Bake Along 2013

Bake Along 2013 – Floating Islands

Episode 3 of the Bake Off brought a pretty challenging technical bake – Floating Islands. They comprise poached meringue, Creme Anglaise and spun sugar, so quite a few skills needed for this one, and frankly who poaches meringues on a regular basis? Not me, that’s for sure.

As with last week, I had the benefit of watching the episode before I made them, which certainly helped.

Begin by making meringue. Meringue seems like a simple thing to make, but there are some things that make it more likely to work and to be firm and glossy.

Tip 1: Begin slowly, build up speed, add sugar slowly

Ok, that’s a couple of tips. The thing is, it seems like you should just start beating the egg whites like crazy, but you don’t need to. It’s not a race. Beat slowly (1 on my KitchenAid) until this start to foam, then increase speed to about medium. When it’s a nice firm foam but still shiny, add the sugar a tablespoon at a time and continue to beat on medium. I tend to beat each one in for about a minute, though I haven’t timed myself so I can’t say for sure. But definintely give each spoonful a little time to be incorporated. Continue on in this fashion until it’s all in, then keep beating on medium until you get firm peaks (see pictures) but don’t beat on the fastest speed, and do stop as soon as it’s firm. Think slow and steady. It will get there. Don’t keep beating, or rush by beating too fast, or you’ll ‘break’ the meringue. It will end up dry and grainy, rather than firm but still glossy and voluptuous. Paul noted that some of their meringues were broken – this is what I think he meant. Much of this knowledge I gained from reading the inimitable Mrs Humble’s unbelievably informative posts on macarons. I highly recommend them to anyone interested in macarons (or just her site generally. It’s superb).

Meanwhile, I warmed the milk and cream in a high-sided frypan and then got ready to make the quenelles. I had very little idea how to do it and restrained myself from looking it up. I knew they were done with two spoons and knew what they looked like but that was it. I had a bash at a few and they were ok, I think. Here they are in the poaching liquid.

I’m informed that there is a knack to making quenelles, so I’ve now looked for a video that shows you how but most of the YouTube ones aren’t very good. This is the best I could find before I got bored looking. I also have a book to write, so can’t spend all day looking for videos of how to quenelle!

Now the poaching, which understandably caused them much anxiety on the show. I had the benefit of Mary’s instructions, which emphasise that the poaching liquid shouldn’t boil as it will make them puff up and then collapse so…

Tip 2: Don’t let the liquid boil

This was harder than it sounds. I ended up turning the heat down to the lowest setting, kept the lid on (for 5 mins per side) and took it off the heat if it started to really bubble. Even so, I think it would have been better to start with the temperature at the lowest and keeping it there. I managed to flip them (with my heart in my mouth) and then drain them:

Now for the Creme Anglaise. Much as I love custard, I’ve not made this very often. But I knew that the eggs have to coagulate just enough. I winged it, using my Le Creuset to keep the heat constant but low, and I whisked it rather than stirring with a spoon. This may be custard heresy, but it worked for me. I also used my Creme Patissiere approach but modified a bit – whisked the eggs and sugar to fluffy stage, got the milk nice and hot, then tipped most of it in, kept the rest hot but not boiling as I had a feeling that would make the whole thing too hot. I tipped the egg/sugar slurry back in and whisked. It took about 3-4 minutes and didn’t split. Here are some pics of me testing it to see if it ‘coats the back of a spoon’:

I took it off the heat and immediately dumped it into a clean bowl and put this in the sink full of cold water. I think this stops it cooking and helps prevent splitting. I also noticed that some of the custard on the bottom of the pan was a lot thicker than I wanted it, so I resisted the urge to scrape this out. Here’s the finished custard and you can see it’s fairly thick but not split (cue much dancing about the kitchen with relieved joy at this point. There may have been wine involved). I have a feeling there was a lot of beginner’s luck here, so Creme Anglaise is on my list of things to research and perfect now because I’m pretty sure next time I’ll screw it up and get a curdled mess. But I would say that custard is partly about confidence, and having the courage to hold on until it’s thick enough, but being ready to take it off fast before it goes too far. This is the hard bit, and I imagine when you’re under pressure to be perfect, this is the hardest aspect.

Spun sugar. Hmm. Well, I dumped the sugar in the pan, heated, stared at it for ages, it finally melted and went golden, I refrained from stirring and just shook it in the pan. As soon as it was properly golden, I dumped the pan in water to stop it cooking further so that is Tip 3: Put the hot sugar pan in cool water when it’s golden.

