Research: Cream Pies vs. Custard Pies

Thursday, December 8, 2016 0 comments
It was amazing to see the vast knowledge gaps pop up every time Kyle and I discussed food, and after a while we gave up trying to predict when they'd arrive and what form they'd take. We both love food, but as enthusiastic as we are, there’s no way to know everything. One time, I was describing how I made a banana cream pie, and Kyle mentioned that my preparation sounded more like a custard pie than a cream pie. We suddenly realized that we had no idea what differentiates the two, so I hopped online to do some research.

The difference is a simple one: In custard pies, the pie’s filling and crust are baked together. In cream pies, the crust is made and cooled, and is then filled with custard that has been cooked separately. That’s it. That means that I did, indeed, make a cream pie. It also means that language is downright confounding sometimes.

Other cream pies include the usual flavors you hear about (chocolate cream pie, coconut cream pie, etc.) as well as lemon meringue pie. Even some pies that contain no dairy products belong to the cream pie family. Wild, huh? But as interesting as cream pies are, let’s not ignore the custard pies, which include some big favorites, like key lime pie, pumpkin pie, and pecan pie. Even though we all now know the difference, let’s not give too much weight to it. No matter which sibling in the Pie Family you select, you’re in for some happiness.
Read more »

Research: Food Terminology #1

Wednesday, December 7, 2016 0 comments
After my friend Kyle and I ate a lovely winter meal at a somewhat upscale restaurant, we noticed that we were woefully uneducated about some of the culinary items and terms that the menu described. Normally, that wouldn't be overly embarrassing, but we were supposed to speak knowledgeably about the meal on our podcast, which led to some hemming and hawing. Unacceptable! As with any specialty profession, the world of food is chock full of lingo and argot and code. Food terms can be downright daunting, and home cooks may well be intimidated to read a recipe that calls for confit. That is, until they realize that all that means is “cooked in oil”. So, after the fact, I decided to look up a few of these terms that I've heard plenty of times, but never thought to explore the details. Now we have them.

Orecchiette: From the Italian for “small ear”. This pasta takes its name from its shape, which does, indeed, look kind of like an ear. The main issue Kyle and I were dealing with is how to pronounce it. As often happens with foreign words, it can be tackled multiple ways. If you’re trying to be traditional, go with the Italian hard-K sound (aw-rehk-KYET-tay). Some regions soften the accented syllable (aw-reh-shee-EHT-ay). And if you don’t hold with those foreign pronunciations and want to go full American, you could say (or-CHET-tee), which at least would end it on the same vowel sound as a lot of other pastas (macaroni, rigatoni, ravioli, etc). We’re romantic types, so we prefer that second pronunciation.

Gastrique: One of the menu items we discussed was a roasted pork loin offering that was served with greens, an apple cider gastrique, and Yukon gold potatoes. So what the hell is a gastrique? In the technical sense, a gastrique is caramelized sugar, deglazed with vinegar. That mixture is then used to flavor a sauce (sometimes with stock). That may be the textbook definition, but when you see it on a menu, what it probably means is that the sugar/vinegar mixture just has the ingredient mentioned added to it. So this apple cider gastrique? Was a sauce made from sugar, vinegar, and apple cider. Voila!

Crème Anglaise: There were a few desserts to choose from at our meal, and Kyle chose the chocolate bread pudding with caramel and crème anglaise. That term is simply French for “English cream”, and is chiefly used as a dessert sauce. It’s made by whipping egg yolks and sugar together – then slowly adding hot milk. Vanilla is sometimes added for extra flavor. The sauce is then cooked over low heat and stirred constantly until it becomes thick. In addition to being poured over desserts as a sauce, it can be eaten on its own, or used as a base in other desserts (ice cream, for example).

