Tag Archives: Pastry Techniques

Identity Crisis: Back to the Basics

8 Jul

identity crisisFriends, I have lost my way a little bit.  I have been getting away from my Original Purpose, and I apologize.  Every once in awhile, I get all caught up in the whole “food blogging” thing.  But, I don’t really consider myself a food blogger.  Don’t get me wrong, I read lots of food blogs, and I really enjoy most of them.  The photography is exquisite, the original dishes presented are quite sophisticated, or, if simple and straightforward, at least executed with sophistication.  But I try to be more of a teacher.  I hope that doesn’t sound all Conceited or Big-headed or anything, but my goal is to help other folks understand their ingredients and how they function, to demystify ingredients and techniques.  When I do post a recipe, as for Sunday Suppers, I try to impress upon everyone that the recipe is just a snapshot–just a version of a dish that I chose to make on a particular night.  A recipe, especially for savory food, should serve as more of an inspiration than a blueprint.  And even in the case of pastries, just because a recipe calls for 1/4 tsp cinnamon, there is really no good reason not to use more if you love cinnamon, or to leave it out if you’re not a fan.  Just because someone’s recipe calls for a fruit filling to be thickened with tapioca is no reason to run out to the store to pick up some.  Just use some cornstarch or even some flour.  Yes, the filling might not be as crystal clear as it would be with tapioca, but unless you’re planning on photographing the food instead of eating it, it really shouldn’t matter.

And then, I was reading on twitter the other day about how there are folks who are lifting other folks’ photos from their blogs and using them as if they were their own.  They’re stealing them.  Here’s the post from My New 30.   So then, I got to thinking that I need to come out and make it perfectly clear where my photos come from.  Since I don’t consider myself a food blogger, I don’t always feel the need to make the dish I’m writing about (or a dish that illustrates a technique I’m writing about).  Just as teachers don’t use 100% original materials–they are working from a curriculum–I try to find pictures that best illustrate my posts.  I think I’ve been pretty up front in letting everyone know that I often don’t use my own photos.  If you ever have a question about whether or not a photo is mine, just click on it.  If it’s from flickr and under a Creative Commons license, the click will take you to the photographer’s photostream.  If it’s my picture, it will just take you to where that photo lives on the WordPress.com server.

I feel like I have gotten more than a little Caught Up in the whole Food Blogging craze–wanting to offer recipes with every post.  And I offer them, because as sure as I don’t offer one, someone wants to know the recipe.  My goal with this wee blog is not to feed folks recipes; my goal is to teach people how to cook and bake so they don’t need to rely so heavily on recipes.  It is time to get back to my roots, back to the Business of Teaching.  I’m not saying that I will never offer recipes again, after all, recipes inspire people.  I do want to focus more time on methods and techniques and, as the blog title says, focus on the whys behind the hows.  And even the hows behind the whats.  Like the Chinese proverb says, “Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, and he eats for the rest of his life.”  Friends, I don’t want to just hand you fish.  You can find all sorts of Fabulous Fish out there on the Hinternet.  I often go out and find fabulous fish myself.  But here, at PMAT, I really want to teach you to fish.  So, get your poles and your nets ready.  You prolly won’t need any worms…

Yes, I’ll still do Sunday Suppers, because Man cannot live by dessert alone, and I’ll still have the occasional Tantrum and post my round up of search terms (because they make me Laugh and Laugh), but I shall be focusing on the Teaching.  You guys up for it?  I’d love to know what you’re really interested in learning.  Please leave a comment and let me know your Burning Pastry Questions–about ingredients, about techniques, about mixing methods–anything, really, and I’ll do my best to answer as completely as I know how.   I’ll start on the Newly Focused PMAT tomorrow.  Thanks for all the amazing support so far.  I really love my corner of the Hinternet, and I hope to be around for a long, long time.

Have You Heard About My Temper?

25 Feb
What stands between you and creme brule?  The Challenge of Tempering

What stands between you and creme brule? The Challenge of Tempering

Well, my throat is sore from all the yelling, and my shoulder is sore from all the sword-wielding, but all in all, I’d say yesterday was a Good Day.  For me.  Perhaps not so much, for those two erstwhile k-niggits.  Ah, well–balance in all things….

Today, I want to get off the dusty field of battle and back into a nice, bright kitchen.  So, let’s all just go back inside together, shall we?  Beth, from At the Very Yeast (ha!), challenged me to tackle tempering eggs, as the prospect of adding hot liquid to cold eggs can strike terror into the hearts of even experienced cooks.    That sentence was a bit awkward.  I blame it on all the Physical Exersion yesterday.  Right, then, onward we go!  Beth, I accept your challenge.  You didn’t have to smack me with that glove, but whatever.  I get that you were just hyped up by all the swashbuckling and Whatnot.

