Oct 21, 2014

Homemade Filtered Milk Punch

Milk punch may be the "new" hipster equivalent to home infused vodkas.  It can have all the buzzwords like artisan and handcrafted, has its own history and trivia, and it's a booze that you've probably never heard of.  Out of the two types of milk punch, one is actually not that bizarre to most Americans, at least not during the Christmas season.  Take milk or cream, mix with rum or brandy and serve chilled, perhaps with nutmeg or cinnamon.  Sound familiar yet?  How about if I add egg?  Eggnogs (and flips)  are actually an offshoot of milk punch.

The other type dates back to the 1600's, and focuses more on a longer shelf life.  In fact, one of the more famous recipes comes from Benjamin Franklin himself. While anyone who has been in bad college housing knows, milk will separate given enough time (or poor enough refrigeration).  As the 17th century was not exactly known for their refrigeration technology, they took a hint from cheese makers to extend shelf life.

For those unfamiliar with how cheesemaking works, the very basic process is as follows:
  • Heat milk.
  • Add rennet/acid to separate curds from whey.
  • Remove curds from whey, and process depending on the type of cheese.
Conceptually, very simple, right? Well, on a basic level, the process for making a filtered milk punch is as follows:
  • Heat milk
  • Mix alcohol, sweetener, and acid.
  • Add hot milk to alcohol mixture.
  • Remove the curds and retain the liquid for drinking.
From a food science perspective, milk punch is rather intriguing.  There are multiple ways in which flavors can be absorbed into the solution.  Water soluble, alcohol soluble, and fat soluble flavors can all be utilized.  The first milk punch I ever had, at Backbar, was flavored with Fruit Loops. It was disconcerting because it actually did taste like Fruit Loops, in a completely liquid form.  The first time I attempted making milk punch with a friend, I decided to be a little cheeky, and play off of the idea of milk.  We made a chai milk punch with mulling spices.  The overwhelming success of that led us to experiment a bit more. Other successful flavors that I've tasted (but have not made myself), are passionfruit, and scotch pina colada.

Basic Milk Punch Recipe

750 mL white rum
2 Cups Simple Syrup
1 Cup Lemon Juice
2 Cups Whole Milk

Special equipment needed: cheesecloth

First of all, simple syrup is one of those things that you should never buy.  For 2 cups of simple syrup, combine 2 cups of sugar with 2 cups of water, and heat in a saucepan until all the sugar has dissolved.

Combine the rum, simple syrup, and lemon juice. If your flavoring is alcohol or water soluble, add the flavoring to the mixture.  If your flavoring is fat soluble, add the flavoring to the milk.

Heat the 2 cups of milk in a saucepan over medium heat until bubbles appear at the edges of the pan.

Add the milk to the rum mixture, and let sit for 30 minutes, to allow the milk to fully curdle.

Strain the mixture through cheesecloth, and discard the chunks.  Serve chilled, and store the milk punch in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Some of the Flavors I have personally experimented with (and results):

Milk Punch Flavors steeping in alcohol


Because I had the spice mix handy, I simply used mulling spices.  The label called for 1 Tbsp of spices for one 750 mL bottle of wine, so I stuck with that.  

It worked beautifully, and can be a nice substitute for falernum in cocktails.

Add spices to the milk.


1 cup of frozen raspberries, or any other frozen fruit.  This is one of the few situation when fresh is not necessarily better.  The process of freezing helps to damage the cell walls, so that it will release flavors even easier than fresh berries would.  

It was very tasty, and had a beautiful color.This is a flavor that I will definitely try again. As a variation, I plan to use the raspberry seltzer syrup from Flour, Too.  This recipe includes sugar, lemon juice, and lime juice.  To avoid the punch from becoming overly sweet, I would plan to use the raspberry syrup instead of the simple syrup.

Add the fresh fruit to the alcohol mixture.

Frosted Flakes

This was an idea from my friend/partner in booze.  Because the first milk punch we'd had was Fruit Loops, he was interested in what other breakfast cereals could be milk punch.  Use 1 cup of crushed Frosted Flakes.  

The flavor of Frosted Flakes came through clearly.  Personally I found this disturbing, but I also found the Fruit Loops milk punch disturbing. My friend who initiated this idea approved though.  Considering that I am the one making recommendations here, be prepared for an odd beverage.

Add the crushed flakes to the alcohol mixture.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

We wanted to play with the idea of things that would go well with milk.  One of the obvious food items that works with milk is cookies.  One cup of crushed chocolate chip cookies is used for a batch of milk punch.

This was a complicated flavor, because cookies are a complex food.  There are aspects that are alcohol soluble flavors, and some that are fat soluble flavors.  With the experiment that we tried, we put the cookies in the alcohol mixture.  I think that it may be possible to get a better flavor by splitting the cookie crumbs between the alcohol and the milk; in effect getting the best of both worlds.

The jury is still out as to whether the crumbs should be added to the alcohol or the milk.


This is the flavor that I was the most skeptical of. My friend wanted to play on the breakfast theme, taking a step away from the cereals. Originally he thought of toast and jam, but we decided that if the toast came out well, we could always add some of the raspberry milk punch as jam.  This would be about 6 slices of crushed toasted bread for 1 batch of milk punch.

I found the juxtaposition of flavor and texture of the toast milk punch a little too much of a hurdle.  The texture of toast is a very important part.  Thus, the fact that I'm drinking a nice cool liquid tasting of toast was a little too disconcerting.  My friend combined a bit of the toast milk punch with some of the raspberry, and quite liked it though.

The toast crumbs were added to the alcohol mixture.

Final Analysis

Financial Outlay: The most expensive part of this project is the rum, possibly followed by the cheesecloth. If you want to make a swanky punch for a party, this can be a very economical answer.

Time: It is probably about an hour total to make, plus chilling time.  If the plan is to make punch for a party, this means that you can make it ahead of time, and keep it in the fridge until it is time to serve. But it is best when cold, so this is not an instant drink.

Quality: This definitely depends on the flavor chosen.  In my opinion, the chai and the raspberry flavors worked very well.  In those cases, the quality was well worth it.

Fun: It is possible to get very creative with flavors.  The experimental run I did used 4 different flavors for 1 batch of punch.  All the flavors were put into the alcohol solution.  Not every test flavor may come out tasty, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't try.

