More fun with sodium citrate

I’ve continued experimenting with sodium citrate, because I want to master this ingredient so I can do all kinds of wonderful things with cheese. It’s so awesome I don’t even mind having to measure everything in grams. After experiencing success with a mac-n-cheese sauce, I decided the next thing to attempt would be loaded fries. I also thought it would be good to see if the recipe calling for less liquid—although intended for cheese slices—would work.

Using a small batch of shredded sharp cheddar (133 g, a number I chose to make the math easier), I used 5 g of sodium citrate and 30% of that weight (40 g) in water. Right away I noticed a problem: 40 g isn’t a lot of water, and wasn’t a good base for mixing a sauce. If that ratio is followed, the whole thing needs to be scaled up.

As it happened I decided to add more liquid, eyeballing it, and just kept whisking instead of ever getting out the immersion blender. This worked better than I was led to believe, which tells me sodium citrate is forgiving as long as it’s kept proportional to the cheese. In the end I probably ended up much closer to the cheese sauce recipe I’d used before, except this was with water instead of milk. The final cheese sauce came out nicely in spite of my needing to adjust it so much.

So much of this was by eyeball, it’s hard to give an exact recipe, but I’ll do my best.

Loaded French fries

  • Crinkle-cut French fries, enough to fill about a 3-cup bowl
  • 133 g shredded sharp cheddar
  • 120-125 g water
  • 5 g sodium citrate
  • Bacon bits

Prepare French fries according to package directions. While fries cook, add sodium citrate to water (whisk well) and bring quickly to a simmer. Whisk in cheese in small handfuls at a time to allow it to melt. Continue whisking until all the cheese is incorporated and sauce is smooth. Salt cooked fries to taste, and put them in a bowl or on a plate. Smother with cheese sauce. Top with bacon bits.

Yes the fries have to be crinkle-cut. If you buy straight-cut fries you’re a monster. Waffle fries are okay though.

Cheddar was ideal for this recipe, but anything goes. Use whatever kind of cheese you like best that you think would work well on fries. I found this cheese sauce to be far superior to anything I’ve ever managed to accomplish by nuking Velveeta, mostly because of its texture. (When you nuke Velveeta, parts tend to burn and other parts don’t melt.)

The liquid portion of the basic cheese sauce recipe apparently isn’t only forgiving of variations in quantity, but composition as well. You can use any liquid you like: water, beer, wine, milk, cider.

Lesson learned: For any given weight of cheese, use about 93% of that for liquid and a hair under 4% for sodium citrate, and you can’t go far wrong for a killer cheese sauce. Or maybe you can, but it seems hard to screw up, which is one thing I love in a good recipe.

With that out of the way, I decided to try something more ambitious: melty cheese slices. The recipe for that called for 380 g of cheese, 115 g of liquid, and 14 g of sodium citrate. I tried this with extra sharp cheddar and cider, even though I was concerned that the acidity of cider might throw this off somehow.

I discovered two things right away: 380 g is a crapload of cheese, and this ratio of liquid to cheese did in fact work when using a higher volume—although it still took new additions of cheese a while to smooth out. I hit it repeatedly with an immersion blender, but a whisk did most of the heavy lifting.

When the mixture was all ready, I spread it out onto a cookie sheet I’d covered with plastic wrap. After getting that as thin as I could with a spatula—it was so viscous it didn’t want to spread much on its own—I covered it with more plastic wrap, and then I decided to try smooshing it out a bit. This worked well, but I’d use a roller the next time around.

After chilling the tray in the fridge for a couple of hours, I took it out and sliced the cheese (plastic and all) into 12 pieces. At this point, I discovered that the cheese slices were thicker than I wanted: about 1/8″, instead of a nicer 1/16″.

In spite of its thickness and strong flavor, I found that on a freshly grilled burger (with bacon of course), the cheese was surprisingly not overpowering. It melted very nicely on the grill, but I might have gotten slightly better results with a little more cider. The apple flavor was subtle but noticeable. (Next to try: grilled cheese!)

