Conspicuous Absence

I’m sorry for the long delay. We’ve had an all-hands-on-deck medical situation with a family member. Things are starting to settle down a bit now (everything is going to be alright). While my attention will continue to be divided for a while, I should be able to get back to answering questions — and hopefully […]

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How does flour protect custards against breaking and cracking?

There must be a cheesecake-making convention out there somewhere, because two very closely related questions (this one and the one below) inbox late last week. Reader Alan notes that some cheesecake recipes call for a little flour (or cornstarch) in the batter as insurance against curdling and cracking. He asks: does that really work? And if so, how?

Well Alan, as you may recall from other posts on the subject, custards are gels that form when egg proteins (in a mixture of eggs, water and fat) are gently heated. The heat encourages these long, bunched-up molecules into uncoil themselves. As they do so, they get tangled up with and/or bond with their neighbors. That has the effect of creating a sort of lattice that restricts the flow of the water (and fat molecules) around them, and the mixture firms. 

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Why do cheesecakes crack?

Reader Richard is sick and tired of having to disguise the cracks in his cheesecake with sour cream toppings and pieces of fruit. He wants to know what he can do about it. Richard, I have a few ideas.

Cracks in cheesecakes are caused by temperature problems, and are usually a result of one region of the cake heating faster than another. Large cheesecakes are especially crack-prone since the areas closest to the rim of the pan cook and firm up first. If this happens too abruptly the outer portion of the cheesecake can shrink and pull away from the softer inner portion. 

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Mixing, Over-mixing, and the Perfect Muffin

Reader Mark writes:

My question is, why do you get big holes in muffins when you mix the batter a lot? That seems to be contrary to what I’ve generally assumed, that more mixing usually means smaller holes. 

Great question, Mark! Mixing a lot does yield smaller holes and tighter crumb in the case of cake layers and brioche. However both of those preparations are quite high in fat, so the mixing doesn’t result in a lot of activated gluten, primarily because the starches get coated in fat and have a hard time latching on to one another. Muffins are quite a bit leaner, which means that when you mix the batter a lot, you get a relatively strong gluten network. 

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What exactly is “Dutched” cocoa powder?

I’ve written about Dutched cocoa powder before, but mostly in passing, and reader Elaina wants to know what exactly Dutched cocoa powder is, where it comes from, and why some baking recipes — especially older baking recipes — seem to call for it. Well Elaina, I’ve got nothing to do this afternoon. Let’s do this thing.

Dutched cocoa powder is cocoa powder that has been treated with an alkaline (originally, good ol’ potassium carbonate). The process was invented, as you might expect, by a Dutchman. His name was Conrad van Houten. At the time — the year was 1828 — van Houten was looking for a treatment that would help his new cocoa powder incorporate more readily into milk. Being rather fatty, cocoa powder doesn’t blend very well with milk. All that water, donchaknow.

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What makes rye flour so great for starting a starter?

Bakers will forever remember 2020. Not as The Year of The Pandemic, not as The Year of Social Unrest, but as the beginning of The Golden Age of Sourdough. These days just about everyone has a bread starter in their house, or they’re looking to start one. Reader Glen is in the latter camp, and has been doing research on the best way to get a starter going. He’s seen more than a few posts that recommend rye flour as a starting point. What he wants to know is: what makes rye four so special when it comes to starting starters?

The answer is that rye flour has more wild yeast in it than other types of flour. Here it might be useful to back up a bit and take note of the fact that rye is not actually wheat, but rather its close cousin, and an odd one at that. So odd in fact that rye wasn’t widely cultivated until about 400 A.D., which is many thousands of years after wheat was first domesticated. The reason (probably) was because rye doesn’t make especially good bread. 

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On Salting Egg Wash

The one nice things about being mostly absent for a couple of weeks is that the comment fields become stuffed with great questions. Like this one from reader Dean: Joe, why do you salt egg wash? I presume it’s a flavor thing. Does salt do anything else in an egg wash?

Oh my yes, Dean, and bless you for asking. In addition to seasoning your wash, salt causes the mixture of liquid yolk and gelatinous white to relax into a nice thin, even solution. Now I know what you’re thinking: Joe, how on Earth does that magic happen? Well let me tell you a thing or two about egg white proteins. In their natural state, egg white proteins occur in little bunches, which are scattered throughout the white. Well I suppose I shouldn’t say “scattered” exactly, because the fresher the egg white is, the closer those bunches are to one another. So “clustered” might be a better word in this case. It’s this clustering that’s responsible for an egg white’s thick and jelly-like texture, as those close-together clusters restrict the flow of the liquid (mostly water) around them.

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How to Make a Flaky Pie Crust

Some very interesting reactions to the below post on making cherry pie. Several comments on the sour cherries, but also quite a few questions about the crust. How do you get it so flaky? The answer is fairly straightforward: leave some large-ish pieces of fat in the dough. The logical follow-up question is: what good does that do? For that we need to back up a little.

The American pie crust is a schizophrenic creation. As Alton Brown once observed on his groundbreaking food science show Good Eats, Americans demand that their pie crusts be both tender AND flaky, which is something of a contradiction in terms. Flakiness partly a product of dryness, but also of a heterogenous dough mixture, with large, unevenly distributed fat pockets of varying sizes that roll out into layers as the crust is shaped. When the crust bakes up, the fat melts, leaving hundreds of tiny strata that cause the finished crust to break into flakes when it’s cut (or chewed). Laminated doughs, like croissant or Danish dough, are created specifically to exaggerate this fat-layer-induced flaking effect.

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