Learning New Things at The Bake Fest

Image by Anthea Chang @rainbownourishments
Image by Anthea Chang @rainbownourishments

When I first heard about The Bake Fest, the baking geek in me got so excited. Never having been to or even heard of a baking conference, I couldn’t wait to attend virtual lectures and hang out in chat rooms. It’s only been one day of The Bake Fest and already my head is filled with blog ideas for new creations, decorations, and scientific explanations.

The first half of the day I got warmed up by attending classes on cake and cookie decorating. It was inspiring to watch creative designers in their element, but then came the presentations most near and dear to my blog – Fundamentals of Baking Science by Kristin “Baker Bettie” Hoffman, and Introduction to Vegan Baking by Anthea Cheng. It’s impossible to quickly sum up Baker Bettie’s slides as she offered so much that my brain is still processing it. One quick bit to share concerns the differences between light and dark brown sugar. She says, “Light brown sugar has a small amount of molasses while dark brown sugar has larger amounts of molasses added. Molasses adds caramel notes to baked goods and also keeps baked goods very moist and chewy. Molasses is also acidic in nature which means that brown sugar can be used in recipes with baking soda in order to activate its chemical reaction.” However, she mentions that they can be used interchangeably, so I may stick with buying whichever is in sale.

Baker Bettie talking science
Baker Bettie talking science

Anthea Cheng’s segment started with a recipe for Vegan Brioche. Vegan brioche? And she made it look easy? I am not a bread baker, but I look forward to trying this out. We were also treated to a cake decorating demo that wowed me when she made frosting tinted with real food, not chemicals. The colorants included beet powder and blue spirulina. I must search online for these ingredients to add to my toolbox. (Literally … I keep my decorating items in a large toolbox).

Now, you may be disappointed that you missed out in this educational event. But, don’t worry! There is more going on today. You can register for The Bake Fest here and view tomorrow’s schedule here. If you see me in the Lounge, be sure to say hello.

The Magic of Crinkle Cookies

chocolate crinkle cookies
Chocolate Crinkle Cookies

When I think back to childhood, one of my favorite cookies was the chocolate crinkle. The dense chocolate flavor and sugary coating was a hit, but I was also mesmerized by the cracks and ridges in the cookies. Where did they come from? And what magic made it possible? As a self-proclaimed baking researcher, I now had to dig into the subject and solve the mystery of the crinkle cookie.

There are many recipes for crinkles out there, but they differ in strategic ways. Some bakers put the dough in the refrigerator prior to baking, while others stand resolute in the idea that they should not be cooled first. Certain recipes use only one leavener but others use both baking soda and baking powder. I wondered why there was such a disparity of ideas, so I dove deeper to reveal the science behind the different recipe twists.

In the cookbook A Good Bake, we are told that crinkles are considered a rise-and-fall cookie. This moniker “refers to one that rises in the oven and then falls when you take it out. The rise-and-fall process is a result of the baking soda reacting with the cocoa powder and brown sugar before the cookie is set. When the cookies are removed from the oven, they fall, giving them that crackle top. How quickly the cookie rises before it sets up is the key to achieving that finish.” The authors recommend against putting the dough in the fridge, as this helps the cookie rise quicker. They also say to bake in batches, one tray at a time. This makes sense as it maximizes the oven heat that each tray receives.

Additional crinkle cookie information was found on the WonderHowTo website. “Crinkle cookies are meant to have gaps between wrinkles of powdered sugar. … Achieving this perfect appearance relies solely on the amount of spreading and expanding they do in the oven.” So, again, the recommendation is to keep the dough out of the fridge. The article also mentions how oven temperature affects cookie expansion. “If crinkle cookies are baked at 350°F, the outside bakes and hardens more quickly, which doesn’t give the dough enough time to spread. … Therefore, crinkle cookies are best baked at 325°F; this temperature allows the ingredients to spread and melt onto the sheet for a longer amount of time before they start to bake and harden.”

As oven temperature can play a role in high altitude baking, I tested both 325F and 350F. While the cookies baked, I peeked through the oven window to watch them rise and fall. It was interesting that the 350F cookies took longer to fall, so I kept them in the oven for the same amount of time as the 325F batch. You can see in the photos that the higher temp made cookies with cracks that were slightly wider. I ended up preferring the texture of those baked at 350F.

crinkle cookies at 325 F
crinkle cookies at 325 F
crinkle cookies at 350 F
crinkle cookies at 350 F

From Cook’s Illustrated I learned “a simple tweak (that) turned out to be key to producing a maximum number of fissures: rolling the balls of dough in granulated sugar before rolling them in powdered sugar. Coating the cookies with either type of sugar draws out moisture from their surface, promoting cracks by drying out their tops before the interiors set. But granulated sugar does so more efficiently because of its coarse, crystalline structure.” I also noticed that if you swirled the cookies in powdered sugar only, then the white coating seemed to disappear as they cooked. When I rolled the dough in both I achieved the snowy look that is part of the signature the cookie.

