April in New Orleans

As the month of April comes to a close, I’ve had some great experiences to reflect on as a chef. I spent some time with my friend Steven and his brother Eli whom are both climbers, backpackers, and adventurers, as well as admirers of good food. I made a point out of making dinner at some point and we had finally gotten together to make something of Steven’s requesting: filled pasta.

Of course, ravioli and tortellini are very dear to my heart by being about 25% Italian and growing up enjoying casseroles and pasta dishes since I could eat solid food. I had learned around my first years of college that I had a knack for working a pasta machine and a fire in my eyes as I tossed the sturdy dough around. Whether it was in my blood or just something I wanted in my belly I was sold on making pasta by hand whenever possible. This time with Steven was extra special though, since I’ve sent my pasta machine back to Oregon and had to make the entire batch manually. I also decided to attempt a dough made with pure “00” soft wheat flour and all eggs rather than durum and water. The dough was tough; really tough. It didn’t return like a heavy gluten dough but certainly didn’t roll by hand like durum. The work was magnified by the tiny hot kitchen and I felt like I might as well have been on one of the burners. After 30 minutes of slaving with my tiny novelty sized rolling pin, I had 4 satisfyingly thin sheets of beautiful yellow dough.

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Steven and Eli had their own contributions to the meal via their fillings: spiced sweet potato and a remarkable vegan cheese sauce using cashews, nutritional yeast, and tahini. They’ve been developing it for some time and it is phenomenal how it turned out! The marriage of traditional and innovative cooking is something that truly represents the human spirit in food. We finished the pasta off with a classic tomato and garlic herb sauce for the cheese and I made a reduced balsamic for the sweet potato. Out on the patio we talked of people, work, and travel over our well earned meal. Conversation amongst great food and great friends is one I strive for and that night I got just what I wanted.

Another great occurrence this month was coming into my own as a chef at home. I work full time at a mostly vegan bakery using animal free products in 90% of what I make. Every soup I make is one I’m proud to put out and I can honestly say, from the statements of others, that my vegan soups not only rival but often outshine my non-vegan ones. However, combining my imagination and a lack of ingredients can get frustrating so last week I decided to splurge and for good reason: my partner was coming into town and she was inviting guests.

Lately my home meals have been simple and cheap: oatmeal in the morning and lentils and rice at night. My most extravagant cooking has been happening at work and it’s far from the artistic cuisine I admire. This was it, though! A chance to spread my wings, buy the ingredients I so sorely missed, and hit the kitchen with all the tricks I had. When I shopped for the week I was like a hyper-crazed child laughing maniacally while I dove down each aisle. I was unbridled in the culinary world once again and I wasn’t going to miss any chances. I made catfish meunière, creme brûlée, and corn and bean summer chowder with aged cheddar and real chicken stock! I even got a chance to make my famous fat-laden scones with all the goodies stuffed in them.

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Possibly the best scones in the world. I am immensely proud of this recipe! They made extremely good packing food for the long walks we took.

But I never once thought the food was just for me. Maybe I got to show off some skills but my satisfaction was in the pleasing silence while everyone ate dessert and smiled between bites. When one of the guests had a gluten allergy I quickly modified the grilled cheese sandwiches to grilled cheese crepes (the balsamic glazed bacon wasn’t a bad move either). Everyone deserves happiness and everyone deserves to eat good food! Last week I got to share that ideal with many people, not to mention my partner who I believe was quite fond of the waffle s’mores with toasted coconut and pomegranate syrup. Food is still my finest way to share love with the people around me and I will always raise my glass to that!

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Camping food was a little less luxurious but no less satisfying or romantic for us.
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Syrup Is Not So Simple

The word syrup has a more nebulous meaning than some may think. It might just remind you of the unnaturally sweet goop in the log cabin bottle that your mother gave you to put on your Eggo waffles in the morning. However, it includes such a vast array of food preps that it seems ambiguous to just call the liquid combination of water and sugar a syrup. It could be a simple syrup, a thick pouring syrup, or a glaze depending on sugar concentration. I’ve found that there really isn’t a lot of readily available information on the subject other than asking your local head pastry chef or just experimenting in the kitchen, of which I did both. Herein are my discoveries and it’s about to get nerdy!

