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April 6, 2023
Originally aired on April 22, 2022
The Museum of Food Failures: From Crystal Pepsi and Life Savers Holes to Gerber Adult Singles
Other ways to listenListen on Apple Podcasts Download Episode — or —
Dr. Samuel West is back to teach us about history’s greatest food failures, from Colgate’s frozen meals to the time Gerber made food for grown-ups. Plus, Massimo Montanari helps us uncover the true history of spaghetti; J. Kenji López-Alt tells us how to make the most perfect scrambled eggs; and we bake Chocolate Olive Oil Cake.
Questions in this episode:
"I have a question about caramel. Sometimes I see condensed milk used to make caramel. And I'm wondering why is that?"
"A friend of mine gave me about seven pounds of sun dried tomatoes. They're gorgeous but tasteless. What should I do?"
“My fiancé and I are finally having our wedding. But with the wedding comes the registry. And I love to cook and I just don't know what cookware set to put on the registry so I was hoping you could help me out?”
“Can I use my spice grinder and coffee grinder interchangeably?”
"Corn tortillas have failed me on more than one occasion. What should I do?”
Christopher Kimball: This is Milk Street Radio from PRX I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Where does spaghetti come from? Well, in 1957, the BBC news program Panorama, visited the Swiss countryside to find out.
New Reporter: Many people are often puzzled by the fact that spaghetti is produced at such uniform length. But this is the result of many years of patient endeavor by plant breeders, who succeeded in producing the perfect spaghetti. After picking, the spaghetti is laid out to dry in the warm Alpine sun.
CK: This broadcast was of course, an April Fool's prank, but hundreds of people called in the next day to ask how they could grow their own spaghetti trees. This isn't the only myth about the origins of pasta. So, to help us uncover the actual true story of spaghetti, I'm now joined by food historian Massimo Montanari he is the author of A Short History of Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce. Massimo welcome to Milk Street
MM: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.
CK: You wrote a book called A Short History of Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce, which turns out to be kind of a longer story and a much more interesting story that I would have thought, and we start with Marco Polo, who did not bring back pasta. So, what was the real story there?
MM: Yes, Marco Polo went to China, and he saw spaghetti, that he already knew spaghetti because in Italy, spaghetti were made since at least 100 years before Marco Polo. So, China and Italy are the two main countries in the world, sharing a culture of pasta and spaghetti. But these are two different stories.
CK: I love the example you talk about the these wild rumors. In 1929 American journalist wrote the Macaroni Journal where he attributes discovery, a positive one of Marco Polo sailors whose name was spaghetti. So just like the press just made things up.
MM: Yes, this is a very funny story. But the fact is that many many people still believe in this story.
CK: So how far do you have to go back where you would recognize what we consider today to be a modern Italian pasta like spaghetti or fettuccine, or whatever.
MM: There is an historian that thinks that pasta culture was born for the first time in Persia, and from there spread west to Europe and east to China. But the story of pasta possibly begins much earlier, the ancient Greeks and the Romans made pasta, but pasta was a thing used for making a broth or a soup more thick or for making something like lasagna. But in ancient cookery books, there is not the idea that pasta is a category of food. This new idea begins only in the Middle Ages, after conquering Persia, the Arabs took to Italy, from the ninth to the 11th century, the tradition of drying pasta, transforming it into an industrial commercial item. And the second novelty was the shape of long past or what we call now spaghetti. But the two things are connected because a thin long shape can be more easily dried.
CK: Let's talk about boiling pasta. In the Middle Ages, there was this notion, you know, in many cultures have they would boil, you know, oats for oatmeal for hours or overnight. Here, pasta can be cooked for an hour, an hour and a half. I mean, I read that and go like really? I mean, you dried pasta is cooked for two hours, then what?
MM: Then what? First thing to say is that typical Italian tastes for pasta al dente. And this is a new taste of pasta. Only when pasta becomes a main dish in previous centuries. Pasta was often used as a side issue. And it is very interesting to see that still today in those countries where pasture is still used as a side dish in France, or Germany or England and so on, the taste for pasta is very tender, very, very smooth. And the Italians call it cotto too much cooked.
CK: Now you also mentioned the shorter cooking times may have had something to do with pasta stands in the streets of Naples.
MM: Correct because Naples is the place where the main street food becomes pasta. And always pasta with cheese, this important meeting between pasta and cheese. This is a typical Neapolitan model, that only at the end of the 19th century becomes an Italian model. And that's why Italians in the United States at the end of the 19th century, are recognized as mangia macaroni. Pasta eaters.
CK: So, let's get to tomatoes they show up in the 16th century from Mexico via Spanish was used to make a sauce for meat and other things in the 17 1800s. But it really you right, it really wasn't until the earliest 19th century that a red sauce a tomato sauce, would be paired with pasta?
MM: Yes, yes, that's true. Because for centuries, we have white pasta, pasta, season it with cheese. So today in Italy, we have a typical gesture to add grated cheese over pasta, already season it with tomato sauce. Historically, this just was the contrary because in the 19th century, we see tomato sauce added to a pasta already season it with cheese. With the birth of food industry tomato is one of the first vegetables that is canned. So, the experiment to try tomato over pasta becomes more accessible and become typical of Italian cuisine.
