July 27, 2009

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

You may or may not have noticed an alarming drop in blog posts over the last few months. Since I moved to Virginia, I've lost my verve.

So, for the time being, I am retiring the blog. I will continue to tweet away (@fambiguous), but I won't be blogging, at least for a while.

If it's not too onerous, check back every now and then to see if I've restarted the blog or moved to another one.



July 11, 2009

Bakewell Tart, Part Deux

The first Bakewell tart worked so well that I decided to make another for a meeting with some fellow teachers.

This time, though, I actually remembered that the recipe only made enough for a 9" tart and multiplied the ingredients by about 1.25. That should be enough for two extra inches, right? Well, no. I forgot the whole geometry thing; it turns out that an 11" pan has about half again as much area as a 9" pan.


July 3, 2009

All-Star Selection (Updated)

While I was in D.C. this past weekend, my brother politely mentioned that he hardly ever finishes a post about food. I started this blog to have some fun and keep in touch with friends and family in a new and interesting way. Since food is one of the most consistent things in my life, I blog about it a lot. Today's post is dedicated to my brother; I'm trying to get back to writing about other things. I promise!

Voting for this year's All-Star Game closed last night at midnight. This Sunday marks the annual hoopla of the All-Star Game Selection Show. It's time to reflect on the spectacle that is the Major League Baseball All-Star Game.

Every year around this time, there is a rash of articles listing sports journalists' "picks" to some fantasy All-Star team based solely on worthiness. Almost as frequent as the preseason predictions and early season "duds & studs" articles, these "picks" are almost always accompanied by some light moaning and groaning about how the fan vote, especially with fans stuffing virtual ballot boxes up to 25 times each, makes it a popularity contest, or how the modern requirement of one all-star from each team shafts some truly deserving players.

These arguments are predicated on one assumption I don't entirely buy: that the All-Star Game, with all its pomp and circumstance, is actually prestigious. Don't get me wrong. I'm sure it's an honor to be named to the team. Red Sox stalwart Tim Wakefield has never made it, and I'm really rooting for him to be there this year. I'm just not sure there's much prestige to being an all-star any more.

Let's assume briefly that there is prestige in being named, which means that perhaps the players with the best stats should go. How do we determine worthiness? Obviously the fans fail pretty miserably at that, not because most baseball fans are idiots, but because large-market teams will always benefit from having more fans (and, in the case of the Red Sox, a truly national following). And, well, because some fans are idiots. But players, manager, and writers are idiots. They are responsible for voting for the important end-of-the-year awards, and they get it wrong almost as often as they get it right. How else do you explain Nate McLouth and Michael Young both receiving Gold Gloves (managers' vote) last year. McLouth finished last in both leagues in the Dewan plus/minus system, a system developed by John Dewan and the good folks at Baseball Info Solutions to measure defensive performance. This system is one of the best at measuring defense, and it has McLouth as a staggering MINUS 40 defender last year. That basically means that McLouth made, wait for it, forty fewer plays in centerfield than a league average player. That number would improve if someone got him the hell out of centerfield, but it still boggles the mind that anyone would see Nate McLouth play centerfield and think, "Hey, this guy deserves a Gold Glove." Point is, players, managers, coaches, and writers are only marginally better at selecting players based on "worthiness" than fans, and that likely only because they don't have the chaos of the masses.

The highest honor in the game, induction in the Hall of Fame, is voted upon by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. They mostly get it right, but, as better writers than I have attested, there are problems, ranging from mule-headed voters to a pesky emphasis on character and reputation. If the selection process for the most prestigious honor in the game is flawed, then why is there so much fanfare about the selection process for an exhibition game that is, as far as I can tell, no longer even prestigious? Some of it has to do with the fact that the selection process for the All-Star Game has changed so much over the years, making it feel less entrenched than the HOF process. And, of course, most of the fanfare is harmless fun. The dialogue occasionally gets nasty, though, which is what baffles me the most. It's obviously a flawed process, but if there's a better way, I'd like to hear it.

In fact, I'm even for the one-player-from-every-team rule. It was instituted in order to take away some of the large-market bias of the fan vote and allow fans of teams like the Royals and Pirates to have some sort of rooting interest in the game.

