Archive for June, 2010

28
Jun
10

How To Make And Use A Slow-Cooker Temperature Control

An add-on slow cooker temperature control for less than $10? That’s the cost in parts, because it’s a do-it-yourself project, a re-purposed light dimmer I discovered at The Frugal Filmmaker site. This article is about how I built it and how I reworked it as a slow cooker temperature control.

To someone who does a lot of LTB in a slow-cooker oven (as I do), the most important accessory after a nice set of analog and digital thermometers is an external temperature control for fine tuning the amount of heat inside the cooker. Most slow cookers have only 3 built-in heat settings: warm, low and high, which can be switched in some sequence to maintain a target temperature. Although I prefer slow cookers as my LTB oven (it’s more versatile and has a smaller carbon footprint than an oven or a toaster oven), all that switching to steady the temperature can be exasperating.

In LTB, a relatively stable oven temperature is important to minimize the formation of acrylamides and other toxic compounds in baked foods as well as for testing recipes. Beyond baking, a precise, steady heat control is mandatory when the slow cooker operates as a food dehydrator or a yogurt incubator or a sous vide water oven. Home cooks experimenting with sous-vide techniques pioneered rigging a slow cooker as a water oven by plugging it into a light dimmer to fine-adjust the amount of electrical current flowing in the cooker’s heating coil, and hence fine-adjust the temperature inside the crock.

THERMOSTATS VS. DIMMERS

There are two types of add-on temperature controls for slow cookers: thermostats and dimmers. Dimmers are the same thing as ordinary household light dimmers except that a slow cooker replaces the light bulb. Turning the dimmer’s knob (or moving a slide) varies brightness in lighting or heat in a cooker. At a stable temperature, the heat going into the cooker is balanced with the heat being dissipated through the lid and the crock. Because dimmers don’t have the ability to measure temperature, the temperature inside the cooker can drift (the dimmer has to be adjusted periodically), but the heat is relatively steady and continuous.

Thermostats, like the SousVideMagic from Fresh Meals Solutions and the Cooking Controllers from Aubrey Instruments, are basically dimmers with a thermometer probe to read and automatically regulate the cooker’s temperature. The user plugs the cooker into the thermostat, enters the target temperature, hangs the thermometer probe in the crock and the thermostat takes care of the rest. Thermostats regulate heat by cycling the cooker on and off. A thermostat maintains an AVERAGE set temperature; the actual temperature can range above and below the target temperature.

Thermostats can cost 5 times as much as the cooker itself, and at that level of investment, I would seriously consider purchasing a high-end countertop oven with an accurate internal thermostat. Ovens heat faster (and consumer more power), although a slow cooker is still more versatile (those ovens can’t do sous-vide cooking, for example).

Commercially-made inline lamp dimmers and dimmer boxes (sold in lighting and home improvement stores) can function as temperature controls, if they are rated to handle AT LEAST the amount of power the cooker will draw. A lot of those desk lamp slide-type dimmers, for example, are rated for 300W. Since the average large slow cooker is rated just under 300W, those dimmers are not recommended for large cookers, because the safety margin is non-existent. Plus, the travel on slide adjusters can be as little as 1 inch, so fine adjustments are difficult or impossible. A homemade dimmer box, on the other hand, can be assembled with more robust parts and at less cost.

DIMMER BOX PROJECT

A search online pulled up several light dimmer projects, but the Frugal Filmmaker’s inline dimmer switch was the cheapest and didn’t compromise quality. It costs less than $8 US to build (2010 prices), and ALL the parts can be sourced from a Home Depot store (there’s a Home Depot a few blocks from where I live). Other home improvement stores with an electrical section should have the identical or similar parts.  It’s so easy to build that the author (Scott Eggleston) has posted a YouTube video of how to do it here. The dimmer box is rated for 600W (excellent safety margin with most slow cookers) and is very rugged.

Heat Selectors On Manually-Operated Slow Cookers

Automated Cookers Are Incompatible With Dimmers And Thermostats

Caveat: Dimmers and thermostats are compatible ONLY with manually-operated slow cookers. They will not work with (and may damage) slow cookers with automatic features like timers, programming and preset cooking sequences. Manual slow cookers have just one control, a rotary switch with 3 or 4 settings: OFF, WARM, LOW and HIGH. They don’t have even a power indicator light and usually don’t have a separate on/off switch.

