I am a heavy user of spices in all my cooking, including baking. Gingerbread, with its mixture of warming spices, is a favorite holiday treat. Gingerbread cookies typically come out hard and dry, serving more as vehicles for decoration rather than something you would want to eat. The exception are the soft, cake-like cookies that I’ve occasionally encountered through my childhood: that’s what I wanted to make.
Fortunately, it wasn’t hard to find the recipe from Cooks’ Illustrated. The original version creates a huge batch, but I’ve modified it for a small family.
Formaggio, a high end grocery store in Cambridge, has an amazing cinnamon bread. It forgoes the usual raisins and adds cinnamon sugar on all sides instead of restricting it to the “swirl”.To replicate this at home, I started a dough based on King Arthur Flour’s butterflake bread (buttery, but sub-brioche levels of richness) and added a cinnamon sugar coating inside and out.
With a wife and two kids, all with different tastes, it can be a challenge for me to find a dish that will please the whole family. Sometimes, I luck out and stumble across a crowd-pleaser. I had read about the popularity of the southern favorite shrimp and grits, but had never tried it myself. Though I’m generally a big fan of shrimp, I had never even tried grits before (though we had an unopened box of Quaker 5-minute grits sitting in the pantry, purchased after my wife had some at work).
After scouring the internet, it became apparent that there’s a huge range of recipes out there. Most of the grits recipes are quite rich, with butter, cheese, and/or heavy cream, usually in large quantities. The shrimp is universally cooked with bacon. I turned to my old standby, Cook’s Illustrated, and found that the companion site Cook’s Country had an interesting recipe. While it made heavy use of butter and included a shirmp-stock based gravy, it was the only recipe I came across that lacked cheese. I’m not a huge fan of overly-rich dishes, but clearly some amount of cheese was de rigueur.
Starting with the Cook’s Country version, I blended in elements from various other recipes online to hit the following goals:
- use the greater shrimp:grits ratio from the Cook’s Country version
- create a shrimp stock and gravy using the shrimp shells
- use bacon
- use milk in the grits for extra creaminess
- use cheese in the grits
- use enough butter and cheese to add richness without making the dish overly heavy
- 1 cup grits (I used Quaker 5-minute grits)
- 3 cups water
- 1 cup milk
- 2-4 ounces of grated cheddar cheese, to taste (I used 2.5 ounces – 70 g)
- 1.5 pounds large shrimp with shells
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 3 strips of bacon (or 2 if using thick-cut bacon), cut into 1/2 inch pieces
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 2 medium cloves of garlic, pressed or minced
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- Cook the grits as instructed on the package, using milk/water combination instead of milk alone (I boiled the liquid, added grits, and simmered for 5-7 minutes until thickened. It helps to whisk grits after adding to prevent clumping.
- Add in cheese and keep warm
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Peel and devein shrimp, reserving shells
- In an nonstick pan, melt one tablespoon butter of medium heat and add shells, cooking for about 7 minutes until shells are toasty and spotted
- Add tomato paste and cook for 30 seconds, stirring
- Add about 2.5 cups of water, bring to a boil, and simmer covered for another 5 minutes
- Strain shrimp shells and liquid, saving resulting stock and discarding shells
- Wipe down pan and add bacon pieces
- Cook until crispy, then add in garlic and shrimp
- Cook for a couple minutes until edges of shrimp have are no longer translucent, but shrimp are not cooked through
- Empty shrimp and bacon into a bowl and wipe out pan
- Melt another tablespoon of butter
- Add in flour, whisking into butter and cook for about a minute until fragrant
- Whisk in shrimp stock and continue whisking until clumps dissolve
- Cook for 5-10 minutes until thickened, then add in shirmp/bacon mixture and cook for a few more minutes until shrimp are cooked through
- Add lemon juice and salt/pepper to taste
Serve the grits and ladle some shrimp and gravy on top and enjoy. I added some red pepper flakes and Tobasco for added flavor to my plate. These went great with some simply braised brussel sprouts, which cut the heaviness of the overall dish.
Note the picture above is just the shrimp and gravy. It was so good, I forgot to take a picture of the combo until I was packing up the (few) leftovers.
I continue on my whole wheat kick by trying something that seems like a compromise: 100% whole wheat bagels. The source was the same as the inspiration for my traditional bagels: Peter Reinhart. These bagels can be put together a lot faster than traditional bagels, largely because of the distinct characteristics of sprouted whole wheat. According to Reinhart, the sprouted wheat requires less time to develop flavor compared with traditional wheat.
If you look online, you’ll find a vocal group touting the health advantages of sprouted grains. I’m not sure how much truth there is to these claims, but I’m all for convenience. I ended up needing quite a bit more flour than the 510g called for in Reinhart’s recipe. His book Bread Revolution describes sprouted wheat flour as absorbing water much more readily than its unsprouted relatives, but I did not find this to be the case with my batch from Arrowhead Mills. Despite coming straight off the shelves at Whole Foods, the flour was a couple months past its listed expiration date, so this may have been a factor.
