Author Archives: joepastry

What’s the difference between cream cheese and quark (farmer’s cheese)?

That’s what reader Gerhard in Vienna wants to know. We here in the States know quark as “farmer’s cheese” or “fresh cheese” and, as in northern Europe, it is often used as a filling or to make cheesecakes. Gerhard writes:

What is the difference between creamcheese (like Philadelphia) and curdcheese (called Topfen over here or Quark in Germany). One difference is surely the huge amount of fat in creamcheese compared to even the fattest variety of curdcheese; another would be that there are several ingredients in creamcheese (like salt or carob gum) while curdcheese is… well, all milk. And there is a taste-difference of course, and an enormous price-difference. I always considered both to be fresh cheese and I wonder when to use one over the other… curd cheese in a cheesecake for instance is much more flavorful and light, and curd cheese also seems to be the much more natural option….?

There’s a lot in there, Gerhard, I’ll do my best. First let’s clarify some terms. Back 150 years or so ago there were “cheeses” in Europe called “cream cheese”. I use the quotation marks because these products generally weren’t actual cheeses but masses of dried cream. As a result they were extremely fatty affairs, much more so that today’s cream cheeses which are about 33% fat and 50% water. Modern quark, the kind sold in tubs in Europe is somewhat leaner, usually around 20% fat, though there are very low fat version that can have as little as 1% fat.

However fat content isn’t the only difference between cream cheese and farmer’s cheese. The production methods are different as well. Cream cheese, as you can guess from the name, starts with cream. That cream is warmed and combined with a starter culture which can be as simple as buttermilk or as elaborate as a store-bought “mesophilic” cheese culture. After about 10 hours the mass of cream gets quite thick and is then strained to reduce it down to a thick and spreadable cheese.

The key thing to remember with this process is that it does not create a “cheese” in a true sense, but rather a “milk gel” composed of semi-coagulated proteins wrapped around blobs of fat and pockets of water. This gel isn’t terribly stable on its own which is why commercial cream cheese is usually stabilized with xanthan gum.

Farmer’s cheese (quark) is a proper cheese. That is, it’s composed of actual curds — clumps of fully coagulated milk protein which likewise contain fat and water within them. As you point out it’s made from milk, not cream. A culture is added — usually a European mesophile that produces more acid than its American cousins — and the mass ferments until enough acid is produced to create the curds. Sometimes rennet is also added to enhance the coagulation and create a firmer cheese. The curds are then strained from the whey and there you go: quark. Quark is usually drier and grainer than cream cheese, but as you say, Gerhard, it’s also lighter. People make the same thing in America, however they usually have to add extra acid to get the curds to form.

Either one makes good cheesecake or filling. We here in States are used to the smoother texture and heavier consistency of cream cheese. Cheesecakes made with farmer’s cheese are coarser, but as you say they have a more distinct taste. And then yes, there’s the price. Since farmer’s cheese is made more like a conventional cheese it costs more.

As for which one I’d use, I really don’t like cream cheese and never have. Not because I’m opposed to it for any reason but because I find it gummy and somewhat rank in flavor. If I’m going to eat cheese I’d rather it tasted like cheese, not some in-between sort of device. So I’m biased in other words. Do as you will!

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A Little Filo Dough History

It’s funny how unusual questions tend to come in two’s and three’s. When that happens it makes me wonder if there’s a pastry class out there somewhere conducting an essay exam. Anyway, the question goes like this: when did the Greeks first start using filo dough?

It’s hard to say precisely. As far as I know the ancient Greeks didn’t have thin, filo-like doughs. Their hostile eastern neighbors the Persians, however, did. Ultra-thin doughs have a long history in the Middle East, dating back perhaps to the ancient Egyptians. The Persians invaded Greece in 492 B.C. and then again in 480 B.C., but didn’t stay more than a year in either case. No time for dessert-making classes, in other words.

