How impossible is this burger?

While on a trip to Disneyland, I discovered my hotel’s quick service restaurant served the Impossible Burger, the competing faux-meat foil to the Beyond Burger. Unlike Beyond’s creation, which is regularly stocked at Whole Foods, the Impossible is only possible to obtain at selected restaurants, each of which offers a custom spin on the soy-based patty.

For purity, I ordered it without cheese or other adornments, though added ketchup, mustard, and hot sauce after opening the decidedly bland brown box in which it was served.

The condiments proved a wise choice, as the burger was fairly mild-tasting without them. It wouldn’t fool an unsuspected eating into thinking it was a gourmet creation, but it was a reasonable replica of a low-end fast food meat patty (e.g. McDonalds). I didn’t notice any of the famed “bleeding” described by others, and it seemed somewhat less greasy and vegetal than the Beyond Burger. However, it just may have been overcooked.

Overall: a reasonable meat replacement and at least on par with Beyond’s, but it won’t be mistaken for a connoisseur’s burger.

Brioche buns (plus chocolate)

The Flour bakery is a local institution. While it has its faults and limitations, Joanne Chang synonymous cookbook is a useful collection of recipes and techniques.

Her brioche au chocolat is a perennial hit. The buttery brioche dough (which is surprisingly light and airy considering the ingredients) envelops a balanced blend of pastry cream and chocolate. The pastry cream is less rich than the heavy versions that often accompany fresh fruit tart, and prevents the whole pastry from being overwhelming.

The recipe uses only half the brioche dough (Chang warns against halting the brioche recipe, and she feels a stand mixer won’t have enough dough to effectively grab with its hook). The dough freezes well, but I’m often unsure of what to do with it.

With the most recent batch, I thawed the 700 g mass and split it into 9 balls. I worked 15 chocolate chips each into some of them and left the others plain. The result was a simpler chocolate brioche that was still airy and satisfying, and lightweight buns that would make a great accompaniment to sandwiches or burgers.

I brushed them twice with beaten egg and then cooked them for 15 minutes at 375 °F, which seemed perfect. What’s great about buns is that they can be individually wrapped in plastic, placed in a Ziploc freezer bag, and easily retrieved as needed.

Yam Fries

In the US, the term “yam” is often used to refer to sweet potatoes (e.g. the garnet yam), but true yams include the African white yam and Jamaican black yam (name negro). I found the latter at a local supermarket, where I had also found yuca earlier in the month. I had tried yuca fries at a restaurant years ago, and was able to easily reproduce these starchy, crispy fries at home.

I had no idea how to cook the black yam. Some online searching, many recipes suggested boiling, but that seemed so un-American. With Independence Day rapidly approaching, a more patriotic (and kid-friendly) approach was to take the national approach to tubers: fries. After peeling the yam (I’m told yam skin is not edible), I cut it into fry-size batons and gave them a quick (roughly 5 minute) boil in salted water. I let them strain in a colander and they quickly dried out. I heated some peanut oil to 350 °F and deep-fried them for about 5 minutes. They didn’t darken as quickly as potatoes (presumably due to a lower sugar content), but crisped up quite well.

How did they taste? The texture was great. They remained firm and crispy with a starchy interior, but the flavor wasn’t on par with potato fries. They were reminiscent of yuca fries and seemed drier than their potato cousins (in contrast to sweet potato fries, which are often so moist they require some sort of coating to retain crispiness).

A Sticky Situation

Breakfast treats are a common weekend occurrence at our home, and Mother’s Day is an excuse to take it to the next level.

I typically make cinnamon buns using my buttermilk bread recipe and top them with a cream cheese glaze. For a special treat, I decided to try sticky buns instead. These are essentially a cinnamon roll that’s baked in a caramel-pecan sauce, then inverted so the sauce becomes a topping.

I used Kenji López-Alt’s recipe from The Food Lab, which is unusual in its heavy use of brown sugar, even in the dough. The buns are fairly dense compared to the buttermilk bread dough, and not as buttery as Flour’s brioche-based buns. I wondered if I had not let them rise enough (I used an overnight rise, letting the buns warm at room temperature for about 90 minutes prior to baking), but the pictures in The Food Lab look similarly dense.

