Monday, December 29, 2008

Eggs that make you say "Eww"

Dear Tricia, Eggs. I need to know everything about eggs. How do I never get that white ewwwww on the bottom of my pan? How do I flip an egg? Enlighten me.

Eggs happen to be my favorite food of all time. You can make them a million ways, they're cheap, and easy to cook. I once accidentally went vegetarian, basically because I was on a really tight budget, and eggs made it totally do-able.
OK, so the reason why you're getting the white "ewwww" on the bottom of your pan is because eggs are made of 2 parts: the fatty part (yolk) and the protein part (the white.) When I say fatty, I mean good fat: egg yolks are full of lecithin and other good fats that keep your healthy cholestorol doing its job well, and it makes your skin and hair nice. The white is a completely digestible protein that, at only about 15 calories a pop, is a dieter's perfect food. However, unless there's butter or oil in the pan, the protein part will stick to the pan and make a mess, just like if you tried cooking chicken in a pan without butter or oil. So first and foremost, use butter, oil, or nonstick spray. I'm a fan of non-stick pans for cooking eggs because they're easier to clean, but you should still use some oil to keep the whites from making the layer of ewwww on the bottom. Also, if your nonstick pan is scratched or chipped, your eggs will stick. Get a new pan, and hand wash it with a non-metallic scrubby to keep it clean and scratch free.
Second, make sure your pan is nice and hot before you put the oil/butter/nonstick spray in the pan. I have no scientific reason for this; I do, however, have a 10 year career in kitchens, and the rule is, was, and always will be: Let your pan get hot and then put your oil in. I have many a mean chefs who would surely come hunt me down and cut off my hands if I told you any different. Seriously.
So, we have a hot, nonstick pan, and then we're putting our oil (or butter, or nonstick spray, blah blah blah... you get the point) in the pan. Let the oil get hot, and then add your beat-up eggs. Make sure you beat it well before they hit the pan. Beat it. Beat it. No one wants to be defeated.... It's ok to take a Michael Jackson dance break during this part. I do it all the time.
The best tool for cooking eggs and getting them to not stick is a rubber spatula. That's the flexible kind that you usually use for baking when you scrape down the sides of the bowl. Seriously, get a rubber spatula if you don't have one. They're awesome. So when you're cooking your eggs in the hot pan that you added oil to after it got hot, just use the spatula to gently move the eggs around on to keep them from sticking. You don't need to angrily stir the eggs until they're all broken up and the size of peas. Just move them around enough to keep the bottom from getting covered in egg ewwww.
For flipping eggs, start out again, with a hot pan, and then add the oil. When the oil is hot, add the eggs. Let the eggs sit there and cook. Don't try to move them around until the whites start to become a solid colored white and not all snot-like. Really, just let the eggs cook without disturbing them. Once they're white, gently use your trusty rubber spatula to work your way under the eggs to loosen them from the pan. The more the egg cooks, the easier it will be, so if you're just breaking the egg up and making a mess, that means you need to let it cook a little longer. Once the egg is completely loosened up from the pan and slides around on its own, use a regular spatula (like the kind you use for flipping pancakes) and scoop up the eggs to flip them over. If you're a risk-taker (or a masochist, or if you just like to clean), you can certainly use a little wrist-flipping action and no spatula to flip the eggs in the air like a professional, but if its your first try, have another couple of eggs ready to cook after you completely miss and the eggs land on the floor. Ewww not included, of course.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Why we love muffin tops

Dear Tricia, Why do the tops of muffins taste so much better than the rest of the muffin?

