First Person TM_FP_BKSWEET_FI_003

The Turkish delight was, in retrospect, a pretty big mistake. We were browsing a Middle Eastern market near our home in upstate New York, a festive, mom-and-pop place where I tend to buy way more than I need. It was winter — cars plowing down Genesee Street beyond the front window throwing plumes of brown slurry — and I needed a pick-me-up in the worst way. When I saw that box of candy, I was basically powerless to resist. It was obscenely large, the size of a cookie sheet or a generous end table, and it was on sale. For reasons that seem a little sad to me now, that candy felt like an opportunity.

My husband looked anxious when I approached the checkout line, box tucked up under my arm like a surfboard. Over the years, Rog has watched me eat a lot of things saner adults revile — like circus peanuts, or those pumpkin “mellocreme” things that taste like candy corn but are somehow worse. I’ve eaten marshmallows so old they’ve fused together in the bag and become indistinguishable. I’ve eaten gummi worms and gummi sharks and ancient, ossified Jujyfruits that threatened to yank the fillings from my head. My lust for sugar is disabling, literally self-destructive.

“I’m not helping you with that,” Rog pointed out. “You’re on your own here.”

“Did I say I needed your help? I’m perfectly capable, thanks,” I smiled.

I was already feeling better about my day.
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Letter From California TM_LC_DONUTS_AP_001

Let me preface this by saying: I love remembering Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Super Mario Brothers Super Show, and Lady Lovely Locks.

See? I can be nostalgic.

But too much nostalgia is a dangerous thing. How many comedians have you seen, listicles have you read, or TV shows have you watched that don’t make jokes or have a point, but just reference things from your childhood? People use nostalgia as a shortcut to good feelings, a little lever we experimental-rat humans can push to get fed pellets of pleasant memories.

That’s why, when I heard that the Northeast-concentrated chain Dunkin‘ Donuts was coming to Southern California,* my response was a simple “meh.”

See, I grew up in northern New Hampshire, in a small town where Dunkin‘ defined donuts for me – in a good way. I fondly remember the tactical challenge of eating a jelly donut, trying to keep the messy explosion of powdered sugar and jelly from going anywhere other than my mouth. And Munchkins! Those wonderful little boxes of donut holes that, because they were small, allowed you to eat several different flavors of donuts without feeling like you were going to ralph.

But my current home, Los Angeles, is arguably the best place in America to eat donuts, which is why it makes me cringe every time my northeast brethren say they’re so excited Dunkin‘ is comin‘ to town. Because guys, I gotta tell you, I’ve eaten donuts as an adult, and Dunkin’s donuts taste weird. My boyfriend encouraged me to say that Dunkin’s offerings have a “signature flavor.” Well, their signature flavor would best described as “kinda off,” and they also have a signature mouthfeel – a weird coating feeling similar to what you get when you eat McDonald’s fries.
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Ingredient TM_CK_YOLKS_FI_002

When it comes to eggs, it seems that white is becoming the new black. Possibly in response to the obesity-epidemic or as a result of required calorie-counts on menus, many fast-food chains are now serving “lighter option” egg white products. McDonalds, Dunkin’ Donuts, Subway, Jack-in-the-box, Starbucks, and Sonic have all started supplying their stores with egg white menu items. Even the frozen food section is now showcasing frozen egg white breakfast sandwiches from major producers like Hillshire Farm and Kelloggs.

With all these big name food companies using egg whites it should be no surprise that we have hit an egg white crisis. Since 2013, egg white prices have soared to record-breaking highs of over $8 per lb. Dried egg white stocks have also been reported to be at startling lows, which leaves farmers and egg suppliers to “force molt” chickens in order to keep up with the demand.

