A new kind of coffee blend

Hand pour bar at the Mudhouse

I was chatting with my friend Dan at the Mudhouse, one of Charlottesville's coffee Institutions, the other day. A thought had occurred to me which seemed a bit obvious in retrospect, and as Dan is the person I know who is Most Serious About Coffee, I ask him about all my crazy coffee thoughts.

In this case, I was asking about hand-pour coffee. The question was whether people separate out the various parts of the brewing process and try them separately, so that, for example, you have three cups of coffee instead of one. The first cup represents the first 1/3 of the water that goes through the coffee grounds, the second the second 1/3, and the last the third 1/3. Dan told me that he hadn't done that with the hand pour, but it was part of his training program on espresso for new baristas. Then he gave me a sample.

The first part of the espresso shot tastes like every espresso you'll get in Italy, because italian espresso uses about 1/6 to 1/20 the water that you'll get from just about anywhere in the U.S. It's packed full of flavor, not really any bitterness. The second and third thirds don't have much flavor at all, but they do carry most of the body of the espresso, and I'm not entirely sure what makes up the body of espresso, so I'm going to have to do some research. Note to self. I'm pretty sure it's not collagen, though.

Right now, in artisanal coffee circles, hand-pour coffee is one of the darling techniques, because it allows for a lot of control and you can get a coffee cup full of flavor and nuance in a way that is different from all of the other techniques. It's not a replacement for other coffee brewing methods, naturally, it's just a way of tasting coffee very differently from what you'd get in, say, a French Press. It's especially good for single origin coffees, where you want to know all the nuances of a particular bean.

To hand-pour coffee, you essentially have a filter with ground coffee above a cup. You pour some hot water over the ground coffee, and coffee fills the cup. Very simple method, lots of things to do to get it right.

Here's what I can imagine: divide the hand-pour process into 10 equal pours. Call the resulting parts of the coffee "slices 1 to 10". If some were really, really serious about coffee experimentation, I could see that person saying "For this bean, you want to use slices 2-4, 7, and 9. For that blend, 1-3, 5-8" and so on. Take out the parts of the extraction that don't work for that bean to enhance or reduce whatever aspects aren't right. Of course, just like my explanation of the hand-pour process, if something like that would work it would be much more involved to get it right. 

Even more so, a very fast, very meticulous, essentially crazy person might brew slices of different single-origin coffees and blend them together into a single super cup. Such a coffee would either be: a) indistinguishable from other coffees; or b) the most amazing coffee ever. Either way, it would be terribly expensive to do right. Still, fun to imagine.

How the Cookie Crumbles

It's always good to get to see presentations about cookie techniques, because either it will help to solidify something in my mind or, even better, will teach me something new. A problem I never really considered before was a crumbling cookie. If you make a cookie that has to travel some distance, you'll find that your average cookie recipe will leave you with something that cannot survive bumps and jolts without turning from a round confection to a pile of crumbs and bits.

Cookie crumbs

I was watching an IACP presentation by Shirley Corriher, author of BakeWise and CookWise , and also Food Scientist Extraordinaire on Good Eats. During her presentation, she talked about how to keep cookies from crumbling. The problem comes in because all of the sugar in the cookies absorbs all of the water, keeping the water from combining with the flour to make gluten. Exacerbating that lack of water due to sugar is a literal lack of water, as most cookie recipes have very little water-type liquid added to them. To make matters worse, all of the butter in the cookies will coat the flour, thus preventing whatever water may have been added which had not already joined up with the sugar unable to get to the flour. It makes for a crumbly cookie, because there are no long chains of gluten to ensure a structure that can hold up under pressure.

The solution is devilishly simple: take a cup of the flour that is in your cookie recipe and, before anything else, mix it with a few tablespoons of water until it forms a dough (exact amount of water depends on the type of flour and so on, but just add as much as you need and no more). Make your cookies as normal, but add this dough in at the end. Depending on how much you kneaded the dough, you will give extra strength and body to your cookies, and you will be able to control the texture by kneading it more if you want more chewiness to the cookie.

One of the added benefits of this method is that, because the water is all tied up making gluten in the flour, it's not going to throw off your cookie recipe's balance. The water isn't going to be released into the cookie, so you only have to worry about how much extra body you are giving your cookie and not wether the cookies will become a soggy mess.

Of course, you don't want to do this with a shortbread cookie, because the very definition of a shortbread cookie is that you don't have long gluten chains. I mean, you can make what would be a shortbread cookie with this recipe, but it won't be shortbread any more.

Learning to Cook

It was many years before I finally learned to cook. Which is not to say that I couldn't make food and to follow a recipe, but I was always at the mercy of the recipes that were available to me. Sure, variations in the flavor of the recipe were pretty easy to do, but  serious changes to the recipe were unheard of. Sometimes these might be items of preference, but sometimes they were necessary because the recipe was just incorrect.

