Monday, December 9, 2013

Basics: Popcorn... and Salted Caramel Corn

I thought I would take a little break and insert a simple recipe here, it's been a while. 

Really, basic popcorn is very easy, and I prefer it so much to any bagged microwave popcorn.
You can flavor it however you wish, and more likely than not it'll be less salty and greasy than anything you'd pull out of the microwave.

Here in the US most corn you can find for purchase is GMO. However, popcorn is not; popcorn wouldn't be popcorn if it were modified. It wouldn't pop if it's structure were changed.

Some nights dinner is light and simple over here- a pureed soup and popcorn. Maybe a salad on the side, perhaps apples, pears, cheese, and almonds.

Sometimes I like to use coconut oil and add a little salt and curry powder to the finished popcorn.
Other times, maybe and a different spice blend.
Truffle salt?
Rosemary or garlic infused oil?
Finely shaved Parmesan?
Dill, onion and garlic powders?

I was thinking about making homemade Christmas gifts this year- and making things that are consumable. Things that are generally used, enjoyed and gone. They don't have to be put away, they take up space on a mantle, no one has to wonder, 'now what am I going to do with this?!' and hopefully no one feels the need to re-gift them.

I can't make any promises, but I was hoping to post a few things that might make nice gifts.
Well, other than gifting purposes, caramel corn is also good to have around for a party or if you're expecting people to stop by and visit.

This is a caramel corn version without the use of corn syrup, and I'm happy it worked out.
The idea comes from Alana Chernila's Homemade Pantry, where there's a recipe for maple caramel corn.
I liked that recipe enough initially, thought it wasn't my all time-favorite, and I wanted to make some changes.

The most notable change is the use of golden syrup.
Golden syrup is a gorgeous raw sugar syrup, already caramel-y, a little deep with some molasses notes- really great stuff.

I'd like to tweak the maple syrup recipe to make it more to my liking, but that will have to wait a little bit for sometime down the line.
Maybe I'll try another time with little molasses in the mix, or honey, perhaps different types of sugar.

Also, as an aside, if you're wary, I would recommend starting with less salt than called for. Perhaps go for 1/2 t (3 g) and add more after tasting the caramel but before adding the baking soda. I've used both amounts, I like both but I would say it depends on personal taste. The baking soda adds some semblance of salinity if that helps at all.

And be careful of hot syrups... hot sugar = nasty burn.

Additions for the caramel corn I'd like to try including:
a little cinnamon stirred into the caramel at the end of cooking
maybe a little chili powder
slivered almonds or pecan pieces sprinkled on top before baking
drizzle of melted and tempered chocolate after the popcorn has cooled
dried cranberries stirred in at the end

Basic Popcorn
makes about 9 c (around 2 L)

1/2 c (110 g) popcorn kernels
2 T (30 ml) cooking oil (such as grapeseed, safflower, sunflower, or coconut)
Seasonings, as desired

In a 5 qt (about 5 L), heavy dutch oven heat the oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the popcorn and shake the pan to distribute evenly. Cover the pan and continue to cook, shaking occasionally at first, then more vigorously when the corn really starts to take off. 
Once the popping starts to diminish, and there are 2-3 seconds between pops, take the pan off the heat. Remove the popcorn to a large bowl, set aside if using for caramel corn, or season as desired.


Salted Caramel Corn

9 c popcorn (see above recipe)
7 T (100 g) unsalted butter
1/2 c (120 ml) golden syrup (preferably Lyle's)
1/3 c plus 1 T (93 g) raw cane sugar
3/4 t (5 g) fine sea salt 
1/2 t (5 ml) vanilla extract
1/2 t (3 g) baking soda (bicarbonate)

