Author Archives: joepastry

Back, but…

…settling in again is about as time consuming as vacationing. I returned yesterday to 134 questions in my in-box, many of them true head scratchers requiring detailed replies. I’m about half way through…then there’s my regular mortgage- and tuition-paying job to catch up on. Such an inconvenience! I’ll do my best to get my puddings made in the next day or so. If I’m not back in earnest before the weekend try not to hold it against me!

Filed under:  Pastry | Leave a comment

Farewell to the Final Ramone

By 1975, rock music had become a parody of itself. The Beatles were split up, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison were dead. A lot of the great bands from the 60′s were still playing (The Who, the Stones, The Band and the Grateful Dead spring to mind) but most of the vitality was gone from the form. Popular culture had moved on to disco and lite rock acts like Seals & Crofts and England Dan & John Ford Coley. Little kids like my sister and me were listening to the Partridge Family, the Bay City Rollers, Wings and Leif Garrett. Concert goers were thrilling to the theatrics of KISS. Intellectual types were swooning to pompous art rock bands like Spirit, Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Some of it was fun, a little of it was artistic, none of it was rock n’ roll.

…as four geeks from Queens reminded us when they turned their amps up to 20 and belted out blistering four-chord, triple-speed two-minute rock anthems like Blitzkrieg Bop and I Wanna Be Sedated. They were the Ramones. They invented punk (a label they despised) and in the process revived true rock music, as defined by volume, simplicity and schlong. They never hit pay dirt in the music industry, never got to be a household name, never made any real money. But only the Beatles were more influential, and that’s not just my opinion. They were The Band That Saved Rock before Nirvana came along and did it again in 1991.

Everyone in the band had a fictitious name, which is to say they all assumed the surname “Ramone”, one of Paul McCartney’s aliases. Over a particularly bad three-year stretch at the turn of the millennium we lost three of them: Joey, Dee Dee and Johnny, my personal favorite Ramone for a long list of reasons. Tommy, the original drummer, died over the weekend. Tommy Ramone was only with the band for the first four years, but he established the seminal Ramones beat (ably imitated by his replacement, Marky). His death, how can I put it, is a real bummer. Nothing to do now but put on the It’s Alive at the Rainbow and raise a glass of the good stuff. ONE TWO THREE FOUR!!!

Filed under:  Pastry | 9 Comments

Pre- and Proto-Puddings II: The Rise of “White” Puddings

One thing pretty much everyone agreed upon back in the early days of puddings was that they were a very good idea. Organs, blood and grain all stuffed into a bladder and boiled? What’s not to love? Yet the big problem for pudding lovers of the period was that puddings were prisoners of seasonality. I mean let’s face it, the average person didn’t have fresh blood, guts and bladders lying around everywhere all the time. On the farm animals were only slaughtered in cool weather to prevent spoilage (refrigerators being in very short supply in the first few millennia before Christ). Thus at the dawn of the Age of Pudding, it would have only been a once-in-a-while treat.

It wasn’t until the 1600′s (A.D.) that puddings became regular fare. This thanks to an advance in textiles that made the so-called “pudding cloth” possible. What was that you ask? Simply a piece of fine-mesh calico that a cook could spoon batter into, boil and reuse. It was a great stand-in for a bladder, and it freed puddings from the seasonal cycle they had previously been trapped in. Cooks could suddenly get creative with them. Instead of the same old blood and guts, a pudding could be made from scraps that were available at other times of year: eggs, vegetables, fresh and dried fruits, nuts…you name it. In this way pudding evolved from a what into a how.

This is how the white pudding was born. And it remains with us to this day. Of course there are still plenty of black puddings out there, notably among the Scots who still place a high value on foods like haggis, which if you haven’t tried…is completely understandable. South of there however, in England, white (usually sweet) puddings now reign, some of the most famous exemplars being plum and date puddings like sticky toffee pudding. Only very few are made in pudding cloths nowadays.

Today pudding makers use tin forms or shallow dishes — as with Yorkshire pudding — or prepare them in pans over a flame on the stove top. These bear very little resemblance to that thing that was once knows as a “pudding”, yet they can all trace their roots back to the same, ancient tradition…of cooking up odds and ends in a form, using some sort of thickener or binder to hold everything together. And that’s as close to definition of “pudding” as I can honestly get.

