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Amigthalota (Flourless Almond Cookies)

Feb 18 2013

I found it difficult not to pick them up by the stems as if they were real pears, resulting in several sad almond pears on the ground. But of course, I ate them anyway.

I have a bunch of almond flour in my cupboard leftover from my last flirtation with low-carb eating.* So this recipe published recently in the Miami Herald caught my attention. Just five ingredients—almond flour, powdered sugar, lemon zest, egg whites, and almond extract. Decorative clove “stems” optional.

like pears in the snow, which makes no sense, but is kind of pretty anyway They’re similar to marzipan, but not as sweet. Only 1/2 cup of the powdered sugar in the recipe goes into the cookies, and even a generous coating will only use another 1/2 cup, so most of the 2 1/2 cups called for is just for storing them. I’m not totally sure what the point of that is. I guess it might prevent them from absorbing moisture, although an air-tight container would probably suffice, especially if you eat them quickly.

The powdered sugar might detract a little bit from the pear resemblance, but it covers the cracks that appear during baking and I’m not sure they’d be quite sweet enough for me without it. If you generally like your sweets sweeter, you might want to double the amount of sugar in the dough. If that makes it too dry to work with, just add a little water. I suspect you could probably replace the egg whites with water if you wanted to make them vegan. There are other recipes that call for orange flower water and no eggs. I imagine you could use cinnamon and a dash of cayenne in place of the lemon zest for a spiced version.

But I’m also pretty pleased with what you get by following recipe as written—crisp on the outside, chewy on the inside, not overly sweet, and kind of adorable.

before baking after baking

*In the short term, low-carb diets tend to perform better for both weight loss and health indicators like blood lipids than low-fat or calorie-restriction diets, but in most long-term controlled studies low-carb doesn’t do much (if any) better. As with most diet research, it’s hard to tell if the long-term failure is because most people stop following the diet or if weight regain happens even when people stick to the diet. If the former, it’s unclear if that’s primarily a psychological issue (will-power is a limited resource) or if there are physiological reasons (e.g. decreased leptin levels depress metabolism and increase appetite). Or both. Anyhow, I’m not interested in losing weight (or it might be more accurate to say I am interested in not being interested in losing weight), but many low carb adherents also claim to experience improved well-being, mental clarity, etc. so I was sufficiently intrigued to try it few times. Mostly it seems to make me slightly lethargic and depressed, so I never last longer than a couple of months. Read more »

Sautéed White Fish with Red Curry Coconut Sauce

Jan 15 2013

not my prettiest plating. if you care, i'm sure you can do better

Fighting Frozen Fish Apathy

I got into sort of rut with frozen fish filets. Melt some butter in a skillet, toss in a few cloves of minced garlic, season the fish with salt and pepper and maybe a dusting of flour and some dill or curry powder or Old Bay, cook for 2-3 minutes on each side, and voila: dinner. Practically instant, and usually at least moderately tasty. But so boring.

So boring that at least once in recent memory, I let a package of filets go to waste. For the first few days after I’d pulled them out of the freezer, I could tell myself they might still be partially frozen. And I think there was something else in the refrigerator in more eminent danger of spoiling. And then I might have ended up eating dinner out once or twice. And I might have had one of those days when I ordered take out because taking even five minutes to put a piece of fish in a pan and flip it once while nuking some peas seemed too onerous. So the fish entered this sad limbo state where it might have still been edible and I didn’t really want to throw it away, but I also wasn’t particularly excited about opening up the package in case it wasn’t. Which made it all too easy to just ignore it for a few more days until it had reached an even sadder state where I was pretty sure  it wasn’t edible and I didn’t really even need to open the package to find out. Wasteful, profligate, shameful, I know. Lots of people don’t have enough to eat and people like me use far more than our share of resources.