Pot De Crème: Meanwhile, I opted for a different dessert; the caramel pot de crème with sea salt. I had initially assumed pot de crème was something akin to crème brûlée without the brûlée, and I wasn't too far off. Pot de crème is a loose custard, made with eggs, egg yolks, cream, milk, and a flavoring such as vanilla or chocolate. The milk and cream are heated and flavored, then mixed into the egg and egg yolk. The mixture is then strained and baked in a water bath at low heat.
Read more »

Research: Broth vs. Stock

Tuesday, December 6, 2016 0 comments
Four Courses was a ton of fun to produce, and my grand loves of food, cooking, culinary history, and the local St. Louis restaurant scene haven't gone anywhere, but the time and money necessary to put out the episodes has become a bit much, so the podcast has been put on permanent hiatus. That means its blog will probably go by the wayside, but I didn't want to lose some of the fascinating research I put into various food topics, so I'm going to edit those posts a bit, then port them over here. Then maybe I can spring into doing some new investigations!

First up is a post that is wonderfully relevant to this time of year. 'Tis the season for soups and stews, so you'll be hearing the words broth and stock a lot. But can you tell the difference? One of my old coworkers wondered aloud about what separates chicken broth and chicken stock, and I found I had no idea how to answer. Unacceptable. The two terms are often used interchangeably in everyday conversation, but are they really the same thing? Nope.

I thought it would be fun to try and guess what I believe the differences are before looking into the real answer, and ultimately, my prediction was that stock is the combination of bones, meat, water, and vegetable scraps that you cook down into liquid, and broth is the final liquid in a soup that you consume. That’s not strictly correct, though it wasn’t a terrible guess. It turns out there is no such thing as “strictly correct”, because there are tons of reasoned opinions on the matter. Some people agree with my initial assumption; stock is a neutral base for soup that becomes broth when the solids are strained out and seasoning is added.

For other people, the key difference is bones. Stock would be made primarily of animal bones and trim, while broth would be made with actual meat, to provide a richer flavor. It’s unclear how the people who follow this definition would separate vegetable stock from vegetable broth, though. Perhaps there is no difference to them unless animal products are involved. Some feel that stock turns into broth as soon as salt is added. Some feel that the minute you use a stock in a soup, it becomes broth, but remains stock if used in anything else. In all the articles I read, though, one thing is generally agreed upon: Stock is more of a component, while broth is more of a finished product.

It’s unlikely the slight differences between the two will affect everyday cooking. If your recipe calls for chicken stock and you’ve bought chicken broth, you’ll be fine. Now that this research has been done for you, why not make your next homework assignment making your own stock at home? It’s healthier, cheaper, and tastier, and – bonus – your house will smell fantastic.
Read more »

Prove It

Wednesday, September 28, 2016 0 comments
With the autumnal TV season upon us, I really need to get into gear to wrap up and talk about the shows I watched over the summer. I've got one episode left of a massive cultural hit that I will have some...contrary opinions about. For today, though, let's talk about an old favorite. The other shows might get rolled into a single post, but something as special as The Great British Baking Show deserves a space of its own.

Any regular reader already knows how I feel about this show, but for the uninitiated, I think it's the best show in recent history, and when it entered my life, it skyrocketed to the top of my favorites list. There are metric tons of both food shows and reality shows on the air, but none of the others come close to capturing the warm, life-affirming tone this show does. You can even listen to a friend and I wax rhapsodic over it if you like.

If you follow the show at all, you know that nothing good lasts forever, and the better something is, the more you'd better treasure it while it exists. We'll get to that momentarily, though. For now, let's talk about this most recent season. As far as the general structure goes, it was as fantastic as ever. Beautiful photography, engaging contestants, good challenge design, fair judging, fun hosts... You've heard it all from me before, and nothing's changed. The initial contestant pool was perhaps not as stacked with intriguing personalities as in seasons past, but once we got down to the final handful, I was as in love with the bakers as I always am. Early standouts included Flora, who often sacrificed flavor for ornate decoration, Paul the prison warden who struggled in early challenges but consistently nailed the Showstopper, and Mat, the adorable fireman. The final three were also an intriguing bunch. Ian was inventive, Nadiya was intensely-focused, and Tamal was a wizard with flavors. Oh, and on a personal note...also super-hot.

So, everything was top-notch as far as the production went, but circumstances surrounding it impeded some of the joy I'd usually get out of my favorite show. Whoever is in charge of scheduling at PBS is clearly in the final throes of dementia. Episodes had no consistency in their airing, be it the day or the time. When it came down to the final two episodes, my local affiliate decided to take a few weeks off from airing it at all. The season's winner was spoiled online. It was as if people were actively trying to ruin a good thing.

