More Questions of Flour

Following the success of my microwaved flour as a substitute for cake flour, I was prompted by comments from fellow bloggers into thinking further about cornflour mixes. As ellaella suggested, a common method for making cake flour at home is to remove 2 tablespoons of bleached, plain (all purpose) flour per cup and to replace these with 2 tablespoons of cornflour (cornstarch). Would this still work if the plain flour was unbleached, however? And how would cakes made with a mix of plain flour and cornflour compare with cakes baked from microwaved flour?

At about 5 o’clock this morning, I was struck by a further question. What would happen if I microwaved some flour first and then replaced 2 tablespoons per cup with 2 tablespoons of cornflour? Would the microwaving be enough to compensate for the lack of bleaching?

Well, there was only one way to find out. Back to the kitchen I went.

It just so happens that yesterday I made Rose’s Favorite Yellow Layer Cake using microwaved pasta flour in place of cake flour. It turned out beautifully. Could I really improve on this?

I decided to bake two more of these butter cakes today. For the first, I microwaved 7 oz + a couple of spoonfuls of Doves Farm Organic speciality pasta flour for a total of 3 minutes on high (I have an ancient set of shop scales standing in my kitchen, so I tend to think and work in Imperial measurements). At this point, the whole experiment very nearly ended in disaster. I suddenly thought it would be easier to make up the cornflour mix if I had more microwaved flour on hand … so I popped a few more spoonfuls on a plate of their own into the microwave … and proceeded to burn the flour and melt a large hole in the bottom of the plastic plate. I guess microwaving such small amounts of flour isn’t such a good idea – be warned!

Luckily, my kitchen was still relatively unburnt (despite the smell) andI had just sufficient microwaved flour to be able to prepare a cornflour mix nevertheless. I then used 7 oz of this microwaved-cornflour-mixed flour (which seemed a bit of a mouthful, so I was coming to regard this as ‘kate flour’ instead) to make my first cake.

The flour mix for the second cake was more straightforward. I simply weighed the pasta flour straight from the bag and replaced 2 tablespoons per cup (spooned, 4.25 oz) with 2 tablespoons of cornflour.

What happened? Well, just when things were looking good, they suddenly started looking even better! The cake made with ‘kate flour’ rose beautifully and behaved exactly as Rose said it would in The Cake Bible. The cake made with pasta flour+cornflour didn’t rise quite so high and then retired to below the rim on cooling.

Cakes from the side

Inside, the ‘kate-flour’ cake (behind, on the right) had a finer texture and was lighter than either the pasta flour+cornflour (front) or all-microwaved-flour (behind, on the left) cakes.

Side view of cakes

More importantly, the ‘kate-flour’ cake definitely got my vote for taste. The pasta flour+cornflour cake was simply stodgy and … well … floury. The ‘kate-flour’ cake, on the other hand, was moister than the all-microwaved-flour cake and had even more of a melting, soft feel in the mouth. Each bite brought a delicate flavour of vanilla and left behind a subtle, lingering tang.

Perhaps with these new results, I might feel brave enough one day to use my ‘kate flour’ to bake another Golden Luxury Butter Cake … but that will be a story for another day.

A Question of Flour

“Because it provides the fundamental functionality in a baked product, flour has the ability to either make or break a product.”

So writes Scott Heganbart in an article for Food Product Design. I have recently had a startling glimpse into the full significance of this deceptively simple statement.

Ever since my discovery of The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum, I have been intrigued by this thing called ‘cake flour’. Until then, I had always assumed that flour was divided between plain (or all purpose) and self-raising, with a more macho variety of plain for breadmaking. But here was someone who had devoted a huge amount of time and energy ensuring that bakers in the UK could achieve the same results as those in the US using only the ingredients that were available to them … which didn’t include cake flour.

