Cooking Tips · Techniques

Crepes — Simple but Impressive!

I am going to be teaching a fun class on Crepes. I thought all of you might also enjoy learning all about these delightful creations. From very light and sweet crepes used to make Crepes Suzette to sturdier and nuttier Buckwheat crepes that you would use in a full-flavored savory dish, there is so much to learn. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Although you will find crepes used in other cuisines, they are French in origin. The word crêpe is French for pancake. They originated in Brittany in the northwest of France. At that time, they were not typically filled but rather eaten as bread. Buckwheat flour was the preferred flour up until about 100 years ago. A sidenote is that in some parts of France, the heartier Buckwheat crepe, normally containing a savory filling, is called a galette. The word “crepe” is reserved for the lighter and more likely sweet version.

February 2nd is known in France as Le Jour des Crêpes (the day of crepes). According to The Institute of Culinary Education, this celebration is “believed to have begun in the year 472 when crêpes were offered to French Catholic pilgrims visiting Rome for Candlemas by Pope Gelasio I. Now, Le Jour des Crêpes and Candlemas are synonymous occasions in France and Belgium, where crêpes take on additional meaning, their circular nature symbolizing either a coin or the sun.”

The ingredient list for crepes is small – flour, eggs, butter, milk and/or water. Other ingredients such as salt, sugar and vanilla are optional depending on the type of crepe you are making.

Flour – most standard crepes use just all-purpose flour. For a heartier crepe, buckwheat flour can be used. This is a very strong tasting flour, which can be tamed by using a combination of buckwheat and all-purpose flour. One advantage of using all buckwheat is that it is gluten-free. Rice flour can also be used for gluten-free crepes and is better suited when you want a lighter and/or sweet crepe. Other flours that can be used are garbanzo flour, chestnut flour and whole-wheat flour. Even cornmeal is sometimes used.

Liquid – some recipes may call only for water but this does lead to a bland crepe that lacks some structure. Milk gives you a richer crepe. There are those that feel all milk is too heavy and will use a mixture of milk and water.

Seasoning – for a savory crepe, just add a pinch of salt. For more variety, you can add finely chopped herbs, minced sun-dried tomatoes or other spices. For sweet crepes, add a touch of sugar and vanilla extract.

How to make crepes

Start by melting your butter and allowing it to cool just a bit so it doesn’t scramble the eggs. Browning your butter before using it adds a delightful nuttiness to the crepe. The easiest and best method for combining all these ingredients is by using a blender although you can do it by hand with a whisk. Just make sure everything is thoroughly incorporated and realize that your crepes might end up a bit denser than they would if you used a blender.

Some recipes will have you just add all the ingredients to the blender or bowl and then combine. Others will have you do it in steps. Those recipes have you start by first blending the liquid and eggs. This is followed by adding the flour and again blending. Finally, pour in the melted butter as the blender is running.

Most sources will tell you it is very important to rest your crepe batter for 30-60 minutes before cooking the crepes. You can even refrigerate it overnight. This allows the flour to fully hydrate, for bubbles to disappear and for the flavor to develop. There are those such as J. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats who feel the resting stage is not that important.

To cook them, you do not need any special equipment – only a small nonstick skillet. I have a special nonstick crepe pan that I love. It has a slightly larger surface area and shorter and straighter sides than a nonstick skillet. It looks something like this one. You can even purchase the type of crepe maker that you see experts using in crepe shops. The diameter of these is much larger and requires a bit of practice to learn how to twirl the batter to get a good result. I bought one for my husband and every time I get it out, I have to re-learn how to do it.

There are a few important tips on how to cook them. First, you want to add melted butter or oil to your hot pan. Add a small amount and wipe out the excess with a paper towel. Since you want a thin crepe, it is critical to only add enough batter to get this result. How much you add will depend on the size of your pan but for an 8-inch pan, you will want to try about 3 tablespoons. Add the batter to the center of the pan and quickly tilt and rotate the pan so the batter flows out and covers the bottom. As you cook a few, you will soon find the best amount of batter for your pan. For a scientific explanation of the best method, see this article from Physics.

Some recommend the “pour out” method in which you pour in more batter than you need, swirl the pan once to get an even coating followed quickly by pouring the excess batter back into your bowl. Try both methods and see which you prefer.

Cook them only until the bottom is set. This shouldn’t be more than 15-30 seconds. Carefully flip the crepe and finish cooking the other side for an additional 30 seconds or until set. If you cook them too long, they could get rubbery. Realize that crepes are similar to pancakes in that the first one often does not turn out. You will get better results as you do additional crepes.

Crepes are best eaten just after cooking. However, you can store them in the refrigerator in an airtight container for three days. Gently reheat them in a skillet before serving. They can be frozen up to a month. Be sure to place either wax paper or parchment between each crepe before placing in an airtight freezer bag.

Crepes are delicious but they are really just a type of envelope to hold the filling. This could be nothing more than my husband’s favorite of a sprinkling of lemon juice and sugar. It could also be whipped cream/berries, chocolate sauce, Nutella or the classic Crepes Suzette.

For savory fillings, a couple I like are Chicken, Corn and Red Pepper as well as a Beef Picadillo with a Chipotle Crema. One of the best meals we had in Paris was an unbelievably delicious but so simple Ham and Egg crepe.

The French way to fill a crepe is to place the filling on the crepe and then fold it into quarters. You can also just roll them like an enchilada, fold them into a square or do a simple fold-over. Here is a link to a nice description of some of the most common folds.

Once you learn the basics and practice just a bit, you will be able to easily impress your friends and family with these delectable creations!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Custards – how to cook this yummy dish.

