Food, Remembered: Grandma’s Thanksgiving “Salad”

For my grandmother’s generation of Midwesterners, “salad” was a term used very loosely. “Salad” seemed to mean anything that had (or could have) vegetables in it, especially if the medium was Jell-O. A mid-century Midwestern “salad” made the right way was about 50% Jell-O.

This bizarre Thanksgiving concoction of strawberry Jell-O, shredded carrots, Cool Whip, and canned pineapple – something one might expect to find in the bakeshop of Dr. Moreau – was not good. Yet, I still love it. It is the taste of my family laughing over the Thanksgiving meal, my kid sister falling asleep under the table after eating twice her weight in turkey, and grandpa’s booming voice calling us to the living room to watch the Lions lose. All the while, the salad – was it a side or dessert, Grandma herself never seemed certain – would perch on a nearby counter watching the merriment and soaking in the good feelings with an occasional quiver in lieu of a smile.

This is my own best attempt at recreating a recipe for this dish. To my knowledge, the true recipe has been lost to time with my Grandma, and, perhaps, a 1950s issue of Good Housekeeping.


Filed under: From the Kitchen Tagged: cool whip, food memories, food remembered, jell-o, salad

Thanksgiving Turkey the Right Way: Braising [REPOST]

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published at The Finch & Pea on 20 November 2012.

Last Thanksgiving, I decided that I wanted a heritage turkey. Reading about the selective breeding1 and the bland tasting meat of commercial turkeys compared to wild and heritage turkeys. So, I asked The Fiancé. Prices may vary, but they are such that it is wise to ask your significant other for permission prior to purchase. She said, “yes” because she rocks.

When Thanksgiving morning arrived and my turkey had not, I worried. I called the farmer to ask when I should expect it. She told me, with concern in her voice, that the turkey had already been delivered – FOUR DAYS AGO. Like a condemned man, I went to my apartment building’s front office to ask if they had forgotten any packages for me. I knew my fears were confirmed as I opened the office door – I COULD SMELL IT.

The office smelled like spoiled meat. When the office worker found the package she proclaimed, “I got this a few days ago, I must have forgotten to give you a notice.” In what I think was a steady voice, I said, “That’s my Thanksgiving turkey.” Without missing a beat she replied, “We were wondering what that smell was.” To cap off the comedy2, the management office’s remedy was that they would buy me a new turkey – FOUR DAYS AFTER THANKSGIVING! I told them where they could stuff their turkey.

As a result, I found myself shopping for turkey on Thanksgiving day, without time to thaw a full turkey and cook it before dinner with my future mother-in-law. Clearly, the only thing to do was to make THE BEST TURKEY EVER.

Click for printable recipe card (PDF – 111kb)

As I studied the turkey thighs I had selected as my whole turkey substitute, I pondered the sense in roasting a turkey. Due to its enormous size, it’s hard not to dry out some of the meat. And it hit me, the braise. The century old technique for softening tough meats to delectable tender goodness. And was it the best turkey ever? Well, the attached recipe is what I did last year and, by request, this is the recipe that we will be doing this year for Thanksgiving.

Herein follows the science of its awesomeness.

THE PREP

Those who have followed these posts will not be surprised that I am going to talk about browning…again. I am not going to go into the science of browning again, only emphasize how important it is. If you want to know more about the science of browning, you can learn all about it in this previous post. Are you ready for the emphasizing? I’m going to use italics just to be extra emphatic. Brace yourself.

If you don’t brown your turkey, your food will be bland, your mother-in-law will think you’re not good enough for her child, no one will love you, and Santa will cancel Christmas.

I don’t really care about the other things, but I am not okay with you serving bland food, so we are going to do some browning. To do this we are going to start by removing the skin from the turkey thighs. In a braise, the skin is not going to contribute and it will block the meat from getting browned in the pan.

“But Ben,” you say, “I love the crispy skin.” Well hold your horse there, Buffalo Bill. We can still make crisp skin. We’re simply going to lay out the skin on a sheet pan, sprinkle it with a bit of salt, and cook it in a 400F oven until browned and crisp (about 30 minutes). There we go, we just made turkey cracklins. Serve that over your finished braise for that crisp brown skin flourish. Now, back to the turkey.

With the skin off, we are going to heat our braiser3 over medium-high heat on the stovetop. Yes, we are using the pan we will eventually braise in. That way, any little bits of food that stick to the pan or browning that forms in the pan will make it into our braising liquids.We sear the turkey thighs on each side until well browned then get them out of the pan. Next we’ll do our vegetables. A quick saute over high heat to develop some browning on the outside. We are not going to eat these vegetables, they are simply providing flavor to our braising liquid. Now that we have a pan chock full of delicious brown flavors, on to the main event: the braise.

THE BRAISE

The braising technique is a simple one and absolutely ideal for creating tender meat. In its original French iteration, braising was to cook something in a closed pot (a braiser4) surrounded on all sides by hot coals. Now the term means to cook in a closed pot with a small amount of liquid. While braising can be done on the stovetop or in the oven, I prefer to do mine in the oven because the less direct heat reduces the risk of evaporating all off the liquids. For our turkey, we are simply going to add our liquids (cider, stock, and wine) into the pan with our sautéing vegetables, along with the aromatics (herbs and garlic). The turkey thighs are going to nestle right on top, the lid goes on, the whole shebang goes into the oven and physics does the rest.

