Tobasco Reserve

Every now and then, someone offers to send me something for free. Sometimes I accept; sometimes I do not. Sometimes I review it; sometimes I do not. Sometimes I like it; sometimes I do not. This is one of the cases where I accepted the item and decided to review it.
What is it?

Fancy Tobasco Sauce. Perhaps the fanciest of Tobasco sauce. 2011 Tobasco Brand Family Reserve Pepper Sauce from the McIlhenny Co. It's available at Amazon for just shy of $25, and the item description calls it a collector's item. Why?

Well, first of all it's small batch. Second, it's aged. Third, it's blended with premium ingredients. Oh, and the peppers were aged as well. The finest peppers.

Also, it has a wax seal and a little medal. So that's cool.

Now what you should be asking me is, "Brian, now that you've tried it, is this Tobasco Brand Family Reserve Pepper Sauce really worth $25? I mean, it does have a medal that goes around the bottle." To which I say, "Wellllllll… maybe. Probably not. But maybe."

I enjoy Tobasco sauce and other hot pepper sauces. I have even made my own, which is fun and tasty. However, I am not a Tobasco fanatic. There are those who pick a sauce, Tobasco or otherwise, and put it on everything. Everything edible. Probably a couple of other things, but most won't admit to that. Some of these people live a life of Tobasco-centered joy. If you need to buy a gift for one of these people, I would absolutely buy this gift. It's Tobasco-y, it's limited edition, it has slightly fancier bottling, and it comes in a box that makes it easy to wrap. How can you lose?

If you are thinking of buying this for yourself, and you are a Tobasconaut as described above, then I'm afraid I can't help you. I just don't have a refined enough Tobasco palate to be able to adequately judge the awesomeness or lameness of this sauce. Find another review, and check that.

If you are a casual pepper sauce eater, then I would not advise spending the $25 on a bottle of this. Go with the chipotle version, or the habañero version, or Sriracha, or one of the many many small-batch brands of hot sauce. Or make your own. All good choices. But spending $25 on this will not give you such a difference in flavor that a casual hot-sauce consumer would notice. You can get a lot of hot sauce for $25. But several of the other options instead.

Oh, and about that medal: don't leave it on the bottle. If you leave it on, every time you put hot sauce on your food, the medal will fall into said food. It's happened to me three times. Now that I've taken a picture of the thing, I am getting rid of it forever. If you, um, collect hot sauce bottles, set the medal aside and save it for when you've finished with the bottle. It will look nice on the shelf. Well, as nice as a bottle of hot sauce on your shelf is going to look, I suppose.

Good Eats: The Early Years

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Before I do a review, let's cut to the chase. Should you buy Good Eats: The Early Years? If you're a Good Eats fan, you probably already own it. If you're a good eats fan who doesn't own it yet, then absolutely get it. For the rest of you…

Good Eats: The Early Years is a companion book to the first 80 episodes of Good Eats. It goes episode by episode, in order, and it gives overviews of what was covered, recipes, behind-the-scenes information, and food science facts.

For the recipes, these are often updated from what they were in the original show, and there are new recipes that weren't in the show at all. This gives a little additional value over just popping over to Food Network's site and getting the recipe from there.

One of the situations's I've found myself in while attempting to recreate a Good Eats recipe is that the shows are so much more than the recipes. Often he'll discuss some interesting technique that isn't really covered by just the recipe. This would necessitate re-watching the show under normal circumstances. Now, however, you can just flip to that episode in the book and check out the "Knowledge Concentrate" sections, with so many of the little tidbits of information from the show.

So, by and large, I say yes, you should buy this book. If you aren't a big fan of the show, well, it's not going to be as good of a book for you, but there's just so much useful information that it's worth reading through. For the fans, though, it's not even a question. Get the book and love it, if you haven't done so already.

This was, incidentally, a review copy sent to me for being the kind of guy I am (which probably has to do more with me being a food writer and less about me being really cool). I certainly would have bought it had I seen it in the store before it hit my doorstep, but it surprised me, and I'm pleased about that.

