Category Archives: Pastry

How does bread go stale?

Thanks for that excellent question, reader Cindy! In fact the word “stale” is akin to “aged”, but in a good way. “Ripened” is more like what it means. We moderns, addicted as we are to perfectly fresh bread, would scarcely think of applying a world like that to a past-its-prime loaf. But the ancients (and not-so-ancients) did, mostly because they had no alternative.

But what is staling exactly? Most people think of it as the “drying out” of bread, but that’s not the half of it. If it were, fresh bread kept in a tight sheath of plastic wrap would never go stale. I think we’ve all experimented with double and triple layers of Reynold’s Wrap long enough to know what a fool’s paradise that is. So what is it with bread that it starts to harden the moment it’s removed from the oven? It all has to do with the behavior of starch molecules.

Starch is made up of two base components, both of them long-chain sugars, also known as carbohydrates: amylose and amylopectin. Both are made up of many many units of glucose, and that makes them similar. Yet those units of glucose are configured differently, and that causes them to behave differently. Amylose is built like a narrow bundle of reeds, with all of its glucose units (up to 1,000 or so) arranged in straight, parallel chains. Amylopectin, in the other hand, looks more like a shrub, with its glucose units (up to 20,000 of them) going off every which way.

Hundreds or thousands of both make up a typical starch “granule” (or single grain of flour) with the long straight amylose in nice orderly layers (starch crystals) and the amylopectin in big bushy heaps. Add water and heat to that scenario (dough making and baking) and things start to change. The bonds that keep the carbohydrate molecules bunched together weaken, and water molecules start getting in between them. The starch granule swells and even sheds some of its starches (gelates), which is how the “structure” of bread is created.

The process continues until the finished bread is taken out of the oven, at which point the process starts to reverse itself. The carbohydrate molecules start to reorder themselves. It doesn’t happen quickly, but it does happen inexorably. The carbs, especially the amyloses, become re-attracted to one another and begin stacking themselves back up again in neat piles, making hard crystals once again. The water molecules are forced out from between them, and shortly evaporate.

So you see, bread goes stale not just because it’s dryer, but because its structure is also harder. If you own a microwave you’ve no doubt noticed that you can re-gelatinize starch to some extent with a little fast heat. But with much of the water already gone, the effect is fleeting, barely enough time to butter that scone and stuff it into your mouth!

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On a completely unrelated note…

…have a look at this very unusual mushroom that little Joan just pointed out to me in the yard. I thought it was a piece of an old toy someone had left out in the yard, but it’s actually a fungus. I guess it’s something called an “Earth Star”, not edible but certainly lovely, pale pink with a white center. Ain’t nature wonderful.

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Pears in a Cage (Tarte aux Poires en Cage)

I’m not normally this seasonal, but I’ve been wanting to try these little individual tarts for a while and the pears at the local Kroger look darn good. You’ll need a lattice cutter for this, the good news is that they’re cheap!

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You’re actually going to EAT that?

My favorite tomato story concerns one Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, a wealthy one-time resident of Salem County, New Jersey. It’s said that after a long journey abroad Johnson became convinced that the tomato would make an excellent cash crop in America, and he was determined to introduce it as such. Unfortunately the locals remained convinced that the tomato was poison. So, on the 26th day of September, 1820, Johnson posted a notice declaring that he would consume an entire basket of tomatoes in front of anyone who’d care to watch. Some 2,000 people turned out to witness the spectacle. On that bright sunny autumn morning Johnson strode out onto the courthouse steps, raised a tomato to his mouth and took a big juicy bite. Men gasped in horror. Women screamed and fainted. Doctors rushed to the scene…yet Johnson did nothing but smile and — occasionally — belch. It was the dawn of a bright new day.

It’s a terrific story even if no one has ever been able to corroborate it. There was, however, a real life figure from American history who was known for similar feats of daring: George Washington Carver. Carver is of course the botanist and educator best known for inventing hundreds of uses for the peanut. Yet his enthusiasms extended well beyond the simple goober.

