Sunday, December 27, 2009

Diana Ross, Daryl Hannah, and Your Meringue

Dear Tricia, The meringue on my key lime pie always weeps. Why does that keep happening?

I'm going to go back to one of my older blogs about egg whites and re-teach it here today because this is an email I frequently receive. Plus the original blog entry was really about why you add cream of tartar to play dough, so it might have been a little round-about. Before we begin, I want to point out to the non-bakers that meringue is a fluffy topping made out of egg whites and sugar. You whip them up until the egg whites turn from goopy clear stuff into a billowing cloud of solid white awesomeness. You just beat the egg whites and sugar together, right? No, not exactly.
Its common for meringues to "weep", or start to fall and leak out water. This is because when you whip egg whites, you're "coagulating" the protein in the eggs, which is a fancy pants term for protein bonding with other protein. When the proteins bond together, they hold in all the water that is floating around the meringue. If the proteins aren't doing that properly, the water will find a way to leak out, or "weep."
Under a microscope, egg whites are tiny strands of tightly wound protein. They look like a big mess of little corkscrew-y, spring-y shapes. Actually, they look a lot like Diana Ross' hair, post 1980. In order to get the egg whites to expand and turn into a fluffy meringue, you have to get them to straighten out. When they're fully expanded, they'll look like long waves of protein, triple the size of the corkscrew ones. If we're comparing apples to apples, the fully expanded protein will be shaped more like Daryl Hannah's mermaid hair in "Splash," all long and loose and wavy. If Daryl Hannah's mermaid hair is going to hold in water and actually remain stable, there are a few things you have to do:

1. Add about a half teaspoon of cream of tartar while you begin beating the eggs. Cream of tartar is like hair spray for Darryl Hannah's hair. If the proteins are bonding with all the other proteins, cream of tartar will make sure they stay bonded.*

2. Use room temperature eggs. Egg whites can be like demanding Hollywood actors: they have all their requests for how big they want their trailer, what kind of food they'll eat, who their co workers are, before they can do their job the best way they know how. Egg whites demand to be room temperature before they'll whip up into a meringue. It works better than using cold whites, so let them come to room temperature before you start whipping them. And no, leaving the egg whites out won't make you sick. A lot of bakeries, if they know what they're doing, leave egg whites out all the time for this exact reason.

3. Don't just turn the mixer on high and expect the whites to instantly fluff up. You have to gently persuade the proteins to unwind. Imagine trying to style Diana Ross' hair into Daryl Hannah's hair: you wouldn't just put a comb in at her scalp and pull, would you? No, that would probably break some of her hair off. Protein will also break if you just start whipping it as hard as you can. Start off by turning the speed on low for a few minutes. Let the whites loosen up a little and then turn it up to medium for a few minutes. Then move into high speed to finish off.

4. Don't dump all the sugar in at the beginning. As if trying to get the proteins to coagulate isn't hard enough, you're adding an extra ingredient to it that can get in the way. After you turn the mixer speed up to medium, wait for the eggs to start to get foamy. Then, and only then can you start to slooooowly add the sugar. How slow? You want to still be adding sugar to it right before the meringue is finished. This just makes sure that while the proteins are bonding with each other, the sugar doesn't interfere too much.

So, to summarize, be gentle with the egg whites, keep them at room temperature, and don't dump the sugar in at once. Got it? Avoid being rough, cold, and dumpy. In meringues and in life.

*Harold McGee's book, "On Food and Cooking," (also known as my Bible) recommends adding 1/16 teaspoon of cream of tartar per egg white.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Mama needs a drink!

Hello my little pets! I have finally completed my "What the Bleep Happened to My Rump Roast?" book proposal and sent it to my agent! After some inevitable revisions, the loverly Katharine Sands will be shopping it to publishers tout suite! In the mean time, I'm going to take a break from writing to enjoy the holiday with my friends and family and will be blogging as soon as the festivities are finished. Merry ChristmaKwanzakuh to you and yours! Thanks for reading.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Did You Grill Up some Floor Steak? Oh Snap!

Dear Tricia, If I drop a piece of steak on the floor, do I have to throw it away? Will it get you sick?

You know how sometimes you'll see a loud and crazy kitchen scene on TV or in a movie where the cook drops a steak on the floor and then puts it back on the plate and you think to yourself "Wow, I hope that doesn't really happen?" Well, unfortunately my friend, it does. It happens a whoooooole lot. I'm guessing its happened to you half a dozen times in your life so far, and you were none the wiser, were you? Here's why its not that bad: if the steak picked up any dangerous bacteria off the floor, most likely the cook is going to brush it off and put it back on the grill. The grill is running at about 450 degrees- hot enough to kill any bacteria that would potentially get you sick. Bacteria dies at high temperatures, so if a mysterious bacteria sticks around after being grilled on a 450 degree open flame, personally I'd like to shake its hand and find out what else it can do for me. Seriously, it would have to be like a super duper ninja bacteria to survive an open flame. And yeah, its gross if there's a piece of lint on the floor and it got on the steak and then you ate it, but hey... it happens. Lint won't make you sick, and most chefs don't want to throw away a perfectly good prime filet that's running him about 20 bucks a pound. Would you throw that away and start from scratch?
So, to answer your question, no it won't get you sick. If you've dropped it on the ground while it was raw, that's better because it'll spend more time cooking and killing anything potentially dangerous. If you dropped a cooked steak on the floor, just rinse it or brush it off and throw it back on the heat for a few seconds. Unless you have mono or some weird geriatric disease that makes your immune system nonexistent that they like to feature on the Maury Povich show, you're perfectly safe.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

How to Be Gay and Healthy!!!

Dear Tricia, I have the gayest food allergies ever: tomatoes, potatoes, red peppers, green peppers, yellow peppers, eggplant, peanuts, seafood, and chocolate. So what can I eat besides salads and chicken? For real, I need a menu to make me a healthy gay bitch. Currently my diet consists of cigarettes, coca-cola, weed, and gay. Help me grow up and stop eating the same crappy junk food.

I love you. Seriously, thanks for writing this awesome question. If I can reel in the gay fan base, I'll be set for life. I looooove my gays. So I'll tell you what: I'll answer this question, and you tell all your friends about me. Then we can all sing along to "The Divine Miss M" together and watch Margaret Cho do stand up comedy.
Your food allergies suck, but they could be much worse. I'm telling you, the whole wheat/dairy/soy allergy thing... that sucks hard. So I'm going to give you 3 quick meals that are healthy, but as an added bonus... they're cheap! And I know that's also something that is super important to you, especially if you're spending your money on cigarettes.
First though, lets talk convenience store snacks. If your blood sugar is about to plummet, and you want something healthy and really fast, try to find some yogurt and fruit, almonds (unless you're allergic to all nuts, not just peanuts. I know you're not allergic to your boyfriend's), or anything with some protein. Even beef jerky is fine. These are all things you should be able to find in any deli, convenience store, or airport, so you no longer have an excuse for your Cheetos craving after you smoke weed.
For breakfast, eggs are your best friend. They're super filling, they're a complete protein, they have healthy fats that are good for your metabolism, eyes, skin, and brain, and they're super cheap. If you want to go really lean, egg whites are only about 15 calories each. I'm a fan of scrambling them up with some fat free cheddar cheese (Kraft brand melts the best out of the fat free cheeses), spinach, and onions. Throw them in a whole wheat tortilla if you want to take it to go.
For lunch, think turkey. Keep your fridge stocked with sliced turkey (if you can afford the stuff sliced fresh at the deli, its much lower in sodium) sandwich meat. Here's what you can do to it to make it taste fatty, even though its not:

Microwave a whole wheat tortilla for about 10 seconds.
Spread some fat free re fried beans (straight outta the can) on the tortilla.
Put a few slices of turkey on the beans.
Top it with some fat free (or not... no judgment... totally up to you) cheddar.
Roll it up and put it back in the microwave for 30 seconds.
Done and Done.

What's great about this is that the beans are fat free, and full of protein, complex carbohydrates, and fiber. The turkey adds more lean protein, the cheese adds calcium, and the tortilla provides some more complex carbohydrates. The key is to make sure you get the fat free re fried beans, not the ones made with lard. Gross.

"Why use whole wheat tortillas instead of white tortillas?" you ask? Well, whole wheat flour takes longer for your body to break down than white flour. So while your body is working hard on that, the energy you're getting from the calories in the tortilla is being used at a slower, more deliberate pace. If your body breaks down food before you have had time to actually use the calories, the extra calories get turned into fat. So you want foods that take longer to digest, and foods that are packed with protein and fiber. Whole wheat tortillas have both. This is why you want to avoid eating excess sugar: it breaks down really fast and your body will turn the unused calories into fat.

