Saturday, June 28, 2008

The triumphant return!

Joy abounds with the triumphant return of!

Under new ownership, the site is back to its old self, with only a few minor modifications. Rejoice!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Fare thee well,

I awoke this morning to find everything as it usually is in the morning. I went about my rituals of feeding the cat, making coffee, then sipping half of my first cup before taking a shower. After I was dressed I sat down at my computer and clicked my bookmark to, only to be met with this...

Say it ain't so! For the past 18 months, Tastespotting has been an addiction for me, not to mention the best way to see what was the latest and greatest in the foodie blogoshpere.

Thus far there are no further details about Tastespotting's evaporation into the ether.

You will be missed Tastespotting, here's hoping you shall someday rise again from the ashes.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Curiouser and curiouser: Cantaloupe Butter

I am not sure why, but for the past couple of days I have been consumed with the desire to make jam, or jelly, or some sort of preserves. Oh sure, there are recipes for strawberry, raspberry, and *blank*berry jams a plenty, but I wanted to try something new, something I would never have thought of on my own. After having made (and loved) the strawberry preserves with black pepper and balsamic vingar posted by Leah at SpicySaltySweet, I've only experienced an even greater desire to try preserves that are, shall we say, a bit beyond the standard fare. Wonderful though a basic blackberry jam is, sometimes you just gotta try something a little new and unexpected.

Whilst scouring the tubes for an interesting recipe, I happened upon a plain looking and unassuming collection of jam recipes, called simply Jam Recipes. "Well, at least it's concise," I thought, as I started to explore what they had to offer. Recipes included various apricot jams, marmalades (including a carrot marmalade? I'm going to have to try that out sometime.), banana jam, and apple jams infused with flavors from ginger to thyme (ooh, that's another one for the books), and many more interesting recipes, many of which hail from our friends in the UK. The one recipe that really caught my eye, though, was the cantaloupe butter.

The recipe is simple and consists of a mere four ingredients: Cantaloupe, Sugar, Lemon juice (or in my case, lime juice), and Cinnamon. The butter certainly tastes of cantaloupe, but also has a surprising caramelized pumpkininess to it. It's actually quite autumnal in flavor. Excitingly unexpected. Did I mention that it also wonderfully compliments my Murcia al Vino cheese? Also excitingly unexpected! ^_^

I had thought about making and preserving more butter, but was unsure of cantaloupe's preservability. Thus I consulted my Complete Guide to Home Canning and Preserving, and as it turns out cantaloupe is not acidic enough to safely preserve without the use of a pressure canner, a piece of equipment I don't really want to invest in. While the average cantaloupe has a pH of 6.17 - 7.13, the USDA does not recommend the use of hot water canning for foods with a pH greater than 4.6 (carrots, pumpkin, melon, okra, corn, asparagus, etc), unless you're pickling them in a brine solution. Therefor, my cantaloupe butter gets to live in the fridge. ^_^

Cantaloupe Butter

1 Cantaloupe Melon
Lemon juice

1. Remove the rind and the seeds from the melon, then dice the fruit.

2. Place in a pan with enough water to cover the bottom and prevent burning (about 1/4 cup), and cook until the melon is soft and pulpy.

3. Pass the cooked mix through a sieve or, like me, just purée it with a stick blender until smooth.

4. For every 2 cups of purée, add:
-1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
-1/2 teaspoon of lemon juice
-1 cup of sugar

5. Bring the mixture to the boil, then reduce heat to low, stirring frequently to make sure the sugar is dissolved and the mix does not burn.

6. Simmer for 25 minutes or until the mix sets when tested. It took me about 40 minutes until I liked the consistency.

7. Pour into clean jars and let cool to room temperature. Store in the refrigerator.

When I finished, I ended up with a bit less than a pint of cantaloupe butter, so I suppose you can figure about one pint per large cantaloupe.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Test Kitchen: Key Lime Meringue Cupcakes and Natur Baker's Blend

A couple of weeks ago, Babette at BakeSpace made an offer I could not refuse. To the first ten people to respond to her that particular post, she would send a one pound bag of the new Natur Baker's Blend sweetener. The catch (if you can call it that), we would have to use it to bake up some sweet cuppin' cakes, then post not only photos of our test baking endeavors, but also an honest review of Baker's Blend. These postings would then be reviewed by BakeSpace and the winner will receive another bag of Baker's Bland. Not being one to pass up free food (or ingredients for the creation thereof) or the chance to test out a new product, I jumped at the offer. A week later my bag of Baker's Blend arrived at my doorstep.

