Sunday dinner: America’s Test Kitchen

January 31, 2010

I don’t think it’s any secret that I find almost all of the programming on the Food Network to be really, really terrible. Their new shows just get dumber and dumber and less and less useful. It feels like they’ve completely sacrificed culinary sensibility and education for personality, and whoever decides what kinds of personalities make the cut has tastes diametrically opposed to my own.

So I’m very glad that the local cable provider has picked up PBS’s Create network so I can watch interesting, talented people cook food and teach me about it along the way. Charisma levels may vary, and not every show is a gem, but I can usually find something smart and useful to watch. (Any network that gives Eric Ripert air time is aces in my book.)

My favorite program on Create’s admittedly irregular schedule is America’s Test Kitchen, which is an extension of the magazine, Cook’s Illustrated. (Gourmet is dead, but advertising-free Cook’s Illustrated is still going strong. I’m just saying.) The television version has all of strengths of the magazine – useful information developed with rigor and standards – with the added bonus of just enough personality. There’s none of the toothy mugging that makes Food Network programming largely unwatchable; there’s just smart, likable people who are sincerely enthusiastic about food.

The idea behind the magazine and the show is to develop the best possible versions of popular home recipes. And I have to say, their success rate is very, very high based on the recipes I’ve tried. (I grew up in Cincinnati and ate more chili than burgers, and their Cincinnati chili recipe is spot-on.) There are also segments comparing products like chocolate, cheeses, jarred sauces and the like, and equipment ratings where they test and compare the usefulness of various kitchen products like knives and ricers. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a show and not come away wanting to try one of the recipes or knowing more about kitchen tools and preparation techniques. There’s more good stuff in a half an hour than there is in an entire day of Food Network dribble.

The master of ceremonies is Christopher Kimball, founder of Cook’s Illustrated and the resident crank. He would never be hired by the current Food Network regime because he’s caustic, not particularly telegenic, and unapologetically smart. He’s a culinary curmudgeon, not in the self-congratulatory, bad-boy way of Anthony Bourdain, but in the sense of someone who doesn’t have any patience for bad food but has the determination and resources to try and make it better. His co-hosts are all appealing to varying degrees, and they treat Kimball with the kind of wistful indulgence you reserve for a grumpy, funny uncle, which is exactly what Kimball seems to be.

Bake day: apple spice cake

January 2, 2010

This is a really delicious apple spice cake recipe from Cultivating Life. If you make it, you should know that it’s too much volume for a nine-inch spring-form cake pan. It doesn’t look like it’s too much, but there are a lot of reactions going on that make the cake spill over when you bake it. I would recommend dividing the batter into two nine-inch cakes and baking them for a shorter period of time. I think there’s enough of the butter/brown sugar mixture to divide between two pans as well, as that drained out of the bottom a bit. I’d also let that mixture set after you place the apples if you don’t want the apples to float up into the cake. (That’s hardly a problem unless you’re going for looks.) It ended up taking about an hour and fifteen minutes to make one really full nine-inch cake, so I would start checking with a toothpick after around 50 minutes of baking. But the cake is rich, moist and has a nice, warm spiciness to it.

Weekend reading, viewing

December 14, 2009

A quick overview of some of the entertainment consumed over the weekend:

The Graveyard Book, written by Neil Gaiman with illustrations by Dave McKean, HarperCollins: I don’t know why I tend to forget that Gaiman is a very successful prose author in addition to a lionized comics creator. I’ve read some of his novels and liked them very much. Maybe I just have a fixed impression of him as a comics creator, or maybe I just don’t read that much prose fantasy. The Graveyard Book is about a human boy whose family is murdered and who’s subsequently raised by the denizens of a rustic local resting place. Nobody Owens, as his ghostly guardians name him, has a childhood populated with vampires, werewolves, ghouls, witches and malevolent human forces, though it feels perfectly normal to him. That’s the key to the book’s appeal for me; “Bod” doesn’t know how weird his life is, so he tends not to overreact. The plot feels casual, almost lazy, which fits right in with the novel’s undemanding charm. It’s a great choice for a rainy afternoon.

Julie and Julia, directed by Nora Ephron, based on a book by Julie Powell, Sony Pictures: I have an abiding fondness for Julia Child. As a result, I have an abiding dislike of much of what passes for food television these days. So any opportunity to celebrate this culinary icon is welcome, even if Meryl Streep’s performance seems more like an impersonation than the creation of a character. It’s a good impersonation, capturing Child’s fluty charm and imposing sturdiness. As I suspected, I could have been perfectly happy skipping over the parts of Julie Powell, who kept a blog about her attempts to cook every recipe in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Powell’s blog turned into a book, which turned into this movie, though not without a great deal of mewling self-pity, apparently. I couldn’t make it through more than a third of Powell’s book, and I strongly suspect Ephron and company didn’t care for it much more than I did. Amy Adams, who is a fine and versatile actress, has been criticized for not holding up her end of the film, and that strikes me as unfair. She’s playing Powell as a selfish, immature opportunist, which can’t be accidental, and she’s doing it well. How entertaining could such accuracy possibly be?

