Category Archives: Pastry

Forgive the posting lapse, please…

I’m smack in the middle of birthday season here at stately Pastry manor. All the ladies here have birthdays in the same roughly 3-week span. It’s a lot of baking, shopping and decorating…the time of year when my masculinity goes out the window and I’m forced to channel my inner Martha. Thank you for you patience.

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Where do bialys come from?

Bialys are one of those foods that can be traced, if not to a specific inventor, to a particular place and time. They come from Bialystok, Poland, a city which up until World War II was one of Poland’s largest and which had a majority Jewish population. They didn’t call bialys “bialys” there, but rather Bialystoker kuchen. Jews from Bialystok were known as “kuchen eaters” (Bialystoker kuchen fressers in Yiddish) for indeed bialys were their staple bread. Bialys could be acquired on virtually every street in Bialystok, and we’re usually eaten hot, topped with butter or farmer’s cheese.

These original bialys were very large and typically served with lots of onions in the center. In my mind’s eye I picture them as almost pizza-like, with a puffy cornice around the rim. However you’d never cut or slice a bialy, just eat it like a big sweet roll. Only, you know, with onions. Bialys became truly popular in Bialystok around 1890, though it’s thought that the predecessor of the bialy was an Ashkenazi white flour flat bread called tzibele pletzl which originated in Europe in the early 1800′s, the time when advances in milling made high quality white flour commonly available.

The very sad thing about bialys is that by the end of World War II they had completely disappeared from Bialystok. But then so had virtually all of the Jews. Most were exterminated in death camps during the Holocaust. Not all, but while many surviving Jews returned to their home towns and cities around Europe once the war ended, they didn’t return to Bialystok, nor many other places in Poland. That’s because Poland remained a very, very dangerous place for Jews even after the fighting stopped and Europe was technically a peace. Returning Jews suffered pogroms, had their remaining property stolen and, all too frequently, were killed. For that reason some 200,000 Jews who survived the Holocaust fled Poland in the two years after the war, most to Germany where they could then emigrate either to Israel or the U.S., which welcomed them (as well as their “bialys” which they were then called).

Are there bialys in Bialystok today? From what I understand a bagel bakery there started making bialys again in the 1990′s. I have no idea if there’s been a real revival of the art, but I’d be interested to find out.

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I almost forgot…

…that another key difference between bialys and bagels is in the way you eat them. You don’t slice a bialy cross-wise like you do a bagel. Rather you just eat them whole, preferably fresh and warm and with a schmear of butter or cream cheese over the top. If they’re small you can gobble them down in a couple of bites. The smaller versions are only about 3 inches across. Most commonly they’re about six inches across, but I’m told that the original Polish bialys could be up to 9 inches across. And they weren’t just for breakfast in Poland a hundred years ago, oh my no. Back then you ate them with any meal of the day.

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What is a Bialy?

Bialys are small ring-like rolls, though instead of a hole in the middle there’s a flat crater that’s usually filled with chopped onions. They’re reminiscent of bagels but ultimately quite different. Sure they’re round, traditionally Jewish and made with high-gluten flour, but that’s where the similarity ends. Unlike bagels they aren’t boiled before they’re baked. Also unlike bagels the dough isn’t sweetened with malt syrup or sugar. So on the one hand they’re a rather basic bread: flour, yeast, salt, water. They aren’t even glazed, so they’re pale and floury on the outside and fluffy on the inside.

But that’s not to say they aren’t special. When they’re done well they’re crunchy on the outside and fluffy/chewy on the inside. If you get them fresh from the oven the thin centers are crispy and crunchy, and of course the whole thing has that trademark savory onion flavor. If the onions have been quick fried, they’re charred and sharp tasting. If they’ve been long-cooked and caramelized (my favorite) they’re sweet and creamy. Long-cooked garlic is another solid way to go with bialys, and poppyseed are acceptable as well. So there’s quite a bit of potential variation in this simple thing. I’m looking forward to getting back to them after a lot of years!

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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!

Filed under:  Pastry, Pecan Pie | 26 Comments

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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