Saturday, January 31, 2009

Smoking Cascara

Been thinking about ways to permeate the air with the aroma of Cascara tea - that oddly fruity tea that's made from the dried husks of coffee cherries. This cascara comes from the friendly folks at Finca Mauritania in El Salvador.

It's true, the blowtorch and inverted glass is a bit obvious now. I like the aromatics but there's a slight acridity from the burning that's a little off-putting - even though I like it. I'd like to go with the vapor from a Volcano but I haven't earmarked the $650 for one yet.

There's always the PolyScience Smoking Gun I have in storage somewhere around here...

Friday, January 30, 2009

Collection 2009 - Lobster Du Jour

Our celebration of lobster and coffee begins.

While many of my barista contemporaries were off playing with chocolate, cardamom and martini glasses, I've always been drawn to the stranger and darker side of coffee. A playground where coffee tries to meet cuisine in a venue other than simply dessert or eggs benedict. And while my friends were occupied theorizing and proving the number of stirs to be performed during a brew cycle (certainly important work for our craft), I've spent a lot of time trying to get out there and tasting as many flavors and textures as possible.

The one thing I have discovered through all of this is that nothing is truly original and that everything is based on basics. Culinary wizards like Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal and Grant Achatz would not have been able to achieve what they have accomplished had it not been for a thorough grounding in basics. I've tried to spend as much time as possible this past year going back, learning and shoring up my basic barista and cooking skills.

Like everything, what I'm going to discuss here is a work in progress. No matter the recipe, there's always a different and sometimes better approach. Several years ago, we developed a drink called "Coffee and a Cigarette." It became one of our most widely talked about developments and even the approach for that drink has changed over the years.

I've always been fascinated about bringing coffee together with savory flavors. But coffee tends to be quite difficult to work with. It's flavors tend to clash with many of the savory flavors out there. It needs to be tamed and it's so easy to screw up a shot of espresso that adding it to a dish utterly destroys it.

Then there's the color. Brown. It's quite unfortunate really. The brown color of coffee is so strong and so concentrated that it permeates everything and anything it comes into contact. So many ideas of presenting coffee with ingredients that offer an exciting and vibrant palette of color, but once it mixes with the coffee it turns brown. An ugly brown. A detestable brown. A brown that mucks up any and all colors. It's quite frustrating.

World Barista Champion James Hoffmann once reported attempting to separate coffee from its' color. A "clear coffee" if you will. A noble cause if you ask me. The complex flavors of coffee in an orange liquid? Exciting. While I don't remember the details, it had something to do with a centrifuge that separated the color from the liquid but also separated some important flavor components as well. Unfortunate, and I'm not ready to spend the multi-thousands of dollars for a large centrifuge.

In spite of my busy schedule, I try to get some seat time in my library to browse and read through my ever-growing collection of books on business, cooking, coffee and food. It helps to frame the mind, generate ideas and develop menus. For the most part, I think of recipes as guidelines. Suggestions on ingredients. The reality is that you might not have all the ingredients at hand, or in the quantity specified. How do you make do? For me, recipes are a springboard for experimentation. I see one chef/barista using a certain combination and I'm fascinated. How do those flavors go together and what about these flavors?

From there, we're off and running attempting what, hopefully, will be something exciting. Many times, the tests end in failure. Hmmm, perhaps there's a reason why we haven't had certain combinations (let's say chocolate, liver and coffee, for example) before.

Then other times, you stumble upon something fun and interesting, like rhubarb shave ice or thyme cotton candy.

This time, I was perusing a book by Eric Ripert, On The Line and his take on celery and lobster. Normally, lobster wouldn't be an ideal candidate for coffee but the celeriac? I bet that would blend nicely with coffee. And from there it started.

Fresh celeriac.


Mainly a winter vegetable, Celeriac (Apium graveolens Rapaceum Group) is also known as "celery root" and is grown as a root vegetable. It's a pretty darn ugly-looking vegetable with a thick, knobby outer skin that needs to be cut off rather than peeled. Unfortunately, Martin Farm had already gone through their harvest of celeriac so I was left with visiting the local Wegman's for a big, three pound knob of celeriac.

Making the base is pretty straightforward. Melt some butter in a casserole (this time my trusty Le Creuset oval in yellow) and lightly soften the diced celeriac. Add salt and white pepper to taste then fill with water. Simmer until the celeriac is tender then transfer celeriac dice to a blender, saving the cooking liquid.

Puree celeriac in blender, adding the cooking water to achieve the desired consistency. Adjust seasoning. Done.

Diced celeriac in a pan with butter.

For my purposes, I ended up with a slightly thick base that wasn't too viscous. I wanted a thicker base because I knew the espresso would loosen the mix. I also took it easy on the salt, not bringing it to the level I would normally if I were making a soup. The flavor can easily be adjusted once the drink is finished.

If you're not working with it straightaway, the celeriac base will keep for at least seven days in refrigeration and up to 4 months in the freezer. I expect it should thaw with very little affect from freezing.


For just about all occasions, I prefer Maine lobsters (Homarus Americanus) over other species, such as spiny lobsters or slipper lobsters. Those are fine in other parts of the world but nothing matches the rich and springy flesh of a proper Americanus.

I've never killed a lobster before. Usually when it's time to cook lobster, I drop them in boiling water or hit them with a boiling combination of water and vinegar. I've never made the mistake of placing them in a steamer and then turning on the heat, where they die a long, slow and agonizing death as the water heats to steam and slowly burns them to death as they, literally, scream in horror as they slowly die. It sounds horrible and my friends who've made that mistake tell me that it is horrible.

Our lobster awaiting his fate.

