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The ubiquitous burger

That sounds to me more like a difference in cultural expectation. In your case, it appears you have a particular cultural expectation of when (if ever) a burger is contextually appropriate, and it sounds like for you, a fine-dining restaurant is not one of those times.

I think of things a bit differently personally. To me, the point of a fine dining restaurant is not about the *type* of food served as the quality and presentation. And particularly in a city/region etc. where the burger is a traditional part of the food culture I see no reason it shouldn't be included.

But culture can be a surprisingly arbitrary thing.

However, on "defaulting the the least expensive thing" that's no doubt behaviour that any restaurant that's trying to run a business is aware of and has factored into their cost structure. If they're offering a burger at surprisingly reduced price relative to anything else, presumably that's because it's a profitable choice for them.

Burger question

I actually think that's not quite the point.

It's not that chefs (or cooks) for that matter are quite literally machines for producing what was ordered, it's that food interacts with a person's senses in a much more uniquely personal way than other "art forms" - and plus a given item of food can only be consumed by a single diner. So the person who's actually going to eat whatever it is *has* to have more input, because it's for their own unique personal consumption. Even a tasting menu should be tailored to the desires of the eater.

Actually, in the past visual art was this way too, there was a relationship between artist and patron that understood that the artist didn't have unlimited scope for exercising his own whim, that the patron had some definite input - and indeed could veto certain choices. A lot of great art has been created that way. Arguably, more great art as a proportion of total output than what's come out of the truly working-to-his-own-design artist.

1 day ago
AlexRast in Manhattan

The ubiquitous burger

Looks to me more like an example of something simpler: that the familiar items are the ones most chosen because they've become familiar by virtue of being the best overall ideas. The burger is a classic example of a culinary "good idea". It's stood the test of time very well. People like it. Small wonder it will do well against other options that may or may not be good ideas - and have only a small chance of being genuinely a better idea.

Price may make a difference for a few but I doubt in any restaurant where the difference between the burger and other options might really cause a problem in terms of their calculated price/cost structure it does. (i.e. people don't generally go to expensive restaurants to be cheap).

Apr 16, 2015
AlexRast in Food Media & News

Gendering of Food

Jests aside, "in the day" (and perhaps even in some places today) "sex-crazed" meant something entirely different. As in, unable to resist *ANY* man they fancied (and some, perhaps, they didn't even really fancy all that much!) under any situation even if they (the women that is) were happily married (or in a fulfilling long-term relationship).

A bizarre echo of that idea still persists today in the way most of the food ads that emphasise giving in to temptation (or temptation at all!) seem to be aimed at women.

Gendering of Food

The idea of abstention from animal flesh reducing animal passions also occurred in the West from a fairly early date - there are references to this idea for example throughout the writings of early (1st-4th c and beyond) Christian writers. Vegetarianism took off amongst monastics as an ascetical discipline of course but also as a purported calmer of these passions.

Drifting a bit off-topic, one curious note though that I've never understood is why at least in the West, if not in fact 'round the world, a perception crept in that women were "sex-crazed"? This again seems to be a very old idea, yet surely the evidence of everyday observation should have convinced people that the facts are otherwise? How did people come to believe this?

For my own part I have to remark that abstention from animal flesh seems to *increase* "animal passions" rather than decrease them, at least for me. But maybe that's just me seeing patterns where none exist.

Apr 13, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

The Decline and Fall of... Heavy Cream?

Precisely the problem being raised by meerastvargo - UHT not only affects whippability but also flavour.

I note interestingly though that this seems to be a question of market dynamics in the North American market. Here in the UK, virtually no cream is UHT processed (and in fact much of it - "double cream" - is a lot heavier than that available in North America). Thickeners are never used.

It's just conjecture, but this suggests that in North America stockists have much more difficulty moving stock fast enough that their cream doesn't go bad. Maybe consumers there don't buy cream so often. Or possibly the logistics there are arranged so as to require much larger orders at possibly more infrequent delivery intervals. There is a question of distances which of course in North America are much larger than in the UK.

Apr 13, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Gendering of Food

I get the impression that although men are generally seen as being more likely to be interested in technical skill and craft, and more obsessive about preparation, hence more likely to be "chefs", they are also perceived as being less likely to be fastidious when it comes to actually eating food, which strikes me as a surprising dichotomy, if true. The bias towards men as chefs seems to me to be particularly irrational. However, especially in the elite tier it seems vastly more men become well-regarded chefs for whatever reason.

One of the problems our current (Western, at least) culture has is that, having rightly determined that prejudices and sex-based (or for that matter race-based, age-based, etc.) bias is wrong, it has become ethically unacceptable even to explore the question of whether there are real differences between people in different identifiable statistical groups. Very few serious scientific studies which would openly purport to establish a statistical basis for differences in preference between the sexes would be fundable - except those that expected to explode the idea that such differences actually exist. As has been noted the question of what is cultural conditioning vs. "intrinsic" preference is impossible to disentangle, although I actually think this is irrelevant anyway because we are all products of our environment and the concept of "person" divorced from cultural context is a nonsense in the first place.

