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Are you kidding? I shouldn’t even be talking about it.

Tuesday, September 4th, 2007

I love blogs. Sharing is great, especially when it is being done by people that are passionate about their subject. Food blogs that share recipes are even better, but occasionally I come across a blog entry that features photos of a very delicious looking recipe. I continue reading, hoping to find the list of ingredients that starts any given recipe only to discover that it is being withheld since it is actually a <airquote>family secret</airquote>. A photo blog I could forgive, but what on earth is it doing on a food blog?

Family Recipe Withholder’s Worst Nightmare?
OK, here is the doomsday scenario: someone finds your secret family recipe and at the next gathering—let’s say at a reunion or even more public like a church potluck—you both bring the same dish. The problem is: everyone likes their version more than yours. Not only do they have your family’s recipe, but they are now stealing the inheritance that was rightfully yours. The nerve! If only there was a family recipe court (I just now trademarked that, by the way). HELLO—reality check! Does this really ever happen? More importantly, if the recipe was really improved, isn’t that a good thing?

Legitimate reasons why a recipe should be kept a secret:

  1. It’s a trade secret. This means you compete with other businesses using the recipe. Unless you are competing with another classroom for funds, bake sales don’t fall into this category.
  2. You don’t know the recipe. Perhaps you were high as a kite or were winging it and are now desperately soliciting assistance from others to reverse engineer the recipe from the few crumbs that are left.
  3. You promised you wouldn’t share it. Honor is good, but did the person that shared the recipe with you have a good reason to keep it a secret? And if so, how dare they share it with you? Shame on them!
  4. The recipe, delightful as it may be, was handed down from a relative that is now reviled for gruesome acts against humanity; revealing your direct lineage to them would be too much shame to bear upon your family. Think of the children, after all.

Do you want to know the real secret?
It isn’t the recipe. Who hasn’t gotten the recipe they have had prepared for them every year during the holidays and found disappointment that it tasted different when they made it themselves. The reason your relative’s recipe tastes so good is quite simply because your relative made it. It is their technique, their choice of brand or fresh local ingredients, their 50 year old mixer or oven, and possibly even their consistent disregard for one or more steps indicated in the recipe. Yes, the recipe is important, but ingredients, technique and sometimes even equipment play equally important roles in the creation of any dish.

It doesn’t hurt to ask.
I ran into an old friend from high school recently at my high school reunion. After he saw my blog he mentioned he had an interesting family recipe that he would share with me if I was interested. Naturally, I emailed him back and he sent me the recipe. Among questions about the recipe itself, I asked him if it was alright if I posted the recipe online—even though he just emailed the recipe to a food blogger. To my relief, he was delighted that I would feature the recipe and I asked if he had any interesting family anecdotes I could share. I’ll be posting his recipe this fall. It’s good to share, after all.

You never forget your first KitchenAid

Wednesday, February 21st, 2007

I’m a regular reader of Nosh With Me, a food blog that the author, Hilary, describes as, “One girl’s love affair with her KitchenAid mixer.” For many owners, their KitchenAid stand mixer may simply be a casual purchase at the mall or a wedding registry acquisition, but if you came to own yours in your early or mid twenties, you probably have a story to go with it. Priced between $175 – $425 (USD), they are not cheap, but I believe here you get what you pay for. This price bracket makes it an extravagant purchase for most college grads with the exception of the extremely well to do or culinary arts major.

The story of my KitchenAid can’t be told without also touching upon how I met my wife, who, at the time, was also employed at Backroads as a tour leader. I was looking for a place to live in Daly City. Anyone familiar with the SF bay area would find that detail intriguing enough. Less than a mile from the beach and ten minutes from the city with access to both BART and CalTrain, it sounds pretty good. Oh yeah, wait, the fog—there is a lot of it. All the time. Realtors in Daly City—like teachers—take summers off. You get the idea.