not actually a cheese sauce, even though it sort of looks like oneAnyhow, this recipe isn’t going to solve world hunger or save the environment, but it managed to keep me from wasting another package of fish that was probably a day away from limbo. The sauce only takes a few minutes to throw together and reduces while you cook the fish, and it’s decidedly un-boring: velvety coconut milk infused with the classic combination of garlic and ginger, a little funk from the fish sauce, acid from the lime, mild heat from the curry paste, and bright cilantro to finish. If you wanted it spicier, you could double or triple the curry paste or use green instead of red. Including the Brussels sprouts, which I halved and braised for about 10 minutes in a cup of water, the whole meal took about 30 minutes from start to finish. Read more »

Chicago Mix Popcorn

Oct 15 2012

not actually floating in space--although that's a fun effect of the black plastic bowl

Origins of the Chicago Mix 

The tailgate I went to last weekend at the Michigan-Illinois game had a “Taste of Chicago” theme, so I decided to make Chicago Mix popcorn. Although Chicago lays claim to lots of foods, the combination of caramel & cheddar popcorn is one of only a few I know of where the city’s name refers to a distinctive style instead of just something the city claims to do especially well. The other two are hot dogs with celery salt and pickles and deep-dish pizza with a biscuit-style crust.

Chicago Mix popcorn was originally created by Garrett Popcorn customers. After watching people buy separate bags of caramel and cheese corn and then awkwardly try to combine the two, Garrett’s decided to do the mixing for them. Although Garrett’s now has locations in New York, Las Vegas, Dubai, Malaysia, Kuwait, Hong Kong, and Singapore, the brand is still pretty invested in advertising themselves as a “Chicago tradition,” and since the caramel & cheese mix is somewhat distinctive, it’s become a kind of brand signature.

The back of a scorecard from an 1896 baseball game between the Atlantic City Base Ball Club and the Cuban Giants. The ad says: "Have you tied Cracker Jack? The New Confection SO GOOD!! TRY IT!! The more you EAT The more you want. Sold Everywhere ~ Exclusively on these Grounds." It lists the price as 5 c. per package, and at the bottom says "F. W. Rueckstein, MFRS. Chicago, Illinois" and gives street addresses for Philadelphia and New York offices. Click for source + bigger.  However, the association between caramel corn and Chicago long predates Garrett’s, which was founded in 1949. According the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (via Food Timeline), caramel corn was invented by a pair of German immigrant brothers named Fritz and Louis Rueckheim who moved to Chicago in 1872 to help clean up and rebuild after the Great Chicago Fire. They started selling popcorn from a cart, likely after 1885, which was when another Chicago entrepreneur named Charlie Cretors began selling the mobile, steam-powered peanut roaster he’d invented, which also turned out to be useful for popping corn. Combining the roasters’ strengths, the Rueckheim brothers developed a molasses-coated popcorn and peanut combination they called “Candied Popcorn and Peanuts.” It was a big hit at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.  

However, it was also kind of a sticky mess, as molasses-coated things tend to be. In 1896, the Rueckheim brothers discovered that they could prevent the kernels from clumping together if they added a little oil during the candying stage. According to popular legend, a salesman on hand the first time they tried the new technique got a taste and declared, “That's crackerjack!" (1896-ese for “awesome”). And that’s how the iconic American brand got its name. It was initially sold primarily at public entertainments like circuses and sporting events, and immortalized in the lyrics of “Take Me Out to the Ballpark” in 1908. Undated boxes, alhough the one on the left must be post-1997 becasue it has the Frito Lay emblem on the side, and that's the year they acquired the brand from Borden.

By 1913, Cracker Jack was the best-selling confection in the world (again, so sayeth the Oxford Encyclopedia). That’s one year after they started adding the “prize in every box!”—usually a small trinket, riddle, or  baseball card. Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo were added to the package in 1918 and became the official trademark in 1919, supposedly inspired by one of the Rueckheim’s grandsons (and also appealing to post-WWI patriotism). The brand was still going strong in 1970, when 41% of American households purchased the product (no word on what percent of consumed the product at ballparks).