Jul 23, 2014

Ramos Fizz Cheesecake- Light, Fluffy, Delicious!

Light, delicate, healthy cheesecake from Puritan Therapy
Ramos Fizz Cheesecake. Light, fluffy, and delicious!
There are very few foods that I am obsessive about.  I shrug at the Chicago vs. New York pizza debates, I stay neutral on Kansas City vs North Carolina for barbecue, and I think lots of places have great hot dogs.  One of the few things that I am adamant about is cheesecake.  When I was a kid, my sister and I weren't allowed to have sugar.  Part of the thinking at the time was that prohibiting sugar in a kid's diet would prevent diabetes later in life.  In actuality it tends to just promote secretive binging, but that's another story.  Thus, to have a low sugar option for a birthday cake, we would get cheesecake.  It was light and fluffy and we would usually have it with some fresh fruit and a little homemade whipped cream.

The first time I had a cheesecake that was not the one my mom made was when I was in college.  I don't remember where it was, but I do remember being excited for cheesecake.  What I got was a super dense brick on a crumbly graham cracker crust. This was more like eating a cold, over-sweetened paste than what I was expecting.  Even worse, everyone else seemed to think that it was great!  I later learned about New York style cheesecake, and that what I had was actually a good version of it.  I just can't approve.  In my opinion, cheesecake should be light and fluffy.  It should almost be like eating a cheesy cloud.

So, if you are the type of person who prefers their cheesecake more akin to a brick, I may think you're wrong, but I won't judge.  But if this is the case, this is not the recipe that you would want.  The cocktail will still be good, but it will not be your style of cheesecake.

Ramos Gin Fizz

Puritan Therapy- Ramos Fizz Cheesecake
The handle of the spoon is a straw!
As I've mentioned before, I have great respect for a good bartender, especially for their palate.  Which is why I will use my bartender friends as taste testers and flavor advisers whenever I can.  The first time I ever had a Ramos fizz was around the same time that I started really experimenting with chocolates.  I had brought a variety of things to work for a potluck, and then brought all the extras to the bar with me after work.  When Will asked me what I wanted to drink, I handed him a s'more chocolate (small piece of graham cracker with a toasted marshmallow on it dipped in milk chocolate) and told him to make me something to go with that.  He ate it, thought for a moment, and then spent the next 10 minutes crafting this absolutely beautiful drink.  When he put it down, he said that he was playing off of the ideas of milk and cookies.  When I tried it, I was amazed.  It was light, fizzy, creamy, with citrus and a touch of orange.  And it came in a tall glass with a straw spoon, kind of like what you'd get with a slurpee, but fancy and metal.

I have since learned that this is one of those drinks where:
  1. Never order it on a busy night.  It takes a long time and a lot of effort to make.  This can be fine, as long as you understand this and will tip accordingly.
  2. Once you do order it, and the bartender puts it down, multiple people will all ooh and ah, and then they will all want one because it's pretty.  This is the nail in the coffin for the bartender cursing your name under their breath.
Considering that I was just talking about cheesecake, skipping to a cocktail may seem like a nonsequitor.  but look at the recipe, and think about the ingredients for a moment.

    Ramos Gin Fizz

    2 ounces gin (I recommend a french gin that is more subtle and floral than one that has a strong juniper flavor)
    1 ounce heavy cream
    1 egg white
    1/2 ounce lemon juice
    1/2 ounce lime juice
    2 teaspoons superfine sugar
    2 to 3 drops orange flower water
    Soda water
    optional: Orange peel for garnish
Combine gin, cream, the white of the egg, lemon juice, lime juice, sugar, and ice in a cocktail shaker.  Shake for 1 minute, or until the mixture starts to foam (as a note, this is a long time to shake a cocktail, and the minute timer is a minimum).  Strain into a highball glass, and top off with soda water.  The oil from the orange peel adds an extra little pop of orange.

So where is the connection with cheesecake?  The Ramos fizz has dairy, eggs, sugar, and flavorings.  A cheesecake is made with dairy, eggs, sugar, cornstarch, and flavorings.  When I considered the way to make this cocktail into a form of candy, the parallel seemed obvious.


There are several things I love about this recipe.  To be honest, it's actually a very healthy cheesecake.  It's high in protein, and low in sugar, and all of the perishable ingredients can be pre-measured for you.  In the US, a standard block of cream cheese is 8 ounces.  A small container of cottage cheese is 2 cups.  I never need to worry about using up that little extra bit of, well, anything.   With the idea of low sugar, and high protein, some people (including me on occasion) want to take it a step further and get the trifecta of low fat as well, by using low or nonfat cream cheese and cottage cheese.  IF you choose to make a basic cheesecake instead of the Ramos Fizz cheesecake, substitute away.  The end result will be a firmer cake, but still definitely tasty.  If you are making the Ramos Fizz cake, I recommend against it, and this is why.

*Science Warning*
It is a matter of acid.  If you remember pH from high school chemistry class, there is a range from acid to base.  Cakes (flour or flourless) need an acidic batter to set up or they will end up just being a pudding.  The more acidic the cake, the faster it will set up (but the drier it will be).  If you use low or non fat cheese in your cheesecake, you are making the batter more acidic.  Thus, if you decide that the cake seems too mushy, this is an easy way to adjust it to your liking.  The Ramos Fizz cheesecake is actively adding more acid and drying agents.  Lemon juice, lime juice, and gin all have a drying effect on the cake.  If you make that even more acidic, by removing more of the fat, the result will be an almost chewy cheesecake, which is not what we want at all.
*Science End*

A quick word about equipment. For a long time, equipment tended to be the barrier for me trying to make this.  My mom always used the blender, the hand mixer, and a springform pan.  These days I will usually still use a springform pan, but instead of using multiple appliances, I will just use two attachments on my stick blender.  It takes up less space, and there's less to wash at the end.  Other than that, the only potential challenge is cleanly separating eggs to create a foam.

