Archive | December, 2008

Are You Kidding Me, Little Debbie?!

31 Dec
A magestic display of snack cakes.

A magestic display of snack cakes.

I have a confession to make.  I was raised on Little Debbie Snack Cakes.  I know the song (Little Debbie, Little Debbie, Little Debbie Little Debbie and a glass of ice cold milk…)  I can taste the difference between the cream in the Oatmeal Cream Pie and the cream in the Swiss Cake Rolls blindfolded.  My mom put a Little Debbie in my lunchbox almost every day.  Wow, it feels good to get that off my chest.  I haven’t had a Little Debbie in years.  I bet you can guess why, but we’ll go over it later.  You know, just for fun.

As some of you may know, I taught special education for many years.  I saw my kids’ lunches–Little Debbies as far as the eye could see.  And these were the Little Debbies of the ’90s.  Not the Little Debbies of the ’70s that I used to eat.  I haven’t been able to find an old ingredient list, but I just bet that with all the “advances” in food additives, these newer Little Debbies are even worse for you than the old Little Debbies.  This whole Little Debbie trend is vexing.  These wee snacks are either a)versions of things you could make yourself (Oatmeal Cream Pies, Swiss Cake Rolls, Brownies, Cupcakes, etc), or b)weird stuff (Nutty Bars, Star Crunch, etc).  Some of you may disagree, but….well, again, let’s defer to the ingredient list.  Let’s pick a seasonal Little Debbie for Closer Inspection.  Friends, I give you the Little Debbie Holiday Snack Cake:

Sugar, Corn Syrup, Enriched Bleached Flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate (Vitamin B1), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Folic Acid, Water, Interesterified Palm and Palm Kernel Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean and Cottonseed Oil with TBHQ to Preserve Flavor, (Contributes a Trivial Amount of Trans Fat), Dextrose, Soybean Oil, Toppers (Sugar, Partially Hydrogenated Cottonseed and Soybean Oils (Contributes a Trivial Amount of Trans Fat), Corn Starch, Dextrin, Soy Lecithin, Confectioner’s Glaze, Red 40 Lake, Yellow 5 Lake, Carnauba Wax, Blue 1 Lake, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Yellow 6 Lake), Egg Whites, Whey (Milk), Emulsifiers (Mono- and Diglycerides, Sorbitan Monostearate, Soy Lecithin, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, propylene Glycol Monostearate, polysorbate 60, Polysorbate 80, Polyglycerol Esters of Fatty Acids), Leavening (Baking Soda, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate), Salt, Corn Starch, Sorbic Acid (to Retain Freshness), Colors (Titanium Dioxide, Turmeric, Annatto Extract), Natural and Artificial Flavors.

Soak it in, people, soak it in.  The list is courtesy of a Wegman’s product information page.  I added the bold and italics type so we could have a little chat about some of these ingredients.

  • Interesterified Oils:  This is what manufacturers do to plain old oil to make it more solid and less liable to go all rancid.  It doesn’t make bad old trans-fats, but our Wikipedia experts say that interesterified oil (note “ter(r)ified” is part of the name) may have worse health consequences than trans fats.  Thanks, LD.
  • Partially Hydrogenated Oils, blah, blah, blah:  So, the geniuses at LD have not only saved (?) us from the evils of trans fats.  They’ve also added some in, just in case we were missing them.  Oh, and TBHQ is also used in lacquers and varnishes.  And oil field additives.  Num yummy.  And they added this partially hydrogenated fat to the cake and to the “toppers.”  Yay.
  • Carnauba Wax=car wax and furniture polish.  That’s all I have to say about that.
  • Whey (Milk).  Not exactly.  Whey is the watery stuff left after all the milk proteins have curdled into cheese.  Whey is half-milk.
  • Emulsifiers:  Do you see that list?!  These ingredients all keep the batter nice and homogenized before baking.  Yolks could do that, too.  But why use a natural product when there are so many scientists just sitting around waiting to be given a chore?
  • Sorbic Acid is also used to clean lime scale.  You know, like off your shower head.  Yum.
  • Titanium Dioxide makes a fine sunscreen.
  • Natural and Artificial Flavors:  Thanks for that.

So, Merry Christmas and God bless us, Every One.  Especially those who eat this stuff.

I don’t mean to be a meanie; I know you’re busy.  But people, just make your kids (or yourself) some cake.  Take any basic yellow cake recipe (not from a box please–have you even been listening?!), Spread it about 1/2 inch thick in a jelly roll pan and bake it.  Cool the cake, cut it in 1 1/2″-2″ squares, put some good old cream cheese frosting on one and sandwich it with another.  Freeze them and throw one in the lunch box.  Instant snack cake.

Here are some other Not Necessarily Healthy But Not Nearly As Deadly alternatives to prepared snack cakes:

  • American frosting or cream cheese frosting between homemade oatmeal cookies, chocolate chip cookies or graham crackers. (One of my childhood favorites–grahams with butter icing.  Joy!)
  • Chocolate cake squares with a confectioner’s sugar/milk/vanilla/salt glaze
  • Simple coffee cake
  • Shortbread drizzled with chocolate
  • Melt some marshmallows and smash them between two cookies.  Drizzle with melted chocolate
  • Banana or blueberry mini muffins–make, freeze and throw in the lunch box
  • Brownies
  • Use holiday cutters to cut cakes or brownies for Seasonal Fun–hearts, Christmas trees, leaves for fall, etc.

