Saturday, August 29, 2009

Charting the chocolate chip cookie

In a previous post, I described my favorite chocolate chunk cookie, made using a recipe adapted from dessert genius Jacques Torres by David Leite in the New York Times.

One of my early theories about why the cookies were so good was that they simply had a lot more chocolate than the average cookie. That line of thinking reminded me of Meg's brilliant post about her "mean" chocolate chip cookie recipe, where "mean" had two meanings: slangy (excellent) and statistical (the average value of a collection of numbers).

To make her mean cookie, Meg took twelve distinct cookie recipes (but surprisingly not the classic Toll House recipe), entered them into a spreadsheet, calculated the average quantity for each ingredient, and then used her baking judgment to determine an average set of mixing procedures. The result:
These cookies were pretty damn good! I'd expected the worst. I'd expected they'd be inedible, or burnt, or floury and gooey at the same time. I had a hint they might not be too bad when I tasted the dough. But when I pulled them from the oven, I was amazed. The first bite revealed a cookie crispy around the rim, warm and chewy on the inside. A few hours later, they were firmer, but still tasty. The best chocolate chip cookies ever? I'm not sure, but I baked A Mean Chocolate Chip Cookie. And that's enough for me.
I took the spreadsheet (which Meg made available on her website as an Excel file) and did what comes naturally to me: make some charts. The first thing I did, however, was correct a small oversight that Meg made when she did not normalize the recipes to a fixed point, like the quantity of sugar or flour. Not normalizing means that the importance of an individual recipe in the final result depends on the size of the recipe: in other words, the weight of a recipe calling for 4 cups of flour and 3 eggs would have more influence on the final result than one with 1 1/3 cups of flour and 1 egg. Since these were all pure flour recipes (no oatmeal), I scaled the ingredients in each recipe so that they would have two cups of flour.Clearly, this is not an ideal normalization because not all cookies rely on the same amount of flour for their structure, but it seems like a reasonable approximation. Other normalizations, like the quantity of butter or amount of chocolate, could be used too, but as we'll see below, I'm not sure it really matters. 

In some provinces of Geekdonia, people have been know to chart first, ask questions later. As I have been thinking about this post, I've realized that I'm one of those people.  There were many questions that I should have asked and answered before making the charts, like "How much do I like each cookie?", "What style is each cookie (thin and crispy, thick and chewy, in-between)?"  And so, alas, the charts that I carefully prepared are more like pieces of art than explanatory figures.

The first chart shows the volume of chocolate chips in each recipe after the flour normalization.  The names of the recipes on the vertical axis are taken directly from Meg's Excel file (except for Toll House, which I added myself); I provide links to each one (when available) at the bottom of this post. We see quite a significant variation, from 1 cup all the way to almost 2.5 cups (1 cup = 8 fluid ounces = 236 mL). Torres/Leite's recipe is on the high end of the range, with the second most chocolate. Part of the variation, of course, is that different cookies have different styles — crispy, cakey, etc.
The next chart shows how butter and chocolate quantities relate for the collection of recipes.  The x-axis is butter (in sticks — 4 ounces, 1/2 cup, 113 grams), the y-axis is the volume of chocolate chips. The red symbol represents the Torres/Leite recipe, the green symbol represents Meg's mean recipe. If there was some universal ratio of butter to chocolate, the points would fall on a line, but they clearly do not. The 'butter outlier' to the left is "The Cookie Book" recipe; the two high chocolate recipes are Torres/Leite and David Lebovitz.

The final chart shows the relationship between chocolate chips and sugar (brown and white types). These points are even more scattered than the butter points, because 1) sugar probably plays less of a structural role than butter, and 2) recipe developers might be influenced by the 'sticking' of butter, i.e., picking one, 1 1/2 or two sticks for a recipe instead of 3.25 ounces or another unusual number. In this chart, the Torres/Leite recipe has the lowest amount of sugar. Combine that with a high quantity of dark chocolate and you get a seriously good cookie.

