Archive | June, 2010

On Vanilla

30 Jun

Almost every cookbook will demand that you buy pure vanilla extract.  Now, you may have noticed that the stuff isn’t cheap.  What’s more, the books will tell you that imitation vanilla tastes fake, that everyone will be able to pick it out right away, and that you’d might as well be baking with a fucking Tab cola.  Well, people, you are going to use a lot–a lot–of vanilla, so if all you can buy is imitation vanilla, you needn’t feel badly about it.  It’s a actually a very rare bird who can taste the difference in baked goods.  And besides, you really don’t want to be friends with the asshole who can.

(If you don’t believe me, fools that you are, check out what Cook’s Illustrated has to say about it here in this vanilla taste test.)

My suggestion?  If you are near a Mexican grocer, check out the vanillas available there.  Mexico is in fact one of the few places on earth where vanilla grows, so those folks know what they’re doing.  In any of its forms (many Mexican vanilla brands are a combination of pure extract and imitation), you’ll get a strong vanilla that tastes neither like the face-toner vanilla sold over by the salt and pepper, nor like the pipe-tobacco vanilla available at Willams-Sonoma.  Horrible.

Needless to say, these are far, far less expensive and although it pains me to reveal my secret here, this is a secret all of you need to know.  Save for a few, more delicate operations, I will never go back to overpriced pure vanilla extract.  You, my friends, shouldn’t even get started with it.


#1: Walnut-Maple Syrup Cookies, Ingredients Breakdown

22 Jun

I found this recipe in one of those bazillion-recipes type books I mentioned in a previous post.  Again, it’s filled with lots of great ideas, and this one caught my eye, because I am the one person who seeks out that maple bit in the Whitman’s Sampler.  I never used to, of course; who does?  But in a moment of desperation, I poked my finger through the bottom of this stray piece to see what it was–I was not the first to do so–and decided, eh, well, it’s sugar.  Imagine my surprise when it was actually de-lish-us.

I could tell right away, though, that as it was written, the particular recipe was going to turn out like shit.  But when I began this project, I was determined to offer an idea of what to look for, and what to question.  And, following that, the process of making a good recipe that works for you.  I intend to give you every detail.

In any case, here’s the recipe as it stands:

½ cup butter, softened
½ cup granulated sugar
2 TBL light brown sugar
1 TBL pure maple syrup
1-1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp instant coffee granules
2/3 cup finely ground walnuts
1/8 tsp salt


Beat the butter, both sugars, and maple syrup in a large bowl with an electric mixer until creamy.  Mix in the flour, coffee, walnuts and salt to form a soft dough.  Turn the dough onto a slightly floured surface and knead until smooth.  Press the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.  Preheat the oven to 375 F.  Butter and flour two cookie sheets.  Roll out the dough to 1/8-inch thick.  Use a three-inch cookie cutter to cut out the cookies.  Gather the dough scraps, re-roll, and continue cutting out cookies until all the dough is used.  Use a spatula to transfer the cookies to prepared baking sheets, placing them one inch apart.  Bake for eight to 10 minutes, or until barely colored.  Transfer to racks to cool.

Now.  Let’s break down this recipe, starting with the ingredients.

The Ingredients

If you want to be a great baker, check out your ingredient list. Ask yourself: What does each one do?  Why is it there?  What’s the point of each ingredient?  Here’s what I get from this particular ingredient list:

Two sticks of butter:  Good.  Standard.  My first thought is that maple flavor would be best supported with browned butter, or at least melted butter, rather than the standard of creamed butter.  (Melted and browned butters have a stronger and different character entirely.)

½ cup of sugar:  Seems low.  Also, plain white sugar is not the best support for a flavor like maple; a good quantity of brown sugar would be better.  I think the intent, though, is a thin, crispy, and pale cookie, and brown sugar will soften the cookie.  (But a crispy cookie is also not the best way to serve maple flavor:  A flavor like this needs a soft mouth feel to be successful.  Because we put maple syrup on soft pancakes, not crunchy Wheat Thins.)

2 TBL brown sugar:  I assume this is for color more than anything, because such a small amount will not offer much flavor support.  It is a large enough quantity, however, to soften the cookies more than what I think the recipe intends.

1 TBL pure maple syrup:  Such a small amount is definitely not going to offer much flavor, particular once it’s been mixed with a bunch of other ingredients, then baked at 375 degrees.  This especially true if you don’t have access to commercial-grade syrup.  And guess what?  Even if I did, I’m not paying for that.  Hello, imitation maple extract.  And trust: that’s the flavor we all know and love.