Oh sweet Jesus... you've really asked a doozy of a question when it comes to food science. And as much as I love demystifying food science into terms that are easy to relate to and might make fun of a celebrity along the way... this one's tough. I'm going to try and make this as simple as possible.
First of all, its true that muffin tops taste better. They're moister and sweeter. When the muffin batter is baked, all of the starches in the batter become politely separated by water molecules. Water is like the hall monitor... or perhaps a crossing guard that keeps everyone in straight lines and makes sure they stay where the heck they need to be. The water stays there in nice straight lines and keeps those starches in straight lines too, separated from the other starches, because that's how the batter rises and stays risen. Unfortunately, once the muffin is baked, the starches like to go hang out with the other starches again, or "retrograde." So as they come together, they squeeze the water molecules up towards the top of the muffin. And guess what sugar is attracted to? Water. So the water gets squished out of the starches and migrates north, along with some of the sugar. In my mind, this makes a sound like when you squeeze air out of the sides of your mouth and it sounds like a fart. I know that's not what really happens, but it makes it a little more magic-like for me. So because water and sugar both hang out up top, that's what makes it moister and sweeter, tasting better than the rest of the muffin. The whole process of this is called "retrogradation." Try not to confuse that with "degradation," or "self-degradation," if you're me at a cocktail party full of couples.
Now, once you're telling this muffin top story to impress your friends, throw in some extra fancy terms like "amylose," "amorphous,", and "amylopectin." Don't worry about them knowing what they mean; no one knows that the hell amylopectin is. But if your crazy ex girlfriend Amy shows up and thinks you're making fun of her, then maybe you can "accidentally" confuse the act of "retrogradation" with "degradation." But it wasn't me who suggested that.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Baking Powder vs. Baking Soda: the Ultimate Fight

Dear Tricia, What's the difference between baking powder and baking soda? If don't have baking powder, can I use soda instead?

No, lazy bones. Go to the store and buy some baking soda. Even with our current economy, the price of baking soda hasn't gone up so it'll only set you back about 80 cents.
The difference is actually pretty substantial, even though they look so much alike. (Kind of like the kids from "High School Musical." I know they're supposed to be different people, but I just can't tell them apart. Call it being out of touch I guess.)
So lets start with baking soda. In order for any baked goodie to rise in the oven, it needs to produce carbon dioxide. Yeast in breads will produce carbon dioxide bubbles and help make the bread rise. But other leaveners like baking soda and powder need to make that happen too. Sodium bicarbonate is baking soda's real name and it is a naturally occurring salt. When you use it in a recipe, it immediately reacts with anything acidic (like buttermilk, or yogurt, or vinegar) to begin making carbon dioxide. That's why you can't leave a fully mixed batter with baking soda in it just sitting around for a while: it's already working hard for you and you're just letting it go to waste. You have to bake it immediately, slowpoke. Don't save it to bake tomorrow or it won't rise and you'll ruin Christmas.
Baking powder is a much different machine. It is baking soda and an added acid (in the form of a salt crystal, but that's extra info you don't need to know to impress people. Isn't that why you're reading this?) that reacts twice when you're baking. Hence, the "Double Acting" on the label. The first time it reacts with a batter, it starts making carbon dioxide bubbles immediately as it comes in contact with moisture, and then it reacts again when it gets heated up in the oven. Here it is, in a form that's easier to remember:

The Tale of Double Acting Baking Powder

act 1: Baking powder meets batter. They fall in love. Carbon dioxide bubbles form.
act 2: Things get hot in the oven. Carbon dioxide bubbles grow bigger and make the batter rise.

And, scene.

So, if you ran out of baking powder and you're wanting to use soda, go buy the baking powder. You can make a homemade single acting baking powder by mixing baking soda with cream of tartar, but chances are you probably don't have that one in your spice cabinet either. Refer to my "How did Diana Ross' hair get in my eggs?" post and find out why you need to go buy it too.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Corned beef: the other not white meat.

Dear Tricia, I am very proud of my irish heritage, but what kind of self-respecting Irishman doesn't know how to make corned beef? What makes corned beef corned? With St. Patrick's day only a few months away I'm
starting to freak out a little bit because my rigorous drinking schedule precludes me from much cooking. I can't just serve potatoes again this year! Help me out here.

