As soon as I decided to blog from coffee shops, we stopped going to coffee shops. Go figure!

So today, we are sitting at Vinyl Taco in beautiful downtown Fargo. I really adore this place. The food is good and the atmosphere is spectacular. Clean, airy, dim but not dark, AND they play great music. Not just good music, GREAT music.

I’ve also transitioned once again, this time back to the familiar stomping grounds of faculty. {Music note: Warren Zevon, “Werewolves of London” Bip!!} After spending a year as Acting Dean, I have returned to faculty and am teaching Gen Chem II this summer. I will reserve final judgement on my foray into administration, but I think I can comfortably say that it feels good to get back into the classroom. {Music note: Bowie & Queen, “Pressure”} There were many things I enjoyed about being an administrator, but in that first year of deaning I certainly had a few missteps, not the least of which was poor time and health management. {transitioning to Stevie Ray Vaughn, damn this is good music…}

I think the best thing about returing to the faculty is that I will have a chance to really reflect upon my year as Acting Dean and assess how my strengths and weaknesses fit into the role of administrator. More to come in the near future, but for now, it’s time to wrap up. {Police, “Roxanne”} For the moment, I’m going to sit back, finish my margarita, and enjoy some tunes. “Nights in White Satin” is starting…

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Over the years, I have often talked to people or seen TV shows or movies where people “work” at a coffee shop. I have never been one to seek out these opportunities for a number of reasons:

  1. As a synthetic chemist, my “work” has often been tied to a lab. You can’t really pull out a hot plate and start up a 3 hour reflux at a table in the coffee shop.
  2. The labs I have worked in always have very fast and reliable (and “free to me”) internet… purposely going to a place with spotty (or expensive) connectivity seems like a bad idea.
  3. I was trained at a time when ubiquitous WiFi connections and cloud-based storage didn’t really exist for the average person. I had (and still have…) a lovely little case to organize my USB drives and typically carry 40GB or more of USB drive storage with me whenever I have to move files around. The creative work I engage in as a chemist almost always involves copious references that may or may not be available online, so packing up a suitcase full of reference works to bring along to the coffee shop seemed to be more trouble than it is worth.

The list could be significantly longer than that, but I think that’s enough to get a good picture of my situation. I understand that this might make me seem like a crusty old fart who yells at all the hippies to get off the lawn, but I don’t really try to be that way.

There have been a number of significant changes in my life over the past 8-10 months, and I think I have reached a point where I need to use those as a catalyst to make some more fundamental changes in my approach to work, and life, and the world around me. I find myself escaping to coffee shops to do work (both job related and otherwise) on a regular enough basis that I can identify these occasions as times to explore myself and my world in a more substantial way.

One of the things I have missed in the past year is blogging. It always seems to slip down the priority list, there’s always something more important to do (even if that’s just to take a nap…), and I have sometimes felt guilty for indulging in such a non-productive activity. As I think about the positive changes I can make in my life, I think that one thing that should be fairly easy is to give myself permission to blog. Not because I am filled with the most important information that society must have available on the interwebs, but because it represents a way for me to change gears and explore myself beyond the boundaries of my job and my life as a chemist.

One thing I will include as a consistent theme is a summary and review of the coffee shop and my beverage(s) of choice. Today’s venue is Moxie Java in downtown Moorhead. Moxie has a good atmosphere and energy with comfortable seating. The staff is very nice and handled our drink order well. I ordered a Moxie Java Blend brewed coffee and my partner got a blended iced mocha with a shot of English toffee flavor. The Moxie Java Blend is good, not exceptionally special, a darker roast with not a lot of notable character. It’s functional coffee. The blended iced mocha with a shot of English toffee flavor is also good, but was a second choice because they did not have black tea. That’s right, no black tea. If you want fruity or candy flavored tea, they’ve got it, but if you just want a simple cup of plain black tea, you’re out of luck. They also have WiFi that seems to be incompatible with my computer, so I have no WiFi… makes it kind of hard to work on cloud-based resources. So it looks like Moxie will move VERY far down the list of useful places to do coffee shop work.

