My previous attempts at DIY cotton candy were insanely dangerous, and frankly, a lot of work. However, I realized that my Aerolatte might be an even better tool for the job. The Aerolatte is sold as a milk frother, and it certainly does that job well. But I’d argue that this tool is one of the most versatile and convenient pieces of gear in a Modernist home kitchen. The Aerolatte is a battery-powered whisk that’s perfect for mixing liquids in small quantities. I use to incorporate hydrocolloids like xanthan gum and tapioca starch into sauces – an application where thorough mixing is critical. I also use it to quickly dissolve salt and sugar into liquid brines, to emulsify salad dressing, and even to hyperdecant wine, a glass at a time.
But let’s talk sugar spinning. Professional and home cotton candy machines work by heating sugar inside a fast-spinning chamber. The centrifugal force produced by the spinning motion forces molten sugar through very tiny holes or slits in the chamber. As the sugar is pushed out, it forms thin filaments that solidify almost instantaneously to form the characteristic delicate threads of cotton candy. However, in our DIY approach, we can use the Aerolatte’s spinning whisk to produce the necessary centrifugal force.
Here’s the recipe:
- Start by heating granulated sugar in just enough water to wet it. Bring the sugar to a boil, monitoring the temperature with a candy thermometer or an infrared thermometer, and without stirring. The temperature will stall at 212°F until most of the water has boiled off. At this point, reduce the heat to avoid overshooting the final temperature of the sugar.
- Continue heating until the sugar to at least 260°F. This is the minimum temperature, in practice, at which it will produce threads. However, anywhere between 260°F and 300°F is a safe temperature range to reliably produce cotton candy. At lower temperatures the cotton candy will be more pliable, and at higher temperatures the final product will be more brittle. Unlike caramel or candy making, you don’t need to be super obsessive about maintaining a precise temperature here.
- With the Aerolatte off (not spinning), dip the whisk tip in the molten sugar. Then, while holding the Aerolatte perfectly vertical, position the tip just below the opening of a wide bowl and switch the Aerolatte on. The whisk will spin, throwing threads of sugar outward. It’s important to use a bowl that’s at least 12” wide, so the sugar has room to form long threads before hitting the wall of the bowl.
- Repeat this process until you have enough cotton candy for your application.
Just as with a cotton candy machine, you can also melt down hard candies instead of using granulated sugar. Additionally, you can add color and flavor to the molten sugar; dry powders work well, but oils and fats can affect the formation of the sugar threads.
One of my favorite homemade gifts are flavorful infusions that taste like they’ve been aging for months. But, with a whipping siphon, you can get the same infused flavor in a matter of seconds.
I love pumpkin carving – it’s my favorite part of Halloween. This year, I decided to do something a little different with my jack-o-lanterns: animate them! I was inspired by the guys at DigitalDudz, who came up with the very clever idea of brining Halloween t-shirts to live by taping your smartphone or tablet inside the shirt and playing a video that aligns to the image on the front of the shirt. If it works for a t-shirt, why not a pumpkin?
The process is quite simple.
- Start by picking a video that you want to incorporate into your pumpkin design. There are lots of videos on YouTube that will work, but I really liked the HallowEyes video pack ($6 CAD) from Hallowindow.com.
- Next, pick the device that you’ll use to play the video. Any digital device will work: an iPad or iPhone, any other smartphone, a Kindle Fire, a digital picture frame that supports video playback… even a small monitor or pico projector connected to a laptop. For extra versatility, consider using more than one device (ex. a smartphone for each eye).
- Load the video onto your device. Then, lay a piece of paper over your device’s screen and trace the outline of the important part of the video. In my case, I traced the outline of each eyeball.
- Pick the side of your pumpkin that you wish to carve. Transfer the outline from the paper to the pumpkin by poking a series of small holes into the pumpkin around the lines on the paper. Be sure to pick an area on your pumpkin where the device will fit nicely, remembering that most devices have a bezel that adds extra width.
- Cut a hole in the opposite side of the pumpkin, ensuring the hole is large enough to fit your device. Scrape out the guts.
