Sunday, April 30, 2006

Measuring Up

I'm probably not measuring up to your expectations of a good food blogger, but that's not what I'm thinking about just now. I'm thinking of the problems that can arise because of the American habit of relying on volume measures instead of weight in recipes. I have a decent collection of old cookbooks, including several that are compilations - church cookbooks, fundraising cookbooks, etc. Many of the recipes are things I'm not interested in making, but I've found some gems in the cookbooks. Mostly I like the bit of history they represent. Some of them are old enough that I don't think I could get some of the cuts of meat they use.

I almost always come across some recipe that sounds interesting, but it'll have an ingredient that baffles me. Like "1 #10 can of tomatoes". Okaaaay.....should those be whole tomatoes? Or diced, or stewed? Does it matter which form they're in? But more important is what is a frigging #10 can? How much tomato product is in this can? What kind of a way to measure ingredients is that??

I think it might be some kind of food industry or canning standard, but I don't know that for sure, and I'm not willing to risk the outcome of a lot of cooking on that guess. Besides, have you noticed that lots of products have been shrinking over the years? Five-pound bags of sugar used to be the norm, but now I see them as well as four-pound bags....which means I need to compare prices carefully to make sure I'm getting the best buy, and the quantity I think I'm getting. Twelve-ounce cans shrank to 11.5 ounces...and sometimes, they've shrunk even further. (Usually the price doesn't drop when the amount of product does, so this tactic is really a very sneaky price increase!) Anyway, my point is I don't know, and I don't know how to figure out how much is in a #10 can of tomatoes. So recipes that have measures like that will probably remain untried.

If you like to bake, the measurement problem is still there, but it just shifts form. Why do your biscuits sometimes turn out light and flaky, but other times they're so heavy that they could be used as anchors for your kid's toy boat? Maybe you used whole milk sometimes, and 2% other times. More likely, you probably measured your flour differently. One cup of flour isn't always the same amount of flour....if you tap the cup, or rap it on the countertop while measuring, you pack more flour into the same volume, which can mean leaden baked goods. If you sift the flour into the measuring cup and sifted flour isn't specified, you might end up with not enough flour - so your creation may collapse from the lack of structure. Some recipes are more tolerant than others, but even your basic chocolate chip cookies will be best if the ingredients are measured properly, and consistently each time.

Escali kitchen scaleI've known this for a long time, but I haven't really done much about it other than refine my measuring skills, and try to be consistent in making measurements. But when I started making truffles, weighing the ingredients became a lot more important. So I bought a kitchen scale, a pretty yellow Escali from Target. It has everything I needed - taring, decently high capacity, measurements in ounces, pounds and ounces, or grams - and it didn't cost a fortune. And did I mention that gorgeous yellow? I'm a sucker for cheerful colors in my kitchen, and I'll confess that the yellow sold me on this scale. It comes in several different colors, which I think is great. Form does follow function in my kitchen tools, but it follows very closely.

Almond puff loaf closeupNow that I have this handy, pretty gadget, I decided to try it on a recipe I have both volume and mass measures for, and which I've made several times the usual American way - with volume measurements. Okay, I confess: I was wanting something sweet for breakfast and decided to try making my famous almond puff loaf using the weight measures. It's a fairly easy recipe, and gets raves every time I make it. Don't worry, it isn't overly sweet - yummy with coffee though! I've adapted this recipe from one I got from King Arthur Flour. It's two layers of pastry topped with preserves and a light glaze. Neither of the pastry layers has any sugar, so you can easily vary the sweetness of the loaves by your choice of fruit preserves and how much you use, and whether you use the glaze or not. I've made this in several flavors, but I think the lingonberry version I did today has been the best so far. Raspberry, cherry, and apricot are also very good choices. Hubby brought the lingonberry preserves back from an IKEA stop after his last business trip. You can't get them online - or any of their foodwares. Bummer! (If you're wondering what lingonberries taste like, they're tart, but not nearly as tart as cranberries, and have a light fruity taste rather like raspberries. They're worth finding - the taste is marvelous with pancakes, waffles, or in lefse too!)

