Hell Yeah

June 21, 2011

Brushing away the cobwebs.... and sharing some big news.

:::: tap tap taps on the microphone ::::

"Hellllooooo...... anyone out there?"

Hi, you guys.  Bet you've been wondering where I've been.

(Maybe you haven't.  That's okay, too.  My feelings won't be hurt.  Much.)

Two things to tell you:

1) I've had to take a break from cooking because I'm having some health issues.  It's nothing serious or fatal or life-threatening.  But, it's weird and (frustratingly, once again) diet-related.  The experts are sorting everything out and beginning to uncover some odd triggers that are making certain numbers in my bloodwork go all wackadoo, thus affecting my baseline physical health.  I'm ready to turn my body over to science because I feel like a lab experiment with all the tracking and measuring and poking and prodding and scanning and needles and testing.  I'll share more details when I have more information (in case anyone else out there has/has had the same symptoms) and when I know more about what my food future will look like.

2) One thing I do know about my food future is this: I am writing a book.  With Mike Isabella.  And I couldn't be more excited!  You might know Mike from Top Chef and Top Chef All-Stars.  Or, you might know Mike because you ate at Zaytinya when he was executive chef.  Mike's new restaurant, Graffiato, opens this week, and if you're in Washington or you're visiting my lovely city in the future, I hope you'll add Graffiato to your must-eat list.  Mike and I have already begun working on the book -- his wife, Stacy, is doing all the recipe testing -- and I can't wait for you to read it and cook from it.

Off to the grocery store on Thursday morning, and back to cooking this weekend.  I can't take it anymore.  I miss my kitchen.  I miss this blog.  I miss all of you.

So, get ready for some English peas and ham and lavender, and my attempts to make my own tofu.  After which, if I buy a hackeysack, join a drum circle, and braid my armpit hair, please come rescue me.  Please.  I BEG YOU.

See you soon.

October 25, 2010

Sponge Cake, tonka bean, dried cherry, vanilla fragrance ... or as I call it, Twinkies for grownups

Ever have one of those weekends where everything is awesome?  As in, it's Sunday night and you're not even sad about it because everything that happened over the past two days was just fun and great and relaxing and energizing all at once?

Not tryin' to be all braggy, but this weekend was just one of those two-day respites that was chock full of good things: time in front of a roaring fire roasting hot dogs and marshmallows with friends; celebrating a friend's birthday; making travel plans; having a sweet conversation with a dear friend on the west coast; finding Bionaturae gluten-free pasta on sale; getting a pedicure and foot massage; incredible bounty at two farmers' markets; learning that I can now listen to my Pandora channels through TiVo; finding $20 in the pocket of a jacket that's been in the attic since spring; getting great feedback from a client; reading the amazingly supprtive comments on Ruhlman's blog post; watching the bee balm bloom one last time; sitting next to Yo-Yo Ma at dinner; finishing the Sunday NYT crossword puzzle in record time; finding this much-loved cartoon clip from my childhood; sunny skies and crisp air during the day and a bright, shining moon at night; and, breaking the code on gluten-free sponge cake.

Earlier in the week, I'd planned to cook all weekend.  I was going to make stock, do a brisket, make some pho, work on recipe development with a chef friend, and tackle two Alinea dishes.  Instead, a bunch of good stuff just kept happening and I reveled in it, tossing the to-do list and just going with the flow.  Sunday lunchtime rolled around and my sweet tooth kicked in, so I got to work on making this dish.  I was such a happy camper, I wasn't even stressed out about figuring out how to de-glutenize the sponge cake.  I just took a deep breath, cranked the Pandora Funk Channel, and got to work.

Last year, I wanted to make sponge cake for something else, and I scoured the internet for recipes so I could figure out the correct ratios of gluten-free flour substitutions. I tried three different versions of it, using three different recipes, and all of them were crap.  The cake wasn't spongy and didn't roll (let alone bend), and it tasted all wrong.  So, I decided I'd follow the recipe in the Alinea cookbook, and do my own flour substitutions knowing what I know now about how all these different flours work together.

I never reprint the recipes from the book on this blog (because you should buy it; you really should), but in the case of the sponge cake, I'll give you the exact measurements since I adapted the heck out of it... and because I want my fellow non-glutenites to be able to make this and love it.

I preheated the oven to 300F degrees, and instead of spraying the sheet pan with non-stick cooking spray, I lined it with parchment (works better for gluten-free baking in my experience).  In my mixer, I combined 7 eggs, 225g sugar, 15g Trimoline, 140g grapeseed oil, and 5g kosher salt, and mixed it on high speed for 3 minutes.


While that was mixing, I combined the following dry ingredients in a separate bowl: 90g potato starch; 80g white rice flour; 40g tapioca flour; 15g xanthan gum; and, 15g baking powder.  I remember what cake flour feels like, to the touch, and I knew this combination would be dang close to it.  I also knew that the properties of these flours would work well together and do what traditional cake flour does -- produce a batter that can hold sugar and fat without collapsing, while yielding a light and fluffy cake with a tender and silky crumb.


