Watch This Space

My Apple Watch arrived 5 days ago, so I have only had a brief time with it. With such a new product category, it’s too early for me to provide any sort of substantive review, but here are a few first impressions:

Build quality: I have the stainless steel model with the Milanese loop. The fit and finish are fantastic, and it looks great. Men don’t have many ways to “accessorize”, and watches can either be a beneficial stylistic addition or a detractor. The Pebble struck me as clunky appearing and awkward, but the Apple Watch looks like a legitimate piece of jewelry. I wear the smaller 38mm model given my relatively modest wrists, and it does not look bulky or out of place.

The screen: It’s sharp and beautiful, though some of the smaller text can strain my aging eyes. I have not needed to adjust the font size, however. I cannot see the black border around the screen: the screen itself is so dark when off, that it seamlessly blends with the border, an excellent visual effect and an advantage of the OLED technology used.

Battery life: Everyone will have a different experience based on usage patterns, but I’m finding it more than adequate. I have not yet dipped below 50% by the end of the day, despite frequent checks.

Functionality: The main utility of the Apple Watch at this point is to display information that would normally go only to your phone. In that sense, it’s just like a traditional watch, but with a broader scope than just time. I may look at my watch to check the time, but now it also shows me the weather, my activity, my next appointment, or my current timer.

I initially used the “modular” watch face, but soon switch to “utility”, which I find less cluttered. It forces you to be more selective with “complications” (the little information additions to the watch face like temperature, moon phase, etc.), which is a good thing. I currently add the date, the temperature, a timer (which I use frequently), and my next appointment. All have proven useful, but the time still appropriately takes the bulk of the display.

I’m still learning how to take advantage of “glances”, the mini-apps you get by swiping up, but in many cases these seem more convenient and just as useful as many of the full-blown apps. The watch is best for quickly accessing information, not for lengthy interactions.

Easy access to notifications are one of the main advantages of having the watch, and it’s key that you carefully curate what gets pushed to your wrist. Fortunately, Apple’s watch app for the iPhone makes this fairly easy. For example, my watch displays a banner whenever I get an email, but my Watch only notifies me if the email is from someone I have tagged as a “VIP”.

The taptic engine is great, but I wish the notifications were a little more prominent. I have the “prominent haptic” feature turned on, which makes the tactile notification stronger for certain alerts, and this works well, but I sometimes miss alerts that don’t use this feature. This is something that could be tweaked with software updates in the future.

The biggest surprise so far has been how much better Apple Pay is on the watch compared to the phone. I thought it would be awkward paying with the watch, but in fact it’s more discrete and faster than using the iPhone. I want to pay for everything this way. I was initially skeptical about how much time Apple Pay would save compared to simply swiping a credit card, but particularly with the Watch, it’s striking how quick and easy it is.

Downsides? None of the third party apps have been particularly useful so far. I think it will take some time for everyone to figure out the best ways to use this new platform. Trying to replicate iPhone apps on a smaller screen is not really useful, particularly if extended interaction is required. The current WatchKit approach (which will be superseded by true native apps later this year) is also far too slow.

Getting Punchy with pizza

Many pizza places I’ve tried end up being somewhat uninspiring, but a good shop can be a gem. Because of the extremely high heat a commercial pizza oven can generate, there is the potential  to have a meal that’s impossible to perfectly replicate at home.

Most of the high quality places I’ve been to recently have been away from home, perhaps because Boston is not known for its pizza or perhaps because I just tend to eat out more when the home kitchen isn’t in reach. I have particularly liked  Pepe’s (coming to Boston in the future) and Modern  in New Haven, which serve up a distinctive local variety. Traveling in Minneapolis. however, there’s a few good Neapolitan spots. Neapolitan pizza, unlike the New York or even New Haven varieties, has a simple dough of flour, water, salt, and yeast (no sugar or oil) and is best eaten fresh with simple toppings. The best I’ve found around here is Punch, with several locations. In addition to a well made dough with just the right chewiness, the toppings are extremely high quality. Spend the extra to get the buffalo mozzarella and Mt. Vesuvio tomatoes.

