Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Scone Math

Roughly, a biscuit plus sugar equals a scone.  Or, I guess you could say that scones are muffins minus eggs.  Scones have a sweet flavor foundation, butter always prominent in their makeup. Like muffins, they provide an accomodating stage for a long list of obvious and not-so-obvious flavor additions. A well-made scone is buttery and a little dense, with a crumb a bit drier than a muffin's, which makes for a happy partnership with extra butter, clotted cream, or preserves.

It should be emphasized that over-mixing to where you can't see little bits of butter in the mix will produce a dough that bakes into something with the texture of particle board, because it lacks the leavening that occurs when the moisture in the butter turns to tiny pockets of steam during baking.  What you're aiming for are visible shards of butter, about the size of a split pea, throughout the dough.  One simple way to achieve this is to freeze the butter solid and then grate it before combining with the dry ingredients.  But say you're making your scones in a stand mixer, you're distracted for a minute, and find something in your bowl that looks like a fluffy, dry meal, with no visible butter. Don’t despair -- just finish your dough and roll it out to about 1/8” thickness and cut into circles or wedges that can be folded over.  Put a spoonful of pie filling or jam on each piece, moisten the edges with a wet finger, and fold in half. Then use a fork to crimp the edges and cut a small air vent on top.  Voila -- instant "pop tart"!

Regarding fillings, the sky (or your pantry) is the limit.  Branch out from the familiar “fruit/nut” additions and consider interesting pairings and savory options.  One of my most requested recipes is one that I designed to re-create the "bacon and waffles" experience: Bacon Maple Pecan scones.  I augment the butter with rendered bacon fat, which is frozen, then the bacon and pecans are candied in maple syrup.  After baking, the scones get a maple syrup glaze. They always satisfy, whether paired with a Bloody Mary, or with a cup of tea.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Kraut Kravings

I love Walzwerk, the East German-styled restaurant here in San Francisco's Mission District, but for the price of one entree there I was able to make four servings of this: Bockwurst on braised red cabbage, bacon and apples, with new potatoes, peas and dill butter.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Green on Green on Green

Brine-poached chicken on spinach and celery, with avocado dressing.  An easy conversion to vegan by substituting, for instance, tofu braised in sweet chili sauce for the chicken.  The avocado dressing is amazingly tasty and versatile: just an avocado, a handful of basil leaves, one garlic clove, ¼ cup of olive oil, juice of one lime, salt and pepper -- pureed in a blender or food processor.  It comes out thick enough to spread on crackers (make mine Rye Krisp) or a bagel, so you have to whisk in a little water to get it to drizzle on the salad.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Two For One: Muffins and Quick Breads

Once you become a mix-master of muffins that are shapely, with a fine crumb and the right balance of basic ingredients, your journey into fun flavoring begins.   The versatility of a well-balanced muffin batter can provide a vehicle for dozens of different flavor and texture additions; blueberries and bananas are just the beginning.  You may need to make minor adjustments for moister additions (pumpkin or persimmon) and drier variations (wheat or oat bran).   I’ve used plenty of things in muffins that would have gone to waste -- stale, chopped brownies taste moist and fresh again once that are baked in a muffin.  I made a pineapple cashew muffin because I needed to use up an open, industrial-sized can of pineapple before it started fermenting.  Use your pantry, your refrigerator and spice rack, and be creative.

One very useful and important thing to remember is that any muffin recipe can be made into a loaf of quick bread, and any quick bread mix can be scooped into muffin tins.  Muffins are a popular breakfast tradition, but the utility of quick breads extends past breakfast, into lunchtime and afternoon snacks.  And quick breads, if left unsliced, will stay fresh longer than muffins.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Mix It Up

All successful muffin and quick bread recipes are based on a well-proportioned combination of fats, proteins, carbohydrates, and leavening agents, all in a bounty of wet and dry forms (most commonly, sugar, butter, eggs, buttermilk, baking soda and all-purpose flour).  But how do you keep your proportions balanced when experimenting with different kinds of dry ingredients (bran, whole-wheat flour, gluten-free rice flour, etc.) or wet ingredients (oil, brown sugar, tofu, pumpkin, and so on)?  When I merely want to substitute an ingredient for a similar one, a good general-purpose cookbook that includes a table of equivalents and substitutions, such as The Joy of Cooking, really comes in handy.  Of course, if you really want to go nuts, there's a lot of work out there on culinary ratios, and I always keep a guide to PH levels in canned food nearby. Really, though, the way to figure out what is good is to keep baking and experimenting.  You might have to throw something out once in a while, but as your knowledge and instincts develop you will be able to better guess what will work -- just be sure to record your successes.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Turn Off That Mixer! Less Energy, Better Muffins

Ever grabbed a muffin at the airport?  One of those bloated, nut-encrusted lumps of pale junk, riddled with tunnels, like a sponge?  Tragic, huh? It was no accident, but it was an example of “pilot error” — the over-worked product of conveyor-belt kitchens everywhere. 

In preparing pastry that rises with the assistance of chemical leaveners -- baking soda and/or baking powder -- when the wet and dry ingredients come together, the least mixing needed to get the job done is best.  Which means that the very second you cannot see any unincorporated flour, stop.  

Consider not using a motorized mixer at all, and instead incorporate your dry ingredients by hand with a bowl scraper or spatula.  I do it every day in a commercial kitchen; it doesn’t take more than a second or two longer, and your final product will have a texture that is more tender and consistent.

Friday, February 8, 2013


These plump chicken thighs got a thick pasting of salsa verde, prior to a quick roast to intensify the favor and color.  Then all they need was some braising in more salsa verde to finish, while the broccolini steamed, and I whipped up a quick tarragon vinaigrette to brighten the broccolini and expand its favor profile to the domain of anise-related herbs.