Sunday, April 22, 2007

Feisty Release Party Report

Last night I hitched a ride with Herlo over to the Ubuntu Utah Feisty Release Party. It was held at the Orbit Cafe in downtown Salt Lake City.

I don't suppose I expected a whole lot of people there, and I'm not sure Christer or the Cafe expected quite that many either. I heard at some point that we had 32 people there. By my estimation, the room that they had us in was only meant to seat 28 people, so we were a little low on seating. I was glad to be among the first of the crowd, assuring that I would have a good seat.

I ended up seeing a lot of people that I knew online, but hadn't really met in person. We all stood up and introduced ourselves, making sure to tell people our IRC nick if we had one. It seems strange to me that knowing people only by names such as Sontek and LinuxAlien would not seem strange. I ended up sitting across from John Taber who, as it turns out, is an absolute delight to talk to.

This being 95% a food blog, I suppose I should talk about the food at the Orbit Cafe. Looking around the place, it seemed to me that it was meant to be more of a bar, which made it confusing to me that it would close at 9pm on a Saturday night. Almost half the menu was devoted to drinks, and when I saw the word Sobe, I decided that a Cranberry Grapefruit Elixir would be nice. A man came by to get our drink orders (I later decided that he was the bartender), and I asked if he had Cranberry Grapefruit Sobe. He told me yes and stood there looking at me. I asked if he could bring me one and he said, "oh, yeah, sure!" I expected him to bring back a bottle (which I would have preferred), but he brought me a mixer glass with ice and Sobe in it, and walked away. I took a sip, and then spent the next five minutes trying to flag him down again. Eventually a waitress stopped by and I asked her if they had any non-sugar free Sobe.

Here's a tip. If you want to try and figure out whether or not your drink is sugar free, take a sip. If it tastes absolutely disgusting and actually makes you wish for the end of Western civilization, if only for a short moment, then chances are it's sugar free.

The waitress called over to the bartender twice to ask if they had any non-sugar free Sobe before finally walking over and asking him. She returned and informed me that no, they didn't. Perhaps that was why he assumed that I wanted the vile version of the drink rather than the delicious one. Still, it would have been nice for the bartender to ask, "we only have sugar free, is that okay?" I ordered a lemonade instead. It tasted relatively artificial, but it also tasted like it had real sugar in it, so I was content.

I ordered a reuben, which came with soup, salad or fries. The soup of the day was lentil with ham, so I decided to give it a shot. When my food arrived, I tasted the soup and was reminded of something that I heard Anthony Bourdain say once: "I hate it like poison". It seemed to be designed to make me appreciate sugar free drinks. A couple of other people told me later of their dissatisfaction with the soup as well. As I was leaving later on, I saw fries on somebody else's plate, and I wished that I had ordered them instead.

I love a good reuben, and I was fearful that they had destroyed it as well. According to the menu description, the only deviation from the standard recipe was marbled rye, and to call it a deviation really is splitting hairs. The corned beef looked more like bacon, and was perhaps a little drier and chewier than usual. I'm no aficionado of sauerkraut, since a reuben is the only place I like it, but it tasted okay. The bread was harder than I'm used to, but tasty. When it came down to it, my only complaint about the sandwich was that all of the meat seemed to have found its way to one side, so my first half of the sandwich seemed a little sparse, and the second half had way too much.

Our waitress was friendly, and for that night, extremely overworked. The rest of the cafe seemed very empty for that time of night, and I don't think they were expecting all of us. The kitchen was probably overworked too, so I forgive them for the unbalanced sandwich which was probably made somewhat hurredly, but not for the soup, which was likely made hours in advance. The room that they had us in had a large TV suspected from the ceiling by the bar, and they let us put in Sneakers to watch during the party. Dan Akroyd, you are my hero.

The rest of the staff was friendly, other than the bartender, who seemed aloof. The rest of the food looked good, and judging by my sandwich, I'm sure that most of the menu is worthwhile. It seems unfair to me to call judgement on the place after only once visit, but I will say that despite my personal complaints, they seem like a good place to eat.

