Cracking a Few Eggs

Anne Burrell is kind of a big deal at Food Network.

On Iron Chef America she acted as Mario Batali’s soux chef (second in command) for each battle in which he competed.  She serves as an almost unbeatable coach on the show, “Worst Cooks in America”; both civilian and celebrity versions.  She’s competed on All-Star episodes of Chopped, and again, almost always wins.

She’s a culinary expert with proof to back it up.But as a baker, she has really blond hair.  And, as a baker, she loves spending time in upstate New York with her family.  And, as a baker, Chef Burrell studied cooking in Italy.  All this witty bush beating is my way of saying that her baking muscles are either undeveloped or atrophied.

For some reason, though, Chef Anne decided on one episode of Worst Cooks to have the contestants bake a cake.Remember, these contestants are folks who show up and make their signature dish of mole marinara spaghetti studded with peanut M&M’s or matzo ball gummy bear gazpacho.  They believe that eggplants are some sort of purple bird egg and corned beef is both a meat (beef) and a vegetable (corn).

Shockingly, the recruits possess no baking skills or experience.When it’s all said and done, baking is science.  It’s chemistry.  If you can read, follow directions and learn a few terms and techniques, you can be a successful baker.  You may not be an inspired pastry chef, but you can turn out after school treats, bake sale cupcakes, and pie for Thanksgiving dinner without blowing anything up or killing anybody.My English teacher, Mrs. Flood told me something that I’ve come to believe is true in most endeavors: first you have to learn the rules, then and only then can you bend and/or break them.  She was talking grammar, but it applies to baking.  Thus, when teaching novices, it’s imperative that they are taught best practices.

But Chef Burrell, unfortunately, didn’t.

While she was demonstrating making cake batter, she had to add eggs.  And so she cracked them one after another on the edge of the mixer bowl.  She then dumped them right into that bowl.I let out an involuntary shriek and got angry on behalf of all the attentive students, both on the show, and at home watching.

First, you never crack eggs against an edge.  That can drive tiny, invisible bits of shell into the contents.  You may never even know they’re in there—unless of course those bits contain a few thousand microbes of some seriously sick-making variety.  Then you will, I promise, know something has gone severely awry.Secondly, you never dump egg from shell straight to bowl.  An eggshell shard that has escaped along with the egg will be impossible to find and remove amongst the other contents.  Nothing quells my appetite faster than eating an egg dish and feeling that crunch of doom as you bite down on an errant shell. And what if something is wrong with the egg?  Do you want a bunch of blood in your white cake?  Or what if it’s rotten?  Yuck.  You’ve just wasted every other ingredient that made it into your bowl before the eggs.  And what if you don’t have enough on hand to recreate the recipe?  You have to run to the store or abandon the project.So, the grasshopper must be taught diligently, paying strict attention to proper procedure.  Then when the educated cook chooses to cut corners, they take an informed risk.  And if/when it gets screwed up, then I know I have only myself to blame.

Thanks for your time.

Mad about plaid

Lemme tell you a little story.I really dislike coconut.  The flavor is actually okay, especially in piña coladas made even more decadent with lots of ice cream.  For me it’s a texture thing.  The Kid, however, has no such exceptions.  Coconut is dietary anathema.  It does not pass my child’s lips in any form.

Because of our animus, coconut has never had a place in my kitchen.

Petey eats it, but Petey is one of the least picky humans I know.  I’d always thought it was one more food that he could take or leave, but would eat if placed before him.

But a while back, after close to three decades of matrimony, I discovered something that I never knew about my better half—the man loves coconut.His favorite dessert has to be coconut cake, with many layers, lots of pastry cream filling and tons of 7-minute frosting.  And each component jam-packed with sweet, white shreds of coconut.  The man has a sweet tooth.  As do I.

Not so with The Kid, probably because in our house, sweets are not forbidden fruit, and I think this easy access produced an almost non-existent desire for most things sugary.The Kid does though, have a big crush on shortbread.  Walker’s, the brand with the red plaid boxes are a special favorite.  Last year I made some for the child’s stocking.  That recipe was okay, but wasn’t as rich and buttery as Walker’s.

I wanted to make something a Walker’s devotee might mistake for their more famous shortbread cousin.  Last night I made another batch with a new recipe.

