Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Kitchen Notes: Wheat Flour

There are several kinds of wheat flour available for sale with the most popular being enriched and bleached all-purpose flour. The differences between the flours comes down to the type of wheat, the parts of wheat included, the processing of the wheat, and any additives added to the flour. In this article, I'll examine each of these characteristics:

Protein content
A certain type of protein called gluten (glutenin) is responsible for wheat flour's elastic properties. The more gluten in a flour makes it easier for the flour to build up a tough structure able to trap the waste gases of yeast during kneading as well as rise effectively during baking. Less gluten in a flour produces a lighter, less chewier texture such as those found in cakes. The exact amount of gluten in your flour depends on where it was milled and the variations in growth of the wheat crop.

The main wheat varieties grown in the United States are, in order of quantity grown and sold, hard red wheat, soft red wheat, durum and white. Hard red wheat is used to produce flour high in gluten content, while soft red wheat is used for flour low in gluten. Durum is milled to produce semolina flour used mainly for macaroni pastas. Semolina flour has the highest gluten content of all mass produced wheat flours. White wheat is produced in smaller quantities in the U.S. and makes low gluten flour.

High gluten flour and bread flour is produced from hard wheat. High gluten flour has a gluten percentage of about 12-14% while bread flour contains about 10-13% gluten. Both flours are almost completely made of hard wheat, but some high gluten flours are treated to reduce starch content, raising the gluten content to around 14%. These flours are generally used for making breads. High gluten flour is reserved for breads that are extra elastic such as bagels and pizza.

Cake flour is produced from soft wheat and is low in gluten content (8-10%). This flour is used for making delicate cakes. Baked goods made with cake flour has a tendency to crumble because of the low gluten content.

All purpose flour is made from a mixture of hard and soft wheats. The gluten content ranges from 9-12%. This is the most versatile flour because it can be used to make both cakes and breads. However, breads won't be as chewy and cakes won't be as tender as if you used bread or cake flour.

Pastry flour is also a mix of hard and soft wheat flours with an emphasis on soft. Generally, the gluten content is 9-10% and is often recommended for pie crusts.

Whole wheat flour contains the germ (the embryo of the wheat kernel) and is more flavorful than regular all-purpose flour which does not include the germ. Because the germ is included, there are more nutrients as well as fiber and fat content in whole wheat flour. However, the flour should be stored in the refrigerator to prevent the germ oils from becoming rancid.

Almost all the flour sold is steel ground meaning a large machine with steel hammers or rollers crushes and grinds the wheat kernels down. This is a very efficient means of producing flour, but the steel surfaces heat up with the high speed and volume of wheat being ground. This heat causes some of the vitamins in steel ground flour to be destroyed during the grinding process.

Alternatively, stone ground flour is produced by the relatively slow grinding of large stones together (with the wheat in the middle). This type of flour is harder to find and almost always leaves the germ intact producing whole wheat flour. There is no heat build up, so all the nutrients stay intact as the four is made.

Bleaching or aging is another process that differentiates flours. Bleached flours produce doughs that are less sticky and rise better than unbleached flours. Bleaching can be accomplished by aging the flour over time (the oxidation of the flour causes the yellow pigments to fade) or through a chemical means (usually using chlorine dioxide and potassium bromade to age the flour). The aging process removes some of the naturally occurring vitamin E present in wheat. The flour ends up uniformly white and has (generally) better baking properties.

The texture of the flour is determined by how much sifting (or bolting) is performed at the mill. The degree of sifting will result in a powdery flour or a coarse flour. Prior to packaging, most flours in the United States are also presifted. Presifted flour can be measured directly from the bag by stirring, measuring with a dry measuring cup, and leveled with a straight edge. Unsifted flour needs to be sifted prior to measuring (by volume). If unsifted flour is measured by weight, it should still be sifted prior to use in a recipe requiring sifted flour (assume all recipes require sifted flour).

Enriched flour contain vitamins and nutrients that have been added to offset the loss from the grinding and aging of flour. Usually, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin and iron are added to flours that do not contain wheat germ. In addition vitamin E is often added to bleached wheat. Some brands will also contain additional vitamin A, C, and D.

Some bread flours will have a little bit of malted barley flour added to help yeast growth. In addition, potassium bromate may be included to lend strength and help the dough maintain the yeast gases.

The addition of baking powder and salt produces self-rising flour or leavened flour. When using self-rising flour, simply omit the baking powder and salt from the recipe (leave in and baking soda a recipe calls for).

Other names?
Outside of the United States, different types of flour may have different names. For example, plain flour is often similar to all purpose flour. However, the regional differences that cause all-purpose flours to vary from U.S. state to state, also cause similar flours from other nations to differ slightly in property from those in the United States.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Recipe File: Tuna Noodle Casserole

Everyone who makes tuna casserole makes it a different way. There are recipes that use egg noodles (like this one), and there are recipes that use potato chips. Some use a can of cream of mushroom, while others user cream of chicken. The recipe that I like to use starts off with a roux and builds up to a rich and creamy filling of noodles, tuna, and aromatic herbs. The final topping of bread crumbs keeps the top of the casserole from drying out while giving it a pleasant tasting crust.

This recipe is one of the few that survived the "Outlook-Palm Purge". I don't know where I got this recipe, but it seems to be a winner because I don't recall ever getting a complaint when I prepare it.

Start by assembling 12 ounces of light tuna packed in spring water, 1/4 cup all purpose flour, 2-1/4 cup whole milk, 4 oz. sliced button mushrooms, 1/2 cup chopped scallions (also called green onions), 1/4 cup chopped celery, 1 teaspoon dried rosemary, and 1 teaspoon dried thyme. I prefer to use light tuna (usually made with yellowfin and skipjack tuna) for it's milder taste and softer texture than albacore. There will be significantly less than 12 ounces of tuna after we drain the water from the fish, so go ahead and drain the tuna at this point.

Get some water boiling when it comes to a boil cook 8 oz. egg noodles according to the directions on the bag. Once the noodles are cooked, remove from the cooking water and rinse with cold water. Set aside.

Melt four tablespoons butter in a saucepan over medium heat.

Add flour to the butter and stir for about two minutes.

The mixture, called a roux, should become smooth and thick during the two minutes.

