Recipe quick takes: sandwich bread and slow-roasted pork chops

In accordance with my pledge from earlier this year, I made two new recipes recently, a whole-wheat sandwich bread I printed out ages ago from King Arthur Flour, and the “deviled” pork chops from next month’s issue of Cook’s Illustrated.

First the bread. The recipe is entitled “Organic Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread” is one of a number I printed out several years ago (copyright 2007!) when I was developing my own whole-wheat sandwich bread. It’s no longer available on their Web site, so far as I can tell, and my printout doesn’t have a URL I can look up in the Wayback Machine, but the the formula is very similar to one titled “A Smaller 100% Whole Wheat Pain de Mie”, but not baked in a lidded loaf pan, and with more fat. So far as I know, I had never done this recipe before, and it has some good and bad points. On the good side, it’s very soft; the added fat, milk powder, and potato starch all combine to ensure that. On the bad side, it’s very soft, and tears easily when slicing or attempting to spread peanut butter or jam. It’s also quite high-calorie: two thin (½ in or 12 mm) slices add up to 275 kcal (minus a little bit for whatever carbs the yeast ate), compared with similar-sized commercial whole-wheat breads which tip the scale at 220 kcal. On the positive side, with all that carbohydrate it toasts very well, and would probably make a good whole-wheat pain perdu or Texas toast. I probably wouldn’t make it again.

The second is the pork chops. This comes from the “May & June 2018” issue of Cook’s Illustrated (pp. 10–11) and I think it’s the first thing I’ve made from the magazine since Christopher Kimball’s partners fired him as editor-in-chief. I actually didn’t make the magazine version, but rather “Deviled Pork Chops for Two”, an online-only extra based on the four-serving magazine recipe. This was quite simple to do, as it merely involves toasting some panko in melted butter, making a flavorful seasoning paste, and using the latter to glue the former to some pork chops. I found while doing this that I had mistakenly defrosted a pair of strip steaks rather than pork loin chops I thought I had, but luckily, my quarterly meat delivery had brought me some pork sirloin chops that I could speed-defrost in the microwave, and this recipe calls for the sort of low-and-slow cooking that pork sirloin requires. (Unlike the loin, pork “sirloin” is composed of a few different muscles, and does not respond well to fast, high-heat cooking methods like sautéeing.) The recipe is simple enough that I did not bother to enter it as a “recipe” in my nutrition app; I just recorded the pork, mustard, panko, and butter (the four highest-calorie ingredients) individually. Recommended.

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Post-vacation status update

Last year around this time I went to the World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki and generated a whole bunch of posts about it. I went to Worlds again this year, in Milan, and bookended that trip with train travel in Switzerland. This time, I was accompanied by my parents (who, now both retired and with the big house sold, have more freedom to travel) — which worked out reasonably well, but meant that I wasn’t burning the candle at both ends and couldn’t slam through the photo editing to get some blog posts out during the actual competition. (In all honesty I would rather have been accompanied by one person, for the whole length of the trip, but since that person has yet to be identified, the ‘rents will do, and having someone else worry about the arrangements in Italy made the whole trip a bit less stressful.) The arena in Milan was somewhat inconveniently located relative to our lodging, a short-term private rental apartment, and my impression overall is that Helsinki 2017 was far better organized in addition to being more conveniently located and having better transit access. I finally got back home late on Tuesday evening, and I’ve been spending the last few days digging out from the accumulated backlog resulting from a 13-day vacation. (The folks being retired, they got together with my mother’s older sister and her husband, and are spending an extra week in Italy.)

The practical upshot of this is that I still have about 6,000 photos to edit down somehow into something more like 250, and this process will take a while — starting with working through my shooting logs and hopefully correctly identifying all the skaters this time — but over the month of April you should see photos appearing both here and at Wikimedia Commons where appropriate. Anyone interested in accompanying me to other international sporting events is welcome to apply. ;-)

PS: I’m already planning on not going to the 2019 Worlds in Saitama, but 2020 will be in Montreal, which is well within driving distance for me. Last year I also went to Worldcon, again in Helsinki, but this year’s Worldcon is in San Jose and I’m inclined to skip it as well. (Worldcon 2019 will be in Dublin and Diane Duane is GoH and I’ve already bought a full membership; 2020 isn’t decided yet but will likely be in New Zealand.) Other sporting events I’m considering, besides the usual baseball and hockey arenas, are the IBSF World Cup stop in Lake Placid, maybe some ISU Grand Prix skating events, and perhaps the 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne — all of this is very speculative right now and might not come to anything.

