Cooking Tips · Techniques

The beautiful Mediterranean way!

I recently wrote a series of Cooking Tips on Healthy Eating and Cooking. Although I did not use the term “Mediterranean”, much of what I wrote about is very consistent with eating a Mediterranean diet. Since this is a very healthy way to cook and eat, I thought I would write this Cooking Tip on that very subject.

The term “Mediterranean cuisine” is not synonymous with the term “Mediterranean diet”. The cuisine of the Mediterranean is of a great variety as there are twenty-one countries bordering the Mediterranean. When the Mediterranean diet is referenced, most are referring to how they eat in Italy, Spain, southern France, Greece, the isle of Crete and the Middle East. All of these have a focus on the following type of diet.

  • Minimally processed, seasonally fresh, locally grown foods
  • Abundant plant foods – vegetables, fruit, cereals, legumes, nuts, seeds
  • Primary source of fat is olive oil
  • Moderately high intake of fresh fish and low intake of poultry and meat
  • Moderate amounts of dairy products, mostly cheese that is not high in fat as well as yogurt
  • Garlic, nuts, herbs, spices all add flavor & interest
  • Potatoes & rice are eaten in restraint
  • Pasta is a side or first course, not a main course
  • Dessert is usually fresh fruit or, in some cases, honey-based sweets
  • Moderate alcohol consumption, preferably from wine and usually with meals

If you wish to start cooking and eating this way, start with stocking your pantry and refrigerator the Mediterranean way. Following is a list of common ingredients although it is far from complete.

  • Olive oil, usually extra-virgin (For a more in-depth discussion of olive oil, see this Tip.)
  • Herbs – common Mediterranean herbs are parsley, dill, rosemary, thyme, sage, mint, fennel, bay, tarragon, lemon verbena and oregano. As much as possible, try to use fresh herbs. Oregano might be one exception.
  • Spices – cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, anise, saffron, sumac, za’atar and Aleppo pepper.
  • Dairy – cheese made from sheep’s and goat’s milk as well as yogurt.
  • Beans and lentils
  • Rice and grains, especially ones such as bulgur, farro, barley, wheat berries and quinoa. For more info, see this Tip.
  • Olives
  • Vinegars – balsamic, red wine and white wine
  • Pomegranate molasses – this is reduced pomegranate juice used especially in Middle Eastern and Persian cooking.
  • Preserved lemons – lemons pickled in salt and their own juices. Common in North African dishes.
  • Rose water – water that has been infused with the essence of rose and is often used in Middle Eastern, Indian and Persian cuisines.
  • Harissa – a spicy, fruity chili paste.
  • Tahini – ground sesame seed paste.

Once you have guidelines on ingredients and what to eat, cooking Mediterranean dishes is no different than any other cooking. Having decent knife skills, understanding the different types of cooking (sautéing, steaming, poaching, baking, roasting, etc.), knowing how to use herbs/spices and understanding what NOT to do in the kitchen are all skills that transcend cuisines. Check out my other Tips on these subjects. If you are in the Colorado area, consider booking a class to help you with any or all of these skills. For great ideas on how to cook Mediterranean, consider attending one of these upcoming classes.

Springtime is the perfect time to upgrade your eating and cooking habits to the wonderful Mediterranean way. I hope you give it a try!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Gnocchi — a different Italian dish

When you think of Italian food, what do you think of? Is it pizza, spaghetti or lasagna? There is so much more to Italian food than that. One of those “other” dishes would be Gnocchi. What gnocchi is, how to make it and how to serve it are the subjects of this Cooking Tip.

The word “gnocchi” actually means “lumps”, although the word is said to derive from the old Lombard phrase knohha, meaning “knot” or from nocca, which means knuckles. We often call these” Potato Dumplings” but they were not always made with potato. This dish dates as far back as the 1300s when it was made from flour or breadcrumbs. A cookbook from 1570 contains a recipe made from flour/breadcrumbs/water and pushed through the holes of a cheese grater. The potato version probably began in the 16th or 17th century.

Since potato gnocchi are the main variety found outside Italy, let’s discuss how to make them. The goal is to make light and airy gnocchi although it is easy to end up with dense and heavy ones if you aren’t careful.

The type of potato is important. Almost all experts recommend using a dry, floury variety like Russets. Some feel that a white all-purpose or a Yukon gold are acceptable but if you have never made them before, stick with the Russet. They have a lower water content and a higher starch content. Because of this, you can add less flour, which means less gluten and an end product that is more tender.

How you cook the potatoes is a bit of a debate. There are those that only recommend baking them in their skins as this will remove moisture. Others feel the potatoes can be boiled but do advise to boil them in the skins to reduce moisture.

Whichever method you use to cook the potatoes, you then want to mash them while they are hot. The absolute best method for this (as well as making mashed potatoes) is to use a ricer. These are inexpensive tools that are worth the money.

After ricing (or mashing), the hot potatoes should be spread out on your cutting board or baking sheet so they cool and to maximize moisture evaporation.

Eggs are not a traditional ingredient although many recipes will add one as it makes an easier to handle gnocchi due to its capacity to help bind the dough together. This prevents the gnocchi from disintegrating in the boiling water. Eggs also add richness to the finished product. The downside is that the egg white can contribute to a denser and chewier gnocchi. Using only the yolk is a great alternative.

Once cool, it is time to make the dough. Mound up the cooled potatoes and start to add a bit of flour and egg, if using. As excess flour is the enemy to light and tender gnocchi, you only want to add as much flour as necessary to get a cohesive dough. Harold McGee says you should need less than 1 cup per pound of potatoes. Cook’s Illustrated recommends weighing your ingredients and using 4 ounces of flour to 16 ounces of riced potatoes. Whatever recipe you follow, do not add all the flour at once. Add it in stages to get the proper result.

The ingredients should be gently kneaded into a dough. Using something like a bench scraper and just scraping and folding can help in preventing over-kneading. Your goal is a moist but not sticky dough.

