I always have flour, eggs, butter/oil, and entire drawers full of spices (many of which I’ve forgotten I own) and would like some easy baking tips?
Or, ever wonder how bread, pie, pasta, and biscuits can be so different from one another yet are all made out of basically the same four ingredients: flour, liquid, fat, and maybe salt? Or wish you had the universe of salad dressings instantly at your fingertips?
Michael Ruhlman has pulled together a kitchen magic tome: it’s equal parts fundamental ingredient ratios in cooking and baking, an anti-recipe cookbook, and for anyone searching for beginner cooking tips, this little nugget is a great place to start.
It is, essentially, a periodic table of elemental baking and cooking basics turned into a book with wildly helpful insights, all by an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America who is also a talented and engaging writer.
It’s based on the deliciously simple idea that once you know the essential ratios and a few fundamental techniques (happily supplied in his book) of any general category of food, the entire universe of flavours is yours with which to futz.
Wish I’d read it years ago… it would have saved us a ton on cookbooks. (Well, probably not… Rick is a yuuuge fan of beautiful coffee table cookbooks.) But it sure would have made my life in the kitchen easier and way more fun,
The staff of life, for instance, is essentially a 5:3 deal: five parts flour to three parts water, most preferably determined by weight, since flour density can vary widely based on local humidity.
Up until now, I hadn’t thought of our kitchen scale as one of our top ranking contenders in the home baking equipment and tools, but there is, apparently, a lot I don’t know.
Given that measuring by weight make the ratios so much easier, Ruhlman says that of all the kitchen gizmos that should have a permanent place on your kitchen counter, a good electronic kitchen scale with a tare function (meaning it can zero out the weight of your container and just weigh the ingredients) should make the short list.
The OXO Good Grips 11 lb Food Scale with Pull Out Display (above) is the current Cook’s Illustrated best rated digital scale. We have the My Weigh KD-8000, which has served us well for the past eight years, but whatever…. As long as it’s reliable, can tare, weigh in grams as well as ounces, and looks dashing on your kitchen counter, run with it.
This ability to weigh the ingredients is what allows you to cook for two or adjust for twenty (but it won’t help with the dishes). It’s the ratio, plus some standard techniques that Ruhlman explains simply in the book, that distinguishes your pizza from your pasta and allows you to easily adjust the proportions to suit your volume: 1000 grams of flour to 6000 grams of water will get you roughly the same quality results as 500 grams of flour to 300 grams of water, or 5 ounces of flour and 3 ounces of water.
In the field of home cooking tips, it doesn’t get much easier than that.
5 : 3 = bread.
You also have to add some yeast and salt, but here the amounts are determined by the technique.
No-knead overnight bread needs a long, slow rise, so use less yeast–1/4 tsp–and more salt (to inhibit rising), up to 1.5 tsp.
Regular kneaded dough has a much faster rising period, so more yeast–up to 2.5 tsp– and less salt–1/2 tsp–gets the job done.
What isn’t flexible is the ratio of flour to water for bread: 5 : 3. That’s it. And when you think about a food that has been around for thousands of years across almost every culture on the planet, it’s not surprising that it should be that simple. The infinite number of nuances on the subject, however, are what makes cooking and eating such a soul-satisfying experience. Food texture and flavour both connect us to the past and tease us into innovating the future. It’s the difference between my Granny and yours.
Hankering for a piece of homemade pie?
How to Make 3:2:1 Pie Pastry
The baking ratio for pie is three parts flour, two parts fat, one part ice water, added gently to each other in that order until the fat gets worked into pea-sized lumps into the flour, and then the water has homogeneously dampened the mixture to the point where it holds together. Start with 12 ounces of flour: sort of the right amount for a double pie crust.
Shape the dough into two flattish disks, wrap in plastic, and chill for a half an hour.
Roll each disc out on a floured surface. Fold the first circle at the center, place it in the middle of your pie pan with the edges hanging over the side, unfold the circle, and pat gently into place. Fill with something delicious, and top with second circle. Cut extra pastry from edges, pinch bottom and top together, cut some slashes in the top to let the steam out, and pop into a hot oven (375 degrees, usually) until golden brown and astounding.
Pining for pasta? 3 (flour) : 2 (eggs), Mix well, knead for about 10 minutes, wrap in plastic and let rest on the counter for half an hour. Roll out on floured surface until super thin but still even thickness across the sheet, cut in whatever width noodles appeals to you, drop into salted boiling water and cook for about two minutes.
This ratio even comes with a handy serving guide: one egg per adult at your table.
These are cold leftovers from dinner Friday night. It was so amazing that we went all “power of now” and became one with the chicken parm and fresh noodles dressed with olive oil, red pepper flakes, black pepper, salt, and some fresh parsley.
Even though I had made the noodles based on the ratio and technique outlined in Ruhlman’s book and knew I would be writing this post, it didn’t occur to me until yesterday when Rick pulled the leftovers out of the fridge for lunch that I hadn’t taken a photo.
So, this is basically a photo of cold leftovers. Imagine then, how incredible it was steaming hot and fresh?!
The bottom line is that cooking with ratios frees us to innovate successfully with fresh, local, and Muse-friendly ingredients until we’re eating like the French, with each meal savored for the singular experience it is.
Unless there are leftovers, in which case you get to enjoy it twice.
Want a gentle, back-friendly, total-body workout that doesn’t feature pounding, twisting, or dependence on just one major muscle group to elevate cardiovascular effort? There may be a rowing machine in your future. The good news is that it’s a fairly easy decision to make.
Dig into the world of rowing machine reviews in search of the best rowing machine, and you’ll quickly learn one thing: you’ll basically be deciding between the Concept2 Model D and something else.
The Concept2 rowing machine is THE industry standard bearer. The company has been in business for 40 years and the Model D has a huge fan base. Amazon awards a whopping 4.9 stars from over 1000 reviewers and, with an overall score 85 from Consumer Reports, it’s their highest rated rowing machine for 2016 out of the six machines they tested (top two runners up listed below), measured in the categories of:
How well designed is the pedal restraint system? (excellent)
How easy is it to see and operate the display and fiddle with the resistance level? (very good)
How well made is it? (excellent)
How safe is it to use? (excellent)
Even the Concept2 page on Amazon knocks all the others out of the park, with a series of super-thorough but short videos broken down into manageable bites of rowing machine advice on everything from how to use a rowing machine, proper technique, intensity and pause workouts, and more.