I hope this has given you some good ideas for lunches in the New Year.  And that’s it for now.  As always, I’d love to hear from you.  Do you/Did you have a favorite snack cake?  What do you put in your kids’ lunches?  Or just stop by and give the old thumbs up.

Ask And Ye Shall Receive

29 Dec
Beautiful cinnamon rolls--but it's not all fun and games.  Oh, no.

Beautiful cinnamon rolls--but it's not all fun and games. Oh, no.

Hello, all!  I have missed you and this blog.  I made myself stay away over the Christmas “break” so the Beloved and I could have lots of quality Winter Wonderland time.  Mission accomplished.  Plus, we’ve finished Dexter, Season 1!  I hope everyone had a lovely holiday, and thank you for all of your well wishes in the Comments section. I really appreciate your taking the time to read and comment.

Before the break, I asked for questions.  I asked, and you responded.  Faithful reader Jo has a question about cinnamon rolls.   “I have a question about Cinnamon rolls.  I made them like I do every year however, for some reason they were different. Some were drier, tough and light with a lot of holes but tough. I thought I may have cooked them too long but think it maybe a combo of things. I used new pans they were 10 inc deep dish pizza pans. Maybe that was the problem. I didn’t add too much flour or knead them to much or hard. I may have let them raise to long the first time. I’m not sure.”

I’m going to answer Jo, now, but please feel free to listen in.  Without seeing the recipe and knowing the exact procedure used to put these little guys together, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint what could have gone kerflooey with them, but I can talk in generalities.  You are probably correct that it was a combination of factors.  The first thing that comes to mind is that maybe you changed brands of flour.  If you changed from a brand with a lower protein content to a brand with a higher protein content, the dough would have absorbed more liquid and left you with a drier product.  It also sounds like you might have left out some fat or sugar in the dough.  It happens.  I can tell you from tragic personal experience that pound cake made without sugar is Not Good.  Either some butter and/or some sugar helps to tenderize dough, which is especially nice for gooey cinnamon rolls.  If you inadvertently left out one or the other (or both), you would have been left with a tough, drier roll.  I doubt that the pan has too much to do with it in this case–the issue would have been over- or under-browning if the pans were the culprits.

The rise could be an issue, but wouldn’t necessarily explain the dryness.  Underkneaded conventional breads tend to be denser and have a coarser crumb, but they aren’t necessarily drier than their well-kneaded cousins.  As far as letting them rise too long, unless it was hours and hours too long, that shouldn’t have hurt them, either.  Yeast dough is generally fairly forgiving, so 30 minutes over or under, especially on the first rise, shouldn’t have made a difference.

Since I can’t definitively answer your question, I will ask a whole bunch of questions (well, five) to see if we can pinpoint where things went wrong.  For those of you who are not Jo and are reading along, these are questions you should ask yourselves whenever you have an end product that is off in some way.

  1. What is the exact recipe, and what were the exact ingredients you used?
  2. Could you have accidentally left out an ingredient?
  3. What is the exact procedure?
  4. Did you follow the procedure correctly?
  5. Does your oven run hotter or colder than the thermostat says?

So, Jo, I hope I’ve helped a little.  If you still can’t think of why your rolls sort of went South this year, answer the Five Questions of Truth, and I’ll see if I can help to nail it down for you.

Another faithful reader, Don, asked a very straightforward question that I can answer in one word.  But, it’s a question many people have, so I will use a lot of words in answering.  Don wants to know if I use a gas or an electric oven.

I use an electric oven.  Many people like electric ovens and gas ranges.  That’s why there are a lot of “dual-fuel” range/oven combos out there.  I think it’s totally a personal choice.  Whether you have a gas oven or an electric oven, or whether you’re in the market for a new one and are trying to decide, the most critical factors should be accuracy and consistency.  Ovens cycle off and on during baking, much like your AC or heating unit cycles off and on to maintain a comfortable temperature in your home.  During these cycles, the oven can be as much as 25 degrees cooler or warmer than the target temperature, but the average should be pretty dead on.

Get yourself a good oven thermomter and check your oven.  Check it a few different times.  Most ovens have hot and cool spots, so check the temp in the front, back, top and bottom of your unit.  If your oven runs true to temperature, yay for you.  That is a good thing.  Leave the thermometer in there, or at least check it periodically anyway, though, since the calibration can get thrown off.

Unless your oven has stopped cycling off and on, there’s no real need to have the oven calibrated, especially if you have a thermometer.  Just set the oven to the correct temperature according to the thermometer, not the thermostat.

Here’s another question that many people have:  Is a convection oven better than a standard oven?  The answer is, “It depends.”  Many manufacturers tout the ability of the convection oven to assist in even browning.  I’m here to tell you, not so much.  Even the commercial convection ovens I’ve used routinely brown one side of whatever-you’re-making more than the other.  In other words, if you were hoping not to have to rotate your cookie sheets, you’re out of luck. I will say that they can reduce cooking time, sometimes drastically, and that can be a bonus, especially if you’ve got a lot to cook and only one oven to cook it in.   I’ve also noticed that my flaky biscuits rise much better in a convection oven.

