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Using extra virgin olive oil in cake baking is not new. I’ve been doing it for years along with other health-minded folks. It imparts a rich, slightly herbal flavor to cookies, cakes and muffins that balances the inherent sweetness of my favorite recipes. And who’s kidding whom? It also makes me feel slightly more righteous and slightly less guilty. But when I opened the refrigerator and found the last of my favorite winter citrus and a container of crème fraîche ready for attention, it seemed only logical that these things belonged in a chocolate cake as well.
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There is another ingredient in this cake that is far less known but deserves to be in everyone’s pantry. It’s an extract originating from Italy called Fiori di Sicilia (translated to “flowers of Sicily”). When I want to add a bit of mystery to my baking, I grab this little vial and add a few precious drops to the batter. It is a powerful combination of vanilla, citrus and less-defined floral scents. If you’ve ever tasted a traditional panettone from Italy during the Christmas holidays, you will recognize the flavor in an instant. While vanilla extract is always useful to round out a mix of flavors, this heavenly tincture can do all that and more.
Blood Orange Chocolate Cake
You can use any type of orange to impart the tangy flavor that complements a good dark chocolate, but the flavor complexity of a blood orange, with its raspberry undertones, makes this cake particularly yummy.
1¾ cups pastry or cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons orange zest
½ cup dark cocoa powder
½ cup boiling water
1 cup sugar
⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup crème fraîche
3 large eggs
½ cup orange juice
1 teaspoon Fiori de Sicilia extract (or vanilla extract)
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or Triple Sec liquor (optional)
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F and grease a 9-by-5-inch baking pan. In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and zest, and set aside.
2. Sift the cocoa powder into a separate bowl and add boiling water until it is the consistency of a thick, smooth and glossy paste. Let cool while preparing wet ingredients.
3. By machine or by hand, whisk together sugar, olive oil, crème fraiche and eggs until blended and smooth. Slowly incorporate orange juice, extract, liquor and cocoa. Finally, add dry ingredients until evenly mixed.
4. Pour batter into pan and bake for 50 to 60 minutes. The cake is done when an inserted toothpick comes out with no wet batter clinging to it.
5. Dust with powdered sugar or drizzle with glaze created by mixing ¼ cup blood orange juice with powdered sugar until desired consistency. Garnish with fresh raspberries.
Top photo: Blood Orange Chocolate Cake. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
I am not one of the lucky ones who owns the original “Modernist Cuisine” 2,400-page, six-volume set that rocked the food world when it was released in 2011. With its new style of macro presentation, depth of detail, sheer heft and price, “Modernist Cuisine” was acknowledged by the best in the business to be a paradigm shift in cookbook publishing.
The initial work published by The Cooking Lab was the brainchild of Dr. Nathan Myhrvold, former chief technology officer for Microsoft, aspiring photographer and insatiable food lover. Myhrvold focused his life passions on creating a body of work that would provide detailed written explanations and visuals that explored the chemistry behind cooking.
With the release of the abridged “Modernist Cuisine at Home” in 2012, I discovered an approachable way to learn the basics about modernist cuisine and, more important, fit it into my life in a practical way. This winter, the inspiration for my gluten-free mac ’n’ cheese came directly from applying a bit more science to the sauce.
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By Inkling Systems, 2013
By Nathan Myhrvold
Now, with the publications of Inkling’s digital app version of “Modernist Cuisine at Home” and the printed behemoth, “The Photography of Modernist Cuisine,” Myhrvold’s team continues to expand the presentation of 21st century food publishing from a unique point of view.
Both new publications are riffs on the same theme, broadening their audience by narrowing the focus of the initial immense work. They invite photographers and iPad-toting foodies to learn about the unique blend of flavor and science that makes up the world of molecular gastronomy.
