Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner cover Take Control of
Thanksgiving Dinner

(v. 1.1)
by Joe Kissell

$10 (ebook) • $19.99 (printed)

Leave nothing to chance this Thanksgiving! Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner guides you through every step of preparing a traditional Thanksgiving meal of roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, candied sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie. Includes vegetarian options, last-minute tips, a detailed schedule, and much more. 104 pages.

April 11, 2007

Garlic Genius: Merely Clever

Garlic GeniusWe use a lot of garlic in this family, and while mincing (the old-fashioned way, with a knife) is my preference, Morgen likes the convenience of a garlic press. But she doesn’t like cleaning the garlic press, and the fact that it tends to leave a good bit of the clove behind means you miss out on some of that great flavor. Several months ago, we got a Williams-Sonoma catalog in the mail, and as usual I pored over it carefully, making a mental list of all the latest kitchen gadgets I absolutely need. One item immediately popped out as a great birthday present for my wife: the Garlic Genius, a $40 device that supposedly creates perfectly minced garlic with just a few twists. No mess, no tedious chopping. And, of course, it would be a nicely self-serving gift, because I’d get just as much use out of it as she would.

Alas, on the day I went to order, Williams-Sonoma was out of stock (and it was an Internet-only product, so I couldn’t just go to the local retail store). Luckily, I found another source. Morgen loved the present, and we were excited to try it out.

Let me cut to the chase: From an engineering standpoint, the Garlic Genius is extremely clever. It does indeed cut garlic into nearly perfect cubes, about 3 mm on a side, as you twist the top of the cylinder. But from a usability standpoint, it’s not so hot. For one thing, the twisting action takes a considerable amount of force, and it gets harder to turn the farther you go. It also takes a lot of turns to get through just a couple of garlic cloves, because the device’s screw threads are narrowly spaced. And, since you’re not only applying effort to turn the top but pressure to keep your grip on it, your hand is likely to get pretty sore. (Another device of the same name, but with a different casing, at least has knobs on the top to help you keep your grip.) A better design would have been one that, like a can opener, makes good use of hand geometry to provide leverage.

Then there’s cleaning. If you thought a garlic press was a pain to clean, that’s nothing. This device comes apart (not that easily) into quite a few pieces, each with its own nooks and crannies. Cleaning all the little garlic bits out of all these parts, and then reassembling the unit, is not pleasant.

Is it, on the whole, less hassle than just using a knife? Maybe, depending on your knife skills and how highly you value uniformity of size in your minced garlic. But on the whole it was a bit of a disappointment. It’s not really a garlic genius—it’s merely clever.

December 11, 2006

Cookie decorating: Secrets of the pros

Last year, following the step-by-step advice in a well-known cooking magazine, I decorated a batch of holiday cookies. My efforts yielded a ghastly mess of smeared, melted, and clotted sugar.

This year, I headed over to the local Sur la Table store to take a class from a professional cake and cookie decorator. It was a revelation, and the revelation was three-fold: icing ingredients, decorating equipment, and basic technique.

Ingredients Last year, I’d mixed up a batch of royal icing, divided it in three, added liquid food coloring, and got to work. Bzzt! Wrong move. Instead of liquid food coloring, I should have blended in coloring in paste from, available at cooking stores. I’d also used decorating gels, pre-mixed, in tubes from the supermarket. Wrong again. Gels (as I discovered) melt and blur. You need to prepare your own icing, and fine tune it (adding water or confectioner’s sugar) to the right consistency.

And, as it turns out, there are two consistencies. The thick one, which I was familiar with, is for outlining. The other (very liquid) is for “flooding,” a technique explained below.

Equipment One of my frustrations last year was the discovery that I needed not just one bag for piping the icing, but several — one for each color I was working with. The Sur la Table instructor showed us how to turn zip-closure plastic bags (freezer grade) into quick, cheap pastry bags by making a tiny snip in one corner, adding a piping tip, and then filling with frosting.

Toothpicks (round ones) also turned out to be an important tool. They are used for plugging the tips of the piping bags to prevent drying out and/or leaking as you work. And they are used for making designs in the flooding icing, much the way a barista makes designs in espresso foam.

Technique The outlining technique, using firm, thick icing, was what I had previously mistaken for simple decorative lines. As it turns out, the outline of firm piped icing serves as a dike to contain the large, smooth swatches of “flooded” color (see the snowman, or the green ornament, in the photo; click for a larger version). Instead of trying to smear thick icing around with a tiny offset spatula as I had last year, we simply squirted the thin icing into the outlined area, nudging it around a bit with the piping tip, and it melted into place.

Decorated Cookies

A second, very elaborate-looking technique involved taking advantage of the melting property of the soft icing. A dot or a stripe of soft icing is piped directly into a lake of soft color (see ornament and stocking top), where it melts flush to the first color. Then, a clean toothpick is used to marble the two colors into a design (see top of bell). This technique was also used to transform a red dot on the gingerbread man’s vest into a heart.We also learned to use the firm icing as glue for attaching the candy cane (stocking) and miniature candies (eyes on the gingerbread man).There were 16 people in the class, and by the end of the two hours, every one of them was creating bakery-quality cookies.

