Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Who ever made up the phrase "easy as pie," was a big fat liar.

Dear Tricia,
What's the secret to good pie crust? I've tried to make it from scratch before but it wasn't flaky like I wanted. What did I do wrong?

Oh, pie dough. It seems so simple and unassuming, doesn't it? 4 basic ingredients, a basically simple method... but it goes wrong so fast, just like Lindsay Lohan's career.
The trick with pie dough is that you have to use really cold ingredients. Let's go over the basics, and then I'll bust out some fancy science. Take a look at your average pie dough recipe:

1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
2 tablespoons solid vegetable shortening
3 tablespoons water

1. Mix flour and salt together.
2. Blend cold butter and shortening into flour until the butter resembles the size of peas.
3. Add water and knead until it becomes a dough.

Easy as pie, right? No. It's all wrong. These directions are going to give you really crappy pie dough. I think they're doing this on purpose so that you'll keep going back to the store and buying more cookbooks. I don't know who "they" are, but I'm sure they're mean and have beady little eyes. But back to the pie dough.
First of all, you don't want 1/4" pieces, you want more like 1/2" pieces. To get really flaky pie dough, you need large pieces of butter and shortening. Small pea-like pieces will give you more of a shortbread-like dough. And you didn't ask for that, did you? (Wait... let me check... nope, you asked for flaky dough. Just making sure I wasn't wrong.) With your hands, and not a mixer of any kind, just mix the shortening and butter into the flour and break it up so that the pieces are all covered with flour, and are BIGGER than peas. Work as fast as you can because you want the butter to stay cold and hard. If it gets too soft, just put the whole mix into the refrigerator for 10 minutes or so.
The water that you've measured out needs to be ice cold. Just take a glass of ice water and use the tablespoon to measure out the water from that. The colder the better because you don't want to soften the butter. When you're done mixing the butter into the flour, take your ice cold water and start mixing it into the bowl. Use your hands and gently form a dough, no kneading-necessary. The more you mess with it, the tougher your pie dough will be.
Once the dough is formed, let it chill for an hour, then roll it out, put it in the pan, and then let it chill again before you bake it. You can even freeze it before you bake it. The point is to keep the butter cold cold cold. Have I mentioned that yet? Once you bake the dough using this method, I guarantee you that it will be flaky as Janet Jackson was on her latest concert tour.
Want to know why you have to keep the butter so damn cold? Well, I'm so glad you asked! Butter is partially made up of water. When its super cold and then goes into a super hot oven, the water quickly evaporates and makes steam. The steam is what puffs up the dough and makes it light and flaky. If you were to take a room-temperature pie dough and put it in the same oven, the butter would just start to melt everywhere because its already so soft, giving you a soggy pie dough. Get it now? Super cold butter= super flaky pie dough.
And I have to address the shortening and butter combination because a lot of people ask me "Why not just use all shortening or all butter?" Because butter is so temperamental and you have to work hard to keep it cold, adding a little bit of shortening gives you a little more leeway to get a better dough. Shortening also makes it easier to roll out. And the reason why you wouldn't want to use all shortening is because that's just gross. Shortening isn't a real food that your body recognizes, it doesn't have the flavor of butter, and it leaves that weird coating in your mouth that sticks around for like 5 hours. Using it in moderation is fine (just like anything in your diet,) but stick with a mostly-butter pie dough for good flavor.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Rootin' Tootin' Gluten

Dear Tricia, I keep seeing labels in the grocery store that say "gluten free." What is gluten? Is it something I'm not supposed to eat? Please advise.

