The Fugue Counterpoint by Hans Fugal


Microwave Duty Cycle

As you may know, when you change the power setting on most microwaves, it doesn't change the power output of the magnetron. It changes the duty cycle, i.e. when the magnetron is on and when it is off.

In a bout of curiousity I sat down with my microwave today and figured out exactly what those duty cycles are (you can hear when the magnetron switches on and off). My microwave apparently has a cycle period of 32 seconds. High is power level 100 and the magnetron is on all the time. Power level 50 is on 18 seconds and off 14 seconds. Power level 40 is on 16 and off 16 (which I would have guessed would be the case for power level 50). Power level 10 (the lowest setting) is on for 6 seconds and off for 26 seconds. Here's a graph with all 10 settings:

Microwave Duty Cycle

As you can see it's more or less linear, which is nice because it makes mental visualization easy.

Now you know.



Joe Pastry's post on Crema Fresca got me curious. He says,

In fact crema fresca is closer to crème fraîche than sour cream. Its fat
content is usually a bit higher, about 25% compared to sour cream which
clocks in around 20%. Both are still lightweights compared to crème fraîche,
though, which weighs in at a chubby 35-48%.

Well if that's true, then why is sour cream thicker than crema fresca? Or are
we not talking about the same thing. Maybe it's related to what happens in
yogurt. The next time I ended up at the grocery store I was armed with pen and

Product Fat / Serving Fat Content
Buttermilk (1%) 3g / 240ml 1%
Whole Milk 8g / 240ml 3%
Half and Half 3g / 30ml 10%
Crema Mexicana ("Mexican Table Cream") 2.5g / 15ml 17%
Sour Cream 5g / 30g 17%
Crema Mexicana Agria ("Mexican Sour Cream") 8g / 30g 27%
Whipping Cream 6g / 15ml 30%
Heavy Whipping Cream 6g / 15ml 40%

I used the rule of thumb that 1ml = 1g. (A pint's a pound the world around
except in England and where people don't use pints or pounds, which is pretty
much everywhere but the USA) Though it's technically not true it's precise
enough for the level of accuracy we need (rounded to the nearest percent). (See
this fact sheet
for more about density of dairy.)

I should note that none of the Mexican cream products in my grocery were
labeled as crema fresca, though that's what I was referring to when I asked
Joe about crema fresca. I don't remember where I picked up the term, or whether
it's entirely accurate. Apparently Joe is thinking about the Agria kind, which
does indeed have more fat than sour cream. Or maybe this brand's table cream is
particularly lean. Anyway, the Crema Mexicana in my grocery is on par with sour
cream for fat content, but it's pourable and not nearly as thick as sour cream.
I imagine we have some kind of yogurt effect going on in the sour cream. I
don't know whether the agria stuff is less pourable, but I suspect it is just
as pourable since it comes in a tall narrow container.

To make crema fresca, based on these numbers, I'd go for 1
cup whole milk and 1/2 cup cream (heavy or light, depending on your level of
decadence), and a tablespoon of sour cream or buttermilk to inoculate.

I can only take his word for the fat content of crème fraîche, as I have never
seen or tasted it.

If you like sour cream on your rice and beans (or burritos or chimichangas or …) then you'll like crema fresca even better. Give it a try!


Pressure Beans

So we got a pressure cooker, as an advance Christmas present. See, we had all these turkey bones to turn into stock and babysitting a simmering pot over 8 hours didn't seem like very much fun. When I realized you can get a good but basic pressure cooker for $30, the rest was history.

I made stock yesterday. I cooked it for an hour, and it seems like decent stock though I don't have a PhD in stock discrimination. The bones didn't break easily like AB says they should, so next time I'll try 2 hours (we do have more turkey bones—they didn't all fit in one batch).

Then, I turned my attention to beans for dinner. See, beans are a bit of a dilemna in our house. Erin loves them in almost any guise, but I am quite a bit more picky. I do like them when they are done right, but when they are not the right texture or taste too bland I turn my nose up. Of course the obvious things to do to make me like them are add plenty of salt and fat and cook them until they're one step from refried. Unfortunately this goes against every fiber of my wife's being, so we have a kind of standoff compromise: she makes beans the way she likes them (healthy and bland) and I eat them without complaining too much.