Preheat oven to 225 F/110 C.
Lightly grease a 4-sided sheet pan and set aside. 
In a medium saucepan, combine the butter, syrup, sugar, and salt. Stir over medium heat until the mixture comes to a boil. Stop stirring, and let the caramel cook 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla. Add the baking soda, and stir (careful, it will foam up). 
Pour the caramel over the bowl of popped corn and fold quickly but carefully, so as to coat, but not deflate or crush the popcorn too much (don't worry, it doesn't have to be perfect- the caramel will even out a little later). 
Place the pan of popcorn in the oven and bake 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes. 
Remove the pan from the oven and stir again. Let cool completely, stirring every few minutes until the popcorn no longer adheres to the pan. 
Once cool, store in an airtight container. 
Best within 5 days. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Baking Bread in Gabon

There is a future plan for a boulangerie with a wood-fired brick oven at the mission. 
Pretty neat, but you have to remember that a boulangerie in Africa will probably be a bit more rustic than one in France.

For one thing, "climate control" isn't usually going to be an option. Don't get me wrong, it certainly can be, but it's not something many people are really used to in day-to-day life.
Plus, the money has to be there for the endeavor, and pretty much all the necessaries would have to be imported.

If you're in Africa, making baguettes may not be quite as straightforward as it would normally be.
You'll have to make some changes, to adapt.

Baguettes should take at least 12 hours from start to finish, and preferably more time for a better flavor development. While the dough rises, you'll need to protect it.
In the bakery, there are several inches of  space between the tops of the four walls and the overhanging roof.  Sometimes lizards hang out on the tall ledge and look down on what was going on below. Maybe it was curiosity, maybe it was strategy, but some evidently made their way down into the bakery overnight (hey, they leave evidence).

Lizard skin and pieces of butterfly wings- it looks like it must have been a pretty one, but the butterfly lost. I don't think it had a chance.

And no joke, bugs are prevalent. From les petites fourmis, to les mouches, to... I don't even know what many of those bugs were called since I'd never seen anything like them before, you'll have to keep
them out of the rising bread dough.
The setup is a little more rustic, so if you plan to bake, this is where the adaptation comes into play. 

Though it didn't matter what had gone on the previous afternoon, I would walk in pretty much every morning to find at least a few bugs on the counter, dead or alive.

To keep the little things out during overnight rising, you could use an overturned storage box. 

Everything is protected, fully contained, and the rising environment stays warm and consistent.

While a tile-topped counter is definitely a plus for kneading and rolling dough, a water bottle filled with ice water can make a suitable substitute when there's no rolling pin. 

In a pinch a floured bed sheet will suffice as a baguette couche. 

If you don't have a razor to slash the bread, a sharp (and clean) pocket knife will do the trick. 

Even if the situation isn't completely ideal, you can still figure things out- and maybe the challenge makes it more worthwhile.

Monday, November 4, 2013

What Are We Working With?

In this area of the world AC is rare. Not many have cars. No running water- bathing is done in the river or with the jugs of water someone has carried back home. Electricity in the little shack? Nope. 
Interestingly, everyone has a cell phone, but it'll only be re-charged if an extra outlet is found when people are out and about.

Children don't really have many toys, and in fact we saw some playing with trash. Taking a walk and trailing a plastic bottle on the ground which was connected to a stick. Maybe it was a car, maybe a boat, perhaps it was a pet...
Although sad, it made me think about "the occupation of being a child" from what should be considered my "real" job. Being a child involves filling time with play, activity, and imagination. That's their job, and it's how they learn.
Toys do have a purpose, though they don't require plastic and bright colors. Really, with a little imagination a simple stick can be a fine toy.
Even more sad, some children didn't seem to play at all, but just sat around outside in the dusty red dirt all day.
Many of the adults don't present a good example of keeping themselves occupied during the day either.
In my own American life, I can't say I could do that. Not doing something, not getting anything done all day every day would drive me crazy.

You might think that people would be bothered by this, but from what I heard they don't consider themselves poor or pitiable in any way.