Ramos Fizz Cheesecake

    6-8 large eggs
    8 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
    2 cups cottage cheese
    1/2 cup sugar
    3 Tbsp cornstarch

    1 tsp gin
    1/2 tsp lime juice
    1/2 tsp lemon juice
    1/4 tsp orange flower water

  1. Preaheat oven to 300 degrees F.  
  2. Separate enough eggs to make 1/2 cup of egg yolks.  
  3. Combine the egg yolks and cottage cheese, blending until smooth.  
  4. Add the cream cheese, corn starch, and sugar.  Continue to blend until smooth.  
  5. Mix in the flavorings.  
  6. Whip the egg whites to stiff peaks.
  7. Fold the egg whites into the yolk mixture gently.
  8. Pour the batter into an ungreased springform pan, and bake in the center of the oven for 1 hour.  When one hour has passed, turn off the oven without opening the oven door and allow to cool in the oven for 1 hour.
  9. Allow to cool to room temperature, and then chill in the refrigerator.
Tips and Recommendations
  • Use a 3 bowl method of separating the eggs.  One for the egg whites, one for the yolks, and one for the egg that you are currently separating.  That way, if a yolk breaks, you only lose one egg, instead of the whole batch.
  • For easier separating, use eggs that are as fresh as possible.  As eggs age, the whites get thicker, and the yolk gets more delicate.  The most recent time I made cheesecake I used some of my farm fresh eggs, and was amazed at how easy it was to separate them.
  • All of the leavening in this recipe comes from the foam created by the egg whites.  That is the most important step.  If you overwhip the egg whites, the foam will collapse, and you will have a puddle in the bottom of the bowl.  This will affect the texture of your final cake.  Beat the egg whites just until the point of stiff peaks.  This means that, if you remove the beater from the egg whites and turn it upside down, the egg foam will stay pointy.
  • Ensure that the bowl that you use for the egg whites is completely clean of fat.  Even if there is a tiny residual drop of dish soap, the egg whites will not create a foam.
  • If using 4 smaller pans instead of a 10 inch pan, cooking time is reduced to 15 minutes, and then the cakes can rest in the oven for 30 minutes.  I have not found an ideal cooking time for cupcake sized cheesecakes at this point.
  • For a basic flavor for cheesecake, you can use 1 tsp vanilla extract and 1 tsp almond extract instead of the Ramos Fizz flavorings
  • If you do not have a springform pan: It is still possible to have a successful cake with a normal 10 inch round cake pan.  However, as the cake pan needs to be ungreased, line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper (the cake needs to be able to cling to the sides of the pan to help rise).  When taking the cake out of the pan, insert a knife at the edge of the cake and run it all around the edge to separate it from the wall of the pan, and then gently turn out onto a plate.  It's trickier, but can still work. Just remember that it is a very delicate cake, and while it would still taste the same when broken, it would still be sad.

Final Analysis

Financial Outlay: The ingredients aren't very expensive.  It is even possible to make this without special equipment, although I personally would not choose to foam egg whites by hand.  It is much easier with a springform pan, but I've made it work in the past without one.  It is just trickier.

Time: For a full sized cheesecake, it will be in the oven for 2 hours.  So it does take longer than a normal "floured" cake.  The prep, however, doesn't take much more time than making a cake out of a box.  It's not a last minute cake, but it's also a cheesecake, so there is no time spent frosting it either.

Quality: The quality is amazing.  Of course, I may be biased.  People will be amazed if you tell them there is only 1/2 cup of sugar in the entire cake.  The quote from a bartender friend of mine after I gave her a mini cheesecake was "Wow, it's like you make pot brownies, but with cocktails!"  As a note, with only a teaspoon of gin in an entire 10 inch cake, there is no way for anyone to get drunk off the cake.

Fun: I find a certain satisfaction in properly dealing with the egg whites.  From getting the eggs separated without breaking yolks, to the brief moment of fear (every single time) that the egg whites won't foam, to getting the whites whipped to just the right consistency.  Then, of course, is the best part.  Eating a cheesecake that doesn't make you feel like you ate a brick, plus is less than half the calories of a Cheesecake Factory cheesecake.

May 20, 2014

Cultured Butter: Better Butter with Bacteria

Puritan Therapy: Better Your Butter with Bacteria

Can we talk about butter for a moment?  No, not margarine. Margarine is a sad attempt at butter, which may be fine for certain applications (or for the lactose intolerant), but it is still always lacking.  There is a certain richness and depth in good butter that I have never seen in any margarine.  While these days the science seems to indicate that margarine is slightly healthier, it is nowhere near enough to convince me to switch from the things that I use butter for. Why?  Because when I choose to use butter, the flavor of that butter is usually the reason.  Croissants, brioche, mashed potatoes.  It's all about the flavor, not just the fat.  I never realized the importance of good butter (or the variation between butters) until I started making croissants.  It was shocking how much of a difference there was between the basic cheap butter and the European Plugra butter.  With Plugra, "the flavor and aroma of cultured butter are added with lactic starter distillate, a natural flavoring derived from cultured milk", and there is a much higher fat content than normal American butter.

So Plugra is not actually cultured butter, but it has some of the indications of such. But what makes butter "cultured"?  My 12 year old sense of humor makes me want to make some reference to taking it to the opera, but actually, it all has to do with bacteria.  Before churning it into butter, the cream is given mesophilic culture, which is comprised of good bacteria.  Given time, the bacteria will eat the lactose in the milk, reproduce, eat more lactose, etc.  This makes the cream more acidic, which produces a tang and gives a different and more complex flavor, but it also creates an environment so that bad bacteria can't get a foothold.  If you left warmed cream out on a counter for several hours without adding any additional bacteria, it would be a race between the good and the bad, and it would not be a good idea to drink it afterwards.  But since we've fixed the race, the good bacteria has a huge advantage.  It's a similar process to that of making yogurt or cheese. Once the cream has been cultured, which can take anywhere from six to twenty four hours, depending on who you ask, it is ready to be churned into butter.

Churning butter.  That phrase may conjure images of an old timey bucket with a stick coming out of it, or, in my case, my second grade classroom.  We were broken up into pairs, and given a sealed mason jar of cream to shake.  Either way, it's the same general idea.  Agitate the cream until it magically turns into butter.  If you've never done this by hand, it is a lot of work.  To a six year old, it felt like an eternity.  Not to mention it led to really tired arms.  But as we all know, food processes are not magic, they are science!  So what is the science behind churning butter?

