January 6: National Shortbread Day

Did you know that January 6 is National Bean Day? Well, now you do. Insert fart joke. But more importantly, it is also National Shortbread Day.

Shortbread. Am I the only one who gets happy just at the very sight of the word? It's a happy word, and a happy thing. In spite of its sliced bread-sounding name, it's actually cookies: nuggets of sugary-butter-bliss.

It being National Shortbread Day, I thought I would celebrate by exploring 6 interesting aspects about shortbread.

1. What is shortbread?

Shortbread is a crumbly, buttery cookie. With only three main ingredients (flour, sugar and butter--with a dash of salt for good measure)--traditional shortbread isn't a complex thing, but we would be hard-pressed to call it simple food. Because certainly there is an art to mixing those ingredients, to yielding the elusively perfect, buttery crumb.

2. Where does the cookie come from?



As Historic-UK.com informs us, the story of shortbread begins with the medieval biscuit ("twice-baked"), wherein leftover bread dough was baked a second time to form a type of rusk--this is to say, if you picture a family tree of cookies, this would mean that shortbread, rusks and biscotti all share some relatives.


While by some accounts they existed as far back as the 12th century in Britain, it seems to us that it is truly Scotland where shortbread as we know it was developed: it is here that gradually the yeast began to be replaced with butter, and oat flour, which were some of their agricultural staples. These "short" bread cookies were a fancy dessert, reserved for the wealthy and for special occasions. And certainly their popularity was bolstered by the fact that in the 16th Century, they are said to have been a favorite of Mary, Queen of Scots (she liked a variation which included caraway seeds, in case you were interested).

3. Why are they called "short"?

It's all about the butter, baby! According to Everything You Pretend to Know about Food and Are Afraid Someone Will Ask, which is like, our favorite book ever,

short pastry is a nonyeast pastry that has a high ratio of butter to flour. Short pastries bake up crumbly rather than chewy and tend to keep well, owing to their high fat content.

4. What is the proper shape for a traditional shortbread cookie?

We've seen them round, rectangular, diamond-shaped, and cut into wedges from a larger round--so what gives? Is there a proper shape for a traditional shortbread cookie? Once again according to Historic-UK.com,

Shortbread is traditionally formed into one of three shapes: one large circle divided into segments ("Petticoat Tails"); individual round biscuits ("Shortbread Rounds"); or a thick rectangular slab cut into "fingers."

Of course, having taste-tested each of these traditional variations, we can report that while they may differ in look, each shape is delicious.

5. Cornstarch can be your secret ingredient.

Although it is hard to imagine bakers in the olden days of Scotland pausing to add cornstarch to their shortbread, there is a strong case for its use in modern times. Chances are, in times gone by, the flour had a lower protein and gluten content than all-purpose flour, which is used today. The cornstarch can “soften” the harder wheat for an end result that might possibly mimic old-fashioned results even more than using all-purpose flour.

Many will claim that one or the other is the only authentic shortbread. However, given how long shortbread has been around, it’s inevitable that variations will exist. Many recipes, therefore, can truthfully be called authentic.

The recipe shared in this post is a traditional shortbread recipe with cornstarch. What makes it a keeper, though, is how delicious the cookies are: tender in the center yet crisp on the edges, and full of buttery-sweet flavor.

6. Shortbread is incredibly easy to make.

I think (if I do say so myself) that I did a great job of explaining how to make perfect shortbread in this post for Craftsy. You can find the recipe and technique all detailed in the post!

 

Five shortbread recipes to try

Do you like shortbread?

January 5: National Whipped Cream Day

What. A. Fine. Day. It. Is. Happy National Whipped Cream Day!

Screen-Shot-2013-05-28-at-4.18.25-PM.png

Why on earth would National Whipped Cream Day be right when so many people in the world are taking on a deeply boring eat-healthy New Year's Resolution? Well, that's because January 4 is the birthday of Aaron "Bunny" Lapin, who you may not know but you probably love, because in 1946, he developed an aerosol canister designed for delivering whipped cream: yes, Reddi-Wip.

Mr. Bunny (that's how I am referring to him from now on) was a salesman who switched from the apparel industry to the food industry during World War II, when he began selling a whipped cream made specifically to reflect war shortages, using a little cream and some vegetable fat. He sold it with a sort of extruding machine.

But according to the New York Times,

"in 1946, when the Crown Cork and Seal Company introduced the first seamless, lined and lithographed aerosol canister -- the Spra-tainer, Mr. Lapin became one of the canister's first customers.
He put his product in the aerosol cans under the brand name Reddi-wip, initially selling it through milkmen in St. Louis. Distribution quickly expanded throughout the United States and Canada.
Within five years, Mr. Lapin was worth millions. In 1951, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called him ''Bunny Lapin, Whipped Cream King.'' Aerosol Age, a trade publication, wrote, ''He bought Cadillacs two at a time and lived in Gloria Swanson's furnished mansion in Hollywood.''

While Mr. Bunny didn't invent whipped cream, he might as well have for all of the delightful fuss this invention created.  All of a sudden, whipped cream became an anytime topping, not just reserved for special occasions. It became a sundae topper, a slice of pie garnish, commonplace on top of hot chocolate. According to the New York Times, Reddi-Wip still accounts for about 50% of all whipped cream sold in the USA.

Making whipped cream.

While I find all of the above fascinating, I'll tell the truth: I still think there is nothing like homemade whipped cream. It is a very good thing that for some reason, people think is complicated.

Well, it's not. Here is how I always make whipped cream; it is a fearless and easy method. I've made whipped cream a zillion lazy, non-perfect ways, and I can tell you that most of them work. You can fuss all you like (people get really crazy about the type of bowl, etc, etc), but this is ultimately what it comes down to. Don't worry about whether your bowl is stainless steel or glass. It's still going to work, people. 

The one thing you don't want to do here is use cream that is not cold. It's important for the cream to be cold so that it can capture air bubbles and gain density. If you try to whip warm cream, you will get lukewarm results. 

If you have time, put your mixing bowl and beaters in the freezer for about 10 minutes. It is not going to make or break the recipe, but it will help you attain a great texture. If you don't have time, proceed. Your cream might just be less firm, which is generally not a problem because everyone will just be delighted to have homemade whipped cream. 

Whipped cream

Makes about 2 cups. You'll need:

  • a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, or a hand mixer
  • a mixing bowl
  • a rubber spatula
  • 1 cup whipping cream (make sure to use whipping cream, as half and half or light cream may not have enough fat to whip)
  • confectioners' or granulated sugar: either none, or up to 2 tablespoons 
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, if desired 
  1. Place your cream in the bowl. Mix with your hand or stand mixer on high until the cream begins to puff and gain thickness. If you pause the mixer and lift the beater, it should softly cling to the beater but not hold a defined shape; this is known as "soft peaks". 
  2. Once your mixture has reached the soft peak phase, stir in the vanilla and sugar, if adding. I wrote you might not want to add these in the recipes, and this depends on what you are topping. If it is a super-sweet dessert, say an ice cream sundae with sprinkles, hot fudge, and cookie bits, you might not need any sugar; the cream itself will be a complement to the already-existing sweetness.
  3. However, if it is a dessert that is not terribly sweet, like a bittersweet dark chocolate torte or a fruit pie that is tart, you will probably want the sugar. It's totally up to you. Ditto with the vanilla. I think it adds a little extra flavor, but it is not necessary. 
  4. Once the sugar/vanilla is added, keep on beating until the mixture holds firm peaks (you can pause beating and the mixture feels stiff, like it will stay right where it is if you piped it or spread it). Once it has firm peaks, STOP mixing because the whipped cream will begin to separate and you'll make butter if you keep on going. Use right away; store leftovers in the fridge.

More tips:

If you do overbeat your whipped cream, go ahead and make butter. (Craftsy)

Stabilize your whipped cream, so it holds its shape and lasts longer, like so. (Craftsy)

You can make savory whipped cream, too. (Craftsy)

Whipping cream will double in volume (roughly); so if you want 2 cups of whipped cream, whip one cup of cream. Get it? Cool. 

See? Easy. Enjoy some whipped cream for National Whipped Cream Day!

January 4: National Spaghetti Day

Hello, friends. If you're reading this in 2016, you probably went back to work after an extended holiday today. I'm sorry. Maybe the tremendously wonderful fact that today is National Spaghetti Day will brighten your day and give you something to look forward to for dinner? 

Listen, in general I don't write about savory food on this site, but in the name of the holiday, allow me to entertain you for a few minutes, with 8 tasty bits of info and trivia about the starchy stuff. 

1. What is spaghetti?

Spaghetti is a type of pasta which is characterized by its shape: long, cylindrical, solid strings. If you'd never seen spaghetti noodles before, I'd say they're sort of like shoelace licorice, but in pasta form. If you'd never seen shoelace licorice, I would need to have a moment then I'd invite you to the closest grocery store for an education. 

Personally, I like Eatocracy's definition: "Spaghetti is a thin, round-shaped pasta from Italy that the rest of the world can’t seem to get enough of."

2. What's with the funny name?

According to the dictionary, spaghetti is "the plural form of the Italian word spaghetto, a diminutive of spago, meaning "thin string" or "twine". " I feel satisfied with that, don't you?

