Category Archives: Pastry

How much fat do you need in cream to whip it?

So asks reader Jey and it’s an excellent question. The answer is you need a minimum of 30% butterfat to make a stable whipped cream. In the States whipping cream (also called heavy cream) must be 36% butterfat. Some have more though I’m not sure if ingredient labels reveal that or not. I’ll have to check. Aussies and Brits have what’s known as double cream, which is at least 48% butterfat. It makes exceptionally thick and silky whipped cream. Some of it is well over 50% butterfat. Wish we had that here, though I’d probably be tempted to bathe in it. Thanks for the question, Jey!

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What do you know about the Black Forest, Joe?

Not very much, reader Brian. I drove through it once on the way to visit the city of Freiburg. I remember the Black Forest being quite black indeed because of all the pine and fir trees, but that’s about it for the forest itself. One thing I remember about Freiburg, however, was all the cuckoo clocks. The Black Forest area is known for cuckoo clocks, which have been produced there, in one form or another, for some 300 years. There was a shop in Freiburg that seemed to have nothing in it but cuckoo clocks. The sheer absurdity of it made you want to buy one.


Until then I’d always assumed that cuckoo clocks came from Switzerland. I’m told that while the Swiss do make cuckoo clocks they’re in the more tasteful “chalet” style than the classic carved-wooden-deerheads-with-pinecone-wieghts cuckoo clocks. Taste, I guess, is in the eye of the beholder.

Before my experience at that shop I confess I’d never wondered: why put a cuckoo in a clock? The answer is that the cuck-coo, cuck-coo sound of the common Eurasian cuckoo is, at least in that part of the world, a harbinger of spring. A happy sound, in other words. Or at least it starts out that way, until you hang the clock in your living room and it positively drives you mad. Which may well be why that cuck-coo sound also signifies crazy in Western culture. Anyway, that’s the sum total of my knowledge, Brian. Thanks for the question.

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How does whipped cream work?

Reader Sandra wants to know why cream needs to be cold before you whip it. Excellent question and one I’m only too pleased to answer. Heavy cream is pretty amazing stuff: a liquid that can be turned (sort of) into a solid by agitating it. The geek in me, which is really most of me, says: neato.

Imagine liquid cream as a mixture of mostly water (about 60%) and little balloon-like fat blobs (38%) with a few stringy protein molecules, short-chain sugar molecules and minerals mixed in. Beat that and you introduce air bubbles into the mix, but you also do something still more interesting: you open a hole in some of those fat blobs, which are actually small quantities of flowing fat molecules enclosed in little protein-and-phospholipid (emulsifier) bags. The result? Some of those lipids inside get exposed to the watery medium outside.

And they don’t like that. For lipids have sections along their length that hate water (i.e. are hydrophobic). However they don’t mind air all that much, so the exposed lipid sides of the fat globules start collecting around the bubbles, where their water-hating parts can be exposed to air instead. As more fat blobs congregate around the bubbles, they encase the bubble in fat, preventing it from either popping or combining with a neighboring bubble. If the cream happens to be cool, so much the better as the fats insude the globules start forming crystals which give the bubble coating more rigidity. Does that make sense?

The volume of the cream increases as the agitation continues, however if it goes on for too long the bubble coatings get too thick, start congealing with one another, and well…butter is the result. Thanks for the question!

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Committing Chocolate Shaving Seppuku

I started cooking in an actually-fairly-decent restaurant when I was sixteen and a few months later, which I was 17, started soloing as a cook. For the rest of high school, through my college summers and for a couple of years after college I worked in a variety of kitchens, from cafeterias to steak houses. In my 30′s I went back to the kitchen and spent about five years baking and making pastries professionally.

In that time — about ten years total — I saw a lot of accidents. Lots of burns, plenty of cuts, knocks on the head, slips and falls, even a couple of broken bones. By far the worst injuries I ever saw resulted from attempts at making chocolate shavings. Why? Because even experienced pastry chefs and bakers I knew made their chocolate shavings like this:

In other words by scraping a big knife along a solid bar of chocolate…toward their bellies, one hand grasping the handle of the knife, the other bare hand holding the point. This photo isn’t terribly accurate since my other hand is holding a camera at the moment. Also in a professional kitchen the chocolate bars are a lot bigger (the knives are too). Anyway, I never saw anyone actually disembowl themselves making chocolate shavings, but because of the ridiculous grip and all the pressure involved, I saw several very deep and serious finger and hand cuts.

