Baking Crusty Shaped Loaves at Home with Sourdough or Instant Yeast

Ezekiel vs. Red Star Rapid-Rise

The primary difference between the kind of bread that you can buy in plastic bags for as little as $.99 a loaf at most supermarkets (exemplified, of course, by Wonderbread) and “artisan” breads that go for $5+ at bakeries isn’t actually the kind of yeast or flour or any special oils or add-ins. Usually, it’s the crust. And the key to the crackling, chewy crust that says “artisan” to most people is moisture.

When a loaf is exposed to the dry heat of the oven, a couple of processes are set in motion—the yeast start to go crazy and produce gas much more rapidly, which is what creates more holes in the dough (sometimes called “oven spring”), and the starches begin to gelatinize. In a regular, dry oven, the starches on the outside gelatinize really quickly, which can retard the rise a bit and create a smooth exterior. Steam slows the gelatinization process for the crust, which changes the texture.

Bakeries usually achieve their result with special ovens that blast loaves with steam in the early stages of baking. The no-knead method popularized by the NYTimes achieves similar results with a wet dough and a preheated, covered pot, which creates a mini-sauna for the loaf. I use the no-knead method a lot, adapted for my sourdough starter, and it probably has the best reward/effort ratio of any recipe I use regularly—the only thing I can think of that would even compete is roasted garlic. But sometimes I want a shaped loaf with the same kind of crust—a baguette or something with an interesting slashing pattern. Those are hard to achieve if you’re just dumping a dough too wet to knead into super-hot pot.

Bittman makes it sound nigh-impossible to achieve bakery results in a home oven any other way:

I have tried brushing the dough with water (a hassle and ineffective); spraying it (almost as ineffective and requiring frequent attention); throwing ice cubes on the floor of the oven (not good for the oven, and not far from ineffective); and filling a pot with stones and preheating it, then pouring boiling water over the stones to create a wet sauna (quite effective but dangerous, physically challenging and space-consuming). I was discouraged from using La Cloche, a covered stoneware dish, by my long-standing disinclination to crowd my kitchen with inessential items that accomplish only one chore. I was discouraged from buying a $5,000 steam-injected oven by its price.

But I have a method that I think works pretty well. It’s somewhere between the La Cloche method and the pot of stones method—it does require specialized equipment, but a baking tile is far more flexible and affordable than a La Cloche. Alton Brown says you can use any “unglazed quarry stone” and according to this post at The Fresh Loaf, “saltillo tiles” that fit the bill were selling for $1.50 at Home Depots in Southern California in 2006. For the steam, I set a cast iron pot on the floor of the oven, and just after I slide the shaped loaves onto the baking tile, I pour 1/3 cup warm water from the tap into the pot and then quickly close the oven. Five minutes later, I pour another 1/3 cup water into the pot. None of which seems especially dangerous, expensive, space-consuming, or challenging, and gives me crusty loaves in whatever shape I please.

windows live writer's photo-editing capabilities are cool, but just short of fix-your-cockeyed-framing cool

For these loaves, I used a basic baguette recipe, which I got from Brian’s grandmother. I had some whole wheat pastry flour and medium rye flour to use up, both of which are low-gluten flours, so I added a little vital wheat gluten, which you can get at most “natural food” retailers (it’s the primary ingredient in seitan). Gluten is the protein in wheat, which creates long stretchy chains when combined with water, and those capture the gas bubbles created by the yeast. If you use more than 1 cup low-gluten flour (which includes all-purpose wheat, whole wheat, and any kind of rye or spelt) you will definitely need to add gluten to get results that look like the pictures. I also threw in some flax meal, oats, and sunflower seeds.

A few days later, I was invited to a friends’ house later that evening and decided I wanted to take them some bread, but obviously it needed to happen fast, so I used packaged yeast. The dual recipes below the jump demonstrate the interchangeability of starter/instant yeast (I also explain how to substitute either in any recipe here). There are some slight differences—the sourdough version takes longer to rise and will contain more lactic acid which gives it a slightly more sour and “bready” flavor. Since the instant yeast version rises faster at room temperature, depending on when you slash it, the oven spring might not be as dramatic so the slashes will look deeper in the final loaf (like they do in the picture on the right at the top).  But either way, I think the result is lovely—a moist, chewy interior and crisp, shattering crust, great flavor and aroma.

These recipes are also completely flexible—you could use any combination of flours and add other seeds or nuts or dried fruits or grated cheeses or cooked alliums. You could shape it differently to make a baguette or a classic boule. If you can dream it, you can bake it.

the loaf of my dreams

Recipe and instructions, with pictures, below the jump.

Recipe: Sourdough-risen Multigrain bread (1 big loaf—I doubled this to make 2)

  • 1 cup refreshed starter
  • 1 cups water
  • 3 cups flour (I used 2 cups bread flour, 3/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour, and 1/4 cup dark rye)
  • 1 T. vital wheat gluten (optional)
  • 1/4 cup oats
  • 1/4 cup sunflower seeds
  • 2 T. flax meal
  • 2 t. kosher salt
  • 1 t. sugar

Recipe: Instant Yeast-risen Multigrain bread (1 big loaf)

  • 1 2/3 cups lukewarm water (not over 115F or it’ll kill the yeast)
  • 1 package granulated yeast
  • 3 2/3 cups flour (I used 2 2/3 cups bread flour, 2/3 cup whole wheat flour, and 1/3 cup dark rye)
  • 1 T. vital wheat gluten
  • 1/2 cup oats
  • 1/4 cup sunflower seeds
  • 2 T. flax meal
  • 2 t. kosher salt
  • 4 t. sugar

1. Prepare yeast: If using sourdough starter, measure out the amount required. If using instant yeast, combine the yeast with the sugar, 1/4 cup of the water and 1/4 cup flour, creating a “sponge.” Let the sponge “bloom” for 5-15 minutes.

Ezekiel 8 hrs after a feeding, refreshedan instant yeast sponge, just mixed after 10 minutes, activated

2. Combine all ingredients. Dump it all in a bowl and stir it together until a dough begins to form.

 February bread 064

3. Knead. Dump the ingredients onto a lightly-floured surface and treat it like a muscle you were trying to massage. As Harold McGee explained in yesterday’s NYTimes, the more you knead, the more even and consistent the crumb will be (more gluten to trap the gas => more smaller holes, rather than a variety of different-sized holes). So if you want a loose dough with big pockets, all you need to do is get the dough into a vaguely coherent loaf-like object and then let it rise a long time. If you want a very even, consistent crumb or don’t have the time to let it rise, knead the dough for about 10-15 minutes or until the surface doesn’t tear anymore as you knead it—instead, it’s a smooth, round ball. If you’re going for the lots-of-kneading method rather than the lots-of-rising method, you can test the gluten formation by making a “baker’s windowpane.” Pinch off a bit of dough and stretch it as thin as you can—if you can get it thin enough to see light through it, there’s enough gluten.

4. First rise: place the dough in a lightly-oiled bowl, cover it, and let it sit for 3+ hrs (for the sourdough) or 1+ hours (for the instant yeast). You want it to be doubled in size. You can leave it alone for longer than that and nothing bad will happen—though I wouldn’t let it sit out more than, 12 hours unless I wanted a really sour, sourdough flavor. Basically, you can just let it rise until you feel like dealing with it again. One way to test if it’s risen enough: if you make a depression in it with your thumb, it should not “heal” immediately, meaning you should still be able to see the depression a minute after you made it.

Ezekiel double-batch pre-rise Ezekiel double-batch 5 hrs later

Red Star single batch pre-rise Red Star single-rise 1 hr later, the condensation on the plastic is from the yeast breathing

5. Shape: Flour your hands well and scrape the dough out of the bowl, onto a lightly-floured surface. Fold the dough over itself a few times, and then create a round, oblong, or baton. Pinch the bottom together gently—it doesn’t need to be a smooth seam.

pictured on my Silpat, which no dough, no matter how sticky, can stick to. Without one, you just have to be more generous with the dusting flour.

6. Second rise: Sprinkle a towel with flour. I generally use the towels my grandmother made from rice sacks in an act of early-20th C. frugality, but I have used pillowcases in the past. Just nothing terrycloth. Gently wrap the loaf or loaves in floured towel(s)—I generally wrap them a bit like a starlight peppermint, twisting the edges and then loosely piling them on top. If you want to bake it the same day, let it rise another 40 min (for the instant yeast) or 1-2 hrs (for the sourdough). Otherwise, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 4 days and remove 1 1/2 hours before baking to let it come back to room temperature.

placed on the floured towelwrapped up like a hard candy stored in the refrigerator, next to the ketchup and pickles 

7. Pre-heat the oven and slash the loaf: 20-30 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 450F with a baking tile on an oven rack in the middle of the oven and a cast iron pot or broiling pan placed on the oven floor. When ready to bake, invert the dough onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper so the seam from shaping is on the bottom. The baking sheet is just used to transport the bread to the oven, like a pizza peel, so if it has edges, invert it–you want it to be able to slide the loaf onto the preheated stone. Using a sharp knife, make 3-4 cuts about 1/2” deep in the top. The slashes prevent the crust from splitting randomly during the oven spring and affects the final shape of the loaf. For oblong loaves, diagonal slashes are the norm. For a round boule, crosses, squares, or slashes like rays of light emanating from one side of the loaf seem common. Slide the loaf onto the preheated baking tile, and pour 1/3 cup warm tap water into the preheated pan.

from The Global Gourmet, picture links to source

8. Bake: Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until the crust is a deep golden brown and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped. After 5 minutes of baking, add another 1/3 cup warm tap water to the preheated pan.