I like to tell this story of shortly before I started really trying to understand what this food and cooking thing was really all about. I watch The Big Chili episode of Good Eats, where he talks about how to make chili in a pressure cooker. I wanted to make this chili, but had no pressure cooker, so I checked the episode for these directions:

You put the chili in the bowl. You put the spoon in the chili. You put the chili in your mouth. That's it.

R: But Paw!
GG: Don't call me that, boy! It makes me feel ... old.

Now for you folks at home that ain't got one of them ...

GG: What'd you call that thing?
R: Pressure cooker. [continues to point out service options in the background]

... pressure cooker, don't despair. Just get yourself a nice, big, heavy Dutch oven. Preferably one that's cast iron. And do your meat browning in there, and add all your ingredients, bring it to a boil, clamp on that lid, and toss it in a 350 degree oven for anywhere from 6 to, I don't know, 24 hours, depending on what you like.

From the Good Eats Fan Page archives. Emphasis mine.

Six hours as a minimum seemed an awfully long time to be cooking something. So I re-watched that part of the episode three or four times on the Tivo, but it always said the same thing. So I checked the Food Network recipe, but it just had the pressure cooker instructions. So… I cooked it for about six hours in a 350° oven. And all but two chunks of chili were turned into charcoal. It should be said that the remaining two chunks of chili were the best I'd had before or since, but that's a lot of trouble to go through for two chunks of chili.

What is truly sad is what never occurred to me: chili is just a beef stew. There are millions of beef stew recipes available. Heck, there are millions of chili recipes available. I could have found another, maybe a few, compared cooking times, and just gone with that. And it's not as though, generally, I am stupid. It's just that I didn't think about cooking the right way. I didn't think, "Hey, there are only a few ways to cook food, and most recipes are just variations on those themes." Every recipe was always it's own, completely different thing, and trying to alter it could cause trouble.

Of course, now I know differently. But that's one of the most important things to learn about cooking: the technique. Learn how the meat or vegetable cooks, and the flavor variations are simple and relatively risk-free. There are maybe 10 major methods for cooking meats and vegetables. Learn those, and you never need char a pot of chili just because someone made a joke on television.

Incidentally, Alton Brown has finally managed to fix the recipe in his book, Good Eats 2: The Middle Years. The chefs don't have direct control over the Food Network recipes, so he couldn't fix it there, but when the book with the episode came out, the proper directions were put in. Go on, get the book. It's well worth it, even if you know how to make chili.

Baking in a Storm


I was perusing the King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion [affiliate link] and I came across a tip about humidity and baking. It started out with the relatively common advice that, in more humid weather, flour will absorb more liquid and will consequently need less added for any given recipe. However, tucked away under that was another hint that I'd never heard before.

One of the common symptoms of rainy weather is lower atmospheric pressure. The thing I'd never considered is that the lower pressure will affect cooking. It'll have a small effect on the temperature needed to bake, which the King Arthur folk didn't mention because it's probably pretty negligible. This is the same thing that happens to high-altitude bakers and the opposite of what happens in a pressure cooker.

The important thing is that your cake/bread/whatever will rise higher because there isn't as much pressure on it. It's obvious when you think about it, and I'm sure bakers who have travelled to different elevations to practice their craft have noticed the difference, but it's news to me.

What I wonder is if there's anyone who would want an oven that could control its pressure. Not necessarily to pressure-cooker levels, but for people living near the edge of the atmosphere (I'm looking at you, Colorado), they could keep it at 1 ATM. For those who just want the tallest souffles ever, they could dial down the pressure just a smidge.

There's a problem that happens with chemically leavened products like muffins and quick breads. If you put too much leavener in, the quick bread will collapse before it's done baking. This happens because there's not enough structure in the confection to hold it up. Specifically, the atmospheric pressure is pushing it down when the tiny amount of gluten isn't ready to hold it up.

With the fancy atmospherically-controlled oven, you might be able to dial back the pressure enough to allow the structure to set before removing the pressure. There will be limits, of course; a soufflé is going to fall eventually, and if you make your structure too delicate, no amount of reduced pressure is going to help unless you're going to somehow eat it in the reduced pressure. Which seems unlikely.

Still, I'd bet someone talented to could work some magic with a system like that. I doubt it would end up being useful, certainly not compared with the work of actually creating such a device, but I wouldn't have really figured out any good uses for the anti-griddle either, so who can say for sure?

Evil Mad Science Wednesday: Asteroids (the edible kind)

Another bit of brilliance from Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, who I clearly have a crush on. Take some chocolate graham crackers that you can make, cut them into clever shapes, do a little piping, and give homage to one of the classiciest of classic video games.

