Category Archives: Pastry

Say it ain’t so, Joseph

Are most French restaurant meals purchased frozen and reheated in microwaves? That’s the incendiary charge leveled by Parisian restauranteur Xavier Denamur in last week’s European Times. If true, it would indicate that even French chefs aren’t immune to the pressures of time and cost. Dare I say that just because the meals are frozen it doesn’t mean they’re bad. The great Gaston Lenôtre pioneered the use of freezers in French cuisine. Of course it’s one thing to microwave food, it’s another to be less than forthcoming about it. Still I bet the typical frozen boeuf bourguignon beats the heck out of a Riblet dinner at Applebees!

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Watching Those Wishes

I’ve been working for some time to get more local projects so I don’t have to travel up to Chicago, Madison and Milwaukee as much as I’ve been doing the last few years. More time for parenting and blogging, donchaknow. As things turned out, I did succeed in getting work outside of the Upper Midwest: in Los Angeles, Orlando and Puerto Rico. Not what I was expecting, though far be it from me to turn work down, I don’t care where it comes from. Getting these new accounts up and running has been a whole lot of work, hence the semi-extended silence. More from me soon thou I promise. The weather is improving also, which will no doubt inspire me to start snapping some pictures. April showers have been here with a vengeance!

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And anyway, if you’re going to eat a sandwich…

…it might as well be on a tender bread. I remember back in the 80′s when fashionable cafés first tried to dress up sandwiches by putting them on baguettes. It wasn’t a bad idea in principle, baguettes are good bread. The problem was that in order to tear off a bite you had to clamp down hard with your teeth on one end of the sandwich and yank with both hands from the other. Depending on how thick the crust was, when the bite finally released you’d send your plate, cutlery and water glass flying.

The solution was a larger artisan loaf cut crosswise. That minimized, though did not entirely eliminate, the crust problem. However it introduced another one: big holes through which mayo and mustard would drip, right onto your $85 tie. Thankfully tortilla and lavash wraps came along in the 90′s, saving corporate lunch eaters hundreds of dollars per year in dry cleaning bills.

Truly there is great utility to soft sandwich bread. It may not have crust, it may not have a fashionable open crumb, but when it comes to delivering a no-muss lunch, there’s simply no beating it.

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On Bread Aesthetics

Several comments from readers expressing amazement that the tangzhong method isn’t more widely known. If this method really does all these amazing things, why don’t more bakers in America employ it?

All I can say is that it’s a matter of aesthetics. Crusty, chewy breads with elastic, uneven crumbs have been all the rage for almost twenty years now. At least in America, where a romance for Old World peasant breads runs very deep.

That’s not true in Japan and China. Bread eaters in that part of the world place a premium on tenderness, uniformity of crumb and thin, easy-to-eat crusts. I’d speculate that the bread aesthetic is connected to a broader east Asian sensibility that emphasizes balance, harmony, simplicity and order.

Then again it could just be a simple matter of taste. For it wasn’t so long ago that Westerners also prized fine, white, soft, easy-to-eat breads. Pan de mie, also known as Pullman bread, is a good example of the breads we Westerners used to love. It uses mostly white flours, it has a tight and even crumb, it’s even made in a 6-sided pan specifically designed to create a near crustless end product. Once it was considered the height of luxury.

Up until the 1960′s white breads like that were associated with good living, especially among poor European immigrants who had zero romance for the tough, chewy, coarse, whole-grained breads of home. They considered fluffy white bread to be more nutritious, better tasting, easier to digest and just generally more pleasant to eat. It was the food of the rich, a delicacy the upper classes of Europe had traditionally denied them.

That logic flipped in the 60′s when a handful of American bread eaters decided they were the ones being denied nutrition, flavor and digestive health — by the makers of fluffy white breads. That sentiment grew all through the 70′s, 80′s and 90′s to the point that now there’s scarcely a fine dining restaurant in America that doesn’t serve chewy, coarse-grained thick-crusted peasant breads as an accompaniment to expensive 4-course meals.

I’m not complaining mind you, I like those. It’s just an interesting reversal. One that the Chinese and Japanese, as far as I’m aware, have yet to make.

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On Chocolate Macarons

Reader and macaron lover Susan writes:

Hi, Joe. I am obsessed with making macarons. I have tried hundreds of recipes and yours is the only recipe that consistently produces perfect macarons. I’m attempting to make chocolate macarons. When I add in cocoa powder, do I then reduce the amount of powdered sugar that your macaron recipe calls for so the ratio of almond flour and powdered sugar remain 3.8:7.0?