I used Gold Medal flour, and suspect that a higher protein bread flour would yield a airier, if chewier, result. The recipe would benefit from a switch to King Arthur all purpose, or even bread flour. Still, the buns are tasty, and the brown sugar add an interesting warmth, with a satisfying sticky topping.

Kabocha: discovering a Japanese treasure

Until recently, my experience with squash had been largely limited to butternut, zucchini, and summer squash, plus the occasional canned pumpkin in pies if I’m being loose with the definition. This fall, that all change when I discovered the king of squash: the kabocha.

Forget everything you thought you knew about squash. This “Japanese pumpkin” might as well be it’s own category. It’s been described as a drier, less sweet cousin to the Japanese sweet potato, but that description fails to capture the nutty flavor and satisfying texture that is so uncannily well balanced. It’s wonderful addition to any meal warm out of the oven, but equally viable as a snack straight from the fridge. Have it plain, or sprinkled with some cinnamon or curry powder.

Preparing it is simple: heat an oven to 400 °F and roast it whole for 20 minutes. Take it out and slice it in half. Scoop out the seeds, cut it into thick slices and return it to the oven for 40 minutes. That’s all.

The only challenge is identifying a good one. I had great luck early on, but most recently started stumbling across specimens that were wetter and more fibrous (what I describe to my wife as “squashy”). That’s no good. The texture should be starchy and slightly crumbly, almost like the yolk of a hard boiled egg. I still haven’t completely cracked the code of identifying them from the outside, but a deep green color, smaller size, and smooth texture is usually bad news. Larger size, a heavier weight, greyish green with a small orange patch, and uglier rough patches are usually good omen. In the picture above, the squash on the right was superior. Despite the sometimes unattractive appearance, the skin is completely edible (though not required; my wife doesn’t care for it, but I gladly take leftovers).

With several misses recently, I thought the season must be coming to an end, but during a trip to the Midwest I discovered good squash could still be found.

Be forewarned, kabocha are highly addictive. I’m convinced scientists will discover a dependence inducing substance lies within the dense orange flesh. Fortunately, they appear to be relatively healthy: high in fiber and low in calories and rich enough in vitamin A that I’ve wondered if the beta-carotene is more responsible for my winter than than my tropical vacation.

I have been able to find kabocha at many standard supermarkets, but they are clearly a fourth choice in the stock list of winter squashes after butternut, acorn, and spaghetti. They have inexplicably disappeared from my local Whole Foods, and I tend to hoard them when I discover a promising batch and the few reliable hideouts that supply my fix. They seem to keep well: I’ve never had one rot or go bad, though they don’t have much opportunity given the rate they are consumed. Maybe their relative scarcity has a benefit: they could easily take over the majority of my diet, which may not make for a healthy balance.

Bit what is life without some indulgence? Can squash really be an indulgence? It’s not squash. It’s kabocha.

Millionnaire Shorbread

I loved candy bars as a kids, and my own children are no different. Twix is a perennial favorite (come on, you get two in one package!). I’m sure the taste hasn’t changed significantly, but they don’t create the same reaction in my adult self as they did years ago. The flavors seem muted and simplistic.

Enter millionaire shortbread, arguably the more grown-up version of the Twix. A layer of shortbread is covered in a firm but chewable caramel layer and topped with chocolate. They don’t mimic the Twix design exactly. Since the bars are cut from a large block, the chocolate component only covers the top, not the sides or the bottom.

In the Cooks Illustrated version I made, the shortbread and caramel play are far more dominant role. The shortbread has the classic buttery flavor. To be honest, I have always been a bit cool on shortbread, finding it too buttery for my tastes, but aficionados will have no complaints about this cookie bar. The caramel, made with a sugar condensed milk blend, has a satisfying bite and is sturdy enough to support knife cuts or bites without oozing into a messy puddle. My only quibble is that the chocolate to bar ratio strikes me as a little low, but that would be an easy fix and is up to personal taste.

