Gingerbread fox biscuits and home made cutter

Gingerbread foxes plus make your own cutter

foxBiscuits4I had an idea to make some gingerbread foxes – the biscuit itself is the right colour for a fox and some white icing would make excellent white fur highlights. Just one problem: nowhere does fox-shaped cutters!

I have made my own cutters in the past, so this wasn’t much of an obstacle, and when I’m determined to do something, I have to finish it.

Notes
  • You don’t need to do fox cutters yourself – you can use these instructions to do any shape. In fact, it’s probably better to start off with something easier, for instance a leaf shape or a cloud etc.
  • So, not only is this my own gingerbread recipe but there is a how-to on reshaping your own cutters. I do normally use a soldering iron to fix the metal together, but as I didn’t want to assume that everyone who wanted a go had a soldering iron or even wanted to use one, I’ve fixed it together with a folding and trapping method, so no hot solder required 🙂
  • I’ve written this in two parts: firstly the cutter making and then the actual recipe.
  • Please bear in mind that it is difficult to judge exactly the circumference of your new cutter shape, as it is not easy to measure

Making your own design cutter

Equipment – for the cutterfox biscuit cutters
  • One large, cheap pre-made cutter – any shape (although a round or simple shape is best as you don’t have to straighten so much out then)
  • Two pairs of sturdy pliers – one with a block/straight head and one needle-nose
  • A pair of tin snips or a good pair of wire cutters
  • Paper and pen/pencil
  • Piece of string
  • Ruler or tape measure
  • Small craft hammer (optional)

Method

  1. Draw round your cutter on a sheet of a piece of paper – this will help you to get a rough size for your new cutter shape
  2. Using the string, trace round the shape you’ve drawn and measure it – this will tell you the circumference of your existing cutter. Your new shape needs to be smaller than this
  3. Draw out your new shape that you want and again measure with the string to check it’s smaller than the original cutter. Readjust your design as necessary
  4. If your design is fairly simple you should be able to complete it without breaking the join (where the two ends of the metal have been welded together)
  5. If you have a complex design it becomes very tricky to shape it with a joined cutter – that it, it’s easier to work with a strip of metal rather than a pre-joined piece. For this, either work the join backwards and forwards until it snaps (many cutters are not joined together terribly well) or use the tin snips or wire cutters to snip through the metal. For my fox cutter I needed to use a strip of metal so I broke the join Making a fox cutter - first stages
  6. If you are working with a strip of metal now, you need to work out what part of the design the join will reform at. It is best to have it (as we are not soldering) on a corner or straight line – try not to position it on a curved area as the action of pinching the ends together will create either a sharp corner or flat line.
  7. Using your drawn shape as a guide, start to bend the metal with your two pliers. Remember that all bends and corners must be at a 90 degree angle to the edges of the metal strip. Otherwise you will start to get the cutter out of alignment – the cutting edge must lie flush when you are finished or you will not be about to cut your dough well. As you work, test that the cutter is lying flat by placing it, cutting edge down, on a table and checking that it lies flat all along
  8. As you work keep regularly checking your cutter against the shape you’ve drawn to check you’re still on the right lines
  9. Your straight head pliers are great for ensuring bends and curves are at 90 degrees to the metal strip as you can see the right angle it makes
  10. The needle-nose pliers are good for making tight bends, but do remember they are slanted so can cause your  bends to occur on the slant if you’re not careful
  11. The straight head pliers can also be used as a mini anvil to hammer bends onto and ensure those bends are very crisp with the craft hammer, if you’re using one
  12. Remember that you need to bend both the cutting edge and the thicker edge (the edge you press down on) equally or the cutter can become misshapen. However, the thicker, top edge doesn’t need to be as perfect as the cutting edge
To finish without soldering
  1. Leave one end 2mm longer than the point at where you want the join and one end 4-5mm longer (this accounts for the fold you are going to make in the metal)
  2. Where the two ends meet, you need one end slightly longer than the other by about 2mmcrimping
  3. Bend the longer end over at 2mm in from the end, creating a fold. It is important to bend this to the OUTSIDE of your shape (bending inwards will ruin the shape of the cutter. Having a thick join on the outside edge of the cutter will not affect your cookie shapes)
  4. Slot the other end into this fold
  5. Using your block end pliers crimp the fold tightly together
  6. Make sure the edge of the pliers is in line with the edge of the fold and start to bend it over on itself
  7. Once you cannot bend it further because the pliers themselves are now in the way, remove the pliers and reposition them to crimp the fold down as tightly as possible
  8. This should fix your cutter join enough. If it does ever slip out of joint, you should be able to slide it back together
Checking over
  • If you have any really wavy cutting edges crimp them with the pliers to smooth them out. It doesn’t have to be perfect – biscuit dough is forgiving and you won’t notice a few small kinks in your biscuits after they’ve cooked
  • Not satisfied with what you’ve done? Don’t through it way – the metal can be hammered out flat and you can re-use it to try again
  • Make sure you wash the cutter thoroughly before first use

