Saturday, January 30, 2010

When Did Salt get So Confusing?

Dear Tricia, What's the difference between regular iodized table salt, kosher salt, and sea salt? Is one better than the other?

Salt has become this thing in the culinary world that, all of a sudden, went from being a really boring and every day ingredient to this gourmet item that you have 3 million options to choose from at the grocery store. Its insane. I partially blame the Food Network, but I know its not only their doing.
First off, all salt is the same chemical makeup, sodium chloride, or NaCl on the good old periodic table of elements. No matter where you go on the planet, and how much you're paying for that gourmet salt that was harvested from magic waterfalls by Aboriginal midgets in Croatia, it all looks the same under a microscope: perfectly square molecules made up of sodium and chloride.
Table salt is what most of us probably grew up with: the blue container of Morton's with the little girl holding the umbrella on it. Table salt is harvested from underground mineral deposits. It is heavily refined into small, fine grains, and has an anti-caking agent added to it so that it doesn't clump together. It also usually has iodine added to it, which is a necessary mineral to keep you from being retarded. (Hey, I didn't make that up: google it. Go on. Do it. See?) Because of the need for iodine in our diets and a huge population of people who are deficient in it, iodine was added to salt to sneak it in to our diets and prevent the R-word. The same goes for enriched flour, but that's another blog for another time.
Kosher salt is harvested from underground mineral deposits or from the sea, and doesn't have any additives. The biggest difference between table salt and kosher salt is clearly visible, unless you need to go back to eyeball school: kosher salt is super coarsely ground so that the grains are much bigger. Its name isn't because its kosher (all salt is kosher, by the way), but because its the salt used in koshering meats, or drawing the blood out of them. Vampire salt.
Sea salt is harvested by evaporating sea water. Duh. It also is usually more expensive than kosher or table salt because its more labor-intensive to harvest, and it can be fine or coarse grain. Its just as refined as table salt and can contain additives, so if you're looking for something additive free, make sure you read the label.
Okay, now here's the big question: what's the real difference between them? Is one saltier or better than the other? Well consider a spoon full of table salt and a spoon full of kosher salt. The spoon full of table salt is going to taste saltier simply because you can fit more grains of salt in it. By weight, that spoon of table salt is going to be heavier than the coarsely ground kosher salt. What that means for cooking is that if the a recipe calls for a teaspoon of table salt and you want to use kosher, you're going to need roughly two teaspoons to get the same flavor. In reverse, if a recipe calls for a teaspoon of kosher salt and all you have is table salt, use half a teaspoon. The same rule can apply for sea salt, depending on how coarse the grain is. In every kitchen I've ever worked in, we've used kosher salt. Its pretty universal in the restaurant world.
I posted a question on my What the Bleep facebook fan page (have you checked it out yet?), "Do you have a salt preference?" Some of the replies I got... Hawaiian, Fleur de Sel, Cypress Flake... I wasn't sure if they were types of salt or types of weed. But depending on which region you get certain salts from, the ocean water has different mineral contents that affect the color and flavor of the salt. In a blind taste test where you're tasting the salt by itself, you might notice some differences in flavor. But are you going to be able to taste it once its on the food? Probably not. And unless you have a wad of cash burning a hole in your pocket, I wouldn't worry about spending a lot of money on gourmet salt in hopes that its going to change your cooking. You'll have much better luck in doing that by reading my blogs. Then you can just give that wad of cash to me.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Silicone and Cindy Crawford: How it Relates to Your Tart

Dear Tricia, I've recently acquired a silicone dish for baking pies, tarts, cheesecakes, etc. I must say, it works pretty well, but I've noticed a big difference concerning the crustiness of some of the things I bake. For example: I like to make a kind of salty tart out of a crust (pâte brisée), tomatoes, mozzarella and dijon mustard. With the tomatoes, you can imagine that I have a hard time keeping the "wateriness" to a minimum. When I use the silicone dish, the tart comes out pretty darn watery, but with a glass or metal dish, the water seems to disappear! The question is this really: What is the real difference between silicone dishes and normal baking apparatuses (I know that's latin based, so it's gotta be apparati or something stupid like that)? Are the pros and cons for each one aside the obvious "crustiness" that comes from using normal baking dishes?

