Category Archives: Pastry

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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Hard Boiling Eggs

A lot of requests for a tutorial on this. It makes sense given that most hard boiled eggs end up sticking to the insides of their shells, and/or with that blue/green film around the yolks which signifies over-cooking. The first problem is best solved by time. Sticky shells result when you boil very fresh eggs. Easy-peel eggs can be had by either aging the eggs in the fridge for 10 days or longer, or letting the eggs sit at room temperature for about 24 hours. The aging loosens the membrane that surrounds the white from the inside of the shell, and that does the trick. Note that before you hard boil your eggs they should be chilled again, at least for this method, which assumes cold eggs.

So then, how to hard boil eggs in such a way that you don’t overcook them? Why just like this. Begin by placing your cold eggs in a pot and covering them with cold tap water, about an inch over the tops of the eggs is fine. More won’t hurt anything. Place the pot on the stove over medium-high heat. A little vinegar will help congeal any egg white that leaks out through a crack. A few tablespoons of salt is said to loosen those membranes I mentioned, but I’ve only had so-so results from that method.

Note: always boil one more egg than you need so you can check for doneness. And enjoy a light snack, maybe with a short beer and a dab of mustard. Nice.

While the eggs are heating, prepare an ice water bath (this will stop the cooking when the eggs have reached perfect doneness.

When the eggs reach the boil — but not a rolling boil — take them off the heat. Steam is terrible for photography. Sigh.

Let the eggs sit in the hot water for 10 minutes. At that point find your test egg, preferably the one with the crack in it. Lower it briefly into the ice bath, peel it and slice it in half. Perfecto.

If your eggs still look a little creamy in the center, let the boiling go on for another two minutes. That should do the trick. At that point, gently immerse the cooked eggs into your ice water bath. Allow them to cool completely, 20-30 minutes.

Remove the eggs from the bath and carefully place them on a rack to dry. Let them air dry for an hour or more. Carefully stack them in a bowl until they’re ready to be used. That’s it!

Filed under:  Hard Boiled Eggs, Pastry | 14 Comments

When Calendars Collide

Reader Chana writes:

A few years ago there was a very strange situation where Easter actually fell before Passover. Someone explained the whys and wherefores to me, but the truth is that I didn’t understand it at all. I mean, huh? Your explanation above is so clear (really), I thought maybe you’d like to tackle this one as well.

That’s a bit of a toughie, Chana. The year was 2008 and everybody — Christians and Jews alike — was confused. Only an astronomer can properly explain how it happened that way, but suffice to say that the Catholic Church has revised its timekeeping methods since 325 A.D. when Christians and Jews were more or less on the same calendar, a lunar one, meaning a calendar that’s dictated by the cycles of the moon.

The Christian calendar changed at the Council of Trent in 1563, when Pope Gregory switched Christendom from the lunar Julian calendar to the solar Gregorian calendar. More on that here. The Gregorian Calendar is not totally accurate either, but it has allowed the Church to set the date of Easter ever since according to what’s called a “Paschal Full Moon” which is theoretical full moon, not an actual one. It’s an approximation of the real full moon that occurs after the spring equinox. It can be off from the actual full moon by up to two days.

I should insert here that the Catholic spring equinox has also been theoretical since the Council of Trent, when it was officially set at March 20th. And if it sounds foolish for human beings to “set” an equinox, remember that back in the Middle Ages there was no way to know precisely when an equinox was occurring unless you happened to know an astronomer. Add to that the fact that an equinox can vary depending on where you’re standing on the planet, and you can see why people of the time welcomed a fixed date that they didn’t have to worry about.

But back to calendars. The thing about a solar calendar is that it’s shorter than a lunar calendar. There are fewer “leap days” in it, which is to say, days you strike or skip over to make up for the fact that man-made calendars are at variance from the actual movement of celestial bodies. Under the old Julian Calendar, a leap day happened every 100 years or so, which doesn’t sound like much but over time really causes confusion (see above link).

The Gregorian Calendar corrected for leap days while at the same time putting the Roman Church on a new standard. The Eastern Orthodox Church never moved from the Julian Calendar, which is why to this day the Roman and Eastern Orthodox Church calendars are off by about ten days, with Orthodox feasts happening later than ours. The Hebrew Calendar, like the Eastern Orthodox calendar, is also traditionally lunar.

It takes a lot of complicated formulas to reconcile all this, but me, I think of it this way: the solar Gregorian Calendar tends to push dates backward relative to the traditional lunar calendars. As a result, depending on how early the Paschal Full Moon is, it can push the date of Easter so far back that it can actually come before Passover. That’s my own mental shorthand for what went on that year. I think that’s more or less right, but I welcome comments from anyone out there with a more thorough knowledge of the subject!

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Why is this night different from all other nights?