For detailed plans of the dimmer control, see the Frugal Filmmaker’s project page, his instructable and video linked above. This article supplements those guides with information about constructing the dimmer as a temperature control. My pictures below record how I assembled and tested the dimmer and how I incorporated it into my slow-cooker-based baking station.

TIPS AND PICTORIAL GUIDE TO BUILDING, TESTING & USING A TEMPERATURE CONTROL

1. Putting It Together:

Warning: Anyone who is uncomfortable or unfamiliar with electrical safety should ask a knowledgeable person for help or buy a pre-built dimmer.

Examples Of Electrical Labels With Power Consumption Numbers

1. This dimmer box is mounted “inline” box on an electrical extension cord. I bought a generic “light duty” extension cord rated at 120VAC and 13 Amps, so it can handle a power transfer of over 1000 watts,  more than three times the power consumption of an average slow cooker. To be safe, check the cooker’s electrical label near the attachment point of its AC cord.

Dimmer Box Wiring Diagram

The wiring diagram above shows how the dimmer box is embedded along an AC extension cord. When dividing the extension cord, I paid attention to the length of the cord with the plug. My complete slow-cooker oven setup is a jumble of wires and a long cord would only contribute to the mess. I cut the cord so that it it can reach the AC outlet on the kitchen wall with the dimmer box sitting on the counter next to the cooker. If I were to move the dimmer box for another purpose (for example, to dim a lamp) not convenient to an AC outlet, I’d plug it into a power strip or another extension cord.

Marking The Neutral (Ribbed) Side Of The Cords

This dimmer box is wired for 2-prong plugs (there are 3-prong dimmer projects on the net, although this dimmer box could be modified for 3-prong plugs too). All slow cookers I’ve owned have 2-prong plugs. The polarity on the extension cord MUST be preserved during wiring. After the extension cord is divided into male and female sections, examine the insulation along the cord of both sections. Each cord will have a smooth side and and a ribbed side. The ribbed side is the “neutral” wire. Mark the ribbed side below the exposed wire on both sections for easy identification later.

Popping The Cutout At The Top Of The Work Box

2. The cutout at the top of the work box popped off by tapping it with a nail and hammer.

Strain Relief Knot

3. I made the strain relief by holding the ends of both cords together and knotting them in one big knot.

Connect Neutral (Ribbed) Wires

4. Twist the stripped neutral wires together and cap them with a twist connector. The connector must be twisted firmly over the wires so that it won’t come loose. Three orange twist connectors are included in the rotary dimmer package.

Dimmer's Green Ground Wire Rolled Up And Away

5. The instructable doesn’t list a specific rotary dimmer model. Home Depot sells more than one brand. I chose a Levitron 6681 600 watt dimmer. Other brands should have similar wiring schemes.

After snipping off the exposed part of the green ground wire on the rotary dimmer, roll it up out of the way.

Dimmer Wiring Finished

6. Connect each black wire from the rotary dimmer to one of the remaining white wires and cap them with twist connectors. It doesn’t matter which black wire goes to which white wire. The connectors must be twisted firmly over the wires, so that they don’t come loose.

Dimmer Set Into Work Box

7. Carefully push the rotary dimmer into the work box and align the screw holes at the top and bottom. Install screws (included in the rotary dimmer package) to hold the dimmer in the work box.

Faceplate Attached

8. Position the faceplate over the work box so that the shaft of the dimmer goes through the faceplace’s rectangular opening and align the screw holes. Install screws (included with the faceplate) to secure the faceplate.

Knob With Indicator Line Drawn In

9. Press one of the knobs (the dimmer comes with a choice of 2 knobs) on the dimmer’s shaft. Turn the knob all the way to the left to the minimum position. Draw an indicator line on the side of the knob. The indicator line will help mark the knob settings later when the control is calibrated.

Parts To Test Dimmer Box

10. To test the dimmer box, plug a lamp with an incandescent bulb (or a dimmable florescent bulb) in to one of the dimmer’s receptacles. If such a lamp isn’t available, make a test lamp with an incandescent bulb and a 2-prong bulb adapter. These parts are inexpensive. A box of 4 100W incandescent bulbs cost me about $1.20 and the bulb adapter was $2.00. Both are found in the electrical section of Home Depot.

