Category Archives: Pastry

What’s the difference between light and dark corn syrup?

Excellent question, reader Bud. The answer is that dark corn syrup has some refiner’s syrup in it for extra flavor and some caramel color in it for extra, er….color. It’s a little sweeter and more complex than “light” corn syrup, a closer analogue to molasses which the good folks at Karo probably intended it to replace.

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Pecan Pie Recipe

This pecan pie recipe incorporates lots of reader wisdom: extra nuts to keep it from getting too sweet, a toasting step for extra flavor, and a little vinegar for interest. I should add that lemon zest and bourbon also make terrific enhancements. This formula represents my best attempt to stay within the bounds of a classic pie while still incorporating what corporate types might call “best practices”. But do as you see fit!

1 recipe standard or perfect pie crust.
9 ounces (2 cups) pecan pieces
3 ounces (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter
7.5 ounces (1 cup packed) dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 eggs, room temperature
8 ounces (3/4 cup) light corn syrup
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
0.65 ounce (2 teaspoons) white or cider vinegar (1-2 tablespoons of Kentucky bourbon or a heaping teaspoon of fresh lemon zest are promising alternatives)

Begin by toasting the pecans. Preheat your oven to 375 and spread the nuts out on a sheet pan or cooking sheet. Toast them for 5-8 minutes, stirring them around every so often to promote even toasting and to check that they aren’t burning. When they’re lightly toasted remove them from the oven and allow them to cool completely.

While the nuts are cooling, roll your dough and lay it into your pie plate. Let it sit for at least half an hour (an hour is better) to relax the gluten. Then par-bake your crust.

While the crust is baking prepare the filling. Lightly whisk the eggs in a small bowl with a fork, then stir in the corn syrup and vanilla. Put the butter into a medium saucepan and melt it over low heat. Stir in the brown sugar and salt, then the egg mixture and finally the vinegar. Gently heat the mixture until it’s warm, about 130 degrees Fahrenheit. You’ll want to stir it more or less constantly to keep the heat even and prevent any egg from cooking. An instant-read digital thermometer is handy here. Remove the pan from the heat when the filling is warm enough, then stir in the pecans.

Ideally you’ll have finished making the filling just as the crust is reaching doneness. However since we don’t live in an ideal world you’ll have to improvise a little, returning the pan to low heat in the couple of minutes before the crust comes out just to make sure the filling is up to temperature.

When the crust is finished turn the heat down immediately to 275. Pour the filling into the hot shell, apply a pie shield to keep the crust from over-baking, put the dish on a sheet pan and the sheet pan on a middle rack in the oven. Bake the pie about 50 minutes, checking after 40 and jostling it a little to see how the gelling is coming. When the pie is done the center should jiggle in the center like JELL-O, not slosh like mud. When it’s done remove it from the oven and cool it on a rack for several hours to make sure it sets.

Filed under:  Pastry, Pecan Pie | 6 Comments

Stone Ground What Now?

Chocolate. Yes you heard that right. Evidently it’s a new trend in the world of confectionery: gritty though not necessarily darker “Mexican style” chocolate bars. The story was in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday but I just came across it this morning. It’s here, but behind the WSJ paywall. Here are the lead paragraphs if you’re wondering what this is all about:

Craft chocolatiers are using ancient techniques of the Aztecs and Mayans to create a dairy-free, low-fat product with a consistency a bit like crunchy dirt. Some chocolate lovers can’t seem to get enough of it.

This type of chocolate, sometimes called Mexican-style or stone-ground chocolate, is earthier, spicier and generally made with less sugar than sweet, creamy, European-style chocolate.

With Mexican-style chocolate, cocoa beans are roasted and shelled to yield edible cocoa-bean “nibs,” which get ground into a coarse liquor and then mixed with sugar. Most makers temper the product, raising and lowering the temperature before pouring it into molds.

Grinding, often done with stone disks, is the crucial step that creates the characteristic texture.

