Category Archives: Techniques

Committing Chocolate Shaving Seppuku

I started cooking in an actually-fairly-decent restaurant when I was sixteen and a few months later, which I was 17, started soloing as a cook. For the rest of high school, through my college summers and for a couple of years after college I worked in a variety of kitchens, from cafeterias to steak houses. In my 30′s I went back to the kitchen and spent about five years baking and making pastries professionally.

In that time — about ten years total — I saw a lot of accidents. Lots of burns, plenty of cuts, knocks on the head, slips and falls, even a couple of broken bones. By far the worst injuries I ever saw resulted from attempts at making chocolate shavings. Why? Because even experienced pastry chefs and bakers I knew made their chocolate shavings like this:

In other words by scraping a big knife along a solid bar of chocolate…toward their bellies, one hand grasping the handle of the knife, the other bare hand holding the point. This photo isn’t terribly accurate since my other hand is holding a camera at the moment. Also in a professional kitchen the chocolate bars are a lot bigger (the knives are too). Anyway, I never saw anyone actually disembowl themselves making chocolate shavings, but because of the ridiculous grip and all the pressure involved, I saw several very deep and serious finger and hand cuts.

The great pity is that it was all so completely avoidable. For example, a great way to make small, curly shavings is with a vegetable peeler:

As you go the curls get wider and you get a darn nice product. Very good for garnishes or cupcake or doughnut toppings. If the bar you’re using isn’t shaving well, try warming it with a five-second blast in the microwave.

Of course larger curls are what the knife scraping is all about. For those I melt my chocolate with a series of 10 second bursts in a microwave…

…and pour some on the back of a sheet pan that I’ve chilled in the freezer for about five minutes.

I spread it thinly…

…and wait about five minutes for it to cool and acquire a dull finish. At which point I grab the nearest scraper…

…and scrape it up into shavings.

Easy peasy, and not a drop of blood spilled. Now then, the one drawback of this method is that the chocolate loses its temper, but which I do not mean it turns red in the face and starts hurling baseless accusations. Rather that its uniform crystal structure changes. When that happens the chocolate is not only less shiny when it cools after melting, but it’s a bit softer in the bargain.

You can mitigate this problem by using a good quality couverture or dark chocolate that’s high in cocoa butter. Even after melting and cooling it will remain fairly firm at room temperature (you won’t know the difference texturally if it’s refrigerated). The alternative is to use tempered chocolate, which I admit is a bit of a hassle, but a whole lot better than stitches, trust me.

Nice, right?

Filed under:  Making Chocolate Shavings, Pastry | 15 Comments

Whipping Cream

This post is the sequel to the number one runaway smash hit: Whipping Egg Whites which appeared in this space a couple of weeks ago. I meant to respond to all the requests earlier but I didn’t have any cream and was too lazy to go get some. Also Mrs. Pastry was put out enough as it was. Ever efficient, she deplores waste in all its forms. Which makes me wonder why she keeps me around at all. But that’s a post for another day.

Here again I have a small bowl with a hand mixer, which is what you want if you’re truly serious about whipping in your home kitchen. Larger machines just don’t do small quantities well. Anyway, pour the desired quantity into the bowl. A cold bowl is a nice-to-have but not essential.

Starting on low I gradually turn up the speed to about half power until the cream starts to get more viscous as air bubbles are incorporated and lipid molecules start to collect around them. This is where I get after about a 45 seconds, note the small “peaks”, but this isn’t really “soft peaks” yet since it’s still pretty flowing. Some people like sweetened cream of this slightly drippy texture on pie or fresh berries. Who am I to argue? This is the point where I usually add a sweetener (like sugar) or a stabilizer (like gelatin).

Another 20 seconds or so and I am well and truly at the soft peak stage for whipped cream. You could theoretically pipe this but it’s still a little loose for that purpose. Still, this is a great dessert topping consistency.

Another 20-30 seconds past that and suddenly the semi-fluid mass turns into a semi-solid mass. It collects around the beaters in clumps and clings fast to a spoon, even when held upside-down. This is technically “stiff peaks” but in fact it’s so stiff that it can’t form “peaks” as we pastry people think of them, more like big clods. But “stiff clods” lacks musicality.

Cream of this texture is about perfect for piping. See?

