Cuisinart CSO-300 steam oven: a re-review


I’ve had the Cuisinart CSO-300 steam oven for three months now. It deserves a re-review.

This oven has earned its way into the same category of possessions as my camera: I’d panic if I suddenly didn’t have it. After three months, I can’t imagine not having it in the kitchen. To cook without it would be a huge downgrade.

My primary reason for this is bread-baking, using the the oven’s steam function. Not until I had this oven could I really make artisan breads at or near the professional level.

The next most important factor, I think, would be reheating leftovers. Granted, most people use microwave ovens for that. However, I abhor microwave ovens and haven’t had one for years. I don’t like what microwave ovens do to foods. Whereas the combination of steam and convection in this Cuisinart ovens warms up leftovers very fast and makes leftovers taste fresh made.

Another important factor is convenience and energy savings. My big oven now seems impossibly slow and limited, and I hardly ever use it now. Not only does the big oven take a long time to preheat, it also takes a long time to cool down. The energy use is substantial, and it creates a huge heat load in the house in summer weather. The Cuisinart oven is somewhat better insulated than most countertop ovens. It preheats very fast.

Today I gave this little oven its first good cleaning. Cuisinart recommends running the oven with the steam setting, set at 210 degrees, for 30 minutes, before cleaning. This does seem to loosen the crud somewhat, though not by any means will it render the oven spotless. The interior is stainless steel. It’ll look nice and clean after you’ve cleaned it, but some of those brown spots are going to be permanent.

It does take time to get used to this oven. One learns to keep tall items away from the upper heat element, so that the tops of whatever you’re cooking won’t brown too fast. Another hot spot to avoid is the convection outlet. This is no big deal when you get used to it. Yes, it would be nice if the oven were a little larger, but if it were larger it would be a problem finding counter space for it in my kitchen. So I think Cuisinart probably made a good compromise on the oven’s size.

If I have complaints, they’d chiefly be about the oven’s digital controls. The bread function, regardless of total baking time, applies steam for the first seven or eight minutes of baking, and that’s not adjustable. That’s not enough steam time. Bread will continue to rise in the oven for longer than that. I get around this by restarting the steam function as soon as it stops, for a total of 14 minutes of steam. It’s also a little annoying that, while the oven is baking, the time remaining is displayed on the screen, but the temperature is not, even though there’s plenty of screen space. I’m going to guess that Cuisinart will improve its control programming in later models.

Amazon sells this oven for $225 right now, shipping included. That seems like a bargain to me. You’ll want this oven only if you’re looking for the steam function. Otherwise a simpler and less expensive oven will do the job for you. But keep in mind that the steam is useful not only for bread baking but also for reheating leftovers and for cooking rice dishes or other casseroles that tend to dry out in the oven. Many people swear by steam roasting for things like chicken. However, I don’t cook chickens, so I can’t testify to that.

My hope is that steam ovens for home use catch on. Then not only might Cuisinart come out with other models, but competitors also will get into the market. Commercial steam ovens are very expensive, but I’m now convinced that serious cooks seriously need steam baking at home.

I rarely watch cooking shows because I rarely watch television, but if Cuisinart was smart they’d get some television cooks to start using these things. Then everybody would want one, and we’d soon have a great market in steam ovens for home use.

Bread update


I apologize for bragging, but after considerable practice, I’m ready to claim that I’m now as confident with sourdough artisan breads as I long have been with traditional yeast breads. The keys are the right guidebooks (chiefly The Breadmaker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart), a steam oven (the Cuisinart CSO-300), a few simple tools like a baker’s stone, a peel, and a razor-blade lame for slashing the tops, and lots of patience.

One of the best discoveries I’ve made in the last year is sprouted whole wheat flour. It has turned out to be much easier to work with than whole wheat flours. And sprouted flour almost certainly is even healthier, with a lower glycemic index and easier digestibility. When getting a start with sourdough artisan breads and pursuing your practice, I think that one is pretty much obliged to work with unbleached bread flour. But once you’ve got that down pat, you can move on to more challenging flours such as sprouted whole wheat.

Sprouted whole wheat flour loves being fed to your sourdough starter. However, you need to give it a little more time. Another of my discoveries (no surprise to sourdough professionals) is that sourdough bread doughs love the refrigerator. Invariably, when I split a batch of dough in half and bake part of it today and part of it a day or two later, the bread made later is better. Not only does the later bread taste better, but it’s easier to get a better crumb with coarse holes, and more oven spring. Just be sure to take it out of the refrigerator in plenty of time to get the dough up to room temperature.

It’s getting to the point that yeast breads don’t even seem like real bread anymore. Sourdough bread makes toast that is greatly superior. And while a yeast bread will be moldy on the third day, I have never seen a sourdough bread go to mold. You can toast it for days. I’m sure that it’s the lactic acid that preserves it.