As my dad would say, these Concept2 people know their onions.
However, as is often the case at Chez Rick and Kathy, the Consumer Reports highest-rated gizmo isn’t the one we ended up buying. We landed on the Xebex Air Rower instead.
(Or maybe he’s just wondering if he’ll ever get a turn.)
Rowing Machine Decision Factors
In addition to the four variables Consumer Reports tested, the pertinent factors for us also involved cost, storage options, seat height, a touch of arthritis (or whatever the hell it is that’s making my left index knuckle huge), and my delicate tail bone/backside.
We’re definitely a “zero pain but ALL the gain” kinda couple. So, why did we go with the Xebex?
Rowing Machine Pricing
The Concept2 Model D and the Xebex are (as of this writing) priced almost exactly the same: both come in at $945 on Amazon.com, with the Xebex currently shipping an additional free “conditioning pack” composed of “Back Saver Pad, EZ Speed Rope, 20-pound Premium Wall Ball, and 15 pound Slam Ball.” Beyond the extra goodies, however, the two machines are not equally matched, feature for feature, and this is where our path diverged from Consumer Reports.
Space and Storage Requirements for a Rowing Machine
Where to operate and store a rowing machine was a huge care-about for us in our not huge home.
All rowing machines need roughly 9 x 4 feet when in use, which actually isn’t that much to ask in an average room. It’s sort of the conversation space between facing furniture. We simply don’t have ~40 feet of unused space in our house, however, to dedicate permanently to a piece of exercise equipment. We needed something that stored upright and was easy to move into place.
The Xebex has an easy-to-use hinge system. You just pull out the pop-pin, fold the unit neatly in two on to its four sturdy wheels, and whistle it into a corner and out of the way. If you can lift a 12-bottle pack of Perrier into a grocery cart and wheel it to the checkout, you can handle this.
It’s also a much sturdier unit than the Concept2, which means that even at maximum intensity by a big guy it feels solid and locked in place. It also means it’s a much heavier unit than the Concept2. However, with the fold-up design, handle, and four wheels, it’s also much easier to move around, and we don’t plan on carrying it up or down stairs any time soon.
The Concept2 Model D separates into two parts for storage, so it can also compress into a tidy footprint when not in use. However, we liked that the Xebex stays in one piece and has a solid base of four wheels to lightly skootch around on. It just seems like an easier set-up/tear-down system to us after about a month of use.
Rowing Machine Seat Height and Comfort
The Concept2 Model D has a standard seat height of 14″ from the ground, where the Xebex has a higher seat of 21″, or roughly the same as that of a normal chair. This makes mounting and dismounting the machine and getting your feet into the adjustable foot pads easier. For Rick at 6’1″, this is more important for him than for me at a piddly 5’8″, but still… my theory is that anything that makes exercise easier and more enjoyable is worth consideration.
Here’s where the pricing game came back into play.
Concept2 also has a newer model, the Model E, that sells from roughly $200 more than the Model D, and one of the big differences is… you guessed it! The seat is positioned 20″ from the ground.
Plus, the Xebex comes with a nicely padded seat (as do I, so that works out well). If you’re looking at rowing for 45-60 minutes a day, that extra seat padding can make a huge comfort difference. After all, the lungs can only benefit from what the bum can endure.
Of course, you could buy the Concept 2 Model D and for about $50 more, swap the original seat for the cushy upgrade by the aptly-named company, “EndureRow.”
Rowing Machine Handle Comfort
There’s extra padding on the thick rubber Xebex handles as well, and while there is much less wear-and-tear on your hands than I would have expected (if you’re rowing correctly, which means you’re holding the handle loosely with the ends of your fingers like you’re carrying a suitcase, keeping your wrists flat), the handle on the Xebex is light and comfortable. No issues with that lovely knuckle of mine.
Of course, you could always just add a pair of these Neoprene/leather workout gloves to your cart: 1000 Amazon reviewers have given them a solid 4.4 stars. Note: in the reading and videos I’ve dived into on correct rowing technique (a few good resources listed below), I’ve never seen anyone recommend this particular grip. Maybe it’s just to show off the rowing gear here:
The Xebex Rower Display
The tiltable, battery-operated display on the Xebex doesn’t have the back lighting offered by the Concept2 “Performance Monitor 5” (PM5). This isn’t a huge issue for us as the display is still reasonably visible as you can see below.
Although the Xebex display is more limited in terms of fancier tracking of split times, etc., we don’t care. We’re not in this to compete, so the more feature-rich display doodads actually only serve to confuse the user (me). It tracks distance, speed, time, watts, paddle width, calories burned, and with the addition of a compatible heart-rate monitor, heart rate. Just hit “start” and begin to row, and all the metrics start tracking with the first pull. There’s even a programmable interval function, but as I manage this with the order of songs on my rowing playlist (below)… meh.
While Rick says it was a breeze to unbox and assemble (took him about 45 minutes), the user’s manual is helpful only from an entertainment perspective. For example, the first point in the section describing how to set a target distance reads as follows:
“Distance will gleam value at Distance field. DM will be time remnant. Time will be the time how long have user exercised. Others will blank.”
Yup. I blanked all right.
Fortunately, as mentioned above, it’s pretty intuitive, and for the non-gym rats/serious outdoor rowers among us, hitting “start” and rowing will get you all the info you need.
Finally, the webbed straps that keep your feet anchored to the foot rests tend to loosen a little over the course of a rowing session, so occasionally you might have to pause to give them a yank and cinch them up again. However, in conversation with other rowers, I’ve come to the conclusion this isn’t a problem unique to the Xebex as others report the same minor irritation with other models. That said, it is easily fixed: just attach a couple of stick-on velcro pieces to the strap ends.