Posted in Administrivia, sports, travel | Tagged ,

My comments on passenger rail infrastructure to MassDOT

The comment period for the State Rail Plan ends on Friday, the advocacy group TransitMatters just released their report on Regional Rail, and MassDOT is currently in the process of two separate planning exercises related to the MBTA and the commuter rail system in particular, in preparation for the next tender for the commuter rail operations contract (currently held by the French firm Keolis). Yesterday evening I sent in my own comments, inspired by the State Rail Plan deadline, but most of what I had to say was outside the State Rail Plan’s scope, so I also sent it to the people responsible for the MBTA planning process. Here’s what I said, edited slightly for formatting.


I was originally going to send this in regard to the State Rail Plan, since the public comment window was recently extended, but on closer review it seems that most of my comments are more usefully directed at the MBTA-specific planning process, since I live in the MBTA district. However, my points 1 and 2 below are intended to reference all passenger rail corridors in the state, not just the MBTA service area, and in particular the Commonwealth should explore opportunities for cooperation with neighboring states and with Amtrak to investigate the application of these principles to the Connecticut River Line and to future Boston-Springfield intercity passenger service.

Unexpectedly, much of what I have to say has been preempted by the release of a report by the advocacy group TransitMatters, which you will have seen already (for the record, “Regional Rail for Metropolitan Boston“, is the report to which I refer). However, I will make some additional comments on subjects that are not addressed in the TransitMatters report.

I have lived in Framingham for 17 years, and for that entire time, I have commuted in a single-occupancy vehicle on the Massachusetts Turnpike to my job in Cambridge. I would prefer to have an alternative that does not involve driving, but the current MBTA commuter rail service is infrequent, slow, unreliable, and more expensive per marginal trip than my commute. During the summer months I will bicycle to work (on approximately 40 good-weather weekdays between May and September); a better commuter rail service with real provision for bicycle users (not limited to off-peak hours) would substantially increase the number of days a bike commute is practical by enabling bike+train round trips.

To put more precise numbers on it, I pay (employer-subsidized) $10 a day to park in Cambridge, and my shoulder-hours SOV commute (10:25 AM and 7:15 PM) takes approximately 35 minutes parking space to parking space. The current MBTA Framingham/Worcester Line service has a long gap in service after 9:30 AM that makes it impractical for my schedule, but even if I shifted my schedule earlier to take train #512 inbound, the actual time cost of the MBTA service (with the necessity of driving to the Framingham station, finding and paying for parking, the train ride to Boston, the transfer penalty, the subway or bus trip to Cambridge, and then walking to my office) would be well more than double my current car commute. (My bicycle commute, 20.8 miles via two different routes, takes approximately 85 minutes, or about as long as the current commuter rail service, at an average speed of 15 mph — but with much greater health benefits.)

I would be willing to consider commuter rail — indeed, I would strongly prefer it — but for the excessive travel time (which is of course compounded by the system’s current widely reported unreliability). A reliable travel time of not more than 70±10 minutes would be easily within consideration, and with properly optimized schedules and full construction of West Station would make it highly attractive for many commuters from the Metro-West area who currently drive to jobs in Cambridge or Boston. I have heard anecdotally that the Commonwealth currently considers demand for access from Metro-West to jobs in Cambridge negligible to the point of not being worth studying, and I would strongly encourage the planning staff to consider this commuting pattern more seriously, as rising housing costs have made living closer to work impractical for many people who would prefer a transit option.

In the spring of 2017, I took a vacation in Helsinki, Finland, where I had occasion to use the rail system there extensively. The rail network around Helsinki, like Boston, is based on a stub-end terminal station (they only have one, unlike Boston’s two, and it’s correspondingly larger in terms of footprint than is possible in congested downtown Boston). However, Helsinki’s regional transport administration, HSL, has implemented an urban and inter-suburban rail network in the “regional rail” style described by the TransitMatters report, with full fare integration and high frequencies, connecting Helsinki Central Station with both historic suburban and exurban downtowns and new neighborhoods of transit-oriented development. HSL also maintains fare integration with intercity passenger rail services that serve nearby metropolitan areas outside the HSL district, so riders within the region can take a suburban train or an unreserved regional train, whichever is more convenient — this should be a model for intercity passenger service in Massachusetts along corridors such as Boston-Worcester-Springfield, which might be operated by a different agency or contractor than the MBTA.