Asteroids (the edible kind):

complete - 1

Pew Pew Pew!!! Nom Nom Nom!!!

complete - 4



Gems you can find in the post: the recipe for the graham crackers and how to make your own cookie cutters. They ended up cutting these by hand (well, knife), but they could have made custom cookie cutters if they had wanted to.

(Via Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories.)

Cleaning trout

One of the great things about our trip to Asheville was that we got some hands-on experience with a few parts of our trip. The biggie was definitely the Cooking Competition that we all participated in, but that's a story for another time. One of the first things that I did when I arrived was to go to a sustainable trout farm, Sunburst Trout Farm.

The first part of our visit to Sunburst was learning what it really means for a trout farm to be sustainable instead of a breeding ground for more diseases than trout. By and large, it's what you'd think: don't overpack the fish, keep predators away, keep things clean.

One of the things you might not expect is that water temperature is vital. The trout farm itself is on a hill with a lake above them and a stream below them, and they get a decent amount of cooling from the lake waters joining the river. If the weather is particularly uncooperative, then they break out the liquid oxygen. There's a huuuuge tank on property that helps to drop the temperature when it's needed. A lot of mischief could be made with that much liquid oxygen, and it's just the thing you need to help deal with a 2000-series terminator.

After feeding us a breakfast that consisted of about 40 things you can do with trout, all delicious (especially the biscuits and smoked trout sausage gravy), they let us don the garb of the trout cleaner and get to cleaning some trout. The traditional outfit is a hair-cap, apron, gloves, and boots. We all looked particularly sexy in the protective gear.

The first of us to remove the innards from the trout was Jaden Hair of Steamy Kitchen. She may not fully appreciate this, but I did get a video of the process, and it teaches the important first lesson of cleaning trout: trout are slippery.

Jaden cleans trout from Brian Geiger on Vimeo.

Sadly, I couldn't get a good video of the machine that removes the spine from the trout. In general terms, it started out as a monorail for the emptied trout and gave us back two fillets minus a skeletal structure. Very impressive.

If you need farmed trout, talk to your fishmonger and ensure that the trout is farmed sustainably. There are a lot of things that can go badly with any farmed animal, so finding a reputable farm is important.

Dealing with living food

One of the interesting things about vegetables and fruits is that they're still alive when you're storing them. In fact, unless you cook them, they're still alive when you eat them. Raw food vegans had better be quite comfortable with their life choices knowing the sheer number of living beings that they consume just to live. I'm not judging, I merely mention because it's just occurred to me. The problem with the plants being alive is that they continue doing whatever it is that they would normally do under the circumstances. In some cases this means turning sugars into starches, in others starches to sugars. Colors may fade, cells might degrade. Life goes on. In some cases, life going on is great. Bananas, for example. Bananas are all well and good as a fresh fruit, but while they're green, they're tasteless, and only as the continue to age do they turn starches into sugars. Take it too far, and they become brown and generally unappealing. Of course, in the specific they become better, because brown and mushy bananas are perfect for banana bread. So it's great for the whole living thing to keep going on. Sometimes you'll slow down the living processes by reducing the molecular activity by slowing down all of the molecules. Though this sounds complex, I'm really just talking about putting something in the refrigerator or freezer. After all, temperature is just the average speed of molecules in any given substance, so to slow down chemical processes, you make it colder. Freezing is much more effective at slowing the processes than cooling, but that doesn't make it a good idea in all cases. After all, freezing will create ice crystals in the cells, and as they expend, it will rip through the membranes and cell walls of your plant, which will cause the cells to leak upon thawing. This is fine in some cases, but not in others, so use caution with the freezing. A general rule is that if you don't see it in the freezer aisle, it probably doesn't freeze well. Another useful rule is for whether to refrigerate a fruit or vegetable. The the plant in question lives in through cold weather, it's fine with the cold. If it's a tropical plant, it would be happier on the counter. Because the plants are still alive, if they hit some weather that they're not ready to deal with, then they don't know what to do and the chemical factories that keep them going will often fail. There are times when you really want to stop whatever's going on within the plant, and that usually means halting enzymatic actions. Enzymes are proteins that facilitate chemical reactions, and are one of the lower-level functions of a living system. If you can stop the enzymes from doing their thing, then you can stop the aging process. They way to do that is with heat. Of course, heating food is one way to cook it, and there are all sorts of other chemical processes that go on when you cook food. You might just want to stop the enzymatic stuff without seriously damaging the fresh taste or texture of a food. At this point, you're looking at a blanch. Blanching is cooking something for a brief amount of time and then halting the cooking process quickly. Traditionally, this is done by briefly putting it into boiling water, then transferring the food to cold water. If you're French, it would be ice water, but room temperature water will do just about as well. After all, we only need to change the temperature quickly, we don't need to freeze the food, and water's heat transfer ability will work nearly as well at room temperature as it will at the freezing point. If you're cooking a green vegetable, you may also take advantage of the blanching process to reduce the acidity a bit with some baking soda into the boiling water. This brightens up your greens. If it's a purplish vegetable, you would very much not want to do this, unless you want your vegetable to turn bright green. You could enhance the reddish-purple color by adding some acid, however. Another trick blanching is good for is allowing you to use certain tropical fruits in gelatin dishes. Papaya, mango, and pineapple all have enzymes that break down certain connective tissues in meat. Because gelatin is based on a connective tissue, collagen, the enzymes in those fruits will break down the gelatin, thus taking what should be a nice mould and turning it into a sweet, sticky puddle with some fruit at the bottom. As we know that blanching will stop enzymatic processes, though, we know that we could blanch the fruits before putting them into the gelatin, and we should have no troubles with the enzymatic baddies ruining the dessert treat.