To understand how churning works, we have to take a closer look at cream.  Cream is basically fat and protein (along with vitamins, minerals, antibodies, etc.) suspended in water.  The fat is contained in a coat of protein, so it's nice and balanced.  As the milk ages, this protein coat will start wearing away, allowing the fats to clump together.  If you leave a container of milk out long enough, it will sour, fall out of suspension, and you can actually see these 3 distinct layers.  The protein and other elements, being heavier than water, will sink to the bottom.  The fats will float on the surface, and the "water" level will be in the middle. The smell of this rotten milk is amazingly bad, so I don't recommend it.  Conveniently there is an easier (and tastier) way to get the fat to clump together, i.e. form butter.  By agitating the cream, these little bubbles of fat coated in protein will start bumping together.  As they bump together, the protein coat starts chipping away, so that the fat globules are exposed.  Once that happens, the fat will start coming together faster than popular kids in high school.  Thus, you are left with all the fat in one clump (butter), and everything else (butter milk).

While I may be guilty of owning several unusual tools (like my drop spindle), I do not, in fact, own a butter churn.  I also remember the pain of trying to shake that mason jar, so that method was out.  I do, however, have a stand mixer, which is very good at agitation.  All the instructions I read about churning butter in a stand mixer said that the transformation from cream to butter happens suddenly, and to use the bowl shields, plastic wrap, or anything else to guard against the buttermilk splashing all over the place.  Unfortunately, I am also occasionally guilty of not being very bright.  I assumed that if kept my stand mixer going at its lowest speed, then it shouldn't be a problem, because I'd be able to hear the beginnings of sloshing and turn it off.  This is not the case.  The transition between a thick whipped cream and butter/buttermilk happens very suddenly, and there is a large amount of splashing once it does.  I may have had to do a fair amount of cleaning of  my floor, wall, counter, etc.  Don't be me.  The second time I made cultured butter, not only did I use the shields, but also plastic wrapped any open spaces.  I can occasionally be taught.

After the butter comes together, all that is left to do is to rinse out any spare buttermilk to help keep the butter from going rancid using very cold water, shape it into a ball (easy if you are rinsing it in cheesecloth), and add salt if desired.  Store the butter in the fridge tightly wrapped.  With all the effort you went into making this amazing thing, it would be exceptionally sad for the butter to pick up "refrigerator smell".  Also, don't forget to save your buttermilk, you can use it to make fried chicken, biscuits, or all sorts of other things.

One last note about salting or not salting butter.  Unless there is a recipe that specifically calls for salted butter (like these salted butter caramels from David Lebovitz), always use unsalted.  Not only does it give you more control over the amount of salt, the salted butter will produce a sort of sour taste in the final product.  Just like with many things, you can always add more, but you can't take any out.  Unless the plan for the cultured butter is for use on toast or bread, I recommend just leaving out the salt.

What to do with the finished cultured butter?  I'm going to test out mine by baking croissants.

Final Analysis

Financial Outlay: Cultured butter requires two basic ingredients, cream, and mesophilic culture.  The cost of cream can vary depending on where you live.  I got my culture for $5.00 from Standing Stone Farms, which is enough for over a dozen batches of cultured butter (or a variety of other types of cheese!).  So the cost is definitely higher than your run of the mill butter, but if you're comparing to something like Plugra, it becomes much more economical.  Especially if you are also using the buttermilk produced.

Time: The active processing time, if you're not churning the butter using a mason jar, is less than an hour.  However, the time required to culture the cream is at least six hours. Definitely not a last minute project, but not overly intensive either.

Quality: The result of this is a good, fresh, high quality butter.  I did not taste test directly next to Plugra, but I would put it up there at least on the same level.  The results after using it for baking were amazing.  Spreading it on a good fresh crusty bread could be phenomenal as well.  Even considering this makes me want to go make more just to use as a spread on things.

Fun: Most of the process of culturing butter is waiting (as the warming and the churning take up a very small amount of time to do).  Choosing to not use the shields on a stand mixer could provide a sort of Jack-in-the-Box sword of Damocles excitement to your afternoon, followed by lots of cleaning.  But in this case it is much better to consume the finished product than make it. It's not "un-fun", but it is no wild and crazy time either.

Apr 22, 2014

Baking for Child's Play

I have finally almost recovered from PAX East. While a three day convention of gamer geeks is always one level of exhausting, this year I decided to take an extra step to get involved with the Cookie Brigade.  The cookie brigade is a group of, essentially, guerrilla fundraisers for Child's Play. Child's Play is a charity that provides toys, games, and books to children's wards in hospitals.  Essentially it's gamers coming together to fight the stereotype that video games are a force of evil, and do an awful lot of good in the process.  Child's Play also just happened to be founded by the same guys who run PAX. I know it's somewhat circuitous, but it makes sense in the end, right?

Volunteers will bake an insane number of cookies, candies, and other types of baked goods.  Some people will bake thousands of cookies for this three day weekend, and there's even an achievement of the dozen dozen dozen. Yup, that is 1,728 cookies baked by one person, for one three day weekend. Then, other volunteers (and sometimes some of the same ones) will give out all of these treats for free, while being exceptionally grateful for all the donations to child's play that we receive.  Every cent goes directly to the charity.

I actually took a couple of days off of work before PAX just to have more time to bake. There were some oatmeal raisin cookies, chocolate chip cookies, rice krispy squares, raspberry meringue kisses, and some other bake sale-esque standards, but I thought I would share some of the lesser known things that I made:

Kirby Marshmallows

If you ever played video games in the 90's, you will probably recognize Kirby.  The marshmallow to the left is somewhat simplistic, but hey, so is the design of the character.

Marshmallows are fairly easy to make, in the realm of candy, and I've found that there are two different types.  Those that contain egg whites, and those that don't.  It isn't a question of being vegetarian, as they still contain gelatin.  So unless you choose to use a purely plant based gelatin, they will not and cannot be vegan.

Other than the egg whites, the recipe is basically the same.  Sugar, corn syrup, water, gelatin, vanilla, and then a "marshmallow mix" of powdered sugar and corn starch.  If you have tried any of my gummy candy, the basic ingredients aren't that different. 

