Cooking Tips · Ingredients

All cocoa powders are not the same.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

Cocoa powder is a mainstay in our pantries if we do much baking of chocolate-flavored items. If you go to the store to buy some cocoa powder, you will be faced with not only different brands but also different types. Knowing which one(s) to pick and when to use them is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Cocoa powder is made by grinding cocoa solids that have been separated from the cacao beans. This makes it a very concentrated form of chocolate flavor. There are two main types of cocoa powder – natural and Dutched (or Dutch process). Not every container of cocoa powder will tell you which kind it is. One hint is that if it is an American brand, it will most likely be natural whereas most European brands are Dutched.

Natural cocoa powder may also be labeled unsweetened cocoa powder or even pure cocoa powder. Cocoa beans are acidic (pH of 5-6) and because there is no further processing after grinding, cocoa powder is also acidic. It is light brown in color with a reddish tint and tastes sharp, fruity and bitter.

Dutch-process cocoa powder has been alkalized. The cacao beans are soaked in an alkaline solution. This leads to a cocoa powder where the acidity has been neutralized. The color is darker brown and the flavor is mellower and more earthy. Because manufacturers use different alkalinizing agents as well as different ways of processing, one brand can vary greatly from another. There are different subtypes of Dutched cocoa, which I will discuss later in this Tip.

These two types of cocoa powder are not always interchangeable. It depends on what you are making, the other ingredients in your recipe and your desired result. This is due to chemistry, specifically acid-base chemistry. Review this Tip on leaveners for more info.

If you are making a baked recipe that calls for natural cocoa powder, it often also calls for baking soda. The latter is an alkaline leavener that is activated by acids. (E.g., yogurt or buttermilk.) Without the interaction of the acidic ingredient and the alkaline baking soda, the leavening won’t occur. Therefore, if you swap out the natural cocoa for Dutched, this reaction will be muted leading to less rise of your baked goods. Some people like this, though, as the results are very moist and fudgy as compared to lighter and drier baked goods when using natural cocoa.

Recipes that call for Dutched cocoa typically call for baking powder. Baking powder is mixture of baking soda and an acid (often cream of tartar). Therefore, it does not require another acid to activate it and start the rising process. In this instance, the cocoa is not part of the leavening process but it is there mostly for flavor and color.

Many pastry chefs recommend Dutch-processed cocoa for unbaked chocolate items and natural cocoa for recipes that require baking. If, however, the batter needs to remain moist, a Dutch-processed cocoa should be used even if it is a baked item.

King Arthur Baking has a nice guide to how to substitute one type of cocoa for another. It is always best to use whatever type that the recipe specifies. They state that if a recipe doesn’t specify which type of cocoa to use, it should have been developed to work with either type. I must say I do not have the same faith in recipe writers as discussed in this Recipe Caution tip. King Arthur does say that an exception is if you are using older American recipes as Dutch-processed cocoa wasn’t widely available throughout most of the 20th century. In this case, you would be better to choose a natural cocoa.

They recommend Dutch-process if the recipe calls for baking powder and natural cocoa for those recipes that are leavened with baking soda alone or if baking soda is the predominant leavener. On the other hand, if baking powder is the main leavener, the cocoa will often be Dutched. If the recipe does not include acidic ingredients, feel free to use natural cocoa.

If neither baking soda or powder is in the list of ingredients, use either cocoa. Examples would be puddings, sauces, souffles, etc.

Here are some tips from King Arthur’s substitution guide.

If you use natural cocoa in place of Dutched, expect the following.

  • Color – baked goods will be lighter in color.
  • Rise – as a recipe that calls for Dutched cocoa will probably call for baking powder, you shouldn’t notice a difference in rise.
  • Flavor – the flavor may be a bit tangy and slightly bitter.
  • Recommendations
    • If the recipe calls for 3 tablespoons or less of cocoa powder, use the same amount.
    • If it specifies more than 3 tablespoons, replace the baking powder with half the amount of baking soda.
    • If the recipe calls for not only baking powder but also baking soda, no changes are needed.

If you use Dutched cocoa in place of natural, expect the following.

  • Color – baked goods will be darker in color.
  • Rise – baked items will not rise as much.
  • Flavor – you may taste a soapy element as the baking soda hasn’t been totally neutralized.
  • Recommendations
    • Replace the baking soda with twice the amount of baking powder unless the recipe calls for both ingredients and, in that case, no change is needed.
    • Same if the recipe calls for an acidic element such as vinegar or yogurt.

As I noted above, there are actually some subtypes of Dutch-process cocoa.

