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Uncrushable Laser Monkeys! (or, what I had for dinner)
Chocolate Fudge
Friday, December 9, 2005, 01:48 PM - dessert

Fudge



It's the time of year when everyone realizes that hanging out in a hot kitchen, although sometimes unpleasant in the summer, is a great winter activity. I've been itching to make fudge for a while now---ever since someone told me that he actually liked fudge, even though he's been against all my previous fudge-making proposals.

When I was growing up, we usually only made fudge in the summer... after we'd been to the fair and seen the fudge makers and been told that fudge at the fair was overpriced and if we behaved we could make some. We always made it with marshmallow creme. Which is easier than the conventional method, but I wanted to try the old-school way. Marshmallows contain gelatin. And, unfortunately, we don't know anything about gelatin. It might have dead cows in it, or it might have dead pigs in it, or it might have something less objectionable in it, but still dead. By now, given all the corn subsidies, I bet they've come up with a completely unobjectionable corn-based product... I mean, exactly how many products are there left that don't have a corn alternative? There's corn-based fuel, corn-based packing peanuts... I bet someone has a corn computer. But labels never tell you what the gelatin is made from. Maybe it's 100% safe, but they won't tell you. I couldn't serve it to vegetarian friends. I wouldn't want to serve it to Jewish or Muslim friends, because it might have pork in it. And I wouldn't be comfortable eating it myself, since it might have beef in it. I wouldn't mind small quantities of poultry or pork, but I still wouldn't be able to share it. So sad. Making labor intensive deserts is all about sharing. They're fun to make, and fun to eat, but you don't want to eat the whole thing. So I decided to figure out how to make vegetarian fudge.

I used Alton Brown's chocolate fudge recipe since I knew he'd be thorough but didn't really know anything about the makers of the other recipes. I substituted brown sugar for white sugar, because we didn't have enough white sugar.

How not to be angry



After much poking around the web and reading reviews of recipes, I've concluded that fudge makes people angry. If a recipe works, people are fine. But if it doesn't---and apparently it doesn't a lot---people get pissed. They complain loudly about lost ingredients... they're probably more upset about lost time, though, and the fact that they were all ready for a bite of fudge... In any case, there are a lot of extremely angry people out there, and they're either mad because their fudge didn't set, or because their fudge came out like a solid rock. I didn't want that to happen to me, so I researched it heavily, just what makes fudge come out like a solid rock as opposed to creamy, chocolatey goodness?

I've concluded (and of course I have no evidence) that the problem is that people didn't do enough research. So I did a lot of research in hopes of avoiding the major mistakes. I concluded that you should never just follow the recipe. You should follow the intent of the recipe.

What in the world is the soft ball stage?


Every fudge recipe out there says to boil the concoction until it reaches the soft ball stage. They tell you that means ~235 degrees Farenheight. This is really hard for people. Soft ball stage tells you something about the sugar concentration. This is different from temperature. Now, I've made condensed stock before, so I'm pretty confident that you can get rid of a lot of water without being at a rolling boil. It stands to reason that if you top out at 230 degrees F for a long time but never make it up to 235, you're still above boiling and will be losing plenty of liquid. This is just a guess, but I bet this is what happened to all the people who ended up with brick-like fudge despite using their thermometer properly and following the recipe slavishly. There are a surprising number of these people out there, and they're very, very angry.

The temperatures in candy recipes should be used as guidelines. They're the temperatures that usually happen to correlate with appropriate sugar concentrations if you are losing water at a certain rate. Altitude is going to affect this, humidity is going to affect this, and having "medium" on your element not be the same as "medium" on the element of the person who gave you the recipe will affect this. In short, thermometers are probably good things, but the thermometer isn't actually measuring the thing you want to know about; it's measuring something that's usually correlated with the thing you want to know about.

