Confection Section: Taffy Duck

Confection Section is a new recurring piece, focusing on the history of candy and confections and how you can recreate these sweet treats at home, no matter what time of the year it is. Want to surprise trick-or-treaters with gummi spiders you made yourself? Want next year’s Valentine’s Day candies to come from the heart and not from a heart-shaped box? Ever want to make your own Reese’s cups or the kind of candy your parents/grandparents enjoyed in their youth? This recurring piece is for you!

If you live in the Southeast Pennsylvania/New Jersey/Delaware area, summer isn’t summer without a trip to Atlantic City and a box of salt water taffies from a boardwalk candy or souvenir shop. Of course, if you hate the sand between your toes and all the pain that comes with organizing a beach trip or don’t live in or near a coastal state, you can order some salt water taffies from an online bulk candy company and enjoy your balmy, sunny days lounging in a cheap beach chair or an inflatable kiddie pool in nothing but your swim trunks/a cheap, ill-fitting Speedo/thong bikini bottom and a flimsy, brightly-colored T-shirt with a risqué slogan (“F.B.I.: Federal Bikini/Booby/Booty Inspector” or one where it has an arrow pointing down and some lewd command for women to perform oral sex on whoever’s wearing the shirt), a parody of a TV show/cult classic movie/Internet meme (those “Keep Calm and…” shirts or a spoof of Breaking Bad), or the last place you went on vacation (usually Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; New York City, New York; or Williamsburg, Virginia), but it’s just not the same. On top of that, you will get neighbor complaints over public indecency and/or bring down property values, like on the season four Simpsons episode “New Kid on the Block,” when an interracial couple goes to buy a new house next to The Simpsons, but turn it down after seeing Homer naked in a kiddie pool, fishing out a half-eaten hot dog and passing out from drinking Duff.

Salt water taffies, much like the Philly cheesesteak and the Coney Island hot dog, has long been associated with East Coast food – in this case, salt water taffy has been associated with Atlantic City, New Jersey. The confection got its salty taste from a flood that soaked candy store owner, David Bradley’s, supply of regular taffy (Fun fact: the Atlantic Ocean is the saltiest out of the four major oceans in the world, but the Red Sea in the Indian Ocean has the saltiest sea water in the world, courtesy of the Dead Sea, which is so brackish, you can easily float in it – unless you’re so fat or inexperienced at swimming that you can sink right through, like Selma Bouvier on The Simpsons episode where Moe steals Homer’s idea for a fiery cocktail and Aerosmith becomes the first band to guest star on the show as themselves).

You’d think a disaster like this would ruin Mr. Bradley’s livelihood, but you would be wrong. When a young girl came into his shop and asked if he had any taffy for sale, he said he had “salt water taffy” instead. The girl didn’t understand the sarcasm behind it. She thought it was a new confection he created. David Bradley’s mother was in the back and overheard the conversation. She loved the moniker for Bradley’s ocean-soaked treats and, thus, a beachside sweet that’s not tanned and in a sexy swimsuit was born.

Though a flood accidentally created this candy and David Bradley sold it, it was Joseph Fralinger who popularized the salt water taffy as a souvenir for tourists and Enoch James refined the recipe, making it easier to unwrap (though I’ve unwrapped salt water taffy and there are times where it still sticks to the paper – or, the paper becomes part of the taffy and I get an untentional dose of fiber), cut the candy into bite-sized pieces, and is credited with mechanizing the process of taffy-pulling.

Salt water taffy is still sold widely on the boardwalks in Atlantic City, including shops in existence since the 1800s, like Fralinger’s and James’ and the Atlantic Maritime provinces in Canada (Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick), but has found its way to places like Salt Lake City, Utah and even the West Coast (the picture of the salt water taffy in barrels is from a candy store at a popular San Francisco tourist spot, Pier 39. I’ve been there a few times during my stay in San Francisco, and I have been at that exact candy store – along with a pizzeria that had the best S.O.S [spinach-onion-sausage] pizza and got me into watching and rooting for college basketball) and comes in an array of flavors, from blue raspberry and banana to guava and maple.

The appeal of salt water taffy is that the taste reminds you a lot of strolling the boardwalk on a July afternoon, taking in the ocean air, the energy of people of all ages enjoying a day out, the seagulls recreating the climax from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds as people foolishly throw French fries and other foods on the boardwalk floor…ah, memories. Yours may vary.

Taffy-pulling is one of those activities that many will tell you is a “lost art” in the sense that it used to be done by human hands – both for business and as Saturday night family fun – but now has been handed over to machines for efficiency reasons, but most candy shops that specialize in “from scratch” confections (particularly the boardwalk candy shops and any shop owned and operated by Amish farmers and their wives at the Reading Terminal Market in Center City) are keeping taffy-pulling alive, and you can too, if you want to create your own candy. Go to a place like Sur La Table or those craft stores like Michaels’ and you’ll see a lot of candy-making tools and molds, meaning that, yes, making homemade candy isn’t just for Grandma’s Sunday church socials or the Amish anymore.

The most important instruments in candy-making (especially if you’re making sugar-based candies or any type of sugar sculpting) are quality ingredients (as with any food you cook), a candy thermometer, and a sturdy pot (particularly a double-boiler or large saucepan that can handle high heat), though the candy thermometer can be substituted for a spoon and knowing what happens when sugar syrup boils.

Name

Temperature

What Happens to the Sugar Syrup

What Can You Use It For?