9. Cool. Remove to wire racks. When you first take the loaf out of the oven, the cool air will make the crust audibly crackle, or “sing.”

it was suggested to me that these look like maggots. i disagree. you decide.

Artichoke and Roasted Garlic Chick Pea Dip

this picture gives you basically the whole recipe

Belated epilogue to last week’s posts about artichokes: a recipe you can use to test the “sweet” effect of preserved artichokes that’s not the typical, creamy spinach affair. While I was trying to figure out what to call it, I got into a little debate about what counts as “hummus,” hinging on the importance of tahini. I was initially pro-“hummus,” arguing that you can buy “hummus” labeled “tahini-free” (why on earth any sizable number of people would desire tahini-free hummus I have no idea—are there really that many people with sesame allergies? Is it a fat-phobia thing?). But I had to concede that the label implies that hummus would normally be expected to have tahini, and indeed wikipedia defines hummus as “a dip or spread made from cooked, mashed chickpeas, blended with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and garlic.” On the other hand, it also says the full name in Arabic is “حُمُّص بطحينة (ḥummuṣ bi tahnia) which means chickpeas with tahina,” which simultaneously implies that hummus always has tahini and that hummus qua hummus is something separate from tahini.

Ultimately, I decided that the rosemary and artichoke made it sufficiently distinct from hummus to merit a different name, but it’s definitely hummus-like. However, that’s no reason to feel wedded to the chick peas. If I’d had cannellini beans, I probably would have used those instead. Cranberry beans or black-eyed peas would probably work as well. And of course, if you have sufficient foresight, you can use dried beans instead of canned.

The “sweet” effect is definitely more pronounced before you add the acid, but like most bean-based dips/soups, you’ll probably want the acid in there to brighten the flavors. So f you really want to play with taste perversion, try it without the acid first. Let the dip really coat your tongue, give it a minute, and then drink some water. See if it doesn’t taste at least a little bit sweet.

Serve with bread, chips, crackers, cut vegetables, or as a sandwich spread. Makes a little more than 2 cups.

Recipe: Artichoke and Roasted Garlic Chick Pea Dip

  • 1 head garlic, roasted
  • 1 12-15 oz. can artichoke hearts, drained
  • 1 16 oz. can chickpeas, drained
  • 3-4 T. olive oil
  • 2 t. kosher salt (might want to start with 1 t. regular salt and adjust to taste)
  • 1 t. black pepper
  • 1/8 t. cayenne pepper
  • herbs (optional and flexible—I used about 1 t. fresh rosemary and 1 t. dried “Italian seasoning. I wish I’d had about 1 T. fresh parsley; any combination of rosemary, oregano, thyme, and/or parsley, fresh or dried would be great)
  • 1 t. white wine vinegar and/or 1 T. lemon juice 

the lazy person's roasted garlic1. Roast the garlic. Some people say you should slice the head in half and brush it with olive oil or some other kind of fanciness, but I never bother with that. I just wrap the whole head in foil and throw it in a 350-400F oven for 45-60 minutes. If I’m not using the oven for something else, I do it in the toaster oven to save energy. And basically anytime I’m going to have the oven on for 45+ minutes, I throw a head of garlic in too because why not? It’s delicious on its own, just mashed up with a little salt and spread on bread or crackers, and it’s awesome in a million other things—bean dips, composed butters, bread, mashed root vegetables, squash puree, salad dressings. You can do this up to a week in advance and store it in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use it.

2. Once the garlic is cool enough to handle, peel the cloves into a blender or food processor. Add the rest of the ingredients, except for 1 T. of the olive oil and the acid.

once it's roasted the peel just falls away

3. Puree, adding more oil or water if necessary to make the mixture smooth and creamy. Adjust seasoning to taste, including adding lemon juice and/or white wine vinegar if desired.

not much to look at, but you could pretty it up with a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle of paprika just like hummus if you were so inclined

The Sweet Science of Artichokes

i wanted a picture of artichokes boxing, but this'll have to do. image from 

At least you’ll never be a vegetable—even artichokes have hearts. –Amelie

I suspect that one of the reasons artichokes show up in appetizers so often, especially in the sugar-loving U.S., is that they make everything you eat or drink for a little while afterwards, including water, taste slightly sweet. It’s not quite the simple straightforward sweetness of sucrose, which I’m not sure would be an especially desirable effect no matter how much you like sweet things. Instead, it’s more of a sweet-savory enhancement, perhaps even a little bit umami.I cropped the chart description for length, but will happily send it to anyone who's really interested

According to a 1972 article in Science, the first written account of artichokes’ capacity for taste perversion followed a dinner for biologists at the 1934 AAAS conference. The salad course consisted of globe artichokes, and someone must have taken a survey—of the the nearly 250 biologists in attendance, 60% reported that after eating the artichoke, water tasted different, a difference most of them described as “sweet” but a small number said was “bitter.”

The Science article reports on the results of an experiment that showed that artichoke extract modifies the taste of water by temporarily affecting the tongue rather than the food or drink (which makes it different than saccharine, which can make water taste sort of sweet and/or bitter as residue on the tongue is re-diluted). They also isolated two molecules found in artichokes—cholorgenic acid and cynarin, and found that both, independently, had a similar effects on the perceived sweetness of water as adding 2 tsp. sugar to 6 oz. water.

However, a less formal acknowledgment of the strange effects of the artichoke exists in the ancient folk wisdom that artichokes are “impossible” to pair with wine. An article in Wine News Magazine claims to “dispel” the “antiquated myth” of impossible pairings, but many of the suggestions purport to work by minimizing the presence or effect of the cynarin, either by boiling the artichoke in "ample water” or serving it with acids like lemon and/or mayonnaise. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether either technique actually does anything to the cynarin and/or chlorogenic acid, I’m not sure that eliminating the chemical basis for the unique taste of the artichoke passes muster as a successful “pairing.” Essentially what they’ve done there is pair the wine with a less-artichokey version of the artichoke.

The Science article notes that the effects of cynarin and cholorogenic acid last longer than the sweet taste of sugar or saccharine, but are weaker and shorter-lived than that of miraculin, the protein in “miracle fruit.” Miraculin works by adhering to sweet-receptors on the tongue and acids in food, which makes the acids activate the sweet-receptors. I tried that with a bunch of friends shortly after The New York Times reported on it, and it really is trippy—lemons taste like candy, goat cheese tastes like cheesecake, and we all got stomachaches from eating so much acidic food in such a short period of time.

However, the protein miraculin seems to affect a much larger percentage of the population than the acids in artichoke. Just like at the AAAS dinner, a large number of the 1972 experiment’s participants didn’t experience a sweet taste after consuming artichoke extract. And again, a very small number actually said that the artichokes made water taste bitter. So it seems like cynarin/cholorgenic acid must have a different kind of mechanism, one that works for a majority of the population but exempts a substantial minority. Sadly, I can’t for the life of me figure out what it is. Does it inhibit bitter receptors? Attach temporarily to a certain kind of sweet receptor not everyone has? It seems to make white wines taste more sour, so perhaps it inhibits the tongue from registering the sugars in the wine? I don’t know, and I have searched. If you know, please share.

Anyhow, back to the question of what might alter or inhibit the cynarin and/or cholorogenic acid. In a post on "Transcription and Translation" also largely based on that 1972 Science article, biochemist Alex Palazzo claims that “pickled artichoke hearts don’t have this property.” I’m not entirely convinced, although this might be an issue of semantics. I won’t dispute that the sweetish aftertaste of canned or jarred artichokes seems muted in comparison with fresh artichokes, but I swear that even in that ubiquitous creamy, spinach-filled dip, or as a pizza topping, or in salads, or when added to paella, artichokes preserved in brine do contribute a subtly-sweet taste that affects the entire dish and any accompanying beverages. However, again based on my own subjective tastes and personal experience, marinated artichokes have little or no sweet aftertaste.

The difference seems to be that marinades, by definition, contain acid whereas brines typically do not—brines are just salty solutions. Now, pickling can imply either. Traditional pickling methods involve fermenting foods in brine, with no added acid. Their sourness is a product of the acids produced during fermentation. The more common form of pickling today begins with a solution that has added acids, usually vinegar. If Palazzo was referring only to the latter method—which would be artichokes labeled “marinated,” I agree with him. That also makes sense with the chefs’ suggestions to add acids in order to make artichokes play nice with wine; added acids must interfere with the cynarin and/or cholorogenic acid in the artichoke. But salt doesn’t seem to. Artichokes sold canned or jarred in brine (also technically “pickled”) still make food taste sweet.

Tomorrow, as this is apparently becoming artichoke week, I’ll post a super-easy recipe you can try to test the effects of artichokes in brine for yourself.

[Edit: Comments closed due to spam, but I welcome feedback. Feel free to e-mail me (see “contact” tab).

