Weighing In on Great Cookies

T’is the season for cookies, right? If you’ve got favorites or old family recipes that you love, I say cherish them, and certainly don’t mess with them – share them, and pass them on to your kids. If, on the other hand, you’ve tried other recipes and been sorely vexed and/or disappointed by the results, there’s a good chance you’re not to blame. Why is that? Most likely, it’s then that ratio thing – The thing that’s so vital to cooking, and especially to baking. Done right, cookies are easy as 1, 2, 3 – But not everyone follows the rules – It’s time to weigh in on that.

Which means we’re talking about that ratio thing – it’s 1, 2, 3, as in one part sugar, to two parts fat, to three parts flour. Subscribe to that, and the cookies world’s your oyster. Violation of this ratio, on the other hand, will likely not yield good results, and therein lies the problem with a lot of the recipes you find online, or in poorly researched cookbooks.

It would be fair to ask, how do I know this to be true? Well, let me say this about that. I got an idea for a dried cherry/chocolate/almond cookie, but was short on time and not thinking very clearly. I grabbed something off the net that was kinda close, and subbed my stuff for theirs – equal amounts of dried fruit and nuts, (albeit theirs used cranberries and walnuts). What I got was a very tasty cookie out of the oven, although they were a bit wetter and flatter than I wanted. The next day, they fell apart. Just sitting in a storage box, they fell apart – a box of somewhat gooey cookie crumbs. I grabbed that original recipe and took a closer look. Their ratio was somewhere around 3-3-2, flour to fat to sugar, and that would explain my less than stellar results. My bad, and lesson reinforced. If you know the ratio, it’s easier to start from scratch than it is to trust a recipe from somewhere else.

The first bake - The absolutely wrong ratio The first bake – The absolutely wrong ratio

The other major contributor to epic baking fails is the use of volume measurements in recipes, instead of weight. Most professional bakers around the globe weigh rather than measure, for very sound reasons. Weighing ingredients is far, far more reliable, because you get much more accurate ratios. Fundamentally, a gram is a gram the world around, but a cup most definitely is not. ‘1 Cup’ can mean anything from .85 to 1.20 of a US Cup, and that’s a wide enough margin to cause issues. It all adds up to the fact that, if you want to learn to bake really well, you’re going to need to start weighing ingredients. 

That’ll require a decent digital kitchen scale, which are cheap and readily available. Get one that has a generous bowl for doing the deed, and portioning out ingredients for most home recipes is a breeze. Is it worth twenty bucks and a very simple learning curve to become a better home baker? Yeah, it is.

The very cool thing about all this is that it opens up the world of design-your-own recipes, rather than relying on someone else’s. The next thing you know, you’ll be using cookbooks for inspiration or reference, or for the love of what the author did, not because you need them to follow recipes.

Alright, so, if we’re committed, then let us examine ingredients a bit more, then a few thoughts on technique.

Flour. What type we use matters – unbleached white pastry or all purpose are the preferred options for cookies. Pastry flour has less protein than AP, (but more than cake flour), so it strikes a great balance of flaky and tender. Bleached is a no no, as the bleaching process messes with proteins, leading to reduced gluten production, (AKA cookies that don’t hold together well). Combining flours may be a thing you’ll want to do, depending on what you’re after. The classic Scottish shortbread recipe calls for unbleached all purpose white and rice flour, for instance. Whole grain flours add a denser, nuttier end result. A good rule of thumb is to use no more than 30% of those in your mix, (which doesn’t discount those who do a bunch more – to each their own.) Varied flour ratios lead to different results, of course. A higher proportion of flour versus the liquid contained in your chosen fat and eggs leads to a more tender crumb, (and a more delicate cookie.) A lower proportion generally produces a chewier texture. Note – if you do use a recipe that simply calls for flour, they mean unbleached white all purpose.

Sweeteners. Sugar isn’t the only thing you can or should use in a cookie recipe, but it’s far and away the most popular. In addition to its sweetening power, sugar helps cookies brown, (caramelization), and contributes to crispiness by sucking up some moisture from the dough. Sugar also helps cookies spread out as they bake, (and if the ratio’s off, as it was in my first go round, then oh boy, do they.) There are a bunch of sugars out there. Some folks think that pure cane tastes better than stuff made from sugar beets. There’s bakers sugar, which is a pure cane sugar that’s ground finer than the regular stuff – it does everything a bit more efficiently. Brown sugar adds a bit of moisture to the mix by virtue of added or retained molasses – That contributes to a softer, chewier texture.

Speaking of molasses, that and a bunch of other things, like corn syrup (uggh!), maple syrup, brown rice syrup, agave nectar and good old honey can also be used. I recommend keeping maple syrup to the adjunct column, (it’s strongly flavored and expensive). Honey and agave nectar are popular substitutions these days, and for good reason – They add flavor notes plain old sugar can’t, and have far greater sweetening power. Due to the latter consideration, there are adjustments that must be made when using them – Honey is roughly twice as potent as sugar, and agave nectar around 3/4 more, so sweetener volume, and overall moisture, must be tweaked accordingly. Both are also somewhat acidic, so you’ll want baking soda in your recipe to balance that out. Both should be added and blended with fat prior to adding flour, just as you would with sugar. Finally, it’s a good rule of thumb to reduce your baking temperature by 25° F, because both agave and honey brown faster than sugar.

Fats. Butter is far and away the most common version used, although there are far more options out there – shortening, lard, ghee, cream cheese, heavy cream, various cooking oils, or combinations thereof can and are used in baking. Using any of those will give you differing results, of course – While most of what’s listed above won’t make a huge difference in color or texture, they will in terms of flavor, so be prepared to experiment. That said, fats don’t just add calories, they impact every aspect of a recipe, from overall consistency, to how they bake. For instance, butter has a notably lower melting point than many of the others noted herein, so if you see a recipe calling for half butter and half shortening or lard, what the maker was likely after was a cookie that wouldn’t end up as thin and crispy as a pure butter version would. When and if you use butter, use unsalted, because salted varies widely in how much salt is onboard.

