Ask the Boffin #1 – Hot Dogs and Informality

Thank you for responding so quickly with questions, and The Boffin got right on the case.  I have had no input into these answers.


A Political Science Graduate Student Originally from the Philadelphia Area Asked:

Is a hot dog a sandwich?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a sandwich as “An item of food consisting of two pieces of bread with a filling between them, eaten as a light meal.”

However, a hot dog is defined as: “A frankfurter, especially one served in a long, soft roll and topped with various condiments.”

Therefore, a hot dog exists in two states, either with or without a bun. In both cases, two pieces of bread are not required in order for it to constitute a hot dog. Therefore, a sandwich, it isn’t.

Knowing the background of the person who asked a question and the use of hot dogs in their hometown American football stadium, I would also like to question whether ‘projectile’ is a closer way to define the item?

Hitting Swoop gives you a Triple Bonus score.
Hitting Swoop gives you a Triple Bonus score. “Philadelphia Eagles Mascot Swoop” by Kevin Burkett from Philadelphia, Pa., USA – Originally posted to Flickr as Philadelphia Eagles Swoop. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons


Shadowseye Asked:

Is American society or are Americans, in general, more informal than Brits? Or vice versa?

Dictionary time!!! Formality is defined as: “The rigid observance of rules of convention or etiquette.

The stiffness of behavior or style.”

Therefore, it comes down to who defines the rules of convention and etiquette.  Guess what? In 1776, the US wrote a little document which basically lanced the part of society that defined the rules. People sitting in diners in New Jersey are rarely seen as purveyors of etiquette. However, guess what, in the U.S., they are! The U.K. is held hostage, meanwhile, by a small group of people who hold the keys to the mythical ‘Upper Class’. This is the group who set convention and etiquette. They know how to hold a fork (guess what Americans…. you have no clue). How to drink soup. How to have polite conversation. How to have affairs with married women called Camilla. In the U.K., formality (and therefore informality) is driven by this group of people, who really should have no greater say in how we should act as a people than Bob in the diner who is on his third stack of pancakes.

However, if you remove the cream of society (rich, thick and full of clots), then you actually discover that society can make up its own mind over what is acceptable. We still have our rules in the U.S., but they are always in flux. Our definition of formality is not set by someone who’s great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather once let the King borrow some troops to help bash down a few monasteries. Instead, we make group decisions. There is less stiffness, but we are still bound by rules of convention. However, as there is no single set of rules, you get to pick the one that best suits you. As a result, the U.S. is more informal because we really can’t agree on what being formal is.

So to all the Brits who come over to the U.S., either as tourists or expats, I say enjoy the freedom of U.S. informality and stare at somebody else’s shoes for a change.

The Great British Bake Off Addendum

“Custard”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It turns out I am behind the times, but yet I am not.

I posted the other day about The Great British Bake Off being back like the show was a novelty in the United States.  It turns out The 5th series of The Great British Bake Off was aired in the States on PBS back in December as The Great British Baking Show.  It was such a success that PBS will be showing Series 4 in September, so nobody tell anyone about Howard’s disaster, OK?

The Great British Bake Off is Back!

Yes, I am one of those.

For my readers in the States, I am going to take you back to the beginning with the first episode of the first series.

Last night, BBC1 started airing Series 6 of the cooking foray that sends the U.K. (not everyone, of course) into a frenzy every time it’s on.  It’s a food porn knockout competition that is about as humorously bourgeois as you can get.  It’s formulaic.  It’s corny as hell, but I am a baker, and I love it.  I am ashamed, but yet, I am not.  Let me explain…

The Judges

Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood – Mary is the kindly, but firm grandmother you want who would make you yummy things.  She has been a fixture on the British cooking airwaves for years and has numerous cookbooks and shows under her belt to prove it.  The Bake Off is the culmination of her career.  Paul is supposed to be the Tough Guy.  However, I think he comes off as the bloke at the pub with whom you can chat with about auto racing; he does drive, by the way.  How tough can you be on a baking show, really?  He looks like he would make a great Satan, if you stick a red devil costume on him.