Metropolitan Helsinki has about a third the population of the Boston MSA and is also slightly less dense; it has only one heavy rail subway line, and for surface transit has only street-running tramways, ferries, and private-tender bus services. The population of the whole of Finland is about that of the Boston MSA and is smaller than the Boston-Providence CSA, and Finland has quite high levels of suburban development and car ownership relative to other European countries. Yet Helsinki sustains substantial investment and substantial ridership in its fast, frequent, reliable, and affordable commuter rail system. I wrote a series of blog posts about it when I returned from my trip, which you can refer to here (fares and network structure) and here (suburban rail). Note that the services described in both of those articles have been realigned and in a few cases significantly expanded since I wrote those posts last April.

My specific recommendations, which are generally in accord with those in the TransitMatters report:

  1. The Commonwealth should adopt as a matter of policy a preference for electrification and high-level platforms on all rail routes currently served or contemplated to be served by passenger trains. In some cases this may require additional state investment to maintain compatibility with freight services.
  2. All projects and studies inconsistent with point (1) should be terminated.
  3. In the Boston region, a priority should be placed on electrification of the South Side commuter rail, improving operating costs, schedule reliability, and environmental justice. As funding becomes available, investment should shift to the North Side lines, which will require more infrastructure to be constructed.
  4. Where possible, labor agreements should be sought that limit excess staffing in exchange for acceleration and simultaneous construction of projects along multiple lines, maximizing useful employment of skilled trades.
  5. As TransitMatters notes, the electrification of the Providence Line is nearly complete and should proceed forthwith, as should electrification of the Stoughton and Fairmount Lines, with the existing diesel locomotives and rolling stock shifted to reduce maintenance pressures on other lines.
  6. Although the North-South Rail Link would significantly improve regional connectivity and the overall utility of the rail network, construction of NSRL is by no means a prerequisite to implementing electrification, high-level platforms, and frequent all-day schedules, and these should proceed at the highest priority, given the current capital expenditures which would otherwise be required even to preserve the existing diesel infrastructure, whether or not a funding mechanism for NSRL can be identified.
  7. The Commonwealth should in particular be prepared to self-fund the entire acquisition cost of electric-multiple-unit trainsets in order to buy global best-of-class equipment at competitive market prices, unless the federal government commits to waiving Buy American provisions. Federal capital funding, if available, could still be pursued for track, platform, station accessibility, overhead wire, and substation construction.
  8. Full build of West Station and development of connecting routes to Cambridge (whether bus, light rail, or a shuttle via the Grand Junction branch) and Longwood Medical Area should be accelerated relative to current plans.
  9. With respect to Framingham in particular, in order to support high frequency service between Framingham and Boston it will probably be necessary to have some trains turn or lay over at Framingham. The Commonwealth should study, in conjunction with the City of Framingham and MWRTA, the potential benefits of exending trains along the Agricultural Branch to Framingham State University and possibly to the office-industrial park area at Route 9 and Crossing Blvd. where there is already a park-and-ride lot and numerous employers that could be served by a reverse-commute service.

You can see more related content in this blog’s category “Transportation” (links below or to the right depending on your screen layout).

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What’s Wrong with Metcalfe’s Law?

In a recent Medium post derived from a talk he gave at private invitation-only event for the IT industry, Dan Hon presents one view of Metcalfe’s Law, the theory espoused by Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe that “the value of a telecommunications system increases as the square of the number of participants”. Hon looks at the (no pun intended) value judgment embedded in talking about the “value” of a network, and considers purely market-oriented measures lacking.

I’d like to step back a bit and look at it from a different angle. Instead of “value”, let’s consider “utility”: what benefit arises to the users from their use of the network? Metcalfe’s claim can be restated simply: the global utility (sum over all users) of a network is quadratic in the number of users. You don’t even need graph theory to prove that this is trivially true, if you accept what I take to be Metcalfe’s presuppositions: first, that utility sums linearly over all users (a view which would be understandable to Jeremy Bentham), and second, that each user’s utility is linear in the number of other users on the network.

