Homemade Candy Bars for Halloween

Jill Lewis / Heavy Table
Jill Lewis / Heavy Table

Ah, Pinterest. You make everything seem so easy, with your photos of impeccable dishes, crafts, and other DIY activities that inspire us to do crazy things, like make our own candy. Yes, why take the easy way out this Halloween by going to Costco and buying the jumbo bag of candy when you can make a huge mess, burn your thumb in melted caramel, and leave chocolate fingerprints all over the house?

Answer: Because the results are pretty darn tasty, though not picture-perfect.

A year after pinning a King Arthur Flour recipe for “Thousand Dollars Bars” (aka Twix bars — my favorite candy), I decided to actually try the recipe. Halloween offers the perfect excuse, and though I had no illusion that I would make enough candy to hand out to all our trick-or-treaters, at least my family and co-workers could enjoy them. The recipe didn’t seem too difficult — just time-consuming — so I gave myself two days and lots of counter space.

Jill Lewis / Heavy Table
Jill Lewis / Heavy Table

Step 1: The shortbread layer

I had never made shortbread before, but it didn’t seem to be terribly demanding. I just threw softened butter, powdered sugar, vanilla, and flour into my stand mixer and mixed until the dough came together. I patted out a thin layer in a greased 13″x9″ pan, pricked the surface with a fork to allow steam to escape, and baked for 45 minutes at 300°. Easy peasy, and the kitchen smelled like butter for the next couple of hours.

Jill Lewis / Heavy Table
Jill Lewis / Heavy Table

Step 2: The caramel layer

I briefly thought about making caramel from scratch, but then my lazy side got the better of me. Instead, I found unwrapped caramel bits that melted easily with some heavy cream, and then I poured the mixture smoothly over the cooled shortbread layer. Perhaps sticking my finger in the pot to lick up the extra wasn’t the smartest idea, but my thumb will heal eventually. The pan spent the night in the refrigerator so the layers would firm up, and after an hour or so at room temperature the next day, they were ready to be cut and dipped in chocolate.

Here’s where it got a little messy. You need a little oomph to cut through the caramel and shortbread layers, and the added force meant the bars didn’t break neatly along the cuts, so several bars lost big chunks of shortbread coming out of the pan. A delicious treat for the candymaker, but it doesn’t make the neatest looking bars.

Jill Lewis / Heavy Table
Jill Lewis / Heavy Table

Step 3: The chocolate layer

And here’s where it got a lot messy — dipping the bars in melted chocolate. The original recipe gives you the option to merely melt the chocolate with a little vegetable shortening and pour it over the bars in the pan, which would be way easier but not particularly Twix-like in appearance. So I was determined to dip each bar entirely in chocolate and coat every crumb. But if you’re going to do that, you need more chocolate than the 18 ounces the recipe calls for. You also need to invent a way to do it without creating indentations from your fingers on the sides of the bars or burning your fingers in the hot chocolate.

After my first four or five bars, I gave up on completely immersing them in the chocolate and instead liberally coated the top of each bar. When I had enough chocolate left over after dipping the top of each bar, I awkwardly painted the jagged sides of the bars with the remaining chocolate. Not the easiest job when the chocolate is starting to cool and seize up, but I wasn’t going to let that chocolate go to waste. Another night in the fridge to firm up, and the candy bars were ready to consume.

The finished product

Caramel fans, you’re in luck. The sticky layer is much thicker than in the standard Twix bar, so the caramel flavor dominates each bite. But the shortbread cookie is delightfully light and crumbly, and if you use dark chocolate, the depth of cocoa flavor nicely balances the butteriness of the other two layers. The result is an extremely rich treat that satisfies the sweet tooth after just a few bites.

So is it worth the time and effort when you can buy a bag of Twix for $2 at Target? I can’t say I’ll make them regularly, and certainly never in the necessary quantity to feed a neighborhood of kids, but perhaps as a special birthday treat. (My 3-year-old has already requested them for his next birthday — in May.) And I can say that I’ve checked one recipe off my Pinterest list. Only 37 more to go.