Add milk slowly to the to the roux while stirring. Continue stirring until the milk thickens. The milk mixture will easily coat the back of your spoon when you dip you spoon in and not flow off quickly when it begins to thicken.

Melt one tablespoon of butter in a skillet.

saute the vegetables until the mushrooms are tender. Then, stir in the rosemary and thyme.

Pour vegetables into the sauce.

Stir until evenly mixed. This is a good time to salt and pepper the sauce. I don't actually measure the amount of salt or pepper that I use for this dish, so I add salt and pepper to taste. Add some salt and pepper, stir, and taste. Repeat as necessary.

Place drained tuna into a large bowl.

Pour noodles and sauce into the bowl and mix until evenly distributed. Pour everything into a greased 8x8 inch baking pan or 1.5 quart casserole.

At this point, you can refrigerate the casserole for up to a couple days without baking it. I cover it with plastic wrap and press the wrap directly onto casserole so no film will form during refrigeration.

When you're ready to serve the casserole, prepare one cup of bread crumbs. I used store bought bread crumbs with herbs in this picture, but I've also used rushed crackers and plain bread crumbs from white bread successfully.

Melt four tablespoons butter in a skillet over medium heat and add the bread crumbs. Stir until the bread crumbs turn a golden brown color.

Sprinkle the bread crumbs over the casserole making sure you cover most of the surface. Any bits of noodle sticking up will dry out and not be tasty, so make sure the noodles are down and covered. Bake at 350°F for thirty minutes (or until the edges begin to bubble).

Cut the casserole after you let it cool for a few minutes.

The casserole is flavorful, but not so complex that you can't taste the individual components. A great hot and hearty dinner for the upcoming autumn and winter.

Tuna noodle casserole (serves four)

Preheat oven to 350°F (175°C)
4 Tbs. (60 g) buttermeltstirthickenmixseasonmixtopBake 350°F (175°C) 30 min.
1/4 cup (40 g) all purpose flour
2-1/2 cup (590 mL) whole milk
1 Tbs. (15 g) buttermeltsautestir
4 oz. (115 g) sliced mushrooms
1/2 cup (50 g) chopped scallions
1/4 cup (25 g) chopped celery
1 tsp. (1.2 g) dried rosemary
1 tsp. (1.4 g) dried thyme
ground black pepper
8 oz.(230 g) egg noodlescook
12 oz. (340 g) light tunadrain
4 Tbs. (60 g) buttermeltcook
1 cup (120 g) bread crumbs
Copyright Michael Chu 2004

Monday, October 18, 2004

New Feature: Deals Blog

A week or so ago, I posted about some deals that I found on on Wusthof knives. I received some mail asking me to continue to provide this sort of information when I spot what looks like a good deal. I didn't want to "clutter" up the main Cooking For Engineers webpage with temporary deal information, so I started a Deals Blog. I'll post kitchen and cooking related deals as I come across them. If you see a deal you want to pass along, you can e-mail me at

Even though I'm planning to move away from the blog model of posting articles with Cooking For Engineers, I felt that a blog would an ideal method of posting deals at CfE - Deals because internet and store deals generally lose importance as time progresses and a blog inherently is time sensitive.

In the interest of full disclosure, I do surf more and do get a percentage "kickback" when readers of this site go to and order a product. I will try to put up deals at other sites as well, but I'll probably need help spotting them as I spend less time surfing these days and more time writing.

Test Recipe: The Classic Tiramisu (original recipe?)

In September, I posted an article on how to make a simple tiramisu (I used the term "basic" at the time). It turned out this was quite a popular article and I received a lot of praise for the fast and simple recipe (it takes less than half an hour to assemble). I also received several e-mails telling me how to make a real tiramisu: use rum, don't use rum, ladyfingers aren't traditional, no chocolate ontop, with eggs, with raw eggs, etc. So, what is a classic tiramisu? I decided to get to the bottom of the tiramisu mystery.

It turns out it's pretty difficult to find a published recipe of tiramisu more than a decade old. The reason? Tiramisu was probably invented in the late 1960's or early 1970's at a restaurant called Le Beccherie in Treviso, Italy. Heavenly Tiramisu, Google's highest ranked site when doing a search on tiramisu, claims that Tiramisu has the same roots as zuppa inglese dating back to the 19th century. Unfortunately, like the reader that wrote into Heavenly Tiramisu, I have to object to this classification since the use of coffee or espresso is not traditional in zuppa inglese. If you add the espresso, then it is no longer zuppa inglese but tiramisu. This addition did not seem to happen in a regular manner or recorded recipe until Le Beccherie introduced it over thirty years ago.

Anna Maria Volpi has an article on the history of tiramisu that supports the Le Beccherie origin. Having determined the origins of tiramisu, I had to find the recipe. Unfortunately, I have only Anna Maria Volpi's classic tiramisu recipe (which she claims is the original Le Beccherie recipe) to go by. I was unable to determine if this is (or was) indeed the original recipe, but it's the only one that claims to be, so I shall proceed (for the moment) as if it was.

Most of the ingredients were readily available, but I was not looking forward to purchasing 1-1/2 cups of espresso from my local coffee shop. I asked how many ounces were in a shot of espresso and they told me it was one fluid ounce. I quickly did some mental math and realized that it would be over $15 in espresso alone for me to test this dessert. I explained what I was trying to do and they offered to "work something out". Because I was trying a tiramisu recipe, the coffee shop sold me 12 shots of espresso for $1.95. Amazing. I'm bringing those people some tiramisu tomorrow. Now that I've acquired my espresso, it's time to start preparing the tiramisu.

I began by assembling four large egg yolks, 1/2 cup sweet marsala wine, 16 ounces mascarpone cheese, 12 ounces espresso, 2 tablespoons cocoa powder, 1 cup heavy cream, 1/2 cup granulated sugar, and enough lady fingers to layer a 12x8 inch pan twice (40). I stirred two tablespoons of granulated sugar into the espresso and put it in the refrigerator to chill.

In a heatproof bowl, I whisked the egg yolks until they became a light and fluffy cream.

I poured in the sugar and wine and whisked briefly until it was well blended.

