Saturday, January 31, 2009

Gingersnaps / Pepparkaka

After spending a bit of time reading through Michel Suas's "Advanced Bread and Pastry", this evening I tried a small batch of a variation on one of the recipes inside. The book is excellent, by the way. It is written and formatted as a textbook for professional bakers in-training.

These are the Swedish version of gingersnaps. They are crunchy once cooled completely, and they contain a number of spices besides ginger. The recipe for my small batch was put together using bakers' percentages, and is based only on one cup of flour, so it only makes about 7 of the type shown in the picture -- about 4-5" in diameter. While I'm experimenting, I don't want to make too many in case I make a mistake and the batch isn't too good.

Bakers' percentages base all ingredient weights on their relationship to the weight of the flour, making it easy to create custom batch sizes by calculating based on your desired amount of flour. For example, a bakers percentage of 86% butter means that the weight of the butter in the recipe is 86% of the weight of the flour. For a recipe with 125g of flour, the weight of butter would therefore be 125g * 0.86 = 107.5g.

  • 125g all-purpose white flour
  • 63g room temperature butter
  • 21g canola oil
  • 86g sugar
  • 38g molasses
  • 25g egg
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/8 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1 1/2 tsp. grated fresh ginger

The main modifications of the recipe are in the use of 25% canola oil in place of butter, the addition of fresh ginger and a small reduction in the amount of ground ginger. If I'd had a reliable source, I would have added some orange zest, too. But I haven't got any organic oranges at the moment and they coat the other ones in all kinds of strange chemicals.

I also modified the preparation a bit -- I was forced to because of the canola oil addition, which required refrigeration of the dough to make it handleable. I experimented with canola oil because it reduces the richness a bit, and is a bit more healthy if you eat quite a bit of butter elsewhere in your diet.

So, the recipe...

Combine the dry ingredients except the sugar, but also including the fresh ginger. Cream the butter, sugar and canola oil together. Beat the egg and add it to the creamed mixture in a slow stream while mixing at the same time (similar to how add the oil when making fresh mayonnaise, although the rate of stream isn't quite as death-defyingly critical). Add the molasses and combine.

Combine the wet and dry mixtures. I used my hands to do this, and the dough was then too sticky to really do anything with, so I scraped as much as I could back into the bowl and put it in the fridge for about 45 minutes. If you use all butter, the dough isn't quite as sticky.

After 45 minutes, preheat the oven to 300F. While that's doing, scoop the dough into 1.5" balls into an insulated cookie sheet and then put the sheet in the fridge for about 5 minutes or until the oven is pre-heated (whichever comes later). Then, put the sheet into the oven.

Bake for 22-24 minutes, remove from the oven and leave the cookies on the sheet for about 10 minutes, and then transfer them to a cooling rack for cooling. Let them cool completely. Mine didn't go completely crispy until they'd completely cooled and spent overnight in a sealed plastic container.

That's all! If you want smaller gingersnaps, you can reduce the size of the balls and reduce the cooking time by a couple of minutes.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Jesse Cook concert review : Guelph, ON : January 23, 2009

I went to Canadian guitarist Jesse Cook's concert at Guelph's River Run Centre this evening. This is the 4th time I've seen him in concert, and the first time in Guelph. Previously, I've always gone down to Oakville to see his show.

A bit of pre-amble first. Someone from the concert hall sent out an e-mail a few days before the show to let everyone know that there was a Guelph Storm hockey game on the same evening, starting before the concert, and that parking would be a challenge. So, I arrived about 90 minutes early and spent about an hour wandering around the Guelph library. I found a most interesting book on the Waterloo Mennonites. It was a fairly long book specifically about the Mennonites in and around Waterloo, Ontario. I am going to see if I can find my own copy.

But, back to the concert...

The band
I didn't catch all of the names in the band, but I recognized Nicholas Hernandez who was playing the second flamenco guitar alongside Jesse. He has been in at least one of the prior shows I've seen, and I bought his CD some time ago. Very talented.

Art Avalos wasn't around to do percussion and there was someone else with a much larger drum kit than I've seen in the past. Chris Church was on violin, and I think he has been at all four of the JC concerts I've been to. A new bass player has also been added to the band since I saw him last.