The great pity is that it was all so completely avoidable. For example, a great way to make small, curly shavings is with a vegetable peeler:

As you go the curls get wider and you get a darn nice product. Very good for garnishes or cupcake or doughnut toppings. If the bar you’re using isn’t shaving well, try warming it with a five-second blast in the microwave.

Of course larger curls are what the knife scraping is all about. For those I melt my chocolate with a series of 10 second bursts in a microwave…

…and pour some on the back of a sheet pan that I’ve chilled in the freezer for about five minutes.

I spread it thinly…

…and wait about five minutes for it to cool and acquire a dull finish. At which point I grab the nearest scraper…

…and scrape it up into shavings.

Easy peasy, and not a drop of blood spilled. Now then, the one drawback of this method is that the chocolate loses its temper, but which I do not mean it turns red in the face and starts hurling baseless accusations. Rather that its uniform crystal structure changes. When that happens the chocolate is not only less shiny when it cools after melting, but it’s a bit softer in the bargain.

You can mitigate this problem by using a good quality couverture or dark chocolate that’s high in cocoa butter. Even after melting and cooling it will remain fairly firm at room temperature (you won’t know the difference texturally if it’s refrigerated). The alternative is to use tempered chocolate, which I admit is a bit of a hassle, but a whole lot better than stitches, trust me.

Nice, right?

Filed under:  Making Chocolate Shavings, Pastry | 15 Comments

Why heat the eggs for a génoise batter?

Reader Carly wants to know why génoise batter calls for gently warmed eggs. Is it a food safety thing? Actually no, Carly, the reason we warm the eggs before whipping is to ensure that they whip up as high as they reasonably can. Cold egg albumen (white) is thicker than warm egg albumen. As such it’s more resistant to the effects of a whip. Bubbles are a factor of the amount of shear force that can be applied to the white and/or yolk. With a thinner liquid you simply get more of them. Consider which a whisk will cut through with greater speed and force: a bowl of water or a bowl of maple syrup. Thin albumen is why bakers prefer warmer, older eggs over colder, fresher eggs since they’re easier to put the hurt on. Make sense?

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Chocolate Génoise Recipe

OK, I decided.

Chocolate génoise is the foundation upon which a great Black Forest cake is built, and is good for a number of other things besides. Like a classic génoise it’s rather dry, but then it’s whole reason for being is to be soaked liberally with syrup.

2 ounces (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter
3.5 ounces (3/4 cup) cake flour
0.75 ounces (1/4 cup) Dutch-process cocoa
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 eggs, room temperature
5.25 ounces (3/4 cup) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat your oven to 375°. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and allow it to cool. Meanwhile, line a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper. Next, sift together the flour, cocoa powder and salt into a large bowl.

Whisk the eggs, sugar and vanilla together in the bowl of a stand mixer (you’re not actually using the mixer here ) then set the bowl over a pan of gently simmering water. Heat the mixture until it’s just warm, about 115 degrees Fahrenheit. When he egg mixture is warm, place it in the mixer, attach the whip, and whip it on medium-high until it is tripled in volume, about 6-8 minutes.

Turn off the mixer, pour off about 1 cup of the mixture into the melted butter and stir it together. This lightens the butter so it will incorporate a bit more easily in the last step. Pour the mixture back into the mixer bowl, sprinkle on the sifted flour mixture, and using your largest spatula, fold the whole mixture together.

Gently scrape the mixture into the prepared pan and back 35-40 minutes until the cake is just firm. Transfer it to a rack and let it cool for about 5 minutes, then turn it out onto a rack to cool, upside down.

Filed under:  Classic Chocolate Génoise, Pastry | 8 Comments

Biscuit or Génoise, Génoise or Biscuit?

These are the sorts of questions that keep me up at night. Both are sponge cakes that are perfectly suitable for a Black Forest cake, the only real difference between the two is that biscuit (say it the French way with me: bis-KWEE) has no fat in it. That makes it rise a bit higher, but it also means it’s drier and you need more syrup to moisten it. Being averse to cake syrup as a general rule that makes me a bit uneasy. Still, lot of very capable Black Forest cake makers use it, however. Decisions, decisions…

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Compote, Coulis, Sauce, Jam

Reader Melody wants to know what a compote is and that’s a darn good question. “Compote” is a term you find used in many of your finer food and cooking magazines, usually without any explanation. Basically a compote is a sort of chunky fruit sauce. The fruits that are in it — for indeed you can have more than one in a compote — have been cooked for at least a short period of time in a light sugar syrup. A fruit cocktail, if it’s been cooked, is a compote.

