Thursday, August 31, 2006

Apple Crisp Attempt #1

So what did I do with all of those apples that I picked? Apple Crisp, of course! Now, I've never made apple crisp before, but I remember it being a favorite dish when I was a wee lad. It was time to attempt a recreation of that childhood memory.

Naturally, I used the Internet for the entirety of my research, rather than consulting with family members. The majority of the recipes that I found seemed nearly identical: toss some sliced apples in cinnamon and/or sugar, top with struessel, and bake for 45 minutes at 350-400F. It seemed simple enough.

My struessel was comprised of a cup of flour, 1/4 cup white sugar, 1/4 cup light brown sugar, 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg and a pinch of salt. Oh, and butter. Six tablespoons of cold, cubed butter, to be exact. If I had a stand mixer, I would have used the paddle attachment to mix it all together so that there were still chunks of butter amidst a bowl of a not-very-mixed looking mixture. If you get to the stage where it looks like wet sand, then you've gone to far. Since I don't have a stand mixer, I had to cut in the cold butter by hand.

I peeled and sliced seven large apples, and tossed them in 1/2 cup light brown sugar and 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon. I sprayed a 9x13 Pyrex baking pan, poured in my apples, sprinkled with all of that streussel and tossed it in a 350F oven for 45 minutes. That's it! So simple.

Infortunately, simplicity is not always the right answer. This was not my mom's apple crisp. Don't get me wrong, it was good and all. But I remember more of a pie-like texture, something where there was a thick gooeyness coating the apples, which had softened in the oven, but hadn't gone mushy. I also remember the topping being, well, crispy. The topping was... well, not quite crispy. Good, but not crispy. Rather than an appley gooey coating, there was a pool of what I imagine is sugary liquid apple goodness that just wouldn't scoop with the rest of the crisp.

Oh, it was good. Even the landlord agreed. But it wasn't quite what I wanted. Fortunately, there are apples aplenty still on the tree. I will investigate further as soon as I can.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Peach Salsa

So what did I do with all those peaches? Well, I'll tell you what I did with some of them: peach salsa! This ended up being kind of a "refrigerator magnet" dish. I had a bunch of chiles that needed to be used up, and a bunch of peaches that were screaming for attention.

Peach Salsa

1 red bell pepper, diced
1 poblano, diced
1 jalapeno, diced
2 cubanelle chiles, diced
1/2 small onion, diced
10 small peaches, peeled and diced
juice of one lime
1 handful cilantro, chopped fine
pinch kosher salt

Combine in a bowl. That's it! Okay, so I didn't have any cilantro. It's tragic, really. But it was pretty dang good anyway. This made, well, it made a lot of salsa. In fact, it made dang near half a gallon. Go easy on the onion, it has a tendency to take over fruit-based salsas like this one. In fact, if I had had some green onions laying around, I would have added some of that instead, since they have a much milder flavor. Still, this stuff is good. No, you can't have any of mine. Go make your own.

Millions of peaches, peaches for free...

If there were any doubts in my wife's mind that I was completely insane, I believe I have now managed to relieve her of them.

Let me start at the beginning. When I got home yesterday, I saw what looked like a peach sitting in the gutter in front of our house. When I got out of my car, I discovered that it was, in fact, a peach. Just sitting there by the curb. I looked around and saw what I was now expecting, yet had never bothered to see before: peach tree leaves. There was a peach tree on the property. I looked closer and discovered that it was full of peaches.

I picked a peach and went a knocking on the landlord's door. "I thought we were friends," I demanded when he opened the door. His confused look turned to understanding as I showed him the peach that I had just picked. "Yeah," he replied. "I'm too lazy to pick them. Have at 'em if you want. And while you're at it, feel free to take as many apples and plums as you want. No cherries this year, though."

Now, I had seen the apples prior to this, and had wondered about them. The house we live in has two driveways, one for the carport that we park in, and one for the garage where the landlord parks his car. His driveway had what appeared from a distance to be apples strewn across it, but I had never bothered to investigate. This was about to change. But first, the peaches.

The peaches were easy to get to. Despite there being only one tree, and a small tree at that, my harvest was bountiful. I had picked a good two or three dozen before I decided that there were no more to pick. I brought them inside, grabbed another bag, and went to investigate the rest of the fruit trees. The apples were many. The plums were tiny. The cherries were non-existant. I decided to focus my energies on the apples. Unfortunately, they seemed a bit high. In fact, I could see dozens of apples several feel beyond my reach. Glancing in my landlord's garage, I saw a ladder. Unfortunately, it looked like the kind that needed to lean against something, so I decided not to ask to borrow it. I decided another solution was needed. What I needed was a claw.

Fortunately, I haven't spent my whole life in the kitchen. In fact, I haven't spent most of my life in the kitchen. As it turns out, I'm a hardware hacker. I went inside and considered my resources. Before long I had collected a few feet of PVC pipe left over from another project, a pair of small serving tongs, some rubber bands and a spool of butchers twine. I assembled them into something that looked like this:

The idea is simple. I tied one end of the twine to the hinge of the tongs, and threaded the rest of it through. I made a slipknot at the other end to tied it to a finger and keep it from falling out. I put rubber bands on the ends of the tongs to keep the metal from cutting into the apples. The idea is simple: I set the hinged end on the top of the tube, holding it in place by pulling the twine tight. I would reach the tongs into the tree, grab an apple, and pull the twine. This would pull the tongs into the pipe, which would close the tongs, and they would clamp onto the apple, which I would gently pick and lower down to my greedy hands.

And this was what I was doing when my wife got home from work. She approached me with a look of confusion and amusement, and wanted to know what the heck I was doing. I explained my quest for free fruit to her, and the workings of my claw. She informed me that it would never work, and asked me how many apples I had managed to get already. I showed her the one apple that I had managed to retrieve so far. She helped me find another good apple and then went inside. I managed to pull down one more good apple before stopping.

This was a nice theory, but with only three good apples and countless wormy/birdpecked apples, I knew I needed a better plan. As it turns out, apples don't release from their branches nearly as easily as peaches. In fact, they have quite a grip. I went back inside and reconsidered my options. Grabbing the apples with the claw was tough, but I would occassionally shake the tree enough that apples that I wasn't even looking at would fall. What I needed was a way to shake apples off, and then gently catch them before they hit the ground.

I removed the tongs from my pipe and used duct tape to attach the ring from a small springform pan. Heck, I never use that size anyway. I then used masking tape to attach a plastic shopping bag to the ring, and I was ready. It looked something like this:

I showed my wife, who again informed me that it wasn't going to work. She still had that look of amusement in her eyes. I went back outside and reconsidered my new nemesis, the apple tree. The idea was simple: I would guide the bag under an apple, then try to knock it free with either the end of the pipe or the ring. As it turns out, this was much faster. In less time than it took for me to grag three good apples with the claw, I had managed to grab seven good apples with my bag, and at least as many bad apples. I already didn't know what I was going to do with ten apples of indeterminate variety, so I decided to give it a rest for now. My bag was already starting to get hashed up anyway.

There are still dozens of apples in the tree. Most of them are obviously worm-ridden, but I know there's still a few more good apples. As soon as I know what I'm going to do with them, I plan to pick more. One day, and apple farmer is going to read this post and laugh his butt off. In fact, I doubt he'll be the only one. Maybe it's time for me to track down an apple farmer and find out how he goes about picking apples. But for now, my methods will have to suffice. But next time I think I'll try and get it done before my wife gets home. I don't want her to have me committed before I finish.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

PLUG's 10th Birthday!

I have an announcement for the local geek public. This will shortly be announced by Jayce and then by PLUG (the Provo Linux Users Group), but I wanted to beat them to the punch.

"Join PLUG in September as we celebrate our 10th birthday! That's right, the Provo Linux Users Group turns 10 years old this year. To celebrate, hacker chef Joseph Hall will be bringing a 3D cake in the shape of our favorite Linux mascot, Tux. The cake will feature chocolate from Orem's new chocolate factory, Amano Artisan Chocolate, one of the very few chocolate factories in the United States that actually creates their chocolate directly from the bean. Amano is also possibly the only chocolate factory in the country, if not the world, owned and operated by a computer geek, Art Pollard. There will be a discussion of what went into the construction of the cake before we cut into it. Make sure to bring your cameras, for this will truly be a sight to behold. This won't be a small cake, so by all means come and help finish it off, along with the ice cream that will also be provided!"

The aforementioned cake will not be an easy feat, especially since I have never built a 3D cake before, unless you count the practice Tux head that I did recently. As you know from that post, I don't like fondant. I think it tastes horrible. So I have gotten together with Art to get enough Amano chocolate to cover Tux in modelling chocolate instead of fondant. With any luck, I'll have enough chocolate left over for samples.

The PLUG meeting/birthday party will be Wednesday, September 13 at 7:30pm. We will be meeting in the United Online office in building Q at 1253 North Research Way, in Orem, UT. For additional details, keep an eye on PLUG's official website.