This model uses a water flywheel to replicate the feel and sound of the real deal. What I love about the Xebex wind-resistance approach is, well, the wind. It’s a self-rewarding system: the harder I exercise, the more of a breeze I create for myself. Close your eyes, put on one of those “spa water music with seagulls” CDs, and there you are, skimming gently down the stream… (Or use my own custom playlist below if you want to keep your strokes per minute (SPM) between 23 and 30.)
Our local fitness equipment store mentioned that they get feedback that the webbed “chain” doesn’t get as high marks from their customers as does the actual chain style.
One reviewer on Amazon commented: “Leaks,” which shouldn’t be a problem as it is currently unavailable. Maybe they’re looking into the leak thing.
Others besides Consumer Reports seem to like this model: it scores 4.7 stars across ~170 reviewers at Amazon. Having lived with the lovely breeze that a wind resistance model supplies–plus the possibility for heading downstairs for a quick row and encountering a soppy mess–makes us unlikely candidates for any water rower, regardless of the ranking on Consumer Reports or Amazon.
I find listening to appropriately tempoed music has always heightened my enjoyment of any workout experience. (Masking the sound of my gasping for breath seriously amps my ability to slide into the “fun!” zone.) But believe me, it isn’t easy finding a rowing machine playlist already pulled together for a 50-something rower who wants to keep her heart rate in the 100-130 beats-per-minute zone. For me, this translates to roughly 22-30 strokes per minute, depending on if I’m warming up, zooming along at coasting speed, or indulging in the occasional sprint for some interval work.
It is, admittedly, a very eclectic mix, which works nicely for me. Want a more strenuous (or gentle) workout? Futz with the wind resistance damper until you find your sweet spot, then hop on for the ride!
And finally, for when you step off the rower and ease into a lovely stretch routine (you do stretch, right?): “Hello” by Adele, or “At Last,” by Etta James, no SPM for either one. Just three minutes of gentle anti-aging body care that’s as important, if not more so, than your time in the seat.
Sometimes it helps to have a visual reminder of what, at the highest level of abstraction, matters the most about a subject. Flashback: my teen-aged bedroom plastered with David Cassidy, Michael Jackson, Davey Jones, and a brief ill-advised flirtation with Donny Osmond.
This poster is actually way more helpful than any of the above ever turned out to be.
A great starter book for those stepping up to a rowing machine for the first time, or for the rest of us who just arrogantly hopped on and figured we knew everything there was to know about this mighty machine. It’s a little quirky, but enjoyably so, and full of helpful tips on how to row, the benefits of rowing, how to think about keeping your body fit for the rest of your life, and a bunch of stuff in the middle.
According to Amazon reviewers, this is a much more technically sophisticated tome for those interested in improving their on-water technique, achieving their PR (Personal Record for athletically-challenged among us), and so on. I’ll have to take their word for it. I’m still grooving with the “Zen of Rowing” vibe, the “rowing for fitness” mind-set, and the white-haired model reflected in the “Row Daily” book above.
Consumer Reports chose not to include the Xebex at all in their most recent testing, so it’s hard to compare apples to apples without putting it through its paces in their lab. However, recent conversations with our local gym buddies and fitness equipment dude in town, along with the price point, higher and more cushy seat, padded handle bars, sturdiness of build, and ease of mobility around our guest/TV room convinced us that this workhorse deserved a chance, and we almost always root for the underdog.
Just a little piece of gym trivia for you to whip out at the water cooler (because I stumbled on it during my research and hate to waste it):
Indoor rowing machines were originally called ergomachines (or “ergs,” by the cool kids) as they measure the amount of work performed. Why ellipticals or any other fitness machines that measure calories burned, distance run, etc. aren’t also called “ergs,” is because the rowing machine got there first. They’ve been around since the 4th century BC as onshore training devices for inexperienced oarsmen, but they weren’t known as ergs until the early 1960’s when they became the first piece of equipment that could precisely measure human power output.
Silver bells, silver bells… As the shoppers rush home with their treasures…
Listening to that Christmas song yesterday as we decorated our tree, I found myself reflecting on the lyrics: What made those parcels—tucked under our arms, then wrapped in sparkling paper and placed under the tree to twinkle in the reflection of the lights—so special?
It’s the delicious anticipation of delighting someone you love.
As Rick and I talked about earliest memories, we unearthed a few sweet insights around Christmas gifts.As kids, neither of us remember spending much time developing our consumer muscles. We didn’t regularly hang out in the toy section of department stores, and children back then simply weren’t marketed to nearly as aggressively as they are these days.
So when the Sears Wish Book appeared a month or so before Christmas, it was the one time of the year we had exposure to the wondrous possibilities of toys and games that could be ours.
We spent hours on our bellies in the living room, considering our options, eliminating the non-contenders, then zeroing in on and communicating our favorites with inked circles of desire.
Come Christmas morning, we were sometimes surprised with choices we hadn’t even known were available, but once they were unwrapped and ours, filled our hearts and hours with amazed delight.
For Rick, the Elgo Skyline Construction Kit was a standout.
He remembers being about six or seven years old, well before he knew that plastic interlocking building blocks even existed, or that it would appeal to the designer/builder/puzzle doer in him.
But Santa knew.
For me, my earliest receiver memories are split between a Christmas morning pair of red leather ski boots—WITH BUCKLES!—and a gift I received after seeing them in the catalogue, but not getting until my birthday in mid-January: a pair of bona fide go-go boots.
The ski-boots were a hit because a) I hadn’t realized the buckle types were available but immediately recognized the totally cool factor inherent in them, and b) they were a huge vote of bright red leather confidence from my parents in my sporting abilities.
And I did go forth and rock the slopes.
The go-go boots, on the other hand… I would have given my Nancy Sinatra fan club membership card for those boots. And on the morning of my eighth (ninth?) birthday, there they were, all mine.
AND my sensible, pragmatic, and always responsible mother permitted me to wear them—unlined, with a slippery sole, in the middle of January, in the snow belt known as Ottawa, Ontario, Canada—to school the next day.
For reasons I’ll be happy to go into over a couple of martinis with you some day, my inner artist really needed those boots at that point in my life.
