Monday, December 29, 2008


One of my all-time favorite dishes is lasagna. Unfortunately, I don't get to make it very often. It's an easy dish, but to make it right can be time-consuming. It's the type of dish that really benefits from letting the flavors spend some time together. Sure, you can rush this along. Skip over a few steps, cut some corners. But once you've had the taste of a real lasagna done right, you won't go back.

Before you start, make sure you have all of your ingredients together:

1 lb ground beef (80% lean)
Worcestershire sauce, to taste
Italian seasoning, to taste
14 oz mirepoix
1 red bell pepper, diced
30 oz tomato sauce
15 oz canned diced tomatoes
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 lb mozzarella
15 oz ricotta
1 large chicken egg
16 oz dry lasagna noodles
Kosher salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Some of you are already scoffing at me using things like (presumably store-bought) Italian seasoning and garlic powder. There is no shame in having these things handy. The Italian seasoning I used is pretty dang tasty, and already formulated. I also liked that it, and the garlic powder, were dried. That means you can add them early and have the flavors permeate the dish longer and more easily.

Before you start on any of this, you'll probably want to preheat the oven to 350F, and grease up a 13x9 baking dish with cooking spray. Go ahead and set it aside for later. Our next step is to brown up about a pound of ground beef.

Season to taste with Kosher salt, pepper, Italian seasoning and Worcestershire sauce. I probably used about a Tablespoon of the Italian seasoning and maybe twice that of Worcestershire sauce. Don't cook it too long, just long enough to brown it. And make sure the seasoning is where you want it right now. Trying to compensate later for poor seasoning now isn't going to be easy.

When it's all nice and browned up, spoon it onto a paper towel-lined plate and set it aside. Try to leave as much of the fat in the pan as possible, you'll need it in a moment.

Okay, who here got confused when they saw mirepoix on the ingredient list? Wow, look at all those hands. Don't worry, it's not so bad as you think. Mirepoix is a 2:1:1 ratio of onions to carrots to celery. It's a French thing that works pretty well with Italian dishes. And as it turns out, Kroger has started selling it in the freezer section in little 14 oz bags. Add that, along with the red bell pepper, to the fat and crank the heat to medium-high. We want to get some nice color on these veggies.

Did I mention to make sure these are well-seasoned? Kosher salt, pepper, Italian seasoning, Worcestershire sauce. Make sure you season each layer of this dish before moving onto the next one. Speaking of the next layer, once you have some color on your veggies, go ahead and cool down the pan a little by adding the tomato sauce and the diced tomatoes.

Time for another layer of flavor. Notice a pattern here? Same drill as before, but go ahead and add in the garlic powder and smoked paprika with the other seasonings (Kosher salt, pepper, Italian seasoning, Worcestershire sauce). Let it simmer for a bit; how long is really up to you. I went for maybe five or ten minutes. I also stole some of it at this point to spread out on the bottom of the baking dish.

This is important. There are going to be a few layers of pasta in this dish, and you want to make sure you have a tomato sauce layer directly above and below every single layer of pasta. We're not going to use the pasta yet, just keep it in mind.

While the sauce is simmering, you'd better get the cheese ready. You're going to put together a container of ricotta, about 3/4 lbs of shredded mozz, a single chicken egg, and maybe a Tablespoon of Italian seasoning. I didn't say this in the ingredient list because I forgot it (oops!), but you can add 1/4 cup of grated Parmesan too. Go ahead and mix it all together in a bowl and set it aside. You'll need it in a moment.

When you think you're ready, and you have a layer of sauce in the baking dish, go ahead and add the meat into the sauce. You want to do this after you've sauced the baking dish, because you really don't want the meat stuck to the bottom. You will want a layer of dried noodles, however.

I love this part. Didja notice something about the pasta? Like the fact that we didn't blanch it first? So awesome. See, this is the beauty of lasagna: the moisture from the rest of the dish cooks the noodles for you. Okay, yeah, it'll add another 20 minutes of cooking time or so. But that's okay; the longer it cooks, the better the flavors marry. Your chances of soggy noodles will also decrease. Next up, add a layer of sauce.

This part is actually trickier than it seems. You see, you're going to have four layers of noodles, with sauce layers on both sides. That means eight layers of sauce, and this is number two. The sauce is important: it's responsible for cooking the noodles. But as tricky as that step was, it doesn't compare to this one: add about a third of the cheese mixture. It's easiest if you dollop it in small increments and then spread it with a spatula.

Oh man. You're going to hate me right about now, because it's time to add another tomato sauce layer. And then pasta, tomato sauce, cheese, tomato sauce, etc, until you have your top layer of pasta, and it's covered with sauce. Cover that layer with the last 1/4 lb of shredded mozzarella. Don't worry if it looks a little sparse. It'll be plenty.

Go ahead and sprinkle, really lightly, some Italian seasoning on top. Remember how I forgot the Parm in the cheese mixture? It may not be a bad idea to sprinkle a couple of Tablespoons on top as well. I'll let you add that to your own ingredient list. Now, go ahead and cover it with some aluminum foil. Try not to let the foil touch any of the cheese.

Slide that guy into your 350F oven and give it about 40 minutes. If you think about it, we're really only doing a couple of things here. We're not actually cooking the dish (except for the noodles) because the ingredients are already cooked. That's important to remember with casseroles. You're not cooking them, you're reheating them. Also, we're melting the cheese. But that part really happens at the end. At about 40 minutes, remove the foil and give the lasagna another 10 minutes to melt and maybe even brown the cheese a little.

Oh man, doesn't that look good? Well, bad news. You can't touch it yet. I know it's going to be torture, but you need to recover it with foil and let it sit for another half hour. It's gotta have time to cool, and to finish cooking those noodles. If you were to serve it at this point, it would burn your tongue, and the noodles would be a little too al dente.

A few more points before I let you loose on this dish on your own. First of all, I cheated more on the cheese than I let on. For some reason, Monterrey Jack sounded really good that day, so I used that instead of mozz. In the past, I've also mixed Jack and Cheddar. And one of my all-time favorite lasagnas was dubbed "pain lasagna". Instead of tomato sauce, I used hot enchilada sauce. Instead of meat, I used black beans, pinto beans and corn. I didn't mix them into the sauce, I added them as their own layer underneath the cheese layer. Speaking of cheese, I went with hot pepper Jack and habanero Cheddar that time around. It was so good, it brought tears to my eyes. Actually, the tears were mostly from the pain, but the flavor was good too.

Lasagna has a lot of room for interpretation. At its most basic, it's little more than alternating layers of sauce, cheese and noodles. Beyond that, you're on your own.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Screen for Beginners

Perhaps I got spoiled at the last couple of companies I was at, but I was shocked when I discovered that my new coworkers had never heard of screen, much less used it. In the past couple of years, I have found screen to be such a valuable program that I can't imagine life without it. I use it on a regular basis both at work and at home, partly because it's so handy and partly because I'm a nerd.

There are plenty of ways to use screen, but there are three things that I like to use it for:

* Maintaining a perisistent shell on one computer that I can access from multiple computers.
* Maintaining a perisistent development environment.
* Logging into somebody else's shell to monitor them, or demonstrate techniques to them.

Screen doesn't ship installed on every distribution, but it's easy to get installed:

RHEL/Fedora: yum install screen
Ubuntu: apt-get install screen

Once it's installed, it's easy to get running. Just type "screen" from the command prompt. The display will blank, and you'll be left at a prompt that looks just like the one you were just at. If you're doing thing in gnome-terminal, you might see something like [screen 0: bash] in your title bar.

At this point, you can use the command line exactly as you did before; you're really just running another shell. Go ahead and run top, to see what I mean. But now you have a series of commands available, each of which starts with CTRL-a. The first one you'll want to be familiar with is CTRL-a d (that's a CTRL-a followed by a d, not CTRL-a CTRL-d). This will detach from your screen session. When you do this, you'll find yourself at the command prompt that you were at before, with "[detached]" displayed above the prompt.

At this point, screen is running, but it's in the background. If you didn't exit out of top, then it is still actively running, you just can't see it. Go ahead and open a second terminal window and type in screen -r. This will reattach to the screen session, and you will see top still running.

