Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Secret Ingredients

As is likely evident from the nature of this blog and the eclectic quality of my cooking projects, I don't need to be convinced that cooking is exciting. Whether it's the marvels of wild yeast or the joys of homemade pasta dough, cooking never fails to intrigue me. But for those that are less enthused by home-canned jam and freshly-churned ice cream, I'd imagine that cooking can seem, well, not so exciting. A chore, perhaps, or that necessary hurdle that comes before eating. Which is why, I think, the idea of the "secret ingredient" was created.

For all of the culinary trends that come and go, the secret ingredient has been a mainstay of cookery for a pretty long time. I'm not sure if it's documented anywhere, but it seems like it's been around forever. Who doesn't have a grandmother (or great-grandmother) with a recipe for such-and-such that includes her own secret ingredient? Secret ingredients add a bit of mystery - even excitement - to things that might ordinarily be a bit mundane.

And there is something exciting about tasting a dish advertised as being made with a secret, isn't there? We take a bite of a secret-ingredient chocolate cake not knowing if it will be uncannily delicious or atrocious; not knowing if the secret is something virtuous (pureed spinach?) or sinful (mayonnaise?); not knowing if we'll even be able to taste the secret ingredient at all.

Then again, there are many reasons that a chef might deem an ingredient "secret." Perhaps she's discovered the thing that elevates the dish to new heights, and doesn't want copycats ripping off her masterpiece. More likely though, the ingredient is a mere convenience; something that does the job but doesn't necessarily sound as appealing as one might like (my use of baby food in baking recipes falls into this category). Or maybe the secret ingredient is just there for its novelty value; not really adding much of anything but a little flair of personality. Of course there are also those secret ingredients that aren't really secrets at all - adding new spices to an old dish (too obvious), a cup of espresso to something chocolatey (trust me, this combination is no secret), or butter to anything (too easy).

So, what are you secret ingredient recipes? I've heard of (but never tried) of chocolate cakes made with mayonnaise, and my grandmother's recipe for sweet and sour meatballs included the seemingly unfortunate combination of ketchup and concord grape jelly. I've always been fascinated by the infinitesimal pinch of nutmeg that perks up French and Italian dairy-based dishes, and I'm hooked on adding vanilla to anything chocolate, and a splash of bourbon to anything vanilla. I know someone who insists on adding dried fenugreek leaves to chicken soup. Go figure.

But, my favorite secret ingredient comes courtesy of Jonathan, who tells the tale of someone-or-other's grandmother, famous for making the best matzah balls in town. Her secret ingredient? Yeast.

I'm not exactly sure what this says about the nature of secret ingredients, but I do believe that there are some good ones out there. Take my new favorite: malted barley flour. You've probably heard of it before - it appears in just about every decent bread or cracker that you can find. (I say this with confidence, since my beloved Acme bread even lists it as an ingredient).

I know I've mentioned malted barley syrup before - it makes a fine granola - so think of malted barley flour as its significantly less messy cousin. Instead of a thick syrup, it's a fine, floury powder, made from grinding sprouted and dried barley grains. The sprouting gives the barley a distinctly sweet and malty taste, and it also serves as potent yeast food when making bread (you can use it in place of a teaspoon of sugar when activating dried yeast).

The best thing, though, is the somewhat intangible deliciousness it imparts to everything baked. It improves the rise and flavor of yeasted breads, and adds a touch of maltiness to everything else - cookies, scones, etc. And, although it might cost you a pretty penny or take a while to track down (or just look here: Bob's Red Mill), you'll find that a little goes a long way. I add just a teaspoon or two to a loaf of bread.

But here's the thing: like many secret ingredients, malted barley flour isn't going to radically improve everything it touches. Instead, it will give it just a little hint of something - something that makes it taste that much more like your favorite Acme loaf or your preferred brand of $6-per-box artisan crackers. And it smells wonderful.

The bread dough pictured here is just some homemade, whole-wheat, seeded goodness that I whipped up the other day. Although the loaf itself was a bit dense (on account of all of that bran, I suppose), it had the most incredible flavor from the combination of malted barley flour and pumpkin, sunflower, and poppy seeds. I ate it all up in a shocking short amount of time, but shhhh. Don't tell anyone. Let's just say it's our little secret....

Dense and Yummy Whole-Wheat Bread

Note: this is just a loose recipe, because I'm rather enamored with making bread in a wholly unscientific way. Make sure to allow enough time for the dough to rise thoroughly (although it probably won't double, like white doughs). Also allow plenty of baking time - I baked mine for over an hour. You want the internal temperature of the bread to be about 200F when it comes out of the oven.

1 c. whole wheat flour
1 1/2 c. warm (not hot) water
1-2 tsp. malted barley flour (or substitute sugar)
2 tbs. vital wheat gluten
1 1/2 tsp. instant yeast (I use SAF)

1 c. + additional 1 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 c. oat bran
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tbs. neutral oil
1 tbs. molasses
2 tsp. honey

~1/4 c. each sunflower and pumpkin seeds
2 tbs. poppy seeds


Mix ingredients for the pre-dough in a large mixing bowl. Stir about 50 times to start activating the gluten. Cover the bowl and let rest for about 1 hr., until the mixture is bubbly (this occurs after the pre-dough has risen and then fallen).

To the pre-dough, add the ingredients for the dough, reserving the additional 1 c. of whole wheat flour. Mix thoroughly with a wooden spoon, and then turn out onto a heavily floured surface. The dough will be very sticky, so cover it liberally with your reserved flour. Begin kneading the flour into the dough, until the dough is still tacky, but no longer wet and sticky. Let the dough rest for about 5 minutes, then continue kneading the dough, adding a bit more flour only if necessary to prevent sticking. Knead for a full 15 minutes (trust me!), until the dough is pliable and slightly tacky, but relatively smooth and even. Form the dough into a ball, place it in an oiled bowl, cover, and let rise until puffy and almost doubled, 1 to 1 1/2 hrs.

Remove the dough from the bowl, punch it down gently into a large round, and cover with the seed mixture. Gently knead the dough to incorporate the seeds, but only as much as is necessary. Form the ball of dough into a tight ball, sealed edge on the bottom, and place on a piece of parchment paper on an upside-down baking sheet. Cover with a towel and let it rise until puffy and almost doubled, about 45 min. - 1 hr.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven, with a baking stone if you have one, to 375F. Slide the loaf (with parchment paper) onto the baking stone and bake for about 1 hr., until internal temperature is about 200F. Let the loaf cool for an hour before slicing into it.


Jess said...

I was so happy to see a post from you pop up in my reader. (Yes, I'm using a reader now; how far I've come.) I love all of these floury pictures, and most of all, that pitch-perfect voice of yours. You have completely sold me on malted barley flour. I'm going to try it in my next loaf. Happy New Year to you!

Virginia Taylors said...

I just happened on to your site! I have been looking for Barley Malt Syrup for ages and no one knows what it is..even me. I have a recipe that calls for it but can not find it.I went to a gourmet shop to find it out West and also here in Virginia. Where do you find yours?
visit me at

Katie said...

Come back, Red Ramkin! We miss you!