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That’s a Mouthful: Observations on Food Blogs

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The reason I’ve not posted for several weeks is that I’ve been so busy working on the new site.  Between that and regular life, I’ve had no time for David’s Table.  I had no idea the new site would be so much work. Take for example an article I am writing on coffee.  I’ve spent well over a month researching everything from the best grinders to the perfect ratio of water to coffee. (It’s 16:1 for those of you keeping score at home.) I feel like I have coffee coming out my ears.

The point is this: If you want to do something well, you can’t rush it, and given the limited time I have, things are moving slooooooowly.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s all worth it. Is a thoughtful approach to food blogging a waste of time?  Do people even care? Is it better to just slap up a pretty picture of something yummy and a half-baked recipe that most people will never try just for sake of keeping your website traffic high? Or is it better to post something thoughtful on a less frequent basis in hopes that your readers eventually regard you as a reliable source?

I’m betting on the latter.  The last thing I want The Kitchen Journals to be is another recipe-centric food blog.  I want readers to think of it as a reliable source of accurate and practical information for the home cook. I want it to be something different from the everyday food blog.  To that end, I’ve studied a ton of food blogs. You name it, I’ve probably seen it at least once. There are a lot of good ones out there and a some not so good ones. Along the way I’ve made a few observations that I’d like to share with you.

Now before I do that, let me just say that these are merely subjective observations.  The opinions expressed are no one’s but my own.  Your welcome the share your opinions in comments section.

Most Readers are Other Bloggers

With the exception of a few superstar bloggers like David Lebovitz, most of a food blogs’ “repeat” traffic comes from other food bloggers. Just take a look at the comments on a fairly popular site, most of the people commenting have a link to their own site.  As a case in point, one popular blogger I follow recently posted a recipe that attracted 25 comments. That’s not bad for a day’s work. However, all 25 came from other bloggers.

This should come as no big surprise. One of the common tenets for driving traffic to your own blog is to comment on the blogs of others. We do this, I suppose, in order to increase traffic and drive ad revenues, but if we’re all just looking at one another in hopes of getting people to look at us, what value does that kind of traffic bring to us or the advertisers?  It’s as if we’re saying, “Oh, you’re wonderful.  Now look at me.”

Yes, to an extent, we bloggers are largely singing to the choir, but that’s not so bad.  I guess what matters most is the community that forms between us.

Looks Aren’t Everything

They say we eat with our eyes first. So it shouldn’t be surprising that most of the successful bloggers are also accomplished food stylists/photographers.  People are drawn to food that looks good. You aren’t going to attract too many readers with pictures of  food that looks like this.

I truly appreciate a well photographed dish, but shouldn’t the picture accurately reflect the recipe?  Take one pastry chef blogger who presented a picture of a perfectly iced cake that was so delicious looking you couldn’t help but drool over it. It was picture perfect. However, the recipe that followed bore no resemblance to the cake in the photo.  For one thing, the cake in the picture was a round layer cake, but the recipe called for a 9 x 13 pan.

I’ve learned to be suspicious of overly stylized photos. They leave me wondering if more effort wasn’t put into the photo than into the recipe. The most egregious offenders are those photos I call pretentiously unpretentious, wherein the blogger has tried too hard to make everything look natural.  They want us to think everything just fell into place.   The tell-tale sign is the “randomly scattered” herbs that have been perfectly placed with a pair of tweezers.

Where Are the Rest of the Photos?

We’ve all been guilty of this one, myself included.  Most post include one or more pictures of the finished product, but few bloggers post photos that illustrate preparation of a recipe.  This seems odd given that the internet is a multimedia-rich, interactive environment.  It just seems that we bloggers could be doing a lot more to exploit the medium. Deb Perlman’s posts at smittenkitchen.com usually include a shot of the mise en place, as well as several shots at various stages of the preparation.  These types of shots are much more useful, and often far more interesting than a static shot of the final results.

More picture can only help the reader to see how a recipe works.  Of course, that means a greater time commitment for the blogger, and in all fairness, it’s difficult to prepare a recipe and photograph the process at the same time.  You almost need a second set of hands.

It’s a Woman’s World

Sorry guys, but we are vastly outnumbered when it comes to food blogging, and that’s a good thing (to borrow a turn of phrase from Martha).  It’s good for us to get a little taste of what women have had to deal with for generations.  The moral of the story is that you’re writing for a female audience.  So don’t lose sight of that.

