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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

Baking Books to Grow On

Here are some Chowhound-endorsed baking cookbooks that cover the gamut from yeast breads through pastry and cakes that are suitable for hounds just getting in the baking groove. They’ve got clear explanations of technique but are approachable, not intimidating in tone, and have enough recipes to keep you interested once you’ve got the basics down.

Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook is comprehensive, with lots of photos, good explanations of equipment, and recipes from simple to moderately complex, so you’ll be using it long after you’re no longer a beginner. Even chowhounds who say they have no use for Martha highly recommend this one.

Nick Malgieri’s How to Bake is wide ranging and thorough, with an unfussy tone, says Hungry Celeste, and his recipes always work, according to Kelli2006.

The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion has many fans, who say the recipes are fantastic. Velda Mae warns, however, that she’s found some editing errors that can cause confusion.

Baking Illustrated is a compilation of articles and recipes from Cook’s Illustrated, and fans of that magazine’s exhaustive approach to researching the hows and whys of their recipes find it a great primer for learning baking technique as well as a source of good recipes.

Baking at Home with The Culinary Institute of America “guides you through with a knowledgeable hand,” says NYchowcook.

Fearless Baking, by Eleanor Klivans, doesn’t include yeast breads, but does include sweet and savory pastries and cakes, and gives very clear instructions, building from simpler to more complex techniques.

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Baking cookbooks

The Slippery Truth About Homemade Mayonnaise

When you make your own mayonnaise, the kind of oil you use makes all the difference in the outcome. It’s important to use a neutral oil; since oil makes up the main body of the mayonnaise, any oil with pronounced flavors can produce a harsh-tasting mayo, or simply overpower it. Preferred oils include grapeseed, safflower, soybean, and canola. Some like to finish with a bit olive oil for its flavor, but Pincho warns that extra-virgin olive oil can turn bitter when subjected to a blade, such as in a blender, so he uses pure olive oil.

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homemade MAYONAISE–how to make it taste better?

Leaving the Butter Out

It’s perfectly safe to leave salted and unsalted butter out on the counter, if the kitchen is cool. Past 68F, butter will soften, and the texture will suffer.

Adds Robert Lauriston, “Spoilage shouldn’t be an issue if you eat it regularly and leave only a quarter pound at a time at room temperature.”

Allstonian uses a Butter Bell in warmish weather to keep the butter fresh longer. The container keeps the butter over a well of cold water, which keeps the butter cool but still spreadable.

See a selction of these butter keepers at Amazon.

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salted butter better to leave out

Fantastic Smoked Turkey by Mail

Greenberg’s, in Tyler, Texas, has been in the business of selling smoked turkeys for 65 years. Their turkeys arrive ready to eat; you can reheat, or just slice ‘em and eat ‘em. Fleur describes the meat as fresh, moist, and succulent, and excellent either as a main course or for sandwiches. Leftovers can be frozen.

They get really busy during the upcoming holiday season, so order soon to get the size you want. A turkey from Greenberg’s would make a very special present.

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Experiments in Eating

The New York Times features a fascinating profile of Cornell University professor Brian Wansink, whose work suggests that environmental cues play a big role in how much we eat.

Wansink’s work (the subject of his new book Mindless Eating) suggests that certain cues, such as the size of the container in which food is served or the way it is packaged, can play a critical role in shaping eating habits and affecting weight gain.

Among his many intriguing experiments, which include testing how much soup people will eat out of “bottomless” soup bowls and seeing whether schoolchildren can be duped into eating peas (when they’re called “power peas”), is this one involving movie popcorn:

An appalling example of our mindless approach to eating involved an experiment with tubs of five-day-old popcorn. Moviegoers in a Chicago suburb were given free stale popcorn, some in medium-size buckets, some in large buckets. What was left in the buckets was weighed at the end of the movie. The people with larger buckets ate 53 percent more than people with smaller buckets. And people didn’t eat the popcorn because they liked it, he said. They were driven by hidden persuaders: the distraction of the movie, the sound of other people eating popcorn and the Pavlovian popcorn trigger that is activated when we step into a movie theater.

Finally, an explanation for why I found myself nearly cracking my teeth on unpopped kernels while watching The Illusionist last week: blame it on Jessica Biel. Damn distraction.

Pepper Is the New Salt

Pepper Is the New Salt

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Why Does Pepper Make You Sneeze?

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Beyond Pablum

The San Jose Mercury News (registration required) devotes this week’s food section to the increasingly gourmet world of baby food. Light years away from your average jar of Gerber, these new brands of grub for little chubs use organic produce and mild herbs to make baby food that parents hope will influence their infants toward an intense appreciation of farmer’s markets and away from a life of Kraft mac and cheese.

‘You shape your preferences based on what you’re exposed to,’ said Dr. Elizabeth Shepard, a pediatrician and nutrition specialist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. ‘Sensory preferences basically start at birth. Everything, every flavor, a child is exposed to puts some kind of impression into their brain.’

Some of these new foods come flash-frozen for brighter colors and fresher flavors; others are delivered to you. Both options are two to three times as expensive as national brands.

Are they worth it? If you love upscale packaged food (and the popularity of stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods points to the fact that many of us do), you’ll want to share your passion with Junior. Or you can go the do-it-yourself route. The Mercury has some tips (registration required) on that, too.

The Llong Goodbye

The October Saveur contains a compelling short essay titled “Truculent but Tender.” It’s about eating a llama.

The premise is simple. Once upon a time, there was a one-year-old llama owned by the mother of one of the writer’s friends. Although he was fuzzy and cute like other llamas, he was also no doubt a total bastard who regularly tipped 8 percent and never refilled the Brita pitcher. The owner therefore took him behind the barn … and made him into delicious llama steaks, llama-stuffed cabbage, and llama lomo saltado! Everybody’s a winner–except, of course, the llama.

At the end of the piece, writer Paul Adams finds himself newly “attuned to the unsuspected culinary potential of novel animals.” This begs the question: What’s next for Adams? Gibbons? Elephants? Seeing-eye dogs?

Stay tuned for a future spine-tingling edition of Saveur wherein Adams’s “friend’s mother” takes care of a handyman and sends Adams back to Brooklyn with a Samsonite wheelie full of man meat.

A Mean Lamb Shwarma

The Concord branch of The Mediterranean makes a totally awesome shwarma, says Chuckles the Clone. They have a standard setup: big meat carousel slowly roasting spiced slabs of lamb, and when you order, they slice some off and finish cooking it over a grill with some sliced tomatoes. Then they scoop it into a hot-sauce-slathered lavash and wrap it in foil, at which time it begins to make its own gravy, and also begins to be eaten by you. You will need about a dozen napkins for this process, plus a few extra to clean your table when finished.

It’s great shwarma, great enough to make the place qualify as a “destination.” Unlike many places, the lamb really tastes like lamb. J T notes that this place used to be a Truly Mediterranean, but ownership changed and quality slipped–now the quality is back up to previous levels, and it’s totally recommended.

The Mediterranean [East Bay]
1847 Willow Pass Rd. Ste. B, Concord

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Good Shwarma in the east bay?