[Photograph: Vicky Wasik] Every time coconut oil enters the news, journalists can’t make up their minds about whether or not it’s good for you. To be honest, I’ve lost track; my take is that, well, coconut oil’s made of fat, so you probably don’t want […]
Month: February 2018
[Photographs: Vicky Wasik] Spring is still a month away, and the temperatures in much of the country confirm that winter is holding fast. Normally I’d turn to a hot cocktail on a cold day, but sometimes I want to warm up without resorting to booze. […]
Some people buy fridge magnets. Others get floppy hats. When I was a kid, we collected snow globes. But these days, I take my travel souvenirs like I take my psychological coping mechanisms: edible. And my go-to edible souvenir is sugar.
I don’t mean plain, newfangled refined white sugar, though. I’m talking about the raw stuff. Gula melaka from Malaysia, jaggery from India, piloncillo from Guatemala, and panela from Mexico. Often pressed into dense bricks or cones as part of the drying process, these burnished reductions of cane or palm juice are rife with impurities that grant them a remarkable depth of flavor. Depending on the plant, place of origin, and production method, raw sugar tastes in turns smoky, bitter, caramelized to the brink of burnt, deeply fruity, and redolent with tropical sweetness.
Pound for pound, raw sugar is less sweet than the processed stuff, and it’s equally at home in desserts and savory applications. But more importantly, raw sugar intimately captures the concentrated essence of a place and its people’s food—in an easily portable, essentially immortal form.
That last part’s why I love it as a souvenir. Lots of people collect honey when they travel, but if you hate checking luggage for that one bottle of liquid, raw sugar fulfills a similar niche, no checking hassle required.
In my pantry right now, I have a smoky, savory sugar puck from Guatemala; a flaky, grass- and molasses-tinged ball of jaggery from India; crystals of cane sugar from Taiwan that recall candied winter melon; and a raisin-y, twangy brick of sugar from China that’s so precious to me I treat it like finishing salt. Each has its own use in my kitchen, and, unlike spices or bottles of olive oil, these sugars don’t degrade much with time. (They do, technically—moist bricks will dry out, and some volatile compounds inevitably vaporize and oxidize—but far less so than other pantry goods.)
We’ve covered the great wide world of sugar before, but here’s a quick primer on the most commonly available raw sugars on the market. Note the absence of brown sugar, which isn’t actually raw—it’s just refined sugar with a little molasses mixed back in!
- Panela (a.k.a. piloncillo): From Central and South America; made from sugarcane; ranges from toffee to dark-roux coloring.
- Jaggery (a.k.a. gur): From India; usually made from sugarcane but sometimes made from date palms; ranges from tan to chocolate coloring.
- Gula jawa (a.k.a. gula melaka): From Indonesia and Malaysia, respectively; made from coconut palm; typically dark brown.
- Palm sugar: When labeled as such, usually a product of Thailand and cut with white sugar for a more uniform khaki color and greater sweetness.
- Muscovado: Granulated; not pressed into a mold; produced in India, the West Indies, and other sugar-growing regions the British meddled with. A high natural molasses content means it’s usually among the darkest of raw sugars.
- Turbinado (a.k.a. “sugar in the raw”): The most standardized of the raw sugars; produced all over. It comes in coarse crystals and is light caramel in color.
I’m hesitant to give tasting notes or any more specific identifiers, since there are more differences within the above categories than between them. But generally speaking, the darker the sugar, the less sweet, and the more bitter and savory, it tastes. That said, darker doesn’t mean better or more complex; color is just a property of how the sap is cooked down, not an indicator of quality or range of flavor. Some super-dark sugars are just one-note chocolaty, and others might be too high in acids for certain dishes, such as those with dairy, in which an acidic sugar can curdle the milk. The only way to truly know what a raw sugar tastes like, and what it’s good for, is to snap off a piece and try it.
As for how to actually use it: If you’re dealing with a dense brick of sugar, a couple seconds in the microwave will help soften it. Then you can chop it just like chocolate: with a bread knife. Or, for smaller amounts of fine shavings, a Microplane works wonders.
Now here’s what to cook with it.
Dozens of Latin American desserts get their rich depth of flavor from raw sugar, be it a simple rice pudding or cinnamon-spiced syrup over crisp, anise-scented fritters. Piloncillo and panela’s caramel vibe partners well with cinnamon, orange, anise, and vanilla, all big-deal baking spices in the region. Across the Indian subcontinent, jaggery sometimes takes the lead in flavoring sweets, most notably chikki, a roasted-nut brittle set with lava flows of molten jaggery.