Want to try the dual-icing technique? Here are some online recipes and guidance from Country Living (good recipes and detailed instructions) and Epicurious.com (nice pictures of decorating technique).

November 29, 2006


A few weeks ago a new eatery opened just a few blocks away from my home in the Glen Park neighborhood of San Francisco. Called Eggettes, it’s located at 2810 Diamond Street, in the space formerly occupied by Dr. Video. While the store was being renovated, I could tell from the decor that it was going to be a Hong Kong-style snack joint/cybercafé and suspected (rightly, I’m pleased to say) that they’d serve bubble tea. But I didn’t quite get what the name was all about. When the shop opened I had to search a bit to find something called “eggettes” on the menu, and considering that this eponymous food was supposed to be the restaurant’s signature product, I found it odd that there was no photograph or description.

When we walked in, we saw what turned out to be the eggettes displayed behind a glass case next to the cash register, labeled with their flavors but not the word “eggettes.” I inferred that’s what they were from the fact that they were vaguely egg-shaped and that it seemed to be the only food item on display. So, lesson #1: if you want to attract new customers, and if you want those customers to have any idea why they should come in and order your wacky new food, give them at least a tiny clue as to what that food actually is.

Well, we decided there was little to lose by ordering the things without any explanation, so we asked for one order each of original, chocolate, and coconut flavors (sesame was also an option). What we were served is called gai daan jai in Hong Kong, and often described as egg puffs or egg waffles. They’re made by taking a thin batter (not unlike a sweeter waffle or pancake batter) and cooking it on a special iron with small egg-shaped indentations on both plates. The result is a sheet of little dough eggs you can break apart. They’re slightly crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, almost like beignets. And let me end the suspense: they’re delicious. I mean, seriously, addictively delicious. I could almost give up doughnuts for these things. But although they’re relatively light and relatively low in fat, they’re clearly full of sugar and nasty carbs—no surprises there.

So, eggettes are a winner. The Eggettes store, on the other hand (apparently just the latest in a small chain), needs some work. The food was great and the staff was friendly, but the place has, shall we say, user interface issues. The lack of an explanation of eggettes on the menu is just one example. We decided to plop down on the couch and watch the DVD that was playing on their big flat-screen TV, but we couldn’t figure out how to adjust the volume (turns out the staff controls the remotes, but they also had to do some rewiring of the speakers to get any noise to come out). We noticed the card reader on the cash register and tried to pay with plastic, but the cashier informed us apologetically that they hadn’t yet managed to get a merchant account. And although there are a few Net-connected computer kiosks, you have to stand to use them—not the most comfortable arrangement. The store is neat, shiny, and spacious but not cozy, and that’s a big strike against it in my book.

Nevertheless, I’m sure I’ll return for eggettes and bubble tea whenever I need a quick break from the South Beach Diet. You can do worse.

November 22, 2006

Brushed Stainless-Steel Cream Whipper

Cream WhipperWhen it comes to whipped cream—one of my all-time favorite edible substances—I’ve always been a purist. Freshly whipped cream (sweetened with a bit of sugar, and with maybe just a hint of vanilla) tastes best to me, and I’ve never considered the process of sticking a mixer into a bowl of cold cream to be complicated or onerous. However, I admit that around the holidays, I do keep a can of spray-on whipped cream on hand, just as a backup. I further admit that spraying whipped cream onto your pie, pancakes, or whatever, is kind of fun. It’s just that I don’t dig all the additives put into those cans, and wonder just how many months ago the dairy component may have come out of a cow.

Now, for a mere $90 (plus an extra $11 for a package of nitrous oxide cartridges)—ingredients not included—I can have my cake and eat it too, nicely smothered in freshly whipped cream that didn’t require me to turn on a mixer or dirty a bowl. There are plenty of these gadgets on the market, but the Williams-Sonoma Brushed Stainless-Steel Cream Whipper must be among the classiest (and most expensive). Oh yes, I want one.

November 21, 2006

Thanksgiving Post Round-Up

Over the past couple of months, we’ve had numerous posts on The Geeky Gourmet having to do with Thanksgiving—partly because it’s just the right season, and partly to help promote my book Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner. For the convenience those of you who have come to the site mainly searching for Thanksgiving advice, I’d like to present this round-up of all the Thanksgiving-related posts we’ve had so far:

November 20, 2006

New Thermapen Models

Thermapen Model 3Over the years, Cook’s Illustrated has repeatedly heaped praise upon the Thermapen, a digital thermometer known for its speed, accuracy, generous probe length, and convenient folding design. Recent episodes of Good Eats have shown Alton Brown using the same thermometer, so clearly it is a device to be reckoned with. Every serious cook should have an instant-read thermometer, especially at Thanksgiving, when the internal temperature of a roasting turkey is the only reliable way to know when it’s done. Those in the know consider Thermapen to be the crème de la crème of such devices.