Lessons in Service from Charlie Trotter

I don't get to read as often as I like. Sometimes it will take me months to finish a particular book, especially if I have three or four that I'm working on at the same time. It's not often that I finish a book in less than a week, but Lessons in Service from Charlie Trotter by Edmund Lawler was an exception.

Charlie Trotter owns a restaurant which is not only one of the most famous in Chicago, it's also one of the most famous in the world. At $125 (per person) for the grand degustation menu, not counting tax and tip, it's a little richer than most people are used to. But consider this: a standard meal takes anywhere from three to four hours, and can include anywhere from seven to fifteen courses. The menu can be completely customized and even abandoned at the whim of the guest. But most importantly, every guest, regardless of social status, will be given exactly the same royal treatment as any other guest. Indeed, Charlie Trotter's is a restaurant built upon the best food accompanied by the best service.

Lawler spent countless hours observing and interviewing employees from all areas of the restaurant. Servers do not wear uniforms at Charlie Trotter's. Rather, they wear suits. They go well beyond the concept of "the customer is always right". They realize that without they customer, they would have no business at all. When a server sees a guest sneeze, they do not ask the guest if they need a tissue. They go to the restroom and grab a couple of tissues and bring them to the guest. If they overhear a guest mention that this visit is because of a birthday, you can bet money that a special course will show up at the table for no extra charge. Food allergies are taken very seriously at Trotter's, and the staff will ensure that every step is taken to ensure a customer is not at risk, all the way back to using a different cutting board and knife to prepare that customer's meal. Every need is anticipated.

Something that truly impressed me was the policy concerning recipes. The story of the Neiman Marcus cookie recipe has flooded the Internet for years, yet you will never find any "secret recipes" at Charlie Trotter's. It would seem that any recipe may be requested by the guest, and staff has even gone out of the way to compile recipes that had been created impromptu by Chef Trotter at special events. One guest even called to ask for help with a "top secret" recipe for chocolate black shephard pie that they had at a different restaurant. The staff member walked the guest through the various steps that might be taken to reproduce such a recipe. Yes, that's right my computer geek friends: whether or not they realize it, Charlie Trotter's is actually an open source restaurant. In fact, every area of the restaurant is open to guests, from the million dollar wine cellar to the studio kitchen that Trotter tapes his PBS cooking show in.

Particularly valuable are the service points discussed at the end of each chapter. Indeed, this is not a culinary book, but in fact a book discussing service techniques. The major underlying theme of this book is not the greatness of Trotter's food, but in fact the greatness of his service. Most, if not all of these techniques can be applied not only to the food service industry, but to any industry. Most of what the food staff does costs little, if anything, but makes all the difference.

It wouldn't be right of me to ignore Trotter's various philanthropical gestures, from culinary education for local schools and culinary students alike, to an older woman who lived in the neighborhood who was weak and frail, and unable to leave the house much. A member of Trotter's staff would bring the woman a meal each night, and on special occassions they would bring her into the restaurant and give her the royal treatment. She never paid a dime for any of this. According to Lawler, "The woman, who died in 2000, has never been a customer. Just a neighbor."

This is a fabulous book, both for its stories and its service points. I highly recommend it for, well, anyone. The more principles you apply in your everyday dealings, the more loyal your customers will be, and the more the customers will become your friends.

New Wallpaper: Mushrooms

Back when I was in cooking school in New Hampshire, our student apartments had a large, heavily forested backyard. When it rained, there were a lot of mushrooms. I went foraging a handful of times, not to pick mushrooms, but to photograph them. Recently I stumbled upon my old photographs and decided some of them would make some pretty decent wallpaper.

I've decided to file these photos under their own category, instead of mixing them in with the food. This is primarily because most of my mushroom photos are of poisonous varieties. In fact, two that were identified for me by a teacher, Chef Ross, are the Destroying Angel and the Panther Cap, which are sypposed to be two of the deadliest mushrooms in the world.

The other mushrooms are not yet identified. If anyone happens to know what they are, I would love to know so that I can label them appropriately. The new mushroom wallpaper is now located here, and the food wallpaper has been moved here. As always you can get to any of my wallpaper by clicking the "wallpaper" link on the right side of the page.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Keeping stats clean with mod_security

Anyone that really knows me knows that I tend to be a bit obessive-compulsive at times. I know that at least part of it came from working at the bakery at a ski resort, especially during the week between Christmas and New Years. We baked a lot of cookies, especially during that week. They took about 19 - 22 minutes to bake, and by the end of the season I had managed to set my mental timer for about 18 minutes.

Something else that I can be a little obsessive-compulsive on is checking my web stats. I've gotten better lately, but it was pretty bad for a while. One thing that really bugs me is when spammers screw up my stats with what's called "referer spam" (and yes, that's how web servers spell referrer). You see, when you click on a link to my site from another site, your web browser tells me what that site is. This is really handy for a lot of things, such as when a person's site is really slow; they can look at their stats and be able to tell whether they're being Slashdotted or not. Even better, the stats program that I use gives me a report with a bunch of links that I can click on to look at referring sites.

Here's the kicker. There are more browsers out there than you can imagine. Some of these are called spiders, because they crawl the web for you (get it?) without you necessarily having to watch them the whole time. Sites like Google do this to build their database, so that when you search for something, they have enough search results for you. But spammers use spiders to do things like harvest email addresses and other information. And since they control the spiders, they control the "referer address" that the spider reports to the site. Some spammers like to put links to icky spammer sites in there, in the hopes that the person in charge of the site will leave their web stats out in the open for just anyone to see.

This is where mod_security comes in. Like most webmasters (statistically speaking), I run Apache as my web server software. It may have had a little bit of a learning curve when I started (though much less than I expected), but I've found it offers a great deal of flexibility and security. One of the nice things you can do is just add or remove modules, depending on what you're going for. I recently added mod_security to help battle referer spam. It allowed me to add a blacklist to block not only referer spam, but also comment spam. I remember the first time somebody posted an advertisement to their commercial MySpace site in one of my comments. I first deleted the comment, and then added Blogger's Captcha feature to keep that from happening again. I later added mod_security.

Every so often I find a new spammer in my referer stats and have to add it to my blacklist. In addition to literally thousands of sites that came with my mod_security blacklist, I have added 14 more sites on my own. If you know how to run apache, setting up mod_security is an easy thing. In fact, from the time I clicked download, it took me less than five minutes. Go ahead and check it out.

Vegan Piping Gel

You're being watched.

That's right, I keep a very watchful eye on my stats. One of the things that always interested me is what search terms people use to find my site. Sometimes I see a search term that I know is answered on my site, and that makes me glad. But sometimes I see that somebody has found my site by searching for something that I wasn't able to answer for them.

One of the things that people seem to be curious about is piping gel. There seem to be a lot of people wondering whether a vegan piping gel exists, or whether it's okay for vegans to eat piping gel. Initially I started looking for recipes online, where I quickly discovered several piping gel recipes that called for gelatine. Most of us know that gelatin isn't even vegetarian, much less vegan. I decided to try and formulate a recipe. I picked up a few different brands of pectin (which is plant-based) from the store and started looking at other ingredients already in my pantry. I have xantham gum, tapioca starch, even guar gum. And finally I did what I should have started off by doing, and looked at the ingredients on my tub of Wilton Piping Gel.

Turns out Wilton's regular old store-bought piping gel is already vegan. There's not a mention of gelatin to be found on the ingredient list, and everything that is there is plant-based. I even went a step further and emailed Wilton, who responded:

"Thank you for your inquiry.
There is no gelatin in Wilton's Piping Gel, stock # 704-105.
If we can be of any other assistance, please contact us."

Vegans, rejoice: your search is over! While I don't normally advocate a specific brand or product, I will now make an exception. Wilton brand Piping Gel, according to the ingredients label, is entirely plant-based, and so should fit within your guidelines. I won't list the ingredients here, because I haven't asked permission and I don't want to get Wilton mad at me, but feel free to head down to your favorite cake supply store and check it out for yourself.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Soup Tricks

I found an interesting search query in my stats the other day. The entire search term was, and I quote, "how to serve 2 different soups in the same bowl keeping them seperated".

This is actually not a difficult thing to do, but it does take a little bit of know-how and a little bit of practice. First of all, you need two soups. In fact, you need two soups with some body to them. For simplicity and the purpose of this demonstration, I used two soups by Alton Brown: Leek Potato Soup and Squash Soup. I chose these two soups because they were different (contrasting) colors, they both seemed autumny, and I hoped the flavors wouldn't clash. Unfortunately, they did. But more on that later. I also hoped that they would have about the same amount of body, since they were both pureed soups.