If you do a lot of work with puff pastry, know that the convection oven can wreak havoc with small puff shells.  If the fan is on high, your cute little puff shells will come out looking like Slinky Toys.  Also, your muffins will come out with ski slope tops instead of nice peaks.  The fan can blow your peaks off to one side.  I’ve seen muffins whose peaks were blown so far over to one side that they weren’t technically on the muffin anymore.  The peaks baked beside the muffins.  Very sad.

So, here’s the rule.  If you want a convection oven, try to find one that has an adjustable fan–ideally high, low and off.

So that’s it for now, friends.  Loyal reader Cindy sent me a recipe for pound cake.  She says it is The Best, but that sometimes she has issues with removing it from the pan.  I shall be making said cake and reporting back to you all sometime soon.  And, as always–if you have specific questions or just want to learn more about a specific comment, please leave a comment or shoot me an email at pastrychefonline at yahoo dot com.  Otherwise, I will continue to hold forth on Random Pastry and Baking Topics or on Products That I Do Not Like.  Who knows, maybe I’ll even write about Products That I Like a Very Lot.

Your Friendly Baking Troubleshooting Guide

23 Dec
Watch your oven temperature if you want nicely peaked muffins.

Watch your oven temperature if you want nicely peaked muffins.

Hi there, all!  I thought that, before I packed it in until the 29th, I would offer a handy guide.  Answers to some questions I get asked a lot, answers to questions you might not have thought of, and answers to questions that can help you become a better baker.  No, really–you can thank me later.

1.  Why don’t my muffins have happy little peaks on their tops?

This is generally a function of too low an oven temperature.  You want cupcakes to set up gradually and just have the barest dome–the better to accept frosting.  With muffins, you want the edges to set up quickly, forcing the rest of the batter UP.  As the muffins set rapidly from the outside in, you end up with a majestic peak.  So, cupcakes bake at 325-350 degrees, F, and muffins bake at 375-400 degrees, F.

2. Why do my muffins have stupid tunnels in them?

This is caused by too much gluten development in your batter.  When mixing using the muffin method (all wet onto all dry and stir), mix just so the batter is barely together.  Lumps will sort themselves out of their own accord, but once you get that liquid in the flour, gentle is the name of the game.  Use a low-protein flour, as well.  That should help.

3.  Is Reynold’s Release foil worth it?

Yes.  It is magic.  Get some.

4.  What is the secret to really light and fluffy biscuits?

If you’re not looking for flakes, you want a really wet dough–so wet that you have to flour your hands in order to form the biscuits.  Stay away from any recipe that talks about “kneading the biscuit dough.”  That’s a recipe for “tough”.  It’s okay for flaky biscuits, but if you want those really tall, fluffy Cracker Barrel biscuits, go with a very wet dough.  Everyone’s favorite food geek, AB, has a recipe he will be happy to share.

5.  Help!  My cookies are spreading too much!

That’s not technically a question, but since I’m here to help…Butter melts very quickly, and all at once.  At one temperature, it’s a solid, and then you blink, and it’s all melted.  If the butter melts before the structural elements (starches and egg proteins) set up, you’ll end up with a very flat, oddly shaped wafer of a cookie.  All-butter cookies tend to spread more than cookies made with all (or part) shortening.  If you don’t want to go the shortening route (I try and stay away from it, although it is good for some stuff), try shaping your cookies and then putting the whole tray in the fridge for thirty minutes or so–the race between butter melting and starches and proteins setting up will be more even this way, and you’ll get less spread.  Oh, also, don’t flatten the dough much–just lightly press down.  You want the dough to be thick enough that it takes the heat awhile to penetrate.  Meanwhile, your starches and proteins will have a chance to start setting.  And don’t put your dough on hot cookie sheets.  That is all.

6.  What’s the best way to prepare cake pans so my cakes don’t stick?  And how do I get the suckers out of the pan?

Oh, good one!  If you’ve prepared your pans properly (points for alliteration), you won’t have any trouble turning out your cakes.  For flat-bottomed, straight-sided pans, spray the bottoms and up the sides thoroughly with pan spray–pick your favorite–cut a piece of magical Release foil or some parchment paper to fit in the bottom.  Then, I lightly spray that, too.   Once your cake is out of the oven, let it cool for 10-20 minutes in the pan.  This gives the still-woogly starches and proteins time to set up more firmly and not break into chunks when you try and turn it out.  Once the cakes have cooled a bit, place a cooling rack on top of the cake pan.  Holding the two firmly (with oven mitts or towels, please) flip them over.  Whack the bottom of the pan lightly (Is it possible to whack lightly?  Whatever.) and remove the pan.  Pull it straight up so you don’t mess up your cake.  If the top of your cake isn’t flat, you’ll want to cool it right side up.  Put another cooling rack on top (which is really the bottom) of your cake.  You now have a cake sandwich with cooling rack bread.  Grasp this whole contraption firmly, and turn it all over.  Remove the first cake rack, and let your lovely cake cool, right side up.

