Rich Bread From Tiny Creatures


And when I say “tiny creatures,” I don’t mean the kids. I mean Saccharomyces cerevisiae, also known as baker’s yeast.

“It’s been a while since we’ve baked anything with yeast. The last thing was…”

“Pizza!”

“This time we’ll be making a yeasted French bread called brioche. It’s a rich dough, meaning it has a lot of fat in it. Doughs that become sourdough, or baguette, or even pizza crust are called lean doughs because they are made with little to no fat in them. This brioche has quite a bit of butter in it, as well as fat from lots of egg yolks.”

We took a look at a very traditional baking and pastry book. They could see that brioche can come in many different forms: loaves, braids, baked in large molds or as little knots.

“This version even has a little head.”

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We reviewed what yeast was and how it works.

“So these little guys, these simple organisms, they eat the sugars in the dough. They eat and eat and eat, and then they do what?”

“Fart!”

“Poop!”

I waited for the giggling to die down.

“Or burp. Yeah, they expel carbon dioxide, which gets trapped in the dough and causes it to rise. The thing is, fat slows down the action of the yeast. So, in order to give them a head start on their work, we’ll make a sponge with some of the ingredients, then add the rest once we can see that the yeast are really active. Finally, we’ll beat in the butter.”

We heated some milk to about 110 degrees, warmer than body temperature, but not too warm for dunking fingers into.

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They added the yeast, an egg, and some of the flour. We mixed this together to get a shaggy dough, then sprinkled more flour over the top. We covered the bowl with cling film and set it aside to ferment.

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We were using fresh yeast for the first time, so while our sponge was rising, we took the opportunity to compare different kinds of yeast.

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First up, the yeast we couldn’t see.

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Though the yeast that had made the bubbles appear in my starter wasn’t visible, there were other signs that fermentation had taken place.

“It smells like sourdough.”

We talked about how the yeast in the jar, wild yeast (Saccharomyces exiguus), is always out there in nature. The only time we see evidence of its presence might be the funkiness on a piece of fruit left too long on the counter or on the tree in the backyard — after the yeast has already started the fermentation process, feasting on the fruit’s sugars, then excreting carbon dioxide and alcohol.

Then we checked out the yeast we could see: fresh, active dry, and instant yeast.

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“These forms of yeast are produced in big factories. They grow it in vats on sugars like molasses.”

“So kind of like yeast farmers?”

“Right! They end up with something like yeast soup. Then they remove the liquid and either compress the results to make cake (fresh) yeast, or dehydrate it to make either active dry or instant yeast.”

We examined the three piles.

“Can we taste it?”

“Sure?” I mean, I wouldn’t want to eat straight yeast, but I figured a tiny bit couldn’t hurt. “If anything, it might make you gassy.”

Giggles.

They inspected and sniffed and poked. And tasted. A little.

“This one is bigger and kind of round.” (Active-dry)

“This one is tinier, and sort of longish.” (Instant)

Fresh yeast resembled a crumbly eraser.

“Fresh yeast will work the fastest because it doesn’t need to be rehydrated. But fresh yeast doesn’t store well for very long and is harder to find in the market. You can substitute one for the other as long as you use the correct converted amount.”

There was some discussion about the need for rehydrating dried yeast. Yes, it is alive in the package, but dormant, kind of like the tree in my yard during the winter. Yes, it is alive in the bread dough. And yes, we kill it when we bake it. Poor yeast.

The yeast in our sponge was definitely alive and moving fast.
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The kids agreed that it already smelled like bread.

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They added the rest of the eggs and dry ingredients to the rising sponge.

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“It doesn’t look very yummy.”

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This dough requires a long mix, about 15 minutes on medium-high speed.

“Can you believe they used to mix this by hand?”

While the dough was mixing, I pulled out a batch of brioche I had made the night before.

“Because brioche contains so much butter, it is really impossible to work with unless it’s cold. I have dough ready and chilled so that you can see how to portion and shape it.”

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We divided the dough into 3 ounce pieces.

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I showed them how to cup their hands around the dough to shape and round it.

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Ok, so it takes a bit of practice. We got mostly rounded dough pieces.

We set the pan of dough balls aside to rise again, and turned our attention back to our mixing brioche.

It was smooth and sticky and very well mixed. Time to beat in the butter.

