New on FineCooking.com: Whipped Cream

In answer to another twitter friend, I explore the wonders of whipped cream, and give advice on how to stabilize the whipped cream. I also create a metaphor, but restrain myself from stretching it too far and, like over-whipping cream, causing it to break down and only be useful for butter. Be sure to comment with any questions or thoughts, and pressing the "Thumbs Up" button at the top of the post is always appreciated, if it's earned. strawberry-whipped-cream.jpg

La Quercia: Prosciutto Masters and Lardo Makers

When I went to Italy a couple of years ago, the shining highlight of our trip to Firenze was a restaurant called Perseus. Primarily we went for the Bistecca alla Fiorentina, but Melanie noticed that they also had lardo. For an appetizer, we tried a piece of toast with a thin slice of lardo on top. It was clearly not only great food, but the best thing that one could ever hope to eat for breakfast. Unfortunately*, our local stores don't seem to carry lardo. However, there is a company in Iowa, La Quercia, that is making some reportedly fantastic prosciutto and, more importantly, lardo. I don't see a way to order lardo off of their web site without getting a bunch of other meats. I'm told that Whole Foods carries La Quercia brand items, but I highly doubt I'm going to find lardo at my Whole Foods. I'm going to check, obviously, but I am skeptical. Perhaps my perfect breakfast is closer than I though. via Slashfood. prosciutto.jpg *- Hahaha. 'Cause if I had a local source for lardo, I clearly would not die from cardiovascular problems within the year.

Valentine's Treat: Sweetharts

For me, the Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories folks hit a sweet spot, as it were. Pure geekery, and they even do food projects. I have one of their Peggy 2.0 boards on my wall at work, and it's fantastic. For today, they've shown us how to make a larger, tastier version of the hearts with the messages on them. Instead of being a barely-edible candy, it's a tasty cookie. You can customize your own messages and generally bring a little more excitement to a controversial holiday. sweetharts.jpg

The Buttercream Nemesis on FineCooking.com

On Thursday I posted a new article on FineCooking.com about making Italian and Swiss buttercream. If you have trouble making traditional, egg-white based buttercreams, this will be helpful. If you need another metaphor for how emulsions work, that's a good place to go as well. Naturally, if the article is useful for you, please click the Thumbs Up button. If you have some troubles with it or further questions, a comment is always appreciated.

Cupcake Muffin Showdown

After blithely making the statement: muffinvcupcake.png it occurred to me that this might be an interesting challenge. I know my reasons: cupcakes are a transportation mechanism for frosting, and I'm not that big of a fan of frosting. Muffins are more versatile. Muffins taste better. Muffins are easier to make. Muffins have better texture. Muffins are potentially healthier. Muffins, I decided, are better. However, I know that many of my friends on Twitter are cupcake fans. There has been much activity over the past several months about cupcakes. Perhaps they would disagree. So far: not so much. I've gotten a bunch of, "Yay muffins!" responses, and some, "both are good, really," responses, but no one claiming to be the champion of the cupcake. In retrospect, this is disappoint, because I want to issue a challenge: to determine the ultimate winner of cupcake v. muffin. If I can get enough people on each side to claim there's superiority, then I will host a series of contests for specific challenges. There will be prizes. Good prizes. Not necessarily expensive prizes, but good even so. If not, then muffins are clearly the winner, and I'll have to find real controversy somewhere. To state your claim, send me a @reply on twitter (@thefoodgeek or @thefoodgeek_com), or comment here. Pass around tweets and retweets to point people here. Let's find out the true the scientific way. Or, in a pinch, a way vaguely resembling the scientific way.

Peter Reinhart at TASTE^3 on Whole Grain Bread

I haven't watched all of this, but as I am technically mentioned in his book on whole grain bread, and I categorically recommend everything the man writes or does, you might as well watch it with me. This is Peter Reinhart at the TASTE^3 conference, which I had not heard of before but will research and write about next week, talking about his epoxy method of whole grain breads.

Understanding Ice Cream

Preview photo by Northeast Indiana under a Creative Commons license. In his post Doing the Math, Michael Laiskonis goes through an exercise where he looks at an old ice cream recipe of his and filters it through his knowledge of how to make ice cream now that he really understands what's going on with ice cream. I enjoyed this post for a couple of reasons. On the surface, because it explores what makes a good ice cream and points us in the direction of greater knowledge about ice cream techniques. More than that, I like this post because it sums up why I am terribly interested in what goes on inside the food, and why that makes it so much more interesting when food was just a collection of recipes or (heaven forbid) just something that came from a box. via Ideas in Food.