  • Black Cocoa – Thisis considered ultra-Dutch processed. It is very dark in color and is said to be how Oreo cookies get their dark color. It will give your cakes, cookies or chocolate sauce a rich dark brown, almost black, color. It will also have a smoother, less bitter taste than either natural or regular Dutched cocoa. On the down side, many feel it has less of a chocolate flavor.
  • Rouge Cocoa – This is also known as red cocoa powder. In terms of alkalinity, it is between regular Dutch cocoa and black cocoa. It has a burgundy color. According to Guittard, one of the makers of this type of cocoa, it has a “fudgy, bittersweet flavor right at home in pastries and baked goods”.
  • Double Dutch – This is a blend of regular Dutch cocoa powder and black cocoa powder. This allows the dark color to shine while still having a great chocolate flavor.

Another interesting product offered by King Arthur is what is known as a Triple Cocoa Blend. According to the company, triple cocoa powder is made by mixing Dutch cocoa powder, natural cocoa powder, and black cocoa powder. They market it as an all-purpose cocoa powder that can be used in any recipe. Its color is darker than natural or regular Dutched cocoa but not as dark as black cocoa. The flavor is characterized as having “earthier, mellower notes of a Dutched cocoa powder with some of the acidity and more rounded fruity chocolate notes of natural cocoa powder.”

Everyone will have their favorite cocoa even among these different types. Cooks Illustrated did a testing of 8 different cocoa powders, 4 Dutched and 4 natural. They used them in two different sheet cake recipes. One called for natural cocoa powder and the one specified Dutched. They also made a cookie recipe that didn’t specify the type of cocoa.

Their results were as follows.

  • The natural cocoas produced cakes and cookies that were taller, more airy but more crumbly.
  • The Dutched powders led to less rise and a fudgier texture.

They also found that not all brands reacted the same and they attributed this to fat content. When analyzed, three of their cocoas had a 10-12% fat content while the others had a 20-22% fat content. The latter cocoas are what ended scoring the highest in taste tests. Those items made with a higher fat cocoa tended to be more chewy and fudgy than those made with the lower fat ones. The lower fat products gave a drier and crumblier baked item.

A final factor they mentioned was starch content. The lower the fat content of the cocoa was, the higher the starch content. As starch is very good at absorbing liquid, the cakes and cookies made with these cocoas were drier.

Their recommendation was that to obtain moist and tender baked goods, choose a Dutch-process cocoa that is high in fat and therefore, lower in starch. They suggested choosing a product with at least 1 gram of fat per 5-gram serving. Their favorites were all higher fat Dutched products.

  • Droste
  • Guittard
  • Valrhona

Bon Appetit’s recommended products are:

  • Guittard Cocoa Rouge (a Dutch processed cocoa)
  • Droste
  • For a natural cocoa, they recommended either Hershey’s or Scharffen Berger.

Chef’s Pencil (an international food magazine) rated the following as the best chef-recommended cocoa powders.

  • Valrhona Pure Cocoa Powder, a French, Dutched cocoa
  • Callebaut Cocoa Powder, a Dutched cocoa from Belgium
  • Ghirardelli Majestic Premium Cocoa Powder, an American product
  • Cacao Barry Cocoa Powder 100% Cocoa Extra Brute, a French, Dutched cocoa

Serious Eats recommended the following Dutched cocoas with most of them being higher in fat content.

  • Nu Naturals
  • Cacao Barry Extra Brute
  • Callebaut CP777
  • King Arthur Bensdorp Royal Dutch
  • Droste
  • Valrhona

If in the past, you have just grabbed whatever carton of cocoa powder you saw on the shelf, I hope this Tip will give you the information you need to make a more informed decision.

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 · Ingredients

Puff Pastry — yummy layers of dough and butter!

After writing about Pastry Doughs in general, I wanted to get a bit more detailed about a few types. I already wrote about Phyllo Dough and in this Cooking Tip, I will expand on Puff Pastry.

The French call Puff Pastry by the name Pâte Feuilletée roughly translated to “pastry leaves”. It is a type of laminated dough, which means layers that are bonded together. In the pastry world, it is layers of dough and butter.

You can certainly buy puff pastry in the market. The most commonly-found and very highly rated is from Pepperidge Farm. They sell it not only in sheets but also in what they call cups and shells.

Making your own is not difficult in a technical manner but does take some time. You start by making something called a detrempe, which is the dough component. It is composed of flour, a small amount of butter, water and salt. The second component is the butter layer – the beurrage.