Homemade Candy Bars

Yield: About 28 bars
Adapted from King Arthur Flour’s Thousand Dollars Bars recipe

For the shortbread:
1 c (2 sticks) room-temperature butter
1 c powdered sugar
2 tsp vanilla
2 c all-purpose flour

For the caramel:
18 oz caramel (I used Kraft’s Caramel Bits to avoiding unwrapping a million individually wrapped caramel squares)
3 tbsp heavy cream

For the chocolate:
20 oz milk or dark chocolate, melted (I used dark)
1 tbsp vegetable shortening

  1. Preheat oven to 300°F. Spray a 13″x9″x2″ pan with cooking spray.
  2. Beat the butter, powdered sugar, and vanilla in a medium bowl or in a stand mixer. Add in the flour gradually and beat at medium speed until it comes together to form a crumbly dough.
  3. Spread the dough in the pan using your fingers and prick liberally with a fork.
  4. Bake for 35-45 minutes until the shortbread is golden brown. Remove from oven and cool completely.
  5. Melt the caramel and heavy cream together over low heat in a small saucepan. Pour over the shortbread layer and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. If you chill the pan for several hours or overnight, let the pan sit at room temperature for about an hour before cutting the bars.
  6. When the caramel layer is firm, cut down the length of the pan to split the pan into two narrow rectangles. Then cut across the width of the pan to make finger-like bars. Remove the bars from the pan onto sheet trays covered with wax paper.
  7. Melt the chocolate and shortening over low heat in a medium saucepan. Dip each bar into the chocolate and return to the wax paper. Chill in the refrigerator for several hours to let chocolate set.

The Goat: Why You Should Eat It … and a Recipe

Becca Dilley Photography

Recently, everyone from Mark Bittman to Michael Pollan and our own Andrew Zimmern has been making a strong pitch for goat meat as an environmentally sound alternative to factory-farmed proteins — one that, lamentably, hasn’t quite caught on here in the United States, despite the fact that goat is one of the most widely eaten meats in the world. As Zimmern told the Baltimore Sun: “It’s delicious, and it’s inexpensive, but goat is like soccer in America. It’s growing. We like it, but we don’t get it.” Here in the Twin Cities, the goat is indeed gaining ground and — though demand may originally have been driven by our growing East Indian and African populations — slowly trip-trapping its way into mainstream menus and kitchens.

“That’s a change: It used to be only ethnic food,” says Larry Jacoby of Shepherd Song Farm, a local goat producer. Today Jacoby’s goats are ordered by mail, sold at the Mississippi Market (ground $10.49 / lb, stew $13.49 / lb), and featured at popular restaurants around town. In fact, when we spoke, he’d just sold all of his goat racks, 15 of them, to chef Sarah Master for a special at Barbette.

Shepherd Song Farm
Photo courtesy Shepherd Song Farm

According to Jacoby, the beauty of the goat as an “alternative protein” is four-fold — it’s relatively easy on the land, it eats what we don’t, it’s good for us, and it’s tasty. He begins by telling us how a cow’s foot, at five or six inches, will spread out when it stands and walks, damaging the crown of the grass — the base of the plant, at the root — as it  goes. Even worse, a grazing beef, as Jacoby says, will wrap its tongue around a chunk of grass, give it a pull, and take out the roots and all. “That’s kind of hard on a pasture,” he notes.

By comparison, goats are lighter animals and have dainty feet that do not damage the grass. And contrary to popular belief, goats are picky eaters, browsers who prefer to eat up first — leaves, ivy, bark — and then down at the grasses. “Goats are kind of like a lawn mower,” he says. “I always tell people that, when we put the goats out to pasture, I grab their lips and pull them down to the grass and let them snap back to the height I want the grass to be when they’re done — they find this confusing, but I do try to show them where to stop.”

Goats are not good feedlot animals because of this predilection for greenery. “You can make them eat grain — make them eat bad — if you choose to do it, but they just don’t do well,” Jacoby says. “Poison ivy, young burdock, thistles, nettle, box elder leaves — all those things you consider negative, are like candy to them. And, of course, your flowers too. Their digestive system is designed to break down leaves and grass and extract value from it. And that’s our deal with them: You’re going to eat food we can’t eat to produce food we can eat. It’s very environmentally sound.”

Making Your Own Cheese With Wind Dance Vineyards Cheese Kits

Wind Dance Vineyards cheese kit
Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

There’s a certain kind of cook who, having mastered stir fries and crepes and béchamel and whatnot, starts staring into the fridge and the pantry and the excesses of the grocery list and asking, “What else could I make?” Mayonnaise, though tasty, hardly proves a challenge. Ketchup, it turns out, isn’t worth it.