I think the real heart of the matter is this: we need to be a LOT better at understanding and clearly separating the difference between the behaviour of an individual person and the statistical trends of some group. Even a known statistical correlation cannot be used as the basis of a policy decision that applies categorically to each member of a group. You have to treat each person as an individual and ignore what you may know (or think you know) about the "typical" patterns of their sex or age or race or whatever. But by the same token, a known statistical correlation can be used if the action itself is statistical in nature and doesn't apply systematically to any identifiable person.

For example, let us say that it can be reasonably supposed that men, simply by virtue of greater typical physical size, probably need more calories on average - and hence as a statistical group probably eat more (although I emphasise that no facts are presented here to support this hypothesis). Even if this is the case, a waiter is acting unprofessionally if they assume a larger or heavier dish is for one of the men in the party.

However, an advertising agency is dealing with a different proposition. Their goal is to target a market - a market with identifiable statistical characteristics. No one person is being singled out. In that context, it may in fact be completely rational for them to emphasise men if they are advertising a high-calorie food - because their goal is to capture the greatest statistical group they can. Now, they may be able to find a different slant - one that doesn't play the issue of sex - that gets better results still, but the fact remains: there's nothing particularly unethical about them targetting men specifically, if their research indicates that as a group, that's likely to get the best overall response.

I would like to see better, more public information, about real differences between the sexes, while at the same time I would like to see far fewer instances where assumptions based on probability - prejudices - were used to determine how to treat people of a particular sex on a case-by-case basis. Unfortunately, neither of these seems likely any time soon.

Apr 12, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Ghirardelli vs cheaper cocoa powder

A very late addition, but worth it I hope for the info, now that this thread's been revived.

I have done comprehensive testing of a very wide range of different cocoa powders.

It should first be understood that there are Dutch-process and natural-process cocoas. Dutch-process is darker (or comes out darker, to be precise) but has less flavour; it's processed with alkali (potassium carbonate) to reduce bitterness. All Dutch-process cocoas have a distinctive, slightly metallic taste.

There is also the distinction between low-fat (~9%) and high-fat (~20%) cocoas. Low-fat dissolves much more easily in liquids but doesn't deliver as much flavour. It can be better in cakes that need to be very light (e.g. genoise) because the lower fat helps the cocoa to disperse and minimises deflation of the batter. But generally for best intensity and flavour depth high-fat is a better choice.

Ghirardelli itself is a natural-process, high-fat cocoa powder. Already that gives it some advantage. More comments below.

First, there is the "commodity" end of the market - Hershey's, Fry's, Green & Black's, Pernigotti, Droste (a few others) that is cheap and basic. The flavour isn't particularly good, as one might expect. (Hershey's is available both Dutched and natural-process. Droste is Dutched, of course. So is Pernigotti. Fry's and G&B are natural). But in order to do *much* better you do have to step up quite a bit.

Next there are the "premium consumer" cocoas, of which Ghirardelli is one, also Valrhona, Callebaut (it must be remembered they have several different types - they're a large industrial concern and produce a bewildering array of products for specific applications with specific technical characteristics), Guittard (various others). Valrhona is Dutched. Guittard has both available - although it must be said I've personally only seen Dutched. Callebaut does - you name it they do it. Most of these are high-fat and the increase in intensity over the commodity brands is noticeable, but the underlying quality of the beans isn't really anything special.

Next you get to the "redistribution" cocoas - usually in bulk at various shops, no specific brand or at least not a cocoa specialist. There are, for instance, a lot of cocoas sourced from the Dominican Republic. Usually these have been processed by one of the big chocolate factories like Callebaut or ICAM or whoever and then sold in large quantities to a repacker/distributor. The quality on these can actually be quite good, but it's incredibly unreliable, particularly with reference to the "name brands" immediately beneath them in the strata. However, a good smell (which, unlike other cocoas is usually possible) will reveal all - which is why barring the top category these are often the ones to go for, because you can actually test them before buying, and find the ones that are genuinely good. A solid, dark terra-cotta style and a dense, tight powder (indicating high fat) are usually good signs.

Finally you get to the "elite" cocoas. These are made by the small, fine chocolate manufacturers, at least the ones that have their own processing facilities. Examples include Domori, Michel Cluizel, Grenada Chocolate Company, and Pacari. Needless to say here you are getting real quality, the flavour of the cocoa is miles away from all others, but you have to understand also that generally these are highly distinctive cocoas whose flavour may or may not work for what you're doing. They are also expensive. Worth getting, yes, but be sure you try them first before committing to using them. I personally like Cluizel - very balanced and impressive intensity of flavour. It is worth getting one of these to compare side-by-side against Ghirardelli - to see what the additional cost buys you.

Apr 05, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

favorite cut of beef to roast?

