Archive for the ‘smalltalk’ Category


MB:  Well, we’ve come to the end …

M-C:  We can’t do our usual trick of going down the chapters and naming our favorites because the book has a different kind of structure, part autobiographical, part by ingredient, part by technique, part by occasion.  If it sounds confusing, it is, a little.  Having a good index was crucial, and the index in the book just plain stank.

MB:  What about your online index?

M-C:  After I did the detailed table of contents for the book, I used it every day, and I found one big lack.

MB:  Ok, can you fill us all in?  How do you use the index, or table of contents, as the case may be?

M-C:  My typical situation is that I’ve found one recipe I want to cook, and now I need one more recipe.  I typically cook a meal rather than a dish.  So suppose I’ve found a recipe I want to make, like Steamed Plantain (pp. 198-200).  Besides the plantains, the recipe calls for dried anchovies and coconut (both coconut milk and coconut sauce).  So I’m looking for two or three other dishes.  What I know about them is partly positive, more veggies please, and partly negative, no more dried fish or coconut.

MB:  Wait, wait, wait … didn’t you always say one recipe per meal at most?  And that the rest should be easy dishes that DON’T involve using a recipe?

M-C:  That was before I started doing research for Domestic Intelligence.  Now I try to cook at least two recipes per meal, preferably three or four.  It’s a completely different way of cooking, and it’s much harder than cooking out of my head.

MB:  Good lord, woman.  I can’t imagine that.  Two recipes per meal is the absolute most I can do, and even then I find it incredibly stressful.

M-C:  I would still counsel everybody else to use only one recipe per meal, or none.

MB:  Good.  That makes me feel better.  And to clarify, you mean recipe, not dish …

M-C:  Exactly.  Cooking from a recipe is harder than putting something together from your head.  You choose one dish to make from a recipe, and then you round it out with two or three other dishes you already know or invent.

MB:  Whereas for D.I. research you want to pack as much in as you possibly can, right?

M-C:  Exactly.  Let’s take another example.  I decide to make Tamarind Fish from Sulawesi (p. 150).  Besides the fish, the recipe uses tomatoes, basil, and scallions.  Now I want another recipe, or two recipes, to serve with the fish.  Again, what I know about the other dishes is partly positive, more veggies, and partly negative, no more tomatoes, basil, or scallions.

MB:  And this is where the index comes in …

M-C:  Yes.  While I found the detailed table of contents helpful, I needed more.  Specifically, a list of all the veggies used in the recipes.

MB:  Is this is list of veggies with page numbers?

M-C:   I found it was enough to have the plain list.  Once I saw the name of a vegetable on the list, I could use Find in my browser to check out recipes in which that vegetable appears.

MB:  And the same for fruit, meat, etc.?

M-C:  For me personally, it was the veggies I needed, but I figured that other people, with other cooking patterns, might need the same kind of list for the others.

MB:  Is it up there now?

M-C:  Even as we speak.  I put the ingredient lists at the end, so I want to be sure everybody knows they’re there.

MB:  But we digress …

M-C:  Indeed.  The whole point of doing the table of contents plus lists was that The Indonesian Kitchen is a terrific book.

MB:  I agree.  It is a great book.  At the beginning of the month I was definitely freaked out about having this as our book of the month.  It seemed like a very intimidating task to set for ourselves.  But, as the month progressed I realized that I was only intimidated because the ingredient lists were filled with strange and new things.  So the more I cooked the less intimidating it became!

M-C:  Wonderful!

MB:  We do, of course, need to tell our favorites.

M-C:  Good idea.  My favorites were the Fried Fish w/Caramelized Onions and Chiles (pp. 22-23) and the Chinese Fried Noodles (p. 67).  That plantain dish I mentioned above is mighty good too.  And I used the flavorings in her recipe for cassava leaves (pp. 18-20) with several other greens.  My Asian market said they sometimes get cassava leaves, but they didn’t have any in all month.

MB:  My favorite, hands down, was the amazing Satay that we made together (p. 240).  I thought it perfectly highlighted the Indonesian flavors and that the end result was more delicious than I could have hoped for.

M-C:  I got a much clearer picture of Indonesia in general and Indonesian cooking in particular than I had ever had before.  I’m woefully ignorant of geography, so I had many misconceptions to clear up.

MB:  For instance?

