Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Most Demanding Food Goddess of All: Chocolate

Don't get me wrong, I love chocolate. I adore chocolate. I offer a silent prayer of thanks to the Mesoamericans who first came across the lovely cacao pod, Theobroma cacao, every time I encounter a new or really good type of chocolate. How else could the lowly pod have gotten its name, which means "food of the gods?"


My worshipful demeanor often turns ugly when I'm working with chocolate, instead of eating it. Like any goddess worth her robes, chocolate can be a fickle, unpredictable mistress, reducing even the best pastry chefs to tears. It doesn't take kitchen expertise to know this. How many of us have burnt chocolate while trying to melt it? Or had a bit of liquid get into a bowl and turn it into a seized up mess? Or have it separate into oily and grainy layers that seem impossible to bring together again? And let's not think back on all the chocolate desserts we've slaved, hoped, and yes, prayed over, wanting a beautiful, delicious result - but what we got was a waxy or grainy texture, or an underwhelming chocolate taste. How could our goddess desert us, after all our praises and offerings unto her?

And my lamentations above don't address her greatest challenge: tempering chocolate. You think you've prostrated yourself before this goddess? Grasshopper, you haven't begun to suffer if you haven't tried to temper her. This most marvelous molecule, luscious as it is, harbors chemical secrets that make working with it as much art as it is science. But over the past few months of doing a lot of tempering of this difficult goddess, and reading even more about how easy/hard it is to temper chocolate and other people's instructions and hints, I think I'm getting the hang of it. I'm not an expert at all, and if there's one thing I've learned it's that just about everybody has developed a process that works for her - but might not work for somebody else. I've got my own method, but while finding it I learned a lot that I hope will help others minimize their time cursing the goddess Theobroma, and instead sing her praises.

I don't intend this to be a complete tutorial, but before I start talking about tempering chocolate I have to say a few things about types of chocolate. Chocolate making is a complex process, beginning with growing the trees. Different varieties have different characteristics, and when grown in different conditions can have various flavor signatures. Cacao undergoes roasting, conching, sometimes blending, and often, having other ingredients added to it in the process of turning pods into what we know as chocolate. All these things influence the taste, and of course the price. I do think that there's an increasing amount of chocolate snobbery going on lately, as more people discover some of the subtle taste differences, but that doesn't mean that Valrhona or Lindt are just overpriced Hershey's. Or for a more fair comparison, eat a Hershey's kiss and then a Dove chocolate, and tell me you can't taste or feel any difference. Quality cacao pods and careful handling make a much better product, and it will cost more for them. How much should you spend for good chocolate? Well, that depends on you. If it's just going into chocolate chip cookies for your kids, then Nestle's Toll House chips are probably fine. But if you're making a lavish dessert for an important dinner party, or for an intimate meal with the love of your life, then splurging on the best chocolate you can find will reward you. Anytime you need the deep, rich taste of chocolate to come through, get real chocolate, not the "chocolate chips" or "chocolate morsels" stuff that's had some of the cocoa butter removed and replaced with other fats. That changes the chocolate flavor, and it changes how the chocolate behaves. streaky, incompletely tempered chocolate

Most importantly for now, those chocolate-like food substances can't be tempered. Tempering chocolate is the process of making the molecules align a certain way. When they're aligned in that configuration, the chocolate hardens very quickly, it takes on a shiny, smooth look, and it gets a characteristic snap that you can hear and feel when you break into tempered chocolate. The problem is, chocolate molecules can align in several different ways, and only one yields beautifully tempered chocolate. So it takes some work to get our goddess to behave for us. The picture above shows a cascade of semi-tempered chocolate in a bowl. The streaks come out as the chocolate hardened and the cocoa butter "bloomed" out of some of it. Streaky chocolate like this almost always means that the chocolate hasn't been stirred enough. You see, this caressing of our goddess improves her mood, and causes the beta crystals - the alignment that's commonly known as tempered chocolate - to encourage other molecules to fall into step with them.

But stirring isn't enough to make the molecules swing into step. It takes careful manipulation of temperature too. And this is where things start to get tricky. If you've looked at procedures for tempering chocolate, you have seen different ranges of temperatures and probably pulled your hair out in frustration. Which one is right?

They all might be.

The precise temperature at which chocolate will temper depends on lots of things. Generally, white and milk chocolates come into temper at lower temperatures, usually around 84-86°F, and the darker the chocolate, the higher the temperature - dark or bittersweet chocolate tempers around 88°F. But different brands and varieties of "milk" or "bittersweet" chocolate have different amounts of chocolate liquor and cocoa butter in them, so any temperature is best thought of as a very rough guide.