Once you have your soups made, go ahead and put each one in a pouring vessels, such as measuring cups. I realized before they were finished cooking that they did in fact have different viscosities. The Squash Soup was significantly thicker than the Leek Potato Soup. I remedied this a little by adding a little more cream and stock to the Squash Soup. If I had had some potato flakes on hand, I could have added some to the Leek Potato Soup to thicken it a bit. No, I don't have a problem using potato flakes, since they tend to be made from real potatoes anyway.

Now, the secret is to be able to pour the same amount of each soup at the same speed at the same time. If both soups are the same thickness, it shouldn't be that difficult. Just go as slowly as you need to.

Now, my soups were still not the same thickness, but they were kind of close, so I went with it. You can see how the potato leek soup on the left is still a little thin, so it's trying to make its way over to the other side. This is why you want your soups to be as close in thickness as possible. You can also see that the colors contrast each other enough that you can actually tell than you have two different soups. After all, if you can't tell that they're different, what's the point of doing this in the first place? I also made sure to use a bowl that contrasted the colors of the soup. And yes, as you can see, I used a real soup bowl. It has quite a bit of an edge, which looks nice with the soup.

Now, you could even take this a step further and do a little design work on the top of the soup. You need a little bit of liquid that has a contrasting color, and again, is still the same thickness as the soup. I used heavy cream. It didn't end up being heavy enough. You will also need a squeeze bottle, such as one might use for ketchup or mustard. Now, keep your design simple, like a monogram or something. Cursive works well. I attempted an "H", for "Hall", which didn't go over well with the cream.

I ended up just dripping cream into a fancy H shape, at least as well as I could manage. But the drips gave me an idea. I decided to do a series of dots around the side of the soup, just a couple of drips for each dot. Then I dragged a toothpick through the center of each dot, in a circle around the bowl. In a perfect world, this creates a series of hearts around the bowl.

In my world, I almost had hearts going around the side of the bowl. Okay, so my soup ended up a bit sloppy-looking. Still, it was tasty, so long as I only ate one side at once. And as it turns out, I think my mistakes might really have added to this little post; now we can all learn from them.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Macy's Replacing Meyer and Frank

Allow be to digress for a moment from my geeky food rantings. With luck, I can still cover either geekdom or food in this post.

We live within walking distance of a mall which calls itself University Mall. Last night we decided to go visit the mall and walk around a bit. While walking around, we came across the Meyer and Frank at one end of the mall. They had a large fabric sign proclaiming the name, hanging over another more permanent sign, already lit up, proclaiming "Macy's".

Now, I'd never been in a Macy's before, at least not that I can remember. The only thing I knew of them was that they have some sort of parade in New York that involes turkeys. But rumor has it Macy's will soon be moving into Crossroads Plaza in Salt Lake City, assuming they haven't done so already. This is apparently part of a push by the Crossroads Plaza management to make the mall a little more high class by pushing out all the interesting stores that people actually want to go to, and replacing them with stores that people in my tax bracket can barely afford to walk through, much less buy anything. Meanwhile, all of the interesting stores have relocated themselves elsewhere, mostly to The Gateway mall down the street, which is what's known as an outdoor mall. This means that they have dispensed with the cost of things like heating in the winter and air conditioning and even shade in the summer, in favor of making their patrons either freeze or get sunburns and heatstroke while walking between stores.

Back to Macy's. Having never been in one before, I was curious. From the outside looking in, it was already very different from most Utah mall department stores. For instance, there were a lot of square, white pillars. Maybe it was the starkness of the pillars, but the place also looked somewhat... well, empty isn't the word. Open? Spacious? It reminded me of a museum.

Okay, first impressions. As I walked in, the first thing I noticed was that it was very bright. Especially having walked through a mall will a relatively subdued lighting in the walkways, my computer geek eyes took a minute to get over the shock of the brightness. When I was able to see again, I looked around me. Something about the place felt very... New York. The kind of New York you see on TV. They were making an effort to make the place look clean, chic and well-maintained, but not inviting. In fact, I wondered if my shopping experience would be truly complete unless I was mugged three blocks away, upon leaving the store. Sorry New York, that's the kind of stereotype you've earned yourself. I blame Central Park.

I was immediately reminded of a quote from Ferris Beuller: "It's very beautiful, it's very cold, and you're not allowed to touch anything." Except it wasn't really all that beautiful, it just looked like it was trying to be. And we were allowed to touch things, but I quickly realized that we had no desire to. But it was very cold. We decided to take the escalators up. We glanced momentarily at the second floor, which had a lot of uptown-looking clothing. We quickly continued up to the third floor, where I found the kitchenwares.

The first kitchenwares I found were plates. Glazed ceramic plates suitable for any middle-class kitchen, I suppose. My wife quickly spotted one of the sets that we had received at our wedding, which had been on our gift registry at Bed Bath and Beyond. Macy's had them for about the same price. I spotted several other sets available at the great BB&B before we headed over to the fine china display. Again, I recognized several of the sets as ones that I had scoffed at when we did our BB&B registry. I don't like fine china. It makes me feel uncomfortable. As we moved on, I discovered my favorite part of the kitchenwares section: cookware.

The cookware section had a lot of stainless steel and a lot of cast iron. The stainless steel didn't look like it was meant to be used much. The cast iron looked like it was ready to be used, but not for anything useful. I did find a "deep-dish" cast iron cooking vessel, which looked like a miniature wok without handles, or perhaps a very heavy serving bowl. It intrigued me, but I was too afraid to look at the price. By the time we got to the KitchenAid mixers, I barely had it in me to drool, and that says something. I mean, this is KitchenAid we're talking about.

I'd never thought of the University Mall as comfortable and inviting until we walked back into it from Macy's. Fortunately, we were not mugged. Still, it was the last store we visited before heading home again. I'm sure I'll probably go back at some point, but only under duress. As for my kitchen equipment, I will likely continue to shop at my local restuarant supply stores. Sure, it may not be the shiniest and prettiest in the world, and certainly looks dull compared to the Emerilware at Macy's, but I figure if it can last even six months in a professional kitchen (and of course, it is designed to last for years under heavy use), then I'm sure my family and I will get at least a lifetime or two out of it. Bonus: the restaurant supply stuff tends to cost much, much less as well. I think I'll stick with that.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Amano Chocolate

If memory serves me correctly, I recently stated that nobody in America made better chocolate than Guittard. At the end of my statement I added, "at least not at this point in time."

There is a reason I made that addendum. There is a chocolate factory opening up in Orem, called Amano Artisan Chocolate. The Deseret News recently ran an article about them that I would like to share with you.

Now despite having met with one of the owners (Art) on a number of occassions, I have not yet had the chance to sample this chocolate. He has given me a number of updates in past months about which pieces of equipment have shipped in, which beans he has at the moment and where, but as he is still waiting on additional equipment, his factory is not yet in operation.

There are a couple of interesting facts to note. First of all, there are only about a dozen factories in the United States that actually make chocolate straight from the bean. This small handful of factories then sell their chocolate to larger, better known companies, which I suppose gives us the illusion that there are more chocolate factories. Art's factory will be one of these elite few chocolate companies that creates chocolate from the source.

Guittard is another one of these companies. There's also Ghirardelli and ScharffenBerger. I believe all of these are based in San Francisco, but I could be wrong. I have however, had many a flavor of chocolate from each of these companies. Guittard is easily my favorite. Ghirardelli is good, but somehow pales grossly in comparison. Still, I do have about 8 lbs of a 10 lbs brick of Ghirardelli sitting in my pantry, so I can't say that I don't like it. It really is quite good. Scharffen Berger is also quite good, if a little bitter for my taste, and I tend to prefer bitter chocolate. Of course, this is all subject to personal taste. I also don't much care for Valrhona, which is apparently the favorite brand of famed food journalist Jeffrey Steingarten. My favorite variety to date is a "single bean origin" chocolate from Ecuador that I tried at a chocolate tasting directed by a rep at E. Guittard (the high-end version of Guittard).

I am looking forward to the opening of Art's chocolate factory. I already have an informal order in for a couple of pounds, so I'll let you know when I get it. I do have high expectations, because in my limited experience, Art seems to be a bit of a perfectionist. I imagine this will be reflected in any product he sells.

Food Knowledge Base

I would never have believed it had I not been the one to discover it. The other day I was looking for a description online of something called a "quenelle". Now, I knew what it was, because we were taught how to make them pretty early on in cooking school. Anyone that watches Iron Chef or Iron Chef America a lot has probably seen a dozen different chefs use them in their dish, though they rarely if ever refer to them as a quenelle. In an upcoming post, I had planned to refer to a quenelle, and I wanted a link to point people to. Unfortunately, there are two definitions out there, and nobody seemed to have the one that I wanted. And then, I finally ran across it in what had to be one of the last places I would ever have expected it: Hormel's web site. Hormel! I buy pepperoni from these guys, not haute cuisine! I was more than just a little surprised. The definition that I was looking for is, "In modern cooking, quenelle is considered a shape, not an ingredient. The shape is formed into and oval with two spoons using semi-soft foods that are easy to form into an oval, such as ice cream or sorbet."