So the obvious question is, “What is happening in the pot that makes the meat so tender?”

The answer: STEAM.

As the pot hits 212F, our liquids are going to start converting into vapor, which will fill our pot. This helps our cooking process because steam is more efficient at transferring energy than air. This means that we are actually cooking our meat faster, even though it is at a lower temperature (212F as opposed to 325F). Don’t believe me? Try this experiment at home: Cut 8 new potatoes of the same size in half. Place 8 halves on a sheet pan in a 325 degree oven and the other 8 in a steamer basket over boiling water with a lid on. Test each for doneness with a skewer at after 5, 8, 10, and 15 minutes. Which finished cooking first?

Here is the surprising part…this actually makes our meat less juicy. Now before you go all Transylvanian torch and pitchfork toting villager on me for drying out your meat, it doesn’t matter if the meat in your braise isn’t juicy. Juiciness is a measure of the water content of the meat. Once the meat is done braising, we stir it through the liquids in the pan, rehydrating it and rejuicifying it. So loosing the juices isn’t really a concern. What we want to focus on is the tenderness, which is a measure of how easily the meat comes apart. Despite what Otis Redding might tell you, holding her and squeezing her is not the best way to get tenderness. The best way, scientifically speaking, is low, prolonged heat. Low, slow heat is the best environment for collagen, the connective tissue that holds meat together, to convert into gelatin. The gelatin will solidify when chilled, which is why leftovers of braises can have a jello-y substance surrounding them, but while hot it will remain liquid. If you have ever been subjected to meat that I think can only be described as crumbly, what you have had is a long cook in a dry oven. The same conversion of collagen to gelatin will occur, only over a longer period of time. However, without the liquids there to rehydrate the meat, you are left with fall apart meat that is extremely dry, much like saw dust.

With our turkey awash in gelatin and swirled through the juices in the pan, we have that perfect meaty combo of tender and juicy and we are ready to serve up some turkey that even the mother-in-law will be impressed by. Happy cooking and a Happy Thanksgiving.

CHEF’S NOTES
1. The turkeys we buy for Thanksgiving cannot naturally procreate anymore – they have to be artificially inseminated.
2. I use comedy here not in the modern ” ha ha, that’s so funny” sense, but I the ancient Greek “how ironic that everyone died horrible, yet fitting deaths” sense.
3. A wide 3-4 inch deep pan with tight-fitting lid.
4. Not to be confused with a brassiere, though I wouldn’t put it past the French to find a way to cook in one of those as well.


Filed under: From the Kitchen Tagged: braising, food, food science, Thanksgiving, Turkey

Hunger Games Victory

Earlier this month, our resident chef, Ben Witten, mentored a team from GrayHair Software to victory in “The Hunger Games”, a charity cooking event that raised $15,000 to support child nutrition programs at the Food Bank of South Jersey.

The contest provided seven teams with a typical box of food from the food bank. Audience members could also “buy” (i.e., make a donation) additional items to help their favorite team.

The GrayHair Software team produced a breakfast hash that they called GrayHair Sunrise:

“We made an autumn vegetable hash with apples and topped with a sunny side up egg, sprinkled with basil and feta.” – Valerie Capasso, GrayHair Software (Kelly Roncace in South Jersey Times)

The dish surprised the judges by surprise with the simple elegance of its flavors.

As Ben’s brother, I am not surprised. I can see his influence as a team mentor. While I have never had this particular dish, I have had eaten many varieties of vegetable hash that he has prepared for breakfast. They are simple. They are elegant. They are flavorful. And, they all taste like victory.

SOURCE: South Jersey Times (Kelly Roncace) and my proud sister-in-law.


Filed under: From the Kitchen, Items of Interest Tagged: Ben Witten, breakfast, Food Bank of South Jersey, GrayHair Software, Hunger Games, Kelly Roncace, South Jersey Times, Tara Witten, vegetable hash

“…baking IS science”

Editor’s Note: A strip from Danielle Corsetto’s Girls with Slingshots reminded us of Ben’s inaugural post here at The Finch & Pea. Excerpt from post originally published 30 August 2012.

Adapted from "Girls with Slingshots #1882" by Danielle Corsetto (All Rights Reserved - Adapted & Used with Permission)

Adapted from “Girls with Slingshots #1882″ by Danielle Corsetto (All Rights Reserved – Adapted & Used with Permission)

Good food, sexy food is the result of passion and science. We talk a lot about passion in cooking, but passion alone can’t make a chocolate mousse cake. Passion can’t ensure efficient heat transfer, make proteins bind, crystallize molecules, or drive chemical reactions. There is science in your food, even if you don’t know how it got there.

I’m here to introduce you, the patrons of The Finch & Pea, to some delicious nosh, to stoke your passion for cooking, and to help you understand how cooking works.

Understanding the science behind a recipe – what the ingredients really are, how they interact with each other, how they change when you manipulate them – will make you a better cook, chef, and diner. When I go to write a cake recipe, knowing flour type composition, hydration ratios, chemical reactions of leavening agents, and methods for strengthen emulsions drastically affects the success of the recipe. Cooking isn’t just about passion. It’s about words you heard in chemistry and physics class. Words like heat conductivity, melting point, vaporization temperatures, phase transition, pressure effects on physical states, hygroscopic minerals, and density differentials all play an important role in almost every aspect of cooking.