For now, I hope you’ll lean on the truth of this: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” (Prov. 13:12)
The gears shifted for both of us at an early age when we realized we could get as much and more pleasure from giving gifts—both wrapped and not—to our dear ones.
Telling those we love by way of gifts that they are both seen and loved is one of the greatest presents that Christmas gives to us all.
We don’t get the Sears catalog anymore. I’m sure they’re out there, but I haven’t bought anything from Sears for years, and certainly not by their catalog, so we’re off the list.
But that’s okay.
Times change, and now the Sears catalog of our youth is called Amazon Holiday Central. For my inner holiday kid looking to replicate the first Saturday morning after the catalog arrives, belly down on the carpet, it’s one of the best gift stores online.
Google the words “face cream” and you’ll net a mind-boggling 150 million search results.
Add to your research “moisturizer” (20.5 million results), “lotion” (69.9 million), “ointment” (24 million), and “face serum” (50.7 million), and you now have well over THREE HUNDRED MILLION opinions to consider.
At that startling moment in a woman’s life where deciding on the best anti-aging cream for her particular face has suddenly become an earnest goal, that is definitely TMI.
Online shopping doesn’t reduce the complexity any either. An amazon.com search for “face cream” in all departments returns ~119,000 actual product listings, and that’s not even counting all the viscosity options mentioned above. Even a physical saunter through the stultifying number of face creams in my local London Drugs can cause me to break out in facial hives, which is precisely not the point.
In addition to the overwhelming number of options, I’m accosted by relentless marketing propaganda suggesting I search my mirror for signs of red blotches, visible pores, dark bags, fine lines, and reflections hinting at anything crepey, sagging, shriveled, or likely to turn into a pothole by next spring.
Factor in quasi-medical articles warning me of chemical ingredients likely to mutate my lymph nodes, and I confess to rapidly losing sight of my inner beauty.
Credible recommendations and reviews of the best anti-aging face cream and anti-wrinkle lotions are as illusive as the Fountain of Youth itself. Can’t someone trustworthy just point me to the magic cream, please?
Turns out there are, at least in my world, a number of sources I do trust, starting with Lulu of Lulu’s Chinese Health Center in Parksville on Vancouver Island.
The Magic Cream (above), which Rick went to pick up for me, was intended as a break from my regular OTC cortisone for a chronic patch of dermatitis on my leg. After getting squared away on the cream, Lulu made Rick stick out his tongue.
He complied and came away with some intriguing goodies to restore the yin to his yang, but that’s a story for a different day. My point here is that when he told me of her somewhat startling request, I was aware that my confidence in the leg cream immediately went way up. Apparently, for my money, if you’re in the business of recommending curatives for one of the biggest organs of the body—a person’s skin—it’s a huge credibility builder if you also know a thing or two about reading tongues.
This isn’t as silly as it sounds.
The FDA regards face goop as a “cosmetic,” and as such, devoid of medicinal value or worthy of the more rigorous testing applied to drugs. Any statement they make approving a cream is focused exclusively on safety, not effectiveness. Cosmetic companies, however, are experienced and crafty in the art of blurring the perception lines between “medically proven to FDA drug-level standards” and “tested in a lab with a dermatologist somewhere in the building.”
So when someone—anyone, apparently—with a whiff of actual healing insight comments on a face cream, I pay attention.
Thus, the other actual person that I trust to recommend the best anti-wrinkle cream for me is my dermatologist, a woman of respectable age with skin that glows with a radiance that starts at least a half an inch below the surface of her face.
Her advice came prefaced by saying the best anti-wrinkle cream is a sunscreen with an SPF factor of at least 30 that I should have been using since birth. Once the wrinkles, blotches and spots actually arrive, the best you can hope for with potions and lotions is to prevent further damage and maybe to modestly plump up the saggy bits with a nicely scented unguent that makes your skin feel good.
“Best face cream? CeraVe. Use the one with sunscreen on your face, neck and back of your hands. For the rest of you that you can reach, slather on either the lotion if it’s hot and humid, or the creme if it’s winter and dry. It absorbs well, and smells good.”
Apparently there are a lot of dermatologists (or best friends) giving the same advice: the modestly priced 12-oz. CeraVe lotion ranks on Amazon as the #1 Best Seller in Facial Moisturizing Lotions with a 4.7 star rating by over 1200 reviewers.
While my busy dermatologist didn’t have time to unpack the rationale for her medically-informed opinion on CeraVe, the Mayo Clinic weighs in on the topic by suggesting that while there is no known “face lift in a bottle” available for the weary and wrinkled consumers, products containing retinol (vitamin A), vitamin C, hydroxy acid, coenzyme Q10, tea extracts, grape seed extracts and niacinimide “may” result in “slight to modest improvement, mostly due to their ability to exfoliate, prevent water loss, or counteract inflammation.
They go on to say that when sifting through the merits of, say, 120,000 or so available options on Amazon, you should consider the following variables:
Cost: there’s no discernible correlation between more money and fewer wrinkles
Concentration of effective ingredients: all non-prescription options contain lower doses than their prescribed counterparts, resulting in more limited and short-lived miracles
Individual differences: Everyone’s skin is different. Just because wearing a 1/2- inch thick coat of mayonnaise to bed every night works for Cate Blanchett doesn’t mean it will work for you. (I just made up this example, but mayonnaise and olive oil do feature highly in the list of homemade wrinkle cream ingredients.)
Layering on of ingredients: there’s no proof that using two or more of the above use ingredients works any better than one by itself.
Frequency of use: there’s no overnight drama in the face cream world, unless you count a nasty reaction that leaves your face bright red and flaky. You need to use products for many weeks before even the “modest” effects kick in, and they’ll disappear if/when you quit
Side effects: see “nasty” above
So what DO they recommend to retain whatever youthful dewy glow remains?
Quit smoking: It wrecks your facial collagen and elastin, causing skin to sag and wrinkle prematurely. The up side of this is if you’re 45 but your face and neck look 75, people might conclude you have great legs for your age!