Not all cookie recipes contain eggs, but most do, and for darn good reasons – they contribute significantly to the whole shebang. Eggs act as the largely unsung framework upon which everything else in a dough depends. They add moisture, lecithin (an emulsifier that helps disparate constituents get together), fat, and of course, protein. They help gluten do its thing, and contribute appreciably to flavor, texture, and mouth feel.

Leavening of some kind is present in the vast majority of cookie recipes. Baking soda helps cookies rise, and as mentioned, can neutralize acids like sugar and honey which, left unchecked, can mess with browning. Baking powder will also give a lift, and contribute to a lighter texture as well. Both add lift by generating CO2. Baking soda is pure bicarbonate of soda, while baking powder is that plus cream of tartar (an acidifier) and starch, used as a drying agent. If you’ve never noticed, there are single and double acting baking powders – Single means it needs moisture to activate and must be baked right away – Double means some gas gets generated right away, but most does not until baking begins, so it can hang for a time without negative effects.

Salt may be a minor ingredient, but it’s a critical one. Its unique ability to enhance flavor, separating molecules and making them available to our noses, is unmatched. It also helps strengthen the proteins within a dough, contributing to a nice chewy cookie. There’s a bunch of salts out there, and we’ve covered a lot about them here, (including our recent post on plastics in sea salts). In addition to a whole raft of varieties, these days you can also readily find different grinds. Used to be you’d need to find pickling or canning salt for a fine grind – now that’s widely available, and that’s what you want for baking – it disperses and blends much better than the coarser stuff.

Alright, let’s discuss technique. This may seem fussy, but in the end run, if you’re after making more than just a good cookie, it matters.

It is a best practice to have all your ingredients at room temperature when you’re ready to make a dough. One of the key things we need to accomplish when we do that, is to allow combined ingredients to form an emulsion that will trap and hold a fair amount of air – that’s what expands when we bake, yielding a light, fluffy cookie. Having your fat and eggs at room temperature lets a creamed mixture do exactly that – cold ingredients will impede that process.

Next, sift your dry ingredients. If you don’t have a sifter, run them through a ingle mesh strainer into a mixing bowl. Sifted flour, leavening, chocolate, what have you, is lighter, and incorporates better than non.

Creaming is what it’s called when we perform the most critical step in great cookie making – combing the fat and sugars and whisking them into a smooth, fluffy emulsion. This uniform, air injected blend is critical – Leavening agents produce CO2, yes, but they won’t do it well if they don’t have the trapped air, combined with a well mixed emulsion to hold it all in.

Once you’ve added the dry ingredients to the wet and have them uniformly mixed, stop messing with the dough – Excessive handling leads to tough cookies. 

Bake in the lower middle section of your oven, bake one sheet of cookies at a time, and spin the sheet 180° half way through the bake – All those little things add up to greater consistency and better goodies. If you really want to get after it, calibrate your oven with an external thermometer, so you know what yours really bakes at, (At work, we get right down to zone temps in our deck and rack ovens, so we know precisely where the hot and cold spots are.)

Here then is my correct recipe for chocolate, almond and cherry cookies. This will make 2-3 dozen cookies, depending on how big you portion. And yeah, it’s in grams – That’s how the rest of the world works, so we might as well get with the program. And yeah, I did give you volume cheats, too, just in case you chicken out – using those will still make a pretty good cookie.

The second bake - The right ratio - Yes, please! The second bake – The right ratio – Yes, please!

Chocolate, Almond & Cherry Cookies (2-3 dozen)

380 grams All Purpose Flour (3 Cups)

230 grams Unsalted Butter (2 sticks)

100 grams Bakers Sugar (1/2 Cup)

80 grams Dark Brown Sugar (1/2 Cup)

115 grams dried Bing Cherries (1/2 Cup)

115 grams slivered Almonds (1/2 Cup)

340 grams semi-sweet Chocolate chunks (12 ounce bag)

2 large Eggs

10 grams Vanilla Bean paste, (extract is fine too – 2 teaspoons)

4 grams Baking Soda (1 teaspoon)

4 grams fine Salt (1/2 teaspoon)

Have your eggs and butter at room temperature before proceeding.

In a cast iron skillet over medium heat, toast the almonds, stirring regularly and keeping a close eye that they don’t scorch. Remove from heat when they’re golden brown and fragrant.

When the almonds have cooled sufficiently, chop them into roughly 1/4” pieces, and set aside.

Chop cherries into roughly pea sized pieces, and set aside.

Run flour and baking soda through a sifter or single mesh strainer, into a large mixing bowl.

For the lions share of the process, a stand mixer is preferred, but if you don’t have one, you can hand whisk – Just be forewarned, it’s going to be a bit of a workout.

In a stand mixer bowl set up with a paddle, add the butter and mix on low until it’s smooth and even – about 2 minutes. 

Stop the mixer, and use a spatula to scrape the butter down from the bowl sides and paddle.

Add the sugars and salt and mix on low until the blend is smooth, about 1-2 minutes.

Again, stop the mixer, and use a spatula to scrape the creamed mixture down from the bowl sides and paddle.

Add an egg and the vanilla paste to the creamed mixture and mix on low until fully incorporated – No more than 30 seconds. Repeat the process with the second egg, and again, 15 to 30 seconds tops – You don’t want to over-beat the eggs.

With the mixer on low, gradually add the flour mixture, and mix until fully incorporated – Stop as soon as that’s achieved.

Remove the bowl from the mixer, and add chocolate, cherries, and almonds, and incorporate with a spatula, until evenly mixed.

Now that it’s mixed, you can chill your dough – for at least an hour, if you want a taller, lighter cookie. If you prefer things a bit flatter and crunchier, go ahead and bake. That said, if you’ve got a really warm kitchen, it’s a good idea to chill the dough for at least a half hour before baking, just to make sure things don’t get too loose.