That's enough to get you going for a basic persistent shell. I know a lot of people that do this on a server with a public IP address, to keep programs like Irssi open so that they can log into it from work or from home, without having to actually log out of their chat accounts. But let's take this a little further.

You should still have top running. Keep it open and type in CTRL-a c. This will create a second screen, with its own command prompt. Go ahead and type in free.

Now that you have two screens going, type CTRL-a p. This will switch to the previous screen, where top is running. Type CTRL-a n to go to the next screen, where free is running. You could also use CTRL-a 0 and CTRL-a 1 to go to a specific screen number. If you hit CTRL-a c again, you'll get yet another screen.

I've found this to be useful in maintaining a persistent development environment, so that I don't have to leave my notebook at work or close several instances of vim and bash at the end of the day. But let's look at one more feature of screen.

If your terminal is maximized, go ahead and resize it so that it only takes up half the screen. Hit CTRL-a 0 to make sure we're at the screen with top. No go ahead and open up another instance of gnome-terminal and maximize it. Type in screen -x at the prompt. You will see the top screen running, but it won't be taking up the whole window. That's because you've attached to a screen session that was already running somewhere else, and screen is using the display variables from that other screen.

Those of you who have ever tried to walk another user through something on the phone know what a pain it can be to not know exactly what the user is looking at. This can be especially troublesome when a command prompt in Linux is involved. Isn't it much easier to log into their machine, connect to their terminal, and then watch them work?

Now for some cleanup. Hit CTRL-a d to detach from this screen. Go back to the other terminal window where top is still running and hit q to quit. Type exit at the prompt to close that shell. Continue exiting out of screens, using the exit command. When you've exited out of the last command shell, you will be dropped back at your original shell, with the message "[screen is terminating]" above the prompt.

That should be plenty to get you running for now. When you're ready to get into some of the more advanced features of screen, go ahead and run man screen to take a look at the other options available.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


Well, I pulled it off: turducken. This is the sort of dish that you learn a lot from while making it. Of course, I learned a few things the hard way. The first lesson that I learned the hard way was to read the instructions from all of my turducken recipes a little more carefully. It's not like baking where you can say, "this is a muffin recipe, that means I can use the muffin method." There's more to the technique.

The idea with a turducken is to remove all of the bones from a chicken and a duck, and most of the bones from a turkey, and stuff the chicken inside the duck, and the duck inside the turkey. Traditionally, there would be stuffing between each bird as well. As it turns out, removing most of the bones from the turkey isn't difficult, so long as you leave the skin on. Doing the same for a chicken and a duck was far more difficult, especially since we decided to remove the skin.

What we ultimately ended up with were a boneless, skinless chicken and duck, quartered. Because we tried to keep it from being quartered, it took much longer than it would have if we had just quartered it properly in the first place. Now, I'm not saying that this is the correct way to make turducken. It's just the way that we ended up with.

Bearing that in mind, let's go through the steps after we deboned all of the birds. With the turkey, you don't have to remove the bones from the wings or the drumsticks; you just have to remove the bones from the body. This isn't bad, and it leaves you with what is essentially a butterflied turkey.

Before you even started the process of deboning these birds, I hope you made some stuffing to stick inside of them. The stuffing should be cooling to room temperature while you debone the birds. We ended up using about 6 cups total. Try to make it a little drier than usual; part of its job is to soak up juices. Go ahead and put down a layer of fully coolled stuffing.

Next up comes the duck. Lay down the duck breast in the middle, and the rest of the meat on the side.

Give it another layer of stuffing.

And then follow up with the chicken, breast in the middle, rest of the meat on the outside.

This is where you use up the last of the stuffing. Don't feel like you have to use it all. The birds are going to be plenty hard to close up anyway, and more stuffing will just make it more difficult.

This part will be interesting. You need to close up the bird, and then keep it closed. At first, this doesn't seem so difficult.

But you'll find that keeping it all together is going to be rough. It'll help to have a second person helping out here, because they'll need to hold the turkey closed while you thread a couple of skewers through the skin.

Next up, roll the turkey over on top of the seam, and move it to a baking pan. You probably can't see it with my baking pan, but I have a rack in the bottom. Also, I would liked to have tied the legs back together, but I couldn't find my butchers twine.

Believe it or not, I think this next part was actually more difficult than building the bird. We had to cook it. We didn't cook it right away, actually. We covered it and put it in the fridge, to cook the next day. We pulled it from the fridge at the same time we started pre-heating the oven, with the hopes that it would come somewhat closer to room temp by the time we stuck it in the oven.

I prepared for this event by watching Alton Brown cook several turkeys, both on Good Eats and on Food Network "All-Star" holiday specials. Stuffing or no, there was always one constant: he did the majority of cooking at 350F. He stated at least once that lower, slower cooking times would contribute to drying out the bird. He also would tend to start the bird at a higher temp, to get some browning going, and then liked to put a foil shield over the breast to keep it from overcooking.

I started by giving the bird a spritz of cooking spray. I knew the oil would aid in proper browning, and that's important. I also fashioned a triangle-shaped shield of foil to cover the breast, before I put it in the oven. The shield would be added later.

I started the cooking process at 400F, to get some decent browning on the bird. Once it looked presentable, I covered the breast with the foil shield and put it back in the oven, at 350F. Since I have also misplaced by probe thermometer, I had to check the internal temp with an instant-read thermometer. My goal was the high 150s, since I knew that carry-over cooking would take it to 165F on the way to my dad's house.

Total cooking time was about 3 hours. Somewhere around the 2 1/2 hour mark, I started to chicken out (no pun intended) and drop the oven temp. It eventually came down to maybe 310F or so. I'm still not convinced this was the right action. When the bird was just shy of 160F, I pulled out and covered it completely with foil. Before I covered it, it looked like this:

When we got it to my dad's house, we let everyone see it before carving it. Then we set about carving it, which should have been a simple task. Since all of the bones are removed from the inside, we should have just been able to cut cross-sections. But since some of the outer bones remained, they initially got in our way. Eventually, I was able to come up with a good cross-section.

Yes, the meat looks a little dry, doesn't it? This probably has to do with my lowering the oven temp, and/or having to open the oven repeatedly to check the temp, since I didn't have a probe thermometer. Fortunately, it wasn't too dry. Just a tad.

I carved up the whole thing, and moved it all to a platter. I kept the drumsticks intact, but laid out the rest in easy-to-serve pieces, nicely garnished with all of the stuffing.

I noticed that the duck was not a gamey as it usually is. I don't know whether this is because it had chicken and turkey juices mixed in with it, or because it was fully-cooked, instead of medium-rare as duck is normally served. I imaging it's a combination of both, but mostly the second. The chicken was decently cooked. Nobody got sick from undercooked stuffing. All in all, I think it turned out better than expected, but it certainly wasn't a professional job. I think next time we do a turducken, I might just order one premade from The South (tm) and see how they did theirs. Still, not a bad first try.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Tutorial: Baklava

I made some baklava a couple of weeks ago, as a bribe to get my boss to send me to San Francisco. The deal was, if they send me to SF, then the business day immediately following my return, I would bring homemade baklava to work with me.

A few days after presenting my offer, I was presented with my itinerary. Upon my return I picked up some ingredients, got the camera ready, and put together the first baklava that I had made since starting this blog.

I'll admit, baklava looks like a scary thing to make. And unfortunately, few people that make it do it right. Almost every baklava I've ever had has been either too dry or too soggy, and they've also generally been sickeningly sweet. My baklava, as I promised to my boss, is different. It's not too sweet, dry or soggy. It's also not incredibly traditional. Well, screw tradition, I say! This is a dang good baklava!

You may recall a couple of years ago when I make some phyllo cups. If you can handle those, this shouldn't be a problem. You may also want to brush up on making clarified butter. First, the cast of ingredients (a la The Pioneer Woman):


Sugar/Spice Mixture:
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp allspice

Simple Syrup:
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup water
juice of half a lemon
juice of half an orange
zest of a lemon
zest of an orange
2 cinnamon sticks, broken in half
6 whole cloves

The Rest of the Baklava:
1 cup pistachios
1 cup pecans
3/4 cup sliced almonds
1/4 to 1/2 lb clarified butter
20 sheets (1/2 lb or 1/2 a box) phyllo dough

To start off, you'll need a few spices, mixed in with some sugar. This is kind of a high-end cinnamon sugar that you can sprinkle later on your toast. In fact, you'll have some left over for that, so make good use of it.