It's tempting to think something is bad for you when the marketing is done well, isn't it? Fat-free, cholesterol-free, alcohol-free... The third one isn't exactly compatible with my lifestyle, so I'm all about ignoring labels. But I digress.
Gluten is a natural protein that exists in wheat, barley, oats, and rye, but people most commonly associate it with wheat. It magically appears when liquid is mixed with those grains. Gluten gives baked stuff like bread its structure: think about a chewy, crusty piece of bread. That bread is chewy because it has lots of gluten in it. Breads that stick to the roof of your mouth, like Iron Kids (please go check out my bread molester post!) don't have a lot of gluten in them. They still have it: but because of the ingredients and the way it is mixed, there isn't as much gluten. Have I lost you yet? Blame it on the glass of Franzia right next to me.
Unfortunately, some people are allergic or have an intolerance to gluten, just like some people can't tolerate dairy or red meat. Their bodies just react in a bad way. (Kind of like how I react to Will Smith movies.) People that can't tolerate gluten usually suffer from one of two things: Celiac's Disease, or Autism.
OK, now here's what happens to a person's tumtum that can tolerate wheat and gluten. Their morning slice of toast eventually migrates its magical journey into their stomach where the lining (that is actually covered in tiny microscopic hair-like beings called cilia) absorbs all of the toast's nutritional value. The cilia are like little straws that suck up nutrients and send the nutrients to the rest of your body.
In the stomach of a someone with Celiac's Disease, the gluten finally makes it pilgrimage to their stomach, and the cilia just lay down flat and let the toast/wheat/gluten/everything else you ate with it go shooting through your stomach and out your body. It's not fun. That's why they need gluten-free products, and rightfully so. No one likes toast shooting out their butt.
Baked goodies that are gluten-free are taste and feel a lot different than regular baked goodies. Having to make something with potato flour or rice flour drastically changes the outcome. Gluten-free breads are a lot more dense and crumbly without gluten, and gluten-free cookies are often crunchy, rather than soft. But the industry is getting bigger and more competetive, and better products are being made all the time. I once had an awesome gluten-free pizza crust that you would have never known was any different than the real thing. There are even gluten-free beers now. (!!!!)
Oh, and you may notice some labels on products that say "gluten-free" when they never had anything to do with gluten to begin with. Like potato chips. Or hairspray. Come on, marketing geniuses: America may be getting dumber, but we're not that dumb. That's like putting a label on a head of lettuce and calling it "vegetarian!" You can't fool me.
One last thing I didn't touch on: that some people with Autism are gluten-intolerant. While its not a full-blown, diagnosed cure or anything, a huge revolution is going on in the world of Autism, and parents are taking gluten out of their children with Autism's diets. Apparently it has a huge effect on reducing their symptoms, but it's still a little controversial.
There you go boys and girls. I hope you enjoyed your lesson on boot scootin' rootin' tootin' gluten. Yee haw.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sorry for the delay, folks.

I'm having some problems with my laptop, but the blog should be back up and running by the end of the week. In the meantime, if anyone wants to donate to the "Tricia hates her Dell and wants a Mac Fund," feel free to give generously. Stay tuned for finding out what the hell gluten is!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

You want me to shove that beer can where?

Dear Tricia, Why would you shove a beer can into a chicken and cook it? What does that do?

Beer can chicken: One of the best ideas ever. Why? Because the first step in the recipe is "Open beer. Drink half." I don't care if you're trying to shove that beer can up an alarm clock... its already sounds like a winner.
The whole point of cooking a chicken with a half can of beer inside of it is the beer helps tenderize and flavor the chicken. The liquid basically steams the inside and makes it more tender and juicy. And the yeast, hops, malt, and barley completely change flavors when they're cooked, adding an incredible taste to the chicken.
Here's some tips when you've decided you're ready to grill up some beer can chicken.

1. After you've gotten rid of that pesky half a beer, use a can opener to take the top off the beer can. That gives the beer more room to escape and steam up the inside of the chicken.
2. Make sure you're putting the chicken upright on the beer can and that it will stand alone, just like in the picture. You don't want it to fall over and let the beer spill everywhere inside of it. Beer+ open flame isn't always the best combination, no matter how many half beers you've had.
3. Add some extra seasoning to the beer. If you have a favorite grill rub or want it to be spicy, add those seasonings to the beer before you put it inside the bird. I promise you'll be able to taste it.

