Friday, November 1, 2013

The Summer of Food

2013 was my first summer in food. I spent two days a week at the farmers market, selling meat and produce for Stillman's Farm, and the rest of the week making ice cream at The Fireplace for the restaurant and other customers. I have collected stories from some of Boston's small food business owners. I have gotten to know the inside workings of a restaurant. And I have made a lot of ice cream.

Blueberry Basil. Orange Cardamom. Espresso Oreo. Peaches & Cream. Grape Nut. Honey with Chocolate Almonds. Mint Chip. 

Aside from non-native produce like citrus (send 'em over, California!), I'm learning to change with the seasons. And one thing that I've realized recently about myself is how much I love change. From strawberries to blueberries to raspberries to blackberries, I've watched closely as fruits danced their way into summer and ever so quietly sneaked their way out. Spoiled by the market, I'd often eat a pint, if not more, in one day. I was so berry-drunk this summer that I forgot to freeze them before they all vanished. Thank goodness I learned my lesson after blueberry season and have one bag of raspberries and blackberries tucked away for a rainy (or, more likely, snowy) day -- Dark Chocolate Berry Swirl, anyone? 

This magical summer has come and gone. I'm learning to embrace the pumpkin and squash, and slowly turning my attention towards other delicious things -- nuts, chocolates, and caramels. And though everything around me might quiet down for the winter, I plan to keep moving and changing. I'm not exactly certain where all this is going, but it's somewhere amazing, full of ice cream, and temporarily void of berries. 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Positive Wonderful Stress

One year ago, I was frantically running around my kitchen, measuring out little sandwich baggies of cloves, ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon. I was making Orange Chai with Chocolate Chips for a competition only a month after getting my first ice cream maker. The week after my birthday, my friend Rachel had forwarded me an email about an Ice Cream Takedown and encouraged me to enter. When I enter something, I mean business. So, for the next few weeks (my very first weeks making ice cream), I'd leave work, come home, and go straight to the kitchen. The next morning, I'd wake up early to churn before heading into work. My social life for those few weeks revolved around having friends over to taste-test.

It was prepping for last year's competition that made me fall in love with ice cream making. The whole process was very stressful (mostly unnecessary and self-induced, I now realize), but it was the best kind of stress. It excited me and motivated me to keep going. When I talked about this feeling with my sister, she said "this is what it feels like to be passionate about something." And that's when I realized that this is the kind of stress that I want in my life. Lots of it. Lots of positive wonderful stress.

It's one year later, and the competition is tomorrow. I feel more confident, better prepared, and I'm so excited to stand at a table making single-serving friends with everyone who comes by for a taste. Won't you join me?

Get your tickets here

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Ice Cream Sandwich

Homemade ice cream sandwiches. Yum. It looks like they're all the rage right now in New York. It seems like something only a retail shop can master though, because an ice cream sandwich tastes best when both the cookie and the ice cream are super fresh. How do Nestle and Blue Bunny do it!?

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Fig Newton Effect

About eight years ago, my friend and I were in the car, and she told me how much she loved fig newtons. "Really?!" I can still remember how confused and surprised I was by this. And she was just as confused and surprised by my reaction. So, I explained. The filling is too sticky and grainy and, if you don't eat them when they're super fresh, the cookie part gets kind of gross, too. I ruined fig newtons for her, and she hasn't been able to look at one the same way since. So, I apologize in advance if this blog post has the fig newton effect on you. I pray that it doesn't. 

A while back, I was tasting some fresh batches of ice cream and realized all of the things that I pay attention to now when I take a bite. It's not just flavor. It's texture. But texture means so many things. So, being the ice cream dork that I am, I made a list of what I taste for:

The obvious one is ice crystals. If it's not smooth and tastes icy, we have a problem. Moving on. 

Thickness. I've made some batches that have come out more pudding-like (I'd say custardy, but I don't use eggs). It's still delicious, in that Fudgesicle kind of way, but it definitely belongs on a popsicle stick and not in a bowl. 

People talk about mouth-feel, but I want to focus on tongue-feel. This sounds dirty, but every ice cream feels different between your tongue and the roof of your mouth. Some stick to your taste buds and leave a thin film behind; others are super smooth (I like this kind) and melt perfectly. Which brings us to the next two...

...residue, which can be that feeling on your tongue that I just mentioned, but it can also be the buildup on the spoon. Too much left behind on either will make you want to stop eating far earlier than you should. 

...meltability, which I didn't think was a real word, but turns out it is. I've noticed that some ice creams melt super quickly, and others (I've noticed this most in custards) don't melt at all. Some melt into a thin liquid that leaves you wondering if that was ice cream you put in your mouth. It was only when I tasted this kind of ice cream and thought "huh, weird" that I started paying attention to this feature.

Are you laughing at me yet? Go ahead. But now you'll notice these things, too, and you'll never be able to eat mediocre ice cream again. You're welcome. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A New Chapter

The room was grey, and I sat on a black chair waiting to go into the recording studio. At least this is how I remember it. I was two, and my legs were barely long enough to dangle off the edge of my seat. My dad the Creative Director coached me in reciting my favorite nursery rhyme into a microphone the size of my face. And that's how I got my start in advertising. 