I actually didn't use a thermometer. My candy thermometer is 3000 miles from here, and it was supposed to snow for 12 hours today (it didn't) so I thought I'd leave the driving to the Albanians and keep my southern Californian self off the road. I used the cold water test, which actually tests the sugar concentration. I have absolutely no idea if I ever got anywhere near the target temperature. Everyone says the soft ball stage is when the chocolate syrup forms a ball when dribbled into cold water, but that isn't adequate information when you're trying it for the first time without a thermometer as backup. I found this kick-ass web page that had really thorough explanations of the various sugar stages as well as video to complement the verbal description. Check out the science of candymaking web page if you plan on trying this at home. I ended up testing it about 5 times in a ramekin with ice water in it until I got the right temperature. I rinsed out the ramakin each time to make sure I wasn't mixing the old drops with the new drops and messing up my results. I left 2-5 minutes between each test. I think my stove runs cold compared to most stoves (which is odd, given that the oven runs about 200 degrees hotter than it ought to).

I took the pot off of the heat the minute it was clear I had a soft ball. I reasoned that I'd rather have something too soft than something too hard. There's an urban myth that someone had to throw away the pot because the chocolate solidified and there was no getting it out. Probably false, but I'd prefer storing it in the fridge (or freezer) and still having it melt in my mouth to having something rock-like, which a lot of people complained about in fudge recipe reviews. Bottom line: if you have too low a sugar concentration, it will be runny; if you have too high a sugar concentration, it will be hard.

What about sugar crystals?


No one actually complained about sugar crystals, but from what I've read, they can really screw up any sort of candy making process. I used one of those new fangled spoonula things that is supposed to be safe at candy-making temperatures instead of a wooden spoon. I wanted to be able to scrape the bits of the mixture that got up on the side of the pot back into it so that there wouldn't be undisolved sugar on the side of the pan.

What do they mean by matte?


I don't know. In one review of some recipe or other, someone said that when she stirred it until it was matte, it solidified in the bowl and she couldn't get it into the pans, but she tried it again and stopped stirring before that point and it worked perfectly. The stirring process at the end of the fudge making is supposed to encourage the development of lots of little sugar crystals. They're what make the fudge thicken up properly. I stirred mine until it had lost the really wet-looking sheen, but it still had plenty of sheen. I wouldn't call it matte, it was simply matter than it was when it started out. I payed more attention to the texture. It got really viscious towards the end. I had to stir for a long time, but without a thermometer I'm not sure I had cooled it to some ideal temperature before I started stirring. When I declared it done, it had reached the point where it was mildly tiring to pull the spoon around the bowl, and when I flipped a spoonful of fudge from the edge into the middle, it took a while for the fudge to ook back down to cover the bottom of the pot. I think I stirred it the right amount, because the stuff that was left in the pot after I'd poured the fudge off into the pan had pretty much set to an appropriate fudge consistency by the time I got myself settled in a comfy chair to lick out the pot.

Results


Well, we tried the fudge. I used roasted walnuts in it, which I think are a little too potent. Some people say they taste like bacon. I think they taste good and nutty, but a little overpowering. The fudge itself set up pretty well. It was a little on the soft side when I tried it, but I hadn't put it in the refrigerator or anything. It was sufficiently hard that it maintained its structure for several hours at room temperature after pieces were cut out of it. All in all, I'm pretty happy with it.

Gingerbread
Wednesday, November 30, 2005, 11:33 PM - flatbread, dessert
I made gingerbread and cranberry chutney again today. The rest of the day was pretty uneventful---processed foods and pizza. I don't think I've been eating properly. Tomorrow I'll eat something healthy.

Gingerbread Recipe


ingredients:
1 1/2 cup flour
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup warm water
1/4 cup butter
1 TBS lemon juice
~1 tsp baking soda
~1 tsp baking powder
~1 TBS powdered ginger
~1 TBS cinnamon
~1 tsp allspice
x tsp nutmeg, where 1/8 < x < 1/2
y tsp corriander, where 1/8 < y < 1/3

I payed more attention this time, aren't you proud of me?

procedure:
People who know what they are doing will mix up the wet ingredients first then add the dry ingredients. However, people who know what they are doing will have to plan ahead and be more organized than you need to be for this recipe; they might even use more dishes. Incidentally, brown sugar counts as a wet ingredient.