I whisked them together before adding them to the egg mixture, which I did by folding them in gently with a rubber spatula.  Last, but not least, I added 120g whole milk and 20g maraschino cherry liquid, folding that in, also, with a rubber spatula.


I poured the cake batter onto the parchment-lined baking sheet and put it in the 300F-degree oven for 20 minutes.  And when it was done, it looked like this:


Evenly cooked, light golden-brown, darker (but not burnt) at the edges... I almost did a whoop and a holler, but needed to let it cool before doing the taste (and bendy) test.

 While that cooled, I started the neutral caramel rectangles.  I heated isomalt, sugar, glucose, and a little water to 316F degrees and poured it onto a Silpat-lined baking sheet to harden:






It only took about 30 minutes to harden and cool to room temperature, after which time I broke it up into a million little pieces and ground it (in small batches) in my spice grinder (which is actually a coffee bean grinder I use only for spices and powders):



I put the powder into a fine-mesh strainer and lightly tap-tap-tapped it on the side as I hovered it over a Silpat-lined baking sheet, allowing the powder to fall evenly across the surface of it to create a sheet of powder:




I put the sheet of powder into a 350F-degree oven for about 3 minutes, turning the sheet pan 180 degrees halfway through, until it was completely melted:


Then, the book instructs you to cut small rectangles while the caramel is still warm and pliable.  Which I did.  But it was not exactly the cleanest cutting job in the world:


And all across the land, pastry chefs wept.


While the caramel rectangles were hardening, I made the tonka bean cream.  Except, uh, I adapted that, too.  I only had a few tonka beans in my possession, and needed them for the tonka bean froth.  So, I made coffee bean cream instead.  I KNOW.  How can you not love coffee as part of your dessert?

In a saucepan, I brought milk, heavy cream, maraschino cherry liquid, sugar and two tablespoons of gently crushed (in a mortar and pestle) coffee beans to a simmer.  I turned off the flame, covered the pot, and let it steep for 10 minutes.


Then, I poured the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl for the next step, which is adding gelatin sheets (that were soaked in cold water for five minutes):


I poured this mixture into a clean saucepan and reheated it, while whisking together egg yolks and salt in a clean bowl.  I then tempered the yolks with some of the warm coffee-milk mixture, then poured the tempered yolks into the saucepan with the coffee-milk mixture and brought it up to a simmer, whisking constantly.

When it was done, I poured it into a glass bowl that was nesting in a bowl of ice, to cool it to room temperature, before putting it into a siphon canister and chilling it for an hour.  I also made the tonka bean froth, but took no photos (explained in the Music to Cook By section below), though you'll see the frothy goodness in the final plating photos at the end of the post.

Meanwhile, the sponge cake had completely cooled and was ready to be cut into rectangles, and then enveloped by caramel rectangles.

Look how spongey and bendy and rolly it is! 


This pleases me greatly.  I foresee many a buche de noël in my future.

I cut rather generous rectangles here (deviating from the book's recommendation), and inserted a vanilla bean into the end (because when heated, as it soon will be, it unleashes the most lovely aroma):


I topped each one with a caramel rectangle, then put them in the oven for about 3 minutes until the caramel had melted down around the edges, and the cake was warmed.



Then, I flipped them over and did the same thing on the other side.  The caramel rectangles began to break apart when I was working with them, so I just made sure enough pieces were on them to envelop the cake (which you will see in the final plating photos; 'cause my sugar-wrapping skillz aren't that great).

Time to plate the dish.  Or, uh, glass it, I guess.

First thing in the glass was a healthy shot of coffee-bean cream from the siphon canister (into which I'd discharged an NO2 cartridge, so the coffee-bean cream had that soda water buzz to it).  Then, I placed a sponge cake into each glass, which I topped with tonka bean froth and some grated dried cherry.




Remember what Twinkies taste like?  Well, imagine a not-chemical-tasting Twinkie with the creaminess on the outside (eminently a better decision) and coffee to go with.  Also, imagine it warm.  And with no assy-tasting aftertaste that coats the roof of your mouth.

That's what this tasted like.  It was awesome.  Really and truly.  I am still a little shocked that my instincts were spot-on in making the sponge cake.  I guess I'm better at this gluten-free baking thing than I thought I was.

So, because I made the rectangles, like, twenty-seven times larger than the book recommended, you couldn't exactly lift them up by the pod to eat them.  That's okay.  We're all friends, so we used our fingers (and the spoons I graciously provided).  The first bite was nicely coated in the coffee-bean cream and the froth.  After the first bite, we dunked them back into the glass, and the cake started absorbing the liquids, and HOLY MOTHER OF JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE was that the right thing to do. Each bite was pure pleasure and delight, and the cake was just warmed enough that it felt even fresher and more delicious.

