Archive | August, 2010

Look To The Cookie! Chocolate Loves Vanilla: An Essay in Two Parts

31 Aug

Let me say right now, if you don’t care about the mystical relationship between chocolate and vanilla, just run along.  I am well aware that I can get a wee bit obsessive about some topics, so if you’re not up for this, I completely understand.  For those of you who are still here, let’s carry on, shall we?

Part The First, In Which I Wax On About the Not-So-Reciprocal Relationship of The Two
I began Mulling the other day.  Here’s how it started.  I made a lovely Van Halen pound cake for friend Michael’s birthday.  It was vanilla/sour cream with chocolate ganache glaze, and it tasted like a black and white cookie. And that got me thinking about whether chocolate is really the yin to vanilla’s yang (or vice versa).  I mean, in the symbol, there’s a wee spot of yang in the yin and a wee spot of yin in the yang.  The two parts of yin and yang are constantly in motion, and one cannot exist without the other.  So, I began to consider the relationship between vanilla and chocolate:  is it the same relationship as Yin and Yang?  Are they opposites, or complements? Can one be fully itself without the other?

yin and yang chocolate fondue

A mystical connection? Maybe...

At first, I thought that vanilla and chocolate were the perfect yin and yang, but then I realized something.  While chocolate seems to always benefit from the addition of a little vanilla (most chocolate cake and brownie recipes call for some vanilla extract), vanilla doesn’t always benefit from the addition of chocolate.  Adding a little melted chocolate to a vanilla pudding is just going to give you sort-of-chocolate pudding.  Chocolate is best able to complement vanilla when it isn’t completely incorporated.  Unlike adding vanilla extract to any sort of chocolate batter or ganache, chocolate sets off vanilla to its best effect when each element retains its own characteristics.

Chocolate acts as a visual foil to vanilla–dark against light.  In the mouth, sweet vanilla is balanced by the slightly bitter earthiness of chocolate.  Pairing chocolate and vanilla also affords us the opportunity to play with temperature.  There’s a reason why a hot fudge sundae is a classic.

Other ways to insert some chocolate oomph into vanilla desserts include tossing in some chocolate chips, shaved chocolate or adding it in the form of icings, frostings and sauces.  Maybe part of the issue is that there really aren’t discrete “pieces” of vanilla that you can add to something chocolate.  Yes, there are those white chips, but they don’t taste like vanilla.  Vanilla generally comes in its liquid form, thus making it almost impossible to keep it separate from the rest of a batter.  The only real example I can think of is a marble cake, in which a vanilla batter is swirled together with a chocolate batter.  But vanilla-all-by-itself?  I don’t think so.

Part Deux, in Which I Ponder the Horror of Imitations and Implore You to Seek Out Excellence
Vanilla and chocolate are both products made from plants–vanilla from the pods of vanilla orchids, and chocolate from the seeds of the cocao tree.  As such, chocolate and vanilla can vary widely in flavor profile depending on where the pods or seeds were grown and how and with what they are processed.  Vanilla and chocolate both should express terroir just as wine does.  Unfortunately, while most of us don’t expect to taste the same flavors in every glass of wine we drink, we do expect this of our vanilla and chocolate.  Maybe it’s because, even though there are a lot of wine drinkers out there, almost everyone likes chocolate and vanilla.  In order to fill the demand for these flavors to hundreds of millions, even billions, of people, manufacturers have had to find a way to produce a consistent product.  And consistency flies in the face of terroir.  What the masses recognize as “vanilla” and “chocolate” are pale reflections of small batch vanillas and chocolates that true aficionados appreciate.  For most of us, vanilla is the flavor of supermarket ice cream or (and this is really upsetting) instant pudding.  Chocolate is the flavor of a Hershey’s kiss.  Or instant pudding.

While I dig a Hershey’s kiss every once in awhile, I want nothing whatsoever to do with instant anything (other than instant gratification).

If you haven’t dug deeper into the chocolate/vanilla Situation than the instant pudding aisle, allow me to offer you some Options.

Vanilla Options
There are many very good small batch vanillas out there.  Here are three that I have used and really enjoyed.

Baldwin–aged in oak barrels for a very intense vanilla experience. Definitely worth a try.

Nielsen-Massey–head and shoulders above supermarket brands, N-M Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla offers a straight-up vanilla flavor.  Very consistent, very tasty product

Sonoma Syrups Vanilla Bean Crush–my current favorite, a mixture of Madagascar Bourbon vanilla and Tahitian vanilla.  Very complex and floral.

Chocolate Options
The chocolate issue is a bit trickier.  Since it is a solid, often it will have to stand on its own, so you want to like the taste of it.  If you’re a Hershey or Nestle kind of person, start with other milk chocolates:  you can usually find Callebaut at Whole Foods stores, and sometimes they have El Rey as well.