Fractal Foods

Fractals are constructs that, when you look closely at them, contain tiny copies of themselves. There are fractals all over nature, and there was a period in the early nineties, around the time of the first Jurassic Park, that fractals and chaos theory were intensely popular. The most popular mathematical fractal, the Mandelbrot set, was featured on t-shirts and posters everywhere, and how quickly your computer could generate one was the Big Nerd equivalent of how quickly your car could go from 0 to 60 MPH.* Note that the audio to the video contains not only a naughty word or two, but extreme geekery in the form of a Jonathan Coulton song. In the world of living creatures, fractals aren't quite as popular. If you met a bear that was a fractal bear, he'd probably look like this:
mandelbear.jpg
and that'd just be weird, right? Vegetables are a little different though; at least a few of them are. People talk about onions having layers like that's something interesting, but the broccoli relatives are the ones that you want to watch out for. If you've ever cut up a broccoli or cauliflower, you've probably noticed that the little stalks are much like the larger bits, at least up until a point. The best representation of a fractal that I've seen in nature is broccoli's cousin, the romanesco. The first time you see one, you tend to think "pointy broccoli." That's because it looks like:
plants_7_bg_082104.jpg
Image courtesy of PD Photo.org under a Creative Commons Public Domain license. which, as you can clearly see, is a pointy broccoli, or something that looks suspiciously like a pointy broccoli. *- The "Magic Eye" or random dot 3D autostereograms were also very popular at that time.** **- Ooh, and fiber optic artwork. People loved that stuff.

Making Cheese

The closest I've ever come to making my own cheese* is taking some mozzarella curd and putting it in some warm water, and stretching and folding it. I believe this was a Nigella Lawson party idea. It was tasty, but it wasn't anything close to real cheese making. If I were to do it properly, I would go over to Frankhauser's Cheese Page and select the article on Italian Mozzarella, then follow those directions. If I were bored with that, I might even wander around the rest of the pages to learn about other types of cheeses to make, how to butcher and skin a deer, the creation of lemoncello, and several other delicious topics. David Fankhauser, Ph.D., is a Professor of Biology and Chemistry, according to his home page. Aside from the cooking, he is interested in Folk Dances, Flying Squirrels, and Norwalk-like viruses, among other things. This looks to be a great resource for those interested in making foods while learning sciency things about the food you're making. If you're not interested in those things, well, you've apparently wandered here by mistake, and I apologize. For the rest of you, go and learn how to do wonderful things, then do them. That last bit's the tricky one, but the important one, so make the time. via Make. *- On purpose, not just letting the buttermilk go bad.

Food Mysteries: Broken Alfredo (Sauce)

Friend of The Food Geek Greg Turner of Kitchen Sojourn tells a sad tale of a broken Alfredo sauce, a tale that I am not unfamiliar with. Back in the day, I used to make Alfredo sauce much the same way he did, and while it was tasty, you could feel the arteries clogging while you were chewing, not just after you swallow. Also, it's a finicky sauce. Let's take a look at general path he took to make it:
heat some heavy cream (about 1/2 a cup) over medium heat Begin adding fresh grated Parmesan cheese, whisking gently Taste Add more cheese, whisk Taste Add some butter, a little cheese, whisk Taste At this point the detail become a little fuzzy. I may have added a splash of milk (2%) to the mix because I was all out of cream. Then, on the final addition of cheese, the sauce absolutely came apart, separated like curds and whey and I was left with a soupy mix of small cheese crumbles (each about the size of a bacon bit) and a watery liquid that was more like skim milk than heavy cream.
A perfectly good, perfectly tasty recipe. Unfortunately, at some point he had to use a milk for a bit of the liquid, and he added a bit more cheese, and the whole thing broke. Clumps of cheese and mess everywhere. Delicious mess, but not delicious enough. The great thing about this Alfredo sauce is that it's a combination of fat, fat, umami-laden cheese, and salt. You give to guests, they enjoy, and shortly thereafter you break out the home defibrillator. The evening ends with a toast to your health, and everyone considers the dinner a success. The bad thing about it is that it's, well, too much of a good thing. There's a much easier way to make this kind of sauce that incorporates most of the flavor with not nearly as much death-dealing cholesterol and in a non-breaking manner. Consider this: with the above recipe, what's providing the structure for the sauce? It's not the cream, and it's not the butter. It's certainly not the salt. Which leaves the cheese. What you're attempting to do is to melt the cheese in the right way so that the protein loses its rigid form and turns into a connected mesh around the liquid and fat. You are, in effect, making a stretchy bungee-cord net, but out of cheese, for all of the rest of the ingredients. What most likely went wrong? With a cheese sauce, chances are that there was too much stirring, and the net collapsed into little patches of protein strands, much as if you stretched the strings of the bungee-cord net too far and several broke at once. The fats in the cream and butter stayed with the cheese, because the cheese also contains fat, so it all just stuck together and the water was the odd man out.* In any case, you're going about this sauce the difficult way. Don't force the cheese to define the structure. Let something else do that work for you, and allow the cream and cheese to provide flavor. Get some sort of starch to do the heavy lifting, and maybe an egg for some emulsification. Try a bechamella.** There's Mario Batali's, which is perfectly good. Add some cheese to it at the end, and you're set. No muss, no fuss. That's an egg-free version, but you could do eggy if you wanted to. That's what I do with my macaroni and cheese. So, in this case you have the starch in the flour that absorbs liquid and, once it reaches a temperature around the boiling point of water, springs out in all directions. Instead of being a taut bungee cord, it's more like a bunch of springs that are still trying to push out of the confined space. Nothing's getting out of that structure, but it's not in such a precarious position as the protein net. Also, because you're not forcing the cheese to provide structure, you don't have to use cream, as the cream is less likely to curdle for reasons which I won't go into now, but involves casein. Some other time. In any case, plenty tasty***, healthier, and less fussy. How great is that? That a heap of great. *- Had the fat separated from the sauce, I would have suspected overheating it. Then the protein strands would have bunched together and squeezed out all the fat. **- Or, if you haven't gone to the Italian re-education centers like I have, a béchamel. ***- You can go overboard on the cheese reduction, though, so don't skimp there. You still want to taste the parmesan.

