You can just sprinkle away to get light transformation

Extra-fine flour adds textural interest to variety of foods

September 06, 2006|By Betty Baboujon | Betty Baboujon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

A slow-food friend of mine likes to drive guests crazy trying to guess just what it is - maybe it's a dissolved sliver of Spanish anchovy to deepen that super-meaty sauce or some microscopically minced tarragon to perfume those deviled eggs.

But flavor isn't the only way surreptitious little additions can astonish at first bite. Think texture: a crunch bigger than expected, a crispness that lasts, a crumb more delicate than imagined - all with the mere sprinkle of extra-fine flour.

Rice flour, potato flour and cornstarch, perhaps most familiar as reliable thickeners for sauces and pie fillings, can transform a batter or dough simply by standing in for some of the regular flour. They'll give things a lighter feel.

These finely milled flours can transform a recipe. Sprinkle away and fritters turn beautifully crisp, dinner rolls go tender, shortbread melts in the mouth. They can lend a wonderful sandy texture to cookies or tart crusts, and a crisp coating for fried fish or vegetables.

Take shortbread, whose unmistakable texture comes from a 1-2-3 combination of 1 part sugar, 2 parts butter and 3 parts flour. When some of that flour is replaced with rice flour or potato flour, the cookie bakes with a delicate crumbliness.

It's for this reason that Scottish shortbread recipes often call for rice flour. However, potato flour works similarly to make the cookie more delicate. Many formulas allot just a couple of tablespoons or so per cup of regular flour. But by pushing this ratio higher, and replacing the granulated sugar with powdered sugar, you get shortbread that's ethereally tender yet still crumbly.

You can play with that ratio to shift the balance between these two textures, but don't get carried away. Use too much fine flour, and you'll scare the shortbread into a chalky fright. The ratio in the recipe that follows pushes the amount just to the edge.

You don't need to go to the edge, though, to apply this idea to tart crusts - not the kind you roll out, but the crumbly ones that you press into a pan much like the base of lemon bars. (It's no coincidence these crusts bake into cookielike bases.) It's what the French call a pate sablee, for the dough's sandy texture. Substitute a bit of fine flour, and the crust becomes more delicately sandy.

For a great fritter batter, an easy ratio of 1 to 1 is all you need to remember. So if you're making substitutions, just swap out half the recipe's regular flour with white rice flour. It gives fritters a more pronounced crispness that lasts longer than using regular flour alone.

It's a nice bit of insurance that the first batch out of the pan won't go soggy by the time the last one's done. It works well in other frying batters, too, making crisper coats for fish or shrimp or vegetables such as onions and zucchini - just as cornstarch does when used instead of flour for dredging.

It's best to use a light hand in measuring a finer flour. Stir it to aerate and break up any clumps, spoon into a measuring cup and level off. Just because it's light doesn't mean you need more.

A third of a cup of potato flour, for example, is roughly the distilled version of a cup of mashed potatoes. Potato flour and potato starch, by the way, are not exactly the same thing, just as cornstarch and cornmeal are different. (The first comes from the starchy center of the corn; the latter is made from the entire kernel.) Potato flour is made from whole cooked potatoes that have been ground and dried. And potato starch is simply the carbohydrate portion of the potato in powder form.

However, potato flour is made up mostly of potato starch. And in a relatively small amount, I've found them to be interchangeable and the two are especially handy because they dispense with the steamy task of having to boil and mash a potato.

Betty Baboujon wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.

Shortbread

Makes 12 servings

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour

1/4 cup rice flour or potato flour

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 stick unsalted butter, softened

1/4 cup powdered sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 teaspoons orange flower water (optional)

1/4 teaspoon fine baker's sugar

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, stir together the flour with either the rice flour or potato flour and salt.

In another bowl, beat together the butter and powdered sugar until well combined. Add the vanilla, orange flower water (if using) and the dry ingredients, mixing until blended. The dough will be very soft.

Transfer the dough to the center of a round, 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. With lightly floured fingertips or the back of a lightly floured spoon, press the dough into the pan, working from the center to the edges to create a thin, even layer. Using the sharp tip of a paring knife, score the dough into 12 wedges. Sprinkle evenly with the fine sugar.

Bake for 25 minutes in the lower third of the oven. The shortbread should be set when lightly touched and lightly browned.

Cool the pan on a rack for 5 to 10 minutes. Following the score marks, cut the shortbread into slices. Cool completely before carefully removing from pan. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Note: This is a very fine-textured shortbread. For a slightly crumblier cookie, increase the flour by 1 tablespoon and use 3 tablespoons rice flour or potato flour. If you don't have a tart pan, you can use a 9-inch springform pan; remove the collar before slicing the shortbread.

Per serving: 122 calories, 1 gram protein, 12 grams carbohydrate, no fiber, 8 grams fat, 5 grams saturated fat, 20 milligrams cholesterol, 25 milligrams sodium

Recipe analysis provided by the Los Angeles Times

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