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“Here you guys, feel this butter. It should be somewhat soft, but not melty or oily.”

They pressed their fingertips into the butter.

“Now we’ll add it to the dough, a few tablespoons at a time.”

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They were really eager to throw their pats of butter into the mixer, but they patiently waited until I gave each person the o.k.

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Once all the butter was incorporated, we dumped the brioche dough out onto the lightly floured table and gathered it into a ball. We placed it into a buttered bowl so that it could rise.

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Our brioche rounds were ready.

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They pressed the spongy rounds flat, leaving a little raised rim around the edge.

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We spooned some crème fraîche into the center.

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Then we topped the crème fraîche with macerated strawberries and brushed the edge of the dough with a bit of egg wash.

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A sprinkling of sugar topped the whole thing off.

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The brioches went into the oven and emerged golden and puffy and smelling like butter and hot strawberries. And yes, they tasted as good as that sounds.

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But what of the first batch of dough? The one the kids actually mixed?

It was still happily rising on the counter.

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I pressed that out into a sheet pan and dusted it with flour before placing it in the refrigerator to chill.

We had needed extra dough for demonstration purposes. This batch would become cinnamon rolls for breakfast the next morning. The lengths I go to for the kids’ benefit. That’s the story I’m sticking with anyway.

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Brioche from Pastries From The La Brea Bakery by Nancy Silverton

yield:  2 1/4 lbs of dough

Note: This recipes takes 2 days because it must be chilled for at least 6 hours, but my preference is overnight. Also, the dough requires a lengthy mixing time to properly develop — keep an eye on your mixer so that it doesn’t shimmy its way off the counter while it’s working, and don’t let it overheat.

3/4 ounce (1 T) packed fresh cake yeast or 2 1/2 t active dry

1/3 cup whole milk, warmed to 110 degrees

6 extra-large eggs

3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 t kosher salt

2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, soft but not melting or oily

Place the yeast in the bowl of a standing mixer and pour the milk over, letting active dry yeast proof for 10 minutes. Add 1 of the eggs and 1 cup of the flour and stir to combine. Sprinkle 1 more cup of flour over the mixture without stirring. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and set aside until the surface cracks, about 30 minutes.

Add the remaining eggs and dry ingredients to the sponge. Using the dough hook, mix on low for 1-2 minutes, until combined. Turn the mixer up to medium-high and continue to mix for about 15 minutes, until the dough wraps itself around the hook and is smooth, shiny, and slightly sticky. It may be necessary to add another tablespoon of flour to encourage the dough to leave the sides of the bowl.

Turn the mixer down to medium-low and add the butter, a few tablespoons at a time. After all of the butter has been added, turn the mixer up to medium-high and beat the dough for about 2-3 more minutes, until the dough wraps itself around the hook. If necessary, add a few pieces of flour to encourage the dough to leave the sides of the bowl. The dough will be smooth and shiny, but not oily.

Remove the dough from the bowl onto a lightly floured surface and gather into a ball. Place the dough into a buttered bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size, about 2 – 2 1/2 hours.

Spread the dough out onto a floured parchment-lined baking sheet. Dust with flour, cover, and refrigerate at least 6 hours or overnight.

For fruit-topped brioche:

Separate the chilled dough into twelve 3 ounce pieces. On a lightly floured work surface, roll the dough into balls. Flatten into discs and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Set aside to proof until spongy to the touch, about an hour. Make a depression in the center of the discs and spoon way more crème fraîche than you feel is reasonable in the center, (trust me, we used about 1T per bun and it was not close to enough). Top with fruit, (we used strawberries macerated with sugar and orange zest), brush the edge with egg wash, and sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 – 30 minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

Choose Your Own (Baking) Adventure

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“Can we just make something up?”

My son and I were standing in the kitchen chatting before our guests arrived.

“Well yeah, but you probably wouldn’t want to just throw a bunch of stuff in a dish and bake it –”

He cut me off: “Oh I know — you would want to know what the different ingredients do first.”

This little conversation got me thinking about our recipe-less baking lesson for the day. We really wouldn’t be winging it — it would be more structured than that. It would be more like one of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that my kids enjoy: “If you choose scenario A, then turn to page X…”

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“You guys have baked a lot of things so far. And even though you’ve used the same ingredients over and over, the products have been very different.”