TGRWT #13: Chili Mole

Round 13 of TGRWT is Chocolate and Caraway. For various reasons, including the fact that I had recently made Chili, I thought that a Caraway Cocoa Chili would be an interesting. caraway_chili_mole1.jpg Every step of the dish was on the precipice of disaster. I thought that there was way too much caraway, so I compensated with a lot of cocoa, and suddenly I had a mole. Hurray! There was far more chili powder than I could process at once in the blender, so after a bit of an optimistic time overfilling it, I had to redistribute the powdered and unaffected bits of chiles, eventually combining them together once everything was particulated. I went to open the beer and it started foaming everywhere so it spilled all over the kitchen. It took me 30 minutes to discover where the bottle cap disappeared to. Still, after all is said and done, the chili turned out great, and even got my wife's approval. She couldn't taste the caraway individually, but thought all the flavors were balanced quite well. I could certainly taste the caraway, as I had worked with it recently, and it definitely adds a new note to the chili. Probably some sesame would have rounded it out nicely. Ingredients:
  • Chili Powder
    • 3.7 oz. Cumin Seeds, whole, toasted
    • 2.2 oz. Caraway Seeds, whole, toasted
    • 1.5 oz. New Mexico Chile, seeded and cut lengthwise into 1-inch wide strips
    • 1.5 oz. Guajillo Chile, seeded and cut lengthwise into 1-inch wide strips
    • 6 oz. Pajillo Chile, seeded and cut lengthwise into 1-inch wide strips
    • 1.5 oz. Chipotle Grande Chile, seeded and cut lengthwise into 1-inch wide strips
    • .5 oz. Garlic Powder
    • .5 oz. Cumin Powder
    • 2.2 oz. Cocoa Powder, Unsweetened
  • Chili
    • 750 ml Beer
    • 30 oz. Tomato Sauce
    • 2 oz. Cocoa Powder, Unsweetened
    • ½ cup Chili Powder
    • ½ cup Masa
    • 2 lb. Lamb, 1" Cubes
    • 1 lb. Beef Chuck, 1" Cubes
    • ¼ cup Vegetable oil
    • 4 medium shallots, sliced
    • Salt, To taste
  • Topping
    • Crème Fraiche
Directions: For the chili powder: In a dry pan, toast the chiles and seeds and let cool. In batches, process the chiles and seeds in a blender until powdered. Combine with the other powders and set aside. For the chili: Toss the meat in half of the vegetable oil to coat. Season liberally with salt. In batches, brown each side in a scorchingly hot dutch oven. Don't catch anything on fire. Set aside. Either in a separate pan or letting the dutch oven cool a bit, sofrito the shallots. Pour the beer into the dutch oven, turn up to high, and deglaze the pan. Add the other ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer, cover, and cook for 1-1.5 hours. Season with salt. Top with the crème fraiche. Notes: This makes faaaar more chili powder than you'll need for the actual chili. Feel free to cut back significantly or, as I do, jar it up to use later or give away. The beer I used was Mandrin au Sapin. Feel free to use whatever beer makes you happiest. This is not a proper mole. I know this because I really don't know how to make a mole, but I know it's a sauce with chocolate, and so I called it a mole. I believe a proper mole has more fat in it.