For dinner, pile up on the veggies. Sugar snap peas, asparagus, and green beans are all super easy to steam. You just have to wash them, get a pan really hot, dump them in the pan with about a 1/4 cup water, and put a lid on it. By the time the water has evaporated, the veggies will be cooked. Remember, get the pan REALLY hot before you put the veggies and water in. Otherwise it won't steam... the water will just sit there and the whole event is anticlimactic at best.
Brussel sprouts are easy to cook if you slice them in half, toss them in a little bit of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, and then roast them in the oven at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes. Brussel sprouts are one of the most nutritious veggies because for every 8 calories, they have one gram of protein and one gram of fiber. That's like, unheard of in the world of food. So they make you full really fast, plus they have a ton of vitamin C and K. Vitamin K helps prevent bruising, by the way. Its awesome. I like it because I bump into things a lot.
If you take a bunch of these steamed veggies and mix them with some cooked whole wheat spaghetti noodles, olive oil, salt and pepper, and a little lemon, you've got a very ghetto, yet nutritious pasta primavera. The you can take your sucky chicken that you're tired of and hide it in the noodles for some extra protein. Ugh... thank God you're not vegan. Then you'd really be screwed.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Holiday Parties Can Suck.

That's why I'm busting out this oldie, but goodie, to reference for your holiday parties. I think it'll come in handy when you go to parties this month that require you to bring food. (Lame) Plus, I've been super duper busy the past few days with the actual "What the &%@# " book proposal and haven't had time to write a new blog entry. Hopefully this will tide you over for a couple more days...

Dear Tricia, Ok...ahem(clearing throat)...Tis the season for potlucks! As a lovely 28 year old female there is pressure to arrive to a friendly potluck dinner with something sinfully delicious...and to be honest...I'm a hard working lady and don't have time to bake or slow roast anything! What's a girl to do? When a guy brings a salad...its perfectly acceptable...but when a girl walks in with some leafy greens everyone looks as if you farted in the middle of the room! So...we single gals need some advice. What's are some potluck suggestions for a gal on the go?

First of all, it IS completely acceptable to bring a salad, and if you're getting dirty looks, then your host can just suck it. (I'd just go ahead and tell the party "That's right. I brought a salad. Jealous?" but that's just the kind of person I am.) What I've found for you though, is a standard spinach artichoke dip, which everyone and their mom loves. That's why its on every Chili's and Applebees menu. It's also cheap to make since I know I'd rather spend my money on cocktails than a stupid potluck dish where people might look at you like you farted.
Grab a casserole dish or "borrow" one from your neighbor. (See my Swedish meatball post for how to steal kitchen equipment from your divorcing neighbors.) In the dish, mix:

1 14 oz can artichoke hearts, chopped
Half a bag of frozen chopped spinach (thaw it in the microwave since you're a busy girl.)
1/2 c sour cream
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup cream cheese
1/4 grated parmesan cheese (this time you can cheat and use the stuff in the green can. I won't tell.)
A sprinkle of garlic powder or a clove of chopped garlic.

Mix it all up in your casserole dish with a spoon or your hands, cover the dish with a lid or with foil, and bake it when you get to the pot luck, at 375 degrees for 20 minutes.

That's all you have to do. It's fool-proof, even when you're making it after a few glasses of box wine at 2 in the morning. (Hypothetically. I'm not saying I tried it out after box wine binge drinking. Especially not last Thursday.) Pair the dip with a bag of chips at the party, because I promise you someone will have brought chips as their potluck dish. Then its their turn to be looked at like they farted.

Monday, November 30, 2009

How Olive Oil Can Be Like Those Freaky Child Beauty Queens

Dear Tricia, Does light olive oil have less calories than other olive oils? What's the difference between that and extra virgin? Is one better than the other?

Its pretty easy difference, actually. Extra virgin olive oil is olive oil in its purest, most immaculate and angelic state, and light olive oil is a wanton whore. Okay, not really. I just felt like calling an inanimate object a wanton whore. Its been that kind of day.
Light olive oil doesn't have less calories than regular olive oil. All fats, no matter if its butter, Crisco, vegetable oil, whatever... it all has 9 calories per gram (about 120 calories per tablespoon of olive oil). So if you're just counting your calories and not looking at the health benefits of different oils and fats, you're wasting your time because its all the same.
When oil is pressed out of olives, the fat molecules break down into their basic fatty acid components, called "free oleic acids." The more free oleic acids you have running around, the lower the quality of oil. Lots of free oleic acids also mean the oil will burn at a lower temperature and no one likes burned oil. Its nasty and it will ruin Christmas.
Extra virgin olive oil is allowed to have up to .8% free oleic acid content to be called extra virgin and it has a very specific flavor profile and aroma. Supposedly this is the best of the best kinds of olive oils because its made from "perfect" olives that are pressed immediately after they're harvested, and it doesn't have a lot of free oleic acids. And because of the low acidity, it has a high smoke point so it won't burn easily.
Virgin olive oil is the oil after its first pressing with no added colors, flavors, or other refined oils. It is allowed to have 4% free oleic acid content, meaning its got a lot more of those guys floating around that make the oil burn faster than extra virgin.
Light or Extra Light olive oil is usually a blend of super refined (and treated with chemicals) olive oils that give it a really light flavor and color. At this point, most of the flavor has been taken out entirely so it doesn't really resemble olive oil anymore. There are no exact regulations that light olive oil has to follow to be called "light."
So, if you compared these three olive oils to beauty pageants, extra virgin would be Miss America, virgin would be first runner up in the Miss America pageant, and light olive oil is one of those freaky 6 year old southern beauty queens with the fake teeth, giant hair, and accompanying stage mom. I'll take Miss America, please.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Damn you, Cream Cheese Frosting!

Dear Tricia, So I tried to make a cream cheese frosting for a red velvet cake. But the icing I used was the consistency of glue and would not crust. I used 3lbs (3 f-ing pounds!!) of powdered sugar and it still would not thicken up! I can’t stand cream cheese frosting from the can, so do you know where I went wrong or have a good cream cheese icing recipe?

Damn, that is a lot of sugar. Sounds like you went wrong by adding that much. I know its weird to think that powdered sugar can make something runny because its starchy and dry, right? (Damn you, powdered sugar! You're so misleading!) But that's kind of how you get cream cheese frosting spreadable in the first place. Imagine taking a block of cream cheese, letting it come to room temperature, and then just trying to spread it on a cake. It wouldn't be soft enough to spread, even if you whipped it up in a mixer. The sugar is what helps it loosen up and get creamy and smooth enough to frost a cake without tearing it up into pieces.
In baking, there are 2 categories that any ingredient will fall under: stabilizers and liquifiers. Ingredients will only be one or the other... never both. Its like the Bloods and the Krips of ingredient classification. Flour and eggs are stabilizers; they give food their structure and stability. In my world, the stabilizers represent wear red gang colors, but that's neither here nor there. Water, and oddly enough, sugar, are liquifiers; they make things soft and runny. (Again, damn you powdered sugar with your false promises!) So when you add too much sugar, the icing will get too wet and gluey to use for your red velvet cake.
The good thing is, you don't have to throw out your frosting, you just have to add more cream cheese to get it back in balance. It might also help to put it in the refrigerator for a while first... sounds like its taken a real beating from you (and well deserved, I might add) and its probably warmed up too much by now.
I don't have a cream cheese frosting recipe I go by because I just throw a bunch of cream cheese in a bowl and eyeball how much powdered sugar I add because I prefer a thicker, less sweet cream cheese frosting. There seems to be a pretty standard ratio in most recipes though:
For every 8 oz package of cream cheese, use 1 stick of butter and 2 cups (about 9 oz) powdered sugar. Add vanilla to taste.

Back to my Wii...

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I'm So Hollywood!

Quick update, my little pets! After interviewing a few great candidates, I have signed with an amazing literary agent who will be helping me take the blog to the next level: a What the Bleep Happened to my Rump Roast? book. I'm working on the proposal to submit to publishers and hopefully will have some good news to report in the new year. In the meantime, I'd love it if you could email me with your favorite blog entries so that I can make sure I include them in the book. I'm sorry I haven't been able to post more than once a week... I'm trying to keep up with the proposal, the blog, having a full time job, and getting in enough quality time with my Wii. I'm also trying to find new ways throw the "my agent" terminology into common conversation to help boost my self esteem. ;)
As always, thanks for your support, and keep sending in your culinary conundrums. Also, please go check out my fan page for What the Bleep Happened to my Rump Roast on Facebook and share it with your friends. xoxo

Peter Piper Picked 10-14 Pounds of Pickled Peppers

Dear Tricia, Since I have seemed to successfully pickle myself, I thought I could do the same to various vegetables and try my hand at canning. All the recipes I have call for white distilled vinegar. Boring. I wanted to use rice vinegar in a few of my pickling experiments, but I'm afraid I'll poison folks since it doesn't have the 5% acidity that seems to be required. "Merry Christmas, here's a jar of botulism for you". Also, how/where can I score cheap canning supplies?