Make a pot of tea. Be sure to make more water than fills the teapot. Some of this water, naturally, you'll want to use to preheat the teapot. But measure off half a cup and dump the butter into it. (Um... that would be the measured off portion, not the bit that you're going to drink.) The butter will melt nicely and you won't have to worry about mucking around with a microwave, or worse, planning ahead enough to leave it out to soften ahead of time.

Pour the lemon juice into the dry ingredients. It's important to do this first because it's exciting... remember the vinegar/baking soda volcanos? Less impressive, but lemon juice still bubbles a little when it hooks up with the baking soda. Now add the water and butter and stir it up. You could do it all at once, but you'd miss some excitement. Don't wait too long, though, because you want the bubbles to be inside the dough, not used up while you were watching them fizz.

Mix the dough up and stick it on a floured baking sheet. Smoosh it out so it's pretty flat. It should be maybe 1/4" thick. It will rise a reasonable amount; I think mine doubled in thickness, maybe a little more.

Bake for ~10 minutes at ~350 degrees F. I started mine with the knob turned to 250, which was really 350. I thought I'd appropriately compensated at the time, but no. I didn't realize quite how psychotic this oven is because I don't use it enough. Did I mention that you shouldn't trust your oven and should get a supplemental oven-safe thermometer so you know what's really going on? When I checked on it after about 7 minutes, the gingerbread was mostly done, but the oven had decided that it should actually be 450. It wasn't quite done so I left it another 2 minutes with the oven turned off, so maybe it cooled down to the 350 range by the end, but who knows? In short, the cooking time/temperature is pretty flexible. In any case, you can tell if it's done by pushing down in the middle with your finger. If it's done, it will spring back up. If it's not done, it will make a dent.

Top with cranberry chutney.

thanksgiving dinner
Sunday, November 27, 2005, 10:09 AM - comfort food, flatbread, dessert, holiday
Since there is a terrible dearth of 8 lb. turkeys (we did find one once), we made a capon for thanksgiving dinner. 'What is a capon?", you might ask. Here's an explanation of capon by analogy:
capon:chicken::castrati:opera singer
capon:chicken::kobe beef:regular beef
A capon is a rooster that has been neutered at a young age so as to not develop any of the stringy muscles that roosters tend to get. then they're babied (probably no where near as much as kobe, but they live better than most chickens), get a special diet, and even get to live longer than their regular chicken counterparts. They taste more like chicken than chicken.

menu


breakfast:
pumpkin pie

lunch/dinner:
roast capon
green bean caserole
mashed potatoes
capon gravy
cranberry chutney

supper:
leftovers!

desert:
gingerbread
cranberry chutney

recipes


pumpkin pie


1. Go to the grocery store
2. buy a pumpkin pie
3. bring home & refrigerate until ready to eat

roast capon


1. Leave your frozen capon in the fridge for a few days. This is supposed to defrost it, but it won't.

2. Clean your sink & fill it with cool water; add capon.

3. Check on it every 15 minutes, or so, to see if it's defrosted yet. You might help it along by working at the neck & giblet sack. Once the big chunk of frozen giblets is out, the rest of the bird will defrost faster. Remember to wash your hands thoroughly every time you touch the raw bird & go off to do something else.

4. Put the neck & giblets in a freezer bag & throw them in the freezer.

5. When the bird has finally defrosted, drain the sink & clean the bird thoroughly, especially under the wings & inside the cavity. You need to do this even though you have magic powers that make your bird have already defrosted properly in the first place. This is to make sure there are fewer potentially nasty microbes floating around. On that note, once the bird is in the oven you'll want to clean the sink (and anything you might have splattered on) with bleach.

