This week on Milk Street Radio, Al Roker talks about on-set disasters at the “Today” show, explains why sandwiches are his go-to conversation starter and more. | Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street

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Episode 423
July 16, 2021
Originally aired on July 31, 2020

Al Roker Cooks Up a Storm!

Al Roker Cooks Up a Storm!

Al Roker cooks for Daniel Boulud, talks about on-set disasters at the “Today” show, explains why sandwiches are his go-to conversation starter and wonders why Goofy wears pants but Pluto doesn’t. Plus, we dive into the world of pies and baking competitions with Chris Taylor and Paul Arguin; we get a lesson in the language of leftovers from Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette; and we present a recipe for a sweet and tangy Austrian Plum Cake. (Originally aired July 31, 2020.)

This episode is brought to you by Master Class and Moink Box.

Questions in this Episode:

“I love BLTs. They are the ultimate summer sandwich, and I look forward to them all year long. Do you have any tips for how to make a BLT the Milk Street way?”

“I don’t want to buy yet another appliance—the food processor. Most recipes that call for one are easy for me to adapt. Some are not. Quick guidance in recipes would be welcome.”

“I'm getting better at cooking Puerto Rican food, and using sofrito, but running out of ideas to vary it up. Can you give me other ideas on how to use sofrito?”

“I have been experimenting with challah but I can’t seem to get it to fluff up like the ones I buy in the bakery. What is the trick?”

“My question is about quick breads. I have inconsistent results when I make things like banana bread and pumpkin bread. Sometimes they turn out great and other times they don’t seem to rise well and are still underdone. I can’t figure out if it is my oven, the pan or something I do when I make the recipe.”

Milk Street Radio — Al Roker

Christopher Kimball: This is Milk Street Radio for PRX. I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Today we're chatting with weather anchor Al Roker about his new memoir, You Look So Much Better in Person. We dig into deep philosophical questions such as Why does Goofy wear pants, but Pluto doesn't. We also discuss onset disasters of the Today show and his mom's unique sense of humor.

Al Roker: She would kind of sing operatic style but make up a language and, and my friends all thought she was speaking some foreign language and singing it. You know, at the time, I thought it was highly embarrassing, but, you know, I've kind of come to appreciate it.

CK: Also coming up we learned about words used to describe leftovers, and we present a recipe for sweet and tangy Austrian plum cake. But first, it's my interview with Chris Taylor and Paul Arguin, who have competed in hundreds of baking competitions. Their book is called The New Pie. Chris and Paul, welcome to Milk Street.

Both: Thank you very much. Hello

CK: Quote “their first long distance date was baking the same cake the Scarlet Emperors from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s, The Cake Bible over the phone. That sounds kind of like a quarantine date to me. But how did you come up with that?

Paul Arguin: Oh, this is Paul. So that was actually it was my idea. So, after Chris and I were introduced, he was still living in Pittsburgh. I was living in Atlanta. And we were talking about a variety of things. We realized we both had a very extensive cookbook collection. That was the one cookbook The Cake Bible by Rose that we had in common. So, I threw it to Chris and said, well, let's have our first date. You go ahead and pick something. And I was picturing maybe a pound cake or something simple. He picks of course the Scarlet Empress. And so yeah, we spent most of Saturday whipping eggs and and making our two separate cakes. But yeah, we got to get to know each other over the phone eventually met in real life and got married.

CK: Okay, onto the baking. American pie crust. I'm highly opinionated about this topic, as are you. You use vinegar and baking powder in your crusts. The baking powder, you say gives it a slightly lighter texture. What does the vinegar do?

Chris Taylor: I think it makes it a little more tender. And also, if you leave it out, the traditional American pie dough will start to turn gray if you don't freeze it within about a day or two. But when you add the vinegar, it keeps a more appetizing color for up to four or five days.

CK: Well, my apple pie doesn't tend to sit around that long (exactly) or your banana cream pie. Yeah, this is one thing I love about your recipe. You cut in the fat a little more than most people do. It should have the texture of cornmeal. And I know a lot of books talk about big pea sized pieces of butter. Can you just talk about cutting fat into flour?

PA: Absolutely. If a person that maybe doesn't cook as many pie doughs as us were to look at our technique, they would say you're going to make a mealy pie dough, because you're cutting in the flour to fine and we have never found that to be the case. Because we use the food processor, I think we're able to have a little more control over it. It's easier to roll out. I think having the big chunks of butter in it might be a little flakier, but there's so much of a risk of having large pockets of unincorporated butter that can melt out in the oven you end up with holes, you can end up with grease spots, and we also find that even though our crust is tender and flaky, it's also sturdy, you can pull a piece of pie out you won't have to worry about it breaking depending on the weight of the filling, you can pick it up and eat it with your hands. It's not it's still tender and flaky but it's not delicate and weak.

CK: Okay, well you got my vote. Thai iced tea cream pie with and here's the kicker whipped cream ice cubes is this gelatin and whipped cream is that all it is or there's some other secret to it.

