Monday, December 03, 2012

What To Make For The Holidays? Cranberry-apple Crisp!

It's that time of the year: holiday parties for two months, where you want to bring something nice but after the first couple of parties you just can't be bothered.  You're running around, trying to go to your friends' parties to see them and have a good time with them while arranging your own holiday life, getting in fights with your parents, failing to find presents that your sisters will actually like, forgetting some of your friends when setting up your own party invitations, trying to get all of your work done while half of your coworkers are gone.  It's no wonder that there's a popular urban legend that the suicide rate goes up because of winter holidays.

The best recipe for this time of year should be delicious, easy to make, quick to make, and require only ingredients that you've already got in your kitchen.  Not surprisingly, such a recipe does not exist.  The closest you can get are delicious recipes that are easy to make and which use common ingredients, ones that you can easily get at the grocery store.  The good news is that this recipe meets all of those requirements, and gets better the longer it sits in the fridge.

This recipe works because it releases a lot of the sugar (sucrose) held in the apples and cranberries.  The longer the apples sit with the cranberries, the more the tastes mingle, so the two-day old leftovers from this recipes will often taste better than the freshly made version.

You can also change things up quite easily in this recipe.  I didn't have dried cranberries about half of the times that I made this crisp, so I just used more fresh cranberries instead.  It came out fine.  You can also add in other flavors easily - orange zest, lemon zest, nutmeg, etc.  The one part of the recipe you don't want to change is the topping (the part that becomes crisp when you bake it).

I got this recipe from America's Test Kitchen: All-time Best Holiday Recipes, which was an impulse buy when I was stuck in a ludicrously long line in a Whole Foods.  I don't know why the website says price: $9.95, on sale: $9.95.  Maybe they are great at baking and terrible at arithmetic.  All I can tell you is that this magazine is worth the money.

This crisp is a great party dish because it is easy to make and transport (just one baking dish), it has ingredients that are considered to be winter holiday fruits (apples + cranberries), and it's different from what most people bring (chocolate, gingerbread, or pumpkin pie).  It's easy to serve and people are always impressed if you make fresh whipped cream to go along with it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Potluck Experiments: Plum Galette

Chez Panisse is a very famous restaurant in my hometown of Berkeley, notable for the fact that it basically started the California cuisine movement: use fresh, local foods to make fusion cuisine - very Californian.  I've never been there since a) I can't afford it and b) my mother and the owner got in a fight back in 90's and my mother holds a grudge.  Berkeley isn't a cosmopolis - it's really just a small town that happens to have a large university in the middle of it - and the personal interactions are what you'd expect to see in a small town in the middle of nowhere.  Imagine a Thornton Wilder play with more grumbling about the lack of state educational funding.  (I'm not kidding about this: Thornton Wilder went to Berkeley High.)

In any case, I have that Berkeleyan smug disdain for Chez Panisse that everybody there develops eventually.  "Oh, yes, Chez Panisse.  Did you know that the original Peet's is just around the corner?  And it's so much easier to just grab a slice of pizza at the Cheeseboard.  Chez Panisse is just okay now.  Oooh, you know what I heard?  Now they're using beets in everything.  Can you imagine?  Beets!  Chez Panisse is so overpriced."  We're allowed to complain about it but nobody else is.

The internet does not have the same attitude towards Chez Panisse.  For example, this website is run by a guy who loves Chez Panisse.  In fact, he posted this recipe because of a picture he saw in the flicr photostream for the Chez Panisse 40th Anniversary Party.

This photo, to be precise.  Original.
Now I completely get what he's talking about, because when I saw one of his photos on his website I decided that I had to try making a plum galette as well.

His photo.  Who wouldn't want to try making that?
I had to fiddle with his recipe a bit to make it work but it turned out all right in the end.  While I can't tell you is if this is the type of thing that they serve at Chez Panisse, I can say that the people at the potluck liked it.  I was expecting the crust to be softer but it's actually flaky.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Potluck Experiments: 抹茶マーブルシフォン (Matcha Marbled Chiffon Cake)

As part of my post-hurricane potluck baking experiments, I decided that I wanted to try baking a nice cake made with green tea.  I had bought some good quality matcha (a type of Japanese green tea) powder from Amazon and so far I'd only made desserts using green tea cream.  Why not bake a nice cake with matcha instead?

