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The Journal Gazette

  • Goran Kosanovic for The Washington Post Blackberry Cake With a Kick

  • Goran Kosanovic for The Washington Post Bread-n-Butter Pickle Corn Bread

  • Goran Kosanovic for The Washington Post Oh, the places you can go with these three DIY baking mixes. 

  • Goran Kosanovic for The Washington Post Maple-Cashew Scones

  • Goran Kosanovic for The Washington Post Fully Loaded Chocolate Muffins

Wednesday, October 11, 2017 1:00 am

Make your own baking mixes like a pro

Extras for the Big Batch Dry Mixes

These are some of the swaps and add-ins that can be used with basic recipes that use one of the three DIY Big Batch dry mixes:

OILS

• Neutral-flavored oils such as vegetable, corn, canola, grapeseed or refined coconut oil

• Extra-virgin olive oil or unrefined coconut oil

PUREES

• Applesauce

• Pumpkin puree

• Banana puree

• Carrot puree

FLAVORINGS

• Freshly grated lemon or orange zest

• Freshly grated peeled ginger root

GROUND SPICES

• Cinnamon

• Ginger

• Cloves

• Nutmeg

• Cardamom

• Espresso powder

ADD-INS

• Poppy, caraway, fennel or anise seeds

• Sesame seeds

• Dried culinary lavender

• Diced crystallized ginger

• Chopped nuts, toasted

• Hulled sunflower seeds

• Diced apple

• Diced banana

• Whole berries (halved or quartered, if large)

• Chopped chocolate or chips

• Lightly packed, coarsely shredded zucchini (avoid the center seeds, wrap in paper towels and squeeze out liquid)

• Lightly packed/finely shredded carrot

• Coarsely chopped dried fruit, plumped in hot water and drained

• Shredded sweetened coconut/toasted coconut

• Fresh herbs

• Corn kernels

• Chopped scallions (for savory cornmeal batters)

• Shredded or crumbled cheese (for savory cornmeal batters)

PRE-BAKE TOPPINGS (up to two per baked good)

• 2 tablespoons coarse sanding sugar

• 1/2 cup sliced or chopped almonds, walnuts, pecans and/or hazelnuts

• 1/2 cup rolled oats

• 1 medium tomato, thinly sliced and drained on paper towels (for savory cornmeal batters)

FINISHING TOPPINGS

• Confectioners' sugar (dusted)

• Glaze/icing

• Frosting

In the 1950s, it was said that when an elderly woman died, the "flour and shortening" business lost a customer, while when a young woman married, the cake-mix industry gained one. In short, two constituencies: those who baked and those who faked. Today, there's an audience that falls somewhere in the middle and proves the value of a different kind of mix – the kind that is versatile, ready to go and additive-free. The kind you make yourself.

Here's what convinced me: I received a recent email touting "the first and only baking mix brand in the category to sustainably source clean, regenerative and socially-aware organic ingredients." How preposterous, I thought, that those who are so deeply invested in the quality and origin of their ingredients would be baking cake from a box.

Then I remembered my neighbors, who regularly receive boxes full of premeasured and diced ingredients. They use them to "cook" dinner. These same people also like to go to the farmers market to appreciate, and maybe purchase, what is locally grown. While this, too, might strike one as amusing or contradictory, my dive into the modern cake-mix market reveals that, for many – especially millennials – this state of affairs is normal.

The cake-mix category comprises dry, ready-made bases for a gamut of baked goods. Those created expressly for cakes were introduced in the early 1930s, if not before that, but didn't hit it big until Betty Crocker, Duncan Hines and Pillsbury got in on the action in the late '40s and early '50s. "The very marketable premise behind cake mixes was, and still is, the ability to have fresh, 'homemade' cake with very little time and effort," Susan Marks wrote in "Finding Betty Crocker" (Simon & Schuster, 2005). The flour, shortening, powdered eggs, sugar and select flavorings had all been calibrated along with leavening agents, which, to this day, remain a concern because who knows whether they have lost their pep. A consumer need only add liquid.