Thread

223-235 degrees Fahrenheit

The syrup drips from a spoon, forms thin threads in water

Glacé, candied fruits
, and sugar cages (complete with a marzipan wild animal or a scale model go-go dancer made of fondant, white chocolate, royal icing, and marzipan)

Soft ball

235-245 degrees Fahrenheit

The syrup easily forms a ball while in the cold water, but flattens once removed

Fudge and fondant

Firm ball

245-250 degrees Fahrenheit

The syrup is formed into a stable ball, but loses its round shape once pressed

Caramel candies
and caramel filling if you’re making homemade versions of name-brand chocolate candy bars, like Twix and Snickers

Hard ball

250-266 degrees Fahrenheit

The syrup holds its ball shape, but remains sticky

Marshmallows

Soft crack

270-290 degrees Fahrenheit

The syrup will form firm but pliable threads

Nougat (also nougat filling for homemade candy bars) and taffy

Hard crack

300-310 degrees Fahrenheit

The syrup will crack if you try to mold it

Peanut brittle, lollipops
, sugared glass if you want to make a gingerbread house with realistic windows in it (or a gingerbread model of the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, California)

Caramel

320-350 degrees Fahrenheit

The sugar syrup will turn golden at this stage

Pralines

 

Above all else, it is imperative that you BE CAREFUL when handling hot sugar syrup. Working with hot sugar is not for the clumsy, the careless, or the easily-distracted (that applies to cooking of any kind, really). A lot can go wrong if you use the cold water method (that’s the method where you use a spoon and your own judgment to test how hot the sugar syrup is), as hot sugar has a tendency to stick on your skin as it burns, so you can’t just rub it off your skin. I don’t know if a hospital trip and a skin graft can be used to mend skin burned from hot sugar, but it seems like the logical conclusion should a sugar burn ever happen to you. I once burned a small part of skin near my elbow on my left arm with hot glue during a high school project. I didn’t go to the nurse about it, because, what was she going to do, give me Tums for it? I decided to cover it up with some tissues and, if anyone asked, just say I fell while walking home from school. My legs, feet, and ankles loved to play “Hey, how can we make Canais/The Philly Foodie a klutz today?” all through middle school and the first half of high school, so a nasty spill resulting in some scraped skin is more believable than “I wasn’t watching what I was doing while handling a hot glue gun.” The point of that is: hot sugar syrup is a lot like the glue from a hot glue gun before it sets, so treat it as if you were working with a glue gun.

As with all cooking projects (whether amateur or professional), keep your hair tied back and/or put in a chef’s hat or cap if it’s long and remove all jewelry before starting. Ideally, you’re only supposed to have a plain wedding band as the only acceptable piece of jewelry to wear when doing kitchen work, but I hate rings [which, if I ever decide to get married, will pose some problems] and wearing them while cooking hot sugar syrup is just asking for either the ring to fall in or the hot syrup to permanently glue your ring to your ring finger, leaving you no chance to either pawn the ring to cover your rent/mortgage/divorce fees or leave it to your children in the will unless you’re willing to have it amputated (or your insurance covers it).

You’re probably restless and waiting for me to give the steps on how to make salt water taffy, Atlantic City-style. Well, here we go. As with all the recipes here at “Take Back the Kitchen,” be sure to find a way to save it for later (print, transcribe, or download).

How to Make Salt Water Taffy

Atlantic City-style salt water taffy starts with these ingredients:

1 cup sugar

1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

2/3 cup corn syrup

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 cup water

1/2 teaspoon salt flavoring

Lemon, orange, peppermint, lime, strawberry, pineapple or Fireball flavorings.

Pink, green, yellow, or orange color pastes

 Yeah, not exactly the paradigm of healthy eating, but, like with all sugary, fatty, and overall decadent foods, it helps if you only have this once in a while…unless you have blood sugar issues, food allergies (specifically to food coloring, as there are people out there who can’t eat foods with Red Dye #3 or Blue Dye #2 in it), or don’t like salt water taffies. If corn syrup scares your waistline or you can’t find it (it shouldn’t be too hard to find, but you might live in a country where they don’t carry it in stores, like the United Kingdom or Australia), then substitute for simple syrup (which is just sugar and water boiled until it leaves a thin coat on the back of a spoon).

The first thing you do is combine your sugar and cornstarch and place it in a saucepan. After that, add your corn/simple syrup, butter, and water and stir. Next, you heat the mixture. To prevent it from crystallizing, do NOT stir the mixture until it reaches hard ball stage (refer to the chart above) or, if you’re doing the cold water method, until a small portion of it forms into a ball when you drip it into a bath of cold water.

Once it reaches the hard ball stage, add your salt flavoring. Immediately pour the mixture on a greased slab or section of marble table top that has a plastic mat made for sugar work (you can find those at any restaurant/cook supply store). Allow to cool slightly.

Since you’re working with hot sugar, it’s best if you have rubber gloves for this next part, unless you’re like my Pastry/Confections instructor, Chef Kin Joe (a kindly Chinese man from Texas whose cakes and confection work looks like they should be at some bigshot Hollywood celebrity’s wedding/divorce/engagement/sweet 16/finally 18/finally 21/finally got the necessary plastic surgery/TV milestone/just removed that kidney stone party or gracing the page of a food porn mag like Saveur) who can work barehanded with hot sugar and it only mildly annoys him.

As quickly as you can, pull the hot sugar mixture until light and pearl-like in color. Don’t overdo it, or it will end up looking dull.

Divide into separate portions. Color and flavor each portion as desired while it is being pulled. You don’t have to limit yourself to what the ingredients say. Experiment with different colors and flavors.

If you want to make two- three- or four-toned taffy, then layer the colored pieces next to each other. Let them heat up a little next to a heated stove or under a desk lamp (normally, for sugar work, you need a special type of lamp that looks similar to a desk lamp, but takes a higher wattage light bulb). Once the sugar ribbon is malleable enough, stretch it until the two ribbons become one with two or more colors.

Pull out the sugar ribbons to around 1½ inches wide and ¾ of an inch thick. Cut into pieces with a scissors and wrap in wax paper. Twist ends of paper to seal.

Store in a jar, a decorated candy box or dish, or give to friends, loved ones, or anyone with a sweet tooth. Or, if you have some salt water taffy from a beachside candy shop, do a blind taste test to see if you can tell the difference between your homemade taffy and the store-bought.

…And that’s how you make Atlantic City-style salt water taffy without the trip to the boardwalk. Good night, and good eating!

TV Dinners #1: A Cooking Lesson from Cartoon Network

“And then, the Three Little Bacon Steaks WERE PUT IN THE OVEN and baked at 350, SMOTHERED IN CHOCOLATE! The end.”