How to Eat an Artichoke, and other things trivia texting services can’t tell you

buying two fat globe artichokes in February in Michigan feels positively *decadent*

Every time I eat a whole, fresh artichoke I wonder two things:

photo by Matthew Wallenstein1) Who was the first person to take the time to figure out that if you cook this giant thistle bud and then remove all the stuff that’s still completely inedible, at the very center, there are a few ounces—not more than a few bites worth—of flesh that’s not just edible, but really tasty? (which frequently leads to questions 1a: how hungry would you have to be? and 1b: what else might that person have attempted to cook and eat?) and

2) How often do artichokes inspire that question? Like, in what percentage of instances where globe artichokes are prepared and consumed with at least some of their inedible parts intact do they cause people to wonder about their origins? Is it over 50%? Could it be as high as 70%? How many times, over how many different artichokes, has some version of the same conversation about the wonder and mystery of the artichoke’s discovery taken place?

Neither of which are answerable. The most we can know about the first person (or persons) who ate artichokes is that they probably lived in North Africa, where the giant thistles are still found in their wild form and where they acquired the Arabic name “al kharshuf,” which all the European names were derived from. But despite years and years of artichoke eating, I had never bothered to even find out that much because it’s not really a need to know kind of wonder that artichokes inspire. It’s more that they activate a sense of awe. Wonderment, I guess.

I mean, how weird and wonderful is it that this thorny armadillo of a vegetable exists? That there’s just a tiny piece of edible flesh clinging to each of the tough, pointy leaves and once you remove all of them and the bristly “choke,” you uncover this amazing savory-sweet heart that tastes completely unlike anything else in the world (except, apparently, the related cardoon I’ve never encountered)? If you read about it in a poem, you’d probably think it was a totally clumsy, ham-handed metaphor, too obvious by half. How literally incredible that some plant just happened to evolve that way.

Nonetheless, I decided to put question #1 to one of those crazy new services that charge you a fee to google shit for you, you lazy git text you answers to random questions. I asked kgb “Who was the first person to eat an artichoke?” at 5:57 pm. Here’s the exchange that followed:

From 542542

Thanks and sit tight. kgb is researching your answer & will send it shortly ($.99/answer). Msg&Data rates may apply. Reply HELP for help or STOP to cancel.

Received: Mon Feb 15, 5:58 pm

From 542542

Thanks for using kgb_Do you have any questions for us? We would love to answer it. Ask us! 24/7. No charge. kgb_team

Received: Mon Feb 15, 5:59 pm

To 542542

Never received answer to question: who was the first person to eat an artichoke?

Sent: Mon Feb 15, 6:02 pm

From 542542

Sorry for the delay. Pliny the Elder observed in 77 A.D. that Romans consumed artichokes. The name of the person to try it is unknown. No charge for this one.

Received: Mon Feb 15, 6:10 pm

So at least they don’t charge you if they can’t answer, and apologize if they get a non-answer to you in less time than it would take a sumo wrestler to stomp your ass. (I suppose that’s non-endorsing with faint praise?) ChaCha, “ur mobile BFF,” also basically threw in the towel:

The origin of artichokes is unknown, they are said to have come from the Maghreb (North Africa), so who knows who ate one first! Link

That “so” weirdly implies a causal connection between the fact that they’re from North Africa and the fact that no one knows who ate one first which seems a bit “Maghreb, land of mystery about which no historical facts can be ascertained!” If they were said to come from Sweden, would that also explain why we don’t know who ate one first? Another of our BFFs at ChaCha borrows a line from Greek mythology:

Cynara was a woman whom Zeus fell in love with and she betrayed him and he turned her into an artichoke because she ate them. Link

The myth of Cynara actually has a neat legacy in the names of one of the molecules that give artichokes their unique capacity for taste perversion—cynarin, which I’ll be writing more about in the next artichoke entry—and the liqueur made from artichokes—Cynar. But it doesn’t get us any closer to an answer to the questions.

I think a lot of what makes artichokes so intriguing is the fact that you have to be taught how to eat them, or initiated into what seems like a secret order of artichoke eaters. They’re complicated and fussy, the vegetal antithesis of the apple, whose starring role in so many sacred and secular stories seems fundamentally tied to how easy and natural the act of biting into a raw apple is. Surely Eve could have withstood the temptations of an artichoke. Surely Snow White would have figured out her disguised stepmother was up to no good by the time she was done with all that cleaning and trimming and cooking. You simply could not stumble on an artichoke in the wild and intuit how to consume it. And that’s not just because it has to be cooked: how much easier is it to figure out what to do with a potato or a winter squash?

off with its headMy mom was the one who taught me how to prepare and eat artichokes. On the rare occasions when they happened to be on sale at the grocery store, she would buy just one. We never ate them with or in a meal, always by themselves, often on the same day that we had gone shopping. I never saw other people eating them—not at restaurants or on television or at friends’ houses. I don’t even remember ever seeing my dad eat one. So artichokes always seemed like this special secret vegetable that only my mom knew what to do with.

However, wikipedia claims that what she always did with them: cut off the stem and the top, trim the leaves, steam until tender, and eat with butter is the way they are “most frequently prepared” in the U.S. I kind of doubt that in terms of the total volume of artichoke consumed; most artichokes eaten in America are probably consumed in the form of a creamy dip with a 90% chance of including spinach. But that kind of dip is almost always made with artichokes that have been frozen or preserved in brine, even by home cooks and Alton Brown. If you’ve ever had fresh artichoke, you already know why: they are one of the great exceptions to the general rule that everything savory is better with cheese and/or garlic. Fresh artichokes are so good by themselves, all you really need to do is steam them and eat them. So this won’t seem like much of a recipe, but in case your mom never showed you how, instructions and pictures after the jump:

Recipe: Whole Artichokes with butter (from my mom) the stem, which many people discard, actually tastes just like the heart

  • artichoke(s)—one per person unless you want to share, one artichoke actually makes a sort of romantic appetizer for two
  • water
  • salt
  • 1-2 t. butter per artichoke (or sub a vegan fat, if you like)

1. Set some salted water to boil in a large stock pot (or a smaller pot if you’re only cooking 1 artichoke). You can submerge the artichokes entirely, or just set them into 1-2” of water, or put them atop a steaming apparatus. I usually do the latter, treating them basically like broccoli so I don’t have to drain them afterwards. 

2. Cut off the top 1-1 1/2”  of the artichoke (see above) and the stem. Using kitchen sheers, snip any remaining leaf tips off. Peel the stem.

3. Place the artichokes and stems in the pot and boil/steam until you can pierce the bottom of the artichoke with a fork easily, about 25-30 minutes. If you care about color, don’t cover the pot. As the cell walls break down in the cooking process, the acids that are normally separated from the chlorophyll combine with them to create theophylline, so they lose their bright green color. If you leave the pot uncovered, much of the acid will evaporate with the steam. You may need to add more water midway through the cooking process.

February part 1 132

Or you can just microwave them. This is actually what my mom usually did—she’d put one in a bowl with a few tablespoons of water, cover it with plastic wrap with a few holes poked in it to let the steam escape, and microwave it for about 7 minutes, checking every couple of minutes to see if it was done. As with all vegetable steaming, the exact time may require some tweaking for your particular microwave, but it should give results that February part 1 133are virtually indistinguishable from stovetop cooking.

4. Melt butter (you could add some lemon juice or minced raw or roasted garlic if you really wanted to, but I prefer just the butter)

5. To eat: pull the leaves away one by one, starting at the bottom and working your way towards the middle. Dip each leaf in the butter and bite off the bit of flesh at the end.

As you work your way inside the bulb, the leaves will get smaller and thinner, and a greater portion of each one will be edible. They will come to resemble flower petals more than  leaves. And eventually, you’ll get to the “choke,” which would have been the purple bloom.

like petals the "choke," which is also just derived from the Arabic and not a reference to what will happen to you if you try to eat it

6. Scrape away the choke and drizzle the little disk of meaty flesh with any butter you have left. This is the heart; it demands to be savored.

mgofingers! in action!

And then everything will be sort of sweet for a while, even water. Which is a cool effect of the cynarin I’ll explain on Wednesday.

Sourdough Diaries: The Beginning—Introducing Ezekiel and How and Why to Make a Sourdough Starter

This is Ezekiel:

a grainy, cameraphone picture that would totally be his f'book profile pic if i ever got crazy enough to make him one

In some ways, naming your starter seems completely natural—it bubbles and teems with life, eats and excretes, requires maintenance, and, if neglected, will die. It’s a little like a very quiet, low-maintenance pet. I named the other two starters I cultivated, too: Isaiah, who I converted from an Amish friendship bread starter which probably initially included sugar and milk to a far more Spartan diet of whole wheat flour and water and then killed because I suspected the friendship starter relied on active dry yeast and I wanted a “wild” starter (I’ll explain the scare quotes in a minute) and Esther, who I stopped baking with and eventually let suffocate and die in her own excrement.

