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!

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Exotic Fruits of My Labor — Passionfruit Shortbread

Passionfruit Shortbread.

In this continuation of my previous post, I have a recipe I found on the food blog, “Lucy’s Friendly Foods.” The writer is a mom with training at Le Cordon Bleu who cooks for people who have food allergies (the common ones, like dairy, soy, egg, and nuts) and those who are on vegetarian/vegan diets.

While I don’t have any food allergies (I thought I was allergic to seafood as a teenager because my eyes always itched and I had nausea, but the red eyes were from rubbing melted butter in them and the nausea could have been from foodborne illness) and you will never see me stick exclusively to a vegetarian/vegan diet (I love meat and junk food too much), age and my time as a culinary student with Job Corps made me more mindful of what I eat. On top of that, it’s an interesting cookie recipe no home cook (be they pro or amateur) should be without. It’s not going to take the place of Grandma’s chocolate chip cookies, but it’s something you have to try once (unless you hate passionfruit or shortbread cookies).

Happy 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

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*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.

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

First World Food Problems: Smooth Like Velveeta (or Process Cheesed Off)

As I was searching the Internet for future food topics on this blog, I came across a story that just screams, “First World problems” (or, if you want to get technical “#firstworldproblems”). Apparently, Kraft Foods announced that, because of high demand (especially around this time, where people are making cheesy, fattening snacks for the BCS [college football] and the Super Bowl), Velveeta may be in short supply. As per usual with a lot of news stories in this day and age, it’s been blown out of porportion. How blown out? It’s been dubbed “The Cheesepocalypse” on Twitter (which I use to get fans for this site, whether or not they actually know me). Don’t believe me. Check it out here:

http://www.cnbc.com/id/101316810

Now what does this mean to me? Absolutely nothing. I don’t like processed cheese at all. There was a time when I did, but that was because the lunchladies at school only had processed American cheese for their burgers, and I nor my mother thought to bring in provolone or mozzarella or write a note to the school, saying I’m allergic to American cheese. Hey, if they can do it for kids who have allergies to peanuts, soy, wheat, fish, walnuts, pecans, shellfish, eggs, and some of the less common foods a person can be allergic to, like strawberries, bananas, pineapples, chocolate — yes, chocolate allergies are a thing and I feel bad for people who will never know the simple joy of a Godiva truffle on Valentine’s Day (or Singles Appreciation Day, if you’re lonely and/or bitter), chocolate coins on Christmas or Hanukkah, Reese’s egg-shaped cups on Easter, or a Halloween jack-o’-lantern bag filled to bursting with the best Hershey’s has to offer — any artificial dyes or preservatives, or, in the case of one girl I knew at my basic Job Corps center in Kentucky, anything that wasn’t steamed chicken, buttered noodles, and steamed vegetables (I’m not kidding. Her food allergies were so bad that that was all she could eat), then my mother could do it for me. But that’s the past.

So why am I reporting on this? Two reasons: one, I find it a bit melodramatic that they’re treating this like it’s going to be an impending famine. This has NOTHING on Ireland’s potato famine between 1845 and 1852. That famine meant tremendous human suffering (the actual death toll isn’t clear, but it’s safe to say that around a million bit the big one due to disease and not, as you would believe, starvation), forever shaped  the cultural and political landscape of Ireland and the United Kingdom, gave considerable impetus to the shift from Irish (Gaelic) to English as the language of the majority since the potato famine affected poor Irish districts and led to the formation of the Gaelic League which works to promote Ireland’s mother tongue, added fuel to the fire of tension between the Irish and the British, and drove many Irish people to emigrate to other countries (most of them did end up in the United States. And if you think Mexicans are treated unfairly because of their emigrating to the United States, look up how the Irish were treated. And, yes, it does explain why, in old cartoons, police officers had red hair and/or Irish accents), and two: it gives me an opportunity to dispense options for those who just can’t live without their processed cheese.

I’ll never understand how eat something that’s made of milk, water, milkfat, whey, milk protein concentrate, whey protein concentrate, sodium phosphate; contains less than 2% of: salt, calcium phosphate, lactic acid, sorbic acid as a preservative, sodium alginate, sodium citrate, enzymes, apocarotenal (color), annatto (color), and cheese culture (which, to me, is more of a relic from my junior year chemistry class rather than food), but “Take Back the Kitchen” isn’t about judging you on the foods you eat; it’s about offering healthier options.

“Healthier options for Velveeta?” you scoff, “That’s just a myth, like The Tooth Fairy or a balanced budget.”

“Well,” I retort, “it’s true. You can make Velveeta by hand and it will taste better and be slightly better for you, as my idol,  American Test Kitchen, will show you with this recipe.”

Homemade Velveeta

1 tablespoon water
1½ teaspoons powdered gelatin
12 ounces Colby cheese, shredded
12 ounces Swiss cheese, shredded
12 ounces Cheddar cheese, shredded
1 tablespoon whole milk powder (now, this ingredient is going to be a pain in the butt to find in typical grocery stores. Try a gourmet kitchen store that specializes in rare and bizarre ingredients, or look online)
1 teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons whole milk

1. Line 5-by 4-inch disposable aluminum loaf pan with plastic wrap, allowing excess to hang over sides.

2. Place water in small bowl, sprinkle gelatin over top, and let mixture sit for 5 minutes. Pulse cheese, milk powder, salt, and cream of tartar in food processor until combined, about 3 pulses.

3. Meanwhile, bring milk to boil in small saucepan. Off heat, stir in softened gelatin until dissolved, and transfer mixture to 1-cup liquid measuring cup. With processor running, slowly add hot milk mixture to cheese mixture until smooth, about 1 minute, scraping down bowl as needed.

4. Immediately transfer cheese mixture to prepared pan, pressing to compact. Wrap tightly and chill at least 3 hours, or overnight.