How do you know when you’ve gone too far? Well the good news is that it takes a good minute or more of concerted whipping before you can ruin it. Know the danger signs when you start losing volume. This is a sign that the fat masses around the bubbles are starting to merge together. Clumpy curd-like masses start flying to the sides of the bowl and the whole thing takes on a yellow milk fat hue. See?

This is no good for piping or topping desserts, though you could in theory spread it on toast. Any takers? Mrs. Pastry will want someone to do something with this…

Filed under:  Pastry, Whipping Cream | 12 Comments

Whipping Egg Whites

What do “soft peaks” look like? What about “stiff peaks”? How do you know when you’re over-whipping? These are some of the great mysteries of egg foam making. But I say: let them be mysteries no longer! Let’s have a picture tutorial that will clear the air on this once and for all! Because being anxious over the height of your egg foam is one sure way to suck all the fun out of a baking project. Read this and go forward with confidence, friends. Making a perfect whip is easy if you know what to look for.

Here I have four perfectly good egg whites that I’m about to ruin. Don’t tell Mrs. Pastry, OK? She abhors waste in any form however small and I don’t want to get in trouble. This is just between us. You can see I’ve placed the whites in my (im)perfectly clean copper egg bowl. But then these things are a pain to keep free of tarnish. Here I’ll say that a copper egg bowl really is the best vessel for whipping whites for reasons I have explained here. As for an instrument you can’t do better than a hand mixer which lets you move all around the bowl and attack any un-whipped bit of egg white. If you don’t have these tools it’s not a problem, the same rules still apply.

These egg whites are quite fresh and firm, but that’s not important for a successful whip. In fact older eggs generally whip up faster and better. Old whites are more liquid than gelatinous, you see, and that’s a good thing when you consider that whipping is a factor of applying shear force to the proteins in the white. It’s easier to do that when the whites are thin rather than thick. Consider: which liquid will a whisk cut through with more speed — water or honey? I trust you see my point. Off we go.

Now then, I begin to whip on 50% power so the liquid whites don’t fly all over my brand new shirt. After about 20 seconds I’m starting to make progress.

I up the power to 75% and keep whipping for about another 30 seconds. Here you can see the whites are starting to get really foamy and take on some body. If you don’t have a copper bowl like the one pictured here and you want to add some cream of tartar or lemon juice to help protect you from over-whipping, this is the point tot add it. This is also where you want to start adding sugar if you’re making meringue.

I crank up the power to 100% and whip for about another 30 seconds. Here you can see I’m approaching the zone. These aren’t quite soft peaks as they flop over too easily. Also look on the beater there: nothing but blobs on the ends. Keep going.

Another 20-30 seconds and I’m at the soft peak stage. The mass of whites is silky and almost elastic. See those lovely curls and the way the tips of the whites droop gently down off the beaters? Just about perfect soft peaks.

If you’re the sort of person that likes the bowl tip test, you can do that. The whole mass should stick and not slip around.

Another 20-30 seconds on high and I’m at the stiff peak stage. The whites have lost any of the elasticity they had and are as firm and voluminous as they’re going to be. Peaks are straight up when I lift the beaters and stick straight out off the implements themselves.

OK. Now I’m going to push it and go on. After another full minute on high I’m at what some people like to call “dry peaks”. The whites still form peaks when you lift the beater up. But the silkiness is starting to disappear and be replaced by a grainy appearance caused by clumping proteins. They’re still usable, but the foam isn’t as strong as it once was, and I’m actually starting to lose volume.

Another minute on high and I’m well over-whipped. The whites don’t even form peaks anymore, and look like mounds of cottage cheese. I’ve lost a good third of my volume and liquid is starting to accumulate at the bottom of the bowl, water that’s been squeezed out by clenching proteins. These whites aren’t useful for anything,

However it’s reassuring that it took so long to ruin some whites, isn’t it? I had a rather narrow window between soft and stiff peaks, but quite a large one between stiff and dry peaks. That’s the margin of error that a copper egg bowl buys you. So I hope this has been helpful. And again, don’t tell my wife, K? I’ll be in for it unless I can prove I ate these with a spoon after the demonstration was over. Blechhh.