Recipe Notes

You could always just buy some caramel corn & cheese corn and combine them, but I think Garrett’s caramel corn is tastier than most of the bagged brands I’ve had. In an attempt to produce a more faithful reproduction, I used a recipe from the Chicago Tribune test kitchen specifically designed to mimic Garrett’s, which has a lighter caramel and higher candy: popcorn ratio than Cracker Jack and a richer, more buttery caramel flavor than Crunch ‘n Munch. If you wanted a darker caramel, here's a recipe that uses molasses instead of corn syrup.

one batch just fit in my roasting pan & would probably fill two 9x13 pans

I used yellow popcorn instead of white—the latter has a softer kernel, but never seems to pop up as fluffy, and I’ll take fluffier poofs with a harder kernel any day. According to David Lebovitz, Garrett’s uses their own special hybrid variety of corn. I also added a teaspoon of vanilla to the caramel just before pouring it over the popcorn. Other than that, I followed the recipe exactly and it came out incredibly buttery and addictively salty-sweet on its own.

oddly, it doesn't mention any coloring agents, so I'm not sure if the orange is Red 40 + Yellow 06 or annatto or something else; disodium phosphate is an anti-caking agent For the cheese corn, I used dehydrated cheddar cheese from another Chicago company, The Spice House. According to the package, 3 lbs of cheese yields 2 lbs of powder. It looks and tastes a lot like the powder that comes in boxes of macaroni and cheese—though perhaps a little less salty. If you don’t want your popcorn to have a lurid orange hue, you could use a white cheddar powder instead. A little mustard powder and chili or cayenne amp up the tangy cheese flavor and give it just a little heat, which you could increase if desired or leave out entirely. You could also add nutritional yeast and/or MSG, but it’s not necessary. Cheddar cheese powder is plenty umami all on its own. 

As for the combination—it’s not quite chocolate & peanut butter or strawberries & cream, but it is strangely compelling. Probably in the same camp as apple pie with cheddar cheese.

I took them separately, too, in case some people didn't like the combination. The bottom bowl, I shook until it looked like the picture at the top. Read more »

Childhood Vices & Flaming Hot Spices: Why Nothing Compares to H O T Cheetos

Oct 11 2012

Pardon the long absence! Book manuscript comes before blogging. But before this video slips out of cultural relevance entirely…

This August, the music video for “Hot Cheetos and Takis” by the Y.N.RichKids, a group formed under the auspices of a YMCA after-school program in Minneapolis, became a minor internet sensation. It was posted August 05, and already had 39K views by the next day when it got its first twitter referral. By the time it got its first facebook.com referral later the same day, it had been viewed over 202K times. As of this morning, it’s been seen over 3.2 million times, and I can’t possibly be responsible for more than 1,000 of those. In case you missed it:

 

In an effusive review on Grantland, Rembert Browne broke the song down by performer to deliver individual props and applaud them for “how effectively they share the rock.” He also echoed Rolling Stone’s declaration of HC&T as the “summer’s final truly great jam.” Ken Wheaton of Ad Age called the video “epic” and subtitled his post about it “There Is Hope for Humanity Yet.” Andy Hutchins at the Village Voice rhapsodized about the 20 best things about the song, most of which seem to be the myriad ways these kids are cooler than him.

For Youth By Youth?

Many of its admirers suggested that at least part of HC&T’s appeal is how perfectly it captured something about childhood. Hutchins says "‘Hands red like Elmo’ is the sort of thing that only a kid would think to rap,” which is also the line David Greenwald of Billboard.com cites as an example of the song’s “age-appropriate lyrics” (although he acknowledges that I go H.A.M. in the grocery store bears a “trace of profanity.”) According to Browne, “it's apparent that the words of this song were written For Youth, By Youth (FYBY).” He loves the line Bout to cop me some hot cheetos and a lemonade Brisk because:

I haven't had that combination of food and drink in years, so it would never occur to me to write such a lyric. When I was 12, however, and the ice cream truck would roll up to my tennis camp, that was my exact purchase (along with a whole pickle). So yes, this is simply Dame telling a story of what he did earlier that day.