And yet, the story doesn't end there. For yesterday's post on crabapple mousse, I was searching for a good description of "soft peaks", "medium peaks" and "stiff peaks". Where do I find it? Hormel. They have a food knowledge base. This is a term that we used to use in my tech support days to describe tech companies' support pages. This is not a term that I've ever really thought to associate with a food site. I ended up not linking to them because the focus of the page wasn't completely on whipping cream, so I thought it might be too ambiguous and confuse people. But the rest of the page is still a gem. They have a chart of cream types very similar to one I've been working on for another project. In fact, the biggest difference between theirs and mine is that mine covers all dairy (from skim milk all the way up to clarified butter) and theirs only covers cream. But then they take it further and talk about flavoring whipped cream, and then stabilizing and even storing it.

I'm pretty impressed by Hormel right now. Who knows what other culinary finds there await my running across them in Google?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

What to do with crab apples? Apple mousse

Mousse is one of my favorite culinary concepts. There are so many applications for it, I could never count them all. There are a few very basic concepts that most, if not all mousse recipes follow. First of all, it needs to be smooth and creamy. If it's not smooth and creamy, it's not a mousse. Second, whatever it is will likely have whipped cream or egg whites folded into it, to lighten it. Last, some mousses are cooked before folding, some after, and some not at all.

My crabapple mousse was an idea that I had early on, before I even made my crabapple sauce. The idea was to make a napoleon, filled with apple mousse. I will be posting the results of this shortly, but I wanted to get my mousse recipe out first as a seperate post.

I started with half a cup of my crabapple butter. Now, as you know from my previous post on it, apple butter is very smooth, and the flavor is very intense. The smoothness makes it a perfect candidate for a mousse, but because of the intensity, it's probably a little much to serve alone. Now, it's also pretty thick, which means that it won't be all that easy to fold something into it. Because of this, I whisked about one to two tablespoons of heavy cream into it, just to get a head start on lightening it.

Having done that, I took a cup of heavy cream, thoroughly chilled, and whipped it to stiff peaks. For those of you not in the know, this means that when I stop the mixer and pull it out of the bowl straight up, and then tap the beaters, the little peaks of cream stay pointy. You might want to stick with medium peaks. Then I folded the whipped cream into the apple butter, about 1/4 at a time. Voila! Apple mousse!

The flavor was still pretty intense, as expected. I don't know that I would just serve up a little dish of it. But it will be perfect for my apple napoleon when I make it.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Practice Cake

I have a cake project that I'm working on. If you want a hint, head on over to the PLUG website and see if you can figure it out. This one is just for practice.

Have you ever tasted rolled fondant? That's the stuff that all the fancy cake decorators use to make cakes look smooth and seamless. Try though you might, you will probably never achieve that level of smoothness with any kind of frosting. Fondant is kind of like play-dough, it can be shaped, it can be rolled out, it can be smoothed into a beautiful cake covering to make any bride weep. The problem? It tastes disgusting. People peel it off, like an orange rind or a banana peel, before eating the rest of the cake. Bakers all know it. A lot of customers know it. And everybody just kind of accepts it. I refuse to accept it. I have no intention of serving food that I know will taste bad. It's an insult to the person eating, it's an insult to the food, and it's an embarassment to the cook.

I have heard rumors of alternative cake coverings. One of these that I am planning to try in the near future is called marshmallow fondant, which is something you can easily find a recipe for in Google. There's also marzipan, which I won't get into here. Another alternative is called molding or modelling chocolate. Now, there are lots of sources online for a recipe for this. Almost every single recipe I found said the same thing: melt 10 oz of chocolate (never chocolate chips) and then stir in 1/3 cup of corn syrup, and be sure that you get that whole 1/3 cup in there. When it turns into a ball of clay-like goodness, turn it out onto wax paper, mash it into a 7-inch square, and let it sit for a couple of hours before using.

I used chocolate chips. I did this because the chips in question were Guittard, and there is no better chocolate made in America, at least not at this point in time. And yes, it worked fine. I did discover a couple of things. First, make sure you do in fact get that whole 1/3 cup in there, or your hands will be greasy and you will be unhappy. Also, time is important. After three hours (not two), my molding chocolate was even easier to work with, and it just got better by the minute. At only two hours, yeah you guessed it, my hands were greasy. I made two flavors: dark and white chocolate. One page noted that with milk and white chocolate, one should go easy on the corn syrup, and they appeared to be right.

As for a replacement for fondant, here's the word: it's pretty close. I've discovered that it's not nearly as elastic, and so not nearly as forgiving. I was able to successfully mold my dark chocolate over a dome, but I suspect that a standard cylindrical cake might be a little more difficult. I also was sure to use tapioca starch (I can never find my corn starch for some reason) to roll out the chocolate, to keep it from sticking to the table. Unfortunately, this makes for a messy-looking cake, especially since the starch doesn't all brush off very easily. But I was able to remove it by brushing it with a little oil (actually, cooking spray). After a couple of hours, the chocolate seemed to have soaked up the oil and looked pretty nice. The best part? It tastes good. I used high-quality chocolate, and I ended up with a high-quality cake covering, if a little sweet (from the corn syrup).

When you look at the photo, you'll see two different colors. The dome was done as described. The eyes were made from white molding chocolate and then dark, neither of which were brushed with oil. How did I get the eyes to stick to the dome? I used corn syrup as glue.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Caramel Sauce

We would make a sauce like this all the time at the bakery I used to work at, but we generally referred to it as cajeta. As far as I'm concerned, why would you ever want to buy store-bought caramel sauce when it's this easy to make at home?

I started with half a cup of sugar and a splash of water, just enough to make the sugar look like wet sand when mixed together with it. I put this over medium-high heat and let it start to melt. After a while, it will start to boil. Keep boiling it until it starts to turn amber. Don't stir it until it gets at least a little color! If you do, it'll all crystalize and you'll have to start over. The amber color will signal to you that the sugar bonds are now too damaged to crystalize. You can start stirring it now, with a wooden spoon, if you like. If one part of the pan starts to color before another, I would even recommend stirring so that that one part doesn't burn.

Now, things are going to happen pretty quick here, especially with only half a cup of sugar. When you start to see little wisps of smoke, remove the pan from the heat and slowly stir in half a cup of cold cream. Be careful! It will steam up right away, so keep your stirring hand (and your pouring hand for that matter) as safe a distance as you can, without stopping them from what they're doing. Now, the cold cream may make the sugar harden. Go ahead and put it back over medium-low heat and stir until the sugar is all melted again, and completely integrated with the cream. Go ahead and let that cool.

Now, I keep a supply of squeeze bottles around from my local restaurant supply store (pictured below). If you don't have a local restaurant supply store, a clean ketchup or mustard bottle is fine. If nothing else, a reclosable plastic container is fine. But what do you do with it? Pour it over ice cream, apple pie, just about anything, really. Resist the temptation to eat it straight. It really is good stuff.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Thrift Book Score!

So, I've been checking out food photography sites lately. I've noticed that more than one of them talk about plating. One of the things they talk about is where to find good plates for photographs. Thrift stores are great, because the plates are going to be cheap, and it doesn't matter if you don't get a whole set because you're only using them for photos anyway. Bearing this in mind, today I headed down to our local thrift store, Deseret Industries. Yes, that's Deseret, not Desert or Dessert.

Unfortunately, the DI stores in Utah Valley are pretty picked-over, much more so than they used to be, so there weren't really any decent dishes to be had. But I'm not one to leave the store without checking out the place, so I mosied around a bit. I discovered a beautiful score! This place not only had books, they even bothered to sort them. Even better, there was a pretty decent-sized cookbook section. I don't know if I saw more than three books less than fifteen years old.

There's just something about old cookbooks. Something... alluring, and yet something almost repulsive. Maybe repulsive isn't the right word. It's just fascinating for me to see what food trends were like, thirty, fifty, heck even just five years ago. And yet, I don't want to look. It scares me. But I did find some real jems.

The Yogurt Cookbook by Olga Smetinoff was the first book I spotted that I knew I had to have. Printed in 1966, I wasn't even able to find an ISBN number on it. With a cover price of $1.98, I managed to pick this baby up for half price, at only $1.00. Not only does it have recipes for "Yogurt w/ eggplant", "Yogurt w/ zucchini" and the ever-so-popular "Yogurt broiled tomatoes", it also has a section on how to make homemade yogurt. Actually, the recipes seem surprisingly simple, and try as I might, I have yet to see the words "chanterelle" or "truffle". This was written in a different time, with a different outlook on food. We don't need no creme fraiche. We got yogurt.

