Category Archives: Pastry Components

Making Swiss Meringue

Swiss meringue is a thick, marshmallow-like confection that can be baked in shapes, used as a base for buttercream, it even makes a handy dessert topping. It holds well, pipes beautifully and since it’s pre-heated before it’s even whipped, carries little (if any) risk of food borne illness. Did I mention it’s really, really easy to make too?

One of the basic rules of meringues is that the earlier you add the sugar the denser and more stable the meringue will be. With Swiss meringue the sugar is combined with the egg whites in the very first step, so you can draw your own conclusions. A basic recipe is:

4 egg whites
7 ounces (1 cup) sugar
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

Set a medium saucepan with 1 inch of water on the boil. Meanwhile, place your whites, sugar and cream of tartar in the bowl of your mixer.

Whisk all that together, then put the mixer bowl into/on the saucepan, making a sort of improvised double boiler (make sure it’s stable, K?).

Now all you’re going to do is whisk all that gently until it reaches 160 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s not especially hot and it won’t take long. I personally like to whisk gently with one hand while I hold a instant-read thermometer in the mixture with the other. But don’t do this if, you know, you think you might tip everything on top of yourself. Even the best meringue isn’t worth a scalded crotch, knowadimean?

What’s so special about 160 degrees Fahrenheit? It’s the temperature at which salmonella (and many other kinds of bacteria) are killed. Some of you who’ve been reading the blog for a while may remember that egg white proteins start to curdle at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and might be wondering what’s keeping them from cooking here. The answer is it’s the sugar, which is not only absorbing heat, it’s getting between the proteins and helping to keep them from clumping.

Once the magic number is reached, just put the bowl on the mixer, attach the whip and whip the whole thing up to stiff peaks. It’ll take a little longer than other meringues, and again that’s because of all the sugar. Bubbles are slow to form in this sweet mixture and when they do are very small, so be patient. It’ll take a good 5-8 minutes of whipping on high. Done!

Filed under:  Pastry, Swiss Meringue | 11 Comments

Making a Crumb Crust

For those who fear a traditional short-crust pie crust — or who just plain ‘ol love cookies — a crumb crust is a very easy, low-stress way to go. All you need are some crumbs, a little butter and a pinch of salt and you’re on your way. Here I’m doing a graham cracker crust. I put my crackers, the sugar and cinnamon in the bowl of a food processor…

…and run it for about 15 seconds until I have, well…crumbs. I don’t want to take this down to a powder, mind you. A few larger bits are OK.

Next I transfer the crumbs to a mixing bowl add my butter.

Give it a stir…

…then get in there with my hands and start rubbing.

You want the mixture to form a “log” easily when you squeeze it, one that should hold its shape for five seconds or so when you open your hand. If you don’t have that sort of cohesion, add another tablespoon of butter.

What? Do you know how much butter is in a standard pie crust? A lot. Anyway this step is critical to achieving a crust that will actually stand up on a plate.

Pour the mixture into a pie plate.

Apply a little plastic and start pressing — in the middle at first then outward toward the edges.

The up the sides. Gently press together any obvious cracks.

And there you go. Ready for baking. You can keep this for up to several days lightly covered with plastic wrap in the fridge.

Filed under:  Crumb Crust, Pastry | 4 Comments

Crumb Pie Crust Recipe(s)

Crumb crusts are great for citrus curd pies: key lime, lemon meringue, orange cream, that sort of thing. Graham cracker crusts are probably the most popular crumb crust, but you can also make terrific pie crusts out of vanilla wafers, gingersnaps and other kinds of simple cookies.

For a Graham Cracker Crust

5 ounces (1 1/4 cups) graham cracker crumbs
1 ounce (2 tablespoons) sugar
pinch cinnamon
2.5 ounces (5 tablespoons) butter, melted

For a Gingersnap of Vanilla Wafer Crust

6 ounces (1 1/2 cups) cookie crumbs
pinch salt
2 ounces (4 tablespoons) butter, melted

Procedure

Combine the dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Pour in the melted butter and rub it into the mixture. The crust mixture should hold together when you squeeze it in your hand. If not, add a little more melted butter.

Press the mixture into a 9″ pie pan. It helps to place a piece of plastic wrap over the mixture to keep it from sticking to your fingers. If you have a tin pie plate in addition to a regular pan, that’s useful for pressing the crust. Place it on top of the plastic wrap-topped mixture and press it down starting the center then outward toward the edges. Gently remove the tin and the plastic wrap.