Modernist Cuisine at Home, e-Book Edition
I am a big fan of large printed published materials converted into iPad e-books by digital publisher Inkling. The publisher’s ability to merge printed materials with fully engaging videos and glowing photographic details brings “Modernist Cuisine at Home” to a new level of engagement and education. As a digital version, it’s even more interesting than the original printed medium and frankly, more fun. I can tap, swipe and click my way through any recipe in a kitchen-friendly iPad version with a bit more detail than the book.
The Photography of Modernist Cuisine
When I first cracked the cover, I was not sure whether I needed a much larger coffee table, a set of museum-quality white gloves or even one of those page-turning contraptions that the Library of Congress uses to showcase important documents one page at a time. Comparing this book to a museum exhibit, I’d vote for the value of being able to savor its breathtaking pages again and again. It’s a stunning inspirational feast for the eyes that encourages you to look at and think about ingredients in a completely different way — all without featuring a single recipe.
Poring over this book, I’m also encouraged to think about food photography differently. For the rapidly expanding universe of food photographers and iPhonographers, this stark homage to the ingredient through obsessive attention to detail gives permission to depart from the glistening food-porn and dreamy expressionism that blankets Pinterest boards and Instagram.
“The Photography of Modernist Cuisine” may not motivate me to go into the kitchen, but it motivates me to pick up my camera and open the refrigerator. The iPad app of “Modernist Cuisine at Home” just makes me want to try everything when I do.
Top photo composite:
“Modernist Cuisine at Home.” Credit: Courtesy of Inkling Systems
“The Photography of Modernist Cuisine.” Credit: Courtesy of The Cooking Lab
It’s Oscars time, and in addition to dressing for the occasion, we always like to set the table with award-worthy snacks. Some years required black-tie starters like Champagne and oysters. Other years, California-made cheeses like Cypress Grove’s Humboldt Fog and the wonderfully stinky Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery competed for Best Cheese in a Supporting Role. But this year, we plan to honor the movies with their best-loved partner, popcorn.
Of course, because it’s the Oscars, it couldn’t be just any microwaved popcorn. Last week when I found some dried popcorn being cut off the cob at the farmers’ market, I knew it was time to use my newly inspired love for spices to elevate popcorn to a starring role.
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Next, your choice of salt is critical to the perfect box of popcorn. It’s got to be soft enough to cling to the kernels, but crunchy enough to hold its own on the palate. I found that the moisture of grey sea salt fit the bill perfectly.
Finally, adding variety with ground spices, grated cheeses and even cocoa powder creates an interesting mix of options for movie-loving guests. Any blend of favorite flavors will do, but my winning combination was hot salted popcorn tossed with grated pecorino romano cheese, sprinkled with Aleppo pepper flakes and doused with another healthy drizzle of olive oil.
Old-Fashioned, New-Flavored Popcorn
½ cup popcorn kernels
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil, to taste
Sea salt, to taste
Grated hard or semi-hard cheese
Aleppo or Marash chili pepper
Cocoa powder mixed with sugar
Freshly ground peppercorns
1. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a 3-quart, deep saucepan. As soon as the oil melts and spreads evenly, add enough kernels to fill one layer on the bottom. Cover and increase heat to high flame. As soon as the corn starts popping, shake rigorously over heat until popping is complete.
2. Immediately dress with olive oil and salt and toss to coat.
3. If you are adding grated cheese, do so immediately after removing from heat to ensure that cheese clings to popcorn.
4. Sprinkle with other seasonings to taste.
Top photo: Spiced popcorn. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
It’s so easy to gobble up a big bowl of guacamole. Just mash a dozen avocados, add some spiced-up tomatoes, garlic and citrus juice. When surrounded by a pile of fresh tortilla chips, nothing disappears faster in our house when it comes to party starters.
But what to do when you don’t happen to have an avocado tree in your backyard and the price of out-of-season green globes starts climbing into the stratosphere? Sweet peas, fresh or frozen, provide an amazingly tasty alternative when made a little creamier with extra virgin olive oil. If you blindfolded your guests, they would be hard pressed to name the main ingredient, but they’d be just as happy with the flavor.