Although I'm sure that the food industry has people that make lots of charts exploring the make-up of chocolate chip cookies — attempting to understand how to improve flavor, reduce costs, and so on — for a hobbyist like me the charts turned out to be a somewhat futile exercise, resulting on only a reinforcing of the idea that cookie recipes can vary significantly and confirming my initial impression that the Torres/Leite cookies had more chocolate than average.

When a three-day rainstorm hits the Bay Area on a weekend this winter, perhaps I'll try taking this exercise to the next level: baking each cookie and comparing my preference with their ingredients — a chart comparing my ranking with the butter to sugar ratio, for example. Like this exercise, it might not tell me anything new, but the experimental samples will be a worthwhile result.

The list of recipes:

Random link from the archive:  You Are What You Eat Meme

Technorati tags: Chocolate : Baking : Food : Cookies

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Recipe: Southern Indian Carrot Salad

I bought a bunch of fresh curry leaves the other day and only used about one-tenth of the package to make a South Indian meal. Since then, I've been trying to use them up before they dry out too much or rot — fresh curry leaves are far superior to dried leaves (I'm not sure how frozen leaves stack up, however).

One of my favorite quick dishes that use curry leaves is a carrot salad in Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking (the book that taught me the basics of cooking Indian cuisine at home). It comes together quickly, with the cooling time a lot longer than the preparation time. Served at room temperature or chilled, it makes a great addition to an eclectic meal.

Southern Indian Carrot Salad
Adapted from Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking

1 pound carrots
1 T. ghee or vegetable oil
1 t. black mustard seeds
2 green chilies (serrano or hotter), deseeded and finely chopped
1/4 t. asafetida
1 T. sugar (preferably Indian jaggery*)
8 curry leaves
Salt to taste
1 t. lime or lemon juice
1/4 plain yogurt
2 T. roasted peanuts or cashews, chopped
Chopped cilantro, optional

(Unit conversion page)

Measure the mustard seeds and the chopped chilies into separate dishes and place next to the stove. Combine the sugar, asafetida and curry leaves in a small bowl, and place it next to the stove. (Quick action will be required during the early stages of cooking, so it's good to have everything ready and at hand.)

Peel the carrots and grate them coarsely (use the large holes on a box grater or the coarse grater on a food processor).

Place a large skillet over high heat and have a lid that covers the skillet nearby. Add the oil. When it is hot, carefully add the mustard seeds. Agitate the skillet to cook the seeds, being ready to cover the pan if they pop too violently. After the popping subsides, add the chopped chilies and cook for about 15 seconds. Next, add the sugar, asafetida, and curry leaves — watch out for splattering oil when the wet leaves hit the hot oil. Cook for 10 to 15 seconds, allowing the sugar to melt but not burn.

Add the carrots, mix well, and cook for a few minutes.

Turn out into a bowl or serving dish.

After the spiced carrots have cooled, add salt, lime or lemon juice, and yogurt.  Mix thoroughly.

Just before serving, sprinkle the peanuts on top.  Garnish with cilantro if you feel like it.

* Jaggery is an unrefined sugar made from sugar cane or the sap of a palm tree. It also goes by the names of gur and goodh. Sahni writes that most of the jaggery made from palm sap is consumed locally, so it seems most likely that exported jaggery is from cane sugar. A substitution of flavorful palm sugar from Southeast Asia (Thailand, Malyasia, Indonesia) might provide some interesting flavors.

Photo of carrots from Jen Maiser's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

Random link from the archive: Oakland's Casserole House is a mirage for this Midwesterner
Technorati tags: India : carrots : vegetarian : Food

Friday, August 14, 2009

Eating on the wild side: "pisang mas" bananas from Malaysia

Photo of bananas at the Beringharjo market in Yogyakarta, Indonesia
The banana section of the Beringharjo market,Yogyakara, Indonesia

As a child, I hated bananas. They were always around the house — my sister and brother loved them — and I liked banana bread, but their gluey texture and cloying sweetness repelled me.