Filed under:  Pastry | 8 Comments

Pre- and Proto-Puddings

The word “pudding”, it’s thought, comes down to us from the Latin word botellus which basically means “sausage.” Boudin is how the word occurs now in French. Pudim is the Portuguese version, pudín the Spanish. Sounding a little familiar now? Thought so. But did spotted dick and sticky toffee pudding really start out as sausage? Yes. Sort of. Here it helps to take a brief — and very general — look at early days of sausage making.

Say you’re a Bronze Age subsistence farmer living somewhere in Europe. It’s fall and you’ve just slaughtered your pig. You’ve taken all the choice cuts off the carcass for the season’s big feast, but you’ve still got plenty of other stuff left. The meat scraps you chop up and stuff in a casing with fat to make hard sausage that’ll last maybe a year. But that still leaves you with the organs and blood. You hate to waste it, but that sort of offal will start to spoil in a matter of hours if it isn’t either eaten or cooked. What to do?

There aren’t any pots or pans laying about. The stable you’re working in certainly isn’t a kitchen. And anyway, it’s the Bronze Age. So you pick out a bladder or a stomach, wash it in a nearby stream, and stuff it with the organ meat and blood plus and a few handfuls of grain or bread crumbs to bind the whole mixture together. You tie it up, boil it and presto — you’ve got a stopgap solution that will feed your family for week or more.

These were the first puddings. Known as “black” puddings today, they were distinct from typical sausages in that they weren’t part of any long-term preservation strategy. Rather they were a short-term keeping tactic that prevented the waste of valuable protein. Here is where the origin of pudding starts to resemble the beginnings of pie, at least for me. Both were common methods for extending the shelf life of scraps and leftovers. The main difference is that where pies were baked, puddings were boiled.

So fine, pudding and pies, lovely. How do we get from there to tapioca? More on that in the next installment. Gotta get a little work done.

Filed under:  Pastry | 6 Comments

What’s the difference between toffee and caramel?

Excellent question, reader Josh! Toffee sauce is similar to caramel sauce in the sense that it’s made from sugar, butter and/or cream, the main difference is the degree to which it’s cooked. Toffee is only cooked to the point that the sugar in it melts, at which point it becomes usable. Caramel is cooked well beyond the melting stage, through all the various candy phases until the sugar molecules themselves start to break into pieces. It’s those pieces that give caramel its rich flavors and amber-brown color, since some of the chemical whatsits in the mix are actually pigments. Toffee sauce wouldn’t have much of a color (other than maybe very light brown) if it weren’t for the fact that it’s made with brown sugar, and brown sugar already has caramelized sugars (molasses) in it. Thanks, Josh!

Filed under:  Pastry | 8 Comments

Pastry Cream Conundrum

Reader Helen writes with a very interesting problem:

I’ve had a pastry cream disaster that remains a mystery to me. I’ve been making it with no problems for a long time. Just made 4 batches 2 weeks ago. Today, I tried it 3 times and every time it curdled as soon as it came to a simmer. I’ve never had this problem before and usually simmer it for 1-2 minutes to make sure to kill the enzyme in the yolks that thins out the starch as the cream sits. The only thing I did differently today was use all new ingredients (milk, cream, and eggs). I tasted milk and cream and they didn’t taste spoiled. I noticed that my corn starch expired 2 years ago, but it worked fine 2 weeks ago, so I can’t imagine it went bad all of a sudden. Here is my recipe and procedure:

It’s pretty standard stuff. When the cream curdled, it looked like broken mayo with fat oozing out. The only thing I can think of as a bit unusual is that my eggs were very fresh from a local farm. I know that would be terrible for hard boiled purposes, but I’ve never heard of the age of the egg effecting pastry cream. Any ideas where I might have gone wrong?

Very interesting problem you have there, Helen. Any time there’s curdling of any kind I always think about heat first. Could the heat have been higher than normal? If so it’s possible that the cream on the bottom or sides of the pan might have been hotter than normal even though the whole mass hadn’t simmered yet. Whisking might not have helped much in that case. That’s the simplest explanation.