7.  How do I ice a cake so it looks like I know what I’m doing?

First, brush all the crumbs that you can off of the cake.  Use a pastry brush for this.  No, you may not use your Dust Buster.  Make sure your icing is thin enough to spread.  Test it–if it wants to curl up around your spatula as you’re trying to ice, it’s too thick and needs to be thinned out with a little water, milk or other liquid.  Once your icing is the correct consistency, apply a very thin coat of icing all over the cake.  This is the “crumb coat.”  No, it is not a coat of crumbs.  It is a coat of icing designed to trap any crumbs that might be lurking, ready to make your icing job all speckled and sad.  Put your cake in its swanky new crumb coat into the fridge to let the icing firm up.  After half an hour or so, you can add your final icing coat.  I do the sides first with a small, offset spatula.  I don’t try to be very neat at this point, I’m just trying to get frosting on the cake.  Once the sides are all covered, I hold my spatula 1/4″ away from and parallel with the sides of the cake.  I angle the spatula to scrape away extra icing.  Then, I slowly spin my turntable, scraping the extra icing into the bowl.  Next, I dump a ton of icing on top of the cake, spreading it out to hang over the edges of the cake by a little bit.  I’ll also scrape extra icing back into the bowl.  When the icing is as thick as I want it (maybe 1/3″),  I perform the little sides-of-the-cake number again–just the scraping portion.  What I now have is a cake with smooth sides and a little icing “perimeter wall” standing up maybe 1/2″ all the way around the cake.  I knock that down with my spatula, one section at a time, sweeping in towards the center of the cake, and scraping all the extra icing back into the bowl.

That’s all I’ve got, right now.   If I didn’t cover one of your burning questions, please leave your question in the comments section.

I celebrate Christmas, so “Merry Christmas!”  Whichever holiday you celebrate, and however you choose to celebrate it, I hope you have a wonderful one.  For those of you celebrating Festivus, may you dominate in the Feats of Strength.

Thank you to all my loyal readers.  I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to know that we’re building a quirky little baking community here!  I l00k forward to seeing you all on the 29th.

What Are Your Thoughts on Eggnog?

22 Dec
I do enjoy a good nog!

I do enjoy a good nog!

I, myself, enjoy a good nog.  I grew up drinking the carageenan thickened, yellow, fake-nutmeg flavored um…..liquid….from the grocery store.  I used to like that stuff a lot.  Now, well, ick.  There are a couple of reasons for my change of heart.  One:  I grew up.  Two:  I enjoy natural ingredients.  I really grok that old Breyer’s Ice Cream commercial–Why Can’t Johnny Read?  There sat poor little Johnny, feebly trying to sound out an uber-polysyllabic ingredient list.  I can still hear his high, quavering voice and see the scowl of concentration on his fair brow, “Poly…..poly…..”  So sad.  And so true.  You know how I feel about scary ingredients.

Let me introduce you to my good friend Real Eggnog.   Here’s what’s in him:  milk, cream, sugar, salt, eggs, booze, nutmeg.  Hey, I said it was real, not diet.  A glass of this stuff will knock your diet back about 7 weeks, so imbibe judiciously.  And don’t drive.

Eggnog is a custard.  The early versions called for raw eggs.  What with all the squeamishness about salmonella and what not, I like to use a cooked egg base.  However you make it, make sure you make it at least a day ahead so all the flavors have a chance to mingle and get to know each other.

Yummy, Yummy Real Eggnog

This is my personal variation on Martha’s recipe.  It makes enough to fill a big punch bowl.  Feel free to cut this recipe in half, or even in quarters.  Or, you could double it.  Just a thought.

  • 12 eggs, separated
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • heavy pinch of salt, to taste
  • 1 quart whole milk
  • 1 quart heavy cream
  • 1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
  • several scrapes of fresh nutmeg (use a Microplane or fine grater)
  • 1 cup brandy
  • 1 cup golden rum
  • 1 cup bourbon
  • 2 cups heavy cream, softly whipped (optional, but if you’ve gotten this far, you might as well go all the way)

In a large bowl, combine the 12 egg yolks with 1/2 cup sugar (or about 1/3 of the sugar.  You don’t have to measure this once you’ve measured 1 1/2 cups) and whisk until completely smooth.

Bring the milk, cream, the rest of the sugar, salt,vanilla bean and scrapings, and nutmeg to just below a boil.  While whisking the yolks madly, stream in the hot milk mixture until the eggs are very warm.  Now, pour the eggs back into the pan while whisking madly.  Heat until slightly thickened and the mixture coats the back of a spoon.  The temperature should be 160 degrees, F.

Strain this mixture into a large bowl set down in a sink that you have filled with ice and a little water.  Whisk to cool down quickly.  Add the booze (you can add more, less, or in different proportions than what I’ve listed–this isn’t a real exact recipe.  You can leave the alcohol out, entirely, too if you want).  Whisk really well.

Let this mixture “ripen” overnight in the fridge–two nights would be even better.  Pour into a punch bowl.  Whip the 12 egg whites–remember them?–to medium peaks.  Fold them into the nog.  Gently fold in the 2 cups of softly whipped cream.  Grate on a little more nutmeg over the top.  Serve is wee glasses or large mugs, depending on your preference.

Another eggnog thought.

Okay, I’ve been thinking.  Eggnog is a custard, right?  I submit to you, a technique for making eggnog brulee:

  • 6 egg yolks
  • heavy pinch salt
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 quart heavy cream
  • a few scrapes of nutmeg
  • 1/4 cup booze–bourbon or rum is nice

Position an oven rack in the center of the oven.  Set oven to 300 degrees, F.  Get out a large roasting pan.  You’ll put your ramekins in the roasting pan.  This will be your water bath.