The real problem with Metcalfe’s Law, as I see it, is precisely in this second presupposition. While it is true to a first approximation, for small networks, once the network reaches a sufficient penetration of that community with which any individual user has an interest in communicating, the marginal utility of additional communications partners diminishes quite rapidly, and ultimately goes negative. We see this even with old technologies like the telephone network: nearly all of the value I get from the telephone derives from being able to communicate with family, friends, and current and potential employers, vendors, and service providers in my immediate vicinity. While connecting a billion people in India or China to the rest of the world is laudable, there cannot be more than a thousand of them that make the telephone network more valuable to me. (One thing that this analysis does not consider, and a more sophisticated analysis would, is economies of scale: do those billions of users actually make it easier or cheaper to provide me with the service that I value. To be left for another day.)

In the social network case, it’s clear how additional users can have negative marginal utility: the additional noise generated can drown out the intended communication (whether that noise is trolls, pile-ons, or just way too many well-meaning people making the same comment in a reply). Twitter is a great demonstration of this; users bearing the vaunted “blue checkmark” — a distinction given out entirely at Twitter’s discretion to a small subset of users, mostly celebrities, journalists, government officials, and corporate marketing departments — are given a variety of tools to screen out communications from the masses. One of the tools which is frequently employed by these “verified” users screens out all notifications from the remaining users, allowing them to give the appearance of using the platform to communicate with others while in actuality paying attention only to a small number of similarly privileged people. This screening was not part of the original Twitter service: it was only deployed after Twitter gained a sufficiently large and noisy user community that it was driving away users Twitter actually had a business reason to want to retain. Of course, even “old tech” had to come up with similar mechanisms: when telephone calls became cheap enough that scammers were willing to spam a thousand people at dinnertime in the hope of finding a single mark, caller ID became a necessity and more and more people began to screen their calls. (Compare also the Eternal September.)

In conclusion: Metcalfe’s Law is wrong because the marginal utility to the existing users of a communications network is not constant: while it is large and positive for small networks, as networks grow beyond the scale of normal human social circles, the utility drops off quite rapidly, and eventually goes negative. When you sum up this function over all users, unlike the linear utility posited by Metcalfe, overall value does not scale as the square of the number of users. (It might not even be asymptotically linear — I leave that analysis to someone with better mathematical chops.)

Posted in Computing, Law & Society | Tagged

Clarifying one particular gender conversation

This post has been percolating in my head since the Worldcon 75 in Helsinki last August. My initial idea was quite a bit more ambitious — I have a note here which reads “Gender: cause or effect?” — but what was going to be the introductory section is probably the only part of it that I have something reasonable to write about.

Gender was, not surprisingly, an important thread in the conversation at Worldcon 75. There was even a panel (which I didn’t manage to attend) talking about how you deal with it in languages that don’t “have” gender, like Finnish, Turkish, and Chinese. But that made me want to write a little bit to try to clarify this discussion, because I think the words we use to talk about this particular aspect often make things more confusing rather than less. So this post is going to explore two questions: What do we mean when we say “gender” in the context of language, and what does it mean to say that a language “has” or “doesn’t have” it?

I should point out that I am coming at this from the perspective of an interested amateur, not a professional linguist by any means — but an amateur who has at least had the experience of trying to learn both French and Finnish. So don’t take any of what follows as gospel, but rather, a jumping-off point for further research if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

So what is “gender”, anyway? In linguistics, “gender” is a specialized form of what is more generally called “noun classification” — it’s just a historic fact that some languages (most but not all of them) divide their nouns up into categories. We generally reserve the term “gender” to refer specifically to those noun-classification systems that align more or less with the binary (masculine-feminine) or ternary (masculine-feminine-neuter) systems seen in Indo-European and Semitic languages (like English, Greek, and Hebrew), as opposed to those with a larger number of categories like the Bantu languages of Africa. It’s important to distinguish gender as a grammatical category from gender as a semantic category: because the “gender binary” is a near-universal part of human experience, all languages have words with semantic gender, words like “man”, “woman”, “father”, “daughter”, and so on (although not all languages have the same set — French distinguishes between male and female cousins, for example, whereas English does not). But even in languages with very strong grammatical gender, it’s by no means given that this will align with the semantic gender — as witness German, where many words that are semantically female (or at least feminine) are grammatically neuter or sometimes even masculine. (Historical linguists tell us that this is because the Indo-European three-gender system had collapsed to two genders before Germanic languages re-developed the modern neuter.)

