Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Dish on the Pots—One Choice Does Not Fit All

A frequent question buyers of no-knead bread books like my  Kneadlessly Simple have is what kind of pot works best for the loaves baked in pots? In the entry here, I mentioned that suitable baking containers include Dutch ovens, soup pots, some deep casseroles and even large, deep, oven-proof saucepans. Tallish, 9-inch diameter containers in the 3 1/2- to 4-quart range will yield particularly nicely-shaped loaves; larger ones will do, but the breads spread too much.

Beyond these basics, the specific type or brand of pot needed depends largely on your personal preferences and situation. A tight budget, or limited kitchen storage space, or need for an all-purpose pot, or one that’s lightweight, or attractive enough to serve meals in, or even a preference for very well browned or only lightly colored breads all affect what’s “right” for you. BTW, if you've got a pot you love (or hate) I'd love you to leave a comment about it here.

Metal Matters
Pots made of plain cast iron, enamel-coated cast iron, enamel-coated steel, anodized aluminum, enamel-coated aluminum, copper, plain stainless steel, and stainless steel with a aluminum or copper core can all be used so long as the handles, knobs, etc., tolerate 450 degrees F. Avoid glass or ceramic casseroles for Kneadlessly Simple pot breads—many recipes call for thoroughly preheating the container at high temperatures, and glass or ceramic can crack from heat stress. Additionally, breads tend to stick to these surfaces but release from metal pots because they contract a good deal as they cool. Tip: For the rare metal pot that doesn't release breads easily, spray it with nonstick spray just before the dough gets turned out into it.

Each metal has a different look and feel and unique cooking properties that can immediately narrow your choices. For example, for a readily luggable, liftable pot, you’ll need to choose among stainless steel, anodized aluminum, or enamel-coated aluminum or steel; enamel-coated or plain cast iron are H-E-A-V-Y! If you must have a truly all-purpose cooking/baking pot, you’ll require either a non-reactive stainless steel or anodized aluminum model or one that’s enamel-coated on the inside; plain aluminum, copper, iron, or carbon steel all react with acids and won’t do for many dishes.

Here’s a quick rundown of your heavyweight options. I’ll talk about the lightweight bread pots in a follow-up blog entry soon. Though they are less often used, I’ve found they can do a good job and have some significant advantages. One of my cheapest, most durable, and handiest bread pots is in this category, so check back for the details.

Plain uncoated cast iron is very heavy and conducts and holds heat evenly. It bakes bread well and browns loaves very thoroughly (too thoroughly for some cooks). Uncoated iron has a dark, plain-looking finish that must be seasoned before use or bought already pre-seasoned (which I highly recommend). The metal reacts with acids, so can’t be used to cook acidic dishes (containing wine, tomatoes, fruits, etc.), must be dried thoroughly to avoid rusting, and is never dishwasher safe. Uncoated pots range from dirt cheap to fairly inexpensive, yet are durable and sturdy; drop ‘em and you are as likely to break your countertop, tile floor, or foot as the pot!

The first plain pot is a pre-seasoned Lodge Logic Combo Cooker; it was bargain priced, well made, and bakes my breads nicely. The pot on the right is a fairly well-constructed, durable Asian knockoff camp-style Dutch oven (brand unknown) that does the job, but tends to over-brown loaves a bit. (You can compensate for this tendency by lowering the baking temperature 25 to 50 degrees F.)

Enamel-coated cast iron not only conducts heat beautifully but boasts a hard, glossy, completely non-reactive and rust-resistant finish (in many attractive colors) that makes for a good multi-purpose cooking/serving container. If you don’t want your breads to brown deeply, be sure the interior is a light color.

Prices range from relatively inexpensive for knockoffs to breathtakingly expensive for French “gourmet” brands. Well-constructed versions are durable and long lasting; poorly made models may deteriorate quickly as the enamel pits, cracks, chips off, or, yikes! peels away in chunks. Pricey, top-of-the-line French brands such as le Creuset (a 15-year-old pot is pictured here) and Staub will last a lifetime. My beautiful blue moderately-priced Lodge Colors (purchased two years ago and shown at the very top) performs well, looks carefully constructed and is holding up nicely, though there’s one tiny chip on the rim. (I swapped out the original heat-sensitive knob for a pretty metal one.) Other less expensive brands that many reviewers rate as remarkably durable and good quality for the price include the 3.5 quart Tramontina (available only via Walmart’s catalog), which is also carried by Target (usually via catalog) sometimes under the Chef-mate label, and the Mario Batali 4-quart Essentials Dutch oven.

Like my Lodge Colors and le Creuset, many enameled pots come with phenolic knobs that can’t withstand oven temps above 400 degrees F. Le Creuset now sells a heat-resistant replacement knob (for $10!), but any $2 nickel, brass or stainless steel knob purchased from a hardware store will do the job just as satisfactorily and likely looks more stylish.
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Friday, June 19, 2009

A Week in the Life

When people hear I’m a cookbook author, they usually say it sounds like fun, then admit they aren’t really sure what I do. That all depends on what stage of the book I’m in.

If a deadline is looming and I’m desperately trying to finish the text and recipes, it is not fun! I spend most days and many evenings, teeth gritted, eyes glassy, and brow furrowed, either fussing in the kitchen or staring at my computer screen. I spend my nights stewing (no pun intended) about the techniques that just won’t work, the pearls of prose the laptop ate, and, if—I’m especially tired and stressed—dreaming, in vivid, masochistic detail, about the wretched reviews my (yet unpublished) work has received.

