Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Devil is in the Details

Gougères, hot out of the oven and in front of my lens!

There are few things more annoying in the home kitchen than a baking recipe that has either left out a key ingredient or has botched quantities so profoundly as to make the project irretrievable. Yet as a writer, I accept that no matter how much you copy edit, typos will happen. Perhaps, then, the greater sin are intentional, idiotic, and unnecessary complexities often built into baking instructions that are calculated to made to make the author seem like un chef extraordinaire. Highfalutin' pastry chefs, are the most notorious offenders.

A favorite recipe for gougères taken from Wine Spectator put me in mind of this fact. You can't get the text of the recipe from the magazine's web site, but this location copies it verbatim, idiosyncrasies and idiocies intact.

First off, let me say that when the quantity of flour listed hits the prescribed amount of wet ingredients, a dough ball will form immediately. There is no need to "wait until the dough pulls from the sides" while stirring over medium heat. Did anyone even try to make this recipe? The quantities are right, and the gougères turn out wonderful, but please.

Of course, if you bake said gougères as instructed, you will have a batch of underdone soggy cheese pastry lumps. But at least you can be comforted by knowing that you performed the meaningless task of rotating the tray after 5 minutes of baking. That way you can just admit to everyone that your modest little abode's cheap consumer-grade oven must heat unevenly and you can let the vast majority of your 400 degree heat escape. OR you could just bake them for 16 minutes like you would for something pedestrian like, say, cookies, and they will turn out perfectly. I'm guessing that I've missed the true significance of the baking instructions, but we're hard-headed down here in fly-over country.

Amidst all of the fluff in this article and recipe, they manage to leave out something useful: pipe the batter onto the sheet in a swirl, not unlike a softserve ice cream cone - it will give the pastry a little more loft. Last time I checked, loft is what you want in a puff pastry. 

For those who are interested, a few modifications will make this recipe turn out wonderfully. And this is not a terribly difficult thing to make, so don't be at all hesitant to try it out. I can't wait to try filling these. I think some variant of our cheeseball with a little dab of tapenade would be fantastic. Maybe sardine paté? Who knows?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Student films related to foodways in New Orleans

With the spring 2010 semester rapidly diminishing in my rear view mirror, I find myself looking back with a great degree of satisfaction on the documentary films that the students in my first year seminar at Loyola made. I challenged these freshmen to make a short, 5 to 7 minute film depicting "some aspect' of the immigrant experience in New Orleans. The topics that they found were diverse and interesting, and everyone who completed a film told a great story. You can see all of them at the Vimeo group that I set up for the class.

Two films in particular, however, deal with food in New Orleans. The first one embedded below is by Shelly Wu, a criminal justice major, and Hilary Landry, a biology major. Their topic was the New Orleans tradition of St. Joseph's Day. Hilary and Shelly were definitely the most organized team in the class and were almost always the first to complete a task. What was remarkable about their work is that neither are terribly "artsy," nor do they have much in the way of technology experience. Their film (as were most of our films) was shot with a consumer-grade Canon Vixia camcorder for interviews and with the simple Flip Video camera for other footage. Stills that they took with a digital camera also appear in the film.

St. Joseph's Day from Shelly Wu on Vimeo.

The other foodways film may well have been the last one completed, but it was certainly the most original in terms of topic. It tells a particularly lucid story and one not oft told in the Crescent City - to wit, the Sunday Feast at the Hare Krishna temple on Esplanade Avenue. Sam Yoger and Devon Baldwin are both students from California and are in Loyola's excellent music program.

Hare Krishna Documentary Final (Baldwin/Yoger) from Devon Baldwin on Vimeo.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bacon: A Love Story

This morning witnessed a convergence of ideas and circumstances that happens all too infrequently. It is spring break at Loyola this week, and while I have an endless list of tasks to complete before classes resume, I will allow myself a tiny bit more flexibility than I normally might otherwise. Yet routine is a terrible master. After deciding that I should enjoy a leisurely breakfast while grading World Civ exams on the front porch, I soon found that I simply wasn't hungry. Breakfast here is generally coffee and some fruit or perhaps a bagel, not the smoky unctuousness of bacon smoked by Allan Benton.

But Greta, my German Shorthaired Pointer, was interested. She's definitely a mooch (as is our new cat.) She's a good mooch, though. Jessie and I often joke that Greta plays Nina Simone's classic "Put a Little Sugar in My Bowl" when mooching, only substituting "bacon" for "sugar." Thus, the soundtrack here was never in doubt. 

Bacon: A Love Story from Justin Nystrom on Vimeo.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Positive Influence of Inlaws: Coconut Cake!

