How to Stop Your Cookies From Spreading

Spread Cookies image courtesy of crypto on flickr.com

Spread Cookies image courtesy of crypto on flickr.com

Here in the Decadent Vegan Baker’s kitchen I have whipped up my fair share of cookies. I always want them to look good for pictures, and for bragging rights, so I did some research on how to avoid the dreaded cookie spread. You know — when the cookies turn into unsightly blobs or, worse yet, fuse into each other. Here is what I found out …

A tip I got many years ago was to be sure to cool baking sheets down before placing the next batch of raw dough on them. That’s easy enough to do in the winter as I just prop them on the wall near an outside door. In the summer I have to wait patiently while the sheets cool off, but that time can be well spent engaged in the next piece of advice.

My second item of advice is to place the dough in the fridge prior to baking the cookies. “Chilling the dough solidifies the fat in the dough, meaning that it will melt more slowly under the heat of the oven and result in taller, thicker cookies,” say the chefs at Food52. Dough that is too warm can make cookies that look like flat blobs.

On the King Arthur Flour website they recommend two things for attaining the perfect cookie: lowering the baking temperature while also extending the baking time. For a recipe that called for cookies baked at 350°F for 14 minutes, they “dropped the temperature to 300°F, and extended the baking time: 22 minutes for chewy, 30 minutes for crisp.” They explained that “the fat in cookies is a big part of their structure, prior to baking…Once those cookies hit the oven, though, the fat starts to soften and melt. And the hotter the oven, the more quickly it melts. If the oven’s hot enough, the fat melts before the cookies set. And since their flour/liquid matrix hasn’t yet had a chance to harden, the cookies spread.”

A final trick offered by Food52 is that “when a recipe calls for room temperature butter, you should be able to make a small indentation easily with your finger without the area sinking under its weight. If the butter is too cold, you’ll have to do more mixing to get it to properly incorporate.” Unincorporated butter leads to airy dough that leads to cookies that fall in the oven, and that leads to the ugly blob.

If you find that you have tried all of my recommendations and still produce unsightly cookies, do not worry. Send the cookies to my house and my husband will dispose of them properly … for dessert.

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What to do when your brown sugar is hard as a rock

soft brown sugar with a sugar saver

soft brown sugar with a sugar saver

Occasionally I will replace the type of sugar used in a recipe with something else I have on hand. The choice may be because the alternate sugar is healthier, but sometimes it is because brown sugar is required but I have none that is useable. The sugar I have often turns into a hard clump (thank you, dry climate). If you are plagued by this same problem, then this post is here to save the day.

For the issue of brown sugar resembling a door stop, I looked to The Spruce Eats. First off, they explained that “(t)he moisture in brown sugar evaporates much faster than in other similar products and causes the sugar to harden. To remedy this problem, you … can either restore the moisture content or prevent it from evaporating in the first place.”

One of their tricks confronts the problem when you need soft brown sugar right now. They recommend that you “place the brown sugar in a microwave-safe bowl and cover it with a damp paper towel. Microwave the sugar in 20-second increments until it is soft. You can use your fingers or a fork to soften any clumps that remain.” I cannot do this fix because I do not have a microwave. (I see you nodding as you realize why my recipes never talk about using a microwave to heat things up.)

Another suggestion from The Spruce Eats is for when you have thought ahead and do not need soft brown sugar this second. I have never tried this technique either because thinking ahead is not my strong suit when it comes to food. But, here goes: “place a few apple slices (or a slice of bread) in an air-tight container with the brown sugar. Then remove the apple slices or bread when the sugar has softened. You can also place the brown sugar in a bowl, cover it with a damp cloth, and let it sit overnight.”

My solution to this circumstance is to include a brown sugar saver with my sugar. I tried various methods of doing this, including sticking one of the damp terra cotta stones in the zipper bag of sugar, but had no success until a helpful Sur La Table salesman told me I was using the saver incorrectly. The new instructions involved thoroughly soaking the stone for a whole 10 minutes in a bowl of water, then lightly patting it off before inserting it into the sugar. I took it a step further and poured the sugar out of the bag into a (recycled) jar before I put the brown sugar saver in.

