Flour allways comes last. But why? And what about muffins?

I actually had never wondered why flour comes last when making a batter. Tell you the truth, I think most people don’t know why, even the professionals. I know, because I asked. It’s so you won’t build up too much gluten. Let me tell you a story.

I was still an apprentice when this happened but, at 27 years of age, feisty and unwilling to act like a sheepish teenager among my superiors, I had some trouble dealing with my closest direct superior. My direct superior was a nasty old lady who was a pasty-cook once-upon-a-time and worked with us twice a week to pimp up her retirement pay. She was, in other words, a very unprofessional pro who was always doing stuff houswife-style. It was very upsetting for me because I knew she was doing something wrong, but as an apprentice, I couldn’t quite explain exactly WHAT she was doing or saying wrong (that all finally came later on).

One day, she had to make a Baumkuchen as was usual and was using our recipe – it is very similar to a poundcake and it is done like a poundcake: beat the butter with some sugar (or when I do it, the butter alone), add the yolk, add the whipped egg-whites, add the sieved flour. But it was winter and the butter was hard from the cold storage room and this silly granny forgot about that so she tried to soften the butter by cutting big chunks of it and placing it on the stove. She then proceeded with doing other stuff and forgot about the butter.

So the butter pretty much melted almost all the way. But veteran pro that this lady considered herself, she didn’t let this trouble her. She put the butter in the big pan in the machine and added the sugar and proceeded to beat it. Well, she tried to. It was a nice sugary butter-soup that wouldn’t fluff up for obvious reasons. She continued by adding the yolks, it would stiffen up eventually, or so she thought.

It didn’t, of course, and because she didn’t want to put her beaten egg-whites into something liquid, she did the only thing she could think of to thicken the brew: she poured half of the flour in this brew and started whisking the flour in. Then she added the beaten egg-whites in and then the rest of the flour. The batter looked kinda gross and the only think making it less noticeable is that Baumkuchen is baked in layers. Because the layers are so thin and tend to dry out in the oven more than bake (and because we cut it in chunks and dunked it in pineapple juice for other purposes), it’s not noticeable right away. I was still appalled.

A week later, at school, I asked one of my teachers why does flour always come last, and explained to her what happened. She frowned in mild disgust and told me “So you can prevent the buildup of gluten.”.

Here’s the thing: you make some bread, you want gluten, all you can get. And for that, you knead your flour with the water. You knead, knead and knead, the glutenin and gliadin bonding with the water and slipping into one another will build the gluten. The gluten is this amazing 3D-net that gives (most) Breads their structure.

But it is not something you want in a sponge-cake or a poundcake. You want it to crumble in your mouth as if each single crumb was held together only by thin air – not by gluten. You see, kneading is the way to go when helping the build of gluten, but just the slightest motion will help it form. So when you’re mixing your batter with a spatula and start folding the flour, you’ll be making some gluten along in the process. You can’t avoid this but you don’t want too much of it. So it’s only logical to first mix everything together that can’t possibly form gluten (eggs, butter, sugar) and then carefully add the flour. The more you mix, the more you kick out some of that precious air you whipped into the egg-whites, and the more gluten you will build – making the dough denser, kicking even more air out of it and making the batter doughey – which will make for a straw-like, doughey sponge-cake. Ugh…

This is why I’m the first to yell “bullshit!” when a recipe calls for alternately mixing the whites and the flour: the few bits of flour you add in-between the eggwhites are forming gluten all by themselves with every movement you make to fold in a part of the whites.