Still, from your description it sounds more like a broken emulsion than a curdled custard (cooked egg proteins usually form small grains). You see this with buttercreams when there’s a temperature disparity between the butter and the meringue. I see from your formula that you like to add butter to finish your pastry cream. Had you added it by this point? And if so might you have added faster than normal? Or might it have been colder than normal? That’s another possibility.

Barring those two possible causes the eggs are the next most likely suspect. Custard, like hollandaise and mayonnaise, relies on the emulsifiers found in egg yolks to remain stable. The main emulsifier in egg yolks is lecithin, a fatty substance (a so-called phospholipid) that’s responsible for keeping the oil-in-water custard emulsion smooth and even. The thing is, lecithin levels aren’t necessarily constant from egg to egg. They can fluctuate depending on the diet of the chicken. Some very interesting recent research from Israel (where researchers have been working to develop a low-cholesterol egg) has demonstrated that dramatic changes in egg fat levels can be achieved with relatively minor adjustments to chicken feed. Those studies were focused specifically on cholesterol, though it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if a similar principle applied to a fatty compound like lecithin. That said, my suggestion is to go back to grocery store eggs which come from chickens that have a more consistent diet.

Those are my best ideas, Helen. Anyone else have any theories?

Filed under:  Pastry | 4 Comments

Sticky Toffee Pudding Recipe

I don’t often do “plated” desserts, so this will be fun. It’s kind of fun to play with sauces and squeeze bottles every so often, no? This recipe is adapted from Delia Smith’s Christmas, but why not serve it in July? I can’t think of a reason!

For the pudding

2 cups chopped pitted dates
3/4 boiling water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons instant espresso
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3 ounces (6 tablespoons) butter
4.5 ounces (2/3 cup) sugar
2 eggs at room temperature
6.25 ounces (1 1/4 cups) flour, sifted
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

For the toffee sauce

7 ounces (scant cup) dark brown sugar
1 ounce (2 tablespoons) butter
pinch salt
3 ounces (generous 1/3 cup) heavy cream
about 1/2 cup chopped toasted walnuts

For the custard sauce

1/2 recipe créme Anglaise or melted vanilla ice cream


Place the dates in a bowl and cover them with boiling water. Allow the mixture to cool, then add the vanilla, espresso powder and soda — stir. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and butter eight 6-ounces ramekins.

In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle beat the butter and sugar together on medium high speed until light and fluffy, then add the eggs one at a time until they’re fully incorporated, scraping down the sides after each addition occasionally.

Combine the sifted flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl and whisk them together. Fold the flour mixture into the egg mixture, then fold in the cooled dates. Divide the batter among the ramekins, place them on a baking sheet and bake about 20 minutes. Remove them from the oven, let them cool five minutes then invert the puddings onto a parchment-covered rack to cool completely. The puddings can hold at this point for several hours or be refrigerated for several days.

Next, make the sauce. Combine all the ingredients except the walnuts in a small bowl and bring it to a simmer. Simmer it gently until the sugar is completely dissolved. Allow it to cool. The sauce will also hold almost indefinitely, and can be refrigerated for several weeks.

To serve, preheat the broiler. Pour about a tablespoon of sauce onto the puddings. Place the puddings under the broiler until the tops are crunchy and the sauce is bubbling. Transfer the puddings to individual serving plates and top with remaining toffee sauce and nuts. Serve with custard sauce dribbled around the edges of the plate.

Filed under:  Pastry | 10 Comments

Next Up: Sticky Toffee Pudding

I do love a good British pudding, and if I can serve it with two sauces, so much the better. Like strawberries Romanoff this is a classic that rarely sees the light of day nowadays. It’s time to turn things around.

Filed under:  Pastry | 11 Comments

Making Strawberries Romanoff

Should, upon placing an elegant little bowl like this in front of your dinner guest, he reply “I don’t like strawberries and cream” you shall grasp the nearest available pair of leather riding gloves and slap them with great force against his cheek bone. Villain! Do you not recognize strawberries Romanoff when you see them??? At that point you can challenge him to pistols at dawn if you like. It’s a judgement call.

I made mine in the Russian style with sour cream added to the sweetened whipped cream because, well, why not? I started of course with the best strawberries I could find. This is a half batch of two cups. I picked the smaller ones because I like the presentation of the uncut berries and the smaller they are the better the better the flavor balance you’ll have. I added the orange juice…

Sprinkled on the Grand Marnier which as I mentioned previously is a clover match to the curaçao that Carême would have used.

