Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Come to the Dark Side - of Cocoa 

It's finally cooling down enough to make wanting hot cocoa a regular event. But only at night, when the darkness brings with it chilly temperatures. There is a reason this time of year is known as the Chocolate Season - and the low cost of chocolate has very little to do with it.

Chocolate is at its best when the nights are long and the days planked with dull clouds. The wind howls and sometimes, when cold and moisture conspire together, we get snow, or ice. All of this makes chocolate a refuge and a sacrament.

In the summer, when the days are sunny and long, the few clouds sporting like plushies and the nights warm and starlit, fruit is preferred, and chocolate but an accent, a reminder of the dark side of the year. Chocolate then is a thrill, like a roller coaster ride or a haunted house - safe and slightly sinfully scarey.

But we're in the depths of the dark part of the year, and consuming chocolate is a mystical, holy event.

The Aztecs flavored their bitter chocolate with chili peppers and vanilla. We've worked to recreate this drink that captured an entire civilization. Perhaps we have it wrong still, but the concoction we created is truly a magical experience.

Do you know much about the manufacture of cocoa?

If you buy fermented beans that haven't yet been roasted, you can come close to recreating the foaming cups of xocolatl once served to important Aztec people. All you need to do is roast, grind, winnow, and re-grind the beans into a lovely paste.

Keep the cocoa liquor with it - it improves the flavor of the final product. Grinding from the raw, fermented bean yourself gives you greater control, and you lose less of the tasty chocolate liquor.

Then you grind the spices into the paste until it's smooth and free of grit. I like to use cinnamon, vanilla straight from the bean (and I like using cocoa beans and vanilla from the same country, there's something complemetary about the flavor that makes the final beverage extra yummy), and distilled flower water - rose or orange are my favorites, although spicy nasturtiums or calendula petals work well. Here's a small hint - if you use red nasturtiums, the final beverage has the reddish cast that is much spoken of in historical documents. The final two ingredients are added just before foaming.

Heat the spicy paste with honey, then thin with pepper water. I like to use mild pepper water instead of dried and ground peppers or even fresh peppers to maintain a smoother drink with less grit in it - and in my experience, it foams higher. The foam is the important part of the beverage.

Use a molinillo to get the best, longest-lasting foam, and whip it when the cocoa is hot until it cools. It should foam very high.

To drink it, suck in some of the foam and allow it to melt on your tongue. The foam is the part that carries the best flavor. This is probably why the Aztecs drank small cups of it, and drank the cups quickly. Once the foam subsides, it isn't the fantastical beverage it was in foam form. It's still good, mind, but the bitterness predominates. You might want to add more honey, or even reheat it with heavy cream (not milk - it's too thin to carry off the flavor well).

Each cup of this Aztec cocoa must be made just prior to drinking. It is not a portable drink.

With the internet, getting raw, fermented cocoa beans is easier than it once was.

We love to flavor and tinker with hot cocoas in many ways, whether we get the raw bean, or buy the powdered, processed cocoa. Rose water, cardamom, and cinnamon makes a delightful libation to love, and with February 14th just a few weeks away, a perfect drink to share. Orange water, clove, and allspice is warming. Hazelnut, nasturtium flower water, and extra vanilla is luxurious. And don't skimp on the ingredients. Use whole milk, double creams, fresh spices and herbs (lavender water with a touch of tarragon is amazing in cocoa). Explore the use of vegetables, fruits, and grains in your cocoa, too. Thicken it with maniac starch or finely ground toasted wheat. Dollop in a bit of pumpkin puree with cinnamon, cloves, and ginger. Thin a thick, cream-heavy cocoa with a bit of apple juice or passionfruit juice. Make a mysteriously yummy cocoa with pureed blueberries, or stir in the juice of a pomogranate.

Arrange a make-your-own cocoa bar for these cold wintry days, and celebrate the bright joy that the darkness of chocolate brings.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Green Pigs 

Much to-do is being made over the Taiwanese green pigs that glow in the dark.

Perhaps the biggest jokes are the "green eggs and ham" jokes.

That perplexes me. The eggs are supposed to be green, not the ham. The ham is presumably the common shade of pink it's always been, accompanied by green eggs.

Green eggs - at least green-shelled eggs - are produced by araucana and ameraucana hens. The yolks are the usual yellow, and hte whites are still white. Why is no one working on producing true "green eggs", if they are so determined to make "green eggs and ham" a reality?

I don't want to hear "green eggs and ham" jokes associated with these green pigs anymore when there are better jokes to be made.

I'll leave those jokes to your imagination for a few days, and if no one can come up with any, maybe I'll post a few.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Iron Skillet Project 

The aim of the Black Iron Skillet Project is to get seasoned cast iron fry pans to people who lost theirs in hurricanes.

We've already sent some, along with dish towels, spatulas, and a few of our favorite iron skillet recipes. If anyone reading this would like to participate, just click on the link.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Bakery Predictions 

There are a lot of interesting food trends starting down the pike this coming year. Some of them are particularly relevant to bakers. And, we have a few predictions of our own, things that haven't received a lot of notice.

