The quest for the perfect fogassa d’Ontinyent

As I said in my Fogassa d’Ontinyent post, I have been trying to locate the “proper” recipe for this for a few years already.

I think I started searching for a recipe in 2018, as November approached and I desperately wanted to eat a fogassa but could not visit Spain for multiple reasons. And I thought: Well, it is “only” a sweet bun, so it can’t be that hard to find a recipe for it, right?

Well, turns out that it can!

Made to order fogassa with a v60 02 coffee server and two small glasses of coffee
Merienda: fogassa with filter coffee

It looks very simple in principle, but this simplicity is deceitful. Once you have tried a fogassa, you can tell what is and what isn’t a fogassa.

A good fogassa contains a number of layered aromas, flavours and textures thanks to the combination of multiple ingredients.

But which ingredients and in which quantities?

Of course I started searching on the Internet; we’re in the 21st century, after all.

But it was quite fruitless, as it seems that no one from my hometown had published a fogassa recipe online, ever.

To make things even worse, someone published a recipe for a rectangle-shaped cake in a Thermomix forum, and titled it as “Fogassa d’Ontinyent”. The problem is that it contains really unexpected ingredients, such as sweet potato or pumpkin, and it does not look at all like the ones I traditionally have eaten—just compare what you see below with the picture I put above of a fogassa we ate once.

Google search results depicting inaccurate fogasses
Inaccurate fogasses

So there I was, alternating between looking at the recipe in total disbelief and wondering if maybe there was a whole alternative current that baked fogassas “The other way” and that’s what I was seeing in the pictures and I had not realised this in my decades of living there. I might just as well have been living under a rock!

And as I kept searching, I realised that other “Thermomix bloggers” posted and reposted their attempts and interpretations of the recipe, which is perfectly fine, if it wasn’t because…

  1. they were not from Valencia, let alone Ontinyent: they have never seen a round sweet bun like the ones from Valencia, so they kept doing rectangular cakey things because they could not know that those are wrong (who brings a whole tray sized cake to a graveyard?!! NO ONE)
  2. they kept messing up the decorations: each new iteration was further from the simple designs I’ve always witnessed
  3. they kept saying that it was a “Fogassa d’Ontinyent”—and it absolutely wasn’t!

The result is that the search results, both for text and for images, are wholly and fully messed up.

The disaster doesn’t end here: other bloggers outside of the Thermomix circles, with more SEO rank but less common sense have been copying and regurgitating this misleading recipe, and as a result, search engines are giving even more weight to this nonsense.

“SEO rank”, for those who do not know, is a measure of the “importance” or “authority” of a website compared to others. The more people link to a website, the higher the website’s SEO rank will be. Also, if a website with a lot of authority (or high SEO rank) links to something, then search engines will consider the linked thing to be “more credible”. In other words, the more something is linked to by authoritative sources, the more “authoritative” and “credible” it becomes. Even if it is not correct or accurate by other standards!

Of course, how can Google and other search engines know that something is or isn’t true? They’re just counting links that people post. They have zero clue as to whether the content is misguided or not. If people do not post the “real” recipes, the truth has no chance to emerge, because there’s no real recipes to come up to the top.

Here, that’s “the algorithm” for you.

Side note: there’s the whole argument that thanks to “Artificial Intelligence” machines will be able to go deeper and understand the linked content and thus determine whether something is or not worth of its authority, but I really doubt the technology is so sufficiently advanced, outside of a few specific domains (e.g. image search where the engine has been trained / seen a sufficient number of valid input data). I certainly don’t think they can make judgments as to whether a recipe is titled incorrectly yet, when you have seen that humans cannot do it themselves to start with. Good luck programming such a subtle engine…

To hell with the internet. Let’s speak to bakers!

The only way to solve this, I thought, was to skip the Internet and go to the source. Why not ask a local baker?

Problem: I don’t know any baker. I also don’t live in Spain, which makes it even harder to just pop by and ask a baker.

Solution: my mum does, as she shops in her local bakery several days a week.

So I suggested that maybe she could ask them, next time she visited. It was fine if they didn’t give her the recipe, I was not looking for the recipe specifically, I was more looking for validation: did the recipes really contain sweet potato or pumpkin?

Little did I know what this would unleash…!

First she asked her local baker. No, they don’t add sweet potato, but they know that some people add roasted pumpkin.

As she was running some errands, she happened to pop by another bakery and ask there too. They said they add neither sweet potato neither pumpkin, and have never done! But they know that “some” bakeries used to add sweet potato (there was a bit of contempt in there).

Then she picked up the phone and rang bakeries further away!

  • Another bakery in the same town denied adding any of sweet potato or pumpkin.
  • While a bakery on a smaller town nearby admitted to adding sweet potato!

So, we had found that you could, or not, add pumpkin or sweet potato. And I still did not have a recipe that seemed realistic.

What about… books?

Then one day I was browsing “Dolços Valencians“, a book about Valencian sweets that I got in 2019.