Together, they identified the familiar ingredients on the table: “flour, sugar, butter, eggs, baking powder, baking soda, salt…and vanilla!”

“So what makes the end result so different if the ingredients are mostly the same?”

“How much of an ingredient you put in? Like maybe something more in a cake. Or something?”

“Yeah. Remember when we made ganache and talked about ratios? A ratio tells how much there is of one thing in comparison to something else. So if we wanted to make truffles with a ratio of 2 parts chocolate to 1 part cream, how much cream would we need if we had 1 pound of chocolate?”

“One-half of a pound?”

“Right. And say we wanted to make a ginormous batch of truffles and we had one hundred pounds of chocolate. How much cream would we need?”

“Fifty pounds?”

We looked at a chart I had drawn up that morning that showed some time tested ratios for batters and doughs.

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“Pie dough is known as 3-2-1 dough because it is made from about three parts flour to two parts fat and one part liquid. Now compare that to the ratios for a biscuit or scone, which are made the same way — by cutting the butter into the flour; those ratios are about three parts flour to one part fat and two parts liquid.”

“Oh, I see! Like the pancakes, they have the same amount of flour and eggs as a muffin, but there is just more liquid. Oh, and a little less fat.”

I explained that the ratios I had listed were very general, and that specific recipes are built from those ratios.

“Recipes are just ratios that somebody has adjusted to their own liking. There’s no reason you couldn’t change a recipe to your own liking, provided you didn’t mess with the ratios too much — you’d still want a cake to look like a cake and not a soupy pudding. If you know what the function of the ingredients are, there’s no reason you couldn’t just make up your own recipe.”

Which is what we would be doing. It would be a simple cake. But I suggested that we have a plan to work towards.

“These are the fruits that are in season right now.”

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There was immediate talk about lemon. Then tangerine. Somebody pointed out the blood oranges and I mentioned that my son and I had talked earlier of an upside-down blood orange cake. A couple of the kids really seized on that idea. There was also a suggestion of a blood orange layer cake with frosting, “maybe pink?”, that we had to reject because of time constraints. After some additional chatter about icings, we returned to the upside-down cake idea.

We looked at our chart again. The ratio for a cake was 1:1:1:1, flour to fat to sugar to egg.

“This ratio would produce a pound cake.”

Now pound cakes are delicious, but we wanted something a bit less dense. We would definitely need to tinker.

“Flour and egg whites are the protein ingredients. They provide the structure for the cake, while sugar and fat weaken the structure. In order to create a cake that will hold itself up yet still be moist and tender we have to have a balanced recipe. What do you think would happen if we had a lot of flour and not much fat?”

“Would the cake be dry?”

“Yeah, it would be dry and crumbly. And if we had way too much fat or sugar?”

This one was harder for them.

“It would be too sweet!”

“Yes, it would be way too sweet, but sugar doesn’t just make things sweet, it also contributes moisture, so the cake might be really wet and soggy inside. So to avoid that, one well-tested formula for this kind of cake would be to make sure the weight of the flour equals the weight of the sugar.”

I suggested we just measure out one and one-half cups of flour, (good for a cake that would serve eight people), and weigh it.

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“Seven and one-quarter ounces!”

They used a separate bowl to weigh an equal amount of sugar.

“Now, the weight of the eggs should be about the same weight as the fat.”

We had already decided that we didn’t want a pound cake, so we reduced the amount of butter to a reasonable four ounces, or one stick. Also, convenient.

They cracked two eggs into a bowl on the scale.

“Three and one-half ounces! But that’s not the same as the butter.”

I explained that eggs have two parts: the whites provide structure, but also make baked goods dry, and yolks, which are mostly fat and therefore add moisture and help create a velvety texture.

“So we could add just one yolk. It would bring up the total weight of the eggs to equal that of the butter — actually it would be slightly over, but we don’t need it to be exactly the same.”

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“Next, we need the weight of the eggs plus the liquid to be about the same as the sugar.”

I suggested buttermilk just because I like the tanginess of it, but they voted unanimously against that and opted for milk.

“How much did the eggs weigh again?”

“Just under three and a quarter, ” I reminded them.

“So we need about four ounces of milk.”

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“We still have to think about leavening.”