If you don’t plan to bake right away, just transfer the dough onto parchment paper, and roll it into a log about 1 1/2” thick, then add a layer of aluminum foil. That’ll hold in the fridge for a week, no problem. It’ll also freeze well for up to a month – Just let the dough thaw for 15-30 minutes before cutting off 1/3” to 1/2” thick slices, and then bake away.

When you’re ready to bake, preheat oven to 350° F, and position a rack in the lower middle section.

Line a baking sheet with parchment, or use a silicone baking mat.

Scoop heaping tablespoons of dough onto the sheet, about 2” to 3” apart.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, spinning the sheet 180° at about 6 minutes in.

Remove the sheet from oven, and slide the parchment or silicone onto a cutting board, cooling rack, etc.

Let them cool for 10 minutes or so before you dig in, and for at least a half hour before you store them – an airtight glass container is best.

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

Roasted Pumpkin seeds, AKA Pepitas, are a great treat, and as is the case with many seeds, pretty good for you, too.

My Cousin Sally writes,
OK, Eben – Halloween is upon us, which means it’s time to nom on delicious toasted pumpkin seeds! Yay! But here’s the dilemma… Recipes on the Internet vary from 250 degrees to 400 degrees and 7 minutes to 50 minutes. And some recipes boil the little suckers before toasting! What the heck. Thoughts??
P.S. I used to go with the soy sauce and seasoned salt route, but now I’m a fan of the olive oil and sea salt mix. But I’m perplexed by the temp and time…

Sugar Pumpkins - Many good things inside!
Sugar Pumpkins – Many good things inside!

Great question! Here’s the drill for making great roasted pumpkin seeds every time.

Remove seeds from sugar pumpkins, and by golly, save or use that flesh for wonderful things, like Pumpkin Flan. Roasted seeds make a great garnish for squash bisque, and make a fabulous garnish on Oaxacan style chiles rellenos.

Boiling pumpkin seeds before roasting makes for crunchy skins.
Boiling pumpkin seeds before roasting makes for crunchy skins.

Simmering the seeds in salted water is a must-do – It helps make the seed covers less chewy, more crunchy, and also gets seasoning deeper into the seeds. It also helps remove any residual stringy stuff.

Use 4 Cups of water with 2 teaspoons salt for every Cup of seeds.

Bring salted water to a boil, then add seeds, stir, and reduce temp to maintain a steady simmer.
Cook for 10 minutes, then drain through a single mesh strainer.
Pat dry with paper toweling.

Preheat oven to 400° F – High temp roasting will give the crunchiest, most consistent results.
Note that Avocado oil is especially good for this – it’s got the highest smoke point.

Savory, like sea salt and cracked pepper, works great on pumpkin seeds.
Savory, like sea salt and cracked pepper, works great on pumpkin seeds.

Season each cup of seeds with,
1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil, (Olive or vegetable oil is OK)
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
Optional –
1/2 teaspoon chile flake or powder

Savory seasonings work better than sweet, as the sugars tend to make seeds prone to burning in a high temp roast. Any combo you like is worth trying – Soy-Lime-Garlic, Lemon Thyme & Sea Salt, Smoked Salt and cracked Pepper, etc. Our Go To Seasoned Salt is fantastic here.

If you really want a sweet version, roast seeds with just the oil, then add sweet seasoning after the roast – The oil will help it stick, and you won’t burn your goodies.

Roast, evenly spread on a baking sheet, for 18 to 20 minutes, until nicely toasted.

Pumpkin Seeds roasted with Sea Salt, Avocado Oil, and Chile Flake
Pumpkin Seeds roasted with Sea Salt, Avocado Oil, and Chile Flake

Remove from oven and baking sheet, allow to cool before decimating.

And as my Sis, Ann Lovejoy notes over in her wonderful blog, “Store pepitos in a tightly sealed jar out of direct light for up to 2 months or freeze them for longer storage.”

And Happy Halloween!

Makin’ Bacon

Love bacon? Love good bacon? Seen the prices lately? Us too! That little revelation led us to home made, courtesy of Michael Ruhlman.

I started our odyssey with a search for pork belly locally, which wasn’t as easy to find as I thought it’d be. Eventually, we found roughly 15 pound packs at Cash and Carry for $3.15 a pound. We took that home, divided it into 2 1/2 pound batches, and went to town.

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Our first batch was made straight from Ruhlman’s recipe. It turned out great, but it wasn’t exactly what I want in my perfect bacon. Having no doubt that experimentation is almost always a good thing, we analyzed the results and decided that Ruhlman’s would be, for us, perfect lunch and dinner bacon, but not breakfast. We found Michael’s recipe a touch salty, even when we’d carefully weighed the pork belly and salt; further, we felt that while the bay leaf, nutmeg, garlic and thyme in that recipe added glorious floral notes perfect for lardons, and stellar for carbonara, it was a bit much for our breakfast palate, so we set out to build our perfect breakfast bacon.

While one needs to stick pretty closely to the 1.5:1 salt to curing salt ratio for proper bacon, you have relative freedom with the other ingredients, so we revamped with our chosen notes, less salt, more sugar, Grains of Paradise for that unique pepper note we love, brown mustard seed for the tang, and a little smoke.

The results were spot on, and we’re happy campers!

2.5 pounds Pork Belly
1/4 Cup Dark Brown Sugar or real Maple Syrup
1 Ounces Flaked Salt
1.5 teaspoons Pink Curing Salt, (Sodium Nitrite)
2 Tablespoons Grains of Paradise, coarsely ground
2 teaspoons Brown Mustard seed, coarsely
1 teaspoon Smoke Powder

Mix all dry rub ingredients except the smoke powder together in a bowl.

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Set your belly on a baking dish or sheet tray.

