Category Archives: Pastry

Is there an easy way to peel hazelnuts?

Actually there is, reader Jen. Reader Bibi supplied me with this technique a few years ago and in all that time I still haven’t put up a tutorial to demonstrate it, mostly because I can buy pre-peeled hazelnuts at my local whole foods! Still I’m keen to try it. Here you go:

Joe, Included below is a piece on husking hazelnuts that I wrote for a cookbook. The baking soda method is much easier and produces really skinless nuts without the hassle and the mess. I also don’t think think it affects the flavor. This method is recommended by Julia Child originally comes from Julia Child, I believe. On, they recommend letting the hazelnuts cool for an hour before rubbing the skins off. I have not tried that trick, but the Julia blanch in baking soda method works like a charm. My note for the cookbook is included below:

Husking hazelnuts can be frustrating. The traditional way to do it is to roast them in a 350F oven for 10-15 minutes until the nuts themselves are golden brown (the skins will be considerably darker). Then, wrap them in a dish towel and let them steam for 10-15 minutes, then rub them with a towel until the skins fall off. Not all of the skin will come off, which is okay.

The second way involves blanching them in boiling water.
1. For ½ C of nuts, bring 1½ cups of water to a boil.
2. Add 2 T of baking soda and the nuts and boil them for 3 minutes. The water will turn black from the nut skins. Rinse the nuts well under cold running water
3. Use your fingers to remove the skins. The skins slip right off.
4. Put the nuts on a kitchen towel, rubbing them dry
5. Roast the nuts in a 350oF oven for 10 minutes. If you care about perfectly white hazelnuts, use this method, if you don’t just toast them and be happy that your kitchen smells like heaven and your dish towel is blackened from hazel nut dye.

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Where does fondant come from?

Who knew there was so much interest in this humble ingredient? But hey, I’ll go with the flow (buh-dum bum). Poured fondant, reader Kellie, was invented in France, probably in the mid-1800′s when granulated sugar was plentiful and the confectionery arts were developing in all sorts of new and interesting directions. The word “fondant” comes from the French verb for “melt”, presumably because of the way fondant melts in the mouth. Indeed, the fine crystal structure of fondant gives it melting qualities that are unique in the candy world.

In those days fondant was made by hand. The syrup was whipped briskly for at least 15 minutes to incorporate the tiny air bubbles that would serve as nucleation points for crystals. Must have been exhausting work. I should add that fondants, being a novelty, were eaten in pieces by themselves in the 1800′s, flavored, colored, poured into molds and left to firm. Ladies in refined households all over Europe, the U.S. and other locales liked to make and serve them as dainties with tea. Fondants weren’t used as cake icings until the mid-20th century.

On which note I should mention that firm “rolled” fondants were invented by our good friends down under, the Aussies. Tired of the rock-hard royal icings that traditionally covered their special occasion cakes, they set out in search of an alternative they could actually cut without a jackhammer. They hit on it around the year 1950 and dubbed it “plastic icing” for the way it could be molded and formed. The innovation didn’t take long to spread to America, where it took off as a covering for formal wedding cakes, providing a smooth base for decoration.

I should add that rolled fondant’s utility extends well beyond cosmetics. Draped over cake layers, it forms an almost airtight container, preventing layers from staling during the building and decorating process, which can take up to several days depending on how elaborate the cake is. Very handy, and it cuts right to the heart of what cake icings have been about from the beginning: preservation. I find that very cool.

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Why fondant?

Reader Bailey wants to know why she should go to the trouble of making actual poured fondant instead of just using a simple powdered-sugar-and-water mixture. It’s a terrific question and the answer is all related to crystals. Sucrose crystals to be precise.

Icings are forms of crystalline candy that flow…at least for a while…until they set. Their consistency, the way they feel in the mouth, is a factor of the size of the crystals they contain. The smaller the crystals the smoother the icing feels on your tongue, and the more consistently it behaves as a topping.