And it does that. Quite simply, it makes the game more fun. And that's what the All-Star Game has to be about: fun. SI recently ran an article about the players that are fun to watch. Marchman takes the idea to an extreme, but I like the idea of picking players based on who is fun to watch. Of course, that preferences speed, which is more fun to watch than, say, OBP. Still, it would be lots of fun to see Ichiro, Carl Crawford, and Jacoby Ellsbury patrolling the outfield grass at Busch.

Ultimately, it doesn't really matter who gets selected to the All-Star Game. For the guys who do go, it's great and fun and an honor. For the guys who don't, it's a few extra days off. But it's not like the major awards, which can cement a player's reputation (no one will move McLouth from center now that he's a Gold Glove outfielder!) and pad a HOF resume. One trip to the game doesn't really affect HOF votes at all.

Everything about the All-Star Game should be good natured. (Remember Larry Walker batting right-handed against Randy Johnson? That's the All-Star Game for you.) I'm one of the few die-hard fans who can watch the Selection Show this Sunday without yelling at my TV. That's the Zen of the All-Star Game. In the end, it's doesn't really matter, and it's all about having fun.

Update: Wakefield got an All-Star nod, and, just two days after writing this post, I got all teary-eyed listening to him talk about the honor on NESN. I suppose I never really believed what I said myself.

June 27, 2009

Bakewell Tart (The Daring Bakers)

The June Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Jasmine of Confessions of a Cardamom Addict and Annemarie of Ambrosia and Nectar. They chose a Traditional (UK) Bakewell Tart... er... pudding that was inspired by a rich baking history dating back to the 1800's in England.

A month ago, if you had told me that I would soon need to grate a stick of butter, I would have laughed, thought for a minute, then realized: the Daring Bakers. For my non-foodie readers, the Daring Bakers are a group of brilliant bloggers who take on challenging recipes once a month and all blog about them on the same day. I am a member of both the Daring Bakers and its sidekick, the recently created Daring Cooks. Only three challenges in and I've already had recipes call for things I don't normally do, like, say, grate butter.

For the most part, these challenges are thoroughly enjoyable. And this recipe is! Grating butter, though, not so much.

Let me bring you up to speed. This tart (pudding?) is composed of a shortcrust (basically a slightly flaky and very buttery shortbread), a layer of jam, and frangipane, a spongy, "slightly squidgy" (their words, not mine!) almond-flavored cake/topping. First you need a tart pan. The recipe suggests 9", but mine was 11". That would have been an important fact to note ahead of time. Live and learn, live and learn.

To make the crust, you need:

225g (8 oz.) all-purpose flour
30g (1 oz.) sugar
2.5ml (½ tsp.) salt
110g (4 oz.) unsalted butter, frozen
2 egg yolks
2.5ml (½ tsp.) almond extract (optional)
15-30ml (1-2 tbsp.) cold water

Combine the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl and grate the butter over them. Quickly use your hands to mix together the flour mixture and butter until it "resembles bread crumbs."

Next, lightly whisk together the egg yolks and almond extract (if using).

Pour into the dry ingredients and mix together. Add just enough water to form a cohesive dough. Knead it out onto the counter and form it into a disc. Wrap in cling and refrigerate at least 30 minutes (this step can be completed the night before you assemble the tart).

Once the dough has chilled, roll it out to approximately 5mm (¼") thickness. If you can't follow directions and didn't make enough dough for your tart pan, don't worry, it will turn out just fine. Press the dough into the tart pan and trim off any excess, using it to patch any holes in the crust. Toss the finished crust in the freezer for 15 minutes and start preparing the frangipane.
125g (4.5 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
125g (4.5 oz.) powdered sugar
3 eggs
2.5ml (½ tsp.) almond extract
125g (4.5 oz.) ground almonds
30g (1 oz.) all-purpose flour
Feel free to grind your almonds by hand or buy them pre-ground. I chose to use a food processor, and it worked beautifully.

Isn't it cute how my food processor bowl nestles directly onto my scale pad? It's like they were made for each other.

For more fun with butter, cream together the butter and powdered sugar. Using a hand mixer, beat in eggs one at a time. The mixture may appear to curdle, but it will be alright. Pour in the almond extract, scrape down the sides, and add the almonds and flour. Mix well.

As rarely happens in my kitchen, the timing was perfect and I finished the frangipane about the time the crust needed to come out of hibernation.