American baked desserts are notably sweeter than baked desserts in Japan.  I like the flavor of matcha in a dessert but it really does taste weird when the dessert is at American levels of sweetness.  My parents have mentioned that one of the things they had a hard time adjusting to when we lived in Japan was that the cakes were not sweet in the way that they were expecting.  I ended up with the opposite reaction: Japanese-style cakes that are made to American sweetness levels don't taste right.

All of the recipes I found that looked promising for matcha cakes were in Japanese.  I couldn't find English translations (or I couldn't figure out the right phrases to google).  Eventually I ended up using google translate and my horrible Japanese to translate several recipes that looked promising.

The Japanese was not the most difficult part of translating the recipes - the different measurement systems were.  Most Americans don't know that we're the odd man out when it comes to cooking measurements, and it's not Imperial versus metric.  Almost every other country (except Australia) uses weight or mass when measuring dry ingredients, but we use volume.

Unfortunately, it's a bit more complicated than that.  Liquid ingredients are generally measured by volume in most countries but with a different measuring system than in the US.  Most dry or bulky ingredients are measured by weight or mass instead of volume.

The worst problem is converting from US to Imperial (UK) or vice versa, where we use the same words but mean different amounts.  This is why we can have ounces of milk and ounces of butter in the US and mean two completely separate measurements.  Fluid ounces are not the same thing as solid ounces.  This is also why you can't buy a cookbook in England and use it back in the US.  I've got a UK version of one of Nigella Lawson's cookbooks and I ended up buying another US copy of it because it was easier than converting every single recipe.

There are different conversions for each ingredient.  One cup of milk and one cup of flour do not have the same weight.  If you do end up having to translate a recipe, make sure that you look up the conversions for each ingredient.  Don't use the conversion for flour when you are calculating the amount of sugar!

If you scroll down this page to the baking conversions, you'll see exactly what I'm talking about.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Potluck Experiments: Blackberry Cobbler

Once a month, I meet up with a group of friends to play games and have a potluck.  It's perfect because I get to try out new games that I would never have heard of otherwise and I get to inflict any new baking experiments on a pre-arranged group of people and demand constructive criticism.  It's the best kind of two-in-one: fun for me, arranged by somebody else.

I always end up making more than one recipe because I can't choose just one thing to bake.  There usually isn't any link between the various recipes except that I thought that they sounded interesting.  We had another gaming potluck last Saturday, and since the weather has gotten cold and we had just been through a hurricane, I thought that blueberry cobbler would be a good dessert choice.

The definition of a cobbler is very broad: some kind of filling in a baking dish covered with a topping that is not crumbled (pie crust, biscuits, or batter).  Cobblers never have a bottom crust like pies do.  Although most people think that cobblers are an old European or British dessert, cobblers originated in the US as an alternative to pies and puddings.  There are lots and lots of regional differences and names for cobblers, most of which I'd never heard of before googling "cobblers" (grunt, slump, buckle, sonker, and pan dowdy's).  A Brown Betty is technically a cobbler because it doesn't have a bottom crust.  A crumble is like a cobbler but it uses oatmeal in the crust instead.

My mother would occasionally make a cobbler in the winter and tell us how great is was to have a nice hot cobbler when it's cold.  But we grew up in San Francisco, where it gets chilly instead of cold, so I never really understood what she meant.  The first time I had a hot cobbler for dessert in the middle of a Chicago winter made it all clear.

Although apple cobblers and peach cobblers are popular, I associate cobbler with blueberries.  As far as I know, there is no one type of fruit that is more popular for a cobbler than any other and this link with blueberries is probably just left over from my childhood.