When baking, I often turn to turbinado and muscovado sugars if I want to lend a subdued sweetness to roasted fruit, sweet spices, and butter. Plus, both types of sugar are granulated, making them easier to cream and/or substitute for white or brown sugar. Note that I said easier, which isn’t the same as “do whatever the hell you want”—chemically leavened sweets like cakes and cookies require a precise balance of acidity and alkalinity in order to rise, and if you go changing ingredients and ratios, I refuse to be held responsible for your oven disasters. Instead, seek out recipes specifically formulated for those sugars, such as the butterscotch sauce in this millionaire’s shortbread recipe, or the muscovado’s pairing with wood smoke in this smoked ice cream.
Don’t forget the garnish: Turbinado’s coarse crystals make it an ideal crunchy topping for other baked goods, and I think it works especially well with fall and winter fruits, like apples, pears, and plums.
Also Go Savory
Here is where quality raw sugars really shine: Their complexity can be used in small doses, like a spice, to bring out the best flavors from savory ingredients. Italians may want to cover their eyes now, but a pinch of sugar really can rescue a subpar tomato sauce. The same goes for several Indian dishes and some Southern Thai curries; in the latter, the fire and funk of chilies and fish sauce can achieve remarkable balance with a pinch of palm sugar. And, when making a pot of chili, I like to enhance the smoky sweetness of chipotle chilies with a bit of panela—it adds a subtle richness, similar to the dash of chocolate in a mole.
And Don’t Forget to Drink It
That Chinese raw sugar I love so much? The one that tastes like raisins and dates, and that I sometimes snack on plain? In its production region of Yunnan province, it’s dissolved into hot water and drunk to boost low blood sugar—often the result of drinking too much tea. The simple beverage is wonderfully restorative, and I’ve taken to making a modified version whenever I have a sore throat.
In Mexico, panela plays a similarly comforting role in champurrado, a corn-thickened, spiced hot chocolate. See also: chai, which is great with jaggery, and Thai tea with condensed milk, where palm sugar fits right in.
Come warmer weather, limeade is superb when sweetened with raw sugar, and it’s very much A Thing in both Latin America and Southeast Asia, where sweltering heat has me reaching for a fresh bag of calamansi juice every 15 minutes.
Oh, and one more suggestion: As good as that limeade is on its own, it’s even better when dosed with some rhum agricole. Because one quality sugar product deserves another.
[Photographs: Vicky Wasik] There are many nights when I want a meal that tastes like someone’s been slaving away for it, but I’d rather that person not be me. This dish is made for those nights. The long roast time in the oven does all […]
[Photograph: Vicky Wasik] The Cuisinart Hurricane excels at demolishing ice chunks, puréeing creamy soups, and churning out the most delectable smoothies. Its all-around excellent performance is why it earned top place in our review of the best blenders under $200. It’s normally priced at $139, […]
Let’s get this out of the way up front: the most authentic part of this recipe is my reasonably Italian sounding name. The history of cannoli is steeped in more regional ingredients, cooking traditions, and family secrets than I could ever hope to honor, much less integrate, in a single recipe. The best I can do is take the same approach I use in developing copycat recipes like homemade Oreo-style cookies and Fig Newtons—focus on capturing the taste, texture, and appearance we long for, even when that means breaking certain rules along the way.
Which is to say, my recipe itself may aim to create the Platonic ideal of cannoli, but there’s nothing traditional about what it looks like on paper. My pastry shells don’t contain a single drop of Marsala or any eggs at all, but they’re blistered, crisp, and tender, and almost savory in their toastiness. My ricotta filling doesn’t include even a pinch of powdered sugar, but it’s wonderfully sweet and silky smooth. The two unite in a pastry that’s rich and light, creamy and crunchy, earthy and floral, mellow and intense—a study in contrast if there ever was one. It takes some time, and an arsenal of equipment to pull off, but the results are more than worth the effort.
Of course, it all starts with the right dough. Believe it or not, cannoli shells are really a type of cracker—nothing more than flour, water, salt, and a knob of butter. Many classic Italian recipes use Marsala as some of that liquid, not for flavor but for the same reason Kenji puts vodka in pie dough—to provide hydration while limiting gluten development.