Rub the cure onto and well into all surfaces of the belly. Take your time and work it right in there evenly and completely.

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Place your belly into 1 a gallon Ziplock bag, press the excess air out, and set it in the back of your fridge for 3 days.

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On day 4, pull out your belly and rub everything back into the flesh again. Set ‘er back into the fridge for another 3 days.

And on the 7th day, there be bacon…

Pull your belly outta the bag, rinse your sink well and then stick the belly under nice, cold running water and rinse all the cure off, giving it a good rub as you do.

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Preheat oven to 200 F.

Pat your belly dry with paper towels and set into a glass baking dish or a sheet pan.

Rub the smoke powder evenly and thoroughly into your belly.

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Roast for 90 minutes, or until your internal temp reaches 150 F.

Remove from oven, allow to cool, and then repackage in a ziplock in the fridge. It’ll last as long as store bought, or maybe a bit less, since it has less bullshit stuff in it; anyway, I’d bet that after you try it, lasting long won’t be an issue…

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You can freeze bacon, but not for more than about a month. If you do freeze it, you’ll want all the air you can out of the bag so, again, vacuum sealing is best.

You can also sub Honey or Agave Nectar for the sugar and get some pretty nice flavor variations. Our family also likes peppered bacon, and for that we’ll layer on a bit of olive oil and ground, black pepper for the roast.

Big thanks to Michael Ruhlman for a wonderful charcuterie book, and for encouraging experimentation. Now it’s your turn, and make sure you try his recipe, because it rocks and it just might be your all-around fave!

Enjoy!

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Garde Manger for the People

Alert blog follower Hannah sent this note from southwestern Oregon – ‘I read about you guys changing up stuff you made earlier, for subsequent meals – The last one was an Instagram of tacos where you did “a complete 180° on the seasoning” but you didn’t explain how or what you did. The same thing happened with the Chinese barbecued pork you converted to Italian, but you didn’t tell how to do that either. We’re not all wizards, so you need to explain this better!’

Hannah, with my sincere apologies, you are absolutely correct. Allow me to rectify that – And if it seems like Hannah’s reading me the riot act, she’s got a right to – I didn’t explain any of that stuff. Now, in my defense, these were both follow up images and short descriptives, secondary to a post, that as she mentioned, were on other social media sites – FB, Instagram, Twitter and the like. I though of them as throw away stuff, home food porn, but no longer – Hannah is 100% right – If I’m gonna crow about our mad skills, I gotta share the goods.

Before we talk about conversion, we gotta back up a few steps. If you’re making a French dish, what should the core seasonings be? What if it’s Italian, Spanish, Indian, North African, Mexican, South American, Caribbean, and so on? There are so many regional variations in all those examples that this kind of thing can be a bit hard to pin down – In northern France, you might find thyme, sage, and coriander, while in the south, it’s likely to be something more Provençal – marjoram, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and lavender, maybe. Same thing in every place I mentioned, frankly. With the very welcome spread of cookbooks and recipes focusing more on regional cuisines than some perceived national pastiche, us home cooks are blessed with many more options than even a decade ago. All that can make things a bit tougher to convert to something wholly different, but frankly, we don’t need to do that to succeed at the game.

Pork rib tacos? Absolutely!
Pork rib tacos? Absolutely!

So what is the trick to turning those ribs into tacos? Not as much as you’d think – Hell, you could probably do not a damn thing, call it fusion, and be on your merry way… But seriously, the trick, such as it is, is simply knowing what the major and minor seasoning notes are for the thing you’re working with, and building up or down from there – I say up or down purposefully, because if you want something Chinese to taste reasonable Italian, the task at hand may be to add, but it could also involve subtraction. Let’s use those two examples Hannah cited to dig into this thing.

In both instances we’re talking about proteins. This comes up as a thing we tweak fairly often because of how we cook and plan meals – A big ol’ batch of poultry, pork, or beef is oft what we cook early in the week, and then make a buncha meals thereafter, (and we covered this pretty well in our Meal Planning post btw). First step in swinging the seasoning profile of a protein in another direction is having a pretty good grasp of what’s powering it currently. If you made it, that’s easy enough, but what about a leftover from somewhere else, or taking a step farther out – tasting something and thinking, ‘I could do this at home, and I’d like to’ – How do you parse that? Far and away, the easiest way to suss it out is to ask the Chef – Chances are good they’ll tell you, and then you’re off to the races.

But what about sleuthing things out for yourself, how does that work? There’s no cut and dried formula for doing this that I can think of offhand, other than to state the obvious – The more herbs, spices and other seasoning constituents you own and use with some frequency, the better you’ll be at identifying them in the wild – Consider it a delicious form of behavioral conditioning. Again, not everybody has the same palate, but nonetheless, practice makes perfect, so build a great pantry and familiarize yourself with as much as you can – Getting curious about world cuisine is the way to discover new tastes and combinations.

OK, so Hannah’s Bane – starting with the ribs to tacos. The ribs were a first run experiment by M from something she’d found and tweaked to her liking – Ribs done in the slow cooker, with a nontraditional twist on the marinade and sauce. She did, for two racks of ribs,

For the Rib Marinade

1/2 Cup Water

1/3 Cup Live Apple Cider Vinegar

1/4 Cup Sweet Onion, minced

6 Cloves fresh Garlic, minced

2 Tablespoons Yellow Mustard

2 Tablespoons coarse Sea Salt

2 teaspoons Lemon Thyme

1 teaspoon ground Tellicherry Pepper

For the Glaze

1/2 Cup Balsamic Vinegar

1/4 Cup Agave Nectar

1 teaspoon Arrowroot

1/2 teaspoon Chile flake

Pinch of Sea Salt

They were killer by the way – Try this on nice fresh baby backs and then thank M later. We had a slew of these things, and after 3 days of ribs, ribs, and ribs, we were kinda tired of that, so I decided to strip all the meat off the remainder and turn it into taco fodder. Now, looking at that ingredients list, you can see right off that I took poetic license with the line Hannah quoted, “a complete 180° on the seasoning,” ‘cause yeah – in a word, Eben? Bullshit. That’s already pretty damn close to a bunch of Mexican regional seasoning blends you’ve got on there. What I did was to throw diced chiles and more onion in a sauté pan, sweat them, then added chicken stock, cilantro, lime juice, and tomatoes to the mix, and let that simmer until everything was heated through and married – Boom, taco ribs. Get the picture? No, they won’t taste at all like they did as whole ribs, and yeah, now they are reasonably more Mexican in taste profile.