“We are seeing this return to chocolate-making roots,” says Carla Martin, a Harvard University lecturer in the department of African and African American Studies who specializes in the study of chocolate.

Nice work if you can get it! Anyway, the odd thing about all this is that that those coarse Mexican chocolate disks you find in grocery stores aren’t meant to be eaten like candy. You use them to make silky smooth drinking chocolate. The story notes the distinction but fails to observe the way in which it undermines the whole “chocolate returning to its roots” narrative being created here. There’s nothing traditional or authentic about eating gritty chocolate bars. No self-respecting Aztec or Mayan would ever have chomped down on a hard mass of sandy ground cacao for fun. If I were one of their modern-day descendants I’d be insulted! But then you hit the key paragraphs:

Though most stone-ground chocolate adds sugar, it doesn’t typically add cocoa butter, yielding a less-processed product than what European-style chocolatiers make with conching machines, which knead chocolate to create an evenly blended bar.

That is a major reason stone-ground chocolate has become popular with young entrepreneurs: It doesn’t rely on pricey refining equipment.

Which is another way of saying that a lot of “stone ground” chocolate is the product of inexperienced chocolate makers who don’t have much equipment or know-how. So instead of talking smoothness and quality they shift the terms of the conversation to “processing”, “refining” and “ancient techniques”. What was once coarse and gritty is now “authentic” and “stone ground”. That deserves a Clio award.

But it seems to me there’s a real business problem here beyond the advertising slight-of-hand. A big part of the stone ground trend appears to be about lowering the bar to entry (no pun intended) to get into the chocolate industry. The trouble I see is that some of these entrepreneurs are lowering the bar so far that just about anyone with a food processor and some ring molds could conceivably do what they’re doing.

Forgive me for sounding cranky here, but in truth my first reaction when I read this story was: what a crock! But I have to admit I’ve been wrong before. And really, who am I to interfere with budding chocolatiers trying to make a buck? Maybe I need to just pour myself another cup of strong tea and get with the stone ground program. Here’s to nibs in your teeth!

Filed under:  Pastry | 21 Comments

Can pecan pie curdle?

Oh yes it definitely can, reader Tillie. Though pecan pie doesn’t give the appearance of a custard it definitely is one, and as such it abides by all the usual custard rules, number one being: don’t overcook me. For when you overcook a custard the long, string-like egg proteins which unfurl so beautifully in gentle heat begin to clench back up again. When that happens they wring the water out of the gel they’d just created, leaving behind curds and a large puddle of syrup. I think we’ve all had pecan pies like that, no? Clumpy and syrupy…in other words…blech.

Summarizing the unhappy tale of an overcooked custard in this way I’m more convinced than ever that to do this right I’ll need to bake my pecan pie like the other custard pies on the site, specifically pumpkin and world famous Kentucky horse race whose name rhymes with “Herbie” pie. That is, I’ll pour warm filling to a hot pre-baked shell to a.)pre-start the gelling of the filling and b.) protect the crust from becoming inundated and soggy. Then I’ll bake it nice and low until it’s just barely gelled, letting the residual heat finish off the baking.

I’ll incorporate Frankly’s hint to add more pecans than normal to cut the sweetness, as well as Martha’s suggestion to toast the nuts for heightened flavor. I’ll also add a little vinegar for kicks. As for the syrup I’m going to use corn syrup in an effort to further control sweetness, though cane syrup or refiner’s (Lyle’s Golden) will work just as well. So that’s the plan. Stand by for the formal recipe.

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When Sweets Are REALLY Bad for You

Since we’re already talking syrup and molasses I should note that today is the 96th anniversary of the Great Boston Molasses Disaster, which happened on January 15, 1919. On that fateful day a two-and-a-half million gallon tank of molasses located at the Purity Distilling Company in the North End of Boston burst, sending a 25-foot wave of sticky death hurtling down Commercial Street at some 35 miles per hour. How molasses could reach that speed (and viscosity) in the middle of a January day I don’t know. But then it was a hell of a lot of molasses. The wave demolished buildings, train tracks and conveyances, killed 21 people and injured 159.