The detrempe is rolled into a large square and the butter layer is pounded into a slightly smaller square. There are different ways of incorporating the beurrage into the detrempe but most commonly, the beurrage is placed on top of the detrempe in a diamond pattern. Then, each corner of the detrempe is folded up to the center so that the butter layer is totally enclosed within the dough. This results in what is termed a paton. This paton is then rolled out to a rectangle and a process of rolling and folding commences. This process also involves chilling/resting the dough in between a number of these steps.

After the paton is rolled out, there are different types of folds you can do. One is called a “Book Fold” or “Double Fold”. This is where you fold both ends of the rectangular package into the center and then you fold one side over the other. This is termed “locking” the beurrage into the detrempe. This cycle of rolling out the dough and folding it again, turning the orientation by 90 degrees each time is repeated for at least 4 times.

Another type of fold is called a “Letter Fold”, which means just what it sounds like. You fold the dough like a letter. This has less layers than the book fold and so, it is recommended to repeat the rolling/folding 6 times.

How many layers do you end up obtaining? Many sources will quote all sorts of numbers from 500 to over 4000! Any mathematicians out there?

You might ask why a person would ever want to make their own puff pastry rather than buying it. Pros for store-bought are the convenience and consistency. The arguments for homemade are taste and the satisfaction of producing your own. You might also consider the ingredient list.

  • Pepperidge Farm ingredients – enriched wheat flour (flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, vegetable oils (palm, soybean, hydrogenated cottonseed), contains 2% or less of: high fructose corn syrup, salt, mono and diglycerides, soy lecithin, malted barley flour, turmeric and annatto extracts for color.
  • Homemade puff pastry – flour, butter, water, salt.

That being said, there are ones you can purchase with an ingredient list much closer to homemade but probably not in your local supermarket. Whole Foods Market does carry some although they are twice the price of Pepperidge Farm and, of course, there is always online.

Working with puff pastry

  • Use care when rolling out so you do not damage the structure. Do not roll over the edge as that will compress the edges.
  • Try to use even pressure as you roll so the butter is evenly distributed.
  • Try to let the pastry rest 5-10 minutes between rolling and cutting. After cutting, another rest period of 15 minutes helps to minimize shrinkage.
  • When you cut the rolled out dough, try to cut at a 90 degree angle so it will rise straight up in the oven.
  • Try to keep everything cold as you do not want the butter to melt before it goes into the oven.
  • Use a hot oven as you want maximal steam to puff it up.

Freezing puff pastry

This pastry freezes well either as a raw dough or when made up into the shape of your choice. It will be fine in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Any longer than that could result in fermentation and the dough turning gray.

Uses for puff pastry– both sweet and savory

  • It is often used to wrap items such as with a Beef Wellington or a sausage roll.
  • A sweet or savory tart or pie.
  • Palmiers (elephant ears) are an item that can be either sweet or savory depending on the filling/topping.
  • Cheese straws
  • Mille-feuille – French for a “thousand leaves”, it is very similar to what is known as a Napoleon. Both are composed of layers of puff pastry alternating with a sweet filling (often pastry cream) although a savory version can be made with a cheese filling.
  • Vol-au-vent – a creation where the puff pastry is baked into a sort of shell with a pastry lid and a filling.

Have you ever made your own Puff Pastry? Would you ever want to give it a try?

Let me know and I would be happy to show you how.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

The Ins & Outs of Phyllo Dough

In my last Cooking Tip, I wrote in general terms about pastry doughs. In this Tip, I want to delve deeper into just one of those types — Phyllo Dough.

The word Phyllo (also known as filo/fillo) is said to come from “the Greek ancestor of the French word feuille, meaning leaf.” This type of pastry dough may go back as far as the 1500s in Istanbul.

It is made by making a stiff flour/water dough with a bit of salt and maybe some acid or oil. It is kneaded, rested and then stretched out so it gets thin enough to be translucent. In recipes calling for phyllo, these paper-thin sheets are layered to give a structure that is similar to puff pastry but the dough itself is virtually fat-free.

We will normally find phyllo in our stores in the freezer section. Although not the only brand, the major one you will find in our supermarkets is Athens and they make not only the sheets but also little phyllo cups. Because of the minimal fat content, many prefer these to little tart shells made with pie dough or puff pastry. They will be crunchier and more delicate, though.

It will most likely be frozen when you buy it and, most sources, including Athens, say phyllo should be allowed to defrost slowly in the refrigerator overnight. Some experts warn that if it thaws too quickly, the dough can become sticky. Others claim it can be thawed for several hours at room temperature. If at all possible, I would opt for thawing in the refrigerator.

Athens also recommends allowing it to sit at room temperature for a couple of hours before using. 