The Greeks were taken over by the Macedonians a couple of hundred years later, then by the Romans. Greece remained a part of the Eastern Roman (later known as Byzantine) Empire for about the next 1400 years until the Ottoman Turks invaded the peninsula in about 1500. The Ottomans held the place until the Greek War of Independence in 1821.

Did the Ottomans like paper-thin pastry? Oh you betcha. And there we have our most likely answer: somewhere in that 300-year stretch of time. Close enough for jazz you guys?

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Next Up: Bialys

Reader Carmy requested these a couple of weeks ago – how can I resist? I made these in a bakery I once worked in and I haven’t eaten a good one since (the owners had a great formula). I’ll be interested to see if I can reproduce that same yeasty, oniony flavor. Let’s go!

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On the Gelling Problem

Several readers have written in to say they’d love to make a pecan pie, but they’ve been burned too many times with a filling that didn’t gel. There’s only one place to look for an answer to that problem: the eggs, as they’re solely responsible for creating the gel that all custards depend upon. The way I see it there are two potential areas of failure.

First, the pie might simply be under-baked. I was surprised yesterday when I made a second pie in a different pie plate and the pie took much longer to gel. I’d given away my good ceramic pie plate the day before, so I went with a simple pyrex job — the kind you can find in most grocery stores. Imagine my surprise when instead of 50 minutes the pie took 70 to finish. The only thing I can think is that the ceramic plate — which is much heavier — held the heat better when I removed the crust from the oven for the filling step. The low oven might have made it harder for the filled pie warm through once that heat was lost. This is just a guess of course.

The other possible problem is of course over-heating the eggs. This could happen either before or after the pie goes in the oven. Many recipes I’ve seen (including my own) call for adding eggs to other filling components that have been pre-cooked. If these other components are over 140 degrees when they’re combined with the eggs they’ll start cooking the egg white proteins, the ones that are primarily responsible for thickening the filling. Which means it’s possible for egg whites to be curdled before they even go into the pie shell. Of course they can also curdle while they’re in the pie shell during baking, which is why a low oven is so important.

That’s the extent of my thoughts on the issue. If anyone else has any ideas, please weigh in.

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Making Pecan Pie

Thanks to some terrific reader input I made the best pecan pie of my life yesterday. It’s the little tweaks to the recipe that really make the difference. The devastating effects of this pie were on display this morning when Mrs. Pastry’s badly shaken colleague brought the empty plate to her office. I only gave him the finished pie (minus the above piece) last evening. Evidently he set it down in front of his in-laws and something of a frenzy ensued. I don’t have full details because he was speaking rapidly and in Spanish, but it was something to the effect of: there was pie…on the ceiling…on the walls…on the windows…my God…it was horrible!

So…prepare this pie at your own risk. Begin by assembling your ingredients. First, toast the nuts. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and spread them out on a sheet pan. About 7 minutes of toasting for pieces like these is perfect. I’d go closer to 9 for whole pecan halves.

While those cool make the filling. Swizzle the eggs in a bowl.

Stir in the corn syrup…

…and the vanilla. Stir with a fork, don’t whisk them, since you don’t want to create a foam which will give you an overly thick crust on the finished pie when the rubble rise to the top.

Next melt the butter in a small sauce pan over medium heat.

Add the brown sugar…

…and stir briefly until the sugar melts.

Turn the burner down to low and add the egg mixture…

…followed by the vinegar.

Stir it all together gently.

Slowly heat the filling it to 130 degrees Fahrenheit, stirring more or less constantly.

Add the toasted nuts. They’ll cool the filling, so give the pan another shot of gentle heat while the crust finishes it pre-bake.

Take the crust out of the oven and immediately turn the heat down to 275. Pour the warm filling into the pre-baked shell.

Apply a pie shield and put the pie in the oven.

Bake it about 50 minutes until it no longer sloshes when you jostle the pie plate, but jiggles. Check it after 35 minutes to see how it’s coming. If the crust is too blonde at that point you can remove the pie shield so it has a chance to color.