The Red Guy, Cow and Chicken

This was an actual line from the late 1990s animated show, Cow and Chicken, Cartoon Network’s answer to Nickelodeon’s Ren and Stimpy (only it wasn’t that over-the-top with gross-out humor, but it did make fun of gender identity and transsexuality a lot — not in the same way as South Park and Family Guy have done, but a lot of the jokes would be considered a little near-the-knuckle for more prudish audiences) and part of Cartoon Network’s original programming series, Cartoon Cartoons, which also includes popular series like Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls, Codename: Kids Next Door, and Johnny Bravo, along with lesser-known shows, like Sheep in the Big City, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Whatever Happened to Robot Jones, and a favorite I watched in high school, Time Squad*.

This quote was from the season three episode, “Going My Way?”, in which The Red Guy is a drifter who gets adopted by Cow and Chicken’s insane parents and treat him better than their own offspring. One of the ways The Red Guy impresses Mom and Dad (that was their names) is by reading a “fairy tale” from a cookbook.

In this era of food blogs, people emulating food dishes that appear on their favorite show has become common, from people trying to recreate Skittlebrau (Homer’s beer and Skittles concoction from the season nine Simpsons episode, “Bart Star”) to someone setting up a  Tumblr blog centered on making real-world versions of the Burger of the Day specials seen in the background of the FOX animated sitcom Bob’s Burgers (including an especially dubious one from the first episode called “The Child Molester – Served With Candy”).  I’m jumping on the bandwagon as well, but my twist is I’m going to find out if any of the dishes in my favorite TV shows can be recreated in real life.

Welcome to “TV Dinners.” Today’s Special: Bacon Steaks Smothered in Chocolate.

Savory Chocolate Sauce

It may seem like a pregnant lady’s or 20-something stoner’s favorite dish (I mean, really? Who mixes chocolate with anything that isn’t cookies, cake, or candy?), but that’s because chocolate has been pigeon-holed as the stuff of desserts, pastries, frozen delights, breaking dietary taboos, warm winter drinks, sweet summer treats, and, if you really want to let your mind wander into the red-light district, sex. Seriously, who among you hasn’t had prurient thoughts of drizzling someone’s naked flesh in hot fudge and licking it off in sensual voracity? Adult toy stores online and in the real world cater to those who believe chocolate is an aphrodisiac, whether it’s in the form of body paint or performance enhancing bonbons, but that’s another blog entry for another day.

Savory chocolate dishes aren’t rare, but, outside of ambitious young cooks and eaters with an open mind, no one really thinks to try them, which is a shame, as savory chocolate dishes aren’t as nasty as you’d think. In savory chocolate dishes, dark chocolate is commonly used, but some dishes, like this take on baba ghannoush (or ghannouj), uses white chocolate to bring out the creaminess of the mashed eggplant.

Even if you don’t want to dive in headfirst into a savory chocolate dish, you can try a savory chocolate sauce. The one most people would be familiar with is mole (pronounced “mo-lay,” not “mohl,” like the underground animal, a treacherous double agent, or the benign skin tumor that can either be a beauty mark, a sign you may have cancer, or, in some ancient civilizations, a sign you were into witchcraft if you stuck it with a needle and it didn’t bleed), which is served on chicken. Mole sauce is actually the generic name for the dishes served with that kind of sauce, with mole poblano as the most common type outside of Mexico.

Much like a lot of stories of how popular dishes are made, mole was made purely by accident and with limited ingredients. A visitor had stopped at a Mexican convent and two nuns were scrambling for whatever they could provide for him. The nuns had little in the way of food and used a molcajete (a stone mortar and pestle used in traditional Mexican cuisine) to grind every ingredient they could find and simmered it in liquid until it thickened.

Traditionally, mole is made with guajillo chiles (roasted, stemmed, seeded, and chopped), stewed tomatoes, cinnamon, unsalted peanuts, and cocoa powder (though you could substitute that for Mexican chocolate or a bar of dark chocolate that’s been melted in a double boiler). Speaking from personal experience, mole sauce tastes like barbecue sauce without the sweetness and with a little more heat and it goes great with grilled chicken.

However, if you just want a barbecue sauce with a dark chocolate edge, you can prepare this. It’s the homemade barbecue sauce I first made when I decided to take culinary arts at Job Corps, with some minor adjustments.

Dark Chocolate Barbecue Sauce
• 2 tbsps unsalted butter
• 1 oz semisweet chocolate (chopped)
• 1/3 cup brown sugar (packed)
• 2 tbsps cider vinegar
• 2 tbsps unsweetened cocoa powder (I recommend Hershey’s Special Dark baking cocoa)
• 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
• 2 tsps dry mustard
• 2 tsps chili powder
• 2 tsps kosher salt
• 1/2 tsp ground coriander
• 1/4 tsp cayenne
• 1 cup apple cider vinegar
• 1 cup stewed tomatoes
• 1/4 cup finely chopped onion
• 2 tablespoons minced garlic
• 2 tablespoons liquid smoke (optional)
• 1 tablespoon paprika
• 2 teaspoons dried oregano
• 2 teaspoons dried thyme
• 1 teaspoon black pepper

Preparation:
Melt butter in a saucepan over a medium heat. Add onion and garlic and saute until lightly browned. Add remaining ingredients (vinegar last), reduce heat and simmer over low for 20 minutes. Allow to cool. Optionally, you can puree this sauce to make a smoother barbecue sauce.

Bacon Steaks

A bacon steak (also known as a bacon chop, but not a pork chop, because a bacon steak is from the part of the pig where we get bacon – the belly if you want the streaky, fatty strip bacon that you can enjoy from breakfast to dinner; if you want Canadian bacon, you have to take it from Porky’s back) is just bacon cut thick enough to pass for a steak, hence the name. It can also be regular beef steak with bacon wrapped around it if you want to get fancy, but, for the sake of this blog post, a bacon steak is a thickly-cut slab of bacon that looks like a steak.