If you want something more homemade, you can just cut cubes of Colby, Cheddar, and Swiss (now, why these three? Because that’s what the ingredients allegedly are of the actual product, according to a 1980s commercial jingle. I’m too young to remember that, since I was born in 1985 and came of age in the 1990s and the 2000s), add some Gruyère, some flour (or cornstarch if you’re going gluten-free), garlic clove, white wine, cherry brandy (called “kirsch” in Swiss German) [or omit both if you don’t want alcohol], lemon juice, nutmeg, and dry mustard in a fondue pot (or, more realistically, a four quart pot that could pass for a fondue pot if it’s fancy enough), cook until melted and creamy (being super careful not to let it boil. Boiling it will cause a mess and burn it), serve with French bread, raw vegetables, ham cubes, and some fruits that taste great with cheese (the mild, autumn fruits, like apples and pears. Apple slices with melted cheddar and ham makes a great sandwich, especially if the apple is anything but a Red Delicious, as Red Deliciouses are better off being eaten raw out of hand, turned into apple juice, used in reenactments of the Adam and Eve story [even though the Bible doesn’t specifically mention that an apple is “the forbidden fruit” from the Tree of Knowledge], or given to teachers in a transparent attempt to ingratiate yourself to them. When cooked, they taste too mushy), et voilà! You have a classy take on melted queso. A little heavy cream and roux turns it into a cheese sauce that can be served over steamed broccoli or loaded nachos or baked potatoes (which can also be served loaded).

It’s always a concern when your favorite food is in short supply or is about to be discontinued or affected in some way, but in an age where you can find alternate ways and substitutes for it, these doom and gloom stories about it shouldn’t impact this many people (unless it’s especially dire, like with water and certain fruits and vegetables).

Thank you, and happy eating!

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!

Making Bacon: Not Just Sexual Innuendo Anymore!

Hello readers. Only three more days until I go back to my regularly scheduled blogging.

In the meantime, enjoy this video from America’s Test Kitchen (probably the only cooking show out there that isn’t inane or considered “food porn”). I don’t know if this show comes on where I live, but, this is the 21st century, and there’s practically no TV show out there that isn’t available online in some capacity (except for maybe these late 1990s horror comedy cartoons I liked: one was called “Toonsylvania,” which Steven Spielberg made when he first started DreamWorks Studios and the other was called “Monster Farm” about a boy named Jack who inherits a farm filled with monster animals. The latter show came on ABC Family Channel back when it was called FOX Family. The former show aired on FOX back when that channel and other free-TV channels, except for NBC and PBS, aired Saturday morning cartoons).

Enjoy, have a happy and healthy new year, and I’ll see you with new material.

Avenue BBQ, part two: Crock(Pot) and Roll

Last time on Take Back the Kitchen, we looked at the history of barbecue and some regional differences. Today, we’re going to look at how you can have a barbecue in your own house if you don’t have a barbecue grill, if the weather is too damp or cold to cook outdoors, or if you’d rather not like your meat burnt from charcoal or gas flames.

The best crockpots are the ones for today’s busy idiot (no disrespect to anyone who’s busy or an idiot. It’s just that, in this quick-fix world we live in now, that’s the only way I can describe people who are slaves to wanting things done easy rather than putting a little effort behind a task, and that kind of mentality knows no skin color, ethnic group, religious preference, sexual orientation, body size, gender, or physical/mental disability) — the kind where you can set your ingredients in there and let it cook low and slow until tender (usually anywhere from 3 to 8 hours, depending on how tough your cut of meat is and what you’re cooking). Crockpots are what pressure cookers were back when they were first in vogue (I’m going to assume the 1950s. While pressure cookers are still around, they’re not as popular as they used to be…unless you’re a terrorist or have an old pressure cooker your grandmother or mom used to use and you want to keep up tradition): a big pot people can use to make thick,stews (especially beef stews), boiled dinners, and pot roasts and not have to worry about getting actively involved with what’s being cooked. Basically, it has the same emotional arc as a drama about a parent who abandoned his or her kid(s) in the past and is trying to get back in the child(ren’s)’s life (lives): starts out cold, but warms up very slowly, and you can expect a lot of boiling and steam.

Much like Kleenex, Chapstick, and Kool-Aid, “Crockpot” (actually spelled “Crock-Pot”) is actually a brand name that has come to generically describe the product. Crock-Pot’s claim is that it’s the original and everything else is a pale imitation, and I applaud them for taking pride in their work, but for those who don’t have the money for an authentic crockpot go for brands like Hamilton Beach (which is said to have a lot of good products that won’t put a hole in your wallet).

But let’s save the kitchen appliance chatter for a later day. We’re here to talk about crockpot barbecueing.

Crockpot-barbecuing meat is no different than braising (in fact, it’s a close relative of it). Both cooking techniques involve tough or large cuts of meat being cooked in a liquid (in this case, a thin, Carolina-style barbecue sauce, but you can use a less thick, Kansas City-style barbecue sauce if you’re making pulled pork for a pulled pork sandwich) after being browned for color and flavor, either in a brazier (a specialty pot used specifically for braising), a saucepot, a Dutch oven pot (if you’re not serving large groups of people), or a crockpot. The main difference between crockpot barbecueing and grilling is that there’s no fear of your meat coming out dry and burnt, since you’re utilizing a moist-cooking technique.

Slow cooking — be it with crockpot, brazier, or Dutch oven — touches on that want for warm, filling meals, especially in the winter months when no onereally cares about their waistline expanding. While others will tell you you can use a crockpot any time of the year (say, if you want to make chili for a summer barbecue), it’s the winter months in which slow cooking shines. Does beef stew appeal to you more when its ten below or 75 degrees and balmy?

