Author Archives: joepastry

It’s Not So Much the What, But the How

Reader Neil asks if it’s the proportion of sugar in a meringue that primarily determines its texture. There’s no question the amount of sugar is a big part of it, Neil, though process is also important. As a general rule, the earlier you add sugar to your egg whites the smaller the bubbles will be in the foam and the finer and denser your meringue will be. You can create an extremely light — though not terribly stable — meringue by folding powdered sugar into a finished egg white foam. By contrast you can make a very thick, glossy and stable meringue by combining egg whites with sugar or sugar syrup at the outset and whipping them both together (Swiss Meringue works this way). Most meringues are somewhere in the middle: you whip your whites to the soft peak stage or so, then add sugar to finish. The result is a sturdy, general-purpose meringue that’s good for a lot of things. Great question, Neil!

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There Are Meringues, and Then There Are Meringues

The world of meringues is a wide one. Broadly speaking it’s divided into two categories: cooked meringues and uncooked meringues. However within those two groups there’s a lot of variation. Meringues can be mildly sweet or intensely sweet. They can be light and frothy or dense and marshmallow-y. They can be baked to crispness, browned in the oven (or with a blowtorch) or eaten as they are.

An American pie meringue is an uncooked, medium-sweet, light and frothy meringue that is also gently baked. This makes it a different animal compared to the denser, creamier cooked meringues that typically adorn European-style lemon tarts, even though the presentation looks very similar. American pie meringue is a sweet froth that makes a lovely counterpoint to a dense citrus curd, as it heightens the fresh feeling you get when you put a bit of both in your mouth.

A common question in regard to American pie meringue is: if the idea is freshness and lightness, why does it need to be baked at all? The answer is that unlike denser, more sugar-intensive meringues, American pie meringue it will lose volume and weep moisture if the egg proteins in it aren’t coagulated just a little bit. The bubbles inside it are large and not heavily reinforced with sugar syrup. It takes a little lightly cooked (slightly clumped up) egg protein to shore them up. Take that idea too far of course and those same proteins clench too tightly, squeeze out moisture and, well, see below.

Still it’s all worth it to my mind, since there’s nothing better as a closer to summer meal than the delicate texture of a good meringue pie.

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Lemon Meringue Pie and PTSD

Ask typical home bakers about their experience with lemon meringue pie and the response is likely to be something along the lines of a haunted thousand-yard stare. The weeping…the weeping…

The things just ooze. Most infuriatingly, they do it in two directions: up (as a result over over-heated meringue) and down (caused by under-heated meringue and/or a broken custard). And what happens when meringues and custards weep? Soggy crusts, sticky, gummy toppings, grainy fillings…the whole custard pie bag of horrors.

The root of the problem is the lemon meringue pie’s size. It’s a thick mass composed of two fussy things: a light frothy meringue layer and delicate citrus curd layer, both of which need a judicious application of heat but which cannot be over-heated.

The most vulnerable region of a lemon meringue pie is the very center, where the lower middle of the meringue meets the upper middle of the custard. The meringue there frequently doesn’t get warm enough for the simple reason that heat has a hard time penetrating that far before the outer regions of the meringue start to over-cook. Meringue, you see, is a frustratingly good insulator (see: baked Alaska).

What happens when a light meringue doesn’t heat to the point that it sets? The bubbles in it pop and the foam collapses back into a liquid, the result being a little puddle between the layers. Dang.

The solution: inside-out baking. That is, using the heat from the filling — which is cooked separately ahead of time — to set the center of the meringue before it ever goes into the oven. It’s a slightly tricky procedure that requires crackerjack timing. But when done well yields a perfect pie.

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Up Next: Lemon Meringue Pie

This is another one from the request file, something else I can’t believe I’ve neglected for so long. Forgive me, all you contributors to my request post from last month, I’m skipping around a bit. I was actually planning on doing sfogliatelle this week but then realized I was fresh out of leaf lard. Time to get the rendering oven fired back up again! Oh, and I’m also looking for a good recipe for a “mud cake”, a request from reader Nokanen in Finland. He sent me a link to one but it’s in Finnish, and Finnish is one of those Uralic languages that has very few Latin cognates, so I can’t figure it out. Help would be greatly appreciated.

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Holiday Baking Triumphs & Disasters

This isn’t so much a post as a request for submissions from anyone who might have experienced either one during Easter or Passover. Geek Lady made the excellent suggestion since she had a little of both over the weekend. Post-holiday posts like this might make a good tradition here on Joe Pastry, but let’s see how this one goes first. Make any submissions via the email link on the upper left and I’ll put ‘em up! Feel free to include supplemental comments if desired…though keep them on the short side if you will!

First up we have reader Ashley’s tarta Pascualina which looks flawless:

I created a Tarta Pascualina and, though I ran into a lot of “I don’t have the right ingredients!” problems, the pie turned our perfectly. Pie crust used to be my one baking kryptonite, and I’m happy to officially say I’ve conquered it.

Woohoo! Next up is Geek Lady with some serious Easter bread and a professional-grade lamb cake:

She writes:

The first triumph is my always reliable Bread of Easter Brightness, which is a brioche-y sort of bread flavored with cardamom, inspired by Greek lambropsomo, but is my own recipe developed from the vague description on Wikipedia. I am strictly forbidden by my family to change anything.