I poured some water into a saucepan and set it over high heat until it began to boil. Lowering the heat to medium (enough to keep the water boiling), I placed the heatproof bowl over the water (a convenient double boiler) and stirred as the mixture began to thicken and smooth out. I stopped when the mixture began to slowly bubble.

I removed the mixture, which has now become a custard, from the heat and put it on the side. This custard by itself is a great Italian dessert called zabaglione (sabayon in French cooking) and can be served as is or made into a more complicated dessert by mixed with fruit, serving with cookies, or made into tiramisu (and many more possibilities).

While the zabaglione cools a bit, I whipped (with my stand mixer to save time) the heavy cream until soft peaks. Soft peaks is when the whipped cream can almost stand on its own. Dip your whisk or finger into the cream and see if the spike that forms when you withdraw just curls over at the tip. If so, you've got soft peaks. If it stands up by itself, you've over beaten and produced stiff peaks. If the peak just sinks back into the cream, you don't have whipped cream yet. Keep beating.

Now, in a medium bowl, I beat the mascarpone cheese until smooth and creamy. I used alternated between beating with a whisk and mashing it with a spatula to make quick work of the cheese.

I poured the zabaglione onto the cheese and beat until smooth.

I then folded in the whipped cream. Folding prevent the whipped cream from continuing to progress on the path toward butter and separation (which is what happens when you over whip cream). To fold, simply use your spatula to cut into the mixture and scoop up mixture from below and "fold" it over the cream. Rotate and repeat. The final mixture should be have a fairly even distribution, but it's okay to still see some patches of yellow and white.

Now, I began to assemble the tiramisu. The recipe called for filling a 12x8 in. pan, but that's not a readily available size. I decided to try my luck with a 13x9 in. pan, so I prepared enough ladyfinger cookies to fill the pan twice (for two layers). Then I quickly dipped each ladyfinger into espresso. I poured about half the espresso into the bowl at a time, to make it easier to work with and ensure that the bottom layer didn't soak up all the espresso. No need to worry. There's so much espresso that the ladyfingers will fall apart before the espresso will run out. A gave the each ladyfinger cookie a one second soak on each side and then arranged it on the pan. Do each ladyfinger individually or you'll have ladyfingers falling apart.

After the first layer of ladyfingers are done, I used a spatula to spread half the cream mixture over it. Then, I smoothed it out in preparation for the next layer.

I covered the cream layer with another layer of soaked ladyfingers.

The rest of the cream was spread onto the top and cocoa powder sifted over the surface to cover the tiramisu.

The tiramisu was now complete and would require a four hour chill in the refrigerator.

The flavor of this "original" tiramisu is very similar to restaurant tiramisu incarnations, except that the espresso flavor is extremely strong. The soaked ladyfingers were so strong that eating a piece of that layer by itself produced a strong bitter taste. Not something I've experienced with restaurant tiramisu (since many use coffee to dilute the espresso). Also, most of the restaurant recipes have a very strong alcohol component (perhaps because it's served in the evening as dessert instead of in the afternoon as a "pick me up"). I felt that the alcohol flavor was very mild (although my wife felt the alcohol flavor was more than adequate). As a combination (and eaten as a whole), this tiramisu was delicious (but the caffeine kick is strong enough to have me writing this article at almost two in the morning). It's easy to see from this recipe why this dish became so popular so quickly.

The Original Tiramisu (serves 12)

4 large egg yolksbeatbeatwhisk over steambeatfoldassemblesiftrefrigerate 4 hours
1/2 cup (100 g) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (120 mL) sweet Marsala wine
1 lb. (450 g) mascarpone cheesebeat
1 cup (240 mL) heavy creamwhip to soft peaks
about 40 ladyfinger cookiessoak 2 seconds
12 oz. (350 mL) espressodissolve
2 tsp. (8 g) granulated sugar
2 Tbs. (11 g) cocoa powder

Layer diagram
2 Tbs. (11 g) cocoa powder
Copyright Michael Chu 2004

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Recipe File: Chicken & Mushroom Marsala

Good marsala wine is obviously a key ingredient in Chicken Marsala, but what else is needed to make a successful version of this sweet and savory Sicilian classic? Not much else except some patience and attentiveness. Mushrooms are a necessity, but I left out the onions, shallots, chicken stock, tomatoes, flour, capers, lemon, and whatever else all the internet recipes tell you to put into the dish. I wanted to create an easy, no mess version of Chicken Marsala that captured the fundamental essence of the dish and here it is.

Chicken Marsala, like any dish that's been around for generations, comes in a variety of forms with all sorts of family secrets or preferences. I've prepared the easiest, good tasting recipe that I've been able to come up with for this dish and still be called a great Chicken Marsala. As in all the recipes that I post on this website, additional ingredients can be added to your liking. Not only that, I encourage you to do your own experimenting as well!

A lot of recipes call for thin sliced chicken breast meat. The breasts should be washed, patted dry, and lightly floured. The idea is that the thin cuts will not require much cooking time and the flour would protect the breast from drying out while it's cooking. This is true, but there's always potential for making a mess when you flour the chicken. I also found that flouring the chicken wasn't as easy as it looked. If you use too much, then the flour falls off in chunks as you cook it. Use too little and it seems like it was pointless to flour the chicken in the first place. My solution? Brine the chicken breasts, skip the flour.

Brining is the act of soaking ingredients (in our case, chicken) in water with salt (and sometimes sugar). This soak causes salt to penetrate into the chicken meat and at the same time pulls more water in. The meat becomes more plump and flavorful. Brining a chicken breast prior to cooking makes it much easier to produce a tender, juicy breast. I brined my chicken breasts in a plastic bag with 4 cups water with 4 Tbs. table salt for one hour. After an hour, remove the breasts and rinse off the breasts (or they will be too salty).

I brought together the three brined chicken breasts halves (about 1/2 lb. or 250 g each), 1 cup sweet marsala wine, and 4 ounces sliced button mushrooms. I did not cut my breasts into thin pieces (to show that it's not necessary), but some people prefer a thinner cut. If you're one of them, go ahead and cut your breasts in half and pounding them down with a meat mallet. The sweet marsala wine should be of drinkable quality. I cut the mushrooms into thick cuts, but quartering, halving, or even leaving the mushrooms whole work well.