Together we are going to explore the science behind everyday cooking. Why should you salt a steak an hour before cooking, but never right before? Why shouldn’t you use vanilla extract? How can baking soda ruin your cookies? How does granulated sugar “cook” your strawberries when poured over top?


Filed under: From the Kitchen Tagged: Baking, Danielle Corsetto, food, Girls with Slingshots, science

Food Remembered: Meatloaf

I would love to meet the person responsible for the invention of meatloaf. I imagine them looking at a loaf pan saying, “Sure I could put bread in it. Everyone puts bread in it. But, what if I filled it with meat?”

My stepmom insisted that all of her children knew how to make a few basic dishes before going to college.  At the very least, we wouldn’t starve. Meatloaf was the dish that fascinated me the most. Every time I see meatloaf on a menu, I smile a little and feel a sentimental urge to order it. I’ve included two recipes for this one. The first is my stepmom’s classic recipe featuring crushed saltines and ketchup.

Click image for printable recipe (PDF)

Click image for printable recipe (PDF)

The second is my “later in life” interpretation, just to show how food inspiration can come from those simple dishes that remind us of home.

Click image for printable recipe (PDF)

Click image for printable recipe (PDF)

What are those dishes that hit home to you?


Filed under: From the Kitchen Tagged: family, food remembered, meatloaf

The Devil’s in the Details of the Modern Cupcake

Finished cupcakes croppedI teamed up with Red Ridge Farms – an Oregon Vineyard, olive oil press, and garden nursery – for a wine dinner event. We served a five course meal inspired by street food using Red Ridge Farms’ locally grown and pressed olive oils with wine pairings from Red Ridge’s wine label, Durant Vineyards. I always enjoy developing a menu, especially a tasting menu and especially tasting menus paired with wine (or beer or cocktails).Copy of Notes

While I had fun writing all the recipes, my time as a pastry chef makes me particularly partial to desserts. Therefore, we are going to focus on our sweet selection, the Malted Devils Food Cupcakes with Passion Fruit Cream Filling and Olive Oil Buttercream – and some of the science behind its chocolatey decadence.

From the Kitchen Recipe Header

Click image for the full recipe (PDF – 3.9MB)

The Cake
About every six months for at least the last 8 years I have read about the “cupcake trend”. I have started wondering how long something has to be popular before it is no longer a trend and simply awesome all the time. Cupcakes are so consistently trendy that there is a trend of things being the “new cupcake”. Can you remember a time when people didn’t want cupcakes? It seems to me that the upsurge in things like cupcake shops has more to do with the growing interest in artisan food than some people suddenly realizing how delicious moist cakes with mounds of frosting can be.

Notes (1)The first thing to remember is that cupcakes are cake. A cupcake recipe is just a cake recipe and visa versa. This may seem obvious, but I have caused confusion on any number of occasions by handing out a regular old cake recipe when asked for a cupcake recipe. Though food historians are woefully at odds about the actual origins of the cupcake, there is no argument over the fact they are, in fact, simply cake.

We are making devil’s food cupcakes, which follows almost exactly the same process as most cake recipes. In any cake recipe, we are going to start by beating together our sugar and our fats – typically butter or oil. Butter gives you a moist cake. Oil recipes gives you a tender1 cake. You will see the occasional recipe that asks for shortening. Do not trust this recipe! Do not lend them money. Do not let them take your daughter out for a late night drive. Definitely do not cook and eat them. Because of its melting point, shortening gives you a greasy cake, simultaneously making the cupcake neither moist nor tender. For more on the difference in fats, see my Pumpkin Pie recipe and post.

Once the fats and sugars are beaten together, we add eggs and any flavoring (i.e. vanilla, etc.). The eggs are helping us in a couple of ways. First, they emulsify the mixture. Egg yolks contain the lipoprotein lecithin, which helps bond together fats and liquids. We have plenty of fat and a bit of liquid in these cupcakes for the eggs to hold together in a nice, uniform mix. Second, the eggs are also going to build structure. When eggs get hot, they get firm. This is from the coagulation of the proteins, which is going to help make sure that our cupcakes hold their shape. Fats and sugars are tenderizers, meaning they breakdown structure. We need structure to hold the cake together and trap air for rise. We need tenderness to make that cake dissolve in your mouth. The ideal cake is a deft balance of these two requirements.

Once the eggs are well incorporated, we add the dry ingredients – flour, cocoa powder, malt powder, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. We are going to focus on the cocoa powder and baking soda, but all these ingredients are important and doing something sciencey in the recipe. Most baked good that contain cocoa powder will also contain baking soda due to the way they react together. Baking soda is a base that releases carbon dioxide when mixed with an acid, such as vinegar. This reaction  can create the eruption of a kitchen volcano, bubbles in soda water, and rise in baked good. Some recipes, like most red velvet cakes, actually use vinegar to react with the baking soda.

Notes (2)For devil’s food cupcakes, however, we don’t need vinegar because cocoa powder is acidic (the exception is Dutch processed or Dutched cocoa powder). The cocoa powder acids will also damage the glutens in the all-purpose flour2. Without the acids in the cocoa, we will have dense, tough cupcakes.

