Dietary Diaries

The food inspired musings of a culinarily inclined nerd.

Location: Berkeley, California Bay Area, United States

Berkana signifies rebirth and new beginnings; I have found these in Jesus Christ.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The secrets to flaky pie crusts are. . .

So, as you can see, I haven't been posting much in my food blog lately. This is not to say that I haven't been eating; in fact, I have been eating a lot. But I have not been able to explore the culinary landscape as much as I would have liked to.

Anyhow, Kung Foodie asked: "And the gallette pastry secret is...?"

To be honest, it's not one secret; it's a confluence of secrets that synergistically enhance each other's effects until the combined secret has a qualitatively distinct benefit that can justifies calling the act of combining of all these secrets itself a secret.

The "secret" as taught by Peter in his explanation of the scientific theory of flaky crusts is that the butter must be cut to chunks of optimum size: about the size of a pea. (And I mean butter, not margarine, not shortening. Real butter.) When the dough is kneeded, the chunks flatten out, and separate layers of pastry; when the dough is baked, the butter melts and is absorbed into the pastry, leaving a thin cavity of separation between layers of dough, which the pie-eater perceives as that wonderful flakiness.

To keep the butter chunks cold so they don't melt in your hands while you work the dough, mix your flour, salt, and sugar ahead of time, put it in a snap-lid plastic container, and freeze the powdered mix. Never freeze the butter: it becomes unworkable.

And lastly, the secret I came up with: instead of using a pastry cutting tool (a.k.a. "dough blender") to incorporate the butter, I cut all of the butter to pea sized balls by using an egg slicer. I opened it up and used the wire grate to slice the butter into pats, and then I dusted the pats with flour to keep them from sticking to each other, stacked the pats and used the cutter to cut the pats into sticks. After dusting with flour again, I cut the sticks into cubes. Each one was about the size of a pea simply due to the width of the wires on the egg slicer. Then, I mixed the butter cubes with the frozen flour/salt/sugar mix, added some egg and water beaten together, and squished the little butter cubes into flat disks as I kneeded the dough. When the pie was assembled, I brushed the upper surface with some egg white and sprinkled brown sugar on it to get that crunchy sugared surface.

There you have it: the secret to my pie crust. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Spanakopita! (Greek for spinach overdose)

I'm on winter break, and not a minute too soon; this semester has been very difficult. So, to get back into cooking today, I tried my phyllo dough skillz with a new spanakopita recipe--and I learned things I never knew about spinach. Apparently, bunched spinach has an enormous amount of dirt in it. A casual rinse is never enough to clean bunched spinach. It is, however, significantly cheaper than pre-stemmed spinach, but that cost is transferred to the difficulty of stemming tons of spinach by hand. Eight servings of spanakopita required seven huge bunches of spinach, which yielded such an enormous volume of leaves that Peter's huge 'rondo' pan couldn't hold all the spinach even when heaped to overflowing twice. And within a few minutes of reducing, the massive mountain of spinach reduced to something that would fill two pint glasses. Each of the individual servings of spanakopita contained nearly a whole bunch of spinach's worth of leaves. And best of all, whether it was the eggs or that unpronounceable Greek cheese, the spanakopita didn't leave that gritty feel on my teeth. I'll have to try this recipe again a few times; I've developed quite a taste for spanakopita since I discovered some really good spanakopita at a little Greek restaurant in San Francisco. Now, as usual, it is my mission to reverse-engineer the recipe. Now, off to ponder the intricacies of making phyllo dough wrapped spinach pies. . .

Monday, September 19, 2005

Add one more dessert to the menu. . .

For a long time, the only two two desserts I was able to bake well were my rolled baklava, and my famous maple flan. Now, I present to you my latest dessert skill: fruit galettes (open top rustic pies) baked in cast iron pans!

The flavor of the above yummy creation is peach and almond, but the galette works well with many fruit combos. The crust was made with a new technique I developed improving off of a recipe from Fine Cooking magazine based on the scientific theory of flaky crusts Peter taught me. (Believe me, the science makes a difference. My galette crust came out wonderfully on account of this knowledge.)

Anyone up for some fun in the kitchen, give me a call.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Hershey's bought out Scharffen Berger! Ugh!

