Confectionery, Dessert, eggs, Fruit, Random Thoughts

It’s so cold in Alaska.

There’s a certain WTF quality of pre-1980s color photography that automatically makes the food of that era look gruesome. We’ve all seen the evidence. A certain percentage of the internet is devoted to the horrors of post-WWII cuisine, whether it’s the recipe cards of the 70s, cookbooks, or the horrors of gelatin. Many of these websites even mock retro food by actually preparing and eating it.

The famed Betty Crocker Recipe Card collection.

The famed Betty Crocker Recipe Card Library.

It was only a matter of time, given the attention-whoring properties of the internet and the perpetual ironic stance a certain sector of the population has adopted, before people would express their ironic detachment by engaging directly with the object of their detachment and posting accounts of these amusing encounters on the internet. This is an interesting phenomenon, as it places the practitioner in proximate, intentional contact with the subject of derision and scorn, for the specific purpose of reinforcing and publicly expressing those feelings. It isn’t just interesting, it’s perverse – and ironic as well. I hate goat cheese, for example. To me it tastes like teabagging an unwashed goatherd. But you don’t see me ordering roasted beet and chèvre salads or digging into great oozing wedges of crottin to prove that point. I stay away from things I don’t like.

My husband is fond of relating a story from his boarding school days of a number of guys who, rallying around a shared disdain for heavy metal, would spend hours on end hanging out in each others’ rooms, listening to heavy metal, playing air guitar and throwing devil horns. I once heard a piece on NPR about a group of friends who took up bowling as a form of amusement based on a shared belief that bowling is a particularly gross relic of the Happy Days era. They would regularly visit bowling alleys, wear the shoes, roll the ball, drink the PBR, the whole thing. “That’s great and all,” the raconteur observed, “but when all is said and done, you’re actually bowling.” Point, game, match. Is it really worth walking into an elevator in a public building carrying a single bicycle wheel, wearing knickerbockers, a newsboy cap, and a curling, waxed handlebar mustache (this is a true story), just to make the point that anachronistic clothing looks kind of insane today?

When it comes to actually cooking and eating retro foods as part of an exercise in mockery, one of two possibilities exists. Either the cook cannot be trusted to make and serve something he or she truly believes is delicious, calling his or her judgment into question, or the cook secretly craves the food in question but is afraid to admit it for fear of losing valuable sophistication credentials. It’s got to be hard for the urbane foodie who aspires to know the origins and living conditions of every heirloom pig that ends up as chops in the market, and makes a point to know the difference between the foodways of Tuscany and Umbria, to admit to a fondness for hotdish, or the old-fashioned meat lasagne made with those ruffle-edged Creamettes noodles, or crock pot meatballs in barbecue sauce. Here’s the thing, though. Put those items on a table at your next party alongside some expensive locally sourced baby vegetables and see which one goes first. The answer may surprise you.

Baked Alaska “Egg”

Baked Alaska is one of those desserts you almost never see on menus, although it has made the rare appearance during the last few years on the menus of a certain type of restaurant, usually the kind that serves expensive versions of meatloaf and fried chicken. By the time I learned about it, when I was a kid riffling through my mother’s Betty Crocker Recipe Card Library in the mid 70s, it was already well on its way out of fashion, discarded as a midcentury relic in favor of pineapple upside-down cakes and crêpes Suzette. But the prospect of a baked dessert that somehow maintained a cold ice cream center was irresistible. To my six year-old conception of the world, it sounded like magic. “American Classics” card 15, “Individual Brownie Alaskas,” displayed a fetching mound of candy-pink peppermint ice cream atop a brownie layer, frosted with pillowy meringue tipped golden from the oven, a slight wedge removed as proof the inside remained frozen. “Seasonal Favorites” card 2, “Orange Baked Alaskas,” was even more glamorous, a hollowed-out orange capped in swirling meringue, encasing orange sherbet. “The first Baked Alaska was created at famous Delmonico’s restaurant in 1867 to honor the purchase of the new territory,” the card recites. How did they do it? Was it both hot and cold?

The beauty of the Baked Alaska.

The beauty of the Baked Alaska.

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The easy way to make Baked Alaska is to buy a pint of ice cream, put it inside or atop something insulating (like a layer of cake), freeze it rock solid, frost it thickly with meringue and pop it in a ragingly hot oven. But then you’re left with all the egg yolks, and have to make pudding or something to use them up. Rather than doing that, why not use the egg yolks to make the ice cream for the Baked Alaska? And then make the entire thing look like an egg?

Assemble the Baked Alaskas by freezing a small sphere of passionfruit sorbet (the yolk) inside vanilla ice cream (the white) in spherical molds. Once frozen hard, place the spheres inside a baked meringue shell and top with piped-on meringue. Be absolutely sure there is no gap in the margin between the meringue shell and the meringue topping; you want to insulate the ice cream completely from the hot oven air. Bake at 500F/260C for about 2 minutes or just long enough to brown the meringue somewhat. This sounds an insanely hot oven temperature, but the goal is to blast the outside meringue so quickly the interior ice cream does not have time to heat up.