Let it cool about 4 hours until it’s completely set. Serve!

Any syrup in there? Nope! When you want to prevent a custard from breaking, low heat does it every time.

You can do a crimped crust too if you like!

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Happy MLK Day!

For those who have it off and for those who don’t! It’s awfully easy to forget about the real people behind these federal holidays (Washington, Columbus, our veterans both alive and dead). For those who might need a little primer to get in touch with the meaning of the day, and to get a sense for the sense for the moral clarity and iron resolve King possessed, you couldn’t do better than his Letter from Birmingham City Jail.

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What’s the difference between light and dark corn syrup?

Excellent question, reader Bud. The answer is that dark corn syrup has some refiner’s syrup in it for extra flavor and some caramel color in it for extra, er….color. It’s a little sweeter and more complex than “light” corn syrup, a closer analogue to molasses which the good folks at Karo probably intended it to replace.

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Pecan Pie Recipe

This pecan pie recipe incorporates lots of reader wisdom: extra nuts to keep it from getting too sweet, a toasting step for extra flavor, and a little vinegar for interest. I should add that lemon zest and bourbon also make terrific enhancements. This formula represents my best attempt to stay within the bounds of a classic pie while still incorporating what corporate types might call “best practices”. But do as you see fit!

1 recipe standard or perfect pie crust.
9 ounces (2 cups) pecan pieces
3 ounces (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter
7.5 ounces (1 cup packed) dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 eggs, room temperature
8 ounces (3/4 cup) light corn syrup
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
0.65 ounce (2 teaspoons) white or cider vinegar (1-2 tablespoons of Kentucky bourbon or a heaping teaspoon of fresh lemon zest are promising alternatives)

Begin by toasting the pecans. Preheat your oven to 375 and spread the nuts out on a sheet pan or cooking sheet. Toast them for 5-8 minutes, stirring them around every so often to promote even toasting and to check that they aren’t burning. When they’re lightly toasted remove them from the oven and allow them to cool completely.

While the nuts are cooling, roll your dough and lay it into your pie plate. Let it sit for at least half an hour (an hour is better) to relax the gluten. Then par-bake your crust.

While the crust is baking prepare the filling. Lightly whisk the eggs in a small bowl with a fork, then stir in the corn syrup and vanilla. Put the butter into a medium saucepan and melt it over low heat. Stir in the brown sugar and salt, then the egg mixture and finally the vinegar. Gently heat the mixture until it’s warm, about 130 degrees Fahrenheit. You’ll want to stir it more or less constantly to keep the heat even and prevent any egg from cooking. An instant-read digital thermometer is handy here. Remove the pan from the heat when the filling is warm enough, then stir in the pecans.

Ideally you’ll have finished making the filling just as the crust is reaching doneness. However since we don’t live in an ideal world you’ll have to improvise a little, returning the pan to low heat in the couple of minutes before the crust comes out just to make sure the filling is up to temperature.

When the crust is finished turn the heat down immediately to 275. Pour the filling into the hot shell, apply a pie shield to keep the crust from over-baking, put the dish on a sheet pan and the sheet pan on a middle rack in the oven. Bake the pie about 50 minutes, checking after 40 and jostling it a little to see how the gelling is coming. When the pie is done the center should jiggle in the center like JELL-O, not slosh like mud. When it’s done remove it from the oven and cool it on a rack for several hours to make sure it sets.

Filed under:  Pastry, Pecan Pie | 6 Comments

Stone Ground What Now?

Chocolate. Yes you heard that right. Evidently it’s a new trend in the world of confectionery: gritty though not necessarily darker “Mexican style” chocolate bars. The story was in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday but I just came across it this morning. It’s here, but behind the WSJ paywall. Here are the lead paragraphs if you’re wondering what this is all about:

Craft chocolatiers are using ancient techniques of the Aztecs and Mayans to create a dairy-free, low-fat product with a consistency a bit like crunchy dirt. Some chocolate lovers can’t seem to get enough of it.

