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AlexRast's Profile

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Banquet dinner options--how to choose what to eat?

On a side point - but one that always causes me to wonder: I'm definitely not a vegetarian, but even so what I find surprising is the proportion of catering where the people involved don't seem to understand that vegetarians need something substantive too - and that this means, generally, beans and grains. As you've said, cheese is a non-starter for vegans.

Furthermore from the POV of the caterers, beans and grains are cheap (=> profitable!) so it surprises me time after time when I see what's presented to vegetarians that so often this concept - of a dish that's bean-and-grain-focussed - is missed. Any insights as to why, anyone?

Jul 20, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics
1

Let's talk about white bread

Well, I only heat just enough of the milk to get the yeast started. Most of the milk is still cold. But if you don't start the yeast at all, then the result is usually that things don't get going at all on rise until the next day, without any improvement in flavour, and in fact I wonder about what just leaving around a lump of dough for that length of time does. I'm guessing it probably promotes the action of ambient yeasts as opposed to the ones you specifically added, which is precisely what I want to NOT do. Using ambient yeast inevitably leads to at least a somewhat sour dough. I realise a lot of people probably think that bread doesn't pass the threshold into sour until it's aggressive, but for me even the slightest hint of sourness is enough to be sub-optimal, relative to what I'm trying to achieve in a white bread. I want a true sweet dough - by this I don't mean sweet in the sense of, e.g. cinnamon buns or other yeasted pastries with actual sugar added, but sweet as in using added yeast and not having any hint of sour flavour whatsoever.

As you say, a baguette or Italian loaf or any of a number of classic breads is technically a "white" bread but I did think in this context they mean a white tin loaf.

Jul 20, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

Pot Roast meat

Do you have any pictures? I (and others here) might be able to identify the cut from a picture, and then provide more targetted recommendations.

Jul 20, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Let's talk about white bread

Looking through all the posts, it seems to me that there's an unspoken assumed context here. The context is that "white bread" in this sense refers specifically to industrially produced white bread, or at best bread baked so as to resemble a product of industrial manufacture.

To me that does a major disservice to something for which there is no reason to discard from the list of potential bread types, nor to categorise into some sort of lesser class. And as far as concerns that there's less nutritional value, it seems to me that this is rather irrelevant in light of the fact that we're not surviving on an exclusive diet of nothing but bread. It's the entire *diet* that needs to have complete nutritional value, not what component parts make it up. I'm not particularly sure that a good white bread is in any case necessarily especially lower in nutritional diversity, but again that's very wide of the point, I think.

For me it's depressing that, possibly as a result of a conception that white bread belongs to some sort of bread underclass, it's virtually impossible to find good white bread any more unless you make it yourself. I feel like a dimension of food is being lost.

As it happens I bake bread regularly anyway, so for me it's not really a problem. To make a good, classic English toast loaf I use 500 ml of non-fat milk (I've found that non-fat gives better results than full-fat, although the difference is very marginal), about 800g strong white bread flour (amounts are always approximate; I adjust for conditions and reaction of the dough, a small amount - probably around 5 g - of fresh yeast, and 10 g salt. I dissolve the yeast in a bit of the milk, heated to lukewarm the salt in the remaining milk, left cold, and then mix in half the flour and the proofed yeast. I stir with a fork until it becomes smooth, leave to sit for a few minutes, and then lightly knead in somewhere around 2/3 of the remaining flour, to form a sticky ball. This I leave for another 10 minutes or so, then knead the remaining flour in very strongly until the whole becomes a very smooth, soft ball. I use 3 rises; the first tends to take about 6 hours, the next 3, the last 1, then press into a loaf tin lined with parchment and bake at 190C.

This is (to me) a lovely bread, but still, I wish such could also easily be bought as well as made; in my youth there were bakeries everywhere which made good fresh white breads everyday. Sadly, almost all of these are no more, victims on the one side to the supermarkets, on the other side to Gregg's.

Jul 19, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics
2

Banquet dinner options--how to choose what to eat?

Arrange your day so that the banquet isn't going to be a critical part of your food needs. At just about any meal occasion, where the choices are fixed, there's always the chance that *none* of them will be suitable. Eat what you can of what's provided and if there's something you literally can't abide, just don't eat it. More often than not caterers allow for the possibility of additional arrivals, strange and unforeseen diners, etc. etc. so if what you originally asked for turns out not to be suitable, but something else is, you can usually ask to have your plate replaced with the other choice (unless the banquet has been EXTREMELY tightly planned and budgetted)

There is, of course, the true no-win scenario, namely, everything on offer has something you can't abide, the hosts will be mortally offended if you don't eat everything, and they will likewise feel snubbed if you decline, however politely, their invitation. However in that situation it's simple: You Lose. Other than that most of the time these things pass over without anyone even taking note at the time. The whole point is that it's not about a meal for you, but a celebration of a major event for the couple.