Gingerbread biscuits

Notes
  • Makes about 30 small – medium biscuits
  • I have not included a recipe for royal icing to flood the biscuits, as you may wish to decorate them differently or not to decorate them at all.
  • For my fox biscuits I made up royal icing (icing sugar, water, meringue powder) and outlined the shapes with a small round nozzle piping bag and flood-filled using a cocktail stick.
Equipment
  • Bowl
  • Saucepan
  • Cutter
  • Rolling pin
  • 2 or 3 baking trays, lined with parchment or baking paper
  • Palette knife
Ingredients
  • Unsalted butter – 100g
  • Golden syrup – 3 tablespoons
  • Black treacle – 1 teaspoon (this does add an essential dark colour and the tannic taste needed for true gingerbread but can be left out if you don’t have any)
  • Demerara or muscovado sugar – 75g
  • Plain flour – 230g (plus have a bit extra incase the mix needs it and for dusting)
  • Ground ginger – 1 teaspoon
  • crystallised ginger – 25g, very finely chopped
  • Orange zest – from one orange
  • Orange extract – 1 teaspoon
  • Bicarbonate of soda – 1 level teaspoon
  • Water – 1 tablespoon
Method
  1. Put the water, sugar, syrup and treacle in a sauces pan and heat until just boiling
  2. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter until it melts. Add in the orange zest and extract
  3. Weigh out the flour, bicarb, ground and crystallised ginger in a large bowl and tip in the heated mix from the saucepan
  4. Bring together until the mix is fully incorporated (add in a bit more flour if it’s really gooey – it should be quite thick, but pliable, rather like warm playdough!)
  5. Leave to cool – and then pop it in the fridge for at least 20 minutes (keeping the dough chilled is key to ensuring your cookies don’t spread out of shape)
  6. Flour your surface quite well and roll out to about 3mm thick
  7. Cut out your shapes and place them on the lined baking trays
  8. Put the trays somewhere cool to chill (outside in cool weather or in the fridge)
  9. Heat your oven to 170C fan / 190C conventional
  10. Bake the biscuits for about 12 – 14 minutes – they should be firm(ish) to the touch  (leaving them for about 15-16 minutes will have them the right consistency for tree ornaments, slightly less and they are moist and delicious just for eating straightaway)
  11. Leave to cool in the trays
  12. You can leave them in the trays for decorating or lift them carefully with the palette knife onto wire racks
  13. Decorate as you see fit when completely cool

gingerbread foxes recipes and how to make your own cutter

The science of meringue making

Cooking is an art, but baking is definitely both an art and a science and few things seem to illustrate the science of baking as much as making a meringue.

I’m no subject matter expert, but I’ve read up on the subject from a number of places – biochemistry books, cookery technique books and various online sources (it helps I work at an University so have access to some good libraries!). While I found quite a lot to go from, there was no one single place with this information altogether. This is then is a baker’s/layperson’s explanation of what’s going on for anyone else who is as interested about this as I’ve been. I’ve tried to check everything I’ve written, including the illustration, and have developed this post to be as correct as I can. If something is howlingly incorrect please let me know (and tell me why it’s incorrect) and I’ll do my best to improve it.

So, how exactly does watery egg albumen turn into snow white, crisp on the outside and gooey-mallowy in the middle meringue? It turns out there are a lot of chemical and biochemical processes going on and there are a few things you can do (or avoid) to help you to get the optimum meringue.

Lower down I’ve explained some of the ingredients and methods that can improve your meringues or cause you problems and looked into any scientific reason behind them. There’s also an explanation of the cooking process – what exactly happens to the meringues as they dry out.

The science-y explanation

Egg white (or albumen) contains almost zero fat, less than 1% carbohydrate (glucose) but around 92% water. What’s left (about 8% of its total composition) is made up of proteins, trace minerals and vitamins. The proteins are the important bit for making meringue. Egg white proteins are long strands, suspended in water that makes up most of the egg white. They lie coiled up individually like tiny balls of wool. This is because each protein hosts two types of amino acid and some are attracted to water (hydrophilic) and some repel against water (hydrophobic) and chemical bonds keep them that way. This means that when the proteins are coiled the water-loving amino acids all sit round the outside closest to the water and the water-hating amino acids hide inside the coiled-up strands to avoid get wet. (I’ve drawn up a very rough representation of what’s happening with the protein strands – please see 1 in the drawing).