Nonetheless, when I went to Asia a few months ago, bananas were one of my food priorities.

What changed my mind? Dan Koeppel and his book Banana:  The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World. Months before my trip, I heard Koeppel speak about the history and biology of bananas on various radio programs (Fresh Air, On Point Radio, Good Food) and learned the amazing story of this ubiquitous fruit.

One of the incredible facts about bananas is that most people in the industrialized world eat the exact same banana: the Cavendish. And because of the banana's method of asexual reproduction, we're not just eating the same variety, but essentially identical copies because all Cavendish bananas have the exact same DNA.

The Cavendish is "the banana" because it possesses traits that make it economically viable: it can be picked green, is relatively tough, has a suitably thick skin, and its ripening behavior is compatible with long-distance shipping and warehousing. And it tastes pretty good. The Cavendish is actually a fairly recent arrival, as it is the replacement for the original banana, which was a variety called Gros Michel. This variety was the main banana from the first days of the transcontinental trade (which revolutionized the fruit industry) until it was struck down by a disease in the mid 20th century.

In his radio interviews, Koeppel explained that there are hundreds of varieties of edible bananas around the world, but most of them can't travel very far — some ripen too fast, others have thin skins, and so on.

Since I was headed to the tropics, I chose Koeppel's banana book as part of my airplane/airport reading. In an early chapters, he provides a short explanation of banana genetics. Banana cultivars contain combinations of A and B genes.  Wild bananas — bananas that have not been altered by human-induced breeding — are AA.  AB and those with three genes are usually result of hybridization. For example, the Cavendish is AAA and plantains are AAB. (Koeppel doesn't say if there are any BB bananas. I imagine that he would have mentioned them if they existed.)

In that same chapter, Koeppel talks about a trip to the Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, where he views the "Musalogue", a book that lists all of the known varieties of banana (the name Musalogue refers to the banana's genus, Musa). Of the 172 listed in the book, there are 12 wild bananas (those with the AA gene combination). Nine of them are natives of New Guinea, one is from the Philippines, one is of unknown origin, and one is from Malaysia.

Since I was going to be right next to Malaysia, the Malaysian wild banana caught my attention.  Perhaps I could find them and 'eat on the wild side.'

The wild Malaysian banana is known as "pisang mas" in Malay, which has the unexciting translation of "golden banana" (pisang = banana, mas = golden). We didn't have to look too hard to find the pisang mas in Singapore. The first fruit vendor in Little India knew which variety we were referring to and happily sold us a bunch.

Pisang mas bananas (foreground), red bananas (background)

They are relatively small, about half the size of Cavendish, with much thinner skin. The thin skin makes them a little hard to peel (and is probably one reason they don't travel very far). I can't speak about their flavor relative to 'normal' bananas, but I can say that I thought they tasted good and the texture didn't bother me. 

Another exciting banana-related discovery was a dish called Spicy Yogurt-Banana Pachadi in Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's Mangoes and Curry Leaves (page 70). A raita-like creation from South India, this sweet, spicy, and sour condiment was the highlight of an all Alford/Duguid meal that we cooked together one night. If you have the book, give it a try sometime.

Since returning home, I have learned that the wild pisang mas bananas are being cultivated in Latin America and sold in the U.S. Dan Koeppel's blog has a post about the new types of small bananas that are available in the U.S. These small are varieties that are naturally small, not small versions of the Cavendish. One of the offerings from Chiquita is the "Mini," which is grown in Latin America and turns out to be the 'wild' pisang mas variety. His post is worth reading in full, as it gives insight into what the banana companies are facing as the Cavendish is threatened by the notorious Panama disease (a fungal malady that practically wiped out the Gros Michel). On most visits to the grocery store I look for the Mini banana, but have yet to see them.

(See also this post I wrote at The Ethicurean about a piece by Dan Koeppel in the New York Times.)