The Hosts

Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins – Mel and Sue are a very popular comedy duo and are ideal for this baking show being that they aren’t really the subversive sorts. They are more cheeky and naughty with their banter.  I really do want them to wig out and kick over a few bowls and throw some pies around.  Perhaps they could stick a few eggs down Paul’s pants.  Just once.  They have to break the rules at some point.

Photo courtesy of the BBC
Mary and Paul about to tuck into some hot cross buns.  Photo courtesy of BBC Food

The Competition

It all starts with 12 ethnically diverse contestants gathering under the baking tent in a tranquil country setting, each with their own kitchenette area.  Every week, someone gets crowned Star Baker and just gets the glory of the honor.  But some sad individual has to go home because he or she did not appease Paul and Mary.  How do you appease them?  By passing three acid tests based on the day’s theme, e.g. cakes, biscuits, pies, etc.

The Signature Challenge – The bakers bring in their tried-and-true recipes revolving around the theme of the day.  There is always someone who has to have something tea-infused or lemon/lime with ginger.  It’s the law apparently.  And if you want to hear how bourgeois this show can get, one of the contestants last night had trouble with her madeira cake because she forgot to get her oven going.  You see, she has an AGA running continuously at her house.  An AGA cooker that is continuously running is wood-burning (although you can get ones that run on other fuels that switch off) and costs about £7000 or approximately $10,000.  If you happen to buy a house with an AGA cooker, consider yourself lucky.

The Technical Challenge – Paul or Mary dig deep into their Books of Psychotically Difficult Recipes and force the bakers to make them in half the time normal humans can do.  To make the challenge even worse, the bakers are left with only part of the recipe, so they don’t know things like cooking times or techniques.  It is purely a skills test.  Meanwhile, the bakers moan, get flustered, and cry “Ooooh,” and “I don’t know what I am doing,” and “What do they mean by this?” and “I never made these before”.  Then they slap what they created on a long table next to pictures facing them and sit on stools looking petrified, so Paul and Mary can do the blind taste tests.  Somehow one or two of the bakers manages to pull the recipe out of their arses.  Not literally.  That would be disgusting but interesting television.

Interspersed, we have snippets of their reactions about how they felt about how they did.  Lots of stiff upper lip sort of stuff if they didn’t do so well.  Lots of “glad Paul and Mary liked it but got to keep focused on the next challenge” if they did well.  And we can’t forget the historical featurette showing Mel or Sue going somewhere in Britain telling the story of one of the country’s quintessential baked goods, if the show needs padding.  Because Britons eat that stuff up in more ways than one.  And I admit I like that too.

The Showstopper Challenge – Now the bakers have to make these decorative, science projects out of flour, sugar, and eggs that are actually tasty.  It all about “wowing” the judges, and the pressure is on.  Meanwhile, Mel and Sue are flailing about, staging humorous moments, and getting in the way; one of them will be smacked with a rubber scraper at some point.  Every year, the skill levels of the bakers get higher and higher, so the finished products are on the level of the construction of the Shard.  They might as well get candidates from Les Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, and be done with it.

Then Mel, Sue, Paul, and Mary go back into the war room and pretend to have a thoughtful discussion, while Paul and Mary have already made up their minds about who is going to win Star Baker that week and who is getting kicked to the curb.  Afterwards, out come the big announcements.  Yay to the winner.  Tears for the loser who was just happy to be part of the competition.  Hugs all around.  Here’s what’s coming up next week.  More food porn and some silly antics from Mel and Sue.  Oh, look, someone’s cake fell off the counter.

It’s daft from the way I describe it, but it is a fun kind of daft.  It’s my kind of daft.  It’s a water cooler show, and the national media extensively covers it.  I just have to remember to keep away from Twitter on Wednesday afternoon because the spoilers abound.  So nobody in the UK tell me the results each week, please!

This British-American Life in the Kitchen – Blueberry Muffins

I think it would be safe for me to say that few Americans would turn down the opportunity to each a freshly baked blueberry muffin when given the chance.  It is such a classic American baked good, we just take it for granted that we can get it everywhere.  They even sell them at Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks, and of course, they are the size of your head.

