Archive for the ‘Kitchen Basics’ Category

Of Asphalt and Chestnut Honey

I’ve had a honey epiphany.  As a consumer of our local liquid amber, I’ve seen variations of flavor and color over the seasons and years, but always sweet and delicious.  Except, of course, for that memorable year when the town paved the roads and the honey had, let’s call it, um, distinctive asphalt notes.

Here’s the amazing discovery.  I made a recipe from a friend that required Italian chestnut honey.  I was assured that it was integral to the recipe and to forget about local, get on the Internet, and order me some.  Fine.  It arrived.  I opened it.  Took a sniff.  Bleck.  Had it gone bad in transit?  I then read the label, which described it as (and I quote) “ideal for who don’t like very sweet flavour honey.” I took a lick.  Double bleck!  Had I just been poisoned by the infamous Internet Tuscan honey mafia? More reading… The site Serious Eats describes chestnut honey as “not for the timid palate” and “Dark and spicy, with touches of smoke and leather, chestnut honey is complex, mysterious, and nuanced.”  Yup, that about sums it up.  Leather and smoke.  But in defense, it did impart a distinct and magnificent flavour to the recipe.

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Bottom line… I had no idea that honey could be so variable, which makes me want to embark on my dream beekeeping project even more.  But, after the great rooster disaster of 2012, I’m not eager to once again mix toddlers and talons until the kids are much older.

Ps.  Welcome back! It’s been ages since my last post because our family welcomed a new addition to our ranks.  Priorities, now.  So as baby sits by me and assists with “yayayayayayaYAyaya” we can now find the time to get back to hobby blogging about our minifarm.

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Thermodynamic Bacon or How to Thaw Meat Fast

Woke up this morning with hungry husband home from work. What to do for my carnivorous companion? Mmm. Bacon.

But, the bacon was in unusable frozen block form! If I had planned ahead, I would have stored it in the refrigerator last night, but alas. Yet with the powers of thermodynamic convection (Good Eats S3E4), I was able to safely and quickly defrost the package.  And don’t your dare just leave it out on the counter!  Nope.  Don’t even think about it.  Food poisoning potential goes waaay up at counter temperatures and time.

Alton Brown’s Defrosting Plan:

1. Obtain frozen stuff in need of a quick defrost. Uncured bacon without added nitrates or nitrites… mmm bacon gets even better!

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2. Cold (60F) water in sink. Check.  Barely dripping faucet. Check.  Frozen block o’ bacon transform! In mere minutes it was ready for the skillet. Obviously if you’re planning on defrosting a large block o’ turkey, give yourself a bit more time.  Size, shape, and density matters.

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3. Bacon goes in a skillet set to medium heat or oven at 400F for about 12-15 minutes. With either method, cook until crispy.

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Ps. Wife suggests keeping husband busy making pancakes or he might eat all the bacon before it makes it to the breakfast table.

Butter Pie Crust: Step by Step in Photos

Flavorful, tender, and flaky. Ah, I had tried many recipes, but this trio of culinary pie perfection eluded me. That is, until I took a class at my local library and saw the steps towards creating the perfect crust. It’s one of those things I think you really need to see in order to get it right.

This recipe is incredibly versatile. It can be used for fruit pies, quiches, tarts, pot pies, turnovers, baked brie, and anything requiring a buttery blanket. For the pictures, I used whole wheat flour to contrast in color with the butter in order to easily see the desired texture. However, I recommend using all-purpose white flour because it is far more tender. If you insist on whole wheat, don’t say I didn’t warn you and try to find whole wheat pastry flour since it has a lower gluten content (more about that stuff later). The butter, of course, is a must. Not only does it provide superior flavor, the smooth feeling in the mouth is far preferably to that odd coating that hydrogenated shortening leaves behind.

Pie Dough

  • 2 2/3 cups All-purpose flour
  • 2 Tbsp Sugar
  • 1 tsp Salt
  • 2 sticks or 1/2 lb Cold (even frozen) unsalted butter cut into 1/2″ cubes
  • 6+ Tbsp Ice Water

Whisk all the dry ingredients together with a fork, pastry cutter, or food processor. Add cold butter.

Blend until the butter is in pea-sized balls. If you are using a food processor, several pulses should do the trick.

Add the ice water and blend/pulse. This is where things like the humidity in the air and your ingredients, temperature, and mixing style are going to effect how much ice water you’ll need. The 6 Tbsp might be enough, but I’ve had to use as many as 15 Tbsp on a dry winter’s day. How do you know how much then? If you’re using a food processor, add a Tbsp then pulse until you see that it just is beginning to climb the sides and clump. However, it is vital to the texture that you do not overwork the dough. Why? The more the dough is handled, the more gluten that is created, which makes for a tough crust. Yuck, we want tender! So mix the dough as little as possible to bring it together.

You know you’re there when you squeeze a handful of the dough and it forms a ball.

Divide the dough in half and place on two pieces of plastic wrap. It can still be quite crumbly at this stage.

Use the plastic wrap to help form it into a uniform ball and flatten into a disk for easier rolling later.

