Monday, April 21, 2008

Sous Vide

Does anybody else remember "boil in a bag"? No? Am I the only one that recalls with fondness picking up a plastic bag of frozen turkey and gravy from the bachelor aisle at the grocery store, taking it home, and dumping it in a pot of boiling water? Seriously, those were the instructions on the side of the package. But actually, now that I put it that way, it seems kind of dumb, especially with the popularization of microwaves. And I'm sure the salt content contributed to my current blood pressure level. But I still loved that stuff.

Well, boil in a bag is back. Well, kind of. In truth, it never went away. And the stuff I'm talking about doesn't actually involve boiling water. In fact, it seems that the popular means of cooking something sous vide is barely above 140F, and often lower. Temperature control is critical, and some of the recipes that you see don't just border on geek levels, I think the creators beat out a lot of geeks in their experiments and fanaticism. No wonder I've been obsessed with it for so long.

So why haven't I blogged about it? It all comes down to one thing: price. But before I get into that, I'd better tell you a little more information about what sous vide is. I'm told that the translation from French is "under vacuum". A standard example might involve a chef placing a piece of protein (beef, fish, etc) inside a plastic bag, along with some sort of flavorful liquid, removing all of the air from the bag (via a vacuum), and placing that bag in water of a very carefully controlled temperature for anywhere from half an hour to a day or two.

That's right. Some sous vide recipes take over a day to cook. Think about the last time you had a piece of barbecue that was slow cooked over the course of a few hours. Those of you in Utah who have never had this, there is still time to repent. The slow cooking tends to make the colagen break apart, leaving the diner with a flavorful protein that literally falls off the bone. What if one were to lower the cooking temperature so that the food would have more of a chance to soak up flavor, while reducing the chance of overcooking and ruining the meat? That's what sous vide buys you.

There is a lot of controversy surrounding sous vide. Hotels worldwide have been using it for years (since the 60s, I've been told) for a completely different reason that I described above: convenience. They can prepare plenty of food in advance, allow it to cook for long enough to get that slow-cooked flavor, and then keep it in the chill chest for hours or even days at a time until you, the unsuspecting hotel guest, calls up room service and orders a plate of ribs. It arrives 20 minutes later, tasting as if it had been cooked for hours. Because it had.

This technique has met with sneers from high-end chefs, who would claim that such a method cheapens a hotel or restaurant's offerings, and that such a trick is only a trick which they, the snooty high-end chef, would never stoop to (or at least admit to stooping to).

I don't know who officially started the recent popularity, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were one of modern sous vide's pioneers, The Great Thomas Keller. It was discovered that starting the cooking process at an extremely low temperature and then keeping it that low revealed what was probably unexpected results at the time. A piece of meat could have the texture of its raw counterpart while still being fully cooked, and having even more flavor than traditional cooking methods. I remember hearing a story of somebody dining at The French Laundry being served a piece of watermelon that had been cooked sous vide. The texture, he said, was amazing.

These low temperatures have led to bans by some cities. Food safety principles tell us that hot food should be cooked to a certain temperature, and then remain at above 140F until it is served. If it spends too much time below 140F, it cannot be served and needs to be thrown out. One can imagine that as the pros (Keller and his kind) find new and exciting (and safe) ways of using sous vide, imitators will rise and ruin everything for everyone else. How many chefs with poorly calibrated thermometers does it take to cause a foodborne illness outbreak? Apparently just the threat was enough for New York City, who recently banned the technique outright.

Unfortunately, proper sous vide equipment isn't cheap, either. Some of you are probably already thinking, "hey, if all you need is vacuum bag sealing thingy, my Food Saver will work!" And yes, your Food Saver will work. I'm certain that they've seen an increase in sales just from the popularity of sous vide alone. But that's only part of the equation. If it was all of it, I would have been using mine for sous vide long ago. But the piece of equipment that I don't have, that all of the big guns seem to, is an immersion circulator.

This device will suck up water, heat it to the proper temperature, and spit it back to whence it came. It's like turning your sink into a low-temp, underwater convection oven. And the good models start somewhere in the neighborhood of $600-900. Try as I might, I have not yet been able to convince my wife that it needs to be moved from the "want to buy" list to the "need to buy" list, especially after buying a house.