After you obtain a nice dough, it is portioned and rolled out into a thin rope. It is cut into pieces, generally about ¾ of an inch in size. Shaping into the traditional ridged C-shape is next. This can be done by using a gnocchi board or a fork. A wonderful friend who had lived in Italy gave me a gnocchi board and I love it. It is very easy to use.

For cooking, they are normally gently placed into boiling, salted water and cooked only until they rise to the surface. They are plated and dressed with a sauce. Some find that they can be cooked directly in the sauce without the boiling stage.

Sauces are varied but include marinara, pesto and a butter sauce with sage, herbs and/or garlic. One of my favorites is a sun-dried tomato pesto.

What are the problems that arise in making gnocchi?

  • Dense and chewy gnocchi – this is normally due to adding too much flour and/or kneading too aggressively.
  • Lumpy mashed potatoes – using a ricer will give you a smooth and airy result.
  • Bland flavor – cooking them in salted water and then serving with a flavorful sauce is the answer to this problem.

Every area of Italy has its distinct gnocchi style and sauce.

  • As mentioned above, gnocchi can be made with just flour and water although they will be heavier and denser than potato gnocchi.
  • Gnudi di Ricotta – ricotta dumplings
    • These are more common in Tuscany and use no potatoes. Rather, strained ricotta, egg, breadcrumbs and cheese are combined and rolled into balls before being dusted in semolina. After cooking, they are fried in butter until golden brown.
  • Gnocchi alla Romana – semolina gnocchi
    • This dish originated in Rome and is made with semolina flour. Traditionally, the dough is chilled, cut and baked with butter and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
  • Gnocchi Parisienne
    • This is a French version of gnocchi. The base is a choux pastry (the dough used to make profiteroles.) The dough is dropped into water via a piping bag to cook followed by putting them into a pan of butter to crisp up. Finally, it is dressed with lemon juice and herbs.
  • Malloreddus
    • Eaten on the Italian island of Sardinia, this variety is made with only semolina flour and water, sometimes colored with saffron. This results in a denser and chewier gnocchi.
    • The traditional sauce is Campidanese, a sausage, tomato and fennel ragu.
  • Malfatti
    • These are very colorful as they are made from ricotta, spinach and Parmesan bound together by semolina and egg. They tend to be larger than other gnocchi, about the size of a golf ball.

Fresh gnocchi can be frozen uncooked for up to 2 months. Boil them frozen although it will take a bit longer. Store cooked gnocchi in airtight container in refrigerator for up to 4 days.

Have you made gnocchi? Although they do take a bit of practice and patience, they can be a delightfully different Italian meal.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Saffron – A beautiful but expensive ingredient

I was writing out my grocery list and as I added saffron to the list, I wondered how many of you used saffron or were familiar with how to use it. I would suspect that the average cook doesn’t have saffron in their pantry. This is probably due to not only their unfamiliarity with this ingredient but also due to the significant cost. I want to delve into this world of saffron in this Cooking Tip.

Saffron is the dried stigma a flowering blue saffron crocus. The reason that it is so expensive is that it is a very labor-intensive harvesting process, something that can only be done by hand. Each crocus flower contains three stigmas. It is only open for a few hours, which is when it must be hand-picked. The stigmas are then separated out by hand and dried. It is estimated to take 200 hours of labor to harvest enough crocus flowers (~70,000) to yield 1 pound of saffron, which can be sold for up to $5000.

The best saffron is said to come from Iran. It is currently illegal to import Iranian saffron to the US due to trade sanctions. Other good saffron comes from Spain, Morocco and India. Some estimate that most of the “Spanish” saffron is actually from Iran and then repackaged and labeled as Spanish, a process that is illegal in the US. A small amount is grown in the US, mostly in Pennsylvania.

Because it is so expensive, imitators have emerged. At times, safflower will be marketed as saffron. Saffron threads may be mixed with yellow crocus stamens (which are tasteless) or even silk threads. Other take saffron powder and extend it by adding turmeric or paprika. If the price seems to too low, don’t buy it. The only way to distinguish real from adulterated is that real saffron is soluble in water and will start to bleed its color as soon as you put it in the warm water. Because of this problem, be sure to buy your saffron from a reputable source. Some stores offer a ground saffron. Because you never know what is in that type of saffron, it is best to grind your own with a mortar and pestle.

Once you purchase it, it should be stored in a cool, dark and airtight environment. Properly stored, it will keep for months or even years.

Due to a pigment called crocin, saffron will color foods a bright yellow. The taste is said to vary depending on where it is grown and the amount of crocin it contains. People have a difficult time describing the flavor but commonly it is felt to be pungent and earthy with notes of honey, fruit and/or flowers.

As mentioned above, it is the most expensive spice you can buy. The good thing is that you do not use very much in each application. Many recipes call for a “pinch”, which is not a standard measurement. It is usually just few threads, enough that you can notice it in the dish but not be wasteful or overpowering.

To use saffron, it must be “bloomed” in a hot liquid. For a dish that is hot and contains plenty of liquid (soups, stews, braises), you can add the saffron directly to the dish. Add it early in the cooking process to allow enough time for it to properly flavor the dish. Otherwise, the threads should be crumbled or ground in a mortar and pestle and steeped in a hot liquid for 10-20 minutes. Because not all the carotenoids in the saffron threads are water soluble, you may want to add a bit of alcohol to the steeping liquid.

Saffron has many culinary uses. It is most frequently used in cuisines from countries where it is harvested such as Spain, Morocco, India, etc. It is often used in fish and seafood broths to give them a golden color. Paella gets its signature golden color from saffron. In the Middle East, it is used along with cardamom to flavor coffees. Scandinavians use it in a saffron bread called Lussekatter for a celebration for the feast of the patron saint Santa Lucia. The Pennsylvania Dutch use it in their signature potpies.

The flavor pairs well with almonds, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, mint and nutmeg.

Because of the price tag, many ask if there is a suitable substitute. The answer is not really. Turmeric will give a similar color but not the same flavor profile.

