30 July 2012

Chocolate Pudding & Wonderful Stock

I haven't gone grocery shopping since the 22nd (I think?). Considering I usually spend <$8 per grocery shopping trip, this implies that I had/have a lot of leftover food to consume within the next two weeks! I can't wait to go home! Hopefully, I don't have to spend money on food until I get home (except for veggies of course).

With 3 leftover egg yolks (from failed macarons), I made chocolate pudding! I used fat-free milk, and added some red pepper flakes. I also replaced the cornstarch with about 6 tsp of white flour, and the sugar/cocoa with 120 g dark chocolate. The pudding was smooth and had a crusty top (which was pretty delicious!).

I also have been saving leftover plant parts in the freezer. I made a delicious stock with leftover cilantro, celery bottoms, potato peelings, onion caps/skins, garlic skins, and carrot tops, and eggplant bits. I think that I will do this from now on, and maybe even get my mum to do it at home! Vegetable stock is so easy to make as well -  just dump all the scraps into a saucepan of water, and let it simmer for a few hours! I'm sure non-vegetable stock is also easy to make - just simmer animal bones for a few hours. I think that next time, I'll cut the scraps into small pieces.

I used the stock for my risotto (to use up my leftover Arborio rice), and I also added some celery root juice that I got from Monell (they were going to use it for a study, but chose carrot juice instead). Celery root juice is tangy, sour, not sweet, and quite delicious!

In both instances, SP helped stir. Therefore, he was allowed to eat unlimited portions.

28 July 2012

Failure Number 2: Whipping Egg Whites

My first significant cooking challenge was baking with yeast. I've overcome that, and now I can make croissants. Now, my priority is successfully whipping egg whites.

I suppose one cause of failure for whipping egg whites is that I don't have a whisk. A few years ago, I tried to make microwavable meringues with one egg white, and I whipped it with a fork. I don't think there ever were soft or stiff peaks, but, growing desperate, I added sugar, baking soda, and vanilla. Then, I microwaved it...and ended up with silver-dollar pancakes that tasted bitter, due to the baking soda. Urg. That bitter metallicky taste and spongy texture is unforgettable.

Yesterday, I decided to whip egg whites again, to make macarons (despite the fact that I've never had macarons before...so I don't know how they're supposed to taste)! I even made the chocolate maple ganache, way in advance! This time, I had an electronic egg beater thing (left by the people who lived in this apartment before me). Well, I ran into some small problems:

  • I wanted to measure everything by weight, but all I have is a "3/4" sized cup
  • My almond meal particles were possibly too big (not that it mattered in the end)
  • Sifting took way too long! I also spilled a lot of powdery stuff because the bowls here are too small
  • Whipping the egg whites. Oh. The disaster.
I used 3 egg whites that had been sitting at room temperature for about 20 hours. I put them into a glass bowl. I started to whisk them with the egg beater. It was LOUD, and I feared that my glass bowl was going to break, and I thought that the egg beater was going to fall apart. Pages 252-3 of the book-lacking-citations, Cooking for Geeks by Jeff Potter, explain that it's best not to use a plastic bowl for whisking egg whites, so I guess I'll just use a metal one in the future (to alleviate fears that the glass bowl will break). This is because apparently, when you whisk egg whites, the hydrophobic parts of the egg white proteins are denatured and are forced into contact with the air. As this happens a lot, little bits of air become smothered by bits of denatured protein, and are trapped to form a foam. Unfortunately, plastics are sort of "oily", as are egg yolks and oils, so when whipping in the presence of these, the hydrophobic parts of the egg white protein will just bind to them instead of being exposed to the air. However, I'm still confused as to why the hydrophobic parts of the protein are attracted to, or at least, willing to maintain their relationship to air in the first place - or why the foam doesn't just collapse (unless there is intramolecular binding of the hydrophobic portions, and the air bubbles are smaller than what I'm imagining?).

