Friday, November 30, 2012

How does she keep her girlish figure?

Clockwise from top: Cheerio bar, Nanaimo bar, butter tart
I love the way Canada is just slightly different from the United States. At first it all looks the same and then you start to notice the differences, which are many and subtle. I'll limit myself here to the differences in Canadian baked goods. The abundance of bakeries, tea rooms, and cafes in Victoria made it easy to do my research yesterday.


-Shortbread is the chocolate chip cookie of British Columbia. It's everywhere. I did not sample any shortbread as I would be unable to stop eating it and I already know what shortbread tastes like.

-British Columbians do not malign the fruitcake. I saw numerous home-baked fruitcakes for sale and bought a marzipan-topped cake at a popular bakery called Bubby Rose's. I asked the woman at the counter how long it would last and she considered for a minute and said, "June?" I'm going back to the Dutch Bakery (thank you Anonymous) to buy one of their fruitcakes today.

-I noticed lumpish agglomerations of Cheerios and mini marshmallows at several bakeries before I realized this was a trend. I bought a Cheerios bar and discovered that it contained not just the evident Cheerios and marshmallows, but also peanut butter. I liked it, but was able to stop eating without struggle. It's no Rice Krispie treat.

-I was unacquainted with the Canadian butter tart until yesterday afternoon, but now we are dear friends. Generally sold as muffin-size pies, a butter tart consists of a flaky pastry crust that holds a golden and very gooey raisin filling. It's like a bright, sunny pecan pie, but with raisins instead of/in addition to nuts. I'm going to try baking the bar version of this lovely sweet.

-The ubiquitous Nanaimo bar involves a chocolate crumb crust topped with a layer of vanilla custard/buttercream topped with a thin, firm coat of melted chocolate. Because quests make everything more fun, I decided to find the best Nanaimo bar in Victoria. I would be in the hospital now if I'd actually tasted every bar in town, but I did sample quite a few and can say with some assurance that in Victoria you want to buy your Nanaimo bar from Bond's Bond (the best vanilla filling) or the cafe at the Royal British Columbia Museum (the best crust).

There are some vile Nanaimo bars out there. The filling in one seemed to be made with canned frosting, but the worst was a raw, organic pretender made with dates, brazil nuts, and coconut oil. I'm not going to malign the coffee house where I bought it, but can offer a warning: An earthy cafe that employs young hippies to ladle up the lentil soup will, as a rule, serve Nanaimo bars you don't want to eat.

I had dinner at Re-Bar on Wednesday night -- thank you Anonymous! It was great.

I bought breakfast at Devour yesterday morning -- thank you to another Anonymous. Devour is a tiny, bright place and along one wall are shelves of kitchenwares and cookbooks.

I spent a few minutes studying the collection. A lot of familiar titles, but a handful of others I'd never heard of, like a gorgeous book by Neil Perry, an Australian chef who is much adored by commenters on amazon. The collection was just slightly different from what you find back home.
 Vij's cookbook is there.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The pause that refreshes?

I fell behind.
In fact, nothing needed refreshing. The pause happened because living/cooking/eating/plotting got so far ahead of posting that catching up started to feel impossible. Weeks went by. The hole got deeper. The only solution is to do the most cursory catch up, forget the rest, and move on like I never missed a beat.

Cursory catch up:

1. I wrote a story on antique pie recipes. I've wondered about those mysterious old pie recipes for decades and now I don't have to anymore -- and neither do you! -- because I baked enough obscure vintage pies to learn that recipes go extinct for a reason. Well, usually. In case you don't want to read the whole story, Jefferson Davis pie is delicious, dark, and raisiny, though you really have to love both highly spiced Christmas puddings and the gooey part of pecan pie to appreciate it. Butterscotch meringue pie is also excellent, though you really have to love both butter and sugar to appreciate it. Since that includes almost everyone, I made the butterscotch pie again for Thanksgiving and my sister and I agreed that it was the best pie of the night.

2. I wrote a story about berries, which I turned in last week when no berry except the cranberry is in season. It was challenging to describe the exquisite appeal of a Hood strawberry or an Idaho huckleberry when I've never seen or tasted either, but I've always suspected I could write fiction. We'll see whether the editor agrees. I became fixated on berries while writing the story and was inspired to bake a red raspberry pie for Thanksgiving. This was my husband's favorite pie and while it was very tasty, it was no butterscotch meringue. I used frozen berries because Janie Hibler said it was ok and she wrote the book on berries
No one was hooked.
3. I also turned in a story about the Momofuku Milk Bar Cookbook.  I'll spare you the big think on Milk Bar until the story runs. If it runs. I will just say that the Milk Bar crack pie  was the least popular of the Thanksgiving pies and that Milk Bar's Saltine panna cotta is revolting.
4. In addition to the aforementioned pies, Isabel and I baked rhubarb pie, lemon chess, chocolate cream, pecan, and pumpkin. Various wags referred to the rhubarb pie as "celery pie" because the rhubarb, which came from our garden, was green. Do you like the word wags? I hope not because I will probably never use it again.
celery pie 
5. That's about it for Thanksgiving, but I made the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook S'more cake for Owen's birthday party. It consists of graham cracker-flavored layers sandwiched with milk chocolate ganache and iced with meringue. Predictably, the boys were in awe of the cake's billowy bakery shop beauty and that counts for a lot. It was a fine cake, but after the first day, no one ate any. If you cut a cake and no one touches it for five days, this is not a cake you should make again. A great cake is always in play.