Do you have saffron in your pantry? It may be something to consider, especially if you are a fan of the above mentioned dishes. Just be prepared to pay for a quality product and then store and use it properly to maximize your investment.

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Preheating your pan — Truth or Myth

Many of you may know that I really do not like it when “Culinary Myths” are passed down without any thought to whether those myths are really true or not. This happens at all levels from home cooks to experienced chefs. I have already written two Cooking Tips on a number of such culinary myths. In this Tip, I want to discuss another topic that falls into this category. That is whether or not you preheat your pan before adding the fat.

I was taught a certain way in culinary school and just accepted it as fact. However, when you start to do a deeper dive into this subject, it is not as clear cut. I was taught that you heat your pan before adding the oil. There are also other individuals, well-respected in the culinary world, that also advise that. Because of this, I have often taught this to those who have attended my cooking classes. I began to wonder about the accuracy of this recommendation and decided to investigate.

There are two main reasons why preheating the pan before adding oil is advised. They are fat degradation and food sticking. You may also hear arguments about even food cooking and the pores in a pan.

Fat degradation

Some feel that the longer the fat is in the pan being heated (such as would happen when you add the fat to the pan before heating it), the more likelihood there is of that fat breaking down into unpleasant and even unhealthy compounds.

While this may make sense on the surface, it really doesn’t when one considers that the fat will not start to deteriorate until it reaches its “smoke-point”. It doesn’t matter whether that fat is added to a cold or hot pan. All that matters is the temperature at which the respective fat starts to break down.

Here is a chart on smoke-points of various types of fat. As you can see from that chart, other than butter, extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil and some nut oils, the smoke-points are above 360°F and often as high as 500°F. This is higher than you are going to use in most cooking situations. Therefore, the concern for fat degradation as a reason to preheat your pan really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in most cases.

Food sticking

This reason goes like this adage – “Hot Pan, Cold Oil, Food Won’t Stick”. What makes food stick to a pan is if the pan isn’t hot enough. If you do not add your food until your pan is hot, it really doesn’t matter whether you put the oil in at the beginning of heating or after the pan is hot. If you put your food into a cold pan, it will stick no matter if there is oil in it or not.

If you heat your pan and add the “cold” oil (more like room temperature oil), the oil heats up immediately. You can see this for yourself by watching how quickly the oil starts to shimmer. As others have pointed out, the adage is incorrect in and of itself as in reality, it is “Hot Pan, Hot Oil, Food Won’t Stick.”

Pores in the pan

I was taught in culinary school that if you preheat your pan dry, the pores in it (microscopic holes) will close up allowing the oil to glide on the surface and prevent sticking. The proponents of this argue that if food is added before these pores close up, the pores will grab onto the food and cause sticking. However, the closure of the pores is a matter of the pan heating up, not when you add the oil. So, once again, make sure your pan is at the right temperature before adding the food.

Even cooking

If you put your fat into a cold pan and heat it, you will notice that the fat tends to pool around the side. Because of this, the temperature of your pan is going to be different at different spots. Some experts feel this will lead to uneven cooking. However, the difference in pan temperature occurs regardless of when you add the oil. It may be a good reason to make sure you are cooking with good quality cookware, which is more likely to heat evenly, but it is not a reason for preheating the pan before adding the oil.

With all that in mind, what is the home cook to do? For most situations, whether or not you preheat your pan before adding the oil really doesn’t matter. There are a few exceptions to this declaration. Here are some guidelines.

  1. Almost always make sure your pan is hot before adding the food. Add the oil either before you start heating the pan or after it is hot but do not add the food until all is hot.

  2. One exception to this is if you are cooking on a very gentle heat, such as sweating veggies or cooking fresh herbs or spices. In this case, you do not need to wait until your pan is hot. You can add both oil and ingredients to a cold pan and proceed to cook over a gentle heat. Many chefs feel that slower, more gentle heat/oil draws out more flavor. Too much heat can deactivate some flavor-producing enzymes in the allium family (onions, garlic) and/or drive off aromatic/flavorful essential oils in the herbs and spices.

  3. If you want to sear a piece of protein to get that wonderful, flavorful crust, you may want to heat your pan first and then add the oil. If you have heated your pan so that it is above the smoke-point of your preferred fat, this will minimize the time that fat is in the extreme heat. Realize though, that fat degradation starts immediately upon reaching the smoke-point. If you are using something with a low smoke-point (such as butter) heat your pan, add your butter, add your protein and cook quickly. Another option is if you are using oil, you can brush the oil on the protein before putting it in the hot pan. That also leads to less splattering.

  4. If you are pan frying or deep-fat frying, this takes much more oil than the typical sauteing or searing process. It could be quite dangerous to add this amount of oil to a hot pan. You are much better off adding the oil to a cold pan and heating them together.

  5. The type of pan makes a difference.
    • Never pre-heat a dry non-stick pan. High heat can quickly cause the coating on such a pan to break down. Although non-stick pans do have their place (cooking eggs, making crepes, cooking delicate fish), they should not be used for any high-heat application.
    • Although rare, a cast-iron pan could crack if heated dry.
    • The thermal shock of adding cold oil to a preheated enameled cast-iron pot could cause cracking.
    • Check the instructions from your cookware manufacturer. Some advise against heating a dry pan.

So, there you go – another Culinary Myth busted. See my other two Tips (Part 1, Part 2) for more culinary myths. Have your ever heard anything about cooking and/or baking that you want investigated? Let me know.

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Crepes — Simple but Impressive!

I am going to be teaching a fun class on Crepes. I thought all of you might also enjoy learning all about these delightful creations. From very light and sweet crepes used to make Crepes Suzette to sturdier and nuttier Buckwheat crepes that you would use in a full-flavored savory dish, there is so much to learn. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Although you will find crepes used in other cuisines, they are French in origin. The word crêpe is French for pancake. They originated in Brittany in the northwest of France. At that time, they were not typically filled but rather eaten as bread. Buckwheat flour was the preferred flour up until about 100 years ago. A sidenote is that in some parts of France, the heartier Buckwheat crepe, normally containing a savory filling, is called a galette. The word “crepe” is reserved for the lighter and more likely sweet version.