There it is (though in this picture, the bag is now empty). The text on the back reads that "Baker's Blend Sweetener is the new natural sweetener that has 40% fewer calories then sugar, is low glycemic, taste, bakes and measures like sugar," and that it "is made with erythritol, which is commonly found in melons, grapes, mushrooms, and soy; organic sugar from cane juice; natural isomaltulose which is derived from sugar and has a low glycemic response; and oligofructose, a sweet tasting fiber." Other ingredients include calcium and the ubiquitous "natural flavors."

Baker's Blend also boasts a low glycemic index (GI), which means that it has a less drastic effect on blood glucose levels. This, in turn, means the sugar is absorbed more slowly and steadily into the bloodstream. This makes low GI foods better for diabetics. In general, lower GI foods are better for you. So Baker's Blend has a plus there.

Here's your basic nutrition data. Ten calories per teaspoon, verses 16 calories per teaspoon of sugar, no fat, few carbs, and looks to be fortified with calcium. At 1 teaspoon per serving, and 113 servings per one pound bag, that would equate to about 2 1/3 cups of Baker's Blend per bag.

At first glance the Baker's Blend looks a lot like sugar. It's white, granular, and of lacks any smell. Upon closer inspection, though, I noticed two distinct particles, larger, crystal particles, and a second type of small, powdery particle. One is perhaps the sweetener, the other a carrier? I also notice a fair amount of caking, but it is easily broken up.

Next I tasted the sweetener, straight up. It is sweet (of course), but has no flavor. This is what surprised me, as almost every other sugar substitute I've tried has had a distinct flavor. From the slightly bitter taste of stevia extract, to the distinct "diet soda" flavor and aftertaste of aspartame, they have all had a signature note on the tongue. Not so with Baker's Blend, in fact, I might go so far as to say sugar has more flavor than Baker's Blend; unexpected, but not unwelcome.

Now, on with the meat, um, cake of this article, the cupcakes. ^_^

I wanted to bake something to welcome the warmth of Summer; something that would awaken the taste buds with a refreshing kick. I originally thought on retrying the Lemon-Raspberry Cupcakes from April's issue of Bon Appétit, a recipe I tried last month, but yielded questionable results. But then I decided that if I was going to put Baker's Blend to the test, then I was going to put it to the test. So I looked for, and chose, a recipe that I thought would push this stuff to the limit of its ability to stand-in for sugar...Key Lime Meringue Cupcakes. I would have to make three separate elements using the Baker's Blend, then bring them together into a Summer dessert. First there's the cupcakes, the foundation. How would Baker's Blend effect the texture, flavor, tenderness, etc, of the cakes? Then there's the Lime Curd; would Baker's Blend be able to control the sourness of lime while making a stable curd? Finally, and this was the real test, the meringue; could Baker's Blend be used to create a stable, fluffy, and delicious meringue that could be beautifully browned beneath the broiler (how's that for some alliteration)?

I decided to base my cupcakes on Nicole's recipe for Lemon Meringue Cupcakes over at BakingBites. My only real change was to substitute key limes wherever it said lemon, and to replace all the sugar with Baker's Blend, cup for cup.

Aside from being a bit time-consuming, the cupcakes themselves are pretty easy, and very delicious. The texture of the cakes is slightly spongy, and tender. They are subtly sweet with just the right amount of "key limeyness." So far the Baker's Blend has proven itself useful. The Lime Curd came together with ease, and setup just like I had hoped. The curd was then piped into the center of the cupcakes to not only provide more moisture, but also a little surprise and an extra lime kick! A note here, citrus curd turns out to be so easy to make at home, that I will never again pay the small ransom they charge at the grocery stores. Mine was a bit on the tart side, and probably could have used a bit more Baker's Blend to tame the tang, but otherwise, I approve.

Finally, we come to the real test...the meringue...

