Category Archives: Baking

Radical Traditionalism

A few years ago, I purchased my first house in a beautiful neighborhood in Mount Airy in Philadelphia.  There were many reasons I wanted a house: more space for my ever-increasing piles of stuff, an investment for my future, and “why not, everyone else is doing it,” were among my reasons.  However, I also was excited by the idea of entertaining people in more than a tiny apartment.  Perhaps I could even host a holiday dinner.

See, as I’m sure you’re well aware of, children tend to backlash against the traditions of their parents.  And for a solid 10 or 15 years, Thanksgiving has been a non-traditional holiday for my family.  My parents began to drift away from the turkey, stuffing, and sides.  In fact, they even stopped hosting at their house.  Our usual tradition was to go to Lin’s Dumpling House in Chinatown in New York City and have a feast.  I think it began when my sister lived in Chinatown and we would come up to visit, but it remained a tradition for many years until the restaurant closed.  After that, we would usually forgo Thanksgiving Day and instead go out a day or two afterwards, usually for ethnic cuisine.  It was all very cool, very laid back, and very original.

Except apparently, I missed the family dinner.  As is the case with any (healthy) family, our roles with each other continue to develop and change.  I liked the idea of being able to provide for my family, especially (or perhaps solely) in the context of delicious food.  So I planned a Pre-Thanksgiving dinner my first year at my new house, and I invited my parents and my siblings as well as several of my friends.  I chose the day before Thanksgiving so that my friends wouldn’t have to give up their Thanksgiving plans to come to mine.

Pre-Thanksgiving

The half of the table that ended up in the living room.

I also knew I wanted to have it as a sit-down meal in which all the dishes were on the table, as in days of yore.  Even with my extra space, my house doesn’t hold too many people, so I knew it would be a squeeze.  But some extra chairs and some run-off into the living room, and we made it happen.

As for the food, well, I knew I wanted to make most of it, but I also knew I couldn’t make all of it (not for 10+ people).  So I solicited help from my friends and family to bring specific food items, while I worked on the staples.  I cooked mashed potatoes, dinner rolls, some desserts, and of course, a turkey.  Not only had I never cooked a turkey before, but I’m a vegetarian.  Internet to the rescue!  Should you be in the same boat as I and not be sure how to cook a turkey, might I recommend this video series.

Three years later, and I’m getting ready for my 4th Pre-Thanksgiving (though this time it’s a post-Thanksgiving).  The guest list shifts a bit, but I am always delighted to have the people I love sit with me and share some delicious food.  You might even say, I’m thankful for it.

Then you might accuse me of being horribly cliché.

I guess what I’ve learned is that even when I’m taking a radical tack in regards to how I live my life, I sometimes end up back where I started.  That doesn’t always invalidate my journey; sometimes it brings me more in touch with who I want to be and what I want to do.

I’ll leave you with a few of my recipes that I like to make for my Thanksgiving-centric meals.  Enjoy!

Rolls and Cookies

Dinner Rolls and Banana Oatmeal Cookies (see below)

Dinner Rolls

Recipe courtesy of About.com

1 packet Dry Yeast (2-1/4 tsp)
1 cup milk
3 tbsp butter
1 egg (beaten)
2 tbsp sugar
3/4 tsp salt
3 cups flour

In a mixing bowl mix the yeast and 1/4 cup of warm water.  Remember that the yeast will die if exposed to too much heat, so just make it warm, not scalding hot.

Melt the butter into the milk.  Remember it can’t be too hot, so maybe just microwave it and let it sit for a bit.

In the yeasty bowl, add the egg, sugar, salt, and a cup of the flour.  Add the butter and milk mixture and stir.  Add another cup of flour and stir again.  Add one more cup of flour and stir once more.  It will be wet and sticky at this point.

That’s what she said.

Transfer to floured cutting board and knead for 5-10 minutes, adding a little flour if it gets too sticky.  When it’s smooth and slightly elastic (the dough springs back into shape if you pinch it), coat it in vegetable oil and put in a bowl to rise.  Cover with a cloth and put it someplace warm.

After about an hour or so it should have doubled in size.  Plop it onto a large cutting board and lightly press it into a large rectangle.  Try to make the dough as even as possible at this point so that your rolls will be of consistent size.  Once it’s vaguely rectangular and even, cut the dough with a knife into 12 squares.  Roll each of these squares into a ball.