Happy National Pickle Day! Turns out, November 14th is the national day for pickling things (other than your liver), so its serendipitous that I chose this weekend to solve your conundrum.
Alrighty Polly Pickle Pants, lets get to business. You're right: you need at least 5% acidity for vinegars to pickle with, and most of them qualify except for that wimpy rice vinegar which only measures up to about 4%. (Compared to apple cider vinegar's 5%, balsamic's 6%, and sherry vinegar's 7%)
At first I wasn't hopeful. But then throughout my Sunday morning of searching pickling websites and playing Tetris, I found a pickled onion recipe on a great website called that included both red wine vinegar and rice vinegar in equal parts:

6 lbs. of sliced red onions
2 quarts good red wine vinegar
2 quart seasoned rice wine vinegar
2 quarts sugar
1 T. black peppercorns
3 bay leaves
½ Cup mustard seeds

This leads me to assume that if you have the required 5% acidity from the red wine vinegar, adding rice vinegar shouldn't lower the pickling power, as long as at least half of the total amount of vinegar has the necessary 5%. Think of using sunscreen: if you mix equal parts SPF 40 and SPF 20 together, you're still going to get SPF 40 coverage.
The other thing I wanted to point out is that rice wine vinegar and rice vinegar are the exact same thing. It all comes from fermented rice wine that has a bacteria added to it to turn it into vinegar. (And for the life of me, I can't find out what bacteria they add. The suspense is killing me, so if anyone knows, email me pronto.) So you can use them interchangeably. Just don't use plain old rice wine by mistake. That will just get you drunk and leave you with a mean stomache ache.
Cheap canning supplies are pretty easy to come by. I checked ebay and they have pressure cookers for like 30 bucks, canning racks for less than 5 bucks, and full pot/rack combos for cheap too.
The most expensive part of canning, as you know, is buying the jars. If you want to bargain shop online, check out where you can find sets of 24 for about 30 bucks (you'll just have to fork over some cash for the shipping). Wal-Mart has cheap mason jars, but I'm not a fan of supporting that company (for like a million different reasons), so go check out your local hardware store. They always have tons of cool stuff for cooking that you never knew you needed, and if they don't have mason jars, they'll probably special order them for you. A wink and a nod usually does the trick.
And with all this talk about pickled things, it had me wondering how much a peck of them would really equal? It turns out that a peck is a quarter of a bushel, equaling about 2 gallons of dry weight, or 10-14 pounds. That's a good one to throw out at your next cocktail party.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Hyper Hypo Loves Christmas Cookies!

Dear Tricia, I'm getting really (overly) excited about my Christmas cookie baking this year. Here's a few questions for you that may help me with my (over)planning. My whole adult life I have wanted to use cake flour and/or pastry flour. What makes these flours different? Can I use cake flour to make my awesome Christmas cookies? Where can I get really cool sprinkles? The ones found the grocery store are the same ones my grandmother used (circa 1972) and I want something different. Are canned frostings a sin?

Considering I got this email in October, "overly" excited for Christmas might not quite cover it. Obsessively excited, perhaps? Completely enraptured? Either way, thanks for thinking of me in regards to your (over)planning. I'm (over)flattered.
Cake and pastry flours are different than other flours because they have less protein. Flour that has a lot of protein makes things dense and chewy... think bread and pasta. Its kind of like the protein content tells you how much muscle the flour has in it. Bread flour has a lot of muscle (it has about 14% protein content), and that's not what you want in delicate things like cake and cookies. So cake and pastry flours have much less protein (about 8% protein content) and a lot more starch in them. Its like bread flour is one of those oily, overly tanned competitive body builders, and pastry flour is Nancy Reagan. Which one do you think would make a better cake? This is why all purpose flour has its name: the protein content is around 11% so its a happy medium between bread and pastry flours.
You can actually see how much more starchy pastry and cake flours are, compared to bread or all purpose flour. If you hold pastry flour in your hand and squeeze it tight, it will stay together in a tight little clump. Bread flour, because it has less starch and more protein, will just go back into a loose pile in your hand when you squeeze it. I can't even begin to tell you how many times this trick comes in handy when someone has forgotten to label the flour bins correctly in some of the kitchens I've worked in.
As far as which one to use for your cookies, either one would be fine. You probably won't notice much of a difference between cake or pastry flour because the protein content only differs by about 1%.
Its perfectly acceptable to use frosting out of a can. You have my blessing. Considering the fact that you're making your cookies from scratch, I'd say that cheating on the frosting still allows you to say your cookies are homemade. I am a fan of making old school, water-and-powdered-sugar frosting with food coloring in it, but the frosting out of a can is nice because it's really thick.
Sprinkles are coming back in a huge way now that cupcakes are really trendy. Sur La Table, Williams Sonoma, and other specialty cooking stores have a pretty decent selection. But if you know of a cake decorating store nearby, and you have a high tolerance for old ladies in large groups, that's going to be the best option because they won't overcharge you like Sur la Table and Williams Sonoma will. (Paying 8 bucks for a tiny can of sprinkles is ridiculous.) Craft stores also carry a lot of cake decorating items and you should be able to find sprinkles there. I've even found some cool ones on one of my favorite websites, And if you still haven't found anything that suits your fancy, Whole Foods, Central Market, and other specialty grocery stores should have a decent selection, plus theirs are all natural.
Make sure you send in photos of your cookies! I'll put them up on the fan page for What the Bleep Happened to My Rump Roast on facebook.

Monday, November 2, 2009

I Want a New Kids Kind of Cheesecake, But All I Can Get is N'Sync. And that N'Sucks.

Dear Tricia, I live in France. But even in a country where gastronomy is a national pastime, I get a hankering every now and then for some good ol' fashion American food, namely cheesecake. The main ingredient, as any self-respecting American knows, is Philidelphia cream cheese. So I'm thinking, "what better place to find cream cheese than France?!!". You'd think in a country that has over 300 sorts of cheeses you'd be able to find whichever one you wanted. That's simply not the case. I have no idea about a substitute for cream cheese. I've tried everything and nothing has worked! The closest I've come to anything edible has been a mixture of Mascarpone and Ricotta. Can you provide any suggestions, or am I condemned to give up on the whole cheesecake idea?

You've actually done me proud with the mascarpone and ricotta substitutes. When I think back to all of the cheesecakes I've made in restaurants, most of them contained ricotta or mascarpone with the cream cheese, and some I've made with only ricotta or mascarpone to get rid of extra product that was about to expire. By the way, that's pretty much where restaurant specials come from: "Hmmm, we've got a bunch of ricotta that's about to go bad. How can we get rid of it?" I know. It makes you think twice about ordering that seafood special at Sunday brunch, doesn't it?
While France may be the home of 300+ different cheeses, Philledelphia cream cheese is a very American product, created by New York dairyman in the late 1800's. The type you see in grocery stores usually contains thickening agents and gums that aren't used in traditional cheese making: probably the reason why you can't find it in France. This isn't surprising... France is as snobby with their cheese standards as they are with their wine. And I can't really fault them for that. After all, they're the only country who will publicly declare Scientology a fraud.
Cream cheese is classified as a "fresh cheese," meaning its uncooked and unripened to give it a very mellow, lightly tart flavor. Two other cheeses in the same category are... you guessed it, ricotta and mascarpone, which is why they're such great substitutes in cheesecake. If cream cheese is New Kids on the Block, then mascarpone is N'Sync and ricotta is The Backstreet Boys.
Ricotta is lower in fat than cream cheese and comes from sheep's milk, while mascarpone is from cows' milk and much higher in fat. In fact, mascarpone is over 70% fat, which is almost as high as cheese can be without being classified as butter. That's why its my favorite of the two. (Just like how I prefer N'Sync over the Backstreet Boys.) Mascarpone will give you a smoother, softer cheesecake than ricotta. Why? Because fat is awesome. And so is Justin Timberlake.
The other substitute you may want to check out is a cheese called petit suisse, or "little swiss." Its a cows' milk cheese that is softer and more jiggly than cream cheese, but it's still in the fresh cheese category with a really mellow flavor and commonly used in desserts.
If you're feeling daring and have a liking for goat cheese, try using half mascarpone and half goat cheese in a cheesecake recipe. When its cooled, you can drizzle honey over it and serve it with fresh fruit for a less-sweet dessert.
I also have to bring up a cheese called Neufchatel, which is a product in American grocery stores sold next to the cream cheese. All it is is a reduced-fat cream cheese with a really fancy name. Why its not just called "reduced fat cream cheese" is beyond me. But its vastly different than the real neufchatel, which is a stronger- tasting, ripened cheese that you can actually find in France. Don't let a midwestern tourist visiting gay Paris tell you any different. Just wanted to clear that up.
I'm sorry you can't find the cream cheese in the snobby country that you live in. But while you're craving that American taste of cream cheese cheesecake, know that the cheesecakes you're already making are super duper gourmet. And that's something that you can brag about in a French accent and get away with.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Why Do My Roasted Pumpkin Seeds Turn Out to Be Chewy Bits of Hell?