As for whether or not you can bake it at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (177 degrees Celsius, or 4 on the gas mark if you’re using a gas oven), you…actually can. Depending on your oven (I’m going by the electric oven I have in my house currently), bacon steaks/chops take anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes to cook in the oven, turning ever so often so it cooks on both sides. Compare with pork chops, which can take 35 minutes to cook (maybe a little longer, depending on your oven). And yes, you can smother the bacon steaks in chocolate (or rather, the savory chocolate sauce) in chocolate as it cooks. The end result will taste salty, smoky, incredibly rich, and (depending on whether or not you puréed the sauce) very smooth.

And that’s how you make bacon steaks smothered in chocolate.

Thanks, and happy eating

=================================================================================

*There are some Cartoon Network-made shows that have aired on the channel, but aren’t Cartoon Cartoons: Samurai Jack, Class of 3000, Megas XLR, anything made during Cartoon Network’s failed attempt at airing live-action shows (Out of Jimmy’s Head, Dude What Would Happen, Destroy Build Destroy, Incredible Crew, Tower Prep, and Hole in the Wall [even though that was a short-lived game show that aired on the FOX Network]), and the post-Golden Age Cartoon Network shows, like Adventure Time, The Looney Tunes Show (not the installment show of classic shorts, the sitcom), Regular Show, Steven Universe, Uncle Grandpa, MAD, Robotomy, and The Amazing World of Gumball.

Fizzy Drinks All Around (or I Am the One Who Pops)

It’s been called everything from the dry and dull “carbonated beverage” to the quaint and regional “pop.” Its flavors range from common fruits to strange concoctions, like Jones Soda’s Tofurkey and Gravy. It’s on the lips of everyone, from little kids at birthday parties to doctors who warn of its high fructose corn syrup and other artificial ingredients and politicians who want to curb its intake in schools or tax it in an effort to fight back against the obesity epidemic and stimulate the economy.

It’s soda…where I’m from, anyway. Depending on your region or country, it’s – as I said before – called everything from “pop” to “soft drinks” to “carbonated beverages.” Other regional terms include “coke” (though I don’t know why people would use this, considering that that’s a very common slang term for cocaine. Then again, the original Coca-Cola had cocaine in it and cocaine was considered a perfectly acceptable sugar substitute before it was known for fueling disco dancers, being boiled down into the more insidious drug crack, and glamorized in the 1983 version of Scarface. Also, “coke” when you’re speaking of soda is mostly used when you’re drinking cola. You can have a Pepsi and still call it a coke – unless you’re in the Olympia Café on late 1970s Saturday Night Live), “lolly water” (which sounds like a very British term that’s probably not even used these days), and “fizzy drink” (which also sounds British, but also sounds like a brand name for dollar-store soda).

Soda is, of course, from the soda water that’s used as the canvas on which the soda maker can add flavor to it. “Soft drinks” are called that to differentiate from “hard drinks” (the drinks with alcohol in them). “Soft drinks” can have alcohol in them, but only less than 0.5% of the total volume, but most soda made in America (at least made by the two major chains, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola) would rather load soda with high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners moreso than a little alcohol (since alcohol’s effects can be amplified when in contact with carbonation. I’ve had a ginger ale with a splash of vodka in it and felt the room spin about 10 minutes later), never mind the reports that excessive consumption of soft drinks (especially soda) is linked to obesity, type II diabetes, loss of bone density, low nutrient levels, and cavities in your teeth (eventually leading to tooth decay). So, soda does rot your teeth, but not your brain, despite what those moral guardians and misguided social justice warriors will tell you. My opinion on all of this: all things in moderation. If you’ve been hooked on the fizzy stuff for a while, try and cut back. Switch it up with a good detox drink (mint and citrus-flavored water or just regular filtered water with some lemon in it) and always remember to brush your teeth, floss, and (if you can) visit the dentist.

Health public service announcements aside, that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to instruct you on how to make homemade soda. Yes, I know it seems like something that can’t be done since it’s already available pre-made, but I had a homemade ginger ale from a farmer’s market when I lived in San Francisco, California that left me with a satisfying throat burn and didn’t feel like I was swishing my own spit in my mouth, so don’t come whining to me about how soda can’t be made by hand. With handmade soda, you get to make it in the purest way possible: with carbonated water, a sweetener (particularly cane sugar), and some kind of flavoring agent (a juice, purée, or syrup).

Carbonated Water

If you drink a lot of soda or soda water, you know it gets expensive over time. A six-pack of Pepsi can set you back $6.00, depending on sales tax (unless you’re in Delaware, where sales tax is not a thing), when, back in the 1990s, it was maybe $4.00 (assuming there’s no sale). I’m not the only one to think to myself: “I wonder if there is a way to carbonate my own water.” There are several ways. The easiest way is to just buy soda water or seltzer water (both of which can be found in grocery stores or any place that sells liquor and liquor accessories for home bars and parties) in bulk, but that only works if you have the cash, a home bar, or are starting a homemade soda business. For her 28th birthday, my sister bought herself a SodaStream* (which she has been wanting for a while). While it does save you a considerable amount of money in terms of buying soda and soda water, the costs are actually high and very hidden. The machine itself costs $90 (though my sister bought a $70 model. Either she found a less expensive model or she got a discount since she always shops at Amazon.com for everything from books to new shoes) and each carbon dioxide refill bottle costs $30 for each 33 oz cannister. If I were her and had some gadgeteer genius (the kind that gets you into those Institute of Technology colleges, like M.I.T.), I’d make my own carbonator with a big CO2 tank, some plastic tubing, and a carbonator cap hidden in an easy, yet ingenious way because a large CO2 tank would look awkward in a kitchen setting. For weird parties, like Halloween or raves, or if I want to experiment with something different, I’d find some dry ice and carbonate the water that way.

Sweetener

Until 1985, soft drinks were sweetened with sugar or corn syrup. As of 2010, in the United States, that’s been replaced with high-fructose corn syrup to lower cost. In Europe, sucrose dominates, because agricultural policies over there favor production of sugar beets and sugar cane over the production of corn (besides, corn is more abundant in North and Central America than it is in Europe). The deal with high-fructose corn syrup and human health is that it’s connected with diabetes, hyperactivity, hypertension, and fatty liver disease that isn’t caused by alcoholism. On the other hand, the human body breaks sucrose down into glucose and fructose before it is absorbed by the intestines. Simple sugars such as fructose are converted into the same intermediates as in glucose metabolism. However, metabolism of fructose is extremely rapid and is initiated by fructokinase activity, which is not regulated by metabolism or hormones and proceeds rapidly after intake, promoting fatty acid and triglyceride synthesis in the liver, and increased blood lipid levels. The takeaway to all of this is either (a) all things in moderation, or (b) you’re better off trying to find or make soda with real sugar in it.

