If you’re wondering, “Why such an unusual name for a cooking advice column?” look no further. Actually, look away. For a very brief moment in time, I did cook naked. To whit, I have a terrible habit of getting about as much food on me as I do in the skillet when I’m in the kitchen. But I’d long ago sworn off aprons because they tug too much on the back of my neck, making me look more Quasimodo and less Rico Suave. So one night before guests arrived, I had an idea: I’d strip down, do the last-minute searing, sautéing, and such, and then pop into the bedroom to get gussied up. The result, I thought, would be impeccably grease-free threads. No one would be the wiser.
Lesson one: Oil burns when it splatters. A lot. Especially on tender, counter-high nether regions.
Lesson two: Food left on the stovetop burns when you ignore it as you run cursing around the kitchen rubbing ice cubes all over your, well, never mind.
Lesson three: Lesson learned.
The lessons don’t end there. We’ve more kitchen wit and wisdom to impart, believe it or not, and here to do it are our Never Cook Naked guys, Mark Scarbrough and Bruce Weinstein. Ask them anything. Anything at all, whether matters of ingredients, technique, or etiquette. (And we do mean anything, given that we hear they, too, have had their share of boxer-clad culinary mishaps.)—David Leite
Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: I thought my love of strong black coffee made me something of an elite coffee drinker. But now that some coffee shops are professing the purity of lighter, or “blonde,” roasts, I’m starting to question everything. Was my sense of coffee superiority an illusion? Are my consumption habits about to become passé?—Nervous (But Not From the Caffeine)
Dear Nervous: Allow us a few guesses. You’re over 30. That tattoo you got in college is starting to fade. You find yourself buying sensible shoes. You’re afraid you’re no longer relevant.
Take heart: You’re not. Welcome to Adultlandia. Your resident visa will be ready in a few weeks.
In the meantime, sit back and sip your strong black coffee. Don’t be swayed by the marketing. All that advertising blather about ultra-light roasts was designed for the hipsters filling the ranks you’ve left behind. (We’ve seen what passes for coffee in some of those shops that tout their light roasts. A pumpkin mocha macchiatto with extra whip is not coffee. It’s Dairy Queen for the newly tattooed.)
Just relax. You’ve entered the blissful years of enjoyment without ego transactions. You’ll be nice and rested when you revisit this whole problem in your early 60s with the purchase of your first Corvette.
Dinner Party Diplomacy
Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: I’ve got a question about how to diplomatically decline foods you can’t stomach. The top of my ick list is dill. It ruins everything for me. So what do I do if I’m at a dinner party and am served an offending dish?—Dillphobic
Dear Dillphobic: First, you’ve got to decide how important the dinner is. If you’re being offered the position of executive producer on a Hollywood movie and you’re invited to seal the deal at George Clooney’s dill farm, smile and swallow. If you’re out to dinner with your future in-laws and they’re wondering if you’ll be a good guardian of Junior’s trust funds, smile and swallow. If you’re over for dinner at a friend’s house and the salmon comes with a dill sauce, you’re within the range of acceptable manners to ask that the sauce be left on the side.
Just be sure to ask, not screech. It’s the outrage, the horror, the eye-rolling, the if-I-eat-that-I’ll-convulse attitude that tends to set off hosts–especially hosts who’ve invested quite a lot of time, money, and love in that meal, and then graciously invited you to partake of it. So be decorous. Explain your dilemma. Tactfully. Better yet, explain your dilemma when you accept the invitation so your host has plenty of time to plan.
Bear in mind, there’s a hierarchy of intolerances at the table. We’ve been talking about preferences, not actual physical intolerances or allergies. You owe your host the respect of telling them about your specific needs. They’d rather know than have you push the plate away. And you need to respect yourself, too. There’s no reason to set yourself up for 24 (or more) hours of gastric distress just to be polite. Although, that, of course, is up to you.
Spice Shelf Life
Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: I’m thinking of making the lemon soufflé on your site. The recipe calls for 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar, although I can’t remember when I bought the dusty bottle that’s sitting in my spice rack. Can I omit the cream of tartar? Or substitute something else? Or should I just use my ancient powder?—Ye Olde Spice Rack
Dear Ye Olde: Short answer: Maybe, no, and yes. In that order.
