Saturday, October 8, 2016

Cocoa Powder Tasting (with bonus Baking Chocolate Tasting)

I didn't get a photo of the full array for some reason

Katya got me hooked on Penzey's cocoa powder when she gave me some for Christmas.  I'd never bought anything other than Hershey's or Trader Joe's cocoa powder before--it had never occurred to me that there were any alternatives.  It really opened my eyes!

Palate Cleansers
I suddenly got into buying cocoa powder and had accumulated a large stash so I decided it was time to get scientific.  What is the best cocoa powder?  Are the expensive specialty brands of cocoa powder worth it?  I invited Kristi and Katya over for a blind cocoa powder tasting to find out.  They both contributed some varieties to the mix so we had 7 in all.

I put 1 Tbsp of cocoa powder in each of 7 mini-mason jars and had my husband randomize them.  To taste we added 1/4 cup warmed almond milk and 3 drops of stevia to each.  We tasted them blind, and after we had ranked them my husband revealed which was which.

Tasting notes are given in order of Katya, Kristi, Trena.

The links are NOT affiliate links and we received nothing for free or discounted--these are just regular purchases.  I don't know the prices of all the in-store purchases, unfortunately.

Cocoa Powder

1.  Morning Pep (random Amazon purchase, was $0.56/oz when purchased but it is out of stock or discontinued)
-Rich, even, no bitterness
-Non-bitter, rich but not complex
-Rich, deep taste, not bitter.  Not a lot of notes/complexity.  Medium dark.

2.  Ghirardelli ($0.62/oz)
-Milk chocolate flavor versus dark chocolate flavor, bitter bite
-A bit bitter, not rich, creamier and milkier
-Slightly chalky, not a strong flavor--milk chocolate flavor.  Some bitterness.  Light.

Jars Ready for Tasting
3.  Hershey Special Dark (we did not have any regular Hershey's)
-Pastey, no rich chocolate flavor
-Not chocolate at all, chalky/pastey/very dark/no chocolate
-Very dark, barnyard flavors, dirt, no

4.  Trader Joe's
-"Milky" taste, not much flavor.
-Not flavorful but no problems.  Creamy and milky.
-Milky.  Not flavorful.  Inoffensive.  Very light.

5.  Penzey's High Fat Cocoa Powder ($0.90/oz in largest size)
-Nice smooth chocolate flavor, slightly milky to cut any major bitterness.  Would be good for hot cocoa.
-Rich & creamy with chocolate flavor (which means a bit bitter)
-Slightly bitter but works well, tiny bit of dirt but the dirt flavor grows.  Strongly chocolate.  Medium color.  Could use less sweetener with this one.

Different Colors of Chocolate
6. Caillebaut ($0.93/oz in 1 kg size)
-Deep chocolate flavor, nice aftertone (favorite so far)
-Mixes very well--smooth texture.  Strongly chocolatey with good aftertaste.  Medium-dark color.
-Rich & creamy with complex chocolate flavor (a bit of bitter)

7.  Aldi's
-Milky, no depth, not bad but not memorable
-Not strongly flavored, decent chocolate aftertaste.  Medium color.
-Not rich, creamy and milky

Katya's final ranking:  Caillebaut, Penzey's, Ghirardelli, Morning Pep, Aldi's, Trader Joe's, Hershey's Special Dark

Kristi's final ranking:  Penzey's and Caillebaut best; Morning Pep, Aldi's, Ghiradelli next; lowest rank Trader Joe's and Hershey's Special Dark

Trena's final ranking (I am not a good taster and got serious tasting fatigue):  Aldi's, Caillebaut, Morning Pep, Penzey's, Ghiardelli, Trader Joe's, Hershey's Special Dark

I did an unblinded taste test on my own later after my sister gave me some Costco cocoa powder to try.  I didn't look at my previous notes before doing so, but it's interesting how consistent they are.  Maybe I'm not as bad a taster as I thought.  This time I ranked Caillebaut highest, followed by Morning Pep.  Costco was last, alas--I'd been hoping there was a good quality less expensive cocoa powder!
1.  Caillebaut.  Very intense chocolate, very smooth velvety mouthfeel.  Pleasingly bitter edge.
2.  Morning Pep.  Nice but not intense chocolatey taste, not a lot of bitter, less smooth than Caillebaut.
3.  Penzey's.  Grassy, vegetal taste, slight bitterness, very slight chalkiness.
4.  Costco.  Strong bitter front note, but kind of hollow finish.  Not as chocolatey as others, slight edge of chalkiness.

