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AlexRast's Profile

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Gotham/Gramercy Tavern/Annisa/Union Square cafe - which one this time?

Interesting idea! For the date I have in mind above that's not really an option because I'll be with a friend but I like the idea of being able to just "drop in" at the Gramercy myself. With that in mind I think I'm leaning towards one of the other 3 for the booking and to find an open evening to visit the Tavern room.

Will post on my return how things went.

about 5 hours ago
AlexRast in Manhattan
1

Gotham/Gramercy Tavern/Annisa/Union Square cafe - which one this time?

Perhaps some of you will remember previous requests in the past. If so you'll know my general preferences. If not, a few very quick notes in "shorthand form"

- Like Modern American
- Am more interested in good basic technique than creativity
- Budget-insensitive
- Not really enthusiastic about tasting menus
- Distance not really a factor unless it truly is miles away

I'm again to be in NY in late September. Have already been to both Gotham and Annisa; liked both (although I have to admit I'd class them as great in a local sense rather than in a world sense). Again looking for something excellent and top-end; all 4 of these seem to fit the bill in some sense. For this trip I think relaxation is the keynote: something where the food is great, the atmosphere charming, but where you're not coming in with any particular expectations.

USC is shutting so it may be now or never, but on the other hand I'm not necessarily bothered about the "never" part - as I just said, don't want to be coming in with particular expectations. The idea generally of trying one of the places I've never been has appeal, but on the other hand the idea of patronising somewhere I know and already enjoy has just as much appeal.

Any opinions on the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the above 4 (which seem from what I've been able to research the most obvious ones fitting my basic profile)? Any others I should definitely be considering? This would be for a dinner. I generally book very late (as late a slot as I can get). 2-3 in the party most likely.

For the record,

General take on Gotham: Loved the atmosphere, very New York, food very good and the portion size was gratifying, excellent service - but could they be even sharper on basic technique?

General take on Annisa: Dignified atmosphere if vaguely intimidating, reasonable service but with a trace of haughtiness perhaps (nothing severe, just a more formal approach, really). Technique truly outstanding and the flavours were wonderful. Portion size a problem though, really too small for a full meal. Good after a long day of heavy eating though.

Both of the above have the distinct advantage of being a literal stone's throw from my hotel (in fact, less than 1 subway stop away in both cases, so a walk regardless). As I said distance, though, isn't really a factor.

1 day ago
AlexRast in Manhattan

What do you eat when you don't know what you want?

That feeling is symptomatic of catastrophically low blood sugar.

So if there's one thing to AVOID, it's very sweet, sugary things that will cause a spike and collapse (relapse?) You (I!) must firmly resist cakes, biscuits, puddings, etc. even when they're the obvious thing on offer. Fatty things are also not the best choice, because they won't bring about much blood sugar recovery, not quickly.

Best is going to be a slow carb with some protein to bring recovery to blood sugar levels. What I usually make as a "default" in that situation is a Turkish bulgur - something with the bulgur, probably some lentils, carrots, celery, spices, and if I feel like it a bit of meat. Possibly substitute peppers and tomatoes for celery/carrots. There are endless variations. It's nice because it's fast to make, has a good moderate blood sugar release, and relies on ingredients that you can (and I do) keep around the house, as basic staples.

Here's a second question on a related theme (fork a new topic?):

What do you do when you know exactly what you want but for whatever reason it's absolutely unavailable?

(Much more difficult for me and usually leads to endless vacillation. I wonder if there are productive ways out of that trap?)

1 day ago
AlexRast in General Topics

#@%* White Chocolate

No, that wouldn't work; the bits wouldn't flow together and would stay distinct. There would also be a very great risk of separation unless the melting was agonisingly slow: think 100C oven temperature. In a microwave, I don't think you could control the heat that precisely.

Many recipes don't mention all sorts of critical technical details, because the recipe-maker does them instinctively and subconsciously. Also, it often seems that recipes written down take liberties with what the person *actually* did. That's difficult or impossible to confirm of course, but I can look at recipes and see some suggested steps that are guaranteed not to work if you follow the directions exactly as stated.

Aug 18, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking

#1 Black Licorice?

The best liquorice I have had is pure Calabrian liquorice pastilles. Literally this is liquorice and nothing else: no sugar, no flour, no molasses, nothing. They're (inevitably) hard but the flavour intensity is of course unmatchable. Liquorice is a Calabrian regional specialty.

Not that this will necessarily help you - but there is a small market stall in the Borough Market, London, that specialises in all things liquorice. Their selection is awe-inspiring.