CT: It's not gelatin, what we use because when we've done these contests, especially with the cream pies, you really want to make sure that everything looks its best and so we really dove through a lot of the different ways to make stabilized whipped cream. Whipped cream that will stay piped and in shape for several hours. What we use is a product from the cake decorating world. It's piping gel, and a lot of people aren't familiar with it if you ever buy an ice cream cake somewhere and it has sort of this clear colored icing on top made to look like water or a golf course that's colored piping gel. So, it's a it's a mixture. It's a modified starch corn syrup product doesn't really have any flavor and you don't use a ton of it. So, the whipped cream ice cubes on the Thai iced tea pie. We take the whipped cream and piping gel whip it up to stiff peaks. Put it in loaf pan, freeze it. After it's frozen, we take it out, cut the whipped cream into cubes, pile it up on the pie, and put it back in the fridge. Everything stays refrigerator temperature. But the ice cubes made out of whipped cream hold their shape. And so even though they look frozen, or some people actually think they're marshmallows, when you cut into it, it's just like cutting through delicious, whipped cream.

CK: Do you ever get the feeling once, I mean, you have to keep coming up with more interesting versions of cakes and pies. Is there ever a moment you go like okay, we just like it's a step too far.

PA: I have to say we we have pushed the limit, I think, and I think that's one of the fun things about this book. Because I don't think some of these flavors have ever been seen before in pie. They're certainly not new flavors. I mean, we have a bubblegum pie. I mean, bubblegum has been around for a century, but you know, not in a pie. I think pie is seen by a lot of people as a very traditional dessert that should be made the way pies always been made. And our thought is is pie I don't think has really yet come into its own. I think anything you could do with a cake or do with a cookie or do with any other dessert you can do with pie.

CK: You guys should found the Pie Promotion Board. I think you should do a natonal tour. Well, you know, that's an interesting point you make and you're absolutely right. People don't fool around with pies. They fool around cakes every day and and cookies. But they don't. Well, you do but very few other people do it. You do cocktail pies, the Bellini that look particularly appealing.

PA: Oh, and that's delicious. And we find inspiration everywhere, especially when we would go out to restaurants. You try a new cocktail, and you think wow, these flavors. I haven't had these two things together before. This might work great in a pie. And so, we're constantly we maintain these little notebooks of pie ideas.

CK: Unbeatable a beet pie, a grated beet pie. I don't know, tell me why I should rush out and make an unbeatable pie.

PA: Yeah, I mean, it's a vegetable, but you have no problem making a carrot cake out of the vegetable, a sweet potato pie out of a vegetable. So, beets, beets another one. And it goes so well with with goat cheese with a little bit of spices. It really works. So, it's it's in the same family as your pumpkin pie and your your sweet potato pie. But with that rich, earthy flavor, and I have to say that beautiful beet color really makes for a spectacular pie.

CK: How are pies or cakes judged at state fairs?

CT: Every competition we've done has been different. Actually the National Pie Championship has a 90-point scale. So, I think theirs is the most comprehensive. So, they have things like what's called a pre slice score. So, what the pie looks like before it sliced a post slice score, which is what the slice looks like after it's removed. You know, is it oozing? Is it dripping? Is it runny? And then they judge on the crust? they judge on the filling. They judge on aftertaste, and they judge on creativity and originality.

CK: So, if you guys go out to dinner, would you always get pie for dessert? I mean, where does pie exist on your food pyramid of desserts at the top?

PA: I love pie.

CK: Well, I wouldn't I didn't think you're going to say you hate pie. I just wondered. I mean since you do it as almost as a living. Are there other desserts that are things you just might order if you go out to dinner?

CT: I think out in restaurants pie really isn't given the attention it's deserved. A lot of times it's the same key lime pie. Pecan pie. You know, they're forgettable in a lot of ways, unfortunately. And Paul and I have different flavor profiles that we enjoy. Paul really likes things like lemon, ginger, brown butter. I tend to like some things that are sweeter I joke that I come up with baking ideas like an eight-year-old who's given $20 to shop at a gas station. So, it's we’ll usually pick something that will both enjoy or or flavor combination it sounds new. And so, pie is near the top but ice cream for me is really right there next to it. I like a nice bowl of cold perfectly made ice cream.

CK: Chris and Paul, thank you so much. It's been just a lot of fun having you on Milk Street. Thank you.

PA: Thank you.

CT: Thank you.

CK: That was Chris Taylor and Paul Arguin, authors of The New Pie: Modern Techniques, the Classic American Dessert. Right now, my co-host Sara Moulton and I will be answering your cooking questions. Sara is the author of Home Cooking 101, also star of Sara's Weeknight Meals on public television. So, Sara, before we get started, you mentioned to me that you have this fairly rigid schedule at night where you have a glass of wine and prep dinner, and the glass wind has to last. Do you ever do like the French aperitif, or do you stick to just a glass of wine?

Sara Moulton: Chris I am so boring. It's just straight wine. You know, occasionally I'll step out and have you know, the other night I got takeout and they delivered a Margarita. That was really exciting. But no, I love my wine. It just so simple

CK: Wait a minute you ordered a takeout Margarita, really?

SM: Yeah. It was fantastic. I got a mango jalapeno. And I have to say really did clean out my nasal passages. Yeah, it was restorative in so many ways.

CK: I’ve never had a takeout cocktail. I have to give that a shot. I wish I would have one now. Okay, onto the first call. Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: Hi, my name is Dustin.

CK: Where are you calling from?

Caller: Burbank, California.

CK: How can we help you?

