Archive | February, 2009

I Am Still Sick and Now I Have To Go To The Doctor

26 Feb

So, my stupid temperature has been over 103F for a good portion of the day.  I really wanted to write a Fun Post for today, but I am sick and sweaty and sad.  As soon as I’m better, I’ll be back at it:)  I just read some of the new comments from today.  I saw some questions and observations about which I’d like to comment, so please don’t think I’m ignoring anyone.  Thanks, all!

Have You Heard About My Temper?

25 Feb
What stands between you and creme brule?  The Challenge of Tempering

What stands between you and creme brule? The Challenge of Tempering

Well, my throat is sore from all the yelling, and my shoulder is sore from all the sword-wielding, but all in all, I’d say yesterday was a Good Day.  For me.  Perhaps not so much, for those two erstwhile k-niggits.  Ah, well–balance in all things….

Today, I want to get off the dusty field of battle and back into a nice, bright kitchen.  So, let’s all just go back inside together, shall we?  Beth, from At the Very Yeast (ha!), challenged me to tackle tempering eggs, as the prospect of adding hot liquid to cold eggs can strike terror into the hearts of even experienced cooks.    That sentence was a bit awkward.  I blame it on all the Physical Exersion yesterday.  Right, then, onward we go!  Beth, I accept your challenge.  You didn’t have to smack me with that glove, but whatever.  I get that you were just hyped up by all the swashbuckling and Whatnot.

There are a couple uses for the word temper in the pastry kitchen.  One is for chocolate, and it describes the process of heating, cooling and reheating chocolate so that all of the different fats in cocoa butter (which all have slightly different melting points) behave themselves and set properly, giving you a nice, shiny end product with a good snap.  This is not the tempering of which I currently speak.  Today, I’m talking eggs, folks.

Eggs are rather finicky creatures.  They are also very necessary in the pastry kitchen for all sorts of reasons–thickening, structure, leavening, emulsifying, etc.  But sometimes, they don’t want to play nicely.  What’s their problem?  They are very temperature sensitive.   Their proteins, which are largely found in the whites (albumin), begin to coagulate, or cook, or denature, at about 140F.  The yolks (vitellus!) start to set up at a somewhat higher temperature, around 150-155F.  Eggs will be all cooked–whites and yolks–by about 160 degrees, F.

Eggs enjoy being cooked slowly.  That’s why they are quite happy in a water bath, so they never have to be above 212F, thankyouverymuch.  If slowly and steadily pushed up Thermal Hill by ox cart, the proteins will set up all smooth and happy.  If, however, you strap them to a rocket car and shoot them up Thermal Hill, the proteins will set up so tightly that they will squeeze out all the liquid and you will end up at the top of Thermal Hill with a rocket car full of rubbery scrambled eggs sitting in a pool of sad, cloudy water.  This is not what we are going for.

Now, I know we all love our flashy rocket cars, but really, no good ever comes of them.  So, when you want to add your finicky eggs (the ones that like to coagulate slowly at low temperatures) to a near-boiling pot of milk, cream and sugar (and maybe some starch) so you can make pudding, ice cream or Something Else Yummy, you have to think Ox Cart.  And tempering, is the ox cart you need.

Did you guys ever have to work out those problems in high school science where they’d say something like, “You have 1500ml of liquid at 100C and 27ml liquid at 20C.  What will the temperature be if you mix them both together?” And then you have to Do Math and figure it out and you really don’t care because you’re hungry.  The point, if I have one, is that if one of those liquids is not eggs, you can most likely send one liquid by rocket car into the other and all will be well.  If one of those liquids happens to be composed mostly of proteins, then Allowances must be made.  That’s right, you have to pull out the ox cart.

I’m sure you’ve all seen the Rules for Tempering.  They tell you to pour a little of the boiling hot stuff into the cold eggs while whisking and then pour everything back into the pot.  That’s pretty much it, in broad strokes, but it can still be a little bit daunting.  I know you have Questions.  How can I whisk madly and pour at the same time?  How do I keep my bowl from spinning around if I can’t hold it still?  What if my glasses steam up?  How much of the hot stuff do I need to add to my eggs before they will cooperate?

A revelation for Question 1:  I used to have the same question.  My wrists aren’t strong enough to hold a huge pan of boiling dairy in one hand and whisk with the other.  And that, friends, is when I had a Light Bulb Moment.  How about using a ladle?!  There you go–dip in one small ladle of hot liquid at a time while whisking madly with the other hand.  No ladle?  Use a 1/4 cup measure or something.

A Neat Trick for Question 2:  Okay, you have four options here.  Option 1 is to whisk faster than the bowl spins.  Not very practical, I admit.  Option 2 is to get a bowl that has some sort of rubberized bottom.  They make those.  They sell them for kind of a lot.  Option 3 is to get some of that puffy stuff for lining china cabinets that comes on rolls next to the contact paper at the store.  Just cut a square of it and set your bowl on it.  Option 4 is actually my favorite (when I’m being an adult.  Otherwise, Option 1 is always a challenge.  And I enjoy a good challenge.)  Take a kitchen towel, get it wet, wring it out and then make a little nest for your bowl to sit in.    Just place the towel in a circle, like an Ouroboros on the counter, and put the bowl inside.  Now it’s all nestled down and won’t go anywhere.  And if you happen to get a little overzealous with your whisking, whatever whisks out of the bowl will land on the towel.  Yay!

Question 3 doesn’t even count anymore.  And if you don’t wear glasses, it was never a concern.  See Answer 1.