- 560 g sprouted whole wheat flour
- 1.25 teaspoons salt
- 1.25 teaspoons instant yeast
- 397 g lukewarm water
- 21 g barley malt syrup
- Mix flour, salt, and yeast in a large bowl.
- Mix water and malt syrup and pour into flour mixture
- Mix for 30-60 seconds until no dry flour remains and the dough is shaggy
- Let rest uncovered for 5 minutes, then kneed for two minutes. The dough should be smooth and only slightly tacky. I needed to add quite a bit of flour above the amount recommended by Reinhart.
- Form the dough into bagels (I used 99 g of dough per bagel), place on oil-misted parchment on a baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator overnight.
- Take the bagels out of the fridge about 1 hour before baking and preheat oven to 425 °F.
- Boil bagels for 30 seconds per side in a 0.5% lye solution (25g per 5L water).
- Bake for about 20 minutes, rotating pans halfway through if using two pans.
- Cool on a rack. Extra bagels can be frozen after they cool. I like to slice my bagels before freezing, so they can be toasted right out of the freezer.
The bagels were great, though decidedly different from non-whole wheat bagels. They had a nice sweetness to them, and the everything topping went particularly well with the whole wheat dough.
I’ve tried several varieties of pancakes, but the standard buttermilk pancake remains one of my favorites. There’s something about adding chocolate to breakfast which is irresistible. Chocolate chip pancakes are a bit of overkill for me, but chocolate pancakes seem more natural to me. It’s like a chocolate cake for breakfast. The path chosen by most online is simply to add cocoa powder to a typical pancake batter. So that’s what I did. I used a white whole wheat base for this particular recipe.
- 130 g white whole wheat flour
- 25 g sugar (2 tablespoons)
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 baking soda
- 10 g cocoa powder (2 tablespoons)
- 2 tablespoons butter, melted
- 145 g buttermilk
- 1 large egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- combine all dry ingredients in a bowl and whisk to combine thoroughly
- mix liquid ingredients well and add into dry ingredients, taking care not to overmix (less of an issue with a whole wheat base)
- allow to rest for 5-10 minutes
- cook pancakes for about 3 minutes per side on a 300 °F griddle
I made a few changes to my whole wheat pancake base for this recipe. I decreased the flour to 130 g to accommodate the cocoa powder, doubled the sugar, and just melted the butter instead of browning it (since I suspected the flavor would be masked by the cocoa).
I have two kinds of cocoa powder at home: regular Hershey’s unsweetened and Droste Dutch-processed. Which one to use? Why not experiment: I split the batter and half with each type. The Hershey box says that 5g is one tablespoon and Droste says that the equivalent is 1 teaspoon. I suspect one is wrong, but I just went with 5 g of each. In the dry state, the Droste (left) yielded a darker mix:
Interestingly, once I added the liquid, the Hershey’s batter (below) ended up darker.
On the griddle, they were almost indistinguishable. The Droste pancakes (left in the image below and at the top of the post) rose a bit higher. I suspect this was because it’s more alkaline and reacted more with the acidic buttermilk.
The pancakes were (of course) quite good, but next time I’ll probably increase the cocoa to boost the chocolate flavor or add some instant espresso. I couldn’t really detect much difference between the two cocoas, so it doesn’t matter which one you use. The Droste yielded slightly fluffier pancakes, but I suspect the same could be achieved by increasing the baking soda.
I’ve stuck with my perfect pancake recipe for several years, but there’s always room for improvement. I’ve recently been experiment with using white whole wheat flour. It’s easier to adapt to white flour recipe than regular (“red”) whole wheat, but has the same general characteristics and potential health advantages.
When it comes to pancakes, I’m not willing to sacrifice the product for nebulous health benefits, but it turns out that whole wheat actually works extremely well in pancake batter. The ability of whole wheat to interfere with gluten development, a disadvantage in many breads, helps keep pancake tender and fluffy. A little more liquid is needed, and the batter ends up a bit thicker and harder to manage, but the results are great. I also find that using browned butter helps add another dimension to the flavor.
- 140 g white whole wheat flour
- 1 tablespoon (12.5 g) sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
- 245 g buttermilk (about 1 cup)
- 1 large egg
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- Combine dry ingredients in a bowl an whisk together
- Mix buttermilk and egg together
- Melt butter in a small pan under medium-low heat until small brown flecks appear, then transfer to a bowl to cool slightly
- Add butter into buttermilk-egg mixture. If the butter is still warm, stir the mixture briskly while adding the butter slowly
- Add vanilla to the liquid
- Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir or whisk until combined, taking care not to overmix. The batter will be thick.
- Allow the batter to rest for 5-10 minutes, then cook for about 2-3 minutes per side on a 300 °F griddle.
I’ve been preferring this to the white flour version. It feels a bit more substantial. Despite the whole wheat flour, these cook up light and fluffy.