I've looked at some cheap options. The maker geek inside of me wants to combine an aqaurium pump (for the circulation) with a crock pot (for the heat), but modern crock pots are now set to cook much higher than 140F, for food safety reasons. The solution is to plug the crock pot into a potentiometer to lower the voltage, which would require lengthy periods of calibration using more accurate thermometers than I currently own (and I own a couple of pretty nice thermometers). Even worse, calibration will be different for each bag of food that I cook, since it depends on the volume and shape of the food, as well as the internal temperature. Constant temperature monitoring would still be required, and I have not yet found a decent digital thermometer (within my price range) that I can plug into my USB port to kill the power to the crock pot or turn it back on as needed.

Things are looking up. Following the rise of sous vide in the professional kitchen, there has been a surge of home cooks with more time and resources on their hands than me. One that I saw today was Chadzilla, a professional cook who has now managed to get sous vide going at home. Rather than a crock pot, he uses a rice cooker. His model is known to produce good results, and even better, is pretty cheap. He uses a Food Saver such as mine, which is not cheap, but isn't terribly expensive either (until you have to buy refills, at which point it suddenly seems incredibly expensive). He also uses something called Sous-Vide Magic, a device that runs just over a C-note. I'm still not entirely sure what this device actually does. As near as I can tell this is not, in fact, an immersion circulator. It seems that many a blogger and message board poster has gone into a good deal of enthusiasm about this device, noting at the end that it's not an immersion circulator, but it does the job. Thanks guys.

My best guess is that it's a thermometer with a built-in voltage regulator. You plug your crock pot or rice cooker into it, presumably plug one end of a prober thermometer into it and the other end into the water inside the cooking vessel, and set the time and temperature. The text on their website seems to support this. I suppose if I really want to set up convection, I could probably still employ an aquarium pump, which comes at a price that is negligible, especially compared to the other components.

So it seems that sous vide is finally available to the home cook who hasn't just sold his soul to the mortgage company for the next 30 years like me. Next tax return, maybe. In the meantime, maybe it's time to pull out the old crockpot and my custom voltage dial (it's a power outlet + a power cord + a light dimmer in the middle) and see what I can do with it.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Sleep Dep

I didn't sleep well last night, as is evidenced by a conversation over IM this afternoon with my brother. Fortunately, the lectures to this point did go well. I suspect any further lectures would have yielded unfortunate results.

Me: do you think peppermint patty got married, or did she give birth illegitimately to the junior mints?
Me: i don't suppose it matters. they're orphans now anyway, packed in their own little retail-sized orphanage.
Brother: okay
Me: apparently you're none too interested in this line of thought.
Brother: i think it's a very odd line of thought
Me: a sure sign that it's good i decided to call it a day at the end of this lab. who know what my next lecture would have been like?
Me: the shadow knows
Me: for he has been there
Brother: you uh... haven't gotten much sleep recently, have you?
Brother: no, space ghost

Maybe tonight will go better.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Fake Cooking?

I've been thinking a lot about my hotel cookery. It reminds me of when I watched the Sandra Lee "Chefography" a few months ago. She caught a lot of flack for what the critics called "fake cooking". Now, it's not secret that I'm not a big Sandra Lee fan. But seriously, fake cooking? There are some people out there, primarily parents, who have enough to deal with every day before they even think about what to cook that night. And then Sandra Lee shows them a quick and easy way to do their job. Fake cooking? Who cares? She puts food on the table, and it's probably not half bad. Her cooking isn't the problem here. I just don't care for her personality or the way she does her show.

It makes me wonder what people think about my hotel cooking. It started out innocently enough. I knew I should be eating breakfast in the morning, and I knew that one day bacon and sausage and homestyle biscuits were going to do me in. Then it occurred to me that I could eat oatmeal, which I do actually like, and it would be good for me. Perhaps it would keep me alive for long enough to see my daughter graduate from high school. Then I realized that I didn't need to eat the crappy sugar-laden storebought mixes, I could make my own. And it would be good. And I did that. And it was good.

