My mom’s birthday is right around the corner, and while she might not like a reminder of how many years young she will be, it is still a milestone and one that I wish to celebrate. I’ve taken the bold step of offering to cater the party which not only involves planning the menu but cooking as well. I sense her nervousness wondering how I will pull it off although I am really looking forward to this and feel confident that everything will work out smoothly. To ensure that everything is just right careful planning and practice are required.
Last night I made peach crisp with some fresh peaches that I had recently purchased. It was really easy making pie dough this time around after having done it a few times now. Using the standard pie ratio that I had used before, I created half the amount as before yielding one disc. While blind baking the crust, I cooked down the peaches in a pot with sugar, butter, cornstarch and a bit of vanilla and made the streusel. I then put everything together and baked the crisp for 45 minutes. In no time at all I had my final result ready to go.
Although the practice is important, equally as important is not gaining 20 pounds before the party. Resolving this dilemma was easy as delicious desserts are always welcomed at the office. This morning I woke up and headed to the work with the peach crisp in hand. The only challenge left was fairly distributing what I had made which clearly wasn’t enough for the entire office. To solve this problem, I crafted an email to the office group alias and hit send just at the 10 o’clock hour as everyone was likely to either be at their desks, arriving to work or shuffling between meetings. This seemed like a logical and non-biased approach so as to not play favorites. I stated the following:
Depending on when you read this, one of these statements will be true:
There is peach crisp in the kitchen
There is no longer peach crisp in the kitchen.
Despite the calamity the ensued from the email as people rushed to the kitchen to get their sugar fixing, I did receive a lot of thank yous and praise for great tasting food. Interestingly enough I received as many comments and compliments about my email as I did about the food itself.
In the office food game everyone wants to be on the favored list. Not everyone agreed with my notification process, while others wondered why they didn’t get the secret advanced warning about the food payload I was about to deliver. It was all quite amusing. While not everyone got a piece I can say that more food is in the works for the next few days and I welcome the feed back so that I can make mom’s preparations the best that they can be. So everyone in the office, get your forks ready.
I arrived home today to find a package sitting in the front entrance. I thought it was weird to be getting a gift since my birthday is 6 months again and amazingly I haven’t started to see Christmas decorations popping up. I wondered what it could be.
A while back I had signed up for Food Buzz’s tastemaker program. I totally forgot that I requested samples of bread as one of their most recent offerings. To my surprise I was given two loaves, one whole wheat and the other 12 grain.
One of the benefits of immersing yourself in a community is that your opinion is valued. The food blogger community is no different than any other. This will make a perfect addition to my lunch tomorrow and the days ahead as I do my duty of tasting as compensation for the free samples. Not too shabby I must say.
The Cooking Through Ratio series continues with a final quick cake, popovers. While popovers may fall under the umbrella of quick cakes, they are distinctively different than their brethren and have characteristics more familiar with pâte à choux. The reason I say this and as Ruhlman points out is that through the baking process they undergo a dramatic transformation. High heat causes causes the batter to steam and balloon the final product into a wonderful column with a delicate balance of texture and flavor.
In general, popovers are 2 parts liquid, 1 part egg and 1 part flour. Again the order here is important. To make what are described as “Basic (but amazing) Popovers”, I measured out the liquid (milk), eggs and flour while also measuring out a bit of butter and salt. I also preheated the oven to 450 degrees F; the high heat was necessary to quickly raise the temperature of the batter which would create the rise. An interesting twist was that while the oven was pre-heating I also placed the muffin tin (I don’t have a popover pan) inside to warm up to help things along even more. The rest was easy.
The milk and egg were whisked together so that they were combined well.
Next, the salt and flour were added and thoroughly combined.
The mixture was left to sit for 30 minutes so that the flour could absorb the liquid, reducing the lumps that were present. After 30 minutes I gave everything a quick whisk.
I then pulled the muffin tin out of the oven and placed some butter, which was melted in the microwave into three open cups.
My understanding was that the hot butter and muffin tin / popover pan were supposed to help quickly raise the temperature of the batter. When I placed the batter into the muffin tin the laws of physics prevailed and the heavier batter fell to the bottom causing the butter to rise.
I quickly moved the muffin tin to the oven to prevent any heat loss. After ten minutes, the heat was reduced to 375 degrees F. 30 minutes later the baking and the transformation were complete. What came out of the oven was wholly different than what went into it a mere 40 minutes earlier.
Wow oh wow. Yum. The crispy texture and buttery flavor were exceptional and reminiscent of Yorkshire Pudding, something I enjoyed eating while working in London. Indeed not all English cooking is bad.