The recipe does not tell you to sift the dry ingredients together. Sifting is supposed to aerate and mix ingredients. In theory, this is true. In practice, I have never found that it makes a lick of difference. The only time I would insist on sifting is if you are making a cake lightened with meringue (eg, angel food cake).

Last step, we bring the milk and water to a boil, then slowly stream it into the mix while the mixer is running. We heat the liquids for the texture of the cake. The hot liquid gelatinizes some of the starches in the flour and cocoa. The starches absorb water, swell, and become viscous. This creates the signature thick, rich, almost gooey consistency of devil’s food.

Distribute the mix, place it in the oven, bake and we’ve got cupcakes. Now it is time to prepare the elements that are going that will make these cupcakes show stoppers.

The Filling
Notes (3)It is not a secret that chocolate and orange taste great together. What many people don’t know is that it is not just oranges, but the whole array of citrus and, for that matter, sour things. The richness chocolate and the sharp, cleansing quality of sour flavors balance each other beautifully. For our cupcakes, we are going to use passion fruit, which has a delicious, citrusy flavor. For the less adventurous or those who can’t find passion fruit or passion fruit purée locally, lemon curd is a good replacement for this filling.

We are making a creme patisserie, which is the fancy French way of saying pastry cream, which is the fancy chef way of saying pudding. Don’t think of this as the same pudding you get in a snack pack and don’t even consider replacing this filling with instant pudding or I shall banish thee from the land. Pastry cream, as the name suggests, is used throughout the world of pastry in everything from eclairs to cream pies. Pastry cream is not creamy, rich, and delicious, it is also versatile and resilient. Pastry cream is a uniquely heat-resistant custard due to its starches and can be thawed its original consistency after months in the freezer.

Notes (4)To make our pastry cream we start by simply whisking together egg yolks, sugar, and cornstarch. We then whisk in our liquids, cream and passion fruit purée3. I whisk everything right in the pot I will be cooking in so I have one less bowl to clean later. Most recipes for pastry cream will tell you to warm the milk first with idea that you are tempering the eggs. Once again, true in theory and unnecessary in practice. Just get it mixed, on the stove, and start cooking.

We need to whisk our pastry cream constantly as it cooks to make sure we don’t get lumps. It is going to look like nothing is happening for a while and then – wham – just before it reaches a boil, it will start thickening until it looks like pudding. That’s it. Done.Transfer the pastry cream to a container, press plastic wrap directly onto the surface to prevent that skin pudding loves to form, and put it in the fridge.

Why did the pastry cream turn thick all of a sudden? Our old friend gelatinization. And a bit of coagulation as well, I suppose. The starches in the cornstarch swell, absorb water, and thicken as they heat making it harder for the molecules to move past each other and making the mixture viscous. The longer carbohydrate molecules also interfere with the egg yolk coagulation. So, while the egg yolk proteins will be able to help thicken the pastry cream by coming together slightly, they will not curdle.

Icing on the Cake
We are going to make a French buttercream frosting. There are several different butter creams that are used in cake making and decorating. Italian is made with Italian meringue. Swiss is made with Swiss meringue. American is basically butter and powdered sugar. Our olive oil buttercream needs French buttercream’s unique ingredient: egg yolks.

For a French buttercream there are essentially three elements: egg yolks, sugar syrup, and fat. Usually the fat is butter. In our buttercream, we are replacing a small amount of the butter with olive oil for flavor. Be sure to use a good, flavorful olive oil since we are not using much of it.

Adding sugar syrup to egg yolksThe sugar syrup is a mixture of sugar and water cooked to exactly 240 degrees Fahrenheit (115.5C). At 240F, sugar reaches the soft ball stage, which means that we have cooked out enough water to allow the saccharide molecules to tangle into a soft, pliable sugar when cooled (think soft, chewy caramels). When we whip this into the yolks, the syrup will slowly cool and trap air in its gradually thickening network causing the mixture to be lighter.

Consistency after olive oilThe real key to this particular buttercream thought is the egg yolks. Since we are adding a liquid fat (olive oil), we need to ensure that it will incorporate smoothly into the rest of the mix. Solid butter is already in an emulsified state. So, we don’t have to worry about it. Once again, the lecithin in the yolks helps combine the oils with the liquids. We’ll start by adding about half the butter first. This will create an emulsified base, which will make it easier for the oil emulsify itself. We then slowly drizzle in the oil while the mixer is running. Our mixture should look a bit like mayonnaise once all the oil is added, because what we have here is not extremely different in structure than mayonnaise. Add the rest of the butter and we’re there.

cupcake corer croppedNow we just have to put everything together. Simply take the core out of the cupcakes (a small round cutter works well for this or they do make actually cupcake corers for this exact type of thing), fill it back in with the passion fruit filling, pipe the frosting over top, and enjoy.

Cupcakes in progress cropped

Yet again, science makes life more delicious. Happy sciencing and happy cooking!

CHEF’S NOTES
1. “Tender” in baking refers to a lack of structure. Shortbread cookies are tender because they fall apart easily. Breads tend not to be considered tender by bakers no matter how soft they are, because they don’t fall apart.
2. Most cakes are made with cake flour, whose gluten has not only already been damaged, but there is less of it. This gives softer, more cakey results. Cakes made with cocoa powder are often made with all-purpose flour, because the cocoa powder will damage the gluten for us.
3. You can make pretty much any flavor of pastry cream or pudding by simply changing what liquids are added as long as you maintain the ratio of liquids to starches. Most any fruit purée and be substituted or simply use all milk and add flavorings. For chocolate, just add chopped chocolate at the end of the cooking process and whisk until melted.