Char Siu in all its glory
Char Siu in all its glory

Now, how about that Chinese barbecued Pork to Italian thing, then? This one admittedly took a bit more work to pull off effectively, but nothing earthshaking, and again – I made the original dish, so I knew exactly what was in there, right? The pork was my latest swing at Char Siu, derived from a Grace Young recipe in Breath of a Wok. I’ve not posted this previously, so here’s first look for y’all, (and John Joyce? This one’s for you, Buddy!)

For each Pound of Pork Shoulder

2 Tablespoons Dark Soy Sauce (I recommend Pearl River)

2 Tablespoons Tamari

2 Tablespoons Hoisin Sauce

2 Tablespoons Pixian Doubanjiang Chile Bean Sauce

2 Tablespoons Shao Hsing Rice Wine

2 Tablespoons Bakers Sugar

2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar

2 teaspoons Sesame Oil

1/2 teaspoon Ground Grains of Paradise

The Pork marinates in this mix for 48 hours, then is seared over an initially hot grill, basted with the remaining sauce and finished on a medium grill until internal temp runs 145°, then rested. If you use charcoal, a two zone grill set up will do this to perfection.

Seriously tender Char Siu
Seriously tender Char Siu

This stuff was fork tender and incredibly tasty, but again, after so many meals, I just needed to switch things up, and so I decided to make tomato based pasta sauce with the remainder. Granted, there are some potent Chinese regional tastes involved in that pork, but again, it’s not as discordant as it may seem at first glance. Central and northern Italian tomato pasta sauces can and do have some of those warm, earthy, and spicy notes, albeit not the same ones.

I gave the pork a quick rinse and ground it with the attachment on my Kitchenaid mixer, (you don’t need to do that, a simple rinse and mince would do just fine). As you can see from the plated image, the marinade, even after 48 hours, doesn’t get all that deep into the pork, so doing what you can to expose a bunch of the unseasoned meat gives solid ground for new flavors – The old stuff becomes interesting background that you can’t quite put your finger on, rather than a very forward Chinese.

Italian from Chinese? Yes indeed.
Italian from Chinese? Yes indeed.

Next comes the Italian rebranding – A big stew pot over medium heat, with a generous slug of olive oil gets soffritto – the classic Italian aromatic base mix of onion, carrot, celery, parsley, and garlic. Add stock, tomatoes, the pork, bay leaf, oregano, rosemary, lemon thyme, lemon zest and juice, salt and pepper, and basil to finish, and wham, you’ve got a complex, earthy pasta sauce that tastes like you put far more work into it than you did – Never a bad thing.

Now, who caught the trick I used in these examples? Somebody, anybody, Bueller? There was one ya know – A small but potent anchor to all such conversions – It’s the aromatic bases. For the switch to tacos, it was onion and chile. For the Italian, soffritto – See that? Fortunately for you, we wrote a very nice piece on aromatic bases that you can use as a launching pad for further exploration. It really is a key – When you take those deep, fundamental roots of a flavor profile and set them as your new solid base, switching gears becomes a simple matter of preference thereafter.

Now, resources – A thing I’ve mentioned here several times and online a lot – Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg’s magnum opus, The Flavor Bible. This is a reference work with some serious horsepower – Whole menus can be worked up from the stuff therein, and should be – For my mind, with that book, and Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, you’ve got a very solid basic research library to design a world cuisine of your own from.

Garde Manger - The Art of Transformation
Garde Manger – The Art of Transformation

Now – One final note – This concept is not mine, and it’s not new. In fact, it’s very old, and it stems from common sense, first and foremost. In French, it’s called Garde Manger, and it loosely translates as ‘Keeper of the Food.’ This is way cooler than you can imagine if you really dig cooking. The first fine dining restaurant I worked in, back in the mid ‘70’s, was French, (and that cuisine is where the term comes from and from where, arguably, the art reached its pinnacle). The second was in Sun Valley, Idaho – Another kitchen run by French Chefs. In those places, the Chef de Garde Manger was the best there was – Old guys with a wealth of experience, tremendous patience, and endless inventiveness. Garde manger is still around, albeit not as prominent, or as likely to display that level of experience. It’s always the cold dish station – Salads, hors d’œuvres (horse doovers as my Sis and I like to quip…), appetizers, canapés, pâtés, terrines, and such. Although it’s less prevalent now, the key role of that Chef was transforming leftovers into something new, something appealing, something that would sell – And it was magical, indeed – That spirit is sparked within me every time I do something like we discussed today. If any of this strikes your fancy, then I’ll recommend another great resource – Frederick Sonnenschmidt and John Nicolas’, The Art of Garde Manger – It’s the real deal, and a delightful read. Dig in.

Cornbread, Old & New

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Recipes aren’t really meant to be repeated exactly, time and time again – Even when you’re the one who wrote them. They’re a springboard to further exploration, and nothing more. A guitar making parable comes to mind – I’ve seen a bunch of builders, including me, make ‘identical’ guitars, from the same wood, built to the same specs, as close to each other as we can make them, and ya know what? They never sound, feel, or play the same. Same goes for recipes and cooking – For something iconic like cornbread, for instance.