So when I realized that I was going to a potluck less than a week after Hurricane Sandy (which is also when the temperature dropped from the 70's to the 40's - thanks, Mother Nature!), I immediately thought of a blueberry cobbler.  This was also a good idea because we found out that the furnace was broken during the hurricane and we didn't (and still don't) have any heat for the house.  I was not adverse to the idea of spending hours in the kitchen with the oven on.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Time For Something New

When you're tired after a long day, it's so easy to stay in a food rut and eat the same thing you always do when you're exhausted.  In my case, that's either a bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough or take out from a Thai restaurant.  I've been trying to eat better since the beginning of October and I've actually been doing a pretty good job.  It was easy to stop ordering take out when I was tired, but a little more difficult to break the habit of eating something sweet.  Things are slowly progressing, for which my digestive system seems to be grateful.

But I really miss Thai food.  It is so good - spicy and savory and the tastes combine perfectly with the textures of the ingredients.  Although I can't eat the really spicy dishes anymore, like papaya salad, I can still have the savory ones.  Several weeks ago I decided it was time to try making my favorite at home: pad see ew.

Of course it turned out that pad see ew is one of those dishes that you really can't recreate exactly at home.  You need a well-seasoned wok with an industrial strength stove to get restaurant-style pad see ew.  Most of the Thai cooking blogs I looked at said that you can do a pretty good approximation at home if you're patient.  I was pretty nervous about trying to make pad see ew after reading all of this, and I figured that I'd give it a try and it would be terrible and that would be that.

Unexpectedly, pad see ew is really easy to make at home.  The blogs are right - the taste isn't exactly the same without the high heat but it's definitely edible and tastes similar to a restaurant's version. 

Restaurant-style pad see ew: my version got pretty close.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Gnocchi: Not As Italian As You'd Think (+ Pesto)

There's a very simple rule for eating pasta: thin pasta, thick sauce; thick pasta, thin sauce.  You eat gnocchi with a thin sauce, even though it's not pasta.  Gnocchi are little dumplings, not noodles.  They're usually listed with the pasta on the menu at Italian restaurants and sold with pasta in grocery store, which creates some confusion.

There really isn't a stereotypical "Italian" dinner any more than there is an "American" dinner.  Sure, some Americans really do eat green bean casserole made with Campbell's cream of mushroom soup and hamburgers for dinner in the same way that some Italians really do eat tomatoes and mozzarella and chicken cacciatore with tiramisu for dessert.  But there is considerable regional differences in both American and Italian cooking which makes it difficult to say what Americans or Italians "eat for dinner".  Most cookbooks and travel magazines do the best they can, writing very broad descriptions that aren't wrong but aren't really right, either.

In these descriptions, an Italian dinner has a lighter first course which is usually some kind of pasta/gnocchi/soup and a heavier main course which is a meat dish.  Gnocchi may not be pasta but it is cooked similarly and used interchangeably with pasta in the first course.

Most people know the potato version of gnocchi, but they can be made with lots of ingredients, including ricotta, flour, and pumpkin.  Tuscany has a version of gnocchi called malfatti, which are ricotta and spinach dumplings.  The idea of small dumplings made from flour was spread across Europe by the Roman empire and most European countries have some version of them. If you've ever had spätzle, then you know what I'm talking about.

Although potato gnocchi are the most commonly made version of gnocchi, potatoes are not indigenous to Italy and weren't introduced until the 16th century.  Many of the food items that we consider to be historically Italian are actually made with foods from the New World, like tomatoes and potatoes.  When new food items became available, Italians worked them into their older recipes which is how we get pizza with tomato sauce or potato gnocchi.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

What's In A Name? Flour Does Not Smell As Sweet

At some point, we've all discovered that the same food can have different names.  The name for soda (or pop or tonic or soft drinks or...) is a big one in the US, and everybody thinks that everybody else's regional dialect has a silly name.  I personally believe that calling all sodas "Coke" is just plain ridiculous.  This snippet of a real conversation I heard in a diner illustrates my point:

"I'd like a Coke."
"Sure, what kind?"
"A 7-Up."


It's not just soda, of course.  A milkshake in New England is (or used to be) a blend of milk and flavored syrup and not a blend of milk and ice cream.  That is a frappe - except in Rhode Island, where it's a cabinet.  I learned about frappes ten years ago, which is also when I figured out what the name "frappuccino" was supposed to mean: frappe + cappuccino.  Nobody has explained why a coffee chain that's from Seattle is naming things using a strictly New England regional name.