The rest of the party was a lot of fun. I'd guess that nearly a third of the people there had their computers out, though I heard frequent complaints about the wireless Internet access. It was nice to finally meet a lot of those people in person, and to network a little bit with them. I have heard rumor that Christer is thinking about holding future Ubuntu Utah meetings there, and I for one would be glad to go back. It's certainly a much friendlier environment than the Salt Lake City Library has ended up being, and the availability of food was a nice bonus. It makes me wish there was a private room at the Salt Lake Roasting Company. Their food has never failed to please me. I wonder if they allow people to reserve the upstairs area.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Ancho Chocolate Pecan and Pomegranate Ice Creams

I should note that these are two seperate ice creams, both suggested by regular readers of this blog on a previous post.

I actually started with Jason's idea for dark chocolate, ancho chile and pecan ice cream. Odd though it may sound, I thought it might make a killer combination. I didn't know how Jason intended that combination to happen, so I decided to run with it and make an ancho chile ice cream base and stir in chopped pecans, followed by dark chocolate. I present the ingredients:

Ancho Chocholate Pecan Ice Cream

1 pint milk
1 cup heavy cream
2 whole, dried ancho chiles
5 1/4 oz/wt sugar
4 oz/wt cream cheese, softened
pinch salt
3 teaspoons tapioca starch
6 egg yolks
5 oz/wt toasted, chopped pecans
6 oz/wt melted semi-sweet chocolate

Combine the milk and cream in a saucepan. Remove the stem from the chiles, and roughly cut largish pieces into the dairy. Don't worry about the seeds, they can go in there too if you like, or not if you don't like. Heat to at least 150F, but don't bring to a boil. Little bubbles breaking the surface is okay, but you might want to drop the heat just a tad. Allow to steep for 15 minutes, stirring occassionally with a rubber spatula to keep anything from spending too much time on the bottom and burning. Plunge the base of the pan in an ice water bath and stir occassionally until cooled. Move to a resealable container and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, strain the chiles out of the dairy. The color will likely have darkened to a light sienna. Add to a sauce pan with the rest of the ingredients, minutes the yolks, nuts and chocolate. Bring to a boil, whisking enough that nothing burns on the bottom. Drop the heat to low, temper in the egg yolks, and continue to cook for a couple more minutes. Plunge the base of the pan into ice water and whisk until cooled. Again, refrigerate overnight. The next day, churn in your ice cream maker as per the manufacturer's instructions, and then stir in the pecans. Then carefully fold in the melted chocolate, maybe a third at a time, making sure not to overstir. Freeze overnight and enjoy.

This ice cream messes with your head. Most people only consider chiles to be a savory ingredient, so the concept of putting them in ice cream seems counter-intuitive. Let's not forget that chiles are berries, and just as Mexicans have been using chocolate as a savory ingredient for centuries, it's entirely possible for chiles to be used as a sweet ingredient. This ended up a smooth and rich ice cream that causes you to take a moment to comtemplate it and get over the weirdness of it actually tasting good. While you're busy contemplating, it comes back and kicks you in the mouth, just as you're least expecting it. Maybe the heat at the end was because I added all of the seeds with the rest of the chiles, so play with it. Your mileage may vary.

Notes: since this ice cream didn't have nut butter in it like my previous ice cream, I decided to increase the starch to compensate. I wasn't sure if cashew butter was adding significant thickening power in the last one, but I decided not to take any chances. Also, you might note the difference in chocolate addition. This method will cause the chocolate to seize as soon as it hits the cold ice cream, but also become brittle, making for smaller pieces in the end result. In the last ice cream, I specifically wanted larger pieces.

On the same day that I cooked the ancho ice cream base, I decided to also create a pomegranate ice cream base, thanks to Art's suggestion. She had mentioned such a flavor to me in the past, and I wanted to see if I could pull it off. The ingredients:

Pomegranate Ice Cream

1 pint pomegranate juice
1 cup heavy cream
5 1/4 oz/wt sugar
4 oz/wt cream cheese, softened
pinch salt
3 teaspoons tapioca starch
6 egg yolks

You know the drill. Combine all ingredients except eggs in a saucepan, bring to a boil, temper in the eggs, cook some more, cool, refrigerate overnight, churn, refrigerate overnight.

There was a decision that I should have made before this ice cream, that I failed to make because it has always been implied before. The question I should have asked was, does cream cheese match the rest of the flavors? When I initially tasted the pomegranate ice cream before the overnight rest, I thought that it did not. When I tasted it again before and after churning, I came to the same conclusion. When I had churned the ice cream and allowed it to harden overnight in the freezer, I came to a different conclusion. It actually tastes pretty good. It is, however, a bit rich, and not what I had intended. I would still use serve it as a quinelle in a plated dessert, but not much more than that. I should note that it reminded me of Creamies. It's an ice cream bar that I used to enjoy on hot days.

Notes: pomegranate juice must have some other sort of thickener in it, such as pectin. I'll have to do some research to see what the deal it. The overnight refrigeration resulted in a somewhat gelled and maybe even a little unappetizing-looking block of something that looked more like pink tofu than ice cream. It still churned properly, if a little softer than usual. The resulting ice cream was softer than usual, even after the overnight freeze, which served only to ease in scooping. It did not seem to melt any more quickly than any other ice cream, and it ended up being a big hit with those who tried it. It was a very interesting experiment indeed.

Don't Mess With Our Chocolate

Time's running out. I wish I had known about this sooner, and that I had been able to post about it when Hans gave it to me a couple of days ago. Guittard Chocolate has a campaign running called Don't Mess With Our Chocolate.

Here's the basic concept. American chocolate standards are apparently stricter than I personally thought they were. Like many food products, there is a legal definition of what can be called chocolate in our country, which has been set up to protect us, the consumers. Certain members of the US chocolate industry have decided that they would like that legal definition to be relaxed, so that they can replace high quality ingredients such as cocoa butter and real sugar with cheaper, and much lower quality ingredients at our expense. To me this is like American farmers asking to replace the natural flavors and sugars of fresh fruits with artificial flavors and sweeteners. I can't think of any way to more effectively ruin a perfectly good apple, or pefectly good chocolate.

Guittard didn't need to take a stand on this. From the looks of things, the new legal definition wouldn't require chocolate manufacturers to change their recipes, it would just allow them to. Guittard could have profited from this new legal change. They could have used it as an opportunity to save money on their chocolate by producing an inferior product as well. Even if they maintained the same high quality standards that they have now, this change would allow them to promote themselves based on their adherance to higher quality practices than everbody else. But they didn't do that. They decided to try and educate the public on what I'm sure most of the rest of the US chocolate industry had no intention of telling us, so that we could have the opportunity to stand up for our rights and beliefs.

I hope that Guittard's efforts won't be in vain. The US chocolate industry seeks to legally mislead us with an inferior product, and we need to stop them. American chocolate has struggled with credibility in Europe for decades, and has only recently found acceptance in a place known for their high standards of quality. The US chocolate industry seeks to destroy that newfound respect at home and abroad, just to make an extra buck. Their efforts will benefit nothing but their profits.

Please take a moment to head over to Guittard's campaign site and click the link on "How to Help". We have until April 25th to let the FDA know that we won't stand for this. It's time to stand up for youselves and let it be known that we as Americans care about quality, and that we will not be duped or taken advantage of by greedy chocolatiers.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Amano, Caramel and Cashew Butter Ice Cream

I'm pretty excited about this ice cream. I was excited when I came up with the idea, but when I had my first taste of the ice cream base, I got really happy. For those of you who don't know (and there seems to be surprisingly many of you), cashew butter is the cashew version of peanut butter. There is no dairy involved here. Just creamy, nutty goodness.

You may remember a previous post where I had the idea to use cashew butter in an ice cream base. It just sounded good. Then somebody suggested my favorite form of caramel, dulce de leche. It's a Latin American specialty that typically involves simmering milk and sugar together for hours on end, reducing it down to a sweet, creamy, thick sauce with a deep flavor. When I tasted Amano's Ocumare chocolate, I knew I had a winning combination. You will need the following ingredients:

1 pint milk
1 cup heavy cream
5 1/4 oz/wt sugar
5 oz/wt unsalted cashew butter
4 oz/wt cream cheese, softened
pinch salt
2 teaspoons tapioca starch
6 egg yolks
125 grams dulce de leche
4 oz/wt (2 bars) Amano Ocumare chocolate

Sorry for the gram measurement on the dulce de leche. The stuff I bought was imported, and since the rest of the world has moved past us into metric, it was in grams. I used half of a 250g container.

Add the milk, cream, sugar, cashew butter, cream cheese, salt and tapioca starch to a saucepan and heat to medium. Whisk occassionally just to keep things moving, and simmer until it starts to thicken. Temper in the egg yolks, cook for a few more minutes, and then plunge the pan into an ice water bath and whisk slowly until it is cooled. Refrigerate overnight.

The next day, freeze in your ice cream maker as per the manufacturer's instructions. While it's freezing, go ahead and roughly chop the chocolate into chocolate chip-sized pieces. You may also want to warm up your dulce de leche in a hot water bath or in the microwave, to loosen it up a bit. Warm is okay, hot is bad. Move the dulce de leche to a plastic zip-top bag.

When the ice cream is finished churning, go ahead and stir in the chocolate chunks. Cut the tip off the end of the plastic bag and pipe a few thick lines of dulce de leche onto the ice cream. Gently fold, and continue to pipe all 125g onto the ice cream. Be careful not to stir or fold too much, because you want swirls of caramel, not a completely homogenized mixture. Move to your freezer overnight.

My wife and I each made sure to taste a spoonful of ice cream before the big chill, and we were blown away. This stuff is amazing! It almost makes me wish I had a cheesy Ben & Jerry's type of name for it, it's so good! The cashew and caramel flavor blended perfectly together, with the chocolate cutting through it, but not harshly. I think Amano's Madagascar might have been too much for this ice cream, but the Ocumare was perfect. But be careful when you make this stuff. If you tell too many friends and neighbors, you may be making it for the rest of your life for them.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Goji Berries and Five Spice

I made a couple of different flavors of ice cream this weekend that I thought I would share. The first was the goji berry ice cream that I mentioned in a previous post. I also decided to try and get away from my beloved commercial stablizer that I've become so accustomed to. I'm not really sure what's in it (though I've heard that it's soy-based), and I'm not too keen on using ingredients that I don't fully understand (certainly as far as the contents). So until I do fully understand it and what goes into it, I decided to look for other solutions.

The basic idea behind the stabilizer, was to keep ice crystals small. How this was accomplished, I'm not sure, but I did notice that every time I used it, my ice cream base would thicken. I had also noticed that the thicker my ice cream base, the more quickly it churns. And the more quickly it finishes churning, the smaller the ice crystals. My theory was that if I could thicken the base via another means, then I could effectively replace the stabilizer. I went with the following ingredient list:

1 pint milk
1 cup heavy cream
5 1/4 oz/wt sugar
4 oz/wt cream cheese, softened
6 egg yolks
pinch salt
2 teaspoons tapioca starch

When most people think corn starch, I think tapioca starch. Granted, they're not completely interchangeable in every situation, but they are in most. A couple of bonuses to using tapioca starch is that it is completely flavorless (no corn flavor) and it doesn't cause problems to people with corn allergies.

Of course, this would make a fine plain ice cream, but I'm all about flavor. As I said, the first batch was goji berry. I rinsed off five ounces, by weight, of dried goji berries, then put those, along with the milk in a blender and pulsed a few times, until the berries were nice and small. This concoction was refrigerated overnight, so that the milk could soak up as much flavor as possible, as well as to rehydrate the berries.

The next day, I used my favorite double-boiler method to make my ice cream base. The sugar, egg yolks, softened cream cheese (cut into chunks), salt, tapioca starch, and just a little of the milk were whisked together in a double boiler. When it started to thicken, I slowly added the rest of the milk, and then the cream. Note: I did not strain the berries. I wanted them to add a little bit of interesting texture. When it was all incorporated, I continued to whisk to let it thicken, and then moved the bowl to an ice water bath and whisked slowly until the mixture had cooled. This was refrigerated overnight again, and then churned in my ice cream machine.

I can't say I was all too happy with the results. The ice cream base was thinner than I wanted, so it took forever to churn, and still ended up pretty soft. It took freezing overnight to get it to firm up all the way, but then it still scooped easily. The flavor was pretty intense, and in fact I couldn't handle more than a spoonful at a time. I let my friend Tim try some and he agreed that while the flavor was good, it was too intense for more than one spoonful. I gave some to my other friends Charles and Jacob, and they couldn't get enough of it. So I suppose it's entirely possible that Tim and I just don't care for goji berries as much as we thought we might.

I decided to move onto my next flavor, Chinese five-spice. And why not? Depending on who you ask, Chinese five spice contains things such as cassia (what we call cinnamon), cassia buds, anise, star anise, ginger and/or cloves. They're all baking ingredients! Why wouldn't you use them together for something sweet? My original intent was to use whole spices and either grind them myself, or let them infuse as whole spices. Unfortunately, visits to two different local Chinese markets yielded no anise or cassia buds, and since I never made it to a "regular" grocery store to look for anise (and I'm sure it would have been there), I decided to use a blend that I had bought previously.

The ingredient list was the same as above, except with two tablespoons of tapioca starch instead of teaspoons (and of course, no goji berries). I still believed in my friend tapioca starch, but I decided to go at this from a different angle. An added benefit of starch is that it also acts as a protective barrier against protein over-coagulation. Whereas heated milk (or cream) by itself might curdle, milk with a lot of starch will keep from doing so. And of course, the starch would thicken as it came closer to the boiling point.

Everything except for the egg yolks were added to a sauce pan along with a tablespoon of ground Chinese five-spice and brought to a boil, while I whisked occassionally. As it came close to the boiling point, it thickened as I expected. In fact, I suspect I could have churned it without the yolks, but I had them, so I was going to use them. I turned off the heat and poured a little of the hot mixture into the yolks, while whisking them the whole time. Then the yolks were whisked back into the rest of the mixture, which was then moved back onto the heat for a moment. Many of you will recognize this process as "tempering the yolks". I whisked for a few more minutes on low heat, and then moved the sauce pan to an ice water bath and whisked until it cooled. This was refrigerated overnight, then churned in my ice cream maker.

It took much less time for this mixture to finish churning, and when I pulled it out of the machine, it was much thicker than I expected. I moved it into a container for overnight freezing, making sure to taste a spoonful on the way. It was amazing! I was afraid it wasn't going to be flavorful enough, but it had a punch! In fact, it almost tasted like pumpkin pie spice, but with the powerful licorice flavor of the anise/star anise instead of nutmeg. Even better, after it had spent the night in the freezer, it was still soft enough to scoop with a plastic spoon, but firm enough that it didn't melt during the ten minute drive to work (which was admittedly a chilly drive, but not freezing by any means).

So there's a couple of flavors for your consideration, goji berry and Chinese five spice. I will likely make both in the future, but the five spice will be because I really like it, and the goji berry will be to see if I can find a way to like it. If you decided to make either on your own, I would love to hear how it turns out.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Amano Chocolate: Finally Available!

I'm pretty excited. Art Pollard dropped off a couple of bars of Amano Artisan Chocolate chocolate to me a day or two ago, in the hopes that I would post a review. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will tell you that while I'm sure he was hoping for a good review, he did not even ask for one. He also did not pay me in anything except for two free bars of chocolate. I should also tell you that while I did not meet Art until after he started building his chocolate factory, we have grown to become friends. That said, I still plan to offer an objective review of his product. I hope to offer more fact than opinion, in the hopes that the reader will be able to come to their own conclusions.

I've mentioned Art's chocolate several times in the past, often bemoaning that it was not available to the general public yet. It has become available in the past month or two, from a few retailers (mostly in Utah, though I understand there are a couple in Seattle), as well as online from

Amano seemes to be big on individual variatals and single-bean origin chocolate, and they have begun by offering Ocumare Grand Cru Dark Chocolate and Madagascare Premium Dark Chocolate. I will refer to these from here on out as Ocumare and Madagascar, respectively. Both chocolates are labelled as having a "70% Cacao Minimum", which I have found to be much too dark in some brands, and just about right in others. I would venture to say it's just about perfect for Amano, but I will get to that in a moment.

Amano Artisan Chocolate does not necessarily seek to provide one consistent flavor across each bar. As their name implies, they offer a more artistic approach. Their goal is to process each batch to the perfect level for that specific bunch of beans, to draw out the best possible flavor. Neither of the bars they offer are milk chocolate, though they both include Tahitian vanilla pods, to accent the chocolate's flavor. I should also note that many high-end chocolates don't really taste anything like your standard Heryshey's bar. In fact, it tastes so different that I am hesitant to apply the same category to both of them.

I decided to go with several separate tastings of the chocolate, rather than gobbling it down all at once. In my first tasting, I started with the Madagascar. It was intensely fruity, which makes sense, because cacao really is a fruit, strange though that may seem. In fact, I would even go so far as to say it has a lot of citrus notes. It melts well on the tongue, and is obviously meant to be savored slowly, not quickly devored. Biting is not recommended. Allowing the chocolate to slowly melt in the mouth is the only way to go. Fortunately, Amano has used a mold with small squares, to help break it into more manageable pieces to stretch it out, or to share with friends.

My first taste of the Ocumare was very disappointing. Something about the flavor seemed... dulled. In fact, it largely paled in comparison to the Madagascar which I had just tasted. I suspected that having eaten them so close together might have marred my tasting experience, so I decided to go with a new tasting some time later, when I no longer had the taste of chocolate in my mouth and the smoothness of the cocoa butter coating my tongue. This proved to be wise, and suddenly the flavor of the Ocumare opened up with a somewhat less intense fruitiness, accented by floral notes which were just strong enough to make themselves be known, but not so much as to be obtrusive. The citrus was less pronounced, but still evident. This chocolate ended up having a much rounder flavor, and is likely a better introductory chocolate for the novice.

I might note that I went back to the Madagascar immediately after the Ocumare, and found that its intense fruitiness was tempered by the Ocumare that still lingered on my tongue. It was much less powerful than it had been, and as much as I had liked it before, I think it was a lot easier to handle. If you are planning a chocolate tasting which includes Amano chocolate (and why would't you, at this point?), I would recommend tasting the Ocumare first, and then the Madagascar. Of course, your mileage may vary.

I'm very impressed with Amano's initial offerings, and I look forward to seeing more varieties in the future. Art has really managed to pull off an excellent chocolate. While this chocolate is perfect for eating out of hand, I think that it might pair well with other ingredients for some truly excellent dishes. A good chocolate is like a good wine, cheese, coffee or tea. When the chocolate maker plays his or her cards right, the complexities and subtleties will be worth discussing at length. Amano is off to a good start, and I think their product has the chance to truly change the way some people look at chocolate.

Ice Cream Season

Well, it's about that time of year again, when I start getting ideas in my head for ice cream, and my wife starts getting sick of me making it somewhere around the 3rd or 4th batch. In the past, I've posted a few ice cream recipes:

My favorite by far is the ginger lemongrass, with the pumpkin Nutella right behind. Now I have some more flavors that I wanted to play with, but I wanted to get peoples' opinions on them:

goji berry (aka wolfberry)
I already have some dried goji berries rehydrating in the fridge, and I plan to make the ice cream base tonight and churn it tomorrow night. The idea for this was from my buddy Otto, so assured me that wolfberry ice cream would be a fabulous flavor, but who then refused to try any of the berries that I bought for it. We decided to try pureeing them in milk, which would make little specs of berry that looked like the little specs of vanilla seed in vanilla bean ice cream, and then letting them soak in the milk for a while before making the whole thing into ice cream. Time will tell if that was a good idea or not.

achiote guajillo (together as a base flavor)
The achiote guajillo flavor probably sounds pretty odd, especially to those who know what those two ingredients are. Achiote (aka annatto) is frequently used as a savory ingredient in various Latin American dishes, but it's also commonly used in butter and margerine, to keep a consistant color through the seasons. That said, I thought its subtle flavor might pair well with frozen, sweetened cream. But to back it up, I thought about using my favorite chile, the guajillo, which has a deep, almost brooding flavor. It's also relatively mild, especially when mixed with dairy, which tends to soften the heat of chiles even more. I might note that chiles are a type of berry, and who hasn't heard of berry ice cream, most noteably strawberry? I think it has the chance to be a suprisingly tasty flavor.

I'm not talking about swirls of Nutella this time, I'm talking about using it as a base flavor, just like chocolate is the base flavor in chocolate ice cream. I think it could probably pull off being its own flavor, but I also think that folding in cashew pieces might be a step in a very nice direction. I also thought about folding in marshmallows, but at that point it's turning into Rocky Road ice cream, and I'm just not about being a follower. I think the cashews alone would be most excellent.

cashew butter
Speaking of cashews, I think that cashew butter (the cashew version of peanut butter) would also make an excellent base flavor. It would be a little bit richer, setting a nice tone for something else. The only problem is, I think that something else would be needed. I tend to think that cashew butter on its own would be kind of boring. It needs something else to strike a nice flavor chord. I just don't know what. Ideas?

As you can see, the flavors that I like to experiment with tend towards the exotic end of the scale. It's not that I don't like the standard flavors, don't get me wrong. But let's face it, there are already a lot of excellent vanillas out there, and not much need to improve on them. I probably will come up with my own version at some point though, just to have it. But what I'm looking for now is something a little less ordinary. Anyone have any flavors or flavor combinations that they think might be worth trying out?

Monday, April 2, 2007

My Target Audience

I was talking to my friend Daphne this weekend, as I so seldom get to do, and the topic of my blog came up. We started talking about my target audience, as she was concerned that my recent switch from volume to weight measurements might alienate some. It's true, despite the fact that measuring by weight is more accurate and can be much easier than measuring by volume, some just won't do it. These people may look at my recipes with interest, but are not likely to ever make them. In time, they may stop reading my blog altogether.

I thought a lot about this. Marketing to the lowest common denominator is certainly what most businesses try to do today. I'm sure it gives you the largest possible audience, which should result in the largest possible cash flow. But do I want the largest possible audience? As it turns out, I'm not one of those people who can make a living from blogging. It's just not all that lucrative for me. In fact, my blog started as a means of sharing my recipes with my friends. As my writing style improved, it developed into much more than that. Many of my articles are tutorials, designed to share some of the knowledge that I gained in cooking school, and some of my experience since.

At some point, I realized that my goal wasn't to cater to the lowest common denominator. It was to raise the lowest common denominator. As my cooking skills have improved over the years, my enjoyment of food has also increased. Some may consider it tragic that I haven't eaten at the McEmpire since well before cooking school. I consider it fortunate that I no longer waste my time, money and taste buds on what I have found to be substandard food.

As I work to improve my cooking skills, my writing style, and my lifestyle in general, I have realized who my target audience is. My target audience is anyone who also wishes to increase the lowest common denominator. If you want to become a better cook (or baker), then you are my target audience. If you have a love and passion for food, then you are my target audience. And if you wish to share your knowledge of things that improve the quality of life of others, and collaborate in an open and free manner with others who share that philosophy, then you are my target audience. In the software world, this is called open source. My desire is to foster the same sort of attitude in the culinary world. If you want to do the same, then you are my target audience.

Weight vs Volume

I'm glad Hans posted his recent experience in measuring flour by volume, because it's something that's been my mind all weekend. As I previously mentioned, I recently purchased a digital scale. This was a vast improvement over the cheap $10 spring-based kitchen scale that I purchased in cooking school, but still a far cry from the grand balance scale that I've been wanting for so long. Baby steps, right?

My old spring-based scale, while difficult at times, was still incredibly useful for the recipes that I came across that were measured by weight. Many of the recipes that I like to play with come from magazines that are meant for professionals rather than the standard home cook, and so are measured by weight rather than volume. With the introduction of an incredibly accurate digital scale to my kitchen, the task of logging my own recipes in a weight format has become significantly easier. And with this occurance, I have found that my recipes have become more consistent and reliable.

Of course, not all ingredients need to be measured by weight. It's generally (though not always) much easier to measure liquids by volume than by weight, and every bit as accurate since there is no compression. Also, tiny measurements such as a teaspoon of salt can be pretty reliably measured by volume. Anything larger than a tablespoon though, and I will switch to the scales.

What do I mean by compression? As it turns out, if you sift out a cup of flour, it will weight significantly less than if you pack a measuring cup full of flour. And some where in the middle is scooping flour into a measuring cup, tablespoon by tablespoon, until you reach a cup. Each of these three methods is generally considered acceptable by the masses, even though the packed cup will weight nearly twice as much as the sifted cup.

It gets worse. Did you know that bread flour, cake flour and the ever popular all-purpose flour have different densities? That means that even sifted, a cup of each type of flour will weigh a different amount. And items such as corn starch and powdered sugar, with their finer granularity, have yet another density. White granulated sugar, as it turns out, doesn't generally suffer from compression issues, so it's one of the few baking items that actually can be measured somewhat reliably by volume. But brown sugar is a different story entirely. That's why so many recipes that call for it refer to it as "X amount of packed brown sugar". This is somewhat reliable, but who's to say you'll pack your brown sugar the same way I'll pack mine? And let's not even get started about things like sliced or ground almonds.

I've met a lot of people who have resisted using recipes that measure by weight. Every single one of them has had the same excuse: "but I don't own a kitchen scale". For those of you in this camp, I have a suggestion. Skip your morning Starbucks run for a week. Take the money you would have spent on coffee and put it in a jar. After a week, chances are you'll have enough money to go down to your local department store and pick up a cheap $10 scale like I did in cooking school. Don't drink coffee? There's probably some little expense that you have that can be better spent elsewhere for a week or two. I know there are some who still can't afford that. I'm sorry to hear that, and I genuinely hope that your situation improves.

For the rest of you, quit whining and just do it. I think you will find, as I did, that measuring actually becomes easier when you do it by weight. One day, once you have converted your 3 1/4 cups of flour to a pound (approximately), you'll realize that scooping into the kitchen scale is actually a lot easier than scooping and sweeping your flour four times in a row using two different sized cups. And when your bread is done baking, you'll also realize that your results are a lot more consistent. And you, as a baker, will be much happier.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Sally Lunn Bread

This is a special recipe to me, because it's memory of my childhood. It was a happy day when we would come home from school and find Sally Lunn bread waiting for us, hot from the oven. We didn't know who this Sally Lunn person was, though I remember wondering on several occassions. I always figured it was some lady our mom knew from church.

I never got the recipe from her, and one day I decided it had been too long since I'd had it. Rather than calling her up and asking for the recipe, I hopped online and started looking. This was during the height of the first dot com bubble, and we had just heard of this Google thing. I found several recipes online, which may have been the beginning of my composite recipes, where I would compare several different versions of the same recipe and then make up my own.

In looking through all the recipes, I also finally figured out who this Sally Lunn lady was. Apparently it comes from "soleil lune", French for "sun moon", and refers to the original sweet rolls which were golden yellow on top (like the sun) and white on the bottom (like the moon). My mom usually baked this in a bundt pan, and while I don't really understand why, I have since followed suit.

Sally Lunn Bread

1/4 cup warm water (about 110F)
1/4 oz/wt active dry yeast
5 1/4 oz/wt granulated sugar
15 1/2 oz/wt all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
3/4 cup whole milk
1 whole chicken egg

Start by sprinkling the yeast into the warm water, along with maybe a teaspoon of the sugar. Whisk the rest of the sugar together with the flour and salt in another bowl. Add the butter, milk, chicken egg and yeast mixture, and combine to form a relatively wet dough. Mix it until it starts to pull away from the side of the bowl. Move to an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel, and allow to rise in a warm place for about an hour and a half, or until it doubles in size. Fold the dough a couple of times and then move it to an oiled bunt pan. Cover the same way as before, and allow to rise in a warm place for another 45 minutes, or until it rises to half again as large. While this is rising is a good time to turn the oven on to 350F to preheat. When the dough has finished rising, put it in the oven and then drop the tempurature down to 300F. Bake for about 45 minutes. At the 30 minute mark, brush the top with melted butter, and then brush again when it comes out of the oven. Allow to cool for a few minutes, and then serve warm, if possible.

The best way to serve this? Buttered, of course. Or you could use jam. It's also quite tasty by itself. This isn't quite a sandwich bread. It's more of a dessert bread, or even a breakfast bread. As I'm sure you've already guessed, all of that sugar makes it sweeter than most breads, so you probably don't want to be using it for savory applications. Because of all of the butter, it also doesn't have a whole lot of gluten formation, so don't bother using bread flour; it won't really do a whole lot for you.

Of course, this weekend I had to tweak with the recipe a bit. I saw a lot of fresh raspberries at the grocery store yesterday, and in fact they were so fresh that they didn't even have mold on the bottom like you see all too often in the produce section.

I bought a container with 6 oz/wt of fresh raspberries. Since I knew they would add a good bit of moisture, I decided to add a little more flour to the recipe. In fact, I used one full pound of all-purpose flour. The rest of the ingredients remain the same, other than the raspberries. The dough was a little less wet than before of course, but still pretty sticky. After the first rise, when I was folding the dough in on itself, I added the raspberries and folded them in every so carefully. They'll burst in the oven, but you don't want them to before that if at all possible. If your dough gets all red, it won't be nearly as interesting. The idea here is to get little bursts of raspberry flavor.

Of course, with the addition of this moisture, the baking time will increase too, if only by a few minutes. I added another 10 minutes to my baking time, which seemed to be perfect.

Okay, so the bursts of raspberry weren't so little. But they were tasty. Of course, you don't have to use raspberries. You could use strawberries or blueberries. You could use bananas or peaches. I suppose you could use sauteed onions too, but I would drop most (but not all) of the sugar if you decide to take that route. I might also note that this recipe does bake quite nicely in standard loaf pans too. Bake it how you like, and make sure to play with it like I did.