But as a health conscious cook, I’m at a stand-still. It’s nice to see these healthier options available, but even I’m starting to grow tired of the high protein/low carb trend. Like a second coming of the Atkins diet, protein is becoming the macronutrient of choice for most dieters once again. Although it is true that egg whites are high in protein and contain zero fat and cholesterol, I’m a yolk kind of girl. Cholesterol-raising irrationalities aside, egg yolks are extremely nutritious – in my opinion, more so than egg whites. Egg yolks do contain fat, but it is vitamin-packed fat. Protein in no way, shape, or form is lacking from the American diet, but many fat-soluble vitamins, essential fatty acids, and other vital micronutrients are. Not to mention egg yolks taste way better.
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Cooking TM_CK_SMMRSLO_AP_001

I’ve never been much of a summer girl. I like going to the beach, wearing flip flops, and the smell of sunscreen, but the heat always gets me (plus, growing up in New England, I’m a sucker for fall). As a home cook, I’m torn when it comes to summer cooking. The season is bursting with fresh, readily available ingredients, but trying to cook a feast indoors in the midst of the summer heat is dreadful — not to mention wanting to spend time outside in the beautiful weather instead of stuck in my kitchen. And ever since a traumatic barbecue incident which ended with my father having to hose down the grill (shrimp and asparagus included), my outlets for summer cooking are limited. That’s why I turn to one of my most trusted kitchen tools when the summer heat blazes: my slow cooker.

Yes, the appliance you might think is only good for pot roasts or hearty cold-weather stews is a lifesaver during the summer. Tucked away in the corner of my kitchen counter, it cooks for hours on its own without me having to hover over a burning flame or open a hot oven. It also keeps me safely away from the grill and allows me the freedom to enjoy the sunshine without having to be tied to my kitchen.
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Forgotten Foods TM_FF_ENTRE_FI_001

For me, entremets are the food history equivalent of Gozer the Gozerian. You know, Gozer – the lace-body-suit demon lady from Ghostbusters? Venkman tells everyone not to think of a form for it to take, and Ray immediately thinks of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. It’s that classic brain gaffe – if someone tells you to not think of something, you can’t stop thinking about it.

That’s what happened to me when I looked up entremets in one of my favorite books, Alan Davidson’s wonderfully comprehensive Oxford Companion to Food. If you will forgive me the fifth-grade-essay transgression of beginning a piece with a definition quote, here is Davidson’s entry on entremets in its entirety:

entree, entremets a couple of French terms which no doubt retain interest for persons attending hotel and restaurant courses conducted under the show of French classical traditions, but have ceased to have any real use, partly because most people cannot remember what they mean and partly because their meanings have changed over time and vary from one part of the world to another. Forget them.

Forget them? Davidson, my man, come on – when almost everyone else has forgotten about something, that’s the time when you should remember it. Those almost-forgotten things are where fantastic weirdness usually hides. In the case of entremets, that fantastic weirdness is young boys singing duets with deer and roast pig heads vomiting fire like drunk dragons. But more on that in a moment.
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DIY TM_DY_TEMPURA_FI_002

As I glugged cup after cup of canola oil into the pan, my confidence seemed to dissipate. “This is nothing like baking,” I thought. “How much oil is enough? Is this pan even going to work?” I realized I might have crossed into a whole new, unfamiliar world as I stared at my candy thermometer hoping the oil would reach the right temperature for deep-frying tempura. The oil finally reached 360°F, but then it started to go over. Removing the pan from the burner, I waited for it to cool, but then it dipped below 360°F. So I placed it back on the burner, where it didn’t heat up quickly enough, so I had to crank the heat, and of course, it went over that magic number again. At this point, I was really getting sick of deep-frying and thought I better stick to what I know. And this was before I splashed boiling hot oil into my eye.

