Monday, June 23, 2008

Catching up & some vendor reviews

It’s been a little while since my last post. Things here have been busy, as usual though it hasn’t kept me from cooking and baking. I just don’t usually connect with my camera in time to snap photos - sorry folks!

As a quick run down, I’ve been experimenting with bread formulas a bit, both for taste and crumb texture. I think that my active dry yeast may be on its last legs, its not nearly as punchy as it was when I first purchased it. It’s still well within the expiration date, but my cupboards do get warm, and perhaps the temperature got too toasty for it. I am going to spend some time this next weekend working my recipes through during the day without retarding to see if maybe I am not activating the yeast long enough.

I have also been going crazy with Zoe’s Devil’s Food recipe. I had been looking for something to satisfy the chocolate monster, and decided to try out the recipe I had bookmarked from her site. Many of you will recognize her from "Artisan Baking in Five Minutes." THESE CUPCAKES WERE FABULOUS!!!! They were also super easy to make. I made both the full recipe and a batch scaled back to a third of the original recipe and both turned out the same. There are only a few things that I make that I still want to devour after having spent several hours in the creation process, these cupcakes are on that list! I did make one change to Zoe’s frosting recipe – I whipped up some chocolate ganache and added it into the cream cheese mixture – the combination was a winner! I'll be making these again soon and promise to take some pictures.

I also wanted to send out some positive reviews to a few vendors that I have used this month. But first a short rant: living in Alaska does limit one’s access to ingredients that may be normally available in the Lower 48. With mail order and the internet, access has improved, but then we have to contend with vendors who charge an arm & leg for shipping. Yes, it is expensive to ship items to AK, and even more expensive to ship to where I live, as things come only via plane or ocean-going freighter.

--Quick Rant—

There are reasonable options available via USPS Flat-Rate boxes which now come in three sizes (two costing $9.60, the other $12.95) that provide Priority Mail service for an unlimited weight, so long as the shipment fits in one of their boxes. The USPS will even ship vendors these boxes free of charge and will pick up during their normal carrier service. These three boxes would take care of 95% of the items most people would ever mail order. Yet vendors, by their own choice, charge higher than normal rates/pound, then add another flat rate charge to boot OR charge for regular First Class Priority (which is based on weight and zip) and then put it in a flat rate box that costs 4-6 dollars less than what they charged. If vendors want to make money, they should inflate the value of their goods instead of trying to recover extra profit from shipping fees.

--End Rant--

Anyways, after being disappointed with the quality of spices available here, I took the suggestions of two fellow Daring Bakers and sent business to the Spice House (courtesy of Kelly @ Sass & Veracity) and the Organic Vanilla Company (courtesy of Gabi @ The Feast Within).

The Spice House offers a huge selection of whole & ground spices, extracts, flavorings, and cooking products. They do ship via USPS and charge actual shipping for Priority Mail. They answer questions quickly, and their order to shipping turnaround is very quick. I received the spices 5 days after I ordered them (2-3 PM shipping actually takes 4-5 if going to AK). The spices were very aromatic, and appeared to be ground fresh for shipping. I specifically went to the Spice House for cardamom, and ended up buying garam masala (for Chicken Makni), rose water and orange blossom water to restock dwindling supplies, and grains of paradise to try in some African dishes. Total cost of spices was $18.05, $26.10 after shipping. Considering the cardamom cost $15 dollars here, and there is no access to the other ingredients, the overall cost of the order was well worth it. I haven’t found any other outlet for spices who offer the variety and shipping, they’ll definitely get more of my business in the future!

The Organic Vanilla Company offers organic gourmet and extract grade vanilla bean varieties on eBay. I never had need to bulk order vanilla beans when living in Ohio, as I could get them reasonably priced (around a dollar). The cost of vanilla beans here was well over 6 bucks for one. The cheapskate in me was not willing to go down that road. I checked out OVC and was instantly convinced to “Buy it Now”. I purchased a ½ pound of gourmet Grade A Bourbon vanilla beans. The auction indicated I’d receive ~55 beans. I counted 76 when I received my package. The transaction was easy, the shipping turn around was fast and I received my beans 4 days after they shipped. The beans were aromatic, shiny, and plump. Total cost for the order was $18.95, $14.95 for the beans with $4 for First Class Mail shipping. Once I’ve found use for all 70+ beans, I’ll be sending repeat business their way!

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