Filed under:  Pastry, Whipping Egg Whites | 20 Comments

Making a Pie Dolly

Here’s a piece of kitchen gear you won’t find at the corner specialty shop: a pie dolly. It’s used for making “raised” pies in the British style, “raising” being the act of drawing pie dough up and around a wooden form to make the shell. It’s then filled, topped with a dough round, crimped and baked.

Since virtually no one makes pies this way in this day and age, if you want a pie dolly you have to make one. Fortunately it’s a snap. You’ll want a piece of untreated wood for this. I find a pre-made turned table leg — which you can find at any “big box” hardware store — worked just about perfectly. I had some of this left over from when I made my chimney cake spit a couple of years ago.

You just grab the nearest hand saw and cut off about five inches of it, then sand the ends and edges a bit until they’re smooth.

The main thing is you want a comfortable fit for your hand, where you can plant your thumbs on the top and still reach the bottom with your pinky. This hold is what will give you the leverage you need to gently pull the dough up the sides. My dolly turned out roughly the size of a peanut butter jar.

On which note, why not just use a peanut butter jar? Some people do that, actually. The trouble is that a very smooth plastic or glass surface is going to have more sticking potential. Wood, with all its little micro-pores, has less surface area for dough to adhere to. Glass or plastic will work in a pinch, but you’ll find yourself using quite a bit more flour. Also you may end up needing to chill the dough while it’s still on the form until it’s rigid enough to remove. All in all I’ll take wood.

Filed under:  Making a Pie Dolly, Pastry | Leave a comment

Rehydrating Mexican Chiles

We modern foodie types are used to doing a lot of Continental cooking: French and Italian especially. So when we see a red or red-brown sauce we automatically assume there’s tomato in it. But in fact a lot of deep red and rust-colored Mexican sauces don’t have any tomato in them at all, just puréed chile pepper. Reconstituted dried chile pepper to be more exact.

You see them in Mexican grocery stores or international aisles in supermarkets, packaged in crackling cellophane bags. If you’ve ever looked those over and wondered what the heck you do with them, I’m here today to show you. But first you need to know that not all dried chiles are not equal. Some are much, much drier than others, and that can be a bad thing when it comes to say, making a tamal or enchilada sauce.

If you buy them where there’s a decent turnover, they’ll be dry but not brittle, and that’s what you want. You want chiles that are nice and flexible, that you can bend like this without them breaking. Like so:

If they don’t do that, then your odds of creating a great sauce are vastly diminished. Find another grocer with fresher products.

To begin processing them, tear them open. Just use your bare hands, they chiles won’t do anything to you. Tear off the stem and open the sucker up. You’ll find seeds inside. Shake them out.

Next, tear the chile into pieces about yay big:

When they’re all seeded and torn up, heat up a skillet — cast iron is perfect for this — over medium-high heat. Lay a chile strip in. No oil or fat of any type is needed here.

Using a heavy spatula, press the chile down onto the hot surface. After a few seconds, you’ll feel the spatula rise a little as the small amounts of moisture in the chile turn to steam and cause the flesh to bubble (these bubbles are what will allow moisture in so the flesh can reconstitute). This should take about 30 seconds.

When you start to see the odd puff of smoke, flip the chile piece over. It should be orange-colored and blistered.

Repeat the pressing for about 30 more seconds until the second side looks like the first.

Place the chiles in a bowl and pour boiling water over them. If they float too much, weigh them down with a spoon, cup or saucer.

After half an hour of steeping they’ll look like this:

At this point they’re ready to purée with onion, spices and some of that steeping liquid (and/or chicken stock) to make a chile sauce base. If you’re wondering whether a sauce made from nothing but puréed chile and onion will be spicy or hot, the answer is it all depends on what sort of chiles they are. The chiles pictured — ancho — aren’t particularly hot. Others are extremely so. It all depends on what the recipe calls for.

Oh but let me add: that liquid may or may not irritate the tissues under your fingernails, but it will stain like mad. Don’t get it on your clothes.

Filed under:  Pastry, Rehydrating Dried Chiles | 8 Comments

Shredding Suet

If you enjoy mincemeat and/or British puddings, you’ve no doubt seen suet on an ingredient list. An easy-melting, mild-tasting fat taken from the kidney region of a steer, suet is akin to leaf lard on a pig. Brits of yester-year employed it as an inexpensive fat for enriching sweet baking.

