Ratio, Method and the Difference a Pan Makes

“Rebuilding” a kitchen and improper planning sometimes result in lessons learned. Sometimes that lesson is simple, follow the directions.

I like making pound cake. For one thing it’s simple. It’s also a quarter butter and a quarter sugar. The rest is just a matter of necessity. I’ve definitely experimented with size and shape before, but it was more calculated versus a last minute decision. The great thing about ratios is that you can scale up or down pretty easily. In baking, a key component for cakes is the pan in which they are baked in. Not having a loaf pan, I opted to pour my batter into my nine-inch square pyrex pan and hoped for the best. The problem here was that I was now baking in a new oven, with a new pan shape and had to figure out what my new cook time would be. That aside, the one thing I didn’t account for was the pan depth. The batter of course was quite spread out and as a result, the finished product was more crust and less soft and buttery cake. Pound cake requires a particular depth to crust ratio for success which this end result didn’t meet. As I commute back and forth between Boston and New York, I’ll have to bring down a spare loaf pan for my next batch.

Square Pound Cake

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Food Memories

Some food memories stick with you for one reason or another. Sometimes the reason is not explainable and other times it’s crystal clear, serving as a reference point to a period in our lives that we hold dear. I was barely 10 when my grandmother, my mother’s mother, passed away. She often stayed with my family for long periods of time taking care of me and my sister. She would pass the time with us by playing games and cooking. The house always smelled amazing. She was adept at cooking many delicious Latin meals and basic food items like rice and beans or fried sweet plantains. The fall before she left, for whatever reason, we grew a bit of corn in our back yard garden, enough for a few meals. While different than corn from Honduras (where my mother’s side of the family is from), she took it upon herself to use some of the corn to create corn tamales or as they are knowing in Honduras, montucas. I remember peeling them open after they had just been cooked, the steam escaping and the sweet aroma of the corn escaping into the air. We devoured them instantly. The semi-solid, slightly creamy tamale, a combination of sweet with a bit of salt was amazing. It was one tradition that my mother didn’t pick up before moving to the US and as a result I never had the likes of it again. I would ask my mother every so often if she would attempt to make it, but without any basis or experience for making it inevitably she didn’t know where to start.

Cultural heritage and tradition are just as much a part of if not entwined with cooking as the ingredients. Meals start with a blank canvas that is shaped by the experiences, traditions and tastes of those who cook. I was listening to an episode of the podcast, Chef’s Story. During the interview, Chef Joe Viehland stated, “if you don’t cook with flavors from your childhood, you have no frame of reference.” In some ways I agree with this. When I cook, I’m often drawn to using ingredients like tortillas or plantains and spices like cumin to shape my meals. I believe that you can learn and develop perspective for new flavors, although it may take more time and effort for them to feel “authentic”.

Last night I visited my parents’ house to see my mother’s stepmother, Bella. She was on vacation and visiting the Boston area. While making plans, my mother said that she was running to the grocery story to pick up corn to make montucas. I smiled. I wondered if I would finally relive the taste memory that I had longed for. We sat down for dinner. I happened to sit in my childhood chair location. To my delight, Bella served up some amazing montucas.

Bella's Montuca

 

Each bite brought me back to that day when I first tasted my grandmothers. This time around, my mother was around watching and learning. It’s funny, as Bella made the same remarks about the corn being different, more sweet and watery than the savory and hearty varieties found in Latin America. Despite the differences, the end result was right for me. This was my memory and I know I’ll be there at the stove, watching and learning when it’s time to make them again to keep that memory alive.

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Pasta & Ratios, What A Difference Ingredients Make

I bought a pasta roller to compliment my KitchenAid and finally had an opportunity to use it. I keep the machine in New York while I have my KitchenAid and attachments in Somerville. As much as I would like to travel back and forth with my mixer, it’s not a practical option of course. I haven’t made pasta since taking classes at Dave’s Fresh Pasta in Somerville about 9 months ago, and as a result I pretty much forgot what to do. I didn’t have my class recipes on hand and turned to Ratio for some guidance. Having documented successful attempts before (Cooking Through Ratio: Doughs and Batters – Pasta , Cooking Through Ratio: Doughs and Batters – More Pasta) I was confident in the ratio and experimentation based on what I learned during a class at Dave’s.

Just before heading to the gym last night, I decided that I could make some pasta dough and have it rest in the fridge while I completed my workout knowing that when I got back I would be tired and hungry and wouldn’t want to wait for the dough to rest in that state. Cooking for myself, I decided to cut the recipe down by a third. I love pasta, but didn’t want to be a glutton. What could go wrong using a ratio? I would soon find out.

I replaced half of the measured all purpose flour with Semolina. We used a combination of Semolina and Durum at Dave’s, roughly a 50/50 mixture is what I remembered. I really enjoyed the texture and taste of that pasta, some of the best I’ve ever had, and was hoping I would come close despite the use of all purpose flour. This wasn’t to be.

Ratio Pasta with Semolina - Flour

As I made the dough, I could sense that the texture was naturally different. This wasn’t a surprise given the use of a different mixture of flour, but I realized that I had forgotten what it was supposed to feel like or wondered if I could know what it should feel like given a combination I had never used before. While kneading I used the all purpose flour on the counter and soaked up quite a bit.

Ratio Pasta with Semolina - Kneaded Dough

When the visible air pockets were gone, I wrapped the dough in plastic and put it in the fridge, heading out for my run.

Ratio Pasta with Semolina - Rested Dough

When I got back, I broke out the machine, and took the dough out of the fridge. It looked and felt different, not quite smooth and springy, but I had yet to reach the moment of truth.

Ratio Pasta with Semolina - Rested Dough

I cut the dough into portions that I could easily feed through the rollers and started rolling. Disaster struck. The dough did not hold together. It was rough, filled with holes as it spread out and generally fell apart. No matter what I tried, adding more all purpose flour, adding more oil, kneading, it simply did not work out for me.

Plan B was a box of pasta in the cupboard and some leftover sauce I made with cherry tomatoes from the farmers’ market in Union Square. The sauce was definitely a highlight. The tomatoes were amazing.

Ratio Pasta with Semolina - Boxed Penne Pasta

Not all of life is success and learning often comes from failure. I’m confident I can nail the pasta with some changes to the ingredients and ratio of them. It’s obvious that not all flours are created equal or will behave the same way. At least I have a baseline to work with having tried this time.

 

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A Return To The CSCA

Cambridge School of Culinary Arts

Given my Boston roots and recent visits to other schools (ICE and ICC), I keep circling back to attending the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. It’s size, location, and focus, seem like a great fit. Over the past few months I’ve been communicating with the admissions staff regarding the school’s programs, Culinary and Pastry, trying to decide which track makes the most sense. Much of it is a personal decision as much as a career one. The decision between a certificate and the professional program is also one that I’m considering.

Yesterday I visited the admissions office to get more perspective and to ask more pointed questions I’ve been wrestling with regarding what’s next. The conversation was easy, informative and gave me better insight into the program. Fingers are crossed as to how the next few months will unfold. Based on work commitments, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to start with the January class or if I’ll have to wait for May. The prospect of school is still as exciting as it ever was and I have a lot of thinking to do around applying.

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