Dec 24, 2009

Dec 23, 2009

Dec 17, 2009

a pune, or a play on words

i post this here at risk of making someone who shall remain nameless even more insufferable about these cunning objects than she already is.

brisk; tasty

two observations:

  1. took my bike to coffee yesterday at 8am when it was -4F with wind chill (-20C, if you're in a country where the system of measures is rationalized). not a good time to forget gloves or a hat.
  2. the swedish have a baked good called a lussebulle (named for saint lucy, who appears to be its patron saint) that shows up around this time of year, after the feast of saint lucy. the lussebulle is shaped out of yeasted enriched bread spiced with saffron and cardamom, two of the three most expensive spices in the world by weight. the subtle ostentation is very appealing.
more soon,

julian smith's techno jeep

Posted via web from flavourcountry

Dec 14, 2009

ben sherrill: null string

ben's got a bunch of new work out. see it here, buy it here.

not single spies but in battalions

as the semester winds to a close, everything speeds up and slows down at the same time. this year, the end of fall is a little more fraught than usual: everything got bumped up three weeks so that we'd be done with exams and grading and papers before christmas. much better than spending the end of the old year and the start of the new one with many swords of damocles overhead. other benefit: this is the only fall semester i've ever spent here without the prospect of toiling to classes through snowdrifts. we'll still have the snow, but we'll be toiling through it on our way to things that are not class.


meanwhile, everyone has suddenly realized that there are two weeks left to the term and meetings postponed unpostpone themselves, distant papers come due, examinations on long-forgotten content loom, late work approaches its final deadline. and yet, classes are done so the days again stretch into the hazy distance, to be filled with grilled cheese sandwiches and other forms of toasted bread. should be productive, but instead am drinking calvados and canvassing the corners of the internet for parts for an even more improved version of a vacuum distillation device than this.*

* apparently the cooking issues team have a plan for an improved rotovap that dumps at least the rotating bit with the failure-prone, expensive gasket. the real question is: how many moving parts and tubes can you take away and still have it work in principle? the answer, i suspect, is quite a few.

Dec 13, 2009

yes, we have instruments of division

the moor

It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God there was made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In a movement of the wind over grass.

There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart's passions – that was praise
Enough; and the mind's cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.


[thx cp]

the last two lines, of course, are killer. the rest of it is mush.

Dec 11, 2009

ghost ii



by michael johansson

scott nearing, on the good life

The good life is never stable, never secure, never easy and never ended. It is a series of steps or stages, one leading into the other and all, in their outcome, adding, not subtracting; augmenting, not diminishing; building, not destroying; creating, not annihilating.

unfortunately, not so easy to implement.

Posted via web from flavourcountry

Dec 8, 2009

sand

-- you have sand in your left ear.
-- really.
-- just a grain or two bouncing around in there. nothing to worry about.
-- good to know.
-- couple of grains in this one too. been frolicking in the dunes recently?


silver line

in the bowels of south station, there is a sandwich board that tells you where to stand for the silver line to logan airport. this sandwich board (or one much like it) has been there since the airport extension opened--who can say why don't they replace it with permanent signage? maybe it's a good thing, since the sign is carefully hand-written on both sides, both of which look almost the same. i've failed to notice that they're actually different in four years of encountering the sign from one direction or the other. (look at the S and the H.)

Dec 7, 2009

Dec 6, 2009

san francisco

ritual, valencia st

sightglass, 7th st
humphrey slocombe, harrison st.

Dec 2, 2009

the death of uncool

It’s odd to think back on the time—not so long ago—when there were distinct stylistic trends, such as “this season’s colour” or “abstract expressionism” or “psychedelic music.” It seems we don’t think like that any more. There are just too many styles around, and they keep mutating too fast to assume that kind of dominance.

...

The idea that something is uncool because it’s old or foreign has left the collective consciousness.

I think this is good news. As people become increasingly comfortable with drawing their culture from a rich range of sources—cherry-picking whatever makes sense to them—it becomes more natural to do the same thing with their social, political and other cultural ideas. The sharing of art is a precursor to the sharing of other human experiences, for what is pleasurable in art becomes thinkable in life.


Posted via web from flavourcountry

Nov 30, 2009

the buzz

Haagen-Dazs has those extra “a’s in its name but also has a nice promotion to help bees. Honey bees of course. From Nov 5 to 11 Haagen-Dazs will run a twitter campaign that benefits the University of California at Davis and its noisy, dangerous, sticky programs to preserve bees. This will cause a lot of buzz.

Posted via web from flavourcountry

Nov 29, 2009

the circle unbroken

joan baez with a cast of muppets. note the pig in the upper left corner during the finale. [thx julian]

Posted via web from flavourcountry

Nov 26, 2009

ice cream van

"it's like twitter. except we charge people to use it."



i sometimes feel like doing this to people who ask me to design stuff for them for free.

Nov 21, 2009

Nov 19, 2009

milton glaser on drawing


milton glaser is a partner in pentagram, one of the most influential design companies of the last century:

the act of drawing makes me conscious of what i'm looking at. if i wasn't drawing, i have the sense that i would not be seeing. ... i always think of every drawing as kind of a miraculous occurrence. it takes a while to do drawing that you find interesting. curiously, people think that the difficulty of drawing is making things look accurate. but accuracy is the least significant part of drawing. but you have to learn how to draw accurately before you can learn to do anything else. then you can begin to think about drawing expressively. that's another game entirely.

granolanauts

update: jim reveals the granolas.

jim leff put together a granola blind tasting today in the east village at dba on 1st ave (which has a fine selection of draught beers and ciders). in these photos, you see the granolanauts surveying an expanse of assorted granolas in an intrepid fashion, then, midway through, in a less intrepid fashion. granola is not a low-calorie food.