How it all happened is still something of a mystery. Though most experts at the time were convinced that the collapse was a result of shoddy workmanship and an over-filled tank, the company pinned the blame on anarchists. Cleanup crews spent weeks wading through knee-deep goo, using firehoses to wash the molasses into Boston Harbor, which remained brown until May. Streets and sidewalks were blackened for blocks around as workmen tracked the molasses along streets and sidewalks and onto train and subway platforms. It was said that every sidewalk bench and telephone handset in the city was sticky for a month.

Some Bostonians claim that on a hot summer day you can still smell it.

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What’s the point of corn syrup?

…when there are so many other types of syrup available to us these days? So asks reader Ted. And Ted, it’s a good question (even though I sense it’s loaded). When corn syrup was first produced commercially the point was to create a less expensive — and more neutral-tasting — alternative to molasses. Around the year 1900 most people used syrups, not more expensive crystal sugar, as general-purpose sweeteners. People up north used maple syrup. The Midwest favored sorghum. The rest of the population used molasses. In those days it was common to see a bowl of syrup on the kitchen table next to the salt and pepper, not a sugar bowl.

The trouble with molasses (and maple syrup) was that it was a.) subject to price swings and b.) had a very distinctive taste. A corn-based syrup was a good deal cheaper and also more neutral on the tongue. Corn syrup had been in existence for just shy of a century before the The Corn Products Refining Company of New York and Chicago initiated their first major sales push in 1910. The company considered their product to be purer, more versatile and generally more wholesome than molasses and many consumers agreed.

By the 30′s corn syrup had cut heavily into molasseses sales. In 1938 the company made a play for the maple syrup market and came out with a maple version. Did it taste as good? No of course not, but for people who couldn’t afford the real thing it served as a very reasonably priced alternative. Today home cooks don’t have the same need for corn syrup as our forbears did, but it’s still a very handy thing from time to time, especially if you’re trying to prevent icings and candies from over-crystallizing. And it’s not bad for pecan pie, either.

So there’s your answer, reader Ted. Hope that satisfies, thanks for the question!

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Do fresh pecans make better pecan pies?

That’s a very interesting question, reader Ali. In fact Mrs. Pastry brought a big bag of fresh-picked pecans home with her when she went to Mexico around Halloween. We made a pie out of them and I have to say they did make a difference. Fresh as they were they had more flavor than any pecans I’d ever eaten, the meats were also softer than other raw pecans I’ve found in stores. The down side is that we had to crack the nuts and pick out the nutmeats ourselves, and that took quite a while, plus most of them emerged from the shells broken in pieces. Nutmeat picking isn’t a core competency here at Joe Pastry World Headquarters. In the end I’m not sure whether all the extra effort was really worth it once the meats were baked into a pie, since there were so many other flavors competing with them. However if you’re so inclined Ali I say: go for it.

It’s interesting to note that very early pecan pies — the milk-and-egg custard variety — generally called for the raw pecans to be boiled in the milk before the filling was assembled, which would have made them quite soft indeed. It might be fun to make one of these proto-pecan meringue pies one of these days just to see what they were like.

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Pecan Pie: Syrup or No Syrup?

That’s a very interesting question. I’ve received several opinions on the subject from readers since I posted my intention to make pecan pie, oh, way back in 2014. I confess I’m sympathetic to the no-syrup school, if only because the idea of a syrup-less pecan pie emits a strong odor of authenticity. I mean, people were making pecan pies before the invention of corn syrup, right?

Actually not really. It’s true that pecan pies were eaten in American prior to the heyday of corn syrup, mostly in and around Texas. However these recipes were qualitatively different than later, more popular pecan pies in that they were sweet egg-and-milk custards with pecans stirred in, usually topped with meringue. The first published recipe for such a pie appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in 1886.