Holy Thursday is the day when Christians celebrate a Passover Seder. Not in the strict sense, we wash and awful lot of feet, but it’s the night we celebrate the Last Supper, which three of the four Gospels depict as a Seder meal. If you’re a Christian and you’ve never celebrated a proper Seder, try it sometime. Any understanding of Christianity is really incomplete without an appreciation for the faith’s Judaic foundation.

Which brings me to the question this post inspired: reader Lori wants to know why in most other languages Easter is called “Pascua”, “Pasqua”, “Pascha” or something similar. The answer is because all those words come from the Hebrew word “Pesach” which means…you guessed it…Passover.

Excuse me know, the Pastrys are off to Mass!

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On Easter Eggs

Eggs are a conspicuous part of an Italian Easter bread, and for Greek Easter bread as well as reader Rick reminds me. The two are virtually identical save for the fact that in the Greek version the eggs are all dyed a single color: a deep crimson red. That’s standard for Greek Orthodox Catholics, being a bit more doctrinaire than most Roman Catholics. I guess they don’t call it “Orthodox” for nothing.

In the orthodox tradition Easter eggs are always dyed blood red to symbolize the drops of blood shed by Christ on the cross. Roman Catholics, like other Christians who celebrate Easter, tend to approach Easter eggs with a bit more frivolity. Ours come in all colors of course, they can be tie-dyed, drawn upon, you name it.

These days most of us don’t think much about the symbolism, which is fundamentally that of rebirth. You can take that literally in the sense of a new chick continuing the cycle of life, or more metaphorically in the sense of a seemingly inanimate object — something “dead” — coming to life. In some traditions the egg represents the tomb where the apostles placed the body of Jesus after the crucification, in others it’s the stone that was rolled across the tomb door. You can go in a lot of directions with something as elemental as an egg.

But the egg is of a piece with the whole “rebirth” theme of the season. Chickens start to lay eggs again in the spring after a winter hiatus. Undomesticated birds do as well. Not coincidentally, rabbits and hares produce their largest litters in the early spring, which is where the Easter bunny comes into the picture. As you might expect, The Bunny is a relatively late comer on the Easter scene. Originally a hare that served a function not unlike Santa Claus, he was invented by German Lutherans in the middle 1600′s.

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Moveable Feast: Not Just Another Catering Company

We’re getting some warm spring breezes in Louisville today and they’re welcome after a not very snowy but conspicuously cold winter. Puts an old Catholic like myself in the mood for Easter, because if Easter isn’t about tulips, short sleeve shirts and roast spring chickens, then what’s it about? The resurrection of Christ thing, that’s a for-sure.

Reader Dusty wrote in to ask an interesting question: why does Easter move around the spring calendar so drastically when other big Christian holidays like Christmas are always on the same day each year? That’s a lovely one, and it all goes back to a little something called the Council of Nicaea, a gathering of Christian leaders that was convened in 325 A.D. by Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor whose conversion to Christianity turned the entire Roman Empire Catholic in one fell swoop, transforming the faith from an underground religion to an officially sanctioned church.

The Council arrived just in time as hundreds of years of operating under the Roman Empire’s radar had split the followers of Christ into all sorts of odd little splinter groups, many with unorthodox ideas about Jesus, God and the nature of worship. The Council of Nicaea was Constantine’s attempt to standardize Christianity. One of the results was a little mission-statement-slash-pledge-of-allegiance that we know today as the Nicaean Creed. Catholics still repeat it at every. Single. Mass.

Another achievement of the Council of Nicaea was the setting of the date of the celebration of Easter. Up until that point more than a few Christians celebrated Easter at Passover, which the newly minted Christian church sought to get away from, primarily for marketing reasons. The Last Supper was a Passover meal however, so moving Easter to say, July, wasn’t an option, and anyway Easter (known then as Pascha) had been observed for hundreds of years by then. Passover is a so-called lunar holiday, which is to say it is (or was at one time) dictated by the cycles of the moon. At the time of the Council of Nicea it was observed on the 14th day of Nisan, the first month of the Hebrew year, which not by coincidence falls right around the vernal equinox or the first day of spring.

Early Church leaders sought to distinguish Easter from Passover, but were conflicted about how to do it. On the one hand they could just assign a regular date to it according to the newfangled Julian solar Calendar (say, the 10th of April), but the problem with that option was than Easter could then fall on any old day of the week. That was a problem since it was known that Christ was crucified on a Friday, which meant he rose on a Sunday. Many church leaders were thus powerfully motivated to keep the observance of Easter to those days. In the end it was agreed upon that Easter would be celebrated on the Sunday after Passover each year, which according to the lunar calendar translated to the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. It all sounds rather pagan to say it that way, but that’s how people marked time back then.

