Archive for February, 2008


Coffee: espresso, cappuccino and more

I am by no means a coffee connoisseur, however, I do have an above average working knowledge of the different terms and equipment used to make good quality coffee, so i figured I’d share a little of what I know.

Coffee – there are two main species – robusta and Arabica. Robusta is inexpensive and not very flavourful, and is used in canned or instant coffees. Some coffee producers blend this type with Arabica to keep costs down and increase production yields. Arabica beans are slower growing, allowing for more flavour developement. These are the ones used in specialty coffee places.

Coffee is often named for the country of origin (Columbian, Kenyan, Sumatran etc.) The beans start off in a raw state and must be roasted and ground up, then water is passed through the grinds to produce the beverage. Much is written about coffee’s shelf life once roasted, and generally it’s best for consumption as soon after it is ground as possible. For more information, check here:

Barista – a barista is a professional coffee preparer. They are trained in the art of making a wide variety of specialty coffee drinks. These people, who work at specialty coffee shops, tend to be a good source of information about all things coffee related. They tend to be passionate about what they do, and take pride in their work. Just be aware that not all coffee shop employees are baristas. If you find a good barista, befriend them, and you are sure to get good quality everytime.

Equipment –

Espresso machine – essential for making espresso based drinks. Many different types exist, it all depends on their intended use. I have a home model on my kitchen counter, complete with group heads and steam wand. My wife likes getting creative with usin steamed and frothed milk to come up with new variations of old classics. (We’ve made a killer hot chocolate, and impressed guests with a unique “irish coffee” using baileys).

At one of the bakeries I worked at, one of the other employees, from Lebanon, used to have a small stove-top espresso maker that he would fire up every day at 2pm. I found one at a local thrift store for a dollar, and use it frequently for a quick pick-me-up. This would be the route I would suggest for someone just getting started with espresso, who doesn’t have the money to go out and get an espresso machine.

Grinder – Allows you to grind whole bean coffee just before brewing, which keeps the product fresh longer. I started out with a small hand held electric one, the type some people use to grind up spices. I have since upgradedto a more reliable countertop model, which allows for more consistent results.

Steaming pitchers – used to pour foam and milk. Generally made out of stainless steel. One with a pointed spout is required for making Latte art.

Tamper – for packing grinds evenly into the porta filter.


Espresso – 30ml (1.oz) of concentrated coffee, served in a demitasse (one of those tiny coffee cups). Very strong, if you are only used to drinking the typical North American cup of joe. Espresso is the base from which all other espresso based drinks are made. Note: it’s spelled espresso in North America, and Expresso elsewhere. Neither spelling is right or wrong, as long as you know what is being reffered too.

Cappuccino – Can vary widely depending on region, the basics of a cappuccino include espresso, milk foam, and steamed or heated milk. A lot of commercial coffee places that serve “ice-capps”, and other cappuccino-named drinks tend to sweeten the heck out of them. Keep this in mind when ordering at specialty coffee places, where no sweetener has been added by the barrista. I was used to Tim Hortons cappuccino, so the first coffee house cappuccino I had, I regret to say, ended up in the garbage because I thought it was burnt or something.

Doppio Cappuccino – Doppio means double; made from two espressos. May not be double sized, but double strength.

Macchiato – like a cappuccino with chocolate

Caffe Latte – espresso and milk

caffe mocha – like a chocolate Latte

Caffe Americano – I love the story behind this one. After the second world war, when tourism started to pick up in Italy, a lot of American tourists were dismayed to find that they couldn’t get a “normal cup of coffee”, and instead were given a tiny cup of a very dark, very strong brew. Some Italian baristas started using a larger glass, and thinning the espresso out with water, the whole time shaking their heads and mumbling “Americano!” That’s a basic caffe Americano. Espresso topped up with water. It’s good for anyone not yet used to the strength of a shot of espresso, or someone wanting something closer to a cappuccino, but who may be lactose intolerant. Also, not every barista will know this one, so it makes you look pretty knowledgeable (even if you aren’t).

There are many other variations you can try, and it’s fun to be able to make fancy coffee-based drinks when company comes over and you want to whip up a quick treat. Experiment and enjoy!


Baby, it’s cold outside…

While I’m sitting here, bundled up in the middle of another Canadian winter, I got thinking about cold weather comfort foods. At the top of my list is my mother’s potato soup, with little pieces of bacon in it. I also love my grandmother’s beef stew and tea biscuits.