And that's not even getting into what's coming next. News is still rolling in about this, so by the time I post, it may well have changed again, but here's how it stands now. First, BBC had the rights to the show bought out from under them by Channel 4. That means it's going from a station funded by governmental license fees to an advertising-supported one. If you're American, this would be akin to Masterpiece Theater going from PBS to NBC. That's not a good thing.

Know who else doesn't think it's a good thing? Hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, who quit the show when it was announced it was making the move. Know who else doesn't think it's a good thing? Judge Mary Berry, who quit shortly thereafter. Right after that happened, it was announced that Paul Hollywood is sticking around as judge of whatever the new version of the show will look like, and that Mel and Sue have already scored a new show of their own.

A new season of Great British Baking Show is currently airing in Britain, so we've got that to look forward to. Plus, there are the three initial seasons that never aired in America, so tracking those down could keep this amazing program in our collective consciousness for a while. But as far as what the future will bring in terms of this franchise? It would appear that the cookie is crumbling.

The Great British Baking Show - Season 3: A
Read more »

American Plate - Bite #91: Microwave Popcorn

Friday, September 2, 2016 0 comments
And, the wave of knocking out the easier Bites continues! Part of my interest in the American Plate Project stems from an interest in not just the foods endemic to our culture, but how those ingredients of yore evolved into some of our more modern tastes. Corn is obviously an extremely part of American food history - so important, that it's the only food to get multiple entries; O'Connell devotes three of the 100 Bites to it. One of those three entries is about the subspecies of corn that explodes into fluffy goodness when it's heated, but despite this Bite's title, popcorn has a history that extends to far before the microwave could even be conceived of.

Native Americans introduced it to Europeans, who heartily embraced it. People began thinking about different ways to enjoy it, whether it was by fashioning wire baskets to cook it over an open fire, sticking bits of it together with molasses or syrup, or stringing it together to use as decoration on their Christmas trees. After the Civil War, the technology of popcorn consumption kicked into high gear, and with each new invention, popcorn got a firm grip on a facet of American society. In 1885, the steam-powered popcorn maker was devised, which led to its popularity at stadiums and arenas. In 1925, the electric corn popper came along, and was immediately adopted by the burgeoning movie theater industry. As a cheap snack, the sale of popcorn kept a lot of struggling movie houses afloat during the Great Depression, and it's had a permanent home at the cinema ever since.

In the 1950s, overwhelmed housewives were delighted with the arrival of Jiffy Pop, which was an inexpensive and entertaining distraction for their kids, and required no clean-up. Finally, in the 1980s, microwave technology became affordable enough for the average American household to acquire, and it was only natural that one of the first foods developed for it was popcorn. Once again, it took over, and nowadays, a full 65% of popcorn consumed is by people microwaving it at home.

As you can see, a search of my pantry yielded a couple different kinds of microwave popcorn. There are a lot of flavors to choose from these days, but really, if you just avoid the fake butter topping, it's a pretty healthy snack. It's also fun to experiment with different seasoning blends. People tend to just dust popcorn with salt, but there are tons of things that liven it up, from cayenne to dill. It's found another natural companion in the rise of streaming media, and there's no better way to pass a snowy Thursday evening than by firing up the Netflix, settling on the couch with a bowl of popcorn, and going to town.
Read more »

Cookie Party: Volume 7

Monday, June 20, 2016 0 comments
I don't know what it is about cookies that brings out the mad scientist in me. When it comes to savory dishes, I'll tinker with recipes, but mostly do so in an attempt to refine a dish to its best classical form. When it comes to cookies, though, I'm apparently happiest when the result is monumentally weird. My radar went off when a friend of mine posted a lovely shot of some shortbread cookies she'd recently made, and when I saw that they incorporated fresh basil into the dough, I knew I'd have to give them a whirl.

Lemon Basil Shortbread Cookies
An English Garden in Every Bite

It's the perfect season to try these out. Lemon and basil are so refreshing in the June heat, and while shortbread can tend to be overly dry, summer refrigerators are usually stocked with cool drinks. This recipe requires a lot of butter, but aside from the lemon and basil, none of the ingredients are different from any other standard shortbread.

