Articles in Baking
Most recipes seem to call for all-purpose flour. But should you use bleached or unbleached? Has it occurred to you to experiment with the myriad options, including pastry flour, bread flour, self-rising flour, whole wheat and gluten-free?
Know your flours
Unbleached cake flour is good for cakes, biscuits and muffins. This blend of unbleached flour and cornstarch that replicates cake flour’s performance without bleaching.
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Unbleached all-purpose flour is good for cakes, breads, pies, cookies, quickbreads, and muffins. This is the best all-around flour with enough protein for good structure, but not so much that baked goods are tough or chewy.
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Unbleached bread flour is good for breads, pretzels, combined with whole grain or non-gluten flours. This flour’s high protein level gives more support to non-gluten flours like rye and it also helps the structure of whole grain breads. It makes excellent pizza crust and artisan loaves, which have a high water content.
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Premium whole wheat flour is good anywhere you’d use white flour, with recipe adjustments. Ground from the entire wheat berry, whole wheat flour contains bran, germ, and endosperm. The oil in the germ can go rancid. To delay this, store it in an airtight container in the freezer.
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Unbleached white whole wheat flour is good anywhere you'd use white flour, with recipe adjustments. This flour is nutritionally identical to traditional whole wheat, though the bran is lighter in color and has a milder, sweeter flavor.
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Self-rising flour is good for biscuits, quickbreads and cakes. This is a low-protein flour that has baking powder and salt added to it already.
Or have you sent your husband or wife or partner or friend to the grocery store for flour and been stunned at what they bring home? With the wardrobe of flour options, how are they to know which one to purchase?
All flours begin as wheat. The wheat berry has four parts, bran, germ, endosperm and cotyledon. White flour is created by sifting out the bran, germ and cotyledon. Whole-wheat flour is made from the entire grain. To complicate things further, there is white whole-wheat flour that is made from a hard white wheat as opposed to regular whole-wheat flour that is made from hard red wheat. They are both milled the same way. And one begins to understand why it is difficult to decide which flour to use.
Understanding gluten content
When baking, it is important to understand the differences in all the flour options. The bottom line is it is all about the gluten content. Gluten is a protein in wheat that when hydrated creates the structure of your dough, be it cake, bread, pizza, etc. The higher the gluten content the tougher or chewier your end result.
All-purpose flour was developed to have a gluten content that works for most household baked goods without having to make adjustments. If you use a high-protein (high-gluten) flour such as whole wheat, you will need to add more moisture or let your dough rest a little longer so it behaves more like all-purpose flour.
Even though you might be tempted to replace your all-purpose flour with white whole-wheat flour it is not a perfect substitution. The white whole-wheat flour has more gluten protein and will result in tougher dough if you do not add more moisture or allow it to rest for a longer period of time.
A flour experiment
Susan Reid, editor of “The Baking Sheet” at King Arthur Flour is a food scientist and a flour aficionado. She did a test to show how different flours act by making the exact same recipe with a range of flours. She used a random store brand, bread flour, all-purpose flour, unbleached cake flour, white whole wheat flour, whole wheat flour, self-rising four and gluten-free flour.
Her thesis was that all flours are not created equal. One could taste and see the differences. The unbleached cake flour was the softest whereas the whole-wheat was the toughest, and the gluten-free clearly had a different structure than the wheat-based flour specimens.
So how do you select the right flour for your baking needs? Most recipes seem to call for all-purpose flour. Should you deviate from using all-purpose flour just know you may need to adjust the moisture content to obtain your desired texture.
If you are making an artisanal sourdough bread, perhaps whole wheat or white whole wheat would be your choice. But if you want to make bagels with lots of structure then a higher gluten flour would be your best choice. The key is to know you have options and to choose the best flour for the baked good that you are making.
Remember, despite all the negative press that gluten has been getting these days, it is the most important ingredient in baked goods because it provides their structure. And herein lies the difficulty with gluten-free baking and why it is so hard to find great gluten-free bread or cookies that have the structure of the wheat-based flours. Gluten does have a role in baking and if you are not gluten intolerant, then experimenting with the different flours can be fun and liberating.
Try making two batches the following scone recipe from King Arthur Flour. Make one with whole wheat flour and one with white whole wheat flour. And let us know your observations.
Whole-Wheat Raisin Scones
For the scones:
2 cups (8 ounces) King Arthur 100% white whole-wheat flour
2 tablespoons (⅞ ounce) sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup (4 ounces, 1 stick) chilled, unsalted butter
¾ cup (6 ounces) buttermilk
1 egg yolk (save the white for topping the scones)
½ cup dried fruit (optional)
For the topping:
1 egg white
Sparkling white sugar
1. Place the dry ingredients in a large bowl.
2. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender.
3. Whisk together the buttermilk, orange juice, and egg yolk and stir into the dry mixture until a dough forms.
4. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface, and gently and quickly knead in the optional dried fruit.
5. Pat the dough into a flat disk about 7 inches across and cut it into wedges.
6. Transfer the disk to a parchment-lined or lightly greased baking sheet. For crispier scones, separate the wedges; for softer, higher rising scones, leave them in the circle.
7. Brush the tops of the scones with the egg white and sprinkle with sparkling white sugar. Bake them in a preheated 375 F oven for 25 to 27 minutes, inspecting at midpoint to admire and turn.
8. Remove the scones from the oven when they’re light, golden brown and cool them on a wire rack.
Top photo: The great flour experiment. Credit: Courtesy of King Arthur Flour
There are, say, half a dozen main kinds of cake, but the range of frostings is theoretically unlimited. I’ve been experimenting with Asian flavor ideas. I’ve made pomegranate frosting and topped it with candied walnuts, swiping a flavor idea from the Iranian dish fesenjan, and I’ve used cardamom and saffron, a combination used in a number of Indian desserts.
