Farmers’ Market Finds – Kauai Edition

Happy New Year! … a little late, I know.

Bill and I spent the New Year holiday in Kauai. As a self-described fruit aficionado, I made it my mission to sample as much of Kauai’s tropical bounty as possible. Here’s a summary of my findings – the good, the bad, and the funny.

Banana Joe's

The Good:

  • Pineapple (1 for $10) – Pineapple was at the very top of my must-eat-in-Kauai list. Bill and I bought this one at a fruit stand called Coconut Corner in Waimea. We felt like suckers paying $10 for a pineapple, but at least it turned out to be sweet and juicy. 

Pineapple

  • Papayas (3 for $5) – Papayas were bountiful at the farmers’ market, so I bought three. Never mind that I had never tried a papaya before. Fortunately, I found them quite edible. The flesh was very sweet and reminded me vaguely of cantaloupe.

Papaya

  • Honey Tangerines (2 for $3) – Citrus fruits were not on my must-eat list since they’re so plentiful on the mainland, but these honey tangerines looked so good at the farmers’ market that I had to get them. They tasted as juicy and delicious as they looked.

Tangerines

The Bad:

  • Poi (Oy!) – Poi is a distinctly Hawaiian food made by mashing the starchy corms of the taro plant into a thick, gooey paste. It was Bill’s enthusiasm about trying taro that brought us to the Hanalei Taro & Juice Co. However, this large cup of thick, purple goop was a little more than we could handle. We did have fun brainstorming other non-food uses for the substance.

Poi

The Funny:

  • Rambutans ($3.50 per bunch) – Rambutans may be having a bad hair day – everyday – but that didn’t stop us from enjoying the delicious fruit protected by its wild, frizzly shell. Admittedly, the fruit inside kind of looks like an eyeball, but it’s quite a tasty eyeball! For those who are familiar with lychees, this is in the same family and has the same general structure, consisting of an outer shell, the fruit, and the pit. For those who stared quizzically at the word “lychee” or have only eaten lychees out of a can, the fruit’s taste and texture reminded us of a peeled grape, albeit with a large, woody pit inside.

Rambutan

The eyeball – I mean fruit – is inside:

Rambutan inside

  • Finger Bananas ($3.50 per bunch) – Apple bananas (a rather squat variety of banana that is sweet and tangy) are ubiquitous in Hawaii, but I thought I hit the jackpot when I came across these less common finger bananas at the farmers’ market. The woman who sold me these bananas said that they grew in her backyard and that they were so sweet that they tasted like cookies. (Cookies!) However, she cautioned that I should wait one day to try them so that they would be fully ripe. Bill and I waited anxiously overnight and ran salivating to the fruit bowl the next morning to see if they had transformed into cookies. They still looked like bananas, but we were undeterred, figuring that they could still taste like cookies despite their decidedly banana-like appearance. They tasted like … bananas. Granted, they were good bananas, but Bill is a cookie connoisseur, and even his sophisticated palate could not detect any hints of cookie in the finger bananas.

Finger bananas

So that’s a summary of my fruity findings. I’ll end this post with a few tips for those who follow me in the quest to find the most delicious fruit in Kauai:

  • Go to Banana Joe’s! We didn’t make it to Banana Joe’s Fruit Stand until the final day of our vacation, so I was unable to partake of the wealth of tropical produce offered there. They even had these short, golden pineapples that were supposed to be super sweet. I suppose we’ll have to go back someday to taste them.
  • Don’t even think about bringing non-approved fruit back to the mainland. My dad recalled eating the most delicious mangoes in Hawaii many years ago, so I was determined to procure a Hawaiian mango at any cost. That cost turned out to be $7. (That’s right. I paid $7 for a normal-sized mango at a farmers’ market.) Tragically, the mango failed to ripen by the end of our vacation, so I was left with the option of eating an unripe mango or taking it home with me. Although my research suggested that I was not prohibited from bringing a mango into California, the USDA people at the airport confiscated it “because it was fruit.” I’m no longer bitter, but I hope the mango was when the USDA people ate it. (Of course, there are ways to bring “approved” fruits (especially pineapples) back to the mainland. See this link.)
  • Be open-minded about the appearance of coconuts. Bill and I were accustomed to the appearance of cartoon coconuts – you know, those spherical things with shaggy brown “fur” that always fall out of trees and onto unsuspecting people’s heads. So we were surprised to learn that actual, fresh coconuts are smooth, yellow-green, and oblong (as in the picture below). According to this post, it’s not until you peel them and dry them out for a while that they become brown and furry.

Coconut Corner

Ginger Balls

Ginger balls, ginger balls, ginger all the way…

Don’t you hate it when you get a song stuck in your head, and then you start making up your own lyrics? … What? That doesn’t happen to you? Okay, never mind. But this recipe is really good, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself making up songs about ginger balls, too.

Following the success of my mint chocolate balls, I decided to get creative. Having just purchased some uncrystallized candied ginger from Trader Joe’s with no actual plan for how to use it, I decided that it might taste good in Larabar-style date and nut balls. These balls come together with only five ingredients! And they remind me of gingerbread, which is always a plus.

