Buying flour & using gluten

Since I got the bread machine, I’m always on the lookout for different types of flours. I’ve been thinking of trying out gluten-free recipes but the combination of hard-to-find flours has stopped me from getting round to it so far.

However I was rather impressed with the selection of flours on sale at Marketplace supermarket at Tanglin Mall. Being one of the most expensive supermarkets on the island, I hardly ever go there, but if one is in need of unusual flours, it’s definitely worth a visit. There’s a wide range from Bob’s Red Mill and Origins Healthcare.

Even for basics, Marketplace is the only store I know of that stocks my favourite flour: Waitrose Organic range. The Waitrose range has the following flours:
Plain White Flour
Self-Raising White Flour
Plain White Bread Flour
Plain Stoneground Wholemeal
Stoneground Wholemeal Bread Flour

Unlike other flours I’ve bought before, Waitrose never seems to smell stale or produce weevils even when it’s passed the use-by date. (It is recommended that you keep wholemeal products in the fridge as they go rancid quickly, but my Waitrose flour has kept very well outside the fridge too.)

The Waitrose stoneground wholemeal flour is also finely-ground so the texture is smooth and light, even for cakes. Don’t believe it if you are told wholemeal cakes are heavy and unpalatable; most people will eat my wholemeal cakes without even realising they aren’t plain flour (although those with sensitive palates will notice a slightly more gritty texture).

In contrast, Prima brand Wholemeal Flour which is the most commonly available type in Singapore supermarkets is a very different type of product. It’s extremely coarse and must be combined with plain flour. However, the coarse grains are still noticeable and I have given up using this for any kind of baking, even if just to mix a small amount with plain flour.

[Update 18/12/07: I’ve now decided to use Origins Healthcare organic wholemeal flour as it seems to be more finely-ground than Waitrose wholemeal flour, and is also cheaper. It’s easily available at NTUC supermarkets as well. See my other comments on flour here.]

Where Waitrose stands out is that it is the only brand of wholemeal bread flour which I’ve come across. Regular wholemeal flour is easy to find, but it’s not suitable for making bread with. One health food shop staff I asked suggested I mix wholemeal with plain bread flour instead, which is a reasonable idea but I want a fully wholemeal bread and a lower proportion of bread flour affects the texture of the bread. The other solution is to get some vital wheat gluten and add it to plain (wholemeal) flour as described here. Bob’s Red Mill produces vital wheat gluten but it’s quite hard to find in the stores. (Read more about flour here and here.)

Then again, maybe vital wheat gluten might be easier to find if I stopped looking in the baking section but tried to find it health food stores among products for vegetarians. [Update 14/11/07: found vital wheat gluten from Bob’s Red Mill brand in Cold Storage Naturally Marketplace at Vivocity, but it was so expensive! S$20+ for about half a kilo? It’s only US$5.79 for a 1.5lb bag on the Bob’s Red Mill mail order site.]

Vital wheat gluten is also the main ingredient in producing the gluten chunks commonly used in savoury Chinese vegetarian dishes, also known in Japanese as fu or seitan in macrobiotics. Read more about gluten as a food here, here and here (with recipes in latter two links). Hope our gluten-intolerant friends aren’t getting shivers down their spine reading about all this!

P.S. Tanglin Mall also has the organic store, Brown Rice Paradise on the 3rd floor. They have a great selection of teas from Yogi Tea brand and Traditional Medicinals (including some flavours I’ve not seen elsewhere, such as Yogi Tea’s Chai range), organic miso from South River in amazing varieties such as Dandelion Leek, and it is the only place I’ve found Muso brand furikake (which costs S$5.50, as compared to Eden brand furikake which is $11.85 at Supernature). However… for most products they are rather expensive. I would definitely compare prices before buying anything there: some sea salt in exactly the same brand was half the price at the ‘expensive’ Marketplace supermarket downstairs, and some Avalon toiletries were nearly three times the price compared to the Nature’s Farm chain store!

17/03/08 update: new info on buying vital wheat gluten here.

“Wholesome Sweeteners”

I’ve been buying this brand of sugar, Wholesome Sweeteners, for several months now.

I first saw it on sale in Cold Storage Jelita (where you can usually find two or three types of Wholesome Sweeteners’ sugars in stock under the organic section). After walking round the shelves and comparing Wholesome Sweeteners sugars with the imported sugars from Billington’s brand, I realised that Wholesome Sweeteners products aren’t all that expensive. (Local brands of non-organic sugar are much cheaper, of course.)