And we're not on the home stretch yet. The chocolate needs to be heated higher than this, then cooled to where the beta crystals begin forming. There are lots of ways to do this, and I've tried a few. For me, the marble slab technique works best. It's the fastest and most consistent method I've found. Here's the general procedure.

Heat the chocolate to be tempered up to 115°F and hold it there for 3-4 minutes. I do this by using the microwave in brief bursts, and stirring it in between each burst (to make sure I don't burn the chocolate).

Then I pour about 2/3 of the chocolate onto a clean, absolutely dry marble slab and spread it around, to get it to cool quickly. Let it sit until the temperature reads 92°F or lower. Then you begin moving the chocolate around to further cool it, and so that the beta crystals get well mixed into the chocolate when they start to form. I like to use my bench knife for this, I've seen other people use thin metal spatulas or even good plastic scrapers. When the chocolate starts to come into temper you'll start to see a line of thickened chocolate building up on your edge. When your chocolate gets into the appropriate temperature range listed above, pour it back into the bowl and mix well so that the beta crystals are seeded throughout all the chocolate. Check the temperature and once the chocolate's at the suggested temperature, test for temper by putting a test drop out somewhere - on your marble or parchment paper work surface. If it's hard within 5 minutes, your chocolate is tempered and ready to use. Never trust your thermometer, ALWAYS test your chocolate for temper before working with it!

clump of tempered chocolate floating in untempered chocolate Stir the chocolate frequently while you're working with it, taking care not to add a lot of air to it. If you don't finish your work before the chocolate starts to set up, you can warm it up a bit. As long as you don't warm it above 92°F, it will stay in temper. Remember to stir and test after you warm it - depending on how much chocolate you're working with and the power of your microwave oven, 5-15 seconds will probably be enough without heating it too much. Check the temperature after each warming and test for temper before continuing your work. In the picture at the left, I was lazy about stirring the chocolate....so I got a small island of tempered chocolate that was surrounded by liquid chocolate. After taking that picture, I left the bowl in a cool spot in my kitchen, and an hour later, remembered it. The untempered chocolate was still very liquid!

I know lots of people are nervous about using the microwave for heating chocolate. It takes care and attention, but it can work really well. Obviously you can't use metal bowls, but they're not really good for tempering chocolate anyway because metals conduct heat too easily. So does glass. I have a big, cheap plastic bowl that I use only for tempering chocolate, and it works splendidly. I don't like to use the double boiler method because if water gets into the chocolate, it can ruin the entire batch as far as tempering goes. (It's still fine to use in recipes, especially ones that have added liquids - like ganaches, mousse, souffles, etc.)

Tempering chocolate isn't an activity that tolerates lots of interruptions. The goddess loves your attention to be focused on her, after all. But if you're going to go through the effort of making homemade candy, doesn't it make sense to use the best ingredients possible, and to give your all to creating gorgeous, delicious morsels? If you're going to do all that, it just makes sense to coat all that with the best chocolate you can buy, and treat that goddess right. Temper her carefully, and enrobe your centers in her lovely brown beauty. Then keep your gems cool and separated so that shiny surface doesn't get marred before you serve them. And be prepared to receive lots of adulation yourself from the lucky people who get to enjoy them!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Lentil Chili: Theme and Variations

Lentils are wonderful little gems! They come in pretty colors and have lots of flavor, and are a good source of protein. I'm still not sure that all this mad cow disease talk is for real or just another scare, but I am sure about not liking all the chemicals that are given to cattle and probably get passed to us through their milk and meat. So I've been looking for good vegetarian entrees.....not easy when hubby and kids love meat! Lentils have been a pretty good way of making sure we get protein, and disguising that it isn't coming from beef.

When I saw Catesa's recipe for lentil chili, I knew I'd be giving it a try. I noticed she varied from the original recipe but still got a good result. That isn't surprising, because lentils and chili are both versatile, but it got me wondering.....how many delicious varieties can this easy recipe spawn?

I'd love to see other people's takes on lentil chili, so I'd like to try an experiment. I invite anyone who drops by here to read the recipes other readers have come up with for their lentil chili, and come up with your own. Post your recipe on your blog, and to keep the lentil chili chain going, please link to this entry so your readers can see the "theme and variation" idea and contribute too. I'll add links to new recipes at the end of this post to make it easy for readers to enjoy them all. (Please leave a comment so I'll know to check your site for your recipe!)

