Butcher’s Cake

A slice of butcher's cake with a dollop of crème fraîche and a salad.I’ll mention right off the hop that this concept is from the brain of Emmanuel (Manu) Thériault.  He might have made this when he was at Woodwork, but I’m not sure.  He calls it “Butcher’s Cake”.  He told me about it and I think it’s one of the most brilliant food ideas I’ve heard in a very long time.

Part of the reason I am so enamored with butcher’s cake is because I work in a sandwich shop. When you work in a sandwich shop, you have at least three significant sources of possible waste.  The first is bread.  Bread is a problem ingredient because it has such short shelf life.  It can be difficult to maintain fresh inventory, and some bread invariably gets stale before it can be used.

The other potential sources of waste are meat and cheese ends.  When using a commercial meat slicer, the last inch of a roast or block of cheese is difficult to get through the slicer without putting your fingers at risk.  For some items you might not even want to slice and serve the outermost part.  For a roast or a ham, the very end is often harder, smokier, and generally less succulent that the rest of the meat.

Ham endsThis butcher’s cake is an ingenious and delicious preparation that uses all these waste products.  It is basically a savoury bread pudding studded with little chunks of cured meat and cheese.  I use trim pieces from ham, salami, mortadella, roast beef, even prosciutto and speck.  Of course, if you don’t work in a sandwich shop you can use plain old ham and cheese; there’s no reason it needs to be the trim or waste.

When Emmanuel told me his idea I knew immediately how I could go about making it: by adding chopped meat and cheese to Serviettenknödel, the Austrian bread dumplings discussed here.  I’ve found that a bit of black pepper and chopped herbs like parsley and rosemary are a nice addition.

Butcher’s cake makes a fantastic lunch, especially when served with with a refreshing salad.  I have a sneaking suspicion it would also be good for breakfast (bread, egg, milk, ham, cheese…. sounds like a breakfast pastry to me.)

Thanks, Manu!

 

 

Butcher’s Cake
Concept by Emmanuel Thériault
Recipe by Allan Suddaby

Ingredients

  • 8 whole eggs
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 8 oz unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 2 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 lbs stale bread
  • 1 lb cured meat ends, coarsely chopped
  • 10 oz cheese ends, chopped
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped rosemary
  • 1 tsp coarse ground black pepper

Procedure

  1. Combine the whole eggs, yolks, melted butter, milk, and salt in a large measuring cup.  Whisk thoroughly until eggs are completely incorporated.
  2. Put the bread, meat, cheese, herbs, and pepper in a large mixing bowl.  Pour the milk mixture over the bread.  Mix gently but thoroughly with your hands until all the milk has been absorbed by the bread.
  3. Move the mixture to the fridge for one hour.  This will give the liquid ingredients time to fully soak into the bread.
  4. Butter a large casserole dish.  Lightly press the soaked bread mixture to the casserole.  If you like you can top the bread with more grated cheese and herbs at this time.
  5. Bake in a 350°F oven until the interior is cooked and the exterior is golden brown and crispy, maybe 50-60 minutes.
  6. Let cool slightly before cutting and serving.

Yield: Butcher’s Cake for about 12 people

A casserole of butcher's cake, fresh out of the oven.

 

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The Ten Sandwich Commandments

I’ve been in this game for years, it made me an animal
There’s rules to this shit, I wrote me a manual
A step-by-step booklet for you to get
Your game on track, not your wig pushed back.

-The Notorious B.I.G.[1]

A chicken and waffle sandwich, with roast apple and goat's cheese

 

The Ten Sandwich Commandments

  1. Thou shalt provide interest.
  2. Thou shalt provide textural contrast.
  3. Thou shalt consider the colours of your ingredients.
  4. Thou shalt balance rich sandwiches with fresh, light components.
  5. Thou shalt balance salty meat and cheese with acidity.
  6. Thou shalt cut bread precisely.
  7. Thou shalt spread to the edge.
  8. Thou shalt aggressively season meat, slaws, and salsas to compensate for the muting effect of bread.
  9. Thou shalt apply salt to raw vegetables such as tomatoes and cucumbers.
  10. Thou shalt toast bread that is more than 24 hours old.

 

The Ten Sandwich Commandments, Explained

The first five commandments help us plan delicious, well-balanced sandwiches.

1. Thou shalt provide interest.  Why are we making this particular sandwich?  Or in the case of the Elm kitchen, why would someone want to purchase this particular sandwich?  Some classic sandwiches have interest built right into them: a Monte Cristo, for instance, with its battered exterior.  Other classics need a bit of help.  Smoked ham, aged cheddar, and Dijon will make a good sandwich, though not a particularly interesting one.  One way to fix this: add onion marmalade and baked rosemary apples to the mix.  This changes the classic ham and cheese from a plain salty/savoury offering to a sweet and savoury one.  I find that interesting.

You can push the concept of interest much further, into the genuinely creative.  My favourite example is an idea by Chael MacDonald that I helped execute a few years ago, the Half and Half Pizza Sub.  When ordering pizza for groups you are often forced to request one pie with split toppings: maybe one half pepperoni, and the other Hawaiian.  Chael translated this to a pizza sub.  The entire sandwich has marinara, aïoli, mozzarella, and basil, but one half has pepperoni and mushroom, the other ham and pineapple.  This is just one of the funniest things I’ve ever come across in cooking.  We still do this sandwich occasionally at Elm.