What then is cake flour? Beranbaum gives a detailed description of this ingredient in a section entitled ‘Understanding Butter Cakes’. From this, I learned that cake flour is low in protein because it is milled from soft winter wheat. It is also less acidic and able to absorb more water than other flours because it has a finer granulation and is bleached by chlorination. Apparently, the whole success of Beranbaum’s recipes for butter cakes relies on the structural advantages made possible by these properties of cake flour.

At first, I filed these differences away as a quirky curiosity and launched into following the UK-specific recipes. However, it soon became apparent to me that whilst tasting delicious, the butter cakes I was producing were not matching their descriptions. And then, one day, there was the disaster of the Golden Luxury Butter Cake. A velvety grain?? More like a soggy, dense lump of play-dough. Even the ducks were disdainful as they watched it sinking to the bottom of the pond.

What was going wrong? I decided to take a second look at this question of flour.

Back in 1992 when the UK edition of The Cake Bible was first published, self-raising flour in the UK was bleached. It was this bleaching process that allowed Beranbaum to create her solution of mixing plain and self-raising flour in recipes for butter cakes. Now, here comes the important part … I discovered that self-raising flour in the UK is no longer bleached. In fact, the Flour Advisory Bureau states that the process was not permitted after 1997. In other words, the work-arounds developed by Beranbaum have had the carpet swept from under their feet!

I’m not known for giving up easily. I wondered about the possibilities of obtaining cake flour from the US. However, there are now regulations about this that I suspect were not in place when Beranbaum suggested importing American ‘Softasilk’ cake flour as a possible solution to the problem in 1992. As reported in this United States Patent:

“Notwithstanding the acceptance in the United States of chlorinated cake flour, chemical treatments and chemical additives to foods have become suspect and it is desirable to avoid such treatments and additives wherever possible. In addition, most foreign countries prohibit the use of chlorinated cake flour in their cake products. As a result, these countries do not allow importation of American dry mix products such as cake mixes and the like which contain chlorinated flour.”

Sherlock Holmes taught, once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. Well, the only remaining course of action seemed to be to create my own alternative form of cake flour using processes and products available in the UK! I really wasn’t expecting to find any success along this route. After all, I have a flawed and very incomplete awareness of cake theory, little understanding of biochemistry or molecular science, and a kitchen full of children and their paintings rather than scientists and their laboratory equipment. Foolishly undaunted, I set out nevertheless to discover my own cake flour.

I needed something finely milled and low in protein. I found this in the Italian 00 grade flour that is widely available in UK supermarkets. At 9.9g of protein per 100g of flour, Doves Farm Organic speciality pasta flour was the most suitable that I could find (contrary to its claim to be high in protein, this flour is not only more finely milled but also has a lower protein content per 100g than all other brands of plain flour that I could find on the supermarket shelves).

Now I needed to apply an alternative treatment to chlorination that would yield similar results. After further research I came across a proposed method for the microwave treatment of unchlorinated cake flour:

“Microwave treatment of unchlorinated cake flour restores the ability of starch to gelatinize and swell … the swollen, gelatinized starch granules provide the honeycomb open-celled structure of the finished cake, which stabilizes it against collapse upon cooling. Starch gelatinization also contributes to crumb tenderness, slightly dry texture and development of fine-grained cells.”

It seemed too good to be true. Would this work in my own kitchen? Apparently, best results were obtained using flour with a protein content between 4% and 9%. My pasta flour was slightly above this at nearly 10%. Also, it appeared to be very important to use undehydrated flour so it has sufficient moisture to be able to interact with the microwave field and so reduce the moisture content to less than about 6%. My pasta flour? I really didn’t have a clue about its moisture content or whether it was already dehydrated or not. I could only cross my fingers!

Taking an enormous leap of faith, I set to work in the kitchen. I decided to bake two versions of Beranbaum’s Perfect All-American Chocolate Butter Cake. In the first, I followed the original US recipe and replaced the cake flour with my own microwaved flour. In the second, I followed the UK recipe and used McDougall’s Supreme Sponge flour. This is a self-raising flour milled specifically from soft wheats. The packaging claims that it can absorb more moisture and sugar than standard flour and will produce a very light, soft texture.

