Author Archives: joepastry

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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Pears in a Cage (Tarte aux 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 10 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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Food Scientist Top 10 List?

Reader Dan writes:

Hi Joe. You say that George Washington Carver is “one of” your favorite food scientists. Who are some of your other favorites if I may ask? Can you give me your top ten?

I’m not sure if Dan is on the level here or if he’s having me on. But it just so happens I do have several food science heroes, whose dreamy portraits adorn my walls. There’s Nicholas Appert, the inventor of canning, he’s really the grandfather of modern food science. Alfred Bird, inventor of stable baking powder and instant pudding (custard). There’s Otto Rohwedder, the sliced bread guy, chocolate chemist Coenraad Van Houten, good ol’ Louis Pasteur, you can’t forget him. To tell you the truth “food science” encompasses so many different disciplines it’s hard to know where to leave off. Carver was a botanist/agronomist…in that vein I’m a big fan of agronomist Thomas Jefferson who I’m told also had a hand in writing the Declaration of something-or-other. Also Luther Burbank, and my all-time food hero, Norman Borlaug. Don’t know if you were serious or not, Dan, but thanks for the question!

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Should I store bread in the refrigerator?

Lots of questions about bread today! Reader Trey, you definitely should not store bread in the refrigerator. Low temperatures speed up — dramatically speed up — the rate at which starch crystallizes. Unless the bread gets below the freezing point of water, at which point is slows down dramatically, most likely because the water between the starch molecules hardens, keeping them from stacking up and forming crystals. So: at room temperature or frozen, nowhere in between. The exception to this rule is a really moist bread like a pumpernickel, which stays supple as a result of all the pentosan (seed coat) gums it contains, and the fridge will keep it from getting moldy.

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How Bakers Fight Staling

Reader Evan asks:

How do additives (either traditional like fats or modern) slow staling?

That’s a great question, Evan. The answer is that the way in which additives inhibit staling isn’t always well understood, which shouldn’t be surprising because the chemistry of bread isn’t all that well understood either. Still there are some pretty good theories out there.

We’ve talked before about crystallization, which happens when similar molecules start stacking up on each other like LEGO’s. Crystallization is the phenomenon primarily responsible for the hardening of bread starch (i.e. staling). Thus it stands to reason that if you could somehow stop wheat starch crystals from forming, or at least slow that crystallization down, then you’d keep bread fresher for longer.

One of the ways you do that is by introducing other types of molecules that physically insert themselves between the starches, keeping them from locking together. Emulsifiers like lecithin do that. Emulsifiers tend to be rather small as molecules go, and do a pretty good job of gunking up the works.

Another way to go is to mess up the starch molecules themselves to one degree or another so they don’t fit together as well. Enzymes like alpha amylase do that, breaking pieces off of long starches to that they don’t fit together as easily. The pieces they break off also do a nice job of getting in the way of starches as they seek to lock together.

Other anti-staling agents don’t physically inhibit the molecules but rather make them less (literally) attractive to one another. Acids do this, as do fats, or so it’s thought (lipids are, after all, “fatty acids”).

Still other strategies all but ignore the crystallization process and simply seek to add moisture to the bread so it at least has the impression of freshness. Added fats, for instance, make bread feel tender in the mouth even if the starches they surround are a little on the firm side. Seed coat gums like pentosan gum do a similar job. If you’ve ever wondered why rye breads or whole wheat breads stay fresher longer than simple white breads it’s because of those gums. Black bread can stay fresh at room temperature for a week or more. However lots of moisture is a double-edged sword, as it promotes the growth of mold.

Huh…seems like we need some more additives here…

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A Little More GWC

A few requests for a bit more info on George Washington Carver and his times. I am only too happy to oblige, as he’s one of my very favorite food scientists. As I mentioned, Carver was born into slavery at very the close of the Civil War. He grew up during Reconstruction, a tumultuous and painful time in America during which the South was forced to completely reinvent itself — its society, its culture, its economy…the lot. Agriculturally, the Confederate states had been relying heavily cotton as a cash crop, so much so that little else was actually grown in the South.

The big problem with cotton is that it saps huge amounts of nutrients from the soil. Southern farmers, in their rush to cash in on the cotton boom, either ignored or were unaware of the need to reintroduce nutrients back into the land. The results was that by the war’s end vast tracts of Southern farmland were laid waste.

It was this problem of soil exhaustion that Carver sought to address by championing the peanut. Being a legume, peanut bushes restore precious nitrogen to the soil as they grow. But once you’ve grown peanuts you have to have something do with them, hence Carver’s famous list of 325 peanut-based products, the formulas for which he simply gave away. Of course peanuts aren’t the only crop that can be employed to complete the nitrogen cycle, which is why Carver also invented hundreds of uses for sweet potatoes, soybeans, peas, pecans and others.

Yet for all he did, Carver never became a wealthy man. The way he saw it, his inspirations were gifts from God which meant they to be shared. His epitaph reads: “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.” Amen!

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