February 2nd is known in France as Le Jour des Crêpes (the day of crepes). According to The Institute of Culinary Education, this celebration is “believed to have begun in the year 472 when crêpes were offered to French Catholic pilgrims visiting Rome for Candlemas by Pope Gelasio I. Now, Le Jour des Crêpes and Candlemas are synonymous occasions in France and Belgium, where crêpes take on additional meaning, their circular nature symbolizing either a coin or the sun.”

The ingredient list for crepes is small – flour, eggs, butter, milk and/or water. Other ingredients such as salt, sugar and vanilla are optional depending on the type of crepe you are making.

Flour – most standard crepes use just all-purpose flour. For a heartier crepe, buckwheat flour can be used. This is a very strong tasting flour, which can be tamed by using a combination of buckwheat and all-purpose flour. One advantage of using all buckwheat is that it is gluten-free. Rice flour can also be used for gluten-free crepes and is better suited when you want a lighter and/or sweet crepe. Other flours that can be used are garbanzo flour, chestnut flour and whole-wheat flour. Even cornmeal is sometimes used.

Liquid – some recipes may call only for water but this does lead to a bland crepe that lacks some structure. Milk gives you a richer crepe. There are those that feel all milk is too heavy and will use a mixture of milk and water.

Seasoning – for a savory crepe, just add a pinch of salt. For more variety, you can add finely chopped herbs, minced sun-dried tomatoes or other spices. For sweet crepes, add a touch of sugar and vanilla extract.

How to make crepes

Start by melting your butter and allowing it to cool just a bit so it doesn’t scramble the eggs. Browning your butter before using it adds a delightful nuttiness to the crepe. The easiest and best method for combining all these ingredients is by using a blender although you can do it by hand with a whisk. Just make sure everything is thoroughly incorporated and realize that your crepes might end up a bit denser than they would if you used a blender.

Some recipes will have you just add all the ingredients to the blender or bowl and then combine. Others will have you do it in steps. Those recipes have you start by first blending the liquid and eggs. This is followed by adding the flour and again blending. Finally, pour in the melted butter as the blender is running.

Most sources will tell you it is very important to rest your crepe batter for 30-60 minutes before cooking the crepes. You can even refrigerate it overnight. This allows the flour to fully hydrate, for bubbles to disappear and for the flavor to develop. There are those such as J. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats who feel the resting stage is not that important.

To cook them, you do not need any special equipment – only a small nonstick skillet. I have a special nonstick crepe pan that I love. It has a slightly larger surface area and shorter and straighter sides than a nonstick skillet. It looks something like this one. You can even purchase the type of crepe maker that you see experts using in crepe shops. The diameter of these is much larger and requires a bit of practice to learn how to twirl the batter to get a good result. I bought one for my husband and every time I get it out, I have to re-learn how to do it.

There are a few important tips on how to cook them. First, you want to add melted butter or oil to your hot pan. Add a small amount and wipe out the excess with a paper towel. Since you want a thin crepe, it is critical to only add enough batter to get this result. How much you add will depend on the size of your pan but for an 8-inch pan, you will want to try about 3 tablespoons. Add the batter to the center of the pan and quickly tilt and rotate the pan so the batter flows out and covers the bottom. As you cook a few, you will soon find the best amount of batter for your pan. For a scientific explanation of the best method, see this article from Physics.

Some recommend the “pour out” method in which you pour in more batter than you need, swirl the pan once to get an even coating followed quickly by pouring the excess batter back into your bowl. Try both methods and see which you prefer.

Cook them only until the bottom is set. This shouldn’t be more than 15-30 seconds. Carefully flip the crepe and finish cooking the other side for an additional 30 seconds or until set. If you cook them too long, they could get rubbery. Realize that crepes are similar to pancakes in that the first one often does not turn out. You will get better results as you do additional crepes.

Crepes are best eaten just after cooking. However, you can store them in the refrigerator in an airtight container for three days. Gently reheat them in a skillet before serving. They can be frozen up to a month. Be sure to place either wax paper or parchment between each crepe before placing in an airtight freezer bag.

Crepes are delicious but they are really just a type of envelope to hold the filling. This could be nothing more than my husband’s favorite of a sprinkling of lemon juice and sugar. It could also be whipped cream/berries, chocolate sauce, Nutella or the classic Crepes Suzette.

For savory fillings, a couple I like are Chicken, Corn and Red Pepper as well as a Beef Picadillo with a Chipotle Crema. One of the best meals we had in Paris was an unbelievably delicious but so simple Ham and Egg crepe.

The French way to fill a crepe is to place the filling on the crepe and then fold it into quarters. You can also just roll them like an enchilada, fold them into a square or do a simple fold-over. Here is a link to a nice description of some of the most common folds.

Once you learn the basics and practice just a bit, you will be able to easily impress your friends and family with these delectable creations!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Custards – how to cook this yummy dish.

I have been working on a class I will be teaching on Crêpes. In the class, I will be teaching how to make different varieties of crêpes as well as numerous fillings, both savory and sweet. One of the sweet ones is an Orange Custard filling. Custards are delicious and wonderful creations and it is a technique that all cooks should know. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

A custard is nothing more than a mixture of milk, eggs and often sugar that is cooked into a thickened product. It forms the filling not only for crêpes but also is the basis of crème brulee, flan, ice cream, quiche and more. It is not difficult to make a custard but there are some hints that I hope you find helpful. I also recommend that you invest in a good instant read thermometer as it will help you make a delicious custard that is safe to eat but not overcooked.

Custards can be categorized in a couple different ways. The first is by the cooking technique.