I'm going to invert that recommendation. I think strip (UK sirloin) is better as steak - in fact, I think it's easily the best of the steak cuts. The flavour is more acidic, sharper, better as a steak. Roast I think should have a mild, rich flavour. Sirloin/Strip has less fat than the rib so it doesn't roast as well.

However let's be clear that this is splitting hairs. Both make splendid steaks AND roasts. It's a matter of personal preference. The rib is the "traditional" roast but that doesn't mean there aren't other options. I also like the fillet roasted. Actually compared to the other 2 it might improve the most in relative terms by being roasted over being made into steaks; fillet's very mild flavour doesn't really shine as a steak.

Apr 03, 2015
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Godiva has never been great, but do people agree it's gotten worse?

I think there are 2 distinct factors going on here.

First, probably over the years Godiva has got marginally worse. This is an endemic issue in consumer products quite generally, what I call "quality creep". What happens is, it's almost impossible for a manufacturer to resist the temptation to adopt a new process or recipe that makes the result only very slightly marginally worse, almost at the borders of detectability, for a massive reduction in cost. Very few, if any, consumers will notice, and those that do, lacking explicit proof, may well dismiss the difference as their imagination. The company can either take the higher profits of selling at the old price, or increase sales volume by passing on the reduction to the consumer. Unfortunately, that starts an inexorable slippery slope: the first such compromise made makes it that much easier to justify the next, etc. etc. and because the changes are imperceptible, nobody notices until perhaps years later when the net effect of a lot of marginal reductions is something that's a shadow of its former self. By which point the change is probably irreversible. No doubt there has been a long history of that with Godiva which probably started out as truly spectacular (this would have been many, many years ago indeed, when they weren't even found outside of Belgium).

The second factor, though, is evolving tastes. The 10 to 15 years just past have been particularly significant in the chocolate industry (outside a few centres in Continental Europe, for the most part). Think back on the quality that would have been available in the year 2000. Most of it would have been utter rubbish. The few quality chocolate companies that did exist were minuscule and distributed only in a small area, not to mention known only to a tiny few. Since that time, however, there has been an explosion of interest in quality chocolate; there are now brands reasonably well-known even on a global scale that are truly high quality. The result is a much greater number of people know what quality should be like and even those who knew in 2000 have a much wider variety, thus more interest and flavour profiles to choose from. Standards have consequently leapt at the top end. It's quite possible that 10-15 years ago Godiva did actually seem quite good - because your exposure to what was better was limited so in context it seemed marvellous. Now, perhaps having tried more high-quality chocolates, you have a better idea of how mediocre it is, or to put it another way, your standards have increased.

The net result of these factors: quality creep and improving quality standards, means that the Godiva of today tastes much worse than your memory of 10-15 years ago, even though it's probably not significantly worse. I suspect if you tried the 2 side-by-side (assuming you had some magical stasis chamber that could have kept a 15-year-old sample in perfect condition), you'd find that they were actually quite similar, and certainly the 15-year-old one would taste much worse than you remember. There would probably be a small difference, but it probably wouldn't seem as black and white as you think.

Mar 29, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Fudgy Brownies: Unsweetened or semi-sweet/bittersweet chocolate?

Sure. I will note that this isn't tuned to produce the fudgiest possible result; it is designed to trade off some fudginess for cakiness, with a chewy background, but most people will find these well fudgey, and without doubt they'll be amongst the densest you've had. If you want an even fudgier result, increase the butter until satisfied. You could also drop an egg; the result then will be less cake-like, even denser, fudgier, almost candy-like.

400 g Dark Muscovado sugar (I use Billington's Molasses Sugar)
340 g High-quality Unsweetened Chocolate (I use Red Star 100%)
140 g Strong white bread flour
140 g Unsalted butter, plus more for greasing
3 large eggs (UK large)
1 vanilla bean
1/2 tsp salt

Preheat the oven to 175 C/350 F. Thoroughly grease a 23cm/9" square cake tin (using butter) and place in the fridge. Break the chocolate, put in a bowl over a pot of simmering water, and melt carefully. Set aside.

Cut the butter into smallish chunks, put it, the sugar, and the salt into a bowl, and slit the vanilla bean lengthwise with a sharp knife, scraping the seeds into the bowl. Mix all with a wooden spoon, minimising aeration (making sure not to cream) but incorporating everything uniformly. Add the melted chocolate and mix. Next, add the eggs, one at a time, mixing each until fully incorporated. Finally, blend in the flour vigorously (you want to encourage gluten to the extent possible). Blending the flour will take some effort - the mixture should come out like a firm cookie dough.

Spread the mixture into the pan and smooth with a knife. Bake carefully until the smell of chocolate reaches a high intensity (usually this is about 20-25 minutes or so). Cool and cut into squares.

It's important not to overbake - if you do the result can easily be dry and worse - the edges can scorch easily (hence fridging the pan; this gives the outside just that little bit more time to come to temperature. It will be said that I use a very heavy metal pan. If you used a thin aluminium pan the gains from fridging would be much less, possibly trivial). Err on the low side of baking rather than on the high side.