I’m very pleased that the recipe is working so well for you, Susan. That’s an excellent question about the cocoa powder…a little too good, actually. The main problem you’re going to have with cocoa powder is the fact that it’s so absorbent. It’s going to soak up a good deal of water from the egg whites. Currently the recipe calls for about three whites. I’d bump that up to four whites, then add about another .75 ounce of granulated sugar to give the egg foam a little extra staying power. That should counterbalance an ounce of cocoa powder.

Anyway that’s where I’d start with a chocolate re-tool of the recipe. Let me know how they go. If they aren’t working get back to me and we can keep tweaking the recipe.

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Lightning Strike to Chicago

I blew town Friday for a quickie trip back home, hence the radio silence. The good news is that I scored a ten-pound box of Vienna Beef hot dogs which should see the Pastry family through the grilling season. The bad news: Mrs. Pastry bought a new tarantula. If you met Mrs. Pastry you’d never peg her for an arachnophile. However she’s owned a spider consistently since her days in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic, where she learned to love the things. I can’t say I understand how that happens to a person. Maybe it’s all the time in the Caribbean sun. Her last spider, Spanky, died over the winter. She’s been quietly mourning him ever since. But now it’s spring and there’s a new spider, Bubbles, her life. She seems a new woman. All I can say is: whatever baby wants, baby gets, even if it has eight legs and fangs.

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So what is the tangzhong method?

Anyone who’s ever made a pudding cake has, for all intents and purposes, employed the tangzhong method. It’s the same basic idea: you add a pre-prepared starch gel to your batter/dough and what you get in return is a finished product that’s higher and lighter than it would otherwise be, that retains more moisture and that has a very tight and even crumb. The big difference of course that in a tangzhong (essentially “soup starter” in Chinese) there’s no sugar or flavorings in the mix — just flour and water combined at a ratio of 1-5 and cooked to roughly 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

But then what does the tangzhong gel do in the bread dough? It’s a very good question since baked bread is already a starch gel to some extent. But let’s back up a bit. Flour (white flour) as you’ll recall is nothing more than the finely ground endosperm of the wheat berry. Think of the endosperm as a dense pack of very long and stringy starch molecules all packed in together. Grind it and you get endosperm granules, which I think of as tightly bound bundles of sticks.

What happens when you get those bundles wet and hot? They start to come apart. Water molecules start working their way between the starches in the bundle. The bundle swells. As the process continues individual starch molecules start to break away from the bundles. If there’s a whole lot of water around the starches will actually float off and get tangled up with other stringy breakaway starches. The end result is a mesh of much smaller starch bundles and tangled starch molecules which traps and holds the water molecules around them. In other words, a gel.

Notice that the extent to which the process goes on is directly related to how much water there is in the mixture. If there’s some water but not a whole lot you won’t have a proper gel but something that’s often called “gelated” starch: a mass of starch granules that are dissolved only slightly, just enough so that a few starch molecules come loose and more or less tie all the granules together.

That works pretty well for the purposes of bread making. However this sort of structure is highly prone to what you might call a gelling reversal, which starts to happen as soon as the bread cools. The large granules start to contract and when they do they squeeze out the water molecules that had initially worked their way into them. The water then evaporates, the matrix hardens and you’re left with stale bread.

But what if you were to take steps to undermine the staling process by oh say, adding a very wet pre-made gel to the dough in the mixing step? You’d be introducing a whole bunch of small starch bundles and free starch molecules with lots and lots of water molecules trapped in between them — molecules that won’t be easily forced out of the matrix because they’re only loosely held by free starches, not crammed inside big granules that will eventually squeeze them out.

So you see that adding a tangzhong to a bread dough is very different than simply adding more water to a bread dough. When you add a tangzhong to a dough you’re not simply adding moisture, you’re adding a moisture-retaining structure that does double duty as a mechanical leavener, since the thick gel surrounds air bubbles in the rising dough, giving them more resilient walls and preventing them from popping. So you get a higher loaf in the bargain. And because the all the water in the gel undermines gluten development the individual bubbles never get very big, which means a very fine crumb. Also, the loaf is very tender and again because of all the moisture there is almost no crust.

A very, very neat trick, all from a little hot water and flour. Cool.

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Who Knew?