Jul 19, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics
1

I need advice on cooking fish

My experiences - and in comment in part to other posters:

1: If frying is the method of choice, flesh side down first is better for crisp skin. Skin side down first means that when it's flipped, rising steam through the fish de-crisps the skin. Better to do after it's flipped.

2) Also if frying is the method of choice, use plenty of oil, enough to have a layer, not just a film, on the bottom. It doesn't have to be swimming in oil but you need enough that it's not just resting on top of a film. (That you didn't use any oil, and furthermore had a sugary coating, as other posters have noted, is the reason you got sticking)

3) Non-stick is good for easy release, and particularly good if you want to cook the fish gently. But it's not good if you want crisp skin because in the first place you can't heat it nearly as hot, and in the second, the lower heat conductivity of the non-stick coating reduces the heat transfer and hence crisping. (As mentioned by others again, for best heat transfer for crisp skin, cast iron is the pan material of choice)

4) If using cast iron you can use a searing method as opposed to frying; this requires little to no (if the pan has been well seasoned) oil. The skin can be crisp, but in a slightly different, drier way. Same with the flesh. With salmon, I must admit, I'd prefer searing because it's such an oily fish to begin with.

5) You want the pan to be really quite hot; just below the smoke point of your oil. (if frying) For this reason oils with high smoke point are best. Lard and suet are well-known for this property. Some types of sunflower oil (but not all) are also good at high heat. If searing, then you can turn the pan up higher, but most fish doesn't need nearly the heat you might use for a steak (excepting tuna and swordfish).

6) In actual fact, with salmon I find broiling yields the very best results, with crisp skin and flesh tunable to your ideal of doneness. It also tends to cook more evenly. To get it as crisp as in the frypan you do need to put the fish very close to the broiler indeed, but as long as this is done you can indeed get a crisper outside, particularly with salmon, than with any other (indoor) method.

7) Make sure your fishmonger descales your fish. Scaly skin is close to inedible. If they've not, and it's easy to tell because if it has a shiny look and rough feel the scales are still there, you can remove them yourself by scraping forwards from the tail with a sharp, thin-bladed knife; keep it almost parallel with the side of the fish. Scales will fly everywhere, so put down plenty of newspaper to catch them.

Jul 17, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking
1

Another of those whacky "best of" lists to chew over: this time it's coffee shops in the USA

These lists get put up because on the one hand they're wonderful food for debate, and on the other good marketing for the shops listed. You do have to be careful in identifying whether the shops in question had some input, whether directly or indirectly, into who got put on the list; of course many of these lists are simply marketing. But it's always fun to discuss, particularly since coffee is a subject that inspires passionate opinion but little consensus.

Coming from the UK, I've been to NY, Dallas, Seattle, and SF - and in each location did about as comprehensive a sweep of the coffeeshops as feasible. I am a pure, single-shot espresso person; the "hardest" test for a coffeeshop in that they have little to hide behind. So:

NY: Not impressed by either Grumpy or Everyman. Abraco is the only shop that really does a good espresso. Have not tried La Colombe but if it's similar to the rest of the list I doubt it will top Abraco.

SF: Actually, for a coffee city I found most of the coffee to be rather dismal. Again, not really thrilled with Four Barrel. Not been to Saint Frank. But really, none of the coffee shops in SF seemed first-rate to me.

Seattle: Much more impressive when it comes to the coffee landscape generally. SCW though is trending too much in what I would call a "San Francisco" direction: too much emphasis on experimentalism, too little on classical style. My favourite for years has been Caffe D'Arte. However in relatively recent visits the quality was declining a bit. So maybe times have moved on.

Dallas: Ascension is decisively the best in Dallas, and in fact one of the best in the USA. It's really weird, I don't tend to associate Dallas with a particularly vibrant food scene generally, in a *relative* sense, which means to say that there are cities in the USA with far stronger reputations, but I found consistently that in Dallas they deliver, where as in other cities (e.g. NY and SF) I find that as often as not there's a great deal of image and not much substance. People in SF and NY should travel to Dallas to learn what great coffee is. While they're in the area, they might also stop by FT33 to find out what a great restaurant is. Or Mesa for a great ethnic (Mexican). Or Pecan Lodge for great BBQ. The list goes on and on...

Jul 13, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics
1

Can I substitute melted dark chocolate bars for cocoa powder when making frosting?