Random link from the archive: Odds and Ends
Technorati tags: Malaysia : bananas : fruit : Food

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Lime tree drama: spider vs. bee

A few weeks ago I bought a makrut lime tree (Citrus hystrix) so I could use its leaves in Asian curry pastes (Thai and Balinese, in particular), my favorite cauliflower soup, and to make infused syrups for drinks.

Right now, the tree is festooned with blossoms and pea-sized fruits (most of which will probably fall off before becoming mature) and so it is popular with a variety of bees — European honeybees, large bumblebees (probably native), and small bees (probably native).

The tree is also popular with spiders — the other day I counted at least three species lurking or stalking. One was a hunting spider (like a wolf spider) the size of an small ant, another was a web-builder with a pale green hue that I had never seen before on a spider, and the other one I can't remember any details about.

On this day, the green spider had caught a bee — possibly the same species as in the photo above, but a different individual. I watched and photographed as the spider wrapped the bee in strands of fresh silk.

Spider and captured bee 3

I'm glad that my fruit tree is supporting such interesting activities, but really wish that the spiders would focus their attention on aphids or leaf-rollers instead of bees (especially the little black aphids demolishing my garlic chives).

Footnote: if you like bugs and nature documentaries, check out David Attenborough's "Life in the Undergrowth." It tells amazing stories from the world of insects, arachnids, slugs and other invertebrates. Although occasionally icky, there are some stunningly beautiful scenes — like a shot of mayflies flitting above a pond (just thinking about it makes me almost want to run out and rent it again just for watch that scene) — and some stories that are too amazing not to be true — like the strange relationship between a certain wasp, a certain caterpillar and certain breed of ants.

Random link from the archive: Eating in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Technorati tags: Gardens : bees : spiders

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Mini-review: "Nathaniel's Nutmeg" by Giles Milton

When I went looking for a book to read on the long flight from Singapore to San Francisco (and during the several hour layover in Hong Kong), I wanted to find something about Southeast Asia.  I ended up choosing Nathaniel's Nutmeg: or, the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History. 

Nathaniel's Nutmeg tells the story of the 16th and 17th century race to the spice islands between the European powers, primarily England and Holland, but also Spain and Portugal.

Like the previously reviewed Spice, the first part of this book is engrossing, thrilling, and shocking as Milton describes the earliest attempts to find routes from Europe to the spice islands.  Europe had been trading for spices for centuries, but now they wanted to cut out the middlemen and buy direct.  Most of the spices they sought — nutmeg (which was supposedly a cure for the black plague) and cloves in particular — were exclusively grown on tiny islands that make up part of modern day Indonesia (The Banda Islands, in particular, a small chain roughly halfway between Sulewesi and New Guinea. The "location" tool on this blog post is pointed at one of the islands chronicled in the book.).

In the 16th and 17th century, sailors were lacking a few important pieces of knowledge, like how to determine longitude or how to prevent scurvy. Accurate maps were also rare.  So essentially these brave, greedy, dedicated, or foolhardy adventurers would literally head into the unknown looking for a few small islands in an endless sea.

The tales of these often horrible voyages were quite interesting, if bleak. Crews of hundreds of men on several ships would leave the docks in Europe, and a few months or years later, only 10 or 20 percent would return, the rest having perished to scurvy, dysentery, angry natives, or something else. There were also attempts to reach the East Indies via a northern route, either going around Canada or above Russia. For some reason, it was thought that there was open ocean above North America and Europe, so it was just a matter of going far enough north.  They soon learned that the top of the Earth had plenty of ice.

Unfortunately, the middle of the book is confusing and tiring, as the author details the often trivial struggles over the islands, the business details of the companies financing the trips, and too many individual voyages.

The last part of the book is a little better, as it focuses on the final battles between the Dutch and English for the Banda Islands.  But it didn't capture my interest like the beginning — the focus was too narrow, I suppose (even though the events had tremendous historical significance).

Random link from the archive: Okonomi-yaki, a Japanese Pancake