Bottom Line:  Expensive cocoa powder is worth it for the true chocolate lover, and Cook's Illustrated is right as usual in saying Caillebaut is the best.
The best grocery store brand is Ghirardelli, but it ranked well behind Caillebaut and Penzey's.


Baking Chocolate

We also tasted baking chocolate.  It should be noted that Katya and Kristi found this process disgusting.  I like super dark chocolate so I thought it was fairly enjoyable.

Randomized Tasters
1.  Baker's
-No flavor, distant chocolate taste
-Very little flavor, waxy, not much bitterness, not very interesting, no melting
-No flavor, no bitter, no interesting

2.  Guittard
-Melts/dissolves--super aftertaste
-Creamier, not gritty, bitter
-Melts better.  Bitter, good chocolate flavor.  Would eat this straight.

3. Trader Joe's Huila Single Origin
-Chalky, major aftertaste, lingers not in a good way
-Chalky and bitter start, ends creamier
-Very strong.  Good melting.  Aftertaste much less bitter.  Strongly chocolatey.  Best for baking.

4. Ghirardelli
-Not strong, some chocolate undertone
-Best for eating
-More acid on the palate, almost sour.  Not strongly chocolatey.

Katya and Kristi refused to rank the baking chocolate, finding them all repulsive.
My ranking:  Guittard, Trader Joe's, Ghirardelli, Baker's

Since this tasting, I've been chopping up some Guittard to add to recipes with chocolate chips or chopped dark chocolate (like chocolate chip cookies or Hello Dollies).  It ensures an intense chocolate bitterness, but since it's mixed in with sweetened chocolate it's not offputting.

What are your favorites?

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Baking Club - The Early Months

May 2015 (Kristi hosted) – Brownies

Best brownies were a tie…between the same recipe. Annie made Alice Medrich's Best Cocoa Brownies . And since Heidi wasn't able to join, Kristi made her go-to recipe -- Smitten Kitchen’s Best Cocoa Brownies -- which are “adapted from” (but basically the same as) Alice Medrich’s recipe. And we all agreed Ghiradelli boxed brownies tasted like they had no flavor after sampling so many good homemade recipes, especially the cocoa brownies, which were so easy.

July 2015 (Katie hosted) – Chocolate Chip Cookies

Trena’s butter-based Tollhouse with an overnight refrigerator aging of the dough was the clear winner.

September 2015 (Trena hosted) – No Bake Desserts

January 2016 (Heidi hosted – Apples)

Kristi brought an apple crisp from King Arthur -- doubled the topping for good measure.

April 2016 (Kristi hosted) – Biscuits and accompaniments

Best biscuits were Kristi’s from Mark Bittman, which are equally good with yogurt or buttermilk, and all purpose or whole wheat pastry flour. And everyone loved Heidi’s Lime Curd from Ina Garten.

We also did a butter tasting. Land-O-Lakes was the clear winner, with Kirkland from Costco a close second. Kristi was very disappointed that Aldi's brand was the worst (very funky after taste), and everyone was surprised that Plugra & Kerry Gold were solidly mediocre.


Clockwise from footed tray: Katie's, Annie's, Heidi's (center), Bondurant's, Trena's, Kristi's

The debate of the day was French v. Italian.  In the end, Annie got the edge with her Italian macaron from Bouchon.

Katie is a macaron pro, and used the French method to make both a traditional and an Earl Gray.  For the Earl Gray, she opened two tea bags and added the contents to the almond flour/confectioner's sugar, then sifting out the large pieces.  For the color, she used one drop of blue liquid food coloring.  Her recipe uses volume, and not weight.  It resulted in a nice loft and a soft bite.  The club was amazed that her unfussy recipe (no sifting for the traditional flavor, volume measurement, unaged egg whites, liquid food coloring) resulted in such a perfect result.