There is one big exception on batters with gluten: Muffins. We don’t do many muffins in Germany, that’s why, after my sis asked me for instructions about when to add the flour and the milk, I was quite baffled. Afer a long search, I realized that the muffins as you know it are a type of butter-spongecake with a good amount of milk in it (more free water, help!). I realized through several recipes that, due to the amazing amount of fluid and how long you have to fold flour in so it won’t clump, it’s near close to impossible to avoid the gluten formation: you either put the milk first and have the butter “clump” and then mix the flour for way too long because you’re trying to fold it into a fluid; or you mix the flour and then have to mix the milk unbelievably long so it blends in nicely. Both make for lots of gluten. But as I’ve realized, the muffins are quite doughey cakes that hold stuff like blueberries in it quite nicely. If it’s something you like to eat, it’s ok – heck, some of my favourite things to eat are derived from faulty processing of the ingredients – but if you want muffins with less gluten in it well…. either use gluten-free flour (but then they won’t taste the same, will they?) or beat the batter so long that the gluten is destroyed into tinier pieces that don’t hold up a 3D-net. You can see this by stopping the machine and holding up the whisks: if the batter drips in pieces instead of flowing in one long string onto the rest of the batter, you kicked gluten’s ass (although it’s still in there, it’s just really roughed up). The rise of the batter on the muffins is almost totally chemical – through baking powder and baking soda. It’s one of the few cakes for which I will gladly reach for the baking powder. Muffins are unique in themselves. I’ll get to a baking-powder-free recipe, but I’m not there just yet.

There is a particular german sweet called Mohrenkopf (moor’s head) that can be made in two different ways. One of them actually involves this process of breaking the gluten by whipping the yolks with water and flour for a LONG time. I will eventually discuss and present this type of sweet on my blog – it doesn’t, by the way, call for baking-powder and it’s what I’ll most likely use as a model when I start working on my muffin recipe.

Know-how basics, Lesson 1 – Organizing your recipe book

If you’re one of my followers and you’re dumbfounded that you don’t find a Lesson 2, but a Lesson 1 in another matter, don’t despair! I’m not going to split everything, but I did spontaneously decide to divide my lessons in theory and in know-how. Because you see, it’s pretty much during in an apprenticeship in Germany: you get the theory in school one day a week. The know-how you get from other professionals during your regular 8 hour shifts, 4 times a week in a bakery.

The first professional responsible for teaching me anything in the bakery was a real bitch. But she still did teach me valuable lessons, and one of the first (so arrogantly as only some professionals can) was how to organize my recipe book. This happened when we had just made some Gugelhupf by a recipe in a cooking book she had brought and told me to copy the recipe. Her words were “You’re not gonna copy that word for word!”

Let me introduce you to my little black book:

bookclosed

Yup, it’s a tiny Filofax®. She pointed out that you should allways keep two recipe books: one for work and one to keep at home (though I only keep one at home for myself), because you’ll allways the one at work filthy. More importantly, she pointed out that you should allways keep a recipe book that allows you to file new recipes in alphabetical order. I chose the Filofax® over other filing methods because, should I need to take it with me, it’s quite handy due to its size.

Now, you probably imagine professionals as having every recipe they need in their head, and that is true most of the time. But when we need to do something that we don’t do quite so often, we pull out our recipe books. And they’re nothing like in the cook book. That was the second most important lesson: you only write the most basic stuff down.

This is what my little black book looks like (this is a recipe that, as described between brackets as “Innung”, was given to me and everyone else in technical school. I’m hoping this ensures thay my sorry ass won’t be sued)

Bookopen

(incidentally, it’s a very yummy sponge cake recipe with marzipan IN the batter) You’ll notice it’s a list of ingredients with the roman numerals I and II next to some ingredients. You don’t want to waste time reading while you’re working. You don’t want to be distracted with the text and be looking for the amounts while you’re working. The descriptions are only there because I wrote this as I was still learning and we had to present our recipe book during our final exam for examination to be evaluated (sadly, we never got a separate mark for it so I don’t know if the examiner liked it, but if I might indulge in a dab of arrogance: I’m pretty sure I rocked)

As professionals, we have to know how to use certain ingredients just by looking at it. We even did this exercise at school: we were shown a list of ingredients and we had to tell the teacher what kind of dough or batter that was. And it’s actually pretty simple, anyway. Even more simple for you because you mostly make sponges and variations of sponges. I’m going to simplify it since I’m just beginning the blog, so I’ll shorten it down to two types of recipes:

  1. Whisked sponge cakes
  2. Sponge cakes with butter (or some other fat)

And from there, you work with the roman numerals. The roman numerals state the number of bowls involved and which ingredients go into which bowl. Either of the sponge cakes can be made with one bowl or two bowls. Confused?

Whisked sponge cakes

  • One bowl means you beat the whole eggs with the sugar (I) (over a simmering pot of water, if you mean to do it right) and then fold the flour in.
  • Two bowls means you beat the Whites with the sugar in one bowl (II) and the Yolks in another bowl (I). Then you fold the flour in.