I find that if I pinch the ends together and smooth out the rest of the dough square, I get the smoothest shape on top.  Imperfections will come out in the baking, so try to get it as pretty as possible at this point.  But also remember that you will be gorging on these later, so don’t worry too much about transitory blemishes.

Place the balls onto a baking sheet relatively close together.  Cover again with a cloth and set aside to rise again for about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, set oven to 350 degrees.

When they’re done rising they should be touching slightly.  Bake for 20-25 minutes.  They’ll start to stick together a bit at this point, which is exactly what y0u want to happen.  Test half of them for flavor, but try to save a few for the table.

Mashed Potatoes

I am completely improvising this right now, but that’s because I improvise it every year.  It’s one of those, “everyone is about to sit down, time to make mashed potatoes.”  So forgive me for the approximate measurements.

A bunch of red potatoes.  Let’s say, um 5 to 20.
Some milk or soy milk.
Butter.  No margarine for you!
Garlic powder
Salt-n-Pepa (the group)

Boil or steam the potatoes for about 20-30 minutes in their skins.

Pull them out and drain if necessary.  Leave the skins on and mash!  Mash like the wind!  Whistle “Suicide is Painless” if desired.

Throw them into a bowl or even back in the pot if you’re short on bowls.  Add some milk to make it creamy.  I’d say with 10 potatoes I usually add 1/2 cup to a cup of milk.  This makes it creamy and easier to stir.  Bonus!

Slice up a half stick of butter and drop it in.  Let it melt in its potatoey doom.

Garlic powder!  I used to think that fresh garlic would be so much better, but the powder works great.  Keeps you from eating chunks of garlic.  Actually, doesn’t sound so bad.  In any case, add until you reach your garlic tolerance level.  Mine is quite high.

Shoop a little of that Salt-n-Pepa into the bowl to taste.  Twist it and shout “Primo mash for everyone!”

And that is my old family recipe.

Banana Oatmeal Cookies

My friend Rachel can’t stand these cookies, but everyone else seems to like them.  She calls them mystery cookies.  The best part about these cookies is that since they contain bananas and oatmeal, you can guiltlessly eat them for breakfast.

Adapted from allrecipes.com

1 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup butter (room temperature or melty)
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1.5 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon
5 ripe bananas, mashed
3 cups rolled oats
1 package of white chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Wet ingredients: Beat the butter and the sugar.  Add in the egg and vanilla and stir.

Dry ingredients: Mix the flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon.  If you want to go a bit overboard on the cinnamon, I think that’s just fine.

Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and stir.  Mix in the mashed banana.  Mix in the oats.  Mix in the white chocolate chips.

Drop small spoonfuls onto a baking pan (I love me some silpats!).  Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until the outside is solid and the white chocolate chips are brown and the banana is caramelizing.

Traditional Thanskgiving Rice and Beans (Gallo Pinto)

Ok, this one is not so traditional, except in the sense that I always make this dish.  It’s one of my favorites for any occasion, and it’s so easy to make.  I adapted this from Jessica B. Harris’s cookbook, Beyond Gumbo.

1.5 cups of rice (cooked)
4 cans of beans (drained)
1 Bell pepper (chopped)
1 Medium onion (diced)
3 or more cloves of garlic (minced)
2 tbsp olive oil (extra virgin)
Coriander (ground)
Salt (to taste)
Cayenne (pinch)
Worcestershire Sauce (bottled)

Saute the garlic and onion in oil (in a big pot).  When translucent, add the bell pepper.  When soft, add the beans.  After 3 or so minutes, add the rice.  Add a tiny bit of cayenne, a fair amount of salt (depending on whether the beans were pre-salted), a healthy tbsp or 2 of coriander, and a ton of Worcestershire sauce.  Really, I get about 3-4 Gallo Pintos out of one regular bottle of it, so just keep dumping it in (probably a 1/3 cup or so of it at least).  Stir, let sit, and serve.

You can make it vegan just by making the Worcestershire sauce a veggie friendly option.  You can also load it with bacon, but I’ve never tried that.

Have delicious times!

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Fluency

flu·ent  (flōōƏnt) adj.

a. Able to express oneself readily and effortlessly: a fluent speaker; fluent in three languages.
b. Flowing effortlessly; polished: speaks fluent Russian; gave a fluent performance of the sonata.