Armed with the new toy, I set out to rectify the situation. There were two obstacles: texture and taste. I won't bore you with the details of my research, I'll just tell you there are several old wives tales about beans and what I think I have learned to be the truth.

First, they say you should soak them. I believe this is true, but not for the reasons "they" say. I have seen enough anecdotal evidence online to indicate that you don't need to soak them to get good texture, and that the time savings in the cooking isn't very much. However, this article makes a good nutritional case for soaking. In short, the soak makes the nutrients in the beans more accessible to your body. So I did a quick soak (boil for 3 minutes, let sit for an hour or two).

Second, they say you shouldn't add salt. This appears to be largely untrue, with perhaps a grain of truth. Google "salt beans mcgee" for more details. So to my 1 lb soaked black beans I added 1 tablespoon salt. Based on McGee's information I will try adding the salt to the soak water instead in the future. They also say you shouldn't add acid. I didn't want chili, so that didn't apply.

The pressure cooker manual says to add a tablespoon or two of oil or lard to keep the foaming down and prevent clogging of the pressure cooker vent (that's a Bad Thing™). Lard is definitely the premier choice here. I guess you could add bacon instead if you have a lard aversion.

Somewhere I read the suggestion to cook beans in stock for more flavor. Hey, I had a bunch of turkey stock, why not? So I omitted the lard (I hadn't skimmed any fat yet since the stock hadn't cooled).

1 lb dry black beans, soaked
poultry stock to cover by about 1 inch
1 tablespoon salt

pressure cook 12 minutes then remove from heat and allow pressure to release naturally (about 30 minutes).

At this point I added some chopped onion and garlic and simmered while the rice cooked. Oh, speaking of rice, for excellent latino white rice just sweat some onion and/or garlic and salt, then add the rice and sautee until the rice changes color, then add the water, bring to a boil, cover and cook over low heat about 20 minutes.

There you go. Beans and rice in 2 hours with leftovers to last you all week. The beans were dramatically unbroken yet soft and not the least bit crunchy anywhere. The taste was fine, though not unhealthy or overly salty. The weak point this time was actually the rice (I wasn't careful enough and ended up with unbalanced flavor and too little rice to match the beans so we didn't have equal parts leftovers).


Bread PDF Update

I've updated my bread/sourdough PDF to reflect the recipe and methods I have settled on.

The bread recipe didn't really change, though I adjusted a few minor details in wording, etc. The sourdough pancakes recipe is completely new—the one from Joe Pastry which is so much better than the one I came up with. The biscuit recipe is the old biscuit recipe from the old sourdough cards that my family got with our start. I don't know if that source has a name or author, but I do have scanned images at The consensus of all who eat these biscuits is that they must be served at Thanksgiving dinner in Heaven.



Loaf Sizes

So I recently got fed up with making the wrong amount of dough for the intended loaf pan. I did some looking and didn't really find a definitive guide for loaf pan sizes and bread recipes. But I did find an underlying mostly-unwritten consensus, which I will share with you now.

A "standard" loaf here in the states is about 1lb and baked in a 8.5x4.5 pan. At Wal-Mart yesterday here in Las Cruces, there were no metal pans of this variety, some foil pans of the right size but labeled 2lb (2 lb of what? I have no idea), and pyrex pans of this size. (I have one of those and I don't like it, although this is my preferred loaf size to make). The most constant property of a standard loaf seems to be that it uses 3 cups of flour. This of course seems ludicrous when you consider that measuring flour by volume is ridiculously variable, but I suppose it gets you in the ballpark. For the record, that's approximately 15 oz of flour, i.e. just shy of 1 lb flour alone. In my experience this is the appropriate size loaf for this pan.

An "oversized" loaf loaf is supposedly about 4 cups of flour (so about 20 oz). The pan is 10x5 or thereabouts. My jury is still out on this, but I find that a 2lb loaf actually fits better in my oversized pan. Maybe I just like lofty crests. So I'd go 5–6 cups flour (25–30 oz). Wal-Mart had several of these in metal, labeled loaf pan or meat loaf pan.

