Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Cheesecake

The Christmas cheesecake is currently baking in the oven. I like cheesecake, but it is the desert of choice for my wife's family. I make a tradtional NEw York cheesecake with the crust being the only exception. This crust is gluten free. I make this cheesecake a few times a year. There are some variations in the crust as I try different gluten free cookies pulverized in a food processor, but the cheesecake never really changes. This time the sugar has been infused with vanilla beans and the vanilla extract was homemade. We'll see if there is a nice vanilla flavored boost in this cheesecake. Here is some cream cheese mixing. Only 7 blocks of cream cheese...the vanilla extract is in front of the mixer.

Here is a shot of the gluten free crust. The springform pan is wrapped in aluminum foil for two reasons. First, it will help keep the water bath from getting into the cheesecake. The foil also prevents steam from going over the top of the cheesecake. The walls of the roasting pan are higher than the walls of the springform pan. Without the foil barrier, the top of the cheesecake steams and gets, well, not good. Ask me how I know.

And here is the cheesecake ready to go in the oven. I'll post an update when the cheesecake is done and cooling.

UPDATE: Here is the cheesecake cooling. Doesn't look much different. It does smell better though.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


Well, more a stay of execution..due to some construction issues, my hat-trick of all nighters got postponed. Only had to do one this week. But it was enough to make me groggy for a few days. There was one New Year's Eve (at least 15 years ago) where I convinced a handful of people to stay up until 6 in the morning because that was the "real" New Year. For some reason they bought it, stayed up and we all had fun. One of them was silly enough to marry me...but I can't stay up like that anymore.

Did a handful of cooking this weekend. Mostly made Christmas cookies. I would delight you with photographs, but the camera was brought to a holiday party on Friday and got left behind. If I remember, I can get it Monday morning. We baked a few batches of sugar cookies using one of Ruhlman's ratios. The cookies came out very nicely and the dough was very easy to roll. In the first batch, some flour was left behind. I omitted about half an ounce of flour from the second batch and the dough came together well. The sugar cookie is a slight variation from Ruhlman's 1-2-3 cookie dough (1 part sugar, 2 parts fat, 3 parts flour). Perhaps there is a slight rounding error in the modified ratio. In the end, a few tablespoons not making it into the dough isn't the end of the world.

We also tried to modify the recipe to make some gluten free cookies. Without really thinking, we swapped out the flour and used a gluten free baking mix. The dough came together, it rolled out well, held shapes when the kids used the cookie cutters....but when it baked the shapes just oozed together. After the gluten free blobs cooled, I was able to re-cut some cookies. Some of the crumbs got used in a different dessert. The rest will become the crust of a gluten free cheesecake. The cheesecake is a family favorite. The gluten free crust is a continual work in progress. This time, I'm going to add some sugar to the crumbs and the pulverize with a food processor. There should be enough butter in there already. Press the crumb into a springform and move on with the rest of the cheesecake.

Just a reminder that in gluten free baking, flour and gluten free flour mix are not interchangeable. I knew that, but forgot it. I doubt I will forget it again quickly.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

I don't want to go to work tomorrow

Some of the blogs I have been following seem to update several times a day with pretty interesting posts. Don't know how they do it. I have a lot of food related projects I want to do, but by the time the day winds down and I actually have some time I usually go for the mindless sort of time wasting before passing out.

Projects in the pipeline include:

Making pate a choux because Michael Ruhlman told me to make some. Well, not me personally. He was more trying to get everyone to make it. Awhile ago he encouraged me to make my own popcorn. I'm not sure why I needed his encouragement, but I haven't had anything out of a nuke bag since. If you are in the Honest Weight Co-Op, they have excellent bulk popping corn. Making popcorn this way will change your life. "Popping my own popcorn will change my life?" you ask. Yes. It will make your life better.

Holiday cookies. There are a lot of cookies to make. Fortunately, once we are done,there will be a lot of cookies to eat.

Sopressata - The follow-up to the Tuscan Salami will be a sopressata beginning to age some time in January. I've got to come up with some other stuff to cure too.