1-1/3 cups of flour:  That seems a bit low for the butter content, especially given the eventual thickness of the cookie – 1/8 of an inch, only!  I’m imagining potato slices before they become chips.

1 tsp coffee granules:  You know, I don’t know.  I assume this is another bit of flavor support, but they’re not dissolved in any way and added, say, to the syrup; they’re just going in dry.  Why?  They’ll add no flavor or support this way, and with such a pale cookie, dry coffee grounds will make it look like sandfleas were baked into them.  And making your bakery look good is just as important as making it taste good.  It’s part of the practice of not settling for second best.

2/3 cup finely ground walnuts:  Won’t get a lot of flavor out of what will end up as walnut dust.  But that’s what you’ve got to go with for a 1/8-inch cookie, isn’t it?  This is not meant to be a lumpy cookie.  It does beg the question, though:  Since there won’t be much additional flavor, why bother?  See, if you’re looking to add a particular flavor without, but have no leeway in terms of shape or size, it’s best to find an extract of that flavor.  Of course, it’s not my call at this point.

Please note that something very, very important is missing from this recipe:  The vanilla.  Vanilla!  Nearly all sweets need at least a little vanilla as a building block for its flavor, and I honestly can’t remember the last time I baked a sweet without it.  No vanilla–crazy!

Getting Good at What You Do: Notice

22 Jun

Well, of course, you say.  You see what you’re doing.  But I’m advising you to use a more acute and thoughtful kind of vision when you’re working in the kitchen.

Say you’re using a great recipe that’s accompanied by detailed photographs of each step.  Say it’s for French bread.  Now, you can do everything the recipe tells you to do, and check your dough against each photo along the way.  But if you want to become a better baker, it’s not enough to simply follow the directions and be done with it.  You have got to pay attention to how the dough looked as it came together so it looks like it’s supposed to when it’s done.  Notice how long it took to get that way.  What you did to get it that way.  What the lumps looked like.  How long it took to work them out.  How that felt in your hands.  And so on.  You have to mindful enough to make note of all this, then file it away for later use.

This is not only important to learning basic baking techniques; it’s important to get to know how those techniques manifest in your own hands.  Your body temperature, your counters, your air conditioning or heat… it all makes a difference, and you need to notice it.  You need to make the connection between what you see, and what you get.

A Note on the Crowd

22 Jun

You will be admonished by many, many authors, particularly the more famous ones, to use the “best ingredients.”  And look, once you’ve got the techniques down pat, by all means, spend on ingredients like you’re dying tomorrow.  In the meantime, though, it’s best not to buy a $25 block of baking chocolate if you still tend to ruin things.

I mean, I know you want to use the fancy shit, but here’s something you can take to bed with you every night.  Very few people will actually appreciate that $25 block of baking chocolate you used for that cake.  It’s not that your friends and family are philistines, not at all.  But there’s a reason why Hershey’s as popular as it is: No one likes to eat a challenge.

I’ll give you an example.  I developed an amazing, super-rich (and super-complicated, now that I think about) brownie recipe a while back.  While in development, I typically made this with Hershey’s Special Dark baking chocolate, plus Special Dark cocoa.  It’s priced well for mistakes.

Anyway, a baby shower for a coworker was coming up, and since everyone likes brownies, I thought these would be perfect.  And, since I’ve been told that babies are special, I decided to make them with 70% Ghiardelli chocolate which is, as you know, a bit more expensive than Hershey’s.  That’s special, right?  You bring out the good stuff for the good times, right?  Plus, I have a great appreciation for fine and interesting flavors, so by extension, everybody else must love them, too.  How could this be anything but perfect?

My brownies turned out stupendously, they really did.  Best batch yet.  But my coworkers did not have much of an appreciation for the fancy, uncommon chocolate and so there sat my frankly awesome fucking brownies while they devoured instead the crap box brownies that were presented, amateurishly, still in the pan.  I thought I would die.

What did I do wrong?  Technically, nothing.  Except that I didn’t consider the crowd, which is just about the most important thing you can’t miss.  See, you, my friends, deserve a return on your investment.  You deserve to have people love the food you made with them in mind.  But those people–your crowd–also deserve something they’ll geniunely enjoy.  And hey, they like what they know.  They just do.  So give it to them.

How to Be a Better Baker

22 Jun

It’s easy to wonder how it is that some people become such great bakers.  You work and you work, and your stuff never turns out like the pictures, and you don’t understand it.  It’s certainly not for lack of trying.

Or is it?