Nov 17, 2009

steak filter

video signal of the steak cooking, passed through the steak as it cooks. signal degrades as the steak loses moisture. i wonder if you would get the same result if the steak were cooked sous vide.

Posted via web from flavourcountry

Nov 13, 2009

lifebox



a few weeks back, paul stamets wrote to the scifoo mailing list to ask if anyone wanted one of the first run of his lifeboxes. these are cardboard panels seeded with tree seeds and symbiotic fungal spores that improve the growth and development of the seedlings. i wrote to say i wanted one but never heard back. i forgot about it. then, today, a small box appears on the front step.

which is nice.

Nov 9, 2009

experiments in food

i went down to new york last week for the french culinary institute's harold mcgee series, which consists of mcgee talking about the science of cooking and nils noren and dave arnold from fci showing off a select portion of the fancy stuff they've been doing in their copious spare time to illustrate (and push beyond) the known science of cooking.here's nastassia lopez's official account of day 1 of the series on cooking issues, the FCI's R&D blog. i'm still processing the three day show and tell of the output from one of the cutting edges of food, but these are some early thoughts about the uses of experimentation in cooking.

we got to try some of almost everything that was talked about so that we could compare, for example, the flavour and texture of mashed potatoes cooked with a pretreatment to set the starch granules (cooked to 160F, cooled to 40F, then boiled and passed through a tamis) and mashed potatoes cooked in the traditional method (ie, just boiled and passed through a tamis). [i liked the conventional cooking method better]. there were lots of experiments and it was sweet to be able to try several different ways of preparing the same item side by side. so that was great.

throughout, nils, dave, and harold repeatedly noted that the techniques were not being presented as the one best way to do any given thing (cook a steak, burger, or whatever), but rather as ways to break down the process of cooking as much as possible so that the cook can, given a clear idea of the final outcome desired, achieve that outcome with the greatest possible precision and reliability. compared to the whizbang demonstrations, this relatively theoretical consideration didn't seem top of mind for most of the participants. (in fairness, it's difficult to focus on things like that when being constantly plied with really tasty stuff--see below).

tasty stuff: i think this was a case full of winesap apples, juiced with a pectinase, clarified with a centrifuge, and then evaporated under a vacuum. the bottle is about the size of a roll of quarters and contains an apple syrup that tastes like getting hit in the head by a case of apples.

more tasty stuff: egg on egg on egg (ikura on egg whites, served on a round of all-egg bread cooked in a pressure cooker).

the uses of experimentation
this was the last thing on my mind when i showed up on the first day, but it turns out you can't understand how experimentation is valuable to cooks without thinking through the assumptions made when experimenting in food.

the series is one of the most basic instances of the experimental method in cooking: all variables but one are held constant to illustrate the effect of that one variable on the outcome. the example from thursday morning's discussion of heat in cooking was a series of pieces of salmon cooked at different temperatures, to illustrate how temperature has a nonlinear effect on the texture of cooked salmon. based on the series, cooking salmon to between 48C and 52C produces a safe and tasty piece of salmon. but this is not the most useful conclusion to draw from the experiment. the real takeaway is understanding that cooked salmon has five major discrete textures, and that these textures change over relatively small temperature intervals.

the salmon temperature series.

the salmon temperature series described above takes a complex real system (cooking potentially different types, cuts, sizes of salmon pieces at varying temperatures, pressures, for varying amounts of time, to say nothing of flavourings and cooking media) and reduces it to a simple model that can be experimentally manipulated (the same piece of salmon [sort of] + different temperatures = a range of cooked salmon). the implicit assumption is that temperature is the variable with the biggest influence on the texture of cooked salmon in the real world, and that the relationship between these variables in the experimental model closely approximates the real world.

all experiments that take the form of simplified models rely on at least these two assumptions: 1) that the experimental model has the important variables in it, 2) that the relationship between the variables in the model is relatively close to the relationship between variables in the real world. if those conditions hold, experiments based on simplified models are useful in practice not just because they provide precise and specific guidelines for cooking (even though that may sometimes be true), but also because they sensitise cooks to the materials and tools they work with. part of this is using the experiment's results to understand when it makes sense to pay attention and what it makes sense to pay attention to.

Nov 8, 2009

that's a good point

after a long hiatus:


that's a good point, 2008/2009
laminated eastern white ash with milk paint and gilding, tung oil finish; black cherry with lime wash and waxed red linen cord, tung oil finish; poplar with milk paint, tung oil finish.

(yes, i know it's a terrible photograph)

better beverages

this is nils noren pouring a liquid nitrogen frozen cocktail made with clarified ashmead's kernel. in one of the stainless tubs in back is the best gin i've ever had, distilled from vodka blended with cilantro, cucumber, juniper berry, roasted orange peel, and thai basil, and served so cold it was syrupy.

chocolate

finally, someone who agrees with me that chocolate is just way too easy. the best dessert i've had yet was a peach leaf and almond semifreddo with a black mulberry granita, at quince; it was the apotheosis of restraint. i think this might be sort of nice too.

Nov 7, 2009

Nov 4, 2009

science in the kitchen

today there was a big live fish flopping about, and then they severed its spine and destroyed its spinal nerve and it was placid. here is a picture of preserved eggs instead.

Nov 3, 2009

Nov 1, 2009

Oct 31, 2009

on fonts

to the best of our knowledge examines typography with tobias frere-jones, jonathan hoefler, and matthew carter.

Oct 30, 2009

wilco|I am trying to break your heart


the wilco documentary by sam jones (in 6 parts on youtube). crafted music.

Oct 28, 2009

brainwave sofa

lucas maassen's brainwave sofa is a representation of a 3 second wave of Alpha brain activity
captured with an EEG, modeled, milled in 3D foam, and upholstered by hand.