How does that make it difference from a sauce? Er…well it’s not that different from a sauce when you stop to think about it, other than the fact that it’s usually quite chunky and you can eat it by itself.

What’s the difference between a compote and a jam? Primarily that it isn’t as sugary or as thick. Speaking in general terms, the intention of a compote is to lightly sweeten and gently soften your fruit without making the mixture homogenous. The fruits should be distinct as fruit when you’re done.

How about a coulis then? That’s another term you hear bandied about quite a bit. Any similarities there? Indeed a compote is not dissimilar from a coulis save for the fact the a coulis is usually cooked a little longer until the fruits is very soft, at which point the whole mess is pushed through a strainer for a more homogenous texture.

But doesn’t that just make it a sauce?

OK, wise guy, no more questions.

Filed under:  Pastry | 8 Comments

So…how to build this beast?

Look around the world and you’ll find innumerable versions of the Black Forest cake. However in Germany there’s a legal definition (a PDO or something along those lines) for the confection, which goes by the name schwarzwälder kirschtorte in their language. No surprise there, everything from pork pies to pizzas to strawberries carry those sorts of designations these days. And very handy things they are too as they provide rough blueprints for my pirated American recipes.

According to European Union authorities Black Forest cake (“with kirsch”…of course) consists of 2-3 layers of chocolate sponge cake. It “contains whipped cream, buttercream or a combination of both”. I find that very provocative. It is also “coated in buttercream or whipped cream” and is “decorated with chocolate shavings”.

Very interesting. So it appears that technically I have a choice here. Personally I’m most accustomed to Black Forest cakes that are both filled and frosted with whipped cream. I’ll definitely want to frost with whipped cream since I can’t conceive of a Black Forest cake that isn’t bright white on the outside. However as far as the filling goes maybe I’ll go with pastry cream…or some lightened version thereof. Hm. Should I do a Pierre Hermé and use two different fillings (diplomat cream and whipped ganache)? That might be fun. What do you think, my eminent readers? How to fill this sucker?

Filed under:  Pastry | 21 Comments

Where does Black Forest cake come from?

It’s not the Black Forest if that’s what you were thinking you goof. Whatever gave you that dumb idea? The birthplace of Black Forest cake was a small university town called Tübingen, which truth be told is only a stone’s throw from the real Black Forest in the extreme southwestern corner of Germany, right along the border with France and Austria. No doubt the forest did influence the thinking of the pastry chef who invented it, a fellow by the name of Erwin Hildebrand. He was the one who first conceived the magnificent combination of chocolate spongecake, sour cherries, whipped cream and kirsch — in 1930.

It was actually nothing terribly new. Residents of the Black Forest area had been eating sour cherries with whipped cream and a splash of their local grog (cherry brandy or kirsch) for decades. Cakes made with cherries were also common, especially in nearby Switzerland where they made their own Black Forest Cake with cherries, nuts, spongecake and whipped cream. Hildebrand, it seems, simply combined the available elements in a somewhat novel way, with heavy emphasis on chocolate spongecake, kirsch, and chocolate shavings.

Why all the chocolate? Some say it was the deep, dark brown-black trunks of Black Forest fir trees inspired him. Others that his black, white and red color scheme imitates the traditional dress of the area: black skirts, white shirts and hats with red pompoms on the tops. I’m wearing that to my next dinner party.

Truly I have no idea whether any of this is true. My guess is a little of all of it all went into Hildebrand’s creative hopper. What is clear, however, is that his cake was it hit. Within two or three years it was being served in cities and towns all over Germany, Switzerland and Austria. The first printed recipe appeared in a professional cookbook in 1934. It would probably have spread around the world in another few years had the Second World War not broken out in 1939. Even with that (monumental) interruption it was being enjoyed everywhere from London to New York to Hong Kong by the late 50′s. Which really shows the power of a good cake, no?

Filed under:  Pastry | 2 Comments