Category Archives: Pastry

Weren’t we just talking about browning enzymes?

And suddenly here comes a high-tech genetically modified apple that doesn’t brown. Why not? Because it has very little in the way of either polyphenoloxidase or peroxydase (more on what those do here). Which means when you cut it you don’t get browning pigments. Very interesting.

Those readers who know me know I have nothing against GMO crops, but my reaction to this is…why? Aren’t the apples we have pretty darn good as they are? And if you don’t want them to brown there’s always citric acid or lemon juice. This is a pretty cool science experiment, but I don’t see myself buying them over say, the Honeycrisps I bought at the supermarket this week. Well, to each their own!

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Do Your Bit(map)

Most of us are at least a little freaked out by all the Ebola news these days. The majority of it is extremely overblown. A whole lot of it is downright panic-mongering. But one thing is for sure: the taste of fear we’re getting here in the developed world is nothing compared to what the poor folks in West Africa have been experiencing for some time now. If you’re like me you’d like to do something about Ebola instead of just worry about it which, let’s face it, doesn’t do anyone any good.

And in fact you can do something: you can draw maps. You heard right. The World Health Organization, Doctors Without Borders and a variety of NGO’s are on the ground in West Africa and ready to fight the disease door to door. Unfortunately they don’t know where a lot of those doors are — especially out in remote villages or in densely populated urban areas — because they don’t have have accurate maps.

Which is where the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team comes in. You may have heard of OpenStreetMap, they’re the organization which, with the help of lots of volunteer contributors, creates the data that companies like MapQuest and Foursquare use to generate their street maps. The process of making the maps is actually pretty simple. OpenStreetMap puts up satellite photos of the surface of the Earth, then ordinary users like you and me trace the streets, buildings, parks and bodies over water over them. Those traced lines become data that mapping apps like MapQuest use to show us where to go.

Right now the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team needs people to do this sort of tracing over satellite images of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. And just about any idiot can do that. I know because I happen to be an idiot and I’ve probably spent 10 or 12 hours this rainy week tracing buildings in Freetown. I’m not lying, it’s sorta tedious work, but I do it at night after the girls are in bed. I put on some music or call someone up on the phone and click, click, click. I’m sure the doctors on the ground don’t care how loud the music is in my office, they’re just happy they can find their way to some shantytown in Liberia where some poor man, woman or child needs help.

You can find out more about the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team by going here. My experience getting going was rather confusing as the links under “Get Involved” don’t necessarily take you where you want to go. You can subscribe for mailing lists (unnecessary if all you want to do is map) and download the Java version of the editing tool. That’s not necessary either since you can do it more easily with the online map editor. Someone really needs to streamline the process for volunteers.

If you want to get involved my suggestion is to simply go to, get an account and take the online tutorial, which is really quite simple. You’ll be able to edit your own neighborhood right away if you like. Note to Apple users like myself: to finish a line or a shape, you need to double click (a detail mysteriously left out of the tutorial). Once that’s done go here to get working on a task in Africa. Select “Edit with ID Editor” which is the online editing tool, and get mapping! You can finish a whole section of a grid or just edit a little and save your work. Every click helps and could potentially save a life, and that’s no exaggeration.

So turn that anxiety in action why don’t you? I know from the comments I get that I have an awful lot of readers with technical interests and talents. An hour a day tracing buildings and roads can help put the hammer down on a dangerous disease. See you (virtually) in Liberia! And now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

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Brioche Dough: How Much Gluten?

It’s still the age of Ragnarök here in Louisville, I’m looking out at dark grey skies and more rain, rain, rain. I don’t let that slow me down if I can help it but blowing, misty rain is hell on whipped cream. Fortunately reader David has a question for me. It goes like this:

Your brioche dough recipe calls for all purpose flour when one might expect to use bread flour for a higher rise. Is brioche not typically expected to be as airy and light or is there another reason for it?

Interesting question, David. It all depends on what you want to use the brioche for. Will you be making a simple loaf? Dinner roll-type têtes de brioche? Or perhaps you’re using it as a base for a bee sting cake or cinnamon rolls. In any of those cases you might want to vary the formula a bit to achieve a difference effect.

For a straight-up brioche loaf, a higher gluten flour might be desirable since as you say, you’ll get a higher rise and a lighter crumb. The increased gluten will make that crumb a little tougher and chewier, but a certain “tooth” is expected for a bread or a roll.