You see, when it comes to me and cooking Asian food at home, I don’t have the best track record. I can pipe roses out of frosting, bake three pies in one day, or craft the perfect tart crust with one hand tied behind my back. But I still can’t even get the simplest stir fry right. At this point, I know to just call for take-out or make reservations when I get a craving for Chinese, or Japanese, or Thai – and for a person who loves cooking, that’s just sad. But lately, I’ve been getting a little antsy thinking how much salt and MSG is in my takeout order. So when my latest craving hit, I decided that I wanted to try my hand at making my own tempura at home.
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Dispatches TM_DI_MITHAI_FI_001

“Two hundred and fifty grams of Bombay halwa for me and amba barfi for your mom,” my dad began on the phone. I was nervous about the task he had assigned me. But there was no way to avoid it; surely my parents would have been incredibly disappointed had I returned without the good stuff.

A trip to Poona city in Maharashtra, India is not complete without a trip to Chitale Bandhu, the premier sweet shop that is always crowded, since it carries the best mithai in the city. I had been there many times before, but always with my mother. Going there alone meant that I was faced with the responsibility of ordering the perfect amount of sweets and battling an impatient crowd of customers.
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Tasting Panel TM_TP_CHOCO_FI_002_1

When I was a child, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was one of my favorite films. I would picture myself running through the chocolate room, filled with candy trees and flowers, and swimming through the chocolate river. It might have been wrong, but I was always jealous of Augustus Gloop when he got stuck in the pipe of delicious, endlessly flowing chocolate. It was also fun to think of how crazy some of Mr. Wonka’s creations were, like his three-course dinner gum. But now Wonka’s wild confectionaries don’t have to be imagined. Chocolate bars seeming to come straight from Wonka’s factory now fill almost every candy aisle.

Lining the shelves of the average grocery store, probably next to your own favorite bar, are bars that have chocolatiers pushing the limits on cacao combinations. Dark chocolate and chilies? Well, that doesn’t seem too exotic. But what about dark chocolate and wasabi? Milk chocolate and beef jerky? How about white chocolate and kalamata olives?
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Bookshelf

Chocolate Without Compromise

Vegans deserve decadent desserts, too – and a new book is here to help

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TM_BK_VEGCHOC_AP_001When I was in high school, my best friend was a vegan. She subsisted primarily on rice, beans, fruit, and the vegan cookies her mom baked in giant batches every weekend. Any time there was a party, she’d bring a plate of these cookies to share. They were overly sweet, weirdly gummy, and not at all appealing to anyone who wasn’t devoted to a strict plant-based diet.

Happily, things have changed a lot in the world of vegan desserts over the last 20 years, in large part thanks to Fran Costigan. She has been working as a vegan pastry chef and baking instructor for more than two decades and is known for desserts that satisfy in a way that’s better for you and for the planet.

In her recent book, Vegan Chocolate (Running Press, 2013), Costigan serves up a luscious array of vegan truffles, cakes, cookies, pies, puddings, tarts, and drinks. Of the recipes I tried, not one felt like a sacrifice or compromise. They were universally delicious and were a pleasure to make, because I could taste freely throughout the prep process without worrying about raw eggs in the batter. MORE

DIY TM_DIY_COCOA_FI_001

Welcome to Chocolate Week at Table Matters! We’re celebrating all-things cocoa just in time for every chocolate lover’s favorite holiday. Stay tuned as we explore its many sides.

If I could, I would strike Palmer’s “chocolate” from this earth. You know what I’m talking about — that low-quality holiday candy that tastes like chocolate that’s been chewed up and spit out by the mouth of a dirty mama bird before being re-melted and shaped into little medallions. I cringe recalling all the Halloweens and Valentine’s Days I spent shoving those cheap candies in my mouth, trying to get rid of them before eating the much more worthwhile Kit Kats, or the ultimate trick-or-treat wins, the Almond Joys.