Of course, most people make them in the normal cupcake tins at home.  The recipe I use is a regional one and is based off a beloved department store muffin that King Arthur Flour developed.  Jordan Marsh in Boston served these muffins to their hungry shoppers until the 1990s when it was bought out by (Surprise, surprise, Americans.) Macy’s.  (As an aside, the balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade are filled with the ghosts of the late regional department store owners whose shops they took over.  It’s true.)

Marshall Field was in here.  By Anthony Quintano from Hillsborough, NJ, United States (The 87th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Marshall Field was in here.          By Anthony Quintano from Hillsborough, NJ, United States (The 87th Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Actually, I recommend to my U.K. readers to explore the King Arthur Flour site for American recipes.  King Arthur’s flours are the closest to the U.K. flours as far as protein content, so you can do like for like.  And they have a handy click function that automatically converts recipes from volume measurements to ounces and to grams.  They also are very good at responding to problems you have in the comments section.  I am also a veteran home baker, and it’s my flour of choice.  So, while I am waiting for my royalty check…

King Arthur Flour’s Famous Department Store Blueberry Muffins

    • 4 ounces unsalted butter
    • 7 ounces sugar
    • 2 American large or U.K. medium eggs
    • 2 teaspoons baking powder
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • 1 teaspoon vanilla essence (extract) or 1/2 tsp almond and 1/2 tsp vanilla essence (extract)
    • 8 1/2 ounces plain (all-purpose) flour
    • 4 ounces milk
    • 12 1/2 ounces blueberries, fresh preferred
    • 1 3/4 ounces course decorating sugar, for topping

1) Preheat the oven to 375°F/190°C/Gas Mark 5. Lightly grease a standard 12-cup muffin tin; or line the tin with papers, and grease the papers.

2) In a medium-sized bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until well combined.

3) Add the eggs one at a time, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl and beating well after each addition.

4) Beat in the baking powder, salt, and vanilla or vanilla/almond combination.  You can also add some fresh lemon or orange zest to pick up the flavor too.

5) Add the flour alternately with the milk, beating gently just to combine. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl.  I highly recommend doing this by hand.  To get the proper crumb texture of the muffin, the flour just needs to be incorporated.  Where people make the mistake is to think the batter needs to be smooth and cake-like.  The truth is the opposite.  

6) Mash 2 oz of the blueberries. Toss the rest of the blueberries with enough flour to just coat them, so they don’t sink to the bottom of the tins when they bake.  Add the mashed and whole berries to the batter, stirring just to combine and distribute.

7) Scoop the batter into the prepared muffin pan; an ice cream scoop works well here.

8) Sprinkle about 1 teaspoon sugar atop each muffin, if desired.  Demerara sugar works, if you can’t find the coarse sugar.

9) Bake the muffins for about 30 minutes, until they’re light golden brown on top, and a toothpick inserted into the middle of one of the center muffins comes out clean.

10) Remove the muffins from the oven, loosen their edges from the pan, and after about 5 minutes transfer them to a rack to cool.

Yield: 12 muffins.

One note about this recipe: This one does not form the traditional muffin top, the bit of the muffin that spills out over the side to form that well-baked harder bit that so many people love.  However, it creates a lovely sugar crust on top, so give it a chance.

Blueberries are in season in my parts, as you know from my last couple of posts, but I know they are not quite ready in the U.K.  Keep this post in mind wherever you are, and consider making these muffins.  Tell me what you think, if you do.

This British-American Life in the Kitchen: Strawberry Jam

The Boffin and I don’t do things in half measures.

I said in the past that we have a backyard farm, and we have to preserve the goodness that comes our way.  Our fortune came from our strawberry patch this year.