Use moisturizers, and choose one with a built-in sunscreen of at least 15. Though moisturizers can’t prevent wrinkles, they can plump up dry skin and temporarily mask tiny lines and creases. The best wrinkle cream yet may be a wide-brimmed hat and limited sun exposure.
Consult a dermatologist if you’re interested in a personalized skin care assessment and recommendation for what OTC products might work best for you, and when to call in the big guns of prescription creams, Botox, or sand-blasting.
One final go-to source that we often find helps cut through the mental fogging of choice-overload is Consumer Reports. In this 2011 wrinkle cream review, (latest review available), they report having rigorously tested a swath of anti-aging face creams across 69 women and 12 men for a period of 12 weeks.
And while I’m tempted to hoot that you can’t make up product names like the Lancome winner above, apparently, you can.
Twelve weeks in, the sensory panelists judged that in a field of burst bubbles, the Garnier product came out slightly ahead of the contenders, judging by blind-controlled photos that it reduced wrinkles “somewhat” on a little more than half of the test subjects who had tried the product. And even at that, fewer than half said they’d buy it, citing an aroma containing a hint of floral and “sweet plastic,” the need for some serious elbow grease to rub it in, and a slight residue. The rest of the products barely moved the needle at all on fewer than 20% of the testers who used them.
Ironically, without even knowing the brand or specific product, the highest number of votes by test subjects said they’d buy the control product with NO anti-wrinkle ingredients, the Neutrogena moisturizer. (Note: the report didn’t specify which exact Neutrogena moisturizer was used. I just picked one with an SPF rating of 30. This one also has an SPF rating of 30 and a slightly higher reviewer rating, but I put it in second place for using a word I don’t understand–“Helioplex”–in the product name.)
In the search for the best face cream for you, pick one that’s easy on your wallet, has a decent sunscreen, and smells and feels nice.
For now, I’m trying a little dab of the Magic Cream on my face with my CeraVe (I can’t help myself), but just in the morning. While it feels great, it smells vaguely like Pad Thai with sesame oil. And even though Rick tells me frequently I’m quite a dish, I don’t want to go to bed smelling like one.
Last week I was struck with an overwhelming desire for fresh, homemade egg pasta because…
Question: Is pasta bad for you? Answer: Hell, no!
Is it made fresh, with love, from four of the most basic kitchen staples and make you happy you’re alive?
Does it inspire you to consume armfulls of verdant summer herbs at their height of greenliness and a glass of a good Italian red?
Is it easy, cheap, delicious, and fun to make?
Well. There you go, then.
Even our Italian-made pasta machine knows that eaten in moderation, fresh pasta brings wellness into your life.
This is why it’s confusing to us that, to date, neither Cook’s Illustrated nor Consumer Reports has reviewed the humble manual pasta machine. (We’ll keep an eye out and let you know if either one ever weighs in with their “highly recommended” or “best buy.”)
And for the home kitchen chef in search of consistency, sometimes machines are just better. In the case of manual pasta makers, almost 1000 Amazon reviewers rated the Marcato Atlas a whopping 4.7 stars of approval.
If you’re more into the motorized kind of fun and have a KitchenAid stand mixer (and as a foodie’s kitchen “must have,” you should!), there are pasta attachments that fit the power hub on your machine. The crew at Amazon love theirs: another 4.7 star recipient here across more than 800 purchasers.
Cute, red, and vaguely reminiscent of Rosie, the maid on the Jetsons? You betcha!
But for our money and kitchen, we go with brains and performance before beauty. At a measly 3.4 star-rating on Amazon, the Weston just doesn’t measure up. Any product that scores a 1-star rating for 27% of the reviewers definitely falls into the category of “proceed with caution.”
Finally, for those among us who prefer homemade fresh pasta only if it’s coupled with almost zero engagement, experience, or kitchen mess, Williams-Sonoma has high praise for the electric pasta machine by Philips, their all-in-one pasta whiz, and guess what? 4.7 stars on Amazon too.
You put the weighed ingredients in the top, push the button, and… presto! Like magic, the machine kneads, rests, and starts extruding pot-ready perfect pasta.
While Rick and I can see that this approach has its appeal for many of our friends, we like to play with our food. And besides, we already have a no-mess pasta mixing and kneading machine to go along with our wellness maker:
Whether you go with hand cut, manual roller and cutter, or all new-fangled electric, if you’ve got one of these babies in your kitchen, you are just moments away from fresh egg pasta dough.
Watch how easy it is to make and cook pasta.
Lidia Bastianich, Queen of All Italian Cooking, lays out a helpful fresh pasta dough recipe on a per person basis: one egg per person, combined with between 1/2 and 2/3 cup flour (start with 1/2), 1/8 tsp. salt and 1/4 tsp. olive oil.
That means for Rick and me, we start with 2 eggs, 1/4 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp oil. (If you’ve only got refrigerator temp eggs when you start, pop them into a bowl of warm tap water while you’re getting things set up to bring them closer to room temperature, but no biggie if they’re a bit on the cooler side.)
Put the flour in the Cuisinart with the metal blade, turn it on, then drizzle the egg/salt/oil mixture into the top.
Run the Cuisinart until the dough forms into a rough ball, about 30-40 seconds. If the dough remains pebbly and refuses to collect into a ball, add just a dribble (seriously) of warm water, giving the processor a good chance to thoroughly incorporate the moisture before deciding it needs an additional dose.
If the dough is sticking to the work bowl, add more flour, 1 tbsp. at a time, until the dough looks something like ours above.
Don’t worry too much about over-processing the dough while you decide if the texture is right. It’s not that precious.
When you think you’re close, take the dough out of the processor and give it several good kneads with the heel of your hand, flipping and folding it on itself between pushes until you have a warm ball of silken wellness.
See why we prefer a little manual interaction with our pasta? Why should a machine have all the fun?!
Give the gluten a time out to calm itself by fully encasing the dough with plastic wrap and letting it sit on the counter for an hour or so. (This will keep you from fighting in the rolling/cutting stage with what Lidia calls “nervous dough.”) It can also sit in a fridge for a day, but be sure to let it warm to room temp before proceeding to the next step.