The next time I try making melty cheese slices—oh yes, there will be a next time, because this was fairly easy—I’m going to go off-book. What I’ve learned so far is that the liquid amount doesn’t seem to matter very much, and largely depends on the final consistency you want. So I think I’d scale this back on the cheese and sodium citrate proportionally, but leave the liquid alone or even add more. At 227 g for an 8 oz. block of cheese, the proper amount of sodium citrate is a little over 8 g. If I left the liquid at 115 g, that’s roughly 67% more liquid in the mix. (The percentage out of the total isn’t all that drastic a shift, of course.) My goal would be to get cheese slices that are bendier, and make them very thin. Actually, even 8 oz. may be too much cheese for that end.

Now for something that sounds a little weird: My wife has long had a habit of eating peanut butter and American cheese together (she rolls up the cheese after spreading), which I used to think was weird. Eventually she talked me into trying it, and I have to say it’s awesome. Given how well peanut butter pairs with apples, I thought I could manage the holy trifecta by spreading peanut butter on this apple cheddar. Turns out the extra sharp is just too powerful to go with the peanut butter, suggesting the ideal choice to achieve a peanut butter-friendly slice would be a mild white cheddar instead.

Now for random ideas. I recently discovered garlic basil cheese being sold at Walmart, by a company called Sincerely, Brigitte. It’s a prairie Jack (I didn’t know that was a thing) mixed with, of course, garlic and basil, and it’s beyond fantastic. Something like this seems like it’s doable using the melty cheese method: 30% liquid, forming the thick “sauce”, then folding in herbs. But that also got me thinking: You can probably do this with fruit, like strawberries or blueberries. Crazy people might enjoy mixing in nuts. The best of us would give serious thought to folding in bacon bits.

Update: Having tried this in grilled cheese (with bacon of course), I have to say the extra sharp is too strong for grilled cheese alone. It needs bacon or a burger to stand up to it. I remain, however, suitably impressed with its melting properties. I added it to a microwave bacon cheeseburger because they always skimp on the cheese, and it was just as gooey as I wanted it to be. The texture of the cheese slices is also just like what you get with American slices: shiny and smooth, not hard and dry like the cheese was when it started life as a brick. So the technique is sound, but next time I’m definitely using less cheese (and proportionally less sodium citrate), and upping the liquid ratio slightly. The apple flavor is present but it’s very subtle, and I wouldn’t mind it being a little less subtle with the cheese part being a little more so.

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Sodium citrate cheese sauce experiment #1: Rotini and cheese

Recently I’ve wanted to try using sodium citrate, because apparently it’s awesome when it comes to making cheese sauces, and also making any cheese into slices that melt like American but retain their original flavor. This common “sour salt” acts as a powerful emulsifier, preventing the separation between oils and solids when most stubborn cheeses melt.

First, the experiment I did not try yet. You take some water or other liquid (some people use beer; I want to try cider but I wonder about the acidity), add sodium citrate, then simmer. Once it’s simmering you add your cheese a little bit at a time, and hit it with an immersion blender frequently. For any given weight of cheese, you’ll want the water to be 30% of that by weight, and the sodium citrate about 3.7%. Don’t take my word for it; I haven’t tried this, but apparently people do use it. Some people also add carrageenan if they want to form the cheese up like Velveeta. Once it’s made you can pour it into a mold or a mini loaf pan, or onto a cookie sheet with a nonstick mat, and let it chill before slicing.

But while I was investigating this I found a different recipe, for the ultimate mac & cheese. I decided to give that ago, albeit without the apples and bacon (even though they both sound awesome). That recipe calls for 240 grams of uncooked pasta, which should of course then be cooked, 285 grams of cheese, 265 of milk, and 11 of sodium citrate. The steps are all about the same: Get the liquid in the pot with the sodium citrate, whisk it up, simmer, then start adding cheese and hit it with the immersion blender.

(No, you don’t have to use grams, but you do have to go by weight. Grams are easiest because of the very small weight of the sodium citrate.)

Three things I discovered: You want a really small-diameter pot for the sauce, but tall enough to fit. The reason is because if you try using the immersion blender when the liquid level is too low, it makes a mess. Second, whole milk was probably overkill; I might try diluting with bottled water next time. Third, chickening out and using a little less pasta than the recipe calls for probably isn’t worth it. (The reason I did that, though: rotini seems to grab more sauce than elbows. I wanted to err on the side of cheesiness.) Just cook the full 240 grams.

