Vanilla Extract – Week 2

October 17, 2010

I now realize that there will be no surprises with my vanilla extract. More beans equals stronger flavor. Period. After 2 weeks, the results are based entirely upon the amount of beans used in the extract. Recipe #4 (the strongest) is still only 50% of McCormick’s and is now on par with the imitation vanilla. Neither of Chris Kimball’s recipes are doing well; Recipe #2 barely tastes of vanilla, and I declared Recipe #1 a failure last week.

Week 2 Results (the recipes are here):

  • Recipe #1: 0-star. Very weak. Recipe is a failure. Because I filtered it last week it will not improve beyond zero stars. I probably won’t mention it again.
  • Recipe #2: 1 star. Very weak. Barely a hint of vanilla flavor.
  • Recipe #3: Ready on December 1. Not sampled.
  • Recipe #4: 2 star. About 1/2 potency of McCormicks.
  • McCormicks: 4 stars. Classic vanilla flavor, but $4 per ounce. Corn syrup added.
  • Imitation Vanilla: 2 stars. Similar, but off flavor. Made from wood by-products and chemicals. Yuck.

It seems clear at this point that it takes months to make vanilla extract. Chris Kimball’s promise to accomplish it in weeks is pure fallacy.  There is such a discrepancy in these recipe, that I see no point in testing anything again for at least a month.

Rustic Country Bread

October 15, 2010

Despite Chris Kimball’s claim about this dough having a high level of hydration (it has 58% hydration), the dough seemed drier than most breads I’ve made this year; like the Rustic Italian Bread (68% hydration). The drier dough was easier to work with, but resulted in a finer crumb. I was surprised that the recipe didn’t add more yeast to the dough, but only relied on the yeast added the night before.  Of course this bread cannot be compared to the crème de la crème of breads; the Rosemary Focaccia.


The shape is the only thing rustic about this loaf.


The recipe is here. Similarly to most of Chris Kimball’s other bread, start the biga the night before. Then begin preparation in the early afternoon (1:30 pm) for 7pm dinner. For the main dough, add the ingredients to the bowl of a standing mixer, and mix with a dough hook on lowest setting for 15 minutes. Add the 2 teaspoons of salt in the final 3 minutes. Let triple in size; about 2 hours. On a floured surface, fold the dough in a specific way according to the directions and place in heavily floured, cheesecloth-lined colander. Let double in size; about 45 minutes. Spray dough 5 times with water bottle. Bake for 35 minutes in 450-degree oven until bread has an internal temperature of 210-degrees. Let cool for 1-1/2 hours.

The bread is good, respectable, but lacks some personality. The crumb was too fine. If I’m going to spend all day doing something, I want it to exceptional. Perhaps because this is a relatively old recipe, from 1995. In my opinion, this recipe is not worth the effort. It’s not much better than a $2 pre-baked loaf from the super market (though doesn’t have the extra additives).


  1. The recipe says that this is a wet dough, but it seemed dry. The directions say to “add water in 1-tablespoon increments every 30 seconds until smooth consistency is reached”. Because I’m not sure what consistency they wanted, it was impossible for me to judge.  I like Chris Kimball’s other recipes that use a very precise weight, and comes out perfect every time.
  2. The crust became a little too thick while waiting for the internal temperature to reach 210-degrees.

Rating: 3-1/2 stars.
Cost: $1.
How much work? Medium.
How big of a mess?  Low.
Started: 1:30 PM.  Dinnertime:  7:00 PM.

Hash Brown Mania and other Craziness

October 13, 2010

There was a period over several months when I ate hash browns twice a day; for breakfast and dinner. No, I am not crazy (at least not for hash browns). I was biking across the altiplano of Bolivia. It was several day’s ride between towns, and the only food available was potatoes. But not just potatoes; the world’s most bountiful variety of tubers.  With hundreds of varieties of potatoes, every color in the rainbow, every shape imaginable; I don’t think I ate the same type twice. But enough was enough, after I road down the back side of the Andes into the Chaco desert of Paraguay, I swore I would never eat hash browns again. Now, more than 10 years later I am going to break my promise to myself and make Chris Kimball’s Classic Hash Browns.


Wringing before cooking makes for better taste and texture.


Classic recipe is here, but there are other variations here. So what makes this recipe different is the technique of drying the potatoes. Place in clean cloth towel and twist until they have released their water. Here I mixed with 2 tablespoons of grated onion and 1/4 cup of cheddar cheese.

