In her excellent book, Much Depends on Dinner, Margaret Visser says, “The extent to which we take everday objects for granted is the precise extent to which they govern and inform our lives.” If you haven’t read the book, it’s a brilliant meditation on how we are shaped by the quotidian, and how little we appreciate the miracles of everyday life.
I got to thinking about this the other day when I mentioned that I was having grilled cheese and tomato soup for lunch. My friend Babins, a not-very-serious person whose humour I quite appreciate, noted that I only had to add a cup of weak tea to make it a perfect nursing home meal.
I get it: it does sound like a safe, nay, middling, choice for a meal. Something a harried mother might make a fussy kid, or a gentle meal for someone with limited appetite or shy a few horsepower in the mastication department.
But that really misses the potential haecceity of such a meal, the ‘thisness’ that makes it evoke powerful ideas and memories. I’ll wager that the picture above made a few people salivate, a few others tilt their heads and think about getting something to eat, and a few might even have misted up, thinking of the comfort and safety that such a meal conjures in the heart. A grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup isn’t a simple meal: it’s a powerful spell that can not only banish hunger, but fill the soul with contentment and soothe a mind battered by the concerns of the day.
But only if you do it right. I have powerful ideas about what constitutes ‘right’ in the case of grilled cheese (the soup shown above is homemade from tomatoes from my garden, but that’s a blog for another day). I’d rather go hungry (and let’s face it, I can afford to go hungry once in a while) than eat a sandwich with lousy, squishy bread and cheese made from plastic products, fried in a waxy yellow substance suitable more as a floor wax than a butter substitute. Here’s what I do when the urge for crispy, unctuous grilled cheese strikes me.
Quality is of the essence, simplicity the watchword. Use top quality bread–I bought this from a local bakery, but if I have time I make my own. Day-old bread is a little better: too soft and it’s gummy. Slices need to be thick enough for structure, but thin enough to heat through easily. Butter–and only butter, please–is a given, but cheese needs a more thorough discussion.
If I’m making a melt or serving the sandwich alongside something with contrasting flavours I might choose a mellow or nutty cheese, like Muenster or Jarlsberg. If I had a load of spicy pickles I might choose Raclette, which I love. But for the sweetness of tomato soup I prefer cheddar. Choosing a sharp, well-aged version is crucial, but don’t get one that’s terrifically old or high in fat: it still has to melt effectively and ultra high-fat or low-protein cheese can simply liquify under heat, leaving a greasy mess. Don’t use too much: the cheese is for flavour and holding the crispy bread together. A thick gummy layer will cool down and be gloppy before you can finish eating your lunch.
You only need two tools, a frying pan and a spatula. Step one, preheat the pan over medium-low and add a teaspoon of butter to it–don’t butter the bread, because that will put way too much grease in the finished sandwich.
Next up, place both slices of bread in the pan. No cheese yet. let them gently brown for a few minutes to heat and crisp up on one side.
Take the bread out of the pan and assemble the sandwich, crispy side in with the cheese. Ho ho ho! It’s going to be crispy everywhere!
Add another teaspoon of butter to the pan and return the assembled sandwich to it. Careful not to scorch: don’t walk away here, as it’s crucial to get a nice crunch on the outside without scorch. You can flip it a few times if you’re getting too hot on one side. It should only take another three minutes or so.
Serve with your favorite condiment. I’ll often have a little hot mustard to dip the edge of the sandwich in as I go, but more often these days I’ll have a little Sambal Oleek, a crushed chili paste that suits my palate. Also, if you have some homemade pickles, they go down a treat.
How was it? Short lived, unlike the comfort and satiety that it gave me. Now where’s that cup of tea?
I don’t always drink wine. Or even beer. I don’t even drink whisky every day, come to think of it. I don’t like soda pop for the most part, and I drink about two quarts of milk per calendar year. There are only two beverages I consume on a daily basis: water, of course, since I am a squishy bag of mostly water by design, and coffee, because it is delicious brain juice that lets me function in society.
I started drinking coffee quite young. In retrospect, being in the single digit range for birthdays was probably a little on the youthful side for drinking caffeinated beverages, but if you believe the Coffee Achievers, it was probably the making of me, and there are worse habits.
My taste in coffee has evolved over the years, as has the way I consume it. As a kid I liked it with lots and lots of milk and sugar. I lost my taste for sweets after a while, quit bothering with milk, and started drinking hot, black coffee by the gallon. Keep in mind I was raised by simple prairie folks, and the coffee wasn’t premium or sophisticated. It was pre-ground, canned coffee that was on sale, and made in an automatic drip machine manufactured by a company more known for electric drills and sanders than for food equipment.