It’s not just me. I also know of a Lisette, a Philemon, and a Mr. Googly (gluten free). And Amish friendship bread starters, which are a kind of sourdough starter, were so often called  “Herman starters” or simply “Hermans” that there are still dozens of recipes out there that call for “1/2 cup Herman.” I really tried to figure out why and for a minute, this wiki page made me think it was something German passed down through the Pennsylvania Dutch that just happened to be a common name…until I noticed that even “Herman-Teig” has only been well known since the “1980er.” Which is about when most people’s fond memories of their mothers or aunts caring for and baking with “Hermans” date from (likely influenced by the 1970s Earth Mother vogue and what Warren Belasco has called the “countercuisine”). Also challenging the Pennsylvania Dutch theory: the English-language wiki claims that Elizabeth Coblentz, author of “The Amish Cook” said the rich cinnamon coffeecake that people sometimes flavor with instant pudding mix was nothing like Old Amish “friendship bread.” So while I’m skeptical, I have nothing to definitively dispute stories like this one from Uncle Phaedrus, Finder of Lost Recipes:

"Herman is a name that was given to a sourdough starter many years ago when a young girl (probably in San Francisco) watched her mother making sourdough. The mother explained that the sponge was a living thing and needed to be feed and watered. The little girl, in the way of little girls everywhere and everywhen, decided that it needed a name like everything else that was alive, and some things that weren’t. After due consideration, she bestowed the name "Herman" upon it.

Like most good things the mother wanted to share the starter with her friends. Along with the starter went the anecdote of her daughter’s naming the sponge. As friends gave this starter to other people, they also received the story of the little girl. To this day "Hermans" seem to pop up among sourdough aficionados everywhere, all due to a little girl and her need for everything to have a name. "


But the sad stories of Isaiah and Esther start to suggest some of the ways the “pet” analogy breaks down: it’s a pet that you routinely kill and eat every week or so, but that nonetheless can live for centuries in the right conditions—something between Rose Nyland’s pet cow and octogenarian Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. There are websites that will sell you starters that supposedly have special historical/regional pedigrees, and even one with information on how to get a starter that was carried west on the Oregon Trail in 1847 for free (in memory of Carl T. Griffith who, as the site claims, “gave a sourdough starter to anyone who asked, or who sent him a self-addressed stamped envelope.”) [A minor aside to the two people who’ve landed on this site in a google search for “oldest verified sourdough starter,” if you didn’t leave in a huff at my blog’s irrelevance never to return: I’m sorry to say I have no idea.]

Furthermore, I’m not totally sure what I’m referring to when I talk about “Ezekiel.” Is he (or should that be “it” or “they”? Is it totally perverse to assign my starter a linguistic gender?) just the particular strain(s) of yeast I’ve cultivated or is/are he/it/they the fermenting flour and water paste? The problem with the former is that I can change the kind of yeast living in the culture by changing how I feed him/it/them or what temperature I store (oh hell with it, if it’s perverse, it’s perverse:) him at. The problem with the latter is that I add about 1 1/2 cups of fresh flour and water every week, and remove about the same amount. I could convert him almost entirely to a new kind of flour in about a week’s time, in which case almost none of the original Ezekiel would be left. The compulsion to assign your starter a unique name seems, instead, like a symptom of the being-a-foodie-makes-me-special nature of most contemporary sourdoughing. No offense meant—I’m clearly guilty of it, too.mid-refresh

Anyhow, I won’t deny that I’m fond of Ezekiel, and maybe sometimes even a little stupidly proud in what only a non-parent could call a “maternal” way: My yeast culture! He’s 19 months old! And already he’s leavened everything from naan to chocolate cake! So, below the jump, instructions for one way to make your own little mason jar full of joy and fermented flour paste…oh, and an explanation about what a sourdough starter is in the first place.

dry and cake yeast, from the excellent Cooking for Engineers: at its most broadly defined is some combination of powdered grains or legumes and moisture, usually water, heated (Harold McGee offers a much better explanation of what actually happens to the proteins and starch and gas cells in the dough if you’re into that sort of thing). There are two basic kinds of bread: unleavened and leavened, a distinction relevant mostly to observant Jews who don’t eat leavened, or risen, bread during Passover (“the festival of unleavened bread”) to commemorate the exodus of Israelites from slavery in Egypt, when supposedly they had to leave so quickly, they didn’t have time to let their bread rise. There are multiple ways of leavening bread, including mechanical leaveners, like egg whites that have air literally beaten into them, chemical leaveners like baking soda and baking powder, and yeast.

from When using yeast to leaven bread, most contemporary bakers use active dry yeast or yeast cake purchased separately from the other ingredients in the bread. However, yeast exists…everywhere. It’s in the air, it’s in the soil, and it’s definitely present in, around, and on everything that ferments. The white bloom on grapes: yeast. The specific restrictions on what counts as “leavened” bread for observant Jews are actually relevant to the explanation of what sourdough is and how you make it: in order to be kosher for passover, bread made from wheat, barley, spelt, rye and/or oat flour must be baked within 18 minutes of being moistened with water. The reason for that is that there is yeast in grain flours, and once moistened, it will start to eat the starches in the wheat and produce gas—leavening the dough.

Some people will claim that the yeast in sourdough starters made without commercial yeast is coming from the air—and while that’s theoretically possible, it’s sort of unlikely. That’s why sourdough doesn’t rely on “wild” yeast. Yeast were probably one of the first domesticated organisms. For humans relying on agriculture for food—so basically everyone since people settled in cities, the literal dawn of civilization—fermentation made long-term food storage possible and made many nutrients more available. So yeasts likely developed in symbiotic fashion along with many agricultural products like grapes and wheat.

But there’s not enough yeast in most flour or in the air to leaven bread much, at least not before other kinds of bacteria and mold begin to grow. So that’s where the sourdough starter comes in handy—it’s a yeast culture developed specifically for the kind of flour you use and the specific conditions of the kitchen where you bake. And once you get that much yeast going in a flour-water paste, they produce a lot of byproducts like ethanol and lactic acid, which prevent other things from growing.

There are lots of reasons besides foodie cred or lack of access to active dry yeast why you might want a sourdough starter—1) it’s cheaper, because yeast is basically the most expensive part, per weight, of bread baking (unless for some reason you’re baking with saffron or vanilla beans), 2) the byproducts are flavorful, so while you have to let it rise a long time to get something that will taste like a real sourdough, you’ll still get more-bready breads with a sourdough starter compared to packaged yeast, 3) it may be healthier? There have been at least a few studies suggesting that fermentation makes the nutrients in flours more available and moderates the effect carbohydrates have on your blood sugar—I’ll look into this more some other time, this entry has already gotten a little out of hand and I haven’t even started explaining the process yet and 4) it will compel you to bake weekly or at least semi-weekly, which I know has improved my quality of life.

Also, it’s really easy, or at least it was for me (a friend in Australia has had some issues, and I wonder if there are some more aggressive molds there…). Anyhow, theoretically, all you have to do is combine some flour and water and then let it ferment. It usually takes somewhere between three days and a week to be strong enough to leaven bread, which might happen naturally if you just leave it alone, but most methods I read about before I created Ezekiel suggested that you feed your proto-starter approximately every twenty-four hours. That said, my starters all seem to “die” after a couple of days, and I’ve only gotten them to dough-leavening strength by leaving them alone for a little while. So the whole process, which I learned here, goes something like this:

Day 1: Combine 1 cup flour and 1 cup water in a plastic or glass container and cover loosely (cloth or plastic wrap with 2-3 holes punched in it)

Day 2: Stir well, discard* half of the mixture, add ½ cup flour and ½ cup water, stir and cover

Day 3: Stir well, discard half of the mixture, add ½ cup flour and ½ cup water, stir and cover

Days 4-10: If it’s beginning to bubble and smell yeasty, continue the routine for days 2 & 3 until it will rise a small amount of test dough.

If it isn’t bubbling and instead just separating into liquid and paste, stop feeding it and just leave it alone for 3-4 days; eventually, you should begin to see bubbles forming in the bottom of the paste mixture. At that point, without stirring it, pour off all but ~1/4 cup—you want to get rid of the liquid on top which will probably be greyish or brown, and the paste closest to it, but keep a few tablespoons of the clean, bubbly stuff at the bottom. Then, add 1 cup flour and 1 cup water, stir and cover. Then return to the routine for days 2-4 until it reliably gets frothy after feedings and will rise a small amount of test dough.

*I’ll post recipes for the “discard” in another entry.

What to look for:shortly after refreshing, getting all bubbly

A starter that’s ready to bake with will become frothy on top after feeding, sometimes bubbling instantly and definitely within 8 hrs. It will stay frothy until about 18 hrs after a feeding, when the bubbles may subside as it separates into a thick layer of flour-water paste underneath a layer of clear or yellowish liquid (a combination of water, ethanol, and lactic acid called hooch).

To test a starter for rising power, combine 1 tsp. starter with 2 T. flour, a pinch of sugar, and enough water to make a little ball of dough. Cover that and let it sit—you can put it on parchment or wax paper and mark its dimensions if you’re not sure you’ll be able to tell whether or not it has grown. Within 4-8 hrs, your little ball should double in size. If it can do that, it’s ready to make bread.


Starters are resilient—the yeast tend to beat out other competitors because most bacteria aren’t very good at digesting starches and the acid and alcohol create an inhospitable environment. However, if your starter ever grows pink, purple, or dark brown things, throw it out and start over (the smell will also turn from pleasantly yeasty and beerish to rancid and foul).

If you leave it too long between feedings and aren’t sure if it’s alive, try pouring most of it out, leaving just a few tablespoons and feeding it with a whole new batch of flour and water (1 cup each).

at home in the refrigerator


If you keep it at room temperature, you’ll have to feed it almost every day, so I choose to keep it in the refrigerator. You can even freeze a starter for up to 3 months, or pour it onto parchment paper, let it air dry, and then crumble it into powder, which is a good method if you want to mail starter to someone, or if you’re moving and won’t have reliable refrigeration for a while. Once thawed or reconstituted in some water, a frozen/dried starter should work just like it did before.