Why wasn't this cake great? I can't really put my finger on it, but the pieces just didn't quite work together. It was less than the sum of its parts.
great looking, not great
7. However, every last floret of Smitten's broccoli slaw vanished within 24 hours. The recipe is on her site and you should make it. More than the sum of its parts.

8.  November is a hard time in America to concentrate on the cuisine of Southeast Asia, but I've tried. The tender greens salad from Burma is a wonderful melange of blanched pea shoots, fried garlic fried shallots, roasted peanuts, and lime juice. The recipe is here. The grapefruit salad was less harmonious, but with some tweaking could be great. The sweet tart chicken was very plain, and the beef stew with shallots was tasty. I may take a hiatus from Burma, as the next few weeks just don't feel Burmese.

9.  Tomorrow I am going to British Columbia on magazine business for a few days. If you have any restaurant suggestions in either Victoria or Richmond, please send them my way.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Burma, Burma, Burma and a little Smitten

"This is one of the most unusual and delicious dishes I have ever come across," writes Naomi Duguid in the preface to her recipe for Kachin pounded beef with herbs. 

And this is now one of the most unusual and delicious dishes I have ever come across, as well. I hadn't been madly in love with anything I'd cooked from Burma until Tuesday night, when I served the Kachin pounded beef. You need to make it. The recipe is here.

I'd never cooked meat this way before and you probably haven't either, which is part of the magic. Easy magic, though; don't be intimidated. You cut beef chuck into cubes, braise it, saute it, and then pound it to shreds in a mortar with ginger, garlic, Sichuan pepper, cilantro and salt (I recommend a bit more salt than she calls for.)  If you don't own a big, heavy mortar you could probably use a mallet and a cutting board to get the job done. As you pound you're simultaneously tenderizing the meat and pummeling zesty flavor into every morsel, a technique that makes our crude chunks and rectangles of pot roast and steak seem primitive.

I made Duguid's Mandalay carrot salad that same night, another recipe that entails pounding, but here it's carrot shreds that get the treatment. After you pound them with fish sauce and lime juice, you toss the tart, salty shreds with roasted peanuts, toasted chickpea powder (which makes everything mellow and starchy -- I adore this condiment), dried shrimp powder, and caramelized fried shallots.  Serve with rice. I have not cooked a better dinner in ages.

A few nights later, I made Duguid's silky Shan soup which was equally interesting to make and almost as fun to eat. I would call this "velvety porridge" rather than "silky soup" but whatever it's called, it's tasty. You mix chickpea flour with boiling water and cook until it's thick and shiny then pour this rich porridge over tender white vermicelli noodles and blanched greens. Serve in individual bowls and dress it up, congee style, with chile oil, shallot oil, roasted peanuts, cilantro and any other assertive garnishes that appeal.

I could eat this every day and lately do.
My kind of food.  I ate leftovers for lunch on Friday, for lunch and dinner on Saturday, and for breakfast this morning. I should tell you, though, that the reason there was so much left over was that no one else liked it. We don't have a tradition of savory porridge in this country and my family found it "too weird." I have to agree that the texture of this dish takes a little getting used to. It took me about 4 seconds.

On another subject, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook landed 10 days ago. I admire Deb Perelman tremendously. I'm both jealous and in awe of the way she has kept that blog fueled, week in, week out, never missing a beat. It can't be easy. She is a pro and I had to own her book.

And I'm glad I do. Smitten Kitchen is both a supremely polished production and a labor of love. Really, the best kind of cookbook. While I'm not as charmed by Perelman's stories as some readers are, no one is going to force me to read them all. While I'm not personally drawn to 100% of the recipes, I know that they will all work perfectly. I can't wait to bake the S'more layer cake and the deepest dish apple pie and I have already tried her recipe for buttered popcorn cookies. These were so sweet-salty-buttery-delicious that my nephew Ben ate a dozen or so and then cried when he found out there were none left. I wanted to cry, too!

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Vote YES on Measure B

Sometimes we all get compulsive.
I baked 10 old fashioned American pies over the weekend and what a fascinating lesson that was in the dangers of romanticizing the past. Two of the pies were delicious, two were ok, and the rest found their best and highest use as lunch for the chickens. I have to finish the story about the pies today. Whenever a deadline looms, I decide I need to write a blog post, even when I have little to say.