Apparently, this premise was too easy and made the whole thing less appealing. Business psychologists – perhaps the original market researchers – determined that leaving out the dried eggs and having users crack fresh ones into the mixing bowl would solve the problem. The theory, Marks explains, was that this would give them "a sense of creative contribution," because "baking a cake was an act of love on the woman's part" and "a baking mix that only needed water cheapened that love."

Using fresh eggs undoubtedly improved the finished product, which might be the real reason that changing the formula seems to have led to the rise of the box mix. Over time, the recipe was altered and consumers were instructed to stir in oil along with the water and eggs. A task that could require up to a dozen separate ingredients could be accomplished with only four.

Sold in supermarkets, these boxed units became the de facto choice for American households. They were not a source of pride. In the '80s, when I was growing up, you did not try to pass off the Duncan Hines cupcakes you baked for your kid's birthday as homemade. But you didn't brag about having taken a shortcut, either. Convenience won the day.

Things have changed. An overview of the market from 2010 to 2020, generated by the market research firm Mintel, predicts the total sales of baking mixes in the United States will dip from $4 billion to $3.6 billion "as consumers opt for fresher, less processed alternatives." Cake-mix sales, specifically, are at $650 million and expected to drop to $460 million over the next three years. The loss in sales correlates with a broad change in attitude. A younger generation of potential bakers cares about "transparency," a concept that extends to what they put in their pantries and on their plates, and about the experiential aspect of cooking. Millennials are, as per that study, "more apt to say they use baking mixes because they enjoy baking than they are to use them for their convenience." In other words, shame is a nonstarter.

"Consumers are looking to bake 'from scratch,' " says Billy Roberts, a senior food and drink analyst at Mintel. Armed with a "greater degree of personal disposable income" and more confidence, they are going to bakeries, and, because of television shows such as "The Great British Bake Off," wanting to experiment in their own ovens. At the same time, they prioritize ingredients, rejecting anything artificial or unrecognizable, and seek out specialty products they cannot find in local grocery stores. When something is presented as higher in quality, they tend to perceive it as a more healthful option, he says.

Their problem with traditional cake mixes is unrelated to the idea of their being seen as an inauthentic form of baking; it has to do with the assumption that they are full of fake materials. Unsurprisingly, the one area of growth in this sector is in specialty brands that cater to dietary concerns or promote "better" ingredients. This would explain why, last summer, King Arthur Flour brought out a line of "clean label" Essential Goodness mixes or, the year prior, Pillsbury unveiled its Purely Simple products, and would account for that email I scoffed at.

Then there is Foodstirs, launched by Greg Fleishman, Galit Laibow and actor Sarah Michelle Gellar in 2015. "There is nothing like Foodstirs on the planet in terms of that purity and what we call 'clean ingredients,' " Fleishman said, throwing out all the appropriate jargon in a recent interview. The Santa Monica, California-hubbed brand's mixes are organic and do not contain genetically modified components. They include biodynamic sugar and "identity-preserved heirloom flour."

Foodstirs' founders also talked about the significance of spending meaningful time with their children, and baking as a way to do that. The brand offers a subscription service with regularly delivered baking sets for more interactive projects such as the heavily decorated Ombré Pancake and the Darling Daisy Cookie Bouquet.

Foodstirs' existence led me to ponder other ways competitors might innovate, or pivot. How would you think outside the mix box . . . while staying in it? Sisters Arielle and Agathe Assouline-Lichten introduced Red Velvet NYC a year and a half ago. The meal-kit company distinguishes itself from the likes of Blue Apron by focusing solely on dessert, and from would-be competitors with its inclusion of perishable goods. Others, Agathe said, "send half-baked items. So they'll send a pie mold, or some type of crust. . . . We don't do any of that. We are vehemently against mixes. We want people to do everything. For me, homemade is homemade. That means no cheating." The majority of kits are for novices, but there are some recipes geared to more-practiced bakers and others that fall somewhere in between. Core products such as best-selling Celebration Cupcakes are joined by seasonal options. Like Foodstirs, Red Velvet NYC allows customers to order kits piecemeal or, serially, through a subscription. So far, it ships to 28 states.