Incorporating milk into a chocolate-based frosting can be notoriously problematic. The key thing here would be ordering. You'd need to mix the milk in with the sugar in order to ensure an even mixing with the chocolate. However, you've not detailed the recipe procedure, only the ingredients, but I have a suspicion that it's going to involve creaming the butter with the sugar first, and dissolving the cocoa in the milk. Which wouldn't work, if you tried to mix the milk and chocolate together. However, if the butter can be creamed by itself, the sugar mixed with the milk and added, and then finally melted chocolate beaten in slowly, it should be OK.

That said, I think the milk isn't really necessary anyway, and it would mute the flavour of the chocolate. Maybe that's what you want though, in which case it would be easier to use milk chocolate instead and abandon the milk altogether. That, however, calls for adjustments because milk chocolate as usually made contains a LOT of sugar, so you'd need to reduce the amount of sugar proportionately in the recipe. In any case, chocolate itself has fat: cocoa butter, so the amount of butter should be adjusted, but not too much, because cocoa butter's hard crystalline form means that the result would be stiff and not plastic if you substituted on a one-for-one basis for the fat ratio. Generally speaking once you get beyond half butter, half cocoa butter, the results will be too solid.

To adjust all your ratios, look at the nutrition information. It should give you, for the portion size, the number of grams of sugar and the number of grams of fat. You can thus compute the number of grams of sugar and far that you've introduced through the chocolate by: n = (r/T)*A where n is the amount introduced in total, r is the stated fat/sugar grams from the label, T is the portion size on the label, and A is the total amount of chocolate you're going to use in the recipe. Then you need to adjust the amounts of other ingredients to compensate, by subtracting that amount off what you're going to use, except, as mentioned, in the case of butter where you need to keep the ratio at or above 1/2.

To compute how much chocolate to use you need a similar formula. Now, cocoa comes in various fat formulations but I'm going to start from the premise that the original recipe expects a high-fat: ~20%, cocoa. Thus the ratio of defatted cocoa solids is 80%.
Now you need the ratio of defatted cocoa solids in the chocolate. Assuming we're talking about dark chocolate, then this can be computed from the fat content (which is cocoa butter) and the total cocoa solids percentage. Again, fat percentage = r/T*100, with the same meanings as before. So defatted cocoa solids percentage is C-(r/T)*100 where C is the cocoa solids percentage listed, and the rest is the fat percentage.

Then you can compute what needs to be your amount of chocolate: 0.8c/(C-(r/T)*100) where c is the amount of cocoa, C is the percentage of the chocolate, r is the amount of fat per portion, and T is the portion size from the label. This may look superficially complicated but it's straightforward; you can just plug in the numbers and get the result.

If you use milk chocolate it requires more complex calculations because the milk used itself contains fat - butterfat - and that changes the amount you can safely add because not all of the added fat will be cocoa butter. I can give you a formula for that if you're interested, but it will vary somewhat depending on how much milk is in the chocolate and requires more deciphering of ingredient labels.

What kind of "upscale chocolate store" did you go to? Was it a chocolatier (someone who specialises in making filled chocolates)? If so, then yes, finding cocoa there wouldn't be typical because that type of shop is more about confectionery than basic chocolate ingredients. A chocolate shop that specialises in bar chocolate may have a better chance, but even there it's not a certainty. There isn't the same level of demand for high-quality cocoa, the number of manufacturers commensurately much more limited, their customers much narrower, more easily identified, and in the main coming from the professional baking trade rather than the consumer market, and the availability correspondingly much more restricted and specialised. Michel Cluizel is one example of a quality cocoa which I find to be amongst the best you can find. Other ones worth considering are Guittard and Pacari.

Finally, babette feast's comment about baking chocolate very much depends on which chocolate you use. A great deal of the chocolate sold for "baking" is very low quality, and will yield a poor result; it's generally the case that bars sold for "eating" use considerably better chocolate. There are exceptions, but they're not particularly common or easy to find. Among the honourable baking chocolates: Michel Cluizel (who has some interesting origins, particularly the Los Ancones 100%), Pacari (raw 100%), Pralus (Madagascar 100%), Domori, and Bonnat. 100% chocolates always have a very high cocoa butter content, so be prepared for that as above when adjusting your recipe. But as long as you can also adjust for sugar as indicated it's also perfectly OK to use a sweetened chocolate.

Jul 13, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking

How to revive chocolate from fat bloom?

Strongly disagree. I can't emphasise this enough. Somehow, in consumer media, the misinformation that chocolate which has bloomed is unaffected has been widely circulated; one of the most egregious errors of the chocolate media.