Filed under: From the Kitchen Tagged: Baking, buttercream, cake, cupcake, devil's food, food science, olive oil, passion fruit, pastry cream

The Devil’s in the Details of the Modern Cupcake

Finished cupcakes croppedI teamed up with Red Ridge Farms – an Oregon Vineyard, olive oil press, and garden nursery – for a wine dinner event. We served a five course meal inspired by street food using Red Ridge Farms’ locally grown and pressed olive oils with wine pairings from Red Ridge’s wine label, Durant Vineyards. I always enjoy developing a menu, especially a tasting menu and especially tasting menus paired with wine (or beer or cocktails).Copy of Notes

While I had fun writing all the recipes, my time as a pastry chef makes me particularly partial to desserts. Therefore, we are going to focus on our sweet selection, the Malted Devils Food Cupcakes with Passion Fruit Cream Filling and Olive Oil Buttercream – and some of the science behind its chocolatey decadence.

From the Kitchen Recipe Header

Click image for the full recipe (PDF – 3.9MB)

The Cake
About every six months for at least the last 8 years I have read about the “cupcake trend”. I have started wondering how long something has to be popular before it is no longer a trend and simply awesome all the time. Cupcakes are so consistently trendy that there is a trend of things being the “new cupcake”. Can you remember a time when people didn’t want cupcakes? It seems to me that the upsurge in things like cupcake shops has more to do with the growing interest in artisan food than some people suddenly realizing how delicious moist cakes with mounds of frosting can be.

Notes (1)The first thing to remember is that cupcakes are cake. A cupcake recipe is just a cake recipe and visa versa. This may seem obvious, but I have caused confusion on any number of occasions by handing out a regular old cake recipe when asked for a cupcake recipe. Though food historians are woefully at odds about the actual origins of the cupcake, there is no argument over the fact they are, in fact, simply cake.

We are making devil’s food cupcakes, which follows almost exactly the same process as most cake recipes. In any cake recipe, we are going to start by beating together our sugar and our fats – typically butter or oil. Butter gives you a moist cake. Oil recipes gives you a tender1 cake. You will see the occasional recipe that asks for shortening. Do not trust this recipe! Do not lend them money. Do not let them take your daughter out for a late night drive. Definitely do not cook and eat them. Because of its melting point, shortening gives you a greasy cake, simultaneously making the cupcake neither moist nor tender. For more on the difference in fats, see my Pumpkin Pie recipe and post.

Once the fats and sugars are beaten together, we add eggs and any flavoring (i.e. vanilla, etc.). The eggs are helping us in a couple of ways. First, they emulsify the mixture. Egg yolks contain the lipoprotein lecithin, which helps bond together fats and liquids. We have plenty of fat and a bit of liquid in these cupcakes for the eggs to hold together in a nice, uniform mix. Second, the eggs are also going to build structure. When eggs get hot, they get firm. This is from the coagulation of the proteins, which is going to help make sure that our cupcakes hold their shape. Fats and sugars are tenderizers, meaning they breakdown structure. We need structure to hold the cake together and trap air for rise. We need tenderness to make that cake dissolve in your mouth. The ideal cake is a deft balance of these two requirements.

Once the eggs are well incorporated, we add the dry ingredients – flour, cocoa powder, malt powder, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. We are going to focus on the cocoa powder and baking soda, but all these ingredients are important and doing something sciencey in the recipe. Most baked good that contain cocoa powder will also contain baking soda due to the way they react together. Baking soda is a base that releases carbon dioxide when mixed with an acid, such as vinegar. This reaction  can create the eruption of a kitchen volcano, bubbles in soda water, and rise in baked good. Some recipes, like most red velvet cakes, actually use vinegar to react with the baking soda.

Notes (2)For devil’s food cupcakes, however, we don’t need vinegar because cocoa powder is acidic (the exception is Dutch processed or Dutched cocoa powder). The cocoa powder acids will also damage the glutens in the all-purpose flour2. Without the acids in the cocoa, we will have dense, tough cupcakes.

The recipe does not tell you to sift the dry ingredients together. Sifting is supposed to aerate and mix ingredients. In theory, this is true. In practice, I have never found that it makes a lick of difference. The only time I would insist on sifting is if you are making a cake lightened with meringue (eg, angel food cake).

Last step, we bring the milk and water to a boil, then slowly stream it into the mix while the mixer is running. We heat the liquids for the texture of the cake. The hot liquid gelatinizes some of the starches in the flour and cocoa. The starches absorb water, swell, and become viscous. This creates the signature thick, rich, almost gooey consistency of devil’s food.

Distribute the mix, place it in the oven, bake and we’ve got cupcakes. Now it is time to prepare the elements that are going that will make these cupcakes show stoppers.

The Filling
Notes (3)It is not a secret that chocolate and orange taste great together. What many people don’t know is that it is not just oranges, but the whole array of citrus and, for that matter, sour things. The richness chocolate and the sharp, cleansing quality of sour flavors balance each other beautifully. For our cupcakes, we are going to use passion fruit, which has a delicious, citrusy flavor. For the less adventurous or those who can’t find passion fruit or passion fruit purée locally, lemon curd is a good replacement for this filling.