Filed under:  Crumb Crust, Pastry | 11 Comments

Making Egg Wash

Since the simplest things can often cause great confusion it seems well worth doing a proper tutorial on the subject of egg wash. I should say straight out that while I am aware of all the possible additions to an egg wash, I’m not a big believer in the benefits of that alchemy. Unless you’re very much into the minute details of presentation — and I’m clearly not — a simple wash made of well-beaten whole egg plus a dash of salt will do you for most any job. Multi-ingredient washes made from egg, cream, water with a dash of sugar…homey don’t play dat. Here’s what I do: crack an egg.

Give it a swizzle.

Mix in a couple sprinklings of salt.

What will this do aside from seasoning it? Good question. It will cause the mixture of liquid yolk and semi-gelatinous white to relax into an even, water-like solution. How? Well you’ll recall what I’ve written before about egg white proteins. In their natural state they occur in little bunches scattered throughout the white. Well I suppose I shouldn’t say “scattered” exactly, since the fresher the egg white is the more those little bunches are attracted to each other. They end up clustered together and it’s this clustering that makes a very fresh egg white thick and even a little milky in color as all those clustered protein bunches bounce light rays back to our eyes.

Add salt and that situation changes. The protein bunches aren’t nearly so attracted and in fact start to repel each other a little. Something like this happens as an egg gets older and the pH of the white naturally starts to rise. The little protein bunches spread out, making the white both thinner and clearer. But I digress. After about ten minutes I return to my egg wash which has thinned considerably as the protein bunches pushed away from each other. It has also darkened considerably. Don’t ask me why, I don’t know. What am I, some sort of encyclopedia or something?

Perfecto. Smooth and even, ready for painting on without glops.

I should add that you don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that if a little bit of salt in the wash is good, a lot must be even better. Don’t go adding half a teaspoon or something crazy like that since too much salinity has the reverse effect on the proteins, causing them coagulate. You don’t want that since it means curds and blobs of egg all over your buns. Or Danishes…whatever you happen to be doing. All clear?

Filed under:  Egg Wash, Pastry | 12 Comments

Making White Cake Layers

White layers are gorgeous — and very “spring-like” — especially when accompanied by a light-colored frosting and filling (I’m thinking especially of a citrus curd of some kind). Making them is no more difficult that making any other one-bowl-type cake layer. Start by preheating your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and assembling your ingredients. Sift the cake flour into your mixer bowl:

Then add all the rest of the dry ingredients.

Stir them for about 30 seconds to blend, then add the very soft butter.

Stir that for 1-3 minutes on low until it’s totally incorporated. Those flour granules look greasy? Then we’re in business.

Now combine everything that’s wet in a medium bowl.

Give it a swizzle.

Then add half of it to the dry ingredients. Beat that all together on medium-high for a good 90 seconds.

See here? We’re incorporating air and developing gluten, which in this case is very necessary.

Scrape the whole mess, not forgetting the very bottom. Who knows? All your leavening might be down there. Crazier things have happened.

Add half of what remains and beat again for about 20 seconds.

Scrape!

Add the last of the liquid and beat another 20 seconds.

And guess what — scrape! Just one last time to make sure nothing’s left dry. If so, beat another 10 seconds or so. If not you’re good to go!

Why do I scrape by hand instead of using one of those rubber blade things? Because I don’t believe there’s any substitute for hand scraping. Yeah it’s a little messy, but it gets you well acquainted with batter colors and textures. Plus I just don’t trust those gizmos…made of cheap plastic and who knows how long until that nice flexible rubber turns brittle and starts to fall off? No thanks. I had a company rep after me for weeks to do an endorsement one time. I told him I planned to be buried with a rubber scraper in my hand. He quit with the emails.

Scrape the batter into your prepared pans. Yes, I weigh mine, it’s how I learned. You want just over 20 ounces per pan.

Even the batter a bit. Don’t go nuts.

Bake those for about 30 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean.

Let them cool 10-20 minutes in the pans, then turn them out and peel away the parchment.

Put another rack on top and gently flip everything over. Take away the top rack.

Why do this? Because the top crusts will be a little sticky and you don’t want them face-down on a rack. You can lose some large hunks of cake that way. Let them cool the rest of the way and use as you see fit!