Sponge cakes with butter

  • One bowl means you beat the butter with the sugar, add the eggs one by one and then fold in the flour.
  • Two bowls means you beat the butter until fluffy and add the yolks (I). Separately, you beat the whites with the sugar (II) and fold it into the butter mix. Then you fold in the flour.

And seriously, didn’t you know this already? So why should your let your eyes wander among the most useless bits (at least for someone who has baked once in their life) like buttering and lining a pan (are you going to forget this? And if you do, are you or your cake going to die when you realize this?) and pre-heating the oven (don’t you know it has to be hot when you’re done mixing?) and separate the eggs (don’t you know you need to do this as soon as you see if it’s a one-bowl or a two-bowl recipe?), blah blah blah.

So I’m linking this to a recipe on BBC’s website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/spongecake_1284

I look at that, I jot down the following:

Bake: 180ºC

I. 125g Butter; 125g Sugar; Two eggs

– 125g self raising flour.

I’m not a beginner. I know I’m not supposed to throw the eggs into the butter from the start. You know it because you’re not doing it for the first time. Sure they have to write it for everyone, including those who don’t know anything. But you’re not them, so don’t act like them. Try to learn, as I did, to fight the urge of copying every single word. Recipes aren’t gonna say anything different. Ever. Except for those recipes when they tell you to alternately fold in the beaten whites and the flour, but that’s bullshit and you should never do it like that. But I’ll leave that for another Baking basics lesson and give you the chemical details on “why” you shouldn’t. Thank you for reading!

Baking Basics, Lesson 1 – Air, water and temperature

Ok, so I’ve been ranting a lot and not sharing enough knowledge. Here’s the plan: I’m giving away some of the basic knowledge of the craft for free. Seriously. I will be writing specific lessons, each dedicated to an ingredient or a type of cake, pastry, etc. I’ll try to be concise – I’m not going as deep as the teachers went in school, but I’ll defenitely tell you more than your basic cooking books. Not convinced? Well, I’ll start with air and water. Then YOU tell me on which basic cooking book you read about this.

Lesson 1 – Air, water and temperature

This little graph (that I know by heart) was presented to us in school on the 9th of March of 2009:

BreadGraph

(Yes, I used MS Paint, stop smirking) I only needed to see this graph one and you’ll know why soon enough. Along with the graph we were given a list of stuff that was happening on the dough, the most important being:

  • 40-50ºC (104-122F) yeast multiplying and building gas
  • 65ºC (150F) (+/-) cooking of proteins in the dough
  • 100ºC (212F) water changing from fluid to gas
  • 200ºC (392F) carbonizing process of glucose

Now the list was a lot longer and it was all very confusing. We were discussing it in group and were supposed to present it in front of class, we were all at a loss. I had been going to professional school every monday for 3 weeks and was having a hard time cramming some stuff up on the account that german isn’t my native language. But the graph was looking so familliar, that it suddenly made click! And I’m sharing it with you, because this is where I’m force-clicking your brain. Because you went to high-school (or are going to high-school) and you know the same things I knew back then. I volunteered to present the graph in front of class, and what I excitedly blurted out was something like this:

Ok, this graph pretty much shows what physical and chemical reactions are happening in the bread. Well but first it measures 40ºC/104F because that’s the temperature the chamber has where we set the dough to raise. And then see this line here for the crust that has two moments where the slope flattens? You see, the first one is happening at 100ºC/212F, which is when water boils, and all the energy is being used to break the connections between molecules, that’s why the temperature is steady: it’s changing its phase. And then the temperature rapidly rises again in the crust, because there’s no more water there, and it flattens again at 200ºC/392F, because you see, the sugar in the crust is burning, it’s like another change of phase, so there goes all that energy again. And then the crumb, well, the crumb never reaches 100ºC/212F because it’s protected by the crust and, well, you really should stop baking before all water vanishes there, because who would want to eat that? And uh, yeah, and the crumb is at about 70ºC/160F which is is good, because it ensures the protein in the dough is cooked thoroughly because it does so at about 65º/150F, and uh, yeah. That’s about it.