Fusion as chefs once practiced it has waned (and can I raise a mighty cheer?). Some of those concoctions were absolutely dreadful - no balance of flavors, no harmony in colors or looks - all faddish and popular because it was different. Fusion is still here, and still a good American tradition. In the baking field, fusion is very subtle. It's an application of techniques from one culture to the ingredients of another, and that means some fabulous new breads and bakery treats are emerging. This is not on the Trend Radar of other cooks, so take note of it. This is a Cracked Cauldron prediction. Now that the Atkins Diet craze has receded and bread is resumng its rightful place as one of the staffs of life, watch how it will evolve. I think American bakers will be at the forefront of this trend. It's certainly one we'd pioneer at the Cracked Cauldron. There are yeast-raising techniques from Italy that will make American Indian corn breads pop. Our first loaf of sourdough cornbread made with our Tri-Pliny starter, and creamed corn as well as ground cornmeal, flecked with buffalo shreds and served with a tart sumac-flavored buffalo butter was so good, we ate the whole loave at one sitting. It raises cornbread to a whole new level. Look for more such innovative breads in the coming year.

Slow breads will also become trendy - breads raised cool and slow to allow the flavors to fully develop. Not just sourdoughs will be treated this way, but any yeast-raised, salt-raised bread. Again, this isn't one of the trends listed in any trend-tracker for food service industries, but it is in keeping with the trend towards smoked foods (a slow-cooked food), slow-poaching of duck and fish, and cooking foods via bain marie vacuum-sealed in bags to let the flavor penetrate deeply without dilution. In the bread world, that means slow-raised breads.

Ethnic herbs will find their way into breads, as well - the black mint (huacatay) of Peru, for example. Look for ethnic cheeses and butters to form a new trend, but probably not until later in the year. Those will be slower to catch on - Americans are rather fond of the milder cheeses. And don't forget the more exotic mushrooms finding their way into bread, as well. Forget plain old porcini and portabella and oyster mushrooms, and look for the wilder Wine Cup (Stropharia rugoso-annulata), Shrimp Russala (Russula xerampelina), Gypsy Mushroom (Rozites caperata), Fairy Ring Mushroom (Marasimius oreades), Shaggy Parasol (Lepiota rachodes), Candy Caps (Lactarius fragilis - which is really good in sweeter pastries, too), Pig's Ear (Gomphus clavatus), Hedgehog Mushrooms (Dentinum repandum), and Satyr's Beards .

Wheat flour will still remain supreme as the bread flour of choice, but expect non-wheat flours to start finding a niche - like manioc flour and amaranth flour - among pastries and breads. Low carbohydrate breads will still be much-sought-after, and more people with wheat allergies will want bread, so be prepared to bake some truly unusual breads. For the health-conscious who want to scale back on their carbohydrate consumption but don't have wheat allergies, look for the thin individual breads, like tandoori breads, pitas, parathas, naan, and tortillas, to be popular.

Expect the smaller portion to remain with us, and when larger portions are provided, they will sell better if marketed as "shareable". In pastries, smaller is better, and people will be inclined to order "sample plates" of pastries, 5-7 bite-sized portions of pretty , flavor-popping pastries.

These pastries may be topped by the trendy new "fruit caviars" - fruit purees or juices emulsified into "pearls". These fruit caviars will top pastries, cookies, puddings, and even meat anad fish entrees. They truly come into their own when combined with sweet pastry, so the meat and fish trend may pass, but the pastry trend will grow.

Exotic and obscure spice blends will be sought out, especially ones from South America, Africa, and the Middle East.

Think hot, too. The heated spices of the entree are going to find their way into bread, too. Think dipping sauces with Banyuls vinegar, balsamic vinegars, yuzu juice, and pomegranate molasses. Think chilies in the bread dough and Moroccan spice blends lavashed on the crusts of the bread. Think bruschetta gone wild!

And the trend continues towards local and sustainable and fair trade, so look for more bakeries to start sporting signs and ads that proclaim their commitment to the local and global economy. Expect bakers to also be able to recite the provenance of their ingredients, too: "The flour in that cake came from William's Mill, out on Route 14, the eggs are from Hilda's farm at the lake, and the cherries were picked off Albert's new cherry orchard down in Jonesville."

So, let's see how this pans out in the coming year, shall we?

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Bread and Soup 

I know it's rather warm for hot soups, but there's more to soup than thick, hot stews.

There are yummily refreshing cold soups, too. The Germans loved their cold cherry soups, and my grandmother made a champion cold apple soup, and because we almost always had potato soup of some sort, she also made this very creamy Potato, Apple, and Dill soup.

There's gazpacho (which I prefer to cook before chilling), Vicchysoise, Chilled Avgolomeno, Chilled Guacomole Soup (rich, creamy, with a serious bite to it), Chilled Avocado Soup (not as complex as the Guacomole Soup, but totally grand with cheese), Raspberry Peach Soup, Chilled Cucumber soup with carrot garnish, and more.

So, of course, instead of making one of the grand cold soups, I invited people over for a Bread and Soup night and served hot soups: Pumpkin Peach Soup, Caribbean Vegetable, and Roasted Red Pepper with a Cilantro Pesto. They were accompanied by a variety of toppings (scallions, fresh parsley, fresh cilantro, sour cream, freshly made bird and bat croutons, cheese shreds, carrot flowers, and radish sticks), and the breads: a light sourdough rye, fresh herb bread, and a caribbean corn bread.

The soups and breads were well received at the party, and beca use I tend to cook for an army and all its followers, everyone took leftovers with them.

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