And I love Thai food, so violà: ginger-lemongrass-coconut frosting. (Because the Thais use coconut as raw coconut milk, I ignore about my otherwise iron-clad rule of toasting coconut before using it in this recipe.) It’s an eye-opener, fresh and elegant.
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The whole point of this frosting is to emphasize the flavors of the fresh ingredients. Ginger poses no particular problem because you can get ginger root in many supermarkets these days, and all you have to do is grate it. Then you strain out the juice and you’re in business.
Lemongrass is more of a chore, even when you can get it fresh. It’s nicely fragrant (in fact, one variety of lemongrass is used as a mosquito repellent under the name citronella) but the stalks are extremely fibrous, almost woody. It’s a fool’s errand to use a grater or even a mortar on it. For this, we have food processors. It goes without saying that when shopping for lemongrass, you should choose the freshest, least dry stalks, but you’ll have to make do with whatever the market carries.
Some shoppers may find another option, because recently some supermarkets have started carrying puréed ginger and puréed lemongrass in plastic squeeze tubes. One brand name to look for is Gourmet Garden. This is typically sold in a cold case alongside the packaged salads and refrigerated sauerkraut. To use these in this recipe all you have to do is press the purées in a fine sieve until you have enough juice.
If you don’t have access to lemongrass of any description, you can make an excellent frosting by substituting ¼ teaspoon lime zest and maybe some lime juice to taste.
There is obviously a world of exotic flavors out there. Still, though I try to keep an open mind, I don’t think I’ll try curry frosting anytime soon, basically because of the cumin, and scratch chili off my to-do list. I’ve experimented with making this frosting with fresh galangal (called kha in Thai) in place of the ginger, and I didn’t like it. Galangal is a cousin of ginger with a more pungent and distinctive flavor, but it proved way too pungent, almost mustardy. With that in mind, I’m tentatively scratching honey-mustard off my to-do list as well.
But ranch dressing flavor? I don’t know, maybe. I’ll get back to you on that.
Thai Coconut Cake
Serves 8 to 12
For the cake:
½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter plus about ¼ cup, softened
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus 2 tablespoons for dusting
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups sugar
1. Generously rub the insides of 2 (9-inch) cake pans with the ¼ cup of softened butter, then dust with 2 tablespoons of flour and shake out the excess.
2. Mix the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the vanilla to the milk.
3. Beat the butter until light, about 3 minutes, then gradually beat in the sugar until the mixture is smooth and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating 20 seconds after every addition.
4. Add 1 cup of the dry mixture and beat at medium speed just until the flour is incorporated, coaxing the flour into the mixture with a flexible scraper. Add ½ of the milk and do the same. Repeat with the remaining flour and milk. Stir up from the bottom with a scraper to make sure the mixture is uniform and beat at medium speed for a couple of seconds.
5. Divide the batter between the two prepared cake pans. The total weight of the batter is 50 ounces, so each layer should weigh 1 pound 9 ounces (if you include the weight of the cake pans, that will be 2 pounds 5 ounces). Bake at 350 F until the tops are golden brown all over and spring back if lightly touched, and the layers are starting to pull away from the sides.
6. Remove the pans from the oven and set them on racks to cool for 10 minutes. Overturn the pans and remove from the layers, then set the layers right side up again and leave until cool, about ½ hour, before frosting.
For the frosting:
1½- to 2-inch length of fresh ginger
5-6 stalks of lemongrass
1 tablespoon vodka
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
¼ cup water
¼ cup light corn syrup
2 egg whites
2½ to 3 cups shredded or flaked coconut
Optional: 1-2 drops green food coloring, 3-4 drops yellow food coloring
1. If you can find ready-puréed ginger and lemon grass, press them through fine sieves to get ¼ to ½ teaspoon juice each. If you can’t find the ready-puréed kind, follow this procedure using the first three ingredients: Grate the ginger and strain enough to get ¼ to ½ teaspoon juice. Chop the lower, whitish part the lemongrass stalks into ¾-inch lengths and process them in the food processor (checking the blades from time to time to make sure that they haven’t gotten fouled and are still running free) until it looks like lawnmower clippings with no solid chunks, about 3-4 minutes. Add the vodka and process a few seconds longer, then sieve out as much liquid as you can. Set the juices aside.
2. Place the sugar, salt, cream of tartar, water, corn syrup and egg whites in the top of a double boiler and beat until foamy.
3. Pour 3 or 4 cups of water in the bottom of the double boiler and bring it to a boil over high heat. When it is at full boil, set the top of the double boiler over it and beat continuously with a hand-held mixer at top speed (about 12 minutes) until the beaters form deep sculptural folds in the frosting, the sheen has begun to fade, and the frosting forms firm peaks when the beaters are removed.
4. Remove the top of the double boiler and beat the frosting at high speed off heat for 1 minute. Beat in the ginger and lemongrass juices to taste. If you want to alert diners that this is not ordinary coconut cake, add food colorings to taste.
1. Set one cooled cake layer upside down on a serving plate. Using no more than ¼ of the frosting, frost the top of the layer and sprinkle with 1 cup of the coconut.
2. Set the other layer over this, right side up (flat side down), and cover the cake with the rest of the frosting. Sprinkle the rest of the coconut over the top of the cake and pat it onto the sides.
Thai coconut cake with lemongrass and ginger. Credit: Charles Perry
The cookbook “Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens,” first published in 1970 and still in print, documented the history of cooking in the Canadian province. The book, written by Marie Nightingale, is still celebrated today. This story, the first in a two-part series, examines the Nightingale’s efforts to write the book. The second part in the series explores its impact on cooks and chefs in Nova Scotia.
For the longest time, the transmission of knowledge in the realm of cookery was an intimate and personal affair, taught by seasoned practitioners to novices. This information was often imparted in the form of notebooks filled with handwritten recipes, each one specific to its author and its region. The recipes found therein would yield recipes for everything from yeasty breads to aromatic roasts, methods of preserving both sweet and savory for long winters, and sometimes even home remedies or a tip or two on how to properly prepare and clean a piece of game or fish.