Caller: So, I had a question about BLT’s. To me, it is the ultimate summer food. Like I've done a few things in the past to play with different kinds of sauces that go on it. But I haven't gotten too creative, or it might just be the ultimate sandwich, just as it is. But I didn't know if you guys had, had a Milk Street twist for the BLT.

CK: Well, I can give you lots of suggestions but I think I agree with your latter comment. It's like saying, how can I improve apple pie? And my answer would be you can't I would think a perfectly made BLT cannot be improved but if you want a little change of pace, here's a few ideas. Sumac you know, they're little red berries that are sort of sour. It's a spice they go great on tomatoes or smoked paprika. You know, from Spain is really nice on the tomatoes. The greens, some arugula is, the mayo, you know, a little harissa thrown into mayo. (Oh, yeah) is interesting. That'd be good. Or Sichuan peppercorns, something? I wouldn't mess with a bread. You know, I think it has to be white bread. One thing I did have though, in northern Israel was a sort of a pita pocket with a fried piece of halloumi cheese in it with some peppers and other things. A thin slice of halloumi quickly sauteed might be a nice addition to that. I don't know I'll stand on tradition. If you have perfect ingredients. Don't mess with it, Sara?

SM: Well, I basically agree. But I have a few questions and also a thought, do you salt the tomatoes?

Caller: Oh, I kind of as I'm assembling the sandwich, I'll just usually hit it with a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

SM: Well, let me make a suggestion. About 20 minutes ahead of time slice your tomatoes, they should be about a third of an inch thick. And sprinkle them lightly on both sides with kosher salt and put them on a rack or put them on paper towels. But let them just be salted for that 20 minute and then pat them dry and proceed with the sandwich. If you only did that you will be astonished. What happens is the tomatoes will just taste like so much more tomato-y. Another thing that I like to do, I'll make a basil mayonnaise by taking some mayonnaise, either homemade or, you know, I like Helman’s and a little bit of lemon because Hellman's is sweet. And I'll throw it in a blender with a ton of basil leaves I’ll let it you know puree and you actually really bruise the basil and really get a ton of flavor out of it. And I love that mayonnaise in a BLT.

Caller: Oh yeah,

CK: Good idea.

SM: The other thing is I love chipotle mayo also or you know, start with garlic aioli, which is garlic mayonnaise, and then put in some chipotle. Those are a few thoughts.

Caller: Those are good. I will definitely especially the basil mayo. I've never heard of that before. So, I will definitely do that. Do you have any tips for buying tomatoes?

SM: Yeah, smell them. Smell the stem end and it should smell like tomato.

Caller: Well, great. Those are some great ideas. I'm looking forward to it.

CK: Well, you just reminded me BLT’s absolutely stunningly wonderful

SM: Perfect. It's perfect. Yeah,

CK: Justin. Thanks.

Caller: Yeah. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. And you guys, stay safe and stay healthy.

SM: Thank you. You too.

CK: Thanks.

SM: Hi. Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: Hi, this is Dawn Madsen.

SM: Where are you calling from?

Caller: Just outside of Washington DC in Virginia.

SM: How can we help you today?

Caller: I'm not one to own every appliance on the market and so, I don't own a food processor. Most recipes that you put together that call for one is easy to adapt, but some are not. And I was wondering if you will ever go into the realm of providing quick guidance on recipes to do a work around so that we don't have to have a food processor.

SM: I'm going to tell you why I love mine. I have both it and a blender. I use the blender for pureeing soups and things. So, I get a really nice creamy texture, I would never use the food processor for that, because it's just not as good. But here's what I use it for. I love figuring out new ways to get vegetables on the table during the workweek. And one of the things I use frequently three or four times a week is the grating disc on my food processor. So, you know, you peel the carrot, or parsnip or, you know, whatever root vegetable it is, beets I do, and then put it through the feed tube and boom, you know, one minute, 30 seconds later, you've got all these grated vegetables that you throw into a skillet, and they only take three or four minutes to cook from start to finish. And then you just add flavorings, like acid or nuts or spices or whatever, plus, which you know, at the end of a bad day, or let's say the kids have been misbehaving, it's sort of a good way to get your aggressions out. So that's my real case for having a food processor. Now, Chris, are you worried about me now?

CK: I'm a little worried about you. I mean, you need a cocktail. look I'd like I think grating vegetables so that you can cook them in a skillet. I mean, that's a very particular thing which I've never done.

SM: You should try it.

CK: But if you didn't do that, let's set that aside because that's very Sara Moulton. You can live without a food processor. The one thing I find it's great for is making pie pastry and making pizza dough. I make doughs in it. I find that (I agree with Chris). incredibly fast and easy. I don't use all those attachments. I can't even find them. There's somewhere in the basement. So, I don't know about that. I love using a knife is so much pleasure and using a knife, you know, so I'm not going to put an onion you know, in a food processor. Pesto’s yeah, that's another great use. But you know, you can do in a mortar and pestle, it takes more time, but it tastes better. So yes, your question is, could we adapt recipes? Yeah, we could. And I think you can live without one, a standing mixer for me would be more essential then a blender but if I had to get rid of one thing, it would be the food processor. And it's great for certain stuff. But you could live without it. I think, Sara, I mean, other than the vegetables do you use it a lot for other things?

SM: I use it for pizza dough, and I make pizza a fair amount. So yeah, I use it for that, too.