CK: Do you think other than what we've talked about is one thing that Americans just don't understand about pasta that Italians do?
MM: Yes, I think that for an Italian pasta is much more than than a food. That's why for us spaghetti are a symbol of national identities is something that we feel inside us. But also, for understanding one apparently simple dishes such as spaghetti al pomodoro spaghetti tomato sauce, we must understand that we are not today what we were yesterday, but we are what other people has invented together with us.
CK: Massimo it's been it's been my pleasure having you on Milk Street Thank you.
MM: Thank you. It was a pleasure to speak with you.
CK: That was Massimo Montanari, he's a professor at Bologna University and also author of A Short History of Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce. Okay, now it's time to take some of your questions with my co-host, Sara Moulton. Sara is of course the author of Home Cooking 101 and star of Sara's Weeknight Meals on public television. Sara, we've talked a lot about salt and pepper, and I think they should get a divorce and they have nothing in common whatsoever. So, do you ever use something other than black peppercorns to go with salt? You know, like some people use cumin for example. Do you have something else you often pair with salt?
Sara Moulton: I don't knee jerkily add pepper to everything. I mean, I like a lot of the chilies you do the you know Aleppo and the Urfa and other seasonings like that. But black pepper still has its place. I think I told you recently I ate a potato knish from a deli and the secret ingredient was black pepper, black pepper and potatoes is just a match made in heaven
CK: Or butter.
SM: Well butter always
CK: and salt. But yeah, I think Aleppo pepper, which is now grown in Turkey yeah, it's fruity. It's not that spicy. It's fruity.
SM: It's a different herb though. I mean, it's a different spice. Excuse me, then black pepper. It's a cool one. I like it. I put it on hard boiled eggs.
CK: Okay, time to take some calls.
SM: Yes. Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?
Caller: Hi, Sheila from Canada.
SM: Hi, Sheila, how can we help you?
Caller: Okay, well, I'm happy to talk to you. I listen to your show all the time.
SM: Thank you.
Caller: I had a question about caramel. Sometimes I see condensed milk used to make caramel. And I'm wondering why like what is the scientific purpose other than ease of use?
SM: Well, it's usually sweetened condensed milk and you cook it in the can. And you end up with essentially Dolce de leche which is more like a butterscotch flavor than a caramel flavor. The difference being that when you make a caramel with sugar, you get sort of a burnt taste from the sugar getting that dark. Some of it has to do with the flavor. If you're looking for more of a butterscotch eat flavor. Or if you're nervous about making caramel, I tend to make a dry caramel which is means you just put sugar in the pan and cook it directly overheat, stirring constantly and paying a lot of attention till it turns to the caramel you want. And then you get it out of the pan then you can add the cream, or the milk heated very carefully. The trouble with when you add water to sugar is it tends to caramelize so, a lot of people have trouble making caramel like that. So, the advantage of the sweetened condensed milk is that you just put a can into a pan with water, simmer it for several hours, and then let it cool completely and you end up with boom, something that looks like caramel, but tastes more like butterscotch. Yeah, Chris.
CK: Well, I think the reason I mean to go back to the original question, condensed milk or sweetened condensed milk was used in climates that were very hot for two reasons a Holstein is not going to be producing a lot of milk when it's 100 degrees out. And secondly, it’s shelf stable. And of course, without good refrigeration milk was extremely dangerous. That's why up until the 1850s or 60s, that's how evaporated milk got started. I think there are a lot of times when sweetened condensed milk actually is a better thing than what it was substituting for.
SM: Right, right. Also, making care melt from sweetened condensed milk is indeed easier I believe than using sugar. But you don't get that burnt sort of edge. The bitter edge you get when you use just straight sugar.
Caller: And I found you don't get that color. Like I want to use it like millionaire bars, and I don't get that color. Yeah, caramel color like for tw___, right? And also, I’ve done the sugar method, the dry sugar, and I’ve also seen it done with corn syrup. Yeah,
SM: Yeah, that helps the sugar not to crystallize. Yeah, and
Caller: Yeah, and my caramel turns out better with corn syrup is that just because the sugar doesn't crystallize and get clumpy.
CK: I use the dry sugar method. I use a skillet now
SM: Me too.
CK: I just sprinkle the sugar all over the skillet and the edges will start to go faster. And you can see the color move faster. And you don't need any water for that which I really like.
Caller: Oh, okay. That's good to know
SM: I hope that was helpful. Thanks, Sheila.
Caller: It was really nice to talk to you too.
CK: Nice to talk to you.
SM: Same here. Take care
CK: Take care.
SM: Bye. Bye.
CK: Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?
Caller: Kathy Dallas.
CK: How can we help you?
Caller: Well, Sara, I am from Charleston, South Carolina. And I work at Grace Church Cathedral where you interviewed my dearest friend Sue Cromwell about tea rooms.
SM: Oh, oh, that was so much fun. We had pimento cheese sandwiches and several other things I recall.