Some people only eat once a day, and even then, it may only be manioc.
Mixed with water, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed, it's pasty and grey-ish, without much flavor at all.
In fact, a lot of the diet seemed to be starchy. There was rice, green plantains, taro, the manioc... at least one African meal had all of these things along with chicken and a condiment of very hot crushed fresh peppers.
Yes, lots of flavor and pain in those peppers. 

My purpose in Gabon, as I had said before, was to teach simple baking, and I really wanted to use what was easily available for that purpose.  I wasn't really sure what I would find.

Amazingly, baking soda (bicarbonate) is available only in the capital, Libreville. 
Baking soda can no longer be taken for granted- it made me think about how I couldn't just run out to the store and pick up even something that simple. If you don't have baking soda, there are a lot of baking options that suddenly disappear.

In Mouila, the grocery stores are not packed chock-full of your wildest supermarket shopping dreams.
The couple stores we did see were far more basic than what we're used to. Bags of rice, flour, sugar, butter, shelf stable milk, red palm oil, eggs, cookies, cans of applesauce imported from Belgium (in fact, most everything is imported, some from Brazil (!?) of all places, but much of it from France... and I'm going to assume this is the case because Gabon is a former French colony).
As small as these bare bones stores were, they did have a very impressive array of liquor for sale.
Chocolate? You can choose between Nesquick and a Nutella knockoff.

When I saw there was Nutella-ish-ness available, I thought I could make a chocolate-hazelnut cookie with the inspiration from good old peanut butter cookies. Although it didn't turn out like a peanut butter cookie, they were successful in their own way as thin and crispy chocolate wafers. Leavening turned out to be completely unnecessary in this case.

The nice thing about this area of Africa is that the fresh fruit is literally growing right outside.  Depending on the time of year there choices could include papayas, mangoes, lemons, limes, bananas, grapefruit, pineapple, and coconut.

I had initially thought that shredded coconut wouldn't be such a hard thing to find.
Think again: you'll probably have to do it yourself.

First thing's first: find someone who's handy with a machete.
Coconuts right off the tree need to be peeled with a machete so the husky brown shell is exposed.

Then the top is cut off so the coconut water can be drained. And wow. It's so much sweeter and flavorful than the boxed coconut water you find at the grocery.

The next step is to whack the shell with the back of a knife so that the shell cracks, and then wedge the knife blade between the shell and the meat to get the meat off the shell in large chunks.

The coconut is grated by hand, then dried a bit in the oven before the coconut macaroon batter is mixed.
Coconut macaroons are so much better when made with fresh coconut as compared to the dessicated stuff from the store back home...

Friday, October 25, 2013

Dinner Options

Between Libreville and Mouila, most people have a couple of rusty oil drums sitting on the edge of the road (in front of their corrugated metal-roofed shack), showcasing wares for sale. The bounty may include coconuts, plantains, limes, or taro root.

However, it can also include animals they've caught and hung from the stick placed inside one of the oil drums. Monkeys, crocodiles, porcupines, civet cats, fish,  pythons, gazelles, various birds, and aardvarks could be options depending on the day's catch.
If you see something you like, you're certainly welcome to stop and purchase it- maybe haggle over the price (though I can admit I'm not sure what these things are going for these days, and you'll have to figure out for yourself what to do with your prize).
Just note, it's probably better to pick it up earlier in the day rather than later.

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Little More Information

I was asked if I could write a little something even though I can't post pictures at the moment.

I'm in Gabon, on the west coast of Africa, and on the equator.
French is spoken here, but in addition to this, in the particular area in which I'm staying (Mouila) the African dialect spoken is Pounu.  If two Gabonese are speaking French, it's probably because they're from different areas of the country.

My project here in Mouila is to teach some of the women and girls a little about simple baking at the mission where I'm staying and working.

Mango trees grow here as do coconut palms, limes, bananas, and plantains. Taro and manioc are also staples in the diet as well as rice and peanuts. There's a river visible from the mission grounds, and fishing takes place, as it does, of course, on the Atlantic Ocean coast (we had some very nice barracuda while in the capital of Libreville).
Although, very sadly in my opinion since the ground is apparently very fertile, most of the food eaten in Gabon is in fact imported (from other African countries as well as different areas of the world).