Ooooh, I love this one. Mostly, because it involves physics and I'm always trying to up my game in that department. After much research, I couldn't find the information I needed in relation to baking dishes, so I emailed my favorite chef, Peter Greweling, who is my mentor, my former instructor, and author of Chocolates & Confections, and the recently released Chocolates and Confections at Home. He also loves martinis, so we share that priceless connection.
A baking dish basically serves two purposes: to hold the batter or dough, and to transfer heat from the oven to the product inside of the baking dish. When its transferring heat, that's called "conducting." Lets talk about conducting heat: remember that topic in elementary school? Everything conducts heat. Good heat conductors are metals: think aluminum foil, iron, steel... things that baking dishes are often made out of. Glass? Eh... its okay. Silicone? Not awesome. Imagine holding a two cups of super hot coffee, one is made out of aluminum, and one made out of silicone. Which one is going to burn your hand faster? The aluminum one, because it conducts heat better, or transfers the heat to you faster.
Lets apply that to baking dishes. An aluminum or steel tart pan is going to take the heat from the oven and transfer it to the tart dough super fast. That, in turn will caramelize the sugars in the dough really well, brown the proteins in the flour like a champ, and give you a brown and crusty finish. Because your silicone baking pan, though convenient to use (we'll get to that in a minute), doesn't conduct heat very well, its going to give you a less crusty and lighter colored tart if you baked it at the same temperature. The same idea applies to the watery tomatoes inside the tart. The heat is being transfered throughout the entire product and the idea is to make the water in the tomatoes evaporate, but if its not getting enough heat to do that, the water will just hang out and create a sog party. Gross.
Silicone baking dishes are a newer revolution in the baking world. For gazillions of years, we've been baking things in metal pans. But this new idea of silicone pans is great because they're flexible and things don't stick to them, so you can literally peel the cake pan off a cake without having to bang it on the counter top to get it out. Tart pans are notorious for being little assholes. You put all that work into your gorgeous tomato tart creation, but if the crust sticks to the sides of the pan, it breaks and cracks and disappoints everyone and ruins dinner. So I get why silicone tart pans are ideal. It may give us cancer 50 years down the road and we end up with PVC pipes as intestines, but oh well... it's FDA approved and they know everything about everything, right?
So, back to your dilemma. All you really need to do is turn up the temperature of your oven to create more heat. If the recipe says 375 degrees, go up to 425 and see how it does. If the tart fillings start to dry up too much, put a piece of foil over them to keep them covered until the crust is finished... or you could just turn the oven down a little at that point: whatever works for you.
Lets summarize today's physics lesson. Metal baking dishes are like the Cindy Crawford of baking dishes: if heat was makeup, she don't require a lot of it to be smoking hot. Silicone baking dishes are like Sarah, Plain and Tall: sure, she's practical and efficient, but she needs a hell of a lot more makeup to get to Cindy Crawford's level, doesn't she?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Uncle Sam Wants You to Vote for Me!

In hopes of expanding my blog networking skills, I'm entered in this month's pin up photo contest on Got a few seconds? Do you think I'm totally adorable? Go check it out and vote for my photo so that I can win some cute aprons. :) New blog post coming in the next couple of days!

Here's the address for the voting:

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Dude, Your Crock Pot Reeks

I received a great email question, and because of the time crunch, I emailed it back before I posted a blog. Here's a copy of the email exchange.

Dear Tricia, I have a question for you, but you are probably not going to get to it in time, but I thought I'd give it a try. I bought a roast late last week (Friday the 8th) and this morning finally put it in the crockpot. The sell by date on it was Jan 11th. (Yesterday) It had some brown parts on it, and it had a little bit of a funny smell. As it's cooking, I can smell that funny smell a bit still. It's only been cooking about 1 hour. I'm not sure if it's unsafe to eat or not. What I had planned to do was cook it til it was very easy to shred. Then I drain out the juices and fat and shred it and then add some salsa and seasonings and have the meat in tacos. What would you do?

Thanks so much for reading. I'm going to just answer your email first instead of posting it on the blog since I'm short on time for writing this week and since your situation seems to be kind of pressing. No one loves food poisoning. But if the sell by date is January 11, that usually means you have a couple of days to eat it before it's spoiled, otherwise it would say "use by." This is a liability thing for grocery stores and it just clears them if you happened to get sick and tried to blame it on the butcher. Brown spots are fine: that's just oxygen settling into the beef and changing the color, or "oxodizing." It's ugly, but its not unsafe. However, if you think it smelled bad, go with your gut. The best call for bad food is a judgment call, and that involves using your nose, eyes, and brain. You can also call the meat department at the store you bought it from and ask them how many days after the sell-by date you can cook it. They might have a better idea than me. But again, if its smelling bad... better safe than sorry. Or you can just go ahead and make your delicious tacos, give them to your arch nemesis, and see if they get explosive food poisoning. I'd love to hear the results about that one.
In the mean time, feel free to check out my blog entry on leftovers in the archives, "On Top of Spaghetti, All Covered in Mold." It gives you some more specifics on certain types of leftovers' shelf lives and I also bash the health department a little bit. God I love doing that, especially on a bad day.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Its a Nice Day for a White Wedding Cake

Dear Tricia, How can I make WHITE white cake? Can I bake with the yolks? Do I have to separate them?