Now I want to hear from you. What’s your favorite food or drink on a cold and miserable day? Stay warm! 


Wine Primer

I find that there’s a lot of misinformation out there about wine. Far too often I hear people tell me they really like wine, but they don’t know anything about it. I also hear a lot of opinions about wines based on some percieved notions about how sweet or dry, or how dark or light a wine is. I also dislike wine snobery based on a single origin. For example, I recently had someone tell me they only drink Italian wines. I asked which type, and they said they didn’t care, it just has to be Italian. While I’m sure this is based on a good experience with an Italian wine, not all Italian wines are created equal. Also, this perspective on wine assumes all other wines are not fit for consumption, which I strongly disagree with.

Wine Basics:

Wine is basically fermented grape juice. Anyone familiar with bread baking will be familiar with how yeast works. Yeast is a living organism which, in the case of wine, occurs naturally on the grape skin (although some wine makers use lab grown strains of pure yeast instead of “wild yeast”). Yeast consumes the sugars present inside the grape, and converts it into carbon dioxide and alcohol. When the alcohol level hits around 15 percent, it kills off the yeast. Now picture the classic episode of I Love Lucy, with Lucielle Ball stomping on grapes. I bet you didn’t know all that science was going on at the same time.

As for grape types, red grapes traditionally need a slightly longer growing season, therefore wines from Italy, Spain, Portugal, and the Napa Valley in California tend to be made from red grapes, while colder climates tend to favour white grapes. Remember, also, that it is the skin that colours a wine, so it is possible to drink a white wine made from red grapes.

The weather can also play a major roll in how a certain vintage (year the wine was made) turns out. Frost can wipe out a crop, drastically reducing the amount of wine produced in a certain area. Windstorms, too much or not enough rain, all wreak havoc on the outcome of a crop. Consider, also, that grapes have a higher amount of sugars, acids, and water at different stages in their growth. If you were to try a grape off a vine early in the season, it would be very dry and acidic. A grape pulled from the same vine later in the year will have had time to develop more sugars (called Brix by winemakers). Too much rain before a grape is pulled will give you a very diluted, watery wine. Not enough rain will give you the opposite effect. A wine specialist will want to keep this in mind when choosing a certain wine from a certain region, with a certain vintage.

For the beginner, I would suggest trying to get familiar with whatever wines are locally available to you. Try different wines from the same wine growing region until you find one or two that you personally like. If the “experts” are raving about a wine that you find tastes bad, then don’t drink it. One of the worst wines I’ve ever tasted was an award winning fruit wine from a highly esteemed winery. I’m sorry, but if I think it tastes like cough syrup, no amount of flowery description will make it taste any better.

So what do you do with a wine you have sampled but don’t particullarly care for? Use it to cook with, of course!


International Food and Wine Festival, Disney Style

China, originally uploaded by adelphos24.

That picture was taken at the International food and wine festival at the epcot center a few years ago. Only a true food geek would admit that he was on his honeymoon.
We didn’t go to Disney World for our honeymoon specifically for the festival, it was more of an added bonus. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.

The entire festival took place at the epcot center, around the world showcase exhibits. Several stalls were set up offering a small sampling of food from different countries for a reasonable price (The Disney theme parks can be very expensive when it comes to meals).

There were also demonstrations throughout the week, but we were too busy acting like kids to catch many of these.
One of the more memorable moments happened our first night. We had just left the Japan exhibit, tyco drums still pounding, and as we came around a corner, ran into a group of people doing the twist. After my initial confusion, I realized that we had inadvertantly walked into the middle of a Chubby Checker concert.
For those of you old enough to know who Chubby Checker is, yes he’s getting up there, but he can still dance. For those of you who don’t know who he is, thanks for making me feel like I’m getting up there, but I can still dance.

As far as the food went, from what I can remember, the stuff at the chinese exhibit was very good (although I can’t remember what it was). I remember having a very salty cured meat from spain, and having to drag my wife away from the perogies after the third trip. At some point I discovered a stall hosted by a brewery, and don’t really remember much beyond that 🙂

For anyone planning a trip to Disney World, I highly recommend going during the food and wine festival, if for no other reason than to keep food costs down during your trip. -the twist is definitly something white people like. – for anyone looking for a fun vacation. – the man, the legend.