I believe the estimates put the percentage of women food bloggers at somewhere in the high eighties.  No wonder I feel an immediate kinship whenever I come across another male blogger. I immediately subscribe to their site even if it’s a bad one.  What can I tell you ladies?  We men have to look out for one another.

One Ginormous Collective Sweet Tooth

The broad majority of posts on food blogs are sweets.  Is it any wonder that we as a nation have a problem with obesity?  I’ve also noticed that sweet posts tend to get more comments than savory posts. What’s not to like about a cupcake with a honkin’ big glob of smooth and creamy butter frosting?  Everybody likes dessert. (Well, not everybody, but I’m not sure those people aren’t from another planet.)

Yes, if there is one thing we bloggers are guilty of, it’s that we are a little heavy on the sweets.  Wouldn’t it be great if we all could make a concerted effort to serve up more balanced food blogs?  Perhaps for every dessert we post, we could pledge to post 2-3 savory dishes. Or maybe we could pick one day a year for a sweet-out, wherein we would only post savory recipes and no sweets.  Our waistlines may thank us for it.

Ad Nauseum

Many food bloggers have chosen to monetize their sites through advertising.  There are a lot of advertising networks out there to help them do just that: Google Ad Sense and affiliates programs, Blogher, Gourmet Ads and various others. Most bloggers make little to no money off of advertising this way, and those that do have to work very hard to maintain the income they can get.  Trust me. Food bloggers are not getting rich.  Most of us are doing it out of love.

Bloggers earn most of their money when readers click on the advertisers’ links.   They receive very little for impressions viewed. Yet every time you log onto a food blog using an advertising network, the advertisers are getting their products and services in front of you for pennies on the dollar. In the days before the Internet, advertisers used to pay big bucks for that kind of exposure.

While advertisers pay very little to get the attention of blog readers, the lion’s share of what they do pay goes to the advertising networks.  The bloggers see very little of it, yet the blogger has done all the work. In the end, it’s the blogger that brought the reader to the advertiser.

At The Kitchen Journals, we will roll out without advertisement, but we are looking at new advertising paradigms that respect the reader, bring value to the advertiser, and ensure that the writers and photographers get a fair wage.  It will be a difficult balance to strike, but we aim to do it.

Recipes, Recipes Every Where and Still Nothing to Eat

Carlos Petrini, father of the Slow Food movement, once said, “Now we have an overdose of recipes, recipes, recipes – this television bombardment is pornographic. Traditionally making food is an act of love, and there is a difference between pornography and making love.”  I know exactly what he means. After you’ve spent hours reading food blogs, you start to become numb by the sheer volume of recipes out there on the web.  Some of them are good. Some of them are bad, but one thing is for sure.  There are a lot of them; certainly more than we could ever need in one lifetime.

What is gained by putting yet another recipe out there?  Is it unique?  Does it improve upon an existing recipe? Does it highlight a specific seasonal ingredient?  Will readers learn something from it? Has it been thoroughly tested? Did someone other than the blogger test taste it?

In an op-ed piece about the demise of Gourmet magazine, Christopher Kimball, the editor of Cook’s Illustrated and host of America’s Test Kitchen wrote, “Google ‘broccoli casserole’ and make the first recipe you find. I guarantee it will be disappointing. The world needs fewer opinions and more thoughtful expertise — the kind that comes from real experience, the hard-won blood-on-the-floor kind.”

Before we heap another recipe onto the pile, we food bloggers need to ask ourselves in earnest “What real experience am I offering, and is it thoughtful?” If not, then there is plenty else we can write about when it comes to cooking that just might be more practical.

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Building a Better Website

kj_blueprint_logo_1Sorry for the radio silence of late, but there has been a lot going on in my life. Not the least of which has been the startup of a new media development company and a brand new site,  Several weeks from now, David’s Table will become part of The Kitchen Journals, a new food website focused on the art and science of home cooking.  Some of the more popular content here will be reformatted for that site, and subscribers of David’s Table will have the option of subscribing to The Kitchen Journals.

Why the change? When I began David’s Table it was supposed to act as a knowledge base of everything I was learning has I set out to master the art of cooking.  Oddly, I have never been a 100% comfortable with the blog format. Most food blogs are as much about the author as they are about cooking. This is not a bad thing, but I want a site from which I can collaborate with other food writers.

The Kitchen Journals will consist of original and curated content with the same focus on ingredients, tools and techniques that I have used here, but with multiple contributors and resources, I will be able to consistently bring you a more content. If you like what you see here,  I think you will really like what’s in store.