Born into slavery in Missouri in the early 1860′s, Carver spent his life trying to help Southern farmers eek out a living on lands that had been depleted by cotton. His primary focus was training farmers to rotate their crops with plants that returned nutrients to the soil. Yet Carver was a strong advocate of agricultural diversity in general. The tomato was what you might call an “object of interest” for him. So much so that 1918 he wrote and published a paper entitled How to Grow the Tomato and 115 Ways to Prepare it for the Table. Clearly he was well accustomed to eating the things. His dirt poor and uneducated farmer audiences, on the other hand, weren’t. Which is why when, when he showed up on their land and gobbled a tomatoes down, they just about fell over.

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A Little Tomato History

Happy to oblige, reader Leeza. Xtomatl is the original Aztec word for the tomato. The “x” is pronounced as sort of a guttoral “h”, or so I understand, making the word sound something like heetomatl. Of course I’m no speaker of Nahuatl. Neither were the Spaniards as it happened. They simply called the things “tomat-es”.

By now you’ve no doubt deduced that the tomato is a New World fruit. Like corn, it was identified as a potentially viable cash crop by the Spaniards. But unlike corn, it took considerable time for the Old World to fully adopt it. For tomatoes (along with eggplant and potatoes) are members of the nightshade family, a group of plants that were known to contain a host of toxic (sometimes deadly) alkaloids. The same was true of the eggplant and the potato, which were likewise greeted with, shall we say, reserve, when they arrived in the early 1500′s.

It took almost 100 years for the Spaniards to start eating them rather than merely decorating their gardens with them. Of course they weren’t alone in their suspicions. The French thought the tomato was a poison at first, but eventually decided it was an aphrodisiac, hence the French name pomme d’amour (love apple). The Germans took a somewhat dimmer view. In Germanic culture nightshades were thought to be linked with lycanthropy (werewolf-ism) and so they called the tomato the “wolf peach”.

For all of that, by 1700 or so, most Europeans were eating at least some tomatoes, though it still took another hundred years before they were actually enjoying them. Here in America, Thomas Jefferson was growing and eating tomatoes in 1800, but then he was what you might call “a dandy”. Almost no one dared touch the things until after the Civil War, at which time America’s appreciation for the tomato exploded.

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On the Kentucky Pie Crust Scandal

Reader Linda writes:

What can you tell us about the Great Pie Scandal at the KY state fair? It was one of the news headlines this weekend on the broadcast of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me but I heard nothing else about it. Something about a store bought crust winning a blue ribbon??

You stole my thunder, Linda! I was waiting for the State Fair verdict before I wrote a post about it. In a nutshell, it turned out that a store bought (Pillsbury) crust was used for this year’s blue ribbon-winning pie. It was a buttermilk pie, and evidently it didn’t occur to the maker of said pie, one Mrs. Linda Horton, that she was breaking any rules by using store bought pastry.

However the rules clearly state that all entered crusts must be made from scratch. There’s currently an “investigation” underway, whatever that means, since the 67-year-old Mrs. Horton has already fessed up to the infraction. In fact she’s the one who outed herself in the first place, so it seems the situation is rather cut and dried, as it were. My guess is she’ll lose her blue ribbon.

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The Tomato as a Sweet

Well sure, why not? It’s a fruit after all, just a big plump berry. Oh yes I understand that it tastes more like what people think of as a vegetable, but there are lots of berries like that: cucumbers, peas, squash, even beans.

The real question is why doesn’t a tomato taste like the berry that it is? Mostly because the tomato is so low in sugar compared to other berries. Your typical farm stand tomato has about as much sugar as a Brussels sprout. On the other hand it’s high in acid, like many fruits. The problem is that a higher than normal proportion of that acid is glutamic acid. And if that word is evocative of the word glutamate to you, it’s because glutamic acid and glutamates are pretty much the same thing (glutamates are salts of glutamic acid).