Oct 24, 2009

ahgalla

it's a boat carved of marble!

Posted via web from flavourcountry

Oct 23, 2009

Look Around You - Sulphur

from experiment 2, an investigation into the effect of iron on sulphur (6:26): "for this experiment, we will be using a common household item rich in iron. that's right: champagne. a quantity of champagne is poured into a large glass trough. we're using about 17 bottles worth. there's a lot of cheap brands on the market these days, but we suggest using one of the better ones. there's no hiding quality. next, a quantity of sulphur is added and the mixture is agitated, producing sulphagne. write that down."

Posted via web from flavourcountry

you are what you eat



chris jordan photographs the gut contents of albatross chicks on midway island. (its a long way away from anywhere.)

Oct 22, 2009

baked



ceramics incorporating bread, by studio formafantasma.

woodworm

Woodworms I, by Zimoun

Sound installation based on live sounds of woodworms.
Woodworms, piece of wood, microphone, soundsystem.
Size: variable
Edition: unique
Year: 2009

Posted via web from flavourcountry

Oct 21, 2009

Oct 19, 2009

Oct 15, 2009

Oct 8, 2009

kaiseki+

this post got neatened up and, through an improbable sequence of events, is now on the atlantic food channel.




understanding kaiseki (with a slideshow of dishes from hon-kogetsu, in osaka, circa 2004)

Sep 29, 2009

mel kendrick in madison square park

two summers ago, while i was at the ranch, paul bowen's class closed the week-long workshop with a visit to aspen's own goldsworthy installation at the aspen institute and a few galleries in town. we saw a bunch of really magnificent little sculptures by mel kendrick.


last sunday, i was walking uptown past madison square park when i noticed large, stripey objects on the grass. the interwebs provide better photographs than i am capable of, but none of the reports explain why these sculptures are so cool, and the on-site placards are similarly uninformative. here's a good photo from psfk:

markers, mel kendrick (image from psfk)

these are apparently cast from successive layers of white and black tinted concrete, but their form originates in experiments on much smaller pieces of wood. the conceit here is that each sculpture consists of a stack of two separate pieces, one of which is composed of pieces that have been removed from the other. the pieces we saw in aspen had been carefully bandsawed apart and then glued back together; these much larger sculptures have a similar texture. this is not intuitively obvious, which is why it's so cool; the negative/positive volume construction may be easier to see in this much less fancy photo i took of the piece second from the right in the image above.

Sep 13, 2009

on kaiseki

[also see this article]

so, here is the stake in the ground, the brief explanation of kaiseki that rejects as fundamentally flawed the idea that kaiseki is primarily a culinary tradition emphasizing presentation. kaiseki is one of these mythical ideas in japanese cooking -- little understood except by culinary history wonks, so no one seems to be able to agree about the early history of kaiseki. i suppose this is my contribution to misinformation.

there is an ideal type for kaiseki which is now more honoured in the breach than the observance. these days, it is best known as sumptuous dining -- expensive, rarefied, exclusive, something like the japanese version of going to the french laundry. it is more accurate, though, to think of kaiseki as an approach to cooking and consumption which finds expression in two broad types of dining.

the kanji for kaiseki can be written in two ways -- the first, 会席, stands (approximately) for "formal occasion," the second, 懐石, (again approximately) for "stone in the robe." most of what is today called kaiseki is of the formal occasion variety and descends from japanese court cuisine. because this was, broadly speaking, food for the nobility, price was usually irrelevant to preparation. kaiseki meals are some of the most expensive dining experiences you can have. the stone in the robe form of kaiseki is much rarer, especially outside japan. this lineage of kaiseki derives from the tea ceremony (cha-no-yu) and from the cooking traditions of zen monasteries (shojin ryori). this lineage of kaiseki emphasises economy and wise use of materials rather than waste: the story (which i find singularly unconvincing) is that monks in temples used to warm stones and keep them in their robes next to their stomachs to ward off hunger pangs -- hence the name. i am told that an extremely minimalist version of shojin ryori may be found in california at the tassajara zen monastery. though different in ancestry, both lineages of kaiseki emphasize mindful eating and, over time, have developed into quite highly formalized culinary systems.

the original kaiseki (stone in the robe variety) was of the form ichi-ju issai (or ni-sai, or san-sai) -- meaning one soup and a prepared dish or two or three (rice always being a given). kaiseki of both lineages have elaborated the form, but always the basic structure remains: there is the soup, and then there is an array of prepared dishes. kaiseki menus are thus variations on a theme -- chefs use ingredients in season and cook them within the kaiseki framework and the broader wa-shoku framework (wa-shoku translates as japanese cooking, and it has its own set of principles for success -- seven methods of cooking, five flavours, five colours, etc etc). the kaiseki format (which is almost infinitely extensible, as you'll see) offers some boundary conditions within which the kaiseki chef's duty is to optimize. i like to think of it as a multivariate optimization exercise, like many crafts.

for most formal occasion variety kaiseki, the standard format and one interpretation of an approximate order is given below:
starters
shiizakana/sakizuki: appetizers (the former accompanying sake)
zensai: vegetable appetizers (yet more appetizers, but these are more substantial)
suimono: the soup course

seasonals
tsukuri/mukuzuki: sashimi
hassun: a platter (the name derives from the platter's edge-length, which is 8 inches or hassun) of complementary foods from either the seas and the mountains or the fields and the streams. a hassun for the early spring might be tai (sea bream) and a mountain herb like fukinoto (butterbur buds); one for the midsummer might be freshwater eel (unagi) and new potatoes (imo).

