Food Chemist Answers Common Baking Flops Atlanta food chemist and author of Cookwise and Bakewise Shirley Corriher answers listeners' baking quandaries, from sticky egg challah to dry muffins and runny pie filling.

Food Chemist Answers Common Baking Flops

Food Chemist Answers Common Baking Flops

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Atlanta food chemist and cookbook author Shirley Corriher has been answering listeners' questions about problems in the kitchen. On Wednesday, the author of Cookwise and Bakewise turned her attention to baking, where her knowledge of proteins and enzymes comes in handy.

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Creaming Butter And Sugar

Q. Creaming butter and sugar together in baking recipes has me completely flummoxed. I think I'm supposed to use room temperature butter and then, using a mixer, beat them together until they are light yellow. I think I must be beating too long, because there's always a kind of peculiar (not bad, but odd) smell when I'm done. And is the sugar supposed to dissolve? Or should I still be able to feel granules in the mixture? I know this must be very simple, but I think I'm doing it wrong. -- Cat Carpenter, Chicago

Get Answers To Other Kitchen Quandaries

A. The problem is this room temperature butter. What you're trying to do is beat tiny air bubbles into the butter and sugar. Baking powder and baking soda don't make new bubbles; they only enlarge the bubbles that are already in the batter. If the fat melts, there go your bubbles. So, you really need the butter much cooler than room temperature, which is around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter melts at 69 degrees.

To keep the butter cold, I like to start with the butter that has only been out of the refrigerator about 10 minutes, cut it into tablespoon-sized pieces and beat that.

Also, using fine sugar (berry sugar, bar sugar) will give you very fine bubbles.

Feel the mixing bowl every few minutes. If it is not cool, put it in the freezer for 5 minutes, then continue creaming.

Crumb Topping

Q. My most persistent problem in the kitchen has to do with crumb toppings for coffee cakes. I follow all the directions and when I bake it, it turns into yucky, sticky, filmy sticky glue on top of the cake. Can you tell me what I'm doing wrong? -- Leah Mullins, Gladys, Va.

A. That sticky glue is melted butter. I'd say the recipe has too much butter and not enough flour. What I would do is cut back on the butter, increase the flour, and add something crunchy — maybe chopped roasted nuts or a tablespoon or two of some quick-cooking oatmeal.

Sticky Egg Challah

Q. My wife and I bake egg challah, and we use the same recipe, but when I make it the dough comes out much stickier. A lot of times when I'm shaping the loaves, I have to flour my hands so the dough won't stick to my fingers. As far as I know, we're not doing anything differently. Why is my dough stickier than my wife's? -- Alter Raubvogel, Cincinnati

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A. Let's talk gluten. Whenever you add water to flour and stir, the two proteins in the flour — glutenin and gliadin — grab water and each other and make springy elastic sheets of gluten. Gluten contains water. What you're doing when you knead is you're trying to put these two proteins together with water into gluten. And you'll notice the dough gets drier and more elastic. I have a feeling you are much stronger than your wife is and what's happening is when you knead to a certain point, instead of helping the proteins find each other and crosslink, you reach a point where you're tearing the strands apart and liberating the water that was locked in the gluten. I think you're just being too vigorous and some of the gluten is actually coming apart. Just ease off the elbow grease.

Corn Muffins With More Chew, Less Crumble

Q. I have tried everything to make my corn muffins less crumbly: double eggs, no good; double oil, no good; extra butter — even added bread flour and cornstarch to no avail. What to do? Is it just not possible to make corn muffins that are chewier? -- Jim Francassa

A. It's absolutely easy to do. This is a widespread question, for cookies, too. How do you keep cookies from being crumbly? How do you keep muffins from falling apart? It's gluten. See, to a baker, gluten holds the whole world together. You said you tried adding bread flour, but what happened in that corn bread dough is, you've got a lot of fat and the fat got to the flour first and greased the flour proteins, so there's no way they could grab water. So you want to make sure the water gets to the flour first. Mix a little flour with cornmeal, add about 1/4 cup water, add the buttermilk, and then add the rest of the ingredients and your corn bread will hold together. When you make cookies, take a cup of flour that you're going to use to make the cookies, sprinkle about a tablespoon of water over it and stir, and there will be lumps, but don't worry about them. When you mix this with the rest of the ingredients, they'll disappear, but your cookies will hold together.

Runny Pie Filling

Q. My question is about the filling for lemon meringue pie or banana cream pie. It always turns runny after cooking! -- Diane Macunovich, Highland, Calif.

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A. Pie fillings contain egg yolks, and egg yolks have an enzyme, alpha-amylase, which just loves to gobble up starch. The recipe tells the cook to heat the filling (bring it to a boil) after the yolks are added. But you need to really bring it to a boil to get all of the filling above 170 degrees Fahrenheit. That's the temperature needed to kill alpha-amylase. This is hard to do — the filling is thick and sticking and going blop, blop, blop. But if you don't get it hot enough, it just takes a few little alpha-amylase to gobble away like Pac-Man — and there goes all the starch that was holding your filling nice and firm.