So what then does it mean to say that a language “has” or “doesn’t have” grammatical gender (or indeed noun classification)? Grammar, roughly speaking, is how words fit together to form phrases and other multi-word structures, and also about how words refer to other words in context. For gender to be part of a language’s grammar, it must have some observable consequence on which words, or word forms, are allowed together in a sentence, or can be used to refer to the same thing. The most relevant property to look at is what English teachers usually call “agreement”, and linguists often call “concord”: the property that words that refer to the same thing must all come from the same class or be otherwise marked in the same way. English makes these considerations much less clear, because English has only the fractured remnants of its historic three-gender system, observable only in pronoun agreement, and not universally even then. But the Romance languages — those descended from Latin, like French, Spanish, and Romanian — all have a robust two-gender system (masculine and feminine) with mandatory concord for pronouns, determiners, adjectives, and participles. Semitic languages go one better: verbs agree in gender with their subjects. Unlike in English, Romance languages have gendered third-person plural pronouns: a group of portes (doors) in French are elles, but a group of stylos (pens), or indeed a group of mixed-gender objects, are ils.

Because of how English historically developed, acquiring pronouns from Old Norse and losing most of its inflectional system as England was invaded alternately from the north and from the south, we have no gender agreement for adjectives or articles any more (except, for a very few writers and the editors of The New Yorker, a very small set of adjectives borrowed from French: naïf/naïve, blond/blonde, brunet/brunette being the principal ones). English does continue to have two forms of gender concord for pronouns: the third-person singular he/she/it, which do not precisely correspond with the historic genders used in Old English or West Germanic, and a simple sentient/non-sentient system seen in the interrogative pronouns who/what and the relative pronouns who/which. (I don’t include “singular they” here because it acts grammatically identical to the third-person plural in all other respects — compare the much earlier “singular you”, which also takes a plural verb form.)

So what about those putative “genderless” languages? The only one that I have any direct knowledge of is Finnish, but I understand that all of the Uralic languages are the same in the most important way: there is no gender concord for adjectives or participles. These languages have no articles, so there is nothing to agree with there. But with pronouns it gets a bit more interesting. Finnish arguably has a two-gender system for personal pronouns: the sentient hän (singular)/he (plural), and the non-sentient se/ne. But (and it’s a big “but”), in regular spoken conversational Finnish (as opposed to newscaster or teach-to-confused-foreign-teenagers Finnish) these two categories are collapsed — to the “non-sentient” se/ne. I never learned the language well enough to express complex structures, but I suspect that there may be similar behavior in some of the relative pronouns. Away from Finnish, I know that there are languages that don’t have pronouns at all, but I don’t know how that set intersects with other means of marking gender or noun classification.

Another interesting part of this conversation here, albeit one that I’m not all that well prepared to discuss, is the question of languages with mandatory gender marking for names. As English users, we are accustomed to the idea that a personal name is just an arbitrary user-chosen token, and might at least in theory refer to any gender. Indeed, numerous names are gender-neutral or have, in living memory, actually changed their default gender. (“Robin” is perhaps the poster child here: previously a diminutive form of “Robert”, today most Robins are female and not a diminutive for anything.) That said, we are still familiar with gender-marked names, whether it’s “Alexander”/”Alexandra” (sharing the gender-neutral hypocoristics “Alex” and “Sandy”!) or “Robert”/”Roberta”. Numerous other pairs of names exist in the repertoire used by English speakers to name their children and their fictional characters. Some other cultures take this to an extreme, however: most or all names in Slavic languages, for example, are gender-marked — both given and family names, not to mention patronymics. Similarly, the patro/matronymics used in Icelandic names have mandatory gender marking, because (as with the Slavic patronymics) they contain an element that means either “son” or “daughter”, regardless of whether they use the father’s or mother’s name as the base.