CK: I just think the older you get in the kitchen, I think the I mean, I love gadgets, but I find I am using fewer things. You know, I just like things that last that are well made. And I like the simplicity of it. I also like the physical labor of it a little bit. There's a little Zen in there somewhere. So free yourself from the food processor. I don't know, I'm with you on this one. Definitely with you.

Caller: Yeah, and any workarounds that you can provide would be great. I have found that knives and pastry cutters go a long way. But every now and then I'll be stymied. And I'll think well, I guess I just can't do that recipe.

CK: It's a good point. And I'll actually talk to the kitchen about it at Milk Street, it's something we need to think about. So, Dawn thank you. Pleasure speaking with you

SM: Thank you Dawn

Caller: Thank you. Bye, bye.

CK: Bye. This is Milk Street Radio, give us a call anytime the number is 855-426-9843. That's 855-426-9843 or email us at questions at Milk Street Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: Hi, this is Manila from Wilmington, North Carolina.

CK: How can we help you?

CK: Well, a few weeks ago, I heard it mentioned something about sofrito which is close to my Puerto Rican roots. I was always taught to make it with onions and red peppers, garlic, capers, or whatever other olives was in the house. And occasionally cilantro, tomato paste and one or two Goya seasoning packets. And then certainly I would sauté it well before adding it to the rice or the meat that I was working with that day. But I often felt that the flavor sometimes got lost in the end. (Right) Then you had to add something on the show about adding it to the food after the food was cooked, which I hadn't heard before. And I was wondering what other ingredients I could add to the sofrito to change it up for my routine.

CK: When I talked about it on the show, I was talking about a trip I took to Mexico City. And I cooked with a guy Eduardo Garcia, who he makes these great beans. And at the end of two and a half hours of cooking he threw together a sofrito in 10 minutes. Chilies, tomatoes, peppers, onions. He threw that into the beans five minutes before serving. And I asked you know, why didn't you put it at the beginning like everybody else does. And he said why would you do that? Because all the fresh flavors will be cooked out over two hours. So, it was one of those, you know, slap my forehead moments. Why didn't I think of that, so I now think maybe put half the so free to win at the beginning. But leave some for the end. You could use bell peppers. You know you could use celery you can use chilies of course. Any kind of pepper, tomatoes. As you said garlic and onion, scallions. You know anything that has a strong fresh flavor. He taught me something that was extremely, you know, valuable. I mean, Sara, what do you think?

SM: Well, I just got to ask a question, because that makes complete sense. But if you add it later, do you add it raw or have you sauteed it and then added it?

CK: You would cook it like you would in French cooking or any other kind of cooking, right?

SM: I think it's a great trick, you know

CK: Would you do it though in a French stew, for example, would you hold out some of it to the end?

SM: Well, in a French stew, I think we'd be talking about a mirepoix right, right. Sure. I mean, although, yeah, I'd rather add other things at the end. You know, maybe more garlic, for example. Yeah, I sure what I think it's brilliant.

CK: Now, you mentioned adding capers. What else do you add to your sofrito?

Caller: Well, it really just depends if my cilantro is growing. If I have any frozen, it's grows so quickly. green peppers, red peppers, sometimes yellow peppers.

SM: Well, you know, you might want to try aji dulce it's a chili that just doesn't have a ton of heat, but it has some of the same flavor that you get from a habanero or a scotch bonnet.

CK: Our food editor Matt also makes tons of sofrito on a Sunday, like a quart of it or something. And he freezes it in one cup batches. So, you can just throw it in at the last minute.

Caller: I used to do that too but I felt that the fresh tasted better. So, I actually stopped doing that. And what I do now is I cut up all the vegetables. I freeze them in little glad bags. I feel that that works better. I don't know.

CK: That would be a better idea. Yeah, I'll have to tell my food editor he doesn't know what he's doing. Now, I've learned from Eduardo about adding in at the end, and I've learned from you to just freeze the kind of vegetables and I'm just going back to Cooking School, I guess. Right, Sara?

Caller: Well, I'm glad I was doing something right.

SM: You know what, you never stop learning. That's true for all three of us here.

CK: Manila thank you.

Caller: I know thank you so much.

CK: You're listening to Milk Street Radio. Up next, we'll hear from weather anchor and author Al Roker that in more after the break.

Support for Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio comes from Opinell knives made in the French Alps in 1890. Opinell pocketknives and kitchen tools for people who love good food, good design and good adventures. Learn more at Opinell dash

CK: I'm Christopher Kimball and you're listening to Milk Street Radio. Right now. It's my interview with Today's show co-host Al Roker. He's the author of 13 books, including his new memoir, You Look So Much Better in Person. Al, welcome to Milk Street.

Al Roker: Well, it's good to be here, Chris, good to chat with you.

CK: You were born in Queens; about the same time, I was I won't mention the year. And you said from my mother, I got a slightly twisted sense of humor. And from my dad, I got the work ethic. What was her sense of humor like?

AR: Well, it was it was a little biting. It was a little sarcastic. You know, like, for example, she thought it was funny. She would kind of sing operatic style but make up a language and and my friends all thought she was speaking some foreign language and singing it. You know, at the time, I thought it was highly embarrassing. But, you know, I've kind of come to appreciate it.

CK: Your dad there is a great story in your book where you're going to take the driving test.