I have mixed feelings about the use of violin. In the concerts, it's a celtic style of playing (Middle Eastern in a few places). I suppose I like it in the context of Jesse Cook's music, but it is far from what flamenco is about. At the same time, though, the celtic and flamenco dancing are clearly compatible in many areas.

The cajón was used effectively, too, and sounded great.

JC was more chatty than I've seen in the past (though he has always been chatty). He did a short Q&A bit, too, which was interesting and refreshing even in this day of MySpace and Facebook pages. He didn't answer the question someone yelled that I'd have been interested to know about: "when you are you coming back to Oakville??".

"Querido Amigo"

The first half of the concert was pretty routine. There was no opening act. A bunch of familiar tunes and all pretty straightforward. The second half was far, far better. First of all, since I saw JC last I have been exposing myself greatly (in a wholesome way) to more traditional flamenco music. I have seen Paco Peña at Massey Hall and I also went to the capstone show of the 2008 Toronto International Flamenco Festival. The more unadorned sound is what I prefer, and there was a lot more of this in the second half of the show. "Querido Amigo" is one of my favourites, for example, but he didn't play it here. There were some in the same vein, though. Two or more flamenco guitars solo on stage would be my ideal, but that's not why you go to a Jesse Cook concert.

I was surprised to see a flamenco dancer in this show -- Jesse Cook's wife, apparently -- because I've never seen a dancer at any of his other shows. Actually, when she came on stage I was wondering how well the dancing would complement the music because JC''s stuff is very structured and doesn't have the wandering vagrancy of more traditional flamenco. Interestingly, Nicholas Hernandez played much of the music alongside which the dancing was done, and it was a more traditional sound. I assuming JC can play styles other than what he does best, so I wonder why he wasn't playing more in this segment.

The cover of "Fall At Your Feet" made another appearance in the encore in an unplugged style where the microphones and effects go away and the sound is completely natural and unamplified. I think this has been a part of the encore for at least 3 of the 4 shows I've seen. Chris Church did a very good job with the vocals. There was one more song in the encore after this one, which seemed a bit "off" because FAYF would have been the ideal closing song.

"Rattle and Burn"

River Run Centre is rather average, acoustically. The bass from the bass guitar and the bass drum gave off distracting standing waves, as happens at many concerts that use them in medium to large halls. Whether or not you get standing waves may depend on where you are sitting in the audience, but I can't believe I always pick the bad seat! The Tori Amos concerts I've been to get ruined in parts by this kind of thing. It wasn't as bad as that here, but I enjoyed the songs without the bass guitar more than the ones that had it for this reason. The hall was fine for the flamenco sounds, though. It was nothing compared to Massey Hall or St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto, of course... and not really as good as Rose Theatre in Brampton, either, but perfectly adequate.

The audience
The audience was made up mostly of middle- to older-aged white people. This is usually the demographic at his Oakville concerts, too. Strange. When I went to the Toronto show, there was a wide variety of ages and races and lots of Spanish people. Guelph is not Toronto, obviously, but they do have a multicultural centre and an annual multicultural festival!

A good concert, I think. It wasn't quite as long as some past concerts, but I think he has finally got the length just about right. In some of his earlier concerts, there were some very same-y songs played back to back and I drifted off a few times. This time, there was so much variation (especially in the second half) that it was interesting throughout. This is something Robert Michaels is still struggling with, I think. I have seen RM twice and his most recent show was better, but there are still some areas where it goes flat. I'm not saying they have to go as far as Sarah Brightman and do the whole do flying around on wires and always coming out of strange places, but something of that nature is required. If you're going to do energetic music that isn't down entirely to world-class solo skill (most of JC's music is band-backed contemporary rumba flamenco) then you have to find a way to make it translate well on stage and I think he has figured this out now. Overall, lots of fun!

Coming back home was not much fun. The highway between Guelph and Georgetown was intermittently covered in snow that had blown onto the road from the open fields at the wayside. I almost skidded out in one spot, where it went from bare road to deep snow within about 2-3 seconds. Well, that's winter, I suppose!