Well, either way, my egg whisking looked beautiful...on the surface. When I started adding the powdered sugar/almond/cocoa powder mix, I noticed that the bottom half of the bowl had been completely neglected! There was transparent egg white! So, I re-whisked everything, but gave up right before the egg whites reached the soft-peak stage. I wasn't sure whether my egg white mixture was even capable of going beyond that, but I suppose I should've just kept whisking. So, there was a source of error: under-whipping the egg whites.

After folding everything together, I ended up with a delicious concoction with the consistency of waffle batter. I then realized that I ACTUALLY REQUIRED PARCHMENT PAPER, because oiling the pan would cause the foam to break down! Well, I didn't have parchment paper, so I just angrily oiled the pan, poured my batter into a resealable bag, cut off the corner, and piped the mixture onto the pan.

The mixture spread tremendously, and after baking, I was the proud owner of a delicious disaster half stuck to the baking pan...

21 July 2012

Vegan Cookies and Cake

I enjoy the blog "The Life". Although I'm not vegan (actually, I can't call myself lacto-ovo vegetarian anymore either), the baking recipes are great because I use oil more often in my overall cooking. After a terrible end of the week, which was slightly alleviated by the consumption of a whole packet of marshmallows (284 g) in three sittings (2 am, 11 am, and 7 pm), I figured I might as well bake some things and binge on them all. I made vegan chocolate cookies which kind of remind me of Oreos (without the cream) or chocolate graham crackers and lemon cake which I didn't mix well enough. These recipes came from "The Life" and are simply amazing.

Notes/alterations to the chocolate chip cookies:
1. No chocolate chips
2. Substituted the white flour with whole wheat flour and a packet of lotus seed flour that I had lying around
3. Less sugar
4. 1/4 cup water + 1/4 balsamic vinegar, and 1 tsp baking soda instead of baking powder
5. It doesn't matter which rack I use in an unpreheated oven for 15 minutes. They turn out perfect, even according to SP
6. Added red pepper flakes!

Notes/alterations to the lemon cake:
1. Didn't have enough lemon juice, so added some vinegar
2. Baked for 35 minutes + left it in oven for 10 minutes
3. 1.5 cup of white flour + 1 cup of whole wheat flour... + unknown extra bits of flour...not sure how much I ended up using
4. Added red pepper flakes

A great thing that happened two nights ago (after I went to get marshmallows for my binge) was that I happened upon a baking tray, a cake tin, and a dish drying rack next to the dumpster in the courtyard. The baking tray fits perfectly in the small oven that I have for the summer (I actually had brought my own baking tray, but it was too long!). I'm hoping to find a mini-fridge with shelves next (last month I found a fridge without shelves and a microwave without the turntable, unfortunately). Although some people will think that this is disgusting or weird, I believe that it's helping the environment and my finances.

Surprisingly, I have only bought baking powder once in my life. 55 g in 5 sachets. Most of the time, I use baking soda in my baking. If a recipe calls for baking powder, I just substitute some of the liquid with vinegar and use baking soda instead of the powder. It always works. I've been reading Cooking for Geeks by Jeff Potter, and he (along with other chefs, I suppose) claims that bakers are more precise and antsy about measuring than cooks, who like creativity and splashing in ingredients here and there.

