07 December 2016

Food Lab 37: Crackers

Mad Kitchen Scientist and The Executive Committee host an annual New Year's Eve party, and it always has a theme, and that theme always informs the heavy hors d'oeuvres menu. Chef Spouse and I traditionally go over early in the day to help with the cooking, followed by dinner with a quality bottle of bubbles, getting ourselves and the kitchen cleaned up, and the party.

If the food theme is going to be something new, we often try to have a dry run cooking day.

Our travel schedules over most of the fall had been incompatible, so when we realized we were all available Sunday, we decided we better jump on our test cooking for New Year's Eve, which is less than a month away.

When I asked about a theme, Mad Kitchen Scientist responded that, given recent current and political events, they were thinking crackers, and *both* definitions of that would be applicable (and provide ample opportunity for tasty dips and spreads to put ON the crackers). So we decided to get together to lab homemade crackers. 

Crackers, it turns out, are surprisingly easy to bake. We chose two base recipes: one with butter and one without. We made the butter-based dough first, because it was going to require a rest in the fridge before rolling out and baking. The recipe was taken from one of The Executive Committee's southern cookbooks (she's originally from Texas, ya'll):

1 1/4 c flour
2 tsp curry powder
1 stick butter
3/4 c grated cheddar cheese
2 tsp poppy seeds
1 tsp black onion seeds
1 egg yolk
cumin seed to top

You mix the dry ingredients, cut in the butter, and add the spices, cheese, and egg yolk. We divided the recipe in half to lab cheese versus no cheese. The Executive Committee made her half - with the cheese -  totally by hand, while I used the food processor, to which I've become a total convert for recipes that require cutting in butter. It really does do a more consistent job than by hand, I think, and it's certainly quicker. We both found that the dough was WAY to dry to form, so we each added about 1/4 c. of water, at which point we were able to ball them up and stash them in the fridge.

We then moved on to the non-butter recipes, and they could not be more easy. Mix - roll - cut - bake. That's it. We used the recipe from The Kitchn as our base, but once again halved the recipe and made semolina rosemary and rye caraway variations. That simply involved replacing 1/3 of the regular flour with semolina or rye, and seasoning the actual crackers (in the cracker, not as a topping) with about 2 tsp. of dried rosemary or caraway seeds.

Rolling the oil-based no butter doughs to 1/8 in thick was a breeze - all that rye/semolina flour reduces the overall gluten content, so the dough is less likely to shrink back on you. We were initially cutting the crackers too large, and then we went to too small, but that's why we lab - so on New Year's Eve, they'll be just right. I don't have a pizza cutter, but my metal bench scraper worked in a pinch.

That's the rye dough, and yes, I initially tried cutting the crackers with a knife. Don't do that.
We brushed the tops of the some of the crackers with water and sprinkled on a little flake salt - for the rye - and regular sea salt - for the rosemary. The flake salt looks cool, but makes the crackers a little too salty. Without anything at all, though, they're not salty enough. I think the ideal thing would be to up the salt in the dough just a little.

Then you just bake for 6 minutes at 450, rotate the pans and bake for another 6 minutes, and voila: crackers. REALLY REALLY DELICIOUS crackers.

Rosemary crackers, fresh from the oven
By the time we'd baked all the no-butter crackers, it was time to bring out the butter-based doughs and roll them out. The recipe recommended cutting in rounds, so we did. We tried sprinkling the tops with cumin seed before baking, but it mostly just fell off when we took them out of the oven, so I would say if you want your curry crackers to taste of cumin, put it in the dough.

Both types of butter crackers were more flaky than the non-butter ones, of course, but I didn't think there was a significant taste difference between the cheese and non-cheese versions. I think if you wanted your crackers to taste strongly of cheese, you'd need to use more (maybe reducing the butter somewhat to compensate for the extra fat?) or use a MUCH more strongly flavored cheese. Or you could just cut a slice of cheese to put on TOP of the cracker (we were eating pate we'd made from the innards of the chicken we were roasting to have for dinner).

These recipes make a lot and don't take long. Of course, with no preservatives, I'm not sure what their shelf life will be. We made them Sunday, and while they were still good last night, I'm hoping they're still good now because I'm planning to use them for the cocktail hour for the dinner party we're throwing this evening. But I suspect you could also have the dough made up, divide it, and stash some in the fridge or freezer for a while for on-demand baking.