I made some of those cupcakes. They were perfectly acceptable, although Foodstirs' rendition was notably better. Yet I enjoyed the Red Velvet NYC user experience more. That said, packages of dry goods could be more clearly labeled, especially when the same type of flour or sugar is used twice in one recipe. The vials of vanilla extract and nickel-bag-size portions of baking powder were a bit off-putting as well. Listing the amounts of ingredients to be used would better serve educational purposes.

If the intention is to instruct and engage the home baker, DIY mixes seem like a more progressive tool. Toward that end, I discovered food writer and stylist Caroline Wright's "Cake Magic!" (Workman, 2016) – a cookbook that, per its subtitle, lets you "Mix & Match Your Way to 100 Amazing Combinations." The author came up with a basic Cake Magic! mix that could be adapted for an array of layer cakes, each executed in a single bowl. Wright tacked on recipes for syrups, frostings and toppings, and provided copious examples of how to put those together. "I wanted to do a very simple baking technique that could really put the power and creativity in the hands of the baker," she told me via a phone interview.

Here's the upshot of my research: I wanted mixes with more versatility. Ideally, you could whisk a large quantity of dry ingredients together to create a base that could be applied to multiple styles of cake, and beyond. Then, whenever you felt like baking, you would have them at your fingertips.

No mix can do everything – or, it can't do everything well. But three of them could get you far. So I asked Abigail Johnson Dodge, author of "The Everyday Baker" (Taunton Press, 2015), to create one white mix, one chocolate and one cornmeal option that could go savory or sweet. She dug right in, making scones, upside-down cakes, loaf cakes, pancakes, muffins and corn bread. Once Dodge was satisfied with a mix, she sent the basic recipe my way, and I built from there.

To our great surprise, we have become attached to these mixes and are now preoccupied with ideas for those that do not yet exist – but could. (A brownie mix is at the top of our list; those that incorporate nut flours are another interest. Do we dare consider yeast?) Submitted for your approval: the formulas for the three mixes Dodge created, with information on substitutions and mix-ins, plus a few next-level recipes that may inspire you to take them in new directions.

Once you compose these dry mixes from scratch, I doubt you will want to give Betty, Duncan or the rest of their kind another look. A DIY baking mix makes for a thoughtful gift, too. You can put it in a box – a beautifully wrapped one.

Big Batch Dry Mix

This plain, versatile mix can be used to make cakes, cupcakes, muffins, scones and pancakes.

Spelt flour is preferred here; it can be replaced with whole-wheat flour, or the mix can be made using 100 percent unbleached all-purpose flour.

Created by cookbook author Abigail Johnson Dodge. Stir mix well before using. Mix can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 months.

5 cups (22 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

4 cups (18 ounces) spelt flour or whole-wheat flour (see headnote)

1 1/3 cups (9 1/3 ounces) granulated sugar

4 tablespoons (1 3/4 ounces/ 50 grams) baking powder

2 teaspoons (1/2 ounce/15 grams) table salt

Whisk together the flours, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large container with a tight-fitting lid (15- to 16-cup capacity), until thoroughly incorporated. Seal, label and store at room temperature until ready to use.

Makes 10 1/2 cups; 1 cup equals 4 3/4 ounces

Big Batch Cornmeal Dry Mix

Cornmeal can go sweet or savory, and there's no use in creating an all-purpose mix with it if you're not going to account for both. With this mix, you can make old-fashioned blueberry muffins or skillet corn bread. But don't stop there: Apply it to a peach upside-down cake or sophisticated olive oil cake. Serve syrup-coated cornmeal pancakes for breakfast, or their smoked salmon-topped counterparts as hors d'oeuvres.

Created by cookbook author Abigail Johnson Dodge. Stir mix well before using. Mix can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 months.