Then it got out of hand. This was evidenced by my next project: cheesecake. I didn't skimp. No jello-based no-bake cheesecake for me. I was going to use sugar and cream cheese stolen from the complimentary breakfast bar, and an egg purchased at the most convenient shopping location. The microwave was to become my friend and foe, all at once. I did several tests. The tests started to span into other hotels. And then it got worse. Bread pudding and panna cotta, both created from the comfort of my hotel room. It was better than room service. It was better than any restaurant I could afford. I felt like I was cheating.

And then I thought about Sandra Lee. I don't know if she ever made cheesecake, bread pudding or panna cotta. I'm sure she has. Probably took a few shortcuts too. But she would be proud of some of the avenues that I started to consider. I started to look for organic markets when I would travel, because I knew that they would be the easiest place to find freeze-dried food. I would never eat it straight, that was just disgusting. But my oatmeal experiences had taught me the power of freeze-dried produce.

I picked up some mixed veggies, all freeze-dried. I had ideas for soup. I remembered Alton Brown making a stew with beef jerky. Why not in a hotel room? I investigated minute-rice. Combined with freeze-dried veggies and a little salt and butter from the complimentary breakfast bar, I could make a killer pilaf. I started looking at boxed scallopped potatoes in a new light. What was to keep me from making potato cheese soup? What were my limits? Not ingredients, certainly. I was bound only by the mechanics of an average hotel room, and learning how few limits there truly were.

Yes, my thought process has gone out of hand. Hotel cookery has never meant to be like this. I'm sure the Hilton that I'm staying in as I type this expected the microwave to be used for little more than heating up the frozen dinners that they sell in the alcove next to the front desk. I doubt they ever expected them to be used for cheesecake.

But that's not really the point. I found myself headed down a path that, as I was beginning to realize, was already well-travelled. When canning and salting and corn syrupping and other forms of food preservation became the cries of the mid-20th century, there were armies of food scientiests who were already anxiously exploring the possibilities of a world that they once thought they knew, and had suddenly realized was different from what they thought. And I was following them down that road, but in a different vehicle. I wasn't trying to extend shelf life. I wasn't trying to feed starving children in 3rd-world countries. I wasn't trying to make a buck off the unknowning masses as I spewed my culinary travesties across the land. I was trying to learn.

There is a science to food, and there is an art. Both must be in balance, every bit as much as the seasonings in a dish must properly showcase the flavors which they help present. Too much salt and the dish will be insipid. Not enough and it will be bland. Too much science and food will seem manufactured and unnatural. Too much art and it becomes hippie chow or worse, unfit for human, or possibly even animal consumption. As in all things, moderation is key.

Sometimes art doesn't work. Sometimes science doesn't work. Sometimes our feeble wanderings in either world cause travesties that surprise and horrify even ourselves. And yet we learn. In a world so impossibly large that we won't ever discover it all, we find a handrail, a path. As we continue to feel around, the path becomes more known to us. It may not be the correct path. It may be one disdained by others, perhaps everyone else. But it's the path that we've found. And until we find another, we content ourselves with what we can and we continue to explore.

It fascinates me. I love learning what food can do, what it's about. I'm not a brilliant chef, and I may never be one. Am I fake cooking? I don't think anybody has accused me of that yet. I wonder if they ever will. And those that do, I challenge you: can you make a cheesecake in your hotel room?

Hotel Bread Pudding and Panna Cotta

As I worked on my hotel cheesecakes, I started to think to myself, there has got to be an easier high-end dessert to cook in a hotel room than cheesecake. Then it hit me: panna cotta! Would could be easier? What could be simpler? And bonus: it didn't technically require a microwave, though it did still require a chilling mechanism such as a mini-fridge.

Panna cotta is, so I've read, Italian for "cooked cream". You may see complex recipes everywhere, but when it really comes down to it, panna cotta really only has three main ingredients: cream, sugar and gelatin. This of course excludes vanilla or other flavoring agents. Looking at a handful of recipes, I found that the majority of the reliable ones called for equal parts cream and whole milk. If you're thinking what I'm thinking, you're thinking it's tons easier to just use half and half. Unflavored gelatin isn't too difficult to find at the grocery store, and most hotels seem to have one of those within reasonable distance. As for sugar? That's what the coffee bar is really for, right? I would have to figure out the flavoring later.