To spin it, Glen had the brilliant approach of spinning it over two handles. I wish I’d done that, but I did it over one and it was fine. Main thing is grease them! Otherwise it sticks. The other tip is wait until the sugar syrup cools enough – you need it to cool so you can stretch out the sugar. You can see it when you take a spoonful, then stretch it up and instead of dropping, it makes a long, sticky string downwards. I couldn’t photograph it for fear of dropping my heavy camera if I balanced that while making spun sugar. Main thing is, it’s not that hard, just be confident. I think I’ll be practising this, too.

Here are the end results. It was surpringly tasty! I might even make them again!

Bake Along 2013 – English Muffins

Week 2 of Bake Off and this time the technical challenge was English Muffins. As the recipe didn’t go up before the show, I couldn’t really pit my skills against theirs as I’d already watched their efforts and of course, learned from their mistakes. So, this time I made them using all the tips I picked up (and avoiding their mistakes, I hope!) to see how well I could make them. Next time if I can hold off watching it, I’ll try to make the Floating Islands without seeing them do it first. The recipe is here at BBC Recipes.

I started out measuring everything out, as per my now standard ‘don’t screw things up by measuring when panicked’ approach. Now here are my tips gleaned from the episode, the recesses of my brain and McGee.

Tip 1: Scald the milk

So Ruby mentioned scalding the milk before using it in her Peacock Decorative Loaf, and this reminded me I’d read that too and so off I trotted to McGee and sure enough, he explained it all:

Both fresh and powdered milk … can weaken the gluten of bread dough and produce a dense loaf. The culprit seems appears to be a whey protein, which can be inactivated by scalding the milk—bringing it just to the boil—before use. The milk must be cooled before mixing, to avoid pre-cooking the flour and damaging the yeast. (McGee on Food and Cooking, p. 546).

Milk duly scalded, then allowed to cool down before adding to the dry ingredients, egg and butter.

Tip 2: Use the right method for kneading enriched doughs

Some of them had understandable trouble kneading the soft, sticky dough. When you’re not used to it, you feel like you’re doing something hideously wrong, as it sticks to you hands, the bench, the walls as you fling it around. Partly, it’s about confidence and believing it will be fine eventually. Don’t keep adding flour. It won’t help much, but it will mess up the ratios of liquid to dry ingredients, and of course you won’t achieve the soft, wet dough you’re aiming for.

I love this video of Richard Bertinet, where he says ‘the only dough only stick if you want it to stick’ (at 3.10). I haven’t found that to be entirely true, but relaxing about the stickiness and knowing it will sort itself out if you keep working it helps. Anyway, here’s the man himself showing you how to knead a sweet dough, lifting it up with both hands, stretching it upwards, then folding it over itself. I find this works really well. Have a scraper handy to pull it all back together (good for mixing the dough in the first place too).

I ended up making two batches of dough because I didn’t have strong bread flour; I only had Wessex Mill French Bread Flour (protein: 9.8%) and Marriage’s Very Strong Canadian Bread Flour (protein: 13.8%). So I had one very high protein flour, and one quite low. I thought the Canadian might be too strong so I used half and half with Wessex in the first. After kneading for a while, I felt this might have been a mistake, plus an opportunity for comparison, so I made a second batch using 230g Canadian, 70g Wessex. The difference wasn’t huge, but it was noticeable: batch two was much easier to get to a developed, satiny point and was bouncier and stronger at the end of kneading. You can see both below.

When you start, it will be a shaggy, sticky mess. You can just leave it stuck to the bench and pull it back and forth with your hands. Eventually, you need to do the Bertinet lift, stretch and fold. What you’re trying to do is build a network of gluten strands. By folding and stretching, you unravel these strands and they form bonds between the long strands lying side by side, as well as end to end, making a network. Fats in the dough make this more difficult (they weaken gluten bonding) so this will be more difficult in a dough like this with butter, milk and egg in it, and therefore you’ll have to knead for longer. Kneading also get air into the dough, so it’s better to lift it up, stretch it, then fold it over as every time you do this, you trap more air in the dough by making more bubbles, and each time these are compressed, they become smaller and smaller, giving the finished dough a finer texture as it will be full of tiny bubbles (this is why some bread isn’t kneaded very much as sometimes one wants big, coarse holes).