I gave that a stir and let it macerate in the fridge for on hour. You can chill them for up to three hours before they start getting a little too soft.

When I was ready to serve I whipped my chilled cream to just shy of soft peaks, then added the sugar and vanilla. I whipped a bit more to the soft peak stage.

Before I added the sour cream I stirred it a little to break up the gel and get it ready for folding.

I added it, then folded it in with three or four stokes of a broad spatula. Could I have whipped it in? Yes I could have, however I prefer folding a few times instead of thoroughly incorporating the sour cream because the former technique creates stripes of sour cream spread through the topping and some delicious variability spoonful to spoonful.

Had Czar Alexander I eaten this every day he would never have gotten so depressed, I’m sure of it.

Filed under:  Pastry, Strawberries Romanoff | 19 Comments

The Mystery of Czar Alexander

Is it really true that Czar Alexander I staged his own death and assumed another identity? Quite a few people believed that, reader Alice, and not just conspiracy nuts. Most Russians of the time believed he was still alive after he was reported dead. Even members of the late Czar’s own family seemed to believe it. But why would they? Possibly because Alexander talked about vanishing and becoming a hermit almost incessantly. He certainly made no secret of his distaste for the trappings of wealth and power and his deep guilt over the death of his father, Czar Paul I, was well known.

Alexander had, shall we say, a troubled relationshhip with his family. His grandmother, Catherine the Great, hated his father (her own son) and made no secret of it. She considered Paul I to be an unstable tyrant-in-waiting. When Alexander was born Catherine immediately took charge of him (Alexander’s mother was indifferent to him) and educated him in the classical liberal virtues. Despite Paul’s attempts to literally beat some toughness into the boy, Alexander grew up sullen and sensitive. When Catherine died in 1796, Paul ascended the throne. His subjects quickly came to see that Catherine’s instincts were entirely correct and by 1801 a coup plot was hatched.

Alexander was predictably ambivalent about the plot, but ultimately gave his assent on the condition that his father be left unharmed. One night in early 1801 a mixed band of angry nobles and military men burst into Paul’s chambers in St. Michael’s Castle with the 23-year-old Alexander in tow. They tried to force Paul to sign his own abdication decree and when he refused they stabbed and strangled him, then cast his body to the floor where they trampled all over it. Alexander spent the rest of his life wondering exactly which part of “leave him unharmed” they failed to understand.

He spent the next 25 years feeling guilty. He looked to friends, family, priests and mystics for relief but found none. And even though he was broadly popular for his attempts at liberal reforms (the end of serfdom, free press and free institutions) he openly longed to be liberated from the burdens of leadership. Which is why, when the vigorous 48-year-old Czar, after a year filled with personal disasters including the death of his 18-year-old daughter, was suddenly reported dead from typhus more than a few people looked at each other and said: so, he finally did it. Was the disfigured corpse placed in a coffin in Taganrog in December of 1825 really his? Many, many Russians doubted it. Indeed they believed their melancholy Czar had boarded a ship and sailed to parts unknown.

Then, 11 years later in the Siberian city of Krasnoufimsk, a strange man by the name of Feodor Kuzmich appeared. He was described as a man of noble bearing and considerable education, but for some reason this elegant stranger refused to give up any information about himself to local authorities. So they beat him up and sent him off to work in a distillery where he remained for five years. After a 15-year period of wandering, Kuzmich settled in the city of Krasnaya Re chia where the locals honored him as a starets, a holy and enlightened elder, and began to seek his counsel and blessings. They also wondered about him. How did Kuzmich come to learn so many languages? Where did his intimate knowledge of St. Petersburg and the royal court come from? Why did he seem to have so many important visitors including — some say — his brother and heir Czar Nicholas I?

No one knew, but many speculated. Today there is more than a little evidence, though granted it’s virtually all anecdotal, that Kuzmich was indeed Czar Alexander I. Of course only a DNA test of the Alexnder’s (or Kuzmich’s) remains would ever prove it definitively. Thanks for getting me going on a Monday morning, Alice!

Filed under:  Pastry | 6 Comments