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Puritan apple pie

Here we have the puritan's apple pie. Why is it puritanical? Because the filling contains nothing other than apples, sugar, and water. And the pastry contains nothing but butter, lard, flour, salt, and water.

I used some old Granny Smith apples. I think these apples must have been 4 or 5 months old. They were sitting in the fridge but were a bit too old to eat, but not "bad". This makes them suitable for pies, I think. I'm not sure it's anything but a recent tradition to use apples that are perfectly good for eating to make a pie. In the past, the old or sub-prime apples would be used for pies because you can't use them for eating so you'd want to find another use for them so as not to waste them, and the freshness is rather irrelevant when you're going to bake them for an hour.

The pastry was a straightforward ordeal -- 1 part fat (half butter, half lard) to 3 parts flour, but all of the rules for good flaky pastry were followed: I used pastry flour, the fats were kept as cold as possible throughout the preparation, I used ice water to bring the dough together, and as little mixing as possible was done. The result seems very good. It's a fragile pastry that falls apart when it hits your tongue. I rolled it very thinly. I found another use for my silicone baking sheets that my Great Aunt from England sent me: I rolled the pastry on the flour-dusted sheet with a towel underneath, meaning I could just lift the whole sheet to rotate the pastry during rolling, rather than having to lift the pastry itself. Silicone baking sheets are like a super-slippery waxed paper (with the same flexibility) that you can put directly in the oven (although I had no use for them in baking a pie).

The filling was prepared with 6 Granny Smith apples, a couple of tablespoons of brown sugar, and water to a few millimetres depth in the pan. Cooked for about 6-7 minutes in a sauté pan with the lid on for about half the time and disturbed by stirring periodically. I just cut up the apples into pieces around the core, and didn't peel them. I like peels on apple in apple pie -- lots of taste --they soften significantly, and they're good for you, anyway. The cores don't break down so you have to remove them.

I didn't mess around with egg glazes this time: whole milk with a bit of sugar for the glaze.

Baked at 300F, centre rack, for 50-55 minutes.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Thoughts on "Revolutionary Road"

The above picture that is often seen accompanying the film "Revolutionary Road" is brilliant in more ways than one. First of all, in one shot it portrays one of the essential messages of the film: that you can't read anything into appearances -- the characters in the photo are inscrutable. Secondly, for marketing purposes, it allows you to project whatever meaning you want onto the image. It is Kate and Leonardo, back for a second run at Titanic-like fare, right? Absolutely not. You could not be more wrong.

But that's what I had assumed going in, and until I found out more about it I wasn't interested. I liked "Titanic" very much, but it's something that I thought might be ruined by an attempt to capitalize on the partnership once again.

I'm not going to give a big long review because there are probably plenty of better ones out there than anything I could write (you may not want to go further than Christopher Hitchen's excellent and rich review in The Atlantic). But, I'll write a few things about what stood out to me. I'll get one point out of the way first: as above, I was worried that it'd be a failed attempt to recapture the magic of "Titanic". I initially saw the two actors as they were in their former roles and mentally rolled my eyes when even Kathy Bates showed up near the beginning in a role very similar to the one she had as the Unsinkable Molly Brown in "Titanic". These doubts held out for about 15 minutes and never surfaced again -- this film is something that stands on its own two feet.

First, this point may clear up something straight away: "Revolutionary Road" is simply the name of a road in a suburban housing development that is somewhat on the frontier of suburban housing developments in America. Set in 1955 (the novel was written in 1961), we get to see what we imagine might confront a young couple leaving the city for a place that promises an idyllic place to raise a family.

From that point-of-view alone, it is interesting. But beyond that superficial veneer, it's a film about so many things.

It's a film about the promise of suburbia at its inception and how the promise was true to the letter, but that after living in the bustle of the city you didn't anticipate that you couldn't spend entire days and lives in such tedious tranquility. As the chaos unfolds on-screen, the birds continue to peacefully chirp in the background. It's so subtle as to almost be unnoticeable, but I'm sure it was no accident.

It's a film about outward appearances of not only the individual but also a marriage and, further, the forced neighbourhoods of suburbia and how they can be so difficult to reconcile with what's really going on inside all three.