I realised that it had a recipe for a coca with walnuts and raisins, which sounded a lot like what I wanted, but the recipe did not include anise seeds—and I well knew that this anise is one of the most defining characteristics of a fogassa!

Using their recipe as a base, I added anise liquor and seeds and tried several variations adjusting quantities of other liquids and sugar, but although the flavour was good, the result was way, way, wayyyy too compact and dry. Not at all like the sweet fluffy divine buns I remembered.

Speculation and me

I started thinking about what could I do differently.

Would it be that I was not using enough yeast? Was my dough so enriched that the sugar and fats are interfering with the yeast? Would I need the famous “osmotolerant” yeast, i.e. the yeast that can thrive even in adverse hyper sugary environments?

Or could it just be that I was using the wrong type of flour?

The recipe in the book stated “strong” flour (“farina de força”). I had religiously been using strong flour, and the result was stiff as hell. But I remembered that I had once baked a really successful and divine mona (a similarly enriched bun), and I did not use strong flour, but 00 Italian flour:

I did fall in a bit of a flour research hole…

In more methodical countries such as France and Germany, the strength of flour is described with a series of parameters such as the residual ash mass (to describe how much of the whole grain has been left in the final flour) and something called the W number, which gives you a measure of how much flour can stretch before it breaks. This number is often also stated in the packaging of flour, so when you buy flour you know how it’s expected to behave, as it’s gone through laboratory tests to produce those numbers.

In contrast, in the UK we only have labels such as “plain” or “strong” flour, but there’s no specific definition of how strong it actually is. You could aim to approximate it by looking at the amount of protein in the nutrition information as a proxy for the amount of gluten (which is the characteristic protein in wheat), but it does not tell you anything about the milling process—which also influences the net result. We’re basically a bit in the dark in the UK (also in the US, so we’re not alone I guess).

This gave me an idea: maybe we were talking about different degrees of strength. What is understood as “strong” in Spain might just be “plain” in the UK, or “just a little bit above plain”, or “something in between”, but certainly not “strong”. Looking around, some sources indicate that “strong” in the UK can go towards a W number of 400, while a “strong” flour had a W number of around 250 in Spain—so a considerable difference! And that 00 flour that was so successful when I made a mona? It would have a W of 100 or so.

It was worth doing one last test before buying specialised osmotolerant yeast: I would follow the recipe again but this time I’d make two buns, one using strong flour and one using plain flour, and compare what happens there.

But I could even go beyond that: since I was testing things, why not try two amounts of yeast too? This was feasible and would produce four combinations:

Strong flourPlain flour
6.25 g yeastAC
12.5 g yeastBD

Thus I made a spreadsheet with the amounts of ingredients, which I printed and taped to our kitchen wall. I also prepared four bowls and plates and set out to attempt the experiment on Saturday morning. It was time for SCIENCE! 🔬

A spreadsheet with ingredient amounts for my fogassa experiment
A spreadsheet with ingredient amounts for my fogassa experiment

For future reference, these are the ingredients I used:

  • Strong flour: Stoates strong white flour (unbleached)
  • Plain flour: Waitrose organic plain white flour
  • Flour: Allison’s yeast Easy bake (a little tin with 100g of yeast rather than individual sachets – very handy to pour specific amounts on bowls)

I measured everything on each bowl separately and used different spoons to avoid contaminating or altering the amounts. At such small amounts of yeast etc, I was worried that if I used the same spoon to mix everything, I would be altering the quantities of dough when moving between bowls.

Four bowls with ingredients for a fogassa, before mixing
Four bowls with ingredients for a fogassa, before mixing

When doing the light kneading I was already noticing big differences between the strong and the plain flour. The strong flour dough (A and B) were very stiff, while the plain flour dough (C and D) were softer. There was not a lot of difference in terms of stickiness. Also, you can see that A and B are darker, because that flour is unbleached.

Four fogassa buns in bowls, before proofing
Four fogassa buns in bowls, before proofing

It was in proofing when the differences became more stark, as the plain flour dough did raise considerably more than the strong flour ones.

This picture is after one hour of proving. You can see A and B have barely grown in size while C and D are starting to comfortably touch the walls of the bowls.

Four fogassa buns in bowls, after an hour of proofing
Four fogassa buns in bowls, after an hour of proofing

Two hours later A and B are at the point that C and D were two hours before, and C and D are starting to fill the bowl (specially D with its double amount of yeast!).

Four fogassa buns in bowls, after three hours of proofing
Four fogassa buns in bowls, after three hours of proofing

Another picture but from a more ‘top’ view:

Top view - four fogassa buns in bowls, after three hours of proofing
Four fogassa buns in bowls, after three hours of proofing – a top view

All of them had had the same amount of light kneading so far, so it was not a matter of different crumb structure. They just reacted differently—the strength of A and B was way more than the yeasts could handle.

I knocked the air out of the dough and I gave them a blanket fold. Again, the difference in behaviour is very noticeable as the strong flour dough kept its shape (here in the foreground of the picture), while the plain flour dough was a bit more relaxed and shapeless.