There is no Definitive Answer 4:  How much hot liquid you need to add depends on how many eggs you have.  That is not a cop out; I’m not done yet.  You know that you want the eggs to be hot, and you know you have to do it slowly.  Here’s what I do.  If I have say, 4 eggs, that’s maybe 2/3 cup by volume.  I’d probably start by adding an ounce or so of the hot liquid, whisking the whole time.  Then, I’d add a little more and a little more, feeling the side of the bowl.  Once the eggs are decidedly hot, I’d pour them all into the pot.  With the heat turned off, and whisking all the while.  I honestly never have measured how much hot liquid I add to my eggs.  If I had to guess, I’d say probably about twice as much as the amount of egg.  And no, I don’t always add all of the hot liquid to the eggs–once my eggs are hot, in they go.  Not just warm.  Hot.

Why I Don’t Stress Over Tempering
It’s an ox cart.  It’s a means of getting something from point A to point B (or temperature A to temperature B) slowly.  The eggs don’t care what the ox cart looks like.  They just care that they get taken up Thermal Hill at a Sedate pace.  Tempering is a technique, not a scientific formula.

Ways To Take Out Some Insurance When Tempering
1)Add a portion of your sugar to the eggs.  I don’t care if the recipe doesn’t tell you to–it’s okay.  I promise.  Whisk them together very well until nice and creamy.  I’m sure you’ve heard that sugar can start to cook your eggs.  This is chemically a true statement, so make sure that you really whisk the two together and then don’t leave them just sitting there for too long.  I always whisk at least a few times every minute or so while I’m waiting for my dairy to heat up enough.  (I almost wrote “…diary heat up enough!”  Now I am amused).  Of course, you could always wait until your dairy is hot before you whisk the two together, but you guys know about my issues with planning.  Adding the room temperature sugar will raise the temperature of your eggs slightly, which is a good thing.  The sugar will also help to get in the way of all those proteins and keep them from bumping into each other and coagulating too readily.

2)Make sure your eggs aren’t refrigerator cold.  Remember, eggs like a slow ride, so take them out of the fridge at least half an hour before you’re going to use them to give them a chance to warm up a bit.  You can call this a pre-temper, if you want.  But you don’t have to.

3)Strain the finished product through a fine mesh strainer.  Sometimes, even when you’ve done a Great Job, a little bit of the eggy protein will decide to coagulate anyway, just out of sheer meanness.  That’s why I always strain.  Always.  Then, when the strainer comes up empty, I can feel Smarter Than Eggs.  (And if the strainer has little bits of egg in it, I can rinse it out quickly and pretend it never happened).

A Thing I Discovered By Very Happy/Sad Accident
Once your eggs are cooked, they are Cooked.  By that, I mean that, if you are making a product that will need more cooking in order to set up, such as a flan or creme brule, the rule is that you have to cool off your tempered egg/dairy mixture quickly, before the eggs completely coagulate.  If you do not.  You will find yourself Close to Service with a Very Lot of ramekins of creme brule that have been in the oven in a water bath for 2 hours and are still just pools of thick liquid covered with a skin.  I’m telling you, if you’ve ever had a creme brule not set up for you in the oven, it’s probably because your initial mixture was way too thick (the eggs were already completely cooked).  So, for Items to Be Further Cooked, please have an ice bath ready and waiting so you can cool things down immediately.

Items that will not be cooked further, such as pastry cream, ice cream base and creme Anglaise need to be cooked more after the tempering.  It probably won’t take long, but continue to stir your tempered egg/dairy mixture until it either boils for a minute (pastry cream, pudding) or until it coats the back of a spoon.  The magic number on a thermometer is 180F.  And then cool it in an ice bath.  Immediately.  I’ve seen a 12 quart batch of ice cream base turn from perfect to scrambled eggs while just sitting there.  Nasty old carry over cooking.  Sometimes we hates you, we does.

Okay, I think that’s it.  Thanks for hanging until the bitter end.  This was a long one.  And thanks Beth, for smacking me with the Glove of Challenge!

Witness The Spectacle As I Send Two of King Arthur’s Knights Away in Shame

24 Feb
'ware what is between these innocent covers.

'Ware what is between these innocent covers. Don't take that cookie, little girl!

I’m starting to feel like the person who wears all black–including a veil and gloves–to a wedding.  The old lady who ruins the game of Capture the Flag by screaming at the kids to get the heck off of her lawn.  The downer at the party, spouting nothing but gloom and woe over the music.  The Eeyore of the Hundred Hinternet Wood.  And what has brought on this feeling of doom and gloom and woe and crankiness?  Thank you for asking.  I wasn’t sure if you would.  Sigh…………….. Oh, right.  It’s The Baker’s Catalog from King Arthur Flour.  The early spring 2009 edition, to be exact.  It showed up in our mailbox on Saturday, and I really was excited.  “Oh, good!”  I said to The Beloved. “Something to look at before we go to bed!”  Are we party people, or what?

Anyway, he’s a good sport, and I was under the weather anyway, so we opened up our little catalog on Saturday night, all pleased with ourselves and looking forward to seeing some Cool Stuff.  About 20 minutes later, after many “Oh, please”s and “Seriously?  Are they kidding me?”s, I threw the catalog across the room (well, just down on the floor, really) and stated in my Huffy Voice, “Oh, I am going to write about this in my blog!”  I don’t know about the rest of you guys, but I feel a little bit silly saying things like that.  Kind of like the guy who brings out the squirt gun to fight off a grizzly bear.  Or the herald who has nothing but one of those green and orange plastic birthday horns to blow.  But, still, the pixel is mightier than the sword, and as I don’t want to turn Excalibur onto its very owner, I guess I must be satisfied with wielding my keyboard with Outrage and Defiance.

But not yet.  Seriously, friends, I used to look forward to catalogs like this one to arrive.  The Beloved and I would pour over them, and even sometimes we’d turn down a page corner on the off chance that we might actually purchase something.  And the cover of this particular catalog is so cute and springy and colorful–I mean, there’s a little pink bunny sugar cookie on the front, for goodness sake!  How bad could it be between the pages?  Brace yourselves; I’m here to tell you.