Whisk yolks, salt and sugar until smooth.  Add the cream, alcohol and nutmeg and whisk well.  Strain through a fine mesh strainer, and pour into ramekins.   Open the oven and pull a rack out.  Place the roasting pan on the rack, carefully pour in hot water to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins.  Carefully slide the rack in, and close the oven door.

Bake until the custard is set but is still jiggly. Carefully remove the ramekins from the water bath and chill until cold.  When ready to serve, make sure that there is no condensation on the tops of the custards.  If they are wet, carefully blot them with a paper towel.  Sprinkle a thin layer of sugar on top of each custard, tilting them to get an even coating of sugar.  Using a small torch, or a big torch, caramelize the sugar.  Let the sugar set up for a minute, and add another thin coat of sugar, tilting the custards to coat evenly.  Torch that layer.  Let the sugar set up, and serve.

Another thing you can do with this custard:  pour it over French bread cubes, or cinnamon roll cubes, bake it at 325 until a little puffed and brown.  Eggnog bread pudding.  Now that‘s dessert.  Or breakfast.

Drink your eggnog, or eat your eggnog.  Either way, you will be very happy.  Enjoy responsibly.

Show Lemon Curd a Little Love

20 Dec
The Perfect Tart Filling

The Perfect Tart Filling

Little Miss Muffet has ruined lemon curd with her stupid bowl of curds and whey.  Let me set the record straight.  Little Miss Muffet was most likely eating cottage cheese.  Little white curds in some milky whey.  Ah!  Milky Whey!  Get it?!  Ahem.

Lemon curd, on the other hand, is the smoothest, most lemony goodness in the universe.  An alternate name for it is “lemon cheese,” maybe as a nod to Little Miss Muffet.  I can’t find the origins of the term out on the vast Hinternet, but I imagine that it has to do with the controlled coagulation of the eggs–if you cook it too quickly or at too high a heat, you’ll end up with lemon scrambled eggs.  And scrambled eggs are sometimes referred to as curds.  Just a guess.

Anyway, I told you I am doing a wedding cake tasting on Sunday.  I decided to cheat and buy some lemon curd and raspberry jam.  For the main event, I’ll be making everything from scratch, but I thought I would save myself some time at the holidays by just buying these two items.  The jam is lovely.  No problem there.  There were three brands of lemon curd on the shelves.  I was excited.  I read the labels and chose the one that had all natural ingredients:  butter, lemon juice, pectin, eggs, etc.  I got it home and tasted it, and, ew!  It tasted like congealed Pledge.  No offense meant to Pledge, mind you.  Pledge is a delightful product, but I would never spread it on a cake.  I might actually attempt polishing furniture with this lemon curd, though.

Lemon curd is ridiculously easy to make.  It is intensely lemony and you will immediately fall in love with it and want to eat it all.  Resist the urge.  I will even teach you how to make it thick enough to use as a pie filling, for the bestest lemon meringue pie in the universe.

I will teach you two versions–a straight up version, and one spiked with some white chocolate and a little creme fraiche.  Both are fantastic.

Lemon Curd, the first:

  • 3 eggs
  • 3 oz. lemon juice
  • 1 t. lemon zest
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • pinch of salt, to taste
  • 1 oz. butter (a little more or less–more on that in a minute)

Over medium heat, whisk eggs, juice sugar, salt and zest together.  Never stop whisking.  Whisk until the mixture thickens and reaches 160 degrees, F,  using an instant read thermometer.  Remove from heat, strain into a bowl.  Whisk the butter in.  Chill with plastic wrap pressed right onto the surface of the curd.

Now, about the butter–a little less will be a little less rich, but it will have a smoother texture when chilled.  Using a little more will be much richer, but it will have a slightly grainy texture when chilled.  Both are good.  Your choice.

Fancy-Pants Lemon Curd

  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 yolks
  • 1 1/2 oz. butter
  • 1 1/2 oz. creme fraiche
  • 1 1/3 oz. good quality white chocolate (not coating)

Cook first four ingredients together with a pinch of salt over medium heat.  Follow the rules above.  Strain and pour the lemon mixture into a bowl in which you have put the butter, creme fraiche and white chocolate.  Let sit for a minute, and then whisk until smooth.

Things to Know

  1. You can use key lime juice, blood orange juice, raspberry puree or passion fruit puree in place of the lemon juice.  Any tart puree is perfect for this.
  2. To thicken for a pie,  reserve 1/4 of the lemon juice and sprinkle 1/2-1 teaspoon of gelatin over it.  Let it sit until you have a solid block of lemon juice.  Add this portion to the main lemon mixture off the heat before straining. You’ll probably want to play with the amount to get the filling as soft or as boingy as you want.
  3. You can serve this on scones or pour some over gingerbread.  My favorite way is the gelatin-thickened pie way.
  4. Fold some whipped cream into the curd for a less intense and lighter-textured curd.  Instant lemon mousse!

But whatever you do, take it from me and never, never, never buy lemon curd at the store.  Unless your furniture needs polishing.

