Monday, December 28, 2015

Corn Pudding

When I was growing up, I was not a fan of corn. Part of the problem was that my mother knew only two ways to prepare it. It was either served on the cob after being boiled forever and then served slathered in butter and doused in salt or slopped onto a plate out of a can. To my best recollection, it was never used as a component in a more elaborate dish. In fact, it was very rare for my mother to ever make anything resembling an elaborate dish. She grew up in a region in which food was largely served without embellishment and unseasoned beyond sprinkles of finely ground black pepper (pre-ground, of course) and fine salt.

While I am still not a fan of corn by itself, I love it as a component part and wanted to try the corn pudding recipe on the Times as a variation on the usual savory options. With sugar, butter, milk, corn, and nutmeg, what could go wrong? Well, it seems that what went wrong was the proportions. This just was not all that great.

I did not vary the recipe at all except for one inconsequential point. Instead of making a huge portion all at once, I made individual muffin-sized portions so I could freeze leftovers more easily. I kept an eye on the cooking time and, given that some of the comments said that they had trouble with the pudding "setting", I was probably better off with the small portions. Mine set fine, as can be seen by the spoonful of pudding.

There were two main issues and one was that there seemed to be too much corn for the amount of pudding. There also seemed to be a little bit of a liquid and solid separation issue with the pudding where the corn floated to the top, the pudding sat somewhere near the middle to bottom, and a thin layer of liquid ran across the bottom of the muffin cup.

Additionally, the corn didn't seem to have cooked enough and felt too firm. I know corn does not need to be cooked for a long time, but the soft pudding with the overly firm kernels didn't work for me as a textural contrast, and I am not a person who is averse to good contrast in food. To be honest, I think it came too close for me to memories of gnawing on canned corn or corn fresh off the cob. I need a bigger buffer zone between myself and each kernel.

Some of the commenters for this recipe mentioned making a variation with creamed corn (presumably from a can). I had a sense that I'd like this better if half to 2/3 of the corn were pureed so that the clumping of the kernels would be less. At any rate, I was insufficiently pleased with this that I threw out the remainder after eating two portions and I don't think I'd bother to try even a variation on this recipe. I think I'll stick with things which have a lower corn to other ingredient ratio.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Cranberry-Orange-Maple Sauce

I will admit that my results for this will not be ones that can be generalized to other attempts at this recipe because I substantially modified the ingredients list on the Times Cranberry-Orange-Maple sauce in order to remove a lot of the sugar. Using sugar substitutes cut the calories in the sauce dramatically, but I'm sure it also stripped it of some of its essential qualities. That being said, the recipe did form a flavor backbone for my result.

The Times recipe uses fairly classic ingredients including whole cranberries, an orange, and sugar. The twists are added with maple syrup and candied ginger. I had to start this process by making my own ginger because I didn't have any on hand. It's not hard, but takes a bit of effort and time. I made a reduced sugar version of that as well, but that almost certainly had no impact on the result with only a tablespoon of candied ginger going into it and the sweetness mattering less than the spiciness of the ginger.

As the recipe instructed, I started with 12 oz. of whole, fresh cranberries and added a cup of water. Instead of sugar, I used the equivalent sweetness of a half cup of sugar in heat-stable sweetener (in this case, 12 packets of Splenda).

 Instead of using an orange and juice though, I saved the rinds from two clementines and pureed a whole clementine in a 1/2 cup of water in a Magic Bullet. This thick puree was added to the cooking cranberries and sweetener. I also added a pinch of salt. The reason I opted for this choice over the orange juice and rind was that I was concerned that the lack of sugar would mean the sauce would not thicken as there could be no sugar syrup formed. The pectin in the rind would act as a thickener while the sweetener gave it sweetness.