- Put your video device in a clear plastic bag to protect it from the guts of the pumpkin. Most touchscreens will still allow you to control them through a thin plastic bag.
- Make a small alignment hole where you want the video to appear. In my case, I made a 1/2” hole in the center of each eyeball. Insert your device with the video playing and check the alignment against those holes. Then, working with a small amount of material at a time, scrape out the inside flesh of the pumpkin until your device fits against the inside wall. Be careful not to scrape too far or you could puncture the inner wall of the pumpkin.
- Remove your device from the pumpkin. Working from the outside face, gradually expand the alignment holes until they reveal the correct part of your screen.
- Finally, insert your video device one last time and hold it in place using toothpicks inserted into the inside flesh of the pumpkin. Play the video (on repeat, if your device supports it).
If you liked this project, check out my primer on carving pumpkins with a laser,
Update: Andris Lagsdin, fan of Modernist Cuisine and steel expert has just launched a Kickstarter for Baking Steel, a low-cost slab of pre-cut steel for baking pizzas and breads in just the way I describe below! I’ve tested one of his prototype units and it performs like a champ – even with a single Baking Steel (no double-decker) I was able to produce fantastic, wood-fired-oven-like results on my grill! I highly recommend this Kickstarter for anyone looking to make pizza or breads at home.
The guys from Tested.com came to Seattle, so I shared with them one of the projects that’s been on my mind lately: making perfect pizzas at home. In a previous post, I discussed my approach to making great pizza dough. But, dough is only one half of the equation. Without a good oven, the best dough in the world still won’t produce quality pizza.
Now, let me first say that there are people who devote their entire lives to pizza ovens – to building them, to studying them, and to understanding how they work. I am not one of those people, and, although I still have a blank space in my yard that I one day hope to fill with an actual pizza oven, my goal here was to produce the best pizzas possible using my CharBroil infrared grill as a starting point. But if you want to send me a pizza oven, I’ll test the shit out of it.
There are two keys to hacking a grill into an effective pizza oven: getting it really goddamned hot, and holding the heat. Getting a grill hot is not so much of a challenge – add enough charcoal and let it burn for long enough, and you’ll have quite an inferno. Add more airflow or additional oxygen, and your fire will burn hotter and faster. But, retaining that high heat when you open the lid or add cold food… well, that requires mass.
Mass, like a pizza stone, or the thick floor of a pizza oven, or in this case, 25-lb steel plates, act like a heat battery, storing up heat energy. I was first turned on to the idea of using steel instead of ceramic brick by Modernist Cuisine, who recommend the technique not only for grills but for household ovens as well. So, why are steel plates better than a pizza stone? A few reasons:
- Steel is much denser than ceramic materials. A typical pizza stone has a a density of 0.0625 lbs. per cubic inch. The steel plates I’m using have a density of 0.329 lbs. per cubic inch – about 5 times as dense. That means that for the same volume of material, I can store much more energy in steel than brick.
- Steel has a much lower specific heat than brick. This means that it takes less energy to heat a steel block than a brick of equal mass. So, the steel will heat up faster in the oven.
- Steel has a much higher thermal conductivity than brick. Thermal conductivity measures how quickly heat moves through a material, or between materials via conduction. This means that the heat can move from the steel plate to the pizza crust faster than it could if I were using a ceramic material.
All of these factors are summed up in one convenient measure, known as thermal diffusivity. And, it turns out that the thermal diffusivity of 304 steel (the grade I’m using) is about ten times greater than the thermal diffusivity of brick. [I don’t have precise numbers for the ceramic composition of pizza stones specifically, but it will be similar in magnitude. Some types of steel, like high-carbon steel, have more than 20 times the thermal diffusivity of brick.]
Do ceramic pizza stones produce good-looking, great tasting pizzas? Yes, absolutely. But according to physics, they necessarily do so more slowly than steel. One of my pizza criteria is a crunchy crust that will support its own weight when held from one end. I’ve found great success in achieving this texture with a steel cooking surface. The other advantage to steel, of course, is that it will last nearly forever. I don’t have to worry about dropping and shattering it, I can use it as a griddle and scrape it clean, and if I need to build an impromptu blast shield, I’m all set.
