adventures in craft beer and real food

Sunday, July 30, 2006

SHF 21: The Root Beer Float

For this month's edition of Sugar High Friday, Sarah of The Delicious Life wants ices. Since she seemed particularly obsessed with Vanilla Ice, who will always be more "go ninja" than "ice, ice baby" to me, and since this blog is into beer, what better way to express this theme than with a humble root beer float? Like Boulud making a hamburger, I hope that I can show you that this dessert can be more than be more than the all-too-common bad marriage of bad root beer and bland ice cream.

To play matchmaker, I needed to make the most delicious vanilla ice cream and find the best root beer. The root beer part was easy. Nevertheless, it gave me a good excuse to taste two of my favorite brands together: Point and Sprecher. Since the experience was more hedonistic than I'd probably like to admit, I'll announce that I found Sprecher's root beer to be richer and more complex than Point's cleaner and more straight-forward flavor.

The ice cream offered a unique challenge in that I wanted to make the richest, most delicious vanilla ice cream I've ever had. I found three different recipes and compared their ratios of sugar and eggs side-by-side. I then decided to make my ice cream with the one with the most eggs yolks (ten) and the least amount of sugar (one cup) per quart of dairy. To be honest, I basically made Glace-Créme á la Vanille Escoffier with a few noted deviations.

To get my dairy products, I visited the new Westside Community Farmers' Market where I bought a quart of whole milk and a pint of cream from Nick Kirch of Blue Marble Family Farm. They purvey what might very well be the highest quality milk anywhere. Although I might question their claim that homogenized milk is bad for you and their use of clear glass bottles (the fat in milk is highly sensitive to photooxidation), their unhomogenized milk has a flavor that I had never before experienced.

I combined two cups of whole milk with two cups of cream in a heavy sauce pan. Then I added two Madagascar vanilla beans (from Penzey's Spices), even though Escoffier only calls for one. In this case, Madagascar vanilla beans seemed like a better bet because of their clean vanilla flavor. I let this mixture simmer for twenty minutes over a medium-low flame.

Meanwhile, I whisked one cup of sugar and a dash of salt into ten egg yolks until the mixture became pale yellow. When my dairy was properly scalded and infused, I added the strained dairy mixture into the eggs yolks via tempering. Once combined, I strained the mixture and put it back on the stove and stirred it continuously until it became slightly more viscous. Once done, I strained the mixture again and put it in the refrigerator until it reached the ambient temperature of my fridge (39° F). You want to freeze the ice cream at the lowest possible temperature above freezing to avoid ending up with a grainy ice cream.

At this point and in defiance of Escoffier, I added several spoons of my cranberry honey and a tablespoon of Mexican vanilla extract. Why? I was hoping to convoke the honey flavors of the ice cream and root beer. I also added the vanilla extract to give the ice cream an extra dash of vanilla flavor. If I were just making vanilla ice cream for eating vanilla ice cream, I would recommend against this step. However, in this case, I wanted to make sure that the ice cream could stand up to a full-flavored root beer. That's also why I chose Mexican vanilla extract (again, from Penzey's) for its rich, complex vanilla flavor.

Once my cream was at a cold enough temperature, I froze it in my ice cream maker for thirty minutes and left it in the freezer for about a day to firm up.

The resulting vanilla custard is probably the best vanilla ice cream that I've ever had. It's rich, and extremely flavorful. It combines a pleasant dairy flavor with a solid dose of vanilla. Plus, I love the light brown color and the vanilla speckles.

To make my root beer float, I spooned three scoops of my custard into a small glass and filled to volume with root beer. It was a revelatory experience to me, in that never I had a root beer float like this before. That and I always thought the problem with a root beer float was also a mechanical one. The ice cream would float on top of the root beer, making it almost impossible to combine the flavors. With a larger amount of ice cream, this problem was obviated.

In fairness, however, I think the ice cream was too good. And by that I mean that it might have been too rich and eggy for a root beer float. Next time, I will make it with a smaller number of egg yolks or simply skip the eggs in favor of Philadelphia-style ice cream. The addition of egg yolks has the advantage of making the ice cream melt more slowly, which is good unless you're looking for a fancy cream soda.

Sipping at an ice-cold root beer and savoring the creamy custard melt in my mouth was enough to make me forget the nearly 100° F weather today, one spoonful at a time.