Aug 17, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

#@%* White Chocolate

White chocolate, depending upon formulation, is always more difficult to melt successfully because of the high proportion of milk solids. It does need to be melted slowly and absolutely uniformly, which means it's very unwise to try to melt it directly in a pot in contact with the heating element. Isolating it in a bain marie makes a difference, and you need to make sure the water doesn't come to a boil.

Don't stir with a whisk, either, because that will create too much aeration and therefore uneven/rapid *cooling*. Use a metal spoon or something that really minimises air incorporation. Small quantities are also problematic because they react much more quickly to sudden temperature changes, to be precise, they have smaller heat capacity so that a small change in temperature may mean a large change in heat. And finally, break the chocolate into small pieces so that it melts uniformly, too. It's all about having uniform, controlled melting.

Moisture from bits like pistachios and particularly the cranberries can also cause seizure. And because you're spooning out small dollops, the mixture will cool very quickly, so if you fill first, top second, the first ones filled may congeal before you've even topped. And since you're also removing chocolate from the overall mixture, unless you're keeping it over a gentle heat source, it's likely that the remaining amount in the main vessel will congeal too, because you're steadily decreasing the amount in the vessel. If you're allowing the spoon to touch anything other than the chocolate, furthermore, the contamination may act as nuclei, so you have to make sure the spoon stays absolutely clean (of anything but the chocolate mix) until you're finished.

Maybe that's too much effort or obsession to detail for you, which is understandable if so (white chocolate really does demand an obsessive personality type to work with successfully) but it is possible, as long as you strictly resist the urge to play it fast and loose.

One final recommendation for all: by far the best white chocolate available is El Rey Icoa. It's really a quantum leap over anything else. I've also found it fairly accommodating to work with, in part because it's got a high cocoa butter percentage, relative to many other white chocolates. I *regularly* mix butter and El Rey Icoa together, without ill effects (but as you can see, I'm prepared to obsess over technique, as well).

Aug 17, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Best base (onion soup mix, etc.) for a good pot roast??

Several reasons for not freezing.

First and by far the most important is that freezing breaks down the gelatine, leading to a poorer, thinner texture. (It also makes it useless in some applications, e.g. pork pie). This is the fundamental reason why I don't freeze.

There are also a pair of practical reasons.

Second, if you were to put jars in the freezer they'd crack when the water expanded, and I wouldn't want to use bags because in the first place the plastic will impart some taste (admittedly very minor), in the second place the seal is not always entirely reliable, in the third place it's awkward to use because you can't pour it easily out of the bag, and using in frozen form makes it difficult to measure with precision, or to use only a partial amount.

Third, freezer space is a lot more limited than fridge space, so there would be little room in any case, no matter what the storage vessel.

However, as for the safety question, particularly given my own experience, I'd need to see specific data that demonstrate that (as long as the stock is put in the jars at boiling and the jars vacuum-seal) with a bit of common sense on smelling bad or looking obviously spoilt, the cumulative risk of dying was considerably greater than, say, the cumulative risk of dying in a car smash.

Governments, and corporations, of necessity *must* issue recommendations that are extremely cautious verging on paranoid, because they are addressing a much larger statistic (millions of people) and if even one person dies it could be a public-relations disaster if not a major lawsuit but I really think that for the typical consumer to demand six-sigma safety margins verges on the irrational. You always have to remember that statistics works very differently for bodies dealing with large numbers than it does for individuals. What for the individual is effectively impossible may be for the organisation effectively inevitable. There might be reason for caution if a person can identify themselves as belonging to a specific high-risk group, but otherwise it falls into the same category, I think, as a lot of other things for which you, the individual, can't accurately estimate the real risk (such as, e.g. changing a light bulb), and therefore can in practical terms only rationally go by your own experience.

Aug 17, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Best base (onion soup mix, etc.) for a good pot roast??

I have to disagree here. I have kept *numerous* stocks in my fridge, sometimes for years, frequently for months, and they've remained good essentially indefinitely. I do make sure they're in jars that seal; this no doubt increases the shelf life dramatically. But finding sealing jars to put them in is trifling; I reuse jars that I bought containing other things (jams, nut butters, tomato puree, etc. etc. etc.)

Aug 15, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking

Expresso beans vs. drip coffee beans

This (old) response reminds me of a question I've been wondering about recently (and that none of the people at any of my local coffee shops, some of them quite expert, seem to know.

Easily my favourite origin is Sulawesi, with Sumatra not far behind. I would *KILL* for a proper single-origin Sulawesi or even Sumatra espresso.

But, I've never seen any coffee shop, either here in the UK, or anywhere else (countries of reasonably recent visit: Italy, USA, France, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia) have a single-origin Sulawesi in their grinders for espresso.

Is there a reason for this? Has some particular country not on my list monopolised the supply? Harvest problems in recent years? What's going on and where is all the Sulawesi going?