To hack your grill into a worthy pizza oven, here’s what you’ll need:
- A grill, preferably one that runs on natural gas, or propane, but has a place to load in charcoal
- Two 1/4” 304 stainless steel plates [either purchased in pre-cut size, or custom cut to fit 2/3 of your grill area]
- 4 5-inch stainless steel pipe nipples, or any other 5” length of stainless to act as a stand for the top plate
- BBQ grill fan, or an electric bellows, or a hair dryer and about 18” of metal tubing to fit
- An aluminum pizza peel
To assemble your pizza oven:
- Place one of the stainless plates in a corner of your grill.
- Place two of the stainless steel pipe segments on the two far corners of the plate. Place the other two pipe segments on opposite edges of the plate, about 1/3 of the way back. These pipe segments will hold up the top plate. By pushing them back from the front corners, you allow yourself a little more room to negotiate the pizza with the peel.
- Place the top plate on top of the pipe segments. It should sit firmly – you sure don’t want it crashing down on you during cooking.
- Install your BBQ grill fan or bellows on the opposite side of the grill, above the open grilling area not covered by the steel.
- If your grill has a charcoal tray or basin on the open side, fill it with charcoal. If not, place the charcoal in a roasting pan or metal dish on that side of the grill. Ignite the charcoal, turn on all of the burners and close the lid. Allow the grill 45-60 minutes to preheat thoroughly.
- A few minutes before cooking, start your grill fan or bellows. This will boost the internal temperature of the grill and even out hot and cold spots. A cooking temperature between 800°F and 900°F is ideal.
- Just before cooking, turn the burners below your steel plate down to 75% power. This will help prevent the bottom crust from burning before the top crust is fully cooked. However, I’ve found that the first pizza of the day is usually somewhat sacrificial
- Slide your pizza onto the bottom steel plate and cook, turning once, for 2-3 minutes or until the cheese is melted and the top crust is golden brown. Keep the grill lid closed as much as possible during cooking to maintain the high temperature.
- Enjoy extraordinary pizza made at home!
I hope you enjoy the pleasure of homemade pizza as much as I have. I’ve probably made 50 or so pizzas this summer, and there is nothing quite as satisfying than pulling a perfect pizza out of the grill and serving it to friends. If you don’t (or can’t) have a grill, this technique works pretty well in a home oven, too. Place one steel plate on the bottom floor of your oven to act as a heat battery. Set the other on the top rack. Preheat your oven for an hour on its highest temperature setting. You’ll need to add a minute or two to the baking time, but the results will be worth it!
The video above is not camera magic – I actually poured a bottle of water into a room-temperature glass and watched it instantly turn into ice. I stumbled upon this phenomenon when I was experimenting with the optimal temperature at which to serve Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Long ago, I modified the freezer in my basement to maintain precise temperature control using a PID controller. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been sampling cans of PBR at different temperatures. Incidentally, I have concluded that PBR is best served right around –8.5C. At that temperature, the beer is still liquid, but has a small amount of ice crystal formation (which is just delightful). I just happened to have some small bottles of Arrowhead water in the freezer and I noticed that a few of the bottles remained liquid while others were already frozen solid. I wondered if these bottles might be supercooled: chilled beyond their freezing point but not yet frozen because the ice didn’t have a nucleation point from which to form. Turns out, they were.
And I have video proof.
From now on, this is what I want when I order “ice water” at a bar.
Pink slime is so hot right now – it’s in fast food joints, at supermarkets, and even in our elementary schools. But, pink slime is so much better when it’s homemade! Once you taste a fresh pink slime hamburger, you’ll never be satisfied with the drive-through version again. Grinding our own pink slime is also a great way to tailor the ammonia content to your particular taste, whether you prefer tangy and solvent, or mild and corrosive.