  • Baked custards are typically started on the stovetop but baked in the oven. Examples are crème brûlée, flan and cheesecake.
  • Stovetop (stirred) custards are, as the name implies, cooked totally on the cooktop. These custards are smooth, creamy and thickened but do not gel as with a baked custard. Examples are crème anglaise, pastry cream and zabaglione.

The other way to categorize custards is by how they are thickened.

  • Basic custards – thickened by eggs alone. They are delicate and care must be taken to not overcook them. They thicken between 160° and 180°F. Cooking it beyond 185°F may cause it to curdle and lose its shape as the egg proteins break down. You also run the risk of creating scrambled eggs. To prevent this, these custards are usually cooked by using a double boiler. They should never be boiled.

    These custards are meant to be very soft and creamy although the thickness can be adjusted by changing the proportion of the egg content. If you use more whole eggs or egg whites, the custard will turn out firmer and glossier. More egg yolks (or yolks alone) produce a softer, creamier custard.

    Examples – crème anglaise (which can be frozen into ice cream), flan, pot de crème, crème caramel.
  • Starch-thickened – this type of custard is thickened with the aid of a starch such as flour or cornstarch. They have more body and are not quite as delicate as the starch helps to protect against curdling. The recommended amount is one tablespoon of flour or two teaspoons cornstarch (or arrowroot) for every cup of liquid. Whereas this does help guard against curdling, it can also turn a smooth, creamy dish into a thicker and coarser one. This type of custard needs to be brought to a simmer to ensure it is cooked properly. A guideline is to cook it for 1-2 minutes after bubbles appear. For more information types of thickeners, see the Tip.

    Examples – puddings, pastry cream, cheesecake.
  • Gelatin-set – gelatin is used to produce a set-up custard that can stand on its own after it has been chilled properly. I love using leaf gelatin rather than powdered for the silkiest texture. See this Tip for more info on gelatin types.

    Examples – a classic example is a Bavarian, which is usually set in a decorative mold. A basic custard may also have gelatin added to it, often along with a fruit puree or chocolate. It then can be made into an icebox pie.

Now for some technique advice. Many custards start by having you beat/whisk the eggs (whole or just yolks) together with the sugar until it has thickened and turned light yellow. Some will recommend you continue to the “ribbon” stage, which means the mixture will form a ribbon as you lift up your spoon and allow the mixture to fall back into the bowl. These instructions are meant to help you ensure that the sugar has mostly dissolved. You do not necessarily need to go all the way to ribbon stage but a good mixing until the color and consistency changes is a good idea.

Some recipes will have you heat the dairy (milk, cream) before adding it to the egg/sugar mixture. This is not necessary unless you want to infuse flavor into the dairy. For example, I have a custard tart recipe in which I infuse vanilla seeds and orange zest into milk. This is achieved by bringing the dairy to a boil, adding those two ingredients, covering it, taking it off the heat and allowing to steep for 30 minutes. That steeped dairy is then whisked into the egg mixture. If I did not want to infuse any flavors, I could have added everything together and then heated it on the stovetop.

If you are told to add hot milk/cream to the egg mixture, the danger is that the eggs will start to cook and you will end up with a scrambled egg mixture. To avoid this, you should “temper” the hot liquid into the eggs. This simply means adding some of the hot liquid very slowly into the eggs while whisking. Once the eggs have been diluted with the dairy, you can put it all back into the pot and continue with the recipe.

If your egg/dairy mixture is started cold, the heating should be done very gently so as not cook the eggs but still thicken the mixture. Resist the temptation to turn up the heat to speed the process. I love how Harold McGee puts it in his book, On Food and Cooking.

“Turning up the heat is like accelerating on a wet road while you’re looking for an unfamiliar driveway. You get to your destination faster, but you may not be able to brake in time to avoid skidding past it.”

As he goes on to explain, the chemical reactions that cause the thickening of the custard don’t stop just because you take it off the heat. So, if you try to hurry this step, you may easily get to the point of curdling or overcooking.

Whether your custard is made totally on the stovetop or ends up in the oven, if there is no starch in it, it requires gentle heating. On a stovetop, this generally means using the double boiler method with constant stirring. If in the oven, a water bath should be used. A water bath just means putting the custard dishes in a larger pan (such as a roasting pan) that has enough hot water in it to go up about half-way the height of the custard dishes. Even though your oven temperature may be set at 350°F, the water in the pan won’t exceed 212°F (or even less if you live at altitude). This means the custards are exposed to a gentler & more even heat. Some recommend putting a rack in the bottom upon which you place the custard dishes so that they are not directly exposed to the hot bottom of the pan.  Without a water bath, the outside of your custard could overcook before the center is done.  With a water bath, you are more likely to catch them at the perfect degree of doneness.

If you are concerned about egg safety, you may be wondering if the eggs in a stovetop custard are cooked enough to sterilize them. As long as the mixture is cooked to at least 160°F, you will be fine. As mentioned above, you do not want the mixture to go above 185° or it might curdle. A basic crème anglaise should be ready between 175°-180°F but some recommend taking it to 180-185°F if using it to make ice cream as it will be a bit thicker.

Baked custards should come out of the oven when they are still jiggling when gently shaken, which will be around 170°-175°F.

Who doesn’t love a custardy dish? Whether you want to make a savory quiche, a chocolate pudding or an elegant crème brûlée, I trust this Tip will help you impress your friends/family.

Cooking Tips

Bread from around the world

In the last Cooking Tip, I discussed lean and enriched doughs, how to recognize them and what type of product they produce. It is just amazing that the same simple ingredients – flour, water, salt, sometimes yeast – can be used to produce such very different breads. As we learned in last week’s Tip, adding enriching ingredients such as eggs, butter and dairy will produce a much different type of bread. Other add-ins or flavorings may be added. Techniques used also can produce different results. In this Tip, I will go over just some of the myriad types of bread that can be found around the world. This list is far from comprehensive. For example, I have only listed five kinds of Italian bread whereas there are at least 350 different types. You will recognize many of the following but will also probably find some that are new to you.