Salt and pepper the breasts. Heat about 2 tablespoons of oil on medium-high and pan fry the breasts for a few minutes. The exact time depends on the thickness of the breasts. The breast will change color while it's cooking from pink to white. When the bottom half has changed color, flip the breasts over and cook the raw side of the breast.

Here's where extra attentiveness is important. The objective is to cook the breast until it has just fully cooked. In the Grilled Skinless Chicken Breast article, I advocated learning to tell is chicken breast is done by touch. Well, here's where it comes in handy. If you know how chicken breast feels (level of springiness, hardness, etc.) then use this method to check one when the breasts are fully cooked. I once asked the chef at my local Buca di Beppo's how he made his Chicken Marsala so tender, and he responded mysteriously, "You have to watch the chicken. No, really watch it. You will know when it is done." Well, I'm saying you need to watch and press on it once in a while. If your not familiar with the touch technique, then simply cut a hole into the thickest part of a breast and see what color liquid flows out. If the liquid has tints of color and is opaque, then keep cooking the chicken. If the liquid is clear (like oily water), then the chicken breast is done.

Remove the fully cooked chicken to a plate and throw the mushrooms into the pan. Don't worry if there are burnt bits of chicken still in the pan because these will help flavor the sauce. If there are any larger chunks of chicken, remove them because they will overcook and become stringy and tough. Spread the mushrooms into a single layer and allow them to cook for a minute.

Pour the cup of sweet Marsala wine into the pan a this point and allow it to reduce for a couple minutes. We want it to thicken slightly, but not so much that it coats the back of a spoon.

Now pour in four tablespoons heavy cream and mix until integrated.

Stir occasionally until this mixture reduces to the point where it will coat the back of a spoon or leave a trail at the bottom of the pan when scraped
(see picture below).

At this point, reintroduce the breasts and roll them around in the sauce until they have been coated with sauce and have warmed up again.

Turn off the heat and move the breasts to a serving tray, covering with mushrooms and sauce. The breast meat should be perfectly tender and juicy while the sauce clings to any available surface. Tina described the chicken as amazingly soft and the mushrooms as "little bombs of flavor". At first she was skeptical about chicken marsala, but after tasting this, she was convinced of how delicious this dish can be.

Chicken Marsala (serves six)

3 chicken breast halvesbrineseasoncook medium-highremovecoat with sauce
4 oz. (120 g) button mushroomsslicecook 1 min.reducereduce
1 cup sweet marsala wine
4 Tbs. heavy cream
Copyright Michael Chu 2004

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Recipe File: Peanut Butter Cookies

Four months ago, I tested a new (to me) recipe for Peanut Butter Cookies and found them to be cakey, bland, and not well received by my coworkers. In that article, I alluded to "my normal recipe" but did not elaborate on what that recipe was. Well, here's how I make Peanut Butter Cookies.

The ingredients are very similar to the Joy of Cooking recipe, but the proportions are quite different with more sugar and more peanut butter.

To make about two dozen cookies, start with 1/2 cup peanut butter and 1/2 cup unsalted butter. This time around I chose to use Skippy brand peanut butter. There is some concern that commercial peanut butters contain trans fatty acids since partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are used to stabilize the butter (preventing separation). On the other hand, it is common to find higher levels of aflatoxins in old fashioned peanut butter leading to a higher risk of liver cancer (if consumed regularly). According to both Skippy's nutrition FAQ and the USDA claim that there are no measurable amounts of trans fats present in commercial peanut butter. Skippy explains that the vegetable oils are almost completely fully hydrogenated (which as you remember from the Saturated Fats article cannot be trans fats since fully hydrogenated fats are chemically the same as saturated fats).

Sift 1-1/4 cup all purpose flour, 1/2 tsp. baking soda, and 1/4 tsp. salt together. The remaining ingredients are 1/2 cup granulated sugar, 1/2 cup light brown sugar, , and 1 egg.

Using a stand mixer, hand mixer, or arms of steel, mix the peanut butter and butter together until relatively smooth. Don't worry about any small lumps of butter that might persist, when we mix in the sugar, the sugar crystals will perforate the butter until it's smooth.

Scrape the bowl down and mix both the granulated sugar and brown sugar into the butter. Mix until smooth.

Add the egg to the mixture and mix until integrated.

Once the egg has been mixed in, slowly add the flour as you stir (use the lowest setting on your mixer). I control the flow of flour by sifting the flour onto wax paper (or parchment paper) and folding it over so I can pour easily. By pouring the flour slowly, you won't overwhelm the batter and the flour will properly mix into the batter to form the final dough.

At this point, the dough should be double wrapped in plastic and refrigerated for an hour. The dough can keep in the refrigerator for a couple days or stored in the freezer for a month. I decided to make this batch immediately (without chilling). This will create a thinner, crisper cookie (because the warm dough will spread quickly).

Form the dough into about two dozen 1 inch balls. I do this by picking up a lump of dough, rolling it between my hands, and finishing up by tossing the ball lightly between my hands. Place the balls of dough onto a greased or lined cookie sheet. In the pictures below, I lined the cookie sheet with aluminum foil (parchment paper works well also).

Flatten each of the balls with a fork.

Place one cookie sheet at a time in the center rack of an oven preheated to 375°F. Bake for nine minutes and remove. Let stand on cookie sheet for one minute, then transfer to cooling racks to cool.

These peanut butter cookies come out golden brown with a light crispiness that melts in your mouth.

For a soft and chewy peanut butter cookie, make sure you refrigerate the dough first. Then form dough balls and press down with a fork as before. Then, simply refrigerate the uncooked cookies for at least fifteen minutes to firm it back up. Then with the oven preheated to 300°F, slide one tray in at a time for a baking time of 15 minutes.

The reason this trick works is that the butter in the dough is not as fluid when cold. Warm dough will spread out more during the first few minutes of cooking, resulting in a thinner, crispier cookie. Starting the cookie sheet and dough cold, reduces the spread, making thicker cookies. The lower oven temperature keeps the outside of the cookie from getting too crunchy before the inside of the thicker cookie finishes cooking. It should be noted that if you want to make soft cookies of the same diameter as the crispy cookies, you'll need to use a little more dough in each so the spread ends up the same.