We are making a creme patisserie, which is the fancy French way of saying pastry cream, which is the fancy chef way of saying pudding. Don’t think of this as the same pudding you get in a snack pack and don’t even consider replacing this filling with instant pudding or I shall banish thee from the land. Pastry cream, as the name suggests, is used throughout the world of pastry in everything from eclairs to cream pies. Pastry cream is not creamy, rich, and delicious, it is also versatile and resilient. Pastry cream is a uniquely heat-resistant custard due to its starches and can be thawed its original consistency after months in the freezer.

Notes (4)To make our pastry cream we start by simply whisking together egg yolks, sugar, and cornstarch. We then whisk in our liquids, cream and passion fruit purée3. I whisk everything right in the pot I will be cooking in so I have one less bowl to clean later. Most recipes for pastry cream will tell you to warm the milk first with idea that you are tempering the eggs. Once again, true in theory and unnecessary in practice. Just get it mixed, on the stove, and start cooking.

We need to whisk our pastry cream constantly as it cooks to make sure we don’t get lumps. It is going to look like nothing is happening for a while and then – wham – just before it reaches a boil, it will start thickening until it looks like pudding. That’s it. Done.Transfer the pastry cream to a container, press plastic wrap directly onto the surface to prevent that skin pudding loves to form, and put it in the fridge.

Why did the pastry cream turn thick all of a sudden? Our old friend gelatinization. And a bit of coagulation as well, I suppose. The starches in the cornstarch swell, absorb water, and thicken as they heat making it harder for the molecules to move past each other and making the mixture viscous. The longer carbohydrate molecules also interfere with the egg yolk coagulation. So, while the egg yolk proteins will be able to help thicken the pastry cream by coming together slightly, they will not curdle.

Icing on the Cake
We are going to make a French buttercream frosting. There are several different butter creams that are used in cake making and decorating. Italian is made with Italian meringue. Swiss is made with Swiss meringue. American is basically butter and powdered sugar. Our olive oil buttercream needs French buttercream’s unique ingredient: egg yolks.

For a French buttercream there are essentially three elements: egg yolks, sugar syrup, and fat. Usually the fat is butter. In our buttercream, we are replacing a small amount of the butter with olive oil for flavor. Be sure to use a good, flavorful olive oil since we are not using much of it.

Adding sugar syrup to egg yolksThe sugar syrup is a mixture of sugar and water cooked to exactly 240 degrees Fahrenheit (115.5C). At 240F, sugar reaches the soft ball stage, which means that we have cooked out enough water to allow the saccharide molecules to tangle into a soft, pliable sugar when cooled (think soft, chewy caramels). When we whip this into the yolks, the syrup will slowly cool and trap air in its gradually thickening network causing the mixture to be lighter.

Consistency after olive oilThe real key to this particular buttercream thought is the egg yolks. Since we are adding a liquid fat (olive oil), we need to ensure that it will incorporate smoothly into the rest of the mix. Solid butter is already in an emulsified state. So, we don’t have to worry about it. Once again, the lecithin in the yolks helps combine the oils with the liquids. We’ll start by adding about half the butter first. This will create an emulsified base, which will make it easier for the oil emulsify itself. We then slowly drizzle in the oil while the mixer is running. Our mixture should look a bit like mayonnaise once all the oil is added, because what we have here is not extremely different in structure than mayonnaise. Add the rest of the butter and we’re there.

cupcake corer croppedNow we just have to put everything together. Simply take the core out of the cupcakes (a small round cutter works well for this or they do make actually cupcake corers for this exact type of thing), fill it back in with the passion fruit filling, pipe the frosting over top, and enjoy.

Cupcakes in progress cropped

Yet again, science makes life more delicious. Happy sciencing and happy cooking!

CHEF’S NOTES
1. “Tender” in baking refers to a lack of structure. Shortbread cookies are tender because they fall apart easily. Breads tend not to be considered tender by bakers no matter how soft they are, because they don’t fall apart.
2. Most cakes are made with cake flour, whose gluten has not only already been damaged, but there is less of it. This gives softer, more cakey results. Cakes made with cocoa powder are often made with all-purpose flour, because the cocoa powder will damage the gluten for us.
3. You can make pretty much any flavor of pastry cream or pudding by simply changing what liquids are added as long as you maintain the ratio of liquids to starches. Most any fruit purée and be substituted or simply use all milk and add flavorings. For chocolate, just add chopped chocolate at the end of the cooking process and whisk until melted.


Filed under: From the Kitchen Tagged: Baking, buttercream, cake, cupcake, devil's food, food science, olive oil, passion fruit, pastry cream

On the underrepresentation of cheese in literature…

GK Chesterton expounds on the poetic nature of cheese and condemns its notable absence from poetry. The essay is well worth reading, and I a particularly endorse this line with the proviso that it is applicable to man, woman, or child*:

…nor can I imagine why a man should want more than bread and cheese, if he can get enough of it.
-GK Chesterton

*My four and five-year olds are extremely fond of Stilton, which is how we know they are mine.

Hat tip to Steve Silberman.


Filed under: Follies of the Human Condition, From the Kitchen Tagged: cheese, GK Chesterton, Linkonomicon, poetry

Chocograms

I recall, as a child, being mesmerized by a holographic cover of National Geographic. I think it was the November 1985 issue.