Only One Wish, written and illustrated by Mia Ikumi, Del Rey: If you’re absolutely manic about episodic comics that suggest you be careful what you wish for, then perhaps completism will demand that you give this bland outing a whirl. Completism has its costs, though, and subjecting yourself to dull manga may be one of them. Anyway, there’s this complicated urban legend about text-messaging and getting your wish, and teen-agers here do a number of predictable things with their good fortune. Absolutely nothing unexpected happens, though Ikumi seems convinced that her twists and turns will startle. Maybe I’ve read too much manga of this kind and my startle threshold is higher. I must give thumbs up to the great design on the wish-granting witch, though. (Review based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)


February 11, 2009

I just realized that I haven’t really said anything about the current season of Top Chef, my favorite competitive reality show. Since the season is about to conclude, I should probably get around to that. Here are some largely random thoughts:

  • The new judge, Toby Young, actually makes me miss Gail Simmons. He doesn’t make me miss Ted Allen, because Young has a lot of the same flaws as Allen. It seems like Young is trying to be the culinary equivalent of Simon Cowell, but Young’s pop-culture references are strained and self-indulgent, and his criticisms are seldom on point. (“Pablo Escolar…” He actually said that in a room full of people with knives.) He’s trying too hard to be outrageous and cutting, and I’d settle for concise and purposeful. Points must go to the editors for showing what I believe to be Padma Lakshmi rolling her eyes every time Young opens his mouth and physically recoiling when she remembers that she’s seated next to him.
  • It took an awfully long time for any of the contestants to make a strong positive or negative impression on me, which is fine. There’s always that early span of a show of this type when it’s too crowded to latch onto anyone unless they’re deliriously charming or completely egregious.
  • That said, I’ve become utterly charmed with Carla. She’s outgoing and really weird, and in recent episodes, she’s actually been allowed to demonstrate the culinary abilities that presumably got her on to the show in the first place. And for anyone disappointed over the knifing of the season’s first comeback kid, Ariane, they got to see Carla rally. I’m also quite taken with Fabio, with his calculated-to-charm broken English and the cheerful derision he delivers during interviews.
  • I’ve also come to dislike Leah intensely, though I usually try and resist the urge to dislike contestants because the editors and producers want me to do so. Really, though, has there ever been a contestant so drenched in flop sweat for so long? (I did like Jamie, though I could see the fairness of her recent elimination. By my viewing, Jaime’s dish was apparently actively unpleasant, while Leah’s was just blah, which seems like a greater lesser culinary sin.) I think I’m supposed to dislike Stefan in the same way I was supposed to dislike Marcel and Hung, but I don’t mind him. He made clothes for Jamie’s stuffed animal, which goes a long way, and he seems to confine his obnoxious behavior to actual competition. Hung and Marcel were obnoxious all the time.
  • Eric Ripert is dreamy. That is all.
  • Oh, and speaking of food, Chris Mautner saves me the trouble of reviewing Carol Lay’s The Big Skinny: How I Changed My Fattitude by covering everything I might have wanted to say about it over at Robot 6.


    November 16, 2008

    The oven was on for other stuff, so I decided to make the Madeleine recipe from the seventh volume of Kitchen Princess (Del Rey). Yes, my baking is inspired not by Marcel Proust but by Natsumi Ando and Miyuki Kobayashi. Sorry, Marcel.

    They turned out pretty well, but I think I’ll add some lemon or orange zest the next time I make them. The sweetness could use a little complexity. And while the recipe said it made nine cookies, I think I could probably stretch the batter out to twelve smaller ones and shave a few minutes off of the cooking time.

    Better Eats

    June 24, 2008

    Lyle Masaki gives me a reason to believe that my interest in the programming of the Food Network is not entirely dead. It’s about time someone there started talking about sustainable sources, and I’m not surprised that it’s Alton Brown doing it.

    I also have to agree with Lyle that The Next Food Network Star is more of a peek behind the curtain than I ever wanted. Why not just show eight weeks of focus groups with target demographics? Over the weekend, my partner and I were wondering what happened to the last next Food Network star:

    “Following months of speculation, [Gourmet Next Door Amy] Finley revealed in May 2008 that she had voluntarily turned down the opportunity to return for a second season, citing the stress of the obligations of being a television personality. She currently resides in Burgundy, France with her family.”