Instructable Wednesday: Sugar Glass

This week's Instructable is on making sugar glass, which is a technique you've most likely seen on those cooking competitions where they're making a sculpture and everything has to be made from an edible material. Sugar glass is also used in the movies and probably on stage when someone needs hitting over the head with a bottle. The author of the Instructable posted a video of this technique… …which, as you can see, has a million and one uses around the home. This particular Instructable, while full of information, admits that it glosses over the process of making a mould for shaping the glass. However, on step 5 he links to another instructable on Two Part Silicone Casting which will give you the information you need for that.

Instructable Wednesday: Food Stencils

Instructable Wednesday is a weekly look at food and cooking related items from the site Instructables, a DIY site with a great community and all sorts of useful tutorials. Today, let's look at the "I ♥ Accuracy" Brownies. It has long been a staple of people who love things everywhere to make a heart that has two bumpy bits at the top and a pointy bit at the bottom. That's all well and good, but what about those of us who are pretty sure that a heart doesn't look like that? Not only is this a handy technique for the anatomically pedantic, but it's also good starting point for making stencils that will work for food. The technique can work with sweet confections such as the brownies, or you could adapt it with flour for bread. Using colored powders or edible spray-paint, you could take this technique to new heights for the stencil-ready foods. Let your imagination run wild. Think of it like silk screening: anything that could go on a t-shirt could go on food. Not that you'd want everything that has gone onto t-shirts to go onto food, but it gives you an idea of the flexibility of the technique.

Italian Soffrito

A couple of days ago, I received a shipment of 6 liters of the greenest extra virgin olive oil* that you have ever seen. It was from Toscana Saporita, the cooking school my wife and I attended in Italy on our honeymoon. The cooking school is held on a working olive orchard, and the primary output of the estate is olive oil. So people who attend the school get a chance every year to order oil, which we did. The arrival of the oil reminded me of one of the big lessons of the school: the soffrito. Soffrito is a terribly misunderstood technique, primarily because people don't realize that it is a technique. Raised on cooking television where the mire poix and trinity are common, people figure that the soffrito is the Italian word for mire poix, and so the assumption is that the soffrito is carrots and onion and celery, or perhaps only two of those. In reality, soffrito means "softly fried", and it's actually the Italian version of "sweating", or cooking aromatic vegetables at a low temperature. It's used in the same way mire poix is, by being a flavorful base to just about anything savory. The difference between mire poix and soffrito is that it doesn't really matter which aromatic vegetables you use in a soffrito. If you are missing carrots that day, don't fret. Use some more celery! If you have peppers, throw those in. The proportions are not key, the specifics are up to what you have handy when you're cooking. It's Italian: relax. The technique is basically the same, though. Dice the aromatics into roughly equal-sized pieces, add some salt, andcook over medium-low heat in oil (or butter; whatever) until the vegetables show signs of being cooked. The signs include some increased transparency, being soft, deepening of color, depending on the vegetable. There ya go. If you're making a soup, throw this together at the beginning for better flavor. If you're making a braise, throw this together for better flavor. Stews, casseroles, sauces, etc etc. Go for it. Don't fret about the specifics, just make sure you have some sort of base, and your food and diners will thank you for it. *- or, as the Italians call it, "oil."

On FineCooking.com: Sous Vide or Bust

A New article on Fine Cooking's web site is up: Sous Vide or Bust, where I describe the basic basic basics or sous vide cooking and whether all that equipment is necessary. Unlike here, Fine Cooking has some editorial sensibilities, so I didn't feel that it was appropriate to link to the following video on the original article. However, to illustrate what can be done with minimal equipment, I present Kamikaze Cookery with The Perfect Steak. Note that, as you may have guessed with the early part of this paragraph, there's some language in this video, and a little bit of suggestiveness coupled with putting the 'b' in subtle.

