Friday, August 20, 2010

DIY Vanilla Extract

In all honesty, I had never seriously considered making my own vanilla extract. I couldn't seem to reconcile the time and expense required in homebrew with the opposing ease and convenience of buying it from the grocery store.

But I wanted -- nay, needed -- anise extract. And I couldn't find it in my local grocery stores. 
And I had just bought a whole bag of star anise on the cheap

So I started searching for DIY anise extract recipes. And I found one or two, but I also found the goldmine: the Make Vanilla Extract tutorial on It is so popular that the site branched off from its own Instructable! And it's even getting shout-outs in the press! 

This is easily the most comprehensive, detailed, and informative tutorial on making vanilla extract. Anywhere. And it seems pretty straightforward to me. There are tons of pictures, so all you visual learners can breathe easy. Unlike so much of anything on the internet, the site actually pulls from a really solid body of research to provide its background information. Yes, that includes literature reviews. Yes, there are even literature reviews on vanilla. No, you can't just quit your soul-crushing research job to go study vanilla all day. 

What is the most impressive, though, is that Ian is a serious sommelier! Check out his pages for salt, cinnamon, and paprika, in addition to all things vanilla. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Royal Icing = Egg White (Powder) + Confectioner's Sugar. Full Stop.

Photo: Gail Dosik
Gail Dosik, of One Tough Cookie, gives us a time-lapse glimpse of her method of preparing royal icing for cookie decoration (affectionately dubbed, "The World's Longest Video on Making Royal Icing"). A few notes to consider:

1. Gail uses egg white powder, and not, under any circumstance, meringue powder. As she rightly points out, royal icing is just egg whites and confectioner's sugar, and meringue powder is loaded with unnecessary ingredients (cornstarch, calcium sulfate, artificial flavours, whiteners, etc.). The hardcore purist in my totally agrees with this, and once you read her thoughts gleaned from years of experience, you probably will, too.

2. The "royal" is mixed to the desired consistency for each project. The project dictates the icing. This is a great point: we shouldn't always assume that the one recipe we have will make the perfect icing for each project.

3. Um, she is hilarious! Honestly, I love her to pieces already. And she's been around! This woman knows her stuff, so it's best we all pay attention.

The World's Longest Video About Making Royal Icing [via University of Cookie]

Saturday, August 7, 2010

"Wants" vs. "Needs": Infrared Thermometers

Photo: Stuart Selby
"Ira, I'd never thought I'd see you get excited about automotive tools." Were the exact words my coworker uttered to me the other day, once I had revealed, with dorky excitement, that the infrared thermometer I had fallen in love with is currently on sale

Hang on. Infrared. Thermometer? What the?

You're all probably confused as I was only a week ago. So, in the first installment of bakegeek's "Wants" vs. "Needs" series, we're going to examine these handy, super-industrial-cum-ingenious-baking tools. "Wants" vs. "Needs" is an opportunity to examine and highlight useful baking tools or equipment that bakers are currently coveting, but can't quite justify purchasing...yet. 

Photo: Stuart Selby
I first saw an infrared thermometer in my friend Stu's facebook album. He has recently gone on a macaron kick (along, apparently, with the rest of North America), and had done an excellent job of documenting the whole baking process in a photo album. Needing to boil caramel over 100ºC, Stu had in hand what can only be described as some sort of futuristic laser gun (see photos). A futuristic laser gun that also read temperature.

Needless to say, I lost it. What was this? You fire a laser at your batter and it checks temperature?! Judging by the other facebook comments, I wasn't the only person who was duly impressed. So, I did some digging to find out what I could about this little kitchen gadget that I can't live without.

What is an infrared thermometer?
All objects are made of particles, and above 0ºC all particles in an object vibrate. As these particles vibrate, they emit infrared radiation (IR). Infrared radiation is part of the electromagnetic spectrum, having a longer wavelength (lower energy) than visible light or UV radiation. The hotter an object is, the more its particles vibrate, and the more energy is released as IR. A good visual example of this phenomenon is when certain metals are heated to extremely high temperatures, becoming red- or white-hot. The colour we see is actually energy being emitted from the metal in the form of visible light, due to the very high energy the object has from being heated.

Simply put, an infrared thermometer measures the infrared energy emitted from the surface of an object, and translates this energy into a temperature reading. The laser in the photos above is actually only there to help you aim properly. I know, I was shocked too.

Why should I be fantasizing about one?
Infrared thermometers aren't anything particularly new. The technology is commonly used in industrial operations to measure temperature data from objects that would be a nightmare for traditional thermometers. For example, objects that cannot be touched for reasons of safety; objects at a distance; moving objects; or objects in a vacuum, are all instances where IR can be used to measure temperature.

IR thermometers are also already used in the food service industry (I just hadn't realized), to ensure that delivered food palettes and storage equipment retains a desired temperature. This makes sense, because temperature data can be scanned quickly and repeated contact with food is avoided.

For the personal kitchen, a tool like this may seem like overkill. But the more that I think about it, the more I realize that it's a brilliant tool to have around - Stu was on to something! Because IR thermometers are contact-free, you can measure just about anything without having to worry about contamination, personal safety, or cleanup. I know that sugar thermometers exist, but honestly, I don't want to handle anything that's been sitting in liquid over 100ºC. I'm klutzy and I've burned myself too many times. Plus, once boiling sugar hardens it is a nightmare to remove. With an IR thermometer, a simple point-and-shoot is all you need to make sure you're at the softball (or whatever -ball) stage you need. Plus, IR thermometers can take multiple readings in a much faster time than contact thermometers. You gotta be efficient in the kitchen, right?

