Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

This Monday morning around 10am, I finally got into Thanksgiving mood.  I called Bacon street farm to place and order for bread to be picked up Wednesday and was told that I was too late.  No more orders before Thanksgiving.  Somehow I always forget that this Thursday will be the only day a year that all Americans cook.  What better way to prepare for celebrating bounty than to experience a bit of a shortage.

This is the first time in my life that I'll be hosting our family for Thanksgiving instead of them hosting us.  We had a good excuse -- a 3 month old baby.  You'd think that I'd be confident about my Thanksgiving meal given that I teach people to cook for a living.  Quite the opposite.  While most people don't know what they are getting themselves into, I do.  To me, a traditional Thanksgiving meal is a masochistic undertaking for both the cook and the guests.  We are forced to make 10 times the amount of food we are used to and somehow keep it all warm.  We are also forced to eat 10 times the amount of food we are used to and somehow not throw up.  Since neither concept is my idea of fun, I decided to break with tradition and trim this insanity down to bare minimum.  My goal is to serve a reasonable amount of the best food I can make and to serve it hot.  I also want to leave plenty of space for my favorite part -- the dessert tarts.

What about the turkey?  As much as I would love a vegetarian Thanksgiving or one that featured a prime rib roast, I want the challenge of cooking the most difficult protein on this planet (a.k.a. the turkey).  I will only cook the breast and do it sous-vide.  This might of course back fire, but how often do I get to try something like this.  It will free up my oven for other dishes and if all goes well, we won't have to eat saw dust turkey for dinner.  Here is the full menu:
  • turkey breast with porcini gravy
  • turkey skin stuffed with chestnut cherry stuffing (since the skin doesn't do too well sous-vide anyway, I am planning to remove it, stuff it and roast until crisp)
  • mashed potatoes
  • green beans with cranberries and cashews
  • pear ginger tarte Tatin
  • apple tart
Thats it!

I plan to serve potatoes straight from the water bath, gravy from a squeeze bottle set in a water bath, and serve the turkey from a cast iron skillet in which I'll sear it in the end.  To tell you the truth, I don't care that it won't look beautiful.  I care that it will be hot and tasty.  

There is so much I am thankful for this year.  I am thankful that Sasha was born healthy, that he is growing well and smiling a lot; I am thankful that Sammy jumped into the big sister role with joy, that she sings and dances and says the cutes things; I am thankful that our children have the joy of grandparents and that our parents have the joy of grandchildren; I am thankful that I have the most kind, understanding, loving, and supportive husband; I am thankful that my 80 year old grandmother is still willing to travel to see us and be the life of the party; I am thankful that my brother is able to join us all the way from Colorado; I am thankful for having Gaia and Jerome as our friends.

I am also thankful for my open minded family.  Not everyone can get away with such chutzpah -- no whole turkey, no gravy boat, and only 2 side dishes.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Oeufs en cocotte without a water bath

There is no better way to make sure the dish isn't cooked too often than requiring a water bath for its preparation.  It all sounds easy enough -- place the baking dish inside another baking dish filled with boiling water.  But try getting this construction in and out of the oven and you'll quickly decide that water baths should be reserved for special occasions.  Such is the fate of oeufs en cocotte (eggs baked in ramekins).  What's the last time you've made them?  Quite possibly the answer is never.  They seem too troublesome for a regular meal, yet too casual for a special occasion.  There is also the problem of perfect execution.  When water bath is called for, there is a false sense of security that they can't overcook.  Sure they can!  That water bath is at 212F and a perfect egg is 142F for the yolk and 149F for the white, so there is plenty of room for overcooking.  To get them done just right (completely liquidy yolk with a completely set white) you need to keep a close eye on them and check them frequently, which is not that easy when you are dealing with the water bath contraption.

Of course, there is always sous-vide.  If you sous-vide anything, even chicken nuggets, this automatically puts it into the fine dining category.  Sous-vide eggs have indeed been popping up on restaurant menus like mushrooms after the rain.  Unfortunately, I don't like sous-vide eggs.  I like almost anything sous-vide, just not eggs.  With sous-vide, the whole egg ends up being done to the same temperature.  If it's 142F, the yolk is perfect to my liking (completely runny), but the white feels like snot even if it looks white.  If it's 149F, the white is nicely set and still tender, but the yolk is no longer runny.  And the picky person that I am, that's not quite right.  I want the yolk at 142F and the white at 149F.