Use Electricity to Turn Cheap Wine into Decent Wine

New Scientist has an article entitled "How to make cheap wine taste like a fine vintage." They note that there are many who have claimed to create a magical process to turn base vinegar into liquid gold, but most of them have been fakes. In this case, there seems to be someone who has traded in magic for science. It looks to be something of an old-fashioned technique, as far as science fiction might go, though perhaps classical is a better term. Apparently a chemist from South China University of Technology in Guangzhou named Xin An Zeng came up with the technique, adapting it from a technique from the '80s for treating food. One of the interesting things about the technique is that it's been peer reviewed. Also, it's been subjected to blind taste tests. Also, it's been around for 10 years. I think it's just now being talked about because it wasn't published in a peer review journal until 2008. If I were more of a wine person, I'd plunk down the $31.50 to buy the article and see if I could recreate the setup that makes bad wine tasty. However, I am not, so I'll leave it for some wine geek to recreate. If you see a diy version, please let me know. I do love electricity mixing with food.

Broiling pizza at home

BoingBoing, via Kottke, points us to this ooooold article from Serious Eats back in March of 2007 that explores broiling pizza at home using, of all things, Domino's pizza dough. From the initial conversation with Domino's through the process of finding the right way get the oven up to temperature. I won't give away any of the details, but I wonder if one could make a good bread oven using a similar technique. I mean, I'd rather have the wood-fire oven in the backyard, but if I can't quite swing that, then why not do a kitchen hack or two?

Spanking Poms

Pomegranates are not the prettiest of fruit*. Oh, sure, their seeds (er, arils) are lovely on their own, but as an assembled fruit, they're not all that great. Plus, taking them apart is a pain. The arils will explode upon contact, and squirt their red juices all over whatever white clothing you might happen to be wearing**. There are two recommended methods of disassembling a pomegranate. The first method is the one recommended by the Pom Wonderful folk. You have to cut open the pomegranate, score out sections along where the natural divisions are, peel sections out, loosen the arils into a bowl of water, scoop stuff out, strain, blah blah blah. It takes forever. For. Ever. The second way is the way suggested by everyone else. You cut the pomegranate in half, grab a wooden spoon, and thwack the pomegranate***. Sometimes you'll use the back of the spoon, some the edge. Move it around to various parts. You'll get the feel of it. And the arils just fall right out. The great way about the second method is it's really easy to do. You can feel the right way to hit the pomegranate, and it's very satisfying when the seeds fall out. The other way is just trouble. Don't do it, no matter what the people who sold you the pomegranate say. *- This opening has started a firestorm of conversation in The Food Geek compound, where Melanie points out that, not only does she think it's a beautiful fruit, but it has been considered in art in culture as being symbolic of, shall we say, womanhood. I can see that, and I completely acknowledge the symbological nature of the fruit. What I'm saying is that there's this internal inedible structure that does not lend itself to being photogenic. It takes a special photographer to do it right, compared with some of the other fruits that do not take the special touch. **- Which is, I suspect, also part of the metaphor. I'm just sayin'. ***- You people who read the other two foodnotes should stop that giggling. I swear, it's like we're in middle school.

Roasting Coffee the Popcorn Way

Remember when I said I had to stop myself from posting anything that comes across khymos.org and Ideas in Food? Apparently Make is one of those, as well, at least for their food related posts.* However, in this case, a casual exchange on twitter prompts this one.
Ihnatko: 'I've just ordered a hot-air popcorn popper on Amazon. Yes, I am indeed living the dream…' thefoodgeek: 'Are you modding it to roast coffee beans, or is this just for popcorn?' snitty: 'You can do *what* with a popcorn popper? Do you have a link? Also, is the modification reversible?'
At the time, I just forwarded a link to an old engadget article about seriously modding a popcorn popper. It's a good read, but then I ran across this article on Make about an airpopper coffee roaster, with included video, and it is so much easier. No modding, available inexpensively though yard sales or eBay. Go to it! You can pay for the popper with about 3lbs, based on the price estimates in the video. Plus, your coffee will taste better. Less money, better coffee. *- To be fair, I have scooped a few of the more mainstream sites with a couple of these, so I apparently have my finger on the heartbeat of the something something blah blah.