A test baker at Cook’s Illustrated also did a thorough testing of leaveners. “Baking powder, as I already knew, did a decent job by itself, but a combination of baking powder and baking soda proved to be the winner. These cookies spread nicely, without any hump, and they had a more crackly surface (than baking soda alone).”

What did all of this prove? That I love chocolate crinkle cookies. Okay, I already knew that. However, I did discover that I was searching for the cookie from my childhood — a crinkle that was not overly sweet and had a dense but chewy texture. The crinkle cookie can achieve an ever-so-slight hump and have a thick layer of powdered sugar and be a success. But, for me, chocolate crinkle perfection is found in a cookie that is flat and has just a light dusting of sugar.

Until next time, happy testing!

Coming Back From a Failed Kitchen Experiment

Coming Back From a Failed Kitchen Experiment
Coming Back From a Failed Kitchen Experiment

I love to fiddle with new ingredients or combinations in an attempt to make a recipe vegan. Sometimes I get a wacky baking idea in my head. Will a flax egg and extra oil work in place of a chicken egg? … it depends. Do all vegan butter substitutes work the same? … not really. Can I use chickpea liquid and soy creamer to get a whipped cream with stiff peaks? … definitely not.

That last concept popped into my head the other day while trying to make a raw cheesecake without coconut oil. While working towards a thickened batter I even went so far as to add melted cocoa butter. The entire project was a disaster. It deflated a bit, then got lumpy, then turned into something resembling a thin pudding.

Not one to waste expensive ingredients, I put my creation in the fridge hoping that a novel dessert image would pop into my head. Genius struck when I realized that it was Pi Day (March 14, a.k.a. 3.14). My glop would become a pie! Well, more of a tart, but at least I would have an edible treat. And, seeing as Saint Patrick’s Day was also looming, a bit of green was added in the form of matcha tea powder.

So, I went from a creative wreck to a celebration of Pi Day and St. Patrick’s Day. This meandering path often happens when I’m experimenting in the kitchen, although I won’t bore you with the countless steps and added ingredients I went through along the way. The above photo shows that some baking catastrophes can be averted, even edible, but others are not as lucky. Those failures never make it to a photo shoot.

Until next time, happy experimenting!

Chocolate is like Fine Wine, or Musings from a Chocolate Tasting

chocolate tasting class
Chocolate Tasting Class

Today’s post is different than my usual high-altitude recipes. I just attended an online chocolate tasting and wanted to share my experience. Never having participated in a chocolate tasting event, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Of course I’ve eaten my fair share of chocolate, but never in so sophisticated a fashion. I imagined it to be like a wine tasting, without the spit bucket.

The monthly Chocolate Club tastings are organized by Boulder Book Store. As this is my birth month, I decided to give myself the gift of a chocolate class. (Self-care at its best!). After signing up and then receiving the chocolates, I went to the chocolatiers’ websites to look over their tasting notes. These are not your average chocolates. With clean ingredients, ideas of “notes of blackberry and cashews,” and suggested beverage pairings, I waited eagerly for today’s class.

John Lehndorff, the instructor, started with a brief discussion of the areas where the different chocolates were made. For some chocolate producers he described how much labor went into the production of the bar in my hand. Next, John explained how to correctly do a chocolate tasting and added some of his own tasting notes.

As a group, we carefully unwrapped our chocolates and savored the smells and tastes. The chocolate bars are chosen as they are special in their own ways, so we took great care to absorb the nuances of each one. As a I held a bite of chocolate in my mouth and let it melt on my tongue, I savored the evolving flavors. One bar had a burst of sea salt; another held nutty overtones; a third was infused with ginger and rose essences. My taste buds were amazed, even after trying several bars, because no two bars were alike. I did not tire of sampling chocolate as the experience was unusual in its complexity.

The concept of chocolate tasting may sound snooty, but it was an excellent learning experience. It doesn’t mean I will never again devour chocolate in a few bites, but I hope that I can try to pause and take wonder at the intricate flavors that abound in a special bar of chocolate.

Until next time, happy non-baking!

How to Make Essential Vegan Desserts

pear tarts from my final showcase

pear tarts from my final showcase

Earlier this year I mentioned that I was taking an online pastry class from Rouxbe Culinary School. It was a wonderful course that showed me how to refine and challenge my baking skills. Chef Fran Costigan explained techniques and ingredients that enabled me to build a stronger baking skillset. The course has delicious recipes, including the tarts in this photo that I prepared as part of my final dessert showcase. My final project was so much fun, and I was proud of how professional my vegan desserts looked.

