Friday, March 28, 2008

Dashi -- the base of Japanese cuisine

Making stocks is like flossing. It's something everyone should do on a regular basis, it's just that not everyone does. If you make most of your stocks from scratch, I am in awe of your discipline. I usually just reach for a box or a can in my pantry whenever a recipe calls for beef or chicken stock. Maybe that's why I find taking professional cooking classes as inspiring as going to the dentist. They always start with a somber lecture on "thou shalt make stock," and I always feel the proper amount of remorse for my laziness. But then I get back into the kitchen, and something tells me that life goes on with or without home-made stock. Last night's meat class was empirical evidence in support of my theory. You should have seen the speed with which my students devoured a NY strip with a red wine reduction (made out of store bought stock and 2 buck chuck, by the way). What really mattered was that the steak was prime (meaning well-marbled), dry-aged (meaning tender), cooked to prefect medium-rare, and seasoned generously with salt and freshly ground pepper. The rest, if you ask me, is trifles.

The only time I take stocks a bit more seriously is when I make clear soups. Hearty of chunky soups are very forgiving and will hide the imperfections of a store bought stock, but clear soups are a totally different story. They are all about the broth, and if it's not good enough, the soup is not worth eating.

My little discovery this weekend was that if you take a virtual trip to Japan, it's possible to make a perfect home-made stock in minutes! This stock is called dashi, and it's the foundation of Japanese cooking. It smells like the sea with smoky undertones and makes fantastic clear soups. While you can find it in powder, the real thing has only 2 ingredients (kombu and bonito flakes) and takes literally 5 minutes. I am not exaggerating. This is not like Rachel Ray's 20 minute meal that takes 45 minutes in real life (when you don't have all your veggies pre-washed and pre-chopped). Dashi is indeed a 5 minute undertaking even for someone whose only kitchen skill is knowing how to boil water.

Kombu? Bonito flakes? I know what you are thinking: "What on earth is that and where am I supposed to get it?" Kombu (a.k.a. dried kelp) is a sea vegetable. In the picture below, it's the slightly wavy black sheet. Bonito flakes are tissue thin shavings of dried bonito, a species of small tuna. In the picture, they are the pink fluffy things that look like packaging material. You can buy both at most Whole Foods markets or at an Asian grocery store.

Kombu does not lend itself nicely to cup measurements since it looks like big flat dried up leaves. To figure out how much to use, look at the package. If your package has 60 grams (2 oz) of kelp, use roughly half of it.

Adapted from Gourmet Magazine, May 2000

For 6 cups dashi

6 cups water
30 grams (1 oz) kombu (dried kelp)
10 g bonito flakes (about 1 cup)
  1. If possible let kombu sit in cold water for at least 30 minutes and up to 1 day before making dashi.  If you don't have time, start at step 2.
  2. In a medium pot, bring the water and kombu to just under a boil (180F), you'll see little bubble form on the bottom of the pot, and barely start to break the surface of water at the edges.  Take the pot off heat.
  3. Add bonito flakes to the pot and stir to get them moistened.
  4. Wait 3 minutes.
  5. Strain the liquid into a bowl through a sieve or colander lined with dampened paper towel.
Done! See -- I told you it was easy.

What can you do with dashi? The possibilities are endless. I like to simmer it with some ginger, season it with Japanese soy sauce, Mirin (sweet rice wine), and a squirt of lemon, then pour over a bowl of udon or soba noodles. Add some thinly sliced scallions, sugar snapped peas, and shitake mushrooms and you have a lovely soup. To make it into a meal, just plop in a piece of delicate fish seared on the skin side (or whatever side you want if the fish doesn't have the skin) right into a bowl of soup. In 3-5 minutes, the soup will cook the other side of the fish to medium-rare making it custardy soft. Not all fish taste good or are safe to eat undercooked, but King or Atlantic salmon are very yummy and safe prepared this way.

To cook salmon, dry it well on paper towels. Sear it in a very hot, non-stick skillet, skin side down for 2 minutes. Drain on paper towel to remove access fat and keep it crispy. Take the pan off heat, add 1 Tbsp soy sauce and 1 Tbsp Mirin (for two pieces of salmon, 6oz each), and put the pan on medium heat. Return the salmon to the pan skin side down and wait for the glaze to caramelize, 30-60 seconds. Watch it very closely! After the first 15 seconds, check it every 5 seconds. This sauce can go from beautiful caramel to black in a flash. Place the salmon in the bowl of soup skin side up being careful not to get the skin wet.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Flaky Currant Scones

Family dinners with an 8 month old... It's a lovely concept, in principle. You gather around the dinner table, tell each other about little incidents at work and school, plan the weekend outings, the baby is happily munching along through new and interesting tidbits of food you give her, she learns how to eat and socialize, and everyone is having a good time. That's what all my parenting books and newsletters have been trying to tell me.

