Archive for the ‘ Food ’ Category

Beyond Cooking

Harvard has a lecture series this autumn on the intersection between science and cooking, and they’ve booked over a half-dozen of some of the most elite chefs in the world. The opening talk featured Ferran Adria, whose restaurant is widely regarded as the best in the world. We didn’t manage to snag tickets for that one, but we did attend Joan Roca’s talk on his use of sous vide techniques. Roca’s El Celler de Can Roca has two Michelin stars, and is considered fourth-best restaurant in the world among critics and fans. Let’s not get into the somewhat tense relationship between Spanish haute cuisine and Michelin.

It was a slightly awkward lecture due to the fact that Roca had to speak through an interpreter, and the fact that the video program that showed his techniques kept crashing. I did my heart good to see a Mac chain-fail at playing a DVD. Still, everything was eventually ironed out and we learned a bit about what Roca does.

He and his two brothers, Jordi and Josep, use sous vide to preserve or obtain the right textures and flavors for their food, which is the entire point of sous vide. What really stunned me, however, was the degree to which they use candying and infusion to complicate the textural and aromas of their foods. For instance, one scallop dish celebrates the countryside surrounding the restaurant by heating and evaporating locally cultivated chablis and bit of local soil. The smoke is trapped at the top of a long coil of tubing, and then placed in a chamber beneath the scallop dish. A vent cut into the serving surface expels a bit of the smoke with every press of a spoon, so that a diner can smell the soil and the wine with each bite.

His brother Jordi seems like the most crazily inspired of the bunch. He  creates spun-sugar bulbs and fruits, and fills them with aromatic smoke or infused creams. His desserts appear to take hours and hours of painstaking work just to produce a few servings.

What I find so fascinating about the kind of work the Rocas are doing is the way they have moved beyond the preparation of food into the creation of complex sensory and mnemonic experiences. The dishes are not merely prepared, but designed and engineered to lead diners through corridors of memory and association. The methods they use are challenging enough to comprehend, but even more mysterious to me is the idea of telling someone a story through taste and smell.

Update: One Last Thing

There was a Q&A after this talk. This being America, the first question was, “If you’re cooking meats for extended periods at low temperatures, how will you kill the bacteria? How do you avoid making your customers sick?”

New Article and Weekend Note

I have a new article up at The Escapist this week called “A Gamer in the Kitchen”, and it is a near-total exercise in self-indulgence as I explain how cooking and gaming hit a lot of the same pleasure centers. While food was the theme of the issue, I have to admit that I was worried people would just say that I was stretching to make a connection that doesn’t exist. While I see clear similarities, there is always that worry that a personal perspective is just a little too individual.

Fortunately, most people seem to have gotten where I’m coming from and enjoyed the article. Now I have to go project my insecurities onto something else. I’m sure I have plenty from which to choose.

At any rate, I badly need this weekend. Between a podcast, a ton of blogging, finishing up production on another article that should (appropriately enough) go up on Valentine’s Day, and a lot of pitching, I am completely wiped out. Not unlike the gentleman across this library table from me, who put down his books, opened his laptop, and fell asleep on it.

So once I finish some proposals and correspondence this afternoon, I am going to get serious about relaxing. There will be drinking, West Wing on DVD, a new Adrian McKinty novel, unhealthy food, and lots of gaming. There will, under no circumstances, be work or thinking about work until Sunday afternoon. I hope you have a good weekend. I plan on having a great one.

Bread Baking

One thing I have always had trouble finding is sandwich bread. A lot of the loaves I find in the supermarket just don’t quite satisfy my craving for light (but not spongy), crusty (but not crunchy) white bread. I did find some brands that I liked quite a bit, but they tended to be a bit expensive for the size of the loaf.

So I finally tried the recipe in The Joy of Cooking 75th Anniversary Edition. Back when I was learning how to bake, it seemed a bit daunting and I always gravitated toward the much simpler French bread recipe. But after learning to make brioche burger buns, I figured I could handle white bread. My first efforts were decent, at best, but I stopped buying bread and forced myself to bake my own. Now, having made two loaves a week for a few months, I think I’ve got a firm handle on it.

The Joy of Cooking is a frustrating book because there’s a lot of mediocre recipes and a lot of gems, all thrown together with nothing but trial-and-error on the part of the user to separate them. However, the white bread recipe (substantially revised from the earlier editions) is superb. Still, the missing ingredient that hampered my early efforts was technical know-how. That was supplied by Julia Child, who has an episode of The French Chef called “The Good Loaf” in which she goes through the entire process.

One other important note, if you have the anniversary edition of The Joy: the recipe contains a major omission! You’ll notice immediately that the dry ingredients overwhelm the liquid and the dough refused to come together. That’s because the recipe only calls for 1 cup milk when it should call for 1 cup milk AND 1 cup water.