Peanut Butter Cookies
Cookie Dough

1/2 cup (130 g) peanut buttermixmixmixslowly add while stirring
1/2 cup (110 g) unsalted butter
1/2 cup (100 g) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (110 g) brown sugar
1 egg
1-1/4 cup (160 g) all purpose floursift
1/2 tsp. (2.3 g) baking soda
1/4 tsp. (1.5 g) salt

Light & Crispy Cookies (makes about 24 cookies)
Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C)
1 batch cookie doughform 1 in. (25 mm) ballsflatten with forkbake 375°F 9 min.

Soft & Chewy Cookies (makes about 18 cookies)
Preheat oven to 300°F (150°C)
1 batch cookie doughform 1.1 in. (28 mm) ballsflatten with forkbake 300°F 15 min.
Copyright Michael Chu 2004

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Off Topic: Surprises In Snacks

This week has brought some interesting surprises. A couple days ago, Tina bit into a bright green, unblemished tomato that we got from the harvest festival and discovered that all the seeds inside the tomato had sprouted! She cut open each side of the tomato to discover that indeed all the seeds had sprouted and there were little tomato plants growing inside her otherwise perfect tomato.

A day later, I was eating a bag of Doritos brand nacho cheese flavored tortilla chips at work when I looked in the bag to discover a fairly large lump of orange material. I assumed it was the "cheese" and spices clumped together in a solid mass. Talk about a couple of unexpected surprises in mundane snacks.

Here's a picture of Tina's tomato with two of the sides removed. You can see the sprouts clearly growing out. Gross and fascinating at the same time.

Here it is with more sides removed.

A close up of the other side of the tomato.

After much discussion, we've decided that we don't have the space to grow tomatoes in our small condo and this variety probably isn't a variety that we're that interested in growing anyway (especially if the offspring start sprouting prematurely). We haven't thrown it away, though. The tomato is sitting on a plate on our dining table where it continues to grow.

After finishing my bag of Doritos, I took the extra lump home and weighed it. This chunk of seasoning was 14 g (with the net contents of the bag marked as 49.6 g). That means I consumed 28% less chips than I expected to (probably better for me). Still, a call to Doritos was in order.

I dialed 1-800-352-4477 and spoke to a man named Quincy. I described what I had found to him and he said that it sounded like it was an accidental inclusion of the accumulation of seasoning. Occasionally, these seasoning accumulations make it through cooking and find their ways into bags. The oil used to cook the chips probably causes the clumping and the cooking keeps the lump from separating. Frito-Lay (the company that owns Doritos) considers this to be a foreign object and compensates consumers who discover foreign objects in their products. The compensation for the bag of chips? Quincy said he's mailing me a packet of Frito-Lays coupons including three free product coupons, each worth over $3. Not bad considering I didn't have to eat the seasoning lump to claim my prize.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

New Feature: Recommended Reading

Lots of home chef's and cooking enthusiasts have a lot of cookbooks ranging from the 2,000 Italian Everything cookbook to "How to Make 64 Garnishs From Fruit Roll Ups". But, many of the books that line our shelves are never referred to again (or we rarely trust the recipes). So, which ones have proven themselves worth their cost and more? Welcome to the Recommended Reading section of Cooking For Engineers.

Recipe File: Mini Hamburgers

Near the end of September, efsitz, one of our most active posters in the Community Forums, promoted her English Muffin Hamburgers. I haven't had homemade hamburgers in a while (I work next to an In-N-Out Burger, the best fast food on earth), so I decided to share my version of the English Muffin Hamburger. (efsitz uses the larger "sandwich size" English muffin from Thomas' English Muffins, but I chose to use the smaller muffin size.)

First, we'll need two English muffins. I've found that there are no English muffins like Thomas' English Muffins. The supermarket brand muffins just don't taste the same. The term English muffin is a misnomer as they are technically not muffins (and not from England). Instead they resemble crumpets (also a soft yeast dough shaped into rounds and cooked on a griddle). In any case, either make your own English muffins or buy Thomas' brand.

In addition to the English muffins, we'll also need about 1/2 lb. ground beef chuck. Ground beef chuck is excellent for making burgers because it is not too lean and not too fatty. If a burger is too lean, then the patty will be dry and bland to the taste. If a burger is too fatty, well, then it's to fatty. 20% fat seems to be the optimal amount of fat in ground beef to make an excellent burger. Technically, these two ingredients is enough for your hamburger.

Deciding how you want your hamburgers cooked is important. Sometimes you want a thick, juicy burger, and sometimes you want a multiple thin patty burger that's been cooked so the patties have a crisp shell and the inside is done but chewy. I felt the latter would work best on my English muffins.

I split my ground beef into four 1/8 lb. chuck patties and flattened them down into rounds that looked like they would fit the patty. (I did not make my patties large enough because they will shrink a bit while cooking. Flatten them down until they look like they're too big for the muffins.) Don't be too concerned with overworking the ground beef (which can be a problem with thick burger patties) since we're making thin patties.

You can grill or broil these burgers, but heating a pan was easiest for me. I heated an empty pan over medium-high heat until water sizzled and jumped when I tossed in a few drops. Then I transferred the patties over to the pan and started my timer. I was going for well done since these were thin patties, so five minutes on the first side.

The patties don't stick to the pan because some of the fat renders out. Once the first side is done, it should be quite easy to flip them over with a metal spatula. Five more minutes and the other side all also have a gorgeous and tasty crust.

About a minute before the second side is done, any toppings you desire should be placed on the patty. I put some Pepper Jack cheese (Monterey Jack cheese with Jalapeno chiles) on top of my burgers. I then realized that I had some bacon left over from the Bacon Test, Part I and broke some pieces off and placed them on the cheese.

Meanwhile, I had taken my English muffins and halved them with two forks. Using a knife produces a smoother finish on the muffin halves which doesn't toast as well or produce the famous nooks and crannies for sauce and dressing to fill. The muffins went into a toaster for a light toast and I topped one side with poor man's Russian dressing (equal parts ketchup and mayonnaise, adjust proportions to taste). Real Russian dressing should have grated onions and herbs in it. By the way, Russian dressing isn't from Russia... both English muffins and Russian dressing were invented in America by English and Russian immigrants.