And then there is the reality. Either Jason comes home after 7pm, or I teach at night, and even if both of us are home and willing to do an early dinner, we run into don't-mess-with-Sammy time. After 5pm, she gets tired and a little restless. She is a very easy going baby, but if she is hungry, she has to be fed NOW. By the time we get the adult dinner ready and set the table, the poor kid is screaming bloody murder. Somehow the parenting books forgot to mention that part. After one disastrous attempt at the "family dinner," we are going back to Mommy-and-Daddy dinner that happens after Sammy is asleep.

But family breakfasts are a totally different story. In the morning, Sammy is the happiest baby on the block, and she can wait very patiently while we are showering and getting food on the table. I am not normally a breakfast person, and I am definitely not a morning person. But since breakfast is now our special family meal, I wanted to lift it out of the monotony of yogurt and granola. I also thought it's a good opportunity to continue learning about baking. There was only one problem. I wanted freshly baked goods without freshly baked effort. In other words, work the day before is fine, but the morning of, I just want to pop something in the oven and take it out. I also wanted fabulous results. The smell of freshly baked something really doesn't do it for me if that something isn't perfectly delicious. That's why I went straight to Rose Levy Beranbaum's "The Bread Bible." This book is not for the faint of heart. It's for seriously anal people who want seriously awesome results.

Once I decided that I didn't have more than an hour to spend on this breakfast extravaganza, I settled on flaky currant scones. The recipe looked relatively easy, but still way more work than I was willing to do on a weekday morning. Was there any way to make it in advance and still end up with piping hot scones in the morning? These scones called for baking soda and baking powder, which made delayed baking risky. What if the scones fail to rise and I end up with tough little hockey pocks? To mitigate the risk of a complete disaster the following morning, I baked one batch at night right after mixing the dough, and one batch the next morning after an overnight rest in the fridge. The results? Both came out great and Jason couldn't tell the difference in a blind taste test. I also tried freezing the baked scones and then reheating them in the oven according to Berenbaum's instructions. That too proved to be successful.

Sammy is too little to eat scones, but she was clapping her hands so enthusiastically, I figured she approved. Tender and buttery scones, strong black tea, and a smiling baby -- what else does one need for perfect happiness!

Flaky Currant Scones
Adopted from Rose Levy Beranbaum's book "The Bread Bible"

Makes 12 to 16 triangular scones 4 inches on the side and 1.5 inches high

About measurements: I am listing the measurements in grams, ounces, and cups. Pick whichever one you like. The reason there is no cup measurement for flour is because it's a bad way to measure it.

Flour: Rose suggests using Hecker's flour because it has a protein level higher than Gold Medal, but lower than King Arthur. I only had King Arthur, and the scones came out perfectly fine. On my second try, I used 3 parts King Arthur AP flour and 1 part Pillsbury Cake flour and the scones came out even more tender and delicious. But don't sweat this flour issue.

What if butter gets too soft: If at any point in the dough making process, the butter gets too soft, pop the dough in the fridge to cool for 15-30 minutes before continuing.

unsalted butter, cold (227 grams / 8 oz / 2 sticks)
unbleached all-purpose flour, preferably Hecker's (608 grams / 21.25 oz)
granulated sugar (100 grams / 3.5 oz / 0.5 cup)
baking powder (9.6 grams / 2 tsp)
baking soda (2.5 grams / 0.5 tsp)
salt (1.7 grams / 0.25 tsp table salt or 0.5 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt)
heavy cream (464 grams / 16.3 oz / 2 liquid cups)
currants (131 grams / 4.5 oz / 1 cup)

2 half sheet pans lined with parchment paper
Pastry scraper
Baking stone or baking sheet
Instant read thermometer

