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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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.

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…

My sister has recently developed a sensitivity to gluten. She has never been a big on baking or other “complex” recipes, but has become a bit frustrated with the gluten-free options available in stores, both in quality and price. Although I am no master baker, I told her that I would do a little exploring and see if I could find a relatively simple bread recipe for her. I already tried a pizza crust recipe at her house and we were both quite satisfied with the result… I used a bean-based flour and we didn’t notice any off flavor, but the sauce and toppings on the pizza were strongly flavored so that may have been overpowering any unpleasant flavor from the bean flour.

To hopefully broaden her options, I decided to try a rice-based flour recipe for bread. Rice flours are said to have a more neutral flavor, but they can lead to “gritty” textures… When I went to my local grocery store, they had brown rice flour readily available at a reasonable price so I thought I’d give it a try. To make things more adventurous, I decided to try a longer rise time to let more of the yeast flavor develop.

This will be Gluten-Free Bread #01 (GFB#01). Unless I accidentally make the perfect loaf on the first attempt, I will most likely have many more, but I’m optimistically using “GFB#01” in the anticipation that I won’t need to get higher than “GFB#99” before I get a good result.

Dry flour mix:

1 cup brown rice flour

1 cup tapioca starch

2 teaspoons xanthan gum

1/2 cup ground flaxseed meal

Combined brown rice flour, tapioca starch and xanthan gum and sifted twice to combine. Blended flaxseed meal in well after sifting. (Flaxseed meal was a little too coarse to make it through my sifter.)

Starter:

1 cup flour mix

1 cup 110ºF (43ºC) water

1/2 tablespoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon dry yeast

Mixed dry ingredients well, then added water. Mixed well. This starter is more wet than I’d expect a wheat-based starter to be, but that’s what I would expect from a gluten-free mixture. The sugar and salt amounts are estimates, I measured those by eye in my palm. The starter was allowed to, well, start at room temperature for about an hour before moving to the refrigerator overnight.

In the morning, the starter was quite spongy. The remaining flour mix and the rest of the yeast packet (~1 teaspoon) was stirred in resulting in a very dry mix. A few additional tablespoons of water were worked in to loosen the dough. The dough mass was still quite dense. It was separated into 2 small oiled loaf pans and left to rise.

After ~2 hours, the loaves had not risen noticeably. The dough seems very dense, and I think these will make some hideous bricks of “bread”. The oven was pre-heated to 420ºF, loaves put in and the temperature dropped to 390ºF. After ~15 minutes, the loaves had set but not risen much. The loaves were baked for ~45 minutes until a wooden pick came out clean. The loaves were moved to a rack to cool.

Evaluation:

For the most part, this was a failure, but an informative first attempt.

Texture – The bread is very dense and has the consistency of a quickbread rather than a proper yeast bread. The crumb is quite moist; this could be a result of the flaxseed meal. I have found that flaxseed meal retains moisture in wheat breads as well so this is not a surprising result. The crust that was in contact with the pan is quite nice with a little bit of color and a nice crunch. The top crust has a crunch but is very pale in color.

Flavor – The bread has a relatively neutral flavor. I can clearly taste the flax, and there is a slight lingering aftertaste that’s not exactly unpleasant but I would prefer a cleaner finish.

Revisions in the next iteration:

Since the flavor wasn’t bad, I’ll focus on texture. Although this bread was too moist, I think the key might be making the dough/batter more moist. After the starter developed overnight, it had a rather light body; if this is baked directly, the dough will set with much more air incorporated which should yield a lighter loaf. The water-to-flour ratio can be shifted a little more in the direction of flour for the “starter”, but not much. I think it’s time to bake again..Image

Everyone needs a good non-stick pan, but what kind? Cast iron can develop a nice season and be a good non-stick surface, but establishing and maintaining that seasoned cast iron can take a little work. Classic teflon is great, but is prone to scratching, can be destroyed by overheating, and the perfluorinated monomers/oligomers that can leech out might pose some health concerns. I have a “new” non-stick pan that claims to be perfluorooctanoic acid free, and it is a wonderful non-stick surface. On a whim, I picked up a 10″ “Orgreenic” ceramic-coated non-stick pan and I’m thrilled with its performance. I usually try out a new pan by making an omelette because eggs and cheese are both prone to sticking. I’ve made dozens of omelettes in my “Orgreenic” and it’s been an absolute champ. When I see the claims made in infomercials, I am naturally skeptical, but this pan lives up to the hype. The only place anything sticks is on the heads of the rivets holding the handle onto the pan, an unfortunately uncoated part of the pan interior.

