Hello, Fall! Smoky Black Bean Soup

am i just confused about what a "hock" is? i thought it was a foot. there is no way this is a foot, unless the big is the size of an elephant.. Nearly 3 pounds of smoked ham hock!

Soup Swap, Hunter’s Widow Edition

I went to another gathering of the Michigan Lady Food Bloggers last weekend. Mother’s Kitchen had a half-empty house because her menfolk were off hunting, so she invited us over for a third annual MLFB soup swap, which is just like a cookie swap: everyone brings a pot of soup and some containers and takes a little bit of each kind home. Perfect timing—my freezer is now full of diverse, delicious meals ready to be reheated on a moment’s notice, which will definitely come in handy on busy, chilly nights this Fall when there’s too much going on to cook. Including a flavorful, creamy Roasted Tomato Soup from Fruitcake or Nuts and nourishing, zesty White Chicken Chili from Mother’s Kitchen.

that's 2.81 lbs.My contribution was a smoky black bean soup, inspired by the gigantic ham hocks I got from Ernst  Farms. I bought two of them sight-unseen through Lunasa, a bimonthly Market Day-style order & pickup system for Ann Arbor-area farms, expecting them to be roughly the size of my fist like the ones I typically see at the grocery store. Instead, they’re the size of my head. And then, remembering that TeacherPatti doesn’t eat pork, I picked up some smoked turkey necks to make a pig-free version (and she didn’t even show up! The nerve!). The pork and turkey versions turned out remarkably similar. I imagine any smoked meat product would work. You could probably even do a passable vegan version with pimenton and/or liquid smoke.

Bean Basics I: Taming the Magical Fruit

Some people claim that the foam that rises to the top of a pot of simmering beans is connected to the gas many people get after eating them, and that skimming it off will prevent or reduce that effect. Not true. The reason beans make people fart is because of the indigestible carbohydrates—mostly oligosaccharides—that pass through most of the human GI system intact and then get devoured by bacteria in our lower intestine, causing a sudden spike in gas production. The foam in the pot, on the other hand, is produced by water-soluble proteins that trap air bubbles as they rise to the surface of the water. You can skim it if it bothers you, but it won’t affect how flatulent the soup is, or how it tastes or looks.

that foam, it is non-flatulent.

Hock shoved mostly beneath the surface, this batch got one turkey neck too.

So how do you make beans less flatulent? There are basically two options: 1) soak them overnight and throw out the soaking liquid (along with lots of nutrients and flavor) or 2) cook them a long time, which breaks the oligosaccharides down into easier-to-digest sugars and starches. Various folk traditions also claim that adding a slice of ginger, a bay leaf, a piece of kombu seaweed, epazote, cumin, and/or fennel seeds to a pot of beans helps reduce gassiness too. I’ve also seen a few recipes that claim adding baking soda helps, but according to Harold McGee, all that does is decrease the cooking time, which works against flatulence-reduction (McGee 2004 [1984] : 486-9). Since it’s basic, it can also make the soup taste alkalai or soapy.

Bean Basics II: Keeping It Together

If you’re okay with your beans basically dissolving into mush, a long cooking time is no problem. But if you like your beans to retain a little structural integrity, you should add a little acid, sugar, and/or calcium. Again, McGee: 

Acids make the cell-wall hemicelluloses more stable and less dissolvable; sugar helps reinforce cell-wall structure and slows the swelling of the starch granules; and calcium cross-links and reinforces cell-wall pectins. So such ingredients as molasses—somewhat acid and rich in both sugar and and calcium—and acidic tomatoes can preserve bean structure during long cooking or reheating, as for example in baked beans (ibid., 488).

What you definitely shouldn’t add, at least before the beans are done cooking, is salt. Salt increases the cooking speed by reducing how much the starch in the beans swells as it cooks, which not only works against the slow-cooking flatulence-reduction strategy, it can also make the beans mealy instead of creamy. For most bean dishes, water, alcohol, or unsalted homemade stock make better cooking liquids than canned broth or bouillon. If you really want to use bouillon in a bean recipe, stir it in at the end.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Like most soups, this is less a recipe anyone should follow exactly than a set of general guidelines you can adapt based on what you have on hand. In general, for every pound of dried beans, you’ll probably want about one large onion, a half dozen cloves of garlic, a can or two of tomatoes (or the equivalent in fresh), a carrot or two, a bunch of hearty greens, a pound of smoked meat, and about 5 cups of cooking liquid.

not-quite mirepoix. how many great soups start off this way?

I might have added celery, too, if I’d had any.

As McGee notes, molasses is good for flavor and bean texture—at least a tablespoon per pound of beans. I’ll almost always throw in a few bay leaves. I don’t even know what kind of flavor they add, I just reflexively add them to long-simmering soups. Additionally, this time, I added oregano, allspice, cumin, and red pepper flakes. Plus a splash of dry sherry and a squish of lemon. Fresh cilantro at the very end, salt and pepper to taste.

I bet orange juice, ginger, and allspice would be a pretty tasty combination. Sweet potatoes or winter squash would work instead of (or in addition to) the carrots. A beer in place of some of the broth would have been good in place of the sherry. Fresh or frozen corn and/or bell peppers might be nice if you wanted more veggies. Some hot peppers if you like things really spicy. Leave out the meat if that’s not your thing (in which case, a little MSG or nutritional yeast and additional oil would make up for some of the umami flavor you get from the bones & fat & cartilage).

Serve it with sour cream or shredded/crumbled cheese, green onions, more cilantro or parsley, lemon or lime wedges, corn bread, tortilla chips, a hunk of crusty sourdough, or just by itself. 

This is what I ate while I watched SDSU completely fail to capitalize on Michigan's 3rd quarter meltdown Also a good nacho topping.

Recipe: Smoky Black Bean Soup (adapted kinda sorta from allrecipes and simplyrecipes)

Makes 6-8 servings, doubles or triples well

Ingredients:

  • 2-3 Tablespoons neutral cooking oil or rendered bacon fat
  • 1 large onion
  • 4-6 cloves garlic
  • 3-4 carrots
  • 1 15-oz can diced tomatoes or 2-3 large raw tomatoes, diced
  • about one bunch of hearty cooking greens or 1/2 lb frozen spinach
  • 1 lb black beans, soaked for at least 6 hours
  • 5 cups of the soaking water, beer, wine, and/or low-salt stock
  • 1-2 lbs smoked bones with some meat on them—ham hocks, turkey neck, etc. OR 1 Tablespoon pimenton or liquid smoke to taste
  • 2 Tablespoons molasses
  • a hearty glug of dry sherry (2-3 Tablespoons?)
  • juice of one lemon (or lime, or a little vinegar, or a lot of orange juice)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • a handful of chopped cilantro, chopped
  • salt, pepper, and more lemon juice or vinegar to taste
  • optional garnishes: cheese, sour cream, chives, cilantro, hot sauce, lemon or lime wedges

Method:

1.  Heat the oil or bacon fat in a large pot while you dice the onion, mince the garlic, and slice the carrots, adding each one to the pot as you finish cutting.

2. Cook until the onions begin to take on some color, and then add everything except the cilantro, salt, pepper, and garnishes.

3. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat until the soup is just simmering and cook for 2-3 hours, or until the beans are cooked through and the meat is falling off the bones.

4. Remove the bones from the pot and let them cool for about 30 minutes (let the soup keep simmering). Remove the meat and chop it into bite-sized pieces or shred it between your fingers. Discard the skin and bone.

5. Add the cilantro, salt, pepper, and more lemon juice to taste.

meat removed, cooling; the other turkey necks from the kosher batch were on a separate cutting board--i take food avoidances seriously!That’s the hock on the right, totally falling apart after about 3 hours of simmering.

shredded turkey neck meat added back to the pot The meat from the turkey neck, shredded back into the pot

cilantro--obviously optional if you're a soap person The turkey neck version after seasoning to taste and adding the cilantro: ready to serve!

You can help kickstart the new America Eats project

click for kickstarter link

If you like food history, or like reading the occasional blog post that references food history, you might be interested in supporting the American Eats digital archive project.

The Lansing-area non-profit Sustainable Farmer and MSU departments of Journalism and  History want to send food historian Helen Veit to digitize documents related to the Depression-era WPA program America Eats. The program put unemployed writers to work, including Saul Bellow and Zora Neale Hurston, by sending them around the country to write about regional food specialties. A selection of the essays edited by Mark Kurlansky was published a few years ago as The Food of a Younger Land. ah, nostalgia for the past that never wasAs you can tell from the cover & subtitle, “Before the National Highway System, Before Chain Restaurants, and Before Frozen Food, When the Nation’s Food Was Seasonal, Regional, and Traditional—from the lost WPA files,” Kurlansky is heavily invested in the myth that everyone ate fresh, local, authentic food back in the Good Old Days three decades after The Jungle. That’s despite the fact that the essays and other materials he included reveal that people involved in America Eats were really divided over questions of what to include, particularly regarding recipes and events that involved industrial, commercial products. Because counter to the pastoral image on the right, those were were a huge part of the inter-war American diet and the basis for many unique, regional practices like Coca-Cola parties in Atlanta. The decision to focus instead on ethnically and regionally-marked church suppers and first and second-generation immigrant practices resurrected primarily for holiday meals was driven by particular ideologies about the nation and the goals of documentary. 