High Voltage Cookin'

Make Magazine's blog tells us all about Raphael and Max who have set up a Jacob's Ladder*, staple of Mad Scientists everywhere, and they discover which foods cook… well, not better, but at least more easily with some high-voltage electricity. I say not better because there's a comment about it smelling like burnt hair, and you really don't have a lot of control over electricity, so repeatability is going to be tricky. On the other hand, it's unbelievably cool and dangerous. If someone tries to be all macho with their flambé, you can show them this trick and make them feel weak and timid. Seriously, high-voltage electrical projects are dangerous, so if you try this, learn about the appropriate precautions and take them. You'll likely hurt yourself or others, but nothing's really safe in life, is it? *- Not the movie

Food Mysteries: Liquid Frosting

One of my favorite food activities is when someone is having a problem with a recipe and ask for help. Whether it's asked directly to me or just in my vicinity, it gives me a chance to test what I've learned and see how well I'm doing. There's nothing like taking some basic problem, breaking it down as best I can, and attempting to come up with a solution. Sometimes I'm right, often I'm wrong, but it's generally worth the effort. In this particular instance, one of my twitter friends asked: Broken_Recipe.png This was a little vague, but my mystery-loving nose was a-twitchin', so I asked for more information. What she told me was that she had this coffee mascarpone frosting recipe that she'd used for forever. Normally it went together with no trouble, but this time it was much more fluid than solid, which is generally not what you want with a frosting. The recipe was:
  • 1 cup chilled whipping cream
  • 8 oz mascarpone
  • 1/4 cup ground coffee
  • 2 to 3 cups confectioner's sugar (depending upon how thick you prefer frosting)
Whip up whipping cream in mixer until soft peaks begin to form. Fold in mascarpone and coffee grinds. Then while mixing over low speed, slowly add the confectioner's sugar one cup at a time, being careful not to over whip frosting. Okay, all well and good. Comparing with other frosting recipes, it appeared that the sugar should be more than enough to thicken things up (although sugar does not thicken in the same way a starch does, it can still do its share under the right circumstance, generally by dissolving itself into water and preventing the water from moving about). As the coffee is ground and not, say, a liquid, it wasn't likely to throw anything off. I asked if perhaps she was using a different brand of whipping cream with more liquid, or a different mascarpone, but no, that was all the same. As the cream was being whipped, there was a possibility that it was the culprit. It's easy to break a whipped cream with too much heat. So I suggested that perhaps something were warmer than usual and that may have caused the trouble. Finally, I noticed that other recipes, rather than whipping the cream first then folding and mixing, just threw everything together and mixed that way. I suggested that, if she still had everything together, perhaps she could give that a go. The responded to tell me that, yes, it was the temperature. Hurrah! But, instead of being too warm, the mascarpone was too cold, and bringing it to room temperature fixed the problem. Hurroo. So I was half-right, and I was helpful, and I learned something. That's all good. As I get better, hopefully I will be right more than I am wrong. As with most of life, the important thing is to never stop learning.

Easy and inexpensive steam distillation of essence

I have this strange dream of having an apothecary's shop in my kitchen, or so it would appear. I want to find the best way of distilling food down to its essence, then having it ready at a moment's notice to enhance a bit of food or drink. It's odd, really, because I don't use that many spices while I'm cooking right now, as I tend to try to focus on the base nature of the food rather than trying to gussy it up. Still, the dream persists, and I'll play with it as time goes on, and perhaps adjust my cooking style to the number of extracts, essences, oils, and powders that I can accumulate. In any case, Sean Michael Ragan has written a handy piece about using a standard bit of cooking equipment, the pot with integrated steam basket, plus a "schoolhouse" style lamp, to make your own simple steam distillation system. It really is an Alton Brown style conglomeration of simple parts for a very good purpose.

[2008-05-05] Improvised radial alembic for DIY steam distillation: "I would add that this is not my idea, originally, although I may have been the first to recognize the unique shape of the so-called 'schoolhouse' lamp globe as highly amenable for impromptu condenser service, since it comes with a readymade 'drip tip' where condensate can accumulate. My version […] requires a stainless steel pot with an integral strainer (constructed such that there is some distance between the pot bottom and the strainer bottom when the strainer is in place), a 'schoolhouse' style glass lamp globe which is of greater diameter than the pot, and a stainless steel or glass receiving vessel."

(Via Make.)

How to cut baking prep time


How to make your baking turn out better.


Nothing to see; move along.

WarmingEggs.jpgThe title of the article is different depending on what kind of baker you are. When I bake, I rarely either have time to or remember to set the ingredients out to come to room temperature first. It's a really good idea to do so, unless what you're making specifies otherwise (pie crust, for example). I'm not going to go into the why right now, we'll discuss that another day. Let's assume for the moment that you want to and you don't at the moment. The big culprits for room temperature neediness are generally eggs and butter. Everything else is easy. Butter melts like a wicked witch on a water slide, and eggs cook when anything remotely warm is applied to them. So, what to do? Here water is your friend. Many of you may know that, in order to thaw meat in a short amount of time, the best way is to put it in circulating water that's right around room temperature or a bit warmer. The same works for eggs and butter, but it's easier. The eggs you can just put into water straight and they'll be warm in moments. For the butter, you might want to wrap it in plastic wrap first to keep the butter from touching the water. I will admit, though, that I happen to know that a fridge-temp stick of butter in my current, tiny microwave will behave properly if I put it in for 15 seconds, but that will be a trial-and-error procedure with you if you want to try it yourself. More powerful microwaves might require lowering the power setting, or lowering the time, or both. If you're willing to sacrifice the structural integrity of a couple of sticks of butter to keep from having to handle plastic wrap, it'll save you time down the road. Now, for all of you who put their ingredients out well ahead of time because you're with it and actually prepare for your baking, well, I hope you enjoyed the bit about the wicked witch. The rest of us will go about our extemporaneous ways.