To make my own cake flour for the first version, I carefully weighed out 235g of pasta flour. I spread this on a plate to give a bed depth of 2cms and blasted it on high in the microwave for 1.5 minutes (half of my total alloted time of 3 mins). When I opened the door, a great amount of steam escaped from the microwave and the flour had started to clump together. I fluffed it up a bit with a fork and put it back in for its second blast. It then occurred to me that, with all this moisture evaporating, the finished flour might not weigh 235g anymore … so in my best scientific practice, I quickly spooned on a couple of extra tablespoons of flour and blasted this mix for the remaining 1.5 minutes! I now had a reserve of ‘cake flour’ that I could weigh out and sieve.

The results?

Despite having carefully researched and concocted my own version of cake flour, I had remarkably little faith that I could produce anything remotely edible with it. I certainly wasn’t anticipating the startling effect that my flour had made when the two cakes were out of the oven.

Cake Tops

The cake layers (on the left and centre) made with the UK self-raising flour were good illustrations of what had happened so far every time I tried a butter cake recipe from The Cake Bible. They were bubbled on the top and dense inside. The cake layers made with my microwaved flour (cooled and stacked on the right) were beautiful! Smooth tops with a wonderfully light, fine texture inside. I was so excited!

Here are closer views of the layers:

UK-specific recipe with self-raising flour …

First close view of UK cake

and …

Second close view of UK cake

US recipe with microwaved flour

Close view of US cake

Not only did my microwaved flour have a dramatic effect on appearance, but it also had a comparable effect on the taste of the cake. The UK/self-raising flour version was quite delicious but also heavily moist and buttery. The US/microwaved flour version was quite another story – light, chocolatey, soft and exceptionally exquisite.

I can’t provide tasting samples online, but the difference is clear in this photo. The UK/self-raising flour cake is on the left in the foreground; the US/microwaved flour cake is behind.

Inside the cakes

The next day, the UK/self-raising flour cake seemed to have a buttery strip running through the centre of each layer whilst the US/microwaved flour version had retained its lightness. If anything, the US/microwaved flour cake had become even more meltingly chocolatey.

I can only say, “Mmmmmmm” as I now have something to think further about … and some delicious chocolate cake to eat as well!

Apple and Cider Parkin

It’s very last minute, but I’ve only just discovered at SpittoonExtra that this month’s theme for Sugar High Friday is Drunken Apples. Living in Devon, apples are plentiful at this time of year. These last two weekends alone, we have rolled windfalls at Buckfast Abbey and picked our way among them as we walked the East Devon Way.

It’s not only in Autumn that apples take centre stage here in the West Country. Cider flows freely throughout the year, with notable local presses at Dartington, Lyme Bay and Buckfastleigh.

Apples, Autumn, October, November … Guy Fawkes, Bonfire night … toffee apples, Parkin

You can see how my mind works!

Here then is my (very-last-minute) entry for Sugar High Friday:

Apple and Cider Parkin

Apple and Cider Parkin
Adapted from a recipe in an old book edited by Jo Barker

8 oz apples, peeled and diced
3 oz demerara/raw sugar
4 oz cup golden syrup
3 oz margarine
6 oz self-raising flour
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 egg, beaten

6 oz icing/confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1-2 tablespoons cider

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C/350 degrees F. Grease and line an 8 inch square cake tin.

Place the apples with 1 oz of the sugar and 2-3 tablespoons of water in a saucepan. Cover and simmer until the apples are softened. Blend or sieve to a pureé.

Warm the syrup, margarine and remaining sugar in a second saucepan until the margarine has melted. Leave to cool slightly.

Sift the flour and spices together in a large mixing bowl. Add the syrup mixture, apple pureé and egg. Beat to combine.

Pour the batter into the prepared tin. Bake in the centre of the oven for 30 to 35 minutes until springy to the touch. Cool in the tin.