Well, my Irish friend, I've found some helpful info for you. Let's get down to business. First of all, corned beef is usually a brisket (but sometimes a round roast... all hail the mighty rump roast!) that is pickled (or "cured") in a brine. A brine is a very salted, seasoned liquid. That's what they also do to bacon. So, the brisket gets soaked in the brine and then cooked. The Oxford dictionary defines "corn" as a small hard particle, a grain, as of sand or salt. So "corned" refers to the grains of salt used to cure it. Those pesky Brits; so pompous with their fancy pants vocabulary. You can also take the corned beef one step further and smoke it. That's what pastrami is. You almost always will buy corned beef already cooked so all you have to do is slice it and serve.
Wanna know the history of it? Too bad you don't have a choice: continue reading. When Irish immigrants came to New York, the lower east siders decided that they wanted a cured meat that was similar in taste and texture to their beloved Irish bacon. So they learned a cheaper alternative from their friendly Jewish neighbors and started using corned beef instead. (insert politically incorrect Jewish joke here.)
St. Patty's Day always happens during Lent, and if you were raised Catholic (like I was, which is why I'm the furthest thing from Catholic as an adult) you know that you're not allowed to eat meat on Fridays during Lent. However, if St. Patrick's Day falls on a Friday during Lent, some bishops will pardon your heathen ways. It's rare: the next St. Patrick's Day on a Friday during Lent won't happen for another 9 years. In the mean time, enjoy your corned beef and Irish Car Bombs and green shirts and pinching. If you can slice up a corned brisket and serve it as a sandwich, I think your party guests will be content. All they're looking for is a sponge for all their alcohol anyways, right?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Box cake + sagging = worst baker ever

Dear Tricia, I am a really big fan of cheap box cakes. Especially the one that has the different colored rainbow sprinkles. But every time I make one the middle sinks in. Should I be embarrassed about my sagging problem? Please help.

Yes. You are officially the worst baker ever. What's worse than you being the worst baker ever is that you like cheap box cakes. Just fork over the extra 79 cents and buy the Duncan Hines brand already. You're embarrassing yourself.
That said, I can help you with your sprinkle cake conundrum. First of all, are you measuring everything correctly? I know its tempting to be all chef-like when you're baking and just throw in a pinch of this and estimate what a cup of that looks like, but with baking, you really do have to be exact if you're looking for the perfect sprinkle cake.
Do you live at high altitude? If you do, don't add as much water. A liquidy cake batter won't want to rise and stay risen. (See my pregnant cake post for an example of what proper cake results will look like)
Is your oven pre-heated? While a hot oven will force a cake into its submission and make it rise like no one's business, an oven that's not done pre-heating will basically just sip a cocktail, nudge your cake and ask, "Do you want to bake or what? Yeah, I didn't think so."
Make sure your pan isn't too big. It will definitely sag if the pan is too wide. Follow the directions on the back of the box and use their recommended cake pan size. My guess is that this is probably your problem: seeing as how you won't even buy the store brand cake mix, you probably don't want to fork over the dough for the right cake pan. Hey, I understand: times are tough. (cheapskate)
Last, when you are mixing the batter, bake it right away. Cake batter doesn't like to sit without being baked... it's on a mission to fill your belly. Let it do its job.
Just to be sure I didn't leave anything out, I checked the Duncan Hines website for cake baking tips, but after I read part that said "don't frost a warm cake" I knew they weren't going to be much help. And they weren't. They basically said half of what I said here but without the irreverent, judgmental humor. Where's the fun in that?
I forgot one of the most important baking rules ever!! Don't slam the oven door. When you're starting to get curious about how your cake is doing and you open up the oven door to check on it, close the door very gently. Shaking the cake before its completely baked just ruins the structure and collapsing is inevitable. Or, just look through the oven window instead of opening the door. Resist the temptation. Resist. The. Temptation.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Is it better when the Germans roast your nuts?

Dear Tricia, I am in love! Yeah my husband is great and all, but I had these amazing German roasted nuts this weekend. While I enjoyed them so much, I would have paid less if I had flown to Germany and bought them there! Do you have a recipe for German roasted nuts? Not that I need the frequent flier miles, it's kinda cold in Germany!

Seeing as how my last name is Reisch, you have come to das right place for German inquiries. Now, I have never had these elusive German Roasted Nuts, but after researching them, I found out that they're a trademarked product used with a patented nut roasting machine, specifically for roasting nuts with water. In looking at information on these machines, I learned that they are:
1. very large
2. very expensive (so expensive that they won't advertise the price)
3. and that the German nut roasters are very secretive about how they actually work.
I'm pretty certain that you'll have to trade your firstborn for one of those machines and if it fits in your garage, you're lucky.
I don't have any recipes for "water-roasting" nuts. I do, however, have 2 recipes for candying nuts that might be close to what you're looking for. One is super-easy, and one requires a little more skill but is worth the effort. For the easy one,

You'll need:
1 pound RAW nuts with no skins
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp salt

Toss the nuts in the maple syrup, sugar, and salt and spread them evenly on a cookie sheet lined with wax paper or parchment paper.
Roast at 350 degrees for about 10-12 minutes, or until the nuts start to smell toasted.
Be very careful with them when you take them out of the oven, since hot sugar is basically equal temperature to liquid magma.