Dear Tricia, Pumpkin carving season is upon us, and I hate for anything to go to waste. It turns out pepitas are one of my favorite salty-go-with-beer accessories. The problem is, when I harvest those little seeds of joy myself and try to roast them, they turn out to be chewy bits of hell. How do I get the crisp, salty bites of love that I crave?

First of all, kudos to you for not letting those little gems go to waste. This reminds me of the rocky mountain oyster post I wrote a few months ago, except that my readers will actually eat pepitas. Pepitas are roasted pumpkin seeds, by the way. It's how they're referred to in Mexican cooking and you'll often see them in the bulk section of the grocery store labeled as such. The difference between what you see in the store and what's inside a pumpkin is that what's inside the pumpkin seed still has the hull, or shell around it. Inside the hull is a little green kernel that is a little easier to chew, but both are completely edible, and to take the hull off the seed is pretty labor-intensive, so for this blog entry, I'll refer to the entire seed. Plus, if you're going to ask me about eating these while drinking beer, I'm going to assume that you're not up for the dextrous challenge. No judgement though.
Oh, and I should probably write a quick disclaimer. I woke up with a cold this morning and have about 4 different medications running through my body right now, so my wit isn't exactly up to its usual ninja-like speed. I'm also cranky because I was supposed to dress up for a charity Zombie pub crawl today, and as much as I'd like to suck it up and drink vitamin C- packed screwdrivers in full zombie regale, I had to cancel. So instead, I'm medicated and experimenting with pumpkin seeds. But regardless, I'm happy to educate you, dear readers.
This is was an email I didn't immediately know the answer to. My first thought was that you're probably not cooking them long enough, but it's not that simple. In my research, there are a few different methods to getting crispy pumpkin seeds. Some people claim that boiling the pumpkin seeds before roasting them works. Others think that a low oven temperature does the trick. On my medicated no-funday Sunday, I tried 4 of these different methods. I also managed to do other super important things, like catch up on my Real Housewives of Atlanta.
With each experiment, I used 1/4 cup of fresh pumpkin seeds scraped straight from a soon-to-be jack-o-lantern. I rinsed the seeds to get all the pulp off and then set them on a paper bag to dry off for about half an hour. Before roasting, I tossed each batch in 1/2 teaspoon of olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt.

Batch #1: I boiled the pumpkin seeds in salted water for 10 minutes. Then I roasted them at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
Batch #2: I roasted them at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. I also started to get the spins from cramming so many vitamins into my bloodstream.
Batch #3: I boiled the pumpkin seeds in salted water for 10 minutes. Then I roasted them at 275 degrees for 1 hour.
Batch #4: I roasted them at 275 degrees for 1 hour. I think I also had made about 13 trips to the bathroom at this point from drinking so much hot tea and water.

The results? Batch #4, the seeds that weren't boiled, and baked at a lower, slower temperature were the crispiest, crunchiest and least chewy. The ones that were boiled were a little tougher than the pepitas that weren't boiled. But each one was nowhere near being a chewy bit of hell. So apparently, slow and low... that is the tempo. The only reason I can come up with for boiling the seeds first is to give them a saltier flavor (from the salt in the water), but if you prefer saltier pepitas... then just add more salt. Its not rocket science.
I just used salt and oil for my seasoning, but you can definitely get creative here: try tossing them in a little cayenne for spicy pumpkin seeds, garlic and parmesan for something Italian, or cinnamon and sugar for sweeter snacks to go with your beer. You can also use cooking spray if you don't want the fat or calories from olive oil.
Aside from tasting awesome with your beer, pumpkin seeds are also really good for you. They're high in protein, omega fatty acids, Vitamin A (to keep your eyes healthy while squinting with jack-o-lantern-carving concentration), and Potassium (to help your keep your hands from cramping).
Now back to my pepita experiment snacks, Family Guy, and thinking of something non-traditional to carve in the pumpkin. A Christmas tree, perhaps?

I must mention that my adorable and dear friend Dawn sent me this doozy of a question, and I promised her I would include the photo her ninja jack-o-lanterns from last year. So, yes, friends, I know the creator of the masterpiece in the photo above. That's just how awesome my network is.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

On Top of Spaghetti, All Covered in... Mold?

Dear Tricia, This isn't really a cooking question, but how long are various leftovers good for? For example, brisket vs.
potato salad, cheesecake, spaghetti, etc. Just wondering, because the mold test I'm currently using seems a bit sketchy.

Leftovers are tricky because everyone has their own rules on when to throw things out. For instance, one website I visited claims that you only have two hours from the time your food was prepared to eat it in order for it to be safe. I'm pretty sure that was authored by a hypochondriac because two hours means food served at cocktail parties are out of the question. And where's the fun in that? No one wants to pass up Vienna sausage on a toothpick. Seriously, that website (which will remain anonymous to protect their idiocy) actually said, "Some people may still feel the need to consume leftovers after a few days have elapsed...". Hey, hungry is hungry. Don't judge. So I'm not going to tell you what the health department tells you: I'm going to tell you the truth.
Unfortunately there is no throw-out-spaghetti-after-four-days rule, or brisket-only-lasts-three-days manifesto. You have to use your best judgment when guessing if the food in question is safe to eat or not. This involves using your eyes, nose, and brain. What I most commonly hear and read is to throw things out after 3 days. But I'm totally guilty of eating lots of leftovers after 3 days, especially if they're things I've made at home because then I know exactly how they were prepared. If you're just not sure about what to do (or have poor judgment to begin with), go ahead and toss 'em after 3 days. But here's some things to take into consideration.
Butter and sugar are natural preservatives, so cakes, cheesecakes, and other high-fat baked goodies are safe to eat until they mold or start to smell. I've never heard of a pound cake giving someone E. coli unless a giant E. coli monster snuck into your house in the middle of the night and rubbed itself all over said pound cake. Maybe if the baker used rotten eggs to start, and then let them sit out all night in Miami in August, and then baked the cake with those... that might get you sick. But that's highly unlikely. And check this out: most of your local bakeries let their frosting sit out at room temperature for days at a time. That's against the food code, but like I said, butter and sugar are natural preservatives. It won't make you sick, so the health department can suck it.
Meats like chicken, pork, and beef are also safe to eat until they mold or start to smell bad, as long as they've been refrigerated. If you left a steak sitting out overnight because you hypothetically "fell asleep" after too many glasses of box wine last Thursday, technically it is not safe the eat the next day, even if it doesn't smell bad. According to the health department, food can sit out for up to 4 hours in between the temperatures 40 and 140 degrees before it becomes hazardous. The health department calls this the food "danger zone," (queue the Kenny Loggins music) and meats are particularly susceptible to becoming hazardous when left out.
Seafood: trash it no later than 2 days after. If you have the guts to try and eat it after then, by all means go for it. But don't blame me when you're doing double duty in the bathroom for 8 hours.
Leaving out fruit that has already been cut up is also really sensitive. Bacteria loves fruit, so if you've made a delicious little fruit salad for yourself, make sure you refrigerate it. It's fine in the refrigerator until it molds or starts to smell bad, which usually happens after a few days anyway (Berries in particular will start to ferment after a few days, and you won't want to eat those. You could try, but I doubt they'll make it past your molars.)
Preservatives and artificial ingredients are things bacteria and mold hate. (And if I could get up on my soap box for a second, if mold and bacteria don't even like artificial ingredients, why are Americans eating so many of them? Curious.) So if you were to steam a bunch of organic kale and then put it in your refrigerator for a week, and compare that to a Dominos pizza that sits next to it for a week, the kale is going to mold and stink to high heaven. Coincidentally, this happened to my kale last week. It was nasty, and many candles were lit in the kitchen that night. But the preservatives, artificial ingredients, and stabilizers that are put into most prepared foods these days are what keep the bad stuff away. I remember one particular lecture in culinary school: if you leave shortening and butter out in your garage, only the butter will only attract flies because shortening isn't real food, its a hydrogenated, trans-fat product that mimics real food and never goes bad. And even flies don't want that. That said, your Hamburger Helper is definitely safe to eat until it starts to smell or mold.
Foods like potato salad are going to go bad much faster than the previous ones I've talked about. Anything with eggs or egg-based products (like mayonnaise) are going to go bad pretty quickly, and you never want to chance it with those. For reals, if you're not sure, then throw it out. Luckily, leftover potato salad never lasts very long to begin with. Lexi, you know I'm talking about you.

Some other things I should tell you about leaving food out:
1. Restaurant kitchens have a saying: when it doubt, throw it out. So if you're not sure if something smells bad or not, just throw it away. You're not homeless. You can make another one.
2. The time it takes to cool down food is also what makes it potentially dangerous to eat. Remember the food d-d-d-danger zone? Well if you're going to make a giant pot of soup and then put that giant pot of soup in the refrigerator, chances are the soup is going to take a really really really really long time to cool down, making it stay in the d-d-d-danger zone for a lot longer than 4 hours. So take things that are in large quantities and hot, and put them in smaller containers where its easier to cool down. You want leftovers to get cold fast, just like beer.
3. Put leftovers in airtight containers. Keeping them in the Styrofoam containers from restaurants or in plastic baggies will make them go bad much faster.

