Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Mmmm, tubes.

n assignment in Singapore in late 2015, some colleagues discovered a cool bar near the hotel called LongPlay.  Beyond awesome cocktails and some amazing bar snacks, the venue was known for it's impressive vinyl collection and for local DJs coming in to spin some tracks.  While sipping my lovely whiskey, I was thoroughly impressed with the sound coming out of these records.  A co-worker, Aaron, got to talking to me about setting up his vinyl collection, turntables, etc.  I was hooked.

So when I got done moving around all over, I began to piece together my system.  After a lot of research I was hell bent on getting a vintage Micro Seiki turntable.  I wanted a belt drive one, but the prices for those were out of control, so I ended up with direct drive.  That turntable came first, and it drove me crazy because I had no amp or speakers to play it on.  To avoid being rushed, I then got a dedicated headphone amp (the WA-6) from Woo Audio and a dedicated phono preamp from Shannon Parks at Budgie.  Honestly, I had never ever heard such a beautiful, clean sound out of an amplifier.  It was that purchase that made me realize I should not rush on the amp and speakers, but rather think it through meticulously and choose wisely.

The final audio setup.
It was right around this time that I learned of the mistake in a previous post about Jolida, that the real brand was based in Maryland and not in China. So the JD801 amp that I had continuously admired from afar was actually a US made product with German, special-wound transformers (where the winding actually has a patent) and the legendary 6550 tubes.  The other aspect I loved was the absolutely simple interface.  Power button, Volume, Input Selector.  The Bypass switch was nearly too much....  I ordered the newer Fusion 801 from a guy in Indiana, and 53 pounds of glory arrived on my porch a few days later.

For speakers, I found that Klipsch was discontinuing it's top tier speakers (Palladium).  I wanted the towers, but I also recognized that I'll never have a room that warrants them.  So I got the "bookshelf" version (note: they will never fit in a bookshelf).  I bi-wired them with Canare 4S11 cables.

All plugged in and vibration issues sorted out (about a week to get that all fixed) and all was ready.  I played Caribou, Sigur Ros, Chinese Man, Underworld.  This was a new amp with new tubes, and new speakers that had not been broken in, and I couldn't stop smiling.  It was just damned amazing, and I felt like the guy from the Maxell ad circa 1979:

Jolida Fusion 801 amp + Klipsch Palladium Speakers + Budgie Phono Preamp + Micro Seiki Turntable...felt like this. 
For the first time, I could hear the difference between good and bad sound engineering.  Some artists are amazing, but if they had a hack put together their vinyl offering, the whole experience collapsed.

The amp itself was a pleasure to use.  It actually came with a remote that had all of four buttons and was housed in a solid aluminum case.  After being warmed up, the max volume (with nothing playing) yielded only the very, very faintest of hums and was likely entirely due to a lack of wire isolation.  (My audio table filled up quickly.)  There were times I wish it had just a bit more power, because running at 3/4 volume felt a bit like running a car at 6500 rpm for a sustained period.

A year after I bought it, I'm still amazing every time I play something.  London Grammar's first album "Truth is a Beautiful Thing" is still my favorite.  Like many things, technology hasn't always made things better, and music is one of them.  If you get the chance, listen to a vinyl record on a tube amp and see for yourself.  It's a breathtaking experience.


Friday, October 28, 2016

That'll get you up in the morning.

t was August, 2014 when it dawned on me that my coffee was crap. Actually, I knew it was crap for some years by then, so rather it was August 2014 when I decided to do something about it.

My foray into espresso actually started in 1996.  Poor as can be, I acquired a Krups  espresso machine from some store like Williams Sonoma, Target, or whatever you'd find in a New Jersey strip mall at that time.  It wasn't really espresso (like I had remembered from hanging out with friends in high school at the coffee shop) but rather "stronger coffee."  But whatever, in 1996 I felt fancy and with my sleep schedule as awful as it was, I needed the additional kick.

