Chewing the fat about fat and its place in pastry

February 14, 2007|By ROB KASPER

As they do most mornings, Louis Sahlender and Sharon Hoehn Hooper were making a batch of dough at their family's 80-year-old East Baltimore bakery, Hoehn's, at the corner of Conkling and Bank streets.

Dough is a basic ingredient in the bakery's pies, tarts, buns and, in the summer, its fabled peach cake, lauded in the pages of Baltimore magazine in August 2005.

Sahlender bent over a large metal bowl, mixing the flour, shortening, salt, sugar and water, working it until it "felt right" in his hands. He wondered aloud if this routine would become illegal in Maryland.

The shortening in the mix contains trans fats, a substance that is under attack. Here in Maryland, Del. James W. Hubbard, a Prince George's County Democrat, has proposed a bill banning the sale of food that has more than 0.5 gram of trans fat per serving. The bill, which mirrors a trans-fat ban in New York City, is slated for hearing in Annapolis on Feb. 20, Fat Tuesday.

In the world of public health, there is not much good that can be said about trans fats. They are suspected of raising the levels of bad cholesterol while lowering good cholesterol in the blood.

To the bakers, a ban on trans fats boils down to trading fats. If they take one kind of fat, a trans fat, out of their recipe they are going to have to replace it with another, maybe one high in saturated fat. Moreover, what comes out of the oven may not be what their customers are used to. Or, as Hooper put it, "If I put oil in my pie dough, the crust will be hard."

Any baker knows that you must have some fat in your dough. "It is the glue that holds the product together," said Tony Bombard, a vice president for Bunge North America, a St. Louis-based company that sells oils, shortenings and margarine to food-service operations throughout the United States. "Without fat, a product does not have the right mouth feel; it doesn't taste right," Bombard said.

Over the years, bakers have used animal fats, butter, oils and shortenings in their recipes. The shortening Sahlender used the other day was a top-of-the-line commercial mixture containing partially hydrogenated soybean oil. Partial hydrogenation is an industrial process that turns oil into a solid. This extends the shortening's shelf life, but the process also yields trans fats. Until the furor over trans fats, partially hydrogenated shortening was regarded as an improvement over a previously popular fat, lard.

Traditions, rather than trends, rule at Hoehn's. Hooper and Sahlender, who are cousins and run the baking operation, learned the craft from Hooper's father, Frederick J. Hoehn. Hoehn, in turn, had been taught by his father, William, a native of Germany who installed the bakery's oven in 1927.

Sahlender still uses long wooden peels made by Frederick Hoehn to maneuver breads and other baked goods about in the narrow, ancient, oil-fired oven.

What Hooper and Sahlender bake in the back, they sell in the front of their bakery. "There is not a person in the world I can't look straight in the eye," Hooper said. "We make a decent product at a decent price."

Hooper, who has been baking most of her 54 years, had many questions about the proposed trans-fat legislation. One was, had this legislator ever baked a pie?

In a telephone interview, Hubbard said he had not baked a pie. But he quickly added that was beside the point.

His proposed ban on trans fats was a matter of public health, he said. "If someone eats trans fats early in life, they could have long-term health problems later in life."

The ban would not take effect for 18 months, he said, and that time period -- plus the national scope of the search for substitutes for trans fats -- would give bakers a chance to find acceptable replacement ingredients in their recipes.

As for the fact that one fat probably will be substituted for another, Hubbard said, "Some fats are worse than others."

The rush to abandon trans fats seems to have been slowed somewhat by the complex nature of finding suitable substitutes for baking, Bombard said.

There have been additional complications in getting replacement products to bakeries, among them Hurricane Katrina. Most of Asian palm oil, a sometime substitute fat, came into the United States through the port of New Orleans, which was laid low by the hurricane, he said.

Another tactic, one that Bombard's company uses, is to make a line of products that have low levels of trans fats but are not totally free of them.

That is also the approach that Crisco used when it recently reformulated its line of shortening. The new Crisco does have some trans fats in it. But the amount is small, the company said, less than 0.5 gram per serving. That means that it can, under government regulations, state that it has 0 grams of trans fats per serving.

The other night, I made a piecrust with the new Crisco. I had a can of old Crisco and compared the ingredient list. Basically, the chemists seemed to have upped the amount of cottonseed oil in the new Crisco and lowered the amount of soybean oil. The percentage of saturated fat was a bit higher -- up 1 percent -- in the new stuff.

Mainly, I was interested in how it performed. It made a pretty good piecrust: a little dry, not quite as flaky as I wanted. I made a mental note that the next time I make this dough, I might want to add a little butter.

It also reminded me of a central fact of oven life, one that the trans-fat debate is struggling with. Namely, that a large part of baking is tweaking your fat.

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