Dimmer Box Controls The Light Bulb

11. For testing, the dimmer’s AC plug should be plugged into a power strip with a circuit breaker. Press the dimmer knob down to activate (if the light’s not already on). Turn the dimmer knob to the right, and the light intensity should increase. Turn the knob to the left and the light intensity should decrease. End of test.

2. Calibrating The Temperature Control

Large Slow Cooker With Temperature Control And Probe Thermometer

To calibrate the temperature control is to ascertain the knob setting(s) that will produce a stable temperature inside the crock. In the picture above is my full LTB oven set up: slow cooker, dimmer temperature control and a remote probe digital thermometer to monitor the temperature inside the crock. In lieu of a digital thermometer, if the crock has room and if the lid is transparent, a simple analog oven thermometer would be as suitable (see Low Temperature Baking: A Journey Of Three Paths).

Aside: all this may seem like a lot of equipment, but together it cost me about $50 US, and the system can operate as an LTB oven, a sous-vide oven, a dehydrator, a plain slow cooker. Not shown in the pictures is a small appliance timer I bought from Home Depot for $4, so the system can be programmed to turn on and off at specified times.

Diagram Of LTB Oven System

The diagram above clarifies the connection of the temperature control. Before powering the system for the first time, I recommend that the temperature control be plugged into a power strip with its own circuit breaker, as a safety precaution. The relationship between the knob settings and crock temperature isn’t linear, so it’s important to determine the settings for temperatures frequently cited in recipes. That said, the actual temperature inside a crock may change day to day or hour to hour due to ambient room temperatures and food load, regardless of the settings. However, a ceramic crock is very good at holding steady heat, so once stabilized for the food being baked, it should stay close to temperature for the full baking cycle.

DIY Heat Protection Coils For The Thermometer Probe

Thermometer Probe Hooked To Crock

If the thermometer is a digital remote probe thermometer, the probe should be protected from hot spots inside the crock by sheathing it in a wire coil. The first picture above shows 2 coils I made from 16-gauge brass craft wire. The long one protects the full length of the probe in large cookers. The small one is for my 1.5-quart cooker. In the second picture, the probe is hooked to the crock so it doesn’t fall. I made the hook from the same brass craft wire as the heat coil. The hook is positioned as close to the probe’s cable as possible, so that it props the lid from crimping the cable.

Do NOT make the coils by wrapping wire around the probe itself. The probes are delicate and easily damaged. A wooden dowel or metal rod of similar diameter would be good former. I didn’t have a former and wrapped the coil free form with mini pliers. The coil should be longer than the probe, so that the probe’s tip never touches the bottom of the crock, and should fit loosely, so that the probe never touches the sides of the crock. On the large coil, spaced every 2 inches or so, I wrapped one large round, about 3/4-inch in diameter, to further cushion it from the crock.

On my controller, I have marked settings for 250°F, 225°F, 140°F and 100°F. 250°F is the top baking temperature in VaporBaker recipes (foods may be exposed to higher temperatures only briefly). 225°F is for baking without (or very little) browning. 140°F is the maximum temperature for dehydrating foods inside the crock (beef jerky must be pasturized at 160°F to kill bacteria before drying) and 100°F is for rising bread dough.

I started with the setting for 250°F and worked my way down. Here’s the process to calibrate the temperature control for an LTB oven, which can take several hours to complete, if the cooker heats up very leisurely. If the system will be a sous-vide oven, then crock should be filled to the desired level with cold water before calibration.

1. Turn the slow cooker heat selector to HIGH. The crock should be empty, except for a thermometer or thermometer probe. Place one or two dish towels over the lid to block heat loss, especially at any point where a thermometer cable exits the crock. For an alternative to layers of towels, try this crocheted draft stop. It has good insulating properties, applies very little pressure to the lid and won’t damage the thermometer probe or cable.

2. Turn the temperature control on and set the knob to maximum current (full clockwise). The rotary dimmer in my box has a push-on/push-off switch, and it’s impossible to tell visually whether it’s on or off. I wait a minute and touch the side of the cooker. If I feel warmth, then it’s on.