With that, I’d like to introduce you to my family’s beef stew recipe:

Young Family Beef Stew

Ingredients

2 pounds beef stew meat (cut into bite-sized pieces)
½ cup stewed tomatoes or 1 cup tomato sauce
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 celery ribs, sliced
2 cups baby carrots
4-5 small potatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces (about 3 cups)
1 cup frozen corn
1/4 cup water
Whisper of cayenne
Pinch of garlic powder (or ¼ minced garlic)

Optional ingedients for this include peas, beans, bacon, mushrooms (white button), and frozen mixed vegetables (my mom uses canned and frozen vegetables because they cook faster and she doesn’t like to futz around with fresh vegetables, e. For a barbecued beef stew, we use either a bottled barbecue sauce or make a quick version using ½ cup tomato paste (or ketchup), ¼ cup brown sugar, few squirts of Louisiana hot sauce, some cayenne, and molasses to taste.

Always remember that the times listed are just suggestions, depending on what you use for slow-cooking. You may need more time; you may need less. I’m going by how my family makes this.

Instructions

  1. Combine beef, celery, carrots, onion, potatoes, salt,  pepper, and stewed tomatoes in a crock pot (my family uses a six quart, since that’s enough to feed the four of us and have leftovers for the next few days).
  2. Cook on low for  6-7 hours, eight at the most.
  3. About 30 minutes before serving, add water and seasonings. For a thicker stew, add ¼ cup of flour and enough vegetable oil to make a roux out of it. The roux is ready if it tastes more oily than floury.
  4. Mix until well-combined and let simmer for another 30 minutes.
  5. Serve immediately.

I also find that this tastes great when put in a hoagie roll and eaten as a bastardized version of a roast beef au jus sandwich. You really should try it this way.

Happy holidays and happy eating.

Operation Thanksgiving: The Leftover(s) Post

With Thanksgiving three weeks behind and Christmas almost a week away, you may be wondering why a Thanksgiving leftover blog post should be published this soon?

Well, to get a head start on post-Thanksgiving leftovers for 2014, and because I only have two recipes that individually takes three Thanksgiving dishes (namely the turkey, the homemade cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes) and recreates them into something you can make any time of the year.

Turkey/Homemade Cranberry Sauce: Turkey and cranberry sauce quesadilla

0411p146-turkey-quesadilla-l

Quesadillas are not a new thing for me. I’ve had them since college, both made by me and bought from Qdoba and several San Francisco food trucks (Food trucks are a bigger deal in the West Coast than the East, though Philly is starting to get into it). I’ve had both meat and vegetarian takes on it, and I like them both.

For those who don’t know, a quesadilla is a corn or flour tortilla filled with cheese and some kind of savory mixture (meat, vegetables, refried beans, mostly) either folded in half to form a half-moon shape when cut or sandwiched between two tortillas and cut into wedges after it’s been pan-cooked, griddled, or panini-pressed. The latter way of preparing it (sandwiched between two tortillas) is actually referred to as a sincronizada outside of Mexico, so if you’re an American tourist in Mexico, don’t get mad or confused if you see them prepare a quesadilla this way (as seen in this video): https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/transcoded/5/5a/Quesadilla.webm/Quesadilla.webm.480p.webm.

Another difference between a Mexican quesadilla and an American one is in the ingredients, especially the type of cheese used. In Mexico (particularly the central and southern areas; northern Mexico tends to use queso fresco and wheat flour tortillas for their quesadillas), queso Oaxaca (a stringy, mozzarella-esque cheese from the Mexican state of Oaxaca) is the cheese of choice in this dish (in America, it’s usually Colby Jack, that shredded “Mexican cheese blend” you see in stores [which is really just Monterey Jack and cheddar mixed], or mozzarella).

As for savory fillings, you get beef, chicken, and pork, same as in the States, but real Mexican quesadillas use such ingredients as chorizo (a type of spicy pork sausage; I made this in garde manger class during the week when I worked on forcemeats, pâtés, terrines in aspic — you know, the kind of disgusting foods that a lot of 1950s to 1970s home cookbooks have. It’s very weird that I actually know what they are and how to prepare them in a day and age when only children of 1970s parents and people who read James Lileks’ website and books would know what a savory gelatin dish is), huitlacoche (corn smut. Yes, it sounds like pornography that would exclusively be made in Nebraska, but corn smut is a type of pathogenic fungus that’s considered a delicacy in Mexico), and chicharrón (a meat dish that can best be described as “pork rinds made from scratch,” though some Central American places and places like The Philippines [which was under Spanish rule], beef and chicken is substituted).

This recipe I have for a turkey quesadilla uses ground turkey that you can cook like ground beef, but if you have leftover turkey from any occasion, you can just rip up the meat and sauté that in with the other ingredients.

All credit goes to Closet Cooking

Ingredients

  • 1 to 2 (8 inch) flour tortillas
  • ½ cup shredded cheese (a Monterey Jack/Colby blend is preferred, but you can substitute with whatever semi-soft or hard cheese you like)
  • ¼ pound turkey, cooked, shredded
  • 2 tablespoons cranberry sauce (I prefer the homemade cranberry relish I discussed in the previous “Operation: Thanksgiving” entry)
  • ½ jalapeno, finely diced (optional: I’m not a fan of jalapenos, but you might be)
  • 1 green onion, sliced
  • 1 handful cilantro, chopped (also optional, as not everyone likes cilantro)

Directions

  1. Heat a pan over medium heat, place one tortilla in and top with the half of the cheese followed by the turkey, cranberry sauce, jalapeno, green onion, cilantro and the remaining cheese and tortilla (if you’re doing the folded quesadilla with just one tortilla, then you need to place the filling on one side of the tortilla, then fold the bare side over the filled side).
  2. Cook the quesadilla until golden brown and the cheese is melted, about 2-4 minutes.