Cooking Creatively

There’s this web site called twitter. It’s at twitter.com. The purpose of it is to allow people to basically say what they’re up to in 140 characters or less. It also let’s you get an idea of what various people you’re interested in are doing. Not a site for complex philosophy, but it’s good to give you an idea of what’s happening in various people’s lives. I’m on twitter as thefoodgeek, and various people interested in food follow what I say. One of these, called snitty, asked, “I can cook and bake, but not very creatively. Is there a book that will teach me some general theories that I can apply.” Now, there are simple answers to questions like that, and there are complex answers. The simple answer, I.e. The one I could give in 140 characters, was, “Alton Brown’s books, and Shirley O’Corriher’s Cookwise. However, the question is very interesting, so I figured it might be nice to explore it a bit here. I’m not a terribly creative cook. I occasionally do some creative things, but I’m not that interested in the creativity, yet. I’m more on the path myself, so I figured I’d share what my path is, so people can follow, ignore, or avoid the path, as you see fit. When I was younger, I experimented more with the cooking. Part of that is because I was a bachelor, and there’s a certain, oh, lack of concern about the way things have to be when you’re a bachelor. If you decide that perhaps peanut butter will go with hot dogs, you cook up a hot dog, slather some peanut butter on the bun, and see what you’ve created. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it does not. This is a path many cooks take, some more successfully than others. Psychologists say that one of the big differences between people and animals is that people have this big section of the brain whose job is to pretend that what you’re imagining may happen in the future is actually happening, so you can react to it and accept or reject the plan depending on if you believe the outcome will be favorable or not. The intuitive path is to engage this portion of your brain, and figure that’s enough to get you going. “I like eggs on my cheese, so what if I mixed the egg and cheese before I cook it, so the cheese will be all nicely melted in the eggy goodness?” If you’ve ever tried it, you know that the answer is, “The egg won’t set properly, and you’ll have this really nasty sort of not-quite-custard thing.” So sometimes you can predict well, and sometimes you can’t. People with a lot of talent at these predictions can go on to make great chefs. So, what if you aren’t so good at that prediction? All is not lost. Logic can save the day in instances like these. Logic, practice, and experience. The first step is to learn all of the basics. Learn what happens when you take some food and cook it various ways. Grilled meat, steamed vegetables, roasted vegetables, steamed meat, macerated fruits, baked bread, steamed bread, steamed and baked bread, broiled meat, pasta with a simple sauce, etc. Don’t do a fancy recipe, just get a decent example of whatever it is you’re cooking, and do the minimum that you can in order to cook it properly, so you can understand what it tastes like as well as the essential methods that get you to that point. The next step is to try a variation or two on some of these recipes. This is more important with baking than it is with cooking, because there’s more controllable chemistry going on in baking, which you can mess up by being incautious. But still, see what a small or large variation of your favorite recipe might do. After that, or during that process, I like to try to find out what’s really going on when I do things. This ingredient is thickening the sauce, but only when it hits a temperature near boiling. This ingredient is preventing the eggs from curdling. This ingredient and technique keeps the dough from becoming too tough. The above steps are your foundation. If you are serious about what you’re doing, or maybe not even all that serious but with enough talent to make up for it, then you should be a great cook. You should be able to follow recipes and ready to ignore parts of the process because you know there’s a better way to do it, whether you’re right or not. However, that hasn’t quite gotten us to creative. There are many paths to creativity. Many people see creativity as an inborn process that uses your instincts to see what you can do to make the world a more interesting place. It’s an interesting theory, but it’s not terribly useful for us. It’s a descriptive theory, to explain why creative people are creative: "Because they are." If someone wants to take the next step, how to become creative if creativity is an inborn talent, generally the suggestion is to either do creative things (learn to paint, write a book), or to hang out with creative people and hope it soaks in. On the other hand, you could look at creativity from the practical perspective: creativity is introducing other people to something they’ve not had a chance to experience. This perspective ignores the origin issue and gets to the effect. This perspective implies that there’s a mechanical process that can get you started on the path to creativity. So, from a practical perspective, you have a number of