Thursday, January 27, 2011

Carrot Top with Cream Cheese

Is carrot cake really a cake or is more of a bread like (banana or zucchini bread), I just can’t get behind the notion it is a dessert, it is totally a breakfast food. What is your learned opinion?

The answer really is how a person defines a cake and that isn’t really an easy question. At various points of history, there was precious little difference between cake and bread: Example Marie Antoinette’s late 18th century uttering about telling the hungry to ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche’ is often translated as ‘let them eat cake’. You would be hard pressed to find someone who thought brioche was a cake, despite the 4 building blocks of cake - flour, sugar, fat and egg all being in place.
Not really sure what this signifies

The cake/bread dispute is an old one. In 1440 the new guild of French pastry cooks deprived the older baker's guild from baking cakes. Pastry cooks who began their trade group in medieval France as the makers of pie – meat and fish not sweet – also sold wine, made a pear tarts, marzipan, cream cheese cakes and biscuits (In the English sense of the word, bis cuit, twice cooked). How well the guild’s monopoly as the sole legitimate producers of cake was enforced is questionable, because it wasn’t until 1718 when both the bread and pastry guilds presented King Henri with a King Cake, 12th Night Cake or en francais, gorenflot. The pastry guild sued successfully to prohibit the baker’s from producing a braided yeasted, sweetened cake baked in a mold. 

Even at that point of the game, cake would have looked different than modernity’s cake. The introduction of sugar helped the evolution of cake, the genoise method was developed around 1800, but it was the arrival of chemical leaveners like baking soda and baking powder in the mid 19th Century followed shortly thereafter by white flour and shortening – a-soft-affordable-malleable-at-room- temperature fat – that changed the way cakes looked, tasted and were baked.

So, back to the carrot cake – cake or quick bread? Cake. First of all, the presence of a thick layer of cream cheese frosting on the outside of a raw carrot could arguably make that a cake. Secondly, carrot cake is made using the creaming method, which is 1 of the 4 methods of cake-making (whisking, creaming, rubbing in and melting/muffin). Third fat, flour, sugar and egg are pretty much the hallmark of cake ingredients – discounting carrot cake because of baking powder would discount almost all cakes. Plus: a bonus point, carrot cake appears in the cake chapter of Bo Friberg’s Professional Pastry Chef. Banana Bread appears in the 'Tea Cake, Pound Cakes, Muffins and other Quick Bread' chapter. Okay, the appearance of Tea and Pound Cake in the chapter heading doesn’t really clarify the issue as much as I hoped.

But if Master Baker Friberg and the internet dude you wrote to hoping for perspicuity can see a distinction, hopefully you can as well.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Soylent Brownish Gray

I could have titled this run from the border. 

Two separate meat-like stories popped up on the radar today. First, haggis. Haggis, a 15 million USD a year business in Scotland has been banned in the States since imported sheep's lung was verboten in the 1960s and then for some salt in the wound, sheep's lung free haggis was restricted as part of a reaction to the BSE scare in the late 80s, when all British offal was prohibited. With 6 million US residents and citizens of scotch lineage and a 19% growth in the haggis market since Robert Burns' 250th birthday, the haggis lobby sees a growing market in the US. Last year, UK Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead, was reported to have raised the haggis question on a US visit and is excited to know the restriction is under review.

Until the haggis barriers have been removed, what is a good 300 years out of Scotland, never left the US & don't own a passport Scot nationalist or Scots enthusiast to do? Smuggle or substitute. Sure the suet, oatmeal, offal and the stomach to cook it in are available if you ask the right people but really, how do you substitue for sheep's lung? The Times of London  interviewed a Scottish butcher who claims to smuggle 100+ haggis/haggises/haggi annually. US customs confiscates and destroys all illegal haggis it seizes. Although the same Times article reported that there are no commercial scale haggis smuggling, individual smugglers face up to a $1,000 fine. 

The haggis question indeed.

And speaking of oats, mystery meat and food that only gets consumed after bouts of drinking, suit was recently filed against Taco Bell claiming they engage in false advertising. Turns out their season beef mixture is only 35% beef and therefore, not legally beef (50% prerequisite).

The suit does not ask for damages, rather asks a court to prevent the company from calling the seasoning, meat, wheat, oats, soy lecithin, maltodrextrin, anti-dusting agent and modified corn starch mixture beef. A Taco Bell spokesman said " the company would "vigorously defend the suit." Maybe, Taco Bell will have its day in court, but they can't defend themselves against this. 

