📞 Secret World No.2: Reverse engineer

The temperature is finally dropping, which means it’s time to bake bread. I made my first loaf of the season earlier this week — just a simple, no-knead white flour recipe from The New York Times. I did sourdough for a year, and might try making another starter this month. It’s an extremely rewarding process: you’re literally making food from whatever unique yeast can be found in your home. Whether it’s no-knead or sourdough, one of the things I like most about this process is how it’s a little bit different every time. I’ll experiment with where I place the dough to rise (too hot? too cold?), the type of yeast I use (too old?), and how I shape the loaf (too much flour? too long of a rest?). I figure that, eventually, I’ll figure out a process that accounts for all the quirks of my apartment — its oven, its ambient temperature — and the quirks that come with baking something deceivingly simple as bread. In my head, I imagine the result of all this trial and error will eventually be a perfect loaf. But not this week! 

Like many of you, I’m sure, I’m a big fan of Bon Appetit’s Test Kitchen YouTube channel — particularly, the Claire Saffitz series Gourmet Makes. It’s a delight seeing Saffitz descend into madness as she tries to recreate Kit-Kat bars or pop-rocks — but it’s the mechanics of the process that I love the most, the process of of deconstruction and reconstruction. In one recent episode, Saffitz struggles to re-create a homemade hot pocket. The filling can’t be too moist. The dough has to be folded and pinched in just the right way so nothing seeps out the sides. The crust has to be flaky, but not too flaky, and also bready at the same time. I’m always floored at her ability to pick these qualities out just by looking at a thing, and tasting a few bites. But the amount of trial and error involved in actually replicating these qualities is incredible — and as an oft-struggling cook still coming to terms with the limits of my own abilities, I appreciate the very honest humanity on display, failure after failure, from people we’re supposed to look to as experts. 

A few years ago, I lived around the corner from a cafe that made one of the best breakfast sandwiches I’ve ever had: a perfectly fried egg, a thick piece of locally smoked bacon, and a thin slice of sharp cheddar between the halves of a fluffy egg bun. All of these ingredients were easy enough to identify based on taste alone, and I enjoyed how simply they were presented and perfectly they were prepared. But there was one more ingredient that remained elusive: a sweet, creamy spread that was so unexpected in the context of this sandwich of otherwise familiar ingredients that I was fiercely attuned to its presence with every bite. I loved it, and wanted desperately to know what it was.

I spent weeks trying to reverse engineer the spread at home. The cafe wouldn’t tell me what it was. I don’t blame them. The sandwich was so good that, when the cafe changed owners, just before I started coming by, the sandwich was part of the sale. I could tell immediately that mayonnaise was involved — the spread was off-white, but had all the creamy, fatty lightness of your typical jar of Hellman’s. But there was something else that gave it a salty sweetness, and a taste of dark, caramel umami. I was stumped. I worked through my kitchen, mixing soy sauce (nope) and balsamic vinegar (absolutely not) before reaching for a jar of store-bought hoisin. I adjusted the mix, first by sight, trying to match the colour, and then by taste. I dipped a hesitant finger into the spread and…success? But I had to be sure. I bought some egg buns from the grocery story, cheese from the deli, and few slices of smoked, thick cut bacon from the butcher down the street. I cooked, assembled, added the spread, and took my first bite. Hoisin and mayo! That was literally all it was. I still feel a bit silly even recounting this — a combination so simple, and yet I couldn’t pick it out by taste alone.

I’m in awe of the people for whom this kind of reverse engineering comes naturally. It’s one of the things I enjoy most about Gourmet Makes, and I watch them in the hope that some of that knowledge will eventually rub off on me, too. Last year I was gifted Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, which has been hugely beneficial in a similar way. I’m not particularly good at throwing meals together without a plan. It’s a skill my partner excels at, and I envy. But for whatever reason, just knowing why we brown meat, or when to deploy acid, or how to balance a too-spicy dish has been revelatory. I’ve gone from merely following recipes, to understanding what I’m actually doing and why. Well, I’m starting to.

Cold weather is good for cozy baking, but it’s also perfect for soups, and stews. I have a few favourites I like to deploy around this time of year, some new and some old. I may share more throughout the season — if you like this, please let me know! — but for now, here are a few that are top of mind. 

  • This is basically a mushroom risotto with farro, and it is ridiculously tasty — rich, dark and nutty, and all the better for using a variety of fresh, local mushrooms. I think I overdid it with the rosemary, but it was a good excuse to get a good block of parm, the kind with the salt crystals that pop in your mouth. I made it for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and knew immediately it was going in the winter rotation. (This is a NYT Cooking link, so subscription required, but if you’re interested in this one let me know and I’ll send it along.)

  • A thing you may not know about Toronto, and the province of Ontario, is that we can’t just buy beer and liquor in corner stores. For that, we have provincially regulated LCBO stores. They put out a monthly food and drink magazine that has some legitimately good recipes. About five years ago I came across this recipe for chicken noodle soup. What makes it different is the healthy addition of lemongrass — which gives a bright, floral flavour — a rich umami from the soy, and a good sriracha kick right at the end. It’s a bit of a commitment, since you make the stock as you go, but well worth it, I promise.

