September 2009

Ode to Betty Crocker

Since this blog is about foods that I like, and foods that I think you will like or at least think are interesting and not foods that are elitist and hoity toity, I will write about one of the most reliable food items out there today: The box cake mix!

There was probably a time when I scoffed at cake mix, which is a crime because it is one of the first things I used while I underwent a strange baking phase as a kid. I loved choosing the cake mixes lined up along the baking items aisle in the supermarket. Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines? Dutch Chocolate or Yellow Cake? Yes, there was and is a flavor called “Yellow,” which has more or less an artificial buttery taste, and there is “White,” which has a similar buttery vanilla flavor only it is white.

For whatever reason, the cakes that emerge from these mixes (after just adding water, oil and three eggs) are the most moist, fluffy, light cakes one could ever eat. Whether it’s due to artificial ingredients or hydrogenated oils, they are never-fail cakes. Sometimes I eat an overpriced cupcake, or I eat one of my own cakes made of out of scratch and I think, Betty Crocker’s cake mix is so much better. The only time I’ve ever made a successfully moist and fluffy cake was a wonderful carrot cake from Epicurious and that was probably a fluke. So in order not to mess up my mom’s birthday cake, I decided to go to my heroine, Betty Crocker, and picked up a box of White Cake Mix.

They say imitation is the highest form of flattery. This was very much so in the decision making process for my mother’s cake. I consulted my friend Purwa, who posted a lovely recipe for a fruit cake on her blog. This cake resembles the kind that is available in many Korean bakeries that have an undoubtedly French twist. It’s like they made their version of a cake that was inspired by the lovely, artful creations that are found in France’s patisseries. Sort of like Korean-French fusion bakery. One such cake is the fruit cake, which is layered white cake frosted with whipped cream and topped with fruit slices like so:


I am happy to report that it turned out very good and much of it is already eaten, mostly by me. I owe it all to my girl Betty Crocker. And Purwa!

To browse through these Korean-French fusion bakeries, visit Tous Les Jours and Paris Baguette for a location near you.

Homemade Ketchup?

While surfing the immense ocean of food blogs this evening, I came across a recipe for homemade ketchup in honor of what is now the just-passed tomato season. Turns out there are a lot of recipes about homemade ketchup! They sound appealing enough but there is something about them that makes me not care to make my own ketchup, ever. Maybe it’s because a teacher once assigned a reading that changed my perception of ketchup forever. It was Malcolm Gladwell’s rather long New Yorker article about ketchup’s allure, particularly that of the Heinz brand. Read it if you want to learn about ketchup like you’ve never known what ketchup was before. Gladwell describes the chemistry behind creating a perfect condiment and the reasons why no other ketchup brand has been as successful as Heinz, a company that mastered the formula for satisfying every single sense of taste at once: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami, thus making us love the condiment without really knowing why, other than the fact that it tastes good. I thought all ketchup brands tasted the same but after reading the article, I was wrong.

So when I saw the recipe for fresh-made ketchup, the effect was hardly inspiring. We like to cook things for the homemade, wholesome taste but ketchup seems to be one of those rare items that will probably taste better than homemade versions, mostly because it’s a condiment that we grew up with and have acquired a certain taste for. The fresh version might be fun to have while eating homemade french fries or something but when there’s McDonald’s or In n Out fries on hand, I’m reaching for the Heinz.

But we do get carried away, don’t we? The challenge of cooking something out of scratch is seductive to some of us, but the results aren’t always pretty. There were plenty of times when I would see a recipe (many of them baked goods, usually cake-related) and go in a momentary frenzy of experimenting and engaging in complete kitchen upheaval, much to the dismay of my mom who sometimes says, “why don’t you just go to the store and buy it?” I know, why don’t I? Some foods, I think, are better left to the hands of professionals.

Hot Cold Noodles

bibim naengmyun

One of my favorite foods of all time is noodles. Anything involving noodles or a noodle likeness (like spaghetti) is immensely satisfying to me, so I dedicate this post to a noodle dish that I have recently taken much interest to, even though I grew up eating it. Pictured above is a bowl of bibim naengmyun from Hamhung Myun Oak in Garden Grove. My family and I have been going to this somewhat of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant ever since I was a kid and it never seems to fail, especially in the bibim naengmyun department. To continue, I will define what these words mean.

Bibim – “mixed around.” Some of you will find this word familiar, as it appears in  “bibimbap,” the Korean DIY dish that features sticky rice mixed with vegetables, beef, an egg, sesame seed oil and red chili paste.