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In the meantime, there is a lot to do.  We are trying to finalize the platform, a prototype of which appears above. Soon I will be reaching out to other food writers for help. There will be a lot of cooking, writing, editing and photographing to be done before the launch, and details of a marketing plan to be ironed out.  I’m really excited about it, and I hope you will stay tuned.  I have a few more post to share with you here including a tribute to the women who introduced me to baking, my mother.  As we go along, I will also share with you some of the behind-the-scenes activities of building this site from scratch and maybe preview a some of the new content here.

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Using Squeeze Bottles in the Kitchen

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Restaurants use all kinds of tricks of the trade to make cooking tasks easier and more efficient.  I’m currently working on an article for another project about restaurant kitchen tips you can use at home and decided to post my favorite one here.

Restaurant chefs love squeeze bottles – the kind like they used to use for ketchup and mustard. In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain goes as far as to declare them as “indispensible”.  They come in handy when the cook wants to dispense small amounts of sauces or purees in a creative, stylish manner, but my favorite use, by far, is for dispensing oils.

We’ve all seen a chef or TV cook show host dispense small amounts of oil from a bottle by partially covering the spout with his or her thumb.  It may look cool, but it takes a little practice. Invariably you end up with a little oil on your thumb.

Squeeze bottles, however, work much better.  They give you far more control and none of the mess.  In my pantry, I keep a bottle of olive oil and a bottle of canola, the two cooking oils I most frequently use. When I need to put a little oil in a pan, I grab one of the bottles and squirt in precisely the amount I need.  When I need to be more precise, it’s a lot easier measuring out a spoonful of oil from a squeeze bottle than it is from a larger bottle. And I don’t have to fiddle with a screw cap.

You can pick up a set of three 12 ounce bottles online for well under $8. I recommend clear ones for obvious reasons.  Use an indelible marker and put the name of the oil on the outside.  If you don’t cook with oil frequently, then empty a bottle completely before refilling.  This will prevent mixing old oil with the newer.

This is one restaurant kitchen trick that I guarantee you’re going to love.

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Now We’re Cooking!

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I’ve watched as print media publishers have tried to make the transition from paper to tablet, and sometimes its painful.  What you end up with is usually a rehash of the printed content with a layout designed to exploit the tablet’s “swipe” functionality, and that’s about it.  Unless you count the occasional ”iframed” video clip, there is limited interactivity.  This is true for print media in general, but it’s even truer for the publishers of cooking magazine, where there’s so much potential to exploit the medium.

That all changes with Panna, a new bi-monthly video cooking magazine that not only leverages the power of the tablet medium, but it actually aims to show you how to be a better cook. Through stunning graphics and informative high-def videos, Panna goes where no cooking app has gone before and, in doing so,  shows us what a tablet-based cookbook or magazine should look and act like.  At last, you may actually get some money out of that iPad you bought.

But Panna isn’t just a pretty face filled with highly stylized fluff and hype. It’s actually backed with some solid content written by highly qualified, and notable chefs and authors like Rick Bayless, Anita Lo, Nancy Silverton and Jonathan Waxman. You can’t go wrong with a supporting cast like that. Developed by David Ellner, an entertainment industry insider, Panna is the electronic cooking resource we’ve been waiting for.  Take the best of a cookbook and the best of a cooking show, put them together, and you have Panna.

My single favorite feature is the ability to tap on recipe instructions and watch a chef walk you through each step at your pace. Try doing that with a printed magazine!  Panna is currently only available for iPad, but an Android version is slated for release this spring.  The app is free to download. Individual issues cost $4.99, but a year’s subscription (6 issues) cost just $14.99

This is the first tablet based cooking app that I have actually been excited about, but don’t take my word for it, see for yourself. Check out their website to learn more and watch a video demonstration.

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A Cast of Character

cast_iron_001The unique characteristics of cast iron give it certain advantages over other types of cookware.  While the thermal conductivity of iron isn’t as good as that of aluminum or copper, its high density allows it to retain heat much longer than lighter metals.  When cold food hits the surface of a hot iron skillet, heat is not lost as rapidly.  Cast iron is also relatively inexpensive and, with proper care, it can last a lifetime…maybe two.  There’s no reason the cast iron you buy today couldn’t be passed down to your children or even their children.

