Author Archives: joepastry

Next Up: Black Forest Cake

I still have some sour cherries left from The Great Sour Cherry Windfall of 2014. Just enough for a cake filling by my reckoning. Let’s see…what famous cake that I haven’t made yet on the blog that calls for a filling of sour cherries? Don’t tell me now…don’t tell me…

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How to Mess Up Enzymes

Reader Hermes asks, since I mentioned that heat treating is only the “most popular” way to denature (wreck) browning enzymes in fruit, what other methods are there? A great question I’d be happy to answer, Hermes.

Acids do a great job of stopping browning enzymes from going to work on phenols. Depending on how strong they are they can slow down the the functioning of an enzyme, stop it from functioning altogether, or denature (gank) it. Ascorbic acid (lemon juice) and acetic acid (vinegar) are popular for this purpose.

Antioxidants inhibit browning by reacting with — and thereby using up — the oxygen that browning enzymes need to function. Ascorbic acid happens to be an antioxidant as well as just an acid, which is why a small dose of it on, say, a cut pear does a very nice job of maintaining its color and texture. As I mentioned earlier, immersing the fruit in water or wine works as well, since that deprives enzymes of oxygen as well.

And then of course there’s good ol’ sulphur dioxide, which bonds to the phenols and prevents browning enzymes from interacting with them. The application of sulphur dioxide is known as “sulfuring” and it’s a process that’s gotten a bad rap in recent years, though the ancient Egyptians and Chinese employed it for millennia and never complained. There’s just no pleasing some people.

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Making Caged Pears (Poires en Cage)

Pears are too dangerous to be allowed to roam freely, hence this ingenious preparation which safely confines them behind bars of buttery pastry. For goodness’ sake don’t go sticking your fingers in there. What goes in that cage may not come out. Still if you’re the kind of baker who craves adventure and doesn’t mind working around savage fruit, then these might be for you.

The only unusual piece of equipment you’re going to need for this is a lattice cutter. They’re cheap and easily obtainable online. Once you learn to use one you’ll find plenty of excuses to use it on other things like pies and tarts. Start by assembling your ingredients. I highly recommend using homemade puff pastry, especially imperfect homemade puff pastry since we’re not looking for a dramatic rise here. We want a cage that’s light, crispy and buttery but not extremely puffy. If the pastry is too airy the cage won’t have any strength and that’s just the opportunity a feral pear is looking for. You don’t want one of them breaking free and tearing up the dining room during an elegant dinner party, trust me.

So if you’re new to laminating and have produced what you believe to be imperfect pastry, think caged pears. Like Alsatian onion tart and cheese straws they demand very little in the way of puffing and can even be made with scraps of puff pastry dough if you happen to have a bunch in the freezer. I recommend you have at least a pound of dough on-hand so you’ve got extra in the event of mistakes, and there’ll be some, especially if you’ve never used a lattice cutter before. Extra components have a nice way of taking the pressure off. Anyway, roll your cold dough out quite thin, using plenty of flour, about 1/8 of an inch. You don’t have to roll a sheet out to any specify size since you’ll be cutting out medium-sized pieces, that’s another nice feature of this recipe. In generally you want to use plenty of flour and refrigerate the dough whenever you feel it getting unworkable. A little cold quickly re-firms the butter and helps it behave.

Using a pizza cutter, cut out roughly pear-shaped pieces of dough. Once you have six of them, put them in the refrigerator to firm.

While they’re firming, take the poached pears out of the fridge. They should be fairly docile at this point. Gently lay them out on some paper towels and dab them dry.

After the dough has chilled about ten minutes, grasp a pear in your open hand (mine is snapping pictures just now, and fill the depression in the back (which you made when you removed the seed structures with a melon baller back in the poaching step) with almond cream. Not too much now, just a bit. It’s like a little hidden surprise.

Reach into the fridge, pull out a piece of pastry and plop it on top.

Flip the device over onto a lightly floured board and trim it, leaving half an inch around the pear. Don’t get too close to the pear as it may bite, but do your best to follow those elegant, womanly curves.

Very good. Once they’re all done and back in the fridge, turn your attention to the lattice. Now this part can be a little frustrating since lattice cutters aren’t necessarily high-performance instruments. Which is to say they don’t always cut all the way through on a single pass, and if you’re not careful the dough will get stuck in them and roll around the cylinder.