Naengmyun – “cold noodles.” Mul naengmyun, the most popular naengmyun dish, is buckwheat noodles immersed in an icy cold beef broth and served with sliced cucumbers, a hard-boiled egg and maybe a few slices of pear. Key components of quality naengmyun are ultra chewy, vermicelli-like noodles and a well seasoned, unforgettable broth. Naengmyun is a specialty from the northern regions of Korea of what is now North Korea. If you want truly good naengmyun, you’d have to go to North Korea. Too bad none of us can go there.

Thus, bibim naengmyun is cold noodles mixed in a richly seasoned chili sauce. It’s very, very spicy and full of strong flavors. The deep red color of the dish suggests how damn spicy it is. Doesn’t it look exciting? The sauce has what I like to call the three S’s — spicy, salty and sweet, all at the same time. The one shown above was served with pickled pear and skate, sliced cold beef, the aforementioned buckwheat noodles and of course, the signature hot chili sauce. Both hot and cold, spicy and refreshing, it occurred to me just how deliciously paradoxical this dish is.

Years and years ago, I remember reading an article about a Korean eating custom that explained the logic behind eating impossibly spicy foods on the hottest of days. Upon finishing a bowl of hot noodles or soup (a challenging ordeal in itself), dealing with the sweltering environment suddenly becomes bearable. I confirmed this with my dad, who said the saying goes something like “fight hot with hot, cold with cold.”

And so, some Korean diners eat naengmyun in the wintertime, while in the summertime, hot foods are eaten to combat the heat. Bibim naengmyun incorporates both aspects. You get the refreshing qualities of cool noodles complimented with an invigorating, spicy kick. Though it may not immediately be appealing to those unaccustomed to the dish, it’s a marvelous combination. If you’re ever at a Korean restaurant, look for this dish and if you’re brave enough, go for it.

Tomalley or Not Tomalley

As promised, I am determined to have a few words about Maine food. I’ve been thinking about what to write about and I’m having trouble because although I have plenty to say on the subject of haddock (a wonderful fish similar to cod), wild blueberries (smaller and more flavorful than the ones you buy at the supermarket)  and lobsters, I have no pictures of anything I ate. The brilliant me decided not to pack a camera so now I’m confronted with writing a food post with zero photos. I feel like I’m committing some sort of food blog sacrilege, for what’s the use of a food post without the food porn photos that go with it?

I decided this particular post will benefit by having no visual examples of what I would like to discuss and that is the topic of tomalley, the mysterious green stuff inside a lobster’s body. It’s hardly a lovely sight to behold.

Lobsters are an everyday aspect of life in Maine, or at least where I was, in Augusta. Nearly every restaurant has lobster rolls, or fresh-steamed lobsters or at least something lobster-related like lobster chowders or stews. Even the local Panera had a beautiful lobster roll — fat chunks of lobster lightly dressed in mayonnaise and nestled on tender ciabatta bread.

All in all, I was lucky to get my fill of lobster during the trip. During a twilight picnic with steamed lobsters, I was further enlightened by the creature’s allure. As we cracked open the hard red shells, a co-worker mentioned the subject of eating (or not eating) the tomalley, or tomale. I instinctively felt that I should avoid eating the strange pasty stuff but I was quickly informed that the strange pasty stuff is prized by some lobster eaters.

True crustacean aficionados would argue that tomalley is a rather delectable, if not best part of the body. I can’t say that I fit into this category, especially after discovering the reason why tomalley is typically forbidden is because it’s toxic in some instances. Also, the greenish gray color throws me off. It is enough to make me squeamish — I had a hard time even ripping the lobster’s head off!

On another note, tomalley is not exclusive to lobster and is akin to crab as well. My family loves crab and I think they are among the true crustacean aficionado crowd because eating the abdomen (and thus the accompanying tomalley) is the ultimate dessert to their crab dinner. Unlike lobster tomalley, crab tomalley is a deep ochre-yellow, almost brown color. A cousin of mine once rapturously advised that I put rice and melted butter in the crab body’s cavity, mix it around and eat/savor it that way. Sort of like a crab tomalley risotto, if you will. It takes a fair amount of courage for me to even crack open the body and remove the guts. To proceed with eating the tomalley is something I need to work on. But I love the legs and claws!

So what category do you fit in? Would you eat the tomalley for the sake of fulfilling the gourmandise spirit, or will you chicken-out like me? I think I need to learn how to fully confront the lobster (or crab)!