  1. Cut the butter into 1 inch cubes. Chill in the fridge for 30 minutes or in the freezer for 10.
  2. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk to distribute evenly. Add the butter and rub it with your finger tips to press the cubes into large flakes. Stop when butter is still very chunky (the size of cherries, but somewhat squashed).
  3. Add the cream and stir the dough with your hand just until the flour is moistened. Add the currants and knead the dough in the bowl just until it holds together. It's better to under-mix than over-mix. If some clumps just don't want to join the big happy ball, don't worry -- you can add them later when shaping the dough. If you over-mix, you'll get tough hockey pock scones.
  4. Place the stone or baking sheet on the middle rack in the oven and preheat it to 400F for 30 minutes before baking.
  5. Turn the dough out on a lightly floured work surface. Lightly flour the top of the dough. Roll it out into a long rectangle 1 inch thick, 8 inches wide, and 12 inches long. Smoosh in the sides with a pastry scraper to end up with an even rectangle.
  6. Folding and rolling procedure that will give your scones their flakiness (to be done 4 times):
    • Fold the dough in thirds like a letter (use your pastry scraper to help you fold).
    • You'll end up with a small rectangle. Roll it back out into a large 8"x12" rectangle.
    • Rotate the dough 90 degrees and repeat the folding and rolling 3 more time, sprinkling the dough, rolling pin, and work surface with flour as necessary to prevent it from sticking.
  7. Cut the dough in half lengthwise to get two 4"x12" strips. Cut the strips into 4"x4" squares (you might have a bit leftover on the sides). Then cut the squares on the diagonal to make triangular scones.
  8. Place the scones on parchment covered half sheets spacing them 1 inch apart. If the dough is soft, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes before baking. If more convenient, you can refrigerate for up to 12 hours.
  9. Bake the scones one sheet at a time, keeping the second sheet in the fridge while the first one bakes. Place the half sheet on preheated baking stone or baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes, rotate the half sheet, and bake another 5-12 minutes. The scones are done when the tops are golden brown and they barely give when pressed lightly with a finger (instant read thermometer will register 200F in the center). Do not over-bake! The scones will continue to cook when they are out of the oven and they are best slightly moist and soft inside.
  10. Place linen or cotton towels on two large racks and transfer the scones on top with a spatula. Wrap the scones loosely in towels and allow to cool until warm, 5-10 minutes. The towels play an important role, since they allow the scones to breath and prevent them from getting either too dry or soggy. While they are good cold, they just melt in the mouth when warm, so hurry up, make yourself a cup of tea and enjoy :)
Cool leftovers completely. Wrap each scone tightly in plastic wrap and put them all together in a large freezer bag. To warm up, preheat the oven to 300F, place still frozen scones on a baking sheet or on a piece of foil, and pop in the oven for 20 minutes. They'll be as good as new.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Earl Grey Chiffon Cake

This recipe is based on the chiffon cake from the 1997 edition of the Joy of Cooking. I strongly recommend buying this book and reading not just the recipe, but the whole chapter on cakes. I'll try to include enough detail in this post to make it doable even for bakingly challenged (this includes me, by the way). If I seem anal to you, I am sorry. But that's the level of precision that finally got me a cake I was happy with.

The fact that you don't see a cup measurement for flour is not an oversight. It's intentional. Maybe if food writers in the US finally started boycotting this terrible way of measuring flour, home bakers would be encourage to get a scale and 80% of their baking problems would be solved.

  • One 9 1/2 to 10 inch tube pan (a.k.a. angel cake pan) with removable bottom
  • Instant read thermometer
  • Electric mixer
  • Scale
  • Rubber spatula
  • An empty wine bottle (for cooling the cake)

For the tea (to use in both batter and icing)

3 Tbsp loose leaf Earl Gray tea. The leaves should be at least partially broken (not full leaf) otherwise they are too chew-y in the finished cake. But, if the leaves are broken/ground too finely, they do not add to the appearance of the cake.

* * *

For the cake

Dry ingredients

9 oz cake flour (256 grams)
10 oz granulated sugar (285 grams)
1 Tbsp baking powder (14.7 grams)
1 tsp table salt or 2 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (5.7 grams)

Wet ingredients
5 large egg yolk
3/4 cups freshly brewed and cooled earl gray tea
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla

Whipped egg whites
8 large egg whites
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
2 oz granulated sugar (57 grams)

* * *

For the icing
3 Tbsp freshly brewed and cooled earl gray tea
1/2 tsp unflavored gelatin
1 cup cold heavy cream
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 oz sifted powdered sugar or to taste (28 grams)