Refreshing and maintaining:measuring out refreshed starter for baking

Basically all sourdough recipes call for “refreshed” starter, which means the yeast are good and active—to refresh, I usually pour my starter into a glass bowl, add 1 cup water and 1 cup flour, cover it with plastic wrap and let it sit overnight or for 6-8 hrs. When I’m ready to make the dough, I measure out as much starter as I need into a liquid measuring cup, add ½ cup water and ½ cup flour to what remains in the bowl, mix well, and then pour it all back into the quart-size canning jar I store the “mother” in (which I cover with plastic wrap secured with the canning jar ring, poke 2-3 holes in the plastic, and return to the refrigerator). For me, it works best if I’m using 2 cups of starter to bake with, because I’m basically adding 1 ½ cups water and 1 ½ cups flour to the starter every week, which creates about 2 new cups of starter

The more often you use it/feed it, the quicker your rising time will be. If you don’t feed it at least once every 2-3 weeks, it may produce too much ethanol or lactic acid and/or start to run out of food, and get sluggish or die. If you don’t have time to bake, you can just stir it well, pour half of it off, and feed it with ½ cup flour and ½ cup water to keep it going in the meanwhile. Again, I’ll post recipes soon for what to do with the “discard” if you don’t want to throw it out.

If I need ½ cup or less for something, instead of refreshing the whole jar, I’ll usually just stir the starter well and measure out half as much starter as I need. Then I feed both the jar and the small portion I’ve poured out—e.g. if I need 1/2 cup starter, I’ll take the jar out of the refrigerator and and mix it well, and then measure ¼ cup into a bowl. I’ll add ¼ c. flour and ¼ c. water to the jar, mix well, and return it to the refrigerator. Then, I’ll add ¼ c. flour and ¼ cup water to the starter in the bowl (to refresh it), cover it with plastic wrap and let it sit at room temperature for 6-8 hrs. There will be a little extra, but I’ll either put that in the dough anyway or just throw it out, or make a tiny griddle cake with the leftover.

Using starter in other recipes:

These instructions produce a 100% hydration starter—meaning it has equal parts flour and water. A 50% hydration starter would have twice as much flour as water, and be more like a dough than a batter. Most recipes I’ve come across call for 100% hydration starters, but if you’re handy with a calculator you can adjust the flour/water ratios in recipes for other % hydration starters as necessary.

To substitute for 1 package of yeast, you need to use about 1 cup of 100% hydration starter. 1 cup of starter = ¾ cup flour and ¾ cup liquid. So, for a typical 1 or 2 loaf yeast bread recipe, you would use 1 cup of starter and subtract ¾ cup flour and ¾ cup liquid. Unless your starter is very active, you should also assume it will take about twice as long as packaged yeast to rise. For chemically-leavened breads (quick breads like muffins, biscuits, sweet breads, cookies, etc.), you can use 1 cup of your starter to replace ¾ cup flour and ¾ cup liquid.

Choosing flour:

Use whatever flour you want to bake with. As far as I know, any kind will work, but wheat and rye are by far the most common. Starters will develop the kind of yeast that works best for the flour they’re fed and the temperature of your kitchen. However, you can convert any starter to another kind of flour by feeding it with the new kind of flour for about a week. Also, a starter made with any kind of flour can be used to raise bread made with other kinds of flour. I feed my starter with high-gluten white flour (regular “bread flour”) but often add whole wheat flour for flavor and fiber. You can always use rye, whole wheat, spelt, corn, oat, garbanzo or other flours for part or all of the flour in most bread recipes. Low or gluten-free flours may not perform as well for some breads—especially ones that rely on gluten for their light, airy textures (crusty boules, baguette, ciabatta).

Things That Might Kill You Volume 1: Trans-fats

Trans-fats have been in the news sporadically in recent years, thanks largely to the bans passed by the New York City Health Department and the Indiana State Fair. Even consumers who don’t read the news have undoubtedly become familiar with the term because of food manufacturers labeling their products “0 Trans Fats!” (often with a small-print “per serving” which usually means there are trans fats in the product, just less than .5 g per serving) or “Trans-fat free!” whether or not they ever contained trans-fats in the first place.

from Ritz 100 calorie packs: from don't ask them about their msg content

But there still seems to be considerable confusion about what trans-fats are and why they might be bad for your health, which has likely been complicated by the long, stupid demonization of fats qua fats and saturated fats as a supposed cause of high cholesterol and heart disease.

Trans-fats are trans isomers of fatty acids, and although they occur naturally in small amounts in meat and dairy products from ruminants like cows and goats (in the form of vaccenic acid), the primary source of trans-fats in most Americans’ diets is hydrogenated vegetable oils. Most vegetable oils are composed primarily of unsaturated fats, which tend to be liquid at room temperature. criscoIn the early 20th Century, when the U.S. started importing soybeans as a source of cheap protein, soybean oil became readily available as a byproduct and was far cheaper than butter or lard. However, liquid and unsaturated fats get rancid much more quickly than solid fats, have a lower smoke point, and were unsuited to many American culinary traditions—biscuits and pastry crusts or all “short breads”* absolutely depend on solid fats to create their flaky texture, as explained in the note at the end.

Hydrogenation, a process first developed by French and German chemists around the turn of the century,  provided the solution: heating the liquid, unsaturated fats in the presence of hydrogen turned them into solids at room-temperature. Apparently, cottonseed oil was also far cheaper than the beef tallow used in candles, so that one of the first uses of hydrogenated oils. It took a little marketing work to convince people it was also good eating–the major campaign for years was “Use Crisco, it’s digestible!” (okay, actually that probably just reflected the central nutritional concerns of the early 20th C: indigestion and dispepsia, see Hillel Schwartz’s Never Statisfied.

from a 1915 Saturday Evening Post advertisement, see the whole thing at

However, the process of hydrogenation also creates trans fats, and a different kind from the ones present in beef and dairy products. Unlike saturated fats, trans-fats produced through hydrogenation have been repeatedly correlated with coronary heart disease, including fatal heart attacks, in large, long-term epidemiological studies, including the Framingham Study. A review article on the available research on the relationship between dietary fat and coronary heart disease (CHD) published this past September concluded:

According to the classic ‘diet-heart’ hypothesis, high intake of SFAs [saturated fatty acids] and cholesterol and low intake of PUFAs [poly-unsaturated fatty acids] increase serum cholesterol levels and risk of CHD. However, few within-population studies have been able to demonstrate consistent associations with any specific dietary lipids, with the exception of trans fats and n–3 fatty acids.

In other words, everything you’ve heard in the last decade about trans fats (bad) and omega-3s (good) actually seems to be supported by the available research, unlike everything you’ve been told for the last five decades about saturated fats.

However, many of the claims about the threat posed by trans-fats allege that trans-fats raise LDL levels. And it’s not at all clear to me that anyone should be concerned about the fact that trans fats might be associated with increased cholesterol, even "bad" cholesterol, for reasons I discuss in the second entry on saturated fat. The only thing makes me think trans fats might actually be bad for people’s health is the consistent, strong association between trans fat consumption and increased risk of CVD and myocardial infarction. I know correlation =/= causation, and I haven’t found any good evidence about a proposed mechanism. On the basis of the current evidence, it seems like there’s a difference between the naturally-occurring trans-fats and the ones produced by hydrogenation:

The association was only seen for for trans fatty isomers from hydrogenated vegetable oils. The mainly different trans isomers from ruminant fats did not show such an association. A case-control study in 239 people suffering an acute myocardial infarction found that after adjustment for age, sex and energy intake, intake of trans fatty acids was directly related to risk of myocardial infarction [241]. Those with the highest intake of trans fatty acids had twice the risk of myocardial infarction as those with the lowest intakes after adjusting for other cardiovascular risk factors. As with the Nurses Health Study, the association was only seen for trans isomers from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. (from a 1995 lit review in the British Food Journal)

Is that because the hydrogenated oils contain linoleic acid, and meat and milk with naturally-occurring trans-fats don’t? I don’t know. I think the most interesting finding from Harvard’s Nurse’s Health Study, which is one of the studies that did show a weak but significant correlation between saturated fat consumption and CVD, is that the consumption of trans fats was associated with a much higher incidence of CVD than saturated fats. That finding, which is nearly two decades old, should probably be pretty infuriating to anyone who’s eaten hydrogenated-vegetable-oil margarine or shortening in the last two decades because it was supposedly a “healthier” alternative to butter or lard. Similar findings in several other studies prompted the more recent review article to conclude:

The observational evidence that TFA are independently associated with increased risk of CHD events is convincing, though based on a more limited body of evidence.


There is probably no direct relation between total fat intake and risk of CHD.

So the persistent recommendation from public health and nutrition authorities to reduce total fat consumption? Not supported by the available evidence. But the reason this isn’t a  "things that won’t kill you" entry is because, well, trans-fats might.

What it means for how I eat

The short version: lard before margarine or shortening, except when the lard is shelf-stable or the margarine/shortening is produced using fractionation and palm oil.