My favorite pan is longer, about 4x12, and probably a tea loaf pan. This also makes 1.5–2lb. I found, surprisingly, that it takes about the same amount of dough as the oversized full movie Get Out

(Note, I own none of the linked pans above, but my pans are similar in size. Those are more like my wishlist pans, with the exception of the last where I already have the perfect tea loaf pan)

Now how do they compare in volume? Well assuming you want similar height (all these pans are roughly the same height), we can just compare the area. Standard pan is 38 square inches, oversized is 50 square inches, and tea pan is about 48 square inches. So the oversized loaf is 1.3 times as large as the standard loaf. Why then do I find 1.5 times as much dough even lacking? I don't know, this is a true mystery. I think it has to do with aesthetics and me wanting a higher crest for a wider loaf. Even more mysterious to me is the tea loaf, which is narrow, seeming to swallow the dough. But when we look at how it is fairly close to the same size as the oversized loaf, it makes sense.

So there you go. How about a recipe for a standard loaf? Ok.

15 oz flour (abt 3 cups)
10 oz water (1.25 cup)
1 1/4 tsp salt
1/2 oz sourdough start

Chiles Rellenos Video

A while back I posted about chiles rellenos. Now there's a video.


Sourdough Pancakes

My family is really into sourdough biscuits and sourdough pancakes. But to be honest, the recipes they use are a bit peculiar. You've probably never seen pancakes or biscuits like these, but you end up loving them anyway. I'm going to talk about the pancakes here and ignore the biscuits which are generally regarded to be the epitome of perfection by all who consume them.

Here's the recipe they use for sourdough pancakes:

leaf 1leaf 2

Note that last bit: "approximately 80 small pancakes.… Remember that sourdough pancakes have a very firm texture, and are entirely different from the pancakes you are used to." They're small, white, rubbery, sour, and delicious. But you see, I'm really only interested in the sour and delicious parts. I have no investment in them being small, white, and rubbery.

So when Joe Pastry (a food blogger I have immense respect for) started talking about sourdough pancakes, and showed pictures of normal brown pancakes that I'm sure were sour, delicious, and not rubbery, I had to try it out.

And so I did, this morning. I followed his recipe, except I halved it (yes, I halved an egg) and made it with whole wheat flour (as he discusses at the end of the post). The pancakes were excellent. All the requisite sourdough taste and deliciousness, and normal pancake size/color/texture. Plus it was a lot of fun to watch the batter foam up when I added the soda water.

So if you make small white rubbery sourdough pancakes (that means you, family), give his recipe a try and see if you don't like it even better.

Then I recommend you read the follow-up post on the science behind sourdough pancakes. And for extra credit, compare the two recipes and hypothesize on why the results are so different.


Royal Dansk

About a week or two ago I got it in my head to try and make Danish butter cookies (a la Royal Dansk). None of the online recipes I could find seemed like they would give the desired results, except maybe this one. So I tried it and wasn't pleased with the results. Dense, blah.

So I set about reverse engineering it from the label of a tin of Royal Dansk. It couldn't be that hard, right? There are relatively few ingredients and if I could set up a system of equations based on the nutritional information...

So this is what I got:

Danish Butter Cookies

Preheat oven to 325°F.
Makes about 40 cookies.

4 oz fresh high-quality unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

8 oz flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch salt

Creaming method.
Press into a thin round, poke with a fork, bake until light brown.

That jives with the ingredient list and nutritional information. Quite well, actually. But there's some things to note. The ingredient list includes desiccated coconut, eggs, and ammonium bicarbonate. I think the coconut is in one variety in the box only, so consider it an optional addition. While there may be some egg there's neither the cholesterol nor protein to support more than maybe an egg wash (hint: it's listed after the coconut).

Ammonium bicarbonate, aka hartshorn, is a leavening agent not entirely unlike baking powder. Except it's supposed to be more awesome for making cookies. If you can find some, by all means use it.

Ok, so that jives, but when I tried it I was a bit disappointed. The dough was very dry. Very crumbly. It didn't look at all like the dough in the video. It certainly couldn't be squirted out a pastry bag to make those little circle cookies. Or could it? Maybe if the butter was allowed to melt? Or did they add water (not on the ingredient list)? These are mysteries to me.

Also, it baked up even denser. But the taste was spot on!