M-C:  Oh, it’s so embarrassing.  I didn’t know that Bali and Java and Sumatra are part of Indonesia.  I could have looked them up and cleared up my confusion in an instant, but I didn’t know I was confused.

MB:  Huh.  Well, my own personal obsession with someday making it to Bali actually meant that I did know that.

M-C:  Well, you didn’t learn anything from me, that’s for sure.

MB:  Yeah, but I also don’t think I learned as much from the book as I would have liked.  As I mentioned in the first piece I wrote about the book, the publishers didn’t do themselves any favors with the layout of the book.  Specifically with the pale grey type on pale grey paper, which the book is filled with.  How are we supposed to read that?

M-C:  I finally got myself under a brilliant light fixture and read through all the introductory material and chit-chat.

MB:  And was it worth the effort?

M-C:  Besides learning more geography and history, I found Sri to be a lovely person, modest, kind and thoughtful — and courageous, as well.

MB:  I did really enjoy the passage you read me when we were cooking the Indonesian dinner together.  I thought it was beautifully written and a wonderful story.

M-C:  Oh yes.  “The story of the next ten years need not be told in detail.  Many survived far worse experiences than we had to face.  We were often hungry, or had bad food, but we never starved, and sometimes we ate quite well.”  That’s one classy lady.

MB:  She’s definitely classy.  100%.

M-C:  But now I have a confession to make.  Over the course of the month, I got tired of coconut.  I had always thought coconut was like London in Samuel Johnson’s famous saying, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”  Who would ever get tired of coconut?  I reached the point where I simply didn’t want to put any more coconut in my mouth.  At the Last Tuesday supper we had coconut rice, and that tasted fine to me, albeit not very coconutty.  Then the next day I tried the same recipe with a different brand of coconut milk, which tasted more of coconut, and my throat just closed.  I was especially sad because I had planned to make one or two of Sri’s ice cream recipes if we had a warm day, but the Indonesian versions are all on a base of coconut milk, and I just couldn’t.

MB:  Wow.  That really is saying a lot.  I myself didn’t have that problem.

M-C:  I think the problem may be in menu planning, that I don’t yet understand enough about Indonesian cooking to put together meals with the proper balance of flavors.  Assembling good menus in a foreign foodway is way harder than cooking individual recipes.

MB:  That’s very true.  I bet this is actually a situation where it helps that I was only cooking one recipe at a time.  That way I only ended up with one recipe with true Indonesian flavors, combined generally with brown rice and some random vegetable side.

M-C:  I’m sure you remember when you were little we used to have ethnic months, where I’d cook one kind of cuisine for most of our meals.

MB:  It’s really not so different from our cookbook of the month, when the cookbook is something extremely ethnic.

M-C:  Right.  I always remember when we were at the end of Moroccan month Mark said, “This cuisine is severely texture-challenged.  Everything is mushy.”

MB:  Ha!

M-C:  And then several years later I read that an important part of every meal in Morocco is tart, crisp pickles, pickles with snap.

MB:  Oh, of course!  Then the mushiness isn’t such a big deal.

M-C:  Even though I tried my best, I was misrepresenting the cuisine.

MB:  It’s hard to do it perfectly if you don’t totally know the cuisine.

M-C:  So I have high hopes that in time I will learn how to integrate Indonesian coconut dishes with other Indonesian dishes in a way that makes me enjoy all of them, coconut and non-coconut alike.

MB:  It might help if we ended by summarizing Indonesian flavors:  coconut (obviously), ginger, garlic, hot hot heat …

M-C:  Shrimp paste, herbal flavors like bay leaf and parsley (which surprised me), fruit sweetness, roasted nuts, and above all rice, rice in all its numberless forms and fashions.  Somewhere in this book or one of her others, Sri talks about a rice recipe that will serve “eight Westerners or two Indonesians.”

MB:  And we need to give a special thanks to Clotilde to moving to The Netherlands and giving us this amazing opportunity to explore a new cuisine.  Thanks so much!



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Shirley Recipe #3


M-C:  OK, here we go with Shirley pound cake #3, in which she improves on Shirley pound cake #1 by adding whipped cream, which she learned about from Heather Hurlbert, whose cake is Shirley pound cake #2.  I’m thinking back to high-school chemistry.  This is a lot more fun.

We’re both making each recipe full size, and then I’m making a scaled down version of each as research for chapter 2 of Domestic Intelligence, How To Make a Recipe Bigger or Smaller.  I made the big one on my own but saved the small one till we were together so I could get your help.  For those new to 2 Takes, Margaret is the baker, and I’m hoping to learn at her knee.  Well, not at her knee exactly (we’re the same height), but at her side.