This whole series of entries was inspired by the casual research I was doing to figure out what kind of fat I should use in the Christmas cookies I wanted to send to distant relatives. Before that, I generally used butter when baking, primarily for its flavor but also because of a vague belief I had that butter is more "natural" and thus potentially "healthier" than margarine or shortening—at least partially-inspired by the explosion of negative publicity about trans-fats in the last decade.

However, the goal of the Christmas cookies was to replicate recipes used by my grandmother, and those generally call for shortening. "Shortening" can refer to either animal or vegetable-based semi-solid fat, named for the "short breads" or "shortcake" they produce,* but in my family, it’s only ever meant one thing: big blue cans of Crisco, which even with the new formula, still includes trans-fat.

There's that crafty "per serving" again!The new Crisco formula does contain substantially less trans-fat than previous formulas, and it’s worth noting that the studies showing that margarine-eating is associated with increased heart disease and death generally involved stick or hydrogenated margarine—which is where some people have gotten the idea that stick margarines are worse for you than tub margarines. To the extent that the former usually require greater hydrogenation in order to be firmer and replicate butter for baking, and thus contain more trans fats, that’s probably true. Margarines produced through fractionation, which contain no trans-fats, could be just as healthy as butter, perhaps healthier if they contain omega-3s, perhaps less if the saturated fat in butter is a protective against cholesterol oxidation. At that point it’s definitely in the realm of “it’s complicated and there’s no clear evidence either way.”

If I had been making the cookies for myself, I might have just substituted butter and never bothered to look into it further. But aside from the flavor difference, butter also produces a thinner, crisper, and more delicate cookie because it’s only about 80% fat compared to shortening’s 100% (the other 20% is mostly milk solids and water). That’s fine if you like that sort of thing, but in this case was a problem both for verisimilitude and stability—I need them to get to their destinations at least mostly intact.

Lard seemed like the next best choice, being, after all, the other traditional solid fat that hydrogenated vegetable shortening was developed to mimic. But I felt hesitant about that because even though the family members I’m sending them to aren’t vegetarians, lots of people react with horror to the idea of eating lard. I would basically never dare to make something with lard and take it to a potluck lest people ask for the ingredients and then react the way people did when this guy took lard-containing liver pate to a Christmas dinner last year: making horrid faces and saying lard "will kill you." It’s not like they could have expected it to be vegetarian or low-fat—it was liver pate. People are just scared and disgusted by the idea of eating lard. Even I had this lingering sense that lard was supposedly "artery-clogging" or somehow terrible for you, and assumed that was because it was high in saturated fat.

As any readers who’ve been swept up in the minor lard revival probably already know, lard is primarily composed of unsaturated fatty acids (56-62% depending on where on the pig it comes from and how it’s processed). So even if the reason you think lard is scary and bad is that you think saturated fat is scary and bad, lard is  considerably better than butter (~36% unsaturated and 64% saturated), which people seem generally way less freaked out by.

BUT…the lard I bought, a green and white Armour container just like the one below, stocked in many supermarket’s meat coolers even though it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, contains not just rendered pork fat, but also hydrogenated lard. Or, as succinctly visually annotated by District Plates:

it's so cheap, too! and it seems like other kinds of lard are so expensive. boo. 

I’m still working through the lard, and deeply impressed by the pie crust and biscuits it produces, but I’m not convinced it’s a good idea to eat it. So ultimately, for the cookies, I decided to use a 50-50 combination of butter and the vegan shortening produced by Spectrum Organics, which is composed primarily of palm oil—naturally a solid at room temperature. 

I can’t be entirely confident that butter made from corn-fed, antibiotic and hormone-treated cows is necessarily "healthier" than almost entirely non-hydrogenated margarines, like Smart Balance. After a lot of mostly-fruitless efforts to find more information about what trans-fats might actually do to human health, I finally concluded that, as with most issues of diet and health, it’s complicated. Which is to say, there’s not a lot of information out there, likely because it would be extremely difficult and expensive to study with enough control and for a long enough duration to make very good conclusions. But I also can’t find any evidence that butter, even from industrial-agriculture cows, is unhealthy.

The cookies tasted buttery, but weren’t too fragile, and apparently got to their destinations mostly intact.

In sum, the list of fats I’m happy eating and feeding to my loved ones:

  • Butter
  • Non-hydrogenated lard 
  • Palm and Coconut Oils
  • Margarine produced through fractionation rather than hydrogenation
  • Liquid vegetable oils, though generally not in combination with saturated fats

And the fats I try to avoid:

  • Hydrogenated margarine, lard, or shortening

Beyond that, I think you might as well choose on the basis of taste and texture preferences or moral considerations (animal welfare, environmental sustainability, labor issues, etc., not that those are any clearer or less complicated).

*Short breads are distinguished from yeasted breads by their lack of long gluten strands, which can’t form when the protein in the flour is coated in fat, although that’s not, apparently, the origin of the name, which instead refers to the crumbly, flaky texture. The use of the verb "shorten" to mean "to make something friable or crumbly" was first used in reference to the effect of sand in soil and applied to breads long before the existence and function of gluten was understood. So that seemed like a neat coincidence, at first, but then I realized if it was really just about coating the flour in fat, there’s no reason only solid fats would be referred to a "shortening" because oil could do that just as well, if not better. But you can’t just substitute oil for shortening and still get flaky, crumbly biscuits or pie crust. What actually produces the flaky texture is the combined lack of gluten strands and the chunks of solid fat that melt as the bread bakes, creating thin layers between the layers of flour. So what initially seemed like a really neat faux-etymology turns out to not be as cool after all. Le sigh.

Neglected Pear Bread or When Pears go Pear Shaped–ha! I kill me! or Okay, so it’s not that funny but the bread was nice

just a bit past their prime...

“Pears are just so stinkin’ elegant.” –Half-Assed Kitchen

There are few things I love more than a perfectly-ripe pear—just soft enough that you could cut through the flesh with a spoon but not yet grainy or worse, mushy. But that moment seems to come and go so quickly. They sit there on the counter for a week after I buy them, flesh completely unyielding. If I dare to cut into one, it’s inevitably crisp as a good apple, but not nearly as sweet, not at all what I’m looking for in a pear. But then I  look away for a minute—check my e-mail, perhaps, or dare to fall asleep. And that’s it, I miss their few perfect hours. Next thing I know, I have three pears dissolving in my fruit bowl, just barely held together by their increasingly bruised skin.

Usually, at that point, I cut them up and throw them in a basic muffin batter with some powdered ginger. The bits of pear give the muffins an almost custardy consistency, like little pear and ginger-flavored bread puddings. But I got a little busy this week and ended up leaving them to degrade beyond the point where I could even dice them up.

feeling less neglected now, it seems!So I realized that if I was going to get any use out of them at all, it was most likely going to be as part of the moist ingredients, more like the mashed banana in banana bread than the blueberries in a muffin. But most of the recipes I found for baked goods using pears asked for them grated or chopped or shredded, all of which would have required a starting structural integrity far beyond what these pears had. I thought about just substituting them in a recipe for applesauce bread until I came across this recipe which called for canned pears, but involved pureeing them in a blender or food processor. It also called for almond meal, which reminded me of the traditional French tart with thin slices of pear layered over a frangipane base. And although I’m sometimes a little skeptical about advice and recipes I find on, the ultimate selling point was the note about how the recipe had been improved by the addition of baking soda to promote browning and off-set the acidity of the lemon juice. What can I say, I’m a sucker for science.

Which is not to say that I think baking is an exact science. I didn’t have quite enough almonds, so I substituted some ground flax meal. IMG_0166Even after I’d cored and peeled my three sad pears and pared away some of the worst bruising, I had a lot more pear than the recipe called for, so I left out some of the lemon juice. I added a little almond extract, in part to compensate for using less almond meal and in part because I just really like almond extract. And I added just a little cinnamon and nutmeg—not as much as I would have wanted in an applesauce bread, but just enough to give it a hint of spice. I only had one 4×8 loaf pan, so I used a 9×13 for the second loaf and had to leave that one in a little longer. Next time, I’ll probably substitute brown sugar for some or all of the white sugar.

It turned out lovely—the delicate flavors of pear and almond melding with a little brightness from the lemon and warmth from the spices. It’s moist and tender, not too sweet for breakfast or afternoon tea, and definitely better the  second (and third and fourth) day. Not, perhaps, quite as sublime or as elegant as a perfectly ripe pear, but not a bad result at all for pears so badly neglected.

Recipe, including explanations for some modifications in the method which are applicable to all quick breads and butter cakes, and pictures below the jump.

Recipe: Neglected Pear Bread (adapted from Linda Larsen)

  • IMG_01563/4 c. butter, softened
  • 1 1/4 c. sugar (white or brown or a combination) 
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 t. baking powder
  • 1 t. kosher salt
  • 1/2 t. baking soda
  • 1/2 t. ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 t. ground nutmeg
  • 3/4 cup ground almonds
  • 3 large overripe pears, cored, peeled, and pureed (~20 oz.)
  • 2 T. lemon juice
  • 1 t. almond extract

1. Preheat the oven to 350 and butter and flour two loaf pans, ideally 8”x4”. Or whatever pan you plan on baking it in—you could use bigger loaf pans or make something more like a cake in one or two round, square, or rectangular pans, or use muffin tins.