Make the icing by sifting together the icing sugar and cinnamon. Beat in enough cider to give a coating consistency. Spread over the parkin.

Cut into slices when cool.

Moroccan Chickpea Pâté

Luckily for us, it has mostly been a glorious autumnal week here in Devon. Our builders have been all over our house, propping up ceilings, filling holes with concrete and positioning all sorts of steel things in our loft. As much as M would love to help, our house during the day hasn’t really been a suitable environment for a 2-year-old! We have therefore spent a tiring but wonderful week in self-enforced exile, kicking the fallen leaves in Bicton Park and throwing handfuls of sand and shells into the sea at Exmouth.

Consequently, our time in the kitchen has been severely limited. No time for cakes, cookies, bread, pies or pastries … but hey, I did manage to create a rather tasty chickpea pâté one evening. My savoury-toothed husband was very pleased to have something he actually liked to take into work for a change!

Moroccan Chickpea Pâté

Moroccan Chickpea Pâté

2 red peppers
60 g/2 oz butter
1 onion
2 cloves garlic
60 g/2 oz dried apricots
2 x 240 g/8 oz cans of chickpeas, drained
1/2 teaspoon crushed chillies
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon coriander powder
30 g/1 oz fresh coriander
2 tablespoons lemon juice
salt and white pepper
3 sheets leaf gelatin (to set 1/2 pint)
200 g/6 oz cream cheese
250 ml/8 fl oz whipping cream

Cut the peppers in half and de-seed. Dunk the pieces 3 times in boiling water to remove their harsh flavour. Chill by dunking in cold water. Pureé 1 pepper and roughly chop the 2nd.

Melt the butter in a saucepan. Chop and gently sauté the onion and garlic. Add the apricots, 1 can of chickpeas, spices, herbs, lemon juice and seasoning. Cook gently until softened. Whizz to blend. Stir in the 2nd can of chickpeas and the roughly-chopped red pepper.

Soak the gelatin sheets in cold water for 10 minutes.

Heat the red pepper pureé. Remove from the heat. Add the soaked gelatin (squeeze first to remove soaking liquid) and mix well until melted.

Add the pepper pureé to the chickpea mix and stir well to combine.

Whisk the whipping cream to peaks. Add the cream cheese and whipped cream to the chickpea mix. Stir well.

Scrape into a loaf tin and refrigerate overnight.

Carrot Cake

I have a recipe for carrot cake that has been my standard carrot cake ever since it was given to me by a friend from Australia. Carrot cake also happens to be my husband’s favourite cake, so this page of my recipe folder has become quite well-thumbed. However, our household recently suffered from a bout of a nasty, school-incubated sickness bug. The carrot cake that I had made on the day before it was my turn to suffer consequently remained in the cake tin largely untouched. When I came to dispose of its remains, I was struck by its oiliness. From that moment onwards, I began to wonder about the possibilities of using butter rather than vegetable oil in my carrot cakes …

After much trial and error, I have now come to regard this recipe as my new standard carrot cake. It produces a cake that is moist without being cloyingly oily and flavoursome without being fussy. And oh, this is a carrot cake that can be enjoyed ‘naked’ – my husband dislikes the usual frosting!

Carrot Cake

Carrot Cake

2 oz butter
5 oz caster sugar
2 oz light muscovado sugar
6 oz grated carrot
1 tablespoon grated orange rind
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 eggs
5 oz plain flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
1/8 teaspoon crushed cardamom seeds

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C/350 degrees F. Grease and line a 20 cm/8″ cake tin.

Melt the butter in a saucepan. Stir in the sugars and cook gently over a low heat for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and add the carrot, orange rind and vanilla. Beat in the eggs, one at a time.

Sift flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and spices into a bowl. Whisk to combine.

Add the carrot mixture and stir well until combined. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin.

Bake in the centre of the oven for 30 minutes, until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Remove from the cake tin and cool on a wire rack.