Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Custards and the miracle of eggs

When we lived in England, my husband loved some little custard tarts that we would buy from a Portuguese bakery in the town in which we lived. Since then, I have been attempting to re-create them to his satisfaction. Recently, I was testing a recipe from Emeril Lagasse and it turned out to be a winner. Hurray! This testing caused me to think about custard and what a wonderful creation it is. It is something all cooks should know how to do and this is why I am writing this Cooking Tip.

A custard is nothing more than a mixture of milk, eggs and often sugar that is cooked into a thickened product. It forms the filling for these little Portuguese tartlets but a custard is also the basis of crème brûlée, flan, ice cream, quiche and more. It is not difficult to make a custard but there are some hints that I hope you find helpful.

Many custards start by having you beat/whisk the eggs (whole or just yolks) together with the sugar until it has thickened and turned light yellow. Some will recommend you continue to the “ribbon” stage, which means the mixture will form a ribbon as you lift up your spoon and allow the mixture to fall back into the bowl. These instructions are meant to help you ensure that the sugar has mostly dissolved. You do not necessarily need to go all the way to ribbon stage but a good mixing until the color and consistency changes is a good idea.

Some recipes will have you heat the dairy (milk, cream) before adding it to the egg/sugar mixture. This is not necessary unless you want to infuse flavor into the dairy. For example, my tartlet recipe had me infuse vanilla seeds and orange zest into the milk. This was achieved by bringing the cream to a boil, adding those two ingredients, covering it, taking it off the heat and allowing to steep for 30 minutes. I then whisked that steeped dairy into my egg mixture. If I did not want to infuse any flavors, I could have added everything together and then heated it on the stovetop.

If you are told to add hot milk/cream to the egg mixture, the danger is that the eggs will start to cook and you will end up with a scrambled egg mixture. To avoid this, you should “temper” the hot liquid into the eggs. This simply means adding some of the hot liquid very slowly into the eggs while whisking. Once the eggs have been diluted with the dairy, you can put it all back into the pot and continue with the recipe.

If your egg/dairy mixture is started cold, the recipe will instruct you to heat it so as to cook the eggs and thicken the mixture. This heating should be done very gently. Resist the temptation to turn up the heat to speed the process. I love how Harold McGee puts it in his book, On Food and Cooking.

“Turning up the heat is like accelerating on a wet road while you’re looking for an unfamiliar driveway. You get to your destination faster, but you may not be able to brake in time to avoid skidding past it.”

As he goes on to explain, the chemical reactions that cause the thickening of the custard don’t stop just because you take it off the heat. So, if you try to hurry this step, you may easily get to the point of curdling or overcooking.

Some custards are meant to be very soft and creamy while others (such as those that need to be turned out of the container before serving) are firmer. This can be adjusted by changing the proportion of the egg content. If you use more whole eggs or egg whites, the custard will turn out firmer and glossier. More egg yolks (or even yolks alone) produces a softer, creamier custard.

Some recipes will have you add a starch such as flour or cornstarch. These ingredients help with thickening while also protecting against curdling. The recommended amount is one tablespoon of flour or two teaspoons cornstarch (or arrowroot) for every cup of liquid. Whereas this does help guard against curdling, it can also turn a smooth, creamy dish into a thicker and coarser one. Whether your custard is made totally on the stovetop or ends up in the oven, if there is no starch in it, it requires gentle heating. On a stovetop, this generally means using the double boiler method with constant stirring. If in the oven, a water bath should be used. On the other hand, if you do add a starch to the mixture, the custard can be cooked over direct heat on the stovetop or without a water bath in the oven.

A water bath just means putting the custard dishes in a larger pan (such as a roasting pan) that has enough hot water in it to go up about half-way the height of the custard dishes. Even though your oven temperature may be set at 350°F, the water in the pan won’t exceed 212°F (or even less if you live at altitude). This means the custards are exposed to a gentler & more even heat. Some recommend putting a rack in the bottom upon which you place the custard dishes so that they are not directly exposed to the hot bottom of the pan. Without a water bath, the outside of your custard could overcook before the center is done. With a water bath, you are more likely to catch them at the perfect degree of doneness.