Alas, it is true: Hershey's couldn't keep it's grimey paws to itself; it seems that Hershey's has acquired the Berkeley-based premium chocolate maker Scharffen Berger for an undisclosed sum. All I can say to this is "Ugh!" I can't believe they sold out. That "undisclosed sum" must have been awfully persuasive.

I hope the quality trickles up to Hershey's, rather than Hershey's corrupting Scharffen Berger; Scharffen Berger's lightest chocolate has a higher cacao percentage than Hershey's darkest. Scharffen Berger was in a different league altogether; I still can't believe they sold out.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Scharffen Berger's Café Cacao

Last weekend, Peter took me to Café Cacao, located at the Scharffen-Berger chocolate factory. This is one of those spots which we had been looking forward to dining at ever since we took the factory tour. (Sorry, no oompa loompas nor nut-cracking squirrels. Wrong factory.) As it was located at the chocolate factory, and was named “Café Cacao” (or mis-named if you ask Pete; it is not a proper café but a restaurant), we expected it to have dishes (other than dessert) that included cacao as a featured flavor or ingredient.

Permit me to digress a moment, or I may seem unduely harsh in my expectations; what happens when you’re a foodie and have a culinarian as a best friend with whom you talk about restaurants and cuisine is that every restaurant you go to comes under critical scrutiny. When the experience goes well, the enjoyment and appreciation experienced by a culinarian go much deeper than the casual diner’s, but the restauraunt really has to work for that level of approval and satisfaction.

So, as I was saying, we expected to see cacao used in the food offered there, but there was a conspicuous absence of anything with cacao on the dinner and appetizer menu of Café Cacao. The drink menu had hot chocolate and mocha, but we had expected to see at least Cacao chicken molé or Halibut seared with some herb and spice crust with cacao. Pete ordered a hot chocolate, which was good (which from now on, means “comparaable to home made” when Pete says it). Fortunately, they had soft shelled crab sandwiches, which we both ordered, requesting that the freshly made potato chips be substituted with their thin-cut french fries, with an appetizer of Foie gras (fattened goose liver) “tostadas”.

The appetizers were très yummy; a thin slice of foie gras was broiled and served on top of a tortilla chip with thin cut cabbage and a mild red jalapeño jam. I thought this to be very creative, and quite delicious. Pete noted that the chip's strong corn flavor overpowered the delicate flavor of the foie gras. Not to be too harsh or anything, the second round of disapointment was soon served up when we received our main dish. The soft-shelled crabs were battered and deep fried, served on nice buns with a garlic mayonaise, but were quite oily. Not quite what we expected, but it was quite yummy, though oilier than optimal. And though they forgot to substitute thin-cut fries for chips, they made it up to us with a plate of thin-cut fries later, though it was after we had finished the bulk of our meal.

One observation we made as food-nerds was that both the fries and chips were hardly browned and often oil-soaked. This indicated that the frying temperature was too low to create enough steam from the potato’s water content to force the oil out as it cooked. And as on prior occasions, Pete inquired of the waitress what frying substrate they used. Secondly, the oil was not broken in yet. But given that it was at the Scharffen Berger chocolate factory, we still looked forward to the dessert, which we could not have left without. (Unfortunately, much of the dessert menu contained no chocolate!)

Now, maybe Pete’s standards are high (actually, they are quite high. . . but this was Scharffen Berger. . .), but even as a recently trained pastry chef, Pete found their Chocolate “Tribute Cake” wanting. Their decorative fringe of chocolate was out of temper, exhibiting “alpha crystals” (if I remember Pete's words; I think that term refers to sugar crystals), and though I myself would not have been able to tell, Pete immediately identified the flour used in the cake as AP flour (all purpose flour) rather than cake flour simply by texture and mouth-feel. On top of that (literally), the chocolate ganoche glaze was too thick; it squashed the cake and layers of cream when we tried to cut into it.