Caller: You did. So, I have a question. A friend of mine gave me about seven pounds of sun-dried tomatoes. They're gorgeous. They're too. They're just perfect, except they're tasteless. And it's just yuck, bland.
CK: Sounds like a re-gifting, doesn't it?
Caller: It could be
CK: Seven pounds of flavorless sun-dried tomatoes
SM: and flavorless.
CK: They're not an oil, they're just dried? I think unfortunately, you're going to have to cook them. So,
Caller: Okay, I can do that.
CK: I would get a bunch of garlic and I would not grate it or mince it I would slice it with some water and maybe some salts. I don't think herbs are going to help very much. Cook it for 20 minutes or so until their nice and soft half an hour and then put them in a food processor with some olive oil. Maybe you could add a little vinegar to that as well like a balsamic taste it as you go. If it doesn't have enough flavor might need some more salt or whatever. When you put them in a food processor you could add a little more garlic. You could add a little more pepper you get a little more spice check the salt level and freezing ice cube trays that would be my answer
Caller: Oh, good idea.
SM: I basically agree. The only thing I might do differently is add a little vinegar to the cooking liquid in the beginning, not at the end, when you're simmering them with the garlic, and I would add some herbs like some woody herbs like rosemary or something. Or if you want to leave them whole, you can also you know, serum and vinegar and water and till they're plumped up and then dry them really, really well. And then layer them with garlic and herbs and olive oil and a little lemon juice again, the only thing about that is it won't last forever. You know, that would be if you want to have a little jar in the fridge to use for the next couple of weeks.
CK: Seven pounds might take a while to
SM: Yeah, this is true. This is true.
CK: Actually, I have the best idea. Wait till next Christmas and re re-gift it back and say I have this great gift and package and put a big bow on it and pretend you don't remember that she gave it to you. Or have them over for dinner and make a pasta or whatever. Use the sun-dried tomatoes and say thank you so much. They taste so good. Omitting the fact that you had to actually spend an hour cooking them. Kathy it's a good problem to have, I guess.
Caller: it is.
CK: Could be worse. Yeah.
Caller: Thank you so much. I appreciate it
SM: Thank you Kathy.
CK: Okay, take care. Okay. This is Milk Street Radio. If you have a cooking question, please send us an email at questions at Milk Street Radio.com. One more time: questions at Milk Street Radio.com. Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?
Caller: Hi, this is Evan from Philadelphia.
CK: How are you?
Caller: I'm doing great. My fiancé and I are finally having our wedding this upcoming July after postponing due to COVID. So, we're very excited
CK: Good for you.
Caller: Thank you. But with the wedding comes the registry. And I love to cook, and I just don't know what cookware set to put on the registry so I was hoping you could help me out.
CK: Number one don't buy set under any circumstances because that's how manufacturers dump the stuff they can't sell. But here's what you should buy a stainless-steel tri-ply that is its stainless steel on the outside and the inside but has aluminum probably on the inside. Aluminum conducts heat well. Stainless steel is impervious to reacting with foods.
CK: Get a four-quart, get a two-quart pot, get a six-quart Dutch oven, Le Creuset or Staub. Or you can actually get some pretty inexpensive versions of this online under $100 which are pretty good
Caller: I do have a Staub and I do love that one
CK: Yes, Staub’s great. And then the last thing is a skillet. I'm a huge fan of carbon steel because they're relatively inexpensive. If you season them properly, they're great. So, get like a 12-inch carbon steel skillet, and then one eight-inch skillet. If you want to get nonstick, that's fine. The other ones however, I would not get nonstick nonstick is only good for a couple of things like cooking shrimp and eggs, that kind of thing. Instead of buying 10 items, you're going to buy four or five and get good stuff.
SM: Several companies make a tri ply. With double handles a straight sided skillet 12 inches with a handle on either side. It's sort of like you could both sauté something in there, but you could also make sort of a Stewy pasta sauce in there. And I just liked the double handles. And just one other caveat. I agree with Chris about nonstick, you need it for omelets, and eggs and pancakes. Potato pancakes
CK: and just throw it out every year.
SM: Yeah, that's, that's the caveat that really you definitely they're making the ones with PPE and PFOA anymore, which are toxic. They're going they are, they are and I've had some success with some enamel coated ones.
CK: In my household by the way, I have a trick, which is I have a carbon steel pan that I've carefully loved and burnished over the years, which is hidden in a secret drawer. And I bought an eight-inch nonstick skillet which I leave out on the stovetop, so everybody else is using the non-stick and then I secretly go in and find my carbon steel.
Caller: That’s awesome. Gotcha well, thank you so much.
SM: Thank you
CK: All right, take care.
Caller: Take care.
SM: It's funny that you have secrets in your kitchen because I do a few little sneaky things in mine
CK: Oh, my knives, I hide knives all over.
SM: Right. But the other thing is, the husband can be a little clumsy when he's washing dishes. So, I don't let him wash any of the wine glasses. I hoard them all in my office until he's not around and then I go wash them and put them away. But anybody who just happened to meander into my office would be do we have a problem in here?
CK: In my household, my wife always says I'll do the dishes dear. She doesn't like what I do. I'm not up to snuff.