The class, called Essential Vegan Desserts, teaches you how to make an array of scrumptious treats. I have shared a few course recipes on my blog, but if you want to join in the baking fun, the next cohort starts July 28. You can get information here. Or you can keep reading my posts and see where my new-found knowledge is taking me. I’m okay with that.

How to Make the Perfect Date Paste

the perfect date paste

the perfect date paste

The first time I made date paste I found the results to be less than desirable. I had followed the directions, as minimal as they were, but it looked more like I was making a smoothie. Paste wouldn’t describe what was in my blender. Later, after poring over many recipes, I discovered that the key was the water. Too much made a runny mess, while too little seemed to tax the blender. It was like the fairy tale in which the middle was “just right.”

The success of the paste starts with the dates. The moisture content in them varies greatly depending on how old they are and how they are stored. My guess was that my dates were very old so I added lots of extra water at the start. But the trick is to add water a little at a time; this helps to create the perfect consistency. Another trick is to use the soaking water as it has a hint of date flavor. These tips will help you create the perfect date paste to add to baked goods, such as Baked Oatmeal with Peaches.

Date Paste adapted from Fruit Paste from Rouxbe Culinary School’s Essential Vegan Desserts

1/2 cup pitted dates
1 cup water (or as needed)

Soak the dates for 1 to 2 hours or until quite soft. Strain in a colander set over a bowl in order to save the soaking water. Transfer the dates to a high-speed blender with 1 to 2 tablespoons of the soaking water. Process until smooth. Add more water as needed to create the desired consistency. If using the paste in baked recipes, use as little water as possible. The paste will keep for over a week in a jar in the refrigerator. It can also be frozen for several months.

Until next time, happy non-baking!

Vegan Baking Roundtable

Dale's demo at Vegan Baking Roundtable

Dale’s demo at the Vegan Baking Roundtable

There was pie; there was cake; there were cookies; there was even spanakopita. It was a Vegan Baking Roundtable and it was a blast. The event brought together enthusiasts who were eager to learn baking and decorating tips. As one of the presenters, I offered advice and explanations on baking at high altitude (as I have written about in Why does high altitude affect baking? and Dazzled by Science). I also prepared my Easy Chocolate Cake-Pan Cake which seemed to satisfy the attendees as they nibbled on samples.

The demonstration panel showed everyone how to make vegan baked preparations simple. The class taught us how to (finally) make a good pie crust, how to keep high altitude cakes from deflating, how to wow guests with an easy Greek appetizer, and how to be a kid again in the guise of cake decorating. Failed recipes were discussed with ideas brainstormed on how to fix them. We also ate a. lot. of. sugar. But it all tasted oh-so-good.

This event came about through the generosity of Dale Ball, who has worked with Lynn Halpern of Bleating Hearts Sanctuary on the annual Vegan Dairy Fair. (I have been to these fairs, and next year’s gathering should prove to be as exciting and yummy as those past.) Bakers that day also included members of the Boulder and Beyond Vegan Meetup. This was a group hungry for vegan camaraderie, vegan recipes, and vegan snacks. The roundtable gave us all that, and more.

DIY Confectioners’ Sugar

Confectioners' Sugar

Cookie with Confectioners’ Sugar

Recently I made a treat that used confectioners’ sugar in the frosting. Confectioners’ sugar, also called powdered sugar or icing sugar, is granulated sugar that has been ground into a fine powder. It can be sprinkled over a baked good, but it also readily dissolves in liquid making it easy to stir into icings and frostings. Just be sure not to confuse it with superfine sugar or bakers’ sugar; they are ground finer than granulated sugar but not as fine as confectioners’ sugar.

So, I have taught you exactly what confectioners’ sugar is. Now I am here to offer you a method for making your own, in case you are preparing frosting while a cake cools and find that you have run out of powdered sugar. (No, of course, this has never happened to me. Or, at least, not this week.)

The Spruce Eats gives us their advice: “All you will need is a blender, measuring cup, a clean dish towel, (and) sugar. … For each cup of confectioner’s (sic) sugar needed use one cup of regular granulated sugar. … Put the granulated sugar into the blender and secure the lid. Place the dishtowel over the top of the blender to catch any powder “smoke.” Blend using the pulse method until the sugar turns to powder. This method works best in small quantities, 1 to 2 cups at a time.

If you are making even a smaller amount, alternatively you can use a coffee grinder, spice grinder, or mini-food processor. Just be mindful that the sugar crystals can scratch plastic, so consider carefully before making the powdered sugar in a plastic blender or processor.” I have a dry cup for my Vitamix which works beautifully for making powdered sugar.