ways of cooking
yakimono: grilled course
aemono: dressed course (dressed with some kind of sauce -- this course is usually dropped in smaller kaiseki, as far as i know)
nimono: simmered course
mushimono: steamed course
sunomono: vinegared course (quick-pickled is the best analogue)

rice
shokuji: course eaten with rice

then dessert is usually fresh fruit of some sort, plus matcha and a wagashi (if in kyoto, or in a really fancy restaurant, the wagashi will be made of wasanbon, a hand-refined sugar from shikoku). the rice course is specially set apart because, really, no meal is complete without rice (even if it is only a token amount of rice). this is true in japan as it is in china and many other parts of east asia.
in kaiseki, chefs are at liberty to take out anything (almost) except the suimono and shokuji courses. they will frequently replace courses with analogues or referential courses -- for example, in place of nimono (the traditional simmered course), an innovative chef might serve a braised dish or a rustic claypot dish. the starters are also relatively easily interchanged or omitted. in short kaiseki, many chefs seem to eliminate the aemono course and one other dependent on season: in the winter, the nimono is a staple but mushimono and yakimono might go away; in the summer, nimono probably goes away and yakimono sticks around. everyone loves the grill in the heat, even in japan.

gesshinkyo (a temple vegetarian restaurant in tokyo, off omotesando, now closed. see here) is an interesting combination of the two lineages of kaiseki. since tanahashi's training is in shojin ryori (temple cooking, usually associated with the stone in the robe line) but his restaurant is decidedly upscale (formal dining, expensive, elaborate), dinner with him combines the vegetarian/non-alcoholic/introspective and the lavish/expensive. it also forces a reinterpretation of many of the courses because meat and alcohol are prohibited in shojin. you will not get the tsukuri and shiizakana courses, but tropes like the hassun will likely be interpreted in a quite refreshing way. i am told that he once served junsai (water shield shoots) and myoga (japanese ginger shoots) for a hassun -- a quite innovative way to combine foods from streams/fields without resorting to serving meat. as with almost all shojin, there will be no attempt to disguise vegetables/tofu as meat -- you'll get many dishes and more different types of vegetables than you're likely to have seen before in one sitting.

as a cooking tradition, shojin also appears to have a more granular awareness of shun (seasonality) than the rest of japanese cooking in general. shun is best translated as "season," though no really adequate english word exists for it. shun makes reference to a time of year (recurrent and thus seasonal), a food, and an application -- thus, there is a shun for bamboo shoots (it lasts about 10-12 days in early spring), recognizing that during this window of time bamboo shoots are tender enough to be eaten as a root vegetable without the leaching and processing necessary later in the season. some foods have multiple shun. for example, tai (sea bream) has something like 3 separate shun. one is in early spring, when the fish are lean and clean-tasting after the winter and best suited for some kinds of sashimi; another is in the midsummer when glycogen levels in the flesh are moderately high and thus suitable for some other variety of sashimi; and the third is just before spawning when the flesh is suitable for char grilling. or something. you have to be a japanese chef to keep up with these things. because the shun for foods overlaps with the seasons, foods become markers of seasons as well as marked by seasons -- hence the idea of shun no mono (seasonal foods) and menus that closely reflect seasonality. good japanese chefs are particularly intimately aware of the foods that are at the peak of their season at any given point and adjust their menus accordingly -- these are now rare and you only get to see this quality of cooking if you hang out with professors at cooking schools and the like. good japanese chefs are also frequently versed in the art, culture, and history of japan -- lots of little in-jokes get folded into the composition and presentation of japanese dishes. going into more detail about this would be really tiresome -- as sociologists like to say, the practice exists in an impenetrable hermeneutic circle. in any case, high-quality kaiseki is characterised by this kind of dual richness in the food: strong awareness of seasonality and multiple layers of cultural meaning. if you are particularly attuned to shun and japanese culture, eating at a really fancy kaiseki place is a bit like having a private conversation with the chef through the medium of the dishes he sends out. this is akin to how thomas keller sends out things like oysters and pearls (savory pearl tapioca custard with oyster and caviar) at the french laundry, except the conversation in a kaiseki setting runs along the lines of "i have put a sansho leaf on this humble piece of sesame tofu. [meaningful look]" "ah, a sansho leaf. it must be midsummer. i hope there will be some tai sashimi later on, perhaps in an ice-bowl, as is appropriate to this midsummer heat. this sesame tofu is quite delicate and, even though it looks like nothing very complicated, i am refined and cultured enough to see that someone has spent hours grinding the seeds to produce this smooth and silky gel designed to appear humble and unassuming. bravo to the chef." and so on.

Sep 9, 2009

research directions

a new year begins, and work and research projects begin to coalesce or, in some cases, resurface. here's what's on the plate:

  1. a quantitative analysis of the determinants of formal association within developer groups on sourceforge.net, backed by survey and interview data. this should be an opportunity to deploy some interesting hazard rate models and, with the survey data, some new multiplex network analytic techniques. also talking again with berkman's law lab about supporting a field experiment on the same domain once the initial quantitative analysis is complete.
  2. experimental research on search behavior. we're in such early days on this that it's not really worth discussing at the moment but things should come to a head within the next 2 months.
  3. engineering sciences 147, which i'll be tf-ing. i'm excited about this because it will be one of a small handful at harvard that emphasises the process of innovation as well as the product and seriously grapples with the benefits and disadvantages of interdisciplinarity. if you're in the undergraduate college, think about taking this class. (and check out also this rather slick thing the lab produced for the class.)
  4. a theoretical treatment of diffusion in organizations, grounded in the empirical data i collected for a previous project on information efficiency in the north american haute cuisine organization.
if you have thoughts or leads, send them on.

informal

When we conjure up impressions, ideas, and images of the engineer, we tend to think of an ingenious individual and Promethean spirit who overcomes huge obstacles to realise the most daring constructions. The tallest, the biggest, the largest, are the records set by the great engineers. The Isambard Kingdom Brunels, the Gustave Eiffels, become the heroes in our transgressions of Nature. In the public mind the engineer turns into the supreme technological legislator--a hard person of science--who makes the impossible work. This romantic notion of the engineer conspires to keep art and science separate. Engineering as a catalyst to inspire a creativity is not the generally held view. But in the Greek word 'techne' the unity of engineer-architect describes a sharing of design values, the diagram and calculation, the concept and proportion being viewed as cycles of noetic invention ... A cycle of invention and post rationalisation runs from one start to another--and in between are the judgements and criticisms one makes. What remains constant is the motivation to keep entering that creative dialogue between architecture and engineering, and the writing of new stories.
cecil balmond, informal.