For example, here are some Cold Storage prices:
Wholesome Sweeteners Organic Fair Trade Sugar (S$5.81/ 454g)
Wholesome Sweeteners Organic Turbinado/Demerara Sugar
(S$7.44/ 681g)
Billington’s Organic Demerara Sugar (S$6.22/500g)
Billington’s Unrefined Demerara Sugar (S$6.67/1kg)

As you can see, Billington’s has non-organic and organic ranges, as well as a fairtrade range, so be aware of which type you pick up. In comparison, Wholesome Sweeteners are both USDA-certified organic as well as fairtrade. They appear to be committed to being non-GMO, high product quality and using sustainable agricultural methods – see the FAQ and this document on their Sucanat production methods.

Apart from the reasonable pricing, what I like about Wholesome Sweeteners’ sugars is that they are available in regular supermarkets – aside from Cold Storage Jelita (not all Cold Storage branches mind you), I’ve also seen them in Carrefour Plaza Singapura, and MarketPlace supermarkets such as at Tanglin Mall. Of course the various health food shops stock Wholesome Sweeteners too, such as Eat Organic and Supernature.

Each store may stock different types of sugars from the Wholesome Sweetners brand, so you’ll have to shop around. I’ve only seen Wholesome Sweeteners Organic Fair Trade Dark Brown Sugar in Carrefour, not Cold Storage so far. Supernature stocks the larger-sized 2lb. packs of Sucanat, which I’ve not seen elsewhere and which are a bit cheaper.

Check out also the low Glycemic Index Wholesome Sweeteners Organic Blue Agave Nectar which I’ve seen on sale in health food shops, such as the ones I mentioned above.

Whole wheat coffee cake

If you’re looking for a wholemeal cake recipe, I tried out this Whole Wheat Coffee Cake from Bob’s Red Mill today. There’s no coffee in it at all, so I guess the name refers to the fact that it goes well with a cup of coffee, which is what is described here. The end result was excellent – extremely light and fluffy.

I modified the recipe by keeping it plain – I omitted the filling/topping of brown sugar + cinnamon + pecan nuts. So the ingredients were just wholemeal wheat flour, wheat germ, eggs, (butter)milk, brown sugar, butter, cinnamon, vanilla essence, baking powder and baking soda.

Also reduced the amount of sugar by cutting out the filling/topping, and reducing sugar in the main recipe to 3/4 cup. The result is just right.

Buttermilk is very expensive to buy so I used this substitute recipe: 1 cup (240 ml) milk + 1 1/4 tsp cream of tartar. The acidic buttermilk reacts with baking soda to produce a leavening effect, which baking soda+cream of tartar also does. Read my earlier post about leavening agents.

The instructions don’t really go into details about this but I deduced that the butter and sugar should be creamed before adding the eggs and vanilla essence. I remember the mistakes I made when making Banana Cake, so I was careful to add the eggs only a little bit at a time and ensure each bit was well mixed in. Having recently acquired the book Baking at Home with The Culinary Institute of America and read the section on creaming, I tried to cream the mixture thoroughly to incorporate plenty of air. As I mentioned, the texture of the cake turned out fabulous so my efforts at doing the creaming properly paid off. [However, this article says that coffee cakes are usually made by the muffin method: wet ingredients + dry ingredients, mixed till just blended, which isn’t what the Bob’s Red Mill recipe instructed.]

Finally, instead of baking it in a loaf shape, which would have sucked up 55 mins of power to run the oven, I scooped the mixture into 24 paper cases and they were done in just 20 mins.

My new kitchen utensil: claypot

I’m a non-foodie, obsessed by food. To me, foodies love eating and obsess over particular details of their food; whereas I’m not driven by a love of eating and I’m quite happy to settle for imperfectly prepared foods as long as it meets my personal standards.

However, because of my wide-ranging food sensitivities, I spend a lot of time thinking of dishes I can eat, or how to creatively adapt dishes to something I can tolerate. And because I’m also hypoglycemic, I also worry a lot about bringing enough food with me when I leave the house so that I don’t go hungry. Trying to think of a variety of foods that are within my tolerance-range, which can be cooked at home, and deciding which ones are easily portable can be quite an all-consuming task (no pun intended ^.^) ! Incidentally, I don’t actually think very much about foods I can’t have … except tea :).

The result of all this is that I’m always finding new kitchen products to add to my collection, with the aim of extending my range of cooking methods, and hence dishes that I can produce to add variety to my diet.

My latest purchase is a Tanyu claypot. Numerous testimonials on the internet say what good results this produces. I’ve never cooked with any kind of claypot, and this brand is supposed to be superior to old-fashioned Chinese claypots (with correspondingly magnified prices!). I’d seen it many times in the department stores but never paid attention until now, when in my food-obsessed frame of mind I walked past the Tanyu counter in Takashimaya offering 20% discount.