Interest is often about more that just the physical make-up of a sandwich.  How you describe and present the sandwich to customers is important.  Egg salad, for instance, is the least sexy sandwich in the western world, invoking images of a wet, pallid, garbure of hard-boiled eggs and mayonnaise.  However, if you add bacon and call it a “Bacon and Egg Salad Sandwich” you will instead conjure hearty plates of bacon and eggs in the customer’s mind.  Much more appetizing.

One day last year we made a sandwich out of whitefish, caper aïoli, and pickles.  It was delicious, but hardly sold at all.  Our clever friend Chris Tomkee suggested adding potato chips and calling it a “Fish and Chips” sandwich.  Same sandwich (only with potato chips), different name.  The next day we sold out.

In the end, the First Sandwich Commandment is about being thoughtful, creative, and intentional in the sandwiches we choose to make.

2.  Thou shalt provide textural contrast.  Some examples:

Roast Eggplant.  Picture a sandwich on fresh bread with goat’s cheese, herbs, lemon aïoli, and roasted eggplant and bell peppers.  These flavours work extremely well together, but the components are all soft, and you end up with what we call a “squish sandwich”.  We need textural support.  Fresh cucumber is a great, cool, crunchy textural contrast to roasted eggplant.

BLT.  Bacon strips have a much firmer, crispier texture than cold cuts like ham and turkey.  The salty/smoky flavour of bacon punches above its weight, so you don’t typically use as much on a sandwich as you would with a milder meat like roast beef.  This means that a bacon sandwich has the potential to seem paltry.  We need a contrasting vegetable that will add some moisture and bulk, one that will soften the overal texture.  In fact, you need a bit of the “squish” we were trying to balance out in the roast eggplant sandwich above.  Enter the tomato.

Grilled Cheese.  The interplay of textures is not limited to the inside of a sandwich: the bread itself is an important element.  The textural contrast in a grilled cheese, for instance, is between the crispy bread and the creamy melted cheese.

3.  Thou shalt consider the colours of your ingredients.  We strive for interest, contrast, and balance in all aspects of our cooking, and this applies to the visual as well as the gastronomical.  We put arugula, spinach, lettuce, sprouts, or “green” in one form or another on basically every sandwich.  We showcase the vibrancy of vegetables like red bell peppers and purple cabbage and roasted pineapple by putting them next to the muted tones of nappa cabbage and shaved fennel.

Example: We once made a sandwich with roast sweet potato, chili mayo, sour cream, jack cheese, tomato, and crispy tortilla strips.  After some reflection we realized that all these components are in the yellow/orange/red/pink end of the colour spectrum, so we added black beans, driving home the “southwest” theme and adding an eye-catching colour contrast.

4.  Thou shalt balance rich sandwiches with fresh, light components.

Reuben-esque.  Our spin on the Reuben contains the classic corned beef, swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing, but since these components are all salted, cured, or otherwise “rich”, we add fresh cucumber and alfalfa sprouts.  These components actually help us comply with Commandments 1 through 4.

Schnit-wich.  We were keen to make a schnitzel sandwich featuring a breaded, fried pork cutlet.  “Starch-on-starch” preparations always run the risk of being stodgy.  (Starch-on-starch is putting a starchy component like potatoes or breaded fried schnitzel on bread.)  It is absolutely essential to balance the starches with fresh components.  We’ve done the schnit-wich a few different ways, but our favourite is with a fresh, bright tomato salad with red onion and herbs piled on top of the schnitzel.

5.  Thou shalt balance salty meat and cheese with acidity.  This is one of the most basic concepts of flavour dynamics.  Salty meat and cheese can be cloying, but acidity balances the flavours and refreshes the palate.  Almost all of our sandwiches contain vinegar, citrus, or perhaps a sour fermented condiment like ‘kraut or kimchi.  There are countless classic examples of this balancing act, from the mustard and dill pickle accompanying a Montreal smoked meat sandwich, to the tangy bbq sauce and sharp slaw on a Carolina pulled pork sandwich.  One of my favourite examples is the Elm take on a Monte Cristo.  To the classic components (ham, turkey, swiss, and egg batter) we add rhubarb compote, sour cream, and chive.

Fresh herbs and raw allium like red onion and chive also have the ability to cut richness to a certain extent.

The last five commandments deal with how we execute our well-designed sandwich.

6.  Thou shalt cut bread precisely.  This means cutting straight and level.  It means cutting just below the mid-line so that the top half of the bread is a bit taller than the bottom half.  It means intentionally leaving a hinge, or intentionally not leaving a hinge.  It means cutting hinged sandwiches so they lay flat on the workbench.

Commandments Seven, Eight, and Nine, have to do with “carrying the flavour.” 

7.  Thou shalt spread to the edge.  Right, right, right to the edge on every single piece of bread, without exception.  You should not be able to see the bread underneath.  We want to maximize the flavour delivered in each and every bite.

As a sub-commandment concerning spreads (let’s call it Commandment 7a): ricotta, cream cheese, chèvre, and other spreadable cheeses should be applied thicker than mayonnaise.