Photo licensed via Creative Commons by Flickr member Sira Harchana

3. Marco Polo brought pasta from China to Italy...NOT. 

According to The Atlantic, pasta has been kicking it in Italy since 1100 BC (though this story seems to have a few holes, the general gist is: pasta is OLD and has a long story in Italy). I think they win!

4. You can study spaghetti in a museum.

In Italy, there is a Pasta Museum. Of course there is! This is more interesting than any museum I ever went on a class trip to, how about you?

5. Pasta is a religion.

At least in Georgia, that is. One self-proclaimed Georgia "pastafarian" defended his right to wear a colander in his driver's license photo on account of religious belief. Believe it. 

6. Spaghetti can be dessert, too.

Think spaghetti is only for dinner? Think again. Emeril Lagasse makes chocolate spaghetti! Or, a version such as this savory-LOOKING mango "spaghetti" would be a fun trompe-l'oeil to serve.

7. Think your bowl is big? 

As I found out here, The world record for the largest bowl of spaghetti was set in 2010, when a Buca di Beppo restaurant filled a swimming pool with more than 13,780 pounds (6,251 kg) of pasta" 

8. You can make your own spaghetti.

Seriously, you guys. You can make your own spaghetti. Well, technically this version I made sans pasta attachment is more like fettucine, and it does include egg, but it should act as proof that homemade pasta noodles are possible in your own home. This post offers a lot more info.

Do you like spaghetti?

January 3: National Chocolate Covered Cherry Day

Think today is an ordinary day? Think again: it's National Chocolate Covered Cherry Day today.

  Photo licensed via Creative Commons by Flickr member  Shannon O'Saurus

Photo licensed via Creative Commons by Flickr member Shannon O'Saurus

Today is a great day to enjoy a chocolate covered cherry--the most popular variety of which, in the United States, are cherry cordials. Cherry cordials are an interesting treat: a cherry sealed in a sort of sugary-boozy syrup and sealed into a chocolate shell. 

I don't know about you, but my relationship with cherry cordials has always been...complex. As a child, I coveted the shiny red box of cherry cordials that my mom said "weren't for kids" and hid from us. Well, mom wasn't just being mean: the first time I tried one, I was so disappointed by the taste. I associated cherries as a cupcake topping, so in my mind I thought the cherries might have the the taste of a rich pink buttercream-topped cake served with a maraschino cherry on top, and all covered in chocolate. The Queen Anne Cordials my mom had? Definitely not that. 

From childhood into adulthood, I mainly regarded chocolate covered cherries with a sort of detachment. 

While I wouldn't say it was a huge moment of epiphany, I do remember at some point in adulthood trying a chocolate covered cherry (not a cordial, just the fruit) from Chukar Cherries in the Pike Place Market in Seattle. It was a pleasant surprise; "this is nice," I thought to myself, enjoying the contrast of tart cherry, and sweet, dark chocolate. 

While I would not consider myself a great follower of the chocolate covered cherry even today, I want to make it clear to you that I appreciate them. I appreciate their visual appeal, I appreciate their elegance, I appreciate their contrasting textures and flavors. 

And since I've been looking them up a bit for this post, I can say that I find them very interesting. 

Turns out, chocolate covered cherries are no new phenomenon. As this article on Candy Favorites reports, the road to the cherry cordial was largely a matter of timing.

In the 1700s in Europe, cordials were gaining popularity as a kind of cure-all, used to settle stomachs, improve health, and even act as aphrodisiacs. Concurrently, a candied cherry-and-chocolate confection known as griottes was gaining popularity. Somewhere along the way, some brilliant mind decided to make a delicious mash-up of these culinary trends, and cherry cordial chocolates took off. 

By the 1800s, they were officially in production in the United States; one major brand, Cella's, has been cordially offering up the classic treats since 1864 (it is now part of the Tootsie Roll Family); Queen Anne Cordials have been in production since 1948 (the company has been around since 1921).

January 3 has been designated (and is recognized by the National Confectioners' Association) as National Chocolate Covered Cherry Day.

  Photo licensed via Creative Commons by  Wikipedia

Photo licensed via Creative Commons by Wikipedia


Want to know more? Here's some interesting info. 

As I learned on Candy Favorites, the cherries are made one one of three ways:

1. Shell molding: chocolate is poured into a mold but left hollow on the sides and without a seal of chocolate. It is then filled with liquid and the cherry, and more chocolate is melted and used to create a seal; that last bit will become the bottom of the candy when unmolded. 

2. Enrobing: The cherries are placed in trays with the sugar syrup, which after a time will set, not totally firm, but firm enough to be covered with chocolate, which will seal it into place. 

3. The crazy science method which incorporates enrobing and liquid, both: according to the site, "an enzyme called invertase is added which acts on solid sugar centers and reverts them to liquid. Adding invertase can be done after the center has been covered in chocolate, simplifying the whole process." Weird, right?!?

choccherrycupcakes.jpg

 

Five ways to celebrate chocolate covered cherries today:

Chocolate covered cherry stuffed cupcakes recipe. Pictured above. (CakeSpy)

Learn more about how the Brock Candy Company of Tennessee got into the chocolate covered cherry game. (Appalachian History)

Simple chocolate covered cherries recipe (non-alcoholic). (Taste of Home)

Cherry cordials with booze. (Saveur)

Read a taste-test review of the primary purveyors of chocolate covered cherries. (Sugar Pressure)

Do you like cherry cordials?

January 2: National Cream Puff Day

Happy New Year, again! AND, happy National Cream Puff Day. Can you guess how I will be celebrating? 

Cream puffs. Doesn't that pairing of words just send a shiver of joy through your heart? There's no bad part about these sweet treats: a light as air pastry puff, piped or filled with rich, sweet cream. They are a Good Thing. 

We've been enjoying cream puffs in the USA since at least 1851, but they were probably around before that, just going by different names. They're closely related to the French profiterole, and from my reading on the subject, it's likely that cream puffs are a mere adaptation of the profiterole. 

The concept for these sweet treats is said to have gotten to France when Caterina de’ Medici, wife of Henry II of France, brought the recipe over from Italy (or, more likely, one of her servants brought over the recipe!). But she ought not be considered the inventor: cream puff-esque pastries are documented in Europe as early as the 1300s.

The word "profiterole", which goes back as early as the 1600s, is said to translate roughly as a "roll baked under the ashes". I wouldn't take this too literally--I would guess that this means the profiteroles were probably baked in the residual heat of an oven as it cooled, when the fire was reduced to ashes. But that is just a guess on my part. 

Regardless, the cream puff concept remained alive and well in Europe, and in the 1600s the dough was commonly referred to as "choux" pastry, because of the resemblance of the puffs to little mini cabbages. ("Chou" = cabbage). 

By the 1800s, profiteroles were a commonplace item in France and England, often gracing upper-class tables, and created in fanciful shapes (swans, etc). 

The concept came over to the US with settlers at some point, and my guess is that this is where "cream puff" and "profiterole" began to take slightly different paths. For me, a profiterole is basically a cream puff, but always with a vanilla cream and chocolate on top, whereas a cream puff could have just cream filling, or include various flavors of filling and/or icing. So, that is to say, a profiterole is a cream puff, but a cream puff doesn't have to be just a profiterole. 

These days, cream puffs are a commonplace item on dessert menus and in bakeries. Not quite as common as cupcakes or chocolate chip cookies, so they feel a little special when you come across them. In my opinion, cream puffs are best served like cannoli: filled to order, and enjoyed immediately. 

Like many other food holidays, pinpointing exactly how and why January 2 was designated National Cream Puff day, and by whom, seems a bit elusive. But really, are you going to argue the chance to enjoy a cream puff? I'm not. 

Five bits of cream puff trivia:

The world’s largest cream puff was created and presented at the Wisconsin State Fair. Weighing in at 125 pounds, it was made by Dave Schmidt and Team Cream Puff. Apparently, cream puffs have been a tradition at the fair since 1924.

The Wisconsin State Fair also has a celebrity cream puff eating contest

Something called the bossche bol exists in the Dutch city of Den Bosch. It is a huge profiterole-style cream puff, coated all over with chocolate. 

Gougères are basically savory cream puffs

Beard Papa is an international cream puff chain. They have well over 60 locations in the US, and internationally (as widespread as Guam, El Salvador, and Indonesia!).

Three Cream puff recipes:

Classic cream puffs, easy to follow recipe via King Arthur Flour

Strawberry Cream Cheese Cream Puffs: an easy recipe and an entry in the Bake-Off a while back. on CakeSpy.

Cream puff cake. YES! Via The Domestic Rebel.

Do you like cream puffs?

What's The Difference Between Pudding, Custard, and Mousse?

Pudding. Custard. Mousse. They all kind of look the same. They're all soft, creamy foods. So what's the dif? 

Pudding, Custard, Mousse

The short version?

Eggs.

In America, at least, pudding is typically the term assigned to a milk or cream-based dessert which is thickened by starch. Usually, but not always, cornstarch

Custard, on the other hand, is a milk or cream based dessert thickened by egg

Mousse relies on egg, too. Primarily egg whites, which are whipped to a froth and then folded with other ingredients for an airy, unique texture. 

That's the short version. But there's more to the story than that.

The long version?

The simplistic view that eggs are the only difference is fraught with inconsistency. 

