Monday, July 20, 2009

Sugar Blues?

One commenter asked about substitutes for sugar. Sugar is a tricky thing to substitute, particularly in baking. So much of baking is a science. Recipes assume certain chemical reactions, much as they presume one is not cooking at high altitude.
Thinking of this, I created a minor culinary disaster on Sunday morning. We had wonderful ripe peaches, courtesy of SPUD, that were at use-it-or-lose-it status. They were perfect just as they were. Did not need to be turned into clafoutis!
So I thought, let's try them on pancakes, with just a touch of maple syrup at the table. My favorite pancake recipe, from The Wheat-Free Cook, is elegant in its simplicity, and works every time. It called for 1 teaspoon of sugar. Not much. Let's substitute agave syrup, which is claimed to be easier on the body than sugar, adding it to the wet rather than the dry ingredients. So far, so good.

I'm not sure what happened, as it all was so fast. But I scorched the pancakes! They cooked up so fast. I think the griddle might have been hotter than usual; it's cast iron over gas burners, no thermostats to reckon by. I just fling drops of water on the griddle like my mom and gramma did. (And, to be honest, I was still a bit foggy from the previous day's Bay Cruise on the Jeremiah O'Brien.)

I barely finished dishing out the tablespoonfuls of batter -- these are small pancakes -- when the air filled with smoke. The pancakes were burning and sticking to the grill, faster than I could flip them. I was able to rescue most of them but a grim note of charcoal remained. We added more maple syrup than I'd anticipated.

The quickness with which these pancakes burned makes me suspect that the agave syrup cooked more quickly. Regular sugar would take a bit longer to melt. I have found the agave syrup to be an excellent sweetener, when you don't want flavors such as maple or molasses or honey. But for baking, caution is needed. Maybe if I tried a lower temp on griddle...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Clafoutis! Clafoutis! Clafoutis!

It's cherry time, and some of us are thinking ahead to a River City picnic, inspired by "The Music Man." This brings to mind Gluten-Free Girl's post linking clafoutis to the "Shapoopi" number.

When I posted on Facebook that I was preparing clafoutis for breakfast, I got quite a few responses, indicating that (a) my Facebook friends enjoy eating well and (b) some people have not heard of clafoutis.

There are numerous versions of clafoutis around nowadays. It's one of those thrifty French recipes that took fruit that was less than perfect and cooked it into a dessert somewhere between pudding and cake. It's a homey treat, not something you find on many menus.

Our clafoutis is based on ace food writer John Thorne's account in Outlaw Cook (1992), adapted to work around James' food allergies and use up any fruit that's gone slightly over-ripe. Like Thorne, we think it's a super treat for a weekend breakfast.

We first heard of John Thorne via the irrepressible Alton Brown, whose "Good Eats" show on the Food Network is an unceasing delight. [If you have not seen this show, you should be warned. Halfway into his first season, Alton discovered he had a big fan base among school kids, who loved his blend of food history, chemistry, theatrical improv, and rowdy sock puppets -- the belching yeasts doing their Busby Berkeley routine as the microscope zoomed in on them had me in fits of laughter. The shows can get zany, but Alton always delivers good information and painless food science. When Alton in print cited John Thorne as one of his great influences, we thought, better check this one out.

John Thorne is a delightful writer, full of wonderfully crafted sentences that keep you on the edge of your seat wondering where this particular saga will take you. Before there were blogs or the internet, Thorne was supporting himself through a subscription newsletter. His accounts follow history and nature into the particulars of how he and his wife Matt actually create the dish, for which the recipe is an approximation, not a formula.

"Winter has set in since I started writing, and the only strictly local fruit still available is a few forlorn apples clinging to the bare boughs of the apple trees, bright, rare posts of color in a world of spruce and snow."

Writing geeks -- you know who you are -- will appreciate how every word hangs together in that sentence, like a piece of Shaker furniture. Some of Thorne's books are making it back into print; they are well worth hunting down if you enjoy great food writing.

Our clafoutis -- Thorne says this is the correct singular but that Americans are dropping the final "s" because people assume a noun ending in "s" is plural -- our clafoutis has the additional burden of avoiding wheat flour, cow's milk, and lemon peel called for in his recipe.

Since I'm all about substitutions -- your allergies may be diametrically opposed to my husband's, but you could still derive benefit from reading these posts -- here's how I do it.

Clafoutis is traditionally a pudding, more than a cake. It's made with 1 cup of milk and 1/2 cup of flour, a little salt, and two eggs. I substitute almond or goat milk for the cow's milk, and for the flour, a blend of teff and brown rice flour.

For experimental purposes, I've tried adding baking powder and xanthan gum, which gives more poof and cake-like texture. We find the pudding texture comforting, so I tend to skip the poof.

This is one of those multi-stage concoctions that comes together quickly, so I like to stage ingredients. (This also helps as I'm still metabolizing my coffee and the brain is not fully in gear.)

1. Prep: Set oven to 425 degrees. Make seasoned sugar. Thorne calls for lemon peel; I grate some fresh nutmeg to avoid the lemon, since nutmeg has some of that tangy chameleon quality of lemon, going with sweet or savory. Peel and cut up your fruit of choice, stonefruit or berries being good choices. The French do not pit the cherries as it's considered more flavorful that way. When the cook is wielding a cast-iron skillet, I dare say the diners agree.

2. Assemble the batter, adding the dry ingredients into the wet a little at a time, ending with the seasoned sugar. Let batter rest while you prepare the fruit.

3. In a large heavy skillet, saute the fruit in butter (we use goat butter for special occasions like this). Add sugar to taste. Fruit should cook lightly and juices coalesce.

4. Carefully pour or ladle batter onto fruit. Pop in oven for 25 minutes.

5. Serve in bowls with cool milk-like substance of choice.

So that's the story behind one of our weekend brunch treats, plus links to a couple of fine food writers to consult for your own inspiration. Try a clafoutis of your own with this summer's stonefruits!

Note: the pictured clafouti is not in the skillet because it was Gluten-Free Girl's recipe, which was more of a cake and looks better in photographs. It was yummy, but the pudding sits well for breakfast. Did I mention she is also a fine writer? Fine food writers make you appreciate just how important food is in our lives, and that your efforts to cook and eat well are worthwhile.