I picked up the ingredients at the store one morning before class, fully intending to whip up a serving that night. As I sat at my desk waiting for students to arrive, I eyeballed the pastries that catering had brought to us, most of which I knew my students would promptly ignore. As I considered them, a random thought occurred to me: I bet those would make a great bread pudding! Bread pudding consists of little more than bread that's been sitting out all day or night, some dairy, eggs, and maybe some seasonings or flavorings. Since these were pastries, they were already plenty flavorful, they just needed a custard to pull them together. Bonus: I would already have both eggs and dairy left over from the cheesecake and panna cotta experiments.

That night, I started on the bread pudding first. My bread ended up consisting of two muffins, which were cubed with a plastic knife. Using a fork, I mixed together an egg with what looked like about 1/3 to 1/2 a cup of half and half, in the paper bowl that I planned to use for cooking. I tossed the cubed muffins in the bowl, tossed until it looked like the wet stuff was evenly soaked through, and tossed into the microwave on the lowest power setting. I only went with 2 to 3 minute spurts, but all in all it took me about 17 to 18 minutes of cooking time before it looked like it was done. I removed it from the microwave and set aside to cool.

While it was cooling, I sprinkled about half a packet of unflavored gelatin into a couple of tablespoons worth of cold water. I filled a mug from the coffee station with most of the remaining half and half and tossed it in the microwave on high. A couple of minutes later it was hot, definitely at a scald, but not boiling. I added the gelatin to a bowl, poured in the hot cream and added about six packets worth of sugar from the coffee station. For flavoring, I added a little container of "Mixed Fruit Jelly" swiped from the bagel station at breakfast. It wasn't vanilla, but it was something. I stirred until it looked like everything was more or less dissolved (except for little pieces of jelly) and set aside to cool. When it was down to room temperature, I moved it into the mini fridge to set up.

The bread pudding cooled down pretty quickly. It may not have been the best bread pudding in the world, but it was still pretty good. Of course, the biggest factor in this case was the quality of the pastries that I used to make it, and they were pretty good pastries. But the cooking method also seemed solid, and I ended up wolfing down the whole thing.

The next day I tried out the panna cotta. It set up perfectly. It was easy to remove from its bowl and onto a plate. Apparently not all of the jelly dissolved into it, and it ended up having what looked like a pocked surface. Nothing a few fresh-sliced strawberries also swiped from the breakfast bar wouldn't fix. If they had had strawberry jelly or jam instead of just grape left, I could have used that to make a sauce too.

As far as the flavor and texture were concerned, it was by far not the best I've ever had. Rather than being a light, creamy dessert, it tasted like milk-flavored jello with perhaps a little too much gelatin. More gummy than jello. Obviously, the finer qualities of panna cotta have managed to elude me. At the very least, I was a little heavy handed with the powdered gelatin. I probably need to invest in some real vanilla extra next time around too. Fortunately, they do sell it in sizes that the TSA will permit in my carry-on luggage.

At the very least, the bread pudding can be called a success. The panna cotta is not too far behind. Both definitely have room for improvement. I couldn't help but notice that a lot of bread pudding recipes call for things like nuts and dried fruits. Not a bad idea. I also noticed that a lot of panna cotta recipes call for sour cream. That would certainly help with flavor and texture. It makes me wonder if I can get away with using cream cheese. I suppose there are more experiments to be had.

Hotel Room Cheesecake

My brother at one point had a goal. It started with ways to eat cheaply while travelling to anime cons, and developed into methods that involved making things like grilled cheese sandwiches using the hotel iron (note: it is recommended that you put the sandwich between pieces of foil, to protect both the food and the equipment). The idea was that you should be able to show up at a hotel, walk across the street to the local grocery store, and pick up supplies that could be converted into actual meals from within the confines of your hotel room. If fact, this very idea was kept in the back of my mind as I tested my travel oatmeal recipes over the course of a month.