Perhaps cast iron’s most appealing characteristic is how, over time, it develops a natural nonstick surface.  This is achieved through a process known as seasoning, in which fats are baked onto the surface of the pan at high temperatures.  The net effect is an inexpensive, long-lasting nonstick pan that doesn’t have the health risks thought to be associated with chemically produced nonstick coatings.

Of course, the operative words here are “over time”.  Cast iron pans – even those that are “pre-seasoned” by the manufacturer – do not come out of the box ready to go. It takes time and a little work to build-up an effective nonstick surface, but the payoff is worth the effort.

Getting Off to the Right Start

So you just got a new cast iron skillet and you want to get started?  Well, before any food touches the pan, you’ll want to begin the seasoning process.  Even if your pan has been pre-seasoned by the manufacturer, you will want to perform this procedure at least once:

Pre-heat your oven to 350°F (176°C). Rinse the pan in warm water only, and towel dry.  On the stove top, heat the pan over medium-high heat until all the water has evaporated.  Place a tablespoon of vegetable oil or a teaspoon of vegetable shortening in the pan. Heat until the oil begins to smoke.

Using paper towels and a pair of tongs, wipe down the inside of the pan until evenly coated.  With a second paper towel, wipe out excess oil.  This is important!  There should be no pooling or extra oil.  The pan should have a thin even coat. Too much oil in the pan will form a tacky film, and you will have to strip the surface and start over again.

On the center rack of the oven, place the pan upside down to allow excess oil to drip. Bake for 30-60 minutes. Turn off the oven and allow the pan to cool completely.  If your pan was not pre-seasoned, you should repeat this process 2-3 more times.

Congratulations! You’ve just completed your first seasoning.  As I said earlier, the pan will not be ready for prime time.  In the beginning, it helps if you reserve your pan for those cooking tasks that involve a lot of oil or grease such as frying chicken or cooking bacon or steaks.  These tasks will help to quickly build the nonstick coating.

Cleaning Cast Iron

Nothing – and I mean nothing – will undo your seasoning faster than soap.  So from this point forward, you will need to wrap your head around the difficult notion that soap must never again touch the surface of your cast iron pan. This will allow the fats and the oils you cook with to build up over time and create the easy-release properties we’re looking for.

Now before you say “ew gross”, keep in mind that bacteria cannot live at temperatures above 212°F (100°C). You will be heating your cast iron pans well in excess of 350° (176°C).  Nothing can live at those temperatures.

Rest assured you will still wash your pan.  You just won’t use any soap.  Some hot water and a dish rag will usually do the trick.  Use a scrub brush to remove any food or debris. You will also want to avoid soaking your pan for long periods. Too much soaking can also eat away at your seasoned coating.

If you end up with a real mess inside your pan that water and a scrub brush can’t fix, don’t give-in and reach for the detergent. There is a better way.  Place the pan on the stove top over medium-high heat.   Put 2-3 tablespoons of oil in the pan and heat over medium heat until the oil shimmers.  Put a generous handful of coarse kosher salt into the pan. With a paper towel and tongs, scrub the inside of the pan using the salt as an abrasive.  Rinse out the pan with hot water and repeat, if necessary, until the pan is clean.

Keeping a Good Thing Going

After cleaning your cast iron, give it a quick re-seasoning using this shorter stove top method:

Heat the pan on the stove top until all signs of water are gone.  Place a tablespoon of vegetable oil into the pan.  With paper towels and tongs, wipe down the inside of the pan and along the top of the rim.  Continue to heat the pan until the oil smokes. Remove from the heat and let the pan cool completely.

Once the pan has cooled completely, wipe out any excess oil with a clean paper towel.  The pan should have a nice sheen, but it shouldn’t look shiny or be oily to the touch.

Starting Over

Sometimes things go wrong, and something gets on your cast iron pan that no amount of scrubbing will remove.  It may become necessary to strip your pan back to its humble origins, and start all over again. If that happens, breakout the dish detergent and a Scotch Brite non-scratch scouring pad.  If that’s not enough cleaning power, add some non-bleach non-abrasive scouring powder such as Bon Ami or Bar Keepers Friend. Once you have stripped the surface, begin the seasoning process again, as you would with a new pan.

Overcoming Rust

If your cast iron pan goes unused for a long while, it may develop a little rust.  If that’s the case, fear not.  Surface rust is superficial and easily removed.  Try either of the two cleaning methods described above (water + scrub brush or oil + coarse salt) and the rust should be gone. Just remember to season the pan afterwards using the stove top method.

