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Tapioca

What I don’t know about baking desserts could deflate even Martha Stewart’s souffles.  My children will willingly show you gouges in the walls where cake pans have been flung, in either a mad attempt to free the offending chocolate bundt, or as a statement of intent. 

I found myself this spring in the position of actually having to use the rhubarb that grows in my garden here in Calgary.  I usually just throw the stuff into my composter, which is conveniently located beside my rhubarb patch.  But after a long cold winter, the compostor is a little sluggish, and I found that  there just wasn’t any  more room.  I just happened to have frozen strawberries in my freezer, and although it required the use of a jack-hammer, I was able to carve out  a cup of brown sugar for a crumble topping. 

I thought, “This should be a snap, simply toss the rhubarb and strawberries with enough sugar and some flour to thicken, then, dump the mixture into a casserole, topping it with tons of brown sugar, oatmeal and butter.  The kids will love it!”

What I ended up with was a pink soup.  It was delicious, but left a lot to be desired in the presentation.  The guys just spooned it into bowls, covered it with ice cream and enjoyed.  I loved the flavour, but I was miffed as to why I had created such a gourmet slop.  I looked into a few cook books, and kept finding reference to using tapioca when making berry pies.  I couldn’t get past the memory of the pudding we wouldn’t eat  as kids.  Mom finally stopped making tapioca pudding because Dad called it “fish eggs,” and he eventually had us all permanently scarred. I envisioned my lovely pie filling teeming with fish eggs, and I was turned off completely. 

I’ve now done enough research on the subject to rid myself of this childish food phobia. Tapioca is preferred by many cooks in making fruit sauces because it has a very bland flavour, and produces a very clear sauce.  Tapioca is available in  two  different forms.  The most available and familiar form is the pearl tapioca, which comes in regular or instant, and is the form which I remember from childhood.  Mom used to make puddings of various flavours, most frequently an orange pineapple, which I assume must have come from a pre-mix. Tapioca flour, also known as cassava flour or tapioca starch, is named for the root it is derived from. The flour is found more frequently in health-food stores, while the pearls can be found in any grocery store.  Tapioca gets its name from a South-American language, in which the word tipioca refers to the starch produced by processing the roots of Cassava. The word was adapted by the Spaniards to tapioca, which then was adopted by the English.  Pearl tapioca are produced by forcing moistened tapioca starch through sieves.  These swell into “fish eggs” when cooked.

I am familiar with cassava; I ate it often when I visited my girlfriend in the Caymans.  Cassava is the most common starch eaten in the Caribbean, and is served like we would serve rice or potatoes.  The plant is actually a native of South America and the West Indies, but it was transplanted to Asia and Africa in the 19th century. It has become one of the major food sources in these countries, and is also an important export for Asia. In tropical countries where wheat is not grown, cassava flour replaces our wheat flour in the kitchen. 

Tapioca in either form can be substituted for corn starch or wheat flour to thicken sauces and fruit pies.  One advantage of tapioca is that the starch-flour does not clump like corn starch does.  Also, acidic fruits such as rhubarb & cherries and less ripened berry fruits tend to neutralize the thickening power of wheat flour.  This does not happen with tapioca flour.  If a recipe calls for 1/4 cup of all-purpose flour, substitute that with 3 tbsp of the tapioca flour or instant tapioca. Instant tapioca is listed more often in recipes, perhaps due to its availability. For any fruit, if after mixing and letting sit with sugar and all-purpose flour the fruit has produced a lot of juice that you don’t want to discard, 2 tbsp of instant tapioca may be added at that time to help thicken your sauce. 

            I have since repeated my baking experiment, using tapioca starch, and was amazed to have a crisp that held together and looked great.  I also used fresh rather than frozen strawberries this time, and found that this cut back on the amount of juice in my fruit mixture. I can’t wait until my rhubarb grows back.


 

Tidbit

One of our chefs has a mass of rhubarb to use up and she really doesn’t like to bake with as much sugar as needed for rhubarb pie.  She took 2 young thin stalks, sliced them into 1/4 inch rounds, sprinkled them with a small amount of sugar, then added the fruit plus juice to her coleslaw.  She says it was wonderful.