Maybe. Whether you omit the ingredients depends on how much you value appearances. Cream of tartar strengthens the structure of whipped egg whites, ensuring they’re able to put under lock and key all the air that furious, high-speed beating imparts. Leave out the cream of tartar and you won’t taste the difference, although you may not have the loftiest soufflé on the block. Such scandalously shoddy attention to aesthetics might miff the foodies around you, but it won’t get you kicked off the PTA (unless you live within spitting distance of The French Laundry or appearance-obsessed L.A.).
No. Nothing will take the place of it, so don’t even try to substitute anything else for this ingredient. Unlike other items in your spice rack, cream of tartar is pure chemistry. It’s an acid salt known as potassium bitartrate, or, if you were paying attention in high school chemistry, KC4H5O6. Because it’s not thyme or oregano, you can’t swap something else based on perceived similarities or bottle proximity. You wouldn’t substitute Windex for Blue Curaçao, would you? (Well, unless your spouse really annoyed you.)
Yes. Use the old stuff. It has an almost indefinite shelf life provided—pay attention–the bottle has been sealed against moisture, in which case, see “Maybe.”
Dear Never Cook Naked Guys, this is more than a comment, I want to really go for it and ask a question, and here it is. Thisarose while reading the “spread-cookies-issue” pertaining to butter. I have been baking mostly cookies. I come from a country where most grandmas bake with olive oil rather than butter (Portugal). I do love butter cookies, but guess that olive oil is healthier for cholesterol-laden arteries and combines very well with spicy and citrus flavors. I’m puzzled about the methods for adding butter to a recipe. For instance, take a classic butter cookie like shortbread. It can be made either by creaming the butter with sugar before adding flour, or more “Scottishly” by rubbing in very cold butter to the mixture of sugar and flour. What is the difference on the outcome product? I personally have tried both ways and noticed nothing. I started preferring using the rubbing method for two main reasons: 1. I don’t need to take the butter out from the fridge and guess “how cold it should be,” and 2. I have found that freezing (olive) oil, cutting it into small squares, and then just rubbing these to the dry flour mixture as if it was cold butter produce a flakey, more tender cookie (even pie crusts done just with water, frozen oil, and flour plus a little acid (vinegar, buttermilk, or citrus juice) can be as flakey as a buttery one). If the recipe call for eggs or milk, than I just emulsify the oil (mayo-like) into the liquid mixture. I like to leave the dough resting overnight and notice that “rested” oil+flour+sugar doughs have a tendency to “sweat out” the oil, but after using the frozen oil rubbing method, this was solved and also allows us to add a little liquid flavors for making the dough come together. Back to butter: Given your experience, do you have any idea on the possible outcome of these 3 possible ways of making a classic butter + egg cookie like chocolate chip ones? (Note: I don’t have any kind of mixer, either standing or manual, so I use a wooden spoon or spatula.)
1. Traditional method: first cream butter with sugar, then add eggs, vanilla, lastly the flours, etc.
2. Option 1: rub the cold butter to the sugars/flour mixture, then beat eggs with vanilla and add to the previous crumbly mixture.
3. Option 2: rub the butter just with flour mixture, beat the eggs with sugars (this incorporates air) and vanilla. A variant would be to divide the sugar, i.e. mix caster sugar with flour and beat the brown sugar with eggs.
Any idea of the possible outcomes?
Jorge, I just received a response from Mark and Bruce, our Never Cook Naked guys, and here’s what they have to say…
Wow, you’re way ahead of this game. You’ve actually run your own experiments and you know what’s best for your cookie-making. That’s impressive. But as to the butter dilemma with the dough, we’re pretty sure a mixer of some kind is necessary–because the point is to trap air molecules into the fat. While rubbing butter (or even frozen oil–genius!) into flour will make a tender and flaky pie crust, it will still make a crust–that is, a flat, crisp, baked dough. You don’t want air in crusts simply because you want them as cracker-like as possible. WIth cookies, you want some air in the mix. In fact, lots of air. While you’re not trying to make light, spongy cake layers, you are trying to make thousands of little planes of crunch–and those planes are separated by air. Thus, the beating. If you’re insistent you don’t want to beat the butter into the sugar and eggs, then we’d recommend letting the butter some to room temperature and whisking it into the sugar, getting as much air into the mix as possible before adding the eggs–and then the flour (which you’ll want to stir in with a wooden spoon). Even that (relatively) slight amount of agitation will put some air into the fat and allow for more tender cookies.