But not yet.  First, let me make it clear that I use some King Arthur products religiously.  I use their whole wheat flour, their white whole wheat flour and their bread flour.  I am, as it were, a fan of King Arthur and most of his Bread Baking Knights.  But, they’ve recently added a couple of new knights to their Round Table of whom I am not a fan:  Sir Expensive Trinket and Sir Peculiar Ingredient.  I am not sure what is up with them, but I don’t trust them.  They have shifty eyes and greasy hair (although it is tightly pulled back, but I can tell anyway).  They have fakey smiles and dollar signs in their beady eyes.  They make me sad.  They make me nervous.  They make me clutch my wee thin purse to my breast and breathe shallowly through nostrils flared with outrage.

And now, I will air my List of Grievances with these two K-niggits (scoundrels).   First, there is Sir Expensive Trinket.  This is what he wants us to purchase–to spend our hard-earned pennies on:  A ruffled apron for $40.  A stoneware oval baker for $100.  I don’t care if it’s from Poland!  A cookie shovel for $20.  A double boiler for $50.  An herb keeper for $30.  Gee, how about putting them in a small vase?  How about a set of square biscuit cutters for$11?  Oh, what–that last doesn’t sound like much to you?  How about using your bench knife to cut whatever sized square biscuits that you want.  Take that, Sir Expensive Trinket!  I bite my thumb at you, sir!  Here’s one of the worst of your offenses, sir:  a mini scone pan that makes sixteen wee triangular scones for $39.  All you have to do is portion the dough into each individual triangle shape in the pan.  Did I already ask you if you own a bench knife?  But wait.  There’s more:  For a mere $14 apiece, how about individual pie slice pans.  Hey, it’ll only cost you $84 to bake a whole pie!  Arthur, give me that blasted sword.  Take that, Sir ET!  And that!  And this!  Now, go forth from here in shame. Consider yourself banished.  Go, and never darken my mailbox again.

As Sir Expensive Trinket slinks off with his shield slashed with the Mark of Shame (you didn’t really think I would kill him, did you?!), let us turn our attention to Sir Peculiar Ingredient, who suddenly thinks he hears his mother calling.  Front and center, Sir PI.  I submit unto you the following:  Mixes of All Types–scone mix, bread mix, cake mix, pizza crust mix, sticky bun sticky mix, mix, mix, Mix!  It’s not that any of them cost very much, necessarily, it’s just that I expect more of you and your knights, Arthur.  Sorry, King Arthur.  I mean, seriously!  Don’t you want people to know how to mix some flour, sugar, salt, and leavening together along with some spices?  Don’t you want to teach them how to add some wet ingredients?  Oh, wait, don’t answer that.  I am ashamed.  Moving on, Exclusive King Arthur Fruit Curd for $9.00.  90 cents and ounce?!  And you all know what I think about jarred curd.  (And no, I haven’t tried yours.  That’s not the point.)  Instant cream puff and filling mix.  I don’t even know what to say to that.  Pate a choux and pastry cream are two such basic building blocks that I cannot believe you don’t want people to know how easy they are to make!  A pox upon you, Sir PI.  And the k.a.f. kids (TM) line?  You say that you believe that you’re “never too young to start baking.”  Well, I say, “you’re never too young to start learning all about ingredients and mixing methods.”  That’s it!  Take that, Sir Peculiar Ingredient!  Now go!  Slink off into the night after your scurvy friend.

Now, King Arthur, I still believe in you and the rest of your Knights.  Over there, the steadfast and true Sir Milled Grain.  Thank you for your organic 12-grain flour.  Thank you, too, for your rice and spelt flours, for your cake flour and milled flax.  And there stands Sir Measuresalot (cousin, I believe, to Sir Lancelot).  Thank you for your wonderful half gallon, quart and pint size liquid measures.  Thank you for your dough bins.  Thank you for being humble and dependable.  And to you, Sir Special Flavorings, thank you for your rose water, thank you for powdered espresso, for your wide array of Nielsen-Massey extracts, for your peppermint oil and your lime oil.  Thank you, King Arthur, and to all of your knights upon whom we’ve depended for our baking needs, under one name or another, since 1790.  But, shame on you for trying to divest us of our hard-earned money by parading those Charlatan K-niggits with their shiny, sparkly products in front of us.

Leave me now, good sirs, that my breathing and coloring should return to normal.  After all, I have recently been ill.  And no, none of those are affiliate links.  The very idea!

Product Review: Espresso Sea Salt Caramel Truffles

23 Feb
Espresso Sea Salt Caramel Truffles.  'Nuff sed.

Espresso Sea Salt Caramel Truffles. 'Nuff sed.

I do so love Twitter.  I also love Squidoo.  I’ve met a lot of amazing people who do both, and Chef Achim Thiemermann is one of my favorites.   Chef Keem is an exuberant positive force of nature.  He is also a great chef.  I’ve been privileged to try his line of flavored Agave nectars, Agasweet.  The lavender is my favorite–a couple of Tablespoons in w/the mirepoix for coq au vin or short ribs is just the ticket for some serious Provencal notes.

So, Chef Keem tweeted that he had come up with a new candy.  Of course, I raised my hand and said, “Please, sir, may I try them?”  He sent me two of his prototypes.  My thought was that the flavors were all there, but that the proportions were a little off.  He must have felt the same, because he recently reworked them.  The result:  the perfect bite-sized package of barely-flowing caramel enrobed in a dark coating chocolate, topped by a wee dab of white chocolate and a sprinkle of espresso sea salt.