Sweeteners for “diet” sodas are no better than high-fructose corn syrup. While aspartame has been disproven in its claims that it causes cancer, neurotoxicity leading to neurological or psychiatric symptoms such as seizures, mood changes, and/or neuropsychiatric conditions in children (including ADHD), it does have a really awful aftertaste (to me, at least) and there are people out there who have an adverse reaction to it, though the worst they get from aspartame is a headache.

Cyclamate – the first sugar substitute to be used in “diet” sodas – is the sugar substitute that caused cancer in laboratory mice, which is a shame, as tasters at the time claimed that cyclamate actually tasted good for a sugar substitute. Fortunately, cyclamate is still available in some places outside of North America. Saccharin followed. Its taste was described as “metallic” or “bitter,” and was also alleged to be carcinogenic. However, it was never banned. Rather, foods with saccharin in it had to have warning labels put on it as part of the Saccharin Study, Labeling and Advertising Act, a United States federal statute enacting requirements for a scientific observation regarding the impurities in, potential toxicity, and problematic carcinogenicity of saccharin, signed into law in 1977 by Jimmy Carter. The ban wouldn’t be lifted until 2ooo.

All of this doesn’t really matter when making homemade soda – unless you somehow have high-fructose corn syrup barrels just stored in your pantry for use in everything from soft drinks to frozen food. All you really need to sweeten your homemade soda is either plain sugar (the same sugar you put in your morning coffee or tea). You can also create your own flavored syrup or use an alternate sweetener, like agave nectar (though that’s if you want your homemade soda to be super-indie, real “arthouse” obscure, which translates to “pretentious” for most people). When soft drinks were first starting out, honey was used as a sweetener. Maybe you could bring that back and do something with it.

Flavorings

As with any food you make, ingredient quality is the key, especially if you’re using fresh fruits, herbs, and spices for your soda. The store-bought sodas can have their “natural and artificial ingredients” label.

A simple fruit syrup is just sugar, water, and the fruit, herb, or spice of your choice boiled down into a thin, slightly sweet goo (think children’s cough medicine if it actually tasted good). If making syrup isn’t your thing, then you can go for a simple fruit purée with as much or as little sugar as you want into the carbonated water for an Italian-style soda. For sodas like root beer and ginger ale, yeast is added, so it’d be like brewing beer or kombucha.

Making imitation Pepsi or Coca Cola (which you can label as “Popsi” and “Kooki Kola” or do the old “blind taste test” by putting the imitation in empty brand name bottles to see if anyone can tell the difference) is probably the most difficult soda you can make because most of the ingredients are only available if you know a good high-end supermarket or can find rare and unusual ingredients online. Those ingredients are food-grade orange oil, lime oil, lemon oil, cassia oil, nutmeg oil, coriander oil, lavender oil, gum arabic (a natural gum made of hardened sap taken from two species of the acacia tree; Senegalia and Vachellia), water, and vodka. The water and vodka you don’t have to look far for, but everything else takes some time and energy to find. On top of that, the directions as outlined on Unusual Food Handers (http://food-handler.blogspot.com/2008/02/coca-cola-how-to-make-coca-cola-at-home.html) make the whole thing like a chemistry class project, what with the use of syringes and high-ended beakers. If you’re looking for something more organic, then Salt and Smoke has a recipe for homemade cola syrup that tastes like “old-school” Coca-Cola (http://saltandsmokefood.com/botanical-cola-syrup/).

Ideas on My Own Sodas and Conclusion

Besides the usual homemade take on ginger ale, root beer, and cola, I am experimenting with fruit-, herb-, and spice-based soda mixes that haven’t been done before. Pineapple mint, white grape and rosemary – heck, maybe I can take that cranberry sauce I made during Thanksgiving and turn that into a soda (complete with ground cinnamon). Of course, all of this is tenative and those were the three ideas I had buzzing in my head ever since I decided that I might want to make and market my own soda.

So, remember to enjoy your soft drinks in moderation and always recycle your empties. My sister has enough in her room to pay off her student loans (with some left over to pay off half of mine).

Thanks, and happy eating and drinking.

=======================================================

*SodaStream also comes with a lot of manufacturing controversy, since its main facility is in a settlement in the occupied West Bank of Israel. According to the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, the settlement (including the Mishor Adumim SodaStream factory), was built on land taken from five Palestinian towns and two Bedouin tribes who have been evicted by the Israeli army, and these Israeli settlements in the West Bank are regarded by many as illegal under international law. The European Union’s highest court ruled in 2010 that SodaStream was not entitled to claim a “Made in Israel” exemption from European Union customs for products manufactured in the West Bank. Why? Because Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory are outside the territorial scope of the EC-Israel Agreement. Human Rights Watch has come down on SodaStream for unlawful discrimination, land confiscation, natural resource theft, and forced displacement of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, while The United Church of Canada, Sweden, Finland, and Norway (all three Scandinavian countries) launched a campaign to boycott SodaStream’s products manufactured in the occupied West Bank.

Accidental Foods

I have heard of how the sandwich, chocolate chip cookies, ice cream cones, potato chips, and popsicles (ice lollies, if you’re UK-born) are a mistake, but the nachos one is a new one. I also have heard that the naming for “chimichangas” was a mistake, as it was from a Mexican mom who was trying to cover up her cursing in front of her child. Another culinary mistake that became popular was the chocolate lava cake. According to food legend, a pastry cook took out a batch of mini chocolate cakes too soon, but since he was in a hurry, he just told the customers that they’re a new dessert made by the kitchen.

