Thursday, December 18, 2014

Dear Readers

Oh, hey there readers.  Thanks for stopping by over 40,000 times.  Thank you especially to those who have left comments.


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Overheard Outtakes 2014

Those who get our Christmas letter will know that we include funny quotes from the boys
also rejected for the family Christmas card
during the year.  We capture more than we can use.  We used to have a lot we couldn't use; this year, three quotes made the draft stage but failed to make the final cut.  I present them here for your amusement:

C: The [Star Wars animated] Rebels episodes are only 3 minutes long because they haven’t aired yet, according to the red-headed kid at Toys ‘R Us.

After a Little League game:
J: Who won?
T: We did.  We’re undefeatable.

To Teddy during a dispute while playing:
C: When you grow up, if you throw something at someone, you could go to jail.  If you throw scissors at someone, you’ll get a three-day suspension.”

Friday, December 12, 2014

Kitchen Item Review: Pizza Steel

On the final day of Kitchen Item Review Week, I bring you the Pizza Steel.  Like many good things in life, we have King Arthur Flour to thank for this one.  They didn't invent the pizza steel, but they got behind it and have sold it in their catalog.  My Competent Wife gave me a pizza steel as my big birthday present this year.  To hit the basics: yes, it's like a pizza stone, but it's made of heavy gauge 1/4" steel instead.  Also, the people who make it call it a baking steel, but it's highest calling in life is pizza, so that's what I call it.  The guy who created my version works for a garden variety modern company but also really loves pizza and had pursued the perfect crust.  Eccentric and overly-fussy Nathan Myhrvold posited that hot steel would be the best thing to bake pizza on, and our regular Joe went out to the plant to test the theory.

first effort with the steel
We briefly owned a pizza stone, and it impressed me by feeling heavy and cumbersome and fragile all at the same time.  The steel is heavy but feels easier to wield and far less fragile.  I can't think of many things that are less fragile.  Slide this baby in the oven and preheat, and you essentially create the bottom of a pizza oven right there on your rack.  The crust turns out fantastic, but I'm really pleased about the cheese.  I've never been able to get my pizza cheese browned like the pros do, and it turns out what I have been lacking is massive heat from below.  Who knew?  An interesting point for home pizza bakers: traditionally, I've baked pizza as low in my oven as possible.  The Steel instructs you to put it on a high rack, creating a small hot box in which your pizza bakes.  I really do think of it as sectioning off a portion of my oven as a pizza oven.

Competent Wife would like me to inform you that once I got the steel, I also needed a

pizza peel for the first time.  You bake right on this puppy, and it gets mucho hot in a 500-degree oven.  [Parenthetical to Pittsburgh foodies: I bought a peel at In the Kitchen in the Strip before walking down to Pennsylvania Macaroni Company and finding a 90% identical peel for half the price.  I marched right back and returned the more expensive one.  Save yourself the trouble; start at Penn Mac.]  

She would also like me to mention the pizza-specific cutting board I have purchased but not yet used.  [That came off the half-price rack at In the Kitchen.]  These accessory purchases are not as ridiculous as they sound.  I'm fond of the flesh on my fingers and therefore needed the peel.  We've traditionally made pizza on a pan (aluminum, I assume) on which we could cut it.  When you bake right on the steel, the pizza a) is not necessarily completely round - I assemble it on the peel now and b) needs to be cut somewhere.  We don't actually own a cutting board completely big enough, so I bought a cutting board with slicing guide grooves and a nifty rack to keep it off the table.  Completely necessary and sane.  I have not yet used it.

If I have one complaint about the steel, it's that owning one makes me want to own two, so I can bake two pies at a time for my growing family.  But that's insane.  Until my next birthday, anyway.  

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Kitchen Item Review: Chef's Choice Knife Sharpener

After reviewing a newish knife, it's only fitting that I review a newish knife sharpener.  I believe this was a Christmas present from my Competent In-Laws last year.  We'd had a manual knife sharpener for years that did something.  I honestly never felt like our knives got much sharper using it.  In fact, I took our chef's knife to a kitchen store and paid a nominal amount to have it sharpened because our manual one didn't seem to do much.  Failure of technique could 100% explain that.

I can definitely tell you that our Chef's Choice Hybrid 220 electric/manual sharpener does
something.  Starting with the left-hand slots and their terrifying-sounding whirring sharpener and moving to the right-hand manual slot to finish the job, this sharpener works quickly and effectively.  It makes me nervous that I will wear my knives out unevenly, but I really enjoy being able to make a real difference in how sharp my knives are in seconds at home.  The longer I cook, the more I realize that a dull knife can be far more dangerous than a sharp one.  Vacation home kitchens can be the worst.  With this, we can keep our knives at home nice and sharp and effective.

Here's a mesmerizing wordless video demonstration of someone cutting two things I'd probably never cut with my chef's knife: tomatoes and paper.  It's good to know I can, though.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Kitchen Item Review: Zojirushi Home Bakery Supreme

Our lineage of bread makers goes like this: My college roommate got us a Breadman Ultimate as a wedding present.  We used it essentially weekly for nine years, replacing the pan once.  The motor eventually gave out, and we faced the need to replace it.  