I stacked two patties on top of each bottom half of an English muffin.

I slipped in a piece of romaine lettuce for a little crispy texture and plated the burgers with kosher pickles. Dinner in less than fifteen minutes.

Mini Hamburgers (serves 2 or one hearty eater)

1/2 lb. (225 g) ground beef chuckform into four patties5 min. on medium-highflip, cook 4 minutestop, cook 1 minuteassemble
favorite toppings (cheese, bacon, etc.)
2 English muffinssplit with forkstoastspread
favorite dressing
Copyright Michael Chu 2004

Monday, October 11, 2004

New Feature: Table of Contents

By popular request, I have finally written a usable Table of Contents that lists every article the Cooking For Engineers contains. Hopefully, this will help everyone navigate the site a bit easier and find what you're looking for all in one location.

If there are any bug or errors please send me details at so I can fix it. Also, I'll probably be adding a few more filters/sorting mechanisms to the Table of Contents in the future, but for now it will probably stay the way it is.

A few of you may remember that I blamed blogger for not providing a way to automatically produce a master index or table of contents of all articles. Well, they still haven't written back to me and it doesn't look like they have any way of generating a master index. So, I wrote the table of contents script to work on a MySQL database that I have to maintain separately from the blogger based postings (until such time as I move off blogger and onto a custom CMS), so don't be surprised if there's some delay between my posts and getting the article onto the table of contents. I'll try to get into the habit of updating both at the same time, though.

Have fun everyone!

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Off Topic: Pumpkin Carving

This Saturday, Tina and I decided to make Jack O'Lanterns. The practice of carving Jack O'Lanterns dates back hundreds of years and is based on a colorful Irish tale. In America, we carve Jack O'Lanterns from pumpkins and put them out at Halloween as part of the fun festivities. Jack O'Lanterns can be traditional or complicated. Tina decided to carve a simple but geeky one, while I tried my hand at surface carving with shadings.

The history of the Jack O'Lantern starts at the Irish legend of Stingy Jack who played tricks on and stole from everyone he ever knew including, once, the devil himself. One such story, for there were many different ones, goes that Jack tricked the devil to climb a tree and then surrounded the tree with crosses. The devil, being unable to climb down, struck a deal with Jack. Jack made him promise that he would never enter hell, and the devil agreed. Jack removed the crosses and continued on with his life. When Jack finally died, he was denied entry into heaven because he was too mean to everyone while he was alive. So, down to the gates of hell he was sent, but the devil would not let him enter! Jack didn't know what to do, because he was surrounded by darkness and couldn't find his way around in the land between heaven and hell, so he asked the devil for help. The devil threw him an ember from the fires of hell. Jack took the ember and placed it in a hollowed out turnip and wandered the earth from that time forth carrying his light in a turnip.

Jack O'Lanterns were carved out of gourds, turnips, potatoes and a variety of other vegetables and lit with a candle to keep Stingy Jack (and evil spirits) away from Irish households. When Irish immigrants came to the United States in the 1800's, they brought the practice with them and began using pumpkins because they were bigger and easier to carve.

This was Tina's first time carving a pumpkin, but she wanted to do something fun (not the common scary face) and ended up deciding on this emoticon: :-P

I looked through a bunch of my photos of Yosemite Valley and drew up a plan in Adobe Illustrator to make a relief, light shaded carving of a slightly exaggerated drawing of the valley. Here's a link to a similar view from Inspiration Point off the website (for those who haven't visited this magnificent park).

Here's a closeup of the landscape in the dark:

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Bacon Cooking Test (Part I)

Everyone's got a favorite way of cooking bacon, but what's the difference if I broil, fry, or microwave my bacon? Well, I tried to find out.

For my experiment, I took two slices of bacon and cut them in half. Placing them on three paper towels on a dinner plate, I slipped it into a microwave oven.

I also placed three strips of bacon on a large frying pan.

Finally, I spread out four strips on an aluminum foil lined baking sheet (for ease of clean up).

Method 1: Microwaving
I ran the microwave on high for 3 minutes. After three minutes, I checked to see if the bacon was done (should be crispy). In my case, it was. If it's not done, give it another 30 seconds and look again. Repeat until crispy. Nothing could be easier.

Method 2: Pan Frying
I placed the cold pan with bacon over a medium-low heat. The heat should be high enough that it cooks the bacon, but low enough that you can cook the bacon for a long time without burning it. If the bacon starts to look like it's going to burn (little bits of black start forming at the edges), turn down the heat. Cooking the bacon over low heat will render the most amount of fat out of the bacon. If the fat collects too much (1/4 in. depth), then spoon off the excess fat. Since I was only cooking three strips, there wasn't much danger of this.

Keep turning the bacon over to evenly cok both sides. When the bacon reaches a deep brown color, it's done. Mine took about fifteen minutes.

Method 3: Broiler
After placing the baking sheet directly under the broiler, I turned it on. Every couple minutes, I pulled out the rack and flipped the bacon over.

Unfortunately, it was very difficult to control the cooking of the bacon under the broiler. As the bacon curled up, the fat started to scorch and burn. After about eight minutes, I pulled it from the oven to prevent the rest of the pieces from burning.

Microwaved - The bacon came out extremely crisp throughout both the fat and meat of the bacon. It felt a bit thicker than I expected from a thin cut piece of bacon. Examining the fat collected in the paper towels leads me to believe that very little fat was rendered out in comparison to the pan fry method. The technique is simple and hands free, but a problem that I have is that the paper towel stuck to several of the pieces of bacon. This may have been because I allowed the bacon to rest and drain on the same paper towel it was cooked on. Another issue is the limited number of bacon strips you can cook in a microwave oven at one time (but the time savings probably more than makes up for this).

Pan fried - The bacon felt the thinnest and lightest of the three. The bacon fat was crispy while the meat was slightly chewy. I actually prefer my bacon this way (not totally crunchy and crispy, but with some texture to it), but others may not. All in all, a good method to cook bacon but time consuming.

Broiled - The bacon was burnt in some spots and the meat felt undercooked. The areas need the burns were bitter in taste and the texture was soft and soggy throughout (except for the blackened parts). Not much fat was rendered off either. I would not recommend this technique.