This time, I wanted to separate the raw meat from the shells for poaching and roasting, which meant I had to do that which I had never done before: dispatch the lobster with a knife. I've been party to death before: the shooting of cows, the evisceration of pigs, the slicing of chickens and the (accidental) running over of cats, but no matter how many times I've been a party to death, it never sits well with me.

I think it's a good thing that we learn how to kill our own food. It's a good thing to be reticent about the act. It's a good thing to suffer some level of remorse after doing the deed. It builds respect and recognition about our food that doesn't exist when it comes wrapped in shrink-wrapped plastic in the refrigerated aisle at the grocery store.

I had been told that the most humane way of dispatching a lobster is to place the tip of your chef's knife in the center of the head right at the first shell crease behind the eyes, with the blade facing the front of the lobster. Plunge the knife tip quickly into and through the head and rotate the blade downward, slicing the head in half. I expected it to be clean and sterile. It was anything but.


Like a chicken whose neck has been severed whose body flails about as death overcomes it, the lobster too has a similar, if less violent, reaction. It moves. It doesn't stop moving. The antennae move. The eyes move. Shit, did I not kill this thing??? Is it writhing in agony? Jesus Christ, I can't to anything more. The small arms move. Fuck, I don't know what to do. No one told me about any of this.

I'm worried that I didn't kill the lobster properly and feel utterly horrible. Not only have I killed a creature but I killed it with pain. I pray that the lobster truly is dead because my next action won't ease any pain it may be feeling. I rip the claws off with a twist.

But I don't stop there.

Next, I grab the body and the tail, juices steam out of the body cavity into the counter and run down my arm. I twist the body and tail in opposing directions. Snaaaap! The tail separates from the body and I'm horrified as two long, black sacks dangle from the body. Are those excrement sacs? Maybe their roe sacks? Shit, I don't know. I just want to get this over with as quickly as possible. I still have a second lobster to dispatch and I'm not enjoying this first task.

Now, I need to get the meat out of the tail. I grab it and try to break the fins off, no luck. Grab the knife, put it to the fins and, suddenly, Holy Craaap! The tail seizes into a ball. It's sudden, unexpected and I'm freaked out! I drop it to the counter and after recomposing myself, I straighten it out and try again. It snaps tight and I'm freaked again. Shit, this sucks.

Using the back of the knife, I crack open one of the claws but the meat is sticking to the inside of the shell. It's not coming out easily or whole. There's no way around it, I'm gonna have to blanch the lobster.

Right there I decide that I'm gonna blanch the other lobster as well. I'm really not in the mood to kill the second one with a knife and quickly heat a pot of water with just a little vinegar. Once it hits the boil, I'm just gonna dump the liquid over the lobster and it will be dead.

Thinking that it would be cruel and unusual punishment, I decide to put the second live lobster in a separate pot than the dismembered pieces of his now dead brother. Maybe the lobster isn't intelligent enough to know the difference but I would think it was torture if I were placed in a stainless tank with pieces of one of my friends scattered around me. I'm just not that cruel.

The idea behind blanching lobsters is to kill them quickly and loosen the meat without actually cooking it. Once the liquid reaches a boil, I pour it over the lobster. There's no struggle and the lobster is killed quickly. Leave in blanching liquid for two minutes and then plunge the lobster into an ice water bath to chill and stop the heat from cooking the meat.

From there, it's easy peasy. Separate the tail and claw meat from the shells and save the shells. We'll use those to create the cream.


I've been thinking that I want to add some of the meat to the drink as a garnish, either in the vessel or off to the side, maybe on top. Whatever happens in the end, we need to cook the meat. One of the best ways I've discovered is by poaching the meat in a Beurre Monte sauce.

To make the sauce, simply cut butter into tablespoon sized chunks and heat a couple ounces of water in a sauce pan until boiling. Slowly add the butter, one pat at a time, while combining with the water using a whisk. You're creating an emulsion with the water that prevents the milk solids from separating from the fat in butter (as you would do when clarifying butter).

Bathing the lobster meat in Beurre Monte at 59.5C.

Continue to add and whisk in butter until you've reached the volume of Beurre Monte you desire. In our case, I needed enough to poach the lobster meat in a small metal pan that I would hold at temperature in a sous vide water bath at 59.5C.

If using a controlled device, set the temperature to 59.5C. You can either float the Beurre Monte in a pan in the bath or make enough Beurre Monte to fill an entire deep hotel pan and use the immersion circulator directly in the Beurre Monte. I don't have the need for such a large bath so I just floated the pan in the bath.

Note: if you float the Beurre Monte in the bath, give it a good hour with lots of stirring to bring the Beurre Monte to the proper temperature.

The finished meat ready to eat and wonderfully tender.

Once at temperature, poach lobster meat in Beurre Monte at 59.5C for fifteen minutes. The meat will be cooked through and still very tender. It will be perfect. In fact, it will be so perfect that your family and friends may be unnerved by it. Having been so used to tough and rubbery overcooked lobster, they may be a little skittish about soft and perfectly cooked lobster meat, mistakenly thinking that it's undercooked. It's not undercooked, it's just that most people have only eaten overcooked lobster all their lives.

After fifteen minutes, pull from the Beurre Monte and hold until needed. Meat can be wrapped and refrigerated for at least three days.


Now that you have your lobster shells, rinse and clean them in cold water. Remove the gills, tomalley and guts. Save the roe.

Heat olive oil in a casserole and once hot, add lobster shells and roast for a few minutes until the shells are bright red.

Note: Break or chop the shells into pieces much smaller than in the photos. After starting to roast them, I discovered that they were still too big, making the whole roasting thing unwieldy.

Sizzling the lobster shells in brandy and tomato.

Add a couple tablespoons of tomato paste and coat the shells.