Inevitably, this restless cook’s eye falls on the cheese drawer: All those dairy products are just milk at the core, right? I could totally do that. And those are the sorts of folks who find their way to Wind Dance Vineyard and order a cheese kit, or two, or three.

Wind Dance’s owner, Bob Belbeck, was once that restless cook, himself. But, first, he was an almost accidental viticulturalist. Finding he had a few spare acres near his home in Delano, MN, he planted grapes and sold the juice to nearby wineries. Thus the vineyard was born. The vineyard became a cheesemaker’s shop about 20 years ago when Belbeck started experimenting with cheese and found it hard to buy supplies in small amounts. He started selling kits online and in a few select stores and now has a line of kits for six kinds of cheese, along with presses, molds, and cultures.

Belbeck says he can usually tell who is going to turn into a regular customer. These are the folks whose first order is the Parmesan kit (most people, wary of the aging process or looking for a quick cheese fix, go for the mozzarella). Parmesan is Belbeck’s favorite and, he says, the easiest to start with because it calls for two-percent milk (when making cheese with two-percent, Belbeck says he can buy any old milk off the shelf, but finding a whole milk that will work is trickier). Then, about six months after that first order — meaning immediately after that customer has had his or her first taste of homemade Parmesan — he gets another order. They’re hooked.

“All of our [store-bought] cheeses now taste processed, once you tasted real cheese. It’s like wine: If you’re going to have it, you might as well have some of the good stuff,” Belbeck says. He now makes nearly all the cheese he and his wife eat. “Good Parmesan costs $18 a pound. I can make two pounds for $8 or $10 and it tastes better. A lot of the Parmesan in the store doesn’t taste like it’s aged at all.”

Sausage Making Tips with John Schumacher of Grill 212 in New Prague

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

As if Mother Nature knew the turn in seasons was upon her, the Labor Day holiday came and brought with it a sudden drop in temperature. For the home chef, this chilly fall weather suggests meals that are heartier than the summer tomato salads and chilled sliced cucumbers made using produce spilling out of our gardens. It means belly-warming meals like steaming soup, chili, or if you’re in the mood for a traditional Czech or German treat, homemade sausage. Chef John Schumacher of Grill 212 in New Prague welcomed the Heavy Table into his kitchen to show us how he prepares his classic Hotel White Sausage — stuffed with pheasant, chicken, and turkey. (The dish is available on the menu as an appetizer for $7 or a sandwich for $10.) Below are a few tips from – cue Ferris Bueller reference – one of the Abe Fromans of Minnesota.

Treat Spices Right

You can really use anything in your sausage. If pleasing your palate means cinnamon or juniper berries, go for it.  Schumacher uses nutmeg, fennel, and dried chives in his Hotel White Sausage. If you are using whole spices, though, he recommends baking them prior to grinding. The oils in whole spices retreat to the center, but you can coax them out and distribute them evenly with heat.

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

Moisture is Key

Throughout the process, Schumacher reminds us of how he salvages moisture. For example, he only uses certain parts of the pheasant – like the thighs, legs, and skin – and doesn’t use the breast. This recipe calls for two parts chicken, one part turkey, and one part pheasant. He doesn’t use as much pheasant because it would be drying. He uses fresh breadcrumbs rather than dried. Schumacher uses whole wheat for this recipe, but you can change it up by replacing whole wheat with rye or sourdough. “A lot of people make the mistake of using dry breadcrumbs, and when they’re cooking the sausage it burns,” he says. He also incorporates heavy cream into the sausage mixture, which not only adds moisture but also acts as a binding agent and distributes the fat evenly.

Pretzel Croissants

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

In Bavaria every baby’s first food is a pretzel, says Stefanie Völlinger. While they gum the thick, smooth, dark brown crust and dense, chewy interior of a Bavarian pretzel, they are getting the first taste of food traditions that go back centuries and that their families and neighbors, for the most part, take very, very seriously.

Okay, that last part is me editorializing, not Stefanie, who is spending the year in Minneapolis as an au pair. Like most Germans I’ve met, she has strong opinions on food, especially baked goods. Hailing from Augsburg, she has particularly strong opinions on pretzels. “We care a lot about our pretzels in Bavaria,” she says. “In other parts of Germany, they don’t care.”

I’ve formed some opinions on pretzels, myself.