By the way, I would not use Baker's (the US brand). It is such terribly bad chocolate that it even ranks below most mass-market eating chocolate. Think of it this way: try eating an unsweetened square of it and see if you like it. Probably not. That's because it's bad chocolate. Good 100% is an intense, but generally pleasant experience. Though it comes as a shock to most people, they'll generally like it. That should be your test: if it tastes bad, it *is* bad.

Mar 28, 2015
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Pipable chocolate ganache?

I think you've got a mistake in your measurements there. First there's the question of volume vs. weight measurements, which is particularly tricky in this case, when you're using chocolate chips, because chips have large irregular sizes which make for unpredictable packing density. So I wouldn't rely on any fixed weight-volume conversions.

Secondly, if we assume the density of cream is approximately that of water (it's usually somewhat less dense, but not by enormous amounts, the 2 cups would translate to 16 oz. It may be a little less than that, but cream is certainly not half the density of water.

Really hard to know what 2 cups of chocolate chips would weigh, and I wouldn't guess, I'd actually weigh. That said, chocolate chips aren't usually the best choice for ganache; they're specifically formulated with lower cocoa butter for baking applications, and hence don't emulsify as well. There are couverture "chips" with high cocoa butter, but these "chips" are more like discs or pastilles.

My guess is that if your brand of chips and your brand of cream is the same, then you probably get consistent results, because the packing fractions and densities are probably consistent, but other users would probably get different results from what you do, because they'll probably be using different brands. In truth, the results will probably be OK regardless, but how pipable they are probably depends a lot on circumstance. My guess is that you're probably making a ganache that ends up somewhat below 1:1 chocolate:cream (because the packing fraction of chocolate chips likely offsets the higher density of chocolate, resulting in somewhat less net density that water, but that's conjecture)

By the way, it's risky to leave ganache in the fridge, because condensation can cause excess moisture to accumulate on it, and slightly break the ganache. Better to leave it out at room temperature. You can fridge it, and it may be fine, but there is always the occasional surprise.

Mar 28, 2015
AlexRast in Home Cooking

How can I slice crusty bread without making such a mess?

It looks as if the problem, such as there is one, is that all your bread knifes have serrations that are too coarse. You want the ones whose serrations are truly fine, like a hacksaw. They will go cleanly and almost effortlessly through the crustiest bread (my ultimate test is always the real Pane Toscano: in Tuscany these always have a thick, armour-like crust which is terrifically crisp and a dense, uniform crumb). You also need the pointy serrations rather than the "invecked" (round protruberances, pointed incuts) style that are sometimes seen.

Most bread knifes sold as such aren't designed for very crusty bread. You'll have to search quite hard to find the type I describe, although they do exist. They seem to have been much more common in the past. I wonder why they went out of fashion?

Mar 27, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Fudgy Brownies: Unsweetened or semi-sweet/bittersweet chocolate?

Either variety can work. The impact of the type of chocolate on a brownie is subtle.

The critical property here is how the presence of sugar in the chocolate affects the ratio of cocoa butter to defatted cocoa solids in what remains. Ultimately, you can compensate for the sugar difference by proportionately reducing in the case of sweetened chocolate, although because the sugar is now in very finely milled particles indeed, it won't melt in the same way granules do. That makes for a less fudgy flavour and mouthfeel, but only slighly.

But the defatted cocoa solids/cocoa butter ratio is entirely another matter. If you're using unsweetened chocolate, that will have somewhere in the range of 50-55% cocoa butter, thus 45-50% defatted cocoa solids. Its the latter that provide the chocolatey flavour. So a simple rule of thumb is that the degree of chocolate flavour added is about half the amount of unsweetened chocolate added. Sweetened chocolate is different, because the percentage of sugar lowers the amount of cocoa solids (both butter and defatted) that can be in the chocolate. Generally, however, manufacturers have to keep the amount of cocoa butter fairly fixed in order to get a good product, in the neighbourhood of 35-40%. So the amount of defatted cocoa solids usually goes down as a proportion of the total cocoa solids, in all but the very darkest (~85%) formulations. Which means that as the chocolate decreases in percentage, the flavour will diminish drastically, mixed into a brownie, for exactly the same total amount used. For instance, using 250g of a 70%, containing 40% cocoa butter (hence 30% defatted cocoa solids) won't give you 7/10ths of the flavour of 250g unsweetened with 50% cocoa butter. It will give you 3/5ths. And 250g of a 60%, containing 40% cocoa butter, will give you instead of 3/5ths, 2/5ths.

That takes care of the flavour. Now, a fudgy texture meanwhile is mostly about the amount of butter and sugar; after all what is pure fudge? Butter, sugar, cream. Cocoa butter has an impact on the texture of a brownie; it's a harder, less plastic fat, and this means that as the cocoa butter percentage goes up the texture becomes drier, crumblier, more like pie crust. So you want to keep the amount of cocoa butter fairly low as a relative proportion of the chocolate. But not enough and there's not much chocolate flavour delivery.

