Monday, March 21, 2011

practical applications

Chemistry was not my forte in high school.

I liked some aspects of it well enough. I liked setting up Bunsen burners and test tubes and Erlenmeyer flasks. I had fun with experiments that produced smoke and sparks. I could turn out a decent lab report, and I could explain why nitrogen triiodide behaves the way it does, even if my teachers balked at letting me create it. So long as the assignments involved writing up observations, I could handle them just fine.

Unfortunately, theory was not my strong suit.  I couldn’t grasp the concept of a mole. My equations were a string of disasters because I never figured out the rules for significant figures. If the reading in our textbooks had any bearing on the problems that showed up on our final exams, the connection was beyond me. Thanks to the lab reports, I was never in any danger of failing, but I wasn't destined for advanced courses. In fact, I never took another science course after junior year of high school.

The practical application of chemistry is a different matter. A little knowledge of chemistry goes a long way in baking. Chemistry, after all, is a study of building blocks, and fiddling with a recipe is like playing Jenga - how many blocks can you remove without making the whole structure collapse?

Sugar, for example, provides not just sweetness but texture, which is why Splenda-based baking often comes out so disastrously. Eggs serve as either a scaffolding element or a binding agent, and they can be either essential or irrelevant. (You cannot make a soufflĂ© without eggs - well, maybe you can if you’re Ferran Adria, but not us mere mortals - but you can omit the egg from your typical wheat pancake recipe without any drama whatsoever.) Fat adds moisture and shortens gluten chains, keeping cakes soft and pastry tender. An understanding of this basic theory lets me tweak recipes for dietary restrictions the way I like to handle them - by omitting the problem ingredients wherever possible.

Which brings me to the question of gluten-free brownies.

I know brownies are sometimes characterized as failed chocolate cake, but I tend to think of them as flourless chocolate cake to which someone added flour by mistake. After all, you can bake a chocolate cake using just chocolate, butter, and eggs. The sticky texture of a brownie comes more from sugar than anything else. Flour, therefore, isn't essential to the structure of a brownie. Ergo, gluten isn't essential to the structure of a brownie either.

Replacing wheat flour with a gluten-free option produces brownies that are a little more fragile, but very tender. A high proportion of dark chocolate allows for depth of flavor, and also serves to balance out the quantity of sugar required for optimal texture. Finally, a generous amount of butter keeps them rich and soft.

I still don't understand what a mole is, but I think I'll get by. As far as practical applications go, my working knowledge of chemistry is serving me just fine.

Dark, Fudgy Brownies

I like my chocolate desserts on the dark and bitter side. For a sweeter brownie, swap out half the unsweetened chocolate for bittersweet, and toss in a quarter-cup of milk chocolate chips.

(Adapted from Dorie Greenspan's "Rick Katz's Brownies For Julia." Makes eight small brownies.)

Preheat oven to 350F. Ready a three-and-a-half by five inch loaf tin.

In a bowl set over simmering water, melt together half a stick (two ounces) unsalted butter and two ounces unsweetened chocolate. Stir in four tablespoons of white sugar, half a teaspoon salt, a half-teaspoon of vanilla, and teaspoon of brandy. (Optional extra: half a teaspoon espresso powder or microground instant coffee, which gives the brownies a deeper flavor.)

In another bowl, beat together one egg with two tablespoons of sugar until thick and smooth. Fold a few tablespoons of this egg mixture into the chocolate mixture. Beat the remaining egg mixture until light and foamy, then fold it into the chocolate mixture.

Gently fold in four tablespoons of buckwheat flour. Spoon the batter into the tin, and give it a shake to smooth out the top.

Bake for sixteen to nineteen minutes, or until the brownies look dry on top but are just barely set in the middle. Place the tin on a wire rack to cool. When cool, cut the brownies into squares. They’re soft and fragile, so they’re best served out of the tin.

Note: This recipe can be quadrupled to make an eight-by-eight inch pan of brownies. Up the baking time to twenty-five minutes or so (until the top looks dry), and when making the batter, add one third of the sugar to the chocolate mixture, beat one-third of the sugar with two eggs until smooth, and beat the remaining one-third of the sugar with two eggs until foamy.


Molly said...

Last night my husband came home, bemoaning a gluten-free cake he ate an office birthday party that day. Said it might have been the worst cake he's ever had. I'm psyched to pass this tasty sounding one along to his co-worker.

adele said...

Molly - Glad to be of assistance! I've also got a gluten-free blondie recipe that I'll be writing about soon.

Virgin In The Volcano said...

I haven't had your brownies, but I will confess that I usually prefer the box mixes to everyone else's homemade brownies. There's something about the texture that's just right in the cheap mixes.

But btw, did you see the brownie recipe with brown butter in Salon? That's something I'm going to make my mom try out for me!

Cakelaw said...

Your brownies look deep, dark and delicious.

adele said...

Virgin - Heh. I still prefer flourless chocolate torte to brownies. I haven't seen that Salon recipe, but I'll take a look.

Cakelaw - Thank you!