Taco Bell's New Green Menu Takes No Ingredients From Nature

Friday, January 21, 2011

Sui Citrius

Portland winters are short, but they don’t finish out the Hobbesian trifecta by being nasty and brutish, they are just meh, nothing to cry over; nothing to get excited about. That thorazine-like weather can be defeating in its own way. Today, opening the windows to leafless trees, dead grass, worn concrete, gray on gray skies left me wondering if all the time I spend with my dogs, caused lost my ability to see colors.

For 12 weeks a year, warmth and color are synonymous with hope and my little piece of sunshine comes not from the sky rather from a brightly colored orb, the navel orange. I am pro-citrus and you’ll not hear me speak ill of even the bitterest of lemons, but I am partial to the orange. There are all kinds of oranges – Valencia and its genetic offshoots are good for juicing, the raspberry fleshed blood orange is good for cocktails, the flashy, grapefruit fleshed and fine tasting Cara-Cara is currently more hyped than a Bieber but will probably last longer... this time a year I all about the navel oranges, acting almost as if a navel a day keeps the psychiatrist away. 

The navel, more specifically the Washington navel, is an orange suited for California’s dry days, cool nights and irrigated fields. Before we get to how an orange named for a city, 3000 miles away, with no agricultural acreage and geographically unable to grow citrus outdoors ended up being not just the backbone of California’s orange crop, let’s take a brief tutorial on the Navel orange.

Excuse the cliff notes/Texas textbooking, but here is 10s of 1000s years of history in one paragraph: Navel oranges, the navel being a smaller secondary fruit embedded in the blossom end of the orange, were probably known in Spain in the 17th or 18th century. Oranges themselves are believed to have evolved from Ur-citrus resembling the modern Pomelo on the Malayan peninsula back when Asia and Australia were one big happy landmass. The fruit is bred/selected for improvements, trade, mobility & conquest and the fruits tended in Persia end up in Spain and Portugal. From there oranges move with conquistadors, missionaries and settlers to the Americas where orange groves are commonly kept.

In 1820, in the land of Jorge Amado, San Salvador, Bahia, Brazil – a spontaneous mutation produces fruit that is seedless, sweeter and ultimately it was discovered that it contained more vitamin C than other oranges. 50 years later, USDA employee, William Saunders ships 12 seedlings to Washington D.C. 3 of those plants are given to Eliza Tibbets who is about to embark for California via wagon train. 2 of the plants survive and are planted in Riverside, California. From there, grafting - not running a con but in the gerund burbanking sense of the word takes place. For the next 50 years, pretty much every navel tree in California is an exact genetic copy of these first 2 trees. Even with declining acreage, the California citrus crop is annually valued at about 1.5 bilion USD.

Just something to keep in mind when people argue for the ability to copyright natural materials, we’d be writing a pretty big royalty check to Brazil every year. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

It's a Box of Cake

What can you tell me about cake mixes, do you use them or are you au naturale when making cakes?

Here is an odd one - I don’t use cake mixes, but I am always impressed that boxed mixes make consistently better cakes than I do with my fancy pants/authentic gateau recipe/technique. I will work this bit of dissonance out in therapy but I like the idea of cake mixes despite they are an odd hybrid; part convenience, part industrial and a pinch of reassurance - that yes, cake mixes are in fact baking, not mixing.  

I think the bottom middle one is
the most Betty 
Packaged cake mixes can date their lineage back to the 1920s, the first newspaper ad for a cake mix appearing in 1921, but it wasn’t until 1940s that Betty Crocker, the fictional face of General Mills, began working on a cake mix. 4 years of kitchen/laboratory testing went into making Betty Crocker’s Just Add Water Ginger Cake Mix. When it was test marketed in the South and Western US, 3 problems came to light:

      • First, the cake called for a size of pan that was rare in home kitchens. 
        • The mixes produced inconsistent results; as baking powder, which reacts to moisture, would sometime prematurely detonate. 
        • Finally, consumers rejected products that were too easy, homemakers needed to feel part of the process. 

Betty Crocker removed the powered eggs from the mix so that customers had to crack two eggs into the dry ingredients, that were now were now insulated from moisture in a cellophane or waxed paper sleeve and the proportions/instructions were reformulated for a round pans and the rest is moist, convenient history.

Convenience foods are sometimes scoffed at by 21st Century Humans, particularly foodist, but things like canned fruit, condensed milk or packaged mixes provided access to food that was previously unavailable to large pockets of people. And yes there have always been pears but sliced pears, in February, in rural Minnesota, not so much. There is a reason why Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines took over the cake market shortly after the release of their products: Cakes are difficult to make and not everyone is capable of successfully and consistently making a cake. And that’s not just me, literature from To Kill a Mockingbird to Mildred Pierce are full of characters who are renowned for their cake making abilities (Assuming that popular culture even obliquely mirrors popular reality; an author’s willingness to single out an activity in novels that aren’t cake-centric, plotwise is noteworthy. Cake making was far from easy in the era of wooden spoons and rotary mixers).