I followed the directions closely, and the bars came together without much fuss. Despite my description of the bars as more grown up than Twix, my kids had no difficulty polishing off the entire half-batch within a few days.

Making peace with smaller pans

I love to make quick breads like banana bread. They are an easy way to use up leftover ingredients and require minimal effort. The main downsides I’ve run into are the long baking times (often an hour or more) and the disagreements about the appropriate add ins. Nuts or no nuts? Chocolate chips? Berries? No one can seem to agree. Then there is the problem of needing to finish an entire loaf before staleness makes it inedible.

Enter these mini loaf pans, which seem to solve all these problems.

Recipes typically targeted at a standard loaf pan can be split amongst 3-4 mini pans, depending on preference. By waiting until the last minute to incorporate add-ins, each mini loaf can be customized. Excess bounty can be handled by individually wrapping and storing (or freezing) loaves as needed. These downsized loaves allow for even smaller portions to have a satisfying thickness. Lastly, these diminutive pans allow for faster cooking time, although a higher oven temperature may be helpful in ensuring a satisfying crust.

When adjusting pan size, it’s necessary to have a way to assess doneness other than the recipe’s time guidance. I turn to an instant read thermometer, aiming for 190° F for yeast breads and 200-210° F for quick breads.

While I appreciate concerns about clutter, these pans stack nicely and solve many frustrations about loaf baking.

Richer pancakes

I recall in vivid detail my mother’s pancakes from childhood. My mother was extremely caring and made a great deal of effort in an attempt to enrich my childhood, but she was not particularly good at making pancakes. I craved the kind of light, fluffy pancakes I knew existed from my travels to IHOP and various hotels, but regardless of whether the attempts involved a scratch recipe from original ingredients or a box of Aunt Jemima, the overly fried rubbery discs bore no resemblance to the breakfast of my imagination.

As an adult, I eventually found a recipe that hit all the key components, but I’m open to trying new approaches. When Serious Eats‘ Stella Parks presented her take, I had to give it a spin. What’s striking about this recipe is the high ratio of fat to milk: more than double the fat and half the liquid of my usual recipe (and most of the standard approaches I’ve seen). The pancakes look great and fluffy, but emerge a bit too buttery for my taste. It’s not the flavor that’s the issue, and they are surprisingly not greasy, but overly rich in the way that you might find a brioche when you are looking for a simple white bread. For some, it may be perfect. It’s simply a matter of taste and consistent with the main ways I differ from Stella’s taste. I had a similar issue with some of her cakes and her pie crust.

My family has the same reaction, and even my pre-teen son found himself I characteristically unable to polish off his serving.

I have found that switching to Stella’s preferred bleached Gold Medal flour has eliminated the occasional gumminess that comes from King Arthur (presumably a result of over development of gluten when I’m overly rough with the batter).

In Search of the Ultimate Birthday Cake

There’s no birthday cake more classic than the golden cake with chocolate frosting. Everyone seems to like it, yet finding a good reliable recipe has been a challenge. I have had consistently good luck with King Arthur Flour’s Golden Vanilla Cake, topped with a chocolate ganache (either whipped or not), but I noticed a new recipe on their site that I thought was worth a try.

The Classic Birthday Cake is like a better version of a box cake recipe. It’s less dense than the Golden Vanilla Cake, with a lighter, spongier texture. It’s not better or worse than the vanilla cake, but it’s a nice change. For variety.

I topped it with an unwhippped ganache of 340 g of Ghiradelli semisweet chocolate chips and 240 g of heavy cream.

Dark Crystal

Order from a scam artist online and you may find yourself with a box filled with rocks instead of what you had ordered. The suspicious spice shopper looking for kala namak could think they had been swindled at first glance.

This moderately obscure Indian ingredient adds a sulfurous kick typically used for legumes like chickpeas, but can be used anywhere a hint of egg-yolk like flavor is desired (not surprisingly, it’s caught on among some vegans).

My favorite use is to add a bit to cream cheese on a bagel for a twist on the breakfast sandwich. It’s salt, so don’t use a heavy hand. If you buy it in large rocks, you need a good spice grinder to turn it into powder.