3-1/2 stars. Overall, these rate better than my Bolivian Hash Browns; though how many people have eaten purple Hash Browns?

Rating: 3-1/2 stars.
Cost: $0.50.
How much work? Low.
How big of a mess?  Low/Medium.
Started: 8:30 AM.  Ready:  9:00 AM.

Memphis-Style Barbecued Spareribs

October 11, 2010

Not only are the days are getting noticeably shorter, but there are fewer and fewer warm days. So this sunny weekend in mid-October could be the last slow-cooked ribs for 2010.  While I’ve been making spareribs with sauce for years, I also wanted an easier recipe using only a spice rub. These Memphis Spareribs fit the bill; really they are quite simple. They only spend 1-1/2 hours on the grill after which they spend another 2 to 3 more hours in a 300-degree oven. The results were good, but I did miss the sauce.  The shortcuts did take their toll on the final ribs. Overall about 3-1/2 stars.


Exterior was a little overcooked, but interior was perfect.


The complete recipe is here. Soak 1/2-cup wood chips for 30 minutes. Mix the spice in a bowl for spice rub. Rub on both sides of the spare ribs, and set aside while preparing the grill. Mix 1/2 cup apple juice and 3 tablespoons cider vinegar in bowl and set aside. Put 15 unlit charcoals on one side of grill and put a disposable aluminum pan on the other side to catch the drippings. Light 1/3-full chimney starter, and when coals are ready pour them on top of unlit coals. Put ribs above pan over indirect heat and cook for 45 minutes. Flip, rotate and brush with 2 tablespoons of apple mixture; let cook for 45 more minutes. Transfer to wire rack over rimmed backing sheet. Pour 1-1/2 cups water into baking sheet. Finish in 300-degree oven for 2 to 3 more hours until meat registers 195-degrees, basting every hour with apple mixture. Tent with foil and let rest for 15 minutes.

These ribs are 3-1/2 stars. They were easier to make and were well-seasoned. Still, I missed the sauce which gave them an extra degree of potency. For me the best ribs recipe is still Kansas City Sticky Rib. But by the time I make the homemade BBQ sauce and smokey beans the entire day is gone.


  1. I didn’t use St. Louis Style Ribs, rather I just used regular spareribs.  I can usually find the St. Louis cut in summer, but my supermarket doesn’t stock them this late in the year. On the plus side, this substitution cuts the ribs from $20 to $10. Always appreciated.
  2. When baking I put 1-1/2 cups of water in the sheet pan per the recipe, but this was too little. Next time I will add another cup after an hour.
  3. While the ribs exterior was a little overcooked, the interior was perfect. It could be my fault, because I let my oven use convection mode.

Rating: 3-1/2 stars.
Cost: $12.00; for 5-lbs of ribs
How much work? Low/Medium.
How big of a mess?  Medium.
Started: 2:00 PM.  Dinner time:  7:00 PM.

Homemade Vanilla Extract – Week 1.

October 9, 2010

After a week, some of my 4 vanilla extract recipes are “officially” ready; Recipe #1 (Chris Kimball’s 2009 Recipe) and Recipe #2 (his 1993 Recipe). During this week I have shaken all four jars daily. Today, per the recipe, I filtered Recipe #1 through cheesecloth which halts the extraction process. It’s flavor will not improve from here on out. Recipe #2 will not be filtered so will continue to mature.  (See Last Week’s Post for all 4 Recipes)


I performed two tastings on each of Recipe #1, #2 and #4: (1) tasting the vanilla extracts straight from the bottle, and (2) mixing each in 1 tablespoon of plain, unflavored yogurt and 1/8 teaspoon sugar. I did not incorporate either into a cooked recipe at this early stage.  All four recipes still have a strong aroma of alcohol. Recipe #1 and #2 smell only vaguely of vanilla, and Recipe #4 smells the most like vanilla. As expected, the amount of vanilla beans directly corresponds to the intensity of vanilla in the aroma.

Week 1 Results:

  • Recipe #1: 0-star. Very weak. Unusable.
  • Recipe #2: 1/2 star. Very weak. Not ready.
  • Recipe #3: Ready on December 1. Not sampled.
  • Recipe #4: 1 star. About 1/3 potency of McCormicks.
  • McCormicks: 4 stars. Classic vanilla flavor, but $4 per ounce. Corn syrup added.
  • Imitation Vanilla: 2 stars. Similar, but off flavor. Made from wood by-products and chemicals. Yuck.