It's also a film about the pressures of the American Dream and the unrealistic expectations it can set up for people. The promise of what's to be had and what is actually realized can railroad some people into disappointment, no matter how relatively successful they are at the things that matter in life.

What's true in public is rarely true in private. In fact, you could find more truth in inverting everything anyone says to your face and assuming the opposite to be true. With that in mind, when everyone is so friendly and positive to your face it can be depressing to consider what it really means, and considerable effort is spent by the characters here in avoiding that line of thought. In an interesting plot tool, when we are introduced to the son of the real estate agent that sold the young couple their house who the young couple dines with on a couple of occasions, we learn that he holds a Ph.D in Mathematics but has sadly deteriorated mentally and is in and out of the mental hospital. But he is the only the one who tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He tells everyone involved what they're too ashamed to think or too polite to say, no matter how angry they become.

"Revolutionary Road" is excellent at everything it set out to do. I think it took a talented director to pull this off. Many times, you are put in the shoes of the people trying to express the complexity of what's going on inside. You know when the words that are spoken didn't come out right, and it's not just because of the excellent acting but because of the dialogue and pacing and the way everything unfolds. I can't say I have seen too many films that have put me in that position so easily and genuinely. It is directed by Sam Mendes -- the director of "American Beauty", which is a less-accomplished relative of this film.

Very much recommended.


Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Canned chick peas are good, but there's a better way

Canned chick peas are probably the easiest way to get them -- they are already cooked and you just have to drain them, rinse, and eat them straight away.

One of my general observations about life, though, is that where there is convenience, there is something significant lost somewhere else, and it almost always goes beyond a simple price difference.

There are some clear negatives to using canned chickpeas: canned chick peas are a bit soft and lacking in texture, and the briny solution they can them in is often rather salty and sometimes has preservatives in it. Some people suggest that they are significantly less nutritious (though no evidence is cited). They also take up a lot of space in storage. One way to avoid all of these things is to cook them from dried.

Preparing them from dried form overcomes these problems. It has the following advantages: their taste is stronger and much more natural and nuanced, and the taste is not overpowered by salt. They take up less volume in storage and can be decorative -- stored in a glass jar, for example, on the kitchen shelf. They're also cheaper -- a bag of dried chick peas is significantly less expensive than the equivalent in canned form and probably preserves the taste better when in storage for longer periods of time.

On the other hand, they do require a little bit of your time to prepare them and are therefore less convenient. But it doesn't take much time at all, and with a bit of planning it need not be inconvenient. Here is the procedure, in my case:

  • rinse and put 1 cup of dried chick peas into a bowl
  • put 3 cups of water into the same bowl (3:1 is the general idea -- 3 times as much water by volume as chickpeas)
  • let the above soak for 6-8 hours (i.e. overnight)
  • drain soaked chick peas
  • put beans and the same amount of fresh water as above in a pressure cooker for 17-18 minutes at 15 psi pressure (the cooking time starts when the pressure has built up in the cooker)
  • remove pressure cooker from heat and let it cool down until you can open the lid

After that, you can drain them and use them as you would with canned chickpeas. You can prepare larger quantities than above; it really depends on the size of your pressure cooker. I could prepare far more than that in mine, but I limit it to what I will use in the short-term. I suspect you could freeze a large volume of cooked chick peas and they'd be fine.

I did the above last night and ate them for breakfast with a spoonful of real mayonnaise, a couple of splashes of malt vinegar, and some pepper. You can add herbs. They look like breakfast cereal -- Corn Pops or something like that :)

If your pressure cooker has a higher or lower level of pressure, you can adjust cooking times up or down as appropriate. If yours is higher than 15 psi, for example, you may be able to reduce the cooking time. If lower, you will have to increase it. Mine has two settings -- 5 and 15, controlled by the configuration of the release valve.

Another thing: you can cook them directly from dried in a pressure cooker, but they take about twice as long to cook. Better to spend a couple of minutes the night before to start them soaking, I think. It's a good idea to make sure you rinse the dried chickpeas before soaking them, else you may find bits of grit and sand in them later on.

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