On the other hand, if I’ve got a work just published (my latest tome, Kneadlessly Simple, came out in February), then the days are both varied and fun. I get to extol my book’s virtues to as many radio and television hosts and magazine and newspaper interviewers as the publisher can arrange. I also meet and greet people and autograph books at signings, cooking demonstrations, cooking classes, and other venues designed to publicize my pride and joy. After all, folks can’t want to buy my book if they don’t know it exists!

This past week was a little more hectic than normal, but fairly typical for the period devoted to getting the word out on a new book. A week ago Sunday I loaded my car with demo supplies and props and drove into Baltimore for two “Sunday chef” cooking segments on WBAL-TV 11. To take a look, click here and here .

Since my deadline for a cooking article on New York deli-style cheesecake was on Monday, I spend Sunday afternoon styling and photographing the starring cheesecake I’d made several days before and refrigerated. (I ate the slice I cut for the photo—it was g-o-o-o-d!) For some details on my struggles to defeat the cheesecake cracking gremlins, see my last blog entry.

On Monday, I photo-edited the pic and edited the story, then on Tuesday went to work creating some recipes for my next book and drafting some story ideas for a magazine editor. Wednesday a helper and I readied some breads and ingredients, and Thursday morning I toted them to Washington, DC, for another television cooking segment on WUSA-TV 9. The crew was very happy to polish off the loaves I’d brought and showed on the show!

My last appearance of the week was at a local farmers’ market, where on Sunday I demonstrated how easy it is to make “kneadless” bread and gave out samples to taste. I was showing how to make my double chocolate honey bread in the photo at the top. It was a gorgeous day, so after my demo I checked out the vendors at the market and bought a few herbs to put in my garden. I puttered in my yard the rest of the day.

I’m about at the end of the very busy new book publicity stage, so this past week I was mostly in my kitchen beginning to develop and try out recipes for my next book. It’s not due for a year, so I’m not panicked yet. I even took last weekend off and went with my son and grandkids to a Baltimore Orioles game! Yippee, they won!
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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Top Cookbook Author FAQ

No question about it—my most frequently asked question about writing cookbooks and food articles is “Do you test your recipes?” If I had just a dollar for every time I’ve been asked this, I could treat myself and my husband to dinner at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry (though realistically, the funds probably wouldn’t cover our wine!).

I know why people ask. America has a hundred-plus year tradition of community fundraiser cookbooks that simply gather together recipes from local cooks and print them. Often lacking any editing or follow-up testing, the recipes may inadvertently omit key ingredients, quantities, and steps. Occasionally, even cookbooks by well-known publishers and authors used to contain poorly tested or untested recipes. Sometimes the writer just wasn’t up to producing the 200 or so recipes required or not in time to meet the publisher’s deadline. (As a result, an author-chef colleague of mine made a significant portion of his living on crash recipe “doctoring” projects for reputable cookbook publishers. He would assemble a whole culinary team and work 18-hour days to blitz through and put a whole “bookful” of recipes in cooking order.)

This situation has changed over the past twenty or thirty years, with more and more cookbook and magazine publishers specifying in their contracts that writers must test the recipes and keep their kitchen notes to prove it. Most magazine staffs then test all the recipes again themselves; cookbook publishers randomly test or spot test any that appear suspect. If the publisher’s contract is with a celebrity lacking the skill or time to create and document the recipes, he or she may be required upfront to hire a co-author or ghost writer to do the job. (My friend still does recipe doctoring sometimes.)

It turns out that the time needed for testing is challenging to estimate, even for an experienced recipe developer. Which is why I’ve included the cheesecake pictured here. I’d created a number of cheesecakes for cookbooks and articles over the years, but this one had to be a New York deli-style version. That meant I couldn’t use a very effective method I often rely on for a smooth and crack-free top—baking in a warm water bath. (I couldn’t call for this because it yields a very creamy-soft and silky cake, not the firm, dense, toothsome texture characteristic of the New York deli-style version.)

After the two testings I’d budgeted in my schedule, I’d perfected both the flavor and texture of my cheesecake, but was horrified to see several depressingly deep canyons cleave the center as it cooled. Wanting a result that looked as well as tasted perfect, I had to fiddle and retest several more times to crack the dreaded cracking problem. Though I had planned to turn in my story early, I just made the due date. I'll be posting the recipe (it's a winner) and a blow-by-blow description of how I prevailed over the irksome cheesecake gods, plus a little cheesecake history soon.
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Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Blackberries are Coming! The Blackberries are Coming!

I have gone wild blackberry picking every summer since I was about 4 years old. If they are out there—and where I live in Maryland they always are—I will get them!

I've gone berrying along picturesque farmland fences and woodland lanes, as well at the edges of not so charming suburban parking lots and busy roads. Once when I lived in Germany and the only blackberries to be had grew on a treacherously steep and slippery bank of the Main river, I tethered myself to a rope and had my son lower me and my bucket down to tantalizing berry-laden canes near the water below. (I got a little muddy and scratched, and the neighbors talked about that crazy American woman, but my haul was worth it.)

This year I've already been out surveying the stands of canes along the walking paths behind my house. Due to frequent spring showers, the signs are promising. Notice that in the right pic above some of the blooms have already dropped and little nubs of berries have formed. In a few more weeks I'll be out there harvesting—fortunately no tethering will be required! Just to put myself in the right mood, I may buy some blackberries and make a sundae sauce. The pic shows a blackberry sundae; click here for blackberry-sauce.

Or, for a glorious blackberry sorbet, click here.
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