Today in Murcia it’s Murcian Meat Pie Day. Who knew there was such a thing? I guess the Murcians, who evidently found my recent posts on the subject via Google search. (And the internet grand?). So I’m told they consumed 10,000 meat pies and washed them down with plenty of beer, which is my idea of a festival. Wish I’d been there to see it. Oh well — next year in Murcia!

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Next Up: Asian “Tangzhong” Breads

“Tangzhong method” a.k.a. “water roux” a.k.a. “soup method” breads have been around for about 15 years now. There’s a debate on about where they originated, either China or Japan. I’m not sure that matters much. The upshot is that breads made via this method are extremely soft and fluffy with a very tight and consistent crumb. All that flies in the face of bread trends here in the US where everyone seems to be trying to get back to hard crusts and inconsistent, open crumbs. Still there’s enough reader interest in this technique for me to want to give it a go. I plan to do milk bread and probably melon pan (again) with this method, maybe something else. Let’s do this thang.

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Making Italian Easter Bread

Talk about great decorative breads for Easter brunch, these are it. Italian Easter breads are sweet and fluffy with some very welcome surprises baked in. Little Joan Pastry would eat hard boiled eggs all day long if I let her. I don’t know what she’s looking forward to more on Easter morning, chocolate eggs and jelly beans or these breads full of eggs. Breads virtually identical to this are also made in Greece and some parts of Spain.

Here’s the bigger one which will make a great centerpiece.

Italian Easter bread isn’t as hard as it may look. It rises fast and shapes easily, and it takes only about 5 hours from start to finish. If you’re an early riser you can get it done on Easter morning. There’s a long two-hour rising window that will allow you to get to church and back no problem. However I should mention that they hold up well overnight if you want to make them the day before. Start by assembling your ingredients. First comes the mixing. Begin by combining the milk and butter and microwaving them on high heat for bursts of 10-15 seconds.

Until they look like this. Set the mixture aside to cool.

Now put the flour, salt, yeast, cinnamon and orange zest in a bowl…

…and whisk them together.

When the butter and milk mixture is cool, pour it into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle (beater). Add the sugar and lightly beaten eggs and stir them together on low.

Add the flour mixture all at once and stir until all the flour is moist.

Switch to the dough hook.

Knead the dough for about five minutes. If at that point it looks like this it’s too wet.

Add about another half cup of flour and knead about another two minutes until it looks like this:

Shape the dough into a ball, place it in a lightly oiled bowl and let it rise until it’s about doubled, 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

Meantime grease a 9-inch springform pan. I put parchment on the bottom of this one because I take no chances with sticking. You probably don’t need it.

When the dough has risen (no Eastern puns intended), cut it into three pieces. I eyeball this but what I have here are two pieces that are about two-fifths of the dough and one that’s about a fifth. If that’s annoying I apologize. I had no idea what sort of shaping I’d do when I started. I ended up making one large one in a 9-inch pan and one small one free-form. You could make a single large 11-inch bread with this quantity or probably five individual-egg versions if you wanted.

For the big one I rolled the larger pieces into snakes about 26 inches long. They’ll be about an inch thick.

Yep, about an inch.

To shape it, pinch the ends together at one end.

Put a hard boiled and dyed Easter egg there. I understand you don’t strictly need to hard boil the eggs first since they’ll cook in the oven, but a.) I was boiling eggs anyway for Easter and b.) I still didn’t want to take a risk that the egg would burst in the high heat.

Anyway, bring the dough pieces around, one over the other.

Put down another egg then bring the dough around, following the same over/under pattern you started with the first egg.

And the next one.

And the next one and so on until you’ve used five of them. You should be out of dough by then, so pinch the ends together.

Bring your egg and dough rope into a circle.

Slip the bottom of the springform pan under your creation…

…and lastly put on the ring. Done! Paint it with egg wash without getting any on the eggs. It’ll turn dark brown in the oven.

For the individual version I split the remaining dough into two pieces and twisted them together to make a sort-of braid, then wrapped that around another egg.

Let the bread rise until it looks about like so. 1-2 hours depending on how cool it is in your kitchen. Meanwhile preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Paint the bread again thoroughly with egg wash, being careful not to get any on the eggs.

Bake the bread about 25 minutes until it’s a deep brown on top. Let it stand about 10 minutes…

…the remove the springform ring and let it cool down the rest of the way. I got nuts with the little one and added some Easter jimmies to the top. Kinda fun!

May the Bunny be good to everyone!

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