Here's what I want to say: Michael Ruhlman put up a great, thought-provoking  piece yesterday about the propriety of sharing political views on a food blog. Then he shared his political views. If you have an hour or so to spare, you should read the post and then read the 200+ comments, which run the gamut from "Rock on!" to "I believe it is abhorrent to murder unborn babies for the 'convenience' of a woman, and will never visit your blog again, Mr. Ruhlman. Have a nice life."

What do you think about politics in non-political forums? I can't decide what I think. I admire the way Ruhlman just put it out there and let people bark at him. You have to be tough to take that, tougher than I am for sure. I'm glad he did it, but I'm also glad everyone doesn't because the whole internet would burst into flames and explode and we'd all just end up hating each other even more than we already do. Am I the only one ready to get back to Facebook posts about cats?

You're all wondering now, so I'll just spit it out: I really am voting yes on Measure B. But I have to finish this pie story first, so it's time to get cracking. I'll link to the story when it's published and will leave you with a piece of advice: If you're planning to bake the sour cream raisin pie on page 273 of Marjorie Mosser's Good Maine Food (1939), you should reconsider.

sour cream raisin pie.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Fiddling while Jersey floods

shards of toffee on whipped cream on cake
What a disastrous week. You Easterners have been very brave! Cookbooks have seldom seemed more trivial.

I decided to keep cooking from Burma because if I stop I might never go back. Last weekend, I served Naomi Duguid's sweet-tart pork belly stew which is made by braising this unctuous, inexpensive cut with lemongrass, shallots, garlic, and dried hibiscus blossoms. The wrinkled blackish hibiscus blossoms serve, in Duguid's words, as a "souring agent" and the stew they soured was unlike anything in my gastronomic frame of reference. You expect braised pork to be rich, fatty, and mellow, but this meat was rich, fatty, and tart. As Michael Ruhlman writes in Twenty (more on that shortly), acid is typically used to "brighten" flavors, and I've had New Mexican pork dishes where tomatillos did just that. But the flavors in this Burmese stew needed no brightening. They needed dulling.

I'm not saying the stew was unappetizing. Not at all. We ate it with modest gusto. But it was just too confusing for our non-Burmese palates and I probably won't make it again.
lots of mystery stems and flowers in there
Nor will I go back to Duguid's smoky Napa cabbage, a pallid, watery stir fry. Duguid writes that oyster sauce gives the dish a "smoky undernote" but I didn't pick it up. Not bad, not good, not worth talking about at length. Maybe I'm just not that into cabbage; I would always rather eat kale.

Monday night, I served Duguid's saucy beef and potatoes. To make this, you fry some shallots (of course) and ginger in hot oil, add cubed potatoes and brown them, add water and simmer until the potatoes are soft, add ground beef, spices, and chopped tomatoes, cook, cook, cook, and serve. It's Burmese hamburger hash, wicked ugly, but delicious and like everything I've cooked from the book so far, quick and easy.

That's all I have to say about lovely Burma for now, but I have so much to say about Ruhlman's Twenty I think I might burst. Twenty won prestigious awards and clearly speaks to a lot of readers and you might be one of them. I am not. I can't help it! It's just not in my nature to like this kind of book. I read Ruhlman's Twenty cover-to-cover and found it grandiose, inexact, and frustrating. Michael Ruhlman argues that cooking depends on twenty elegant techniques, while I think cooking is about ten thousand details. This might be the unbridgeable rift between lumper and splitter.

I'll briefly make my case and then cut to the happy ending.

Twenty is the somewhat arbitrary number of techniques that Ruhlman believes are essential to cooking well.  He's pretty loose with his definition of "technique," and includes ingredients, like salt, eggs, and sugar, because understanding how to manipulate these ingredients entails learning techniques.  For instance the chapter on eggs covers hard-boiling eggs, scrambling eggs (in a double boiler and reportedly delicious), shirring, whipping up mayonnaise, putting egg whites in cocktails, and a short disquisition on custards. Technically speaking, that's at least six techniques right there and you could argue that the very title of the book is misleading. But let's not.

According to Ruhlman, until you master his twenty techniques you're not going to get too far as a cook: "Without the culinary fundamentals nothing, nothing, of importance can be attempted. Classic chef arrogance and truth."

But once you have these culinary fundamentals down, the kitchen is, so to speak, your oyster: "There's virtually nothing you can't do."