We reviewed the differences between baking soda and baking powder. I even poured a little vinegar over some baking soda to remind them how the soda reacted with an acid to create carbon dioxide, which in turn would create bubbles in the cake batter. Those bubbles would grow larger in the the heat of the oven, thereby leavening the cake.

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But we had not chosen to use buttermilk, so we would use baking powder instead — one teaspoon per one cup of flour.

“Now sometimes recipes will have both baking powder and baking soda because the amount of soda necessary to react with the acidic ingredient, (one-quarter teaspoon soda per one-half cup of an acid), is not enough to leaven the total amount of batter.”

Finally, we added the flavor enhancers: vanilla, orange zest, and most importantly, salt.

“Baked goods aren’t very tasty without salt. I left it out of some muffins once and how were they?”

My daughter wrinkled up her nose. “Blah.”

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We prepared our pan by buttering it, dusting it with flour, then sprinkling some granulated sugar over a round of parchment set in the bottom of the pan.

Then we got to review some knife skills.

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The kids each took a turn removing the peel from an orange.

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Then we sliced the blood oranges into rounds.

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They arranged the brilliant red wheels on top of the sugar in the pan.

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Finally it was time to mix the cake.

We creamed the butter with the sugar, salt, and orange zest until it was fluffy, then added the eggs a little at a time.

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We had a very conscientious baker on hand who scraped the bowl after every addition.

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Milk was added next.

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The flour and baking powder came last. We mixed those on the mixer just until there were a few streaks of flour, then we finished mixing it by hand.

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They each got to dip just one finger to taste the batter.

“Yum!”

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We could see lovely red and orange specks of zest in the fluffy batter.

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The top of the baked cake was nice and golden, but we were all more interested in seeing the bottom.

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It did not disappoint.

“Oooh, so pretty!”

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And they all agreed that the cake was delicious and beautiful. And theirs.

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Blood Orange Upside-Down Cake

7 oz all purpose flour, (about 1 1/2 c)

1 1/2 t aluminum-free baking powder

4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature

7 oz granulated sugar, plus more for the pan

1/2 t fine sea salt

2 large eggs plus one yolk at room temperature

4 oz whole milk

1 t vanilla extract

zest of one blood orange

several blood oranges to slice

Heat the oven to 350 degrees and butter and flour a 10″ cake pan, preferably springform or one with a removable bottom. Place a round of parchment in the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle about a tablespoon or so of sugar over the parchment and arrange the blood orange slices on top of that.

Whisk the flour and baking powder together and set aside.

With the paddle attachment, cream the butter, sugar, salt, and orange zest together until fluffy. Add the eggs, about one at a time, mixing well then scraping the sides of the bowl with a spatula after each addition. Add the vanilla to the milk and then mix that into the butter and egg mixture. It will look curdled but will smooth out once you add the flour. Add the flour and mix on low until most of the flour is incorporated. Finish mixing by hand until no streaks of flour remain.

Gently spread the batter over the blood orange slices and level it as much as you can.

Bake the cake in the middle of the oven for about 35 – 40 minutes or until the cake is golden brown and springs back when pressed in the center. A toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake will come out with moist crumbs attached.

Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove the sides of the pan, invert the cake, and remove the parchment.

 

Formulas for cake creations:

Butter = Sugar

Eggs = Fat

Eggs + Liquid = Sugar

Leavening guidelines:

1 t baking powder per cup of flour

1/4 t baking soda per cup of flour and 1/2 cup of acidic ingredient

 

 

 

 

 

Puffed

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“Soufflér. That means to puff, or to breathe.”

The past participle of soufflér is soufflé. And that’s what we were making.

Most of the kids had eaten a savory version of a soufflé before; only one had not.

“It’s kind of fluffy.”

So we talked about how a soufflé becomes so fluffy or puffed up.

“What do you guys think? How do we get all that air in there?”

They had great responses:

“Yeast?”

“Baking soda and vinegar?”

“Baking powder!”

“A bicycle pump?”

I was incredibly happy they remembered that all those things, aside from the bicycle pump, were leavening agents.

“What about eggs?” I asked. “Remember when we made the meringue mushrooms? Or the chocolate cloud cake?”

“Oh yeah!”

“We were able to whip those egg whites until they were nice and fluffy, right? The proteins in the whites formed a network that trapped a lot of air. That is exactly what we’ll use to leaven our soufflés; all those air bubbles will expand in the heat of the oven and cause our soufflés to push up.”