The planned WPA book series never materialized, partially because of the conflicts over what to include, but primarily because attention and resources were diverted by World War II. Many of the documents generated by the project were scattered to state archives or thrown away, but there are four boxes of material at the Library of Congress. The goal of the Kickstarter campaign is to send Dr. Veit to DC to scan all of that in and make it available online. I’ve never seen Kickstarter used as academic fund-raising before, but I guess for a project with potential public appeal like this one, why not?

As little as $1 gets your name on the website as a supporter and access to all the material they digitize (unclear if they’re planning on restricting access, which would make me a little cranky, but I guess if the price barrier stays as low as $1 that’s not too bad). For a little more, you can get heirloom tomato seeds, a tote bag, and/or a t-shirt. The America Eats Today site, where the archival materials will eventually be available, appears to be a work in progress, but there’s a short video up on the Kickstarter page where you can hear a little more about the project from Dr. Veit.

Who’s the Real Elitist in the the Anthony Bourdain-Paula Deen Spat?

bourdaindeen

Them’s Fightin’ Words

Anthony Bourdain set the food world aflutter about a week ago when he criticized Paula Deen for encouraging Americans to eat food that’s “killing us” and “sucks.” Here’s the full text of the quote that started the whole thing, which appeared in TV Guide Magazine August 18:

bourdain scarf The worst, most dangerous person to America is clearly Paula Deen. She revels in unholy connections with evil corporations and she’s proud of the fact that her food is f—ing bad for you. If I were on at seven at night and loved by millions of people at every age, I would think twice before telling an already obese nation that it’s OK to eat food that is killing us. Plus, her food sucks.

It was a stupid, incendiary remark. Spite masquerading as “straight talk” and a shameless attempt (on TV Guide’s part, if not Bourdain’s) to manufacture controversy and attract page views. And hypocritical to boot. The claim that Deen has “unholy connections with evil corporations” is mighty rich coming from a guy who shills for Chase Sapphire. Furthermore, Bourdain himself isn’t exactly shy about eating rich, “fattening” foods on his show or serving them at his restaurant, which offers traditional French brasserie fare, including all the requisite butter, beef, bacon, sausage, foie gras, eggs, cream, white bread and fried potatoes. Check out the clip from No Reservations titled "Bourdain makes a deep-fried discovery," in which he points out that in almost every cuisine and every region, someone has figured out that dipping things in batter and cooking them in hot fat tastes pretty darn good before enjoying some deep-fried crab cakes and walleye. I’m not convinced that butter and fried foods are “killing us” or that either he or Paula Deen has a meaningful impact on how very many Americans eat, but I’m also pretty confused why he thinks her cooking is significantly worse for people’s health than he stuff he tells people it’s OK to eat.

Bourdain eventually backed off the hyperbole of his initial remarks on twitter, clarifying that he didn’t say Deen was the worst person in America, just the cook on the Food Network who’s the worst for America and adding that she’s probably very nice “as a person.” He also groused about how no one ever asks him who the best chefs on the Food Network are, and said the next time someone asks him about the worst ones, he’ll keep his mouth shut.

bourdain twitter

Meanwhile, Deen fired back with a populist appeal. In an interview with The New York Post, she defended her cooking on the grounds that she and the other maligned Food Network hosts feed “regular families” who struggle to put food on the table. She also claimed that she uses her wealth and celebrity for good, pointing out that her “partners” (i.e. the “evil corporations” Bourdain referred to) donate meat to food banks and that the other Food Network hosts also work to help uncontroversial charity targets: the hungry, sick children, and abandoned animals:

scary paula “Anthony Bourdain needs to get a life. You don’t have to like my food, or Rachael’s, Sandra’s and Guy’s. But it’s another thing to attack our character. I wake up every morning happy for where I am in life. It’s not all about the cooking, but the fact that I can contribute by using my influence to help people all over the country. In the last two years, my partners and I have fed more than 10 million hungry people by bringing meat to food banks.”

Basting Bourdain for his apparent lack of charity and his attitude, she said, “My good friends Rachael, Guy and Sandra are the most generous charitable folks I know. They give so much of their time and money to help the food-deprived, sick children and abandoned animals. I have no idea what Anthony has done to contribute besides being irritable.

Deen continued, “You know, not everybody can afford to pay $58 for prime rib or $650 for a bottle of wine. My friends and I cook for regular families who worry about feeding their kids and paying the bills . . . It wasn’t that long ago that I was struggling to feed my family, too.”

Her attempt to align herself with “regular families” and portray her role as Smithfield’s spokesperson as some kind of charity work is just as ludicrous as Bourdain’s remarks.* She admits she has “no idea” what kind of charitable work Bourdain does or doesn’t do, but certainly implies it’s less than her. And then she mentions expensive foods, as if $650 wine has anything to do with Bourdain’s comments. As Rebecca Marx of the Village Voice pointed out, “Deen is no less a member of the culinary aristocracy than Bourdain—they just belong to country clubs with different rules.”

*Which is not to say that Deen doesn’t do any good work as Smithfield’s spokesperson. Perhaps, like Sandra Lee (another of Bourdain’s targets, although in the TV Guide article he mostly sounds scared of her), she uses her influence as spokesperson to get more food from Smithfield to hungry people. Taking their money and promoting the brand doesn’t mean she necessarily agrees with everything they do; perhaps she figures she can do more good that way than by refusing their money on principle. But I also doubt her deal with them is entirely about charity and not at all about personal gain.

Pot, meet Kettle

I’m not convinced the rules they’re following are really so different. Deen and Bourdain have both established their brands and built their celebrity by catering to essentially the same mass desires. First, they trade heavily on the fetishization of “authenticity.” Deen plays up her Savannah roots, performing what essentially amounts to a drag version of genteel Southern whiteness*—an exaggerated drawl and big hair and constant ya’lling and calling everyone “honey.” Bourdain does it by seeking out street food and the off-the-beaten-path restaurants that only the locals know about, or, even better, people who will cook “traditional” foods for him in their homes.

Both of them serve up something that looks and feels “real” in a way that answers the dissatisfactions of global capitalism and the seeming unreality and homogeneity of mass production, multinational corporate brands, slick but empty advertising, artificial flavoring. As Andrew Potter argues in The Authenticity Hoax, the search for the “authentic” is largely a disguised form of status-seeking, and it’s a particular preoccupation of the wealthy, educated classes. As he explains in an interview with WorldHum:

There are certainly authentic experiences—insofar as the authentic is defined as something that’s a refuge from the modern world. But what I try to argue in the book is that the search for the authentic comes at a price. It tends to be quite expensive to find these things. The other side is that it ends up an arms race….

People have sort of authenticity in degrees. For instance, let’s say the absolute fake is going to some Italian restaurant in some fake Venice in Vegas. That’s the absolute fake. Here in Toronto, where I live, you can go down to little Italy and go to an authentic Italian restaurant, probably run by real Italians. And then you could actually go to Venice. And once you’re there, you can either go to the tourist traps they have all set up for tourists, or if you’re really lucky you know a local who will actually make you a dinner in Venice, which you would call the epitome of authenticity. So all these things have varying degrees of authenticity to them and, not coincidentally, they have varying degrees of priciness attached to them.

Secondly, they both celebrate a particular form of illicit gustatory pleasure and culinary excess. Deen’s unabashed love of butter and bacon and Bourdain’s celebration of meat and alcohol offer an antidote to anxieties about eating “right” and the repressed, Puritanical elements of both diet culture and the Organic/vegetarian/macrobiotic/fair-trade/raw/local/sustainable movement.

You can tell it’s about backlash & rebellion, rather than just what Bourdain and Deen happen to genuinely enjoy, because they’re clearly aiming for shock value as much as for deliciousness. When Deen pretends she’s going to drink melted butter (see below) or makes burgers topped with bacon and egg with glazed donuts in place of the bun, she’s deliberately thumbing her nose at the current nutritional establishment that says calorie-dense food and fat, especially saturated fat, is Public Enemy #1.

Bourdain’s whole persona is based on the bad boy reputation he cultivated in his first memoir, which is as much about sex, drugs, and rock and roll as it is about cooking. And he says nasty things about Vegans and Alice Waters and seemingly takes any opportunity to talk about how much he and his daughter like to eat bunnies (not rabbit, mind).**

Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.