Sep 8, 2009

skillet pizza: this changes everything

if you are lucky enough to live in brooklyn, close to di fara, you have the opportunity to eat, daily if you so desire, a pizza that will cause you to jump up and down with pleasure during and after each bite: the tremendous heat (more than 700F) of a commercial pizza oven cooks the pie in just a couple of minutes. this short, intense burst of dry heat yields a pizza crust that is lightly charred on the underside and on the rim, moist and tender within, light and airy, chewy yet crisp, with sauce and toppings bubblingly-hot but not yet desiccated. if urban manhattan is not your domicile, and you have high standards for your pizza, you may be forced to go to great, often costly, lengths. fortunately, there is an inexpensive, easy, and incredibly effective solution to this problem. we tested it tonight (making it 8 runs in total) and can confirm that there is, indeed, jumping up and down with pleasure both during and after each bite, and sounds of pleasure also. detailed instructions for this pizza follow, after a brief discussion of process.

this is the result of experiment 7.

fresh tomato sauce with garlic, basil, and pesto blobs. left it in the oven maybe 30 sec longer than we should have, hence the excessive charring on top. the second pizza we made, which we didn't photograph, was perfect. perfect.


a lightly charred underside

let us review:
commercial ovens designed to cook a steady stream of pizza or bread have thick stone or refractory brickwork floors on which the cooking takes places; this floor is preheated to a high temperature and has sufficient thermal mass that placing wet dough on it reduces the temperature by only a small amount--the side effect is that whatever is on the oven floor also cooks extremely quickly. commercial ovens are also free of the thermostatic regulators that prevent most home ovens from reaching the high temperatures for which they are almost all designed (during a self-clean cycle, the temperature inside a home oven reaches north of 900F). clearly, of the many trials faced by the home cook hell-bent on the pizza of his (or her dreams), the two biggest are
  1. achieving a high-temperature cooking base to crisp the bottom of the pizza.
  2. achieving a high-temperature cooking environment to rapidly cook the top of the pizza.
attempts to surmount these twin problems have included (but are not limited to*)
  1. buying or building a pizza oven much like a serious pizza restaurant would have. while solving both problems, this solution is not feasible for those with insufficient room (or sufficient floor bracing) for an 800-pound brick structure.
  2. using a pizza stone. these stoneware discs are usually 1/2" to 3/4" thick and take about 80 minutes to heat up fully (ie, for the thermal mass to reach saturation) in a very hot oven. this solves problem 1, but in a spectacularly energy-inefficient way.
  3. jerry-rigging home ovens to cook on the cleaning cycle. this involves subverting the automatic lock that usually engages when the cleaning cycle is turned on. if successful, a magnificent pizza. if unsuccessful in opening the oven and retrieving the pizza, ashes, a calcined pizza stone, and the smell of smoke pervading throughout. i know this from bitter experience as, apparently, does jeffrey steingarten.*
  4. investing in specialized home pizza-oven machines that surround the pie with ample heat. perfect, but at what price? also, i despise equipment that has only one purpose.
who can really say what the thought processes and proximate triggers behind breakthrough ideas are? they are invariably subject to retrospective meaning-making. perhaps the seed of the idea was planted by the itinerant crepe-seller in the luxembourg gardens (wherein there is a statue of a woman in classical garb holding an ice cream cone) whose incessant beating on his crepe-griddle woke me from a deep and viscous nap. maybe the idea took shape as the pile of pans fell off the counter and onto the tomatoes (an excuse to make sauce) as i rummaged for a pizza stone. in any case, about two weeks ago, after restacking a large pile of pans, it occurred to me to ask three questions:
  1. does a cast-iron skillet have enough thermal mass to cook and lightly char a pizza base if thoroughly preheated, then taken off heat?
  2. does a broiler generate enough radiant heat and hot air to cook and lightly char a pizza top fast enough to not dry it out?
  3. can a preheated skillet and broiler be combined to produce pizza awesomeness?
the answer to all three questions, as it turns out, is yes. a broiler and a cast-iron skillet in combination are the easy secret to a light, airy, moist, chewy, crisp, lightly-charred pizza without an expensive wood-fired oven or a potentially-expensive experiment with your home oven's safety lock. this pizza will not be nearly as good as something baked in under a minute in a roaringly-hot pizza oven but it comes awfully close, all things considered. after several trial runs, i am ready to share the following learnings with you.
instructions for a home pizza of stunning perfection:
  1. [4-6 days before you want pizza] prepare a good dough and allow it to mature. i can add nothing to jeff varasano's minutely-detailed recipe and instructions. shape into single serving balls of dough and allow to mature in the fridge.
  2. 60-80 minutes before you want your pizza, take the dough out. lightly coat each ball of dough in oil a separate bowl and leave to warm up to room temperature and double in size. do not neglect the oil, as it prevents the dough from adhering inconveniently and frustratingly to the bowl later on. if the dough appears laggardly (ie, if it isn't doing much of anything after 20-30 minutes), placing it in a gently-warmed oven helps accelerate the process: switch on the oven for a minute, then shut it off and open the door to vent hot air before placing the dough inside. do not use this dough until it has at least doubled in volume (this may be a smaller visual change than you expect; be vigilant and remember that volumetric expansion is less dramatic).
  3. prepare your sauces and toppings. have a spoon for every sauce and all the toppings grated, cut, and ready for extremely rapid deployment.
  4. prepare your broiler drawer by putting baking sheets or other heat-proof objects into the broiler drawer. the skillet will rest upon these objects, and the intent is to raise the skillet as close to the broiler heating element as possible without touching the element. you should be able to slide the skillet into the broiler easily. this is an important step that you should not neglect.
  5. when all is in readiness, turn on the broiler and begin preheating the dry, ungreased skillet on the stovetop on the highest flame setting. the skillet should preheat for 8-10 minutes to reach thermal saturation. as soon as you begin heating the skillet, lightly flour a wood cutting board or (better yet) a pizza peel. if you flour too assiduously, there will be flour pockets under the pizza when it is baked. these will burn and become bitter, while robbing your crust of the slightly charred patches that make it crisp, yet tender.
  6. [note that everything in step 6 should happen within 3-4 minutes, at most.] with about 4 minutes of skillet heating to go, begin to shape your pizza. scoop a ball of risen dough out of its bowl, taking care to deflate it as little as possible. holding it gently by an edge, allow gravity to stretch it out. move around the edge so that the ball of dough becomes a thin disk with a slightly thicker edge all around. speed here is of the essence. lay the disk on the floured board and shake the board from side to side to prevent the dough from sticking. immediately sauce it lightly, being careful not to deflate the dough by pressing down with your saucing spoon, then add toppings. speed, not perfection, is the objective: if you dally, the wet dough will stick to your board and be impossible to slide onto the hot skillet. because the pizza cooks so quickly, a small amount of sauce will remain moist and delightful and allow the crust underneath to aerate.
  7. slide the pizza onto the skillet. you may find that having another pair of hands to guide the leading edge of the pizza onto the skillet helps. there is no way to get this right without practice or to describe in words the experience of sliding a damp, soft, floppy disk of dough covered in liquids onto a smoking iron skillet. your first pizza is likely to be a mess, but you should bake it anyway. persevere, but clean the charred bits off the skillet before you do so. when your pizza is in the skillet, immediately take the skillet off the flame and place it in the preheated broiler with the handle of the skillet pointing as far to one side of the oven as possible. close the broiler door as quickly as possible. place a heatproof dish into the main oven compartment (not the broiler) to warm up.
  8. after 45 seconds, rotate the skillet so that the handle points to the opposite side of the oven. after 1 minute 30 seconds, pull out the pizza to see if the unsauced rim has begun to char lightly. if not, push the skillet back in and cook for another 20 seconds, then check again. if your broiler runs cool, your pizza may take up to 3 minutes to cook. when cooked, take the pizza out of the broiler and place it on the now-warm plate you put in the oven in step 7.
(experiment 8 featured an 18" diameter griswold cast iron skillet that produced a pesto and salami pizza so good that we continue to dream about it.)

