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On Food Porn. I Mean, Food Photography

25 Aug

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t have the time to learn how to shoot food in the way that food’s shot these days. You know, expensive camera aside, I don’t have time for retouching and selective focus and that perfectly perfect mess on the plate. Plus, I want to show that food can be made to look as good as it does in those retouched photos. So with me, you get the shots you get.

But according to this Wall Street Journal article, I’m either way ahead of my time, or so far behind it I’ll never have more than nine readers. As food stylist Alison Attenborough says in the article, “people are interested in small butchers, artisan producers, farmer’s markets—a more handmade look.”  See, I just don’t think that’s enough.  Think about it: You remember those shots from old issues of Gourmet? The Julia Child Menu Cookbook? Do you think Martha Stewart serves lopsided cake?  I mean, really.

I’ll give you an example of the problem.  I was in a local bakery recently to find pastries clearly made by someone who has the right touch for it. But the baker stopped short, and I don’t know why: She obviously handled the dough perfectly, but left it looking hamfisted, as though it was destined for a bake sale for the blind.  I understand that this is the trend, but why wouldn’t you want to do more?

So when you’re that close, people, don’t stop. Then you won’t have to touch up your food shots like a Playboy centerfold, and you can save all that Photoshop time for something more important: Making people happy with your bakery–and being the one who can do the very best.

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Brownie Baking Test Issues

18 Aug

I’ve got nothin’. No gas in the tank today. I can’t wrap my head around the best fixes for that brownie recipe and I can’t help but feel like a phenomenal failure for it.

I will of course force myself to do it for you, and no later than this weekend. See, it’s like getting your writing done: You can cry because it’s hard, you can claim you’re blocked, you can organize your closet… again. You can claim all your usual excuses, and maybe they’re even valid ones. But then, you have to sit down, and write. Because no matter what your pain is, there comes the time when your shit’s just due.

So you do it. Just not today.

I’ll see you tomorrow.

Walnut Maple-Syrup Cookies, v.2: What the Hell Just Happened?

31 Jul

Please refer to the previous post for more information.

That title really makes more of my mistakes than necessary, I think.  They are really yummy.  They’re just not perfect.  So for better for or worse, it is important to go though what happened here.  Which is the point of this whole thing.

The method with which I made these is standard, and do not need evaluating at this point, as version three includes a major change.  It’s the ingredients that are the real story here.  Once more, they are:

2 ½ c. flour, plus extra as necessary when kneading
1 c. superfine white sugar
1 TBL brown sugar
¾ tsp salt
2/3 c. walnuts
Raw sugar, for decorating

1 lg egg
4 TBL lard
12 TBL browned butter
2 TBL vanilla
1 tsp maple extract
1 TBL corn syrup

First, I’m not sure what I was thinking with all that flour.  Well, actually, I do.  The first version—the original version—used so little flour, the cookies had no substance, really.  I really wanted the dough to cohere smoothly, and I wanted a lot of softness to support the maple flavor.  And it certainly did, but not rightly: The flavor was very flour-ish, just like a pancake; and it was incredibly soft, just like a pancake.  The result, while very tasty, was simply too much maple flavor for a cookie.  It was like eating Canada if Canada were a real country.

It wouldn’t be too much maple if I were making a candy-style cookie, of course, but instead I kept the proportion of sugar relatively low, preferring instead to let the browned butter do most of the flavor support.  But this was also a mistake:  There was not enough white sugar to a) crisp the cookie; and b) counter the high flour content, both of which added to the pancake effect.  (I added the brown sugar for a little color, mostly, but with the corn syrup as a better-acting browning agent, in this small amount, it’s six one way, half a dozen the other.)

I’ve noted in a previous post that superfine walnuts are also super unnecessary. I wish I’d had the balls to dump them earlier.  Here, too, they do just about nothing.  I’m pretty sure that the only things spot on in the dry ingredients are the sugar sprinkles, because the cookies are fugly; and b) the salt, which is actually added to the butter mixture in an effort to activate what I’m using as flavoring agents.  (Here, or during the creaming process, is a great time to add your salt.)

The fats and liquids used are, to my credit, proportioned nicely.  I do tend to overdo it with the vanilla, and will continue to do so because I like it that way; if you are using an alcohol-based extract or, god forbid, that bourbon-vanilla shit, you’ll definitely want to reduce that by quite a bit.  I’d say two teaspoons for the former.  For the latter, I’d say zero teaspoons.

Proportion aside, though, the flavors here present the pancake problem as well.  All that browned butter contributed mightily to the pancake flavor, as it adds some of the brown bits that naturally occur when you’re making a pancake, not to mention that it’s simply an intense flavor.  To truly promote the maple flavor, some browned better is best (the solution to be seen later), but 12 tablespoons just takes it too far. What’s more, the lard deepened that flavor over time.