Over-all, it was a great birthday dinner, nerding-out with Pete over food at a nice restaurant. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt of having a sample size of one to evaluate from, but honestly, I expected something different from Scharffen Berger.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Quoteables: "Meet me at Starbucks"

So, Peter and I were at the El Cerito Plaza (the one with three Starbucks in that one  plaza) when I remembered how Starbucks saturation is at the point  where there are places in downtown San Francisco where you can turn 360° and see three or four Starbucks. In fact, Starbucks has become a cancer upon the landscape; in many places, the café culture has become notably subdued on account of Starbucks putting local cafés out of business. Starbucks has no character– they're all clones; seen one, seen them all. I'd much prefer local cafés to cultivate their own character, to have local flavor. . . but I digress. . .

Upon walking in front of one of the three starbucks in El Cerito Grande plaza, Peter remarked:

"You know what? 'Meet me at Starbucks' is now totally meaningless."

BTW, there are 20 starbucks in the map below. That's only a handful of SF city blocks, folks!

Monday, June 20, 2005

Quotables: T-bone steak

So, lately, Peter and I have been having guests over for dinner in our kitchenette-on-steroids—which was our original motive for spiffing up our kitchen in the first place. Jory was our second victi. . . uh, I mean, dinner guest, an James was gracious enough to accompany us for our meal of T-bone steak on top of macaroni and sauce debian ("a reduction of a stock made of linux distributions" as I called it ^_~). Peter could explain it better than I; all I know was that it's very  tasty and intensely beefy. . . but I digress. . .

Those T-bone steaks were amazing— among the largest individual servings of meat James and I had ever seen, prompting me to inquire of Pete what section of the cow it came from. Before he could answer, James piped in:

"The Atkin's section."

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Quotables: You can't say 'Bambi' without 'Bam!'

BambiSo, lately, Pete's been mastering the skills of sauce making at the culinary academy, and raving about how good they are and all the nuances of the classic sauces of French cuisine. (Having tasted some of Pete's sauces, I must admit there's much to rave about a worthy sauce!) Well, he was bored this afternoon after school, and decided to rent a whole mess of Japanese animated films by Hayao Miazaki, the director/writer of Princes Mononoke. The first film in this set was Nausicaa, (which was quite good, IMHO). But, as the film was distributed by Disney, they had a whole mess of previews for new releases on DVD. . . but I digress. . .

One of the previews was for Bambi, digitally remastered for DVD. But to my utter surprise (well, not really, knowing Pete), as soon as the announcer declared "the Disney classic, Bambi, now on DVD! Pete hit the fast-forward key, saying with disappointment,
   "Bambi on DVD?! I don't want Bambi on DVD; I want Bambi on a plate . . . covered in sauce!"

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Sake tasting at the Takara sake brewery

Sake tasting roomFor years, while getting off the 580 freeway into Berkeley, I've driven by the Takara sake brewery, being enticed by the sign painted on the side of their bottling warehouse advertising the free sake tasting experience at their sake museum and doing nothing about it. Well, today, on a whim (actually, boredom and free time coinciding), Pete and I decided to go.

It was quite an interesting experience, to say the least. After watching a short video on the history of sake and how it differs from wine and beer, all the guests had a complementary sake tasting of nearly the entire range of sakes offered by Takara.

Sake (pronounced "sah-kay") is the traditional fermented drink of Japan, and is currently made out of highly polished rice which is then steamed, and fermented with both a special kind of mold (known as koji) and yeast at the same time. The koji mold ferments the starches in the rice into sugars, while the yeast ferments the sugars into alcohol. (Sake is non-carbonated.)

unpolished rice compared with highly polished sake riceWe learned all about the various kinds of sake; "junmai" indicates that a sake is entirely fermented of rice and has not been fortified with added alcohol. "Ginjo" indicates the grade of polishing of the rice grains; apparently, the unpolished kernels of rice have oils and proteins that start the bran on inwards, and the more of the kernel is polished off, the purer the starch. "Ginjo" grade sake has half the mass of the kernels polished away, and "dai-ginjo" (greater ginjo) has between 55% and 70% of the kernels polished away. A high purity starch gives the koji and yeast a chance to impart their subtle flavors without being overpowered by the flavors found in the oils and proteins of the outer layers of the rice. This stuff is then steamed, and part of it is mixed with the koji mold as a starter. Then, the whole of it is mashed together with yeast, and left to ferment. The resulting alcohol concentration is between 12%-16%, depending on the style and brewer.

