Breakfast, Cocktails, eggs, Latin, Midwest-y, Pork Products, Random Thoughts

Your medium western states.

When I was growing up in Milwaukee in the Seventies, my city was the epicenter of American prime time television culture, what with Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley and all. The interesting thing is it came by this fame not for displaying its contemporary charms, but by portraying a sort of idealized vision of a Fifties-era Milwaukee, evoking a sagging nation’s fondness for its own better days. If you doubt the prominence of Wisconsin in Seventies pop culture and its use as a nostalgic prop, I submit to you that, twenty years later, Fox set That Seventies Show not in New York or San Francisco or Southern California, but in my home state. As viewed through the lens of television, the whole idea of Wisconsin is like standing in one of those bathrooms with a mirrored shower door opposite a mirrored wall. You can stand there and watch yourself traveling backwards through time into infinity.

Fairly or not, in any case, the Midwest as a whole has come to represent the situs of not only American nostalgia but a sort of anti-progress, looking backward at our past as though into the endless regression of those reflected mirror images. Is it true – that we stand still while time eddies around us? Does it matter? Which brings me to South Dakota, where I recently spent a week driving around with a colleague, another transplanted Midwesterner now living on the east coast.

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Here’s the thing about living in the city: it can turn you into a glutton for novelty and status. You get to the point where you always order the one unfamiliar item on the menu, which you have scanned for words like tripe, foraged, and hay-smoked to ensure the chef, like you, has been doing his homework. Securing a cronut comes with bragging rights, until that sudden moment when they’re so over, as over as cupcakes and salted caramel, fodder for copycatting on mommy blogs and the Starbucks bakery case. You watch that Portlandia episode with an expanding sense of unease, like, are you this ridiculous? Maybe you are this ridiculous.

None of this is an issue in rural South Dakota. Your dining options are basically limited to truck stops and taverns, and you had better like beef, or you’re shit out of luck. One night during our visit, we ordered grilled ribeyes, which came with a trip to the salad bar. “You first,” I gestured to my colleague. He returned a few minutes later with a frosted glass plate of iceberg lettuce and what looked like macaroni salad. “Don’t get too excited,” he cautioned me in his low-key Michigander way, as I stood for my turn. Nestled beside the bowl of rust-tinged iceberg lettuce in the salad buffet was something I thought could be creamed mushrooms. For one demented moment, I even thought it might be edible soil folded into mayonnaise. I took a big spoonful. It turned out to be crushed Oreos folded into vanilla pudding, which, I learned the next day, is called “cookie salad” locally and may be varied by substituting other cookies or candy bars for the Oreos, and Cool Whip for the pudding. “That sounds great,” my husband said later that night, when I gave him the post-game over the phone. “Not as salad, though.”

This is the kind of food that makes sophisticates on the coasts cast knowing glances of pity and scorn on their Midwestern associates. And plant foods are not the strong point of rural South Dakota at end-of-winter, based on our visit. But the ribeyes were deeply marked from the grill, rimmed in charred fat, and mine was the perfect medium rare I’d requested. The macaroni salad turned out to be a very good potato salad, the potato grated into long shreds and bound lightly in mayonnaise. Beers were icy, served in frosted mugs. Cookie salad notwithstanding, our dinner was the kind of thing – like grilled cheese or meat lasagne – most of us love when we’re not trying to keep up appearances. Sometimes moving forward is less important than standing perfectly still.

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Breakfast Egg

A good breakfast is a lot like a good dinner in the rural Midwest. It’s inherently retrograde – probably taking you back a couple of decades at least – and delivers total familiarity, not intellectual demands first thing in the morning. Maybe you deploy a few tricks here and there – your eggs are cooked in a water bath, your sausage is house-made – but always in the service of improvement, not novelty. Like Steve Austin. We can rebuild it. We have the technology. We can make it better than it was. But also like Steve Austin, the perfect modern breakfast still basically looks like the breakfast you remember.