One of the reasons this specifically came up at Worldcon 75, aside from the panel that I mentioned, is that because Finnish doesn’t have masculine or feminine nouns or pronouns, Finns sometimes have difficulty remembering the correct forms to use when speaking in English or other languages that do make such a distinction. This doesn’t mean that they are confused about the semantic gender of people (they can certainly distinguish miehet and naiset, after all), but rather, that the association of semantic and grammatical gender is weaker when speaking in a second (or third) language when one’s ambient tongue doesn’t make the same distinction. The Worldcon program included a note explaining this and asking attendees to be understanding if their hosts chose the wrong pronoun. (Which is perhaps the best case of all for those badge flags given out at cons indicating the holder’s desired pronoun.) It’s especially an issue for invented or nonce pronouns: it’s probably unreasonable to expect anyone other than the in-group of native speakers who adopted them to actually use or even make sense of them. Those who use such pronouns should take care to check their privilege (as speakers of a global hegemonic language) when dealing with non-native speakers, especially those whose native pronoun system doesn’t correspond to the English one.

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Overdue recipe report: Luisa Weiss’s Christbrot

This gallery contains 11 photos.

This is the third of three recipes I did for the holiday season from Luisa Weiss’s Classic German Baking (Ten Speed Press, 2016). Weiss recounts how she felt that she had to include a recipe for Dresdner Christstollen, the classic … Continue reading

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Overdue recipe report: Luisa Weiss’s Mohntorte

This gallery contains 12 photos.

Technically, mohntorte — a wheat-free sponge-type poppy seed cake — is not a Christmas specialty, but I included it along with the two actual Christmas recipes from Luisa Weiss’s Classic German Baking (Ten Speed Press, 2016; pp. 126–7) that I prepared … Continue reading

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Overdue recipe report: Luisa Weiss’s Pfeffernüsse

I decided that my holiday baking this year would be three recipes from Luisa Weiss’s Classic German Baking (Ten Speed Press, 2016) — after all, many of our holiday traditions, and a good portion of American baking more generally, come from German immigrants, which accounts in part for the wide differences between US and UK Christmas food traditions. (And, of course, my family name also comes from German immigrants!) Among the most classic German-American traditions at Christmas are pfeffernüsse, small spice cookies (often confused in appearance, but not flavor, with Russian/Italian/Mexican tea cakes/wedding cookies) flavored with ground pepper and gingerbread spice (the latter is called lebkuchengewürz in German and is a common prepared mixture of ground spices used in many recipes). I remember my father making cookies like these when I was little, probably using the recipe from the 1976 edition of Joy of Cooking. Rombauer’s Joy recipe is quite different from the recipe in Weiss’s book (pp. 228–30), and I suspect it reflects a more “Americanized” version. Among the most notable differences, Rombauer uses molasses, black pepper, baking powder, brandy, and dry confectioner’s sugar where Weiss uses honey, white pepper, ammonium carbonate (“baker’s ammonia”), rum, and a lemon-sugar glaze, respectively. The most significant difference is that the Joy recipe contains butter whereas the only fat in Weiss’s recipe comes from the egg; Joy also uses candied citron and chopped almonds, flavoring ingredients absent from the Weiss’s pfeffernüsse. (By the way, in this post I will use English capitalization since I’m writing in English, but I will follow the German morphology for number, so it’s one pfeffernuss and two pfeffernüsse.) Weiss says that her recipe comes from Offenbach — like many traditional European recipes, there is a lot of regional variation — and it’s entirely possible that Rombauer’s recipe is equally authentic but from a different part of Germany.

Before starting to make the pfeffernüsse, it was necessary to gather the requisite ingredients for the lebkuchengewürz — since, unlike in Germany, it’s not something sold in grocery stores. The recipe is quite simple, and makes far more than is required for one or even two batches of pfeffernüsse: 30 g of ground cinnamon (I used true cinnamon and not cassia), 1½ tbl of ground cloves, 1 tsp of ground allspice, 1 tsp ground cardamom, 1 tsp ground ginger, 1 tsp ground mace (I’ve never seen a recipe use that much mace), and ¾ tsp ground aniseed. That last ingredient was a bit of a challenge to find — it’s one of those spices that isn’t stocked in my local Whole Foods, but luckily the conventional supermarket nearby does have it (it still took a bit of searching the shelves) so I didn’t have to mail-order. All these spices are simply mixed well and sealed up in a container.