MB:  Wait one second … didn’t you learn how to bake from your good grandmother?

M-C:  She was a professional baker, so she brought baked goods home from work rather than baking them at home.

MB:  Oh, of course that makes sense.

M-C:  Well, I’ve been dying to watch you bake, and dying to have you watch me bake and explain things I don’t understand.  Most of my questions for you are kind of mechanical, things I just don’t get how to do.

MB:  Okalee-dokalee, fire away …

M-C:  First of all, am I supposed to scrape down the beater on my stand mixer before every new addition?  I’ve been scraping down the bowl from time to time but not the beater.  Then at the end, when I’m trying to get every last bit of goodness into the bundt pan, I notice that the beater is like some kind of archeological dig, with layer upon layer of stuff.  The outermost layer is the finished batter, below that the batter minus whipped cream, below that the batter with less flour, and so on, back down to a layer that’s just pure butter.

MB:  Scrape down the beater?  Oh hell no!  You probably noticed that I didn’t really scrape down the beater at all.  I barely even scrape down the bowl!  In my mind it’s most important to scrape down after you’ve creamed the sugar and butter together, and one more time, but other than that I think it’s not a big deal.

M-C:  I’d better admit that I haven’t actually been adding all those layers to the final batter.  I’ve been licking them off the beater after the cake has already gone into the oven.  You’ll remember my great-grandmother van Leunen’s adage “The cook gets the licks.”  (“De kok krijgt de likken.”)

MB:  Of course.  You probably saw me taking liberal advantage of that old adage.  It’s one of my favorite kitchen mottos.

M-C:  Question number two.  How am I supposed to add ingredients?  The beater gets in the way, and I often spill some of what I’m trying to add.  Stuff gets all over the base and the top of the mixer, the counter, and the neighboring refrigerator.  Is there some trick I don’t know, or am I just a klutz?

MB:  Wowsers.  If there is a trick, I surely don’t know it.  I myself make a huge mess all the time.  Eh, whatever … it’s more fun that way.

M-C:  But no — cooking at your side, I noticed that I was much less clumsy with your stand mixer than with mine.  I think the difference is that yours is on a higher counter, so I can see what I’m doing better.  Hurrah!

MB:  Fascinating.

M-C:  Question number three.  How am I supposed to get the batter from the bowl into the bundt pan?  I have a terrible time distributing it evenly.  Am I being overly scrupulous?  Will it just even itself out in the baking?  When Shirley says to smooth it out with a spatula, my spatula is more like a downhill skier than a ship on a calm sea.

MB:  I scoop it into the pan in giant spoonfuls, and then lift and drop the pan a couple of times onto the countertop.  Shirley actually suggests doing that to get rid of all the bubbles, and it works really well.  In fact, it works so well I don’t even bother smoothing it out with a spatula.

M-C:  And now my question for Shirley:  What is the purpose of the shortening in a recipe for pound cake?  Once again I have used butter instead.  I own a tub of trans-fat-free shortening but I find it repellent, and of course the longer I go without using it the more repellent it becomes.  (Shortening goes stale — who knew?  My shortening was best if used, oh, before a long while ago.  More than two years ago.  If I decide I need shortening, I promise to buy a new tub.)

MB:  I used shortening.  I have no idea why it’s needed, but I used it.

M-C:  I’ve read the text for all the “shortening” entries in the index.

Shortening doesn’t spread immediately on entering the hot oven, which is important for cookies but not for cake (I think).  In piecrusts, shortening creates little flaky pockets and provides waterproofing; neither is important for cakes (I think).

But here are my three guesses about why shortening in a cake might be good:

Shirley #3 has us add two eggyolks, which are emulsifiers, for (a) “excellent texture” and (b) “increased moisture.”

Shortening can include mono- and diglycerides, which are emulsifiers.  (My shortening does not — it’s nothing but mechanically pressed organic palm oil.  I’ll get a different kind, I promise, I promise.)

Fat coats flour and keeps it from forming gluten, and shortening is higher in fat than butter.

Shortening has inert gasses beaten into it in the factory and so is an aerator.  (Baking powder and baking soda enlarge bubbles that are already there, but they do not create bubbles.  Honestly, that’s what Shirley says.  Fascinatingly, creaming butter turns it into an aerator — that’s what I’m doing when I cream butter, I’m beating air into it.  I never knew why I was doing it.)

