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.

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.

How to cut baking prep time

Or:

How to make your baking turn out better.

Or:

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.

Temperature Sensing

On of the concerns I'll have with the Kitchen Computer is how to actually measure the temperature of the various kitchen items in a way that can link into the computer. I've recently run across an article on a sensor for measuring temperature and how to use it. It's not quite what I need, as it only goes to 275°F, and that's not nearly warm enough, but I can scout around the various electronics supply houses and find one that matches my specifications. The best part of the article are the instructions on how to interface to the sensor, which will be good. An advantage of using a homemade sensor rather than trying to work with pre-made sensors is that I have much more freedom of form factor. For example, if I want a permanent sensor (or series of sensors) in the fridge without drilling a hole in it (which my fiancée Melanie would likely frown upon for some reason), then I could connect the sensors to a ribbon cable, which shouldn't affect the working of the door at all. Plus, it's just that much cooler if I can build my own thermometer probes.