They both specifically delight in being naughty, in breaking the rules. And people who are similarly fatigued or fed up with dietary rule-making (which fatigue, again, is more prevalent in the wealthy, educated classes who make the rules in the first place) or just hate The Man in general absolutely love them for it, though rarely both of them. They are competing brands, but they work in basically the same way.

*Which is not to say it’s entirely fake or 100% an act. Both Deen’s and Bourdain’s public personas are probably like any of our social selves—socially-constructed identities that aren’t exactly real, but also aren’t exactly fake and change according to context. I doubt either Deen or Bourdain have deliberately concocted every aspect of their personas to appeal to mass audiences in these ways—what’s more likely is that they have achieved success where other aspiring celebrities have not because their personas happen to resonate with current popular desires and fears, which makes them effective entertainers. But that doesn’t mean they’re just being “true to themselves,” whatever that even means. Neither of them is probably 100% the same on and off camera. In some sense, both of them are probably relatively savvy managers of their personas, because they’re extremely valuable brands. I’m sure they think about how their performances, including things they say to TV Guide or The New York Post, will affect how their fans and critics perceive them. And it would be almost inhuman if they didn’t attempt to manipulate the outcome at least a little bit, even if usually in subtle ways like saying “ya’ll” or “fuck” just a little more frequently.

**Oddly, Deen has also talked about eating rabbit—supposedly her grandfather would hunt rabbit and squirrel before going to work in the morning and her grandmother would skin them and cook them for breakfast with grits and biscuits and honey.

Win, Lose, or Draw?

So the answer to the question of who’s the real elitist is probably “both” or “neither.” They’re both playing the same game: enabling the dominant social class to justify status-seeking by playing the role of rebels against the Culinary Establishment. They offer foodies plausible deniability about the pretensions involved in the middle-class preoccupation with food. At the same time, they both celebrate the lowbrow, the un-pretentious, and the debased bodily pleasures of eating and drinking. Neither of them is typically in the business of telling people how they “should” eat, except to the extent that they reinforce particular constructions of “authenticity” and desirability.

I can see why The Atlantic declared the results of the fight to be a “draw.” But I think Deen ultimately gained the advantage. Even people who thought Deen’s comments were stupid seem to agree with her that Bourdain was being a snob. By portraying him as the one with exclusive tastes, reminding people that he’s a professional globe-trotter, and reducing his rebellion to mere irritability, she made Bourdain into the Culinary Establishment. Even if people roll their eyes at the idea that she’s really on the side of the “regular families,” she successfully re-framed the fight. Also from The Atlantic:

What They Say They’re Fighting About: If Paula Deen is "the most dangerous person in America" or some permutation of that charge. Bourdain points to her caloric recipes and mass-appeal. Deen refers to her charity work and Bourdain’s lack thereof.

What They’re Really Fighting About: Class, privilege, and good food–and whether the first two are connected to the second.

If it’s a fight about health, she loses. If it’s a fight about class, then Bourdain is the snob because he’s the one saying her food is bad, and she’s the rube saying “to each his own.” The best evidence of her success is Frank Bruni’s piece in The New York Times, whose title is a barb aimed directly at Bourdain: “Unsavory Culinary Elitism.” Although Bruni agrees with Bourdain that Americans are too fat and laughs at Deen’s attempt at populist identification, he ultimately sides with her and scolds Bourdain for “looking down” on people with less money or less sophisticated tastes:

Put aside her one-with-the-masses pose, ludicrous in light of the millions she has made from television shows, cookbooks, cookware, mattresses and more. She’s otherwise 100 percent justified in assailing the culinary aristocracy, to which even a self-styled bad boy like Bourdain belongs, for an often selective, judgmental and unforgiving worldview….

To give him his due: we are too fat and must address that. But getting Deen to unplug the waffle iron doesn’t strike to the core of the problem any more than posting fast-food calorie counts or taxing soft drinks do. A great deal of American obesity is attributable to the dearth of healthy food that’s affordable and convenient in low- and even middle-income neighborhoods, and changing that requires a magnitude of public intervention and private munificence that are unlikely in such pinched times….

I prefer his TV show, “No Reservations,” a summons to eat adventurously around the world, to any of Deen’s. But these preferences reflect privileges and don’t entitle me, Bourdain or anyone else who trots the globe and visits ambitious restaurants — the most casual of which can cost $50 a person and entail hourlong waits — to look down on food lovers without the resources, opportunity or inclination for that.

Bourdain has probably eaten $50 meals far less often than Bruni, the former NYT restaurant critic, but it’s easy to elide Bourdain’s globe-trotting in search of what Potter calls the “epitome of authenticity” with the practice of eating at “ambitious restaurants.” Getting street food in Thailand is certainly as far out of reach for most Americans as the latter. Highlighting the exclusivity of his habits hurts Bourdain’s brand. Suddenly, instead of playing David to the Food Network’s Goliath, he’s Anton Ego and Paula Deen looks more like one of the rats who cooks delicious but humble peasant food.

I’m sure the damage to his reputation hasn’t been significant—his fans love him because he’s kind of a jerk, not in spite of it. But I think his tweet was right: if someone in the media comes calling, asking you to say nasty things about other people, you should probably just shut up.

Margaritas in Cupcake Form

Note: There are about 8 million entries I want to write. If I haven’t addressed your question or posted the recipe for that thing you liked—sorry. I probably haven’t forgotten about it. I just had a dissertation to finish, a wedding to plan, a honeymoon to go on, a book chapter to write, and three new classes to create. There’s no way I will get to all of the entries on my to-do list before the semester begins. In the meantime: have a cupcake recipe.

the buttercream was a little too soft and my hands a little to warm for perfectly pretty piping. whatever. they looked homemade, which they were.

TeacherPatti hosted a fiesta-themed cookout for the Michigan Lady Food Bloggers last weekend, and I decided tor take margarita-flavored cupcakes. Which are basically just lime cupcakes spiked with tequila and triple sec (or Cointreau, because that’s what I had on hand. If you really wanted to get fancy you could use Grand Marnier).

I used Brown Eyed Baker’s recipe, adapted from Confections of a Foodie Bride, because BEB added booze to the batter and I’m also of the "More booze = better” school of baking. However, I’m not sure it mattered, as the tequila flavor didn’t come through in the cakes much. Not to worry: there’s more tequila and triple sec brushed on top after baking, and still more in the frosting. So this is probably not the recipe to make for a kid’s birthday party or playdate, unless your intention is to mellow the rugrats out a bit.

BEB used a classic American buttercream, but I opted for the original CFB choice of a Swiss buttercream. The former is just softened butter whipped with powdered sugar, which is what you get on most bakery cakes. The latter begins with egg whites and sugar cooked on the stovetop and then whipped into an airy meringue, which you gradually add softened butter to, bit by bit, until it forms an airy emulsion. It’s silkier, richer, and much less sweet than American buttercream. For these cupcakes, it also gets a splash of lime juice, tequila, and triple sec. I halved the recipe below because the full recipe made more than twice as much as I needed.

To further boost the margarita mimic factor, I made a “rim” around the top of each cupcake with coarse salt & sugar before piping the frosting in the middle and I topped them with slices of candied lime.

Whole slices might have had more structural integrity. Another option: just candy the peel and make shapes or curls.

Needs More Tequila

If I make them again, I’ll use a tequila with a stronger flavor. Hornitos silver turned out to be a little too smooth. Their resposado might have worked, and classic Cuervo Gold probably would have been okay, too. This is definitely not the place for sipping-quality tequila, for much the same reason that it’s usually foolish to cook with expensive wine.

I’ll also let cut the limes differently and let them simmer in the simple syrup longer. This time, I cut them in half and then into thin slices, and they kind of fell apart in the blanching and candying process. I removed them from the simple syrup before the pith was completely translucent because I was afraid I was going to end up with just candied lime rinds. As a result, they were kind of bitter—which I enjoy, but I know not everyone does. Next time: full round slices for candying. I’ll cut them in half before using them

Despite the subtlety of the tequila and the bitterness of the candied limes, the MLFBs seemed to enjoy them—several described it as a “nice adult cupcake.” And that’s not just because of the tequila. Unlike most cupcakes, these are not overly sweet, dominated instead by the richness of the butter and the tartness of the lime. Nice ending for a smoky, spicy meal.

even before being brushed with tequila, these were super moist. nice base recipe.

Recipe: Margarita Cupcakes (from Brown Eyed Baker)
makes 24 cupcakes

Ingredients

For the liquor:

  • 6 Tablespoons tequila (Sauza Hornitos or your favorite inexpensive brand)
  • 2 Tablespoons Grand Mariner, Cointreau or other orange liqueur

For the cupcakes:I wonder if the candied limes would have stayed a brighter green if I'd blanched them for less time...