Come 2014, this started to look silly on my counter.  I refused to buy an actual drip coffee machine; they're all junk.  And don't even get me started about pods....coffee doesn't come in pods.  A friend had bought one of those super-automatic ones where you fill it with everything, push a button, and get your beverage.  About a year and a half after he bought that though, it died.  I began exploring semi-automatic machines, watching endless amounts of videos and reading through post after post of geeky coffee machine reviews.  It came time to do something about it.

I got a Rocket!  To me, it was the perfect blend of style, build, and performance.  There's a bunch of models they offer across a (relatively) narrow price point.  I got the Giotto Evoluzione v2, 61.5 pounds of gleaming chrome goodness.  Ability to plumb it so you can lose the water tank.  Insulated copper boiler.  Italian legacy, made in Milan.  To show my gratefulness for their helpful videos on YouTube, I ordered from Seattle Coffee Gear.

Machine arrived about a week after I ordered it.  Getting it up four flights of stairs was not my favorite task, but it made it.  The portafilters are a joy to hold in your hand, with a lot of heft and a nice handle feel.  To accompany this lovely machine, I got the Barazza Forte grinder.  Everything I read everywhere said to get a great grinder, as the machine is only a piece of the equation.  This grinder seemed pretty amazing, with weight-based grinding to the 10th of a gram and 200 more grind settings than you'll ever use.

My experience with Seattle Coffee Gear was less amazing, though.  The machine came with a cracked valve.  I was given the option to either send the whole beast back and get a new one, or they could send the new valve and have me install it.  I opted for the valve, and although I was nervous as hell to take a part a brand new machine, it went fairly well.  The bummer experience came later, when another leak occurred after a subsequent transport.  I identified the issue, and called to get a part.  I was told they could not send me the part unless I looked up the part number, but they would send me the parts catalog.  Really?!?  Ok, so I got the catalog and ordered the part.  Part came; wrong part.  When I called back, the woman wanted to know why it was the wrong part...did I make a mistake?

At this point I was kind of incensed, and asked why the hell that mattered.  "Oh, because if you made the mistake, you would not be reimbursed for shipping."  I don't know what shipping was, but let's call in under $10 and this felt pretty outrageous in terms of support and customer service.  In the end, it turned out they had sent me the wrong parts catalog.  I was also not reimbursed for shipping.  Suffice it to say, subsequent business will not be transacted with them.

Service issues aside, the machine is a champ.  Don't move it if you can help it.  Do descale the machine fairly often to keep it running and happy.  It's a time consuming job, but the coffee a clean machine produces is truly spectacular.  Barring me opening a coffee shop, it is safe to say I will not ever purchase another coffee machine.


Thursday, October 20, 2016

Better than the Election

pdates!  It's been forever since I've updated this blog, and there's oh so much to tell you about.  There's been some fabulous new additions, interesting expeditions, some cool new places to shop.  But I want to start with some simple updates from some of the older posts.  For example:

  • In Sealing the Sleep Deal: Sheets I told you about Thomas Lee, and how (as far as sheets to price ratio goes) they're the best sheets I've ever found.  After using and washing and using and more washing, these are still holding up really well.  I had bought two sets, but remained on the lazy end of swapping them.  They lasted about 3 years of pretty regular use before I bought set #3 to replace set #1.  (Set #2 being the one I still forget to change out.)
  • In Flawless Fidelity - From China?? I introduced you to Jolida Audio.  What I failed to figure out until much later is that the Jolida amp pictured is actually built in Maryland.  I bought the successor to that, the Jolida JD801 Fusion and it's mindblowing.  Two things here:  1) Chinese tube amps are still a great value and an entry into the tube audio market.  2) What I discovered with Jolida though is that the brand was essentially stolen (there's a story there, but I'll save you) and a counterfeit brand (from China) was introduced.  And that's not cool by any measure.  Amp I bought will be reviewed later.
  • In Step Aside, Heinz - Real Ketchup Has Arrived I told you about Sir Kensington's ketchup and how it was not only awesome, but contained real ingredients.  Since then, Heinz has launched a new Organic version, and I have to say that I am impressed.  They replaced all of the junk ingredients with real ones, even taking out the dreaded corn syrup.  One should give credit where credit is due.  Try them both!
Please look forward to new updates; I'm excited to share some new product discoveries as well as some projects!