Add a couple ounces of brandy and reduce to dry.

After the brandy has reduced, cover the shells in heavy cream and simmer until the sauce has reduced by one fourth.

Adding the cream to simmer and finish.

Strain the now flavored cream through a china cap or chinois to remove shells. Strain sauce through a chinois as many time as you can stand to remove matter from the sauce, cleaning the chinois between each pass. The more times you pass the sauce through the chinois, the silkier the texture.

When ready, chill the cream in the refrigerator until cold.

Containers of Lobster Cream and Celeriac Base ready for transport.


Since our space at The Spro is limited, I end up doing most of the development work in my home kitchen or at Woodberry Kitchen's kitchen. The task is to develop the product and then drill it down for line production, i.e. how do we break it down to its' components to be reproduced in an environment that may not have all the necessary equipment (like burners and ovens). How to break it down to work in an espresso bar?

Of course, it would be ideal to build a studio kitchen where all development can be done but The Spro unfortunately isn't El Bulli or The Fat Duck, so we make do. One of the challenges is that I don't maintain an operational espresso machine at home. Sure, I've got a La Marzocco Linea 4EE in the garage and a E61 type La Valentina in the basement but none of them are installed since I hate cleaning up after myself and I'm a messy barista.

As such, all tests with espresso have to be done at The Spro where we have a fresh supply of coffee and a rip=roaring Linea 3AV and three grinders at our disposal.

Celeriac Base in a mini latte bowl.

Our tests took on several approaches and combinations. Do we add the celeriac base first? Or the espresso? Maybe eliminate the celeriac altogether and let the espresso and lobster cream stand on their own? Lots of questions and lots of possible variations.

After a few tries, it's obvious that the celeriac needs to go first. It's pretty thick compared to the espresso and needs to be mixed by hand. This means that if we took the time to add the celeriac base after the shot then we would lose some of the crema and its' volatile aromatics and flavors. By having the celeriac base in the cup during the shot we can combine the two immediately.

Pulling a shot over the celeriac base.

We also tried eliminating the celeriac, going with just the espresso and lobster cream. Immediately we realized this was the wrong direction. Like I had suspected early on, the celeriac balances the acidity of the espresso, smoothening it out. The base had to remain. Otherwise, it was just offensive.

Straightaway, we noticed a critical error in preparation. In an effort to infuse as much lobster flavor into the cream as possible, we heated it to a simmer. This heating changes the structure of the milk enzymes, preventing us from achieving a silky, velvet texture while steaming the lobster cream with the espresso machine. For the next attempt, I think a cold infusion will serve our needs better and allow us to achieve the silky texture without sacrificing flavor.

Mixing the espresso with the base and testing serving vessels.

Different ratios demonstrated wild swings in flavor balance. Some needed the enhancement of salt. Others did not. We were looking for a balance of the coffee and celeriac with an undercurrent of lobster. Or, more accurately, the structure of espresso, solidified with the celeriac, topped by the a lingering high note of creamy lobster.

Part of the solution is the serving vessel itself. How to present the drink gracefully while ensuring the proper ratio of ingredients. Some vessels may be the ideal size but are just too plain and boring. Others look interesting but are prone to spilling. Some are just funky but absolutely not functional.

One thing I always want to avoid are those vessels that have quickly become a cliche in barista circles. Stemmed glassware and martini glasses being the most obvious culprits, followed closely by Bodum insulated glassware and anything with cardamom.

Using sodium chloride to enhance flavor.

In the end, I think we came up with the correct ratio of coffee to base to cream that delivers what we set out to achieve. It's different. Definitely outside of most peoples preconceptions of coffee, perhaps too much so. As the weeks progress and development continues we'll refine our approach and technique. Already I'm wondering if the lobster cream can be dried into a hardened foam a la Paco Torreblanca.

Right now, I'm thinking that the drink color is better than the average brown but still needs enhancement. Maybe a topping of grated frozen lobster or grated black truffle might be the trick.

A potential contender.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Best Coffee

I'm frequently asked "Where's the best coffee?" I guess people think that since I'm in the coffee business, I must know the "in" places, the "hip" places and "the best" places. But, to be perfectly frank, I don't drink coffee at many places. Usually I'm too scared to try the coffee.

And while I've been exposed to and drank some of the world's top coffees, can I really say that they were "the best"? I don't think so.

For me, "the best" coffee happens in the most unexpected of places. From the wild blueberry of Stumptown's Ethiopia Harrar way back in September 2003 to the otherwise undistinguished blend of coffees at the local greasy spoon that went oh so perfectly with my pancakes to sitting at home sharing a coffee with my father (a self-professed connoisseur of Taster's Choice).

Other times, the unexpected happens. Like the coffee from Colombia that we procured from Hines / Origins Coffee in Vancouver. Colombian so good that it was truly delicious.

Or the bag of Kenya that was a gift during my end of the year run to Denver from Mike and Hugo at Allegro. I pressed and drank that coffee greedily at home every day until it was all gone.

Of course, I have the advantage of a ready supply of freshly roasted coffee at my disposal. But the truth is that I hardly ever have the best stuff at home. I leave our best supply at The Spro, for our customers. Instead, I make do with pressed house blend that I have leftover from the lot I brought home for the family Christmas party.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Barack Hussein Obama

A comforting sight on the way to the Inauguration.

With Silver Tickets in hand (actually tucked in my Marmot fleece vest three layers under), we made our way down to 3rd Street NW under Naval Intelligence Police escort until we could go no further. It's Inauguration Day in Washington, D.C. and we had made our way down here to ostensibly be a part of American History.