Mashed Potatoes: Gnocchi

I made gnocchi (pronounced nyo-KEY) once in my life, and that was in Chef Will’s International Cuisine/Bistro class when I was in California. It was during the two weeks we learned true Italian cooking. You’d think I’d learn at least something from that, since I have a great-grandmother who was one-quarter Italian and the Italian cooking bug lives on in my mother. Well, it does and it doesn’t. Making pasta like a true Italian grandmother (despite that I’m in my late-20s as of this writing. Hey, you’re never too young to cook like an Italian, Jewish, Greek, or Eastern European mother or grandmother, even if those ethnicities aren’t in your family tree) is something on which I still need to work — and that’s with and without the pasta maker. I’m not saying I stink, but there is room for improvement, as far as making pasta dough is concerned (though I do pride myself in making noodles out of kreplach dough to add in Jewish chicken soup. I did it because I felt like having chicken soup with noodles in it and the cafeteria wasn’t serving it).

Gnocchi is no exception. Gnocchi is a lot like any recipe, but especially like soufflé, in that just about anything can go wrong. They can fall apart like cheap jeans in a washing machine. They can taste doughy and soggy. They can have a heavy mouthfeel. That’s a lot to run through your mind while preparing this, but let me put you at ease at what you can do to avoid crummy gnocchi:

1)      Use starchy potatoes. Russets (the Idaho potatoes) are ideal. If your mashed potatoes were made with Russets, then you’re good to go.

2)      Try not to use too much or too little flour. Too much makes the gnocchi heavy and too little doesn’t make a strong enough dough.

3)      Use enough beaten egg to act as a binder (a quarter cup and nothing more)

4)      Ideally, egg isn’t needed in a true gnocchi recipe, but an eggless gnocchi recipe is very tricky to handle. Unless you’re experienced at making eggless gnocchi or you’re serving someone who doesn’t like or is allergic to eggs (eggs are considered one of the most common foods people are allergic to, next to peanuts, milk, any tree nut [walnuts, cashews, pecans, etc], soy, wheat/gluten products, and edible crustaceans), then stick with step three.

5)      Gnocchi is supposed to have a delicate, light mouthfeel to it – and that includes when you fry it. Yes, you can fry gnocchi. My International Cuisine teacher was disappointed in me when I decided to cook it up traditionally (boiled and cooked in tomato sauce) rather than fry it – not because he’s into fried food, but because he personally feels gnocchi is enjoyed better fried. And, after tasting a fried piece from a girl in my class (I think her name was Dahlia), I agree. Fried gnocchi tastes like tater tots, only less greasy. And that is a compliment. I know pairing something refined like gnocchi to something blue-collar like tater tots is a foodie taboo of some kind, but that’s the hazard that comes with opening your mouth to everything from pre-made to homemade.

Here’s the full recipe for your reference (this is from my “Italian Week” International Cuisine class packet):

Gnocchi From Mashed Potatoes

1½ cup prepared mashed potatoes (or 2 large Russett/Idaho/baking potatoes, scrubbed)

¼ cup egg, lightly beaten
1 cup of unbleached all-purpose flour
salt and pepper to taste

For those making a fresh batch of mashed potatoes (if using leftover mashed potatoes, skip steps 1 to 5):

1)   Fill a large pot with cold water. Salt the water, then cut potatoes in half and place them in the pot. Bring the water to a boil and cook the potatoes until tender throughout (anywhere from 35 to 50 minutes, depending on how fast your stove range heats up.

2)   Remove the potatoes from the water one at a time with a slotted spoon. Save the potato water.

3)   Place each potato piece on a large cutting board and peel it before moving on to the next potato. Peel each potato as soon as possible after removing from the water (without burning yourself).

4)   Keep in mind that you want to work relatively quickly so you can mash the potatoes when they are hot. To do this you can either push the potatoes through a ricer, or, failing that (not everyone has a potato ricer or knows one with such a thing), run a fork down the sides of the peeled potatoes, creating a nice, fluffy potato base.

5)   Mash the potatoes until you get a consistent base with little to no obvious lumps. Do not over-mash.

6)   Let the potatoes cool spread out across a cutting board (or other flat, protective surface) long enough that the egg won’t cook when it is incorporated into the potatoes.

7)   Pull the potatoes into a soft mound. Drizzle the beaten egg and sprinkle ¾ cup of the flour across the top. With a metal spatula, a pastry scraper, or your own washed and dried hands, incorporate the flour and eggs into the potatoes by repeatedly scraping and folding the mixture until the mixture is a light crumble.

8)   As gently as humanly possible, knead the dough, adding the flour a sprinkle at a time if the dough becomes tacky (“sticky” tacky, not “showing up at church with cheap jewelry, blown-out ‘80s hair, an obvious, second-rate boob/nose job, and Day-Glo spandex” tacky).

9)   When the dough is moist but not sticky, cut the dough into 8 pieces and  gently roll each 1/8th section of dough into a snake-shaped log, roughly the thickness of your thumb. Use a knife to cut pieces every 3/4-inch.

10)   To shape the gnocchi, hold a fork in one hand and place a gnocchi pillow against the tines. Use your thumb and press in and down the length of the fork. The gnocchi should curl into a slight “C” shape and the backs will capture the impression of the tines as tiny ridges.

11)   Set each gnocchi aside and dust with a bit more flour if needed, until you are ready to boil or fry them.

12)   If you want your gnocchi boiled: either reheat your potato water or start with a fresh pot (salted), and bring to a boil. Cook the gnocchi in batches by dropping them into the boiling water roughly twenty at a time. The gnocchi are done when they float back to the top. Fish them out of the water a few at a time with a slotted spoon ten seconds or so after they’ve surfaced. Have a large platter or shallow bowl ready with a generous swirl of whatever sauce or pesto you like with them. Continue cooking in batches until all the gnocchi are done and serve.

13)   If you want your gnocchi fried: As mentioned before, fried gnocchi has a taste akin to that of tater tots. Though you will have experts and websites stating that deep-frying gnocchi will result in turning your kitchen into a fireworks show of hot grease and potato chunks, there is a way you can nip this problem in the bud: stick them in the microwave submerged in water for two minutes to soften them up, then drop them in a frying pan of oil. If the prospect of deep-frying gnocchi still scares you, then pan-frying/shallow-frying is your best bet.