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs (room temp)
  • zest and juice of 3 large limes
  • 1/4 cup liquor
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1-2 Tablespoons liquor for brushing

For the frosting:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 4 egg whites
  • 12 you kind of need a whole bag of limes for this recipeTablespoons butter, softened
  • 1-2 Tablespoons lime juice (zest before juicing if desired for garnishing)
  • 1-2 Tablespoons liquor

For the candied limes:

  • 2 large or 4 small limes
  • 1 cup + 2 Tablespoons sugar
  • 1 cup water

For the salty-sugar rim:

  • 2 Tablespoons sanding sugar
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

Method

To candy the limes:

Slice thinly, and blanche in boiling water—meaning, boil some water, drop the slices in, let them simmer for 2 minutes, and then drain them well. Next, combine 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of water  in the same pot and bring the mixture to a simmer. Return the blanched lime slices to the pot and simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until the white pith looks translucent. Place the slices on a cooling rack and let dry for about an hour. Toss with the remaining 2 Tablespoons of sugar and spread on waxed paper. Let dry overnight or at least another 6-8 hours. Store in an airtight container.  blanching

I'm not sure if there's a way to keep them bright & green...maybe an oven candying method?

For the cupcakes:

1. Preheat the oven to 325F. Either grease and flour muffin tins or line them with cups.

2. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.

3. In a separate bowl, beat the butter and sugar for at least 5 minutes with an electric mixer (or 10 minutes by hand with a whisk), until fluffy and lightened in color. The sugar cuts through the butter and helps aerate it, which is part of what leavens the cake, so don’t skip or shorten this step.

butter before whipping--golden and dense butter after whipping: almost white, fluffy and increased volume

4. Add the eggs to the whipped butter one at a time, beating for 1 minute after each addition.

5. Add the lime zest, juice, vanilla, and liquor. Mix until combined. Don’t worry if it looks curdled.

at some points, it may look lumpy or curdled but it will smooth out the last addition of flour

6. Alternate adding the dry ingredients and buttermilk, starting and ending with dry—first, 1/3 of the dry ingredients, then 1/2 the buttermilk, then another 1/3 of the dry, then the second 1/2 of the buttermilk, and lastly the remaining 1/3 dry. After each addition, stir just until combined. I like to do this part by hand with a spatula so as not to over-mix the batter, which will create gluten networks and make the cake tough.

7. Divide the batter between the prepared muffin tins—they should be about 2/3 full. Bake for 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean or with just a few moist crumbs clinging to it.

8. Allow to cool in the pans for 10 minutes, and then remove and cool completely on a rack.

this was just a leetle too full--they rose over the edges and then fell a bit while cooling. But I was out of muffin tins as it was--you could maybe get as many as 28-30 cupcakes out of this recipe. a few overflowed a lot, but most just poufed above the papers and then sunk a little in the middle

For the frosting:

1. Fill a large pot or skillet with 1-2” water and heat to a simmer.

2. Whisk the egg whites and sugar together in the bowl of a stand mixer. Hold the bowl over the simmering water and whisk constantly until the mixture reaches 160F.

the base of the bowl actually keeps the bowl out of the water, which is perfect--the meringue cooks slowly without curdling. alternately, you can use a pot that's small enough that the bowl just sits on top instead of all the way inside. after 10 minutes of whipping--a glossy, fluffy meringue

3. Attach the bowl to the mixer and beat at high speed with the whisk attachment until the mixture is cool and holds stiff, glossy peaks (about 10 minutes).

4. Using the paddle attachment, beat in the softened butter one tablespoon at a time. Beat each addition in fully before adding more. The mixture might seem to curdle or separate, just keep beating. You’re creating an emulsion, and sometimes it takes time to come together.

Buttercream troubleshooting: If you’ve added all the butter and beaten it for 20 minutes and it’s just not coming together, put the entire bowl in the refrigerator for 20-30 minutes and then try beating it again. If that fails, scoop out about a cup, zap it in the microwave on high for 15-20 seconds, and then slowly pour the melted buttercream into the bowl while beating at medium speed with the whisk attachment.

5. Add 1 Tablespoon of the liquor and lime juice, beat until combined and taste. Add more of either or both if desired.

it doesn't increase in volume as you add butter--it seems like you're basically replacing the air in the meringue with butter

To Decorate:

1. Combine the sanding sugar and salt.

2. Brush the surface of each cupcake with some of the liquor mix.

3. Cover the center of the cupcakes with something that leaves just a small ring around the edge exposed, and sprinkle with the salty-sugar mix.tequila for brushing in the background, making the salty-sugar rim in the foregroundyou can adjust the ratio of salt:sugar to your taste

you could also just make a tequila-powdered sugar glaze and let the salty-sugar rim be the main decoration. and/or top with a whole slice of candied lime.

4. Either pipe or spoon the frosting into the center. Garnish with a piece of candied lime or fresh lime zest.cocktails as finger food!

Bulgogi-esque Grilled Ribeye

This did smoke; use the exhaust fan if you have one.

Quick, Easy, Kind of Korean

It may be grilling season, but sometimes it still seems a little too time-consuming or wasteful to fire up the outdoor grill when you’re cooking for one or two people. For nights when I just want dinner to happen quickly, but I also want it to have char marks and smoke, I’m loving our new slab of cast iron. It’s smooth on one side—good for pancakes and eggs—and ribbed for your charring pleasure on the other, as you can see above.

I grabbed this recipe off Slashfood for something reminiscent of bulgogi. Standard Asian marinade—soy sauce, rice vinegar, ginger, garlic, sesame oil, sugar, black pepper, green onion. Hard to go wrong there. I might add some red pepper flakes next time. And then, instead of having a butcher cut the steak into thin strips or freezing and then cutting the steak, I just bought a 1-lb ribeye, marinated and grilled it whole and sliced it after resting.

the thinner end turned out about Medium the thicker end was Medium Rare, verging on Rare

I turned the burners up as high as they’d go about 10 minutes before cooking and cooked the steak for 5 minutes on each side, accompanied by thick slices of onion that had also been marinated. Then I rested the meat for 5 minutes before slicing it against the grain. We ate the meat and onions together, wrapped in romaine leaves with Sriracha. Totally inauthentic. Totally delicious.

I know--wrong kind of lettuce, wrong kind of hot sauce, wrong way to do the meat. Whatever, it tasted awesome.

Recipe: Bulgogi-ish Ribeye (adapted from Slashfood)

Ingredients

  • a steak or two—something like ribeye or flank steak (you probably want about 8 oz per person, scale up the marinade if cooking for more than 4 people)
  • one large white or yellow onion
  • optional garnishes: lettuce leaves, hot sauce, steamed rice and pickled things

For marinade:

  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 2 Tablespoons sesame oil
  • 1 Tablespoon rice wine vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon sugar
  • a thumb-sized knob of ginger, peeled and minced
  • 4-5 cloves of garlic, minced
  • one green onion, minced
  • a pinch of black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, cayenne powder, or Sriracha (optional)

Method

1. Whisk together the marinade ingredients and pour the mixture into a zip-top bag or other container large enough to accommodate the meat. Slice the large onion thickly and place the steak and onion slices in the marinade. Toss and turn or shake to cover and let sit for at least 30 minutes or refrigerate up to 8 hours or overnight.

2. Get your grill or broiler hot. Put the steak and onions on and let cook for 5 minutes. Turn both the steak and onion slices once and cook 5 minutes more on the other side. For a typical cut, that will turn out mostly medium rare (or, for uneven thickness, a range between medium and rare). Cook more or less if you like it more or less done. For thicker cuts, cook to 125 F in the middle for rare, 130 F for medium rare, 140 F for medium, 150 F for medium well, and 160 F for well). Or use the finger test.

3. Let the steak rest for 5 minutes, and then slice thinly against the grain.

4. Serve with garnishes.

Diet Soda Follow-up: Are Diet Sodas Better For You Than Regular Soda?

Artificial sweeteners definitely pre-dated the "obesity epidemic." Saccharin was being used commercially in the early 20th C. and diet sodas were widely available by the 1960s For more on the history of artificial sweeteners, see Carolyn de la Pena's brilliant book _Empty Pleasures_

Soda cans from the 1970s from Found in Mom’s Basement

In response to the recent entry about the association between diet soda and fatness, Jim asked:

Has anyone proved that drinking Diet Soda is better for you than drinking Regular Soda? Does Diet Soda have the same impact on the body as drinking say a glass of water? I haven’t done any research on it and I don’t know if any is out there. I’d really like to see a study of what happens to obese people who stop drinking diet soda and switch to regular.

There’s a ton of research on artificial sweeteners, but I can’t find any studies in which obese people who habitually consume artificially sweetened-drinks were made to switch to sugar-sweetened drinks. That might partially due to ethical/IRB concerns—it’s possible that asking people to consume more sugar than they were previously would be considered a significant health risk. On the other hand, there are studies in which subjects are randomly assigned to consume either artificial or caloric sweeteners, so maybe consuming regular soda falls into the realm of acceptable risk with informed consent.