All this talk of custards has me salivating over those little Portuguese custard tartlets that I made. I have a few left and those will definitely be dessert tonight! How about you? Is a custard in your near future? Let me know!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Meringues — French, Swiss & Italian

Last week’s Cooking Tip talked about different styles of mousse and how some styles used a meringue as part of the dish. In this week’s Tip, I would to spend more time discussing the different types of meringue – French, Swiss and Italian.

In the simplest terms, a meringue is a mixture of beaten egg whites and sugar. It can be used to fold into cake or cookie batters, as a filling, topping or a stand-alone cookie that melts in your mouth when you eat it. Since the basis of a meringue is beaten egg whites, you may want to review the prior Cooking Tip on egg white foams before attempting these different types of meringues.

French meringue is the most basic of the meringues. It is made by beating egg whites to the foamy stage (45-60 seconds) and then slowly adding sugar and continuing to beat into a soft, airy and light mixture. Adding the sugar too early or too late can lead to disappointing results. Adding it after about a minute of beating when the whites have reached the foamy stage but before they begin to form peaks is ideal. This type of meringue is the easiest to make but is also the least stable. Therefore, it is usually used when it is going to be baked – either in a cake batter, meringue cookies or a meringue shell that is then topped with fruit, whipped cream or a type of mousse.

Swiss meringue is prepared differently. Egg whites and sugar are put into a bowl that sits above boiling water – a type of bain marie. When the mixture reaches the temperature of about 120° to 140°F, the mixture is removed from the heat and then beaten to stiff peaks. This method results in a meringue that is less fluffy than French and less stable then Italian. The recipe testers at Serious Eats, though, claim to have found a technique that will make your Swiss meringue as light as a French meringue but as stable as Italian. They do this by cooking it to a higher temperature – up to 175°F. They also whip it vigorously at high speed for about 5 minutes, until it is very glossy, thick & stiff. This type of meringue is often used as the base for buttercream frosting.

Italian meringue starts by putting the egg whites into your mixer bowl and beating to soft peaks. Then, a sugar syrup that has been heated to 240°F is slowly drizzled in while you continue to whip until the meringue is very voluminous and reaches the desired peak. Because this sugar syrup is very hot, one must be very careful when using this method to prevent burns. It is the most stable of the meringues but is also heavy and thick. It is what is used to make nougat and is also the best one for topping meringue pies.

Watching egg whites transform into a beautiful fluffy meringue is almost miraculous. Using this meringue to then top your pie, to lighten your cake batter or to bake into a pavlova or meringue cookie is further evidence of the wonderfulness of eggs!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Egg White Foam

Have you heard of the term “Egg White Foam”? It is a culinary term that describes what happens when you beat egg whites – they increase in volume and turn into a foam. It is what you do when you want to make an angel food cake, a meringue or a soufflé. This tip will go over how to achieve the best foam, what could go wrong and the adjustments that those of us who live at altitude need to make.

If you read about how to whip egg whites, you will probably run across many Dos & Don’ts. As with so much cooking advice, these rules keep getting passed on without anyone stopping to test whether they are really true. In this Cooking Tip, I have sought out real research to help you have success.

  • The temperature of the egg whites can make a difference.
    Warmer egg whites may whip up faster but you can still easily whip cold egg whites. It may take slightly longer but it is not a game-changer.

  • The age of the egg whites can make a difference.
    There seems to be a debate among experts but the general consensus is that older egg whites whip up faster but the resulting foam will be less stable than if you had used fresher egg whites. So, decide based on which is more important to you –volume or stability. Or, just use what is in your refrigerator knowing that the age can make a difference.

  • Your bowl can make a difference.
    The basis for this rule is that plastic bowls may harbor grease on their surfaces which is hard to eliminate with washing. This grease may inhibit the forming of a great foam. If given the choice, it is best to use a glass or stainless-steel bowl. However, if plastic is all you have, just make sure it is clean. You will probably be OK.

  • Don’t add salt to your foam.
    Adding salt used to be recommended to help stabilize the foam. It has been shown that salt, in fact, can act as a destabilizer. If your recipe calls for salt, add it to the dry ingredients, not your egg whites.

  • Cream of tartar is a good idea.
    Cream of tartar helps to prevent overbeating of your egg whites, which can lead to a recipe failure.