I'm going to refer back to an older blog from last winter about how to get white butter frosting:

OK friend, easy answer. Your icing turned yellow because half the ingredients in your recipe are YELLOW. The only way to fix this is to use icing with no yellow ingredients, or perhaps one of the following:

1. Learn to breed albino cows that make white butter with their milk.
2. Use only egg whites, or even better... use the white shell too for extra whitening. Hell, throw in some whitening toothpaste while you're at it. And a dash of Oxy Clean!
3. Re-construct the color spectrum so that our eyes see yellow as white. I see this one as the most feasible option.

For real though, anytime you want white icing, you're going to have to use mostly shortening as the fat because it's white. Even with butter cream icing, and listen up brides because this is directed at you, you'll never get solid white frosting because butter cream has BUTTER in it. It is yellow. It is not white and it never will be. (Although I've seen some crazy mothers of brides get away with some crazy stuff... maybe one of them will figure out how to change the color spectrum.)

This question is along those same lines, but on a less-extreme level that I promise I will judge you much less for. I think I might have been having a bad day when i wrote that.
You can't get white cake that is truly white if you add a bunch of whole eggs because yolks are- you guessed it- yellow. So the goal here is to add as few yellow ingredients as possible, or a large amount of whipped egg whites to offset the color. Think of angel food cake and how virginal white it is: the main ingredients are sugar, egg whites, flour, which are all white. However, those ingredients don't make for a very sturdy cake... Angel food cake would be like the Michael Jackson of cakes: super frail and white. But if you're looking for a sturdier (isn't it weird that "sturdier" is a real word? I think its weird.) cake that is less squishy and more suitable for decorating, you're going to have to add a few extra ingredients that will also make it less white, like whole eggs or butter, and that's ok, as long as the white stuff is the main ingredient.
Here's a recipe for a basic white chiffon cake with the whole egg, but you separate the whites from the yolks and beat them separately. It involves a few more steps than your average cake recipe, but if you can master it, is a traditional cake recipe that you will be able to use forever. When I was in pastry school, this was the type of cake we used for our basic white wedding cakes. It does have a fair amount of butter, but because of all the egg whites you're using, it will still be pretty white. My favorite recipe is from the Fanny Farmer Baking Book, but I've made some modifications to it.

1- 10' Cake

2 1/4 cups cake flour*
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup vegetable oil
6 egg yolks
3/4 cup water
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
8 egg whites

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
1. Combine the flour, 3/4 cup of the sugar, baking powder, salt, and sift them together into a large mixing bowl.
2. Add the oil, egg yolks, water, and vanilla and beat until completely smooth.
3. In a separate large mixing bowl, beat the egg whites until they begin to foam. Slowly add the remaining 3/4 cup sugar and beat until the whites are stiff. **
4. Gently stir in 1/3 of the egg whites into the batter.
5. Drop the remaining whites on the batter and fold them in.
6. Pour into ungreased cake pan with parchment paper on the bottom.***

Bake until top is golden brown and the middle springs back when you press it with your finger. If you're using my oven, that's 25-30 minutes, but it could take way less in yours. Stop letting your oven timer rule your life and just check it every now and until for golden color and to test it with your finger.

*Refer to my "Hyper Hypo Loves Christmas Cookies" blog entry on why you should use cake flour instead of all purpose flour.
** Refer to my "Diana Ross, Daryl Hannah, and Your Meringue" blog entry on more tips for whipping super fluffy egg whites.
*** If you grease the pan, the batter won't have anything to grab on to as it rises. When its done, use a butter knife to loosen the cake from the sides of the pan and turn it upside down on a rack to cool.

Friday, January 1, 2010

What the Bleep's Guide to the Perfect Cocktail Party

I'm sitting here, basking in a glorious day-after-hosting-a-perfect-cocktail-party glow. I LOVE to entertain. I love to bust out my mismatched platters and stock the bar and make finger foods. I also love little smokies, so any excuse to eat them is awesome. For me, entertaining comes easy, but I understand if its not easy for everyone. That's why I'm writing this guide for you. As long as you get creative and remember to have fun, you can also have the perfect cocktail party and help me bring them back into routine entertainment for our misguided generation.

