If you or someone you know is into old (actually very old) recipes, odds are you’ve seen this listed as an ingredient here and there. Pearlash is refined potassium carbonate, an alkaline salt found in wood ashes that also goes by the name potash. Potash was used for a lot of things back in the 1700s and 1800s, especially glassmaking. These days we mostly know it as a fertilizer, but once upon a time it was used to leaven things like corn cakes since it makes bubbles when it gets wet. Given that potash was made from wood ash, its effect on the flavor of corn cakes was as you might expect, but hey, at least the texture was lighter. …

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While we’re waiting…

…for me to make a torte…ehem…reader Ted asked if I’d put up a series on chemical leavers for the Baking Ingredients section. So far the entries on yeasts are the extent of the discussion. I’m happy to do that of course, though I’m wondering how far back in history to go. There were several precursors to modern-day baking powder, and even though we don’t use them anymore there are still some historical recipes out there that call for things like saleratus and pearlash. Maybe those need short entries as well if only to list their modern equivalents. As far as…

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Shortage or Just Baking Season?

I can’t find a hazelnut to save my life, so I’m going with almonds for the meringue. Are hazelnuts in short supply does anyone know?

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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