AR: Yeah, you know, it was one of those things where we were literally going for the road test. And he said, you know, I don't really think you're that good. It's your broken U turn. Let me just see you doing a broken U turn. And you know, I kind of got halfway through the U turn. And, you know, instead of stepping on the brake, I stepped on the gas and my dad very quietly, just said brake, brake, brake. As we go over the curb, we run through our neighbor's prized Rhododendron bush brake, and he never raised his voice really. And I finally kind of snapped out of it and stepped on the brake. And he just goes, goes, alright, again. So, we back off the lawn over the bush. And then he's okay, leave a note for Mr. Verain. And we leave a note. And then I went and took my driver's test, and by the way passed, and then afterwards, you know, the next day, patched up his lawn, went to the nursery, bought a new bush planted it and apologized.

CK: One of your themes in your blog, is, don't give up your first job as a weatherman, you say in the book. I wouldn't stop until (a) I got the job or (b) when they issued a restraining order against me, since you were relentless. And as you said, you got the job, not because you were necessarily the best candidate, but you just hustled more.

AR: I hustled more and like in the case of my first job doing weekend weather, I was cheap. I was a college student, you know, the news director said I can afford a drunk or a college student. And I was making $10 a newscast. So yeah, but but I kept calling him kept calling him and then and he turned out to be a terrific mentor.

CK: You've done a lot of interesting segments over the years. But I particularly love the Daniel Boulud episode where you go work in the restaurant one night, and someone comes up to you and says see that expletive entree right there. If you don't get that out, now, I'm going to stab you in the eye with a boning knife.

Episode 423 RR

CK: Let's talk about when things go wrong. I did a segment on the Today Show years ago, I almost burned down the set. I remember. I don't know if you remember that one. But but you did that you do remember? Oh, that's great. Thanks, Alex. Terrific. It's a famous clip. Sorry. You went one where you're supposed to pull out the finished dish from the oven and there was nothing there except a rancid piece of meat from Friday before or something.

AR: Yeah, they, you know, yeah, it's those secret that we do what they call the swap, you know, the chef that comes in you they create a finished version so that when the chef is done prepping it, it's like Tada, you reach into the oven and magically, it appears as a finished dish. Well, you know, sometimes we're just rushing so much, and there's zipping things on and off, they had not put the finished version in. And in fact, had not even looked in the oven from the Friday show. And it was a chicken dish. And, and I go, and I you know, you're keeping eye contact with the camera. So, you kind of open the door, you know where where everything is, and you just reach in and pull it out tada! Yikes what the hell is that?

CK: You also somewhat like me don't like empty conversation, when you have to go to large gatherings and parties. You give some advice you say, simply stand at the edge of the nearest group of people

AR: Well, you know, here's the thing, most people don't really care what you have to say. And so, I find if you stand on the periphery, every now and then just fire in a question. And then they start talking. And then you back away backwards though so people still see you. But you are slowly receding in the distance, but they can still see you so they they get the impression you're still there.

CK: But you said you also said in the book that you said if all else fails, simply resort to this gem. What's your favorite sandwich?

AR: Yeah, you know, because everybody's got one right. And that's that, you know, that's one of those things that I I don't care who you are. I don't know how high and mighty you are. Everybody likes a sandwich. And two of my guilty pleasures are a grilled cheese on white bread and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. (Yeah) And not that artisanal peanut butter. You know we're talking Skippy or Jiff you know and some Smuckers strawberry jam. And I'm good.

CK: You also are very you've written books about it. You take fatherhood and family very seriously, your own parents died when they were on the young side, I think. The song We Will Raise Him Up means a lot to you. Could you just talk about that?

AR: Yeah, you know, it's it's usually sung at Easter. And it was one of my mother's favorite hymns and at church, you know, when we would sing it, she would, you know, everybody raises their their arms up. And that's one of my enduring images of my mother. And, you know, it's, it's, I've gotten better this past Easter, I did not cry actually but it's, and I've been thinking about them a lot lately. And as you mentioned, my dad died when he was 69. I'm going to be 66 this August. And I realized, at this point, my dad had really actually only three father's days left, which he did not know. And so, I've realized what I want, are just more father's days, yeah, when you're 50. You kind of think, oh, my life is half over. And then when you hit 60, and above you realize, anyway, it's way more than half over.

CK: That’s True. You're right. 50. You go like, I got time, man and you hit 60 going, well, maybe, maybe,

AR: Maybe not so much. Because what are the odds that you're going to hit that Smuckers jar? I don't know you know

CK: You recently spoke about being black in America. And you said I don't breathe a sigh of relief until Nick your son walks in that door.

AR: Yeah, yeah, he's yeah, he's almost 18. And he's a big kid. He's got some, some special needs, but he's a terrific athlete and just all-around funny kid. But I don't know when he takes the subway to high school. And you don't know what's going to happen. You know could somebody bump him? Could he somebody take something he does the wrong way. Some of his friends decide to jump a turnstile just for fun. Well, you know, he's one of only a few black kids in the school. Well, yeah, he's probably going to be the one singled out.

CK: So, a few years ago, you did some research about where your family is from, and you ended up going to Dakar in Senegal. What was it like being there?

AR: You know, I saw I saw people who look like my dad and my grandmother. I saw a population of people that talked a lot of trash, talk a lot of smack. Loved a good laugh. And these are all things I saw in my my father's family. I can't even describe the feeling it's it's it's like inner goosebumps. You know and standing in front of a tree. Not necessarily the very village that my ancestors came from, but the the region, and you're standing at a tree that's like 900 years old. And it's the communal meeting place of that village. It really, it touches you.