Thanks, and happy eating!

I’d like to close out with the YouTube video that shows just how dangerous gnocchi frying can be:

Operation Thanksgiving 4: Side Dish Follies

Welcome back to “Operation: Thanksgiving.” We’re in our fourth day (or blog post) on how to make Thanksgiving a little less hectic on the kitchen front (if you need help on the family and relatives front, I’m not qualified for that). I laid out my plan on day one. Day two outlined the history of Thanksgiving and why a turkey was chosen as the main course. Day three focused on the turkey and the easy ways to make it juicy and moist (along with debunking every moisture retaining technique you learned from family and the media). Today, we make like a bad Operation player and touch the sides.

Stuffing

What would Thanksgiving be without stuffing in or served alongside the turkey? For some people, better.

I used to be one of those people who thought stuffing was disgusting – without even tasting it, which is a cardinal sin in culinary. You have to taste everything at least once before you can pass judgment. You may be missing out on something great. That’s how I found out that gluten-free brownies are just as good as ordinary brownies. I didn’t discover how good stuffing could be until November 2011, when my culinary class was assigned to cook Thanksgiving lunch and dinner for everyone at Whitney M. Young Job Corps center (which averages in at about 400 students, not counting students who leave because they finished the program, got thrown out, or decided not to stay, plus the regular staff members) and the kitchen staff taught us how to make it by hand. It was just a typical bread and celery stuffing, meant to be served alongside the turkey during the lunch and dinner rushes.

Initially I refused, citing that I didn’t like it. My teacher insisted, and I figured, “I’m not going to stick to most of my ways. I came out here to Kentucky to try new things.” It…wasn’t too bad. It could have stood to be seasoned a little more, but it wasn’t as gross as I imagined it would be.

Now, why would I think stuffing is disgusting? I mean, look at it.

Great Grandma's Bread Stuffing Recipe

Its name is appropos to what it looks like: stuffing, from an old couch that a stoner must have thought would taste better in the oven. Also, it seems that the stuffing and the turkey are competing for being the dryest thing at the table since that time your theatrical son chose to read Oscar Wilde’s memoirs instead of saying grace at the dinner table (hey, it’s more educational and less embarrassing than the time Uncle Gerald gave that stirring reading from Penthouse Forum. Sitting at the adult table can be vastly overrated, sometimes)*.

“So, Canais [or “Philly Foodie,” if you can’t make heads or tails of the pronounciation of my name],” you ask, “How can I make my stuffing moist?”

Now, assuming that’s not more food-based sexual innuendo, I’d answer, “It’s very simple…”

Or maybe not.

Because while you might dream of having moist stuffing inside a roasted bird, reality in the form of borrowed time, better resources (more pans, more oven room), and/or guest request may call for the stuffing to be cooked separately. Frankly, it doesn’t matter which method you use (stuffed in the bird vs. cooked separately), as long as you follow these steps to better, more moist stuffing:

Use bread: You can use grains or eschew stuffing all together if you have guests who don’t like/can’t eat gluten, but the truth of the matter is: You need bread for your stuffing. Now what kind of bread depends on what kind of stuffing you’re aiming for – and it has to be fresh bread. Don’t try to cheat with prepackaged croutons. It’ll taste like crap and everyone will know it. If you want to stick to tradition, use Pullman bread (the typical, square loaf bread, often sold as “white bread”). Whole grain bread adds a sweeter, fuller taste. Italian loaves cut into cubes is what I used when my class made stuffing from scratch. They’re great for sopping up the juices and, if you happen to have an Italian loaf flavored with olive oil or an Italian herb (basil or oregano), all the better, as it imparts a very homey taste. Good, old San Francisco sourdough gets you chewy, tangy stuffing (which is equal parts good and bad). Whatever you use, estimate 3/4 to 1 cup stuffing per person when figuring out how much you will need, or, failing that, err on the side of too much rather than too little. This is good advice, because the next blog post will be about what to do with all those leftovers.

Dry your bread: Nobody likes mushy stuffing, except those so hungry and desperate that they will eat anything, and even then, it’s a crapshoot. As I mentioned before, you can’t use prepackaged croutons, but you can make your own with fresh bread. Cut whatever bread you’re using (if you’re using cornbread or buttermilk biscuits as your base, all you have to do is bake your cornbread or biscuits and crumble them when they cool off) into cubes and toast them in the oven for 15 minutes (or until golden brown) at 275°F.

Aromatic vegetables are your friends: As I mentioned in the turkey section, a mix of diced or roughly cut (but small enough to be inconspicuous) aromatic vegetables (mirepoix) is essential, whether you’re making sauce or roasting poultry, and here, it’s no exception. The only difference is, instead of carrots, use garlic, along with your celery and onions, as you sauté them in a pan slicked up with a full stick of butter (you can cut it in half if the mere mention of a stick of butter makes your heart seize up in a pre-emptive attack).

Fresh herbs are also your friends: I already touched on this in the turkey post, so I’m not going to belabor the point. In the case of stuffing, you can’t cheat and use powdered herbs. You can, if you don’t have any fresh herbs, but if you want the stuffing to taste like something, then I advise you to use fresh and dried herbs. Sage, thyme, and parsley are the herbs associated with stuffing, but you can improvise and either add on or substitute any of those three for ground cloves, allspice, mace, and/or nutmeg. Rosemary — an herb my mother hates with a passion (I myself love it) — can be used as well, but it will impart a pine tree-like flavor to your stuffing if you use too much — unless you want to combine Thanksgiving and Christmas in one meal, then by all means, go nuts. In seriousness, though, a pinch of the herbs and spices is all you need to give the stuffing a pop without making it overbearing.

Pack the stuffing loosely: The stuffing expands as it absorbs juices, and if it’s too tightly packed, it won’t cook through. On top of that, you run the risk of causing food-bourne illness if you do pack it tightly. If your hand can’t fit inside the cavity after you stuffed the bird, it’s too much. The excess stuffing can be cooked off in a casserole pan or put in a freezer bag for later use.