For the last several months, ever since the company introduced their new super-fast tip, I’ve been seriously itching to own one of these babies, but have been put off by the $85 price tag—as good as they surely are, I know I can buy half a dozen average thermometers for the same price. Now, however, an even newer design just might put me over the edge. The Thermapen models 3 and 7 feature the same overall shape and features of earlier models, but now offer a wide array of plug-in probes. The super-thin needle probes promise to measure the internal temperature of your roast or steak in as little as a second. You can choose a thicker probe for tougher meats, a plastic “airline-safe” probe (which sort of blows my mind), or specialized probes for measuring the temperatures of liquids, gases, flat surfaces, and more.

Although the wide variety of probes suggests this could be the last digital thermometer you’ll ever need, there are still choices to be made. First, you must choose between the model 3 (which has a resolution of 1°) and the model 7 (with a 0.1° resolution). Then you have to choose whether you want a version that displays in Fahrenheit or Celsius—annoyingly, for those of us who must use both systems, these thermometers lack the usual control for switching between scales. And finally, you must select one or more probes. The thermometers themselves are $79 (model 3) or $98 (model 7); probes range from $24 to $52. So you’re looking at a serious investment. Plus, you know that the week after you buy one, they’ll come out with a color you like better (today, models 3 and 7 come only in white, whereas other models come in a wide range of colors). All in all, I wonder if the Thermapen isn’t becoming the iPod of kitchen gear. No matter how great any model appears to be, you’ll always have to keep upgrading to stay in style.

November 17, 2006

Thanksgiving by the Numbers

Are you ready? According to our recent poll, more than half of the households surveyed are already preparing for Thanksgiving dinner. Someone is putting together a menu and a shopping list and digging out equipment such as roasting pans and turkey basters. Another 25% of the respondents will be busy getting it together this weekend. Fewer than 25% of the people who took the survey said they either leave the planning to someone else or intend to eat Thanksgiving dinner out.

Even if you’ve left your Thanksgiving cooking plans to the last minute, there’s no need to panic. Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner ($10, Take Control Electronic Publishing) is available as an instant download in easy-to-read PDF format. It includes shopping lists, schedules, and recipes for all the basic dishes. There’s even a section how to whip up a feast at the eleventh hour.

Are you packed? A Thanksgiving travel survey conducted by TripAdvisor.com found that 39% of respondents will be on the road this Thanksgiving, though for the majority this involves only a short car trip. The Thanksgiving dish people look forward to the most at the end of their travels? Thirty-two percent said it’s the stuffing.

Are you hungry? A poll on favorite Thanksgiving foods at Familes.com finds mashed potatoes and gravy nosing out turkey as the top Thanksgiving food. In both the Trip Advisor and Families.com surveys, pumpkin pie led apple by a large margin.

November 17, 2006

Three-Tiered Oven Rack

Three-Tiered Oven RackWhen cooking for a crowd—especially if the meal involves lots of different baked dishes, as it typically does at Thanksgiving—those of use with just one oven often run into a problem. There’s just not enough space in there for a turkey, an extra casserole of stuffing, some candied sweet potatoes, and perhaps that pie you should have baked yesterday. And yet, we sure do want everything to be done at the same time! I liked this solution from Williams-Sonoma very much: a three-tiered oven rack. It’s designed to take up just half the width of an average oven but add three racks, each of which comfortably fits a large casserole or baking dish. Just $22, but because it’s available only through their catalog and over the Internet, order today if you want it to arrive by Thanksgiving!

November 16, 2006

The Food Loop Lace

Food Loop LaceBack in September I wrote about the Food Loop, a handy silicone thingy you can use to tie your turkey drumsticks together before roasting (among many other uses). But I noted that you’d still have to close up the cavity that holds the stuffing somehow—a rather tedious job that usually involves a lacing kit.

Turns out the good folks who make the Food Loop were already working on that problem. Their latest offering is the Food Loop Lace, a strand of tough, heat-resistant silicone that features a large metal needle on one end. Use this to sew up your turkey and you can dispense with string and pins altogether. It’s also washable and reusable.

Sur La Table carries them for $10, but their Web site shows them out of stock until December 19—much too late for Thanksgiving and even iffy for Christmas. However, they’re in stock at Amazon.com, though you’ll have to pay $17.

November 13, 2006

My First TV Appearance

I’ve done countless interviews for radio shows, newspapers, and podcasts, as well as live presentations of various kinds. But tomorrow, I’ll appear in my first TV interview—on a live broadcast, no less!

As I mentioned last week, Take Control Books is donating $1 from every copy of Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner sold in November to the San Francisco Food Bank. As another part of that effort, I’ll be appearing as a guest on CBS-5’s Eye on the Bay this Tuesday, November 14, at 7:00 p.m. (Pacific time). This episode is a special live broadcast from an Albertson’s supermarket here in San Francisco to promote the Food Bank. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, set your TiVo now!

I’ll probably be on the air for just a few minutes during the half-hour show, partly to talk about the Food Bank and partly to promote my book (which, in turn, supports the Food Bank). Wish me luck!