My older sister made the most of five years in Germany courtesy of the US Army by educating herself on German wines and German baked goods. During a handful of visits I took advantage of her hard-won knowledge and was happy to be ahead of the curve when everybody started drinking grüner veltliner a few years back. But the food memory that stuck with me, and the one that still makes my sister say, “I need that now,” is the pretzel croissant.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

She discovered it in the bakeries of the first small Bavarian town she lived in, but after a move to another small town on the other side of Frankfurt, her requests for a “Laugencroissant” were met with blank stares that had nothing to do with her accent.

How to Use an Ibrik

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

The pronunciation of the word ibrik (eeh-breek) is one of the biggest reasons why people shy away from using it to brew coffee. Also called a Cezve (jez-veh), the ibrik is designed to brew Turkish-style coffee. You can still find this old-fashioned brewing implement in active service — cafes including Cahoots Coffee Bar and Shish Cafe in St. Paul brew with ibriks. The simplicity of the ibrik reflects the origins of coffee brewing, delivering a cup where sediment is appreciated and the addition of sugar and spice adds to the balance and experience of the cup.

Holy Land Bakery and Deli carries a selection of different size ibriks along with cardamon and other Turkish spices. Although Turkish coffee can be made without the addition of sugar or spices, the sugar adds not only to the taste, but also the texture of the cup, while the cardamon helps to mellow the acidity. Prior to modern roasting techniques and green coffee growing improvements, coffee was an astringent and bitter beverage that needed the tempering influence of other flavors so that it could be enjoyed.

Brewing with an ibrik differs from other brewing methods like French Press and Pour Over Brewer because the water is brought to a boil, while most other brewing methods perform best at temperatures between 195 and 205° F. The ibrik is filled most of the way full with water and fresh, finely ground coffee. Cardamom, sugar, or other spices can also be added. The contents of the ibrik should not be stirred and space should be left near the top to allow for bubbling when boiling. Not stirring is important so that the ibrik may naturally create a crust that will harden and prevent grounds from being transferred to the cup.

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

The grind of the coffee is the finest grind of any other brewing methods, including espresso. Coffee should be ground to the texture of a powder so that it can dissolve and add to the texture of the cup, since there is no filter involved in the brewing process. A coffee to water ratio of 14.5 grams for every eight ounces of water (as suggested by the Specialty Coffee Association of America) should still be used as an initial measurement. As you become more proficient with the brewing method you can use more or less coffee, depending on personal taste.

After the coffee and other ingredients are added to the water, place the ibrik over medium heat and bring to a boil. Grounds will begin to moisten, and when the water begins to boil, remove the ibrik from the heat. Allow it to cool for at least one minute before returning to heat. The ibrik should be brought to a boil at least two more times.

After the third boil, coffee should be slowly poured into preheated demitasse cups. Slowly pouring the coffee will allow the grounds to catch at the rim of the ibrik, preventing most of them from being transferred to the cup. Some grounds will naturally end up in the cup, adding a thicker, grittier texture that is common and appreciated in Turkish coffee.

At Cahoots Coffee in St. Paul, owner Saed Kakish from Jordan creates his own special blend of spices for his Turkish coffee. Experimenting with various coffees, spices, and sugar will allow you to create the cup that you find the most satisfying. It is a brewing method that is far from the low acid taste of a French press or the clean taste of a pour-over brewer. It is a unique brewing process that allows texture, sugar, and spice to be appreciated.

How to Make a Banh Mi Sandwich

The Heavy Table’s James Norton visits with The Perennial Plate‘s Daniel Klein to make a Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwich. Edited by Daniel Klein, filmed by Cully Gallagher, and music by Lucy Michelle and the Velvet Lapelles: “Special Party Time for Everybody.”

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Banh Mi

Duck (or chicken) liver pate

8 duck (12 chicken) livers
2 c milk
salt
1 tbsp grapeseed oil
1 small onion
1 stick of butter (4 oz) or more depending on how livery you want your pate
3 sprigs of rosemary
1 c cream
½ c white wine
salt to taste