So, always be sure to hold down the edge of your pastry piece with a floured hand to prevent it lifting off the pastry board. Here I’m applying the cutter to a sheet I rolled out, but you can apply it to smaller pieces if you like. I find that little pieces tend to get caught in my cutter, but whatever works for you. Flour helps prevent sticking.

If you’re like me, all your cuts won’t open at first, so you may need to go through and do some re-cutting. Hold your pairing knife as you would a pencil and just scribble them open, being careful not to cut through the little bits that aren’t supposed to be cut (you’ll figure it out).

When you’re reasonably sure you have a well-cut sheet, gently tug the latticed pastry apart.

Apply egg wash to the edges of your pastry base…

…and lay your “cage” over to enclose the pear. Bang! Got you, you scurvy devil. You may now remove your pear-resistant protective clothing. I should add, if the cut pastry seems too soft and limp to work with, give it a shot of cold refrigerator air for 2-3 minutes to firm it up to the point you feel confident again. Focus on laying it over the pear rather then tucking it around the pear, since a bunched cage isn’t nearly as attractive (and may in fact be dangerous).

The just trim the extra off. Gently tap the lattice down onto the egg wash-covered base.

A leaf garnish looks extra nice on these. I don’t have a pear leaf-shaped cutter so I just used this little acorn-shaped one…

…trimmed off the extra bits…

…and pressed in some veins with a sharp knife. Remember the healing power of cold if this process becomes difficult.

Apply a little egg wash to the back of your leaf and gently stick it on. At this point you can refrigerate your caged pears, lightly covered in plastic wrap, for up to a full day or freeze them for up to three weeks.

When you’re ready to bake preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove them from the fridge and carefully paint the pastry with egg wash. Don’t worry if you get egg wash on the cut sides of the pastry. That’s normally a no-no (or non-non as they say on the Continent) with puff pastry as it glues the layers together and inhibits puff, but again a big puff-out isn’t what we’re looking for here. Try not to get any on the pear if you can avoid it since it’ll create a crust on it, and that makes pears angry.

Bake them for about half an hour, rotating them one or twice for even color starting at the 15 minute mark. Serve them hot with a quenelle of vanilla ice cream on the side.

Yup, you’re gonna like these, I can tell already.

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Why bother poaching pears…

…when you’re just going to cook them in the oven anyway? A good question, reader Toni. The answer is: enzymes. Pears will turn brown when they’re baked if they aren’t poached first. That browning is a result of enzymes that activate when the flesh of the pear is cut.

In an uncut pear these browning enzymes (polyphenoloxidase and peroxydase) are kept inside special compartments in the flesh of the pear, away from both oxygen and the compounds these enzymes commonly interact with, molecules called phenols. The trouble comes when those tiny structures are damaged by, say, cutting or bumping the fruit. At that point the enzymes are freed from their little holding cells and start to run wild. With plenty of oxygen at their disposal (which they need in order to do their job) they hop from phenol to phenol breaking each one into pieces. The resulting wreckage is a variety of smaller molecules, some of which are melanins, or brown pigments. The longer cut pear flesh is exposed to oxygen the browner it will get until all the phenols on the cut surface of the flesh have been sliced and diced, and the flesh is a mottled tan.

How do you prevent this from happening? There are several ways, actually, but one of the most popular is heat treatment which denatures (i.e. “wrecks”) the enzymes, preventing them from getting down to business with the phenols. You immerse the cut fruit in a liquid like water or wine (which itself postpones the browning process by denying necessary oxygen), then bring that liquid up to a simmer for about 15 minutes. Done. And along the way, if you’ve added a little lemon zest and vanilla to the poaching liquid, you’ve also infused some extra aromatics, and that’s very a good thing for your dessert.

So the poaching is both functional and, shall we say…decorative, reader Toni. Hope that helps!

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Paint and Its Consequences II

I liked the job on the house so much that I asked the crew to do the kitchen. They showed up yesterday, again a week ahead of schedule. Who are these people? But I can’t cook or bake at the moment. The kids can’t believe their luck that they get carryout two night in a row in the middle of the week. At least someone’s happy! More soon. – Joe

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Seasoning a Pan With a Wooden Handle

Reader Annemarie writes:

This is off topic for this question, but something that you might be able to help me with. A few months ago I won a “Le Crueset” cast iron saute pan, with a wooden handle. I know that you are supposed to season the pan before use, but I’ve only been able to find methods that involve putting the entire pan into the oven. I’m reluctant to do that with the wooden handle. Can you suggest a method? I’ve tried just heating oil in the pan, but that doesn’t do the trick.