The Gluten Book by Le Arta Moulton is another sans-ISBN book, published in 1974. My copy was actually the fourth printing, from 1977. That's right, this was a popular book. BYU grad and mother of four, Le Arta covers methods that I'd never even thought of before, such as "washing the dough to extract gluten". For those of you not in the know, gluten is a protein formed with two other wheat proteins (gliadin and glutenin) get together with water. Gluten extraction seems to be important for this book, which treats the bread protein as a meat. That's right, a meat. Page 19 includes three, yes, three cooking methods for gluten steaks. You can cook jerky, mock liver and something called "Carob Crackle". I will definitely be spending some time with this book.

Food Science by Helen Charley is my third book with no ISBN. Mine is the first edition, published in 1970. This is kind of like a forerunner to On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, currently regarded by many chefs as a sort of bible of food science. This book is fascinating. I don't even know what to say about it. I picked it up because I was really interested to see how the face of food science has changed in the past 36 years. I'll have to update you on this later, this is going to be an interesting read.

So next time you see a stack of old cook books, take a look. There may be some scary things in there, but if you're lucky, you'll find some real gems, just like I did.

What to do with crab apples? Apple butter

One of the problems with making homemade applesauce is that you end up with a lot of it. In my case, I already had a lot of it, so when I made more, well, I think you get the idea. I had to do something else with my new applesauce. What would one do? Apple butter, of course. For those of you who have never had the pleasure, apple butter is a really smooth, thick, spreadable applesauce that ends up getting caramelized by the long and slow cooking process used to make it smooth and thick. It doesn't actually have butter as an ingredient, but you can use it in a lot of the same ways.

So, as it turns out, making apple butter is pretty easy. I looked up several recipes online and found pretty much the same thing in all of them. You take a lot of applesauce, a good bit of apple juice, a bit of acid (such as lemon juice or cider vinegar) and a good bit of sugar, you mix it all together in a wide pot or pan, and you let it cook on low heat for a few hours.

I probably had about 4 1/2 cups of crab applesauce left over from the previous day's cooking. I added about 1 1/2 cups of apple juice, about 1/4 cup sugar (since there was already plenty of sugar in there), and a splash of cider vinegar. Now, you could technically use water for this. I'm guessing that the reason you add all the liquid is to give the apple and sugar mixture more time to caramelize without burning. But water adds nothing in terms of flavor. When apple juice evaporates, it leaves just that much more apple flavor to intensify the taste. This is also why I used cider vinegar instead of a lemon.

Now, I set this over medium low heat and let it sit for a good few hours. Every 15 minutes or so, I would give it a good stir with a rubber spatula, making sure to scrap the sides and the bottom, to make sure nothing burned. About halfway through, I got smart and pulled out my stick blender and ran that through the mixture a bit to smooth it out. After all, apple butter is supposed to be smooth, right? After about 3 hours, the apple mixture had reduced down to less than half its volume. By this point, I had been scraping every few minutes. The color had gone from that bright red to kind of a brownish red, and it was starting to really hold its shape when stirred. In the baking world, we call this a ribbon.

When it was clear it wasn't going to evaporate much more, I pulled it from the heat and let it cool. Now, when I say it holds its shape, I'm not kidding. I was able to pipe it out with a star tip the same way I could with a softened butter. And the taste? Yes, it's very intense. Not as smooth as I'm used to, I suppose I should have spent more time with the stick blender, but good nonetheless.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

What to do with crab apples? Apple sauce

What are crab apples? Little, tart apples that seem to grow everywhere in Utah. Jayce has a crab apple tree growing in his backyard, and it provides him with an excess of crab apples. They fall everywhere, and if one doesn't collect them and get rid of them, they just sit there and rot and ferment. But what does one do with their over-abundance of crab apples? In Jayce's case, one finds his local chef and asks if he wants them. Why not, I thought? I'll see what kinds of dishes I can make from them before I get sick of them too. So yesterday, Jayce plopped down a big old bag of crab apples on my desk. He was even nice enough to sort through them and throw out any that looked like they had worms.

Now, the ones he gave me were small, perhaps a little bigger than a large cherry. And yes, they were tart, like sour apple candy. I spent the day thinking about what kinds of culinary creations I would concoct from these gems. I decided to start with the basics: apple sauce.

Of course, one problem with crab apples is that not only are they small, they have seeds too. Just a couple per apple, but since apple seeds are poisonous, they've got to go. There's also stems and the like. But did I want to go through a whole bag of cherry-sized apples and core them individually? I think not. So I turned to my trusty steamer basket. Having rinsed off the apples, I put two or three inches of water in the bottom of a large pot and added the apples. I set the heat to high and covered the pot. After about 15 minutes, the apples were starting to get soft. By 25 minutes, the skins had started to pop and peel away. Perfect.

I moved the apples to a bowl and started mashing them with my potato masher. I held onto the steaming liquid, which had taken on a candy red color. When the apples were sufficiently mashed, I moved them to a strainer with holes just smaller than the apple seeds, put that over a bowl and started working them with a rubber spatula. After a few minutes, I switched to a wooden spoon, which was much more effective. After a while, the only things left in the strainer were the seeds, stems and some of the apple cores. I tossed all of those, and focused on the pulp remaining in the bowl. I added that back to the pot, along with the steaming liquid. Why not? It still had all that apple flavor in it, and it would be a shame to lose that.

I put the pot back over the heat, this time to medium, and gave the apple sauce a taste. It wasn't as tart as before, but it needed help. I poured in some maple syrup and tried it again. Better, but still not there. It did taste a little brighter though. A few shakes of cinnamon added to that brightness. I decided to try adding a little molasses to see if I could deepen the flavor a little too. After all, molasses is a key ingredient in brown sugar, and brown sugar goes great with apples. Unfortunately, it did not deepen the flavor, it deadened it. No more of that, I guess. A little more maple syrup and cinnamon brightened it some more, and helped counter that tartness a little more. By the time I was done, there was still a good bit of tart there, but the applesauce tasted dang good.

As you'll see in the , it was not the regular light-brown color that we generally associate with applesauce. In fact, even before I added that candy red steaming water, the apple pulp was a really nice red color. I'm guessing this is mostly because I didn't bother removing the skins, which apparently have a lot of pigment. Don't worry, you can't tell that the skins are there. They just kind of blended in with the rest of the pulp. This ended up being a really nice applesauce.

New Wallpaper: Crab Apples

That's right, Jayce dropped off a big old bag of crab apples at my desk yesterday. First order of business: making wallpaper. Hope you like it.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Yard Sale!

I'm selling some stuff. At the moment, I'm only selling old books and magazines, but I will likely put some computer parts up at some point. Read all about it here.

Southwest Succotash

Okay, before I start, let me preface this by saying that I know it's not really succotash if it doesn't have lima beans. If you really want lima beans in it, go ahead and add them, it won't hurt my feelings. I used black beans because I like black beans, and I have tons of them in my pantry.

I'm still on my soft foods diet. Yay, whee, yippy-skippy. Fortunately, hot foods are allowed now. Looking through my fridge and my pantry, I saw a few ingredients that I thought might work, so long as I made them soft. I diced up half a red bell pepper and a whole jalapeno, and started sauteeing them with a little salt and veggie oil in a pan on medium heat. When they were soft, I added half a can of corn and half a can of black beans, both drained. When I made this again the next day, I also ended up adding 1/3 cucumber (should have used zucchini), peeled and diced. I also added a hit or two of Worcestershire sauce and a teaspoon of chile powder. After a couple of minutes, I added 3 roma tomatoes, seeded and diced, and a tomatillo, also diced. The second time I made it, I ran out of tomatoes, and ended up using two tomatillos. Then I poured in about 1/3 cup of chicken stock and slapped on the lid for 5 minutes.

After 5 minutes, I uncovered, gave it a stir, and let it cook until the liquid was mostly gone. It only took another minute or so. At this point, it was all soft and ready to eat. The second day, I added some of it to an omelet, and then sprinkled cheese on top of it and the omelet. That worked out pretty well. The name didn't come until after I had cooked it the first time. Succotash is generally composed of lima beans and corn, although there are variations that don't involve corn. I don't suppose a whole lot else is generally added, but hey, I'm a growing dude. And it did end up pretty tasty.

Friday, August 11, 2006


Yesterday I went to the dentist. When I was done, I was instructed that I am only to eat soft foods for the next two weeks, and only cold foods for the next 24 hours. Not a problem, I figured. I've been through this before. My wife and I made sure to stop by the grocery store on the way out and stock up on all sorts of cold, soft foods: pudding cups, jello cups, yogurt, and even a small tub of cut melon. By the time I was finished with work that day, I had discovered a problem: I was sugared out. Looking at the list of soft food suggestions that they gave me, the only cold food that wasn't sweet was cottage cheese. I was going to lose my mind if I couldn't get something savory. Then I remembered a soup that I knew would be perfect, and fortunately my boss remembered the name when I described it: gazpacho to the rescue!