Aug 15, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

Best base (onion soup mix, etc.) for a good pot roast??

Well, if you want the *best*, there's no substitute for making your own stock, and it's not that difficult to do. Stock can be made well ahead of time, too, jarred and fridged, and it will last almost indefinitely (I've used stock jars over 2 years old without ill effects)

To make a stock, get some good but cheap cuts of beef with plenty of bone; shank is a classic choice. Also include some bits with lots of cartilage to create gelatine; oxtails are ideal. Now get a large sweet onion or 2, a big thick carrot, and 2 stalks of celery. Cut the onion into coarse pieces, and the carrot and celery into big chunks. Get a very heavy pot with a thick bottom and put a bit of beef fat in it - the best is any you've saved from a roast (which could be either a dry-roast or a pot roast, but the dry-roast fat is a little more flavourful). Put it on at a high setting and wait until the fat is smoking, then add your meat, stirring to brown really ferociously, without letting it burn. Now add your onions and brown those too. Add carrots, same thing, get those browned. At this point put in the celery, a bay leaf, and some coarse-ground pepper (judge to taste; you don't want to overdo the pepper), add enough water to just cover, turn the heat down very low, and simmer for at least 12 hours - up to 24. You can safely walk away while the thing is simmering, once you've adjusted the temperature, and no disasters will occur, but do make sure you know what setting for your cooker will truly simmer or you'll either get something at a rolling boil that will evaporate too fast, or something below a simmer which won't develop much flavour.

At the end of this time, strain the whole through a sieve. Chill the produced stock and remove the fat (you'll be able to pull it off in a solid disc, and if you've done well your stock should be firm and gelatinous.) Reheat in order to pour into jars, then pour into your jars, storing in the fridge.

There's a short learning curve the first time in setting the temperature to simmer, and on how much meat you need, but you'll quickly get the basics down and it becomes a simple thing you can do and always have stock on hand for pot roasts, stews, soups, gravies, etc.

Aug 15, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking
1

Your Favorite Meat or Protein?

Overall favourite and favourite red meat: Beef. In any form, eaten about 5 times a month. My favourite beef of all is whole beef fillet, flash-roasted (the Christmas Eve tradition in my family, typically the one annual time I have it (cost of course being the main problem, at least if you want a really first-rate fillet), but it makes it something really special to look forward to.

Favourite poultry: Chicken. I tend to have that around twice a month. It's so versatile, it's hard to come up with one favourite preparation. But there is an Italian-inspired stew my father made, and I now also do, with chicken and tomatoes and mushrooms, that I really love.

Favourite fish: Swordfish. Ecologically problematic, so I limit my consumption to probably about 4 times a year. Ideal in summertime, grilled.

Favourite vegetarian: Kidney beans. Eaten perhaps 8 times a month. A component of many dishes. I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a favourite but if forced I'd probably choose a vegetarian chile, with beans substituting for the meat, at the extreme end of the hot spectrum. This is even better rolled in a steamed corn tortilla. Particularly good in autumn. I have this sort of super-hot chile about 3 times per year or so.

Favourite shellfish: scallops. They MUST be fresh, fortunately not particularly difficult to find here. Eaten about 8 times per year or so. I like them in that classic starter preparation (or with more, as a main) - wrapped in bacon an broiled. For an even more sumptuous version of the same thing, wrap instead in jamon iberico. The jamon-wrapped variant is another special-occasion thing, a once-per-year feast.

2 others that I have to mention by application rather than type:

Favourite breakfast meat: sausage. I've never met a sausage I didn't like. Eaten probably 6 times a month - particularly as I've found that sausages make me more energetic during the day than any other breakfast. In my opinion the very best sausages in the world are the Askerton Castle Cumberland sausages. These are best done simply: put the whole coil in a large cast-iron frypan, fry one side, flip the whole coil once, fry until done, then eat. But I buy a lot of these for sausage rolls, Scotch eggs, toad-in-the-hole, etc. etc.

Best energy bar protein: Can there really be such a thing? Yes - and it's the Pulsin' Maple and Peanut Protein bar. Eaten on every climbing trip, usually about 6 trips/18 bars per year. I don't know how they've managed to do it, but they've created a protein bar that actually tastes good *and* clearly improves your endurance better than others. Protein bars are good for climbing because it's a muscle-and-connective-tissue-wrecking exercise. I note that everywhere these are stocked, they *fly* off the shelves, so obviously I'm not alone on this one.

Aug 14, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

Favorite Bread(s)

Not if you're having crumpets! Traditional English butter is sweet cream butter, not cultured butter. Jersey sweet cream butter, preferably.

Aug 14, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

MEAT DONENESS -- then and now

I agree. And probably most, certainly many, would agree.