Oh, but what's that you see in the photo below?  An uneaten dessert?


Shock! Gasp! Horror!

One of my trusty tasters had taken sick just a few hours before and didn't make his way over to my house. Pity, that.  An extra dessert for the cook, my friends insisted (as they snacked on leftover pieces of sponge cake)...


Even better the second time.


Next Up: Licorice Cake, orange confit, anise hyssop, spun sugar

Resources: All flours from Bob's Red Mill; Smith Meadows Farm eggs; Domino sugar; Trimoline, isomalt, and glucose from L'Epicerie; Monini grapeseed oil; Safeway brand maraschino cherries; Clabber Girl baking powder; Natural by Nature milk; Organic Valley cream; King Arthur Flour gelatin sheets; tonka beans from that witchy-wiccan-whateveritwasonlinestorethatisnowoutofbusinesssoican'tlinktoit; David's kosher salt; soy lecithin from Terra Spice; vanilla beans from my pantry.

Music to Cook By:  Pandora Radio.  The Funk Channel.  Where they also sometimes play disco, which will inspire you to want to do your own wildly choreographed version of The Hustle in your kitchen and I'm here to tell you that's probably a bad idea especially if your kitchen is as small as mine is but sure fine go ahead and try to replicate those moves you've seen on So You Think You Can Dance even though you most certainly are not a dancer and have no idea what you're doing but don't come crying to me when you whack the hell out of your wrist on your countertop when you spin around doing that windmill-lookin' thing with your arms because I tried to warn you.

"Read" My Previous Post: Tomato, balloons of mozzarella, many complementary flavors

NOTE: Harold McGee's new book, Keys to Good Cooking, is out.  You can listen to his interview with NPR "Fresh Air" host, Terry Gross, by clicking here

August 02, 2010

A Little Something From the Trib

One of the many things I do as part of my day job is teach.  My first teaching experience was at Johns Hopkins University, where I taught in their graduate communications program.  I then moved on to become an adjunct professor at Georgetown's graduate school of communications where I taught public relations writing and a class called "The Power of Opinion."  In that second class, my students were required to write and submit one letter each week to the editor of a major daily newspaper, and write and submit five op-eds over the course of the semester.

Most of them were solid writers to begin with; they just needed some fine-tuning and an editor (me) to help shape their pieces so they'd have a better chance to be considered for publication.  They had to be able to articulate in 200 words or less for a letter to the editor and 700 words for an op-ed what they thought about a particular issue and why... which is a hell of a lot harder than it sounds.  It's not creative writing, and it's not news writing.  It's opinion writing which is persuasive, factual, and sans adverbs.  It's the kind of writing I love to read, and getting my students to the point where they could whip up a really strong, printable letter in 10 minutes or less during a timed class assignment was quite an accomplishment.

By the end of the semester, I was so proud of them because every single student got at least one letter to the editor published, and many of them had their op-eds printed, as well.  And we're not talking about the Butt-Scratch Herald in NeverHeardofYourTown.  Their pieces ran in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Chicago Tribune ... all papers and op-ed pages that our country's policymakers, decision makers, and business leaders read and pay attention to.

If you're not reading the editorial and op-ed pages of your daily newspaper, you should be.  While some may argue the print medium as a distribution platform is dying, the power of our opinions is not.  You should also be checking out the letters to the editor.  Sometimes, they're full of reader crankiness.  Other times, they shine an interesting new light on a news story you read a few days before.  And other times, they make you smile and say, "Richard and Carlotta, you are so, so right!"

This letter to the editor ran in the Chicago Tribune last week, and I couldn't agree more:

Food, not politicians, should represent Chicago

My, how times change. During our frequent travels, my wife and I have had some interesting conversations about our wonderful home town of Chicago. These have typically run the gamut from gangsters (Capone), sports heroes (Jordan), mega-celebrities (Oprah), wacky films (Blues Brothers), and most recently our pantheon of corrupt politicians (Blago).

Much to our delight, it appears as if the world view of Chicago might actually be changing. On a recent trip to Quebec City, we were momentarily taken aback, when one local, hearing that we lived in Chicago, posed the eager question: "Have you eaten at Alinea?"

It was our good fortune to be able to tell him about two wonderful dining experiences that we had there. After some further discussion of the allure of Chicago, we eventually tallied another future visitor to our sometimes overlooked, fly-over Midwest mecca. Go Grant Achatz!  A better ambassador we could not find.

-- Richard Hren and Carlotta Olson, Chicago

As a teacher, it thrills me to have an example such as this to share with my students. It's interesting, relevant, newsworthy, and tells a great story in a succinct, direct manner.  As someone who reveres innovation in business and food, this letter makes my day.

Alinea Book


  • I'm cooking my way through the Alinea Cookbook. Because I can. I think.


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