To assemble the tart, warm some jam or curd (I'm sure homemade would be good, but I used store-bought seedless, sugar-free blackberry preserves) in a pot of boiling water or in the microwave. Spread it out in an even layer on the crust. Top with the finished frangipane and smooth the top.

Pop it in the oven at 400°F for 30 minutes. With 5 minutes remaining, garnish with slivered almonds.

If you can't tell from the picture, my crust does not go all the way up the sides of the pan. It is also a little thinner than I would have liked. All the same, everything worked out. The textures are wonderful and the almond-blackberry flavor is spot-on.

I would have prefered the poofy, slightly rounded look that other, more capable Daring Bakers most certainly achieved, but the flatness of my tart did not affect the taste at all.

That this recipe can withstand my inevitable bunglings and taste no worse for wear speaks volumes. It's a relatively quick recipe to prepare (especially for the Daring Bakers), and it's tons of fun (except, of course, the butter thing). I'm three challenges in, and every single one of them has been fun and tasty.

My rolling pin's just sitting there at the top of the post, waiting. What's next?

June 17, 2009

From the Daring Kitchen: Dumplings

The June 2009 challenge is hosted by Jen from use real butter. She has chosen Chinese dumplings/potstickers as the challenge.

For various reasons, I missed the inaugural Daring Cooks challenge of ricotta gnocchi. I would not miss the second one for the world, though. If you know my cooking, you know that dumplings (gyoza in Japanese) are right up my alley. My wife absolutely loves Chinese steamed buns, baozi (包子), also extremely popular in Vietnam, and I have tinkered around with some recipes for those. They use a very simple leavened dough and can be filled with virtually anything (my favorite are red bean paste and sesame paste).

I don't have much experience with gyoza, though, so this month's challenge was still a challenge. Unlike steamed buns, the dough for these puppies is unleavened and oh so simple. It is:
2 cups all-purpose flour (250g)
½ cup warm water (113g)
I strongly suggest weighing the ingredients and not trying to halve the dough (the voice of experience speaking). Flour is cheap, right?

Assemble the dough in a large bowl or with the dough blade of a food processor. Jen's blog post has plenty of pictures (hence the dearth of pictures in my post), but the most important part is the consistency of the dough. I did two separate batches and both came out of the food processor firm and the slightest bit sticky. After 2-3 minutes of kneading, thought, they were soft and silky to the touch. That silky texture was perfect for rolling and filling the wrappers.

Making the filling is the easy part, so look at the recipe on Jen's blog post. K. doesn't like most of the ingredients, so I only used:
1 lb. ground pork
7 shitake mushrooms, minced
¼ cup ginger root (55g), minced
3 tbsp. soy sauce
2 tbsp. sesame oil
2 tbsp. cornstarch
The filling cohered beautifully and filled the kitchen with the delightful aroma of sesame oil.

If possible, it tasted even better than it smelled.

Before filling the dumplings, though, you need to make the wrappers. Form the dough into a flattened dome and slice it into several strips. Roll out the strips into cylinders and cut discs ¾" thick and ¾" in diameter. On a floured workspace, press each disc flat with your palm. Roll each disc out to form the wrappers.

Note: the wrappers are supposed to be round. You can always use a biscuit cutter to shape them. Or, just run with the misshapen ones.

Fill the wrappers with about a teaspoon and a half of filling. Follow Jen's instructions for folding and pleating the dumplings.

You can even make wontons for wonton soup from the reject wrappers!

I will also bow to Jen's expertise on cooking the dumplings. You can steam, boil, or panfry (my preferred method) them. I do, however, suggest that you cook them immediately after assembling them. The dough tends to get stickier as it sits, and we let several dozen rest for too long.

We steamed and panfried them, and the results were delicious. Homemade dumplings are much better than anything you can buy elsewhere. The filling for this particular recipe is flavorful. The wrappers are extremely fun to work with (not sure this counts for much, but K. said that assembling the dumplings was the most fun she has ever had helping me in the kitchen) and a great texture.

A great, simple dough + tasty filling = great fun to be had by all. Get thee to the kitchen!

(My apologies for the fact that this post reads contains even less insightful commentary than usual. I really don't have much to say that Jen has not already said in her exhaustive blog post.)

June 9, 2009

Strawberry Jam-Like Substance

I have a shiny new toy and it looks something like this:

That's right. Counter space. And a brand new stove. And a range hood. And heating elements that are level and don't cause sauce to go sliding around the pan. Did I mention the counter space?