This is also not a bad time to get together the ingredients for a simple syrup. The hardest part is getting some lemon and orange zest ready. Don't bother with a microplane grater on this one; just use a vegetable peeler.

Go ahead and toss the zest in a sauce pan, along with some sugar, honey, water, orange and lemon juice, and whole spices. You can set those aside for now.

Next up, you'll need some nuts. I went with pistachios, pecans and almonds. You can either pulse them in a food processor, or do what I always do and toss them into a zip-top bag and roll them with a rolling pin. The texture is inconsistent, which I actually kind of like.

Now that you have those things out of the way, it's time to move onto the fun stuff: the phyllo dough. You'll want 20 sheets (half a box) of phyllo dough, a stick or two of clarified butter, a 13 x 9 baking dish brushed with clarified butter, and a kitchen towel that is just barely damp.

The towel is to keep the phyllo from drying out while you're working with it. Just between you and me, I don't really use it. I've been working with phyllo for so long that I'm fast enough to go through half a package (that's one whole baklava) without needing it. You'll get there, don't worry. Now go ahead and lay out a sheet of phyllo and brush it with clarified butter.

Repeat until you have 6 sheets laid down. Then go ahead and divide up the nuts into thirds, and sprinkle one third onto the phyllo.

Follow up with a sprinkling of the spice/sugar mixture. I moved mine into a leftover spice jar, to make it easier to sprinkle evenly, and to keep it later for toast. Don't feel like you have to use it all. You just want a thin layer, barely capable of even being called a layer.

Go ahead and lay down another sheet of phyllo and brush with clarified butter. Go easy on this one, since there's a layer of nuts underneath waiting to tear holes in your phyllo. Just between you and me, if you think this part is going to be too hard, feel free to lay out another cutting board and do your layers of phyllo on that, and then move the layers of phyllo on top of the nuts. You'll want four sheets of phyllo on this layer.

Keep going until you have three layers of nuts and four layers of phyllo. The top and bottom layers should be 6 sheets each, and the inner layers should be 4 sheets each. When it's all finished, go ahead and cut it into squares, and then cut the squares into triangles.

Toss it in a 350F oven for about half an hour. While it's baking, you need to cook up the simple syrup. Bring it to a boil, then drop it to a simmer until the baklava comes out of the oven.

Pull the baklava when it reaches a golden-brown color. Mine actually was a little darker than it shows in the photos. Just be careful not to burn it.

Go ahead and pull the large bits (zest and cinnamon) out of the simple syrup with a pair of tongs. Don't worry about the smaller bits, we're going to strain them out. In fact, you might as well just strain them out onto the baklava. The syrup is hot and the pan is hot, so there will be some sizzling. The sizzling will continue for at least a couple of minutes.

Make sure you wait until the baklava cools down before you try serving it. In fact, if you can manage to wait a couple of days, it will actually get even better. At the very least, you should wait overnight. Me, I waited until the sugar was cooled enough not to burn me.

The reviews on this were excellent. I had a couple of coworkers that had previously told me that they hated baklava, tell me that they were now convinced that I was the only person in the world that could actually make good baklava. Several people told me that it definitely wasn't traditional, and everyone liked that it wasn't too sweet. It was a hit with everyone who tried it.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Condensed Pain

My intention was actually to make another spice blend that I call the Deathcrier, but I was playing around with a few things, and it kind of went in a different direction.

Usually, I mix together whole spices with pre-ground spices, because that's just what I usually have laying around. This time I had whole versions of everything, so I went for it. I also decided to try grinding everything up in my little 2-cup food processor instead of the coffee grinder that I usually use, so that I could make a little more.

Things didn't go as well as I'd hoped. I wanted more heat, so I upped the amount of habaneros. I also discovered that my food processor was good for getting the chiles and spices small enough to fit into a pepper grinder, but not small enough to be called a powder. After 10 to 15 minutes of my fruitless efforts, I eventually gave up and pulled out the coffee grinder. It took 3 batches, but each batch took less than 20 seconds.

At some point, I got some chile in my eye. I got it rinsed out okay, painful though it was for a few minutes. Unfortunately, the water mixing with the chile powder that had gotten on the rest of the left side of my face made half of my face feel like it was on fire. When I finally tasted the chile powder, my mouth was in immediate pain. The first set of words that hit my brain were, "condensed pain". I like it.

Recommended hardware: painters mask, protective goggles for the eyes, rubber gloves, coffee grinder.

Condensed Pain

2 whole New Mexico chiles
3 whole guajillo chiles
6 whole chiles de Arbol
6 whole Japones chiles
3 whole chipotles
12 whole habaneros
1 Tbsp whole all-spice
2 tsp minced dried garlic
1 Tbsp chopped dried onion
1 Tbsp whole achiote
2 tsp whole coriander seed
1 tsp whole cumin seed
1 Tbsp whole black pepper

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Utah Chocolate Show 2008 Report

Well, another chocolate show has come and gone. Even though I've known about this one for months, I still felt like it caught be off-guard. I heard nothing about it from anyone, I just had to keep watching the site, when I remembered. Fortunately, I remembered a few days before the show, and did not miss it. I also only managed to show up for one afternoon, unlike other years where I spent a couple of days there.

I've gotta say, my experience was marred before I even got in the building. I don't know who thought it would be a good idea to do the Gun Show at the same time, but the Sandy Expo Center's parking lot isn't even big enough for one show at a time, much less two. The scary part is, it looked like there was an entire other exhibition hall available, but I could be wrong. The Gun Show might have extended it into it, and I would never have known, because I was only interested in the chocolate.

The show was a little smaller this year than in years past. I attribute this to two things: the wonky economy, and the University of Utah vs BYU game. Sometime around the late afternoon, many of the spectators took off to watch BYU take a thrashing from the Utes. I took off not too long after that, knowing that traffic would be light while everyone was at The Game.

There were a few stars at this year's show that you should know about. As always, Knight Family Honey was around with their amazing honey that comes from (so they told me) a pumpkin field surrounded by an alfalfa field. Okay, so it's not chocolate, but I don't mind. it's fresh, it's raw, and it's darned tasty. Keep in mind, this is coming from somebody that usually doesn't care for honey or its bitter aftertaste. This year they also had honey taffy which was decent, but tasted nothing like honey to me. Still, I liked it and have been snacking on it all day. I have a jar of honey from them too, and I may break that out for a baklava or something.

Tony Caputo's had a booth again this year, and I was glad for it. I'd wondered if Matt Caputo would recognize me, since I haven't really seen him since last year's show, but the moment he saw me he greeted me by name, and asked how things were. He was a bit busy helping other customers, and other employees would often stop by and ask me if I needed help when Matt would have to step away. It was a lot like being in their store, except that they only had their chocolate inventory with them. I was happy to see that they still carry chocolates by Chris Blue over at Chocolatier Blue. I didn't think you could still get that in Utah, since Chris left Utah earlier this year to move to Berkeley and start supplying the French Laundry, in addition to Charlie Trotter's and Chez Panisse. Even if Caputo's didn't have the largest chocolate selection in Utah, I would still stop by there just for Chocolatier Blue.

One of the new stars at the show was a company called Choffy. A few months ago I heard about a company taking coffee beans and treating them like chocolate, going so far as to sell a bar of coffee beans, sugar and cocoa butter. Choffy goes in the other direction. They take the cocoa beans and roast them, grind them and brew them as if they were coffee beans. Personally, I've never liked coffee. I've always thought it tasted and smelled like burned chocolate. That being the case, and considering that people actually like that flavor, I thought it might be a perfect product. At Matt Caputo's urging, I headed over to try some out.