    Now I’m picturing some kind of failed Food Network star protection and recovery program at a vineyard on the outskirts of Dijon.

    Yes and no

    February 4, 2008

    The Food Network giveth, the Food Network taketh away.

    I love risotto and enjoy making it, but I usually don’t add things to it. I just like it so much in its basic state that I’m not motivated to branch out. But this Ina Garten recipe sounded really good, and I love roasted squash, so I decided to give it a try. It seems like the only thing required to make me like risotto even more was roasted squash. I cooked the squash in the morning and let it cool, then tossed it in with the last addition of stock, and I think that worked really well. It let the juices from the squash mix in with the stock, then into the rice, but the squash stayed nice and firm. I also passed on the pancetta and the saffron, but I’m sure it would be really good with them.

    I don’t know why I thought I’d want dessert after a meal like that, but I was very taken with this recipe from Nigella Lawson. I think I made it correctly, and it looked beautiful, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such a distasteful combination of flavors in my life. The texture was really mushy and generally unfortunate as well. I’m thinking the caramel with the bourbon would make a nice sauce for something – ice cream or cake. But the addition of eggs to turn it into custard results in something really, really off.

    The suspense!

    January 21, 2008

    I should have asked this earlier, but I just took a batch of miniature carrot cakes out of the oven, but I made them with whole wheat flour, because one of my only resolution equivalents is to put more fiber in my diet. Have I made a horrible mistake? Will they taste like horse chow?

    Late breaking news: They turned out fine, if a little less moist than usual. Extra frosting compensated for that.

    There’s a rat in mi kitchen, what am I gonna do?

    January 4, 2008

    We watched Ratatouille last night, and I just wasn’t feeling it. I loved the setting, but a lot of things made me crazy about the movie as a whole.

    1. I didn’t like either of the protagonists. I thought Linguini (the human) was irredeemably stupid, with phenomenally irritating voice work by Lou Romano, and Remy (the rat) was generally unsympathetic. I couldn’t root for either of them. [Edited because I’m sloppy and often incorrect. Sorry, Mr. Oswalt.]

    2. I could root for Colette, the hard-working woman in a male-dominated kitchen, but I thought she got screwed and duped at every turn and ended up taking it all with a smile. Nice.

    3. Just because you can do chase scenes really well doesn’t mean you have to do them quite so often. I would have preferred more frenzied cooking and less frenzied fleeing.

    4. This is totally nitpicky of me, especially in a movie with rats running in and out of a professional kitchen, but working chefs don’t (or shouldn’t) taste food with the implements they’re using to prepare it. They have tasting spoons that they use once and set aside for the dishwasher, because they shouldn’t be seasoning their dishes with saliva. Or rat saliva.

    5. There were too many subplots, and they didn’t come together well. Some good jokes about chef celebrity and nice bits about artistic innovation got bulldozed by a bunch of loud plot twists.

    6. I’m sorry, but if it makes me a bad, closed-minded person if I don’t want a rat running around a restaurant kitchen, then I am a bad, closed-minded person.

    7. That “I’ve got to be true to me” message really has some miles on it, doesn’t it?

    It wasn’t all bad. There’s a scene at the end where a patron is transported by the power of really good food, and it’s beautifully and simply rendered. It’s a really thrilling moment of filmmaking, and it works perfectly. But the spirit of the moment is isolated in a movie that’s otherwise cluttered and shrill.

    Rambling and linking

    December 3, 2007

    No, I won’t be needing a gift receipt: Whenever I set my mind to getting a start on holiday shopping, I always end up buying a lot of stuff for myself. I’m not proud of this, obviously, but there it is. I did manage to resist towels from Macy’s Hotel Collection, which are about as hot as linens can get, because they’re cripplingly expensive.

    Survey says: I haven’t done an exhaustive search, but based on anecdotal experience, the best manga selection to be found in Pittsburgh is probably at the Borders in South Hills.

    Weaponized baking: I always thought those cookie guns were among the stupidest kitchen gadgets imaginable until my partner bought one over the weekend. We made cheese crackers, and they are unimaginably delicious. And it really is fun to fire perfectly shaped drops of dough onto a baking sheet. I think my arteries are trembling in fear at this point.

    So I don’t have to: I can move the second volume of Kazuhiro Okamoto’s lovely Translucent (Dark Horse) out of my “to review” pile, because Katherine Dacey-Tsuei has perfectly summed up the book’s merits in the latest Weekly Recon.

    Minx links: J. Caleb Mozzocco takes an interesting qualitative/quantitative look at the Minx line to date over at Every Day Is Like Wednesday. The Washington Post names The Plain Janes one of the ten best comics of 2007. I don’t even think The Plain Janes is the best Minx book of 2007, but the inclusion of Aya delights me to no end.