Lindt is ubiquitous in Europe and is also easily found in the grocery store aisles these days.

There are, of course, some excellent options right here in the US.  Seek out Guittard, Scharffen Berger and even Ghirardelli.

Looking for organic options? There’re Green & Black’s, Dagoba and Theo, to name just three.

Look for varietal chocolates, also called single source or single origin chocolates–chocolates made exclusively from one type of bean grown in a specific area.  Fortunately, these types of bars are becoming easier to find.  I see them at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and even at the regular grocery.  If you’re very lucky, there’s a guy making chocolates from “scratch” where you live–we have Escazu in Raleigh.  Good stuff.

And now, I think I might have saved the best for last.  My destinations for All Things Chocolate (along with a few extras):  Chocosphere and World Wide Chocolate.  Take a virtual trip to one of these sites of Wonder and stock up.  Taste and find what you like.  Then use it.

Oh, and snd don’t forget the cocoa powder.  You can do much better than those brown boxes at the grocery store.

If you’ve made it this far, please add to the essay.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the relationship between vanilla and chocolate, your favorite way to enjoy the two flavors together or maybe a tip about a really great chocolate or vanilla that you’ve found and love.  All comments are welcome.

See you soon.

Hello, Chickies!

19 Aug
chicken coop

Our one-of-a-kind chicken coop!

Guess what?  Sunday we all drove to the Chicken Getting Place and bought our wee chicks!  Four families went in, and we ended up with eight chicks.  All girls, of course–we’re in it for the eggs, not the crowing!  At the Chicken Getting Place, also known as Ozbert Farms, they had many different kinds of chicks for sale.  They also had a huge poster with all types of breeds of chickens listed, complete with full color Illustration and egg color, and there are a ton of different kinds.  I had no idea.  The poster probably depicted at least 100 different types of chickens.  Wowie.

Let me introduce you to the girls.

1)Our Ameraucano, Vespucci

Ameraucano chick

She will lay light blue/green eggs. Yay!

2)Our Welsummer, Pauli Girl

Welsummer chick

This little girl is The Beloved's. You know how much he loves beer and brewing. He almost named her Wort, until we were able to talk him out of it!

3)Sophie’s Rhode Island Red, Ginger

Rhode Island Red chick

Sophie says that her nickname is "Gigi."

4)Jackson’s Welsummer, Summer

Welsummer chick

She's a little smaller than The Beloved's Welsummer. We'll see how they mature. Welsummers lay chocolate-colored eggs.

5)Don’s Buff Brahma, Henrietta

Buff Brahma chick

This is Henrietta. See her feathery feet? That's a characteristic of Brahmas.

6)Sterner’s Light Brahma, Hoopy

White Brahma chick

The other Brahma, Hoopy. She's one of the smallest of the chicks right now.

7)Grayson’s Rhode Island Red, Copper

Rhode Island Red chick

Hello, Copper--pretty girl!

and last, but not least

8)Abbey’s Ameraucana, Lady

Ameraucana chick

I wish the Ameraucanas hadn't laid down. They have blue-gray feet!

Here is the Awesome chicken house and run dreamt up by Chuck.  Seriously–he had a dream about how to build it, and it is Fabulous.  We still need to paint, of course–we want to make sure that the girls live in a Colorful Environment.

back of the coop

These are the three doors leading to the laying boxes. They open from the outside for easy access. I'm not sure if you can tell, but Chuck put fisheye door peepholes in the doors!

Coop with door open

See--we have a door AND a screen door. Pretty sweet, huh? That Chuck is gifted!

raising chicks

It's the details that count--look at the beautiful knob Susan found for the door.

We won’t be getting eggs until December (they start laying at about 21 weeks), but when the girls start laying, we’re thinking of making some egg custard and egg nog–two Items in which the flavor of the fresh eggs will really shine.

Wanna raise your own chicks?  Here are some Helpful Links:

My Pet Chicken
Back Yard Chickens
Urban Chickens
Raising Backyard Chickens

To Market, To Market To Buy A Fat…Goat?

13 Aug
Dining Room at Market Restaurant in Raleigh

Get thee to Market, to Market.

This past Tuesday was a Banner Day.  Not only did The Beloved and I get to eat with a brother-sister combo who also happen to be some of our favorite people, but we got to eat at one of the restaurants that we visited during the Taste Carolina food tour from a few weeks ago.  Yes, friends, we ate at Market.  Not “The Market.”  Just Market.  As in “Market Price,” “Farmer’s Market,” and “Fresh Market.”  All three terms apply.  Chef Chad focuses on fresh seafood at, you guessed it, Market Price.  He shops the Downtown Raleigh Farmer’s Market three times a week, and all the food is very fresh.

