Coming Back…

I just don’t know when. It might take me the summer. The demands of a growing business — and especially two growing girls — are translating to less baking and blogging time. Also there’s music. Some old friends have asked me to cover a show or two this coming month back home in Chicago, so I’ve been spending part of my time getting my bass fingers back. The process has been slow as it’s been almost a decade since I’ve plucked a string.

This all may be a hidden blessing, as over the past year or so I’ve had the distinct feeling I’ve been more or less repeating myself. An extended hiatus might give me some new angles on Joe Pastry. But don’t assume I’m going totally silent. I’ll still be putting the off post and of course I’ll be answering questions.

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Do doughnuts HAVE to be fried to be good?

In my opinion yes, reader Bill. Yes, you can bake doughnut batter up in little savarin molds if you like, you’ll get a ring-shaped cake. It won’t be a doughnut as far as I’m concerned. The result you get from the two devices (fryer and oven) are simply too different. But what exactly causes that difference? Why does 365-degree oil produce such a very different product compared to a 365-degree oven?…

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Why is cider brown when apple juice is yellow?

…asks reader Gordon. Nice one. Squeeze a load of apple pulp and what comes out is fairly clear, fairly golden. Give it a few minutes and suddenly it looks like the cider we all know: cloudy and brown, and with a noticeably duller (though still fabulous) flavor. What happened?

In a word: enzymes. Even though it looks like there’s only juice running out of a cider press, there’s quite a bit of apple flesh in there too, albeit in very small pieces. That flesh contains enzymes — non-living protein molecules that perform specific chemical tasks — which are specifically designed to spring into action as soon as they’re exposed to oxygen. Some of them begin disassembling molecules called phenols, transforming them into pigments which turn the bits of apple flesh brown (for more on why they do this, see this post right here). Thus the more bits of apple flesh that get left in the cider, the browner it becomes, which is why commercial juice makers go to great lengths to filter their squeezings as soon as they’re, um…squeezed.

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What is Alum?

Reader Amy writes to say that some of her old family recipes call for alum, but what is it and is it really necessary? Great questions. Anyone who’s every watched a Warner Brothers cartoon has probably wondered the something similar. You know those scenes: Tweety Bird somehow manages to pour a box of powdered alum down Sylvester’s the Cat’s throat and his head shrinks up to the size of a golf ball. But what the heck is that stuff and what did people use it for?

Alum is short for aluminum potassium sulfate. It was once a common household item here in the U.S., especially during the war years when people did a lot of home pickling. A pinch of it in a jar of kosher dills or watermelon rinds kept the pickles firm and crispy. Too much and the result was a serious pucker, since alum is both an acid and an astringent (which is to say, a compound that causes shrinking or constricting of blood vessels and/or mucous membranes)….

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On Corn Meal and Masa

Reader Simone wants to know if there’s a nutritional difference between corn meal and corn masa (the alkaline-treated dough used for making tortillas). Indeed there is!

Though no one knows exactly how, ancient Mesoamericans long ago discovered that when you soak corn kernels in a mixture of water and wood ashes, the tough outer hulls (pericarps) can be slipped off, leaving just the starchy endosperm and oily germ. The process is called nixtamalization. Without it the Central America of old would have been a very different place….

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Are popovers and choux the same thing?

VERY good question, reader Ashley. There are certain similarities but in the end they are quite different things. Popovers are made with a batter that resembles something you’d use for crêpes. Choux batter is a more complex combination of pre-cooked (gelatinized) starch lubricated by fat (egg yolks). What you get in that case an ultra-elastic paste that can increase in volume by up to 600%. By contrast you’re lucky if your popover batter increases threefold. It’s a darn impressive feat still and all….

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What is “hemendex”?

Reader Sue says her Czech mother-in-law-to-be uses the word all the time in the kitchen and she wonders what sort of dish it is. Sue, I only know this because I dated a Czech girl in high school and her mother used that word. “Ham and eggs” is what she’s talking about, and good stuff it is too. In the Czech version it’s usually all fried up in the same pan with herbs on top. Now you know!

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Why do you use shortening in pie crust?

Isn’t it bad for you? So asks reader Victoria. Victoria, the main reason pie makers use shortening (or lard) in their pie crusts is to keep the moisture content as low as possible. Butter can be up to 18% water, and that can be a very bad thing for the texture of a crust.

We talk about gluten a lot on the site and for good reason. North American gluten can be a real pain to work with, as it’s elastic in nature and tends to make pastry tough and prone to shrinkage in the oven. Gluten is always present in flour, but it takes the addition of water to “activate” it, i.e., cause the individual gluten molecules to bond to one another in a springy network. So we try our best to minimize the amount of water in the crust, especially at the start of the recipe where we’re working the dough a lot, because agitation also helps activate gluten.

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Chug, Chug, Chug

I’m still answering the more than 400 questions I got during my absence. I shall continue to put some of the answers up as posts, because a lot of them are darn good questions. Hope everyone had a great Memorial Day weekend by the way!

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How did rum ever come to be associated with sailing?

So asks reader Bernard, and I love it. Bernard, it all has to do with the fact that in the Colonial era rum was liquid currency. It was more valuable by weight than any other commodity save gold. It kept indefinitely and like the American Express card was recognized at over 15 million locations worldwide. For a short time the English government even recognized rum as money, which no doubt made banking a whole lot more fun.

As highly valued and heavily transported as it was, rum made an excellent target for privateers. What were privateers? Think of them as early military contractors: government-paid out-of-uniform toughs who sailed the high seas settling scores, exacting retribution and collecting debts on behalf of their masters. Unofficially, of course. …

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Filed under:  Pastry | 8 Comments