  1. Soak the duck livers for several hours or overnight in the milk. Remove from milk and dry thoroughly. Salt heavily.
  2. Heat grapeseed oil in a saute pan until just before smoking. Brown the duck livers: about a minute on each side. Add half a stick of butter and your sprigs of rosemary to the pan; baste the livers for a minute with the butter. Set the livers aside to cool.
  3. In the same pan, salt and saute the onion (diced); don’t be afraid to let it caramelize as you want the sweetness to come through. After there is some nice color on the onion, add the cream and wine to the pan. Let the mixture reduce for 10 minutes on medium heat, or until it has reduced by more than half.
  4. Put the livers in a blender with the cream / onion mixture while it is still warm (but not hot). Blend the ingredients very well, and add the other half stick of butter while blending.
  5. When you think you have blended your mixture enough, do it some more. This recipe can only benefit from abundant smoothness. Salt to taste.
  6. If the liver flavor is too strong for you, add more butter. Adding cold butter can also help to emulsify if your mixture looks broken. If you add a lot more butter, it’s a good idea to add a bit of water or cream as you don’t want the pate to be too stiff.

Sriracha and duck egg aioli

1 duck yolk
1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 tbsp mustard
2 tbsp sriracha (more to taste)
1 ½ c canola or grapeseed oil
salt

  1. Combine all the ingredients except the oil in a food processor. Blend ingredients.
  2. While blending, slowly add the oil in a thin stream. Keep adding oil until the sound of the spinning changes and the ingredients have emulsified. Salt to taste.
  3. If the aioli is too thick, add a bit of water. Also, don’t be afraid to add a little more vinegar, mustard, or sriracha to adjust to your liking.

Duck neck confit

4 duck necks
1 tbsp salt
1 tsp brown sugar
1 clove garlic
1 tsp black peppercorns
¼ clove star anise
3 sprigs of thyme
duck fat to cover necks (1 c)

  1. Blend the dry ingredients together to make a cure. Toss the duck necks in the cure, cover, and let sit overnight.
  2. Wash all of the salt off of the duck necks. Dry completely.
  3. Put the necks in a small pan and cover with duck fat. Cook at 180°F for 4-8 hours or until meat falls off the bone.

Pickled carrots and radish

3 small or one large carrot (julienned)
¼ daikon or one black spanish radish, depending on the season (julienned)
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 ½ c water
1 ½ c rice wine vinegar
½ c honey

  1. Sprinkle the salt and sugar on the julienned carrots and radish. After five minutes, pour off the water. Bringing out the water helps to maintain the crisp texture of the vegetables.
  2. Heat up the water, rice vinegar, and honey.
  3. Pour the warm liquid over the vegetables and store in the fridge. Use liberally when cold.

To assemble bahn mi

pate
confit
aioli
pickles
cilantro
chilis
fish sauce

  1. Spread generous portions of the pate and aioli on either side of a crunchy white baguette (go to an Asian supermarket to find the appropriate bread).
  2. Add a couple heaping spoons of the duck confit or any other meat or vegetable. Some good alternatives are mushroom, chicken breast, sweet potato, barbeque pork, and pork terrine.
  3. Put a generous portion of the pickles on the sandwich, making sure there is a lot of pickle in each bite.
  4. Add twice as much cilantro as you would normally think to add; don’t cut the sprigs, just throw them on.
  5. For our sandwich we added sorrel, chives, and spring onions from the garden, but use what you have. If you like it hot, add thinly sliced green chilis.
  6. Finally, make a mixture of 2 parts fish sauce and 1 part pickling liquid. Pour two spoonfuls over the cilantro.
  7. Eat immediately.

Created in collaboration with The Perennial Plate.

Dobosh Torte

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Cake, for some, has always been a take-it-or-leave-it kind of thing — once you’ve had a few church basement birthday, anniversary, or graduation party sheet cakes, the dessert seems a bit less enticing and a bit more blah. There is one cake, however, that never fails to impress.

At the house of a Serbian family friend, one cake seems always to be present for special occasions. The cake, called a dobosh torte (drum torte), is the stuff of dreams — countless layers of wafer-thin vanilla cake piled high with chocolate mousse in between, all topped with a hard, transparent caramel “glass.” The crunch of the caramel combined with the smooth filling and chewy cake comprise an elegant array of textures, while the layers provide a nicely distributed contrast between rich chocolate and light vanilla. Despite many requests for the recipe, we’ve been told it’s “too much work — have bubba [the grandmother, who produced the glorious cake] make it for you!”