There's also regional brand name differences, such as Edy's/Dreyer's, Best Foods/Hellmann's, and Arnold/Oroweat.  Then there's differences in names between countries that supposedly speak the same language.  In the UK, cilantro is called coriander and zucchinis are courgettes.  We have also borrowed a lot of words in English and have ended up changing the meanings: in Italy, peperoni are bell peppers and salame piccante means pepperoni (the American version).

But some food name differences are important and really don't mean the same thing.  Take the word "flour": in the US, flour generally means wheat flour and any other type of flour is called "plant flour" to indicate what plant it was made from.  However, there are many different types of wheat flour and you shouldn't use a different type unless you know how to adapt a recipe for substitution.

The key difference between wheat flours is the amount of gluten.  Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat and other relatives, such as rye and barley.  It helps dough to rise and keep its shape and makes the dough elastic, which is why bread is chewy.  In general, savory dough recipes use flours with more gluten and sweet dough recipes use flours with less gluten.

There are six classes of wheat in the US (durum, hard red spring, hard red winter, soft red winter, hard white, soft white), and the types of flour they produce are different.  Not surprisingly, the hard wheat types are best for yeast breads and the soft types are best for pastries.  Durum is the hardest type of all, and is used to make pasta.

This is what your bread started out as.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Pate a Choux: One Recipe, Many Uses

Ah, French recipes.  I've already mentioned that French baking recipes have a reputation for being finicky and difficult in the post on souffles, but the more baking I do, the more I find that reputation to be undeserved.  It may be true for cooking but so far it hasn't held for baking.

Much like souffles, I'd always been told that pate a choux is difficult to make - if you mess up the timing, it will never turn out right!  You must measure out the ingredients exactly or it will be a disaster!  And so on and so forth...

It's all lies: pate a choux is really easy to make, and as an added bonus, you don't need any fancy equipment.  "Pate a choux" means "cabbage paste" in French, which does not sound appetizing at all.  The name comes from one of its later uses, when it takes on the shape of little cabbages: cream puffs.  Now that sounds appetizing, right?  I certainly thought so, which is why I tried making green tea cream puffs in the last entry.

From: the Steamy Kitchen's entry on pate a choux

Pate a choux is an incredibly versatile pastry.  It's the basis of cream puffs, eclairs, profiteroles, croquembouches, crullers, beignets, and gougeres.  It can be shaped into anything that doesn't require support before baking and it will puff up to two or three times its original size.  Pate a choux is fairly flavorless, which means that it can be used for either sweet or savory recipes.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Tortoise, Not The Hare

Cookbooks and cooking websites/blogs (mine included) generally present complete recipes - the proportions of the ingredients carefully worked out and tested, the cooking time and temperature given without qualms.  But most recipes don't start out like this even if you get them from other people.  You just don't know what you're going to get the first time you make a recipe.  No matter how sure the original recipe author may have been about the recipe's perfection, it's not guaranteed that it will work in your kitchen.

There are various different reasons for this.  The one that seems to surprise people the most is that an oven's thermostat isn't precise.  The actual internal oven temperature can vary by up to 50° F from what's on the dial.  An oven heats the air inside it by some kind of heating apparatus (open flames or a heated coil), which will continue heating until it's too hot.  Then the heating apparatus turns off until it's too cold, when it turns on again.  The end result of this process is that your oven isn't sitting consistently at 325° F, it's heating up to 355 and then cooling down to 310 and then heating up to 340 and then cooling down to 295 etc etc etc.

So you should really buy a hanging thermometer for your oven and see how far off your thermostat is from the real temperature.

But that doesn't solve the real problem: you have no idea how well a recipe is going to turn out until you make it.  Less than 100 years ago, cookbooks were still pretty new fangled and recipes had instructions like "add some milk to several eggs and beat with flour until the consistency is right".  Not very helpful.  If you've ever wondered why The Joy of Cooking or Julia Child's cookbooks were such a big deal, now you know: they had explicit amounts for ingredients paired with detailed instructions.