When you are ready to use it in your recipe, you must take certain precautions. Because of how thin it is, phyllo will quickly dry out and become brittle. The typical recommendation is to cover the sheets you are not using with a damp cloth to keep them moist and pliable. Cooks Illustrated finds that people often make the towel too wet leading to a sticky dough. They, therefore, recommend either covering the sheets with plastic wrap or parchment followed by a damp towel.

As the phyllo sheets are layered in a recipe, they are brushed or sprayed with oil or melted butter to keep them supple.  It is easy to get tears in the phyllo dough as you use it. If this happens, just make sure the tears don’t line up as you stack the phyllo sheets.

Bo Friberg in The Professional Pastry Chef warns that if phyllo is re-frozen, the sheets can become brittle. Athens say that you can store unused sheets in the refrigerator for up to 1 week if wrapped tightly in plastic wrap. They also say it can be refrozen for up to 2 months but recommend wrapping tightly in plastic wrap followed by foil. From personal experience, I can say that it does become more brittle the more you refreeze it.

Strudel is a variant of phyllo dough but it is made differently in that it is a wetter dough and contains more fat, often an egg. These two terms (phyllo & strudel) are sometimes used interchangeably and many apple strudel recipes are made with phyllo dough.

So, what can you make with phyllo dough? Many of us think of dishes such as baklava and spanakopita. It is also used in making both sweet and savory strudels. You can experiment and try phyllo in place of other pastry in items such as tarts and pies although the results will be different.

Yes, you can make your own phyllo dough but it does take some technique and quite a bit of practice. Have you ever made your own?  Let me 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 · Techniques

The final step to a great pie — blind baking

In the last few Cooking Tips, we have been discussing how to put that perfect pie on your holiday table. We looked at ingredients and techniques for making a great pie crust. You are now ready to put it in the oven but there is another subject to discuss – blind baking your pie crust. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Blind baking a pie crust is simply pre-baking your crust (either partially or totally) before adding your filling. So, when do you blind bake your crust? The simple answer you might say is – when the recipe tells you to do so. Yes, that is true, but there are general guidelines to let you know whether you should do this.

Pies that have fillings that are not baked require a fully baked pie crust. An example is a yummy French Silk Pie. Since the pie is not going into the oven after adding the filling, the pie crust needs to be fully baked.

Other times you want to blind bake is with custard pies or pies with delicate fillings. With custard pies (such as pumpkin), the moisture in the filling might make the crust soggy before the crust is fully baked. Partially baking the crust before adding the filling helps to prevent this. There are also some delicate fillings that are only briefly cooked on the stovetop. If you do not blind bake the crust but rather put the filling in an unbaked crust, the filling would be over-cooked before the crust is fully baked. An example is Chocolate Cream pie.

One time you do not want to blind bake is if you are making a double-crust pie. If you blind bake the bottom crust, your top crust won’t adhere to the bottom crust. If your filling is such that you would prefer a blind-baked crust to prevent sogginess, you can place decorative pieces of crust over the top to give you a type of open double crust such as in this Gooseberry Pie recipe.

Blind baking is not as simple as putting your unfilled pie crust in the oven. If you do that without adding some weight, your pie crust will puff up – not ideal if you want to put a delicious filing into it. It also makes it much more likely that the sides of your crust will droop before it sets.

Now we know why we need to blind bake a crust, how do we do it? There are three recommended ways depending on what you are looking for in your finished pie.

If you want a pie with a pretty crimped edge or you have a tall crust, line the unbaked crust with foil or parchment making sure it fully covers the crust and the edges of the pie crust. Foil is often preferred over parchment as you can get it into the corners better as well as folding over the crust to prevent overbrowning. Fill the crust at least 2/3 full with something to weight the crust down as it bakes. I love ceramic pie weights. They conduct heat well and fill up the entire crust. Just make sure you have enough to fully cover the crust. I tend to use two boxes of these for one pie crust.

You have probably heard that you can use dry beans or rice. Those are poor heat conductors resulting in a longer baking time to get to the proper stage.  Another option is granulated sugar, an excellent heat conductor.

Stacey Ballis with did an experiment testing different types of weights. Her favorite method was granulated sugar, which conducts heat as well as the ceramic weights but gets into the corners of the pie crust better. She uses the sugar a couple of times and then uses it in her baking. Since it has slightly caramelized by being in the oven, she recommends using it for meringues. agrees with this choice. If you don’t want to use sugar, the ceramic weights are a close second.

As I discussed in last week’s Tip, you should have chilled your pie crust. If you haven’t done that by this step, you may chill it with the weights in place. After chilling, place it in a 375° oven for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and carefully remove the very hot pie weights. Prick the bottom with a fork and return crust to the oven. If you will be baking the pie filling, bake the crust for another 5-8 minutes. If you are not baking the filling, bake the crust for another 12-20 minutes until fully baked. This method should work for most pie crusts but some recipes may have slightly different baking temperatures and times.