Oprah Doesn’t Always Know Best

19 Dec
Oprah Winfrey--not a pie expert

Oprah Winfrey--not a pie expert

So, the Beloved got home early today.  I was watching Oprah.  This is not a daily occurence.  I watch her sometimes, but other times, I just can’t take the blinding glow of her halo, you know?  Anyway, this was her Favorite Things episode.  People probably sell their kidneys to get tickets to this show, because historically she tells us aaaalll about her favorite expensive things and then gives them to the audience members.  Lucky ticket-holders wear Depends to guard against embarrassing leaks, what with all of the jumping and screaming and crying in the audience.

Well, this year was different.  She told her adoring audience that this year, she was going to show everyone her favorite things that didn’t cost any money!  The audience’s collective face fell.  I think I heard it hit the floor.

Fast-forward to the important part.  Oprah will be enjoying Christmas dinner at her neighbor’s house.  Christina Ferrare will be cooking.  You know Christina.  Our friends at Wikipedia tell us that she is a TV personality and the ex-wife of John DeLorean.  She also starred in Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary as a bisexual vampire.  Stellar.  Well, Oprah said she is the best cook in the world.

If you saw the episode, I’m not going to go into great detail about the turkey and stuffing–this is a pastry site, after all (although if I get too riled up, I might bend the rules a little).  I don’t have a real beef with the stuffing recipe, although the use of orange juice as a liquid in it is a bold choice, indeed.  The turkey is another story.  Suffice to say, if you cook a turkey so the internal temperature of the breast is 180 degrees, you will be very sad, indeed.  Even the Beloved was appalled.  And don’t get me started on basting.  Shove some compound butter (butter, herbs, salt, pepper, lemon zest, shallot) up under that skin and leave the oven door closed.  Deep breaths….

And so, we come to the dessert.  Pumpkin Chiffon Pie.  The recipe is at Oprah.com.  Here, take a look.  Read it carefully.  Okay, ready?  Here we go.  Let me describe the scene as it unfolded on the Oprah set:  Everything went into the pot–gelatin, milk, spices, sugar, egg yolks and pumpkin.  She cooked the whole thing until thick, and then pulled out the “finished product” from the fridge.  What she showed us, friends, was pumpkin Jell-o.  You could have bounced this stuff off the floor.   Then, she whipped some egg whites with some sugar and threw in some stiffly whipped cream.  She plopped this onto the pumpkin Jell-o and exhorted us to “fold, fold, fold.”  Well, she could have folded forever, and that pie would never have come together.  You just can’t fold two things together that have such different textures.  Stodgy and airy don’t mix, even with all the folding in the world.

To be fair, this wasn’t her kitchen, and the pumpkin mixture was probably more set than she would have liked.  But she didn’t tell us it was wrong.  Maybe she didn’t know.  But she’s the best cook in the world!  Oprah said so!  Deep breaths.

Okay, to the ingredients:  everything is fine, just add more salt.  Pumpkin is a vegetable, and it wants to be salted.  I’d say this pie could handle at least 3/4 teaspoon, if not 1 teaspoon of salt.  Now, I’m going to rewrite the instructions.  Oprah didn’t know any better, but, friends, I won’t let you mess up your dessert.  Remind yourself of Christina’s instructions.  Ready?

Put 1/4 cup of milk in a microwave-safe glass bowl.  Sprinkle on the gelatin.  Stir, and let sit for 10 minutes, until the milk is a solid piece of milk Jello.  This means the gelatin is all hydrated.  Now, heat this in the microwave in short bursts, stirring in between, until the gelatin is dissolved.  Don’t let this come to a boil, or your gelatin will lose its power.  Boiling is gelatin’s Kryptonite.  Keep this gelatin warm.

In a bowl, combine egg yolks and 1/4 cup sugar.  Whisk well until smooth.

In a sauce pan, combine 1/4 cup sugar, salt, all the spices, the pumpkin and the rest of the milk.   Heat to just below a boil.  While whisking the egg/sugar mixture madly, slowly pour in the pumpkin mixture until the egg mixture is very warm.  Then, pour the heated egg mixture into the pumpkin mixture, again, whisking madly, until the temperature is 160 degrees, F.  This will cook and thicken your yolks.  Take the mixture off the heat, and whisk in the milk/gelatin mixture thoroughly.  Pour everything into a metal bowl that you’ve handily set into a larger metal bowl (or a sink) filled with ice and a little water.  This is an ice bath.  Whisk the pumpkin mixture to cool it off.

With a very clean whisk in a very clean metal or glass bowl, beat the two egg whites with the last 1/4 cup of sugar to no more than medium peaks.  (You can use a mixer, if you want).  Do the same thing to the cream–only whisk it to medium-soft peaks.  Why?  Because the folding will continue to work the egg whites and the cream, and you stand the chance of over-whipping one or both of them before you’re done folding.  Under-whipping by just a bit will help guard against this.

When the pumpkin (which you’ve been keeping an eye on and occasionally whisking) is cold but not set, dump the whites and whipped cream on top.  Take the bowl out of the ice bath, and, just like Christina says, “Fold, fold, fold.”  When there are no more white streaks, pour/scrape this into your prepared pie shell, smooth the top, and refrigerate until set.

And those are my improvement’s on the lesbian vampire’s pie.  You could serve it with some raspberry coulis as a garnish as a nod to Christina’s film career, but that might be considered tacky.

