Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Making of the Perfect Puffed Wheat Square

Ask me.  Go ahead.  Ask me.
"DeKay, you say you know how to make the Perfect Puffed Wheat Square, but just what is a Puffed Wheat Square anyway?"
Glad you asked.  Webster's Dictionary defines "Puffed Wheat Square" as... well, actually it doesn't define it at all.  The Wikipedia entry for "Puffed Wheat Square" describes it as...  
The page "Puffed Wheat Square" does not exist.
Why is life so hard?  Why do I have to do everything myself?

Here is how I would define a Puffed Wheat Square:
Puffed Wheat Square is proof that there is a God and that he loves us.
Apt, but it leaves a lot to interpretation.  Let's try again.
Puffed Wheat Square is a dessert made from puffed wheat (duh) coated in some kind of syrup and cut into squares (really???)
Or maybe I should just show you a picture.
The Embodiment of Deliciousness
Like Nanaimo Bars and Insulin Medication (both of which have Wikipedia entries), Puffed Wheat Square is a Canadian invention.  Puffed Wheat Square is lesser known than both, I'll grant you that.  But like Nanaimo Bars, they seem better known in the Western portion of This Great Land.  I am sure there are many people like myself that grew up on them.

My Wonderful Mother made a mean Puffed Wheat Square, and those are not words to be taken lightly.  Puffed Wheat Squares are hard to get right, and the problem is the syrup: one day you'll get a syrup that is too soft that makes for a crumbly square that doesn't hold together.  The next day you'll get a syrup that is too crisp and makes the square hard and dried out.  In fact, Puffed Wheat Square is hard enough to get right that My Lovely Wife, a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen for sure, had given up on them entirely.  But I wanted Puffed Wheat Square, and I wanted the Puffed Wheat Square of my youth.  That could mean only one thing: I would yet again have to do this myself.  Because life is hard.

I am an Engineer, and before I go to make something, I need to define a set of requirements.  That rigor has served me well in my career, so let's apply that process to a Puffed Wheat Square.  What make a good Puffed Wheat Square?
  • The syrup has to be the proper consistency.  This is the big one.  Once it has cooled, you should be able to eat the Puffed Wheat Square by pulling away one puffed wheat at a time (this is, in fact, how I eat savor mine and it proves that I am a unique human being).  The syrup has to have enough give that each little puffed wheat does not split apart or crumble as you pull it away from the square itself.  But, the syrup has to be hard enough that the individual puffed wheats hold together with the rest of the square.  A crumbly Puffed Wheat Square is a sad thing.
  • The syrup can't taste grainy.  'Nuf said.
  • The puffed wheat can't taste soggy.
  • The square must not be overly sweet.  Some squares go overboard on the syrup.  If you and your dentist are into that, then make more syrup if you must and leave me out of it.
  • The square has to have chocolate in it.
  • The recipe has to be reproducible.
Now that we have our requirements nailed down, it is time to find a recipe.  And here is where the troubles began: there is no definitive recipe for Puffed Wheat Squares.  A basic Puffed Wheat Square breaks down to:
  • Puffed Wheat
  • "Golden Syrup" (more on this later)
  • Butter
  • Brown Sugar
  • Cocoa Powder
Some recipes add a bit of vanilla extract or a dash of salt.  The puffed wheat is put into a mixing bowl and the rest of the ingredients are heated in a pot on the stove until a syrup is formed.  Somewhere around when the syrup starts to boil, the pot is removed from the heat, the vanilla is stirred in, and the mixture is dumped over top of the puffed wheat.  Quickly mix while the syrup is still hot, and then press the mixture into a greased baking dish to cool.

In search of a recipe, I found that:
  • all the ratios of all the ingredients in all of the recipes are different
  • all of the ingredients are always specified by volume instead of by weight.  Not such a big deal for puffed wheat or butter, but brown sugar is a notoriously variable beast since it packs like crazy.  I also didn't want to be arsed to dirty a measuring cup with the ridiculously sticky syrup and then dirty a spatula scraping the syrup into the pot.
  • every recipe online is inevitably followed by comments that the syrup didn't come out right, even though the author of the recipe swears that it is foolproof
I decided to go back to first principles.  First, "Golden Syrup" seems to be the syrup of choice.  What is Golden Syrup?  Well, this time, Wikipedia has my back.  Golden Syrup is made in the process of refining sugar cane or beet juice into sugar.  It is thick like molasses but tastes nothing like it.  And it is golden in color.  You are surprised, I can tell.