SM: Convenient I'd say
CK: You're listening to Milk Street Radio. Up next, we'll hear about foods greatest failures from McDonald's arched Deluxe to Crystal Pepsi. That's coming up after the break. This is Milk Street Radio. I'm your host, Christopher Kimball. Right now, it's my interview with Dr. Samuel West, a psychologist and also curator of the Museum of Failure. Dr. West welcome back to Milk Street.
Samuel West: Thank you very much.
CK: You were on a few years ago to discuss the disgusting food Museum. Now we're talking about the Museum of failure, which I think is equally interesting. So, before we get to some food examples, I love products to fail because of a complete lack of cultural understanding. Yeah, and I think the Harley Davidson cologne, the hot road cologne. I mean, who could possibly sit in a conference room and go, the one thing that Harley Davidson stands for is cologne. I mean, it's smelling good. That didn't go over too well.
SW: Well, that was an example of hubris, corporate hubris and where Harley Davidson with their massive brand recognition said, hey, let's, let's start making all kinds of bullshit items. And the Cologne was one of those where they just slap their logo on something. They had Barbie doll clothing, they have Christmas decorations, that all kinds of official Harley merch. And what happened was it alienated the bad boy, free rider like aesthetic. (Sure) So they made a lot of money on those merch enterprises for sure. But they were short lived.
CK: Well, it's totally antithetical to the whole notion of running a Harley. Okay, let's get to food. So, there's some great examples of big companies trying to increase market share by of course, coming up with new products. One example is the McDonald's arch deluxe hamburger. So what problem was that product actually trying to solve?
SW: Well, McDonald's was struggling with their image of being only for kids, because they made a big deal out of you know, celebrate your birthday, McDonald's. There's the Ronald McDonald clown, and there's a happy meal and everything. So, McDonald's, like we got to attract some adults. So, they launched the McDonald's arch Deluxe, which was a burger for adults.
Product AD: It starts with a full quarter pound of beef with fresh toppings, our chef sauce on a bakery soft roll, McDonald's. If it were any more grown up, we need to check your ID. It's McDonald's with a grown-up taste.
SW: When I see it today, I'm like, Okay, there's nothing that spectacular about the burger. It's just It was bigger and more expensive than their other burgers. And that was one of the defining characteristics that it was a luxury burger that was more expensive. And problem was twofold. One was that people associated McDonald's with cheap food and going to McDonald's to buy a luxury burger just didn't strike anybody's interest. That's one problem. The other problem was the the advertising campaign, which was awful. Yeah. You see images of kids tasting this arch Deluxe, which looks like a beautiful burger, by the way. And they, they take it, and they bite it and they go, yeah, go yuck. And they start to make vomit faces and stuff. And they're like, this is an adult burger, it’s not a kid’s burger and it just there's something about seeing kids not like the burger like, oh, well, I don't want to try it either you know?
CK: I mean, yeah. And they spent $300 million $100 million on market research in
SW: You know, 30 years ago.
CK: Crystal Pepsi. I don't even remember Crystal Pepsi.
SW: What? How old are you?
CK: Old enough to remember Crystal Pepsi? Yeah. So, what was the concept of Crystal Pepsi? What? Why was it intriguing.
SW: So today, it's sugar that's the bad guy. At the time there in the 90s. Back then it was artificial colors. That was the bad guy. So, anything that was clear, anything that was without added colors was considered pure and unhealthy. So, Pepsi launched Crystal Pepsi, which is a clear soda, but it looks it's looks like water. And it tastes like cola. Great idea at that time because that's what was in that was in in fashion. And what happened was they launched it and it turned out pretty good. People actually thought it was interesting.
CK: Let me stop you. You wrote in the Superbowl commercial, they sold afterwards. $474 million dollars.
SW: Yes, that’s good.
CK: That's fine. I mean, so so the launch. And this is really interesting. Some of these products have brilliant launches. Yeah, but then die a horrible death. But it started that well, right?
SW: So, the short version of that story is that they initially did very well, but then people lost interest. And actually, Crystal Pepsi doesn't taste that great. That's one version of the story. The other one is far more interesting where the success of Crystal Pepsi alarmed Coke. And Coke is like, oh, we want part of this action too. So, they created a kamikaze product. Now a kamikaze product is a product that's created and launched to kill the competitor’s product. So, Coca Cola launched Tab Clear to Tab was their worst like their trash brand. So, they took that created Tab Clear did a heavy lunch and put it right beside Crystal Pepsi in every supermarket like they went all out. And. And Tab Clear was intentionally horrible. So, so
CK: kamikaze Yeah.
SW: Yeah. So, people would like Oh, wow. And then a supermarket they go look at this. There's some like clear sodas. This is awesome. They buy the Pepsi and the Tab; they taste the Tab and go yuck and say, clear soda’s not for me, isn't it brilliant?
CK: I mean, New Coke was idiotic. But but yeah, Tab Clear’s brilliant was absolutely
SW: It was absolutely brilliant. Absolutely.