3. Let the cooker to heat up to about 240°F. My large cookers need about 40 minutes to get this hot. Turn the temperature control knob back to the middle position and wait about 15 minutes. If the temperature climbs beyond 250°F, turn the knob down (counter-clockwise) a little. If the temperature doesn’t reach 250°F or falls, then turn the knob up. Continue adjusting the temperature until it stabilizes at 250°F (or within a degree of it). Mark the knob setting on the faceplate.

4. Repeat step 3 for the other target temperatures, going from the highest to lowest.

Note: If the temperature control will be swapped out to other slow cookers, it must be re-calibrated for each cooker.

3. Baking In A Slow Cooker With A Temperature Control

The temperature control calibrations are only approximations. The crock temperature will factor in the ambient room temperature and the type and quantity of food being baked. In my experience, the calibration marks are very good approximations, under a variety of conditions.

1. Turn on the system with the slow cooker heat selector set to HIGH and the temperature control set to maximum (full clockwise). Place rolled up dish towels or a draft stop around the lid to block any heat leakage, paying careful attention to any gap created by the presence of a thermometer probe.

2. If the recipe must be baked as soon as it’s prepared, then wait until the pre-heating is almost finished before proceeding.

3. Let the crock temperature rise until it reaches about 10 degrees ABOVE the target. For example, if the recipe says to pre-heat to 250°F, I let the crock temperature go up to 260°F with the temperature control on full.

The higher temperature will help compensate for heat loss, when the lid is opened to put in the food. The longer is lid is off, the more heat will be loss, so any pan stands or trivets or other oven accessories should be in the cooker as it pre-heats.

4. Remove the lid, put in the food, put the moisture absorbing towels over the cooker, and put on the lid. Move quickly to minimize heat loss. If the recipe requires moisture-absorbing towels under the lid, have them ready at hand’s reach.

5. After the lid is put back on, if the crock temperature is still above the target, turn the control down to the calibrated setting for the target temperature.

If the crock temperature has fallen below the target, wait for the temperature to rise back up to the target and then turn the control down to the calibrated setting for the target temperature.

6. Check temperature after 15 minutes. Adjust the control, if necessary, to bring the crock temperature closer to the target. It may take several attempts to stabilize the temperature. My digital remote probe thermometer features alarms that can be set to sound when the temperature approaches, reaches and exceeds the target. The alarms free me from having to watch the thermometer continually.

This temperature control is not a thermostat. Sometimes the crock temperature will refuse to stabilize when baking very wet foods, possibly because dramatic changes in water content alter the thermal characteristics of the food. Crock temperature is steadier when baking bread dough, for example, than a wet cake batter. In the course of baking, I will let the crock temperature fluctuate by as much as +/-10°F, so long as the average temperature is at target. Overbaking is unlikely, because the food absorbs heat gradually and there is time to turn down the heat.

DIY Presto Chango Dehydrator With Temperature Control

A slow cooker with a temperature control has adequate precision to incubate yogurt or dehydrate foods directly in the crock in accordance with raw foodist requirements (although my DIY Presto Chango dehydrator shown above with its own temperature control is more thermally stable, has more flat drying space and is expandable). For less than $10 US to build, the temperature control is money well spent.

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21
Jun
10

Floral Red Earth Cake (Baked)

[ Equipment: slow cooker or oven. For more information about the terminology in this recipe, see Low Temperature Baking: A Journey of 3 Paths ].

Mar. 1, 2012: This cake has been reformulated as a Triple Floral Red Earth Cake.

The slice of cake in the picture above looks like an ordinary chocolate cake, although there is only a tiny amount of cocoa powder in it. On close inspection, it’s possible to distinguish a slightly reddish hue to the brown with flecks of vibrant red throughout. The red comes from hibiscus flowers that both tint the cake and give it a tart floral flavor. The cake isn’t as brightly crimson as a red velvet cake, but it tastes like velvety sweet flowers.