I have been working on a class I will be teaching on Crêpes. In the class, I will be teaching how to make different varieties of crêpes as well as numerous fillings, both savory and sweet. One of the sweet ones is an Orange Custard filling. Custards are delicious and wonderful creations and it is a technique that all cooks should know. That is the subject of 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 not only for crêpes but also is the basis of crème brulee, 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. I also recommend that you invest in a good instant read thermometer as it will help you make a delicious custard that is safe to eat but not overcooked.

Custards can be categorized in a couple different ways. The first is by the cooking technique.

  • Baked custards are typically started on the stovetop but baked in the oven. Examples are crème brûlée, flan and cheesecake.
  • Stovetop (stirred) custards are, as the name implies, cooked totally on the cooktop. These custards are smooth, creamy and thickened but do not gel as with a baked custard. Examples are crème anglaise, pastry cream and zabaglione.

The other way to categorize custards is by how they are thickened.

  • Basic custards – thickened by eggs alone. They are delicate and care must be taken to not overcook them. They thicken between 160° and 180°F. Cooking it beyond 185°F may cause it to curdle and lose its shape as the egg proteins break down. You also run the risk of creating scrambled eggs. To prevent this, these custards are usually cooked by using a double boiler. They should never be boiled.

    These custards are meant to be very soft and creamy although the thickness 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 yolks alone) produce a softer, creamier custard.

    Examples – crème anglaise (which can be frozen into ice cream), flan, pot de crème, crème caramel.
  • Starch-thickened – this type of custard is thickened with the aid of a starch such as flour or cornstarch. They have more body and are not quite as delicate as the starch helps to protect 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. This type of custard needs to be brought to a simmer to ensure it is cooked properly. A guideline is to cook it for 1-2 minutes after bubbles appear. For more information types of thickeners, see the Tip.

    Examples – puddings, pastry cream, cheesecake.
  • Gelatin-set – gelatin is used to produce a set-up custard that can stand on its own after it has been chilled properly. I love using leaf gelatin rather than powdered for the silkiest texture. See this Tip for more info on gelatin types.

    Examples – a classic example is a Bavarian, which is usually set in a decorative mold. A basic custard may also have gelatin added to it, often along with a fruit puree or chocolate. It then can be made into an icebox pie.

Now for some technique advice. 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, I have a custard tart recipe in which I infuse vanilla seeds and orange zest into milk. This is achieved by bringing the dairy to a boil, adding those two ingredients, covering it, taking it off the heat and allowing to steep for 30 minutes. That steeped dairy is then whisked into the 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 heating should be done very gently so as not cook the eggs but still thicken the mixture. 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.

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. 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.

If you are concerned about egg safety, you may be wondering if the eggs in a stovetop custard are cooked enough to sterilize them. As long as the mixture is cooked to at least 160°F, you will be fine. As mentioned above, you do not want the mixture to go above 185° or it might curdle. A basic crème anglaise should be ready between 175°-180°F but some recommend taking it to 180-185°F if using it to make ice cream as it will be a bit thicker.

Baked custards should come out of the oven when they are still jiggling when gently shaken, which will be around 170°-175°F.

Who doesn’t love a custardy dish? Whether you want to make a savory quiche, a chocolate pudding or an elegant crème brûlée, I trust this Tip will help you impress your friends/family.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Luscious Caramel Sauce

When you want caramel sauce to pour over your ice cream, do you run to the store and buy a pre-made bottle? We have all done that but did you know you can make your own so very simply? How to do that is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Why would you want to make your own? First, you avoid a run to the store. Second, you know what exactly is in the sauce. Here is the ingredient list for a couple of major brands.

Ghirardelli Premium Caramel Sauce – Corn syrup, water, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, skim milk, heavy cream, salt, natural flavor, pectin, disodium phosphate.

Torani Caramel Sauce — Corn Syrup, Sugar, Invert Sugar, Heavy Cream, Water, Butter, Nonfat Milk, Natural Flavors, Salt, Lecithin, Sodium Bicarbonate.

What is the ingredient list for homemade caramel sauce? It is usually just sugar, water & dairy. That is a much shorter ingredient list without any artificial ingredients.

There are two main methods of making caramel – wet and dry. In the wet method, the sugar is dissolved in water whereas in the dry method, the sugar is melted without the addition of water. The wet method takes longer as the water must evaporate but you are less likely to burn the sugar than with the dry method.

Even though recipes will give you amounts of ingredients, the timing and resulting caramel will vary depending on such variables as the size/type of pan used as well as the type of cooktop and its heat. It is something that you need to use your eyes and nose for as the color of the sugar changes and the aroma develops. It is also something that takes just a bit of practice to get it just where you want it.

In the wet method, you add the sugar and water and stir until dissolved over medium-low heat. After the sugar is dissolved, raise the heat to high and let it cook without further stirring. Keep an eye on it as after a few minutes, it will start to turn a light amber and then darker amber. The longer you cook it, the darker the color and the deeper the caramel flavor. Be careful, though, as it can quickly go from dark amber to burnt. After it is at your desired color, very carefully add heavy cream (it will bubble vigorously) and whisk to combine.

Note that the longer you cook the caramel, not only does the color darken but the harder the resulting caramel will be when it cools. If it ends up too hard, you can gently re-heat it and add more liquid to thin it. On the other hand, if it is too thin, make a second batch, cook it slightly longer than the first batch and combine the two.

For a dry caramel, sprinkle a thin layer of sugar into your pot, not reaching to the edges. Over medium-high heat, cook it and watch as the sugar starts to dissolve. It will then start to turn amber around the edges. At that point, gently and carefully swirl it to distribute the sugar. Once most of it has turned amber, add another thin layer of sugar and continue to cook until amber. Repeat until you have added all the sugar and reached the desired color. Remove from the heat and immediately and carefully add your cream.