For my cheeses I grated up an 8 oz. block of mild yellow cheddar, which only got to 227 grams, and then I added a bit of New York extra sharp white. The reason for using a mild cheddar for most of it was that unlike roux-based methods of making cheese sauces, the cheese’s flavor isn’t muted by butter and flour.

I’m pleased to say this sauce met all my expectations. The mild cheddar base was a good call, yet I got to enjoy just a little sharpness along with it. Supposedly this sauce remains creamy when reheated, although given my experiences with Velveeta-based sauces I suspect dribbling in a little water before nuking isn’t a bad idea.

Sooner or later you know darn well I’m making apple sharp cheddar slices.

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Quick copycat pizza skins

This weekend my wife had a work event that kept her busy during the daytime hours, so I was left to my own devices. I realized it had been a while since I’d sat down and watched some MST3K, so I decided to do that. In particular it had been a while since I’d seen Space Mutiny, one of the funniest episodes ever. Naturally it required the appropriate snacks.

First, I bought Phish Food. This is my favorite flavor of Ben & Jerry’s, but I don’t eat nearly as much ice cream as I used to. I hardly ever buy it anymore, but I used to enjoy it quite a bit while watching some of the old classics.

Second, cheese sticks. My favorite brand is Giorgio, but for several years now they’ve been completely absent from every grocery store I can find. Completely. Wegmans stopped carrying them. Walmart doesn’t have them. Is it a conspiracy against the best mass-market cheese sticks on the planet? No other brand I’ve found has come close, but I did find that Alexia makes something pretty decent. Their cheese sticks are really garlicky, but hey, I like garlic.

Then, I needed pizza skins. This is a classic appetizer at Pizzeria Uno, a restaurant I no longer eat at because they’ve been mismanaged to death; it’s torture going there these days, especially the one in Destiny USA where I first fell in love with the things. But here’s what they are, if you don’t already know: Pizza crust in a deep dish, topped with mashed potatoes, cheddar, and bacon. I set out to make this for myself, and the result was super easy.

Copycat pizza skins

  • ½ Pillsbury thin crust pizza dough, unrolled
  • 1 package Betty Crocker instant mashed potatoes (will use about 1-1½ cups)
  • Shredded sharp cheddar, about 8 oz.
  • Bacon bits
  • Butter or margarine
  • Milk
  • Olive oil

Preheat oven to 450°. Grease the bottom, but not sides, of a cake pan or deep dish pizza pan (6″ to 9″) with a small amount of oil. Open dough and cut in half, then unroll. Place dough in pan and press against edges; trim excess, if any. Bake for about 8-10 minutes. While crust bakes, prepare potatoes using butter/margarine and milk. Remove baked crust from oven, and cover the center with mashed potatoes; you will only use about half of the potatoes if using a package, so save some for leftovers or you can make two batches using the other half of the dough. Cover liberally with cheese in a thick layer. Cover liberally with bacon bits. Continue baking (the temperature can be turned down if you want to make something else, like cheese sticks) for about 5-10 minutes until cheese is fully melted and you can’t stand the waiting anymore.

I specify Betty Crocker potatoes because they’re the best instant I know of, and also they come in pouches for easy measuring. I used the garlic cheddar kind; I also like their butter variety.

The bacon I used was Oscar Mayer, which came prepackaged as bits. If you use prepackaged bacon like I did, this recipe comes together in no time. You can also grate your own cheese, but unless you want something that doesn’t already come in a shredded package (like extra sharp cheddar, pepper jack, or whatever else you fancy), don’t bother.

Of course this recipe is open to lots of variation, so any kind of potatoes will do—including your favorite home recipe, which would probably be way better. If you have leftovers from another meal, they’ll work great here. Use the kind you like best. Want to add chives? I think that’s sick and twisted, but go for it. Mushrooms? Why not? Uno, by the way, serves their pizza skins with sour cream.

When I made this myself I was obliged to use a 9″ cake pan. I didn’t have any other pans handy, and Wegmans had a set of two for just a few bucks. I think 9″ is actually kind of big for this recipe—though it still came out awesome—so I would recommend using a pan with a smaller diameter if you have one, but don’t sweat it. If you try anything past 9″ though, you’re gonna have a hard time getting the crust to hold up under the weight of those potatoes.

