Taste and the Function of Form

How important is how your food looks? In recent years, a variety of new studies have cropped up studying the relationship of how food is manifested and how we experience it. While the majority of how we taste is directly connected to our sense of smell, what we see on our plates may have more impact that you think.

There are some functional ways in which form affects flavour. New technologies at the Tokyo Medical and Dental University have confirmed that the shape of a wine glass directly affects the flavours experienced through manipulating the distribution of flavour-enhancing ethanol vapours. (Newton, Scientific American) In 2012, a consumer uproar arose over changes in the Cadbury formula. Cadbury, however, changed its shape from square block to rounded pieces, but did not change the recipe. Based on prior sensory tests by the Nestle Research Centre, the round shape encouraged faster melting, affecting release of flavour compound and the ensuing perception. (Scott-Thomas)

But further research seems to indicate that the mental perception of shape alone may be enough to sway our palettes. Studies are being done indicating everything from color to sounds actually changes the way something tastes to the individual. (This article giving some breakdown on a slew of new research being delved into.) For us as bakers, hoping to perhaps innovate in our field, even adapting traditional recipes, this could be a crucial tool.

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Flaky Scallion Pancakes

Green onion cakes (also known as scallion pancakes) have been a staple of festival season in Edmonton for as long as I can remember. Savoury, greasy, and aromatic with green onion, amongst the sweetness of ice creams and mini donuts, the simplicity of fries, ketchup and the typical hot dog, green onion cakes were the standout in flavour and texture. Having grown up with my family working the Fringe, it’s one of those sensory memories intrinsically tied to the summer – inimitable.

At least that was the impression I got when I tried to recreate the magic at home 10 years ago. In the chill of winter and yearning for summer sensations, I tried my darnedest to recreate those token treats. But no matter how onion filled, how deep fried, how desperately encouraged each pancake was as it sizzled in the pan, the centre was always doughy and damp, making the crisp, well browned exterior a waste, dulling the flavours of the inclusions added. Burned by my failures, I retreated from my google searches, and thought not to try again until recently. Today’s search revealed what had previously eluded me, and I found my green onion cake redemption.

J. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats endured a similar initial experience to mine. “Fried dough and scallions, right? How hard could it be?” Upon discovering how to really make scallion pancakes, he took to the internet to share the two secrets: hot water dough, and lamination.

Hot Water Dough

By using a hot water dough, you denature the protein. Instead of being elastic and tenacious, the dough becomes more plastic, resulting in a dough with enough gluten to support mild lamination, but a short, chewy bite.

Lamination

The dough is laminated through being brushed with sesame seed oil, (at this point sprinkled with green onions,) rolled, wound like a snail and then flattened, creating flaky layers of evenly distributed flavour. This can even be done more than once, that flattened snail being rolled, wound and flattened again for even flakier pancakes.

Included below is López-Alt’s recipe for Extra Flakey Scallion Pancakes. Go forth and recreate those summer memories, any time of the year.

Extra Flakey Scallion Pancakes

For the Pancakes:
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting work surface
1 cup boiling water
Up to 1/4 cup toasted sesame seed oil
2 cups thinly sliced scallion greens

For the Dipping Sauce:
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Chinkiang or rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon finely sliced scallion greens
1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
2 teaspoons sugar

To Cook:
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Kosher salt

1. Place flour in bowl of food processor (see note). With processor running, slowly drizzle in about 3/4 of boiling water. Process for 15 seconds. If dough does not come together and ride around the blade, drizzle in more water a tablespoon at a time until it just comes together. Transfer to a floured work surface and knead a few times to form a smooth ball. Transfer to a bowl, cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap, and allow to rest for 30 minutes at room temperature, or up to overnight in the fridge.

2. Divide dough into four even pieces and roll each into a smooth ball. Working one ball at a time, roll out into a disk roughly 8-inches in diameter on a lightly floured surface. Using a pastry brush, paint a very thin layer of sesame oil over the top of the disk. Roll disk up like a jelly roll, then twist roll into a tight spiral, tucking the end underneath. Flatten gently with your hand, then re-roll into an 8-inch disk.

3. Paint with another layer or sesame oil, sprinkle with 1/2 cup scallions, and roll up like a jelly roll again. Twist into a spiral, flatten gently, and re-roll into a 7-inch disk. Repeat steps two and three with remaining pancakes.

4. Combine all the sauce ingredients and set aside at room temperature.

5. Heat oil in an 8-inch nonstick or cast-iron over medium-high heat until shimmering and carefully slip pancake into the hot oil. Cook, shaking the pan gently until first side is an even golden brown, about 2 minutes. Carefully flip with a spatula or tongs (be careful not to splash the oil), and continue to cook, shaking pan gently, until second side is even golden brown, about 2 minutes longer. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Season with salt, cut into 6 wedges. Serve immediately with sauce for dipping. Repeat with remaining 3 pancakes.

Tangzhong, or Water Roux

Tangzhong is a paste of flour and water that has been cooked to fully gelatinize the present starches (then cooled before addition to your bread).

The effects of water roux can be two fold. The supplementary gelatinized starches further bind water in your bread, creating loaves or buns that stay “fresh” and soft for longer, and in binding that same water, lightly restrict gluten formation. This mild restriction means that while enough gluten forms to create good structure around the new excess of gelatinized starches, there is less of a hard protein structure to exacerbate stiffness as the bread ages.

Tangzhong is generally recommended to be mixed from a 1:5 ratio of flour to water, taken from already present total weights much in the same way one could cover a recipe to include a levain. This mixture is cooked, stirring, until it reaches 65ºC/150ºF. This slurry, cooled, is then added to your mix with your flour and liquid.