As Chow.com aptly puts it,

But it’s not quite as simple as saying, “If it has eggs it’s custard; if it has starch it’s pudding.”Professional Baking points out that there is an overlap: Cream puddings, it says, use a custard base but are thickened with starch. Pastry cream (the stuff you find in an éclair) is a cream pudding—a custard-pudding hybrid.

So, let me address some exceptions. 

There are plenty of pudding recipes which employ eggs.

This vanilla pudding, for instance, contains egg, but it doesn't completely rely on it for thickening the mixture. It also includes cornstarch, which propels it from custard to pudding territory. Or is it a custard with starch? Tough call.

Some custard recipes include starch.

Yep. Some custard recipes include starch. Not all, but some. This great post makes some notes on the differences between how you prepare custard and pudding, and examples of custards with starch.

Mousse doesn't always include egg whites

And there are mousse recipes that don't include egg whites, but do include egg yolks. There are some recipes that don't include eggs at all, but rely on whipped cream to impart the airy-rich texture.

To summarize: there are blurred lines.

While there is a general division between pudding, custard, and mousse, recipes cross the borders all the time. Ultimately, you're not going to be denied dessert if you mis-categorize one (not by me, anyway). But I'm a big believer in the idea that you should learn the rules before you break them...so hopefully, with this post, I've given you a brief look at the rules.

Now go ahead and break them.

Which one is your fave: pudding, custard, or mousse? 

What is Baking Chocolate?

It looks like chocolate. It smells like chocolate. But if you've ever tried to take a big bite of so-called "baking chocolate", you know that it is not suitable for out of hand eating, and is not to be treated as a snack. So what is the point of baking chocolate, anyway? 

Let's discuss. 

What is baking chocolate?

Baker's Chocolate

Photo via Flickr member eggplant

This type of chocolate comes in bars, but not the kind that you’d like to eat as a snack. The reason is that baking chocolate, which also goes by “unsweetened chocolate” or “bitter chocolate”, does not contain sugar. It’s solidified 100 percent chocolate liquor (the center of cocoa beans ground to a liquid), but without the frills--sweeteners, emulsifiers, flavorings--that make chocolate a sweet eating delight.

Once that chocolate liquor has been fancied up a little bit with cocoa butter, sugar, emulsifiers, and maybe some flavoring, it becomes dark chocolate. It retains a high percentage of cacao. What most people think of “dark chocolate” is 65% to as high as 99%. The higher the number, the less sweet the chocolate.

Dark chocolate varieties also include semisweet and bittersweet chocolate. They contain less chocolate liquor--a minimum of 35 percent--bittersweet often carrying more cacao than semisweet. And they contain sugar. It’s a variation sugar-to-cocao ratio that differentiates the two. Because of its sweeter flavor, semi-sweet is more commonly used in baking, and it’s the go-to chocolate type for chocolate chip cookies. 

Working with baking chocolate 

These crinkle cookies are made with unsweetened chocolate in the batter.

If baking chocolate has no sugar, what's the point?

Baking chocolate is not the best choice for out of hand eating, but it's a great component to mix with other ingredients to make a recipe. 

Typically, baking chocolate will be mixed into batter when baking, and the sweetness comes from elsewhere in the recipe, bringing out the flavor of the chocolate. It’s not suggested that you use baking chocolate as a substitute for chocolate morsels in cookies or as a candy coating.

Not to confuse you, but...

bakers chocolate

Photo via Flickr member zanastardust

One of the most famous brands offering baking chocolate is Baker's Chocolate, America's oldest continually run chocolate company. Often, people will refer to baking chocolate as "baker's chocolate", possibly because of the association of this company with producing the unsweetened stuff.

However, the Baker's chocolate brand also offers a variety of sweetened chocolate products, including German's sweet chocolate (an innovation by a gentleman named Samuel German, and where German chocolate cake gets its name), white chocolate, and semisweet chocolate. So while Baker's offers baking chocolate, not all chocolate by Baker's is baking chocolate. Got it? Good. 

Can I substitute another type of chocolate?

Well, I'm not going to flat out reject you here, but I am going to give you some considerations to think about if you want to substitute, say, dark chocolate for baking chocolate.

If your chocolate has sugar added, it may slightly alter the chemistry of the recipe. For instance, if your recipe calls for 4 ounces of unsweetened chocolate and you use 4 ounces of sweetened chocolate, you're adding extra sugar to the recipe, and you can't be quite sure how much. The recipe might come out just fine, or the added sugar might affect the texture or bake time. Or it might just make the recipe too sweet. Is it worth the risk? Up to you.

I hope I've given you a helpful little primer here--feel free to chime in with any questions about baking chocolate and I can add to this article to make it even more helpful. Oh, and if you liked this post, check out the more comprehensive posts on the types of chocolate for baking.

How do you use baking chocolate?

What is Cornstarch and What Does it Do?

I'll just get right into it: what is cornstarch and what does it do?

This question came up when I was chatting with a gluten-free friend who said she'd recently made a GF brownie mix that called for 1/2 cup of added cornstarch in the event of high altitude baking. Well, that's odd, I thought. I wonder why? That seemed like a lot of cornstarch to me. Maybe there are some things I don't know about cornstarch?

And so I figured, for my reference and yours, I'd come up with a roundup of what cornstarch is, what it does, and how to use it in your baking. Ready? Set? Let's go.

Cornstarch: what is it? 

The short version? Cornstarch is derived from the endosperm (tee hee) of corn kernels, which is ground into a find powder. It's used primarily as a thickener and binder both in savory and sweet cooking and baking.

Cornstarch: how is it made?

The long version? It's sort of confusing, but here's what I gleaned from the International Starch (really) page. First, corn is steeped in hot water for up to 48 hours. The germ is then separated from the endosperm, and still steeping, they are both, respectively, ground. Starch is separated from the steeping liquid, the remaining cereal germ, and corn gluten--mainly in centrifuges and hydrocyclones (a cyclone-shaped device). The starch is then modified by applying different reaction conditions - temperature, pH, additives. This process creates the corn starch with unique and reliable properties we use for our culinary projects. 

Key roles cornstarch plays in baking

Lemon meringue pie

Cornstarch as a thickening agent

Cornstarch can be added as a thickener to a variety of mixtures, from gravy to pie fillings to custards or cake fillings. It has more power, ounce for ounce, than flour, which is also used for this purpose; increasingly, the fact that it is also gluten-free is attractive to bakers, enabling them to make gluten-free pie fillings and custards. 

Here's what happens when cornstarch is added to the mix: heat causes the starch to bind with molecules of water, and the starch begins to swell as it absorb the liquid. When the mixture comes to 203 degrees F, the starch will have expanded to about 10 times its size while still in powder form. However, this expanding is finite. You can bring cornstarch-enriched sauces or mixtures close to a boil, but don't let them fully boil and don't stir too vigorously. The starch will start to deflate, erasing the entire purpose of adding it to your mixture. 

The cornstarch will not only become thicker in heat, but as it cools, it will set, so it's a great way to further solidify desserts tending toward gooey such as the filling of Lemon meringue pie, without the cloudy color that flour might impart.

There are considerations for using cornstarch as a thickener. According to this website,

  • If you add cornstarch directly to a liquid, it can get clumpy, especially if added to a hot mixture. First, make a slurry of equal parts cornstarch and a cold liquid. Add this liquid paste to the mixture you want to thicken for better results. 
  • Cornstarch doesn't react well with acidic ingredients. Tapioca starch or arrowroot will work better for thickening acidic mixtures.
  • Cornstarch imparts a glossy, translucent sheen to the mixtures it thickens, so it tends to be used more in sweets rather than savory sauces. 

Cornstarch in cookies and cakes

Peanut Butter Alfajores

Cornstarch not only thicken sauces and mixtures, but it can be used in baked goods such as cookies or cakes, too. It is said that cornstarch used in combination with flour can "soften" the harsh proteins of flour, making a more tender baked good. Anecdotally, I can tell you this is true. A recipe such as shortbread which employs part flour and part cornstarch yields a cookie with the perfect crumb: crumbly, but not fall-apart. Tender and delicate, but in a way that the cookie still holds its shape.

As I learned on a King Arthur Flour forum, it is also one of the secrets of cake flour.

Cake flour has been treated with chlorine gas which acts not only as a whitening agent, but also has a maturing effect on the flour. It damages the proteins that form gluten so that these will not form the long stiff chains and networks that make good bread, but also breaks down starches so that these will absorb more water. These hydrated starches then "gel" during baking to provide an alternate structure (alternate to gluten formation) which is desirable for cakes; tight, even crumb, moist, very tender.

You can make your own cake flour substitute, by the way. All you have to do is add two tablespoons of cornstarch per cup of all-purpose flour for a recipe. While it won't yield exactly the same results, it will certainly yield a more delicate baked good than all purpose flour alone. 

Cornstarch as an anti-caking agent

The difference between confectioners' sugar and granulated sugar? Primarily texture--confectioners' sugar has been finely ground (and you can make your own, at home, btw!)--but it's also the fact that confectioners' sugar is mixed with a small amount of cornstarch. The starch acts as an anti-caking agent by keeping moisture and condensation from forming the sugar granules into lumps.

Cornstarch isn't just used to discourage moisture from ruining your sugar. If you buy shredded cheese in the supermarket, chances are it has cornstarch in the mix--this keeps the moisture and condensation from making your cheese slimy. However, with cheese, there is a caution involved. The starch can turn brown quicker than the cheese in heat, so it can give a false indication of doneness. 