Even before Betty Crocker fine-tuned the boxed cake mix, experts and entrepreneurs were working to make cake a more accessible in more homes. Between the Victorian Era and World War II the likes of Fannie Farmer, Better Homes and Gardens and Good Housekeeping all developed easier recipes and techniques for baking cake in their professional kitchens. While products like Crisco, cake flour and baking powder were promulgated as the keys to light, moist tender cakes.

After 60 years of reliable cake mixes, ever-evolving; using ingredients like preserved nitrogen as a leavener or mixes that are microwaveable, boxed cake mixes are the status quo. While I like to bake by hand and am more interested in the process than the results, I can still endorse a product that makes cakes  accessible to part-time/dilettante bakers everywhere. But not everyone agrees, one such person, Stephen Schmidt writes, “Cake is not really all that difficult, but decades of reliance on store-bought cakes and cake mixes have rendered American home bakers, particularly the younger ones, helpless before even the simplest recipes. When people no longer know what softened butter is or how to soften it, the game is fairly well up.”

Congratulations Mr. Schmidt, you have won today’s Clint Eastwood Grand Torino Award. Pump your shotgun and tell us to “Get Off My Lawn" or out of your kitchen. 

Friday, January 14, 2011

Warmed Over: Hazelnuts

In honor of our friends and Portland Farmers Market vendors, Freddy Guys Hazelnuts being featured in the NY Times Magazine, I am reposting my feature on Hazelnuts from October 2009: 

Hazelnuts are the fruit of the hazel tree. And by tree, I mean a shrubby, low growing tree that is often used as a field break or an edible hedgerow. The hazelnut’s cultivation dates back to at least Roman times but the Romans weren’t the first to crack this nut. The tree seems to be from Asia minor/Turkey, it has been exploited for food since prehistoric times. After the fall of the empire, hazelnuts weren’t really used as crops in Europe until the end of the 16th century, where the English began growing the trees outside of Kent. About the same time, New World colonists were unimpressed with wild nut available to them in the Americas and sent back to England for better fruiting varieties.

It wasn’t just Anglo-Saxons who took to the hazelnut renaissance. The French enjoy their noisette and possibly named the nut in after St. Phillbert the Norman King. The Italians grow the nocciola outside of Piemont and for other Europeans, there is nutella to spread on everything. Turkey is the world’s leading producer of hazelnuts with Italy, Spain making significant contributions to the annual crop. In the US, hazelnuts are grown almost exclusively in Oregon.

Nutella is an obvious hazelnut product, but outside of the familiar oval jar the combination of chocolate, sugar and hazelnuts are a winning combination in the pastry kitchen. Frangelico is a hazelnut flavored liquor. The nuts turn up in Sauce Romesco, in Turkish Delight/lokum. Hazelnut oil is expensive and quick to spoil, but makes for really good salad dressing. Torrone is a hazelnut nougat found in Italy and Dukka is a hazelnut spread used in Egyptian cuisine.

Some sources swear hazelnuts and filberts, commonly used as synonyms, are not really interchangeable. A hazelnut is generally regarded as the wild nut; while the filbert, the larger nut that has been cultivated from European varieties. This usage isn’t universally endorsed, consistently applied and is really more of an opinion than immutable rule.

The classification problem isn’t the exclusive problem of the filbert. The taxonomy of all nuts is a difficult proposition. What makes a nut a nut? A shell? Explain coconuts or pine nuts. Brazil nuts are not the fruit of a tree but a swollen stem. Walnut, pecan and acorns all act like nuts – shells, trees, clusters of nuts are easy to classify. Chestnuts look and act like nuts, except they store most of their energy as starch as opposed to fat. The almond, which is fatty, but is rather confusingly a member of the non-nutty prunus (cherry/peach) family. Peanuts are both tubers and legumes - not nuts at all, except people with nut allergies avoid them assiduously.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Death of a Chickenman

Don Tyson passed away last week in Arkansas, a hard driving businessman, Mr. Tyson built his family’s business from a regional concern to the largest meat producer in the world. Tyson Foods is valued at $10 billion USD and employs over 100,000 people in 57 countries. Mr. Tyson, who occasionally strayed from convention and interpretation of laws and regulations, could be viewed as either entrepreneurial hero or industrial robber baron – although I don’t see why he can’t be both. Like Ray Kroc, Don Tyson changed the way the world eats.