When on the food tour, Chef Chad met us and spoke with our group.  I’m sure he was madly preparing for a busy Saturday night’s dinner service, but, at about 45 minutes before service, he was just as calm and laid back as if it were his day off.  He explained the dish that we would be sampling–stewed local pork with hominy on what-I-guessed-were-house-made flour tortillas with a side of their signature lunch side, the Storied Crack Fries.  Of course, I wandered over to him to ask if the tortillas were, indeed, made in house, and he confirmed my suspicion.  You know, any restaurant that is concerned about the details is the one I want to feed me.  I told him that we would be back, and we were fortunate enough to be able to keep that promise in relatively short order.

When the Henry half of the brother-sister combo suggested dinner, I immediately said “IwannagotoMarket!”  I told him a bit about it, and he thought it sounded A-OK.  He consulted with Mary Lou, the sister half of the combo, and she concurred.  We met them there at 6 pm.  Henry and Mary Lou had already been hanging out and catching up for about an hour, having a beverage or two, and were already in love with the place.  At this point, let me talk about the place itself.  Don’t worry, I’ll get to the food, and most importantly, the desserts.  But a fabulous dining experience is just as much about ambiance, knowledgeable and timely service and general vibe as it is about the food.

First off, this was a Tuesday night–their first dinner service after being closed on Saturdays and Sundays.  When I worked at The Ravenous Pig, Tuesdays were incredibly hectic since we had to bulk up on everything after trying to run everything out the previous Saturday.  Tuesdays were all about new spiced popcorn, new sour mix, new almost everything (except for ice creams, if I was lucky).  Add to that being down a server that evening, and I expected the staff to be a bit frenzied, or at least harried.  This was Not the Case.  Chef Chad walked through service with a mellow, laid back grace, and he set the tone for the rest of the kitchen.  There might have been some Stuff going on in the back, but we never saw it.  There was no yelling at expo, no running about, no throwing of pots and pans.  These were the kitchens I was used to.  This kitchen, however, was Zen Central, and that calm radiated to all corners of the intimate dining room.

When you enter the restaurant, the bar is directly to your right against the wall.  Next up is the pass/expo where garnishing and finishing occurs and where the servers pick up their plates.  Past expo is the kitchen, which is not open for viewing.  But, honestly, the garnishing is the cool part, and that’s done in front of everyone.  There’s seating at the bar, and the dining room takes up the rest of the space, which used to be a laundromat.  The decor is minimal but striking, with a casual vibe that reinforces the staff’s laid back vibe.  There’s some eclectic art on the walls, from finely detailed portraits to bold acrylic abstracts.  There are two bathrooms, and both are unisex.  I personally love that, because there’s no crazy long line for the ladies’ room while the guys smugly parade in and out of the men’s room with no wait at all.  They’re equal opportunity bathrooms, and I dig it.

There is a small patio for al fresco dining, but as it was One Billion degrees outside, MaryLou and Henry had wisely opted for an inside table.  We joined them, and server Clint brought us a lovely bottle of water so we could serve ourselves.  Perched on each glass rim was a slice of fresh cucumber to be floated in the water.  The clean, subtle flavor of the cucumber quickly permeated our water, and, L’Eau and Behold, it was good.  That’s another example of attention to detail that all of us really appreciated.  I think we drank four bottles of water among the four of us, which is Way More water than any of us would usually drink at a restaurant, especially when there is alcohol to be had.  It was just that refreshing.

Clint was also tending bar that evening, and his attention was, of necessity, divided.  But he never seemed rattled.  He knew the entire menu and could describe every item we asked about.  We even had a conversation about how annoying it is to have a server who answers the question, “How’s the fill-in-the-blank,” with “I haven’t tried it, but I hear it is good.  I mean, we sell a lot, so it must be good, right?”  Clint and I were definitely on the Same Page.

Oh, and speaking of Beverages, we ordered ours.  Mary Lou and The Beloved each ordered a beer (craft brew, of course). I ordered a little number which I believe was called a Sweet Caroline containing some cranberry juice, Absolut Mandarine, Grand Marnier (which I affectionately call GranMa), oj and a little soda water.  It was not too sweet and quite refreshing.  (The Market folks tweeted me the ingredients just a few minutes ago.  See what I mean by attention to detail)? It also packed quite a punch and one 8-oz glass was Plenty. Last but not least, Henry ordered Market’s Signature Cocktail, the Cojito.  It was, after all and happily, Cojito night at Market.  A cojito is a mojito made with Malibu Coconut Rum instead of regular-old-rum, thus giving a nod to “Put the Lime in the Coconut.”  RIP, Nilsson.  In theory, this should have worked very well.  In practice, for me anyway, it did not work quite as well.  I’ve always found coconut rum to taste a bit like suntan lotion.  Plus, even though I saw limes in the glass, I couldn’t detect any lime juice.  It is entirely possible that our bartender forgot to muddle the limes and mint–he was doubling as our server, and they were down by one that night.  Regardless, I found the drink to be a bit flat–a one-note flavor instead of what I was hoping would be a wonderful Mint-Coconut-Lime Trifecta.  Personally, I would have stirred a bit of coconut milk into a “regular” mojito for a more authentic and less suntan lotiony coconut flavor.