4 cups (18 ounces) finely ground cornmeal

4 cups (18 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

2/3 cup (4 5/8 ounces) granulated sugar

3 1/2 tablespoons (42 grams) baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons (10 grams) table salt

Combine the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large container with a tight-fitting lid (15- to 16-cup capacity), until thoroughly incorporated. Seal, label and store at room temperature until ready to use.

Makes 9 cups; 1 cup equals 5 ounces

Big Batch Chocolate Dry Mix

Everyone needs a chocolate layer cake at the ready for those special celebratory moments. That's what this one's for, and with just some water and oil, and an egg, it's pretty much frosting-ready. It's so much better than anything you could have bought in a box. Muffins, scones and cupcakes, of course, are all doable as well.

Created by cookbook author Abigail Johnson Dodge. Stir mix well before using. Mix can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 months.

4 cups (18 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

3 1/3 cups (15 ounces) whole-wheat flour (may substitute spelt flour)

2 1/2 cups (7 1/2 ounces) unsweetened cocoa powder

1 1/3 cups (9 3/8 ounces) granulated sugar

4 tablespoons (1 3/4 ounces/50 grams) baking powder

2 teaspoons (1/2 ounce/15 grams) table salt

Combine the flours, cocoa powder, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large container (15- to 16-cup capacity). Whisk until very well blended, making sure to get into the corners and bottom of the container. Cover, label and stow at room temperature until ready to use.

Makes 11 cups; 1 cup equals 4 1/2 ounces

Blackberry Cake With a Kick

8 to 10 servings (makes one 9-inch round single layer cake)

This simple cake showcases fruit that's sweet-tart and perhaps undeservedly underrated, with a little grown-up mischief from black pepper, homey comfort from dark brown sugar and richness from creme fraiche.

From cookbook author and food writer Charlotte Druckman.

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted, plus more for the pan

Flour, for the pan

2 1/2 cups (11 7/8 ounces) Big Batch Dry Mix (stir well before using)

1/3 cup (2 3/8 ounces) packed dark brown sugar

3/4 to 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup creme fraiche

2 large eggs

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

1 1/3 cups (6 ounces) blackberries (large ones halved)

1/2 cup rolled oats, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use a little butter to grease a 9-inch round cake pan, then flour it, shaking out any excess.

Whisk together the Big Batch Dry Mix, brown sugar and pepper (to taste) in a mixing bowl, until well incorporated.

Use a fork to whisk together the milk, creme fraiche, eggs and vanilla extract in a large liquid measuring cup until well blended. Pour over the dry mixture, along with the melted butter, and whisk with the fork to form a slightly lumpy batter.

Use a flexible spatula to gently fold in the berries, then use the spatula to spread the batter evenly in the pan. Scatter the oats over the top. Bake (middle rack) until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes.

Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool for 15 to 20 minutes, then run a round-edged knife around the edges to loosen the cake, then invert onto the rack and lift off the pan. Turn the cake right-side-up and let cool completely.

Fully Loaded Chocolate Muffins

Sometimes, it's okay to break the rules and add a few extra chocolate chips to your muffins. These might remind some of the Chunky candy bars of old, because they combine that chocolatey goodness with nuts and dried fruit. Spices – cinnamon, and just the tiniest bit of cayenne – take them beyond the vending machine.

MAKE AHEAD: The dried cherries need to be rehydrated for 30 minutes. The muffins are best served the same day they are made, but they can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.

From cookbook author and food writer Charlotte Druckman.

1/4 cup dried cherries

1 3/4 cups (8 3/8 ounces) Big Batch Chocolate Dry Mix (stir well before using)

1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) granulated sugar

1/8 teaspoon table salt

1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (optional)

1/2 cup buttermilk

1 large egg, plus 1 large egg yolk

1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1/3 cup grapeseed oil

1/2 cup chocolate chunks

1/4 cup toasted skinned hazelnuts, chopped (see NOTE)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line 9 wells of a standard-size muffin pan with paper or foil baking cup liners, or grease them with cooking oil spray.