Required Reading: Two sites of notes

There are a couple of websites that have caught my attention recently, one that focuses on baking and another that focuses on food geekery. I know of both of these sites through twitter interactions with their respective owners, and I am quite pleased to have found them. The first is a site called Bowl of Plenty. The high concept is, "I like food. I like data. I like to put the two together." What caught my attention was a couple of posts where the writer, whose name and gender I do not know, made some almond butter. As part of the process, a series of photographs were taken of the food process to show how the almond butter changed in texture.
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That is a small sample, and there a little over twice that number of photos for just that entry. Here's a detail shot:
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That's some great information. But even better than that is the article on baking powder. If you've read Bakewise, you know that Shirley Corriher goes into quite a bit of detail on the workings of baking powder, the different types, when they act, etc. This article looks to be at least as extensive, and perhaps a bit more so. It warms the heart and shames me for my lazy ways. The second blog is Pastry Methods and Techniques. This is written by Jennifer Field, who is keen to get the world to understand that baking and cooking are not as difficult as people make it out to be. We are like-minded on that score, and consequently are working together on a secret-project-that-you'll-find-out-about-when-we're-done-and-not-before. Pastry Methods and Techniques will teach you things from how to make your own puff pastry and various styles of pie crust to why salt is important in sweet foods as well how to throw together a dessert in nearly no time. What? Yes, I said make your own puff pastry. Even Alton Brown skipped that, but she is not afraid, and she doesn't think you should be, either. Jennifer also shames me by the quality of her posts, and shows me up to be the slacker I am. So go there as well to learn all kinds of interesting things, and not just about baking.

Kind Plus Bars

A couple of months ago, I get an email from a man named Phil asking if I would be nice enough to review an energy bar product. This was exciting, not only because I might get an opportunity to review a new product, but because it allowed me to test my Blogger Integrity by pointing out that, while I would be happy to accept some samples to test, not only am I not promising to give a positive review, but I am not promising to do a review at all. After all, I still have some 2 year-old gum base that I've done nothing with, and am kind of afraid to use now because I have no idea how long gum base lasts before it goes bad. Even so, Phil was quite confident in his product and braved my indifference, laziness, and/or displeasure. I think Roger Ebert would disapprove even so, but I'm no journalist, so I'll accept my free review copies where I can. Some untracked time later, but well before the end of 2008, I received a batch of Kind Plus Bars. The general theory behind kind bars is, to quote:
KIND Fruit + Nut bars are delicious snacks for a heart-healthy diet. Our handmade bars are packed with whole premium almonds, Brazilian nuts, walnuts, peanuts, and chunks of all-natural dried fruits held together with honey.
The ingredients were mostly things accessible to the home cook, with the exotic ingredients being soy lecithin, glucose, and linseed chicory fiber. I know: it's scary. The rest is all fruit this, nut that, honey, flaxseed, blah blah blah. In a pinch, you could probably reproduce the bar at home if you were of the mind. I don't know that I'd say the same about a Power Bar. The taste is, by and large, fantastic. I tried the Mango Macadamia Kind Plus bar first, as it "won 'Best New Product' in the food category at Natural Products Expo East in Boston about a month ago." I figured, why not be impressed out of the gate? Ahh, ethics. KIND Plus Mango Macadamia, aside from being tasty, is overflowing with umami. At least, I'm pretty sure it was. I can't find any evidence that macadamia nut nor mango are particularly umami-laden, but I can't really explain it any other way. In any case, it's so good. Throughout the line, I find that the chewier bars are better. The only fruit and nut bar I wasn't all that excited about was the strawberry one. The all-nut bars, also not that great, and the sesame chocolate bar (which I bought with my own money) was likewise uninspiring. However, most of the bars were outstanding. I understand they're a little pricey in the store, but they are less than $2 each on average when you buy in packs of 12 on Amazon, and in many cases close to $1.50 each. To summarize, we have gone through most of our free samples, and are buying our own, so Phil's confidence was well-placed. Still, don't expect that I'll review your product as favorably if you send me a copy. Presume I'll hate it and make fun of it mercilessly, or just toss it in a corner and ignore it. Could happen. But for now, I eat my Kind Bars.