I have grown to appreciate the ability of some people to manage their schedule. As should be obvious from my new posts to this blog in recent months, I have been transitioning into a new phase of life that has presented some significant challenges in managing my time. In my previous existence, I had little to no personal life and my work life was stunningly flexible. in the past 6-8 months, every aspect of my life has changed, and I’d like to think it is uniformly for the better. The only real downside is that I have never had to really develop a time management strategy, so I am now learning how to parse real work commitments, a rich and wonderful personal life, and the important little things like time to sleep, even if only for a few hours a night. On that note, perhaps I should take advantage of a rare opportunity tonight and go to bed early…

I finally gave in and looked at a “real” recipe. The book “The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking” has an interesting approach to bread and the newest edition has a chapter on gluten free breads, so I decided to start there. The 5-minute approach is very hands-off so it seemed like a good option for gluten free. A friend has been trying some of the wheat-based recipes in the book and has been pleased with the results, and the book has well defined volume and mass measurements for ingredients which will make it easy to quantify and adjust the recipes.

For my inaugural batch, I would have liked to follow the recipe exactly, but I didn’t have quite the right ingredients on hand, so I did a little improvising. OK, enough preamble, on to the recipe:

Dry Ingredients:
160g brown rice flour
100g sorghum flour
160g tapioca starch
230g potato starch
20g kosher salt
16g yeast
15g xanthan gum
The dry ingredients were combined with a paddle mixer. NOTE: Everything was loose enough that it combined well, but I might prefer to sift the dry ingredients together in future batches.

Wet Ingredients:
600g water
70g canola oil
The book recipe calls for eggs and melted butter… I don’t have eggs or butter around the house regularly, and I forgot to pick them up before baking day, so I used bland old canola oil. It provides some fat and the flavor should be neutral enough to let me evaluate the other ingredients better. The egg would have provided some protein structure, I’ll have to remember to pick up a dozen eggs next time I go to the store.

The water was microwaved just to the point that it felt warm. With the dry ingredients slowly mixing, ~400g of water was added and the dough mixed until it came together. The canola oil was added, mixing continued, and the remaining water was added. The bowl and paddle were scraped down a couple times throughout and after all the liquid was added the mixer speed was increased to thoroughly combine. The resulting dough was quite loose and a bit sticky. Between the fingers, it had a slightly gritty feeling.

The dough was turned out into a glass bowl, lightly covered, and left to rise until approximately doubled, a little over 3 hours in my cool house.

A small loaf pan was oiled (again, no butter or other solid fat to grease the pan…) and filled about half way with the dough/batter, taking care not to overly deflate the bubble structure. The bread was baked at 400F for 60 minutes, then turned out onto a rack to cool.

Procedure Notes:
I did not smooth the top of the “loaf” after putting it in the pan. A light smoothing/glazing with water would make a better looking loaf.
I didn’t really let the loaf rise in the pan before baking, and I didn’t get a very significant bloom in the oven. The dough was quite light, but a little additional rise time before baking might be good.
The loaf released very well from the pan.

Structure and Tasting Notes:
The loaf smelled wonderful while baking, and the crust set and browned very nicely.
Wait until the loaf cools completely before cutting. I was impatient. It didn’t cause a real problem, but the interior of the loaf was a bit gummy while warm. The crust was very nice, and cuts a little better when fully cooled as well. Smoothing the top of the loaf would also help with cutting it cleanly.
The crust has a very nicely developed toasty, nutty flavor. There is a bit of an “off” aftertaste; it’s not bad but it is noticeable. Strong toppings (peanut butter) cover the aftertaste cleanly.
There is a distinct sweetness to the loaf, likely from the sorghum flour. It’s a nice flavor accent but could be undesirable in some applications.
The crumb of the cooled loaf is moist and just the tiniest little bit gummy. The loaf might have been slightly underdone, but I think it was pretty close. I didn’t have a good thermometer to measure the internal temperature of the loaf.

The above recipe makes enough dough for 2-3 loaves, but I only made 1 loaf on the first day. The remaining dough was lightly covered and put in the fridge, I’ll make another loaf tomorrow that incorporates some of the changes noted above.

Endangered Species offers a pretty wide variety of chocolate bars of varying strengths with a number of adjuncts. At $3-4 per 3oz bar, they are a reasonable value. The bar I’m reviewing here is the 72% Dark Chocolate with Espresso Beans.

Endangered 72% Espresso

The Chocolate:

The 72% cocoa content provides a good chocolate hit with a mild bitterness that is well balanced. The chocolate melts smoothly on the tongue with a pleasant secondary flavor bloom. 

