Cooking Through Ratio: Choosing The Right Ingredients

Pound cake has become part of my repertoire and for good reason. It’s delicious, satiating, easy to make and the ratio is easy to memorize. 1 part butter, 1 part sugar, 1 part egg and 1 part flour. I first made pound cake in August, added blueberries as a twist, made it with brown butter as a tribute, and many other times in between. Pound cake is simple and yet versatile and a perfect candidate for variation and yet with all the flavor components that can be added, the basic ingredients matter just as much if not more when it comes to the final product.

Recently the show Good Eats featured pound cake as an American Classic food. Though born in England, the pound cake is equally popular as an American food staple. Alton adamantly believes that the ratio, despite many attempts to class it up or change proportions is a “good eats” as is. One key difference is that he suggests the use of cake flour instead of all purpose flour. Cake flour, according to the box is 27 times finer than all purpose flour. It also has less protein which means less gluten and has been chemically altered to produce better results with cakes. I decided to give this a try and see if my results in fact did yield a softer, smoother final product with the same great taste I enjoy.

The process was the same. Using the creaming method, I combined room temperature butter and sugar together. I then added in the eggs, one at a time as they were incorporated and a teaspoon of vanilla. Lastly, after slowing down the mixer to it’s lowest speed, I added the cake flour, just until it was incorporated, being careful not to over-mix so as to not create any more gluten than necessary which would make the pound cake chewy and tough.

The batter was a lot smoother and easier to scrape and pour than ones made with all purpose flour. The benefit of using cake flour would be evaluated after its baking.

Pound Cake Batter
Pound Cake Batter

After about 90 minutes, the baking was done. No difference was visible at first glance. The truth was locked inside.

Baked Pound Cake
Baked Pound Cake

Once cooled, I sliced into the bake loaf and discovered the truth behind the wisdom of using cake flour. The inside was certainly smoother while the taste of course was unaltered with a softer mouth-feel.

Pound Cake Slices
Pound Cake Slices

This was an interesting experiment and as with most food experiments, I am willing and  happy participant. Not having cake flour on hand will not prevent me from making pound cake in the future, but this was a great lesson on how ingredients can affect the overall results of a food product.

Continue Reading

Cooking Through Ratio: Stocks and the Amazing Things They Allow You to Do – Stocks – Chicken Stock

I recently made chicken stock and followed the same process and ratio of  3 parts water and 2 parts bones that I used for making beef stock.

Chickent Stock: Bones
Chickent Stock: Bones
Chicken Stock: 3 parts water
Chicken Stock: 3 parts water
Chicken Stock: Simmering
Chicken Stock: Simmering
Chicken Stock: Requires Skimming
Chicken Stock: Requires Skimming
Chicken Stock: Mirepoix
Chicken Stock: Mirepoix
Chicken Stock: Tomato Paste
Chicken Stock: Tomato Paste
Chicken Stock: Done Cooking
Chicken Stock: Done Cooking
Chicken Stock: Requires Straining
Chicken Stock: Requires Straining
Chicken Stock: Straining
Chicken Stock: Straining
Chicken Stock: Cooled & Requiring Another Skim
Chicken Stock: Cooled & Requiring Another Skim

Interestingly enough, even though I did not roast the chicken bones and had more meat on them than the beef bones, the end result including consistency and color were about the same as the beef stock. The tomato paste overwhelmingly changed the body and color of the final product. Of course the taste was much different, but labeling is definitely required for storage.

I now have 2 basic stocks under my belt and now look forward to using them to enhance the flavor of my food. This is one of those challenging food lessons that is tough to gauge. While I do in fact have stock in my freezer ready to use, having not made stock before and no good final product to compare it to, it is hard to say if I made a truly good stock. This is another example of being able to learn method in the absence of a teacher while still missing the guidance and evaluation that in class and/or in person training can provide.

Stay tuned for more challenges ahead!

Continue Reading

Cooking Through Ratio: Stocks and the Amazing Things They Allow You to Do – Stocks – Beef Stock

“…the single preparation that might elevate a home cook’s food from decent to spectacular  ” (p. 89) is how Ruhlman describes the importance of making a good stock.  In fact when the idea for the book Ratio was conceived, stock making was its beginning, often considered the foundation of cooking knowledge. Stocks are a key difference between home and restaurant cooking and often are the one thing that makes replicating your favorite dish at home difficult. I have never made stock before, was eager to try and recently had the pleasure of doing just that. That may sound funny but making a stock was actually a fun process combining a simple ratio, quality ingredients, a little method and time.