Each essay (one per technique) is followed by recipes. I decided to bake Ruhlman's angel food cake, which is topped with whipped cream and homemade toffee because the photograph was so beautiful I wanted to tear it out and frame it. Maybe because I've baked dozens of angel food cakes, nothing in Ruhlman's essays on sugar, eggs, or batter, expanded my understanding of this cake. That's ok. But it was less ok that the recipe was imprecise and glitchy. Ruhlman never specifies what size pan to use nor does he explicitly warn against greasing the pan. In fact, he tells you to pour the batter into a "prepared pan." There are several ways you could interpret this, and a novice might take "prepared pan" to mean a greased pan, which would be the right guess for almost any cake except angel food. When I was learning to cook, I would have read that recipe, greased the pan, and ended up with an angel food brick.

I know this was a trivial slip, a forgivable editorial error, but it's an error that illustrates my point: You can master Ruhlman's twenty noble techniques, but bake your angel food cake in a greased pan and you're screwed. These countless quirky, puny, nettlesome details really do matter. A house needs a foundation, but it also needs doors, windows, and curtain rods.

On Sunday, I baked his cider vinegar tart. For years, I've been fascinated/repelled by the concept of vinegar pie, a mysterious dessert that regularly pops up in vintage American recipe collections, like my 1939 edition of Imogene Wolcott's New England Yankee Cookbook.

In the headnote Ruhlman writes, "Critical to the outcome of this simplest of all pies is the use of a good vinegar -- the tart is not worth making with bad vinegar. Otherwise it's better to use lemon juice!"

Given that good cider vinegar is "critical to the outcome of this simplest of all pies" I wanted to know what brand Ruhlman recommends. Bragg's, maybe? He doesn't say. Is organic better? Wood barrel aged? Unfiltered? Dark? Pale? Cloudy? Clear? Doesn't say. Short of arranging a cider vinegar tasting, does he have any advice? You have to dig for it, but in his essay on "acids" there's this pearl of wisdom: "You usually get what you pay for. A very cheap vinegar tastes that way. The best vinegars are delicious, not simply harshly acidic."

In other words, if you're not up for buying and tasting all the vinegars on the shelf, grab the most expensive one.

This non-answer was almost enough to make me resubscribe to Cook's Illustrated** right then and there so I could see the results of their 2006 cider vinegar tasting, which were hidden behind a paywall. Few people have spent more time pricing and testing supermarket foods than I have, and while you often get what you pay for, you just as often don't. Anyway, I refused to buy expensive cider vinegar  on faith and used the 365 cider vinegar we had in the house. The resulting tart, which I brought to my sister's house for dinner, was barely edible. Imagine a thick, yummy shortbread crust topped with cold, sweet, congealed vinegar.
Looks aren't everything.
If you absorb Ruhlman's breezy generalizations about the importance of acid in cooking (that it will enhance your cream soups, butterscotch sauce, and pulled pork) you will definitely become a slightly better cook. But your tarts are still going to taste like foot juice if you don't know what brand of cider vinegar to buy. Details, details, details. Cooking is all about the details and there are thousands of them.

Now I will tell you what I loved in the book: Ruhlman's method, borrowed from Harold McGee, of poaching eggs. This made the prettiest, tidiest eggs.

Heat a saucepan of water. Crack your egg in a ramekin, slide the egg into a slotted spoon and let a little of the loose, watery white drain off (there will be more or less depending on the egg), then slip the egg back into the ramekin. When the water boils, turn down the heat and when the bubbles stop, slide the egg into the water and poach for 3-4 minutes. I will never make poached eggs any other way again.

*Here's exactly what Ruhlman says about angel food cake pans: Even if he had a tube pan, he writes in the headnote, he wouldn't use one because it's so hard to get angel food cake out of a tube pan. (Actually, it isn't hard at all if you have a tube pan with a removable bottom.) He prefers to use a springform pan and after he's poured the batter into the pan, he puts a pint glass in the middle to create the hole. The accompanying photographs illustrate the springform method. At the end of the headnote he writes, "If you prefer a tube pan, line the bottom with parchment/baking paper." There is no mention anywhere of preparations -- parchment? butter? butter and flour? -- for the springform pan in the headnote, but in the recipe he refers only to "the prepared pan." As I said, you could read this several ways. Also, for the record, there's no need to use parchment in the bottom of a tube pan with a removable bottom, although nothing bad will happen if you do.

**This morning I succumbed and bought a 14-day trial subscription to Cook's Illustrated (which I must promptly cancel), so I could access the results of their 2006 tasting of ten cider vinegars. The two top rated vinegars: Spectrum unfiltered (22 cents an ounce) and a French brand called Maille (24 cents per ounce.) White House vinegar (6 cents an ounce) was moderately well liked ("good balance of acidity") while Heinz (6 cents an ounce) was unpopular: "very acidic without much apple." The most expensive vinegar they tested was Verger Pierre Gringras ($1.19 per ounce): "It smelled 'awful' was 'stinky,' and imparted 'burnt, ashy flavors.'"

I might have to keep that subscription.