A pastry is a completely different story. There you want rise and structure, but not at the expense of tenderness. In that case a brioche dough made with a lower-gluten all-purpose flour works better. You might also want a little more butter in that particular batch, maybe even some browned butter…I’m just sayin’.

All of which is to say that brioche is adaptable stuff. As a general rule I think all-purpose flour makes a nice all-around brioche dough. But adjust it as you see fit!

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Where does génoise come from?

And for that matter sponge cake in general? Nice question reader Holly! The answer is: um…

Génoise is clearly named for the city of Genoa in northern Italy. However the word is French which means it’s a French-ified version of a type of sweet bread or cake that was once made in Genoa. Does that mean that sponge cake was invented in Italy? Probably not as it seems most sponge-type biscuits and cakes that were made in Italy can be traced to an earlier confection that the Italians called pan di Spagna. “Spanish bread”. Everybody loves something that comes from somewhere else, knowadimean?

It seems that this — at least semi-spongy — Spanish bread arrived in the trading city of Genoa sometime in the middle 1500′s. At that point it was probably more like a light cookie, or biscuit, as our friends the British like to say. How or why the preparation moved northward is something of a mystery, though it seems clear that the French dramatically lightened and enriched it, eventually turning it into a base for cakes.

Back then a substance as fine and delicious as a génoise would only have been found in the kitchens of the nobility. Who else would have had access to fine white flour, good butter and — rarest of all in those days — refined sugar? Which is why it took until the Industrial Revolution before sponge cakes entered the common lexicon. The first printed instance of the words “sponge cake” in English occurs in 1808, in a letter written by Jane Austen.

As the Industrial Revolution picked up steam (no pun intended) it begat commerce. That commerce begat wealth and that wealth begat an ever-greater demand for life’s finer things. Sponge cake was apparently one of those, as it proliferated wildly all through the 19th century. And that’s really all I know about that, reader Holly. Thanks for the question!

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Kentucky Monsoon Season

Don’t know about where you are, but the last week has been some of the gloomiest, rainiest weather of the year, rotten for the sort of out-on-the-porch natural light photography that is the life blood of I’m still in my rain slicker answering questions though, so hit me! And more as soon as the deluge permits.

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Making Chocolate Génoise

This is a classic génoise save for the fact that 25% of its flour volume has been replaced by cocoa powder. Otherwise it’s pretty much the same. Start by preheating your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and sifting together your dry ingredients: the cake flour, cocoa and salt.

That done, turn to the wet stuff. Combine the sugar (here a “wet” ingredient), egg and vanilla in the bowl of your stand mixer.

Whisk them all together a bit…

…then place the bowl over a large saucepan that’s got about an inch of boiling water in it. But, you know, that’s actually on the stove.

And whisk. The idea here is to warm the egg-and-sugar mixture just to the point that it feels like a warm bath. This will help the eggs to whip up high and with small, even bubbles.

You don’t want this hot. If you don’t have a thermometer, dip in your finger and test it. It should feel like a nice warm bath. Ahhh. At least 110 but no more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit, in other words.

Now whip. On medium-high for about eight minutes. At that point start checking your foam. You want it so a medium ribbon falls and the blobs the ribbon leaves most remain on top.

Plop…and it should pretty much stay there.

Alright then. Pour off about 1 cup of the foam into a small bowl or ramekin that has your cooled, melted butter in it. You can’t see it but it’s there, trust me.

Stir that all together with no particular delicacy, scooping up from under to make sure the butter is all incorporated. This will lighten the butter and help it incorporate into the batter.

Pour it in.

Now gently sprinkle on your flour mixture…

…and either fold or gently whisk it in. Here I’m doing the whisking method, you want to gently rotate the whisk around the outside of the bowl. Don’t beat it with any strength or you’ll overly deflate the batter. As it is you’ll lose a little of your volume, but that’s expected.

Scrape it into your prepared pan or onto a parchment-lined baking sheet if you want to bake it in that form.

Bake it 30-40 minutes until it’s firm in the center. Remove it to a rack to cool for 5-10 minutes, then gently remove the springform sides and peel off the parchment.

As it cools it may fall a little in the center in the first few minutes out of the oven. This is normal for spongecakes, don’t worry. If it goes a little concave you can always trim the outer edges off to even it out. The thing you don’t want of course is a total collapse. Anyway, place a piece of parchment in the top.