Prior to my last CSA pickup I made a request of them for bones as part of my share. They generously came through for me with four large beef bones included in my cooler.  Stock, despite it’s overall simplicity is a hotly (sorry about that one) debated topic in the culinary world when it comes to method. A key point of contention is the difference between making a light or dark stock which is primarily affected by the decision to roast the bones or not.

The ratio for stock is 3 parts water and 2 parts bones. It is a forgiving ratio that can be judged by sight with experience, but I weight everything out to be sure I got it right. I also opted to roast the bones with the hope of adding more flavor and body to my stock. They were placed on an oiled  sheet pan while I cranked up the oven heat to 425 degrees F.

Beef Stock: Raw Bones
Beef Stock: Raw Bones

As the bones roasted for the required 45 minutes with rotation half way through, smoke started coming through the stove top. The high heat was cooking the fat and filling my apartment with smoke. It didn’t take long for the smoke detectors to start going off. I was glad that I chose to do this on a weekend afternoon.

Beef Stock: Roasted Bones
Beef Stock: Roasted Bones

I put the bones into my stock pot, trying to get them in there efficiently so that the did not require any more water than the ratio required.

Beef Stock: Bones in Water
Beef Stock: Bones in Water

The measured water was  added which was the perfect amount to just cover the bones. With the water in the stock pot, the stove heat was turned on. Using my thermometer I let the temperature of the water rise to just below simmering at 180 degrees F which turned out to be just below medium on my small stove top coil.

Beef Stock: Simmered Bones
Beef Stock: Simmered Bones

At that temperature, the good stuff started happening. The flavor was extracted from the bones while the gelatin, the key component that adds body to a stock, was released as well.

Once everything was to temperature, I skimmed the the top to get rid of the fat and impurities. The water and bones simmered for 5 hours. With an hour left to go I created mirepoix, carefully dicing carrots, onions and celery. I chose not to sweat them prior to cooking and threw into the pot.

Beef Stock: Mirepoix
Beef Stock: Mirepoix

I also added pepper and tomato paste to add additional taste and color.

Beef Stock: With Tomatoes and Pepper
Beef Stock: With Tomatoes and Pepper

After an hour had passed I removed the pot from the heat to cool briefly.

Beef Stock: Cooked Mirepoix
Beef Stock: Cooked Mirepoix

After removing the aromatics, the stock was poured through a cheesecloth lined strainer to take out the impurities.

Beef Stock: Straining
Beef Stock: Straining

Everything was strained into a glass bowl to be chilled overnight. This would allow the stock to cool down and the fat to coagulate for easy removal.

Beef Stock: Strained
Beef Stock: Strained

The next day a light film of fat had developed on the top which I skimmed before dividing into plastic bags for freezing.

Beef Stock: Coagulated Fat
Beef Stock: Coagulated Fat

While having a ratio for making stock was not entirely needed, following a simple guide through the process made the first time around fool proof and easy. Having one batch under my belt will make future ones a lot easier and hopefully as time goes on the process will become second nature. Hopefully as I get comfortable and stock making becomes more routine I won’t have to use the wretched pre-made “broth” found in the grocery store. My stock alone may not elevate me to a great home cook right now, but it’s a step in the right direction and a satisfying one at that.

Continue Reading

Good Bye Gourmet: A Final Lesson with Brown Butter Pound Cake

To further my learning and garner inspiration I recently subscribed to both Bon Appétit and Gourmet magazines. I had been on the fence about doing so and wondered if it really was worth the money. After all I have the food network and public television and the internet at my fingertips right? Magazines are dying by the dozens. Why would I want subscribe? Truth be told, TV and food blogs aren’t all there is out there nor are they always the best sources of information and/or inspiration. I ultimately subscribed and so far have really enjoyed the content I have read through. Both magazines provide a depth and perspective that really isn’t available on TV and most blogs and information sites. It’s nice to have clear and concise information to read through, along with tips, photos and recipes. Just reading through the magazines on a monthly basis is an efficient way to obtain a culinary education, follow trends and learn about food.