Everyone looked at me like I was an alien and the teacher actually slow-clapped my sketchy presentation. Now you see what I said, right? You did the same experiment I did in high-school, I’m sure. Bringing water to a boil with a thermometer in it, measure every minute, notice from 100ºC/212F up it won’t raise the temperature. And then you have to explain it.

And you also learned in biology that egg-whites are pure protein and they coagulate by temperature from 65ºC/150F up, right? They might have even mentioned some urin tests where the urin is heated over a flame and doctors look for a precipitate as a means of diagnose for some diseases?

And that yeasts are single celled funghi that thrive at temperatures around 40ºC/104F? Yup, you learned it all, but learning this in Physics, that in Biology and that other thing in Chemistry, most likely no one ever put it all together and explained a baking process with it. But it’s ok, that’s what I’m here for.

The only thing that is missing from this equation so far is temperature. But you know this too: warm air goes up and dilates, cold air “shrinks” and goes down. These all together are the keys you need to understand the basics of baking. A few extra details will come, but trust me: it’s THIS easy.

I hope I caught your attention and made you want to learn more. Because I’m gonna keep doing this. Just for kicks. Thank you for reading!

Diary of a pastry chef

I’ve been wondering about it, and since the assignments of blogging 101 haven’t been appealing to me (I feel they apply to blogs of people who talk about random stuff, not blogs that have one particular subject) I decided to post what has been going through my mind. I’ve been having a rough time lately due to carreer complications, but if everything was still dandy and going right, this is what might look like if you found a ripped page of my diary on the floor and, of course, were curious enough to read. And maybe, just maybe you won’t see this as someone whining. You’ll see it as an opportunity to peek into a reality that is unknown to you but isn’t less true.

January the 20th, 2015 – day 12006

It has been 1451 days since I officially reached my dream job status: pastry cook. Konditor, as the Germans so beautifuly put it. Not a single rainbow has been pooped so far. Still waiting.

It’s the same routine everyday. The alarm clock goes off at 5am, sometimes at 4am – I’m one of the lucky ones, I start shift around seven. Still, it’s the middle of the night and I feel like an idiot. I pee and wash my face and set a tiny portion of coffee, let it cook while I dress and make sure I don’t forget my working clothes for the day (I have to wash them myself). By then, about 15 are gone and I have about 7 minutes to sit down with half a cup of coffee and milk while I listen to the news on the radio and struggle to put my boots on. I don’t have time for food, I gave up breakfast before leaving the house a couple of years ago. One can only endure so long.

I arrive at work about one hour and fifteen minutes later. A lowly pastry cook doesn’t make enough money to live where it’s practical, so I live where I can afford it. Some have a car, but they live in a studio appartment (also where it’s affordable, not practical). But us singles, we pretty much have to go with it – nobody to share costs with. I have to change clothes. Shift doesn’t start until I’m dressed and standing in the room – a problem that hardly any other jobs have. I help myself to the breakfast tray as soon as I get there, so I can steal a bite between works though food is stictly forbidden in the working rooms – haaaaahaaaaa! Hahaha….

Then it starts. A co-worker that doesn’t like me and regularly makes jokes based on my obesity will make a snarky comment “And what have YOU achieved today so far, that you get to take something for breakfast?” I HAVE to make a snyde reply “I got my f*cking ass out of bed and showed up for work, THAT’S what.” I finally have some peace to check the cooling rooms and decide the plans for the day. Some stuff I need to order with co-workers. And then I have to see that the apprentice gets a mix of chores nobody wants and stuff that help him learn and practice. The apprentice will later what’sapp her friends on her smartphone (usually an I-Phone) how bad she has it.

Meanwhile I’m all in up my work and a colleague from the sales staff shows up saying a customer needs to order a cake and needs me. Probably nothing they’d need my help for, but they ALLWAYS call me. Maybe it’s my favourite customer. The one that wants the chocolate bisquit with the chocolate buttercream that she had at the kindergarden welcoming party last year and loved so much; the one that wants something cute and knows exactly how cute she wants it. But no such luck.