Approximately 2 hours before making the batter
  1. Brew the tea using 3 Tbsp tea leaves and 2 cups boiling water. Let the tea brew for 2 hours. Don't be alarmed if it's too strong to drink. It has to be extremely strong to provide sufficient flavor since relatively little goes into batter and icing.
  2. Prepare a Kitchen Aid mixer bowl and beater for egg whites. Even if they look clean, wash them thoroughly with soapy water; dry completely with a clean paper towel. Even a spec of fat will prevent the whites from whipping correctly.
  3. Separate 8 eggs (you'll need 5 yolks and 8 white for the recipe). Use one small "working" bowl, one bowl for yolks that you will later use to mix "wet" ingredients, and the specially-cleaned "whites" bowl. Only transfer each white into the "whites" bowl after making sure that the yolk was removed intact. It's easiest to separate with your hands---the yolk breaks easily on the shell if you're not a pro.
Make the batter and bake the cake
  1. Preheat the oven to 325F.
  2. Remove the tea leaves from the tea liquor and let the leaves drain.
  3. Test the egg whites and tea liquor with an instant read thermometer before continuing!. They must be room temperature, 65-75F. Make sure to wash and dry the thermometer very thoroughly before testing the egg whites since they won't whip properly otherwise.
  4. Sift together the dry ingredients twice into a large bowl. A "crank sifter" works great for this. Put crank sifter in a spare bowl on top of a digital scale. Pour the dry ingredients into the sifter, taring after each ingredient so you can use the scale to measure. Sift into the spare bowl. Then, move the sifter to a large metal bowl and pour dry ingredients into the sifter and sift.
  5. Add the remaining wet ingredients into the "yolks" bowl. Note that you only use part of the tea liquor. Beat the wet ingredients on high speed until smooth.
  6. Gently stir the wet ingredients into dry ingredients along with half of the drained tea leaves (about 3 Tbsp packed). Only stir until the flour streaks disappear and most of the flour lumps are gone. Do not over mix or you'll have a tough cake.
  7. Add the cream of tartar to the egg whites, and start beating them on low speed with a whisk mixer attachment. When frothy, increase the speed to medium and beat until soft peaks form. Gradually add 2 oz sugar and increase the speed to high. Beat until the peaks are stiff, but not dry. Do not over beat or the whites will become clumpy.
  8. Use a rubber spatula to fold one-quarter of the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture. Then fold in the rest of the whites. Here is a video on how to fold in the whites. The reason you don't add the whites all at once is to lighten the batter first and make the consistencies of the batter and the whites more compatible.
  9. Scrape the batter into an ungreased tube pan and spread evenly.
  10. Bake until the top springs back when lightly pressed, a tooth pick inserted into the center comes out clean and/or the center of the cake is 205F-210F, appx. 55 minutes.
  11. Set an empty wine bottle on the counter and cool the cake upside down for at least 90 minutes, using the wine bottle for support.
  12. Slide a thin knife around the walls and center tube of the pan, pressing the knife against the pan to avoid tearing the cake. Pull the tube upwards to remove the bottom of the pan with the cake. Slide the knife under the cake to remove it from the bottom of the pan. Invert the tube and let the cake fall onto a rack. Flip right side up and cool completely.
  13. If the cake domed during baking (it probably will), cut off the rounded top using a serrated bread knife to flatten the cake.
Make the icing
  1. Chill the mixer bowl and the whisk beater in the fridge for 15 minutes.
  2. Pour 3 Tbsp tea into a heat proof cup. Sprinkle 1/2 tsp unflavored gelatin over tea. Let the gelatin soften, without stirring, for 5 minutes. Place the cup in a microwave just until the gelatin melts, about 10 sec.  Cool back down to tepid, about 80F.
  3. Pour cold cream into the chilled bowl and beat with the whisk beater on medium speed until slightly thickened. Keep beating, while slowly pouring in the gelatin mixture and vanilla. Add sifted powdered sugar and beat until thick and foamy. Be careful not to over beat or the cream with turn to butter.
  4. Place the cake upside down (opposite of the way it was baked) onto a serving plate and spread evenly with icing. Can be stored in the fridge for up to 2 days. Ideally, you should cover the cake with a cake dome when keeping it in the fridge, but I don't have one and it lived in my fridge quite happily for 2 days.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Cake Saga

"What's the occasion?" asked Jason. "There is no occasion; that's the beauty of it," I replied. Baking for an occasion is the biggest mistake an innocent cook can make. You know that the world is divided into cooks and bakers, don't you? That's right. According to my theory of Kitchen Neurotic Styles (KNS), there are compulsive measurers and compulsive improvisers, and if you don't have either one of those compulsions, you probably don't like spending time in the kitchen.

For people like me, baking a cake for an occasion is a recipe for disaster because there is pressure to actually finish the cake by someone's birthday or holiday. For some reason, presenting someone with a cake 2 months after their birthday doesn't work. What usually happens when I bake for an occasion is that the resourcefulness that makes me a good cook turns against me. Either I don't have the right pan, or the right flour, or the right mixer, or the scale, or some other thing that would make absolutely no difference in cooking, and seams to make all the difference in baking. Occasions also tend to inspire me, and bad thoughts like "wouldn't it be cool if this had a black current filling" start popping into my head. That's bad. Very bad. Making substitutions, no matter now trivial they might seem spells DISASTER to an inexperienced baker.