8.  Thou shalt aggressively season meat, salsas, and slaws to compensate for the muting effect of bread.  Though containing salt itself, bread tends to mute the flavours of the components within the sandwich.  To compensate, our ingredients need to be punchy; more punchy than if they were being served on a plate without bread.  We therefore apply salt, acidity, and sweetness aggressively.

It’s surprising how often it happens: we have a combination of ingredients that sounds absolutely delicious; we make the sandwich, we taste the sandwich, and it falls flat.  We go back and essentially over-season the components.  Re-taste, and we have a winner.

Example: Prosciutto & Melon.  The idea was to make a sandwich with speck (smoked prosciutto), canteloupe, shaved fennel, and lemon aïoli.  We had to add a good hit of honey and white wine vinegar to get the canteloupe to shine through.  I call this fortifying the natural flavours of the ingredients.

9.  Thou shalt apply salt to raw vegetables such as tomatoes and cucumbers.  This is a good practice in all branches of cooking.  You should, for instance, not just season your steak, but also the green salad that accompanies it.  The salting of raw vegetables is especially important in sandwich-making.  As explained in the Eighth Commandment, we needs to make sure we use lots of salt to carry the flavours through the bread.

10.  Thou shalt toast bread that is more than 24 hours old.  A cold sandwich on fresh bread is a beautiful thing, but if the bread was baked yesterday, it absolutely needs to be toasted, even if the sandwich components will all be added and served cold.  Toasting refreshes the bread.  Do not over-toast.  The exterior should be lightly crisp, but the interior should still have plenty of give.

In the immortal words of hockey legend Don Cherry: toasted tastes better.

11. Never get high on your own supply.

 

Footnotes

  1. Notorious B.I.G. was murdered twenty years ago today.  The idea for The Ten Sandwich Commandments came from listening to Biggie’s song The Ten Crack Commandments while telling a new hire to “Spread to the edge.”
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In Defense of Deep-Frying

On March 1, 2017 I’m teaching a class for Metro Continuing Education called Deep-Frying Without a Deep-Fryer. Course details are available here.  I thought I’d re-post this old article, a vehement defense of this most venerable technique.  Originally published March 23, 2014.

 

Deep-fryer haters gonna hate.Yesterday I was walking on Whyte Avenue and I saw a sign that upset me.  It was outside The Pourhouse, a tavern with a clever name and a broad selection of beer and food.  The poster read “No Deep Fryer on Premises.”

I perfectly understand the intentions of this advertisement.  I have been to bars where the food is clearly manufactured off-site, purchased frozen, plopped into a deep fryer, and garnished with green onions or bottled plum sauce or nothing.  If you don’t quite understand what I’m talking about, go to Rosie’s at 11 pm and order something.  Bathe in the neon lights and try to enjoy the plate of perogies or spring rolls or green onion cakes or whatever you ordered.  Then you will know the horrors of which I speak.  Anyways.  The implication of the Pourhouse ad is that they prepare thoughtful, fresh, delicious food.  I get it.

In fact, I have more reason than most to hate deep-frying.  Early in my cooking career I worked at Dadeo, the Whyte Avenue Cajun diner.  It was an oddly segregated kitchen: there was a prep team of kindly Chinese-Vietnamese ladies, and a line-team of white kids.  The first station for new line-cooks to learn was the deep fryer, and you would be hard-pressed to find a restaurant in Edmonton that puts more food through a deep fryer than Dadeo.  The fryer itself is roughly the size of a bath tub, partitioned into three compartments.  Approximately half the menu goes through this machine: of course there are the famous sweet potato fries, but also the several breaded seafood items for the po’ boys and jambalaya plates, as well as fritters, spring rolls (“Cajun cigars…”), fried chicken, calamari, breaded eggplant, and crabcakes.  Oh, and Sunday nights are wing nights.  Even though that deep fryer holds about 50 L of canola oil, it is usually the bottleneck that ever-so-slightly slows the break-neck service at Dadeo.  Anyways.  I spent a couple months working the fryer at Dadeo.  The inexpungeable stench of dirty oil in my clothes and the second degree burns on my hands notwithstanding, I still love fried food.

The Pourhouse sign is not the first time I’ve encountered the pretentious scorn of culinary types who look down their noses at deep-frying.  Hatred of fried food confuses me a great deal, as I’ve always considered it a delicacy.  Not many folks fry at home anymore, I think because of the misconception that you need a “deep-fryer” to deep fry food.  Really you need a stove, a pot, and a jug of oil.  A thermometer is also useful, but by no means necessary.

Fried food is outdoor food.  Finger food.  Carnival food.  Seriously: what is more magical than going to a fair and seeing those little rivers of hot oil carrying mini doughnuts to their sugary terminus?  In Europe many fried treats are associated with the revelry preceding Lent.  The Krapfen of Austrian and Bavaria, for instance, or the fritoles of Venice.  Street food.  Festive food.

Fried food is the singular joy of eating out with friends and family.  Every single time I ate French fries before the age of sixteen, I was at a restaurant with friends and family.  I never once ate them at home.

Fried food is comfort food.  What is more satisfying after a walk in the winter cold than a big, breaded, fried schnitzel?  (Every Austrian I’ve ever met has acknowledged that schnitzel is traditionally pan-fried, “swimming” in oil, but then, a few minutes later, they all concede that modern schnitzel is best deep-fried.)