Product AD: Tab Clear, a new diet cola with a totally mysterious flavor. More than just a clear cola. Tab Clear tast and decide
CK: So, here's one that I guess may not be true. But you mentioned, I’ve just got to mention this one. Colgate beef lasagna? Oh, now, I think Colgate said they never have any record of doing this. But but anyway, I just had to mention it.
SW: Alright, so I have some updates on this. Okay. So, the Colgate beef lasagna, I found it when we did the research for the museum in 2016 17. I was like this is fascinating. But I couldn't find any anything online. And it was just too good of a I mean, this is too interesting to not include it in the museum failure. And then it's in the museum. And then we got a whole bunch of publicity. And then Colgate their lawyers contacted me and said, you know, we have no recollection of a Colgate beef lasagna. And then a year ago, some investigative journalist contacted me and was doing a story on this. And and, you know, dug much deeper than I did, and found that Colgate did indeed have kitchen entrees in the 19 and I can't remember if it was 50s or 60s. But they actually tried and launched a series of kitchen entrees, and it wasn't beef lasagna. It was crab meat and dehydrated chicken.
CK: Oh my god. Even worse
SW: Even worse yeah. So, when Colgate’s saying when their lawyer says we have no recollection of a Colgate beef lasagna, he's right. But he didn't say anything about crab meat.
CK: And speaking of really dumb extensions, Gerber Singles for grownups.
SW: Gerber, that the baby food a big, respected brand. And they decided that maybe more than just babies would like to eat food out of a jar.
CK: So tiny little portions.
SW: They had, they had a series of dinners for one in a jar, it's it's in like the same size or slightly larger than the baby food jars. But it's the same same jars, you know that before gone. They had mashed fish dish, it was baby food, but catered to adults. And the thing about it is like the idea of it is just crazy, right? But then I've also like the name of it, Singles like you're a single person here. So not only are you single, you can't find a partner, but you also like to eat your dinner from a jar.
CK: Sometimes, and I think in recent years, I love the fact people think that technology will sell a product, when it actually makes the whole experience much more expensive and incredibly stupid and much worse. A great example is the Juicero 2016.
SW: So, this device was a pretty big tabletop device. It was It's really heavy. So, what is it, you buy exclusively via subscription? You buy diced fruits and vegetables in different mixes. Right? So, it looks like a blood bag at the hospital like a bag does. (It does) Yeah, so you get these sent home and inside the bag, that's the chopped fruit, right or vegetables and then you take it and you put it into the machine. And it scans the barcode and it's connected to Wi-Fi, and it won't press it if the best before date has passed. And then what it does, and this is amazing. It's so powerful. So, it presses, the juice and the minerals and vitamins and all the goodness out of the fruits and vegetables into your glass that's underneath the device.
Product AD: What is this? It’s Juicero. I'm sorry, I don't know what that word means. What’s Juicero. Okay define it for me. Juicero the best juice ever. What comes out of the juicer is so fresh that it shouldn't even be called juice. It should just be called, I don't know, squashed produce because that's what it is. Our founder, Doug is straight up made of juice, literally, there's juice in my veins.
SW: And that sounds amazing. And people bought it. There's a lot of people who bought it. So, it was quite popular. And 700 bucks is quite a lot of money. And then you still had to pay like, eight to $15 for each glass of juice, each packet. Until somebody on YouTube showed that you can just press the juice with your hand. I love that
CK: Whoops. So finally, Lifesaver holes. I mean, I just like, I wish I had been in that meeting people go like, well, they're these holes. What if we sold the holes? You know, it's like, the whole point of the lifesaver is sort of that mouthfeel right. With the circle, the lifesaver shape and the hole is just a little piece of candy.
SW: Yeah, so the just like you can buy doughnut holes at the donut shop. They thought like well do Lifesaver holes.
Product AD: Hey, look who's making waves. lifesavers holes the huge taste of lifesavers candy in tiny, delicious little bites. lifesavers holes candy get what you've been missing.
SW: And it wasn't a failure to the remarketing or concept wise, but the plastic packaging itself, you couldn't store and dispense these Lifesaver holds in any feasible way. I think that might be just an excuse because it might have been a bad idea from this dark. Yeah.
CK: Well, I mean, if you had a Pez dispenser, right, (yeah) I mean, Pez is a great example of the most horrific candy in the world. But the dispenser makes it cool.
SW: It was created to help people stop smoking.
SW: Yeah, the original, the whole thing about the package is kind of like a cigarette. And then the feeder thing it only later did they make it into children like Mickey Mouse heads and whatever. Originally, it was like you want to stop smoking, and you have to fidget with something. So, you open the Pez and you get one of those and you don't have to smoke.
CK: Well, there's another category products that failed at one thing that became super successful,
SW: Excel at others
CK: like putting a Mickey Mouse hat on top of it. Dr. West, it's always a pleasure. I love the Museum of failure. I just love failure. But these are just wonderful examples. Thank you.
SW: Thank you.