When I was a kid, I figured out pretty early that I could do almost anything I wanted during weekend mornings if I was quiet enough not to wake my parents. This awareness inevitably led me down one of two paths: slice upon slice of white sandwich bread, toasted one at a time and immediately spread with thin curls of cold salted butter; or eggs, either scrambled with slices of American cheese (one per egg), or beaten and poured into a swirling vortex of chicken bouillon until just set, like a fluffy, poached, chicken-flavored omelet. Both were eaten watching Super Friends while sitting cross-legged on the kitchen counter; both were always followed, once my parents came down a couple hours later, by what I liked to call “second breakfast.”

What follows is a modern breakfast interpretation of one of my favorite second breakfasts, over easy eggs with maple-y sausage links and bacon, toast on the side. The yolk should run somewhat; you accomplish this by cooking the egg until only the white is set, chilling, and wrapping the chilled egg in sausage. If you let the egg come to room temperature before frying, you probably will end up with a set (if soft-ish) yolk.

Transglutaminase is not strictly necessary. It binds the protein in the pork to that in the egg white, but you can achieve a pretty ok effect by rolling the eggs in flour. The downside to flour is it can form an unappetizing pastelike substance when it combines with the moisture in the pork, so use only the merest coating. And if you don’t keep quarts of bacon fat around the house, pretty much any vegetable oil will do, though your eggs won’t taste all that bacon-y.

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For the eggs:

6 large eggs, at room temperature
Egg carton

Prepare an ice bath.

Bring 3000 ml (3 liters, about 3 qts) salted water to a boil. Carefully add the eggs. Cook just at the boil (not a rolling boil) for 4 1/2 minutes. Remove with a skimmer and deposit in the ice bath. Once the eggs are just cool enough to handle, tap lightly all over to form shallow cracks, including at both ends. Allow the eggs to rest in the ice bath under refrigeration at least 3 hours. This allows the eggs to cool but also permits water to penetrate the cracks and loosen the shell.

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When ready to coat in sausage, remove the shell. Store the eggs upright in an empty egg carton lined with clingfilm.

For the sausage:

700g/1.5 lbs pork shoulder, quite fatty (2:1 ratio shoulder to belly if a fatty cut of shoulder is not available)
2 1/4 tsp smoked salt
2 tbsp maple sugar
1/8 tsp pimentón
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
leaves from 3 sprigs thyme
1 clove garlic, peeled

Cube the pork shoulder and season with the salt, sugar, pepper, and pimentón. Freeze briefly and then add the thyme leaves and thinly sliced garlic. Grind through a small die. Cook a test quenelle and add seasoning if necessary.

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To fry:

2-4 slices bacon, depending on thickness
4 g transglutaminase (Activa RM)
4 c bacon fat
1 c flour
1 egg, beaten with 3 tbsp water
2 c panko

Set the bacon slices on a rack over a quarter sheet pan and bake at 150C/300F for 8-15 minutes (depending on thickness) until the bacon, including its fat, is just cooked but not browned. Reduce heat to 82C/180F and continue to dry the bacon until crisp, about 3 hours. Not browning the bacon is important, as browned bacon will burn once fried later. Drain well on paper towels, cool, and grind to a powder. Combine with the panko. Up to this point, you may store the panko blend tightly covered for several days in the refrigerator.

On a large square of clingfilm, spread about 75g (around 3 ounces) sausage in a thin (about 3 mm) layer large enough to cover the egg evenly once completely rolled. Note: You should do a test run to get a sense of the size of the sausage layer before proceeding to the next step as mistakes cannot be undone without an adverse impact on texture.

Sprinkle transglutaminase over the sausage surface in a thin layer (about 1% by weight, so just over .5g per egg). Place an egg in the center and gather the clingfilm upwards, covering the surface of the egg with sausage. Twist to enclose completely and form into an ovaline ball; repeat until all the sausage and eggs are gone. It is best to place these in a muffin/popover tin as you work so they remain round while they chill. Chill for at least 2 hours, up to overnight.

Set up a standard three part breading station and heat the bacon fat to 163C/325F. Unwrap the sausage-covered eggs as you are ready to fry. Ensure the sausage is well attached to the egg; dip in the flour, the egg wash, then the panko-bacon mixture. Fry on each side for about 6 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Serve warm with rye toast for dipping in the runny yolk.