For weeks the media has been warning that DC would be packed with up to four million people. The MARC train was sold out. Amtrak was sold out. Buses were in short supply and the DC Metro is jammed to the gills. So much so that full trains would bypass stations entirely because those stations were too crowded for the people on the trains to get off. Cab drivers would interrogate you before picking you up to ensure that you weren't headed for the exclusion zone surrounding the National Mall. All over DC, streets were closed for security, for events, and for who really knows what.

Have balaclava. Will travel.

Army soldiers were stationed in pairs of two all over the District. Unarmed. I had to wonder why. Maybe their command wanted to send a kinder, gentler message to the people. Maybe they didn't want the District to look like what it really was: a city under seige. No weapons. I thought that was foolish. What good is a soldier without his weapon? What if they happened upon a suicide bomber terrorist? Were they going to throw their coffee cups at the bomber? Would that be enough to stop an attack?

I hoped I wasn't about to find out.

Once we reached the exclusion zone, things were a bit different. Officers, agents and soldiers of various agencies and battalions gently guided the masses towards the unknown. Volunteers with red knitted ski caps directed people to where they needed to be. But, in the end, it was one massive FUBAR.

Diana and The Bob in the 395 Tunnel.

People will ask me: "How was it?", "What did you think?" and "Was it amazing?" My answers will be: "Cold", "Not too much" and "Sure." I guess it's amazing to be at the inauguration of the first African-American President of the United States, but was it really that great of an experience? I have to say No. It was cold. It was crowded. The streets were closed. Cabbies wouldn't take you anywhere near the exclusion zone. And instead of making it easy to reach the National Mall, they made it harder.

I had Congressional tickets for the Silver Standing area, a large grassy spot in front of the US Capitol's reflecting pool - about as close as you can get without a seat. Third Street bisects the Silver Standing Area, running north to south. However, instead of letting people access the area on third from the North, they closed off access in that direction and forced everyone to walk through the 395 Tunnel to the southern side of the National Mall where the masses with Silver tickets thronged the single, solitary entrance and a line snaked through the streets for five blocks.

For weeks, the news had been reporting that "up to five million" people would flood the city. Five Million. Expecting that many people, you'd think the powers that be would anticipate that perhaps they should have more entry points - the Silver Standing area alone had 100,000 tickets, quite a bit more traffic than one checkpoint can handle. Instead of making it easier, they made it worse.

We fell in line about five blocks away, next to running busses pumping their diesel fumes in our faces. When my descendants ask me what I remember of the Obama Inauguration, this is what I will tell them. Standing out in the cold with your Uncle Bob, freezing out butts off with the smell of diesel fuel in the air and carbon monoxide filling my veins. A morning to remember.

Joining The Surge at the Silver Gate.

But we were patient. We had come all this way and braved snow, sleet and extreme cold to be here this morning. Quite honestly, I was up for abandoning the line, making our way to Capitol Hill and finding a nice bar with a television where we could actually see Obama taking the oath of office, but we decided to tough it out.

As we got closer, we started to notice other Silver Ticket holders walking past. No longer were they asking if this was the Silver line. Now they were stating that the silver gate had been closed and that they were heading towards the National Mall. Should we step out of the line and join them? Hell no. I hadn't endured all of this pain and intoxication just to join the unwashed masses on the National Mall in the freezing cold. We're gonna find a nice hotel with a television on the lobby or press on until we're turned away by Secret Service.

And press on we did.

By the time we reached the Silver Gate at Third and Independence, the line had disintegrated into a thriving mob. They had closed the Silver Gate and people were pissed. Chanting began. People held their Silver Tickets above their heads. They were getting angry - I guess I wasn't the only one who endured all of this who was unhappy about joining the unwashed masses.

Positioning ourselves for Obama.

After ten tense minutes of the mob thronging and threatening to surge, the guards decided wisely to let us in because Yes We Can. Moments later, the tide started to flow and soon we were inside our designated standing area.

And here's the ironic thing:

All week long, people had been telling us to get there early. People were lining up to get into the National Mall by 4:30am. At 8am, when we started watching the crowds on the apartment television, people were already crowding the mall - but there was plenty of space in the Silver Standing Area. We didn't leave the apartment until about 10am. We entered the Silver Standing Area just as the Inauguration was beginning at Noon.

I hate to wait in lines.

But the worse part:

All of these lines and delays were caused because of the security checkpoints where everyone was screened before entering the area. By the time we reached the Silver Gate and the mob demanded to be admitted, they just let everyone in. No screening. No security. No need to hide a bomb on your body, you could have carried it on your shoulders and gotten access.

Once inside, we found a decent enough spot from which to pretend we were actually watching the inauguration. Of course, we chose the one spot in all of Washington DC without close viewing range of a television or JumboTron, so we really couldn't see anything except the red draping around the archway on the Capitol were allegedly Obama stood while taking his oath. At least they had speakers set up so we would hear the oath being fumbled.

If all of this sounds negative, it really isn't. It just wasn't that magical, wondrous and enchanting experience that so many have alluded to. It was what it was: standing out in the extreme cold with a whole bunch of people attempting to watch Barack Obama take the oath of office. The really odd thing to my mind is the notion that we were a part of history. We just happened to be there. Most of the people there watched the oath on a television screen - something that could have been done in your pajamas in the warmth of home. Just a bunch of people standing in the cold. Like those addicted to cigarettes who stand out in the cold to feed that addiction, we were out in the cold feeding something else.

Barack Hussein Obama is somewhere in there being sworn in as President of the United States.

But all wasn't lost. The truly notable event in DC was the people. Americans from all walks of life and nations coming together in great masses and actually getting along and being happy about it. You expect in large crowds of Americans a lot of anger towards each other and the endless waits. Not so. Everyone got along and definitely had a sense of brotherhood and perhaps even euphoria.