3 medium roma tomatoes, cored and quartered
1 medium tomatillo, cored and quartered
1 large jalapeno, seeded and roughly chopped
1/3 cucumber, peeled and roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, smashed and roughly chopped
1 slice sourdough bread, torn into pieces
1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 very small handful fresh cilantro
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste

First, soak the bread in water for about 10 to 30 minutes. Sourdough is a little heartier, so it can handle it. Then squeeze the water out. Put the garlic in your blender or food processor and pulse. Add the tomato and pulse a few more times to get a little liquid going at the bottom. Add everything else and pulse until any chunks left are tiny. If you're stuck using a blender to do this like I was, you may need to add a tablespoon or two of water to make sure there's enough liquid to blend. But remember, there's nothing in here to keep it emulsified, so if there's too much liquid, it will look broken and seperated. It doesn't make it taste bad, but some people might not like the appearance. If this happens to you, just make sure to give it a little stir with each spoonful. Make sure to chill before serving, and garnish with fresh cilantro if you like. This recipe ended up making me two servings.

Now, if you follow this recipe exactly, you'll have a soup that not only tastes really, really good, but would also please any vegan. And if it wasn't for the bread, it would even please the raw foodists. I don't want you raw foodists making this without the bread and calling it gazpacho, though. If it doesn't have bread, it's not gazpacho. It's just cold soup. Of course, if you do what I did and soak the bread in chicken stock instead of water, well, you'll have a more flavorful soup, but you can't even call it vegetarian anymore. And if you pureed it really fine and added a hit of Worcestershire sauce and a shot of vodka, I'm sure you'd have a pretty killer Bloody Mary. Seriously, this reminded me of a Virgin Mary I had once at a tavern in New Hampshire, except way better. If anyone tries that, let me know how it turns out.

Update (1:03pm): I've decided to name this soup after Goozbach, mostly because Goozpacho sounds way cooler than "Joseph's Gazpacho". Plus, he apparently made gazpacho once for a date with a hot vegetarian computer geek chick.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

A Poll For The Girls: Romantic Dinner

Many of you will remember my poll for the guys last month. Ladies, I'd like you to sound off now. I've decided to write my handout for my class so that it can be used either to teach a class full of women, a class full or men, or both.

The rules are as before. Your sweetie has decided to cook you a nice, romantic dinner. You can have whatever you want, so long as it's not too extravagant. What would you like him to make?

Again, every woman is different. I know that if I serve my wife steak and potatoes, I'll get lucky that night. However, apparently studies show that things like steak (or the smell of cooked meat in general) are big turn-offs for the ladies. Men's cologne is on the list too. You ladies sure do like to make it hard for us, don't you? Just kidding. Mostly. Tell me, what would you like? Be as descriptive about the food as you like. This is for posterity.

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Phyllo Cheesecake Tartlets

As promised on the PLUG mailing list, here is the recipe I used this evening for my cheesecake tartlets. Those of you who read my post on baking cheesecake already know some of the basics behind it. Those of you who read my more recent tutorial on making phyllo cups will know the rest. But let me give you some more exact details.

Phyllo Cheesecake Tartlets

8 oz cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
48 phyllo cups

I baked 48 phyllo cups the night before, as per the directions in my tutorial. When I was ready, I preheated my oven to 350F. I used a hand mixer to cream the cheese by itself in a bowl, and then added the sugar and continued to cream until it was fully integrated, stopped a couple of times to completely scrape the bowl (including sides and bottom). I added the eggs and vanilla extract, and continued to mix until fully integrated, again stopping to scrape twice. Then I poured the batter into a plastic zip-top bag, snipped off a corner, and piped into the phyllo cups. I had just enough for 48 cups. I baked at 350F for about 10 to 12 minutes, until the centers no longer jiggled, them moved to the counter to cool. When cooled, I sprinkled with mini chocolate chips. It looked something like this:

For some reason the color was a little washed out, so I attempted to correct it with Photoshop. I think I was almost successful. Now, why did I use such a high ratio of egg? Mostly because I wanted to stretch the batter, to make it last a few more cups. But since I had a higher ratio of liquid, it did turn out just a little more custardy. Because each cup was so small, and baking time was so short, there was really no need for a water bath, which would have made a soggy mess of everything anyway.

You can use any cheesecake mixture you want for these, and it will likely work out just fine. Today I used plain. In my first attempt, I used a key lime white chocolate recipe that I have managed to misplace since. In that case, I garnished with raspberries and took a photo, which now resides in my wallpaper area.


Ladies and gentlemen, and the rest of you too, allow me to direct your attention for a moment to my new tutorials area. As I'm sure you've noticed, I've started working on tutorials for a few things that may be a little more intense. A lot of these are things that I take for granted all the time because I've done them so many times. For instance, I couldn't even begin to tell you how many thousands of phyllo cups I've made, just in the past 2 or 3 years. I've gotten to the point where I barely even think about it anymore. I used to keep a box of phyllo in the fridge, rather than the freezer, because it's so versatile and I found so many uses for it.

I only have a couple of tutorials up so far, clarified butter and phyllo cups. I'm trying to stick with tutorials that are more of a foundation than anything. For instance, there's a world of recipes that call for clarified butter, including phyllo cups. And once you've made phyllo cups, there's a world of things that they can be filled with, from cheesecake or quiche to crab salad or scallop mousse.

If there's anything in particular that you'd like to see a tutorial on, please leave me a comment on this post and I'll see what I can do. I'm going to try to stick with foundational tutorials, but if you're not sure whether or not what you're looking for qualifies, go ahead and suggest it. At the very least, I might just blog about it anyway.

Tutorial: Phyllo Cups

I think that most people who know what it is find phyllo dough to be intimidating. And rightfully so, it would seem. It's certainly not a common ingredient in most American households. It's paper thin, dries out easily, and is essentially useless when it dries out. I am here to tell you that phyllo dough is nothing to be afraid of. The first time I ever worked with phyllo dough, I didn't have a handy little tutorial such as this. My boss at the time gave me instructions over the phone, made me write them down, and then read them back to him. Fortunately, I managed to pull them off with little difficulty, even despite only having old, crackly phyllo dough to work with. If I can do it with crackly dough, with phoned-in instructions, then you can easily do it with fresh phyllo dough from the store.

There are a few things we'll need to get started:

1 package phyllo (or filo) dough
2 cutting boards, each bigger than the phyllo rolled out flat
1 tea towel, also bigger than the phyllo rolled flat
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, clarified and melted
1 pizza cutter
1 paint brush that has never been used for painting
mini muffin tins

Mise en plas (meaning, having everything in place) is important. At some point, your work area will probably look something like this:

Now, phyllo dough is sold frozen, so you're going to have to thaw it. The box will probably recommend letting it sit on the counter for a couple of hours before working with it. I've found that this produces crackly dough that is difficult to work with. Instead, park your phyllo in the fridge the night before you plan to use it. This will thaw it much more gently. When you're ready, preheat your oven to 350F. Then take your tea towel and get it just barely damp. If it feels damp but you can't squeeze even a drop of water out of it, then it's probably okay. Line up your cutting boards next to each other and unroll the phyllo onto the one away from you. It will probably be rolled up in a piece of plastic longer than the dough. Don't throw this away! In fact, go ahead and keep it underneath your phyllo dough so that you don't lose it.

When you have your phyllo rolled out, go ahead and cover it with your tea towel. Remember, phyllo can dry out quickly, and this will help keep it moist. Now, you're going to be working with one sheet at a time here. To get a new sheet, remove the tea towel from the dough, take a sheet of phyllo and lay it where you'll be working with it, and then put the tea towel back over the dough before working with the new piece of phyllo.

Okay, step 1, grab a piece of phyllo and lay it out on the cutting board closest to you. Be careful with this first sheet; remember, it's as thin as paper, but it does tear a lot more easily. Once you get a feel for phyllo, you'll be able to work a lot more quickly. For now, just worry about getting used to it. When you have it laid out flat in front of you, dip your brush in the clarified butter and then lightly brush the phyllo sheet, starting with the edges. The edges dry out a lot more quickly, so you want to get them first. When you have the edges done, brush the rest of it. Remember to go light, both with the butter and the pressure you apply to the brush. You don't want soggy phyllo, and you don't want the brush tearing it either.

Now, wasn't that easy? Okay, so maybe not so much the first time. Maybe there's a couple of tears in the dough. Don't sweat it. Just fix them the best you can, and if it starts to look worse, then leave it alone. You've done all you can. It's time for the next layer. Now, be careful laying this layer down, because it will stick to the butter on the first layer. Once you have it down, follow the same procedure: brush the edges, then the middle.