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Bonus: Michelada

On the way home from South Dakota, I stopped at O’Hare. I never complain about laying over in O’Hare because I can stock up on Garrett’s cheese corn and have molletes at Tortas Frontera. This time, I added a cocktail to my routine. The bartender was kind enough to put it in a to go cup so I could use it to take the edge off my flight. Midwesterners are so thoughtful.

I’ve consumed many a michelada, but this was by far the best. I attribute it to the extra lime I requested. If you like drinking with breakfast at weekends, this is better than bloodies – more refreshing and far less drunk-making. I have no idea if this is how Frontera makes micheladas, but it tastes right.

Tajin* or Valentina fruit seasoning (Note: these are both dry seasonings of chile, lime, and salt and are pretty much the same. Excellent on melons, mango, and papaya. Substitute a chile salt)
One 12-ounce Negro Modelo or similar; Corona or PBR will do in a pinch
1 tsp or so Valentina hot sauce (specifically)
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
4 shakes Maggi
Juice of two limes or one really juicy, large lime
Optional: between 1/2 and 1 shot tequila (NOT silver or blanco, and nothing really expensive)
Several ice cubes

Moisten the rim of a pint glass and dip in a plate with a shallow layer of Tajin.

In the glass, stir together the hot sauce, Worcestershire, Maggi, lime juice, and tequila if using. Add the ice cubes. Slowly pour in about 1/3 of the beer and stir gently just to combine. Add the rest of the beer. Drink with more lime.

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*Note: The Tajin bottle bears an interesting warning:

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Further note: This post was brought to you by the Creative Cooking Crew:
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Baking, Breakfast, Confectionery, Dessert

Nuts for potatoes.

I take a lot of guff from friends for not having a sweet tooth. It’s true. I’d rather have a cheese plate than pudding any day, and on my birthday, when my husband takes me out to dinner, he always requests that the restaurant bring me a platter of french fries instead of cake. Evidently people find this strange.

Birthday frites (courtesy Woodberry Kitchen).

Sugar has always been easy to resist. After dinner at a restaurant? Espresso, please. Leftover Halloween candy at work? No, thank you. Cookies on the plane? My seatmate may have my share. This holds true for all sweets, at nearly all times. The exception is doughnuts. As a kid, I ate a lot of doughnuts, since my parents were fond of breakfast pastry, and I’ve always enjoyed the bready puff of a raised doughnut and the lardy-cool cakiness of a golden brown cruller.

A couple of years ago, I traveled to Mobile, Alabama to give a speech, and, after consulting a map, realized that I was a mere two and a half hours from New Orleans. I emailed a friend from southern Mississippi who, thrilled to hear that I would be passing through his hometown of Ocean Springs enroute to Louisiana the next day, immediately responded:

If you’re there tomorrow morning you MUST go to my friend’s donut shop because he makes the BEST hand-made donuts in the world.

…the not-to-be-missed donut shop is the TatoNut Shop in Ocean Springs. Ocean Springs is the cutest town on the Coast (and not just because that’s my home town). A visit to the Walter Anderson art museum is very much worth it. Plus the shops and live oaks on Washington Ave downtown, and the cute harbor (where we always kept our boat), etc.

At 10 the following morning, after leaving the podium, I drove out US-90 to New Orleans via Ocean Springs and stopped for doughnuts. Tato-Nut is a small, square building on Ocean Springs’ main street, tucked between an outdoor equipment shop and the evocatively named Palmetto Place. Its owners, David and Teresa Mohler, produce the finest doughnuts in the world.

As its name suggests, Tato-Nut specializes in potato-based doughnuts. Potato doughnuts aren’t unknown – since the early part of the 20th century, potato doughnut recipes were published as a novel means to use leftover mashed potatoes. Their popularity was so great that, after the Second World War, a chain of potato doughnut shops, called Spudnut, popped up around the country, plying a particularly tender doughnut supposedly inspired by a traditional German yeasted sweet bread. Few Spudnut shops remain, the parent company having been bankrupted in the last days of disco by a fraud scheme involving tax free bonds and the Sacramento River Delta.