I find the concept of fluency fascinating.  The term “fluency” is most often used to describe someone’s familiarity with a language.  In fact, it denotes an ease in expression; an effortlessness as our good friends at dictionary.com describe it.  The interesting part to me is that as with any logical construct, you are either fluent, or you are not fluent.  We all know what it feels like to be fluent, seeing as we all speak at least one language.  We all know what it feels like to be non-fluent; to be in over your head in a conversation, whether linguistically or in the subject-matter.  So what is the line we cross that takes us from non-fluency to fluency?

Bloom's Taxonomy

Bloom’s Taxonomy

For me, the simplest answer to the question is at the synthesis stage of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  This is the point in learning in which we are able to take the individual components of what we have learned and combine them in such a way to create something new.  I find this is also often the moment(s) when the learning takes a decidedly self-directed and self-motivated turn.  Once we can create new things with our knowledge, the joy of discovery takes over and we can spend time exploring the boundaries of our knowledge and expanding those boundaries.  Often our eventual goal is to break down those barriers so we can have free reign over the creative processes.

Once we are fluent in a language, it does not always mean we have mastered it.  I consider someone to be fluent when they are able to express themselves and comprehend the language with consistency.  Once we reach that base level of fluency, there are many more gradations we pass through before we master the language.

Today I want to talk about fluency in a variety of contexts.  Certainly we’re all accustomed to fluency in language, as that’s the immediate way dictionary.com and our culture as a whole interprets the word.  However, just about any discipline we study can be performed or conceptualized with a sense of fluency.  Some are more analogous to language, but some are more abstract.

On the more linguistic side, we have music, as there are many parallels between learning to read/speak/write/improvise within a language and music.  The most exciting part about teaching a musical instrument is watching the student become fluent.  Suddenly they are able to pull from their reservoir of knowledge and technique produce new work.  Fluency in music almost always involves improvisation, as improvisation is one of the few times in which musicians are able to create something new from what they have learned.  A familiarity with the common forms of music is also a part of fluency.  For instance, knowing that a phrase will probably repeat itself and being ready for it when it comes indicates fluency.  Being able to hear what a fellow musician is playing and match the style/content is also a good indicator.  At a wedding gig recently, during one of the songs the trumpet player quoted Rhapsody in Blue in his solo.  As a joke, the saxophone player did it at the same point in his solo.  Then the melodica.  Then the trombone.  When my turn came around, I played it on the sousaphone.  We were each demonstrating that we were listening and had the fluency to mimic the trumpet solo.

Also on the linguistic side is computer programming, or writing in code.  Using HTML as an example, we learn the individual components of the language to create content for webpages.  There are many tools to do this for us, such as Adobe Dreamweaver or WordPress, and there are many resources out there for learning HTML, such as w3schools and, well, Google.  At first the process of using HTML involves a lot of trial and error, as well as checking reference manuals for proper usage.  Eventually we stop needing so many references and can begin coding by memory.  Fluency comes once again, when we have a goal in mind and can use the different pieces of information to cobble together a webpage or component that matches that vision.  For example, I recently had to create an online schedule for a conference, and I combined my knowledge of how content can be structured on a page with the types of content that can be added.  As the client asks for modifications, I am able to keep up with her and pull from obscure HTML knowledge to get it done.

A little less like language is something like culinary skills.  At some point we move from being slaves to the recipe to embarking on our own food journeys.  Naturally, improvisation plays a role here; we need to be able to experiment to get the flavors and textures that we want.  Like music, however, we need a sound understanding of the principle “forms” of cooking.  Making cookies almost always involves a combination of dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, salt, cocoa, etc.) and wet ingredients (butter, oil, eggs, sugars, vanilla extract, etc.).  Once we’re aware of the overall function, texture, and composition of the different components, we can start to freely experiment.  Maybe we try more oil when we’re looking for a crispier cookie, or more butter for a cakier cookie.  Or, by knowing what provides the consistency of a particular sauce type, we know we can achieve that with different flavors by adding similarly textured spices (try dill instead of thyme) or liquids (what would it be like with Tamari instead of Worcestershire sauce). The point at which we can freely play with our food (ha!) to achieve the desired outcome is the moment we reach fluency.

Let’s get meta for a second.  What would fluency in fluency look like?  I suppose it would be the ability to examine any subject and pinpoint the important components of it.  As with music and cooking, we would need to understand the common forms that would lead to ease of understanding and communication.  We would also need to be able to improvise to piece together our understanding of what it is to learn and what will help us to learn this other subject.  Being able to do this in a variety of different contexts would make us fluent in the ability to produce fluency.