* for a full account, see jeffrey steingarten's amusingly self-deprecating review article.

Aug 31, 2009

the wasteland

went to lechmere tonight in search of a tasty beverage and can confirm that 1) it is infested by chain stores, 2) all of which are closed after 9.30pm, 3) and what is open after 9.30pm is reprehensible.

Aug 29, 2009

paris, recollected

through an improbable sequence of events, i wound up in paris for 10 days a few weeks ago. i spent most of that time underground, reading for generals between answering questions, in the main space at le laboratoire. events and observations:

  1. the first morning, i ran through the louvre to the seine, and then across the bridge to the left bank on my way to the champs de mars. i slowed down passing the overflowing summer gardens at the musee de quai branly, and then did a double take at the vegetal wall by patrick blanc covering the entire administrative building (longer article here). much of the wall up to head height is covered with a particularly soft and fuzzy moss that invites you to hug it, so i did.
  2. the tubular metal seating in paris parks and gardens is magnificent, especially the low reclining chair, which is perfect for reading. one evening, after failing to find the pont des artes, we sat in these chairs in the tuileries garden with a large bottle of warm orange juice and watched the sun go down over the obelisk.
  3. france does not believe in adequate ventilation.
  4. i met a friend from google for drinks and one of his ex-googler friends came along too. she went to pastry school in paris and now lives there, making stunningly good artisanal caramels in her paris pastry lab. (extra points if you know what a galipette is. i didn't. trust the french to have a polite word for it.)
  5. shanaz showed up from zurich for some kind of wedding celebration, and we made an executive decision to go to le comptoir du relais. it was great: pea soup with mint and tapioca, a terrine of pork, a poêlée of girolles and zucchini topped with a shaving of dry-cured pork, beef cheeks with tremendous depth of flavour, and a round slab of crisp, tender, slightly gelatinous suckling pig.
  6. some people got invited to mathieu lehanneur's workshop and i insinuated myself into the contingent. five (or possibly six) floors up, at the top of an old building surrounded by fabric stores, is a large workspace filled with marvelous things. it reminded me of the roomful of olafur eliasson's* maquettes that traveled with take your time, except much slicker.
  7. all the boulangeries and patisseries i wanted to go to were closed. chance alone guided me to regis colin, on rue montmartre, at the end of another early morning run into the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th arrondissements. it was an unpromising-looking store and they had just opened for the day. the bleary-eyed counterlady sold me a compact croissant and a pain au chocolat, both still warm from the oven. i ate the croissant standing on the corner as the sun cleared the horizon. it may have been the best croissant i've ever had. (as it turns out, it took over 18 months for me to run across a better croissant in narita airport.)