Kristi tried French, Italian, and a vegan version with aquafaba.  All had wildly different instructions on baking temperature and time, and the aquafaba version required letting the macarons sit in the warm oven with the door open for 10 minutes afterward.  Because of a time crunch, they sat in the oven for 6 hours.  This may have contributed to them being firm.

This was Annie's first time trying macarons and she nailed them.  She used an Italian method recipe from Bouchon, which involves making a syrup and pouring the syrup into whisking egg whites to make a stabilized meringue, which is then folded into a paste of almond flour, confectioner's sugar, and unbeaten egg white.  The Bouchon recipe recommended letting the piped macaron batter sit for only 10 minutes, compared to up to an hour for other recipes.  Her macarons had an impossibly high loft, a soft bite, and were filled with a divine salted caramel.

Heidi made two batches of French macarons, turning to Martha Stewart after finding that the first batch showed the piping lines and cracked.  She found Martha's recipe more reliable, except for the recommended 13 minutes bake at 350, which was both too hot and too long.  She went with a cardamom shell and pistachio filling that was a lovely combination.  She sifted the first batch four times, and the second batch only once--but the second batch came out better.

Light pink: Italian; Orange: French
Trena made both French and Italian macarons.  For the Italian she used a recipe from Anges de Sucre.  While the result looked and tasted good, it was chewier than expected from a macaron.  For the French recipe she turned to Sally's Baking Addiction, which had a number of helpful tips.  As with Kristi's experience, the two recipes were very different in oven temperature and time.  The Italian macarons were baked at 335 for 15 minutes and were very dry, while the French were a tiny bit underbaked at 325 for 10 minutes.  She decided to try 325 for 11 minutes regardless of what recipe she tries next.  She didn't flavor either shell, and filled them both with a grapefruit curd from Martha Stewart in order to use up her egg yolks.

Bondurant relied on America's Test Kitchen, which normally turns out perfectly engineered scientific recipes.  The steps to making the batter were simplified compared to other methods, and it called for very large 2 inch circles.  The cookies were more like sugar cookies without the crisp skin and high loft of a traditional macarons.  Her improvised buttercream filling was delicious.

Topics of Discussion

-Baking Time and Temperature.  The recipes varied in the time, temperature, and baking method.  Temperatures ranged from as high as 350 (with the oven heated to 400 before putting in the macarons) to as low as 225.  For those who made multiple batches, the consensus was that the best temperature is somewhere in the low 300s for 10-12 minutes.

-Blending and Sifting.  Most recipes called for blending the almond flour and confectioner's sugar in the food processor followed by sifting to have the finest grain possible.  Trena did not use a food processor, and sifted once.  Most of the others did both, but sifting ranged from one time up to four times.  Katie didn't sift at all.  The consensus is that a single sift is sufficient with good quality ingredients.  Everyone in the club used Bob's Red Mill almond flour.

-Aging Egg Whites.  The superstition of aging separated egg whites in order to allow some moisture to evaporate dominated the recipes, and most dutifully aged their egg whites from 10-24 hours.  However, Annie and Katie did not, and both had excellent results.   On the topic of separating egg whites, all agreed that a 3 bowl method is best:  crack the egg, separate the white into a small bowl, pop the yolk into another small bowl, and only after the separation is successful dump the separated egg whites into the bowl for egg whites.  This means that if you break a yolk, it's contained to the egg white in the small interim bowl, rather than contaminating the whole batch of egg whites.  

-Resting Piped Batter.  Another dominating technique in the recipes required the baker to pipe the batter onto a silicone baking mat or parchment paper and then rest the piped circles for up to an hour to allow a skin to form.  Annie's recipe called for resting only 10 minutes.  She said her first two trays came out perfectly, but the third exploded with violently cracked tops.  There's no saying if resting had anything to do with this.

-Piping Technique.  Bakers tried both the "swirl" technique--rotating the piping bag in a circular motion--and the "swell" technique--holding the bottom of the piping bag very near the piping surface and letting the batter swell around the tip until it is the desired size.  The "swell" technique was agreed to be better.  Katie shared a tip of wetting a fingertip and using it to smooth the peak from pulling away the piping bag.  Kristi and Trena agreed that a piping tip isn't needed, just cut the tip off the piping bag.