Tato-Nut

The hallmark of the potato doughnut is its tender, meltaway bite. This makes sense, as potato flour, being gluten-free, does not provide the elasticity and chew of wheat flour. Some wheat flour is essential or the doughnuts cannot be shaped – in fact, potato doughnuts still are primarily wheat flour – but the addition of potato flour not only reduces the protein-firmness of the doughnut, but somewhat inhibits gluten development.

Potato doughnuts

Nearly all potato doughnut recipes – in fact, all I found – rely on cooked and mashed or riced potatoes; many used too much egg, and many were cake doughnuts leavened with baking powder rather than yeasted ones. I’ve baked cakes before using riced baked potatoes, and although they were tender enough, I wasn’t sure that riced potato was fine enough to maintain the airiness of a great raised doughnut. Indeed, when I met owner David Mohler during my first visit to Tato-Nut, it was clear that he achieves his supremely tender doughnuts using potato flour and not cooked potatoes. Accordingly, I decided to substitute about 25 percent of the AP flour in my typical raised doughnut recipe with potato flour. The resulting dough is very floppy and not necessarily easy to shape, so I recommend cutting into simple and easy to manage shapes like small circles, which fry into balls, or rectangles, which can be filled with jam or cream.

The potato flour I selected was labeled “potato powder” and came from H Mart. Confusingly, H Mart sells another product, labeled “potato starch,” which appears indistinguishable from the powder. Both are snow white and light like cornstarch, but I believe the powder is simply dehydrated and finely ground potato, not the extracted starch. Your best bet will be to consult the organic foods section in your supermarket and look for Bob’s Red Mill potato flour. Do not use dehydrated mashed potatoes.

400g AP flour
150g potato flour
50g granulated sugar (if you like a sweeter doughnut you may use up to 75g)
4g salt
7.5 g instant yeast
1 egg yolk (17g)
75g lard or shortening
275g water (up to 300g depending on humidity)
vegetable oil or lard

Sift together all the dry ingredients in a stand mixer. Combine all the wet ingredients and add to the dry while running the mixer on low. Incorporate until just combined; do not overmix.

Sifted dry ingredients: AP flour, potato flour, yeast, sugar, salt.

Water, lard, egg yolk.

Cover the bowl and set in a slightly warm place. Rise for 60 minutes. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface (50/50 AP and potato flour, or all potato flour), and shape into a large rectangle or circle, turning over once or twice to coat in the flour to prevent sticking. The dough will be very soft and fairly floppy and should only take a few turns and a light rolling with a pin. Cover with a clean cloth and proof for another 60 minutes.

Dough.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of oil about 4″ deep to 365F/185C. When the oil is hot, cut the dough into small shapes just as you are frying (I used a 1.5″ biscuit cutter) and lower into the oil. Do not cut all in advance because the soft dough will spread as it sits and you will lose the leavening when you try to lift it. The doughnuts should almost immediately form airy spheres that float to the surface. Turn constantly using a spider to ensure even cooking. When golden, remove with a spider and drain on a rack lined with paper towels. You can fry the scraps as a cook’s treat; I wouldn’t try to reshape them or they will fall, so expect some irregular shapes.

Roll in granulated or caster sugar, cinnamon sugar (12:1 sugar to cinnamon), or dip in chocolate glaze (recipe below). Cooled doughnuts also may be filled with jelly or pastry cream; use a pastry bag fitted with a small round tip.

Plain sugar, chocolate glazed, and cinnamon.

Feel the lightness.

Chocolate glaze:

1/3 c whole milk
1 tbsp corn syrup
3 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 tsp vanilla paste
2 tbsp butter
1 c confectioner’s sugar

Bring all the ingredients except the chocolate, butter, and sugar to a simmer. Add the chocolate and stir well until satiny. Add the cold butter and bring back to a simmer, stirring constantly. Add the confectioner’s sugar and bring back to a simmer, stirring constantly. When completely dissolved, remove from heat. The mixture should thicken; if it seems too thin, bring it back to a simmer for about 5-10 minutes and cool again.

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