taste test

A Lusty Little Pepper

As I said in my last post, occasionally I have to write essays for school. It seems the typical required length will be but a page, so I thought I’d give them a second audience and share them with you. Our first assignment was to research the history and culinary uses of an herb or spice with which we were unfamiliar. Here is the result:

A Lusty Little Pepper

When faced with a recipe requiring a spice I’ve neither seen nor heard of, I have a tendency to first seek out an alternative. Of course I always keep that spice in the back of my mind, hoping that one day I’ll happen upon an epicerie and think to lay down my cash and experience the real thing. Such was the case a few weeks ago when I came across Paula Wolfert’s recipe for Spiced Butternut Squash Soup reliant upon the cubeb pepper.

Although native to Indonesia, and thus nicknamed Java pepper, the cubeb seems most prevalent in Moroccan cuisine and is a star ingredient in the North African spice mix Ras el Hanout, consisting of up to 20 herbs, spices and aphrodisiacs. In fact, cubeb too has been used as an aphrodisiac throughout history. It is mentioned in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights that Shams-al-Din is given an edible paste made from cubeb and other sundry items as an aphrodisiac remedy for infertility. Those attributes are also reflected in South Asian lore; “Unani physicians use a paste of the cubeb berries externally on male and female genitals to intensify sexual pleasure during coitus,” (Wikipedia).  Various other medicinal qualities have been alleged of this wee peppercorn:  physicians of the Tang Dynasty used it for everything from darkening the hair to restoring the appetite, “Sanskrit texts included cubeb in various remedies. Charaka and Sushruta (both ancient Indian physicians) prescribed cubeb paste as a mouthwash, and the use of dried cubebs internally for oral and dental diseases, loss of voice, halitosis, fevers, and cough.” (Wikipedia) Interestingly, more than one culture has also been known to use cubeb as a ward from demons.

Not to be outdone, Western medicine has also recognized the varying effects of cubeb on the humors of the body. In the 17th and early 19th centuries the London Dispensatorie published that cubebs “cleanse the head of flegm and strengthen the brain, they heat the stomach and provoke lust…and are very profitable for cold griefs of the womb,” (Wikipedia). Cubeb’s antiseptic qualities have also proven useful as an ingredient in remedies that treat bronchitis and most medically significant, gonorrhea.

Resembling an engorged black peppercorn with a clove-like stem, the cubeb is said to “have a warm, pleasant aroma, lightly peppery but also allspice-like, with a whiff of eucalypt and turpentine,” and is said to pair well with bay, cardamom, cinnamon, curry leaf, rosemary, sage, thyme and turmeric (Norman 229). When attempting to prepare the soup mentioned above, I was told to substitute equal parts black pepper and allspice. The aroma that emanated from my mortar and pestle was floral, spicy and sweet: a heady and intoxicating scent perfect for high-end cologne, or your next lamb tagine. True cubeb is said to carry a bitterness—one of the reasons it lost favor through the years. However, New American cuisine seems to be taking a turn for the bitter; so, perhaps it’s a time for this lonely spice to find a few new, and perhaps, lusty friends to rediscover the attributes prized by so many cultures before us.

Works Referenced

Donnelly, Kristen. “Paula Wolfert’s Moroccan Recipes.” Food & Wine October 2011. Print.

Norman, Jill. Herbs & Spices: The Cook’s References. New York, NY: DK Publishing, Inc., 2002.

Barber, Kimiko, et. al. The Illustrated Cook’s Book of Ingredients. New York, NY: DK Publishing, Inc., 2010.

Katzer, Gernot. “Spice Pages: Cubeb Pepper (Piper Cubeba, Cubebs).” Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages. 25 April 1998. 08 January 2012.

“Cubeb.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 2 December 2011. 8 January 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cubeb&gt;.

tapped.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: America’s Test Kitchen has a bug in my oven.

I wanted to make an apple pie, the next day’s episode was all about apples. I wondered how to make my pie crust better, Christopher Kimball took time a week later to give me the step-by-steps. The latest not so subtle usurpation of my genius: a sweet cream/cultured butter test.

A few months ago I penned an article for a writing course in which I was enrolled. Shocked though I was that such a test didn’t exist I thought it an appropriate subject for the assignment at hand. I would have loved a wider reaching test, but limits had to be set.

At any rate, you can find ATK’s findings here, and I’ll repost my article below, for comparison’s sake.