I believe that the statement that bloomed chocolate is unaffected originated in food-safety concerns; it meant that bloomed chocolate was safe to eat in the sense that you wouldn't get sick from eating it. But it's *definitely* affected in both taste and texture; with fat bloom the flavour almost disappears, turning into something reminiscent of dust, and the texture goes brittle and splintery, dry.

For any chocolate intended to be sold as a fine product bloom should be considered serious damage. In a few narrow situations it may be possible to re-use bloomed chocolate that has not been made into other things, but once incorporated as the coating or top to a confection, bloom should be the signal to throw the piece away.

Jul 12, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking

How to revive chocolate from fat bloom?

Once a chocolate bonbon such as a truffle is bloomed, there's not much you can really do to rescue it, because the piece has already been made. If it were chocolate in bloc form, you *could* remelt it and retemper, not necessarily an easy job, but I wouldn't recommend it anyway because bloom seriously affects the flavour - many of the volatiles are driven off and the flavour will always be a bit muted and dull.

It's possible, but again definitely not recommended, to coat the truffles again with a thin layer of tempered chocolate, but this is only covering up the problem and in addition if it's a ganache, given that the chocolate has bloomed, it's likely that the centre has fallen out of emulsion and there may be an air gap.

I would honestly throw them away, because if people get a damaged product, and try it, it won't taste wonderful, it will taste poor, and they'll wonder what all the fuss is about, and probably not come back to buy more, unless they already know what bloom is. Even selling them at a discount is probably not a good idea.

For the future, however, there are things you can do to prevent bloom from happening in the first place, even in quite warm weather. First, the truffles and anything else should be very low to the ground, placed as far away from windows as possible, and obviously out of direct sunlight, sources of heat, and sources of severe moisture. Put a fan next to them to keep some air circulation.

The next step, if things are genuinely bad, is to get a slab of stone, something with a large heat capacity; slate is ideal, and fridge it (if conditions are really extreme you can even freeze it). Then place your
truffles on top. If the stone is very cold you should add a thin layer of insulator: thin cardboard or wool are very good for this. You can rotate between 2 slabs if you've got a fridge there; even a small one will do.

Next in the order is a small insulated box. Various portable coolers are quite suitable, and again you can line it with frozen/fridged rock slabs if you want. Gel-packs can also be used with care, but make sure there's a heavy layer of absorbent insulation between the gel-pack and the chocolates, so that you don't get moisture

Obviously if heat is repeatedly causing a problem, consider investing in a small dedicated fridge; keep it at about 15 C/60F.

Jul 12, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Picking fruits and vegetables @ the market, an imperfect science.

A few of my own methods (based on my own preferences for flavour profile - use with discretion):

Strawberries: Look for small fruits, cardioid in shape as opposed to multi-lobed. They should be completely dark *red*, on all sides, not even pale scarlet appearing anywhere. Should have a slightly "battered" look to them - not glossy and smooth.

Raspberries: The closer to spherical, as opposed to cone-shaped, the better. Not giant, certainly not typical strawberry size. Bright, deep magenta in colour. They shouldn't be collapsed or flattened but neither should they be at all firm. Look carefully for mould.

Blueberries: Look for very round, nearly spherical berries with good, even "bloom" (that powdery colour on the outside), very even colour (especially at the bottom: berries with touches of purple or green are going to be underripe). Avoid berries that are collapsing or dented in, mouldy (look carefully, especially around the blossom end) or oblate (flattened, pumpkin-shaped) The "Star" variety is notably and markedly superior to almost every other "highbush" type. But "lowbush" types are generally to be preferred.

Pomegranates: As seen from directly above, they should have a hexagonal cross-section. Round to spherical pomegranates are usually watery and tasteless. A very red colour is also a good sign. They should be medium-size - the size of a typical apple - not huge. Feel for any softness and avoid any which have soft spots, and look for mould at the blossom end.

French beans/green beans: Long, thin, with good pointy ends having a long "tail". Stem end should be round and full all the way to the stem - avoid ones with even the slightest flattening. The beans should feel velvety in texture and be reasonably firm, not limp. Look also for water damage (obvious greying spots/"rotten" appearances)

Peas: Full, long, pointy, dark-green pods. Circular in cross-section, not flattened. The peas should fill the pod but if they're so packed the pod seems close to bursting that's a bit overripe.

Carrots: In general, the fatter, the better. Extremely fat carrots, usually found in winter, are best. Look for any signs of limpness or shrivelling. Avoid ones with cracks. A dark-red top is often a good sign, but blackening or darkening in any other way indicates they're well past their prime.

Celery: Very bright, deep, saturated green with thin stems (but a great many of them) which flare dramatically where they attach to the base, and lush leaves. Avoid very pale-looking celery and ones with very thick stems, as well as celery with the leaves completely cut off; these are usually insipid and often old.

