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."