A history of the people and food of Nova Scotia
In places like Nova Scotia, those notebooks contained recipes for blueberry grunt, chicken fricot and maybe some dandelion wine. But tastes change, fashions and fads come about and flavors can be lost in the shuffle. Thanks to people like Marie Nightingale, we never need fear forgetting those tastes.
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Buy the book:
By Marie Nightingale
Down East Books,
2011, 208 pages
Part 2 of Nova Scotia series, coming March 6:
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Marie Annetta Johnston was born (and “bred and buttered,” she joked) in Halifax in 1928. At 19, she moved to the small town of Windsor to work as a radio announcer at a local radio station. There she worked as a contributor to a show called “Good Morning Ladies.” ”Before that I had no experience or interest in cooking or baking,” she says. “My grandmother had a maid who didn’t like me to be underfoot – especially in ‘her’ kitchen.”
Marie moved back to her hometown of Halifax and in 1951 wed Laurie Nightingale. She left the workforce, spending her days rearing children and doing volunteer work with various local organizations and festivals, namely a historical festival celebrating Joseph Howe, a somewhat legendary Nova Scotian figure. By the late 1960s, her historical interests diverged from the celebrated to what could have been viewed as mundane. “No one had examined our heritage from a food angle,” she says.
She decided to start working on a cookbook, examining the culinary heritage of Nova Scotians. “I was inexperienced, with no training of any kind,” she recalls. “I didn’t even know I could write, and I considered myself to be an average cook. Not much to go on, except my two best friends: determination and enthusiasm.”
Nightingale started gathering research from all over the province. Her sources included historical papers detailing archaeological digs, undated newspaper clippings of recipes and, of course, handwritten cookbooks passed down in families. “At first it was going to be just one menu of traditional N.S. foods,” she says. ”But it grew from that, and bit by bit it came together. You can’t tell the story of a people unless you tell what they ate.”
The story of Nova Scotia and the people who inhabit it is like a lesson in colonial history. Nightingale’s book begins with the first people of the area, the Mi’kmaq, moving forward in time to the first French settlers who would later become known as the Acadians. These are followed by the English, the Scots, the Irish, the Germans and New Englanders, as well as freed slaves from the United States. “The book started demanding its own personality,” she recalls. ”What is typical in Lunenburg and the German community is not the most typical of the Irish or the Scots, so I started developing my crazy quilt of the major ethnic groups that settled our province.”
With history off the table, it was time to dig into the kitchen. She found herself bogged down with countless recipes to test and try. But this travail would prove to be less than obvious. “Some recipes that I really wanted to include did not take kindly to modern ingredients, and I had to leave them out,” she says. ”For instance, a cake in days past would be ready to pour into the pan when a wooden spoon would stand upright in the batter. Nowadays we like our cakes to be light and moist.” Some of the recipes even proved to be inedible. “No dough on earth could rise under the weight of 2 pounds of raisins,” she exclaims. But changes in taste and the quality of ingredients were only the beginning of Marie’s challenge. To write a cookbook for contemporary home chefs meant she must include much more precise details than were given in the handwritten notebooks she plumbed. “Methods were seldom given,” Marie says. “Instructions of ‘Mix, put in a pan and bake’ led to questions of how to mix, what size pan, what oven temperature and how long to bake?”
Her problems weren’t only to be found in the kitchen. Although she found a publisher for her book, suggestions were made that she found to be unpalatable. The requested changes would have left her with a book that she felt would not be indicative of how she thought Nova Scotia’s food ways should be presented. “It had to be me,” she says. “And that’s why I turned my back on the original publishers and decided to have my husband bankroll the printing of the work.”
Marie gathered the help of her friend Morna Anderson for the book’s illustrations, including the book’s iconic cover of a woman near an old hearth, an infant sleeping next to her. The simple line drawings evoke a rustic air of comfort and simplicity. After all her efforts, in 1970, “Out Of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens” was placed on bookshelves in stores. Here is one recipe from the book.
Most early desserts were made from fruits that grew wild and in abundance. A common method was to stew them and add dumplings. Most often referred to as “grunt” or sometimes as “slump” or “fungy,” it often constituted the entire meal. Made with apples, rhubarb, strawberries, the most popular of all was blueberry grunt.
For the berries:
1 quart blueberries
½ cup sugar or more to taste
½ cup water
For the dumplings:
2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon shortening
¼ cup to ½ cup milk
1. Put berries, sugar and water in a pot, cover and boil gently until there is plenty of juice. Keep the mixture hot.
2. Sift flour, baking powder, salt and sugar into a bowl.
3. Cut the butter and shortening and add enough milk to make a soft biscuit dough.
4. Drop by spoonfuls onto the hot blueberries mixture. Cover with foil for 15 minutes. Serve hot.
From “Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens,” with permission from Nimbus Publishing
Top photo: Marie Nightingale, the author of “Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens.” Credit: Courtesy of Saltscapes magazine
Cultures all around the world have rejuvenating herbal tonics, taken to strengthen and support the body. Think of the spring tonics our grandparents knew and swore by. A number of these elixirs are also aphrodisiacs, employed to arouse our emotions and feelings of love. With Valentine’s Day coming up, what better time to give them a try?
Botanical aphrodisiacs are often highly-prized and costly (ginseng, for example), but the romantic cocktails, cupcakes and sorbet (we got inventive!) below call for five main ingredients that are inexpensive and readily available in the U.S.
Aphrodisiac list to remember
Each has a cultural tradition of promoting health and well being while also supporting libido: Ashwagandha, native to India; damiana, found in Central and South America; horny goat weed from China; maca from Peru; and schisandra from China. All can be obtained as organic dried herbs or powders from Starwest Botanicals. Many are also available from Frontier Coop. Organic fairly-traded Ayurvedic herbs can be found at Banyan Botanicals, and if you’d like to try growing any of these plants yourself, Horizon Herbs can supply seeds.