The key point, then, is this: if you use sweetened chocolate, the sweeter it is (lower cocoa solids percentage), the more butter you should add and the less sugar proportionately, if you want to arrive at a fudgy result. Most brownies do well with an almost over-the-top amount of butter, so it's hard to use too much.

Summing together all the factors, there may be a marginal gain for unsweetened chocolate, because the net ratio of cocoa butter for given degree of chocolatiness will always be lower, and thus the impact of the butter more pronounced, the result fudgier overall. But it's so trivial that it almost doesn't matter. I personally would worry more about what was available where I live: quality of the chocolate matters and it's almost always much easier to find a high-quality dark (sweetened) chocolate bar made for eating than high-quality unsweetened chocolate. If you have access to Pacari unsweetened, however (and a few others e.g. Pralus, Domori) then by all means use it.

Whatever chocolate you use, you just need to make sure the overall recipe has been adjusted to produce a fudgy result with whatever chocolate has been specified. Note in particular though that you can't arbitrarily substitute different percentages of sweetened chocolate for each other, or even chocolates with identical percentages but different brands. It pays to read the nutrition labels to determine the proportions.

Mar 27, 2015
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Pipable chocolate ganache?

Mostly it's about the ratio of chocolate to cream. For pipable without being too "loose" 1:1 is about right. 3:2 (chocolate:cream) will give something a bit stiffer (like the filling for Oreos), if you want it to hold together fairly firmly.

As mentioned, though, it needs to cool. You can "accelerate" the process by stirring it in a bowl placed over ice, but the result will be grainier, less smooth. The emulsion is always best when it cools at ambient room temperature, even though that does take some time. As it cools it gets slowly stiffer so you can judge when you think it's ready.

Also, be sure to use gloves while handling the bag or you'll get a big mess and the heat from your hands can melt the ganache or even cause it to separate if you handle the bag for too long.

Mar 27, 2015
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Tempering Chocolate question

Not tempering definitely does affect flavour, quite profoundly. The more unstable crystal forms (when untempered chocolate will have several) accelerate loss of volatiles and thus the flavour will be diminished from the outset. Also the texture will be somwhat greasy-pasty; not the best mouthfeel.

Also I feel it necessary once again to correct one of the most pervasive pieces of misinformation on chocolate that seems to be passed out again and again even by authorities who should know better:

Bloomed chocolate is NOT unaffected. Quite the contrary, its flavour declines drastically and the texture becomes unappealingly dry. The only sense in which it is "unaffected" is in relation to food safety: namely, you won't get sick from eating bloomed chocolate. But you might not enjoy the experience very much.

I would always recommend tempering. You'll get a much more uniform coating and one which retains flavour and mouthfeel. My feeling is that a lot of people don't temper because they're intimidated by the process. It does take a bit of practice to learn. But once learned (and it's not that terribly hard), it doesn't take any real time and the results are completely worth the effort.

Mar 21, 2015
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Tasting menus and other no-choice restaurants: why the praise?

Just a few small points on this:

"pay for a quality set menu rather than pay merely for the privilege of being able to choose what they eat"

I don't see this as an either/or proposition. My point is if you want *both* quality *and* choice, then that's going to cost more. However offering more choice isn't intrinsically better. The question in my mind is - are people willing to pay even more for the combination of quality *and* choice - or does their willingness to pay more stop at the level where only one is possible? And if the latter, why the sudden price sensitivity?

Staffing is of course a fine tradeoff, and does affect profitability. But it doesn't by itself I think affect what can be achieved; mostly it affects price points (and possibly opening hours)

As pointed out by others, the "cheap set menu" idea is a very different concept that serves a very different purpose, and in *that* context you know without question that part of the reason it's so cheap is because choices are very limited. The cheap set menu I think can be a good way of putting quality within the range of affordability of people who otherwise couldn't even consider it - but I don't see it as a particular source of additional praise (although Gambero Rosso will add a "bonus" in their ratings if a restaurant offers a reasonably thought-through one)

Mar 21, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Top-end kitchen/cookware shop in London?

The real trouble with on-line ordering or Web searches is that you never really know what you're getting. Too much depends upon physical inspection. For example, in the scales case, you're not going to be able to know what the damping is without actually seeing it and trying it in the shop. And the pudding cloth could be almost anything. Very many things are sold as "pudding cloth" which are not even close to the real thing. Most "muslin" is impossibly coarse for what's needed. Same for many, many other things. On-line is excellent if you've already identified the exact brand and model you need and are sure of its specifications, but if not, there's no substitute for actually seeing it.

BTW, the cookshop on Shaftesbury avenue has shut (or moved). I used to go there. It was decent, but often seemed lacking in the top-end pieces; it was always more orientated towards the more mid-range kit for professional catering. Number of items stocked though was on the order of what I would be looking for.

Mar 15, 2015
AlexRast in U.K./Ireland

Top-end kitchen/cookware shop in London?


While I know something about the various different kitchen and cookware shops in London, I won't pretend by any means that my knowledge is comprehensive, and I would almost be sure something like what I'm looking for must exist.