The more advanced recipe requires you to get all your kids out of the kitchen for 20 minutes since they like to grab things... especially hot things that you're busy trying to cook. This is probably why I don't have kids. Or maybe its because I don't have a boyfriend. Who knows.

You'll need:
1 pound RAW nuts with no skins
3/4 c plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla

Have a clean cookie sheet ready.

Combine the sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla with just enough water to make it feel like wet sand. Wipe the inside walls of the pan off with water to make sure there are no loose sugar granules on it.

Let the sugar cook without stirring it or moving the pot around. Once the sugar is dissolved and it is clear and bubbling, you're going to cook it until it "spins a thread." That means, when you dip a spoon in the sugar and pull it out, the extra sugar that drips off the spoon drips so thin that it looks like a thread.

Once the sugar is hot enough to spin a thread, TURN DOWN THE TEMPERATURE TO MEDIUM, and dump in all the nuts and start stirring. (very important to turn it down, otherwise you're going to mess up everything and ruin Christmas) You're going to stir as fast as you can (Watch out! The kids have a sixth sense that tells them when something hot is on the oven! Go yell at them to sit back down in front of Blue's Clues)and keep stirring. The sugar will start to crystallize, or look like its turning back into solid sugar, but that is fine. Just keep stirring until the sugar starts to melt and turn light golden brown, or caramelized. The nuts will start to make a popping noise because they are toasting in the sugar.

Once all of the nuts are coated in a golden brown caramel, pour them on to a cookie sheet and separate them with the spoon so that they harden individually and not in chunks. Let the liquid magma nuts cool before you eat them or throw them at your husband.

I hope this helps you. Give them a try and decide if you want to add more spices next time, or maybe some salt or some heat(like chili powder.) These won't be the exact same as your prized German Roasted Nuts; those German nut roasters are so secretive that they won't let anyone, including me (a girl with the most German last name EVER) know how they make them. And because of that, I think they can just suck it. Or, das schtucken it, rather.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

My ginsu skills ginsuck

Dear Tricia, What is the proper way to hold a knife?

I'm glad you asked, random stranger. First of all, I need to preface this post by saying that you never ever ever (ever ever ever) need to invest in a set of expensive, differently sized kitchen knives all stuck inside a fancy wooden block with a celebrity chef's name on it. You'll never need all those different sizes, and once you put clean wet knives in the block, bacteria will start to grow in the knife slots. The only knives you ever need to purchase for your home kitchen are a good chef's knife (also called a French knife), which is your basic, 8-10" large all-purpose-cutting knife, and a small paring knife. The rest are unnecessary. Save yourself some dough for cocktails.

In order to properly show you how to hold a knife, I attached a lot of pictures to this post. Please ignore the DBK logo on the knife: I am not endorsing Daniel Bouloud. I think his knives suck.

Wrap your thumb around the bottom of the handle and your fingers around the other side of the handle. If you haven't at least figured this part out on your own, I'm surprised that you even had the brain cells to go pee by yourself today. Your index finger will not be wrapped around the handle: it's going to hook across the top of the blade.

Like this:

The reason you're hooking your index finger around the top of the blade is to give you more control. Letting your finger ride straight on top only gives your wrist more wiggle room to mess up what you're cutting. Have some control, why don't you?!

See? Your index finger needs to be wrapped around the top of the blade for full control. NOT laying on top of the blade. Here are some other improper ways to hold your knife:

Remember, bricks and trees aren't the best cutting boards, and neither are your hands. Stay clear of them.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

How to make pesto in your meth lab

Dear Tricia, How do I make pesto? I mean, how to do I really make it?