They had three different varieties there. From darkest to lightest, they were Nicaraguan, Ivory Coast, and Ecuadorian. I tried all three, in that order. The Nicaraguan was way too much for me, which didn't surprise the sales rep because I'd told him I wasn't a coffee drinker. Even with cream, I didn't like it. Some sugar might have helped, but by that point I wasn't really interested. Ivory Coast was in the middle, and the show favorite. In fact, by the time I got to the booth, they had some brewed, but none left to sell. This one was drinkable, even without the cream. Still, it wasn't my thing. I decided to try lighter still.

I was surprised at how much I liked the Ecuadorian, until I found out that's what it was. I have always liked beans from there, so it's no surprise that I would like them brewed like this too. It was excellent on its own, but when I added a vanilla-flavored creamer, it got even better. I almost shelled out for a bag right then and there, but I decided to wait a couple of paychecks. Besides, I have no coffee equipment, so that would have been an issue too. Unfortunately, you can't buy their product in stores. They've apparently decided to go with some crappy MLM-like marketing scheme, which would normally mean that I wouldn't buy their product on principle. But you can order it online, so I might break down at some point at pick it up. But if they allowed Caputo's to sell it, I would be even more likely to buy it.

Last of all, Ruth Kendrick, author of the famous Candymaking book by HP Books, made her yearly appearance at the show. As expected, she was teaching a class, this time on tempering chocolate. But this year yielded an unexpected surprise for many fans of hers. Early this year, Ruth took off to the Great White North to take some classes at the Callebaut Chocolate Academy in Montreal. She has taken her years of experience and combined it with her newfound knowledge and formed her own chocolate company, Chocolot, which debuted at this year's show.

While Ruth does sell toffee and candied popcorn, her real jems are her truffles, which represent her entry into the truly high-end world of chocolates. They're as pretty as they are tasty, and are sure to impress. Remember how I said I don't normally like honey? Ruth's chocolates are another exception to the rule. My favorite flavor may very well be the beehive honey. I tried one of the chai teas, and it was also excellent: flavorful, but not overpowering. Also on my favorites list are strawverry sabe, australian ginger and rootbeer float.

Be aware that Ruth is very small-batch, and has limits as to where she can ship (anything out of the state is pretty much out of the question). If you happen to live in Utah or know somebody that does and doesn't mind shipping to you, you need to give her a shout. Her truffles are a little pricey, but the quality is excellent.

I'm a little sad that I was only able to stick around for a few hours this year, but I'm glad that I got at least that. As always, the show was a delight, and I can't wait for next year's. Here's hoping it gets a little more advertising the next time around.

Review: Amano's Jembrana and Cuyagua Bars

It took some convincing, but I finally talked Art Pollard over at Amano Chocolate into a bar of his new Jembrana chocolate. This is an interesting bar, to be sure. I've been tasting it half a square at a time all weekend. See, that's the thing about Amano: you don't eat a whole bar at once. It would just be a waste of money, and the enjoyment factor would be off.

The beans for this chocolate came out of the island of Jambrana, out in Bali. I understand there aren't a whole lot of beans that come out of Bali, which makes these extra special. Like Art's other chocolates, this doesn't taste like your run-of-the-mill chocolate. It is best consumed only a square at a time.

When you pop a square in your mouth, it starts off with a pretty familiar chocolate flavor. But it takes off pretty quickly, developing into a dark, deep flavor. There are light sour and bitter notes, but no harshness. It's definitely fruity, but not a fresh fruitiness like you get from Amano's bars. It's more developed; the difference between a fresh concord grape, and an aged pinot noir. This bar isn't for kiddies, it's for the big girls and boys.

While I'm talking about Amano, I'd better mention Art's Cuyagua bar. This one came out a while ago, and quite frankly I'm surprised he has any left. They didn't get very many beans for it in the first place, and it's been labelled "Limited Edition" because they don't know if they're ever going to get any more. That's your cue to snap up the last remaining bars before some other guy in New York beats you to it.

This is a single-origin chocolate from Venezuela, from the valley of Cuyagua. It's a lot more accessible than his first two offerings, as the actual chocolate flavor is more pronouced. There is a distinct fruitiness reminiscent of the Madagascar bar. My wife found it to have a very crisp, clean taste, while I picked up a slight bitterness that actually complimented the fruit quite nicely. It has a slightly darker flavor, but not from the overroasting that one might experience in other brands. There is a very light smokiness, that you might not pick up unless you were actually looking for it. It is definitely a bar to be savored slowly, and carefully.

If you are planning a chocolate tasting, this may be a more appropriate bar to include than other Amano varieties. Warning: it will provide a sharp contrast to other brands, and may cause your tasters to be unable to eat conventional chocolate afterwards. If you were to use all four current Amano varieties in your tasting, I think I might recommend Ocumare first, then Cuyagua followed by Jambrana and finally, Madagascar.

Then again, if you're planning on doing such a tasting, I'd suggest you hurry. Like I said, when Cuyagua's gone, it's probably gone for good.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Linkdump 2008-11-22

Utah Preppers
Safely Gathered In
Chocolot - My friend Ruth just got her chocolate business going, and it looks like she's doing well.

New Frontiers: Turducken

Last night I put three very important items in my fridge to thaw: a chicken, a duck, and a turkey. That's right, I'm making turducken for Thanksgiving this year. I've thought about making a turbaconducken (say it like the Swedish Chef on The Muppets would say it), but I decided that I'd better just work on getting a regular turducken right first.

The most expensive of the birds would normally be the turkey (mine was labelled as almost $25), but my local grocery store is selling 12 to 14 pound turkeys for only $6, with the purchase of $25 worth of other groceries. But since this is Thanksgiving, we already had that many groceries that we needed to buy anyway.

The idea on the turducken was to build a composite recipe from five other existing recipes online. This proved to be more difficult than I expected. The basic idea behind the turducken is this: remove all (actually, just most, from what I can tell) of the bones from all three birds, then stuff the chicken inside the duck and the duck inside the turkey, with stuffing between all three layers. As it turns out, a lof of people have a lot of different ways to accomplish this, and as we already know, a lot of people really don't know how to write recipes.

This can be partially forgiven with the turducken. It would seem that this dish is all about technique. Don't even think about making it unless you're really good at deboning poultry. Then there's the matter of how to stuff the birds inside each other. We also need at least one additional recipe, which is the stuffing to go between layers. This explains why so many photos accompany the recipes. Unfortunately, as we have seen in myriad videos on Make and Instructables that shouldn't have been on Make and Instructables, video can be an especially poor replacement for well-written instructions, and people that try to get away with letting the photos tell the whole story are just as bad.

Even worse, some of the recipes couldn't be so kind as to call for "X cups of stuffing", etc. They had to provide a recipe for the stuffing, and didn't bother to mention the yield. One of the worst offenders would call for "4 servings Andouille smoked sausage" and then provide a recipe that yielded 5 cups, but did not specify how large a serving was. The composite recipe was a mess, and due to format that I was using, did not go into any detail about the construction and cooking of this dish. When I first started working on the composite recipe, I hadn't even bought the ingredients, and it was already one of the toughest recipes I'd ever tackled.

So here's the drill. As has become tradition, my family is having our Thanksgiving dinner on Friday, so that all of the siblings can spend Thursday with their spouses' families. Since my wife and I will be done with everything by mid-afternoon, we'll be picking up my brother on the way home, and he will help me assemble this monstrosity. My camera has been acting funny lately, but I will try and get a detailed photo journal of the whole experience. Once assembled, the raw turducken will be covered and placed in the fridge overnight, and then put in the oven Friday morning to be done in time for our lunchtime Thanksgiving meal.

I hesitate the post what I have of my composite recipe right now, partly because I haven't finished working out the plans for my own recipe, and partly because the rest of the recipes were such a mess that they wouldn't look good. But that doesn't mean I can't at least post the links to the recipes that I will be studying over the next few days:

Turducken Recipe from
Turducken by Paula Deen
Untested Turducken from RecipeZaar
"Award Winning Turducken Recipe" from CajunGrocer
Illustrated Turducken Recipe from Instructables

The sizes of the birds that I have picked up are:

Turkey: 14.11 lbs
Duck: 5.51 lbs
Chicken: 3.80 lbs

I still need to formulate a stuffing recipe. This would be trivial, except that my sister-in-law has some food issues. I thought about making cornbread stuffing, but milk proteins make her sick. I'm still unsure as to how she'll respond to a sourdough stuffing or something. I'll be consulting with them, and coming up with something soon, I hope.