Follow these basic steps to keep your cast iron well seasoned, and it will soon become one of your favorite and most reliable pans.

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I received some good advice when I was shopping for an ice cream maker: Buy more machine than you need. In other words, if you want to be able to make a quart of ice cream at one time, buy a machine that makes two quarts. The reason being is that the larger freezer bowl will provide more chilling power and ensure a firmer ice cream.

That is what led me to the Cuisinart ICE-30BC Pure Indulgence 2-Quart Automatic Frozen Yogurt, Sorbet, and Ice Cream Maker. (Wow. That’s a mouthful.)  I had had my eye on the smaller Cuisinart ICE-20BC with its 1½-quart capacity (which has since been replaced by the ICE-21), but decided the extra capacity was worth the  50% price premium.  I’ve been using the machine for four years now, and overall I have been quite pleased with its performance. I make about a quart or two each month, and it has consistently produces good quality premium-style ice cream and sorbet in less than 25 minutes.

The design of these types of ice cream makers is quite simple.  At the core is an insulated freezer bowl that contains a cooling liquid.  The bowl has to hang out in the freezer for at least 24 hours before using. Ice cream or sorbet ingredients go inside the frozen bowl while a motor rotates the bowl around a stationary paddle insert that stirs the ingredients while they slowing freeze.

The freezer bowl on the Cuisinart ICE-30BC is big. It weighs a hefty 4 pounds 10 ounces and measures 7½ inches in diameter and is 6¼ inches tall.  Needless to say you need some freezer space to get this baby cold. Maybe not a good choice if you live in the city with one of those toaster-sized freezers, but I believe it is precisely this heft the produces a better consistency of ice cream than other models.

What I like most about this product is that it doesn’t incorporate too much air into the ice cream while freezing.  What results is a dense, Ben & Jerry-, Haagen-Dazs-style ice cream. I also like the large opening at the top of the machine, which makes it easy for adding stir-ins. I can easily insert a spatula through the opening, and redistribute the contents to avoid cold spots.  The design, with its brushed metal exterior is very attractive, and there is a compartment in the bottom to hold the electrical, which is a nice added feature.

My only real complaint is that the motor that turns the freezer bowl is loud…really loud. So much so that it rivals my blender and my standing mixer in decibels.  Given that the motor needs to run for 20-25 minutes for each batch, the noise can be annoying.

Checking the reviews on Amazon, I found that at this writing 90% of 874 reviewers gave the Cuisinart 4-5 stars. The most troublesome of the complaints were those that dealt with the motor overheating and the system not working.  These problems all seem to occur within the first year of ownership, and a representative from Cuisinart assures me that the limited warranty would cover defects such as these for up to 3 years.

Overall, I would give the Cuisinart ICE-30BC Pure Indulgence 2-Quart Automatic Frozen Yogurt, Sorbet, and Ice Cream Maker a grade of A. It retails for $89.95 at Williams-Sonoma. Given that these are somewhat heavy machines, I would recommend you purchase yours from a brick and mortar store if possible. That way if you should have any problems what so ever, you can easily return them without the cost of shipping.

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Eggs 101: The Anatomy of an Egg

Be it baked, boiled, coddled, fried, poached or scrambled, a perfectly prepared egg is the hallmark of a good cook. With this post we begin an on-going series called Eggs 101, in which we will address each of these basic cooking techniques in-depth. By the time we reach the end, you will have mastered each and every approach.

But before we get cooking, we need to start with some basics, and it doesn’t get any more basic than an anatomy lesson. No, you don’t need to know the difference between a chalazae and the thin albumen to make a decent omelet, but you can learn a lot about cooking an egg just from looking at it.

Shell

There aren’t too many culinary uses for an eggshell, but they do make the perfect storage container. Their rigid strength and semi-permeable membranes allow us to keep eggs fresh in the refrigerator for weeks. Shells are predominately calcium carbonate and have a thin outer membrane called a cuticle that forms a barrier against bacteria. The color of the shell is dependent on the breed of chicken that laid it and has no bearing on taste or nutritional value. If you want to put your old shells to good use, here is a list of 12 things you can do with them.

Shell Membranes

Between the shell and the egg white are the inner and outer membranes, which also act as barriers to bacteria.

Air Cell

The temperature of a freshly laid egg is about 105°F (41°C).  As the egg cools, an air pocket forms between the shell membranes, usually at the broader, rounded end of the egg. This pocket, called the air cell, is most visible with hard-boiled eggs. As the egg ages, the cell grows larger.