There are two kinds of Golden Syrup popular in my neck of the woods: Lyle's Golden Syrup and Roger's Golden Syrup.  It turns out that you can also make your own Golden Syrup, but I decided to go with a known product because there were enough damn variables in this project already.  That and it wasn't like buying some syrup was going to change my retirement date.

My Lovely Wife made the bold move of buying both of them so we could see which one tasted better.  In Lyle's favor, they have a tradition going back to the 1800's. In Roger's favor, they make the stuff in Western Canada which is the birthplace of Puffed Wheat Squares (I think).  So taste them, we did, and despite Lyle's being three or four times more expensive than Roger's, we could not taste a difference between the two of them.  So disregard comments like #107 in Smitten Kitchen's Pecan Pie Recipe where posters claim that Lyle's is so much better "since Aussies know about Golden Syrup" (the stuff is in fact made in the UK).

BTW, that Smitten Kitchen recipe has a fascinating treatise on Golden vs. Corn Syrup in pecan pie that is well worth reading.  So go read that now.  I'll wait. 

Just to be on the safe side, I checked out each of the syrups with my handheld refractometer (doesn't everyone have a handheld refractometer?), and the Brix (sugar content) are almost identical between the two syrups.  If there is a difference, it is minute and you sure as hell aren't going to tell the difference in a blind Puffed Wheat Square taste test.
Everybody Needs A Refractometer
This is my refractometer. You need one too.  A little over twenty bucks with free shipping gets you something that will accurately measure the sugar concentration in various liquids from 0 - 90 Brix (where 1 degree Brix = 1 gram of sucrose in 100 grams of water).  That lets you measure pretty much anything sweet, including and beyond honey.  Not only can you use it to dispute the purported differences between two essentially identical syrups, but you can also use it to nail the sweetness of jams and jellies, get the right sugar content in your homemade ice cream so it doesn't ice up, and even use it for tracking the fermentation progress of homemade beer and wine.

Now, neither Golden Syrup manufacturer has a recipe for Puffed Wheat Squares on their website.  Let me stress: on their website.  But, I just so happen to have a copy of Round The Year With Rogers. It was printed even before it was deemed necessary to put a date on things like this.
My Mom Loves Me!  The Sticky Note Says So!
This was a recipe booklet that Rogers used to attach to the monstrous metal tins that they used to sell syrup in.  Now why I have this booklet in the first place is a long story in and of itself.  How can you get a copy for your own?
I checked out my little recipe book and what did I find?  The jackpot.

This was my starting point.  A manufacturer of Golden Syrup publishing an old-time recipe from the birthplace of Puffed Wheat Square aka "Chocolate Puffs".  And the recipe claimed they were good for me.  Sweet deal!  (Get it?  Sweet?  Syrup?  Never mind, I'll see myself out).

But before I made this, I wanted to understand the problem of why the syrup consistency seemed so hit and miss.  All the recipes I read focused on how long to boil the syrup for.  Some said as soon as it came to a boil.  Some said to boil it for at least a minute.  Why did the recommendations vary?  Why was it inconsistent?  Time to do a little research.

What I came upon in short order was the expertise of the candy makers out there.  The time you let the syrup boil for is a red herring.  What is important is the temperature that the syrup gets to, and how long it takes to get to that temperature will depend on the size of your pot, the heat your stove is putting out, and a bunch of other things.  No wonder this inconsistency exists.

This link explains everything you need to know about the relationship between temperature and how hard the syrup will get.  A temperature of 230 - 235°F is the "Thread Stage" and sounded too thin to be a proper Puffed Wheat Square syrup.  This would explain all of those squares that would fall apart.  A temperature of 245 - 250°F is the "Firm Ball Stage" and is a caramel-like consistency.  That explains all those hard, dried out Puffed Wheat Squares.  A temperature of 235 - 240°F is the "Soft Ball Stage" and is a consistency like that of fudge.  That sounded to me like the Goldilock's bed of Puffed Wheat Square syrup consistency: not too hard, not too soft, but just right.