A second method is called the “Low & Slow” method. With this method, the pie crust is baked at 350° with pie weights in place for an hour. Baking at a more moderate heat is said to reduce shrinkage & puffing.

A third method is to sandwich the crust between two pans and bake upside down. This method is good for pies with a flat edge that do not need the extra height or when you are not looking for a decorative edge. To use this method, place the crust in the pan and flatten its edge. Spray the outside of another pie pan and nestle into the crust. You may also line the crust with parchment before putting pans together. At this point, chill for 30 minutes to solidify fats and prevent shrinkage.

Now, place the pans upside down on a baking sheet so that the empty pan is on the bottom. Bake for 20 minutes in 375° oven. As the proponents of this method say, “Gravity ensures that as your crust slips “down” the side of the pan, it’s actually moving up!” When baked, remove from the oven and use a spatula to carefully turn over and prick with fork. Return the crust to the oven right side up without second pan and bake for 15-20 minutes until golden brown. You may now fill the crust. When would you want to do this method? It is ideal for pies where the edge of the pie is not as important as its top, such as Lemon Meringue.

What about your pie plate? looked at the types of pie plates and recommends either tempered glass or aluminum. They found that ceramic pie plates conduct heat too slowly resulting in more melting of the butter giving you a more mealy and less flaky crust.

Now you have all the information you need to make that beautiful and delicious pie. Get into your kitchen, give the many recommendations a try and let me know what works best for you. And, send me a photo of that wonderful pie!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Techniques for a Great Pie Crust

After talking about choosing apples for baking and then discussing the ingredients you need to make a pie crust, I now want to turn to bringing that crust into reality. That is the subject of this week’s Cooking Tip – how to make a great pie crust. As you read this Tip, you will notice that I often give you different recommendations. Everyone has their preferred method and I want to give you alternatives so you can find what works best for you.

The first point I want to make is COLD is your friend when making pie crusts. The fat that you cut into the flour needs to stay solid as long as possible so that once it is in the oven, it will melt at the appropriate time creating steam and thus, the flaky layers we all crave in pie crusts.

Start your pie crust by putting your flour and salt in a bowl and whisk together. I highly recommend weighing your ingredients but if not, measure carefully. At this point, if your kitchen is warm, you may want to refrigerate the bowl/ingredients/equipment. Your aim (no matter the ambient temperature) is a final dough temperature of 65° to 70°. Yes, you can take the temperature of your dough. Just one more reason to have a good digital thermometer in your kitchen armamentarium. points out that if your room temperature is above 73°, everything that touches the dough will warm it. You may have noticed that your dough seems to need less water on a hot day. That is because the butter is softer making it act more like a liquid. Although you may be tempted to use less water, this may lead to a weaker dough giving you headaches when you try to roll it out.

A solution is to chill everything with an aim to keeping your dough temperature below 70°. Take everything (your bowl with the dry ingredients, your rolling pin and your pie pan) and put them all in the refrigerator. Your fat and your water should already be in there keeping COLD until you need them. If your countertop is warm, fill some plastic bags with ice water and place on the countertop to cool it.

Next, add your COLD fat – butter, shortening or a combination. If you are using a combination, cut up the shortening and add first. Mix it in until the mixture is like sand. Then, add your butter, which should be cut into small cubes, and toss gently in the flour. Working quickly, cut the butter into the flour. I think no tool works as well as your hands to do this step although you can use a pastry cutter. Using a snapping motion between your fingers and thumbs, you will flatten out the butter cubes. Continue this until all the butter is flattened. If your hands are warm, you may want to cool them under the cold tap first. Do not overmix – you want to be left with an uneven mixture with butter pieces that vary in size. Remember, this is what is going to give your crust its flaky layers. So, you do not want your butter to melt or totally disintegrate as you are doing this.

This is the point where you add the ICE water. One train of thought is to never add all the water at once. Add it incrementally so the dough does not get too wet. Start with drizzling in a few tablespoons and gently tossing the mixture. A bowl scraper works great for this. Continue until the dough holds together if you squeeze it in your palm. The reasoning for this is that excess water can lead to more gluten development. However, a too-dry dough can be very difficult to roll out.

Another point of view is that gluten is not necessarily the enemy of soft, flaky crusts. Adding the water listed in the recipe all at once and mixing until it comes together will give you a dough that is easier to roll out without tearing.