So I think the shortening might be good in pound cake for its emulsifying components, its gluten-fighting ability, its airy-fairiness, or any two of those reasons — or all three.

MB:  Jeepers.  Awesome guesses.  I’m totally interested to see what Shirley’s answer actually is!

M-C:  OK, so much for Mary-Claire Wants To Know.  How do you like the cake?

MB:  I thought it was delicious.  I liked it much better than either of the other 2, so Shirley’s definitely doing something right!  What about you?

M-C:  I think my big one had the best flavor yet.  Vanilla sugar plus 1 Tablespoon Scotch plus 1 teaspoon Pernod, a licorice-flavored liqueur made from star anise plus several other herbs.  Not enough to taste like licorice, just a hint of something mysterious.

Here at your house, for the small one I couldn’t use vanilla sugar since you, faithless child, don’t keep vanilla sugar on hand.  For people accustomed to vanilla sugar, vanilla extract tastes — whoa! — awfully strong.  So I used a touch of vanilla extract and a touch of almond extract and a touch of your wonderful maple syrup extract.

MB:  I thought that the almond extract would make your cake taste like marzipan (something I hate) but it didn’t.  The cake just had a nice flavor, without any one element being overwhelming or even particularly identifiable.  Very interesting.

Certainly a good effort, with awesome results.

M-C:  And we’re sitting on the edge of our chairs waiting to hear back from Shirley.

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The Shirley Project


M-C:  So let’s tell everybody about our new project.

MB:  Shirley Corriher has just published her long-awaited Bakewise (Scribner, 2008).  She’s a chemist, and the book’s subtitle says it all, The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking with Over 200 Magnificent Recipes.  We’re going to bake our way straight through the book, making a recipe every other Sunday.

M-C:  And then on the in-between Sundays I’m going to make a scaled-down version of the same recipe, as fodder for Chapter 2 of Domestic Intelligence, How To Make a Recipe Bigger or Smaller.

MB:  We’ve already had our first pair of Sundays, and we’re ready to report on our results.

M-C:  OK, the first thing I want to say is that Shirley is nothing if not a free spirit.  She’s not a top-down person; her writing is more stream-of-consciousness than conventional exposition.  And we encountered that characteristic with her very first recipe, The Great American Pound Cake.

MB:  Which you’re not supposed to make.

M-C:  Right, which you’re not supposed to make.

MB:  Chapter 1 is called Cakes! Luscious Cakes!:  Muffins, Quick Breads, and More …

M-C:  You’ve got to love somebody who puts two exclamation points in a chapter title.

MB:  Right.  So anybody who’s done a little baking will know that the underlying theme for the chapter has to be baking powder and baking soda.  And sure enough, the first few paragraphs differentiate chemically leavened doughs from ones that rise because of yeast or eggs.

M-C:  Then immediately we start in on pound cake, which pleased both of us, because pound cake is one of my favorites and one of J’s as well.

MB:  Shirley describes the traditional pound cake, a pound of flour, a pound of sugar, a pound of butter (she says fat, not butter), and a pound of eggs.

M-C:  She then says that the problem with a classic pound cake is that it’s dry and not very sweet.  Hmm, I thought, isn’t that what I like about pound cake?

MB:  Well, most people disagree with you, and Shirley certainly does.  She doesn’t even give a full recipe for a classic pound cake but starts in immediately with the modern pound cake.

M-C:  Modern meaning sweeter and moister.  Like The Great American Pound Cake, the first recipe.

MB:  Then she starts talking about “the math,” with forward pointers to more math discussion, which I didn’t bother reading.

M-C:  Who could blame you?  The explanation starts on page 14, then goes from page 29 to 36, and then gets mentioned here and there.  I note that there is no entry for “the math” in the index.

MB:  Blech.

M-C:  I think of myself as being pretty comfortable with quantitative thinking and I found my first pass through 29-36 pleasant but not decisive — no quick snap of comprehension.  I’ll need to start writing it out for myself, but first I plunged right in with The Great American Pound Cake.

MB:  Me too.  Neither of us noticed that Shirley said she was giving the recipe only so we could compare it — the recipe, not the cake — with her improved version, which is the third recipe.

M-C:  Well, I was happy I made the cake.