Again, I must stress that if you have poor judgment to begin with (and this is directed at those of you who ride on crotch rockets and pop wheelies while on the freeway, those of you who listen to Nickelback, and anyone who pre-ordered Sarah Palin's memoir), just throw away your leftovers after a few days. Its doubtful you're going to get sick from something you didn't get sick from the first time you ate it, but who knows... maybe listening to Nickelback while eating it could do the trick.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

My Cookies are Vulgar and Offensive

Dear Tricia, Why don't my cookies seem to hold their shape? I want some of the kind you get from a cookie bouquet, but my cookies always spread and look rather vulgar. Or maybe I'm just dirty and think they look vulgar...

Yes, you are vulgar. And frankly, without a little bit of vulgarity, you probably wouldn't read my blog... so don't worry too much about it because I'm certainly not fussing about a little naughtiness.
Let me back up for a second and explain what cookie bouquets are to those who have never lived in the suburbs, or to anyone born after 1994. Cookie bouquets are basic shortbread cookies that are cut into different shapes, baked on lollipop sticks or dowel rods, stuck in a basket, and decorated with colorful frosting. They're meant to look like a bouquet of flowers, but surprise! You can eat them. How clever. In the 90's you saw Cookie Bouquet franchise bakeries that popped up in strip malls all over America, only to close down a few years later. I predict that the cupcake bakery trend is soon to follow. Sorry, Sprinkles Cupcakes. Your overpriced treats can't fool me or the economy.
A traditional cookie recipe focuses mainly on flavor and texture, so they're guaranteed to spread out to give you a non-descript blob to decorate. Cookie bouquet cookies are meant for looks, so there is a specific recipe that you need to follow to give you a sturdy, firm, non-vulgar product that won't change shape when it bakes. To get this recipe, I contacted my Aunt Mary, cake-decorator extraordinaire and cookie bouquet expert. (She also used to make my birthday cakes when I was a kid, including a super sweet Ziggy cake, c. 1987.) This is the recipe she swears by:

3 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp. Baking Powder
1/2 tsp. Salt
1 1/2 cups Sugar
2 sticks (8 oz) butter or margarine
2 eggs
1 1/2 tsp. Vanilla

Mix flour, baking powder and salt in medium bowl. Set aside.
Cream margarine and sugar until just combined .
Add eggs, one at a time until well blended.
Add vanilla.
Add flour mixture a little at a time until all ingredients are blended.
Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour.
Roll dough out 1/4" thick. Cut out shapes. (This makes cookies thick enough to push skewers into the cookie dough to make cookie bouquets).
Bake at 350' for 8-10 minutes (until cookie edge turns light brown). Dough can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.

This is a very simple recipe to follow, but I just wanted to stress a few things, and you should already know them if you're a regular reader:
You have to preheat your oven. To quote myself in one of my older blog posts, "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." Just let the oven do its work and wait until its hot before you put anything in.
Do not over-cream your butter and sugar. With cakes and cupcakes, you need to cream butter and sugar until they're light and fluffy, but with cookies, its a really bad idea (just like that train wreck of a reality show, Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Why are those people famous again?) because it makes the cookies spread out and get really flat. Then weird, blobby vulgarity ensues, and that's exactly what you're trying to avoid here, right? (Wait... let me double check... um.... yes, that's what you wrote me for.)
Apparently these cookies freeze really well after they're baked, so if you're really busy you can make them ahead of time and decorate them later. I definitely fall into that category, seeing as how I just downloaded two new games for my Wii. Seriously, there just aren't enough hours in the day.
For more edible vulgarity, please go check out my best friend's erotic candy company, Randi Candies, at The gummy boobs are delicious.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

American Pie and Vodka... and I'm Not Talking About Tara Reid

Dear Tricia, I'm told my pie crusts are pretty good. But I ran into a recipe that calls for vodka! I know the alcohol would bake out, but why in the world would I even want to add it? (And if I was going to pick a booze to add, it would be tequila....)

Sometimes when I think I'm too much of a bad ass in the kitchen (or just too good at pretending like I am), I get an email like this that makes me think, "Wow. I really don't know!" So this was a fun one to research.
It turns out I'm not that behind on my baking skills, as this is a recipe that Cooks Illustrated (For those of you that aren't familiar, Cooks Illustrated is sort of like an awesome science magazine for recipes... everything is fool-proof and it never features Rachael Ray!) just developed last year that had most bakers scratching their heads. They suggested that you take half of the water in the pie crust recipe and substitute it with vodka. So, if your recipe calls for 1 cup of water, use 1/2 cup of water and 1/2 cup of vodka. "But why in the world would you want to waste good vodka?", you ask. If you'd rather have a martini than a glorious flaky apple pie, then get out of the kitchen and go ahead and get back on Facebook. But if you're willing to donate the martini to the pie crust, then this recipe guarantees the flakiest pie crust you'll ever taste. Here's why:

1. Gluten doesn't form in alcohol:
What the hell is gluten? Well, if you're a loyal reader, you should know this. But if not (shame on you!), here's a brief overview: if you've over-worked your pie dough and then try to roll it out, its super hard to get it to roll without it springing back like a piece of elastic. That's because it has a lot of gluten in it. As a visual, pretend that water and flour are like... thanksgiving. And too much thanksgiving = elastic pants.
When you mix water and flour together and keep stirring/kneading/over-all-messing-with it, gluten forms. Gluten is a natural protein that makes baked goodies like bread chewy. But when you're making pie dough, you don't want a lot of gluten to show up at the pie crust party because it makes the crust end up chewy and tough. This can be avoided by not over-working the pie dough. You simply mix the water/butter/flour together until it just forms a ball and then refrigerate it. It's also a lot easier to roll out that way. But as an added bonus (I feel like I'm channelling Billy Mayes here), gluten won't form in alcohol. It's like magic! For some strange reason, gluten just hates alcohol and stays far far away.

2. The alcohol evaporates in the oven:
Lets play pretend again. Pretend you have a really soggy and wet pie dough that you put in the oven to bake. What you're going to take out of the oven in 45 minutes is a doughy, heavy, definitely-not-flaky pie crust. Not enough of the water evaporated out of the dough so it just stayed gross and soggy. But what alcohol does is evaporate completely in high heats. (The same thing happens when you cook with alcohol... you keep some of the flavor but the boozy stuff disappears.) So if you're taking half of your water and substituting it for alcohol, half of the liquid is guaranteed to evaporate, and some of the water will evaporate too. This makes a flaky, light pie crust.

So why use vodka and not some other delicious liquor? Vodka is the most odorless, tasteless alcohol, so it leaves a classic pie crust flavor without any other interference. But if you prefer tequila (or bourbon, like myself. Helloooo Woodford Reserve), why not use it? Have a little nip for yourself and then try it out and let me know what happens. Any other liquor will have more sugar, which means your crust might possibly brown more, but keep a good eye on it while its baking and use some foil to cover the top if it happens to get too dark.
Another helpful hint I learned from researching this recipe is that the dough can be a little more wet and difficult to work with, so try rolling the dough out in between pieces of wax paper or parchment paper to avoid bigger mess to clean up later. But if you're sampling the tequila while baking, a mess might be unavoidable anyway. And I support that.

Here's the recipe:

2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons sugar
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces
1/4 cup cold vodka
1/4 cup cold water

1. Process 1 1/2 cups flour, salt, and sugar in food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until homogeneous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 15 seconds (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds and there should be no uncoated flour). Scrape bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl.

2. Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together. Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.

For similar blog entries, check out my archives under the titles, "Rootin' Tootin' Gluten" and "Whoever made up the phrase "Easy as Pie" was a Big Fat Liar."

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I Burned my Bottoms!

Dear Tricia, The last time I baked cookies, the bottoms were burned. I followed the recipe and baked them for how long it told me to, but the bottoms were almost black. What happened?