After adding the water and mixing, empty the bowl onto a very lightly floured surface or onto a piece of parchment paper. There are two ways you can proceed from here. The easiest is to just gently gather the dough into a ball. If it is still too dry, add more ice water but a small amount at a time. A spritz from a spray bottle may be all you need. If you have added too much water, sprinkle a bit more flour and gently mix it in.

A second way of finishing your pie dough is only slightly more work but gives you even more flaky layers. For this method, you may want to put your dough onto a piece of parchment. Press your dough into a rectangle and then, using the paper to assist you, fold it into thirds – just as you would a business letter – and then fold in half so it is square-shaped. If necessary, using a water bottle, spritz any dry areas with the ice water and then fold. You can also do this folding without parchment by putting your dough onto a floured counter and use a bench scraper to help with the folding.

At this point, shape your dough into the shape of the pan into which you will put it. This will make it easier to roll out to the correct shape. If you have made enough dough for a double crust, cut the dough in half before shaping. Some recommend rolling the shaped dough’s sides along a floured surface to smooth the edges.

The next step varies by which expert you prefer to follow. One recommendation is to wrap your dough into plastic and put in the refrigerator for a minimum of 30 minutes. This hardens the fat, which has warmed and softened during the mixing process. It also allows the gluten to relax. You may wish to freeze the dough at this point for use at a future time. If so, wrap in plastic and then in foil before putting in the freezer.

When you are ready to actually assemble your pie, remove the chilled crust from the refrigerator. If it has chilled longer than 30 minutes, you may need to let it warm up just a bit on the counter, leaving it wrapped. It needs to be soft enough to roll but should still be cold to the touch. As you roll it out, you should see large pieces of flattened butter.

Since rolling the dough “wakes” up the gluten and softens the butter, a different recommendation is to roll out your dough and put it in the pan right after you make it. Then, chill it thoroughly in the pie pan – about two hours.

Transferring it to the pan can be done by folding the rolled-out dough into quarters, placing it in the pan and unfolding it. Another method is to gently roll the dough around your rolling pin and then unrolling it over your pan.

You are now ready to finish your pie, right? No, remember the word I mentioned in the beginning – COLD. You want to chill your pie crust before filling it. Once again, this chilling helps to solidify that wonderful fat as well as minimizing shrinkage during baking.

Some just recommend refrigerating the dough after being put in the pie plate. As you have mixed and rolled out the dough, the gluten strands that have developed are stretched and want to snap back. You have probably seen that as you roll your dough; it doesn’t always stay but tends to shrink. Resting the dough allows the tension in the strands to ease so they remain stretched and don’t shrink back when heated. However, as the pie is baked, the dough is not well set by the time the butter vaporizes. So, the air pockets created by the steam when the butter melts disappear. The soft, not-yet-set dough sinks into those spaces resulting in less flakiness.

Others recommend freezing the dough before baking. As you bake frozen dough, it heats up and sets relatively quickly in comparison to the time it takes the butter to melt. By the time the water in the butter starts to turn to steam, the dough is well into its setting stage. The air spaces occupied by the frozen butter, now that it has largely turned to steam, hold their shape because the dough has started to set. Thus, flakier layers. The downside is that as the water freezes, it holds the stretched gluten in place rather than allowing it to relax. So, when you bake it, the gluten strands snap back and the crust shrinks.

Many recommend a compromise by first refrigerating the dough for approximately 40 minutes to relax the gluten to minimize shrinkage followed by putting it in the freezer for 20 minutes to improve flakiness. Yes, this does require a bit more timing but could lead to a superior result.

Now you are ready to choose your favorite filling. However, before putting your filling in the pan, stop and ask yourself if you need to par-bake your crust. Stay tuned for next week’s Tip as we delve into what par-baking is, when you need to do it and how to par-bake. See you then!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

A Great Foundation for your Pie

In last week’s Cooking Tip about apples, I mentioned the foundation for any good pie is a great pie crust. Do you make your own or do you use Pillsbury? Making a pie crust is so incredibly easy. In fact, I made four different pie crusts today in only about an hour. They are now chilling in the refrigerator waiting to be topped and turned into beautiful pies. Although pre-bought crusts may be fine in a pinch, I encourage you to start making your own. They freeze beautifully and you will always be ready for pie. There are really two parts to making a great pie crust – your ingredients and your technique. In this week’s Cooking Tip, we will discuss the ingredients. The technique will come next week.

The ingredients that go into most pie crusts are minimal – flour, fat and water. Some will also have a bit of sugar, eggs, dairy (such as sour cream or cream cheese) or even nut flours. Let’s address these one by one.

Flour – most of us are going to use all-purpose flour for our pie crusts. I recommend mastering the technique with this flour before branching out as other flours will act differently.