Store bought confectioners’ sugar will have additives, such as cornstarch. You can opt to make your own confectioners’ sugar just in emergency situations, or you can prepare it yourself to ensure that your sugar has no additives.

New Vegan Dairy Products

New Plant Based Dairy Products

The world of vegan dairy options is rapidly expanding. When I first went dairy-free there were only a few companies with milk and cheese offerings, and you could forget about alternatives for butter and yogurt. Nowadays, shopping for vegan dairy products is exciting, with some products out-doing their non-vegan counterparts. Many of my recipes have “non-dairy dairy” ingredients, and here are a few of the newest that were spotted at Natural Products Expo West 2019 by Jenna Blumenfeld of New Hope Network.

Culina Botanical Yogurt Alternative

One of the best nondairy yogurts we’ve ever tasted, Culina won us over with its ultra-creamy cultured coconut base, floral botanical add-ins (the Strawberry Rose flavor was beautiful) and lack of plastic packaging. Instead, each yogurt is packaged in a terra cotta flower pot lined with a food-safe, biodegradeable glaze.

Mooala Organic Oatmilk Unsweetened Coconut

Oatmilk was a trending plant-based dairy option at Expo West, and Mooala earns points for launching an unsweetened, USDA Organic blend. This version is blended with organic coconut cream for improved consistency.

Malk Sprouted Organic Oat Malk Original

This brand’s dedication to simple formulations and conscious sourcing shine through with this USDA Organic, sprouted oatmilk. Bonus: Malk also pursued The Detox Project’s Glyphosate Residue Free Certification to quell worries about glyphosate-contaminated oats, which is printed on the back of the product packaging.

Milkadamia Macadamia Buttery Spread

Milkadamia Macadamia Buttery Spread

This beloved nondairy milk brand launched a plant-based buttery spread at Expo West that employs silky, rich macadamia oil to add body and flavor. We also like how no palm oil is used in this formulation.

Cultured Cashew Brie Alternative Beet Blush

The fermentation experts at Wildbrine bring their expert knowledge of microbes into the plant-based dairy category with this excellent cashew brie. Tinted with a hint of beets, this USDA Organic plant brie will steal the limelight at cheese parties.”

This post (or portions of this post) was provided by New Hope Network. I am a member of the New Hope Influencer Co-op, a network of health and wellness bloggers committed to spreading more health to more people. Images courtesy of New Hope Network. #NewHopeInfluencer

How to Stop Your Cookies From Spreading

Spread Cookies image courtesy of crypto on flickr.com

Spread Cookies image courtesy of crypto on flickr.com

Here in the Decadent Vegan Baker’s kitchen I have whipped up my fair share of cookies. I always want them to look good for pictures, and for bragging rights, so I did some research on how to avoid the dreaded cookie spread. You know — when the cookies turn into unsightly blobs or, worse yet, fuse into each other. Here is what I found out …

A tip I got many years ago was to be sure to cool baking sheets down before placing the next batch of raw dough on them. That’s easy enough to do in the winter as I just prop them on the wall near an outside door. In the summer I have to wait patiently while the sheets cool off, but that time can be well spent engaged in the next piece of advice.

My second item of advice is to place the dough in the fridge prior to baking the cookies. “Chilling the dough solidifies the fat in the dough, meaning that it will melt more slowly under the heat of the oven and result in taller, thicker cookies,” say the chefs at Food52. Dough that is too warm can make cookies that look like flat blobs.

On the King Arthur Flour website they recommend two things for attaining the perfect cookie: lowering the baking temperature while also extending the baking time. For a recipe that called for cookies baked at 350°F for 14 minutes, they “dropped the temperature to 300°F, and extended the baking time: 22 minutes for chewy, 30 minutes for crisp.” They explained that “the fat in cookies is a big part of their structure, prior to baking…Once those cookies hit the oven, though, the fat starts to soften and melt. And the hotter the oven, the more quickly it melts. If the oven’s hot enough, the fat melts before the cookies set. And since their flour/liquid matrix hasn’t yet had a chance to harden, the cookies spread.”

A final trick offered by Food52 is that “when a recipe calls for room temperature butter, you should be able to make a small indentation easily with your finger without the area sinking under its weight. If the butter is too cold, you’ll have to do more mixing to get it to properly incorporate.” Unincorporated butter leads to airy dough that leads to cookies that fall in the oven, and that leads to the ugly blob.

If you find that you have tried all of my recommendations and still produce unsightly cookies, do not worry. Send the cookies to my house and my husband will dispose of them properly … for dessert.