Espresso Machine Review - Saeco Vienna

I have not tried a large number of espresso makers, so this will not be a comparative review. What you will find in the following paragraphs is what owning a Saeco Vienna will do for you, how it will improve your life, your love life, and your professional life. How you can master seven languages because of it. How you will finally understand the final episode of The Prisoner. Also, how it will help you make a damn fine cup of espresso. Yeah, all those claims from the previous paragraph? Mostly only the last one is true. With the rest of them, any improvements you see in your own life matching those are correlative at best, coincidental at worst. The Saeco Vienna is* a Super Automatic (or superautomatica) espresso machine**. What this means in general terms is that, in order to get a fantastic cup of espresso, you must, after ensuring that the hoppers are filled with beans and water respectively and that a cup is waiting below the spigot, hit a button. Maybe hit that button twice if you want twice as much espresso. I know! "Why must it be so much work?" "Won't somebody think of the index-finger impared!" But it's true; buttons are pressed, espresso appears. The machine grinds the beans, tamps them down, runs the steam through, and empties the grounds into a bin. "But Brian," you may think, "that's not hardcore!" And you are correct. I am not going to be a master barista any time soon. I am lazy with my espresso making. On the other hand, I can stumble downstairs, barely awake, set a cup down, double-tap a button, and be given better espresso than most of the coffee houses in the US. If that's not the very definition of "The Future", then I don't want to live in The Future. What I'm not likely to get is the God Shot, which makes me a little sad, but not so sad that I want to actually work for my espresso. Frothing milk is pretty easy, too, for those who prefer their coffee milky. You hit another button, which heats the water up more for froth purposes, then then you put the milk under what's called the Panarello Wand, which is like a normal frothing wand but with some plastic bits designed to make it easier for the non-hardcore to froth milk. Depending on the type of milk you're using, you can just listen to the tone of the milk to know when it's hit 140°F, which is warm enough for my wife, or 160°F, where the foam becomes stable. If you had enough milk in your frothing cup to begin with, then you will have the "right" amount of foam. Too little milk, and you'll probably end up with too much foam. Still, pretty easy. Then you wipe things down and rinse bits off, and you are set for another day of coffee making. The other great thing about this line of espresso maker is that it's relatively inexpensive. Although it's about $500, that is a pittance compared to other super automatics. It's made by a quality company, though, and it has the same innards as higher-end espresso makers, but because of the not-exciting styling, it costs much less. About the only downside to the machine is that there's this one part that I'm going to have to clean one day, and I cannot for the life of me figure out how to get it out of the machine. The instructions were vague, and the video that came with it is on VHS. As if I have anything that plays a tape of any kind around the home. Sigh. One day I will figure it out. But not today. In any case, if you want to make espresso, and don't need to be hardcore, I would go with this. More specifically, if I need to buy a second one for any reason, I will stay with this brand and its descendants. *- Well… was. It's no longer being made. However, you can get a Saeco Villa , which is basically the new, slightly improved model. It has two boilers, for example, so you don't have to wait the many long seconds between brewing espresso and frothing milk. **- Incidentally, this was the machine that Alton Brown used in his episode on espresso. Just so you know.

Bakewise initial impressions

I am reading through BakeWise now, partially because it's what I do, and partly because I am in the process of developing something special. A couple of special things, really. I'm reading through the Kindle edition I mentioned earlier, which is super cool. [amtap book:isbn=1416560785] My initial impressions are: 1) Awesome. 2) Okay, Shirley is definitely teaching me some seriously useful things about baking, and how to analyze and adapt recipes. I am into the first chapter so far, and the knowledge is just pouring in. It's not like On Food and Cooking, where it's a non-stop deluge of new facts. In BakeWise, Shirley repeats key facts and conclusions so that you can remember them, tying them together as new lessons are learned. It's a very useful teaching tool. [amtap book:isbn=0684800012] 3) The Kindle edition, while incredibly handy, is not going to be the only edition of the book I own. It's clear that the limited formatting of the Kindle causes asides to get mixed into the text, so that it seems as if she is repeating whole paragraphs of information, when it's probably just a sidebar. But having a searchable and portable version of the book is great. 4) Still awesome.

Fruit Sodas for Adults

I've been on a bit of a kick recently trying a bunch of fruit sodas. Well, citrus-flavored sodas, really. So I figured it was time to do something worthwhile with the kick and tell you, my loyal readers, what you can expect from these beverages.

GUS

This is the one that got me started on the citrus soda kick. There's a good local soup shop in town, and they have an excellent selection of beverages (including my favorite beer). I saw the Grown Up Soda and said, "Yeah, why not?" Was it a good idea? Hard to say for sure, but I'm enjoying myself, so we'll call it a win. GUS is not terribly sweet. There's a scale with soda water with a squeeze of lemon at 1, and Orange Crush as a 10. This rates a reasonable 5. Still plenty of flavor, but not watered down and disappointing. I've had the Dry Meyer Lemon and the Dry Valencia Orange. The Meyer Lemon was not all that exciting. It has a good lemon flavor, but it's a bit more subtle than I prefer my lemonade. I know, Meyer Lemons are more subtle than regular lemons, but it could have stood a bit more with that. The Valencia Orange has a great balance of flavor. It has a medium-strong orange taste without being cloying. Well worth the purchase. In my experience, GUS is the hardest to find of the brands reviewed today.