Hey Annemarie! First, congratulations on a nice pickup! This is an obvious question, but did the pan itself come with any instructions? I ask because Le Creuset is obviously a very respectable brand, as such the odds are very good that it’s pre-seasoned and all you need to do is start using it. In fact “just using it” is good advice just generally for cast iron. People get overly obsessed with seasoning these days. Plain ol’ use will accomplish the task quicker than you might think.

Seasoning all has to do with the breakdown of fat molecules. Those molecules are “E”-shaped with three long fatty acid molecules attached to a “backbone” of glycerol. Heat them, however, and they begin to break into pieces. The individual fatty acids come loose from the backbone, at which point they’re free to bond with whatever type of molecule catches their fancy. If they happen to be near iron, they’ll bond to that, with their polar end down and their “fatty” end up. The end result for the pan is that all the tiny pores in the metal get plugged up and the surface becomes slick. This action happens with normal use and produces a very nice seasoning patina.

Hard core seasoning aficionados kick the whole procedure up a proverbial notch by employing a liquid fat (oil) and very high heat. This method not only breaks the fatty acids off their glycerol backbones, it breaks the fatty acids themselves into pieces — pieces which, in the presence of metal and oxygen, rearrange themselves into chains known as polymers. These polymers inter-weave with one another to create an incredibly hard and dense plastic-like film. If you’ve ever spent hours trying to scour blackened drips of burnt fat off the exterior of a sauté pan, you’re familiar with the stuff. You find it on the outside of pans and on cooktop surfaces because that’s where the big heat is.

To create a polymer film on the inside of a pan you need oil (because less saturated fats make harder polymers) and a temperature of 500 degrees or more. It’s a stinky, smoky process and one that in my opinion isn’t necessary, except maybe for a wok. A plain ol’ modest-heat-and-fat seasoning works great for most purposes and after time will become so thick that you won’t be able to scrub it off. So my advice is just to use it. Alternately, a reader had an interesting suggestion when I last discussed this topic: take the pan to a corner diner and ask them to put it in the deep fryer for 5 minutes or so. It’s a short cut to the plain-ol’-using-it route that would actually not hurt the handle and would be pretty entertaining to do!

Me, I’d make some corned beef hash in it with plenty of butter, once or twice a week for a month, being careful not to soap it much afterward. Done.

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Why do cheesecakes crack?

Reader Rick is sick and tired of having to disguise the cracks in his cheesecake with sour cream toppings and fruit and wants to know what he can do about it. Rick, I have a few ideas.

Cracks in cheesecakes are caused by temperature problems, and are usually a result of one region of the cake heating faster than another. Large cheesecakes are especially crack-prone since the areas closest to the rim of the pan cook and firm up first. If this happens too abruptly the outer portion of the cheesecake can shrink and pull away from the softer inner portion.

Cracking can also happen as a result of curdling or “breaking” for cheesecakes are actually custards under the hood. The egg proteins in the cake get too hot and start to tighten up into clumps. As they tighten they squeeze out moisture, causing the cake to weep. The cheesecake takes on a grainy texture and again starts to shrink. Wherever the firmer overcooked spots meet the softer medium-cooked spots, cracks appear as the overcooked cake contracts.

It isn’t difficult to overcome these problems. First, always bake a cheesecake in a water bath, which evens out heat. Also, bake your cheesecake low, never more than 350. If you already take these precautions, try calibrating your oven to make sure it isn’t running hot. Failing all that, you can take your cake’s temperature as it bakes. About ten minutes before you determine it should be done, insert a quick-read thermometer in the very center. You want the center to be at least 140, no more than 150.

But in truth you don’t need to go to that extent. If you jostle the pan a bit you should see it jiggle, but not slosh. Are we cool?

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New Oil, Old Oil

Apple fritter lover Emma wants to know whether it’s OK to combine fresh oil with older oil when you’re frying. She says she keeps seeing recipes that specifically instruct her never to do that. I’ve seen those as well, Emma, and all I can think is that none of these folks have done very much frying, for not only can you combine old fry oil with new, you absolutely, positively should.