Meanwhile, place the dried cherries in a small bowl and cover with warm water; let sit for 30 minutes, then drain.

Whisk together the Big Batch Chocolate Dry Mix, sugar, salt and the cayenne pepper, if using, until well incorporated.

Pour the buttermilk into a large liquid measuring cup, then add the egg, egg yolk, vanilla extract and oil; use a fork to whisk together until well incorporated. Pour over the dry ingredients, then add the chocolate chunks, plumped dried cherries and hazelnuts; use a flexible spatula to gently fold to form a barely blended batter that's a bit lumpy.

Divide evenly among the muffin cups or wells. Bake (middle rack) until a pick inserted in the center comes out clean, 17 to 19 minutes.

Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes, then dislodge the muffins and place them directly on the rack to cool completely.

NOTE: To toast the hazelnuts, spread them on rimmed baking sheet and bake for 4 to 5 minutes, until fragrant and golden brown. Cool completely before using.

9 servings

Maple-Cashew Scones

The combination of maple, cashews and spelt here is especially winning, but if you used whole-wheat flour in your dry mix base, you wouldn't be disappointed with the results. An alternative name for these would be Pancakes Scones, because they were inspired by and taste like pancakes; they even spread a bit more than typical scones.

From cookbook author and food writer Charlotte Druckman.

2 1/2 cups (12 ounces) Big Batch Dry Mix (stir well before using)

8 tablespoons (1 stick) very cold unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces

Up to 3/4 teaspoon spices (optional; see NOTES)

1/2 cup toasted, unsalted cashews, coarsely chopped (see NOTES)

Up to 1/2 cup buttermilk

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Flour, for the work surface

1 large egg

1 tablespoon heavy cream

Flaked sea salt, for sprinkling (about 2/3 teaspoon)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone liner.

Combine the Big Batch Dry Mix, cold butter pieces and spices, if using, in a mixing bowl. Use two knives or a pastry blender to work the butter and flour into pea-size pieces (this step can be done in a food processor, pulsing as needed, then transfer to the mixing bowl). Stir in the cashews and toss to distribute evenly.

Pour 1/3 cup of the buttermilk into a large liquid measuring cup, then add the 1/3 cup of maple syrup and the vanilla extract; use a fork to whisk until well incorporated. Pour over the dry mixture; use a flexible spatula to stir and form a moist dough with some floury bits showing. If the dough isn't coming together or seems dry, add more buttermilk, 1 tablespoon at a time, until you reach the desired consistency.

Lightly flour a work surface. Transfer the dough there and gently knead a few times until the dough is evenly moist and just holds together. Be careful not to overwork the dough or the scones will be dense.

Gently pat and shape the dough into a 6-inch disk. Use a large knife to cut the dough into 8 equal wedges. Transfer them to the baking sheet, spacing them about 2 inches apart.

Whisk together the egg, the remaining tablespoon of maple syrup and the heavy cream in a bowl, then use the mixture to liberally brush the tops of each scone. Sprinkle them with the flaked salt.

Bake (middle rack) until the tops are lightly browned and the tops spring back when gently pressed, 16 to 18 minutes. Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack and let the scones cool, about 15 minutes, before serving or storing.

NOTES: For spices, you can use ground cinnamon, ground ginger, ground cloves, freshly grated nutmeg, ground cardamom or espresso powder.

To toast the cashews, spread them on a baking sheet; bake for 8 to 12 minutes, or until fragrant and lightly browned. Cool completely before using.

8 scones

Bread-n-Butter Pickle Corn Bread

As this rendition proves, the addition of chopped pickles is one of the better things to happen to this American staple. Working cottage cheese, Sriracha and – the real trick – some reserved pickle juice into the batter might just land this in the baking canon.

From cookbook author and food writer Charlotte Druckman.