Ahhh.... the ultimate What the Bleep Happened question... I love fix-its! So, you burned your bottoms, huh? Fortunately, this is easy enough to solve, so I'll try to keep the sarcasm and bitterness to a low since this dilemma is quite common. But keep in mind that I'd usually mercilessly make fun of you for at least 2 paragraphs.
First and foremost, your oven temperature may be incorrect. I know... its mean for an oven to tell you its at 350 degrees when its actually at 410, but this is all too common. But much like Republicans, ovens are frequently wrong and you have to learn how to deal with them on their own terms. But we'll save that as a last ditch effort. On to the more common fix its.
Are you using an old-school cookie sheet? You know... that dark and rusty one that your grandmother gave you or the one that your mom got at a garage sale and gave you when you moved into your first apartment? Cookie sheets that are aluminum (and a large chunk of older or cheap ones are aluminum) conduct more heat than stainless steel ones. Its like your oven is a dance club and your aluminum cookie sheet is wearing an outfit made entirely by Ed Hardy: It yields a hot mess of terrible results. Stainless steel is the way to go. In the restaurant industry, we call them "sheet pans" and you can buy stainless steel half sheet pans that fit beautifully in your oven and give you incredible results with baking. You can get two for like 20 bucks at Sam's Club. And if you're still getting burned bottoms, use both sheet pans and double them up.
When you get your beautiful new half sheet pans, you'll also want to invest in some parchment paper. Its something else that we in the restaurant business swear by. You can find it in the baking aisle of your grocery store near the aluminum foil and it also comes rolled up in a little box just like foil. Tear off a sheet of parchment paper to line your sheet pan. You can make it stick by lightly spraying some Pam on the pan. Parchment paper doesn't usually need to be greased when you're baking cookies, so just put your dough straight on the parchment and that should give you perfect cookie color on the bottoms, free of a burned mess.
Have you mixed your cookie dough entirely? While you don't want to over mix your dough (that makes it spread out and get flat), making sure that the sugar is fully incorporated is super important because big chunks of sugar that have fallen to the bottom of the cookie dough will burn. If you ever see burned streaks on the bottom of the cookie, its most likely from sugar that wasn't mixed in all the way.
Also, make sure you're putting your cookies on the middle or top shelf of the oven, further away from the heating element. This was a confusing topic of debate in one of my older blogs, "Top or Bottom: Which is Hotter?", but for cookies, get on top. This helps many different... situations.
Back to your oven temperature being wrong: if none of the previous helpers are working for you, then your oven isn't calibrated correctly. You could try buying an oven thermometer to check the real temperature of the oven and the adjust the temperature from there. But if you're broke like me (and that goes for you, Mr.-Judgmental-Convenience-Store-Guy-Who-Gives-Me-Dirty-Looks-For-Buying-Cheap-Wine), turn it down about 20 degrees and give it a go. I think you'll find that very helpful.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Why Sweet Potatoes are Special

Dear Tricia, I like to eat sweet potatoes and tried to make hash browns with them. Problem is, they didn't brown like regular potatoes and they got soggy. I want the crispy brown outside that you get from regular potato hash browns. Did I do something wrong?

Probably not, there's just a little bit of tweaking that you need to adjust. To be frank, you're not going to get the same kind of result that you would get from regular potatoes, but give me a break... I'm not God.
First of all, you're probably using yams, which are totally different than sweet potatoes, which are a totally different from regular potatoes. Yes, that's right. They're in completely different botanical families, and we refer to them as the same thing. Yet another reason why the English language is one of the most backward languages on the planet. Ten bucks says that one of those African clicking languages makes more sense.
Regardless of whether you used yams or sweet potatoes (we'll use them interchangeably in this entry and get to the specifics some other time when I have writers block), the big difference between potatoes and sweet potatoes is their moisture content. Sweet potatoes have more water in them, and potatoes have more starch in them. Have you ever made mashed sweet potatoes? They're not nearly as fluffy and heavenly as regular mashed potatoes, and that's because there's less starch in them. So when you make regular ol' hash browns, all of that starchy goodness gets nice and golden brown, and that's what you're used to. Sweet potatoes, because they have less starch, won't give you that golden brown color like you're expecting. Fortunately, they do have a lot of sugar in them which gives you some color when you fry them, but you have to be careful not to burn them.
Here's the 2 tricks to good sweet potato hash browns:

1. Don't get the pan too hot.
The sugar in the sweet potatoes is moody and likes to burn easily. So, while you want to put the grated sweet potatoes in a hot pan, make sure you keep the heat at a medium high and no higher. "What's medium high," you ask? If you're like me, and you have a lame electric stove (gas is SO much better), and the numbers go from 1-9, keep the pan at about a 7. Again, make sure you put the potatoes in an already-hot pan with already-hot-and-melted butter or oil in it. Putting anything in a pan that's not hot and expecting it to cook is just stupid. It takes forever and if you're going to waste your time, don't do it while staring at a frying pan... find something more fun to do.

2. Don't put too many sweet potatoes in the pan at once.
Because sweet potatoes have more moisture in them than regular potatoes, they'll want to steam. If you put an entire shredded sweet potato in a frying pan (and I know how much that is. It's a freaking ton.) the moisture out of the potatoes on the bottom will turn into steam, get trapped inside the giant sweet potato pile, and make everything soggy. And you don't want to ruin breakfast, do you? So try cooking the sweet potato in 2 or 3 batches... whatever just covers the bottom of the pan.

So let's practice this. Have your shredded sweet potatoes ready. Get your pan hot... turn it up to about a 7, or whatever is in between medium and high on your stove. Put your butter or oil in the pan and let it melt/get hot. Put an even layer of potatoes in, just enough to cover the bottom of the pan. After a minute or so, go ahead and start mixing the potatoes around, just to make sure that they don't start to turn black. Continue cooking them until they're crispy and season them with salt and pepper. And remember... you won't get the same results as you will from regular potatoes. The sweet potatoes will more or less have the texture of shredded carrots.... but tasty all the same. Magic!
Let me get on my soap box for a second and tell you why sweet potatoes are awesome. Usually I'd just write something about how all the vitamins help prevent cancer and cancel out last night's cocktails... but instead, I decided to write a poem for you to enjoy.

I am the fan of the potatoes of sweet
They make my mouth happy and they don't smell like feet.
They're super high in fiber so their sugar digests slow
So instead of crashing, your metabolism says "Let's go!"
If you're diabetic (Wilford Brimley) its the right starch for you
and even if you're not, you might like them too.
They have antioxidants so you don't get the big "C"
And when you tell your friends, you can give credit to me.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Something Old, Something New, Something... ew, this cake is gross...

Dear Tricia, With my pending nuptials a mere days away, I got to thinking... why does wedding cake always taste awful? Wait, have I ever liked a cake at a wedding? Also do I remember anyone uttering the words, "Wow this cake is amazing!!!!!" No, so why do we have wedding cake? Where in history did they start serving cake at weddings? I know it is really not a problem question, but thought you may know the answer.

My dearest friend Doug wrote me an email, on the week of his wedding to his lovely fiance Kacey. I'm super happy to oblige him, and all of you, with a super informative answer. (Doug, this counts as part of your wedding present. See you in a couple of days.)
Oh, wedding cake. Cake cake cake. For those of you who know me, you probably know that on the contrary to most women, I HATE wedding cakes. I've decorated my fair share of them, and while I love the cake decorating part, I hate dealing with the bride and her mother part. I hate transporting cakes, I hate the stress of setting them up, I hate serving them to drunk people who just did the chicken dance, and have I already said that I hate dealing with brides and their mothers? I'm pretty sure that wedding cakes haven't always been this dramatic and annoying, but to make sure its not just me being jaded and bitter again, I looked up the history behind them. Lets go all the way back to the Roman era, shall we?
Back in the days of the Roman Empire, before Ace of Cakes was on the Food Network, a loaf of barley or wheat bread was baked so that the groom could break it open over his bride's head. Now whether or not he broke it open by actually making contact with his beloveds skull, or just broke it in half with his hands is beyond me. I'd prefer to imagine that he'd break it in half with his two hands like a gentleman, but the other one sure does make me giggle. The crumbs that dropped to the floor were supposed to symbolize a lifetime of good luck and fertility, and the guests were supposed to eat the crumbs. Mmm... who doesn't love feasting on bread crumbs that fell on the floor? Those Romans really knew how to party.
Moving onto Medieval England, sweet buns with stacked up in a pile and the bride and groom were supposed to try and kiss over the stack. If they could, it symbolized a lifetime of prosperity. (I think that "prosperous" equaled making it through The Plague.)
In the 17th century, the first historical dessert baked specifically for a wedding came around: Bride Pie. It was actually a savory pie filled with mince meats and decorated with a fancy pastry crust. A ring was hidden inside and whomever got the ring would supposedly be the next to marry. This seems like a pre-cursor to the whole circus-like event of tossing of the bouquet, but it seems much less lame to me. (Come on ladies, no one likes hearing a wedding DJ calling you out by name to catch the bouquet, along with a list of all the other single ladies at the reception.) Since people didn't sue a baker for finding random objects in their food back in the day, this was a long standing tradition until the 1800's.
When the mid 1800's rolled around, wedding cakes became more of what we know them as today: white cakes with decorative white frosting. Queen Victoria is rumored to have popularized the fancy, Victorian (those Victorians loved ornamental crap) style wedding cakes: her wedding to Prince Albert supposedly included a 300 pound wedding cake. Aside from the fact that white was a symbol of purity and virginity, refined white sugar was super expensive, and using it to make white frosting and cake was a display of the family's wealth. Big pimpin' = white frosting. They don't every show that in rap videos, do they?
Let's move on to present day, where Ace of Cakes rules the land of TV. (And I'm totally fine with Ace of Cakes. Let me make that clear. I've made the trek to Baltimore just to get a photo of Charm City Cakes.) Throughout the 20th century, wedding cakes were increasingly seen as tiered or stacked cakes, sometimes separated by columns, and always frosted with decorative designs or flowers. And eventually, the designs of the cake took on more importance than the actual cakes themselves. I know this from experience: do brides ever want to talk about the flavor of cake first? No. They have a photo of what they want the cake to look like and the tasting comes in last. Sorry, taste buds. The cake is considered as much as a centerpiece of a wedding as the dress. Perhaps we can blame this on the 40-billion-dollar-a-year wedding industry. Or maybe we can call out all of the reality television shows about not just the wedding, but the wedding cake itself. Its almost become a sporting event to watch the construction and decoration of a wedding cake... the visual impression of the cake has simply become more coveted than the quality of the cake. More and more brides are choosing to have an 8-10 tiered cake with half of those cakes being made out of Styrofoam and frosted for a more dramatic effect. Do you know what its like to serve a cake to a crowd of 200 while discreetly trying to poke your fingers through the frosting to sort out the Styrofoam layers from the cake layers? Welcome to my life.
In the 90's, when fondant started to become popular (check out any of my cake decorating entries for more details on my anti-fondant stance), it became much more popular to see bright, primary colors on cakes, tilted layers, giant bows and crystals suspended from the cakes, with much less focus on boring pastels. Thank god. But this has also contributed to the focus shifting towards what the cake looks like, rather than focusing on the flavor.
So, to answer your question, bakeries are focusing more on the decoration of the cake and less on the quality of the cake because there's a demand for it. Millions of brides want their fairy tale dessert: even if its half way made out of Styrofoam and tastes mediocre. But since wedding cakes have evolved so much over the past few hundred years, there's definitely potential for them to keep evolving into perhaps, something simpler, or maybe obsolete altogether. (Which would certainly be my preference, but I probably don't have to tell you that.)
If you do go to a wedding and the cake is phenomenal, let me know so that I can alert the media and plug the hell out of the bakery. And if you continue to eat crappy wedding cake, my apologies... but the bride probably deserves a few dirty looks.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Tales of Judging a Chili Cook Off