Simple icing is made by — simply — stirring powdered sugar into water. This makes a sort of slurry of small sugar crystals and a thin syrup of water and free sucrose molecules (plus a little corn starch, the anti-caking agent that’s in powdered sugar). It has a pourable consistency when you first make and apply it, but shortly the forces of crystallization — random crystallization — take over and the texture starts to change. The sucrose molecules in the solution start to find one another and stack up like LEGOs forming all sorts of odd shapes, many of them very large. As this occurs, water is forced out from between the crystals and evaporates. The icing becomes firm, then brittle and crunchy. The once-smooth and glossy finish turns dull as the syrup in it disappears, and starts to warp and buckle. The end result is a top coat that looks worse the longer it sits and shatters and crumbles when you bite into it. It also feels grainy in the mouth.

Fondant gives a much different result because it’s made differently. It starts out as a dense, hot sugar syrup, a so-called supersaturated solution which is created with heat. Boiling water, you see, will accommodate a lot more dissolved sucrose that cold water will, over twice the amount. So right away you’re dealing with a syrup with a much lower moisture content (only about 13%).

But that’s not where the advantages end, oh no. For if you cool a supersaturated sucrose solution and then agitate it briskly, you get a controlled crystallization that produces crystals of a size so small that they don’t register on the human tongue. Better still, those tiny crystals end up floating in a dense syrup of invert sugar (basically non-crystallizing glucose and fructose molecules) and water. That small crystal-syrup combination keeps the fondant not only smooth and uniform but pliable even after it’s been applied. Sure, it’ll still form a bit of a crust when it sits for a while, but it won’t lose its luster and/or crack like a coating of simple icing will. Plus is feels silky when you eat it.

Is poured fondant absolutely indispensable for a doughnut or a black and white or an Esterházy torte? Not for home cooks it isn’t, no. But pastries with real poured fondant on them absolutely do taste better. ‘Nuff said.

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Esterházy Torte Recipe

Tradition holds that Esterházy torte can be no more or less than six layers high. Who knows why, but far be it from me to buck tradition. Some versions of this pastry call for alternating layers of hazelnut and almond meringue. That’s a neat idea, but not necessary. If you feel like making two batches of meringue, go for it! You’ll need:

11 egg whites, room temperature
10.5 ounces granulated sugar
11.5 ounces finely ground peeled hazelnuts or almonds
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 recipe Swiss meringue buttercream
about three ounces apricot glaze
about six ounces poured fondant
about two ounces melted dark chocolate, couverture or ganache
about eight ounces slivered almonds

Start with the meringue layers. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and set two racks in the middle of the oven. Meanwhile, using a 9″ or 10″ pot lid or parchment cake round, draw pencil circles on two or three parchment sheets. Turn the sheets over so the pencil line is underneath. It will still show through. These sheets will be your layer templates.

Now make the meringue. Put the whites in the bowl of stand mixer fitted with the whip and whip them until they’re frothy. Add the vanilla extract and, steadily, the sugar. Whip the meringue to stiff peaks, then gently fold in the ground nuts. Pipe or spread about 1/6th of the meringue onto each of your parchment sheets and spread it even, about 1/4 inch thick. Bake the layers for about 8 minutes until they are only very lightly browned. Re-use the templates to bake a total of 6 layers. Cool them on wire racks.

When you’re ready to assemble, place a meringue round on a cake plate or platter and stick it down with a dab of buttercream. Apply a thin layer of buttercream, then another layer until you’ve stacked six meringue layers. Spread the apricot glaze over the top layer, then chill the torte in the fridge for about 20 minutes to firm it. Meanwhile, prepare a pastry cone with your melted chocolate or warm ganache.

Warm the fondant in a small saucepan and and pour/spread it over the top. Immediately pipe thin concentric circles of chocolate onto the layer, then using a toothpick pull the lines outward from the center to make a spiderweb-type design. Allow the glaze to set completely. Lastly, apply a thin layer of buttercream to the side of the torte and press the slivered almond against it to finish.

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Dacquoise or no?