But what exactly are glutamates? The answer: savory-tasting chemical compounds that stimulate the umami (meaty) taste receptors on the tongue. They are found of course in meat, but also in fermented foods like bread, cheese and pickles. They’re the main reason tomatoes marry so well with steaks. They’re also the main reason tomatoes aren’t a perfect fit in a sweet context. The vaguely meaty impression is something of a curve ball, and it keeps some people from enjoying tomatoes in jam or pie form. I’m not among that crowd. I’ll take my tomatoes sweet or savory…pretty much any way I can get ‘em.

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Making Green Tomato Pie

Green tomato pie isn’t something you see very often in pie cases, but it’s a farm kitchen staple in many parts of the US. It’s a handy thing to have in your repertoire when either a.) your patch gets too prolific, or b.) cool weather and/or an early frost puts the hammer down on tomato ripening. All you need is 4-5 medium green tomatoes, or about 1 3/4 pounds, sliced about 1/4 inch thick.

Prepare your crust and get ready to roll and shape according to these directions here. Once your tomatoes are sliced, prepare the rest of the filling. Combine 1 cup (7 ounces of sugar) with 3 tablespoons (about an ounce) of instant tapioca plus 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon and a few gratings of nutmeg. Have 1-2 tablespoons of either fresh lemon juice or cider vinegar at the ready. Why are we using tapioca as a thickener instead of corn starch? Because corn starch doesn’t do well in high acid environments.

So then, sprinkle some of the sugar mixture on the bottom crust…

…and add a layer of tomato slices. A lot of people like to add a few golden raisins here and there for color and texture contrast, I’m one of them. Keep alternating tomatoes and the sugar mixture. When the shell is half full, sprinkle on a little lemon juice or vinegar. Sprinkle on a little more when the shell is heaping full.

Add your top crust, cut your steam vents and crimp. Let the pie sit for at least 30 minutes while you preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Apply a pie shield to protect the crust, place the pie on a sheet pan and the sheet pan in the oven. Bake for 1 hour until the pie is lightly golden and the filling is bubbling in the steam vents.

Cool at least two hours — 4 is better — before serving. I took this to a party so I couldn’t slice it for you. Sorry about that.

Filed under:  Green Tomato Pie, Pastry | 23 Comments

Making a Fruit Mousse Bavarian

As I mentioned below, Bavarians are a very large family of mousse (or cream) desserts. This particular style has been in vogue lately, and who am I to fly in the face of fashion? Plus it was fun. I hope to do more Bavarians in the future, so stay tuned for an expanding menu. This one can be made with any sort of fruit mousse, I chose peach because the fruit was in season. To begin, prepare your components. As with any multi-component pastry it’s best to make the various pieces-parts over several days leading up to the assembly. Save the last day to make it since you’ll need a couple of hours of build time and at least five hours of chill time to get it done.

So then, start with the joconde sheet. Trim off the rough edges.

Then measure so you know where to make your cuts. You want to cut this full sheet into four equal pieces.

Stack them up when you’re done to make sure the edges are even. If not do a little trimming.

Take the stack apart and apply a very thin coating of apricot glaze (or whatever jam you want to use) to the bottom sheet.

Add the next one.

Paint it, and proceed like so until your stack is rebuilt.

Now it’s time to cut the stack into strips. My mold is 3 inches high and I want my joconde strips to come half way up the mold. So I want these strips 1 1/2 inches wide. So I make a little cut at the near edge of the stack to remind me where the 1 1/2 inch mark is…

…then another on the far edge of the stack.

Then gently saw.

Continue across the stack. I got a total of three strips. Know who gets that last bit? You bet you do. Who said “coffee break”?

Now cut the strips crossways into pieces roughly 1/2 an inch wide. No need to measure unless you really want to.

Now then. You see here that I have a bottomless ring mold set on a (temporary) cardboard base. The mold is 6 inches across and 3 inches high, which is a great size for these sorts of desserts. If you want to go 8 inches across you’ll have enough cake. If not, more snacks for the hard working pastry maker.