A little liquid goes a long way: This will make or break your stuffing, as the liquid is what keeps the stuffing together. However, too much can make it soggy. You’re going to need one to two cups of stock (not broth, stock) of any kind (chicken is the gold standard, but you can use vegetable or mushroom if you don’t want to make your vegetarian eaters mad), but if you want to mix it up, create a liquid mixture made of milk, white wine, and the stock of your choice. The key here is to have something that will not only hold the bread crumbs together, but also give it a great flavor.

Next up, Cranberry Sauce

Like stuffing, I was never a fan of this Thanksgiving staple. Not because no one knew how to make it right, but I was under the impression that no one made it at all, and that the only form it existed in was the can, jellied monstrosity by Ocean Spray. My “Damn you, Ocean Spray” from the previous post was half-funny and half-serious. I just really hate that Ocean Spray came up with the canned cranberry sauce (their cranberry juices are okay in my book). It wouldn’t be until college that I realize that cranberry sauce need not be this way. One of the student orientation heads brought some homemade cranberry and orange sauce. One taste and all my preconceptions about cranberry sauce vanished.

It wouldn’t be until I went to Job Corps for culinary arts that I went searching online for homemade cranberry sauce recipes I could put in my Thanksgiving repertoire. This one I picked (and just did) because it’s more of a relish than a sauce and it’s very versatile. It can be equally enjoyed at the Thanksgiving table or on a shrimp salad pita sandwich during your lunch break at work.

Pomegranate Apple Cranberry Relish (credit to A Spicy Perspective)

Ingredients:

2 cups pomegranate juice
1/2 cup sugar
1 12-ounce bag fresh cranberries
1 medium crisp apple, peeled, cored, diced (I used a Granny Smith apple because I wanted it to taste tart, but you can use the mild apples, like Gala or Red Delicious)
1 cup pomegranate arils (seeds) [See my blog post about POM and pomegranates for how to break and de-seed one of these suckers. It’s not as messy as handling cranberries]
1 teaspoons orange zest
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint (or parsley)*

*I substituted for ground cinnamon for two reasons: 1) it gives it a bolder flavor that’s more suited for autumn, and 2) my mother couldn’t find any mint, and I didn’t go shopping with her to look for it myself. I also forgot to put salt in it, but I think I made up for it with the cinnamon.

Directions:

1) Simmer the pomegranate juice and sugar until it reduces to less than half, and a thin syrupy consistency is reached—about 15 minutes (longer if you feel it could be a little sweeter).

2) Meanwhile, using a blender or a food processor, coarsely chop the cranberries.

3) Pour them into a medium bowl and add the pomegranate syrup. If the syrup is still warm, don’t worry about it. You can make up for it by chilling it in the refrigerator.

4) Add the diced apple, pomegranate arils, orange zest salt and mint. Mix well.

5) Serve right away or chill for up to a week. Makes about 4 cups.

Mashed Potatoes

Mashed potatoes seems like a no-brainer recipe. Boil some spuds until soft and yielding, mash as you pour in milk or cream, season to taste, the end. Which is why I don’t understand why people would resort to instant. Yes, if time really isn’t on your side, you can whip this up in 15 to 30 minutes flat, but I’m the kind of person who at least wants to put some effort into something, whether or not it’s stupid easy. If that means I’m an ovethinker, then, well, that’s what I am.

And just like anything that seems easy to make, it’s also easy to screw it up. Case in point: I had to make mashed potatoes for wonton filling in my garde manger (pantry) class. The potatoes were only half soft when I had to mash them. Also, it would have been best if I peeled them before cubing them. My point is, “Don’t do what I did.”

As long as you use Russets (Idaho) or Yukon Golds (they’re starchier and result in a creamier mash, mash it by hand instead of machine (immersion blender and food processors), don’t overdo it on the mashing, don’t add too much liquid (and if you do, then you can turn it into potato soup), respect the “2:1 potato-to-butter ratio” (for every pound of potatoes, use a half-pound of butter), and don’t make them too far in advance (to avoid drying them out), then you’re golden.

I will, however, add that I swear by stock and cream cheese for really good mashed potatoes that don’t also double as stucco.

Vegetable, Grain, and Legume Dishes

Normally, green bean casserole (the one with the fried onion sticks in them) is the go-to veggie dish for the Thanksgiving table, but let’s be honest. It’s time to retire it. It had a good run and it should have gone out on top before 1979 ended (kind of like how The Simpsons should have ended after the season nine episode where Homer becomes the sanitation commissioner for Springfield and then buried the entire town in trash, which would be around 1998-1999).

At my table, the vegetable dishes are usually collard greens (or some kind of braised greens dish. Mustard greens and kale have been served before), a rice and veggie dish (usually broccoli, and usually with that bright yellow cheese sauce), asparagus spears, or baked potatoes. Vegetables don’t really get much attention at my family’s table, which is a shame, because that’s an essential part of a balanced diet. If I had my way, I’d prepare ratatouille (not that Pixar movie; it’s an actual vegetable dish of North African and Mediterrenean roots), creamed spinach, and brussel sprouts (yeah, it’s not everyone’s favorite vegetable, but, if cooked right, it will be. Brussel sprouts really benefit from some time in a slow cooker).

My family doesn’t do beans at the table, since not everyone likes them (myself included). I have taken a liking to quinoa, thanks to my internship at Three Stone Hearth, a community kitchen/health food store in Berkeley, California. Quinoa is a grain-like crop grown primarily for its edible seeds. You can use it as a substitute for rice if you’re making a pilaf recipe, but I enjoy quinoa more in a salad recipe (like this recipe below):

Greek Quinoa Salad

Ingredients:

  • 3-4 cups water or vegetable broth
  • 1 1/2 cups quinoa, uncooked
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • juice from one lemon
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 cup kalamata olives, sliced if desired
  • 1/3 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1/3 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

Preparation:

1)      In a medium-large saucepan, cook the quinoa in vegetable broth for 15-20 minutes, until tender, stirring occasionally. Allow to cool.

