All posts by Barbara

I have a PhD in American Literature, taught in higher education for over twenty years, and directed two Centers for Instructional Technology before retiring.

Cookbook: Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio

Ruhlman, Michael. Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. New York: Scribner, 2009.

As you know from the first post in my little cookie experiment, I suspected that there must be information about the ratio of butter to sugar in cookies, and my search led me to Ruhlman’s book. Obviously, I am not in the cookbook-reading loop since it came out years ago and I hadn’t heard of it, but sometimes you just need to know what questions to ask to start off on a new path.

Getting your hands on a ratio is like being given a key to unlock those chains [to recipes]. Ratios free you.

Ruhlman’s book is an affirmation of what all home recipe tweakers suspected all along, that after looking at multiple versions of the same recipe topic, what emerges are some basic formulas. They all do this; some do that; one makes this little change—but there is a basic underlying formula that allows you to do your own version. Ruhlman is not prescriptive, though, in setting down the ratios. He shows what happens when changes are made to the ratios, and I found the cookie section (obviously) enlightening, especially since my own experiment ignored the flour in the ratio. I also, even though I recently, finally purchased a scale, used volume measurements instead of weight. It will take some time for me to shift to that kind of measurement without a second thought, but I know it’s a better way to work.

As the subtitle says, Ruhlman gives us the “simple codes” underlying basic cooking. I always remembered the recipe for basic medium white sauce as a formula from back in Home Ec classes, and it paid off in my being able to put so many dishes together without looking up a recipe. That’s what I’m hoping will happen from this book. I know these ratios are not going to be learned so quickly, so I also bought the chart that goes with the book, which you can find here:

Boston Baked Beans

My Mar-Crest Daisy Dot casserole is getting old. There’s a chip on the inside rim of the lid that has started a hairline fracture, so I should probably just save it for display, but right now it’s the only covered stoneware casserole I have, so it was called into duty for baked beans. It was my mother’s and I also got a regular bean pot from her, but those traditional narrow-necked pots are hard to deal with, so I gave that one to my daughter for her own display of crockery.

My casserole is small, only 1.5 quarts, so one pound of navy beans doesn’t quite fit. Maybe more than 3/4 lb, but not quite one. I don’t think baked beans could be any easier; it’s just the oven time invested, but on a day when you have other work around the house to keep you busy, it’s not a lot of work to tend to them every few hours just to add more bean liquor. They come out sweet and saucy, but not cloyingly sweet. I left the house for a little shopping and there were no disasters. I know you’d like them for that summer picnic, but who wants to have the oven on all day in the summer? You can probably find a slow-cooker recipe for good baked beans in the summer. This cold, early spring seemed like a good time to have the oven on.

Boston Baked Beans

  • Servings: 4-8 depending on purpose
  • Difficulty: easy
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Prepare the beans:

1 lb navy beans

6 cups water

You can soak your beans overnight and finish the cooking in the oven, but I use the quick-soak method, cooking them to nearly done:

  1. Rinse and sort beans—yes, you can still find stones and dirt in dried beans today. I rinse my beans in warm water several times, squishing them between my fingers to get some friction going to knock off any dirt. Stones are not too hard to see if you slowly pour them into your saucepan.
  2. Cover with 6 cups of water. Bring to boil and boil for 1 minute. Cover, turn off heat, and let sit for one hour.
  3. Bring to a second boil, then simmer for about 30 minutes. I have had undercooked beans refuse to finish cooking after adding ingredients like salt and sugar. Plus, if my beans are not close to their full-cooked size, they can expand in the oven and overflow your pot if it’s full. I don’t find that this last step of cooking adversely affects the texture of the beans in the final dish.
  4. Strain the beans, reserving the bean liquor.

Preheat oven to 300°

Prepare the casserole:

1 lb pre-cooked or soaked navy beans

1 onion, diced

3-4 oz salt pork cut in 1-2 inch squares (I cut off the rind)—yes, bacon is good with beans, but I think salt pork stands up better to the long cooking.

1/4 cup unsulphured molasses

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup tomato sauce, unseasoned

1/2 teaspoon ground mustard

4-6 cups bean liquor from pre-cooking or fresh water or stock

Optional: salt & pepper, if you are not using salt pork or you know how salty it might be

  1. Combine the beans and onion. Put half in casserole and top with half the salt pork. Mix together molasses, brown sugar, and tomato sauce and pour half over beans.
  2. Add remaining beans and onion and cover with remaining salt pork. Pour the rest of the molasses mixture on top.
  3. Pour in bean liquor to just cover the beans. In my casserole, it comes right to the top of the dish, and about 1 cup of cooked beans don’t fit in the dish.
  4. Cover and bake for 6-8 hours, checking every two hours to see if the liquid has been absorbed by the beans. You can tell if the top looks dry and you see no liquid at the edges. Slowly pour in bean liquor to the top and return to oven, covered. I used up all my reserved bean liquor and the beans came out saucy, but not soupy. If you think there is too much liquid, just remove the cover for the last 1/2-1 hour. You want a nice, thick sauce with your beans.
  5. I did not add any salt and we thought they had just the right amount of saltiness. I understand that some people blanch their salt pork to remove a little salt first, but I don’t find that to be necessary.

There is no comparison between baked beans made from canned beans and those made from dried beans. Give it a try, if only to say you did it once.