I have to say, I am impressed. The meringue came together in about the same amount of time as it would, had I used sugar, and was just as delicious. Even better, it was lower calorie than a standard meringue using sugar. The Meringue spread on easily, and browned wonderfully, though very quickly, in the oven, so don't turn your back for a second while you brown these babies! And yes, I did claim "chef's prerogative" when I was done and absconded with some meringue and a spoon. Yum!

So, how does Natur Baker's Blend stand up to the test kitchen? Pretty well, I would say. I am indeed pleased with the results. The cupcakes taste like cupcakes, and the meringue is stable and tasty, and all without the "off" flavors of other sugar substitutes. Plus Baker's Blend makes for a lighter cupcake. With the help of, I was able to calculate the nutrition data for each cupcake (from a total of 16 cupcakes) with both sugar and Baker's Blend.

Key Lime Meringue Cupcakes with Sugar
Total Calories ≈ 184 kcal
Total Fat ≈ 4 g
Total Sugars ≈ 21 g

Key Lime Meringue Cupcakes with Natur Baker's Blend
Total Calories ≈ 155 kcal
Total Fat ≈ 4 g
Total Sugars ≈ 11 g

All and all, using Baker's Blend I achieved a 15% reduction in calories, no reduction in fat, but an impressive 48% reduction in sugar; yet the taste and texture remains as they should. Plus, when you take into consideration the low glycemic index of Baker's Blend and the benefits of low GI foods, I feel I can confidently give Baker's Blend another point or two.

My only remaining issue is price. With an MSRP of $12.99 for a one pound bag, I think that Natur Baker's Blend is too pricey to be a staple item in my pantry, especially seeing as how quickly it can be used up in the course of baking. In this case I used all but maybe 2/3 cup of my Blend. I could, however, see myself using it in place of sugar in more, sparing uses, like in tea, oatmeal, and recipes that use little sugar.

Financial issues aside, though, I think that Natur Baker's Blend is a welcome addition to the baking world, and has a lot of promise, and not just for diabetics and those looking to cut out some sugar from their diets, but for bakers and cakers and cookie makers throughout the bake-o-sphere.

Key Lime Meringue Cupcakes
as derived from Baking Bites

1 cup cake flour
1 cup all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
¼ cup butter, very soft
1 cup Natur Baker's Blend (or sugar)
2 lime zest (from 2 large lemons)
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup milk, room temperature

Preheat oven to 375°F. Line 16 muffin cups with paper liners.
Sift together cake flour, ap flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl.
In a large bowl, cream butter, sugar and lemon zest until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in egg thoroughly, followed by vanilla. Alternate milk and flour in three additions, ending with flour.
Evenly distribute in prepared pans.
Bake at 375°F for 18-20 minutes, until a tester comes out clean and the cake springs back when lightly pressed.
Remove to a wire rack to cool.
Makes 16 cupcakes.

Once the cupcakes are cool, fill a metal-tipped pastry bag with key lime curd (recipe follows) and pipe into cupcakes. Poke the tip of the pasty bag 1/2-1 inch into the top of each cupcake and squeeze about 2 tsp lemon curd into it. You might not use all the curd.

3 egg whites
½ cup Natur Baker's Blend (or sugar)
¼ tsp cream of tartar

Set a glass or metal bowl over a sauce pan with an inch or two of boiling water in it (i.e. use a double boiler) and beat egg whites in it until foamy. Add in cream of tartar and beat until fluffy but not yet at soft peaks. Stream in sugar until meringue reaches fairly stiff peaks. Spread on cupcakes with a small knife or offset spatula.

Brown with a blowtorch or place on a baking sheet under the broiler until lightly browned, less than a minute, so don't turn your back to it, for even a second!

Lighter Lemon Curd
(adapted from Chocolate and the Art of Low Fat Desserts)
1/3 cup fresh key lime juice
1-2 tsp lime zest
5 tbsp Natur Baker's Blend (or sugar)
1 egg, room temperature
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

In a small sauce pan, over medium heat, dissolve sugar into lemon juice. Add zest.
Lightly beat egg in a small/medium bowl. Whisking constantly, slowly pour lemon/sugar syrup into the egg. Beat for 2 minutes (only 1 if you’re using a mixer), then transfer back into the saucepan.
Heat over low heat, stirring constantly, until it just starts to bubble at the edges. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla.
Transfer to a small container and store in the fridge.
Makes 2/3 cup.