These were easy to make, although the sitting time for the batter and baking time were longer than my stomach could bear after coming back from the gym. Needless to say I ate them all along with my “merguez pattie” dinner. I saved half of the batter for later and definitely will enjoy making these again to accompany a more elaborate meal.
It has been a while since I’ve made a post and it feels good to make another one again. Amazingly I am only about a third of the way through the book and my series, Cooking Through Ratio. Today’s delectable challenge was to make fritters and would be the first time that the book calls for cooking through the use of a liquid by frying using vegetable oil.
The chapter starts with Michael Ruhlman stating, “Every time I make fritters, I ask myself why I don’t make them more often. Crisp and tender, sweet and spicy. A fritter batter, which is a muffin batter without the butter is a vehicle, like a crepe or dumpling, for a tasty main garnish or seasoning…” (pg. 74). That about sums up everything you can expect and enjoy with a fritter. I have had them before, but have never made them myself. Another great learning experience was about to take place.
Being a vehicle for taste, fritters are nice because they can be custom tailored to fit with the main dish that will be eaten or made to be eaten on their own. The ratio is easy, and the method for combining the ingredients is also. 2 parts flour, 2 parts liquid, 1 part egg, a bit of salt and baking powder and you are good to go. Consider the garnishes and the possibilities are infinite.
Tonight I had some leftover pasta in the fridge along with some ground lamb meat from my CSA. I made the fritter batter by combining the wet and dry ingredients individually and the gradually added the flour mixture to the liquid mix of egg and milk. I then added some fresh basil and black pepper as a garnish. Pasta, lamb and basil fritters are an unlikely duo, I know, but I had to keep moving forward. While heating the pasta, I fried the fritters. I don’t fry often so getting them to come out right was a bit hard but after one overcooked one I produced passable results.
With a pat of butter, these actually went well with my meal. More basil or any other garnish is desirable so that the taste is more perceptible. These were a lot easier to make than I was expecting and quite tasty. I wouldn’t say that pairing fritters with pasta resulted in a bad combination, but they would be better paired with a protein or depending on what type you make a sauce for added flavor and texture.
After a long day at work and a killer workout, my cooking and plating left a lot to be desired, but since tonight I was not only the consumer, but the chief cook and bottle washer I had to let it slide.
Having a stand mixer is great not only for the work it saves you but but also for the great attachments you can get. Single use appliances and cookware take up too much space, and where possible I like to purchase items with a lot of versatility. I recently purchased an ice cream maker attachment for my KitchenAid mixer and have been looking forward to using it, but my main focus has been the Cooking Through Ratio series. My recent experience making Angel Food Cake left me with several egg yolks that I didn’t want to discard. As luck would have it, I had just made a dessert involving crème anglaise in a French cooking class at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. Making crème anglaise was a lot easier than I anticipated and was an easy way for me to use up the remaining egg yolks while also allowing me to use my new ice cream maker attachment.
Just about every kitchen appliance you can buy comes with a recipe or two to get you going. The ice cream maker came with a recipe for French Vanilla ice cream. A quick glance at the recipe and knowledge of crème anglaise made an obvious connection. This French ice cream was really nothing more than frozen crème anglaise. Last night I started just before dinner making the ice cream.
As instructed by the recipe, I scalded some half and half cream in a medium sauce pot on the stove top.
The heated cream was set aside as I got the sugar and eggs ready. In the mixing bowl I combined the yolks and sugar, ribboning them together using the whisk attachment.
Once the yolks and sugar were combined, I slowly added the heated cream and combined them.
The cream, sugar and egg mixture were poured into the sauce pot to heat up again over medium heat. The recipe called for heating this until small bubbles formed around the edges of the pot, being careful not to boil the mixture. During the French cooking class, Elise the chef instructor cautioned my mother and me to not exceed a temperature of 180 degrees F or the eggs would start to curdle. I got out my digital thermometer and observed the temperature rise steadily as I mixed stirred. 180 degrees were reached, but no bubbles had formed. I wondered if the heat measurement was a result of the ambient heat coming from the stove and not the mixture itself. I made the decision to let it cook longer. The heat rose more and more to about 190 degrees and instead of seeing bubbles, tiny lumps started to appear. I was 10 seconds away from a pot of sweet scrambled eggs as right after the lumps started to appear, it started to boil. This was not the steady rise that I was waiting for. I had missed the mark.
Immediately the pot was pulled off the heat and the remaining cold cream was added. I put the liquid back into the mixing bowl and stirred on a low setting to cool it down a bit and combine the cold cream throughout.
I didn’t notice any more lumps forming. I further cooled down my original pot and transferred the liquid back into it and mixed in vanilla and a bit of salt hoping to bring the temperature down even more.