Snowy day pasta-making with the kids. Next time we are snowed in, we're making pasta.

Vanilla bean experiments - I promised my older daughter we would make some vanilla ice cream. (The extract, by the way, keeps getting darker. Going to wait awhile longer before I try it.)

I haven't cooked anything on our charcoal rotisserie for awhile. That needs to change.

The family's Summer in February will be coming up.

These projects will have to wait because unfortunately, this week is going to be the kind of week that makes me buy Powerball tickets. A dollar and a dream....I have a project for work that I'm not exactly excited about doing. And by not excited I mean dreading. It involves at least 3 nights of working the overnight shift. All-nighters used to be fun. In college, I used to stay up all night for no reason. Piece of cake. Even fun. Now, I need a week to recover. It is like having a hangover without enjoying the fun that caused the hangover.

When I come to and can focus long enough to use a knife without hurting myself, I'll be back in the kitchen. Everything is based on a construction schedule so who knows - maybe it will all get canceled tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Clean Tool Is A Happy Tool

That's what my father-in-law has always said about tools. I think with a minor modification, that mantra applies to knives. A sharp knife, if a happy knife. In the past I have brought knives to Different Drummer's Kitchen to get them sharpened. But I started procrastinating bringing knives there and while the knives were sharpened very well, the quality came at a cost. So, just before my birthday, my wife and kids were given a subtle hint. I wanted the Spyderco Sharpmaker. Here's a shot of the Sharpmaker.

I used it on all of my knives in mid-October. There was a very noticeable difference in the sharpness of the knifes. Tonight, I hit the knives I go to the most often.

I spent a little over 20 minutes sharpening these 5 knives. When I'm done sharpening, I think I will be making it a tradition to shred a piece of paper. I am always impressed how easily the sharp knife cuts the paper compared to duller blade 20 minutes earlier. And besides being proof of a job well done, it's kind of fun.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

My Cube Smells Better Than Yours

That was the subject of an email I recently got a work. The letter was from co-worker Mike to let me know our shipment of vanilla beans had arrived. This is my take from a $15 order of beans.

The larger pile on the left are cheaper beans from Madagascar. The smaller pile on the right arre Tahitian beans. The aroma of that many beans is pretty overwhelming. I was surprised how pungent they were through 3 layers of plastic (plastic wrap and 2 ziplock bags). So...what do I do with this many beans? The first project is extreme vanilla extract. I put about 2.5 ounces of beans in a bottle with some vodka. I'm using Lukssusowa potato vodka to keep the extract gluten free (my mother-in-law can't eat gluten). There are those out there that say the distallation process removes all the gluten and others that say they got sicking drinking allegedly gluten free vodka. Gluten free eaters seemed to agree that this brand was decent and I figured better safe than sorry. Here's the bottle ready to go into a dark spot with weekly (if I remember) shakings. There are too many beans in there to really see the beans. I should have taken a shot before I filled the bottle.

Other vanilla bean plans include ice cream and vanilla infused sugar. Anyone out there have other ideas?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Finished Pancetta Slab

Thanksgiving weekend was a blur. The meal didn't come off exactly as I had planned. The food was decent (scallops wrapped in homemade bacon were fantastic), but some the turkey was refusing to cook in the smoker. Also, at about 4 in the afternoon, it became clear that the kitchen refrigerator was not keeping anything cold. These two glitches threw my timing on everything off and in my own personal chaos, I didn't take any food pictures. I'll try to get it right next year.

