Author Archives: joepastry

Back Monday

It’s Holy Week and there’s lots to do: services to attend, prayers to say, stuff to bake, plastic eggs to fill with candy. But Easter or no, it promises to be a lovely spring weekend here in the hemisphere…I hope you have a splendid one!

Filed under:  Pastry | 8 Comments

Making Bee Sting Cake (Bienenstich)

The whole thing disappeared off my platter in about 35 seconds yesterday, if you need an indication of how your friends will receive your bee sting cake. I went out to deliver a slice to a next-door neighbor and shortly two or three others emerged out of doorways and cars. They gobbled down the slices I gave them, then did the same with others that I’d intended for their spouses. “My wife needs to learn to be more social,” my neighbor Charles said through a mouthful. “Let this be a lesson to her!” What was that we were saying about drones below?

Start yours by preparing your components. The brioche will develop the best flavor if it’s made two or three days ahead. The pastry cream should be made the day before it has time to set up. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured board.

Apply the pin and roll it in one direction…

…then the other…

…until it’s a round roughly 12 inches wide and a little more than half an inch thick.

I use a pot lid that’s 8 inches across to measure it out.

I then cut a circle with a pizza cutter reserving the rest either for a second smaller bienenstich or for I dunno…a few rolls. Brioche never goes uneaten around our house. Once you trim it your round should weigh about ten or eleven ounces.

I bake mine free-form though a lot of people use well-greased cake pans. Either way works just fine.

Once the rolling and cutting is done, turn your attention to the topping. Put the butter, sugar and honey in a pan and bring it to the boil. Hold it there for 30 seconds, about until you start to smell beeswax. At that point take it off the heat and let it rest about a minute.

Add the almond slices and stir the whole mess together.

While it’s warm apply some of it — you may not use it all — to the top of the cake. You don’t need to spread topping all the way out to the edges since some of the topping will drip down as the cake rises and/or bakes. Conversely, don’t pile too much up in the center or the cake will have a hard time rising beneath it.

Use a brush to pull some of the syrup out to the edge. This will keep the brioche from drying out during the 1 to 1 1/2-hour proofing (during which you’ll preheat your oven to 375 desires Fahrenheit).

You want it puffy but not completely airy. When you poke it you want the impression of your finger to last for 1-2 seconds.

Bake it until it’s a deep caramelly brown, about 25 minutes. Having been a beekeeper I can tell you that this does look remarkably like a hive frame busy with bees.

Let the cake cool completely, about an hour, before cutting. Use a long serrated knife to cut a shallow slit around the middle of the brioche…

…then just keep rotating the layer, cutting a little deeper all the while until you’re all the way through.

Remove the top and set it off to one side. Now is the time to brush on some cake syrup if you like. Don’t go nuts lest you make the cake soggy, but a few tablespoons dabbed around on each half adds some nice flavor. Let it soak in for a few minutes with the cut sides of the brioche facing up.

Now then. As with any pastry that has a very soft, creamy center it helps to cut the top to size before you assemble. This way all the filling won’t gush out the sides when you slice it. These slices may look like they were cut poorly, but that’s a trick of the lens. In point of fact they are absolutely, perfectly equal. I never make mistakes like that.

Now fold together your pastry cream and whipped cream and load the whole mess into a pastry bag without a collar.

Pipe tall blobs all around the edge. The one on the left there looks short and squat but it is actually very tall. These new-fangled German lenses are so darn unreliable.

Pipe filling into the center any old way…

…then replace the top pieces.

Slide your finished cake onto a serving platter and you’re ready to serve. Or you can hold the cake in the fridge for a day or so. If you plan on holding it for more than a few hours you’ll want to make sure to use stabilized whipped cream.

Slice at the table and serve to your wide-eyes guests.

Filed under:  Bee Sting Cake (Bienenstich), Pastry | 14 Comments

How do bees build honeycomb?

Love that question, reader Buzz, even more than your highly creative “bee week” alias! Bee lovers have puzzled over that for millennia. How is it that such simple creatures can produce structures as architecturally complex as honeycomb, with its perfect rows of hexagonal cells? They must be geniuses, every one of them a Buckminster Fuller in miniature!

While it’s fun to think of bee hives as intelligent — complex structural-functionalist minds — the reality of honeycomb construction is really pretty simple. If you’ve ever seen any honeycomb on a hive frame, the cell walls on the outsides of comb masses are rounded. Which means the natural shape of a honey comb cell is round, not hexagonal. Bees build individual cells in a cylindrical shape using their bodies as a measure: head-to-stinger for the length of the cell, and their heads for the width.