Likewise, I would happily rub out any of the new-fangled Hershey’s products that wear the wrappers and take the shapes of chocolate, but are in actuality the terrible bastard children of chocolate and corporate frugality. Yup, that’s right: If you weren’t already aware, there’s a good chance that the “chocolate” you’re buying from Hershey’s isn’t chocolate at all. See, back in 2008, Hershey’s started replacing some of the cocoa butter in its products with a combination of cocoa butter and other vegetable oils. Using other vegetable oils is cheaper for companies, which explains why a bag of the aforementioned Palmer’s always costs a dollar or two less than actual chocolate. But those “chocolate” products taste cheaper, too, as do most foods when unnecessary ingredients complicate their simple recipes. See, the process of making a good chocolate only requires a few steps: Cacao pods are roasted, ground, and made into chocolate liquor (which, if desired, can then be separated into dry cocoa solids and cocoa butter). Then you add in vanilla, sugar, and often lecithin (an emulsifier), and you’ve got some good eatin‘.
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Chocolate TM_CH_CHOC_FI_001_1

If we’ve learned anything from the locavore movement, it’s that relationships are important. Those heirloom tomatoes, the ones with furrows like a bulldog’s forehead? They’ve been imbued with the passion of the tomato farmer, whose face may or may not be equally wrinkly. That tomato is the vehicle for a relationship — one between you and the tomato farmer. Logically, that relationship extends to other foods, like eggplants, kale, and strawberries. But when it comes to food other than produce, such as cheese, wine, or chocolate, things get a bit more complicated.

Consider the chocolate truffle. If you take pains to shop at local businesses, then you probably know the person who made it. This person is a chocolatier — someone who buys chocolate and uses it as an ingredient.  For example, they can add mint-infused cream and a knob of butter to make mint truffles, or dapple a thin layer of chocolate with fruits and nuts to make bark. Or they can pour liquid chocolate into a mold to have it emerge as a hoppy bunny or bearded man. MORE

Holiday TM_HL_MINCE_FI_001

Being half-British comes with its fair share of cross-cultural personality quirks. Most of them are minimal and usually go unnoticed, but during the holiday season certain traits and affinities become more pronounced, particularly when it comes to my cooking and eating habits.

The weeks leading up to Christmas are spent assembling the usual array of annual holiday snacks. We nibble on flaky sausage rolls, soft almondy Bakewell tarts and cup after cup of tea as we plan the menu for Christmas dinner. Once the type of roast has been determined, and side dishes are designated, our minds turn to the last course. When it comes to quintessential British desserts, I can take or leave a Christmas cake or figgy pudding. It’s the traditional mince pies that I look forward to the most. MORE

Bookshelf

Homey, Not Homely

Bringing glamour back to winter baking with Wintersweet

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TM_BK_WSWEET_AP_001_2For those of us who like to bake with the seasons, the winter months often feel less than glamorous. Gone are the berries and stone fruits of summer and instead, we’re left with an assortment of sturdy apples and homely squash. Good for the occasional pie, but not much else, right?

As Tammy Donroe Inman’s new book Wintersweet: Seasonal Desserts to Warm the Home proves, that notion is entirely wrong. This volume shows with style and ease just how varied and delicious winter desserts can be. The photography is beautiful and inspiring, and the writing is personable, fun, and crystal clear. Arranged by main ingredient (Apples, Pears & Quince, Nuts & Chocolate, Citrus, etc.), Wintersweet includes both twists on classics (Ginger Apple Crumb Cake) as well as novel end of meal offerings (Honey-Roasted Pears with Blue Cheese and Walnuts).

As I read my way through the book, I marked more than half the recipes as things I’d like to try and finally settled on three that were perfect for this holiday season.
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The Larder TM_TL_COOKIES_FI_001

There is no holiday tradition I love more than the baking and sharing of cookies. Most of the year, I do my best to keep the sweet treats at bay, but during December, all bets are off. I make at least half a dozen varieties and hand them out to my friends, neighbors, and family members.

My first cookie of the season is always a basic roll-out sugar cookie. The recipe comes from an old family friend. It’s easy to make, can stand up to repeated rolling, and holds its shape during baking. I like to decorate them with a simple shake of colored sugar or sprinkles, but the truly ambitious can employ frosting as well.
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