On Pastry Chef Online, Jennifer Field integrates tangzhong into a pain au lait. Having previously tested tangzhong use, she deviates slightly from the typical methodology. She uses milk in place of water (perfectly sensible in a pain au lait) and decreases the ratio difference between liquid and flour to create a thicker slurry. She integrates several bread techniques, such as autolyse making this a complex, but rewarding recipe.

Tangzhong Water Roux Pain au Lait
Recipe from Pastry Chef Online
(some steps modified for readability)

What You Need
For the tangzhong
* 6 oz whole milk
* 1.2 oz bread flour
For the Dough
* All the tangzhong
* 6 oz. whole milk
* 15.8 oz bread flour
* 4 teaspoons granulated sugar
* 1¼ teaspoons active dry yeast (from a batch of yeast you know is alive and kicking)
* 1⅛ teaspoon (7 grams) kosher salt (picky, but there you have it)
* 3.25 oz butter, cut into small pieces and allowed to get very soft

What To Do
For the tangzhong
1. Whisk together the flour and milk.
2. Once there are no lumps remaining, cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture has evenly thickened and is nice and smooth.
3. Remove from the heat and…
For the Bread
1. Pour the 6 oz of milk into the tangzhong, whisking until smooth. (This will lower the temperature so you don’t have to wait before continuing.)
2. To your mixing bowl, add all the tangzhong/milk mixture and all the rest of the ingredients except for the butter.
3. With the dough hook, mix on low speed for one minute, or until the dough just comes together. There might be some loose flour in the bowl, but don’t worry about it. It will get incorporated in the next step when you add the butter.
4. Cover the mixer bowl with a lint-free towel (you can leave the bowl on the mixer) and let rest for 30 minutes. This rest (autolyse) allows some gluten to form before you even start kneading.
5. After the rest, turn the mixer on medium-low speed and add the butter in several additions over the course of about three minutes. The dough will be a wreck–sticky, buttery, messy. Worry not.
6. Turn the mixer on medium speed and knead for 7 minutes.
7. Cover the bowl again and let rest for 20 minutes.
8. Remove the towel and knead on medium speed for 7 more minutes.
9. Test the dough. It should be somewhat tacky, very extensible (you can stretch it out really easily) and smooth. Check the dough with the windowpane test. If you can stretch out a wee piece of the dough until it is taught and translucent like bubble gum, you’re good to go.
10. Put the covered dough in the warm and moist microwave–leave the mug of water in there–and let double in size, 45 minutes-an hour.
11. Once the dough has doubled, turn it out onto a clean work surface–no flour. Lightly press the dough into a rough 9″ square.
12. Fold the dough into thirds like a letter. Then, fold it in half–it will seem an impossible task, but just start at one side and sort of push the dough down in the center of your letter fold and pinch the top and bottom edges together. Keep doing this all the way down the length of your dough. Now you will have a fat cylinder of dough about a foot long.
13. Roll the dough over (smooth side up) and hold it like a bowed up slinky.
14. Fit the dough into a pan-sprayed 9″x5″ loaf pan so the slinky’s ends are down in the bottom of the pan. Then press the dough down a bit to even it out and allow it to sit snugly in the pan.
15. Heat the mug of water for another minute or so, and spray the top of the loaf with pan spray.
16. Cover with plastic wrap and place back in the cozy microwave with its little mug friend.
17. Go ahead and set a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350ºF.
18. Let the rise until it has not quite doubled in size–it will probably rise about an inch or so above the lip of the loaf pan. This will take about 30-45 minutes.
19. Once the dough has risen nicely, place in the preheated oven and bake until the loaf is a deep golden brown. It doesn’t need any egg wash or anything. The loaf should sound hollow when tapped and the internal temperature will be between 205ºF and 210ºF.
20. Tip the bread out of the pan and onto a wire rack to cool. Let cool at least an hour.
21. Store at room temperature in an airtight container for 3-4 days. For longer storage, pre-slice, wrap well and freeze. Pull out slices as needed and leave the rest frozen.

The scientific basis of tangzhong’s successful use is fairly straight forward to the educated baker; staling is caused by the migration of moisture out of the starch, resulting in it’s degelatinization. Use fully gelatinized starch in greater amounts, hold on to more water for longer, have less degelatinization. Simple stuff. Even the reduction in gluten formation, while it may not spring immediately to mind, is easily confirmable by any book detailing the science of gluten formation. However, The science behind tangzhong is fairly difficult to find authoritative confirmation for.

Said to originally be from Japan, it was proliferated throughout south-east asia in the 1990s via the book 65º Bread Doctor by Yvonne Chen. (cited in Cookipedia) This history seems to be generally accepted in the majority of descriptions found of tangzhong, which is indeed found in such popular japanese bread products as Hokkaido milk bread. My attempts to get the information straight from the horses mouth (or at least the book the horse wrote) was waylaid by the fact that 65º Bread Doctor is in Chinese. I can find no other mention of tangzhong anywhere that does not either cite Chen’s book as the source, or is entirely uncorroborated. Tangzhong works through basic, well known mechanisms, but short Yvonne Chen’s contributions might not be so readily available through the internet to the home or novice baker.

(If you know of any further books that mention tangzhong please comment! I would love to learn more about this fascinating medium.)

Interesting ways to experiment in the future: how would a tangzhong work in tandem with a levain? Tangzhong can be made from a variety of non gluten alternatives suggested on Pastry Chef Online (which seems very successful in Gluten Free on a Shoestring.) What difference is there between such alternatives?