This recipe, already pretty easy, went much faster using weights. The result is pretty, very tasty, and can be served warm or cool. It's a good way to really impress breakfast or brunch guests too! It isn't gluten free, though.

Almond Puff Loaf
16-20 servings

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter one wide (9 or 10 inches) or two regular cookie sheets and set aside. Once the oven is preheated (or using a heavy skillet over medium heat), toast 2 to 2.5 ounces (1/2 to 2/3 C) slivered almonds until they're a light, golden brown, stirring occasionally. Set aside.

First layer:
1/2 cup cold butter, cut into pats (1/2 C)
4 1/2 ounces flour (1 C)
2 ounces water (1/4 C)
If you're using unsalted butter, add 1/4 teaspoon salt.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the butter and flour (and salt if you need to add it), blending with a pastry blender or fork until crumbly. Stir in the water. The dough will become cohesive, though not smooth. Divide into halves (about 4 5/8 oz. each). With wet hands, shape each piece of dough into an approximately 11 x 3 inch rectangle on the greased baking sheets. They'll puff up in the oven, so only use one sheet if you can leave 4 inches between the loaves. Set aside while preparing the second layer.

Second layer:
8 ounces water (1 C)
4 ounces butter (1/2 C)
4 1/2 ounces flour (1C)
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon almond extract1
If you're using unsalted butter, add 1/4 teaspoon salt.

In a medium saucepan, bring the water and butter to a boil. Stir until the butter melts, then add the flour (and salt if you need to add it) all at once. Stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture thickens, begins to steam, and leaves the sides of the pan. Remove from heat, and beat at medium speed for about a 1 minute, just to cool it down a bit.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each until the dough loses its slimy look, and the egg is totally absorbed. Stir in the almond extract.

Divide the batter in half, and with wet fingers, spread over the dough strips on the pan, covering each completely. Make sure the first layer is covered completely; if you want a smooth look, try to spread and smooth this layer as neatly as possible.

Almond puff loaves with lingonberry preservesBake the pastries in a preheated 350°F oven for 50 minutes to 1 hour, or until deep golden brown. Remove from the oven and transfer to a wire rack. The pastries will have puffed up in the oven, but will deflate as they cool.

Spread each warm pastry with 3-4 ounces (1/3-1/2 C) jam or preserves of your choice. Sprinkle the toasted almonds over the preserves.

Blend 2 ounces (1/2 C) powdered sugar, 1 tsp vanilla, and about 1/2 ounce (1 T.) milk for a glaze, and drizzle over warm pastries. Cut into squares or strips and serve.

1:If you prefer, you can use vanilla extract. If you do this, then you can pair preserves with other nut toppings for more versatility. Try toasted chopped pecans with raspberries, blackberries, cherries, or cranberries, or walnuts with apples or pears, for example. (Back to recipe)

I've got an old balance scale at home, I so envy you for your cute electronic model.That almond puff looks so good.
I've got old cookbooks that talk about gills and pecks. Great recipe - looks delicious.
Me, too--I have a collection of old cookbooks, and a lot of times, you have to guess about the #10-can type of directions.
I've been thinking about getting a scale--maybe I should just go out and do it.
I used to have some weights for an antique balance scale used in dairy farms. I like them for doorstops but I don't think I'd use something like that much if it was my kitchen scale!

Pecks I've heard of, but gills? Do you know what kind of measure that is? My guess is it's a liquid measure.

The almond puff loaf is very good, gents. And it's pretty easy. I'm sorry to say that I don't know enough about Australian horticulture to recommend a good native fruit - I'd love to hear your suggestions.

Lucette, I love my scale! It was under $25 from Target, not including shipping (you can only buy it online). It comes in lots of pretty colors, including a dreamy light green. Not quite a match for your site's background, but close.
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