I figured probably the easiest thing was to back the flour off to be closer to what shortbread recipes call for, which would be 6 oz instead of 8 oz. I also suspected my creaming method technique was lacking.

So today I made another test batch, and I finally got a great result. The recipe I used today is slightly different (and half as big):

2 oz salted butter
1 oz sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla extract

3 oz flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp cream of tartar

This time I made sure to cream the sugar and butter real good, until it was light and fluffy. Really, it does get both light (in color) and fluffy (it about doubles in volume). Funny, that.

Then I mixed the flour in by hand and put it in the fridge in a bag. Did I have to put it in the fridge? I don't know. I don't think so. But it was convenient.

Then I rolled it thin. It was more workable but still a bit crumbly for working with individual cookies. Maybe rolling it will make it more dense, in the future I will probably just press it without refrigerating.

I baked it for 20 minutes in a 325°F oven. It was a light brown. I let it cool and then came the break test. It broke, nay snapped! It was crispy. It was very thin, but what "crumb" it did have looked like the inside of a Royal Dansk.

Notice that I used baking soda and cream of tartar. It may be my imagination but I thought I was getting a metallic taste. I wanted to be sure it wasn't my baking powder (which is aluminum-free anyway). The astute will notice I have it backwards—you're supposed to have 1/2 tsp cream of tartar and 1/4 tsp baking soda for each tsp of baking powder. I misremembered. But it didn't adversely affect the end result. In fact, the free baking soda may have contributed to the crisp by interacting with the butter fatty acids (is that possible?)

No doubt I'll continue to refine my recipe and method, but not with the frequency I had been (much to my wife's chagrin). It may take me a few months/years to get it fully ironed out from a scientific standpoint, but it works as it stands.

Oh, and note I have a bit less sugar—more in line with a shortbread than with the nutritional information on the tin. Indeed, they taste a bit less sweet than the Royal Dansk, but less sweet is ok by me. If you want the original taste, stick with the sugar ratio in the first recipe.

In summary, I think, really cream it good, thinner is better, and flour:butter:sugar ratio of 3:2:1 or maybe 4:2:1 (by weight of course!) if you can manage the crumbly dough (or find the secret to making it magically un-crumbly). Sorry for the imprecision, but my wife will kill me if I make any more butter cookies this week.


Ranch Dressing

My wife is out of town and I'm fending for myself in the kitchen. This is of course the best part of playing bachelor, since I get to try all the weird things and seafood that my wife balks at. Still, I decided to be rather boring tonight and have salad. I like a salad with nice dark leafy greens (no iceberg thanks), cheese (feta and cheddar in this case), boiled egg, and ranch dressing. There is no substitute for ranch dressing. I don't smother my salad in ranch, but I do need ranch or maybe bleu cheese in a pinch. Caesar can be ok, and I've been known to eat other dressings to be polite (or none at all—a spinach, mozarella, and mandarin orange salad can stand on its own, for example), but for the purposes of this blog post, there is nothing but ranch. And I was out.

Now actually, though ranch is by far my favorite dressing, I am not well pleased by the ranch dressings on the shelf. My mom used to make it by hand (and I used to help). I don't remember much about it (I was pretty small), but I do remember buttermilk, some kind of mix, and lots of shaking. It was good stuff. Until a short time ago, I never found a ranch dressing that I liked in the store. Hidden Valley was as close as I could get, but it wasn't quite right. Some of the others were simply hideous. And most have MSG which I halfheartedly try to avoid.

A short while back, I came across a Kraft ranch I had never seen. Actually a whole line of them. Maybe I had just missed them before they changed the bottle, maybe they weren't stocked, maybe they sprung into existence overnight. I didn't know, but I checked and it didn't have MSG so I bought it. It was better than Hidden Valley, and it doesn't have MSG. So, my new commercial favorite. It was this bottle that had just run out.

So I jumped on ye olde internet in a quest to find out what makes ranch ranch. Near the top was a link, and I find that the chowhounds generally get things right, or are at least a good jumping-off place, so I beelined.