Based upon my tastings, in all cases, 1 week is not nearly enough time to obtain sufficient potency no matter what the concentration of vanilla beans.  Because I halted the extraction process for Recipe #1; I can declare it a failure. I would not include it in any recipe, as it is too weak and taste too boozy (at least the booze would cook off during cooking). So clearly, heating the vodka in Recipe #1 does not compensate for either (a) waiting longer for the extract to be ready, or (b) a reduced number of vanilla beans.

To be honest, I was skeptical about Recipe #1’s potency from the beginning. It uses the fewest beans (only about 20% of the FDA required potency) and the recipe only uses a fraction of the time as my other recipes.

The jury is still out on Recipe #2, though, because the recipe call for it mature further. From here on out I will shake the bottles once a week, and will continue to post and compare the results at intervals over the next 6 months.

More Vanilla Bean Details:

I ordered “Extract Grade” (another name for “Grade B” beans). However upon receipt, it turned out that it would take 240 beans to make one pound, when they were advertised as 140-160 per pound. Eventually, the website sent me more beans labeled “Grade A”. However, they turned out as 160 per pound: the upper range for “Extract Grade”. In the end, I got what I paid for.  But to avoid confusion I would suggest that you contact your seller beforehand to be sure that you are getting what you paid for.

One weakness of all recipes (Except Recipe #4) is that they list the number of beans per cup of vodka. But because they don’t specify which grade of beans. “Grade A” beans are heavier (about 100 beans makes one pound), and I used “Grade B” (150 beans makes one pound). There is 40% variance in potency due to this ambiguity.

Sweet Cherry Pie

October 7, 2010

My first ever cherry pie results were good, but not great. My son (the cherry lover) was happy. The flavor was well balanced. The red plums gave just enough tartness to the otherwise very sweet Bing cherries. But because I could only use frozen cherries the texture definitely suffered; this would have been best when made in June or July. But the only fault I can find with the filling was that it was much too runny (while hot). Only the next day after sitting in the refrigerator did the filling stay within the pie slice.

However, my biggest failure was messing up Chris Kimball’s latest “foolproof” pie dough recipe (September 2010). The rolling process was an utter disaster. The dough stuck and ripped, even though the counter was heavily floured. It was so bad that I had to start the rolling process again, after allowing the dough to recover for 45 minutes in the refrigerator. The second time, I rolling the dough on wax paper, which was easier to peel in the event of sticking. However, after I read about why he calls it foolproof, I don’t feel quite so bad. Really it should be called “Better Pie Dough”; there is nothing there to make the preparation process foolproof.


The filling texture was firm only when chilled.


First make the pie dough; the foolproof pie dough recipe is here. Add 1-1/2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon salt, and 2 tablespoons sugar to food processor and pulse for 2 seconds. Add 12 tablespoons chilled butter and 1/2-cup chilled shortening to food processor and process for 15 seconds.  Add 1 more cup of flour, and give it 6 more quick pulses. Dump into mixing bowl; sprinkle with 1/4-cup cold vodka and 1/4-cup cold water. Mix with rubber spatula and divide into two equal 4-inch round disks, which are then chilled for 45-minutes before rolling into 12-inch disks.

The filling recipe is here. Process tapioca in coffee grinder (or food processor) for 30 seconds; set aside. Add 1 pound of sweet cherries and 2 red plums in food processor, and run for about 1 minute. Strain and discard solids. The remaining 5 pounds of cherries are simply pitted and cut in half; stir remaining cherries, sugar, salt, lemon juice, tapioca, and cinnamon into puree; let mixture rest for 15 minutes.

Line a 9-inch pie plate with dough, add filling, and top with second disk. The recipe has instructions for a decorative border, which I tried but ultimately could not make. Add eight 1-inch slits and bake at 400-degrees for 30 minutes, then lower oven temperature to 350-degrees and back for another 30 minutes. Let cook for at least 3 hours before slicing.

Result: 3-1/2 stars. The flavor was great. By themselves the Bing cherries would be too sweet, so adding the red plumbs balances off the sweetness without diminishing the strong fruit flavor. On the down side, my cherry pie making skills definitely need some work in order to end up with a nice looking pie.