If anyone else wants to try out this monstrosity while I do, feel free to post a link here for everyone to see. I'll be posting my version hopefully on the following Saturday, barring any unforeseen events.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Extracting Files From Partial RAR Set

I came across an interesting problem today, and the solution was surprisingly easy. The facts were these: I needed a file, about the size of a CD .iso file. Since I love the newsgroups so much, that's where I started my search. I couldn't find the file by itself, but I did find it inside a pretty large set of .rar files. In fact, the full set was well over 7gb, and I really didn't want the whole thing.

I thought I might have an advantage, however. You see, .rar files are kind of like .tar files: just a collection of a bunch of files stuck together. Two of the biggest differences are that .rar files have pretty decent compression whereas .tar files have no compression, and .rar files are pretty easy to split up, which comes in handy with files that are large enough to span multiple newsgroup messages.

I had an .nzb file which held the usenet locations of 160 .rar files. I knew that there were 20 files spread across this set, and I thought that the naming convention might be predictable. If I was right, I would need to find file #12. Each file should take up approximately 8 .rar parts, which meant that I would start searching at part096.rar. I downloaded it, hopped into a bash prompt and ran:

strings part096.rar | grep Filename

It came up with Filename09.iso. I was a little off, but I knew I was close. I decided to jump ahead a little and try again with part110.rar. With it downloaded, I checked again:

strings part110.rar | grep Filename

It came up with Filename12.iso. Paydirt! I knew that I was in the middle, because it only showed one file. If it showed two, then I would know I was at the beginning or the end. So I grabbed the file before it and the one after it, and checked those with the strings command. I continued until I found the beginning and ending files. Eventually I found that my file started at part100.rar and went to part112.rar. My guess is the files were actually a little out of order (Filename09.iso was apparently immediately before Filename12.iso), and I just got lucky.

While my files were downloading, I was researching whether I could actually extract files from a partial .rar set. I found a few odd forum posts asking whether it could be done. The first one had a response with a Windows utility that claimed to do just that, but I couldn't get it installed under Wine in Linux. The rest of the messages had several responses saying that it was absolutely impossible, and that the person asking was an idiot for thinking such a think was possible.

The few responses that offered information as to why it wouldn't be possible were riddled with obviously technially-inaccurate information, which is often a sure sign that is entirely possible, if perhaps somewhat difficult. As it turns out, I had little to worry about.

With my files extracted, I scoured the man page for rar, looking for options to turn off things like file verification, etc. Each time I specified the exact name of the file that I wanted extracted. Nothing worked. But I couldn't help but notice that the following command did work without any problems:

rar t part100.rar

This command listed the file in question, and said that it was okay. Eventually, I went out on a limb and tried extracting it using the most basic options possible, and forget the filename that I needed extracted:

rar e part100.rar

Bingo! I got errors about the partial files before and after the one I wanted, but mine extracted without a problem.

I saved myself from spending hours and hours downloading a bunch of files I didn't want, just so that I could get a single file that I did want. All of my guesses paid off, as did ignoring the morons that would think me an idiot for trying something that seemed to make perfect sense. Funny how that all works, isn't it?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Linkdump 2008-11-14

A nation of culinary sissies - Yes, I know there are food allergies in the world. I've posted about them before. But some people are just wusses. And no, my dislike of ranch dressing doesn't fit into the wuss category. That's more for the snob category.
Alton Brown is now hawking Welch's - Somewhat undecided here. But now that they have a new spokesman, they need a new proofreader.
Like a sandwich - I want to make this
Green Monk sampler platter - If you've never looked at Brandon Dayton's work, you should. I can't wait for this one to hit print.
CD3WD - Helping the 3rd world help itself
Book of Yields - Saving you from having to buy the book.
Lego Gummies - Happiness ensues
Big Fat Duck - If anyone with a lot of money is wondering what to get me for Christmas this year, this is it.

Friday, November 14, 2008

(Blood) Orange Bread

I mentioned in my banana bread post that I once developed a theory: the difference between most quickbreads is little more than the types of pulp and spices used. It got me thinking back to a recipe that I picked up at cooking school: a Spanish orange cake. It was an oddity, to be sure. It called for two whole oranges, pulp and all, pureed. It also called for olive oil. When my classmates made it in school, they used straight extra virgin olive oil. It was too rich to eat. When we made it at my externship, we only had a blend of canola and extra virgin olive oil available, and the resulting cake was excellent.

I did not use that recipe as a reference for this. I decided to go with my pumpkin bread recipe, and modify it to include oranges instead of pumpkin. My original plan was to use blood oranges, with white chocolate chips folded in. This idea happened when I found blood oranges at the grocery store by my work. Unfortunately, when I actually got around to making it, I couldn't find them at any stores by my house. So I went with regular oranges for the first run, and decided to drop the white chocolate chips and play with the spices.

I thought about using cinnamon, but I decided to go with ground cloves instead. I even bumped it up a little, to make it a little more Christmassy. That wasn't bad, but I thought it was maybe just a little too strong. I went with a full teaspoon this time, but next time I make regular orange bread, I think I'll scale it back to 3/4 of a teaspoon.

I measured the ingredients by weight this time (except for those things measured with spoons), and I discovered that two oranges was just shy of a pound. I like nice round numbers, so I added another half an orange, which brought me up over a pound. It's worth noting that the batter was a lot more liquid than I'm used to with quickbread. It's also worth noting that my bread was more dense and flat than I'm used to. But this may also have had to do with leavening.

I considered the difference between baking powder and baking soda: (single-acting) baking powder is little more than baking soda plus powdered acid. Since oranges have plenty of acid, I thought that baking soda might be enough. Clearly, it was not. Granted, the excess moisture probably didn't help things either, but I figured next time around I needed to add some baking powder.

I added a little fresh ginger, just to see if it did anything for me. I didn't even taste it afterwards. I also dropped the sugar content, to keep the bread from being too sweet. The batter tasted nice to me, but the first slice of bread once it was baked tasted just a little too bitter. Some of my coworkers liked it like that, and some thought it could use a touch more sugar. At least a couple of coworkers compared it to marmalade, which I thought was pretty accurate. I thought about calling it marmalade bread, but thought that it might scare off people.

This evening, I was able to attempt my bread again, this time with adjustments to compensate for last time's failings. I also had blood oranges on hand, so I decided to use white chocolate chips again. I guess I'd better go ahead and give you the ingredients:

Ingredients#1 by volume#1 by weight#2 by volume#2 by weight
oven temp350F350F350F350F
bake time60 min60 min60 min60 min
ap flour3 cups13.2 oz3 cups13.2 oz
salt1 tsp1 tsp1 tsp1 tsp
baking soda2 tsp2 tsp2 tsp2 tsp
baking powder  2 tsp2 tsp
brown sugar1 1/2 cups11.65 oz  
white sugar  1 3/4 cups13.55 oz
oranges2 1/2 ea17.5 oz  
blood oranges  3 ea14.15 oz
butter1 cup8 oz1 cup8 oz
eggs4 ea4 ea4 ea4 ea
ground cloves1 tsp1 tsp1/2 tsp1/2 tsp
cinnamon  1 tsp1 tsp
fresh ginger1/2 tsp1/2 tsp  
mixing methodmuffinmuffinmuffinmuffin

I have listed the recipes both by volume and by weight. For those that think that measuring by weight is for chumps, I'd like to point you to the oranges. The regular oranges that I used were bigger than the blood oranges, as you can see by looking at the weight. Had I gone with just two blood oranges, I would have been pretty far off.

I upped the sugar just a little bit, and switched from brown sugar to white sugar. The sweetness with this bread was exactly where I wanted it. It was definitely orange bread, but it was also definitely not marmalade bread. I kept the baking soda the same, but then added in an equal amount of baking powder. Most baking powder these days is double-acting, meaning it rises once when it gets wet, and a second time in the oven when it gets hot.