Of course, this is America, and that sense of brotherhood is always fleeting and temporary and by tomorrow we'll be back to hating and shooting one another. But for this brief moment in time, the possibility of America's promise and the people we could become actually materialized.

Myself, Brindisi, Michelle, Walter, Reese, The Bob, Ryan, Diana, Emma and Gaston with Congressman "Dutch" Ruppersberger (D-MD).

Monday, January 19, 2009

We're Off To See The Wizard...

My invitation.

No doubt about it. The idea of going to Washington DC in the bitter cold to "watch" the inauguration of Barack Obama in the middle of the Mall on a video screen when I could be at home (or The Spro) and watching it in the comfort of shorts and a beverage is just ludicrous to me.

Five million people.
Five thousand portable toilets.

You do the math.

The word was that we would get passes into one of the reserved areas. An area by the reflecting pool. The only "reflecting pool" I knew of is the one between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. But for those of you familiar with the District, the reflecting pool is even farther away from the Capitol than the Mall. Which would make the walk to the congressional reception afterwards even less appealing. I didn't know if that would be worth it.

Luckily, I don't know everything and CapitolSwell finally revealed to me that there's a reflecting pool fronting the Capitol, and our tickets were for this area - the area directly behind the 28,000 reserved seats immediately in front of the inaugural stand. Good news: at least we now had a chance to see Obama standing on the stage taking his oath. Definitely worth the effort.

So tomorrow morning, we will be braving the bitterly cold weather and millions of people to make the many mile hike into downtown DC to watch Barack Obama assume the presidency of the United States of America.

Should be pretty cool.

Where we'll be standing. Somewhere. In there.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Eating Crow

The Ravens Cake by Mom at The Spro.

Traditionally, I'm not a football enthusiast. It was inconsequential to me while growing up. And I'm against using public money to fund sports stadiums to benefit privately owned teams (i.e. NFL, MLB, etc). However, if a state is pushed to providing public money for a stadium then that team should be obligated to deliver. The Ravens, unlike the Orioles, in 2001 delivered not only a winning season and not only the AFC Championship but the Super Bowl victory as well.

Needless to say, we were hoping for a return to Super Bowl glory in 2009. Unfortunately, that will never be. Our proud Ravens were beaten today by the Pittsburgh Steelers. And while I'd like to rant and rave about how the game was stolen from us and how they were cheaters and other folly, I can't. The Steelers simply played better football than the Ravens tonight.

Sadly, just when they were getting their footing and within striking distance, one of the Raven players decided to commit a personal foul that cost the team a 25 yard penalty. Game Over. The momentum they were building was trashed and they would not be able to recover. Just a moment of coolness might have meant the AFC Championship, a trip to the Super Bowl and a crushing defeat to our mortal enemies on the gridiron. But it shall not be.

Instead, we congratulate our players on a job well done. A long fought season that brought them to the brink of victory after having been so close to being eliminated throughout the season.

Maybe it's time to buy season tickets again...

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Considering Obama at The Spro

An audience gathers to watch Barack Obama at The Spro.

President-Elect Barack Obama stopped in Baltimore today on his train trip to Washington DC where he will be inaugurated on Tuesday. To be quite honest, I've been cautiously optimistic about Obama since he was elected. So many seem so eager and earnest about Barack that I can't help but think that maybe they've drank too much of the Kool Aid. Will he be the Saviour that many make him out to be? Or will he be the Anti-Christ that brings peace to the Middle East but our collective doom as foretold in the Bible? Only time will tell.

As the day draws near, I can't help but feel as though I'm being seduced by the lure of hope. For as long as I've been of voting age, I've been cynical of government and politicians. It's mattered little whether the politician had an "R" or "D" after their name and state, it's always been the people on the short end of the stick. But there's so much frenzy about him and I've seen a disproportionate number of people older than me with that glimmer of a dream in their eyes when it comes to Barack Obama.

I wonder if it was like this during John F. Kennedy's election? The stories I grew up with painted those years as a modern-day Camelot. A golden era and wondrous time. It's hard not to think that we live in enchanted times as well - and this in spite of prolonged war across the world and disastrous economic times at home.

Of course, I have friends who are die-hard conservatives and the rise of a democrat president is the herald of doom for them. Such a strange dichotomy. And one I'll never understand.

Meanwhile, I remain cautiously optimistic but increasingly seduced by this president from Hawai'i.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Busting My Tables

I don't know how many of you are involved in hiring but I've finally decided to hire another barista at The Spro. In the past, I've done lengthy posts on CraigsList on the qualities we're looking for and what we offer. Some have included exciting language, others have included images and I think we've done pretty well on CraigsList - we've found some great people who became excellent baristas.

The one thing about the historic CraigsList postings is that they never turn out a lot of applicants. A few here, a few there. And while the field wasn't large, we found some gems.

Following my M.O., I decided to post another CL (that's CraigsList folks) posting looking for one barista. Unlike my previous hiring notices, this one was quite benign, it read:

"Spro Coffee is looking for one individual who is ready to become quite simply one of the best baristas in the nation. Must have an interest in coffee, quality and people. Our methods are exacting and our customers are varied. If you have an interest in coffee and a passion fro people then we would like to hear from you. That's our simple criteria. Forward your resumes to the email in this post or feel free to drop a resume off at our espresso bar inside the Public Library in Towson - no phones calls, resumes only."

Pretty simple, I think. Now, maybe things have changed at CL, maybe The Spro enjoys a higher profile or maybe the economic environment is so bad out there that people are getting desperate. Whatever the case may be, in the past three days, I have been hit by a never-ending stream of resumes. In the past, I may have received eight. Now I've got thirty. I only need one barista.