Thursday, June 25, 2015

Too Big to Succeed

ack in the start of the financial crisis in 2008 we heard a lot about companies that were "too big to fail."  The concept, at a high level, was that if these giant companies failed two awful things could happen:  1) A lot of people will lose jobs and 2) It could kick off a chain reaction of other like-businesses to fail.  There's a lot of opinions about the pros and cons of this policy.  In the meantime, our government continues to approve mega-mergers at a staggering rate, as if giant companies are in a race to achieve "too big to fail" status.

In the meantime, I bring to you one of the best examples of "bigger must be better" failures:  The US Postal Service.  On May 8, 2015 the USPS reported an operating loss for Q2 of $1.5 Billion dollars.  Let me repeat: they lost roughly $1,500,000,000 in three months.  That's a pretty hefty number to chew on, but wait....there's more.  The cost of operating the USPS for the same three months was $18.4 Billion dollars.

Can't email the
Post Office in the 
USA, sorry.
Can email the
Post Office in
The current population of the US (total number of USPS customers) is 318.9 million, ignoring for a moment the fact that kids under age 10 may not actually be customers) means that each human in the United States would have to contribute $237.07 each year to keep it afloat.  Now check your mailbox (the one outside) and tell me if that's a subscription service you'd pay for.  Most of my mail is flyers and junk that immediately finds its way into the recycling bin.  Critical bills come to email or are set to autopay.  Occasionally I might get a package sent to me by USPS, but most of them are from abroad, late, and undelivered, requiring me to pick them up from the surly people at the Cadman Plaza Post Office in Brooklyn, NY.  ...Who may also have lost it.  Hold times for USPS phone support run at about 20 minutes.  Want to email them?  Sorry, they don't have an email address.  Conversely, you can easily email the PakPost, Pakistan's Post Office, one click off the homepage.

The Post Office was once a major agency of the government and included a cabinet member position of Postmaster General.  And with good reason; at one point mail was delivered twice per day.  It was the main method of communication, and the golden age for this amazing organization that managed to hand sort, carry, and successfully deliver probably 10 or 15 times or more the volume of mail that is distributed today.  Infrastructure was invested in, more people were hired, logistics were refined.  But somehow, with less mail and more automation, the service is crappier than ever.  In short, the USPS is too big to succeed.  It's a failing corporation that has a taxpayer crutch, keeping it out of Chapter 11 on the basis of "Don't you like your mail carrier?" (mine, Theresa, is awesome by the way) and "It's an amazing historical institution that we shouldn't destroy." and "Getting mail is still important to many rural communities."

My parents live in one of those rural areas, and they need mail.  They can only get on the internet through dialup (yup, they use a 56.6 "baud" modem today to get an internet connection) because the infrastructure isn't there to deliver normal internet.  Imagine then if the telecom companies (love them or hate them) had the ability to spend an extra $73.6 Billion dollars on infrastructure?  That's an investment that would serve those ignored area, an infrastructure that would provide a meaningful service for years to come.  Now imagine that junk mail companies, the last major killer of trees outside of law firms, had no vehicle to which to send junk mail.  I mean, Fedex and UPS and DHL are hardly viable options.  Trees saved.  More vehicles off the road that were delivering dead trees.  Happier people, free of junk mail, living in a cleaner environment.

Let's shut this down, people.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Your favorite cutting board, ever.

ast summer I spent a lot of time at the Brooklyn Flea. I had gotten my new wheels (definitely an upcoming post) and had always wanted to go there, but found it just out of range of my "circle of willingness." It's your typical flea market, complete with interesting vendors selling whatever. Being a Brooklyn flea market, the deals are few and far between, leaving most people to show up expressly for the food. Oh, the food. Brisket Man (company name still unknown) was a favorite, quickly followed by the Red Hook Lobster Pound. I'd go almost every Sunday for those two things. As I puttered around, I also spied a fellow selling the most beautiful cutting boards I had ever seen. As I oogled over his boards, he offered me a flyer to do a cutting board class, where I could make my own. It was a tough work summer though, and I didn't see myself getting to the Gowanus neighborhood by 7pm. Twice. On Fridays. So the flyer lived on my fridge.