This type of chocolate, sometimes called Mexican-style or stone-ground chocolate, is earthier, spicier and generally made with less sugar than sweet, creamy, European-style chocolate.

With Mexican-style chocolate, cocoa beans are roasted and shelled to yield edible cocoa-bean “nibs,” which get ground into a coarse liquor and then mixed with sugar. Most makers temper the product, raising and lowering the temperature before pouring it into molds.

Grinding, often done with stone disks, is the crucial step that creates the characteristic texture.

“We are seeing this return to chocolate-making roots,” says Carla Martin, a Harvard University lecturer in the department of African and African American Studies who specializes in the study of chocolate.

Nice work if you can get it! Anyway, the odd thing about all this is that that those coarse Mexican chocolate disks you find in grocery stores aren’t meant to be eaten like candy. You use them to make silky smooth drinking chocolate. The story notes the distinction but fails to observe the way in which it undermines the whole “chocolate returning to its roots” narrative being created here. There’s nothing traditional or authentic about eating gritty chocolate bars. No self-respecting Aztec or Mayan would ever have chomped down on a hard mass of sandy ground cacao for fun. If I were one of their modern-day descendants I’d be insulted! But then you hit the key paragraphs:

Though most stone-ground chocolate adds sugar, it doesn’t typically add cocoa butter, yielding a less-processed product than what European-style chocolatiers make with conching machines, which knead chocolate to create an evenly blended bar.

That is a major reason stone-ground chocolate has become popular with young entrepreneurs: It doesn’t rely on pricey refining equipment.

Which is another way of saying that a lot of “stone ground” chocolate is the product of inexperienced chocolate makers who don’t have much equipment or know-how. So instead of talking smoothness and quality they shift the terms of the conversation to “processing”, “refining” and “ancient techniques”. What was once coarse and gritty is now “authentic” and “stone ground”. That deserves a Clio award.

But it seems to me there’s a real business problem here beyond the advertising slight-of-hand. A big part of the stone ground trend appears to be about lowering the bar to entry (no pun intended) to get into the chocolate industry. The trouble I see is that some of these entrepreneurs are lowering the bar so far that just about anyone with a food processor and some ring molds could conceivably do what they’re doing.

Forgive me for sounding cranky here, but in truth my first reaction when I read this story was: what a crock! But I have to admit I’ve been wrong before. And really, who am I to interfere with budding chocolatiers trying to make a buck? Maybe I need to just pour myself another cup of strong tea and get with the stone ground program. Here’s to nibs in your teeth!

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Can pecan pie curdle?

Oh yes it definitely can, reader Tillie. Though pecan pie doesn’t give the appearance of a custard it definitely is one, and as such it abides by all the usual custard rules, number one being: don’t overcook me. For when you overcook a custard the long, string-like egg proteins which unfurl so beautifully in gentle heat begin to clench back up again. When that happens they wring the water out of the gel they’d just created, leaving behind curds and a large puddle of syrup. I think we’ve all had pecan pies like that, no? Clumpy and syrupy…in other words…blech.

Summarizing the unhappy tale of an overcooked custard in this way I’m more convinced than ever that to do this right I’ll need to bake my pecan pie like the other custard pies on the site, specifically pumpkin and world famous Kentucky horse race whose name rhymes with “Herbie” pie. That is, I’ll pour warm filling to a hot pre-baked shell to a.)pre-start the gelling of the filling and b.) protect the crust from becoming inundated and soggy. Then I’ll bake it nice and low until it’s just barely gelled, letting the residual heat finish off the baking.

I’ll incorporate Frankly’s hint to add more pecans than normal to cut the sweetness, as well as Martha’s suggestion to toast the nuts for heightened flavor. I’ll also add a little vinegar for kicks. As for the syrup I’m going to use corn syrup in an effort to further control sweetness, though cane syrup or refiner’s (Lyle’s Golden) will work just as well. So that’s the plan. Stand by for the formal recipe.

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