The Food GeekAuthor: Brian J. Geiger, The Food Geek
21 Feb 2018

The Food Geek

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    Toffee Troubles

    What sorts of things can go wrong with toffee making? Will humidity doom a toffee to failure, or could there be something more sinister at work?

    My Twitter friend Jennifer asks:

    toffee-breaking_xl.png

    Candy is a delicate creature, unfit to survive creation out of captivity. Only with constant attention, experience, care, and the proper environment will it make it from its early ingredients stage to the confection we all know and love. Candy made for the holidays is even worse, because chances are you only make it once per year. I mean, you may make hundreds of batches at that one time per year, but it'll still be twelve months until your next attempt, so the skills fade.

    Okay, I exaggerate. Yes, candy making requires experience and knowledge, but it only seems mysterious because you're trying to make something that, candy lovers claim, tastes so much better than anything else. And toffee, being one of the tastiest of candies, requires a bit more knowledge to ensure it works.

    The short answer is "yes," humidity will absolutely affect candy making. I don't believe, however, that humidity was the problem with your toffee. Humidity is more likely to affect the texture of the toffee, taking away the crunch and making it limp or saucy. Also, unless you're adding an acid or some fructose, you're not likely to absorb all that much water.

    toffee_xl.jpg

    The general goal with most candies is to create a sugar dissolved in a specific amount of water, with perhaps some other things thrown in for flavor or texture. Candy makers, being extremely clever, have come up with a couple of somewhat indirect ways of determining the ratio of sugar to water. The traditional way is to cause the candy to cool rapidly and see how it behaves, generally in water but I've also seen someone* just flick some at a plate and see what kind of strands it makes. The new fashioned way is to take its temperature.

    As you've made this toffee before, it's not likely that temperature is the problem you're having, so I will not go into detail on the various stages of candy making. Yes, I know: it's brilliant how many things are probably not wrong with the toffee, but perhaps I could get to the point? Working on it.

    When you have a high enough concentration of sugar in heated water, the sugar is going to want to get together and form crystals. Sometimes this is good, such as with rock candy or fudge. Sometimes this is bad, such as with hard candy or toffee. One method of preventing the crystals in toffee is to mix in a bunch of butter, which is great, but it presents potential problems that frustrate the toffee maker.

    Problem one is that butter is a combination of water and oil, which means that you are increasing the water content of the mixture, and some butters will have different oil to water ratios. The water content shouldn't be a problem in and of itself, as you can't reach the right temperature of the solution without getting rid of the appropriate amount of water. On the other hand, if you use a butter with a different amount of water, then you are also using a butter with a different amount of oil, which will certainly throw things off. It's worth mentioning that if you usually use salted butter and used unsalted this time, or vice versa, that could cause the problem as well. So, if you might have changed brands of butter, this could be a cause of trouble.

    Problem two is temperature. I know, I know, I wrote that I didn't think that the problem was temperature. I even put it in bold. More specifically, problem two is temperature measurement. Getting to the right temperature ensures that you have the appropriate amount of water in the solution, but it's possible that you might not be getting to the right temperature. If you are using a thermometer instead of the traditional methods, then you need to verify that the thermometer is accurate. To do this, put the thermometer into ice water and see if it reads 32°F / 0°C. Also, put it into boiling water and verify that it reads 212°F / 100°C. If it does, you're probably good. If not, you might not really be getting to the proper temperature, which could be trouble. Unless you're not at sea level, in which case verify what the proper temperature should be for your elevation.

    Problem three is heat dissipation. It is vital that the sugar/butter/water solution be heated evenly. This means using a strong but temperature-neutral spoon. Wood is traditional, but I'm sure a serious silicone spoon will be fine. Also, it's recommended to use a burner that's larger than your cooking vessel, to ensure that the sides of the pan do not cool the mixture while the bottom is heating it. Heat imbalances kill candy.

    Problem four is agitation. Yes, candy-making can really drive you nuts, but that's not what I mean. I'm talking about stirring. Stir slowly. Add ingredients slowly. If you dump a bunch of almonds into the mixture rather than pouring the toffee over the almonds just before the cooling stage, then be gentle with the mixing. Slowly. No, more slowly than that.

    I've heard that adding a bit of salt will make life easier, and I've also heard that adding a bit more water may do the same. The success of these solutions (no pun intended) will depend on the particular toffee recipe you're trying, but are at best risk mitigation. If you have an otherwise good toffee recipe, which I believe you do, then they shouldn't be necessary.