What I want is a shop that has a truly comprehensive selection of cookware - with an emphasis towards traditional, high-grade, high-performance kitchen basics. I'd like to avoid places whose stock consists mostly of things that are laden with features but sacrifice ultimate performance, places that mostly carry the cheap, low end of the range, and places that take a modern-technology slant on cookware without actually considering whether the technology brings anything in terms of actual performance. Some examples of things I would like to see:

Low-damping, accurate balance scales (at least down to 100 mg accuracy): the real type, where you put weights on one side and what you're measuring on the other.

A broad selection of heavy-gauge, bare-metal (i.e. not non-stick), cake and pie tins.

Forged, high quality hard carbon steel (NOT stainless) knives.

Knife sharpening stones in a comprehensive range of grits. If they have, or can get, genuine natural Japanese waterstones then this is a major plus.

Sandwich-construction pots, without a nonstick interior, with a fully copper core (i.e. no aluminium)

High-sensitivity glass thermometers for a variety of uses.

Portable appliances (beaters, blenders etc.) with high-power commercial-grade motors.

Single-group commercial-grade espresso machines (with a vane pump, temperature gauges, full-size and weight group)

A real pudding cloth made of fine, tightly woven fabric.

(OK, a real dream here, probably impossible) A small grinding mill capable of milling both dry grains and oily nuts to 10 micron particle size or thereabouts - generally something that can produce the very finest flours and nut pastes.

Maybe not all of these are to be found at one location (or even, in some cases, possibly at all any more) but I'd love to know some sources if you have any to suggest.

Mar 14, 2015
AlexRast in U.K./Ireland

Where to buy a truly great olive oil in Florence proper?

Responding to several posters on Genoa. I was in Genoa during the storms that caused the floods. While the level of rainfall was truly Biblical - I can't really convey to anyone who wasn't there how hard the rain fell, for how long, I also can't emphasise enough how much this was a *freak* event. NOT something you can possibly correlate with climate change. There was a bizarre disturbance which happened to focus a "spot thunderstorm" over the city for several days running. That's not something that any model of climate change predicts. While it may well prompt the Genoese to think about what they can do in terms of emergency response - and maybe this was a good wake-up call in that sense - I don't think anyone is seriously thinking about planning for a possible future where this sort of flooding is commonplace.

Individual growers can and must make hard decisions about whether their crop is sustainable, and catastrophic events may have a major impact on the decision made, but I think a lot of that may have more to do with revenue irretrievably lost, so that from that point on for several years they are running behind, which requires therefore several good years in order to recuperate the losses. If that doesn't happen they may be faced with no choice but to abandon the business, because you can't keep taking losses for ever. But again, the point is that this is being driven by immediate economic considerations. Some are no doubt worried about climate change in the general sense, but if for example the next few years have glorious harvests and perfect weather, then likely this year will be forgotten.

Mar 14, 2015
AlexRast in Italy

Peanut Butter and. . .

Peanut butter and polenta.
Peanut butter and chocolate (of course).
Peanut butter and chicken.

Mar 14, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Can handmade pasta be sauce-proof?

As noted some sauces are indeed very thick, almost stew-like (including Bolognese) so that's not necessarily too thick of a sauce. In fact, not clinging to the pasta is quite possible - and not necessarily a sign of a problem as such.

That said, the best handmade pasta has both rough surface texture and additional catchment due to the flour dusting the outside. If this was put through a typical pasta maker with smooth rollers, though, instead of rolled by hand using a wooden pin, you can get very smooth surface indeed, particularly if the dough had been properly worked so that it was fully glutinised.

Furthermore, if cooked properly, so that it's al dente, the pasta won't swell too much and won't be particularly sticky on the outside, so a smooth, pasta-maker-made pasta, well kneaded and then well-cooked, with a dense, heavy sauce, won't catch it particularly well. It looks as if the pasta had been well-made, rather than having a defect. Probably quite good.

I've *NEVER* heard of restaurants finishing pasta in the sauce - and it sounds like a rather bad idea, to be honest. There's a risk it would cause the pasta to swell and become sticky, and I think it would reduce the contrast between sauce and pasta - because the outside would absorb some of the flavour within it. But if people say this is common practice I'm willing to be convinced - what are the purported benefits of so doing?

Mar 14, 2015
AlexRast in Home Cooking

When a food is good it's good......when it's bad it's eeeehhhhhhh

Love Boston. My favourite US city in fact, and one of the best in the world IMO. Last time I was there was ~8 years ago though. Admittedly at the time I didn't find any great ice cream shops, but maybe things have changed since then. However you don't need to invoke that argument to persuade me to visit :-)

Know Burdick's well but didn't think the hot chocolate was actually melted chocolate in the *literal* sense in a cup. To be very clear what I mean, I'm saying, you take pure couverture chocolate in hard blocks. Without *any* dilution with water or milk or any other liquid whatsoever, or addition of sugar, or anything, melt it, and pour into a small espresso-size cup (at that richness level more would be silly, and a mug would probably make a lot of people sick). That said, although that's my "ideal" fantasy, I'd be content with a hot chocolate that I thought really was like a good dark chocolate, rather than something mild and rather watery in consistency. Next time I visit I shall try.