CK: That was Dr. Samuel West curator of the Museum of Failure. The museum has been on tour since 2017 in various cities around the world. Now they're offering a virtual exhibition at Museum of Failure.com. You know, I love failure, especially when the people who failed, persevered, and then went on to great success. People such as Elvis, who was told to go back to truck driving after singing Blue Moon of Kentucky at the Grand Ole Opry. Henry Ford, whose first two automobile companies failed. And Oprah Winfrey who was fired from an early job as a television news anchor. So, it makes me think that failure is essential for success. And I think this is especially true in the kitchen. You're listening to Milk Street Radio, it's time to hear from Lynn Clark about this week's recipe. Chocolate olive oil cake. Lynn how are you?
Lynn Clark: I'm doing well. Chris, how are you?
CK: I'm great. This week it's cake check. It's chocolate cake. Double check is the chocolate olive oil cake triple check. Olive oil in cakes is really nothing new. I guess chocolate olive oil cake may not be new either but it's new to me. So why olive oil and chocolate cake?
LC: Well, I mean olive oil in cake is a great concept on its own or really oil in cake. Oil adds you know the fat that you want in a cake but because that fat stays liquid whether it's warm or room temperature it doesn't solidify, like say butter might it keeps that moist texture, and the cake has a lot more longevity. So, you know you could sit it out on the counter for a while still going to stay really nice and moist.
CK: I have to say I'm not worried about longevity with chocolate.
LC: You're going to eat it all in one sitting?
CK: But it's like chiffon cake which has half a couple well it's like carrot cake right carrot cakes got oil.
LC: Well, absolutely. Then in this case, we're using olive oil rather than a neutral oil or canola oil. And that's because this is a common combination in the Mediterranean. They obviously have tons of olive oil at the ready. And so instead of adding butter to their cakes, they would add olive oil. You have some options here on a flavor of olive oil to choose. We chose a light olive oil which has a little bit more of a neutral flavor, but you could certainly use an extra virgin olive oil. You're just going to get more of that kind of fruitiness and peppery flavor. Or you can even do a combination of that stronger extra virgin olive oil with a more neutral oil like safflower oil or grapeseed oil or something.
CK: So, there's one other ingredient this cake that is really surprising. It has some espresso powder, which we use all the time. But what's the secret ingredient? Why so much of it?
LC: So obviously, it has chocolate bittersweet chocolate and cocoa powder, but it also has lemon juice,
CK: It actually has quite a lot, right? How much does it have?
LC: It actually has six tablespoons of lemon juice, which is a fair amount. Obviously when you cook citrus, it does kind of lose a little bit of that astringency. It's just more of a mellow flavor. But we really loved it here in this really rich chocolate cake adds a little bit of brightness. There's also acidity in lemon juice. We're using baking soda here, so it's helping with the leavening as well. So, it adds just a little bit of balance because you know, chocolate cake is rich, and it adds just a lightness to it that we loved so much.
CK: So, you got a cake with two kinds of chocolate and olive oil. And you're feeling good about its light because the juice, I mean, come on. It's a nice flavor yeah, it perks up the flavor
LC: Right, it perks up the flavor.
CK: And so, this is a basic cake with a batter one bowl, but then you whipped some egg whites fold those in. What kind of cake is this a one-layer cake?
LC: It's definitely a one-layer cake in a spring form pan it's going to bake and kind of puff up and then as it cools it'll kind of sink down a little bit as often is the case with a cake that you have whipped egg whites. It's really sort of fudgy and brownie like on the inside has this really nice plush mouthfeel from that oil in there. Just really moist and tender, but with tons of chocolate flavor and that little bit of brightness from the lemon juice.
CK: So, to borrow your term, a plush chocolate, great chocolate flavor but with a lemon juice and olive oil, great flavors and also a wonderful sumptuous texture. Lynn thank you so much.
LC: You're welcome. You can get this recipe for chocolate olive oil cake at Milk Street Radio.com
CK: This is Milk Street Radio coming up J Kenji Lopez al tells us how to make the most perfect scrambled eggs. We'll be back in just a moment
I'm Christopher Kimball, you're listening to Milk Street Radio. Now it's time for Sara and I to answer a few more of your cooking questions.
SM: Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?
Caller: Hi this is Jeff Stein calling from Lake ___ Connecticut.
SM: Hi, Jeff, how can we help you today?
Caller: So, I'm looking for you know, a very specific bit of advice. And that is whether I get both a spice grinder and a coffee grinder or use one interchangeably. You know, I'm trying to keep my small kitchen as tidy as possible. But I also want to make sure I don't have coffee grinds that smell of cumin.
SM: Right. I would you actually would recommend having separate grinders. How do you make your coffee now?
Caller: So, I do both the French press and the Bialetti. So, one of those little stovetop espresso makers
SM: Okay, but you grind your own beans.
Caller: I don't I've been buying them pre-ground. But I'd love to be able to just buy some actual beans and keep them in the freezer.
SM: The point is, I wouldn't use the same grinder for the spices. You can clean it out after you've done the spices either by grinding up rice or grinding up bread, but it won't clean it out completely because you know spices really soil. Chris, what do you think?