But there are people who are absolutely obsessed with the texture and flavours that come out of barbecue, as well as some for which the slow-cooked method for beef is the only one they've been exposed to (at least with any frequency).

Also if your natural preference were for well-done meat, and you really didn't like rare at all, a well-done New York strip done like a steak, grilled at high temperature, might seem rather meh. You might wonder what all the fuss was about over steak, because (at least arguably) once any steak is truly well done they come close to being equal in quality. Yet there must be *something* in the prime steak cuts, otherwise people wouldn't be paying so much for them.

Then consider how you might react if you then took the same piece of meat and barbecued it. It might seem like a revelation - because although I would argue almost certainly not the equal of a brisket, it would probably be more appealing that the well-done steak. There are certain cooking methods that are more suited to certain levels of doneness.

Aug 10, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

MEAT DONENESS -- then and now

LOL. I literally couldn't stop giggling at the story.

But actually, what may have been going on is that they were barbequeing them. The slow, low-temperature way you might do for, e.g. brisket.

Many people really develop a love for "falling off the bone" meat - or in this case meat without any bone, that was still falling apart. That becomes their definition of good - so much so that your neighbours may in fact have preferred their steaks that way.

Aug 09, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

What's the best way to introduce Lamb to someone who's never had it?

My immediate instinct is to go for lamb kebabs, Persian-style - that is, marinated in a bath of lemon juice, onions, and pepper, then grilled. Served with saffroned Basmati rice and one of the many Persian aubergine dishes it would make a good intro. I'd probably use lamb shoulder for this.

Flash-roasted (i.e. at very high heat: 230C/450F for a very brief time) rack of lamb coated in olive oil and then rolled in rosemary and garlic is also very nice.

Generally speaking I think that you want to minimise the masking of flavours for people who are trying things for the first time, to give them a sense for what it's like in its "native" state. Complicated stews, etc with layering of spices are lovely once you've got the basic flavour "in your head" but for a "first-timer" they would not so much be being introduced to lamb for the first time as to a particular dish made with lamb, and it would be the dish, not the lamb per se, that they'll remember.

Aug 09, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking
1

Favorite Bread(s)

I'd think of kulich as a cake rather than a bread; it's yeasted, yes, but the intended flavour and texture is that of cake.

Here is a splendid recipe for kulich. It's complex but the results are worth the effort, at least at Easter. It's designed to be made on Good Friday. In the Orthodox church, there are three services on Good Friday, one in the morning, one in the mid-afternoon, one in the evening. You interleave the making and baking of the kulich between the services, and then it will be ready to bring to church on Saturday evening to be blessed by the priest when the Easter service ends (usually sometime about 3 am or so). This recipe will make enough for a large kulich, the one that you'll put on the feasting table in church for the feast after the Easter service on Saturday night/Sunday morning, a small one that you can give as a present to your priest or best friend or whoever you want, and a medium-sized one for the family on Easter Sunday afternoon (with possible leftovers for the rest of Bright Week)

For the cake

900g-1kg (approximate) strong white bread flour
625 ml whole milk
400 g unsalted butter
8 egg yolks (UK large/US extra large)
250 g sugar
75 g (or so) almonds, blanched and slivered
125 g (or so) currants
125 g (or so) raisins (or I actually use dried blueberries)
(optional) 125 g (or so) candied lemon peel (I usually omit. Opinion is divided as to whether lemon peel is proper or a Western innovation)
about 10 g fresh yeast (a piece the size of a die is usually right)
zest from 1 lemon
(optional) 1 vanilla bean (almost certainly a Western innovation but I usually use)
1/2 tsp salt

For the icing
100 g sugar
a few ml, perhaps 10, of milk

[STAGE 1] Do this before the morning service.
Heat 375 ml of the milk to lukewarm and dissolve the yeast in about 50 ml thereof. Wait about 5 minutes, then stir it and the rest of the milk into 275 g flour in a large bowl. Mix until it starts to look a bit stringy and is fully incorporated, cover with a towel, and leave to rise.

[STAGE 2] Once you come back from the morning service, do this.
Combine 250 ml milk and 60 g butter in a saucepan, bring to a boil. Add 75 g flour, mix with a wooden spoon until smooth, and set aside to cool.

At this point zest the lemon, separate the eggs, and prepare the almonds (blanch, skin, sliver. If you've bought pre-prepared almonds, that's OK although they won't be as fresh, most likely, and you don't strictly have to do this step exactly now either, but it's a convenient moment to do so)

Cream the rest of the butter with the lemon zest (it doesn't have to be totally creamed, just enough that it will be easy to incorporate).