I finally figured out how to get those perfect eggs reliably and with no fuss.  The key is extremely low oven of 225F.  And ditch that water bath.  It's not worth all the mess.  Another important factor is making sure there is something under your eggs.  It can be absolutely anything: a small slice of tomato, sautéed mushrooms, a piece of smoked salmon, some creamed leaks, a piece of ham, ratatouille, smoky eggplant puree, etc.  If it's savory, it can certainly go in there.  You need about 1 Tbsp of this stuff per ramekin.  Not only will it make a more interesting dish, but  it will serve as a buffer between the hot ramekin bottom and the yolk preventing it from overcooking.

The most important skill about cooking these eggs is testing them for doneness.  Jiggle one of the ramekins.  The eggs are done when the yolk still moves freely in the white.  Most of the white will appear set and white, but it will still be translucent and liquid where it meets the yolk.  A more accurate way to test them, is to insert and instant read thermometer into the white right next to the yolk (just be careful not to pierce the yolk).  It should read around 145F.  Don't be surprised that the egg will appear not set.  Let it rest 7 minutes.  During this time, the heat of the ramekin will finish cooking it.

How long do they usually take?  In my oven, they take 32-35 minutes.  But keep in mind that every oven is different.  When I set my oven to 225F and you set yours, there is no guarantee that we are cooking at the same temperature.  Every ramekin is different thickness and shape.  So the only way to get a perfect egg is to practice a few times.  Once you find the optimal time for your oven and ramekins, making these eggs will be a cinch whether you are cooking for 1 or for 15 people.

Here are some tips:
  • cooking time depends on how much stuff you put under the egg, so try to be consistent with that if you want your timing to be predictable.
  • never put more than 1 egg per ramekin.  This recipe relies on the fact that the yolk will be in the center and will be cooked to a lower temperature than the surrounding white.  If you have 2 yolks, there is no way to place them both in the center.
  • make a small indentation in the stuff that goes under the egg forming a cup.  This will help hold the yolk in the center.
  • if the yolk didn't end up in the center after you cracked the egg, gently move it there with your fingers.
  • if serving these eggs for company, you can fill the ramekins in advance and keep them in the fridge -- all you'll have to do when your guests arrive is put them in the oven.
  • when testing the eggs for doneness, make sure the thermometer is not touching the bottom of the ramekin.
Oeufs en cocotte without a water bath

For 1 ramekin

1/2 tsp butter
2 tsp heavy cream, divided
1 Tbsp flavorful accompaniment (smoked salmon, ham, tomato sauce, etc)
1 large egg
salt and pepper
chopped fresh chives or dill (optional)
  1. Preheat the oven to 225F and set a rack in the middle.
  2. Butter each ramekin with 1/2 tsp butter.  Place 1 Tbsp flavorful accompaniment into each ramekin and make a slight indentation in the center.  Top with 1 tsp heavy cream.  Crack an egg into the ramekin being careful not to break the yolk.  If the yolk is not in the center, gently move it there with a spoon or your fingers.  Drizzle another 1 tsp cream near the edges of each ramekin.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper.  
  3. Place ramekins on a baking sheet and place in the oven until eggs are done, 30-35 minutes.  Test for doneness early and often.  The eggs are done when the yolk still moves freely in the white when the cup is jiggled.  Most of the white will appear set and white, but it will still be translucent and liquid where it meets the yolk.  A more accurate way to test them, is to insert and instant read thermometer into the white right next to the yolk (just be careful not to pierce the yolk).  It should read around 145F.  Don't be surprised that the egg will appear not set.  
  4. Let the eggs rest 7 minutes.  During this time, the heat of the ramekins will finish cooking them.  Sprinkle with chives or dill and serve.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cranberry Pecan Bread 1.0

I meant to take a picture, but by the time I remembered it was all gone. These are just some notes for me so that I know how to improve it next time. Overall, it was a very yummy bread. Good texture and flavor, just needs a few little tweaks. It's a formula very similar to my standard boule that I've been baking a lot lately.

420g AP flour
8.5g salt
3g yeast
340g water
150g pecans
120g cranberries
  • It seemed like too many cranberries and pecans.  Next time should try 100g pecans and 100g cranberries.
  • I roasted pecans in the oven before using.  This didn't seem to be necessary. Next time try without roasting.
  • The top crust burnt a little and the bottom crust burnt a lot. I baked using my usual dutch oven method and temperature. Here is what to try next time. Preheat the pot to 500F, reduce the oven to 400F when bread goes in. Bake 30 minutes. Uncover, reduce to 375F and bake another 25-30 min.
  • Try replacing about 20g of ap flour with whole wheat.
  • I didn't get too much rise in the oven. It might have been over-proofed, or maybe I used too much fruits and nuts. But if fixing those two doesn't fix the problem, might be good to try bread flour.

