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.

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Cooking Through Ratio: Doughs and Batters – Quick Cakes – Quick Bread / Muffin

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.

Cherry Muffin Batter
Cherry Muffin Batter

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.

Cherry Muffins
Cherry Muffins

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.

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Cooking Through Ratio: Doughs and Batters – More Cookies

Freshly Baked Peanut Butter Cookies
Freshly Baked Peanut Butter Cookies

It’s cookie night again tonight in my apartment.  I promised Cassie I would make her some for a care package to be mailed and by request made peanut butter cookies based on a recipe she found and has tasted. How does this fit with Michael Ruhlman’s cookie ratio you ask?

A cookie is a cookie. Cookies have different ingredients, but the requirement of sugar, fat and flour remain constant. These core ingredients, re-worked allow for variations on cookies allowing you to create cookies that are crispy, chewy, soft, hard, plain,  or chocolate and much more. The interesting thing about this cookie ratio is that it not only uses brown sugar instead of white, but the moisture and fat come from a combination of milk, shortening and an egg. Additional flavorings were added, but again the core remained the same.

I made everything in my stand mixer bowl as described and combined the ingredients using the paddle attachment. Once combined, I scooped tablespoon sized portions onto cookie sheets and baked them. 7 impatient minutes later and I was in peanut butter heaven.

Peanut Butter Cookies Cooling
Peanut Butter Cookies Cooling

The cookies are great and markedly different than the first batch of cookies I made last week. They are softer, chewier and more flavorful. There is a subtle balance of sweet along with the peanut butter and funny enough old mister shortening adds his unmistakable texture and moisture to the party. I’ll have to say one thing, working with butter and shortening is a nightmare. They make everything sticky and hard to clean, but the final product makes up for the hassle to some extent.

I am eager to substitute butter for the shortening the next time around which is actually the opposite of what is usually done to see how the change in fat affects the overall result. Butter having some water along with the fat should change things up a bit also. If only Alton Brown was around to help me do some quick math. I’ll have to wait for a day in the future and earlier hour to fully understand this ratio and how the changes in the basic ingredients lent themselves to producing this very different and very delicious final result.

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Visiting the New England Culinary Institute

NECI, Main Street Grill & Bar
NECI, Main Street Grill & Bar

This weekend I took an extended three day weekend trip with my family to Vermont. We haven’t had the opportunity to take our usual week or longer family trip this year so going up north to visit Burlington, Vermont and the surrounding towns looked like a fun way to kick back and relax before summer’s end.

Forty years ago, my mother came from Honduras to study on an academic scholarship to Vermont College, located in Montpelier. While a student, she met my father a professor at Norwich University and the rest as they say is history. My sister and I of course are evidence of that.

Since we were going to be passing by Montpelier on our way up to Burlington I thought it would be fun to combine a visit to the New England Culinary Institute, also known as NECI for short, while also visiting what was the campus of her college which no longer exists, and how now become part of NECI and other institutions such as the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Both of my parents were eager to visit the small town to relive old memories and retell old stories that are part of our family’s history. While touring the Institute we could also eat at the school run restaurant in town and the one on Church Street in Burlington. She was really excited by this and so I called the number on the NECI web site to get information about tours, the school and the restaurant and also to do some research to see if her dorm was still there.

When I called the number I asked the woman on the phone about tours. She politely informed me that there weren’t tours of the school available and that it would best to seek out students on campus to talk to them about their experience. This didn’t seem right to me. What kind of sales pitch was this? I didn’t want to spend a lot of our vacation time on a treasure hunt for buildings and students. She also was unfamiliar with the specific dorm I was looking for, which as it turns out was part of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, 100 yards from the New England Culinary Institute admission building. I began to wonder where the call center for the toll free number I had called was located. The school wasn’t that big was it? She also corrected me when I mentioned my intention of wanting to eat at the Institute’s restaurant in Burlington. Apparently that had closed down a couple of years ago too, but she was eager to point out the truly fabulous food at the Main Street Bar & Grill, the restaurant run by the Institute and its students. The loss of their flagship restaurant was not a good sign especially in the fast growing city.

Saturday we arrived and within a few minutes of driving around we found my mother’s old dorm and her room. That was easy. We walked around campus and viewed some of the buildings owned by NECI while also viewing some of the buildings that belonged to other institutions. My mother was excited and happy and we were all getting hungry. It was time to eat.

Mom's College Dorm
Mom's College Dorm

We made the short drive down the hill to the Main Street Bar & Grill. We had been here before many years before to eat and had a pleasurable experience although on that trip we didn’t actually drive around Montpelier as we had this time.

After a short wait for an outside patio seat we sat down and ordered our meal. Our waiter, Joshua, a student was friendly and welcoming and overall did a great job especially given the fact that he was a culinary student and only serving as part of the curriculum rotation. This is pretty much where my praise ends. Overall everyone felt that the food was pretty good but really under-seasoned. I had flashbacks to the basics cooking class I took at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts where Chef Angie told us that new cooks generally are afraid of using too much salt and usually under-season their food. Was this day one of the rotation I wondered? The dressing on my salad lacked taste as did the other components of my dishes. The dessert was in fact the best part of the meal which is fortunate because it is the last impression a restaurant gets to make on a customer, but also unfortunate as my aspirations involve the culinary program and not the baking and pastry program.

Appetizer: Asparagus, Salmon & Poached Egg Salad
Appetizer: Asparagus, Salmon & Poached Egg Salad
Main Dish: Gnocchi
Main Dish: Gnocchi
Dessert: Salted Caramel Ice Cream
Dessert: Salted Caramel Ice Cream

Plating was another thing I noted. While we were only eating lunch, I was expecting more for presentation. My appetizer and main dish appeared as two distinct dishes while the dessert was already melted and lacked color. While not at the heart of culinary training, this is something that is important to me; a well plated dish evokes emotion and clues you into what you are about to taste. As far as showing off technique and skill, this just wasn’t doing it for me.

I asked our server about touring the facilities. He kindly informed us that we could walk to the back of the restaurant and through the back door to view classrooms and the rest of the facility. Once we were back there I was let down again, looking at the small drab classrooms. They just didn’t look inviting, and in contrast to the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts they were completely removed from the cooking setting entirely. While having an on site restaurant is a plus for any culinary school the complete separation from the classroom and kitchen didn’t feel appropriate. I also wondered where the rest of the school was. Was that the wrong question to be asking? Was this all there was?

After finishing our meal, we left to walk down the street and get a sense of the town. My parents walked and noted how much things had changed and how the area had grown and modernized. I saw a town only slightly more populated than where I grew up, a stark contrast from living in Boston, a world class city with neighborhoods and numerous cultural culinary influences and establishments. We visited the student run baker, La Brioche and sampled some of their baked goods and pastries. Delicious. Another home run for the baking and pastry program.

NECI, La Brioche
NECI, La Brioche

The New England Culinary Institute was the school were famed Alton Brown matriculated. I had high expectations of what the school had to offer after reading it’s web site contents and given the aptitude and success Alton Brown has attained. I left the school feeling disappointed and yet I don’t think my high expectations were misplaced especially since I have fond memories of eating at NECI restaurants in the past. I wonder what had changed, but left clearly feeling that if I did decide to pursue culinary school, this place wasn’t for me.

I may not have seen all of the buildings, fancy kitchens and labs the school had to offer, but as a someone interested in the school it just seems like I could have gotten more out of my visit with a little friendly guidance and key points of differentiation to focus on. I know when I have guests I do my best to make them feel welcomed and answer all of the questions they have. A school where I could potentially spend a large amount of my hard earned money would do well to have a similar philosophy.

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