Split and scrape the vanilla bean insides into the sugar, mix until the seeds are well-distributed, then beat with the egg yolks until the mixture is fully bulked, very pale in colour, and very thick.

Combine the first 2 flour mixtures already prepared, mix well, then add the egg mixture, the creamed butter, the salt and mix. Now add the rest of the flour; exactly how much you will have to judge, but be aware that for a while it's going to be VERY sticky indeed. That's normal. You want just enough that you can knead it and get some weight being applied to the volume of dough. Knead fiercely for a long time; and it really is a while, probably 30 minutes or more. The dough will stick to your fingers for most of this time but suddenly towards the end it will glutinise, and when it clears the hands completely, it's ready. You can, of course, use a stand mixer in this step if you like (although it doesn't give as good a feedback for when it's done). Once it is ready, add the almonds and dried fruits, mix well, cover, and leave to rise. At this point you can go to the afternoon service

[STAGE 3] Do this before going to the evening service.
Prepare your tins. These should be very tall, cylindrical ones. A variety of different possibilities exist including large juice cans, empty cans of beans (thoroughly washed of course), metal kitchen implement holders, pork pie moulds - you have to be creative most of the time because most kitchen shops have nothing like the right sort of shape. In any case, trace out a circular base of parchment paper for the bottom of the tin, line it with that, then unroll enough parchment to line the sides completely. It's easiest if you place it in the tin reversed from its direction of roll in the package, because otherwise it tends to curl up into a scroll inside the tin, making putting the dough in difficult. Once this is ready, and the dough has risen to twice its original height, divide it amongst your tins so that each is about 2/3 full. The easiest way to fill them is to pull out a suitable-sized ball of dough, then let gravity stretch it into a long shape similar to a baguette, before dropping it into the tin. Be careful not to let the dough catch on the parchment lining the sides before hitting the bottom of the tin or else it will pull all the lining down into a crumpled mess at the bottom.
Set aside and allow to rise. If you've timed things right, this should be just before you go to the evening service.

[STAGE 4] Do this when you get back from the evening service.
Empty the oven of all racks except one right at the very bottom. Preheat the oven to 175C/350F. By now the dough should have risen to within a cm or so of the top of each tin. Bake for 1/2 to 1 hour, depending upon size. Test with a bamboo skewer inserted all the way down into the centre. It should come out with sticky crumbs - not either clean or covered in dough. At this point take the cake out and lay on a pillow or other soft thing (made of a heat-resistant cloth like cotton, not synthetic) until completely cooled.

When cool prepare the icing by mixing enough milk with the sugar to make a mixture that just flows, with very high viscosity. Pour it over the top of each cake (the pour should take some time, be patient) and let it drip down. If you've judged the consistency right it should run down the sides of the cake in thick rivulets, like icicles.

Kulich can be frozen very effectively and doesn't seem to lose much in flavour or texture. Don't ice the cake if you plan on freezing it, though, just wrap tightly in parchment, then foil.

Aug 08, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics
1

What I Learned After Taking a Homeless Mother Grocery Shopping

Ahh, yes, the other aspect of modern "civilisation": try as best as you can to make poverty illegal...

Aug 06, 2014
AlexRast in Food Media & News

Cookbooks that are more than just cookbooks.

It's not been mentioned yet, so I'll put up another old classic - for British/English cooking.

Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management (still in print) in its original version is a treasure in many ways.

The recipes are exceptional and can for the most part be followed today without difficulty.

There are detailed descriptions on cookery from the point of view of principles rather than specific recipes, so that you not only learn to follow a recipe, but actually can start to understand technique, how to build a dish, recognising good ingredients, etc. etc.

Mrs Beeton provides all sorts of commentary on everything from animal husbandry to cultural patterns.

The style and descriptions give a tremendous insight into the traditional English mind-set.

It's a fascinating historical record of ideas, equipment, culinary fashion, and much more from the Victorian era.

Surprisingly, no more recent English cookbook comes close in terms of depth of cultural insight or even quality of recipes.

Aug 06, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking
1

What I Learned After Taking a Homeless Mother Grocery Shopping

Which would make me wonder in turn what the management of the temporary housing expected tenants to do in order to feed themselves.

I can probably anticipate the general form of the response in a lot of cases: "That's not my problem"

Which, I suspect, is at the root of the problem quite generally.

Aug 06, 2014
AlexRast in Food Media & News

What I Learned After Taking a Homeless Mother Grocery Shopping

Which makes me wonder, if one of the things that might be a boon to the truly poor, would be to donate crock-pots, white gas/propane camp stoves, electric hot-plates, basically small, portable cooking devices. It would certainly expand the range of options for food that could be considered.