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Beating the heat with a Radler

The Radler. A mixture of lemonade and lager. With temperatures hitting 95° F today, I couldn't resist the appeal of this misunderstood and much maligned beverage. That, and I also can't resist the urge to foil Eric Asimov who recently argued against lemon and beer combinations.

Many beer aficionados disparge any combination of lemon and beer on the grounds that it de-elevates the beer into the realm of swill. I believe my father responded to the idea of a Radler by saying, "There's nothing I'd rather less do with a good beer." After all, serving beer with a lemon or a lime is strictly for Coronas and similar beers in the US. I used to agree with this opinion until I was eating out one night and the bartender stuck a lime in my Spotted Cow. Now I like Spotted Cow; it's a good, solid beer. Nevertheless, I squeezed the juice into my beer. The result was a revelation to me. It didn't ruin the beer, it just took it to a different culinary destination. It added some bright citrus taste and seemed to bring out the hop flavor a bit.

While it would be relatively easy to dismiss by opinion as heresy or an appeal to beer anarchy, I believe I can claim the support of two unimpeachable sources. First, Garrett Oliver notes that lemon can be a welcome partner to a witbeer. And second, no less of an authority than the Belgians and Germans are practically mixmasters. Even at traditional Belgian cafes serving lambic brews, small dishes of sugar sit out so that diners can sweeten their framboise. And back in olden times when beer quality wasn't as high or as dependable as it is today, Germans traditionally mixed fruit syrups into their weizens to make them more palatable. Heck, even the British have their shandies and their black and tans.

Interesting, there are some histories of the Radler circulating around on the internet. The most common is that it was invented in 1922 by Franz Xaver Kugler, the owner of a Bavarian Gasthaus (an inn with a restaurant), who mixed lemon-lime soda with beer in order to accomodate the number of cyclists staying at his establishment. And indeed, the word "Radler" does mean cyclist in German. I have no idea of whether this story is true or not, but I'll just say that I'm generally highly skeptical of creation myths. The beverage is also known as an Altsterwasser in northern Germany, leading to curious double sided cans that identify the contents for both regions. The Radler is, to the best of my knowledge, the only exception to the German Reinheitsgebot. That is, all German made beers come from only malt/wheat, hops, water, and yeast. Except for the Radler, which is permitted to be sold as a finished product despite the addition of lemonade. Perhaps because many Americans would reject a Radler as somehow unmanly or a perversion of taste, the Radler isn't imported into the United States.

To make a good Radler, I figured that I needed to start with good lemonade. Originally, I planned on using Escoffier's very own citronade recipe but I was stumped by what unit of volume a "syphon" is (such as "add one syphon of sparkling water"). After having done some research online, I decided upon the juice of six lemons, 1/2 cup fined sugar, and four cups of sparkling water. To maximize carbonation, I recommend juicing the lemons and dissolving the sugar in the lemon juice. Then add the sparkling water (I used San Pallegrino), and whisk gently to mix. This lemonade is somewhat stronger and more sour than what you're probably accustomed to from the supermarket, but I swear this lemonade is darn close to perfect. The spritzy carbonation adds a nice touch to the still lemonades that are common in this country.

Having made my lemonade, I picked up my local helles variety from the Capital Brewery (Middleton, WI). It's called Bavarian Lager and is, I think, a good expression of the style. I plan to review it in the future.

Traditional Radlers are 50-50 mixtures of lemonade and beer. So I measured out a cup of helles and poured it into my pint glass and topped it off with a cup of lemonade. If you mix it the other way, you'll get less foaming.

The resulting beverage was extraordinary.

The aroma was alive with bright citrus notes accented by two kinds of sourness, one from the lemons and the other from the beer. The beverage appeared bright gold in the glass and was graced by spritzy carbonation. But the flavor is where the mixture really took off. The flavor is very interesting, and unlike anything I had ever tried before. It's basically a sweet-and-sour experience where you taste an initial burst of sweetness and malt flavors. After a brief moment, the flavor shifts to lemonade and hops. I was surprised to detect hopping in the Radler, because I couldn't taste any in the beer by itself.

But best of all, the Radler was very easy to drink and extremely satisfying. It lacks any ethanol flavor or the warming effects associated with drinking.

Next time it's hot out and you're tempted to mix up a margarita, have a Radler instead. You won't be disappointed.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Television commentary: Feasting on Asphalt

As somone who got turned onto cooking by Alton Brown's scientifically minded and entertaining show Good Eats, I'm excited that he's hosting a new television program.