For this burger, I used the left over beef trimmings that I had been saving for compost. They were aged one week at room temperature and had just started to take on the terroir of my compost bin. You can use store-bought ammonia, but if you happen to be (or know) a cat owner, I highly recommend using feline-produced ammonia. It provides a sharper, more vibrant flavor that you can only get from fresh, local sources. I recommend using cat litter that has been sitting for 30 days. Sift out the solid waste (because it would be disgusting if any fecal matter got near your burger patty) and reserve the litter granules – they contain the precious ammonium hydroxide we’re after. Blend the litter granules into a fine puree, then pass them through a chinois or coffee filter. Combine the aromatic litter liquid with the beef trimmings and feed through a masticating juicer or a pasta maker with a spaghetti die attached. Form the extruded meat into circular patties and cook on a grill, or sous vide before deep frying for a perfectly brown crust.
I like to keep the rest of my burger pretty simple – a Kaiser roll or a brioche bun, an American cheese slice, some heirloom tomato, and plenty of ketchup to mask the other flavors. Enjoy at your next backyard barbeque, or any old day of the week!
[and happy April Fool’s day.]
Did you know that you can cure meat at home using nothing more than a wine refrigerator?
This was my first attempt at meat curing, and I’d say it went fantastically well. This project was inspired by Matt Wright and his insanely beautiful blog, WrightFood. Matt has some serious curing experience under his belt, and offers detailed recipes and techniques for home curing. For this project, I followed his recipe for Duck Prosciutto (recipe is towards the bottom of the post).
The recipe calls for curing duck breasts in salt for 24 hours before hanging them up to cure at 55F with 60% relative humidity until they have lost 30% of their original mass.
Although I’ve got big plans in my head for building a high-tech curing chamber (one day), I also remembered that I had an unused wine refrigerator sitting in the basement. Nothing is sadder than an empty wine fridge, so I decided to repurpose it for a bold new mission. The fridge has an adjustable temperature setting for champagne, whites, reds and long-term storage. Luckily for me, one of those settings corresponds to 55F. I didn’t bother measuring the humidity in the wine fridge, but I reasoned that it would have to maintain a reasonable humidity level to keep wine corks from drying out. The fridge also has a small fan, which is great for circulating the air inside and a desirable condition for curing meat.
My $75 DIY Sous Vide build make was just published in Volume 25 of Make Magazine, the premier publication for hackers, modders and DIYers and food geeks the world over. I re-wrote the instructions for the build, adding detailed photos and tips for construction. The folks at Make did a phenomenal job laying out and illustrating the article!
Bonus! The nice folks at Boing Boing linked to the project on Make.
If you’ve been playing along at home, you know that I’m a teeny-tiny bit obsessed with the soon-to-be-released, 2400-page Modernist Cuisine book. Well, my excitement skyrocketed last week when I had the rare privilege to peek at a few hundred [digital] pages of the book, guided by author, CEO and hero of geeks everywhere, Dr. Nathan Myhrvold. I was honored by the invitation, which I can only assume was prompted by a prank phone call from the Make A Wish Foundation on my behalf.
Among the seemingly endless pages of stunning photographs, captivating history and practical instruction, the book is sprinkled with fascinating tidbits like this one. Did you know that you can measure the speed of light using your microwave and a few slices of Kraft Singles?
From the section “Cooking in Modern Ovens”:
You can measure the speed of light by melting cheese, chocolate or even marshmallows in your microwave. Microwave cooking leaves patterns of melting on soft, smooth surfaces that correspond to roughly half the wavelength of a microwave. These patterns are caused by the way the microwaves crisscross in the oven chamber and either combine their energies or cancel one another out.
Here’s how to replicate the experiment at home.
- Cover a flat plate, platter or cardboard disc with soft cheese slices.
- Place the plate in the microwave. If your microwave has a turntable, disable it, or remove the turntable platter and place the plate on an inverted ramekin to bypass the turntable motor.
- Heat on low power until it has melted in several spots.
- Measure the distance, in millimeters, between the centers of any two melt spots. Double that number to get the wavelength.
- Multiply the wavelength by the frequency, in MHz, of your microwave (listed on the back). For example, if your microwave is 2.45GHz (typical), you’d multiply by 2,450,000. [We multiply by MHz instead of GHz to fudge in a factor of 1000, which is the conversion from millimeters to meters.]