Now, don’t get me wrong, people.  This is not an abject failure, not by any means.  It’s a very full-flavored, satisfying cookie.  The flavor was singular rather than cohesive, however, and the texture was too cakey for a cookie.  It’s not that you couldn’t serve these at a party, and if you entered them into a Mrs. Butterworth contest, you’d probably win it.  But baking is about making something bigger and better than just one thing, and unfortunately, my second version doesn’t quite cut it.

But wait!  There’s more!  I’m like Ron-fuckingPopeil over here.  Just check back in a few hours, as I’ll post my third version for you.  I have to take a quick 5 in the meantime, because I’m a bit sick of being in my own head, and perhaps need a sausage.  I also have some heartburn and should get another diet soda, because I’m sure that’ll help.

Hey, I’m a creepy little handheld pancake! Eat me!

Walnut Maple-Syrup Cookies, v.2

31 Jul

Please note that this post will necessarily be quite long.

There is an issue with using all-natural ingredients in bakery, which is of course contrary to all the current and prohibitively expensive food trends.  But there is one very important reason to go with what you know’s going blast flavor into your bakery like a shotgun:  Your people.  Everyone likes to be blown away by good bakery.  No one wants okay bakery.  And natural ingredients often fail to produce the intensity of flavor that people want.  That kind of stuff might work for cooking, but that’s just not how bakery works.

Satisfying this particular requirement was my number one goal going into version two.  The resultant flavor of the original recipe was so lackluster, I couldn’t imagine a more important goal than that.  So, I still maintained the shape of the cookie in order to at least mimic what I thought to be the author’s original intent, but as you’ll see that was a big mistake. I should have anticipated beforehand, too.  As focused as I was on the flavor, well, I’ll not make that mistake again.  It doesn’t matter how delicious a cookie is if it looks like a… dog biscuit.  Which these do.  Mmm… Liv-a-Snaps.

In any case, my concern over the flavor in fact caused me to overcompensate, and by quite a bit.  These cookies tasted, and actually had a similar texture to the sodden, oversweet pancakes, butter, and syrup you get at an IHOP.  Not that there’s anything wrong with IHOP pancakes—oh, god, no, there is absolutely nothing wrong with IHOP pancakes—but cookies are not breakfast.  Generally speaking.

I would be interested to read if any of you find an application suitable for such an intensely flavored cookie.  (Perhaps, with the addition of buttermilk and leavening, it could be adapted as a quick bread.)  The dough is soft and cakey, but the flavor can be replicated in any drop cookie using browned butter, maple extract, plenty of vanilla, a little extra flour, plus the key: a slightly higher quantity of salt.

The list of ingredients and instructions is below, followed in the next post by the purpose, expectation, and actual behaviors.

2 ½ c. flour, plus extra as necessary when kneading
1 c. superfine white sugar
1 TBL brown sugar
¾ tsp salt
2/3 c. walnuts
Raw sugar, for decorating

1 lg egg
4 TBL lard
12 TBL browned butter
2 TBL vanilla
1 tsp maple extract (usually imitation, and that’s fine)
1 TBL corn syrup

1. Melt, then brown, the 12 TBL of butter.  Melt the butter slowly initially, then increase the heat to medium-high to brown it. You can melt the butter as slowly as you like, so you can do other things in the meantime; but browning takes only a couple of minutes, so be careful not to burn it.  Give yourself time for it to cool as well, about 10 minutes, or speed it up by first pouring the butter into a bowl, then setting it in cold water for just a few minutes.

2. Pulse your white and brown sugar in a food processor or blender for about 30 seconds to create your superfine sugar.  Once complete, cream the lard and sugar together with a stand or hand-mixer on medium until a bit fluffy.  About four minutes or so.

3. While that’s creaming, chop the walnuts superfine in a food processor or blender.  This just takes a few seconds.  Once complete, whisk together the flour and walnuts together in a separate bowl.

4. Mix the liquids together in a separate bowl: Egg, vanilla, maple extract, corn syrup, browned butter, and salt.  Use a whisk, but just to incorporate the ingredients together, not to incorporate air.

5. Add the liquids to the creamed lard mixture, and mix until just combined.  15-30 seconds at the most.  It won’t look combined, since there are alcohols, syrups and fats that will appear separated.  But trust me, it is.

6. Add the flour mixture and mix until just combined.  15-30 seconds.  Do not mix excessively.

7. Place dough onto a floured surface.  If the dough seems too moist, add a tablespoon here and there as you knead, up to ¼ cup.  Knead gently until smooth and solid.  (I know this by looking, but I’d say 2-3 minutes should do it.)

8. Roll into a circle, then refrigerate for about an hour.  When you remove it, preheat the oven to 475 F, set the rack the middle position, and paper your pan.

9. Roll out to about ¼” thickness.  Use a 2” circle to cut them out. (I would not recommend this particular aesthetic again!)   Re-roll scraps of dough until you’re out.  Place them on the pan and top with the raw sugar.

10. Place in oven.  After 1 minute, reduce the heat to 375 F.  Bake for another 10 minutes, rotating at the five-minute mark.