Recently and and unexpectedly to most, the news came out that Gourmet magazine would cease to exist. The major reason the magazine’s demise was the shrinking revenue the magazine received as a result of advertising. Professionally, being in the ad business in a growing and new form of advertising media where dollars are shifting to, mobile advertising, this was less of a shock to me perhaps than most, but unfortunate to say the least, and hey, by the way, I just subscribed! Perhaps what is surprising to me is that the magazine is not that the magazine is shutting down during a troubled economy as a result of declining revenue and tough operating conditions,  but that it is doing so when the American and global interest in food is at a high and continues to increase. People are cooking and learning how to cook now faster than ever as a means to save money and as a result in the popularity of rising chef stars that have a tremendous cultural impact on food and culture.

The effect of the news about the magazine’s closing was not all negative. The outspoken food community is showing their support and appreciation for this long-standing magazine through the use of social media and blogging. Examples include a newly formed twitter account, Save Gourmet and a blogging event “Let’s Celebrate Gourmet“, on the blog A Mingling of Tastes written by blogger Julie O’Hara. Social media and blogging can have a powerful effect on  raising awareness around issues, events gathering support for causes. If the positive support for the magazine is enough for the powers that be to reverse the decided course of action remains to be seen.

I decided to show my support by following Save Gourmet and by participating in the “Let’s Celebrate Gourmet event by following and blogging about a Gourmet recipe. Even though I don’t have a favorite recipe per se, I do appreciate the magazine for the learning that I have benefited from so far. I also appreciate the clear and concise recipes that are provided. I have only cooked from one recipe before with great success, while also benefiting from inspiration, but this would not deter me from participating. Knowing what is required, the prep and total cooking time and necessary equipment take any apprehension about making a recipe away. For this post, I chose to attempt a new recipe as a final lesson and tribute to the magazine and decided to make Brown Butter Pound Cake.

Up until this point, brown butter represented a mistake in cooking and not a height in culinary sophistication and wisdom. I had only observed it after putting a pat of butter on a pan that was too hot and watching it turn dark before my eyes, never getting a chance to flavor and aid with the cooking of the intended food object. My latest issue of Gourmet has an entire page (144) dedicated to making food using brown butter and that praises it for its distinctive nutty taste, stating that its use will result in a “culinary home run”. So it goes with food. Everything seems to have a time, a place and proper use. That’s life.

The recipe of course was easy to follow. Using the brown butter admittedly required an open mind while convincing myself that I would not be working with or ingesting some sort of poisoned or foul tasting food. The cooking times were pretty true to what was promised and the results surprisingly good given the use of what I once thought was a tainted culinary bi-product.

Brown Butter Pound Cake
Brown Butter Pound Cake

Taking “risks” and trying new methods open one door after the other as I learn each and every day. While Gourmet’s doors may be closing, it sure has left an indelible impression with its loyal readers and food culture as a whole. I only wish I had the chance to experience more of what it had to offer.

Continue Reading

Reluctant Sweet Tooth

Meringue and Lemon Curd
Meringue and Lemon Curd

Trying to learn how to cook while staying in shape and not gaining weight is a challenge unto itself. It’s even harder when you learn how to make something that tastes really good and doubly so when what you learn how to make is not good for you and really addictive. Meringues would be this something.

I made them on Friday with the extra egg whites left over from the ice cream I made for my mom’s birthday party, but left the remaining meringue at my parents’ house for them to savor. I needed more egg whites but didn’t want to make more ice cream. After doing some research online, I came across a recipe for lemon curd that would be a perfect companion to the meringues.

I separated the egg yolks from the whites and went to work on the lemon curd using a double boiler created with a pot and glass bowl.

Cooking Lemon Curd
Cooking Lemon Curd

I whisked together the ingredients in a matter of minutes and set the lemon curd in the refrigerator to cool. Now the fun part lay ahead.

I used the meringue method and recipe that I had used before to ensure repeat success. The egg whites were strained into the stand mixer bowl (wiped with lemon juice for acid that would make foaming easier) to remove impurities and weighed.

Straining Egg Whites
Straining Egg Whites

I added a bit of cream of tartar to the bowl as a bit of insurance.

Egg Whites
Egg Whites

I next weighed out 2 parts sugar as required.

Measured Sugar
Measured Sugar

I turned on the mixer at high speed to start beating the egg whites.

Foaming Egg Whites
Foaming Egg Whites

The egg whites started to stiffen up after about 10 minutes at high speed.