It’s usually a customer who tells me in those exact words “I want to order a cake.” and when firstly asked what kind of cake, gives me as a reply “Uhm. I dunno. It’s for a party. What does everyone like?” I soon learned to smile and say “You can never go wrong with chocolate.” it’s hard to work on developing new tastes and textures and then having customers who don’t care and can’t even tell the difference between whipped cream and buttercream. Then they don’t know how they want the decoration. They don’t even know if they want writing on the cake. Or maybe something in marzipan? But then oh no, it’s too expensive. And why is it so expensive? Ah, if only I could be their slave and work for free.

Seriously, I once had to explain a lady that we are a small bakery and don’t make chocolate decors because they are difficult and time consuming beyond our capacity and that’s why we have to buy those chocolate swirls she is pointing at on our outdated order-book that my boss never cared to replace for the last 3 years, so I can’t make them and I will try to order that exact decoration for her order but I can’t guarantee that we get them. And she said “Well, of course you can make them. You just, you know, you make it and swoop… you roll it up, you know?”. I finally had her agree on an alternate decoration if the chocolate swirls weren’t available from the third-party company and then she wanted a number in Fondant in bluegreen, the exact bluegreen of her jacket (which, incidentally, I totally nailed using only the most of basic hues). And then she didn’t want the almonds on the border of the cake like on the picture. She wanted colourful sugar sprinkles. And when I told her all of that would jack up the price of the regular cake by 20€ (which seriously, is half an hour of work), she was outraged. And I sigh, and say I can go as low as 15 for the decoration but she’s outraged and insists she’s been fooled.

You know… someone once said: find something to do that you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. I think that f***ing moron was a philosopher. I wouldn’t exactly call philosophying “work”, I think anyone who loves anything other than Philosophy is screwed. Because I love my job, but it IS work and will allways be.

After this, I will go home at about 3pm if I don’t have to work overtime. And everyone is sooooo jealous because, gosh, why! I have the WHOLE DAY to myself! Like you can still go to bed at 1am if you have to get up at 4 instead of 7 or. When everyone is watching TV or having dinner at 8pm, I’m already nodding off with a book in bed.

And I’ll get up tomorrow and do it all over again. Because it’s my job and I love it. Even if it is work.

Silly thoughts

I had a silly thought today…

Prostitutes sell sex as well as porn stars. But the prostitute caters to one customer after the other while the porn star works with other professionals onto making a product that will be distributed widely to many customers.

Now, bear with me:

A Patissier works in a kitchen, making desserts. He caters to one customer after the other. And the Pastry Cook (like me) works with other professionals onto making a product that will be distributed widely to many customers.

We Pastry Cooks are the true and only Foodporn makers! Have at it:

porn1

Why you shouldn’t be ashamed of buying ready-to-use puff pastry

I’ll never forget that look of dismay on his face as I was pulling the ready-to-use puff pastry from their refrigerator. “You bought it ready-made?”Let me set you up:

I was visting my best friend and her husband in France for the first time, and her husband cooked us one delicous meal after the other. After almost a week of this, on my last day, I spent a day looking for the ingredients to whip up apples baked in puff pastry, filled with Marzipan and covered in vanilla sauce – an adventure in itself when you hardly know french. The puff pastry, despite the fact of having a large kitchen to myself, I bought ready-made. He would’ve expected me, a pro, to make it myself. But like I told him: “you don’t want to do puff pasty at home. The pros don’t want to do it at home, and YOU don’t want to do it at home.”. Here’s why.

1. When it’s properly done, it’s time consuming. VERY time consuming.

No, seriously. To get the about 150 equally thin layers of dough and butter you need, you need to first fold the dough over the butter (or the butter over the dough, but let’s not even go there) and then fold and stretch out this piece 3 to 4 times over itself (depending on how many simple folds and how many double folds you do. Technical terms, yay!). It doesn’t sound like much, but since the butter needs to be very cool at all times before you stretch i.e. roll out the puff-pastry, you need to cool it for a while after each fold. In a store, you’ll do so much at once that you will work in a loop: put one in the cooler, move to the next one, etc. and when you’ve made the first fold on the last piece of puff pastry, the first piece has cooled for at least half an hour. At home… sure, you can do laundry, the rest of the dinner, or watch tv or, or, or… but are you really? Are you really spending over two hours filling gaps?