Fast forward to February, when my friend N.E. experienced the agony that is shopping for Yours Truly for my birthday.  She spied the flyer, patiently waiting on my fridge, and went for it.  How cool of a gift is that?!?

At the conclusion of the course, a survey was offered.  "Is it what you expected?" one of the questions asked.  Thinking back, I had no idea what to expect.  The flyer offered, "Make a custom cutting board!  2 Friday evenings....with wine and snacks.  Learn something woodworking, bring a +1, & make something cool."  That could mean anything from your former grumpy shop teacher droning on on a 90 min monologue while you hold his tools and he makes your board...to a super cool, dynamic evening of getting messy while actually learning how to use interesting power tools.  Thankfully it was the latter.

Pete, the fellow who makes the boards and teaches the class, couldn't be more awesome.  He's eclectic, knowledgeable, and passionate about his craft.  On one occasion, he started a sentence by saying, "I was reading about glue last night, and..."  Now that's my kind of guy.  It reminds me about my earlier days of photography.  So here's the skinny:

Day 1:  You learn about different woods, hardness, glue.  Pete hooks you up with boards of two varying thicknesses and in three woods (Maple, Cherry, and Walnut).  He tells you about the artistic properties of wood grains, where it was cut, and how the wood type, grain, and width may be used to create beautiful and unique patterns.  With this knowledge, you loosely assemble your cutting board as you please.  You glue and clamp it.  Later that evening, you unclamp and scrape it to remove most of the excess glue.  You go home, excited for Day 2.

Day 2:  Pete took the time to plane and trim most of the boards, save one (mine, yay!) so you can see how it was done.  He shows you how to use a drill press, a hand router, a table router, and a sander to complete the rest of the board, then leaves you to do it yourself.  You then sand the board, and finally oil it.  The oiling is most rewarding because it changes the color and properties of the board and you'll get to see your near-final product.  You bid it farewell to be picked up in a week.

Final Product
Final Pickup:  You meet Pete at any one of a number of convenient locations, where he hands you the board.  Feet got installed, as well as the oh-so-awesome riveted metal plaque.  You can go without the feet and the plaque....you'd just be a fool to do so.  Pete also gives you a bottle of mineral oil so you can care for the board, and the mounting hardware if you want to hang it on the wall.  You take it home, stare at it and touch it frequently.  Of note:  Any of the cherry wood you use reacts some to the UV light, so leaving it in the sun will make it darker and redder.  It's amazing.

Throughout both days, beer and wine and dried sausages and chips and hummus were offered.  The sausages came from another vendor at the flea, and were amazing.  The beer was from Six Points.  This was no shabby spread.  The other classmates were a varied range of ages and sexes, and those that claimed they were "dragged" there by their partners quickly found themselves having a good time.  Throughout, I had an endless stream of questions, which patient Pete kindly answered.  I left with an even greater respect for woodworking than I had originally, additional knowledge about how to use some really amazing tools, and of course my awesome cutting board.

If you don't live near and therefore don't have a chance to take the course, I'd highly suggest buying one of these boards directly from the Gowanus Furniture Company.  The fit and finish is top notch, and Pete's designs are amazing.  Want a custom size?  He can do that for you.  Want end-grain?  That can be done too, though at greater expense (and now I understand why that is - WAY more time and effort.).  You won't be disappointed.


Monday, December 10, 2012

Flawless Fidelity - from China??

oving into my new place seemed a daunting task unto itself.  Usually, the first thing to move is whatever device it takes to get music, seeing as that makes everything else just a little bit easier.  Not this place, though.  With its high ceilings, I wanted my speakers to be ceiling mounted and devoid of cables.  That meant cutting a bunch of holes in new perfect walls, which was not only awful but messy.  Yours truly is not the handiest person in the world, so there was no certainty it would be put back together well either.  Nonetheless, after a good week or so it turned out as planned, and it was finally time to attach the receiver and see if noise come out.  Thankfully, it did (seeing as I forgot to do this test before patching all the walls).