Ready to come out of the oven.

Ready to come out of the oven.

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Recipes for each component are below.

Rich vanilla ice cream

Usually, I prefer ice creams without egg; to me, the egg yolk lends its own flavor and competes unfavorably with the taste of the cream. But egg-enriched vanilla ice cream is a pretty good thing; it’s really more like a frozen crème anglaise. If using for Baked Alaska rather than just eating on its own, you must make this at least one day in advance and probably two.

1 1/4 c superfine sugar
2 tbsp bourbon smoked sugar
2 c heavy cream
1 1/4 c whole milk
1 vanilla bean, scraped
4 egg yolks, reserving whites for meringues below
scant 1/4 tsp smoked salt

Combine milk and cream. Separately, whisk together yolks, sugar, and salt until thick and lemony ribbons form.

Heat milk and cream with vanilla seeds and pod; bring to 180F and steep 10 mins. Strain.

Temper about 1 c milk/ with yolk/sugar mixture and whisk slowly back into the milk. Return to simmer. Cook custard to 180F until mixture coats back of spoon.

Cool in bain marie. Strain through fine chinois into ice cream maker. Process and then freeze hard.

Passionfruit sorbet

This is stupidly easy to make if you have access to a supermarket with a Latin foods section. Get yourself a bag of fruit pulp (Goya is the most commonly available brand) and spin it into sorbet.

Because fruit lacks the fat necessary to a good mouthfeel, I typically add gelatin to my sorbets. You don’t need much – this isn’t going to be a gelled pudding, after all – but the gelatin adds a little body and a slightly creamy consistency to the finished product.

1 14-ounce bag of Goya passionfruit pulp
3/4 c sugar
2/3 c water
2 leaves gelatin, silver strength

Bring the passionfruit pulp, sugar, and water to a simmer. Stir frequently to ensure the sugar has dissolved.

Soften the gelatin leaves in cool water and squeeze out. Whisk into the fruit base.

Cool in bain marie. Strain through fine chinois into ice cream maker. Process and then freeze hard.

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Vanilla ice cream encasing passionfruit sorbet spheres in a plastic mold.

Vanilla ice cream encasing passionfruit sorbet spheres in a plastic mold.

Meringues

This dish uses meringues in two ways: as an insulating base for the ice cream center, and as a pillowy topping. Obviously, since meringue is not stiff enough in its uncooked form to support the weight of the frozen ice cream center, you must bake some meringues first and let them dry out. If you don’t want meringues for your base, you can bake génoise or something similar instead.

Prepare the meringue in two stages. Half the egg whites go into making meringue bases; the other half should be reserved in the refrigerator and beaten just before baking the Alaskas. While you can beat egg whites and hold them for a short time, they tend to weep liquid (syneresis) if held too long under refrigeration.

Baked meringue shells

2 egg whites (75g)
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
75g each superfine (caster) sugar and powdered (confectioner’s) sugar

Oven 250F/120C.

Allow the whites to reach room temperature or warm slightly by whisking in a warm (not hot) water bath. Add the cream of tartar. Combine the sugars in a bowl.

Whisk the egg whites using a balloon whisk or a stand mixer until soft peaks form; slowly add the sugar in increments, whipping the whites until they are firm and glossy but not dry. Transfer with a silicone spatula to a pastry bag fitted with a round tip.

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Pipe onto a silpat-lined baking sheet in rounds approximately the size of the ice cream balls, with a lip at the top to hold in the ice cream. Bake for one hour; then turn off the heat and allow them to rest in the oven with the door closed to dry. Remove from the oven and cool completely. Hold in a tightly sealed container with silica gel packs for up to a week. Do not refrigerate.

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Meringue topping

2 egg whites (75g)
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
35g superfine sugar

Allow the whites to reach room temperature or warm slightly by whisking in a warm (not hot) water bath. Add the cream of tartar. Whisk the egg whites using a balloon whisk or a stand mixer until soft peaks form; slowly add the sugar in increments, whipping the whites until they are firm and glossy but not dry. If you like, transfer with a silicone spatula to a pastry bag fitted with the tip of your choice. (this is optional; you may simply use a flat or offset spatula to apply the meringue instead).

Note that this meringue is fluffier and less sticky than the meringue for the cookie base.

Note that this meringue is fluffier and less sticky than the meringue for the cookie base as it contains far less sugar.

Note that the meringue topping will not be completely cooked because it will not reach a high enough overall temperature during the final baking. If salmonella or other pathogens are a problem for eggs in your area, consider using pasteurized egg whites instead.

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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Confectionery, Dessert, Random Thoughts

The Kaiser.