In those kinds of studies, both “overweight” and “healthy”* individuals who consume regular sweeteners (usually sucrose or high-fructose corn syrup, which are nutritionally equivalent as far as we know) end up eating more calories overall than people who consume “diet,” artificially sweetened foods and drinks. The sugar/hfcs groups also gain weight and fat mass and have negative health indicators like increased blood pressure. I don’t think fatness is bad or that being thin is better, but based on the current available evidence, regular soda appears to be both more likely to make you fat and also worse for your health than diet soda.

*Stupid current labels for BMI categories that don’t correspond at all to actual health outcomes.(1)

A Closer Look at the Studies

This is apparently what Diet Coke looks like in Denmark. Or did in 2009. Pretty! In a 2002 study from Denmark, 41 “overweight” men and women between 21 and 50 years old were assigned to two groups, matched for sex, age, weight, height, BMI, fat mass, fat-free mass and usual amount of physical activity. One group was given sucrose-sweetened dietary supplements (2 g/kg of body weight daily; 70% from drinks and 30% from solid foods) and the other was given artificially-sweetened dietary supplements (an equivalent amount of food and drink by weight sweetened with a combination of aspartame, acesulfame, cyclamate, and saccharin, collectively and individually far below intake levels generally regarded as safe). All the supplements were commercially-available foods and included soft drinks, flavored fruit juices, yogurt, marmalade, and stewed fruits. The researchers note that “great efforts were made before the intervention to find the most palatable artificially sweetened food products on the market for which a matching sucrose-containing product existed.” As some of the artificially-sweetened foods were also fat-reduced, subjects in the sweetener group were given additional butter or corn oil every week.

The study lasted 10 weeks. In addition to the supplements, subjects were free to consume whatever they wanted and as much as they wanted. The subjects visited the lab weekly to pick up the supplements and have urine samples taken (which were used to validate their dietary records). Their height, weight, and fat mass were measured every two weeks. They also kept food diaries that included ratings of their  hunger, fullness, the palatability of the food they ate, and their sense of well-being over the course of each day in the week before the study began, the fifth week, and the tenth week.

Results: The sucrose group ate more calories overall than the sweetener group and got more of their calories from carbohydrates (58% compared to 44%). Both groups decreased how many carbohydrates they were eating in addition to the supplements, but the sugar in the supplements more than made up for the decrease in the sucrose group. The sucrose group gained an average of 3.5 pounds—which was, interestingly, only about half the weight gain that would have been predicted based on how many more calories they were eating. Their activity levels didn’t increase, so the most likely explanation is thermogenesis—i.e. their metabolism changed in response to the increased caloric intake. The group eating artificial sweeteners lost an average of two pounds. In the sucrose group, systolic and diastolic blood pressure increased; in the sweetener group, it decreased. There were no differences in appetite sensations, hunger, or satiety.

Similarly, in a 1990 study done at the Monnell Chemical Sense Center, a group of 30 subjects gained weight during a three-week period when they were given regular soda (sweetened with HFCS) and lost or maintained their weight during the two three-week periods when they were given diet soda (aspartame-sweetened) or no soda. In the regular and diet soda periods of the experiment, they were given 40 oz. of soda to drink every day. In the no soda period, they were told they could consume any beverages as they normally would. They also kept detailed dietary records for the duration of the experiment. The order of the 3-week periods was counterbalanced so some of them got regular soda first, some of them got the artificial stuff first, some of them had no soda for the first three weeks, etc. Here’s what the aggregate changes in their body weight looked like: 

Tordoff and Alleva 1990 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 51: 963-9 (graph appears on 965)

During both the regular and diet soda weeks, they decreased their dietary sugar consumption by an average of 33% (i.e. aside from the sugar in the soda).

Studies like these also point to what I suspect is the more likely explanation why there’s never been a study like the one Jim describes: there’s just not much debate about whether consuming calorically-sweetened drinks leads to weight gain and possible health risks (which shouldn’t be conflated—weight gain is primarily an aesthetic issue, and high levels of sugar consumption may lead to negative health outcomes whether or not they make you fat). What is up for debate is whether artificial sweeteners are a good substitute and likely to promote weight loss or also bad and contributing somehow to weight gain. And if they’re contributing to weight gain, how and how much?

There appear to be three types of theories about why artificial sweeteners might cause weight gain and/or other undesirable outcomes.

Theory #1: Artificial sweeteners might have direct metabolic effects

I don't know what this has to do with anything, I just thought the entry needed more picturesIt’s possible that although they have no caloric value, artificial sweeteners could affect blood sugar or insulin in ways that cause the body to store fat. This is the theory being tested in the study described in the previous entry in which mice consuming aspartame in amounts comparable to an average-sized woman drinking 20 oz of aspartame-sweetened soda per day had higher fasting glucose levels than mice on the same diet minus the aspartame. The effect could be chemical, but seems more likely to be an effect of the sweet taste—i.e. the perception of sweetness might affect the hormones that govern appetite and metabolic rate.

Evidence for this is still extremely scant. Not only is it unclear whether or not the effect is reliable, biologically significant, or occurs in humans; it’s also unclear if it’s specific to aspartame or an effect of all artificial sweeteners, if it scales such that a small amount of aspartame causes a smaller increase in fasting glucose or only occurs at a certain critical level of aspartame consumption, if it only occurs after regular daily consumption over a long period of time or after a single dose, if it affects all people in the same way or only “overweight” people, if it interacts with other dietary conditions (i.e. does it only happen in conjunction with diets high in corn oil, like the ones the mice in the study were fed?), etc.

There are studies involving rats that suggest some kind of metabolic effect of artificial sweeteners might promote weight gain. Rats fed artificially-sweetened yogurt consume more calories than those fed sugar-sweetened yogurt.

However, it seems like it might not work the same in people—or at least that the effect might be smaller. Note that in both of the studies described above, subjects given artificial sweeteners decreased both their overall carbohydrate and dietary sugar intake. Additionally, in a 2001 study done at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, 31 subjects (19 lean, 12 obese) were given sucrose (493 kcal), aspartame (290 kcal), or stevia-sweetened (290 kcal) "preloads" before lunch and dinner on three separate days. Their food intake, satiety (how full they felt), and postprandial (after-meal) glucose and insulin levels were measured. When they had the lower-calorie, artificially-sweetened preloads, they did not compensate by eating more at either the subsequent meals and reported similar levels of satiety as they did on the day they consumed the higher-calorie, sucrose preload.

Theory #2: Artificial sweeteners might have a psychological effect.

Another possibility is that drinking “diet” soda might make people believe that they can afford to eat more or nutritionally worse foods. This is similar to the “health halo” research being done by Brian Wansink and others, which has shown that people are more likely to underestimate the caloric content of foods they perceive as “healthy,” like a turkey sandwich from Subway, than they are with foods they perceive as unhealthy, like a Big Mac. They’re also more likely to order sides with the “healthy” choice that ultimately push the calorie content of the meals higher. Organic and “trans-fat free” labels or even just having calorie counts posted on a menu can have similar effects—triggering people’s dietary conscientiousness seems to cause many people to “treat” themselves to something extra.

However, it’s not clear that the “halo” affect actually influences total or long-term consumption. Thinking they’re getting the “healthier” sandwich may make people more likely to eat a bag of chips at that meal than they would have if they’d eaten a burger, but if that means they’re less likely to have an afternoon snack or they eat less at dinner, it might not affect their weight. I can’t find any studies that measure that.

Theory #3: Artificial sweeteners might change people’s palates

Artificial sweeteners might make people more accustomed to sweetness, which might cause them to eat more sweet things or sweeter things than they would otherwise. Since sweet things and the taste for them are seen as a kind of indulgence and not liking or eating sweet things is often constructed as proof of maturity, masculinity, or self-control, this is often described in morally judgmental terms like “infantilizing our taste sense” or “corrupting the palate.” But it’s not a theory entirely confined to blowhards. In an opinion piece in JAMA published in 2009, David S. Ludwig writes:

Individuals who habitually consume artificial sweeteners may find more satiating but less intensely sweet foods (eg, fruit) less appealing and unsweet foods (eg, vegetables, legumes) less palatable, reducing overall diet quality in ways that might contribute to excessive weight gain.

However, he admits that there’s no research showing this to be true. On the contrary, at least one study has found that people who consume artificial sweeteners regularly are more likely to eat foods generally considered to be healthy and less likely to consume foods generally considered to be fattening. According to a 2006 study done by the American Cancer Society as part of a larger project involving 1-2 million men and women who weigh 40% or more above average for their age and height, those who reported using artificial sweeteners also ate chicken, fish and vegetables significantly more often than non-users and consumed beef, butter, white bread, potatoes, ice cream and chocolate significantly less often. That study also found that artificial sweeteners were associated with weight gain. Given that their diets were apparently “healthier,” the authors conclude: “our weight change results are not explicable by differences in food consumption patterns,” perhaps implying that artificial sweetener might indeed be the culprit.