Garlic: Very full, large bulbs with closed, papery skins having no cracking or splitting. A relatively small number of large cloves on the outside is better than a larger number of small cloves. Ones with red-streaked skins seem to have better flavour than ones with pure-white skins. Avoid any that feel even slightly soft or can be pushed in anywhere.

Sweetcorn: Grasp the base, next to the stem, firmly. If it feels thick and heavy, and the husks are fresh and bright green, with fresh-looking silk, you have a winner. If it feels thin, or either husk or silk looks wilted or dry, ignore it. Take the ones that have the very thickest, heaviest feel at the base, and yes, it's worth testing them all.

Tomatoes: Any firmness is fatal. They should be as soft as a very ripe plum. Any lack of total redness, any pale colour, is likewise fatal. Look, though, for small, shiny-looking orange-spotty "rings" - usually about 1/2 cm in diameter, on the skin. If present the tomato is going to be very good. A completely uniform, almost perfectly even-coloured red with a very smooth skin is a bad sign.

Jul 10, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics
1

Having problem with lard for pie crust

I think the other thing to bear in mind is that even "butchers" these days may not be clear on what is meant by "leaf lard". I suspect many imagine that it's simply a more elaborate name for any form of pork fat.

What you need to do is specify very exactly that to be clear, you're looking for the fat around the pig's kidneys; don't call it "lard" or "leaf lard" or anything else that might enable them to make an imaginative interpretation. By saying it as above you're using somewhat quirky nomenclature, which forces them into taking what you're saying at face value rather than trying to apply their own interpretation. At least that's what I find works.

You also need to be sure that your source has direct access to and contact with the abbatoir, rather than either simply ordering from them or sending things to them to be slaughtered. Otherwise various parts of the animal can be hard to get because the abbatoir either sells them through other channels or throws them away, (the latter actually quite unlikely), in either case because there's not enough market in retail channels.

Anyway, leaf lard is easy to spot because of its white colour and a texture that isn't smooth and plastic but lumpy and rather crumbly.

Jul 09, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking
1

Easy chocolate ganache recipe!

As has been said by others, the basic ganache recipe is simply chocolate and cream, nothing else. I would call the NYT recipe actually a mocha chocolate sauce - the addition of coffee, sugar, and vanilla changes it - remembering that the NYT article is thinking of sauce anyway.

With real ganache, you shouldn't proceed as they say where it says that if the mix appears curdled, beat vigorously. A "curdled" ganache is one that's technically called broken - the chocolate has fallen out of emulsion. It's possible to fix it to a degree, by careful stirring under controlled cooling, but this takes some effort. Actually, minimal stirring is best for ganache - the less you stir, the less chance of breaking. You just want to stir enough that the mix is homogeneous.

Chopping or grating the chocolate as fine as you can greatly helps - once the cream is to temperature the whole will melt uniformly and an emulsion will form almost automatically.

There are 4 standard ratios of chocolate and cream, for different purposes.

2:1 (chocolate:cream) is very firm and holds its shape, good for uncoated truffles.
3:2 is firm but slightly softer; good for coated chocolates and cake icings.
1:1 is soft and smooth; good for tart and cake fillings, some cake icings, and spreads
1:2 is pourable and sauce-like - the obvious choice for sauces.

Jul 05, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking
3

What foods have you made and then decided store bought was good enough, thank you, based upon cost, time, and taste?

The bit I've quoted below is where I think we differ. At the risk of diverging off-topic into philosophical matters, I'm commenting because I think it actually matters quite a lot in discussions about food - and thus has an impact on postings as a whole.

"My bottom line though is this, and it's simple and logical. The purpose of debate is to persuade someone to your opinion. But this is yuck v. yum. How can you possibly hope to convince someone that their taste buds are lying to them, and that, gee golly, they don't really like their yum at all?"

In my view the purpose of debate is not to persuade somebody to your opinion. The purpose of debate is to shed light on the issues. Whether you "win" or "lose" is entirely beside the point - it's that this medium of discussion helps to bring to the fore ideas that would otherwise not be understood. It helps (or should help) to increase understanding between different people.

To be more concrete, in matters of food, I also think that while taste is obviously subjective, it's not *completely* subjective, in the sense that there were no correlation between what people thought of specific foods, or recipes, or whatever. I think there are at least some correlations, some of them very enlightening. So there is sense, in my view, in going over different perceptions - to find out where the common elements are and what aspects of taste are purely personal.