-Weight versus Volumetric Measurement.  Only Katie used a volumetric recipe while everyone else used recipes that called for ingredients by weight, though Kristi's Mary Berry recipe gave measurements for the dry ingredients by weight and then called for "four egg whites," rather than a weight.  Given that the participants found the weight of egg whites per egg was unpredictable, this inconsistency in the recipe was a frustration.  Though Katie had a great result, the rest of the club is too scared to abandon the kitchen scale for such a delicate operation.

As you can see, there was a lot to talk about with macarons--we chatted non-stop for more than two hours and kept almost entirely on topic.  A couple of us had failed macarons in our past and were thrilled to find success this time.  Were we charging retail, we produced hundreds of dollars worth of macarons.  Kristi picked up "control" macarons from a beloved local bakery and we agreed that the most successful of ours were just as good.  We may have found a new addiction.

Saturday, January 30, 2016


For our Fall meeting we decided to do apples, although busy schedules pushed "Fall" into January.  Clearly we enjoyed the pretending we were still enjoying golden leaves and crisp days rather than the dull cold of mid-winter because we ended up with six very different apple dishes.

Heidi, the hostess for this event, turned out a stunning lattice-weave apple pie that was exactly as delicious as it looks.  The buttery crust was almost more like pastry than pie crust, and the bourbon apple filling perfectly complemented the richness of the crust.  She was crowned queen of the event.

Trena made two recipes.  The first was an apple dumpling recipe from her husband's great grandmother.  His aunt had discovered the recipe after he proposed to Trena using Great Grandma Parker's engagement ring and Aunt Jeanette started going through family history to see what she could gather (she remembered spending summers with her Grandma Parker as a child).  The second was a very modern Rustic Apple Cake that was almost like a giant baked apple fritter; it is a very thin batter poured over a ton of sliced apples.  

It was interesting to compare and contrast the recipes.  The dumpling recipe is a frugal, basic recipe that a modest rural Canadian housewife could have mixed up with what was on hand:  flour and baking powder with a little bit of butter (or lard) and milk, baked in a sugar syrup with again just a little butter (1 1/2 tsp).  No eggs, and no seasoning at all (Trena added some lemon juice to the syrup to try to add some flavor).  The Rustic Apple Cake is very rich with eggs and coconut oil, in addition to milk, and calls for whole wheat pastry flour rather than the refined white flour that was the gold standard in Great Grandma's day.

All agreed that while it was interesting to taste a genuine vintage dessert, the dumplings were frankly not very good.  Way too much pastry to fruit ratio, the pastry was rather gummy from being poached in the syrup, and the taste was very basic without any seasoning.

Opinions were mixed on the cake.  It is definitely Trena's style, with a ratio of about 65% apples to 35% batter.  Others would have preferred something more cake-like.

 Katie's cake was incredibly delicious, but the true star was the sticky toffee sauce to drizzle over it.  All the members agreed that we could eat the sauce with a spoon, and conjectured about other desserts we could use it on.  Ice cream definitely came to mind, and consummate hostess Heidi saved the day with some vanilla gelato in her freezer so we could test our hypothesis.  We were right.  It was delicious.

 Kristi made a classic apple crisp, the perfect spur-of-the-moment weeknight Fall dessert.  The buttery oat crumble was hearty and the topping ratio was perfect with plenty of apple to go with it.

Annie made an apple bundt cake, with a ribbon of apples through the center.  The group agreed that this sounded like a good idea, but in practice it would have been more tasty and had a more consistent texture if the apples had been incorporated throughout the batter.

Discussion Topics

-Apple Varieties.  We agreed that in general using two or more varieties of apple enhances a dish.  Particularly for pies, some apples are tart, some sweet, some stay firm, and some practically melt.  Together, they are perfect while using only one might not yield the tart-sweet-crisp-gooey mouthfeel you want.

-Ratio of Fruit to Pastry.  The question is always, is this more of a dessert or more of a fruit?  The members had varying opinions, with some preferring the fruit to be more of a seasoning to the real dish, and others preferring just enough dough or batter to hold the dish together.