Fogassa dough after a blanket fold
Fogassa dough after a blanket fold

You can also see the difference once the buns are shaped into balls and have been proofing again. All of them contain the same amount of flour and liquid yet A and B are smaller in diameter; C and D have a wider diameter but also are slightly flatter, more relaxed. I applied the same amount of flattening pressure to all of them, but A and B just didn’t agree with my intentions; they just did not give in, and stayed stiff and plump.

Four small fogassa buns in parchment paper in oven trays, before baking
Four small fogassa buns in oven trays, before baking

There was not a significant difference in behaviour when decorating or baking, but I paid special attention to make sure they all were baked throughout using a thermometer.

I have learned to be very careful with the strong flour buns, because as they are less “aerated” and more dense they tend to take a little bit longer to bake to the core and there’s been a couple of cases in my experiments where the centre of the bun has come uncooked. Blergh!

Once baked it was a matter of cooling them down on a rack – making sure to keep track of which one was which, although it was quite evident visually and to the touch!

Four fogasses, baked, cooling down over a rack
Four fogasses, baked, cooling down over a rack

And then it was time to TASTE the results of my efforts!

I cut a slice of each fogassa, and looked at them separately first:

Four fogasses about to be tasted, with a cut portion on each of them
Four fogasses about to be tasted

Fogassa A: it was the stiffest and closest crumb of all. It felt a bit dry, but it was better than the fogassa I made the previous week where I only gave it half of the proofing time.

Crumb of fogassa A
Crumb of fogassa A

Some big holes too. Overall too tall.

Fogassa A and its portion showing the crumb
Fogassa A and its portion showing the crumb

Fogassa B: a little bit softer and slightly bigger holes than fogassa A, but still too tall and slightly too dry (compared with the expectations). If you don’t know what this is meant to taste or look like, you’d enjoy it. Overall pleasant, but not quite there yet.

Fogassa B and its portion showing the crumb
Fogassa B and its portion showing the crumb

That big gaping hole annoys me! The texture should be more uniform.

Fogassa B and close up of its portion showing the crumb
Fogassa B and close up of its portion showing the crumb

Fogassa C: now we’re talking. Nice soft feeling when holding the piece. Still too tall.

Fogassa C, showing its crumb
Fogassa C, showing its crumb

Quite regular holes. This looks very good.

Fogassa C, close up of the portion, showing its crumb
Fogassa C, close up of the portion, showing its crumb

Fogassa D: it felt the nicest. Like holding a soft, puffy cloud of anise in your hands. Slightly bigger holes than in C. Still too tall again.

Fogassa D, close up of the portion, showing its crumb
Fogassa D, close up of the portion, showing its crumb

Apart from that hole under the “skin”, this crumb is very good

Fogassa D - its crumb is perfection
Fogassa D – its crumb is perfection

All the fogasses, side by side, from top to bottom and left to right: C, D, A, B, before tasting them and confirming that D is the closest to what I’d expect, and A would be the most disappointing result.

Four portions of fogassa side by side
Four portions of fogassa side by side

Although if you gave me A out of nowhere, I’d be very happy!

This was D in all its glory (before we ate it).

A fogassa just out of the oven - a round bun with almonds and walnuts on top and sugar on top
If text could smell, you’d be eating into your screen now
A fogassa sliced open, so we can see the soft fluffy crumb with the ocassional raisin and aniseed. There are almonds and sugar on top
Nice fluffy crumb

The final recipe is here, if you’d like to try this.

What did I learn?

It was the type of flour, and not the amount or type of yeast.

It has become evident to me that you can’t translate baking terms literally when it comes to flours. By stating “strong” flour, I took it literally and used precisely that, but I think what the recipe meant was “not-pastry” flour (which would have been way too soft—a very finely milled flour that would crumble and not hold their shape). I will be more cautious next time I follow a Spanish recipe that states “strong” flour.

After such long fermentation, the final differences in volume between using one or another amount of yeast were not so significant. Yes, B and D (the buns with more yeast) raised faster, but they did not become double the size of A or C.

I think it’s also been proved that this yeast is sufficient to produce the desired raise, and I would not need osmotolerant yeast (for this type of buns).

That said, I still have a couple of hypothesis:

Hypothesis 1: if we wanted to use actual strong flour, or at least this strong flour, we would need to add some more water so it can have a chance to not be this stiff. I also suspect it might produce big holes, but it might not be a bad thing in itself. It would just be… different.

Hypothesis 2: the shaping I’m applying is wrong. I need to figure out a way to shape the buns so the final result is flatter. They should be about half the height I’m getting. I suspect the final blanket fold before shaping into a ball needs to be looser.

More things to try

There’s always something else that you can do in baking:

  • I’d be curious to make these but using sourdough starter instead of yeast.
  • I’m also curious to see how it tastes with pumpkin or sweet potato in the dough, after all the mixed answers from the bakers…

“Poor” Devvers will have to suffer my scientific experiments and help me with the tasting.

WHAT AN ORDEAL! 😆

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