2. Cream the butter and sugar until smooth and fluffy. Then, add the eggs one at a time.

The original recipe called for creaming the butter, sugar, and eggs together all at once, and you would probably get a decent result that way. Creaming the butter with the sugar first cuts through the fat and aerates it, making sure there aren’t any lumps of fat in the batter, which would melt and create large holes rather than an even crumb. The reason I suggest adding the eggs one at a time is that the goal is to create an emulsion, and just like in mayonnaise the emulsifier is the egg yolk. If you add all the eggs at once, you’ll have to beat the mixture longer to make it smooth, and there’s a greater danger of beating the egg whites into a partial meringue. Over-aerated egg whites will tend to migrate towards the top of the batter and create a slightly tougher, cracked crust that might have a tendency to break away from the rest of the cake. So, just like it’s better to add the fat to the egg yolks gradually in a mayonnaise, it’s better to add the egg to the fat gradually in a cake batter.

 action shot! let this go too long and you'll have almond butter, which you might want to add to the moist ingredients rather than the dry

not quite 3/4 cup sliced almonds: about 1/2 cup ground almonds, so I used about 1/4 cup ground flax seed3. Grind the almonds. Once I realized I didn’t have enough sliced almonds (never mind ground), I just topped the measuring cup off with flax meal and threw it all in the food processor bowl.

4. Whisk the ground almonds (or any nut or seed meal substitutions) with the flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

5. Core, peel, and puree the pears. Add the lemon juice (will prevent oxidation/browning) and almond extract.

 yes, they're gross, that's the whole point of the entry another thing to do with far gone pears: cook them until this happens and have pearsauce

6. Add about a third of the flour to the creamed butter and sugar and mix until just combined, and then mix in about a third of the pear puree. Repeat until all of the fat, flour, and liquid are combined, mixing just until the batter is smooth and even.

The reason for alternating is to prevent the creation of gluten. Gluten forms the proteins in wheat flour combine with water. Mixing the flour with the butter mixture first coats the proteins in fat, which prevents gluten from forming. Doing as little mixing as possible also helps prevent gluten from forming (the whole purpose of kneading bread is to promote the formation of gluten), while still getting the batter evenly blended. If you added all the dry first, the batter would be too stiff and lumpy and you’d have to mix it so much, you would likely get gluten formation. If you added the liquid first, you wouldn’t get the protein coated in fat and would lose the smoothness and aeration in the emulsion. Alternating gives you the smoothest batter with the least gluten and most even leavening.

7. Pour into prepared pan(s) and bake until the bread is browning and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. In 4”x8” pans, the bread should take 45-55 minutes. In the 9×13 it took an additional 10 minutes. I’d start checking muffins at 25 minutes, and a cake pan at 35.

 not clean! clean!

8. Cool in the pan(s) on wire racks for about 10 minutes, loosen from the edges with a knife and turn onto racks to cool completely. Nice warm, but better the next day. If you want to freeze it, wait until it’s entirely cooled and then triple-wrap in plastic. 

Things That Won’t Kill You Volume 4: Saturated Fat Part II: Cholesterol Myths

image In retrospect, this probably could have been an entirely separate article in the "things that won’t kill you" series, as many people still believe that dietary cholesterol (i.e. cholesterol in food) is a bad thing. For example, the article that image was taken from claims:

If you get too much dietary cholesterol (over 300mg a day) the extra cholesterol will accumulate in the walls of the blood vessels, making your LDL (bad) blood cholesterol levels rise. Over time, your arteries will become narrower, which can cut off the blood supply to your heart (causing a heart attack), or your brain (causing a stroke).

However, that’s pretty easily dismissed—even Ancel Keys, "Monsieur Cholesterol" himself, never argued that dietary cholesterol was related to serum cholesterol or heart disease. In a 1952 article in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association, Keys noted that although rabbits and chickens that eat high-cholesterol diets will develop high cholesterol and atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries:

No animal species close to man in metabolic habitus has been shown to be susceptible to the induction of atherosclerosis by cholesterol feeding…. Moreover, even in the favorite species for such  experimentation, the herbivorous rabbit, the necessary concentration of cholesterol in the diet is fantastically high in comparison with actual human diets. Moreover, there is reason to believe that man has a greater power of cholesterol regulation than does the rabbit or the chicken. From the animal experiments alone the most reasonable conclusion would be that the cholesterol content of human diets is unimportant in human atherosclerosis.

Two "moreovers" in one paragraph, people! “Most reasonable conclusion”! Moreover, five decades of subsequent research haven’t given anyone any reason to think differently. In 1997, Keys was even more direct:

There’s no connection whatsoever between cholesterol in food and cholesterol in blood. And we’ve known that all along. Cholesterol in the diet doesn’t matter unless you happen to be a chicken or a rabbit.

Research done in the interim on the relationship between diet and heart disease in humans like the Framingham and Tecumseh studies showed no relationship between cholesterol consumption and blood cholesterol or heart disease. I’m not even going to modify this with "probably" or "as far as we know": There is no reason to believe that how much cholesterol you eat has any effect on your health.

But that doesn’t stop the AHA from recommending that “most people…limit cholesterol intake to less than 300 mg per day” and claiming that “an egg can fit within heart-healthy guidelines for those people only if cholesterol from other sources — such as meats, poultry and dairy products — is limited.” Despite repeated studies showing that egg consumption is not associated with higher serum cholesterol, myocardial infarction, cardiovascular disease, or all-cause mortality.

Backing up for a second: Ancel Keys, wherefore art thou Monsieur Cholesterol?

The reason Ancel Keys was called "Monsieur Cholesterol" wasn’t because his theory had anything to do with cholesterol in food; it was because his theory depended on the idea that saturated fat consumption causes blood cholesterol levels to increase, presumably putting people at risk of heart disease.

If you read Part I of this article, you may remember that I said there were three things that convinced me that saturated fat wasn’t a cause of heart disease. I explained the first two in that entry. (To recap, they were: 1) the fact that people in places like France and the Pacific Islands eat way more saturated fat than Americans but have much lower rates of heart disease and 2) the fact that the study that first led people to believe saturated fat was the cause of heart disease was bad science that has since been discredited–not that that’s stopped people who think saturated fat is bad from citing it all the time anyway).

The third reason is that there’s no evidence supporting the proposed mechanism—meaning the idea that saturated fat causes heart disease by raising serum cholesterol.

You’d never know that from the mainstream media reporting on the research. Take, for example, this 1998 US News and World Report cover story, which describes the Framingham Study and claims:

Thanks to Framingham, Americans have come to understand that how they live often determines when they’ll die. After 50 years, 1,000 research papers, and $43 million, the Framingham Heart Study has shown that smoking is bad for the heart, that high blood pressure is not a normal consequence of aging, and that high cholesterol leads to heart disease. They know that women are at risk for cardiovascular disease, though later in life than men. They know that diabetes is a risk factor (a term coined by the study), that weight affects blood pressure, and that eating too much saturated fat affects cholesterol.

Compare that to what William Castelli, the director of the Framingham Study, wrote in a 1992 article in the Archives of Internal Medicine (quoted here):

In Framingham, Mass., the more saturated fat one ate, the more cholesterol one ate, the more calories one ate, the lower the person’s serum cholesterol.

The people who ate more saturated fat and calories were also more active, which might explain the results, but certainly doesn’t explain the US News and World Report article claiming the opposite.

The Tecumseh Study, which compared dietary habits with serum cholesterol and triglyceride levels, found no significant difference between saturated fat consumption and cholesterol levels (see the chart on page 3, 1386 in the original).

And Just to Complicate Things Further…

The proposed mechanism relies on two causal relationships: 1) saturated fat consumption—> increased serum cholesterol and 2) increased serum cholesterol—> cardiovascular disease. I’ve just explained why the evidence for the former is, at best, conflicting, and that alone would undermine the lipid-heart hypothesis. But it turns out the evidence for the second part of the mechanism is also complicated.

Castelli, again:

Cholesterol levels by themselves reveal little about a patient’s coronary artery disease risk. Most infarctions occur in patients who have normal total cholesterol levels." (From the American Journal of Cardiology)

from popular theory about cholesterol basically imagines that people’s arteries are like  pipes and cholesterol and fat are like grease that can gradually build up and narrow those pipes. Eventually, the arteries get clogged, and pieces of the plaque that break off or blood clots can get caught in those greased-up pipes and cause heart attacks and stroke.

It’s true that heart disease is generally caused by the buildup of a fatty plaque in the arteries, but cholesterol and fat don’t necessarily stick to and harden or clog arteries—not even so-called “bad cholesterol” or LDL. Oxidized LDL is what accumulates in white blood cells and become what are called “foam cells” which make up atherosclerotic plaque. Oxidized LDL also causes inflammation, which has been a major focus of recent research on cholesterol and heart disease. There is a much more complicated explanation, complete with citations from the relevant research here.

So the key to figuring out what causes heart disease is figuring out what causes (or prevents) the oxidation of LDL, not figuring out what causes increased levels of LDL qua LDL. Perhaps the most worrying finding is that one thing that seems to cause the oxidation of LDL is linoleic acid a poly-unsaturated fatty acid found primarily in vegetable oils. Saturated fat, on the other hand, actually seems to have a protective effect.

