Wholefood Cooking

The Many Roles of Agar

LUSCIOUS LEMON BARS

Luscious Lemon Bars with 3 teaspoons agar powder

Agar has been calling me to attention lately. Tash had tried to make the Luscious Lemon Bars and they didn’t set. My daughter’s friend was making an agar jelly for a childrens’ birthday party and they did exactly what my book said – and it didn’t set! Let me tell you a bit about agar first – it’s a flavourless sea vegetable, that behaves as a gelling agent. Agar sets quickly, provides a sturdy structure and holds well at room temperature, but has a clunky texture. Gelatine on the other hand takes hours to set, does not hold well in hot weather, but is infinitely flexible and smoothly textured. Agar comes in flakes, powder and bars, but I prefer flakes and especially powder – it’s easy to measure out and gives reliable results (not that Tash or Nessie would agree with that bit!).  As mentioned, agar will set at room temperature and can be boiled and re – heated without loosing its gelling ability. I am using powder more often as it does give more reliable results.

To achieve a good, but not too solid a jelly, the basic equation is 3 teaspoons (or ¾ of a 20ml tablespoon) agar flakes or ½ teaspoon powder – 1cup liquid. This is the equation I most commonly use and work from. Over the past 12 months however, I’ve had to reduce the ratio of flakes to 2 teaspoons per cup. For a very firm jelly that you want to turn out and cut into shapes increase the amount of agar used. Agar dissolves best in high pectin juices like apple, but works in most fruit juices. Agar will not set in Distilled and Wine vinegars, or in food containing large amounts of oxalic acid or acid such as chocolate, rhubarb or spinach. When using high acid juices such as lemon or lime, or pinapple juice you will need to  double the agar – especially when freshly pressed.

When using flakes and powder in recipes, it needs to be dissolved slowly over a gentle boil and stirred frequently to stop it from clumping or sticking to the bottom of the pan (as it dissolves).  Powder needs to be whisked in to the cold mixture well, whisking and stirring frequently as it is dissolving and takes approx 6 – 8 mins from the boil and flakes up to 25 mins.

So, back to the not setting. You can see my lemon bars are pretty well set – not rock solid, but good. Acidity is all, and lemons vary in acidity and I thought I had compensated for this – obviously, not enough. So, I’ve adjusted the recipe and instructions – below. And my daughters jelly?  Well, the juice was made from apple and freshly pressed new season strawberries – again, these are very acidic and quite different to a bought (albeit organic) apple and strawberry juice which looses its acidity with processing. Now when I said to her that this bit about acidity was in my books, she said no it is not – yes it is I said, no mother dear, it is not. And (as usual) she was right – the line about high acid juices and doubling the agar – gone. I understood why – during editing a book will be rearranged at least 5 times – lines, paragraphs and recipes rearranged – and the author must hold the whole in her (or his) head whilst going through it. I missed this bit. A very important bit. But agar is worth getting the hang of, it’s such a brilliant tool when dealing with food intolerances such as egg or dairy free and an even more brilliant tool when combined with kudzu or cornstarch. You can make amazing things with agar and I love that it holds when the weather is hot. Another thing about the agar + kudzu (or cornstarch) relationship and these lemon bars, is they are so much lighter than cream on a hot day or the days you just want something yummy but not too rich.

If you are just making a simple jelly (agar into juice) and  you’re worried the jelly will be too soft or too hard, test your set: when you have cooked and dissolved the flakes or powder, simply place a little in a small bowl, pop it in the fridge (or freezer) until cold. If it is too soft, add it back to the mix, along with a little more agar and cook until dissolved. If it’s too firm, add more liquid and cook for a couple of minutes more. It’s a bit trickier when dealing with an Agar + Kudzu (or Cornstarch) relationship, and you see how I’ve addressed that in the recipe below.

As a last word – buy good quality agar powder – not the white (often mixed with colour and sugar) that you find in many an Asian store. It should be freely available in health, whole and natural food stores.

Why not try setting some coconut milk to add extra deliciousness and nutrient density to a bowl of new seasons fruit? 1/2 teaspoon agar powder to 1 cup coconut milk (not light or stabilised, but simply coconut milk).

LUSCIOUS LEMON BARS: 

Dairy free Gluten free. Makes 16

Absolutely luscious, and easy to make. These are best the day made, but will keep for a couple of days in an air tight container –  though the base will soften a little, they will still be delicious. You can alternatively pour the filling into a pre cooked 24cm tart shell. This is the original recipe with 3 teaspoons agar, and that should be enough to account for variations in acidity. Obviously not well enough for Tashs’ bars. The thing is – once you have added the starch to thicken the mix (thus providing a creamy texture) you can’t do the freeze and check thing, as you can’t ‘dissolve’ the cooked cornstarch again (or any starch). So, I would suggest using 1/4 teaspoon extra of agar and when the lemon mix is finished, immediately put a small portion in a little bowl and into the freezer. Keep the remaining mix on the stove, no heat, but still hot. You have to move fast here because you don’t want the lemon mix to start setting. If the tester comes out of the freezer too thick, add a little more coconut milk and that should loosen the set.

Base

¾ cup brown rice flour

¼ cup dessicated coconut

2/3 cup almond meal

2 tablespoons maple syrup

80ml /1/3 cup coconut oil, if solid, melted for measuring

1 teaspoon natural vanilla extract

Topping

¾ cup lemon juice

3 teaspoons agar powder

1 tablespoon cornstarch

2 cups coconut milk

½ cup brown rice syrup

1/2 cup maple syrup

1 tablespoon lemon zest

1/8 teaspoon turmeric

Pre heat the oven to 180c or 165c if fan forced. Line a 20cm square biscuit tin and press it in – folding, not cutting the corners to fit.

Add the rice flour, coconut and almond meal to a bowl and whisk through to combine. In a small bowl mix the maple syrup, coconut oil and vanilla together well, add to the dry and mix to combine. The mix will be quite wet and oily – this is fine as it softens the harsh brown rice flour and results in a lovely shortbread. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and press it with your hands. Bake for 15 – 20 mins or until lightly golden. Set aside to cool.

To make the topping, whisk the agar into the lemon juice, making sure the agar is evenly distributed and has not clumped together.  Place over a very gentle heat for about 5 mins, stirring often, then increase the heat to bring it to a gentle boil. Continue to cook at a very gentle simmer for 8 mins, stirring often – the agar will go through stages of being very thick, before dissolving and loosening again.

Meanwhile add the cornstarch to a bowl with ½ cup coconut milk and mix to a smooth slurry. Add the remaining coconut milk, brown rice, maple syrup and mix together. When the lemon agar has simmered for 8 mins, remove it from the heat and add the coconut mix, whisking constantly. Return to the heat and bring to the boil, using a spoon to stir constantly until boiled. Do not over boil. Remove from heat and add the lemon zest and turmeric – taking care not to use too much turmeric, or the colour can be a little too bright. Let cool a little before GENTLY pouring the mix onto the base. Let cool for about 30 mins before gently removing to a fridge to set. Cut into 16 squares.

Variation: If you would prefer not to use a gluten free base, try this spelt one.

1 cup desiccated coconut

1 cup white spelt flour

½ teaspoon baking powder

1/3 cup coconut oil – liquid

¼ cup maple syrup

1 teaspoon natural vanilla extract

Add the coconut, spelt and baking powder to a bowl and whisk through to combine. Add the coconut oil, maple syrup and vanilla to a small bowl and mix together. Add the wet to the dry and mix through – it will be a bit crumbly. Put into the biscuit tin and press out.