I have to disagree with him. I splash in tablespoons of vinegar, I throw in pepper flakes, and I even didn't measure the flour for the lemon cake today (so, I might have 2 cups of flour in that lemon cake, but it could also be 3). I'm not extremely precise with measurements, and things mostly turn out fine. The book also lists a stand mixer and a whisk as essential for bakers, but I have neither and I consider myself decent at baking. The book is geared solely towards stereotypical computer scientists who don't cook (the stereotypical humour, writing style, everything!), and I guess I was a bit distracted by this (in addition to the "BUY THIS BOOK!" message studded in every chapter. The worst part, however, is that there are barely any citation of sources. Sure, I don't think he's lying when he says that there's gluten in wheat flour, but there are no scientific papers cited! Interviews, pictures, and blogs are listed (but not by MLA or NEJM standards), but it's not enough. Monell isn't even mentioned! Also, I guess I'm disappointed that the existence of non-tasters for quinine aren't mentioned either.
However, it was an overall good read because there were some useful tips, and there were explanations of a lot of things that I've never questioned. For instance, why do we bake at 350 degrees F for some things [e.g. cake], and 375 F for others [e.g. cookies]? Well, one reason is that sugar caramelises above 350 degrees F, and you don't want your cakes to caramelise, but cookies that look brown and caramelised appear more appetizing. I have two pages of notes for things that I'd want to explore further, particularly adding maltodextrin to peanut butter and cooking with a slow cooker.

18 July 2012

Nacho Cheese Tortilla Chips!

I don't remember when I first tried Nacho Cheese (or, "Nacho Cheesier") Doritos. However, I do recall loving it more than any other chip in this Universe (well, this was before I started relying on microchips). I might've tried them in Australia, but my definitive memories of them start only in Hong Kong. Some of these memories include:
1. Some day in ParknShop, I was allowed to buy small packets of chips. I think the 28g Nacho Cheesier ones were about 3 HKD (or 8 HKD for 3 packs).
2. My mum bought us a big packet of Nacho Cheese Doritos for my brother's birthday. He had his friends over that day, too.
3. For my 10th or 11th birthday, I was allowed to buy a big packet of chips. I was psyched! So many choices, and I could only pick one...so I ended up getting BBQ Ruffles, though I did stare at the Doritos forlornly.
4. There are many moments in HK in which I yearned for Nacho Cheese Doritos. They are painfully sad moments.

But then we moved to the US, where Doritos are inexpensive, come in even larger packets, and have a zillion more flavours. I got older, and my parents didn't restrict what I ate (especially after coming to college). Though, apart from the little bundle of nostalgia associated with it, I don't really eat them THAT often. I stopped eating Doritos a few years ago because of the partially hydrogenated oils in them. However, I crawled back to them as college stress muddled up my rules, free food tempted me, and tears made me careless. Fried in comfort, dipped in guilt flakes...and the remote control of my life.

How could I ever love a product that has partially hydrogenated oils? PHOs repulse me. If i see it on a food label, I immediately lose every desire to eat it - yes, even Herr's jalapeno kettle-cooked potato chips. A perfect analogy is seeing an attractive person, and, on the way to asking him/her out, he/she starts smoking a cigar(ette). Yet you must love him/her. He/she's your idol - understanding, reliable, but abusive.

Until now, Doritos were my sole exception to my PHO rule. I have, fortunately, found a beautiful replacement to Nacho Cheese Doritos. One that requires work, genuine desire and a willingness to travel further than ever before! So what is this new night in shining amour?

*fireworks and fanfare*

Trader Joe's Nacho Cheese Tortilla Chips!
*shining streamers and glitter shoot into the night*

They are perfect. They taste like Doritos, and there are no PHOs. What else do I want? SOME MORE PLEASE! [Haha, cheesy joke!] They are also $1.99 for 284 g, which is acceptable.

17 July 2012

Croissants & Pain Au Chocolats

How do I cook badly? Let me count the ways.
1. Age 11: The first time I made potato/carrot pancakes, I added way too little oil. Result? No dinner and a super dirty frying pan.
2. Age 18: I thought it'd be smart to make lime pie filling with all aspartame/sucralose and no sugar. Of course, nothing set, and everything tasted metallicky and nauseating.
3. Age 14: I made a red currant tart without a recipe, and I recall only putting in a few teaspoons of sugar (resulting in a tremendously sour tart that everyone else pretended to enjoy).
4. Age 14: Oh, and that apple pie made with semi-rehydrated dried apple.
5. Age 14: Nutella cookies that were as hard as hardtack and as strong as steel. Those days...
6. Age 15(?): Silken tofu chocolate pudding, which turned into a watery drink instead.
7. Age 13: Bread. Everyone else in Food Tech managed to get risen loaves, while SC and I were left with hardtack studded with pistachios, even though we all used the same yeast. This bread problem also came up last week.