The literature is pretty complex, and I won’t pretend to have taken the time to parse out everything about atherosclerosis and cholesterol and essential fatty acids and endothelial cells. Nonetheless, I’ve been sufficiently moved by everything I’ve read to start using more butter and lard when I cook and seriously reconsider using vegetable oils anytime I’m preparing a meal that also includes substantial saturated fat. Because, again, there is no indication that the total volume of saturated fat or cholesterol one consumes increases the risk of heart disease or mortality, but a particular fatty acid found in vegetable oils oxidizes cholesterol, which does contribute to heart disease. Saturated fats and HDL or “good cholesterol” actually prevent oxidation and atherosclerosis.

That makes some sense with population studies too—populations that traditionally consumed large quantities of saturated fats and dietary cholesterol (Pacific Islanders, the Masai in Africa, the French) generally did not rely heavily on vegetable oils; populations that consumed large quantities of vegetable oils and fish oils (Mediterranean populations, the Japanese) generally consumed relatively little saturated fat and cholesterol.

That also means that eating lots of red meat, milk, and butter or other sources of saturated fat and cholesterol while also eating lots of olive oil, canola oil, and other sources of linoleic acid would be the worst combination possible. It would be a supreme irony if it turned out that one of the primary causes of atherosclerosis and the heart disease associated with it was the olive oil and vegetable oil that public health authorities have been urging a red-meat-eating people to substitute for animal fats for the last sixty years. 

Next up in this series…trans-fats and why they might actually kill you.

NYE 2010 Part II: Admiral’s Punch and Festive Sweets

cocktail in a bowl!

At past New Year’s Eve parties, we’ve mixed cocktails to order, and we never draw such a crowd that that’s a problem. However, I did find the Bon Appetit Foodist article about punch that would be less fizzy –spiked-pineapple-juice and more cocktail-in-a-bowl pretty compelling, both for ease of serving and because it enables you to make a drink that benefits from muddling and sitting and melding and chilling, all of which are either annoying or impossible to do on demand and to order. Also, I thought the recipe that called for little more than cognac, lemon juice, sugar, and sherry with a little nutmeg grated in sounded pretty delicious.

And it was. If I’d mixed three batches, it might…might have lasted until midnight. Of course, then we might all have been in too bad of shape to have any champagne.

As for sweets, I could have just relied on the candies I’d made for Christmas. Candies are useful for catering because they’re, by nature, practically non-perishable, sugar being a preservative and all. Additionally, they’re generally best served at room temperature, can be made weeks in advance, and rarely require flatware or cutlery. But candy just never seems totally satisfying as a dessert to me.

So the challenge was to find sweet fingerfoods that were elegant—most cookies don’t quite say “cocktail party” to me—but wouldn’t degrade too much sitting out for hours. I decided on a flourless chocolate-orange cake, cut into two-bite squares, and shortbread fingers filled with three different flavors of preserves. As a bonus for party-planning, both are best eaten the day after they’re made, so you can make them in advance, albeit not as far in advance as candy.

Flourless Chocolate-Orange Cake

instructions for candied orange zest curls also below

 Shortbread Fingers

these are strawberry-raspberry, blueberry on the plate behind, and out of sight my favorite: apricot-peach

Recipes and more pictures below.

Recipe: Admiral Russell’s Christmas Punch a lot of the nutmeg stuck to the ice, but that was fine because it perfumed the drinks without having a lot of grit in the glasses(from the BA Foodist)

  • 5 lemons
  • 1 cup raw sugar
  • 1 750-ml bottle Cognac, VSOP-grade
  • 1 cup amontillado Sherry (apparently “lightly sweet oloroso” also works)
  • Nutmeg, freshly grated

1. Fill a 4-cup metal bowl with water and freeze overnight. That will keep the punch cold without diluting it too much.

2. Peel 4 of the lemons with a vegetable peeler and muddle with the sugar. Let sit 30 minutes and then muddle again.

3. Microwave the peeled lemons, individually, for about 45 seconds each. Juice them—you need about 1 cup.

4. Bring 1 cup water to a boil, pour it over the lemon peels and sugar and stir until the sugar dissolves. Strain into a pitcher and discard the peels. Mix in the sugar, cognac, sherry, and 4 cups cold water.

5. Cover and refrigerate for 2 to 6 hours before serving. To serve, run the ice mold under hot water to release and place in a punch bowl. Pour the punch over and grate nutmeg over the surface. Slice the last lemon into thin slices to float in the punch

Recipe: Flourless Chocolate-Orange Cake (from Epicurious)

  • 1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, plus extra to grease the pan
  • flour for dusting the pan (~2 T.)
  • 6 oz. bittersweet chocolate
  • 1 cup plus 2 T. sugar
  • zest of one large orange
  • 4 eggs plus 2 yolks
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • powdered sugar, for dusting (~4 T.)
  • candied orange zest, for serving (recipe below)

1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter a 10” round cake pan. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper, and butter and flour the pan—including the parchment.

2. Melt the chocolate over a double boiler. Stir the butter into the chocolate until it melts, and stir until smooth.

3. Remove from the heat and whisk in the sugar and orange zest. Add the eggs and egg yolks and stir well.

4. Sift the cocoa powder over the batter to remove any lumps, and whisk batter until totally smooth. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 40 minutes, or until the top has developed a smooth, cracked crust.

5. Cool the cake in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Then, invert the cake onto a serving plate. Wrap and refrigerate overnight. Dust with powdered sugar before serving.

Candied Orange Zest 

  • 2 oranges
  • 1/3 cup sugar, plus more for dredging strips
  • 1/3 cup water, plus more for poaching

1. Wash the oranges and peel the into long, wide strips with a vegetable peeler, and scrape any white pith away with a knife. Cut the strips into long, thin pieces.

2. Put the orange zest in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a simmer and simmer at least five minutes, then drain.

3. Return the strips to the saucepan and add the 1/3 cup water and 1/3 cup sugar. Bring to a simmer and cook 10-15 min or until the strips are translucent and the sugar and water have become a thick syrup.

4. Remove the strips to a sheet of wax paper and spread them out. When slightly cooled, roll in sugar to coat and shape, if desired.

If you’re really crafty and patient, you can cut shapes in the zest with a knife or special hole punch. They’re still pretty if you just let them dry how they will, but if you want to curl them, you have to shape them while they’re still warm and pliable.

I started off by wrapping them around chopsticks, but those tended to unravel too much before they could cool and stiffen. Also, I don’t have nearly enough chopsticks to shape a whole batch before they’re cool. So toothpicks are the way to go.

you might be dextrous enough to get multiple curls on a single chopstick without having them all fall off. I am not.

Recipe: Austrian Shortbread (from Smitten Kitchen)

The peculiar thing about this recipe is that you make the shortbread dough, and then grate it like cheese, and layer the gratings over and under preserves. I’m not sure precisely what difference the grating makes—perhaps it’s less dense? The only other shortbread I’ve made has been quite thin, so I’m not sure how a traditional recipe compares to this—which produces bars almost as tall as my 9×13 pan will hold.

In fact, this recipe makes so much (obviously, right? 1 lb butter, 4 cups flour, 2 cups sugar) that if you’re not trying to feed a crowd, you should probably halve the recipe. You could either use a 9×13 pan and just make thinner bars or use an 8×8 pan.

One benefit to using a 9×13 pan is that you can make several varieties in the same pan, using different kinds of preserves, like so:

front to back: blueberry, apricot-peach, and strawberry-raspberry


  • 1 lb. butter, softened (4 sticks)
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 cups flour
  • 2 t. baking powder
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 1 t. vanilla or 1 t. lemon zest (I opted for the latter, as I’m fond of the perkiness citrus adds to fruit desserts)
  • 1 cup preserves—raspberry is the classic, but I’m crazy about Harry & David’s Oregold Peach preserves and just about anything would be great here
  • 1/4 cup. powdered sugar, for dusting

1. Cream the butter in a stand mixer until soft and slightly aerated (should be smooth, and is often described in recipes at this point as “fluffy” though I’ve never quite gotten that). Add the egg yolks and mix until fully combined.

2. Whisk the sugar, flour, baking powder, and salt together and then add to the butter-egg mixture and mix just until incorporated. You don’t want gluten to develop—treat this like a biscuit or pie crust. You want the dough to just begin to come together.

3. Spread two large pieces of plastic wrap on a table or counter and dump the contents of the mixing bowl out onto it. Separate the crumbs into two roughly equal piles. Press them into two balls or disks, using the plastic wrap to help gather and compress the dough. Freeze at least 2 hrs, or up to a month.

4. Preheat the oven to 350F. Remove one ball of dough and grate it with a medium cheese grater (a food processor makes this so much easier, but if you’re grating by hand you can grate directly into the pan). Spread the shreds of dough evenly in a 9×13 pan.

5. Put the preserves in a piping back or a zip-top bag with the corner snipped off, and squeeze it over the surface in thin strips. Spread gently to cover the surface evenly, leaving a 1/2” border around the edges.

6. Remove the remaining dough from the freezer, grate, and sprinkle evenly over the top.

7. Bake 50-60 minutes, or until the center no longer wiggles and the surface is turning a pale golden brown. Dust with powdered sugar as soon as it comes out of the oven.

8. Cool on a wire rack and cut in the pan. If you chill it before cutting, the cuts will be cleaner. Dust again with powdered sugar before serving.