CK: Under no conditions should you ever grind spices and coffee in the same thing. I mean, it's just yeah, it's not going to work. You want a coffee grinder where you can adjust the grind. And you're going to get that grind because if you're doing drip, it's medium if you're doing French press, it’s course, if you're doing the Bialetti on top of the stove, it's fine. Two: the coffee grinder has to have a big enough hopper. So, if you're making 10 cups of coffee for a bunch of people, you can grind a bunch of coffee at one time. Three: the blade grinders are probably better for spices, and you need a tiny one for that. The Skeppshult SKEPPSHULT it's a cast iron round spice grinder and the top fits into it. It's also round and both the top and the bottom are course. So, you can take a small amount of cumin or whatever you want and grind it by turning the top clockwise and counterclockwise a few times. That does a great job. It doesn't take up any room on your counter. It's not electric, and you don't have to worry about constantly shifting between coffee and spices. So, that's what I would get
SM: So, if you get this little grinder hand thingy for spices and then you got a ___grinder. That wouldn't take up too much space because the little grinder for the spices is small. You could just put that in a drawer. Yeah
CK: Anyway, I think I'm out of ideas, right I'm not out of opinions
SM: But no, this is quite clear.
CK: Take care.
SM: All right, thanks.
Caller: Thank you have a good one.
SM: All right. Bye. Bye.
CK: This is Milk Street Radio. If you need help in the kitchen, please email us at questions at Milk Street Radio.com. One more time questions and Milk Street Radio.com. Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?
Caller: This is Christa from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
CK: How can we help you?
Caller: So, I'm a pretty good cook. I pride myself on being able to navigate most situations in the kitchen. However, corn tortillas have failed me on more than one occasion. And I got pretty frustrated last time because they just turned to mush. What I'd like to do is learn how to heat them up in a way where they're pliable, but not crumbly.
CK: Great question. You know, recently I was in Mexico, I was in Jalisco south of Puerto Vallarta and we spent a lot of time talking about tortillas and which ones were good and which ones are a few things. Commercial tortillas are made from a sort of inferior process and masa, so they tend to fall apart, especially corn tortillas. And the corn tortillas that I found commercially in supermarkets are garbage. I mean, they're just awful. They're gnarly. They're course, they taste like cracked corn. You know, corn tortillas in Mexico don't have a strong corny taste and they're very soft. In Oaxaca they make corn tortillas that are just like flour tortillas in texture. Number one, I would not buy a corn tortilla here unless you know somebody locally or a great purveyor online, I would use a wheat tortilla. Secondly, you could try the classic method of brushing the tortillas with oil. Put them on a baking sheet cover with aluminum foil, throw in a warm oven for a little bit to warm them up and make them pliable. I've stopped buying corn tortillas in a supermarket because I've never found you know, a good brand.
Caller: Yeah, I admit to buying supermarket, but it looks like I will stop doing that and invest maybe even in the press and make my own because it's been pretty gross.
CK: Well, making them yourself actually is not something I used to do. But it's so much better. I mean, it's night and day is a place that makes tortillas. It's very well-known now nationally, you mail order them. Actually, you know what? We'll try to post this on our website in the radio part of the site.
Caller: That'd be great.
CK: That's probably worth doing it. It's one of the few things I would definitely order online for high quality.
Caller: Yeah, it's just not worth it.
SM: Any rate. first of all, I was going to say how nice you're from Ann Arbor. I went to U of M Go Blue. Somebody else who is a U of M grad is Rick Bayless. And he has wonderful restaurants and online I'm sure there's something on YouTube of him making fresh corn tortillas. He makes it seem so manageable. You know, you might really want to start making your own.
Caller: I think I might.
SM: Alright, Krista. Thanks.
Caller: Thank you both so much.
CK: Take care.
SM: Bye bye
CK: This is Milk Street Radio. Next up, it's J Kenji Lopez Alt. Kenji what's going on.
J Kenji Alt: Well, I thought that we'd talk about eggs today. Because everybody always likes to hear about eggs and debate eggs. And anytime I write about eggs, it's always like a huge article.
CK: Well, it’s because how to cook them is so perilous or just in general?
JKA: Well, I don't know. I think it always happens that way because eggs are the thing that people cook. You know, it's the first thing people learn how to cook. And it's probably one of the most common foods people learn how to cook. And there's always so many rules about it. You know, how you boil your eggs or how you scramble your eggs or poach your eggs. There's these hard and fast rules that you're supposed to follow, and everybody has different opinions. But I thought we'd talk a little bit about scrambled eggs.
CK: So, this is going to be a food fight. Because I I have a very particular basket method for doing scrambled eggs.
JKA: Oh yeah. Well, why don't you go with your method first?
CK: Well, the best method is to scramble the eggs in a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Okay, and the theory since you're a scientist, the theory is that oil gets hotter faster than butter for obvious reasons because butter contains water and that it transfers the heat to the eggs, especially the liquid in the eggs, which steams quickly and makes them fluffy, quicker. So, there's there's more heat, there's more heat transfer and you get a fluffier egg fast. So that's my solution to scrambled eggs but you have a very different method.
JKA: So, as you mentioned, yeah, the hotter your pan is when you put your eggs in, the fluffier, the eggs end up because the moisture in those eggs turns into steam and it expands and pumps them up. Whereas if you go low and slow, you know, like that method that Gordon Ramsay popularized where you go really low and slow, and you're constantly stirring them, then you get these really dense, creamy eggs over low heat.