If you make these, don’t lose heart if kneading seems to take a long long time. For me, Batch 1 took at least 10 minutes. For Batch 2, kneading took a bit less than 10 minutes but not by much.

Tip 3: Do the windowpane test

How do you know when dough has been kneaded enough? There is of course the school of thought that says you don’t really need to knead, but in the recipe Paul wants it kneaded, so kneaded it shall be. Also, that results in larger, coarser texture, and that’s not what you want in a sweet enriched dough used for something like muffins.

Kimberley used what you could call the ‘windowpane test’ (on the episode at 8 minute mark). She took a small piece of dough and stretched it between her fingers. She was trying to determine if the gluten network was sufficiently developed. If you can stretch the dough thinly between fully extended fingers to make a thin, translucent ‘window’ of dough, it’s done. If it breaks, it needs more work. It needs to be thin and quite fine, so a thick chunky window is better than nothing, but you want a nice, satiny, thin window. There are some good pictures and a bit of explanation here.

By the time you get a windowpane, the dough will be satiny and bouncy. I promise. It may not seem like it will ever happen, but it will. I find it helps to watch something on iPlayer to distract me (a book would be good, but that gets messy). Here are the stages of kneading for Batch 1:

and Batch 2:

Now we get to the first proving stage. How long should you prove a sweet enriched dough before the shaping stage? This first rise is often called ‘bulk fermentation’, in contrast to the second ‘proving’ that is done once the bread has been shaped (which you could also call ‘final fermentation’). Longer than a plain dough, is the answer, because the sugar (according to McGee) slows the growth of the yeast by dehydrating the cells. I suspect the weight of a really buttery dough doesn’t help, but I’m just guessing. This dough isn’t very buttery so it’s a moot point here, and I’ll obsess about it another day.

Having kneaded my doughs put them through the first fermentation, I rolled them out. The recipe says to roll to 1.5cm thickness, rest for 15 minutes, and then cut 8 x 9cm muffins. Rolling to this thickness and cutting that many muffins of that size seemed mutually exclusive goals for the first batch as you can see.

Batch 1: being conservative and not wanting to roll too thin…

As you can see I compromised and cut 7 using an 8cm cutter, had some leftover dough, so I rolled it back up (not a great thing to do) and cut one more.

Batch 2 was more amenable to being rolled out, but I got carried away with rolling with enough to cut out 8 muffins, so went a bit thin (closer to 1cm), then as you can see ended up getting 8 out of it easily! Argh, most annoying as then I had lots of leftover dough, but once it’s all cut you can’t roll it up and start again as all the air will be squashed out. And this was with the instructions; would have been far more difficult to decide, as they had to, without any guidance.

I set them all to rise on a bed of semolina to prevent sticking. Here they are after 30 minutes proving. As you can see, they rose a lot and I should have spaced them out more.

Now to cook them. I don’t have a griddle, so I used my beloved De Buyer cast iron pan. My love for this pan is deep and abiding. Even though we’ve only been together a few short months, I suspect our relationship will span many years, even decades.

It wasn’t too hard to cook them, but it took some getting used to. Here is Tip 5: Sweet, enriched doughs need to be cooked at fairly low temperatures. They brown easily, so to avoid getting too dark on the outside while leaving them doughy on the inside, cook at low temps. I did these over gas on just about the lowest heat and it was still almost too hot. You can see the experiments with temperature below as here are the finished batches. You can see I’ved used Kimberly’s clever approach of putting in spare dough to check when they’re done.

Here’s Batch 1…

…and Batch 2

On balance, Batch 1 was nicer, probably because they were a bit thicker and also the second batch was a bit over-proved by the time I cooked them (due in part to making too many at once, lack of a large griddle and my husband forgetting his key which caused a mad dash out to meet him with it in my apron). Batch 1 might have been nicer also because French Bread Flour seems to give a nice tender crumb (works well in Paul Hollywood’s scones recipe too).

They were lovely toasted with jam or honey. Ollie (my son) at two, with raspberry and apricot jam smeared on them (and later him). I have no idea how many Mark (my husband) ate, I lost count. It was a lot.

These are definitely worth making, but they are a bit tricky and it was hard to get them all the same, perfectly cooked and even heights.


