A lot of people ask me: Joe, why did you get into blogging? My standard answer is: for the money, obviously. If I had to pick a second reason, it would be the fringe benefits. This past Monday was an excellent example, as I had the pleasure of being invited to a V.I.P. tasting event for the casual food chain Qdoba Mexican Grill. Why was a baking and pastry blogger invited to Mexican food tasting? I have no explanation other than all the important people must have been busy.
Now, I’ve been involved in the food industry in one way or another for most of my adult life. I’ve sat on a lot of tasting panels and gone to plenty of tasting events. They usually follow the same pattern. A lot of very friendly and well-meaning people serve you a series of small plates of company-tested products, few of which are anything to get excited about. You smile and nod, try to give some positive feedback, have a few laughs and go home. They’re always a good time, not what you’d call a laugh riot exactly, but a nice change of pace.
That’s what I was expecting on Monday, honestly. I’ve always liked Qdoba’s food, so I was interested. But I figured the missus and I would check the tasting out for a few minutes, maybe grab a little free dinner and go to the movies.
Well, we ended up having a ball. Not only did we gobble down every morsel of food that came within range (notably their new lettuce wraps which were fantastic — and yes, in case you were wondering, that’s a plug) we ended up staying for a total of about two hours, much of it gabbing with their executive chef, Ted Stoner. No run-of-mill R&D cook, this fellow is a Mexican food madman, wont to go gallivanting about the Mexican countryside with the likes of Rick Bayless in search of new ideas.
Stoner was so knowledgeable about Mexican ingredients, I decided to do a short interview with him pertaining to this week’s project: tres leches cake. Now, those of you who follow the blog regularly know that I’m not a zealot when it comes to authentic ingredients. My attitude is generally: use what’s available. If you can get the really good or “authentic” stuff, great. If not, no big deal. However I was curious about Stoner’s opinion on the differences between standard American vanilla and cinnamon and their Mexican counterparts, since both can be used to add more flavor to dulce de leche. Here’s what he said:
Canela (cinnamon) is a much milder flavor and in my opinion nicer. Cassia is what most of us grow up with, it’s what’s in red hots. It’s so much more intense and requires a fair amount of sweetener to offset its flavor so that it’s palatable.
I also prefer the Canela because it’s easier to work with. Like most spices, it’s best when you grind it close to the time you plan to use it. That really pulls out a lot more of their true flavor. Canela is easy to break up and turns to dust in seconds in any spice grinder.
There are three primary types of vanilla: Bourbon from Madagascar which makes up about 75% of the worlds production and is typically what you get when you buy a pure vanilla extract in the States. Then there’s Tahitian and Mexican. Both Bourbon and Tahitian are more floral than Mexican and a bit more intense.
Mexican Vanilla has a mellower and smoother flavor, which has to do with soil conditions and weather. But in the production of Mexican vanilla they use wood boxes in the drying process, which adds another layer of flavor. It is almost a straw-like characteristic. Think about an oak aged chardonnay versus a steel barrel aged chardonnay.
So if you really want to recreate the flavors of Mexico, the Mexican vanilla will give you what you are looking for, a more complex and deeper flavor while being mellow and smooth.
On the virtues of dulce de leche over normal caramel:
Dulce de Leche holds up very well and keeps its smoothness so it’s a little more forgiving if you are serving a nice dinner party and get a little distracted entertaining. There is also much more balanced sweetness coming from the milk sugars so you don’t get overwhelmed with just sweetness. You really do get more flavor from the dairy that allows the sweetness to be stretched out more, allowing you to taste other attributes.
I love dulce de leche on simple vanilla bean ice cream (of course Mexican vanilla) with just a few toasted pecans for garnish. It really takes me back to Mexico to taste the Cajeta with the toasted pecans.
So there you have it, a little journalism for a change. Feels a bit different from the usual Joe Pastry folderol, I know, but my ambition is to do more interview-style pieces like this. I’ve said this before, but I know there are a lot of food professionals out there in my readership. So I say this to you: if you have expertise you’d like to share on a specific subject, get in touch! The most you have to fear is being soaked for information.
Thanks to Ted Stoner and the Qdoba crew who work harder than I ever imagined to give their customers a real Mexican eating experience. It was fun!