MB:  Yeah, me too!  I don’t really understand why we weren’t supposed to make it.  Doesn’t it seem like if her cake is actually way better than this one, it’s better for us to have the comparison? I sure think that being able to compare the actual cakes is desirable.

M-C:  I was excited to learn about sad cakes, sad being another name for sunken.  I have produced more than my share of sad cakes over the years.  Shirley says to make them in a bundt pan or a tube pan, or even a loaf pan, and flip them over when they’re done.  So I went out and bought myself a 12-cup bundt pan.  I know one of the many reasons for my reluctance as a baker is that I don’t have the right pans, and I’m determined to acquire them, one recipe at a time.

MB:  I don’t have a bundt pan at all, so I made mine in 2 loaf pans.  They turned out ok, but I’m sure as hell buying a bundt pan before we try this again.  I had some weird timing issues while baking, so having the right pan is obviously very important.

M-C:  What kind of timing issues?

MB: Well, she calls for the cake, in its bundt pan, to bake for 1 hour.  My 2 loaves, which I thought would bake more quickly, took 1 hour and 40 minutes.  That’s a drastic difference.  I think it must be because of the difference in shape between a bundt pan and a loaf pan.  Good to know!

M-C:  Here are some of the other things I learned in making this recipe:

1. Sifting together the flour, salt, and baking powder or baking soda or both is supposed to  distribute the salt and leaveners evenly through the flour, but it doesn’t work very well.  Stirring thoroughly is better.

MB:  That’s convenient, because that’s always what I do (don’t even own a sifter), but where does it say that?

M-C:  Page 58.

MB:  Oh, I see you’re reading ahead.

M-C:  As always.

2. Bake cakes on, not over, your pizza stone.  Oddly enough, my friend Jake had told me exactly the same thing only the week before.  I was afraid the bottom would burn, but instead it became wonderfully crispy.

MB:  Yup, I read that too, on page 4.

M-C:  Right, in the introduction.  You have to be prepared to jump around quite a lot to get full value from this book.

MB:  That’s going to annoy me.

M-C:  3. This isn’t from the book, it’s from real life.  I have to teach myself to bake by smell.  All this business of buying an oven thermometer is crap.  If you buy two oven thermometers, they show two different temperatures.  You have to go for a reasonable temperature, check much sooner than the recipe indicates — especially me, with my convection oven — and learn how to smell doneness.

MB:  Sort of like how I have learned to smell doneness with beans on the stove.

M-C:  Exactly.  So what did you think of the cake?

MB:  It was awesome.  I mean awesome.

M-C:  I loved it.  I thought it was divine.  But it’s not my idea of pound cake.  It’s too sweet and too moist.  I’m going to try the traditional recipe (with, say, a quarter pound of each rather than a whole pound).  What did J think?

MB:  Well, you know he’s the world’s biggest fan of pound cake, and he thought it was amazing.  That’s a ringing endorsement.

M-C:  Did you follow the recipe exactly?

MB:  Pretty much.  The biggest change I made was in the extracts. Shirley calls for vanilla, lemon and almond, but I’m not going to go out and buy the last two just for this cake.  That seems crazy to me, so I used vanilla extract and maple extract, the two I had on hand.

M-C:  Me too almost.  I’m not fond of vanilla extract because I make vanilla sugar —

MB:  Oh, you should tell everybody about vanilla sugar.

M-C:  Nothing simpler, you just put a vanilla bean into a jar of sugar and close the lid.  Two weeks later, voila, vanilla sugar.  Then you just keep adding sugar and adding sugar and every once in a while adding a new vanilla bean, and you’ll never need to use vanilla extract again as long as you live.

MB:  So now, you were saying …

M-C:  Yes, anyway, I don’t like those extracts much, although in combination they might be interesting — gotta try that some time.  For this recipe, though, I substituted some Scotch, some Jack Daniel’s, and some tequila.  In such small amounts they just add a mysterious depth.

MB:  I felt weird about using the shortening that the recipe called for, but I did it anyway.  Did you?

M-C:  I did use the shortening.  I opened a package of fully hydrogenated (no trans fat) commercial shortening, but I think it was sickening and I won’t use it again.

MB:  Could you taste it in the final product?

M-C:  I think not, but it doesn’t matter, I still knew it was there.

MB:  Did you use it in your scaled-down version?

M-C:   I did not, I used clarified butter instead.  I think what Shirley wanted was a fat with no liquid, and that’s what clarified butter is.