Frequently asked questions

Still curious about cornstarch? Here are some answers to commonly asked questions.

Why is cornstarch used so often in gluten-free baking?

Probably first and foremost because it's naturally gluten-free. Both cornstarch and flour are considered "cereal starches"--but the main difference is the aforementioned gluten. Flour has it; cornstarch does not.  But, you know, it also adds structure to baked goods, and this can be helpful when they lack the "glue" of gluten. 

Is it possible I know this stuff by a different name?

I've seen it as "corn starch" and "cornstarch"--I prefer the one-word variation. You'll see it referred to as such in US and Canada; in other countries, it may be called "cornflour"--not to be confused with cornmeal. 

My cornstarch got all clumpy in my pie filling. What's up? 

Nobody likes clumps and lumps in what should be a smooth pie filling. To avoid lumps, make a slurry (equal parts cold liquid and cornstarch) before incorporating the starch into the pie filling mixture. 

I'm sure I did everything right, but the starch didn't thicken my mixture.

Check the expiration date. Cornstarch does not last forever, and an advanced age can very much affect its thickening abilities.

Other possible causes: the mixture got too hot and the starch broke down; you overstirred and the starch broke down.

Help! My pie filling began "weeping". Is the cornstarch to blame?

Cornstarch can thin as it stands. The technical term is "syneresis", and it is characterized by a liquid "weeping" from the filling. It tends to happen more with mixtures including eggs or a lot of sugar. One of the culprits can be overstirring--this can break up the starch and make it thin out. Be sure to follow the instructions on your recipe to ensure that you are following the specified guidelines for how to treat the cornstarch mixture.

Don't have cornstarch?

Here is a list of some substitutes you can use in baking.  

Can I use cornstarch instead of flour?

Go ahead and give it a try. Cornstarch has twice the "thickening" power of flour, so you won't need as much. This helpful table will assist in substitution amounts. 

Recipes with cornstarch

Marquesote

What's your favorite recipe containing cornstarch?

What is Bird's Custard Powder?

Given my enthusiasm for Nanaimo bars, here's a question I am often asked: What is Bird's custard powder?

I understand the question, because it is one I had, too, in the beginning of my Nanaimo-bar-making journey.

The general consensus in Canada and beyond is that this stuff is a vital ingredient in the bars...but why? 

Bird's Custard Powder

Traditionally, the middle section of Nanaimo bars is made with Bird’s Custard Powder. This is a popular custard powder invented in the UK that immigrated to British Columbia in the early 1900s when there was a large wave of new immigration from Europe. This would have been well timed with the advent of iceboxes as a common household item in Canada, which would explain for the bar’s UK influence.

Instant vanilla pudding powder will do in a pinch, but do try to find Bird’s Custard Powder for a truly authentic taste. It’s not extremely difficult to find: look for it in the international aisle of your local grocery store, or online.

These may be of interest with that knowledge in mind:

Have you ever tried a Nanaimo bar?

What is Gluten, Anyway?

I've got a question for you. What the heck is gluten?

We've all heard about gluten, or perhaps more accurately, we've heard the phrase gluten-free. We've heard people talk about how they can't (or won't) eat it. We've seen cookies and crackers and bread marketed as being devoid of gluten.

But what is gluten, exactly, and why do people avoid it?

Ooh, Gluten Free Baking mix!

Here's what I know about gluten. It is largely based on my occasional reading of In Touch Weekly:

  • it has something to do with white flour (which is apparently evil, although I'm not sure if this is purely because of gluten)
  • if foods do not have gluten, it is ok for them to cost several dollars more
  • avoiding gluten is very trendy right now. People who avoid gluten can basically be divided into three camps: people who have a severe reaction to it, people who have an intolerance to it, and people who have eating disorders.  

Of course, this is not actual knowledge based on fact. I mean, how many times has that periodical lied about Jen's baby bump and Brangelina's breakup? 

Nope: In Touch Weekly is not the source for gluten information. Let's get down some facts not supplied by pop culture periodicals...

Gluten

Dictionary definition: gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat (varieties of which include durum, emmer, spelt, farina, farro, kamut, etc) , rye, barley and triticale.

Photo via Professional Pasta Magazine (really)

Where does the funny name come from? According to Dictionary.com, the origin is such:

 1630s, "any sticky substance," from Middle French gluten (16c.) or directly from Latin gluten "glue" (see glue (n.)). Used 16c.-19c. for the part of animal tissue now called fibrin; used since 1803 of the nitrogenous part of the flour of wheat or other grain; hence glutamic acid (1871), a common amino acid, and its salt, glutamate.

What it does in food: Gluten does what its name sounds like: acts as "glue" that holds food together. It helps doughs maintain elasticity and a good "chew". While most people instantly think "flour" when they think of gluten, this is not quite accurate. It's not just baked goods or bread that contain gluten--it can be used in a number of different products to add thickness, texture, or bulk. 

This is what makes baking particularly maddening when gluten is taken out of the equation. To get the same texture, taste, and bulk which wheat based flour lends to baked goods, you can't just rely on one type of gluten-free flour. Different mixes are required to meet each of the criteria. If you want more guidance on that, check out this post on Craftsy. You'll also probably enjoy checking out the blogs of my buddies both online and in real life, Gluten-Free Girl and The Art of Gluten-Free Baking to learn more about gluten-free baking. 

Primary sources of gluten in your everyday diet: 

Wheat, barley, and rye. This triple threat of gluten-containing goodness constitutes a major part of many foods, including but not limited to: bread, cereals, baked goods, pasta, soup, sauces, food coloring, and beer. Gluten can be found in unexpected sources, too, such as soups or sauces that you wouldn't even think of containing flour. However, many of them do contain traces of gluten-containing matter, which gives them structure and thickness. This is why people who need to adhere to a gluten-free diet are forever scanning food labels. 

Why would people avoid gluten?

If you have celiac disease, you kind of need to. According to WebMD,

Experts estimate that about 1% of Americans have celiac disease. The condition, caused by an abnormal immune response to gluten, can damage the lining of the small intestine. That, in turn, can prevent important nutrients from being absorbed. Symptoms of celiac disease include diarrhea, anemia, bone pain, and a severe skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis.

Aside from that, though, some people simply feel better when they avoid gluten. It doesn't cause a death threat, but it can cause discomfort. Others perceive it to be a healthier way to be, or a way to lose weight. 

As WebMD further says, 

Gluten itself doesn’t offer special nutritional benefits. But the many whole grains that contain gluten do. They’re rich in an array of vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins and iron, as well as fiber. Studies show that whole grain foods, as part of a healthy diet, may help lower risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that half of all carbohydrates in the diet come from whole grain products.

Whew! If you feel like you'd like more GF info, check out these posts I did for Craftsy:

 

 

What are your thoughts on gluten?

What is Allspice?

Have you ever wondered what, exactly, allspice is? Well, I found myself wondering recently, and I thought I would pass on my newfound wisdom on the ways of allspice. Enjoy!

What is Allspice?

Photo: Pixabay

Botanically speaking, this spice is known as Pimenta officinalis, and it comes from the Jamaican Pepper Tree. While it is said to be native to south and central America, it was most famously shared with the world after its discovery in Jamaica in the West Indies: this is where Columbus discovered the stuff. Per the Farmers Almanac, a physician on the ship declared the tree had the "finest smell of cloves" he had ever encountered.

Allspice comes from the dried berry of the pimento tree, a tropical tree which can range in size from 20-40 feet, which is related to the myrtle and features thick, elliptical-shaped leaves. In the spring and summer, the tree produces white blooms, which are followed by the pea-sized berries in the fall. These berries are dried and ground to produce the allspice we know. 

What about the name? 

As I discovered on About Food,

Allspice comes by its name for a very good reason. The berries have a combined flavor of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves with a hint of juniper and peppercorn. Some enterprising spice companies sell a mixture of spices as allspice, so be sure and check the ingredients on the label to be sure you are getting the real thing. Allspice is often called pimento, not to be confused with the capsicum pepper pimiento, which is a vegetable, not a spice.

How to use it

  • Since it tastes like a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, it is a frequent component of baked goods, especially in the fall. It is notably part of pumpkin pie spice. 
  • It can be used in Jamaican (savory) cookery. Known as Jamaican pepper, it is part of jerk spice mixes. 
  • In Polish cooking, it is called kubaba and adds a certain je ne sais quoi to pot roasts and stuffings. 

8 tasty recipes featuring allspice

I think these ones sound like winners, don't you?

Substituting allspice in recipes

If you don't have allspice on hand, this spice substitution guide suggests cinnamon; cassia; dash of nutmeg or mace; or dash of cloves. Or, follow the example of The Humbled Homemaker and mix equal parts cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.

Interesting facts

  • Once upon a time, flowers were given as symbolic gestures. Bright yellow allspice buds were seen as a symbol of compassion. (find more flower symbolism here)
  • Allspice is a curative, and is considered a remedy for health issues as wide ranging as muscle aches, indigestion, and fever. 
  • Allspice was named due to its scent, which is a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Pimento was given its name by Spanish and Portuguese explorers, who thought the dried berries looked like peppercorns, and called them “pimenta”, or pepper. (source)

How do you use allspice in your baking or cooking?

What is Pumpkin Pie Spice? Recipe, Lore, and More.