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Best of all, sweet pea guacamole doesn’t turn that nasty brownish gray color over time like avocados do as they oxidize. You can even make it a day or two before the party and it will look and taste just as fresh as the moment you created it.
I have Michelin-starred chef María José San Román to thank for my first introduction to this simple swap when I joined her at Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ Amorolio event in Tuscany. As English shelling pea season kicks into high gear this spring, I’m going to be digging into my own riff with this nonclassical composition.
Sweet Pea Guacamole
Jalapeños can be very hot or mild, so test the level of spice before adding to your dish, according to your preference.
1 pound fresh sweet peas, shelled
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 shallot, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 jalapeño peppers or to taste, chopped
Juice of 2 limes
2 ripe avocados (optional)
2 teaspoons salt
¼ cup cilantro, minced
1. Steam peas until tender, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat, cool.
2. In a blender or food processor, purée peas, olive oil, shallot, garlic, jalapeños and lime juice until almost smooth but still a bit chunky.
3. In a medium bowl, combine mashed avocado, if using, with pea mixture, leaving chunky. Add salt to taste. Garnish with cilantro. Serve with tortilla chips.
Top photo: Sweet pea guacamole. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
If your kitchen houses an old jar of ground black pepper, do me a favor and throw it out. I’m on a campaign to start the New Year fresh, and my resolution includes discarding all outdated spices and sundries lurking in the back of the pantry. This applies to all spices, from aniseed to za’atar, but ground pepper is at the top of my list.
Pepper is the most commonly used spice in the world, but anyone who’s using the pre-ground stuff is missing out on its true intensity of flavor. The world’s best chefs have always known that pepper loses flavor when added early in the cooking process. And because the peppercorns’ essential oils aren’t released until they are ground, a fresh grind of peppercorns can elevate many dishes with the perfect finishing touch.
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Armed with a collection of 14 peppercorn types from around the world, I gathered a few fearless friends for a tasting party. Countries of peppercorn origin were Brazil, Cameroon, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Madagascar and Vietnam, plus the French island of Réunion. Colors included creamy white, soft grey-green, rose, rust red and a dark black-brown. My guests doubted that they’d really notice a difference, but the exercise proved surprisingly revealing.
A technique for a pepper tasting party
Following a classic technique for wine tasting, we used sight to judge size, finish and color; next, a heady sniff revealed a wide array of complex aromas and bouquets from smoky and spicy to dried fruit to sherry. Finally, we completed the exercise by crunching away to determine taste, length of finish and heat index. As I had learned in olive oil tastings, it’s important to be prepared with coffee beans (a whiff of coffee beans will clear your sinuses of residual aromas), green apple slices (to clear your palate between tastings) and plenty of water.
The peppercorns showed off enormous variations in taste profiles. My two favorites were a green peppercorn from Brazil that smelled like licorice and cardamom and tasted of fresh, slightly spicy herbs; and a Sarawak black from Malaysia that was smoky, spicy and tasted a bit like mushrooms and cedar. Two other varieties that were universally liked were not truly peppercorns, but similar enough to join the roster: the sweet, floral, fruity flavor of rose mastic berries from the island of Réunion and the perfumed, sweet clove and apricot flavor of Sichuan pepper from China.
At the beginning of the year, it just feels right to clean the cupboards and start fresh. This year, I’ll be indulging in ingredients I’ve never used before and kitchen experiments I’ve never tried. “Out with the old, and in with the new” may be an overused cliché, but in my pantry it’s going to start with spices — and playing with peppercorns will be a great way to begin.
Know what’s in your seasoning
If you haven’t heard, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently released a study focusing on ground spices as carriers of the microbial pathogen salmonella. While pepper was not one of the major offenders, it does have a long history of being adulterated with cheaper spices, dirt, hulls and harvesting scraps.
There are two simple solutions to ensuring that the pepper you use is pure and safe. Begin by only buying whole peppercorns because there is little chance that an unscrupulous purveyor can dilute them with dirt, debris and other cheap ground spices. The website Pepper-Passion is an excellent online resource for a wide variety of peppercorns.