This worked very, very well as my sauce became very thick and came together well. The main drawback is that the large quantity of orange puree made the sauce look rather pinkish rather than the vibrant red that it should be. It was not the least bit photogenic. It looks like an alien creature burbling in it's vaguely fluorescent primordial soup:

When the sauce had reached the right thickness, I added 1/4 cup of maple-flavored sugar-free syrup. I'm sure that, quality-wise, this was the biggest sacrifice in flavor. Finally, I chopped up some ginger and added it then tasted for sweetness. Despite the fact that I used a 1/2 cup less equivalent of sugar in sweetener, this seemed very sweet to me. It was more than enough to counterbalance the tart cranberries. It's possible that the sweetener just seems sweeter than sugar, or maybe the original recipe needed a lot of sugar to form a thickened syrup. It's hard to say, but I'm guessing that it could do with less sugar.

This is one of those recipes that is better when it rests and the flavors have time to merge together. I was not displeased with the taste and was happy with the texture, but the orange seemed to be too potent and the cranberries came through as very tart without enough sweetness to off-set it despite the fact that the sauce seemed to be sweet enough overall.

My cranberry sauce weighed in at 25 calories per 1/4 cup serving. I didn't calculate the Times numbers, but a canned sauce brings you 110 calories per quarter cup. One of the reasons that I wanted to make my own was to save a few calories on a day that desperately can use such a reduction. I'm not sure that it was worth it, but I do believe this would work better with a lot less orange. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

English Scones

I taught English in Japan at a chain language school for two years. Part of the cultural enrichment that I received was the experience of working with native English speakers from a variety of places including England, Wales, New Zealand, Ireland, Australia, and Canada. Nearly every one of them spent time at one point or another lecturing me on what was "wrong" with American language, food, ideas, etc. They did this because Japanese people generally viewed everything related to foreign culture as it pertained to the West through the prism of American culture.

The fact that the textbooks tended to do things like spell color without a "u" vexed no small number of them. Some would write their "corrections" into the books during their lessons. A smaller number would write snide remarks in the books in response to what was perceived as an American cultural reference. I recall one book had a sentence about a fictional character taking a "psych course" at college and someone had written "Is this some awful American thing?" next to it.

This competitiveness was tiresome. Personally, I was interested in teaching all variations of English to the students and did not feel any version was "wrong," but rather that each was different. With the folks who invented the language, this attitude absolutely was not shared. They were "right" and we were "wrong." To their credit, these angry, adversarial people helped me remember language and culture differences far better than if they had been offered in a civil and convivial atmosphere.

One day while I was having lunch in a communal eating area, one of the Australian teachers was raving about the food at the local KFC. In those days, it was still called "Kentucky Fried Chicken," and it wasn't a greatly widespread chain in Japan, but we had one near the school I had worked at. I don't eat fried food so I didn't pay much attention to the joy taken at the lip-smacking deliciousness of the food there until he started talking about the "scones" that were offered. Even the Japanese called these little bready nuggets "biscuits" and that is what they are called in America. You can't go into a KFC anywhere and order a "scone" without dumbfounding the server.

I mentioned to the Australian fellow that they weren't scones, but they were biscuits. He insisted that they were scones even though they were called biscuits. After some pointless quibbling about the name of a blob of baked carbs, I let it go. I had already had more than my fill of this arguing over what was "correct" and, if he wanted to call the KFC biscuits "scones," then it was no skin off of my back.

The attentive reader may see where this is going. I tried The New York Times recipe for scones. I have a pretty amazing recipe of my own already for scones, but these are supposed to be an "authentic" English version. What they are is essentially a version of a KFC biscuit. The main difference is that the top and bottom are crispier, or at least they are straight out of the oven.

I usually make a scone recipe that is very soft and tender with a gentle crumb and a top brushed with milk and egg and sprinkled with sugar. It is undeniably a treat. It's also really not very dissimilar to this recipe. It uses a bit more butter and sugar, and has egg in the dough itself, but it's not substantially different. The results, however, are worlds apart in texture. Instead of tender crumbles like my usual scones, this is more like somewhat bread-like layers. It breaks apart along a line in the center.