It all began one day when I was watching celebrity chef Paula Deen on TV mixing up a red velvet cake, a traditional cake of the American South that gets its coloring from a combination of cocoa powder and red food coloring. She poured into the batter 2 full bottles of red food coloring and tossed in sticks of  butter totaling 1/2 pound. The cake baked up a screaming fire engine red. Although red velvet cakes are said to be for special occasions (and hence the high fat and intense artificial coloring are supposed to be infrequent indulgences), I began researching for a way to eliminate the bottled food coloring and balance the calories for an everyday LTB cake.

During World War II, when red food coloring was scarce, red velvet cakes were reddened with grated beets or beet juice, but the resulting red faded or browned during baking. While studying red velvet cake recipes online, I also pulled up recipes for red earth cakes, similar to red velvet cakes in composition, but with a reddish brown tonality, because they contain less red food coloring. It was not clear that they are of southern origin. Yet, as I thought about it, a red earth cake seemed more evocative of the American South, assuredly so to non-Southerners. It was on red earth that the southern plantation beloved in popular culture stood, the red earth of Tara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. But I digress.

Because a red earth cake is meant to be more brown than red, I figured one with a natural food coloring could be successful, and the low heat of LTB might preserve the color better. Instead of beets, I had a bag of dried hibiscus flowers in one of my food bins. Hibiscus tea is deep red or purplish red, so I ground up 5 or 6 flowers in a coffee grinder to produce a fine powder as a colorant. Dried whole hibiscus flowers are sold in 3 oz. bags at my local market, but if they aren’t available, it might be possible to substitute the contents of one or two herbal teabags (finely ground), which contain hibiscus as the main ingredient, though any other ingredients in the tea will affect the cake’s flavor and color.

Normally, natural cocoa powder contributes its own redness when it’s mixed with an acid ingredient like vinegar, but Dutch-processed cocoa, which is now sold as a baking cocoa, is non-reactive. The cocoa in this recipe is Hershey’s Special Dark, a blend of natural and Dutch cocoas. It’s present for flavor and to color the cake a deep brown only, not for any red coloring.

The cake has between 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of dark cocoa powder, a fraction of the amount in my Gotta Have Heart Cake, for example. Yet, it has a distinct chocolate taste, thanks to the coffee bean powder which amplifies the cocoa flavor to blend with the delicate hibiscus bouquet without overpowering it. For the best floral scent and flavor, I recommend adding 1/2 teaspoon of dark cocoa powder to the batter. To emphasize the chocolate and deep brown tone, increase the amount to 1 teaspoon of dark cocoa powder. The coffee bean powder is made by putting unbrewed ground coffee (canned coffee will do) into a coffee grinder and grinding it to a very fine powder.

Southern red cakes can have as much as 1/2 cup of butter or oil per cup of flour. This recipe has one teaspoon of butter for a taste of butter and applesauce to add moistness to the cake. The water content of applesauce varies by brand. If the batter is too dry or too thick, add more water or milk, a dribble at a time.

Paula Deen’s red velvet cakes are dressed in a rich cream cheese frosting or icing. I like to serve a slice of this red earth cake with a dollop of light whipped topping (homemade or from the market), sprinkled with a few mini chocolate chips. Avoid any kind of heavily-flavored topping that would compete with or overwhelm the lovely hibiscus.

Makes 1 small loaf or 8 servings
– 620 calories per loaf or 78 calories per serving
– Oven Temperature: 250°F/121°C

  • 1 teaspoon butter, melted
  • 1/8 cup applesauce
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon coffee bean powder (see text)
  • 3 teaspoons powdered hibiscus flowers
  • 1/8 cup milk, regular or reduced-fat
  • 5/8 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon dark cocoa powder (see text)
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder

Pre-heat oven or slow cooker to 250°F/121°C.

1. Grease a small loaf pan (5-3/4 inch x 3 inch). Set aside.

2. Heat the milk until hot. Put hibiscus powder in a cup and mix in the hot milk. Allow mixture to infuse for at least 5 minutes.

3. In a small bowl, mix melted butter and applesauce. Set aside.

4. In a medium bowl, mix flour, cocoa powder, cornstarch and baking powder. Set aside.

5. In a large bowl, whisk the egg, sugar, vanilla extract, salt and coffee bean powder until well combined.

6. Mix in hibiscus-milk infusion and butter-applesauce mixture.

7. Stir in flour mixture in 2 or 3 portions. If the batter is stiff, dribble in some milk or water to thin it out a bit.

8. Pour batter into greased loaf pan and bake for 50 minutes. If baking in a cooker, put moisture-absorbing paper towels under the lid. Check for doneness by inserting a toothpick into the cake. If it comes out clean, the cake is ready.