With the season of fall baking upon us, I have one big question before I break out the stand mixer:

What is pumpin pie spice, anyway?

You've definitely tasted it, and you've more than likely seen it listed in the myriad of fall themed recipes that abound at this time of year. Pumpkin pie spice is a melange of spices that instantly evokes the taste of fall: it's the flavor equivalent of driving along a stretch of fiery fall foliage, apple picking at an orchard, the crisp air as you pull a fuzzy sweater over your head. 

In a technical sense, it is a mixture of warming spices, typically composed of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice. 

The history of using spices to fancy up pumpkin is nothing new. It dates back to the times of the pilgrim. Pumpkin was a staple crop in the new world, and they were pretty much forced to develop a taste for it. Early on, pumpkin preparation often involved the whole gourd, stuffed with apples, spices, and sugar, and then baked whole. While the shell was eventually discarded, the spices remained a constant, giving a distinct flavor to an otherwise somewhat bland food.

So...why these particular spices? Well, spices were a big deal in the colonies: spice trading was a huge part of commerce in the middle ages and right on through colonial days. Spices were used not only as a taste enhancer, but as a preservative and for food safety--many spices have antimicrobial properties. Here's a brief review of the spices in question, created with much help from this list:

Allspice

Remember columbus's discovery of America, kind of by accident? That was a spice journey, and among the finds in the new world was Allspice. It kind of tastes like a mixture of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

Nutmeg

Nutmeg was long prized for its healthful qualities. It was also the subject of trickery--at seaports, peddlers would sell small wood carvings made to look like nutmeg pods for a dishonest profit. This is said to be why Connecticut is known as the "Nutmeg State".

Ginger

Hailing from Jamaica, ginger would have been known to settlers: it had come to Europe as early as 1585, and had long been used as part of gingerbread, and renowned for its curative and preservative properties. 

Cloves

Cloves were an early West Indies discovery: their smell is so intense they can be detected from a distance. They not only added a delicious scent to food, but could also be used as a natural moth repellent.

Cinnamon

Cinnamon was a valuable spice to colonists: not only did it enhance flavor and add a warming quality to food, but it had a variety of curative properties. Used as a digestive aid, anappetite stimulant, and even a cure for colds, cinnamon was a prized spice

How it came together

I have not been able to find specific mention of who first had the idea to put these spices together and call it "pumpkin pie spice". But if I may surmise...

It seems in my research that all of these spices were basically in the right place at the right time. They were all being used actively in baking by the time the first spice mill in the US was founded in Boston in 1821. Through this, pre-packaged spices (including mixes) were available as one of the first "convenience foods". (source

It seems to me that once the spices were being mass produced, the natural next step would be sales and marketing--and I have a hunch that this is where the "pumpkin pie spice" angle might have come into play. The first mention I was able to find of "pumpkin pie spice" listed in print was in this 1916 edition of Baker's Review, a trade publication.

Please, do correct me if I'm wrong here or if you're able to find anything more concrete!

Interestingly, while the components of pumpkin pie spice can be used for a number of other baking projects--spice cookies, cakes, sprinkled atop cappuccinos, or even sifted through a stencil for a cake or cookie decoration, its most famous use, very largely owing to the name, is in pumpkin pie.

With the classic flavor of pumpkin pie (thanks to the spice, of course) in mind, I'll finish with this poem, and then a recipe for pumpkin pie spice that you can make at home. 

What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye,
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie?

- John Greenleaf Whittier

And OK, here's the recipe.

-----------------------------------------------------------

Pumpkin Spice Recipe 

  • 1/3 cup ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons ground ginger
  • 1 tablespoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground allspice

Mix the above together until completely combined, and place in an airtight jar. Use as garnish, as part of recipes calling for pumpkin pie spice, or to sprinkle atop lattes. 

Batter Versus Dough: What's the Difference?

Batter. Dough. Both are stages in the baking process, and both tend to yield tasty treats. But what exactly is the difference between batter and dough?

Anecdotally, most people tend to refer to more liquid concoctions as "batter" and more solid mixtures as "dough". We tend to refer to each for certain dishes: cookies and pie crust are made from dough, whereas cakes are made from batter. But when does batter become dough, exactly? Is there a rule which governs baking mixtures?

Could a cookie ever be made from batter, or could cake ever be made from a dough?

As it turns out, a bit of internet research and delving into baking reference books reveals that yes, batter and dough are different. And as you might suspect, it has to do with moisture content. 

If you're a professional baker, you might already be aware that there are official ratios. This document I found online detailed them:

See? It's a ratio thing. According to this, the more flour that is added, the more firmly planted a recipe is in "dough" territory. 1 part liquid to one part flour is definitely batter; 1 part liquid to 2 parts flour is a firmer batter, but definitely still batter; once you start adding more flour, it transcends the barrier into dough territory.

Well, that answers that--there are rules! 

The misfits

Meringues by Jess

Still, this document doesn't answer every batter versus dough question. Can we assume that the "flour" here can be translated as "dry ingredient" for other, harder to classify recipes? For instance, coconut macaroons (some types are made with coconut, condensed milk, and eggs, no flour in sight)...or what about homemade candy corn (confectioners' sugar gives it a sturdy, dry texture that I refer to as "dough" in my recipe).

And what of recipes for confections such as meringues? Is that just a "mixture", or would it be ok to call it a "batter"? 

Also, here's one final one for thought: though bread is definitely made with dough, what about the brief phase when you're adding wet ingredients...is it, for a few minutes, batter? 

I don't have the answers to the above, but welcome your comments, my sweet readers!

Can batter and dough ever be combined?

Well, duh. Of course. Stuff your cupcakes with cookie dough and you'll find out how wonderful the combination can be! I helpfully have a recipe right here for you (what can I say, I live to give). If you like the idea of that recipe, I should say that I also have a recipe for cinnamon rolls (dough) stuffed with cookie dough. That's a double dose of dough, but it's good for what ails you. 

Which do you like working with more: batter or dough?

Crumb Cake: An Extremely Opinionated Education

NYC crumb cake

Before we even get into the issue of "what is crumb cake, anyway?" I'd like to address why, exactly, I ought to be considered an authority on the subject. In my opinion, of course.

First off, I was born and raised by the Jersey shore.

This is part of what you could consider the "crumb cake belt", extending into New York state to the North and down as far as the mid-Atlantic to the south. To the best of my knowledge, though, the New York metro area and about an hour outside of it is really where crumb cake is a prime time food.

I have experienced a lot of crumb cake in my time.

From the time I was able to eat solids, it was a favorite of mine as I grew up by the Jersey shore; the square box of Entenmann's crumb cake was a constant in our house, and whenever I had the opportunity to get a treat at the bakery or a deli, crumb cake was always my pick. For me, crumb cake has always been one of those foods, that like pizza, "even when it's bad, it's still good." 

I've tried it all: artisan versions, commercially produced versions, bakery versions, homemade ones. And with nearly 33 years of crumb cake eating under my belt, I'd like to offer some opinions and thoughts on the stuff.

Crumb cake in America

If I were to make an educated guess on the history of crumb cake, it would be this.

What we know today as crumb cake is most likely the adaptation of coffee cake recipes by German bakers who came to America. The cake does bear a passing resemblance to many of the streusel topped kuchen recipes, a popular coffee-friendly cake from Germany. 

To further my conjecture, I would guess that stateside bakers responded to the fact that everyone loves crumb by adding more to theirs, thus making everyone come back for more. As we all know, a lot of the NYC deli treats (black and white cookies are a good example) are often impressive in scale; if some is good, more is better. Today, many crumb cakes boast as much as a 50-50 ratio of crumb to cake. We live in a blessed time.

A regional treat

Curiously, while crumb cake is delicious regardless of your geography, it seems to be available primarily on the east coast, with a particular concentration in the New York metro area. In general, from New York city out to commuter areas is going to be the epicenter. 

As a result of the regional aspect, many people further away have no idea what crumb cake actually is or should be. I remember in Seattle, people would think that a coffee cake with a streusel topping was a crumb cake. Sometimes, bakeries would even label it as such, adding to the confusion. 

So here, let me show you in pictures a review of what crumb cake is and is not.

What crumb cake is

In a world full of cakes that have crumbs, defining true crumb cake can sometimes be difficult.  So let me illustrate some examples of what crumb cake is.

NYC crumb cake

This is crumb cake. Note the lightly yellow-hued cake. It is not to be confused with yellow cake, which is sponge-like and airy. There should be a certain fluffiness to the cake, but it needs to be sturdy enough to be weight bearing, because as you may have noticed, there is a rather top-heavy coating of fat brown sugar crumbs. However, it is not as firm as pound cake; it has a little give.

As for the crumb, this is important: it is not a solid layer of brown sugar, but a collection of fat brown sugar clusters. 

crumb cake

In contemporary times, it is my belief that crumb cake should be at the very least 1/3 crumb, preferably 1/2 crumb to cake. But less than 1/3 and it's not crumb cake, it's cake with a crumb topping.

Crumb cake

If you are worried about adding too much crumb, don't be. As you can see from the above, even a 9/10 crumb to 1/10 cake ratio is just fine.

Crumb Cake!

Crumb cake can be purchased in a few places: prominently at delicatessens, where it may be individually wrapped in plastic. It can also be found at bakeries and bagel joints. It is not necessarily a fancy food, so you should be wary of fancy establishments who try to take a unique spin on crumb cake.