I didn’t find the Tanyu promoters particularly helpful with product information, but from what I gather from the Tanyu cookbook no. 4 (lousy cooking instructions, don’t bother buying it from the Tanyu counter), Tanyu is a Singapore brand, made from Japanese clay. No information where the pots are actually made. I hope there’s no lead in the glaze!!

Anyway, I chose a 1.3l shallow dish in the traditional shape for claypot rice and promptly made claypot rice for dinner :). The heat conduction and retention seemed very good, the pot is certainly easy to clean with its smooth, glazed surface, and the rice had that burnt, chao da smell and the brown crust of rice which is characteristic of claypot rice sar po fan.

The interesting thing about claypot cooking is that it also has a culturally-diverse and long historical lineage, ranging from ancient Rome to East Asia. In China, claypot rice, braised dishes and slowly-simmered soups are all commonly made in claypots. In Japan, we often see sukiyaki and nabe being made in donabe ceramic pots. All of these cooking methods involve putting the pots over a heat source on a stove. Thai and Vietnamese cooking use claypots too.

In contrast, other cultures put clay cooking vessels into an oven. (Incidentally, there are some Chinese claypot rice recipes from Malaysia that use a combination of stovetop and oven.) For example, Indian tandoor clay ovens and the Moroccan tagine that has become oh-so-fashionable in recent years. European clay cooking vessels usually come in a long, rectangular shape. Unglazed clay is used, and before cooking the clay pot is soaked in water for fifteen minutes. So when the food is put in and the whole thing put in the oven, a wonderful steaming effect is created inside the enclosed clay pot to produce flavourful casseroles, moist and tender roast meats as well as crispier crusts when baking breads. Read more here, here, here and here and check out some quick recipes here.

Because clay cooking vessels retain natural flavours and juices well, less added seasoning is needed. This is wonderful for those who wish to cut down on unhealthy seasonings such as salt and MSG, and for people like me to are sensitive to prepared sauces as well as dried herbs and spices. However, for amine-sensitive individuals, I’m not sure if claypot cooking method produces amines.

I’d love to use my new Tanyu claypot for a one-person hotpot/ steamboat/ sukiyaki one day, as soon as I decide on the most appropriate heat source for the dining table. Unfortunately, induction cookers require cookware that can hold a magnetic charge in order to work.

23/11/07 update:
The Tanyu claypot didn’t work with my steamboat/grill machine, there just wasn’t enough heat on the grill surface to penetrate the thick claypot. So I’ve given up the idea of cooking hotpot at the table. Instead, I’ve discovered that cooking hotpot on the stove and then serving it in the claypot at the table makes an equally satisfying alternative. Somehow it’s really special to open the claypot lid and discover the steaming, fragrant soup inside still bubbling away with a lovely half-cooked egg in the soup (but the claypot retains heat a long time so eat the egg soon or it will become fully cooked!).

I think any dish that needs to be simmered slowly is suitable for claypot cooking, as the clay retains heat for a long time. A crockpot is basically a claypot, after all. So aside from Chinese rice porridge, claypot rice and braised dishes, or the roasted meats from other cuisines, any kind of stew or even bolognaise sauce would be just the thing for cooking in your claypot instead of a metal pot.

13/12/07 update:
Read my favourite way to use my Tanyu claypot here.

30/12/07 update:
I’ve been told that compared to cooking on the stove or using an electric crockpot, the advantage of putting a claypot in the oven (or cast iron pot for that matter, which also has excellent heat retention properties) is that in the oven, heat surrounds the entire cooking vessel rather than only coming from the bottom and this produces a superior result for stews and roasts.

My favourite kitchen tool

Silicone brush B

… is this silicone brush & baster from Mastrad/Orka.

Silicone products are a bit pricey but this one has been worth every cent. I bought it after a very silly melting disaster when I used a $2 Daiso pastry brush to apply oil to the surface of our electric barbeque.

The silicone brush comes in handy for me in all sorts of ways, such as:

Food preparation
* Brushing water over the inner surfaces of onigiri moulds before sprinkling salt

* Brushing oil on frying pans before cooking.
* Coating the surface of the waffle iron before pouring in the batter.
* Applying oil to the surface of the electric barbeque & the food whilst cooking.
* Oiling the frying pan surface in between layers of egg whilst making tamagoyaki.
(*Basting roasts – I haven’t done this myself but this is one of the intended functions of the product.)

* Brushing the tops of pastries and buns with glazes.
* Oiling the surface of the bread machine tin.
* Oiling the surface of baking trays and pans.