Italian Breads

Casatiello

This is an Italian yeasted Easter bread that was supposedly made after Easter to use up leftovers. It is stuffed with meat, cheese and even hard-boiled eggs before baking. It is baked in a round shape with a hole in the middle.

Ciabatta

The word “ciabatta” means “slipper”, a reference to its oval shape. It is an Italian yeasted bread made with a lean dough. It has a chewy crust and soft interior due to a high water content. It is characterized by numerous air pockets in the interior and is excellent for sandwiches and paninis.

Focaccia

This Italian bread is baked in a sheet pan to produce a flat loaf with a texture similar to pizza dough. It is made of flour, yeast, salt, water and olive oil. Before baking, it is usually dimpled and coated in olive oil, creating a crunchy, thin crust. Many bakers will add herbs, garlic and/or flaky salt. Others will top this bread with veggies or meat.

Grissini

This is an Italian breadstick that is crisp and dry.

Pane Toscano

This translates to “Tuscan Bread” and is a regional specialty of the Tuscany area. Another name is “pane sciocco” and is translated “tasteless bread”. That name is due to the absence of salt in the dough. It is thought to have begun in the Middle Ages and was a way for the people to protest high taxes on salt. Since the absence of salt does make it bland, it is not normally eaten on its own. Rather, it is typically served with cured meats and/or strong cheeses.

French Breads

Baguette

This is a yeasted bread that makes one automatically think of France. It is typically long and oval in shape with slits in the top that allow for gas expansion while the bread is baking. As its only ingredients are flour, water, yeast and salt, it would be considered a lean dough.

Brioche

This is another French bread but one made with an enriched dough containing abundant butter and eggs. The crust is soft and the texture light. The flavor is rich and slightly sweet. It is delicious to eat on its own but also makes a spectacular French Toast or bread pudding.

Croissant

This delicacy is not only yeasted but is laminated, a process that involves rolling and folding the dough numerous times with plenty of resting times as you go along. It is this process along with the butter that creates the flaky, crispy layers that we all love.

Fougasse

This is France’s version of focaccia. Traditionally shaped to look like a leaf, it is spongy and light and often garnished with fresh herbs. Other typical ingredients include sundried tomatoes and cheese.

Pain de mie

Another yeasted bread, it has a very thin crust and a thick interior. These characteristics are achieved by baking in square or rectangular covered pans. The lid prevents the bread from fully rising, giving it a fine, compact crumb. It looks like your typical American sliced white sandwich bread and is ideal for the classic Croque Monsieur sandwich.

Indian Breads

Chapati

A type of unleavened Indian flatbread that is usually grilled rather than baked. It is typically eaten with meals but can be used to scoop for eating.

Naan

A very popular Indian flatbread that uses yogurt in the dough, which adds softness, chewiness and acidity. It is traditionally cooked in a tandoor oven but there are methods to make great Naan in your home kitchen.

Paratha

Another unleavened Indian flatbread that is very flaky due to layers formed during the shaping process.

Puri

A deep-fried unleavened Indian flatbread that has simple ingredients of flour, water and maybe cumin seeds. The dough is rolled into flat round disks and then deep-fried. It is during this frying process that the puri puffs up like a pillow.

Roti

An unleavened flatbread that is popular in India as well as the Caribbean. There are different versions with different ingredients and are usually cooked on a griddle.

Breads from other regions

Arepa

Coming from Latin America, arepa bread is made from cornmeal. It is flat and round and may be baked, grilled or fried. It may be plain or made with fillings.

Bammy

A Jamaican flatbread made from cassava root, soaked in coconut milk and then fried, steamed or baked.

Bannock

An unyeasted quick bread popular in the UK and traditionally made from a single type of grain such as barley, oats, wheat or rye along with water, buttermilk and baking soda. It is typically baked on a griddle.

Barmbrack

This is an Irish yeasted bread that adds sultanas and raisins into the dough. It is said to be part of the Halloween tradition in Ireland. Various small objects may be baked into the dough and then used to tell the person’s fortune.

Challah

This Jewish yeasted bread’s typical shape is a long braid. It is yellow in color due to the addition of eggs and/or egg yolks. Other ingredient’s include sugar or honey but no milk or butter.

Injera

From Ethiopia comes this bread made from teff. It is a type of sourdough and is used to scoop up meats and stews. It has a spongy texture and slightly sour flavor.

Knäckebröd bread

This is a Swedish crisp bread that is more of a cracker than a bread, it is made mostly from rye flour. A variety of seeds (sesame, sunflower, pumpkin, flax) are often used to make different versions.

Lavash

Claimed by food experts to be Armenian in origin, this is a large, oval-shaped flatbread made only from flour, salt and water. It is leavened with a sourdough starter. It is traditionally cooked by placing it against the inside of a clay oven known as a tonir. It is a staple of Armenian, Iranian and Turkish cuisine. Here’s a great video showing how it is made in Armenia.

Matzo (Matzoh)

This is a Jewish unleavened bread with the texture of a cracker that is traditionally consumed during Passover.

Pita

From the Middle East, pita bread is cooked at very high temperatures, creating an air bubble in the center. This makes a pocket into which you can stuff other ingredients.

Soda bread

It is a traditional Irish treat. This is a quick bread made with flour, buttermilk and baking soda. It may or may not also contain oil, butter, eggs and/or sugar. When made with whole wheat flour, it is known as Brown Soda Bread or Wheaten Bread. Typically, it is sprinkled on top with rolled oats.

Taftan

This is an Iranian leavened bread that is made from whole wheat flour, milk, eggs and yogurt and often flavored with saffron or cardamom. It is normally baked on the walls of a tandoori oven.

Vanocka

This is a sweet bread from the Czech Republic that is prepared during the Christmas season. It is braided with a texture similar to brioche. It is usually flavored with rum and lemon zest and topped with sugar, almonds & dried fruit.