Mise en place
Now for the pfeffernüsse proper, starting with the usual mise en place. Starting from bottom left, you can see the lebkuchengewürz, of which this recipe uses only two teaspoons. Next to that is ⅛ tsp of freshly ground white pepper, and then a teaspoon of ammonium carbonate (next to the bottle). The dry ingredients — 310 g flour, 1 tsp cocoa powder, and ¼ tsp salt, have already been mixed together. In the saucepan at upper right is 160 g of honey and 75 g of sugar, and hiding behind the pan is a single egg. There should have been 1 tablespoon of slightly warmed rum in that bowl in the center, but I mistakenly used my half-tablespoon measure instead. Oops.

Honey-sugar syrup
The recipe begins with heating the honey-sugar mixture on the stovetop until it’s hot enough to fully dissolve the sugar. While the mixture is still hot, the spices are stirred into it (this helps to “bloom” the spices and bring out their volatile flavors). Meanwhile, the ammonium carbonate is mixed with the rum, causing it to fizz a bit, and hopefully dissolve. (I found that even when I used the correct amount of rum, it wasn’t quite enough to fully dissolve the ammonium carbonate.) It will fizz quite a bit, losing some of the leavening power in the process (since there’s nothing to capture the gas at this point). Ammonium carbonate — (NH4)2CO3 — was once a popular leavening agent, since it decomposes entirely into gas (ammonia, carbon dioxide, and water) leaving nothing behind, unlike baking powder, which adds sodium or other metal ions like aluminum depending on the specific chemistry. The downside of ammonium carbonate is that half of the leavening power comes from gaseous ammonia, which is not a scent you want to have in your food, so it’s only usable in applications where you can be sure that all the ammonia will be driven off in the baking process.

After adding ammonium carbonate to hot syrup
When the rum-leavening mixture is added to the still-warm honey-sugar-spice mixture, a great deal more gas is evolved, giving the baker a strong whiff of ammonia. After stirring to fully incorporate, the resulting mixture is stirred or kneaded into the dry ingredients along with the egg to form a sticky dough.

Dough mostly combined
At this point, the dough is formed into small balls and deposited on parchment-lined baking sheets. Weiss calls for one-inch (25 mm) dough balls, for a yield of 48 cookies; when I used a #100 (⅝ oz) disher, I only got 31 — I was so surprised by this that I actually did the entire recipe a second time, and had the exact same yield. Because there’s no fat in this recipe, the cookies do not spread in baking, and they can be spaced quite close — I had no trouble putting 20 dough balls on a standard cookie sheet, and if you manage to get the 48 that Weiss calls for, there’s no reason you couldn’t fit them all on two baking sheets.

Fully baked dough balls
The pfeffernüsse are baked in a 375°F (190°C) oven for ten minutes — since there’s very little moisture in them to start with, it doesn’t take long, and you definitely don’t want them to completely dry out. While the first batch is baking, a simple lemon-sugar glaze is made from 100 g confectioner’s sugar, 1 tbl fresh lemon juice, and 1 tbl water.

Cookies after brushing with lemon glaze
Using a pastry brush, the glaze is applied to the the cookies while they are still hot. Just to keep the kitchen clean it helps to put the cooling rack over a sheet pan to catch the excess glaze.

Glazed cookies cooling and draining
You should probably do a better job than I did of evenly covering the surface of the cookies. Once cool, the pfeffernüsse should be sealed in an airtight for a minimum of several days to ripen — as the moisture from the glaze is absorbed by the cookies proper, the dry, crisp crumb becomes soft and chewy.

As I mentioned above, I ended up making two batches of these cookies, which left me with enough to half-fill a Christmas cookie tin that I already had. I had enough (about 60) to eat quite a few of them myself, give a lot away at the family Christmas party, give more away at Christmas dinner, and still bring a dozen into the office after Christmas where almost nobody was around to keep me from eating the rest.

Nutrition

The nutrition details below reflect my yield for this recipe and not Weiss’s. If you can actually get four dozen pfeffernüsse, you’ll have to cut these numbers by about a third.

Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 3 cookies
Servings per recipe: 10
Amount per serving
Calories 240 Calories from fat 4
% Daily Value
Total Fat <1​g 1%
 Saturated Fat <1​g 1%
Trans Fat 0​g
Cholesterol 19​mg 6%
Sodium 69​mg 3%
Total Carbohydrate 55​g 18%
 Dietary fiber 1​g 5%
 Sugars 30​g
Proteins 3​g 6%
Vitamin A 1%
Vitamin C 1%
Calcium 0%
Iron 3%
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Several long-overdue recipe quick takes

There comes a point when you simply have to declare “blog bankruptcy” and clear out your writing backlog. That doesn’t allow you to discharge your writing debt in its entirety, but it does mean that you (well, I) can feel less bad about giving some posts really short shrift. So here are a few really quick hits on recipes I’ve made since my trip to Worldcon 75 in Helsinki last August that I haven’t gotten around to saying anything about yet.

First, the brownie recipe (entitled simply “brownies”) from Little Flower Baking by Christine Moore with Cecilia Leung (Prospect Park Books, 2016). Awful, awful, awful: overbaked, cakey, and tasteless. I find in impossible to believe that they sell brownies this bad in the eponymous cafe. The proportions don’t look terribly far from the average brownie, so this recipe would probably work out fine with the right cooking time and temperature.

Second, “Truffle Chocolate Cream Pie” from Joanne Chang’s Baking with Less Sugar (Chronicle Books, 2015). Unlike the last recipe, this one was a real winner, with the two distinct-textured rich chocolate fillings and only the sugar originally in the chocolate itself. I had trouble getting the chocolate mousse topping to whip up as much as I thought it should have (I have the same trouble with whipped ganache filling for cakes, and probably for the same reason — maybe it’s my expectation that’s wrong). Despite the reduced sugar, it’s by no means a low-cal dessert: with low-fat milk and Callebaut 60-40-NV for the chocolate it still clocks in at 517 kcal for 1/12 of a pie. Recommended. I have a few photos of this one:


The recipe uses Chang’s standard pâte brisée, with egg yolk and milk but no sugar.


This shows the pie with the bottom “truffle” filling (basically a very thick chocolate custard, with egg yolks, butter, and cream).


The pie is topped with a whipped chocolate mousse and then chocolate shavings are sprinkled on top of that.


This shows the cross-section of the pie, with the two fillings barely distinguishable (more by apparent density than by color). I have yet to master the proper technique for truly flaky all-butter pie crust.

I had a bunch of cream left over after the last recipe, and you know what that means: truffles! I turned once again to Alice Medrich’s Seriously Bitter Sweet (Artisan, 2013), but this time I used a different recipe, “Cold Creamy Truffles” (pp. 102ff). Unlike the “Ganache Truffles” I’ve made before, which involve making a ganache and allowing it to recrystallize at room temperature overnight, the centers of these truffles are formed from a refrigerator-cooled ganache and set in the freezer before coating with melted dark chocolate. This technique avoids the need for tempering the coating chocolate, at the cost of having to refrigerate the truffles until shortly before serving time. The texture of the cold, creamy centers contrasts nicely with the crisp coating shell. (True story: I didn’t intend to make this recipe; I was actually thinking I was going to make a different one, and didn’t notice until I had all of my mise done for this one, which I actually scaled up by 50% to use up all my excess cream.) No photos for this one. I used Valrhona Caraque for the centers and Valrhona Caraïbe for the coating, and ended up making them about 50% larger than the recipe called for. At this size, they came in at 111 kcal each, which is still pretty reasonable if you are comparing with a &approx;350-kcal cookie or brownie.

Fourth: I decided to go full-on German this Christmas, thanks to Luisa Weiss’s acclaimed Classic German Baking (Ten Speed Press, 2016). There wasn’t enough time to do Lebkuchen (leavened with potash, the dough takes months to ripen!) but plenty of time for Pfeffernüsse, Christbrot, and Mohntorte. I intend to do separate write-ups of all three of these recipes later on this month.

Finally, my birthday cake this year will be Mycroft’s Delight Revisited. This past weekend, I made the Gianduja-flavored Swiss meringue buttercream that represents my principal contribution to this recipe, but this time I used Valrhona Noisette Noir instead of the Noisette Lait I used last time, and I can report that it is much better in terms of color and flavor in this recipe. So if you want to try this yourself, get the dark. (There’s still plenty of butter in this frosting so you’ll get your butterfat one way or another.)

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World Cup Men’s Bobsled, November 9 at Lake Placid

This gallery contains 33 photos.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, there were two runs of men’s bobsled at the Lake Placid World Cup. The first was on Thursday, November 9, in the early evening, and was quite chilly. The second was the following … Continue reading

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