As Promised: Palmiers for the Holidays

18 Dec
Palmiers--French for Mighty Tasty Cookie

Palmiers--French for Mighty Tasty Cookie

Hello there, again.  As promised, The Joy of Palmiers.  I asked if anyone had any questions earlier, and faithful reader Ashley said that she loves palmiers and fears she might be in a sugar coma from eating them after reading this post.  While not a question, I do appreciate the comment!  Thank you for coming and reading my pastry ramblings, Ashley:)

No other questions?  Right, then, onward we go!  Palmiers are wonderfully crunchy, caramelized pieces of puff pastry that have been rolled in sugar and then rolled up, just so, sliced and baked to make these lovely little French cookies/pastries.  The name means “palm leaves,” but I don’t see the resemblance.

Now, palmiers are very straightforward to make, especially if you use store-bought puff pastry.  I suggest you do, because home made puff, while not difficult, is time consuming and fussy.  Here’s what you do:

  • Have a large, clean work surface ready to go.
  • Sprinkle a fairly thick layer of granulated sugar (or cinnamon sugar–heck, use any spicing you like.  I think cardamom and orange zest is nice, but that’s just me) on the work surface, and lay your sheet of puff pastry on the sugar.
  • Roll over the sheet several times with a heavy rolling pin (or just pushing down kind of hard on a light rolling pin).  You want to thin out the puff pastry and embed a bunch of sugar in the dough.
  • Flip the dough to the other side.  If you’ve rolled all the sugar into the first side of the dough, sprinkle on a bunch more sugar.  Roll the other side the same as the first.  You want the finished dough to be no more than 1/8″ thick with sugar completely coating both sides.  This means your dough sheet will probably be about twice as long as it was to start with.
  • Cut the dough in half–if you’ve got a decided rectangle of dough, cut the short way across.
  • Put one half of the dough aside.
  • Now, let’s pretend (for instructional purposes) your rectangle of dough that is staring at you is about 12″ X 10″.  Place the dough in front of you like a piece of typing paper.  I believe they call it “portrait,” rather than “landscape.”  Fold up the short end of dough nearest you about 1 1/2″ towards the center.  Fold the end farthest from you down about 1 1/2″.  Press these folds down to make them flat.  You can just roll over the whole thing with a rolling pin.
  • You are now looking at a rectangle that is roughly 9-ish” X10″.  Fold the end closest to you up another 1 1/2″. (If you’ve ever seen anyone roll a bolt of fabric, you’ll know what I mean.  If you’ve never seen this, think of folding a paper fan, but instead of alternating the folds, you keep folding in the same direction).  Fold the end farthest from you down another 1 1/2″.  Press or roll the folds down.  You now have a rectangle that’s 6-ish” X10″.
  • Fold the ends of the dough up one more time–1 1/2″ each time.  The folds should meet in the middle.
  • Sprinkle on a little more of the sugar.
  • Now fold the dough in half, so the folds are now on top of each other.  Gently roll the dough with a rolling pin, just to make sure that the folds will hold.
  • If you want, press some more sugar into the outsides of the dough.
  • Slice the roll with a sharp knife into 3/8″ to 1/2″ slices.  Place the slices on a parchment or Silpat-lined baking sheet.  Leave at least one inch between cookies–an inch and a half would be safer, if you don’t want them to stick together.
  • Refrigerate for about half an hour.  This gives the sugar a chance to “get sticky” and it will help keep your palmiers from popping open when you bake them.
  • Do the same thing to the other half of the dough.  Remember the other half?  I almost forgot it, myself.
  • Preheat the oven to 350-375 degrees, F.
  • Bake the palmiers until they are a lovely, deep golden brown, about 15 minutes.
  • Cool and eat.  Or blow on them and eat.

That looks like a long list of instructions.  Let me answer some questions that I am hearing in my head:  No, you don’t have to measure 1 1/2 inches.  Yes, it’s okay to have only 2 folds before they meet in the center.  No, it’s not the end of the world if you have 4 folds, either.  The more folds, the more they’ll puff, so try and make sure to make no more than three folds from each side.  Yes, you can freeze them and bake them when company comes.  Straight from the freezer is fine–they’ll take a little longer, of course.

Sometimes, if you don’t roll your dough thinly enough, press the folds down enough or if the moon is not aligned correctly with Venus, your palmiers will unroll as they bake.  You will end up with crisp, sugary puff pastry circles.  I’ve seen it happen.  It might not happen, especially if you follow the pressing rules and the sit-in-the-fridge rules, but I just wanted to prepare you.  If this does happen to you, tell your guests they are “Les Ronds” or “Les Couronnes” (Circles or Wreaths), and they will be very impressed!

I promised a holiday variation:  well, aside from using holiday flavors (maybe pumpkin pie spice in the sugar would be nice) there is no reason in the world why you can’t roll these guys in colored sugar!  Yay!  Make red ones and green ones.  Make sure to roll the finished dough roll in colored sugar, too, because the outsides will keep the color better.  When you place them on the baking sheet, sprinkle a little more colored sugar on top.  The sugar will caramelize some, and you want your festive colors to shine through.

And that’s that!  I hope you enjoy them.

Coming Later On Today….

17 Dec
Calling all questions!

Calling all questions!

…palmiers!  They’re easy to make, and I have some great ideas for how to dress them up for the holidays!  Any questions–please drop me a line.  That way, I can write what you really want to know about this great little French pastry.

Good Old American Frosting

17 Dec
A capital use for cream cheese frosting.

A capital use for cream cheese frosting.