The journey continued with a video for the St. Louis Visitor's Bureau when I was six. My job was to sit and eat ice cream. Take after take, I took a bite with my hands like this, my legs like that, turning the cup, sitting like so. Perhaps I should've realized my dream then, but I continued in advertising with tons of take-your-daughter-to-work-days (which, for me, happened more than once a year). I played pinball in the lounge and did arts and crafts in style, drawing with Prismacolor markers and collaging with old issues of Communication Arts. 

I felt so comfortable in an ad agency, so it made sense. Years later, I graduated college and got my first job in the industry at Arnold. A girl who loves going to farmers markets and cooking for friends, I found myself working on McDonald's (remember this?). When I joined the team, I was the only person there who had never tried a Big Mac.

Two agencies later and twenty-six years after my advertising debut, I've gained mentors and friends. I've learned a lot, grown a lot (ate a lot, and drank a lot), and now it's time to try something new. So, I'm trading creative briefs for recipes and handing in my jeans for an apron (well, not exactly...I have to wear something underneath). It's the end of a chapter -- or at least a bookmarked one.

Today's my first day in the kitchen.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Blind Taste Test

I've always enjoyed my grapenuts with milk, warmed in the microwave for about 45 seconds, and drizzled with honey. If I'm trying to be fancy, I'll sprinkle some sliced strawberries on top. But grapenuts in ice cream? As my grandma would say, "I never heard of such a thing!" At least not until I moved to Boston.

The other week, a chef asked me to make some grapenut ice cream for him. After babysitting my niece last weekend (sitting there as she napped, wondering how bad it would be if I woke her so we could play, and then continuing to sit there as she napped), I got a ride from my sister and brother-in-law to Toscanini's and grabbed a pint. It was surprisingly simple. The cereal doesn't really have a crunch to it anymore, and the only added ingredients seem to be vanilla extract and grapenuts. Time to put my spin on it.

To resemble my favorite method of grapenut-eating, I made one batch with honey, (one failed half batch of honey,*) and one batch with just enough vanilla to bring out the flavor of the dairy. I was happy with them both and, while that's exciting, it's also confusing; I have no idea which to move forward with. So, I took my two flavors and Toscanini's over to my sister's for a blind taste test.

My sister, Jessica, tasted all three and couldn't decide between two of them. My two! I hold her opinion of food in high regard, so I didn't need to do any more blind taste tests. But I couldn't help myself. So far, I've done five others and, while some friends have been nervous that they'll "pick the wrong one," I've consistently come out on top! What a confidence-booster -- it's so great to feel like you're good at what you do.

*note to self: half batches aren't worth it.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Side by side

I started making ice cream in July with a Cuisinart ICE-30BC. That sucker's a workhorse. Out of the three machines that I've used, this one took the least amount of time to churn (25-30 mins). One problem: you have to re-freeze the drum between each batch. (Well, this is only a problem if you want to make three batches in one day.)

After borrowing my sister's Lello 4070 Gelato Junior for some heavy churning over my "Winter Break," I realized that I needed to upgrade. I'm the kind of person who researches products for a year before finally buying something, but time was of the essence. So a year of research was condensed into a week, and I narrowed it down to my sister's model and the Cuisinart ICE-100, a new and improved version of the ICE-50BC. I ended up with the latter, but without the help of a side-by-side review. I was surprised (and slightly annoyed) to see that no such thing exists. So, here goes!

The Lello has a 1-quart capacity; the Cusinart has a 1.5-quart capacity. Point for Cuisinart! 

The Lello's motor is attached to the lid, which makes it really hard to clean; the Cuisinart's motor is in the base. This also allows for a bigger opening for mix-ins on the Cuisinart (the one on the Lello is practically useless!). Point for Cuisinart! 

Now's where I start to get nit-picky...

The Lello has a switch that turns on the compressor (aka the power switch) and then a button that turns on the motor. On the Cuisinart, there is one button that turns on the compressor and the motor at the same time. Although neither instruction manual tells you to do this, I like to run the compressor for 5-10 minutes to get the bowl cold before churning. Fortunately, if you press the Cuisinart's compressor/motor button twice, the motor shuts off and the compressor stays on. But that interface is just kind of annoying. Point for Lello! 

Like I said, I chill the bowl before adding the mixture. The compressor on the Cuisinart must have a temperature sensor, because it'll automatically shut off if I leave it for too long and it overfreezes, which is sometimes 5 minutes; sometimes 10. I then have to turn it off and wait a little before turning it back on or else the compressor won't start back up. Point for Lello for not being so finicky. (*Update: If the compressor shuts off, you can still start churning. As soon as it's back at the right temperature, it'll start back up.*)

Both the Lello and the Cuisinart have a timer. I find this feature silly, because there's no way to know exactly how long the churning will take. You can't start the Cuisinart without setting the timer, so I automatically set it to 60 (the highest it will go). When the Cuisinart timer goes off, the churning stops. The timer on the Lello doesn't need to be set, but if you choose to use it, it doesn't shut off automatically, and the beep at the end is not really that loud. So, it's pretty pointless. On both models, I find the timer kind of stupid. So in my opinion, this one's a draw.

Thought they're both about the same size, the Lello's motor on top makes it a weird shape and a little harder to store. Point for Cuisinart.

Finally, though I haven't tried it yet, the Cuisinart comes with a separate paddle that's designed for gelato and sorbet. Supposedly it incorporates air into the mixture differently. Possible but not certain point for Cuisinart. 

Since the Cuisinart is newer, I'd say I made the right choice. For me, the biggest draw was the canister size and the motor being located in the base. But you really can't go wrong with either machine.