Ginger balls with tea

Ginger Balls
(Inspired by Larabars and necessitated by my impulse purchase of Trader Joe’s Uncrystallized Candied Ginger)

Ingredients

  • 1 cup nuts (I typically use a mixture of unsalted roasted almonds and raw cashews, but you can experiment. Go nuts!)
  • 3/4 cup Medjool dates, pitted and halved
  • 1/4 cup uncrystallized candied ginger (or less if you’re ginger-curious but not sure if you’ll like the stuff)
  • 1/8 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions

  1. Grind up the nuts coarsely in the food processor.  (Just a few pulses will do. Don’t go nuts, or else you’ll end up with nut butter.)
  2. Add the dates and ginger to the food processor and process with the nuts until it forms a loose, crumbly, sticky mixture. You should be able to take a little sample and pinch it together into a solid mass.
  3. Add the salt and vanilla extract, and process just long enough to get them into the mixture.
  4. Transfer the mixture to a medium-sized bowl and knead it together into one big blob.
  5. Find a diversion that does not require using your hands (music, TV, podcasts, etc.) and laboriously roll small balls between your palms. Your hands will become very sticky by the end. You can lick them when nobody is looking.
  6. Store the balls in the refrigerator in a closed container. They keep for several weeks but are best in the first few days, as they dry out over time.

Note: I took these pictures of the ball-making process when I made chocolate mint balls, but they apply to this recipe as well.

Edibility Evaluation

I really like these ginger balls! They have a strong, gingery flavor, which I enjoy, and they  benefit from that endlessly appealing sweet/salty combination. They are a bit sweeter than my other ball recipes due to the additional sugar in the candied ginger, but I think they’re a nice seasonal variation. I awarded them a very high edibility score of 4.6, only slightly lower than the 4.75 I gave to the chocolate and mint balls. I didn’t think that Bill would like these balls, and I was right. He grudgingly agreed to taste half of one, though, which he did after bisecting a ball with surgeon-like precision. Although he decided that these balls were not for him, he did acknowledge that tasting them helped him identify the flavor that he doesn’t like in sushi – namely, ginger. So, ginger balls aren’t for everyone, but if you like the strong ginger flavor (and/or if you bought uncrystallized candied ginger and you’re not sure what to do with it), then you might want to make a batch of these ginger balls.

Ginger Balls Edibility

Pie, (Food) Porn, and Puppies!

VegEdibles just got interesting!

After my dad asked for the Reader’s Digest version of my recent post about grain milling, I started to realize that VegEdibles will never become popular if my posts are as dense and dry as the whole wheat bread they describe. In this post, I will turn over a new leaf and attempt to write something that people actually want to read! Through my non-scientific research, I have identified three key elements that increase the popularity of food blogs.

The Three P’s of a Popular Food Blog:

  1. Pies: Or desserts, more broadly. Everybody likes the idea of cooking healthy food, but posts about desserts and sweets are by far the most popular in the food blogosphere.
  2. Porn: Food porn, that is. Let’s face it. Even the most delicious food will be overlooked if it looks like poorly lit cat vomit.
  3. Puppies! Because I needed a third P, and who doesn’t like to look at pictures of puppies?

Let’s start with a picture of Sophie to draw you in. Sophie isn’t actually a puppy; she’s a 14-year-old golden retriever. But she’s as cute as any puppy. Sophie happens to be a really big fan of VegEdibles, by the way. She is quite fascinated by grain milling minutiae, and she appreciated how this post provided a thorough and balanced treatment of such a controversial topic. She also appreciates my very clever puns.

Now that you’re hooked, let’s move on to the recipe. You may recall that Bill and I purchased this orange kabocha squash at the farmers’ market as our surrogate pumpkin for Halloween. I decided to ask readers for ideas about what to make with it, and I got some interesting suggestions, all of which sounded delicious. However, since it’s close to Thanksgiving and I really love pumpkin pie, I had to go with the kabocha pie.

The kabocha squash, and in particular the orange kabocha, is supposed to make a really good “pumpkin” pie because it is more sweet than pumpkin, and its flesh is smoother and less stringy. Additionally, the kabocha flesh contains less water than pumpkin flesh, so you don’t have to strain the purée the way you would with homemade pumpkin purée. Without further ado, here’s the recipe for kabocha pie.

Kabocha Pie
(adapted from the Red Kuri Squash Pie recipe in Healthy Green Kitchen)

Ingredients

Crust:

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour (I used freshly milled soft white wheat berries.)
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons finely minced crystallized ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt

Filling:

  • 2 cups kabocha squash purée from a 2-3 pound squash (see directions below)
  • 1 cup cream (I used coconut cream from Trader Joe’s)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4-1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

Directions

Crust:

  1. Stir together the butter and sugar in a medium bowl.
  2. Stir in the yolks, then add the flour, crystallized ginger, and salt, and stir just until the mixture comes together. (Note: It will be dry and crumbly.)
  3. Press the dough into the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch pie plate. Freeze for 20 minutes, or until firm.
  4. Cut a round of parchment paper to cover the base of the crust, and place pie weights (or about 2 cups of dried beans) over the parchment.
  5. Bake the crust in an oven preheated to 375F for 20-22 minutes, or until the crust turns golden brown.
  6. Remove the parchment and pie weights, and allow the crust to cool before pouring the pie filling.