What crumb cake is definitely not

I want to say from the get-go that it's very possible for non-crumb cakes to be delicious. However, tastiness aside, none of the below cakes are crumb cake, and should not be referred to as such. If I asked for a slice of crumb cake and one of these were delivered, I would definitely have words with the baker about their terminology.

Photo via wikipedia commons

Cake with a streusel topping. I can see how you're confused. But NO. Streusel is a topping, not an ingegral half of the cake. Not crumb cake.
Photo via pixabay

Things called "coffee cake" with crumbs on top. Still not crumb cake. 

Macadamia caramel chocolate crumb bar, Seattle

Crumb topped bar cookies. Tasty, but not crumb cake. They have a cookie base, not cake, and a more dense, cookie-like crumb. Not crumb cake. Bar cookies. Got it?

Apple Crisp From Eat Local, Seattle

Desserts with crumbs on top. Even if they are fat crumbs, like on this apple crisp, they are not crumb cake.

Almost but not quite crumb cake (in CakeSpy's opinion)

This is a coffee cake, not a proper crumb cake. The brown sugar swirl hidden inside is delightful, but it doesn't fully detract from the fact that there is 9/10 cake and 1/10 crumb going on here. The crumbs are too small; they aren't tightly packed or large enough. No.

Crumb cake

Here is a fine example of a cake that almost, but not quite, classifies as crumb cake. While the ingredients are right, the ratio is off: it's more about the cake than the crumb. And speaking of the crumb, that's a problem, too: it's more like a thin layer of brown sugar topping rather than an assemblage of crumbs. This particular one tasted great, but lacked the satisfaction of crumbs the size of walnuts which you could pick off and enjoy.

Variations can be all right

Crumb cake is allowed to come in different variations and flavors. In New York delis, you'll see raspberry crumb cake (a thin layer of raspberry lives between the crumb and the cake), chocolate (the cake is marbled or two-tone and there is a chocolate ribbon on top), and a handful of other flavors. It is OK to add flavors to crumb cake. What is not ok, however, is to alter the architecture of the crumb top.

The crumb-heavy top is a constant, and must remain consistent.

As for the confectioners' sugar, I'm not a stickler. If they put a drizzle of glaze on top instead, I am fine with that.

Crumb cake, Cameo Cakes, Brielle NJ

What makes a good crumb cake

Here's a quick guide to the characteristics of a fine crumb cake:

  • Ratio. Lots of crumb. No more than 2/3 cake.
  • The perfect cake. Fluffy, but not spongey. Rich, but not pound cake.
  • Salt. You have to have salt added to the crumbs. It makes them irresistible.
  • Fat crumbs, presence of. The crumbs can be varied in size, but each slice should have at least one or two very fat crumbs. 
  • Coffee. Not as in you have to drink coffee with the cake (although that's quite nice) but as an indicator of the time of day best for eating crumb cake. It's the morning. Coffee time, and a cake that is not coffee cake, but crumb cake. If you have this cake for breakfast, it means you can still have dessert later!

Hey, if you love crumb cake, you may be interested in these recipes of mine:

Behemoth crumb cake, featured in CakeSpy Presents Sweet Treats for a Sugar-Filled Life

Classic NYC Crumb cake adapted from Arthur Schwartz

Do you have any thoughts to add on crumb cake? Leave a comment!

Six Fascinating Facts About Easter Candy

Happy Easter, my sweet friends! I thought you might like to take a break from all the family time to learn some interesting candy facts. Here are 6 fascinating facts about Easter candy!

  • Americans have strong opinions on the order in which chocolate bunnies ought to be eaten. According to one study, 76 percent of Americans think the ears should be eaten first, 5 percent say feet first. Does that mean the remaining 19 percent will bite off any part that isn’t hopping away?
  • When Marshmallow Peeps made their debut in 1953, it took 27 hours to create each Peep (including moments of stopping while they dried, etc). Today, they are made in 6 seconds, and produced out at a rate of 4 million per day.
  • Peeps are the most popular non-chocolate Easter candy: Americans buy more than 700 million per season.
  • Cadbury Creme eggs are smaller in the US than they are in the UK! They are distributed by different companies in both nations. In England, the eggs weigh 40 grams. In the USA, they’re 34 grams.
  • Each year, about 16 billion jelly beans are produced for Easter. In case you’re wondering...that’s about enough to circle the world three times over.
  • Easter is the #2 candy-eating holiday of the year, with an estimated consumption of 71 million pounds worldwide. Halloween takes the cake, though, with 90 million pounds of candy.

Hoppy--er, happy--Easter, sweeties!

Wedding Cakes from Bermuda Are the Coolest

Recently (as in today), Craftsy published a post of mine about interesting wedding cakes from around the globe. It features about 7 interesting cakes from far-flung locales, and in my opinion, it's a sweet way to do some armchair travel and learn about some unique cakes.

But I wanted to expand upon the tradition of Bermudese wedding cakes, because I found it so darned interesting. And, the cakes are so, so, pretty. That's them, above. The photographer, Sacha Blackburne, was kind enough to share some of her images with me, which is delightful, because as you can see, she's a really talented photographer and really knows how to capture the beauty of a cake. 

But on to the Bermudese wedding cake tradition. As you can see in the photo at the top, weddings are twice as nice in Bermuda, because there are two cakes. They are decorated in silver and gold, respectively, so you'll have to give me a moment here while I do some arpeggios and sing the "siiiiiiiiilver and goooooooooold" song from the TV special of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for several moments here.

(pause)

OK, I'm done. Back to the cakes.

The larger cake, sometimes referred to as the “bride’s cake,” is a large, often multi-tiered fruitcake-like confection covered with silver leaf, which I have read is meant to symbolize purity. Snazzy purity, that is! 

And, of course, the fruitcake is often made using rum from the region. 

A smaller cake, the groom’s cake, is a pound cake that is often covered in gold leaf. This is meant to symbolize wealth and prosperity. Once again: snazzy!

Photo via Sacha Blackburne

The traditional topping? No figurines of a smiling bride and groom here. The traditional cake topper is a real sapling, which is then planted by the couple as a symbol of their growing love and life together. Decoration including other vines, leaves, etc may accentuate this theme.

View the Craftsy post here.

Sweet Tarte: The Story of Tarte Tatin

Image via CraftsyI know, sweet readers, that you probably love a sweet story as much as me, so I thought I would tell you the tale of Tarte Tatin.

To the uninitiated, Tarte Tatin is an upside-down apple tart which is famous in France. It's upside down because it's baked with a slurry of apples, butter, sugar and some spices in a pan, with the pastry bottom on top. After it's baked, you flip the pan, and the yummy gooey stuff drips down on top of the apples to form a caramelly, buttery awesome apple topping on a pastry crust. It's easy and good eating, for sure. 

Among its many fine points, it's also largely viewed as a precursor to America's beloved pineapple upside-down cake. 

So how did the tart get its start? Well, one thing is for certain: the ones who made it famous in the 1880s were the Tatin sisters, Stephanie and Caroline, proprietresses of the Hotel Tatin, located about 100 miles south of Paris. 

How, exactly, the tart was developed depends on who you ask. There are several stories; I'll share a few with you.

Some say that it was a flub where sister Stephanie was cooking some apples on the stovetop and misjudged how quickly they were cooking. To try to chill out the fast-cooking pommes, she tossed a pastry crust on top and tossed the whole thing in the oven to slow the cooking. When she extracted it, the inverted tarte was well-received, and a new classic was born. In another similar variation, she simply forgets to put the crust below the apples so decides to put it on top and bake.

Other versions of the story make out Stephanie as a kitchen novice, accidentally assembling the tart in the wrong order before baking but deciding to go with it. Yet others include an unfortunate incident in which a tart is assembled and soon before baking, is accidentally flipped upside down, but she decides to go with it anyway.

If you've heard another variation of the story, or a slightly different version of any of the above, I'm not surprised. As I found out while writing my second book, The Secret Lives of Baked Goods: Sweet Stories & Recipes for America's Favorite Dessertsmany of the stories behind popular baked goods are like playing a game of telephone: they're slightly different depending on who tells the story. 

It's also probable that it wasn't an accident at all, but a matter of the baker following baking trends, since it's probable that the concept of upside-down desserts actually preceded the sisters Tatin. In his Le Pâtissier royal parisien, published in 1841, the famed pastry chef Marie-Antoine Carême had already referenced "gâteaux renversées" , or "reversed cakes", made with various fruits.

But to me, this is the most interesting part of the story: it wasn't even the sisters Tatin who made the tarte famous. In fact, it was a matter of word of mouth. 

Maurice Curonsky, a French author and gourmand, adorably nicknamed "the Prince of Gastronomy"was the first to famously revere the tart, referring to it in his writing as "tarte des desmoiselles Tatin". To the best of my high school French knowledge, "desmoiselles" is a more kind term than "old maids", but it does refer to their unmarried status. Word of the "tarte Tatin" spread, and this became its nickname--it had not previously been referred to by name like this.