I don’t know if you remember reading about this, but late last year, Hershey’s Kisses made their British debut. I did wonder how Hershey’s would be received in Britain – chocolate, and sweets generally, always seem to me such a culturally specific taste. The Cadbury bars sold in Britain taste totally different to the ones you can buy over here – more chocolatey and milky, less waxy. Of course, British candy isn’t uniformly superior – take liquorice allsorts, which are gross, although it’s debatable whether they’re grosser than jelly babies, which might taste fine but are shaped like babies. Babies! The whole idea is barbaric and deranged.

Hershey’s does have its partisans abroad, apparently, or at least has inspired imitations. Take the Kaiser, for example, whom we encountered three or four years ago in Taipei, shopping in the Carrefour. Recalling a time when I failed to stop the car at a sidewalk kiosk in southern Taiwan to buy a pack of “666 Cigarettes” and regretted it for years after, I put a few Kaiser items in the cart. When we returned to Baltimore, we contemplated the purchase. Most comically named Japanese chocolate tastes pretty good, so we thought the odds for Taiwanese candy bars were decent. Besides, the packaging made some bold claims. “Such best-quality.” “As good as other imported brands.”

The first clue that something was wrong was the texture. The Kaiser, perfectly intact and unblemished from his long journey, broke not with a crisp, glossy snap but a silent crumble. Mildly fazed, I handed a chunk to Nat. In the moments while we hesitated, the Kaiser did not melt between our fingers but shed only a thin coat of brown dust.

“Are you sure this is safe?” asked Nat.

I reminded him that Taiwan is a post-industrial country with modern food safety standards, and we popped the chunks into our mouths. “Best-quality,” my eye. I will give The Kaiser his “distinctive taste” claim, though – unlike most actual chocolate, it tasted exactly like Snack Pack. Chocolate-flavored Snack Pack. Pressed against the roof of the mouth, it flattened into waxy sheets rather than melting. It immediately called to mind the low-grade chocolate ration the proles receive in 1984 and the “Mockolate” featured on an episode of Friends (“this is what evil must taste like!”).

The second bar somehow turned up in the back of my car, possibly having escaped on the way to the dump. Having been through several summers, it should have melted and deformed. It did not, proving that the Kaiser is great and terrible. Mostly terrible. Worse yet, a recent inventory of our chocolate drawer turned up two bags of the kisses. I ate one upon discovery just to relive the horror. The Kaiser’s texture and flavor had not changed during several years in chocolate drawer purgatory.

Behold the Kaiser, in all his glory

KAISER chocolate is made from such best-quality. European raw material and automatic integrated machines imported from Europe. Because of its excellent quality and distinctive taste, this chocolate is as good as other well-known imported brands. Please enjoy the KAISER chocolate which is pleasing your taste most.

For truly excellent quality and distinctive taste, try making your own chocolate treats. I don’t mean literally from cacao beans – although that might be a project for another day. Just try working from high-quality bars, and incorporate your favorite flavors and textures. One of the best I’ve developed is a deep milk chocolate with honeycomb. Recently, I’ve been serving it at the end of meals, sometimes with a brown butter bouchon that you can eat in one or two bites.

Deep milk chocolate, orange flower honeycomb

I developed these chocolates for a Middle Eastern/Mediterranean-themed dinner last weekend. Chocolate isn’t really a Middle Eastern flavor, but orange flower water and honey certainly are, and a little creative license never hurt anyone. These are meant to have a deep milk chocolate taste, so don’t go crazy on the bittersweet chocolate. If you do, the chocolates will be harder, with more of a snap (assuming you temper them correctly), and won’t have the milky taste that works so well with the honeycomb.

I formed these using polycarbonate chocolate molds, but I’ve also used silicone ice cube forms (such as one might buy at IKEA), to good effect. The polycarbonate-molded chocolate has a cleaner and smoother surface, but I received no complaints about the silicone-formed chocolate.

8 oz milk chocolate (about 33%)
8 oz bittersweet chocolate (about 55%, not much higher), divided into 6 oz and 2 oz portions

1 c + 2 tbsp granulated sugar
2 1/2 tbsp honey
2 tbsp water
1 tsp orange flower water
2 tsp baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)

You also will need:
silpat and a sheet pan
food-grade silicone molds for chocolate or ice or whatever

Line the sheet pan with silpat.

Pour the sugar into a small saucepot and sprinkle the honey and water over its surface. Bring to a boil. The sugar will dissolve and combine with the waters and honey. Cook until the mixture reaches 300F/149C. Whisk in the orange flower water, remove from the heat, and immediately whisk in the baking soda. Don’t overmix – just combine enough that it foams aggressively, which will happen instantly.

Immediately pour into the center of the silpat. Do not stir or spread. Place in a blast chiller or a shelf in the freezer to firm up. When cold and solid (about 30 mins), pull the honeycomb off the silpat in one piece and break the honeycomb into chunks. Transfer about 1/3 the honeycomb to a plastic ziploc bag and crush with a rolling pin. Reserve the rest in an airtight container for another use.