But more importantly vigorous discussion of personal preferences gives you the ability to articulate what you do and don't like, beyond simply "like" and "dislike". And when you can do that, you're on your way towards being able to create new dishes - or to decide what on a restaurant menu that otherwise might appear forbidding might appeal - by thinking in terms of qualities you like and dislike rather than just an entire dish taken in toto as an overall reaction.

Even more, and especially through discussion with others, you learn what *they* like and why, and can go beyond simply making what you like to being able to make things that give pleasure to others.

That's why I think "yuck vs. yum" is a good subject for debate: I think simply stating your "yums" and "yucks" isn't very informative and leads to a sterile discussion; it sort of assumes, *a priori*, that there is little room for common ground (except by chance) on points of taste and that everybody's reasons for liking things are entirely based on internal subjective reactions completely inaccessible to everyone else. The reason in my view to discuss this isn't to bring people over to "your" side necessarily but to increase understanding of what's possible in the world of taste.

Jul 05, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics
1

What foods have you made and then decided store bought was good enough, thank you, based upon cost, time, and taste?

I'm sorry, it seems I caused a misunderstanding.

It really is the truth that I'm genuinely interested in your (and everyone else's) opinion about the whole issue of what things are worth making yourself, and which aren't. But that doesn't mean I'm not going to question or debate that opinion, or simply sit passively and absorb it without comment. It is through debate that we (or at least I) gain insight into the issues and understand other people. A discussion in which people simply express views without questioning or debating the other is sterile.

Please understand that if I debate something you say it is in no way intending to diminish you as a person or deny the validity of your opinion. I'd be happy if you agreed or became convinced of my own opinion, but that doesn't have to happen. In a concrete context where I disassemble and critique the Ghirardelli brownie ingredients it is to be understood that this is *my* opinion based on what *I* would prefer, it is not to be understood as some sort of fundamental truth.

Also please don't read into this message itself hostility or contempt - I can assure you none is intended.

In the final analysis, there must be room for (sometimes impassioned) debate or we will all stay locked in our own private ideas about how things should be.

Jul 02, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics
1

Best cocoa powder for fudge brownies?

Yes, that's the one.

Jul 02, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Best cocoa powder for fudge brownies?

Does the recipe you used specify Dutch-process? If so then that's probably what you should use - because the recipe will have been optimised for it.

Furthermore, based on your description that you want something like sweet hot fudge sauce, I strongly suspect that it is Dutch process that you want, because that's typically what these sauces contain.

Again, to explain the differences between Dutch process and natural cocoa, Dutch process cocoa has a milder flavour, with little bitterness, and often a slightly metallic taste. Some natural process cocoas aren't bitter but many are. They have a strong, intense flavour. Dutch-process cocoa is considerably darker when mixed. In dry form it looks slightly greyer than natural process which is usually red to ruddy - the colour of iron oxide. Dutch-process cocoa is also more soluble in water.

I think the cocoa you want is Guittard. It's a high-fat Dutch-process cocoa with good, mild flavour and the profile of hot fudge sauce. Cluizel is natural process so I wouldn't recommend it, even though I think that it's by far the best natural-process cocoa available. Callebaut I think you will find a bit too harsh, and Pernigotti in my experience is a bit flat in flavour, there's no depth or roundness.

Jul 02, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking

What foods have you made and then decided store bought was good enough, thank you, based upon cost, time, and taste?

Thanks for the link. Will try next time I get to the USA (or to be accurate, will buy box, bring back to UK). Its difficult to know with certainty by looking at the ingredients list, but I see 3 possible areas of concern: the sugar/fat ratio is massively tilted in favour of sugar (over 50% of the contents, with correspondingly less fat), which would make it very sweet indeed, possibly a bit dry and lean; the sugar seems to be ordinary white sugar rather than brown, which would diminish depth of flavour, and while they have chocolate chips (I admit I like my brownies plain; I'd probably omit the chips), the primary source of chocolate flavour for the cake itself is cocoa, which would be "thinner", less round in flavour and also tend to be drier. These probably have to be minimally baked to be good, and there won't be much room for error, a small amount of overbaking and they're likely to be dry and mealy. Just a guess though.

I didn't Google because I'm as much interested in personal opinions as the basic facts, and someone with real experience can hopefully provide richer context than simply a fact-sheet.

Jul 02, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

Do recipes always call for vanilla extract and paste over whole vanilla beans due to the their convenience, cost, and longer shelf life?

It's not enough that the grocery store/supermarket is "high end". It also requires specifically that they have a clientele that are baking/pudding focussed. For instance, a lot of such supermarkets cater to people mostly interested in deli items: cured meats, cheeses, etc. Another distinct type caters to people who are strongly into international/ethnic cuisines, with large varieties of exotic spices, preparations, unusual vegetables, etc. Neither of these, and others besides, have any better probability than a bog-standard supermarket of having very fresh vanilla beans, even if there's some chance that the original supplier they bought from was higher quality than a standard supermarket.