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» Click here for a chance to win both "Aphrodisia" and "Kitchen Medicine" by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal.
You may be inspired to try these treats for Valentine’s day but remember they can be enjoyed any time, alone or with a partner. Here’s to health and pleasure!
Evening Energizing Cocoa
Ashwagandha, Withania somnifera, a relative of the tomato, is one of the most important tonic and restorative herbs in Ayurveda, India’s ancient science of life and medicine. In India, ashwagandha root is traditionally boiled in milk as a drink. It has a slightly bitter taste, so we like to combine it with cocoa to make a relaxing and restorative evening drink, adding the aphrodisiac effects of chocolate to that of the ashwagandha.
½ to 1 teaspoons ashwagandha powder
2 teaspoons cocoa powder (or to taste)
¼ teaspoon cardamom powder
1 cup milk or almond milk per person
10 drops vanilla essence
honey or maple syrup to taste
1. Mix dry ingredients in a saucepan.
2. Add milk and bring just to the boil, then remove from heat.
3. Add in the vanilla and sweetener to taste.
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Damiana Iced Tea
Damiana, Turnera diffusa, is a tonic herb found in Texas, Central America and tropical parts of South America. Damiana is a tonic for both sexes, balancing hormones and supporting the nervous system as well as increasing libido.
2 heaped teaspoons damiana
1 heaped teaspoon mint
some rose petals
1. Put ingredients into a jug.
2. Pour boiling water on them, brew for 5 minutes.
3. Strain and chill.
4. Serve over ice.
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Horny Goat Weed Liqueur
Horny goat weed, or Epimedium, is an herb worth trying for the name alone. It is grown as ground-cover plant in dry shade, and the species used as aphrodisiacs are Epimedium grandiflorum, E. sagittatum and E. brevicornum. The leaves, which can be used fresh or dried, have a pleasant mild taste and a mild stimulant effect.
Makes about two weeks’ supply for one person.
A handful of dried horny goat weed leaves
A slice or two of orange
3 or 4 cardamom pods
1 tablespoon brown sugar
About a cup of whisky
1. Loosely fill a jam jar (roughly ½ pint size) with the dry ingredients
2. Pour in enough whisky to fill the jar and submerge the contents.
3. Put the jar in a warm dark place for two weeks then strain and bottle.
4. Enjoy a small liqueur glassful, sipped slowly, as and when you wish.
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Maca Cupcakes With Vanilla Fudge Icing
Maca, Lepidium meyenii, looks a bit like a turnip and is a staple in the high Andes. Its strengthening and hormone balancing benefits are cumulative over long periods, though some people find it immediately stimulating. The powder smells like butterscotch, but blander and with a slightly bitter taste. Maca can be added to porridge, breads and cakes. Our favorite maca recipe is for these cupcakes. Matthew loves the combination of hard, sweet icing, a soft, light cake and sensuous strawberry melting in the mouth.
Makes 10 to 12 cupcakes
Ingredients for cupcakes
½ tablespoon vinegar
1 tablespoon corn syrup or honey
4 tablespoons butter
½ cup light brown sugar
½ cup milk or oat milk
1 cup white flour
2 tablespoons maca powder
1 tablespoon boiling water
½ teaspoon baking soda
1. Warm vinegar, corn syrup, butter and sugar together in a pan.
2. When softened, beat until mixture becomes a creamy batter.
3. In another container, mix milk, flour and maca powder.
4. When well blended into a runny batter, pour over the cake batter.
5. Mix the two batters together to form a semi-liquid mixture.
6. Pour into 10 or 12 muffin cases.
7. Bake at 180 C (350 F) for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden on top and cooked through.
8. Cool, and add icing, as below.
Vanilla Fudge Icing
For 10 or 12 cupcakes
1 teaspoon butter
1½ cups sugar
½ cup milk
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
10 small, very ripe strawberries
1. Melt butter and sugar in a saucepan.
2. Add milk and stir continually until it reaches boiling point.
3. Continue cooking until the mixture arrives at the soft ball stage (115 C, 240 F).
4. Cool a little, add vanilla extract and beat until smooth.
5. Spread on the cup cakes.
6. If the icing gets too stiff, warm it over hot water.
7. Decorate the top of each cupcake with a small, very ripe strawberry while the icing is still soft.
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Schisandra Syrup and Sorbet
Schisandra, Schisandra chinensis, berries are the fruit of a Chinese vine in the magnolia family and are known as “five flavor berries” for their complex taste. Besides their aphrodisiac effect, they promote overall health and vitality, improve memory and concentration and help protect the liver, support the endocrine system and act as a powerful antioxidant.
Ingredients for syrup
1 cup schisandra berries
3 cups water
1 cup sugar
1. Put schisandra berries into a pan.
2. Add the water and simmer gently with the lid on for 30–40 minutes.
3. This stage is complete when the berries have given their brown-black color to the water.
4. Allow to cool for a few minutes.
5. When almost cool, put in blender and blend for a few moments.
6. Strain through a sieve.
7. Add sugar, and bring to a boil, cooking for a couple of minutes longer.
8. Allow to cool, giving a rich syrup
Ingredients for sorbet
1 cup schisandra syrup (as above)
Juice of 2 or 3 oranges, freshly squeezed
1 ripe banana
1. Mix the syrup and orange juice.
2. Peel and slice the banana and freeze it.
3. When frozen or nearly frozen, add the banana to the syrup mix.
4. Beat with a hand blender until creamy, then freeze again.
5. Serve in a chilled dish.
Top photo: Ashwaganda. Credit: Julie Bruton-Seal
During my eight years in Taiwan, I learned to adore Chinese food in all its permutations. One sweet snack I loved in particular would start showing up in the local pastry shops as Chinese New Year rolled around. This was the only time when squares of sachima could be eaten in a perfectly fresh state, the strips of fried dough collapsing at each bite, the syrup still gooey and luscious, the raisins sweet and tender.