Filling:

  1. Using a heavy-duty knife, chop the kabocha squash in half and scoop out the seedy, gooey insides. (VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: Don’t cut off your hand or fingers!!!)
  2. Cut each half into smaller wedges, place them in a baking pan with the skin side down, and drizzle them with olive oil. (Note: This squash has a very thick skin, so it’s difficult to cut. If you happen to drop the squash on the floor while attempting to cut it, just pick it up à la Julia Child, and continue as if nothing happened.)
  3. Cover the baking pan with foil and roast at 375F until very soft (40-60 minutes, depending on the size of the wedges).
  4. Allow the roasted squash to cool, then peel off skins and blend the soft flesh until smooth. (Note: It should be closer to the consistency of mashed potatoes than applesauce.)
  5. Measure 2 cups of kabocha purée to use for the pie filling, and reserve the rest for something else, like these muffins.
  6. Blend the 2 cups of kabocha puree with the other filling ingredients.

Assembling and Baking the Pie:

  1. Pour the filling into the baked crust. (Note: I had too much filling, so I poured the remainder into two ramekins and baked them separately.)
  2. Preheat the oven to 325, and bake for 50-60 minutes, or until the filling just begins to set in the middle. Cover the pie loosely with foil if it starts to get too dark.
  3. Allow the pie to cool in the refrigerator for 6 hours to overnight.

Edibility Evaluation

This recipe was very involved, but it was totally worth it. Bill and I gave the pie edibility scores of 4.8 and 4.9, respectively. We both loved the filling, and I thought the use of coconut cream instead of evaporated milk gave it a nice flavor. Our only complaints were minor, and they related to the crust. I thought it was a bit too sweet, and Bill was put off by the bits of crystallized ginger. He picked one out, made a face, and asked, “What is this gummy, fruity thing in the crust?” I actually enjoyed how they made the crust more interesting with their strong, gingery flavor.

(Update: The NY Times recently published this article comparing different types of winter squash as substitutes for pumpkin in “pumpkin” pie. Kabocha was praised for its silky texture, but the resulting pie tasted “vegetal and too earthy.” I think it was because they used a green kabocha. The orange kabocha is sweeter, and Bill and I noticed no such earthiness. But be warned if you’re thinking about using the more common, green variety of kabocha.)

And now, let’s move on to the food porn. Photography is one of my weak points. However, as a result of spending hours on foodgawker observing legitimately good food photography, I have gleaned a few shortcuts to help me get by until I take some time to seriously learn how to style and photograph food.

Tips for Good Food Porn Photography: (Just remember the initials: G.F.P.)

  • G is for Good Lighting: Poor lighting in food photography can make an otherwise delicious dish look unappetizing or even downright frightening. Here are before and after shots to illustrate this concept. You can see what a huge difference good lighting makes.

  • F is for Fuzzy Background: Those of us who live in small apartments don’t always have the luxury of a well-appointed photography studio. The key is to blur the background so that you can draw attention away from any unsavory elements in the photo. Here’s an example:

  • P is for Props: Let’s face it. Your food isn’t always going to look pretty. But that doesn’t mean you can’t deceive everyone into thinking you’re Martha Stewart. Select props that draw the viewer’s attention away from any minor blemishes in the food.

And now for the giveaway!

Finally, you know you’ve made it to the food blog big leagues when you start having giveaways. However, I realized that you don’t actually need sponsors; you can just give something away. So, VegEdibles is having its first giveaway! Simply write what your favorite type of pie is in the comments section, and you will be entered to win … drum roll, please … Pong!

Pong is a nine-year-old, fawn-colored pug with a cute, wrinkled face, poor posture, and debilitating self confidence issues. He enjoys long walks to the mailbox and even longer naps with his brother, Ping. His talents include snoring, chasing planes, and barking at his own reflection. What he lacks in intellect, he makes up for in softness.

Thanks for reading, and have a happy Thanksgiving!  Also, thanks to Creative Dialog Studios for the dog pictures!

“Empty bowl with gunk still in it” and “Do potatoes have thoughts?”

VegEdibles’ Greatest Hits

I’m guessing that many of my fellow bloggers are familiar with the obsessive desire to check how many hits your blog gets. I’ll admit that I am among them. It’s not that I have any delusions of food blog fame; I’m just doing this for fun. But it makes me happy when people read my posts, and I find it especially gratifying when my blog has been useful or entertaining to someone. Here is a recent snapshot of my blog stats:

Some of these hits are from faithful VegEdibles followers. My genuine thanks go to those of you who follow the blog. I really appreciate your support, even if you’re just a lurker. This post, however, is about another cohort of VegEdibles visitors who stumbled onto the blog through Internet search engines. I thought it would be interesting to share some of the search terms that have (mis)directed people to VegEdibles.