It’s based on a Martha Stewart recipe.  And in the making of it, I picked up a couple of tricks that will vastly improve your final product.Before baking, I cut the 9 X 13 pan of cookies into 40 pieces.  There were ten on the short side and four on the long; long rectangles which are called ‘fingers’.

I created these using my straight metal dough scraper, cutting all the way to the bottom.  Then I used a toothpick to place five neat holes down the length of each piece.  After they baked, I let them cool completely in the pan before turning them out.  I then used a serrated knife to convince them to break off cleanly.

And, as with any simple recipe with few ingredients, use the best quality you can swing.  It will make a difference.

Martha Stewart’s Walker-style shortbreadmartha-shortbread1 1/3 cups (2 sticks plus 6 tablespoons) butter, room temperature, plus more for pans

2/3 cup sugar

3/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-by-1-inch baking pan, and line bottom with parchment paper. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add salt and vanilla, and beat to combine. Add flour, 1 cup at a time, beating on low speed until just combined.

Press dough into prepared pan, leveling and smoothing the top.

Bake shortbread until evenly pale golden, but not browned, 70 to 85 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool. Invert pan, and remove parchment.


The Kid’s Christmas shortbread.

When completely cooled turn shortbread out of pan, score cuts with a serrated knife, and carefully break into bars.  Store in an airtight container for up to 1 month.

I planned to flavor the shortbread with lemon zest and nutmeg.  But I discovered something else about my child.

Like a classic Chanel suit, The Kid likes it best simple and unadorned.In the case of shortbread, less is most definitely more.

Thanks for your time.

Rice, Rice Baby

Open any home magazine and you’ll find numerous bakes in which meat is nestled on top of raw rice mixed with canned soup, water, and maybe a few veggies.  After 45 minutes or so in the oven and you’ve got dinner.There’s just one problem.  Inside that can of soup is five thousand ingredients, each of which has at least twelve unpronounceable syllables.  And oy, the sodium–it’s really problematic for people who have heath issues like high blood pressure.  But even if you’re otherwise fit, with enough sodium you could wake up so bloated you’re mistaken for a parade float.

Just take two of the most popularly used flavors.  One serving of cream of tomato has 20% of your recommended daily sodium, and cream of mushroom contains 36%.  And that’s based on a 2000 calorie diet.  The only days I consume 2000 calories is when there is potato salad or birthday cake in the house.

But I really like the idea of the bake.

The other day I was making smothered pork country ribs and was looking in the cabinet trying to decide what starch to make with it.  And way in the back I found a bag of black rice.  It wasn’t black because I’d forgotten about it since the Carter administration; it came that way.

Black rice, or forbidden rice, comes in almost as many varieties as white.  It’s crazy healthy with more antioxidants than blueberries, and tons of fiber, iron, and vitamin E.  The Chinese believe it’s very good for the kidneys, stomach, and liver.  Like brown rice, it’s nutty and a little chewy.  Unlike brown rice, Petey happily eats it.

I was planning on searing the ribs on the stove and then braising them in some gravy from another pork dinner a couple months ago when I’d made way too much and froze the leftovers.  I wasn’t sure there would be enough gravy for the meat and to pour over the cooked rice.  I could add more stock and roux (cooked flour and butter used as a sauce thickener), but I decided to go a different route.

I would cook the pork in a slow oven (300 degrees) until it was almost done, then take it out of the oven, remove the pork, stir in the black rice, replace the meat, and put it back in to cook.

But there would be some straight up estimating going on.  I wasn’t sure how much liquid would be in the pot when I added the rice, and I would be winging it on the timing, as well.

steampunk scienceThe first thing I did was to tell Petey that tonight’s dinner would be a total experiment, and if things went south we might be dining on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

The next thing I did was some research, because the rice was in a Ziploc bag and had no instructions.  I needed to know the rice/liquid ratio, and the cooking time.  This is what I discovered for a few of the more commonly used types.  These numbers are for baking covered in the oven at 350 degrees.  Stovetop cooking will be different.

Rice Variety Baking Chart

rice types

Type                          Rice/Liquid Rato                    Cook Time

Long grain white  1 cup rice/2 cups liquid            20-24 

Brown                       1 cup rice/2 ¼ cups liquid     Approx 55

Black                         1 cup rice/2 ½ cups liquid      55-75 

Wild rice                   1 cup rice/3 ½ cups liquid      Approx 90 

Short grain              1 cup rice/2 ½ cups liquid      25-30 

I was estimating the amount of liquid in my pot.  After 55 minutes I checked and found the rice wasn’t quite cooked through, and there was too much liquid left.  I took off the lid and turned on the low broiler so the heat would come directly onto the food’s surface.  After twenty more minutes it was just right.  I took it out of the oven, recovered it, and let it sit for 15 minutes.