But first, we needed to make the base. This one would be made with pastry cream and flavored with bananas.

They had made pastry cream once before.

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They combined the egg yolks with sugar, flour, and salt to form a kind of thick paste.

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Then they whisked in a bit of milk that we had heating on the stove.

“Do you guys remember why we don’t just dump everything into the pot of hot milk?”

“Because the eggs will get clumpy?”

“Right! So we introduce the heat gradually, that’s called tempering the eggs, then we cook everything together.”

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Once the mixture had thickened and come to a boil, they strained the resulting custard into a bowl.

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We set the pastry cream aside while we prepared the soufflé dishes.

“Straight-sided dishes are best because they will help the soufflé rise up, not out. And we need something for the soufflé base to cling to as it climbs the sides, so we’ll brush the insides of the ramekins with soft butter and coat them with sugar.”

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With the dishes ready, we turned our attention back to finishing the base.

Of bananas.

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They mashed the fruit into the pastry cream and added some vanilla.

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We inspected our egg whites.

“No goldfish, right?” Meaning there were no bits of yolk floating around in the whites. “The yolks contain fat, which would interfere with the whites’ ability to form that network we talked about — the one that traps the air. Any fat will make it difficult, or even impossible, for the whites to whip.”

We started whipping the whites, and when we could see that the whip was leaving trails as it passed through the egg whites, they began adding the sugar.

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It took only a few minutes for the meringue to reach a firm peak. Actually, we could have whipped it even less, we were just on the edge of being over whipped. A little dipping of the tip of meringue, like a soft serve ice cream cone, would have been better. 

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They took turns folding the meringue into the soufflé base.

“Remember, when you’re folding, down through the middle and up the sides.”

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“It’s better to have a little bit of whites still streaky through the base than having an overfolded soufflé. The more you fold it, the more air you knock out of it.”

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We portioned the mixture into the sugared ramekins, filling them to the brim.

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I leveled them off with a spatula so they would have a nice, flat top.

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“You can run your thumb around the inside of the dishes so that the mixture doesn’t stick on the edge as it’s baking and give you a lopsided soufflé.”

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We popped the tray into the hot oven, and after about 10 minutes I called everyone over to take a peek.

“That’s amazing!”

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Soufflés, especially those made from a starch or chocolate base, are not as temperamental as the movies would have you believe. You can even take one out of the oven, test it for doneness, and put it right back in.

These were ready though.

Everyone sat down and we passed out the soufflés. They had their choice of raspberry or chocolate sauce to pour in.

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Or both.

And they were eaten before they even started deflating.

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Banana Soufflés adapted from a recipe in Room For Dessert by David Lebovitz

Note: These can be made a few hours in advance and held, unbaked, in the refrigerator.

4 servings (can be easily doubled or tripled)

2 medium bananas (equal to about 1/2 cup mashed banana pulp)

2 t vanilla

1/2 t lemon juice

1/2 c pastry cream

4 large egg whites, at room temperature

pinch of cream of tartar

1/8 t fine sea salt

2 T sugar, plus more for coating the ramekins

Position the oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees. Butter the insides of four 4-ounce ramekins and coat with a fine layer of sugar. In a large bowl, mash the bananas into the pastry cream and add the lemon juice, vanilla, and salt. In the bowl of a standing mixer, whip the egg whites on medium speed until frothy then add the cream of tartar. Increase the speed to medium-high and continue whipping until soft peaks form. Begin adding the sugar and whip until the meringue forms a firm but not dry peak. Add about 1/3 of the meringue to the banana mixture and fold gently to lighten it. Fold in the remaining meringue until combined. Spoon the mixture into the prepared dishes, filling them to the rim. Level the tops with a spatula and use your thumb to create a shallow indentation around the inside of the ramekin. Set the soufflés on a baking sheet and bake for about 10 minutes or until the tops are nicely browned and the soufflés are firm but still slightly jiggly. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.