Now we have chocolate holograms. The images are, reportedly, created by Morphotonix by using molds to microscopically alter the surface of the chocolate to create the holograms. As an added benefit, the system needs chocolate with small crystal structures (ie, not grainy) in order to create the correct textures.

*Hat tip to Melissa Pandika at NPR.


Filed under: From the Kitchen Tagged: chocolate, holograms, Linkonomicon

The Manhattan Project

VTR - Barrel-Aged Manhatten by Edsel Little (CC BY-AS 2.0)

VTR – Barrel-Aged Manhattan by Edsel Little (CC BY-SA 2.0)

If you were wondering what to drink while you watch Manhattanhenge, the choice is obvious – a Manhattan, preferably barrel-aged.

As I grew into manhood, my father promoted a strong set of core values in me – politeness, gratitude, compassion, kindness – as well as respect for a good glass of whiskey and Winston Churchill. What, you may ask, does Winston Churchill have to do with this classic whiskey cocktails and science? Glad you asked.

The most common Manhattan origin story states that it was created in 1874 at New York’s Manhattan club for a banquet hosted by Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston’s mother. That was the same year Winnie was born. I doubt he, of all people, would discourage the notion that helping coordinate the creation of the Manhattan cocktail in utero may have been early practice for coordinating the Allied victory in WWII. At the very least, the Manhattan and Winston are akin to each other. Watch out Jagermeister!

Classic Manhattan (Click Image for PDF - 73kb)

Classic Manhattan (Click Image for PDF – 73kb)

The classic Manhattan recipe is a fairly simple.

I am not going to delve into the creation of distilled spirits. We’ll save that for another post in favor of different food science matters today, but I do want to quickly touch on the composition of the recipe.

For the whiskey, you can use others besides rye. At the time that the Manhattan was invented, rye whiskey was the most commonly found and used whiskey in New York. I personally tend to use Bourbon whiskey (ie, corn).

For the vermouth, the measures I gave are technically for a “perfect” Manhattan. You can make a Manhattan just as well with only sweet or only dry vermouth. I have even had great Manhattan’s made with other sweet fortified wines like port and Lillet instead of vermouth.

For the bitters, “Angostura” is a brand name of aromatic bitters. Use any aromatic bitters you like, but make sure they are of good quality, because they can significantly affect the taste of your cocktail. My personal favorite are bitters from the Fee Brothers.

For the cherry, it is completely and absolutely unacceptable to use a maraschino cherry. Ever. In any cocktail. A maraschino cherry is, usually, a Queen Anne or Ranier cherry that has been bleached then placed in a mixture of salt, sulfur-dioxide, corn syrup, and food coloring - an ingredient list that contains only one item that should be going into your food (or drink). Use brandied cherries or amarena cherries.

So, now that we know how to make a solid Manhattan, let’s start playing around with it.

Barrel-Aged Manhattan (Click Image for PDF - 84kb)

Barrel-Aged Manhattan1 (Click Image for PDF – 84kb)

Showing Its Age
Featuring a house barrel-aged cocktail has become a trend among artisan cocktail bars. Charging more for house barrel-aged cocktails has also become a trend. We might not question the price increase since “barrel-aged” sounds expensive. The reality is that barrel-aging a cocktail costs no more than an extra 75 cents per cocktail. What we are paying for is the experience of added deliciousness.

“How,” you may ask in perfectly timed foreshadowing, “does the barrel-aging create said deliciousness?” As for that…bring on the science!

The scientific community has been sadly remiss (some might even say negligent) in doing any direct research on aging cocktails, we are going to extrapolate from what we know about barrel-aging wine and spirits. When wine and spirits are barrel-aged three main processes – oxygenation, flavor extraction, and change in body – and time.

Oxygenation
Oxygen is highly reactive. We see this very starkly in many areas of food. How can the flesh of a freshly cut apple brown in a matter of minutes? Oxygenation.

Like many things in food, oxygenation can be a good or bad thing. It depends on dose and context. Vinophiles will be familiar with the idea of aerating wine, either by swirling the glass, letting a wine “breathe,” or pouring it through an aerator. The mixing of oxygen into the wine builds flavor as the oxygen reacts with molecules in the wine. In the short-term, this can improve the flavor and complexity of the wine.

Leave that same wine sitting open for two days and the flavors will have degraded. The oxygen will have continued to react with the molecules in the wine. It will have had so many opportunities to interact with the flavor molecules in the wine that the pleasant flavor is destroyed.

Our cocktail will not be exposed to unlimited supplies of oxygen in the barrel. There is very little oxygen interaction once the cocktails are inside the barrels, but there is some. We often call this micro-oxygenation.  How will that affect our barrel-aged Manhattan?

Our Manhattan will generally contain some kind of fortified wine (i.e. vermouth, port, Lillet), which will develop flavor from the micro-oxygenation. Furthermore, oxygen will convert some of the ethanol into acetaldehyde, which has apple, grass, and nutty aromas. Acetaldehyde can further react with the oxygen to become acetic acid (the acidic component of vinegar). Acetic acid can add depth of flavor in small quantities, but can become harsh in excess.

In the end, our barrel-aged cocktails will develop additional depth of flavor from oxygenation of the fortified wine components as well as the creation of acetaldehyde and small amounts of acetic acid.