11. Let set on the pan for about a minute, then remove to a cooling rack.

12. Lather, rinse, repeat.

                          What happened will follow in the next post.  In the meantime, behold my delicious little mistakes.

                          Sit! Roll over! Good dog!

                          The Belligerent Baker is Loopy as Shit Today.

                          19 Jul

                          When you’re into baking, or cooking, and you also happen to be over 30, well, there are some weeks when that shit catches up with you.  You know, when no matter how many times you calibrate the scale, you truly are five pounds heavier than you were just last week.  Dang it.

                          So there comes a time in a baker’s life when she’s got to cut that shit out for a while.  As in, the calories.  As in, spitting out your test cookies like some kind of jackhole wine-douche-slash-assmunch-fuckface.  While this is fair way to preserve your palate, as well as your figure, you don’t want people to know it’s come to this, do you?  Draw the curtains and bake alone.

                          Yeah, I’m loopy.  From less food.  The best part is that I could go from drifty to homicidal in about two seconds flat if you try me.  Could be fun to watch.  But don’t.

                          Also, The Big Bang Theory is on in the background, and I would like to know why the characters seem to be in the same burger shop where so many fine episodes of Saved By the Bell were shot.  Way to save some coin, CBS.  If only the Obama administration were so austere, maybe we’d actually get all those blow jobs he promised.

                          Margarine, AKA Vomit.

                          18 Jul

                          There have been times in the world’s history when butter substitutes like margarine made sense.  Here is a list of those times, none of which have anything to do with our lives today:

                          1. The unrefrigerated 19th century (but only the latter half)
                          2. Feeding the lower classes in France
                          3. World War I
                          4. World War II

                          Before starting this essay, I really must tell you that according to Wikipedia—wait, sorry, I have to finish laughing—so as to avoid confusion, one could not actually buy yellow-colored margarine in Quebec until July, 2008.  What does this mean?  While the unwashed masses in France used margarine to slather their croissants, and probably gladly, the French in Canada could not be trusted over the last 160 years or so to discern the difference between real butter and the shit in a tub that’s one carbon-chain away from plastic.  Which proves my theory:  Canada is dumb, and isn’t a real country anyway.

                          Anyway, Canadian futility aside, the reality here is that in the Western world, there’s really no need for margarine.  We don’t need to worry about how to keep food without refrigeration, and I’m quite certain that the lower classes in France today have far better benefits available than all of us combined.  So who cares how they butter their bread?

                          Now.  Margarine–and this is key–is disgusting. I hate it nearly as much as I hate popcorn, and that’s fucking fat lot of hate, people.  In fact, I’m sure my room in Hell is going to be filled with movie popcorn soaked in that nasty butter-flavored ooze.  Man!  I swear I’ve been around wet spots more appetizing than any tub of margarine.

                          What’s curious to me, then, is how margarine persists.  To say that margarine’s health claims are debatable is putting it mildly, considering its high level of industrial processing.  I mean, how much healthier is a chocolate-chip cookie made with margarine when that cookie also includes refined flour, a cup or two of brown sugar, and a bag of chocolate chips?  How is making those cookies with a half-cup of solid, manmade processed oil product somehow better for you than those same cookies made with two sticks of naturally occurring butterfat?

                          So I guess I understand its practicality.  It’s spreadable and will keep well during nuclear winder.  But the flavor is so horrifying, and the color so foul, I can’t understand why you wouldn’t just plan ahead and leave some butter on the counter, available there for all your spreading needs.  Honestly, margarine can’t be that practical when it’s also that gross.  But I do understand that some of you grew up on margarine, and continue to use it for that reason.  I suppose I can see why some will still spread it on toast, or a muffin. But for cooking?  Baking?  This should be a crime.

                          The main reason is this:  Like butter—like most foods, actually—when margarine is heated, its character will change drastically, and in this case, for the worse.  Its utility, its flavor…all of it.  Particularly when melted, all of margarine’s flaws, which are too numerous to be counted, will be amplified and unavoidable.  The artificial butter flavor that might’ve been palatable straight from the fridge will, when melted, fill your nose with the essence of hot paper.  And its consistency will be a bit like… well, this is a family show, so nevermind.

                          See, most margarines are made from emulsions of either corn oil or soybean oil, and some other ingredients with a half-life of about five million years, plus the added bonus of heavy food coloring.  Heated and melted margarine will behave and taste more like the oil it actually is; and its emulsifiers, things such as lecithin, will produce results that are sticky and will remain unincorporated with the rest of your recipe.  Have you ever seen, and worse yet smelled, a cookie made with margarine?  It’s simply impossible to produce great bakery with the stuff.  The best bakery uses butter, period.

                          In the final analysis, if you don’t lick the butter tray, at least not daily, you’ll be fine.  I swear.  But continue to eat margarine, and you will turn into some Pleistocene creature that sheds its oily shell every spring and fall.  Not sexy, that.  Not sexy at all.

                          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.