The inside of the blood orange bread was surprisingly lighter in color than the inside of the regular orange bread. I'm guessing this is at least partly because of the sugar switch. As far as spices are concerned, I decreased the cloves, and added in cinnamon. I think that was the right choice. It was definitely more balanced than before, it worked out well.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Linkdump 2008-11-08

I thought I'd try something new. Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories likes to post a monthly linkdump, which I've always thought to be an interesting concept. I thought I'd try it out. Sometimes I come across links that I think might be interesting to share.

I recently discovered that Blogger seems to have the ability to schedule posts to publish at a later date and time. All you have to do is set the posting date for something in the future, hit publish, and let it go. So I'm going to start my linkdumps a week early, and add to them as I find interesting things. On Saturday mornings, anything that I've added throughout the week will be posted for me automatically.

The links will probably be a mix of food and tech, just like the rest of my blog. I might add other things on occassion, but those two things are my focus. So without any further ado, I present this week's links.

Search the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference I'm pretty sure I've mentioned this before, but since I was using it this week for a recipe, I thought I'd mention it again.
USDA Recipes for Schools I came across this while looking up the USDA Standard Reference in Google (I have it bookmarked, but Google is faster). Thought it was interesting.
Pumpkin Swirl Brownies My, these look tasty.
Deer Valley's Chocolate Raspberry Marquess I'm pretty sure it's supposed to be spelled "marquis", but that's beside the point. It's a tasty recipe nonetheless.
Hand Tatoo

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

New Sahale Snacks Review

Some of you may remember my recent review of the Valdosta Pecans by Sahale Snacks. As it turns out, a rep at Sahale noticed my review and thought I might be interested in a "preview" of their upcoming line. I of course jumped at the chance to be sent free food, with one condition: you may send me free food, but I cannot be bought. If I don't like them, I'm going to say so and why. Since they were okay with that, they sent some snacks on over.

The new line is a collection of glazed nuts: two different kinds of almonds and one kind of cashews. We have Almond PB&J with peanuts and berries, Almonds with cranberries, honey and sea salt, and finally, Cashews with pomegranate and vanilla.

I was a little worried. It's no secret that I'm about the only person in the world who isn't allergic to almonds, and still doesn't like them. Well, not whole, at least. But when I started munching on the PB&J almonds, I felt myself starting to convert. In fact, I think I actually liked the whole almonds in this better than I liked the peanuts in it. These nuts are not glazed as heavily as most glazed nuts; just enough sugar to make it sweet, but not too much. The berries in question are dried strawberries and dried raspberries, but they certainly don't taste like dried fruit. The pieces of fruit are tiny, almost as if grated, but that doesn't take away from them. All in all, I was thoroughly impressed with this mix.

Next up were the cranberry almonds. They failed to mention in the title that these also contain sesame seeds, but they are there and they are welcome. They don't take over in terms of flavor, but I think they help provide a nice balance. Speaking of balance, this mix is a little more heavily glazed than the first, but the sea salt helps balance it out. The orange blossom honey is a little light to me, but that also means that there is none of that bitter aftertaste that honey usually has. The cranberry pieces aren't as tiny as the fruit in the PB&J, but they are still smaller than you may be used to. It's a good mix, but I don't know that I'll be buying a whole lot more of it. If I'd tried it first, I don't think it would have converted me to liking whole almonds.

Last but not least were the cashews. These are just... awesome. Seriously, I'm in heaven. The fruit pieces are smallish, and I honestly do wish there were a few more of them. The sweetness was dead on perfect, and greatly complimented by the addition of vanilla. In fact, it's strange, but the vanilla is very obviously there, but it's not incredibly obvious that it is in fact vanilla. When I let friends and coworkers try it, they all wondered what the flavor was, and when they found out, the response was invariable something to the effect of, "ah, of course. Man, that tastes good!" This is all an excellent sign. Cashews are a favorite of mine, but I still usually can't eat very many at once; they're just too rich. But these, I think I could go on forever eating them. Not only are these my favorite out of the glazed nut mixes, they might even knock Valdosta Pecans out of the running as my favorite Sahale Snack of all.

Now, the bad news: did I mention these were a preview? It is my understanding that they are to be released sometime this month, but at the time of this writing, the website still says "Click Here To Be Notified When Glazed Nuts Are Available In Stores". Hey, you think you're disappointed. I feel like a crack addict now, unable to refill my stash. I think now that I've tasted these awesome snacks, the wait will be even worse for me.

When they are available, run, don't walk to the nearest store that sells them and buy yourself a case. Consider it emergency food storage, for any unforeseen famines than may come your way. Food storage that you rotate on a very regular basis. You know, to keep it fresh.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Importing the USDA SR21 into MySQL

If you're planning on using the USDA Standard Reference in your own software, it helps to have it in a format that your program can actually read. If you're in Windows, this isn't an issue, since the database is available for download in MS Access format. For other platforms, an ASCII version of the database is also available.

The format of the files is pretty easy to deal with; each file is caret-delimited, and text fields are surrounded by tildes. The documentation explains pretty clearly how the tables are laid out. It's simple to put together an SQL file that defines the tables, but it's tedious. And then you have to write a script to parse the data.

I just did those things this morning, and I thought I'd share, to save you the trouble. The SQL is in MySQL format, and the parser is written in Perl. I know that not everybody likes those two things, so if anybody wants to convert my SQL to Oracle (shudder) or PostgreSQL format, I'll be happy to post it. The same goes for converting the Perl script to Ruby (/me waves to Hans) or Python (/me waves to Matt) or to some other language. - Perl script
sr21.sql - MySQL Format

Friday, October 31, 2008

Composite Recipe: Banana Bread

Back when I baked for a living, I formed a theory that the only difference between different quickbreads is the type of pulp used (well, and spices). At the time my brain seemed to think that there was a world of different types of quickbreads, and it held onto that believe until I decided to actually try and prove or disprove it.

The idea was, I would create composite recipes for five different types of quickbreads, and then create a composite recipe based on the composite recipes. The first was easy: pumpkin bread. Banana bread (below) was next. Then I thought I'd try zucchini bread. Then I thought I'd try... um... what was another kind of quick bread? Wasn't there... um. Well, there was... er... gee, what other quickbreads are there?

It was time to hit Google. After a few searches, I had found recipes for pear bread (but oddly, no apple bread) and for Boston brown bread. The pear bread recipes seemed pretty close to the pumpkin, banana and zucchini bread recipes. The brown bread recipes seemed fond of cornmeal, which takes them out of my quickbread theory. Everything else still seems (at a glance) to fit, though I obviously haven't finished my comparisons yet.

The banana bread recipe that I came up with did seem really close to the pumpkin bread recipe. Take a look:

IngredientsRecipe 1Recipe 2Recipe 3Recipe 4Recipe 5Recipe 6Me
oven temp350F350F350F350F325F325F350F
bake time1 hr60 – 65 min45 – 60 min55 – 60 min50 – 60 min1 hr 10 min50 – 60 min
ap flour3 cups4 cups2 1/4 cups3 1/2 cups1 1/4 cups4 cups3 1/2 cups
ww pastry flour    1 cup  
baking soda2 tsp2 tsp2 tsp1/2 tsp1 tsp2 tsp2 tsp
baking powder   2 tsp4 tsp2 tsp2 tsp
salt1/4 tsp1/2 tsp1 tsp1/2 tsp1 tsp2 tsp1 tsp
cinnamon  2 tsp2 tsp1 tsp2 tsp2 tsp
cloves  1 tsp   1 tsp
nutmeg  1 tsp   1 tsp
bananas6 – 8 ea2 1/3 cups6 ea6 ea (3 cups)5 ea6 ea6 ea
butter2/3 cup1 cup 1 cup1 cup1 cup1 cup
shortening  1 cup    
sugar1 1/2 – 2 cups 2 cups1 1/2 cups1 cup2 cups1 1/2 cups
brown sugar 1 1/2 cup     
eggs2 ea4 ea4 ea4 ea4 ea4 ea4 ea
vanilla2 tsp  2 tsp2 tsp 2 tsp
milk     2 Tbsp 
nuts  1 cup2 cups   
banana garnish   1 lg banana   
methodmuffin (kind of)creaming (kind of)creamingmuffinmuffincreamingmuffin

Again, any recipes that were not already for 2 loaves were converted. I looked at mixing methods again this time, and was surprised to find that some recipes used a creaming method instead of a muffin method. Interesting that that didn't happen with the pumpkin bread. But not surprisingly, some of the mixing methods varied enough that I had a hard categorizing them. Welcome to the Internet.