9. Cool for 10 minutes and unmold. Cool cake on a rack for another 15 minutes and serve.

13
Jun
10

Zong-Zi Wrapped Rice Dumplings (Boiled or Steamed)

[ Equipment: steamer or large pot for boiling. For more information about the terminology in this recipe, see Low Temperature Baking: A Journey of 3 Paths ].

The Chinese Dragon Boat Festival takes place on June 16 this year. They don’t race dragon boats in the US, but people do celebrate by eating zong-zi (also written zhongzi and called jung in Cantonese), rice dumplings with assorted fillings, wrapped in bamboo leaves, that are boiled or steamed. In Chinatown markets, bakeries and from street vendors, zong-zi are sold year-round. Because the dumplings are wrapped, they can be held and eaten as a meal on the run (don’t forget the soy sauce packets). My favorite way to eat them is in bowl with an assortment of chopped vegetables.

Although supermarkets in the US dedicate a few shelves to Asian foods, two basic components of zong-zi are still rare: bamboo leaves and glutinous rice. Asian specialty markets stock them and esoteric ingredients for the filling, but I decided to make American-style zong-zi. That is, I would make them only from ingredients that were found locally.

Instead of bamboo leaves, I used dried Mexican tamale corn husks. Banana leaves would have been great as wrappers (being large and green), but I didn’t find any locally. Tamale corn husks are between a half and a third as long as the average bamboo leaf. Printed on the bag of medium grain rice (discussed next), the recommended serving per person is 1/4 cup of uncooked rice. Happily, one large corn husk will wrap that amount of rice plus a few heaping spoonfuls of filling. Smaller husks can be joined to make one large wrapper or even a super-sized wrapper.

In place of the glutinous rice, I substituted a medium grain rice (Hinode brand Silver Pearl). Because the dumplings in this recipe are boiled, the individual rice grains flow into each other and merge into a cake, with a texture very much like a glutinous rice dumpling. I have read of zong-zi made with a long grain rice, so the lack of speciality rices should not be a deterrent from making zong-zi. Sushi rice might have been a better substitute for glutinous rice. Both are short grain, sticky rices, although a couple of online sources insisted that glutinous rice is stickier than sushi rice. I didn’t look for the sushi rice because I discovered a bag of medium grain rice hiding at the bottom of one of my food bins.

Zong-zi can have a variety of fillings, from meats to sweet bean pastes. My dumplings were stuffed with a savory filling made of vegetables (mushrooms, green onions and bamboo shoots) and a meat or meat alternative. Traditionally, the mushrooms would be reconstituted dried Chinese or shitake-type mushrooms. I substituted white button mushrooms that had been steam cooked for 5 minutes and roughly chopped. The bamboo shoots bring in a crunch, scent and presence of bamboo, as a reminder of the missing bamboo leaves. Chopped water chestnuts would also add crunch. The meat component can be cooked chicken or pork or a Chinese sausage or an equivalent. The “meat” in the pictures below is actually slices of vegetarian riblet, each one about the size of a mini sausage link. To bind everything together, I mixed in a few spoonfuls of prepared hoisin sauce. Hoisin sauce is sweet and tangy. For a more savory taste, oyster sauce or a thick stir-fry sauce would be good binding sauces as well.

The shape of a zong-zi can be the simple rectangular package or the famous pyramidal or tetrahedron forms. Because the corn husks are so small, it was much easier to wrap the rectangular shape. The tying technique shown below is efficient and traditional, but the dumplings can be tied any way that holds the husk flaps down.

Zong-zi can be steamed or boiled. However, unless the rice is pre-cooked, steaming may not evenly cook the rice inside the dumplings. Thus, for steamed zong-zi, pre-cook the rice first by steaming it for 30 minutes in a dish filled with water to cover the rice. Dumplings stuffed with uncooked rice will expand during boiling and could burst through the wrapping, but dumplings containing pre-cooked rice are more stable because the rice is already plumped.