Bottom line: If you have all the packaged ingredients on hand, you can throw this together in just over half an hour. If you have the potatoes already made—whether leftover or maybe there’s just a ready-to-heat store brand you like—you can attend to other things while it cooks. It’s a great game day snack, especially if you pair it with something like chicken Parm meatballs—which you can cook while the cheese is melting.

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Calzone balls experiment, Mark I

After my mom posted a recipe on Facebook for pizza balls, I thought I’d have a go at modifying it to make calzone balls. I love a good calzone, and I’m really picky about them. For me, by which I mean this should be law, a simple cheese calzone is a mixture of mozzarella and ricotta, maybe a little Parmesan, no sauce, in a thin crust that is not seasoned or rubbed with flavors that would distract from the cheese. It is a perfect cheese experience. Before they basically spun out their business, I used to rely on Gino & Joe’s to make a good calzone, but they eventually changed their recipe and were therefore dead to me. Just about the only place left near me that makes a good calzone is a pizza place called Paladino’s, which is actually where I first learned to love them.

Look, it’s not that I have a problem with people who want to put sauce in with the cheese or use a thicker crust or rub the outside with garlic and butter and Parmesan. I don’t have a problem with people wanting to use only mozzarella or only ricotta. Knock yourself out. Just don’t call it a calzone.

So on to the recipe. For reference, and because I think a lot of people will enjoy it, this is the original pizza balls recipe. I tracked it down and found out it’s from the Gunny Sack, and is called “easy pepperoni rolls“.

The core of this recipe is merely getting biscuit dough and stuffing it with something, so I got a can of Grands buttermilk biscuits, and mixed up ricotta and shredded mozzarella for the stuffing. I would have added a smidge of Parmesan but I didn’t have any. This is the recipe as I made it, not as I would make it next time. Post-mortem follows below.

Calzone balls, Mark I

  • 1 can Pillsbury Grands buttermilk biscuits
  • ½ cup whole milk ricotta
  • ½ cup shredded whole milk mozzarella

Mix cheeses in a bowl to form stuffing. Cut each biscuit (the can contains 8) in half. Roll half-biscuits into balls and press flat. Curse because you do not have a small rolling pin or a big enough work surface to get the dough flat. Use fingers to spread dough flatter. Place a spoonful of cheese into each flattened round, and gather sides to cover. Fail spectacularly with two of them because biscuit dough was not flattened enough and does not stay stretched. Place on ungreased cookie sheet and cook in a preheated 425° oven for just under 15 minutes.

Now as promised, the post-mortem. First, the dough tastes too much like a biscuit, not enough like pizza dough. I guess that should have been obvious going in. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t quite a calzone experience. The dough also didn’t get crispy. Many of the balls leaked a little, but the leakage issue wasn’t too terrible.

Somewhat worse, my cheese mixture was all wrong. When mixing shredded cheddar with ricotta, I highly recommend using a 2:1 ratio (by volume) instead. There wasn’t remotely enough mozzarella. The soft filling also gave me a lot of trouble. I did expect some trouble, but with the dough constantly contracting every time I tried to close it up, I decided that next time, I’m portioning the filling ahead of time into little balls and freezing them before trying to wrap dough around them. How I’ll actually accomplish that in my freezer, I don’t know.

The one thing that saved this experiment was that I made a quick garlic butter dipping sauce to eat them with. That was a little over half a stick of salted butter, and I’d say a little under a teaspoon of dried minced garlic, melted in a ramekin in the microwave. Having something to dip made the biscuit work a lot better, which I suspect is the point of the original pepperoni balls recipe.

So if I used a thinner, actual pizza dough next time, it occurs to me I could stuff the balls with almost anything. Tonia of the Gunny Sack thought the same thing, which is why she has several recipes you can check out. For me, I think mac & cheese would make a phenomenal stuffing, but she got to that idea first.

If you’ve read a lot of my posts on cooking you’ve probably wondered by now: Why do you always modify recipes and experiment instead of making them as-is the first time? There are two answers. First, I’m a picky eater and some of the elements in many of these recipes would not work for me. I don’t think I’d object to anything in the pepperoni balls except for the pizza dipping sauce, but it still isn’t what I wanted to make. Second, every time I experiment I learn a little more, and I think it makes me a better cook. The truth is I don’t cook very often except for very simple food, because it’s hard to find time during the week. So I keep experimenting, and with luck and work more of my late-night bad ideas can end up as very good ideas indeed. Now if only I had some meat glue…

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Eat the paste

With my wife on a crazy work schedule recently and both of us short on sleep thanks to a cat with an eye infection, we haven’t had a lot of time for good meals here lately. Nevertheless, this weekend I resolved to cook something nice.