Fat – the main fats used in pie crusts are butter and/or shortening. Lard used to be a stand-by but, today it is hard to get good quality lard. This is a subject for another Cooking Tip. For now, let’s stick with butter and shortening.

The main advantage of butter is flavor. It will give you a flaky crust since as the water in butter converts to steam, it puffs up the crust. The downside is that because butter has a low melting point, it is hard to maintain a nice crimp to your pie crust.

Shortening has a higher melting point allowing it to stay in solid form longer. Therefore, the crimp has a chance to set before it melts. There are those that think that this higher melting point also leads to a flakier crust than butter. It does lack, though, the wonderful flavor of butter.

This contrast is what leads to the recommendation of using both butter and shortening. They claim that using a ratio of 3:2 butter to shortening gives you the best of both worlds.

Personally, I think there is nothing better than an all-butter crust. Yes, the crimp does slump but you can try to somewhat prevent this by proper chilling of the dough, discussed in next week’s Tip. What about you? What is your favorite?

Water – all pie doughs need some sort of liquid to pull everything together. It is usually, although not always, in the form of water. Occasionally the liquid will be provided by another ingredient such as eggs, sour cream or other dairy. One point that is very important is that in order to keep our fat in the dough solid as long as possible, the water should be very cold.

There is a debate about how much water to add to the dry ingredients. Because water leads to the development of gluten, some say to add your water gradually just until you have a cohesive dough. They caution that too much water will result in a tougher crust due to the increased gluten. Others say that gluten is not necessarily a bad thing as it helps your dough to be stronger and less prone to tearing as you roll it out. I will discuss this more in next week’s Tip on the proper techniques of making pie dough.

This balance of too much/not enough water is what leads some experts to recommend adding vodka or any 80-proof spirit for part of the water. There is no discernable alcohol taste but they claim it is easier to roll out. The reasoning is that although gluten forms with the water, it does not with alcohol. They recommend mixing ¼ cup of water with the same amount of vodka and using this mixture in your pie dough. A tender but very easy to roll out dough is the result. I must say that I have not noticed this is much of an advantage when I have tried it.  Have you tried it?

What about the old recommendation of adding vinegar or lemon juice to your pie dough? The sources that recommend this say it reduces gluten development. However, when put to scientific tests, it has been found that slightly acidic doughs actually have more gluten. To get the desired tenderizing effect, you would have to use about ¼ cup, which would give your dough a very sour taste.  So, this is one “old wives’ tale” that we can put to rest.

For basic pie dough, called Pâte Brisée (translated broken paste or dough), the only ingredients are flour, fat and water. An easy to remember ratio is 3:2:1 – 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat and 1 part water where 1 part is 4 ounces. Another recommendation is 2 parts flour to 2 parts fat with 1 part water. As I mentioned above, I use all butter as my fat but you could also do a mixture of butter and shortening. This type of pie crust can be used for any application.

There may be times when you want a sweeter dough, called Pâte Sucré (sugar paste/dough). Although recipes vary, the one I like to use contains flour, fat, sugar and eggs. The latter is what provides the liquid. Any sweet pie or tart filling works great with this dough. A delicious example is a Lemon Tart.

A third version is Pâte Sablé (sand paste). In this type of dough, you use a nut flour in addition to your AP flour. Other ingredients are sugar, butter and eggs. This is the only pie dough of these three where the ingredients are better at room temperature as they will be creamed together in a mixer. This dough can be made into cookies or used in other sweet pastry applications.

Now that you have the necessary ingredients, stay tuned for next week’s Tip on technique. Although ingredients are important, it is really the technique that will make or break your pie crust. It sure is getting delicious around here, isn’t it?  See you next week!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

It’s Apple Pie Time!

We are right in the middle of apple harvest time according to the Colorado Produce Calendar. I must say that a good apple pie is hard to beat this time of the year. With so many different varieties of apples out there, though, which one do you pick? One of my local supermarkets lists eight different varieties for sale while another one has over twenty! How’s a cook to choose? That is the subject of this week’s Cooking Tip.

Before I get to apples, I want to mention that the foundation of a great pie is a delicious, flaky and tender crust. I am teaching a class on how to make different pie crusts in a few days. If you aren’t able to make it to that class, I can come to your house and teach a “Pie Making” class at your convenience. See my website for more information.


When picking an apple to put in your cart, it should be firm with tight, unbroken skins. As many varieties have naturally dull surfaces, do not be afraid of those that do not have the very shiny finish that you often see in the supermarkets. Choose apples without bruises that feel firm and heavy. The fragrance of an apple is a good indicator of freshness and quality.