I urge you to examine your many skills.  Try to pinpoint the moment in each when you went from broken, piecemeal understanding of the subject into fluency.  It’s almost impossible to nail down the exact moment, but understanding what it takes to do it provides you information that brings you ever closer to the coveted fluency in fluency.  At that point, we’re free to find a subject of interest and excel.  We can all get there too!  We all have the capabilities of learning, once again proven by the fact that you are already fluent in something, probably many things.  The more we understand what it is to learn and what it is to truly know, the more we can develop, explore, and enrich our lives that much more.

Culinary Improvisation

Falcor Sousaphone

To the Ivory Tower, Falcor!

Reading through the list of my previous posts, I notice it’s been a while since I did a non-music central one.  Lest you think I’m holed up in my Ivory Tower endlessly scheming of new ways to incorporate music into my life… well, I guess you’re half right.  Most of the rest of the time I’m probably thinking about food.  In fact, recently while I was preparing for a musical “salon party” with a friend from out of town, after the fifth or so dish I made she commented, “so you like cooking, huh.”  I have about 5 or so staples that if you have ever been to my house, you’ve probably sampled.  Most of them began as a written recipe, but along the way I modified it to my own desires.  Today I want to talk about improvisation as it pertains to food preparation.

Many of my improvisations stem from a lack of ingredients.  I find gathering the correct components to be the most frustrating part of cooking from a recipe.  I rarely have almond extract, shallots, or rice flour handy, so when I browse foods of interest to make, I either have to make a special shopping trip or find a replacement from my pantry.  Sometimes an easy replacement can be found (honey for brown sugar, oil for butter, cream and water for milk).  I remember one time that did not go so smoothly.

I had recently acquired the Creole cookbook Beyond Gumbo by Jessica B. Harris, and there was a recipe for Exquisites, Nahuatl- Style Sweet Corn.  It involved some relatively obscure ingredients including a liquor called Pulque and a sprig of epazote, but it gave optional replacements for them as tequila and parsley.  For about a month I had it in my mind that I wanted to make this dish, so I finally picked up the corn and one Saturday afternoon, I went to it.  As I shucked the corn, I realized that I had forgotten to buy any of the other ingredients besides salt and the tequila, but for some reason I was undeterred.  It was only after I realized I was boiling corn in Tequila on a frying pan and that “lovely” aroma of burning tequila was supposed to be my lunch.  From the outsider’s perspective, I was an alcoholic who had reached a new low.

Gallo Pinto

Bacon number is zero in this case.

My favorite dish to make is also from Beyond Gumbo: Gallo Pinto.  If you’ve ever had the fortune of visiting Costa Rica, then you have probably had this ultimate breakfast food.  It’s essentially a rice and beans mixture with a few other vegetables thrown in along with a Worcestershire sauce and ground coriander.  It’s very tasty, and after visiting Costa Rica years ago, I became hooked.  The recipe called for a slab of bacon to be mixed in with it, but being the vegetarian I am, I opted to take that out.  Over time, I also realized that it could be made vegan without much trouble.  The offending ingredient is Worcestershire sauce, which contains anchovies.  There are plenty of good vegan Worcestershire sauces that you can pick up at Whole Foods.  The original recipe called for a tablespoon of the sauce, but I found that wasn’t nearly enough to impart enough flavor on the dish, nor was the teaspoon of coriander.  I end up using close to a third of a bottle of sauce each time I make this dish.  Finding the right balance of rice to beans took a while also, but I finally got it down.  So here it is, the improvised version of Gallo Pinto.


Gallo Pinto ala Dan

1 cup of rice (I use brown basmati, but use whatever you want.  Just give it time to cook)
4 cans of black beans (I like the saltless variety)
3 cloves of garlic minced
1 medium yellow onion chopped
1 bell pepper chopped
3 tbsp olive oil
2-3 tbsp ground coriander
Lotsa Worcestershire sauce
Salt to taste

  1. Prepare the rice.  If you haven’t done this before, boil 2 cups of water, then add the rice.  Reduce to low heat and cover the pot.
  2. In a large pot over medium heat, saute the onion and the garlic in the olive oil.
  3. When the onions become translucent, add the bell pepper and saute until the pepper is tender
  4. Drain and rinse the black beans.  Add them to the pot and stir.
  5. Drain any excess water from the rice.  Add it to the pot and stir.  Reduce to low heat.
  6. Mix in the coriander and Worcestershire sauce.  No, more Worcestershire sauce.  I know that bottle isn’t cheap.  Put more in.  The ideal color of the rice should be a dirty brown, and the flavor should be slightly sweet and floral (that’s the coriander)
  7. Add salt to taste.  I typically add a tbsp or 2.
  8. Serve in bowls with spoons.  To be eaten by mouths.