To autolyse or not to autolyse

One of the bread baking questions that has been keeping me up at night is how much good does autolyse do for you.  It's a technique of reducing the kneading time by combining all the dough ingredients first and letting them sit for some time (20-60 minutes) before kneading.  The idea is that if flour is hydrated gluten network starts to form even without mixing. This technique was developed by Raymond Calvel and was embraced by the professional baking world and bread baking books geared to home cooks.  Even Cook's Illustrated used this technique in their recent no-knead focaccia recipe and claimed that it does wonders.

Most books make it sound like some sort of magical cure all.  You autolyse the dough and then you can get away with barely any kneading.  There is some disagreement among the bread gurus about the best way to autolyse.  Some say that you should mix only flour and water before letting the dough sit.  Some say you can add the yeast into this mix, but not the salt.  And others say just throw it all in -- salt and all.

Out of curiosity, I set up a little autolyse experiment.  Last time I was making bread (80% hydration), I split the dough ingredients into 3 small batches.

Batch 1: Everything was mixed and kneaded right away
Batch 2: Everything was mixed right away just until the flour was hydrated.  This rough dough sat for 20 minutes and then was kneaded
Batch 3: Everything except for salt was mixed just until the flour was hydrated.  This rough dough sat for 20 minutes.  Then I added salt and kneaded.

All 3 batches were kneaded by hand for 15 minutes each.  I checked the state of gluten development after every 5 minutes.

I couldn't tell any difference between batches 2 and 3.  After a 20 minute rest, both doughs could be stretched a good bit without ripping vs. batch 1 that ripped very quickly.  This looked very promising.  If so much gluten development happened already, surely I could get away with less kneading.  Unfortunately, it didn't seem to be the case.  I still had to knead for about 15 minutes to get autolysed batches to the same level of gluten development as batch 1.

Of course, it's possible that I was overly cautious.  I always worry about not kneading enough.  But still, it didn't seem to get my usual 15 minutes of kneading now to 5.  My guess is that autolyse is so popular with professional bakers before it can reduce the amount of kneading they need to do in their spiral mixers.  Those can over-oxidize the dough, so the less kneading, the better.  But I am not sure how applicable this is to home bakers who are kneading by hand or a KitchenAid.  I've never experienced the problem of bleached crumb and reduced flavor no matter how much I knead.

The benefit of autolysing is that the first couple of minutes of kneading feel less sticky, the down side is that you need to mix, wait, and mix again.  I prefer to do my dough all in one go, so that I can clean up and move on to something else.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Country Boule with a Little Rye

After my recent baguette disaster, I decided to go back to my basic boule recipe that is based on Julia Child's baguette from Mastering the Art of French cooking, volume 2.

It turned out very well.  Every time I make this recipe, it gets a little better.  I guess that's what happens when you don't jump around too much.  The biggest improvement this time was in shaping.  I used Steve's awesome videos (shaping a bouton d'or shows how to shape a boule) and David's tips and finally got a decent boule without that terrible doughy middle that results from bad shaping.  I also got really good slashes for the first time (probably good surface tension and wetting the blade in water).  Proofing in a bowl lined with a towel worked a lot better than my usual 10 inch skillet lined with parchment method.

Another break through was using a KitchenAid mixer to achieve good texture.  As much as I like to knead by hand, it can be a little tricky with a baby that can cry at any minute.  It also makes my already dry hands even drier.  This time I used Steve's wonderful tip of mixing only some of the flour (I used half) with water and beating it with a whisk attachment to get in some air, then adding the remaining flour and switching to a dough hook.  I also used my rearranging method during the dough hook mixing that I discovered when working on focaccia dough (basically, you scrape out and rearrange the dough 2-3 times during a 10 minute mix).  I also kneaded just a little by hand in the end (about 1-2 minutes).  Not sure if it was necessary.  Maybe next time I'll trust the mixer to do all the work.