MB:  That sounds like a great idea.  I would feel so much better about using clarified butter next time.

Now about the scaling it down, how did that go?

M-C:  Great!  I used a quarter of each of the amounts called for, and luckily they were all divisible by four except for the five eggs.  I read up on the different roles egg-whites and egg-yolks perform (page 81) and decided that since I thought the full-size cake was too wet I’d use one egg-white in addition to my one whole egg.  Five divided in four equals one and a half — only in baking.

MB:  And what did you use for a pan?

M-C:  Actually, I used the 12-cup bundt pan.  It made an odd little wide wreath, but Mark and I both loved that crispy cakeskin, so I think I’d always make it in a bundt pan, just a smaller one.  I have my eye on a 6-cup that would be perfect.

MB:  So, summing up, we liked the end result of this recipe VERY much, though the process of getting there was kind of strange.  I’m still stuck on the fact that this is the first recipe in the book, but we’re not supposed to cook it.  That just seems odd.

M-C:  And I’m concerned about how much jumping around we need to do in order to get the whole story.  It works well for people like me, who like to read ahead, but it doesn’t seem practical for the rest of the world.

The cake was delicious though.

MB:  Amen to that.

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The recipe for French chocolate bark comes from our cookbook of the month, Ina Garten’s Back to Basics (pp. 200-201).  Ina explains that in the U.S., chocolate bark is made by stirring raisins and nuts into warm chocolate; in France, it’s made by pressing raisins and nuts on top of warm chocolate.  The beautiful picture by Quentin Bacon showed immediately why the French way is superior — it’s beautiful!  We decided to make French chocolate bark our first smalltalk recipe.  On our old website, alteRecipes.com, smalltalks were the favorite feature, so we’re bringing them back.

Constraint or Suggestion?

MB:  How closely did you follow the recipe?

M-C: Not closely.  How about you?

MB:  Same for me, I used the recipe as an idea rather than a set of guidelines.

M-C: Was it vague enough to trouble people who like following recipes exactly?

MB: Not at all vague.  I think it’s a recipe to suit all comers.


M-C: I loved the idea of dried fruit and nuts and crystalized ginger pressed into the top of warm chocolate, but I had hazelnuts (filberts) instead of cashews, dried cranberries rather than dried cherries, and random leftovers of good chocolate from other projects.

MB:  I also didn’t have exactly the kind of chocolate that Ina suggested, so I threw together some dark chocolate chips and some unsweetened baking chocolate.  And the bark I made had two halves.  J’s half was half pumpkin seeds, almonds, and salted peanuts.  My half was pumpkin seeds, almonds, dried cherries, dried blueberries, dried raspberries, and dried strawberries.

M-C: Oh right, J doesn’t like dried fruit.  Brilliant solution!  But no crystalized ginger?  (Also spelled crystallized ginger, also called candied ginger — are you listening, Google?)

MB: Yup, no crystallized ginger.  Not because I don’t like it, just because I didn’t want to go out and spend the money on it.

M-C: I */love/* crystalized ginger.  Reed’s makes teensie little cubes of crystalized ginger that I keep on hand — makes or perhaps made, past tense, I can’t find a package on their website.  Aha, here they are, Item 1404 on the King Arthur Flour website.

MB:  My moment of brilliance came when I sprinkled the smallest bit of fleur de sel on top of all of it.  Oh lordy.  I think that touch brought it from simply delicious to absolutely sophisticated.

M-C: Wow.  I salted the warm chocolate lightly with ordinary table sea salt to make up for having no salted cashews, but fleur de sel on top, that would be better.  Little hits of salt amidst the other flavors.

MB: Exactly.  And it also added a little bit of extra crunch, which is never a bad thing.

Quantities and Yield

Ina’s recipe calls for 12-14 ounces of chocolate, 1 cup of cashews, .25 cups of crystalized ginger, and 1.25 cups of dried fruit; she says it makes a 9×10″ rectangle that can be cut into 18-20 pieces.

MB: 18-20 pieces … sure.  I followed Ina’s guidelines for the amount of chocolate exactly, at 12 ounces, but ignored all the other guidelines.  I just sprinkled stuff on top until I thought it looked full enough.