I’ve got your number, Christopher Kimball–and apparently, you’ve got my address…
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A Little Butter Now & Then

Pie. It’s currently all the rage. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s delicious, its flavors are myriad and, as the saying goes, there’s nothing quite as easy.  A dessert so versatile—fruity, creamy, nutty, even meaty—what truly gives a pie its identity is the crust. A buttery, flaky vehicle for goodness, crust will make or break a perfect pie. And butter will make or break a perfect crust.

While some believe that using only the best ingredients will result in success, my Southern grandmother often used the cheapest. When I’ve tried to improve upon her recipes, employing fancier alternatives, my results have been anything but successful. So, I started to wonder about the butter I use in my pie crust—with European-styles increasingly available, would using this fancier fat improve my pastry? A taste test was in order.

 I set up just two ground rules: any butter included in my test must be widely available and of the unsalted variety. I’ve stayed true to Land O’Lakes for years; now, whenever I went into a store, I bee-lined to the dairy case to see what brands were carried. A very informal poll of friends and relatives in remote locations helped to set focus on the top three contenders: Land O’Lakes, Breakstone’s and Kerrygold (one of those aforementioned Euro-styles). To give each a fair chance, I decided to experiment with more than just pie crust. And so it was that the great butter tasting of 2011 began.

 A troupe of butter enthusiasts settled in for a blind tasting of three preparations. To begin, unadorned, spread on white toast. Immediately I noticed the golden hue of Kerrygold (KG), more vivid than the pallid Breakstone’s (BR) and Land O’Lakes (LOL)—a feature I thought exuded richness yet made one of my tasters exclaim, “This one definitely looks the scariest…” The winner here was clearly LOL. Its flavor was more pungent than the others and left a lingering aroma in the mouth. BR meanwhile had a pleasant mouth feel but left some thinking its taste synthetic, almost like margarine. As a cultured butter one would expect KG to be the most pungent of the three—not so. Wrapped in foil, the only real comment on flavor was that, “It tastes like a wrapper.” Another comment, likely due to the higher butterfat content of Euro butters: “I feel like it’s waxing my mouth.” Unless you’ve run out of lip balm, not a pleasant sensation.

 My second test was from Bon Appétit Sept. 2007: “Gnocchi with Sage Brown Butter.” Again, KG was “greasy” and unpleasant on the lips. Seemingly the saltiest, it lacked a complexity and roundness that one expects from butter. BR, while oiler in appearance, fared much better for taste with a sweetness not present in the others. As for my old stand-by, LOL gave one of my tasters, “a delayed butter reaction,” reiterating the lingering aroma from the toast competition. While the LOL sauce was the most homogenous, BR landed on top due to a better marriage of flavors between earthy sage and bright lemon.

My third, and final test: “Best-Ever Pie Crust” (Bon Appétit July 2007). A blind-baked, empty shell would serve focus to the flavor and texture of our star. LOL went first eliciting a strong butter flavor—and a markedly strong salt flavor. The crust however was more crumbly than flaky and overly greasy, leaving fingertips slick and a noticeable smudge on the plate. My beloved had failed me. On to the BR, which provided better flavor: a tangy bite without the overpowering salt of LOL. Greasiness wasn’t a problem either, the pastry felt soft and delicate, still crumbly, but less so. Finally KG. With low hopes due to its previous performances I sliced the crust. It held together! Though crumblage was minimal, reactions were evenly split. Some thought it “cakey” and that it tasted like a croissant. I found it doughy, raw tasting. Each crust prepared the same, the higher butterfat surely slowed the browning process, resulting in a less toasty crust.

 In the end, there was no clear champion. My suggestion: keep a stick of each for their varying strengths—or go for the BR as it, at least, was never offensive. As for me, a passion for pure butter goodness continues. Although maybe I’ll put the butter aside and work on a filling for that leftover crust—did someone say coconut cream?

pie-a-palooza!

I didn’t win. My former victory has been tarnished by sad defeat.

At least my detailing was noticed, as the judges heralded the unparalleled beauty of my pie. I overheard one judge whispering to another in doubt that I’d made the apple chips that garnished the top (I had). I think my downfall came in the form of palates not accustomed to the heavy amount of cinnamon I’d used to honor the pie’s of my ancestors (i.e. my great grandmother’s fried apple pie filling).

Still, if you ask me, my pie was über delicious. My opinion as to why the winning pie conquered: it was served still warm, fresh from the oven. Kudos to you, friend baker–this round is yours, but next year, the jig is up!