The Adjuncts:

Espresso beans are a wonderful complement to a good quality chocolate bar, unfortunately in this case the espresso beans ruin what could be a good bar. The espresso bean pieces in this bar are much too hard and really interfere with the overall experience. I don’t know if this is a quality issue or just a bad batch of espresso beans, but I have tried a number of good espresso beans that provide a subtle crunch without being hard and gritty like the beans in this bar.

The Form:

These 3oz bars are divided into 15 squares that are perfect for proper enjoyment. The squares snap off cleanly, although the demarkation lines could be a little deeper. This is a form common to Endangered Species brand bars and is a very positive feature of the brand.

Endangered 72% Espresso form

Nutrition:

The Endangered Species 72% Dark Chocolate with Espresso Beans bar has typical nutritional values for the quality and price-point of the bar. At 28 calories per square, this bar is ideal for an approximately 100 calorie treat of 4 squares. 

Endangered 72% Espresso nutrition

Overall:

I will not be buying this bar again. The overly hard espresso bean pieces ruin the experience of this bar, although the chocolate itself is good. I will certainly try other options in the Endangered Species line because the chocolate quality and form of the bar are both good.

What effect does a different starch have on gluten-free bread? Time to test that. GFB#03 will use potato starch in place of the tapioca starch of GFB#01 and GFB#02. Since the method used for GFB#01 has already been determined to be a little lacking, I’ll be following the GFB#02 procedure… I mean recipe.

Ingredients:

3/4 cup brown rice flour

3/4 cup potato starch

1/3 cup ground flaxseed meal

1 teaspoon xanthan gum

1 teaspoon dry yeast

1/2 tablespoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup 110F water

All dry ingredients were combined in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle mixer. {This is a change from GFB#02 which used a dough hook. Since I’m not really developing a gluten network by kneading, the dough hook isn’t really doing anything other than mixing which the paddle does better.} The dry ingredients were mixed for ~1 minute, then the water was added. The dough was mixed for 1-2 minutes, then the bowl was scraped down and the dough was mixed for another 1-2 minutes. The dough was transferred directly into a loaf pan {another slight deviation from GFB#02} and allowed to rise for ~1 hour. The risen loaf was put in a preheated 400F oven. For ~40 minutes until the internal temperature was 200F. Turned out onto a wire rack to cool.

Evaluation:

Similar to GFB#02. The loaf didn’t rise quite as much (but not significantly different) and the finished loaf looks virtually identical. The crumb is definitely less sticky/gummy than GFB#02, and I don’t think I get the same aftertaste as with previous loaves, there’s a much cleaner finish to the flavor. The crust is the same.Image

Revisions in the next iteration:

I think the flaxseed meal is making the loaf more dense and moist and causing some of the texture issues I’m trying to fix. I used it because I happened to have most of a bag in the freezer and wanted to use some of it up. I think I’ll try a batch without the flaxseed meal. To replace some of the body that the flaxseed meal provides, I think I’ll bump up the rice flour a bit. I’m pretty sure that I’m going to have to add some other ingredients to the ultimate “best” loaf… from a number of the recipes I’ve found online, it looks like egg, oil, baking powder and buttermilk might be necessary to both improve the texture of the finished loaf and round out the flavor.

For my second attempt at gluten-free bread, I tried to modify the technique rather than the contents of the recipe. There were some minor deviations from GFB#01 ingredients, but I tried not to make any radical changes. When trying to do “good science”, it’s always best to change only 1 variable at a time so the experimenter can clearly identify the effect of that variable. In some experiments, this can be VERY difficult, but with something like a bread recipe it should be pretty easy. The reason I tweaked multiple variables here is that I wanted to make a smaller batch of bread. If I’m making disastrously hideous bricks of pseudo-bread in my quest for a good gluten-free loaf, I really don’t want to be making multiple loaves of nasty with each batch. Once I get a good recipe, I’ll work on scaling up to a “2 full-sized loaves” version of the recipe. By the way, “scaling up” is one of the big tasks that chemical engineers work on; a chemist figures out how to make a gram of material then hands the procedure off to a chemical engineer who figures out how to make 3 truckloads. But back to bread…

For GFB#02, I’m going to try and do a single mix and rise rather than letting the yeast develop as a starter before the rest of the flour is mixed in. There are a couple other little tweaks that I’ll mention when they come up in the experimental procedure, uh, I mean, recipe.