Albumen

Known as the egg white, the albumen is 90% water and accounts for 69% of the egg’s weight. It provides nearly 4 grams of protein and has virtually no fat or cholesterol. Next the yolk, the albumen tastes bland, but it’s protein structures are what give meringues and soufflés their lift. There are two parts to the albumen. The white that immediately surrounds the yolk is the thick albumen, which is, in turn,  surrounded by the thin albumen. When an egg is fresh the ratio of thick albumen to thin is 3:2. As the egg ages, the albumen spreads and the ratio drops to less than 1:1. The thickness of the inner albumen largely determines the grade of the egg.

Yolk

A powerhouse of nutrition, the yolk accounts for 31% of an eggs weight, 41% of its protein (~3 grams), and 100% of its fat (6g) and cholesterol (213mg). The yolk also provides iron, vitamins A and D as well as calcium, thiamine, and riboflavin.  It also contains a lecithin compound which makes it a natural emulsifier for such things a mayonnaise.  The yolk gets its yellowish orange color from a plant pigments in the hen’s feed.  The sometimes-visible small indentation on the surface of the yolk is called the germinal disk and is where the sperm enters the egg. (Contrary to popular belief, a fertilized egg is no more nutritious than an unfertilized one.) Sometimes reddish-brown flecks are visible in the yolk.  These are called blood or meat spots and are harmless.

Vitelline Membrane

A thin clear wall that holds the yolk together and makes it possible for us to separate the yolk, in tact, from the whites.  Once the membrane is broken, you virtually have scrambled eggs. As the egg ages, the membrane weakens and the yolk spreads.

Chalazae

Pronounced “ka-lay-zee”, these small rope-like structures are part of the egg whites and tether the yolk to the inner shell membrane. It primary purpose is to keep the yolk centered.  (Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had our own chalazae?) The more the prominent chalazae the fresher the egg.

Next Up in This Series: Visual Cues of a Fresh Egg

 

Sources:

McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.

“All About Eggs”. Egg Farmers of Alberta. Web. 10 Dec. 2012. <http://eggs.ab.ca/about-eggs/quality-grades>

Incredible Edible Egg. The American Egg Board (AEB). Web. 8-11 Dec. 2012. <http://www.incredibleegg.org>

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Photos from the West Side Market

I spent Thanksgiving in Cleveland this year, and on Wednesday, we paid a visit to one of my favorite spots in the city, the West Side Market. This year the market, with its iconic clock tower, turns 100 years old. While the age of the supermarket may have killed many inner urban markets, the West Side Market, located at the intersection of West 25th Street and Lorain Avenue, is still going strong. Each year over a million visitors come from far and wide to visit the more 100 vendors that set-up shop here. You’ll find everything you need right here to make a fantastic meal. Along with fresh meats, vegetables and seafood, there are also pastries, roasted coffee, and spices.

If you’re ever in the Cleveland area, make sure you take some time to visit here. You’ll be glad you did. Until then, I close out this long holiday weekend with these wonderful pictures.

A special thanks to Nikolas Behncke for providing some of these shots.

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The Measure of a Cook

I’ve been meaning to write a post on measuring volume versus weight, but kept putting it off. Then last week David Lebovitz wrote an excellent piece in which he asked his readers, “How precise do recipes need to be?” At the time of this writing, nearly 200 of Lebovitz’s readers have commented, and one thing is evident. We are a nation world of measurers versus weighers.

Whether to weigh your ingredients or measure them volumetrically has been a culinary question for the ages, and as with so many things in cooking, the answer to this question is…(drum roll please)… “it depends”.

When cooking savory foods, precision isn’t usually necessary. Soups and stews and pot roasts don’t suffer if you use a little more of this and a little less of that. But when it comes to baking, accuracy is important. There is a lot of chemistry at work, particularly where leavening is involved. Of course, this begs the question, “how accurate is accurate?” Do I really need to weigh my flour and sugar, or can I just use a measuring cup? Here again, I fall back on my original response, it depends.

How consistent do you want to be? If you want your pastries, cakes and cookies to look and taste the same from one batch to the next, I recommend that you purchase a good quality kitchen scale if you don’t already own one. It turns out a cup of all-purpose flour can weigh anywhere from 4.25 to 5 ounces depending on how you fill the cup. That’s a pretty big difference. Yet an ounce is always an ounce. That’s why I like to to err on the side of caution and weigh my ingredients. (I have even been known to weigh such ingredients as butter, chocolate chips, honey, and yeast all in the name of accurate baking.) It really doesn’t take any extra effort and eliminates all the guesswork.