There are actually some products specially devoted to making beer can chicken. I found one at that is meant safely holding the chicken upright and it holds the beer inside of it. Go check it out! Those people are really serious about their birds.
If its your first time making beer can chicken, I'd suggest having a "shove it up your chicken" party to celebrate. You know, hang some streamers, get a cooler full of half beers, blast some Michael McDonald... and when you do, send me pictures and I'll be happy to put them on the website.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Plates of Wrath

Dear Tricia, I put a ceramic plate in the oven for 10 minutes at 150 degrees and it broke in half. What's the dealio?

Damn, that sucks. I bet you had a real mess to clean up in your oven after that. If you're like me, you probably just took out the plate and set the oven at "self-clean" for a few hours while you went out for cocktails. And if not... well, damn. That sucks.
Ceramic dishes that aren't oven safe have irregular pockets of air inside of them that expand when they get hot. Then they explode all over your oven and ruin your reheated dinner. Ceramic dishes that are oven safe are treated on the outside to keep the air pockets from doing this. To check to see if yours is in the latter category, just flip it over and check the bottom. That's where the manufacturer tells you if your dishes are dishwasher, microwave, and/or oven safe. If it says nothing, then you're S.O.L. and probably got your dishes at the Dollar Store. (Hey, I don't judge. I have gone on many $30 shopping sprees there.) However, because manufacturers are afraid of being sued by crazy people looking to get rich, there are lots of microwave-safe dishes that are indeed oven safe but won't say so on the bottom. If you're willing to chance it, you just have to do a couple of things.
First of all, don't take a cold plate and put it in the oven. The drastic temperature change will definitely cause it to break. Make sure that the plate is room temp, OK? (I learned this first hand when a fellow culinary student and I were using a blowtorch on a dessert in cold champagne glasses. Because I'm from Texas and she was from the Virgin Islands, "cold" wasn't in our vocabularies, so we broke about half a dozen glasses before we figured out what was happening. Our teacher wasn't a big fan of us.) Take a cookie sheet, put it in your 150 degree oven, and put a dish towel on it. Then put your plate on the towel. If you're wanting to warm up plates before you put food on them, stack them in the oven on the towel/cookie sheet combo.
Unless they specifically say they're oven safe, do NOT put china in the oven. You're just asking for a shard in the eye then, and sure, it's all fun and games... until someone gets expensive china in the eyeball.
If you've got dishes that don't say "oven safe" and you don't want your oven looking like something that happens at a Greek Wedding, just use a casserole dish or a cake pan to reheat your food: something that is meant for putting in the oven. Happy reheating!

Friday, February 6, 2009

What's the matter Colonel Sanders... chicken?!!

Dear Tricia, Why is it that the common directions for cooking chicken in a skillet don't work? I always get the outside too cooked and the inside stays raw.

I briefly addressed this situation a couple of months ago when I was talking about grilling, but I know not everyone has time to read all my blogs. (It's ok... you probably have an excuse for everything.) It's easy to get the outside too cooked before the middle is done because you have the heat up too high. If you cook the chicken on each side for four minutes or so on high, the outside is just going to get a really dark, tough skin, and as you wait for the heat to cook the center its just going to dry out the rest of the chicken. Its gross. No one's going to want to eat that. And then they'll never come over for dinner again and you won't have any friends.
Here's a trick to prevent your potential loss of friends: Preheat your oven at 400 degrees. That way it'll be ready when you need it in a few minutes. Heat your pan over medium high heat. After you oil the pan, cook each side of the (seasoned!)chicken for about 3 minutes. When you look at the side of the chicken breast, you should notice that there is still a line of pink in the middle; it'll be about half cooked, and half raw. Then, for the magic friend-keeping trick: put the pan in the oven and finish cooking it in there. How long, you ask? Well, that depends on how big your chicken breast is. Come on, let's be honest: everyone has their preference in (chicken) breast size. Some people can eat a giant piece of chicken, and some people eat the recommended portion of about a deck of cards. The smaller one is obviously going to cook faster, so don't depend on a time to tell you when your chicken is done. As a ball park estimate, the chicken should not take any longer than 8-10 minutes to finish cooking. To check it, you can just cut a small slit in the thickest part of the chicken breast with a knife and see if the center is still raw. Press on the chicken too and remember how it feels. As you continue this method, you'll be able to tell when its done just by pressing on it and not cutting into it.
Another great trick is to pull the chicken out of the oven just before it's finished, when there is a trace of pink left. Meat does this magical thing where it keeps cooking another 5-10 degrees even after you take it off the heat. So if you pull it out of the oven right before it's done, it'll finish cooking on the counter and by the time you eat it, its perfectly cooked. It's called "carryover cooking." Use that term next time you're trying to impress your foodie friends. If they look like they don't know what you're talking about, you can immediately strip them of their foodie title and mercilessly make fun of them.
This method not only cooks your chicken through, but it makes the chicken so much juicier. But, please please please remember to use a pan that has a METAL HANDLE, NOT A PLASTIC ONE. If you melt the plastic handle in the oven, don't come crying to me about it. I warned you.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Uno, dos, tres... leches!