The original recipe called for canned corn, green peppers, and just three spices (among other things). Catesa's variation used two kinds of lentils, added chickpeas, and dropped the green peppers and one of the spices. I don't like green peppers at all, and I don't care for corn in my chili, so both of those were out. I wanted to use two kinds of lentils but could only find my expensive, delicious French lentils. I also modified the preparation some. My recipe ended up too soupy to eat on a tortilla like Catesa did, but it was very good and I will definitely be making it again, along with some variations I already have in mind. As usual, I forgot to take pictures!

KQ's French Lentil Chili
Approximately 8 servings

1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, mashed
1 T peanut oil
1 t. ground cumin
1 C. French lentils, rinsed and picked over
2 C. beef broth
dash of Tabasco sauce
1 16 oz. can undrained diced tomatoes
1 16 oz. can undrained chickpeas
1/2 t. allspice
salt and pepper to taste
1 16 oz. can tomato sauce

Heat peanut oil in heavy skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook until soft. Add garlic and cumin and cook until fragrant, 2-3 minutes more. Remove from heat. (You can use a saucepan for this step if it has a heavy bottom and won't burn the onions.)

Put onion mixture into a saucepan, and add lentils, broth, Tabasco, tomatoes, chickpeas, and allspice. (Use some of the broth to deglaze the skillet, if necessary, to get all the goodness into your chili.) Season to taste with salt and pepper, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to keep chili at a brisk simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 30-45 minutes. Stir in tomato sauce and continue to simmer until flavors are blended and lentils are done to your taste (just a few minutes if you like firmer lentils, or up to half an hour more if you like them really soft). Before serving, check seasonings and adjust as needed. Serve as is or over rice; if served over rice, a salad will complete your meal.

Monday, June 12, 2006

The 5 Items Meme

Michelle, the Accidental Scientist, tagged me with the 5 items meme. What I want to know is, why are these things called memes? Unless I'm wrong about the definition of that word, these things aren't memes. Oh well, anyway, here's my list.

5 items in my fridge
leftover lentil chili (based on Catesa's recipe)
half and half
fresh veggies and herbs: sage, cilantro, scallions, ginger, lemons, and other stuff I'm not awake enough to remember
grapefruit peels (for another try at Cooking Debauchery's yummy candied citrus peel recipe, because I botched it the first time)
jaggery (because it got too hard, and I softened it too much with water, so it's in a plastic bag and I didn't want it to get moldy)

5 items in my closet
an empty backpack
extra bed linens
some of hubby's winter clothes (how did that happen?)
a couple of guns
a box of books that apparently tried to escape being unpacked

5 items in my car
1 quart of motor oil
a stack of CDs I'm now sick of hearing, but keep forgetting to replace
pine cone seeds (from a dissection my kids did and didn't clean up completely)
a state map (I'm still learning my way around here)
who knows what kinds of trash lurking under the seats, courtesy of my children

5 items in my purse
I don't carry a purse. Either I wear a vest to carry my stuff or I cram everything into my jeans pockets. I almost always have:
Swiss army knife
keys (I never get locked out of house or car any more!)
emergency inhaler
notepad and pen (you never know when inspiration will strike)

5 bloggers thusly tagged
I don't think I know enough food bloggers to tag five.....and some of the people I tagged last time didn't respond. So if you want to do the meme on your blog, you can consider yourself tagged by me. How's that?

Getting back to food, I hope I'll have time later today to post another recipe. I've been pretty busy in the kitchen lately!

Monday, June 05, 2006

Enchiladas, at Long Last

Happy Cinco de Junio! I'm really sorry it's been so long getting the enchiladas recipe and instructions up. Beautiful weather, a strong urge to do some gardening, and antsy children don't add up to a lot of time for blogging! But you aren't here to read my excuses, so off we go to the enchilada extravaganza. Authentic Mexican ingredients often used in enchiladas

Enchiladas are deceptive devils....it looks so simple to make a filling, wrap a tortilla around it, slather sauce on it, and bake it for a delicious dinner. There are lots of places a cook can go wrong, and end up with something less than yummy, or downright awful. Using authentic Mexican ingredients is important for a good result, and so is procedure. I've tried to anticipate common mistakes in my recipe and tutorial....which means this is long, but it should be helpful. I'm not sure that they're absolutely gluten free, but my daughter has never had any problems eating them, so I think they are, or at the least they're safe for all but the most-sensitive people.

Measures are almost totally absent in this recipe - a lot of it depends upon what ingredients you use and how generous or thrifty you want to be with the fillings. But if you really want an estimate of serving size, as part of a meal an average adult will probably eat 3-6 enchiladas as part of a meal. In Mexico they're usually served with rice and a salad. If you have questions let me know!