This starter recipe makes only 2 dumplings. It’s far more convenient to assemble and cook a large batch of zong-zi at a time. Double, quadruple or otherwise multiply the quantity of ingredients as desired. For the Dragon Boat Festival, home cooks may devote an entire day to preparing different varieties of zong-zi, hung all around the kitchen to dry. Large batches of zong-zi freeze well, and quickly reheat in the microwave.

Makes 2 zong-zi dumplings
– 250 calories per dumpling (varies with filling)
– Oven temperature: boiled or steamed

  • Dried Mexican tamale corn husks (or dried bamboo leaves)
  • 1/2 cup medium grain white rice (or glutinous rice or sticky short-grain rice)
  • 1/4 cup roughly chopped white mushrooms (or shitake mushrooms)
  • 1 tablespoon sliced green onion
  • 1-1/2 tablespoon julienned bamboo shoots (or chopped water chestnuts)
  • 2 teaspoons hoisin sauce (or stir-fry sauce, oyster sauce or other thick dipping sauce – see text)
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons soy sauce (see text)
  • 1/8 teaspoon chili powder
  • 2 mini sausage links (or equal amount of cooked meat or meat alternative about 3 inches long)
  • 2 three-foot lengths of cotton kitchen twine

1. Soak rice in water for 3 or 4 hours or overnight. Drain.

Raw rice is for boiled dumplings. For steamed dumplings, the rice should be pre-cooked (see text above).

2. Soak corn husks in warm water for about an hour. Put in more husks than actually needed, in case some of them have splits, which are difficult to see when the husks are in dried form. The husks should be very pliable after soaking or they will be hard to fold.

3. In a small bowl, mix vegetables. Drain off any excess water. Add chili powder and hoisin sauce. Add soy sauce to taste, but not so much that the mixture turns runny. In a second small bowl, put the mini sausages or meat alternatives.

4. Place husk on flat surface or over a small baking cup. Husks measuring about 6 inches wide at the top and 9 inches long or larger are the easiest to wrap.

Overlapping Two Smaller Husks To Make A Big Wrapper

Two small husks (less than 6 inches wide) can be overlapped top to bottom to form a rectangle and hold one dumpling.

5. Spread two tablespoons of rice on the husk starting about 2 to 3 inches from the top and in an area about 2-1/2 x 3-1/2 inches.

6. Spoon 2 teaspoons of the vegetable mix over the rice. Put a sausage link (or other meat or meat alternative) over the vegetables.

7. Spoon 2 more teaspoons of the vegetable mix around the sausage or to cover it. Spoon 2 tablespoons of rice over the filling.

8. Fold sides of husk closed to cover the filling.

9. Fold the bottom flap over against the dumpling.

10. Fold the top flap over against the dumpling, overlapping the bottom flap. Secure the top flap with a loop of cotton twine tied in a half knot.

11. Place more loops of twine and half knots along the dumpling to secure both flaps and bring string around the bottom of the dumpling and back up over the top. The tension should be sufficient to hold the dumpling together but allow for some expansion. If the dumpling is tied too tightly, the rice could split the corn husk when cooked.

15. If needed, wrap one more loop at the top of the dumpling. Then tie the string ends together.

16. For boiled dumplings, bring large pot of water to boil and drop dumplings into the water (two dumplings will fit in a 2-3 quart saucepan) and boil on medium heat for 2 hours. For steamed dumplings, put dumplings in steamer and steam for 1-1/2 hours.

17. Remove dumplings and cool.

18. Serve by removing the string and unwrapping the husk or leaves. Sprinkle with soy sauce.

19. Refrigerate or freeze extra dumplings for later.

09
Jun
10

Fast-Rise, Kneaded White Bread Mini Loaf (Steamed & Baked)

[ Equipment: steamer and slow cooker or oven. For more information about the terminology in this recipe, see Low Temperature Baking: A Journey of 3 Paths ].

Jan. 5, 2011 Note: A fast-rise, baked-only version of this recipe can be found here.

