Sunday, 19 September 2010

Bread under cover

I recently borrowed out Elizabeth David's English Bread and Yeast Cookery from the library, and have been steadily making my way through it to see what else I can learn about bread making. It's an excellent book, and I suspect I will be buying my own copy soon.

Amongst other things, she discusses the use of earthenware or heavy metal covers, such as large flowerpots or stockpots, to cover bread while it cooks in the oven. I have read about this technique before, but I finally decided to give it a go - especially when she wisely remarked that a large Pyrex mixing bowl would do the job.

Basically, you make up your bread dough (I did two batches - unbleached white with poppy seeds, and 40/60 rye - both "kneaded" by stretching and slapping the dough in a very satisfying anger-dissipating manner, a la Richard Bertinet), let it prove twice with a bit of slapping and stretching in between to knock back the dough, and then leave it on a greased baking tray.

Heat up a pizza stone in a very hot oven (at least 230˚C) for half an hour or so.

Transfer the loaf to the stone and slash it. Cover it with the bowl. Cook for 30 minutes, remove the bowl, and give it another 25 or so minutes at about 190-200˚C.

The end result is a really good crust but quite a thin one - one of the problems I have had with bread in the past is an overly thick crust, because the outside cooked and dried out too much before the inside could expand and cook properly.

Poppy seeds

40/60 rye
Best bread yet! Until I win the lottery and can buy a steam oven, that is.

Next time I will try it with my sourdough starter. I can't wait!

Saturday, 11 September 2010

An unsolicited product review

An ironic subject for a post, given my previous rant. Rest assured, the ranting will continue.

A benefit, if you are an inveterate cheapskate, of commuting via a City Loop station in Melbourne is the distribution of free things during peak hour. Last week it was iced coffee flavoured milk - which was, like all flavoured milks, vile and far too sweet.

This week it was tights (mysteriously, many male commuters were lining up to grab a pair, much to the bemusement of the women handing them out), and ice cream.

Yes, c. 4pm near Southern Cross Station, whilst I was on my way to the Vic Market, I spotted a lurid Ben & Jerry’s Kombi van. Looking at the website, I see that this must have something to do with Free Ice Cream Fridays.

Notwithstanding the fact that errands and a significant commute were in between said ice cream and a reliable freezer, I barged in front of some excited, pleonexic schoolboys and grabbed a sub-500mL (i.e. A silly feeble American pint) tub of Strawberry Cheesecake flavour.

Figure 1: Dodgy Screen Capture

It made it home, largely still frozen, for which I suppose I have Melbourne’s stubbornly wintry weather to thank.

I’ve never quite got the hype about B&J. I know people get all funny (not funny ha-ha, funny-deranged) about it, as if ice cream can be anything other than literally cool, and there seems to be some cult of personality surrounding the founders and their “wacky” ways with bits of cookie, corn syrup and emulsifiers.

Which is where the first hurdle arises.

B&J is priced at the gourmet end of the market. It is packaged for the pseudo-hippy-hipster unconventional demographic. With an ingredients list that runs to several lines and seems to depend on emulsifiers and gums to (presumably) stabilise and improve the texture, the products don’t quite mesh with the stated ethos.

It doesn’t help, either, that I don’t have a sweet tooth - at all - and I’ve never much cared for the kid-like cookies/brownies/caramel/choc-chip/marshmallow theme, singly or in combination or in mixtures of other things.

However, ice cream is something I can just about bear because the cold temperature seems to mitigate the cloying effect of the mix, and it doesn’t seem to be quite so teeth-grittingly sweet as a cake/biscuit/chocolate bar. On the other hand, I will acknowledge that I am more keen on gelato, which has a cleaner finish owing to being made from milk and not cream.

[An aside - reading The Fat Duck Cookbook it seems that HB and I have very similar opinions on this matter, as he is also a gelato man, likes “clean” tastes and textures, and isn’t overly fond of excessive sweetness. He suggests adding sour cream to mixtures, to give a bit of acidity, and I will be testing this when the weather heats up. Given how ineffably good the sweet and savoury ice creams were at The Fat Duck, I have utmost trust in him.]

As a B&J neophyte, and with some latent interest in frozen confections, I was prepared to give it a go, and at least I’d be able to say that I had tried it.

Appearance: cream, some suspicion of pink bits here and there, ditto beigey “cake” bits. Not like the picture above, which seems to exaggerate the strawberry component. This was, in fact, barely discernable as mere blush smudges.