  • Be careful of when you add sugar to your foam.
    If you add all the sugar at the beginning, it inhibits the foam’s capacity for holding air. If you add it slowly only after you have soft peaks & a significant increase in volume, you allow the foam to incorporate the necessary air. Also, adding it slowly helps to prevent the sugar crystals from popping your wonderful air bubbles.

  • Don’t overbeat your egg whites.
    This is one rule that is actually very important. Overbeating your whites is another thing that will lead to that dreaded recipe failure. Most recipes will specify what you should do – beat your whites to soft peaks or stiff peaks.

Soft peaks do not stand up on their own and will start to become glossy. Stiff peaks will be sharp and not droopy. Overbeaten whites will look dry or even lumpy. You may also see a watery mess at the bottom of the bowl. If this happens, there is no solution. You must dump them out and start over.

Once you reach soft peaks, it does not take much time to get to stiff peaks. It is so easy to overbeat. So, it is better to under-beat. This is especially true at altitude. Let me give you an example. Some recipes for soufflés call for you to beat to stiff peaks. However, if you do this, your soufflé will probably not rise. When you put it in the oven, all those beautiful air bubbles will pop and deflate before the surrounding cake has time to set.

If you beat only to soft peaks, you will get much better results. When you tilt the bowl containing the egg whites, they should still move just a tiny bit. These air bubbles can retain their volume while the surrounding cake sets – giving you a beautiful risen soufflé.

  • Beware of getting fat/yolk into your egg whites.
    As with so many things, this is partially true. Fat does inhibit creating a nice foam. It will take longer to beat up to peaks, the volume will be less and the resulting foam will be less stable.

The other side of this is that it depends on how much fat gets into your whites. Will a speck of yolk destroy your foam? No. Will a larger amount of yolk cause you problems? Yes, depending on how much yolk and how many whites you are beating. Here is a link to a great site with photos that actually tested this theory.

  • Don’t beat too quickly.
    For the best and most stable foam, start out beating slowly. Use a low or med-low speed. The whites will lighten in color, develop large air bubbles & look foamy. As you continue to beat at this speed, the foam will start to increase in volume, become whiter and the size of the air bubbles will decrease. As the bubbles become even smaller, you can increase to medium high to achieve your desired peak.

The holidays are a great excuse to make that wonderful, special dessert such as a meringue or a souffle. With these tips, I trust you will have success. Let me know and send me a picture of your results!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Parmesan Cheese — what is it and how do you use it?

Some people love all kinds of cheese; some have a more limited palate and then some of us (including me) have definite likes and dislikes but tend towards the former. One cheese, though, that most of us probably enjoy is Parmesan – and I am not talking about powdered stuff that comes in a green can!

Parmesan is a hard, dry cheese made from skimmed or partially skimmed cow’s milk. It is made in multiple countries but the most famous and sought-after is Parmigiano-Reggiano from Italy. To be called that, there are very strict controls as to how it is made and from where it is made. Not only that, but in 2008, European courts ruled that this Parmigiano-Reggiano is the only cheese that can be called Parmesan. Most of the world followed this ruling but not the US. Here, you fill find a parmesan-style cheese called Parmesan but to be called Parmigiano-Reggiano, it must come from that specific area of Italy.

There are so many wonderful cheeses out there to eat and with which to cook. Many are European but we also have excellent cheese makers here in the US. More and more of our supermarkets are expanding their specialty cheese selection. Get out there and try some. There are bound to be cheeses that will please everyone!

Cheese lovers will tell you that you should only use the “real” thing – Parmigiano-Reggiano. If you choose a cheese labeled as such, you won’t disappointed but it will cost you more than other cheeses just labeled “Parmesan”. I encourage you to do taste tests and decide for yourself. Also, it may be worth the higher price for a cheese board but it might not if all you are doing is grating it on pasta. The choice is yours – and isn’t it wonderful to have such choices?

Another bit of advice for you is not to throw away the rind when you are finished with your Parmesan cheese. When you are finished, toss the rinds in an airtight plastic bag and put in the freezer. Then, when you are making a pot of minestrone or other soup, toss in a rind. Another ingenious use is to make a stock out of the leftover rinds. Here is a link to a recipe to do just that. Once you have the cheese broth, use it in your risottos, pasta dishes or meat dishes.