Next up, the appetizers.  Appetizer, rather, since we all shared so as not to Blunt Our Appetites. We initially zeroed in on the corn fritters served with remoulade sauce, but then Henry reminded us that he cannot eat corn.  Incidentally, this is why he could not attend The Ken’s Korny Corn Maze Extravaganza.   Anyway, we hastily changed our order to zucchini latkes with avocado crema.  The multi-tasking Clint brought them to our table, and they were quite lovely.  They were the color of spring peas with patches of deep brown caramelized goodness on the outsides–kind of like the Dr. Seuss version of silver dollar pancakes. The interior of our latkes was very smooth and almost fluffy, leading us all to wonder if there was any shredded potato in them at all, or maybe just some potato starch to help bind the zucchini together.  The zucchini was shredded into gossamer-thin shreds that added to the delicacy of the dish.  The avocado crema was quite delicate as well.  I know I’ve used some form of the word delicate twice in the last couple of sentences, but the entire dish was delicate.  In fact, my only complaint about the  dish was that the seasoning wasn’t quite assertive enough.  Of course, I thought it needed more salt.  Shocking, right?  But, when everyone else at the table agreed, I knew it wasn’t Just Me. Also, I think  a squirt of lime juice in the mix would have both perked up the flavor and played nicely with the avocado in the sauce. Regardless, the crisp exterior married to the fluffy interior and the smooth creaminess of the crema (bigamist exterior) worked so well together that it pretty much made up for the lack of salt.  And that’s saying a lot, ’cause you know how much I love my salt.

And now, onto the Mains.  Mary Lou and The Beloved both had the braised goat served with sweet potato and sage gnocchi.  In my mind’s eye, I expected a sauced dish–you know, like a pot roast.  What came was a rather elegantly Frenched rack of three ribs painted liberally with sweet pepper jelly.  Since I didn’t see the bountiful sauce I expected to see, I thought that the meat might be a bit dry, but it was expertly cooked.  They must have let the meat cool in the braising liquid before removing it.  The sweet sharpness of the pepper jelly really cut through the richness of the goat and was a welcome and playful take on lamb with mint jelly. The ribs were perched atop burnished auburn gnocchi, obviously house made.  Now, making gnocchi is an Art.  They should be pretty light, despite the fact that they are made mostly from starchy potatoes with just a wee bit of binder.  At Luma, Brandon made his by cutting everything together with two pastry knives–no kneading or stirring at all to minimize gluten development in the flour and the smashing of the potato starch granules into glue.  He learned this during his time working with TK at The French Laundry. And his were always light and fluffy.  These were heartier:  a little chewy, even.  The flavor was quite well balanced–well seasoned; the perfect amount of sage–but I found them to be a bit on the stodgy side.  The entire dish spoke of fall to me, what the rich fattiness of the goat (and I mean that in a good way) and the Thanksgiving-ish gnocchi, but I know that sweets are certainly in season here in North Carolina–as is sage–so maybe this is a case of truly seasonal cooking that just didn’t mirror my idea of summer.

Henry ordered the prawns and chorizo.  I didn’t get to taste this dish, but Henry raved about it.  Three or four good-sized prawns with crumbled chorizo sauced with what I took to be a shrimp stock/chorizo broth, making for a kind of a hearty soup.  As such, the dish was served with a couple of slices of crunchy bread on the side for Mopping Purposes. And let me tell you: Henry made good use of them, too.

I asked Clint the Smackdown Question:  Mushroom and goat cheese tamales versus stewed pork and hominy.  Who wins?  He immediately shot back “tamales.”  There was absolutely no hesitation, and I went with his recommendation.  I found the dish interesting and, in the main, very satisfying. Clint brought me two tamales that had been shucked of their corn husk cozies prior to serving.  The masa was lightly seasoned with…something.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on it as it was fairly subtle, but it added an extra unexpected dimension to what can often be a rather bland mixture.  The filling was about as local as it gets–wild mushrooms and goat cheese, both from Triangle-area farms.  As far as I’m concerned mushrooms and goat cheese go together like Forrest and Jenny, so I was all about that filling.  The tamales were served over a bed of rice, some what-I-think-were refried lentils and a very fresh pico de gallo.  The entire dish was lightly sauced with a light-but-flavorful mole-type “gravy” that was perfect for a summer dish and was accented with a few wee squirts of what-I-think-was sour cream sauce of some sort.