Of course, if you’re okay with minor variations in your annual holiday rum cake, for example, than measuring is probably fine for you. If you do favor volume metrics, there are a few simple things you can do to improve your accuracy. For example, when measuring flour always aerate it first. What this basically means is to stir-up your flour in order to incorporate more air into it. It will eliminate clumping and ensure a more even distribution. Dip your measuring cup into the flour scooping out a little more than you need. With the back edge of a table knife, tap across the top of the cup several time to fill in any air pockets; then sweep the back of the knife across the rim of the cup to remove the excess.

Don’t use dry measuring cups to measure liquids and vice versa. Dry measuring cups are designed to be filled to the brim. That can get messy with liquids. Liquid measuring cups usually have a pour spout and extra space at the top to prevent overflow. That extra space makes it difficult to level off dry goods. So make sure you have a good set of dry measuring cups and a 1 – 2 cup liquid measuring cup.

If you find a recipe which only provides weights and you need to convert to volume metrics, or vice versa, here’s a good conversions chart.

In the end, accuracy depends on personal preference and the level of perfection you seek. Whether you prefer measuring or weighing, just make sure you have the right tools for the job. Here are my recommendations for some basic products. After the oven, these are the most important baking tools I own. These are not paid endorsements, nor are they the only brands I recommend. But these are all good, solid products.

Measuring Scale

One look at my Escali digital scale and you’ll know I’m a weigher. It looks like it’s been through a small war. It’s scratched and marred and the battery cover is held on by a piece of packaging tap after an unfortunate run-in with the floor. It was fairly inexpensive (under $25) and is pretty darn accurate. It measures in both ounces and grams and uses two “AA” batteries. The auto shut off extends battery life, but it still give you a generous about of time before kicking in. My only complaint: The digital reader is hard to see when a large bowl is on the scale.

Dry Measuring Cups

I like these basic stainless steel cups from Amco. The long sturdy handles do not get in the way when swiping off excess and they clean up easily in the dishwasher. The sizes are etched in into the handles so I don’t have to worry about them washing away, which was a problem for a plastic set I used to own. They come in a set of 4: 1-cup, ½ cup, 1/3 cup and ¼ cup, and retail for about $18.

Liquid Measuring Cups

I worked with several over the years, and I have two favorites. One are these angled cups from the Pampered Chef that allow you easily read them from the inside. They come in a set of three: 1 –cup, 2-cup, and 4-cup, and retail for about $24.

Liquid Measuring Cups

My other favorite liquid measuring cup is this Emsa Perfect Beaker, in part because it takes me back to high school chemistry lab, but the big reason is because it is highly graduated. It measures in pints, cups, ounces, ml/ccm, tablespoons, and teaspoons. It’s great for conversion, and retails for about $8.

Measuring Spoons

Here again, I depend on stainless steel. Plastic sets seem bulky to me, and they melt if they get to hot. This set retails for $2. I keep two sets on hand. Like my measuring cups, the size is etched into the handle and cannot be washed off. It includes a tablespoon, teaspoon, ½ teaspoon and ¼ teaspoon.

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Keep Your Cool When Making Gateau Basque

A good meal in a nice restaurant is a wonderful thing, but when there is the possibility of replicating a restaurant dish at home, I find the experience all the more intriguing. This happened for me last year at a small French bistro in San Francisco called Fringale. On that night I ordered the Gateau Basque, a traditional dessert from the Basque region in the south of France. When it arrived, there was nothing on the plate except for a unassuming piece of the cake dusted with powdered sugar, but it tasted so fantastic. A good Gateau Basque is deceivingly simple, but when you eat it, you discover dimensions you never expected.

From that moment, I was hooked. I knew before the check was paid, that I would have to try and recreate that taste for myself once I was back home. My first attempts went quite well. I began with this recipe from Fringale founder and Basque-native Gerald Hirigoyen. Since then, I’ve tried several recipes, making adaptations and changes here and there all in the pursuit to perfect this amazing cake.

The Butter Issue

One of the earliest observations I made was that sometimes the cake would come out tall and airy with a flaky crumb, and other times, it came out dense and heavy. Preferring the former to the latter, I wondered what I was doing differently each time. It didn’t take long to realize it was the butter – or more to the point, how I was handling the butter – that was culprit.

