Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Cake, Kuchen, Koek, Kake, Kolač, Cacen, Keke, Kage, Kuko*, Keyk

When my niece Emily was little, she couldn't manage my name (Kate) and instead called me Cake. In spite of the fact that I don't like actual cake (I wish I had been Aunt Pie or Aunt Lemon Square), I liked the moniker.

So, what's in the name? Where does the word cake come from. It has a connection to the Old Norse word kaka (phew, dodged a bullet with that linguistic evolution...unless you live in modernday Sweden). But I can't help but feel that somewhere, far up in the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) branches there is a connection to the verb cook.**

I'm picturing early man, pre-fire, making a "batter" of ground up roots and water and eating it two-finger style (like poi).

Then, fire. Same mixture + hot stone = a cooked thing. Let's call it a cook....or koek or kaka.

Then, iron. Same mixture + hot pan = cook/koek/cake in a pan. Let's call it a pan cake.

Then, leaveners. Same mixture + leavener + hot pan = pan cake but taller

Now we've got the hang of it. Let's make a small version. Let's call it a cookie.

And now, let's bake that cookie not once but twice (because now we have an oven, yo). Let's call it a biscuit, biscotto, or zweiback.

Actually, near as I can tell (or near as the brains behind the OED can tell), the process went the other way around. The original cake was a hard little twice-cooked hockey puck suitable for nomads and other journeyers. (Oh, P.S., johnnycakes, journeycakes.) But I like my story better.


*Esperanto. As in "Shut your kuko-hole."
**For you linguistic pedants out there, I am aware that the original connection to the Latin verb coquere has been discredited. But that brings me to one of the Latin words for cake, which is placenta.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Mystery of the Exploding Eggs

Young Master Julien Slate-Aussoleil
holds the explode-o egg so Mom
can take an out-of-focus photo.
A couple of whiles ago, I was working on a book called Scratch (written by Maria Rodale, of the Rodales), in which I learned that to get really consistently peelable eggs, you steam them. Genius! And I've been doing that ever since.

But every so often I would get what I call a "crater egg." It appeared that for some reason the air inside the egg couldn't get out (eggshells are porous, n'est-ce pas?) and pushed the egg white up against the shell at the opposite end, leaving an egg-white crater behind. Net result = the most unpeelable egg you'll ever meet, times a million.

Then, even weirder, some eggs would simply explode in the steamer, with loud (relatively speaking) egg bangs. Of course these were beyond peeling: They needed to be scooped out of the shell.

Why, why? My perfect system! What was wrong with it?

Research on the Google Interwebs Machine.


Yes, wax. Some egg producers wax their eggs* to increase the shelf life. The wax prevents the egg from "respiring"—a process that over time introduces more air into the egg and eventually makes it go bad. (This is why you can test the age of an egg by seeing if it floats in water.) When you cook an egg in boiling water, the minute you immerse the egg, the hot water melts the wax off (though this is just my guess). But with steam, apparently, not so much.

Just for the record, Trader Joe's organic eggs don't explode, so I'm going to go ahead and say they are not waxed. Other eggs (Fresh Direct, I'm looking at you) have a fairly high Explosion Rate.

New experiment: Poke a hole in the wide end (the end that typically has an air pocket) and give it an escape route. To be continued.....

*Anyone who has ever stocked a sailboat's pantry in preparation for a long cruise also knows this trick. With limited fridge space on a small boat, eggs are one thing you can keep at room temp, as long as you dip the eggs in paraffin.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Cauliflower crumbs. Am I right?

The 3 most annoying food particles are:

1. Cauliflower crumbs
2. Eggshell shards
3. Honey

They seem to have the following prime directives: Spread. Spread to weird places. Hide. Multiply. Spread again.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The imperfection of the "bunch"

(I'm in the middle of reading The Chronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope, and I feel that he would have titled this post thus.)

I edit a lot of recipes...and it's a little like detective work (I knew my Nancy Drew training would eventually come into play) trying to suss out what a recipe creator means when they* call for "a large handful" or "a generous glug" or [wait for it] "a bunch."

Let's consult the dictionary for a definition of bunch:
"a group of things of the same kind that are held or tied together or that grow together"
There is nothing in the definition that implies a quantity (even for things that "grow together," like grapes or bananas). In fact, the size of a bunch is controlled by custom. And since customs change pretty much constantly, calling for a bunch of something in a recipe is extraordinarily imperfect.

Here, peeps of the jury, is a "bunch of basil" from a farmers' market:

And here's a "bunch" from the supermarket:

I rest my case.