- Compare your value to the generally accepted value of 299,792,458 meters per second
The value I calculated was 306,019,200, which is is only off from the actual value by 2%. Not bad for fake cheese!
Between now and the release of the book in March, I’ll be highlighting a few more geeky food tricks from the book. In the meantime, you can find more information at http://modernistcuisine.com/. If you’re ready to pull the trigger, the book is available for pre-order on Amazon.com.
This turned out to be one of the more dangerous machines I’ve ever built. The goal was to make a cotton candy machine out of parts I had lying around. The finished product was an aggressive, 1/2 horsepower, 4000°F beast of a machine that lasted long enough to prove itself before dying of awesomeness.
If you want to build a cotton candy machine at home, all you need is:
- A tin can, like a tuna or dog food can
- A drill with a very small drill bit
- A motor (ex, your drill, an old CD player, a blender)
- A heat source, such as a propane torch, a lighter, or the coils from an old toaster
- A bucket to catch the cotton candy, or alternately a sheet of paper to wrap around the assembly
Follow the steps in the video to see just how easy this machine is to build. Oh, and don’t forget… safety first. My favorite part of this project was setting up a blast shield in front of the camera before we turned on the machine.
Special thanks to Victor (@sphing) for filming!
If making alcohol had been this easy during prohibition, homemade hooch would have been everywhere. A few weeks ago, I began playing with a product called Spike Your Juice, which was advertised as a way to turn juice into alcohol in 48 hours. It works like this: pick a juice with at least 20g of sugar per serving, add a packet of their specially-designed yeast, plug the bottle with an airlock, and wait 48 hours. Just like the fermentation process used in winemaking, the juice’s natural sugar is converted into ethanol, with a byproduct of carbon dioxide. The result is an alcoholic drink with a champagne-like effervescent fizz.
I bought a box of these magic bacteria and started experimenting. The instructions recommend using filtered juices that don’t require refrigeration and aren’t artificially sweetened. But, I’m bad at following instructions, and I don’t trust a juice that doesn’t require refrigeration. I grabbed a bottle of Pink Lemonade, Mango, Blackberry and Sweet Tea from Trader Joe’s. The pink lemonade worked well – after 48 hours, it was quite fizzy, though I couldn’t really taste the alcohol. The Sweet Tea fizzed a bit, but also didn’t taste “spiked” – it just tasted awful. The Mango juice (which wasn’t fully filtered) formed big solid clumps during fermentation. I’m not sure why, exactly, but they were gross so I filtered them out with cheesecloth before drinking. Again, some fizz, no buzz.
The Blackberry juice was the winner by far. It also developed some solids (even though it was very clear juice to begin with), and you’d never mistake it for wine, but it was delicious. Think blackberry Lambic, but with an adjusted price of $1.75 per bottle (64oz of juice at $3, $1.50 per packet of yeast, 25oz in a wine bottle). This is something I’d make again, and certainly something I’d serve to dinner guests or corruptible children.
The instructions state that you can allow the fermentation to continue longer than 48 hours to achieve up to 14% ABV. It also recommends using Welch’s or Ocean Spray – I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree there. To me, the best part of this product is that you’re free to choose great starting ingredients, like a locally-produced cider, or raspberry juice from plants in your back yard. But for the fun of quick, easy DIY booze, I’ll raise my glass to this product!
I am a pumpkin carving geek. I can’t get enough of it! As soon as October rolls around, there’s nothing I want to do more than buy a dozen of the largest pumpkins Fred Meyer carries and sit at home with my pairing knife whittling away at orange flesh. [Tip: Fred Meyer’s scales max out somewhere around 30 lbs., so find the heaviest pumpkins you can and you’ll get a great deal!]
Over the past few years, I’ve developed a few pumpkin carving techniques (ahem… using lasers), but I am certainly not alone when it comes to geeking out over gords. Check out this collection of nerd-o-lanterns!