Common search terms:

  • “Fennel anatomy” (21 hits): It seems that I am not alone in my state of profound fennel befuddlement. “Fennel Follies” described my misguided attempt to cook with fennel for the first time. Seven individuals have been linked to the post after searching for “fennel anatomy,” while 14 additional people found the post through related searches.

  • “Pickling experiments” (13 hits): Let’s face it. People like to pickle things. As I discovered while writing this post, pickling is downright fascinating! Luckily for Bill, however, I’m not likely to experiment further with home pickling in the near future.
  • “Mint chocolate balls” (12 hits): The picture of mint chocolate “balls” in this post was deemed foodgawker-worthy, propelling VegEdibles to food blog fame, albeit fleeting. I’m guessing these hits may have been from people who had seen the picture in foodgawker and were looking for the recipe. Interestingly, one of the hits was somebody looking for: “sticky balls recipe for dogs.” Although they may look like dog treats, these snacks are for people. (Don’t feed chocolate to dogs!)

  • “Granola not clumping” (11 hits): Apparently, clumpy granola eludes many a home cook. I can empathize with the frustration of the 11 people whose search terms related to the quest for the Holy Grail of homemade granola. Check out this experiment in which I tested different granola clumping methods.

  • “Are produce delivery boxes worth it?” (1 hit): Okay, this was only a single hit, but it sure made my day. I might have actually helped this person by writing this post discussing organic produce delivery and comparing various produce purchasing options.

And now, some downright bizarre search terms:

  • “Empty bowl with gunk still in it” (1 hit): I’m thoroughly amused that VegEdibles attracted someone on the verge of discovering the concept of dish washing. Perhaps this instructional article from wikihow.com outlining the 24 steps (yup, 24!) of dish washing would have been more helpful. I wonder if this picture of Bill’s empty bowl from this post about liquid hummus is what led them here.

  • “Do potatoes have thoughts?” (3 hits): VegEdibles doesn’t typically explore the metaphysical realm, but three separate searches related to potatoes and thoughts have converged on this blog. For the record, the three search terms were: “Do potatoes have thoughts?”, “deep thoughts about potatoes,” and “potato offended.” Perhaps I did offend the potatoes that I used to make Hasselback potatoes.

  • “What can you sook that would disguise hemlock as an ingrediant” (1 hit): Whoa, buddy! VegEdibles does not endorse in any way the use of hemlock as a poisoning agent! If you’re reading this, please rethink your motivations for trying to poison someone…and don’t mention that you used my blog as part of your research.

To Grind or Not to Grind?

Is grinding your own flour worth the effort? Or is it too much of a grind?

I was bit by the bread baking bug early in my amateur culinary career. First came the bread machine. Then came my discovery of no-knead bread. Soon, I was producing rustic loaves of cranberry-rosemary bread, and my ego began to inflate like a yeast-leavened boule. As my bread snobbery raged, I wondered how I could step up my game even further. Enter the grain mill.

There comes a time in every bread baking hobbyist’s life when they encounter the question: To grind or not to grind…your own flour, that is. My true desire as a burgeoning bread baker was to bake the perfect loaf of whole wheat bread, so the idea of grinding whole grains into flour intrigued me. I read about the virtues of home grain milling and was encouraged by glowing reports of delicious, healthy bread produced using freshly milled grains. Ultimately, I was persuaded to invest in a Nutrimill grain mill.

Still, there remained a grain of doubt in my mind as to whether bread made with my freshly ground whole wheat flour was indeed better than what I could have made with whole wheat flour purchased from the store. Sitting next to my behemoth of a kitchen gadget in the cold light of day, I began to think more critically about why exactly I was grinding my own flour.

I’ll begin with a brief flour primer:

  • What is flour, and how is it made? Flour is a powder produced by grinding grains, seeds, nuts, or roots. While we typically think of flour being made from wheat, there are actually myriad different types of flour. The process of making wheat flour starts with the mechanical grinding of wheat berries, which are the individual kernels of wheat. The different types of flour (e.g., all-purpose, whole wheat, etc.) differ by the way they are processed after the initial grinding (and can also differ by the type of wheat used).
  • What is the difference between all-purpose flour and whole wheat flour? If you’ve only ever baked with one type of flour, it was probably all-purpose flour (also called “white” flour or “refined” flour). To make all-purpose-flour, wheat berries (which are composed of endosperm, germ, and bran) are ground and processed to selectively retain the endosperm (the bulk of the wheat berry containing mostly starch and protein) while eliminating the germ and bran. This increases the shelf life of flour because the germ contains oils that become rancid over time. Additionally, removing the bran makes baked goods less heavy and dense. As more emphasis has been placed on the nutritional value of whole grains, whole wheat flours that retain the whole grain (endosperm, germ, and bran) have increased in popularity. Of course, enhanced nutrition comes at the cost of a shorter shelf life and an increased probability of producing doorstops instead of bread.
  • Do you have to separate the wheat from the chaff to make your own flour? Is threshing involved? When I tell people that I grind my own flour, they immediately picture me in overalls and a straw hat, slogging through waist-high fields of grain and violently threshing wheat stalks with a flail. (Or, at least that’s what I think they’re imagining between bouts of laughter.) While grain milling is not common to the modern American kitchen, it doesn’t require any type of wheat harvesting skills, either. Typical home grain mills are either of the hand-cranked variety or are electric mills like the Nutrimill. You simply purchase wheat berries from the bulk foods section at the grocery store or from a reputable source like Bob’s Red Mill, and you put them through the mill.