The thing that kind of threw me was the flour. I ended up with 3 1/2 cups instead of 3 cups. I thought about just using 3 cups, which would put it more in line with my pumpkin bread, but I thought I'd keep myself honest and leave it at what seemed like a reasonable comparison with just the other banana breads.

Rather than mushing up the bananas, I got lazy and tossed them in the food processor. That just about liquified them, but it did give me an even consistency that the pumpkin puree had, and that mashed up bananas wouldn't have. The bananas seemed more liquid than the pumpkin, so I thought that maybe the extra 1/2 cup of flour really was accurate. But in the end, that didn't seem to be the case. Still-warm-from-the-oven slices of banana bread were okay, but once it cooled it just seemed a little dry to me. I don't know that dropping all the way to 3 cups is right, but maybe 3 1/4 cups would be more appropriate.

Speaking of liquid, this recipe had something the pumpkin bread didn't: vanilla extract. In retrospect, I think that while it would be a compatible flavor with both, it works far better with banana. And did you notice how the first recipe calls for more bananas, but fewer eggs? Maybe not a bad way to introduce extra flavor, without throwing off the moisture ratio.

The other major difference between these two recipes is leavening. Baking soda vs baking powder. As per the recipes, I went with just soda on the pumpkin bread, but both in the banana bread. Part of me wants to look up acidity values for pumpkin vs banana and do some maths, but the part of me that's too lazy to do so has so far been much more convincing.

Spices varied a little, but not much. By and large it seemed that most people were only interested in cinnamon, but a couple added cloves and nutmeg. I kind of liked the idea of adding those two extras, so I went with them. After tasting the batter, I thought that I might want to halve the amount of clove, but I didn't really pick up the nutmeg. But I think something might have been lost without it. It just had that extra non-cinnamon spiciness that my my tasters this time around (I brought a loaf to class to share with my students) seemed to enjoy. They especially loved the clove however, which was somewhat subdued after the baking.

It was interesting to note the garnishes that people came up with. One person went with a lot of nuts, as well as dried banana chips. For my part, I went with semisweet chocolate chips. My tasters really dug those. A couple of people said they provided a really nice balance.

A final thought on this recipe. While the bananas were added in mostly as mush, not all of them got cut up completely. There were a couple of chunks, and when I hit them, they added extra flavor and moistness to the bite. This tells me that either I should go with mashed, rather than pureed bananas, or I should drop the flour and/or add more banana to it. I'm voting for dropping the flour, but I might try mashed next time around.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Implementation Recipes

What do I mean by implementation recipes? Well, you may recall my initial post on composite recipes. That's a recipe that I build based upon other existing recipes. It has the benefit of stealing other peoples' work, while still forming that work into something that I can call my own. That sounds a lot like rationalized theft, doesn't it? Let me ask you: You know that prized tomato sauce recipe that you're so proud of? Are you really going to claim that you invented tomato sauce? Or are you going to admit that you're just standing on a lot of other peoples' shoulders, just like I am?

Okay, with that out of the way, let's talk about implementation recipes. Part of the idea is to take a recipe and turn it into a concept. What is lasagna? Alternating layers of noodles, tomato sauce and cheese. Lasagna may contain other components, but those components (or sometimes variations on them) remain at the base foundation.

The problem is, just knowing what defines a lasagna does not actually help you make a lasagna. That's where my implementation recipes come in. Once you know what defines a recipe at its most basic level, you can build a recipe that achieves the purpose, but little else. It is just a basic set of ingredients and instructions effectively becomes a proof of concept, without having much personality of its own. You could make that recipe and be content with it, but don't expect to be winning any contests anytime soon.

That is what I mean by implementation recipe. This is the most barebones recipe that you can put together, just waiting to be tweaked and hacked and modified by other cooks. Part of my goal with my composite recipes is to learn about the recipe itself, and another part is to take my observations and build them into implementation recipes. Then when an implementation recipe has been created, it can be made available along with suggestions for the cook's own personal improvements. And that is where the cook him or herself can really shine and make that recipe their own.

I'm planning to put together a few of these recipes myself. This is why you've been seeing so many composite recipes from me lately. I've started with bakery recipes because they're extremely formulaic, and very easy to derive my own recipes from. Right now I'm working on a composite recipe for turducken, and it's proven to be a great deal more difficult. But once I have a few of these recipes under my belt (literally and figuratively), I'm hoping to make them available elsewhere on my site in a non-blog-type format. Maybe even as samples for the vaporware Open Recipe Format.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

It's Over

No, I'm not talking about the tragedy of Mother's Cookies going out of business, though that did make me unbelievably sad.

I'm actually talking about the French Laundry at Home blog. I heard about this blog sometime last year, and have been reading it regularly since early this year. It would seem that I missed most of the fun and excitement, though I was happy to read along as Carol finally prepared her last recipe: Cornets. I was surprised that she saved this one for last, since I think that that's the first recipe that I (and a lot of other people who have either purchased The French Laundry Cookbook or have been so lucky to have dined at The French Laundry) think of when I think of either the book or the restaurant. But I like her reasoning. When I read the recipe I thought, "I bet I could do that without too many problems." When she read it she apparently thought, "I'm not going to do this one without making sure I can do it justice." And it seems that she has.

Carol seems to have posted her last post at that blog, but there is good news. She's decided to attack another cookbook: Alinea.

Grant Achatz, the owner/chef of Alinea, served as sous chef to Thomas Keller, owner/chef of The French Laundry, for a few years. I think that as a lot of people (including myself) watched Achatz move up in the cooking world, they started to wish that he would put out a book. When I found out about the book, oh, 6 months or so ago, I don't think 5 minutes had passed before the pre-order site had my credit card number on file.

About a week or two ago, I started reading posts from bloggers who had already gotten their copy. I grew increasingly jealous and worried with each passing day that my copy did not arrive. On Monday, it came. But as a testament to how busy this week has been, I only got to look through maybe a quarter of it before flying out to Pittsburgh for a couple of days. I don't know how many recipes I'll be able to get through; I'm unfortunately fresh out of ingredients like methyl cellulose. But I'll do what I can.

Those of you that are interested in new frontiers of cooking, now's a good time to check out the Alinea at Home blog. It looks like it'll be starting up next week. I know I'm looking forward to it.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Pumpkin + Chicken

This is what happens when I start pretending that I have any sort of avante garde plating skills or recipe ideas. Actually, this one wasn't so bad, but I'm still almost embarrassed to share it. But I'm sharing it anyway.

I asked three people this evening a simple question: "pumpkin + chicken. Thoughts?" Two of them informed me that it didn't sound like such a hot idea to them. One of them responded with, "umm... fajitas?" Clearly, he wasn't opposed to the idea.

Why were the other two so resistant to the idea? Okay, let me give you a partial phrase and have you fill in the blanks. Pumpkin... pie, right? Or pumpkin bread. And that's pretty much it. It's a shame, really. Have we forgotten that pumpkin is a squash? Squash is almost always cooked as a savory dish, not sweet. So keeping that in mind, let me ask you: pumpkin + chicken. Thoughts?

For the past few weeks, I've had part of a dish in my mind. It involves a smear of some kind of pumpkin sauce on the plate, with chile-rubbed chicken on top of it. Unfortunately, that's not much of a dish. It needs something else. So I thought I'd give it a try this evening.

For my pumpkin sauce, I went with pretty much equal parts pumpkin puree and coconut milk. I spiked it with some chipotle powder, and then added some "pumpkin pie spices" that I've used before in savory dishes: ginger and allspice. I think I might have added a touch of cinnamon too, but I've also had that in savory dishes (mostly Greek). The resulting sauce was kind of like a spicy, liquid pumpkin pie. Not quite what I was after. It was also a little thick. More coconut milk next time. In fact, thinking about this in retrospect, I kept thinking about Thai flavors that might go well. Maybe a touch of soy sauce, a splash of fish sauce, and probably a dab of curry paste. That might work well.