Not that I'm complaining. Back in the Jay's Shave Ice days, I would pour through a hundred applications at a time to find the one or two new people we would hire for the season. Add to that our vetting and hiring process and it was a large task. Our system at The Spro is tame by comparison.

As we were reviewing some of the resumes last night, I was reminded of some of the folly I saw quite a bit of "back in the day." Resumes from people who clearly didn't really read the criteria we were looking for. Resumes that looked like form letters. Resumes that were tailored for other jobs with other companies - one resume said the applicants' objective was to secure a job at a specific clothing retailer. You wonder if this person read their resume before sending it.

Then there were the sad but obvious errors in spelling and grammar. I would expect that if you worked for J.C. Penney then you would not spell it: "JC Pennys." Another applicants' previous experience at a restaurant included "bust tables." As an owner, I don't think I would be too happy if one of my staff starting busting my tables...

Even in the rough, you'll find some promising applicants. The ones with varied interests and hobbies seem like they might be a good fit. While many of my contemporaries insist on a love of and for coffee as a prerequisite, I don't. I'm interested in people with a passion for something. People with an open mind willing to try new and different things. To my mind, it's okay if someone isn't "into" coffee, they just have to be open and committed to learning about coffee. And if they're passionate about their interests then I believe there's something there to work with. What I don't want are people who just don't care about anything except their own self-interest, they're a recipe for disaster.

Some applicants come with past coffeeshop history. This can be a mixed bag. Some can transition well, as the case is with one of my baristas who was formerly a Starbucks trainer. Others have habits and beliefs that are too ingrained as "the only right way" to do things and are unable to adapt. Our methods and standards are quite exacting, and quite frankly, most other shops just aren't up to muster. In cases like that, I'd rather take someone with no experience, spend more time and money on training and develop a barista to our standards instead of attempting to unwind years of previous experience and rebuild.

As I've been writing this, another six resumes have landed in my mailbox. I need to delete that CL entry. I've already got more applicants than necessary. Sadly, in this batch of applicants, quite a lot of them will not make the grade right off the bat because of their resumes. Some will make it to the meeting stage. Fewer will get an actual interview and only one will be hired.

Time to get to work.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Pseudo Vide

Starting the water bath preheat at 170F.

I've been playing around with sous vide techniques for the past year now and while I've found it infinitely fascinating, I realize that it's not something that the average home cook can do at home. First of all, the expense to get into sous vide cooking is quite considerable. I use the PolyScience Immersion Circulator, an amazing piece of equipment that allows you to control bath temperature with 1/10th of a degree. It costs $969 - not an inconsequential sum for the home user.

But that's not all, you also need a vacuum sealer to create the anaerobic environment you want for sous vide cooking. Ideally, you want to use a chamber vacuum sealer, like the Minipack-torre MVS31, an "affordable" chamber vac for $2,085. Again, not an insignificant amount of money for the home cook.

After half an hour at 225F, water temp is 136F.

And since I'm not made of money, it's also rather consequential to me - though I am saving my tips to buy one soon. Instead, I make do with a FoodSaver because it's relatively cheap (mine was $175 at Costco) and will do most of the job that a chamber vacuum will do. The big differences between the chamber and the FoodSaver is the ability for the chamber to control pressure hardness that will allow you to do things like change the texture of fruits and other compressed foods that really doesn't work very well in the FoodSaver. Plus, the FoodSaver, compared to the smallest of chamber vacs, is so compact you can keep in on your kitchen counter.

So I've been thinking: how can we achieve sous vide-like results without the expenditure of up to $3,000?

The biggest factor and advantage of sous vide is the controlled temperature environment of the water bath. It's crucial. For many applications, we're cooking the meat at 58.0C (136.4F). This brings the temperature of the meat to a medium rare within an hour and we can hold it at that temperature indefinitely until the meat has reached the desired texture and consistency. For the tenderloin we made this past Christmas, we sous vide(d) the tenderloin for four hours at 58.0C and then finished with a blow torch. The results were succulent, tender and juicy, with the perfect bright pink interior.

Twenty minutes into the cook, bath temp is at 141F.

We've explored sous vide steak before, and since that time, I've improved on my technique a bit (I hope). If we take a one pound steak, season it then vacuum bag it, we'll cook that steak in a 58.0C water bath for 50 minutes. The result is a beautiful pink interior that's just hard to beat. We can take it out a couple of hours to help break down the fibers but 12 hours would be too long (I found out the hard way).

Sous vide allows us to cook to a certain temperature and then no more. In a 136F water bath, the steak will always and only be 136F. It will not turn grey as it would at 160F. But while it's easy to believe that a 136F steak will always be a 136F steak, there is a point where the meat will start to turn mealy, gritty and dry - all the while maintaining it's wonderful pink coloration.

Holding steady at 141F.

The parameters of our experiment are to use only normal home cooking apparatus. No vacuum sealers and no immersion circulators. How can we achieve sous vide results using pseudo vide techniques?

For this, we're going to take a normal cooking pan (in this case a Vollrath 2" deep 1/2 hotel pan - okay, not exactly your mother's casserole but it's what I had handy), an oven, a Ziplock Freezer Bag and a seasoned steak.

First the steak: I went out to (horror of horrors) Costco and picked up a three pack of New York Strip steaks, about a pound each. Being commercial corn-fed, they're not my usual tasty deliciousness but for our experiment, they would suffice.

Season the steaks with a liberal amount of salt and pepper then place in a large Ziplock Freezer Bag. The reason I'm rather specific is that you want a sturdy and thick plastic bag to minimize the possibility of punctures. Nothing ruins a sous vide cook session than water in your food.

After forty minutes, our pseudo vide steak is ready to come out.