18 September 2016

Food Lab 36: Paella

Chef Spouse is not a huge shellfish fan (other than shrimp), so with him out of town, we decided that it was the perfect time to play with paella. Fortunately, Die Künstlerwranglerin and Eggman (and their offspring) were available to join us.

We decided to lab stovetop versus Green Egg (since Eggman was there). We realized that in order to lab this properly, we should use the exact same recipe for the two methods, so we were truly comparing the method rather than introducing ingredient variables.

We went with:

1/4 c olive oil

1 lb. marinated boneless chicken thighs, chunk cut about 1-2” in size, marinated in 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika, 1 tsp. paprika, 1 tsp. dried oregano, 1 Tbsp olive oil

1 onion, diced
½ green pepper, diced
1 ancho pepper, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced

 7 oz. Spanish chorizo, sliced into ½ moons

1 c. bomba rice
1 c. arborio rice (we ran out of bomba rice)

4 c. poultry stock (1/3 duck, 2/3 chicken)
1 hearty pinch of saffron
1 bay leaf

1/2 bunch parsley

1/2 bag of mussels
16 little neck clams
1/2 lb. medium shrimp (about 16)

Nice mise!
Saute the chicken in the olive oil until it starts to brown and give you a little fond. Then add the veg and saute until the onion gets translucent. Add the chorizo and saute until it is giving up its fat. Add the rice and saute until it's fully coated with the fat, then start adding the stock. It's not risotto - you're not trying to have the rice absorb all the liquid before you put the next bit in, but you don't want your pot to overflow either.

As you start getting close to the rice being done and the stock all being absorbed, add the parsley and the shellfish. You'll want to position the mussels and clams so that the side that opens is facing down into the rice, with the hinge facing up, so that as they start to cook/open, all that goodness drops into the rice. Cook until shellfish are done (we put them all in at the same time, but the shrimp should've been put in AFTER the clams and mussels, so they got a little over cooked).

The stovetop (in cast iron, natch) started faster - the Egg was still warming up - but the Egg finished faster. I'm guessing that's because once the Egg is up to temperature, you can't really decrease it.

The stovetop paella was clearly creamier, and the Grenn Egg paella was notably smokey and crunchy. Eventually, though, we reached the caramelized sofrito that is the epitome of paella. The stovetop’s sofrito was superior, being a bit thicker and more even. But we wouldn't have kicked either to the curb for eating crackers in bed, as the saying goes.

Mad Kitchen Scientist had procured some Savory and James amontillado sherry for us, that went admirably with both versions.

Chef Spouse totally missed out.

05 June 2016

Food Lab 35: Soft-Shell Crabs

It had been some time since your faithful Food Labbers had gathered, so we set a date without a plan for the third weekend of May. As date approached, we debated what to lab. Was anything interesting showing up in people's CSA boxes? The Washington Post had just run a story on making bagels - maybe we should revisit that? What about paella? Or the flambe lab that got canceled? Or alliums - aren't ramps coming into season?

And then your author noticed: that weekend would be the full moon in May. Which means something else would just be coming into season: soft-shell crabs. Assuming the Maine Avenue Fish Market got them in on the first day of season, we had our topic. And they did.

WARNING: if you're squeamish, you might want to skip this particular Lab report.

I love soft-shell crabs. I love them fried, sautéed, in Spider Rolls, in sandwiches, you name it. But I'd never tried preparing them, and the rest of the Food Lab crew hadn't even eaten them much. In short, we bought a dozen and had no idea what to do with them.

Well, it turns out that prep is pretty simple: once they're cleaned and ready to cook, you lightly dredge them in spiced flour, and then deep fry, sauté in butter, or broil. Seeing as we had a dozen, we decided to try all three methods. (Spoiler alert: sauté in butter. Trust.)

The key there is: "once they're cleaned." I'll let Chef Smarty Pants (Erica Wides) explain in more detail:

Yes, you heard that right: you cut their faces off with kitchen shears. When we heard that, we kind of looked at each other like: "Um, who's going to do this?"