I often also up the rice and beans components for more servings.  I’ve found that I don’t usually have to increase the onion/garlic quantity to match.

Another improvised dish of mine came from an outrageous cookie recipe of the “something stuffed in something else” variety.  In this case, Oreo Cookie Stuffed Chocolate Chip Cookies.  I saw this and immediately tried the recipe out, but came away somewhat disappointed.  Firstly, the cookies ended up shaped like little hats: a regular cookie with a lump of Oreo in the middle.  Secondly, and I feel guilty saying this, they were a bit over-the-top.  Now, I am all for ridiculous culinary experiences, but after finishing one of these cookies, the typical reaction was not usually satisfaction or even giddiness, but more like exhaustion.  There was just too much going on, and the cookies ended up being too big (blasphemy, I know!).

For a while I just made the cookie recipe without the Oreo.  It’s one of my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipes on it’s own, which is what tends to happen when you use 2 sticks of butter.  Then I started considering how to make a chocolate version of the cookie using unsweetened cocoa powder.  However  the cocoa powder is a dry ingredient, so you can’t just add it in or it will affect the consistency of the batter.  I needed to subtract from the flour and make it up with cocoa powder.  After some experimentation (improvisation?) I found that by taking a cup out of the flour and replacing it with cocoa, the batter stays wet enough to form, but dry enough to not ooze everywhere.  The addition of white chocolate chips in place of semi-sweet seemed only natural.

After I managed that, a very important question arose: what to fill it with in its chocolate form?  After considering Nutter Butters and an assortment of candy bars, I went with a suggestion from my girlfriend Katie: Peppermint Patty.  After I made them and the initial group sampling process occurred, they were named Fat Mints, after their kindred Girl Scout Cookie cousin.


Fat Mints

That’s peppermint oozing out! Get your mind out of the gutter!

Fat Mints

2 sticks (1 cup) softened butter (I always use unsalted Plugra)
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon pure vanilla
2 1/2 cups flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder sifted
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 of 10 oz bag white chocolate chips
24 Peppermint Patties, wrapperless (unless you like the taste of plastic)

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, mix the butter with the sugars.
  3. Add the eggs and beat.  Do the same with the vanilla.
  4. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, cocoa, salt, and baking soda.
    Now, I usually disregard any instructions to sift, but I find cocoa powder can be very clumpy.  So make sure it’s smooth when you add it into the bowl.
  5. Slowly add the dry ingredients to the butter/sugar mixture, stirring along the way.  Continue to stir until everything is well mixed.
  6. Add in the white chocolate chips and stir to distribute evenly.  You don’t need more than half a bag, since the Peppermint Patties are going to be the main attraction.
  7. Prepare a baking sheet.  I love me my silpats!  Then wash your hands, it’s about to get messy.
  8. Take enough batter to cover a Peppermint Patty, and form it into a ball around it.  Try not to use too much batter, as you’ll end up with the hat-shaped cookies that way.  Just use enough to make sure the Patty is covered.  Then place it on the sheet, keeping them about 2 inches apart from each other.
  9. Bake for 10-20 minutes, or until cookies are slightly firm to the touch.  Remove and let cool on the sheet for about 5 minutes.  Then place on a cooling rack.

The best part about Fat Mints is that the chocolate of the Peppermint Patty melts before the batter hardens, which allows the mint filling to distribute throughout the cookie.  Sometimes it oozes through the cookie, but it’s usually only 2 or so per batch that do that.  And they still taste awesome.

I hope you enjoyed this insight into how I improvise while cooking.  As with any improvisation, it takes some knowledge about the medium you’re working in, a creative mind, and the courage to take risks.  However, only by risking it all can we reach such heights as an innovative solo, a new invention, or the deliciousness of a Fat Mint.  Bon appetit in your own improvisations!

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