I agree that the song and the video are both impressive as hell, but I’m not sure its appeal is due to a faithful representation of exclusively childish experiences and pleasures. What struck me the first time I watched the video was how well the spicy snack foods stand in for another standard trope of popular music: alcohol and drugs. Instead of describing gettin’ slizzard on Moet & Crystal, or drinking 40s of Olde English 800 whilst driving around Compton, Dame Jones and his crew are celebrating the addictive pleasures of corn chips dusted with chili powder & MSG. It seems like either a kind of imitation or maybe a brilliant parody of adult paeans to whiskey and cocaine.

Why Carrots Cannot Be Cheetos

Unlike the many songs about drugs & alcohol—especially by country-western and blues artists—that focus on the dangers of overindulgence and addiction*, HC&T is all about the joy of snack foods. But I’m not sure the pleasures of anything people are inclined to consume in excess can ever really be divorced from the idea of vice, which made the last line of the Grantland piece seem rather strange to me:

I can't wait until Michelle Obama convinces them to start rapping about fruits and vegetables.

Maybe Browne meant that to be tongue-in-cheek? However, he certainly wouldn’t be the first to argue that the main reason kids like junk food is because of the advertising and the best way to counter the childhood obesity boogeyman is to market apples and carrots to kids as aggressively as Froot Loops and Doritos.

Anyone else initially mistake the rabbit on the RAWK font package for some kind of lobster/alien hybrid? Or was that just me?

I have nothing against well-meaning attempts to make fruits & vegetables seem more enticing. And I’m pretty sure it would be possible to rap about “healthy” foods. The Y.N.RichKids might even do it very well, but I’m not sure it would have quite the same appeal. Just like I’m sure it would be possible to write a country-western song about meditating and going to group therapy instead of drinking your blues away. But I suspect that’s either going to come out sarcastic or kind of terrible.

All of which is to say that Hot Cheetos & Takis themselves are not incidental to the song’s success. Their junkiness and possibly also their spiciness is essential to their cultural significance and song’s meaning and appeal.

*In that vein, I’m especially enamored with Lydia Loveless. Read more »

Mini Zucchini Cupcakes with Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting

Aug 13 2012

and tri-color candied citrus zest

The Fine Line Between Bread and Cake

Quiz!

1) What would you call a baked good comprised primarily of grated carrot, flour, sugar, eggs, butter or oil, spices, and baking soda/powder?

A) Bread
B) Cake
C) It depends on the proportion of fat: flour: sugar
D) It depends on how you combine the ingredients (i.e. whether the egg whites are beaten into foam)
E) It depends on the presence of cream cheese frosting, as does my eagerness/willingness to consume it

2) What would you call a baked good comprised primarily of grated zucchini, flour, sugar, eggs, butter or oil, spices, and baking soda/powder?

A) Bread
B Cake
C) It depends on the proportion of fat: flour: sugar
D) It depends on how you combine the ingredients (i.e. whether the egg whites are beaten into foam)
E) It depends on the presence of cream cheese frosting, as does my eagerness/willingness to consume it

If you answered C or D, I admire your attempt to make sense of a senseless world, but you get no points from me. If you chose E, I like where your priorities are, but I think you’re still wrong. For most Americans most of the time, #1 is carrot cake and #2 is zucchini bread, regardless of the ingredient proportions or method. It’s true that cake has generally come to refer to sweeter baked goods and bread to less-sweet ones, but that doesn’t seem to matter in the case of these grated-vegetable cake/breads. If it did, the inclusion of chocolate chips would make probably push you in the “cake” direction, but there are dozens of chocolate chip zucchini “bread” recipes and others that make the whole loaf chocolate, but are still named “bread.” Both probably fall into the categories of “quick bread” or “snack cake” but there’s no fixed culinary meaning for either of those categories either.