  1. My biggest complaint is that the filling was very runny after letting the pie cool for 2 hours. When cutting the filling was all squeezed out by the knife.
  2. Of course, the most embarrassing recipe that I could mess up is something with “foolproof” in the title. When I floured the counter, I spread the 1/4 cup of flour over too wide of an area. As the pie crust widened during rolling, the initial amount of flour under the dough was spread too thin. Next time I’ll be sure to put the entire 1/4-cup only under the initial disk of dough, not in a 12-inch circle on the counter. Plus, I’m going to start out rolling on wax paper; it’s much more forgiving.
  3. By the time I tried to add the decorative seal, the dough had to much surface flour and wouldn’t stick to itself. I ended up rolling the top and bottom crust together; ugly but 90% effective. It did come apart in a few places and oozed out. Good thing I baked it on a sheet pan to catch any spillage.
  4. The instructions simply call for “2 red plums, halved and pitted”.  But I now know that it is impossible to halve and pit a plum. I mushed up the plum too much trying. You are better to just cut it into 8 pieces to remove the pit.

Rating: 3-1/2 stars.
Cost: $10.80.
How much work? Medium.
How big of a mess?  Medium.
Started: 1:30 PM.  Dessert time:  8:00 PM. (an extra hour for my pie dough problems)


Not a work of art, but enough to make my son happy.


Chicken Fricassee

October 5, 2010

I tried out Chris Kimball’s brand new (November 2010) recipe for Quick Chicken Fricassee. Traditionally, Chicken Fricassee is French poached chicken but can be quite time consuming. Here it is ready in 1 hour; made in a skillet rather than a dutch oven. It uses chicken broth rather than waiting for it to flavor it’s own juices. This version is served in a mushroom-cream sauce.

Rich and delicious and ready in just 1 hour.

Rating: 4-1/2-star. Great rich and balanced flavor. My 9-year-old son said that it was reminiscent of Beef Strogonoff that I made in February. Checking back, he was exactly right; both are made of sauteed mushrooms and onions in a source cream sauce, with a splash of lemon juice (I’m amazed at his culinary memory).


  1. The recipe yields 2 cups of sauce, but really only 1 cup is needed for the 2 pounds of chicken.  The biggest impact is that I had to buy a full pound of Cremini Mushrooms (my local supermarket no longer sells them loose, only prepackaged in 10-ounce packages).  I wouldn’t mind if I ate the full $5.40 worth of mushrooms, but the recipe could be re-proportioned to only use 10-ounces and there would still be plenty of sauce.
  2. Because I didn’t have ground nutmeg, I substituted 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon and 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves. Nutmeg would have been a little smoother, but the flavor was still great with the substitution.

Rating: 4-1/2 stars.
Cost: $11.  (It could be less; $5 was for mushrooms).
How much work? Low/Medium.
How big of a mess?  Low.
Started: 5:30 PM.  Dinnertime:  6:30 PM.

Chris Kimball’s original recipe is here. The descriptions of how I prepared the recipe today are given below:

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts and/or thighs
Table salt and ground black pepper
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound cremini mushrooms
1 medium onion
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 medium garlic clove
1 1/2 cups chicken broth
1/3 cup sour cream
1 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 teaspoons juice from 1 lemon
2 teaspoons minced fresh tarragon (or praslet)

  1. Use paper towels to dry chicken pieces. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper.
  2. Place a 12″skillet over medium-high burner and heat 1 tablespoon butter and oil. After the foaming has subsided, add chicken to the skillet and cook for 4 minutes; until browned.
  3. Flip and cook the second side for 4 more minutes; until browned. Remove chicken to a large plate.
  4. Meanwhile, Trim the mushroom stems and wipe the caps clean. Slice into 1/4″ slices. Chop onion fine, which should yield about 1 cup.
  5. Add mushroom slices, minced onion, and wine to the skillet. Saute for 8 to 10 minutes until the mushrooms have browned. Add flour and press garlic directly into pan. Saute for 1 minute.
  6. Add chicken broth and bring up to a boil. Use a wooden spoon to scrape up the fond.
  7. Add back the chicken and any accumulated juices to the skillet. Reduce burner to medium-low, and gently simmer, covered, for until 5 to 10 minutes. An instant-read thermometer should read 160-degrees for breasts and 175-degrees for thighs.
  8. Remove chicken to a clean serving platter. Tent with aluminum foil.
  9. Meanwhile in medium bowl, wisk together sour cream and egg yolk together. Slowly stir in 1/2-cup of sauce into sour cream mixture; stirring constantly. Then slowly add sour cream mixture into simmering skillet. Add nutmeg, lemon juice, and tarragon, and bring back up to a simmer.
  10. Season according to taste with salt and pepper. Top the chicken with some sauce and serve with remainig sauce on the side.

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