They scrape off flakes of wax from their abdomens, chew it up to soften it, then apply it in layers of a startlingly uniform thickness, around and around until the cell is finished. Once it’s complete natural physical forces take over and steadily press the soft wax cylinder into a hexagon. How does this happen? Well if you’ve ever put multiple eggs yolks into a small bowl you’ve noticed how malleable, naturally circular objects take on geometric shapes when they’re under pressure. It’s pretty cool to watch, since without any effort at all a collection of inanimate objects takes on beautiful regularity and dimension.

What forces within the hive act on the hive walls? Gravity mostly, since the cells get heavy as they fill up with brood, pollen and honey and the weight from above presses down on the cells below (comb in the hive slopes gently downward for the same reason). All the bees’ tromping around on the cells probably also has an effect. Of course all this is to take nothing away from the genius of the bee, mind you. As a guy with a philosophy degree I’ll never fully rule out the idea of the complex structural-functionalist mind. It’s just too appealing. Still, nice to know that even in the bee world some things just take care of themselves.

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Busy, Busy, Busy

Here are a few bee statistics for you. To make one pound of honey bees must fly 55,000 miles and visit some 2 million individual flowers. When you consider that a medium-producing hive will make about 150 pounds of honey a season, that’s a lot of activity. Eight and a quarter million miles flown and 300 million blooms. For one hive.

No wonder worker bees simply wear out after a while. It’s a myth that honey bees are specialized within the hive, that some look after brood, others collect nectar, others pick pollen. Every single worker bee that hatches does every job in the hive over the course of her 40-day life. She starts by taking out the trash, then moves up to become a nursemaid for developing brood, then a hive builder, security guard and finally a forager, the job she’ll do until her wings become so tattered that they can’t lift her anymore. Over the course of her life she’ll make about a tenth of a teaspoon of honey.

The only bees that don’t do anything in the hive — save eat and mate with young queen bees — are the males. These are the drones and there are very few of them in the hive relative to the legions of workers who wait upon them. The gig sounds better than it is. Bees mate in the air and if a drone actually succeeds in finding a virgin queen to copulate with, he literally explodes in act with an audible popping sound. As far as the laying around and eating, that works fairly well until the end of the season when the drones are literally picked up and thrown bodily from the hive to freeze. The reason, because no one needs layabouts hanging around when the hive is scrimping and saving its way through the winter. Life’s tough when you’re a bug.

Oh, and reader Flick — if that IS your real name — wants to know what bees do with pollen. The answer is they eat it (and store it). Bees have a two-pronged diet: honey (carbs) and pollen (protein). Fueled thusly they work, fly and produce wax which they secrete from glands on their abdomen in flakes. It takes about five times as much fuel to make wax as it does to do anything else in the hive, which means it’s very, very precious stuff. Think about that the next time you’re smearing beeswax balm on your lips. Those little critters work mighty hard for us!

Filed under:  Pastry | 8 Comments


I got all excited the other day when I heard that we might be having ten people over for dinner instead of six. I thought: well, why not make a really big bee sting cake out of a full recipe of brioche dough? Seemed a little risky but I decided to go for it out of curiosity. I was both alarmed and impressed when it emerged from the oven as a 16-inch-wide, 6-inch-tall behemoth.

But then the inevitable happened as it cooled…the gigantic dome fell in.

Which was really OK in the end. It was still thick enough in the middle to cut cross-wise. I split it, filled it with diplomat cream, served it with confidence and no one questioned it for a moment. Note to self: follow my own directions next time.

Filed under:  Pastry | 6 Comments

New Mixer Tour

So I went on a shopping trip this weekend (made possible by the contributions of several dozen very generous readers). This was the result: a 7-quart KitchenAid 6500. It’s grey because I generally dig earth tones, in my clothing as well as my appliances. This is one of the largest KitchenAids in production. I’m told they make an 8-quart but I couldn’t find one of those on display anywhere. The distinguishing feature of these larger models is the lever-action bowl raiser. Smaller KitchenAids sport a tilt-head design. You can see the crank over on this side.

To get the bowl in you set it on a pair of pins that are located on the mixer arms, then snap it down into place. It’s an elegant system though I confess I prefer the tilt-head mechanism of the smaller KitchenAids. The tilting motor housing makes it easier to get the bowl in and to change implements when the bowl is full. Still you can’t have everything, and this mixer has other features which I think make up for the bowl-lift. Volume is one of them, power is another. This model, though not as beefy as my old Viking, has the most powerful motor in the KitchenAid line.

It’s easy to use…you have one switch on the left side. Bingo bango. Not hard to understand.

And I guess I’m a nerd, but one of the most exciting things about the new 6500 series to me was the implement design. Here they are: the paddle, whip and hook.