I used my mixer to cream the butter with powdered sugar, vanilla, lemon juice, lemon zest, and the basil, then mixed in some flour and salt. This was the point where I reached the biggest challenge of the process. The recipe asks that you take the resultant sticky dough, separate it into two balls, then roll them out to a quarter-inch thickness and cut shapes. My dough was far too soft to even consider rolling, let alone cutting shapes. Anything I cut would immediately fall apart, as the softened butter made the dough too pliable to work with. I wound up just tearing off balls of dough to flatten into circles with my palm.

I'm not sure how I'll correct for this issue next time. I could either add more flour to make the dough stiffer, or perhaps try chilling the dough for a while to firm it up. I believe I'll try the latter, since excessive flour can make the cookies dry and impairs the flavor. While the cookies baked, I whipped up the glaze, which consists of powdered sugar, milk, and lemon juice. I should have seen the next problem coming, since I was baking more cookies than the recipe stated would result. I didn't have enough glaze to cover all the cookies, and for the ones that did get glaze, some of them got short shrift.

Still, I was pretty happy with the flavor. As with most of my odd cookie creations, the response I got from other people was decidedly one of confusion. I'm not sure these were entirely successful, because the black pepper/cumin cookies are far stranger than these, but got a better reception from the people I gave them to. I liked them, though, and I think that with some tweaks, I can turn out a better batch next time. Maybe I'll even get to finally use the alphabet cookie cutters I've been itching to try out.

Read more »

Top Chef

Sunday, June 19, 2016 0 comments
Back in 2012, I listed the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi as my #3 favorite movie of the year. It's not hard to see why. Combine a compelling topic with an innate love of sushi, and toss in some fantastic food photography, and of course I'd be magnetically drawn to it. When I heard that director David Gelb was developing a similar documentary style as a television series for Netflix, I was overjoyed.

That first season of Chef's Table has been out for a while now, but it wasn't until I heard that Season 2 episodes were being released that I finally carved out some free time to wrap up those first six episodes. Each of the episodes focuses on a single chef, and delves into not only his or her most well-known dishes, but their backgrounds and what made cooking such an important part of their lives. The overwhelmingly beautiful food photography is back, and it's fascinating to see how fine dining has diverged into such wildly different concepts, depending on the creative mind behind it.

The six chefs that the first season revolves around are from all across the world, and all have different motivations for wanting to excel in the food world. One will want to spread a message of sustainable eating and how the next generation will source its ingredients, while another got her start just wanting to prove to her family that she has the skill and drive necessary to be a success.

As with Jiro Dreams of Sushi, part of the appeal is getting behind the magic of the beautiful food to get at the stories behind it. Food as a business is constantly locked in a struggle between artistry and commerce, and I'm always interested in seeing how people succeed or fail at threading that needle. Here are six stories of people who hit the bullseye, and whose cooking has attracted worldwide attention. It's wonderful to see people achieve their dreams and achieve such a vast measure of success, of course, but in a weird twist, these chefs' prominence is also the series' biggest flaw.

In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, there was no illusion that Jiro was an ordinary guy. He is rightly depicted as the king of his castle. He may be artistic, but he's also a stern and demanding taskmaster, whose rigidity has made him a reliable and consistent force in the culinary world. Chef's Table takes the weird tack of trying to sell a "common thread" narrative, positing that since food unites us all as people, these chefs should be hailed for building strong fellowships and a sense of community.

That just doesn't work. As nice as some of these chefs are (and most seem like perfectly decent sorts, if a little emotionally distant), they are not "of the people". These are the best of the best, and while it's perfectly acceptable to celebrate their talent, that talent is only shared with diners with sizable bank accounts and the connections necessary to getting a sought-after seat in a very small dining room.

That misstep aside, this is still a must-watch for anyone as obsessive about the world of food as I am, or for those who like to see what drives the creative spark behind some truly impressive art. I just wish the show would stop pretending that any of us plebeians will ever get to experience it.

Chef's Table - Season 1: B
Read more »