Anyway, here are a couple of pointers. First, and most importantly, do not use yeast packets. Cook’s Illustrated tested them and found that the yeast packet is not standardized, as promised. While each one is supposed to contain 2 1/4 teaspoons of yeast, they can vary wildly. A lot of people who have tried baking, and given up on it, will complain of their frustration that some doughs just fail to rise, while others mushroom out of control. While yeast will behave differently under different environmental conditions, the first thing you need to be sure of is the amount of yeast you’re using. So toss the yeast packets and get a jar of yeast. If you bake regularly, you’ll go through it long before it is past its expiration date.

Second, make sure you always have lard in the house. For one thing, good lard imparts a flavor that vegetable shortening cannot. For another, lard is also the absolute best way to grease a pan or a bowl that I have ever seen, and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than olive oil. Nothing I bake ever gets stuck to a mixing bowl or a baking pan. You will never have to pry a cake from a cake pan or bread from a loaf pan. It will just fall right out, perfectly browned.

I get my lard here in Cambridge from Savenor’s Market, but it’s not hard to find. It helps, however, if there’s a Mexican population near where you live, because Mexican cooking calls for a lot of useful ingredients, like lard, that supermarkets might not carry. When I lived in Appleton, my butcher Pepe pointed us to a nearby carniceria where we found the tastiest lard ever. It wasn’t the perfect white cream that Savenor’s makes, but waxier and yellow. It was also tastier, which you don’t always want, but for some recipes it can add a lot.

Anyway, the important points with the recipe itself are as follows: watch the temperature on the milk mixture, turn the dough properly, and make sure it can rise in a warm place.

The milk mixture (above) is made of milk, butter, lard, sugar, and salt. You need to mix it together over heat until it is quite warm, but the chances are that it will hit the right temperature before the butter has completely dissolved into the mixture. Unfortunately, it’s way too easy to end up overheating this mixture and accidentally kill the yeast when you add it to the mixing bowl. I did that the first time I made this bread, and so did my father. Whatever you do, make sure the milk mixture is not actually hot when you add it. If that means letting the yeast and the milk spend an extra twenty minutes chilling out, so be it.

This unappetizing lump needs to be turned like it's the walking undead and you're the party's only cleric.

If you’ve got a stand mixer you’re pretty much good to go at this point. On my budget and without any counter space, I have to do do all this by hand.  Now I never used to get dough to that glorious smooth and slightly sticky texture it’s supposed to have after you’re done mixing, but the Julia Child DVDs I got last Christmas showed me the way forward.

For one thing, developing dough can be a violent process. You pick it up, and throw it down on the work surface with some real force. You really should have a board scraper (honestly, this makes a million things easier) so that you can keep the dough from sticking.

Most importantly, after you throw the dough onto the surface, you should turn it clockwise or counterclockwise from the edges. Work on the outer edges, stay way from the center, and don’t grip it. Just use the heel of your hand as you turn it. After you give it a couple half turns, pick it up, throw it back down, at repeat until you hit a good texture. Then put it all into greased bowl (use the lard!).

Now it has the right texture and consistency.

Finally, I’m a big fan of leaving my doughs to rise in the oven. My apartment has about five different climate zones and it’s a crap shoot as to what the weather is like in the kitchen. So rather than risking the dough doing a sullen rise in a cold room, I just turn on the oven, let it get warm, kill the heat, and put the dough inside. My results have been way, way more consistent doing this.

Frankly, this is over-risen dough, which is why the resultant loaves are slightly stouter than we might wish.

Don’t let them rise too long on the first rise; I find they won’t rise enough in the pans if they over-rise in the bowl. When they finish baking, rest them on their sides (I dunno, but I do what Julia Child tells me), and resist the urge to tear into them right away. Fresh baked bread is wonderful, but sandwich bread like this is better if it cool and rests overnight before you start eating it. You’ll get a better texture.

I’m at a point where this is really fast and easy. Bread-baking takes 4-6 hours, but the baker only needs to spend about 25 minutes of that time actually doing anything.  The yield is two beautiful loaves like this, costing about $.75 apiece. That is much better than you’ll do at the supermarket, and several times more delicious.

A Pizza Well-Tasted

The biggest disappointment I had last night was when I bit into the pizza I’d just pulled out of the oven and discovered that it was delicious.

I was using a new recipe from Peter Reinhart that Robert Ashley linked on his Twitter account a few months back, a recipe that calls itself the best pizza crust recipe ever. Since Robert’s photos always looked delicious, and I’ve been getting a little bored with the modified Alice Waters’ recipe that I usually use, I decided to give the Reinhart crust a try.