There are a couple uses for the word temper in the pastry kitchen.  One is for chocolate, and it describes the process of heating, cooling and reheating chocolate so that all of the different fats in cocoa butter (which all have slightly different melting points) behave themselves and set properly, giving you a nice, shiny end product with a good snap.  This is not the tempering of which I currently speak.  Today, I’m talking eggs, folks.

Eggs are rather finicky creatures.  They are also very necessary in the pastry kitchen for all sorts of reasons–thickening, structure, leavening, emulsifying, etc.  But sometimes, they don’t want to play nicely.  What’s their problem?  They are very temperature sensitive.   Their proteins, which are largely found in the whites (albumin), begin to coagulate, or cook, or denature, at about 140F.  The yolks (vitellus!) start to set up at a somewhat higher temperature, around 150-155F.  Eggs will be all cooked–whites and yolks–by about 160 degrees, F.

Eggs enjoy being cooked slowly.  That’s why they are quite happy in a water bath, so they never have to be above 212F, thankyouverymuch.  If slowly and steadily pushed up Thermal Hill by ox cart, the proteins will set up all smooth and happy.  If, however, you strap them to a rocket car and shoot them up Thermal Hill, the proteins will set up so tightly that they will squeeze out all the liquid and you will end up at the top of Thermal Hill with a rocket car full of rubbery scrambled eggs sitting in a pool of sad, cloudy water.  This is not what we are going for.

Now, I know we all love our flashy rocket cars, but really, no good ever comes of them.  So, when you want to add your finicky eggs (the ones that like to coagulate slowly at low temperatures) to a near-boiling pot of milk, cream and sugar (and maybe some starch) so you can make pudding, ice cream or Something Else Yummy, you have to think Ox Cart.  And tempering, is the ox cart you need.

Did you guys ever have to work out those problems in high school science where they’d say something like, “You have 1500ml of liquid at 100C and 27ml liquid at 20C.  What will the temperature be if you mix them both together?” And then you have to Do Math and figure it out and you really don’t care because you’re hungry.  The point, if I have one, is that if one of those liquids is not eggs, you can most likely send one liquid by rocket car into the other and all will be well.  If one of those liquids happens to be composed mostly of proteins, then Allowances must be made.  That’s right, you have to pull out the ox cart.

I’m sure you’ve all seen the Rules for Tempering.  They tell you to pour a little of the boiling hot stuff into the cold eggs while whisking and then pour everything back into the pot.  That’s pretty much it, in broad strokes, but it can still be a little bit daunting.  I know you have Questions.  How can I whisk madly and pour at the same time?  How do I keep my bowl from spinning around if I can’t hold it still?  What if my glasses steam up?  How much of the hot stuff do I need to add to my eggs before they will cooperate?

A revelation for Question 1:  I used to have the same question.  My wrists aren’t strong enough to hold a huge pan of boiling dairy in one hand and whisk with the other.  And that, friends, is when I had a Light Bulb Moment.  How about using a ladle?!  There you go–dip in one small ladle of hot liquid at a time while whisking madly with the other hand.  No ladle?  Use a 1/4 cup measure or something.

A Neat Trick for Question 2:  Okay, you have four options here.  Option 1 is to whisk faster than the bowl spins.  Not very practical, I admit.  Option 2 is to get a bowl that has some sort of rubberized bottom.  They make those.  They sell them for kind of a lot.  Option 3 is to get some of that puffy stuff for lining china cabinets that comes on rolls next to the contact paper at the store.  Just cut a square of it and set your bowl on it.  Option 4 is actually my favorite (when I’m being an adult.  Otherwise, Option 1 is always a challenge.  And I enjoy a good challenge.)  Take a kitchen towel, get it wet, wring it out and then make a little nest for your bowl to sit in.    Just place the towel in a circle, like an Ouroboros on the counter, and put the bowl inside.  Now it’s all nestled down and won’t go anywhere.  And if you happen to get a little overzealous with your whisking, whatever whisks out of the bowl will land on the towel.  Yay!

Question 3 doesn’t even count anymore.  And if you don’t wear glasses, it was never a concern.  See Answer 1.

There is no Definitive Answer 4:  How much hot liquid you need to add depends on how many eggs you have.  That is not a cop out; I’m not done yet.  You know that you want the eggs to be hot, and you know you have to do it slowly.  Here’s what I do.  If I have say, 4 eggs, that’s maybe 2/3 cup by volume.  I’d probably start by adding an ounce or so of the hot liquid, whisking the whole time.  Then, I’d add a little more and a little more, feeling the side of the bowl.  Once the eggs are decidedly hot, I’d pour them all into the pot.  With the heat turned off, and whisking all the while.  I honestly never have measured how much hot liquid I add to my eggs.  If I had to guess, I’d say probably about twice as much as the amount of egg.  And no, I don’t always add all of the hot liquid to the eggs–once my eggs are hot, in they go.  Not just warm.  Hot.