Rewind to my cheesecake days. I've long maintained that there are a variety of different crusts that you can use for a cheesecake other than boring, old graham cracker crumbs. For instance, Delta Airlines has a partnership with Biscoff to provide the only edible snack available on the majority of their flights outside of first class: their cinnamon cookie. I've often thought about saving up a few of these to crush up for an airline-inspired cheesecake.

Suddenly, one week, tragedy struck: my brain put the two of these ideas together. Why not use crumbled Biscoff cookies to bake mini cheesecakes in my hotel room? It would still require a trip to the local grocery store, or perhaps to the local drug store or gas station to buy an egg (well, half a dozen eggs, hope you're hungry), but the other ingredients would be easily obtainable from the hotel itself. If the hotel has complimentary breakfast, cream cheese would likely be available in single-ounce portions. And what hotel doesn't have a coffee station with plenty of free sugar? If that wasn't enough sugar (and it likely wouldn't be), then the lobby would often have enough sugar packets to make up for it. Or the coffee area at the local gas station. The only element that would not be easily obtainable would be the vanilla that is usually found in New York-style cheesecake. But if the cook didn't have access to a grocery store, they still had a variety of options available. A liquor store alone would have plenty of flavored liqeurs that would work, or the cook could just go at it without additional flavoring.

There were two other variables to solve: what to bake the cheesecakes in, and what to bake them with. The second was easy: about half the hotel rooms I've stayed in have a microwave and a mini-fridge. Without at least a microwave, you're going to be out of luck. But I also needed a baking dish. As I was contemplating various methods of cutting up paper cups, it dawned on me: if there's a grocery store nearby, they'll almost certainly have baking cups for muffins! It was perfect! I just needed to make sure to use multiple cups per cheesecake, to keep them from sagging and spilling all over. I now had all of the variables figured out. It was time to run some tests.

For authenticity, decided to do my tests from within my room at the Radisson hotel in Chelmsford, MA. This room came equipped with a microwave and a mini-fridge, perfect for my experiments. I decided not to use crust in the initial testing, because it was not something that I could just head down to the store to replace once I ran out; I would have to wait for another flight to get more from the flight attendant. There was a Walgreens within walking distance, but I actually picked up my supplies at the Market Basket grocery store in nearby Westford. The Radisson did not serve complimentary breakfast, so I had to buy my cream cheese along with a half-dozen eggs. Sugar was still free.

The minimum number of eggs was one. I decided to use 4 oz of cream cheese with it, also a bare minimum. The batter would be a bit loose, but it would still set up. If I didn't get it right, I would still have another 4 oz left to try again. Using muffin baking cups, I knew I would still have multiple chances with the first batch. In this case, I discovered I would have three tries per batch. I creamed together the sugar and the cream cream (which I had left soften during the day) in a bowl normally reserved for oatmeal, and then mixed in the egg. I decided to dispense with flavors for now. As far as sugar goes, I stopped at eight packets. It wasn't enough, the flavor was still pretty rich, but it would have to do for now. A fork was not the easiest mixing implement to use, but it worked.

I knew the microwave was going to be my biggest problem. I decided to start with pulses. 30 seconds of cooking, 60 seconds of rest. Repeat as necessary. 10 seconds into the second cooking phase, the batter started boiling. First cheesecake: ruined. I went down to 15 second pulses for the second try, and while it lessened the intensity, it still boiled. Second cheesecake: ruined, but not as badly. The microwave was just too strong.

I decided to reevaluate the situation. Looking carefully at the microwave controls, I noticed that this particular oven supported various power levels. This could be my saving grace. I decided to lower the power to 10% and dispense with pulses. I checked on the wobbiliness every few minutes, and almost made it to 15 cumulative minutes of cooking time before the center got to that point of being just under-wobbly. It was time to pull the cheesecake and let it rest while carry-over cooking took it the rest of the way. By this point it was bedtime, so I moved everything to the fridge and went to sleep, content that I would have a perfectly cooked cheesecake waiting for me in the morning.