I had been told that these were traditional Beijing treats, and I took that as gospel for a long time. But the name always confused me, as it made no sense in Chinese. Most stores displayed signs that said 沙其馬 shāqímǎ, which literally means “sand his horse” — hardly a mouthwatering image. So I started looking into this, and the more I looked, the weirder things got.
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The chef went on to relate a shaggy-dog story about a General Sa who had a penchant for yummy desserts and riding horses, and who was stationed in Guangdong province during the Qing dynasty. The general commanded his cook to prepare a different sweet for him whenever he returned from hunting on horseback. One day the cook fell behind, and by the time his boss had gotten back, he still hadn’t prepared the requisite confection, so he poured some honey over deep-fried noodles, cut them into squares and served the dessert to the general. The officer was delighted. But the cook, grumbling in the back of the kitchen, was heard to mutter, 殺那騎馬的 “Shā nà qímāde.” Loosely translated, it means “[I'd like to] kill that guy on the horse,” but fortunately this was misheard and then interpreted as the name of his new creation, 薩其馬Sà qí mǎ, or “Sa [and] his horse.”
Chinese New Year sweet’s imperial origins
The truth, as it often does, fell straight through the cracks of these tall tales.1 (There at least four more accounts on the origin of sachima, making this a sort of Rashomon of the dessert world.) This sweet actually originated in the Chinese Northeast, in what was once called Manchuria. As the Qing imperial household hailed from this cold area, they brought the treats they loved to Beijing when they arrive to rule over what became China’s last imperial dynasty. However, this didn’t explain the name. I kept digging, but soon wished I hadn’t.
You see, what I found out from some old Chinese books is that sachima is a Manchurian word whose literal definition is “dog nipples dipped in syrup,” or 狗奶子糖蘸 gǒunǎizi tángzhàn. Not an appealing image by any stretch of the imagination.
To my considerable relief, I later found that “dog nipples” was an old name for a wild Manchurian fruit similar to Chinese wolfberries, also known as goji berries. So, somewhere up the line, this sweet was just dried fruits bound with a syrup, which evolved into the more easily created fried strips of dough which are then dotted with dried fruits and nuts.
And so, after all that, what is the meaning of “sachima” in Chinese? It ends up that this is merely a transliteration of those, um, sugary dog nipples.
This recipe is a combination of traditional Beijing-style eggy puffs tossed with a sticky syrup and a big handful of goji berries, nuts, raisins, and sesame seeds to punctuate it with brilliant colors and a variety of flavors and textures. It is simple to make, a delight to eat, and fortunately, involves no horses being sanded or dogs being molested.
Sachima – 薩其馬 Sàqímǎ
Makes 64 pieces about 1 by 2 inches in size
For the dough:
4 cups pastry or cake flour, divided
¼ teaspoon sea salt
5 large eggs, at room temperature
Fresh oil for frying (2 cups or so)
For the fruits and nuts:
½ cup goji berries, a.k.a. Chinese wolfberries (see Tips)
½ cup plump raisins
½ cup chopped toasted or fried peanuts, or ¼ cup each chopped peanuts and pumpkin seeds
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
For the syrup:
2 cups maltose (see Tips)
Spray oil as needed
¼ cup filtered water
- Place 3½ cups flour and salt in a medium work bowl and toss them together. Stir in the eggs, make a soft dough and then turn the dough out on a lightly floured board. Knead the dough, adding only as much flour as needed until it is supple and smooth. Form the dough into a ball, cover and let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes.
- While the dough is resting, pour the frying oil into a wok to a depth of about 2 to 3 inches and place the wok on the stove. Measure out the fruits and nuts, reserving 1 tablespoon of the sesame seeds for a garnish.
- Measure the maltose by heating the jar of maltose for a minute or two in a pan of hot water or in the microwave until the maltose runs freely. Lightly spray a measuring cup with oil, and then pour the maltose into the cup (see Tips). Immediately pour the still-fluid maltose into a medium saucepan; add the water, as well as the goji berries and raisins so that they can plump up. Bring the syrup to a boil and then let it simmer for about 5 minutes; keep the syrup warm.
- Lightly flour a board and cut the dough into four pieces. Shape each piece into a square and then roll each piece out to a ⅛-inch thickness, dusting the dough with a bit more flour as needed. Use a wide, clean pastry scraper or cleaver to cut each piece in half (no wider than the length of your scraper or knife) and then slice the dough into strips that are also ⅛-inch wide; the length doesn’t matter.
- Heat the oil under the wok over high until a wooden chopstick dipped into it starts to bubble, and then lower the heat to medium-high. Toss a handful of the strips to lightly to shake off most of the flour, and then scatter these gently into the hot oil. Fry the strips until they are puffy and golden brown–adjusting the heat as necessary — and then remove them with a Chinese spider or slotted spoon to a large work bowl. Repeat with the rest of the dough until all of the dough is fried.
- Use the spray oil to lightly spray a 16 x 8-inch square pan and a piece of foil that is a bit larger than the pan. Add the peanuts and sesame seeds to the fried dough. Use a silicone spatula to toss the fried dough as you pour in all of the warm syrup. Keep tossing the dough, scraping up from the bottom where the syrup will like to collect to encourage the dough to absorb some of the syrup while the rest coats each of the strips. Keep tossing and scraping until it becomes difficult to move the spatula.
- Scoop the coated strips out into the waiting pan. Use the spatula to lightly press down on the strips, back and forth, slowly and gently compressing the strips together, and then sprinkle on the reserved tablespoon of sesame seeds while the syrup is still a bit warm and sticky. Lightly press the topping down onto the strips with the spatula, using the oiled foil to protect your hands. Let the sachima come to room temperature, cover and refrigerate.