Friends, this candy rocks.  You know what a big fan I am of salt, and salt and caramel?  Well, they are the Jenny and Forrest of flavor pairings!   I think what the chef has created is nearly perfect in its flavor and texture combination.  There’s the slight bitterness/tingle of the espresso sea salt, the smooth bittersweet of the chocolate and the deep, fully developed buttery caramel.  Texturally, there’s the crystalline salt, the clean bite of the chocolate and the slow ooze of the caramel.  And I mean “ooze” in the best way possible.  If you’ve never had salt on your chocolates or caramels, consider Parmesan Reggiano or other aged cheeses.  You know that little crystalline bite you find in the otherwise hard/creamy cheese?  Do you recall how pleasureable that sensation is?  Those crystals are composed of an amino acid.  But salt, in all of its many forms, is readily available for Sprinkling on Candy.

Now, on to the ingredient list.  The centerpiece of the candy is Chef Keem’s double-whammy caramel.  I don’t know if that’s what he calls it, but I call it that because he uses dulce de leche–or caramelized sweetened condensed milk–to make his caramel.  Since he is using a milk product that has already been caramelized, the flavors are more complex than just a sucrose-based caramel.  With the proteins in the dairy, the flavor enjoys depth from Maillard reactions as well as caramelization.  So, there you have it–double whammy caramel.

Check out the slow ooze of the caramel.  It's really the perfect texture.

Check out the slow ooze of the caramel. It's really the perfect texture.

The chocolate is there to hold the caramel, and that’s it.  That is how it should be, actually.  This candy isn’t about the chocolate.  Rather, it’s about how the caramel blends with the salt.  I must admit that, if this candy does have a weakness, it is in the chocolate.  The chef uses a high-quality coating chocolate by Guittard, and, while it is tasty, it just doesn’t have the same flavor profile or mouth feel that a couverture would have.  I know he would love to have the means to keep large quanitities of couverture in temper for coating, but that equipment is expensive, so I think that for now, Chef Keem has made a concession to price and to today’s economy in the right place.  Had he skimped on the caramel or left out the salt, the candy wouldn’t work.  And at $10 for 6 truffles (including shipping–and with discounts for purchasing 2 or 3 boxes) this is a candy we can all afford every once in awhile when we want to indulge or celebrate.  Or just because.

The Beloved, too, is a fan.  As a matter of fact, after we had photographed (yes, aren’t you proud of me?!), sliced open, tasted, discussed the flavor profile and then just plain stuffed-the-rest-in-our-faces, he said unto me, “Go thee out into the Hinternet, to the place where the cyber-Keem dwells and purchaseth boxes three, that we may spread the word about this candy to all with whom we fellowship.”  Well, maybe he didn’t say it quite that way, but that is the gist of it.  So, I hied myself to Chef Keem’s Espresso Sea Salt Caramel Truffle lens and made our purchase.  We expect them today, and we really do promise to share some of them with our friends.  But not all of them.  At the end of the day, we are a little grabby.

Sunday Suppers: Comforting Noodles

22 Feb
The most comforting pasta dish on the face of the planet.  For me, at least.

The most comforting pasta dish on the face of the planet. For me, at least.

Friends, I am sick, sick, sick today.  Sigh.  The Beloved and I sat down last evening to watch WALL-E and by the end of it, I was all achy and chill-some and sad.  I checked my temperature, and, indeed, I was running a fever.  Sigh again.  I don’t think that WALL-E made me sick–I loved it and cried like a baby.  His eyes!  I just couldn’t take it!  If you haven’t seen it, do so.  It is wonderful.

And then earlier, during dinner yesterday, when we were trying to eat our pizza, the automated Sears delivery service called and said that they would be delivering our new dryer this morning between 8:30am-10:30am.  I told the recording that it was too early, so I was transferred to a gentleman who was obviously from Elsewhere.  I told him I needed to reschedule our delivery, and he asked me for the address.  I told him, and then he said he needed to know the three words between the street name and the city.  The three words between the street name and the city?! What does that even mean?!  So, I said that I had no idea what he was talking about, and he wanted to talk to the homeowner who is currently on vacation.  Anyway, we went back and forth for about 5 minutes, with me trying to guess what it was that I was supposed to say–what magical combination of words would get him to shut up and send me my dryer, and with him calling me ma’am a lot.  Have you ever tried to play charades over the phone?  Not easy, let me tell you.

So, finally, I asked if he wanted the name of the neighborhood, and he said yes.  Well, we live on one street off of a main street.  I didn’t even know it was part of a neighborhood.  So I said, in my Unpleasant Voice, that my husband (that would be The Beloved) would drive up and see if he could see a sign or something.  He said he couldn’t wait that long, and I told him that yes, he could too wait that long.  Well, to make a long story short, The Beloved returned and spake two words which I then repeated to Our Esteemed Customer Service Representative.  These two words were magic–he got all excited and exclaimed, “Yes!  That is it exactly!  That is what I’ve been waiting to hear!”  The dryer will be here tomorrow.

Now I’m wondering if the Unpleasantness on the phone has made me sick.  Who knows, but I’m grumpy and sad, and when I am sick, I Require Noodles.  There is very little nutritive value in this dish, I am sorry to relate.  There is, however, a whole lot of comfort.

Comforting Noodles

  • 1 small bundle of long, thin pasta–spaghetti, linguine, whatever
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • a few shakes of red pepper flake
  • about 1 tsp Italian seasoning, crushed in the palm of your hand
  • a few shakes of granulated garlic
  • a lot of lemon pepper
  • a lot of Parmesan cheese

Here’s what I do to it:

  1. Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water until al dente
  2. Drain, reserving about 2 TBSP pasta cooking water
  3. Return the pasta to the pot.  Over high heat, add in everything but the Parmesan cheese and stir it around madly until the seasonings are well distributed and the pasta is nearly dry.
  4. Remove from heat.  Put a ton of Parmesan on the noodles and stir it around until no noodle is naked.  All must be coated with cheese.
  5. Sit in your bathrobe and eat it out of the pot.