Mar 11, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Tasting menus and other no-choice restaurants: why the praise?

The revival of this thread has been revisiting the question of costs, and as you've done here, putting them in the context of restaurant efficiency. This is another interesting line. Maybe it's not so much that the critics and others *automatically* think the tasting-menu format is better, but that at the calibre of restaurant where "greatness" is even a possibility, many chefs have little choice but to go with that format if they wish to survive.

I think this is unfortunate and diminishes the dining scene. The critical line here is "offer a higher calibre of cooking, better ingredients, and better execution for less money." That suggests that even at the top end, customers are price-sensitive enough that the gain in business from reduced price more than compensates for the decrease from people for whom for a variety of reasons the tasting menu is unsuitable or awkward. Certainly I think the prices you've quoted there - $35 for 3 courses, $60 for 5, are far, far below what I would think of as realistic at the very high end of the market; that's more like quality mid-range.

In turn, I think this suggests many people have an unrealistic idea of how much a top-end dining experience should cost. Now of course offering choice isn't going to come for free; you're offering additional value to customers who should (in principle) be willing to pay for that. But the volume of business lost, if such a model isn't economical, suggests that for some reason many people don't equate it with any more actual value, or in general balk above some certain price.

However, there are a few points that I'm not convinced of. I'm not convinced that offering 13 or more different dishes per night is any more impossible to do at the highest standard than a tasting menu - you just need a greater number of trained, specialist staff. Again that doesn't come for free but no one should expect that it would. Same thing on freshness of ingredients and waste; this is a matter of hiring an experienced inventory manager (or having the skills yourself as the chef to manage this effectively), and it will be said that the same problems can equally well arise in a tasting-menu format (albeit yes, with less unpredictability). I also don't think that a chef will "double down their efforts" when everyone's eating the same thing - or at least, if he is, he's not fully professional; anyone operating on the high end is going to do the best they can every time regardless of circumstances.

But maybe there's something else going on here - a change in social patterns of eating. Now, I personally am someone who likes, indeed prefers, "proper" sit-down meals with several courses. But that style of eating seems to be less and less common. I find that many of my friends find making a booking, having a commitment to a particular restaurant at a particular time, indeed even eating a "traditional" series of courses, is too inconvenient, almost an imposition. I get the distinct feeling that many people today prefer a much more ad-hoc, spontaneous pattern where what is eaten, and when, is more or less spur-of-the-moment. All of that wars against the "traditional" top-end restaurant and their classical economic model, so that in order even to bring people in, the nature of the experience is changed from something that is simply a meal to something that is more of an entertainment in itself; people don't have any particular hostility to buying tickets to the theatre or concerts. I don't know if this is actually a factor but maybe it contributes?

Mar 04, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Recommended brands/sources of 100% raw unsweetened/unsalted cacao beans needed

If you want the melt-in-mouth experience, Pacari yet again (!) offers just what you need: chocolate-covered cocoa nibs. So you get the melty sensation (and larger size) and the good flavour. Beware that these are very dangerously addictive, so you might not want to have too many of them.

A cocoa "bean" is, in essence, a nut, and behaves like nuts in almost all meaningful ways. It's not encased in an actual shell; it has a thin husk, that you could chew through, but is not particularly palatable and as you say may not be very safe. However you can rub off the husk without any difficulty. The bean inside won't melt, of course, but it's very edible.

Mar 03, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

When a food is good it's good......when it's bad it's eeeehhhhhhh

Salmon (commonly farmed, or not fresh, or overcooked, or all of them)

Scrambled eggs (usually "chopped omelette", and overdone at that)

Viennoiseries - croissants, brioches, pains au chocolat etc. (how many have you had that had the texture and possibly the taste of an old sock? Or a bag of cotton wool)

Cakes (risk being dry, or too sweet, or flavourless, or again, all 3)

Pie, both savoury and sweet (the fault here is usually the crust)

Ice cream (So often, either the *very* aerated, oversweet bulk ice cream or the brick-like varieties like Ben & Jerry's. Also often use artificial flavours or substitute something like palm oil for part of the butterfat.)

Hot chocolate (almost invariably not strong enough. Would love to see somewhere serving pure melted quality dark chocolate in a cup).

Mar 02, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

How long will you stand in line for food?

3 questions:

Do their cakes use all butter (both for cake and icing)?

Is their style "posh" - i.e. high-concept, elaborate cakes, or "proper" - traditional, basic cakes done well?

Do they have a really great chocolate cake?

Mar 01, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Recommended brands/sources of 100% raw unsweetened/unsalted cacao beans needed

The best source for reliable quality cacao beans is Pacari. It will be noted they also make excellent bars, but if it's the beans you want, they have very high-quality unprocessed beans available. Buy through http://www.chocosphere.com.