I’m not really sure that this has anything to do with the impending holiday–okay, it doesn’t at all–but I just finished making three different frostings for a cake tasting I’m doing with a bride on Sunday.  I know, it was a moment of weakness.  But, her cousin is my best friend, so I said, “Sure!”  Here are the frostings I made:  an Italian buttercream, a cream cheese frosting and a traditional-ish American butter frosting.

Here’s the thing about wedding cakes–they need to be durable.  Years ago, I didn’t realize this, but when I got married and had a cake tasting, they brought out some sort of industrial icing that was pretty awful.  I made The Face and asked, relatively politely, where the tasty frosting was.  The baker told me that frosting needed to be durable.  To which I replied that I look for durability in my tires, not in my frosting.  Yes, I really said that.  I could not help myself.

It is true that delicate European-style buttercreams can have a rough go of it in a warm room for any length of time.  Back while I was still teaching, I made a wedding cake for my principal’s daughter’s wedding.  Lemon cake, raspberry filling and a killer lemon buttercream.  Ethereal, yes.  Durable, no.  Before settling on the lemon buttercream, I made sure that the reception would be inside, but I hadn’t counted on all of the comings and goings and the elderly AC system.  It was probably 83 degrees, at least, in house where the wedding was taking place.  The icing, well…it kind of melted.  Live and learn.

So, now, I try and strike a balance between durable and tasty whenever I have to make a cake that I know will be on display for any length of time.  Here’s how I made the two American icings.  And, no, I didn’t so much measure, except for the fat ingredients (butter, shortening, cream cheese).  Plus, I only made a little for the tasting.  These recipes should make enough to frost and fill a 9″ cake.  If you have extra, refrigerate it for up to two weeks or freeze for a couple of months.

Yummy Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 6 oz. cream cheese
  • 6 oz. butter-flavored shortening (if you don’t need durable frosting, please use unsalted butter)
  • heavy pinch of salt
  • 10X sugar–probably about 6 cups, but like I said, I don’t really measure.
  • wee splash of vanilla
  • lemon juice

Have cream cheese and butter at cool room temperature.  Beat cream cheese until completely smooth, then add butter.  Cream the two together well.  Add the salt.  Add the sugar slowly.  It might take awhile to come together.  When it does, it will be very “clumpy” looking.  Add the vanilla and drizzle in fresh lemon juice very slowly until the frosting is the consistency you want.

Standard American Butter Frosting

  • 6 oz. butter-flavored shortening (again, use butter if you don’t need durable frosting)
  • 6 oz. unsalted butter
  • heavy pinch of salt
  • 10X sugar, probably about 6 cups
  • wee splash of vanilla
  • wee splash of almond extract
  • a little milk, 1/2 and 1/2 or water

The rules are the same as for the cream cheese frosting.

Extras:

  1. Of course, you can tint these any color you want.  I recommend gel colors as opposed to the really liquidy kinds so you don’t thin out your icing.
  2. Lemon or orange zest is a welcome addition to either frosting, but especially nice with the cream cheese version.
  3. If you are using one of these for a wedding cake, or you just want it to be really white, substitute regular shortening for the butter flavored shortening and add a splash of butter flavor.

For those of you who are concerned by my not measuring the ingredients for the frosting, I promise that I will measure when I make the wedding cake.

My Secret Holiday Dessert Weapon: Riesling Granita

16 Dec
The perfect light dessert.

The perfect light dessert.

This stuff is pure gold.  You will love it; I’m telling you.  Riesling granita is a wonderful, icy-cold, winey-sweet dish.  It is a perfect light ending to a heavy holiday meal.  While your guests might balk at a rich dessert, they’ll be lining up for this granita.  Trust me.  And, no, you don’t have to serve it all by its lonesome, if you don’t want to.  You could use it as a garnish for some roasted or poached pears.  Serve it with some simple cookies.  Maybe some shortbread.  It would be awesome alongside tarte tatin or apple pie.  You could even serve it in champagne flutes with some lightly sweetened crushed berries.  Now, that would be a festive dessert!

So, how does it work?  It’s a very easy recipe.  It takes almost no time to make, and you can make it way ahead, so it’s a bonus for you if you’re deep in the throes of holiday preparation.

Riesling Granita

  • 1 bottle sweet Riesling
  • 18 oz. water
  • 6 oz. sugar
  • approximately 1/4-1/3 cup lemon juice, to taste
  • heavy pinch of salt

Heat the water and dissolve the sugar and salt in it.  It doesn’t have to boil–you just want the salt and sugar crystals to dissolve.  Mix together with the wine and lemon juice.  Taste.  It should be sweet, winy and have a nice tang from the lemon juice.

Pour into a shallow pan, wrap with plastic wrap, and freeze overnight.  One of the many wonderful things about this granita is that, because of the alcohol in it, it doesn’t freeze super-firm.  When you’re ready to serve, just take out the granita and scrape it with a fork.  You will end up with very pale golden shards of ice wine.  You will not be sorry.

Try it.  You will love it.  You will be a holiday super star, and your guests will sing your praises for years to come.

PS  You can also churn this in an ice cream freezer, but you’ll have to do it close to service time, otherwise it will separate.  It does make a lovely sorbet, though.

PPS  You can also make this with other wines.  Experiment!

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