Pastry Cream  (makes about 1 cup)

1 cup whole milk

3 T flour

4 T sugar

1/8 t fine sea salt

3 large egg yolks

1/4 t vanilla

Warm the milk in a saucepan. Meanwhile whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, and egg yolks. When the milk is hot, whisk about 1/3 of it into into the egg mixture. Pour everything back into the pot and cook over moderate heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture is thickened and just begins to boil. Remove from heat and strain into a bowl. Stir in the vanilla. Cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

 

A Log By Any Other Name


“Boosh uh noelll!”

“Actually, it’s Bûche de Noël, honey.”

“BOOOSH UH NOELLLLL!”

Aww, never mind. My son was having the grandest time with the name.

“A Bûche de Noël is a traditional French cake made to resemble a yule log.”

“A log?”

They looked incredulous; it did seem a bit silly. Even the sound of the word — log, lawwg, l-o-g — is heavy to the ear, and the opposite of what one would presumably want in a cake. But once I showed them some photos, and gave them a little historical context, they were on board.

(Before we go any further, I’ve got to point out that this project was our most ambitious yet. Meringue mushrooms and a cake in the shape of a log? Thus, we took an hour or so to make the meringues, then two days later we spent the afternoon baking and assembling the cake.)

So, we have — Day 1: Mushrooming

They had made meringue before, so we just jumped right in.

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Once the meringue was silky smooth and held a stiff peak, we loaded it into pastry bags fitted with piping tips.

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The kids took turns piping the mushroom stems by making small cone shapes, squeezing the meringue out onto the parchment while gently pulling up on the bag.  They were tickled by this whole process. Some stems drooped or fell over, but the kids kept going. And going. And going.

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“Guys, we still have to pipe out the mushroom caps.”

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The caps were a little easier; they were just like piping cream puffs.

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Little points on the caps were smoothed over with a barely damp finger.

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While the meringues baked, the kids played, and the moms chatted. All was right with the world.

Day 2: Zee bûche

Oh look, we’re making meringue again!

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The other ingredients for the cake were mixed and sat waiting for the egg whites and sugar to whip to a stiff peak.

We folded a third of the billowy meringue into the cake batter to lighten it.

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Then we quickly incorporated the rest.

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The resulting mixture was placed into a half-sheetpan and we popped it into the oven.

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Making filling and frosting with this crew, on top of everything else, sounded impossible, so I opted to have a batch of plain buttercream and a batch of ganache ready to go.

We wanted to flavor the buttercream though. I suggested a little melted chocolate, (just enough to contrast with the cake), and to build on our last lesson, some caramel powder. Gilding the lily? Maybe. But we wanted this to be an epic log. Also, tasty.

“I made caramel, just like we did for our apple crêpes, but instead of adding butter and cream, I just poured the cooked sugar out onto a piece of foil where it hardened.”

“It’s like glass!”

They picked it up and gazed through it.

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Then squealed as I smashed it to pieces.

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We used a food processor to grind the pieces into a fine powder.

“It’s like sand!”

“Can we taste it?”

“Sure.”

This would be the start of sampling sugar in several different forms.

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We mixed the chocolate and caramel powder into the buttercream and turned our attention to assembling the meringue mushrooms.

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They trimmed the pointy tips off the stems and dipped the bottoms of the caps in melted chocolate before attaching the two pieces.

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“They’re so cute!”

“Can we taste them?”

“Sure.”

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We were still waiting for the cake to bake, so we decided to make some woodland creatures for the log.

Marzipan is the traditional medium for log decor, but I had some fondant leftover from a birthday cake, so that’s what we used.

“It looks like clay!”

“Can we taste it?”

“Sure?”

I was beginning to worry about answering to one of the dads, a dentist.

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But oh my! They dove right in.

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So much focus and creativity.

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Flora and fauna.

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And proud artists.

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The cake was done. It was time to fill.

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I showed them how to spread an even layer of buttercream over the cooled cake, leaving about an inch, at the topmost long edge, bare.

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Starting from that place, I began rolling the cake onto itself.

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I reassured them that any cracks on the roulade would be covered with frosting and hidden from view.

Using the parchment to help keep the cake from sticking to my hands, I continued rolling the buttercream covered chiffon sheet.

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“Eventually it becomes easy to use the parchment to pull the cake toward you.”

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“It looks like a log already!”

“Yeah, you could leave it as is, but we are going to make some stumpy parts and attach them with frosting.”

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I cut the ends off the roll on a slight diagonal.

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“Where shall we put them?”