2. The butter. You don’t have the same special butter that the pros have.

And what makes butter of the pros so special? Well, nothing. Unless you mean the butter or margerine especially made for puff pastry that comes in big thin portioned squares. And it’s not even about the thin squares. Your regular butter will rip and crumble inside your dough if you try to roll it out when it’s cold and it will ruin your puff pastry in the process. This happens because of the large amount of messyness that comes with a structure made up of at least 4 fatty acids. These big squares we get for the job, they’ve been specially prepared so the fatty acids are only two, which will ensure an even texture and plasticity at low temperatures – don’t worry, it’s a physical process, you can enjoy your store-bought puff-pastry guilt free. At home, you’d need to knead the butter with  5% its weight in flour to break the stucture, then form it, and then of course, let it cool completely to the core. And THEN use it for puff-pastry. Are you picking up your wallet and going to the supermarket already?

3. You just don’t have enough know-how

and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. All I’ve told you is why it’s hard and pointless to do it at home. There is not enough room in a blog to tell you how to do it, and then you’d still be missing the practice (which, in Germany, you get by messing up several pounds of dough on the job and have a superior explain you what you did wrong – calmly. If you’re lucky…). We need a few hours of theory in school to compare the several types (there’s 3 of puff-pastry and 3 others of puff-pastry with yeast) and learn all the possible mistakes (about 100, it feels like….) and what causes them. There are things in the arts of baking which you’ll master once someone explains you a thing or two (what some people call “tricks”, a word I hate). Puff pastry is NOT one of them.

So the next time you want to do something with puff pastry, save your time, but it, roll it out, fill it, bake it. And enjoy having a glass of wine and telling your guests about that stuff read on a blog written by a professional about some funky butter.

Inbetween the hypes

You’ve all heard of it: foodporn. It’s like everyone started doing it at some point or another. They usually post pictures of food they cooked themselves or food they found somewhere. These people who cook and blog about their cooking allways seem to have an immense amount of time and give complex (or be invited to) dinnerparties every other week. They make you wonder if blogging is the new thing among housewives and stay-at-home moms – because honestly, who can work full time and still do all that? And still you just wanna grab a bite of that juicy piece of food they posted…

Then came the Cake Designers. Yuh! The Cake Designers! They all fit a scheme you all know from the blogs: they made one cake for a family member and got hooked. Everyone is posting these amazing fotos of Elsas from Frozen on top of a cake and very complex 3D cakes and what baffled me before I found out they weren’t professionals was: who is willing to pay for that amount of work? Because you know, those things are small (30cm/15′ in diameter, tops) and have over 4 hours of work into it. Which means they should cost something between 200 and 300€ (about 250-360$ US). I know this for a fact because in Germany, one hour of a pasty-chef’s work is rated at about 50€, sometimes more – this includes all material costs, expertise, water, electricity used in baking, etc. I know this for a fact because I’m a pastry cook. Professionally.

But in the off-chance you find a blog by a professional, they are either trying to sell you something or giving you some freebies to get you into buying some of their knowledge. They are promoting themselves. They are also allways self-taught, they work at a store that only sells insanley expensive cakes to Hollywood – because let’s face it, hollywood can afford it – and they have amazingly fulfilling and happy private lives. Oh, and they poop rainbows!

While you read their blogs nibbling at your factory-made but still insanely yummy cinnamon bun, maybe you wonder if you gave up any passions to end up in your safe 9 to 5 job. Or maybe you have a job that’s more interesting than that, but you get what I’m saying.

See, I followed my dream, but I have yet to poop a rainbow. Still, I’m insanely proud of my job. Ilove knowing the hows and whys of the blending of single ingredients. I love explaining to people why the receipe magazines they buy are pretty much thought out to fail and tell them what they should change. So yes, this will be yet another food blog, but no, I’m not going to share receipes with you. I’m more interested in sharing the less glamorous side of professional bakeries with you and sharing some of my knowledge. Because when I’m done, you won’t be a professional. You will still be regularly going to you favourite bakery and making a cake only once every two months. But you will, hopefully, know what you’re doing when you bake, do it correctly, get better results and have more fun at it. Because let’s face it: it’s THAT much more fun when you’re successful.

In exchange I just ask for an open ear. I will be sharing some of the stuff I do on the job and other food-thoughts, so there is that. Thank you for reading!