Creating accidental foods is how I got through some of my culinary classes, like that tomato-flavored cream cheese that I tried to pass for dip (goes great on bagel sandwiches, especially ones with lox or smoked salmon. Not so much the greasy breakfast sandwiches where sausage, ham, a sunny side-up egg, or bacon is your protein). Or that Mexican cheese and chicken dish I did in Chef Wagner’s Bistro class that I made after I successfully made sopas (pictures below).

Sopa and Fried Plantain Platter

This is the sopa platter, decorated with fried plantains, some salsa (homemade, natch), and lime pieces (with kosher salt on them for that bold, sassy virgin margarita flavor).

This below is the chicken and cheese dish I made for fun:

P04-12-12_11.35

Now, if memory serves me correctly, this was made with roasted red peppers, queso fresco, roasted chicken, and refried beans. You can eat it like a cheap casserole or use it in filling for tacos, quesadillas, or homemade Hot Pockets or mini-pizzas.

Thank you, and happy eating!

Rantings of an Amateur Chef

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. I think accidents are the father.

When you think along the pantheon of food, there have been more than a few accidental inventions:

  • Sandwich – The Earl of Sandwich was at a gambling table and didn’t want to get up. I’ve been there and know that feeling. He ordered his dinner of meat to be brought to him between two slices of bread.
  • Chocolate Chip Cookies – A baker at the Toll House Inn (yes, that Toll House) was making chocolate cookies one day and ran out of chocolate powder.  Taking a bar of semi-sweet chocolate, she broke it into chunks and put it into the batter, thinking that the chocolate would melt evenly. It didn’t and thank God for that!
  • Ice Cream Cone – At the 1904 World’s Fair an ice cream vendor ran out of dishes. Lucky for him…

View original post 416 more words

Oreo Day (or The Sieve and the Sandwich Cookie)

Image

The old packaging I remember from the 1990s.

Another food celebration day has crept up on me. This time, it’s Oreo Day, though I would have gone with “Sandwich Cookie Day” for two reasons: a) Oreos aren’t the only sandwich cookies with a creamy center out there (especially since Nabisco is doing all it can to make Oreos different), and b) you know some overly politically-correct activist is going to get on his or her soapbox and declare that the name is racist. For those who don’t know, “Oreo” is a derogatory name for a black person who “acts white” (read: doesn’t listen to rap, has a good credit rating, isn’t on welfare, has a respectable job, etc). Other variations of this include the “banana” (an Asian who acts white), a coconut (a Hispanic or black person who doesn’t have African roots [like a Brazilian, a Jamaican, or someone from India] who acts white), and a “backwards Oreo” (a white person who acts black). While being called an “Oreo” may be a compliment (because, hey, you don’t follow the stereotypes of your race and cookies are always good), it does have the sting of “You should be ashamed of yourself for selling out to The White Man, the same White Man that enslaved your ancestors and took their sweet time giving us the same rights they have, and still keep us down today, albeit in more underhanded ways, never mind that we’re keeping ourselves down and, therefore, making ourselves look bad.” I guess whoever came up with these was only racist when he or she was hungry and, rather than get something to eat, decided to fan the flames of hatred a little more.

I can’t think of a time when Oreo cookies weren’t part of my life. It’s always been in my pantry, whether it’s the real deal or some discount store knock-off. Even as I’m typing this, there’s a discount store Oreo knock-off in my pantry, called Benton’s Chocolate Sandwich cookies waiting to be devoured by everyone in my family within the span of, oh, say, five days. And even when I couldn’t have the cookie, I’ve always had a dessert with Oreos in it (or flavored like a chocolate sandwich cookie), be it ice cream, cake, pie, or pudding. Oreo cookies are a lot like some of the cartoons I watched when I was younger: kids love them and are the main demographic, but the periphery demographic is mostly adults.

Image

The competition: 1908-2001, with a brief comeback in 2008

Oreos were created in 1912 (making them a little over 100 years old, 102 to be exact) as a competitor to Hydrox Cookies, which, sadly, aren’t around anymore due to mergers, rebranding, and Oreo kicking Hydrox’s butt in sales. The last time Hydrox were seen was when they were sold as part of the product’s 100th birthday in 2008. Compared to Oreos, Hydrox’s filling wasn’t overly sweet, it was kosher/halal  (Oreo’s original recipe had lard in it, and, as Jewish and Muslim dietary laws will tell you, pork products are verboten, as pigs are seen as dirty, disease-ridden scavengers), and Hydrox’s chocolate wafer could stand its own when being dunked in milk.

When Oreo first started, it was known as the “Oreo Biscuit” (which is somewhat true, as a “biscuit” is what Americans and Canadians call a “cookie” and not a quick bread that’s used in a sausage sandwich for breakfast and served alongside chicken and mashed potatoes for dinner, and the product was originally made for British people in mind). It was developed and produced by the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) in New York City (Chelsea area) on Ninth and 15th (which is known as “Oreo Way”). The original packaging was in novelty cans with clear glass tops and they sold for 25 cents a pound. Keep in mind that $.25 a pound in 1912 would be $5.86 today when adjusted for inflation, which is how much Oreos are priced in some of the mom-and-pop delis and kwik-e-marts I’ve been to. Okay, maybe not that much, but I’ve seen them go anywhere from $3.50 to $4.99 — minus tax, of course. As for the original packaging, Nabisco probably switched over to the “We Three Sleeves” packaging to keep the prices down and for freshness reasons, though I’ll bet you there’s a farmer’s market out there that has homemade, heart-smart, gluten-free, vegan Oreos in a decorative can (made of recycled materials, because that’s how the fair-food, go-green crowd works) that’s probably somewhere between $1.50 to $2.50 a pound (maybe more).

As mentioned before, the filling to the Oreo cookie had lard (pork fat) in it, making it unsuitable for eating if you were Jewish, Muslim, or just didn’t like pork and pork byproducts (and, unlike today, people didn’t really care if you were any religion other than Protestant or some kind of Baptist or Anglican Christian. Even Catholics were ragged on because they had a pope as their conduit to God and Protestants didn’t…or, if you want to put a modern perspective to it, maybe Protestants knew that Catholic priests did unsavory things to children, but it wasn’t a major concern until the 1990s, the 2000s, and now). Of course, to cover it up, they used vanilla and sugar. There was even a lemon-flavored cream filling in the 1920s, but has since been discontinued (though if you ever go to Japan or to some American markets, you will find lemon cream Oreo cookies, albeit with the Golden Oreo wafers instead of the chocolate ones. Lemon and chocolate don’t really make a good flavor profile, which is probably why it was discontinued).

