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.