But this time it was going to be different. First, I spent 3 months preparing for the cake baking day. Jason was even joking that this cake I'd been talking about since fall was never going to happen. But let me tell you something. Baking a cake is like going into battle. You can never be prepared enough.

First I needed a right sort of book. Something that had enough detail for a person with baking disability. T.W., a friend of mine who is a phenomenal baker, suggested the Joy of Cooking. Somehow it never occurred to me to buy that Bible of American Cooking. I have Julia Child for French, Marcella Hazan for Italian, and what else does one need for perfect happiness? Well, I was wrong. The Joy overcame all my expectations. It's very thorough, detailed, and well-tested. The best part is that instead of pretty pictures of cakes and romantic food prose, it has incredible wealth of information on how to cream the butter, whip egg whites, measure flour, and all the other things most books take for granted. I read the chapter on cakes cover to cover. Here is what I learned:
  • All ingredients must be between 68-70F. One can never be anal enough about this. Now I leave my eggs and butter on the counter for 2 hours before baking and measure the temperature of liquids with an instant read thermometer.
  • Baking pans are not interchangeable and pyrex dishes don't count as cake pans. If a recipe calls for a 9 inch round cake pan, thou shall use a 9 inch round cake pan.
  • You have to measure flour correctly and cups don't work. Well, I already knew that and was all ready to weigh my flour. Too bad the recipes in Joy list the flour measurement in cups. But digging through the intro part of the cake chapter revealed that 1 cup of sifted flour = 4 oz and 1 cup of unsifted flour = 5 oz. The later is actually controversial since many books consider 1 cup of flour to be 4.5 oz. So there you have it. Bakers in US can't even agree on what a cup is.
  • Whipping egg whites does not just mean dumping them into a bowl of a mixer and turning it on. The bowl needs to be spotless. Even a spec of fat will not let them whip properly. You have to start slowly and then increase the speed. Oh, and you can over-mix which will result in clumpy, dry whites.
  • Creaming butter and sugar is a tricky procedure too. I didn't have to deal with it yet since the cake I baked required oil, not butter, but when I do, I'll have to proceed with caution.
  • Over-mixing the batter can develop gluten and result in a tough cake. As soon as the flour steaks are gone, stop mixing!
  • Folding is not mixing. It's a very different technique that has to be done correctly or the egg white will deflate.
Mess one of those subtle little things up and you have to start over. In other words, baking a cake for someone's birthday is not unlike having a celebratory chem lab.

The cake I finally settled on was an Earl Gray Chiffon cake. Before you go looking for it in the Joy of Cooking, let me first warn you that they don't have this recipe. They have a regular chiffon cake and the Earl Gray was a variation I thought I'll try since it's my favorite cake from one of the local French Japanese bakeries. I know, I know. You are probably thinking, "Has she been improvising again? That girl will never learn!" But wait. This was different. Really. Let me explain. The fact that this cake exists, and I've tasted it, made it at least doable in principle. The recipe for Chiffon cake in Joy of Cooking actually suggested that 3/4 cups water that the recipe calls for can be replace by other liquids like orange juice or coffee to give the cake a different flavor. Addition of the tea leaves left from brewing the tea to the batter was the most risky thing I did, but since the cake I was trying to duplicate had tea leaves in the batter, I thought this could work. For the icing, I used the recipe for stabilized whipped cream, substituting 3 Tbsp of tea for 1 Tbsp of water that is combined with the gelatin and 2 Tbsp of flavoring liquor suggested as a variation. I know. This one sounds a bit far fetched, but it was really just replacing 3 Tbsp of one liquid for another.

I had the book. I had the plan. But wait -- I didn't have the pan. Apparently, chiffon cakes can only be baked in tube pans (a.k.a. angel cake pans). Last weekend, I bought one. Finally nothing stood between me and the delicate, barely sweet, feather light cake, whose bergamot perfume had been haunting me for 5 years.

Did it work?

(Think "When Harry Met Sally.")

It was simply orgasmic.

And don't you dare laugh at how ugly it looks. I don't have an icing spatula yet, ok? Even if I did, I don't think I'd know what to do with it. The icing went on all crooked, and way too thin. But to me, it was the most beautiful cake on earth. In desperation for a decent picture, I cut it up and put it in a glass layered with icing like a trifle. He, he! That looked pretty cool and could pass for a $10 dessert from an upscale restaurant. But I doubt I'd ever serve it that way since too much cake is wasted when it's cut into circle to fit into glasses. This cake is too good for that.

Recipe coming soon.