The recipe called for cooling the mixture in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours. Thinking twice before covering the pot and putting it on a glass shelf, I poured it into a glass bowl and then placed it in the fridge for cooling overnight. Elise also mentioned that the cooling down of the crème anglaise allowed it to thicken. This seemed like a good thing for ice cream.
Tonight was the easy part. All that was required was pouring the mixture into the mixing bowl to let it churn for 20 minutes. I used a strainer to prevent any scrambled egg bits from entering the mixing bowl. 20 minutes later it was thickened and ready to go. After that I packed up two pint containers and let them freeze for a couple of hours.
Despite the mishap, the ice cream came out really great. Even after a couple of hours it was still a bit soft, but the flavor was perfect. Another waist expander has been conceived.
The Cooking through Ratio series continues with breakfast for dinner. I often enjoy a good omelette, fried or scrambled eggs or sometimes cereal for dinner, but pancakes are not really my favorite. Making pancakes was not something which I was really looking forward to, but the ratio was next so I pursued. I have made pancakes from scratch before, but like many things never considered the balance of ingredients that go into them and how they interact to produce the final result.
As the name implies, these are another form of cake made on a pan instead of an oven. The ratio consists of 2 parts liquid, 1 part egg, 1/2 part fat (butter), 2 parts flour along with sugar, salt, vanilla extract and baking powder. This produces a thick batter and a cakey pancake once cooked. Pretty simple stuff.
Ironically as I worked on yet another carb laden food ratio, I watched the season premiere of The Biggest Loser on NBC. It was like a sick joke, but I was able to keep at it reminding myself that the past few weeks of carb overload have a purpose; I am learning.
I combined the ingredients together in a pint measuring cup with the aid of my scale for weighing the dry ingredients. This is probably the thickest batter I have worked with so far. It was much different than the buttermilk pancakes I made previously.
The batter was mixed until it was smooth and ladled onto a hot pan with butter. It didn’t spread out at all and cooked fairly quickly.
The result was a flavorful, soft and fluffy pancake. The baking powder proportion did its job here. As mentioned, I usually don’t like pancakes, and especially at restaurants I simply won’t order them. They tend to be flavorless or made up of a texture that I don’t enjoy. Besides, they aren’t mom’s and like most things food related, mom’s are simply the best. These were some of the best I have ever had with respect to flavor and texture. To my surprise, they were actually enjoyable and paired well with maple syrup and butter, standard garnish in the northeast.
It’s amazing how your taste can change for something can change when it’s prepared in a new and better way. The ratio here was key. The pancake ratio is fast and easy to make, making them well suited breakfast food or in this case dinner. I’ll have to experiment with the liquid part to see if a thinner batter produces results that are better or worse but overall I am happy with the results despite my lack of enthusiasm at the outset.
Last night I opened up a new chapter in Ratio on quick cakes. The chapter begins with quick breads and muffins which are essentially the same thing. The key difference is that muffins are cooked in cups.
Quick cakes are described as custards cooked at high heat with some flour thrown in for structure. They are all pretty much the same, differing in the ratio of the ingredients.
I am very confident with Alton Brown’s Old School Muffins and can practically make them with my eyes clothes. They have been thoroughly taste tested at work and with family and friends. I wondered how these muffins would compare.
The ratio is pretty straight forward, 2 parts flour, 2 parts liquid, 1 part egg, 1 part fat (butter). The basic muffin batter recipe also contained salt and baking powder. I added dried cherries to the batter for extra flavor and texture.
Interestingly enough, Ruhlman describes pancakes as thin muffins, which is clearly evident when looking at the batter. It had a lot more liquid and was a lot more pourable than Alton’s. It was clear that the end result was definitely going to be a lot more moist.
The muffin batter was baked in the oven pre-heated to 350 degrees F for about 30 minutes. That might have been too long. They were crisp and most, but considerably more browned than I expected. The cherries all sank to the bottom of each muffin which was not entirely unexpected given how loose it was. The end result was quite tasty indeed.
For me, these muffins would work best as an accompanying side to breakfast better than Alton’s, but don’t scream anytime snack choice. Another one down, many more to go.
Is it weird that I pondered the ratio for making angel food cake while sealing a driveway at one of my parents’ rental properties? Is it strange that I thought about making it while driving home from work for a week, wondering if I would have time to make it each night and was frustrated when I didn’t? Why was this one ratio all-consuming? Why did I dread it so much? Perhaps it was because I actually found it difficult to buy cake flour since many of the food shops around me didn’t have any or were simply out of it. It could be the fact that I kept forgetting the cream of tartar when I shopped at the grocery store. I don’t remember ever eating angel food cake, or if I did, it was only a handful of times. Maybe that was it. The required cooling time at the end definitely was the main show stopper for my attempts, but all in all, perhaps all of these reasons combined were the source of my trepidation and constant thought.