CK: You also ask some deep philosophical questions in your book. Like, I like this one. Why does Goofy wear pants and drive a car and Pluto gets terrorized by Chip and Dale like, I never thought. Why is one of them wearing pants and one isn't?

AR: Right? Yeah, these were deep, meaningful questions My friends and I would discuss in high school. It's shocking to me that we'd never went to prom. Or Woody Woodpecker. Why what in some cartoons, he was literally the size of a bird. In others he was the size of a small boy, it never made sense, like, make up your mind. Why did cartoon characters wear gloves?

CK: Why does Yogi Bear wear a tie and no shirt?

AR: I know

CK: The problem with his book is now you've implanted these questions in me, and I'm just not going to sleep well anymore. That's all there is to it. You said in your book, that you're okay with being number two. In fact, in some ways, you enjoy that role. Could you explain what that means?

AR: Well, you know, I always remember I interviewed Ed McMahon a number of times, and people who don't remember, he was the sidekick to still I think that the king of late night was Johnny Carson. And, you know, he was he was the second banana. He was the sidekick. And and and Willard was kind of like second banana on the Today Show. The weather person is not one of the main people but he said, look, you know, you can make a very good living being the second banana. And in fact, in some ways, it's easier because you don't have to carry the burden. But you can still be yourself. You can still do terrific work. And so many people, I think get caught up in being number one, being the top dog. You don't have to be, you can still do wonderful things. And in fact, in some ways, do more things because you don't have people watching your every move.

CK: Yeah, and your career probably is longer and longer lasting, as well. Right?

AR: Yeah. Yeah. And so, I'm quite fine with that.

CK: Al Roker. It's been an honor, a privilege and it's also been just a lot of fun having you on the show. Thank you so much.

AR: Oh, Chris. It's always a good time when I'm with you. Thanks so much.

CK: That was Al Roker. His new memoir is called You Look So Much Better in Person, True Stories of Absurdity and Success. I first met Al Roker on the set of the today show when we both did a Passover cooking segment. He struck me at the time as an avuncular hale fellow well met type guy. But over time, I realized that Al's also deeply thoughtful, he's driven, he's hardworking, and also philosophical. He wonders why cartoon characters wear gloves. And then in the next moment, he remembers traveling to Senegal, in search of his ancestors. Al we hardly know you. It's time to chat with Catherine Smart about this week's recipe. Austrian plum cake. Catherine, how are you?

Catherine Smart: I'm fine thanks. How are you?

CK: I'm good. You know, almost every summer we go to Salzburg, because we have family there. My wife does her mother actually grew up in Salzburg. There's a little cafe. It's not far from the Hotel Sacher right on the river. And it has amazing desserts. I mean, 10 layers, 15 layers these tortes are just absolutely amazing. And they also have some more rustic cakes, like a plum cake, for example. And these are made often with rye flour, or sort of darker flowers, there yeasty cakes, sometimes a little bit better for wintry days. But we thought we take that concept of a plum cake, simplify it and bring it back to Milk Street. So how did we get started?

CS: So, at Milk Street, we wanted to make this even simpler. And so instead of using a yeasted cake, like you had talked about Chris, we decided to use baking powder as the leavener. And we also increased the butter and used what's called the reverse creaming method. So rather than creaming your butter and sugar together, you actually coat the flour in the butter. And that keeps gluten from developing to keep your cake nice and tender.

CK: So, then you just add the rest of the ingredients, the eggs, etc. to the bowl?

CS: That's right. So, it's a pretty standard cake from there. You do want to make sure that you're using softened butter because cold butter won't blend well into those ingredients, which is really important when you're doing reverse creaming. And then of course, you move on to the plums.

CK: So, with the plums, am I going to have to be like a pastry chef to do this, or can I just throw them in the batter or what?

CS: You don't need to be a pastry chef, we're not that fussy Chris, you're going to use about a pound and a quarter of plums. And you're going to just quarter them and then arrange them on the batter in concentric circles. But you could use red plums or black plums. Just make sure that they're ripe but not mushy, because you don't want the cake to be too wet.

CK: So, you're saying that I could do this?

CS: you could do this.

CK: So, if I can do it, anybody can do it. So, this bakes in what a moderate oven for what 45 minutes or something?

CS: That's right Chris. So, it bakes at 325 for over an hour and you just want to make sure the batter is fully cooked so when you test that the batter is done you want to make sure there's no wet crumbs that are clinging to the toothpick.

CK: Yeah, we did find that because the top layer has a lot of plums in it. It sort of shields the middle of the cake from the heat of the oven. So, you really have to thoroughly cook this otherwise the insides going to be undercooked right?

CS: That's right.

CK: Catherine, thank you very much. Austrian plum cake brought home to Milk Street. It's no longer a winter dessert. It's actually great for summer. Thank you.

CS: Thanks, Chris. For the recipe for Austrian plum cake go to 177 Milk Street .com

CK: This is Milk Street radio. Coming up Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette give us a language lesson on the topic of leftovers. We'll be right back.

Support for Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio comes from Instant Pot, the pressure cooker that steams sauté’s slow cooks, bakes cakes and so much more. Definitely not your grandmother's pressure cooker. Go to instant for details.