* on that note: the Institut für Raumexperimente

the sackler

on my way home today, inspired by housemate ben's example, i stopped in at the sackler to see the latest rotation of the review exhibition on show while the fogg undergoes renovations. i didn't know that the museums were still acquiring, but there were several pieces there from the last couple of years, including a beautifully-made bar of milled aluminium with cast resin spelling out "confidence in daybreak modifies dusk" (a quote from emily dickinson's letters), that appeared to be made of glass from a distance and only became comprehensible close up. the docent and the curatorial commentary opined that piece was made of plastic around which aluminium was cast, but this seems implausible: the resin would char and discolour immediately on contact with molten aluminum. much more likely that the aluminium was milled to form the negative spaces between the letters and then locked into a matrix for the resin pour. in any case, a beautiful object.

roni horn, 2007. image from the harvard art museums.

then, as i was leaving, i bumped into one of the board members of storm king and zaha hadid, in town for the weekend. which only goes to show that museums are worth going to.

Aug 28, 2009

the generals

are done with; suddenly, there is a sense of release, and the days are filled with hours to each of which a determinate number of pages to be digested is not attached. we celebrated with inglourious basterds and discovered that cinema on friday morning is a blissfully isolate experience.

Aug 20, 2009

maps and representations

We say the map is different from the territory. But what is the territory? Operationally, somebody went out with a retina or a measuring stick and made representations which were then put on paper. What is on the paper map is a representation of what was in the retinal representation of the man who made the map; and as you push the question back, what you find is an infinite regress, an infinite series of maps.

Aug 14, 2009

the perfect reading chair

the height and pitch of the back are perfect. these chairs are literally strewn all over parisian parks and gardens but, despite repeated searches, i can't figure out where to get one.

update: the brainy julien benayoun has solved this puzzle. this perfect reading chair is part of the luxembourg family of outdoor furniture designed by frederic sofia and made by fermob.

on a street in paris

on a street north of the rue de rivoli, just a few blocks away from le laboratoire.

ike jime smackdown

turns out ike jime (the mystical japanese fish-killing technique) yields better-tasting, better-textured fish by acclamation. the folks at cooking issues (now officially my favourite blog) proceeded to do some nifty investigative research on why this might be the case. the plausible explanation is that inserting the needle up the spine destroys the fish's spinal cord:
Certain fish that swim for very long periods have highly a highly developed autonomic nervous system for swimming (sounds like the CPG’s Bob was talking about). These fish, like bass, like horse mackerel, etc. benefit from spinal cord destruction. Other fish, like plaice, that don’t have highly evolved constant swimming reflexes, don’t benefit (or at least not as much). The paper recommends doing a species by species test to see which fish benefit the most. The paper didn’t mention CPG’s (in fact no paper did that I could find). Someone needs to do some research on that. So then, when you destroy the spinal cord, you destroy the swim reflex, which helps reduce ATP loss, delaying and softening rigor, increasing the quality of the fish.
this definitely did not emerge when i was talking to the professors at the tsuji academy about their fish preparation techniques in 2005.

Aug 11, 2009

more cooking issues

i keep telling people that being a graduate student is, apart from the comparatively lousy pay, the best thing ever: you get to do stuff you're interested in, doze off reading, work in cafes, the whole bit. then i read the latest post from cooking issues and it is clear that in fact the real best thing ever is to be dave arnold and nils noren. this episode, they do an in-depth analysis of ike jime (a semi-mystical japanese fish-killing process purported to yield superior fish flesh).

convivium

the final issue of convivium, image from hortus.

this is my latest minor fixation: convivium (from the publisher of hortus). a serial festschrift (of a sort) for elizabeth david, this journal consists of 8 issues, each 128 pages, of writing dedicated to obscure issues relating to food. better yet, each edition is letterpress printed and illustrated with engravings and woodcuts. (obviously, this hit all the right buttons.)

if you have £49.50 kicking around, you might consider ordering a set of all 8 issues. and if you have £99.00 at a loose end, you might consider ordering a set for me too.

Aug 9, 2009

fond of the pond

pachaug pond this weekend. on saturday evening, the sky at dusk was wreathed in pale cirrus clouds that appeared to emanate from the sun, which glowed from below the horizon in the gap between an island in the pond and the westerly shore. we took kayaks and canoes out on the water. everything glowed in the blue light that radiated from the sky, and small insects made circles on the still surface; we heard the band clearly, playing in the bay, and the beacon on the beach flashed on as the last light faded. later, when the air turned cold and a layer of mist appeared on the water, an old christmas tree was consigned to the fire and went up in a rush of flames, and pipes and cigars appeared. people eventually drifted off to tents and bed. the acoustic guitars came out at 1am and drew the circle of people in chairs tightly around them. dozed off around 4am in a hammock strung between two paper birches, to music and the sound of the tea-coloured pond lapping at the breakwater.

Aug 7, 2009

new cards



are software-controllable iphone camera settings too much to ask for? so it would seem.

i've been meaning to do these for a while; finally got round to setting them up and printing them between lab sessions on thursday, and then hunted down a guillotine for the cutdown. trying out a couple of new ideas: design variation (there are 24 unique card type x image/color combinations) and keywords. on the latter: whenever i pull out the stack of cards i've collected from other people, i usually end up wondering why i thought they were interesting enough to get a card from. the only exceptions are when i've scribbled something down a couple of words from our conversation on the card. maybe keywords will help--i quite like how these turned out. i also realized, after finishing the printing, that the source file had reverted to an earlier, more ineptly-kerned version. i'm thinking what you're thinking. this is how the cookie crumbles.