As for my creation, what I learned from myriad apple tastings was that flavors of apples vary from farm to farm. A.K.A., the Galas from Red Jacket Orchards taste nothing like the Galas from Migliorelli Farm. For my test pies, I ended up combining scraps from the latest tasting. The (not surprising) revelation here is that using multiple varieties of apples elicits a more complex flavor & because I was making a smashed apple pie, the texture wasn’t of great concern. The conclusion: don’t feel bad about buying one of each variety available to you. Hold your own, secret tasting and then use the bulk to make a pie for the family who loves you:

Shmapple (Smashed Apple) Pie with Pumpkin-Oat Streusel

For the Filling
3 ½ lbs. of apples, peeled and diced (a good mix works best here. I used Winesap, Gala, Empire, Mutsu & Keepsake)
1/3 cup Apple Cider
2 tablespoons Butter
¼ cup Granulated Sugar
pinch of Salt

1 tablespoon Cinnamon (I used 2 tsp. of Ceylon and 1 tsp. of Cassia, but whatever you have will work)
1 tablespoon Lemon Juice
1 tablespoon Cognac

For the Topping
2 cups finely diced Pumpkin (from 3 lb. sugar pumpkin)
1 cup Rolled Oats
¼ cup Butter, melted
pinch of Salt
½ teaspoon Cinnamon
½ cup Brown Sugar
2 tablespoons Flour
1 teaspoon Lemon Zest

Prepare the Filling
In a large, heavy bottomed saucepan, slightly brown the butter over medium heat. Toss in the apples, cider, sugar and salt and, with the lid on, bring to a simmer. Turn down the heat until the mix starts to look very juicy. Remove the lid and keep the apples on a low simmer, stirring occasionally until they become very thick. (Some of your apples will break down on their own; others you might have to coax with a potato masher or the back of a wooden spoon.) This could take anywhere from 30-60 minutes, depending on the juiciness of your apples (mine actually took about 3 hours, because I let it cook very slowly, while I did other things around the house). When it’s somewhere between applesauce and apple butter, you’re there. You should be able to drag a wooden spoon through it and the ‘dam’ should almost hold. Take it off the heat and add the last three ingredients. Set aside. At this point you can taste it. If you think it needs to be sweeter, add more sugar, if you think it’s too sweet, add a bit more lemon. If you think it needs more complexity, maybe add a few dashes of Angostura bitters (which I did).

Prepare the Topping
Mix all of the ingredients in a bowl. Set aside.

Build your Pie
Use your favorite pie crust recipe or this one (minus the coconut) for the bottom crust, adding ½ tsp. of cinnamon to the dry ingredients and substituting Cognac for the Rum & Apple Cider for the water/coconut water.

Fill the bottom crust with the prepared apples and spread evenly. Gently scatter the topping over the entire pie. Bake in a 400º oven for approximately 35-40 minutes, until the crust is browned and the pumpkin has begun to caramelize. Let cool before slicing.

isn’t it just supposed to be one a day?

So, when I went to the Greenmarket on Sunday to gather apples for a few sample tarts, I was met with four varieties that hadn’t been there the previous weekend.

When I go to Union Square tomorrow there will be more still, but I decided I couldn’t in good conscience make the best pie without knowing if any of these new apples before me would be a better option. Thus, I picked up one of each + a few of the variety I’d chosen for my pie (more on that later).

Empire
Based on it’s mostly dark red skin (with minimal yellow striations), this apple was surprisingly tart and crisp! In fact, it looked so much like it could only provide a lame-o Red Delicious mush fest that I almost didn’t bother to pick it up. Luckily, it’s smooth and shiny exterior gave way to beautiful bright white flesh and a crunchy sweet/tart bite. This would be fantastic on a cheese plate or loaded up with peanut butter or, I think, amazing in a traditional layered apple pie.

Cox-Orange
The first apple in this week of tastings that I can genuinely say has a complex flavor, the cox-orange is an heirloom apple. It’s very sour, but with a sweet backbone–reminiscent of sour-apple candy. As the name suggests, the skin bears an orangish-red hue and is quite speckled–like Seurat painted an apple, it came to life and now I get to eat it! The bite isn’t the most pleasant–not mushy per se, though not crisp either–however, the flavor is so interesting, that I didn’t really mind.