1 pound ground beef
1 chopped onion
1-2 cloves of garlic
salt and pepper to taste
other seasonings to taste

1 roasted chicken
seasoning to taste

1 wedge cotija or queso fresco cheese, crumbled
1 small tin chipotle peppers OR
black olive and green olives, chopped

salsa verde or salsa roja, or both
chopped fresh cilantro
additional garnishes as you prefer

For Beef Filling:
Brown ground beef. If necessary, drain some fat, then add chopped onion and saute until almost soft. Add garlic to taste and continue to saute until onion is soft, but take care not to burn garlic. Add other seasonings and water if necessary to make a thick sauce. Cover and simmer until beef is tender, or just until flavors are blended. (I like soft beef, so I prepare it ahead and let it simmer at least an hour.) The seasonings I like to use are all from Penzeys: regular taco seasoning, adobo seasoning, or southwest seasoning. Usually I add some Mexican oregano too, especially when I use the taco seasoning, and salt and pepper. Ground beef isn't too common in Mexico, but Americans are used to it and it works well in enchiladas and tacos. If you want something more authentic, buy the thin slices of beef steak any supermarket that has a Hispanic clientele will offer, sear it, then simmer it in the seasoning of your choice, and slice thinly to fill the tortillas. Or use shredded beef, chicken, or pork, seasoned as desired.

For Chicken Filling:
You can prepare your own chicken from scratch, but it's easier and just as good to buy a good roasted chicken that isn't already slathered in flavorings. Let it cool a bit so it's easy to handle, and just remove the skin and pull off the meat in a rough shred. Put the meat and any liquid or gelatinous stuff in a skillet and heat over low heat. When warm, add seasonings. My family's favorites are the adobo seasoning or southwest seasoning mentioned above, and a bit of water or tequila and lime juice. Cover and heat on low, stirring occasionally, until seasoning has been absorbed by the chicken meat.

For Cheese Filling:
Cotija cheese is a harder cheese, that can be somewhat to rather salty. Queso fresco simply means "fresh cheese," which in Mexico generally refers to a white, fairly soft cheese. Neither of these cheeses melt under heat, and unlike many American cheeses, when they're warm they don't exude oil. Instead they just get warm, and sometimes squeaky under the tooth. My children really like that, and cotija seems to be more squeaky, so that's what I use most, but either kind is delicious. Mexican cheeses are very diverse and I didn't find one I didn't like while there, but most aren't available outside the town where they're made, much less imported here. For more information on good Mexican cheeses that you're likely to find in a good supermarket or specialty store, see Kate's Global Kitchen for an overview.

For the enchiladas pictured here, I chopped some canned green olives, and black olives, and stirred them into the roughly crumbled cotija cheese. But my favorite cheese enchiladas are made by draining the juice from a can of chipotle chilies and stirring it into the cheese. If your kids don't mind spicy food or children aren't a factor, chop some or all of the chilies and add into the cheese for richer, spicier cheese enchiladas. Once I sauteed some mushrooms in garlic and added them to the cheese, and got raves from our teenagers....but hubby doesn't care much for mushrooms so I haven't done that again. That version and my olive version aren't strictly authentic, but they both work very well with the enchilada sauces and my family loves them, and that's what's most important to me. Experiment and find something that you and your family likes.

Preparing the tortillas:
This is probably the most crucial step in making good enchiladas. It's easy, but it requires undivided attention. If you can, get freshly made tortillas rather than mass produced and shipped ones. The flavor will almost always be better, and they'll be easier to handle. Top and bottom tortillas have it rough

Speaking of "easier to handle," you'll probably notice a difference between the top and bottom tortillas and the ones in the middle. End tortillas suffer a variety of indignities, from drying out because they aren't surrounded by tortillas to the condensation that often occurs when freshly made tortillas are packaged in plastic before they cool. Even so, they're useful as testers, so don't toss them out.

Middle tortillaHeat some peanut or corn oil in a small skillet - just large enough to hold a tortilla. (This is a great way to condition your small cast iron skillet.)If you're doing a lot of tortillas, it's faster if you start with a lot of oil. That way you don't need to add more and wait for it to come up to temperature. If you're only making a few enchiladas - a dozen or less - just enough oil to cover the tortillas should be enough. Heat it to about 300°F. Anything higher than 325°F and the tortillas will cook too fast for you to keep up with them.

