Sunday, March 23, 2008, 06:14 PM - comfort food
I recently was sick and didn't make bread for a few weeks. When I decided to make it again, I had a momentary feeling of panic that I hadn't the faintest idea how to make bread. This was unsettling, since I knew I hadn't actually written down how to make bread because I do it all the time. So here's bread, just so I won't panic in the future.

3 cups whole wheat flour
1 3/4 cups water
1 dash salt.... who knows... half a teaspoon? a teaspoon? eh?
1/4 tsp yeast

Put everything in a bowl. Mix it together. Put a dishcloth over the top and leave it out on the counter and forget about it all day.

Before you go to bed, fold it over on itself and beat it down. People say not to beat bread, because you want to redistribute the air, not eliminate it. That might be true of some breads, but not this one. Unless you want gihugeous bubbles in the resulting loaf, do make sure to beat out any big bubbles you might feel in the folding process. When you're done, put it in the fridge.

In the morning, pull it out and stick it on the counter again. Ignore it and go about your business. At some point between late morning and early evening, repeat the folding/beating process. This time, when you're done, shape it into a loaf and stick it on a baking sheet.

Leave it for an hour or so. Come back and slash the top (if you remember), and stick it in an oven at 400 degrees F. Preheating is unnecessary.

Cookie Science
Saturday, December 8, 2007, 10:34 AM - dessert, holiday
A Comparison of Chocolate Mint Wafer Alteratives in Surprise Cookies

Traditional winter holiday festivities require certain essential cookies. One of these is the Surprise Cookie, which is a chocolate mint wafer encased in sugar cookie dough. Unfortunately, chocolate mint wafers aren't universally available. This paper discusses alternatives based on availability, ease of use, and affordability. Two alternatives that rate highly on ease of use and affordability are Andes Mints and Necco Thin Mints. A baking test was conducted to compare the alternatives for taste and presentability. Andes Mints fall short of the original for taste, but match the original for presentability. Necco Thin Mints taste good, but nothing like the original; they yield few presentable cookies.

1 Introduction
Traditional winter holiday festivities require certain essential cookies. An essential cookie is one that the holidays are incomplete without. Inessential cookies are those that can be added to the mix, but that won't be missed if they're absent. What is essential varies by individual, but they are often ethnic, they usually must be made by hand, and they are usually labor intensive enough to require group effort. They serve the functions of reminding us of our heritage, bringing the whole family together to prepare, and can't be found in a store.

For instance, lefse is a traditional Norwegian holiday food. If the winter goes by and I haven't got any lefse, I feel cheated. You can buy lefse in Norway, but in the US, you have to make it by hand. Chocolate chip cookies, on the other hand, are inessential. You can slap them on the desert end of the smorgasbord, but no one would miss them if they weren't there. If Spring were to come and you hadn't had any, you could march into any grocery store and just buy them. And, if a person doesn't like the pre-packaged versions, they are trivial for one person to bake.

Surprise cookies are a traditional American holiday cookie. They appear as Hidden Chocolate Cookies in Betty Crocker's Cooky Book. tells us that "more than 62 million of these cookbooks sold since 1950." It's hard to find a more perfect slice of Americana. Surprise cookies fit the essential cookie criteria. They are an American tradition. They can't be bought in stores. Stuffing the mints into the cookies takes effort, so making them requires most of the family to sit around together for a few hours stuffing the cookies. Family members might even talk to each other in the process.

Unfortunately, the essential ingredient, chocolate mint wafers, ceased to be available in most major grocery stores when I was in junior high. After several years of incomplete winter holidays, Trader Joes came to town and started stocking them. I've since moved to a town with no Trader Joes, and my grocery stores do not stock the necessary chocolate mint wafers.

2 Alternatives:
A replacement for chocolate mint wafers should share certain features with the original. Obviously, they should be both chocolate and mint. Beyond this, they should be available, affordable, and easy to use. If I had limitless time and energy, I would have made chocolate truffles and added mint extract, but that would have failed the ease of use test. When the chain grocery stores failed us as kids, we tried adding mint extract to the dough and using hershey kisses, but they weren't quite right.

A survey of the candy aisle at the local Hannaford revealed what was readily available and easy. The options were Andes Mints, Necco Thin Mints, and Hershy 60% cocoa mass chocolate mint squares. I really hoped there would be a mint Hershey Kiss by now, but they only had 6 or 7 non-mint flavors. The 60% cocoa mass chocolate mint squares were extremely pricey. They were in a package that held very few of them. They were individually wrapped and would have had to have been cut into quarters to be the appropriate size. The Andes Mints were also individually wrapped and would have to be halved, but they were a fraction of the price (by pound). Necco Thin Mints were comparably priced (by pound) to the Andes Mints.