Margil
Another heirloom variety, this is apparently one of the oldest apples still being grown. I must say, if the choice of which apples to grow were based on my opinion, Georgian England could have this one back. The skin is very similar to that of a Bosc pear being cracked apart by the shiny green apple within, i.e. kind of neat. The flavor…like a Bosc pear, but with an unfortunate soapy aftertaste, i.e. not so neat. So, while it’s not terrible, I’d rather just have a pear–and then not feel like, following my snack, I’ve washed out my filthy, 1750’s mouth.

Keepsake
Whomever named this apple had a good sense of irony. A keepsake is something you treasure; this apple is something you should put back down. OK, so I’m being overly harsh–it actually has a very complex flavor and could add punch to a baked apple medley, but you don’t want to eat it alone. The taste is best described as fermented (a fellow taster’s first reaction was, “Shrimp Paste!”) and it left a powdery feeling in my mouth. Also, when sliced through the core, it looks like a butterfly…sort of.

Those are my takes at least. Perhaps you have a differing opinion? In my research I came across this awesome site, in case you want to look up a few other varieties. For now, I’m biding my time until the contest day arrives. Decisions have been made. Test pies have been baked and eaten. Surprises were revealed. Tune in next time for my Eve-tempting revelations. Same apple time; same apple channel.

apparently, i’m a glutton…

for pie contests. This weekend I entered myself into another one.

My neighborhood Greenmarket is hosting an apple pie bake-off in 2 weeks; so, inspired by my recent victory, I decided to go for it.

Then I realized, I’ve never made an apple pie–it’s just never been one of my favorites (unless we’re talking fried apple hand pies). So, I’m currently brainstorming ways to make an apple pie interesting. Those ideas are yet to come, but today I’m sharing with you my findings upon an impromptu apple tasting.

The one stipulation for the contest is that the apples must be local. Thus, I grabbed one of each variety available from Red Jacket Orchards and headed home to savor the flavor:

Cortland
This apple sports a smooth and shiny skin in a melange of green and red–It looks like it came straight out of the that painting you did at the rec center in 1992. Unfortunately, that beautiful skin is super chewy. The flesh is slightly tart, almost lemony; but, beyond that isn’t incredibly flavorful. The texture: not really crisp but not really mushy either. All in all, a boring apple.

Gala
A smaller specimen, with skin a bit rougher to the touch, the Gala is mostly red, bespeckled yellow. The flavor here is unmistakably floral. It’s sweet, it’s crunchy and from a first glance point of view would be fantastic cooked down into a puree. Though it’s flesh has a yellowish cast–read, not as pretty as the bright white of others–this apple is certainly one of the most delicious.

Pippin
The big boy, Pippin, is a promising apple. The skin somewhere between a shiny Granny Smith and matte Golden Delicious, a light green that gives way to a slight red blush, dare I say it’s a demure apple? When sliced it greets you with bright flesh sporting a green aura. Then you bite. Your sweet, genteel apple slaps you in the face. It was all a sham. Sour. Mushy. Absolutely terrible. Next weekend I might suggest they stop growing it. Seriously.

MacIntosh
The best way to sum up the apple we all know is to say it tastes like an apple. It’s what apple-flavored candy tastes like. It’s tart, it’s sweet, the texture is crisp–though almost creamy–which is a weird description, but it’s true. Also, this particular apple is totally one of the coolest apples ever–check out the abstract expressionism going on with that skin! Not a common feature, but a fortuitous one (if you like abstract expressionism).

Golden Supreme
Surprise! The Golden Supreme has yellow skin. I know you’re shocked. It also has yellowish flesh and is exceedingly crisp. This beauty tastes like apple juice. Obviously related to Golden Delicious (a common baking apple) the G. Supreme will definitely hold up to cooking–perhaps in a pie–but would probably need some flavor boosters. I suggest ginger.

Paula Red
Another big loser. The Paula Red, so cute in its diminutiveness has the toughest skin of these seven contenders. It’s also completely mushy and has no apple flavor. There is, however, a slight essences of dirt; so, if you’re geophagic, good news for you!

Honey Crisp
This apple is stupid delicious. It’s refreshing–and after consuming practically two pounds of apples, that’s saying something. There is a perfect balance of sweetness to tart and it is fantastically crisp. It’s juicy, it’s plump–really it’s everything you want an apple to be. If only it came with its own cheese plate…

Of course, after my apple overdose, I received my Basis delivery and there were more apples to try–Jonagold and Fuji–I haven’t given them the full inspection, so won’t report on them just yet.

As for now, any thoughts on apples or apple pies are appreciated. My second victory lap is just around the corner…