Wednesday 3 April 2013

{Ratio Rally} Lemon Bars

Spring begins early here. I started noticing it on my morning walk several weeks ago; the air was still cold and dry, but there were little hints all around me that it wouldn't be that way for too much longer. Even when many parts of the country were covered in snow, here the trees had already begun to bud. Clusters of little wildflowers sprung up, tiny dashes of violet and white accents scattered throughout the patches of green that were spreading over the ground. The fresh, bright green means that winter is ending, but - to me at least - yellow is the color that means spring has arrived for good. Daffodils, forsythia, and little wild buttercups, all a cheery lemon yellow.  

Perhaps that's why lemony treats are so popular this time of year. After another not-quite-perfect batch of hot cross buns last weekend left me tired of zesting lemons and oranges, I went looking for a less complicated Easter bread to make...only to find that nearly every traditional Easter bread required just as much zest! It's true of course that citrus fruits are some of the only things in season in these chilly months, and their fresh bright scent is welcome after a winter of rich and hearty foods. Yet oranges, limes, and grapefruit don't seem to be associated with spring baking quite the way lemons are - I like to think it's at least partly due to their vivid color, bright and welcome as the sunshine that's warming the ground back to life. 

Lemon bars are one of these quintessential springtime sweets. They also happen to be one of the treats I've missed most since I've been gluten-free, so when I saw Meaghan at The Wicked Good Vegan had chosen shortbread for this month's theme, I knew just what to do! I hadn't had a lemon bar in more than 5 years...until making these, that is! These are every bit as good as the ones I remember - tart and luscious lemon curd on top of a buttery, not-too-sweet crust. 

They are so simple to make, too. I would say it's "easy as pie," but this is actually easier than pie - it's as easy as "1-2-3"! Really, that's the ratio: 1 part sugar:2 parts fat:3 parts flour. For this particular recipe, 1 part = 85 g, but as with other ratio recipes, you can scale it up or down as long as you keep the proportions the same.

A few notes before we begin:
Because the shortbread crust is so simple, the quality of your ingredients is important - for the most flavor, try to find cultured or "European-style" butter from grass-fed dairy (one common brand is Kerrygold). Likewise, you will taste the flours more than you would in something with lots of other flavors such as brownies or gingerbread, and because there's very little moisture in the crust, you'll notice the flours' texture more too. Keep these things in mind if you want to substitute one of the flours! I'm lucky to have a local source for chestnut flour, but I know it might be hard to find in some places - if you can't find it, you might try sorghum flour or more millet flour as a substitute. 

This same shortbread recipe can be made in an 8x11 pan or a 9x13 pan, depending on whether you like a very thin crust or a more substantial crust. (The bars in the picture were made in an 8x11.) However, you'll notice there are two recipes for the lemon curd topping depending on which size pan you use, so you can have a nice thick lemon layer regardless of how thin you want the crust to be. (Sorry about the grainy picture quality - I was dealing with less-than-optimal photography conditions, to say the least!)

Shortbread Crust
160 g tapioca starch
50 g almond meal
25 g millet flour
20 g chestnut flour
1/2 tsp Pomona's citrus pectin
3/4 tsp salt
85 g sugar
1-2 tsp lemon zest
170 g high-quality unsalted butter, slightly softened

The brown flecks are from the almond meal; use blanched almond meal if you prefer a smoother appearance.

Lemon Topping
If using 8x11 pan:
140-160 mL lemon juice (around 2/3 cup)
300 g sugar
30-50 g tapioca starch
4 eggs, at room temperature
1 T or more lemon zest
Powdered sugar, as needed, for decoration after baking
If using 9x13 pan:
210-230 mL lemon juice (not quite a cup)
450 g sugar
45-75 g tapioca starch
6 eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 - 2 T lemon zest
Powdered sugar, as needed, for decoration after baking

Mix the flours, pectin, and salt in one bowl, and mix the zest into the sugar in a smaller bowl. Cream the sugar-zest mixture into the butter until well blended (use paddle attachment if using stand mixer). Gradually blend in the flour mixture until dough forms a ball, scraping sides of the bowl occasionally. (If the dough is very soft or paste-like, you might want to chill it briefly before shaping - it should be stiff enough to handle.) Press the dough evenly into the baking dish with your hands and bake for 20-30 minutes, depending on thickness, until lightly browned and flaky. Let it cool somewhat before adding the topping - it will firm up as it cools, which will prevent the liquid from soaking in too much.