The paddle isn’t new to my mind, but I think the last KitchenAid I had came with “K”-shaped cross bars. The whip is interesting because the cross section is box-shaped. Honestly I’m not sure if this increases shear forces or anything like that, though I can say the shape makes it easier to get it into the bowl.

The really nifty one is the dough hook, which actually isn’t a hook but rather a spiral. This is a big innovation since you generally only find spiral implements in really, REALLY big flat-bottomed mixers. However the width and relative flatness of the 6500 bowl is perfect for a spiral “hook”. It tried it over the weekend and it works beautifully with no “dough creep” up the implement. Hallelujah, this will be great.

What other features are there that I like? I think the thing that most excites me most is that the implements actually reach down to the bottom of the bowl. The Viking really fell down in this area, even though it wasn’t really a “professional” machine. I was just engineered badly in that regard. So no more picking up the bowl and standing there like an idiot if I want to beat a small quantity of egg. That’s a real advantage of KitchenAid: they’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the way home bakers interact with their products.

What else? Well I can use my old KitchenAid attachments again for starters. Also I confess I dig the old-school look of it. The other model I considered was the Breville Bem800xl which actually beats the KitchenAid 6500 in Consumer Reports stand mixer rankings. It’s got a tilt head design, though only a 5 quart bowl and a slightly smaller motor. The Breville was a contender for sure however, even though I didn’t like the little gizmos built into it: a timer and vertical LED display that tells you what speed you’re on in case you somehow forgot.

I should say that if you’re considering this mixer you can get a couple of different bowls to go with it. The standard is actually glass, though you can get a more opaque “beaten glass” finish if you like. I was dubious of glass mixer bowls since I tend to bang mine around a lot so I went with steel, but still I thought they were interesting. No mixer is ever perfect but I confess I’m very excited about this one and curious to see what it can do. It perfectly mixed and kneaded some very sticky dough this weekend, and whipped up cream to stiff peaks in about 45 seconds. So far I’m impressed to say the least.

So thank you again, all you contributors! If you have yet to hear from me via email you will soon!

Filed under:  Pastry | 29 Comments

Where There’s Smoke…

Reader Felicia wants to know why beekeepers use smokers when they they work. Does smoke really make bees docile? The answer is no, it’s doesn’t really make them docile, Felicia, in fact it agitates them. However it agitates them in such a way that they’re disinclined to notice a beekeeper messing around in the hive. Smoke obviously makes bees think the hive is on fire. They become alarmed and do what you or I would do if we discovered our house burning: collect as many valuables as we can carry and head for the exit. Fire departments actively discourage that sort of thing of course. Hunting for treasures wastes time that’s better used for leaving.

But bees are stubborn. They don’t heed government warnings. They start stuffing themselves with food — as much as they can hold — since for all they know it’ll be many miles several days before they can find a new hive site and the colony must survive until then. So they stuff, and stuff, and stuff…and the beekeeper is the least of their worries. Why bother defending a home that’s burning down anyway? And let’s say there are a few bees here or there that are inclined to get aggressive: they’re so plump with honey by then that they have trouble bending their abdomens to sting you.

So that’s the effect smoke has on bees, Felcia. And in case you were wondering: once the hive is closed back up and the smoker taken away, the bees just spit all the honey back into the comb and it’s none the worse for wear.

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Buttercups Are Up!

Yesterday was a lovely day to wander around some of the parks in Louisville. We’re lucky in that we have several extremely large parks in this town, most of which were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the man who practically invented landscape architecture in America. The Pastry family went on a short hike through Cherokee Park, the closest of the major parks to our house, and were pleased to find all the usual early spring suspects in bloom: violets, Dutchman’s britches, bloody nose, trout lilies, mayapples and field upon field of buttercups. And where you find spring flowers, you find bees.

Honey bees will fly whenever the temperature crests 50 degrees Fahrenheit. It might be January and the hive may be stuffed with more honey than the bees can eat, but it doesn’t matter, there’s no such thing as a complacent bee. One thing I liked to do back when I was a beekeeper was to pick a daffodil or some other early spring flower, hold it out in front of the hive entrance on a sunny morning and watch the foragers mob it. Nectar! Nectar! Spread the word! Spring is here!

Standing in front of a hive entrance sounds like suicide but it’s actually a fun thing to do provided you can stay relaxed (for generally if you’re relaxed the bees are relaxed). If it’s a nice sunny day there are lots of comings and goings: empty foragers heading out and fully loaded foragers are heading in. Except if you take up a visible position by the hive entrance, at which point the returning bees get lost and start hovering. The longer you stand there the bigger the cloud of confused bees gets until you finally move. At that point the bees’ view of the hive entrance again resembles the picture they have of it in their brains, and they all sweep in at once like commuters into the subway. But that’s bees for you, they have no concept of change. Which is why when you put a bee hive down you can’t suddenly move it even a few feet in any direction. If you do the bees will never find their way home again.