6. Stick the bird in the pan you're going to use. You ought to make sure it's not sitting straight in the pan. If you're high falutin' and/or into planning ahead, you probably have some sort of rack for this purpose. If you're a normal human being, you can just turn over a small stoneware plate (make sure it's oven safe) in the pan & balance your bird on top of it.

7. Spices! Rub the bird all over with spices. It helps to get an innocent victim to tip spices into your hands periodically while you handle the bird so you have both hands to maneuver with. You can use whatever you like. We used a greek seasoning blend. Then, for good measure, we put some rosemary & dried onion inside the cavity & rubbed them around. We didn't use very much, though, because we were almost out of both of them.

8. Truss the bird. I'm 99% sure I did it wrong because our bird was butchered differently than usual and there were flaps of skin with orientation different than I am used to; so really, it doesn't matter if you do it properly or not. Just do something--the point is to have it tied to be more like a single block than a largish blob with smallish chunks sticking out at various angles. This makes it cook better; otherwise the sticking-out bits (legs, wings) will get overcooked & dried out by the time the rest of the body is properly cooked. You can probably find diagrams on some other website. I'm not going to draw an ascii diagram because I'm meanspirited.

9. Stick the bird in a 325 degree oven and leave it for hours. Somewhere on the web, there is a table that will tell you how much time it will take per pound. Ours didn't take as long as it was supposed to (by about an hour) but our oven thermostat is psycho and there are good odds that we were cooking it at a higher temperature than we thought. Good thermostat or not, it will probably not take the time you're told it will take, so you have to rely on a meat thermometer.

Tha Man says you should leave it until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest bit of meat without touching the bone gets to 180 degrees. I actually meant to ignore Tha Man and pull it sooner, but those last few degrees went really fast & it actually went to 185ish. But that's ok because it's a capon, which is really fatty and juicy and the meat didn't dry out at all. This might have caused problems with a drier bird like a turkey. We started preparing the rest of the meal at about 160 degrees.

10. Let the bird sit 15-20 minutes before carving.

11. After the meal, get as much meat off the bones as you are willing to and declare it leftovers. Save the carcass for stock. If you're making stock soon, refrigerate it; otherwise freeze it.

green bean caserole


Buy french's fried onions & follow the recipe on the can. It involves canned beans, mushroom soup, salt, pepper, and (surprise, surprise) crazily processed onions. Now, you might think it's a good idea to just mix green beans & mushroom soup, but don't. You need the crazily processed onions or it just tastes nasty. I know people who make it this way. I always take a teensy bit to be polite, but yuck! This, on the otherhand, tastes heavenly. I suppose you could come up with something similarly good by adding a ton of onions to green beans and mushroom soup, but I'm afraid to risk it.

mashed potatoes


1. buy a box of instant mashed potatoes
2. follow the directions on the box.

You can pour everything out and stick the liquid ingredients on the stove and start it when the bird comes out. The bird needs to sit for 15-20 minutes before carving to let the juices properly distribute.

capon gravy


1. Transfer the bird to the carving plate and let it do it's sitting there

2. Since we did the bird in a really large dutch oven, it seemed an impractical place to make gravy. So we transfered the drippings to a smaller saucepan.

3. There was still some bits sticking to the dutch oven, so we deglazed that with something. It might have been whiskey; if it wasn't whiskey, it was vermouth. Then we added the results of the deglazing to the saucepan.

4. Scrape the fat off the top. You don't need to get all of it, but you should get most of it.

4. Put about a tablespoon of corn starch into a separate little bowl.

5. Spoon some drippings into the corn starch & stir it up until it's smooth. If it's too viscous, add more drippings.

6. Add mixture back into the saucepan & stir it in. If you don't do it this way, the corn starch won't disolve properly and you'll get unpleasant lumps.