A friend of mine once described this beverage as ‘Lutheran Coffee’, after the kind of brew you find in one of those giant percolators in a church basement. I liken it to hot brown coffee-water. After I left home I started buying beans and getting them ground at the store. Then I bought my own grinder, and one of the most perfect coffee making machines ever invented: the Melitta Cone Drip. That worked for years, until I got a bug in my ear about espresso. Then I had several set-ups, refining how I like my coffee with automated espresso makers, stove top units, et cetera.
I keep experimenting with coffee making, but the final frontier for me has been to seize control over roasting my own beans. Coffee is the seed of a cherry-like fruit, and after gathering and processing, it looks like a little green rock with a cleft in it, and it doesn’t taste of anything special. It’s not until you roast it to a rich, chocolatey brown that it releases that heavenly aroma and beguiling flavour.
By this time you should be getting the idea that I never leave well enough alone, and everything in my life is in imminent danger of becoming an obsession. I did some research, fiddled around a bit with primitive methods, including roasting beans over a wood fire in an iron pan like the Ottomans did, but a conversation with a professional coffee roaster made me realise that there was something to having the right piece of equipment for the job: heat ramp-up especially was a thing. There’s a long explanation, but if you heat the beans up too slowly they dry out and lose some of their nuance. Heat ’em up too fast and they just char instead of roasting nicely. A good roasting machine can take that into account. A good machine like the Behmor 1600.
The unit is a masterful design. You can check out the manual here, which is an excellent segue: always read the instructions. With some things, like an ice-cube tray, the stakes are low. If you do it wrong, worst-case, you don’t get ice cubes. Because this machine is using high heat to dry out and subsequently roast cellulosic vegetable matter saturated with oil (coffee), if you overdo it, it can catch fire. Which is bad.
If you’re going to get a roaster, read and pay close attention to those instructions. They’ll make sure you stay safe and that you get a decent cup of coffee from the first try. After that, you can start fiddling around with the time, ramp-ups, drum speed and all that jazz. But start with the basics. To show you those basics, have a look at this overview of roasting basics that I put together in my kitchen.
The manual may be a little intimidating at first, but as you can see, it isn’t rocket surgery: Follow the instructions, don’t leave the Roaster unattended while it’s on, and learn to recognise the difference between first and second crack and you’re in.
If you’re curious about the coffee making rig shown at the end of the video, it’s an Aeropress, and it’s what I use to make an excellent–just about the best, really–cup of hot coffee I’ve ever had.
But what if you want a bigger thrill? What if you want the ultimate in coffee deliciousness? What if you want . . . this
Cold-brewed coffee is the hottest-cold thing to show up in coffee use in the last ten years. You get flavour extraction by trading the heat of the water for time. Rather than a three or four minute steep with water around 200F (your mileage may vary) you use tepid water and soak overnight, or for 24 hours. This slow, gentle extraction leaves behind a lot of the harsh tannins, while teasing out the smooth, rich flavours that make coffee so wonderfully good.
And Nitrogen dispense is what has made Guinness Stout so popular. Forcing your cold-brewed coffee through a Stout Faucet with medium-pressure nitrogen gives it that creamy, foamy ‘cascade’ of flavour goodness. Honestly, it makes coffee wickedly drinkable, to the point where I have to monitor my intake or I’ll wind up dancing around like wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man.
Previously, if you wanted to do nitrogen dispensing at home, you needed a full-on setup, with a keg refrigerator (standard homebrew kegs are not fridge-friendly: they crowd out the pot roast), a nitrogen tank, special regulator, and a bunch of other bits and bobs. Not a stretch if your life includes that kind of thing as a hobby, but a bit of a stretch for your average coffee fan.
Pop the tap and the regulator off of it and the whole keg fits onto a shelf in a standard fridge, ready to dispense your coffee at any time. (Don’t tell anyone I told you, but it’ll also dispense Wine like a champ).
Second, check out that regulator, with the attached nitrogen cylinder. You don’t need to buy the full-meal-deal nitrogen tank, regulator et cetera, you just screw in a cylinder of nitrogen gas, pop it on the keg and dial up your pour. You can even take the Cannonball keg with you to parties or the back yard, or wherever. This is a brilliant enabler of coffee usage.
Check out how I do it.
I’ve nearly got the whole coffee thing handled. Five, six more years at most and I’ll have my system perfected.
My first step was to clean and sanitise all of the equipment I’d be using, including my autosiphon, bottle filler, jugs and such–as always, cleanliness is next to goodliness in winemaking.