Meanwhile, mix up the lemon topping: Combine sugar, starch, and zest, then beat in the eggs. Gradually add the lemon juice and mix until smooth. Don't whip a lot of air into it though - it should be like custard, not foamy! Pour the mixture evenly over the crust and return to the oven for another 20 minutes, until topping is set. Don't worry about the browning - that's what the powdered sugar is for! Make sure the bars are completely cooled before dusting with powdered sugar and slicing - mine are a bit messy-looking at the edges because I was a little too impatient (it may help to chill them first). 

Store bars in the refrigerator.

Sunday 17 March 2013

Brown Bread, Simplified

Hello again everyone! I know, I've been gone awhile. (Again.) I won't go into that now, though - this post will be a quick one. As you may have noticed, food-related sites in the past week or so have been filled with pictures of Irish-themed recipes, some authentic - lamb stew, scones and tea breads, colcannon - and others...well, not so much (green cupcakes, anyone?). And then, of course, there's soda bread. Many, many different types of bread get called "Irish soda bread." Some are more traditional than others, of course, but pretty much all of them are tasty in their own way. And, well, I wanted to contribute my personal favorite type to the mix - a hearty, homestyle brown bread, with a tender crumb and the pleasant flavor of buttermilk. Even the name is straightforward: "brown bread." Although I have posted a recipe for this type of bread before, this version is easier to make and has a simplified ingredients list. It's a pretty "forgiving" recipe as well - I've mentioned a few possible substitutions below. I've made it with a number of different flour combinations in the past and most have turned out fine, so don't be afraid to experiment if you don't have or can't use one of the flours called for. Whether you're looking for a last-minute bread to have with dinner, or simply looking for something that's lovely with butter or jam, give it a try! 

Brown Bread
makes 1 loaf

30 g buckwheat flour
30 g brown rice flour
30 g white rice flour
15 g potato flour (not starch)
15 g chestnut flour (if you can't find it, may substitute bean flour, oat flour, or extra buckwheat flour)
70 g potato starch
100 g tapioca starch
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
12 g unrefined sugar or brown sugar
8 g psyllium husks
3/8 tsp Pomona's citrus pectin
12 g cold butter
240 g buttermilk (or substitute, see note below)
1/2 tsp cream of tartar (if needed, see note below)

Optional, but recommended:
30 g rolled oats and/or 30 g steel-cut oats
Extra rolled oats for top of loaf

In a small bowl combine buckwheat, rice, potato, and chestnut flours with the psyllium, pectin, salt, and sugar. Cut in butter until mixture has uniform consistency. In another bowl combine starches, baking powder, and baking soda (and cream of tartar, if using) - set aside. 

Pour buttermilk into the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, blend in the first flour mixture (and optional oats, if using) and let stand for ~20 minutes. Preheat oven to 205º C/400º F, with baking stone or cast-iron skillet on middle rack. (You can use a regular baking sheet, but I find having a heavy, heat-retaining baking surface helps the bread rise better and bake more evenly.) 

Once the oven is hot, blend starch mixture into the wet batter; it should form a soft but shapeable dough. If it still resembles a batter, add a spoonful of starch and/or rolled oats until it comes together (see note on buttermilk below). As soon as the dough comes together, dump/scrape it out of the bowl onto a floured surface or baking sheet and form it into a roughly circular shape; it will be soft and sticky, that's ok. You must work quickly now since the leavening is in the dough! (If you want oats on the crust like in my picture, pat them onto the loaf at this point.) Score an "x" across the top of the loaf and transfer it to the baking stone (or place baking sheet in oven). 

Bake for ~1 hour, until loaf sounds hollow when tapped. Immediately after removing the bread from the oven, wrap it up in a dry tea towel to cool (this helps keep it moist) - let it cool for at least an hour. 

- Buttermilk: most buttermilk in stores is stronger-tasting and thicker than old-fashioned buttermilk. It's essentially like thin, slightly salty yogurt - it's generally made as a separate product these days rather than the traditional liquid left over from making cultured butter. The modern kind can be identified by the ingredients, as it will often have thickeners, emulsifiers, and other stuff added; in my experience it doesn't always work the same in baking. If you can find old-fashioned buttermilk, go for it! If not, you may want to thin out plain yogurt with some milk until it is pourable consistency, or make your own "buttermilk" as follows: stir 30 g of yogurt into 210 g warm milk and let stand for a couple of hours until thickened slightly. If you use a substitute, though, it may not be sour/acidic enough to react with the baking soda completely - in that case you may want to add 1/2 tsp cream of tartar.