I think their data suggest something different entirely: people who drink diet soda are more likely to be dieters. They’re eating more of the stuff everyone tells them they ought to be eating to lose weight, and less of the stuff they’re supposed to avoid. It’s not working, and they’re getting fatter anyway, but that doesn’t mean diet soda makes you fat, it could simply mean that dieting doesn’t work.

Not Implausible, Just Not Supported By the Evidence

My suspicion is that if diet soda has any affect on weight, it’s a small one. I think it might be possible that in large amounts (probably 16 oz or more of diet soda per day), some artificial sweeteners might affect the metabolism slightly and lead to people being slightly fatter than they would be if they consumed less or no artificial sweeteners at all. However, I don’t think you’d see the results you see in studies like the ones from Denmark or the Monnell Chemical Sense Center if artificial sweeteners really have a dramatic, immediate effect on weight gain or fat storage.

Of course, that doesn’t mean artificial sweeteners are healthy, just that they probably don’t make you fat. Jury’s still out on the relationships between aspartame and cancer, sucralose (Splenda) and intestinal bacteria, saccharine and neurological function (especially in children), and stevia & its derivatives and DNA mutation. But for what it’s worth, most of the review articles I came across and Ludwig’s JAMA article claimed that concerns about cancer have basically been put to rest.

Of course, there’s still the problem of how they all taste

(1) Broken record footnote: Weight is a poor indicator of health. People in the BMI categories labeled “overweight” and “obese” people are often as healthy or healthier than people in the “healthy” or “normal” BMI category. People in the “overweight” category live longer on average than people in the “normal” or “healthy” category. People who are “overweight” or “obese” who engage in regular physical activity are healthier on basically every measure than sedentary “normal” or “healthy” weight people. The people who are really (statistically) screwed are the “underweight.”

Sourdough-risen Buns for Patties or Tubes

I assume fried onions would work about as well as fried shallots, but I've never tried because when you have fried shallots on hand, why would you ever buy fried onions?

Grill, Baby, Grill

Here’s to summer. To putting meat and meat-analogs on metal grates over fire until they have dark, charred lines and taste like smoke and sunburn. To cold lager beer and fresh berries and the smell of tomato vines. To small talk with neighbors over fences and sprinklers and not-small talk with friends over meals cooked and eaten outside. Get it while you can.

Twisting less crucial for tubes, I think. Still fun, though.

You can use just about any bread recipe for buns—just shape the dough into balls or logs and bake them for slightly less time than you would a whole loaf. But in case you’re looking for some additional tips or inspiration, here’s how I like to do it:

Buttery, Half-Whole Wheat, Twisty, and Topped with Shallots

I use a recipe pretty similar to the one I use for challah or dinner rolls, meaning it has a fairly high fat content and some egg in the dough, both of which make the rolls soft and rich (although not quite as buttery and decadent as brioche). I use about 1/2 whole wheat and 1/2 white flour so they have some wholesomeness and chew but still come out light and fluffy. I use milk or whey instead of water if I have either on hand—again for more softness and richness.

I'm not super precious about the shaping--you could probably make them much prettier if you were so inclined.For shaping, I divide the dough into balls the size of lemons and then divide each portion in half, roll those pieces into thin ropes and twist them together. For patties, I make the twist into a circle with one end tucked into the center on the bottom and one tucked into the center on the top. This is not just for aesthetics—it prevents the rolls from being overly thick in the middle. Because there are few things more disappointing in the burgers & brats realm than getting a bite that’s so bready you don’t taste the meat (or whatever else your patty/tube is composed of).

I brush them with an egg wash before baking so they get just a little glossy and brown and to help the toppings stick. My very favorite topping is crispy fried shallots, but sesame seeds or poppy seeds are pretty good, too.

Suggested Uses

Honestly, I prefer most burgers and sausages without a bun. A black bean burger topped with guacamole and tomato slices and a sunny side-up egg is probably one of my favorite meals, but I’d rather eat it with a knife and fork than sandwiched between two pieces of bread, no matter how good the bread is. However, if I had any room left in my belly after that, I might eat one of these for dessert—sliced in half, toasted lightly on the grill, brushed with some butter or mayonnaise or whatever else you got out for the corn on the cob and a sprinkle of salt. And they’re also a great vehicle for saucy braised meats like pulled pork or sloppy joes and summery sandwich fillings like egg salad or grilled veggies and cheese with pesto.

If they touch while baking, you can easily pull them apart. No big deal.

Recipe: Sourdough-risen Buns (makes about 20 buns)

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups refreshed sourdough starter (1:1 flour: water)*
  • 1 cup milk, whey, or water 
  • 1/4 cup neutral-flavored oil or melted butter
  • 1 egg + 1 egg yolk in dough; 1 egg for brushing
  • 1/2 cup sugar (or other sweetener)
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 5-6 cups flour (any combination of white, whole wheat, or multigrain; if using a low-gluten flour like rye add 2 T. vital wheat gluten per cup)
  • optional: sesame seeds, poppy seeds, fried shallots (or onions or garlic), grated hard cheeses, chopped sundried tomatoes, etc.

*If you want to substitute packaged yeast for the sourdough starter, increase the liquid to 2 1/2 cups and increase flour to 6 1/2-7 cups. Heat the liquid to 110-120F and whisk in 2 packages (4 1/2 teaspoons) active dry yeast and 2 Tablespoons of the sugar. Let sit 10-15 minutes before combining with the remaining ingredients.

Method:

1. In a large bowl, whisk together the starter, liquid, oil or butter, and egg.

2. Add the sugar, salt, and half of the flour and stir until the mixture begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl and form a dough. Gradually add as much of the remaining flour as needed until the dough becomes too stiff to stir.

dry ingredients added to the wet just starting to knead--a little scrappy and sticky

3. Dust a clean surface with flour and scrape the dough onto it. Begin to knead, adding flour as necessary to prevent the dough from sticking to you. You want to add just enough flour to make the dough workable. If desired, cover the dough with the mixing bowl set upside down and let it rest for 15 minutes to let the flour absorb more of the moisture—that should make it less sticky and easier to knead.

4. Knead for 10-15 minutes, or until you feel like stopping. You don’t the kind of gluten networks that will form a baker’s windowpane for this kind of bread, but kneading it that long or longer wouldn’t hurt anything. The less you knead, the more uneven the crumb will be (you might see a variety of large and small air bubbles in the rolls); the more you knead, the more even it will be.

5. Coat the mixing bowl lightly with oil, place the dough inside and turn so the whole surface is oiled. Cover and let rise 4+ hours or until doubled in size (1-2 hours for active dry or instant yeast). If you want a more pronounced sourdough flavor, let it rise for 8+ hours and/or after rising, put it in a zip-top bag and let it sit in the refrigerator for 24-72 hours before shaping and baking.

kneaded, oiled, ready to rise after an overnight rise--the sugar in the dough makes the yeast go a little crazy but there's no such thing as "over-risen" for the first rise. let it go as long as you want.

6. Punch the risen dough down in the middle and let rest 15 minutes. For regular-sized buns, pinch off balls about the size of a medium lemon or divide into 20 equal pieces (should be about 3.2 oz/90 g each). For smaller, slider-sized buns, pinch off balls about the size of a golf ball or divide into 36 pieces (around 1.75 oz/50 g).

For regular burger buns: shape each piece into a smooth ball,flatten until about 3/4 inches thick.

For hot-dog buns: rolls into a rope about 3/4 inch thick and 8” long. Slash once down the center or 2-3 times diagonally before baking, if desired

For twisty buns: divide each portion into 2 or 3 equal pieces, shape each piece into a rope about 8” long and twist or braid them and pinch the ends together. For kaiser rolls, make the twist into a circle and pinch the ends underneath.

Let rise again until doubled or almost the desired finished size, 2+ hours (30 min-1 hr if using active dry or instant yeast)

egg washed, topped, ready for the oven

7. Preheat the oven to 375F 30 minutes before baking. Whisk an egg with about 1 Tablespoon of water or milk and brush the tops of the buns. Just before baking, brush with the egg wash again and sprinkle with toppings.

8. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until tops are beginning to brown and the internal temperature is between 190-200F.

Diet Soda…Probably Not the Cause of the “Obesity Epidemic”

IN SHOCKING REVERSAL, NATION’S SCIENTISTS DECLARE THAT CORRELATION DOES, IN FACT, PROVE CAUSATION!