    Why is toffee such a pain, even more so than other candies? It's because toffee is a candy that is also a sauce. It's very similar to an article I wrote last month about the troubles with Alfredo Sauce. Not only do you have the whole "sugar likes to turn into a bunch of crystals" problem that plagues most candies, but you're suspending a bunch of oil in a solution of things that don't really play well with oil. You're expecting the sugar, which is temperamental at best, to keep oil from mixing with water, and we all know how well that's supposed to work out. But treat it with care, and everything should work out okay. If not, let me know and we can work on the other, less likely scenarios.

    For those who don't have their own toffee recipe, or if you just want to try a new one, here is a toffee recipe that covers the advice that I mentioned plus a few other items that I didn't.

    *- Sue Ashburn, creator of the greatest toffee in existence.

    This post was originally hosted at FineCooking.com on Januray 8, 2009. This content is not available under a Creative Commons License.


  • Posted on 18 Feb 2014

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    A "New Cut of Beef"?

    Steak

    On my Twitter feed yesterday, Paul H. Ting passed along a link to a Gizmodo report, "Steak Specialists Discover a New Cut of Beef." My initial reaction was that someone used some Tetris skills to see a new way of slicing a cow so that they could pull out some kind of steak that no butcher before had seen. That's the kind of thinking that I like to see from butchers in the 21st Century. No letting previous generations dictate what makes a tasty steak, no! Go forth and think of things in new and exciting ways. That's the way to do it.

    On reading the article, I was disappointed to see that they got patents on this method, which disappointed me. I mean, yay on doing new things and all, but really, a patent on a new way of slicing things? I expressed disappointment and moved along, but Ben Ostrowsky did some digging and found a meat-related patent from Tony Mata, the person mentioned in the article who, well, you can read it:

    The Vegas Strip is the brainchild of Tony Mata, of industry group Mata & Associates, who approached Nelson and the FAPC for help developing the cut. "Initially, the cut was labeled as undervalued," Mata told the Drovers Cattle Network. "Whenever we can take a muscle and turn it into a steak rather than grinding it or selling it as a roast, we are adding value to the carcass."

    I completely breezed over this the first time, but after seeing the patent, I re-read and wondered, "If it were just a special cut, why would you need the help of a University's agriculture department do 'develop the cut'?" The patent in question is for:

    Improved restructured meat products are provided which exhibit enhanced texture, tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. The meat products are formed by mixing together brine-treated, essentially gristle free raw meat strips (e.g., beef, poultry, pork or mixtures thereof) in the form of strips and ground beef containing naturally-occurring fat, followed by forming the mixture into steak-like bodies.

    In other words, it might not be a cut of beef that was found, it was assembled from bits and pieces here and there. Which, to me, is disappointing. I mean, yay to making full use of the animal and all, but we could have already ground up the meat if we just wanted to use it. All they've done is found a way to make more steak out of it which, in this day and age, is really just an engineering effort than something truly clever. If the steak had some new properties, such as tenderness of a fillet with flavor of a ribeye, then maybe. But for something which, reportedly "The taste, tenderness, and flavor are reportedly akin to a New York Strip or Flat Iron cut," then it's just some more of what we have.

    It's not like there's a steak shortage in the country. If we wanted, and I know I'm going to be unpopular in some camps with this statement, but if we wanted to have more New York Strip steaks, then we could just cut smaller strip steaks. We don't always have to have the plate dominated by beef to enjoy our steak. Have, and please excuse the crazy talk, a small steak, and eat some veggies or pasta or something if you're still hungry. Maybe I'm a steak grinch, but seriously, do we need to reconstruct steaks now because we don't have enough steak?

    The answer is clearly, "no". The real reason this is of interest is for people who want to raise the worth of a cow carcass by a few more dollars. More steaks equals more money, so let's find some more steaks. To me, that's the wrong reason to try these experiments on food. Make something excellent, and money will come. Make something profitable, and you get a nation of people who don't know how to regulate what they eat in a balanced and healthy manner.

    Mind you, we don't know for sure that the cut of beef and the patent are related; maybe I was right the first time. I would love to hear more from the people involved. If I were a better reporter, I'd call people up and ask Particular Questions. Perhaps tomorrow. 


  • Posted on 16 May 2012

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    Olives as Ingredient

    Olive tree

    In the US, olives are often thought of as a snack food, to be eaten on their own. Of course, by most, olives in the US are thought to be either green with red centers or black, coming out of a can or a jar, mostly flavorless, and never having seen a pit. But even setting those aside, it's rare to see olives outside of a few dishes: a couple types of pasta sauce, the occasional bread, or a tapenade.

    On Twitter, I recently said that, "Olives, good olives, should be a much more common component in cooking." Because every time I run across an olive in a dish, I'm always pleasantly surprised, and it doesn't happen all that often. There's a place a few blocks from me that makes really good empanadas, and the La Traditional has olives. Even with all the use of extra-virigin olive oil for cooking, people don't think, "Hey, let's just add some olives in for even more of that great flavor."