My favorite long pasta shape is bucatini.  It is long, skinny tubes of pasta.  They are hearty and Fun to Eat.  Look, I took a picture of one for you!

See the wee hole in the center?!

See the wee hole in the center?!

Well, I hope that I will feel much better tomorrow.  Now, I must go, because I have been directed to take a lot of vitamins and minerals.  That is the price I have to pay for eating comforting noodles.

Product Review: Tanka Bars–Serious Native American Snacks

20 Feb
The Tanka Bar  70 calories and 7 grams of protein.  Good job, Native American Natural Foods!

The Tanka Bar 70 calories and 7 grams of protein. Good job, Native American Natural Foods!

Okay, as many of you know, I’m on Twitter (I’d love it if you’d follow me–there’s a wee bird icon in my sidebar).  There is no shortage of Cool People on Twitter, and many of them are there, at least in part, to help raise awareness about a new product.  And that’s how I met @TankaBar We began to chat, as folks are wont to do on Twitter, and I found out that they were developing a snack/energy bar based on Native American pemmican and wasna.  They were calling their product “Tanka Bar” and launching it as the first in a line of brands from their parent company, Native American Natural Foods.  When they asked if anyone was interested in participating in a taste test, I tweeted something along the lines of “heck, yeah–send me some snacks!”

One of the hazards of reviewing products is being seen as somewhat less-than-unbaised in the review.  After all, they sent the snacks, so maybe I need to be Extra Special Nice about the review, right?  I can understand that, and I wanted the Tanka Bar folks to know that I would be very honest in my review.  I sent them a link to my review of some blood orange juice that I did awhile back, so they would know what my style is and that I would talk about the good and the not-s0-good as honestly and fairly as possible.  I have an obligation to my readers to be honest and truthful (I realize that’s redundant–that’s how much I mean it), and I wanted the Tanka Bar folks to know that I wasn’t going to break trust with my readers over some free snacks (and some temporary tattoos).  They were very gracious and said that they wanted my honest feedback, and they also emailed me a questionnaire to fill out and send back to them after my tasting.  And then, the Tanka Bars arrived in the mail.

I received samples of three Tanka Bar products, all of which are based on the daring duo of buffalo and cranberry:  their Tanka Bar, Tanka Bites Hot & Spicy and Tanka Wild Sticks.  All three are similar in flavor, although I would certainly be able to tell the three apart in a blind tasting.  The Tanka Wild Sticks contain wild rice as well as buffalo and cranberry, so their flavor has a slight “cereal” edge.

I shared my snacks with a friend who happened to be in town and The Beloved.  All three of us tried all three snacks, and all of us liked them Very Much.  Each of us had a favorite.  I really liked the Tanka Bites Hot & Spicy, The Beloved’s favorite was the Tanka Wild Stick, and Celeste’s choice was the original Tanka Bar.  So, now, I guess I’d better describe the flavor.

The cool Tanka Bar logo

The cool Tanka Bar logo

For all three products, think savory beef jerky (but healthier, because it’s buffalo) combined with just the right amount of moist, tart dried cranberries.  While straight up jerky can be very dry and splintery, the cranberry in the Tanka Bar keeps the texture nice and moist, so all the products are a little chewy but not tough.  There is no having to wrench your head around while pulling away with your hand in order to tear off a piece of beef bark.  These have an easy bite but a nice chew.  The Hot&Spicy Tanka Bites have some jalapeno and habanero blended into the mix.  But don’t let that scare you.  While they do deliver a very slow chile burn, they are by no means too hot to handle.  I will say that, while the flavor of these little guys was my favorite, the texture was a bit uneven–I guess because of the peppers, which can feel a little slippery in the mouth.

You guys know how terrible I am at remembering to take pictures, and I apologize for my inadequacies, but I will now attempt to paint a picture with words.  While jerky usually comes in thin, scary shards, the Tanka Bar and the Tanka Bites are about 1/4″-1/3″ thick.  The Tanka Bar is roughly the size of a small granola bar, and the bites come in 3/4″ squares.  The Tanka Wild Sticks look very similar to other thin meat stick products.  Since we’re talking meat products here, don’t expect a brightly colored bar.  Tanka Bars are dark, a little lumpy and none-too-attractive, but they have a great smoky/spicy/sweet aroma.  Plus, they really taste quite good.

We are not a huge jerky-buying family.  I think the last time that I bought jerky was a year or so ago, and I’m not sure that I would necessarily buy these if I hadn’t tried them beforehand.  My initial thought on the buffalo/cranberry pairing was “Huh.  Interesting.” not “Let me at ’em.”  The flavors really do work together nicely–the sweet-tart of the cranberry is a wonderful foil to the spicy-smoky of the buffalo.

They sent some keen temporary tattoos, too.

They sent some keen temporary tattoos, too.

On a completely non taste-related note, I love that Native American Natural Foods is poised to break out and away from the reservation and out into mainstream America.  On a personal level, I wish them the best, and as a consumer, I have to say that, if I see a Tanka Bar staring at me from the shelf at my grocery store, I would probably buy one or two.  Or some Tanka Bites.

And some Wild Sticks for The Beloved.

The Notebook

19 Feb
Here she is:  New Blue (Green)

Here she is: New Blue (Green)

Sorry, no bittersweet love story here.  If that’s what you were hoping for, just move along.

Before I started working in a professional kitchen, I never had a recipe notebook.  I had a gajillion cookbooks and an accordion folder of random recipes, but no notebook.  As soon as I got to the first restaurant, the Executive Pastry Chef told me to get one and copy down all the recipes we used.  He also told me that I could go through his huge recipe binder and copy down anything that looked good.  So, I went out and bought one of those 5-section medium-sized notebooks at Walgreen’s, and I began copying.