Yufka

This is a very thin, round unleavened bread that originated in Turkey and made from flour, water, salt and olive oil. It is rolled out to a paper-thin thickness. Some feel this was a precursor to phyllo dough and is often used in making Turkish pastries. However, it may also be found filled with sandwich items.

Zopf

A traditional Swiss bread that is braided and has a rich, buttery flavor. It is made of flour, butter, yeast, milk and eggs. Both in appearance and texture, it is similar to the Jewish bread, challah.

I don’t know about you but just reading and writing about all these breads makes me want to get into the kitchen and try something new. If you do that, let me know.

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Bread Doughs – not all the same

Do you make your own bread? Do you want to learn how to make your own bread? When you look at recipes, there are certain similarities among the ingredients such as flour, yeast & water. However, other recipes might call for sugar, eggs, butter or milk. Why these ingredients are added in some recipes and not in others is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

All bread dough is not the same. There are different ways to categorize doughs but for the sake of this Tip, we will look at just one way. Doughs can be thought of as either Lean Doughs or Enriched Doughs.

Lean doughs

This type of dough has a short ingredient list, generally only flour, salt, yeast and water. Some lean doughs may contain sugar/honey or even oil but only in very small amounts. For example, my favorite pizza dough recipe is a lean dough although it contains olive oil but only 2 tablespoons for a pound of flour.

When baked, lean doughs produce a bread with a crusty exterior and an airy open crumb (the interior). It also has a hollow sound when baked.

Examples of lean dough products

  • French & Italian breads
  • Artisan breads
  • Sourdough bread
  • Pita bread
  • Pizza crusts

Enriched doughs

These doughs will have added ingredients such as fat, dairy, eggs and/or sugar. These ingredients enhance flavor and give you a bread with a soft and tender texture.

Fat

  • Fat tenderizes the dough by coating and shortening the gluten strands, creating a softer and more tender crumb.

Sugar

  • Sugar weakens the gluten network by bonding to water molecules, blocking the flour proteins from doing the same. Remember that flour contains the proteins glutenin and gliadin. When these are mixed with water, the proteins combine to form gluten. So, by limiting the interaction of the flour and the water, you are limiting gluten development.
  • Sugar also absorbs water giving a moist, tender crumb.
  • Sugar browns quickly and so, many enriched doughs are baked at lower temperatures.
  • A sugar content of more than 10% will slow down yeast activity by pulling water away from the yeast, which means a longer fermentation time. Some recipes will call for an increased amount of yeast to compensate for this. You may also use what is termed “Osmotolerant” yeast. It is a special strain of yeast that works well in this environment.
  • This dough will also be heavier since sugar, butter and eggs are heavy ingredients.

Eggs

  • Egg yolks will weaken the gluten network by bonding to flour proteins.
  • Egg whites contribute to the dough’s structure.
  • Breads made with eggs are tender and slower to stale.

Milk

  • This is another ingredient that weakens the gluten network while also yielding tender breads with a longer shelf life.

Examples of enriched dough products

  • Brioche
  • Challah
  • Soft dinner rolls
  • Sandwich bread
  • Cinnamon rolls
  • Hamburger/Hotdog rolls

You may ask why this should make a difference to you. Afterall, you just want to follow the recipe and end up with a delicious bread. Knowing the above information can help you achieve the end result you want. By looking at the ingredients in the recipe, you can immediately see if it is a lean or enriched dough. You will then know what your bread will be like – either crunchy and chewy or soft and tender. If you know what type of bread you want to have, you can then pick out a recipe that will produce that result. If you want those soft, pillowy dinner rolls, you are going to want an enriched dough recipe. On the other hand, if you want that chewy baguette, don’t use a recipe with those added ingredients.

Some people may ask which dough is better but it isn’t really a matter of better or worse. They are both equally great doughs but just give you different results. If you bake much bread, you will want to have both in your repertoire.

Here’s to a great Baking Year!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

In my Cooking Tip on “Fats in a Healthy Diet”, I discussed culinary oils in general. In this Tip, I want to focus on one type in particular – Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

This is one of the most expensive type of culinary oils you will buy and we all like to make sure we get the best for our money. I have done some research on how to pick out a great olive oil and following are what the experts tell us.

Here are certain things to look for.

  1. The harvest date – The “Best By” date may be 24-32 months after bottling and 1-2 years after pressing. The “Harvest” date is a much better indicator of freshness. Try to pick one with the most recent date, remembering that olives are usually harvested in the fall and winter, meaning the harvest date for what is on the shelf will be the year before.

  2. The container – Look for oil that is in a dark container. Light can degrade the oil. Pick an oil where the container protects the oil from the light.

  3. Country/Region of origin – Look for where the oil was sourced. Higher quality olive oils will be sourced from one country. Note that wording like “Product of Italy” might only mean that it was shipped from Italy, not necessarily that the olives were grown and harvested in Italy.

    Less pricey & mass market olive oils are often a result of buying cheap bulk oils from all over the world and blending them. This means less quality control over the handling of the oil but it also means these oils lack the distinct flavor that you expect from a good olive oil.

  4. The Cultivars – Look for the specific olives that have been harvested.

If at all possible, taste the oil before purchasing it. This generally means going to a gourmet food store or a shop that specializes in oil. The typical supermarket is not going to offer tastings outside of the rare special event.

The reason that we must be savvy olive oil shoppers is that some deficits in the industry have been documented. In a 2016 article from the Denver Post, the writer noted that about 75% of the extra virgin olive oil sold in the US is often diluted with lower quality olive oil. The article goes on to note that a 2010 University of California study found that 69% of imported oils sold in California stores at that time failed to meet international standards for olive oil.

Not only will the authentic, high-quality extra virgin olive oil give you tremendous flavor and variety of that flavor but the fresher, more pungent-tasting oil is higher in polyphenols, which are high in antioxidants.