It’s actually still used quite a bit, especially during the holidays, which is why you can still find commercially-shredded and packaged suet in the British Isles. Here in States the only kind of suet we can get comes straight from the steer, so we have to do the shredding ourselves.

But why shred suet? Why not just chop it? The answer is because suet isn’t pure fat. It’s suffused with tissue. Chopped into cubes, the pieces will want to hold their integrity even as they get hot. Shavings of suet incorporate into a mincemeat or pudding mixture much more readily.

Shredding is an easy thing to do. The only critical bit is the angle at which you hold your knife. A cleaver-like implement is best for this job. You want to hold it at a roughly 45-degree angle. The stroke is down-and-away from the mass of suet. It ends in a near scrape.

Do it two or three times and you’ll have a small pile of flakes and shreds, like so:

Five minutes and you’ll have a good-sized heap, as well as some slightly sore fingers. Indeed the steady rapping of the knuckles that shredding entails is the reason matrons of yore hated this job.

When you’ve got as much as you need — this is about half a pound — go over the pile and chop it to ensure there are no lingering chunks or strings in there.

Refrigerate your shredded suet until it’s ready to use!

Filed under:  Pastry, Shredding Suet | 24 Comments

Peeling and Coring Apples

It struck me that a little tutorial on apple prep might be warranted this week. While you don’t need to get super-fussy with apple peeling and coring, a little extra care makes a big difference in apple presentation in everything from tarts and cakes to turnovers and pies. The big thing is to always use a vegetable peeler, and then peel the apple in a spiral, like so:

It’s exceptionally easy and just as fast as a knife. Speaking of which, use one to gently slice out the flower end…

…and using a melon baller, extract the seeds:

There, not perfect but you can see that this sort of method retains a lot more of the apple flesh than the big “v” cut you’d normally make with a knife.

The top looks better.

Left whole or sliced, an apple that looks like this says “apple” more clearly than one that’s been whittled down by conventional means.

Filed under:  Apple Peeling and Coring, Pastry | 4 Comments

How to Truss a Chicken

Trussing a chicken is an easy thing to do and it vastly improves the texture of your roast. Why? Because the more you can draw any large piece of meat — not just a chicken — into a compact, ball-like shape, the more evenly it will cook. Extremities like legs drastically overcook when they simply stick out there in the oven’s heat. A little twine around the meat prevents all this.

Even just twenty years ago trussing meant more fuss. Cooks used needles to almost surgically draw the cavity shut, so as to enclose the stuffing and prevent basting juices from making it soggy. Now that basting has been largely discredited as a way to achieve a juicy roast, there’s no need to be so fussy. Stuffings themselves have gone largely out of style due to food safety concerns.

But regardless of how you feel about stuffings, it’s never a good idea to let a chicken cavity go to waste. You can at the very least fill it full of items that will enhance the chicken’s flavor. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Begin by rinsing your chicken inside and out, then pat it dry, inside and out. Why take so much time with the drying? Because a wet bird won’t brown as well. Evaporation cools, remember. A coating of oil or butter, on the other hand, will help heat penetrate your bird faster.

Now then, cut a piece of butcher’s twine, about four feet long. Lay the chicken on top of it. You want the twine to run about even with the chicken’s wings.

Now stuff the cavity. I use half an onion, half a lemon, a few cloves of garlic and some herbs. Whatever fits.

To truss, tuck the wings back under the chicken.

Bring the string around under the breast and make half of a square knot.

Pull it tight under the breast bone. Notice how the breast plumps up.

Complete the knot.

Now loop the string around one of the legs and draw it up.

Do the same with the other leg…

…and tie a tight knot. Done! Normally this is the point where you rub on some salt and oil (or just oil if you’ve brined your bird). However for chicken in a salt crust you don’t want to do either. More on that a bit later.

Filed under:  Pastry, Trussing a Chicken | 1 Comment

Stupid Chocolate Tricks I: “Balloon” Cups

Here are a few things that don’t go together: impossibly delicate chocolate molds, outdoor photography and July. Fortunately I made a lot of cups and garnishes. Edible “balloon” cups are nothing new, but still a great way to wow guests at a dinner party. You can make them ahead and store them in the fridge until you’re ready to fill and present them.