The loaf in the photo above sprawled flat (as usual) when I put laid it on the baking stone in the hot oven. But by the time it was done, it had sprung straight up to almost twice as high, and the top burst open nicely.

That’s fall greens in the photo below, with egg salad from home-laid eggs.


I don’t get out much, but …

Pumpkin soup

I go into Winston-Salem regularly to get groceries at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, but I usually get the heck out of town as quickly as possible, because I miss the peace and quiet of my hermitage in the foothills. But today I was in downtown Winston-Salem, I was hungry, the weather was beautiful, and I figured that it was high time I treated myself to a proper lunch.

None of the restaurants downtown appealed to me very much. They seemed far too trendy and aimed at a younger set. However, just west of downtown is a lovely old restaurant named Bernadin’s. I used to go there frequently years ago, before I moved to California. At the time, it was called Zeveley House. It is more or less French, and it’s as nice a white-tablecloth bistro as I know of.

I tend to be stingy, but I called a moratorium on stingy today. I ordered the grilled salmon without asking the price. I was almost shocked when the check came. The salmon, which included a salad and potatoes and vegetables, was $13. I was expecting anything from $14 to $19. The soup, which came with bread and butter, was $6.

No doubt I still think like a San Francisco person if I’m in a bistro, and I know that good food can’t be cheap. But this seemed shockingly reasonable to me. Country restaurants or the places that I called “fried fish houses” will sell you grilled salmon for the same amount or more, and you’re not likely to be pleased with what they set in front of you. But the cooks at Bernadin’s obviously are well trained, and lunch was delicious.

I will definitely do it again. I sat outside in their patio, by the way, and I was the only person there. I don’t feel the slightest stigma having lunch, or even dinner, alone in nice restaurants.

The salad that came with the salmon

Grilled salmon, one of the day’s specials



Easy apples


When I was a young’un growing up in the country, people had apple trees and actually bothered to pick them up and use them. That meant that, when apples were in season, you might get them at every meal. Everybody’s favorite is apple pie, but that takes time. I don’t know about you, but for me eating apples raw (except maybe in Waldorf salad) takes some discipline.

But the easiest way to make apples that even young’uns will eat is to fry them. The word “fry” makes it sound more unhealthy than it really is. It just means cooking the sliced apples in a skillet, in butter, with some cinnamon and maybe a wee bit of sugar. The fried apples are then served like a vegetable along with supper. I don’t know of anybody who thought of fried apples as a dessert item.

Fried apples can be worked into any meal. Here the fried apples are a topping for sprouted wheat pancakes with toasted walnuts, maple syrup, and blackberry preserves.

Speaking of maple syrup, Trader Joe’s has it at a reasonable price, imported from Quebec. Don’t hesitate to buy Grade B maple syrup. I like it better than Grade A syrup because Grade B has a sassier, more rustic maple syrup flavor.

Winston Graham


I have posted in the past about Winston Graham, author of the Poldark novels that were so recently ruined by the BBC and PBS. Last week I had run out of novels to read and was rummaging through all the bookshelves in the house to find something. I settled on rereading Graham’s The Grove of Eagles, which I had previously read in the early 1980s.

It seems very sad to me that Graham never got the credit he deserved as a writer. It was said that he once referred to himself as England’s most popular unknown writer. When his books did get attention, he was overshadowed by bigger names (Alfred Hitchcock made a film out of Marnie, and actors and actresses got all the attention from the Poldark productions). The literati looked down on Graham as hopelessly middlebrow. One reviewer said that Graham had a wooden ear — a charge that I vigorously dispute.

In fact Graham is one of the few novelists whose style (to my taste) is worth reading carefully and analyzing. He writes superb, lucid sentences that have a cinematic effect in the mind of the reader — the kind of fiction writing that I love and strive for. He writes very masculine novels, yet he gets involved in the emotional lives of his characters (one reason why it was easy for screenwriters to ruin the 2014 BBC production of Poldark).

The Grove of Eagles, published in 1963, is a coming-of-age story about the bastard son of a leading Cornish family during the time of the Spanish Armada. It is an intricate novel, more demanding on the reader than the Poldark novels. It is well over 200,000 words long. It took Graham three years to draft it — a big time investment for a writer who wrote more than 40 novels. Graham gets involved in the politics of the royal court in the time of Sir Walter Raleigh. Clearly as a historian he also knew quite a lot about the politics of the Spanish royal court as well. The main character of The Grove of Eagles, Maugan Killigrew, is fourteen years old when the story begins. He is abducted during a raid on the Cornish coast and hauled off to Spain. He returns to England and becomes a secretary to Raleigh. Poor Maugan, forever lovesick, half wild and half poet, is horribly tormented by the author, as is any good protagonist.

There may be a cult developing around Graham, who died in 2003 at the age of 95. Jim Dring has assembled a great deal of information in PDF form. One hopes that he will turn it into a biography.