What about butter? Some recipes call for it whereas others do not. Butter produces a very nice mouthfeel due to the high fat content. However, as butter is solid at room temperature, your caramel sauce will be firmer when cooled, especially after being in the refrigerator.

Many pastry chefs will tell you that you can use either of these methods interchangeably and get similar results. Others will say that since with the wet method, you must take time to evaporate the water, the sugar cooks longer resulting in more complex flavors.

The biggest problem people have is that the sugar can crystallize, making the sugar syrup very grainy. If it does this, take it off the heat, add a couple tablespoons of water and heat again until the crystals dissolve.

The following are recommended methods to prevent crystallization in the first place.

  • Use a wet pastry brush to wipe down any sugar crystals on the side of the pan. Not all chefs do this and say they have no problems.
  • Although not as common, some will lightly oil the sides of the pan before starting so the sugar does not stick to the pan.
  • Another method involves putting a lid on the pot if you see any crystals on the side. This will produce steam and dissolve the crystals.
  • Add a different type of molecule. Crystallization is most common in what is called a “pure solution”. By adding a different type of ingredient such as corn syrup (mostly glucose) or a few drops of acid (lemon juice, vinegar, cream of tartar), you can prevent crystallization.
  • A common recommendation is to not stir as the sugar is cooking, particularly before the color starts to change. Then, only stir if spots are getting too dark. I must say that there are pastry chefs, though, who do some careful stirring without resulting crystallization.

Another problem is that the caramel gets too dark or even burns.

  • Use a heavy gauge stainless steel pot. With a thin pan, you are more likely to experience uneven cooking and a higher likelihood of burning.
  • Try to not to use a pot with a dark interior as it is much harder to judge the color.
  • A wide saucepan or even a deep skillet is better than a tall and narrow pot. With the latter, there is less surface area, which slows down the caramelization process.
  • Have a bowl of cold water ready. When you reach the desired color, submerge the bottom of the pan into the cold water to quickly stop the cooking process.
  • Quickly add your cream as the cold cream will cool down the solution. Just be careful as it will bubble vigorously as you do this. Stand back and then whisk together.

Once you get the correct color, there will be almost no water left. As this cools, it will become rock hard. You need to add moisture to get the desired consistency. The more liquid you add, the thinner it will be. If you add too much, just put the pot back on the heat to evaporate some of the water. If it is too thin, add more liquid.

Remember that cooked sugar is extremely hot and can cause serious burns. Always be careful when making caramel or anything that requires you to melt sugar. Use heavy oven mitts and long sleeves. Many experts recommend that you put a bowl of ice water nearby in case any of the mixture splashes onto your hands. If so, immediately put them into the ice water. NEVER taste it until it has fully cooled!

Homemade caramel sauce is a delightful concoction. Although it does take a bit of practice, once you master it, there will be no more quick runs to the store for that pre-made sauce.

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Cakes – How to put it all together!

In the last Cooking Tip, we looked at cake ingredients. In this one, we want to delve into the methods of mixing those ingredients into a cake batter. The different methods are going to give you different results and it is good to have a working knowledge of them. In fact, you can learn to predict what method you are going to use based on the ingredients. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip. This Tip is not written with high altitude concerns in mind. If you are one of us that does live at high altitude, there are other considerations that are in addition to the following information. See this prior Cooking Tip for that.

As we learned in the last Tip, cakes have basically the same ingredients – flour, sugar, butter, salt, eggs, chemical leaveners, milk, flavorings. How you combine these ingredients determines what you end up with – a cake, muffins, a quick bread, etc.

Creaming

This is a relatively easy method that you will use if the ingredient list calls for softened butter and sugar. This method involves mechanically incorporating air into the batter to produce a light result. Although you can do it by hand, it is very difficult to get the desired result and will be much easier to use some type of electric mixer. The basic method is as follows:

  • It is very important that the ingredients are at room temperature (~70°F).
  • Combine room temperature butter with sugar and mix thoroughly until light and pale yellow. The sugar will cut through the butter, creating air bubbles, which will expand in the oven.
  • Either lightly whisk the eggs together and add to the batter in a slow stream or add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition until they are fully incorporated.
  • Add dry ingredients, which may be done in one of two ways. Some recipes will have you add them all at once and mix just until combined. Others will have you add the dry and wet ingredients alternately, starting and finishing with the dry to ensure the batter can absorb all the liquid. One exception is if the wet component is whipped egg whites. You will end with those to prevent deflating.

Cakes made with this method will be soft but sturdy, easy to slice and stack in layers. Examples are pound cakes and butter cakes. This method also works well for batters put into Bundt pans as well as for many cookie recipes and cupcakes.

Reverse Creaming

This method is sometimes referred to as the “two-stage” or “high ratio” method or even the “paste” method. By high ratio, what is meant is that there is more sugar than flour by weight or at most, equal amounts. This method does not work well for cakes that have less sugar than flour. These cakes will also contain a chemical leavening agent rather than just relying on air as the regular creaming method often does. The method is:

  • Combine all dry ingredients in a bowl and mix.
  • Recipes may vary a bit after this. Some will add only the softened butter and mix to form a coarse crumble followed by adding the liquid ingredients, either all at once or in two additions. Others will add some of the liquid with the butter and end with the remaining liquid.

This method is said to allow the butter to coat the flour. The liquid is then combining with the sugar instead of the flour, limiting gluten development. It produces less air holes and the resulting cake is very soft and tender.

When Cooks Illustrated compared creaming and reverse-creaming side-by-side using identical ingredients, they found that tasters could not tell the difference. They also used a tool to analyze firmness and they were very similar. They did find that the cake using the regular creaming method had a slightly domed top and a more open crumb. With the reverse creaming method, the cake top was more level and the crumb very fine and velvety.