If you’re looking for a pan that performs well, is relatively inexpensive, and is easy to use and maintain, you could do much worse than an “Orgreenic”. Yes, this sounds like a shameless infomercial for this “As Seen On TV” products, but in my experience, it just plain works.

It’s home-made pizza time of year, and I thought I’d give it a try on the grill. As is always the case with pizza, the crust is the key, so I browsed a little bit and cobbled together a recipe. A number of sources mentioned that they made their grilled pizzas directly on the grates, so I wanted to give that a try and no move my pizza stone out to the grill.

Crust:

  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tsp yeast
  • ~1/4tsp salt
  • ~1/2Tbsp olive oil

Combined all ingredients and mixed in KitchenAid with dough hook for ~10 minutes. Turned out to an oiled bowl to rise.
Notes:

  1. I thought I had whole wheat flour, but I was almost out and I had unbleached all-purpose flour. I had just under a cup of whole wheat, the rest was AP.
  2. I always struggle with salt. I have weaned myself off of salt pretty effectively in the majority of my everyday cooking, but bread really needs some salt to make its flavor pop. This was not enough salt for this recipe, at least 1/2 tsp would have been better.
  3. I mixed this up on Saturday night to allow a slower rise and better flavor development. I left it sit at room temperature for about an hour to get a strong start, then moved to the fridge overnight. The starter rose pretty quickly, I could probably have cut down to 1/2 or 1/4 tsp of yeast; at 1/4 tsp I could probably have left it out at room temperature overnight.

After ~16 hours, I pulled the dough from the fridge to let it warm up for ~45 minutes. After 45 minutes, I split the dough into 2 portions. The dough was smooth, silky, and VERY stiff. I rolled each portion into a flat round, less than ~1/4 inch thick and stacked them between sheets of parchment paper to rest for 30-40 minutes.

The grill was heated on high for 10-15 minutes before the first crust was put directly on the grates. The first side was grilled for ~2 minutes with the lid closed. A few significant bubbles formed. The crust was flipped and the second side was grilled for ~3 minutes before the crust was removed. The first side was intentionally underdone so it could finish after toppings were added.

Toppings:
I wasn’t terribly creative on this one. A few dollops of pasta sauce from a jar that I had open in the fridge, a handful of spinach, and a modest sprinkle of italian-blend shredded cheese. These were put on the more done, bubbly side of the crust and it was returned to the grill. After ~1 minute, I turned the flame off to the grill and left the lid closed for an additional 3-4 minutes to allow the residual heat to warm/cook/melt the toppings.
Notes:

  1. The bottom of the crust still got a little burned, not “chewing up crunchy charcoal” burned, but definitely a little more done than necessary. I think that throwing that first side on the grill for literally 30 seconds, maybe a minute, would be enough to set the crust, then it would be able to take a little longer heat once the toppings are added. That might also prevent some of the larger bubbles from getting so large.
  2. I put a little too much spinach on this one, but that’s because I like spinach. When making pizzas in the oven, they can handle a little more spinach because it dehydrates more, the directional heat of the grill can’t handle as much.

The Verdict:
It was OK, but there’s a lot of room for improvement. Some of these are noted above. I think that putting my pizza stone on the grill would be a better option, the smoky grilled flavor was nice, but it would be easier to control the cooking/baking on a stone (or a couple bricks). The crust recipe was also OK, but this was one of the stiffest doughs I’ve worked with, or at least one of the stillest doughs that was still soft enough to roll into a thin crust. I only made one portion into a “pizza”, the other I grilled up as more of a flatbread. Aside from the salt issue, this was a lovely flatbread; there was enough separation that it could function as a pita if portioned out a little smaller. As I snacked on the naked flatbread (I grilled that one up first), I would have loved to have some hummus to dip or tabbouli and yogurt to scoop with it.
On that note, I think I’m going to re-do the recipe, cutting the yeast and increasing the salt, maybe splitting to 6-8 portions and making these as pitas on the grill. I’m all out of wheat flour now, so I’ll have to give that some thought. Either I can do an all all-purpose flour version, or I can pick up some whole wheat flour and try a half-and-half recipe. I’ll remember to take some pictures of the next attempt to include on Everything Under the Copper Sun, it was grey and raining today, so pictures wouldn’t have been great.