Next, I set up my racking station by the simple expedient of lifting my Little Big Mouth Bubbler on top of a convenient box on my counter. If you haven’t used one of the Master Vintner Small Batch kits yet, it’s hard to convey just what a joy this is. I’m old-school in many ways, having started off making wine in lots anywhere between 23 litres (6 US gallons) and 650 litres (three 60-US gallon barrels) at a time. With truly huge amounts you need a pump to move the wine around. A standard kit wine batch of 23 litres isn’t nearly as demanding, but lifting full carboys from one shelf to another, or putting them up on a high place so you can rack the wine down into a clean carboy on the floor (which then needs to be lifted back into the winemaking area!) starts to wear on the lower back after a few thousand batches. At only a single gallon, you can easily lift the Small Batch kits onto a convenient box or shelf above your kitchen counter, just as easy as getting a gallon of milk out of the refrigerator!
Once the fermenter was in place I racked the wine off of the sediment. Doing this is really helpful, since there’s a decent chance that the siphon will disturb sediment from the bottom of the carboy while your moving the hose from bottle to bottle. Rather than risk getting cloudy wine, it’s better to move all of the clear wine into a new vessel in one go, and then you can relax from there.
When the wine gets down to the bottom, the level of sediment needs to be carefully monitored. Remember, the point of racking is to get 100% of the clear wine and leave the muck behind, so don’t leave any of that delicious grape nectar behind.
To get and keep that tilt hands-free I usually improvise some kind of prop or wedge. Because I was making wine in my kitchen (another thing Small Batch Kits makes easy!) my carboy wedge wasn’t around. No matter: I just popped a bung under the front of the carboy and watched the levels as they dropped.
Just to make sure I was being completely efficient in my racking, I measured the amount of sediment left in the bottom of the Little Big Mouth Bubbler after it racked over. It came to just over couple of tablespoons all in all–which meant I was going to get a total of about 3.75 litres out of my US gallon (3.78 litre) batch, meaning I could fill five bottles, which is exactly what I wanted.
The wine was exceptionally clear on racking.
I could have bottled it right there, but since this was an actual test batch for quality assurance and proof of concept purposes, I pulled out my Buon Vino Minjet filter. Filtering doesn’t actually clear a wine: that’s what fining agents are for. Clearing polishes a wine so that it sparkles with a brilliance like diamonds. A former colleague had the best analogy for wine filtering: it’s the difference between a freshly washed car and a freshly waxed car. Both look great, but your eyes can instantly tell which car was waxed and polished because it glows. Same with wine.
It’s easy to see this in white wines: you could read the fine print of an EULA through that Chardonnay!
I got all four batches of wine through a single set of Buon Vino #3 pads in about 20 minutes, including sanitising and prep, going from the Chardonnay to the Pinot Noir, then the Merlot and finishing with the Cabernet Sauvignon. Yet another bonus feature of the Small Batch kits: you can make four of them and only need the tiny, convenient BV mini, rather than a much larger filter.
While larger filter systems need a washtub or a laundry sink for cleanup, the Minijet is kitchen sink-friendly for cleanup. Note that the colour you see on those filter pads isn’t anthcyanins (grape pigment) stripped from the wine. It’s suspended material from the wine itself, stained by those pigments. That suspended material, principally yeast cells and colloids, would eventually settle out of the wine on its own. Even though the unfiltered wine was perfectly clear to the eye, after a year or two in the bottle a bit of colour would deposit out on the side or bottom of the bottle. Hurrah for filtering!
Next up, time to fill my wine bottles. I had a mixture of standard wine bottles in Flint (clear) and some swing-tops, also in clear. I like using swing tops for wine that’s going to be analysed and/or destroyed in testing–not because of any technical superiority of swing tops, but because I can never seem to find a dang corkscrew when I’m in the wine lab.
Also shown in the picture above is the Handy corker. It uses a plunger and a compression sleeve to press-fit the corks into the bottles.
Because of the forces involved, it’s a good idea to use the (included) #8-sized corks and soak them in a bit of warm water before use. While I’ve used the Handy and it’s a fine unit, I had another plan in mind for my bottles. But first, I had to fill them.
Getting the bottles filed without splashing, spilling or endlessly fiddling to get the right fill level (very bottom of the neck, to leave the width of two fingers below the bottom of the cork) used to be a drag, but a siphon filler (included in your equipment kit!) makes it a snap.
The one-way needle valve on the tip of the rod stops the flow of wine as soon as you pull it up, while the volume of the rod displaces exactly the right amount of wine–when you fill the bottle to the top and then pull the rod out, the level of wine is perfect to accommodate a cork!