In the morning I realized something very important: little cheesecakes have less mass to produce carry-over cooking than big cheesecakes. When I moved my under-cooked cheesecake to the fridge, it essentially stopped the carry-over cooking from happening. Of the other two cheesecakes, the first attempt was actually the only one that set up enough to be removed from its paper wrapper. By all indications, my first supposed failure was actually my only success so far. I moved everything back into the fridge and headed off to work. I would have to try again that night.

That night I started by tasting the cheesecakes from the first round of tests. As expected, the first was overcooked and had the texture of scrambled eggs that had been cooked too long. The flavor had also changed significantly from what the batter had tasted like. The second was still a little curdled, but the flavor and the texture had both improved drastically. The third was creamy and the flavor was spot-on. Unfortunately, it had almost no structure. Still, it gave me hope.

I bumped the sugar up to 12 packets, which I think was just about right. I still used 4 oz of cream cheese and a single large chicken egg. Again, I had three test runs. The first was nuked for 30 minutes at 10% power, and the second and third for 40 minutes at 10% power. I had less batter left over for the third, so it was slightly smaller, which I expected to change the cooking time. I made sure that there was no wobbliness. Obviously, carry-over cooking was going to be significantly less with a cupcake-sized cheesecake than with a 9-inch round cheesecake.

When they were done cooking, I let the first two rest for at least half an hour. I didn't expect much carryover cooking to happen, but I still needed to give it a chance. The last one came out just as I was about to go to bed, so it went straight into the fridge with the two rested ones. By all indications, they had all set up properly. A quick test in the morning would say for sure.

In the morning, I checked. They all looked fabulous. But as I tried to pull the paper away from the sides, the cheesecakes stuck. But the smaller one still mostly pulled away. I decided the small one could officially be called a success. The other two still looked good, if not quite as much as the last. It looked like 45 to 50 minutes was likely to be the magic range.

Unfortunately, as it was getting towards the end of the work week, I was getting pretty burned out in general. I ended up not trying any other cheesecakes at the Radisson. I would have to wait until my next trip, a week later.

I found myself in Baltimore about a week and a half after my last Radisson experiment. I was in the Hilton Garden Inn in BWI's hotel district. I made sure this time to get a room with another mini fridge and microwave. The microwave was older, and the power dial was analog this time rather than digital. I didn't know if 10% was going to be the same, so rather than shooting for 45 to 50 minutes, I decided to go for 10 and see how things looked.

My first batter was comprised of half an 8oz tub of cream cheese leftover from the first morning's bagel breakfast at the training center, 6 packets of sugar from the coffee station (these seemed to have about twice as much sugar per packet as the ones in Massachussetts) and the yolk of an egg from a local organic market. Let me tell you, you haven't lived until you've separated eggs in your hotel room. I had a styrofoam container left over from that evening's takeout dinner, so I cleaned the crumbs out and used it to mix up the batter.

Because I wasn't using a whole egg, the batter wasn't nearly as loose, and there was only enough for (almost) two servings. I poured one serving into some paper muffin cups and tossed it in the microwave at what looked like 10% power. 10 minutes later, I had a truly overcooked cheesecake. A taste test revealed a tasty cheesecake with the texture of overcooked scrambled eggs. Apparently, microwave times will vary.

I tried again a couple of nights later. I dropped the power all the way, which still seemed to be more than the 10% at the Radisson. By 10 minutes, the cheesecake was almost done. A couple of minutes later, it was perfect. I let it sit, and then tasted it. The taste was perfect, but the texture was still a little rougher than I had hoped. It seemed that leaving it at a single egg yolk did provide a little extra richness, but the texture itself left something to be desired. It was clear that I either needed to include some of the white, or add some liquid from elsewhere. Fortunately, many coffee stations include little cups of half and half. This would make up for lost moisture, while not adding too much like an egg white would.

I didn't try again on this trip to Baltimore. I was nearing the end of a 6-day class, and I was even more burned out than I was in Boston. By this point, I'd been writing the article off and on for around a month. I'm in Mountain View, CA this week and the Comfort Inn here has a microwave (I'm told all the rooms at the El Camino location have microwaves), but I'm still burned out from moving last week. I decided to post my progress so far, and post again after a few more experiments. Besides, it was holding up another couple of posts that I wanted to get out. Perhaps a reader or two will have something to offer in the meantime.