Now you might ask "DeKay, how do I know when my syrup is 235 - 240°F?"  And I might respond "Just use your Thermopen."  And you might say "DeKay, but I don't have a Thermopen."  And I be like
Srsly?
Buy a Thermopen.  Yes they are expensive.   Ask for one for Christmas or for your birthday.  Sell your car.  Wait for a sale.  Just get yourself a damn Thermopen and stop overcooking every meat you barbecue.  And while you are at it, verify that your fridge temperature is too warm so you can stop your milk from going sour all the time.  Or cheap out, buy a lesser thermometer, and lead a sad life.

Now I've got a recipe and I know how to get the right consistency of syrup.  But remember that I had a requirement that the recipe be reproducible, and that means none of this "cups" stuff when it comes to stuff like brown sugar measurements.  I scoured the Internet to come up with reasonable conversions so that you don't have to, and here is what I came up with.

Chocolate Puffed Wheat Square  
Ingredients
  • 68 grams (4.5 cups) puffed wheat
  • 72 grams (a half a cup) brown sugar
  • 72 grams (a quarter cup) golden syrup
  • 28 grams (2 tablespoons) butter
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla

Method:
  • Butter a baking dish about 8" square and set aside.
  • Put the puffed wheat into a large mixing bowl and set aside.
  • Put the brown sugar, golden syrup, butter, and cocoa powder into a small pot over medium heat.
  • Stir constantly until the temperature hits 235°F, the "soft ball stage".
  • Immediately remove from heat and then quickly mix in the vanilla.
  • Pour the mixture over the puffed wheat and stir to combine until puffs are well coated.  Work quickly as the syrup will get thicker as it cools.
  • Spoon the mixture into the buttered dish.  Smooth out with a spatula or wooden spoon.  Better yet, use a piece of wax paper cut roughly to the shape of your pan and press it down flat and evenly using your hands.  Credit for this brilliant technique goes out to Nana's Best Recipes.
  • Let cool and cut into squares with a sharp knife.
So what do you get?
Something pretty damn good, that is what you get.
My very first attempt at this hit all of my requirements.  Chocolatey, not too sweet, and most importantly, a pretty much perfect consistency to the syrup that kept the puffed wheat together without it being too hard and sticky.  My world was perfect, but only for a short time.

My Hippie Cousin posted a recipe for a Peanut Butter Puffed Wheat Square and All Hell Broke Loose.
I'd argue that this square Is not, in fact, a cake.  But she's family so I let it go.
Intrigued, I whipped up a batch.  What did I get?
Pseudo-Puffed Wheat Square
I got something resembling, but not quite like, the Puffed Wheat Square that I knew and loved.  What did I notice?
  • The stick-togetheredness of the puffed wheat turned out a bit loose for me.
  • The puffed wheat didn't quite have the crispness that my version did.
  • It was too sweet for my tastes.
But it was My Lovely Wife who pointed out the biggest flaw:
"A Puffed Wheat Square has to have chocolate in it."
 She was right, of course.  This rule is right up there with Star Trek's Prime Directive.

So that is when I conceived of my cunning plan: I would make a Chocolate Peanut Butter Puffed Wheat Square.  Genius!  I mean, who doesn't like Reese's Peanut Butter Cups?  But an idea is nothing unless you have a plan to make it happen.  My plan was to start with the recipe I had come up with since it was closer to my ideal.  I would simply swap out the butter in my recipe with an amount of peanut butter that gave me the equivalent fat content.  Easy!  A little bit of Internet told me:
  • Butter is 81.1% fat by weight
  • Peanut butter is 50.4% by weight
So it would take more peanut butter than butter to get the same amount of fat.  I thought I'd ease into it, so instead of my original recipe of 28 grams butter, I went with 10 grams of butter and 30 grams of peanut butter.  That gave me 23.23 grams of fat in this version vs. 22.7 grams in the original.  Close enough!  And yes, in fact, I did create a spreadsheet to calculate all of this.  You would have too if you were me.

So the big day came.  I whipped up a batch of Puffed Wheat Square with these tweaks and cooked my syrup to 235°F (the "soft ball stage") as I had done before.  I fully expected Puffed Wheat Square Nirvana, but I was sadly mistaken.  First problem was that the syrup was too hard, so the square was too dry and crispy.  But it was My Lovely Wife that once again pointed out the biggest flaw:
"Needs MOAR peanut butter."
She was right again.