Some people on the thread believe that MSG is the flavor of ranch. Well, sorry, but my bottle of Kraft preemptively debunked that theory. My wife recently tried making ranch (I'm not sure what her motivations were exactly, but probably something to do with health and preservatives and MSG), and I don't know what recipe she used but it flopped. It lacked something we couldn't put our fingers on but we called "body", and for a moment as I read I feared that something was MSG. But I kept reading and let my senses return, and several people on the chowhound thread said it was nonsense and they had been making perfectly good ranch without MSG for years. I decided to try this one. I didn't have quite a full cup of mayo, and I was lazy about measuring the herbiage and it ended up a bit too biting (too much parsley probably), and I forgot the vinegar. But it turned out great. In fact, I tasted it when it was just mayo and buttermilk and it was instantly recognizable as containing the essence of ranch.

So, my recipe based off of MollyGee's is:

Ranch Dressing

1 cup mayonaise
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 t salt
freshly and coarsley ground pepper
1 t vinegar

green onions

Naturally, this is tailorable to your tastes. One thing I might try next time is replacing 1/2 cup mayo with 1/2 cup sour cream. Thickness isn't a big issue with me, but keeping it at least thin enough to shake well seems like a good idea, based on her observation that it gets "weepy". I seriously doubt it goes bad after 3 days. Mayo and buttermilk aren't prone to spoiling quickly. But I can see it needing remixing (hence the good shake).

Now go forth and eat salad.


Pain Perdu

I grew up eating french toast once every week or two. Delicious stuff, and easy too. Some eggs, a little milk, dip the bread and cook like a pancake.

Then I got married, and my wife did the same thing but ruined it by adding cinnamon. Well, to each her own. We started dividing the egg stuff before she added the cinnamon to her mix.

One day I watched the Good Eats episode Toast Modern where AB goes through this complicated process to get some kind of "perfect" french toast. It sure didn't look worth the effort to me, so I promptly forgot all about it.

Then I visited New Orleans for a conference. The hotel I stayed at had complimentary breakfast (and not that lame cover-up people call "continental breakfast"). One day I ordered the french toast, unwittingly changing my life forever.

What they served was, as AB says, crispy on the outside and soft and creamy on the inside. It tasted less eggy than what I was used to. It was lightly dusted with powdered sugar before I put some syrup on, but I knew it went deeper than condiments. This was fundamentally different french toast to what I had been accustomed to. And I loved it. Truly incredible. More than anything else about that trip to New Orleans, I will remember the french toast.

Fast forward again, and I came across the same Good Eats episode. This time I paid closer attention and due respect to AB. Then I tried the recipe faithfully, but with mediocre results. First, the homemade artisan bread I was using had curled up while staling, making it very difficult to get a good browning in the pan. It also was quite holey. Second, I just didn't get much of a crisp. So again I chalked the recipe up to too complicated and not really worth it.

Yesterday I again had the hankering for some french toast like what I had in New Orleans. So I decided to follow AB's recipe again, but also to take some insurance out. I did some surfing and found that New Orleans french toast is apparently famous. Most recipes that seemed credible had the same basic structure: custard, pan-fry in butter, maybe put in the oven for the final crisping (I get the feeling some just use more butter or butter/oil mixture and fry it to crisp instead). So I grabbed french bread from the store (for reproduceability) and the rest of AB's ingredients. I mixed the custard and set out sliced bread the night before. In the morning, I followed his instructions to the T, except that I used the toaster oven and I included baking in the toaster oven in the pipeline (since I couldn't fit all 8 slices in at once anyway). It worked well, and wasn't too complicated.

The toaster oven really cuts down on the wait for preheat and the wasted heat. I actually set it to 400°F instead of the 375°F he recommended, and it worked well (5 minutes in). I may even toy with using the toast setting instead of the bake setting.

The rack and cookie sheet are, I believe, an unnecessary complication. If properly staled, the toast loses very little custard while resting, so i wouldn't worry about pooling. Instead I plan to use foil, or maybe just a cookie sheet, to cut down on the cleanup.

The french bread didn't curl, and tasted alright. As good as Albertson's french bread could be expected to taste. Next time I'll use my own artisan bread again (one with a bit more even crumb), and make sure to not lay it out in a way that bends the bread. I expect the results will be fantastic.

I feel like I'm working with the same principles that the hotel chef was working with. It is close to what I had, and I think perfection is within my grasp. What's more, it's no harder than the old way though it does take just a hair more planning and a less-common ingredient (half and half).