He did this in two ways, first by producing chicken cheaper. In 1980, chicken cost $2.22 (adjusted for inflation) a pound, by 2004, chicken cost $1.74 a pound. Tyson was able to do this through the dubious practice of industrializing chicken production - placing over 20,000 birds – breeds that not only reach their mature weight quicker; they were also twice as big as their depression era counterparts - in a barn where their feet would never touch the ground. What is decidedly bad for the chicken and greater environment, is good for cost, as prices fell, people started eating more chicken, average consumption has doubled in the last 30 years.

42% of all chicken is consumed outside the home – a statistic that roughly mirrors the eating habits of Americans, who eat a little over 1/3 of their meals outside their home. Here is where it gets different – while 110 billion of the 390 billion dollars we spend on food outside the home is spent on Fast Food, 60% of the not-cooked-at-home chicken is ordered from Fast Food outlets. Wraps, wings, fried, burgers, and of course McNuggets – a product that was originally supplied to McDonalds by Tyson.

On top of capitalizing on our cultural willingness to eat out, Don Tyson understood we like convenience more. As Americans we eat 183 pounds of ready-to-eat meals (microwaveable) annually – for the sake of comparison; we eat 77 pounds of fruit. Tyson Foods currently produces 6,000 different products; most of them like McNuggets are processed and prepared before they reach your lips. Pot Pies, ‘100% all natural Nuggets’, microwave entrees, their snacks called ‘Any’tizers’ – Tyson’s true genius was predicting the trend that people would have more money/credit than time and built a machine around Don Tyson’s correct view that a consumer is willing to pay extra for any processing a manufacturer does.

So even if you break down the whole hog yourself or eat only the free-range chicken that your personal farmer grew, Don Tyson changed the way you eat. Aww, don’t be like that - the boneless,skinless chicken breast; the Annie’s microwaveable Organic Mac & Cheese; or the heat and eat Indian food from Trader Joe’s didn’t happen in a vacuum, they all hit the shelves after Tyson showed their was a market for those products.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

What Goes Up, Doesn't Come Down

Brassica Dead Presidentus: Not a Tree

Here’s a trend for 2011 – food prices will rise and food will cost a larger portion of your household budget for the next 12 months (and most likely more). There are a couple different ways to track the cost of food. The UN, flies their black helicopters around, secretly collecting data to produce a monthly report on the cost of food through their Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The FAO index uses the cost of export prices rather than retail costs which can vary from country to country depending on subsidies and demand. Tracking 55 different products such as cooking oils, meat, dairy and cereals (crops including rice and wheat; not the Capt’n) and crops that are bought and sold as commodities, such as sugar. With a 4.3% jump, this is the 6th consecutive month the Index has increased.

In the States, our Department of Agriculture uses its own tripartite algorithm to track and forecast the cost of food. After a 3% jump in ‘08 and 4% rise in food costs in ’09, last year saw food increase a little over 1%. The exception pork rose 6% as greater demand on the product was exhibited as hipsters discovered bacon (speculation). This year the USDA predicts food costs will rise 2-3%.

According to one study, food prices have risen 128% since 1982, farm prices about 30%. Agricultural products account for so little of food costs - currently farmers get about 8¢ of your box of cereal, 10¢ of the cost of bread and a whopping 12¢ of the price of your 6-pack funnels back to the farm. Low commodity costs coupled with the economic concept called sticky pricing – basically once a price goes up and consumers are willing to pay for it, it won’t come down (and I know that one sentence reduction is killing a PhD studying the dismal science somewhere, so I apologize). Higher wages aren’t going to catch up to food prices anytime soon.

Still citizens in the US spend on average a little under 10% their income on food expenditure. This is a bargain: Our 9.9 beats France & Italy’s 15%, China’s 26% and Indonesia’s nearly 30%. Even with a half decade of rising food costs, we still beat our forbearers – in the 50s your average Cleaver spent over 20% of household income on food and in the 80s about 13% of our wages went to feeding families.

Your Wheaties are going to cost more this year and for the future: Rising fuel costs, emerging middle class around the world, a population of 7 billion will all put pressures on food production in the coming years. Because of rising costs and being a net importer at the mercy of international forces, food loving France has named food security as a vital national concern. Along the same lines, local Farmers Markets, where the grower sets their own prices, do not require a national marketing campaign and coast-to-coast transportation costs, appear to be insulated to rising prices…Too bad it is the middle of January right now.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Red Hot Chili Receptors

"I'm arguing with a buddy of mine about chili. He says that the heat from chili peppers is a flavor; I say that, because capsaicin stimulates the mouth's pain receptors and not its taste buds, the heat from peppers is not a flavor. He argues that those in the culinary world disregard the science and side with him. Can [you] resolve this dispute?"