Kenwood KR-V5580 circa 1996
Back in my late teens and early twenties I was as much of an electronics and audio buff as I could be with my limited budget.  I couldn't wait for the next receiver to come out with more features and buttons than ever.  Like most "noobs" in this area, it was features and electronics that mattered, not really the quality of the sound or the speakers themselves.  I gave that up in 1996 when I purchased my last Kenwood receiver from a Best Buy type place.  It's been with me ever since, along with some Polk speakers I bought in 2000.  Honestly, I didn't find them half bad, especially after I found that good speaker cable makes a difference.  These days, however, I'm finding that I have to turn the volume up ever higher to get the same amount of sound that I got in the past.  The poor thing is giving out.

Having grown up some, I could care less about features.  I don't want surround sound - not 4 or 5 or 6 or 7 channels of anything - I just want flawless stereo sound.  Walk into any high end audio shop and their premier product is typically McIntosh, a bajillion dollar setup before you even have speakers.  What makes it sound so magical was their epiphany that tubes sound better than transistors.  It's a warmer, richer sound than any other tubeless amp, and an entry model will set you back about $2400 for the pre-amp, maybe another $3500 for the amp, and then some seriously fancy speakers to match.  Nice sound, but is it worth that kind of coin?   Not to me it isn't.  I like music as much as the next guy, but I don't think I'm going to hear the nuances between that and a cheaper competitor.  So I set out on a quest to find a better tube-based integrated amplifier.  "Integrated" means that the pre-amp and amp are in the same box so that you're buying one unit and not two.

Jolida JD801BRC Integrated Amplifier
Atwater Kent Model 10C Radio, circa 1924
In digging around, I came across a Chinese manufacturer called Jolida, who makes tube amps at earthbound prices.  They have a number of units available, but the JD801BRC really stood out.  Aesthetically, this unit is a lot like the early radios of the 1920s.  Back then, simple was the name of the game, so early radio companies simply adhered the components directly to a board.  It looks crude by today's standards, but they had a machine-age beauty to them.

The Jolida build quality is not something that you'd find in your mass-produced iron from China - these aren't made by the thousands.  They do contain some high quality tubes that provide depth and warmth of sound and feature a faint glow when warmed up.  The unit features a power switch, a volume knob, and an input selector for four input sources.  Done.  No stupid features, absurd displays, configuration options, etc.  You add speakers, it amplifies the input source, and produces amazing sound.  It's even nice to look at.  Tubes need to be replaced from time to time and they're not cheap, but outside of that there's no reason why this unit wouldn't last a lifetime.  Weighing in at 47 pounds, one can actually feel that shortcuts were not taken.

The lesson here?  Made in China is not always something to be wary of; the Chinese are producing some pretty amazing stuff at great prices, from audio equipment to furniture to cameras.  Just read about it and do your research; in this instance you can have some pretty high end kit for about 1/5th the cost.  May this be the last receiver I ever own!


Correction: Jolida is actually a US company; the Chinese version is a copycat brand. Buyers beware! There are other good Chinese tube amps though; check out Mei-Xing for example.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Grilling Dreams

ew York City does not generally conjure up images of backyard grilling. It does however make people think of closet-sized apartments, rampant pests, quirky neighbors and building supers.  Those familiar with Brooklyn, however, know about the Brownstone culture with the cozy backyards.  Someone always knows someone with a garden apartment with a grill out back.  It's how we do Memorial Day BBQs.

Yours truly has been dreaming about how to make use of some potentially upcoming deck space.  Not a yard, but we do what we gotta do here!  A grill seems like the first order of business, so I got to the research.  Those who are into grilling know the age-old argument:  Gas or charcoal?  Gas lovers cite the same tasting food with the added convenience of "instant on" and "easy off."  Corner them and they'll tell you the coal-grilled food tastes like lighter fluid.  The charcoal crowd says the taste difference is absolutely extraordinary, and who cares about the time it takes to get started.  You might even get a lecture on how solid fuel has been serving mankind since before recorded history.  Passions run high.