  • This black bean chorizo stew is simple, but incredible delicious. Use the best, freshest chorizo you can find. We bought some from a farmer’s market butcher over the summer and it absolutely shined — though now that we’ve been eating meat less often, I’m curious to try a no-meat alternative, which commenters say works just as well. (Also a NYT Cooking link — I’m sorry!)

  • Finally: This recipe for spicy sofritas takes some effort, but it’s worth it — and the result is incredible versatile too. The author suggests serving it over bowls of rice, but I’ve also used it as a simple taco filling on fresh corn tortillas. You can use fresh poblanos, sure, but dried ancho chiles work just as well, and I always keep a few on hand to rehydrate just for this.

I was struggling with a writing project earlier this year — I’m still struggling, to be honest — and went to an editor friend for advice. It wasn’t so much the idea that was giving me trouble, but the structure. I had lots of threads, all related, but just different enough that I wasn’t sure how to make it all fit. 

He suggested I read Sam Anderson’s Boom Town, and I don’t know if I would have otherwise picked it up were it not for the glowing recommendation. It’s ostensibly about the Oklahoma City Thunder, the city’s NBA team, but it’s really a sprawling look at how the history of a place, and the psyche of the people who live there, can manifest in the long-awaited arrival of a professional basketball team. The pitch is basically: This city is far weirder and more interesting than you could ever imagine, and it’s because of this weirdness, or perhaps in spite of it, that the Thunder are here. From the city’s illegal founding, to its more absurd legal founding, it is a story of indigenous exploitation and racial segregation. It is a story of citizens tormented by the relentless sonic booms of supersonic aircraft, by life-upending hurricanes predicted by a celebrity wizard weatherman, by the systematic destruction of a once-vibrant downtown, by terrorism. It is a story of ambition, to be one of the best and biggest cities in America — a status that, naturally, requires a professional sports team. The city’s fortunes oscillate between boom and bust, a theme the book repeatedly returns as a way to unify all those disparate threads — from James Harden’s beard to the insanity of the land run, from the Flaming Lips to the chaos of Russell Westbrook. It all felt very revelatory. Somehow, Anderson makes it all work, and it’s given me lots to think about with my own writing. It’s the sort of book that, unprompted, I won’t stop telling my friends about. If you’re looking for ideas, dare I say, it might make a good gift. 

The book also caught me at a good time, because…I think I’m becoming a basketball fan? This is easy to say in the afterglow of a Toronto Raptors payoff championship win, but I’ve been watching more games over the past few years, and having a ton of fun. I think, for me, it scratches the same itch as cooking and writing and making music, but in a different kind of way; it’s another new thing to figure out and reverse engineer. It’s also just a nice excuse to go have a few drinks with friends.

I’m only going to link you one thing this week: AI Dungeon 2. Don’t let the name fool you. It’s a game, yes, but not the way you think. It involves AI, but in a way that’s more show than tell. You give AI Dungeon a scenario — any scenario you can imagine — and it will generate a totally unique text adventure game based on your initial prompt. The results are often weird, as most AI-generated text is, but more polished and impressive than anything I’ve seen to date. 

For example, I wrote:

You are city pop legend Tatsuro Yamashita. The year is 1982, and you've just released your sixth studio album, "For You" — an irresistably smooth blend of jazz fusion, disco, and rock. It hits number one on the Japanese popular music charts. In the wake of its massive success, you try to figure out what to do next.

And then AI Dungen 2 added:

The only problem? You're broke

And on it went:

> go to record company's office.

You decide that you need a new direction for your career. So you head to your record company's office, where you meet with the president of the company, Mr. Kondo. He tells you that he has some ideas about how to take your career in a different direction

> "what should my next album sound like?"

Mr. Kondo says "I don't know yet".

You ask him if he knows anything about funk music.

> "do you know anything about funk music?"

He says "Well I do know something about Motown and all its various subgenres"

You say "What are they?"

He says "They're all variations on the same theme".

> decide on a different genre

You decide that you want to move away from what you think is rock n' roll. You decide that you want to make a more experimental album. You decide that you want to try out a new type of instrumentation. You decide that you want to experiment with the use of synthesizers

> buy a synthesizer

You buy a synthesizer, which you immediately start using. It doesn't really work out as planned though...

> buy a different synthesizer.

You buy a different synthesizer, which you immediately start using. It works out much better than expected...

> write a song with a funky synthesizer bassline

You write a song with a funky synthesizer bassline. The song goes over well with the label people at the record company. They give it a good review.

A thing I like about newsletters — this is my third — is how a seemingly small, stray mention can send a lot of new people your way. Many thanks to the nice folks at Boing Boing — a stalwart fixture of the Old Internet still thriving today — for linking to my last dispatch, and sending many of you new subscribers my way. It’s still early days, but I hope you like what I’m doing here.

Secret World is a newsletter from writer Matthew Braga. If you’re not familiar with me or my work, be sure to check out my website, and consider following me on Twitter.

  1. A loaf of bread I baked. (Matthew Braga)

  2. Oklahoma City. (Phillip Capper, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

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