Saturday, October 30, 2010

A What the Bleep? Oldie but Goodie...

In honor of the most sacred, precious, and meaningful holiday of the year... lets talk pumpkin seeds again. Here's one from last year that I love.

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 24, 2010

My Martini Glass is Stressed and Needs a Drink

Dear Tricia, This is a safety hazard question, so I wanted to ask the expert. I went back and read about exploding casserole dishes in the oven and blow torching "cold" glasses, but I'm still not sure. I want to use a martini glass to decorate a cake and use sugar/corn syrup mixture to make it look like there is a vodka/cranberry drink in the glass. And I am scared to put the hard ball sugar into the glass and breaking it. I like my eyes, granted they need a little work, but I would like to keep them working. So, will I cause the thin martini glass to shatter by pouring 325 degree melted sugar into it?

Great question, and thanks for referencing the blog I wrote about a gazillion years ago about breaking dishes in a hot oven. And also, I find it hilarious that you want to "ask the expert" about a safety hazard since I'm consistent about running into doors, dropping breakables and slamming my fingers in drawers. I'm a walking disaster and I have the bruises to prove it.
To digress for a second, and for those who don't want to go back and read the older stuff (you're missing out), I have to mention a day in culinary school when my partner and I were taking a blowtorch to a dessert served in a champagne glass. Since she was from the Virgin Islands, and I'm from Texas and neither or us carry the word "cold" in our vocabulary, we took the glass right out of the refrigerator and put the blowtorch to it. It immediately shattered. So, like dumbasses, we tried it again on another glass. Shatterific. Our teacher wasn't crazy about us. (And I wasn't crazy about her either, if I must say. So there.) The point is, you can't take a cold glass and immediately put something hot in it because there are little pockets of air inside the glass that expand when they get hot. When they expand too fast or too much, they explode and break the glass. And then you're left with a dessert served in broken glass while 20 fellow students look at you like you just farted.
So I understand your hesitation. Let me break down the science of it: when things get hot, they expand. My fingers swell in the summer time when its hot as hades outside. Carbon dioxide bubbles inside a cake expand in the oven and make the cake rise. And air pockets inside glass expand when you heat it. The problem is, glass is a terrible conductor of heat. You could pour hot sugar on half of a glass plate and the air pockets inside that side of the plate will start to expand, but the other side of the plate's little air pockets aren't doing anything because the heat is taking too long to travel over there. So with the inside of one part of the plate expanding and the other side doing nothing, there's a lot of "thermal stress" going on. (What a terrible term. How much stress can a dish go through? Get a job already.) And with all the "thermal stress," it breaks.
So how do we avoid that?
First, you need to make sure your martini glass isn't made from blown glass. Hand blown glass (shouldn't it be referred to as mouth-blown?) has much more irregular pockets of air than generic glass that is made from pouring molten glass into a mold. Not sure if yours is hand blown? I found the most comprehensive checklist here . If you're buying your martini glass at the Dollar Store, I don't think you have to worry about it being blown. Lucky you: functionality and its a bargain. But if you're buying a martini glass somewhere all posh-like such as Crate and Barrel or ZGallerie, try asking the people who work there. (That's how I found out my new glasses were blown, which explains why they all like to break in the dishwasher. Not awesome.)
Second, you need to ease the "thermal stress" the glass is going through... you know, like giving it a xanax. By slowly bringing the temperature of the glass closer to the temperature of the hot sugar, it puts less stress on the glass once you start adding liquid magma-like substances to it. While you're cooking your sugar, put the martini glass under the tap with running hot water and just let the water run. Don't just splash some warm water in it at the last minute: really let the glass get hot so that when you pick it up to dry it off, its super hot. This is going to help warm up the glass enough so that the temperature of the hot sugar isn't so shocking. When your sugar is almost ready, stop the water, dry off the glass, and its ready to pour the sugar in. And when you're finished pouring the sugar in, don't do something stupid like put it in the freezer. Mixing and matching temperatures is never a good idea.
I'm curious to see how your experiment turns out. Send pictures. Happy fake martini-creating! You should reward yourself with a real one after your dessert success.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

And that's how the carrot cake crumbles.

From my Facebook fan page:

My mother emailed me asking how to fix her friend's crumbly carrot cake. The e-mail said the cake had excellent flavor and moistness, but crumbled to bits when it was cut.

Ahh, carrot cake. Who doesn't love carrot cake? Or, rather, who doesn't love that its a delicious vehicle for cream cheese frosting into my belly? Yum. (On a side note, when I worked in a bakery, I always tried not to laugh when customers would get carrot cake because it was "healthier." It's cake, my friends. Cake with frosting and cream cheese. Lots and lots of both... But, whatever makes you happy.)
Crumbly carrot cake is a disappointment. I'm disappointed already. But there's a couple of very simple things that I want to talk about before I go into the possibility of it potentially being a bad recipe.

