Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Quest for the Perfect Jalapeno Popper

I know I like to talk a lot about my beliefs in all foods local, organic, sustainable, and healthful. I hope I don’t soap box too much, but I don’t feel any shame in using this blog as a place to talk about these things, and hopefully spread the message. So, it is with a little embarrassment that I admit this particular guilty pleasure, this particular food that I just can’t seem to get enough of.
The picture should say it all. Yes, jalapeno poppers, but not just any jalapeno poppers. I am enamoured with these frozen, processed, and completely horrible for you in many ways jalapeno poppers from T.G.I. Friday’s. I am well aware that they go against most of my food philosophy. They certainly aren’t organic, they definitely are not locally produced, I’m sure that the ingredients were not sustainably raised or processed, and there is absolutely nothing healthy about this junk food. But they’re really, really good.
Of course, pure deliciousness alone is not a good enough reason to eat something with abandon, and the belief that it is probably accounts for a lot of the health problem we see in western society today. So, what’s a jalapeno popper loving, quality food idealist girl to do? The answer was obvious to me when I thought about it: I needed to do what I always do when faced with the problem of wanting to eat a specific food that I either can’t or shouldn’t eat, which is to create my own version. My own version would be made with better quality ingredients that I could feel good about consuming, in my own kitchen, with my own hand touching every step of the creation process. I started by purchasing a large quantity of jalapeno peppers at a local farmer’s market, because, hooray! Peppers of all shape, size, and variety are in season at last.
I also purchased some quality, locally produced cheeses, and checked my refrigerator and cupboards for the other ingredients I would require.
The question still remained as to what method I would use to create my own jalapeno poppers. A small amount of research quickly revealed to me that there are many recipes out there for making homemade poppers, involving a variety of methods to dissect, stuff, bread, and cook them. I wondered what would be best: should I use entire peppers, or slice them in half? Should I stuff them with shredded cheese, cream cheese, or a combination of the two? Should I bread them or batter them? Should I fry them or bake them? Each method offered its own set of advantages and disadvantages, so rather than actually making a decision, I tried them all. All right, so maybe I didn’t actually try every method for making jalapeno poppers, but I tested out a number of them. The first factor to consider was whether to use one whole pepper per popper, or if just using half would be better. I divided my pepper collection into thirds and prepared them three different ways.
For one third, I simple trimmed the top of the pepper, sliced it in half, and scraped out the seeds and membrane. For the second third, I sliced the top only partway off, then sliced lengthwise down one side of the pepper, creating a T. This allowed me to gently open the pepper and empty out its innards, while still keeping it mostly intact. For the final third, I sliced the tops off completely, and used the handle of a teaspoon to scoop out everything inside. For keeping the peppers whole, I liked the third method best since it was simple and maintained the original form of the pepper best.

Next, I decided how to fill and bread the poppers. I filled approximately one third with just cream cheese, one third with just shredded cheese (a mixture of cheddar, pepper jack, and mozzarella), and one third with a combination of shredded and cream cheese. I made sure to try all the different fillings in each of the differently prepared peppers. I used a standard breading procedure to bread the poppers: flour, then egg, then breading. I used panko as my breading, because its light, crispy texture seemed like it would be perfect for this.
Following one recipe’s suggestion, I breaded some of the peppers twice, allowing them a few minutes to dry slightly between breading. I also placed these in the freezer for half an hour before cooking them. Both of these measures were to help create a coating on the peppers that would not fall off in frying oil, or in the oven, and that would be rendered crispy in the cooking process.
I set aside a few of the halved peppers and did not bread them at all. Instead, I filled them with just cream cheese, wrapped them with a strip of bacon, and secured it with a toothpick. This idea is from a recipe from the Pioneer Woman. The recipe came highly recommended from a number of people in a thread on Serious Eats, so I decided I had to try it.
I tried out two different cooking methods: baking and frying. I fried most of the whole peppers and baked most of the halved ones, but, in the vein of experimenting, I did a few of each of the reverse. I baked in a 375 F oven, and I fried in a cast iron skillet at about 325 F. The baked ones took about half an hour to be rendered golden and crisp on the outside, and hot and gooey on the inside. The fried ones only took about five minutes per batch to get to this state. Finally, the moment of truth came, the time to test the results.
Everything looked promising. All of the poppers looked hot, crispy, and golden. None of the breading fell off, no poppers exploded or even leaked, and it seemed that everything was cooked through. With all of the different methods I experimented with, there are four main variations to talk about. I’ll start with the original offenders, the store bought, processed, frozen jalapeno poppers from T.G.I. Friday’s.
The breading on these creates a perfect, crisp layer that gently gives when you bite into it, without the rest of the popper falling apart. The cream cheese filling is hot and almost liquefied by heat, creamy and salty, and texturally contrasting to the crisp exterior. That filling is cradled in just a small square of jalapeno, probably about a quarter of a pepper. After comparing with the alternative, I’ve discovered that the poppers are not made from fresh peppers, but that preserved jalapenos are used instead. This renders them less hot, and distinctly less pepper-tasting. They could be eaten in one bite, but two is just right. They’re a combination of crunchiness and gooeyness, and spicy heat and rich cream. I’m not going to lie: they’re fantastic.