My parents came up to help me move, and they gifted me, among other things, a gallon of strawberries, thus answering, once and for all, the age old question of "who gives someone a gallon of fruit?" with the apropos "my mom."

I really was grateful, but I had no idea what to do with a gallon of strawberries. I cut some up and put them on cereal. I covered some in white and milk chocolate and devoured them greedily. After that, I still had approximately 3.9 quarts left. So, I did the next best thing and made jam.

Well, sort of. Intimidated by the instructions on the back of the pectin box, I opted for the "no cook jam" pectin. It didn't help that I had just seen Mike Rowe attempt to make cranberry jam and burn himself roughly thirty-seven times.

I followed the recipe on the back of the package and crushed enough strawberries to produce 4 cups.

Aren't cut strawberries a thing of beauty? As you can see, the lighting is much better at the new place, even though I still have the same crappy camera.

Except, of course, in this picture.

Most people would have crushed the fruit in the blender, but I (stupidly) crushed it by hand with a meat tenderizer (What? I just moved in and couldn't find my potato masher!).

Crushing the fruit is the hard part. The rest is just stirring. According to the package, 4 cups of fruit should be sweetened with 1.5 cups of sugar (I used Splenda). I was a little leery of that number, since various recipes online suggested anywhere from 2 to 4 cups of sugar. In package recipes I trust, though, so I steamrolled through and it resulted in perfectly sweetened strawberry jam.

Again, sort of. The "no cook" pectin never really fully set, so it's almost like really thick strawberry mush. It's delicious, mind you (the wife, who claims to not like jam, likes it). And, with only three ingredients (fruit, Splenda, and pectin), it tastes exactly like fresh strawberries. But jam it is not, at least in the strictest sense of the word.

I'm still getting used to the kitchen and getting back into the habit of cooking and baking. The craziness of moving meant that I missed the last Daring Bakers challenge, as well as the first Daring Cooks challenge. This month's Daring Cooks challenge is right up my alley, though, so I'll be back with a vengeance in less than a week.

While I find my way around the new kitchen, I'll leave you with a very zen picture of a strawberry floating above it all.

Five-Four-Three Things...

It has officially been 18 days since my last blog post. *Hangs head in shame.* I could make excuses: I've been moving, unpacking, etc. While they are all true, there's still no excuse. So, I'm trying to get back in the swing of things with a couple of blog posts, one in honor of the move and another about the christening of my new kitchen.

For those of you who didn't know already, my wife and I, two cats in tow, recently made the trek from Bangor, Maine to Blacksburg, Virginia. We moved from a nearly 1,000 square feet two-bedroom apartment to a 700 square feet one-bedroom. But hey, the neighbors are great:

That's right, we live across from sheep.

As anyone who has moved from region to region has experienced, crossing state lines means more than just changing gas prices; it means changing cultures. So, in honor of that, here are five things I'm going to miss about Maine and four things I will decidedly not miss about Maine (because, really, Maine is a nice place).

Five things I will miss about Maine...
1.) Fried haddock.
2.) Being called "dee-ah" by waitresses.
3.) Giving directions to my house with landmarks like Stephen King's house and the giant Paul Bunyan statue ("reputed to be the largest ... in the world").
4.) Dysart's.
5.) Acadia National Park.
Four things I will not miss about Maine...
1.) Complete and total darkness ... at 3:00 in the afternoon.
2.) Perpetually going "down" to get anywhere because there simply is nothing north.
3.) Slanted floors.
4.) Drivers stopping in the middle of the merge lane because they have no idea how to deal with "traffic."
And now, a couple of bonus lists:

Four things I have already enjoyed about Virginia...
1.) Oriental grocery stores.
2.) 24-hour grocery stores.
3.) Truckers helping me back out of a space and telling me that I'm well on my way to being a trucker (while reminiscing about their "first time").
4.) Southern food. I went to Ryan's and they had no less than fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, fried okra, and biscuits and gravy on the buffet.
Three ways Virginia is surprisingly like Maine...
1.) Shirtless, toothless yardsale peddlers.
2.) Everything is closed on Mondays.
3.) Vast stretches of nothingness on the Interstate.
Coming up soon: strawberry jam and the new kitchen!