One-stage method

This is also known as the “muffin” method and is a very simple method.

  • Mix all the dry ingredients in one bowl.
  • Mix all the wet ingredients in another bowl.
  • Mix the wet into the dry and combine gently to avoid developing excessive gluten.

You will recognize this method when the ingredient list has all the dry ingredients grouped together and all the wet together. The ingredient list also has:

  • A liquid fat (oil, melted butter) as they are easier to incorporate with this method.
  • A good amount of liquid.
  • A higher amount of chemical leaveners than cakes or cupcakes as this is the only way to get a rise. There is no mechanical leavening such as you get with whipped eggs or from creaming butter & sugar together.

Blended

Also known as the “single stage” or “one bowl” method, it is the absolute easiest of all cake methods. You just put everything in a bowl at once and stir together. With this method, it will often call for oil rather than butter as it is easier to incorporate. This method can be used with cakes made from scratch but it is normally used with cake mixes. It results in cakes that are very moist and good for add-ins but on the denser side.

Foam method

This method produces very light and airy cakes. The leavening is provided by whipping air into the batter. The method can be done either with whole eggs or what is called the “separated egg foam.”

  • Separated egg foam
    • Separate eggs and beat the yolks with part of the sugar until thick and light in color.
    • Beat egg whites separately with sugar to stiff but not dry peaks.
    • Very gently fold beaten egg whites into the yolks alternating with the dry ingredients.
  • Whole egg foam – warm or cold
    • For the warm method:
      • Whole eggs and sugar are warmed together over a hot water bath until sugar is totally dissolved and then beaten until thick.
      • You continue beating until the mixture is cooled and ribbons form. At this point, mixture is almost tripled in volume.
      • Finally, the dry ingredients and melted butter are folded in alternately.
    • For the cold method:
      • Egg and sugar are place in a bowl and whipped at high speed until creamy, light in color and volume has greatly increased.
      • Butter is typically not included as cakes made by this method are later soaked in a liqueur or flavoring such as in tiramisu or a trifle. With this method, part of the sugar melts in the oven rather than over the water bath. This results in larger air bubbles in the finished cake, which are great when soaked in a flavorful liquid.

Angel food cake method

Angel food cakes are a type of sponge cake made from egg whites, sugar and flour. There is no butter or other fat.

  • Start by sifting the flour and part of the sugar in a bowl.
  • Egg whites are beaten with the remaining sugar to peaks and then gently folded into the dry ingredients.

Chiffon method

This method is an amalgamation of different methods. It will contain a liquid fat, usually oil, as well as a chemical leavener like baking powder. The basic method is:

  • Sift together dry ingredients with part of the sugar.
  • Mix in the oil, yolks, water and flavorings.
  • Beat egg whites to peak with remaining sugar and gently fold into batter.

Is one of these methods better than another? Does one produce a better cake than another? It all depends on what kind of cake you want. No matter what result you want and what method you choose, there are some tips for great cake baking in general.

  • Baking cakes, especially if you live at high altitude, is not a time to fly by the seat of your pants. It is, rather, a time to follow the recipe exactly. The only variations would be those you make at high altitude.
  • Buy a food scale and weigh the ingredients. It is more accurate than cup measures and will yield better results.
  • Pay attention to temperatures called for in the recipe. If it specifies room temperature butter (and/or other ingredients), you will only get the desired result if you heed that advice.
  • Butter should be unsalted unless otherwise specified. If all you have is salted butter, reduce the salt in the recipe by ¼ tsp for each 4 ounces of butter. If you do much baking, try to always have unsalted butter on hand. It keeps wonderfully in the freezer and you will not have to make adjustments.
  • I did a prior Cooking Tip on pan sizes. Review that and then measure your cake pans to know if they are going to work for the recipe.
  • Try to not use dark-colored pans as they will not give you the desired result of a golden, moist and tender cake.
  • Most recipes will call for greasing the cake pans. Even better is to grease the pan, line it with parchment, and grease again. For bundt-style cakes, grease the pan thoroughly and sprinkle lightly with flour or use a flour-based pan spray.
  • Allow enough time to thoroughly preheat your oven. It is also a good idea to use an oven thermometer to check its accuracy.

Do you do much cake baking? What is your preferred type of cake? What method do you use? Do you live at high altitude and have you experienced altitude-related challenges?
Let me know and send me photos of your wonderful creations!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

What makes up a cake?

I recently wrote about the difference between cupcakes and muffins. In that Tip, I mentioned I would be delving more into cakes. I wish to do just that in this and my next Cooking Tip. In this one, we will look at the ingredients and their function in cakes. In the next one, we will learn the different methods of incorporating these ingredients to achieve different types of cakes.

All cakes have similar ingredients – flour, sugar, eggs, a fat, maybe a leavener and flavorings. Let’s take each in turn along with a couple others.

In general, cake ingredients can be categorized as strengtheners or tenderizers. Great cakes are a balance of these two characteristics.

Strengtheners

  • Flour
  • Eggs

Tenderizers

  • Sugar
  • Fat

Flour

Flour gives cakes structure. However, just one look at the store shelves will tell you that there are many different types of flour. Choosing the right one for your cakes is important.

In the US, we name our flours based on the usage such as bread flour, cake flour, pastry flour and all-purpose flour. The differences between these flours is the protein (predominantly gluten). Even among these categories, protein content can vary from brand to brand or even within different shipments of the same brand. One company that pledges to always have the same protein content no matter where or when you buy their flour is King Arthur Flour Company.