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

So begins a quest for the perfect cake. Numerous recipes exist on the Internet, all loosely based on Hungarian Jozsef Dobos’ original recipe. Our attempt drew from two such recipes: the first, from About.com’s Eastern European Food section, relies on a pound and a half of butter as its main ingredient. The second, from Food & Wine magazine, was a bit more egg-heavy and added lemon zest to the cake batter. The first tasted a bit drier and had a mouthfeel which seemed, if baked long enough, to tend toward biscotti; the Food & Wine recipe was spongy, if a bit overly eggy, and produced a lighter-textured cake. We settled on the butter-laden recipe; the slightly tougher, drier texture stood up well to the smooth mousse.

We then tested two methods for creating the layers: baking each über-thin layer separately, or creating a thicker cake layer which would be sliced thinly when cool. A non-stick springform pan (if you don’t have one and want one on the cheap, Target carries them for around $10) made the job foolproof; we also tested both non-stick cake pans and disposable aluminum cake pans. Though individual layers were incredibly easy to produce without fail, they yielded the tougher crust created when raw batter is exposed directly to heat. Sliced layers were a bit more tender, and the time-saver of baking several layers all at once was a serious perk. However, the slicing option carries with it a caveat — slice one crooked, and you run the risk of a lopsided cake. Try to fix it, and you get a crumbly mess.

The buttercream, in essence, is a no-brainer: a pound of butter, lots of high-quality chocolate, and several egg whites whipped to stiff peaks. This one’s far, far easier with an electric mixer — using a simple hand-crank mixer, the egg whites will not whip in any reasonable amount of time once they’ve been heated and nearly saturated with sugar (trust us — we tried it). If you don’t have access to an electric mixer, add the sugar to the melted chocolate while it’s still hot so it can dissolve — then whip the raw egg whites separately and fold them into the chocolate-butter-sugar mixture. The frosting will still be light, you’ll still get an arm workout, and you will still have the desire to cook again someday.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The caramel glass is the final tricky step. If you’ve made crème caramel before, it’s the same process: Swirl some sugar and water in a pan, wipe the sides with a damp cloth to remove crystallized sugar (which destroys the clear, glass-like effect you’re shooting for), and pour. Parchment paper, laid liberally around the cake layer you’re topping with caramel, minimizes the mess that spilled, hard-as-glass caramel can create. The parchment paper doubles functionally as a moveable surface: Drizzle the caramel onto the cake, then tilt the parchment and cake to distribute the caramel without leaving unsightly spatula-shaped imprints from manual caramel-spreading.

Homemade Egg Rolls

Maja Ingeman / Heavy Table

If you’ve sampled the vast selection of Asian restaurants in the Twin Cities, you’ve probably eaten an egg roll or two — and you’ve probably found a few hits or misses. Different dipping sauces, thinner wrappers, meatier interiors — all of these things make the basic fried, filled wrapper rather versatile. Growing up in a town with hardly more than a greasy spoon diner, Perkins, and a Chinese buffet, I once thought the egg roll status quo was wrapped pork and cabbage, deep-fried and dripping with grease, and left on a hot plate for hours until stale. Not until I grew older did I realize that these sodden rolls with their gelatinous, bright red sauce were (at least in theory) one and the same as the delightfully flavorful, noodle-filled variety my Great-Aunt Lek made for weddings and family reunions.

As you’ve probably found, egg rolls can take many forms, whether they’re given a light fish sauce-flavored dressing or a treatment of sweet and sour. Regardless of the filling, wrapper, or sauce,  one factor is imperative: They must be fresh. Most nights, takeout from a trusted vendor or a quick stop on Eat Street is enough to sate an egg roll fix… but, if you find yourself especially motivated, try making them yourself — you can’t get fresher than that.

What follows are two different recipes: The first approximates the beloved egg rolls of my childhood, made by the Thai woman who introduced spice to an otherwise down-home Scandinavian American family. The other is a simpler, meatier recipe — great if you’re in a pinch for time — from her daughter, representing a fusion of the traditional Thai cuisine on which she was raised and the many variations available elsewhere.

Maja Ingeman / Heavy Table

From left to right: bean thread noodles, soaking the noodles, oyster sauce, cutting the noodles, adding the oyster sauce (for Jean’s Egg Roll recipe), mixing the filling.

Popover Tips from Lucia’s Restaurant

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

Oh, the dilemma that so often stems from baking popovers — those hollowed rolls with a contrasting crunchy, flaky exterior and moist, eggy interior. They are the American relative to the British Yorkshire pudding, an evolution of the latter that disregards the use of beef drippings in the pan (and instead uses butter). The first known published cookbook recipe was in M. N. Henderson’s Practical Cooking, in 1876. Now popovers are most often served for breakfast, cut open and slathered with butter and jam, sprinkled with sugar, or stuffed with cheese.