IZZE

IZZE is the second easiest-to-find of the sodas in this review. They are in Whole Foods and they are in Chipotle restaurants. Because of their relative fame, I have tried several of their ilk. There are two distinct lines of IZZE Sparkling Juice: the regular (IZZE) and the low calorie versions (IZZE ESQUE). Actually, there's a third version, IZZE FORTIFIED, but I've never tried it. The regular is a 7 on the sweetness scale, which is the highest I would go and still have an enjoyable beverage. And they are tasty. I even like their grapefruit cocktail, which manages to put a decent amount of sweet in there while still letting you know that, yes, it is definitely grapefruit. The ESQUE is a 3 on the sweetness scale, which is much too low. It tastes of lightly fruited water, and I just don't like that. I appreciate them not adding anything artificial etc, but it's just not enough for me. If I want to go with a lower calorie soda, I'll jump to the GUS, which looks to have a smaller serving size to make up for the lowered amount of juices and sugars.

San Pellegrino

San Pellegrino is my favorite of the citrus sodas. They lean toward the sweet side, around 7 much like the IZZE. The Aranciata is a bit better than the Limonata , but either are a good choice for your sparkly fruit drinking ways. The real star of the San Pellegrino lineup is the Chinotto . This is unlike anything I have ever had that wasn't also Italian. It's a brownish color, kind of like a Cola, but it's clearly fruit flavored. The thing is, it's a bitter, complex fruit. This is an acquired taste for sure. It is strange, and it is teeming with different flavors. If you think Dr. Pepper is great because it has so much more complexity than normal soda, then you live a sheltered life and probably aren't quite ready for the Chinnoto. Italians love the bitter, as those of you who have tried Italian Liqueur surely know. It's a rewarding drink to master, though, because it will wake up an otherwise boring process of drinking a carbonated beverage. Plus, you can really mess with your co-worker who likes stealing drinks from the fridge. Totally worth it.

Orangina

Orangina is the most famous of the fruit beverages. It has even appeared in the lyrics of a Broadway musical (commenters are welcome to guess which one). It has actual orange pulp in the bottle, and you are encouraged to shake it before drinking it, which adds that hint of danger to drinking a soda that you don't normally get, though nothing near the danger of the Cinnoto. Orangina is not overly sweet, falling around 6 on the scale. With a decent flavor, it's a fine drink to have for the citrus connoisseur.

Wise Cooking

Whenever I go to bake, I have two go-to books that I like to check first. One of them is Alton Brown's I'm Just Here for More Food, and the other is Shirley O'Corriher's Cookwise. I imagine I'll be adding The Breadmaker's Apprentice at some point, but I don't have it just yet. What makes me so interested in the first two books? [amtap book:isbn=0688102298] [amtap book:isbn=1584793414] [amtap book:isbn=1580082688] Alton Brown's book is great because it divides up the cooking by preparation type, which I think all bakers should start doing. If you're using yeast, it's the Straight Dough method, and if you're making bubbles by incorporating sugar into solid butter, then it's the Creaming Method. You get a much more firm understanding of the different baking processes than you would just by reading the recipes. As an example, I was transcribing the family Coffee Cake recipe over Thanksgiving, and I noticed it used the Creaming Method. This saved me no end of writing, and I was able to grab the important information. Also, there was a mistake in the recipe as it was written, and I was able to fix it when I first went to make it (the chemical leavener was added to the wrong bit in the recipe). It's easy to use, and it has some great applications (what some people would call "recipes"). Shirley's Cookwise is a completely different beast. Her chapter divisions are based more on the material being studied, such as sugars, fats, or bread. What assured me that I made the right decision in buying her book, and the thing I point to whenever I want someone to know about it, is the thorough way she treated flour. Flour seems simple on the surface - All Purpose Flour, Bread Flour, Pastry Flour, etc. You pick one based on the recipe you're using, depending on how much protein your recipe needs. Pastry flour has relatively little protein, so it's a soft flour, and bread flour has much more protein, so it's a hard flour. However, Shirley points out that AP flours from different regions have different levels protein, so Southern brands are softer than Northern brands, and bleaching has an effect on the hardness, and so on. Then she shows you how you can determine, for any given flour, what the percentage of protein in it is. Not that you may ever need it, but if you do, it's there. The interesting thing about the recipes in Cookwise is that they are geared for success. They are not made to be simple, and they are not made to be quick. They are made to work. Every time. Any little trick that would increase the probability of your bread coming out perfectly is added in, and she makes notes of why the techniques or ingredients were added in to any given recipe, so you can understand what you would be doing if you left it out or modified it. In all, I highly recommend both books, and I would likely be lost without them at this stage in my baking. They're not books that you would use because you just need a quick idea of what you want to bake for breakfast this morning, but they are books to get you to the stage that you can master the concepts involved in baking.