Boule with a little rye

500g ap flour
20 g rye
1 3/4 c water (65F)
10 - 11g DCK
1 tsp yeast

Mixed 250g ap flour, salt and yeast with a whisk in kitchen aid.  added water and beat on speed 8 for 2 minutes.  added remaining four a bit at a time.  when got too dense, switched to hook.  kneaded 10 minutes dislodging after 5.  kneaded some more by hand.  let rise to tripple (about 4 hours), fold on a wet counter with wet hands and kneaded a little to get rid of bubbles.  let rise again until more than trippled (3-4 hours at room temp, then fridge overnight).  Brought to room temp for 1 hour, shaped into a boule, proofed upside down in a salad bowl lined with a towel and flour, covered with proof box and put a cup of warm water in the box.  Proofed for 3 hours.  Flipped onto a parchment lined board.  Slashed with a wet blade.  Baked in a dutch oven preheated to 500F.  when bread went in, reduced to 425F.  Baked covered 30.  Reduced to 400F, baked uncovered 30.  It was not too brown, so turned up to 425F and baked another 5.  Registered 210F.  Turned off the oven, cracked the door, and put back in the oven for 5min.

My First Baguette

Here is my first pathetic attempt at a baguette.  The only thing that makes me feel better about this disaster is that most people's first attempt at a baguette is pretty pathetic.  Even though both Steve and Jason suggested that any aspiring bread baker should bake nothing but baguettes for some time, I was staying away from this most basic of all breads like the plague.  You can judge a cook by his roast chicken and a baker by his baguette.  In spite of their simplicity, they'll spell every weakness you have in bold print.

The fact that you are looking at a picture of a baguette wannabe is a bit of an accident.  I was trying to make a boule using Anis's formula again, but was running late and didn't have sufficient time to bake and cool a boule before dinner.  So I thought why not give a baguette a try.  The bad news is that they were pretty bad.  The good news is that I have some ideas as to why.

What I did

500g flour (half ap, half bread)
1 2/3 cup water
4 tsp DCK
1/4 tsp yeast

kneaded by hand for 20 minutes.  Allowed for rise at room temp for 12-14 hours with 3 folds.  refrigerated for another 8 hours.  divided, rested 15 min, shaped, proofed 45 min on parchment, baked at 475 (preheating to 500) for 22 minutes (first 10 with steam).

No sweetness this time.  A long rise at room temp is the culprit.  What I got was kind of Bittman's no-knead formula with no-knead rising schedule, plus kneading.  I found the explanation to my problem in Reinhart's Pain a l'Ancienne recipe that is incredibly similar in concept to Anis's.  Here is what he writes: "The cold mixing and fermentation cycles delay the activation of the yeast until after the amylase enzymes have begun their work of breaking  out sugar from the starch.  When the dough is brought to room temperature and the yeast wakes up and begins feasting, it feeds on sugars that weren't there the day before.  Because the yeast has converted less of the released sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide, a reserve of sugar remains in the fermented dough to flavor it and caramelize the crust during the baking cycle."

Too dense in parts, uneven holes.  My terrible shaping and slashing might have something to do with this.  I was proofing on parchment so they spread out a lot.  Really need to get some canvas.  I might have over steamed them during proof.  Since it was so cold and dry, I put 2 little bowl of boiling water into the proof box.  That was probably an over kill.  The top was so wet, it was hard to slash.  The use of bread flour was also a mistake -- it made them much harder to stretch out.  From what I've read, this bread is supposed to rely on the oven spring.  The question is how do you get it?  They puffed up in the oven some, but didn't open nicely at the slashes.  I am guessing I didn't proof them long enough.  My kitchen is too cold for a 45 minute proof right now.  I also never know how much to de-gas before shaping.  The bubbles left over from the fermentation kept popping up, making it difficult to shape.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Pork sirloin cutlets

Believe it or not, there is such a thing as supermarket pork chops worth eating.  I used to be of the opinion that all supermarket pork is tasteless and way too lean making it as tender as a rubber tire.  Of course, there is the Boston Butt.  It comes from the shoulder and is wonderfully fatty even on a supermarket weight watchers pig.  If I got pork in a regular store (this included Whole Foods), that's what I usually got, and I braised it with great results.  But my attempts to cook rib chops and loin chops have been absolutely hopeless.  If I want a real pork rib chop, I buy Berkshire pork (a.k.a. Kurabuta) from Savenor's or John Dewars.  Now, that's a pork chop!  Lovely as they are, they are a bit pricey at $15/Lb (at least a third of the weight is the bone).  

Several weeks ago, I saw something called "pork sirloin cutlets" at Whole Foods.  What piqued my interest was the color of the muscles.  They weren't all light pink, but had redder parts suggesting they might have a bit more flavor (or at least that was my hypothesis).  They were cut 1/2 inch thick, making them a perfect 5 minute meal -- sear in a screechingly hot skillet until brown (about 1-2 minutes per side) and serve.  I ventured to try them and what do you know -- they are quite good, especially for $5/Lb.  