Aug 06, 2014
AlexRast in Food Media & News

Favorite Bread(s)

I should preface my preferences that I prefer breads on their own rather than as a vehicle for something else. Not that uses as a vehicle are bad, but ultimately it's the flavour of the bread that I'm looking for.

Listed here in order of preference, 1 being most preferred and going down (only in a relative sense, all of these well loved):

1: Pane Toscana. Love the ultra-crisp crust, the dense, glutinous crumb, and the lack of any extraneous ingredients getting in the way of tasting the flour the bread was made from.
2: Typical salted Italian bread, such as you'll find in e.g. Rome. These don't have quite the crisp, thick crackling crust of the Toscana, but are still yummy.
3: A good white English tin loaf, such as was once made in many bakeries, now hard to find. The ultimate bread for toast. As it happens, also a super vehicle for jam, although as I've mentioned bread-as-vehicle isn't my preferred eating mode.
4: Pane Carasau. The iconic flatbread of Sardinia. A thin, crisp disc of semolina. Every time I go to Alghero I pig out on it. Another one with interesting uses as a vehicle. Try dipping in olive oil.
5: Proper German pumpernickel. If it doesn't weigh almost as much as a brick, and have similar density, it's not the real thing. In German bakeries it's deadly. You can survive an entire day on a loaf.
6: Caraway rye. Another German specialty, typically with similar densities to the pumpernickel. Shelf life is extraordinary, without requiring strange and frightening chemicals or additives.
7: Pa de Pages. The Catalan take on great white bread. Fluffier than Italian breads but still robust and full of flavour. For those seeking uses as a vehicle, the classic of course is pa amb tomaquet. Good with ham too. Or most other things come to think of it. I still prefer just eating it directly.
8: Lavash. The typical bread of Iran. Take something about halfway between a pitta and a naan bread, and make it in big, rectangular pieces, and you've got the idea. Ideally accompanies kebabs too. Should be tried grilled.
9: Baguette. The only real limitation is that they must be had in France and nowhere else - it seems no other country can replicate them. I think there are 3 main reasons for this: 1) Freshness. Almost all boulangeries turn out baguettes continually throughout the day. 2) French flour. That unique medium-protein variety is difficult to replicate anywhere else. 3) Purity of recipe. French law doesn't even *allow* tinkering with the ingredients, much less encourage such tinkering.
10: Corn tortillas. Regrettably almost impossible to find in almost any quality in the UK. But when I visit the USA I wolf them down. I might be one of the few people alive to love tortillas absolutely plain. Steamed corn tortillas, stacked on top of each other, and then cut into cake-like slices, are addictive to me.

Aug 06, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

MEAT DONENESS -- then and now

Still, if the brainwashing theory were the reason, you'd expect then they'd have done likewise for adult orders, which doesn't sound like what was going on. If they were, then fair do's, they just didn't have a concept of doneness, period. Steak came as it came.

But if they were applying the policy specifically to children and children only, I don't think the time, place or culinary sophistication present is really material. To disregard the customer's request in a restaurant is just unprofessional, in any era.

Aug 06, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

Best way to enjoy a great bar of chocolate?

As callmijane says, chocolate mousse. Madagascar is the best possible origin for chocolate mousse, a pudding for which you want a bright fruity chocolate.

Ambanja, (or more generally Madagascar) has always been Dandelion's most successful chocolate. Even in the early days it really shone. The rest of the Dandelion range are also very much worth trying and I recommend getting them all at some point and tasting them side-by-side to see how they work.

As the seasons slide by, you may want to consider also incorporating it into the ganache for a chocolate tart - basically a chocolate shortbread base with a ganache filling. Very easy to make and again Madagascar wins out because the bright fruitiness makes a nice contrast with the typically biscuitty, nutty flavour you get from a chocolate shortbread base using cocoa. Use Guittard (another Bay Area chocolate company, perhaps even more achieved, much larger scale, it will be said) cocoa powder for the shortbread.

If you do put your bars in a drawer, make sure that it's in a temperature and moisture controlled location that doesn't get above 20C or below 10C, and that the drawer is free from odours or other, odiferous objects, or the chocolate will definitely be ruined quickly. Once you do open it, either rewrap the entire thing in foil that can be folded over on all sides without gaps to form a seal, or eat what you have opened that day. Definitely don't leave "naked" chocolate sitting around.

Aug 06, 2014
AlexRast in Home Cooking
1

MEAT DONENESS -- then and now

If that's what restaurants did it sounds like contempt verging on cruelty to children. About as unprofessional as I can possibly imagine. Such experiences could leave the poor children quite upset - and possibly put them off meat (or at least restaurants) for life. I can't see any possible justification anyone could put forward for this practice.

As for my own upbringing, red meats except pork were rare. Pork would have been medium - cooked but not dry. Poultry was cooked through but generally not overcooked.