I followed the recipe precisely except for one trivial difference. I added a splash of vanilla to the milk. I found that after 12 minutes the centers were still a little doughy even though the tops and bottoms were golden brown, so I threw them back in for two more minutes and that seemed to finish them just barely enough. I think that rolling them out compresses the dough in a way that may make them bake more slowly through the middle than my standard scone recipe. When I make the other scone recipe, I pat it into a round or rectangle and then slice it into triangles or squares so the texture is uniform and not compressed. For comparison, I will show a picture of those scones here as well:

The reason I'm making comparisons is that the fact that these are different is the important point. Of course, if you are used to buying your scones pre-made in a market, a restaurant, or Starbucks, you're not going to be familiar with what a homemade scone is like anyway as all of those are enormous, bread-like, over-sweetened monstrosities made by mass production. Those scones are nothing like either of these recipes. However, if you want to come extremely close to the English scone without baking a thing, you can drop by your local KFC and order a biscuit.

January 27, 2016 update: I revisited this recipe to provide an appropriate accompaniment for a faux clotted cream recipe (because I can't find the real thing anywhere in America and I can't find heavy cream that isn't ultra-pasteurized and can't make a proper version). The faux clotted cream was a bust, but I learned a few things and the scones were better the second time around.

I followed the recipe exactly this time, except that I did not roll them out. I didn't like how doing so compressed them and made a denser scone so I patted the dough into a large rectangle and cut it into 15 small rectangular pieces (which is why the scones are not round - it was a 3 x 5 grid with uneven ends). This made them rise better and cook more evenly than the first time and saved some trouble. It gave them a lighter texture overall and made them easy to split for spreads. The main benefit of these scones over my usual recipe is that they have a firmer structure and are less delicate (which is why I made them to go with clotted cream). They're good, but a different experience.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Pasta with Fried Lemon and Chili Flakes

The page with this recipe for Pasta with Fried Lemon and Chili Flakes shows an incredibly artful shot of pasta with pretty curls of cheese, artfully situated bits of parsley and celery leaves, and three fried lemon rinds sitting on the side. My pasta looked like most of what ends up on your plate at home; it was a writhing mass of spaghetti coated in spices with what looks like lemon wedges trying to make an escape:

I had my eye on this recipe for quite some time, but was waiting for the right ingredients to make it. With such a short list, I wanted to make sure that I was working with good cheese in particular and used freshly grated Parmesaino-Regianno cheese. I did not obtain celery leaves because it was optional, but my guess is that they would not add that much to the dish.

I followed the recipe pretty faithfully except for using garlic salt instead of regular salt and adding a little more pasta water to the sauce as it seemed insufficient to cover it all (and there was no liquid in the pan after I mixed it up so it was nowhere near overly wet). Some of the comments seemed to say the dish was lacking in flavor and I didn't want to create an enormous mess and have a bland result. I also was very careful about how I cooked the lemons because it was clear (again from comments) that that would make or break the dish. I blanched and dried them faithfully and carmelized them until they looked on the brink of burning.

The little blurb next to the picture states that blanching them eliminates the bitterness in the pith. The little blurb is a big, fat lie. I even blanched for slightly longer than required (another 30 seconds) to make sure the temperature drop from tossing in a bunch of cool onion slices didn't harm the de-bittering impact of blanching. Since a commenter mentioned "crunchy bits of lemon", I carmelized them slowly and thoroughly only to see a lot of the brown bits washed off when I did the sauce portion. If my rinds look less fried than those in the picture, that is why. They used to browner.

My guess is that the original recipe included more fat than indicated and they were closer to deep fried than "fried". That is the only way I could see them actually getting crunchy. My rinds were chewy and bitter despite my care in how I prepared them. It's possible that the type of lemon or the age mattered a lot, but neither of these were points made in the recipe.

The basic pasta is actually pretty good. The lemon flavor, cheese, chili flakes, pepper, etc. work well. Using the pasta water to thicken and coat worked well. My husband tried this dish and said he liked it until he hit a lemon rind, but that was a deal breaker for him. It just spoils it when it's supposed to be the star of the show.

I'm guessing that it is possible for this dish to work with the fried lemons, but it's just too fussy and the pasta works so well without them. This was definite the nadir of my Time's recipe efforts so far and I wasn't sufficiently inspired by its potential to try and perfect it. I'll make the pasta with chili flakes part again, but no fried lemon.