Sealing the tarte's fame was the love of Louis Vaudable, an influential foodie and owner of Parisian restaurant Maxim's. According to the official Tarte Tatin website, Vaudable is said to have written "I used to hunt around Lamotte-Beuvron in my youth, and had discovered in a very small hotel run by elderly ladies a marvelous dessert listed on the menu under tarte solognote. I questioned the kitchen staff about its recipe, but was sternly rebuffed. Undaunted, I got myself hired as a gardener. Three days later, I was fired when it became clear that I could hardly plant a cabbage. But this was long enough to pierce the secrets of the kitchen. I brought the recipe back, and put it on my own menu under "Tarte des Demoiselles Tatin".

As the website continues, however, "Unfortunately, Mr. Vaudable was born in 1902, and the sisters retired in 1906. They died in 1911 and 1917, while Maxim's was purchased by the Vaudable family in 1932." So while it's a cute story, it doesn't quite line up. 

Nonetheless, the tarte did appear on the Maxim's menu, and became a popular favorite.

Today, you might not see tarte tatin on restaurant menus with great regularity, but it's a delicious and worthwhile experience to make your own. It's fairly simple--if you've ever made an apple pie, and if you've ever flipped a Pineapple upside-down cake, you're well equipped with all the skills you need. 

Happy Apples

Regarding apples: The French Calville apple is the specimen of choice for this recipe; however, if you can't find those, try Pippin, Cortland, or Gala apples. Interestingly, some older recipes call for unpeeled apples, though the recipe I suggest calls for Granny smith apples, cored and peeled. I have used Gala when I have made this recipe, but you choose your own bliss. You're not going to be wrong if you use Granny smith.

Regarding pans: You know, there actually exists a tarte tatin pan. But if you don't want to make the investment...go ahead and use an oven-safe skillet.

Regarding serving: Although old versions call for serving the tarte warm, by itself, go ahead and serve it with ice cream if you wanna (you probably do, right?). You won't regret it. 

Want a recipe? I will tell you, I have used the New York Times recipe pretty exactly, so I won't even try to adapt it here--rather, I will give you a link.

Find a recipe for Tarte Tatin here.

Have you ever tried Tarte tatin?

CakeSpy Undercover: The Buttermilk Drop Cafe, New Orleans

Buttermilk Drop Cafe, New Orleans

I first heard about the Buttermilk Drop in a New York Times article, gloriously entitled "A City Drenched in Sugar". I had known that New Orleans was a city famed for its sweets, but I don't think I really knew until I read this article. Not only King cake waited for me in the Big Easy, but doberge cake and snowballs and doughnuts, too.

Actually, a particular type of doughnut called the Buttermilk Drop.

As I learned from this site, the buttermilk drop is a doughnut unique to New Orleans which gained fame at the now defunct but still beloved McKenzie's Pastry Shoppe. It is, on the surface, not an incredibly unique treat. It looks like a doughnut hole, but it's bigger. But not quite as big as a full-sized doughnut. But one taste will tell you that this is a very special doughnutty morsel. Rich in buttermilk, yes, which gives them a perfect delicate crumb yet substantial texture, which is gorgeously and generously coated in a thick glaze. 

I can understand why New Orleans would simply not stand for this doughnut disappearing.

Today, from what I gather, you can get buttermilk drops at two places: Tastee's, which apparently purchased the rights to a number of McKenzie's recipes, and The Buttermilk Drop Cafe

I recently tried them at The Buttermilk Drop Cafe, an establishment with an interesting story. Owner Dwight Henry first gained fame as a maker of sweet treats, then gained local celebrity status when he put incredible effort into helping re-open businesses in his Seventh Ward neighborhood following Hurricane Katrina.

Buttermilk Drop Cafe, New Orleans

And then, he was "discovered" when the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild was filming in his neighborhood, and ended up being featured in the movie. So basically now, in addition to being famous for making doughnuts, he's being featured in New York Times Magazine style shoots

Well, I will tell you, I was intrigued.

Buttermilk Drop Cafe, New Orleans

So when you walk into The Buttermilk Drop Cafe, I was greeted by an odd sight. A large room with ample seating space...but no seating. A menu that seemed to invite sitting and staying a spell...but nowhere to sit and stay. Cool artwork on the wall and even ceiling. 

Buttermilk Drop Cafe, New Orleans

A large case greeted us, but only a portion of it was filled. All of what filled it looked good though: DOUGHNUTS. Glazed and cake, vanilla and chocolate, in rounds and braids... Buttermilk Drop Cafe, New Orleans

and, of course, the famed buttermilk drops.

Buttermilk Drop Cafe, New Orleans

From behind a small glass window, a friendly girl took our order. It was alarmingly affordable. The doughnuts and buttermilk drops were all well under a dollar each, which was refreshing. 

Buttermilk Drop Cafe, New Orleans

We got a few buttermilk, a few chocolate, and of course several buttermilk drops.Buttermilk Drop Cafe, New Orleans

The doughnuts were very, very good. Light in texture, with a solid buttermilk flavor, and most importantly, drenched in a highly delicious glaze.Buttermilk Drop Cafe, New Orleans

But the real star was the buttermilk drops. Was it the power of suggestion, that I was ready to love these best because I had heard so much about them? Perhaps. But d-a-m-n were they fine doughnuts.

The texture of the buttermilk drop is perfect. Like I said before, it's a delicate crumb, but a substantial doughnut in nature. I love the size, too. It's more serious than a mere doughnut hole, but not quite a full size doughnut. It is the perfect snacking size. And the glaze was so liberally applied that it kind of fused into the drop's crust...oh, heaven.

Buttermilk Drop Cafe, New Orleans

So what am I saying here? Get yourself to the Buttermilk Drop Cafe. I was impressed by how "real" the place has remained even following its fame. Weird about the seating, but you can deal. This is an experience that must be lived by doughnut lovers.

The Buttermilk Drop Cafe, 1781 N. Dorgenois Street, New Orleans. Online here.

 

What a Sweet Trip it's Been: CakeSpy Timeline So Far

Sweet treats from Bakerella!

This month, CakeSpy (the website, not the author) celebrated its sixth birthday! It seemed like the right time to take stock of where I've been and where I'm going.

It was more than a little emotional for me to go through the archives and relive the CakeSpy adventure--starting the site, thinking of friends I've made, quitting my day job, opening a gallery, traveling the world on cake adventures, releasing two books...like, whoa! It is amazing to think what has happened in my life since I opened this little corner of internet real estate.

So why not come along with me for a stroll down memory lane and revisit the good (and very sweet) times we've had so far? Let's first go way, way back to 2007...

Early 2007: I was the product manager and art director at a refrigerator magnet company (it's true) called iPop. While I loved the people I worked with, I felt like I wanted to break off, do my own thing, have my own company. But what in the world would I do? 

June 2007: After reading Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable by Seth Godin (note: this would later come full circle, when I was mentioned in the updated version of this very book!), I was inspired to look at what I really loved in life, and to start doing it. So, I had a little sit-down with myself in the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle and thought "in an ideal world, what would my job include?". The answer came to me right away: writing, illustrating, and baked goods. Now, I had no idea how this could turn into any money, much less success, but I decided to start a blog while I figured it out. Blogs were what people were starting to do, right?

I decided I would write my blog kind of like DailyCandy, a website I was writing for at the time--but on my website, it would be all sweets. Every day (or close to it) I would try to present a sweet find, be it a bakery, service, recipe, or perhaps sweet artwork. And like DailyCandy it would be punctuated by illustrations--of a little cupcake I've been drawing for years. 

I wanted a name that reflected me as a seeker of sweetness, but that wouldn't corner me into just one category. Something that would draw in possible readers who would wonder..."What's that?". It came to me after about a day: CakeSpy. I'd start my own dessert detective agency!

August 2007: On a fairly unremarkable day, I made my first posting. It was about a now-defunct (I think) Etsy seller who sold cupcakes baked in jars. I'd never witnessed such a thing at that point so I thought it was the coolest thing ever. 

September 2007: I do my first ever interview, with Jennifer Shea of Trophy Cupcakes. It's still a favorite interview of mine. It also alerted me to how interesting the world of commercial baking can be.

November 2007: I write about the history of the Pop-tart, which was one of my most popular posts to date (first time I realized more people than my immediate family were reading my site) and gets me fascinated about the secret lives of other baked goods.

Also, this is the month I open my Etsy store, selling original artwork and notecards. I ultimately change to Big Cartel.

December 2007: My first experiment post: How (not) to Ship a Cupcake, goes my version of "viral"--I get several thousand hits. I really start to think I must be on to something, since up until this point basically just my mom and co-workers are reading my website. 

January 2008: My next experiment post, and still a favorite: Rice Krispies treats made with all types of cereal.

You know you're kind of a big deal when...

March 2008: I had an art opening in Tacoma, and for the first time was "Word of the day".

I begin contributing to Taste of Home Magazine, largely thanks to my friend Sandy Ploy.

Oh no!

April 2008: A unicorn figurine prominently figures into the website for the first time, in a post about madeleines and macarons.

I quit my day job to pursue CakeSpy full time!

June 2008: I took a scooter ride in Queens and ate some cookies with the same name as my friend.

I chase a pie in Brooklyn which may or may not really exist.

July 2008: I was featured in an article about frosting shots. 

Awesomest Birthday Present EVER!

August 2008: CakeSpy turns 1 year old! Here's the post about the party.

I wrote a still-favorite post about Bonbon cookies

CakeSpy begins contributing to Serious Eats! I went on to contribute for several years. 

Sweet treats from Bakerella!

September 2008: Bakerella made cake pops that looked like Cuppie! 