I enjoyed the bit about the tablespoons. I live in the nebulous land that lies between 50 grams of Parmigiano-Reggiano and (I have established) 5 rounded tablespoons of same (rounded being halfway between level and heaping). Don’t let them fool you. The Europeans (I can only speak for, or against, the Italians, but they all think water boils at 100°) act precise with their centimeters and milliliters and hectograms, but it’s all an act. They think measuring is for dorks, and if you can’t eyeball a quantity of oil, cheese, or parsley, you should get out of the kitchen. And it gets worse: yesterday I needed to establish what my Italian coauthor had meant by “bicchierino” and wound up getting out every kind of liqueur glass I had in the house till I found one the same size as the ones she has in the country, which is how she measured the grappa for the recipe (4 tablespoons, BTW). A tablespoon is a tablespoon around the world (15 ml for the fastidious), but Italians don’t mean level tablespoons, they mean heaping, only they usually don’t say so. You’re just supposed to know. The vocabulary exists — cucchiaio raso, level, or colmo, heaping — but you don’t often see it. And do we want to talk about a cucchiaiata? Still, I have come around to the preference for weighing for when you really do have to measure.
It may be beyond our ability to say exactly what went wrong, since you claim all the variables stayed the same. But maybe they didn’t. Flours do go in and out of fad–and sometimes use various wheats with various gluten levels at different times of the year. We’ve noticed our chocolate chip cookies need a tad less fat (shock!) in the South, thanks to the prevalence of soft white flour back home. Such tinkering around is the very soul of a foodie’s life–and it’s pretty persnickety stuff. Honestly, it’s not enough to make bad cookies, just different. But perhaps there’s a chemical fandango more specific to your mother’s batches. But in any event, things seemed to have calmed down and are back to normal. What more could anyone ask?
Since you mentioned it, Renee, my mother was baffled by a culinary mystery for years. Every Christmas she made anise cookies. The process was thus: beat eggs with sugar for about 15 minutes (she started using a stand mixer when she turned 75 — the arms and the old hand-held were both wearing out); stir in anise extract and flour; then drop onto the baking sheets and let sit about 8 hours before baking. The tops would dry so the cookie arose vertically without spreading, creating smooth-surfaced, cream-colored disks.
For years she made the recipe with no problems. Then one year, a few of the many batches she made went off. The cookies refused to set and instead spread into amorphous globs. Very unattractive, though still tasty. Things got worse every year, with more failures than success, until Mom was ready to throw in the kitchen towel. She took it personally; her reputation was at stake. She could not figure out why she could make two batches on consecutive days, using eggs from the same carton, flour from the same bag, baking powder from the same can, etc., measuring ingredients as precisely as before. One batch worked, the other flopped. She started to suspect she was under some Biblical curse.
Then last year, the curse was lifted. Almost every batch was a success.
Is it possible the answer lies somewhere in the chain of our great industrial food supply? Could flour makers or egg producers have sourced from different farmers, or farmers fed their chickens different formulas?
What do our kitchen gurus suggest?
Hilarious! Okay..here’s one that has gotten to me since I first started cooking and I have had it explained but I still feel unsatisfied by the answer. “Creamed Cottage Cheese” as an ingredient. What does it mean?
Some say cottage cheese made of cream. There is nothing, NOTHING, on a container of cottage cheese that I’ve seen that says it’s made of cream. It’s not even called “creamed cottage cheese” on the container! …And, the way it’s used in many recipes, the curds seem like it would not incorporate nicely..so I theorized that maybe “creamed” meant it was to be creamed..as in beaten until it was smooth and would hold air. I’ve had unsatisfactory results using 4% milkfat cottage cheese, which is the fattiest available, so I just avoid recipes that call for creamed cottage cheese. BTW..most of these recipes are from older cookbooks, ones published before 1950, and the recipes are occasionally ethnic (like a dough for nut rolls (potica) which makes me think maybe the term means cream cheese) I am so confused! Any ideas?
Creamed cottage cheese??? First off, it sounds horrible. But perhaps it has a baking purpose. In any event, my dear, you’ve stumped the panel. Research ahead–and an answer soon. Hmmmm. . . .