Stiffening Egg Whites
Stiffening Egg Whites

The egg whites were beat until they achieved soft peaks.

Firm Egg Whites
Firm Egg Whites

The sugar was added slowly so that it could be incorporated into the egg whites and develop stiff peaks.

Meringues Beaten
Meringues Beaten

The intense white and thickness was quite a transformation to observe as a result of the network of air, protein and sugar that developed.

Meringue
Meringue

Using a spatula a pastry bag filled with meringue which I used to pipe out decent sized meringues onto a parchment paper lined baking sheet.

Meringues
Meringues

The meringues were baked at 220 degrees F for 90 minutes. They need a bit more time so I left them in the oven for another 10 minutes after which they were taken out and allowed to cool.

Baked Meringues
Baked Meringues

These were just as good as the ones I made the first time around, but actually a bit overdone as a result of either my hotter oven or the lack of a glass on my oven door which would allow me to check on things. I need to get an oven with one of those.

Sadly the lemon curd was not to my liking and unlike the one my cousin Andrea used for my mom’s birthday cake. I could still taste a bit of the yolk and it was not as sweet and lemony as I was hoping for.  I’ll have to use her recipe the next time around.

Meringue and Lemon Curd
Meringue and Lemon Curd
Continue Reading

Good Bye Takeout

Takeout Menus
Takeout Menus

It’s been a while since my last post. I was very busy with planning for and executing on my mom’s birthday celebration. More on that later.

As I reflect, it’s only been about 9 months since I started this journey and I’m a long way from the “clueless cook” I once was.  Tomorrow is trash and recycling day and as a symbolic gesture I am tossing out all of my takeout menus with the recyclables. This isn’t to say that I will never order out when time is an issue, but more often than not I shall continue to cook my own meals, not only to save on money and improve my skill but also to be more aware of what I am putting into my body. It’s a win, no matter how you look at it.

Continue Reading

Cooking Through Ratio: Doughs and Batters – Quick Cakes – Crepes

The final quick cake in the Cooking Through Ratio series involved making crepes. Crepes have always had a mystique about them for me. They seemed fussy and delicate and of course are oh so French. They are fun because they can be eaten at any time of day and are a great vehicle for flavor. Depending on the ingredients they are made of they can be used as part of savory dishes, desserts or as they are commonly eaten, breakfast food.

Ruhlman states that a basic crepe ratio consists of 1 part liquid, 1 part egg and 1/2 part flour. They have a higher liquid / egg ratio to flour than pancakes which result in a thinner batter and flatter food.

Last night I went on a run after work with a co-worker that left me winded and utterly tired. My cardio-fitness level has become a sad state of affairs. I needed a dinner that would involve simple preparation while balancing protein and carbohydrates. The crepe was perfect and happened to be next in line for this series. Timing really is everything.

I combined the ingredients which included a bit of salt, sugar and vanilla extract for flavoring and blended them together with a whisk. I chose milk as my liquid for extra flavor over water.

Whisked Crepe Batter
Whisked Crepe Batter

Crepes call for resting the batter for at least 30 minutes. This allows the flour to hydrate, resulting in a smoother batter without lumps of dry flour.

Hydrated Crepe Batter
Hydrated Crepe Batter

So far so good. The moment of truth was upon me. With a hot buttered pan ready to go I poured the batter into the pan. Everything cooked well, but the end result was a crepe that was too thick.

Thick Crepe
Thick Crepe

I added more water to the batter, whisked and after a few attempts with varying amounts of batter ended up with the thin crepe I was looking for.

Thin Crepe
Thin Crepe

After cooling on a rack, I plated the crepes and covered them with butter and maple syrup for another delicious breakfast for dinner meal.

Crepe with Buter and Maple Syrup
Crepe with Buter and Maple Syrup

These weren’t nearly as hard as I had expected. Each one that I made was better and easier than the one before it. There were a few things that I did note. I’m sure that while the milk aided with the flavor, it also added to the overall thickness of the batter. Trying out different combinations and ratios liquids to get the right thickness will help next time around and overall with success.  Simply adding water might be all that is needed. Also using a measured ladle to get a consistent pour into the pan is something I’ll have to try next time around. Dropping the batter in by sight and spreading it out over the entire pan was tough to do.Overall the results were pretty good and didn’t require to much effort, the perfect simple recipe to cook after a hard workout.

Continue Reading