sake cupThe recommended tasting order for sake is to taste them in order from the driest (lowest remaining sugar content) to the sweetest. Like tasting wine, first one looks at the clarity and color, then swirls it around and smells it, and then tastes it, exhaling after each sip to expose the olfactory nerves to all the fragrances released by the warmth of the mouth. We started with a classic dry sake, which was served warm (between 105 and 120 degrees–not too hot). Then, we compared it with draft sake which was unpasteurized, known as 'namazake' (pronounced as "nama-zah-kay'; 'S' sounds are voiced as z's when they follow vowels if I remember correctly, as sushi is voiced with a 'z' in 'makizushi'). It was quite a bit fruitier tasting. Interestingly enough, all the fruit scents and subtle flavors are a byproduct of the fermentation; nothing is added to the sake but good water, koji, and yeast. We then went on to taste a 'nigorizake,' which was even sweeter, though not as fruity, due to pasteurization. Both namazakes and nigorizakes are served chilled; the flavor of the classic sakes is very subtle and benefits from being served warm, but the fruity bouquets and sweetness of the nama and nigori style sakes do better going down cold while having the warmth of the mouth release the aromatic flavors characteristic of these sakes. (Plus, since nigorizake is unfiltered and cloudy, heating it would make it thicken and cook so it tastes like a runny alcoholic gruel–definitely not good eats.)

The other thing we learned was that sake does not age well beyond the initial post-fermentation settling and aging. A display bottle of old-ish sake could be seen by visual comparison to be yellowish, and its odor was rather rancid and stinky. Unlike wine, sake cannot be aged for long. The unpasteurized namazake style cannot be aged much at all, and needs to be consumed within a week of opening, if stored in a refrigerator. We ended up buying a total of five different kinds of sake from the factory, in part because the freshness could get no better than straight from the bottling plant, and because the prices were so good and the sake so impressive (not what I expected from domestically manufactured sake). . . and as usual, Peter, who is currently in culinary school at CCA, asked for sake recipies. Any tasty findings will be reported soon.

Next intended place of culinary exploration: the Scharffen Berger chocolate factory in Berkeley, and if we can afford it, their legendary Café Cacao (And if James is reading this, perhaps he would like to come along to nerd out with us. hint hint ^_~.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Quotables: my first margarita

So, while I was in So. Cal. visiting my bro, we went to Chevy's (the "fresh mex" place), and I ordered a margarita–the first margarita I've ever had. When the waitress came to take our order, I ordered a margarita, but since we were at Chevy's, there were half a dozen flavors. I told her to surprise me, and that my drink budget was $10 (hoping for quality, rather than quantity). Well, they brought me a "regualr" sized margarita, but it was pretty huge by my standards. I can't remember what flavor it was, but it was pretty good. ( I think the waitress went ahead and got me the most expensive item that fit in my drink budget). My brother got some weird margarita ("lava flow" I think) that tasted like Nerds dissolved in alchohol. . . . but I digress. . .

I looked at my jagged salt crusted glass of cactus alcohol and hesitated, invoking his stern admonishment:
     "Drink up! Don't you know there are sober children in Africa?"

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Me Want Honeycomb!

While waiting for my laundry to do itself at the laundromat on Thursday afternoon, I learned that every week on Thursdays, the connecting street between Shattuck Avenue and Rose Street (in Berkeley) gets blocked off, and local organic farmers sell their goods there, while random street musicians serenade the shoppers. There were weird mutant heirloom veggies, fruits, pastries, cider, and even fish. One of the booths was that of Marshall Farms beekeepers, and one of the products they offered was single servings of honeycomb (full of honey, not the empty comb, which would be gross). They said it goes great with cheese. I thought to myself, :oP "mmm. . . a mouth full of cheesy wax. . ."

Well, curiosity got the best of me, and I bought one of the sample sized honeycomb units. I must admit, honeycomb has a delicious texture like nothing else I've tasted, and tastes like honey. (duh.) The proprietors of the booth say that the wax is edible and even good for you, but I couldn't get myself to swallow the wax. I just chewed the comb until the wax all bunched up like a wad of gum and all the honey was gone, and spat it out. I hear that honeycomb is often served by smearing it on bread. In any case, as a relatively novel culinary experience, I felt I ought to blog it as a dietary diary.