Here is a picture of freshly ground flour in the Nutrimill:

Now, let’s consider some reasons for grinding your own flour:

Taste: Grain milling devotees often point to the superior flavor of breads made from freshly milled flour. For example, the pamphlet of Nutrimill tips that comes with the mill claims, “The fresher the flour, the more nutritious and better tasting your bread or rolls will be.” As another example, the Great Harvest Bread Company attributes the superior flavor of its products to the fact that they are made from freshly ground, high-quality wheat berries. Employees at King Arthur Flour (KAF) actually prepared side-by-side loaves from either freshly milled flour or a bag of purchased KAF Premium 100% Whole Wheat Flour and compared them for taste. While they judged both loaves to be “delicious,” the loaf made from freshly ground flour tasted “sweet” with “no bitter tang.” In researching why bread made from freshly milled flour might taste better, I came across two explanations:

  1. In the same blog post I mentioned above, KAF suggests that the bitterness of breads made from commercially milled flour is due to the rancidity that develops as the wheat germ is exposed to air during storage. Conversely, the germ in intact wheat berries is protected from oxidation.
  2. Alternatively, it could be that freshly milled flour and store-bought whole wheat flour are entirely different things. In a 2011 LA Times article, baker Craig Ponsford claimed that most of the whole wheat flours sold in grocery stores are actually white flour (i.e., wheat flour with the bran and germ removed) to which the bran (but not the germ) has been added back. Since the germ is the “tastiest part of the wheat berry,” he claimed, bread made from freshly milled wheat berries tastes better.

Of course, these two explanations are in conflict because the first assumes that store-bought whole wheat flour contains the germ (which is true in the case of KAF’s Premium 100% Whole Wheat Flour), while the second assumes that the germ has been removed. (This Wikipedia article claims that many store-bought “whole wheat” flours have 70% of the germ removed to prevent rancidity.) I should also mention that hard red wheat berries, which are typically used to make wheat flour in the US, contain bitter-tasting tannins in the bran layer. So, we might expect bread made from either store-bought or freshly milled flour to be bitter from the tannins, unless the germ in the freshly ground flour can somehow counteract that inherent bitterness.

Nutrition: In addition to making claims about superior taste, grain mill enthusiasts often extol the nutritional value of bread made from freshly ground flour. The Nutrimill tips pamphlet asserts, “Freshly ground whole wheat flour offers the most nutritional value. Nutrients decrease rapidly after grains are milled.” So, what are the nutrients in whole wheat flour? We can divide them between the three parts of the wheat berry as follows:

  • The endosperm accounts for 83% of the mass of the wheat kernel and consists mostly of carbohydrates and protein.
  • The bran, which is the outer coating of the wheat berry, accounts for 14% of the mass of the wheat kernel and is mostly fiber.
  • The germ accounts for 3% of the wheat kernel’s mass and contains proteins, fats, and vitamins.

The argument that flour made from whole wheat (i.e., the entire wheat berry) is more nutritious than refined flour (from which the germ and bran has been removed) is a relatively straightforward one, although I should mention that refined flour is often enriched with vitamins that were lost during processing. The argument that freshly ground flour is more nutritious than commercially milled whole wheat flour is even more complicated. Those who claim that whole wheat flour loses 90% of its nutritional value within 72 hours after grinding (as stated in this article) are probably referring to the degradation of vitamins and therefore neglect the fact that a significant portion of the “nutrition” comes from the proteins, carbohydrates, and fiber. Given that some vitamins degrade fairly rapidly, the flour will obviously be the most nutritious immediately after it is ground. However, I am not convinced that the loss of vitamin content is a problem, at least assuming that our modern diets don’t rely exclusively on grains to fulfill our daily requirements for vitamins. (This blog post provides a nice discussion about the nutrition of milled flour.)

Creativity, variety: A strong (and much less controversial) argument for owning a grain mill is that you can make flours from a wide variety of grains (e.g., rice, barley, rye, oats, spelt, and dried beans, to name a few). By varying the types of grains you grind and the fineness of the flour, you can access new textures and flavors simply not possible with a limited selection of store-bought flours.

The Experiment

As you can see, it’s not entirely obvious whether grain milling is advantageous, especially from the perspective of taste and nutrition. I am not equipped to evaluate the nutritional value of bread, but the main reason I bought the grain mill was to make delicious whole grain breads. So, I decided to ask a simple question: Does bread made with freshly milled whole wheat flour taste better than bread made with store-bought whole wheat flour? An experiment was in order.