Cut and hand roll the dough into two smaller balls per egg used. In our case, we ended up making two separate batches, four eggs in total, so we had eight smaller balls waiting to be processed.
You’ll be working with one ball at a time, so keep the rest covered on a floured baking sheet while they wait their turn.
Flatten the ball into an oval patty, set the thickness regulator to three, and crank it through.
Fold it in half lengthwise and send ‘er through again.
Sprinkle both sides evenly with a little flour between rollings to keep the dough from sticking,
Change the setting to six, and roll again, or even a couple of times to get a consistent thickness across the whole sheet of dough.
We’ve tried settings of five, six, and seven, and for the flat noodle, six seems to work best. For spaghetti, you might want to go a little thicker and use a setting of five on the regulator.
Attach the cutter device by sliding it into the brackets on the machine. Move the crank to the appropriate hole on the attachment, and feed in the rolled dough.
For ease of laying out the noodles to dry, it can be helpful (and fun!) to have a buddy on hand to neatly catch and hold flat the noodles as they emerge. Even if you’re on your own, you can switch cranking hands and catch them yourself, or simply let them fall into a nest and dry them that way. They will separate just fine either way as they cook.
We laid the flat noodles we were planning to eat in a few hours on a floured baking sheet in a (mostly) single layer to dry.
For the spaghetti we were planning on eating later in the week, we took each batch as it emerged directly into the utility room and hung it on our freshly wiped laundry rack so it would dry completely before we stored it in ziplock bags.
If you’re into making more than one batch at a time, you might want to invest in a nifty foldable drying rack, but so far, we haven’t felt like pasta for dinner on laundry day, so we’re good.
Bring a good-sized pot of water to a boil, add a pinch of salt and a dash of olive oil, drop your noodles in, and cook uncovered, stirring gently a couple or three times.
For thinner, finer noodles, start testing (fish out a noodle and bite it) at 90-seconds. It’s okay if the pasta is still just a teensy bit firm as it will continue to absorb moisture and soften from the sauce.
For thicker noodles, cook two minutes and begin testing until you like the feel of it between your teeth.
Drain the noodles, reserving a few tablespoons of the water to add to the sauce to bring a beautiful gloss to the whole gig. Don’t rinse the noodles as it will prevent the sauce from adhering to them.
Return the hot noodles to the pot and gently fold in enough of your sauce to amply coat them.
Using tongs, lift the noodles and twist them into a nest as you drop it into place to build a little height into the presentation.
Top with a generous extra dollop of sauce and sprinkle with a little parmesan cheese if you’re so inclined.
Grab the camera and shoot like crazy while it’s still steaming, because it’s dinner time, and…
Well, that’s just dandy! And here we thought we were just buying a vacuum sealer to portion and preserve 25-lb bags of coffee beans and raw almonds into household-of-two portions.
Um… remind me again what “sous vide” cooking is?
Sous vide—French for “under vacuum”—is a simple, fuss-free and time-tested way to slow cook food sealed in airtight plastic bags. It uses longer and lower temperatures than normal in a precisely temperature-controlled water bath that’s heated to the food’s desired final temperature.
Sous vide cooking gently locks in essential juices and amplifies flavor (and exquisite textures) while preserving vital water-soluble nutrients and improving food safety (no guessing!).
The method is used in everything from poached eggs (reportedly producing amazing yolk textures unattainable by any other means) to delicate fish to custards to chicken to vegetables and even tricky “easy to overcook/dry out” cuts of inexpensive meat such as flank steak.
Better food with less fuss? Sign us up.
We wanted a sous vide machine that, a) didn’t break the bank and, b) we could find room to store in our kitchen.
Both requirements were met by passing on the bulky and more expensive “water ovens” that have been the only options, until recently.
Instead, the answer lay in the more affordable, flexible, and storage-friendly stick “immersion circulator” styles, a conclusion that both Cook’s Illustrated and Good Housekeeping came to in their reviews and recommendations.
(Technically speaking, the December 2014 Cook’s Illustrated “highly recommended” winner was the “Anova One,” but good luck finding one! Per Anova.com., the Anova One has been discontinued and has been replaced by the Anova Precision Cooker. Cook’s has committed to testing this new Anova soon. Stay tuned: we’ll update as soon as their results are in. Meanwhile, we’re loving the new model.)
At a current 4.5 star rating with over 300 reviews, the Amazon community thinks highly of this option. And at a (relatively) modest price tag of ~$180 USD, the Anova Precision Immersion Circulator—and sous vide cooking in general—is now within reach of us mere mortals, as opposed to being the quiet little secret of high-end restaurant chefs.
Even-tempered, quiet, gentle, a quick clean, and low maintenance… the Anova would make a terrific roommate.
Good Housekeeping reviewed two different sous vide machines, the Sansaire and the Nomiku.
Good Housekeeping gave them both an enthusiastic thumbs up without expressing a preference between the two. Great! But, not that helpful if you just want to know what the best sous vide machine is.
Once again, the Cook’s review shed some light on things. They ranked the Sansaire as their second-placed “recommended” option, and here’s why:
It’s about the outport, the vent where the water is circulated back into the pot after a trip around the heating element. The Sansaire has a fixed outport, meaning you can’t adjust where the flow of water is aimed in the container. The Anova, on the other hand, has a rotatable outport, meaning if the water churn is too vigorous for delicate items, you can rotate it to deflect against the wall of the pot instead of directly into the water. This is, apparently, important if you don’t want your eggs to jostle audibly (and one presumes, in a manner threatening breakage) against the wall of the cooking container.
Albeit with roughly one third the number of reviewers, the review crew at Amazon rank the slightly more expensive Sansaire with a shade higher rating (4.6 stars) than the Anova. Why a higher ranking? This is not known at this time.
What is known is that no one reviewing the Sansaire complained about noisy eggs.
Cook’s Illustrated placed the Nomiku in their “recommended with reservations” spot, citing the squint-inducing “postage-stamp sized” display and narrower (and this is an important factor) water maximum-to-minimum range that meant more frequent monitoring and refills during a multi-day cooking task.