As I said before, the dish was satisfying, overall.  I did have a couple of minor issues with it, however.  Here they are:  I thought that the masa-to-filling ratio was slightly off.  I would’ve preferred less masa and more filling.  And more filling would have meant more goat cheese which would’ve been Very Good, because another minor issue was that I didn’t think there was enough goat cheese.  I also found the rice to be a little over-cooked and a bit bland when eaten alone.  Mixed with the lentils, pico de gallo and mole Light, the flavors all worked, but I do wish the rice had been a bit firmer.

After the Main Dish Extravaganza, we all looked at each other, and the unspoken mandate was Dessert.  So, our friend Clint brought out the dessert menus.  There were four desserts, and there were four of us.  Appreciating the one-to-one correspondence, we asked for one of each to share among us.  Sadly, Clint said that the watermelon sorbet served with pickled watermelon rind was 86ed.  Too bad, too.  I can imagine that the tang of the pickle was quite wonderful with the sweetness of the sorbet.  We countered the loss by ordering two of the chocolate desserts, thereby keeping our one-to-one correspondence and doubling our Chocolate Intake in one fell swoop.  Yay, us.

First, I shall describe the desserts to you.  The chocolate came in the form of Chocolate Mole Cake, made with the complex bittersweet South American chocolates made right next door at Escazu.  A short (1/2″), wide wedge of cake–more like a brownie, actually–was garnished with a sweetly/tangy tamarind sauce and some sort of cream made with cocoa nibs–maybe creme fraiche.  I’m not sure.  There was also a double decker round of creme fraiche cheese cake.  By double decker, I mean crust-cheese cake-more crust-more cheese cake.  Don’t freak out, though.  The entire stack was only about 1 1/2″ high.  This was served with brandied peaches.  Our third (fourth, if you count two mole cakes) dessert was the seasonal berry crumble.  Our seasonal berries were local blueberries in an unthickened sauce of their own juices, with maybe a hint of lemon or lime juice topped with a pretty basic streusel and garnished with a quenelle of mascarpone ice cream.

First, the cheese cake. The texture was very smooth and creamy, and I loved the double-decker-ness of it.  I adore crust, and it was nice to have lots of it.  Having the two textures layered twice made for a much more interesting mouthfeel than just a regular one-two crust-filling combination.  The brandied peaches were heavy on the brandy and not too sweet–these are two Very Good Things.  It was a solid, if not spectacular, dessert.  I thought the filling could have used a bit more salt, some good vanilla and a shot of lemon juice to round out the flavors and punch them up a bit.  The peaches were very assertive, and the cheese cake filling felt a bit more like an under-the-peach garnish than the main event.

The berry crumble was superb.  The berries were cooked just enough that none had burst but all were ready to at the merest bite.  So, we got to enjoy little pops of bursting berries along with the warm-sweet-crunchy-fruity goodness of the dish as a whole.  As you can imagine, this just added to the experience.  It was one of those simple dishes executed so perfectly that you just have to close your eyes and moan.  Just a little.  And we all did.  It was borderline pornographic, although we tried to contain ourselves.  Oh, and the mascarpone ice cream?  Gorgeous.  Completely smooth, completely rich and completely creamy.

“So, how was the chocolate mole cake?” you ask.  This was, hands down, the most complex, rich, decadent and truly chocolate dessert I have ever had.  The chocolate from Escazu is already deeply dark and complex, and add to it a little heat, a little sweet spice and just enough binder to be able to slice it, and what you have is The Perfect Dessert for the Adult Chocolate Lover.  This is not the kind of chocolate that you’d make s’mores out of.  It’s not kid friendly, unless the kid-in-question’s palate is pretty sophisticated.  It is, however, deeply, darkly decadent, and just as the Europeans took a spicy, bitter brew and turned it into a sweet and creamy drink, Chef Chad has taken the notes of a spicy, savory, complex mole sauce and has made them work seamlessly as a dessert.  The tamarind sauce brightens up the whole affair, and the swoosh of cocoa nib cream on the side offers a lighter texture as a counterpoint to the dense chocolate.  If it were me, I’d serve that Bad Boy with some mascarpone ice cream on top of it (and we all tried it like that by stealing from our berry dessert).  Better yet, take that cocoa nib swoosh mixture and make it work as an ice cream.

I must add that there was some rather liberal use of cloves in one of the desserts.  I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t know which, although I think those little suckers were in the peaches.  I do know that, for literally hours after dinner, my mouth tasted like I’d been chewing Clove Gum.  Which is fine, if you are a Fan of Cloves.

Despite a couple of hiccups, the entire evening was a Rousing Success.  Market is bringing a young, environmentally responsible, creative energy to an older part of the city that has been, until recently, pretty run down, effectively participating in the revitalization of an historic neighborhood.  They are not afraid to experiment with flavor combinations and play with their food.  While the results are not always a home run, in my admittedly limited experience, they are always fresh, local, interesting and creative.  Market has only been doing its thing since the beginning of May, and I cannot wait to see how the concept evolves over time.  They already have a loyal local following, and it’s well worth seeking out if you’re visiting in the Raleigh area.  Check them out at their site, their facebook page and/or follow them on twitter.