Flavor Extraction
The flavor extraction component is perhaps the simplest to understand. Any liquids sitting in a barrel are going to pull out water-soluble flavors from the components of the barrel over time. The most notable of these is vanillin. Vanillin is the main flavoring component of vanilla extract, but vanillin can be found as a naturally occurring component in a wide range of things, including olive oil, raspberries, coffee, oatmeal, maple syrup, and (you guessed it) oak barrels. Due to its complex flavoring, the vanillin that leaches from the barrel staves into the cocktail imparts subtle flavors of spices, earthiness, tobacco, flowers, and a mishmash of flavors that we often refer to as “oaky”.

Heaven Hill Warehouse by Shannon Tompkins (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Heaven Hill Warehouse by Shannon Tompkins (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Different barrels allow us to pull out additional flavors. Toasted barrels, like those used in whiskey production, add smokiness as well as more complex flavor molecules generated by heating and burning the wood.

We also extract residual flavors from anything that was previously stored in the barrel. Just as the liquid in a barrel absorbs flavors molecules from the barrel, the barrel absorbs flavor molecules from the liquid. There are many regulations that dictate how many times a barrel can be used for the production of a specific types of wine or spirits2. Often a barrel can only be used once. Those barrels are often reused for other purposes. Brandy is often aged in old wine barrels. Beers aged in whiskey barrels pick up subtle whiskey notes. And, if you ever have the chance to try maple syrup aged in old wine barrels, you definitely should not pass up the opportunity.

Change in Body
Barrel-aged cocktails drink smoother than usual. There is research that speaks to the processes that create smoothness in alcohol solutions inside a wood barrel. “Oak Wood Hemicelluloses Extracted with Aqueous–Alcoholic Media” by Pisarnitskii, Rubeniya, and Rutitskii (2006) states that an acidic liquid creates a partial breakdown of hemicellulose (a component of white oak), which  increases the content of the sugars glucose, fructose, xylose, and arabinose in the liquid. This is what creates more body and greater smoothness in barrel-aged liquids. It further states that lower alcohol content also leads to higher hemicellulose extraction.

Wines are generally more acidic than spirits and lower in alcohol content, which means that wines will develop smoothness and body faster than spirits. We see proof of this in actual production. Most good, barrel-aged wines are aged 1-2 years. Many of the best quality bourbons are aged more than 4 years. What does this mean for our aged cocktails?

Our Manhattans contain fortified wine. They will tend to be more acidic and lower in alcohol content than the spirits alone. We should expect a higher rate of hemicellulose extraction leading to a more rapid development of smoothness and body.

Now that we know the benefits of barrel-aging, how long should we age our Manhattan?

Size Does Matter
The speed of the aging process depends on the size of the barrel. This is, quite simply, a matter of wood exposure. Surface area increases by the square. Volume increases by the cube. The smaller the barrel, the greater the ratio of surface area to volume. In other words, in a smaller barrel, more of your cocktail is touching the sides of the barrel, which is necessary for flavor extraction and developing body.

In the United States, whiskey is aged in 53-gallon barrels. A 53-gallon (233.5 liter) barrel is roughly 21-in across and 36-in tall, providing is about 3065in2 (19480cm2) of direct contact between barrel and liquid. A 1-liter barrel, which is what I use to age my cocktails, is roughly 4-in across and 6-in tall, providing about 100inch3 (640cm2) of direct contact between barrel and liquid. A 1-liter barrel gives us almost eight times more direct contact with the barrel per liter of liquid (640cm2/L) compared to a 53-gallon barrel (84cm2/L).

This increased exposure exponentially decreases the aging time. For example, we can (and I have) age our own whiskey at home in a barrel. I have found that I can take a white dog whiskey2 and age it to a smooth, deep, complex bourbon in a5 weeks in a 1-liter barrel. The same process would require at least 2 years in a 53-gallon barrel. Although using smaller barrels would speed up the aging process for the US whiskey industry, it is more cost-effective for companies to use larger barrels4.

For our Manhattan, about 10 days in a 1-liter barrel gives me excellent results.

It’s a Hard Job, But Somebody Has to Do It
Now that we have talked about the science that goes into barrel-aging a Manhattan (or anything else for that matter), I want to leave you with some final advice in crafting your own barrel-aged cocktails.

Remember that low alcohol and high acidity will age faster. The cocktail will get sweeter and smoother as it ages, so err on the less sweet side. Be careful about adding too much fruit juice and the like into your aged cocktails — if the ABV% drops below 15% you start growing bacteria. Most importantly, taste throughout the aging process, so you know when your cocktail is right for you. I also like to save a small bottle of the original cocktail for comparison tasting at the end of the aging.

Well, I think I’m all scienced out now. I could use a drink.

NOTES
1. To make your own vanilla and orange tinctures, place either a scraped vanilla pod or orange zest in a small bottle, top with brandy and let sit for 2-4 weeks shaking occasionally.
2. These rules are usually driven by style and creating identifying features for a type of wine or spirit.
3. The name often given to whiskey before it has been aged. White dog has increased in popularity and can be readily found online or in many liquor stores.
4. Oak is expensive and it cost less to make fewer, larger barrels, especially since some barrels are only used once for aging whiskey.


Filed under: From the Kitchen Tagged: cocktail, food science, liquor, manhattan