Andes Mints are two rectangular sheets of chocolate with a sheet of similarly textured mint candy sandwiched between them. Necco Thin Mints are more like Peppermint Patties. They are round, and have some sort of white mint paste coated in chocolate. Andes Mints are clearly closer to chocolate mint wafers than Necco Thin Mints. But, several points are against them. They are individually wrapped and need to be cut in half. This adds significantly to the effort of using them. Furthermore, the square shape makes it harder to wrap dough around. Given their roundness and the lack of preparation involved, if Necco Thin Mints could be used instead of Andes Mints, they would give bakers a considerable advantage.

3 Experiment
We purchased a box of Necco Thin Mints and a box of Andes Mints. We halved the Andes Mints and used the Necco Thin Mints as-is. Since there were 20 Necco Thin Mints in a box and two of them disappeared while the cookies were being made (this is traditional), we made 18 cookies from Necco Thin Mints and 27 cookies from Andes Mints. This used up our half-recipe of cookie dough. There were Andes Mints left over. We compared the cookies for taste and presentability.

4 Results
4.1 Appearance
Two trays full of cookies were baked at 400 degrees F for 6 minutes, or until golden on the edges. The tray containing 27 Andes Mint cookies yielded 27 presentable cookies with no apparent flaws. The tray containing 18 Necco Thin Mint cookies yielded 5 presentable cookies with no apparent flaws, 2 slightly burst but still presentable cookies, 10 burst cookies that weren't presentable, and 1 completely flattened cookie that seemed to have exploded and oozed out in all directions. These results are statistically significant (p<0.05). It is fair to assume that using the standard methods of cookie preparation, Andes Mints will reliably produce cookies with a presentable appearance, and that Necco Thin Mints will tend to produce flawed cookies.

4.2 Taste
Two subjects compared two cookies twice. Once in the evening with sambuca, and once in the morning with coffee. Unfortunately, given the variability in appearance, a double blind test was not feasible. On both occasions, both subjects preferred the taste of the Necco Thin Mint cookies to the Andes Mint cookies. Andes Mint cookies tasted more similar to classic surprise cookies, but without enough chocolate-minty goodness to pass muster. Necco Thin Mint cookies tasted nothing like surprise cookies. They tasted like candy-cane infused sugar cookies. This is unsurprising, since the gooey minty center broke down in the oven and turned into a hard, minty, sugar candy. Since they invariably leaked, the candy infused into the cookie dough.

5 Conclusions
Clearly, neither alternative is a suitable replacement for chocolate mint wafers. It is possible that Andes Mints could be used if two half-mints were stacked on top of each other to provide more chocolate per cookie. Further research is necessary to determine the efficacy of double Andes Mints as chocolate mint wafer substitutes.

Necco Thin Mint cookies are tasty, but nothing like Surprise Cookie. What we have discovered is a new class of cookie: "Exploding Mint Cookies." Research is necessary to determine the cause of the tendency towards explosion, and culinary options for containing the explosions. Ideally, we would like to be able to achieve more presentable but slightly burst cookies and fewer flattened cookies that explode all over the baking sheet. We have several hypotheses regarding the tendency towards explosion. It is possible that structural weak points in the dough were produced by small lumps of butter that melted, allowing the candy center to burst through. Another possibility is that we simply didn't use a thick enough layer of cookie dough around the mints. A third possibility is that some of the fragile chocolate coatings on the mints were damaged by the wrapping process, leading the candy center to leak out. These can be tested by experimenting with more thorough mixing, thicker dough coverings, and gentler handling. Further experiments will be needed to reliably produce ideal Exploding Mint Cookies.

Yam Plantain Fiasco
Saturday, September 29, 2007, 05:06 PM - comfort food
Today, I made Yam Plantain Fiasco and salad for dinner. It's shockingly yummy.

olive oil (several glugs)
salt (several vigorous shakes; maybe 1 tsp)
pepper (a bunch of grinds; maybe 1 tsp)
nutmeg (1 shake)
paprika (a bunch of shakes; maybe 2-3 tsps)
coriander (1 shake)
coffee beans (10ish)
thai chilis (5)
chocolate chips (10ish)
rum (1 shot)
coffee (1/4-1/2 cup)
1 onion
1 yam
1 plantain
1 can black beans

cut the onions into slivers

cut the yams and plantains into cubic centimeters

Put the olive oil, all the spices (except the chocolate chips), and the onion slivers into a frying pan on high heat until the onions are carmelized. Then add the yam bits for a few minutes. Then add the plantain and the black beans. Let them go for a minute or two, then add a shot of rum. Flame it if you're on a gas oven. Pour in some coffee---maybe a third of a cup. Stir it up, heat it to boiling, then put on a lid and turn it to low heat and let it simmer for 15-20 minutes. Eat.

Gluten Free Brownies
Friday, August 10, 2007, 01:12 PM - comfort food, dessert
After two batches of ruthless experimentation on guests, I have perfected a recipe for gluten free brownies. It has been modified from the original Betty Crocker to fit on the screen. Erm, that is, to fit the celiac lifestyle.