More Cookies: Ratio of Butter to Sugar

I just had to know how adding some white granulated sugar back into those White Chocolate Chip Macadamia Nut cookies I made the other day would affect the texture and taste, and how it might change the cookie shape. I’m not going to become a test kitchen, making cookies endlessly, each with small additions of sugar, just to calculate the differences, but I wanted to follow up on that first test for some comparisons.

I was surprised that just a 1/4 cup extra sugar added a slight crispness, but not surprised that it didn’t really make the cookies spread. Adding 1/2 cup made them spread out a little, without taking away that softness of the interior, but adding a little crispness to the bottoms and edges. For me, because I like a soft, rounded cookie, it’s good to know that I can cut out some sugar to achieve that, but still have a good tasting cookie. Of course, I can’t discount the presence of those white chocolate chips in adding sweetness, but it’s one reason I felt I could cut out some extra sugar.

Update: My husband comments that the first thing you taste in the ones with less sugar is the butter. In the ones with more sugar, you taste the sugar first.

In the photos below, the cookies with the 1/4 cup addition are on the right and the ones with the 1/2 cup addition are on the left. I hope you can see the slight difference in size and shape. This all goes in my mental cookie file for when I’m thinking of changing a cookie recipe to achieve a particular purpose.  I’ve added the same recipe below that I posted the other day, but with the granulated sugar options included.

More White Chocolate Chip Macadamia Nut Cookies

  • Servings: makes 4 dozen
  • Difficulty: easy
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Preheat oven to 350°

Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.

1 cup (2 sticks) butter at room temperature

1 cup packed brown sugar*

Optional: 1/4 or 1/2 cup granulated sugar; original recipe calls for 3/4 cup

2 teaspoons vanilla

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2-3/4 teaspoon salt

3 cups all-purpose flour

12 oz white chocolate chips

1 cup chopped macadamia nuts

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and brown sugar until smooth, then add the vanilla and eggs, beating until smooth.
  2. Add the dry ingredients (soda, salt, flour) and mix to combine.
  3. Stir in the white chocolate chips and chopped nuts.
  4. Form in 1 tablespoon balls and place on lined cookie sheet. You can flatten the balls if you don’t want them to keep the ball shape.
  5. Bake at 350° for 10-12 minutes. They will be done with only slight browning.

The cookies with only brown sugar will be soft. The cookies with added granulated sugar will have some crispness to the bottoms and edges, which adds a nice flavor and texture.

Bacon, Avocado, and Dill-Mayo on Rye

Until about a year ago, it never occurred to me that you would or should cook bacon any way except in a big frying pan, turning the slices frequently before they curl too much and fighting the splatter that always managed to work around my apron and make one grease spot on all my black t-shirts. I can’t remember which item of black clothing was the last straw, but I turned to the oven and will not look back.

I tried a variety of methods, first buying a nice rack to use over a baking sheet pan, but that tended to make the bacon too crisp, and we like bacon chewy. I’ve tried parchment paper lining, but eventually found that non-stick aluminum foil works best. Don’t agonize over the bacon sitting in its own fat in the pan. That’s what it does in the frying pan, and if you’re worried about the fat, you shouldn’t be making bacon. Then there are oven questions: what temperature? preheat or don’t preheat? turn the bacon or don’t turn the bacon? The perfect tricks in my oven are 400°, not preheated, for 13-15 minutes without turning. Then if you put a second batch into the already hot oven, it takes only 10 minutes, and you should turn the bacon halfway through that time.

Bacon, Avocado, and Dill-Mayo on Rye Sandwich

  • Servings: 1—no sharing!
  • Difficulty: easy
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Cook the bacon:

  1. Line a baking sheet pan with non-stick aluminum foil.
  2. Lay out bacon slices on foil so they don’t touch. Use 4-5 slices or more per sandwich.
  3. Turn oven to 400° and put pan with bacon in the oven for 15 minutes. Check at 13 minutes to see if you have any hot spots that might be burning one end of the bacon. You can turn the pan if so.
  4. Take the pan out and set on stove, where the bacon will continue to cook for a minute in the bubbling fat. Remove the bacon to paper towels or a rack to drain.
  5. When cool enough to touch, pour off the bacon fat to a covered dish and save for other cooking where a bacon flavor would be nice.

Assemble the sandwich:

There are just too many preferences for the perfect bacon sandwich, and I’m not going to argue with any of them. If it were summer, I would choose a nice garden tomato and lettuce, but winter tomatoes are just too flavorless to make that an option right now. Grilled with cheese is good, but it can mask the bacon. Then there’s the bacon and egg sandwich, which I prefer with a fried egg.  Some breads can mask the bacon, as well, and my first choice in the summer is a good bakery country white bread, soft, but not gummy like the mass-produced white breads. Today, I’m using a seedless rye that is mild but flavorful, and standing in for the summer tomato is an avocado, and some mayo with dill.

  1. Mix 1/4 cup real mayonnaise with 1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill or 1/2 teaspoon dried dill weed. I would make this a little in advance so the dill has time to really flavor the mayo.
  2. Slice the avocado and/or mash it into a chunky consistency.
  3. Spread a thin layer of the mayo spread on each slice of bread.
  4. Layer on as many strips of bacon as will make you happy on one slice of bread. I guess I should say to pile on the bacon. My strips were long, so I doubled them over.
  5. Layer slices of ripe avocado or a couple tablespoons of mashed avocado on top of the bacon. I put almost the whole small avocado on mine.
  6. Smash on the second slice of bread. Cut the sandwich, just to be fancy, and eat it.