Thursday, November 29, 2012

Coffee Talk - Better Coffee Through Chemistry; Chemex


Lets face it, it's more of an Icon than a coffee pot.  It's part of the permanent collections of museums such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian, the Philadelphia Museum and the Corning Museum.  Mary Tyler Moore used one on her show (the Mary Tyler Moore Show) and Mia Farrow used one in Rosemary's Baby.  Ever the vehicle for "Brand Placement", even James Bond likes his morning coffee brewed in one (From Russia, with Love, 1963).  And you can't possibly have missed the one sitting on the counter in Monica's apartment on Friends.

(Photo Courtesy of Austin Baker; Friends episode circa 1998)

Invented in 1941 and patented in 1943, the Chemex was the brain child of Chemist Peter Schlumbohm. He combined a modified laboratory funnel with an erlenmeyer flask to create this ingenious 1 piece brewer that has become a classic in Mid-century Modern design.  Originally hand blown into a mold by skilled Corning workers in NY, these Boro-Silicate glass (Pyrex) coffee receptacles' are still being produced today.  Sadly, most of the ones available on the market now, are machine molded in Taiwan, though human "mold blown" ones are still available for a much higher price.

The timing for the premier of this modern marvel could not have been more perfect.  Most metal fabrication had shifted to armament production as America's forced entry into WWII loomed ever closer.  This all glass brewer did not stress wartime resources and thus was a big hit.  On a side note, most of the vacuum pot makers, such as Cory, switched to a ground glass seal design to relieve the need for a rubber gasket during wartime.

Though a Chemex, for all intensive purposes, is nothing more than a manual drip brewer, there are a few differences.  Chemex uses a proprietary filter paper that is about 25% thicker than your standard auto-drip filters.  Originally this filter paper came flat packed and needed to be folded into quarters.  Luckily, they come pre-folded now.  This is a godsend to persons like myself who are incapable of even the simplest of tasks in a non-caffienated state.

This special filter paper performs 2 important functions. First and foremost, it slows the brewing time.  This gives the water more time to mingle with the grounds, allowing them to "bloom" properly, thus improving extraction. This is where I bash the Keurig and Nespresso, because this is true of ANY proper coffee brewing method.  It takes TIME.  I admit the pod brewers are convenient, but they brew so incredibly fast that there is no time for the full flavor of the coffee to be extracted.  You can rush a cup of coffee, but you can't rush a great cup of coffee..... I'm just sayin'.

The second purpose of these thicker filters is to capture the less desirable volatile oils as well as the fine sediments that can make your coffee bitter and muddy.  This leaves you with the richest and smoothest cup of "Joe" you ever sipped.  It's like liquid jazz in your cup.  Seriously, I kid you not.
I have heard complaints from "purists" that you can taste the paper.  That may be, though I don't so much notice it myself.  As a result, several companies have come out with stainless steel micro filter cones.  Before anyone spends $100.00 on a stainless steel micro filter for your Chemex, it should be noted that those filters will only trap the fine particles, so the "undesirable compounds" from the grounds will still make it into your coffee... It should also be noted that if one wets the filter with hot water first, before adding the coffee, it tends to lessen the "paper flavor".

Chemex is one of the most "hands on" ways to brew your coffee, even more so than a French Press, which is really more of an infusion than a brew.  With Chemex, it's all in the ritual of P and P (Prep and Pour), that is Preparing your Chemex for infusion and the Pouring of the water.

First, THIS is my Chemex. 

According to the Patent number stamped on the bottom (2,411,310), it was manufactured in 1946 by Pyrex in Corning, NY.  The way I understand it, the patent number changed in 1947 to 2,414,901.

Because of it's age, I know that it was mold blown; meaning that it is borosilicate glass that was blown into a mold (as opposed to the mechanical mold pressed ones made today).  I bought it used, obviously, since it is 23 years older than I am.  It seems to have been much loved by the previous owner(s).  It was brewed hard and put away wet, as it were.  The finish on the wooden collar is almost completely worn away and there appears to be some overheating scars as well (where the wood has blackened) no doubt from being kept warm on the stove burner (yikes!).  I usually keep my resulting coffee warm in a thermal carafe, for it is true that the Chemex will cool fairly quickly after brewing.  But this is also true of the French Press and Vacuum, so I am use to using thermal storage devices for unconsumed coffee.

Eventually, I plan on replacing the collar, bead and tie; but it's not really a high priority and would take away from it's vintage "aged" look.  The glass is in perfect working order and the collar is still secure so there is really nothing wrong with it at all.  A perfectly serviceable piece of vintage coffee brewing equipment to make 40 oz (that's eight 5oz cups) of rich, dark and sultry elixir.

OK, Lab Glass?  Check!

Chemex filters can be ordered online, but the cost of shipping doubles the price.  I found that Cost Plus/World Market carries the filters (prefolded and unbleached) in boxes of 100 for $7.59.   They also carry the newer mold pressed version of the Chemex, made in Taiwan.  (I love World Market)

Filters? Check!