Personal preference is:

Beef - except for stews and pot-roasts, as rare as it can be made. But not cold in the centre (this tricky balancing act, not even begun to cook, but warmed just above room temperature, does require split-second timing). I do love raw beef too.

Lamb - "normal" rare - what you'd get in a typical restaurant if you ask for rare.

Pork - medium well-done. That is, not pink. But NOT dry. Like the beef case, this requires split-second timing, and fairly fatty pork.

Poultry - just done. At the point where it's just finished cooking through.

Aug 05, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics
1

Where are your top pastries locations and pastries in Italy? Maybe Milan ?

3 places worth visiting in Milan:

Pasticceria Martesana - Quintessentially Milanese in atmosphere (= hyper-stylish, sophisticated), lovely pastries. The only problem is that they're quite some distance away from the city centre, in a non-descript shopping centre in an unprepossessing suburb.

Ernst Knam - Has a reputation particularly in chocolate. Definitely some interesting stuff, and more creative than Martesana. However I do have to say in my own personal opinion the quality was maybe marginally lower - which is not to imply bad in any sense, just not quite at the same level.

Marchesi - Easily the most central, and atmospheric in an old, fusty traditional way. This is the place to go for Italian classics. You won't find much in the way of originality, but the quality in the classics is excellent. Avoid at breakfast-time, though, unless you really enjoy fighting 20-deep queues.

If you have the chance to hop on the train, one place in Italy that must not be missed, IMHO perhaps the epicentre of pastry in Italy (although this is very subjective and very regional too) is Prato in Tuscany. Here you will find 3 shops that manage to put even the above listed in Milan into a second class:

Nuovo Mondo - Dead centre, tiny hole-in-the-wall shop. Fantastic interpretations of Tuscan classics. Equally good original pastries. Particularly superior cornetti if you're there for breakfast.

Luca Mannori - Just outside the walls enclosing the centre, an easy walk from the station. On creativity and modern pastry-making Mannori really eclipses the competition. It's possible to spend an afternoon just sampling various things (I did). Be aware that the "Sette Veli", although lovely, isn't the same one that won the competition, though. I would get it anyway because it's really one of the best things in the shop.

Biscottificio Antonio Mattei - If you take a path from Nuovo Mondo to Mannori, you'll pass by this biscuit shop just south of the central piazza. I can't claim to have tasted all biscotti in Italy, but these are in my view the best I've ever had and probably the best in Italy; it's hard to imagine doing any better. The Tuscan style (cantuccini) are small, not big, which in this case only makes them that more ridiculously addictive. I've eaten an entire bag, in the same way you might do with a packet of crisps.

And if your travels take you down to Rome, the one must-not-miss is Cristalli di Zucchero. The shop on Via di Valtellina has the better selection but is far out in the suburbs; the shop on Via di San Teodoro is central although as you might expect tends to get busy. The cornetti here define the ideal for Italy; these are almost certainly the best you'll ever have. It's a must-stop for breakfast. The cornetto con crema is sublime. However you'll have a difficult time resisting the lovely cakes too, and I advise that you don't. Return as many times as necessary to complete the sampling process.

I should also note that the Gambero Rosso has a guide devoted to pasticcerie - which seems to be very reliable: everywhere I've listed here is both in the guide AND gets very high marks indeed. They clearly know what they're talking about - I found these places *before* seeing the guide so they just provided independent corroboration.

Aug 04, 2014
AlexRast in Italy

Chocolate: What do you look for?

Sorry for harping on about this, but this is a critical point. $10/bar is ABSOLUTELY NOT gouging, most likely. Indeed, it probably reflects reasonably accurately the real price of quality chocolate.

The problem here is that consumer expectations have been formed around the prices typical for commodity chocolate - whose price is cut down to the bare minimum, and every cost-cutting measure imaginable applied in the supply chain. We need to get to the point where people have a more realistic understanding of the real cost of chocolate - or at least of the discrepancy between what good chocolate will cost and what cheap chocolate costs.

People, for instance, readily accept that the price difference between a cheap olive oil and a high-quality one may be 20x or more, and again in wine the differences may be even more extreme. A similar situation applies to chocolate.

Aug 02, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

Chocolate: What do you look for?

If they were too "dry" that probably means they were actually made with lower-quality cacao that was astringent (i.e. with mouth-drying flavour) rather than having poor mouthfeel as such. Most high-percentage bars have enough cocoa butter that they have excellent mouthfeel, usually better than lower percentages. But for some reason a lot of manufacturers choose to make their high-percentage chocolate from poor-quality beans. A mystery to me.

Aug 02, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

Chocolate: What do you look for?