Filed under:  Pastry, White Cake | 34 Comments

White Layer Cake Recipe

White cake lovers treasure the image of grandma gently folding a mound of whipped egg whites into a rich, buttery batter. Unfortunately it’s whipped whites that are the cause of what a lot of people don’t like in white cake: dryness. Or, if those egg white bubbles pop en masse, density. Plus dryness. Which is really no good for anybody. Nope, when it comes to white cake the “two-stage” or “one bowl” method is really the only way to go. You’ll need:

10 ounces (scant 2 1/4 cups) cake flour
10.5 ounces (1 1/2 cups) granulated sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
6 ounces (12 tablespoons) soft butter
5 egg whites
8 ounces (1 cup) milk, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (or for fun, 1 tsp. vanilla and 1 tsp. almond)

Begin by preheating your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and preparing two 9″ cake layer pans for baking. Sift the flour into the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle. Add in the remaining dry ingredients and stir on low for about 30 seconds to combine. Add the butter, and keep stirring until the butter is completely incorporated, about a minute. Meanwhile, combine the milk, egg whites and extract(s) in a bowl and whisk them together lightly with a fork. Add half the liquid mixture, turn the speed up to medium high and beat for about 90 seconds. Scrape the bowl, add half of what remains in the bowl, beat for about 20 seconds, scrape, add the last of the liquid, beat another 20 seconds or so.

Divide the batter among the two pans and bake on a middle rack for about 25 – 30 minutes, until the cake springs back when it’s tapped and toothpick comes out clean when it’s inserted into the center. Take the lays out of the oven, cool them on racks for about 10 minutes, then turn them out and allow them to cool completely. At that point they can be wrapped and stored at room temperature for about 2 days or frozen for about 2 months.

Filed under:  Pastry, White Cake | 14 Comments

Hot Water Pie Dough

The Brits make several kinds of pie crusts, all of them wetter than American-style pie crusts (though they sometimes make those too). This one is sometimes called a “hot water” crust — though “hot fat” is more accurate — and is specifically for meat pies. It contains:

7 ounces leaf lard, rendered
2 ounces water
2 ounces milk
17 ounces all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoons salt

Start by combining the lard, water and milk in a small saucepan and set it over a low flame until the fat melts and starts to simmer.

Meanwhile put the flour in a large bowl or the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle (I know, but I like machines). Whisk in the salt.

With the machine running on low, add the hot liquid lard mixture. What’s so important about a hot mixture here? On the one hand the liquid blends easily into the flour this way, so you get a very even mixture, and that’s good for strength. The water and heat also causes the flour to gelate a little, and that’s good for elasticity and crack-prevention. Just the characteristics you want for something like a free-standing pork pie.

Stir until the mixture looks like this:

Then turn it out onto a board and knead it a little into a ball. You’ll notice it’s rather lumpy and greasy, but don’t worry about it. Wrap the ball in plastic and refrigerate it for several hours or overnight. Let it come completely to room temperature before you start to work with it (1-2 hours).

Now, I know there are a lot of people who like to use a dough like this when it’s just made and warm. I won’t try to step on any traditions here. What I will say is that after a good long rest in the fridge the dough will be much smoother, less greasy and easier to roll. At least for a Yank like me who’s used to working chilled doughs!

Filed under:  Hot Water Pie Crust, Pastry | 2 Comments

You mean we’re not doing spun sugar?

I didn’t put spun sugar on the croquembouche and as a consequence there was a small outcry (it’s semi-traditional). But while I decided against it on Tuesday there’s no reason we can’t do it Friday just for fun.

There are a lot of methods for producing this, this is the one I think is the easiest. The first step is to destroy a whisk. Using some pliers or snips, cut the loops off of one like so.

You’ll have something like this.

Now all you need to do is bend the wires outward so you have something brush-like, like this:

I once used a bus tub and some thick dowel rods as a catcher. This Tupperware tub will stand in nicely. I only have the one handle from my old chimney cake project, but that will work!

You’ll of course need some caramel. This is nothing but a cup or so of sugar combined with about 1/3 cup of water…

…and cooked to a medium amber. You always have to be careful working with caramel no matter how long you’ve done it. Just a little will give you a nasty burn, so tread carefully and always make sure the kids are out of the kitchen!