OK, start heating a kettle with the appropriate amount of water. (in my case, 40oz)

Grab  filter and separate 3 layers from the 4th layer to form a cone.

Insert the "cone" into the top of the Chemex infuser with the 3 layers towards the pouring channel. (This will prevent the filter from blocking the pouring channel, which acts as an air vent during the extraction process)

OK, now is the time to add coffee...  The directions usually state 1 rounded Tablespoon per 5 oz cup...

Personally, with this particular brewing method, I think it needs to be toned down a little to a level tablespoon per cup.  So I am using 8 Tablespoons of Peet's Major Dickinson's Blend that has been ground for an auto drip machine. (Basically, "standard" grind)

"Preparation" is complete.....

By now, your water should be pretty close to a boil.  When it does boil, remove from the heat and allow the water to set for a minute. (this will bring it down to about 205F degrees)

Now it's all about the "Pour".

Drizzle just enough water from the kettle to moisten the grounds.  Then stop. (This allows the grounds to absorb some of the water and bloom)

After 20-30 seconds, you may pour in a little more water, just until the grounds look saturated. (They may even begin to bubble up from underneath... This is a good thing)

Now, slowly continue pouring the water over the grounds, keeping them wet, leaving at least 1 inch of space below the top of the carafe. (it should take you about 4 minutes to pour 40 oz of water through the grounds

The ground should be saturated at all times throughout the process.  The key to a great "POUR" is to ensure the grounds never have a chance to get "dry".

Once the water has drained through the filter, you will notice that the remaining grounds look NOTHING like they would if you used an auto-drip machine.  They have almost become a gelatinous mass due to this "blooming" and infusing method of brewing coffee.

Take the points of each of the corners and lift to remove the spent grounds and the filter. (Dispose of them in the trash or in your compost bucket)

There you go.  Coffee via chemistry.

Now pour yourself a cup, move the rest to a thermal carafe, and kick back while listening to some Jazz... The perfect accompaniment to a perfect cup of coffee.

Cin Cin!!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

When Life Gives You Lemons - Lemon Swiss Meringue Pie

'Twas the night before Thanksgiving and we only had 2 pies.  Mom made a Huckleberry Tart, and I had made a Pumpkin Chiffon.  OH, HECK NO! not in this pie-centric family.  That's a recipe for disaster. A Pie-mergency, a Pie-tastrophy, A-pie-calypes Now!! So, I threw together my version of Lemon Meringue Pie.

Lemon Meringue is one of those weird pies.  It's really simple, but really difficult at the same time.  Then again, I tend to make things difficult for myself all the time.  It's just my nature.  I have never been happy with a raw French Meringue on my Lemon pie. (just beating sugar and egg whites to stiff peaks)  It shrinks, it weeps, it separates from the lemon filling and has a slightly funny texture to me.   I much prefer the smooth and somewhat velvety texture of a Swiss Meringue.   Thus the difficult part of the pie making process. 

You will see what I am talking about as I go through this recipe. 

Lemon Swiss Meringue Pie

1/2 recipe Pâte Brisée, pre-baked in a 9-inch pie plate 
3/4 cup Granulated Sugar
1 1/2 cups Water
1/3 cup Cornstarch (I actually prefer Arrowroot Powder, but I was out)
1/3 cup Water
4 large Eggs, Separated
1/2 cup Lemon Juice
1 TB Butter
Zest of 1/2 a Lemon
2/3 cup Granulated Sugar
3/4 tsp Cream of Tarter

OK, so you need to have a pre-baked (not par-baked) 9-inch pie shell.

In a saucepan, combine 3/4 cup Sugar and 1 1/2 cups Water, then set it over medium flame.

Bring this to a boil.

In the meantime, combine 1/3 cup Water with 1/3 cup Cornstarch in a small pitcher, mixing well to form a slurry; then set aside.

Separate the eggs, setting the whites aside for later, and beat the yolks.

Squeeze the lemons and add the juice to the yolks, stirring well to combine.

By now the Sugar/Water mixture should be boiling, so add the cornstarch, whisking constantly.

Continue whisking until the mixture bubbles and is clear.

Remove the mixture from the heat and add the Lemon/Egg Yolk mixture, again, whisking constantly.

Return the saucepan to the heat and continue stirring and cooking until it begins to bubble again.

Remove from the heat again and stir in the Butter and the Lemon Zest.

Pour into the pre-baked Pie shell.

OK, now that was the easiest part... Now for the fun part.

Preheat the oven to 325F degrees.
Place a saucepan of water on high heat and bring to a simmer.
Place the Egg Whites in a heat safe bowl, and add the 2/3 cup Sugar and the Cream of Tarter.

Set the bowl over the simmering water and begin whisking until the sugar dissolves.
Once the sugar has dissolved and the egg whites begin to get foamy, grab a temperature gauge and continue whisking and cooking until it reaches 145 F (62 C) degrees.

Remove the bowl from the simmering water and pour the contents into your stand mixer, fitted with a whisk attachment.

Now is the time to "put the spurs" to the Egg Whites.  (Whip them until they cool and form stiff peaks)

Spread the Swiss meringue all over the warm filling (the hotter the lemon filling, the better the adhesion) being sure to seal the meringue down to the crust edge.

