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Category Archives: Kitchen Gadgets

Puttin’ the hammer down

OR, HOW I STOPPED WORRYING AND LEARNED TO LOVE THE PALM SUGAR
once it’s been tamed, anyway

Jaggery

I used to drive myself crazy trying to grate jaggery (palm sugar).    Getting “enough” jaggery that didn’t end up with about 10% extra protein (from my knuckles) was a real adventure.

See, the problem with palm sugar and jaggery is that if you don’t get it crumbled up, it won’t dissolve as it should and whatever you are making will be the worse for it.    Big chunks of rock-hard raw-ish sugar, whatever its source (cane, beets, palm sap…) really puts the sabot in sabotage.

Then one day a few months ago, while contending once again with a recalcitrant, uncooperative block of jaggery – after about 30 years of struggling this way – something just snapped.    My inner barbarian took control.

“RRRRRRR!” gargled my inner (now outer) barbarian. “CRUSH! SMASH!”

My Hammer
MY HAMMER!

Whereupon I grabbed the nearest vaguely weapon-like cooking tool – one of those meat tenderizers that comes in every set of kitchen implements, for reasons beyond human understanding since no one ever uses them for tenderizing meat – and proceeded to smash the living breathing daylights out of those sneering blocks of rock hard palm sugar.    (They have faces – I promise you, really, they do, and they are not nice faces either, they are smirky, taunting, arrogant faces beneath that thin veneer of sugary sweetness).

The next thing I knew I had a pile of nicely crumbled bits instead of large marble-hard blocks.    And the bits – apparently in considerable terror at this point – were apt to crumble easily between my fingers.    If not (to the tune of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer) – BANG BANG MY MEAT TENDERIZER COMES DOWN ON IT’S HEAD!    (I’m convinced the Beatles’ Maxwell knew a thing or two about palm sugar).

You need to do this on a cutting board or cutting mat with a smooth, not a pebbled, surface, and you will need a table knife, metal spatula, or a dough blade to scrape the bits of sticky palm sugar up off the mat and off the surface of the meat tenderizer head. You will, of course, be using the smooth side of the head of the tenderizer as the jaggery or palm sugar will stick in between the pointy bits on the other end.

In order to catch bits of palm sugar that may go flying about loose, I take 2 or 3 flour sack cloth towels (any lintless smooth towel or cloth will do – even a pillowcase) roll them up and make a “moat” around the whacking area.    With a little care – and a firm grip on your inner barbarian – judicious use of the hammer – errr, meat tenderizer – doesn’t usually end up with a lot of scattering.    The “moat” will easily capture what there is of it.

Palm Sugar
Palm Sugar

Jaggery is supposed to be palm sugar, but often it’s adulterated with cane sugar – sometimes it’s even 100% cane sugar.    But I stuck with jaggery because I can always find it at a local Indian grocery.    However, recently I found a large Asian market not far away where I can reliably get palm sugar now – and although some of it is also partially cane sugar, the brands carried at this store at least admit that on the ingredient labels.    So now I just buy 100% palm sugar at the Asian market.

And you know what?    It TASTES better than the jaggery I used to buy.    Possibly because I’m now getting actual palm sugar instead of something that was adulterated with cane or other sugars.

The only drawback is that the palm sugar in Asian markets is every bit as prone to being hard as rocks as is jaggery.    But that’s ok – I have my hammer to help me!    Now, that jar of palm sugar in the back left above – that is supposed to be spoonable.    But just in case its not, or in case it tastes different (because of whatever is in it to keep it soft and squishy) I went ahead and got the solid sort as well.    Well, and – you know – there’s just such SATISFACTION in being able to take a hammer to something and crush it UTTERLY!    You can never have too much palm sugar, anyway.

A Lump of Palm Sugar
A lump of palm sugar – see that irritating smirk?
IT’S THERE, I TELL YOU, IT’S THERE!
Go SMASH!
Go SMASH!

 

From hard little lump to nice pile of smooshiness.    See how well that works out?

Now that I have palm sugar whipped into shape and under control, I can move on in my quest to perfect the preparation of pad thai.

Next on the chopping block:

Finding the elusive hua chai po wan, aka หัวไชโป้วหวาน, aka Thai preserved radish

Sweet Salted Preserved Radish - yes, really!
(Thank you, SheSimmers, for providing the correct name for that – and most everything else Thai-related)

I am sooo hoping this is it.    I know, the contents DO look vaguely… fleshlike.    But I’m sure the little picture on front of twin daikon is accurate.    Well, pretty sure.    Really, there’s no reason to be afraid to open it up and see what I’ve got.    Nooooo reason at all …

*takes a firmer grip on the hammer*

Reusable parchment! Gadget review #2

Baking happiness!

I have been using reusable parchment for 2 years now.

Super ParchmentThe first type I used was called Super Parchment (available at Amazon).  I found mine at a local kitchen supply store.  In the past I had tried some of those silicon mats that were supposed to be reusable (such as SilPat) and I HATED them.  I could not clean them for love nor money – I ended up throwing them away after just a handful of uses.  HATED THEM with a passion.

In 45 years of baking and cooking, I have never been able to develop the magical nose-twitch, holding-the-mouth-just-right-while-praying-to-the-god-of-pizza, special flip of the wrist to get a loaded pizza to slide off the paddle and into the oven. (And btw, I am convinced the God-of-Pizza – or at least the God-of-Getting-the-Pizza-off-the-Paddle – must be Loki or Coyote or one of those other trickster gods)

I do not care how many times people say it, corn meal does NOT act like little ball bearings.  The pizza sticks to the paddle anyway!