If you still aren’t convinced that deep-frying deserves your respect, you should read the section of Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste called Theory of Frying.  No clearer, more succinct, playful description of a cooking technique has ever been written.  Especially charming is his description of the “surprise”: the moment the food is dunked in the oil, and the immediate, vigorous bubbling that takes place after.

So you can see that I have several pleasant associations with deep-frying.  So much so that before I got angry with the Pourhouse sign, I got a little sad.  No deep fryer?  Oh.  So you don’t have French fries?  At a bar?  So no fish and chips?  And no poutine?  Oh: you do have poutine, but it’s made with roasted potatoes?  (Poutine made with roasted potatoes is where I transitioned from sad to angry.)

Below are apple fritters that I made last fall.  Apples grown within the Edmonton city limits, peeled, cored, and sliced into rings.  I made a yeasted batter with eggs, flour, sugar, and a bit of cider from last season.  The apple rounds where dredged, fried, dusted with icing sugar, and served with heavy cream.  I consumed the fritters outdoors, during the intermission between rounds of pressing cider.

I hope that this example demonstrates that deep-fried food can be thoughtful.  When made with care, deep-fried snacks are some of the most profoundly satisfying foods we have.

Apple fritters with whipped cream

 

More on Fried Food:

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Burns Supper

Originally published January 25, 2011.

 

If you’re not already acquainted, let me introduce you to the proud institution that is the Burns Supper.

A portrait of Robert BurnsRobert Burns was born on January 25, 1759, in Ayr, Scotland. He grew up on farmland leased by his parents, and wrote several poems and songs about that rustic life, hence his famous epithet, “the ploughman poet.” His first book of poetry, published in 1786, was an explosive success, and he was quickly accepted into Edinburgh society, becoming a Freemason and working as a tax collector.

His poetry was written in an old Scottish dialect, one that modern English readers find more difficult to understand than Shakespeare. Even so, you probably know some of his verses. He wrote lyrics to several Scottish folk melodies, including “Auld Lang Syne” and “My Luve’s like a Red, Red Rose.” The title of John Steinbeck’s short novel “Of Mice and Men” is from a Burns’ poem called “To a Mouse”:

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane (you’re not alone),
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley (often go awry).

Newer editions of his poetry are thoroughly footnoted to guide the modern reader. Burns was a forerunner of the romantic movement, and his poetry is a very enjoyable read, especially if you read it aloud in a hack Scottish accent, as I do.

Burns died in 1796. In 1801, his friends held the first Burns Supper, in Greenock. I don’t know much about that first celebration, but the modern Burns Supper is an elaborate ritual. Dinners start with grace, usually the Selkirk Grace:

Some hae meat an’ canna eat,
An’ some wad eat that want it.
But we hae meat, an’ we can eat,
Sae let the Lord bethankit.

After the preliminary courses, a plattered haggis is piped into the dining room and set at the head of the table. (You can read about how we make the haggis here.)  A Burns poem called “Address to a Haggis” is read. Part of the poem describes a man wiping a knife, and plunging it into a haggis, and the reader usually does these actions in tandem with the poem. After the address the guests drink a toast of scotch whisky to the haggis. The haggis is usually eaten with mashed turnips and potatoes (“neeps and tatties”), which together are called clapshot.

After the main courses, a speaker delivers the Immortal Memory, a reflection on the life and work of Robert Burns. Later, there is another speech called The Toast to the Lassies. This was originally designed to thank the women who had prepared the meal, but today usually features the speaker’s view of women, generally. It is followed by the Reply to the Toast to the Lassies, these days usually a woman giving her views on men.

Burns Suppers were once very common in Canada, especially down east. In the late 1700s Canada received thousands of Scottish settlers, many of whom became notable fur traders and merchants. Notable Canadians of Scottish birth include Sir John MacDonald, Alexander Graham Bell, and Donald Smith, better known in these parts as Lord Strathcona. Scottish immigrants established St. Andrew’s Societies as a way of preserving their traditions, and the annual Burns Supper was often the largest and most raucous event of the year.

Button Soup Burns Suppers

While my sister was studying in Edinburgh, I took a renewed interest in my Scottish heritage. (“Suddabys,” by the way, are originally from Yorkshire, but our other ancestral family names include “MacMillan” and “Airth.”)  My sister brought me a fantastic book called The Scots Kitchen by F. Marian McNeill, which has given me a respect for Scots cuisine. When I first read about Burns Suppers, I resolved to start hosting them myself.  The first supper was held in 2011.

Here is some footage from the 2012 supper, graciously filmed by Kevin Kossowan.

The program from that night:

Burns Supper 2012

Bill of Fare

Welcome

Grace

Barley-Broth: lamb and barley soup
A Scots Rabbit: hot cheese on toast

Address to a Haggis
Haggis: a gallimaufray of offal
Clapshot: neeps and tatties

Tunes for a Burns Night

Rich Eating Posset: curdled sweet cream
Shortbread

Closing

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Merridale Cider

A couple years ago I visited Merridale Estate Cidery in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island.  With so many folks around Edmonton making cider, and many of them looking for the fastest, most efficient way to produce a year’s supply, I thought I’d post some details from a commercial operation.