Before I ever give a recipe to anybody else, I've made it at least five times (generally a lot more than that).  All of the previous posts on this blog were of recipes that I know like the back of my hand.  For a change, today's post is going to be about what I'm thinking when I make a recipe for the first time, and how I decide what changes need to be made for the next time I use a recipe - or if I even want to bother trying the recipe again.

Think of this as a tale of two recipes: one success and one miserable failure.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Bread Pudding: Why Write About Something That I Hate?

The title of this post is clear: I hate, loathe, abhor bread pudding.  But I can't deny that it's useful.

The Bloomingdale Farmers Market is only three block away from my house, and has approximately 10-15 vendors.  There is one bakery stall where you can get amazingly good bread.  They are a wholesale bakery (they make the bread for lots of high-end DC restaurants).  I don't know where the bakers are from originally, but they may be from France.  I'm not good with French accents so they may also be from a previously French-colonised country.  All I can tell you is that they talk to you in French first, and I've heard them having conversations in French with other customers.  They were very polite when I said my one pathetic French sentence to them: Je ne parle pas Francais.  Sometimes I am listening when Twin talks to me.  Sometimes.

So I buy a rustic baguette every Sunday around noon and gorge myself on it, making havarti and tomato sandwiches.  And every Tuesday I look at the leftover half-baguette and feel guilty about throwing it out, but how much baguette can one person eat?  Patches loves toast and would eat the entire rest of the loaf and wind up with bunny diabetes.  So this week I decided not to be one of those Americans who throw away 40% of their food and instead make something with the stale bread.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Mango Mousse Cake: How To Fool People Into Thinking You've Done A Lot Of Work

Some recipes produce food that tastes amazing but doesn't look like something you'd ever want to put in your mouth.
This is something called "chicken bog" and while it's supposed to taste good, you won't catch me trying it.
Some recipes produce food that looks amazing but doesn't taste very good or is difficult to eat because of the presentation.  This is my personal pet peeve: I don't care how lovely it looks on the plate if I can't eat it.

Somebody made Stonehenge out of lettuce and toasted bread.  To eat this, you need to take the bread off, knock the lettuce over, slice it up, put it and the tuna tartar on the bread, and possibly slice that as well.
The magic recipe results in food that looks and tastes amazing.  The absolutely best recipes on the planet are magic recipes that are also easy to make.  When you've found one of those, never loose it.  It's the baking equivalent of a flying unicorn that draws rainbows across the sky.

Mousse cakes are almost always "magic recipes".  There may be a small amount of baking involved, but the mousse itself is made by mixing whipped cream with a flavored, stabilized base which is put in the refrigerator to chill and solidify.  That's it.

The complications in a mousse cake only come from how fancy you want to make it.  A mousse with three or four different flavors?  A mousse cake with five layers?  A mousse cake with differently colored cake layers?  All these are options that may make the cake better but certainly aren't required.

The key to making an amazing mousse cake is to use well-flavored ingredients.  If you're going to make a chocolate mousse cake, don't use low quality chocolate.  Hershey chocolate bars are wonderful for s'mores but terrible for cakes.

My personal favorite mousse cake is mango mousse cake because I love mangoes that much.  Unfortunately it can be difficult to get quality mangoes on the east coast, especially if it's not mango season.  Trader Joe's sells bags of frozen mango chunks during mango season.  If you've got enough freezer space, I recommend storing 2-4 bags of mango chunks so you can have them at hand year-round.  I don't have enough freezer space to do this, but I would if I could.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

My Mother's Hallah

Hallah (aka challah) is the traditional Jewish bread that is eaten during the Sabbath (shabat).  Hallah (חלה) means "loaf" in Hebrew.  Lechem (לחם) means "bread".  Because you are forbidden from doing any work during shabat, you must cook all of your food beforehand.

The laws of keeping kosher (kashrut) make this more complicated than most people realize; specifically, you can't mix dairy and meat together.  Food that is neither dairy nor meat is called "parve".  Parve foods include all fruits, vegetables, eggs, and fish.  (Yes, I know that fish is the meat of an animal but we're dealing with 6,000 year old dietary laws here.)  To make sure that you can eat hallah with whatever else you eat on shabbat, the recipe is usually parve.  That's why a lot of recipes and cookbooks refer to hallah as an "egg bread", because the binder in the dough is egg without any dairy.