Representation of what happens to protein strands in egg white - from 1. their original form, through 2. denaturation from whipping to 3. coagulation when whipping is complete
Representation of what happens to protein strands in egg white – from 1. their original form, through 2. denaturation from whipping to 3. coagulation when whipping is complete

The proteins will stay in this form unless they are subjected to physical stress, certain chemicals or heat and the incorporation of air. We’re interested in the physical stress option for a typical French meringue – beating the hell out of the egg white with a whisk. [Italian and Swiss meringue methods introduce heat stress to the mix as well, which causes thermolysis (where the heat causes the proteins to pull apart). Italian meringue recipes include pre-heated sugar syrup and Swiss meringues are made over a bain-mairie (hot water bath).] When you beat egg white you cause the break-up of the chemical bonds that keep the protein strands together. This is called denaturation. By whisking you also start to incorporate air bubbles into the egg white that the hydrophobic amino acids become attracted to and this also encourages the proteins to unravel from their natural curled-up state.

These two stress processes cause the coiled-up protein strands to un-curl and turn the egg white from a liquid into a foam. The chemical bonds that hold the protein strands together break and the hydrophobic amino acids start to attach to the bubbles of air you’ve whipped in, holding the air in place and keeping the foam structure fairly intact. (See 2 in the drawing). The final part of this is coagulation, where the protein strands, attached to air bubbles by the hydrophilic amino acids, start to bump together and create chemical bonds with each other, creating a sort of mesh-like structure. This keeps the air bubbles locked in place and supports the foamy composition of the whisked egg white. (See 3 in the drawing).

The three states often cited for whipping meringue – soft, firm and stiff peaks – relate to how much stress the proteins have been subjected to. Less stress by whipping (and therefore also less air) leaves the protein strands less untangled so they can’t bond together quite so effectively. This means the foam structure is not so strong, giving softer peaks. The more you beat it applies higher stress and more air so the stiffer the foam will be. This is because you will really straighten out the proteins, so they are fully open to being in contact with other strands and can create new chemical bonds around larger air bubbles. But beware – there is a limit to the stress you can apply and egg white can be overwhipped. Proteins can be stretched too far, become unstable and collapse, releasing the captured water and air. This results in a flat meringue where seconds before it was beautifully fluffy. There is a remedy though – please see below.

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Adding sugar

Added sugar dissolves into the water molecules in the egg white and this actually increases both the strength and elasticity of the whole mix, and helps support the proteins from stretching too far and collapsing. This, in turn, allows a little more air to be whipped in making the egg whites even fluffier. Sugar needs to be added after the stress process has already started – so never, never add sugar before you start whipping. If you add sugar first it will have the opposite effect to what you want and will prevent the protein strands from uncurling. Because sugar is there to dissolve with the water molecules you should give it a fighting change and use the finest caster sugar you can get. Some recipes even list icing (confectioners) sugar.

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Four things that can help a meringue

1. Using fresh eggs

It’s best to use only the freshest eggs that you have for meringues. Fresh egg albumen has a high acidity level, and this level drops sharply as the egg ages. Acid in the egg white will slow down the coagulation process (where the un-curled protein strands bond with each other), which gives you more time to beat in air, it will seem harder but it’s definitely worth it for that perfect meringue. I’ve seen a few places which suggest that you should use older eggs because they are easier to whip up to a foam. In older eggs the chemical bonds in the proteins have loosened, making it easier to beat in air and so get a foam more quickly and with less effort. However, it’s a false economy because once whipped up they will not coagulate fully due to those relaxed chemicals – the bonds won’t reform with any adherence. This means you’re less likely to get really stiff peaks, the meringue will sag and loosen and it will be less likely to have a nice crisp shell as it will stay slightly sticky. So use fresh eggs for the best results. That said, while you should still avoid eggs that are getting close to their ‘use by’ date, you can get away with eggs that are a few days old by employing the next tip…

2. Adding white wine vinegar, lemon juice or cream of tartar

Some people swear by adding one of these ingredients in the meringue mix. They may not know why they work or may think that it just makes the meringue more ‘glossy’. The real reason that these work as an extra ingredients is because they all increase the acidity level of the mix, mimicking the same effect as using the freshest eggs. It’s better, though, to just to use the freshest eggs as something made with the fewest ingredients is preferable and it also just slightly alters the flavour (especially the lemon juice – but then you might want that for your recipe). However, if your eggs are a few days old, it’s worth putting in a half a teaspoon of white wine vinegar (my preference out of the three ingredients) to help. Having tried all three ingredients my least favourite is cream of tartar as it definitely results in a slightly drier and crispier meringue. I prefer my meringues to be more gooey on the inside, but if your preference is for crispy it may be the extra ingredient for you. If using, you must add the extra ingredient after you’ve incorporated the sugar.