If you eat animals - actually, even if you don't - something has to die in order for you to live. But working with creatures you get live, which for most of us extends only to various crustaceans (lobsters, crawfish, crabs, mussels, oysters, etc.), really brings that home. It reminded us of the lamb butchering lab in some ways - confronting what it really means to eat animal protein.

In the end, Chef Spouse plucked up his courage and the kitchen shears, and did the deed. The Executive Committee had to excuse herself, Mad Kitchen Scientist stayed in the kitchen and started the cooking process - because you want to get them on the heat as soon as they're prepped - and I was the sous, helping manipulate the crabs for cleaning and then dredging them to hand over to Mad Kitchen Scientist for cooking. Many inappropriate jokes were told, but it was a sobering reminder to be thankful for creatures who die so we can live.

On a lighter note, obviously, this was not a lengthy process, so we also decided to make a batch of bagels. We used to Washington Post recipe proportions, but not the process. One, I kneaded the dough by hand, because come on! And we did 1/4 whole wheat flour, 3/4 regular all purpose. The WaPo's fussing about protein content is just silly - use King Arthur flour and don't worry about it. Two, we didn't do an overnight rise, but we did do two rises: one as a full boule, the other a short rise once we'd formed the bagels. Then we did the water bath, top (with combos of poppy seed, sesame seed, and onion salt), and bake as the recommended. They came out great. The barley malt syrup, which you can order from King Arthur really does make a difference. Next time, I think what I'll do is make the dough in the evening, rise the boule in the fridge overnight, then let it come to room temp in the morning, form the bagels, do a second rise, and then water bath and bake. The longer the rise, the more complex the flavor.

It's getting to the point that no Food Lab out in Falls Church is complete without a trip to the H Mart, and this was no exception. Chef Spouse has been experimenting with ramen, and there were some ingredients he wanted he'd been unable to find in our neighborhood, and we picked up some lovely yellow mangoes to nosh on while we cooked and some artichokes and green beans to eat with the crabs and hollandaise (another lab thrown back). They also had a good deal on some beautiful mirliton (aka chayote squash) that we ended up pickling in rice wine vinegar, with black and white peppercorns, dried hot peppers, coriander seed, bay leaf, garlic, and salt.

Of course, that left egg whites, and "no egg white left behind!" Having picked up a can of lychee nuts at H Mart, we made lychee rickies to start with, and, once we had the egg whites, lychee silver fizzes - basically just a regular silver fizz with a little lychee syrup in the mix and lychee nuts as garnish.

We had also picked up some salmon and cod at the fish market where we started the salting process for lox, gravlax, and salt cod, and Mad Kitchen Scientist had made lemon lavender sorbet in the morning for us to enjoy after our crabs.

Even with the somewhat gruesome prep method, would I do soft-shells at home again? Yes. But I'm not going to lie when I say it's definitely less disturbing to order them in a restaurant.

27 March 2016

Food Lab 34: Sugar Syrups

As any cocktail aficionado knows, many cocktails benefit from the addition of a little something sweet. Whether it's to curb the booziness of an old fashioned or absinthe frappe, to tame the bitterness of a Sazerac, or to take the edge off the citrus tartness of a margarita, a little sweet can nicely balance other flavors. And if you start keeping a container of basic simple syrup (1:1 ratio sugar to water, cooked until the sugar dissolves) in your fridge, you will find additional uses for it: sweetening iced beverages, taking the edge of a vinaigrette that's too sharp, etc.

So simple syrup makes a good starting point for sweetening your cocktails. But what other options are there? Partially inspired by The Executive Committee having read a piece in Imbibe magazine on the topic, we decided to try to find out.

Now, there are some classic pairings: agave nectar in a margarita, the sugar cube drip of an absinthe fountain or Sazerac, the bitters-saturated-and-then-pulverized sugar cube of my favorite take on an old fashioned, double syrup in a mint julep. But Imbibe opened all our eyes to other possibilities. So we set up some comparative taste tests.