This was just 5 pounds worth out of the 20 we used to make our strawberry jam.   I have 47 eight ounce jars sitting on my dining room table.  Do we eat all of that jam? Of course not, every year around the holidays, our friends and family get packages containing our homemade jams, marmalades, herb and spice mixes, and candies. We spend all year using seasonal fruit to can things at the proper time and try to grow or locally source what we need to get the jobs done. We call our enterprise Dynglebury Farm because our senses of humor haven’t evolved beyond a 12-year-old child’s.

Having a garden, sometimes things don’t always go to plan. Last year, grubs attacked our strawberries, but we were able to locally source some organic ones to save the year. Even though he is a chemical engineer, the Boffin’s philosophy when it comes to gardening is to use the least invasive measure to solve the problem. When he researched the grub issue, he understood that grubs sometimes like to set up shop in strawberry patches, and that does not mean they will be back the next year. Lo and behold, this year, we were grub-free without the addition of anything. If you are keen on gardening and want to know more about what he does, the Boffin just started his own blog called Yardinage.

My role is more harvesting and cooking, and I am here to show you how to make and can your own strawberry jam.  You don’t have to grow your own to do this, nor do you have to make the crazy person quantities that we do.  Strawberries are a great fruit to use for your first jam making experience because you don’t have get seeds out of them, and most people like strawberries, if they are not allergic.  Strawberry jam was my first canning recipe too, so I admit I am biased.

What you need:

8 oz of strawberries per 8 oz jar of jam

Canning jars, rings, and lids

I use the Ball’s Low-Sugar or No Sugar Setting Mix with Pectin (Can be ordered on

Granulated or Turbinado Sugar

Potato Masher

Canning equipment
OK, a lot of people think you have to invest in a huge amount of special equipment to do this. You don’t. Let me tell you what you need.

A nice hefty spoon for putting the jam in the in the jar
A canning funnel
A jar lifter
A magnetic lid lifter

(All of which you can buy at Amazon or your local box/hardware store.)

From top to bottom, deep spoon for filling jars, jar lifter, magnetic lid lifter
Canning funnel and jar.
Canning funnel and jar.

Now, I bet you are asking, where is that huge pressure cooker thingy, i.e. the canner, that you have to use to process the jars? Nobody expects you to shell out for a huge canner if you are new to this, just want to make small quantities, or if you don’t have the space to store the canner. Here is what you can do. You can use a non-reactive stockpot that is tall enough to cover the top of your jars with at least one inch of water without overflowing when boiling and when a rack is put underneath. You can use a small cake rack to put at the bottom of the pot. Or you can makeshift a rack using cooking twine and canning rings. Just be sure you put the side with the smaller openings up, like so.

Years of watching Blue Peter paid off for the Boffin.

How It’s Done

1.  Wash and sterilize the jars.  There are a few ways you can do this.  Some people just run them through the sterilize cycle in their dishwasher.  Others boil them in their canner.  I prefer to heat them on a cookie sheet in a 130°C/250°F/Gas Mark 1/2 oven, and I just keep them in there until I am ready to fill them because I am not using the oven for any other part of the process.

2.  Wash, hull, and cut the berries in halves or quarters.  There are also some little things you can do.  Put some dessert spoons in the freezer.  Boil some water then get your canning lids soaking.  Get your the water in your canner/stockpot on to boil.  Be sure you have your above mentioned canning tools ready.

My work station because cutting and hulling strawberries gets boring.

3.  Place the berries in a nonreactive pot (stainless steel is good) and make sure you have lots of headroom because the mixture will foam and rise when heated.  Mash the berries with a potato masher.  You can keep doing this as the jam heats up because it is easier to mash when the berries are softer.

4.  Mix the pectin with about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of sugar and add to the fruit.  (The sugar helps distribute the pectin evenly)  So how much pectin do you need?  Count on about 2/3 tbsp of pectin per 8 oz of strawberries.  Now it may be a different formulation depending on what kind of pectin you use, so I would look at the directions, if you have to get a different brand or different variety of Ball pectin.

5.  Put the mixture on medium heat, and stir until the sugar and pectin is dissolved and distributed.  Heat to boiling, stirring occasionally so the jam doesn’t burn.  When the jam is boiling, add your sugar.  How much?  I can’t tell you because you may want to make a lower-sugar jam.  You may want your teeth to rot out.  Put some in, dissolve it, and taste test when the jam is lukewarm.