Leaveners, a baker’s secret weapon

One of the most important and misunderstood concepts of baking is the ability to take a dough (which can be as simple as flour and water), and make it rise. This is done by a process known as leavening. The main purpose of leavening is to build the structure of the baked good. In other words, without a leavener of some sort, your baking will be very limited.

There are three basic categories of leaveners – organic, chemical, and physical.


I include all varieties of yeast in this category. Yeast is a tiny living organism that must be alive to do it’s job (hence the reason I use the term organic). It is very important to keep this in mind as you work with yeast. When learning how to work with yeast doughs, my mentor told me “treat it like you would treat a girlfriend, handle it gently, don’t slap it around. Keep it warm and well fed.” Although I’m not sure this is the key to a good relationship, it certainly works for yeast.

Yeast requires moisture, takes in sugars, reproduces, and gives off carbon dioxide. It is this process, when the conditions are just right, that makes breads rise. The ideal temperature for raising yeast is between 60 and 90F. Keeping the yeast cool is a process known as retardation. It won’t harm the yeast, but it will give you time to make your baking schedule a little more flexible. Using this process to your advantage, it’s possible to store dough overnight in a fridge without worring about it growing too rapidly. Yeast is destroyed when baked over at temperatures over 200F.


This category includes baking soda and baking powder. They rapidly rise a baked good when combined with moisture and heat. Baking soda also needs an acid. The chemical reactions that take place in the baked good produce gasses, which in turn make bubbles. Think back to grade school science fairs. There was always at least one baking soda and vinegar “volcano”. That’s exactly what goes on in your baking.


This category includes steam and air. Steam is released when moisture in a batter, supplied by butter, eggs, or another liquid gets heated. The steam forms air pockets and allows the baking to rise. Good examples of this are evident in choux pastry (for eclairs and cream puffs), and puff pastry. Air is also used as a leavener through creaming butter or whipping egg whites and carefully folding them into a batter. The air bubles get trapped and dried out as the product bakes in the oven. A good example of this would be a souffle. has some informative information on yeast.


Top Five Most Useful Pieces of Kitchen Equipment

This is just a list of equipment that I personnally couldn’t do without in a kitchen. I’m sure others will have something to add to this list.

1. A good quality Chef’s Knife.

Proper knife handling technique is crucial in a kitchen, for safety as well as efficiency. A good quality chef’s knife is as important to a cook as a hammer is to a carpenter.

2. A digital scale (the one I have at home does metric and imperial).

Consistency is key when you are doing a recipe you make frequently. A digital scale ensures that you get the quantities right every time. I found that I use the scale more for pastry than cooking, but it makes setting up much faster. Many home recipes are in cups and tablespoons, but I even tend to convert them to metric so I can use my scale. All of my recipes from my professional life are in metric.

3. An imersion blender

Perfect for getting just the right consistency for puree’s and soups, without having to pour a hot liquid into a small blender. No other tool in the kitchen does quite the same job as efficiently, without making a lot more mess (and dishes).

4. A digital thermometer

I learned how to temper chocolate by feel, but there’s no way I’m sticking my finger into a pot of boiling sugar. Temperature is a vital component to getting the results you want, every time.

5. Parchement paper

Probably one of the most under-appreciated tools in a kitchen, it allows you to make a mess with minimal clean-up. Cheap and disposable, it can be cut to whatever size is needed, and rolled into a piping cone for many uses. Tip for the home cook: make sure to use parchement paper, not waxed paper. There is a major difference.


Practice, practice, practice…

Chocolate bags, originally uploaded by adelphos24.

When I was doing my apprenticeship, the pastry pictured above was the one that gave me the most difficulty.
The inside is a cake called a chocolate marquise. It’s a very rich, dark chocolate mousse with a flowing white chocolate ganache center. The outside is a paper thin shell of chocolate, formed by hand, with split second timing and precision.
I had a lot of frustration trying to get this dessert to work for me. The pastry chef who taught me made it look so simple. He could whip up 50 of these in no time, while I struggled with four.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the most useful skill I learned while struggling with this was patience. I worked at it for quite a while, and then one day it just seemed to click. My skill improved drastically after that.
This pastry was one of the most difficult things I had to learn how to do, but it’s now one of the things I’m most proud of.