I was undeterred.  I figured I had mistakenly overcooked the syrup somehow.  The syrup isn't very deep in the pan I was using so maybe I wasn't getting a good temperature reading.  It was time to double down.  Version 2 would be all peanut butter, all the time, and I would cook the syrup to only 230°F in case there was something in the peanut butter that was screwing up my "soft ball" stage.  My spreadsheet told me that for the same amount of fat I would get from 28 grams of butter, I would need about 45 grams of peanut butter.  No problem.  I got this.  I whipped up another batch.

And Version 2 was a terrible failure.  Despite cooking the syrup to only 230°F, this version was at least as dried out if not more than Version 1.  And leave it again to My Lovely Wife to point out the biggest flaw:
"You can't taste the peanut butter."
Dammit.  This woman is never wrong.  Inexplicably, despite being 100% peanut butter and 0% actual butter, you couldn't taste the peanut butter.

Why?

I despaired.  Perhaps a Chocolate Peanut Butter Puffed Wheat Square was just not meant to be?  I double checked my calculations.  I blamed the new bag of puffed wheat that we had bought as being too dry and brittle compared to the old bag we had run out of.  Clearly, I was in denial.

I lied awake at night puzzling over the problem (not joking).  I was ready to give up.  There was no point in trying to perfect a Chocolate Peanut Butter Puffed Wheat Square that didn't taste like peanut butter.

Time passed.

Then one evening I was working out while nibbling on a piece of dry, crusty, Puffed Wheat Square between sets.  I had abandoned my usual savoring of the square by eating it one puffed wheat at a time because the stuff was so brittle as to make that nigh impossible.  But it was then I started to notice that the Puffed Wheat Square had softened in the area from where I had previously taken a bite.  Must just be getting soggy?  Later in the workout, my subconscious got busy and percolated something up from the Rogers Cookbook that I had read:
Rogers Golden Syrup has another quality besides sweetness that makes it a valuable cooking syrup.  It attracts moisture from the air."
It hit me like a ton of bricks.  Golden syrup is hygroscopic: it sucks up moisture.  Butter has at least a little water in it.  If there isn't much water in peanut butter, then the syrup isn't getting the water it needs as it cooks and it cools to be much harder than you would expect.  And you don't taste the peanut butter because the flavor is locked up in the hard candy syrup.  Suddenly, everything made sense.  Everything added up.  It was like when the Theory of Relativity was discovered.
Get it?  Squared away?  Puffed Wheat Square?  Sigh.  Tough crowd.
I finished my workout and hit the Canadian Food and Nutrition Database and discovered this:
  • Butter is 17.94% moisture by weight
  • Peanut butter is 1.55% moisture by weight
Based on this, the full butter version of my recipe had 5 grams of water in it vs. 0.7 grams in the recipe that was all peanut butter.  Could this be it?  I mean, this was saying the delta was a little over 4 grams of water.  Consider that there are only five grams of water in a teaspoon.  Was I making crappy Puffed Wheat Squares because I was missing a lousy teaspoon of water?  I decided to find out.

I made a half batch of the all- peanut butter version but added a full teaspoon of water.  That was about twice as much as I should have needed, but I wanted to make sure I was going in the right direction.  I also decided to cook the syrup up to the "soft ball" stage of 235°F.  I cooked up the syrup in a glass ramekin on our gas stove instead of using a pot, since the small amount of syrup would have been too shallow in the pot to get an accurate reading with the Thermopen.  I noticed immediately as the syrup's temperature climbed that it was a lot less thick than previous failed attempts.  Was I on the right track?

I hit 235°F and immediately removed the syrup from the heat, poured in the vanilla, and then poured that over the puffed wheat.  Everything mixed together easily.  I dumped the mix into a greased loaf pan (again, I was making a half batch here) and I was easily able to flatten it out.  I let it cool and then My Lovely Wife and I cut ourselves a slice.  The square sliced easily without the puffed wheat shattering apart.  My Lovely Wife then said:
"You can taste the peanut butter."
You can!!!  You can taste the peanut butter!!!  And then she had another piece to prove the point.
Version 3, only a short time later.
The taste of the peanut butter was no longer locked away in the syrup.  The individual puffed wheats pulled away easily from the square, perhaps a bit too easily.  The puffed wheat was generally good but some of them tasted almost a bit soggy.