This sounds like a big fat task, but what I was copying was just lists of ingredients with a Very Truncated set of directions.  The paragraphs-long Procedure Section was apparently supposed to be in my head.  You know the ones:  “Preheat oven.  Prepare pan.  Beat on medium speed for 1.7 minutes.  Scrape the bowl with exactly 8 scrapes.  ”  You see, in restaurant kitchens, they just kind of assume that you know how to prepare your pans.  They figure you know how to do The Creaming Method.  The chef will just come over to you during your second week with a sixth pan of horseradish broth and say “Make some sorbet out of this for a garnish on a sashimi dish,” and then just walk away.  As you sit, flummoxed, holding the pan and trying to psych yourself up to be The Iron Pastry Chef.

Know that before I walked into these restaurant kitchens, I needed a huge procedure section, too.  In the restaurant world, the procedure section is the kiddy pool.  Throw away the procedure section, and you’re in the diving well trying to stay afloat.  If I can do it, so can you.  In a professional kitchen, it’s all about multi-tasking and streamlining.  There is a lot to do and only a set amount of time in which to do it.  So, you learn pretty quickly to commit a few of the “whats” to memory (the formula for pizza dough that I made every day) and almost all of the “hows” to memory.

Which brings me back to my notebook.  It took me awhile to get back here, but that’s just how I am.  At any rate, when I left one restaurant to help open another, my notebook came with me, and I added to it–adding new recipes (read:  ingredient lists and skeletal procedures) as we came up with new desserts and dishes.   One morning, I came in and started doing my thing.  I had memorized most of my everyday tasks–spiced caramel corn, bread pretzels, ice cream base, etc.  But then, when it was time to get started on a newer dish, I couldn’t find My Notebook! I searched everywhere.  Other people searched everywhere, but alas.  It was gone.  Our intrepid dishwasher offered to go look in the dumpster.  After several tense minutes, he found it–it had apparently plummeted into the garbage can late the night before (I worked the early shift) and was then Tied Up and Thrown Away.  There it sat, in the dark, smelly dumpster, in the belly of the bag, like Jonah in the Whale.  It had quail egg goo on it.  It had other Unspeakable Things on it.  It smelled decidedly odd.  But it also contained all my recipes!

I went and tossed it into the trunk of my car.  I stopped on the way home and bought a full-sized Replacement Notebook–again, at the Walgreen’s–and transcribed all the recipes from the smelly, eggy book to the nice new book.  Then, I quietly buried Old Blue out back, by the dim light of the half moon…

When I left that restaurant and subsequently came to North Carolina, New Blue (who is actually green) accompanied me.  Let me share a couple of the “recipes.”

Honeyed Mascarpone

  • cream                        4 oz.
  • mascarpone           1.5 oz.
  • honey                        1 TBSP
  • salt                           tt (to taste)

Port Balsamic Sauce

  • port                            1 bottle
  • balsamic                     8 oz.
  • sugar                          28 oz.
  • cinnamon sticks         4 ea.
  • star anise                   2-3
  • salt                             tt

Raspberry Jam

  • IQF  raspberries         5#
  • sugar                           4.5#
  • lemon juice                  tt
  • salt                                tt

“BTAB (bring to a boil).  Simmer until jammy.”

Pretty scientific stuff, huh?  What I want you to come away with is the idea that the procedure section should live in your head.  You can internalize it by recognizing the universality of many techniques.  I had a crash course, but just start.  This might be one of the beginning steps to automaticity.  Write down your ingredients and internalize the procedure.   As you become more comfortable with this, vary your ingredient lists, writing them down as variations, if you want.  As an Exercise, tell me in the comment section what you would do to make the Mascarpone Cream or the Port Balsamic Sauce.  I bet you’ll be right.  I also bet that, even if you don’t do it exactly the way I would, your cream or sauce will still turn out just fine.

And, yes, once again, I am writing from an Undisclosed Location.

Oh, Nuts!

18 Feb
Let's hear it for Vegan Nuts!

Let's hear it for Vegan Nuts!

In certain situations, I am a huge fan of the nut.  I like them dry roasted.  I like them toasted and salted.  I like to eat them straight up.  I like them as an accent in Indian and Chinese cuisine.  I am not, however, a big fan of the nut-as-ingredient-in-sweet-foods.  While I enjoy them ground up in doughs and batters, I do not want nuts in my fudge.  I do not like them hiding out in brownies, ready to get in the way of dark, gooey bliss with a startling crunch.  When someone asks me what my favorite sort of pie is, it would never occur to me to say pecan pie.

When someone asks me to come up with a Fantastic Dessert, my mind does not immediately turn to nuts.  Except one time.  A person on a Vegan diet called the restaurant to say they were coming in, and could we please fix them a special, Vegan meal.  Now, this was a restaurant where meat was king–beef, pork, lamb, chicken, duck, foie–you name the living protein, and it would find its way into our kitchen.  (Sorry, Chris)  Heck, we even served beef cheeks and sweet breads and all sorts of Other Parts.  So, asking us to provide a Vegan menu for one was a little odd, to say the least.  But, since we were kind and liked a challenge (and they gave us a few days’ notice), we said sure.

Dessert fell to me.  We had Riesling granita in the freezer, so that was an obvious choice, but what to go with it?  Something that I could make and then snack on later was, again, an obvious choice.  So, Vegan Spiced Nuts were born.  I did talk to the Vegan in Question to ask her if she was okay with a dish made with refined sugar.  (Did you know that lots of refined white sugar is filtered through charred animal bone as part of the refining process?)  She said that she was okay with the sugar, and on I went.  (Had she not been okay with that, I would’ve figured out something).