The second triumph is my Baptism cake baked in a lamb mold. Last year was the first year I tried, and the head fell off. This year, I defy Cake Wrecks itself to mock it. Baptism cake is really Italian cream cake, but in our house it is especially for baptisms and Easter. I haven’t blogged this recipe yet, but I intend to, now that I know that it makes a delicious AND sturdy lamb cake.

Reader Kitty writes:

My best ever fail was deciding I wanted to make biscuits as a teen, and oh hey, I think I have the ingredients. Never baked before, I’d just watched cooking shows and promptly forgot any ratio/amounts. I mixed flour with…. stuff. the results were not pretty and put me off baking/cooking forever because I didn’t think I had it in me.

Also, forgot to clean out fat from a remarkably leaky cheesecake bake (the butter in the crust)
Next time I turned the oven on, I think I was going to bake fries… I saw a fire, and dazed, told my bf of the time…Umm… fire… in the oven.. In a complete and monotone/ uninterested voice. haha…

Next up is Chris from down under. Check these out!

He writes:

Howdy doody from Down Under! Attached are pics of the orange caramel entremet I made for Easter sunday lunch and the chocolate goodies I made for the kidlets. For a sense of scale, the ‘body’ egg for the figurines was 15cm (6 inches) long :)

The entremet consisted of an almond sponge base, topped with roasted pistachio nut and caramelised puffed rice in hazelnut praline, surrounded by orange mousse with a caramel creme brulee layer, covered with a dark chocolate glaze.

Um…incredible. Next reader Dave rebounded from a failure with a brilliant improvisation:

After a failed attempt at my first pâté a choux, I had a successful batch of eclairs, so a friend suggested trying Paris-Brest. Last week I made the praline paste and began the plan to bake one up for my son’s Easter Egg Hunt/luncheon on Sunday.

And then this from reader Rebecca:

Alas, one success does not a master make! The batter did not rise as huge as my second try. So, plan B! The Bee Sting was an easy make, and the praline paste got added to the pastry cream (ala Paris-Brest) and it was a magnificent success!

I baked 2 pies for Easter dinner: a lemon meringue (from RLB’s Pie and Pastry Bible) and this crazy easy chocolate pie: I’ve made both, multiple times before and nary a problem. For some reason this year, neither pie set properly. The lemon filling was ran out of the crust in a thick puddle. I also over-whipped the meringue so it was dry. Not good.. not good at all.

On the triumphs side, the roast beef was fantastic and the dinner rolls I made were perfect. I’m going to have to try the lemon meringue pie again next week, just to prove to myself that I haven’t lost my touch. :)

Reader Evan writes:

Success: Made Cooks Illustrated’s individual fallen chocolate cakes. For want of the proper size of ramekin, I used a buttered jumbo sized muffin tin, and to make it totally Passover safe I replaced the small bit of flour with xanthan gum. Result: souffle-like chocolate cakes in about 10 minutes of hands on time, including washing the mixing bowl. Good chocolate (Valhrona) seemed to help here.

Failure: red wine ice cream: reduce 2/3 of a bottle of wine, add sugar, egg yolks, cream, touch of xanthan and unreduced wine to help stabilize and keep scoopable, respectively. Cook sous vide 85C for about 40 minutes, then chill overnight and churn. Result: flavor is okay, but too sweet and without the richness of the original wine. Texture is quite offputting, rather grainy. I chose 85C following ChefSteps, but I wonder if that created some egg protein coagulation.

Woohoo! And…doh! For what it’s worth I’ve never had a red wine ice cream I liked. It’s one of those ideas that sounds good when you hear it, then…blech. And a nice improvisation on the cakes!

Keep them coming!

Filed under:  Pastry | 25 Comments

Viva la Ropa Interior

I can’t remember a better Easter weekend here in Louisville. We spent a good chunk of it indoors of course, but after the last service was over yesterday morning we were free to revel in it. We threw an Easter party in the afternoon and evening as we usually do, and as per usual the attendance was heavily Spanish-speaking (note to self: learn Spanish for next year…or hire translators). Spaniards dominated, though I was delighted when two Cuban women we know walked in: a student of Mrs. Pastry’s and her 80-year-old aunt who always has stories to tell about the Cuban Revolution.

My favorite one takes place in the late 50′s, when — let’s called her Maria — was a young woman. The town where she lived was well-known for garment-making and was located in the foothills of the Sierra Cristal mountains. One day to the surprise of everyone Fidel and Raúl Castro, Che Guevara and a ragtag band of guerrilla fighters rode into town. Their demand: underwear.

Maria and her mother promptly measured the men and sewed together several pairs. Saddle bags stuffed with underpants, the Castros, Guevara and the rest of their July Movement comrades trotted back up into the mountains to continue the Revolution free of itching and chafing. I love that story, because whether you admire the Castros or hate them, consider Che a hero or a monster, you’ve got to admit that their exploits are seldom examined through the lens of undergarments. I can no longer look at one of those t-shirts — you know the ones, with Che in a beret staring sternly outward toward the bright Marxist-Leninist dawn — without thinking: I know who sewed his shorts. Were they striped or polka dotted…decorated with little martini glasses, smiley faces or helicopters? Maybe just little profiles of Lenin. I’ll have to remember to ask Maria the next time I see her.

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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!

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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 | 26 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 several eggs yolks into a small bowl you’ve noticed how they take on geometric shapes when they’re pressed together (as they seek the most efficient possible shapes). Physics is cool.

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 slopes gently downward on hive frames 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!

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