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Meanwhile, temper the chocolate. In a double boiler, melt 6 oz bittersweet chocolate and the milk chocolate. Remove from the heat and whisk to reduce the heat. Once the chocolate reaches about 100F/38C, add the rest of the bittersweet chocolate. Whisk until it dissolves and the temperature drops to about 88F-90F/31C-32C. Stir in the honeycomb and spoon into chocolate molds.

Return to the blast chiller until solid. Pop out of molds.

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Brown butter bouchon

Sometimes I serve these with chocolates as part of post-meal petits fours/mignardises. Other times, I like to pair them with brown butter ice cream for dessert. Brown butter is one of my favorite flavors, and nothing is better than doubling up on a favorite flavor. For a surprising savory twist to the dessert, garnish with a sage leaf fried in butter and finish with a little sea salt.

2 sticks (1/2 lb) unsalted butter
1 1/2 c (6 1/2 oz or 187g) all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 c plus 2 tbsp milk
1/2 tsp double strength vanilla extract
1/3 c granulated sugar
a little more than 1/2 c firmly packed light brown sugar
2 eggs

325F/163C oven.

Prepare bouchon molds, or timbales holding about 1 1/2 oz, with nonstick spray and flour. Set aside in the refrigerator. In a pinch, you can use mini-muffin tins.

Sift together the dry ingredients. Combine the milk and vanilla in a separate vessel.

In a heavy pan, melt the butter. Once it begins to foam, watch it carefully as it turns toasted nut-brown. Remove from heat. If using cast iron or something similar, pour the butter out so it doesn’t continue to heat and burn. Refrigerate until solid.

Combine the sugars in a stand mixer and beat together. Add the brown butter, solids and all, and continue to beat, creaming until tan and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating completely after each addition.

Once the eggs are fully incorporated, add the flour and the milk mixture on low speed, alternating between the two, about 1/3 at a time.

Fill the prepared molds just short of full. Bake until a tester comes out clean from the center, about 10-12 minutes, depending on the size and shape of your molds.

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Brown butter ice cream

I owe the browning method in this recipe to Michael Laisikonis, who in turn attributes it to another chef. It is by far the best way to obtain a large volume of browned milk solids, and it makes total sense – butter comes from churning cream, but in butter-making most of the milk solids are left behind in the buttermilk, rather than the butter. So why not just start with cream? Once all the water boils off, you essentially have nothing but butterfat and plentiful milk solids.

The use of cream also resolves one of the problems with making brown butter ice cream – avoiding the palate greasiness that comes from incorporating actual browned butter, fat and all, into the milk. Once strained, the browned solids shouldn’t be terribly greasy. You can use the strained-off butterfat for cooking, where it subtly conveys that brown-butter savor.

4 c heavy cream, divided in 2c portions
1 1/2 c whole milk
1/2 c brown sugar, packed
1/2 c granulated sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla salt
2 tsp bourbon or scotch whisky

Place 2 c of the cream in a small, heavy sauce pot. Bring to a simmer and cook, whisking from time to time, until the cream separates to fat and milk solids. Continue to cook, whisking to ensure milk solids do not stick to the pan, until the solids are a deep nut brown. Do not burn. Strain through a chinois to remove as much fat as possible. Reserve the fat for another culinary use. The process should take less than an hour.

Meanwhile, combine the remaining ingredients except the alcohol in a sauce pot. Bring to a simmer to dissolve the sugars. Transfer to a vitaprep or blender and add the browned milk solids. Blitz until totally smooth and incorporated. Add the alcohol and chill in a bain marie or in the refrigerator until cool.

Transfer the cold mix to an ice cream machine and spin according to the machine instructions. Turn the frozen mixture into containers and chill for at least three hours to set.

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Dessert, Fruit, Leftover Recycling

Pure guava.

[note to subscribers: an earlier version of this entry was posted in error]

We just returned from the Bahamas, which, despite their favorable tropical location, import over eighty percent of their food. The deep Caribbean waters surrounding the archipelago are stocked with grouper, snapper, crayfish, conch, and lobster, but nearly all the catch is frozen immediately and shipped elsewhere – principally to the United States – with only a small amount of the frozen product and an even smaller amount of the fesh catch reserved for consumption across the islands. A number of fruits are widely available – tangerines, coconut, guava – but the arid, sandy environment and perennial water shortages mean that most vegetables besides bell peppers are grown elsewhere. Local beer, however, is plentiful. On the way to the supermarket, when we stopped at Smithy’s Liquor Store for a mixed case of Kalik and Sands bottles, the proprietor mixed in a few cold ones and offered to crack open a couple “for the road.” No thanks, we demurred, apologizing that we had to drive another twenty miles on an unfamiliar road toward Wemyss. “It’s not like America, you know,” she chuckled. “Around here a lot of people like to drink a beer when they drive.”

