Wednesday, June 23

The Great Skeptics’ Baking Show

As a chef, I am a great garage mechanic.

For two reasons ... First, I have a very simple palate:  I am very much a meat-and-potatoes guy. When I find a very simple combination that I like, e.g., meat loaf and mac and cheese, I tend to stick with it. I am not prone to experimentation:  if it ain't broke don't fix it. My palate is about as sophisticated as that of the android in the first Terminator movie … and about as ravenous. Secondly, I am clumsy in the kitchen in terms of handling pots, pans, dishes, knives, etc. … basically any cooking implement. I break stuff. Listening to me in the kitchen – spare yourself the sickening spectacle of actually watching – is much like I imagine hearing the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Except not as graceful.  Nevertheless, my wife and I enjoy watching what has become a kind of cult favorite, the Great British Baking Show (hereafter GBBS), where contestants vie to be crowned Champion Baker at the end of several weeks of competition. And within each individual episode, they compete to be Star Baker for that episode – and to avoid being “voted off the island" by hosts Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry because of cumulative culinary crash-and-burns.

So I got to thinking … there should be a compensatory TV series showcasing the admittedly modest talents of incompetent un-chefs like me in concocting dishes as simple to my tastes as the dishes on GBBS are sophisticated to the tastes of Paul and Mary, and consequently more consonant with my gustatory preferences, which is to say “spicy enough to burn through a block of solid nickel”. Call my series the Great Skeptics’ Baking Show (GSBS).

Paul Hollywood

Herewith some dishes I would like GSBS contestants to compete in making:

o Spam loaf with ghost-pepper glaze

There are three salient advantages in my being married to my wife:  (1) my wife herself, (2) my stellar in-law family, and (3) – most relevant for the purposes of this column – my wife’s family’s residence on the archipelago of Hawaii where people, 70-plus years after the end of World War 2, still relish and revere Spam. Seriously, I did not know Spam was so universally acclaimed on the Hawaiian Islands until I flew there in 1984 for my wife’s and my wedding. I love the Sky Garden restaurant at the wonderful ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii, among other reasons, because you can order eggs and Spam for breakfast and also include a side order of more Spam – not in one-molecule-thick, translucent membranes, mind you, but in slabs as thick as small paperback books. Ditto the Coconut Grill, also in Hilo on on the Big Island, where you can order a breakfast with so much Spam, the eggs are more or less an afterthought.  You can even get Spam as a pizza topping, and as an accompaniment for a loco moco (see the link) at the revered Cafe 100, also in Hilo on the Big Island. Suffice to say, I love Spam. I also love Velveeta. As I said: simple.

A Spam loaf is just that:  a rectangular block comprising several – say 4 – blocks of Spam directly out of the can laid end-to-end. (Remember:  I said I have simple tastes.) As for the ghost-pepper glaze … well … how do you make ghost-pepper glaze? Hell, I dunno. I am not even a poor person’s Paul Hollywood. I only ever got as far as step 1:  go buy a bunch of ghost peppers. Beyond that, making a ghost-pepper glaze is an exercise for reader.  The result should be a mega-loaf of Spam with a kind of glassy sheen from the glaze. The glaze might even be crispy like thin glass. But instead of cutting your tongue, it should melt thereon.

Before you add the glaze, your ghost-pepper Spam loaf will, of course, need to be heated just long enough to melt off that yucky, quivering quasi-jelly that seems to accompany all Spam out of the can. That’s OK … melt off the yuck, and drain it into, perhaps, an empty coffee can. Keep it away from children and small animals. It’s probably toxic. Preferably bury the waste yuck in an obscure corner of your back yard and, just to be safe, affix one of those spiky / thorny biohazard stickers to the burial site.

Now you can make your ghost-pepper glaze and coat it on the concatenated Spam loaves that, without the yuck, will now partake of a positively virginal purity – as irreproachable as a typical Yale Law School 4L – and then bake the glaze-coated Spam until … I dunno … you think it’s comfortably warm to eat. Then take it out of the oven.  I recommend not eating it with beer, unless you happen to be wearing a pair of Depends made of solid titanium.

Bon appetit!

o Barbecued meat loaf with horseradish-infused mac and cheese

Anyone can make meat loaf. Even I know how to do that ... at least I think I do. I have never tried. I think if I were to try, my wife would call in Predator strikes on me to save the kitchen from destruction. (See above remark about the Battle of Hastings.) In any case, my only modest variation on the theme is twofold:  (1) along with the meat loaf, mix in a generous helping of hot barbecue sauce, and (2) add several teaspoons of Sriracha sauce -- otherwise known as "Space Shuttle fuel" -- and work (1) and (2) into the meat loaf by vigorously hand-kneading the meat. Also ... lots and lots of onions.  Not Maui sweet onions. Real onions. Onions that fight back and do not "go gentle into that good night" of the diner's alimentary tract. Bake like usual for a meat loaf. How long and at what oven temperature? If you had been paying attention, you would not need to ask. But here is the answer:  HAY-YULL'S BAY-YULLS ... I dunno ... when I said above that "anyone can make meat loaf," what I should have said was "anyone can combine the ground beef with whatever combination of embellishments and additives the chef envisions," i.e., I can make meat loaf but I do not know how long to bake it.