The name of this recipe has been changed to distinguish it from the many slow-rise recipes on VaporBaker. Also, at the time this recipe was written, I had not yet experimented with many low-temperature browning agents (for example, alkaline olive oil was first described in my REVISED slow-rise no-knead focaccia recipe, not the original recipe). The writeup below refers to the older version of focaccia.
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Unlike my first focaccia bread which emerged from the oven very pale, this white loaf is adorned with a golden crust. The focaccia’s lack of color might have been due to the falling oven, in which the temperature dropped from 250 to 225°F in the final 40 minutes. However, I did bake one at a steady 250°F throughout, and while that loaf singed at the edges (and dried out hard as a Frisbee), it never managed the even golden tonality of this mini loaf. The browning trick of this bread, the key difference in the recipes, is the addition of sugar to the dough, which begins caramelizing at 230°F and imparts color without searing heat.

This mini loaf is baked in 2 stages: steamed first and slow-baked at 250°F to finish. A regular loaf of bread baked at high temperature is done when the internal temperature reaches about 180°F. Water steam can heat well over 200°F (at sea level), so steaming is as effective as oven baking in an oven to cook the bread. For the finishing touch, the bread is then baked at 250°F to dry and brown the crust.

I have tested the bread dry steamed and wet steamed. Both techniques work, but dry steaming produces a drier surface that browns faster. To wet steam, the pan is put in the steamer and a piece of greased wax paper or foil is placed over the dough to protect it against any water dripping down from the lid. Despite the greasing, the paper or foil might stick to the bread anyway, leaving a rougher surface for the browning stage. To avoid that problem, don’t cover the dough and cover the steamer instead with a dish towel under the lid to absorb moisture.

In dry steaming, steam doesn’t touch the bread. The pan can be encased in a large foil pouch, seams along the top and sides. The pouch idea works best if the steamer is big, so it isn’t a hassle to form a foil dome that will fit in the steamer with the cover on. An alternative is to make a foil bonnet that fits over the pan and is secured with string against the pan’s rim. I make the bonnet by pressing a sheet of foil into a large loaf pan as the mold.

The bread should be steamed until it reaches an internal temperature of at least 180°F, by which time it’s fully cooked. However, since the bread will be baked next, the steaming stage could end a little earlier, when the internal temperature is a degree or two less than 180°F, and the bread will finish cooking in the oven.

This mini or demi loaf is a great size for snack sandwiches, not too big and not too small. It tastes best if eaten soon after it’s cooled, although it toasts up very well a day or two later. With the lessons from this recipe, I’m working out the details for a larger loaf and a new version of the focaccia.

Makes 1 Demi Loaf
– 540 calories per loaf
– Oven temperature: steaming, oven at 250°F/121°C

  • 1-1/8 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon rapid rise yeast
  • 1/2+ cup warm water

1. Put flour, salt, sugar and yeast into a large bowl and mix thoroughly.

2. Add 1/4 cup of warm water and mix. Continue adding warm water, one tablespoon at a time until it forms a sticky but kneadable dough.

3. Knead dough to form a smooth and elastic ball. If the dough is too dry, it won’t rise properly. Sprinkle in water to hydrate it. If the dough’s too wet to knead, mix in a little flour to absorb the excess water.

For this amount of dough, my favorite kneading method is to hold the dough in both hands and stretch-fold, as though I were making taffy, for 8 to 10 minutes, until the dough becomes elastic and will stretch about 1 foot without breaking. .

4. Cover and put in a warm place (90°-100°F) to rise until double in height, about 2 to 3 hours.

5. Deflate the dough. Briefly knead it. Shape and put dough in a small (5-3/4 inch x 3 inch) loaf pan.

6. Cover and put in warm place to rise until double in height, about 1 to 2 hours.

7. Prepare pan for dry or wet steaming as described in text above.

8. Preheat oven/cooker to 250°F.

9. Bring steamer water to rolling boil and reduce to a medium boil. Put bread in steamer and steam until the bread’s internal temperature reaches 180°F or higher (about 40 to 50 minutes).

10. Remove bread from steamer. Remove pouch or any covering and put bread in oven or slow cooker and bake for about 40 minutes until crust is lightly golden. Do not overbake or the crust may harden. If baking in a slow cooker and the surface of the loaf is wet, position lid slightly askew for venting and bake for another 10 minutes to dry the crust.

11. Remove bread from oven/cooker and cool about 10 minutes. Unmold and continue to cool bread on a rack.

12. Slice and serve.