I enjoy tinkering and experimenting in the kitchen. Some of it is driven by my desire to maintain family recipes for apple pie and pierogies. Most if it is a desire to find ways to improve upon some of my favorite foods such as chocolate chips cookies, guacamole, and pasta. I also like to help Lisa cook a new dish for dinner every now and then, although it’s been a lot more ‘then’ than ‘now’ as of late.
When I tell people about my hobby, they tell me that I must like to cook. When I tell them I prefer baking, the typical response is, “aren’t they the same thing?”
While it might seem that way, they are two totally different things. Allow me to explain.
I’ve recently become captivated by the process of baking my own bread. My kitchen is well-equipped, but not necessarily for making bread. After watching a few instructional bread baking videos on YouTube, I realized that I was missing a very basic but important tool for handling bread dough – a bench scraper.
The bench scraper is a flat, wide, stainless steel blade with a handle on one of the wider sides. In the world of kitchen utensils, it’s a commodity. There’s really nothing special about it. There isn’t a whole lot of differentiation. Therefore, I expected price would be the primary factor in my purchase selection.
Off I ventured onto Amazon in search of a ‘kitchen bench scraper.’ Of course, I was inundated with dozens and dozens of results. And as you would expect for a commodity item, the prices were pretty similar. They were almost all grouped around $10, plus-or-minus a couple of bucks. So how to pick one?
There are lots of tools and techniques you can use to get more consistent results from your baking or cooking. One of the easiest is to use a kitchen scale.
In the past, kitchen scales were rarely used by amateur cooks and hobbyists. The main reasons were convenience and cost. Older kitchen scales were bulky, took up a lot of shelf and counter space, and did not always provide accurate measurements. For those that looked good and worked well, the cost was prohibitive.
Well, times have changed. Today’s kitchen scales are compact, easy to use, highly accurate, and economical. As with most everything else these days, they have been transformed by the digital age, and they are easy to get. A search on Amazon for ‘kitchen scale’ yields dozens of results, with most available for less than $20.
I don’t need another category on my blog, and I certainly shouldn’t be taking on any new projects right now. But, I can’t help myself. I’ve decided to start a new section on the blog called the Test Kitchen.
The Test Kitchen is where I plan to collect lessons learned exploring different recipes and cooking techniques. I’m also going to keep my favorite recipes that I regularly come back to for cooking all kinds of things, whether it is cookies, pies, bread, pasta, guacamole, and more.
I’m not going to commit to a regular posting schedule. I’m just going to post when I have something to say, when it’s convenient, and when it makes sense. It may be once a week, once a month, or a couple of times a year. Who knows.
In the meantime, I’m going to move my favorite recipes into the Test Kitchen, and I hope to add more soon. To give you a preview, I’ve become addicted to the King Arthur Baking site over the last month or two and have quite a few thoughts I hope to share around bake goods, especially bread which I never thought I would make!
A little over a year ago, I made the decision to curb my carb intake significantly. Yes, it was a choice. I was so influenced by the books Grain Brain and Wheat Belly that I decided it was best to cut out breads and grain-based products. It was tough for the first month or two. I like bread, and I missed it.
Fast forward a year later, and I’ve gotten over it. I don’t miss bread. I don’t miss grains either, with one exception. Pasta was one meal I just couldn’t give up. Spaghetti dinners are a staple around our house. With our homemade sauce, I just couldn’t let go. I had to find some way, any way, that I could rationalize and enjoy a good bowl of noodles drenched in marinara and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
How did I rationalize my decision to eat pasta? We make it ourselves. Granted, it’s still eating wheat, but I choose the ingredients.
An internet search for guacamole will reveal many, many recipes. I haven’t tried them all, but I have tried quite a few of them. Here’s the one that has become my “go to” recipe, along with a few tips that I’ve learned while making it.
Growing up, I can still remember when “the call” would come. Grandma had decided to make pierogi and my grandpap would call the house to tell us it was ready. It would usually be early evening when the call would come, and even if we had already eaten dinner, my dad would rush me out the door. We would speed over to grandma’s house, cutting the normally 5-minute drive in half. Somehow, my dad’s older brother, my Uncle Barry, would already be there working his way through the first batch. He lived 10 minutes away from my grandma’s, so how he got there faster than us is a mystery that remains unsolved to this day. My gut tells me he had inside information about when pierogi were being made, but neither he nor my grandparents ever fessed up to it.
My grandma’s pierogi recipe was a hand-me-down from my great grandma (my grandpap’s mother). She was an immigrant from the old country, Ukraine to be exact. My grandmother took over the recipe and mastered it, with a couple of minor tweaks. My mom and dad took over the recipe from my grandma, continuing the family tradition. Store bought pierogi are good, but they don’t come close to matching the real thing.
Someday, I knew that I should take over the recipe to continue the family tradition. I had procrastinated for years, but watching the Michael Pollan documentary “Cooked” inspired me to action. My parents visited this past summer, and I decided it was time to learn the recipe. I set aside an afternoon to spend in the kitchen with them. It was time well spent.
One of the things that I love about cooking is experimentation. Cooking is not an exact science, and small variations in ingredients, measurements, or techniques can lead to sometimes subtle and sometimes significant differences in outcome.
One of my favorite items to bake is apple pie, mainly because I love eating it (despite my recent decisions to reduce my sugar intake). When baking a pie, one of the things that I struggle with is making a light, flaky crust. I’ve tried different ingredients, made sure the water was extra cold, and tried various techniques to avoid over working the dough. Despite what I’ve tried. I just couldn’t get the dough as flaky as I would like it.
After doing a little research, I found a suggestion that I figured was worth a try – using vodka as a substitute for some of the water. The rationale is that vodka would provide the required moisture content for preparing the dough, but during the baking process, the alcohol would vaporize leaving a lighter, flakier crust. Given all that I had tried, I figured it was worth a shot.
As part of my efforts to cut as much added and refined sugar out of my diet as possible, I’ve been reading a lot more food labels this year. I was surprised by how much added sugar was in Orange Juice and Tomato Sauce, two items that were regular staples in my diet. I cut orange juice out of my regular routine at the end of last year, but I knew tomato sauce would be more of a challenge. Spaghetti is a regular meal in our house, and we use tomato sauce for other dishes as well. The solution was simple – I had to start making the sauce from scratch.
Thanks to the power of the internet, I was able to discover a couple of recipes for tomato sauce pretty quickly, What surprised me was how simple they were. All you need is a can of crushed tomatoes, a little olive oil, a couple of cloves of garlic, some basil, oregano, pepper, and a few hours to let the sauce simmer on the stove. It literally takes about 10 minutes to prep, and then about 2-4 hours (or more) to simmer.
One of my major fitness goals for 2015 was to cut out added sugar whenever possible. It’s a great goal, but it makes finding snacks really difficult. It’s amazing how much added sugar is put into just about every packaged snack food.
One of my favorite snacks is popcorn, but there’s a good chance that packaged popcorn will contain some amounts of sugar, or extra salt to enhance the flavor. So buying in the bag was out. Microwave popcorn is supposedly bad for you, so it got nixed, too. It left hot air and doing it on the stove as the other viable options.
Since I don’t own a hot air popper, it left finding a good stove top recipe as the best alternative. Of course, doing a quick Google search made one easy to find. Thanks to Elise over at Simply Recipes, I discovered a great, and easy to make popcorn recipe.