Several readers have written in to ask if Esterházy torte qualifies as a dacquoise. The answer is: yes. The definition of a dacquoise is a pastry that’s composed of alternating layers of meringue and cream filling (usually buttercream but also pastry cream or whipped cream). Marjolaine is a member of that family.

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Where does Esterházy torte come from?

Why, Vienna. That city has been the cultural capital of Europe for more years than perhaps any other, however it attained probably its greatest prominence as the seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which lasted from 1867 until the end of the First World War in 1918). In those days Vienna was not only the home to nobility it was an economic powerhouse as well. Of course lots of economic activity means a thriving middle class, and a thriving middle class means lots of demand for luxury goods with which the not-so-well-born can achieve a living standard comparable to the well-born twits who think they’re too good to hang out with them.

Esterházy torte was one of these luxury goods. It was named for one Prince Paul Esterházy (full name Prince Paul III Anton Esterházy de Galántha), a member of the ancient house of Esterházy, who lived from 1786 to 1866. As a person Esterházy was a rather unremarkable fellow, known mostly for inheriting — and blowing — one of the biggest fortunes Europe had ever seen. That didn’t matter much to bakers in the grand hotels of Vienna circa 1900, however. At that time they were busy churning out tortes named for every Tom, Dick and Harry hotel owner, pastry chef, nobleman, political leader or celebrity that had trod the Continent over the previous eighty or so years. Sacher torte, Dobos torte and Napoleons all date to this time.

Thus the torte was named for Esterházy not because he did anything in particular or liked pastry especially, but because he had a name that people recognized. Our cultural equivalent might be “Rockefeller torte”. To most people the name means very little other than: rich.

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Skinning the Sodium Bicarbonate Cat

Reader Ted writes in with a fascinating question:

So, I’ve been tinkering with recipes for bran muffins, and hoping to come up with something other than hockey pucks (the grocery store can do them; why can’t I?) and I started thinking about baking soda vs baking powder. I was looking on the net about the two, and came across [an] article, and something in it puzzled me. [Joy the Baker] writes:

When sodium bicarbonate [baking soda] meets with heat, carbon dioxide gas is formed. It’s this gas that gives rise to our favorite cakes, cookies and biscuits. There is one drawback to the production of this gas. When heated, sodium bicarbonate also produces sodium carbonate, which doesn’t taste very good. If you’ve ever eaten any metallic tasting cakes or biscuits, you know what I’m talking about. Thankfully, the metallic taste of sodium carbonate can be neutralized by acid. Lemon, yogurt, buttermilk, and unsweetened natural cocoa powder can neutralize the taste of sodium carbonate and keep our baked goods risen and lifted.

I thought that sodium bicarb fizzed when exposed to acid, not heat. You haven’t done a series on chemical leaveners, and it would be an excellent addition to the website, I think. (And how about a bran muffin recipe?)

Love that question! The answer, Ted, is that Joy is very right when she says that you can get CO2 by applying heat to baking soda. Actually there are several ways you can react sodium bicarbonate to produce CO2 bubbles, and heat is one of them (actually it’s not a reaction per se, but rather thermal decomposition). Of course baking soda reacts with acid as every baker knows. The third way to get CO2 from sodium bicarbonate is by combining it with certain bases. That seems counterintuitive — and indeed we don’t do it in the kitchen — but it works. Indeed natural living types sometimes combine baking soda with a little hydrogen peroxide to make a fizzy “natural” toothpaste.

Where I myself get a little confused with the quote is the implied idea that somehow the soda won’t react with any acid in the mix until after the batter goes in the oven. It absolutely will — as soon as the soda and the acid ingredient are combined in the mixing step, heat or no heat. And that’s really the idea.

If, after that initial reaction, there still is some soda left unreacted, you’re going to have problems. True the oven heat will thermally decompose it, but as Joy points out one of the products of the decomposition is sodium carbonate, which doesn’t taste good. It does indeed have a metallic taste and worse still, if there’s much fat in the batter it will combine with it to produce soap, which is never welcome in a muffin. So I think that in truth Joy has things a little backward here. The lesson is to always have enough acid in a soda-only recipe to react all of it.