To be fair, since these exposes, the industry has attempted to improve quality standards. In 2010, the USDA issued the “United States Standards for Grades of Olive Oil and Olive-Pomace Oil.” However, these standards are voluntary. So, producers may choose to seek certification by the USDA as “US Extra Virgin Olive Oil” if they wish, but that it is not mandatory.

Some states have gone further, including California. They have adopted standards recommended by the Olive Oil Commission of California. According this website, “California olive oil handlers who produce 5,000 gallons or more are required by law to participate in the OOCC’s mandatory government sampling and testing program. Producers with less than 5,000 gallons may voluntarily participate in the OOCC’s government sampling program.”

The California Olive Oil Council (a different entity) has a mission to “uphold the highest standards within the olive oil industry through its Seal Certification Program”. The members of COOC must submit their oils for testing and evaluation to ensure it meets the qualifications to be labeled Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Therefore, if you buy an oil with the COOC seal, you can be assured that you are getting the real thing.

What do you do on a daily basis, though, in your kitchen? Authentic, high-quality extra virgin olive oil can be very expensive. If for no other reason, you probably don’t want to use that for all of your oil needs. That is why most of us have other more moderately-priced oils that we use for general cooking use. We save that special oil for vinaigrettes, for dipping and other uses where the flavor shines through.

What is in your kitchen? I looked in my pantry and I have two different olive oils, only one of which is extra virgin. When I looked for the above items, this is what I found. Even though I purchased it from a reputable olive oil retailer, it had no harvest date. (I wonder if this was due to the fact that the oil was brought into the store in a bulk fashion and then bottled and labeled by this particular retailer.) It did list both the country from which the olives were harvested as well as the particular varietals. It was packaged in an appropriate bottle. Since it was a Spanish oil, it did not have COOC certification. All in all, not bad.

The next time I am in my local supermarket, I am going to look for these recommendations. My guess, though, is most of those on the shelf will be sorely lacking. Let me know what you find, not only in the kitchen but also where you shop!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Fats in a Healthy Diet

In this final installment of my series of Cooking Tips on healthy cooking/eating, I want to discuss fats and oils and the place they play in healthy cooking.

Ever since the 1970s, fat has been proclaimed as the worst offender in our diets. However, we are finally beginning to realize that not all fats are bad and that sugar plays at least as big, if not larger, role in unhealthy diets. As I mentioned in a prior Tip, the fats that you want to limit and/or avoid are saturated fats and, especially trans fats. (I must mention that the recommendation to avoid all saturated fats is not totally without disagreement. For a scholarly review of this subject, see this article published in a 2018 issue of Nutrients.) Even with sugar, it is not all sugar you need to limit but what is called “added sugar” – the sugar that is not natural in the food.

You may have heard the terms “good fats” and “bad fats”. Bad fats are usually thought of as saturated (see above article reference) and trans fats. As I mentioned in a prior tip, trans fats are normally found in packaged and processed foods. Sources of saturated fats are:

  • Dairy products – butter, whole milk, yogurt, cheese
  • Meat products – lard, bacon, red meat, poultry skin

Good fats are:

  • Monounsaturated fats – found in olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, avocados, olives & nuts.
  • Polyunsaturated fats
    • Omega-3 fatty acids – found in fatty fish, walnuts, chia seeds & flaxseeds.
    • Omega-6 fatty acids – found in vegetable oils (safflower, sunflower, oil and soybean) as well as sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and walnuts.

In the literature, there is some caution about omega-6 fatty acids based on the fact that the body can convert the most common omega-6 fatty acid, linolenic acid, into another fatty acid, arachidonic acid. The latter is a building block for molecules that can promote inflammation, blood clotting and blood vessel constriction. However, the body can also convert arachidonic acid into other molecules that calm inflammation and fight blood clots.

Most Americans eat more omega-6 fats than omega-3 fats, about 10 X more. Some will look at the ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids and advise us to cut back on omega-6 fats to improve this ratio. However, the problem is felt not so much to be an excess of omega-6 fats but a deficiency of omega-3 fats. So, you want to improve the intake of omega-3 fats but not decrease your intake of omega-6 fats. Here is a chart from Nutrition Action that breaks down oils in terms of saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated content.

Apart from health, there are other considerations for choosing which oil you should choose for cooking. There is really no one all-purpose oil for culinary purposes. It depends on how you are going to use the oil and something called the “smoke point”. This is the temperature at which the oil starts smoking and breaking down. Therefore, some oils are better suited to higher temperature cooking. See this chart from Serious Eats on smoke points. Here are some recommendations for oils to have in your kitchen.

  1. A high-heat neutral-tasting oil – this is the type of oil you should reach for when you are doing high-heat cooking or in dishes where you do not want to taste the flavor of the oil. Examples include canola, safflower, sunflower, corn, grapeseed & peanut oil.

  2. Olive oil – there is a difference between light or refined olive oil and extra-virgin olive oil. The latter has a lower smoke point and is generally more expensive. Most of us recommend saving this extra-virgin olive oil for making salad dressings or for dishes such as dips where you want the flavor to come through. For other uses, use a less expensive and more refined olive oil. (Stay tuned for a Tip specifically on extra-virgin olive oils.)

  3. Specialty oils – if you cook Asian food, sesame oil is indispensable. Also, a nut oil such as walnut oil lends a wonderful flavor to nutty vinaigrettes. These are considered seasoning oils rather than cooking oils.

Oil does not last indefinitely and must be stored properly. Since heat and light can damage oil, store it in a cool, dark place. In that case, most oils can last up to a year. There are specific oils, though, that require refrigeration. Check the label but examples are grapeseed and nut oils. Some culinary experts recommend storing all your oils in the refrigerator. If you do that, some may thicken and you will need to let them sit out on your counter a few minutes to come to room temperature.

With this Tip, I bring my series on healthy cooking/eating to a close. I hope you found it helpful and it will be an impetus to improve your diet. Allow me to end with some advice with which I started this series. Get in your kitchen and cook more from scratch. Try to get away from processed and packaged foods. Just that one change will be a giant step in the right direction!