The pancetta I hang last week finished drying over the Thanksgiving weekend. Here is a shot of the cleaned up slab. I squared up the edges to make it look nicer. I'm keeping the trimmings. The pretty piece will be split between co-workers Gina and Mike for their holiday cooking.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Taste Of Childhood

I think everyone has one special taste, that one flavor guaranteed to make them feel like a kid again. For me, it is the taste of a "Grandma Cookie." Butter, sugar, vanilla, eggs, baking powder and flour are combine to make the dough. Logs of the dough are wrapped in wax paper and frozen. Once the dough is pretty solid, it is rolled out and shapes are cut with cookie cutters (the usual shapes are circles, moons, stars and card suit shapes - diamonds, hearts, spades, and clubs). The cookie is then topped with a cinnamon sugar and baked. The result is my personal heaven. Earlier today, my parents arrived for Thanksgiving with a big batch of these cookies. I'm writing this to get my mind off of eating them all tonight.

Whenever baking a batch of these cookies, part of the tradition is to use scraps from rolling out the dough to bake cookies in the shape of letters representing the names of the children that will be eating the cookies. My mother has taken that a step further in recent years and requests the guest list the week before Thanksgiving. If you are at the table, you get a cookie shaped like the first letter of your name. Here's my "J" cookie. Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Mmmm Bacon

Here's what happened to the pork belly after air drying in the fridge overnight. I lit a chimney of lump charcoal and poured it into a "bullet" style cooker. They kind of look like R2-D2 and they are relatively cheap in the BBQ world. I got it about 10 years ago from a Home Depot. This came with a water pan, but I almost never use it. For some reason, probably a barbecue forum I followed during my formative BBQ years, I prefer to cook directly over coals.

So the coals go in, the bacon goes on skin-side down, a handful of apple chips gets tossed on the coals, and I head back inside to help clean the house for Thanksgiving.

A little side note about the small kettle grill in the back. That is my first grill. It is an 18" Weber kettle that I got when I first moved to the Albany area. I was fresh out of college - sophomore year of college was the best 3 years of my life, unemployed, and living in a 2 room attic apartment with my now wife in Rotterdam. I was in a Fay's for some reason (remember Fay's? Only the best pharmacy ever) and saw this grill on sale for half off. I hemmed, then I hawed, then I decided half off was still too much. After all, what good is a grill if you can't afford anything to put on it? About 2 weeks later I was back in Fay's for something and the grill was still there. And the price had been cut in half again. And that was the beginning of my love affair with cooking with a live fire. And now that you've suffered through my stroll down memory lane...here's the finished bacon. I left the thicker, third piece on a little longer and it missed the photo shoot.

The bacon got chilled then put in the freezer for about half an hour before being sliced, packaged and frozen. I wanted to get a picture of the slicer I have on loan for my mother-in-law, but...my hands were a little bacony and you need two hands to run the slicer. I'll get a picture next time. It's bacon, there WILL be a next time.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Makin' Bacon

I picked up some pieces of pork belly from the relatively new Asian market on Central Avenue in Albany. Four pieces weighing about 5 pounds in total. One piece went into a pancetta cure (salt, pepper, bay leaf, garlic dark brown sugar, some thyme and pink salt). This is what it looked like coming out of the cure.

The pancetta was then wrapped up in cheesecloth and put into the makeshift curing chamber in the basement. I smile just knowing I have that set up down there. Simple pleasures...Anyhow, the pancetta will hang for about a week before I split it up and give it to some friends at work.

The other three slabs of pork belly just got rinsed too. They went into a simple bacon cure (salt, raw sugar, pink salt) and are going to air dry in the fridge overnight. They will get smoked tomorrow. I think I will use some apple wood. Some of this bacon will be used to wrap scallops on Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Finished Tuscan Salami

Took it down and weighed it last night. There was a 45% weight loss. I was nervous and thought it might be too much. Not a problem. I think it tastes pretty damn good. I would also say it is better than a lot of higher end salami that is available in this area. A while back, I used to be my own 'toughest critic.' That has changed and earlier tonight, I faced my current toughest critics.

My daughter Allison gave it the rating "I love it."

My daughter Casey gave it the rating "Yummy, Daddy."