On several occasions now, while gathering for family events at the Armstrong family home in South Carolina, Jessie's sister Alicia has made a fantastic coconut cake. Last Saturday, Jessie made known her wish to have a piece of this cake. The quest to replicate sister's recipe was on. After a phone call to Ohio, Jessie produced an index card bearing the basic instructions. The recipe is something of an amalgam of several cookbooks including the 1950 classic, Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook. Rich, creamy coconut milk lends a wonderful flavor. In its appearance and taste, this cake would make an ideal addition to an Easter feast. If I were to give this a "cookbook" name, it would be "Triple Coconut Cake." Triple you ask? Coconut appears three times - to wit, in the cake, in the custard, and in the coconut flake exterior.

The only modification that I've made below is that I've reduced the baking soda from 3 to 2 teaspoons. Three teaspoons was definitely one too many, and may have been an error. Two should definitely suffice to leaven this cake.

2/3 C butter
2 C sugar
3 C cake flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 c. coconut milk
2 tsp vanilla extract
5 egg whites (reserve 2 yolks for custard)

Cream sugar and butter. Then add thrice sifted flour-baking soda-salt mixture alternately with the coconut milk. When mixed, beat egg whites to a stiff meringue and fold thoroughly into batter. Fill 3 x 9-inch pans with the batter. Bake for 30 minutes in a 350F oven.

The custard goes in between each layer of cake.

1 C. coconut milk
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 C. sugar
3 tbsp. flour
1/8 tsp. salt
2 egg yolks

Heat in a heavy saucepan the coconut milk and vanilla, but don't bring to a boil. When hot, add sugar, flour, salt. When dissolved, temper the egg yolks, then add and mix. Note: if you assemble the cake when the custard is still warm, it will more easily spread onto the layers.

warm custard steaming away!

Frosting: (a basic "7-minute" frosting)

1 1/2 C. sugar
3 egg whites
1/4 tsp. cream of tartar
1/8 tsp. salt
1 tbsp vanilla extract

Simply put all the ingredients into a metal bowl over a pot of simmering water (à la double boiler) mix at first with a whisk until everything has dissolved together and is hot. Then stick your electric mixer and beat away. When the mixture starts to thicken up, pull it off of the heat, and place it on the counter (on a towel so it stays warm) and continue mixing until the icing is thick and firm. At this point, ice the cake and then coat with coconut flakes.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Saturday morning market at MQVN

We were on the road by 6 AM this morning in order to head out to the Vietnamese market in New Orleans East. Word has it that the market begins around 6:30 and is over by 9:00 AM. Last week was extremely cold (for here) with hard freeze temperatures. This has undoubtedly depressed the normally abundant quantity of fresh produce. Last night and today have been characterized by steady rain, and this probably reduced the number of vendors at the market this morning. Yet there was definitely plenty of seafood to go around! Spec trout, redfish, mackerel, drum, some very small flounder, numerous other fish, and even an eel (that was sold before I could film it) were available to buy. Then there were the rabbits...

PS: Gwen, you may not want to watch this video!

New Orleans East Vietnamese Market from Justin Nystrom on Vimeo.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Vietnam by Way of Chef Menteur Highway

Dong Phuong Oriental Bakery & Restaurant at 14207 Chef Menteur Highway, New Orleans.

In advance of my spring course at Loyola on "Immigrant New Orleans," I decided to head out to talk with Cam Tran, education coordinator at the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church in New Orleans East. In 2005, Katrina laid waste to this part of the city and rebuilding has been an uphill battle, to put things mildly. The group that has arguably made the greatest progress has been the tightly-knit Vietnamese community one finds heading eastbound along Chef Menteur Highway just beyond Michaud Boulevard.  It is not unlike setting foot in a foreign land, right here in Orleans Parish.

The po-boy station at Dong Phuong

On the way back to the office, I decided to grab a bite at the Dong Phuong Oriental Bakery on the Chef Highway. It was but one of many tantalizing options. I'd read about Vietnamese po-boys before during the fall 2009 po-boy festival here in New Orleans and Cam mentioned that I could find one at Dong Phuong. I opted for the #5 - Vietnamese Grilled Pork, which involved incredibly seasoned meat topped with shredded carrot, cabbage, cilantro, and a beautifully crisp pickle wedge. But perhaps the greatest surprise (that is, after I scurried off to the car to unwrap my bag full of aromatic bliss) was the light, crispy wonderfulness of the bread produced in the bakery's ovens. At $2.85 - yes, that's right - under $3, I would place it in the lunch value hall of fame.

A pastry case offers a range of savory and sweet treats.

A savory meat turnover and package of coconut macaroons rounded out my shopping for the day. Other than their sweet coconut flavor, the only key impression that I can convey about the macaroons was the ease with which one can eat them while driving. By the time I'd reached Loyola, only three of nine remained in my bag. The turnover proved to be a delightful sweet pastry dough filled with egg, seasoned pork, cilantro, and tomato.

The meat turnover with pork: sweet, tender pastry with savory filling. Good cold. Probably good hot too!

There are few eateries where I find myself planning to return with friends before I've gotten a fourth of the way through my meal. Maybe it won't be as good as the first visit, as I've read a few unfavorable online reviews here and there. But I'll take my chances.

A fleeting glimpse of my #5 po-boy right before being devoured.