6.  When the sugar has dissolved, bring the mixture to a boil, and let it boil for one minute.  Immediately remove from heat, and test the jam. How do you do that? Remember when I told you to put a bunch of dessert spoons in the freezer? Get two from the freezer.  Grab a third spoon and spoon some jam out from the pot and place on a cold spoon.  Then transfer back and forth to get the jam to quickly set.  You want to be able to hold the spoon over your head and not have the jam fall off.  If the jam hasn’t set, don’t worry.  Add more pectin, the amount depending on your batch size (1 tbsp per 3 lbs of fruit), bring the mixture back to a boil, and boil for 1 minute.  Remove from heat, and retest.

Here I am risking jam falling on my camera lens. Karen Nehilla: Living on the Edge.

7.  Skim the foam.  You will notice that you will have a huge amount of foam on top of the pot.  You will have to skim this off, but don’t worry.  I highly recommend just grabbing a spoon and just eating this or mixing it with whipped cream.  Must not waste.

Foam is your friend.

8.  We are at the filling the jar phase.  Make sure you have everything you need on hand including: the funnel, the lids, the jar lifter,  a wet clean cloth, a narrow rubber scraper, and a couple of extra teaspoons.  I highly recommend having a 5-finger oven glove, if you sterilize the jars the oven way.  Grabbing the jars with your less dominant hand makes the process more efficient.

Minnie Mouse at a murder scene.
Minnie Mouse at a murder scene.

a. Place the funnel in the jar.
b. Fill the jar leaving 1/4″ headspace.
c. If there are air bubbles, use the narrow spatula to scrape down the sides of the jar to remove them.
d. If you overfill the jar, use the teaspoon while the funnel is in the jar to remove the excess jam.
e. Wipe the rim with the wet clean cloth, so any residual jam does not compromise the seal of the lid.
f. Place the lid on the jar using the magnetic lid lifter.
g. Screw and tighten the ring on the jar, and set aside.

9. Now, the easiest part…the processing. The water in your canner/stockpot should be boiling away happily with a rack at the bottom. Place your jars in the canner/stockpot using the jar lifter and bring the water back to the boil. Process for 10 minutes with the lid covered, and do not remove the lid. Be sure there is at least 1″ of water covering the jars. We want that bacteria dead, and this is the part that does it.

10. Remove the jars from the water, and listen for the happy popping sound that means that the jars are sealing. Sometimes, it can take overnight to get a proper seal, so be patient and leave the jars be. Most of the time, the jars seal within a couple of hours. If it is not working, you can either just bung the jar in the fridge, and enjoy your jam on toast. Or you can reheat the jam, and reprocess with a new lid. The recommendation is not to move the jars for 24 hours after processing. The idea behind that is to ensure that the jars have cooled, and the seals have set. The jars cannot handle knocks during the cooling process. There is some leeway within the 24-hour period, but I would not play around with that until you have more of a feel with what you are doing.

11. Be sure you label the jars with the contents and the date you made the goodies. No use going into your cabinet, and finding a science project that you cannot identify.

I realize that I just threw a lot of information at you, but it does get simpler once you actually do the work in the kitchen yourself. Just let me share some good resources with you to help you along. Please contact me too, if you have any questions. After making thousands of jars of things, the Boffin and I know what we are doing.

Pick Your Own – This is where it all started for me.  I taught myself how to make jam here, but it also contains other great canning recipes.  I directed you straight to the strawberry jam with pectin page, but feel free to explore the rest of the site.  For the Americans, it has a state-by-state guide of where to pick your own fruit and vegetables.

Food in Jars: Preserving in Small Batches Year Round by Marisa McClellan – The title explains it all.  Great for person who does not have a lot of freezer space or just wants to get his or her feet wet with canning.

The Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving – The classic guide to American canning.    The book is usually sold with the canning supplies at the hardware/box stores.  I also want to switch the words “ball” and “blue”.  Remember, 12-year-old.