Interesting, no? They may be the geniuses of the insect world but they sure can be dense at times.

Filed under:  Pastry | 4 Comments

Home Gear, Pro Gear

Some interesting discussion in the comment fields on the subject of “home” mixers versus “pro” mixers. My previous mixer was a Viking and it’s true that people tend to associate that name with professional equipment manufacturing. The company definitely started out doing exclusively that. However a general rule of thumb when it comes to determining whether this-or-that piece of equipment is “home” gear or “pro” gear is this: if you can buy it in a shop it’s home kitchen gear, if you buy it through a commercial dealer or restaurant supply house, it’s professional.

That may sound flippant but really it’s true. Some high-end home equipment manufacturers label their products “professional”, but that’s mostly just a marketing tactic. Certainly some made-for-the-home stand mixers end up in professional kitchens, but that’s because they’re cheaper than the small-volume mixers that can be had through dealers. A 5-quart professional Hobart mixer can be purchased through a dealer at a cost of about $2,200. Is it that much better than a $300 5-quart KitchenAid? Not really depending on how you use it, but the advantage is that if the Hobart breaks down the dealer will come out to the restaurant and service it. Still, many restauranteurs or bakery owners, being cheap by nature, would rather pay $300 for a KitchenAid, work it do death, throw it away and get another than pay $2,200 for mostly the same thing.

So why all the “professional” labels on home mixers then? Well, ever since the rise of the foodie movement a lot of home cooks have wanted to make their home kitchens look and feel more professional. Appliance makers have of course complied with their wishes, producing all sorts of appliances that mimic what you see in restaurants. A lot of this gear has a professional look but actually isn’t professional gear — and that’s a good thing.

Why? Because professional pieces of equipment are pretty blunt instruments, usually with nowhere near the versatility of home gear. I once made the mistake of bringing a (truly) professional mixer home. It was extremely powerful but it didn’t do small quantities of anything. Why? Because it never occurred to the engineers who designed it that anyone would ever try to beat just three egg whites in it. It also sounded like a Harrier jet in hover mode. Professional ranges have the same problem. They’re great when it comes to putting out giant amounts of heat — great for a sauté cook on the line. But what if you’re a home cook trying to make a delicate stirred custard? Then they’re not so good.

A close friend of mine learned about pro gear the hard way when he bought a commercial refrigerator to finish out his very, VERY expensive kitchen. Being a great cook he wanted a pro look and was ecstatic to discover that he could get twenty cubic feet of refrigerator space — all stainless — for less than a nice home refrigerator. Of course not a week later he was returning it because a.) it vibrated so much that it traveled across his hardwood floor even when the wheels were locked and b.) the compressor was so loud that it woke up everyone in the house when it kicked on at night. Plus it was unevenly cold if it wasn’t fully loaded up with food. His eggs froze if he didn’t keep several cases of bottled water in it.

All of which is to say that professional equipment is designed for its environment. It’s very tough, it has to be. However because people working in commercial kitchens don’t really care how loud their gear is, how much it vibrates, what it looks like, how well insulated it is or how much exhaust heat it throws off it’s not something you want in your house as a rule. Home machines are often maligned as “wimpy” when most of the time they’re far better engineered and as a result can do a lot more.

Personally I’m rather ambivalent about Viking. Their background as I mentioned is in professional kitchen gear and they have since branched off into home kitchen appliances, bringing a lot of those professional rough-and-ready attributes to their products. My personal feeling is that while I love all the power under the hood of their mixers the company has yet to learn how to make a really good one for a home environment. As such I think I’m going to go back to KitchenAid which understands the needs of home bakers better.

UPDATE: I went to the Viking website to hunt around a bit and discovered the company has very recently discontinued its stand mixer line, along with all its other countertop appliances (food processors, toasters, blenders). That’s probably for the best.

Filed under:  Pastry | 26 Comments

Thank You

Last night I put up a post telling everyone that my old Viking mixer died, and requested contributions to the tip jar to help defray the cost of a new one. I woke up this morning to find the jar overflowing. By 8:00 a.m. Eastern Time a new mixer was half paid for, and now at 11:00 I have enough to replace my old Viking or buy a comparable model. I don’t know what to say, my friends, it’s overwhelming. I’m the luckiest blogger in the world.

Filed under:  Pastry | 43 Comments