I approached the situation by bringing moisture back to the sugar while also attempting to stave off moisture loss. Now I always have soft brown sugar.

Flourless Fudge Cookie Failure

chocolate cookie failure

chocolate cookie failure

When I write blog posts, they usually include a few words about how the baked good was altered and include a recipe. Well, not this week. I have spent 8 hopeless days trying to produce an egg white based flourless cookie by using Aquafaba (the bean liquid from chickpeas). The substance makes a wonderful meringue cookie and is supposed to act in other eggy ways. I’ve used it in my super flegg egg substitute, but never as a stand-in for egg whites. It’s apparently going to require quite a few more trials.

The recipe for a flourless fudge cookie sounded like a challenge, but not as great a one as it turned out to be. The recipe called for whisked egg whites. I replaced them with whisked aquafaba and got an ooey gooey un-cookie like substance. Next I thought to whip up the chickpea water in the stand mixer to get more volume, but was still unsuccessful. Then I tried switching brands of canned chickpeas and discovered that the included brine varied immensely and a thicker liquid got me closer to a cookie but not exactly. The baked cookies were a bit gooey and rubbery at the same time, although my hubby thought they were good dipped in espresso.

So, today’s post will not include a recipe. This egg white substitution is still a failure and requires more testing. And more research. I plan to get it right one day, just not today.

Baking Bread at High Altitude

breadYeast scares me. When a recipe includes yeast it also includes hours of time until you actually get to eat. Instant gratification is much better. I can go from gathering ingredients for cookies to eating them in less than 1/2 hour. But I understand that many people love the meditative qualities and joy of baking bread. In order to help those bakers out, I have delved into the science of bread baking at high altitude.

According to Taste of Home, “High altitude (over 3,000 feet) affects bread baking because the lower air pressure allows the yeast to rise 25 to 50 percent faster, and the drier air makes the flour drier. If the dough over-rises, the results might be a heavy, dry loaf or misshapen or collapsed loaf.” The lower air pressure and dryness affects all baking but may have a more drastic effect on bread. I would eat a dry chocolate cookie, but dry, leaden bread … never!

Cultures for Health includes other specifics that affect high altitude bread baking, including adjustments to time. Increasing baking time is important. “The amount of extra time depends on the exact elevation. The easiest way to judge when a loaf of bread is finished baking is to use a thin-tipped instant-read thermometer inserted into the bottom of the loaf. A temperature of 195°F is a good goal, but temperatures all the way up to 205°F should be fine.”

They mention that proofing time should also be changed. “Rising time decreases as altitude increases. Keep in mind that the longer the rise time, the more complex the flavors will be, usually a desirable goal. Try rising at cooler temperatures and giving the dough a second rise. When the dough has doubled, punch it down and let it double again.”

These all seem like good tips to ensure a beautiful loaf of bread. I’ll stick with quick breads for now, but I’m hoping my favorite taste tester can use these recipes to create his perfect cinnamon roll. I look forward to being his taste tester.

Is chocolate vegan?

Chocolate Bar

Image courtesy of Lisa Salamida at flickr.com

You’re at the grocery store to purchase goodies for a vegan baking spree. You look at your list and think, “Vegan Chocolate … that’s easy, I’ll get dark chocolate. It’s vegan.” Although that sounds like a no-brainer, unfortunately it is not always the case. It would be nice if it were true, but since it’s not here are some pointers to lead you to the vegan stuff.

You will want to stay away from milk chocolate, as you realized with your initial instinct to buy a dark variety. To find a viable dark version, PETA recommends to “always look for a high percentage of cacao, between 55 and 85 percent—the higher the percentage, the purer the bar. Also, be sure to check the ingredients, as some brands’ dark-chocolate bars still contain dairy products. Avoid chocolate that has a long list of ingredients, because chances are that some of them are fillers.”

While you are looking at the ingredient label, also keep in mind that quality chocolate will have “pure ingredients and no additives. The ingredients will be simple: cocoa, cocoa butter, lecithin, sugar and sometimes vanilla. And that’s it.”