Texture: well, the ice cream bits were good. Smooth, but a bit too creamy and claggy in mouthfeel terms for my liking. But I’ve already explained that I’m abnormal in that respect. The cheesecake cake bits were a bit disappointing - not very cakey, and merely represented sweet, gritty interruptions. This is why I don’t like cake/biscuit bits in ice cream - they don’t seem to retain their integrity, and just turn to mush. And then it spoils the whole experience, viz. Cream-cream-cream-mush-mush-sugar-grit-cream.

Flavour: Ah. Well. Yes. I think “UNBELIEVABLY SWEET” sums it up. The strawberry aspect wasn’t very distinct, and neither was the cream cheese element, so it just tasted like slightly contaminated sugar-cream.

It’s officially recorded as having a sugar content of something around the 20% mark. Having tried it, I’m surprised it’s not higher.

Peace, love and ice cream? Peace from a diabetic coma, more like.

Like the product, I also find the ethical claims made by B&J a little hard to swallow, especially those relating to the environment. It’s hardly environmentally friendly to air freight ice cream from the US around the world.

If you want decent ice cream - even merely half decent would be better - there’s plenty of locally made stuff to enjoy, in more interesting flavours. The Maggie Beer Quince and Bitter Almond is pretty damn good, and I am looking forward to trying out Gundowring soon. Plus a rare benefit of warmer weather in Melbourne is that Casa del Gelato reopens for the summer season.

In any case, heavens, buy an el cheapo ice cream maker for around $30 and have some fun yourself. I made killer gelato last year with unpasteurised Jersey milk, and, arch banana hater though I am, I discovered that banana “ice cream” is astonishingly good.

In summary, B&J ice cream highlights that really you have two choices.

  1. Buy something better (and possibly less expensive/less 10-planet-lifestyle); or
  2. Use vastly superior ingredients, and make something yourself for almost no money.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Publicity Machine

It has recently become blatantly obvious that a number of well-known food bloggers in Melbourne, and no doubt elsewhere, have been contacted by publicity agencies and/or the publicity departments of major corporations. To their credit, I am aware of this because the arrangements have been disclosed. I am not accusing anyone of underhand cash-for-comment type behaviour, such as that which necessitated US FTC action. I will note, though, that the disclosure is invariably at the end of the blog post and in small, italicised (i.e. Less obvious) formatting.

I do have a few problems with these arrangements.

Firstly, from a reader’s perspective: the same food bloggers are now all blogging about the same things. I don’t want to read much the same post again and again.

Said bloggers came to my attention because they were articulate and original. They went to places that had perhaps less well-known because PR companies had not been involved, and raised awareness of cafes and restaurants to online readers in an honest, refreshing and genuinely novel manner. Real people, real places, real thoughts and real opinions. If not cafe and restaurant reviews, then it is product reviews.

This ethos is missing from so many recent posts, which now read like press releases or infomercials of the sort that I avoid as a non-commercial-TV viewer.

In at least one case, a blogger’s backgrounder/review mysteriously used near-identical wording to that on a product website, without attribution. At best this is lazy, at worst it is deceptive.

The bloggers’ sine qua non - of doing what everyone else wasn’t doing, and writing with both brain and heart - has gone.

If I want to read sponsored reviews (i.e. Reviews not properly named - let’s call them ads), I’ll look at a corporate website.

Secondly, these arrangements run the risk of bias. A lot of studies have been done on the medical profession, where corporate sponsorship has reached its zenith, and however much doctors think they are free from influence, this is often not the case. In the US, the problem is now recognised to be so serious that drug companies have, following extreme scrutiny, volunteered to stop giving doctors everything from pens to free dinners.

Is it really reasonable to believe that this sort of thing doesn’t influence people? Corporations need to pay attention to their bottom line - they wouldn’t have massive PR and advertising budgets if it didn’t work.

You may receive a packet of X from a company, but with no other products to compare it with, how is the reader supposed to know whether that product X really is worth buying? These reviews virtually constitute market manipulation/anti-competitive practices.

Moreover, it’s particularly egregious when the skew is in favour of massive multinational corporations who really don’t need a bigger market share, and should stop being such cheapskates and pay for some proper advertising instead of co-opting civilians.

I think the only time that a blogger has done a product review in a way that didn’t destroy all credibility they had, was Cindy and Michael’s couscous experiment - I was delighted to see that a more scientific (and unbiased) approach was taken, at their own expense. I took their opinions with less salt, so to speak, and I place more importance on what they have said since.

Reading food blogs has become a less pleasant activity. I’m learning less, I’m enjoying it less, and I’m not as inspired by my peers. The best I can say about bloggers’ disclosures is that they are red flags, and indicate that I perhaps shouldn’t bother reading.