I made a couple of loaves of this apple challah yesterday. This is the first time I’ve ever baked bread (though I have made other baked goods before). This is also the first time I’ve ever used yeast. I sometimes forget you can buy living things at the supermarket.
It went pretty well overall. The loaves certainly look beautiful. Unfortunately, apparently the yeast is supposed to inflate pretty aggressively. There’s supposed to be punching down involved! This didn’t happen. It didn’t have the cottony texture I usually associate with challah.
I wonder whether I accidentally did something that killed all the yeast off. The salt content was much higher than it should have been – I am trying to learn how to use salt, and so tripled the amount in the recipe to see what would happen. Maybe that was it? What does it take to kill yeast?
I was just wondering whether, as part of a democracy, we should have an anti-congress. The role of the anti-congress would be solely to repeal laws, rather than to pass them, and perhaps end government programs / projects.
I like this idea for several reasons. First of all, it seems counter-intuitive to me that the law should get increasingly complex as time goes on. The tax code, for example, was 60,000 pages long in 2003 according to this random blog post that I found by Googling “us tax code growth”. Does this make it more effective, or does it just make it increasingly difficult for even accountants and lawyers, but especially private citizens, to deal with? It seems as if you’d want to keep the tax code at a certain level of complexity so that it remains accessible; I don’t know what’s in a lot of these pages, but I find it difficult to understand why it would need to grow at such a rapid rate, even given the increasing complexity of modern life.
Secondly, it seems that Congress and the president would have a natural bias to keep passing new laws and creating new programs, rather than repealing existing ones. Something like the Patriot Act or the current health care overhaul is seen as “getting something done”, but I can’t remember the last time I heard a politician campaign on removing an obstacle, a restriction, or a use of government money (I guess the deregulation of the airline industry is the last major thing I can think of). So even if a law or a program is a bad one, there’s nobody who’s focused on repealing or getting rid of it.
Milton Friedman talks a lot about how the “invisible hand” of the market works in the opposite way in government. In theory, in the market many actors try to maximize the achievement of their own goals (e.g. making money) and in so doing maxmize the value they deliver to society (e.g. building a package delivery company that people want to use, or rapidly scaling a franchise that makes superior pizzas). In government, the opposite happens. Politicans make lots of rules and laws at the behest of particular groups and special interests that want something protected. As a result, the general interest is impaired for the benefit of particular interests. For example, agricultural subsidies are helpful to a relatively small section of the population, but they’re harmful to a larger portion of the population, which has to pay for them. Even government programs that can be considered successful are rarely subject to any kind of accountability or review.
Which is a good third reason to be in favor of an anti-Congress. It seems that we would all benefit from programs periodically being reviewed and asked to justify their existence. We definitely do this with private non-profits. It’s arguable whether we do this with private corporations – some do, some don’t probably. I’d bet that the better-run ones do.
When I was making this caramel and chocolate cake, the recipe called for “Dutch-process” cocoa, which I have never heard of before (and which isn’t stocked in my local supermarket).
According to this page and some other reading I’ve done, cocoa is naturally acidic. Dutch-process cocoa is treated with alkalines to neutralize that acidity. What does this mean? According to AB, the Dutch process:
- Mellows the flavor by removing some of the cocoa’s bitterness,
- Changes the color somewhat, and
- Increases the cocoa’s solubility in liquids. (I think Dutch process cocoa is basically what you use when you are making hot chocolate from scratch, i.e. without a mix such as Swiss Miss, but I could be wrong).
As I mentioned, I didn’t have Dutch-process cocoa but the recipe called for it. What would the effects of a substitution be?
- First of all, because unsweetened natural cocoa (which is what I had on hand) is more bitter, the cake would be a little more bitter.
- Secondly, because the cocoa I was using was more alkaline, it would react more strongly with the (basic) baking soda I used, causing the cake to rise more than it otherwise would – the reaction between acid and base causes carbon dioxide to form, as you can see when you mix vinegar and baking soda.
Trying a substitution, and questions about whether it would work
I read somewhere that you can add 1/8 teaspoon of baking soda for every 1 oz (3 tablespoons) of regular cocoa powder to get an acceptable substitute for Dutch-processed cocoa, and so I tried this. However:
- I was confused about why this would work. I guess the theory is that the baking soda and the acid in the natural cocoa will cancel out and so you’ll have something closer to Dutch-process cocoa, chemically.
- But, wouldn’t the additional baking soda, since the acid and base will react in the oven, actually increase the additional leavening action, since more reagent is available?