Dear Tricia, I was at an undisclosed location the other night and saw a "Cuatro Leches Cake." I thought, hmm . . . I've heard of Tres Leches, but Cuatro?? What's this new mystery milk? Better yet, what are all of the milks in these Mexican delights?

You know that U2 song, "Vertigo?" At the beginning he sings and counts "Uno, dos, tres, catorce." I've always wondered why he skipped counted 1, 2, 3, and then skipped 4 and went all the way to 14. Weird.
So lets talk tres leches cake. Tres leches means "3 milks" for those of you not fluent in the Espanol. It is a lovely Mexican dessert made with vanilla cake that is soaked in a sweet mixture of milk, condensed milk, and heavy cream, usually flavored with caramel. Its unbelievably good and when paired with a Big Mac value meal and a Pepsi Super Gulp, will most likely give you diabetes.
Cuatro leches cake is spanish for "4 milks." What's this elusive new milk, you wonder? Well, I looked up the recipe on the website for La Duni in Dallas, who are well-known for their award winning tres leches and cuatro leches cakes. They were very secretive about giving me any hints, but mentioned something called "arequipe sauce." So I looked further at other recipes that people had posted online. What I found is that cuatro leches is still soaked in the standard 3 milk recipe (again: regular milk, evaporated milk, and heavy cream if you have short term memory loss from going to too many Widespread Panic shows), but is always finished with arequipe sauce.
To make arequipe sauce, there are two steps: boil an unopened can of condensed milk in a water bath for about 2 hours. When you open it (carefully so that it doesn't explode and leave you with a kitchen covered in shrapnel), the end produce is called "dulce de leche." You've probably heard of this before but didn't know how to make it. Now you do, thanks to me. After you cool the boiled condensed milk, or dulce de leche, you wisk in another 1/2 cup of regular milk to it, and it becomes arequipe sauce. Drizzle your tres leches cake with that and its officially cuatro leches cake.
Now if we could figure out why Bono skips so many numbers on the way to 14. Let me know when you've got the answer to that one.

Monday, February 2, 2009

We go together like greens and bacon.

Is it a sin to make leafy greens taste like bacon? The only way my sister will eat greens, is if my dad cooks them with bacon. I would think it would taint the "nutritional value" to cook it with bacon!

Eating greens with bacon is one of the most traditional ways to flavor them. You know why? Because no one likes plain old greens. I don't care what kind of health nut you are: if you like eating raw kale or collard greens, you're a lying liar. Your pants are on fire right now, and I smell burning.
Most collard green recipes are prepared with ham hocks or other smoked meats. Its very southern, and you're right: not the most nutritional way to prepare them. Using bacon doesn't necessarily taint the nutritional value of the greens, it just adds extra fat and calories. Anytime you're cooking greens for a substantial length of time or using a lot of heat (which most greens recipes require you to do), you're going to deplete the vitamins and minerals. It would keep more of the nutritional value in the greens if you quickly steamed them or ate them raw. That's why some people follow a raw-foods lifestyle. They believe that eating food in its rawest state means it still has all of its vitamin and mineral content. Good for them, but I know from experience that they also fart a lot.
If you want to eat greens flavored with bacon, I say go ahead. As long as you're getting the good stuff in your body, why not make it taste like better? For a healthier option, you could try some turkey bacon, or just go meat-free and use lots of garlic and onions.