Sacrificial test tortilla The idea isn't to fry the tortillas, but really just to get some oil into them so that they won't disintegrate under the salsa and heat of the oven. Use the end tortillas as testers to make sure the temperature is right, and your timing good. It takes just a few seconds in the hot oil for a tortilla to be cooked for use in enchiladas - too long and they become inflexible and prone to cracking or breaking when folded over the filling. A good visual indicator is when the tortilla starts to float - it's time to flip it and cook the other side for just a couple of seconds. My guess is 5-10 seconds on the first side, and 3-7 seconds on the second side. The picture below shows a tortilla ready to be turned. If you cook a few tortillas too long, don't trash them. You can fry them longer and make tortilla chips out of them - but that's a different post for another time. A properly cooked tortilla for enchiladas will not absorb sauce, but won't be stiff. Frying tortillas

I always drain the tortillas after frying them on a double layer of paper towels spread over my wood cutting board. This step helps reduce the fat we eat, and also helps condition my cutting board. Once cool, stack the fried tortillas and if necessary, cover with a paper towel so they don't get too dry and stiff. I haven't found a way to prepare the tortillas more than an hour or two in advance; they seem to dry out or stiffen up if they sit much longer than that. For more pictures of frying tortillas and making enchiladas, please visit my photo album. Properly cooked tortilla

Enchilada assembly:
First, turn your oven to 350°F to preheat it while you assemble the enchiladas. To do this, set up a mise en place of tortillas, fillings, and lightly greased rectangular casserole dishes. My standard size ones hold about 15 enchiladas at most, so if you're feeding a crowd you'll need more than one casserole dish. What I often do is make a full-size dish of spicier ones for hubby, me, and the teenagers, and a second, 8 x 8 size dish of milder ones for the younger children.

Wrapping enchiladas To fill tortillas for enchiladas, use a teaspoon and put at most, one or two teaspoons of filling in each tortilla. There needs to be enough tortilla left to wrap around the filling. Once the filling is distributed in the tortilla, fold the sides around the line of filling, and place it seam down in the greased casserole dish. I can usually fit 12-15 enchiladas into a full size casserole dish, pushing them snugly against each other. Notice that I'm not squeamish about piling them up along the sides too. It's an American habit of serving enchiladas as intact rounds. In most homes where I ate enchiladas they don't do this; they usually just sliced wherever they wanted to get a good sized portion. Restaurants that have a tourist clientele are the exception to that experience. My kids prefer to serve themselves in whole enchilada units too, but that's still easy to do. Prepared enchiladas awaiting a sauce

Once all the enchiladas are filled and placed into a baking dish, it's time to cover them. My family prefers salsa verde, or green sauce composed mostly of tomatillos, but the salsa roja, or red sauce, is good too. (I've made salsa verde at home, and it's even better than storebought salsas. I need to find out a procedure to can it safely though. Once I do that I'll share that recipe.) I like to make sure all the exposed tortilla on the top of the pan is at least lightly covered with salsa, so that it doesn't dry out and get tough. Too much salsa will make the enchiladas soggy though, so use a light hand when spooning it. My kids don't like spicier salsas, so their pan of enchiladas has mild salsa; the grownup versions use medium-heat canned salsas. I remember El Pato ("the duck") brand salsa from Mexico....here, I mostly use La Costeña, and if I can't find that, Old El Paso is everywhere and acceptable.

Baked enchiladasThe enchiladas should bake for 10-15 minutes, or just until hot. If they bake too long, too much of the salsa dries and the bottoms of the tortillas begin to toughen, which makes them difficult to cut. That can happen if you stack pans of enchiladas in the oven too, so if you need bake two dishes at once, try to stagger them on the oven racks, and rotate them during heating to help ensure even heat exposure.

Enchiladas with crema I don't remember being served a lot of "salad stuff" on top of my Mexican enchiladas, again except in tourist places. Usually they offered crema as a topping. Crema is a wonderful Mexican "table cream," kind of like a cross between sour cream and yogurt. It's thick and mildly tangy, but not nearly as tangy as either of them. Crema agria is much more like American sour cream, and isn't what I had most places I stayed. Especially if you've made spicy enchiladas, the crema helps moderate the heat, along with any crumbled cheese you might wish to adorn your enchiladas with. Queso fresco is commonly used for this. We like to sprinkle them with freshly chopped cilantro too. The night I made these, hubby had picked up a bunch of ripe avocadoes, so we had fresh guacamole to enjoy with them. If you like ribboned lettuce and chopped tomatoes, go ahead and use them. There are lots of enchilada fillings, and many variations even within a specific type. I've heard of tuna enchiladas (often spiced with lime and maybe tequila too) that sound wonderful, but I didn't have any of them...same with enchiladas that relied on mole, a chocolate and chili based sauce. I just wasn't in the regions that feature those cuisines. Just like American cuisine, though, if you use common sense for flavor combinations that are from the same or a similar region, you'll most likely end up with delectable and fairly authentic Mexican enchiladas. Don't be afraid to try them, now that you know the basic procedure, and take notes so that you remember what you like best!

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