The common element in these failures is that after just one or two tries, I succeeded. So, I knew that, at some point or another, I was going to be able to work with yeast, and make croissants. Croissants are just extremely time-consuming and also really time-dependent. It's like performing a Western blot (but more fun)! Unfortunately, out of all dessert items, SP chooses to like pain au chocolats ("chocolate bread", which is a rectangle of croissant dough with a stick or two of chocolate in the middle), and he said he'd do anything for me if I made these for him for his birthday. And who wouldn't be willing to exchange pain au chocolats for an electric broccoli trimmer with detachable non-electric cauliflower trimmer[start at 2:04]?
The recipe I used initially was this French one. After failing with it twice, I did some research and found an English recipe written by a French guy, Louis la Vache, who used tremendous detail and stressed the importance in all these fridge times. However, I also found a really quick croissant recipe that I will try later (if I can find it!) because it looks MUCH less time-consuming than the 12-hour process I finally followed.
Two months ago, I attempted to make croissants with yeast, and the dough wouldn't rise (the dough was in the sun, perhaps 20-30 degrees C for over 4 hours). Despite the fact that the yeast were obviously dead (and I should've just made tortillas instead). I figured I should go ahead and make the croissants with the unleavened dough, and I got cute little croissants whose hardness matched a 7 on the Mohs scale. Heh, at least the layering idea worked - vital for photogenic and flaky croissants.

A few days later, I decided to make them again. Unfortunately, I reduced all the fridge times (seeing as I really didn't understand that the dough actually RISES while in the fridge!). I scaled down the recipe, even though the yeast to flour ratio is probably not linear, and also probably accidentally killed off half my yeast with the too-hot milk. The dough rose a bit, but it was insignificant compared to the dough my mum was using to make Chinese steamed buns - mantou (馒头)! The butter kept oozing out of the too-thin layers, and everything was just messy. Either way, these failures were eaten and enjoyed, slightly (more avidly by my sister, who likes anything buttery).

So, after the past week of buying new yeast, successfully making bread twice, and healing from the failed croissant scars, I set to make croissants and pain au chocolats for SP, this time using une recette de Louis la Vache.

I only used 7 g of yeast (1 package) because not only do I have a small bowl, but I also didn't want to have another failure. I also used a lot more flour than expected! These are just what I did, and I would prefer to go back to the original recipe when making these again.

Ingredients I used:
1 tbsp white flour
1 stick butter

2.5 c white flour (+ more... I might've used 3 - I just kept adding tbsp by tbsp)
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp granulated sugar
7 g (1 sachet) yeast
1/8 c 30 degree C water
1 c 30 degree C milk

1 egg yolk
2 tbsp water

Notes on the Method:
1. The dough rises in the fridge! This was the biggest surprise, because I didn't think that yeast would be so active at 4 degrees C. This means that for the least usage of energy, the croissants would be best made in the winter, when I can leave the dough to rise outside in the cold (and after baking, the oven can be let open to keep me warm)! Look at that risen dough!
2. The first dough rise was about 70 minutes. The second was about an hour, and the third was 5 hours. Then, they were rolled out, and that dough was chilled for 15 minutes (just so that rolling it would be easier - so the butter wouldn't melt onto my hands or table). Then, the rolled-up croissants/pains were left at room temperature for 1 hour to rise a bit more. They actually rose (unlike what I had before, pictured below).

I wanted the croissants to be baked by midnight, and I started kind of late in the day, so I was operating on a tight schedule! They actually started baking at 10:00pm, and I was on my way to SP's place at 10:30pm! 12 hours on the dot (or maybe I started at 11am...)!