The apples at Merridale are all old-world cider varieties, basically inedible out of hand, and absolutely nothing like North American grocery store apples.  They have names like Dabinett, Chisel Jersey, and Hauxapfel.  The varietals are categorized as either sharp, bitter, bitter sharp, or bittersweet.  Here “sharp” refers to acidity and “bitter” refers to tannin and astringency like you find in red wine, tea, and walnut skin, not true bitter flavour like you find in dandelion, radicchio, and hops.

A good cider is a balance of alcohol, acidity, tannin, and possibly sugar.  The exact balance changes with regional styles.  Traditional English ciders are usually bone dry and get their structure from acidity and alcohol.  Sea Cider’s Wild English is a great example (though it’s Canadian). French ciders can go this way, but there is a certain French breed that is sweet, with very little acidity, getting its structure more from tannin.  Cidre Kinkiz is one example of this style that is available here in Edmonton.  I really hate that cider.  Anyways.  All Merridale ciders are a blend of multiple apple varietals.

I was surprised to see the trees in the orchard.  I assumed that a commercial orchard would take pruning very seriously, as it gets more sunlight to the leaves and increases fruit quality and ease of picking.  The trees at Merridale have nice lateral growth but are not as manicured as I had imagined.  Not sure if it’s just too much work to prune such a large orchard, or these tree shapes give the most yield, or what.

A view of the apple orchard and a small beekeeping set-up.

In the fall the apples are harvested and washed before crushing.

This is the”1960s Bucher Mill” crusher.  The apples are loaded into the basin shown at right, under the red frame.  An auger or conveyor carries them up the ramp to the left, where they are dropped into the crusher.

The crusher at Merridale Cider.

Here’s a view of the crushing mechanism.

The actual crushing mechanism at Merridale Cider.

This is the press.  It’s an accordion-type structure supporting plastic sheets.  At each end is a hydraulic pump that pushes the accordion closed and brings the plastic sheets close together.  The apple mash is put into porous bags, and each bag is inserted between the plastic plates.  The juice falls into a trough beneath the accordion.The cider press at Merridale Estate Cidery

 

A close-up shot of the pressing plates on the cider press at Merridale Estate Cidery.

The juice from the first press is used for cider.  Juice from subsequent pressing is high in tannin and acid and reserved for distilling.  At Merridale 7 kgs of fresh apples can yield 4 L of juice.

Some of the cider at Merridale is chaptalized, notably for their Scrumpy, which is 11% ABV.  The natural sugar in their apples would only yield about 7% ABV.

Here are some of their fermentation tanks.

A large fermentation tank at Merridale Cider.

The finished cider is filtered at 1 micron using this contraption.  Merridale says that this filtration clears the cider of sediment without stripping the beverage of its fresh apple character.

The filter at Merridale Estate Cidery

Merridale cider is not pasteurized and is still very much alive when bottled.[1]  They use plastic bottles instead of glass (less explosion risk), and the bottles absolutely need to be kept refrigerated throughout distribution to prevent any undesired fermentation.  Bottling is done with a “1960 German champagne filler”.  I wish I had asked more about that machine.  CO2 is added at bottling.

Incredibly, I took no photos of their packaged product to show you, but you can check our their website.

It’s hard to find a truly dry cider (most are sweet, because, you know, only girls drink cider, and girls have to drink sweet things).  The Merridale Traditional and Scrumpy ciders are great, and quite dry.  They also make sweet varieties and even some pink ones containing berries.

Kevin made a video about Merridale, which is how we even knew to visit them in the first place.  We actually stayed at the estate for two nights in one of their yurts.  It was great to get a look inside an operation that produces craft cider and spirits.

 

Footnote

  1. I see on the Merridale website now that some of their ciders are indeed pasteurized, or available in both pasteurized and unpasteurized formats, so either they have changed their process, or maybe I misunderstood my tour guide.
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The Physiology of Taste by Brillat-Savarin

The title page of Brillat-Savarin's The Physiology of TasteOften cited as the most influential food book ever published in the western world, The Physiology of Taste was written by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.  Born in 1755 in Belley, France, “B-S”[1] grew up to become first a lawyer and then a judge in provincial France during, well, a fairly tumultuous time in European history.  The details of his life are fascinating.  My copy of TPT includes a brief biography containing lines like “crossed swords with Robespierre” and “incurred the displeasure of Napoleon”.  While he did live in exile in America for a short while, B-S managed to keep his head and most of his property throughout the Revolution and the Napoleonic years.  It was in the last years of his life that he wrote his most lasting work, The Physiology of Taste.

Even if you’ve never heard of B-S or this book, you’ve almost certainly heard some of the lines contained within.  Some have become proverbs.  He wrote, for instance, “You are what you eat.” (Okay, he wasn’t quite that succinct.  His aphorism is usually translated, “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.”  He also recognized that, “The destiny of nations depends on how they feed themselves.”  This line is often quoted by modern real-food crusaders like Michael Pollan.

One particularly hilarious quote that I’ve heard quoted multiple times: “A dinner which ends without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.”

Several of his one-liners are peppered throughout the work of nerdy food educators like Alton Brown (and me):

“We can learn to be cooks, but we must be born knowing how to roast.”