Sunday Suppers (Tuesday Morning Edition): Fish Tacos

10 Aug
Yummy Fish Tacos

Check out these babies. These aren't mine; mine are still on friend Susan's camera. But, still. Look how yummy!

If you’ve been reading my wee blog for awhile, you might have noted that I’m not a Fan of the seafood.  I’ve tried it–different types–lots of times, and while I can sometimes understand why people seem to like it, to me it all has this underlying I’ve-Lived-Under-the-Ocean-My-Whole-Life flavor that I just don’t like.  I tasted lobster, and I get why people think it’s Amazing.  It’s tender and sweet, but it also has that Ocean-Flavor of which I am not a Devotee.  And then, friend Michael bought a bunch of trout.  Trout, apparently, does not live under the ocean.  It just lives in regular old water.  So it doesn’t have that oceany taste.

The Beloved and I tried it a couple of weeks ago, and although I was a Filled with Trepidation, I actually enjoyed it.  It was mild and Not Fishy.  So now, realizing that I can eat Non-Oceanic-Fish, a whole new world has been opened unto me.  And the first thing  I wanted to try was a fish taco.  At the restaurant, we used to serve lobster tacos, and folks went completely GaGa over them, and I wanted to experience the GaGa Factor with a fresh water fish taco.

So, here’s what I did.  Remember, you can do something else entirely.  This is just to Entice You To Try, especially if you’ve never had fish tacos before.

Fresh Water Fish Tacos
For the fish

  • lovely trout
  • lime juice
  • cumin
  • chili powder (I used Penzeys Chili 3000 because it is Amazing)
  • salt
  • pepper

For the Accoutrement

  • pepper jack cheese
  • guacamole (or sliced avocado)
  • chipotle hot sauce
  • shredded lettuce
  • salsa
  • lime juice
  • corn or flour tortillas

Put the fish in a Vessel of some sort (I used a zip-top bag) and sprinkle liberally with the lime juice and spices.  Let marinate for thirty minutes or so.

Heat a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat, add a splash of neutral oil, and cook the fillets until just opaque.  Don’t worry about keeping them whole, just push them around until they’re shredded and cooked through–about five minutes or so.

Warm up your tortilla shells in whatever way you see fit.  Assemble your tacos as desired. They will be drippy, so wear a bib or lean over your plate.  Put in face.

We were fortunate enough to have some of Friend Chuck’s homemade salsa and trout from Friend Michael.  Use whatever you have, though.  You can also dredge and deep fry your fish.  Or poach it.  Cook it however you like, but do consider making tacos once your fish is cooked.  You will not be sorry.  I promise.

How Many Boxes Do I Need to Buy to Make a Sheet Cake? or Backwards Baking

6 Aug

I took that title, verbatim, from my dear friend Susan.  I’m going to help her bake her kids’ birthday cake (it’s a joint celebration) tomorrow, and she wanted to know what she needed.  Hence the question.

I, of course, was horrified.  “How many boxes of what?!” I asked.  Just in case she meant something different that what I thought she meant.  She answered, and my worst fears were confirmed. “Of cake mix.”

“Surely, you jest, ” I said unto her. To which she responded, possibly not verbatim, “We’re not making it from Actual Ingredients, are we?!”

I assured her that we will, indeed, be using Actual Ingredients.  She was intimidated, but I promised to hold her hand and make it not be Scary.

As amused as I was by her trepidation, I also remember how I used to feel when I was just starting out.  I started every recipe with a sense of foreboding:  I wonder what will go wrong, first?  And when something began to go Awry, I would get all sweaty and have an icky feeling in my tummy.  That’s because I learned to cook and bake backwards.  I started by trying to duplicate recipes.  And not just any recipes, mind you.  Not me.  I wanted to make the most complicated dessert possible–one with ganache and glaze and raspberries and What Not.  And I did make it.  It took me Nine Hours.  Honest.  And I had no idea what I was doing–I was simply following along, step by step, with the directions in the The Best of Gourmet, 1993 Edition.

I just finished rereading the recipe I followed (Chocolate Raspberry Cake) for the first time in probably fifteen years.  And I find that the recipe is not really scary at all.  Back in ’93, I just blindly followed along, being very cautious–like I was driving through a downpour and couldn’t see up ahead.  Now, when I read the recipe, it’s a bright sunny day.  Bunnies are cavorting under a tree in a meadow, and wee spotted fawns frolic past.  I can see clearly now: the rain is gone, and I put the top down and Drive.