That night we dined well on pork, and perfectly cooked rice.  But now that I think about it all again, I kinda want that peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Thanks for your time.

Seriously, Cornbread

Durham, one of the most diverse, tolerant cities in the nation is my much loved home.  I wouldn’t trade living in the Bull City for anything.  It’s a funky, lively, friendly burg that is willing to give every person and idea a fair shake.

And yet, up until a few weeks ago I was guilty of a prejudice, which was acknowledged to anyone who cared to ask.  I had no patience for this particular belief system and harbored serious doubts about the character and stability of its adherents.

I love too.  Steaks, burgers, pork chops, scrambled eggs, bacon…

I’m not very proud to admit it but, I was utterly bigoted against all things vegan.  I was convinced it was the flavorless choice of persnickety, joyless, holier-than-thou people with whom I wouldn’t want to be stuck next to at a dinner party.  I mean, they can’t eat honey, but bread is okay.  Yeast is a living organism too, right?

But then, at Whole Foods, I discovered the moistest, most delicious cornbread I’ve ever eaten, and was completely flabbergasted to discover that it was vegan.

Whenever I eat something that I really like, I try to get the recipe to share with you, gentle reader.  If the answer is no, often I try to come up with a recipe which is inspired by what I’ve eaten.

I’d say my success rate is 85-90%.  Funnily enough, I’ve never had anyone offer the recipe but refuse permission to print it.

Getting this one was a little tricky.

Unlike an independently owned and operated business, or where the recipe is owned by the individual, Whole Foods has a corporate structure.  The bakers at your local store can’t just give out the recipes all helter skelter-like.

I was directed to contact Pat Parker, the baker in charge of 38 Whole Foods bakeries in the South.  He generously sent me the recipe for the corn bread.  But its arrival brought with it a number of new complications.

Being much more precise, professional bakers use weight, not measure.  Meaning instead of 1 ½ cups of all-purpose flour, it will be 6.75 ounces, or 180 grams, because to confuse things further for the home baker, sometimes recipes are in metric.

And, if a bakery is going to make something, say cookies, they don’t make a home amount like two or three dozen, it’s more like twenty dozen.  So then, the ounces in the recipe become pounds.

And that is what Mr. Parker sent me.

I converted the recipe to ounces, and reduced the amount by 75%.  But, I felt that after two such drastic conversions, that to convert to cups and tablespoons would be pure folly.  It would be like translating a novel from Russian to English, then putting the whole thing in iambic pentameter.  I was afraid that instead of making corn bread, you would get some kind of mutated abomination that would climb out of the oven under its own steam, and steal your car.

So, the recipe is in ounces.  But I don’t recommend attempting this unless you have a very accurate digital scale.  My scale is analog, and I’m too chicken to give it a go.

Whole Foods vegan cornbread

vegan cornbread

0.65 ounces Baking Powder

0.156 ounces Baking Soda

2.06 ounces Frozen Corn Kernels

7.75 ounces Yellow Corn meal

.25 ounce Egg Replacement

3.71 ounces Evaporated Cane Juice

4.45 ounces Canola Oil

6.2 ounces Pastry Flour

0.165 ounces salt

12.375 ounces Soy Milk

3.09 ounces water

Rub a couple teaspoons oil into cast iron skillet and put in oven.  Preheat to 375 degrees.

Sift together baking powder, baking soda, corn meal, pastry flour, and salt.

In a separate bowl, whisk together egg replacement, cane juice, oil, milk, and water.  Add corn kernels.

With wooden spoon, combine wet and dry until just mixed.  Do not beat. 

Pour into skillet and bake 15-20 minutes or just until it browns around the edges and center springs back when touched by finger.

Makes 1-10 inch skillet which serves 6-8.

So I will leave you with two pieces of information about me.

I’ve rethunk my whole vegan people/vegan food bias.  And, when I want some more of that fabulicious corn bread, I think I’ll probably head over to Whole Foods, and buy it.


Thanks for your time.