A couple of studies on artificial sweeteners presented at the American Diabetic Association’s Scientific Sessions in San Diego last week are being hailed as new evidence that diet soda can make you fat. For example, under the headline “2 New Studies: Diet Soda Leads to Weight Gain,” the blog Fooducate declares:

Not only will diet soda NOT help you lose weight, it may actually cause weight gain and diabetes!

image

Study #1 tracked the waist circumference and diet soda consumption of 474 people between the ages of 65 and 74 over an average of 3.5 years. In general, everyone got fatter between their baseline and follow-up appointments, but diet soft drink “users” got 70% fatter than “non-users.” Frequent users (those who consume more than 2 diet sodas per day) got significantly fatter: their waists grew, on average, 500 percent more than non-users.

It appears from this chart that only the difference between the heavy users and non-users was significant at the p<.001 level. The study hasn't been published, so I have no idea how big each of the groups is or whether the other differences are significant at the p<.05 level.

What’s that? A correlation, you say? Why, the only possible explanation is that the variable randomly assigned to the x axis must have caused the differences in the variable plotted on the y-axis! It’s SCIENCE!

CBS News:

Sorry, soda lovers – even diet drinks can make you fat. That’s the word from authors of two new studies, presented Sunday at a meeting of the American Diabetes Association in San Diego.

Business Insider:

Bad News, Your "Diet" Soda Is Making You Fat Too

Time Magazine:

More bad news, diet soda drinkers: data presented recently at the American Diabetes Association’s (ADA) Scientific Sessions suggest that diet drinks may actually contribute to weight gain and that the artificial sweeteners in them could potentially contribute Type 2 diabetes.

Because there’s no chance there’s some confounding factor, or that the causal arrow points in the other direction. After all, people who are getting fatter wouldn’t have any reason to be more likely to drink diet soda, would they?

The study’s authors are somewhat more modest about what their research shows:

“These results suggest that, amidst the national drive to reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks, policies that would promote the consumption of diet soft drinks may have unintended deleterious effects.”

However, it still seems irresponsible to me that they claim their research shows that diet soft drinks have “effects,” deleterious or otherwise. Correlations are not effects. All they’ve shown is that, in general, people over 65 are more likely to consume “diet” drinks if they are also gaining more weight. Which is not especially surprising, if you think about it.

I wish people who write headlines and story leads like the ones quoted above would have “Correlation =/= causation” tattooed across their foreheads, backwards, so they’d be reminded of it every time they look in the mirror.

Study #2 and more incredulous owls below the jump:

20 MICE WHO ATE ASPARTAME SHOWED SOME POTENTIAL EARLY SIGNS OF DIABETES (MAYBE). ALSO, SIGNS OF DEATH.

Study #2 involved 40 mice, half of whom were fed chow + corn oil and half of whom were fed chow + corn oil + aspartame (6 mg/kg/day, which seems to be approximately equivalent to a 132 lb person drinking 20 oz of aspartame-sweetened soda per day). After three months on the diets, the mice on the aspartame diet had fasting glucose levels 37% higher than the mice only getting chow + oil. The fasting insulin levels in the aspartame-fed mice were also 27% lower, but that wasn’t statistically significant.

I’m not sure how biologically significant 37% higher average fasting glucose is, or what the range for each group was, or whether the aspartame-fed mice went on to develop diabetes. The latter is especially hard to answer because apparently, by 6 months after starting the diet, at 18 months of age, only 50% of the aspartame-fed mice and 65% of the control group mice were still alive—which, the researchers note, was not a statistically significant difference and is apparently about par for the course with mice, whose average lifespan seems to be between 1-2 years.

This study is intriguing, and does offer one possible mechanism by which aspartame could independently cause weight gain—if aspartame consumed in sufficient quantities has a biologically meaningful effect on blood sugar levels, then diet sodas could indeed be causing people to store more fat than they would if they consumed another calorie-free beverage. But this is far from a smoking gun. It’s not clear if all artificial sweeteners have the same effect. Or if it would also occur in mice not eating a high-fat diet. Or if the blood sugar effects only happen above a certain level of aspartame consumption. Or if it works the same in humans. Or if it does lead to diabetes or negative health outcomes or just produces some biological markers of pre-diabetes. And what this study also showed was that rats who eat aspartame are not significantly more likely to die early than rats who don’t eat aspartame.

BUT WAIT I HAVE MORE CORRELATIONS FOR YOU

Fooducate has one more piece of evidence to submit—the clincher, it seems, if you’re still not convinced by those two studies that diet sodas make you fat:

Still sipping away at your Diet Sprite?

Need more evidence that drinking diet soft drinks is bad for you?

Consider this – ever since diet soft drinks were introduced into the market, obesity and diabetes rates in this country have skyrocketed.

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Consider this—ever since aerobics became a nationwide trend, obesity and diabetes rates in this country have skyrocketed! Consider this—ever since sushi became popular in America, obesity and diabetes rates have skyrocketed! STOP DOING AEROBICS AND EATING SUSHI. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, THINK OF THE CHILDREN.

The End of Deadlines, the Return of Blogging

They Say the Only Good Dissertation…

final page count: 340, not including bibliography--a pretty moderate length for American Studies 

…is a done dissertation. “They” can kind of be jerks sometimes, but even I admit, the document I submitted last month is more done than good. Still, it is good to be done.

I will probably put together a book proposal this Fall and if all goes well, the revised and expanded version may be ready in another 3-5 years. Why so long? Well, I’m planning on writing at least one more chapter—on magazines like Gourmet and Bon Apetit and the rise of The Food Network. Also, right now Chapter Two is just this horrible, unwieldy, 100-page lit review that I’m not sure what to do with yet. Also also, I’ll be teaching full time starting in the Fall and looking for a more permanent teaching gig or post-doc, so it’s not like I can work on it full time. And really, 3-5 years is just kind of how long it  takes for dissertations to be book-ready, at minimum. Folks with Proquest access/university libraries will be able to read the whole, not-good thing very soon. Abstract below the jump for anyone else who’s curious.

Dedicated to Mom & Dad

Frontispiece from "Michael Pollan or Michel Foucault?"

And Then I Assembled a Cookbook

Brian and I decided that the favor we wanted to give people at our wedding was a cookbook full of recipes from friends and family. We solicited recipes along with the RSVP cards, compiled them all into one big .pdf, and published it on Lulu.com.

chicken fingers cookbook 041

We opted to do color printing because we included a couple dozen photos and it ended up being about 120 pages long, so each cookbook cost around $30. You could do it cheaper if you were happy with black & white images (that would have been less than $10 per book). Lulu also has special cookbook-specific formatting software with a handful of templates to choose from, but going that route will cost you $80+ per book.  

chicken fingers cookbook 044chicken fingers cookbook 049

 

And now, with all of those things and associated obligations dispensed with, I hope to get back to posting semi-regularly…at least until July 17, when I’m heading to France and not taking my computer.

Abstract

Aspirational Eating: Class Anxiety and the Rise of Food in Popular Culture

by S. Margot Finn

Chair: Paul Allen Anderson

This dissertation focuses on four pillars in the popular discourse about food 1) sophistication, 2) thinness, 3) purity, and 4) cosmopolitanism. The collective emergence of these four pillars in mainstream U.S. culture in the 1980s is often referred to as the American “food revolution.” The prevailing explanation for the food revolution is a progressive narrative I refer to as the “culinary enlightenment thesis.” According to the culinary enlightenment thesis, the four pillars represent a unified gestalt that resulted from the inevitable forward march of progress in agricultural technologies, nutritional science, global trade, and liberal multiculturalism. I show that the four pillars are neither a unified gestalt nor a new phenomenon. Instead, they represent conflicting and competing ideals that were also mainstream preoccupations between 1880 and 1920. At the turn of the twentieth century, gourmet cooking, slimming diets, natural and “Pure Foods,” and international cuisines first became popular in the U.S. primarily among urban middle-class women, who served as national taste leaders.

Furthermore, I analyze how recent mass media discourses and texts, including representations of President Obama, the Grey Poupon Rolls Royce advertising campaign, NBC’s hit reality series “The Biggest Loser,” and critically-acclaimed films like Ratatouille (Pixar 2007) Sideways (Fox Searchlight 2004) construct, negotiate with, and reinforce the four pillars of “enlightened” eating. My central argument is that rather than representing a true enlightenment, the food revolution serves as a compensatory form of class mobility for the American middle class during periods of income stagnation and high inequality. Food has been used to define social classes since the emergence of capitalism, but “aspirational eating,” or the use of food as a means of performing and embodying the “good life” is a quintessentially middle-class practice that emerged in Anglo-American culture in the eighteenth century. Its relative importance in American popular culture reflects the changing nature of middle-class status anxieties. Since the 1980s, as middle class has struggled to maintain their material advantages over the lower classes, the cultural capital represented by food has become a central technology of creating class distinctions and one of the primary ways that many Americans have of aspiring to the “good life.”