“Turkey is truly the finest gift that the New World gave to the Old.”

These quotes hopefully illustrate that despite its intimidating, scientific-treatise-sounding title, The Physiology of Taste contains all manner of quips, jokes, anecdotes, and practical advice.  It is a glimpse into classical French cuisine in all its decadence, including truffled turkey and Sauternes and foie gras, as well as a compendium of sound information on classic techniques like deep-frying.  It is a rich and deeply gratifying read, but I think what is most important, and what makes it so timeless, is Brillat-Savarin’s Doctrine of Gastronomy, which is very simple, but profound.

Allow me to paraphrase.

God wants us to eat.  To facilitate this process, He first stimulates us with Appetite, and then rewards us with Pleasure.  In eating and sating your hunger you are doing what you have been designed to do.  The point here is the connection between food and pleasure, and the idea that you needn’t feel shame in that pleasure, because the pleasure is an intrinsic part of the equation.

Immediately after hearing this many folks react with disgust and incredulity: “If all we did was sate our appetites we’d eat fat and sugar and alcohol all day and we’d all die early deaths!”

The second tenant of gastronomy is that all things must be taken in Moderation. Though promoting the pleasures of the table, Brillat-Savarin abhorred gluttony and drunkenness.  His ability to frankly enjoy and even revel in gastronomic pleasure while exercising restraint is the very essence of elegance and civility.

So yes: a hugely influential book.  There is in fact an entire group of writers and eaters that I consider direct intellectual descendants of Brillat-Savarin.  I’d like to discuss them each in turn, but the two main ones are MFK Fisher (who actually translated my edition of TPT from French to English…) and Jeffrey Steingarten, probably my favourite living food writer.

I have never met another human being in the flesh who has read B-S or MFK Fisher.  I know they exist but I’ve never met them or at least never talked to them about it.  By which I mean this is an über-nerdy and esoteric topic that I don’t expect many to take an interest in.  Stay tuned for more!

 

#ButtonSoupLibrary might or might not become a series of posts about my favourite books on food, including but not limited to conventional cookbooks.

 

  1. Unfortunate initials, I know.
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Chives

Originally published March 30, 2015.  Updated today with information on harvesting chive seeds.

 

Chives emerging in early spring.Chives are prized for their pure allium flavour, blessedly devoid of the harsh burn of raw onion.

Here are some other awesome things about chives.

They are hearty perennials, which means they re-appear every spring and require very little attention.  In fact, they grow as weeds in many parts of Edmonton, including downtown parking lots.  I don’t mean that you should harvest chives from downtown parking lots; I just offer that as evidence of their gumption.

They are one of the first edibles to appear in spring.  This year the spring thaw came early, and my chives were a few inches tall by the end of March.  It was seeing this enterprising green growth that inspired me to write this post.

Chive blossomsTheir flowers are both beautiful and delicious. Most flowers with that light purple colour, like lilacs and violas, have very little flavour and are nowhere near as versatile as chive blossoms.

My chives usually bloom in June.  The tiny, bell-shaped flowers are easy to harvest because they grow on round umbels.  Just pick the entire flower head from the stalk, pinch the hub where all the stems meet, and you can remove all the blossoms in one motion. They are much more robust than most culinary flowers and can be kept in the fridge for days.  The green stalks that hold the flower heads are woody and should be reserved for stock.

They can be super-fly elegant.  When cut properly chives are like happy green confetti.

How to cut chives for fine dining applications: a photo essay.

Harvest the chives by cutting the stalks close to the ground with sharp scissors.  Gently bundle the stalks together and lay them on a cutting board.

Whole chive stalksCut the bundle in half.

Chive stalks cut in half

Flip one half onto the other so that the cut ends are all on the same side.  Use the side of your knife to line up all of the cut ends.

Chive stalks with cut ends flush

Cut the chives so that their length exactly equals their diameter.

Chopped chives: happy green confetti

That’s just a fancy technique to keep in your back pocket.  Chives don’t need to be precious.

Chives are usually added to dishes fresh, shortly before consumption, as lengthy cooking destroys their delicate flavour.  They are extremely versatile.  I like them best on eggs, potatoes, and marinated vegetables.

A bowl of potato salad, with lots of chives

 

Chives are borderline invasive because after the flowers mature and dry they each release dozens of little black seeds.  These are edible, delicious, and easily harvested.  Simply pick the dried flowers and shake out the seeds into a jar or paper bag.  They have the same onion flavour as the stems, and a bit of a chewy texture.

Dried chive flower heads with seeds

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Boning Out Rabbit

In my experience rabbit is usually hatcheted into quarters and saddle, as described (and lamented) in this post.

One year Lisa and I were in Piedmont in northwestern Italy in September, and it seemed that every restaurant was serving rabbit, and all of them had boned-out the entire animal, then rolled it into a cylinder and braised it, usually in Nebbiolo wine.  It’s a beautiful, thoughtful way to prepare the animal.  At first it didn’t make sense to me: I was hung up on theoretics, asking ridiculous questions like, “Won’t the tiny, slender loin get over-cooked before he belly tenderizes?”  This might be true of pork, but I can tell you from empirical study that it is not an issue with rabbit.

So: To Bone a Rabbit.