CakeSpy debuts holiday card designs.

October 2008: I license my artwork to a rubber stamp company.

I meet (and fall in love with) the owners of BAKED.

#22: Feed it to a snake

November 2008: 50 Ways to Kill a Twinkie.

December 2008: The best things I ate in 2008.

January 2009: My famous cupcake street art installation makes people's day sweeter!

February 2009: My artwork is used as part of a marriage proposal!

Cookie Cake Pie

May 2009: My most popular recipe to date: Cookie Cake Pie.

August 2009: CakeSpy turns two! I celebrate by exploring the edi-mology (get it?) of the word cake.

November 2009: Important life skill: how to make marzipan turkeys.

December 2009: Best of 2009!

February 2010: CakeSpy goes to Paris. I visited one bakery in each arondissement. Here's the roundup.

March 2010: I did a mural in a bathroom in Minneapolis

CakeSpy goes retail! I purchased a gallery in Seattle and for the next two years, ran my own store. Wow! 

Spring 2010: My friend Bakerella gets a book deal!

June 2010: I made a very large cinnamon roll.

August 2010: CakeSpy turns three! 

CakeSpy featured on CNN!

October 2010: I had an amazing trip to California.

November 2010: I visited every bakery on Broadway in Manhattan, in one day.

December 2010: I sign a book deal for my first book. CakeSpy Presents Sweet Treats for a Sugar-Filled Life is in the works!

Also: Best of 2010!

January 2011: I ate Pumpple!

Ask a Spy: How do I become a Superstar Dessert Blogger?

February 2011: I entered (and later on won a prize--my socks in production!) the Sock it to Me Design a Sock contest

March 2011: I am working on coloring book pages for Taste of Home magazine!

I was featured on the cover of a magazine.

April 2011: I was featured in a Brazilian newspaper.

May 2011: Did I mention I ate a whoopie pie in Maine for the first time?

June 2011: My book cover is finalized!

I visit the Wilton Headquarters in Illinois.

July 2011: I do a mural in a bathroom in Seattle.

August 2011: CakeSpy turns four! I go to Nanaimo, home of one of my favorite sweets, to celebrate.

September 2011: I take an epic road trip to Chicago and eat pastries all along the way.

Duncan Hines invites me to the Emmy Awards!

October 2011: MY FIRST BOOK COMES OUT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! CakeSpy Presents Sweet Treats for a Sugar-Filled Life!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Oh, snap!

For the party, New York Cupcakes made me the best batch of cupcakes...EVER!

Bakerella visited my store and posted about it.

November 2011: Book tour for CakeSpy Presents Sweet Treats for a Sugar-Filled Life. Yes, I do meet Jay and Silent Bob on tour.

December 2011: Best of 2011!

December 2011: I get my second book deal, for The Secret Lives of Baked Goods: Sweet Stories & Recipes for America's Favorite Desserts.

I'm featured on Joy the Baker's podcast!

January 2012: I run the best contest ever: So you Wanna Be a CakeSpy?

March 2012: CakeSpy attends the Pillsbury Bake-off!

Joy the Baker comes to CakeSpy shop!

June 2012: Sneak peek at book two's photo shoot! These are photos that will end up in The Secret Lives of Baked Goods: Sweet Stories & Recipes for America's Favorite Desserts.

Frosting Cake

July 2012: I bake cake with frosting in it, just to see what will happen.

September 2012: After a couple of awesome years with the store, I have decided to move away from Seattle, so I close the doors. This is bittersweet, but it's time. Miss all my customers!

November 2012: I debut a magical new pin.

December 2012: Most delicious moments of 2012!

January 2013: I educate children about how to steal candy.

February 2013: I do a mural in Lewes, Delaware.

March 2013: I share my favorite buttercream recipe.

I begin contributing to Craftsy.com.

April 2013: I was hired by SILK soymilk to do this fantastic post. Love it!

May-July 2013: My second book comes out! The Secret Lives of Baked Goods: Sweet Stories & Recipes for America's Favorite DessertsI go on book tour.

Book tour, part one.

Book tour, part two.

Book tour, part three.

August 2013: CakeSpy turns six! I'm hoping to start on a new book project soon. Life is good.

Thank you for making it sweet. I couldn't have done it without you, readers! 

- - - 

GIVEAWAY ALERT!!!

To thank you for your years of readership, howsabout a giveaway? To thank you for your years of readership, I have decided to give away two copies each of both of my books: CakeSpy Presents Sweet Treats for a Sugar-Filled Life and The Secret Lives of Baked Goods: Sweet Stories & Recipes for America's Favorite Desserts. Since I'm feeling very giving, this giveaway is open to US and international entrants.

All you have to do? Tell me your favorite thing about CakeSpy (yes, it's self-serving!). It could be a recipe, an illustration, a product, a post, or one of my books...you name it! Leave it as a comment on this post (it may not show up right away as comment moderation is enabled) and I'll choose winners. 

UPDATE! I Decided to extend the contest cos I'm having so much fun with the responses. You now have til MY birthday, August 26 (monday), 5pm PST!  

The Curious Case of the St. Patrick's Day Frog Cupcake

Frog Cupcakes, Whats for Dessert, Spring Lake Heights NJ

It's a funny thing about regional baked goods. Sometimes, you don't realize they're regional until you move away from an area. And for me, one such baked good is the St. Patrick's Day Frog Cupcake.

I grew up in a magical part of the world known as the Jersey Shore. And every year around the first of March through St. Patrick's day, local bakeries such as Freedman's Bakery would bake up a very interesting confection: the frog cupcake.

Let me explain a bit further, though. A frog cupcake is NOT simply a cupcake decorated with a frog face. Its construction is like so:

Frogs chart

When assembled, it looks like this:

Frog Cupcakes, Whats for Dessert, Spring Lake Heights NJ

Now, chances are, if you aren't a local in the NY metro area, you may never have seen this glorious confection. For me, it wasn't until I relocated to Seattle for a time that I realized that this wasn't an everywhere treat. So what gives?

Frog Cupcakes, Whats for Dessert, Spring Lake Heights NJ

Well, I have to say, this is a moment where I want to say "Bless the Internet", because, as it turns out, there's an entire website dedicated to the subject  (and preservation of) these delightful frogs. It's called Follow Your Frog. It even has a page dedicated to the evolution of the frog. The research isn't scientific, but references that the frog pheneomenon could date back to the 1920s, in Australia:

A place called Balfours, which evidently still has them today. These Froggies are quite different than their American cousins (well, OK, we haven’t tasted met them yet, but from what we've read). These are tea cakes, originally just green, then also pink and chocolate coated (yes, chocolate!). Were these the frogs that came to America and were supersized? Or are the Frogs that settled in the New York metro area instead from Europe? Frog historians (ok, there really is no such thing...crazy people obsessed with Frogs) are attempting to trace their path…

But then the page goes on to say

Next sighting - bakeries in the NY Metro area in the 1960s-70s. These are the frogs of our childhood, and all the local bakeries (Coquelle’s, New Garden) in the Newark NJ area had them for St. Patrick’s Day (and ONLY then).

Newark area bakeries disappear over time, with Coquelle’s ending in the 90s, and we thought they were extinct. Uncontrollable sobbing continued every St. Patty’s Day. Until…

Frogs found in Central Jersey! In fact they were there all along, probably as long as the Northern NJ frogs – we just didn’t know. Vaccaro’s in Clark NJ saves St. Patty’s Day!

Frogs go mainstream with the Wegmans supermarket variety – although for the last 2 years in NJ they were MIA… so hopefully they have not gone the way of the dinosaur…

An internet search leads to the discovery of La Delice in NYC – another older bakery which has had them for a long time. And these frogs don’t hibernate – they proudly show their googly eyes every day of the year.

The fantastic creators of the Follow Your Frog site have even started something called FrogFest, which pits frog cupcake makers from NY, NJ, and PA against one another to see whose frogs are the finest. My goodness, why haven't I been to one of these?

Frog Cupcakes, Whats for Dessert, Spring Lake Heights NJ

As the site notes, and as I can attest, the frog is a dying breed. When I visited Freedman's in Belmar recently, which is under new ownership since my childhood, the employee had no idea what I was talking about when I inquired about frog cupcakes. A longtime employee's face, however, lit up as she said "Oh my god! I remember the frogs. They were like sugar bombs! So good!". 

However, in nearby Spring Lake Heights, the frogs are available at a bakery called What's For Dessert. Their specimen is a fine one, with a decadent edge owing to a butter cookie leprechaun hat (adhered with a birthday candle!). And by a "fine" specimen I mean a true and complete sugar bomb of a delight. It's not fancy eating but it sure is fun. Here is my nephew about to dig into one:

Dylan and his frog

It is humane to remove the eyes before eating, but that's not to say you can't have a little torturous fun with your frog. Sensitive readers may want to skip the next few photos.

Frog Cupcakes, Whats for Dessert, Spring Lake Heights NJ Frog Cupcakes, Whats for Dessert, Spring Lake Heights NJ Frog Cupcakes, Whats for Dessert, Spring Lake Heights NJ

OK, OK. I hope I've expanded your sweet horizons by offering you the fable of the Jersey Shore frog today. If you're curious, I highly suggest visiting the Follow Your Frog website, where you can find frogs and report sightings!

It may not be easy being green for these frogs, but life is certainly sweet for the eaters of these treats.