1. The size of the carrots and extra goodies you add at the end may be your culprit. For those of you living under a very large rock with no sunlight or ways of communicating with the outside world for the past 300 years, carrot cake calls for lots of extra stuff besides eggs, butter and sugar. You have your shredded carrots, raisins, nuts, pineapple... lots of bits and pieces of yummy little things. When you start adding all of this to cake batter, its going to disrupt the gluten. To put it very simply, gluten is the protein that holds your cake together. But when you start to add lots of stuff to your cake batter, it tears apart the gluten, making it much harder for the cake to hold itself together- hence the crumbliness. (Yes, crumbliness is a word. I checked.) So carrot cake, to begin with is going to fall apart a lot easier than something very simple like a plain chocolate cake just because its got a lot of extra gluten-tearing crap in it. Something your alleged "mother's friend" may want to try is shredding the carrots smaller, chopping the nuts smaller, and possibly even pureeing them all together. In most home kitchens that aren't pimped out like mine is (thanks to the miracle of wedding gifts- thanks everyone!), you're going to use a cheese grater to grate the carrots, which gives you pretty large-sized shreds. If you use a microplane (or some people just call it a zester), you get really small, fine shreds of carrots that aren't big and jagged enough to tear apart so much gluten. Here's what it looks like: I use mine all the time for lemon zest and parmesan cheese, its a well spent $15 investment.
I'm a fan of just pureeing everything together because when you add the nuts and fruit and carrots at the end, it gives you a really smooth batter with all the flavors but none of the chunks that make the cake crumbly. Its not your traditional looking carrot cake when you slice it- there's no giant shreds of carrots, but there's also no crumbliness. That's how you make awesome meatloaf too, without the annoying look of those little presumptuous chunks of carrots and celery. Yuck. (Plus, I just really like to use my food processor. So much fun that I'm borderline embarrassed.)

2. Lets talk about cutting cakes. Cutting cake is something I've done a LOT of, especially wedding cakes. (And that's a blog for another time. Holy Drama, Batman.) When you cut a cake with lots of stuff in it, you've got to use a serrated knife. That's the knife that has the little jagged teeth on it that hurts really bad when you cut your finger. (Let me make that mistake for you- you don't have to do it yourself.) When you use a serrated knife, you have to saw, not just push down. The teeth are on there for a reason: it looks like a saw because you have to SAW. By sawing with the knife, the knife does all the work and cuts the cake without destroying it, as long as you don't start pushing down. Try this next time: saw saw saw... don't press down.... saw saw saw.... don't press down. Make that your mantra. You'll be amazed at how nicely you can cut a piece of cake without tearing it apart.
Something else to consider when cutting cake, and this may be obvious to you, but its not to everyone: let the cake cool before you cut it. For real. Cutting warm cake, no mater what kind it is, is going to give you really messy, crumbly pieces. If you stick it in the fridge and cut it when its cold- even better if you're going to neat slices. But warm cake and a knife will never bode well for avoiding crumbliness. (I LOVE that word!)

3. I don't know what kind of recipe she used- perhaps its an old family recipe that's 100 years old- but I want to point out something.

Are you ready for it?

Wait for it.....

Wait for it......

Sometimes, recipes are BAD!!!!

No, its true, especially now that everyone can put whatever they want on the internet, and that includes a lot of really terrible recipes. Honestly, sometimes recipes just don't work. If you prefer to find your recipes online, try and avoid sites like, where anyone and everyone can upload a recipe to share. There's no double checking on that website- some of the recipes are good, some of them are really horrible. For pretty solid, free recipes, I'm a fan of which features recipes from Bon Appetit and Gourmet, both of which (until the publishing industry started to crumble too) were super reliable sources. And for the best of the best recipe websites, I'd recommend joining, which is $35 bucks a year. If you haven't read any of my blogs where I geek out of this website, let me tell you... its the best test kitchen in the country. They test recipes over and over and over again until they WORK, and as a bonus, you're never inundated with pictures of Rachael Ray, like some other food websites. This is the magazine that broke the news about using vodka for the flakiest pie crust ever. But if you're into cookbooks and not the internet, the best baking recipes I've used over the last 10 years were all found in The Fannie Farmer Baking Book. The basics, like chocolate chip cookies, banana bread, and carrot cake, are all really killer.
And what do you do when your recipe is bad? Just because a recipe is bad doesn't mean you can't change it. Play around with it, add some things, take some things away. Don't be afraid to have fun and make mistakes. I mean, if the author of the recipe already gave you a crappy recipe, you probably can't make it much worse. But if you do, you can always send me an email.