With the bottles filled, it was time to put corks in. My alternate scheme was to use my Italian bronze-jawed floor corker. This mighty beast has been my faithful companion for 25 years and tens of thousands of bottles of wine.
The key to how well this thing works is in the amount of leverage it can bring to bear, and how cleverly it compresses and inserts the cork into the bottles. The heart of the matter is the set of bronze jaws. Not brass–brass is too soft, and corks would wear it away in a short time, and this bronze is the same stuff they make steamship propellers out of.
The jaws move as the corking arm is pulled, squeezing the cork down to just slightly larger than the size of a pencil. When it’s at is tiniest, the cork finger comes down. pokes it into the bottle and you’re done.
It’s as easy as that, every time.
After only a few minutes all of the bottles were filled, corked and swing-capped.
Astute observers will notice that there are 15 bottles, a gallon jug and one bottle of pink wine, which doesn’t match up that well with the whole four batches of five bottles each motif I started with. The gallon jug is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. I blended it at a rate of 3:2, Cabernet to Merlot, after a few benchtop trials. I’m going to let it marry in the jug for a month or so and taste it before bottling.
The pink wine is slightly notional on my part–it’s my job to do the weird stuff so you don’t have to. Or, more accurately, so I can explain it when you do it without my knowledge! It’s a blend of 4% Pinot Noir into the Chardonnay. That kind of blending is a standard technique in commercial winemaking, and I was curious to see how it would marry up with a little time in the bottle.
How does it taste? Even though it’s very young, it’s everything I’d hoped: good fruit, varietal character, smooth tannin, balanced acid and a long finish, especially for a wine just in the bottle. I’m going to do a more formal taste-test in another three weeks, and then once a month after that to see how it’s progressing.
I’ve already ordered another four kits–I’ve never made wine with so little effort or mess, and I’m going to keep production up. Heck, it’s no more work than keeping a vase of flowers on the counter, with the added bonus, it’s wine!
Step three and step four kind of run together, so I’m blogging about both of them at once. When we last left our Master Vintner Small Batch wines (Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir) they were resting comfortably in secondary fermentation. The next step was to . . . READ THE INSTRUCTIONS!
Yes, I keep coming back to the importance of reading. It’s your guarantee of success! A quick read-through let me know that I would have to check the specific gravity and then rack the wine from the secondary to the Little Big Mouth Bubbler again for stirring and fining/stabilizing additions.
I sanitized all of my equipment, took a specific gravity reading (0.992 and rock steady) and then transferred the wine from the jug to the LBMB.
Once all of the wine was transferred over (leaving very little behind in the jug–less than a couple of tablespoons of goo) the next step was to add metabisulphite to prevent oxidation (browning and loss of flavour) and prevent bacterial spoilage (going icky).
Let’s talk about sulphite. It’s one of the most common food additives in use today, and it’s been in continuous use in winemaking for many centuries. It’s in every preserved food you buy and in lots of things you wouldn’t expect (noodles? Check. Frozen orange juice? You bet! Pancake syrup? Sure!) It’s safe and almost completely benign. If you don’t believe me, check out the world’s #1 Authority on sulphite use in home winemaking.
So that’s sulphite taken care of. In it goes!
After the sulphite is in we have to stir the wine to distribute it, and to drive off gas in solution. This is crucial to the success of the kit. Carbon dioxide gas is produced by the yeast during fermentation. In a commercial winery this is not much of an issue because they take one or two years to get the wine ready for bottling, and in that time all of the gas escapes. Master Vintner kits are designed to be ready to bottle in just four weeks, so the gas has only a short time to escape from the wine. To stay on schedule we need to aid the process through mechanical agitation.
I stirred the wine for a full sixty seconds and then added the first fining agent. Fining is the process of dropping suspended material out of the wine so it’s clear enough for bottling and drinking. Common fining agents are either mineral in nature (Bentonite, Silicon dioxide) or a colloid/gelatine (Isinglass, Chitosan) and in wine kits they’re often used in pairs. The instructions say to add the packet labeled ‘Siligel’, a silicon dioxide solution–essentially really finely pulverised beach sand in a liquid and then stir again.
Cut the tip off of the Siligel packet . . .
. . . and then another sixty seconds of stirring.
I popped the lid, bung and airlock on again and over the course of the next two days I kept my spoon in handy and stirred the wine again for sixty seconds at breakfast, lunch and dinner–since it’s right in my kitchen it’s an easy step to take right there when you’re already making a sandwich or preparing your Sunday roast.