Ingredients:

3/4 cup brown rice flour

3/4 cup tapioca starch

1/3 cup ground flaxseed meal

1 teaspoon xanthan gum

1 teaspoon dry yeast

1/2 tablespoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup 110°F water (a “heavy” 1 cup…)

All the dry ingredients were combined in the bowl of a stand mixer with a dough hook. {This is one of the minor tweaks over GFB#01 in which I mixed by hand…} With the mixer running, the warm water was slowly poured in. After mixing for ~1 minute, the sides were scraped down and the dough was mixed for an additional 1-2 minutes. I’m calling this a “dough”, but it is very loose and soft, so it’s really more of a thick batter than a dough, but I’ll probably randomly swap those two terms. The dough was transferred to a glass bowl and allowed to rise. My oven hadn’t completely cooled to room temperature from its last use, so I put the dough in the slightly-above-room-temp oven to give the yeast a good kickstart. After ~1 hour, the dough had doubled in volume {Good sign!} and was transferred to a loaf pan. The dough was allowed to rise in the loaf pan for another ~1 hour and the oven was preheated to 435°F. The loaf was put in the oven, after ~15 minutes the temperature was lowered to 400°F, and the loaf was baked for ~25 additional minutes. The internal temperature of the loaf was check and was only at ~165°F, so it was returned to the oven for another 25 minutes. Internal loaf temperature was ~200°F, so the loaf was removed and allowed to cool.

Evaluation:

Not much different than GFB#01… the loaf is a little lighter, but it’s still pretty dense. The crumb is a little sticky/gummy, but the air bubble structure is OK. Similar to GFB#01, this loaf did not have any noticeable rise/bloom when it was initially put in the oven, in fact, it seems to have shrunk a little. I though that starting with a warmer over would get the trapped gases to expand quickly enough to plump up the loaf before the starches and other gluten substitutes had a chance to set, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Flavor is comparable to GFB#01 which is expected since the ingredients didn’t really change. There’s still a slight aftertaste, but it’s not as obvious with the slightly less dense loaf. I’m pretty pleased with the crust formation, the loaf has a nice crunchy/chewy crust that’s developed a bit of nutty flavor. The top crust is still kind of white and nasty looking, but if I close my eyes it’s good.Image

Revisions in the next iteration:

I’m not sure what I learned from GFB#02. From the processing side, it looks like doing a 1-step mix/rise is a little better than messing with a starter, but the poor bloom and gummy texture are not great. I’ve read a number of sources that say rice-flour-based gluten-free breads tend to have a grainy texture, and I’m clearly avoiding that problem, but dense and gummy aren’t really that much better than grainy. I think I’m going to try modifying the starch source next. Tapioca starch is supposed to be good for the crust, but a number of sources say that potato starch gives better internal structure. I think for GFB#03, I’ll try swapping potato starch for the tapioca starch. Ultimately, I’d imagine that some combination of the two will be best, but I’ll go all-potato for now, just to see what happens.

A couple of other modifications I’m going to look at in future attempts are:

1. Sorghum flour – I’ve seen a few very positive descriptions of sorghum flour for gluten-free breads, and it’s available at one of my local grocery stores. I might also try some of the bean flours… many people note a significant “beany” flavor in these flours so they might not be the best choice for a lighter flavored plain sandwich bread.

2. Other leavening agents – In the gluten-free pizza crust recipe I tried, baking powder was used as well as yeast, maybe I’m not getting good bloom because I need a little extra “oomph” in the oven. This might also call for some dried buttermilk powder to provide some acid, and maybe help with browning the crust.

3. Speaking of crust… The dusty white looking crust is a real turn-off. I’m tempted to brush it with a little oil to intensify the heat transfer and maybe smooth it out a bit. If I can get a good, strong bloom when the loaves go into the oven, the top crust issue may solve itself, but a little oil or egg or milk on that top crust might help its appearance and texture.

I do realize that at this point I’m putting some real effort into re-inventing the wheel here. There are a LOT of gluten-free bread recipes on the internet, and many of them make very good bread. The reason I’m doing this is because there is a lot of variability in the “good” recipes, and I have no feel for what effect different ingredients have on the final product. This makes it very hard to evaluate different recipes without making them all. By systematically varying the ingredients, I can develop that “feel” for different flours and starches and other adjuncts… When in doubt, I fall back on my training as a scientist; change 1 variable, repeat the experiment, evaluate the results, repeat, repeat, repeat.

Time to bake some more…