The type of flour with one of the highest protein contents (12-16%) is bread flour. This is why when bread dough is kneaded, the gluten is developed leading to the structure and chewiness of artisan breads. It will not give you tender, moist cakes

Cake & pastry flours have the lowest protein content (7-9%) and are milled to a finer consistency. They are what gives the tenderness to these baked products and are often recommended for cakes. I will warn those of you that live at high altitude that this may not be the best choice. As one of the problems at altitude is lack of structure with resultant falling of the cake, cake flours are not ideal in this situation. See my Cooking Tip on cake flour for more info.

All-purpose (AP) flour has a protein content in the middle: 10-12%. If you only want one flour in your cupboard, this is the one to choose. Because it has a moderate protein content, you can use it for almost any purpose. You won’t necessarily get the same result as you would if using one of the other flours, but it will be perfectly acceptable.

Eggs

  • Add structure in the form of protein.
  • Add volume to the cake when beaten.
  • Act as a binder keeping the cake together.
  • Yolks contain emulsifiers that help to form a thick batter that doesn’t separate.
  • Contribute to browning.
  • Contribute to the overall flavor partly because the fat in the yolks helps to carry other flavors.
  • Being mostly water, they contribute to the overall moisture content.
  • The fat in yolks helps to shorten gluten strands and tenderize the final product.

Sugar

  • Adds sweetness.
  • Aids in browning.
  • Assists in the aeration and stabilization of the batter.
  • Helps to keep the cake moist.
  • Helps to form a finer crumb due to its ability to impede gluten formation by attracting the water away from the flour.

Fat

  • Adds flavor.
  • Tenderizes the crumb.
  • Aids with browning.
  • Decreases gluten development by coating the gluten in the flour so it is less available to the liquid.
  • Solid fats are used to incorporate air bubbles to increase volume. This is done through the creaming method, which I will discuss more in next week’s Tip.
  • Oil will help keep the cake moist but can also yield a denser cake.

Salt

  • In cakes, the main purpose of salt is as a favor enhancer.

Leaveners

  • Aid in rising of the cake.
  • Chemical – usually baking powder.
  • Mechanical – by beating air into the batter.

Liquids

  • The most common liquid in cakes is milk but there could be other liquids specified in the recipe.
  • Add moisture.
  • Help dissolve the sugar and salt.
  • Provides steam for leavening.
  • On the caution side, liquids can increase gluten formation resulting in a tougher cake.

Flavorings

  • Spices, extracts, citrus zest, liqueurs can add flavor and aroma.

Now that you have a good idea of what all these ingredients do, stay tuned for next week’s
Cooking Tip to see how to put them all together!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Is it a muffin or is it a cupcake?

I have been working on a Holiday Brunch class that I will be teaching in November. I was testing a recipe for what was called “Chocolate Orange Muffins”. Doesn’t that sound like a wonderful holiday bread? As I was mixing them, I noticed that the directions were a bit different than what you find in most muffin recipes. When they were done baking, they looked beautiful and tasted delightful. However, they tasted almost more like a cupcake than a muffin. That led to this Cooking Tip – just what is the difference between a cupcake and a muffin?

There are actually real differences between these two items. The first (and most important) difference is the Mixing Method. There are numerous different mixing methods in the world of baked goods. (Stay tuned for a future Cooking Tip that will explain this more.) For now, let’s just mention the Muffin Method, which is also known as the one-stage method. All the dry ingredients are mixed together in one bowl and all the wet are mixed up in another bowl. Then, the wet ingredients are mixed into the dry ingredients. Any mix-ins such as fruit or chocolate chips are then gently folded into this batter. Apportion the batter into your muffin cups, bake and voila – you have muffins. Recipes written with this method in mind have all the dry ingredients listed together and all the wet ingredients together.

Cupcakes are really just small cakes and therefore, use a method more appropriate for cakes. There are multiple methods for cake making but the one called for in my recipe is what is termed the Creaming Method. In this method, softened butter and sugar are mixed up until light and pale yellow. Eggs are gently whisked together and gradually added to the mixture. Finally, the dry ingredients are mixed together and gently folded into the batter. There may or may not be milk also added, usually alternating with the flour as you mix it. The longer beating results in a tighter and more even crumb. The batter tends to be softer and smoother than a sturdier muffin batter. When you see “softened butter and sugar” in the ingredient list, you are probably going to use the creaming method.

Ingredients are another distinguishing factor. Although they do tend to call for very similar ingredients, cupcakes tend to have more sugar and fat than muffins. One expert source quoted a ratio of flour to sugar at 2-3 cups of flour to 1 cup sugar for muffins (a ratio of 0.5-0.33 sugar to flour) and 1½ cups flour to 1 cup sugar (a ratio of 0.66 sugar to flour) for cupcakes. Most cupcakes probably call for AP or maybe cake flour. Muffins often vary this by adding in a whole grain flour or other “healthier” flour.

Cupcakes usually use butter as the fat while muffins will often substitute a type of oil. Cupcakes also often have other “cakey” ingredients such as vanilla but do not normally have many add-ins or fillings. Muffins, though, are a great base for adding nuts, fruits, etc. Cupcakes are generally frosted whereas muffins are not. If muffins are topped with something, it will more likely be a crumb topping, a sprinkle of coarse sugar or a thin glaze.

You will also notice Textural differences, which is a result of the different mixing methods. Think of a great cupcake you have eaten. No doubt that it was soft and very easy to take a bite of. Contrast that with a muffin – the muffin will be denser and a bit harder.

Size/Shape – Although not 100%, cupcakes do tend to be smaller than muffins. Muffins often flow out of the cup in which they are baked. Many people love these “muffin tops”. Cupcakes do not generally do that.

So, what about my recipe? Was it a cupcake or a muffin? The author of the recipe called it a “muffin” but, let’s take a look at it.