But why stop at food? With an IR thermometer you can easily measure the temperature of your oven, forgoing the need for a special oven thermometer. What about your pots and pans? Now you'll always be sure that your surfaces are exactly the correct temperature for grilling or stir-frying. No more messing around with the "sizzling water" trick (which in retrospect, seems horribly inaccurate for temperatures over 100ºC). Obviously though, you shouldn't rely on IR to test if meat is the correct temperature. Don't toss out that meat thermometer!

What's the damage?
If you're reading this post and live in Canada, I would strongly recommend catching the Canadian Tire sale linked above. Who knows, maybe they ship internationally, too?

From my superficial research, a good, lower-level IR thermometer will set you back about $100. To be fair, this does seem like a substantial investment, but I think it's worth it. The fact that you can replace multiple thermometers with it will already save you anywhere from $10-20 bucks for each one you will render obsolete (candy thermometer, oven thermometer, etc.). They're extremely easy to use, don't require clean-up, and I think you will easily become addicted to using it once you start ("Wow, this garbage is waaay above room temperature. Time to toss it!")

Higher-endl infrared thermometers only go higher in price, to the point of industrial models that can measure hundreds of degrees in Farenheit. I would avoid these. On the low end, I've seen "pen" format IR thermometers for about $30, so there is a spectrum to fit most budgets.

I know I've already convinced myself. Quick, easy, safe, and zero cleanup? Why didn't bakers think of this sooner?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Geek Out! Science Cookie Roundup #6 is Here!

Hot off the cookie sheet and the blog engine, it's the sixth installment of Not So Humble Pie's brilliant Science Cookie Roundup! Yes!

These roundups, to me, represent what bakegeek is really about - unashamedly combining your interests (no matter how geeky, revealing, or embarrassing) with your love of baking. Truthfully, seeing some of these roundup submissions was the tipping point that made me decide to really give bakegeek a try. I thought I was the only one who would be totally impressed with a yeast two-hybrid screen cookie. Apparently, I was wrong.

Warning: in true pedantic fashion, many of these submissions are extremely specific to a certain area of science. There's a good chance that you won't "get" a large part of them if you don't have a specific background in science yourself. On the other hand, maybe that's a good thing? There's nothing quite like spending your days enslaved to a gel electrophoresis box, only to look at gel electrophoresis cookies and feel a like you want to vomit, cry, and curl up in the fetal position at the same time. Trust me.

Regardless of your background, you bakers out there can appreciate the thought, humour, and well-executed decoration that goes into many of these projects. Right? Right.

Tip: send these to any scientists or grad students you know for instant "Hey, you understand what I'm talking about!" cred. Even if is, in reality, a complete charade. I, for one, would be ecstatic.

Science Cookie Roundup #6 5 4 3 2 1 [via Not So Humble Pie]

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking - Michael Ruhlman

 I first heard about this book when it was released "a while ago" (ie. I can't remember when), but now that I managed to track it down at the library, I'm thankful I didn't forget about it. Simply put, Michael Ruhlman does a fantastic job of breaking down the importance of the ratio in everyday cooking. You may or may not notice, but the majority of recipes out there, especially in the baking world, all rely on precise ratios of ingredients (usually involving flour, eggs, sugar, and fat of some sort) in order to create the finished product we are expecting. Most people (myself included) hadn't realized this (or haven't gone to pastry school) and as such develop pathological inflexibilities when it comes to following recipes, or convincing themselves that they just Can't Bake It. Up until a month ago, I had a Pathological Fear of Pie Crust. True story.

Ruhlman abandons the traditonal cookbook approach, because after all, this isn't really a cookbook. This book is about understanding fundamental ratios. Once you can grasp the ratio of a cake or dough or crust, it's like you've been liberated. It doesn't matter what kind of flavours or accessory ingredients you add, as long as you maintain the ratio, you will always get the proper finished product.

Or, as the inside cover puts it, "When you know a culinary ratio, it's not like knowing a single recipe, it's instantly knowing a thousand."

So, Ruhlman does an excellent job of explaining what the ratio of each "recipe" is all about, and offers some helpful hints on varations you can try. For example, the ratio for Bread Dough = 5 parts flour : 3 parts water (plus yeast and salt). Once you have that down, you can extend it to make garlic bread, white sandwhich bread pizza dough, etc. Basically, the possibilities are endless!

I love this book for this exact reason. I love to bake, but because I have no formal training I find myself more or less hoping for the best, especially with new recipes, and especially with things like pastry. But, now that I can have a better understanding of the ratios that lead to the finished product, I'm really free to experiment with the knowledge that I really can't go wrong. Which is a great feeling.

Fun fact: Did you know that a pound cake and a sponge cake both have the exact same proportions of eggs : fat : sugar : flour (1:1:1:1)?! Isn't that crazy! The difference is all in the order that you add the ingredients, not necessarily the ingredients themselves.

That alone, to me, makes the book worthwhile. Geek out!

Tip: DIY Cornets (Paper Piping Tubes)

Over at Confections of a (Closet) Master Baker, Gesine gives us a nice lowdown on how to make cornets (paper piping bags) by hand - including some very informative photographs. But why bother at all? Well, they give you a fantastic degree of precision, especially when piping fine lines and detail. Also, as she cleverly points out, you can microwave them (they're just parchment paper, right?) So next time you want to pipe some melted chocolate, don't bother with a clumsy, awkward pastry bag, make a cornet!

Photo: Gesine Bullock-Prado
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