I think I might know how to "infuse" -- a nice word I learned from GBBS -- horseradish into the mac and cheese.  You can use out-of-the-box mac and cheese. But before you bake same, add a few teaspoons of the kind of horseradish that, when eaten with prime rib, clears your sinuses as you chew.  Then bake the mac and cheese however it says to on the box.

(And here is a concluding stroke of culinary genius:  before baking the meat loaf, cut the entire loaf in half lengthwise, stuff it with whole slices of Spam, then put the "lid" of the meat loaf back on top ... then bake.)

Like the ghost-pepper meat loaf, this is not a dish that one should eat with any kind of effervescent beverage, alcoholic or otherwise. Such a combination shades over from bravery into sheer foolhardiness -- unless you were looking for an excuse to recarpet your house, anyway. Sorry for the visual!

And again, bon appetit!

o Bourbon / jalapeno chili

Make a pot of good, spicy chili.  (How? Beats-a hell outta me. There are pretty good canned chilies on the upper end of the price scale. Use these if necessary. Or see if you can strike a deal with Panera or, if there is one in your area, Texas Roadhouse to buy their chili in bulk. Panera chili is quite excellent, now that they have cabbaged onto the crucial difference between chili and soup. See below.) Note well:  (a) chili is not soup; chili is much thicker than soup; (b) chili is also not stew. There are fundamental ontological differences that distinguish chili from both soup and stew. There are really only two main ingredients in chili:  beef, ground or in chunks, and the stock comprising various spices ... the thicker the stock the better. In fact, here is the first test of whether you are about to eat a bowl of good chili or not:  pick up your spoon, stick the spoon scoop-side-down into the chili until the bottom of the scoop touches the bottom of the bowl, then turn loose of the spoon. If the spoon continues to stand upright with no support from your hand, your bowl of chili passes the first test. A mathematician / logician would say that this free-standing-spoon test is a "necessary but not sufficient condition" for having good chili.  I.e., if the spoon simply flops over into the bowl when you let the handle of the spoon go, you immediately know your chili is no good; if the spoon continues standing, then you proceed to other tests to determine chili quality. Bad chili may be thick, also, but thin chili is always bad. Thin chili -- the kind Panera used to make -- is usually called "soup".

As you are cooking the chili, add a few dozen jalapeno peppers, preferably cut lengthwise, i.e., not what Red Robin calls "jalapeno coins". This exposes more of the innards of the jalapeno, and therefore more of the hot jalapeno juices / spices, to the chili. Continue cooking. Now add a good bourbon. How much? To taste. If you are making your own chili, do not add the bourbon as part of the cooking process. The heat will cause the alcohol, and much of the bourbon flavor, to simply evaporate. Wait to add the bourbon until the chili has cooled sufficiently to prevent most alcohol evaporation.

Now serve the chili in bowls with lots of cheese and good crusty bread. As usual, a caution:  do not serve bourbon / jalapeno chili with any kind of effervescent drink, alcohol or non-. Are you familiar with the technical word "hypergolic"? It is a term of art in rocket design, in particular, rocket fuel. Two fuels are said to be hypergolic if they ignite the moment they come in contact. E.g., dimethylhydrazine and dinotrogen tetroxide. Well, beer (or Coke) and bourbon / jalapeno chili may be hypergolic, depending on the robustness of the diner's alimentary tract.

So if you are not careful, eating bourbon / jalepeno chili and washing it down with, say, beer (or Diet Coke) could result in you leaving a ... well ... a "maker's mark". Fair warning. And again, sorry for the visual.

o 7-layer cookies ... This is the dessert ... the one dish I actually can make -- no kidding, no joke -- that my wife allows me to make in the kitchen without (very much) supervision is 7-layer cookies. The recipe for 7-layer cookies is pretty much self-explanatory. I will only add some modest emendations, based on my several-year experience occasionally baking same.

-- I use crushed / pulverized walnuts instead of pecans, but that is a matter of taste

-- I would recommend dialing the oven down to a lower setting, or keeping the oven at 350 but shortening the baking time by a few minutes.  The last thing you want to do is to overbake 7-layer cookies. The result will be a slab of material that you could perhaps use for patching your driveway, and that might even be useful instead of Kevlar for ballistic armor, except overbaked 7-layer cookies might be too hard for that latter purpose.

Anyway, if you try any of these recipes competitively on GSBS, you must first sign legal documents absolving me of any and all responsibility for whatever gastrointestinal upheavals may ensue. I cannot help it if your digestive system is insufficiently robust. And remember Nietzsche's maxim:  "Whatever does not destroy me makes me stronger".

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Layer cake ... Flickr ... CC by 2.0
Paul Hollywood ... Stratford Food Festival ... Public domain
Spam wall ... Cannon Theater ... CC by SA 2.0
Spam and eggs ... Arnold Gatilao ... CC by SA 2.0
7-layer cookies ... Belle of the Kitchen ... Public domain
Mac and cheese ... TexasFoodGawker ... CC by SA 4.0
Horseradish ... Omaha Steaks ... Public domain
Pot of chili ... Five Rings ... CC by 3.0
Maker's Mark ... Matt Lucht ... CC by 2.0
Meat loaf ... JeffreyW ... CC by 2.0
Sponge cake with raspberries ... Max Pixel ... Public domain



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