So much for the public service announcement. Now, at that point I took the pan off the heat. As the caramel cooled it cooked a bit more to a dark amber, which is what I want. I just let the pan continue cooling, past the point where it would be much use for anything. It was still fairly hot but thick like mud.

At that point I inserted my wrecked whisk and gave it a swizzle…

And started spinning like Charlotte’s Web, y’all.

As the strands fell I moved the wrecked whisk back and forth over the dowel rod so it settled in a heap. When it stopped falling I grabbed the strands with my other hand and pulled them. Now, that may not be your thing as the caramel is still warmish-hot. Though if you venture to touch the strands six inches or so from the whisk wire tips, you’ll find that they’re almost completely cool. Still, don’t do anything you’re not comfortable with. I’m mentally imbalanced.

For longer strands, of the kind you would wrap around a croquembouche, use a long tub and two or three rods to catch and hold them.

While they’re fresh they can be wadded up into little nests.

And that’s spun sugar! (Note: spun sugar was the most impressive thing I made for my parents, aunt and uncle at a banquet that my twin sister and I threw when we were eleven. My mom still talks about it.)

Filed under:  Pastry, Spun Sugar | 24 Comments

Quick Sidetrack: Banana Cake

I had a sudden request to provide a birthday cake for a party for a banana-loving 2-year-old. How do you say no to that? This recipe is virtually identical to my mother’s banana bread, just re-engineered a bit to make it more “cake”-like. I took away one of the three bananas (since bananas are dense) and a third of the flour. I also changed to a layer cake mixing method since a tight, uniform crumb is one of the defining features of cake. The formula now goes like this:

2 overripe bananas (for a total of 1 – 1 1/2 cups mashed banana)
1 1/2 tablespoons buttermilk
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs at room temperature
7.25 ounces (1 2/3 cups) cake flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon soda
1 cup sugar
1 stick butter

Make sure your bananas are at least this ripe so they’re soft and sweet enough to incorporate easily. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

You’re going to need to purée them instead of just mashing them with a fork so you don’t end up with large, uneven chunks in the cake (a uniform crumb not only makes the cake more appealing to look at and to chew, it makes the layer stronger). Put the bananas and buttermilk in the bowl of a food process and process them until they’re smooth.

Add the eggs and vanilla and process again briefly until the mixture is even.

Now sift the cake flour into the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle.

Add the remaining dry ingredients and stir them together. Add the soft butter and beat on low until it’s fully incorporated into the flour mixture.

Add about a third of the banana mixture and beat the batter on medium-high for about a minute and a half to blend and activate gluten (yes, you want some of that in this instance since it’ll give this rich cake the strength it needs to stand up!).

Scrape the bowl down…don’t forget to scrape the bottom!

Now add the remaining banana mixture in thirds, beating about 15 seconds between each addition.

Scrape, scrape, scrape!

Pour the batter out into a prepared pan.

Smooth it out…

Bake the cake 30-40 minutes until the top springs back when tapped lightly. I was rushing around the kitchen yesterday tapped way too hard (I was fooled by the extra browning you get with banana…it looked done but it wasn’t). I was rewarded with a slight handprint in the top of my layer.

No problem. I shaved the very top crust away with a bread knife to even it out a tad. By the time I poured some warm ganache over it you couldn’t tell.

Sorry I can’t show you what a slice looks like, but it wasn’t my cake!

The reaction from the birthday boy: yummm……

Filed under:  Banana Cake, Pastry | 25 Comments

Easy Marzipan

The truth is that sometimes I just don’t have time to go for the gold and make my own marzipan from scratch (i.e. from almonds). However there’s still value in doing it yourself, even if your base ingredient is store-bought almond paste. It just tastes better. All you need to do is combine an 8-ounce can of almond paste with 7 ounces (1 3/4 cups) of powdered sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle.

Beat that on medium for about three minutes until it’s got a crumb-like consistency, then add two tablespoons corn syrup. An egg white is the traditional moistener, but people worry about uncooked egg whites these days. It’s my opinion that no microbe could survive all this sugar, but use caution if you are inclined that way.

Knead all that together on medium-low until it comes together as a paste.

Turn it out on a board lightly dusted with powdered sugar and knead it a bit by hand.

Roll it into a log, wrap it and you’re done!

It’ll keep for about a week unrefrigerated, after which it will start to dry out. You can also freeze it for months if you like!

Filed under:  Easy Marzipan, Pastry | 21 Comments