Don't look for this on your Weber.
Not to sound wishy-washy, but I agree with both points.  There's a time and a place for gas and a time and a place for charcoal.  But getting two grills seems like a waste of precious space.  The average price per square foot in some Brooklyn neighborhoods runs into the $700s range, so every bloody inch of space counts.  "What about a grill that can do both - does anyone make those?" I pondered.  Holy shit, do they ever!

There's two that I found - some shitty looking contraption on Amazon and then the Kalamazoo Hybrid grills. The thing on Amazon looks like an interesting way to set your home on fire.  The Kalamazoo looks amazing!  The base model Kalamazoo is a simple grill that has gas burners under a solid fuel drawer.  Want gas?  Keep the drawer empty and turn on the gas.  Want charcoal?  Load the drawer with charcoal....then turn on the gas - no lighter fluid required!  When the coals are lit, turn off the gas, and voila.  Beyond charcoal, you can also load up the drawer with wood.  It's brilliant!

Is that all?  No. The grill comes with a built-in rotisserie system with two independent burners.  On a lot of grills something like that is an option, but On Kalamazoo it's standard.  Because rotisserie cooking is awesome.  A flip-up warming rack also comes standard.

Two 16,000 BTU side burners.
In the way of accessories, there's some other cool options.  A smoker can be built-in, but you have to decide you want that upon order (grills are built to order).  It's a separate unit with two vents to control the oxygen and the amount of smoke drawn into the grill.  The independent heat source makes it a real smoker, not something that has to smolder within a hot grill.  At time of order, you can also get two 16,000 BTU side burners, so the whole meal can be done in one place.  And then there's the grilling surface itself.  Coming standard is your typical bar-style grill grate.  Optional extras include a laser-cut meat surface, vegetable surface, fish surface.  Choose a different surface for each side.  Design your own surface if you like.  The grill grates are pricey (would be nice if they were included) but unlike the smoker you can order them at any time.  They're also cut from 1/4" steel and polished.
Custom surface options - vegetable, fish, meat (from left to right)
laser cut from 1/4" stainless steel.
Ok, so perhaps there's one drawback:  It's the price of a car.  On the other hand:
  • By NYC standards, two burners & a grill is essentially an entire kitchen.  And the price isn't bad compared to installing a new kitchen in NYC.
  • Grilling is healthier for you.  A healthy life is worth the price of a car.
  • Even if you're bankrupt, you can still find small branches to burn and cook with.  Just beware of the Parks Department, they can get kinda nasty.
  • It's cheaper than buying two grills separately. It saves more room than two separate grills.
  • It's handcrafted to order in the US. And I mean handcrafted with 38 feet of hand welding with weld polishing, and construction with hand wrenches.  You're helping to employ someone.
  • Anyone in their right mind would prefer a grill over a car anyway.
  • It's the only decent hybrid grill you will find.

So at the end of the day, if you're gonna dream grills, why not dream big.


Saturday, August 4, 2012

Perfect for the hot, muggy day!

t was a hot, sticky, gross day and I was motoring around looking at apartments for sale. If you're shopping for apartments in NYC without hoards of cash on hand you'll find yourself either depressed or in odd neighborhoods. And that's what brought me to the corner of Pacific St and Washington Ave in Brooklyn.

I first toured the apartments, hoping that some nice cool air conditioning would set things straight. Nope. Not only did the units not have the a/c on, but they were also glass cubes that would allow sun in from all angles. And on the 7th floor with a broken elevator. And overpriced.

So I left as a sweaty mess and made for the closest place with cold drinks. It was a cute little place called Ortine. I walked in and was greeted by a charming woman who asked what I would like. Really, I wanted a coke. But I looked around looking for confirmation that they had coke (signs, fridge with coke, coke glasses, whatever) and saw nothing. Then I saw a bottle of ginger beer. I LOVE ginger beer. But I couldn't tell if they were selling it or if they had a bottle on display because it looked good. "You sell that ginger beer?" I asked. "Sure do." she replied. She pulled out a frosty one and I was off. Walked two steps out the door and took a sip. Mind: blown. I looked at the label, and it was Fentimans Ginger Beer, an English brand bottled in Canada. So good. Later, I found this commecial spot for it on YouTube:

Hilarious. Drink this and you will not be disappointed!