Well, I can tell you how to make it, but I'm not sure if I can tell you how to really make it. Okay, that was a stupid joke. For reals, it's easy. So easy, in fact, that I'll tell you right here in seconds. Er... minutes. But if you're on meth, you'll be able to read it in seconds, I'm sure.
Get a food processor. (See my Swedish meatball post for how to steal one from your divorcing neighbors. Very important to master that trick if you want to pimp your kitchen for free.) If you don't have divorcing neighbors, or no neighbors at all because you live in a meth lab (congrats on your meth haze-induced culinary endeavors!! A real gourmet, huh??), then use a blender. It won't look as nice and smooth, but it'll still taste good. You'll need:

2 cups packed full of basil leaves
1/3 cup pine nuts (Buy them in bulk at a health food store or an upscale grocery store other than Whole Foods Market because they fired me.)
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 grated parmesan cheese
3 chopped garlic cloves
salt and pepper

Blend the basil leaves and pine nuts together. Add the garlic and blend that in. Add the olive oil in a slow stream until it's all blended together. Scrape the sides of the food processor or blender with a spatula to get all the goodness off the sides. Add the parmesan cheese, and however much salt and pepper tastes good to you. Seriously... taste it. Does it need more salt? Then add more salt. I'm always surprised at how many people don't check. Maybe that's why they're sending me their questions on this blog.

Simple as that. A little expensive if you're trying to have a homemade pesto dinner party for 30, but come on... you live in a meth lab. You can afford it.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mom! Grandma's ruining Christmas again!

Dear Tricia, Will you please explain high altitude baking in a way that my grandmother will understand, and in turn, stop ruining the brownies?

So happy you asked because I used to be a pro at high-altitude baking when I was working in Telluride, CO. Oh, except for brownies: I could never master those. No, seriously... brownies at high altitude are a problem child, so take it easy on Grandma. In fact, I think that's why everyone in Telluride was so thin. It had nothing to do with the absence of fast food restaurants and healthy lifestyles. It was definitely the lack of brownie baking skills.

Are you ready for some math? Yeah, I'm not either. Let's make this as simple as possible: when you're baking at 5,000 ft above sea level or higher, take the leavener (the baking soda or baking powder) and just cut it in half. 1 teaspoon in Dallas is 1/2 teaspoon in Denver. That's the biggest part of high altitude baking.
Problem solved, right? Well, no, not exactly. A lot of brownie recipes don't have and baking soda or baking powder in them, so now what do you do? I went to Cook's Illustrated Test Kitchen website to see what I could find.

1. Turn up the oven temperature an extra 25 degrees.
2. Add an extra tablespoon of flour, per cup, to your recipe. For those of you who didn't pass the 5th grade (It's okay... I had a neighbor who didn't, and now I think he's a chairman of Google), if it calls for 3 and a 1/2 cups of flour, that means you're adding 3 and a 1/2 extra tablespoons of flour.
3. Add a little bit of cornstarch in with the flour. They don't specify how much, but I can't imagine it being anymore than a tablespoon or so.

If Grandma's brownies were as weird looking as mine were (all of the sugar rose to the top and created a nice top-crust of diabetes,) try reducing the sugar by 2 tablespoons per cup. Instead of giving you a math problem to figure that out, just do exactly what that says: take every cup of sugar that your recipe calls for and scoop out 2 tablespoons of it with a measuring spoon.

Hopefully this will help Grandma and her brownie dilemma. If not, here's a high altitude recipe I found from

* 7/8 cup all-purpose flour
* 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
* 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
* 1/2 teaspoon salt
* 3/4 cup butter, melted
* 1 1/2 cups white sugar
* 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
* 3 eggs
* 3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips (optional)
* 1/2 cup chopped pecans (optional)


1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease an 8 inch square baking dish.
2. In a large bowl, combine the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt; set aside. In a separate bowl, stir together the melted butter, sugar, and vanilla. Mix in the eggs. Gradually stir in the dry ingredients just until blended. Fold in chocolate chips and pecans if using. Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan.
3. Bake in the preheated oven until the edges start to pull away from the sides of the pan and the top appears dry, 35 to 40 minutes.

This recipe got mostly good reviews from the readers on the website, except for a couple of people who are probably just miserable people to begin with. I hope this helps your Grandma and her brownies. Oh, and keep her away from the brandy while she's baking. I've found that helps too.