Wet Ingredients
4 squares of melted baking chocolate OR 3/4 cup cocoa powder and 3 TBS oil. Baking chocolate is usually fine, but some extra sensitive need the specially guaranteed gluten free cocoa powder. To melt baking chocolate, stick it in a microwave safe container and zap it for 15 seconds. then combine the other ingredients, then zap it for another 15 seconds, then maybe stir it a bit, then let it sit a while, then zap it another 15 seconds and stir it a bit. Eventually it will be nice and runny. It's easier than doing it on the stove, but the short amounts of time and long amounts of sitting in between are to make sure it doesn't burn, as chocolate in a microwave is in danger of doing.
4 egg yolks. You'll need the whites too, but they count as other ingredients.
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup water
1 tsp salt
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white sugar

Dry Ingredients

1/4 tsp Xantham Gum
3/4 cup brown rice flour
3/4 cup corn flour

Other Ingredients

4 egg whites
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup chopped nuts
1 cup chocolate chips


Mix your wet ingredients. Add your dry ingredients. Set aside your other ingredients. Throw everything back in the refrigerator and let it sit for a few hours. Well, you don't have to actually refridgerate the baking powder, nuts, and chocolate chips...mostly I'm talking about eggs here.

Take everything out of the refrigerator and let it sit for a while. The mixture will be pretty viscous and could do with warming up, and egg whites need to get up to room temperature. Once room temperature has been achieved, or you get really bored and don't want to wait around any longer, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
Prepare a 9x13 pan (I do this by spraying it vigorously with oil, but everyone has their own pet method, most of which involve more effort. More effort is a perfectly valid lifestlye choice, but it's not for me.) Beat the egg whites until they're fluffy and form peaks and all that. Fold 1/4 of the egg whites into the dough. Then fold the rest of them and all the other ingredients into the dough. Pour it into the 9x13 pan. Bake for 30-35 minutes. It's done when you can stick a toothpick into the middle and pull it out and have it be mostly clean.

Rice Pudding
Wednesday, June 27, 2007, 05:59 PM - comfort food, dessert, breakfast
Rice Pudding
Today I made rice pudding for dinner. I know nothing about rice pudding. I have never had rice pudding. But we had leftover rice from Chinese food the other night, and I had a sudden hankering for rice pudding. So I perused multiple recipes online, and discovered that most people think you're actually going to make rice from scratch in milk instead of using leftover rice. This seems dumb. In my ignorance, I thought the whole point of rice or bread pudding was to use up leftover rice or bread before it went south. And to presumably use them in a different format, because if people wanted them in their previous format, they would have just gone ahead and eaten them and not left them hanging out in their fridge as leftovers.

I also discovered that most people think you're going to make rice pudding in your oven. Since it's unbearably hot, this also seems foolish. Sure, it'd be great in the winter, but it's not a June activity (unless you're down under). Fortunately I found one great recipe for quick and light rice pudding that said you could make it with leftovers and you could make it on the stovetop, which will heat your kitchen a bit, but not to the degree of running your entire oven for over an hour. However, this recipe didn't fit my preconceived notions of pudding, which involve more creamy, eggy goodness. So after eyeing a bunch of other recipes, I thought I'd just make something up and use the stovetop cooking method and hope it turned out ok. Here goes:

1 small takeout Chinese food container almost full (but not packed) of rice --- this is probably somewhere between 1 and 2 cups, but I didn't measure because the measure was in the dishwasher. I don't think the quantity matters if it's in the ballpark.
1 can of evaporated milk
1/4ish tsp of salt
3 rounded TBS of brown sugar (not packed or messed with in any way that might involve effort, just scooped out of the container and dumped in)
1 glug vanilla extract
nutmeg and cinnamon to taste (I use more cinnamon than nutmeg, since nutmeg is very potent)
1 egg

Dump the rice in a saucepan. Add everything else. Stir it up really well so the egg is beaten and everything is pretty homogenous. Turn on the saucepan to high. Stir frequently until it boils, then turn it all the way down, put a lid on it, and go off and play video games and make a few phone calls. Come back periodically and give it a stir. This process should take half an hour to 45 minutes... shorter if you don't care about letting it oook---you do need video games you'll be able to pause once every 15 minutes or so. When it looks good and rice puddingey, either eat it or stick it in the refrigerator to have it cold for breakfast. It makes enough that 2 people could have a big serving now, and a little serving cold for breakfast. Or 4 people could have moderately sized servings whenever.

serving suggestions
Serve with fake breakfast sausage and salad... because salad is easy to throw together really fast and you've got to have a vegetable. If you're clever with your dressing, a salad can go with this. I convinced someone else to make the salad and they dressed it with oil, malt vinegar, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, and coriander, which tied nicely with both the spice of the sausage and the spices in the rice pudding.

It might also be nice with one of those froofy apple sausages.

If I were the planning ahead sort, I might pick a different vegetable, but I don't know what that would be.

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