Why I Don’t Stress Over Tempering
It’s an ox cart.  It’s a means of getting something from point A to point B (or temperature A to temperature B) slowly.  The eggs don’t care what the ox cart looks like.  They just care that they get taken up Thermal Hill at a Sedate pace.  Tempering is a technique, not a scientific formula.

Ways To Take Out Some Insurance When Tempering
1)Add a portion of your sugar to the eggs.  I don’t care if the recipe doesn’t tell you to–it’s okay.  I promise.  Whisk them together very well until nice and creamy.  I’m sure you’ve heard that sugar can start to cook your eggs.  This is chemically a true statement, so make sure that you really whisk the two together and then don’t leave them just sitting there for too long.  I always whisk at least a few times every minute or so while I’m waiting for my dairy to heat up enough.  (I almost wrote “…diary heat up enough!”  Now I am amused).  Of course, you could always wait until your dairy is hot before you whisk the two together, but you guys know about my issues with planning.  Adding the room temperature sugar will raise the temperature of your eggs slightly, which is a good thing.  The sugar will also help to get in the way of all those proteins and keep them from bumping into each other and coagulating too readily.

2)Make sure your eggs aren’t refrigerator cold.  Remember, eggs like a slow ride, so take them out of the fridge at least half an hour before you’re going to use them to give them a chance to warm up a bit.  You can call this a pre-temper, if you want.  But you don’t have to.

3)Strain the finished product through a fine mesh strainer.  Sometimes, even when you’ve done a Great Job, a little bit of the eggy protein will decide to coagulate anyway, just out of sheer meanness.  That’s why I always strain.  Always.  Then, when the strainer comes up empty, I can feel Smarter Than Eggs.  (And if the strainer has little bits of egg in it, I can rinse it out quickly and pretend it never happened).

A Thing I Discovered By Very Happy/Sad Accident
Once your eggs are cooked, they are Cooked.  By that, I mean that, if you are making a product that will need more cooking in order to set up, such as a flan or creme brule, the rule is that you have to cool off your tempered egg/dairy mixture quickly, before the eggs completely coagulate.  If you do not.  You will find yourself Close to Service with a Very Lot of ramekins of creme brule that have been in the oven in a water bath for 2 hours and are still just pools of thick liquid covered with a skin.  I’m telling you, if you’ve ever had a creme brule not set up for you in the oven, it’s probably because your initial mixture was way too thick (the eggs were already completely cooked).  So, for Items to Be Further Cooked, please have an ice bath ready and waiting so you can cool things down immediately.

Items that will not be cooked further, such as pastry cream, ice cream base and creme Anglaise need to be cooked more after the tempering.  It probably won’t take long, but continue to stir your tempered egg/dairy mixture until it either boils for a minute (pastry cream, pudding) or until it coats the back of a spoon.  The magic number on a thermometer is 180F.  And then cool it in an ice bath.  Immediately.  I’ve seen a 12 quart batch of ice cream base turn from perfect to scrambled eggs while just sitting there.  Nasty old carry over cooking.  Sometimes we hates you, we does.

Okay, I think that’s it.  Thanks for hanging until the bitter end.  This was a long one.  And thanks Beth, for smacking me with the Glove of Challenge!

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.

The Case for Pastry Methods and Techniques

26 Oct
Limitless Possibilities

Limitless Possibilities

So, hello there, and welcome to my blog!  I also have a delightful and informative website all about baking and pastry:  Pastry Chef Online.  It needs a little love, and I am working on it, but in the meantime, here I am!  I just read on the lovely WordPress site that they alone host almost 4.5 million blogs! That only covers their corner of the blogosphere–there are TypePad folks, Live Journal folks, Blogger folks and on and on.  So, what makes this blog stand out from the crowd?

Here’s my angle:  I can’t tell you how many times people have asked for recipes for this, that or the other cake, bread or pie.  While I am happy to send someone a recipe, it brings to mind the old Chinese proverb:  “Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, and he eats for the rest of his life.”  If I hand you a recipe, I might as well have handed you a fish.  If, on the other hand, I teach you a method, I have taught you to fish. In a manner of speaking, that is.

If I give you a recipe for peach pie filling, you might run off to the farmer’s market and rocket past all the beautiful blueberries, or blackberries, or snozzberries.  Shopping for ingredients for a recipe is like shopping with blinders on.  You’ll pass by all the possibilities in search of peaches.  Must. Find. Peaches.  Do not.  Deviate.  From Plan.  But if I can teach you an easy method for putting together a pie filling that is foolproof, will always taste good and is very easy to do, don’t you think you’d be excited to get in the kitchen and experiment with whatever fruit(s) looked good at the farmer’s market that day?  With sound methods and techniques and knowledge of ingredient function under our belts, the world is our oyster.  Um, dessert buffet.  Stay tuned for all the tips and tricks, methods and techniques you’ll need to help you feel confident in the kitchen.

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