3. I used a plastic bag instead of plastic wrap because the bag is reusable. I also mixed the butter and flour in a plastic container, which resulted in broken blobs of butter on the dough, which wasn't a huge deterrent, but my technique could definitely be improved.

4. I used a paper towel instead of a tea towel because I don't have clean towels :(. The damp paper towel didn't stick too much to the dough, especially if you pull it off slowly and carefully. Excellent.

5. The butter was generally too warm, and probably fell into chunks while I was rolling. The table got a bit buttery. I used my room's desk (cleaned it beforehand, but I feel like I should've done an ethanol cleaning yesterday) because there is just no space in the kitchen. Next time, I would put way more flour onto the table.

6. The dough was extremely soft and, at times, sticky. Everything must be generously coated with flour!! As I was rolling, I could hear the bubbles popping, and the dough reminded me of marshmallows, mochi, and pillows. Certainly, this is NOT what I saw the last two times I made croissant dough!

7. For the egg wash, I used an egg yolk and 2 tbsp of water. There was probably enough wash leftover for 2 croissants. I painted on the egg wash right before putting the trays in the preheated oven (no skimping for this...). The oven is too small to fit 3 trays on one rack, so the pain au chocolats got the bottom rack. For this particular oven, everything was done between 17 and 20 minutes, and the tops were golden brown and quite close to being burnt.

8. My final yield was 6 pain au chocolats and 10 croissants. I could've made 12-13 pain au chocolats, or 18-19 croissants.

Pictures of Method:

Dough rose in the fridge!! 70 minutes.

Package of butter.
Rolled out package of butter.
Folding like an letter, then folding like a book.

Folded! Fridge time! (1 h)

Covered with damp paper towel while rising - no plastic.
After hour of rising.
500 g of chocolate!
Rolling number 2! Note the bubbles!

5 h in fridge, in damp paper towel and plastic bag.
After the rise.

I saw this idea of cutting a slit online and it seems to help in rolling a more evenly-tall croissant.
There were four Asiago cheese croissants. Those did not rise as well in the next hour, but still baked well.

Rolling pain au chocolats - I used two sticks each.

Before rise.
After rise (and rearrangement). The cheese ones are the top left; they are smaller...
Egg wash! I used the brush I got for $1 at the Penn Moves sale this June!

Taste? Phenomenal! Crispy on the outside, flaky layers on the inside! Not too salty and not too sweet, and perfectly buttery. I've never had a croissant IN France (even though I've been there twice...sad, I know. It's like how I've been to Japan, but only sampled half of a tamagoyaki nigiri on the plane back...no other sushi!), but I'd imagine it's something as fresh and delicious as this (and correctly-sized). It doesn't look like the croissants I've seen in books or on photogenic food sites, with holes the size of ice cubes, but SP assured me that real croissants have layers you can peel and don't have giant holes. He was able to peel his pain au chocolat into layers during his lunch and apparently it made him very happy. So, thank you, Louis la Vache!

This is a quote from him:
Those pains au chocolats were amazing! They're the best ones I've ever had in the US.
[he's lived in France, and he indeed does constantly consume pain au chocolats]

So now, I feel like I can cook ANYTHING.

In other news, in the past few months, my 9 year-old sister made cornbread from a cornbread mix, using the toaster oven, at 7 in the morning for Mother's Day. She even made a glaze from scratch (by herself!!). I am pretty proud of her, especially as she said that I gave her the idea to make glaze (because we've cooked together so many times before). When I was 9, I knew how to fry super oily eggs and make scrumptious buttered toast. Actually, I may not have known how to fry eggs. She also apparently went on a pancake-making spree (from a pancake mix) when I was at school last semester. She also made a cake for Father's day. I suppose I should document her cooking experience here too, every once in a while.

Cheese croissant

Pain au chocolat, the next day.
I didn't have time to take glossy magazine-type photos because SP and I were too busy eating them and watching Adventureland.