And I was ecstatic.

I had purposefully put in too much water just too see if this was the culprit and the results were as you'd expect if I was right.  Now the road ahead was clear: add enough water to match that from the butter in the original recipe as well as enough peanut butter to match the fat content.  Crunch the numbers and here is what you get.  The...
Perfect Chocolate Peanut Butter Puffed Wheat Square
Ingredients
  • 68 grams (4.5 cups) puffed wheat
  • 72 grams (a half a cup) brown sugar
  • 72 grams (a quarter cup) golden syrup
  • 45 grams (3 tablespoons) natural peanut butter
  • 8 grams (1.5 teaspoons) water
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla
Method:
  • Butter a baking dish about 8" square and set aside.
  • Put the puffed wheat into a large mixing bowl and set aside.
  • Put the brown sugar, golden syrup, peanut butter, water, and cocoa powder into a small pot over medium heat.
  • Stir constantly until the temperature hits 235°F, the "soft ball stage".
  • Immediately remove from heat and then quickly mix in the vanilla.
  • Pour the mixture over the puffed wheat and stir to combine until puffs are well coated.  Work quickly as the syrup will get thicker as it cools.
  • Spoon the mixture into the buttered dish.  Smooth out with a spatula or wooden spoon.  Better yet, use a piece of wax paper cut roughly to the shape of your pan and press it down flat and evenly using your hands.  Credit for this brilliant technique goes out to Nana's Best Recipes.
  • Let cool and cut into squares.
I actually added a little bit extra water to get a syrup that wouldn't get to crunchy if the square wasn't all eaten up after a day or so.  But fat chance of that happening.  Feel free to adjust the amount of water yourself either way.  Just know that anything less than a teaspoon in the recipe above will run you the risk of baking a puffed wheat brick.

The first thing you might want to change with this recipe is doubling it.  I may or may not have grown up on Puffed Wheat Square that was double this thickness.  I got a little hesitant at making big batches myself here for fear of a failed experiment that I've have to eat all of.  That fear has now been erased.

The second thing you might want to change with this recipe is adding more cocoa for an extra chocolate hit.  I haven't tried this myself, but I wouldn't expect more cocoa to throw off the fat / water ratio enough to affect the end result.  I'd start with maybe an extra half tablespoon and go from there.

It has also occurred to me that you might be able to use something like those terra cotta disks used to keep brown sugar from turning hard as another way to prevent leftover square from drying out.  Same principle, right?  Have a few pieces of square to make room in the pan and then drop one of these bad boys in there.  Haven't tried this myself either, but if you do, let me know how it worked out in the comments.
The Cure For Dried Out Puffed Wheat Square?
My Wonderful Mom is here visiting this weekend so I whipped up a test half-batch for her.  Remember I said above how she made a mean Puffed Wheat Square?  Here is her verdict on mine:
Victory, Hard Won
Achievement Unlocked: The Perfect Puffed Wheat Square.  Go make some.  Now.

8 comments:

  1. They looks very good and yummy, I like them!

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  2. That was a real "treat" of a read! Thanks for the laugh and for a scientifically sound recipe. Can't wait to try it. I was specifically looking for a recipe that used Rogers Golden syrup rather than corn syrup. Now to go buy me a refractometer and my life will be complete!:-D

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  3. Wait... and a thermopen! :-)

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    Replies
    1. Always happy to give people the excuse to buy geeky new toys.

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  4. Thank you for your scientific efforts!!
    I have always wanted to do some tests for the perfect puffed wheat cake recipe! I made a perfect version of it once, but I failed to document it ;( Love the weights/temperatures (my scale and thermapen are my favourite baking tools!) -- and refractometer!!!

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    Replies
    1. And thank you for this! Give this a go and hopefully perfection will no longer be so rare.

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  5. Up above you state: "I didn't want to be arsed to dirty a measuring cup with the ridiculously sticky syrup...". Did you mean "asked" or is that suppose to be a mild profanity?

    ReplyDelete