CK: Well, yeah isn’t that sort of the old Frenchman method
JKA: Yeah, a Frenchman. Yeah yeah. So, depending on your pan temperature, you can get them fluffier or denser. One of the issues though, is that it's difficult to tell what temperature your pan is. So, one of the techniques that I like to use is I actually just put a few drops of water in my pan, you know, like maybe a teaspoon of water. So, as I'm preheating it, and I just kind of swirl that around. And I know that as soon as that water has finished evaporating, that my pan temperature is going to be right at around 212 degrees. And for me, that is a good temperature to then add my butter in and because I know my butter will very quickly melt but it's not going to start browning because I don't want any of those brown butter solids. And this technique works whether you like your eggs sort of harder cooked or softer cooked. I use a trick that our mutual friend Charles Kelsey you know who owns Cutty’s in Brookline. He had a French omelet recipe there where he cut up tiny little cubes of butter.
CK: Oh, I remember that recipe.
JKA: Yeah, he actually I talked to him, you know, when I was working in the store. And he actually nabbed that technique from Daniel Boulud. But you cut butter up into tiny little cubes. Yeah. And you whisk it in along with the eggs. And what I found is when you're scrambling eggs like that, the butter actually works really well to regulate the temperature of the egg. So, you get this kind of more interesting texture because some of the egg sets, but then these little cubes of butter, keep the egg right around them cooler. So, you get these little pockets of sort of richer, creamier eggs was almost like you get like fluffy curds, but with a sort of almost like a denser saucier egg around them. And it also gives you a little bit more leeway as far as how quickly they set so you don't end up over cooking them. The biggest trick that I found actually came when I was watching a video, my friends, Steph Lee and Christopher Thomas, who run this YouTube channel called Chinese Cooking Demystified. They have a video on there for this technique called ____ eggs. There are a style of eggs that are cooked by the Tonka people who live on boats in Guangzhou. But essentially, they take duck eggs, and they beat them with a little bit of fish sauce. And then they fry them in woks very quickly. And so, you get the wok very hot, and then you kind of pour the egg inside it. And then very, very quickly, you kind of fold it onto itself. So only the bottom gets cooked, and it ends up with is this sort of like wavy mass of eggs that have a sheen of barely set liquid yolk on top. But in their video, what they do is they stir in a starch slurry into the eggs before they start frying them. The idea being that the starch will actually inhibit egg proteins from sort of bonding too tightly together, so you get a lot more leeway. Even if you slightly overcook them, they're still going to stay creamy. So, it makes it much easier to control the final texture of the eggs. But if you combine, you know that starch technique with the little cubes of butter, you get these incredibly creamy, rich scrambled eggs that you know whether you like them hard or soft, they come out really nice, creamy, very different from that ____ style, of course, because you know, these are sort of richer, creamier eggs opposed to the fluffier style, which is not to say one is better than the other.
CK: I mean, the one thing is you can do my recipe in 30 seconds start to finish. I mean, you have to make a slurry and you have to have cold butter and cut into little tiny pieces. So, there's, you know, of course, the Kenji method is usually fraught with a great deal of research thought but but also some prep, right?
JKA: Some prep yeah, yeah, these are these are kind of weekend eggs, I think, you know, they take five to 10 minutes to do as opposed to 30 seconds.
CK: And so is this a cornstarch slurry?
JKA: So, cornstarch works, you actually get slightly better results if you have potato starch, just because it gels at a slightly lower temperatures.
CK: And are you doing a nonstick skillet or seasoned carbon steel skillet?
JKA: I mean, nonstick is obviously the easiest unless you have a very well-seasoned, carbon steel skillet. But you know, this is one of those things where you know, carbon steel or cast iron, whatever anyone says it's never going get as nonstick as nonstick obviously.
CK: Well, we need to have the Chris Kenji scrambled egg smackdown.
JKA: Alright, but it's okay to like one style of eggs one day and a different one the next day right?
CK: Well, Kenji, I'm going to go try that I do remember Charles's recipe with a butter for the French method. And I like I like your notion of a slurry. I will give it a shot and I will honestly tell you what I think on this show, right. So Kenji, thank you.
JKA: Alright. Thanks, Chris.
CK: That was J Kenji Lopez Alt he's the chief culinary consultant for Serious Eats, a food columnist for the New York Times and also author of The Wok, Recipes and Techniques. That's it for today. You can always find this episode and all Milk Street radio episodes on Apple podcast Spotify, wherever you find your podcasts. You can learn more about Milk Street at 177 Milk Street.com. There you can download each week's recipe, watch her television show, or learn about our magazine, The latest cookbook The World in a Skillet. We're on Facebook at Christopher Kimball's Milk Street on Instagram and Twitter at 177 Milk Street. We'll be back next week and every 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 GBH, media director Melissa Baldino, executive producer Annie Sinsabaugh. Senior audio editor Melissa Allison, producer Sarah Clapp with production help from Debby Paddock, additional editing by Sidney Lewis audio mixing by 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.