Make an incision along the breast bone.  Remove the flesh from the breast by following the rib cage from the breastbone to the underside of the foreleg.  Bend the foreleg up as you go.

Boning rabbit: removing meat from the breast

Continue to remove the meat from the rib cage, moving down the rabbit, folding the meat up and away from you.  Once you have removed the meat form the last rib you will then be at the belly flap.  Fold this up and away from you as well.

Bend the hind leg up and away from you.  Snap and cut through the joint where the thigh and hip meet.

boning_rabbit_3.JPG

Carefully remove the loin from the backbone.  At this point you have removed half of all the meat from the main body.

Flip the rabbit and repeat all these steps to the other side.  The meat should only be connected to the skeleton in one place, a line along the top of the rabbit’s backbone.

boning_rabbit_4.JPG

Remove the last connections at the top of the spine.  At this point you have a relatively uniform sheet of meat, but the fore- and hind-legs still contain bones.

boning_rabbit_5.JPG

There’s no trick to removing these bones: make small cuts following the bones as closely as possible.

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You now have an entire rabbit sans bones.  Season assertively with salt, pepper, and herbs.  You can roll the entire thing into one large spiral, or your can roll each side in towards the centre to achieve a double-scroll, with the two loins protected in by the centre of each roll.

Braise this little bundle in red wine.  The meat will be tender in only a couple hours.

braised_rabbit.JPG

Braised rabbit with polenta, eggplant, and bell pepper.

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Shortbread

Originally published December 1, 2013.

The triumph of Scottish baking on the old national lines.

-TF Henderson

 

Little shortbread cookiesShortbread is the primordial cookie.  It has only three ingredients: sugar, butter, and flour.  And I guess salt is a welcome addition.  Sometimes there’s caraway.  And there are a few variations like Ayrshire shortbread that include eggs and cream.  But usually it’s just sugar, butter, and flour, combined in a very simple ratio: 1:2:3.

In other words, butter makes up fully one third of the weight of the dough, so this is indeed a very short dough, “short” referring to fat’s ability to inhibit gluten development, creating a tender, brittle pastry.  Some classic recipes will even replace a portion of the wheat flour with rice flour or arrowroot starch, which is even lower in gluten.

The other important characteristic of classic shortbread is that the only moisture in the dough comes from the scant water-content of the butter.  In fact there is so little water that not all the starch in the flour will be able to absorb moisture and gelate, which explains shortbread’s crumbly texture.

Being a dry dough that doesn’t spread during baking, shortbread is particularly well-suited to being shaped before baking.  Dough made with fine sugar like caster or berry sugar spreads less during baking than that made with coarse sugar.

Traditional Shapes.  Shortbread dough has to be warmer than fridge temperature to be workable.  I typically leave it on the counter for an hour before rolling.  There are several traditional forms.

  • Shortbread is often pressed into molds.  Traditional images include all manner of Scots paraphernalia: thistles, heather, clover (“trefoil”)…
  • Long rectangles called fingers are common.
  • The most common shapes are round discs, usually notches along the perimeter with thumb and forefinger, or with the tines of a fork.  This is said to mimmic the sun’s rays, especially on Hogmanay, the Scots New Year.  The shortbread rounds can be sized for individual consumption, or made larger, and cut into wedges much like a pie, in which case the cookie is called petticoat tails.[1] See the picture below.
  • Shortbread doughs of all shapes are often “docked,” that is, perforated with the tines of a fork.

Baking

After shaping the cookies it’s best to hold them at fridge temperatures for at least fifteen minutes.  The colder the cookies are when they go into the oven, the better they will hold their shape during baking.

Different folks have different tastes, but generally baking is done so as not to brown the cookies too much.  For thinner, individual cookies I use a relatively high temperature, maybe 375°F.  For thicker version like petticoat tails I bake at 325°F to give the dough a chance to cook through before the exterior turns golden brown.

Other Traditions

Like haggis, shortbread is very much a festive dish, associated particularly with Christmas and Hogmanay.  In Shetland shortbread is part of a traditional wedding, where it’s called the bride’s bonn and is used in a “throwing of the girdle” type game.[2]

Petticoat Tails

 

Shortbread

Ingredients

  • 8 oz caster sugar (granulated works okay in a pinch…)
  • 16 oz butter, room temperature
  • 22 oz all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 1 tbsp kosher salt

Procedure

  1. Using the paddle attachment, cream together the sugar, butter, and salt at high speed in the bowl of a stand mixer.  The mixture will lighten in colour and take on a light, fluffy aspect.  This should take about 6 minutes.  Be sure to periodically scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  2. Reduce the speed of the mixer to low and add the sifted flour.
  3. Transfer the crumbly dough to the counter and press it together with your hands.  At this point the dough can be wrapped and refrigerated or frozen.  It will last for a couple weeks in the fridge.
  4. Remove the dough from the fridge about an hour before you intend to roll it out.  It can be a little tricky getting the dough to the perfect temperature, at which it is just workable.  If the dough gets too warm it is hard to work with and doesn’t shape well.
  5. Roll out the dough and shape as desired.  Transfer cookies to a heavy bake sheet and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  6. For thin, individual cookies, bake at 375°F until just turning golden brown, maybe 12 minutes, rotating the tray half way through baking.  For thicker styles like petticoat tails, bake at 325°F until just turning golden brown, maybe 16 minutes.