I salt them at least 1 hour in advance or even a day in advance which seems more convenient to me.  This helps with even seasoning and juiciness.  It also promotes better browning since it becomes possible to dry the chops very thoroughly before cooking (the drier they are, the faster they brown).  If you dry, then season, then sear, the salt has time to make the outside slightly wet.  Not a biggie in thicker cuts which give you more time to brown without overcooking, but it can mean trouble for this very thin cut.  Overcooking this lean pork is a no-no.  You want it medium-rare inside (about 120F when taken off the heat), but using a thermometer with such a thin cut is pretty tough.  So just brown the outside as quickly as you can, and they'll be just right -- trust me.  

There was still one mystery remaining -- what exactly were these chops?  I mean where on the pig do they come from?  The staff at Whole Foods was hesitant with their answers, but they were guessing that these chops were probably between the loin and the ham (in other words, around the hip).  To get a more confident answer, I took a picture of them and e-mailed it to Kenji Alt.  He confirmed Whole Foods suspicion and even answered my question of what would be an equivalent beef cut -- top sirloin steak.  Thanks Kenji!

Seared Pork Sirloin Cutlets

Serves 2-3

1 Lb pork sirloin cutlets cut about 1/2 inch thick
Salt and pepper to taste
1 garlic clove, sliced paper thin (optional)
1 tsp minced sturdy fresh herbs, like rosemary, sage, thyme, or oregano (optional)
1 Tbsp olive oil

At least 1 hour in advance and up to 48, generously sprinkle pork with salt and refrigerate covered until ready to cook.

Dry pork very thoroughly with paper towels and sprinkle with pepper.  If using garlic and herbs, spread them evenly and press them into both sides of pork.  

Set a 12 inch skillet with oil over high heat.  When the oil just begins to smoke, add the pork without crowding and cook just until brown, 1-2 minutes.  Flip and cook just until the other side browns, 1-2 minute.    Do not disturb pork as it's cooking.  The more you move it, the less it will brown.  Serve immediately.  

I like it with a little Dijon mustard or sauteed apples.  Or you can make a sauce by deglazing the pan where you cooked the pork.  Maybe deglaze with stock and apple cider and finish with a little cream.  The possibilities are endless.  

Monday, November 1, 2010

Crispy Kale

I used to think that farmers' markets in the dead of winter were a luxury of the west coast.  But believe it or not, we have a winter market right in my town of Natick, MA, where winter temperatures can be in the teens.  It is held at Johnson elementary school on saturdays 9am-1pm and started last week.  So far it hasn't been very different than our usual farmer's market.  It's the same vendors and the produce is lovely.  At this point in the year, there is a lot of variety.  Of course, the squashes and pumpkins are lovely, but there are a ton of beans, roots, cabbages, eggplants, apples, and leafy greens too.  I am sure the selection will get a lot more limited as the weather gets colder, but it will be a wonderful treat to be able to buy local beets, turnips, parsnips, carrots, potatoes, and squashes.

While the leafy greens are still around, I've been cooking them as much as possible.  I slightly improved my swiss chard recipe, and today found a surprisingly yummy way to cook kale that requires almost no work.  As many good recipes, it was an accident.  I was planning to braise kale with white wine and stock.  I put it in a hot large skillet with some olive oil, covered, and put in the oven for 10 minutes to give it a chance to wilt before adding the liquids.  But at the 10 minute mark, I couldn't get it out of the oven because my little kiddo wanted to nurse.  By the time I finally got the kale out of the oven (about 25 minutes after it went in), it was tender enough to eat and the bottom leaves got delightfully crispy.  I sprinkled it with salt, tasted, and proclaimed it done.  It was so lovely, it really didn't need anything else, but if you want to elaborate a little the heavy cream and Parmesan finish I use on my swiss chard would make this into a richer, more complex dish.

Crispy Kale

1 large bunch kale, stems removed and discarded
2 Tbsp olive oil
Salt to taste

Preheat the oven to 375F.
Wash and dry kale leaves.  Chop them coarsely.
Set a 12 inch skillet (ideally one with straight sides)* over medium heat and add olive oil.  When the oil shimmers add kale, cover, and place in the middle of the oven for 20-30 minutes or until the leaves are tender and some of them are crispy.  Sprinkle with salt to taste and serve.

* If you don't have a skillet large enough to fit all the kale, you can make this dish in a 2 inch deep baking dish such as a 13x9 inch pyrex.  Since many baking dishes are not stove top safe, heat the dish with the oil in the oven for 5 minutes before adding kale and covering the dish with foil.