In this experiment, I baked two loaves of bread side-by-side. For both loaves, I followed a simple honey whole wheat recipe, but I made one loaf from freshly ground wheat berries and one loaf from purchased 100% whole wheat flour. Note that I halved the original recipe to make two small loaves.

Basic Honey Whole Wheat Loaf
(adapted from 100 Days of Real Food; amounts shown below are for a small loaf)

Ingredients

  • 266 g whole wheat flour (slightly less than 2 1/4 cups)
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 177 g warm water (3/4 cup)
  • 2 T honey
  • 1 T olive oil
  • 1 1/8 tsp instant yeast

Directions

  1. Stir together all of the ingredients in a bowl.
  2. Allow the mixture to rest for 20 min.
  3. Knead the dough by hand for about 5 minutes, adding flour as necessary so that the dough doesn’t stick to your fingers.
  4. Make a ball and put it in a covered bowl.
  5. Allow the dough to rise for 1-2 hours at room temperature. (If your kitchen is cold, you can warm your oven at the lowest setting and then turn it off and place the bread inside to rise.)
  6. Punch down the dough, knead as before, and shape the dough into a ball.
  7. Allow the dough to rise on a baking pan or tray for 1-2 hours, until doubled in size.
  8. Gently slash the top of the loaf to allow for additional rising in the oven. Bake at 350F for 30-45 min, or until the internal temperature of the bread reaches 205-210F.
  9. Optional: Spray the finished loaf with a little bit of water after it comes out of the oven to soften the crust.

Observations from the baking process:

First, let’s review the opponents:

  • To Grind: I used my Nutrimill Grain Mill to grind hard red wheat berries purchased from the bulk bin at Sprouts Farmers Market. I ground the wheat berries immediately prior to making the bread. I’ll refer to this flour as the “Nutrimill flour.”
  • Not to Grind: I used a package of freshly purchased 100% White Whole Wheat Flour from Trader Joe’s. I’ll refer to this flour as the “Trader Joe’s flour.” (Spoiler alert: I realize I should not have used white whole wheat flour since I was comparing it to red wheat berries. More about that later.)

Both flours formed a dough after stirring. As you can see, the Nutrimill flour (right) made a somewhat drier initial dough than the Trader Joe’s flour (left). However, both doughs became soft and tacky during the kneading process.

After the first knead, the dough was shaped into balls and left to rise in covered bowls. The extent of rise was similar for both types of flour. The Trader Joe’s dough (front) was noticeably lighter in color.

The second rise produced loaves similar in size and appearance.  Again, the Trader Joe’s loaf (back) was lighter.

The baked loaves were similar in appearance, although the Nutrimill loaf (back) was slightly larger and darker in color.

Looking at the crumb, the Nutrimill bread (left) was less dense and rose slightly higher, while the Trader Joe’s bread (right) was more dense and shorter.

Taste Test: Part 1 – Blind Taste Test with Volunteers

One of my reasons for doing this experiment was that I wanted to justify owning a Nutrimill grain mill. Not only is it a relatively expensive kitchen gadget, but it also occupies a fair amount of real estate in my small apartment kitchen. Considering my bias, I realized that judging the bread myself would have been a conflict of interest. So, I enlisted a small army of hungry volunteers, namely my lab mates.

I decided to make it a blind taste test, so I labeled the loaves “T” for the bread made with Trader Joe’s flour and “G” for the bread made with Nutrimill-ground flour. As you may recall, the question that motivated this experiment was whether bread made from freshly ground flour tasted better than bread made from purchased whole wheat flour. However, I also realized that additional factors, such as texture and moistness, influence our overall enjoyment of a loaf of bread. So, I asked my lab mates a more general question: Which bread do you prefer, and why?

Here’s a summary of my findings:

  • Of the eight volunteers, five preferred the bread made from Trader Joe’s flour (T), while three preferred the bread made from freshly milled wheat berries (G). I have included a table of their responses below.
  • The primary reasons people preferred the bread made from Trader Joe’s flour (T) were related to its flavor and texture. Interestingly, two tasters commented that the bread made from milled flour (G) seemed healthier but was less preferable overall.
  • It seems the tasters who preferred the bread made from milled flour (G) were looking for a less sweet bread, excepting the taster who liked it because it seemed more sweet.

Taste Test: Part 2 – Jamie and Bill Sample the Bread

After seeing that my lab mates tended to prefer the Trader Joe’s bread, I was curious which bread Bill and I would prefer. After all, I am trying to justify owning a grain mill that I’ll use to make bread primarily for Bill and myself. Here are the results:

  • Bill: I gave Bill the blind taste test, and he preferred the bread made with Trader Joe’s flour. He said that, while the bread made from milled flour was softer and sweeter (which are good things to him), he didn’t like that it had a funny aftertaste that he described as “yeasty.”
  • Jamie: Since I made the bread and was familiar with how they looked and felt, I asked Bill to help me with a “blind a taste test.” I closed my eyes, and he fed me small pieces of the bread so that I wouldn’t be able recognize which was which by appearance or feel. I honestly assumed that I would prefer the bread made from milled flour since I had read so many good things about how grain milling makes unbelievably tasty bread. (You’ve probably already guessed what actually happened.) As it turns out, I strongly preferred the bread made from Trader Joe’s flour because it had a delicious flavor I described as “nutty.” I judged the bread made with milled flour to have a “weird” aftertaste. When Bill revealed which sample was which, I was shocked.

