Monthly Archives: March 2004

Mission Accomplished

The beer is bottled and very nice it is too. One of the nicest parts about bottling beer is that you can taste it (making sure to maintain proper sterility for the beer that actually goes into bottles).

Now the more microbiologically inclined of you will have figured something out about tasting the beer at this point. Since it has been fermenting in a container with an airlock, no gas has built up in the liquid and so it isn’t fizzy. So what. Beer isn’t really meant to be all hat fizz anyway and you can tell why with homebrew. The taste comes out in huge, powerful waves.

So how does this rate on a scale of 1 to 10? About a 10.5. This may be the best beer I have ever made. It is fairly bitter – which I like and which isn’t surprising since I let it sit for two weeks too long, the hops had that much more time to release bitter oils into the beer. But it is balanced with a rich complex malt. It is a strong beer. It won’t be terribly clear – there is just too much yeast growth so there’ll be sediment in all the bottles – but that doesn’t affect the taste and can be eliminated by careful pouring.

I took a couple of pictures so I may get to put them up online.

Another design note and wherefore art thou Tomatilla?

I will probably tinker with colors and I am definitely going to add some other things in both the left and right columns. I will probably slowly try to add some photography as well. But I am happy with the three column grid and the way it scales nicely as you change the window size. I also have a basic header and footer, so that makes a pretty basic publishing grid and I’m going to stick with that.

I personally like the green orange and gray color scheme but that too may evolve over time.

I don’t think I ever wrote about why this is called Tomatilla. Basically it comes from the very first recipe that I came up with that I thought worthy of giving to other people and which other people actually asked me for, thus at least partially confirming the first part.

Tomatilla Salsa

The recipe was for a tomatilla salsa made with fresh tomatillas, fresh tomatoes, cilantro, fresh green chillies, garlic, lemon juice and salt. Proportions didn’t matter that much as long as you used at least a bunch of cilantro, half a head of garlic and at least one green chilli, plus plenty of tomato and tomatilla. The real secret was and is in how to chop it. You can’t use a food processor or a blender – you get too much liquid. The best way is by hand but it is a lot of work – you can’t let it be too coarse either. I had a little chopper that went with one of those electric stick blenders. It didn’t hold a lot, but if I very roughly chopped up the ingredients and did them in batches in that they came out perfectly. Alas the stick blender died and salsa hasn’t been quite the same since.

Pancakes and crepes

Both of these are extremely popular at our house, although I should say that when we talk about crepes we are talking about the kind that is really a variant of the pancake since it is made with wheat flour not buckwheat. But the end result (despite plenty of opinions about the good, earthy, sour taste of buckwheat making all the difference in a true crepe) is not all that different and fresh buckwheat that hasn’t gone rancid is actually pretty hard to come by. So we make our crepes with wheat flour and we follow an ancient and simple recipe that is easy to learn and yet with practice changes every single time.

Simple Crepes

The basic recipe is as follows: Beat together one egg and one cup of milk. Now, using a whisk, beat in one cup of flour. Now beat in another tablespoon of milk. That should make crepes for two. For more people just double, triple or whatever the recipe.

Heat any one of the following on medium-high heat: a non-stick frying pan, a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet or an official crepe pan. Add about a teaspoon of butter and swirl it around. As soon as it starts to turn brown and smoke, turn the heat down to medium to medium-low and quickly pour about half a cup of the batter into the middle of the pan. Now rapidly swirl the batter in the pan so that it evenly covers all the bottom and turns up just a tiny bit on the sides. Leave on the heat until bubbles form and stay rather than immediately disappearing. Flip the crepe over. I usually use one of the new silicone spatulas that can’t burn for this. Cook for about the same time or a little less on the other side and then either serve immediately or put on a plate in a 150 degree oven to keep warm. The first crepe is often somewhat uneven since the pan temperature hasn’t stabilized. For subsequent crepes you will get better results and you can add less butter to start them off as well. Remember to whisk up the batter each time – the flour tries to separate out over time and sink to the bottom.

Several things can go wrong with this basically simple process, but in essence it can be mastered by anyone and my nine year old daughter has successfully made crepes for the family without any of the rest of us getting out of bed.

Things that go wrong include the batter being too thick – this is common and you will get to know it by experience – I often have to add another couple of tablespoons of milk to the batter. The batter can also be too thin – add more flour and whisk thoroughly. You can have difficulty adjusting the temperature and get some underdone and overdone crepes. You can add too much butter and get oily crepes. You can add too little butter and have the crepes start to stick.

The good news is that even a bad crepe is still a good eating experience.

Finally, a crepe is just a carrier for a filling and this is where you can let creativity run wild. At home we usually just put out all the jams, syrups, fresh fruit and cream products that we have plus butter, lemons and sugar and let everyone do what they want.

Classic sweet fillings include nutella; butter and sugar; butter, sugar and lemon; any kind of jam; any kind of fresh or cooked fruit; sauces made with liquers and sugar; etc.

Classic savory fillings include cheese; smoked salmon and cream cheese or sour cream; caviar and sour cream; sliced tomatoes; sauteed spinach; sauteed spinach and mushrooms; a poached egg; etc.

My favorite filling is a bit tricky to serve to more than one person at once but is great if people don’t mind getting theirs in turn. I make crepes and also on the side make a sauce of sauteed tomato, sweet corn, spring onion and garlic. After it has cooked and is cooling, I put in a little smoked salmon to warm up but not cook. Then I make a poached egg. I lay out a crepe on the plate, put a poached egg in the center, pour some sauce on top, add a little sour cream and then gently roll the crepe into a tube with the poached egg and filling inside.

Syndication Feed (RSS) Update

I wasn’t happy when Blogger went to Atom because it is much less used than RSS so I am happy to announce that I am back to RSS by making use of the FeedBurner service. It is supposed to be an RSS 1.0 feed now…

If you don’t know what RSS, Atom, syndication and feeds are all about don’t worry. You can research it by looking up any of those terms in a search engine or by looking up ‘newsreaders’ in a search engine.

To find my feed look for the XML button at the bottom of the left hand column.

Beer, beer, glorious beer

I still haven’t bottled my current batch and although I had hoped to tonight it once again looks like it won’t happen. My current batch is an altbier – this is basically a dark lager – very much a German style. I chose this because I made the beer originally at the start of February when it was still quite cool. I usually do the fermentation in the subfloor under our house where it is dark and cool and peaceful and quiet – all good traits for a fermentation space. Now, of course, it is hitting 90 degrees outside, but the fermentation finished a while ago. I am trusting to the quality of my sterilization technique to preserve the beer since it has been sitting too long. Of course the natural anti-bacterial properties of whatever alcohol has been produced help out here. I am not a true beer geek so I don’t know the alcohol content. If I were I would have done a hydrometer reading and would know.

Anyway, making beer is easy – really easy. And it is close to foolproof, much cheaper than buying it and it tastes really good too. So what’s not to like?

I made the altbier sort of from a kit. I get my ingredients from Beer, Beer and More Beer in Concord. These guys are hardcore. Take a look at the semi-professional beer brewing equipment. Then realize that all you really need are a couple of plastic buckets with lids, some plastic pipe, an airlock, a big stockpot and bottles and caps and a capper for when it is all ready.

So the altbier I made uses a pound of Crystal Malt 40L and 4 ounces of chocolate malt, plus 8 pounds of German Pils malt extract. Right there you know this beer has a little bit of body to it. That is a more than normal amount of malt which means more than normal amount of alcohol and flavor producing sugars which in turn means more alcohol and more depth to the beer. The chocolate malt has nothing to do with ice cream nor with chocolate. It refers to color really and means that this is going to be a nice dark brown kind of beer. So what you do is that you basically set three gallons of water boiling in your stockpot and put your grains (that’s the malt but not the malt extract) in a mesh bag to steep in the water – just like tea. When the water gets close to boiling you fish the mesh bag out again and carefully squeeze all the tasty juices out of it into the pot again. I do that with teabags too, but I’m weird and like my tea REALLY strong. Then you stir in the malt extract. This is a thick syrupy substance that is made by doing what we did above with a lot more grains and then slowly reducing the liquid down to a syrup.

So what is going on here? First, I should explain about the malt. Malt in this case means malted barley grain. This is barley that is allowed to germinate (start sprouting) and is then roasted. This process results in a very surprising amount of caramelized sugar in the grain. Degrees of malt are obtained by amount of roasting. Dark malts are richer deeper browns and have more caramelization. Really dark malts are basically burnt – this is how you get your black beers like stouts and porters. Crystal malts are basically malts roasted to a theoretical ideal balance of caramel and sugar. There are hundreds – even thousands – of kinds of malts.

Once all your malt is in you leave it to boil – you want somewhere between a rolling boil and a simmer. You leave it typically for an hour. This does several things. It effectively blends flavors and cooks some of the components. It kills bad bugs. It is during the boil that you add hops. Technically speaking hops are not necessary in beer. They are a johnny-come-lately addition introduced about six hundred years ago to add flavor and to provide some astringent anti-bacterial properties. Remember that one of the reasons for beer’s popularity is that until the nineteenth century sanitation and water supplies were iffy at best. People knew that drinking beer or watered beer was safer than drinking water.

Anyway, hops are used for bittering – introducing that slightly bitter flavor that many beers have – and for aroma – a lovely herbal, flowery smell that can be very distinctive. Bittering hops get added earlier in the boil and my recipe called for 1 and a half ounces of northern brewer hops added at the start of the boil for bittering. It then asks for an ounce of hallertauer hops five minutes before the end of the boil for flavor and possibly some aroma and another ounce of hallertauer in the final minute of the boil purely for aroma. My kids positively HATE this stage of beer making – they don’t like the combination of malt and hop smells. Personally I quite like it but then I know where it is leading…

Now we have to cool everything off. This is the first dangerous stage because insidiously as temperatures drop air-borne microorganisms can drift into your wort (that’s the technical name for this malt/hop solution) and they could survive and grow. So typically you try to hurry cooling along. There are several ways to do this but I am not interested in the ways that involve additional equipment. So I do the necessary one – adding cold water to bring my wort up to five gallons. Five gallons is the typical homebrew recipe size – that’s 9 six packs for those who care. While I’m doing arithmetic I’ll do the cost equation too. Ingredients for this batch cost me $28. If I was penny pinching I could have gotten that down to $24. That’s $3.11 per six pack of high-quality beer.

Back to cooling. I have sanitized my six gallon food-grade plastic buckets and my airlock and the bucket lids and the spigot I have on my bucket. I do this the cheap way by soaking in a bleach solution and then thoroughly rinsing. I make the assumption that water that comes out of my tap is sanitized and safe. It works for me. So now I pour my wort into the plastic bucket and seal the lid on very carefully and attach the airlock but don’t put water in it yet. Now I go and put the bucket in my subfloor and leave it overnight. The lid means that I minimize airborne contamination and so far this has worked for me. Next day I can add the yeast. You can’t do this safely until the wort temperature drops below about 85 degrees because you’ll kill the yeast – and then no fermentation will occur and you won’t get beer. So I pry the lid off very carefully, add the yeast and stir rapidly with a sanitized long-handled spoon. This does two things. It distributes the yeast evenly and it aerates the solution which is something the yeast likes. My recipe called for some kind of pilsener yeast but that likes fermenting at 50 degrees or so and even in February I’m not confident of the temperature so I used a steam beer yeast. This is a kind of yeast developed in San Francisco that produces lager-like results at higher temperatures. Then you fill your airlock and leave everything for about three weeks – or in my case, seven weeks. You check it every day for the first week to make sure that it starts to bubble (fermentation occurs) and that it starts to taper off. Then again at three weeks to make sure it stopped fermenting and that it doesn’t smell skunky.

Yes, even with my surgical level of sterile technique (that’s a joke…my spouse who is a physician laughs hysterically at beermaking levels of sterile technique and never quite believes that it will work out alright) it is possible for the beer still to go off. I have made about ten or twelve batches of beer and have made one bad one in that time.

Next phase is bottling. This used to be harder and involved tricky things like syphoning. Now that I have buckets with built in spigots I simply decant from one bucket to another so as to lose most of the sediment (and also incorporate the corn sugar solution that is part of bottling) and let the new bucket settle overnight and then fill bottles from the spigot directly. You need to do this because there is so much sediment in the original beer bucket that it actually gets to higher than the level of the spigot (typically well over an inch).

You add four ounces of corn sugar boiled into a solution at the bottling stage so that inside the firmly sealed bottle the yeast will now generate carbon dioxide so your beer will be fizzy and have a head – yes, it also generates more alcohol at the same time.

Now for the big secret. It isn’t very stylish, but I now bottle my beer in recycled sparkling water bottles. They don’t need caps and capping machines. They are very cheap, they don’t break if you drop them, they work really well if you are careful screwing the lids on and you can give them to friends without fussing about getting your bottles back. Getting them ready is easy. Two trips in the dishwasher will do it. And you can use a mix of small (for individual) and large (for parties). The one downside is that I haven’t found a brand that has labels that come off easily so they look kind of tatty.

Give it a try. Beer, Beer and More Beer mail order everything. They have instructions on the website. They are nice on the phone. And if you don’t like it, you can reuse the plastic buckets for more mundane tasks…

Filling for you and me

This pastry is your pastry, this pastry is my pastry, this pastry was made for you and me. Following on from the pastry recipe below, we now come to the full recipe with filling.

Orange-Almond Tarts

I made these in little gratin dishes I have that kind of made four portions at a time. But you could make individual tartlets or a large single tart. First make a recipe of the sweet pastry below. Then bake it into whatever final tart dish you are going to use. Let it cool. While it is cooling make the filling, but leave the oven on at 350 degrees for cooking the final tart. In a medium mixing bowl stir together two cups of finely ground almonds, 6 oz of mascarpone cheese, a cup of granulated sugar, two eggs, a teaspoon of orange oil (or the finely grated zest of a large orange). In a separate bowl beat two egg whites until they are thick and form stiff peaks. Carefully fold these into the almond mixture. Pour about halfway full into the tart shell(s). Now carefully peel an orange and slice it into very, very thin sections. Arrange these decoratively onto the almond mixture so that there is at most one thickness of orange anywhere in the tart and then cover with the rest of the mixture. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes until the filling has solidified and a toothpick comes out clean.

Pastry for John Kerry

Well, it could be. I wouldn’t make it for the shrub, anyway. A week or two ago I promised the recipe for the almond orange tart I made. It was made with an almond and orange filling designed to fluff up slightly and be lighter than normal and a rich, lemon vanilla crust which I stole lock, stock and barrel from Jamie Oliver’s cookbook, “Jamie’s Kitchen.” So, first the pastry recipe…

Modified version of Jamie Oliver’s Perfect Sweet Pastry

If you really want to make this right you’ll have to buy the book. It goes into a great deal of detail about how to make this precisely. But here goes. I modified the recipe to use amounts that work better in the US.

8oz sweet unsalted butter, 8oz granulated or caster (baking sugar), 1/2 tsp salt, 1lb flour, 1 tsp vanilla essence (I used vanilla paste, a more concentrated form), zest from 1 lemon, 4 egg yolks, about 2 tablespoons of cold water.