Alton Brown has a reasonably good marshmallow recipe that does not contain egg whites.  I've tried the recipe, and it's not bad.  I don't, however, think that the result creates quite as light and fluffy an end product as what I could get in a store.  So as much as they look cool, and I could impress people by saying that I've made marshmallows, or go ahead and make all sorts of interesting flavors, they don't make it all the way to "oh my god" good.

If I want to get to that level, I have to turn to David Lebovitz. His is my go to recipe. Instead of weighing out my gelatin (as it's between 2-3 envelopes of standard gelatin), I will usually just use the 3 whole packets. I've done it both ways, and there is enough flexibility in the execution that they turn out great.  If I'm feeling lazy, or if I don't have an immediate use for the egg yolks, I will just use meringue powder/dried egg whites. 

Now the question, why egg whites?  If you've ever made a meringue or an angel food cake, you can probably guess.  Thinking about food science, what is an egg white and what does it do? If you said that it is a source of protein, and adds structure to whatever it is in, you get a gold star.  When baking, protein creates the scaffolding to provide form and structure.  This is the reason why bread (which uses a high protein flour) is chewier and can support larger air bubbles than a cake, which uses a low protein flour.  Another way to consider it is to think of bubble wrap.  Bubble wrap is a strong structure that will trap air inside.  In this case, the egg whites (along with the gelatin) is the 'plastic' from the bubble wrap that will hold the air.  If the plastic is weak, the bubbles will break, and the air escapes, leading to a dense, flat marshmallow.  If the plastic is too strong, however, there would be a lot of air, but it would be way too chewy.  Because of the huge amount of air that are in store bought marshmallows, I want to be able to maximize the air inside.  The egg whites help me do that. 

Because I wanted Kirby his traditional pink, I added a few drops of red food coloring until the mixture was the right color, and poured it out to set in cake pans.  Once the marshmallows set, a cookie cutter and some cake decorating gel brought his cheerful face to life.

Chichi Dango Mochi

Tri-Colored Chichi dango mochi
This is a type of rice cake that I came to learn about from people who grew up in Hawaii.  It not only has a coconut flavor to it, but also happens to be both gluten free and vegan, just by accident.  While friends of mine consider anything that's not at least 2-3 color mochi substandard (as it is traditional in Hawaii to do 2 or 3 colors) it is equally as tasty if it is just plain white.  The recipe I use is a blend of a few other recipes I've found, so I will put it here.  But virtually any chichi dango recipe will be pretty much the same.

1 Box (1 lb.) of  Mochiko 
1 12 ounce can of Coconut Milk
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups water
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon salt
Kinako (optional)
Food coloring (optional)
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. In a bowl, combine the Mochiko, sugar, and baking powder.
  3. In another bowl, combine the coconut milk, water, and vanilla.
  4. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix until combined, making sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl.
  5. If making single colored mochi, pour into a greased 9x11 inch pan, cover tightly with tinfoil, and bake for 60 minutes, or until the top appears fully set.  Let it cool fully in the pan.  Slice into small squares (1-2 inches) and eat.  If desired, roll pieces in Kinako before eating or storing.

    If making tri-colored mochi, separate batter into 3 equal parts.  Add food coloring to achieve desired colors.  Grease a 9x11 cake pan, and pour the first part in the bottom.  Cover tightly with tinfoil, and bake for 10 minutes, or until the cake has set (there are no puddles on the top).  Pour the second color on top, re-cover with aluminum foil, and return to the oven for 20 minutes, or until the layer has set.  Finally, add the third layer, cover with aluminum foil, and bake for an additional 30 minutes, or until the final layer has set.  Let it cool fully in the pan.  Slice into small squares, roll in kinako if desired, and eat.  

Peanut Butter Fudge

I previously did a post on my peanut butter cookie fudge here, but even the basic peanut butter fudge is so good that it bears repeating. While the peanut butter cookie fudge is quite good, the original recipe is just about perfect, and can be found on the Marshmallow Fluff Page.  I tend to use a candy thermometer when I make it, but it is not necessary.  The ingredients are all very basic, with the only potential difficulty being marshmallow fluff.  Outside of New England I've heard it can be a little harder to find.  On occasion I've substituted regular marshmallows for it if I was running short.

There are also variations to try if you're being adventurous.
  • The peanut butter cookie fudge linked above
  • After pouring out into the pan to cool, mixing in swirls of Nutella, or other peanut butter friendly spreads
  • After pouring out into the pan to cool, add a thin layer of chocolate to the top.
This fudge is fun because it is relatively easy to mold (for the larger silicone molds).  I did one batch as the portal companion cubes.  However, I have found that the molds tend to dry out the edges of the fudge, so there is a give and take there.  The molds make the pieces adorable, but the quality is a touch higher with just the squares.  I did have an idea during the craziness of baking, but I haven't had the opportunity to try it out yet. If it works, it will warrant its own post, so you'll just have to check back.

Mar 31, 2014

Cocktail Recipe: Res Judicata

Res Judicata Recipe
Res Judicata at Drink

It's time again for a tasty cocktail recipe that few have heard of, made up of ingredients that many have never heard of.  This cocktail was created by Devon at Drink, and is a variant off of a Brooklyn.  I'll give the recipe first, and then move on to any of my thoughts about it.

Res Judicata (Pronounced 'Race Jyu-di-ca-ta')

1 ounce Bigallet China China
1.5 ounces Laphroig 10 Year
0.5 ounce maraschino
lemon peel

Shake the china china, laphroig and maraschino with ice, and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon peel.

Let's talk a little about the unusual ingredients. There are some people who consider drinking scotch in any way other than in a glass with whiskey stones (to not water it down) a travesty.  If this is you, just back away slowly and pretend that you never saw this drink. I am not one of those people. Scotch can be a little harsh at times, but can also have some nice subtle flavors that range from a bit of caramel to the almost magic marker nose and smokey flavor that come with others.  Not being a huge scotch person myself, I am sure that there are many other options than that, and I am happy to let those passionate about the subject wax rhapsodic elsewhere.    But, just because something works well on its own doesn't mean that combining it with something else can't make something else that is tasty.  Personally I think that Edradour is a very good scotch that plays exceptionally well with amaretto.