Now I can relate to some of the passages in scripture that mention honeycomb.

Proverbs 24:13-14
 Eat honey, my son, for it is good,
and the honeycomb is sweet to your palate;
realize that wisdom is the same for you.
If you find it, you will have a future,
and your hope will never fade.

As for the mentions of honeycomb in the Song of Songs, well, hopefully some day soon.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

"Sexy Food Nerds" Three words I never thought I'd see together

Whoa. I never thought I'd see "sexy", "food", and "nerd" together. Well, okay, Jaime Oliver and Tyler Florence are widely regarded as "sexy food nerds", and Alton Brown might be if he were younger, but still the term seems strange. Do girls dig guys who cook? If girls dig guys that cook, I'd probably be paired up by now. (I've got the "food nerd" part down. Now I've got to work on the "sexy" part.) Oh well. . .

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Eat, drink, sleep, breathe, sweat, and pee onions

A few nights ago, I made french onion soup in my massive latté mugs topped with toast and melted cheese. . . but due to my impatience and hunger, I didn't fully caramelize the onions. It was taking too long, and I had gotten started late. (I'm recounting this on account of hanging out with Peter and talking about food.) On top of that, none of us had eaten dinner yet. Oops. My flat-mate John, who absolutely loved the soup (even as it was), complained that he smelled of onions with every breath he breathed, that he left restrooms smelling of onion-odored urine, and that everything he wore smelled intensely of onions. This is not surprising, since we each consumed the equivalent of three large red onions, boiled down to a creamy semi-caramelized concentrate. Well, at least he doesn't have to worry about vampires. Oh, wait, that's garlic that's supposed to keep vampys away. hehe. . . the thought of intense garlic saturation is almost funny. Hmmm. . .

I didn't notice any onion aftershocks in my own bodily functions at all. Maybe being Asian has something to do with it. I think the thing that threw me off was that I used red onions, whose color hid the fact that I hadn't sufficiently caramelized them.

Lesson learned: Don't make gourmet food when you're hungry and impatient!

None the less, the soup was very delicious, especially with that difficult to pronounce and impossible to spell French cheese all molten and bubbly on top of the bread topping. . . mmm. . . casomorphins. . . The Cheeseboard sells it affordably. Hmm. . . I still have a mess of onions left; time for another attempt.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Yoshi's Jazz and Sushi

Peter and I had discussed the topic of getting really good sushi once, and the insider tip handed down to him from the sushi experts is this: find a reputable place that is often busy (so you know their stock of fish is fresh), and the first time you go to the sushi bar, get to know the chef by name, order the items which are the most indicative of their skills and quality control, and leave a huge tip if you like the place. (If you make friends with the sushi crew, they go out of their way to please you.)

Well, this past sunday, we scoped out Yoshi's, the popular Jazz house and Japanese restaurant.

Among the new items we sampled were uni tama and iku tama—sea urchin eggs served with a quail egg yolk, and salmon roe served with a quail egg yolk. (These items are great indicators of freshness because they have a short shelf life.) For those un-initiated in sushi, this may sound weird, if not gross, but having acquired a taste for such things, I must admit that the addition of egg makes a significant impact on the texture and flavor of uni (pronounced "oo-nee") and ikura. We also had their albacore toro (tuna belly), hirame (halibut, served with a paper thin slice of lemon), and their deep-fried soft shell crab rolls. Along with that, we had a little bottle of imported Oyama brand sake, chilled. Peter had some unagi (broiled eel), which he was very pleased with. The sauce they brush on the unagi is made by simmering trimmings from the unagi in sweetened soy sauce until it reduces to a thickened consistency. That's one insider trick I'll remember next time I try to make unagi.

Oyama sake was excellent. The flavor was very subtle, but it was one of the more fragrant sakes I've had in recent memory. You can't tell that this sake is 16% alcohol, yet the flavor was not so overpowering that it masked the alcohol so much as the fragrance distracts you from the alcohol (even while served cold!).

The food was delicious, but the place was pretty empty for lunch on Sundays. I've only been to Yoshi's once before, but that was for a jazz performance, where I had ikura and uni as an appetizer. Even when the house is packed, the quality of their fare is excellent. Their restrooms were clean, and the decor of the restaurant was very beautiful.