I love to grill, and boneless, skinless chicken thighs are one of the most forgiving meats. They taste great with a range of seasonings, cook quickly yet hold up well to overcooking, and are an easy size to work with. I use them regularly for burritos, but I’ve also started adapting them to Asian flavors. There are various versions of Thai Grilled Chicken out there, but I’ve gravitated toward this easy recipe, which I modified slightly for this batch.
- 500 g boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- 1/3 cup Thai basil, chopped fine
- 1/3 cup cilantro, chopped fine
- 1 tablespoon ginger, minced
- 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
- 1.5 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1.5 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1.5 tablespoons canola oil
- 1.5 tablespoons brown sugar
- one tablespoon (or a few squirts) of fresh lime juice
- Combine all ingredients except the chicken and lime juice in a bowl
- Trim the chicken of excess fat, then add to marinade
- Mix well to combine then marinate in the refrigerator 1 hour to overnight
- Heat a grill at high heat until hot (~10 minutes), brushing grate with oil
- Remove chicken from marinade, allowing excess to drip off, then start grilling, flipping occasionally until well charred and the internal temperature is at least 160 °F.
- Squirt with fresh lime juice
A few observations from my latest attempt: I could have probably used about 2/3 or half the marinade for this amount of chicken. The chicken initially had a bit of bitterness, which I remedied by adding a bit more sugar. On future attempts, I may increase the brown sugar or use only the cilantro leaves instead of the leaves and the stems. You could also amp it up with some Thai chilis or garlic-chili sauce, but I avoided this because the kids were eating it.
I usually try to avoid becoming reliant “dough enhancers” on principal, but I’m always up for trying something new. I periodically peruse the offerings from King Arthur and came across their Cake Enahncer, which the King and his followers say is also useful for breads. This mixture of rice starch, polyglycerol ester, and fatty acids are supposed to improve texture and prolong shelf life.
I decided to give them a try in my breakfast buns, since this recipe has become a platform for many of my baking experiments. As per the instructions on the package, I added two tablespoons for about two cups of flour. The buns looked fine when baked, but the bread tasted like a supermaket roll. The texture became soft and lost its gluten-driven chew. It was a Phineas Gage-like transformation: its personality was all wrong. Maybe it’s the name influencing me, but it did make the bread seem more cake-like.
This may be worth a try in a cake batter, but I’m steering clear of using this in bread dough from now on.
Rice Krispies Treats are popular with pretty much everyone. Sweet and light, they are a classic childhood snack and a good way to use up extra Rice Krispies. But let’s be serious: how many people actually like Rice Krispies? They are not offensive, but they are bland and quickly become inedibly soggy. I can’t think of any time in the past decade that I’ve bought them for any reason other than making Rice Krispies Treats. So why not try applying the same treatment to another cereal?
My daughter eats Kix, but the boxes it comes in are huge. It usually goes stale before we make it all the way through. It’s crunchy and dry, so seemed like a good substitute for Rice Krispies.
I melted 2 tablespoons of butter and half a bag (140 g) of marshmallows over medium low heat. Off heat, I stirred in 3 cups of Kix and transferred the sticky mess to an 8×8 inch pan.
The verdict? I found it a bit too sweet and buttery, but the kids loved it. The texture is a bit different from RCTs, more reminiscent of sweetened popcorn than a bar. It’s a fine use of Kix, but not at the level of the original. I’ve seen variations where these are Kix are mixed or topped with chocolate, and that might help.
One of the defining characteristics of bagels is that differentiates them from other forms of bread is that they are boiled prior to making. This poaching liquid is usually alkaline. Historically, the strong base sodium hydroxide (lye) was used, though most home cooks rely on the milder sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) because it is more readily available. Both will help to develop the surface sugars that create a brown crust, but I’ve found that lye-poaching yields more flavor and a crust allows toppings to adhere better.
My current bagel recipe and cooking strategy is based off of that from Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, except that I use a 0.5% (25g/5L) lye solution instead of baking soda. In Artisan Breads Every Day, Reinhart takes a different strategy to the preparation and cooking of the bagels, including use a more complex poaching solution that includes baking soda, malt, and salt.
For the last batch of bagels I made, I poached half in 5L of my usual lye solution, then added 3 tablespoons of barley malt syrup and 2 teaspoons of salt. The solution quickly turned dark brown and then a murky black. I was a bit apprehensive, but went ahead and prepared the second half of the bagels. On the left in the image below, you can see that the bagels poached in the malt-based poach came out considerably darker prior to baking.
I baked both trays at 500 °F for 5 minutes, swapped and rotated the trays, then reduced the temperature to 450 °F for 6 more minutes. I was expecting two sets of drastically different bagels, but aside from a slightly warmer hue for the malt-poached bagels, they looked almost indistinguishable.
The taste? Even knowing which bagels were which in advance, I found the malt added only a subtle sweetness to the crust which the traditional approach lacked. There was no obvious difference in texture. My sense going forward is that it’s not really worth it to add the malt and salt, and that the alkaline bath alone is all that’s needed.