Bigallet China China is a French liqueur dating back to the early 1800s.  Personally, I had never heard of it before Devon made this drink for a friend of mine. To give you the short story, it's a very complex bitter liqueur with orange, cardamom, cinnamon, and licorice. Also quinine, which could be of interest if you are a Victorian explorer with malaria.  As I am not, it is not something I would personally want to drink straight, but the flavors play well with the smokey nature of the Laphroig.

It has taken me a long time to really appreciate the importance of garnishes in a cocktail.  In a good cocktail bar, garnishes are not just window dressing to try to illicit an extra tip. Except for the little umbrellas or other non food item garnishes (even liquid, adult Happy Meals sometimes come with free toys!). Most other garnishes actually add flavor to the drink.  Don't believe me?  Just try this little experiment.  You can use the recipe above, or even something simple like a gin and tonic.  Just as long as it is a beverage that would normally have a fruit peel garnish.

  1. Make the drink as usual, but without the garnish.  Take a sip.  If you want, you can break it out into 3 smaller cups for comparison.
  2. Peel 2 strips of peel to use as the garnish.  For one, just take the colored part of the skin.  For the second, cut deeper so that the bottom is white.
  3. Take the peel that has the pith on it (the white underpeel) and rub that white part along the rim of the glass.  Take a sip.  It will be a bit more bitter.  Grab a damp napkin, and wipe off the rim (so that the bitterness doesn't affect the last portion of your test).
  4. Take the other piece of peel, run it around the rim again, and then twist it a little over the drink.  For this one, feel free to drop it into the drink (I just didn't want you to ruin your drink in step 3).  Now take a sip.  This time, you should be able to taste a very minor, but important difference between the first naked sip and what you have now.  But you are still avoiding the bitterness of the pith.
If you don't notice any difference, or if you preferred the first, naked cocktail, then great! You never have to worry about garnishing that drink again! And you know a little bit more about how to order at a bar.  Otherwise, now you know a little more about the role that the garnish plays in your drink.

Mar 18, 2014

Cocktail Recipe: The Defendant

The Defendant, at Drink

This cocktail is in the family tree of The Last Word, which has spawned a wide variety of drinks from the Final Ward, to the Naked and Famous, Asterisk, Dernier Mot, and the Prosecutor. On paper, they pretty much all look like they would be really bad ideas, but are much tastier in practice. In my opinion, the Naked and Famous is still a really bad idea, but I know several people who adore it, so it's sort of a "De gustibus non est disputandum" problem.

The Defendant, if you couldn't guess, is the sister cocktail to the Prosecutor, and was created by Ezra Star at Drink. It's sweet, complex, and has a little thicker feel to it than many cocktails.  The falernum, which can vary widely by brand or bar (depending on whether they make it in house) adds some nice spice notes like ginger and allspice.  This cocktail also does very well in gummy bear form.

The Defendant:

 3/4 oz. Mezcal (I prefer Vida)
3/4 oz. Maraschino
3/4 oz. Falernum
3/4 oz. Lemon Juice

Combine with ice, shake, then serve. If desired, garnish with a maraschino cherry (the real ones, not the nuclear red ones that are used on ice cream sundaes).

Final Analysis

Financial Outlay: These are not ingredients that you find in most people's house bar. The initial outlay for ingredients can be steep. So definitely try this in a high quality cocktail bar before laying out cash for ingredients that you may only ever use once. You may have to go to a higher end cocktail bar to get one though, as falernum is not all that common.

Time: Measure, shake, pour, drink.  Takes no more time than any other shaken cocktail.

Quality: With the same ingredients and attention to mixing, making one at home turns out just as good as one from a skilled bartender.

Fun: If you like cocktails, and like making cocktails, then I suppose it is fun.

Feb 19, 2014

A Sous Vide Most Fowl

Like it or not, there are certain things that are just plain harder to cook than others, even with a judicious use of food science. Thinking of things that fall into this category, pretty much all I could think of were meats. Cooking a whole turkey is a balancing act because of the variety of sizes and shapes of the cuts of meat to contend with. A T-bone is actually two steaks in one, with a bone in the middle. Both duck and pork belly have a thick layer of fat to render, while cooking the meat all the way through and getting a crispy skin. Basically if there are multiple textures, layers, sizes or shapes, it is going to be difficult to cook properly. This is where the sous vide comes in.

After the absolutely amazing lamb, and a couple of perfectly cooked steaks, I started to branch out to try to see if the sous vide could essentially idiot proof some of these challenging foods. Through coincidence of seeing it in the grocery store, I started with a duck breast. With regards to cooking the meat, duck has all the same challenges of any other poultry; undercooked it carries risks of salmonella, overlooked it can be dry or rubbery. Conveniently, when only cooking a breast the challenge of having bones goes away. But duck also has a fairly thick fat layer which really needs to be rendered out, otherwise it just gets greasy and, well, fatty. On top of that, one of the best things about properly cooked duck is the crispy skin. Considering that the proper temperature of the cooked meat is also perfect for getting the fat to render, break out the sous vide!

Simple Sous Vide
After doing some poking around online for times, temperatures, and seasonings, I salted and peppered the duck and stuck it into a vacuum sealed bag. A few hours later I came back to prepare the rest of dinner. 

Just out of the Water Bath
I seared the duck skin in a very hot cast iron skillet, and, as it didn't seem quite crispy enough yet, broke out the heat gun to give it some even higher, more directed heat.

Seared Duck Breast

After that, just slice it up, and I had a perfectly cooked medium rare duck breast.

Sliced Duck Breast
So the important question, how was it? Well, it was quite all right. It was a little bit chewy, and didn't quite have the melt in your mouth texture that the lamb did. But the balance of the skin, fat layer, and meat was nearly perfect. From doing a little poking around on the internet, it is possible that the texture issues were due to the duck itself. Apparently breasts from older ducks tend to get a bit tough, so knowing the source of the duck is even more important than most other meats. For me, duck itself is not so transcendent a meat to make it really worth it. It's good to know that I can make a properly cooked duck breast, but it is unlikely that I would do it often.