It happened to be the spring, when our neighborhood holds a massive (like, 70-household) yard sale.  Desperate to have a new bread-maker, the night before the sale, my finger hovered over the mouse button to order a replacement.  Knowing how much we used our machine, we were going to buy a Zojirushi that King Arthur Flour endorses as a workhorse.  The sale the next day gave me pause because bread makers are the kind of thing that people sell in good condition because they didn't use it as much as they'd hoped to.  I decided to leave the Zoji in my virtual shopping cart. If we didn't find one at the sale, we'd come back and complete the purchase.  It was hot, and we had a small child in tow, and we found no bread machines for sale.  At a fateful corner, we could either head for home or go down one more block we'd not visited yet.  We went for the mystery block.  Halfway down, there were items on a porch with no people around.  A sign read: "Free stuff (but not the porch furniture)".  Among the free items was a brand new, in-the-box, never-used newer version of the Breadman Ultimate.  It had a horizontal pan, which produces a much nicer loaf.  I was as shocked as I was thrilled.  We carried it home and used it for about eight years.

When that one went - if I recall correctly, it was the pan, and it was impossible to buy a replacement pan for our model - I complained on Facebook about being breadmaker-less.  It was kind of a middle schooler ploy for attention.  An acquaintance replied that she had one she never used, and we could have it for free.  I'm not proud that it worked, but I was very pleased.  Hers was as old or older than our first one, a smaller vertical pan model.  But it was free, and we used it for about eighteen months, until the motor went.

This time, I wasn't messing around.  We bought the Zojirushi Home Bakery Supreme (Model number BB-CEC20)
from King Arthur Flour.  They don't have exclusive sales rights, but we're faithful to them.  This machine works really well.  I've talked so much about our bread machine history that I don't know how much I'll actually say in this review.  It has a horizontal loaf pan with two paddles.  This design distributes and mixes ingredients flawlessly.  A feature that really stands out is the preheat cycle.  No machine I've had has preheated the water.  It's convenient when you're going to start the cycle right away to not have to wait for the tap water to heat up (especially in the winter).  But the real money in the feature comes when you set your timer for the cycle to start later (like overnight or in time for fresh bread to come out when you get home from work).  Hot tapwater would cool down overnight; when the machine preheats the water, the results are far more consistent.  You can read up on other features, but I really don't need more than a good dough cycle and a good bread cycle. This is a rock solid, thoughtfully-designed breadmaker that looks nice, works rather quietly and turns out the most reliable loaves I've gotten.  That's a useful endorsement from a weekly (at least) bread baker of 19 years. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Kitchen Item Review: Victorinox Fibrox Chef's Knife

 For the first 18 years of our marriage (and cooking life), we used a Cutco chef's knife that we got as a wedding present.  It was a very solid knife for us, and we happily used it, getting it sharpened less often than we should have.  We still have it.  It has a good handle that feels nice in your hand, and the knife looks essentially the same as when we got it.  It's well made and has worn well.

We kept reading in Cook's Illustrated, though, about the high-value Victorinox Fibrox 8" chef's knife.  They praise the shape and texture of the handle and the very sharp blade.  We ordered one through a local kitchen store that we like, but they're available lots of places including Amazon.  Although it's apples and oranges, the knife really performs better than our 18-year-old knife.  One can get used to cutting performance that's not optimal.  When a more optimal knife comes along, it pleasantly surprises.   At around $30, this is a fabulous deal.  For comparison, if we were to buy the current version of our Cutco knife, it would run round four times as much as the Fibrox.  Anyone starting a kitchen from scratch would do well to stock one of these.

Thanksgiving this year, we deployed both chef's knives at once for the first time.  That felt like sumptuous luxury.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Kitchen Item Review: Scrub Daddy

We've acquired several new kitchen tools large and small in the last year.  I thought I'd take a week and post some reviews.
My co-worker's guilty pleasure is Shark Tank.  For some reason, she just loves that particular story told in reality TV format.  She came in raving one day about the Scrub Daddy. It's a spongy scrubber that holds a rigid consistency when you use it with cold water and softens considerably with warm water.  It's really pretty effective for scrubbing pots and pans that don't have ridiculous things caked on.  Plus, it's shaped like a smiley face.  Its creator touts the mouth part as a convenient way to scrub spoons.  I've used it for that, but then, I wasn't lying awake at night, puzzling over food caked on my spoons.  The video at the link above instructs you to stick your fingers in the sponge's eyes because that grip will make it easier to reach the bottom and sides of dirty vessels.

One use I discovered on my own: this little thing cleans out from under dirty fingernails like a champ. We've had surgical sponges in the past that work OK but tend to fall apart over time.  A four-pack of Scrub Daddies might last us years. For now, there's one by our kitchen sink and one in the shower the boys use.

They're really useful.  Sometimes As Seen On TV crap actually lives up to the hype. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014