Perhaps I wax a bit too poetic, but I hope you get the idea.  Now when I look at the rules for my Nine Hour Cake, I see a relatively light (2-egg) chocolate cake leavened by the reaction of baking soda and sour cream.  There’s a ganache with a ratio of 5:3 cream to chocolate, making it soft enough to whip, and a glaze of 2:1 chocolate to butter, allowing for it to be soft enough to slice easily at room temperature.  I see a modified Creaming Method, making emulsions and Stacking Items on Top of Each Other.  Not hard stuff.  Not now, anyway.  But again, I learned to bake backwards.

What I should have done, had I known, was learn everything I could about how to put ingredients together.  About the science of baking.  About the way ingredients function and interact.  I should have learned to make ingredients do what I wanted them to–what temperature to have them, when to melt butter and when to leave it solid, when to use baking powder and when to use soda.  I should have learned all of that first, but I didn’t.  And that made learning to bake Very Difficult.  Instead of learning how to bake, I learned to make one particular cake at a time, and it took me forever–and lots of research and reading–to come to understand that the cakes I was making were all very close cousins from the Creaming Method family.

I think most folks learn to bake backwards.  They want to make grandma’s cherry pie, or Aunt Emma’s pound cake, or the family’s heirloom fruitcake recipe.  But most of us have blinders on when we bake.  We’re too narrowly focused on the particular recipe to realize that the pie crust for grandma’s cherry pie can be used to make almost any pie.  That a fruit filling is basically a fruit filling, cherry or otherwise.  We don’t realize that the proportions in a modern pound cake are pretty much universal, and we rarely check the ratio of batter to fruit in a fruit cake and use that ratio as a template for all sorts of Cakes With A Bunch Of Stuff In Them.

And it’s kind of our fault, actually.  I blame The American Need for Instant Gratification.  How many people–not crazy food-type people, but regular people–buy a cook book and read it as they would a text book?  Not many.  We want the good stuff, not the boring stuff.  Look at this:  I found a review about one of my favorite cookbooks, BakeWise, over at Amazon.  Here is a chunk of his review:

After getting this book, I plunged right in, making her recipe for “Blueberry and Cream Muffins.” The recipe promised moist, delicious muffins. They were really delicious, but the texture was oily and gummy. I tried the recipe a second time, carefully measuring every item, checking my oven temperature with a thermometer, and made a second batch. The second batch was slightly better, but was still greasy and gummy. I was surprised; how could the queen of food science provide recipes that don’t work? I sat down and started reading the book from the beginning. At last, I realized what was wrong.

This book reads more like a set of magazine articles, or a good blog, than a cookbook. You can’t just pick a recipe out of the middle of this book and expect it to work. The recipes in this book are examples of different techniques (like the muffin recipe), not well-tested, authoritative recipes (like in The New Best Recipe: All-New Edition). Shirley gives you the formulas that make recipes successful (ratios of flour, eggs, fat, sugars, and liquids), then often pushes the boundaries of this formulas to show what happens. A good example of this are the pound cake recipes. On page 15 “So that you can see that changes that I made, I have included the original recipe for The Great American Pound Cake; but do not bake it.” The problem with this warning is that you’d never see it if you just flipped to the recipe for “The Great American Pound Cake,” and would end up with a sunken, soggy cake. If you buy this book, make sure to read the whole thing before you bake anything.–Joseph Adler’s Review of BakeWise at

You see, Mr. Adler skipped the Important (boring) Stuff and tried to get right to the goodies with, at least in this case, no real understanding of the mechanics of Goody Making.

But the boring stuff is what makes the good stuff good.  Just ask The Little Red Hen.  Fannie Farmer wanted us to learn to cook and bake.  She really did.  Check out her introduction to cake baking:

THE mixing and baking of cake requires more care and judgment than any other branch of cookery; notwithstanding, it seems the one most frequently attempted by the inexperienced.

Two kinds of cake mixtures are considered: —

I. Without butter. Example : Sponge Cakes.

II. With butter. Examples: Cup and Pound Cakes.

In cake making (1) the best ingredients are essential; (2) great care must be taken in measuring and combining ingredients; (3) pans must be properly prepared; (4) oven heat must be regulated, and cake watched during baking.

Best tub butter, fine granulated sugar, fresh eggs, and pastry flour are essentials for good cake. Coarse granulated sugar, bought by so many, if used in cake making, gives a coarse texture and hard crust. Pastry flour contains more starch and less gluten than bread flour, therefore makes a lighter, more tender cake. If bread flour must be used, allow two tablespoons less for each cup than the recipe calls for. Flour differs greatly in thickening properties; for this reason it is always well when using from a new bag to try a small cake, as the amount of flour given may not make the perfect loaf. In winter, cake may be made of less flour than in summer.