They each offered an opinion on placement before we came to a consensus.

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Now for the chocolate “bark.”

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They used an icing spatula to fill in cracks and crevices with the soft ganache.

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The point where the pieces met proved the most challenging, but I assured them that it was supposed to look rough, like a knobby old piece of wood.

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When everyone had had a turn, they used a fork to add texture to the wood.

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“Time to add the decorations!”

They didn’t need to be told twice. The kids pounced on the cake, decorations in hand. They were so excited to bring it to life.

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They encouraged each other and moved things around to accommodate another child’s favorite piece.

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When they had placed the last figure on the cake, we stood back to take a look.

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There were gnomes, and insects, and birds, and foliage.

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We spied colorful flowers and several rocks. There was even a mini-log on the log.

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They were so pleased and proud.

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“Can we eat it?!”

“Sure.”

Just like that, without hesitation or concern for all the work they had put into it, they happily devoured the cake, creatures and all.

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And yes, it was sweet, but not only because of the sugar.

 

Bûche de Noël      (serves about 16 – 18)

You could make this as elaborate a production as you want, or as minimal. Either way, there are several components, but they can all be made in advance so that the actual assembly moves a lot quicker.

Chocolate Chiffon Sheet

Have ready a half-sheetpan (11″ x 17″), ungreased and lined with parchment

Preheat oven to 325 degrees

2 1/3 c  (8 1/4 oz) cake flour

2/3 c (2 3/4 oz) cocoa powder

2 c (14 oz) granulated sugar, reserve 1/2 c (3 1/2 oz)

1 T baking powder

3/4 t fine sea salt

6 large eggs, separated

3/4 c water

1/4 c neutral flavored cooking oil

1 t vanilla

Sift all the dry ingredients, except the reserved sugar, together and set aside. In a large bowl, combine the egg yolks with the water, oil, and vanilla. Whisk the dry ingredients into the yolk mixture until combined. Whip egg whites with the reserved sugar until stiff peaks form. Fold 1/3 of the meringue into the cocoa mixture to lighten it, then fold in the remaining meringue, until completely combined. Pour into prepared sheet pan and smooth with a spatula. Bake until the cake springs back to the touch, about 15 minutes. Let cake cool on a rack for 5 minutes before loosening the edges with a knife. Invert on to a cooling rack and remove parchment. Let cool completely before filling.

Buttercream Filling

You will need about 2 1/2 cups, flavored as you like. We used melted chocolate to taste and caramel powder (see above and here).

I like this recipe for Swiss Meringue Buttercream. Make just 1/2 of a batch for this cake.

You can make this several days in advance. Refrigerate and let come to room temperature before re-whipping.

Ganache Frosting

You will need about  1 1/2 times this ganache recipe. You probably won’t use it all, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Use leftovers for hot chocolate!

This can also be made in advance, (see above recipe for softening cold ganache), but it’s so quick and easy to make as needed, I prefer to do that.

Meringue Mushrooms

Here is a good recipe for the mushrooms. You don’t need superfine sugar, regular works fine, just make sure you add it slowly and that you whip it until it is no longer gritty. The mushroom caps and stems can be made in advance, and stored in an airtight container in a dry spot for several days. Attach the caps to the stems with chocolate just before you assemble the cake.

Other items you might want:

Marzipan to mold into figures, leaves, etc. This can be tinted with food coloring.

If you are going for a more natural looking log, (not ours), rosemary branches or other unsprayed foliage.

Sugared cranberries. So pretty!

Google some examples. The sky is the limit. Have fun. And have a happy and peaceful holiday season!

 

 

 

 

Stovetop Alchemy

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“Do you say care-a-mel or car-mel?”

We were divided on the pronunciation of the word, but we were united in our appreciation of it.

“We are making a caramel sauce.”

Somebody sighed.

Now, I am not above eating caramel sauce with a spoon, straight out of the pot, but I felt that in order to maintain some sense of propriety we should also make something to eat the caramel on.

“And apple crêpes.”

Now, a cheer.

Since crêpe batter should sit for 30 minutes or so before using, we decided to make that first.

The easiest way to make the batter is in a blender or, in our case, with an immersion blender.

They measured the milk into a pitcher.

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And added the eggs.

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The butter we had put on the stove to brown was ready and it smelled amazing.