After two days of stirring it was time to go on to Step Four, Stabilizing and Clearing. Since it’s almost exactly like the last step, I’m putting it all into this one long post to keep things clear.
I cleaned and sanitised all of my equipment, checked my specific gravity (yep, still 0.992) and did my next addition, Potassium Sorbate. Sorbate is a bacterial suppressant. It doesn’t kill or even annoy spoilage organisms, but rather keeps them from breeding, which is crucial to the whole process of fining and stabilising: you use sulphite to stun/kill some of the yeast and any other organisms, you use the fining agents to sweep all of the micro-organisms out of the wine, and then you use sorbate to keep any of them from breeding back to the point where they can affect the appearance or flavour/taste of the wine. Sorbate is used in a lot of foods, condiments and even in beauty products and health food supplements, and is found in some berries (blueberries and Mountain Ash) as well. So, in it goes, with the first step being to dissolve it in a tiny amount of warm water.
And then to stir that into the wine.
Next step is to add the ‘liquigel’, a clever contraction of ‘liquid gelatine’ and the final fining agent.
Squirt in carefully.
Once everything is stirred up and all additions are done we need to top up the wine to the one gallon mark again. Don’t worry about diluting it: if you’ve been racking correctly you’ll be adding less than a cup and a half (350 ml) and the kit is actually formulated to accommodate this extra water.
After that it’s back on with all of the lids and airlocks and onto the counter to rest for six days until the wine is clear.
So far this has been the easiest, smoothest winemaking I’ve ever done: the one-gallon size makes doing one kit so easy, so quick, and so simple that doing three more at the same time doesn’t feel like work at all–it feels like a fun hobby leading to a great end–wine!
One of the cool things about the Master Vintner Small Batch kit is the size. Compared to lugging 6 US-gallon (23 litre) carboys around, the Little Big Mouth fermenter is a breeze. I’m a big, strong brute, but even I get twinges in my lower back when I have four or five full-sized carboys to lift up for racking.
First things first: I assembled my equipment and double-checked the instructions. Yes, I wrote them, but I’ve become slightly obsessive about double-checking them for accuracy. I’m the only guy I know who can argue with himself about following instructions that he wrote!
Not only are the Small Batch kits easy to lift, you can also place them just about anywhere. Rather than having to rack from a primary fermenter sitting on the counter to a carboy down to the floor, I popped the LBM onto a box on my countertop and put the jug beside it. I love working at counter height! Honestly, this has got to be one of the killer sell features of this kit: light weight, ease-of-use and dead simple, too.
If you’ve never seen an Autosyphon in action, the small version that came with the kit is a great piece of hardware. Plain syphons work fine, but you have to start them either by filling them with water, covering both ends and simultaneously plunging the pick-up rod into the wine and the hose into a bucket to catch the extra water, and then swap when the wine comes through, or by sticking them into the wine and sucking on the hose like you’re stealing gasoline from a car–which is a little unsettling, but sometimes an opportunity to ‘accidentally’ drink from the hose (wine, not gasoline).
Check out the Autosyphon action:
While the Autosyphon took care of racking the wine into the gallon jug, I did two more things. First, I deftly filled my hydrometer jar with wine so I could check the specific gravity, and second, I tilted the Little Big Mouth back towards the side of the jug that the syphon tip was in. Tilting it would allow me to get all of the liquid out of the jug, while the anti-sediment tip on the syphon prevented any yeast-goo from going into the jug.
Checking the hydrometer reading, I saw that it was good.
The reading was 0.992–my wine was finished fermenting. Time to look at the instructions, where I wrote down the gravity from day one.
We started at 1.090 and finished at 0.992. With a little math, we subtract the finishing gravity from the beginning, multiply by 131 and we get 1.090 – .992 = 0.98 and 0.98 x 131 = 12.838, or just shy of 13% alcohol, perfect for our Merlot.
Of course there was also the necessity for a quality control test.
Smelled young, but very good, with nice dark cherry notes. As for the taste . . .
The taste was impressive for such a young sample–it’s going to be pretty good!
The last thing to do was to put the cap an airlock onto the jug and clean up all the equipment I used–well, after I finished racking the other three wines!
I’m sold. It’s one thing to develop a kit in the laboratory and taste bench samples, but it’s another (and completely necessary) thing to do it right in your own kitchen, among the cats and cabbage rolls to see how it’s going to work in the real world. I’m happier with this kit than with anything I’ve done in a long time, and in 12 days I’m going to get it stabilising and cleared and then it’s off to bottling. Hurrah!