Bake Along 2013 – Angel Food Cake

For the last three seasons of Great British Bake Off, I have baked along with each episode. This means, I bake the technical challenge and see how I would have fared. I try to do it quickly and before the episode starts (the recipes are usually posted on the BBC recipes page the morning of the episode), and I don’t do any research, but of course I can’t access the same limited directions that the contestants have so I have more information. I’m also not baking for Paul and Mary… on camera… in front of the nation, so it’s a bit easier!

Week 1 was Angel Food Cake. The recipe is here.

You really need a special pan for this, which I didn’t have. They look like this – high, straight sides without non-stick coating, a removable base and legs.

Angel food cake relies solely on the air you whisk into the eggs to rise, and it rises best when it stick to the sides of the tin and creep up and stay there as it rises. Non-stick prevents this because (funnily enough) it stops the mixture from sticking. This is also why the first cardinal rule of Angel food cake is don’t grease the pan. Having the tube in the middle helps the rise too as it gives the cake more surface area to stick to.

The legs are so you can ‘hang’ the cake immediately it comes out of the oven, because the second cardinal rule of Angel food cake is turn it upside down immediately it comes out of the oven and leave it until completely cold. This prevents the delicate mixture collapsing on itself before it’s completely set. If your pan doesn’t have legs, you can hang it by turn it on to an upturned glass and resting the tube on the bottom of the glass.

I’m trying to be more organised, so I started by measuring everything first:

This will be revealed as a mistake later.

I whisked the whites in my lovely copper bowl. Go gently at first, don’t whisk like mad (same goes for in the stand mixer). Mrs Humble explains:

“Begin beating the eggs on low speed. What you’re doing here is unraveling the egg white’s proteins (these are what will capture the air bubbles you whisk in), they’re bundled up and you need to gently unwind them. A light touch does this far better than scrambling them on high speed. Once the egg whites are very foamy, begin sprinkling in the sugar as you beat. Increase the speed to medium, if necessary, and beat the meringue to stiff glossy peaks. (If they start looking grainy, clumpy or dry… uh… you’ve gone too far.)” (Mrs Humble)

She also explains the benefits of a copper bowl here.

Quickly realised my bowl probably wouldn’t cope with 10 egg whites, but I pushed on regardless. In hindsight, I wish I’d transferred them to the KitchenAid. Anyway, I whisked in the sugar very slowly, then sifted on the remaining sugar/flour mix (I sifted this twice beforehand to make sure there were no lumps – this is important). Then folded it in carefully. Joe Pastry’s post On the Proper Way to Fold has some great advice.

Into the bundt pan, realised it was too full, took some out, lamented breaking up some bubbles, ran a skewer through it to get rid of airpockets then into the oven. Here it is an hour after being hung. It eventually came out, but I did have to ease it out with a palette knife. This is why you need the straight sides, so you can cut it out if need be.

Then to the lemon curd. So, in my prepatory zeal, I put the yolks, sugar and lemon rind in the saucepan at the start and left them there while I made the cake. This was a mistake, and I did faintly think it might be. The reason is that sugar causes egg yolks to coagulate (see here), so by the time I came to make the curd there were lots of little lumps of coagulated egg in it. I made it anyway, and when it didn’t look like it was going to set, I added extra yolk and it was fine. I used a thermometer to help me know when it was ready, as I find ‘coats the back of a spoon’ a bit vague. It needs to get to 83C (at least, so says Herme and that works for me). I then strained it to get the lumps out.

Once out, let it cool to 60C then whisk in the room temperature butter slowly. Don’t dump the whole lot in and don’t try to put it in when it’s hot as it will melt). By putting it in when the curd is only warm, the butter stays partially emulsified (I think), so you end up with creamier curd. If you don’t want that, put it in when it’s hotter! Herme also suggests whisking with a stick blender for 10 minutes (yes, 10). He says it bursts the fat bubbles and makes the cream much smoother. I did this with some of mine and you can see the difference below. To be honest, they tasted and felt almost the same but I think the whisked one looked nicer.

Time to decorate. Mary’s recipe said to cover with whipped cream then drizzle with curd. I didn’t; I mixed the curd with the cream and made lemon creme chantilly. Tasted great, but in hindsight I think her way would have been better. It doesn’t look pretty (it looked horrendous, frankly), but it tasted good and the texture was decent – light, marshmallow-y, sweet. I think I would make it again, and as I’ve ordered a proper pan, I will be trying it out soon…

UPDATE 1 September 2013

Got the pan and made another one (not in the copper bowl).

Looked a bit grim again, but was delicious!

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