That is the easy part – more difficult is what variety of apple you should use. I wish I could tell you that there were only certain apples that were suited for certain purposes. That is not true although different “experts” will give you their recommendations. What I have done for you is to consult nine different sources and made a chart of which apples each of these separate sources recommend. If you want the entire chart, email me. What I will do here is to give you a list of the apples that seemed to be favorites with at least four of these sites.

Before I do that, I want to mention one recommendation that you read over and over. That is to use a combination of different apples in your pie. Some apples are considered “Sweet & Firm” while others are considered “Tart & Soft”. Therefore, they will react differently in the pie dish. Many chefs feel you can get the best of both worlds by combining apples from these two different categories. Choose one to provide more texture and another to amp up the flavor. Not all agree, though. Serious Eats states when you do this, you “end up with a pie that’s got nice firm chunks of apple interspersed with brown apple mush.” The choice is up to you. Think of all the great experimenting you can do!

The firm/sweet apples are those that tend to hold their shape better. The soft/tart varieties will cook down to a mushier filling. Here is list of some of those.



Ambrosia Belle de Boskoop
Cortland Bramley
Elstar Cox’s Orange Pippin
Gala Granny Smith
Golden Delicious Gravenstein
Golden Russet Jonathan
Jonagold Macintosh
Liberty Newton Pippin
Pink Lady Northern Spy

Now, here are the apples that seem to please a majority of the sites I consulted if you are making apple pie. Fortunately, most of these are easily found in your supermarket or farmer’s market.

  • Braeburn
  • Golden Delicious
  • Granny Smith
  • Honeycrisp
  • Jonagold

Now that you have picked your apples and brought them home, how can you prolong their freshness? Apple experts recommend:

  • Refrigerate them – apples ripen 6-10 times faster on the counter than in the fridge. Some recommend putting them in a plastic bag before refrigerating. The best temperature is between 30-32°F. The rate at which apples lose flavor and juiciness is proportional to the temperature at which they are stored.
  • Separate apples – wrap each apple in sheets of paper, which prevents one apple going bad and then ripening the rest of them.
  • Picking apples – some are better for longer storage than others. Best keepers are McIntosh, Fuji, Rome and Granny Smith. Apples harvested later in the season are better keepers.
  • Avoid apples with bruises, cuts or soft spots.

We also all know that apples turn brown when cut. This is due to a chemical reaction that occurs when an enzyme is released when the apple is cut and then reacts with oxygen. We probably all have our favorite solution for this. They work either by blocking the oxygen, reversing this chemical reaction, changing the pH of the environment or stopping the reaction by altering the temperature. Here are a few of the suggested actions:

  • Acidulated water – Toss the apples in a bit of water to which an acid has been added, typically lemon juice or cider vinegar.
  • Honey water – Add 2 tablespoons honey to 1 cup water and pour over apple slices. This can keep your apples white for more than 24 hours. Even a 30-second submersion can prevent browning for up to 8 hours.
  • Saltwater solution – Add ½ teaspoon kosher salt to 1 cup water. Add apples and soak for 10 minutes. Drain and store until ready for use. Rinse salt off with tap water just before serving.
  • Plain water – Submerge apples in plain water using a paper towel on top to keep them under the water and away from the oxygen in the air. Or, put the apples and water in a zipper-lock bag with the air pressed out. Do not soak for more than about 15 minutes to avoid altering the texture.
  • Plastic wrap – Wrap cut apples in plastic wrap to keep the oxygen away.
  • Carbonated drinks – Submerge apples in a carbonated beverage such as lemon-lime soda, ginger ale or seltzer for 3-5 minutes. Drain and rinse before use.

There is one final thought I want to leave you with. Have any of you thought, like I do, that fruit just doesn’t taste as good as it used to? I think this all the time. How many times have you bitten into an apple just to find its flavor is bland?  According to Eat The Seasons, “The apples sold in supermarkets are varieties developed for good disease resistance or storage properties, often at the expense of flavor. As author Elspeth Huxley wrote: ‘You cannot sell a blemished apple in the supermarket, but you can sell a tasteless one provided it is shiny, smooth, even, uniform and bright.’ For more interesting and flavorsome varieties, look out for growers’ stalls in farmers’ markets or visit a pick your own orchard.”

When visiting a fruit stand in California, we were told the same thing about strawberries. He told us that what people want to buy are the large, red strawberries. Although they may look pretty, they are often so tasteless whereas the small, less-desired berries are more likely chock-full of flavor. If we would all be more discerning consumers, maybe this would eventually change. In the meantime, I feel fortunate that my husband loves to grow his own fruit and vegetables!