Sunday, June 30, 2013

Heat Wave Won't Stop Dedicated Bakers

It’s hovering near 100⁰F outside, yet my oven is on with a pot of spicy Creole baked beans which is baking in a low oven for two-and-half hours. We’ll be taking it as a side dish in a few hours to a friend’s barbeque party. Only the most dedicated cooks would turn the oven on when it’s this hot (and we don’t have air-conditioning).

I didn’t turn my main oven on in the kitchen either, would be crazy to heat the house up. Yet yesterday I baked a zucchini-cream cheese cake and a few days before that our regular two loaves of bread.

My secret weapon is a portable convection oven sitting on a shelf in the garage. As long as the weather is warm, my convection oven is running nearly daily. In fact, should the garage get too hot, I need to carry it outside as too high temperatures seem to interfere with the action of the thermostat. This oven is the size of a large microwave, big enough for a small turkey, and weighs perhaps twenty pound, easy to carry around.

Occasionally people ask me the difference between a conventional and convection oven. This is strange as many of the newer household ovens have a convection option. The answer is very simple: convection ovens have a fan to circulate the air around for even heat, faster baking. Now many of the inexpensive toaster ovens brag about being a convection oven but that’s not exactly true. The feeble air movement with a pathetic little fan hardly does anything else than creating noise.

Real convections have powerful enough fans to be effective besides making fan noises. You need to reduce oven temperature called for in the recipe by twenty-five degrees F and baking or roasting time is likely to be at least ten percent shorter. Commercial bakeries and kitchens commonly have large highly efficient convection ovens in addition to their conventional ones.

Here is what I baked: Quiche Salinas or marinated artichoke-sharp cheddar cheese quiche. Little crooked (pastry was a bit soft and the weather hot) but it tasted good for our lunch company.

The only thing you cannot do in the convection oven is bake cakes and tortes which are leavened only by egg or egg white foam. The slight vibration of the fan is enough to collapse the weak structure of the cake before it’s fully baked.

If you are a dedicated baker, hot weather will not stop you. Most everyone can find a place for these relatively small appliances—if not in a garage, any backyard or balcony will work. Good ones are not inexpensive but cheap ones are not very good.

Monday, June 10, 2013

COOKBOOKS -- How I Rate Them as Reviewer

As a cookbook reviewer, I occasionally come across some awesome cookbooks.

Professional book reviewers follow Amazon’s system giving each book a star ranging from one to five. I review close to hundred books a year most of which are cookbooks. I regularly receive these books from three book review magazines. Cookbooks (or food-related books) given five stars are truly exceptional and not common. Really bad books surface in the mail too but they are not common either. Our criterion of giving one star to a book is: Probably only going to be read and enjoyed by the author's mother.”

I am often asked by friends and acquaintances how I arrive at the rating of a cookbook.

First, the recipe writing: it must be absolutely clear, unambiguous, ingredient amounts also clear and in easily measurable amounts in a home cook’s kitchen; step-by-step instructions in logical order; ingredients listed according to cooking steps used. I check to make sure no ingredients are missing either from the list or from the directions. Are most ingredients readily available and known to a home cook? Are there professional jargon used a cook needs to look up in a dictionary?

Then comes the layout of the recipes. Good cookbook authors insist that the recipes are laid out to the convenience of the cook not to the book designers. If you need to flip pages back and forth to follow a recipe, the layout is poor. Illustrations related to a recipe should be close to the recipe itself.

Recipe headnotes should be interesting to read and informative to the cook. This also applies to the sidebars, tables, and charts. Good food writing rates high in my reviews but endless personal stories and history can be boring that readers will only read once (if at all). Also illustrations: some authors include many, many personal photos from babyhood on which I consider fillers. The quality of food photography may be amateurish or professional, as well as sketches and step-by-step thumbnail photos.

Index is extremely important. Having poor index is very frustrating to a cook when attempting to find a previously prepared recipe. Index needs to be thoroughly cross-referenced to be useful. (Roasted Tuscan Eggplant should be listed under eggplant and Tuscan but not under Roasted.)

A good cookbook also have extras: perhaps something about unusual ingredients, about the cooking techniques used, history and origin of the recipe and so on.

Using a very good professional cookbook editor (not just any book editor) and a professional indexer don’t guarantee a good cookbook but it’s likely to lead the way to five stars.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Scrambled Eggs the Chinese Way

Some year ago I visited a good childhood friend in Toronto, staying overnight for a couple of days. My friend delivered bread from a bakery so his work started well before dawn—in fact even before some folks hit the bed for the night. His wife was a late riser and I would’ve gladly fixed my own breakfast (even though I dislike trying to find things in someone else’s kitchen). But their ten-year old daughter, Jenny insisted that she will scramble two eggs for me.

She put a sauté pan on high heat while she lightly beat the eggs, adding salt and pepper and some chopped scallions. Wooden spoon in one hand and serving plate ready, she swirled a teaspoon of vegetable oil in the smoking hot pan then she quickly dumped the eggs into the hot oil and within fifteen or twenty seconds the eggs were done.

As a food expert I was dismayed, knowing that only slow heat can produce good, creamy-soft scrambled eggs but, not trying to hurt her feelings, I accepted my fate with resignation. I sat down to have the best scrambled eggs anyone ever served me. What happened?

Jenny actually stir-fried the eggs so quickly that they didn’t lose their natural moisture. Ordinarily the tight spring-like protein molecules of the eggs unfold on cooking, and the heat drives off their moisture, turning the scrambled eggs dry. Yet Jenny’s cooking process was so fast that the proteins retained their moisture. The eggs coagulated in the pan and remained soft and flavorful thanks to the high heat.

Try this simple method next time you have scrambled eggs in a meal plan. Just make sure everything is ready. You cannot leave the eggs in the hot pan even ten seconds too long.

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