Thursday, January 17, 2008

Review Week: Tale of Two Flours

All bakers have favorite ingredients and brands of those ingredients. As a bread maker, flour is mine.

If you could see how many different flours I have you would be stunned. A few months ago, a few of us Daring Bakers got together and compared the number of flours we had in our pantry. At that time, I had a much larger pantry so I could keep even more more specialty flours on hand. Today, I have about nine different flours on hand: all purpose (AP), bread, high gluten, whole wheat, rye, pastry, buckwheat, pumpernickel and cake flour. Over the years, I have developed a preference for King Arthur flour but will use Gold Medal AP and bread when I can't find KA.

Right before I left for Michigan to spend Christmas, I received a request to review a new all purpose flour coming to market from Eagle Mills, All Purpose Unbleached Flour with Ultragrain.

According to the company, " Ultragrain is an all-natural, 100% whole wheat flour that combines the nutritional benefits of whole grains with the finished recipe qualities of traditional refined flour." Recent studies and health trends are showing that having several servings a day of whole grain and fiber is good for you. Also, I suspect that most people who are casual bakers at home use white bleached or unbleached AP flour when they are making cookies and other goodies. So, the idea that a readily available in the supermarket AP flour that adds a percentage of whole grain goodness, like the Eagle Mills, is probably not a bad idea. I said, "Sure, send me a bag. I'll give it whirl and see how it works in a few different recipes".

Since King Arthur flour is my preferred brand, I decided to compare and contrast five different recipes for baked goods: my Farmer's White bread, chocolate chip cookie bars, lemon cardamom shortbread, devil food cake, and low fat, low calorie maple currant scones I like from a Cooking Light cookbook. I would make each of these recipes two times, one with my normal KA flour and one with the Ultragrain flour (yes, Sara, this whole testing brought out the scientist in me, much to my delight!)

I would judge the performance of the two flours on texture of the raw flour, crumb of the baked good, and taste.

(Ultragrain flour on the left, KA AP on the right)

In the texture of the raw flour, I found the Ultragrain flour to have a bit of a gritty feel and was slightly more yellow in color than the KA flour. It wasn't objectionable in its grittiness but I wondered how that would effect the shortbread recipe since that recipe calls for 1/2 cup of pastry flour and one cup of AP flour and the cake.

I judge all flours on how they make bread and the very first thing I made with the Ultragrain flour was the Farmers White Bread. The sponge and the dough came together exactly the same way with both flours. The gluten development during the kneading took a bit longer with the Ultragrain and I had to use a bit more flour than I did with the KA version but not enough to say it was show stopper. Both breads rose nicely, and in fact the Ultragrain bread crowned higher than the KA one did, just the wonderful vagaries of working with yeast I suspect and nothing to do with the flours. Both loaves baked nicely. After they both cooled, I sliced into them and had my first taste. The Ultragrain loaf had a really nice tight crumb and very closely resembled in taste and texture what we know as Canadian White Bread, a style of bread I actually find pleasing.

(Ultragrain Farmers White Loaf)

The results of the chocolate chip cookie bars was indistinguishable. Both batches had the same texture of dough and taste. The only slight difference was the Ultragrain bars browned a bit more but where just as good with a tall class of milk and no one who had them complained one little bit. In fact, when I told one of the taste testers who once told me they couldn't stand whole grain anything the fourth chocolate chip cookie bar they were eating had whole grain in it, they just stared at me with a deer in headlight look and then grabbed another bar!

For the cake, I turned to one of my favourite cookbooks for baking tiny batches, Debby Maugans Nakos wonderful Small-Batch Baking and made her Chocolate Birthday Cake and used that wonderful frosting from the Daring Bakers Red Velvet Cake challenge.

(Ultragrain Chocolate Cake with Red Velvet Frosting)

Again, I didn't find much of a difference between the two flours and both little cakes tasted pretty darn good. I took them to a friend's house for a night of video viewing and we each had half of the two cakes. She said the Ultragrain one actually tasted moister. I didn't perceive any difference but then I may have been distracted by that frosting...

The one recipe that I did find a pretty big difference between the two flours was with the shortcake. I knew when I put the dough together that there was going to be a difference. For one thing, the dough using the Ultragrain was much denser in feel than the dough using the KA flour. It was heavier and I actually had to use a little liquid with it to get it to spread into the shortcake mold. The Ultragrain shortbread (piece on the bottom) got browner too. As you can see below, the Ultragrain shortbread was much more dense and not as flaky and "shattery" as the KA AP version (top three pieces).

It still tasted pretty good and didn't have an offensive texture, it just wasn't the same shortbread.

Finally, I baked a low fat, low calorie version of maple currant scones. I love this recipe. Everyone I make these for loves these and they are dumbfounded when I tell them they are light versions. These scones bake up light and fluffy versus like bricks. They have a sweet maple flavor and the currants add a nice texture to them. You can make them fancy by brushing egg white and sprinkling sparkling sugar on top or make them rustic by leaving the egg wash and sugar off. Best of all they taste wonderful.

The two doughs went together exactly the same with no difference at all. The scones baked exactly the same and I couldn't tell the difference at all in the way they puffed.

(Ultragrain Maple Currant Scones)

The surprising thing? Between the two batches I made, I actually preferred the version made with the Ultragrain flour. I thought it had a texture and quality to them that was really close to the tea scones I have had in Europe. They had a tighter crumb than the KA AP flour and a slightly sweeter than the KA AP ones. I also liked the fact that since I was making a healthy version of scones that using the Ultragrain flour added a little bit more healthiness to the recipe.

So, my conclusions? For general baking and everyday baking I probably would recommend substituting at least a cup of Ultragrain flour for regular AP flour if you are looking for a way to add whole grain to you and your family's diet without letting them know or without going full whole grain. For recipes that call for really light and delicate crumb though, I would stay with my King Arthur AP.

Will I be buying a bag of Ultragrain to add to my flour collection? Yea, probably. I like the idea, especially for the general baking I do for my gym, that I'm adding a little bit of whole grain goodness into my baked goods and since it worked really well in those recipes, I might as well take advantage of the Ultragrain. Especially since it means I won't have to cut back on the butter!

Maple Currant Scones
adapted from The Best of Cooking Light

Makes 16 Scones

2 cups AP flour (I used the Eagle Mills Ultragrain AP Flour)
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/3 cup chilled butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 cup currants
1/2 cup skim milk
3 Tbsp maple syrup
4 Tbsp egg whites or Eggbeaters
1 Tbsp Water
1/8 cup sparkling sugar

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees.

Combine first five ingredients in a bowl, cut in butter with pastry blender or 2 knives until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add currants and toss well. Combine milk and syrup and add to flour. Combine until ingredients are just moist. Turn the dough out onto lightly floured surface and knead ingredients just 4 or 5 times until a dough ball is formed. Pat the dough into an 8 inch round circle and cut into 8 triangles. Cut each triangle into two smaller triangles and place as close to each other on a cookie sheet lightly coated with cooking spray.

Combine egg whites or Eggbeaters with water and brush each scone with egg wash. Sprinkle sugar on top of the scones.

Bake for 15 minutes or until golden. Serve warm.

Calories: 187 per scone Fat: 3 grams