M-C: I’m working on Chapter 2 of Domestic Intelligence, on making recipes bigger or smaller, so I should be paying close attention to quantities, right?  But I forgot to measure anything. (It doesn’t come naturally to me.)  I used maybe 4 oz. of chocolate, and my version made a 3×5″ rectangle of varying thickness that I broke into 6 pieces.  I plan to make the recipe again with measures and scales in hand.  I found I liked the thinner pieces better.

Roasting the Nuts

M-C: Ina’s recipe calls for a cup of salted, roasted cashews, and then the first thing she has you do is to spread the cashews in one layer on a sheet pan and bake them for 8 minutes.  Is that a mistake, or does she really want the cashews double-roasted?

MB: I didn’t roast any nuts because they were all already roasted and double-roasting seemed like total overkill.

M-C: It didn’t matter much to me, since I was using hazelnuts that hadn’t been roasted in advance.  I like my toaster oven method of roasting nuts better than her big-oven method.  I put the nuts on a little sheet pan, pop them into the toaster oven, and toast them exactly the way I toast bread, same setting, same length of time.  Using my method I no longer burn nuts when all I want to do is roast them.

MB: I myself have only ever roasted nuts in the toaster.  Warming up the entire oven to roast a small tray of nuts seems crazy to me.

M-C: So maybe cashews need to be double-roasted because … they’re higher in fat than other nuts?  Googling “double roasted nuts” does indeed turn up some nuts that are double-roasted, cashews and almonds most common among them.  I wish if we are indeed supposed to double-roast that Ina had told us so.

Tempering the Chocolate

Ina explains in her headnote that there are many methods for tempering chocolate but she likes this one:  Chop the chocolate fine, put three-quarters of it into a microwavable bowl, and nuke it on high in increments of 20-30 seconds.  When the chocolate is just barely melted, stir in the remaining quarter of the chocolate and keep stirring hard till the chocolate is smooth and cooled.

M-C: Since I never make candy, I had never heard of tempering chocolate and followed Ina’s instructions blindly (and, as it turns out, inaccurately).  Then after the bark was such a success I read up on tempering.  Was it familiar to you?

MB: Nope, even though I’m totally fascinated with candy-making.

M-C: It’s one of my major failings as a parent that we had exactly one taffy pull during your entire childhood and no fudge-making.  My Midwestern ancestors undoubtedly spun in their graves at my shameful neglect.

MB: Taffy pulling is cool, but fudge-making has always been sort of eh.  When I was younger I read a lot of books from the 19th century where people would get together and have big fudge-making parties.  It sounds so romantic and old-timey.  But truthfully that was before they had TVs or stereos, so they had nothing better to do with their time.

M-C: At any rate, tempering …

MB: I had never tempered chocolate before.  I also had to read up on it, and discovered that it’s a very strange process.  I’m not sure I understand everything that I read.

M-C: I couldn’t find an explanation that was well written.  The one in Wikipedia is no worse than others.  I’m hesitant to say much because I’m not sure I’ve understood the process.  With that caveat, here’s what I think tempering chocolate is.

There are six kinds of chocolate specks, and all six can be changed from one to another by three forces: heat, stirring, and time.  The point of tempering is to change as many specks as possible to Type V — that’s the Roman numeral V, not V for Vengeance, Victory, Victrola, Victoria.  (Do you remember how mad you were when we went to see the Kenneth Branagh Henry V and I had to tell you it was “Henry the Fifth,” not “Henry Vee”?)

MB: (Childhood trauma.)

M-C: OK, so here’s the thing.  It’s kind of like Goldilocks.  Type I is too mushy, type II is too crumbly, type III won’t snap, type IV melts too easily, type VI takes weeks to form.

MB: But type V is just right?

M-C: Exactly.  Type V is just right.  It melts in your mouth, not in your hands, and it snaps, which is something you want with the bark.  It’s also shiny, which matters not at all (the nuts and fruit cover the chocolate, so who cares?) — */except/* that only type V is shiny, so you can tell when you’ve converted all the other specks into type V by looking.

MB: Why don’t they just sell us chocolate that’s all type V?

M-C: They do.  Ordinary bar chocolate that you buy is nearly all type V, and if all you want to do is eat the chocolate, you’re golden.  But to make bark we need to heat the chocolate, and as soon as it gets warm some of the specks start changing from good type V to evil types I, II, etc.

MB: Gotcha.  But you said three forces can change the particles from one type to another.

M-C: Yup, you’ve got it.  We use a combination of the three.  We warm the chocolate, but only slightly; we stir it like mad; and we keep on stirring till it’s all shiny again.