Jul 02, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking

What foods have you made and then decided store bought was good enough, thank you, based upon cost, time, and taste?

Unfortunately not a possibility in England - to try by buying.

Which is why I was intrigued by the claims (corroborated by others) that they're a box mix good enough to make it not worthwhile to make what seemed to me like an almost inconsequential amount of additional work in order to make them yourself. That, to me, would require something spectacularly amazing.

However, in the absence of the ability to test by actually trying, the best I was able to do is attempt to get people to give enough information for me to at least guess whether it really is a case of an outstanding box mix, or whether it's a case of different preferences/priorities.

I'm mindful of the effect of different expectations in view of trying some very enthusiastic recommendations for hamburger places. My own experiences weren't so positive, but then it turned out that a major reason for the discrepancy is that I was evaluating things solely on the basis of my perceived quality of the meat and bun, whereas the recommendations didn't necessarily prioritise, particularly the bun, and were considering them including additional toppings.

No implied judgement of some sort of superiority of taste/culture/sophistication here. It's rather that on the one hand from the point of view of my own experimentation it's useful to know where other people are coming from (a situation analogous, for example, to TripAdvisor, where by reading the reviews you can usually get a sense of the priorities of the reviewer, and weight their review accordingly), and on the other hand I have a specific curiosity about other people's points of view on what's worth the effort to DIY, and in general what various people think really matters and what doesn't.

Jul 02, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

What foods have you made and then decided store bought was good enough, thank you, based upon cost, time, and taste?

The "not infinitely superior" I find very, very hard to believe. Can you give me an ingredients list off the box? It would be a bit difficult, of course, to judge precisely because the exact ratios won't be known but just the order of ingredients should give a good clue.

My thinking is that it would be very hard specifically for a box mix to produce a truly first-rate brownie and be competitive on price because (at least in my opinion):

You need to use chocolate, not cocoa.
The amount of chocolate needs to be very big indeed.
The quality of the chocolate used needs to be good.
That much chocolate, of that quality, is probably more expensive that the combined allowable cost for the entire box.

And that's just the beginning.

But I also suppose it depends upon what you expect in a brownie, and what your threshold of "good enough" is. I'm obsessive enough about brownies (and chocolate in general) to expect nothing short of awe-inspiring. What I want is:

1: A flavour of chocolate so powerful that it feels literally enveloping, *without* being sharp or bitter.
2: A texture that splits the divide between a very moist pound cake and first-rate fudge.
3: An unmistakeable flavour of sugar with the same enveloping, rich characteristic as the chocolate flavour.

Jul 01, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

Do recipes always call for vanilla extract and paste over whole vanilla beans due to the their convenience, cost, and longer shelf life?

It has to do with how fast the shop in question turns over their stock. If they have fast turnover on vanilla beans, they'll be fresh, most likely. If only a few, isolated people ever buy them, then they'll be old.

Therefore the most critical thing to do is to go to a shop where the turnover in vanilla beans is large. For example, "health food" co-ops (we have 2 here in Manchester) typically have a high turnover because of the profile of their patrons. Some supermarkets do too, when they're in a neighbourhood where a lot of people do baking or particularly custards and such like (this is more difficult to predict, of course; you generally have to find the specific shop by simply searching). Any shop that specialises specifically in baking ingredients (and NOT equipment for baking) is likewise likely to have high turnover. Those are the places to go.

For example in Manchester, my local Unicorn co-op sells vanilla beans (organic, no less) for £1 each, and they're almost always in good fresh condition. If I want better still I go down to the Waitrose in Cheadle Hulme (posh-ish suburb) where they have Ndali vanilla beans, possibly the best available, although they do cost more at £4.65 for 2. These are always relentlessly fresh, and I note the tubes on the Waitrose shelf there are always new; it's clear they have a lot of local custom.

Jul 01, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking

What foods have you made and then decided store bought was good enough, thank you, based upon cost, time, and taste?

Another surprise for me. Brownies seem to be so simple to make and the results (with a good recipe, at least) so infinitely superior to anything you can make with any mix, that I wouldn't even consider buying. In fact, cake generally is something that there is basically not a situation where I wouldn't make instead of buying - I find all box mixes to be genuinely bad. Most cakes, it will be admitted, are quite elaborate in preparation. But brownies are dead-easy because it tends to be simply mix and bake. You spend more time arranging the ingredients than actually making the brownies.