2 1/2 cups (12 1/2 ounces) Big Batch Cornmeal Dry Mix (stir well before using)

1 1/2 teaspoons table salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup cottage cheese, preferably full fat

2 large eggs

1 cup drained bread-and-butter pickles, coarsely chopped, plus 1 tablespoon of their pickle juice (from the jar)

2 tablespoons Sriracha (may substitute hot sauce of your choice)

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted melted butter, plus 1 teaspoon for the skillet

1/4 cup chopped fresh chives

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Preheat a 9-inch cast-iron skillet on the stove on low heat, gradually increasing the heat to medium.

Combine the Big Batch Cornmeal Dry Mix, salt and pepper in a mixing bowl.

Use a fork to whisk together the buttermilk, cottage cheese, eggs, the tablespoon of pickle juice and the Sriracha in a large liquid measuring cup until well blended. Pour over the dry ingredients along with the 8 tablespoons of melted butter, the chopped pickles, chives and dill; use a flexible spatula to stir and form a lumpy batter.

Melt the remaining teaspoon of butter in the hot skillet, tilting to coat. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake (middle rack) until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 35 to 45 minutes.

Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool for 15 to 20 minutes. Run a round-edged knife around the edges to loosen the bread, then invert onto the rack and lift off the pan. Let cool completely before serving. (The bread can also be served directly out of the skillet.)

10 to 12 servings

Three-Step Basic Cake

To make a basic single-layer cake (8-inch square or 9-inch round) or loaf cake (8 1/2-by-4 1/2 inches), use a fork to whisk together 2 1/2 cups Big Batch Dry Mix, 1/3 cup granulated sugar or packed light or dark brown sugar and up to 2 teaspoons spices in a mixing bowl.

Whisk together 1 cup buttermilk, unsweetened coconut milk, water or a fruit puree, 2 large eggs, up to 1 1/2 tablespoons flavorings, 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract, 8 tablespoons unsalted melted butter in a liquid measuring cup, then pour over the dry mixture, along with up to 1 1/2 cups of add-ins. Stir to form a lumpy batter. Pour into a greased/floured pan, scatter pre-bake toppings over the surface (optional).

Bake in a 375-degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes (square or round) or 55 to 60 minutes (loaf), until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool for 15 to 20 minutes on a wire rack before removing from the pan to cool completely.

To make a two-layer cake, double the recipe and bake in two pans.

Three-Step Basic Corn Bread (Sweet)

To make an 8-inch square or loaf (8 1/2 by 4 1/2 inches), use a fork to whisk together 2 1/2 cups Big Batch Cornmeal Dry Mix, 1/3 to 1/2 cup granulated sugar or packed light or dark brown sugar and up to 1 teaspoon spices in a mixing bowl.

Whisk together 1 cup buttermilk, unsweetened coconut milk or a fruit puree, 2 large eggs, up to 1 1/2 tablespoons flavorings and 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract in a liquid measuring cup, then pour over the dry mixture, along with 8 tablespoons unsalted melted butter and up to 1 cup of add-ins (optional). Gently fold until well blended, then pour into the greased/floured pan.

Bake in a 350-degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes (square) or 50 to 55 minutes (loaf). Cool on a wire rack for 15 to 20 minutes in the pan, then dislodge to cool completely.

Three-Step Basic Chocolate Cake

To make a basic single-layer cake (9-inch round), whisk together 1 3/4 cups Big Batch Chocolate Dry Mix, 3/4 cup granulated sugar, up to 3/4 teaspoon spices (optional) and 1 1/2 teaspoons instant espresso powder (optional) in a mixing bowl.

Add 3/4 cup water, 1/2 cup oil, 1 large egg and 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract and whisk to form a smooth batter. Pour into a greased/floured 9-inch round layer cake pan and tap it gently on the counter to release some of the batter's air bubbles.

Bake in a 375-degree oven for 39 to 41 minutes (square or round) until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for 15 to 20 minutes, then invert to dislodge and turn right side up on the rack to cool completely.

To make a two-layer cake, double the recipe and bake in two pans. To make 12 cupcakes, bake in a 375-degree oven for 17 to 19 minutes.