Last night was the night. The stars were finally aligned and I was able get to work. This was a simple ratio of 3 parts egg, 3 parts sugar and 1 part flour. No butter, no yolks, just three white ingredients.
Ruhlman states that good mise en place is essential with cake making. I followed his advice by pre-heating the oven to 350 degrees F and setting out the ingredients: eggs, sugar, cake flour, salt, creme of tartar, lemon and vanilla extract.
I started off with separating the whites from the yolks and placing the whites in the mixing bowl. This in itself was good skill training. After cracking 10 eggs in a row and separating them, you get into a rhythm. The yolks were not discarded, but saved for another use. Perhaps crème anglaise later on this week given my experience from the weekend class I took with my mom.
Once separated, the mixing bowl was attached to the stand mixer along with the whisk attachment. The whites were beat at a medium speed for about a minute or two and then the cream of tartar, lemon juice, salt and vanilla were added. I learned that the cream of tartar and lemon juice, the acids and the salt would act as stabilizers for the egg whites.
The speed was increased to medium-high and as instructed, I waited for a foam to develop and then drizzled in half of the sugar. This was an additional stabilizer that would help with the foaming process.
Once the sugar was incorporated I waited for the egg whites to be beat enough that they would work themselves into a firmer foam which could hold a soft peak as Ruhlman writes. Thankfully this is 2009 and not 1909. The stand mixer did most of the work which took far longer thank I expected. I waited, and waited and waited some more, and when I thought the wait was nearly over, it continued until I stopped counting the minutes.
As I waited, I simultaneously measured out the flour and the other half the sugar in the food processor using my scale and pulsed a few times to combine and aerate. When the egg whites could cold a soft peak, the mixer was turned off and the mixing bowl was removed.
While using a spatula, I sprinkled the sugar and flour mixture over the meringue that had formed, gently folding it in. This was actually nerve-racking as I was worried that I would destroy the network of air bubbles that I had just spend an eternity on creating. This stage was noted as being the most crucial to the end product and deemed more important the the ratio itself.
I poured the batter into my newly acquired spring-form pan and placed it into the oven to bake for about 30 or 40 minutes.
It looked pretty nice coming out of the oven. It was finally done, or was it?
As instructed, I let it cook upside down over a baking rack for an hour and a half before removing. Once cooled, I set out to remove the cake from the pan. The book didn’t call for lubricating the pan with shortening, butter or anything like that and I wish it had. It was a struggle to remove the cake from the pan. This might be a crucial element of the cake itself as a greased side would not have allowed for sticking and perhaps resulted in a sunken cake. Experiment will yield an answer to that one.
For all the work and aggravation this cake caused me, the result lived up to its name. It was soft, sweet and perfect to eat alone. It was a nice cake to eat as this morning’s breakfast pastry, a change from denser muffins and scones that I usually eat. Each task in this series yields new knowledge and experience. I hope to continue seeing each challenge as an opportunity while keeping my frustration and worrying to a minimum.
Last Christmas I bought my mother a gift certificate for a couples cooking class at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. Material gifts don’t carry the same weight that they used to, but experiential gifts, memories, those are priceless. After some thought and consideration, the natural choice was a French cooking class because of her love of French food.
Life seems to get in the way of things like this. We planned ahead and enrolled in a class for the spring, although unfortunately the instructor fell ill and was unable to make our class. Due to some scheduling mis-communication and changes we missed a class during the summer and finally were able to take the class tonight. Needless to say, the anticipation had been growing over time.
My mother had been sick a bit over a month ago and as a result has mysteriously lost her sense of taste and smell for most things. Obviously this is a terrible thing especially for someone who loves food and cooking so much. Of course it was also a terrible thing which would affect her enjoyment of this evening’s class.
I drove out to my parents’ house to pick mom up. We drove in together and easily found parking. The rain let up just as we were walking toward the school which was nice as cooking in soaked clothes doesn’t spell F.U.N. We arrived on time, signed in, made name tags and took a seat. We happened to be in the same kitchen as the first Back to Basics class I took in the spring. Our chef instructor was named Elise, and I recognized her face from the previous times at the school as well as the web site.
