interested in that word “Bennecake”, I’ll follow that thread.
I learned about Bennecake from an article in The New Yorker, which prompted me to look up Anson Mills, maker of Bennecake flour and other goodies. Almost everything you’ll need to know about making these cookies (which really are divine, by the way - the folks at Anson are right when they say peanut butter cookies are sturdy clogs and Bennecake cookies are a pair of elegant slides) can be found on the website, with one crucial exception: of course the published recipe uses wheat flour.
My 1:1 substitute for pastry wheat flour, at least in a recipe where you want the Bennecake, sugar, and butter to dominate, is the late Bette Hageman’s Featherlite blend. My version, slightly different from hers, is 167 grams of fine white rice flour, 145 grams Expandex modified tapioca starch, 115 grams cornstarch and 13 grams potato flour (NOT potato starch). I also added 1/4 tsp of Xanthan gum, which perhaps could be cut in half for anyone desiring a more-crumbly result.
My ingredient list:
109 grams butter, softened to 60 F
88 grams light brown sugar
109 grams Featherlite flour blend
1/4 tsp Xanthan gum
55 grams Bennecake flour
3/16 tsp baking powder
3/8 tsp fine sea salt
1 medium egg
3/4 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 TBLSP milk
Rather than print the extensive instructions, I’ll refer you to the Anson Mills website
My next cookie project includes concepts based on Turkish spices and the flours of Africa (Teff; Sorghum). If they take me too long to perfect, I’ll post a math column first. Happy Thanksgiving, all!

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