That October I moved in to the large room downstairs and lived in the house alone while she was attending Spanish immersion school in Guatemala. She returned in early December to find me lacing up a bicycle wheel in the living room. The next morning, we decided to have pancakes for breakfast. I opened the kitchen cupboard and scanned the pots and pans. “What are you looking for?” she asked.

“Teflon”, I replied. She didn’t have any, but we lived super close to Serramonte Mall so we took a quick trip to Macys in search of a non-stick pan. On the way to the cookware we passed by the appliances. There was a display with some 300 watt KitchenAids meant to distract us from our pancake mission. We both paused and stared for a moment in awe. I looked closer and realized this was the tilt-head model with the screw in bowl. “This is pretty nice,” I said, “but you have to get the one with the lever that lifts the bowl. It’s more powerful, sturdier and larger.”

After admiring the mixers we went to the cookware department and my housemate splurged on a nice Calphalon fry pan perfect for making pancakes. I never gave the KitchenAid a second thought since it was more than one month’s rent. Ten days later my birthday arrives. At this point, I’ve basically known my housemate for about two weeks plus half a dozen interactions at work. She goes to get my present and I can hear her struggling to bring a very large box into the living room. No, is that what I think it is? “Ok, this is like your birthday present for the next 10 years” she explained as I unwrapped the box to reveal a dream KitchenAid.

Di said she was just going to get me the less expensive one, but then she saw the 75th anniversary model complete with extra engraved bowl and limited edition diamond white and she knew she had to get that one for me. A few weeks later and we were more than housemates. My Mom would later confess, “I thought when she bought you that expensive KitchenAid she was going after you!” The truth is that we were just nice people who had a lot in common and were becoming great friends. We’re going to be celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary this year.

Now that my KitchenAid has been around for a dozen of my birthdays, I can’t help but peek at the newer, six quart models. They seem to address the difficulty of adding dry ingredients when the bowl is raised—and they have more power. But this KitchenAid is so special and has such a wonderful history to me. Maybe when the 100th anniversary model comes out in another dozen years I’ll be ready to consider parting with this KitchenAid.

75 year timeline of KitchenAid from the 75th Anniversary Recipe Book.

Bake until the buzzer goes off: Thirty years of baking cookies

Sunday, January 14th, 2007

I just celebrated my birthday last month and realized that I can honestly say I have been making cookies for thirty years. I first started making cookies with my mom in the mid 1970’s when I was five or six years old. My first grade teachers put together a cookbook filled with student recipes ranging from, “scabetti” (spaghetti), to the popular, “how to make a bowl of cereal”. My recipe was for M&M Cookies, one of my favorites at the time.

The teacher instructed each child to draw a picture of the finished recipe. They then wrote down the recipe as each child recalled it from memory. Of course, nearly all the recipes omitted key steps and ingredients, but this is what truly gives the cookbook character. Logistical details are not noticed by children, and reading the recipes you see the world as children do. The final instructions for my cookie recipe ended with “bake until the buzzer goes off”. That is when you know the cookies are done baking, right? Time’s up.

Baking cookies during adolescence
By the time I was 11 or 12, my mom entrusted me to make cookies when she was away at work. My sister and mom would both frequently grab spoonfuls of dough from the bowl or unbaked cookie dough as it sat on a cookie sheet. I was convinced—rightly so—that taking some dough before all ingredients were assembled would adversely affect the quality and consistency of the finished cookies. My best defense was to wait for the two of them to leave the house before finally assembling ingredients.

With both mom and sister gone, I could safely bake the cookies without fear of attrition. After cooling the cookies on paper towels—really should have used cooling racks—I carefully put three cookies in a sandwich bag and line them neatly on the counter. I would then do my best to clean the kitchen up as it was before, only the smell of the cookies giving away my covert operation. My mom, in order to not destroy her diet, would frequently share the cookies with her friends and coworkers. For one or two years my Mom’s best friend actually hired me to make several batches of cookies for her during the holidays.