As it turns out, the baking powder isn’t the only leavening at work here. Since Gateau Basque is more like a short crust dough than a typical cake batter, some of the lift actually comes from the butter. Here’s how: Unsalted butter is comprised of fat (~80%), milk solids (~1%) and water (~19%). We all know that water and oil don’t mix, but when butter is in it’s solid form, some of the proteins in the milk solids help to contain the water. When the butter is heated, the water separates and eventually evaporates and forms steam. In pastry and shortcrust dough,  layers or bits of solid butter become encased by the dough. When the cold solid butter meets the hot oven air, the water in the butter quickly converts to steam and lifts the dough leaving pockets of air.

Problems occur when butter is allowed to soften or melt before the pastry gets into the oven. The water and oil begin to separate. The water gets into the dough, and the oil sinks. You end up with a heavier cake that feels as though it was soaked it in butter. This is what causes greasy pastries as we discussed in this post on making croissants.

When I realized this is what was happening with my Gateau Basque, I doubled my efforts to keep the butter as cold as possible, and this made all the difference.  The first thing I did was to store the greased baking dish in the freezer until it was time to assemble the cake.  This way, when I line the pan with dough using my warm hands, the cooled dish helps keep the dough cold.  I also made sure the butter was good and cold from the start.  One technique is to cut the butter into smaller pieces and allow it cool in the freezer for about 5-10 minutes. The smaller pieces of butter will take less time to break up than the full stick.

Over mixing the dough can also warm the butter. You’ll want to use a gentle hand here. Just mix it enough to bring it together and then wrap it up and let it rest in the freezer for 10-15 minutes.  I also return the dough to the freezer after rolling it out and once again just before I put the assembled cake into the oven.  You can use either pastry filling or fruit preserves.  Which ever you choose, make certain it is fully cooled before assembling the cake.

After making these changes and being mindful not to let the butter melt, my Gateau Basque has consistently been light and flaky. If you do the same, I’m sure you’ll have similar success.  Hopefully, you will come to enjoy this wonderful cake as much as I do.

Gateau Basque Recipe

This recipe is adapted from Zen Can Cook, a favorite food blog that I highly recommend. The sites author began his culinary training in the Basque region of France. The story of how he acquired the recipe is equally intriguing. Gateau Basque is commonly made with a vanilla pastry filling, but you can also use fruit marmalades such as cherry or apricot. If you do use the pastry filling, make certain to let it heat for a minute to cook off the raw flour taste.

Makes 6 servings

Ingredients:

  • For almond pastry
  • 8 3/4 ounces (250 g) all pupose flour
  • 4 1/2 ounces (125 g) sugar
  • one 4 oz. stick (125 g) unsalted butter
  • 1 ounce (25 g) almond flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 lemon zest
  • 1/2 orange zest
  • For pastry filling
  • cherry marmalade
  • or
  • 2 cups + 2 tbsp (1/2 liter) whole milk
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 3 1/2 ounces (100 g.) sugar
  • 1 3/4 ounces (50 g) flour
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 1 tablespoon rum

Method:

In a bowl add flour, sugar, butter, baking powder, almond flour and lemon and orange zest. Mix until it looks like sand. Add the egg and the almond extract and mix until dough comes together, do not overmix. Wrap the dough in foil and let it rest in freezer.

In the meantime prepare the pastry cream. Scrape the vanilla bean into the milk and bring to a boil. Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until pale. Add the flour and whisk until incorporated. Temper the egg mixture by slowly adding half of the hot milk to it while whisking. Place the rest of the milk back on the fire until it starts boiling. Now whisk in the egg-milk-mixture and continue whisking for at least one minute to cook off the raw flour taste. Turn off the heat and spread the mixture out on a large surface in order for it to cool rapidly.

Preheat the oven to 375′F and grease an 8 inch (20 cm) cake pan or pastry dish. Cut the dough in half, and place one half back into the freezer. Roll out the other half to a circle of about 10 inches (25 cm) in diameter.  Gently line the bottom and sides of the baking dish with the dough.  Fill with either cooled pastry cream or cherry preserve.

Roll out the second half of the dough to about 8 inches (20 cm) in diameter. Carefully drape it over the cake filling and and pinch together the edges of the two layers of dough to seal in the filling. Trim off any excess dough. Make a crisscross pattern on top and brush it evenly with an egg yolk diluted in a tiny bit of water. Bake it for 30 minutes or until golden brown.

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