When you dissolve sugar in a liquid the sugar forms hydrogen bonds which give the liquid viscosity and a smooth homogenous state of liquid. However you’ve probably noticed when you make sweet tea with cold liquid and add sugar that a lot of it will just settle on the bottom of the glass. This is because the tea does not have enough energy to cause the molecular motion necessary to dissolve so much sugar. It takes heat to do that and this is why we use simple syrups in cold drinks: because the sugar is already dissolved and ready to be dispersed in the drink!

For simple syrup, the age old ratio is 1:1 by weight which comes out to about 1 1/4 cups of sugar to 1 cup of water leaving the sugar concentration at 50%. You make this sweetener by heating water to boiling, shutting off the burner, then adding the sugar and mixing to dissolve. Some evaporation will occur, leaving you with a higher concentration of sugar but it is minimal. The texture of the liquid will be thicker than water, but not by much.

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A handy dandy graph courtesy of my food science bible “On Food and Cooking” by Harold McGee. It’s a must read if you have questions on how food works beyond the art!

For a thicker syrup that is more akin to natural maple syrups, you’re looking for around 65-68% sugar. There are two methods that can be used for this I’ve found. The traditional method is to make a simple syrup and continue to let it boil until enough water evaporates to get you to the desired concentration of sugar. You can measure this by temperature, as the amount of sugar in the liquid is directly connected to the boiling point of the liquid. Higher concentrations mean a higher boiling point because sugar has a higher specific heat than water (meaning it takes more energy to get its molecules to do something). Candy thermometers will show states of the syrup through terms such as soft ball, hard ball, hard crack, etc. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen a thermometer that says syrup or glaze on it so that desired temperature is left in the hands of the capable chef. For 65% I’ve found 220º is just about right.

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A pourable syrup somewhere around 65% sugar. Note the thickness and how it just slightly sticks to the spoon when cold. It is almost a glaze that pours like warm honey.

If you’re looking for a glaze that you can brush onto pastries or savories you’ll want anywhere from 70% to a whopping 75% for something the thickness of molasses. This is where my second method comes in that I’ve actually discovered is my favorite and I’ll tell you why. Instead of starting with a 1:1 ratio of sugar to liquid you start with a 2:1 in the sauce pan while the liquid is cold. This starts you at the pouring syrup concentration of 66% which means once it’s dissolved you’re done with the thick syrup and takes very little boiling time to get it to 70-75%. I find that this is a much more controlled way of getting to a glaze since pans, burners, and chefs all create uncontrollable variables as far as boil temperature is concerned. It is also much faster since there is barely any evaporation involved. I use this method almost exclusively to make my syrups and glazes. If you want to reduce it with the traditional method you’ll be looking at About 224-230º for a glaze but be careful because at 235º you’re at the end of the thread stage of the sugar:water composition and that’s where it starts setting up solid!

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A glaze at a nasty 75% sugar. See how much more it sticks to the spoon and pours in a thicker thread than the pouring syrup? It’s more the consistency of molasses or cold honey. This is perfect for finish basting, adding to sauces, or just as a sauce itself.

Don’t get discouraged if your syrup ends up too thick or too thin because it takes practice to get control over it. If you go too far on accident and it ends up too thick, just add a small amount of water while the liquid is cold to reconstitute it! When using acidic liquids, the second method works best as the acid can cause sugar to burn more easily resulting in a bitter outcome. Good luck, sugar!

Oh and if you’re wondering, maple sap starts out at about 3% sugar so to get one cup of velvety 65% syrup it takes 2.5 gallons of sap. No wonder why the real stuff is so expensive.