Cold brews, in the refrigerator and not the car

Beer-drinking Bahamian drivers notwithstanding, we made it to our rented vacation home in one piece. It’s a really beautiful country, the Bahamas, and our remote island location – Long Island – is renowned for spectacular scenery. My husband had warned me, however, that our Bahamian destination was long on beachy natural beauty but short on fresh food. This did not come as a surprise – years ago, in a couple of essays about Caribbean foodways, Calvin Trillin described the disappointing and ironic absence of fresh meat and fish on that side of the Commonwealth. Having prepared myself to visit the Land of the Frozen Fish Filet, I wasn’t all that disturbed when our trip to the island’s largest supermarket presented mostly canned vegetables, Spam, and a freezer case of something called “aged mutton” that appeared to have been cut into squarish chunks with a circular saw and was as maroon-dark as venison. We took a pass on the frozen mutton but stocked up on frozen pork chops, local guava and pineapple jams, and citrus fruit, most of it imported from Florida.

Fine Bahamian jams

By the last night, we had eaten everything we brought or bought, except for the dregs of a couple jars of jam and a stick of butter. I hate wasting food, even on holiday. A few years ago, after a week in Guadeloupe, I was determined not to waste a pound of good French butter and brought it back to the States, frozen and wrapped it in several layers of foil and ziploc bags. OK, not exactly. It was frozen when we left the hotel. After an hour-long flight to San Juan and an extended mechanical delay – during which our bags sat on the tarmac in the August heat and we sat in the airport bar drinking Carib – the demi-sel from Bretagne took on the consistency of mayonnaise. Lesson learned: butter doesn’t travel and it is foolish to try.

This time, faced with the choice between a ruptured ziploc bag of melted butter and a forsaken stick of butter, I selected a third way – the way of the jam tart. In addition to the leftover butter, we also had a half-jar each of the guava jam and pineapple jam. I found whole wheat flour and sugar in the pantry at our rented house; after making a quick pâte brisée and pressing it into muffin tins (you have to improvise on holiday), I blind baked the shells and filled them with jam. Lesson learned: it pays to know how to make pastry.

Long Island, Bahamas

Our beach, between Wemyss and Simms

Bahamian jam tart

The inspiration for these tarts was the distinctively non-Bahamian linzertorte, a classic Austrian jam-filled pastry. Of course, linzertorte normally is filled with raspberry jam and I used tropical fruit jams. And I didn’t lattice the pastry because I didn’t feel like it. And I used whole wheat flour, because that’s what was in the pantry. OK, so it’s nothing like linzertorte, but the wheat flour added the same kind of nuttiness that hazelnuts usually contribute.

Feel free to substitute unbleached white flour or pastry flour for the whole wheat, although the wheaty flavor provides a savory, nutty counterpoint to the sweet jam. And use whatever jam you’re trying to use up.

1 c whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
4 oz (1 stick or 1/2 c) cold unsalted butter
ice water

1 c guava jam, pineapple jam, or any other tropical fruit jam

Sift together the dry ingredients. Cut in the cold butter using a pastry cutter or knives. When the mixture resembles large peas in flour, turn it out onto a clean surface and sprinkle a little ice water over all (start with about 1 tbsp, depending on humidity). Gather the dough together and incorporate the butter and water by pushing out onto the surface with the heel of your hand, gathering the dough, and repeating until it holds together (fraisage). If you don’t feel like doing this by hand, pulse the dry ingredients, butter, and a small amount of water in a food processor. Wrap in plastic and rest, refrigerated, for half an hour.

375F oven.

Divide dough into about a dozen equal pieces, roll out, and press into muffin tins. In lieu of rolling out, if you feel lazy, press each piece into a muffin tin cup. Prick the bottom of each tart shell with a fork and blind bake for about 12 minutes, until light golden.

Remove from the oven and add a heaping tablespoon of jam to each shell. Take care to keep the jam in the center of the shells and not at the edges so the tarts don’t stick to the pan. Return to the oven and bake until the crust is golden brown. Cool on a rack.

Rustic Bahamian guava tart

Rustic pineapple jam tart

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Chicken, Dessert, preserving, Random Thoughts

Butter Queen.

Invariably, at some time between kindergarten and second grade, every Wisconsin child learns to make butter. I don’t think this is universal in other states – a quick poll of my contemporaries on the east coast yielded mostly fond, pity-the-rube chuckles and in one case, a pat on the head – but in Wisconsin, it is an essential part of the dairy industry’s youth indoctrination program. I’m not sure when California surpassed Wisconsin as the nation’s number one milk producer, but I assure you that California has not assumed the America’s Dairyland title, and it never will. That indelible association belongs to my home state, which will release its kung-fu grip on the moniker when California stops being the land of hippies and market-flooding high-alcohol Cabernets. (Crazily, Idaho is the nation’s third largest milk producer, right behind Wisconsin. Everyone knows that Idaho is the potato state, not the dairy state, so to avoid upsetting long-held commodity/geography associations and causing the universe to collapse on itself, let’s just shake our heads in disbelief and move on.)