Indeed. $100/lb should just be a reminder that fine chocolate isn't a cheap thing. On the positive side, it's a LOT cheaper than many other foods (truffles, caviar, saffron, to say nothing of wine) so in that sense it's an affordable luxury. But I encourage people not to be mistaken: fine chocolate IS a luxury, not a commodity or everyday product.

I would put a much more nuanced interpretation on the idea of "diminishing returns" over $8/bar. What you really get, at over $8/bar, is much more variability in what you might end up with. Some bars, from some companies, in that price range, are sublime, easily worth the price, and for that matter easily better than virtually anything you'll find at a lower price point. Others will be no better than good. It's unlikely though, unless the company is totally image-driven and mostly trying to "cash in" on perceived interest in fine chocolate, that it will be bad - or even of a similar level to say, a typical Lindt. It'll usually be a lot better than that.

Expensive bars, however, are more distinctive, they have much stronger personalities that you may or may not like personally. For example, if I get a quality Papua New Guinea, it's going to be smoky and leather in flavour, very distinctively, an unusual flavour that some like, others detest. A Chuao will have a very fruity start and a treacley, bold finish with a lingering bitterness, again, powerful flavours that some like, some find overwhelming. So as you get to higher prices you also have to start being selective according to your own personal preference as well as by brand/price.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, in expensive bars usually made from small-volume sources, annual variablity is going to play a part, and the manufacturer can't apply the same sort of rigorous process control that can be done at greater volumes, which means the result will always be somewhat inconsistent. Let's take the Los Ancones I mentioned earlier. It must be understood that both the bean source (Rizek) and the manufacturer (Michel Cluizel) represent the industry state of the art in terms of consistency at fine quality levels. You can't get better than them; their systems are as thorough as are possible. So if *any* fine chocolate bar could be expected to be consistent this would be it.

In fact, Los Ancones is always very good indeed, but there's noticeable variability. At times, it's so utterly astonishing, beyond sublime, that you think you have encountered chocolate perfection (the outstanding example of this was the Spring 2012 batch). At other times, it's merely good, a chocolate that you'll readily eat and greatly enjoy, but doesn't have that same magical quality. If that level of variability is possible in the most consistently great dark chocolate out there, imagine where it's going to stand with other chocolates?

Steve, as you say, it's quite easy to waste money on high end bars that are unpleasant at least to you, because of these inconsistencies (I'd be interested to hear which ones you didn't like). On the other hand, I will also say that you will always be missing a very great deal of the potential quality (and pleasantness) to be found if you limit yourself to chocolates below about $7/50g. For some people, this isn't going to be a problem because they're not particularly interested in anything really special in chocolate anyway. However, I suspect there are a lot of people who *would* pay that much without too much trouble, at least occasionally, if they could know what quality they'd get. It's hard to judge from the wrapper on a bar, you have to try. However if your first few forays at the high end are unpleasant, that suggests either you've had the misfortune to pick the wrong bars/brands or you've actually not gone high enough to get to where the real quality starts.

Aug 01, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics

Chocolate: What do you look for?

Well, Callebaut is, of course, what it is: the largest chocolate producer in the world. So one may say as Starbucks is to coffee, so Callebaut is to chocolate. They make so many chocolates, for so many markets, that trying to capture them under one generic "umbrella" is meaningless. Callebaut has some decent chocolates and some very definitely bulk chocolates. They have some very good ones, too, although these are much less easily found, because Callebaut mostly sells to the trade, not retail.

However because of their size there are finite limits to their quality, simply as a matter of the volume of quality bean sources versus what they need. Very similar to Starbucks. If, for instance, a single farm has 10 50kg sacks, that's entirely unusable from the POV of Callebaut who are buying by the multiple metric tonnes. Maybe one of their research chocolatiers might buy a sack or two, to see what the potential from that area might be, but that's chocolate that's never sold, just used for lab experimentation. So the very best chocolates of all are not likely to come from Callebaut.

On the other hand, because they have a great deal more expertise, quantitatively gathered and in databases that those in the factory can refer to, their knowledge isn't "in one person's head" to nearly the same degree, and they can accurately produce a chocolate with given characteristics from a given batch of beans. They're much more consistent that what most artisanal manufacturers are ever going to be able to produce, because they're using more rigorous systems. However, at the small-volume, ultra-quality end of the spectrum this sort of approach is quite useless anyway, because you're not dealing with the sort of scale that has any reliable statistics to it. Thus from the POV of an artisanal manufacturer there's little sense in adopting rigorous formal production methods for batch sizes as small as what they're producing.

Aug 01, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics
1

Chocolate: What do you look for?

Chocolate covered liquorice: http://lakrids.nu/

Jul 31, 2014
AlexRast in General Topics
1