Sunday, September 9, 2007

Messing Around With S'Mores

My co-conspirator and I are faced with a challenge: we promised people s'mores for a party but, due to conditions beyond our control, we can't have an open fire. No fire, no roasted marshmallow-y goodness, no s'mores. What are we to do? Well, we could always cook the marshmallows over some other radiant heat source, melt the chocolate in a toaster over, etc. etc., but that's not really the same thing is it? So let's see if we can capture the spirit of the dessert without resorting to one of those silly s'more cooking kits, shall we?

S'mores are really a ceremonial food in the same vein as corned beef. The form and composition reflects the context (sitting around the campfire) in which s'mores are typically cooked. The graham cracker provides a mildly sweet, structural element which makes them a convenient camping finger food, while the chocolate and marshmallow combine to form a warm, gooey filling.

But, as is often the case with ceremonial food, the execution could be better. There's a mismatch between the graham cracker and the marshmallow/chocolate filling; the graham cracker is too firm, so when you bite down all the filling squishes out the sides. That might be fine for the Boy Scouts, but it's a composition flaw in my book. Also, The filling is typically executed with cheap chocolate and marshmallows, resulting in a mass so sweet it makes your teeth ache while suffering from synthetic candy bar aftertaste. We have the technology... we can rebuild it, make it better.

Let's work on a replacement for the graham cracker. We want something sweet and crunchy, but with a little more give to it. The first thing that comes to mind is the cookie portion of a Pepperidge Farms Milano; it's mildly sweet and has a texture which would complement a thickish filling. Of course, it would be unduly labor intensive, not to mention expensive, to pry apart actual Milanos, so we're going to have to fake it.

Google provides a number of recipes:

Ingredient Food Network Uncle Phaedrus cdkitchen Suite 101
AlmondsØØ1 cØ
Almond ExtractØØ1/4 tspØ
Baking powderØØ1tspØ
Brown sugarØ3/4 c.Ø3/4 c.
Butter12 tbsp1 c.1 c.1 c.
Egg whites7/8 c.ØØØ
Flour1.5 c.2 c.3/4 c.2 c.
Lemon extract2 tbspØØØ
Powdered sugar2.5 c.ØØØ
SaltØØ1/8 tspØ
SugarØØ3/4 c.Ø
Vanilla extract2 tbsp2 tspØ2 tsp
I've scratched out the flavoring components since we're not concerned with the flavor of the Milano so much as the texture.

So what do we have here? These are all essentially butter cookies, which is about what we should expect given that a Milano looks a lot like a butter cookie, but has a different texture. That's where these recipes part ways: the Uncle Phaedrus and Suite 101 recipes have no additional ingredients beyond sugar, butter, and flower while the Food Network and cdkitchen recipes introduce eggs in one form or another. So, which recipe should we use?

Consider the roles that eggs play in cookie recipes. The whites, being a protein, provide structure while the yolks, mostly fat, provide richness and help tenderize the final product. So, thinking about the butter cookies that you've had in your life; how do they compare to a Milano? In general I expect that they're softer. So we're going to want something with a little more structure, indicating that we should favor recipes containing eggs, which leaves us with the recipes from cdkitchen and Food Network. I'm inclined to go with the Food Network recipe; the use of egg whites (as opposed to whole eggs) and slightly less butter will give a crisper product in comparison to the cdkitchen recipe.

So now we have, if the Food Network is to be believed, a cookie that will approximate the Milano's texture. But it bears absolutely no relation to a graham cracker; if we're trying to stay true to the spirit of the s'more then the product we use for our base should be strongly evocative of the real thing. So what can we do to our base recipe to make it seem more like a graham cracker? Well, let's look at a recipe and see what flavors make it distinctive. The three ingredients which, in my opinion, contribute most strongly to the graham cracker's taste are honey, brown sugar, and graham flour, all of which can be incorporated into the faux-Milano dough.

Focusing on the sweeteners first we have to ask ourselves how to substitute brown sugar/honey for the powdered sugar? I wasn't able to find anything about converting from powdered/confectioners' sugar directly to brown sugar/honey directly, so we're going to have to do it in steps. First, powdered sugar can be converted to granulated sugar at a ratio of 1.13 by weight or 0.57 by volume. So, our 2.5c of powdered sugar becomes ~1.4c granulated sugar; let's just round that to 1.5c for the sake of convenience. Brown sugar swaps 1 for 1 with white sugar apart from the change in taste, but since its the brown sugar taste we're after that's not an issue. Honey swaps for white sugar at 7/8 by volume; we're going to ignore the moisture change which this introduces on the grounds that there's no convenient way to suck water out of this receipe without sucking other things out as well. Let's further assume that we just want a little honey flavor... say... 1/6 the total sweeteners. So, doing the math, we've got 1.25c brown sugar and a little bit less than 1/4c honey.

That takes care of the brown sugar and honey, how about the "graham"? As best as I've been able to determine you can substitute graham flour for white flour 1:1. The big thing you have to worry about when substituting one flour for another is gluten content, but since we're working with hard-ish wheat flours in both cases I think we can safely ignore the minor differences between the two. Since we're looking for flavor and a little bit of rustic texture, but not too much of either, I'm going to suggest that 1/4 of the all purpose flour be swapped for graham flour.

So, for the time being, let's go with the following recipe:

A Milano/graham cracker hybrid
Brown sugar1.25 c.
Butter12 tbsp
Egg whites7/8 c.
Flour1&1/8 c.
Graham flour3/8 c.
Honey0.25 c.
At this point the hardest part, engineering a cookie recipe, is complete.

Having (hopefully) put together a suitable cookie base for our improve s'more its time to turn our attention to fillings. I've no objection to marshmallow per se; mostly I object to stale, store-bought, not quite as tasty as they should be marshmallows. Fortunatley, its easy to make marshmallows at home, which seems like a reasonable way to go. I intend to cut mine to approximately cookie size and brown them with a kitchen torch before assembling.

Lastly, we've got to think about what to substitute for the cheap chocolate bar. There's a lot of suitable replacements; your selection will undoubtedly vary according to personal taste. I'm thinking either ganache or Nutella, depending upon the whim of the moment and what seems most convenient.

Well, there you have it; we've gone and updated the s'more. I'll let y'all know how these turn out.

Update: Turns out we were able to use coals after all, so I didn't get a chance to try out the above. Never fear, its on my list of things to do; I'll come back and update this when I get a chance to make them.