The name – popover— implies a concept that sounds so simple. One mixes, bakes, and then (like magic) watches as their concoction actually “pops” in the oven. But, upon removing them from heat, they are often times faced with frustrating predicaments. Their popovers have popped over, but unfortunately, upon removal, they have also deflated. Or the interior – intended to be a soft, gooey, scrambled-egg-like substance – is too undercooked to eat.

Tips to avoid these popover pitfalls vary: Use a popover pan instead of a muffin pan, poke them with a knife after baking to dry them out, start with a cold oven, heat up the pan before pouring in the batter. In order to get to the bottom of this popover conundrum, the Heavy Table called on Heather Asbury (front of house manager) and Toni Luschen (pastry chef) from Lucia’s Restaurant in Minneapolis. Lucia’s to-go side has been selling popovers since its opening in 2005, and they’re a popular item on their weekend brunch menu. They go through about 150 every weekend, and sell around 20 per day during the week.

Kate NG Sommers / Heavy Table

The first order of business in this popover tutorial was an introduction to Lucia’s new, smaller popovers, introduced a few months ago. Their size has recently been cut in half – from a round, massive serving that could easily be filling enough for breakfast to a smaller, tube-shaped version comparable in shape and size to a four-pack of butter. The cooking time has decreased from one hour to 20 minutes, and the cost has dropped from $3 to $1.50. (They do have at least two regular customers who come in daily for popovers and have been grandfathered in, receiving two for the price of one).

Adventures in Condensed Milk: How to Make Vietnamese Coffee and Vietnamese Yogurt

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

When the French came to Vietnam, they lugged with them their culinary traditions, among them coffee and  yogurt. Before driving the French out in 1954, the Vietnamese spent 80 years selectively integrating French techniques and ingredients into their cuisine, adopting what appealed, adapting what didn’t. In a tropical climate, condensed milk is easier to obtain and store than fresh milk.

Lori Writer / Heavy TableWhen the Vietnamese came to Minneapolis-St. Paul in the ’70s and ’80s, they brought with them a little Saigon and un petit peu de Paris.

Vietnamese Coffee (cà phê)
Dart into a Vietnamese restaurant along Eat Street in Minneapolis (Hien Deli or Phở Tàu Bay) or University Avenue in St. Paul (Saigon Restaurant & Bakery) to enjoy a Vietnamese filtered coffee (cà phê): black or sweetened (đen or sữa);  hot or iced (nóng or đá). Nothing feels more civilized and contemplative than watching the black coffee drip through the stainless steel phin filter into the sludge of condensed milk pooled at the bottom of your glass. Try as you might, you cannot hurry it, although some Vietnamese restaurants such as Quang Restaurant in Minneapolis and Trung Nam Bakery in St. Paul have tried to short-circuit it by delivering their coffee in a plastic cup, already stirred, iced, and pierced with a straw. Either way, the result will be bold, sweet, and smooth.

To invite a little Saigon into your own kitchen, all you’d need is a stop at one of the many Asian groceries in Minneapolis-St. Paul to outfit yourself with a phin filter, sweetened condensed milk, coffee, and the directions below.

According to Vietnamese coffee exporter Trung Nguyen’s website, Longevity, the preferred Vietnamese brand of sweetened condensed milk, “is made with more milk added for extra creaminess, and as a result, lightens coffee much better than Carnation or other brands available in America. Most brands sold in America now are including vegetable oils or thickeners to save money, but Longevity is 100% whole milk and sugar.”

Lori Writer / Heavy TableThe Heavy Table compared three brands of condensed milk alongside Longevity: two brands commonly available in American supermarkets, Borden’s Eagle and Nestle’s Carnation, and another brand commonly found in Asian Markets, Black & White, and found them nearly identical in ingredients (milk and sugar), calories (130 for 2 tablespoons), and nutritional content. We left a fourth brand, Parrot, behind on the shelves, as it contained soybean oil and other additives.

We were surprised to find the Longevity and Black & White brands chalkier (with Longevity being the chalkiest), while Eagle and Carnation were sweeter and more viscous (with Eagle being the sweetest and most pudding-like). On its own, we preferred Eagle. However, in Vietnamese coffee, it seemed too sweet. Longevity was our favorite in coffee.