Let us pause to consider from whence this stuff came. Cornbread is largely seen as a southern culinary thing, but its roots go far beyond those boundaries. Our modern versions harken back in the 1600’s, when European interlopers adapted some bread making techniques to the new cereal the natives had introduced them to, (and had been cultivating, starting down in Mexico, for something around 10,000 years).

Nowadays there are regional variances in style, and it’s interesting that those are almost diametrically opposed to what we see with biscuits – The farther south you go, the cornbread gets more rustic and less cakey, often with little or no added sugar and very little flour, (in fact, sometimes none at all). Meanwhile, while up north and out west, while not exactly flaky, you find a sweeter, more floury version. White cornmeal, closely akin to masa, is more popular in the south, yellow up north. Those southern differences may have to do with the prevalence of Mexican regional cooking, and the proximity to the origin point of the cereal itself, while up north, European influences speak loudest. That jibes with my personal experience as well – Growing up in Massachusetts, I remember cornbread as overly sweet and therefore, not much to my liking. When M and I moved to Texas, I found what I was looking for – Something that’s a bit more savory, and highlights the natural sweetness of corn without adding sugar or other sweeteners to the mix.

In any event, cornbread isn’t something we make super often, so when we do, it can fairly be considered a treat. In that light, one should consider what it is you most want out of the stuff. For me, that means as moist as I can get it, while still being firm and grainy with genuine cornmeal flavor.

For a good few years now, I’d landed on a cheddar version that we like a lot. I’ve taken to soaking the corn meal in milk or cream as a critical step, and in fact, doing that does make notably moister bread. Grinding my own cornmeal fresh, from local, organic corn was even better.

Then, as fate would have it, a measuring malfunction lead to a new twist, or at least, new to me – I’d put too much cornmeal in the mix. Once I realized it, I balanced everything back out, but found I was out of the heavy cream I’d used for the dairy, so I thought – what the hell, why not throw in some sour cream?

The second part of this tiny epiphany had to do with the chosen fat for the batch. I’ve used, and advocated here, leaf lard and/or butter, but all of a sudden, I thought about biscuits, and realized that what has really made my current version sing is avocado oil. If you haven’t tried that yet, it’s not really avocado-y in taste at all, just very subtle and buttery – Perfect for cornbread. Since I’d putzed around so long, I didn’t bother with the dairy rest for the cornmeal, (and it turns out that, with this version, I didn’t need it.) And as fate would have it, what resulted was what M happily anointed as ‘far and away, the best cornbread you’ve every made’ – High praise, that, believe you me.

So I made a second batch, to make sure the recipe worked, then made one the old way, for comparison. What that does is give y’all a couple of options. In the picture below, the old recipe is the batch to the left, the new one to the right. First off, I assure you, both are fully cooked, and neither has had anything done to it other than being sliced. You can see how dense, moist, and almost muffinish the new recipe is, while the old one is lighter and airier. I like them both a lot, but M was right – The new stuff is heavenly.

Old style to the left, New to the right
Old style to the left, New to the right

Urban’s Old Standby Cheddar Cornbread
1 1/2 Cups Corn Meal, (yellow or white)
1/2 Cup All Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup grated Sharp Cheddar Cheese
1 Cup Whole Milk
4 Tablespoons Leaf Lard (or Unsalted Butter)
1 Egg
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

Optional: 1-2 seeded and cored Jalapeño chiles

Preheat oven to 400° F

Pour cornmeal into a bowl and add the milk; mix well and allow to sit for 15 minutes.

Mix remaining dry ingredients, (Including the cheese), in a large bowl.

Melt shortening, then combine all ingredients and mix by hand to a nice, even batter consistency.

Place the pan(s) you’ll do the bread in into a 400 F oven, with a small dot of shortening in each pan, (Or a tablespoon full if using a single pan).

When the shortening is melted and sizzling, remove the pan, pour in the batter and return to the oven.

Bake at 400° F for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown.

What Monica calls the best cornbread I’ve ever made
What Monica calls the best cornbread I’ve ever made

Urban’s New Deal Cornbread
1 1/2 Cups Cornmeal
1/2 Cup All Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup Heavy Cream
1/2 Cup Sour Cream
1/2 Cup shredded Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese
4 Tablespoons Avocado Oil
1 large Egg
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt

Preheat oven to 400° F and set a rack in the middle position, with the pan your going to bake in thereupon.

Combine all dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Add the cheese, egg, dairy, and oil, and whisk into a uniform batter.

Carefully remove the hot baking pan and rub a little avocado oil around the inside, without burning yourself.

Pour the batter into the baking pan and return it to the hot oven.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, until golden brown.

Brine That Turkey!

Truth or dare time – How many of y’all, when it comes to your Thanksgiving turkey, do not show the bird the proper love? Tell the truth, now… Do you simply throw a bird in to the oven? Do you fill it with stuffing? Thought so… truth be told, even if you rub it with something nice, you’re still not giving that poultry it’s holiday due. If you want to serve the best bird, you’ve got to brine that turkey. I’m gonna tell you how, but first, here’s why.

Turkey is an extremely lean protein. If you doubt that, buy some ground turkey, do nothing to it but cook it, and see what you get – unlike good, fresh hamburger, there’ll be no moisture in the pan, and the taste will be, well… less than optimal. Let’s face it, we don’t need fat from our bird, ‘cause we’re gonna get that from all the sides we make. What we do need is a tender, juicy bird, and again, brining is the way to get there. Now, I know there are some of you out there thinking, ‘yeah, but if I cook it right and season the skin nicely before hand, it’ll still be great,’ right? Well, no, no it won’t – it might be good, maybe even really good, but it won’t be great.

Seasoning right before you cook, or even an hour or two before you cook, doesn’t allow the salt you’ve added enough time to do its thing. It won’t penetrate the flesh at all, really, especially with a hunk of meat as thick as a turkey breast. It’ll do a bit of work on the surface, but no more. Truly, the only way to allow seasoning to work is to give it the time it needs – And that means you need to brine that bird.