3. A metal or glass bowl

Any metal or glass bowl is just easier to wash and keep grease-free than a plastic one. However, I have read in several places that there is a specific benefit to using a copper bowl – see below. However, I can’t imagine anyone other than a professional pâtissier using these as they are just so expensive.

4. Copper

Copper molecules actually bind with one of the proteins in egg white. This binding causes a reaction that tightens the chemical bonds between the strands, resulting in a stiffer and less prone to collapse foam.

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Five things that can cause problems

1. Fat

Any fat present will make the denaturation process more difficult. It’s not impossible to whip a meringue where some fat is present, but it will take a whole lot longer – so long it may not be worth trying! Anything more than the smallest amount of fat and it will be impossible. One way to ensure the bowl is scrupulously clean is to rub it with the cut edge of half a lemon (this also adds a little of one of extra ingredients listed above that can help with the meringue mix).

2. Plastic bowls

It’s not the plastic itself that will cause you grief, but the fact that plastic attracts fat and it’s more difficult to complete clean a plastic bowl free of grease than most other materials. So, avoid a plastic bowl if you can to give yourself an easier task. However, if you’ve only got a plastic bowl, clean it with very hot water, wipe it bone dry with a kitchen towel, maybe wipe over a cut lemon and apply a little extra effort. If it’s clean, it will still work.

3. Dirty utensils (beaters, whisks, spatulas etc)

As with bowls, make sure your utensils are scrupulously clean. Any residue or grease on them will affect the denaturation process and stop you from getting a fully fluffy mix. Wash in the hottest water posible and leave to dry out or dry with a kitchen towel.

4. Egg yolk

The reason you need to separate out the egg yolk intact from the egg white for meringues again is because of fat. Yolks have a high fat content. With the teensiest amount of egg yolk in it’s still possible, but as with the comments for plastic bowls, you’ll need to whip the meringue for a lot longer and a lot harder. Anything other than a minute amount of yolk and you should just start again separating the eggs out – save the original whites and yolks for something else.

5. Eggs from the fridge

It’s best to have room temperature eggs for making meringue, as the bonds holding the protein strands in curls will already be slightly weakened. Room temperature eggs are already going through a very mild occurrence of heat stress (or ‘thermolysis’ as mentioned earlier) which will lead to denaturation. It just gives you a head start.

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The cooking process

Actually, meringues are less ‘cooked’ than actually just ‘dried out’. In your carefully whipped and very fluffy meringue, water and air bubbles are held in the foam. Think of how a sponge looks – a framework of material around pockets of air and water. All you need to do to a meringue is heat it enough to tighten the chemical bonds in the protein strands (to finalise coagulation) and to evaporate the water, leaving the framework intact.

Cooking/drying out slowly with a low heat also enables the proteins to coagulate together in an even way (it gives them time to ‘settle’), ensuring the structure of the meringue is perfect. Use a low temperature (a max of about 120°C for a conventional oven or 100°C for a fan oven) to remove the water and ensure the best bake.

In fact, you can actually dry out a meringue by putting it in either a very low oven (80/60°C) for a few hours or an oven that was heated and turned off as soon as you put the meringue in; just leave the meringue in overnight or for about six hours in this case.

I’ve given a recipe for French meringue in another blog post, plus it has some explanations on how to check if your meringues are ready and what you can do if things have gone a bit wrong.

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Holy basil and strawberry pavlova - learn about meringue making and the science of meringues on Ink Sugar Spice

French meringue recipe and ‘meringue 101’

 

Pavlova2Please also see my post about the science of making meringues, which has tips and explanations to ensure the best meringue possible. It explains what actually happens to the proteins and amino acids in egg white during whipping and cooking, plus some useful stuff such as why lemon juice or white wine vinegar is sometimes added to the mix, why it’s said you should avoid plastic bowls or why sugar shouldn’t be added before whipping the egg whites. See lower down in this post for some hints and tips on ensuring your meringues always work in a problems/FAQ section. You’d think there wouldn’t be many recipes for meringue, as there are so few ingredients, however there are many variations of egg white to sugar, what type of sugar to use and the inclusion of extra ingredients. You should roughly work on about 50g of sugar to one egg white, plus a little extra ‘for luck’. I’ve tried and tested many combinations in the past and the following recipe that I’ve hit on is one that has been pretty fool-proof for me.