For your party food, make main 2 items and then serve a couple of snack platters. (Like a cheese plate or chips and salsa.) Making a huge variety of food is not necessary for a cocktail party: its not a dinner party. You only need basic accompaniments for your guests to munch on while they imbibe. And making too many items is going to stress you out at the last minute when you should be getting dressed. I know this for a fact when I had a total What the Bleep moment with curlers in my hair, profusely cussing out my stuffed rosemary potatoes and throwing things.
What to prepare... what to prepare... I know this sounds weird, but you can't go wrong with little smokies. I'm serious. Cocktail weenies in a basic sauce of ketchup and grape jelly served up in a crock pot is a total crowd pleaser. If you think it's white trash, then I'm here to tell you that I've officially dubbed it as being back in style and full of spunk. People will laugh and love it.
For your other main item, make little ham and gruyere puffs sandwiches... they're super easy and your guests will freak. Ina Garten, also known as The Barefoot Contessa, also known as my hero, can take all the credit for this recipe. Here's what to buy:
A package of puff pastry dough from the freezer department at the grocery store
A package of black forest ham sandwich meat.
Gruyere cheese, shredded
Dijon mustard
One egg

Puff pastry is a super buttery, flaky dough that, when you bake it, tastes and feels like a croissant. A box should have 2 squares of dough. Let them thaw in the refrigerator, and then take one piece and set it out on your counter. Spread a few tablespoons of mustard on the puff pastry, leaving about an inch of room at the edge of the pastry.
Put a layer of ham on top of the mustard, again, leaving about an inch at the edges.
Top the ham with a thin layer of gruyere.
Beat the egg with a few tablespoons of water and brush it on the edges with your finger or a pastry brush. This is called "egg wash" and its the glue to hold the top layer of puff pastry on. So after you've painted a layer of egg wash on the border, take the other piece of puff pastry and set it on top. Press down on the borders just to make sure its sealed, but try not to leave finger marks.
Bake this at 400 degrees for however long it takes for the puff pastry to get really golden brown. And no, I don't know exactly how long that is because everyone's oven is different. Lets make it a ballpark figure of 15-20 minutes. But if its not really brown by then, leave it in until it is. You're the boss, not the oven timer. Always remember this: you are higher on the food chain than your oven timer.
Once you've pulled the puffed up goodness out of the oven, let it cool for about 10 minutes and cut it into little squares to serve. A serrated knife will work best.. if you saw with the knife, it will give you a cleaner cut that won't ruin the pastry. Saw, saw, saw... let the knife do the work for you.

Provide beer and wine, or liquor. Don't feel like you have to stock a full bar with tequila, gin, scotch, and vodka options. Buy some wine, a variety of beer (a dark and a light), and some mixers. Let your guests know what you're offering- if they happen to enjoy drinking Rusty Nails, chances are they'll know you don't have a big bottle of Drambuie waiting for them and they'll bring their own.
I had a fanfreakingtastic New Years Eve cocktail party this week and I let my guests know that I was providing beer and wine. If they wanted liquor, they could bring their own and I would have mixers for them. It was a smashing success because everyone knew exactly what would be at the party. And as long as you keep everyone in the know, no one will be disappointed.

This is a special touch that people don't think about. It also helps out if there are stragglers... if worse comes to worse and you have to physically escort them out, at least they'll have some free loot to take home that will distract them from the fact they just got kicked out. Think of things that fit in with the theme of your party. If its around Valentines Day (blech... I hate that day), give them a little bag of conversation hearts and candy. For New Years, I gave little hangover kits: a bottle of water with an Emergen-C packet, and a party noisemaker. The noisemaker wasn't necessarily for the hangover, but I'm sure it was used while the guest was creating said hangover. Be creative and remember you don't have to spend a lot of money. You can even find cool stuff at the dollar store.

If you plan on having everyone gone by midnight, let them know that the party is over at midnight before they get to the party. Include that on your evite, text message, phone call... whatever method you used to invite your guests. Again, this is so that there's no surprises, and so that no one talks naughty about you after the fact on their Facebook statuses.

Door prizes are a great way to get rid of crap. Seriously... its like a cocktail party and a garage sale are the same thing. If you have some gently worn household objects that want to give away, call it a door prize and draw names out of a hat. I did this will all my Christmas presents that I didn't want and it was a HUGE success. I'm not even joking. You can't make this up.

I don't think that most of my fellow Gen X-ers know what proper hosting etiquette consists of. I'm not saying you should bust out any Good Housekeeping etiquette guidelines from 1954 or anything, but you can still be gracious. Offer to take people's coats/purses. Or at least have a place to put them besides the floor behind the door. Look around... are people's drinks starting to get low? Go get them a refill- it'll make them feel like they're actually a guest in your home and not at a frat party where people have to forage the fridge for beers. Do people know each other? Introduce them pete's sake... not everyone has the skills to walk up to a total stranger and strike up witty conversation, so make it easier on them. These are very simple things that are a lost art. Lets make sure they don't disappear like Phil Collins' career.

Have any other tips that I've forgotten? Make sure you leave comments. I'm interested in your feedback on this one.