The two of them ate the rest of the small salami I had been cutting for tastes. Needless to say, I was a wee bit proud of my efforts.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

More Tuscan Salami

The next step was to set up a curing area. I had a 12 foot length of poly and decided to with something close to a 3 foot square shape. Instead of the original plan to use staples, i bought small hooks that I screwed into the floor joists. Using a punch I put holes in the poly and hung it like a curtain. This way, the chamber can come down a lot easier. I have a humidifier with a humidistat set at 70%. I also added a shark fin I had in the basement (it is a throwback to my younger parrothead tailgating days). The fin acts as a wall between the humidifier and the salami. I thought the humidifier fan moved to much air and the fin keeps the salami out of the breeze. Using the uotdoor part of an indoor/outdoor temperature/humidity weather gadget, I found that the relative humidity closer to the floor was pretty constant at about 70%. Here is a shot of the chamber, ironically located next to a home made dehumidifier (the duct work in the lower right of the picture).

Now it was time to grind the salami. I Use the Kitchen Aid attachment. Fat was ground through the larger plate, meat through the smaller plate. Someday, I think I will upgrade to a dedicated grinder, but this attachment has been working for the amount of sausage I make.

Toasted fennel seeds were added and every was mixed well. Then, it was into the sausage stuffer to get pushed into casings.

The hardest part of the prpject was tying the salami for hanging. I usually make a fresh sausage and twist it into links. Here, I had to tie them in a way where the know could support the weight of the salami. Then I used more string so the salami would hang low enough in the chamber. I ended up using what I would describe as a "bizarro" surgeon's knot. So far they have all held up. Here's a shot of the salami starting to age.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Halloween Salami

I have been meaning to make a Tuscan salami for a few months now. I decided to try and have it ready to eat for Thanksgiving. Not sure if I'll make it, but it should be close.

Chef Bob Del Grosso made a similar salami over at A Hunger Artist. I'm not sure how many times I've read the post, but I promise the count is over 10. I compared his recipe to the Tuscan salami is the Charcuterie book and they were pretty similar. I followed the Del Grosso formula switching Instacure#1 for Instacure#2. I also like the way Bob sets up his percentages of ingredients. Being the nerd that I am, I set everything up in a Tuscan salami spreadsheet. Once you enter the weight of the meat in grams, the spreadsheet calculates how many grams of the rest of the ingredients you need including back fat. I kind of cheated with the bactoferm. I've seen people use a gram of it, and I've read that you can't use less than 5 grams. I split the difference and went with 3 grams.

The rest of the plan is to build my version of a mini curing chamber Bob put in his basement. I picked up some 3 mil thick poly drop cloth at a Lowes. I'm going to staple it to some floor beams and place a humidifier with a humidity sensor inside. I'm going to skip the fan for now and just open everything up to circulate the air once in awhile. The basement is typically in the low 60s. Hopefully the humidifier will keep the humidity up. Here is the recipe I used and some pictures of the meat. The meat is going to see a 3 or 4 day pre-grind age. I'll use the few days to get the chamber set up.

The recipe.

Ready for the rest of the ingredients.

To the fridge for a 3 to 4 day soak.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Golden Spoon

If you have ever watched a food related reality TV show...then this is funny. My favorite part the childhood cooking story about cooking with mom(2:10 into Part 1). Just a warning, there is some bad language in the movie. Not Gordon Ramsey bad...but if you are easily offended by bad language, this will easily offend you. Also, thanks to Sky Full of Bacon for letting me know the film exists.



Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A new take on 80s music

I recently heard about the internet phenomenon of "Literal Videos." the lyrics of a song a changed to describe what is happening in the old MTV music video (Note: at one time MTV actually showed music videos). Some attempts at literal videos are terrible. Some are just so-so. I would argue this one is brilliant. It captures the "full cheese" of 80s music and is a great take on a very memorable song. Hope you like it as much as I do.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A video you should watch

I really like the Sky Full of Bacon Videos and the latest is really very good. The video is about La Quercia in Norwalk, Iowa. They were featured awhile ago in the New York Times food section. Their operation is very impressive and their product looks amazing. And now, for the very first time in this blog's short history, I will attempt to embed a file. Wish me luck. Should all else fail, go here to watch the video.