  • Method – it used the creaming method
  • Flour to sugar ratio – 2½ cups flour to 1½ cup sugar, which is a ratio of 0.6 sugar to flour
  • Fat – butter, no oil
  • Other ingredients – it called for vanilla, milk and sour cream
  • Add-ins – orange zest and chocolate chips
  • Final texture – it was very soft and easy to eat but a bit denser than many cupcakes
  • Size/shape – no muffin tops here
  • Toppings – none

By most of the above measures, this does appear more of a cupcake than a muffin although you might be a bit confused when eating it. As my husband said, it’s a little bit of both muffin and cupcake. Despite what you call it, it was very yummy and just might make it onto my Holiday Brunch table!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Is it a crisp, a cobbler, a crumble or something else?

My husband has a fruit tree that was supposed to have been an apricot tree or so the tag attached to it said. As it grew and started to produce fruit, it was clear as it was not an apricot but was an apple tree. (I was sad as I love apricots.) We do not know what kind of apple tree it is other than it is an early producer. This year we harvested a nice supply of apples from this tree and I decided to make a cobbler. Or, was it an apple crisp? Maybe an apple crumble? Do you know the difference and does it even matter? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Although not the definitive word, let’s start with some definitions from The New Food Lover’s Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Rob Herbst.

  • Betty (aka brown betty) – Baked puddings made of layers of sugared and spiced fruit and buttered breadcrumbs.
  • Buckle – This is an old term for a single layer cake made with fruit.
  • Clafouti – A French country dessert made by topping a layer of fresh fruit with batter.
  • Cobbler – A baked, deep-dish fruit dessert topped with a thick biscuit crust sprinkled with sugar.
  • Crisp – A dessert of fruit topped with a crumbly, sweet pastry mixture and baked until brown and crisp.
  • Crumble – A British dessert in which raw fruit is topped with a crumbly pastry mixture and baked.
  • Slump (aka grunt) – An old-fashioned New England dessert topped with biscuit dough and stewed until the topping is cooked through.

Now, for a bit more detail.

Betty is a dish similar to a crisp or crumble but has a breadcrumb topping that is layered into the fruit mixture before baking.

Buckles traditionally had a cake-like base with fruit placed on top and as the batter rose during baking, the fruit would fall into it, making the top look “buckled”. Today, the fruit may be incorporated into the batter or sprinkled on top of the batter before baking.

Clafoutis is a dessert with French countryside origins. It is very similar to a buckle in that it has fruit and a batter. Some have a cake-like batter over the fruit while other batters are more custard-like.

Cobbler – This dish seems to date back to the mid-1800s and is generally thought to be fruit baked with a dough. In its origins, it really was a fruit pie and only later came to be defined by a topping either of biscuit-type dough or a cake-type batter. The topping is often just dropped over the fruit in large spoonfuls. When making a cobbler, it is recommended to use firmer fruit as it will take longer to release its juices, allowing the topping to begin cooking without getting soggy.

Crisps have a topping that is a bit crispier and crumblier than cobblers, more streusel-like. This dish dates to the early 1900s in the US. The topping is made of butter and sugar along with a binder. The latter might be flour, oatmeal or a combination. It might also include nuts. This topping bakes up a bit crispy and ends up with a crumbly texture. Because of this, many people will call a crisp a crumble. Crisps are better for your riper fruit and you want to see the filling release its juices and bubble up and into the topping.

Crumbles are similar to a crisp but the topping has a different texture. Oatmeal or nuts are typically not included in the topping, which has a denser texture than a crisp. It is thought to have been created during the time of WWII. Choose fruits similar to those for a crisp.

Slumps/grunts are made by spooning biscuit dough over stewed fruit, which is steamed stove-top until the topping is cooked.

Back to what I made. It truly was a cobbler as it had that cake-like topping. If you want to call it something else, that is fine with me. However, knowing what type of topping you want will help you to find the best recipe for you.

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Homemade Marshmallows — A Real Delight!

I have never been a fan of marshmallows. I do not even like them in my hot chocolate. That all changed, though, when I first made homemade marshmallows. They are such a different creature than store-bought and that is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

I was attempting to make a chocolate covered Easter egg filled with a light and fluffy center. I was using a recipe from Callebaut that had you mix some of their Gold chocolate (one of their specialty white chocolates containing caramelized sugar & milk) into the marshmallow mixture. I did not have that particular ingredient and so, used their milk chocolate. I tempered some chocolate to use in my Easter egg molds and filled them with this mixture. When I bit into them, I remembered how much I love homemade marshmallows. They reminded me of those marshmallow Easter eggs that you can buy but so much better.

According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, these confections were first made in France from the gummy root juice of the marsh mallow, a relative of the hollyhock. Made by mixing this juice with eggs and sugar and then beaten to a foam, it was called pâte de Guimauve.

Making them is not difficult but does require working with gelatin and hot sugar syrup. Because of the latter, you do need to take some care to not burn yourself. Similarly, it is not a good project for children.

All recipes will call for you to soften gelatin in water (for a discussion on powdered vs leaf gelatin, see this Cooking Tip). You also make a sugar syrup with sugar, water and an invert sugar to prevent crystallization. Professional pastry chefs may use something called “trimoline”. Most home cooks use corn syrup or glucose syrup although honey may also be used. One caution with the latter, though, is that some honeys have such a strong flavor that it will dominate your marshmallow. If you want to try honey, use a lighter one. I used a clover honey and that worked wonderfully. The sugar syrup must be brought to a certain temperature (recall temperature adjustments when at high altitude). This mixture is then beaten in a mixer, the gelatin is added and mixing continues until you get a white and thick mixture that has doubled or tripled in volume.

Some recipes you will see call for whipped egg whites but most do not. The addition of whipped egg whites makes the marshmallows extra light, soft and fluffy as well as easier to pipe by slowing how quickly the marshmallows set up. The egg whites also change the mouth feel as well as shortening the life span of the finished product. Plus, there is the concern of ingesting uncooked egg whites.