Before attempting to mix cake, study How to Measure (p. 25) and How to Combine Ingredients (p. 26).–The Boston Cooking School Cook Book, 1916 edition, p 497 (via Google Books)

And then guess what she does?  She teaches us how to do the creaming method and the egg foam method!  Not with a specific list of ingredients, but as a general template.  Go, Fannie.  Check it:

To Mix Sponge Cake. Separate yolks from whites of eggs. Beat yolks until thick and lemon-colored, using an egg-beater; add sugar gradually, and continue beating; then add flavoring. Beat whites until stiff and dry, — when they will fly from the beater, — and add to the first mixture. Mix and sift flour with salt, and cut and fold in at the last. If mixture is beaten after the addition of flour, much of the work already done of enclosing a large amount of air will be undone by breaking air bubbles. These rules apply to a mixture where baking powder is not employed.

To Mix Butter Cakes. An earthen bowl should always be used for mixing cake, and a wooden cake-spoon with slits lightens the labor. Measure dry ingredients, and mix and sift baking powder and spices, if used, with flour. Count out number of eggs required, breaking each separately that there may be no loss should a stale egg chance to be found in the number, separating yolks from whites if rule so specifies. Measure butter, then liquid. Having everything in readiness, the mixing may be quickly accomplished. If butter is very hard, by allowing it to stand a short time in a warm room it is measured and creamed much easier. If time cannot be allowed for this to be done, warm bowl by pouring in some hot water, letting stand one minute, then emptying and wiping dry. Avoid overheating bowl, as butter will become oily rather than creamy. Put butter in bowl, and cream by working with a wooden spoon until soft and of a creamy consistency ; then add sugar gradually, and continue beating. Add yolks of eggs or whole eggs beaten until light, liquid, and flour mixed and sifted with baking powder; or liquid and flour may be added alternately.–The Boston Cooking School Cook Book, 1916 edition, p 498 (via Google Books)

I tell you, Fannie should’ve been on television.  She really wanted us to learn how, not just what, to cook.  Somewhere between Fannie and Food Network, the hows fell by the wayside, and it was all about the whats.  People cheered–literally cheeredwhen Emeril put pepper in a recipe.  Folks listened raptly–and followed directions–when Paula told them it was a good idea to start with a cake mix to make some kind of crazy ooey gooey cake.  Because nothing says love like Propylene Glycol Monoesters of Fatty Acids.  And do NOT get me started on Sandra.

Friends, if television had been around in 1916, we might all know how to cook thanks to Fannie Live! but, sadly, it was not to be.  As a result, we’re all learning to cook and bake backwards, and Fannie is spinning in her grave.  Frontwards.

As lots of you know, it has been my goal to teach anyone who is interested how and why to do things, not just what to do.  And I’ll be doing that, up close and personal with friend Susan.  Will she come away from the experience more relaxed about baking?  Maybe.  I guess it depends on her attitude coming in–if she’s excited and open to learning, then I think it’ll be a great experience.  If she looks like she’s about to be ordered t0 walk the plank when she gets here, maybe not.  And if she does look at me as Captain Hook, well, I blame Sandra.

And the one book I couldn’t have lived with out?  The one that helped me learn all the hows and whys?  Shirley Corriher’s 1997 CookWise: The Hows & Whys of Successful Cooking She’s done some revisions since then, but this is the one that I have.  Read it (and BakeWise) like you would read text books, and you’ll start to see the bunnies under the trees instead of the rain on your windshield.  For me, and hopefully for you, it’ll be the start of Forward Baking.  That, and PMAT Live!

Theme Party Prize Winner!

2 Aug

About a week ago, I posted about theme parties and invited folks to leave their idea for cool theme parties.  Many of you followed directions, and for that I thank you.  The Beloved just finished choosing the winner.  He took his role very seriously.  I began to get antsy–I mean, I need tea and stuff.  Anyway, Congratulations to Our Winner, Groovy Old Lady from Groovy’s Ruminations!  Here’s her winning idea:

Then there was the time machine party where everyone came dressed from a different time period. It was very fun! For the kids I had them build a time machine out of a refrigerator box and various crafty items. But for adults you could have them bring foods from different eras or countries.

And, in second place winning Absolutely Nothing but our admiration, is Drew’s wife, wife of Drew from How to Cook Like Your Grandmother.  Here’s her entry, and it wasw a close second.  The Beloved agonized for about five minutes over his final decision:

State dishes — everyone is assigned a state and you have to make something native to that state. And not Washington where you can do cherries, or Pennsylvania were you can do cheesesteak. I’m talking Utah, Delaware, Montana.  By the way, when you do the state dishes, it also gives you conversation starters. “Did you know Arizona is one of the largest producers of lettuce?” “Why no, I did not know that.”

Groovy wins a copy of The Surreal Gourmet Entertains: high-fun, low-stress dinner parties for 6 to 12 people by Bob Blumer.  Groovy, please shoot me an email with your Real Life Address to onlinepastrychef at yahoo dot com, and I’ll send the Surreal Gourmet winging your way.

Many thanks to everyone who participated!

Honorable Mention goes to Seinfeld for Festivus.  Let the Airing of Grievances begin!

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