Monday, October 5, 2015
A Spanish word for oven, horno was built by Native Americans from clay adobo to cook their meals. Now several centuries later hornos are trendy again and you find many plans and building advice online to build your own. I have a number of friends who built their own with modest success.
One friend built it too small. I was invited to dinner when the horno was still fairly new and I took a nearly fully risen bread dough that I’d hoped to bake in his horno. A small horno has two problems. Once it has been heated up it loses its heat too fast. Second, it has a limited capacity.
At this party I placed my bread dough in the preheated hot horno (about 450 degrees) and for a while a looked as it’s going to bake just right. But the horno cooled too much. When my bread was more or less done, the host added more fuel and placed a marinated chicken in the hot horno. Alas, after some 30 minutes the chicken was brown but the inside nearly raw. By now the guests were well passed ready to eat besides the hors d’oeuvres. The host lifted the chicken out of the horno and, to our horror, finished cooking it in a microwave. The results were mediocre to poor.
Another friend built his horno very elaborate and huge; so big a small piglet would’ve fit inside. It had all kinds of bells and whistles and looked very impressive. But it also had problems. It took many hours of burning oak logs before it heated up to useable temperatures. So when you don’t know how long, how are you going to manipulate your ready bread dough or pizza dough before it’s over-proofed? You cannot. The friend used this horno only once or twice than given up. Now it’s an outdoor decoration.
A third friend also built one that he claims is perfect but I yet to see it in use.
Hornos are very tricky, fun when they work but somehow I prefer to rely on my well-regulated oven.
Sunday, September 27, 2015
Baking is fun, therapeutic and very rewarding—especially when you were born with a substantial sweet tooth as I was. I bake often, in any season, any time and it’s rare I buying anything commercial in the sweets department—except occasional ice cream that I cannot make at home as well as the commercial ice cream makers.
The worst part of baking is the cleanup work, often involving heavy scrubbing using elbow grease. As an experienced, long-term baker I came to an easy solution: disposables. Not my favored answer since I am running a totally green kitchen eliminating as much from ending up in the landfill as possible.
What I do is lining the baking pan with aluminum foil, spraying with oil spray to prevent sticking and bake as usual. (This is for anything baked in a baking pan.) After cooling, I gently lift everything out of the pan by grabbing the foil and carefully turning it over onto my butcher block so now it rests upside down. The foil peels off as easily as banana peel.
Now I turn the goodies over again to right side up and if it’s fairly cool, I can easily cut it into squares, diamonds, bars with my serrated bread knife. I can even reuse my foil to cover it or freeze part of it. No scrubbing at all, the pan is clean. And very little to add to the landfill.
Sunday, September 20, 2015
If you are not a vegetarian or vegan, chances are excellent you love bacon. Good smoked bacon fried to your favorite crispness is wonderful. The old saying is you get what you pay for is particularly true for bacon. Compare the flavor of a lowest-priced supermarket bacon with that you buy in a good butcher shop. What a difference!
I experimented one day with bacon and here is my result.
I bought three kinds of bacon, two from a supermarket one of which was a low-priced (but not the lowest in the display case) and one from the deli counter. I stopped next at my favorite butcher who sells high-quality meat including excellent bacon.
I carefully weigh six slice of each on an accurate laboratory scale. I fried all three separately to about the same degree of crispness and had my taste testers ready to a blind test of all three. Needless to say the butcher bacon came up on top without question. The supermarket bacon fared according to the prices, the weakest the low-priced display case bacon. No surprise there.
I weighed the resulting bacon minus the fried out fat and the butcher and supermarket deli yielded very close results. The standard brand yielded the least, 27% of the original weight. The loss was fat that sizzled out and water that evaporated on frying. The edible portions of the butcher and supermarket deli bacon were close about 35% but the flavor from the butcher’s was far better. They were also close price-wise. My conclusion is that it’s more economical to buy the best bacon you can find. No matter how stingy your food budget is, it’s cheaper to get high-priced bacon.
But considering unit price of edible meat bacon is quite costly.
Top-quality bacon is the result of smoking and curing process. In cheaper bacon the meat processor cannot afford the time it takes to smoke the bacon, instead they inject a brine solution with artificial smoke flavor into the pork belly that eventually becomes bacon.
We can also find expensive dry-cured bacon in high-end butcher shops but they are not common. Its moisture content is reduced low enough that it stable at room temperature and doesn’t require refrigeration.
Thursday, September 17, 2015
When I am low on dessert and I want something fairly easy but good, rice pudding is among the items on top of the list. There are many rice pudding recipes out there but I have chosen the simplest one. I shoot for flavor not for unusual ingredients or combination of ingredients as the trend is among professionals and home cooks alike. If I bake bread, I make it just plain—no need for additional olives, garlic, parmesan cheese and so on. I may add some spices but basically I prefer the plain and simple and that’s true for my rice pudding.
To start, I use short-grain sweet rice (also called sticky rice, glutenous rice, sushi rice, risotto and Arborio rice). Whatever your choice, they are all the same: short-grain rice has a ratio of two different starches that on cooking becomes sticky like the rice you see in sushi. For long-grain rice a different starch ratio gives a non-sticky quality; the rice grains are distinct.
The price of the various short-grain rice varies greatly but the end result is the same for all, believe me. The most expensive is the Arborio rice from Italy, marketed for risotto. The cheapest is the one you find in Asian supermarkets, perhaps a quarter of Arborio rice. In health food section of supermarkets you also find short-grain rice in bulk—this is not expensive and shelf life of any white rice may be measured in decades. Might as well buy enough to last.
The remaining ingredients of rice pudding are staple items. For liquid I prefer half-and-half, some people use milk instead to reduce calories, others full cream but that’s a little too rich for my taste.
1 c uncooked short-grain rice (sweet, sticky, sushi, risotto or Arborio rice)
½ c sugar
½ tsp salt
2½ tsp vanilla or 2 Tbsp brandy, rum or whisky
2 c half-and-half or light cream
1 c (5 oz) raisins
2 Tbsp sugar, 1 tsp cinnamon and 2 Tbsp melted butter
Cook rice very slowly in one-and-half times water with ½ tsp salt for 15 minutes, remove from heat, cover and let stand for 5 minutes.
Beat sugar with eggs, salt, flavoring and half-and-half, then fold into rice along with raisins.
Spoon into 9x9-inch well-greased baking pan.
Combine sugar and cinnamon of topping and melt butter. Set these aside.
Bake pudding in preheated 350°F oven for 25 minutes. Sprinkle topping ingredients over top and drizzle with melted butter.
Continue baking for 5 to10 minutes more or until set but still jiggly soft. Cool. Serve at room temperature or chilled.