Good quality Marsala can be hard to find here in the States, and it’s an expensive purchase for recipes that only call for a tablespoon. The far easier method for controlling gluten development is to choose a low-protein all-purpose flour such as Gold Medal or Pillsbury. This builds the right balance of starch and protein into the recipe from the start, giving the shells a perfect combination of tenderness and strength. Just toss all the ingredients into a food processor and blitz until satiny smooth and a little…cobwebby, for lack of a better term.
Hypothetically, this can be done by hand if you have the patience to slap and stretch the sticky dough for an hour, but it’s a 90-second job in a food processor—the only sane option so far as I’m concerned. Transfer the sticky dough to a lightly greased bowl, cover, and set it aside for at least two hours or up to 24. Either way, that flexibility leaves more than enough time to make the filling at your leisure, so don’t feel compelled to tackle the entire recipe, start to finish, in a single afternoon.
On that note, my take on the ricotta filling is certainly where this recipe deviates most from tradition. Virtually all cannoli recipes use nothing more than powdered sugar to thicken and sweeten the ricotta. It’s the easiest method for sure, but the undissolved starch from the powdered sugar leaves a chalky ghost in every bite. If the ricotta is anything less than spectacular, the result is a filling that tastes like, as Daniel once put it, caulk.
My solution is to make a small batch of vanilla pudding, providing a sweet, thick, creamy, and flavorful foundation for the ricotta filling (it’s the same trick I use for making a super-stable cream cheese buttercream). Once the vanilla pudding is cool, beat it until smooth and creamy (either with a flexible spatula or the paddle of a stand mixer), then fold in the ricotta by hand.
It should go without saying that the ricotta needs to be of a very high caliber. Anything made with gums, stabilizers, preservatives, or other additives should be rejected out of hand. If you’re lucky enough to live near an excellent producer, locally made ricotta is an extraordinary thing (at Serious Eats, we love Salvatore Bklyn and Di Palo’s). Shy of that, look for ricotta made with nothing more than milk or whey and possibly salt and/or an acid or starter of some sort (true ricotta is made from nothing more than whey, but it’s a rarity outside of Italy). Ricotta is the backbone of cannoli, and if it’s not delicious enough to eat by the spoonful, your cannoli will be doomed to mediocrity from the start.
After you’ve made the filling, transfer it to a large, disposable pastry bag fitted with a plain, 1/2-inch round tip and refrigerate until needed—it will keep up to 3 days, another excellent make-ahead option.
Next up: rolling the dough. It will seem impossibly sticky in the bowl, but all it needs is a generous coating of flour. Seriously, don’t be shy. Excess flour can be brushed off later, so use as much as you need to feel comfortable handling the sticky dough. Roll it until no more than 1/16 inch thick, then brush it lightly with egg white and fold it in half.
Like a poorly applied screen protector, this results in tons of little air pockets trapped between the layers. In turn, these pockets help the dough to blister in the hot oil, giving the shells a delicate honeycomb crunch and plenty of surface area to fry up golden brown. Re-roll the dough until it’s 1/16 inch thick once more, then cut as many 3 1/2–inch rounds as possible—the largest cutter in Ateco’s graduated set is perfect for the job.
Gather up all the scraps and transfer to an airtight container until you have the time and space to re-roll. While you prepare the oil for frying, the cutouts can be left as-is; if you think this will be longer than 20 minutes, cover them with plastic wrap or a clean towel to keep them from drying out.
The most important thing about cannoli, since it’s a deep fried pastry, is the oil itself—an ingredient most recipes leave to chance, as if any old oil will do. Nothing could be further from the truth; for cannoli, choosing the right oil is just as important as choosing the best ricotta. That’s because cannoli were traditionally fried in lard, a solid fat. Modern recipes use liquid oil for sheer convenience, and that’s a huge problem.
Pastries may crisp when fried in liquid oil, but the oil they absorbs will ultimately create a sense of greasiness. Imagine a piece of bread dunked in oil for a few minutes, and the way it would squish in your mouth. That’s nice if you’re talking about a chunk of focaccia dipped in a fine olive oil, but it’s not exactly what we look for in a pastry. When fried in solid fats, however, the oil a dough absorbs will revert to its solid state once cool, creating a texture that’s light and crisp, with lingering richness as the oil melts on your tongue, like a generously buttered slice of toast.
