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Flour power saves Christmas!

Shedding, tangled, half-lit garlands are a holiday frustration. Remembering this from last year and probably about three years past due, I finally bought new garland, said good riddance,

and tossed the old ones.

The less aggravation the better… for ‘tis the season to be jolly.

Patience is a virtue anytime, but especially in December. There’s too much to get done and no time for aggravations. So maybe a primer on flour will cut down on holiday headaches in the kitchen.

To sift or not to sift is sometimes a question. But first, let’s talk flour. Almost anything can be turned into flour as long as it’s dry and edible but wheat is what is most often used for flour and our subject.

Most flours we buy in supermarkets are steel-ground. During the process the wheat grain is crushed with huge high-speed steel rollers; the nutritious wheat germ is stripped away and important vitamins and enzymes are destroyed in the process.

The product is a very soft and powdery flour. Stone grinding crushes grains between slow moving stones and yields a coarser flour with more nutrients and fiber. That’s important to know when choosing which flour to use in your holiday baking because flour texture can range from coarse to extremely soft. Cakes most often require softer textured flours.

Gluten is found in wheat and it’s not a bad thing except for people with celiac disease or a diagnosed gluten sensitivity. (Warning: self-diagnosing is not recommended, but that’s another article.)

It’s gluten, which is a protein,  that forms the elastic structure in the dough that develops and holds the gases that make batters rise as they bake. That’s why roll recipes require “kneading the dough until smooth and elastic” to develop the gluten.

All purpose flour is made from high-gluten hard wheat and low-gluten soft wheat. The wheat germ and the outing coating of the grain are removed in the milling process making a very fine textured flour.  But, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin and iron are added back to enrich the flour since they were also lost in the process.

All-purpose flour can be purchased as bleached or unbleached and used interchangeably.  I’ve recently switched to unbleached flour and like the results in my cookies. No salt nor leavening agents (baking soda nor baking powder) are added to all-purpose flour.

Self-rising flour is an all-purpose flour with baking powder and salt added. You can substitute all-purpose for self-rising if you add the salt and leavening agents. Getting it right might take some trial and effort, though. However, substituting self-rising for all-purpose doesn’t always work, because SR contains salt and baking powder you must adjust those ingredients in the recipe

I keep both on hand so I don’t have to substitute and adjust.

Bread flour is an unbleached, high-gluten blend best suited for yeast breads.  The higher gluten content creates more “lift” for the bread during baking. Cake flour is a particularly fine textured soft-wheat flour best for soft cakes and pastries. Whole wheat flour contains the wheat germ and therefore contains more fiber and fat. This flour goes rancid quickly and should be stored in the refrigerator for long term keeping.

It’s so important to measure accurately for best and consistent results with less aggravation.  Too much flour yields a denser product and too little might make the product fall flat. Using a kitchen scale is the easiest way to measure flour accurately. Next best is to sift first to fluff up packed flour; or take a whisk and stir up the flour to be measured for much the same result as sifting.

Here’s why sifting is so important: 1 cup unsifted all-purpose flour weighs 5 ounces while 1 cup sifted all-purpose flour weighs only 4 ounces.  That’s enough difference to mess up a good cake (and who has time for that!)  And always use the correct size measuring cup: 1 cup for 1 cup, ½ cup for ½ cup flour and so on.

Spoon sifted flour into the measuring cup and level off the top with a straight edge; do not pack!  And, do not use a liquid measuring cup for dry ingredients, your measurement will not be true.

You can double sift all-purpose flour before measuring to substitute for the same amount of cake flour in a pinch. And if the recipe says to sift dry ingredients together, you sift the flour before measuring for accuracy, then sift again to blend with the other ingredients.

Just keeping it merry and bright!

Recipe of the Week

Mother’s Orange Cake

Sift first to measure, then again to blend.

½ pound butter

3 cups sugar

4 cups sifted flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

4 eggs

1 ⅓ cups buttermilk

2 tablespoons finely grated orange rind

1 ½ cups chopped pitted dates

1 cup finely chopped pecans

1 ½ cups freshly squeezed orange juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream butter and 2 cups sugar until light and fluffy. Sift flour and baking soda and add to butter mixture, stirring until well blended. Beat in eggs, buttermilk, 1 tablespoon orange rind, dates and pecans.  Pour and scrape mixture into a 4-quart tube pan; bake 1 hour and 10 minutes. Test for doneness. Do not remove cake from pan. Make glaze: combine 1 cup sugar with juice and tablespoon orange rind. Bring to a simmer, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Gently poke top of cake with skewer or ice pick; pour juice mixture over cake. Let stand 30 minutes or longer until glaze is absorbed and cake is cool. Remove from pan. Slice to serve. Makes 10 or more servings.