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 (www.soldiersangels.org). For more information about the next cook off in West Virginia, go visit www.chilicookoff.com.

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.