Care for a drink and a smoke? How about a smoked drink? After a friend inquired about a “smoked beer” she saw on a bar menu, I decided to grab my Smoking Gun* and take a shot at smoking a handful of beverages.
I smoked each of the beverages below by submerging the Smoking Gun’s rubber tube in the liquid. In the case of the wines, it served to both smoke and aerate the drinks (BTW, I never understood why it should be impolite to blow bubbles into your wine – if someone complains, tell them you’re “helping the wine open up.”) I ran the smoker for about 30 seconds for each beverage, then blew away any lingering surface smoke before tasting.
The results were surprising…
If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably got a handful of thermometers dancing around your drawer of miscellaneous kitchen tools. But, are they accurate? If you’re roasting a turkey, a degree or two of inaccuracy isn’t going to make a dramatic difference. But, if you’re making caramel, tempering chocolate, cooking sous vide, grilling a steak, or doing any number of other tasks that require a precise temperature, having a thermometer you can trust is clutch.
Calibrating your thermometer is quick and easy. Many analog and digital thermometers allow you to offset the temperature to adjust for the calibrated value. However, if your thermometer doesn’t offer an offset function, a piece of blue tape with the delta will work just fine.
Method 1: Ice Water
- Fill a glass with ice cubes, then top off with cold water.
- Stir the water and let sit for 3 minutes.
- Stir again, then insert your thermometer into the glass, making sure not to touch the sides.
- The temperature should read 32°F (0°C). Record the difference and offset your thermometer as appropriate.
Method 2: Boiling Water
- Boil a pot of distilled water.
- Once the water has reached a rolling boil, insert your thermometer, making sure not to touch the sides or bottom of the pot.
- The temperature should read 212°F (100°C). Record the difference and offset your thermometer as appropriate.
[Note: The boiling point of water will vary with altitude. Use this handy water boiling point calculator to find the right temperature for your elevation.]
Now that you’ve got a thermometer you can trust, go forth and cook with confidence!
Low and slow… it’s true for sous vide, and its definitely true for smoking. And, if you live in Seattle, you probably know that one of the worlds best smoked foods is salmon. Smoked salmon has a wonderfully rich and concentrated flavor, but unfortunately it also has the texture of wet leather. For this recipe, I used a Smoking Gun – a remarkable little device that creates a cold, concentrated smoke that can be captured in a container, or in this case, a vacuum bag [Disclosure: the Smoking Gun I used was a demo unit provided by PolyScience.] The result: instant smoky flavor. Then, we delicately cook the salmon to just above rare, which retains the fish’s buttery texture.
Total kitchen time: 25 minutes
- 2 salmon fillets, about 15mm thick
- 1 tsp. smoked salt
- 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- Preheat your water bath to 45.5°C. [Note: Consuming undercooked fish blah blah blah. Some people will cook their salmon at 39°C, but that’s a little rare even for my taste. If you’re squeamish, crank up the temp to 52°C.]
- Remove the skin from the salmon fillets (reserve for frying, if you want.) Divide the salt and pepper between the fillets and coat both sides. Place the fillets, together or individually) into vacuum seal bags, but don’t seal them yet.
- Prepare an ice bath large enough for the salmon fillets in their bags.
- Load a Smoking Gun with hickory wood shavings. Insert the exhaust hose into the open end of the bag and fold over the open edge to partially seal the bag.
- Turn on the Smoking Gun and light the wood chips. Smoke the entire bowl into the bag, retaining as much smoke as possible.
- Holding the open end of the bag up, submerge the bag into the ice bath for a few seconds to condense the remaining smoke. Seal the open end in the vacuum sealer.
- Cook the salmon in the water bath for 15 minutes. Remove and serve.
Given the soft texture of the salmon, I thought it would be good to pair it with something crunchy. I fried kale leaves in grapeseed oil for a few seconds per side (look out for major oil splatter!) and roasted asparagus with olive oil and rosemary salt. I also fried the leftover salmon skin until it was slightly crispy and used it to wrap the asparagus. This is one of my new favorite salmon preparations, and I can’t wait to see what else I can instant-smoke!