For you regular readers, you'll remember that after I wrote my chili blog, I was super paranoid that an International Chili Society official would snatch me away after reading it and finding any false chili tips... those guys are really serious about chili! Fortunately, they read my blog, loved it, and invited me down to San Antonio (where I must remind you, that there is NO basement in the Alamo) to judge the regional cook off. And we all know I'm really good at judging people.

What I learned about judging chili was a lot more serious than I was prepared for. We were first given very specific definitions of what each chili (red and green) and salsa was classically supposed to taste, smell, and look like. When tasting chili, you were not allowed to make any remarks, noises, or facial expressions regarding the chili. If it tasted like a rotten Chinese buffet, then no... you were not allowed to say that and influence your fellow judge's opinion.

On every judging sheet, you had to write comments for each chili entry. Specifically positive comments. Only. Yup... no rotten Chinese buffet comments there. And if it sucked... make a comment on the nice color of the chili. The reason behind this is that the competitors spend a lot of their own, hard-earned money to buy the ingredients, enter the cook off, and travel around to compete. So I had to be respectful of that, especially because if I had the extra money, I wouldn't want to spend it on cooking food for strangers in a parking lot. I met one couple of had a map of all the places they've competed in chili cook offs:

That's right, my little pets: 41 US states with a couple of trips to Canada and Mexico thrown in there. No hammocks, no fancy resorts, no umbrella drinks... just competitive chili cook offs in random parking lots. Now that's passion. I think that bringing a stuffed goat along with you makes the trip a little more enjoyable too.

After tasting almost 40 different chilis and salsas, I learned a few things:
1. You are allowed to mingle with the competitors, but cannot taste their chili before they turn it in to be judged. This is specifically to help keep your palate as neutral as possible before tasting.
2. The most interesting, unique-tasting chili will not necessarily win. For instance, I tasted a very exotic red chili that definitely had some curry in it, but it didn't come close to winning. By adhering to the textbook definition of what a red or green chili tastes, looks, smells, and feels like: that is what will make you a winner. Originality is not key at a cook off.
3. Beer helps. I didn't get to drink any because I had an hour drive back to Austin afterwards (and cops on I-35 during Labor Day weekend are not people I am interested in socializing with), but if I had been able to drink some, I would have had more fun in between the scheduled 1:00, 2:00, and 3:00 tastings and I think my tongue would have had more time to cool off. The rest of the time was spent waiting around. (In air conditioning, thankfully.)
4. I had a lot of other judges ask me during the day, "What advice do you have for judging? I've never done this before." Just like wine or steak, there is no better or best when tasting something: you like what you like and you don't like what you don't like. Vote for what you like. Don't vote for the other stuff. Simple as that. You are the Simon. The chili is the American Idol competitor.

Advice for future chili cook off competitors:
1. Buy your judges a beer because people like bribes and people like beer.
2. Bring your friends. The more, the merrier. And the gassier.
3. If your green chili smells like a rotten Chinese buffet, don't send it in to the judges. They'll probably think it smells the same way, and no one likes chili that smells like a rotten Chinese buffet.
4. If the only comments you're getting back on your chili are about the color of it, then it probably smells (or tastes) like said rotten Chinese buffet.

Special thanks to Michael Freedman who invited me down to judge, and his lovely wife for all of her help setting everything up. I had a great time and its always great to be a part of something that benefits charity ( For more information about the next cook off in West Virginia, go visit

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Stop Stuffing Your Pants With That Bread, Sicko!

Dear Tricia, I like to make sandwiches. I don't like the ends (heels) of the bread loaf though. What can I do with those slices besides feed the birds or use them to stuff my pants?

Heels don't belong in your pants, they belong in your shoes. So get the bread out of your shorts and keep reading. *Insert mold jokes here. Ewww. Gross.*

The things you can do with heels of bread are all very basic, but come in super handy:

1. Breadcrumbs: Put the heels in a blender to make your own breadcrumbs. You can flavor them with garlic and salt and herbs and I promise you they'll be twice as good as the flavored breadcrumbs that you can buy at the store. Why take the time to make homemade ones, you ask? Go check out my "That's a Spicy Meat-a-Ball... From the Fjords" blog entry for that prized info. It'll also teach you how to score sweet kitchen machinery from your divorcing neighbors. Keep your gourmet homemade breadcrumbs in the freezer and then you'll have them on hand to do things like: bread chicken, top a casserole when you want to eat your feelings, and you can spread them on the floor and make tap dancing noises.

2. Croutons: Cut the heels in squares and fry them up in a pan with hot butter, oil, and salt. Just like your breadcrumbs, you can season these with garlic and herbs and I promise you you'll never buy store-bought croutons again. They're about as addictive as crack. I also saw a recipe online where you toss the bread squares in a packet of ranch dressing powder and bake them into crunchy Ranch flavored croutons. Yum... how very Texan.

3. Grilled Cheese: A grilled cheese sandwich tastes just as good when you use the heels of the bread turned toward the inside of the sandwich. Even a picky 5 year old wouldn't notice the difference. I know this because I tried it out on a picky 5 year old. He was disguised as a 33 year old CPA that I met on eHarmony, but he was a picky 5 year old on the inside.

4. Bread Pudding: Seriously one of the easiest desserts to bake. Ever. In the history of baking. No lie. All you have to do is mix up a bunch of eggs, milk, and sugar and then dump a bunch of old bread in it and throw it in the oven. If you don't believe me, check this out:

Fast and Easy Bread Pudding

4 eggs, beaten
1 c. sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla
4 c. milk
1 1/4 c. raisins
4 slices buttered bread

Mix all ingredients well. Put bread slices in oblong pan and pour mixture over the bread. Bake in 350 degree oven until thickened, about 45 minutes.

(Told you so.)

5. The heels of bread can also be easily disguised as French toast. That's my favorite thing to eat for breakfast, so if you come over and make me some French toast out of the heels, I definitely won't complain. Especially if you bring mimosa fixings too.

6. If you're a fan of making old school meatloaf (and you know I am if you've seen my pin up photos), you can put heels of bread in the bottom of the pan to absorb the extra grease. The heels don't look too appetizing when the meatloaf is finished, but hey... they've worked hard for you: give them a break.

7. If you keep brown sugar in your kitchen, you know that it gets hard as a rock after you open the bag. Putting the heel (or a regular slice) of bread in with the sugar will keep it soft as a baby's tushy. You can also do this with an opened bag of marshmallows, and we also know its easier to win a round of Chubby Bunny when the marshmallows are soft.