Traditionally, brining is a wet process. We submerge the bird completely in a brine, and give it anywhere from eight to twelve hours to do its thing. That works great, frankly, and it really isn’t hard. Brined birds weigh more after cooking than a dry bird does – Up to 8% more, and that’s virtually all added moisture, which is very good indeed. The wet brine process also acts chemically to break down some of the tougher proteins within the bird’s muscle fibers, leading to tender flesh – Also good. So, if you’re of a mind to wet brine, here are some basics.

If you buy a frozen bird, you can thaw it while brining, which saves you some time, (if you buy a fresh turkey, you don’t need to worry about that.)

Proper brining is a function of both brine strength, the weight of the bird, and brining time. What you’re doing at home is technically called gradient brining – That is, putting food in a higher salt concentration brine than you really want in the food, because you don’t have the time to do what’s known as equilibrium brining – That’s when you use a lower salt concentration and allow the time needed for the salt content in the brine and the food to equalize. When you see or read about something like pastrami being brined for a week or longer, that’s what they’re doing, and that’s also why the Pro’s make stuff that consistently tastes better than what we do at home. All that said, don’t fret – What we do at home is safe, and it really does make a better bird. So, for reasonable gradient brining, we brine whole turkeys for about an hour per pound, in a 5% to 6% brine concentration.

Basic brine ratio is often shown as ‘1 cup salt to 1 gallon of water’, but not all salt weighs the same – what we really want is about 7 ounces of salt per gallon. When you brine, use kosher salt – The larger crystal size means it dissolves faster in water than fine grained stuff, and there’s nothing in there but pure salt, so it wont taint your brine. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, (And frankly, you should), then Morton Kosher weighs 7.5 ounces per cup, and Diamond 5 per cup. For the record, there’s nothing wrong with adding herbs or spices to a brine – If you like it, do it.

Basic Wet Poultry Brine
For each Gallon of water, add
7 Ounces Kosher Salt
1 Tablespoon crushed Sage
1 Tablespoon Lemon Thyme

For a nice twist,

Cider Brine for Poultry
For each Gallon of Apple Cider, add
7 Ounces Kosher Salt
1 Tablespoon ground Black Pepper
2-3 dashes Tabasco sauce

For a 15 to 18 pound turkey, you will need a couple of gallons of cider or water, and a clean, food grade 5 gallon plastic bucket. You don’t need to heat the water or cider. Just make sure all the salt has completely dissolved before you proceed.

You need to plan ahead for wet brining. You’ll want an additional 6 to 12 hours between the brining and the cooking, so, if you’re thawing and brining, your process needs to begin nice and early on the day before turkey day.

Pay attention to food safety procedures during brining, without fail! Your brine and bird must remain under 40° F at all times, period; if you need to add a little ice, do so. If you need to add a lot, compensate with a bit more salt. When your brining period is done, pour out the brine, (NEVER reuse it.) Gently rinse the bird in clean, cold water, then pat it dry with clean paper towels and then transfer to a roasting pan.

Now comes the secret to gloriously golden, crispy skin. Allow an air rest for your bird, by letting it sit, uncovered in the refrigerator, for 4 to 6 hours after brining. This will help moisture evaporate from the skin, and allow the meat to reabsorb some moisture as well.

Now, if all that makes you paraphrase George H. W. Bush, ‘Not gonna do it, not gonna go there,’ then here’s an even easier option that works just as well. And it’s funny that, right at this point, literally right at this point in today’s narrative, I got this text from my friend John Joyce, a fine guitar maker from the Twin Cities in Minnesota – ‘Hey E what do you think: dry brined or wet brined turkey. I’ve done wet for years but I’ve read a lot of good stuff on dry brining.’ Yep, dry brining is exactly what I was about to type, so, here ya go JJ.

While the term ‘dry brining’ might seem kinda oxymoronic, i assure you it’s not. In restaurants, this has been done for a long, long time. Often called ‘pre-salting,’ it acts on a protein more or less as a wet brine does, albeit without the water, equipment, or hassle. Think of it as a dry rub, like we use on poultry, ribs, and the like, and it’ll come to light for you.

The chemistry here is very cool, too. When we first apply a dry brine, osmosis occurs, meaning the moisture within the bird is drawn toward the higher salt concentration rubbed on the skin. As that moisture reaches the surface, it dissolves the salt and sugar in the brine. In the final stages, the liquified brine is draw back into the bird as things equalize. There, the solution acts as a wet brine does, breaking down those tough muscle proteins and acting as a tenderizer – Pretty cool, huh? And to top it off, all this is done in your fridge, during a simultaneous cold rest, so you get that crispy skin, too – Two birds with one rock, if you will.

Dry brining does require time, and in fact, more time than wet, usually. Since there’s no added water, you’ll need two to three days to let the process do it’s thing, so once again, plan ahead.

It’s also important not to get a bird that’s been pre-seasoned in any way, since that can and will upset the balance of things – Avoid anything that says kosher, re-seasoned, or self-basting. You’ll also want a fresh bird, or at the very least a fully thawed one.

Basic Dry Turkey Brine
5 Ounces Kosher Salt
1 teaspoon crushed sage
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

Sweet Dry Turkey Brine
5 Ounces Kosher Salt
2 Tablespoons Dark Brown Sugar
1 teaspoon Smoked Paprika

Prep your bird by removing any of the extraneous bits, then pat it dry with clean paper towels.

Gently gently separate skin from flesh over the breast area, taking care not to rip the skin. It’ll work much better in direct contact with the meat.

Rub a teaspoon or two of the mix into the bird’s cavity, then do the same all around the drumsticks. Rub 3-4 tablespoons of the mix onto the breast meat, and use the rest evenly across the skin.

Ct a small slit in each side of the bird about half way along the wing tips and then slide the tips into that cut.

Put the bird on a roasting pan or rimmed baking sheet, and into the fridge for at least 2 days, and 3 is better.