Sam “Mr. Oreo” Porcello (exact day and month unknown, but the birth year is somewhere between 1935 and 1936 – died May 12, 2012) was a food scientist from New Jersey credited for devising the modern Oreo cookie filling, in which the lard is replaced with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (still not healthy, but slightly better than lard). It wouldn’t be until 2005 that the Oreo would switch over to non-hydrogenated vegetable oil in an effort to rid food of trans fats (which, despite what you’ve heard or read, doesn’t affect the flavor, so those episodes of American Dad (“Live and Let Fry,” season four, episode 11) and King of the Hill (“Trans-Fascism,” season 12, episode 11) where Stan Smith and Hank Hill respectively fight back against the new “no foods with trans fats” laws because the no trans fats foods lack flavor is a fallacy.

The etymology behind “Oreo” is a mystery. Some say it’s partially from the French word “or,” which isn’t a conjunction used to denote a decision or choice in this case (in French, that word is “ou,” without the left-leaning accent. If it’s spelled with the left-leaning accent [où], then it’s the French word, “where,” as in “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?”). In this case, “or” in French means “gold,” possibly meaning that this cookie is the gold standard. Another theory is that “Oreo” is from the Greek word “όμορφο,” meaning “beautiful, nice, or well-done” (Quick word: I don’t know Greek all that well, except for the alphabet, and that was back in sixth grade when I was taught about the Greek and Roman Empires and from watching TV shows and movies about college frat and sorority houses getting into trouble that would get real-life frats and sorority members hurt, expelled, arrested, shut down, put on academic probation, or, worst case scenario,  deported. I got the word off Google Translate). A final, and simpler, theory is that the name was made up by the company and it was chosen because it was easier to pronounce and remember.

Through the years, Oreo has become so much more than a chocolate sandwich cookie. Its filling has been everything from lemon to mint to chocolate to peanut butter — heck, if you go to China and Japan, you can get green tea filling in your Oreo, while other countries, like Chile, Argentina, Canada, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia have blueberry ice cream filling, orange ice cream filling, strawberry filling, and dulce de leche (a milk-based confection that’s common as muck in the Hispanic world, particularly in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the South American countries that have Spanish as an official language. Brazil, Guyana, French Guiana, and Suriname are the only ones that don’t) filling. There’s been Oreo pies, cheesecakes, regular cakes, brownies, ice cream, and frozen dessert dishes. The wafers, when ground up into crumbs, have been molded into pie crusts (or edible dirt, if it’s Halloween and you want to make a food-based scale model of a cemetery. Someone in my high school senior class did that, and it was amazing) and used as mixin’s for yogurt and ice cream. Basically, if something on the dessert menu says “Cookies and Cream [something],” you can bet that Oreos or an Oreo-inspired chocolate sandwich cookie (whether pre-made or homemade) are involved.

As part of Chocolate Sandwich Cookie Day, I’m going to leave you with a fool-proof recipe for how to make your own Oreo cookies (or, at the very least, the wafers, so you can use them for desserts or just eat that part without worrying about the creamy center). “You can make your own Oreos?” you ask incredulously. Yes, you can. It may seem hard, as the dark chocolate wafers are easy to overbake (their color obscures browned edging, which is an indicator of doneness in most cookie recipes) and the filling is very easy to foul up (coming out either too sweet or not sweet enough. I’ve had enough Oreos and no-brand sandwich cookies to know the difference), but this recipe fixes those mistakes.

The cookie/wafer part is prepared the same way as vanilla icebox cookies, only you substitute part of the flour for Dutch process cocoa (or a mix of black cocoa — which can only be found online or at gourmet grocery stores — and Dutch process cocoa), though you don’t have to bother with the cocoa powder if you’re making mock Golden Oreos. As for the filling, it’s a simple blend of confectioner’s sugar, water, vanilla extract (for best results, try and find clear vanilla extract, as that makes it as white as the actual Oreo filling), and a pinch of salt. That’s it. You don’t need lard or hydrogenated oil for it.

So break out the milk (doesn’t matter what kind. I had my Benton Sandwich cookies with Almond Vanilla Milk. I’m not lactose-intolerant, but everyone else in my family is and I’m open to trying new milks, like when I tried goat’s milk with spiced tea at Three Stone Hearth) and have a happy Chocolate Sandwich Cookie Day with this copycat recipe:

Chocolate Sandwich Cookies

Makes about 4 dozen cookies

Black cocoa (found in specialty shops or online) is what gives these cookies their distinctive dark color and deep flavor; if you can’t find it, substitute additional Dutch-processed cocoa powder. Also, if you can find it, clear vanilla extract will make a bright white–colored filling.

COOKIES

2½ sticks unsalted butter, softened

¼ cup black cocoa powder

¼ cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder

1 teaspoon instant espresso or instant coffee

1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

2 large egg yolks

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2¼ cups (11¼ ounces) all-purpose flour

FILLING

4 cups (16 ounces) confectioners’ sugar

Pinch salt

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2½ tablespoons water

FOR THE COOKIES:

Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter, then combine with the cocoa and espresso powders in a small bowl to form a smooth paste. Set aside to cool, about 15 minutes.

In a large bowl, beat the cooled cocoa mixture, remaining 16 tablespoons butter, granulated sugar, and salt together using an electric mixer on medium-high speed until well combined and fluffy, about 1 minute. Beat in the egg yolks and vanilla until combined, about 30 seconds. Reduce the mixer speed to low and slowly add the flour in 3 batches, beating well after each addition. Continue to beat until the dough forms a cohesive ball, about 10 seconds.

Transfer the dough to a clean counter and divide into 2 equal pieces. Roll each piece of dough into a 6-inch log, about 2 inches thick. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours.