So, microwaving is king if you're looking for bacon that feels thicker than what you purchased and crunchy throughout. Pan frying is great for a thin, light bacon with a little chew in the meat.

In the future I will test other methods of cooking bacon including baking on a rack (a favorite for many). For now I need to recover from eating nine slices of bacon in an evening.

An aside: Earlier in this article, I cooked the bacon directly on some paper towels. There might be some possible health concerns when doing this. There was once a popular internet chain mail scam/hoax claiming that microwaving Saran Wrap (or other plastic wraps) will release a chemical contaminant called dioxin into the food you are cooking. This was not true if you are using plastic or plastic wrap products labelled microwave safe (in the United States) as these do not contain any dioxins. A supporting e-mail later went on to encourage the use of paper towels instead for microwaving. As part of the backlash against this e-mail hoax, it was put forth that using paper towels might contribute more dioxins into your diet because the bleach used to produce paper towels contains chlorine and chlorine and wood form dioxins. There are plenty of websites that claim that dioxins are formed during the production of the paper towel or that microwaving creates dioxins, but I haven't found one that doesn't make a scientific error in their claim or discussion of the process. To my knowledge, dioxin is produced during combustion, which is not a part of the paper towel making process. The conclusion? I don't know. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) just says to use products marked microwave-safe.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Recipe File: Corn Bread (revisited)

A week and a half ago, I tried out the corn bread recipe from the back of the Albers Corn Meal box. I remade the recipe recently increasing the sugar from 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup. I also substituted the Albers cornmeal with local organic corn meal. Since I tossed the remaining oil in the bottle of canola oil that I used last time, I also used newly opened canola oil in this recipe. The results were much better, but the corn meal was too coarse for my taste (I keep getting corn bits stuck in my teeth). The flavor was pretty good, not too sweet, but enough sugar for my sweet tooth. Sugar quantity will have to be something adjusted for individual taste.

Here's the new recipe summary (complete with metric conversions):
Modified Albers Corn Bread (serves nine)

Preheat oven to 400°F (200°C)
1 cup (160 g) yellow corn mealcombinestirbake 400°F (200°C) 20 min.
1 cup (125 g) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (100 g) granulated sugar
1 Tbs. (14 g) baking powder
1 tsp. (6 g) salt
1 cup (240 mL) whole milkwhisk
1/3 cup (80 mL) vegetable oil
1 large egg
Copyright Michael Chu 2004

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Eggplant Taste Test

Last weekend, Tina and I went to the Multicultural Harvest Festival in San Jose, CA. This event took place at the Emma Prusch Farm Park. Several of the booths featured produce or exotic fruits that were grown during the year at the Park. One booth in particular displayed several varieties of eggplants. They grew 41 different varieties to see which types of eggplants would grow well in San Jose. It turns out that 38 of the 41 varieties did well, according to the woman manning the booth. While we were admiring the various shapes and colors that egg plants come in, a woman asked Tina if she wanted to take some home (this was late in the day). We jumped at the opportunity and went home with four different types of eggplants. I unfortunately, did not manage to capture the names of all the varieties. Even so, I prepared a taste test.

We came home with a Pandora Striped Rose (the egg shaped one), another that looked like the Pandora, but was longer and curved, two that seem like small Chinese, and a really skinny dark colored one. The Pandora Striped Rose was not springy when I squeezed it - usually a sign that the egg plant is past it's prime eating age. The other eggplants seemed to all be in good condition (except the dark thin one was a bit too soft).

I started by cutting the eggplants into approx. half inch pieces. Since I didn't know the names of the eggplants, I drew little pictures of each type of eggplant onto small pieces of paper so I could keep track. I also minced about six cloves of garlic to cook the eggplant with.

Cooking each batch separately, I sauteed the eggplant in about one tablespoon of light olive oil. It's important to keep the eggplant moving when it hits the hot oil because eggplant can really suck up a lot of oil and a single piece could easily absorb most of the oil in the pan. So, I force the eggplant to share by tossing constantly during the first few seconds in the pan. I then tossed in a pinch of kosher salt and continued to toss. Once all the egg plant had started to cange color (an indication that they are cooking through), I threw in some minced garlic and cooked until the garlic became tender.

Once all the eggplant had been cooked out in the same manner, I called Tina over and we started tasting, going back and forth between plates. My favorite was the one in the upper left corner - the eggplant that looked like the Pandora Striped Rose but was longer and bent. The skin was soft and flavorful and it had a distinct eggplant flavor without being over powering. Next was the one in the lower right corner, cooked from the two eggplants that look like miniature chinese eggplants. The skin was not as soft, but had a little crispy texture to it. Favor was a bit bland, but with the salt, it still tasted quite good. The almost loser was the really thin, dark eggplant in the upper right. Skin was a bit tough and not much flavor. The loser was the Pandora Striped Rose - both skin and flesh were tough and flavor a bit bitter. This eggplant could have benefited greatly from a salting.

My final conclusion? Most of the eggplants pretty much tasted the same, but the skin or flesh would be tougher or softer. Generally, that is an age issue. I don't think I would be able to tell one variety from the next had they all been springy (soft and yet firm) to the touch.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Recipe File: Grilled Skinless Chicken Breast

Skinless chicken breasts typically conjure up an image of a pale, flavorless, tough piece of protein. Definitely not appetizing. However, many recipes call for cooked chicken breast of some sort (chicken alfredo, chicken pot pie, etc.). But, how do we cook chicken breast in a flavorful fashion that allows it to stand on its own as an entree as well as being capable of reuse in later recipes? Here's a simple recipe for grilling skinless chicken breasts that yields tender and flavorful breast meat.

This is the secret: brine the chicken breasts. Take four cups of cold water and add a tablespoon of table salt (add more if using kosher salt - about 1-1/2 to 2 tablespoons). Stir the water to get the salt to dissolve. Once the solution is no longer cloudy and is clear, put the chicken breasts into a large resealable plastic bag and pour the solution into the bag. Seal the bag and refrigerate for at least three hours and no more than six hours (the chicken may become too salty). Rinse the chicken after you remove it from the brine and dry with paper towels.