Or is the principal question here a cost thing? (Admittedly for me if the latter is the main consideration then it's not possible to make good brownies, period, because there's an inescapable cost for good chocolate)

Jul 01, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

Do recipes always call for vanilla extract and paste over whole vanilla beans due to the their convenience, cost, and longer shelf life?

Generally speaking it's possible to substitute without problems. As has been noted, if the beans aren't steeping in a warm liquid, there can be some decrease in flavour release, but in compensation you get a purer vanilla flavour. You might need to use proportionately more of the vanilla in terms of original bean content, relative to what would have been needed for the extract/paste - in other words if the original extract had used 20 ml of extract taken from a 100 ml bottle that represented the extraction from 2 beans, (thus the amount you're using representing, theoretically, 0.4 of a bean) you might need to use one entire bean (these numbers are purely hypothetical, don't take them as in any way an accurate conversion).

I always use vanilla beans in spite of the relatively high cost - because although high in relative terms the absolute use of vanilla beans is still quite low, so it's not desperate in terms of final expense, and I like the very pure flavour they give.

Be aware that vanilla beans vary GREATLY in intensity, and much of this is itself dependent upon freshness. Really first rate, fresh vanilla beans with a soft, almost mushy, oily texture can have a powerful flavour; old, dry beans with a leathery texture are often quite weak. There are also 2 different types: Bourbon and Tahitian (the latter identifiable by the shorter, wider bean); the Bourbon has the stronger and in general slightly finer flavour. I've also found that organic vanilla seems consistently to be stronger than conventional.

Jul 01, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking

What foods have you made and then decided store bought was good enough, thank you, based upon cost, time, and taste?

That sounds like you're trying to make stock at too high a temperature. If it comes to a complete boil the results are usually poor, and you get a decidedly bad smell.

It should also be noted that if you use particularly fatty cuts (usually not a good idea for stock, with the exception of oxtails) the fat can "turn" if the stock has been simmering for too long. You can fix this if it's a problem by simmering long enough to render most of the fat, cooling, spooning the congealed fat off, then re-simmering for as long as you want.

After about 24 hours, though, the stock is about as strong as it's ever going to get; more simmering will just make it go downhill in flavour.

Jun 29, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

Edinburgh - two nights - grain store plus...?

Second the Castle Terrace. And I don't think you need to have a tasting menu there, not by a long toss; the ordinary menu is lovely too. Atmosphere is exactly as you ask - somewhere in between fancy and casual. Service is about as good as you will ever find. And it's reasonably close to the Balmoral.

Jun 28, 2014
AlexRast in U.K./Ireland

Strawberries have no flavor anymore. Agree or disagree?

I'm thinking of the cultivated strawberry varieties. Wild strawberries are a different matter, but almost all the quality cultivated varieties ripen in a narrow window at the end of June/beginning of July. Individual varieties could be relatively early- or late-fruiting but even with that the season was typically short but intense. Indeed, one of the issues traditionally associated with the strawberry season is labour; it was always a challenge to hire enough pickers to pick the entire crop before they spoiled. I've heard stories about farms picking at midnight, by the light of head-torches.

Jun 28, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

What foods have you made and then decided store bought was good enough, thank you, based upon cost, time, and taste?

Yes, puff pastry is one of those things that really does require practice and some skill.

While my puff pastry is certainly better than anything I can buy, even the very nicest all butter brands, it's very much something I only do on special occasions (notably, Easter). Buying is easier, faster, and avoids the catastrophic effort and incredible kitchen mess (think flour everywhere) for results that are acceptable in view of what's wanted. I'll make my own if I want the *ultimate* quality, but that's rare compared to everyday needs.

Jun 28, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

What foods have you made and then decided store bought was good enough, thank you, based upon cost, time, and taste?

Sorry if my comments made you feel a little miffed. However I'm not trying to criticise your choices but rather to provide encouragement that it may not be as hard or impractical as it might seem at first. For example, I'm a one person household and likewise have only one fridge. I also find that when it comes to using stock often, having a quantity of it already available is a tremendous encouragement to use it, not out of any particular need to get rid of it but rather simply because since it's there, you don't need to plan ahead for its use. I can just use it when the inspiration strikes.

A lot of things, I find, in cooking, are like that: things that seem superficially complex but when you actually do them simplify cooking enormously.

Jun 27, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics
1

Strawberries have no flavor anymore. Agree or disagree?

However I want to note also that while wild strawberries are lovely, the cultivated ones were once lovely as well. A very few still are, in the small number of farms that still grow for flavour and gamble that they'll have a devoted market (not usually a big gamble!), but by and large good cultivated strawberries are difficult to find, even now, at the height of strawberry season.

Jun 27, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics