February 7, 2012
A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, but a growing body of research casts the sweet stuff as a bitter pill. While our ancestors had access to sugar only by way of fruits, the purified stuff has become an alarmingly major part of the Western diet. It’s in a great many processed foods—dessert items or otherwise—and people use and abuse sugar to the point that some nations are trying to control it like tobacco or alcohol. (Before passing its “fat tax,” Denmark imposed high tariffs on sugary goods.) Even sugar substitutes are coming under fire: A recent study reported a link between artificial sweeteners and the risk of metabolic disorders and diabetes, and some of you may recall a period when saccharin-sweetened goods were suspect because the substance caused cancer in lab animals. But perhaps one of the strangest sweeteners was lead-based—and as you might expect, its ingestion carried serious consequences.
Lead acetate, also known as sugar of lead, is a salt that (ironically) has a sweet flavor—a fairly unusual quality in poisons, which are more likely to taste bitter, signaling to the taster that they are unsafe for consumption. The ancient Romans used the compound—which they called sapa—to sweeten wine, and the aristocratic segments of the population could toss back as much as two liters a day (about three bottles’ worth, although wine was usually diluted with water). There is debate as to whether the wine alone could have produced the traditional physiological effects of lead poisoning, such as organ failure, infertility and dementia—the little things that help facilitate the fall of an empire.
This is not to say that sugar of lead can’t be lethal. When Pope Clement II died in 1047, no one was exactly sure what killed him, but a 1959 examination of his remains clearly indicated lead poisoning. No one knows for sure if it was accidental or intentional, but one thing was for certain: the man liked his wine, especially those from his native Germany which were sweetened in the ancient Roman manner. And while a number of theories have cropped up concerning Ludwig van Beethoven’s cause of death, ranging from syphilis and coronary disease to lupus, lead poisoning by way of wine has also been suggested as a contributing factor to his demise.
All that said, sugar of lead is probably best left to its modern application: hair coloring products, which, incidentally bear warning labels that this substance is contained therein.
January 20, 2012
Chefs began whipping up meringue sometime in the early 1600s. The light-as-air confection is made by whipping egg whites and is used in a variety of desserts, such as Pavlova, macaroons and baked Alaska. It’s a delicacy that’s delightfully counter-intuitive. While most other foods get smaller and flatter as they’re beaten and smashed, egg whites are comparatively resilient and fluff up and expand under similar duress.
This past weekend I had a few egg whites left over after making another dish and thought I would try my hand at them. If these things were made by Renaissance chefs in the days before electric hand mixers, surely I could manage to whip some up myself. Unfortunately, mine were a flop—literally. The egg whites never puffed and peaked like they were supposed to; they sat in flat, unappetizing pats on my baking sheet. How could something seemingly so simple fail so spectacularly? Turns out there’s a lot of chemistry to consider when making meringue.
Although egg whites are 90 percent water, the relevant molecules are protein. Proteins are made up of amino acids, some that are attracted to water, others that are repelled by water. One you start beating the whites and introducing air, the water-loving bits cling to the water, the water-repelling bits cling to the air. The more you beat, the more bubbles with a protein coating are created and the more the whole shebang fluffs up. However, bubbles and proteins divided against themselves will not stand, and the foam will collapse without a little stabilizer. One way of doing this is to introduce an acid such as vinegar, lemon juice or cream of tartar, which encourages the proteins in the egg white to bond together. Another ingredient that adds structural integrity, in addition to providing flavor, is sugar, which works like a glue that holds the foam together.
But why don’t we want to use the yolk? This part of the egg contains fat, which interferes with how the proteins line up and coat all those bubbles that are supposed to bulk up your meringue. If the bubbles aren’t properly protected, your meringue will never have much body. This is also why chefs are discouraged from using plastic bowls for this purpose as they have a tendency to retain oils. So perhaps I wasn’t as careful as I ought to have been when separating my eggs and a bit of stray yolk made it into my whites. I’m also in the habit of using my hands to separate eggs. And even though I washed my hands beforehand, perhaps residual oils sabotaged my baking venture. So even though my first try didn’t go so well, tell us about your meringue adventures (or misadventures) in the comments section below.
January 12, 2012
In a 1992 essay for The New Yorker, Susan Orlean took an inventory of the inventory left at the recently vacated Girl Scouts of America the USA headquarters building on Third Avenue. Aside from the people who make this youth service organization hum, it’s readily apparent that something more is missing.
Twelfth floor. Orange Hermann Miller Eames chairs, straight-backed wooden desk chairs, plastic stackable shell chairs in various colors. Troop Camper activity badges embroidered with little tents and trees, which Mom always promised to sew on when she had a free minute but never did: none. Cookies: ditto.”
With every floor there is another round of disappointment with the absence of the Girl Scouts’s signature edibles.
“Fifth floor. Acoustical office dividers covered in Scout-green fabric. Several boxes of green No. 2 pencils, embossed with the Girl Scout logo. No sunshine ponchos made by cutting up one of your mother’s cocktail dresses. Cookies: still none, although an employee of Affordable Furniture walking by confirmed having sighted and then eaten several boxes of Thin Mints, Peanut Butter Sandwiches and Peanut Butter Patties.”
The unfulfilled promise of Girl Scout cookies is absolutely cruel.
These brightly colored boxes of baked goods, hawked to us every year by little girls in scouting uniforms, they have lent themselves to loving parody, recipe ideas and even cocktails. This year, the classic lineup of Thin Mints, Samoas and shortbread trefoils was joined by Savannah Smiles, a lemony cookie dusted with powdered sugar, introduced to honor the 100th anniversary of Juliette Gordon Lowe’s founding of the Girl Scouts. But when did the annual cookie drive tradition get its start?
Cookie sales began as—and still are—a means for troops to fund activities and programs. The earliest known cookie drive was organized in December 1917 by Muskogee, Oklahoma’s Mistletoe Troop. Instead of being sold door-to-door, the baked goods were sold in a local high school cafeteria. In the 1920s and and 1930s, troops across the nation independently organized cookie drives, baking simple sugar cookies in their own kitchens and selling parcels of wax-paper-wrapped treats for anywhere between 25 and 35 cents per dozen. By the mid-1930s, commercial bakers were being approached to produce the cookies, and by 1951, the line included three varieties: a sandwich cookie, shortbread and a chocolate mint, now known as Thin Mint cookies, which currently account for 25 percent of all Girl Scout cookie sales. Currently there are two bakeries licensed to produce eight varieties, and your access to certain cookies depends on your location. (There’s a cookie locator app you can use to track down which goods are available near you.)
The cookies have, however, run into a few problems over the years. The flour and butter shortages that came with World War II halted cookie drives, and scouts instead sold calendars to raise funds. The cookies later came under fire for their trans fat content. In 2005 cookies with zero trans fats were introduced, the organization using the occasion to impress upon scouts the importance of label reading when making eating choices. (Subsequent reporting suggests that the cookies abide by the FDA’s definition of what constitutes zero trans fats—any amount less than .5 grams—and that there are indeed some artery clogging dietary fats therein.) But the Girl Scouts are perfectly sensible in the advice they dispense regarding consuming their own product: “As with all treats, they should be enjoyed in moderation.”
Some cookies have gone extinct, varieties that didn’t sell well and were consequently retired—including an ill-fated venture into the cracker market with Golden Yangles.
What are your favorite Girl Scout cookies—and what do they say about you? And if you have memories of selling cookies, share them in the comments section below. And for those of you who are wanting to get a Girl Scout cookie fix in the off season, you may have to satisfy (torment?) yourself with a line of lip balms that come in Samoa, Thin Mint and Tagalong flavors. Just try to refrain from eating the stick.
December 29, 2011
When it comes time to think about how to make a new year better than the last, “lose weight” is one of the most commonly made—and broken—resolutions. This resolution tends to vilify fun food in favor of working out more. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, but isn’t it possible to make a few New Year’s resolutions that embrace food? I think so. Here are a few I’m putting on my list as I dive into 2012.
Resolution 1: Out with the old standbys, in with the new. I like to cook for myself and take some pride in the fact that I pack a lunch (almost) every day. I’ve come to rely on a limited number of dishes to make because they’re filling and familiar enough that I can whip them up with ease—pasta with chick peas and spinach will always be a great, quick weeknight meal. The thing is, I feel like I’m in a rut. There’s a lot of uncharted culinary territory to explore. Time to take an afternoon, sift through the cookbooks on my shelf and get out of my cooking comfort zone and tackle new things.
Resolution 2: Bake more. I personally prefer baking to cooking and love thumbing through books like The Perfect Finish for sugary ideas. My recent acquisition of a cookie press comes with tantalizing attachments for eclairs, and a Q&A I did with a heritage grain-grower has me wanting to attempt baking bread again. (The last two tries, while edible, weren’t too pretty.) I want the practice and the satisfaction of being able to make a perfect pie crust and that elusive loaf of bread, or use balloons to make decorative chocolate bowls that could hold whatever small-scale edibles I could manage to turn out. (Yes, it’s a thing and I want to do it.) Since I’m single, ridding myself of the sugary supply would be an issue if not for…
Resolution 3: Entertain more. I look at my apartment and keep telling myself it’s too small to really hold a crowd. But after polling a few friends who can offer more detached opinions, I may have been over-thinking my space limitations. Rearrange some furniture to clear the floor and make room for people, fill the table with finger food and have a relaxed time nibbling and visiting. And be realistic. My space is geared to casual dining and I can make those kinds of meals work well.
Resolution 4: Those fondue pots living in the closet? Use them. Yes, both of them. Should I be strapped for reasons why these need to be cracked out, refer back to items 1 and 3. A trip to the Melting Pot inspired their purchase, now it’s time to follow through.
December 22, 2011
By guest blogger Derek Workman
English cuisine has always been laughed at by its European neighbors as bland, greasy and overcooked. This may or not be true, but one thing is for sure—not one of our European neighbors’ cuisines can measure up to the Great British Pudding. The variety is endless, and even the French were forced to admit British superiority when Misson de Valbourg said, after a visit to England in 1690, “Ah what an excellent thing is an English pudding!”
Most British puddings are rich and sweet (a “sweet” is another name for a pudding) with the recipes often going back hundreds of years. The quintessential English pudding incorporates fruits that are grown in England: apples, redcurrants and raspberries, bright red rhubarb, or gooseberries, which apart from being a green, sour, hairy fruit, is the name given to someone who goes out with a couple on a date without a partner for the evening himself.
When is a pudding not a pudding? Yorkshire pudding isn’t a pudding; it is a savory pastry case than can be filled with vegetables or served, full of gravy, with that other English staple, roast beef. And neither is black pudding—that’s a sausage of boiled pig’s blood in a length of intestine, usually bound with cereal and cubes of fat. Ask for mince in the United Kingdom and you will be served ground beef. But that Christmas delight, mince pie, is actually filled with a paste of dried fruits. Confusing!
A pudding may be any variety of cake pie, tart or trifle, and is usually rich with cream, eggs and butter. Spices, dried fruit, rum and rich dark brown sugar, first brought into England through the port of Whitehaven in Cumbria, were items of such high value that the lord of the house would keep them locked away in his bedroom, portioning them out to the cook on a daily basis. The port was where the last invasion of the English mainland was attempted, in 1772, during the American War of Independence, when John Paul Jones, the father of the American Navy, raided the town but failed to conquer it.
The names of some puds stick in the mind. “Spotted Dick,” a hefty steamed pudding with butter, eggs and dried fruit folded into a heavy pastry, has been a gigglesome name for generations of schoolboys. Hospital managers in Gloucestershire, in the west of England, changed the name to “Spotted Richard” on hospital menus, thinking patients would be too embarrassed to ask for it by name. No one knows where the name came from, other than that currants traditionally gave the pudding a ‘spotted’ appearance. A gooseberry fool isn’t an idiot whose friends don’t want to have him around; it is a deliciously creamy summer pudding. And despite its French sounding name, crème brulee, the creamy dish with the burnt sugar topping, was actually created in Cambridge in the early 19th century.
An inescapable addition to any British pudding, especially the steamed ones, is custard; rich, golden and runny, it is poured hot over a steaming bowl of treacle pudding, apple crumble, plum duff or any other delicious pud hot from the oven. Another complication: Ask for “a custard” in a British bakery and you will be given a small pastry with a thick, creamy filling, which you would eat cold. Pudding custard is a flowing nectar made from egg yolk, milk, sugar and vanilla pods, and the thought of licking the bowl after your mum had made it fresh must linger in the top five of every Brit’s favourite childhood memories.
The Christmas pudding reigns supreme, the highlight of the Christmas dinner, especially if you were served the portion with the lucky sixpenny piece in it.Copious quantities of currants, candied fruit, orange peel, lemon peel, eggs and beef suet bind the Christmas pudding together. Then go in the spices, cloves and cinnamon; brandy if you want it and a good slug of sherry. It’s then steamed for an hour, maybe two hours, it depends on the size of the pudding.
But it isn’t just the wonderfully rich pudding that is important, it’s how it is served. You warm yet more brandy and then light it, pouring it over the hot Christmas pudding moments before it is carried to the table. If served when the light is low, the blue flames dance and sparkle around the traditional sprig of berried holly stuck into the top of the pudding.
So, you may laugh at our fish ‘n’ chips, make rude comments about our drinking warm beer, or call us a nation of tea drinkers, but you will never, even in your wildest gastronomical dreams, match the rich British pud!
Derek Workman is an English journalist living in Valencia who “delights in searching out the weird, the wonderful and the idiosyncratic, which Spain has by the bucketful.” He blogs at Spain Uncovered.