When the time’s up, you’re ready to cook. You can roast, deep fry, whatever floats your boat.

Keep your bread stuffing in a casserole dish, and prepare a nice juicy cavity filler for the bird.

1 Apple of your choice
1/2 Sweet Onion
1 stalk Celery
Tablespoon Canola Oil
1/2 teaspoon Sage
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

Rough chop the orange, onion, and celery, (and if you have celery leaves, use those!). Throw those in a mixing bowl, then add oil, Sage, salt and pepper, then combine thoroughly. Stuff your bird’s cavity thoroughly. Place the bird on a rack in a roasting pan, and add 2 cups of clean water to the pan. Insert an internal thermometer to the thickest part of the breast.

Preheat your oven to 350° F.

Standard roasting times, stuffed, at 350° F follow; that said, the only real way to know when the bird is done is by internal temperature, and we’re looking for 165 F.

10 to 18 pounds 3-3/4 to 4-1/2 hours

18 to 22 pounds 4-1/2 to 5 hours

22 to 24 pounds. 5 to 5-1/2 hours

Start your roast with the bird uncovered, then cover loosely with foil for the last hour. Basting isn’t necessary, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

When the bird is done, remove it from the oven and let it rest for 15 minutes prior to carving – That rest is vital to allowing juices to equalize throughout the cooked bird, so don’t cheat!

Carve, admire, enjoy, and get ready for leftovers,

Later in that text, JJ wrote, ‘I like those ingredients. I usually do two birds. I’ll do one dry and one wet. Is the cider recipe on your site?’ It’s right here for ya, Buddy! He ended with this – ‘I’m also making your ginger ale recipe. So I guess that means you’ll have a virtual seat at our table. ?’

I told him I was honored and pleased by that to no end, and I truly am.

Scaling, Converting, and Planning for Leftovers

Well, if you’re a regular here, you know we have a real passion for leftovers. It is damn near criminal to waste good food and it happens way too often. To some degree, this is our fault, ‘our’ being foodies and bloggers who exhort others to cook. I say that because a lot of what I find in out there are recipes offered in quantities that demand leftovers. And it goes without saying that restaurants in the US routinely offer ridiculously huge portions, the lions share which is thrown out as well.

So something needs to be done about it, right?

Right.

You can do your part by learning to scale recipes when they’re designed for more folks than you’re going to reasonably feed. Scaling is especially useful if a recipe is complex or involves expensive ingredients; in any case, most of the time, you just don’t need or want to cook at larger volumes. While it sounds easy, it isn’t always such, (I found this out taking a homebrew recipe to barrel volume…) Scaling definitely involves a bit of art in addition to straight math.

Take, for instance, a recipe that catches your eye, but is shown for 10 when you need it for 4.

Knocking it down mathematically is straightforward: You take the quoted measure of each ingredient and divide it down to where you want to be. So in this case, we’d divide 4 by 10, yielding 0.4; each of the stated measurements would then be multiplied by 0.4 to reach your goal.

Lets say the recipe calls for 4 cups of all purpose flour. Take the 4 cups, multiply by 0.4.

4 cups × 0.4 = 1.6 cups of flour for your 4 person conversion, and so on down the line of ingredients.

As a guitar maker, I can tell you that I spend a fair amount of time converting fractions to decimals, so don’t feel even a little bit bad for squinting at 1.6 cups for a second or two. Truth be told, for the vast majority of home cooking, eyeballing 1.6 cups is going to work out just fine. Yes, things like a teaspoon are gonna end up 0.4 but again, almost a half, more than a third; you’ll get the idea.

For any and all of this that seems to funky to do, drop over here to this handy Cooking Conversion Tool at About.com. For those of you who actually use your smart phone or tablet for cooking as I do, there’s a very decent app called Kitchen Calculator Pro that works great.

One of the things we do here is to test conversions for you. As I mentioned, scaling recipes isn’t always as simple as the math. Sometimes things have to be tweaked to come out just right. That said, this is often a case of personal taste; it’s nothing to worry about on the big picture view, but if you’re wanting to impress your new date with a great home cooked meal, you might wanna test that conversion first, right?

A lot of the secret of cooking well has to do with ratios; it could be reasonably argued that, next to good ingredients, nothing is more important. Author and Chef Michael Ruhlman has put out a few tools and books about this stuff. I own both his Bread Baking and ratio apps for iPhone and iPad, and I use them both. They’re good common sense stuff and a handy reference when you’re experimenting.

Now, all that said, there are times when you’re going to build food at larger volumes. You’ll notice that a lot of what we do here starts out fairly basic; consideration of multiple meals is a primary reason for that. We, like most of y’all, are not exactly wading in spare time, so prepping one primary meal that can become two or three saves work and is much more efficient.

When you’re doing that, you may well build dishes that are sized for much more than your one-meal needs. Of course quite a few things like soup, stew, chili, roasted or broiled meats, potato dishes and many veggies, really do taste better the next day. It makes sense if you think about it; good ingredients, well married, seasoned and cooked – It should taste better, right?

To close this post, we’ll give you a lightning round example of what we’re talking about.

Day 1; we’re both off, so we bought a big ol’ pork roast and paired it with gnocchi, seedless red grapes and a nice salad.

Day 2: Sky’s the limit; we could do cold sandwiches, Mex, what’ll it be? It was a bit nippy, so digging into the fridge, we found some great veggies, soaked and added some beans and made a wonderful soup. The prep for this took maybe 15 minutes, then we just stuck it in the pot to get happy. Paired with sourdough garlic bread and some more grapes, life is good.

Day 3: We sure could have soup again, but why not throw 30 minutes prep time into the mix and make a pot pie, right? Kitchenaid pie crust recipe, 15 minute rest, blind baked in a baking dish, thicken the soup with a little roux, and off you go…

There’s three distinct, easy meals from one pork roast. Efficient, fun, and delicious.

What are you gonna make tonight?

E & M