The final mixture is very sticky and will start to set up fairly quickly. You can just spread it out on a baking sheet that has been sprayed with nonstick spray and coated with powdered sugar. The marshmallows should then be allowed to set up for a few hours or even overnight before cutting into your preferred shape. After cutting, toss them in either powdered sugar or a mixture of powdered sugar and corn starch. You can also pipe the mixture into shapes. Or, as I did, you can pipe it into chocolate shells.

Flavorings can be added. The most classic is just vanilla but as I mentioned, I added melted chocolate. A perusal of recipes showed peanut butter & jelly, mint, eggnog, berry-flavored, rose, birthday cake, lemonade, mocha, caramel, gingerbread and liquor flavored. Colors may also be added for variety.

Have you ever tasted homemade marshmallows? What did you think? Have you ever made them yourself? I’d love to know.

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Pastry Doughs Explained

When you hear the word “Pastry”, what do you think of? Some just think of pies while others think of finicky French desserts. Even others think of something made by Sara Lee or Entenmann’s. In reality, the term “pastry” typically means a type of unleavened dough. However, “pastries” is a general term for sweet baked goods. There are different types of these unleavened doughs and they all have different purposes. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Different sources categorize pastry doughs in a slightly different manner. I hope you will find this categorization helpful and accurate. I will put these doughs into five categories.

The ingredient list for all types of pastry dough is very similar – flour, fat and liquid. The flour can be pastry, all-purpose or even bread flour. The fat is typically butter, lard, or shortening. The liquid is most commonly water but could be other liquids. Some doughs (called enriched doughs) may contain eggs, milk, cream, sour cream, crème fraiche or cream cheese. All doughs will probably contain a small amount of salt and sugar may be added to make a sweet dough. Which actual ingredients are used and the technique of putting them together is what makes the difference between these categories.

Shortcrust pastry

This is what most of us think of when we think of “pie dough” and it is the most common type used in our kitchens. I wrote an earlier Cooking Tip on pie doughs. You can get it here.

This type of pastry is probably the easiest to make. It may also be the most versatile. The basic ingredients are flour, fat, water and salt although sugar and eggs may be added if you want a sweetened shortcrust dough. The technique involves rubbing the fat into the flour before adding the liquid. Some recommend rubbing the fat until you get small pea-sized particles of fat coated in flour. Another technique, and one I think is superior, is snapping the flour-covered pieces of fat between your fingers to get flattened pieces. The important thing is to work quickly so the butter does not melt and to stop while you still have visible pieces of fat. Only after this step do you add your liquid and gently form it into a cohesive dough. For variations on this technique, see my prior Cooking Tip.

Puff pastry

This type of pastry contains the same basic ingredients but has a greatly different technique. It is what is termed a “laminated dough”. It has alternating layers of dough and butter. It is rolled out, folded, and repeated for a specified number of “turns”. All should be kept chilled throughout the process. When you bake it, the butter melts, producing steam and thus, flaky and puffy layers.

It is used for pie crusts, wrapping meat (such as a Beef Wellington), palmiers, vol-au-vents, cream horns, and mille feuilles.

Croissants are made from a type of laminated dough that differs from puff pastry in that it contains yeast, milk and a small amount of sugar. Danish dough is another variation of laminated dough that also uses eggs.

Making your own laminated pastry dough is certainly not as easy as making a shortcrust dough and takes much more time. It is also something that takes experience to perfect. It can be, however, a fun and very satisfying challenge.

Flaky pastry

The definition of flaky pastry is one upon which many disagree. Some use it to mean American-style pie crusts and others use it to refer to something called “Rough Puff Pastry.” This type of pastry is what you think of when you put your fork into your pie and you get wonderful, flaky pieces of the crust breaking off. It is hard to get this effect when you make a shortcrust dough. You can do it, though, with this much easier version of puff pastry.

It has all the basic ingredients (flour, butter, water, salt). It is the technique, though, that really sets it apart both from shortcrust and true puff pastry. It is made with cold, diced butter that you toss in the flour and gently smash flat. This is then rolled and folded like puff pastry. To read more about this technique and a link to Stella Parks’ excellent recipe, see this link. For King Arthur’s take on the flaky pastry, see this link. Their recipe is a bit unique as they add baking powder and sour cream to the basic ingredients.

Once again, all the large pieces of cold butter melt in the oven, creating steam and the wonderful flakes we all like. It makes a great crust for sweet and savory pies, sausage rolls and turnovers.

Choux pastry

This is also called Pâte à Choux and is what is used to make eclairs or profiteroles (cream puffs). The ingredients are flour, water, butter, eggs and salt. This type of pastry dough has a very different technique.

It starts with combining water, butter and salt in a pot and heating until the butter melts. This is followed by beating in the flour, which helps traps steam. The mixture is then beaten (usually with a stand mixer) until it is cool. At that point, eggs are added until the desired consistency is obtained. When the trapped steam is released in the oven, it creates a puffed up pastry.

The dough is typically piped onto a baking sheet. Once baked, this process produces a crisp outer shell and hollow interior that can be filled with a variety of fillings, most commonly pastry cream or just whipped cream. The finished pastries are also often topped with chocolate.

Phyllo pastry

This is a type of unleavened pastry composed of very thin, delicate sheets of dough layered with melted butter or oil between them. For more information on this type of pastry dough, watch for the next Cooking Tip.

All of us should know how to make a good shortcrust pastry, which is fairly simple and very versatile. I encourage you to branch out and try your hand at one of the other pastry doughs. If you are unsure about tackling them, contact me and we can arrange a cooking class just for you.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Pumpkin Pie or Squash Pie?