Tarragon Mac and Cheese

After eating some tasting menu or another (I do so many, I can hardly keep track), I wanted to replicate a taste combination of garlic and tarragon. This is not an uncommon combination by any stretch of the imagination, but it was after this tasting that I was making the Good Eats baked macaroni and cheese that I decided to make this variant. The tarragon adds a lovely undertone of sweetness that takes what would otherwise be a fantastic macaroni and cheese and turns it into something slightly exotic.
mac-cheese.jpg Ingredients:
  • ½ lb. elbow macaroni
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1 tablespoon powdered mustard
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 3 cups milk
  • ½ cup yellow onion, diced
  • ½ teaspoon Tarragon, Fresh or Dried
  • 1 large egg
  • 6 ounces extra sharp cheddar, shredded
  • 10 ounces colby, shredded
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Fresh black pepper
Topping:
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup panko bread crumbs
Directions: Oven to 350°F.*

Cook your pasta. Remember, it's going to bake some more, so leave a little bite there.

Melt the topping butter in a pan and mix in the panko. Set aside.

Take the 3 tablespoons of butter and melt in a large sauce pan. Add the onions and sweat (or sofrito). Whisk in the flour and stir for a few minutes, until there is a nutty smell or until the flour starts turning a shade or so darker of brown. Stir in the milk, herbs, spices, and salt. Simmer for 10 minutes. Taste and add more salt if the béchamel is lackluster in flavor.

Crack the egg into a small bowl and pour in a bit of the béchamel to temper the egg. Mix that, and pour it into the sauce pan. Stir in 2/3 of the cheese. Stir or fold the macaroni into the cheese sauce and pour into a 9 x 12 baking dish, or a deep 8" round casserole, or whatever seems to hold it best. I tend to use the pyrex baking dishes because they have a convenient cover and carrying case for taking to parties.

Cover with the rest of the cheese and cover that with the buttery panko.

Bake for 30 minutes. If, for whatever reason, the panko is not golden brown and delicious, put it back in until it is.

If you are of strong will, let rest for a few minutes before eating. I usually do that. For the second serving. (Serves 6) Notes: Choose your cheddar carefully. While the recipe can be made with whatever cheese you have, the relatively small amount of cheddar is best served by something with a lot of flavor. This means that you will be shredding the cheddar yourself, a task that I usually delegate to the shredding disc of my food processor. The colby is mainly there for mellowing out the cheddar as well as a certain general texture to the taste.

*- Strictly speaking, you don't have to preheat the oven. They tell me that the preheating step is a holdover from an older age where ovens were manual fire-tending things and they would often overshoot the proper temperature before hitting the right one, so you waited until the temperature settled. Modern ovens aren't so fussy, so with a dish like macaroni and cheese (as opposed to, say, a soufflé), you could skip the preheat. Download recipe (in MacGourmet format).

Improving Toast Efficiency by 12%

My twitter friends know this, but I figured you all should know it as well: there is a secret to faster toast. I know, you think, "How long can toast take?" and I say it can take too long, especially when you forget to start cooking them before you put on the eggs, and now the eggs are done and you haven't even buttered the toast. Am I right? I am right. The secret to a lightning-fast toast is to use brioche. That's right, brioche. Because, get this, you don't have to butter it. Brioche is teeming with butter, so you can skip that step and just put on any sweet or savory topping, or just eat it plain. It doesn't matter, because it's already tasty. You are welcome.

TGRWT #13: Caraway and Chocolate/Cocoa

I may have to do this one. While reading what Erik at Fooducation wrote about the Food Timeline, I noticed that he is posting this month's They Go Really Well Together (TGRWT). TGRWT, as you may remember, is a food pairing competition. You take two ingredients that generally are not classically paired but should go together well anyways. This month's competition is Chocolate (or Cocoa) and Caraway. This sounds really good. Caraway is generally used in, well, rye bread. Probably other things as well, but it is most strongly associated with rye, at least for me. I've always loved hiding it in dishes as a kind of secret ingredient. I know exactly what I'm going to do with this, as well. Muhahaha. Details later. Later, I say! Go to the original post to learn how to enter, but the gist is to make something using this combo and post about it, good or bad, by December 31. Erik will round everything up and tell us more about how this pairing works.