Most of Graham’s novels are out of print, but, thanks to sellers of used books who do business on Amazon, it’s pretty easy to acquire hardback copies of old editions. The next novel I read will be Graham’s The Tumbled House (1959).

It occurs to me that a huge body of literature may be slipping through the cracks in this new era of publishing — excellent novels published during the last 75 years or so of the 20th Century that came out in only one edition and that are unlikely ever to be reprinted or re-released as digital editions. I hope there are bloggers and booksellers in this niche.

P.S. It is still vastly easier to find good novels than to find something fit to watch on TV, even if you have Netflix, HBO Now, Hulu, and all that.


Oratorio in Ursa Major — April 1, 2016


I have contracted with illustrator Duncan Long for the cover illustration for Oratorio in Ursa Major, the sequel to Fugue in Ursa Major. The publication date for Oratorio will be April 1, 2016.

The manuscript for Oratorio is finished, and the book will go out to the beta readers later this month.

About Oratorio in Ursa Major:

Jake Janaway, one of the few survivors of a global apocalypse, undertakes a dangerous journey to recover knowledge from the past that can help lead the planet out of another Dark Age. With the help of a galactic federation of extraterrestrials, Jake and his four companions are transported back to 48 B.C. to recover the lost knowledge of the ancient Celts. Jake learns a whole new way of thinking — and loving — untainted by the corruptions of Rome and its rigid religion. Though this is an adventure novel, the high intelligence of the characters and the harsh trials they face will give the reader a new perspective on how our wounded culture came to be what it is, and how we might progress beyond it.


The Inklings


The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings. Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. Published June 2, 2015, by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 656 pages.

I have long been fascinated with how in the world J.R.R. Tolkien managed to produce The Lord of the Rings. A year or so ago, I read his letters. Last June, a new book was released that adds a tremendous amount of scholarship not only to the writing of The Lord of the Rings, but also to Tolkien’s literary group, the Inklings, and to Tolkien’s biography.

This book focuses on four members of the Inklings — J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams. Barfield and Williams are not nearly as well known as Tolkien and Lewis, of course.

How much fun they all must have had! They met regularly at a pub in Oxford, read from their works in progress, drank, smoked, ate, and butted heads up a storm. Part of the fascination for me is Oxford life. Oxford University has been a center of the intellectual life of the English-speaking people for almost a thousand years. The university press publishes an astonishing 6,000 books a year. And of course in my own post-apocalyptic novels it is Oxford from which the intellocracy is drawn that sets out to remake a post-apocalyptic world.

I have never been able to read C.S. Lewis’ books. My criticisms are much like Tolkien’s (though Tolkien and Lewis got along pretty well most of the time). Lewis’ books are oozing with Christian didacticism and allegory. Lewis was a proselytizer. He was glib. He was argumentative. His personal life was a mess. Though Lewis was not a fundamentalist, there are strong fundamentalist elements of his personality. For much of his life, he was virulently anti-Christian. Then he went through a transformation. As my old friend Jonathan Rauch wrote in one of his first books, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, fundamentalist personalities have a hard time with gradual, steady, evolutionary personal growth. Rather, they undergo sudden transformations and reversals, rejecting their former selves and heading in a whole different direction. Lewis was like that. To me he was not an interesting person, or an interesting writer.

J.R.R. Tolkien was very different.

It’s important to remember that it has been almost 100 years since Tolkien and other Inklings underwent their formative experiences as young men in the trenches in World War I. The war was an enormous existential challenge to those who lived through it. Then, in middle age, they went through it again with World War II. Oxford at the time was a kind of center of Christianity, a reaction, I believe, to the existential challenges of living in the first half of the 20th Century. They needed a state-of-the-art, Oxford-smart Christianity to make sense of their times.

Not all writers write for the reason Tolkien wrote — to try to find meaning in his life and in the times in which he lived. Tolkien always denied (not least, perhaps, to distance himself from didactic writers like Lewis) that there was anything allegorical in The Lord of the Rings. And yet it’s easy enough to see how his life shaped the story he told — a great struggle by the common folk against a great evil, his hatred for modernity and for machines, his love of untrampled nature, his belief in the power of myth, and his love for the English language.

Though by all accounts Tolkien truly loved ordinary people and loved to talk with them on his long country walks, he was not above calling them “orcs,” when, for example, they cheered for retribution against the Germans. The Inklings were not saints. They argued. They competed for the same academic posts and sometimes went in for a bit of backstabbing. They held grudges at times — sometimes for decades, in Lewis’ case. Lewis’ love life was a disaster (the splendid films “Shadowlands” give a very limited and one-sided view of Lewis and his brother Warnie).

Tolkien, however, comes across as the most likable of the Inklings, the Inkling with the soundest character. And of course it is Tolkien whose literary theory I find most appealing.