Notes

This recipe is enough for about 26 small meringues, 14 medium, a Pavlova or pie topping.

Ingredients

  • 3 large fresh egg whites, free-range preferably
  • 175g caster sugar (fine white if you want classic meringues or unrefined golden caster if you like the taste and want a golden-y meringue)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract (the type with seeds) or the seeds from ½ a vanilla pod
  • an optional extra (pinch of cream of tartar, ½ teaspoon white wine vinegar or ½ teaspoon lemon juice) if you want or if your eggs are more than a couple of days old

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 120°C (conventional) 100°C (fan)
  2. Whip up the egg whites to soft peaks and slowly tip in the sugar in small batches (about a tablespoon full at a time) while still whipping. Continue to whip until you have stiff peaks.
  3. Add the vanilla and whip a little more until the vanilla is thoroughly distributed.
  4. If you are using one of the extra ingredients (I’ve explained their use and the effect they have on the meringue mix in my science of meringue blog post) add it now and whip again, a little more to ensure it is incorporated.
  5. You can test the readiness of the meringue mix by pulling the whisk out of the mix – the little bit of meringue that’s left on it should stay up as a peak if you hold the whisk pointing upwards. If the meringue flops it needs some more whisking. Alternatively, you could do the ‘bowl upside down over the head’ trick, but that’s a bit over the top when you’re in a kitchen on your own – and you could end up very messy if you hadn’t mixed it enough yet!
  6. Pipe or spoon the meringue onto a parchment-lined baking sheet.
  7. Bake for 40 mins. Turn off the oven, bake for 40 mins more. [Alternatively, turn off the oven as soon as you put the meringue in and leave in overnight]. (See the blog post about the science of meringue as it explains how meringues dry out).

Problems – or ‘meringue 101’

How do I tell when the meringue is ready?

French meringues are perfectly cooked when they are still white but sound hollow when you tap the bottom (the only reservation to this is if you’ve used unrefined caster sugar which would keep a slightly browner colour of the meringue naturally). The meringues will peel away very easily from your baking paper once they’ve fully done.

My meringue was OK but has now gone flat while whipping

You’ve over whipped your meringue and the proteins have stretched too far, collapsing the foam. Add in one new egg white and whisk again – this can resurrect the meringue.

Is it warm and humid? Or is your kitchen steamy from a kettle or something you’ve got cooking? A (very) high humidity will soften the meringue mix as it introduces too much moisture (you only need the water content that exists in the egg white already). You may need to abandon making meringues for that day or mix up the meringue in another room, if your kitchen is steamy.

My meringue won’t whip up

If you put the sugar in before you started whipping you’ve blown your chances. You’ll need to start again. Another reason is that you’ve got some fat/grease in the mix. You can either start again if you think you’ve got a lot of fat/grease in there, or if there’s just a little chance that if you give it another few minutes of whipping it may be salvaged.

My meringue has a watery layer/is “weeping” (when making a meringue on a filling, such as a lemon meringue)

This is because you put the meringue on to a cold filling. If you put it on while the filling is hot this starts to dry out the meringue straight away, rather than allowing the water in the meringue to start slowly leaking out as the meringue foam starts to disintegrate over time. (Cooking the meringue fixes the protein strands in the egg white into position – coagulation – so when the water evaporates the structure is still in place. If the meringue stands before being cooked the strands aren’t so strongly bonded together and will begin to collapse, allowing the water to leak out of the bottom rather than evaporate in a warm oven).

My meringue shrank leaving a gap between the edge of the meringue and the pastry (when making a pie/pastry)

Because drying out (cooking) the meringue causes the water to evaporate and the protein bonds to coagulate fully, there will be a little shrinkage in the structure of the meringue. (Although some of the methods listed above will minimise any shrinkage by keeping the structure as firm as possible, eg whipping in a copper bowl strengthens the chemical bonds during coagulation). You can counteract any shrinking by ensuring that the meringue seals to the pastry edge. Meringue is quite sticky before it’s cooked it should ‘glue’ quite well. Just spread it out so it touches the pastry the whole way round.