Now for some things to remember about the heel- if you have ever actually tasted the heel of the loaf, it tastes a lot better than the middle slices. Its usually thinner, but the taste is definitely superior. Its the same reason that muffin tops taste better. The moisture migrates to the ends of the loaf and makes it moister and sweeter. If you want to know the exact science of it, then you're going to have to do some homework: go check out my "Why We Love Muffin Tops" blog. Starch "retrograde" is your fancy food vocabulary word for the day. Try and use it in a sentence.
The other thing to remember about the heels is that they help keep the bread fresh. So don't throw them away until you've used the entire loaf if you want it to stay soft. They're like the Bread Guardian. Remember that next time you dismiss the importance of the heel. And have some respect and keep them out of your pants for pete's sake.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

What Are You Doing Labor Day Weekend?

I was just wondering, because I'm judging the International Chili Society's regional cookoff in San Antonio! If you live near the area (or if you don't... hello! Road trip!), come on out and taste some chili! There will be plenty of beer, food, live music, and everything goes to charity. (

Saturday September 5
Cowboys Dance Hall
3030 NE Loop 410 @ I-35
10:00 am- 5:00 pm

The cookoff continues on Sunday, but I'll only be judging (and harshly, might I add) on Saturday. Come out and say hi to me! If you've got the cajones to enter the contest and submit your own chili (hey, I helped you out on that last chili blog), you can still enter by going to

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Scary Comfort of Mall-Sized Cookies

Dear Tricia, Thank you for your blog about comfort food, however when I need comfort food, I look for something like chocolate cake, a mall sized chocolate chip cookie, or anything slathered in Nutella. Any help?

If I'm going with the basis of my last comfort food blog and assuming that you want something that won't add cellulite to your butt cheeks, then yes I can help you. The Nutella thing throws a wrench in my research, but we'll get to that later.
Welcome to my office. I'm sorry you are currently in need of comfort and its namesake food. Please come in and make a white wine spritzer: I'm already one ahead of you.
Mall size chocolate chip cookies are indeed a comfort when you're in need. And I'm sorry, but Its just plain mean to put up those Great American Cookie kiosks in the middle of the mall so that there's no escape when your blood sugar plummets while shopping, you get a whiff of chocolate chip heaven, and somehow levitate and then float over to the cookies without any recollection of it whatsoever. Those cookie guys deserve to be punished. Or maybe they deserve a medal, I'm not sure. So, what I've found is a recipe for an olive oil cookie that you can bake at home into your own mall sized cookie. Its lower in fat, and the fat is unsaturated and actually good for you. The cookie dough doesn't include chocolate because most of my readers are looking for quick and convenient recipes, and the olive oil chocolate chip cookie recipes all have about 26 ingredients in them. I'm pretty sure if you're in need of comfort food you're not in the mood to go grocery shopping for 26 ingredients. So, its a sugar cookie. We'll get to the chocolate chips after.
Here's your ingredients:

1 cup sugar
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon vanilla
Two egg whites
2-1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup skim milk

Mix up the first four ingredients in a bowl.
Mix up the flour, salt, and baking soda. Add half of them to the bowl and stir it up.
Add half of the milk and stir it up.
Add the other half of the flour, salt, and baking soda. Stir it up.
Add the rest of the milk, stir it up.

(I know the whole stirring in half the flour and half the milk, etc., seems like a pain in the ass. You want to just dump it all in there, right? Well I promise you this saves you time, elbow grease, and extra cleaning up. Trust me. Or don't. But when you waste your precious time that could be spent at Happy Hour, and 12 Clorox cleaning wipes, I'll be the first one to say I told you so.)

Take the dough out of the bowl and wrap it up in plastic wrap. Put it in the refrigerator for about half an hour before you roll it out. While you're doing that, make another white wine spritzer and preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Roll out the dough about 1/4" thick. If you don't have a rolling pin, just use a can of pan spray or a bottle of liquor. You probably have at least one of those, right? Don't use a can of something inedible (like hairspray) just in case you have bad hand-eye coordination and might get it on the food. No one likes AquaNet cookies.

Here's the fun part: Don't cut the dough. Transfer it on to a buttered cookie sheet and bake it as a mall-sized cookie. Bake it for about 10-12 minutes, or until the edges start to turn brown. Beautiful.

To top your comfort cookie, get an 8 oz container of fat free cream cheese. Beat it real good, like the domestic abuse guys say in the back of the squad car on C.O.P.S., and add about a 1/4 cup of sugar. Beat it until its light and fluffy and spread it on top of your mall sized cookie. And on top of that, you're going to sprinkle MINI chocolate chips. The reason why you want to buy mini chocolate chips is because you get chocolate in every bite but don't have to use as many because they're not as big as regular sized chocolate chips. The portion size is naturally smaller... so try not to use the entire bag, okay? Even in your state of distress, remember this blog and try to resist.
Okay, so what you have there is a mall sized cookie, a basic fat free cream cheese frosting, and your precious little chocolate chips. It's not calorie-free or sugar-free, but come on... I'm not God.
Now for your Nutella request... at 100 calories per tablespoon, this stuff is NOT healthy. Delicious, I know... but it has serious potential to take you on an express train to Cellulite City. So here's what I say when it comes to needing a vehicle for a fatty topping to your mouth: use fruit. It has natural sugar instead of processed high fructose death wish, and it has lots of fiber so you'll feel full faster, along with lots of good vitamins and minerals. When you're buying the ingredients for your mall-sized comfort cookie, go buy a pint of strawberries for dipping into Nutella. Or some bananas, or maybe a mango. Whatever suits your fancy, Fancy Pants.
I hope this helps your need of comfort food! If it doesn't, I'm always ready for another challenge in the battle against big butt cheeks. Just try me...

Monday, August 17, 2009

Dark, Milk, and White: Three Chocolate Races Divided

Dear Tricia, How is white chocolate different than dark and milk chocolate? And why does it seize faster than dark and milk chocolate?

Chocolate is one of those awesome things that people either absolutely love, or absolutely get sick from. I LOVE things like that- nothing says awesome more than being able to only spark a love/hate relationship with someone.
Let's start by talking about what exactly makes up chocolate, aside from magic, which no one lists on the ingredient list but I'm pretty sure its in there. The actual taste of chocolate comes from the cocoa liquor. Don't get your hopes up... there's no booze in it. And on its own, it doesn't taste great: its like chocolate with no sugar in it, and no melt-in-your-mouth feel. But without the cocoa liquor, chocolate wouldn't taste like chocolate. The second ingredient that makes up chocolate is the cocoa butter, which is what gives it its smooth, melty texture. So cocoa liquor (you'll also hear people refer to it as "cocoa solids"), cocoa butter, and the addition of sugar is what makes up dark, or bittersweet chocolate.
What's added to dark chocolate to turn it into milk chocolate is.... da da da dum... MILK. You hear that, vegans? Milk chocolate is yet another thing you're depriving yourself of, you crazies! Milk powder can also be used, and vanilla is often an added flavor.
White chocolate isn't actually chocolate at all: its a confection with a big fat liar of a name. White chocolate is made of cocoa butter, milk, sugar, and vanilla. The cocoa liquor is missing, which is what keeps it out of the "chocolate" category. Sorry, whitey.
So lets break this down:
Dark chocolate- cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, sugar
Milk chocolate- cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, sugar, milk, vanilla
White chocolate- cocoa butter, sugar, milk, vanilla

Moving on to your next question: why does white chocolate seize faster? First let me explain to the non-experts what seizing means. When you melt chocolate and add water to it, it turns into a gloppy, thick mess that is impossible to melt again. That's called "seizing." Water and chocolate are mortal enemies- they're like the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders of the chocolate world. When you start adding extra ingredients to dark chocolate, (like sugar, milk, and vanilla), it makes the chocolate less stable, which is a nice way of saying it gets fussy and temperamental. So, if you've got a bowl of dark chocolate melting over a pot of simmering water, some of the condensation from the bowl might get into the chocolate and it could be fine. But if any moisture at all gets into a bowl of melting white or milk chocolate, it will seize up immediately. And that's just because it has all the extra added ingredients that make it less stable.
If you ruin a batch of white or milk chocolate that has seized up, luckily you don't have throw it out. That would be stupid and financially irresponsible, and people, we're in a recession! Just add lots of hot milk, stir it up, and voila: hot chocolate. Keep it in the fridge for when you get your late night chocolate craving. (I don't get those cravings... mine are usually for white wine spritzers.)
When you're trying to figure out what kind of chocolate you want to buy, good chocolate will usually have the cocoa liquor content on the label. A higher number means it has more cocoa liquor, and thus, less sugar. So if you're a bigger fan of sweet chocolate and are comparing two labels that say 56% and 70%, go for the one that says 56%.
If you've heard any of the hype about dark chocolate being good for you, yes, it is indeed true. Dark chocolate contains polyphenols- the antioxidants that keep things like cancer and premature aging away. So if you're going to try to eat chocolate for the health benefits, make sure its not milk or white. The higher the cocoa liquor content, the higher the level of polyphenols. I like to think that for every bite of chocolate I eat, it erases one of the martinis I've consumed in my lifetime. I should take stock in Hershey's....