Not that I'm saying they're a food source, but I'm 99% sure I heard there are no horses at all in Gabon- which in many ways is sort of a strange thought since horses played a huge part in world exploration. It's very easy to imagine horses are everywhere, but I'm thinking they were never here.

I would rather not go into great detail right now, because I have plans of writing more about it down the line (I WISH it would happen sooner rather than later, but there's not much I can do about the picture issue). My reasoning is because I think photos are very important, and can do far much more than words at times.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Stay Tuned...

I'm in Africa at the moment.
I thought I would be able to download photos from my camera, but for some reason things don't seem to be cooperating with me.
Although, with internet access I guess I can't really complain since this wouldn't really be considered "roughing it"- it's better than Ernest Hemingway (but I'm not on safari).

If at some point I'm able to get the photos going and I can write, I will certainly do so.
If not, things photos and words will have to wait until I get home.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Lime and Pistachio Cake

A pale jade cake with a texture that's a little like marzipan.

I think it would be particularly nice with a cup of tea!

Serving options:
a drizzle of honey
softly whipped cream

... maybe add just a bit of freshly ground cardamom to the batter along with the vanilla and lime zest.

Lime and Pistachio Cake
Adapted from a Donna Hay recipe
makes 1, 9x5 loaf (serves 8-10) 

1 c (130 g) ground pistachios
1 T (9 g) corn starch
1 1/2 c (180 g) almond flour
11 T (1 stick plus 3 T or 150 g) butter, softened
3/4 c (165 g) sugar
1/2 t (4 g) salt
2 limes, finely zested
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped (or 2 t/10 ml vanilla extract)
4 large eggs, room temperature

Preheat oven to 325 F (160 C).
Lightly grease a 9x5 inch loaf pan, and line the bottom with a layer of parchment paper.
If you are able to weigh the pistachios, place them in the bowl of a food processor and pulse several times until the nuts are broken down a bit. Add the cornstarch and continue to process until the mixture is relatively well-ground. If not able to weigh the pistachios in grams, grind a generous amount (being careful not to over grind and create pistachio butter), measure out 1 c, and incorporate the corn starch. Place the pistachios in a bowl and combine with the almond flour. Set aside.

In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter along with the sugar, salt, lime zest, and vanilla several minutes until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, and add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl again and beat another few minutes until the mixture is well blended. Add the pistachio and almond mixture, and thoroughly fold the nut flours into the batter.

Spoon the cake batter into the prepared loaf pan and smooth the top. Bake in the preheated oven about 1 hour and 5 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached and the cake springs back when lightly touched.

Let the cake cool at least 20 minutes in the pan, then upturn onto a wire rack to cool completely. 
Slice and serve as desired.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Salads and Menu Planning

Salads are one of those things that people either love to make, or hate to make.
At our house, receiving an assignment for making the salad for dinner could usually elicit a groan (this was, no doubt, because salads are both tedious and completely boring).

Having said that, I don't think people are quite so strongly polarized when it comes to actually eating salad.

Most of the time I prefer to make plated composed salads to tossed salads- for several reasons.
It was always one of those frustrating things that once a salad is tossed, all of the exciting additions to the greens fall to the bottom of the bowl. If the person plating the salads wasn't paying attention or didn't care, those people at the beginning of service would end up with a plate full of leaves, while others would have some leaves along with lots of the other goodies mixed in.
Composed salads are visually appealing and even when it comes to those extra things that make salads specific.
Things are arranged more neatly and divided more evenly.

Part of the problem with those composed salads is that they take a little more last-minute time and attention. It's fine if you're organized and all prepared, but can be a tad difficult if you're in a rush.