These pies remained something of a regional specialty until the The Corn Products Refining Company of New York and Chicago, makers of Karo syrup, began publishing a recipe for pecan pie on the sides of its bottles. This new pie, supposedly invented by the wife of a Karo salesman, was similar to the Texas pecan pie in that it was still a custard, just one made with Karo corn syrup instead of milk. That of course made the pie sweeter than the Texas version, about on par with other syrup-based pies and tarts like molasses (shoofly) pie, sorghum pie and British treacle tart. It goes without saying that the added sweetness made a meringue topping more or less superfluous.

It goes without saying that new sweetened and simplified pecan pie took off in a very serious way, quickly becoming a national favorite to the point that it now ranks as the 6th most popular pie in America.

So it seems to me that if we’re talking classic pecan pie we really are talking about a syrup-based pie of some sort. There are of course several types of syrup to choose from. Some readers mentioned pies based on maple syrup, others molasses or Lyle’s Golden Syrup. My problem with these syrups as a base for pecan pie is that they’re all a lot sweeter than Karo syrup. Standard corn syrup, as you may recall, is only about 85% as sweet as table sugar.

So having reflected on the issue I have to say I’m going with a Karo syrup-based pecan pie. Not because I necessarily think it’s superior to all other options, but because it’s the classic and I generally gravitate toward classic preparations. If you don’t like my decision I hope you’ll at least agree my logic is sound…(ish).

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What was so great about Escoffier?

Borne in 1846, Auguste Escoffier was one of the first chefs to have global name recognition. People traveled from everywhere to eat his food and to this day every serious student of cooking owns a copy of his cookbook, Le Guide Culinaire. But then a lot of chefs over the last century or so have cooked well, had broad name recognition and published cookbooks. So what made Escoffier a legend? Was his food that good? Could he have beaten Morimoto on Iron Chef?

To my mind legend status for a chef is only secondarily about food. Antonin Carême is an excellent example. Sure he was a fabulously talented artisan who made giant strides in cuisine. Yet more than that he exemplified his era, which is to say he connected his culinary skill to broader societal currents. Carême’s food thus became an expression not just of a personal vision, but of a time, a place and a culture. He did, in short, what truly great artists do: tap a vein of history.

Escoffier was like that. On the surface you look at the things he accomplished and think well that’s nice, I guess somebody had to do it. Things like streamlining the French sauce system and refining the plate-after-plate “service à la russe” method of serving, processes both begun under Carême.

Escoffier also invented the “brigade system” of kitchen organization (chef de cuisine, sous-chef de cuisine, chef de partie, etc…) that is widely employed to this day. He bestowed professionalism and respectability on the art of cooking, a professionalism he exemplified and used to found, in partnership with César Ritz, a hotel empire.

Looking around at what was going on in the world at that time, the leaps forward in industrialization and industrial efficiency, the assembly line, the rise of the professional classes, franchising and the expansion of commercial empires, there’s no question that Escoffier leveraged those trends, taking food further than anyone before him. In short he was a man of his time just like Carême and, more recently, Gaston Lenôtre. Hope than answers your question, reader Judy!

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The Buttered Cat Paradox

It’s true that one of the defining features of melba toast is that it’s unbuttered. But while we’re talking toast history it’s interesting to note that quite a lot of mental energy has been expended (mostly by British scientists) on the question of why, when you drop a piece of toast, it always lands butter-side down. Most of us would just chalk the phenomenon up to Murphy’s Law, yet several serious theories have been advanced, most of them dealing with things like gravity, roll, pitch and yaw.

Of course several unserious theories have been advanced as well, the most famous being the so-called cat and buttered toast theory, also known as the buttered cat paradox. The basis of the theory is quite simple: toast always lands buttered-side down, cats always land on their feet. Thus, if you strapped a piece of buttered toast to a cat’s back and dropped it, theoretically, it should stop before it hit the ground, hover for a moment, and begin to spin. Such hovering, spinning toast/cats could then be employed for all sorts of important uses, from perpetual motion machines to renewable energy to high-speed monorail systems.

Laboratory trials to date have been disappointing.

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