Batch 1 - multi-ingredient
Orgeat (commercial Fee Brothers versus homemade, from the Imbibe article)
Grenadine (commercial Rose's versus homemade, similar to this)
Molasses syrup - 1 c sugar, 1/2 c water, 1 TBSP molasses
Ferrnet syrup - using the Imbibe technique
Barley syrup - using the Imbibe technique

Batch 2 - simple syrups (1:1 ratio) using various granulated sugars
Brown sugar
Turbinado sugar
Palm sugar
Demerara sugar
Coconut sugar
White sugar - double syrup (two sugar to one water)

Batch 3 - syrups we could use pretty much as is
Karo (aka corn syrup)
Honey (which we did end up making into a cooked syrup to keep it from getting too thick to emulsify into cocktails)
Agave nectar
Maple syrup

One thing to be aware of is that different substances have different amounts of sugar per TBSP.  We couldn't get precise measurements for all our ingredients, but those we could included:

Karo: 10g sugar/TBSP
Turbinado: 12g sugar/TBSP
Maple syrup: 13g sugar/TBSP
Molasses: 14g sugar/TBSP
Coconut: 16g sugar/TBSP
Agave nectar: 16g sugar/TBSP

We then tasted everything straight. Yes, that was a LOT of tasting of sugar. Don't tell my dentist.

Orgeat: homemade didn't taste enough of almonds and was too thin, but in comparison, the commercial was VERY sweet. The viscosity was nice for cocktail applications, though.

Grenadine: homemade wins, hands down. Commercial tastes chemical in comparison.

Molasses syrup *really* tasted like molasses, but it was quite good and did well in cocktails (see below).

The Fernet syrup was DELICIOUS all by itself AND in cocktails. I've been wanting an excuse to start keeping Fernet in the house, and I think now I have it.

The barley syrup was light, nutty, and not quite as sweet. That subtleness was somewhat lost in cocktails.

Of the various granulated sugars, the double syrup is, of course, very sweet, but it also has a really nice viscosity that lends a good mouth-feel to cocktails. It would be good for applications where you want concentrated sweetness without watering things down - so drinks like highballs, that are going to be served over ice (Tom Collins, rickeys, etc.). The turbinado sugar syrup tasted like molasses, while the palm sugar had very caramel-y notes. The demerara was basically identical to the brown sugar.

Of the ingredients that started as syrups, the Karo/corn syrup was the least sweet and the thickest, so it would be good in applications where you wanted a thicker mouth-feel with less sweetness (say, a vinaigrette). The honey syrup was kind of a bust - you lost the honey-ness of the honey, and it basically just seemed like regular simple syrup. The agave nectar was quite sweet, as you might guess from the table above, and the maple syrup tasted of itself.

We then tried out some cocktails:

Milano sour - here's the thing. The recipe includes straight Fernet Branca, so you didn't really taste a difference in different syrups, because the Fernet masked it.

Vodka sour - 2 vodka, 2 lemon, 1 grenadine (homemade versus commercial) - the homemade won in a landslide

Rum sour - 2 Mount Gay rum, 2 lime, and then we tested

Palm sugar
Coconut sugar
Double simple syrup
Molasses syrup
Agave nectar
Fernet syrup

The molasses was the hands-down winner. The double was the sweetest, of course, and palm versus coconut didn't make much of a difference. Nor did the agave, surprisingly. The Fernet syrup was also outstanding. The "darker" flavors of both the Fernet and molasses syrups seemed to play very well with the rum.

Cold Spring cocktail - we had gotten some Meyer lemons from the CSA, so we decided to make the most of that. Now, this is basically a sidecar, so we decided to go with molasses versus maple. They were both good, although with the molasses syrup, you could tell what the sweetener was, where with the maple syrup, you really couldn't. That is, the cognac masked the distinct flavor of the maple syrup, so all you got was the sweetness.

Old fashioned - Bullet rye and angostura bitters, then we tested:

Fernet syrup - CLEAR winner (at least to me)
Double simple syrup - cocktail turned out too sweet
Palm sugar - caramel notes came out
Orgeat (both homemade and commercial) - homemade was too subtle, and while you got the almond from the commercial, it was also WAY too sweet
Barley syrup - very light and well-integrated cocktail
Maple syrup - the distinct taste came through clearly, and it was overly sweet

One other thing became very apparent through all this cocktail taste-testing. While we were focused on sugars and sweetness, bitters are the key to a great cocktail. But you probably already knew that.