Pumpkin season has definitely arrived and I suspect most of us use more of this ingredient during the fall & winter than the rest of the year. Even though it is a very recognizable ingredient, there are some things that most of us do not know about pumpkin. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Pumpkin is a type of squash and according to Harold McGee in his On Food and Cooking, it belongs to the same scientific class as summer squash, acorn squash and spaghetti squash.

Although most of us probably use pumpkin in many different dishes, one of the major pumpkin-based foods that will grace our tables this fall is Pumpkin Pie. Most of us probably grab for the can of pumpkin puree but have you ever thought if there was a better way to make that famous pie?

The first thing you need to know is that inside that can of Libby’s Pumpkin Puree is not what we think of as a traditional pumpkin. It is reported that up to 90% of the pumpkin puree sold in the US is made from a variety of squash known as the Dickinson pumpkin, closely related to butternut squash. The major (although not only) brand is Libby’s and according to them,

All pumpkins, including the Dickinson pumpkin variety LIBBY’S Special Seed were bred from, are a variety of squash belonging to the Cucurbitaceae family or gourd family (which also includes melons and cucumbers). Libby’s proudly uses nothing but 100% pumpkin in our Libby’s solid pack pumpkin. We do not use Hubbard squash, or other types of squash.

Our Libby’s pumpkins don’t look like traditional carving pumpkins, but that’s a good thing because they are much tastier and have a more pleasant texture than your average Jack O’ Lantern!

If you wish to make a pie from a fresh “pumpkin”, you have many choices. Numerous sources have done taste tests using multiple different types of squash. It is very difficult to really come to any sort of conclusion from all these different tests. They did not necessarily use the same types of squash/pumpkin and not all of them compared fresh to canned. Some just compared different varieties of fresh. Despite that, let me share some of those results with you.

The Cooking Channel – They tested Acorn, Sugar, Cheese, Kabocha and Red Kuri squash and compared those with canned pumpkin. Although they felt all made good pies, their favorite was Red Kuri followed closely by Kabocha.

Cooks Illustrated compared canned to sugar pumpkin in both pumpkin pie and bread. Their tasters found the bread made with the fresh pumpkin was “more vegetal and less sweet” whereas in pie, they preferred the fresh as they felt it tasted more of the squash and less of the spices.

Kelly from FoodTasia compared canned to sugar pumpkins, butternut squash and Kabocha squash. When it came to the finished pies, she and her tasters preferred the ones made with the Kabocha and butternut squash, at least partially to what they deemed superior texture. The taste won out, too, and was termed “sweet, deep, rich and pumpkiny”. Between the sugar and canned pumpkins, the sugar’s texture was considered smoother but the tasters preferred the taste of the pie made from the canned pumpkin.

Lindsay from Love and Olive Oil compared Honeynut squash, Kabocha, Pink Banana and Fairytale. Her winners were Honeynut and Pink Banana. They were considered “flavorful with sweet notes of fresh pumpkin and a creamy overall texture.” She felt the Kabocha made a dry pie without much flavor. The Fairytale was watery with a vegetal taste.

Melissa Clark from the New York Times put the following against each other – Acorn, Blue Hubbard, Butternut, Carnival, Cheese, Delicata, Kabocha, Sugar and Spaghetti. Her favorite was the butternut squash. She thought the flavor of the pie made with acorn squash was comparable but she preferred the color of the butternut, making it her number one choice.

Serious Eats is a champion of the butternut squash for your holiday pie. They prefer it over canned pumpkin as they feel it has more pumpkin flavor, a smoother texture and a brighter color.

Joanne, from Fifteen Spatulas found something that many of the other sources noted. That is, even without the flavor difference, they preferred the pies from fresh pumpkin because of a superior texture that was “thicker and more velvety”. She compared canned to only one fresh variety – the sugar pie pumpkin. Besides the textural differences, she also preferred the flavor from the fresh pumpkin.

The test kitchen from Taste of Home prefers canned pumpkin. They felt it was easier, more available and the taste & texture was more consistent. When they did a taste comparison, it was canned vs sugar pie pumpkin. Their tasters felt that the spices were more prominent in the fresh variety but the pumpkin flavor was more pronounced with the canned pumpkin.

So, as you can see, there is not a lot of consensus. One consistency, though, is that you should never try to make a pie using the traditional pumpkin that you would carve and set on your porch. If you want to try fresh, your safest bet is probably butternut squash.

The “normal” pie pumpkin is the Sugar Pumpkin and it is smaller, darker orange, more flavorful and denser and drier than the jack-o-lantern pumpkin. However, not all tasters liked that compared to butternut squash.

As for the rest of the varieties spoken of in the testing, obtaining them may be a challenge. A look on my preferred market’s website shows they carry pie (sugar) pumpkins, butternut squash, acorn squash, fairytale, knucklehead and buttercup squash. That is actually more than I would have expected. Other neighborhood stores did carry Kabocha.

One nice advantage to canned pumpkin puree is its consistency. Each can is assured to taste the same and just like you expect it. Whenever you are using fresh produce, each item can taste different from the same type of item sitting next to it. All you have to do is eat two of the same variety of apple – they are bound to taste different. Second to the consistency is the unarguable convenience and availability of canned pumpkin.

Another item you will see on the shelves is Pumpkin Pie Filling. As opposed to pumpkin puree, it also contains spices and sweetener. It is basically a shortcut for making pumpkin pie. Either can be used in making pumpkin pie, although I prefer the plain puree and adding my own spices. However, pumpkin puree can be used in many different applications, sweet or savory. That is not true with Pumpkin Pie Filling, which is specifically for pies.

Will there be pumpkin pie on your holiday table this year? If so, will you opt for good ole Libby’s (or another brand) or will you make your own pumpkin puree?

Let me know and Happy Baking!