Hope that helps, Ted. As for the bran muffins…that’s a good idea. For now try adding a little more AP flour to the mix to bump up the gluten content. If that’s not an option a seed gum goo like flax to help capture some bubbles. I’ll see what I can do about a chemical leavened series!

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The Case of the Man-Eating Pineapple

Reader Brandi writes in to ask why her recent attempt to make a fresh pineapple JELL-O ring ended in disaster. Brandi, the answer is that fresh pineapple contains an enzyme by the name of bromelain which is a protein-digesting enzyme, and gelatin is a protein. Canned pineapple will work in a JELL-O mold because the heat of the canning process denatures (chemistry talk for “messes up”) the bromelain enzymes.

I know what you’re thinking. Or at any rate I know what you might be thinking. Oh hell who am I kidding, you’re almost certainly not thinking it but I needed a transition. What on earth is a protein-digesting enzyme doing in a pineapple? It’s a good question, because really, what use does a fruit have for such a thing?

The answer is that nobody really knows. One theory is that late at night when nobody’s looking, pineapples nip out to burger joints to take advantage of off-hour discounts. Another holds that the enzyme is a defense mechanism designed to kill insects that eat pineapples. Yet another posits that bromelain irritates the stomachs of animals that eat pineapples. Not enough to deter the animal completely, since fruiting plants rely on animals to spread their seeds, but enough to discourage any single one from make a pig of itself at the buffet.

There is one other very interesting idea on the subject, specifically that fruit proteases (protein enzymes) are an example of cooperative relationships between plants an animals. How so? Because proteases, when they pass into the digestive system of an animal, kill and dissolve parasites like tapeworms. And that of course is a considerable benefit for any omnivore whose insurance doesn’t cover gastrointestinal disorders. But that’s really just a guess. In truth the mystery of the meat-digesting fruit has yet to be solved.

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Back to Prince Esterházy

It’s not the cake and cream portion of this classic pastry that I fear, it’s that zebra-striped fondant top. Oh sure I’ve done it before on the tops of Napoleons and such, but a round one? That gives me the jits I don’t mind telling you. Otherwise the only thing that has me puzzled is the structure of the thing. An Esterházy torte is not unlike a Dobos torte in that it’s made up of many, many individual layers of “cake” and buttercream. That “cake” is most often a soft almond or hazelnut sponge, at least based on the recipes I’ve seen so far. However I’m greatly intrigued by references to “classic” versions that are supposedly made of crispy nut flour-and-meringue layers. Which way to go…which way to go…I think I know already but am interested in what you might have to say on the subject.

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Dead Man’s Party

Mrs. Pastry is back from Oaxaca with bags of chocolate, fresh nuts and a smartphone full of photographs. The pictures make me regret not bringing the whole family down there last week. Day of the Dead is something special, both from an artistic and philosophical point of view. The above picture is a sand painting made on top of a grave during a late-night cemetery party Mrs. Pastry went to. As in many places in Mexico during Day of the Dead, people were very enthusiastic about displaying their artwork and introducing visitors to dead family members.

We who live in the more northerly parts of the hemisphere have a hard time grasping the difference in attitude between here and there, especially concerning death. I can’t describe it save to say death is a lot more normal there. You’re born, you live and you die. And when you do, you don’t necessarily miss out on the parties. It’s nice. People remember their departed loved ones not with our sad northerly brand of sentimentality, but with a happy, southerly one.

Where does all the optimism come from? It seems to be rooted deep in cultural tradition. Mrs. Pastry had occasion to visit some Zapotec ruins at Monte Albán on her trip. There she snapped pictures of these glyphs which depict illnesses and physical disabilities — and not in the way we might, as terrible human tragedies, but as gifts from the gods.

Ya gotta love that. Or at any rate I gotta. A lot of you know I’m a cancer survivor, and you’ve probably heard me say (write) that up until that point in my life it was the best thing that had ever happened to me. Which makes me wish I’d been down there last week. Seen from one vantage point, finding things to celebrate in death, disease and disability seems crazy. Seen from another it makes eminent sense.

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