2)      In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil.

3)      Gently toss the quinoa together with the remaining ingredients, except the feta.

4)      Pour the olive oil mixture over the quinoa.

Add more salt and pepper to taste and gently stir in the feta cheese

Breads (Biscuits, Cornbread, and Croissants)

If you don’t know how to make bread by hand, you can take a shortcut and get your breads either from a bakery or just use Pillsbury or Jiffy brand. But, if you have the know-how and the time to make biscuits, cornbread, and/or croissants by hand, then read on:

I’m a fan of knock-off recipes. A knock-off recipe (also called a “copycat recipe”) is a recipe written to imitate a certain food or meal from a popular chain restaurant or fast food joint. You see them all the time online, from imitations of Outback Steakhouse’s Bloomin’ Onion to imitations of your favorite candies, like Almond Joy and Reese’s Cups. The knock-off recipe appeals to my “I can do better than these guys” sensibilities, because why go to Dairy Queen for a Blizzard when you can just throw some ice cream (either store-bought or homemade) in a blender and mix in some candy, fruit, nuts, or cookie dough pieces until it’s so thick that it can’t slide out of the cup? And why go to Red Lobster for the Chedday Bay biscuits when you can make them yourself at home? I think you see where this is going.

Cheddar Bay Biscuits

Ingredients

2 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup chilled butter, cut into pieces

1 cup buttermilk

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 cup cheddar cheese, shredded

Method

-Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

-Mix the dry ingredients, then cut the butter pieces into it with a pastry cutter or two knives.

-Add the buttermilk, stirring just until a sticky dough forms.

-Turn it out onto floured surface, pat it into a square, and fold it in on itself a couple of times, like a letter.

-Pat it out again to about 1/2 to 1 inch thickness, depending on how you like them. Use a biscuit cutter to cut the biscuits out.

-Arrange them on a baking sheet, as close to each other as possible without touching. Make a small indentation in the center of each biscuit with your thumb (I’ve heard this helps them rise straight, but I’ve never not done it, so I have no idea.)

-Mix butter or margarine and garlic powder. Brush mixture over warm biscuits before removing from cookie sheet.

Cornbread

Good cornbread is hard to find. In my younger, more naive days, I thought Jiffy brand Cornbread Mix was the quickest way to good cornbread. Then, one day, I tried a piece of Jiffy cornbread after years of not having it and was shocked to find that it wasn’t the little slice of buttery heaven it was before. I learned a horrible truth about my beloved cornbread: real cornbread (as in, “From the Deep South of these United States. The kind of places where answering ‘No’ to the question, ‘You ain’t from around here, are ya?’ will get you strung up faster than a piñata at a little kid’s backyard birthday party”) is grittier than packaged or bakery versions. Why? Because wheat flour and sugar, among other ingredients, dominate commercial mixes. From then on, I’ve been on a journey to find a cornbread recipe (from scratch) that would make me love cornbread again.

And I made it when I was at Whitney M. Young Job Corps Center:

Juffy Cornbread Mix (Not very creative, but it’s still mine)

Dry Mix:

2/3 Cup Flour
1/2 Cup Yellow Cornmeal
3 Tablespoons Sugar
1 Tablespoon Baking Powder
1/4 teaspoon Salt

Wet Ingredients:

1 Egg

1/3 Cup Milk

2 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil

Method:

1)      Combine dry ingredients in a bowl, mix well.

2)      Whisk in vegetable oil and mix until dry mixture is smooth and lumps are gone.

3)      Combine mix with egg and milk, mixing well.

4)      Fill muffin pan 1/2 full,

5)      Bake for 15-20 minutes or until toothpick poked in center of one of the cornbread muffins comes out clean.

A note for cooks: Cornbread is a quick bread, meaning that its batter or dough should be made quickly. Working on it too long or mixing it too much can and will result in a less than savory crumb.

Croissants

As I said before, you’re better off just getting ready-made crescent rolls from either a very good bakery or the grocer’s freezer in one of those tubes that go “POP!” when you press on it with a back of a spoon, as croissant dough is very labor intensive to work with.

I’d like to thank Fine Cooking.com and my Baking Class instructor, Master Baker Chef Egon Grundmann from Treasure Island Job Corps Center for teaching me how to work with this dough and for the recipe:

Ingredients:

For the dough

  • 1 lb. 2 oz. (4 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour (add more for rolling, so the dough doesn’t stick)
  • 5 oz. (1/2cup plus 2 Tbs.) cold water
  • 5 oz. (1/2 cup plus 2 Tbs.) cold whole milk
  • 2 oz. (1/4 cup plus 2 Tbs.) granulated sugar
  • 1-1/2 oz. (3 Tbs.) soft unsalted butter
  • 1 Tbs. plus scant 1/2 tsp. instant yeast
  • 2-1/4 tsp. table salt

For the butter layer

  • 10 oz. (1-1/4 cups) cold unsalted butter

For the egg wash

1 large egg

Method:

Make the dough

Combine all of the dough ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Mix on low speed for 3 minutes, scraping the sides of the mixing bowl once if necessary. Mix on medium speed for 3 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured 10-inch pie pan or a dinner plate. Lightly flour the top of the dough and wrap well with plastic so it doesn’t dry out. Refrigerate overnight.

Make the butter layer

The next day, cut the cold butter lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick slabs. Arrange the pieces on a piece of parchment or waxed paper to form a 5- to 6-inch square, cutting the butter crosswise as necessary to fit. Top with another piece of parchment or waxed paper. With a rolling pin, pound the butter with light, even strokes. As the pieces begin to adhere, use more force. Pound the butter until it’s about 7-1/2 inches square and then trim the edges of the butter. Put the trimmings on top of the square and pound them in lightly with the rolling pin. Refrigerate while you roll out the dough.