Phin filters / brewers will run you $4-$5 at an Asian Grocery: in St. Paul at Shuang Hur or in Minneapolis at United Noodles Oriental Foods or Truong Thanh Grocery Store. The phin filter most commonly available in Minneapolis-St. Paul is made in Taiwan and has a screw-down-style screen (as opposed to the gravity-style screen traditionally found in Vietnam and used in the photos for this story), but both work essentially the same way. The phin has three components: a chamber, a screen or filter, and a cap that cleverly doubles as a saucer to prevent the chamber from pooling water and grounds on your table after the brewing is complete.

The Five Minute Chocolate Cake

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

A recipe appeared in my email inbox from a friend for a “Five Minute Chocolate Cake” (recipe below). Although it caught my attention and certainly deserved a laugh, not much attention was paid to it at time. A few months later, however, and it was there in the back of my mind: Could you really bake a cake in five minutes? Digging up that email, I gave it another look.

The recipe called for the right ingredients — flour, sugar, oil, egg, cocoa, milk — but the baking method was unconventional: “microwave on high (1000 watts) for 3 minutes.” Hmmm…

Being a fan of the show MythBusters, it only seemed natural that I take their lead and proceed to dig deeper.

Myth: You can prep and bake an edible chocolate cake in the microwave, in five minutes.

Plan of attack:
1. Research cake ingredients
2. Research baking methods — conventional oven vs. microwave oven
3. Experiment in ‘baking’ the cake

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Cake Ingredients:

Each ingredient in cake baking serves an important purpose, adding structure, richness, volume, color, flavor, and moisture to the resulting cake. While the five minute chocolate cake recipe contains the ingredients we would expect, one important item to note is the method in which these ingredients are incorporated into the batter.

In the one-bowl method, which this recipe calls for, the ingredients are all added together and then mixed to incorporate air and create pockets. (A more traditional method of doing this is to first cream the fat and sugar, creating tiny air bubbles that improve texture of the cake, then adding eggs followed by the liquid and flour, alternately). Given the time constraints and the size of the mixing container (mug) of the recipe, it would be expected that not a lot of air is incorporated during this process; therefore it would be expected that while the cake may rise (due to the leavening agents of the egg and the steam from cooking at a high heat), the texture will be off.

Baking Methods:
The conventional oven cooks food from the outside in, surrounding it in warm air that heats as the oven heats up. The major difference between this and microwave cooking (when it comes to baking a cake) is that the microwave oven cooks evenly and the air inside the microwave does not heat as it cooks (only the food and container get hot). The result creates major differences in our cake as we cook it in the microwave oven.

The first, that the food cooks evenly, means that we can actually cook the cake through in the small amount of time (3 minutes). If we tried to shorten the time with a conventional oven, the outside would be baked, but the inside would be a soggy mess. The second difference, that the air surrounding the food does not heat in a microwave oven, is the major difference in the crust that forms on the cake. While we don’t usually look for a crisp topping on a cake, we do usually observe a light caramelization of the sugars and a dry feel to the top as the moisture evaporates.

Experiment in “baking” the cake:
The first experiment of “baking” the cake was done exactly according to the recipe (below) received via email. There was no indication of the type of flour and it literally read to dump in, first, the dry ingredients, mix, then the eggs, mix, and then the rest of the ingredients. It did say to mix well, but it did not give an indication of time or how well. Given this, after the dry and wet were incorporated, I discontinued mixing. In addition, I used a standard (albeit quite large) mug with high sides for the container.

The result was, in fact, edible… depending on your definition of edible*. It tasted chocolatey and had a texture that resembled cake, but it was by no means delicious. Another result to note is that the cake has absolutely no shelf life. Eat it immediately or don’t eat it at all.

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Taking what I had learned in the research phase I went about the recipe a third time with a different approach (pictured above). The constants were to maintain the ease of clean up (one-bowl method), the convenience of time (5 minutes), and the ingredient list. To do this, first the egg was added to the mug and whisked thoroughly with a fork. Next, the sugar was added and thoroughly whisked until light in color. The following were then added: oil, vanilla, and milk, and then last came the flour and cocoa. By doing this, I was attempting to aerate the batter with the thorough whisking of the egg and sugar before adding the other ingredients. The other change was in the mug chosen for the task — this time it was a wider, low-sided mug for baking the cake.