Overall, Yoshi's gets solid approval all around, for both their taste in music as well as their fine sushi.

A note on uni and ikura
My favorite sushi items are uni and ikura, though after having the variant with the quail egg-yoke at Yoshi's, I think I have a new favorite. Both are rich in essential fatty acids, and have a creamy texture, though the ikura is distinct in that the individual eggs pop as you eat it, releasing the flavor in little punctuated bursts. Having acquired a taste for this at a young age (not a hard taste to acquire at all), this does not gross me out, but if caviar grosses you out, you probably won't like uni or ikura. Uni is smooth and creamy, though in flavor, it is rather bland, and needs the soysauce and wasabi to complement it. Like avocado, the texture is easier to describe than the flavor.

The items we got looked better than the above pictures. If uni is slimy and "wet" looking, it's probably not so fresh. As far as I remember, truly fresh uni doesn't resemble a paste; it holds together, and the texture is visibly granular. The surface should not be oozing anything, but should be moist without looking runny. And IMHO, uni should never be eaten straight; without sushi rice, soysauce kicked up with wasabi, uni is admittedly not as good as it could be.
(Any of you who have had all sorts of odd rollls with avocado, take not of these: Japanese sushi doesn't use avocado—that's a Californian innovation.)

Monday, August 09, 2004

P.F. Chang's China Bistro

You might remember how bummed I was when I found out that P.F. Chang's China Bistro wasn't founded by P.F. Chang ("P.F. Chang" doesn't exist! ) Well, today, Peter and I decided to overlook the fact that P.F. Chang's is a chain of restaurants with over a hundred locations founded by a white guy named Paul Fleming, and to give them a chance to prove their skills for lunch.

Honestly, I was quite pleased with the food. (And their waitresses were très cute. ) Their Oolong-marinaded sea bass was excellent , and so was their Cantonese style duck. We also got the seared tuna appetizer, and Shanghi style street dumplings. (Yeah, sounds kinda gross, but they mean "street-side vendor.") Everything was delish. The dessert item we got, which was a fried bannana dish, was also delish; instead of battering it and frying it, they wrapped it in a thin, fillo-dough-like sweatened egg-roll skin and fried it. And their restroom was impeccably clean, which is an absolute must. (I hate restaurant restrooms which are filthy.) The faucet outlets were beautiful angle-cut brass pipes that automatically let out a stream of perfectly warm water as you approach, sitting over an artistic trough made of polished orange glass aggregate. The interior decor of the restaurant was very impressive, though the mural they had curving over the wet bar was a badly drawn attempt to imitate old chinese watercolor paintings. The entire restroom was tiled in polished limestone, except the faucet wall, which had small dark red glass tiles.

Peter let our host know that he was a culinary student, and the floor manager, Francisco, gave him a tour of the kitchen facilities, which he told me were seriously nice, lamenting that Pyramid's kitchen equipment was starting to show the signs of age. And in our usual manner, we asked the servers where the tea came from, what kind of oil they fry in, and all sorts of culinary questions that only a chef would ask.

Now, the critique: all minor issues. The tea pots in which they served their tea were textured enameled cast iron tea pots, which are characteristic of Japan, not China. Chinese tea pots are clay based. On the menu, spicy items were denoted by a little Chinese character for "fire", which should rather have been the Chinese character for "spicy". (Yeah, I know. I'm a nit picker.) Also, of all the condiments they had at the table, they didn't have sesame seed oil, which is one of those characteristic condiments of Chinese cuisine. Lastly, the duck dish came to us overcooked; though the cut of meat we had off the duck was dark meat, it was a bit dry. Now, if you have dry dark meat on a duck, you know you've overcooked it. None the less, the duck was still delicious. We were going to order the "steamed fish of the day", but it turns out the fish they were steaming was salmon. Salmon's good, but not complementary to the kinds of flavors used in that recipe (ginger, soysauce, etc.); typically, a white fish such as cod, bass, or hallibut is used. I really wanted to see their take on steamed fish, but hearing that salmon was the fish of the day turned me off to that.

Over all, it was really nice. Definitely recommended.