- When the sachima is firm, turn it out on a cutting board and use a large, sharp knife to cut it into small (1 by 2-inch) rectangles, or even smaller, if you wish. If you are not serving them immediately, wrap each square in plastic, place these in a resealable plastic bag, and keep them refrigerated; serve cold, as this helps to rein in the inherent stickiness. They will stay fresh for weeks, I think, but I can never leave them alone for that long.
- You may cut the recipe in half and use an 8 x 8-inch pan; measure out the half egg by beating it lightly and adding half of it (about 2 tablespoons) to the flour along with the other two eggs.
- The best goji berries are found in busy health food stores or Chinese herbalist shops.
- Maltose, a.k.a. malt sugar, is sold in Chinese grocery stores next to the sugar, usually in white plastic tubs. It appears as an amber-like solid that needs to be heated before it can be measured, so either warm the jar in a pan of hot (not boiling) tap water or heat it with short bursts in the microwave.
- Measure maltose out in a greased cup so the sticky syrup will glide out easily. (This is the only thing I remember from seventh grade home ec class.)
1. According to “Yanjing suishi ji” (燕京歲時記 ), a book about contemporary miscellany by Duncong Fucha, “Sachima are Manchurian pastries made from rock sugar and butter mixed with white flour into a shape like sticky rice that are baked using wood without ash; they are cut into squares and are sweet, rich, and delicious,” which shows that the recipe at that time is a bit different from what is made today. The word he uses for “pastry” – 餑餑 bóbó – is northern Chinese dialect and refers to a variety of pastries and breads. There is also speculation that these might have traveled from Central and South Asia over the Silk Road, since so many sweets there are composed of fried dough drenched in honey syrup.
Top photo: Sachima. Credit: Carolyn Phillips
Super Bowl is not a meal, it’s more like agony and ecstasy with side orders of barbecue and nachos. That’s why people never think of a Super Bowl dessert as something to accompany the big game menu, unless it’s ready-made, like ice cream or maybe cheesecake.
But I’ve got a home-baked cake that no sports fan is going to turn down, I guarantee it. This is a cake with maple frosting, sprinkled with bacon. Yeah, that’s right, a cake with a pound of bacon in it.
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This is an obvious sort of flavor combination to Americans. Once upon a time, I suppose, bacon and pancakes were meant to occupy neutral corners of our breakfast plates, but in accordance with the laws of physics and children’s love of playing with their food, the bacon inevitably came into contact with maple syrup, and it proved to be true love. You can even find maple-cured bacon these days.
You don’t have to search a long way to get the same flavor combination in a cake. All you need is any old maple syrup, though the flavor will obviously be better if you use 100% maple, rather than the maple-flavored kind. If you can find it, Grade B syrup, which is less light and elegant than Grade A, is even better for cooking than Grade A, in my opinion. It’s also cheaper.
Splurge for Super Bowl dessert
The butter cake in this recipe is the best choice because it underlines the assistant flavors of the pancake-bacon-maple breakfast team with butter and eggs. This recipe uses a whole lot of sugar and fat, but don’t worry. Super Bowl Sunday is not the day to worry about sugar and fat. This can be a special occasion treat, but probably isn’t a good regular dessert. The cake recipe below is for a basic butter cake. Experienced cake bakers will know that the cake layers are much easier to remove from the cake pans if you line the pan bottoms with parchment paper after buttering them and then butter and flour the parchment paper.
You can omit the cream of tartar in the frosting, but it won’t beat as high. Imitation maple flavoring is made from a spice called fenugreek, so if you do use it, be careful not to add more than 3 drops or the fenugreek flavor may become distracting, even unpleasant.
Serves 8 to 12
½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter plus about ¼ cup, softened
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus 2 tablespoons for dusting
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups sugar
1. Generously rub the insides of 2 (9-inch) cake pans with softened butter, then dust with 2 tablespoons of flour and shake out the excess.
2. Mix the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the vanilla to the milk. Beat the butter until light, then gradually beat in the sugar until the mixture is smooth and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, beating 20 seconds after every addition.
3. Add 1 cup of the dry mixture and beat at medium speed just until the flour is incorporated, coaxing the flour into the mixture with a flexible scraper. Add ½ of the milk and do the same. Repeat with the remaining flour and milk. Stir up from the bottom with a scraper to make sure the mixture is uniform.
4. Divide the batter between the two prepared cake pans. The total weight of the batter is 50 ounces, so each layer should weigh 1 pound 9 ounces (if you include the weight of the cake pans, that will be 2 pounds 5 ounces).
5. Bake at 350 F until the cake tops are golden brown all over and spring back if lightly touched, and the layers are starting to pull away from the sides.
6. Remove the pans from the oven (do not turn the oven off; see next step) and set them on racks or folded towels to cool for 10 minutes. Overturn the pans and remove the cake layers, then set the layers right side up again and leave until cool, about ½ hour.
1 pound sliced bacon
1. After you take the cake pans out of the oven, separate the bacon into strips and arrange these on a baking sheet. Bake at 350 F until the strips are brown and stiff and the fatty parts are crumbly, about 45 minutes. For even cooking, turn the slices over with tongs or a spatula 2 or 3 times while baking.
2. Remove the slices to sheets of paper towel to drain.
3. When the bacon strips are cold, break them up (in sheets of paper towel to absorb excess fat). Mince any hard pieces quite small.
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
¼ cup water
¼ cup maple syrup
2 egg whites
¼ teaspoon vanilla
Optional: 2-3 drops maple flavoring
1. Put the sugar, salt, cream of tartar, water, maple syrup and egg whites in the top of a double boiler. Beat until foamy.
2. Put 3 or 4 cups of water in the bottom of the double boiler and bring it to the boil over high heat. When it is at a full boil, set the top of the double boiler over it and beat continuously with a hand-held mixer at top speed until the beaters form deep sculptural folds in the frosting, it has begun to lose its sheen and when you remove the beaters, the frosting forms firm peaks, about 7 minutes.