Amazonians were only so-so about the Nomiku, giving it 3.7 stars over ~180 reviews. Meh.
Enough about the machinery. Here’s how our first foray into Sous Vide Land went.
We decided to try our new Anova out on the inexpensive $8 eye-of-round roast that Rick cut into 2-inch thick steaks.
A healthy dose of salt and pepper on both sides—with our aromatic-of-choice, a sprig of fresh rosemary—as seasoning…
… a quick pit stop at our FoodSaver V3840 to seal in all the lean yet juicy loveliness, and into the tub they went for their 131° 24-hour water spa treatment. (More on time and temperature below.)
BTW, the Anova was super easy to use:
Clamp to stock pot or other suitable container
Fill with lukewarm-to-warmish (below the desired cooking temperature) water to somewhere between the “maximum” and “minimum” lines, depending on how big your bagged goodie is
Plug it in
For our North American buddies: hold down the “play” button for three seconds to switch between Celsius and Fahrenheit, or vice versa for the flipside
Dial the front wheely thing to the desired temperature
Go away for anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 days, depending on what you’re cooking
(In a complete aside: dontcha love the chef poster Rick painted?)
To make sure the bagged meat stayed totally submerged during the process, we clamped the bags in place, per a random online recommendation (probably from a Sansaire user). In hindsight, the circulation feature wasn’t torrential enough to make that 100% necessary, but hey… safety first.
Whoops! Luckily, we caught it in the first hour of operation. We whipped our immersion circulation-enhanced stock pot off our brand-new Cambria quartz countertop and on to our trusty, indestructible butcher block. No harm, no foul.
Right around the same time that we discovered the kitchen safety info, we also stumbled on a food safety recommendation, which said that the minimal temperature necessary to safely heat meat for the length of time we had planned is 131°F.
Rightio. Two clicks forward of the handy temp wheel, and there we were at 131°F for the next 23.5 hours.
About 14 hours into the process, we noticed that the water level had diminished slightly due to evaporation, so we topped it up a little and loosely tented a piece of aluminum foil at the top of our stock pot, but other than that, it was a completely hands-off gig.
A full 24-hours later and this is what we removed from the bag: an inexpensive cut of beef cooked to a perfect medium.
However, as is the case for all sous vide meats, the external presentation needed a little touch up via a quick sear (think hot grill, hot pan, deep fry, etc.) to add that crispy, flavorful layer that every carnivore craves.
Apparently, there’s a fancy schmancy kitchen torch attachment that you clamp on to a standard propane cylinder torch that will make the searing even more excitingofficial effective, but we don’t have the fancy schmancy gizmo —yet—so Rick seared them briefly on both sides in a lightly-oiled saute pan. I meant to take a photo of the meat getting its quick sear, but somehow I got distracted and lost the moment.
I now have this exquisite photo of one of my favorite things: an upturned sleeve snugged firmly against the very cherished forearm of a lovely man cooking me a delicious dinner.
It was moist, flavorful, tender and perfect all the way through.
From Michael Pollan in “Food Rules” to gurus in Psychology Today, those in the know are saying that it’s a good idea to leave a little food on your plate at the end of a meal.
I don’t think this is what they meant, but I did force myself not to eat it anyway, just for the sake of personal discipline.
This is a well-rated and gorgeously produced volume by Thomas Keller, chef and author of The French Laundry CookbookandBouchon among others. According to the official Amazon.com review by Arthur Boehm:
The book makes no bones about being addressed to professionals. Typical recipes, like Marinated Toy Box Tomatoes with Compressed Cucumber-Red Onion Relish, Toasted Brioche, and Diane St. Claire Butter, involve multiple preparations and dernier cri ingredients, and thus resist home duplication.
Given we have no idea what “dernier cri” ingredients might be—”behind the scream”?—we don’t want ’em and are more interested in the simple, fuss-free aspects of sous vide cooking, so we’re leaving this one on the shelf at Amazon.
However, if you’ve got a coffee table book-loving, trend-conscious foodie on your Christmas list, go for it!
Published in 2014 (aka, newer) and available in paperback for around $20 (Kindle for $10), this more modest tome by passionate home cook, Jason Logsdon, gets high marks from reviewers looking for a solid primer with easy recipes.
Sous Vide Cooking Timing Chart
One of the first things we noticed about our new Anova Precision Cooker was, well, its precision. The temperature is calibrated to 0.1°, which instantly appealed to the geek in both of us as we imagined the prospect of producing perfect, predictable results with any food we cook.
But, as is the case for the rest of life, it’s always a bit more complicated than that.
Yes, the Anova Precision Cooker will keep a water bath at a precise temperature for a specific time period, but good luck finding a time/temperature chart that’s equally exact!
When searching the web for guidance on how long to cook our first dish (the 2″ thick eye of round steaks above) and at what temperature, we noticed right away that different “authoritative” sources don’t seem to agree on much of anything except how to cook root vegetables (183°F or so for 1-4 hours-ish):
How could the range be so wide, especially when sous vide enthusiasts tout the added safety benefits of the method? Not to mention our own experience, which is that we wouldn’t have wanted the steak any more well done than it was, and that was accomplished at a max temp of 131°F?
We discovered the explanation to the temperature/food safety riddle in this chart that shows the “Danger Zone” for harmful bacteria (salmonella and E. coli).
According to the chart, bacteria is killed instantly at 145°F. Given that the USDA is responsible for providing recommendations to everyone in the U.S. cooking everything by every method, this is logically where they must weigh in for meat.
However, the nasty bacteria will also be killed off eventually at temperatures above 130°F, given adequate sustained cooking time. It’s the combination of time and temperature that yields food that’s safe, for sure, to eat.
But what about the wide range of target sous vide cooking times and temperatures recommended by different sous vide authorities?
Our conclusion is that sous vide cooking is part art, part science, part personal preference in food “doneness,” and part learning how to partner effectively and safely with a new machine in your kitchen.
Bottom line: we’re just going to have to enjoy spending a bunch more time hanging out in our kitchen together as we figure out what works best, for us.