Milk Buns

Breakfast sandwiches are a regular feature of our morning meal, usually made with our homemade focaccia style buns. While the basic recipe is great, I like to mix things up to keep it interesting. The standard buns I make these days are a mix of four ingredients:

  • 250 g 00 flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 180 mL water

The ingredients are mixed, the dough rises overnight at room temperature, then gets shaped into buns, rests again for an hour or two. I’ll usually give the buns a  brushing of olive oil and bake for 15 minutes at 375 F for 15 minutes (with convection on) on my Baking Steel.

Sometimes I’ll omit the olive oil on the surface and dust with flour instead, or add teaspoon or two of olive oil and/or sugar into the dough itself.

For my latest adventure, I decided to replace the water with the 2% milk we use. I increased the amount of liquid from 180 to 190 grams (since milk is only partly water), but I probably didn’t compensate enough. The dough ended up easy to work with, but a bit denser and not as wet as I’m used to. I had scalded the milk to 190 F and let it cool before using, as this is supposed to omit the troublesome glutathine that can interfere with gluten formation. I let it rise overnight, the stored it in the fridge for a few days.

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The cold dough was even denser but quite easy to work with. I shaped it into buns (divide dough into quarters, then fold four corners into a ball, place seam side down, and cup your hand over the surface while rolling the ball in a circle for about 30 seconds) and then compressed the rounds so they weren’t too tall and narrow.

Before baking I brushed the surface with what I call my omelette glaze: one egg beaten with a tablespoon of milk (you can use the leftover mix to make an omelette). Given the sugar content of the milk and the egg glaze, I figured it might be ready a bit sooner than the water-based dough, and I was right. After 12 minutes, the buns and reached over 200 F and had a dark brown crust.

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The buns worked out well – they were smoother in taste and had a nice creamy texture. They were chewier and denser, almost bagel like, likely because I had less liquid than I might otherwise have wanted. There was a bit of an off-taste though and, given it’s cheese-like character, I wonder if milk dough’s are really suited to long rests.   A higher yeast dough with a shorter rest period may be better for milk doughs.

 

Banh Bao

A recent weekend ritual our family picked up was traveling to a regional Vietnamese bakery for a variety of goods. One of our favorites has been the banh bao. This slightly sweet steamed bun is packed with pork sausage, ground pork, quail eggs, and the odd vegetable. They have become a tasty and satisfying breakfast treat or snack. Of course, I immediately wondered if I could replicate this creation at home. Not being a huge fan of the pork overdose of these buns, one advantage was the fine tuning of the fillings.

After some online searches as well as trial and error, this is what I’ve come up with so far:

Banh Bao

makes 6 small buns

Ingredients

  • 140 g AP flour
  • 1.5 teaspoon baking powder
  • 0.25 teaspoon salt
  • 40 g sugar
  • 1 teaspoon oil
  • 70 g milk
  • 1 teaspoon vinegar

Instructions

  • Mix all ingredients together until all flour is absorbed into dough.
  • Kneed for about 10 minutes. Dough will start to develop a smooth surface though may not be perfectly smooth. If the dough is dry, add kneed in some water. The dough will be tacky, but if it sticks excessively to your hand, dust with some flour and kneed it in to incorporate.
  • Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap.

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  • Rest for 30 minutes
  • Divide into 6 balls and flatten each into a disk with the palm of your hand
  • Using a rolling pin, roll each disk into a 4 inch circle

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  • Place a small amount of filling (I used pork sausage, water chestnut, egg, and shiitake mushroom, all cut into small pieces) in the center of each disk

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  • Fold up the edges from four sides and pinch together. It may help to moisten the outer rim of the dough circle with water using your finger to help it to stick.
  • Place each bun on a small piece of parchment paper, then prepare a steamer (e.g. a steamer insert in a pot with a small amount of boiling water).

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  • Steam the buns for about 15 minutes.

The Air is Dead. Long live the Air.

In 2008, Apple released a new laptop that was simultaneously groundbreaking and ridiculous. Extraordinary lightweight and svelte for the time, it exchewed the typical array of ports that most laptops of the time had, eliminted the standard DVD drive, and was dramatically underpowered. Storage options included an excruciatingly slow 80 GB hard drive and a supremely expensive 64 GB SSD. Many predicted it would fail, but with progressive advancement the MacBook Air has become THE standard Apple laptop (and arguably the standard laptop overall).