And don't be afraid with the seasoning. Give it a liberal application of salt and pepper. Some of you may be surprised that I don't use more exotic seasonings but I'm one who prefers to let the natural flavors of the meat speak for themselves and I find that the salt and pepper accentuates rather than masks the flavor of the meat.

Using your hands, squeeze out as much air from the bag as you can and then seal the Ziplock 95% closed, leaving just a small gap no bigger than your mouth as an opening. Now, it's time to suck.

Using your mouth, suck the remaining air out of the Ziplock bag until the plastic forms tightly around the meat, creating a light vacuum. Quickly seal the remainder of the Ziplock and make sure the seal is tight, secure and the vacuum remains. If there are any air pockets, open the bag and do it all over again. Be sure to get as tight a vacuum as your lungs can produce.

Pseudo Vide Steak ready for finishing.

Once sealed, refrigerate the steak until it chills to 38F. You can leave it overnight if you wish but don't exceed three days. If you can't get back to it for over three day, freeze it.

When you're ready to begin, take a roasting pan and fill it with warm water. Preheat your oven to 225F. Place water pan into oven.

At home, I'm using a KitchenAid double-stack convection oven. It's nearly new and can hold temperature down to 170F. I started here and after 40 minutes, the water bath was only reading 118F, not nearly hot enough. I realized that while the ambient temperature might be 170F, the water would take a lot longer reaching the same temperature. I needed to boost it faster and raised the temp to 225F. To measure water temperature, I'm using a Fluke 51 Series II thermometer.

Adding the finishing touches with a blowtorch.

After another 20 minutes at 225F, the water temperature had reached 136F. Time to drop the steak into the water. With a cold steak going into the bath, I was certain that the bath temp would dip so we would need to maintain oven temp to recover. While I set the oven timer to 50 minutes, I knew we would have to check the temperature as we proceeded and make cook time adjustments as necessary.

From here, it's just a waiting game. Every fifteen minutes, I would check the bath temp. About twenty minutes into the cook, the water temp reached 141.5F, a bit hotter than I would prefer but not too bad. At that temp, the juices might start to be squeezed out of the muscle fibers. If I couldn't keep it below 140F then we might have to cut the cook time.

As the cook progressed, the water temperature remained roughly the same. Decided to drop the temp to 200F and to cut the cook time by ten minutes. Cook time would be 40 minutes instead of 50.

At fifty minutes, I decided to pull the meat from the water bath. The seals' integrity had not been compromised and the steak had that lightly gray/red exterior color that seems typical for sous vide. There was very little juice in the bag meaning that the steak had maintained most of its' water content and yield.

Finished and ready to serve.

From there, all that was necessary was exterior caramelization. You can simply pan sear both sides of the steak until you get the color you desire. For this test, I decided to avail myself of the blowtorch. Nothing caps a technologically enhanced steak like an open flame from a propane blowtorch. Color to your desires.

But what is the end result? As the cross cut image shows, we were able to achieve a pink interior with very little gray ring on the outer edge. This is ideal. The meat itself was tender, moist and pretty darn good.

I had originally started this project thinking that it would not be possible to achieve a sous vide cooktime because I expected the oven to bring the water bath temperature to its' ambient temperature. As we can see, it takes a considerable amount of time to do that using the convection fan. I expect a non-convection oven to work similarly but take longer in its' water heating cycle.

Pink in the center with two eggs on top. Nice.

Some of the naysayers out there (my friends) said that this method wouldn't be possible because of the imprecise nature of an oven. And while it's true that an oven can and will go through swings in temperature, it seems that this temperature swing is mitigated by the water bath - being that the bath doesn't fluctuate temperature as readily. While it's probably not suitable for sous vide cooking that requires precision to the tenth of a degree (like with soft eggs), it can be utilized for cooking proteins in this manner - and with good results, as long as the cook times are relatively short.

Which brings up another problem. While we've seen that short cook times (under 60 minutes) can utilize this technique, during a long cook session, the water bath will, at some point, equalize to the ambient temperature of the oven, destroying the effect of sous vide cooking. 200F is way too hot for sous vide. So too is 170F - and I realize that most ovens out there won't go down that low. So while steaks are possible, sous vide braised ribs are not, unless you monitor and regulate temperature the whole time, which defeats the convenience of sous vide.

In the end, it was a fun experiment but I think I'll stick with my immersion circulator. Thanks PolyScience.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Power Of Christ Compels You

It must be Divine Intervention.

I've been sitting here this morning at The Spro pondering Christian Dogma when the Reverend Kevin Dupree (who some of you may remember as the barista who won the Mister Congeniality Award at the first Mid-Atlantic Regional Barista Championship in 2006) stopped by to say hello. It had to be a sign.

Because I had been thiking about a new approach to customers here at The Spro. An experiment of sorts.

All across America (and I presume the world), Born Again Christians greet each other (and everyone else) with warm greetings of Christ's Love. To be honest, it's beautiful sentiment that screeches against the self-absorbed world we live in today. And whenever someone comes up to me with a big smile on their face, a sparkle in their eyes and the greeting "Have a blessed day," I'm put off by it.

It's not offensive. It's just so odd, weird and jarring in this world of ours - a world full of hate, envy and greed. Even though I know deep inside that it's probably a heartfelt and meaningful phrase generously shared, I still find it odd and nearly offensive. Besides that, it's just weird.

Now, before hoards of Christians converge en masse in our tiny hamlet of Towson on a Crusade to exorcise me of The Devil's Ways (I won't go quietly), let me state that I mean no offense in any of this. I'm just fascinated by our reactions to such messages of warmth and brotherhood. Weirded out, yes. But fascinated nonetheless.