By now you have read the ingredients, checked for the short-list, and deemed your chocolate worthy. But there is one last step – look for food crossover warnings. These might say “Manufactured on the same equipment that also makes products containing milk” or “May contain milk.” If you don’t see these sentences proclaimed in tiny print, you should be safe.

By now you are thinking that chocolate comes from a plant (Theobroma cacao to be precise), so why isn’t it vegan? Good question. It was simpler in the past, but in recent years manufacturers have been adding butterfat for a creamy “mouth feel.” So now some varieties of dark chocolate are no longer non-dairy.

This is making my head spin. Maybe I should just stop baking with chocolate. Hmm, not likely.

A Love of Baking and Science

baking loveThe other day I was talking to a friend about my favorite past-time – baking. She had heard that baking was very relaxing, almost meditative. She apparently hasn’t watched me bake. I have heard that activities like kneading bread can be very zen-like, but baking vegan at high altitude is very rational and involves lots of math. My friend said she wouldn’t enjoy it, but I reassured her that I do all the hard work and all a reader has to do is follow recipes. She liked that.

This conversation reinforced why I have my blog. I am fascinated with the science of baking and, trust me, baking with multiple substitutions is scientific. But, others are not as intrigued as I am and just want to bake something that looks and tastes good. I get that, but half of the fun for me is the challenge. I. Will. Make. This. Recipe. Work.

There is also the sense of accomplishment when I peek through the oven window and see a baked creation that I fussed over come to life. Sometimes that fussing takes multiple tries, so it is even more rewarding when I finally succeed. And it’s always good to know I haven’t wasted a pile of expensive baking ingredients. (Have you seen the cost of coconut sugar?)

And then there is the look on my husband’s face when he asks for more, especially when it is a recipe that I am not sure will tantalize his taste buds. Like last week’s zucchini bread, for instance. My husband’s idea of dessert is half a tray of brownies. Zucchini bread seemed far too healthy, even though I added chocolate chips for a chocolate fix. Much to my surprise, he was disappointed when I ate the last piece and there was none left for him. So, happily, I go back into the kitchen to make more … all in the name of science and love.

Vegan Cooks Are Like Other Cooks

chef toque

Image courtesy of Jessica and Lon Binder at flickr.com

Admittedly, I love watching cooking shows, a habit that began when I was seven. I learn techniques, get food inspirations, and often walk away hungry. Nowadays, thanks to the internet, I can even get my food fix listening to all manner of cooks via webinars and recorded interviews.

Over the past few years I have been attracted more to healthier cooks. On The Next Food Network Star I find myself cheering on those who cook for nutritional needs, and I loved when the first vegan baker won on Cupcake Wars. But there is one interesting thing I’ve noted – vegan cooks are just like other cooks. The vegan ones may say a word about loving animals, or not, but all cooks share an interest in creating memorable food. Their eyes light up when talking about how food comes together.

It’s this passion for making good food taste good that attracts me to food preparation. There were times when my only interest in food was to make hunger disappear, but now I am fascinated with how food is made. I am also inspired to experiment with other people’s ideas and make them better for me, improving on taste and texture to suit my appetite.

These inspirations lead me into the kitchen with thoughts whirring in my head – should I use less oil, I’ll substitute an ingredient I like better, that bread would bake better at high altitude as mini loaves. It’s the creativity in food that makes me want to create a wonderful dish. As a matter of fact, there is a recipe I saw the other day that I want to adapt. I guess I should go get started.

The Low-Down on Rhubarb and Crumbles

rhubarb

Image courtesy of Whitney at flickr.com

In my blog on Strawberry-Rhubarb Crumble I mentioned that I had to scour the internet to do research for the post. I was only briefly familiar with rhubarb and needed to learn more in order to make a tasty treat. SeriousEats.com told me that “rhubarb—technically a vegetable, but usually treated like a fruit (is) … puckeringly tart when raw (and) is especially tasty when its sourness is tempered through cooking with sugar and/or pairing with sweet fruits … Note: Only the stalks of rhubarb plants are edible, while the leaves are poisonous.”