I like to make mine all spiky looking.

Place the entire pie in the oven for about 20 minutes (or longer if you like darker tips)

Remove the pie from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature.

There you have it, a simple recipe made more difficult by yours truly.  :)

Incidentally, Lemon Meringue Pie should NEVER be placed in the refrigerator.  I don't care what type of Meringue you make, French, Italian or Swiss, the damp air of the refrigerator will make Meringue weep.  (as you can see on the slice above, after it spent 6 hours in the refrigerator)  Lemon Meringue pie is really meant to be eaten within 4 hours of making it. 

Look at it this way, everything is cooked at this point, the Egg Yolk were cooked when making the filling, the Egg Whites were actually cooked twice. Once to 145 degrees and then again in the oven when browned.  There is plenty of sugar and/or acid in both parts to arrest any bacteria growth for at least that long.  So keep it at room temperature and consume fairly quickly.  :)

Happy ThanksGiving to all, and to all a Good Appetite!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Close Shave With Dinner - Razor Clams

Ah, Pacific Razor Clams.  Available from Alaska to California.  Just to clarify, in case there is any confusion.  I am not speaking about the Eastern Razor clams, nor am I talking about Jack Knife clams (which are sometimes called razor clams) See, this.....

is a Jack Knife Clam from the east coast;
and this....

is a Pacific Razor Clam.

Though they are prolific up and down the northern west coast, they are a little hard to come by in the grocery store. If you want them, you usually have to go dig them yourself.  Which I have done several times in the long ago past.  I remember a couple trips to Longbeach Washington in the pursuit of said Razor Clams when I was a kid.  We always used the clam guns instead of shovels, because the shells of the razor clam are easily broken and when they break, they are razor sharp. (thus the name

If you have never been clam digging before, let me assure you that the term "gun" is misleading.  Let me assure you that no fire arms are used in the capture and demise of said clams.  A clam gun is a tube that is sealed at one end, except for a thumb hole.

Photo Courtesy of Willapa Marine Products

You find a divot in the sand (called a "show") where a clam has retreated by digging a hole with his "foot" and shove the tube into the sand.  You then place your thumb over the hole and pull the tube up.  Kind of like taking a "core sample" of the sand.  Except this core sample contains a razor clam. Once you have pulled the "core sample" you remove your thumb from the hole and all the sand falls out of the tube, along with the razor clam.  Now the fun begins, because they begin to dig back into the sand immediately, so you must be quick and dig through the mushy sand with your hands and grab the razor clam before it gets away! Needless to say, this sort of thing is a lot of fun for a kid; which is probably why I remember it so vividly.  Though I also remember that at the end of the day, I had sand in places I did not know I even had.

So what to do with razor clams?

Well, I have heard that you can make excellent chowder with them, but my personal favorite way to prepare razor clams is to simply bread them and fry them. 

Sadly, this is not really a recipe, just a procedure.  This is simply because the ingredients are few and there are no set amounts.  It merely depends on how many clams you are frying and how big they are. And lemme tell ya, some of them are fairly big. (as you can see from the above picture)

Razor Clams

AP Flour
Kosher Salt
Lemon Pepper
Parmigiano-Reggiano (the undisputed King of cheeses)
shucked Razor Clams

You are going to have to dirty a lot of dishes for this.

First you need a dish that contains Eggs, that have been thoroughly beaten.

Then you need to prepare a dish with Flour that has been Salted and Lemon Peppered.

Thirdly, you will need a plate that is filled with a mixture of Panko and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. (I usually add about 1 TB of the undisputed king of cheeses per cup of Panko)

Finally, you will need a plate to place the Razor Clams on after all your dredging and breading procedure.

Whew!  Now that our mise en plas is in place, on with the clams!

The neck of the clam is extremely tough.

So grab a flat mallet, cause a spiked one is a little too much, and pound on the neck a little to soften the meat.

OK, now you will need to thoroughly dry the clams so that the flour will stick and not turn into goo.  This may require copious amounts of paper towels.

Once tenderized and dried thoroughly, it's time for a dusting of the flour mixture.

Then into the egg wash.

Then into the Panko...

You will probably have to press the panko to ensure good adhesion.

Then onto the plate.

Repeat with the remaining clams.... Lather, rinse, repeat.... You know.

If you need to make more than 1 layer of clams, separate your layers with waxed paper.
Once you have them all breaded, you will need to cover them and place them in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes to allow the breading to "firm up".
I like to use Coconut oil for frying clams, but peanut oil works equally well.

Heat oil in a skillet and when it's nice and hot, throw in a couple breaded clams.

They cook quickly, so about 1-2 minutes per side is all you need.

Place them on a rack, set inside a baking pan, so any excess oil can drain off, and keep the breading crispy.

Store the cooked clams in an oven set on "Warm" if you have an oven that is capable, or with the oven light turned on, while you complete the others. (using the oven light is a great way to proof bread dough too)

Once they are all fried up, sit down and enjoy!