MB: So the point of melting only three-quarters of the chocolate and then quickly stuffing in the rest is to keep it from getting too warm?

M-C: Welllll…, no, not really, but that’s close enough to right, so let’s let it go.  (Read the Wikipedia article to find out the true truth.)  Professional chocolatiers have sexy computer-controlled tempering setups, but for family cooks I completely agree with Ina that her method is the simplest and best.

MB: You said you didn’t follow her method exactly?

M-C: I didn’t understand that it was important to warm and mix the chocolate uniformly, so I left it in random pieces and didn’t chop them fine.

MB: Disaster?

M-C: By no means.  But I want my bark to snap easily — it’s more satisfying to snap off pieces than to cut them off.  I’m going to buy myself a chocolate thermometer and try again.

MB: I notice that somewhere along the way you seem to have overcome your dislike of measuring.

M-C: I have.  As I say, it still doesn’t come naturally to me, but since I started on Domestic Intelligence three or four years ago I’ve learned to pay attention to what recipe writers say about quantities and temperatures and times.  When an author says “3 ounces” or “350°” or “30 minutes,” that doesn’t mean what I always thought it meant, precisely 3 ounces, precisely 350 degrees, precisely 30 minutes.  It’s a way of making a ballpark figure concrete.  It’s nothing more than a concise way of saying “roughly 3 ounces,” “approximately 350 degrees,” “25-35 minutes.”

MB: OK, enough about tempering.


M-C: As a non-chocoholic, I have to tell you this is one of the best chocolate desserts I’ve ever had.  Sometimes if something is just one-note chocolateness I feel like it’s coating my mouth.  Here the chocolate supports the other flavors, perhaps in the same way that salt or lemon juice or olive oil does in savory dishes.  The bark is rich but not glutty; I enjoyed the heck out of one piece and didn’t need a second to feel satisfied.

MB: I myself am a die-hard chocoholic, and also appreciated this immensely.  The older I get the less I enjoy pure chocolate and the more I want good flavors combined with my chocolate.  So this was perfect for that.  And think of the myriad variations you could make, each one its entirely own entity but all tied together under the umbrella term “bark”.  It’s fantastic.


M-C: I served the bark as dessert at two different meals, first at an all-Ina supper after her Tuscan chicken (OK) and her celeriac and apple purée (fabulous) and second the next day at lunch after sandwiches and beer.  Each time, two pieces for Mark and one for me.  It went equally well after the more formal supper and the casual lunch.

MB: I served this after a meal of veggie-filled lasagne.  Serving the bark at the end felt like it brought the meal up to a whole new level.  From ordinary to extraordinary!

M-C: Ina says she used the bark to make elegant s’mores, but I think that sounds like a waste.  I want my s’mores made with cheap milk chocolate and supermarket marshmallows and graham crackers.

MB: The idea of smores with dried fruit and nuts is kind of gross to me.  That’s way too much textural change.  Smores are supposed to be all melty and gooey, not chewy and crunchy!


M-C: Let’s talk about what I think of as the rhythm of the recipe — is it quick, slow, can it be interrupted, does it require prepping everything in advance, what’s the story?  I was pleased with how long the chocolate stayed malleable after I had re-tempered it.  I had been afraid that there would be one brief moment when I could embed the goodies in it and anything that didn’t get pasted on during that moment would fall off and make a mess.  Instead I had a nice relaxed time making an artistic surface.

MB: I felt that this recipe was so simple to make, so easy and hassle-free, that it was super easy.  This is the kind of thing that you can easily make (ahem, not that I’m speaking from personal experience here or anything) while being interrupted multiple times by a 2 year-old jumping on your foot, demanding to help stir, forgetting where you put the components to the recipe down, and maintaining a conversation with your husband the entire time.

I felt that the prep time, the actual work time, everything, was so easy-paced that it’s one of the most low-pressure desserts I’ve ever made.

M-C: I agree.

Summing It Up

M-C: I’m adding this to my repertoire of winter desserts.  It’s pretty easy, it’s pretty quick, it’s healthy with the chocolate and nuts and fruit, and I like it a lot.  Once a month from October through March.

MB: I’m not sure I’ll make it that often, but I am sure I’ll make it again.  And I think Ina’s right that this would be an amazing finger-dessert to serve at a party because it manages to be elegant and simple at the same time.


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