The college years
Attending college in the early 90’s I would frequently make cookies for eating and sharing with housemates or classmates at school study groups. Many female students—incredulous that a guy could (or would?) bake cookies—demanded recipe details as evidence that I had actually baked the cookies myself. Even today I have to convince some coworkers who incorrectly assume that my wife makes the cookies I frequently bring in to share.

Cookies in the workplace
When I started working for Backroads, I would bake cookies and bring them along as a nice treat for guests to pack before cycling. The home-made cookies were a welcome substitute for the half dozen store-bought cookies we typically stocked. A guest from Tennessee ate one of my cookies and then told me in a nice southern drawl, “Damn, Brian, someday you gonna make someone a fine wife!” I actually met my wife while working at Backroads. A fellow trip leader, she was well known for her kitchen sink cookies.

Passing the torch
So after 30 years I am now making cookies with my two kids, ages 5 and 7. When they see me get my KitchenAid mixer out to make cookies, they run down the hallway to fetch the stool and stepladder so they can ‘help’ daddy. With so much help, it takes nearly twice as long, but the kids and I enjoy making cookies together, particularly on Saturdays when Mom is at work.

At a recent parent-teacher conference, the teacher read a sample from my son’s writing assignments. “My dad likes to bake cookies” she read, pausing to look up at us and ask, “Really? Is that true?” Yes, it’s true.

The List: Scrupulous accounting of candy recipients

Saturday, December 23rd, 2006

The first year I made candy and shared some at a party in 1995, I had no idea the impact they would have on both myself and the partygoers. People were amazed that mere mortals could make dark chocolate dipped truffles. As the following year quickly passed and the holidays approached, I decided I would harness the power of candymaking in small gift packages for a dozen friends and family members.

Behold the creation of “The List” where there was none before. And the list was good.

Candy is a lot like love; the more candy you give, the more love you get in return. Naturally, within a few years I quickly ramped up from the initial list of one dozen recipients to more than thirty. Every year the volume of candy in each package has continued to grow, but it has recently reached an amount I think would make just about anyone happy. For every action there is supposed to be an equal an opposite reaction; with so much more candy, the size of the list crept upwards.

Setting boundaries
Finally, several years ago, to protect my own sanity, I swore the list would not exceed forty recipients. As new people come and go from our lives—usually not at equal rates—we typically have to make some very difficult decisions each year. It is never fun to go to a party months after the holiday season and have one recipient loudly applaud the last batch of candies in front of a former recipient—awkward! I do tell people that if they return the gift basket or tin , their spot on the list is guaranteed for another year*. I’ve even had one regular recipient unload more than a dozen random metal tins they had collected over the year.

*Offer excludes paper/disposable packaging. Not eligible in some states. Void where prohibited.

Ejection from the list
Several years ago one recipient moved and failed to notify us of both the change in his living situation and his new address. That February we received a very distressed looking package with “return to sender, no forwarding address” stamped on it. That’s it! He was banished from the list, making room for another.

Forecasting future demand
Filling more than forty tins takes time.This year, the list reached forty five recipients, four of which were sold to three lucky coworkers who heard about the option to purchase well in advance. “Oh, you can buy them?” other coworkers asked, clearly surprised. It’s evident I could sell more than twenty next year without even trying. With the addition of a slight, well deserved price increase I might even be able to offset some of the costs beyond the candies that are sold. Nevertheless, increasing the volume of candies is not without an added investment of my time, a cost I currently omit from pricing of packages. I may just need a second list to manage the individuals that are eligible to purchase.

Measuring the cost of candymaking

Wednesday, December 6th, 2006

If you can afford the time, candymaking isn’t terribly expensive. You can actually get by just fine without a copper pot or a chocolate tempering machine. At a minimum you will need a good thermometer or two, but that should only set you back $10 to $30. Look for a recipe of candy you like to eat. Once you find a recipe that intrigues you, start off with a small batch for your first attempt. You will soon find yourself increasing production when you see how much people appreciate the effort and great taste experience.