Sky Full of Bacon 10: Prosciutto di Iowa from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Wholy Small World, Batman!

Over 10 years ago, I found a BBQ listserv kind of thing with discussion threads, people asking questions and people arguing over the answers. True BBQ for the true BBQ fan. The list was run buy a guy named Dave who eventually became the first person that went from anonymous online voice to person I met. We had a very nice dinner at a BBQ joint named Wilbur's in North Carolina. Anyhow, Dave had a website and links to things on pit construction, technique, a debated BBQ Faq plus whatever he thought was interesting. Now I followed this email group, mostly in a non-participating role refered to as "lurk mode" for awhile. After most of the topics had been repeated multiple times, the list slowed down. Then the list changed names and locations and began to refer to itself as The Society for the Preservation of Traditional Southern Barbecue. I followed that for awhile and then stopped after I had some computer issues. There are names from the list I remember fondly. There was a really nice guy in Texas who went by "Belly." While following the list, Belly's wife Susie passed away I remeber being surprised at how sad I felt. I had never met Belly or his wife. But the list was the kind of place where the active participants seemed like friends. I guess that is the beauty of cyber-space. You have friends you never met.

I'm not sure what became of the list. Looking at old web pages, it might still be going. The main thing I took away from it was to try cooking low and slow directly over the coals. I tried it. I loved it. Life has never been the same since.

There were several memebers that were very active. There was a guy who's tag was "Bob in Ga." Bob in Ga. was (and probably still is) very passionate about food and BBQ. He had smokers, pits, pizza ovens and his own farm where he raised all of his meat. Truth be told, "Jon in Albany" is a personalized derivative of Bob in Ga. I think there was a part of me that wanted to be like Bob in Ga. when I grew up. There might still be - I recently looked at a house with enough land for pits and livestock.

Bob in Ga. would insist that BBQ was produced by cooking a whole hog directly over coals created by burning wood(no charcoal-not even lump), seasoned vinegar is the only acceptable sauce, and a BBQ contest is pure evil. He hated contests. Many of Bob in Ga.'s clashes were with people living in suburbia with equipment ranging from a small Weber smoker to a huge propane tank mounted to a trailer travelling from town to town cooking ribs and pork butts. They did not appreciate being told again and again that what they did was not "real." One of the guys that vocally defended his food to Bob in Ga. was a guy named Gary in Chicago.

To prove his point, Bob in Ga. invited any list memeber that was interested in discovering "real BBQ" to a BBQ fest at his farm in Georgia. There, one would be able to slaughter a hog, scald it, prep it and cook in low and slow directly over live hardwood coals. I would have loved to have gone. But, money and vacation time were an issue back then and I never went. I think the event happened more than once. Based on the stories on the list, it was a helluva good time.

Where the hell am I going with this? Stick with me, I think I might be getting there.

Fast forward to 2008. I started reading all the Ruhlman books and began making my own sausage and bacon. One night, on a whim, I googled Ruhlman to see if he had a website. Turns out he had a blog. I had never really paid much attention to blogs. I really liked his blog so I checked out the blogs he had listed on the side. Turns out I liked some of those. The cycle continued and now I follow about a dozen blogs and and I keep looking for others. Anyhow, Ruhman once posted a link to a head cheese making video at Skyful of Bacon. The video was awesome, so I started following the blog and movies both created by Michael Gebert. Michael often refers to an LTH forum whick looks like a hybrid of a blog and the old BBQ email listserv. On the LTH forum there is a lengthy discussion of curing bacon. Since I respect Gebert's opinion and it appears often in the posts, I figured I'd give it a read. In the discussion there are references to Bob in Ga. raised pork and posts by a Gary going by "G Wiv" that is from Chicago. Could that be the Gary? I'm guessing it is since halfway down the second page of post, there is a phot of Gary puting a hog in hot water at Bob in Ga.'s farm. Wholy small world, Batman!

So, I googled Bob in Ga. Turns out he has a website too. Read the "Our BBQ Dream" and "The Wrong Way" for some insight to Bob in Ga.'s passion. It comes through, but came through louder in the old emails.