 

Dark Shortbread

Many would not consider the following cookie a shortbread, as shortbread is usually virginal white, but before refined white flour and sugar were common, shortbread often contained oats, whole wheat flour, and other “less refined” ingredients.  This is an original recipe I adapted from the shortbread recipe in the Culinary Institute of America’s Baking and Pastry, Second Edition.

Ingredients

  • 8 oz cake flour
  • 8 oz whole wheat flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 11 oz butter
  • 5 oz white sugar
  • 8 oz brown sugar

Procedure

  1. As for classic shortbread, above.

 

Notes and References

  1. Being a young man in the twenty-first century, I had to look up what a “petticoat” is.  Though apparently an archaic garment associated with European court fashion, a Google image search turned up some very racy pictures which did a good job of explaining the term to me.  A petticoat is an undergarment, usually in the form of a ruffled, voluminous skirt, worn under a gown or dress, meant to keep the woman warm and give body and shape to the gown or dress worn over top.  The bottom of the petticoat is usually exposed.  Along with corsets, it is also part of a classic cabaret get-up.
  2. McNeill, F. Marian.  The Scots Kitchen.  ©2010 The Estate of F. Marian McNeill.  Birlinn Ltd, Edinburgh, Scotland.  Page 242.  This is also where I learned about the different recipes and shapes, like Ayrshire shortbread and petticoat tails.  I love this book.  Thank you, Lizzie!

 

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Sticky Toffee Pudding

Originally posted December 19, 2013.

 

A bowl of deglet noor datesI’ll start by saying that this isn’t a pudding in the North American sense: it’s not a spoonable custard like, say, butterscotch pudding.  Sticky toffee pudding is a cake with dates in the batter, covered in butterscotch sauce.  In Britain the word “pudding” refers to dessert, generally, or to specific preparations that usually take the form of a moist cake.  Figgy pudding and bread pudding are two examples.  This is a good article for more info on British puddings.

Anglophiles will excuse me if I refer to sticky toffee pudding as a cake for the remainder of this post.

Sticky toffee pudding is actually a great cake that is nearly fail-proof.  Between the dates and the high ratio of liquid in the batter, it’s impossible for the cake to be anything but moist.

Though the toffee is on the marquee, the dates give the cake a lot of its character.  Happily, Lisa and I receive a large shipment of dried fruit and nuts from a BC distributor around this time of year, just in time for Christmas, when we go a little crazy with baking and confectionary.  The hazelnuts go into fruitcake, the prunes, cranberries, and walnuts into sugar plums and crackers, and the dates into sticky toffee pudding.

The two most common types of dates are medjool and deglet noor.  In my experience medjool are larger, softer, and taste more like brown sugar, while deglet are smaller, firmer, and taste more like honey.  I prefer the darker flavour and jammy texture of medjool dates for sticky toffee pudding.

Originally sticky toffee pudding was steamed, but the batter is so slack you can bake it in a dry oven like any other cake and still produce an exceptionally moist dessert.

The toffee sauce is made from butter, brown sugar, and heavy cream, making it almost identical to butterscotch sauce.  In most recipes all the sauce ingredients are simply combined and simmered.  I think it’s best to make a true butterscotch sauce by withholding the cream at first and aggressively cooking the butter and sugar to develop complexity of flavour.

It’s a good idea to coat the cake with a bit of the sauce for the last few minutes of baking.  It creates an amazing, tacky coating.  Even better, fully bake the cake, remove it from the oven and cool to room temperature, then portion it into squares in the baking tray and pour warm toffee sauce over the tops and into the crevices.  Then return to the oven for 5 minutes.  Then pour more sauce over each piece just before serving.  Maximum stickiness.

Originally served with cold cream.  I like ice cream.

Sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream

 

Sticky Toffee Pudding
adapted from a recipe from Jack’s Grill (RIP)

The Cakey Bit

  • 180 g pitted Medjool dates
  • 300 g cold water
  • 4 g baking soda
  • 60 g unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 180 g dark brown sugar
  • 100 g egg (2 large eggs)
  • 4 g vanilla extract
  • 180 g all-purpose flour
  • 6 g baking powder
  • 1 pinch kosher salt

The Saucey Bit

  1. Cover the dates with the cold water in a saucepan.  Bring to a simmer, then remove from heat and stir in the baking soda.  The mixture will foam up briefly as the alkaline soda interacts with the acidic dates.  Let stand until cooled to room temperature.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl every 2 minutes.
  3. Slowly add the date mixture to the creamed butter while mixing.  Mix until thoroughly combined.
  4. Add the eggs one at a time while mixing.  Add the vanilla, too.
  5. Sift together the flour and baking powder.  Add to the mixing bowl and mix until just combined.
  6. Bake the cake in a casserole in a 350ºF oven until a toothpick inserted in the centre of the cake emerges clean, roughly 30 minutes.
  7. Remove the cake from the oven.  Let cool then cut cut the cake into squares.

 

To Serve

  1. Heat the butterscotch, then pour it over the cut cake.  Return cake to the oven and bake briefly to let the sauce set, about 5 minutes.
  2. To serve, remove individual squares and coat with even more sauce.  Consume with vanilla ice cream.
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