Economies of scale in candymaking
It generally does not take twice as long to make twice as much candy. It does, however, take twice as long to elegantly wrap twice as many packages. Shipping costs also do not scale well, though I prefer not to ship to anyone within an hour’s drive. Although delivering candies also takes up valuable time, it is a good excuse to see friends with whom we may not have seen since the last delivery. Somehow, people are rarely busy when it is their turn to receive candy!

I bake throughout the year, but usually save candymaking—toffee, truffles and caramels—until the holidays. I typically will spend just over $500 on ingredients, packaging and shipping during my annual holiday candymaking run. This candymaking marathon will yield approximately 40 – 45 gift packages, depending on how judiciously I choose to ration the candy. At roughly $14 a package, it’s a bargain of a gift. When I think about this, I sometimes feel guilty about the apparent frugality.

Are gifts a commodity?
Somehow, in this materialistic, marketing driven holiday craze that now seems to begin immediately following Halloween, my conscience is rife with messages encouraging me to spend excessively for each person on my list; that the candies are somehow insufficient, even when paired with other thoughtful gifts. But then I stop to ponder the time and effort that actually goes into making the candies. The 40-plus hours of chopping, melting, stirring, dipping, more stirring and still more dipping late into numerous evenings—while I work full time as a web developer during the day—makes me realize that my gift of candy is a very generous one, indeed.

I have to admit that last year I scheduled a couple days off from work before the holidays—just to maintain my health and sanity while making candies. I’m planning on taking a couple days off this year, too. It’s only my time, after all.

Why you should make your own candy

Sunday, December 3rd, 2006

People love candy! It doesn’t matter what age they are, people love to eat rich chocolate sweets. Apart from the gratification of making something from scratch, making your own candies allows you to control the ingredients. No complex chemical names to be pronounced when recanting ingredients to tasters, but do spare your audience the truth about just how much fat and calories they contain. I once made the mistake of describing both caramel and toffee as a “critical mass”. As much as they loved the candy, nobody wanted to hear this. Nevertheless, they are the hydrogen bomb of candies; you just can’t pack that much sugar and fat together as densely any other way. Ergo, delicious, no?

Making candy yourself gives also you the power to choose and alter the recipe. If you like milk chocolate more than dark, change the recipe to suit your taste. Do you want to use only organic ingredients? Go right ahead. Finally, home-made candies bring another factor that many people don’t always know how to appreciate: freshness. Have you or your friends had a truffle that was only a day old? Less than a week old? Freshness—combined with quality ingredients—yield a taste experience that few people are accustomed to.

There is a mystique surrounding candymaking.
People assume candy is very difficult to make—the truth is that only some candy is hard to make. Granted, for some people, baking cookies from store-bought dough is a feat, but making the candies you will find on this site is not very difficult. Most people simply have not even tried to make their own candies. Home-made candies make for good eating and great gifts.

I have been giving candy as gifts since 1996 and I am still amazed at how praise will continue to roll in months and even years after people have received my candies. For the gift goes well beyond the pool of intended recipients, who then proceed to share the candy with their close friends and family. Then, when I finally meet these people for the first time, they experience a flavor flashback and extol the enjoyment the candies provided them. It’s like they had a kidney transplant and just found out I was the donor.

I have heard stories from people that don’t give any of the candy to their children. One parent rationalized, “My kids don’t appreciate candy like this—they think all candy is good. I’ll share when they are old enough to know.” I typically prefer to deliver my candies in person, usually during a holiday gathering. Some of my regular recipients have recently adopted a far less deceptive strategy when receiving their candy.

Seasoned recipients know best.
Although everyone present at the gathering receives one of my candy packages, each recipient will graciously accept theirs and quickly place it to the side. They learned in years previous that upon tearing open the packaging to sample—or even only to witness—the candy inside, proper etiquette would obligate them to offer samples to others in the room. What a noob! Seasoned recipients thus truly appreciate the ornate cellophane packaging that cannot easily be opened with the bare hands, as it offers another excuse to save them for later. Once the others depart they can retire alone to a locked bedroom and indulge upon their prize.