My preference are the more "green" greens, such as a spring mix that includes a variety of lettuces and other greens such as spinach and arugula.
And please don't think that just because all those greens look like leaves they all taste the same. Nope.
While they could be subtle, the differences are there.
Some, like arugula or watercress, are peppery. Others, such as baby spinach and some of the more delicate lettuces are silky and buttery.

Another great reason for the composed salad: once very delicate greens are tossed with a vinaigrette they being to wilt. They will remain more their fresh and perky selves without being fully coated in vinaigrette. The effect isn't quite the same if someone either sits down to, or is served a flat salad.
It's not so much a problem for the more sturdy lettuces like iceberg or romaine.
But nutritionally, there's more value vitamin and mineral-wise in the deeper, darker greens. Just keep that in mind when creating a salad or making a choice at the market.

Everything in a salad has a purpose (or more likely, they have more than one).
Some things add color, others bring texture to the dish (both visual and gustatory/tactile), and others add  variety of flavor. All are important to think about when making a salad.

I'm not quite sure if I've mentioned all of this before, of if I've only thought about saying it (so bear with me here). I think it's important to think about all the elements when putting a salad together. In fact, I sort of go about putting a salad together in the same way I put a meal together. Let's say it's three courses: salad, main, and dessert. Fist thing is to choose a place to start and build the meal around that. Maybe I choose the dessert first:  crème brûlée. Then I think about things that are characteristic for that dessert- let's say cold, delicate flavor, and cream. I don't want a lot, or maybe even any, cream in the rest of the meal. Creamy dressing on the salad, heavy creamy sauce with the main, creamed spinach for the vegetable... it's too much. That, and I don't want a plate full of creamy shades of white (sorry, but it's not the most appetizing thing to see).

Another way to go is to balance things that compliment and contrast at the same time. The main could have a lot of flavor if you use ingredients like wine, lemon, garlic, and herbs. What about a roast chicken or roasted chicken breasts?
When I serve a main, it's usually with a vegetable and a starch. Because we're planning the meat with a has a lot of flavor, at least one of the sides should have a quieter tone. Let's say a rice pilaf made with chicken broth, onion, and herbs, with flavors that aren't overly bold don't fight those of the meat.
And for the vegetable? I might go with roasted garlic broccoli. It has it's own flavor, a kick with the red pepper flakes, but in my opinion it still works with the rest of the meal. Maybe sauteed asparagus (a little olive oil, salt and pepper) would be nice as another option.
I don't necessarily think you have to stick to one style, theme, or country when planning a meal, but the foods do have to work together in some sense.
They can contrast  to some extent, but they still have to be complementary. To round it all off (and to start), a very fresh-tasting salad with freshly made vinaigrette, very simple with just a variety of greens and the vinaigrette if the main is more complex, and as things turn out it's not a completely overwhelming meal to the senses (though hopefully it's appealing).

So hopefully, with that short meal analogy, there's a sense of how a salad can be put together. Think of variety, think of flavor, compliments and contrast, along with colors and textures.

I hadn't planned on writing so much as I look back at this- it's just salad.

And that salad I made...
I started this post a while back. The salad looked good, but I wasn't a huge fan of the vinaigrette... I'll have to work on it a bit. There were certain flavors I wanted to include, but it didn't quite work out. 
The addition of raspberries was an afterthought- that bit of extra fruitiness was really nice and it certainly helped.

That said, I know I said it's great to make something that's visually appealing in addition to being pleasant to taste. But I (and hopefully everyone else) would much rather eat something that tasted fantastic but didn't look exceptional than having things the other way around.  And that's why this particular salad will not be served to anyone any time soon.