We’ve been enjoying our great-sounding Bose SoundDock portable (sorta) speaker in our kitchen for the past decade or so.
The problem is our iPhones have outgrown our speaker: current generation iPhones have eight-pin Lightning connectors while the SoundDock has the previous generation 30-pin dock connector (discontinued by Apple in 2014). Oh, and it lacks the convenience of Bluetooth.
Although Bluetooth speaker adapters and 8-Pin to 30-Pin adapters are both available for not much money, Frankenstein patches are right up there with tape and chewing gum on the elegance scale.
Plus, the old SoundDock is bigger than Winston’s head.
It just wasn’t going to work for us anymore.
Bluetooth portable speakers are widely noted for cool industrial design, sound quality, battery life, suitability for outdoor use and, in some cases, speakerphone capability. A good bluetooth speaker also seemed the way to go to avoid “pin non-compliance” issues in the future.
So, time to buy a bluetooth speaker. But where to begin?
Where we always begin these days: searching the Internet for bluetooth speaker reviews to help find the speaker to meet our needs. A Google search for “best bluetooth portable speaker” led to recent reviews from Consumer Reports, CNET, PCMag, and the Amazon community we thought would be helpful.
Unfortunately, the search results turned out to be more overwhelming than helpful. There are so many portable speakers available these days that it’s crazy-making to try to compare all of them.
We (by which we mean Rick) started building a comparison grid to help organize and sort through the mind-numbing information on the websites noted above, and even that proved really hard to do.
However, not all models tested by Consumer Reports even align with the manufacturer’s own websites. For example, #14 rated “Bose SoundLink Wireless Mobile Speaker II” can’t be found on the Bose website and, as of this writing, the Consumer Report site itself says “Currently there are no sellers listed for this product.”
There are also such remarkable differences from one review site to the next that we often wondered if they’re even talking about the same product.
Take the Jawbone Mini Jambox for example. The bottom line from CNET states “While you’ll pay a premium for it, the Jawbone Mini Jambox is the best-sounding and best-designed micro wireless speaker” while PCMag says “The good-looking Jawbone Mini Jambox is a very thin and light Bluetooth speaker, but it makes too many compromises on sound quality.”
Another example is the Logitech UE Boom. CR’s Take: “The Logitech UE Boom had overall sound quality that was only fair. While it’s perfectly fine for dialog and use as a speakerphone, more finicky listeners looking for a speaker for playing music and movie/TV soundtracks may prefer a different model” while PCMag says “Solid soundscape. Powerful, clear midrange and treble.” As a bottom line, Consumer Reports gives the UE Boom a less-than-spectacular rating of “40” while PCMag and CNET both rate this speaker as “Excellent” and the consensus of the Amazon community is 4.4 stars (out of 5) based on over 320 reviews.
Eventually, we became so overwhelmed by the process of researching “What is the best bluetooth speaker?” that, having sorted through all the high-brow audiophile chatter we could stomach, we ended up doing our own consumer testing, albeit sort of by accident.
Let us present our entirely manageable list of three top bluetooth speakers.
First, we went with price (plus Amazon reviewer love) and threw a dart at the AmazonBasics portable bluetooth speaker for about $50.
It’s a great well-balanced little speaker, and if you’re looking for something to keep you company while you’re doing laundry or hanging out in a college dorm room, you’ve found your speaker buddy. With over 700 reviews, a great average rating of 4.4 / 5, Amazon’s willingness to put their own name on it, and an unbeatable price tag, you can’t go wrong.
Clean round sound, acoustically well mannered, as well as being a really decent speakerphone, this unit has found a cherished home in my office.
Why my office and not, say, our living/dining room?
After our purchase, we realized that not only were we replacing our now defunct Bose SoundDock, but in fact, our entire home stereo system.
This is it. Our entire collective music library is now digital and is housed in a maximum of five devices per person, none of which have a great speaker.
A bluetooth speaker is what we will be “listening to music” on now, as in, when we’re sitting in front of the fireplace and just want to zen to some tunes and drift a while. And while the AmazonBasics is a fine (probably the best) speaker for the money, we found we missed the richer dimension and bass response of the Bose for all around music appreciation moments.
Side note: Ironically, six weeks after we bought the AmazonBasics, as a Christmas gift we received a second portable speaker which had also been on our shortlist but was twice as expensive as the AmazonBasics:
As grateful as we are for Rick’s new office speaker, we didn’t really hear a huge difference between the Ultimate Ears Mini Boom and the AmazonBasics.
The Mini Boom definitely wins the “tiniest footprint and cute” category with no obvious distortions at higher volumes (to our ears), so if you’re looking for something to easily fit into a crowded desk space or kitchen nook, this may be your answer.
Still, for the price delta, the AmazonBasics shines a little brighter in our opinion.
The bottom line is that neither the UE Mini Boom nor the AmazonBasics was quite hitting the mark for what we now realized would be our home stereo, so we went back to the tried and true (and best seller on Amazon for bluetooth speakers, BTW) and purchased the ~$200 Bose SoundLink Mini Bluetooth Speaker.
We heartily agree with the 4500+ Amazon reviewers who gave it a whopper average rating of 4.8 / 5.
We love it.
rickandkathy.com’s thesaurus for Bose SoundLink Mini suggests: “rich,” “full,” “high color,” “substantial,” “convenient,” “sleek,” “portable,” “affordable,” …
For anyone else at the tipping point of moving from the full-meal-deal faux audiophile home stereo to something non-threatening (financially and technically) with amazing sound that works with your digital library, this is our vote.
You’ll score astounding sound from a device that is just slightly larger than the transformer needed for our decade-old workhorse, the Bose SoundDock. Oh, what a difference a decade can make!
The only caution we found is that the Bose needs to be placed at least a foot or two from a solid/reflective vertical surface (which they specify in their user manual) to avoid an overly emphasized bass boom. This is, from our perspective, a small price to pay for a satisfying musical experience from such an inexpensive, portable, and succinct device.
We now own not one but three bluetooth mini speakers, and given the right space, budget, and expectations, all three are winners.