Don't worry if the sheets aren't lined up perfectly! Chances are they won't be, and that's okay. In fact, uneven edges are kind of rustic and homemade looking, and believe me, that's a good thing. It adds interest to the final product. Okay, are you finished with your second sheet? Go ahead and do a third sheet, and then a fourth. Four layers is about perfect for phyllo cups. The next thing we need to do is cut our creation into squares with our handy-dandy pizza cutter. Most supermarket varieties will cut quite nicely into 12 squares, but I have seen some brands that are twice as large as normal. If yours is just slightly smaller than a cookie sheet, then you're good to go. If it's twice that, cut it in half first, and then cut each half into 12 squares.

Now, here's the cool thing about phyllo dough. Once it's been brushed with butter, it's not going to dry out. So take your time cutting, so that you can get each square roughly the same size. Personally, I have next to no ability getting the size right, so I take my time. Once you have it cut into squares (actually, they'll be a little more rectangular, but don't worry about it), it's time to press them into the muffin tins. Now, I bought my mini muffin tins at a restaurant supply store, but I've seen them in almost every supermarket I've been to. My tins hold 24 muffins, but if you can only find tins with room for 12, don't sweat it.

Pick up a sqaure of phyllo and press it carefully into a cup in your muffin tin, butter side down. The butter will act as a lubricant, keeping you from having to spray the pan. Do be careful, though. The phyllo may be four times as thick, but it can still tear, so be careful. Try to make sure you get it pressed into the edges as much as possible, but don't stress if it's not perfect. And don't bother trying to make it look all symmetrical either. Remember, rustic is good, but don't go so rustic that it starts to look sloppy.

Now, if your tin holds 24 like mine does, you'll have to do another four sheets of phyllo. It should be a lot easier this time, since you've had some practice. Don't worry about the ones you've already done, they butter will keep them from drying out. Do another four sheets of phyllo, butter between each layer, and then cut into pieces and press into the muffin tin. You'll come out with something that looks a little like this:

Now you can go ahead and bake 'em. Your oven should already be at 350F, which is about right. Set your timer for 8 minutes and don't open the door until the timer goes off. I mean it! But when the timer does go off, check on them. If they're not golden brown, give 'em another couple of minutes. Yes, use a timer. Do this until they do look golden brown, and then make a note of hour long that took. Mine usually take 10 - 12 minutes. They should look something like this:

That's right, golden brown and delicious. Now, when you bake your second batch, keep something in mind. Every time you open the oven door, heat escapes, and you add time to how long it takes to bake. So if you checked on them at 8 minutes, then 10, and then finally pulled them at 12, that doesn't mean that you can leave your next batch in for 12 minutes. If you do that, chances are your second batch will burn. Leave it in for 10 minutes and see how it does. Before long, you and your oven will come to understand each other, and you'll know about how long to bake each batch.

Now, another nice thing about these is that even though the phyllo may have had moisture when you started, it's all been baked out. This means that when cooling the cups, you can leave them in the muffin tins for as long as you need to, and the bottoms won't get soggy like they would with cupcakes or muffins. Still, at some point you may want to move them to a cookie sheet, for whatever it is you're going to use them for. They can stand on their own now, so they don't need the support from the muffin tin. Go ahead and line a cookie sheet with a piece of parchment paper, and then line it with your phyllo cups. You can fit a lot more on there than you might think, but be careful not to overcrowd it. At this point, you can wrap the whole thing in plastic wrap (carefully, so as not to break the cups) and store in a safe place for a couple of days. I wouldn't hold them for too long though, or they'll start to go stale.

Now, another nice thing about these is that you can bake them well before you need them. If you're planning a dinner party and you know that time will be limited between the time you get home from work and the time guests start arriving, you can bake these the night before and have them all ready for you. You don't even have to refrigerate them. In fact, I wouldn't, because they might pick up moisture from the refrigerator and get soggy. Just keep them on a counter, away from the kids, and you'll be fine.

Tuesday, August 8, 2006


Stereotypes are a funny thing. I think that most of us have spent our lives dealing with stereotypes, more more obvious than others. I don't know how it came up, but while I was in a conversation today with Tuxgirl, we started talking about the number of female computer geeks. Those of you who work in the tech world have already noticed that there's a lot more guys than girls. A lot. Of course, this leads to stereotypes about female geeks, or rather, the common belief that they don't really exist. At one point, she pointed me to a page talking about the dos and don'ts of encouraging women in Linux. The point that struck me was "don't treat women stereotypically" (don't follow the link if you're opposed to the 'f-word'), wise advise in any situation.

Actually, I think that when it comes down to it, the entire document was about stereotypes. This point in particular mentioned that the male geeks, when explaining something, would use analogies to cooking or babies. This strikes a couple of chords with me. a) I'm a cook and b) my wife and I are getting ready to have a baby. Rarely does an hour, much less a day, go by that I don't talk to somebody about food. And lately, I've had a lot of conversations about babies with coworkers, most of whom are men.

What I'm getting at is that stereotypes go the other way too. In fact, I'd say that male geeks are doing a pretty good job at building up a stereotype of being good cooks, or at least being into cooking. I blame Alton Brown. But it reminds me of when I was going to cooking school in New Hampshire. Rumor quickly spread among my fellow churchgoers that I was a chef, and suddenly all of the women that I went to church with were either apprehensive that their cooking skills could never match mine, or picked up challenging attitudes towards me, because what right did a man have to be in the kitchen, unless he was washing dishes? Ironically, most of the guys were perfectly okay with it. Another guy, whom I will refer to as Papa Kane (as everybody else did), was considered by most to be the best cook in the congregation. He and I got to be good friends while I was there, and I we both loved picking each others' brains.

Back to the geek and cooking stereotypes. I've spent the last 12 years in the tech industry. I even telecommuted to a Utah ISP while I was living in New Hampshire (had to pay the bills somehow). I started writing code professionally (as in, for a living) a good 7 or 8 years ago. Tuxgirl is 22, and so even if she started professionally at 17 like I did, I'm still ahead of her in experience alone. But let's face it, she could probably code circles around me (except in Perl). But I think I have her beat on cooking, even if only because I went to school and got a degree in it (I was a lousy cook before I went to school for it).

The thing is, I don't fight stereotypes the same way as other people. I mess with people. In Utah Valley, it's even easier to do than a lot of other places because, as near as I've observed, they're a lot more fond of stereotypes. Facial hair is less common here because it's against the dress code at the local university, and that seems to have an effect on people in the area. I've been sporting a beard for some time now, and a goatee for some time before that. It draws a lot of stares in the supermakert, and some people actually ask me about it. But when I get into conversations with people that don't know about my culinary training, I have a lot of fun watching eyes pop, etc. On the other hand, when I went to my cake decorating class, I left all that at the door. When asked, I told them that I loved to watch cake competitions on TV, which is entirely true, and left it at that. I didn't want people to get any more nervous than the beard might have already been making them.

The moral of my long-winded story is, knock it off with the stereotypes. It doesn't help anyone that you're dealing with, and you run the risk of running into people like me that like to mess with peoples' minds.

Tutorial: Clarified Butter

Clarified butter is a pretty important ingredient in the professional cooking and baking worlds, so knowing how to clarify butter is equally important. You see, whole butter isn't really 100% butter. American butter is actually only about 80 - 81% butter fat, maybe 1 - 2% milk solids, and the rest is water. That's right, water. European butter is closer to 82 - 83% butter fat, which is why bakeries that use it tend to have richer-tasting pastries. The problem is, milk solids burn pretty easily. In fact, because of them, whole butter burns at around 250F. When you remove the milk solids, the smoke point for butter actually goes up to about 350F. Technically, you could deep-fry at this temperature, but you probably wouldn't want to with butter.

The process is pretty easy. First, you'll need a container to hold the butter. Each stick of butter is 1/2 cup, so it's pretty easy to figure out. Just make sure you leave a little extra room at the top to keep from spilling. In my example, I used two sticks of butter, so my bowl holds perhaps 1 1/4 to 1/2 cups. If I were you, I'd use a resealable plastic container.

Second, you'll need a pan big enough to hold your container. You might also want a tea towel to put at the bottom of the pan. Put a couple of inches of water in the pan, and then put your container in the water. You'll probably want to make sure the water comes at least half-way up the side of the container, but be careful not to get any inside the container. If some splashes in, it's not the end of the world. Your pan will probably look something like this:

Now, put the pan on the stove if you haven't already, and turn the heat to low. Low, I said! This won't be a fast process, but it also won't be very labor intensive. You can leave the room, but don't leave the house. Make sure you drop by every 10 minutes or so to check on things. Don't worry, the tea towel won't burn, because it's in the water. And if you leave the heat on low, then any plastic containers you use won't melt, because the towel will protect them from the direct heat of the stove. Let the butter slowly melt, until it's completely melted. Go ahead and turn the heat off, and let the butter cool on the counter for an hour or so. It should look something like this:

What happened? Well, water is heavier than fat because it's more dense, so the fat will float to the top and the water will sink to the bottom. This is also helped by the fact that water and fat repel each other anyway. But the milk solids are even lighter, so they float to the top of the butter. In a fast-paced restaurant setting, the solids would probably be skimmed with a spoon, leaving a thin layer of water on the bottom and a thick layer of melted butter on the top. They don't worry so much about the water, because it'll just evaporate when they cook with it. The milk solids, which would burn, are now gone. But we have a little more time, so we're going to take this just another step.