The second experiment for a complicated meat was fried chicken. When starting with raw chicken, the temperature of the oil needs to be just right to cook the chicken and the skin properly, and not make the chicken chewy, under cooked, or greasy. Personally, I don't tend to deep fry enough things to have a really good feel for the proper oil temperature (although if you asked me several years ago when I was working grill, I probably would have a different answer). So what if you could idiot proof making fried chicken so that the chicken is already cooked, and the only thing that you had to fry was the skin?

Most good fried chicken recipes that I've seen encourage marinating the chicken in buttermilk or yogurt for a while, to let the enzymes soften up the chicken. Why not just let the chicken marinade while it was cooking, since the temperatures were not going to be high enough to cause any detrimental effects? So, after breaking down the chicken, I mixed up some yogurt, paprika, garlic powder, and cayenne, slathered it all over each piece of chicken, threw them into the bags to seal up, and popped them into a 150 degree water bath.

In this case, I put the chicken into the sous vide before I went to work, so it was probably in there for about 10 hours. All that was left to do was to take it out, coat it in flour, and fry it. Since the internal temperature was already cooked, I didn't need to worry about having my fat too hot (as long as it was below its smoke point). If you were ever interested in how frying actually works, check out this article at Fine Cooking. So the chicken could be fried in a very short time.

How was it? This may have been the absolute best fried chicken I have ever had in my life. The sous vide process eliminated any toughness from the meat, but because it wasn't over cooked, it also wasn't falling off the bone. It was just about perfect. I now want to find the perfect spicing for the chicken, because I would eat it ALL THE TIME. Sorry that I have no pictures of it, it just didn't survive that long.

Final Analysis

Financial Outlay: In terms of special equipment, this requires a sous vide and bags. With the Dorkfood sous vide and my dumb crock pot, that would mean an initial outlay of $140 or so (for both the sous vide and crock pot). The bags themselves aren't very expensive. If you are the type to use a crock pot liner, it would be about the same cost. On top of that, meat costs will vary.

Time: Similar to crock pot dishes. There is usually a reasonably low amount of prep time, then a fairly long wait, then a low amount of finishing time. So not the method for someone who gets home at 6PM and then starts thinking "what do I want for dinner?" but for anyone who is already enamored with their crock pot, or even plans meals ahead, it's not a problem.

Quality: Yes. The quality is definitely better, because it helps to idiot proof preparation methods. With respect to the duck, which was still very tasty, I think that the quality was still much higher than it would have been if I had tried any other cooking method. The fried chicken, I just have to say again, was amazing.

Fun: This is a hard one to quantify. There is a novelty factor involved with the vacuum sealing, and the fun of playing with a new gadget. Other than that, I'd say the fun level is about the same as cooking with a crock pot in general. However, there is one drawback to normal crock pot cooking. Because all the food in a sous vide is vacuum sealed, if something is cooking for multiple hours after you leave the house, when you come back, it smells exactly the same. There is no wonderful wafting scent when you walk in the door. But, for some dishes, it's a small price to pay.

Feb 14, 2014

Capturing Valentines Day: Sweet and Bitter

Negroni Gummy Candy
I'm not a big proponent of Valentines day.  Traditionally, I've been much more of a fan of shopping for clearance candy on the 15th.  But this year, I was in the local grocery store, and found some $2.00 silicone ice cube trays that made small heart shaped ice cubes.  With the resulting cubes being the perfect gummy candy size, how could I resist?

Being hearts, and being Valentines day, I knew that I wanted to do something red.  Sazaracs make good hard candy, but I'm not quite as sold on them as gummy candy.  I wanted to try something new.  And I didn't want to use anything cranberry juice based, because I figured that finding a good balance of tart and sweet would be a pretty big challenge.  After wracking my brain for a naturally red cocktail, I picked the brains of some of my more, um, "alcoholically knowledgeable" friends.  Some of the recommendations I got were a sloe gin fizz, a Singapore sling, a negroni, and a few other obscure cocktails. The negroni is the favorite cocktails of one of my favorite bartenders, and I have found that bartenders tend to give free beverages when you bring them candy (especially homemade cocktail flavored candy).  Thus, I decided to try that.

Negroni cocktail.  Bitter in a glass.
The recipe for a negroni is as follows:

1.5 ounces gin
1.5 ounces campari
1.5 ounces sweet vermouth

Stir all 3 ingredients in a highball glass with ice.  Garnish with orange peel.

Here is a very important note about this cocktail.  It is bitter.  Seriously bitter.  I am under the impression that this is one of those cocktails where you either love it or hate it.  Personally, I am not a fan. But, feel free to substitute the negroni with your favorite cocktail.  I have had wonderful results with most other cocktails, including a 20th Century, margarita, dark and stormy, and mamie taylor.

To make the candy:

1 negroni (without ice)
6 packets gelatin
2 cups sugar (plus extra for dusting)

Special equipment: candy thermometer

Mix a negroni without the ice, and add enough water to make 1 cup of liquid.  Instead of the orange for this, I added a dash of orange bitters (and a couple of drops of red food coloring, for that extra bright red).  Sprinkle the 6 packets of gelatin over the liquid and set aside to bloom.  If using molds, have them out and ready.  Otherwise, grease a 9x9 pan.

In a saucepan, mix 2 cups of sugar with 1 1/4 cup of water.  Attach a candy thermometer, and heat the mixture to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.  Remove from heat, and mix in the now solid negroni gelatin mixture. As soon as the mixture is incorporated, pour into the molds to set.  I find a small disher works beautifully for this process.  If using a pan instead, pour all the mixture into the pan.

Negroni Gummy Heart Candy setting
Let the candies cool to room temperature.  If molds were used, pop the candies out of the mold.  They can sometimes be a little sticky, so just be a little patient, and pull slowly. Once removed from the mold, toss to coat in sugar.  The sugar will help keep the candies from sticking together, and will also help make them last longer.  If a pan was used, slice the candies into squares, or use small cookie cutters to make shapes.  Toss the pieces in sugar.