Anyhow, I blame whatever historical contingency landed chemically-leavened grated-carrot-containing baked objects in the “cake” bin and chemically-leavened grated-zucchini-containing baked objects in the “bread” bin for my failure to realize until now that the latter could also achieve its apotheosis under a mantle of sweetened cream cheese. And maybe I was too quick to dismiss answer E, because as soon as I realized I could frost what I would normally call zucchini bread, I was suddenly inclined to call it “cake.” In further naming hijinks, without the frosting, I’m pretty sure these become “muffins.” Right?

many tasty little muffins

Not The Answer to Zucchini Excess

My garden was the victim of serious neglect this year, so I’m not facing the Great Zucchini Glut of a typical July-August. If I were, I’d probably be knee-deep in fritters and garlicky almond sautés and wouldn’t waste my time with recipes like this, which use a pretty pathetic amount of zucchini. 2 cups? Please. A moderately-neglected garden can produce that much in the average Olympics break between NBC commercial broadcasts. This is also why recipes for zucchini bread so often describe the squash flavor as “delicate.” That means you really can’t taste the squash at all, but that’s a probably a good thing unless you’re into baked goods that taste like bitter, watery mush.

The grated squash adds some moisture, a hint of green (or yellow, depending on the color of your squash), and maybe a vague nutritional halo to the cake part. The brown sugar and vanilla in the frosting give it a kind of caramelly flavor, much like taffy apple dip. The citrus zest on top is mostly for color, but also adds a little sweet and sour crunch. If any or all of those things sound appealing and you have a solitary medium-sized summer squash you don’t know what to do with (or one or two little ones), this could be the recipe for you.

the citrus zest defintely makes it prettier, but it's really all about the cream cheese frosting Read more »

Sweet Potato and Red Lentil Soup

Aug 3 2012

not especially summery, but when you're living in AC all the time anyway, who cares? 

This is a new favorite. I improvised something like it a few weeks ago while staying at a stranger’s house with some friends. We were wandering around an unfamiliar supermarket trying to figure out how to make dinner in an unfamiliar kitchen, and someone grabbed some sweet potatoes because yams are a man’s crop. I decided they should become soup, and found some red lentils, coconut milk, smoked pork neck bones, and a cheap bottle of “Jerk Seasoning” (with cumin, coriander, fennel, turmeric, and chilis).

Back at the house, I simmered the smoked pork neck bones in water to start breaking them down while I prepped the “duh, soup” ingredients like onion and garlic. I also found a knob of ginger, so I minced that and threw it in, too. I added the lentils and sweet potatoes and Jerk Seasoning once the onions had started to caramelize and then added the pork bones with their broth and simmered it all until everything had melted into a thick stew and the meat was ready to fall off the bones. Coconut milk for creaminess, lemon for brightness, and a little salt. It turned out pretty tasty—smoky, sweet, spicy, and rich with the pork and coconut fat. We ate it with a super fast loaf of crusty no-knead bread (made with a full package of of rapid-rise yeast, 2 hour first rise, 30 min second rise, still damn tasty). It would be just as good with long-grain rice or flatbread or crackers or just all by itself.

after about 45 min of simmering, by the time you're ready to add it to the rest of the ingredients, the water should be cloudy and fat should be pooling on the surface chilis, turmeric, cloves, and cumin in the coffee grinder

It occurred to me later that it could have used a little cilantro, so I added some when I made it again at home, and I think that did improve it. In my own kitchen, I like to toast and grind the spices myself rather than using a prepared blend. You might not be able to taste the difference, but the smell of spices toasting in a pan is one of my favorite parts of cooking.

Variations

In this vegetarian version, I left out the sweet potatoes and used 8 oz fresh shiitake mushrooms, 2 cans of diced tomatoes, and mushroom bouillon in place of the pork bone broth. Still tasty. Like most soups, especially ones you make up on the fly, this recipe is very flexible. You could use another kind of lentil or dried peas, adjust the spices based on what you’ve got or use another kind of prepared blend, substitute cream or yogurt for the coconut milk (or skip that part entirely). If you want bigger, more distinct chunks of potato, leave them out until the last 30-40 minutes of cooking. If you keep kosher, you could substitute smoked turkey necks for the pork. Or leave the meat out entirely for a vegan version and use bouillon or vegetable broth instead, in which case you can reduce the cooking time to 1-2 hours or however long it takes for the lentils to be tender. To make up for the smokiness and umami you get from the bones, you can add some mushrooms, canned or fresh tomatoes, MSG, nutritional yeast, and/or liquid smoke. Read more »