My mother baked her own hallah throughout my childhood.  The hallah that came from the bakeries was weird, really puffy and the crust was dry and dark.  My mother would also put in honey and raisins for holidays like Rosh HaShanah (Jewish New Year).  Sometimes my father would make french toast with the leftover hallah for breakfast on Sunday.

Pumpkin Souffle

Souffles have a reputation for being incredibly difficult: they are finicky, they fall, they are fragile and collapse, etc.  This is not true.  Souffles are actually very sturdy, and they are supposed to slowly collapse as they cool down.  If a souffle deflates over the space of 10-20 minutes, then you've done something right.

Julia Child (a lady who knew what she was talking about) described souffles as a a flavoured base with beaten eggs whites.  As the souffle cooks, the air bubbles in the egg whites expand and the souffle rises.  That's why souffles collapse as they cool down.  As Julia pointed out, souffles basically consist of two ingredients: a base and beaten egg whites.  All you need to do is combine them:
"Soufflés are not difficult when you have mastered the beating of egg whites and the folding of them into the soufflé base."
Here's a great webpage about souffles with lots of useful tips at the bottom for the first-time souffle maker.

At Halloween last year, Landlord made a cute jack-o-latern.  What do you do with all of the leftover pumpkin?  I didn't want to make a pumpkin pie because it was close to Thanksgiving and I figured I'd be drowning in pumpkin pies in less than a month.  I don't remember why I decided to make a pumpkin souffle.  I had never made a souffle before but I figured if it didn't work then I wouldn't have wasted any ingredients.  I should mention that at this point I still believed that souffles were impossible to make and I didn't realise that they use so many eggs.  I had also heard the urban legend about the Julia Child show where she made a souffle and it collapsed live on television when she pulled it out of the oven.  I figured that if Julia Child couldn't get a souffle to work, then it wouldn't be a real failure if my attempt was a disaster.

The pumpkin souffle was amazing, so flavourful and light and the texture was incredible and and and...

I was a souffle convert.

An Explanation...

I originally set up this blog when I bought a house for the first time.  Words cannot describe how terrified I was (so much money!  so much work!  so much money needed to do said work!).  I decided that it was time to get organized, and that included making sure that I wasn't that friend - you know which friend I'm talking about, the one who sends you sporadic emails with 100 pictures attached to each one.  As a homeowner, I needed to be efficient and get things done with a minimum of energy and time.  The solution was obvious: make a blog to keep everybody up to date and let the people who actually cared follow it.

This home improvement blog has no home improvement updates for one simple reason: the seller was committing fraud.  No house, no home improvements.

I spent a number of months dealing with the legal system to get my money back (ask me about the tort of negligence) and, after that, I didn't want to think about or do anything related to the house, including this blog.

Time heals all wounds, etc.  Several days ago, a friend asked my why I didn't have a cooking/food blog.  I love baking and I spend far too much time reading other people's food blogs.  So why not make my own?

Chez Le Awesome does not have a chez anymore, so it's now about food.  It may include home improvement in the future.  When? I have no idea.

I do not expect this blog to become popular.  I do expect that some friends who want my recipes will pop by to print them off.  The plan is to update once a week, either with something of my own or with what is hopefully an instructive and useful post.  Right now I have lots of food albums on facebook that I'll move over here to start things off.

On a side note, I also intend to have several entries on really basic cooking skills and on vocabulary.  Many food blogs and cookbooks don't have information on the basics because they're intended for more practiced cooks which makes it basically impossible for a beginner to follow the recipes and instructions.  You can do everything that the recipe says and still end up with a mess because you don't know that the instruction to "fold the dry ingredients into the wet" means something very specific, or that "stir" and "mix" are different hand motions.  There are several really helpful cookbooks that cover these types of issues (note: make an entry on recommended cookbooks) but if you don't know about them, you can't read them.

So that's the plan.  My second job starts in one week (OMG I am an idiot sometimes).  Let's see if I can manage one update per week.