When you buy whole peppercorns, you can see exactly what’s in the jar and even sort through them to remove any dirt, twigs and rocks that might remain. Next, take a few minutes to roast your peppercorns either in a 325 F oven for 10 to 15 minutes or in a pan over medium heat for 5 minutes to kill any unwanted microbial pathogens hitching a ride on the spice. It takes only 165 F of heat to kill the bacteria.
Top photo: A variety of peppercorns from around the world. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
Quick: In three words, what is port wine? Before hosting a port tasting party the other night, I would have said, “sweet, old-fashioned and British” — and I would have been mostly wrong. The most fun way to learn about port is to drink it, so finish reading this article and gather together a few friends and a few bottles. The holidays are the perfect time for a tasting party.
A little background might make your tasting party a bit more interesting. Port is wine fortified with brandy or grape spirit, often resulting in an alcohol level of around 20%. Best known as a deep garnet or brick-red sweet dessert wine, it is also produced in a white or pink off-dry style for cocktails and apéritifs.
Unlike many other wines, it is not produced as a single varietal. Style variations are based on three things: how it is aged — either in bottle or wood vats and casks; how long it is aged; and the winemaker’s skill at blending grape varietals. The result is three basic styles of port: bottle-aged vintage; wood-aged reserve or late-bottled vintage; and wood-aged tawny.
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The World Heritage home of Portugal’s Port
Today, more than 38,000 farmers grow port grape varietals like Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesco, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Tinto Cão on the steep rocky hillsides above the Douro River in Portugal. The fantastically, challenging terrain — in some areas, vine roots have to reach down 40 feet through rock fissures for moisture — has qualified some of the oldest vineyards, or quintas, to be classified as World Heritage sites. And many traditional practices live on: Hand-harvesting and traditional foot-crushing are still widely practiced by the best producers.
Vintage port is considered the rarest and finest of all ports. It is selected from a single exceptional year — only three years on average in a decade are declared “vintage” years by the industry body, Instituto do Vinho do Porto. Vintage port is typically aged 2 years before release, then cellared 15 years or more before it’s ready to drink.
The other classic style is tawny port, aged 10 to 40 years in wooden vats or casks and bottled when ready to drink. The creation of aged tawnies requires incredible blending skills and a great deal of patience on the part of the winemaker. David Guimaraens, head winemaker for Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft, is a sixth-generation family member of the Fonseca clan who described it best.
“The fact that we lose about 3% a year in ‘the angels’ share’ [what port winemakers call the wine's natural evaporation] means that having one bottle of 20-year-old to sell in 20 years’ time requires two now. There is simply no shortcut. It takes 20 years to make a 20-year-old tawny,” Guimaraens said.
So port may seem pricey at first, but when you consider the effort that goes into making it, you may think of it as a bargain. The small harvest of 2011 declared vintage port is just hitting shelves now and availability is not expected to last long. So if you want to get your Christmas shopping done really early, pick up a bottle of 2011 vintage today. It will make a killer hostess gift for another port tasting party in 2028.
Tasting party gear
In anticipation of my party, I asked everyone to bring one bottle and I stocked the table with an assortment of aged tawnies and a few newly released 2011 vintage ports from Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft, all venerable producers of the best classic port. We were lucky that one guest shared a bottle of 2007 Quinta do Vesuvio, the last time a vintage was declared in this decade. We started with interesting vertical tastings of each style and progressed across the horizontal range from aged tawnies to new vintage. No matter what styles you try, have a few things at hand:
- Tasting Notes Form — De Long Wine Company offers a great one free to download
- 3 stemware per person — white wine glasses work perfectly fine
- Wine aroma wheel — might help the tongued-tied with classic flavor descriptions
- Something to munch on — nuts or cheese
- Designated driver
Top photo: An assortment of port wines for a tasting. Credit: Caroline J. Beck