3. Remove the top of the double boiler and beat the frosting at high speed off heat for 1 minute. Beat in the vanilla and optional maple flavoring.
Set one layer upside down on a serving plate. Using no more than ¼ of the frosting, frost the top of the layer and sprinkle with ½ of the bacon bits. Set the layer over this, right side up (flat side down), and cover the cake with the rest of the frosting. Sprinkle the rest of the bacon as evenly as you can over the top.
Top photo: Super Bowl dessert: Butter cake with maple frosting and bacon topping. Credit: Charles Perry
No sooner does Paris finish ringing in the New Year than its bakers and grocers unveil copious displays of galette des rois or king cakes. These commemorate the visit of the three Magi to the infant Jesus on Epiphany (Jan. 6), which marks the end of the Christmas season and the start of Carnival. However, they are so popular in the City of Light that they can be found there throughout the month of January.
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King cakes, also known as Twelfth Night cakes or Epiphany cakes, are found throughout the Christian world, with variations found through continental Europe, Great Britain, New Orleans and even Mexico, although the recipes vary widely from one place to another. The English variant, for example features preserved fruits and brandy, while the Provençal version uses a ring-shaped brioche base topped with candied fruit. The cake made in Paris and the rest of northern France since at least the early 14th century is composed of a frangipane or almond-cream filling sandwiched between two layers of puff pastry and should be served warm.
King of the bean
What all versions share is the inclusion of a fève (bean), which since the late 19th century is just as likely to be a porcelain or metal charm. Whoever finds it is crowned “king of the bean,” and all galettes des rois come with a handy cardboard crown for the “coronation.” Some cakes also had a hidden dried pea, whose discoverer became “queen” for the night.
The ritual often takes on the gender-bending hilarity of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” but, historically, this inversion of the social order released tensions accrued during the rest of the year.
At Versailles, the queen and king of the bean received magnificent outfits in which to dazzle during their short-lived “reigns.” One especially intricate party held there in 1684 included five twelfth-night courts, seated at separate tables, who appointed “ambassadors” to negotiate with their neighbors.
When the French Revolution of 1789 put the kibosh on kings in addition to Christianity, a brief but failed attempt was made to squelch out, or at least rename, kings’ cakes. The Revolutionary Committee would have done better to take their cue from the fourth-century church fathers, who fixed the date of Christmas as Dec. 25, although most scholars agree that the historical Jesus was probably born in summer. The reason was a “if you can’t beat them, join them” acknowledgement that the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia was too popular to stamp out. Instead, its raucous atmosphere, and, indeed the tradition of the “king of the bean” were co-opted and renamed, with a thin veneer of Christianity, Twelfth Night.
Traces of the tradition’s pagan origins survive in northern France, where it remains common for the youngest child of the household to sit under the table while an adult cuts the cake, calling out “Phoebe Domine, pour qui la part?” (“Lord Phoebus, for whom is this piece?”) The child replies by allocating the first slice to the Good Lord. This is also called the “piece of the poor,” or “the piece of the virgin,” which would be kept for the first needy person who requested it. The child then names the next person to whom each subsequent piece will be given.
King cakes a January treat
Parisians have a special attachment to the king cake that in part developed because an ancient law for centuries required the capital’s bakers to offer them free to clients as a form of étrennes, the requisite New Year’s gift, which is still popular in France. One early 20th-century baker complained that so-called “clients” appeared from the four corners of the city to claim a cake, never to be seen again.
The abolition of this onerous law in 1910 might well have killed off the galette des rois, which had already virtually disappeared in other cities. such as London. However, Parisians stood in line to pay for them and have done so ever since.
All January long bakeries sell them in dedicated, outdoor stands or stack their windows and display cases full of examples that range in size from the diameter of an English muffin to that of a truck’s wheel.
Monoprix, France’s version of an upscale Walmart, features them on the cover of their weekly bulletin, offering gift certificates as a prize to those who find a “golden bean.” Even the most pedestrian grocers offer a cheapo version.
However, according to the Jan. 5 edition of Le Parisien, the new trend in 2013 is for Parisians to bake their own. This phenomenon is evidenced by a recent spike in web searches for recipes for galette des rois, sales of frozen pâte feuilletée, and the surging popularity of cooking classes specializing in the cake.
In truth, it’s fairly easy and certainly lots of fun — just don’t forget the bean!
Parisian-Style Galette Des Rois
For this cake you need to make or buy two sheets of your favorite pâte feuilletée (puff pastry). Julia Child offers intricate, illustrated instructions, if you’ve never made this before. Roll them out and cut out two disks of equal size, whatever size you prefer. Place one disk on a baking tray.
Make your favorite filling. Frangipane (see below) or almond cream are the classics. In fact, the component parts of a galette des rois are the same as those of a Pithiviers, as described by Child. The galette, however, being a more rustic preparation, is easier to assemble.
Spread a thin layer or egg yolk or water along the border of the bottom pastry layer. Then, spread an even layer of the filling across middle, leaving a small border at the edge.
Don’t forget the bean! You can use a dried bean, or any sort of small charm(s) that won’t melt in the oven.
Quickly cover with the second layer of pastry, and pinch them together gently but firmly, pressing slightly inward so that the two sides stick together well.
For a golden sheen, glaze it with a thin layer or egg yolk diluted with a bit of water
Cut diamonds or whatever pattern you’d like along the top with a sharp knife.
Bake in a hot (425 F) oven until golden brown; for a medium or large galette this will take approximately 30 to 40 minutes.
Let it cool only slightly before serving, or, if prepared in advance, reheat it for a few minutes in a moderate oven.
True frangipane is a mixture of ⅓ crème patisserie and ⅔ almond cream.