I hadn’t had cheesy Stove Top chicken bake in a while, so I decided to make some just for me. (My wife can’t eat it, as she’s diabetic and therefore eating low-carb.) You can’t really scale down the recipe, because they don’t sell half-cans of cream of chicken soup. This time around I only used two chicken breasts, because the breasts I bought in a club pack at Wegmans were absolute monsters. I’m serious; we’re talking brick-sized. After I cut up two breasts I felt I didn’t need any more.

With that in the oven, I decided to try making a chicken breast sous vide for my wife. I took a little curry powder, a smidge of thyme, and some kosher salt, and tried to shake that all up in a freezer bag; there wasn’t very much of it. When I put the chicken in, I tried to smear the spices all around but I’m afraid I didn’t do a very even job. Next time I’m just seasoning it on a plate first.

Anyway, that chicken went in a water bath at 146° for an hour, although it ended up being a little over because of some timing issues. After it came out, I gave it a quick pan sear in clarified butter. If I had a brain in my head I would have used duck fat instead, because I have that in the fridge.

Although I did not try the chicken, it was perfectly cooked, and my wife was amazed by how juicy it came out. Considering this puppy had to be a couple of inches thick, I was impressed it cooked that well at all. It’d have to sit on the grill forever to achieve that kind of doneness, and it’d get dry.

I still have some other cooking ideas in the pipeline, like making an easy egg drop soup and trying to make low-carb wonton wrappers, and figuring out how to make a proper(ish) stir fry without a wok. (Why wonton wrappers? My wife loves crab rangoon. Using real crab is something neither of us want, and she can’t eat the imitation stuff, but at least I could do a simple cream cheese rangoon with some chives, maybe a little ginger, maybe a little garlic.) But the sous vide chicken came out so well, it got me thinking of something else: I want to try meat glue.

Transglutaminase is a natural enzyme, and it gets a bad rap because it can be abused to bond two pieces of meat and sell it to an unknowing consumer. But it’s amazing what can be done with it. One YouTube video has a guy making bacon spirals that can then be sliced into bacon rounds. I got to investigating the stuff when I found out a lot of recipes that use chicken skin use meat glue to bind it on. It’s made noodles out of seafood, or turned a single fish fillet into a roll that can be sliced into rounds for even cooking. Beef rib roasts can be trimmed of connective tissue and re-formed to make the perfect roast. And you can use it to seal shut a roulade or chicken Kiev, which is what got me thinking of this again.

Chicken and pork lend themselves to stuffing. Especially pork, as modern variations of it have been bred way, way too lean. (Lean pork is an abomination against nature. When I become a supervillain, so help me we’ll fatten up those piggies.) With transglutaminase, I could butterfly a breast, stuff it with any kind of filling I want, seal up the edges with meat glue, and then once it’s set overnight the whole thing can be cooked sous vide—or breaded and then baked or fried, if I want.

Now the idea of me using this stuff freaks my mom out, but then she’s unnerved by the fact that I don’t mind using MSG. Here’s the deal: MSG is basically a simple molecule, and it breaks down into chemical products found in all sorts of natural foods. Its not the health devil it’s made out to be. Meat glue is in a similar boat, mostly because of its slang name, but it’s a perfectly natural enzyme. Now I’m not one of those idiots who thinks natural equals safe, but what I know of the product and the process it employs does not raise any red flags for me. It seems quite safe, so why not use it to achieve molecular gastronomy greatness?

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Mark of the toolbag

This is still bothering me, so I’m gonna expand on it.

There’s a standard we set for all Superbowl ads. They can be funny, they can be heartwarming, or they can be some combination of the above as well as awesome. Anything that does not fall within that triangle is a Disappointment, and there should be criminal penalties for it.  Like floggings.

Continue reading

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Nationwide is on my List

When I become a supervillain, the execs at Nationwide responsible and the stupid, stupid, stupid stupid stupid ad agency responsible for making that hideous dead kid commercial and showing it during the Superbowl will be brought to justice.

This is not okay. I will not forgive.

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