I certainly hope, if you decide to give it a go, that you get as much enjoyment out of canning as we do.  As fun as it is to make, I would say the best part about it is the sharing with our friends and family.  If somebody else gets the same addictive bug from this post, all the better.

This British-American Life in the Kitchen – Mini Jam Tarts

It’s pretty well known that Europe would come to a standstill if pastry ceased to exist. I don’t understand why we would have to consider conventional weaponry and nuclear armaments when some evil genius can tamper with the grain supplies. Let Marvel Comics handle that one.

In the meantime, let us enjoy some mini jam tarts. If you are new to making your own pie crust, this is a great starter recipe because you don’t have to worry about rolling out this huge sheet to fit a pie pan.  All you need to do is get the sheet thin enough to cut out 2″ circles.  It’s easy enough for the kids to join in.

And the result is a lovely combination of fruitiness and buttery, flaky melt-in-your mouth goodness that is perfect with your afternoon cup of tea or coffee.  It’s bite-sized, so you can easily control your portions too.  At least, that’s what you can tell yourself.

What I am using is a traditional British shortcrust pastry.  The ratio is 2:1 flour to fat with enough water to bind and give the dough the right shape and stretchiness.  Lots of people go with a half and half butter for flavor and lard for flakiness.  You can substitute shortening or margarine to get that flakiness or to make it kosher/vegetarian.   Many just choose to use all butter.  Feel free to experiment to find what works for you.

I guess they are.
I guess they are.

Mini Jam Tarts – Karen Style


8 oz all purpose (plain) flour

1 healthy pinch of salt

2 oz unsalted butter + 2 oz lard, shortening, or margarine or 4 oz butter

Cold Water

24 tsp of jam

You will also need a 24-cup mini cupcake pan.

First, prepare your pastry.  Mix together the flour and the salt.  Cut the fat into smaller pieces and incorporate the fat into the flour mixture.  You can do this one of two ways.

1.  If you have a food processor, place the flour mixture and the cold fat into the bowl and pulse it until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs.  This won’t work if the fat is at room temperature.  I like this method because, like I said before, I am lazy.

2.  If you bring the fat to room temperature, you can incorporate the fat into the flour using a pastry blender, a knife, or a huge serving fork.  Once again, you are looking for a breadcrumb-like texture.

Then add the flour back in the bowl, if you are using the processor method, make a well in the flour, and add about 2 oz of water to start.  Use you hand as a sort of a whisk and gently turn to incorporate the water into the flour mixture.  I am using the Gordon Ramsay method.  He demonstrates it in this 2 1/2 minute video embeded below, and he doesn’t even swear and yell at you.  He just dances around like he has to wee.

Add more water a tablespoon at a time until the dough pulls cleanly from the bowl.  If you are going to make a mistake with this, it is better to make it too wet than too dry because it is easier to add more flour to pastry later on than more water.  Knead the dough gently on a lightly floured surface until it forms together.  Flatten, wrap in plastic wrap (clingfilm), and let it rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

After the pastry has rested, roll it out on a floured surface until the dough is 1/8″ thick.  Using a 2″ round pastry cutter, cut out 24 round circles and line the cups with them, pressing the surfaces to get rid of the cracks.  Chances are, you will have to reroll the dough to do this, unless you are really skillful and play a lot of TETRIS.  Fill each cup with 1 tsp of your favorite jam.  If you have leftover dough, feel free to cut out stars or circles to place on top.

Bake in a 200°c/400°F/Gas Mark 6 oven for 20 minutes.

Now, this is what BBC Good Food site tells you they are supposed to look like with its labeled for reuse photo…with a staff of food stylists and professional photographers.

Your license fee at work, folks.
Your license fee at work, folks.–592455_11.jpg


Here are what mine look like.


On the left, I had my homemade strawberry jam tarts; on the right were my chunky apple maple jam ones.  OK, they are not prom queens, but they were tasty and made us happy in our bellies.

And they will do the same in yours.