Which of course raises the question: why? The short answer is because oil and water don’t mix. Drop a wet food like doughnut batter into a pan of hot oil and the food and the medium will repel each other. That’s good to a large extent, since that action — combined with the outrush of steam from the food — is what’s responsible for keeping food free of soaked-in oil.

Over time that mechanism breaks down, however. Heat and oxygen exposure take their toll on fat molecules, breaking them into smaller pieces. Some of these pieces are chemical soaps. What do soaps do? Why, they allow fat and water to mix of course. So as the proportion of soaps in the fry oil increases, oil starts sneaking past the steam and water barrier, soaking into the food and creating a limp and greasy end product.

The thing is, on the one hand you don’t want fry oil that’s too old and soapy. On the other you don’t want your oil to be too totally fresh either. No soap whatsoever means the oil will stay so far away from the food you’ll hardly get any surface drying or browning, which is the whole point of frying. You’ll also sometimes get a funny, almost synthetic, aftertaste.

Avoid the trap of pathologically fresh fry oil by cooling, storing and re-using it. A single two or three-quart batch should be good for half a dozen uses, provided you’re not frying ten pounds of fritters at a time. Just top it off to whatever level is appropriate and carry on with confidence, knowing that you can tell too-old oil by its dark color and its fishy smell (not actually caused by fish but by smelly chemical compounds called ketones, a by-product of oil breakdown). When it finally comes time to throw it out, save a couple of tablespoons to infuse the next batch with soaps.

Oh and, you know never to deep fry in cast iron, yes? Iron speeds oil breakdown by about 100 times over stainless steel. A sure way to ensure your oil will only last you for one use.

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Strained Relations

Apples and pears are like two siblings with nothing common. Oh sure they may have sprung from the same family, grown up in the same household, but when it comes to their disposition, passtimes and taste in friends, they couldn’t be more different.

Both the pear and the apple call the mountainous areas of modern-day Kazakhstan home. Both traveled the Silk Road west to Europe and east to China and Japan. Both are so-called pome fruits (members of the rose family along with quinces and Asian medlars and loquats). They’re climacteric and heterozygous (see The Great Apple Crap Shoot for more on that). Aside from that, though, they’re barely on speaking terms.

Where one is firm and crunchy, the other is soft and yielding. Where one is feisty, tart and working class, the other is juicy, buttery and sophisticated. Where one is at home in pie, the other luxuriates in tarts and alongside the finest chocolates, wines and cheeses. Where one makes hard cider, scrumpy and applejack, the other makes eau de vie de poire.

No, it seems there is no reconciling these two. Let’s just hope they at least call each other at Christmas.

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Caged Pears (Poires en Cage) Recipe

Pears in a cage make a stunning closer to an autumn meal. They’re light but full of flavor, especially if you take the extra step of filling the pear with a little bit of almond cream (talk about gilding the lily, it’s a luscious surprise inside an already impressive dessert). You’ll need:

6 poached pear halves
about 16 ounces puff pastry
2-3 ounces almond cream (optional)
egg wash

Roll the pastry out on a lightly floured board to a thickness of about 1/8 of an inch. Along one side of the pastry sheet, cut out pear shapes that are about an inch longer and wider than your poached pear halves. Once those are done, roll the lattice cutter over the remaining pastry and cut out pieces roughly the size of your pear shapes. Transfer all of them to a parchment-lined sheet pan and put them into the refrigerator.

Meanwhile remove your poached pears from the fridge. Using a slotted spoon transfer them to a plate lined with paper towels to drain. Leave them there for 5-10 minutes, dabbing them lightly with paper towels every so often to absorb any drops of syrup on the tops. While the pears are draining prepare the almond cream if you’re using it.

Remove the pastry pieces from the refrigerator. Set the lattice pieces aside and spread the pear shapes evenly out on the sheet pan. Fill the hollows of the pears with the almond cream and lay them down on the pear-shaped pastry pieces. Apply the lattice-cut pieces to the tops, trim off any excess and gently press down around the edges to seal. You can hold the pastries for several hours at this point in the refrigerator, lightly covered with plastic, or freeze them for up to a month.

When you’re ready to bake preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Carefully paint the lattice with egg wash and bake the pastries for about 20 minutes until golden brown. Transfer them to a wire rack to cool and serve them warm.

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