It's called Feasting on Asphalt, and it will feature Alton Brown traveling around on his motorcycle and eating road food. Sounds like a good deal for Alton, not only because he loves motorcycles, but also because it gives him a chance to do more than his geeky Good Eats gig. Which after so many seasons has got to be good for his career. If he continues doing Good Eats, I hope that the quality remains at the level that it has been.

Alton Brown already got in a vehicular accident and broke his clavicle. He'll be ok, and seems to be in good spirits about it.

Before I give you the link (which in classic Food Network online fashion is totally useless anyway), I want to warn you that few things in life suck more than the Food Network's webpage. It's slow, full of ads and unnecessary java, and it crashes Firefox from time to time. Which as anyone who uses the latest version of Firefox on Mac OS 10.4 can tell you takes some doing. That said, here it is. But don't say I didn't warn you.

Edit: You may be more interested in reading about the new show on Alton's own website.

It's interesting that Alton Brown's webpage was redesigned for the debut of his new show. His old webpage, still viewable using the Internet Archive, prominently featured Alton in a long black coat considering an onion while holding a Kershaw knife behind his back. The layout seemed consistent with his Good Eats persona: whimsical, amusing, and useful. It is the first major overhaul of the website since 2001. The new layout seems to share these same qualities, but showcases his new travel show with the diner "EAT" sign on the mainpage and the "OPEN 24 HOURS" and "Guest Check" images on his store's page. Could this be hinting at a change in programming? Only time will tell.

If Alton Brown is seeking to have a travel show on the Food Network long term, I am have worries about how that would integrate into the network's regular programming. The Food Network has gone completely nuts for travel and eating out shows, eschewing shows that actually involve cooking. With Rachael Ray's transformation from the master of quickies -- er, Thirty Minute Meals -- to $40 a day, to her celebrity gossip flop Inside Dish, and her latest Rachael Ray's Tasty Travels, the network seems to have gone too far in one direction. (Note: As much as I like to make fun of Rachael Ray, I agree with much of what Jill Hunter Pellettieri says about her in Slate.) I would hope that Feasting on Asphalt, if any good, will replace existing travel programming instead of merely tack another travel show onto the regular schedule. I'm worried about the broader implications of cutting a cooking show from the primetime line-up and perhaps replacing it with another travel show. As Sara Dickerman of Slate pointed out, the network has cast its culinary talent into television exile. Jacques Torres, Wolfgang Puck, and Sara Moulton all have been virtually eliminated from the network. Even Anthony Bourdain's A Cook's Tour doesn't make it on television much any more. Now, I can understand why: culinary talent is not the same thing as television talent. Jacques Pepin is an amazing chef. But his program on PBS are not particularly entertaining. I'm told that Emeril and Mario Batali are both excellent and accomplished chefs (their restaurants are too far away to visit at this point in my life), but it's obvious that they were not made for television.

That brings up a larger issue of how we approach our time and our food. We want everything to be easy and fun. Cooking isn't just the flash of an expertly executed flambé, it's also the monotony of peeling carrots and shocking asparagus and cleaning pans. Cooking is about transforming earth's bounty into cuisine... or at least food. Which can be fun, yes. I like cooking myself. But its primary role is not to entertain us or amuse us so much as feed us. To be good at anything in life, including cooking, you have to put some elbow grease into it. You have to want it and work for it. If you have fun along the way, so much the better.

The problem is that many programs on the Food Network don't teach you the first thing about cooking. As far as I'm concerned, Good Eats is the lone survivor of the the network's obsession with hausfrau programming.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Beer and ... Eric Asimov?

If you haven't noticed yet, the New York Times' very own Eric Asimov had some very brief but positive words about summer beer.

Here's the link.

This isn't as surprising as you might have expected. Although Eric Asimov seems to have a bias toward European beer over craft American brews, he's a fan of Garrett Oliver and has used his unassailable authority in the world of wine to good use in favor of great beer.

My only complaint is that he says that hefeweizen has a strange taste. It's not that strange even in the world of lagers. Sure it can taste of "cloves, smoke, bananas and bubblegum" but what makes that so strange. Belgian beers, especially dubbels and tripels, are even more clove-ey, banana-ey. amd bubblegum-ey. Witbeers have even more pronounced spice flavors.

And besides, what makes cloves and banana so strange? To me, it doesn't seem any more unusual than someone talking about cherry, chocolate, or coffee stouts. Or noting the creative use of corn adjuncts in New Glarus' Spotted Cow, for instance.