Sometimes the internet is a small place.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Tasting

I thought a nice idea for a series of posts would be commenting on the occasional bottle of bourbon or Scotch I purchase. While I have several "go-to" favorites, I do like trying new things. Unfortunately, there is a risk of hating something new. And that would be a real shame because trying something new can cost $40. My best example of this happened when my wife and I were in Napa. After taking the tour of the Mondavi vineyards there is a tasting. The tasting starts with bottle that retail in the $12 to $15 range and ends with a bottle with a suggested price tag of $125. I thought the $125 dollar bottle sucked. The only thing that would be worse than buying that bottle of wine and being pissed about wasting $125 would be buying that bottle of wine in a restaurant for $250.

Back to the current tasting. One of my favorite liquor stores in Albany is Empire Wines.They have a nice selection of wines as well as a very nice shelf of bourbon I have been working my way across. On a recent trip, there were several new arrivals including the bottle I bought. The brand name is Hirsch and there were three Hirsch offerings in three different price ranges. Two of the price ranges were out of my league for a fifth of anything until after I win the lottery. The third level was just under $30. Here's a shot of the bottle:

Enough blabbing, let's have a taste......It's just so-so. Lot of caramel in the aroma but the bourbon is pretty harsh. Drinkable, but nothing special. No age on the bottle, but it is clearly young. Placing two bottles priced well over $100 next to a $30 bottle with the same name is a good marketing move. But I don't think I'll be buying this one again.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Summer in February

It looks like a lot of people end up here look for a "55 gallon drum BBQ pit." I use a 55 gallon drum to burn logs to coals before using them in a pit. Here is a link to the nicest 55 gallon drum BBQ pit I have seen.

This post is not exactly timely. But as I have said in the past, I am more of a blog follower than a blog creator. Every year in the middle of February (usually near Valentine's Day), a bunch of family gets together at my in-laws to have a meal full of foods you find at a summer picnic. This year's menu included (but wasn't limited to) ribs, sausage, pierogi, deviled eggs, potato salad, a huge green salad and way too many desserts. It's is always a good time that unfortunately is not sanctioned by any cardiologists.

Here are some pictures of the BBQ pit where I cooked the ribs and homemade Italian sausage. It is nothing more than a bunch of concrete blocks with a old commercial oven grate as a rack. I love cooking with it. The pit has a sister with a view of the Sacandaga Lake. I'll post a picture of that this summer.

A scrap piece of sheet metal is the lid. Wood gets burned down to coals in a 55 gallon drum that has been slightly modified. There is a rebar grid at the lower rib in the barrel. The wood burns on top of the grid and when coals get small enough they fall through to the bottom. Using the little door and a shovel, the coals make their way into the pit as needed. It is pretty much an over-sized charcoal chimney. The door also controls the air flow. With a lot of wood and that little door wide open, the barrel looks like a jet engine. In the winter, I set up a grate in the pit for the coals. If they are not elevated, the heat of the coals melt the frost and the water puts out the embers. Ask me how I know.

I cooked three racks of ribs that sat in a rub over night. There was also about 4 pounds of sausage.

Like the amateur blogger I am, I went and ate instead of taking pictures of the food for a post. I'll try to remember next time. Last picture. Here's a view of the pit from the other side. The cow in the back thought I was nuts.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sky Full Of Bacon

There is a blog I follow called Sky Full Of Bacon. Great name, isn't it?

Anyhow, the blog is put up by Michael Gebert and he makes food related videos. The latest one just came out and it is about a raccoon dinner in Wisconsin. My favorite video is in two parts and follows some mulefoot pigs from birth to dinner in a Chicago restaurant. It was recently nominated for a James Beard Award.

And if you want to see a pretty special lady at work, watch Pear Shaped World. It's about a one-person pear farm. Amazing. Just thinking about it makes me feel lazy. Here's the link to the most recent video. The other videos are listed in the blog post