Saturday, March 31, 2007

Why I Blame Alton Brown...

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Apparently, "the blogging" has begun. And, quite frankly, let's hope it's a little more reserved than "the cooking."

I blame Alton Brown.

Alton, you see, is the creator a Food Network show appropriately named Good Eats. And, on September 10th of last year - yes, sadly, I even know the date - I stopped flipping the channels long enough to settle in and watch the show.

My life has never been the same. You think I'm kidding? Read on, food fans, read on.

I am pretty sure it was a re-run of the Behind the Eats special - an hour long "behind the scenes" show dedicated to how Good Eats is made. Alton walked through writing, props, actors, his amazing staff, the sets and locations, and most importantly, the food. Unlike previous channel-surfing siestas, this time I stayed long enough to see more than styro-foam models manipulated as mayonnaise. This time I saw a dedicated cast and crew focused on educating about food. They wanted to make food do-able. Do-able? Approachable.

I was intrigued.

Intrigued enough to see it there were DVD's of the show available - which there are - from Food Network. But, not quite wanting to put my "money where my mouth was" quite yet...I mean it's called Good Eats, but I hadn't tried it...I headed to my local library to see if they owned or had access to the series. Yep. So, I ordered 1. Okay, I ordered like 10 episodes. Sheesh, let's get all specific.

When it arrived I popped "Three Chips for Sister Marsha" in the DVD player. It's an episode about chocolate chip cookies - the Thin, the Puffy, and the Chewy. I watched, re-wound, watch again, grabbed pen and paper and began to take notes. And, ultimately, I sat there amazed.

You see, Alton wasn't just showing a recipe on how to make chocolate chip cookings. Alton was demonstrating how to doctor a recipe so you end up with the cookie you desire. Stop searching for the "correct recipe" to make the cookie of your dreams and "design it yourself."

Well, here. Let me 'splain.

For example, let's say your Mom gave you her cookie recipe, but every time you made it, the cookies they turned out flat - nothing like the puffy cookies you remember as a child. Well, you could have Mom make them every time you want cookies> But, if you're a cookie lover, that would likely entail more stories about bingo and blue-haired ladies and their cute canine critters than you could bear.

What's the alternative?
Well, mess with the specs. You see, to quote Alton, well, actually, it was a green furry puppet named Major Wilfred D. Cookie who best said:

"Shortening melts at a higher temperature than butter so it remains solid longer giving the batter time to rise and set before it spreads. Increasing the ratio of brown to white sugar also creates a more tender cookie.
Now leave me alone."

Sorry about that last part. The Major gets a little testy when he's disturbed during his favorite TV show.

Anyway, you get the picture. Just swapping out the shortening and perhaps increasing the ratio of brown sugar to white sugar could put you on the path to "Puffy nirvana." And, who wouldn't want that? Well....the rest of you who prefer Thin or Chewy, of course. But, Alton taught how to modify for those, too.

Ah, Alton. It's been 6, no, 7 months since I've started watching Good Eats. I've watched over 100 episodes since then. Watched? Studied. Pondered, practiced, and occasionally, when someone says, "I'd love to cook, but I can't..." I've pontificated.

You see, Alton explains the "why" behind cooking. Yes, it's a bit of science, but don't glaze over just yet. You can get all giddy on a graphic showing "gliadin and glutenin gettin' all gluten-y", if it's your thing. And, yes, admittedly, now it IS my thing. But, it didn't start that way. (Careful. Cookies are a gateway drug.)

Much of cooking (and baking), Alton explains, is about the variables right under your nose. Sure, the ingredient list of his biscuits was the same as the ingredient list of his darling granny "Ma Mae." He took the recipe and baked 'em. Heck, he had seen her do it a millions times while he sat in her kitchen. I thought he could do it. They didn't work. They weren't Ma Mae's biscuits. Sure, the ingredients were the same, but not the method. For that, he would have to actually not only watch, but really pay attention to her while she baked. So, he headed off to her kitchen. Just making small talk, he asked her why she didn't make biscuits for breakfast anymore - like she used to. (She was making them later in the day.)

Her answer revealed the secret. In the morning, her arthritis made her hands ache too much. (Insert graphic of skies opening up with a choir of angels singng.) He looked down at her hands and began to understand. What made her biscuits, well, better, was the care she took in her kneading. She was gentle. Almost babying her biscuits. So, what's the big deal? Well, it gets back to gluten. A long, rough knead would build more gluten. Gluten is great - in a slice of sourdough - but it's a blight to biscuit making. That is, if you desire a light, tasty, and gently textured biscuit.

So, there you have it.
Seven months later I have braised my own pork butt, seared a tasty tenderloin, and even baked my own bread from sourdough starter with hand-raised lil yeasties from my own kitchen. I have practically given up eating fast-food. After all, cooking and even grocery shopping is much more fun when the palate of colors, tastes and smells is right there for the picking.

And, I blame Alton Brown.
I love that guy.
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gerbmom said...

Um - yeah. That's why I started blogging too - so poor Mike didn't have to deal with my rambling e-mails and all my angst. And random thoughts. And look where it got me. Can I link your blog on mine?
I'm really tired. I'll read the post later. But, welcome to Blogdom!!!

Dana @ Cooking At Cafe D said...

Sure, you can link to it. But, you might wanna read it first. What if it's...garbage? ;)

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