Start with the balloons. I like’em small because big balloons make big cups that you have to fill with lots of dessert or ice cream. Little ones are a bit more challenging but work a lot better, especially if they’re filled with rich peanut butter mousse, as these are. Mrs. Pastry calls this dessert “peanut butter cup of the gods”, and it’s hard to disagree.

These little balloons — made for water balloons — can be had in most toy stores.

I only blow them up a little bit.

Dip them in meted chocolate, ideally tempered dark chocolate which will make firmer cups with a nicer “snap” when you bit into them.

Get a nice coat on there, wait a few seconds…

…and dip a second time.

Place them on a parchment-lined sheet. They’ll make their own little “feet.”

Allow them to cool completely, especially if the chocolate is tempered, about an hour. When they’re firm, freeze them for about twenty minutes before handling them.

Remove the balloon by clipping the very ends with scissors. This keeps them from popping and damaging the cups.

The balloons will stick to the interiors of the cups, probably. It can be a little difficult extracting some of them, since the thin, thin cup walls start melting as soon as you touch them. If you have difficult balloons, grasp the cup by the “foot” with the fingers of one hand and peel the ballon out with the the fingers of the other — but just for second or two. If the cup is starting melt and you haven’t fully extracted the balloon, put the cup back in the freezer for a minute or so and have another go.

When you’ve extracted all your balloons you can store the cups in the fridge or on the counter, provided it’s not hot in your kitchen. Fill them at your leisure. I spooned in some peanut butter mousse, then piped a curlicue of mousse on the top. I could have piped it all in but I dunno, I wasn’t thinking clearly.

For the garnish, I used a fork to drizzle some free-form shapes on a parchment sheet at the same time I made the cups. I likewise let them firm, then froze them. I peeled them off when the cups were filled and I was ready to serve, like so:

Easy as pie.

Filed under:  Making Chocolate "Balloon" Cups, Pastry | 15 Comments

Spit-Making 101

All this talk of spit and sloppy drunkenness really is making for a macho week — as advertised. But why does one actually need to make a spit to make a spit cake? Because a normal meat-roasting spit is inadequate to the job. You can’t simply skewer a piece of dough on a stick, hold it over a fire and expect it to bake into anything. It would be too massive and the outside of the dough would burn before the interior baked.

The trick to a spit cake is to expose only thin strips of dough to the flame so that it has a realistic chance of baking all the way through. Sure, you could wrap a tiny amount of dough around a stick, but how much fun would that be? A fat log-like spit allows you to create a cake of a size that’s worth eating. It isn’t difficult to make one. I’ll show you how.

First, select your wood. Here I have an untreated 3 1/2″ pine wood bannister post that I got at a local hardware store. You can use virtually any type of wood for this job, but it MUST be untreated. None of that green, pressure-treated stuff you see at the lumber yard. It’s full of a preservative called alkaline copper quaternary (ACQ) and it’s toxic. If in doubt, ask somebody.

So then, seizing the nearest convenient saw, cut off an 8-or-so-inch piece.

Like so.

Now then locate a power drill and a 3/4″ flat bit like this:

Mark the center of the post and drill a hole about two inches deep. Let me emphasize that the technique shown in this photo is counter-indicated by every power drill manual on the planet. Do not drill this way. Use a proper vise, not your hand to hold the post piece steady. I did it like this because, well, this is frequently how we do things in Kentucky. On which note, yes, that’s the back of my friend’s pickup truck. Drill holes in both ends of the post.

Now then, secure a 3-foot length of 3/4″ dowel rod and cut it in half. Apply some wood glue to the end of one of the halves…

…wipe off the excess…

…and insert Peg A into Hole B.

There, you’re done. Just let it dry. Will it burn when I use it over a fire? I sincerely hope not, but we’ll see.

But what about the hole at the other end? I’ll insert the other half of the dowel into it when it comes time for baking. It’ll be easier to wind the dough on — and take the finished pastry off — if I don’t glue it.


NOTE: Had I been thinking this through fully, I’ve have seasoned this spit before I tried making spit cake on it. Wood — even wood that’s been lubricated with oil — does release very well. A liberal covering with oil, then a toasting over a hot fire, would create a seasoning layer on your spit. I plan on doing that, probably twice.

Filed under:  Making a Cake Spit, Pastry | 13 Comments