Cream together the butter, sugar and salt, then blend in the flour, vanilla, lemon and egg yolks. It is easiest to do this in a food processor, but you can do it by hand. It should look like chunks of crumbly pastry. Then carefully blend in the water a little at a time until the pastry holds together like a dough. Roll it quickly into a long flat oval, wrap it in clingfilm and refrigerate for an hour or so. Then take it out and slice it lengthwise into long flat ovals about 1/4 of an inch thick. Depending on what you want to make with this, then carefully lay these out on the bottom and sides of the pie dish or ramekins or pastry molds or whatever so that they cover the surface completely. Use your fingers to mash the edges of these pieces together to form a sealed seam and flatten it out to blend all the pieces together to smoothly cover the surface. Now either fill if you are going to cook them with the filling or bake them first. You do this by putting the oven on at 350 degrees and filling the shell with something like rice or lentils or beans and then baking it for about twelve minutes so it is cooked but at most only lightly browned. Then let it cool and fill with the non-cooked filling.

Uprooting shrubs

When worldwide events and events close to home get crazy it gets hard to focus on smaller things like food and writing on one’s weblog. In the past two weeks we have had a close personal friend have surgery to remove a large tumor in their prostate and we have had another close personal friend have a sudden heart attack. Plus terrorist attacks in Spain, vicious attack dog thugs and weasely apologists in our government, disruption to the only vacation plans we have made in a year and much more. I spent Saturday night in the hospital sitting with one friend.

But enough about the gloom and doom. I still managed to get a few other things in. I have not yet bottled the beer. Hopefully it will still be good when I get around to it. But I did make a grand vegetarian Indian feast on Saturday (before going to the hospital) and enjoyed a wonderful meal at my friends’ house on Friday night and did some other odds and sods of cooking.

I think I am going to try to recover my weblog equanimity by just catching up over the course of this week and we’ll see how I do.

But first, I’m going to make my official endorsement for President. In a perfect world I’d think a lot harder about this. In a perfect world I wouldn’t have to feel that the only thing that counted was kicking out the lying, thieving, mean-spirited, unpatriotic (in the real sense) and greedy bunch of bastards that have hijacked the White House. But here in the real world there isn’t any choice. You either voluntarily give up your freedom, your rights and your future economic prosperity and vote for the Shrub or you vote for an honest man with good intentions to restore America and its place in the world as best as he is able – John Kerry.

The shrub is a tool of big corporate interests. He is owned lock stock and barrel by big energy companies. He doesn’t care about the lives of ordinary Americans, whether they are dying for his cronies’ oil in Iraq or whether they are dying because of the lack of opportunity and healthcare here at home. George Bush is destroying America’s position as a leader in the world. He is crippling America’s economy by handing out corporate welfare to multinationals while simultaneously helping them to move their wealth offshore and move their operations offshore so there are fewer and fewer real jobs for Americans and taxes have to be paid more and more by ordinary working people. He is letting giant corporations – many of them not even based in the USA – gut America’s natural resources. He can’t even do the basic things he promised he would do. It was his government that ignored warnings about terrorist attacks. It is his government that has failed to catch Osama bin Laden. It is his government that has grown at a faster rate than any Democratic government this century, even though he claims to be trying to reduce government. It is his government that claimed that cutting taxes would boost the economy – without result. In other words, he has proved he can’t do the job he was marginally elected for. It is time to pay the piper. It is time for the shrub to be uprooted. In short, it is time for John Kerry.

Busy, Busy, Busy…Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

OK, so I haven’t updated as promised and I haven’t updated at all for a week. I now have a list of about ten items to write about. Maybe if work lets up a little I’ll find time…

I am going to bottle the altbier I made about a month ago soon. It needs it and I have let it brew long enough – too long if truth be told. I’m glad I got it done before the weather turned warm, so it will be that much more authentic (lager style beers need to be brewed cold – 55 degrees or less).

Next up is an unusual one for summer. I may actually do two at once. I have a friend who wants to do some brewing so I’ll have him make a basic ale and I’ll make a real ginger beer to make shandies for the hot weather.

Odd design changes

A few of you will have noticed some design changes. I am trying to make it so that on most screens with most browsers you get three columns that extend all the way from top to bottom. It works pretty well for newer Internet Explorer browsers but I don’t know about others. Please leave a comment if you have issues and let me know what browser and what screen resolution you are using.