From the first steps, it’s a bit trickier to work with. It’s a finicky recipe. The dry ingredients have to be chilled before you start the dough. You have to work it together for about ten minutes, stirring against the dough’s thickening, strengthening gluten strands. The recipe says the dough should be “sticky” and not just “tacky” to the touch.

I got it nice and sticky, then turned it out and divided the dough as instructed. Which led me to my next problem: finding a place to rest the dough overnight.

It has to be rested in the refrigerator, you see, and unfortunately I do not have room in mine to park a large baking sheet full of six dough balls overnight. Between the large pot of rice I had set aside for fried rice later in the week, the large cannister of chicken soup that was lunch on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and the usual assortment of vegetables, five square feet of rack space was simply not available.

My partner swooped in to play Fridge Tetris, and had the ingenious idea of putting the milk on top of the rice inside the pot. This gave us the extra inch of clearance we needed to shut the door. We couldn’t get food or drink from the fridge, but at least the dough had space to rest.

(Truthfully, this was a first-timer’s mistake. There’s no need to make the six pizzas right away. I should have frozen half the dough and put the other half in the fridge. Still, there are a number of ways in which I feel like this reciple makes me serve it, rather than serving me.)

Last night I took the dough from the fridge and patted it into discs about two hours before baking. The dough seemed not to have risen at all, and it was stickier and less consistent than it had been the night before. When it came time to shape the pizzas, the dough promptly crawled up my wrist and forearm while I was trying to toss it. Then the strands snapped and there was a hole in the dough.

You can see how it is translucent on the left side from being too thin.

You can see how it is translucent on the left side from being too thin.

Heavy sighs all around. The dough would roll away from the center, so that the center was always tissue thin while wads of dough curled up around the edges. It also had some crazy springback. The pizzas never got much larger than they had been before being tossed.

I gave up and handled the dough how it wanted to be handled: barely at all. I warned MK that we were probably in for some terrible pizzas, then put the first one in the oven. Plain cheese, to see if this could even work.

By then, I didn’t want it to. I didn’t want this recipe to be good enough to warrant making again, because it was such a pain in the ass compared to my other, hassle free recipes. I wanted it to suck, so that I could run the recipe through the shredder and forget about it.

Sadly, it was delicious. Crisp but not “crackery”, tasty in its own right (I’d happily eat one of these crusts topped with nothing but oil and salt), and pleasantly chewy, it was exactly the kind of dough that suited the kind of pizzas I’m increasingly interested in making: fewer-toppings, more vegetables, better cheeses.

Sliced artichoke hearts on a spread of artichoke and ricotta puree

Sliced artichoke hearts on a spread of artichoke and ricotta puree

In went the artichoke heart on an artichoke-ricotta puree. Followed by pepperoni on the puree, then chicken on the puree, a pineapple and chicken on rosemary tomato sauce, and then a bog-standard pepperoni pizza. All of it was excellent. By the way, a salty puree of artichoke hearts and ricotta cheese is a fantastic subsitute for red sauce, if you’re a bit tired of it.

As we nibbled at our various pizzas, I told MK that the Reinhart recipe had won two more invitations back to my kitchen. If it remains as fussy and annoying as it was this time, it’s leaving the rotation. But if more practice makes this recipe faster and easier for me to prepare, as practice usually does, then this was going to become as much a standby as the recipe I modified from The Art of Simple Food. I just need to nail down the reasons why the dough handles so poorly, and find whether it can be made a bit more user-friendly without sacrificing the texture. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know. In the meantime, I need to reheat some for lunch.

Third Anniversary

For our anniversary on Tuesday, my partner and I decided against having one of our bank-breaking nights on the town, but we didn’t want to simply stay in and congratulate ourselves on being sensible. So we took a middle course and gave one another the gift of gin.

Now, this might seem like a warning sign to some people, so I’ll just quote Norm MacDonald’s response to being told that denial is the first sign of being alcoholic: “Yeah, but it’s also the first sign of not being an alcoholic.” The reason we felt justified in splurging on gin is because it’s our favorite spirit and certainly our most versatile. The gins we selected are radically different from one another, and produce completely different drinks. This supply should last us a few months, especially as the weather turns colder and gin and tonic season comes to its end.

Anyway, it made for a great day. Beefeater gin and tonics, dry Hendrick’s martinis, and some fantastic Age of Mythology comp-stoming over the LAN. Plus, we made these amazing biscotti late at night.

I’d never made biscotti before, but after discovering how easy and delicious they are to make at home, consider me a convert.

It’s also worth mentioning that a single biscotti is about 100 calories, which is a hell of a lot better than the mighty chocolate chip cookie.

This might have been our least ceremonious anniversary, but I think it may have been our nicest.