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The Ah-Choo Pastry of Girona

So where were we? Ah yes, the xuixo. This one’s great for 2020, as it’s connected to a plague outbreak in Girona, Catalonia. As the story goes, several cases of plague occurred along the Carrer de l’Argenteria, a street in the city’s mercantile district, where local silversmiths were known to live and work. It wasn’t long before the locals found out about them and decided to barricade the ends of the street, then board up the back doors and windows of the row houses to keep the infected in their homes. This had something of a negative effect on morale in the neighborhood.

To help relieve the boredom and despair along the Argenteria, a young fellow who called himself El Tarlá began to cavort and caper about the center of the street, doing tricks and telling jokes in an attempt to keep the locals entertained for the duration of the outbreak. He became something of a local celebrity. Indeed to this day his antics are commemorated in Girona, where a large life-size likeness of him is suspended from a pole and made to flip and tumble with the turn of a crank.

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Forget the Pie Weights: Use Loose Change

Reader György is the latest in a long line of readers to ask me if I know of any cheap/easy alternatives to pie weights or pie beads. I wrote about this recently in a tutorial, but it seemed to me that a separate post was warranted. Because let’s face it: a lot of bakers waste money on these sorts of things. Or worse, pantry space, with big containers of “baking” rice or beans that hardly ever get used.

I’ve pretty much tried every crust-weighting solution known to bakingkind over the years: the shiny chrome chains (which always get lost or tangled up), the charming ceramic peas (which soak up grease and end up smelling like a wet yak), the uncooked rice (which spills everywhere), dried beans (ditto), even those weird little Matfer aluminum pellets, which look very cool but cost fifty bucks!

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A Caramelly Twist on Pumpkin Pie

Pumpkin, as the kids like to say, is my jam. There’s no sweet I’d rather eat than pumpkin pie, or better still, pumpkin caramel bars. But bars don’t work as well on a Thanksgiving table it seems to me, so young Jo Pastry and I decided to combine the two concepts this year, into what we’ve come to call Burnt Caramel Pumpkin Pie. What can I say, it works.

The variation is at the bottom of the tutorial.

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What am I thankful for?

Each and every reader and every last comment, all of which help to make this a better blog. It’s been a terrific — if uneven — year for me blogging. But it’s great to be back, immersed in the baking community, doing my bit for the greater cause of fresh-made doughnuts and home-laminated Danish. Thanks to everyone for their participation, and to my family for their infinite patience and support.

Happy (American) Thanksgiving to all!

– Joe

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Vinegar & The Chocolate Chip Cookie

Reader John writes:

Joe, I ran across a King Arthur recipe for chocolate chip cookies and it used vinegar. Baking Bits says it adds lift.  Does it make a significant difference in cookies?

That’s an excellent question, John. The short answer is that no, that small amount of vinegar probably won’t make a significant difference in your cookies. But then I’m generally all about the long answer, and for that we need to go and compare the KA version to the classic recipe.

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We done with security warnings now?

Good grief this has take a long time. Round and round with my SSL provider over whose problem it was, and where it was hiding out. Yah! I think we have it figured out now, so readers can drop in without fear that I’m not Joe, and that someone pretending to be Joe might be […]

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My Green Eggs

The below reference to hard boiled eggs spurred reader Tim to ask why it is that over-boiled eggs have that green film on the yolk. He said he’s looked it up at various points but has never gotten a satisfactory answer. Which is just the kind of explanatory challenge that a spaz like me lives for. So Tim, pour yourself a nice beverage and settle back in your chair.

Those green/grey films are a result of couple of different iron sulfides (ferric sulfide and/or ferrous sulfide) that form when eggs are heated over a certain point. Egg whites, you see, are rich in protein. Two of those proteins in particular, methionine and cysteine, contain sulphur. When methionine and cysteine break down they release their sulphur in the form of hydrogen sulfide, which is what gives old eggs that characteristic smell.

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On Replacing Milk Powder

Reader Ellen writes:

[Milk powder] is the bane of anyone who is substantially lactose intolerant…a lot of breads, cookies, doughnuts, salt & vinegar chips, and even flour tortillas…have unknown amounts of lactose. Joe, any thoughts on non-dairy additions that could provide the same texture improvements? More egg yolks?

I can see where that might be a problem, reader Ellen! The good news, at least for home bakers, is that there is no end of substitutes for milk powder when it comes to tenderizing a bread, cookie or crust. Fat (or oil) is probably the most common tenderizer. But really anything that is finely ground and non-wheat can work to undermine gluten or otherwise make the crumb of a baked good less uniform and stable.

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On Buttercream & Cows

Over my extended absence three different readers wrote in to say they were having buttercream consistency problems, specifically with the Swiss and Italian meringue buttercreams. All three reported that their buttercream was working well for spreading and cake building, but piping was a problem. Their piped decorations were drooping and/or losing their sharp edges. Can IMBC and SMBC be firmed in any way?

I can think of a few ways to achieve a firmer buttercream texture. One is to scale back the butter a bit, but just by a little, maybe 15% or so. That raises the ratio of meringue and gives the buttercream a bit more body. The other thing you might try is to buy higher quality butter, which tends to be firmer. Lower quality butters tend to have lower melting points, which makes them softer at room temperature. That tends to be truer in the winter months when dairy cows aren’t grazing in the fields as much, but inexpensive butter can be soft at any time of year. “Spend more money” is never welcome advice, but where buttercreams are concerned you tend to do better when you pay up a bit.

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The Amazing Collapsing Brownie

Reader Kiran has a brownie problem:

Almost every time I bake brownies I end up with some version of fudge no matter whose recipe it is. I’m sure it’s something I do. I tried Dori Greenspan, Alice Medrich and David Lebovitz’s recipes without any success. I can bake an impressive cake and very nice cookies but not brownies. They always end up as fudge. More importantly, I notice that the butter floats on the top excessively as if the fudge is drowned in them. Please help.

Kiran, the most likely culprit is over-whisking or over-beating your batter. Thorough whisking and beating is a virtue most of the time, but not where brownies are concerned. Brownies are the spineless wonders of the baking world, loaded with fats, sugars, and non-glutenous solids of various kinds. They have practically zero structure, almost complete invertebrates. Which means that when you whisk them a little too much, you’re setting them up for a fall. Whisking introduces air bubbles, which are a form of leavening. When they heat up they fill with steam and expand, causing the whole mass to rise. 

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