Summary

In the end, this was an imperfect yet informative experiment. The blind taste test with volunteers revealed that bread preferences are highly subjective. Nevertheless, the generally preferred bread was made from Trader Joe’s 100% White Whole Wheat Flour. I’m guessing the “weird” aftertaste that Bill and I (and some tasters) didn’t like in the bread made from milled flour was the bitter flavor of tannins in the red wheat berry. And herein lies the critical flaw in my experimental design. In purchasing whole wheat flour, I neglected to notice that the Trader Joe’s whole wheat flour is made from white (not red) wheat berries. So, I was actually comparing freshly milled red wheat berries to bagged flour made from white wheat berries, which are an albino variety of wheat berries that lack those bitter tannins.

Now, it actually makes sense that I naively made the wrong comparison. Hard red wheat berries are readily available in the US, while white wheat berries account for only 10-15% of America’s total wheat crop. So, it makes sense that stores are more likely to offer red wheat berries in bulk than white wheat berries. Conversely, since consumers tend to prefer the milder flavor of whole wheat flour made from white wheat berries, white whole wheat flour has become very popular in stores. (Trader Joe’s doesn’t even sell whole wheat flour made from red wheat berries.)

Poor experimental design aside, I learned that Bill and I don’t particularly like bread made from red wheat berries, even when it’s freshly milled. However, I am not yet convinced that grain milling can’t make the most delicious bread ever. This experiment only strengthens my resolve to justify owning a grain mill. Stay tuned for: “To Grind or Not to Grind? Part II.”

Farmers’ Market Find: Kabocha-o’-lantern?

What should I do with my kabocha squash?

Happy (almost) Halloween, everyone! In the spirit of fall and the upcoming holiday, I decided that we needed to add a pumpkin to our kitchen decor. Bill, succumbing to bribery, enthusiastically agreed to accompany me to the farmers’ market to pick out a pumpkin. It turns out, however, that there were no pumpkins at the farmers’ market. (Oops! Perhaps visiting a pumpkin patch would have been a smarter option.) Undeterred and determined to leave the farmers’ market with a “pumpkin,” we picked out this guy instead.

From our recollection of the label on the bin and an Internet search for “squash starting with K,” we learned that our “pumpkin” is a kabocha squash. Not to be confused with kombucha, a drink made from cultured bacteria and yeast, kabocha squash is a Japanese winter squash, sometimes referred to as a Japanese pumpkin. They are often dark green in color, but this one happens to be an orange kabocha. Kabocha squash are very sweet (even sweeter than butternut squash) and have a silky smooth flesh (unlike the stringy flesh of a pumpkin).

I don’t have any immediate plans other than to admire our new squash on the kitchen table, but there will come a time when I decide to hack into it and make something delicious. Kabocha-flavored kombucha, anyone? Just kidding. But seriously, does anybody have any suggestions for the fate of our orange kabocha squash?

I Can’t Believe It’s Nut Butter!

How I spent last weekend turning (but not churning) things into butter

I’ve never had much interest in making butter, as I tend to shy away from any kitchen process that involves slow churning and/or evokes images of lacy bonnets. However, as a result of (1) the recent nut butter salmonella scare, (2) my acquisition of a Vitamix blender (Thanks, Mom!), and (3) a bounty of figs and apples (Thanks, David and Dori!), I have begun to experiment with turning various food items into butter.

Part 1: Almond Butter

Do you remember the recent salmonella scare that led to the recall of a variety of nut butters sold at Trader Joe’s and elsewhere? I had, in fact, purchased two of the products in question and failed to notice the recall campaign alerting consumers to the virulent bacteria potentially lurking inside of them (because I live under a rock). As luck would have it, I left the nut butters (and their potentially pathogenic prokaryotic inhabitants) unopened and went on vacation. During my vacation, I was gifted a super powerful Vitamix blender. Upon my return, I read about the nut butter recall on The Kitchn. This fortuitous series of events could only mean one thing – that it was time for me to make my own almond butter. I returned my questionable nut butters, purchased a bag of almonds, and got to churning.

Okay, the process of making almond butter (or any nut butter, for that matter) doesn’t exactly resemble the slow churning of butter. I suppose you could call it high-speed, motor-assisted churning, though. Basically, you grind the nuts until they turn into a paste. So, how does that work? Although they seem quite dry on the outside, almonds contain between 36 and 60% oil by dry mass. When you grind them up, you initially get a coarse meal called almond flour. Further grinding causes the cell walls to fracture, releasing oils that turn the mixture into a smooth paste.