So when I came across this Super Parchment while browsing the kitchen store, I was more than ready to give it a try. From the first time I used it I was hooked.  There has been more pizza and bread baked in this household in the past 2 years than in all the preceding 43 years!  Not only did it totally solve our pizza woes, it has also been useful for baking cookies, cakes, and breads.

I have since added some reusable parchment under the name “Pan Pal liners” sold by The Webstaurant Store.  This stuff is much heavier duty than my original Super Parchment, 6 ml compared to 4 ml.  My supposition is that it will last longer, but the Super Parchment is 2 years old now and while it’s definitely showing its age, it is still every bit as useful as it was day 1 out of the package.

However, the Pan Pal comes in a larger size which I have cut to fit my baking stone.  I have also cut out liners for my cake pans, and I have liners for my cookie sheets.  They all work like a charm.

For cookies, I wipe the liner off with a dry towel between batches.  It makes baking batches of cookies go a LOT faster.

I store the liners for the cake pans in the pans.

The liners for the baking stone and cookie sheets may be rolled up and stored in a paper towel tube, a piece of PVC, or one of those mailing tubes for maps and posters. I have a spring-loaded curtain rod mounted over the sink between my kitchen cabinets where I hang a dishtowel and dishcloth; I hang the pan liners over this rod to dry after cleaning.

They do get, well, USED looking, as time passes – but I wouldn’t trade my reusable parchment for love nor money!  I have to say, of all the gadgets in my kitchen, the Super Parchment is the one that has made the most difference to what I am able to bake, LOL!

The heavier duty Pan Pal liners are easier to handle when cutting cake pan liners and my expectation is that they will last longer than the lighter weight Super Parchment, but both perform admirably in the oven.

DO:

  • cut to size (silicon mats cannot be cut to size)
  • wipe clean with a damp sponge
  • safe for oven use up to 500F
  • use for cookies, pizza, breads, cakes
  • roll or hang (unfolded) to store

DO NOT:

  • fold, spindle or mutilate
  • try to cut something on the liner with a knife
  • use with meats or greasy foods
  • Immerse in water – spraying off is ok, but don’t soak.  The fibers will soak the water up through the edges and accelerate the deterioration of the liner (plus it looks ugly)
  • Allow to overhang the edges of the baking pan

Gadget Review – Pastry Blender

A pastry blender is a fairly simple gadget, but one that has more uses than just for making pie crust. I use mine for

  • pie dough
  • biscuits
  • streusel or other “crumble” toppings
  • mashing potatoes, yams, squash, or bananas
  • breaking up cooked ground meat (say hamburger you want to use for taco filling)
  • chopping up eggs for tuna or chicken salad
  • flaking tuna or other canned meat

It’s an easy tool to use. For pie dough, biscuits, and streusel/crumble toppings, thoroughly mix the dry ingredients together with a fork. If using butter, cut it into pats of about tablespoon size. Shortening is typically much softer but would still benefit from being cut into smaller pieces instead of one big glob.

Use the pastry blender to blend the shortening/butter into the flour mixture by “cutting” it in – press the pastry blender down through the mixture to cut up the pieces of fat and mix them with the flour.

For either pie dough or biscuits, you don’t want to overmix. Most directions say to cut the shortening in until it’s a “course meal” with “pea sized” lumps of shortening, but in reality, you will get better results if you don’t expect uniform size particles. Some will be larger than pea size, some smaller. It is the variation in the size of the shortening pieces which, when rolled out, will create the flakiness of the dough. When those pieces melt, it creates steam that helps to separate the dough into the multitude of layers that make biscuits or pie dough so tender and delicious.

There are basically two types of pastry blenders.

Wire TypeWire Type: I don’t care for this one, as the wires tend to bend, tangle, or spread out too much in use. It’s also not very useful for much other than making dough – it does a poor job of breaking up meat for tacos or mashing vegetable or bananas. A very well made one, that won’t spread with use would probably tend to clog up less than the bladed sort, but the wires tend to be very close together, giving you less control over particle size in, say, a pie dough.

Bladed Types

Wire TypeThis type is more stable and has more versatility than the wire types. A good one makes short work of cutting through cold butter and easily handles other tasks such as mashing vegetables or mincing cooked ground meat. However, as for any tool, quality varies widely, and there are styles other than the “traditional” bladed configuration shown to the left.

Wire TypeThis style has blades that go further up toward the handle. The advantage is that they don’t clog up as quickly as the “traditional” style tends to. The taller profile provides more leverage and more clearance between your knuckles and the dough. I don’t currently own one of these, but I would like to have one to see if it works out as well in fact as it looks like it should in theory.

UPDATED 12-23-2011: I have since acquired one of these, and it does seem to do a better job, mixing pastry dough with less clogging of the blade. It also seems to mash potatoes and meat (for tacos and the like) with a bit less muss, fuss, and bother. However, I’m not sure that it’s enough of an improvement over a well-designed blade with the shorter handle that I would run out and replace the older design, knowing what I know now. It probably would be a better choice if you don’t already have a decent pastry blender. It costs a bit more than the shorter handled version; probably worth it if you don’t have one already; if you do, meh, not so much.

Wire TypeOne of the issues to consider when looking for a bladed pastry blender is how far apart the blades are. If they’re too close together, it will clog and will make the meal for dough too small. If they’re too far apart, as these are, you will end up chasing big clumps of shortening and flour all around the bowl.

Wire TypeFinally, there is this style. This pastry blender is inconvenient to use and not very effective. The blades are flat instead of curved, which makes it difficult to use when you need to deal with the curved sides of a mixing bowl. It’s also pretty expensive – $20 and up. I don’t have one of these, but in this case I’m unlikely to buy one to try it out.