Adjust the oven racks to the upper-middle and lower-middle positions and heat the oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Slice the dough into ⅛-inch-thick cookies. Lay the cookies on the prepared baking sheets, spaced about ¾ inch apart.

Bake the cookies until the edges begin to brown and firm, 10 to 12 minutes, switching and rotating the baking sheets halfway through baking.

Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets for 3 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough using freshly lined baking sheets.

FOR THE FILLING: In a large bowl, beat the confectioners’ sugar and salt together with an electric mixer on low speed, slowly adding the vanilla and 2 tablespoons of the water until the filling is uniform and malleable, about 1 minute. If the filling is dry and crumbly, beat in the remaining ½ tablespoon water. Transfer the filling to a clean counter and roll into a log slightly smaller than the cookie dough (about 1⅔ inches wide). Wrap the filling in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 20 minutes. 7. Slice the filling about ⅛ inch thick. Pinch each slice of filling between your fingertips to soften it, then sandwich it firmly between 2 cookies and serve.

Thanks, and happy eating!

To see where your favorite Oreo cookie type places, read this article from the food section of Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/06/oreo-flavors_n_4904442.html?utm_hp_ref=taste&ir=Taste

Copycat Recipes: Cuckoo For Cocoa Bombs

This is episode one in a new “Take Back the Kitchen” segment centered on making your favorite restaurant meals and pantry/refrigerator staples from scratch.

Welcome back, readers! It’s January 3, 2014, and, where I live, it’s an ass-biting 14ºF and is going to hit 5º by nightfall (and feel like 14 below). It’s times like this I wish I were back in San Francisco, where their winter weather is no different than what it’s like in early spring (mild and a little rainy).

But, this blog isn’t about the weather or where I’d rather be. It’s about food…and, in this case, drink.

In weather like this, hot drinks are the way to go, be it tea, coffee, cider, toddies, or cocoa. Nestlé, Swiss Miss, Ghiradelli Premium, Trader Joe’s, some Save-a-Lot no-brand — whatever your taste (and your budget), there’s nothing like a hot mug of hot cocoa (especially with marshmallows, but I’m not a marshmallow person, unless it’s roasted over a fire and sandwiched between a chocolate bar and some graham crackers or melted down and used to make Rice Krispie treats). But what if I told you that you can actually make hot cocoa mix and save yourself the time and money? Initially, you’d give me an incredulous look or dismiss me as being crazy, and, prior to that, I’d agree with you, but, yes, it is just as possible to make hot cocoa mix just as it is to make herbed crackers, egg foo young, or Fruit Roll-Ups (which I will touch on in later installments of “Copycat Recipes”). And this take on hot cocoa mix won’t leave a gritty, powdery aftertaste, which is one of the things I don’t like about hot cocoa.

The first thing you’ll notice about this is that it’s not a powdered mix, more like melting chocolate, then chilling it and turning it into pseudo-truffles or an edible fizzing bath bomb. That’s to reduce the mess you get with powders and to put you in control of how you want it flavored. What if you want some mint hot cocoa, or nutmeg, or cinnamon or Mexican-style (with dried, ground chiles)? Yes, you can flavor the powder with spices or add a flavored syrup, but it won’t mix well. Here, you get a better blend of chocolate plus whatever you’re flavoring it with (and, yes, you can use your favorite dessert liqueur, like Remy Martin, Kahlùa, Bailey’s Irish Cream or crème de mènthe if you want to make your hot cocoa adults only).

Instant Cocoa Bombs
(adapted from American Test Kitchen’s recipe)

Ingredients

12 oz (1 bag) semi-sweet chocolate chips*
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 tsp salt
Optional flavorings (mint extract, vanilla extract, crushed peppermint candy, smoked sea salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, pumpkin spice, dried ground chiles, your dessert liqueur of choice, ground coffee, etc)

1) Combine the chips, heavy cream, whatever flavoring you’re using (if any), and salt in a microwaveable glass bowl (I swear by Pyrex).
2) Microwave for 2 minutes (your microwave time may vary). If you don’t have a microwave, then melt the chocolate in either a double boiler or place the bowl with the mixture in it over a boiling pot of water (or the flame on your gas oven if you’re feeling ambitious). Either way, you’ll want to stir your melting mixture until it’s smooth. If you’re flavoring it, taste it to see if the flavored chocolate is where you want it to be.
3) Wrap the bowl tightly with plastic wrap (or use a shower cap and some rubber bands) and refrigerate for two hours or until firm.
4) After the mixture has hardened, take the bowl out of the refrigerator and unwrap.
5) With a tablespoon or a small disher scoop (Disher scoop is what laymen call “an ice cream scoop”. In restaurant supply stores, their sizes range from #6 to #100. A #6 or #8 [which is small and used for cookies] is ideal for this recipe), scoop the mixture into balls.
6) If you’re not going to use the cocoa bombs right away, wrap them in plastic and put them in a resealable freezer bag (or just put them in a freezer bag if you don’t have plastic wrap). They’ll keep anywhere from five days (refrigerator) or two months (freezer)
7) To use the cocoa bombs (either right away or later), place a cocoa bomb in a microwaveable mug (material doesn’t matter. It just has to be able to handle microwave temperatures), add milk (doesn’t matter if it’s cow, goat, soy, or lactose-free), and place in the microwave for 2 minutes (again, your microwave cooking time may vary). Stir until the cocoa bomb melts into the milk. Enjoy either with marshmallows, by itself, with whipped cream, or with a warm pastry, cookie, or brownie of some kind.

*You don’t have to use semi-sweet chcolate. Experiment with milk chocolate chips and white chocolate chips, or use Nutella (or any type of chocolate-hazelnut spread, whether store-bought or homemade)

As an added bonus, I’d like to include this video of how to make homemade marshmallows, along with the video illustrating how to make the cocoa bombs. The marshmallows take a bit more time to make, so you are better off getting store-bought, but, if you hate store-bought or have the time and energy to make homemade, then give this a try:

Instant Cocoa Bombs Video:

Homemade Marshmallows Video:

Happy New Year and happy eating!