Once I got the info on the rhubarb plant, I went off in search of ways to bake it. I saw a multitude of recipes labeled “crumble” or “crisp” that looked like the same type of recipe. They are almost identical, but a little detective work uncovered their differences. “Crumbles and crisps are very similar … They both contain fresh fruit with a streusel-like topping that gets baked until the fruit is cooked … The original difference between the two lay in the streusel topping: crisps would contain oats and crumbles would not. In an actual crisp … the oats in the topping crisp up as it bakes, hence the name.”

At that point I had enough data to start my baking experiments. Strawberry was often paired with rhubarb so that was a good place to start. Also, it’s strawberry season and fresh berries were plentiful. I ended up with a crumble and not a crisp because it seemed easier, and who doesn’t like dessert to be simple. Next I threw in a little “healthy” and my Strawberry-Rhubarb Crumble was born.

Protein is a Vegan Baker’s Friend

protein powder

Image courtesy of las – initially at flickr.com

While baking at high altitude, I discovered that added protein helps maintain texture that could be lost by the lower air pressure. The hard part with vegan baking is that many ideas for egg substitutes are carbohydrates and not proteins. Experimenting with higher protein flours adds the protein but can make a baked good dense. Tofu and yogurt can also create a more dense texture so they are best saved for fudgy items. So, what to do when you want something light and airy?

The answer may be in Terry Hope Romero’s latest cookbook, Protein Ninja. When faced with the age-old question of where a vegan gets protein, her idea was Protein Powder. No, she doesn’t want people replacing all meals with a protein shake. Instead, she adds the powder to, among other things, baked goods. When I read that the hamster in my head nearly gave himself a heart attack running on his wheel so fast.

Hmmm. Protein powder. Muffins. Cakes. Pancakes. Cookies. Brownies. But, is it a simple flour replacement? She warns that taste, texture and sometimes color will be altered, but suggests that protein powders can be lighter than high protein flours. Her book does explain that “protein powders seem to suck up more liquid than most flours (but) adding a small portion of dense, moist ingredients … provides some must needed moisture.”

My mind is racing with ideas. I must go buy protein powder. Then on to the kitchen to experiment. Stay tuned and I may just surprise you with a healthy and decadent protein-laden baked treat.

Vanilla Extracts – Are they all the same?

vanilla

Image courtesy of Kim at flickr.com

When I was gathering baking ingredients in the kitchen, my husband remarked on the vanilla extract. He noted the fancy bottle I had and told me that once, when he was young, his mother sent him to the store to get vanilla extract. He bought the largest bottle he could with the money he was given, and that suited his mother. I wanted to gag, but didn’t want to be seen as a vanilla snob. Well, maybe I am. You will find no cheap imitation varieties on my shelves. But, in the name of baking science, I thought I should explore vanilla extract further.

To start, there are many varieties of vanilla beans that are steeped in alcohol to yield the distinct vanilla extract flavor. Frontier, sold in many grocery stores, carries four varieties of the extract, each with subtle differences. There is Tahitian Vanilla with a “fruitier and more floral aroma.” There is also Indonesian Vanilla from “Indonesian vanilla beans (that) are processed in such a way that their intense flavor holds up to cooking well.” Then they offer Papua New Guinea Vanilla which “is extremely sweet, floral and delicately nuanced.” Another type is a versatile Uganda Vanilla that is sweet, rounded and full.” Okay, I did say the differences were subtle. To choose a variety may be a matter of taste and use.

The difference between Imitation vanilla and Pure vanilla is less subtle. Upon smelling Imitation vanilla I can immediately confirm I don’t want something tasting like that in my baked goods. Am I alone in this concept? Apparently not. The kitchn took to the task of asking baking experts if it was worth it to pay the price for pure vanilla. The conclusion was that you “get what you pay for — pure vanilla has much more depth of flavor.” One expert summed it up by responding to the question of when they insist on using pure vanilla extract: “Always! I’d rather use nothing, as the taste of artificial vanilla varies from insipid to nasty. Pure vanilla not only has a delicious taste of its own; it also enhances other flavors.”

I do suppose I am not a complete vanilla extract snob; I do not insist on making my own. (It might be laziness). If you decide to venture into the realm of making your own, check out Frontier Co-op’s recipe here. And please let me know how you did. I bow to your extra efforts taken in the name of baking your best.