Here’s what I did:

  1. I put some sugar, a heavy pinch of salt, some cinnamon and a pinch or two of cayenne pepper in a pan.
  2. I added just a wee bit of water.
  3. I threw in lots of pecan halves.
  4. I heated and stirred over medium-ish heat until the sugar was all melted and boiling and then starting to caramelize.
  5. I added another small handful of sugar and stirred and stirred.  This second addition of sugar acted as “seed crystals” to encourage the whole batch to crystallize.
  6. I stirred and stirred, scraping crystals off the sides of the pan and back into the mix until the nuts went from brown and shiny to light brown and sandy.
  7. As soon as all of the nuts were sandy and matte, I dumped them onto a Silpat and spread them out to cool.
  8. The end.

I want you to know that I had never made these little guys before.  I didn’t have a recipe–I had just seen a chef do it when I was in culinary school.  He didn’t have a recipe either.  (As an aside, the chef made them for us to dip into tempered chocolate.  By the time we had our chocolate tempered, Evil Tim had eaten all of the nuts.  Nice job, Evil Tim.  Remember this as a Cautionary Tale).  So, like the Little Engine That Could, I just said, “I think I can.”  Except I am not as cutesy as the LETC, so what I really said was, “How hard could this possibly be?”  The answer:  not so much is it hard at all.  Things I learned:

  • I would walk through fire (or at least on very hot pavement) to get to these nuts.
  • Make twice as many as you need, because you (Evil Tim) will not be able to stop snacking on them.
  • Hide them from everyone (Evil Tim).  Or they will be gone.
  • If you work in a kitchen, threaten to hurt anyone (Evil Tim) who tries to steal some.
  • As much as folks warn you about washing sugar crystals off the sides of your pan and not banging the pot and not stirring and holding your breath or your sugar will crystallize, when you actually want it to happen, sometimes it will make you work really hard for it.  Sugar is perverse that way.
  • This technique works for everything from peanuts to pecans to pistachios. It even works for that don’t begin with the letter P.

I am pleased to say that our Intrepid Vegan Diner was very pleased with her whole meal, including dessert.  And a “new” garnish was born.  Before I tried this little experiment, we were candying nuts in other ways, but this became our new standard “candied nut.”  And we always called them Vegan Nuts, as in “Gotta make some more Vegan Nuts; we’re running low.”

If you’re looking to replicate those little cones of sugary, cinnamony nuts that you can get at the mall, this one is for you.  This is way cheaper, too.  Nuts are kind of expensive, but chances are you already own sugar and salt, so you might as well just go for it.   Just remember: once you try them, you might need a 12 Step Program to keep your cravings Under Control.

Sour Mix, Anyone?

17 Feb
Thank you, God, for sweet & sour mix.

Thank you, God, for sweet & sour mix.

Welcome to another edition of “Let’s Make Fun of the Ingredient List.”  Today’s target?  Sour mix.  Sour mix is a mixture of simple syrup (that we already know not to purchase) and citrus juice.  You blend them together until you get the perfect balance of sweet and sour.   Sour mix’s whole name is Sweet and Sour Mix.  See how easy this is.  The name of the mix pretty much tells you how it should taste.  It should taste sweet.  And sour.  Rocket science, people–I’m telling you.

I got into a friendly argument with a friend who used to be a Bartender Extraordinaire.  He insisted that there should be some egg white in sour mix–for body and foaminess.  I don’t think he used the word foaminess, but you get the idea.  So, I guess I could see whisking in some powdered egg white, but that’s as far as I would go.   Some commercial mixes have gone Much Farther.

Let us train our little eyes on the back of the Mr&Mrs T Classics:  Sweet & Sour Mix bottle and see how far they will go to achieve their perfect balance of sweet and sour.

  • Water–okay
  • High fructose corn syrup–Um….no
  • Citric Acid–for tartness.  I think the citric acid is playing the part of the citrus juice.  Thank you, citric acid.
  • Sodium Citrate–Also standing in for “real fruit.”
  • Sodium Benzoate–I just came back from reading about this stuff.  It’s a preservative, but it’s also put in silver polish.  I guess our insides will be bright and shiny after drinking this.  Thanks, Mr. & Mrs. T.
  • Gum Acacia–This controls viscosity and can get foamy.  So, gum acacia plays the role of egg white.  Don’t worry.  It’s perfectly edible, even though it’s used in ink.  Wikipedia says so.
  • Polysorbate 60–This is an emulsifier.  Not sure what it’s holding together.  But, there it is.
  • Natural Flavors–Hooray!  Maybe this is where the, you know, actual fruit comes in?
  • Sodium Metabisulfate–A preservative.  If you have sulfite issues, this is one, so look out.
  • Ester Gum–Hello, Ester.  Thanks for joining the party.  Ester is another emulsifier.  She’s multi-talented.  She is also in eye liner.  Way to go, Ester Gum.
  • Calcium Disodium EDTA–Wow!  I thought Ester was a multi-tasker.  She doesn’t have anything on Cal, here.  Not only does he preserve our sweet & sour mix, but he’s also used in industrial cleaning, photography, the pulp and paper industry and agrochemicals.  Thanks Cal, for taking time out of your busy schedule to join our little party.
  • Yellow 5–I have nothing to say.
  • Yellow 6–What color would this stuff be without Thing 1 and Thing 2, I wonder?

Gee, thanks, Mr. and Mrs. T.  I have no words to express my gratitude to you for making this fine, fine product.  I am welling up.

Let’s cut to the chase, shall we.  Let’s just admit that this stuff is horrible, and let’s just make our own.  Here’s how I make mine:

All Natural, Made With Real Citrus Sweet & Sour Mix

  • 4 oz. lemon juice
  • 12 oz. lime juice
  • 10.5 oz. sugar
  • 10.5 oz. water

Note the ratio of sugar to water–>  1:1.  Simple syrup!  So, here’s what you do.  Either start with 21 oz. simple syrup, or make your own.  Cool (if you had to make some), and whisk in citrus juices.  The End.