Once the vinaigrette is "fixed" I think some other potential additions could be:
sliced strawberries
ripe cubed mango
grilled chicken

Friday, August 23, 2013

Pastry and Science

In the pastry realm, one has to be exact for the appropriate outcome. Structure and behavior are determined by the correct ingredients and measurements as well as reactions. It's much more chemistry-oriented than what goes on in the savory side of the kitchen. 
One can add this and that to a soup (or "forget" to add something) to change the flavor and it won't generally change the soup's form.  However, if you forget baking powder or baking soda to your cake, it will probably be hard and flat since the leavener wasn't there to make it rise. 
A chemical reaction takes place to make a cake rise.

Along with seven chefs, a coworker and I recently took part in a class at the Callebaut Academy in Chicago taught by Spanish chef Jordi Puigvert. The content was science-oriented information for plated desserts, confection, and pastry. More specifically, it was what is called modern pastry, molecular gastronomy, or culinary physics.

It's about changing the expected textures, chemical phases (solid/liquid/gas), and tastes into something new, and you end up with something surprising and unexpected on the plate as well as for the palate. Those things one might expect to only be appropriate as a visual garnish and not add much to the flavor aspect of a dish easily change the notion.

Here are some examples of a few things we worked on earlier this week.

Blood orange and mint whipped gels.

You might expect them to be gummy, but they aren't. The texture is very light, and more like a vibrantly flavored sponge cake that melts in the mouth.  The whipped gels are easily cut and added to other deserts. 

A fruit puree mixed with a few other ingredients and dripped from a bottle can create...

Raspberry caviar

Microwave chocolate sponge cake pieces, topped with a quenelle of milk chocolate and macerated semi-sorbet, raspberry flexible ganache, chocolate "clay" coated in raspberry powder, raspberry caviar, and a piped chocolate and blackcurrant frozen foam. Underneath is either a crumbed "dehydrated" peanut paste or hazelnut paste.

Piping the microwave chocolate sponge cake from an N2O charged whipped cream canister to create the light and spongy texture for the cake.

Unmoulded frozen chocolate mint mousse

Dipped into a cocoa glaze while frozen, chocolate mint mousse is placed on a bed of chocolate crumbles and becomes is the center of a dessert flanked by spheres of chocolate and light licorice panna cotta, cubes of whipped mint gel, basil cream, and a cocoa and licorice sauce. 

Spherification of blood orange and passion fruit puree- 
a very thin semi-solid layer holds the puree inside

A squiggle of lime and white chocolate curd, lime crumble, orange juice soaked passion fruit sponge cake, whipped blood orange gel, white chocolate and passion fruit flexible ganache, orange and passion fruit spheres, topped with a lime and white chocolate semi-sorbet and lemon bubbles. 
(Sorbets will eventually melt and bubbles will eventually dissipate... even for chefs.)

Blackcurrant and chocolate marshmallows

The photo above shows piped interiors of mojito truffles, below are the finished truffles on either side of chocolate-coated pina colada dragees with coconut cubes, pineapple and lime flavors. 

Smooth interior sesame and hazelnut truffles coated in chocolate and rolled in caramelized sesame seeds (center)... (apparently you can finish a 1kg bag of the seeds at the cinema- no problem), flanked by vibrant-tasting lime, basil, and yogurt truffles, some chocolate-coated and others left uncoated.

Tartlets with vanilla bean mousse, vacuum-packed pineapple (flavored with simple syrup, rum, lime zest, and vanilla bean with the help of osmosis), soft coconut cubes, and pineapple-rum gel. Coconut caviar was added later.

Chocolate financiers with a heat-resistant raspberry filling. The raspberry slice is like an extremely thick jam, reminiscent of membrillo, that very easily dissipates in the mouth. When the cake is cooked the raspberry will melt, but it solidifies again once the cake cools. 

Frozen green apple mousse being coated in thin fruit glaze

Yogurt foam spooned into a mould and frozen so it can be sliced

Green apple mousse moulded around apple confit cubes, vanilla mousse, and an eggless caramel bavaroise, dipped in apple glaze, placed upon a bed of yogurt and green tea sponge cake, iced apple gel, frozen yogurt bubbles, apple meringue, and sliced fresh green apple.