- I guess it depends on the reaction ratio between the cocoa acid and the baking soda, and whether one or the other is “used up” – if the baking soda is all able to react with the cocoa, it should actually produce more leavening rather than less.
From a flavor perspective, I also don’t understand how the baking soda would mellow the bitterness of the cake, but that is just from a lack of knowledge rather than confusion.
And then finally, perhaps I am overthinking things. The Wikipedia article explaining the Dutch process for making cocoa powder seems to just say that in the Dutch process “alkalis are added to the cocoa”, so maybe it is a really simple process, and the addition of baking soda to cocoa powder can stand in for it, when everything combines in the oven? Not sure.
I’m not sure fully sure what happened here, and it may be a good subject for another experiment. The cake turned out well. If the substitution did not work, it didn’t matter because the cake was not, certainly, overly bitter to me and I didn’t care about how tall it was.
The mellowing of flavors in Dutch process cocoa, by the way, doesn’t necessarily seem like a good thing to me. I rather like very strong / challenging flavors, such as my olive oil mayonnaise, and so I might appreciate a slightly more bitter flavor in the cake. On the other hand, would I like hot chocolate made with unsweetened cocoa?
I’m still a little confused about all this but hope to figure it out in time. I might revise this entry later.
Red velvet cakes
By the way, in an original red velvet cake, the cake turns slightly red, apparently because of the reaction of the acidic cocoa powder with the acidic vinegar (or perhaps the buttermilk, which is also acidic, I think – the Wikipedia article really isn’t clear).
This seems to be the same reaction; it has something to do with the anthocyanins in the cocoa, which change color depending on pH, and which are also responsible for the color of e.g. blueberries. I am going to leave this entry where it stands, as I said before I’m still pretty confused about how this all fits together.
I spent a few hours yesterday on some things.
- Learning to make caramel
- Using that caramel to line the bottom of a cake pan so that I could make a caramel-pear chocolate cake
- Making a lamb and cauliflower curry
Making caramel was a really interesting experience. I first bought a whole bunch of plain sugar, since I expected to ruin several batches before I got it right. I then stumbled across this method for making caramel. In the past, when I’ve tried to make e.g. flan, I’ve been told that I need to have both water and sugar in the pan. I’m not sure exactly what went wrong, but this has been uniformly disastrous (to varying degrees). When I cooked a bunch of sugar, slowly, letting it melt, according to that method, it seemed to just work. It was kind of like making risotto in reverse; instead of waiting for the liquid I added to be soaked up by rice grains, I waited for the sugar grains to dissolve into liquid.
So, as it turned out, it wasn’t that difficult. Since I now had extra caramel, I decided to go ahead and try making a sauce. In typical Justin style, the first time I did this I just added a half-cup of milk to the caramel. Result: catastrophe. The milk curdled immediately, and the caramel seized up into a giant, burned ball. I guess the chemistry here is such that the caramel is a somewhat fragile system.
I then decided to look up an actual recipe for caramel. The key is first of all to add butter. And the other key is to whisk like hell when you add the butter in. The caramel bubbled up violently at first, but as I kept whisking, and hoping it would work, the sauce eventually came together and settled down. The exact same thing happened when I added milk. At the end, I came out with a pretty decent caramel sauce. It was amazing how much whisking actually transformed the dish, and I’ve noticed this happens in a lot of other contexts as well. For example, when you whisk cream enough, it turns into whipped cream. It’s pretty amazing.
Once that was done, I used it to line the bottom of a cake pan, and then put in some pear slices and chocolate cake batter. I think I may have overbaked it slightly. The diameter of the cake pan really does make a big difference, by the way – I used a 10-inch instead of a 9-inch pan, so I had to make adjustments. See the chart for how that affects the thickness of the cake. The thickness in turn affects the baking time, but I don’t know exactly how. I just tried to be really careful!
The cake came out well, though I’m realizing I’m not sure if I like caramel. Afterward, I put together a lamb and cauliflower curry. This was fine, though underseasoned in several ways – I didn’t use enough salt, I forgot to buy an onion, and I didn’t have the cilantro called for in the recipe. Lilli also pointed out to me that the recipe calls for light coconut milk, but there’s no reason to actually follow this recommendation. Finally, I don’t think I put enough curry paste in. I will try it again at some point “for real”.
I really need to use much more salt that I do. Watching “Secrets of a Restaurant Chef” with Anne Burrell this morning, I saw that she probably used a quarter-cup of salt, or more, to season a couple of Cornish game hens! I may make it my mission to oversalt something soon, to see if I am physically capable of doing it. Another way to do this would be to roast some batches of potatoes as another experiment.