I wonder if other people experience this same reaction of apprehension when confronted with such a greeting and I've decided to thank our customers and send them off with a heaven felt greeting to see what (if any) reaction they might have and I encourage all of you, my gentle readers, to try this in your own lives and report back here on your findings. Will people react positively? Will they run away in fear? Will they look at you strangely? Will your friends stop returning your phone calls? Let us know!

And may you go in peace to love and serve The Lord. Have a Blessed Day!

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Here We Go Again

My Mileage Plus statement on January 1, 2009.

After my Race To The End Of The Year Mileage Run to Denver and Salt Lake City this past week to requalify for Premier Executive, the New Year also means that everything is reset back to zero and I must fly another 50,000 miles to qualify for 2010.

It's disheartening to see all those zeros again.

My butt hurts.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

2008: A Year In Books

On at least one evening during most weeks, you'll find me at the local Border's Books perusing the aisles of typically overpriced (compared to books to add to my ever-growing collection. In the early part of the decade, these were dominated by books on business and business thought. For the past year or so, the focus has been on food and cookbooks as I attempt to explore further into the blending of coffee and cuisine.

Years ago, the tomes available to the home cook were rather tepid, with the highlights from my college-era days being Craig Claiborne's The New New York Times Cookbook and Jeff Smith's The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines. Other notable works in my old collection are: California Cooking by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Wayne Gisslen's Professional Cooking, Second Edition, and Beth Hensperger's Bread - a book who's recipes hold fond memories of me mixing dough and then taking long, hair-raising rides through country roads in my 1986 Volkswagen GTI with the dough proofing and rising in the GTI's boot.

A couple of years ago, I broke down and bought Thomas Keller's The French Laundry Cookbook, a seminal work that presented his dishes as they were prepared and served at the famed French Laundry. The recipes were tough and not so easy to make at home but really represented what I desired to learn: how to do what the pros do as they do it.

But 2008 was the year that the cookbook world really changed. They got serious. Chefs started to present their recipes without the compromises of the home kitchen. What? You don't have a Polyscience Immersion Circulator, Thermomix or induction range? Tough, you're screwed. Man up and go buy them. Don't complain and don't be a wuss.

For those of us who were waiting for the arrival of these Dead Sea Scrolls, the difficult part was that many of the larger works arrived in the fall, making it nearly impossible to digest the newly acquired information in a short period of time. Where once the chefs were content to offer the recipes, techniques and some information about their purveyors, this new breed of cookbook delves into philosophy, history, context and art, creating massive works that amaze and confound. This is a short list of some of my favored acquisitions in 2008:

Alinea - Grant Achatz
Probably the most anticipated work of the year. I dined at Alinea in February 2007 and came away amazed. Amazed at the technical brilliance of it all. How does one do this level of work? It's all contained here. It's certainly not easy, and you will need specialized equipment to recreate the dishes. And if you decide to procure the equipment, it will be quite expensive - you might as well open a restaurant (or a wannabe cutting edge coffee house...).

The Big Fat Duck Cookbook - Heston Blumenthal
When I first read the title listing on Amazon, com, I thought they were using a euphemism for "big." Boy, was I wrong. This book isn't "big", it's absolutely massive. The only book that rivals its' girth is A Day at El Bulli - and that's mostly pictures. In this work, Blumenthal lets it all hang out. It's filled with recipes, techniques and art. There's so much to savor, to read and to learn - it's overwhelming. So overwhelming that one is tempted to run away in fear upon opening the book for the fortieth time.

Under Pressure - Thomas Keller
Joan Roca's Sous Vide Cuisine really set the standard for works on this old but now new method of cooking, so what makes Keller's book a "must own"? Number One: it's in English, which makes it far easier to use than having to translate everything (actually, I know there's some printed in English, but I've never seen one yet). Keller and company have been using sous vide for several years now and have accumulated a wealth of knowledge on the subject. Happily, they share most of it in this book. Unfortunately, as of this writing, it's one of those books that I haven't delved into too deeply because of all the other books that came out in the fall.

*** Chef - Gordon Ramsay
Some people dislike his brash and angry ways, but I like Gordon Ramsay. He's a man I can respect. Quite possibly because he's so brash and angry. Whatever the case, this book is vastly different than the other works you see on the shelf. This is a serious book demonstrating exactly what he's doing on Royal Hospital Road in London.

A Day at El Bulli - Ferran Adria
Time to face facts: I've been denied a reservation in 2009. I must accept it. I must acknowledge that I can only fantasize about the drive to Roses and being welcomed by his staff and dazzled by his latest creations. Meanwhile, I can use this book as the ultimate Fantasy Food Porn, flip through the pages imagining myself and Eliza Dushku stealing suggestive glances across the table while savoring each luscious bite and then dancing all night in the privacy of our Spanish cottage. My life is shattered.

And while to the casual observer it may seem like just another picture book, it is so much more. There's actual recipes in the book - and considering that the standard El Bulli Cookbooks cost about US$400, this one is an absolute steal at 1/10th the price.

On The Line - Eric Ripert
If you've ever wanted to know how a restaurant like Le Bernardin is run, all you need is this book. It's filled with stories on how they do things, their philosophies and their recipes. I just got it and ended up pouring through it in a couple of days.

While those are the most notable acquisitions, I thought I would also provide a list of other recent acquisitions that I particularly am fond of:

Beyond The Great Wall - Jeffrey Alford
Refined American Cuisine - Patrick O'Connell
Au Pied de Cochon - The Album - Martin Picard
The Whole Beast - Fergus Henderson
The Balthazar Cookbook - Keith McNally
The Green Chile Bible - Albuquerque Tribune
Cooking with Cafe Pascual's - Katharine Kagel

Here's looking to more reading in 2009!