Flip the cake over and remove the pan bottom and parchment.

Then flip it back. Allow it to cool completely. This will store a day at room temperature or freeze for up to two months.

Filed under:  Classic Chocolate Génoise, Pastry | 12 Comments

Tell me about kirsch, Joe.

I’d be happy to tell you what I know, reader Max. It’s a cherry brandy. The name simply means “cherry” in German, and part of the reason it’s so apropos in a Black Forest cake is because it hails from that region. Morello cherries — the European Continent’s go-to sour cherry — originated in the Black Forest. As for who first started making alcoholic beverages out of Black Forest cherries, well that’s anybody’s guess. You can make wine out of just about any fruit and the practice of winemaking goes back literally thousands of years in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Fruit brandies are another matter entirely. A brandy as you may remember is a distilled wine, and distillation requires more than just an earthenware crock and a desire to tie one on. It demands sophisticated gear and at least a little know-how to avoid going blind among other things. All that didn’t come along in Europe until the High Middle Ages (about 1100 – 1300 A.D.). Continentals have known the true meaning of the word “hangover” ever since.

It’s a fair bet that kirschwasser (cherry “water”) came along sometime during or shortly after distillation came into common use, though I’ve not been able to dig up any precise dates. However I can tell you one or two things that distinguish kirsch from other fruit brandies. First, it’s clear. That’s because it isn’t aged in wood barrels or casks, which are what cause spirits like whiskey to pick up brown colors. Also unlike a lot of fruit brandies it’s made with fruit that’s been fermented whole. The reason for that is of course to infuse the wine (the precursor to the brandy) with those almond-like stone fruit flavor notes.

And that’s pretty much all I know, Max! Thanks for the question!

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Why did it take so long?

Reader Cindy has been musing, she tells me, and is wondering why Black Forest cake only emerged as a phenomenon in the mid-20th century. If people in the Black Forest area had been eating sour cherries, cream and kirsch together for a hundred years or more by then, shouldn’t somebody somewhere have come up with a pastry?

My guess, Cindy, is that the rise of Black Forest cake was directly related to the advancement of refrigeration technology. Sweet cream, of the kind you need to make whipped cream, would have been a fairly rare commodity prior to about 1930. Without, say, refrigerated trucks you wouldn’t have been able to transport sweet cream very far before it soured. And that would have limited the ability of people outside dairying areas to either make or enjoy it.

One more example — speculative as this particular one may be — of the historic connection between pastry and technology.

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Cake and the Continental Divide

Reader Dottie wants to know why I’m bothering to make Black Forest cake with génoise when American layer cake makes a perfectly good — and easier — substitute. Dottie, good question, for indeed there are a lot of New World bakers out there who don’t much care for sponge cake. Many of us find it difficult to prepare and maybe just a little anachronistic.

I get that. We New World bakers like our cakes thick and moist. Cake layers on the Continent are a bit tough by our standards and are seldom more than an inch or so high. An inch of course is nothing for an American cake layer. Heck, two inches is common. Three inches? Why not? I’ve got nothing to do today.

So what accounts for the difference? If I had to boil it down to any one thing I’d have to say: leavening. While classic European cakes are leavened with egg foams, New World cakes are leavened with baking powder, which creates a much stronger, higher rise than even the frothiest foam.

So why don’t Continental bakers just use chemical leaveners? Some of them do of course, but the tradtional bakers don’t, and the reason is because of the taste. Chemical leaveners impart a distinct taste to anything they raise be it a cake layer, a biscuit or a pancake.

These days we in the New World tend not to notice it, we even enjoy it. But it wasn’t always so. If you could go back in time 150 years or so, when chemical leavening was first introduced to America, you’d have found that people hated the stuff. Chemically leavened bread — which admittedly had a much stronger taste than ours today — was considered fit only for soldiers, frontiersmen and other desperate types who didn’t have access to proper food.

If that was the reaction in the rough-and-ready New World you can imagine the reception baking powder received in the grand hotels of Vienna. Pollute our cakes with chemicals? Mein Herr, you must be joking.

And that’s pretty much how things stand to this day. Oh sure, you’ll find baking powder here and there on the Continent, but it’s still not embraced with any particular verve among pastry makers. All of which is a rambling way of saying that a Black Forest cake made with American-style layer cake isn’t really in the spirit of the thing in my view, but there’s nothing stopping you from making one that way if you like, Dottie. Plenty of people do!

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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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