Before you get too excited about Little House on the Prairie-like visions of Wisconsin children taking turns plunging a broom handle up and down an old-fashioned wooden butter churn, let me tell you how we did it in 1974, because the process probably hasn’t changed since then in first grade classrooms around the state. The teacher pours a quart of heavy cream into a giant bowl and plugs in an electric hand mixer. The kids crowd around in a circle and murmur excitedly at first as billows of whipped cream form. This early enthusiasm fades to disappointment and a certain loss of focus as the cream ceases to resemble Cool Whip. “Is it butter yet?” a kid invariably will call out after some minutes, tense and worried that the thick smear of cream will never become butter and that he’s going to have to stand there forever, watching the teacher circle the bowl with the beaters, and maybe miss recess. It is true that this intermediate stage takes kind of a long time. To keep this kind of kid from ruining everyone’s fond butter memories with crying, teachers with risk-seeking personalities may let the kids take turns holding the mixer and bowl. Mine did, which increased the fun quotient considerably, although in today’s bike helmet-wearing culture I doubt anyone would chance it. All of a sudden, the cream, which until that point had seemed to become thicker and thicker like whipped butter, collapses into a pool of liquid. The butter-making experiment seems to have gone horribly wrong. Moments later, though, a thin, milky liquid sloshes around the bowl and the teacher turns off the mixer. The beaters emerge, covered in butter, and after a quick rinse in the sink in the back of the room, everyone, including the panicky kid, lines up for a slice of bread with fresh butter and a little sprinkling of salt. And that, my friends, is how we party in Wisconsin.

Butter-making: so easy even a kid can watch a machine do it.

Of course, you can buy butter. Salted and unsalted, cultured butter, goat’s butter, the butter made from the cream skimmed off the milk used to make Parmigiano-Reggiano (yes, I know), organic butter, conventional butter. Why am I suggesting that you make your own, with all the options available? Because you owe it to yourself to taste just-made butter from fresh cream, before it’s had a chance to sit in some supermarket inventory for weeks, or even in your refrigerator, going rancid and absorbing all the weird smells of leftovers and vegetables going bad.

I’m not suggesting you make all or even most of the butter you use – that’s crazy talk, especially if you mostly use butter for baking or cooking, and you probably shouldn’t use house-made butter for baking because it’s just not cost effective. But if you compare the cost of house-made butter using a really good fresh cream with the cost of an organic cultured butter to spread on bread or finish a sauce, I think you’ll find that the cost is about even up or lower. For example, pints of heavy cream from Trickling Springs Creamery – an organic dairy just over the Maryland border in south central Pennsylvania – cost about $4.59 at my local organic market, but $2 of that is the bottle deposit, so the cream is just $2.59/pint. I used two pints – a quart, in other words – to make cultured cream, which I turned into almost a pound of butter. Eight ounces of organic cultured butter runs about $6 or so; my eight ounces of butter rang in at well under $3 after the bottle deposit. So this isn’t such a bad deal, and you get buttermilk as well.

Try not to make more than you’ll use in a week. This is about enjoying the freshest product, after all, and why let your delicious butter go rancid? If you make too much, though, it keeps well in the freezer, tightly sealed. Your butter yield will depend on the fat content of the cream, so go for something rich.

A load of rich creamery butter
Ever wonder why certain boxes of supermarket butter say “Sweet Cream Butter” and others don’t? “Sweet Cream Butter” is made from fresh, unfermented cream. Contrary to popular belief, the “sweet” designation has nothing to do with whether the butter has been salted or not – it refers only to the use of fresh cream. Sweet cream butter, when fresh, has a super-clean, pure taste and shouldn’t smell or taste “buttery” when cold; it will smell buttery once it meets a hot pan.

Cultured butter, sometimes called “European-style butter” in the United States, is made from cream that has undergone lactic acid fermentation, the same process that gives us crème fraîche, sour cream, and yoghurt. Cultured butter, when fresh, does have a little of that “buttery” smell and taste even when cold. That’s because lactic acid fermentation produces diacetyl, the compound responsible for butter’s “buttery” quality. In larger quantities – such as in rancid butter, or in artificial butter – it can overwhelm. Diacetyl is one of the principal components of artificial butter flavor; if you’ve ever wondered why movie theater and microwave popcorns have that too-pungent buttery character, blame the diacetyl. Rancid butter – sweet or cultured – also develops butyric acid, a sour milk-cheesy-barnyardy smelling compound. Butyric acid is nasty. So keep your butter in the freezer if you’re not going to use it within a week or so.

One pint of cold heavy cream (50% or more butterfat)
Fine salt (sea salt is best)
3 tbsp cultured buttermilk or 2.5g dried yoghurt starter culture [optional]

To prepare cultured butter, bring the cream to 110F and add the buttermilk/yoghurt starter culture. Place in a jar or similar container and leave at room temperature for 8-10 hours (wrap well in kitchen towels). If the idea of doing this freaks you out, use a yoghurt maker. At this point, you will have crème fraîche. Refrigerate well before using. Feel free to skip this step entirely if you want to make sweet cream butter.