Final Analysis 

Financial Outlay: I'll be honest, buying gummy bears or acid jellies is a cheaper option. But this is why I'm always trying unusual flavors that don't really exist anywhere else.
Time: About 30 minutes of active work, plus time to let the candy set.  I may be guilty of making gummy candy as a last minute "bring something to a party" treat, throwing it together before hopping in the shower to get ready to go out.
Quality: In general, these are excellent.  In this specific case, with the negroni, I reserve judgement until I have someone who actually likes the cocktail taste the candy.  Although I do find the sweet/bitter balance a little interesting, as the bitter is all at the back end of the flavor.
Fun: As I have made gummy candy on multiple occasions now, it should be obvious that I like doing them.  While there are risks of crystallization any time you work with sugar (and burns whenever working with anything that hot), there is virtually nothing that can go drastically wrong, like seizing when working with chocolate.  I say try it! Just maybe not with a negroni...

Jan 30, 2014

Sous Vide: Take Your Crock Pot to the Next Level

I've written a few times about the Harvard series of food science lectures from this year.  I consider it a really good thing to understand how food works, both from a nutritional standpoint as well as understanding how to cook an amazing meal.  The problem with having high end chefs do lectures, however, is that they tend to have all sorts of expensive toys that aren't available to the home chef.  While a home chef may have a food torch (although a heat gun can work just as well), virtually no one would have a salamander (or even really have a need for one).

After one of the lectures, a friend and I were wondering what, if anything, would be the next great kitchen appliance that trickled down from the professional kitchen.  Most appliances have remained generally unchanged over the last 50 years.  Sure, you may have a blender that makes soup, and has a heating element, but it is still basically a blender.  It just has some extra bells and whistles.  The last great kitchen innovation was the microwave.  When they first came out they cost thousands of dollars, but now virtually every college student has at least a $20 model in their dorm room.  So what's next?

Anyone who has watched Food Network over the past few years will have eventually heard of sous vide (pronounced "Sue-Vee").  They may have even heard chefs rave about how amazing the results from this are.  But what is it?  Basically, it is a super duper slow cooker.  The idea is that food is put into a vacuum sealed bag, and cooked in a water bath at the temperature that the final product will be. I can hear all the non-foodies now, in unison, going "Okayyy, but why would that matter?"  Let's focus on meat for a minute.  Cooking meat tends to be a balance between time and temperature.  If the temperature is too hot, the outside can be burnt with a raw inside, and if it is too cold, by the time the center is cooked, the rest of it is dry and chewy.  Cooking a good steak using a grill or even a good cast iron skillet takes a bit of skill, and requires good timing.  Even then there is a gradient of "doneness".

Outside seared goodness
medium cooked
pink center
medium cooked
Outside seared goodness

Sous vide takes both the time pressure and temperature concerns out of the equation.  When cooking in the sous vide, the entire piece of meat will be the same temperature as that nice pink center.  It just takes a little longer to get to the right temperature.  So with a steak, the whole thing will be equally medium rare when it comes out of the water bath.  Give it a very quick sear in a very hot pan to get some maillard goodness, and it becomes an immediate perfect steak.  A person can cook a cheaper, tougher cut of beef, which tends to be a lot more sensitive to overcooking without the risk. This makes it obvious why restaurants would want to have a sous vide.  They can serve cheaper meat that turns out just as tasty as more expensive cuts, and they can pre-cook steaks (or many other dishes) to be quickly served at perfect temperatures. But for home use? Is it feasible, and is it even worth it?

A sous vide "oven" is $300 to $600. A thermometer/heating unit/circulator which will attach to a pot is still around $200. These still seem a little gadget-y, expensive, and unlikely to really catch on.  During the course of the conversation about the next great home kitchen appliance, I posited that a sous vide would not necessarily become its own appliance, but that I could see it as a feature of something like a crock pot.  They both are designed to cook at a low temperature for a long period of time, and there are some crock pots where you can set the temperature already; just not necessarily as low as some of the sous vide temperatures.  Also, as the crock pot tends to have heat coming in from both the bottom as well as the walls, it wouldn't require quite as much circulation.

So wasn't I surprised when I received this as a Christmas present.  It's a $99 device that works with any "dumb" crock pot, like mine! To make it work:

  1. Plug the temperature controller into the wall.
  2. Plug the crock pot into the temperature controller.
  3. Fill the crock pot with water, leaving space for the food to go in without overflow.
  4. Set the temperature on the temperature controller.
  5. Place the heat sensor into the water.
  6. Turn the crock pot to high.
The temperature sensor controls the power to the crock pot like a thermostat controls heat to a house, turning the heat on and off to maintain a proper temperature. I like the concept.  It is small, it is cheaper than all the other options (that aren't a "Build it yourself" model) and it improves one of my favorite kitchen appliances.  Which begs the question: Does it work, and does it make a difference in food quality?

The first item I tried cooking in it was a lamb roast that had been sitting in my freezer for... let's just say probably way too long. But, as there was no indication of freezer burn, there was a reasonably low chance of food poisoning from undercooked lamb (as opposed to chicken) in case it sort of worked, and I didn't have to pay any extra for it (since I already had it) I thought it was a good choice for a first run. I stuffed the lamb with some herbs, tied it up, and sealed it up in a zip top sous vide bag.

Based on the thickness of the finished roast after it had been put into a bag, the recommended cook time was somewhere between 4-12 hours at 137 degrees. After seeing that the apparatus was, in fact, working, I left it to do its thing and went out for a few hours.  The downside to this method compared to using a crock pot is that when I came home, my apartment was not filled with the scent of lamb.  It was all sealed in a bag. Oh well, talk about first world problems. After letting it cook for about 7 hours, we took the lamb out of the water bath, and to be safe, I took the temperature of the middle.  137 on the dot. So the temperature controller really did do its job.

Using a crock pot to make the best roast you've ever had
Sous vide lamb roast, after 10 minutes under the broiler
About ten minutes under the broiler to get a nice crispy skin, and we were about ready for the final test.  Did the long low cook make any discernible difference to the flavor, texture, or experience of the meal? I mean, it looked amazing, and smelled really good, but was it worth seven hours?

Look at the picture below, and compare it to the gradient of doneness that I mentioned above.  Notice something?  There is no medium level.  There is a beautiful seared skin, and then perfectly uniform medium rare lamb as far as the eye can see.
A perfect medium rare piece of lamb, every single piece.
The prettiest sliced lamb roast I've ever seen
So finally, what did it taste like? It was absolutely amazing. It was perfectly cooked, tender, and absolutely delicious. I have a feeling that I will be using a lot more of this device in the future.