Roasted Garlic & Mustard Sourdough Soft Pretzels

thinner ropes = bigger holes, higher ratio of crust: interior, better for noshing with beer & sausage; thinner rope = no holes, better for slicing and making pretzel roll sandwiches

When Improvisation Fails, I Turn to Alton Brown

A few months ago, I tried making pretzel bites to go along with some cheese sauce I took to a Superbowl party, and they were a complete disaster. I thought I could just throw together a batch of no-knead dough, shape it into ropes, cut those into bite-sized pieces, boil them in a baking soda bath & bake them until they were brown. Voila: pretzel bites…right? Uh, no. Turns out, that’s a recipe for ugly lumps of soapy-tasting bread.

Raw ugly lumps of soapy-tasting bread! Baked ugly lumps of soapy tasting bread!

Ugly Lumps of Soapy-Tasting Bread
(not likely to be a family favorite)

Thank god there was cheese sauce to dip them in, which just barely made them edible.*

I think my primary mistake was using too wet a dough. The no-knead dough depends on moisture to enable gluten formation. Making pretzels that don’t look like turds depends on dough at least stiff enough to hold the shape of a rope. Also, the wetter dough nearly threatened to dissolve in the alkali bath (which gives it the deep brown exterior, more on that below the jump) and absorbed way too much of the baking soda taste. Also also, they were overdone inside before the outside was brown. So by the afternoon of the day I baked them, they were beginning to get stale. Ugly lumps of soapy-tasting stale bread.

I decided to try again, this time using Alton Brown’s recipe for pretzels, which I adapted to use with my sourdough starter. Instead of bites, I made more traditionally-shaped pretzels because they were not designed for dipping, but for nibbling while wandering around at the 2011 World Expo of Beer in Frankenmuth. And since I was afraid plain pretzels without anything to dip them in might be a little boring, I decided to add a head of roasted garlic, some garlic powder, mustard powder, and msg to the dough. I was basically going for something like Gardetto’s mustard pretzels in soft pretzel form.

Peeling roasted garlic is kind of a pain. I kind of wish you could just buy it in a tube, like tomato or anchovy paste. Maybe you can? I would be so on board with outsourcing this step to the food industry.        Mashed the garlic up with melted butter. This shows the before & after becasue I made two separate batches to see if I could tell the difference between mustard powder and prepared Dijon. I could not.

Simple roasted garlic: wrap head of garlic in foil, place in 400-500F oven for ~45 minutes

This attempt was far more successful. The dough was stiff enough to hold the desired shape, they took on just enough of the baking soda flavor to taste like pretzels instead of bagels, and had a glossy, chewy crust and soft interior. And the garlic and mustard and msg gave them a slightly tangy, savory flavor.

they split a little while baking, but I think that makes them rustic & attractive.

If you’re the kind of food purist who refuses to eat garlic powder or msg, you can certainly omit those things and they should still be tasty. Or you can add whatever other herbs or spices or cheeses you want in your pretzels. Or leave them plain. The one thing you should NOT do is store them in a plastic bag. They were lovely the night before the Expo when I made them, but after a night in plastic, the crust got soggy and lost its glossy, chewy appeal. By the World Expo, they had transformed into dense and slightly clammy garlic & sourdough-flavored, pretzel-shaped hockey pucks. I should have known better. Alas.

*In case I never get around to posting recipes for the rest of the things I made for my defense: that cheese sauce is now my default for mac & cheese, too; I use the sharpest creamy cheddar I can find (cheddar so sharp it’s crumbly will make the sauce grainy) and two batches of sauce per pound of pasta (e.g. 1 lb pasta = 16 oz cheese and 24 oz. evaporated milk). You can just coat the pasta in the sauce and serve as is if you like your mac & cheese saucy or bake it for 30-40 minutes at 350 F if you prefer it casserole-style. Breadcrumbs optional.

On Browning and Lye

some other time, i'll do a baking soda/ baked baking soda/ lye comparison. Egg wash only, Baking soda bath only, Baking soda bath + Egg wash

Alton Brown’s recipe calls for boiling the pretzels in a baking soda bath and then brushing them with an egg wash. As both of those promote browning, I decided to try a tiny experiment to see how much each step was contributing to the crust. The egg wash-only pretzel was a great illustration of the importance of the alkali bath—it barely browned. The boiled-only pretzel browned nicely, but—although it’s hard to tell from the picture—it had a much more matte finish. So the egg wash is what provides the gloss.

Traditional Bavarian pretzels are dipped in diluted lye before baking (a mixture called Natronlauge which produces a Laugenbretzel). Supposedly, this technique was discovered by accident in 1839 at the Munich Royal Cafe when a baker by the name of Anton Nepomuk Pfanenbrenner was preparing pretzels while the kitchen was being cleaned. He meant to brush them with a sugar water solution, but accidentally used the sodium hydroxide cleaning solution instead. They came out of the oven with a glorious deep brown patina and distinctive, delicious taste.

You can buy food-grade lye online, but it’s a harsh corrosive that must be handled with gloves and lab goggles. If it comes in contact with your skin, it will make you peel and bleed. And I’m not entirely sure it’s safe to boil (lye fumes, anyone?) so the boiling and soaking may become separate steps. But despite the fuss involved (or maybe because of it?) many people swear by lye as the only way to produce “authentic” pretzels. 

When it comes to peeling, bleeding skin, I say screw authenticity. Baking soda will give you results like the ones you see above. If you’re not satisfied with that, you can make a slightly stronger alkali by baking the baking soda. I tried that when I made the pretzel bites, and thought they came out bitter and soapy tasting. Of course, that may have been due to the too-soft dough. I may try that again the next time I make pretzels, but I thought the regular baking soda worked just fine. For more on baked baking soda, see Harold McGee

Recipe: Sourdough Soft Pretzels (adapted from Alton Brown)
for 8 ballpark-sized, 16 medium-sized, or 24 fist-sized soft pretzels

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups refreshed 100% hydration sourdough starter*
  • 3/4 cups warm water (110-114 F)
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 7-8 cups bread flour (or more, as needed)
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar (or honey or malt powder or other sweetener)
  • 1 Tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast (optional)
  • herbs, spices, etc. (optional. I used 2 heads of roasted garlic, 2 t. garlic powder, 4 t. mustard powder or 2 T. dijon mustard, and 2 t. msg)
  • oil for coating rising bowl(s) and baking sheets
  • 2/3 cup baking soda for every 10 cups of water used in boiling bath
  • 1 egg for egg wash
  • coarse salt for sprinkling

*if you don’t have a sourdough starter, add another package of active dry yeast and 2 1/4 cups more water and flour (a total of 2 packages or 4 1/2 t. yeast, 3 cups of water, and at least 9 1/4 cups of flour)

Method:

1. If using roasted garlic, mash it into the melted butter to form a smooth paste.

2. Whisk together the starter, water, yeast, and garlic-butter mixture, and then add the flour, sugar, salt, and any other seasonings you want.

3. Knead the dough until it forms a smooth ball, adding more flour if necessary to make a stiff dough that does not stick to you. For the chewiest pretzels, knead for 15 minutes until you get a baker’s windowpane.

4. Coat the mixing bowl lightly with oil, place the ball of dough in the bowl, and turn to coat. Cover and let rise for 3-24 hours, or until doubled in size. The longer you let it rise, the more sourdough flavor will develop. However, if you want to wait more than 24 hrs before baking, you may want to refrigerate it to prevent it from becoming too sour & retarding the oven spring.

5. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 450 F and bring 10 cups of water to boil with 2/3 cup of baking soda.

6. Divide the dough into as many balls as you want—I used 110 g./3.8 oz portions of dough to make twenty-four pretzels (each about 3 1/2 oz after baking). Shape each ball into a rope by rolling it on a clean surface. Make each rope into a large U, and then fold the long pieces down like crossed arms.

if the dough won't stick to itself, you can use a little egg wash to "glue" the strands togetherlots of theories on the origin of the shape--my favorite is that they were shaped like arms in prayer and given as a reward to children to encourage them to learn their catechism  like the "kosher" bagel, the pretzel was traditionally seen as a lenten food because it is traditionally made with no fat or egg in the dough

Or if you want to do the classic twisted shape, see this guide at The Kitchn. Or cut the ropes into 1” pieces for pretzel bites. Or make circles, like bagels. Or letters. Or whatever.

7. One or two at a time, gently place the pretzels in the boiling baking soda bath. Boil for 30 seconds to a minute, turning halfway through. Using a spatula or slotted spoon, remove to a colander to drain for a few seconds and then transfer to a baking sheet coated in oil or lined with parchment paper.

intially, the pretzels sunk to the bottom and occasionally stuck to the pot; just gently nudge them lose and they'll float to the surface the unboiled guy is hanging out up there in the left corner. I used a reddish kosher salt from somewhere in Utah

8. Whisk a raw egg with a tablespoon or two of water or milk, and brush the tops of the pretzels. Sprinkle with coarse salt.

9. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the crust is a deep, glossy brown and the interiors are 190-200F.

10. Consume immediately, or store in a paper bag. Plastic/airtight containers will destroy the crust.

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