The second are the ones I breaded whole and fried.
I had such high hopes for these guys. I thought that using the entire jalapeno would just bring more hot, peppery goodness to the popper, but in mine and Andrew’s opinions, using the entire pepper was just too much jalapeno to handle. The heat of the whole pepper overpowered every other taste, and neither of us could get through eating a whole one of these. I won’t bother talking about how well the filling, breading, and cooking method worked since the real failure here was in using the entire pepper, and I don’t think anything else could have redeemed it for us. Of course, if you happen to enjoy eating entire just-cooked jalapenos, you might enjoy these poppers very much.

Next, we have halved, not breaded, but wrapped in bacon and baked.
These were all right. Honestly, I can’t put it much more eloquently. They weren’t unpleasant, as I found the whole jalapeno poppers, and they weren’t exquisite, as I (unfortunately) find the store bought poppers to be. The hot, melted cream cheese was as gooey and delicious as ever (though slightly under seasoned when compared to the frozen variety), and was delicious with the salty bacon. The pepper, in this instance, was cooked more than any of the other ones I had made from scratch and as a result, was not as spicy, which Andrew and I both agreed we preferred. They tasted fine enough, but I don’t know if I’d bother making them again.

Finally, I’ll talk about the ones that were halved, filled, breaded, and baked.
These, much to my surprise and delight, were my favourites of the ones I made from scratch. As previously discussed, the halved jalapeno was much more preferable to using the entire pepper. The half got pretty well cooked and was not too hot, and consuming a smaller quantity of pepper at a time was more enjoyable than trying to plough through the entire thing. I was very pleased with how the breading came out: nicely crisped and flavourful. The breading on the ones I fried had gotten slightly soggy, which probably means my oil temperature had dropped too much, but the hot oven rendered the coating on the baked poppers pleasantly crispy. My favourite filling was the combination of cream and shredded cheese, but all of the ones I tried were good, so I think it’s really a matter of personal preference.

You might have noticed that one method I didn’t try was to batter and fry the poppers. It’s something I’d like to try out, but I didn’t this time for two reasons. First, the frozen poppers that I so love are not battered: they’re breaded, and it was their taste and texture that I was trying to recreate. Second, I was already juggling so many things with trying all these different methods, and my kitchen was already enough of a disaster, I decided not to push things any further.

The final verdict? Well, as much as I’d love to tell you that the poppers I made from scratch were obviously way better than the store bought, heavily processed, frozen variety, I would be lying if I said I liked the ones I made myself better. I’d love to snobbishly trumpet about the value of homemade food, and how it will always be better than something frozen from a box, but, in this case, I can’t do that. At least, not yet. I’m not looking at this as a failure: it was a learning experience. I’m determined to make a jalapeno popper that is at least as good as T.G.I. Friday’s, and I do plan to continue trying. In the meantime, though, here’s the recipe for my favourite popper of all the ones I made myself.

Baked Jalapeno Poppers
Makes 20 poppers

10 jalapeno peppers, halved lengthwise and stem, seeds, and membranes removed
4 oz. softened cream cheese
½ cup each shredded sharp cheddar, pepper jack, and mozzarella cheeses
Salt
1 tsp. each cumin, paprika, and chilli powder
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper (optional, depending on how much heat you like)
½ cup flour in a wide, shallow dish
2 eggs
1 tbsp. milk
1 cup panko breadcrumbs in a wide, shallow dish
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat, and set it aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the cream cheese with the shredded cheeses and a small pinch of salt. Spread approximately 1 tbsp. of this cheese mixture in each of the jalapeno halves.

Combine the cumin, paprika, chilli powder, cayenne, and 1 tsp. salt, and add half of the combination to the flour, and half to the panko. Stir with a fork to combine. Whisk together the eggs and the milk with a pinch of salt in a wide, shallow dish.

One at a time, dredge the filled jalapeno halves in the flour, and shake off the excess. Then, coat in the egg, and finally in the breadcrumbs, making sure that the entire pepper is covered in panko. Place them, cut side up, on the prepared baking sheet. Let the breaded jalapeno halves dry for about ten minutes at room temperature, then repeat the breading process (flour, egg, panko), creating a second layer of breading on the poppers. Place the entire baking sheet in the freezer for 20 to 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 F.

Bake the poppers for about 30 minutes, until the outside is crisp and golden and the interior is runny. Serve immediately.

2 comments:

  1. I've made a similar popper recipe that was baked and it was enjoyed by everyone. I've never tried the TGIF ones, I'm not sure that we can get them here---just as well!! Wish I had been there for the taste tests!!!

    Mom

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  2. Nice experiment son.

    Love,
    Dad

    ReplyDelete