This is a good time to remind both old and new readers that Saucyman (the blog) is double sourced for your protection.

I am always going to side with science, even though at the end of the day I really like opinions (ask me about Moby Dick some day), I like the facts even more. There are 5 tastes: Sweet, Sour, Bitter, Salt and sometimes Umami. Umami, the most recent addition to that list is that meaty, briny, mushroom, soy sauce flavor that scientists have confirmed is its own flavor rather than a combination of the other 4 flavors. Chilies are not on the list and to my knowledge are not kept on any sort of Dan Brown/Secret Culinarian Society flavor list.

All foods stimulate some combination of our existing taste buds. Chilies, are composed mostly of the rather flavor neutral water and carbs. Also present - fiber (notably pectin), trace minerals and vitamins – all are bitter in taste. Except capsaicin, the component in chilies that houses the heat, pretty much does the opposite of having a flavor - it is a local anesthetic, making it hard to feel anything for about an hour afterwards. A 2002 study conducted at UC-Davis (Food U; Go Ags), found that chilies pretty much do the opposite of improving flavors eating peppers dulls the ability to taste 3 of the 5 flavors: “Capsaicin always suppressed sweetness, bitterness and umami. Saltiness and sourness weren't affected at all,"

My rock-solid, go-to sources in the Saucytorium: Harold McGee (On Food & Cooking), David Joachim (The Science of Good Food), Robert Wolke (What Einstein Told His Cook) are all silent on the specific question of chilies and taste. So here is a very succinct quote from a NY Times article that reviewed the science of chilies, “Chili pungency is not technically a taste; it is the sensation of burning, mediated by the same mechanism that would let you know that someone had set your tongue on fire.”

That isn’t to say a person can’t be colorfully inaccurate with their descriptions, I describe the taste of caviar as ‘expensive salt’ but I fear that someone who allies himself with those who ‘disregard the science’ is not going to be swayed by things like experience, knowledge, and research. We live in an era where opinions carry as much weight as facts, so it might turn out that your buddy likes the way he feels more than he likes being right. Possibly your friend even prides himself on being a contrarian, believing his unique approach to everything keeps conversation and thought lively (as opposed to what that type of lawyerly arguing actually does), so good luck convincing him otherwise.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Granted State: Vermouth

Vermouth? Wine or Booze?
Wine, fortified wine; vermouth is akin to Port, in the sense that they both are fortified by brandy – raising their alcohol content up to about 15% or 30 proof. Vermouth goes further adding essential oils, herbs and botanicals to round out the flavor. Each producer adds his own flair – cinnamon, quinine, linden, citrus peel, coriander, angelica (a relation to parsley), sage, and other flavors.

Born in Piedmont, Italy vermouth takes its name from the German word for wormwood = Wermut/Vermut. While the drink’s paternity is pretty well established; usually credited to 18th Century distiller Antonio Bendetto Carpano, an Italian who was influenced by the German Poetry of Goethe (I guess not much is known about Carpano, because all sources mention that tidbit). The word vermouth first showed up in print in 1806. What is a little more obscured is why infuse wine with herbs and flavors? Was it to mask the low quality of the grapes and wine, to create a medicinal, were they created to extend the shelf life of exported wines or were vermouths it to offer a refreshing drink?

Contemporarily, vermouths are classified as sweet or dry or correspondingly Italian or French. They come in white or red and are most notably the other thing that goes in a martini or one of the bitters featured in a Manhattan or a Rob Roy. Across the ocean, vermouths are more than a background counterbalance in a cocktail, they are enjoyed by themselves -Aperitifs, shamefully a bit of an anathema in the States, are not really that understood here in the US - Perhaps because they are oh so Euro or we only crave sweet, sugary drinks (I can’t imagine a marketing plan that would call for the financing of a very bitter drink, to be had only on occasion and not too much of it – That is a fail out of the gate.)

In the US, production is limited pretty much to California where Muscat, Picpoul and Colombard grapes are grown together. The Saucyhome sides towards all things Italian opting for the easy to obtain Martini et Rossi, while actually preferring the Punt E Mes and actually longing for Cinzano’s Orancio Vermouth, which is hard to get a hold of and is harder to justify because even in a cocktail loving, apertif sipping home like mine, it takes a few years to go through a bottle of vermouth. I don't need 3 vermouths.