Other Things You Can Do:

  1. Use a different proportion of lemon to lime juice.  Try 8 oz. of each.
  2. Replace some with an equal amount of orange juice.
  3. Experiment with whisking some powdered egg white into the simple syrup.  I’ve never done this, so I can’t speak to amounts, but start with a tablespoon or so and see what happens.

What To Do With Your Sour Mix:

  1. Make a margarita
  2. Make a whiskey sour
  3. Make an amaretto sour
  4. Use the egg test and make some sorbet
  5. Use the egg test and make it into granita
  6. Add sparkling water to make homemade lemon-lime soda (you might need more simple syrup)

So, there you have it.  Shame on you, Mr. & Mrs. T.  I need a drink…

The Joy of the Indian Dessert

16 Feb
Thank you, India, for Gulab Jamun.

Thank you, India, for Gulab Jamun.

Apparently it was Valentine’s Day on Saturday.  I was wondering what was up with the overall pinkish cast of the Hinternet over the past several days, and now I know.  Huh!  Don’t get me wrong, I am quite the romantic, and I love it when The Beloved and I can spend a romantic evening together eating good food, drinking good wine and gazing dreamily into each others’ eyes.  I’ve been cooking a Very Lot recently, though, and I didn’t feel like doing More Of That.  Also, we’re not huge fans of crowds of couples, all gazing dreamily into each others’ eyes in close proximity to us, so we went out on Friday, instead.  Delightful.

On Saturday, the apparent Actual Valentine’s Day, we went to dinner with The Beloved’s long lost cousin.  Like 25 years long lost!  Anyway, we took him to our favorite Indian place here in town (it might now be our favorite in the world) and were met at the door by the very nice manager who told us that they were all booked up.  Hooray for them in this economy!  So, I squelched my sad face and said something along the lines of how awesome for them, etc, etc, etc.  He then said to wait a minute while he went and checked.  And THEN, the chef came over and said, “You, sit here,” and pointed us to the cool round booth at the front of the restaurant.  “Are you sure?” we asked, and we were assured that, yes, it was fine and to please sit down.  So we did.  We were right by the door, and we watched several folks without reservations get turned away, so we felt sort of bad-yet-smug as we enjoyed their Most Excellent Valentine’s Buffet.  Tons of food–soup, naan, rice, lentils, biryani, stews, samosas, kabab–and dessert, which I’ll get to in a minute, plus belly dancing, all for $20/head!  How does one resist?  One does not.

Let me speak to you of the desserts–yes, with an “s” on the end–we enjoyed.  First up, mango mousse.  This was a soft-frozen, creamy, yogurt-y, intensely mango-y mousse.  Rather than being light and airy like a French mousse, this was dense and smooth and creamy.  And orange.  It was incredibly good–almost like a frozen mango lassi.  Which it might have been now that I think about it.  Next up were Gulab Jamun: little fried balls of cinnamon sponge cake soaked in a honey and rose water syrup.  Once you bite into one, the honey-rose syrup explodes in your mouth.  Not-too-sweet and just-floral-enough, they are light and wonderful and necessary.

I have to start a whole new paragraph for this one.  This was a dessert I have never had before.  It isn’t on their usual menu, but now I might demand that it be.  Friends, I am talking about vermicelli pudding (seviya kheer), and let me tell you, it was heaven.  Sheer heaven.  The flavor was of sweetened cream of wheat, but the texture was smooth and a little slippery.  The vermicelli had been cooked to complete tenderness, and I doubt that this dish would have the same effect if it had only been al dente.  This was the flavor of childhood and the texture of toddlerhood.  And it smelled like babies (I mean that in a Very Good Way).  This might be my new favorite comfort food.  Long Lost Cousin, who was a little leery of the Indian food to begin with, inhaled this pudding with delighted abandon.  And, I might have moaned once or twice.  Maybe.  And it wasn’t even chocolate.

So, I will now share with you a recipe for seviyan kheer.  Before I do, remember that recipes are dangerous things.  The most important part of the recipe is the procedure, and the procedure for this is kind of a cross between a pilaf and a risotto.  Pay attention to the rules, and then you can alter the ingredients to suit your taste.  Except you should probably not leave out the vermicelli since it’s kind of the whole point of the dish.

Valentine’s Day Seviya Kheer
Adapted from Flavors of India by Madhur Jaffrey

  • 1 TBSP ghee (or 1 TBSP melted butter)
  • 3 oz. fine vermicelli (angel hair pasta) broken into 3″ pieces
  • 4.5-5 cups whole milk
  • 1 oz. toasted, slivered almonds (personally, I’m leaving these out)
  • heavy pinch of salt
  • 5 oz. sugar
  • 1/4-1/2 tsp ground cardamom (to taste)
  • a small handful of golden raisins
  • 2-3 drops kewra water or rose water

Heat the ghee in a hot pan until hot.  Add the vermicelli pieces and stir around and cook until golden brown.  (This is how you’d start a pilaf–toast the grains in some butter).  Set the vermicelli aside on paper towels to absorb any excess ghee.

In a heavy-bottomed sauce pan, bring the milk, sugar and salt to a boil.  Turn the heat to low, and add the vermicelli.

Whisk in the cardamom and stir in the raisins.

Simmer for 30 minutes, stirring often, until it has thickened up.  (This is the risotto part, except for you add the milk all at once.  With risotto, you add the liquid a little at a time).  If you think it’s too thick, add a little more milk.

Remove from the heat and stir in the kewar or rose water.  Serve warm.  In a big bowl.  With a big spoon.  Do not share it with anyone.

Now, go forth and make some of this pudding immediately.  You will not be sorry.  You’re welcome.

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