    So, here are some guidelines:

    • Only good olives;
    • Don't overuse kalamata; they are very salty;
    • It works really well with meat. You can work it into any sort of ground meat preparation such as hamburgers, meatloaf, meatballs, sausage, whatever;
    • Olives give a huge savory boost. It is loaded with umami;
    • Pastas work well with olives; Puttanesca and Puttanesca Bianca are the prime examples;
    • Speaking of, Puttanesca Bianca is amazing. Try that some time;
    • Stews;
    • Mixing the 'stews' and 'meat' recommendation, I think olives judiciously applied to a Chili would be very, very good
    • Savory pies.

    And so on. I will work to incorporate olives into more of my cooking. 


  • Posted on 15 May 2012

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    A new kind of coffee blend

    Hand pour bar at the Mudhouse

    I was chatting with my friend Dan at the Mudhouse, one of Charlottesville's coffee Institutions, the other day. A thought had occurred to me which seemed a bit obvious in retrospect, and as Dan is the person I know who is Most Serious About Coffee, I ask him about all my crazy coffee thoughts.

    In this case, I was asking about hand-pour coffee. The question was whether people separate out the various parts of the brewing process and try them separately, so that, for example, you have three cups of coffee instead of one. The first cup represents the first 1/3 of the water that goes through the coffee grounds, the second the second 1/3, and the last the third 1/3. Dan told me that he hadn't done that with the hand pour, but it was part of his training program on espresso for new baristas. Then he gave me a sample.

    The first part of the espresso shot tastes like every espresso you'll get in Italy, because italian espresso uses about 1/6 to 1/20 the water that you'll get from just about anywhere in the U.S. It's packed full of flavor, not really any bitterness. The second and third thirds don't have much flavor at all, but they do carry most of the body of the espresso, and I'm not entirely sure what makes up the body of espresso, so I'm going to have to do some research. Note to self. I'm pretty sure it's not collagen, though.

    Right now, in artisanal coffee circles, hand-pour coffee is one of the darling techniques, because it allows for a lot of control and you can get a coffee cup full of flavor and nuance in a way that is different from all of the other techniques. It's not a replacement for other coffee brewing methods, naturally, it's just a way of tasting coffee very differently from what you'd get in, say, a French Press. It's especially good for single origin coffees, where you want to know all the nuances of a particular bean.

    To hand-pour coffee, you essentially have a filter with ground coffee above a cup. You pour some hot water over the ground coffee, and coffee fills the cup. Very simple method, lots of things to do to get it right.

    Here's what I can imagine: divide the hand-pour process into 10 equal pours. Call the resulting parts of the coffee "slices 1 to 10". If some were really, really serious about coffee experimentation, I could see that person saying "For this bean, you want to use slices 2-4, 7, and 9. For that blend, 1-3, 5-8" and so on. Take out the parts of the extraction that don't work for that bean to enhance or reduce whatever aspects aren't right. Of course, just like my explanation of the hand-pour process, if something like that would work it would be much more involved to get it right. 

    Even more so, a very fast, very meticulous, essentially crazy person might brew slices of different single-origin coffees and blend them together into a single super cup. Such a coffee would either be: a) indistinguishable from other coffees; or b) the most amazing coffee ever. Either way, it would be terribly expensive to do right. Still, fun to imagine.


  • Posted on 14 May 2012

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    Mother's Day

    DSC 1126

    It's Mother's Day: the day when most Americans take their first step towards cooking for others. Traditionally, this is when a child decides that Mom, one of the two most important people in their life and probably the one most responsible for feeding you up until this point, is going to get breakfast in bed.

    Naturally, breakfast will be a disaster. You've never cooked before, or possibly not unsupervised. Perhaps not since you tried this last year. Maybe it'll be an easy goal of cereal and milk, which may get all soggy while the flowers are plucked from the neighbor's garden and arranged just so. Or maybe you'll have gone with toast, blackened, or possibly something like eggs and bacon, depending on how daring you are and whether you can reach the stove. Presuming the fire alarm doesn't go off, you surprise mom in bed with what is probably high on the worst-tasting meal she's ever eaten, and it's still one of the best things you could have done.

    Remember this impulse. Remember that the most important thing you can do for someone you love is to cook them a meal. Keep this urge. Don't only develop the skills to cook well, but use food and cooking as a means of conveying caring and not just as a method of transporting flavor and calories. if you do that, then you will understand the most important thing to know about food.

    Cook for someone you love.

    Happy Mother's Day.


  • Posted on 13 May 2012

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