That's a big pastry

PastriesI'm doing some travel for business. I got a new job recently (and got married, and went on a honeymoon, and was in a bit of community theatre), which is part of the reason you've heard little from me recently. However, as I'm getting the old posts back, I'll post some more new stuff in the meantime. So, as I said, I'm doing some business travel. In this particular trip, I was staying in Visalia, California, which is near Fresno in a very agricultural part of the state. Behind my hotel, I could see the back of a building with the sign, "Bothof's Bakery." Already, I was tempted. Now, the hotel had free continental breakfast, but I decided to break a few bucks out of my personal money and eat a proper breakfast. The downtown area where I was staying was not one for long business hours, so most places were closed between 9:30 PM and 8:30 AM. However, the bakery was open whenever I dropped by in the morning, which was early as I was still on Eastern Standard Time. The owner, or someone whom I presume was the owner), was very nice and quite talkative. A good sign for a little local bakery. There were two main display racks of goods, one with petit fours and cakes and the like, and the other with pastries proper. The first day, he directed me towards a, for lack of a better term, ginormous turnover, which you can see above. I also chose the apple fritter, as it looked tasty. The fritter was a bit too sweet for me, so I only had a bite of that. But the turnover I enjoyed immensely. The crust was super-flaky, and the cherry filling was delightful. Close observers will note the Starbucks Iced White Chocolate Mocha in the edge of the photo. Now, there are two local coffee houses, one of which I tried an espresso at shortly after consuming the turnover. It was dreadful espresso. Everything I hate about espresso, that had it. And I quite enjoy espresso, properly made. I attempted to go to the local organic shop, but apparently they don't open until 8:30, and by then, it's nearly lunchtime on my EST clock, so I had to skip their potential delights. Still, it's all better than eating at the local Burger King or similar, and I try to do my best to eat locally whenever I travel, business or otherwise. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but the effort is generally worth it.

For true?

One of the big advances in the home culinary revolution is the use of fresh lemons and limes in cooking, rather than the lemon juice in the plastic lemons so popular in my youth. And fresh lemons and limes are super-tasty, but occasionally one forgets to purchase a lemon, or the lemon gets all moldy, or one of a dozen other terrible fates for the fresh lemon. Last night was one of those nights, when I was making a honey-soy glazed salmon, and it wanted some citrus. What to do? Well, I could have substituted another acid, such as a vinegar, but it just so happened that I picked up a shaker bottle of True Lemon, a new powdered lemon substitute. Instead of wasting precious refrigerator space with something that would be rarely used (i.e. the plastic lemon), I figured I could waste precious pantry space with something that should be rarely used. I decided that this would be a perfect night to try out the True Lemon. Ideally, I would go back to the test kitchen and make up several different versions of the salmon dish, some with fresh lemon juice, some with plastic lemon juice (i.e. Real Lemon), and some with True Lemon, and have my testers decide what was best. In this case, I just didn't tell Melanie what I had done, and slyly asked her how the taste was. She said it was super-tasty (and she is not one to flatter my dishes without cause, let me assure you), and when I verified that the citrus component was pretty good, I admitted my deception. It was at this point that she told me that she bought a lemon and it was right over there, but it was too late. Still, the base experiment has passed, and now it's just for me to decide if it's worth using as a non-emergency component, or if I should keep it next to the box of pesto paste.

Metromint Peppermint Water

Peppermint WaterI ran across Metromint Peppermint Water at the store today, and as I am a mint whore, I had to get it. It's zero calorie, and the only thing that's been added is the peppermint. So no extra vitamins, no sugar, nothing that is so popular in the enhanced "waters" of the day. As you can see, the design of the bottle is fairly attractive. They also have a spearmint water, but I didn't try it. I did drink the peppermint water, though, and it tastes exactly like when you drink water while you're chewing peppermint gum. I can't say I'll ever buy it again, but it was an interesting experience. Probably less expensive to chew a piece of gum and drink a glass of tap water, I suspect.