Mar 01, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics

Where to buy a truly great olive oil in Florence proper?

"It is really hard to succinctly explain why this is a seductive idea that is profoundly wrong -- a superstition, in itself really."

Forgive me for diving off-topic. But I've got to address this one. It must be emphasised again, you *can't* use a statistical observation as a causal explanation for a single event. Global warming is an example of a statistical observation whose validity depends on a large number of observations; by definition any one observation is meaningless by itself.

But don't confuse a statement like "you cannot attribute olive crop failure in Tuscany to global warming" with the different statement "olive crop failure in Tuscany has not been caused by global warming". The truth is, we can't know whether it is, or not, without more specific evidence. In essence, global warming has nothing to say on the subject.

However, that's not very comforting, and (good) science does have a tendency to speak with a very cold, clinical voice that ignores human needs. It's very important to separate the scientific dimension from the human dimension, in situations which affect human lives. Science can *inform* but not *prescribe* policy decisions in human life; it makes no judgements of value, and as a result cannot address real decisions, where value to people is of utmost importance. Just because we can't attribute Tuscan olive failure to global warming doesn't mean we shouldn't do anything to ensure future production, or for that matter to mitigate global warming. People first, science second. It should be our servant, not our master.

Meanwhile humans have tremendous powers of inference, on very noisy data, that appear to go far beyond what science can prove. The judgement in any case isn't scientific; it's intuitive. I don't see any problem with going with an intuitive approach - as long as a scientific explanation isn't invoked to justify it. In this case I think bringing up global warming is particularly misplaced because in addition to using science out of context it invokes an explanation that would require a global response when only a local one could be achieved.

"It also seems to me to think that climate change will be checked when it thus far has gone unchecked despite long decades of scientific evidence is merely faith at best"

While there is the obvious problem with this line of reasoning, what is called the "stationary assumption", i.e. that since things have been such a way in the past they will continue to be so in the future, I don't deny for one minute that my belief is a belief and not fact; the future can never be predicted exactly unless you have a complete causal model. The reason I think it will be checked, is because world energy needs will not be able to be met economically by fossil fuels for much longer at all, and it's the change in energy sources that will bring about reversal. I'll say no more about this though because it's just too off-topic.

Feb 27, 2015
AlexRast in Italy

How long will you stand in line for food?

One of the things that happens is actually quite subtle. Let's say some food producer - it doesn't have to be bread - has been making something truly excellent for years. Then someone there discovers that they can make something *almost* as good - where the difference in flavour or quality is at the borders of detectability, for 1/2 the price. They can either pass the cost savings on to customers, and reap much more business, or charge the same as ever, with much higher profit. Very, very few, if any, customers will notice or comment. Only the most fanatical of owners will pass on that sort of proposition.

Unfortunately, that's the first step down the slippery slope. Each such step taken makes it that much easier to justify taking a similar such step in the future. Meanwhile, the changes are happening so gradually before the customers' eyes, that no one actually notices things are changing. Project that forward a few years and you have something that is a mere shadow of what it was, the accumulation of many slight compromises in quality for a huge drop in cost. If there's no reference to compare against, furthermore, even the memory of what the product (or indeed, products in that category, be it bread or milk or strawberries or whatever) could be like is lost or at least blurred. So nobody even realises what is possible and indeed used to exist because their exposure has been conditioned by their experiences.

Then there can be a partial "rediscovery", when people recognise that what they've been having is actually substandard, but by that point many of the skills that went into making something of top quality have disappeared, as well, as, as I've noted above, the conceptual idea about what good is actually like. So there is a long period of inconsistent experimentation, when people try to relearn what was once common knowledge - and you get a lot of products where the effort is undeniable but the result is mediocre because people are still learning and because customer feedback isn't particularly informative. Many are often only too glad to have something even marginally better than the commodity grade. I think it's critical that we need to support and encourage *experienced* producers, who have accumulated wisdom, and they need also to be exhorted to share that with the new idealistic producers as well. The situation isn't going to improve dramatically if people are forced to stumble around in the dark.

By the way, on your side question; it must be admitted that I've forgotten most of the bakeries I've tried recently because they just weren't that memorable. I can certainly recall Cantinetta Della Verazzano in Florence (because I was just there), and Chez Charli in Brussels (only a month ago) From the former I got 2 Pani Toscani. From the latter a baguette. Both were in the good-but category. Generally speaking though I'll try to get the most basic bread that's regionally typical, in a given bakery.

However, my personality values intensity over duration/frequency of experience. In other words, I would far rather one sublime experience than 100 good ones. For me, it's as if the 100 good experiences are compressed into a single moment in the sublime experience, at 100x the intensity, which is exactly what I crave. I find that the standard I set isn't unachievable, and usually for any given product there is *exactly* one producer/specific item in a given area that really meets what I'd expect. It's a question of finding who they are - and for certain classes of item, like bread, queues aren't the telltale sign.

Feb 27, 2015
AlexRast in General Topics