The chicken was prepared my favorite way: rubbed with olive oil and chile powder and sauteed. Actually, lately I've been using this cajun blend that a buddy of mine picked up for me from the House of Blues in Chicago. Very garlicky, very good. I sauteed it, added a couple of splashes of Worcestershire sauce, and when it looked like the outside was getting too hot while the inside wasn't done yet, I added some chicken stock to the pan to cool things down a little and intensify the flavors. When the liquid was evaporated, I removed the chicken and let it rest.

I wiped the pan clean with a paper towel and added diced pumpkin, both red and green bell peppers and some corn to some more oil, and kicked up the heat. I seasoned with salt, pepper, more chile powder and after it picked up some color, some Worcestershire sauce. It was just a basic veg medley, and that really was the problem. It was boring. The pumpkin tasted just like another squash.

I plated up anyway, and it was a decent dish. I really need to work on my plate design, but it wasn't too bad. The chicken was seasoned and cooked perfectly. Believe it or not, it actually worked really well with the pumpkin sauce, but I still felt it tasted a little sweet, despite the lack of sugar. The veggies, as I said, were boring. They were greatly improved by getting some pumpkin sauce on them as well, and that's bad. They should have been able to stand on their own.

Thoughts in retrospect: the pumpkin sauce really needed to be more savory. Something in the neighborhood of panang curry might work really well. And to compliment that, I think cooking the chicken kai yang style would be really appropriate. But then we're back to the veggies.

My first thought went like this: pour all the veggies in a Pyrex dish. Add olive oil, balsamic vinegar, bacon, and give it some time in the oven getting all caramelized and good. Then pull it out and serve it with a sprinkle of feta. Now that would be good. And it also would have little to no relation to the Thai flavors in the rest of the dish.

I haven't decided yet what to do with the veg. And I'm ever conscious of the fact that this dish included no starch. Also, I need to find different plates. I love the black triangles, but they're just not big enough for an entree. Better suited for dessert. Kind of ironic, since that's what America seems to think of pumpkin as well.

Composite Recipe: Pumpkin Bread

I played around with another composite recipe over the weekend: pumpkin bread. You might have guessed if you read my blog around this time two years ago that I love pumpkin. I even have some IQF diced pumpkin in my freezer right now. But since I was spending so much time comparing recipes (you believe me, right?), I got lazy and used canned pumpkin puree. That means that it's okay for you to too.

First, the ingredients:

IngredientsRecipe 1Recipe 2Recipe 3Recipe 4Recipe 5Me
oven temp350 F350 F350 F350 F350 F350 F
bake time50 – 60 min1 hr 10 min1 hr50 – 60 min1 – 1 1/4 hrs1 hr
ap flour3 cups3 cups3 1/2 cups3 cups3 1/3 cup3 cups
salt1 tsp1/2 tsp1 1/2 tsp1 tsp1 1/2 tsp1 tsp
baking soda2 tsp1 tsp2 tsp2 tsp2 tsp2 tsp
baking powder 1/2 tsp  2 tsp 
sugar2 cups3 cups3 cups2 cups3 cups2 cups
pumpkin puree2 cups16 oz16 oz2 cups2 cups2 cups
olive oil1 cup     
vegetable oil 1 cup1 cup1 cup1 cup1 cup
eggs4 ea3 ea4 ea4 ea4 ea4 ea
water1/2 cup 2/3 cup1/2 cup  
nutmeg1 tsp1 tsp2 tsp1/2 tsp1 tsp1 tsp
cinnamon1 tsp1 tsp2 tsp2 tsp1 tsp1 tsp
allspice1 tsp  1/2 tsp1/8 tsp1/4 tsp
cloves 1 tsp 1/2 tsp 1/4 tsp
mace    1/8 tsp 
ginger    1/4 tsp1/4 tsp
nuts1 cup1 cup1 cup1 cup1 cup1 cup + 1/2 cup
mixing methodmuffinmuffinmuffinmuffinmuffinmuffin

Note: Not all of the recipes yielded the same amount. Some were for one loaf, some for two. For ease of comparison, I have scale all recipes to yield two loaves. If you just want one, cut it in half.

This was an interesting recipe. The oven temps were the same across the board, and I can't say the bake times were all that different either. Flour, also largely the same. Salt, the same. Baking soda only deviated when baking powder was introduced into the picture.

And that's where I started wondering: which would be better? Baking soda or baking powder? Perhaps both? The baking soda, being a base, needs some sort of acid in order to actually produce any gas to provide lift. Baking powder has both a base and an acid, so it only needs moisture to activate. And bonus, I've found it near-impossible lately to find baking powder in the store that isn't double-acting. Double-acting baking powder adds a second lift when it meets the heat, which would add just a little extra lift in the oven.

Does pumpkin bread need all that much lift? It gets plenty from steam. How much acid is in pumpkin, anyway? I don't know. I kind of wonder if it actually does me any good to provide any sort of leaveners in the first place. Maybe I'll check it out... eventually.

I found it interesting that sugar was always at either 2 or 3 cups. Clearly, it didn't matter a whole lot, so I went with 2. The third cup adds sweetness that isn't needed, and when scaled for a commercial kitchen would just add extra cost for little to no benefit. America may be used to overly-sweet confections, but I prefer balance. Maybe with future batches, I'll be able to get it down to a cup and a half or less.

I found it interesting that the first recipe called for olive oil instead of veggie oil. This is also a recipe that calls for you to make your own pumpkin puree. I'm sure it was designed to be some sort of high-quality, better-than-sex pumpkin bread, but hey! I'm gonna feed this stuff to my kid! With any luck, it'll be a good couple of decades before she starts making that kind of comparison. Besides, olive oil is going to detract from the star of this dish: pumpkin. So I stick with veggie oil. (Irony: the recipe comes from some chick named Elise, which also happens to be my daughter's name.)

Eggs. Same across the board. Are we noticing a pattern here? But interestingly, the eggs apparently didn't add enough moisture for some people, so some recipes added water. I don't believe that water is going to bring anything to the table, either in terms of flavor or physics, so it stays out. It would probably just add to the cooking time anyway.

The place where each recipe really differed was in the spice arena. People have some very different feelings as to what constitutes a pumpkin spice blend. Everyone used nutmeg cinnamon, but that's where the similarities end. Allspice, cloves, mace and ginger all make appearances. The only one that I left out of my recipe was mace. I just don't have enough experience with it... yet. That will need to change.

You'll notice that while everyone else called for 1 cup of nuts, I call for that plus another half a cup. This is because when I actually baked for a living, we had a rule: no quickbread left the oven without some kind of garnish. This usually meant muffins, but pumpkin bread, banana bread, that kind of crowd also got something sprinkled on top. Usually nuts. In addition to adding a little something extra, it also gives the diner a clue as to what is actually in the confection. But I have a confession: while I did sprinkle pecans on top, I didn't stir any in. I chopped up a couple of discs of Mexican chocolate and stirred that in instead.

For those of you not familiar with it, Mexican chocolate is not the same as the chocolate that you're probably used to. It is not silky-smooth; it is gritty. It has maybe just a little too much granulated sugar in it, and is spiked with a bit of cinnamon. Most people I know only use it to make hot chocolate. I thought it might be complimentary to the pumpkin bread.

Okay, so I looked at the mixing instructions briefly on these recipes. Everything was more or less a muffin method, which is normal for quick breads. The procedure is easy: mix together all of the dry ingredients (not including sugar) in one bowl, mix together all of the wet ingredients (which includes sugar) in another bowl, then mix together the two bowls.

I think that other than the questionable spices, my recipe is a pretty basic implementation recipe. It will give you a basic pumpkin bread recipe that is easily adaptable to your needs. Other than the Mexican chocolate (which proved to be too sweet with the larger chunks), the sweetness balance was pretty much perfect. I'm going to have to spend some more time with pumpkin spices, but I thought the mix that I went with was pretty decent. Feel free to adapt it to your own liking.