options. Flavor pairings. Texture combinations. Deconstruction. Reconstruction. Desperation. Stealing. Baconizing. All of these are perfectly good tools for the creative process. Flavor pairings. You have some strawberries. You know that strawberries goes well with cilantro, because you’ve read on some web site that strawberry and coriander go well together. Cilantro is often used in Tex-Mex food, such as salsa. Therefore, you may think, I could make a strawberry “salsa”. Find something to replace the onion, such as fennel. Maybe sneak in some balsamic vinegar. Maybe a chile or two for heat. Perhaps, instead of a corn chip, you use a madeleine as your salsa transportation device. Could be you’d want to try to make a taco with this, so you have to find a substitute for the meat. Or don’t, and use a meat that could handle the strawberry salsa. Maybe duck. Who knows? That’s what flavor pairings do for you. You could start with a simple use, such as adding cilantro to your strawberry shortcakes to see what happens, but if you let it run away with you, you can make something crazy. Could be crazy-good, could be crazy-bad. If you’re willing to play, then you can find out. But don’t let one bad diversion keep you from trying. Texture combinations. Mixing crunchy with smooth is a classic method of livening up a food stuff. Creme brulée works on this principal, as does putting potato chips on a roast beef sandwich. Oh, don’t try to tell me you’ve never tried it. In any case, take something smooth, and add crunch to it. Or vice versa. Chocolate pudding. Smooth and creamy. Add something crunchy to it. Puffed rice cereal is one option (yes, I’m talking Rice Krispies®) would be quick and safe. But ginger goes well with chocolate. How about crystalized ginger? That gives flavor and texture. Maybe the pudding is too smooth to handle that, so you could try some crushed up oreos. Or toasted brioche. Deconstruction and reconstruction. These are fun ones, and not too terribly difficult to try out. You say to yourself, “Hey, let’s pick a food and deconstruct it.” So, what if we tried…caesar salad. Great. You have lettuce, egg, anchovies, garlic, bread, parmesan cheese. Maybe some other stuff. Okay, the idea behind it is to have the anchovies (properly from the Worcestershire Sauce) provide some umami, egg providing a medium for flavor and for binding, garlic croutons for crunch, and parmesan cheese for favor. Oh, and the lettuce for, well, being lettuce. There we go, deconstructed. We could arrange for a dish to be somehow like this, but we could instead reconstruct it in a benign or a startling manner. Let’s swing towards startling. Make some parmesan cheese crisps. Before they cool, roll them into tubes. Take an anchovy, dip in in flour then an egg wash, then garlic breadcrumbs. Fry it. Dash a little Worcestershire Sauce on it for good measure. Wrap it in lettuce, stuff into the parmesan crisp. Win your quick fire challenge. Desperation. This is the favorite of college students and bachelors. You haven’t eaten in 18 hours. You have some pasta, some ranch dressing, and some bread. Toast the bread, pile some pasta in, add a dash of ranch, and watch Dr. Atkins scream at you from the spirit realm for the creation. Not everything made in desperation has to be disgusting, of course. But you’re more likely to eat a mediocre-to-disgusting desperation dish than you are a badly executed flavor pairing dish. See what works from that, and what doesn’t. Salvage as best you can. What you’ll find from the pasta sandwich is that the warm and crispy toast sets off the squishy pasta well (as discussed above). Perhaps a warm pasta salad with croutons would be a better takeaway. Or a bruschetta pasta salad. Probably not so much to be done with the ranch dressing, despite what the Hidden Valley people want you to believe. Stealing. Nigella Lawson has this fantastic Crab-Avocado Asian salad. Turn that into Asian Crab Cake Sandwich with Avocado. Steal, modify slightly, and introduce it to people who haven’t heard of it. Because, again, it’s not necessarily about making something that the world has never seen or tasted before, though that’s fun, too. It’s about being able to do something that you and your dinner guests haven’t done before. Part of stealing is finding out what others are doing. Read books. Go to web sites. [amtap book:isbn=0688102298] [amtap book:isbn=0684800012] Naturally, feel free to post more links in the comments if you have some. Add bacon. Seriously. Everyone knows that everything goes better with bacon. Take a food that’s never seen bacon (to your knowledge, because it’s been done before, but still). Figure out how bacon would work with it. The larger exercise is taking a limited playing field (i.e. Must go with bacon) and turning it into a challenge. The best way to be creative is not to give yourself an unlimited playing field. That just leads to option paralysis (writer’s block). The best way is to force an artificial limit, and try to work within that (Iron Chef). It's possible to become a more creative cook. There are plenty of techniques. Combine that with a good foundation in understanding the inner workings of food, or at least the outer working of food, then you can do amazing things in the kitchen.