Laminate the dough

Unwrap and lay the dough on a lightly floured work surface. Roll into a 10-1/2-inch square. Brush excess flour off the dough. Remove the butter from the refrigerator—it should be pliable but cold. If not, refrigerate a bit longer. Unwrap and place the butter on the dough so that the points of the butter square are centered along the sides of the dough. Fold one flap of dough over the butter toward you, stretching it slightly so that the point just reaches the center of the butter. Repeat with the other flaps, then press the edges together to completely seal the butter inside the dough. A complete seal ensures the butter center won’t come out over the edges.

Lightly flour the top and bottom of the dough. With the rolling pin, firmly press the dough to elongate it slightly and then begin rolling instead of pressing, focusing on lengthening rather than widening the dough and keeping the edges straight. Roll the dough until it’s 8 by 24 inches. If the ends lose their square shape, gently reshape the corners with your hands. Brush any flour off the dough. Pick up one short end of the dough and fold it back over the dough, leaving one-third of the other end of dough exposed. Brush the flour off and then fold the exposed dough over the folded side. Put the dough on a baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and freeze for 20 minutes to relax and chill the dough.

Repeat the rolling and folding, this time rolling in the direction of the two open ends. Fold the dough in thirds again, brushing off excess flour and turning under any rounded edges or short ends with exposed or smeared layers. Cover and freeze for another 20 minutes.

Give the dough a third rolling and folding. Put the dough on the baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap, tucking the plastic under all four sides. Refrigerate overnight.

Divide the dough

The next day, unwrap and lightly flour the top and bottom of the dough. With the rolling pin, “wake the dough up” by pressing firmly along its length—you don’t want to widen the dough but simply begin to lengthen it with these first strokes. Roll the dough into a long and narrow strip. If the dough sticks as you roll, sprinkle with flour. Once the dough is about half to two-thirds of its final length, it may start to resist rolling and even shrink back. If this happens, fold the dough in thirds, cover, and refrigerate for about 10 minutes; then unfold the dough and finish rolling. Lift the dough an inch or so off the table and allow it to shrink from both sides—this helps prevent the dough from shrinking when it’s cut. Check that there’s enough excess dough on either end to allow you to trim the ends so they’re straight. Trim the dough.

With a knife and a ruler, mark the top of the dough at 5-inch intervals along the length. There should be 7 marks in all. Make a mark 2-1/2 inches in from the end of the dough. Make marks at 5-inch intervals from this point all along the bottom of the dough. You’ll have 8 marks that fall halfway between the marks at the top.

Make diagonal cuts by positioning the yardstick at the top corner and the first bottom mark. With a knife or pastry wheel (better known as a pizza cutter), cut the dough along the marked lines. Repeat until you have cut the dough diagonally at the same angle along its entire length. Change the angle of the yardstick to connect the other top corner and bottom mark and cut the dough along this line to make triangles. Repeat along the entire length of dough. You’ll end up with 15 triangles and a small scrap of dough at each end. Toss the scraps out if they aren’t triangular enough to be made into croissants.

Using a paring knife or a bench knife, make a 1/2- to 3/4-inch-long notch in the center of the short side of each triangle. The notch helps the rolled croissant curl into a crescent. Hold a dough triangle so that the short notched side is on top and gently elongate to about 10 inches without squeezing or compressing the dough. Lay the croissant on your work surface with the notched side closest to you. With one hand on each side of the notch, begin to roll the dough away from you, towards the pointed end.

Flare your hands outward as you roll so that the “legs” (the thin ends) become longer. Press down on the dough with enough force to make the layers stick together, but avoid excess compression, which could smear the layers. Roll the dough all the way down its length until the pointed end of the triangle is directly underneath the croissant. Now bend the two legs towards you to form a tight crescent shape and gently press the tips of the legs together. Don’t worry if they come off during the proofing phase. That’s normal.

Shape the remaining croissants in the same manner, arranging them on two large parchment-lined rimmed baking sheets (8 on one pan and 7 on the other). Keep as much space as possible between them, as they will rise during the final proofing and again when baked.

Proof the croissants

Make the egg wash by whisking the egg with 1 tsp. water in a small bowl until very smooth. Lightly brush it on each croissant.

Refrigerate the remaining egg wash and put the croissants in a draft-free spot at 75° to 80°F. Wherever you proof them, be sure the temperature is not so warm that the butter melts out of the dough. They will take 90 minutes to 2 hours to fully proof (perfect time to watch a movie). The croissants are ready if you can see the layers of dough when the croissants are viewed from the side, and if you shake the sheets, the croissants will wiggle. Finally, the croissants will be distinctly larger (though not doubled) than they were when first shaped.

Bake the croissants (Finally!)

Shortly before the croissants are fully proofed, position racks in the top and lower thirds of the oven and heat it to 400°F convection, or 425°F conventional. Brush the croissants with egg wash a second time. Put the sheets in the oven. After 10 minutes, rotate the sheets and swap their positions. Continue baking until the bottoms are an even brown, the tops richly browned, and the edges show signs of coloring, another 8 to 10 minutes. If they appear to be darkening too quickly during baking, lower the oven temperature by 10°F. Let cool on baking sheets on racks.

Well, we reached the end of this battle in “Operation: Thanksgiving,” but the war isn’t over yet. Once I’ve and you’ve recovered from our respective food comas, I’ll be blogging about what you can do with all those leftovers.

Goodbye, happy eating, and Happy Thanksgiving (or Happy Hanukkah, since that happens to fall around the same time as American Thanksgiving this year. I’ve never seen this happen and I’m glad to be alive to see it. Mazel tov!).

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*NOTE: Those two events never happened to me personally. I’m just painting a hypothetical picture of how dry the stuffing and turkey can get. All recipes and excerpts are property of their respective books and websites unless otherwise noted. All commentary is copyright of Canais “Philly Foodie” Young.