Store in the refrigerator for at least one hour or up to overnight before rolling. I find that that longer that it is chilled, the easier it is to roll out because the flour is truly hydrated during its vacation in the fridge. It also freezes beautifully. Just defrost prior to rolling out.

To roll out the dough, use a rolling pin and a heavily floured surface. The goal is to make sure after every roll that the dough is still moveable. How do you know? Rotate the dough a quarter turn after each roll. If it is sticky and does not move easily, add more flour underneath and on the rolling pin. So roll, turn, roll, turn. Yup, you get the idea.  Below you see where the whole wheat flour reveals how those pieces of butter are quite visible and how they will become the flaky layers of goodness once baked.

Yay, you have pie crust.  The easiest way to transfer it is to roll it back on your rolling pin or fold it in half…

and then in half again.

Now you can easily transfer it to a pie pan, tart pan, or cookie sheet.

Then just unfold and form.  “Oh no,” you say, “But there are some cracks!”  “Ahh,” I reply, “Sometimes that happens and when it does just push the pieces together and know one will be the wiser when it comes out of the oven.”

How about baking?  Well, it depends on what you are making.  This recipe can be used whenever pie or tart crust is needed and just bake according to the recipe.  This recipe yields two disks of dough, which can make two tarts or open faced pies or one pie with both a top and bottom crust.

Improvised Brick-and-Steam Oven for Bakery Quality Bread at Home

I like to call this the bread “spa” method. Ever wonder why bakery bread gets that crunchy crust and meltingly moist interior? Professional bakeries use professional ovens which the home cook can mimic in a regular home oven. How do we treat our bread to an afternoon at the spa’s sauna? It’s as easy as bricks and water!

Treatment I: Massage and Gentle Dough Sauna for Rising

Don’t turn on the oven! I mean, you haven’t even made the dough yet, right? So use that cool oven as a draft-free space for rising your dough. As you finish kneading (massaging) your dough, set some water to boil on the stovetop. Put your dough in a bowl large enough for the anticipated rise and place it in the unheated oven. In a separate dish, pour the boiling water. Close the oven door and allow to rise in the warm, steamy, spa-like environment you’ve just created. If they could talk, the yeast would thank you. Just remember to take out the rising apparatus and dough prior to preheating! Oh yes, preheating is the perfect time for shaping your dough according the style you are baking.

Ok, before moving on, I hear some purists shouting that a long, cool rise is the best for developing flavor. Yes, I get that, but I also know that I’m look for volume and that in my experience the yeastie-beasties seem to just shut down in cool temperatures and the height and texture is not attained. Perhaps an accord can be reached with mixed methodology? Ah, an ideal for future home bakers to reach for… but, until then…

Treatment II: Intense Swedish Sauna for Baking

Ok, you’ve removed everything in the oven from Part I, right? Good. Then it’s time to set up your faux brick oven. The rack for the intended bread needs to be in the middle. If you’re using a pizza stone, you can put it there now. You’ll also need a rack towards the bottom. Why? Because it’s time to go hunting… for bricks! So get up, go outside, and find some boring unglazed bricks. What? You don’t have any lying around your backyard? That is strange as they seem to multiple like some extra terrestrial being here. Don’t fret if the brick aliens haven’t invaded your town, you can use any unglazed terra cotta pots or a pizza stone — anything that will go “sizzle” when you splash it with ice water without breaking will work. Also remember that bricks and stones and stuff hold heat nicely, so don’t be shy about adding them. Once you’re set up, turn that oven up to 500F. Did you hear your oven beep indicating that it’s up to temperature? Well, I hate to break it to you, but your oven is lying. Ouch. It’s not its fault, really. It thinks it’s telling the truth and I want to have faith that the inside air temperature truly is 500F. But once that door is opened, bye-bye air. So keep it closed and let it truly come to temperature, walls, bricks, and all, which will take about 20 minutes.

Now the fun part. You want to work quickly to keep the oven door closed and maintain temperature. Have your dough ready to bake and set aside some ice-water and an ice-water transfer apparatus (i.e. small measuring cup with handle, bulb/turkey baster, etc.). If you’re baking on a pizza stone or the like, it’s already ready to go, and you can just slide your formed dough on it. If not, place your dough on a baking sheet and place it on the middle rack. Get some ice water ready and splash some on your bricks. Poof! It’s a steam sauna! Close that oven door quickly and allow it to work it’s magic. Repeat the sauna method every 10 minutes or so until the bread is finished. How do you know when to take it from the oven? When finished, bread will sound hollow when tapped.

Treatment III: Towel Wrap

I learned this additional technique from my husband’s Portuguese grandparents, who used to own a bakery. Not all breads need this treatment, but it works particularly well with very thick-crusted bread, such as pao caseiro (Portuguese homestyle bread) and broa (Portuguese Cornbread). After removing your bread from your oven, wrap it in a towel and then a blanket and let it cool before cutting into it. The moisture in the bread continues to steam the interior whilst maintaining that amazing crust. The texture created is unsurpassed. If you make a very large loaf in the afternoon, it’s still warm when dinner comes around. Just be sure to cool it completely prior to putting it in anything airtight.

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