If you can find enough leaf lard to deep fry, go for it! But my favorite alternative is refined coconut oil. Like lard, it’s solid at room temperature and liquid when warm.
Even better, it doesn’t produce the funky smell most often associate with frying at home; in fact, it’s totally odorless, so the only the thing you’ll notice will be the aroma of the cannoli shells as they brown. Little jars of refined coconut oil can be pretty pricey in supermarkets, but when shopping in bulk at warehouse clubs or online, that price will drop to less than $3 a pound. If coconut oil isn’t an option due to allergies, other solid fats like palm oil or vegetable shortening will do just fine.
Whatever solid fat you choose, use enough to form a 2-inch deep layer in a pot that’s at least 4 inches deep, and warm it to about 360°F, using a clip-on digital thermometer to monitor the temperature in real time. Meanwhile, form the shells by wrapping the cut-outs around tapered cannoli forms and sealing the flap with a dab of egg white.
When the oil is ready, fry the shells until pale gold, about 2 minutes. If the time varies significantly for you, check the placement of your thermometer; it’s normal for the fry-time to vary a little depending on the specific thickness of the dough and the conductivity of the form, but any major differences are a sign the oil is too hot or too cool.
Transfer the fried shells to a paper towel–lined baking sheet. Holding the shell itself with a pair of kitchen tweezers or tongs, rap the tapered end of the form to loosen the shell. Set the forms aside until cool, then continue shaping and frying the remaining cutouts the same way.
Fried in a solid fat like refined coconut oil, the cannoli shells will keep up to one week in an airtight container. Once filled, that solid fat will act like a waterproof jacket and keep the filled cannoli crisp for about four hours. Still, I think cannoli are best when the shells are freshly fried and filled, perhaps because at that point I’ve been anticipating them all day.
I can’t argue with the allure of dark chocolate and toasted pistachios, but, to me, fresh cannoli are absolutely perfect on their own, delicate and crisp and creamy—just begging for a shot of espresso.
Good cannoli are impossible to find, but they’re more than possible to make at home—if you have the right ingredients, anyway. Start with the best-quality ricotta, something irresistibly fresh and creamy all on its own. Stirred into a batch of homemade vanilla pudding, that ricotta […]
[Photographs: Vicky Wasik] Few things are more frustrating than trying to limp through a recipe without the right equipment—just ask anyone who’s tried to whip a Swiss meringue by hand. In the realm of casual, everyday American desserts like cupcakes and pie, there’s something to […]
Another year; another Academy Awards ceremony on the horizon; another pun-filled menu for your Oscars party, courtesy of the guy who’s contractually obligated to produce one fun Oscar-pun menu post per annum. So gather ’round, friends, pull up a chair, pop a squat right here on a spare scrap of rug; it’s party-planning time! We’ve got a bread, a few apps, and several ideas for the main event that accommodate a range of dietary preferences—and all of these options lend themselves to witty plays on some of this year’s most promising nominees. If you don’t want to go to all the trouble of making a whole custom Oscars menu—frankly, if I were planning a viewing party and unrestrained by the tyranny of the pun, I’d probably whip up a vat of pressure cooker chile verde, set it out next to a cube or two of Bud Heavies, and be done with it—you can always concentrate your efforts on just one or two of the dishes here. It’ll free you up to relax and enjoy watching as Get Out sweeps the ceremony, as we all know in our hearts it will, and should.
Word to the wise: If you haven’t seen Get Out and you’re afraid of spoilers, don’t read on (but, for what it’s worth, it’s really too good for spoilers to ruin, so don’t worry about it). And to those who feel the urge to complain about the quality of these puns, just be thankful I nipped “Morel Streep” in the bud.
The Bread: Timothée Challah-met
GQ has hailed him as a “once-in-a-generation talent,” Cosmo says he’s “basically the greatest human ever,” and Serious Eats wants you to understand that his last name reminds us of a bread—golden, fluffy-inside, glossy-brown-outside bread. While Timothée deserves all the plaudits he can get after his terrible treatment in the time-bendingly boring Interstellar, the only accolade he’s walking away from this year’s Oscars ceremony with is “nominee.” Because there can be only one Best Actor, and that title belongs to Get Out‘s Daniel Kaluuya.