CK: This is Milk Street Radio I'm Christopher Kimball. Next up Sara Moulton and I will be answering a few more of your cooking questions.

SM: Welcome to Milk Street who is calling?

Caller: Alison Case

SM: How can we help you today?

Caller: I have been making challahs. But my challahs have really not been coming out very fluffy. They've been pretty dense. They're just not as fluffy as the ones I buy in the bakery.

SM: Let's start with whose recipe are you using?

Caller: Well, it actually bounced around a little bit, I was using the New York Times recipe. But it didn't have a three rise. There wasn't three rises for the dough. And now I've been using a three-rise challah and that has definitely helped the situation.

SM: Now, does this recipe that you're using have you weigh or measure the flour?

Caller: Measure

SM: Yeah, that could be the problem right there. I would find a recipe that has weights. What kind of flour are you using?

Caller: So, I've actually been using the King Arthur flour

SM: All-purpose or bread flour?

Caller: You know, I was using all-purpose because I didn't realize there was a bread flour. I'm a novice if you can't tell

SM: Don’t worry about it

Caller: Then I realized there's a bread flour and I was thinking maybe I should switch to the bread flour since I am making bread.

SM: And then my last question is what kind of yeast are you using? I

Caller: I am using active yeast.

SM: And you put a little pinch of sugar in there to see if it's alive before you do anything else with it.

Caller: Yes Exactly.

SM: You might want to try again King Arthur flour they have something called Safe Instant yeast. The thing about instant yeast is it's more alive. And now I really need to let Chris have a second. I'm sure he's got all sorts of ideas.

CK: I have a couple questions. First of all, if I have a problem with a recipe, I often go to Serious Eats. I really liked their website, and I know they do a challah recipe there. So, if you're using all-purpose, not bread flour, the ratio of liquid to flour will be wrong. Because different types of flour absorb liquid differently. If the recipe was designed for bread flour and you used all-purpose that's going to mess up your amount of liquid. How do you know when the dough has risen properly?

Caller: You know, I don't know, the recipe that I started using had me put it in the oven for the first rise. And then don't turn the oven on and said just put some boiling water underneath it and then let it sit there for an hour. I actually ended up falling asleep. So, I didn't get it till the next morning. So that was a different than the recipe said

CK: it said an hour and it was 12 hours.

Caller: Yeah.

CK: That's a change. Yeah, that would be different. Okay,

Caller: I know. I know.

CK: But you have made this recipe, the proportion liquid to flour is probably off. But more importantly, it's not rising enough. Let me give you a suggestion, get a straight sided plastic bucket. And when you put the dough in for the first rise mark it with a magic marker on the outside to the top level, and then measure that. So, you know when it's doubled. Because it sounds to me like it's not rising properly. (Okay) it may be because it may not be enough liquid in the recipe, for example, which might make it rise slower. So, you know, getting it the right amount of rise in the first step is really critical.

Caller: Okay, thank you.

CK: One last thing baking it at what temperature?

Caller: I am baking it at 350.

CK: Yeah, that sounds a little low. How do you know when it's done?

Caller: It's done when I turn it over and then I knock on it and it sounds hollow.

CK: I would buy an instant read thermometer if digital thermometer. challah is ready. Center should be about 185. So, you might be overbaking a two which would make it harder.

Caller: Okay

CK: So those are my thoughts, Sara?

SM: Yeah, no, I agree. But I said get yourself a good recipe to begin with. But I applaud you in a trial and errors is how we learn so good for you.

Caller: Well, thank you. I appreciate the help.

SM: Sure.

CK: Yeah. Good luck,

SM: Allison thanks.

Caller: Thank you.

SM: All right. Take care. Bye. Bye. Bye.

CK: This is Milk Street Radio. If you have a question, you'd like us to answer please call us anytime at 855-426-9843. That's 855-426-9843 or simply email us at questions at Milk Street Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: Hi, this is Jeanette from Fleming, Ohio.

CK: How can we help you?

Caller: I have a friend who makes snickerdoodles that are so good. And mine turned out flat and crunchy. And I just wondered if there's something I could do differently.

CK: Tell me about the basic method. What are you doing?

Caller: We both use the same recipe.

CK: And how do you put them together?

Caller: Well, I cream the sugar and butter in the shortening

CK: How are you creaming the butter and the sugar?

Caller: I have a stand mixer.

CK: How long are you creaming it for?

Caller: Probably three or four minutes.

CK: And it's really light and fluffy by the time it gets creamed?

Caller: Uh huh.

CK: Okay, so then you add the eggs one of the time, right?

Caller: Well, probably not.

CK: Oh Okay, yeah, there was a little pause there, so I knew you're in trouble. So, what you want to do is add an egg one at the time and be for a full 20 seconds before you add the second egg, then it'll incorporate properly. It sounds like a lot of time, but it's really worth it. One of the problems could be you're not incorporating enough air into the creamed sugar butter mixture. I forgot to ask what temperature is your butter when you start to creaming?

Caller: I always let it sit out until it's soft.

CK: When you say soft. You mean spread ability soft, malleable soft?