Brewing your own root beer

One of my favorite things to do is to make things that people don't normally think to make. If you only know of something as a bottle or a can in a grocery store, then it's entirely likely that you need to try making it at home at least once, to see what it really tastes like. One of the things I'd like to make is some root beer. Not particularly because I've always wanted to make my own root beer, but mostly because a) non-industrialized root beer is really quite tasty, and b) RS Brewing's blog, the Champagne of Blogs has a detailed step-by-step of how to make your own root beer. Woo! The great thing about this setup is that it does not involve a pre-made syrup, but rather has you make your own flavored water and carbonate it. The downside is that it does not involve yeast for the carbonation, so it's not entirely traditional. If you read down into the comments, you can see where some people suggest that yeast would be okay. Of course, it's a short step from this to making any kind of soda/cola/pop/whatever you want. Perhaps some tasty citrus-flavored concoction. Mmmm. via Make.

Spokesfood

We've all been a bit uncomfortable with the idea of food trying to sell itself to us. I mean, there's nothing wrong with tigers, toucans, rabbits, and leprechauns trying to sell cereal; that's just sound financial sense for them. Even cows trying to sell chicken sandwiches, while rude, is not all that weird. No, the difficulties are the crazy foods that think that their only purpose in life is to be eaten. One example is from a recent Partially Clips strip, which I believe captures the dilemma perfectly. Another example in fiction is the Dish of the Day from the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, although that one wasn't trying to sell out others of its kind. And who can forget Charlton Heston proudly proclaiming the contents of Soylent Green? Still, it's not only fictional food characters. There are real food characters. Well, food characters for real food. The greatest example of this is from Hostess, the pie and pastry folk. Even aside from the "I am tasty so you should eat versions of me" factor, let's look at the naming scheme: Happy Ho ho? Twinkie the Kid? It's odd that you don't see them on TV any more. The practice hasn't stopped, either. My friend Tracy reminds me of the Frosted Mini-Wheats that are running on TV now, whose only purpose in life is to provide delicious nutrition for the youngsters in school and such. The most flagrant of the spokesfood, however, is the M&M candy. Because they know they're delicious, and they are stuck in a world that wants to eat them. Sometimes it's understood: and sometimes it's explicit: "That's just disturbing."

Medieval recipe translations

From infodoodads' 12 sites for foody foodness (which, I should mention, featured me), comes Medieval Recipe Translations. I know, I know. "But they didn't even have sous vide back then! What kind of barbaric cooking do you expect us to do?" It's fair. I understand. Still, how can you pass up a recipe for a frothy wine/ale drink called Caudell which, apparently, gets its froth from the egg whites that you cook in it… with, uh, saffron… Okay, maybe that wasn't the best example. The thing was that they knew what was important: fried dough. That's right, Crispels, or dough fried in oil and covered with honey have been around since the 14th century. When you eat fried dough at a Medieval Fair, it's not because they think you're just the sort of unhealthy person to only eat fried food at a fair; no, it's because it's historically accurate. It's also interesting to see how things evolved. For example, you can see from this Milk Qualing recipe that in the 15th century they knew that flour would thicken milk, but the roux had not yet been invented. So, if you're looking for a little food history, or if you want to have some manner of historically accurate medieval feast for your holiday dinner party, then the Medieval Recipe Translation page is obviously for you.

Thanksgiving lesson: fancy marshmallows

Sometimes we want to be a little playful with the Thanksgiving meal. Although during the rest of the season I will lean towards a more savory sweet potato casserole, in this particular instance we thought we'd give a nod towards the traditional method of sweet potatoing. In this instance, that meant putting marshmallows on top of the casserole. Still there didn't seem to be any sense in going completely traditional, so we decided to try the fancier, more-like-homemade marshmallows. They would, in fact, have been homemade, had I not been quite busy that evening, but I picked up some of the Whole Foods brand and just went with those. The thing about your standard marshmallows is that they'll retain their shape in the oven and just brown.
The thing about your fancy marshmallows is that they'll melt and cover the outside of your casserole dish when put in the oven to brown.
marshmallow_casserole.jpg
So, if you plan to do this yourself, please be smarter than we were and leave enough space inside the dish to contain the molten marshmallows. Now you know.* Incidentally, this post marks the successful completion of National Blog Posting Month. So: Yay, me! *- And knowing is half the battle.