7. Heat the drippings and stir them up until the corn starch cooks. You can tell it's cooked because the gravy is opaque when you start (because you've just added a tbs of white powder) and the corn starch will become translucent and the gravy will turn to the original dripping color when it's done. There's probably no need to season it because lots of the seasoning you put on the bird will have transferred itself to the drippings.

cranberry chutney


We used this cranberry chutney recipe. Make it in advance and chill it in the refrigerator or it won't have the right texture.

gingerbread


In a bowl, mix 1 1/2 cup flour, 3/4 cup brown sugar, and spices. I'm going to just make up some values; they probably are completely different from what I actually used, but they'd probably work: 1 tbs (3 tsp) cinnimon, 1 1/2 tsp ginger, 1 tsp nutmeg, 1 tsp corriander, 1 tsp all spice. Add maybe 1 tsp of baking soda. I eyeballed that too---at least one tsp; maybe two. Stir it up really well so that the brown sugar isn't lumpy. You ought to have something that looks beige. If it's not a pretty rich beige color, maybe you should add more cinnamon? Or just run with it.

Add a glug of lemon juice, 3 tbs of butter (melted), and half a cup of hot water. The butter is melted because I didn't think ahead to let it sit out and had to soften it. If you're the planning ahead type, you don't need to melt it. If you actually own baking powder, you can use that instead of soda/lemon juice. I have no idea if soda works without the lemon juice, but I thought some acid would help; powder comes with it's own acid.

Stir well and spread out on a floured baking sheet. Cook for 12ish minutes. It's done when gently pushing down the top in the middle results in dough springing back up instead of making a finger-shaped dent. Unfortunately, if it's not done yet, you can't try this test too many times without having a rather pock-marked gingerbread. Fortunately, we didn't have that problem.

Cut into pieces and serve with cranberry chutney. Yum.

I did think it was a little chewy. I think I'm going to use more butter next time; 3 tbs was arbitrarily decided upon based on what was left on the stick after the mashed potatoes & whatever else it was used for. I might also be more generous with the baking soda and lemon juice, but I don't know what that means since I didn't measure anything in the first place.

breakfast for dinner
Wednesday, October 19, 2005, 06:43 PM - comfort food, dessert, breakfast

Menu


We had ochazuke for breakfast. We both have this cough... we've actually been sick since I started blogging. Maybe if I delete it we'll get better, but that might anger the laser monkey. Anyhoo... what with trying to convalesce and all, we got going pretty late. This is by way of saying we started lunch at 5ish and then decided maybe it was dinner. Originally it was just going to be a light lunch because it was close to dinner time, but I guess it was a light dinner. It's too early to tell, maybe it was lunch and we'll eat dinner even later. But we had fake breakfast sausage, egg, and tomato.

edit: no dinner, but we had false pie for desert.

Recipes


Ochazuke


1. cook rice
2. put rice in bowl
3. add furikake---if you don't have any, substitute chopped nori, sesame seeds, salt, and maybe a drizzle of sesame oil.
4. add a couple of sour plums
5. pour tea on top. Today I used genmai cha.

Egg, sausage, and tomato


This is prepared about like you'd expect.
1. cut the fake sausage into patties.
2. fry fake sausage patties in olive oil until they're nicely browned on both sides
3. transfer the patties onto plates
4. break some eggs into the same pan and scramble. Some people think you have to scramble eggs in a seperate container and then pour them into the pan. That's just silly. You can whip them up just fine in the frying pan while they're cooking using the cooking implement of your choice. Then you don't have an extra dish floating around that has had raw egg in it. Since you're doing it in the same pan as the sausage, all the little sticky sausage bits that stuck to the pan will get mixed into the eggs. yum.
5. add the eggs to the plate.
6. cut tomatoes into wedges and put those on the plate
7. eat

False Pie


1. break 1 graham cracker into a coffee cup
2. add about 2 tbs of dark chocolate. This can be in the form of a handful of chocolate chips. I used two squares of a trader joes 80% cocomass pound plus bar. So they'd melt better, I cut them up.
3. top with another crumbled graham cracker.
4. pour amaretto over the top. probably a tablespoon or two. Enough for it to soak into the graham crackers.
5. microwave for 15 seconds or so. The cup should feel hot; the chocolate should be melted.
6. eat.


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