Caller: Spreadable, soft

CK: Yeah. Okay, there we go. Bingo. The butter has to be like 65 to 67 degrees. It has to be not spreadable, soft. Because it won't be able to incorporate the air. It has to be firm. If you press into it, you can still press into it. But it needs to be firm. And I think that's yeah,

Caller: Oh my gosh I didn’t realize that okay

CK: That's the problem right there, I think.

SM: Can I ask one other question?

Caller: Sure.

SM: How old is your baking soda?

Caller: Probably several months by now.

SM: But then it's fine. So that's not I agree with Chris 100%. I think the issue is the butter was just too warm so

CK: One other thing, though. I've made snickerdoodles for years. And I got to tell you, the texture has to be just right. So, there's no shame in not having the perfect snickerdoodle. They are tricky. They are very tricky cookies yeah

SM: Make sure you're not over baking them. Because that can make cookies get too crispy also, maybe take them out a little sooner than you've been taking them out.

Caller: I do try and be very careful with that. Well, thank you very much. I enjoy this though. And it's interesting to know that little bit of amount of temperature could make such a difference so That's

CK: That' one of those key things.

SM: All right, Jeanette.

Caller: Thank you,

CK: Jeanette. Thanks for calling take care.

Caller: I enjoy the show. Thank you.

SM: Thank you. Bye bye.

CK: This is Milk Street Radio. Now it's time for this week's cooking tip from one of our listeners.

Caller: My name is Barbara Wurtzel. And here's my tip. As a coffee drinker, I'm spoiled. Our local coffee roaster provides whole beans that we grind ourselves. Whenever there's coffee leftover, especially in the summer, I freeze the leftover into coffee cubes. Later on, I can add those coffee cubes to seltzer or iced coffee for extra flavor. That's my tip.

CK: If you would like to share your own culinary hack or secret ingredient on Milk Street Radio, please go to 177 Milk Street com slash radio tips. Next up is Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette, their host of A Way with Words the public radio show about language. Grant, Martha welcome back to Milk Street.

Martha Barnette: Thanks, Chris.

Grant Barrett: Hi, Chris.

CK: So, what words have you up at night this week?

GB: Well, I've been thinking about leftovers. But I've been thinking about the language related to food that we reuse or repurpose, and there, there's a ton of stuff here. Martha has got a ton of stuff that she knows one of the words that she used to use for her blog comes to mind right away. Martha's Ort.

MB: Oh, yeah, that's o r t and probably your verbalist listeners know this term because it's a handy word in crossword puzzles. If you're talking about a three-letter clue or two or ort's ORTS, which means leftovers. And it goes back to an old word that may have to do with fodder for animals

CK: Ort was a name for a grain of some kind.

MB: Well, it's the fodder that they chose not to eat. Or with that they haven’t eaten. So, animals are messy when they eat. So it's the stuff that falls out of the manger or the hay or something on the side. But I'm also thinking about the word leftovers itself. The leftovers isn't really that old of a word. We used to use two other words to talk about leftovers in English. Well, we used to call them relics. Just like the word that you might talk about antiques or something that you find in an ancient tomb in the deserts. Relics dates from about 1500s, but it died out by the 1900s. And it's related to the similar French word meaning remains or something left behind. But before relics they were called relief. Relief dates from the 1300s to the 1500s. From one meaning of a French verb having to do with taking away or picking up it's about what you do at the end of the meal, what's leftover has to be picked up and put away.

CK: So Tuesday night we're going to have relics or relief for dinner. Is that what that is?

GB: Yeah, I don't think either one of those fly because those old meanings just don't overlap well enough. People say I didn't know what you mean, people would be utterly confused.

MB: But you could tell the family that you're going to have orts and slarts. SLART Is an old

CK: I like that one

MB: I'm not sure if the etymology of that. But it's it's an old word that means leftovers or scraps. DH Lawrence was fond of that term.

GB: Yeah, he used it a couple times in his works.

CK: Do you guys start to think that like language was so much more expressive in the past? Or have we come up in the food world we come up with equally scrumptious terms for things like leftovers?

GB: No, all language is really exciting. It's like knowing how a magician does a trick.

CK: I think orts and slarts have left over beat any day of the week no matter how you look at it. Orts and slart is definitely my next cookbook. And I'll give you a credit right on the first page. Thanks, guys.

GB: Our pleasure, Chris

MB: Great talking with you.

CK: That was Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette hosts of A Way with Words. That's it for this week's show. If you tuned into later just want to binge listen every single episode, you can download Milk Street Radio, on Apple podcast, Spotify, or wherever you find your podcast. To learn more about Milk Street please go to 177 Milk There you can find her recipes. Take a free online cooking class or order our latest cookbook, Milk Street Fast and Slow Instant Pot Cooking at the Speed You Need. You can also find us on Facebook at Christopher Kimball's Milk Street on Instagram and Twitter at 177 Milk Street. We'll be back next week with more food stories and thanks as always for listening.

Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio is produced by Milk Street in association with WGBH executive producer Melissa Baldino. Senior audio editor Melissa Allison, co-executive producer Annie Sensibaugh, associate producer Jackie Novak, production assistant Sarah Clapp and production help from Debby Paddock.Senior audio engineer David Goodman, additional editing from Vicki Merrick Sidney Lewis and Samantha Brown, and audio mixing from Jay Allison at Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The music by Toubab Krewe. Additional music by George Brandl Egloff. Christopher Kimball's Milk Street radio is distributed by PRX.