I have yet to find a book that tells you what you need to know is that to become a great–or a great anything–is actually quite basic:  Just trying is not good enough.  Practice makes perfect, it’s true; but you have to make that practice mean something.  It’s got to be worthwhile.  It’s got to be progress.  Otherwise, you’ll just end up bringing the same dry beige brick of shit to the company picnic year after year.  And people, there’s no glory in being known for your “famous” “cornbread.”

What will follow are ways to get good at what you do.  They may seem somewhat nebulous, but they’re actually quite simple.  What they aren’t is easy, per se.  But then again, the cliche holds: Nothing worth doing ever is.

Okay, this is just nasty.

21 Jun

I get Bon Appetit–it was free–but honestly, I’m not a big fan of it.  I hope for the best, but the photos, the recipes, the booze features… I can’t handle the whole yuppie affect.  If Bon Appetit were a person, it would be a marginally photogenic architect wearing white linen pants and black plastic glasses, staring thoughtfully into the distance and ending his sentences in “yeah,” like he was some kind of fucking eastender.  I’ve got no patience for plastic people like that, or the shots of their half-eaten plates of food.  And I think I could use that $12 on some back-up Special Dark come renewal time anyway.

And then–and then!–I come across the most disgusting recipe I’ve seen in a long time: Strawberry Shortcakes with Mint and Whipped Cream (

Full disclosure:  I think strawberries are absolutely vile, and if your mint isn’t in a York Peppermint Patty, or somewhere around a hunk of lamb, I think it works at cross-purposes with most other flavors.  It’s too strong… too distinct.  I don’t think this recipe solves that problem.

But putting aside my aversion for strawberries, here’s where the real problem lies.  This recipe is combining two items that will fail to complement each other because I think, that as called for in the recipe, they can’t complement each other more cooking, if even that.  The mint and strawberries may steep together for two hours (not much time, really), but that doesn’t change the fact that these are two very… fresh items thrown together without any forethought as to how this will really work. (Think of pairing, say, raw celery with raw lettuce.  And nothing else.)  On one side of your mouth you’ll bite into what I’m guessing will be an $8 heirloom strawberry; and on the other side, you’ll bite down on a slice of very fresh, very oily mint that you’ll be tasting for days. It’s like how everyone wants Eric and Sookie to hook up, but despite the sweet tension, Eric and Sookie will never be two great tastes that go great together.

Thanks to Bon Appetit for helping me to feel superior in my small, little life.

A Note on Cookbooks

21 Jun

I picked up this book which, out of respect for the author who I’m sure is a qualified professional wherever it is she practices, shall remain nameless; but the basic premise of the book is something along the lines of, One Million Cookies, Give or Take, Including the Terrible Hard Cookies from Small Countries. You’ve doubtless seen books like this in the bargain section of your nationwide booksellers and of course, I always pick them up. They’re very favorably priced and, to be honest, full of great ideas.

Yeah, great ideas.  What they’re missing are the great recipes. Well-written, clear, tested recipes.  The purpose of these books is to be attractive to the buyer and so the more recipes, the better. You know suckers like me will always buy them. But if I were a betting man, I’d say what you’re getting is a baker who’s been tasked with coming up with shitload of recipes, of all different types, to fill up what will become a $5 cookbook. These do not have to be tested recipes; they just have to be better than concrete.  You’re going to have to take that recipe–that great idea–and write a workable recipe for it, test it, and learn from your results.

A lot of pricier cookbooks–the ones that never go on sale and that’re written by names you know–have some faults, too. Though these are well-known professionals with truly extraordinary talent, they are not immune to throwing in an untested recipe to fill space, although the majority of their recipes will be tried and true. But more importantly, what’s sometimes missing is clear advice on technique. If you don’t already know what to do, a tested recipe will still turn to crap if you’ve not been thoroughly advised.

It’s the who, what, when, where and why of baking is important if you want to do it right. I have a terrific amount of respect for these authors, but for the novice, you won’t always get the information from them that you need to be excellent. Fair enough. They’re not your teacher. In the end, you are.

To get you started, here are my favorite references:

Baking Illustrated
The America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book
Bakewise, Shirley Corriher
Baking: From My Home to Yours, Dorie Greenspan
Baking Handbook, Martha Stewart ($20-ish per year)

I’ve not read Alton Brown, but I know his works would be very helpful and I’m sure he’d be thrilled to know that I think so.  Another great reference for me is to simply watch Lydia Bastianich on PBS.  She’s not always baking, but I want to play her in the movie of her life, you know?  I’d give my left nut to be that well practiced, knowledgeable and calm in the kitchen. (There’ll be more on the value of visualization later.)  Finally, whatever references you choose, I do suggest buying them used or otherwise on the cheap because they will get dirty in the kitchen. And if they don’t, you’re not doing it right.