If you have a stand mixer with a whip, use it. And if you have one of those mixer bowl pouring shields (I don’t), use that as well. You’ll see why later. Otherwise, use a large bowl – as large as you can find –and a hand mixer, electric or otherwise.

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Pour the fresh cream or crème fraîche into the bowl. Begin beating (I like speed 6 on the KitchenAid; you don’t gain anything by going slower and I do think you run the risk of warming the cream if you go faster). The cream will form soft peaks, then stiff-ish peaks, and then become overbeaten. In this step, the fat particles form a network with air bubbles.

Continue beating. The cream will continue to thicken and form a mass resembling buttercream, or whipped butter, around the bowl. In this step, the fat droplets clump together and the air bubbles pop. You can scrape it down with a silicone spatula from time to time, but you don’t have to.

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Eventually – if you use speed 6 and don’t scrape the bowl it takes less than ten minutes from the start of the process – a thin, milky liquid will start to collect at the bottom of the bowl and the cream will become more clotted-looking. In this last step, almost all the fat has clumped together, and separated from the non-fat liquid. That liquid is buttermilk. Keep going. Soon after, the solids will collapse into the buttermilk. Don’t freak out – it’s just because the speed of the mixer temporarily has distributed the fat particles throughout the buttermilk. It hasn’t turned back into cream and you won’t have to start over.

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Within a minute or two, you should experience a great sloshing as the butter clumps together, sticking to itself in the bowl and around the whisk or beaters. This is where the pouring shield comes in handy, because the sloshing can make quite a mess. Turn off the mixer.

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Place the whisk or beaters in a clean bowl full of cold water and pour the buttermilk through a chinois or fine sieve into a jar. Save the buttermilk. Combine the butter solids with the rest of your butter in the bowl of cold water.

Remove the butter from the whisk and combine into a mass. Rinse well several times in ice water until your water runs clear. Knead the butter into a smooth, pliable lump, expelling as much liquid as possible. This is a good time to add sea salt, maybe ½ tsp, if you want salted butter. Rinse again.

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And there’s your butter. You should have about 8 ounces from a pint of 50% butterfat cream. Don’t throw out the buttermilk!

Buttermilk

The buttermilk that remains after butter-making is called “churn buttermilk.” It doesn’t really resemble the stuff you buy in quart containers in the store, which is just nonfat or low-fat milk that’s been cultured with bacteria to initiate lactic acid fermentation, and thickened with carrageenan (a naturally occurring hydrocolloid which forms gels in the presence of calcium and is a popular dairy thickener for this reason), and locust bean gum. Churn buttermilk is less tart than this so-called cultured buttermilk (even if a byproduct of butter made from cultured cream), and is thin, like milk, not thick. Most churn buttermilk is freeze-dried for commercial food processing and baking.

You can drink it, of course, or you can use it to make buttermilk biscuits. Or use it to make fried chicken, or buttermilk ice cream!

Buttermilk fried chicken
One whole chicken, cut up into ten pieces (legs, thighs, wings, breasts cut in half with a cleaver)
3-4 c buttermilk from above recipe
1 tbsp kosher salt (plus 1 tsp if using 4 c buttermilk)
1 tsp garlic powder
6 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf

2 c flour
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp paprika
1 tsp smoked paprika
2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
½ tsp cayenne pepper

Vegetable oil or lard

Combine the buttermilk, salt, garlic powder, thyme, and bay leaf. Mix well, ensuring the salt is dissolved. Add the chicken, cover the container, and refrigerate overnight.

Combine the flour, salt, paprika, garlic and onion powders, and cayenne in a large bowl. Prepare a sheet pan with a rack. Place a heavy and 2 to 3 inch deep pan (such as a sauté pan or cast iron pan) over medium heat with about ¾” oil. Bring the oil to 365F/185C. Unless you intend to cook in batches, you may wish to cook in two pans.

Drain the chicken but do not pat dry. Dredge each piece in flour, coating completely (leave no wet spots) and shaking off excess. Lower the chicken pieces into the hot fat. Do not crowd the pan or pans. Fry until golden on one side; turn over and cook until golden on the other side. Turn over twice to crisp. The chicken must have an internal temperature of at least 165F/74C at the bone but you may prefer it somewhat more done. I like chicken around 170F/76C. Remove from the oil with a wire skimmer or tongs and drain on the racks (don’t use paper towels; they can trap steam and make your crust soggy). To keep warm, place the racks in a 250F/120C oven.

Serve with biscuits and pickles.

Buttermilk ice cream
Use buttermilk instead of milk in this light, refreshing ice cream, a natural with fresh berries. I prefer the Philadelphia-style ice creams – containing no egg – to the custard type, so like most of the ice creams I make, this one contains no egg. Without the heavy, rich egg yolk coating your tongue, everything else has a more intense taste.