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Never Judge a Book...

'll readily admit that I've slacked here a bit, but life has been way more busy recently than it has in a long time.  I work hard to not make long-range plans, and yet for a few weeks now I've had a series of events that had been scheduled far in advance.  It's been fun, but I need a break!  So until that happens, I'd like to share this story from a friend of mine which is most certainly appropriate content for this space.  He is a very successful entrepreneur and a really friendly guy, and I absolutely loved this story (complete with a moral!).

"Yeah this is going to come off [as] pretentious - fuck it I'm tired, cranky and wet:

So going into TD Bank I bump into a couple of guys in suits who treat me like I was bringing them lunch (I'm very casual today - hoodie, pasha, designer jeans). They ask if I want a job, I smile and respond with "I created my job, why don't you go back to your cubical before your boss fires you."

You would think with the tech & startup culture in NYC these idiots would be more careful about the assumptions they make. Especially when they are wearing off the rack suits (badly tailored) and discount shoes."

Cheers, MF.


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Vanilla that's worth the price of beans.

ne of my favorite magazines ever is Fine Cooking, produced by Taunton Press.  The recipes are simple, the tips are amazing, and the photography is brilliant.  If ever I'm not in the mood to cook, a quick 5-minute browse through any of their issues (I save them all) is all it takes before I want to spend the day in the kitchen.  Unlike Martha, these recipes typically call for a short list of good ingredients and don't take a zillion steps to complete.  The photography and the way they present alternative ingredients to vary the recipes is brilliant.

Article from Fine Cooking magazine. 
What does this have to do with vanilla??  Well, I was skimming through the April/May 2012 issue and came upon a wonderful story from a woman on the topic of sablé cookies.  (Sablé is French for "sand" - accurately describing the crumbly nature of this cookie.)  The article, which included a recipe (at right, full-size here) discussed the virtues of simple cooking and finding the best ingredients.  In this recipe, the emphasis is very much on the butter, a key ingredient.  This was very exciting to me, so I decided to make them.

For the first batch, I found Isigny Ste. Mere Beurre butter, a french butter known for it's high butterfat content (82%) from happy french cows.  When I went to grab my vanilla beans from the cabinet, however, disappointment struck.  The recipe called for "two soft, plump vanilla beans."  What fell out of the spice jar were two shriveled, not-so-plump, mildly stiff vanilla beans.  Not wanting to deal with another trip to the grocery store to find more of the same, I proceeded with what I had on hand.  The cookies were good (if not a bit too big) and were thoroughly enjoyed by grateful work colleagues.
For the second try, I knew I could do better outside of traditional grocery channels.  For starters, I found better butter from Vermont - Vermont Creamery's Cultured Butter with a whopping 86% butterfat.  Sorry, France.  Next, the game was on to find the right vanilla beans.  Search after search finally turned up Amadeus Trading Company, a vanilla bean importer based in California.  They have a wide selection of vanilla beans for sale, and similar to other companies I like, they do one thing: import vanilla beans.  Their site is extremely informational, and I was able to learn lots about the differences between Tahitian vanilla and Bourbon Vanilla, vanillin content, the effect of bean length, etc.  It greatly satisfied my OCD.  The president, Glenn Gottlieb, quickly responded to my email when I had questions.  The pictures on the site show that the company actually visits their suppliers around the world and develops the relationships that ensure good product.  I decided to try the Uganda Gold (Bourbon) beans with the higher vanillin count, and also scooped up a dwindling supply of the long Tahitian vanilla beans.  They were promptly shipped.

Armed with the new butter and amazingly soft, plump vanilla beans (of two varieties) I set out once more to make the ultimate sablé cookies.  This time, I used three beans - two Uganda Gold and one Tahitian.  The Tahitian beans (Vanilla Tahitensis) is a different species of bean with lower vanillin but with more aromatics than the Bourbon beans.  This second batch was hands down better than the first, and the apartment smelled of vanilla for days.  Upon opening the sealed carton of cookies I made, a room would fill with the smell of vanilla.  They were outstanding.