Almond butter is remarkably easy to make if you have a powerful food processor or blender. Just get a bag of dry roasted, unsalted almonds (about 3 cups), toss them in the blender (sans the bag, of course), and blend the heck out of them, scraping down the sides as necessary. And, voila! Creamy, delicious, one-ingredient almond butter.

Some notes:

  • I was originally dismayed to find that the recipe for almond butter in the Vitamix manual called for the addition of canola oil. Fortunately, I ignored the recipe, and it came out fine.
  • I had a hard time scraping all of the almond butter out of the blender. There was stuff stuck under the blades that was difficult to recover.
  • I read that almond butter keeps in the refrigerator for a week. I have kept the store-bought stuff in the refrigerator for much longer than a week, but I froze part of this batch to avoid rancidity.

Part 2: Apple Butter

I was recently the lucky recipient of a bag of apples from a tree in what used to be my grandparents’ backyard. These apples are a special, non-vegetarian variety, meaning that they potentially contain worms. I had recently come across some apple butter recipes, so I decided it would be interesting to turn these into apple butter (or apple/worm butter?).

Many apple butter recipes call for copious amounts of sugar. However, I took a fairly minimalist approach, as described by Oh She Glows. I liked that the recipe could be accomplished using a slow cooker rather than slaving over the stove for hours.

Here’s how to make it:

  1. Core and slice the apples, taking care to remove the wormy parts. Place them in a slow cooker. (Big slices are okay, and there’s no need to peel them.)
  2. Cover and cook overnight (8-10 hours) on low.
  3. Mash the soft apples (and worms) with a fork. It will look like chunky applesauce at this point. Allow to cool for a little while.
  4. Blend the applesauce mixture in a high-speed blender until it’s smooth and silky.
  5. Pour the pulverized apples (and worms) back into the slow cooker, but don’t replace the lid. Turn the slow cooker to high, and cook (uncovered) for 1-2 hours, stirring occasionally. This will cause the water to evaporate and thicken the apple butter.
  6. Add lemon juice and spices if desired. (I used cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and some vanilla.)

The apple butter was quite delicious, and it definitely didn’t need additional sugar. I could have reduced it more to make it thicker, but the thought of eating the equivalent of an entire apple in one spoonful of apple butter seems a little unhealthy. Now, what can you do with apple butter? I have tried stirring it into plain Greek yogurt (pretty good). I also used it to make these muffins (also pretty good).

Part 3: Fig Butter

Fig butter? Really? Okay, so I had never planned to make fig butter. I had a bounty of figs, and Bill kept giving them dirty looks, proclaiming, “These aren’t looking so good. You’d better do something with them.” I really like to eat figs raw, but there were a lot of figs, and Bill obviously wasn’t helping, so I decided it was time for an experiment.

My path to fig butter was rather circuitous. The original plan was to make stewed figs, but they turned out slimy and gross. As I am never one to waste food, I attempted to salvage the figs in a variety of ways. My final inspiration came while I was making the apple butter. Why not make fig butter?

Without further ado, here is how NOT to make fig butter:

Step 1: Stew the figs.

  1. Wash the figs and remove their stems.
  2. Place the figs in a pot and cover them with water (following instructions on the Internet for how to make stewed figs).
  3. Look quizzically at the figs as they float to the surface of the water.
  4. Pour on more water and poke at the floating figs in an attempt to sink them.
  5. Give up.
  6. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
  7. Watch as the figs change color from a beautiful purple to a ghastly green and begin to ooze a red substance into the water.
  8. Remark on how closely the green, shriveled figs resemble sea anemone.
  9. Continue to cook the figs until they become soft.
  10. Remove the figs from the red water and continue to reduce the red water into somewhat of a syrup.
  11. Scare Bill by showing him the shriveled, stewed stewed figs bathing in their own red juices.

Step 2: Freeze stewed figs into a giant ice block for use in smoothies.

  1. Freeze the stewed figs with the intention of including them in smoothies.
  2. Attempt to chisel off an individual fig from the frozen ice block.
  3. Give up.
  4. Ponder what you were thinking when you froze the stewed figs in their juices and expected to break off individual frozen figs.

Step 3: Turn the frozen, stewed figs into a strange-tasting fig sorbet.

  1. Thaw the figs partially in the refrigerator.
  2. Blend the figs on high speed until they resemble a sorbet.
  3. You have made fig sorbet. It tastes weird.

Step 4: Turn the weird fig sorbet into a more palatable fig butter.

  1. Pour the fig sorbet into a saucepan, and heat it on the stove.
  2. Reduce the “sorbet” over medium heat. Make sure to stir constantly, unless you’ve decided to go with an “exploded fig” kitchen decor theme.
  3. Add lemon, cinnamon, vanilla, and any other spices you see fit.
  4. Don’t even try to get Bill to taste the fig butter.

The fig butter was not as good as the apple butter, but it was definitely the best cooked version of the figs that I made. I had a fig and almond butter sandwich the other day, which was quite tasty. Bill is happy now that the ghastly figs are gone.