Aug 6, 2009

translation

it is not often apparent how translation affects poetry. below, Рождественский романс by joseph brodsky, in two english translations. i know which one i like better.


Moscow Carol A Christmas Ballad
In such an inexplicable blue,
Upon the stonework to embark,
The little ship of glowing hue
Appears in Alexander Park.
The little lamp, a yellow rose,
Arising--ready to retreat--
Above the people it adores;
Near strangers' feet.

In such an inexplicable blue
The drunkards' hive, the loonies' team.
A tourist takes a snapshot to
Have left the town and keep no dream.
On the Ordynka street you find
A taxicab with fevered gnomes,
And dead ancestors stand behind
And lean on domes.

A poet strolls across the town
In such an inexplicable blue.
A doorman watches him looking down
And down the street and catches the flu.
An old and handsome cavalier
Moves down a lane not worth a view,
And wedding-party guests appear
In such an inexplicable blue.

Behind the river, in the haar,
As a collection of the blues--
The yellow walls reflecting far
The hopeless accent of the Jews.
You move to Sunday, to despair
(From love), to the New Year, and there
Appears a girl you cannot woo--
Never explaining why she's blue.

Then in the night the town is lost;
A train is clad in silver plush.
The pallid puff, the draught of frost
Will sheathe your face until you blush.
The honeycomb of windows fits
The smell of halva and of zest,
While Christmas Eve is carrying its
Mince pies abreast.

Watch your New Year come in a blue
Seawave across the town terrain
In such an inexplicable blue,
As if your life can start again,
As if there can be bread and light--
A lucky day--and something's left,
As if your life can sway aright,
Once swayed aleft.

trans. Alexey Vernitsky
In anguish unaccountable
the steady ship that burns at dark,
the small shy streetlamp of the night,
floats out of Alexander Park
in the exhaustion of dull bricks.
Like a pale-yellow, tiny rose,
it drifts along, past lovers' heads
and walkers' feet.

In anguish unaccountable
sleep-walkers, drunkards, float like bees.
A stranger sadly snaps a shot
of the metropolis by night;
a cab with squeamish passengers
jolts loudly to Ordynka Street,
and dead men stand in close embrace
with private homes.

In anguish unaccountable
a melancholy poet swims
along the town. Beside a shop
for kerosene, a porter stands,
round-faced and sad. A ladies' man,
now old, lopes down a dingy street.
A midnight wedding party sways
in anguish unaccountable.

On Moscow's murky south-side streets
a random swimmer sadly floats.
A Jewish accent wanders down
a yellowed melancholy stair.
A fragile beauty swims alone
from New Year's Eve to Saturday,
exchanging love for bitterness,
unable to explain her grief.

The chilly evening floats above
our eyes; two trembling snowflakes strike
the bus. A pale and numbing wind
slaps reddened hands. The honey-gold
of evening-lamps flows out; a scent
of halvah fills the air. The Eve
of Christmas holds the pie of heaven
above its head.

Your New Year's Day floats on a wave,
within the city's purple sea,
in anguish unaccountable--
as though life will begin anew,
and we will live in fame and light
with sure success and bread to spare;
as though, from lurching to the left,
life will swing right.

trans. George Kline

Aug 2, 2009

what has happened

to the economical, concise, well-written journal article? it has vanished, is what.

Aug 1, 2009

volunteer

new little friend

Jul 29, 2009

singlespeed

finished converting the rescued trek elance frame to a fixed-gear singlespeed today, after 2 hours of sawing and then grinding a steel drop handlebar salvaged from another trash bike to turn it into bullhorns. without derailleurs and with a single gearing ratio (kept the smaller chainring on, in case), it is a light and addictive ride. sold.

only downside: have to stop ragging on fixie-riding mission hipsters.

histories and stories

History is first and foremost a tangled net of events. Each event lies in dozens of stories, determined and overdetemined by the causes flowing through them, yet ever open to new directions and twists. Indeed, given happenings may be seen as parts of different events within different stories. Because people and groups construct their future by interpreting their causal environment, the very knowledge of the past itself shapes the future, even though aggregate regularities and structural necessity simultaneously oblige it … But plot is a chimera. History does not happen in stories, even if we usually talk about it as if it did. The storylike element enters history itself only because we as historical actors frame our future intentions relative to a past understood in stories. The past stories we consider do assume thereby a special causal importance, although not an importance that can overwhelm either structure or direct determination.
andrew abbott, the system of professions

Jul 28, 2009

le whif

labo group gave out a few hundred of these le whifs today at TEDxBoston. 200mg of chocolate, aerosolized (i assume). powerfully weird, but they do taste like chocolate. for those who care, close to zero calories.
the inventors explain that the history of food consumption has followed a trajectory of decreasing volume (which is only arguably true), and that inhaled food--le whif is the first example--is the logical telos of that trajectory. they didn't say why, but they're not the first to think that something like this might be on the way. back in the 80s, writing about japanese food, mfk fisher noted that
We have never been taught to make little look like much, make much out of little, in a mystical combination of ascetic and aesthetic as well as animal satisfaction ... [but this new acceptance], no matter how unwitting, of the intrinsic asceticism of Oriental cooking, is suspected by some observers to be a kind of intuitive preparation for the much leaner days to come to all of us who live on a polluted planet. What is now a stylish fad, or an "awakening," depending on both pocketbook and chronology, may become in the future an exotic recollection of the Good Old Days, when carrot curls and cashew nuts were eaten by caprice and not necessity. A latter-day MacLuhan might argue that out current preoccupation with culinary simplicity is really an instinctive recognition of our diminishing supplies of food ... of our need to accept austerity as the rule, after a long time of heedless Western glut.
from the introduction to japanese cooking: a simple art