2 c buttermilk from above recipe
2 c heavy cream, as rich as possible
1 ¼ c sugar (caster/superfine sugar is best)
Zest of one lemon, minced
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp vodka

Combine buttermilk, cream, and sugar in a heavy pot and bring to 170C, stirring to dissolve the sugar completely. Add the lemon zest.

Cool quickly in a bain marie full of ice and, when cool, stir in the lemon juice and vodka. Whisk well to incorporate. Freeze as appropriate for your ice cream maker and scoop into two pint containers. Transfer to the freezer and freeze hard for at least 4-6 hours.

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Dessert

Enjoying the so-called ice cream.

From a dessert standpoint, we’re kind of a strange household. I don’t really care about sugar. If it were up to me, the dessert menu in restaurants would include pommes soufflés, pommes gaufrettes, frico, and other savory potato- and cheese-based delights. My husband has simple tastes in dessert and would choose ice cream above any other creation, much to the chagrin of pastry chefs everywhere.

Luckily, ice cream is amenable to all kinds of flavoring, including bitter and smoke aromas. The parlor favorite, coffee ice cream, is a classic example – bitter coffee turned smooth and mellow with the addition of cold cream. I wanted to achieve the same effect with burnt sugar – not the milky sweet caramel of dulce de leche or the sticky caramel ribbons of supermarket pints, but an ice cream in which I could detect a bitter edge beneath the custard and vanilla. Enough bitterness to keep things interesting.

This burnt sugar ice cream is the result. Sugar caramelizes in a pan, and just before the point of no return, the caramelization process stops with the addition of cold cream. The mixture sputters and seizes; it seems nothing delicious possibly could result. Keep whisking – the stiff lump of caramel will dissolve into the warm cream.

Burnt Sugar Ice Cream

Chemically speaking, caramelization is the oxidation of sugar. Culinarily speaking, caramelization is remarkable because sugar – normally sucrose, a one-dimensional, bland, purely sweet substance – gains complex, nutty, toasty flavors and aromas, merely through the application of heat.

The process, once it starts, happens in an instant. Sugar melts and bubbles, turns golden, and, if unattended, dehydrates to carbon and smoke, beyond redemption, inedible. So when you make this ice cream, watch the sugar carefully and never leave the pan. Have your chilled cream ready – once the sugar turns to gold, and then to mahogany, it can blacken in the time it takes to measure the right amount.

1 1/4 c superfine sugar
1/4 c water
2 c milk
1 1/4 c heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, scraped
1 tbsp superfine sugar
5 egg yolks
large pinch salt
Halen Môn smoked salt

Combine milk and cream. In stand mixer, beat yolks, 1 tbsp sugar, and salt until thick and lemony ribbons form.

Combine sugar and water in heavy 3qt pan; bring to a boil over low heat. Brush edges of pan to avoid crystallization as needed. Once sugar syrup boils, reduce heat and whisk occasionally until syrup turns golden. Monitor closely.

As syrup turns dark brown, add milk and cream all in one, whisking continuously. Caramel will dissolve. Add vanilla seeds and pod; bring to a simmer.

Temper about 1 c milk/ with yolk/sugar mixture and whisk slowly back into the milk. Return to simmer. Cook custard to 180F until mixture coats back of spoon.

Cool in bain marie. Strain through fine chinois into ice cream maker. Process and freeze hard. Garnish scoops or quenelles of ice cream with smoked salt.

Burnt sugar ice cream

Single Malt Scotch Ice Cream

Bitterness adds interest to sweet ice cream, and so does smoke. Try something peaty and smoky, like Laphroiag, Ardbeg, Lagavulin, or Macallan. And if you want to pair a drink with your dessert, consider a complementary Scotch.

The quality of the vanilla you choose does make a difference. Don’t use vanilla extract. You may think that, because this ice cream already contains alcohol, no one’s going to notice, but you’ll know, and you’ll be sorry. You’re already going to the trouble to use fresh heavy cream, top quality eggs, and single malt Scotch. Why skimp on the vanilla? I recommend the top quality vanilla beans from Madagascar or Tahiti, available from The Spice House.

1 c + 2 tbsp superfine sugar
2 c milk
1 1/4 c heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, scraped
5 egg yolks
large pinch salt
1/4 c single malt scotch

Combine milk and cream. In stand mixer, beat yolks, sugar, and salt until thick and lemony ribbons form.

Heat milk and cream with vanilla seeds and pod; bring to 180F and steep 10 mins. Strain.

Temper about 1 c milk/ with yolk/sugar mixture and whisk slowly back into the milk. Return to simmer. Cook custard to 180F until mixture coats back of spoon.

Cool in bain marie. Strain through fine chinois into ice cream maker. Process, adding scotch halfway through. Freeze hard.

Lagavulin ice cream

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