*On a separate note, I've finally given in to the use of "they" to indicate an individual of unknown gender......but I am not happy about it.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Quinoa rant

Why does everyone keep saying quinoa is packed with protein? It's making me crazy.

Here's how some vegetable-based foods stack up protein-wise, and then maybe we can figure out what qualifies as packed with protein. I decided to base the following info* on 100 calories' worth of the food (cooked), since serving sizes can be sort of meaningless (though I've included them to show what you get for 100 calories). The items are ranked from the most to the least protein per 100 calories:

Tofu, firm (2.5 ounces, 1/3 cup) = 12g protein, 2g carbs (1.6g fiber)
Lentils (scant 1/2 cup) = 8g protein, 18g carbs (8g fiber)
Black beans (scant 1/2 cup) = 6.9g protein, 18g carbs (7g fiber)
Chickpeas (scant 1/2 cup) = 5.8g protein, 18g carbs (5g fiber)
Quinoa (scant 1/2 cup) = 3.7g protein, 18g carbs (2.3g fiber)
Brown rice (scant 1/2 cup) = 2.2g protein, 21g carbs (1.3g fiber)
Barley (1/2 cup) = 1.9g protein, 23g carbs (3g fiber)

Now, these numbers of course do not reflect how "complete" the protein is—as in which of the essential amino acids they contain. That's a whole other can of wax, or ball of worms. But I just want cookbook authors and other food writers to stop saying that quinoa is reeeelly high in protein. It's definitely higher than other grains for which it is often substituted, but packed it ain't.

For my money, it's LENTILS FOR THE WIN! (I would have said tofu, but honestly there are a lot of people who avoid tofu for one health reason or the other.)

And of course if you're into eating animals and animal products (it sounds so wrong when you say it like that), you're made in the shade. One hundred calories of most lean meat—so we're not talking about sausages here, 'kay?—will give you in the neighborhood of 25g protein and no carbs to speak of.

For the record: I'm very fond of quinoa. I eat it every single day for breakfast. So there.

* data is [are, for you linguistic pedants] from the USDA's nutrition database, so if you have a quarrel, take it up with the gov.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Snips & Snaps

Things that have interested me recently, but that I'm entirely too lazy to write about (at any length), are:

1. Foraging for wild bamboo shoots. Complicated, but interesting. Even Jean-Georges Vongerichten thinks so. I was just playing around with the bamboo shoot in the photo (don't you ever accuse me of being a food stylist!): The white filling is goat cheese and the little topper-jobs are chive blossoms (from my garden) that I pickled.

2. Steaming eggs to hard-boil them . . . it makes them incredibly easy to peel. You can also really nicely control the "doneness" of the yolk. Thanks to Maria Rodale whose book, Scratch (Rodale, October 2016) turned me on to this. (Though to be fair, she learned it from a chef in Pennsylvania named Allan Schanbacher. You'll have to ask him where he learned it. And then let me know what he says.)

3. Making an easy-peasy ratatouille by roasting whole (untrimmed) eggplant, zucchini, and plum tomatoes (and sometimes some sliced onions) and then slicing everything up after. Just add olive oil, herbs, S&P, and maybe a dash of balsamic. Done.

4. Black limes. They are an ingredient in Persian (OK, Iranian) cooking and are called—among other transliterated words—loomi. I've never seen a whole lime, but I bought a bottle of powdered limes. The powder has a nice sort of citrusy tang and a very faint underflavor of something else....almost like fenugreek, or some other sort of haunting spice. I mix black lime powder with sea salt for sprinkling on things. I thought that I had stumbled on a fantastic salt substitute until I found out that "black limes" are first cooked in a salt solution (sheesh) before being dried in the sun until they turn black. The bottle I bought is labeled Black Lemon Powder, even though the ingredient list says black limes (oh, those wacky Middle Easterners).

5. Dried mango powder. Called amchoor/amchur (more transliteration here). Liking this too, for the same reason as the black limes. Faintly tart and sort of like putting salt on food, but not.

6. And then, in a complete 180°, I've been obsessed with making flavored salt. (It was weird last Xmas, 2015. I gave people flavored salt and they gave me flavored salt. Everybody gave everybody flavored salt. What up?) Anyway, I just experimented with mixing kosher salt with various liquids: some simple (lemon juice) and some more complex (red wine and balsamic with herbs steeped in it). I spread the resulting paste out on a baking sheet to dry and then I crumbled it back into sprinkle-able salt. It's fun. You can get cool colors. Don't bother with the lemon juice, it just tastes like salt on steroids.