Now rub 1/2 tsp. ground cayenne pepper, 1 tsp. ground coriander seed, 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon onto both sides of each breast.

Place the breasts onto a heated grill for 3 min. on each side. Adjust the grill to low (or move the breasts to the low side of a two level fire) and cook until the internal temperature reaches 160°F (70°C), about ten minutes (on my grill). If you don't have an instant read or meat thermometer, I recommend two alternatives. First, you can poke a hole in the breast (with a knife or fork) and see if the "juices run clear". If the chicken is undercooked, the liquid that comes out will carry a pink or yellow hue. When the chicken is done, the liquid that comes out is clear as water. Alternatively, you can cut into the chicken and look at the color. The breast should be completely white. Another popular method is to press on the chicken and feel if it is done. This is a technique that takes experience and is not recommended for your first time. The chicken will feel springy, but not soft. It should also not be hard (then it's overcooked). The benefit of this technique is that the chicken is not violated with holes or cuts that can release juices that would otherwise keep the breast tender and juicy. I recommend learning the touch technique by pressing on breasts that are done so you can get a feel for how the breast should feel for future meals.

I served the chicken breast with the Sauteed Okra with Roasted Red Peppers, Green Bean Casserole, and fresh corn bread.

Grilled Skinless Chicken Breast (serves 6)

Heat grill (two level fire)
4 cups watercombinebrine 4 hours
1 Tbs. table salt
3 boneless, skinless chicken breastsseasongrill on high 2 min. per sidegrill on low until 160°F
1/2 tsp. ground cayenne pepper
1 tsp. ground coriander seed
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
Copyright Michael Chu 2004

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Off Topic: Orange Juice Shelf Life

I discovered this bottle of TreeTop Orange Juice on my desk.

Well, not really discovered - I always knew it was there, but I just didn't really look at it too much. I picked it up sometime in the Winter of 2004 during a conference at a local hotel. Nowhere on the packaging does it say "Refrigerate", so I didn't. The first month, I meant to drink it, but after that I didn't know if it was good anymore. Now that it's October, a coworker of mine said I should call them and find out if it's still good to drink. That's exactly what I did.

On the bottle's label, under ingredients, it reads:

CALL 1-800-542-4055
9 AM - 4 PM PT (MON - FRI)

When I called the number I was put through to the voicemail of a woman named Jenny Bailey. I left a message saying that I had a 10 oz. plastic bottle of orange juice and would like to know if I could still drink it. She called me back the next day, but I was not at my desk when the call came through. She left a message stating that if I could provide her with the lot number printed on the shoulder of the bottle, then she could tell me when the shelf life expired.

Two days later, I remembered to call the 800 number again and this time I got Sonya who looked up the lot number and informed my that my orange juice was packaged on November 10, 2003. The shelf life on the TreeTop orange juice in plastic bottles is six months, she explained. She suspected (correctly) that the orange juice had started to turn brown, but went on to assure me that it was perfectly safe for me to open it and take a sip to test the flavor. I declined.

According to Sonya from TreeTop, the orange juice's shelf life is determined by how long the juice will keep it's fresh look and flavor. TreeTop claims six months for their orange juice because in their studies after six months the orange juice begins to change colors due to oxidation (not bacteria cultures). The orange juice is perfectly safe to drink due to the pasteurization process, but after it changes color, it loses a great deal of its flavor. Sonya also told me that there is probably no nutritional content in my beverage anymore.

Since my curiosity was piqued, I asked if refrigerating the orange juice would have been a smart thing to do. She said that refrigerating the orange juice would definitely prolong its shelf life. Since my bottle was prepared for unrefrigerated storage, placing it in refrigeration would probably extend its life for much more than a year. Surely, had I refrigerated, the beverage would look and taste much as it would have in February when it entered my possession. Sonya also mentioned that once an orange juice product is opened, it should be stored in the refrigerator for no more than a week before being finished or disposed of.

Now I'm just contemplating whether or not I should taste this brown juice.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Recipe File: Sauteed Okra with Roasted Red Peppers

Okra is a delight to eat. This "vegetable" is just as wonderful as a thickening agent in stews such as gumbo (in fact, gumbo is another name for the okra plant) as it is sauteed in oil. The texture differences between the cooking styles are amazing, however. In gumbo, the okra is soft and gooey, almost a slimey texture. When sauteed, okra is crisp and tender. In both cases, it has a wonderful flavor and is complimented by other strong flavors. In this dish, I couple the okra with some spicy jalapeno chiles and the sweet taste of roasted red peppers.

First, place two red peppers on the grill at medium-low heat in order to roast them. If the grill is inconvenient, you can place then under the broiler in the oven. Set it on low if your oven has multiple broiler settings. We're looking for a black charring around the entire pepper with some bubbling on the skin. Rotate the peppers about every five minutes to evenly char the surface.

Start with one pound (450 g) okra, 1/2 jalapeno chile sliced into circles (use whole jalapeno for more spiciness), a minced french shallot, and two cloves of garlic, minced.

Once the peppers are blackened and bubbling, remove from the grill and place in a bowl. Cover the bowl with another bowl or a plate to catch the steam. The steam will help loosen up the charred skin from the roasted pepper. This step of roasting the pepper, really helps to heighten the flavor inherent in the pepper. In this picture, you'll see that I was in a bit of a hurry, so I took the peppers off the flame a bit early. It's okay, they are done, but it's a bit more difficult to get all the skin off if they are not completely charred.

After five minutes, remove the skin from the peppers (using either your fingers or a knife to scrape it off). Then cut into 1/2 inch strips.

Now that all the ingredients have been assembled, heat one tablespoon of oil on a saute pan over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add minced shallots and jalapeno chile.

Once the shallots have nicely browned, add okra to the pan. Spread the okra out in a single layer. Cook, tossing occassionally, until the okra color as brightened.

Once the okra is bright green (but still crisp), about four minutes, add the roasted peppers and minced garlic.

Saute for another two to three minutes and you're done!

Sauteed Okra with Roasted Red Peppers (serves two)

1 Tbs. oilheatbrownsautesaute
1/2 jalapeno chileslice
1 shallotmince
1 lb. okra
2 red bell peppersroastpeelcut into strips
2 cloves garlic, minced
Copyright Michael Chu 2004