At this month’s event, which was ostensibly about the pending release of the Apple Watch, Apple spent a surprisingly long time focusing not on the Watch, but on a new laptop. There are many parallels to the Air’s launch. Performace wise, it is as slow as Air’s from a few years ago. It has only a headphone jack and a single USB port, which is used for power and all output duties. There are a limited range of storage options. In exchange for these compromises, it is thinner and lighter than the MacBook Air, with a superior “retina”calibur screen.

Apple is keeping the 11“ and 13” Air on the market for now, because this radical new laptop is going to be too radical for some people at this time (much like they transiently sold the standard MacBook and non-retina MacBook Pros after their DVD-less successors were launched). This is a temporary transition. I expect that Apple’s line will soon simplify to MacBook and MacBook Pro. The MacBook may gain another USB-C port, and performance will improve over time. Much like the loss of the DVD drive seems of little consequence now, the reduction in ports as we move to an increasingly wireless world will also become irrelevent for all but a subset of users (for whom the MacBook Pros will continue to be avialable).

Lye vs. Baking Soda Bagels

Many home bagel recipes rely on a boiling baking soda bath prior to baking, but some argue that “authentic” bagels must instead take a dip in a much stronger alkali, lye.

I tried the lye and baking soda versions using the same dough, and while I initially noticed a clear difference in flavor and texture with lye, I wasn’t sure it was actually better. The bagels were considerably darker, but seemed too chewy and the crust was a bit difficult to bite through.

With some tweaks, I have become a lye convert. The key is to not overboil the bagels. One minute in the lye (with a flip halfway through) is plenty. The flavor with lye has a bit more depth, toppings stick better, and there seems to be a better contrast between crispy crust and soft, chewy interior.

Soft Pretzels

I have never been a fan of hard pretzels, particularly those dry, flavorless, twig-like snacks handed out on airplanes and the like. Soft preztels, conversely, are a completely different beast. Warm and roll like, these breads have a distinctive crust and flavor. Since you’ve now purchased a large amount of food-grade lye for making bagels (right?), why not find another use for this non-traditional pantry ingredient. I’ve adapted this recipe from one on Fine Cooking.

Add to a stand mixer equipped with a dough hook:

  • 550g bread flour
  • 1.5 tsp instant yeast
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt

Mix the dry ingredients and then add:

  • 360 ml lukewarm water
  • 1 tablespoon oil

Mix the dough until smooth (3-5 minutes) and transfer to oiled bowl to rise until slightly less than doubled, 60-90 minutes.

Divide the dough into 8 pieces and form a ball. Cover with plastic wrap for 30 minutes, then shape the pretzel by rolling it into a rope curved into a U, wrapping the ends , and flipping the end over the curve. It’s easiest to watch a video to see how to do this.

Transfer pretzels to a baking sheet sprayed with cooking spray, cover with plastic wrap, and freeze for at least 2 hours (the uncooked pretzels can last for weeks in the freezer).

In a small bowl (big enough to fit a prezel but not much larger), mix:

  • 500 mL water
  • 40g lye microbeads

Wearing latex or nitrile gloves and ideally some sort of eye protection, use stainless steel tongs to dip each pretzel in the lye bath. It only needs to sit in the bath for about 5 seconds (or 5 seconds per side if the pretzel doesn’t submerge completely). Allow the lye to drip back into the bowl when you remove the pretzel, since this liquid is fairly concentrated and caustic. The pretzels should be transferred back to the baking sheet and given 1.5 to 2 hours to thaw and rise. They should appear puffy.

Sprinkle some coarse salt on the pretzels (e.g. kosher) and stack the baking sheet on a second sheet to limit scorching. Cook at 400 degrees for 20-22 minutes, rotating half way through, then cool on a rack for 15 or more minutes.

Some like their pretzels with mustard or dipped in cinnamon sugar. I liked them with a cheese dip. I sometimes enjoy them bagel style, sliced and adorned with cream cheese and salmon.