Anyway, with the day of Easter finally set for good, all the other big feast days of the Church were arrayed according to it, at numerically significant distances in days (Ash Wednesday, say, at 46 days before Easter, or Pentecost at 50 days after). But since Easter shifted about the calendar from year to year, so did they. These feast days came to be known for obvious reasons as moveable feasts. Other lesser days were assigned fixed dates according to the solar calendar, among them a mostly insignificant day called Christmas, which wasn’t so much a recognition of the birth of Christ back then as an excuse play pranks and get drunk.

Oh, and if you’re wondering where we get the name Easter when the original name for the day is Pascha, chalk it up to the Germanic influences in our language. Easter comes from the name of a month in old Germanic almanacs, Eostur. It occurred about the same time each year as the Pascal month (the month of Easter) in the Christian calendar. Since old habits die hard a lot of the Germanic peoples never made the switch, and their term for Easter eventually made its way into Old English and then on down to us. Modern pagans like to tell the tale that Eostur was originally the name of a Germanic goddess, and call Easter another case of early Christian “re-branding” of a pagan holiday. Untrue. Though there was a goddess of a similar name from way, WAY back in Germanic tradition, it’s disputed that Eostur month is even derived from that name. Easter is not associated with pagan tradition, it’s associated — very, very closely — with Passover. And that’s pretty much the end of the story.

My gosh that’s a complicated answer to an easy question. Hope that helped, Dusty!

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How to Make Fancy Pastry Like a Pro

Reader Michelle writes:

Joe, I’m frustrated. I consider myself a fairly accomplished baker but every time I set out to make a really fancy pastry the whole thing ends in disaster and my entire day is wasted. I don’t want to give up but I just can’t seem to get the fancy pastry thing right. Should just stick to bread and cookies? Help!

Michelle, as a white-haired man named Clinton once said: I feel your pain. There’s not much worse than spending a long day making components for an elegant pastry, then having the whole thing collapse into an ugly, delicious mess. It happened to me over and over again, then I went to work in a pastry shop and saw how the pros avoided my mistakes.

While I’m something of a broken record on this subject, there’s really only one secret ingredient for success in fancy pastry: time. If you looked in the back of any pastry shop you’d see that more than half the man (or woman) hours spent in there are spent making components: creams, cake layers, fillings, toppings, crusts, garnishes, the list goes on. Assembly is just the final step in a long process that involves lots of time and lots of different people.

To succeed with fancy pastry at home, we need to try to mirror that process a bit. That is, to make components ahead — several days ahead if possible — store them, and save assembly for the last day. Most of us home bakers try to do the whole thing in one fell swoop. We bake the layers, make the filling, whip the topping and shape the garnishes all in one afternoon. When it finally comes time for assembly or shaping we’re strung out and pressed for time. In other words, prone to making mistakes.

But taking the professional kitchen approach we can not only improve the overall quality of the components we use (because we give each one the time and attention it deserves) we make a better looking pastry because we’re rested and alert when we get to the final building step. As I’ve often said, there’s nothing I like more on a sunny Saturday afternoon than one or two cold beers in the fridge and a pastry to build. Makes a man feel like a man, know what I mean?

So plan ahead, do a little each day and when all is said and done your fancy pastries will be working a whole lot better. Get back to me with any specific questions, Michelle. Carry one — and don’t fear the pastry!

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Italian Easter Bread Recipe

What we have here is something similar to brioche, though not as fussy. You mix it all together in one step (no beating in the butter once the dough is made) and let it rise as you would any bread dough. The result is a bread that’s still quite soft and rich, but without the explosive rise of brioche, which in this context is a good thing. You’ll need:

4 ounces (1/2 cup) butter
6 ounces (3/4 cup) milk
1 lb. 1. 1/2 ounces (3 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour
2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
zest of one orange
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
6-8 hard boiled eggs, dyed Easter colors
egg wash

Combine the butter and milk in a microwave-safe bowl and zap in bursts of 10 seconds until the butter is completely melted. Set the mixture aside to cool.

Next, combine the flour with the instant yeast, salt, cinnamon and orange zest in a large bowl and whisk everything together.

Pour the cooled milk and butter mixture into the bowl of a stand mixture fitted with the paddle (beater), then add the sugar and lightly beaten eggs. Stir the mixture together on low, then steadily add the flour mixture.

The whole thing should come together into a soft dough. If the dough appears quite sticky when you’re done, add up to another half a cup or so.

Switch to the dough hook and knead for 5-7 minutes until the dough is smooth. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl, cover it with plastic wrap and let it rise about two hours until it is more or less doubled.

There are lots of ways to shape this bread. Stay tuned for the tutorial for more on that.

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Next Up: Italian Easter Bread

I know I’ve been spending a lot of time in Italy lately, but the food is good so why not? Plus who can resist braided brioche with a dyed hard-boiled egg baked in the middle? My girls are going to go nuts and the breads will look amazing on the Easter table. I promise to do something very different after I’m done getting all Martha Stewart on you. Cool?

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