The Cheese: Three Cheese Boards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Initially, we thought we’d promote “Three Cheese Balls Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” in part because cheese balls are delicious, and in part because the word balls is funny in any and every context. But, admittedly, “cheese boards” better matched the original title, so we went with it instead. You don’t need a recipe for this one—just consult our handy guide below to learn how to put out a fine cheese board for your fine party guests, without breaking the bank.
You know what else is funny, though? Get Out! Get Out was really funny, even as it was also super creepy and scary and deadly serious. That’s the kind of range a Best Picture winner needs to have, right? Balls to anyone who says otherwise!
A Dip: Guaca-Molly’s Game
I include this recipe for several reasons. Reason the first: Guacamole is always good to eat. Reason B: Our guacamole recipe is really good (especially when made the old-fashioned way, with a mortar and pestle!). Penultimate reason: The pun is strong. Reason the fourth: as a shout-out to Michael Albert, the Serious Eats reader who single-handedly reminded me and the rest of the staff of my contractual obligation to pen this post. Thanks, Michael! I stole your pun! Get Out is the best movie of the year!
A Plated Appetizer: Willem Da-Foie Gras
This is for all you fancy-pants people holding fancy-pants Oscars dinner parties. While foie gras is like Willem Dafoe in that it’s best enjoyed in large portions, even a supporting-role-sized serving is good (as the Oscar nom attests) if that’s all you can provide. With Kenji’s recipe, there’s no need to worry about messing up your pricey foie—just be as confident as our guy Willem, who’s sure to win since Bradley Whitford, inexplicably, didn’t make it onto the nominee list.
The Main Attractions
For Pescatarians: Calamari by Your Name
If you’re aiming for a pescatarian-friendly menu, this elegant braised-squid dish solves a bunch of problems at once: It’s quick and easy to make, it’s perfectly scalable, it’s cheap, and it takes on a delicious complexity from the harissa and lemon juice stirred in at the last moment. Speaking of complexity, one overlooked element of Get Out‘s success is the casting. Is there a better representative of progressive smug than Bradley Whitford, the guy who played a glorified Rahm Emanuel on The West Wing?
For Vegetarians: Guillermo del Tortas
Catering to vegetarians and vegans doesn’t have to be difficult, nor does it mean you have to skimp on flavor. These vegan sandwiches will work just as well for omnivores, since they get a lot of heft from refried beans and mushrooms, plus variety and depth of flavor from the plethora of peppers. Speaking of solid ingredient choices, another example of the genius casting in Get Out is Allison Williams. Even in the face of mounting evidence, you trust her character almost all the way through to the end!
For Meat-Eaters: Lady Bird (It’s Just a Dang Chicken)
I suppose we could get dinged for lack of inspiration on this pun. Okay, fine, there is no pun. But the choice itself is above reproach, since roast chicken is always welcome on my plate, particularly if it’s spatchcocked and not overcooked. The key to properly cooking a chicken, as with most meats, is using a good instant-read thermometer, which allows you to exercise the kind of control Jordan Peele displayed in Get Out, which is, if you can believe it, his directorial debut.
Snacky Candy: The Barkest Hour
If you’re having an informal Oscars get-together, you could do far worse than setting out a few bowls of this potato chip– and smoked salt–infused chocolate bark for your guests as a casual dessert. It’s super simple, and you can make it far in advance, too. If you wanted to make a different tasty dessert that’s a bit more labor-intensive and also references a heavy war movie that received an inevitable Oscar nod this year, you could always try your hand at Hot Cross Bunkirks. What can we say? We’ve truly got a winning recipe for every need, much as Get Out‘s success builds on a winning formula of horror, comedy, and thoughtful social commentary that can satisfy any viewer.
A Plated Dessert: Daniel Kaluuya-Chocolate Pie
Daniel Kaluuya was the best male actor in a leading role of 2017, so make this simple no-bake pie in his honor. Or don’t make it: Daniel Kaluuya was still the best male actor in a leading role of 2017. If Daniel Kaluuya does not win the Best Actor Oscar, it doesn’t matter; Daniel Kaluuya was the best actor in a leading role of 2017. (Also, Daniel Day-Lewis.)
[Photographs: Michelle Min] Korean food always seems to be on the verge of having its moment in the press. It seems like every couple of years, some publication somewhere will identify it as the next up-and-coming cuisine, even though Maangchi is a household name and […]