So then. To lay the cake in, paint the top and bottom lightly with apricot glaze…

…which will act as a sort of glue to keep the cake pieces stuck together.

Keep going all the way around and tuck the last piece in fairly tightly so the cake sections don’t fall inward. Now then, using your round cutter set (if you have one) pick a size that fits the depression in the center…

…and use it to cut a piece of génoise for the bottom. You can use any sort of cake here if you don’t want to go to the trouble of making génoise (though it’s easier than joconde!).

Lay it in!

Next, prepare your mousse. I’ll wait.

Dum de dum…

All set? Then spoon it in.

Tuck it in around the edges of the mold, heaping it up a little. You’ll use most of your batch of mousse. Then…

…using your icing spatula or some sort of straight edge, scrape the top even. Save the overflow for some late night calorie-laden escapade. Apply some plastic wrap to the top and refrigerate the filled mold for at least four hours. Half an hour to an hour before you unmold the pastry, put it in the freezer to really firm it (but you don’t want to freeze it, so no more than an hour, K?).

When you’re ready to unmold the pastry, gently run an icing spatula underneath to loosen it.

Place it on your serving plate.

Then wrap a hot towel around it. This one has been soaked in hot tap water and wrung out. Leave it for 30 seconds.

Apply a piece of cardboard to the top of the mold on top of the plastic wrap, cut just a bit smaller then the mold (this was my former cardboard base).

Gather the plastic wrap up around the cardboard…

…and press down on it with your thumbs or index fingers while gently pulling up on the ring with your other fingers (I recommend two hands…my other hand was busy here snapping pictures). Easy does it.

And off it comes. Gently remove the plastic-wrapped cardboard circle.

Smooth out any defects in the mousse with an icing spatula. You can heat it under hot tap water if the mousse isn’t yielding. Make sure to dry it!

Ain’t it purty?

I thought it needed a little more color on top so I applied the last of my apricot glaze (another stone fruit that compliments peach nicely).

Serve soon. Like, within a couple of hours if not immediately.

Easy, right? And how does it slice?


Filed under:  Bavarian (Bavarois), Pastry | 19 Comments

In Praise of Odds and Ends

Not terribly often, but often enough that it bears remarking upon, I get comments that this or that recipe has created “leftovers”. I do my best to avoid that, especially in cases of spare materials that don’t freeze well. Pastry cream springs to mind. That said, there’s much to be said in favor of leftovers, especially if you engage in the pastry arts with any regularity. A few cups of random buttercreams, some poured fondant, bits and pieces of various cakes, even crumbs can come in handy for who-knows-what.

This week’s recipe is case in point. The base of my little mousse cake is made of génoise, but all I need is a small disk of it, a circle maybe four inches across. It’s a little silly to go and make a full sheet of génoise if I’m only going to use that much. As it happened I had a couple of pieces stashed away in the chest freezer in the basement. Sure they were a bit past their prime, about three months old, but still quite serviceable. And frozen, they were easy to cut. The joconde I made from scratch even though I had a little of that hanging around as well.

My point is that it’s always a good idea to make a little more of whatever you happen to be making. Speaking for myself, if I want to try a recipe that calls for one cake layer, I’ll make at least one more. If I need one sheet of sponge cake, especially a fussy one like joconde, I’ll do two, since who knows when I’ll have the patience to make it again? It’s a habit that keeps my low-temperature larder full of base materials that can be pressed into service at a moment’s notice.

And that’s important, because the fancier the pastry I want to make, the more component materials I need. And who wants to have to make all that stuff from scratch over and over again? These days, when I look over a fancy pastry parts list I’m not nearly as intimidated as I once was. Ah yes, I have some of those choux shells already made I think. I’ll swap some thin-sliced yellow cake for the génoise and beat a little raspberry jam into the buttercream from last month — done!

It’s one more way to make your home kitchen feel and perform more like a professional pastry kitchen, where there’s always a lot of interesting stuff hanging around, waiting to be used.

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