For the crème patisserie:
½ cup milk
2 tablespoons. sugar
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon flour
1. As you gently bring the milk to a boil, beat the sugar into the egg yolk for 2 or 3 minutes.
2. Beat in flour until it is very smooth and ribbon-like.
3. Pour the boiling milk over the mixture in a thin stream and whisk in a saucepan over low heat until smooth and thick.
For the almond cream:
½ cup melted butter (unsalted)
¾ cup sugar
1 cup ground almonds
Optional: a splash of rum or almond extract
1. Add the almond cream ingredients together.
2. Add the two creams together and refrigerate until ready to use.
Two-person galette des rois by Régis Colin, 53 rue Montmartre, Paris, who won the 2008 prize for best galette in the Île de France. Credit: Carolin Young
Mardi Gras is around the corner, and if you can’t make it to New Orleans, try to create the spirit of Fat Tuesday with a homemade king cake, the traditional cake for Epiphany, the festival commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles in the persons of the Magi, the three kings who brought gifts to the baby Jesus.
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The origin of king cake is rooted in the French gâteau des rois and probably arrived in New Orleans with the Acadians expelled from Canada by the British in the mid-18th century. Today, Mardi Gras seems more a venue for drunken excess by college boys and Epiphany, while joyous, was never decadent. The eve of Epiphany is known as Twelfth Night (counted from Christmas Eve) and king cake season extends to Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), the day before the start of Lent, a period of fasting and penitence lasting six weeks until Easter.
New Orleans king cake is a round ring cake, sometimes braided. It is a cross between Danish pastry and brioche, with three-color sugar frosting: purple (representing justice), green (representing faith) and gold (representing power). It is lavished with Rococo garnishes and served either plain or with a rich filling. Hidden in the cake is a fava bean, or a plastic baby in modern versions. Whoever finds this hidden treasure is anointed the maker of the next king cake.
My New Orleans-enamored friend Michelle van Vliet, photographer by trade, culinary alchemist by avocation, believes her king cake might just be, appropriately, epiphanic. It better be. She’s been “perfecting” it for years, making king cakes until it came out of our ears.
Michelle’s joie de vivre found its expression in the avatar represented by king cake because, she explained, “it represents the spiritual, musical, and cultural gumbo that is New Orleans all in one lavish cake.” Her search for perfection rests upon the influence of her scientist father, seeded by dating a pastry chef long ago, and forged by her spirited artistic talent.
Michelle says: “Not all king cakes are created equally. Some are sophisticated and mild-mannered, favoring muted tones and elegant sugar sprinkles, but not mine. I indulge in the bright colors of Mardi Gras, and my king cake does not go unnoticed. I was given the ultimate compliment when [art consultant] Barbara Guggenheim told me that my cake reminded her of a Jackson Pollock painting!” Michelle’s advice is to “throw some color around.” Also remember, “this is not some snobby French patisserie, but just a popular cake.”
“I use sweetened condensed milk for the caramel sauce because the taste is a nostalgic warm and fuzzy for me,” she said. “It reminds me of the ’60s when it was a staple ingredient in my mother’s kitchen.”
I finally enticed her to give me the “secret” recipe. As she would say, “Laissez les bons temps rouler!”
Michelle’s King Cake
For the filling
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
½ cup roughly chopped raw pecans
1 fairly firm banana, diced into ¼-inch pieces
For the cake:
1 cup warm whole milk (105 to 110 F)
½ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons dry active yeast
3¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
5 egg yolks, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 plastic baby or dried fava bean
For the icing:
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
½ cup sweetened condensed milk
1 tablespoon evaporated milk
1 teaspoon almond extract
1. Prepare the caramel sauce for the filling. In the top of a double boiler, pour in the condensed milk, place over the bottom portion of boiling water, cover, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thick and caramel-colored, about 2½ hours. Cool 20 minutes before using.
2. Prepare the cake. In a bowl, whisk milk with sugar, yeast and 1 heaping tablespoon flour until smooth and the yeast is dissolved. Let rest until the mixture gets bubbly, then whisk in butter, egg yolks, vanilla, and orange zest.
3. In a separate bowl, mix remaining flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Fold this mixture into the wet ingredients with a rubber spatula. Once combined and the dough begins to pull away from the bowl, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead by hand until smooth, about 20 minutes of kneading. Form into a ball and place in a clean bowl, covered with plastic wrap, and allow it to rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
4. Preheat the oven to 375 F.
5. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Using your fingers pat it out into a rectangle about 30 inches long and 6 inches wide.
Spoon and spread some caramel sauce across the bottom lengthwise half of the dough rectangle then sprinkle the pecan bits and banana pieces on top. Flip the top half over the filling. Seal the edges, pinching the dough together. Shape the dough into a ring and pinch the ends together so there isn’t a seam.
6. Carefully transfer the ring to the prepared baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap allowing the dough to rise until doubled in size, about 45 minutes. Bake until light golden brown, about 20 minutes. (Be careful not to overcook!) Remove and allow to cool completely on a wire rack before decorating. Gently lift up the edge of the cake, and hide the plastic baby or dried fava bean somewhere through the bottom.
7. Prepare the icing. In a bowl, combine the confectioner’s sugar, condensed milk, evaporated milk and almond extract and mix well. If too thick you may add more evaporated milk ½ teaspoon at a time. Divide the icing into 3 bowls, and color them with food coloring, one green, one yellow and one purple. Keep the bowls covered with plastic wrap until ready to use because the icing will harden quickly. Use a spatula or spoon to apply the icing, depending on whether you’re smearing or doing the Jackson Pollock by throwing with the spoon with a slightly thinned icing in alternating colors. Tip: Just go crazy with the color. Don’t hold back. Transfer to a cake platter. The cake will keep for several days covered with plastic wrap.
Note: The excess caramel sauce can be refrigerated and drizzled on ice cream. Serve leftover cake by gently heating.
Photo: King cake. Credit: Michelle van Vliet