With everyone signed in we briefly went over the recipes for tonight’s meal. There were quite a few options to choose from, but enough for each “couple” to work on one. Our first choice was to work on the Roti de Porc Aux Pruneaux (Roast Pork with Prunes), but someone else’s hand was raise before ours to snatch that one up. We settled on the dessert, Chocolate and Prune Marquis with Armagnac and Crème Anglaise, our second choice. Elise went over kitchen safety, emphasized the goal of having fun while feeling free to experiment and cook to personal preference and taste and we all set out to begin our preparations.
Mom and I started with finely chopping the prunes and apricots. With a glance over she was impressed with my knife skills. Score! We also weighed out the chocolate and chopped that up.
Mom created melted the chocolate and butter over a double boiler and once read we mixed in the apricots and prunes and set that to cool in the walk-in refrigerator. While our chocolate ganache was cooling we whipped up some heavy creme in the stand mixer to mix and fold into the chocolate before placing it in the loaf pan for further cooling.
As our chocolate cooled in the walk-in we worked on the crème anglaise. I had never made this before, and was eager to try my hand at it. Being the basis for desserts like crème brûlée and ice cream, this was a valuable lesson to learn. It was fascinating to whisk the sugar with egg yolks together and watch them transform from a solid mass into a light, fluffy almost creamy mixture. Neither of us had worked with a whole vanilla bean before, only extracts so this was also a fun opportunity to work with an ingredient in its raw form. We scalded the milk with the bean in it and then set it aside to steep for 10 minutes so that the milk could absorb more of the vanilla flavor. Once ready, I poured the milk into the egg yolk and sugar mixture as my mom whisked it all together. We left the vanilla bean in for more flavor as we returned the pot to the stove. Elise helped us by using a thermometer to ensure that the crème did not exceed 180 degrees F so that the eggs would not curdle.
Once ready we set our crème to cool and thicken in an ice bath. It was dinner time. As it turned out, all the cooking had completed around the same time. The food was plated and set on a table for serving buffet style.
The dinner itself was really good, and with the cooking behind us, the our table started to open up, engage in conversation and share experiences. With dinner over it was “show time”. We were not the only ones who had made the dessert. Another couple at our table had also made the same thing.
We each portioned out 6 slices onto small plates. To our dismay, the crème anglaise that my mother and I had made had not thickened. We tried to figure out why and after careful review of the recipe learned that I had not added the half-and-half to the milk. It was listed as an ingredient, but a typo in the recipe which did not call out its use lead to me leaving it out. This mistake could have been avoided with proper mise en place as the cream would have been staring me right in the face asking to be used and resulting in a question for Elise about when it should be added.
We we able to use the crème anglaise that the other couple had made and served out the desserts. They all received rave reviews and thumbs up. Conversation was kept to a minimum for maximum focus and enjoyment. This was truly a rich and decadent dessert.
Tonight was a reminder that not everything can be perfect, but even with imperfection enjoyment can be had. I wish mom had been able to taste and enjoy the food more, but to me that was secondary to the time spent together and the fun we had. We’ll both remember this night for years to come. We also have the recipes we were able to take home and will be able to re-create and experiment with the other dishes we did not work on.
It was amazing to see how a group of strangers of varying experience could work separately and yet together, sharing counter space, tools, and stove tops to produce a truly enjoyable meal. This of course can be attributed to careful thought and planning on behalf of the school and the Chef Instructor Elise, our patient and knowledgeable leader in the kitchen. I can’t wait for my next class hopefully with mom by my side.
I recently happened upon a blog post about making Bordelaise sauce on the Food Wishes blog. I love making steak, but sometimes too much of a good thing can start to be a problem. I tend to season my steak with salt and pepper so as to not overwhelm it with a foreign flavor. I’ve always been suspicious of sauces and what they may be hiding. I truly enjoy the flavor of the meat, especially the subtle flavor of the meat I get from the CSA I am a member of. Chef John of Food Wishes had the perfect answer in Bordelaise sauce. Making a simple and light sauce such as Bordelaise was an easy way to add depth to the flavor of the meat while still being true to it.
Making the sauce was fun and easy. Not having beef stock on hand, I used store bought beef broth. Cringe, I know. To add further insult to injury to French cooking tradition, I also used some open Chianti as a wine instead of a traditional French wine. While going through the prescribed steps was not hard to do, an all important question did come to mind. How do you know when you have it right? and as I previously wrote, even if it is right, does it matter?
An interesting problem with following recipes or with taking inspiration from food blogs is that you don’t have a real live example to compare to, nor do you have the experience of someone who has come before you to guide you through your food preparation. While this is an interesting “gotcha”, the idea is that you are cooking for yourself or others; this enforces the notion of cooking through method and not relying on recipes. Once you have the basics down you are free to cook and experiment however you wish.
Dinner tonight was different, but not too different. Life keeps getting tastier each and every day.