Take Back Your Dessert
Most of you who know me know that I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. My wife, however, loves sweets enough for the two of us, so I find myself making dessert more often than I would for myself. One thing I’ve learned in this process is, compared to making dinner every night, dessert is pretty easy. Most of the time, you can make a batch of cookies and be set for a whole week (maybe two), and the thing is, it may be the best thing for your health.
Dessert the best thing for your health? What kind of craziness is this, you ask? Well, in comparison to what you would buy in the supermarket aisle to satisfy your sweet cravings, a homemade dessert is monumentally better for you. Why? Trans fat.
Trans fat will shorten your life expectancy. This is not an exaggeration. A 2006 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that between 30,000 and 100,000 cardiac deaths per year in the United States are attributable to trans fat consumption. A 2% increase in trans fat consumption doubles your risk of a heart attack. This can be compared to the 15% increase of saturated fat required to achieve the same risk.
Trans fat is created by partially hydrogenating vegetable oil. In doing so, food manufacturers were able to simultaneously increase the melting point of vegetable fats and increase their shelf life, which was a a huge boon for processed food producers, specifically those making desserts. A higher melting point is needed to achieve certain textures found in baked goods (think fluffy and flaky).
Not confined merely to industrial use, trans fats made their way into home kitchens with the advent of Crisco in 1911. Soon, most homes had transitioned away from a more traditional shortening, lard, to the more convenient, shelf-stable vegetable shortening.
Trans fat has received a lot of attention recently, and most of the industrial food complex has transitioned to “trans-fat free” formulations (Crisco transitioned in 2007), but this may not be any better for your health. The favored replacement process is to use interesterified fat, which is still a synthetic fat, and initial studies point to the same problems that exist with trans fat. I’m sure over time we’ll begin to understand how these new synthetic fats are damaging our health.
So, what’s the solution? Make your own dessert, and stay away from synthetic fats. Let’s go over the options.
Pros: acceptable use in almost all baked goods; adds excellent flavor
Cons: relatively sharp melting point means textural differences (less flakiness, fluffiness, etc), and a potentially greasy outcome; high cholesterol
Organic vegetable shortening
Usually made from palm oil, which is one of the few vegetable sources of saturated fat, requiring no hydrogenation or interesterification.
Pros: Cholesterol-free; will produce better textures; shelf-stable
Cons: Brings nothing in the flavor department; may not be the best substitute for animal fats, due to fatty-acid structure
Varies by oil
Pros: Cholesterol-free; low in saturated fat
Cons: Not a direct substitute in most baked goods
That’s right. Lard. If you skip down to the nutrition, you’ll notice that there’s nothing really freaky about lard. In fact, if you compare it to butter, it has less saturated fat (5g vs 7g) and less than half the cholesterol (12mg vs 30mg).
It’s important to note that I’m talking about fresh lard here, not that crappy, shelf-stable, slightly hydrogenated crap they sell in boxes. This should never be used because it is not only terrible for you (think trans fat + cholesterol + saturated fat), it tastes awful. If it’s not refrigerated, it’s not fresh lard.
I render my own fresh lard every month or so. Any pork fat can be rendered for lard, but the quality of the end result depends on the type of pig fat you use. Mixed fat will produce a softer lard with a more heady pork aroma. Back fat will give a slightly firmer lard with less porky smell. Leaf fat, the holy grail of pork fat, produces the cleanest, firmest lard that is most suited for baked goods. I buy mine from a local pork producer for $1.50/lb, which is a steal.
I’ve found that ~2.5 lbs of fat will yield ~1 quart of rendered lard, but this can vary. To render lard, place a heavy pot (I use an enameled cast iron dutch oven) over low heat (if you have an electric stove, this works well) or in a 250 degree oven (better if you have a gas stove). Add a 1/4 inch of water to the bottom (this prevents burning in the beginning; it’ll boil off during the process) and then add chopped pork fat. Stir it occasionally. After a few hours, you’ll notice that some of your cubes aren’t changing in size, and are starting to brown. This means you’re done. Strain the lard through a colander lined with muslin. Store in the fridge for 2-3 months, or freeze for up to 6 months.
Pros: best texture for baked goods (flaky crusts and fluffy crumbs); lower cholesterol than butter
Cons: Not much flavor here, and low-quality lard can have off-putting pork flavors; must be stored in fridge or freezer
So what is there to do with all of this new-found fat? I’m going to focus on two things which most people have never made from scratch. Two things that most people either buy in completed form, or make from box mixes: Pie crust and brownies. And they’re going to be so good, you’ll never go back.
I’m giving two options here: all-butter, and butter+shortening (lard or organic, preferably lard). The former will be packed with buttery flavor, but the latter will amaze you with it’s flakiness, particularly if you can score some leaf lard. This is particularly easy to make if you have a food processor.
Makes 2 crusts
- 2.5 cups all-purpose flour
- 16 Tbsp. cold fat (all unsalted butter or 4 Tbsp. lard & 12 Tbsp. unsalted butter)
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 7 to 9 Tbsp. ice water
Blend the flour, fat, and salt in a bowl with your fingertips, breaking the fat up into small pea-sized pieces (or pulse in a food processor). Work quickly here; you don’t want the fat to melt or it will ruin the texture.
Add 5 Tbsp. of the ice water and blend with a fork (or pulse to combine). Squeeze a portion of the dough together. It should hold a shape, and not crumble. If it doesn’t, keep adding water in small increments until you the dough will hold it’s shape. Be careful not to overwork the dough, or you’ll develop gluten and the pastry will get tough.
Dump the dough out onto a floured surface. Divide the dough into two equal portions. Now, the fraisage. This is a french technique to evenly distribute the fat. The idea is to smear the dough away from you. Take the heel of your hand and press the dough in a quick motion away from you, to smear the dough across the counter. Gather and repeat. Form into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate. Repeat for the other piece of dough.
Chill for at least 1 hour, preferably 2.
For all you boxed brownie mix lovers out there, this recipe was specifically designed by Cooks Illustrated to mimic the boxed-type texture, and it succeeds wonderfully. This is the best brownie I’ve ever had. Period. Even better than that one with the insoluable-in-brownie-mix fudge packet.
- 1/3 cup cocoa powder
- 1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp. boiling water
- 2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
- 4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
- 1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
- 2 large eggs
- 2 large egg yolks
- 2 tsp. vanilla extract
- 2 1/2 cups (17.5 ounces) sugar
- 1 3/4 cups (8.75 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 3/4 tsp. salt
- 6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, cut into 1/2 inch chunks
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and set rack to the lowest position in the oven.
Prepare a 13×9 pan. Make a foil sling (this helps with removal later). Cut a 17 inch piece of foil and fold lengthwise into an 8×17 strip, and place lengthwise in the pan. Next, cut a 13 inch piece and place horizontally in the pan. Now you’ve got little foil edges on each side to grab when the brownies are done. Grease the foil well with non-stick spray.
Whisk cocoa and boiling water in a large bowl until smooth. Add unsweetened chocolate and whisk until melted. Whisk in melted butter and oil (it might look weird here, but keep going). Add eggs, yolks, and vanilla and whisk until well combined. Whisk in sugar until fully incorporated.
Switch to a spatula, and mix in the flour and salt until combined. Fold in the chocolate pieces.
Scrape into the prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out mostly clean, about 30-35 minutes.
If your using a glass pan, cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack using your foil sling, and cool completely.
If you’re using a metal pan, you can cool them completely in the pan.
Don’t cut until completely cool. Then, devour.