When the butter has reached room tempurature, go ahead and put the lid on the container (or wrap it in plastic wrap) and move it to the refrigerator overnight. In the morning, you'll have a solid layer of fat, with a liquid layer of water on the bottom and that layer of milk solids on top. If you turn it on its side, it would look something like this:

See that layer of water in the bottom? Now all you need to do is scrape the milk solids off the top with a butter knife, and then remove the hunk of butter and pour out the water. Now you have a nice little hunk of 100% butter fat ready for, well, lots of things. You know that fancy restaurant you go to because you just love their sauteed vegetables? Those vegetables were probably sauteed in clarified butter. That steak was probably cooked in butter too. No, I'm not talking about your local chain restaurants. Clarified butter is too expensive, so they're probably using some sort of oil. I'm talking about the really nice restaurant, the one that you took out a second mortgage to dine at, because you saw the chef on TV. Chances are they have a gallon of clarified butter on the line that all of the cooks share.

What else can you use clarified butter for? It's big in the pastry world as well. You can brush bread with it before baking it, or after it comes out of the oven. There's a world of pastries that you can brush it on, in fact. And when working with phyllo dough, what better to brush it with than clarified butter? The possibilities are nearly endless.

Sunday, August 6, 2006

An Unpopular Opinion

I'm about to make a really unpopular opinion, at least in Utah County. You don't have to like it, you don't have to agree with it, you don't even have to read it. But I'm standing by it.

Let's say there's a sandwich shop nearby, that you've heard makes a really killer sandwich. You've seen the commercials, you've heard friends talk about it, and it sounds like a really, really good sandwich. The problem is, you know, either from the commercials, your friends, even restaurant reviews that there's something in the sandwich that you know will make you ill. Let's say it's a spread, like some kind of spoiled mayonnaise or something. Still, it sounds like a really good sandwich.

And then, relief comes. There's some guy out front that is willing to buy the sandwich, scrape off the spread, and sell it to you for a pretty good price. Now you can enjoy that sandwich that everybody's talking about! You head on down, buy a sandwich from the new guy, and dig in. The problem is, bread is pretty pourous. As much as the new guy scrapes, there's still just a little bit of the spread in every bite. But there's so little, you ignore it. It's not like the huge smear that was on there before. You still get sick, but just a little, so you don't even think about it. It was a pretty good sandwich. Before long, you're buying all your sandwiches from this guy. Some have more spread than others, but when he's done with them, you're pretty confident he's gotten enough off so that you can enjoy it. Sometimes the sandwich is pretty good, sometimes it's just okay, and sometimes you wish you hadn't bought it in the first place.

Maybe this is a little bit of a stretch. Let me simplify it for you. If I make you a sandwich that you want, and then I spit in it, and then I cut out the part that I spit in and give it to you, would you still want it? If I made a beautiful vegetable soup and then dropped a skunk in it, then somebody else took the skunk out for you, would you still want to eat it?

This is why I'm not sad about the ruling against CleanFlicks. In fact, this is why I've always hated the concept of CleanFlicks. If the content was there in the first place, it doesn't matter how much language you try to clean up or how many scenes you cut, the content will still be there. You're not making a statement by buying the cleaned up version. If CleanFlicks is in fact buying a copy of the movie for each one they sell to you, then Hollywood isn't losing any money on the deal. In fact, now that you're paying to watch the edited version of the film you wouldn't have seen before, you're actually giving Hollywood more money than they would have gotten before. And since the biggest thing they care about is the money, the increased cashflow does little more than encourage them to make more movies like that.

I'm not mad that Hollywood struck back at CleanFlicks. I wouldn't be mad if the sandwich shop chased off the guy out from out front that was operating without permission, without credentials and very likely without a food handler's permit. When somebody cuts out part of Picasso's Guernica and tries to pretend that it's not nearly as sad as it is, that makes me mad. When somebody puts a fig leaf in front of Michaelangelo's David and tries to pretend that there's no nudity, that makes me mad. I'm not saying that bad movies should be considered works of art. I'm saying that you're kidding yourself. Even worse, you're supporting the very thing that you're claiming to protest. If I tried to pull the same thing, I would live with a daily guilt that I was being hypocritical.

There's more to life than sandwiches. If you don't want a sandwich, buy some soup. If you don't want what's in the soup, buy some pork chops. It's up to you what you choose to put into your body and mind. If you know you don't want to put something into your body or mind, don't kid yourself by putting only a little of it in.

Saturday, August 5, 2006

Utah Krishna Temple

Apparently, there is a Krishna temple in Spanish Fork, UT. I had no idea! Spanish Fork is only about 20 to 30 minutes south of where my wife and I live, so it's not that big of a deal to get there. Normally, I would have wanted to go anyway. But then I found out they have a vegetarian buffet! A buffet! I had to go.

As you can see, it's a beautiful temple. Make sure to take off your shoes at the door. Going inside, we were talking about taking a tour, when a woman met us and told us that a tour had just started upstairs. Unfortunately, it seems that the people on the tour were in a bit of a hurry, so we didn't catch much. We were allowed to take a walk around the place (and advised to go clock-wise, for good luck) and take plenty of photos. When we were done, we hit the buffet.

The prices were, well, there weren't really any. They asked only for a donation of what the guest felt was appropriate. The food was a mix of Indian and western dishes, all vegetarian. There was plenty of fruit of vegetables at the salad bar, fries and spaghetti for the kids, a really nice mango and papaya puree, a potato goulash that I went back for seconds for, rice, and some curried vegetables. This is not Emeril-chow, oh no. This is home cooking. This is going over to your friend's house for dinner, when their mom is cooking something that you're not used to, but looks good. The man in charge asked me a good couple of times if I'd tried his wife's soup yet, which turned out to be pretty thin, but very tasty, and very spicy. They even had peach juice to drink. It was fabulous.

We asked about recipes, if they were planning on putting out a cookbook or something, but apparently they pretty much just cook out of the cookbooks available in their gift shop. I did buy a copy of Cooking with Kurma, which is one of their vegetarian cookbooks in the shop, but it would be nice to see these guys put out their own.

It's an interesting experience. Next time I go back, I hope to talk to the man in charge a little bit more, and of course, get some more of the food. If you're in the area, I suggest you head down and check it out.

Friday, August 4, 2006

Haute Grilled Cheese

One of my favorite pleasures in life is a grilled cheese sandwich. Melty sharp cheddar cheese, the more aged the better, between two slices of tangy sourdough bread, seared in butter to a toasty perfection. I daresay I might have become a bit of a connoisseur. I've tried to keep my habit down to no more than one a week. Or two. Two a week. Maybe more. Yeah.

As I looked into my fridge this evening, I saw something that I am greatly ashamed of. A block of cheese, from the Beehive Cheese Co in Uintah, UT, called Promontory Cheddar. This block of cheddar was given to me by my dear friend Ruth, who is apparently neighbors with the guy that runs the joint. I have been waiting for the perfect time to taste it, and I'm sure that several of those moments have passed.

So, it's time to repent. I opened it up and gave it a taste. WOW! This stuff is amazing! No wonder it's all the buzz at the local farmers markets this year! I'm still kicking myself for not trying it earlier. But what to do with such a magnificent cheddar? As I surved my pre-shopping day ingredients, I found plenty of my beloved sourdough bread, and a package of prosciutto. I knew what I had to do.

I took out a slice of prosciutto and lightly pan-fried it in just a bit of butter. While that was going, I finely grated a bit of cheddar and piled it onto a slice of sourdough. I topped it with the prosciutto, closed it, and added a bit of butter to the pan and put in the sandwich. I like to add butter to the pan instead of buttering the bread. Aside from the fact that cold butter tends to tear bread, I just think it tastes better. I pulled the sandwich from the pan, added a little more butter, and put the sandwich back in on the other side. Now, I know that a lot of professional cooks will tell you that excessive flipping is evil. In the case of grilled cheese, it's essential. I find that it gives time to let the cheese melt, without letting the bread get hot enough from constant direct exposure to the pan to burn.

I don't normally put anything inside my grilled cheese sandwiches except for cheese. But I have heard that the original grilled cheese sandwich, supposedly in France, included ham. I'm sure it wasn't Italian ham, but I'll live. This sandwich was awesome. It had a slightly deeper flavor, both from a cheese whose flavor had advanced far beyond the wimpy supermarket varieties, and from the prosciutto, only lightly cooked, so as not to detract from its original cure and flavor. It was far too magnificent to have on a regular basis. But it may make it into my dietal rotation on a somewhat semi-regular basis.