Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Screw a Recipe, I Know Math!

Most of you know I have a fear of baking.  Why you ask? Because, baking is precise--you actually have to follow directions (not my strong suit), you can't taste it half way through and make adjustments, and it can easily fall flat--figuratively and literally.  But, I have a wicked sweet tooth and an inexplicable lust for baked goods, so I am slowly but surely trying to get my baking skills up to snuff.

So imagine my joy to stumble upon the book Ratio by Michael RuhlmanRatio is awesome, in fact I think everyone should own it because it liberates you from recipe dependency because as the title insinuates, Ruhlman places emphasis on learning ratios, not recipes. 

I mean, how many times have you wanted to make cookies?  Many I'm sure.  Whats the first thing you do?  If you're like me, you head to Google and find the most appetizing recipe.  But what if you knew the ratio?  Then you would know that a basic cookie dough is easy as 1-2-3: 1 part sugar, 2 parts fat, 3 parts flour.  Once you get the ratio, you are free to be creative! You can make modifications, for example brown sugar instead of white for a chewy cookie or throw in chocolate chips, nuts, candies...whatever your little heart desires.

After reading all of this stuff about ratios, I decided to see if it was as easy as Michael Ruhlman makes it out to be so I baked my own cranberry-orange muffins with an almond streusel topping.  I was feeling extra sassy, so I also made a nice orange butter to go along with it.  Best part, I'm going to a.) show you how wicked easy ratios made baking and b.) show you how to make a yummy fruit butter and streusel topping.  Lucky you!

I started this whole process by making an almond streusel.  First off, I want rave about streusel: its a simple way to jazz up muffins and cakes and it adds another flavor dynamic and texture.  For my streusel, all you need are some almonds, roughly chopped...

...flour, butter, and brown sugar, see how easy is that?  Here's what you do: Use a fork to combine 3 tablespoons of softened butter and 1/4 cup of both brown sugar and flour.  Once you have mixed the butter, sugar, and flour well, toss in the chopped almonds and incorporate them.  The final product will look something like this:

On to the batter! Remember this is about ratios and creativity.  So I used the basic ratio for a muffin: 2 parts flour: 2 parts liquid: 1 part egg: 1 part butter.  Okay, I'm sure you want to know exactly what a "part" is.  To make my cranberry-orange muffins* you will need:
  • 8 ounces flour
  • 4 ounces sugar
  • 1 teaspoons baking powder
  • 8 ounces of liquid--6 ounces milk, 2 ounces orange juice
  • 2 large eggs (equal to about 4 ounces)
  • 4 ounces (1 stick, its labeled on there) of melted butter 
 *This will make about one dozen muffins, I got 11 muffins out of this ratio

Notice the ratios?  2:2:1:1 (the ingredients in bold)?  Now I'm sure you're thinking "sugar and baking powder aren't in the ratio."  You're right, they're not.  Sweetness is something you can modify as you like, this is just the amount of sugar I chose to use for my muffins.  As far as the baking powder, you need a leavening agent for your muffins to rise. In general for every 4 ounces of flour you use, you should use 1 teaspoon of baking powder.  Also, I'm sure you noticed I used a bit of orange juice instead of milk, this was actually what was recommended in the book, but I'm sure you could use as much or little as you would like or you could even switch the type of juice.  I obviously used orange juice because it was behind some of the orange flavor present in my cranberry-orange muffins.

All you do is mix all of your wet ingredients in one bowl, dry in another.  Then, slowly incorporate the dry into the wet: 

To round things out, I stirred in the zest of one orange and 1/2 cup of cranberries after I assembled the batter, be careful not to stir too much our your batter will become tough:

I then used my trusty ice cream scoop to pour the batter into a well greased muffin pan (I even grease the tops to aid in clean up):

Then of course, I sprinkled some of the struesel onto the top of each muffin before placing them into a 350 degree oven for about half an hour (or until a toothpick comes out clean):

While the muffins baked, I worked on the orange butter.  All you need is 5 tablespoons of softened sweet cream butter and 7 teaspoons of orange marmalade (or use any fruit preserve or marmalade that you like, I made orange butter to compliment the muffins).

Cut the butter into pats and toss it into a food processor (or mini prep) until the butter and marmalade have become one.  Scoop your butter into a container and put it in the fridge to set up. 

After about half an hour plus cooling time, this is what my first muffins from scratch looked like, sexy don't you think?:

I took them to work the next day and they were a hit, everyone raved about how fresh the muffins and butter tasted. Plus! When I told everyone I made the muffins from scratch, they were more than impressed which was a nice ego boost, especially since I do not normally bake from scratch.

So I beg you, go out and buy Ratio!  This book is amazing as it will show you what professional chefs have known for years:  Learn ratios, not recipes.  Once you learn these basic proportions you really can cook or bake whatever you like from scratch, and truly make it you own making you a culinary rock star.

PS:  If you haven't already, please check out my entry for Challenge #2 of Project Food Blog.  If you dig it, be sure to vote for Fro and a Fork to advance! Voting closes TOMORROW, September 30th at 9 PM (Eastern), 6 PM (Pacific).


  1. My math-geek husband would love this! And I love the thought of learning these "ratios" too. I'm glad I stumbled on your blog tonight. Not only did you share a delicious and creative muffin, but your making me think about baking in a new way!

  2. Those muffins sure are sexy! I love the flavor combo you chose. I've been wanting to check out that book for a while now, I'll get around to it sometime soon!

  3. Monet and Jeanne, Ratio is super awesome I am newly inspired to try all sorts of shenanigans without fear of consequence :)

  4. I'm a closet math geek (looking for ratios in the floorboards) and this totally speaks to me! Thanks so much for the recommendation - I'm actually going to go buy this book today. Peter Barham's 'The Science of Cooking' is also on my reading list, so I'll follow your lead and do a book review when I've bought that one.

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