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After mixing the browned butter into the other ingredients, we set the resulting batter aside and the kids gathered near the stove to start caramelizing the sugar for our sauce.

Except nobody could see into the pot. So, some chairs were brought in and children were rearranged.

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“What does sugar smell like?”

“It’s sweet!”

“And caramel? Does it smell the same, or different?”

They considered the question.

“How can caramelized sugar smell so different from regular old white sugar?”

I explained that granulated sugar, or sucrose, is made up of fructose and glucose, and that when heated, it breaks down into these two component sugars. Eventually, these molecules break down into other molecules that react with one another to form new compounds that make up the delicious aromas and flavors of caramelized sugar.

There are two classic methods to making caramel: wet and dry. The wet method involves moistening the sugar with water and cooking the mixture. As the water boils away, the sugar breaks down and caramelizes.

The dry method is simply sugar cooked in a dry pan. Because sugar is partially water, heat easily liquifies it.

Of the two methods, I personally prefer the dry caramel. I am an impatient person and because of the added water, the wet method takes longer. A wet caramel is also more prone to crystallization. Again, as an impatient person, I just don’t have time for that.

I reminded the kids that melting sugar is very, very hot. They agreed to be mindful of each other at the stove.

We sprinkled an even layer of sugar into the pot and began cooking it over moderate heat.

After just a few minutes, we could see some sugar liquifying at the edges and a little browning under the surface, near the center.

“Wow, that happens fast!”

As the browning and melting continued, we used the spoon to pull the sugar from the outside of the pot towards the middle.

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The kids took turns using the tip of the spoon to mash and distribute chunks of sugar, allowing them to melt into the darker liquid.

While we didn’t want any one spot to get too dark, (you can’t salvage burnt sugar), I cautioned against stirring too much to avoid excessive lumping and crystallization.

We did end up with some chunky bits, but we lowered the heat and those soon softened into the rest of the caramel.

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The color of caramel at its tastiest point is something like that of an old copper penny. Smell is actually the best indicator of when the sugar is ready. We kept smelling the pot, and as the familiar scent of rich caramel wafted up, we watched the darkening sugar like hawks. Once we could see the caramel start to smoke, we turned off the burner. The caramel would continue to cook from the residual heat of the pot.

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We had butter at the ready and carefully dropped it into the molten sugar.

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Cream went in next.

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The cold cream caused the caramel to seize up a bit, but as we did earlier, we just turned the heat to low and stirred everything together.

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“That smells so good!”

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Now that the sauce was finished, we could turn our attention to cooking the crêpes.

We strained the batter and poured it into a jar tall enough to accommodate a 2-ounce ladle.

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I demonstrated how to deposit the mixture onto the hot pan, tilting and swirling it to cover the surface with a thin layer of batter.

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I used a small offset spatula to loosen the edges of the crêpe and quickly flipped the thin pancake over.

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A few seconds on the other side, and the crêpe was cooked enough to turn out onto a cooling rack.

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I handled the ladling for the first round, while the kids focused on tilting the pan.

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They were more confident the second time around, and did most of the ladling themselves, though they still needed a little help with the flipping of the crêpe.

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We had a bit of fretting over the lack of coverage, but I assured them that we could add a little batter and smooth it with the spatula, and if that failed to produce a perfect crêpe, they wouldn’t notice the difference once the crêpes were filled and folded.

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I quickly sautéed some apples and reheated the crêpes briefly on the pan.

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With the addition of a scoop of the cooked apples and a little of the still warm caramel sauce, everyone was happy.

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It was definitely a clean plate kind of day.

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Salted Caramel Sauce

1 cup granulated sugar

6 T butter, cut into pieces

1/2 cup heavy cream, warmed just slightly

1 t sea salt

Have all ingredients ready and near the stove. Place the sugar in a heavy-bottomed pot and shake it to make a fairly even layer. Cook the sugar over moderate heat, using a wooden spoon to help push and pull the solid sugar into the liquid sugar. You don’t want any one spot to get too dark or burnt. If the sugar gets really clumpy, just turn the heat to low and continue cooking it and it will eventually smooth out. Keep a close eye on the color, it should be the color of an old copper penny when it’s ready. It should smell strongly of caramel and the pot will start to smoke. Immediately turn off the heat and carefully add the butter, followed by the cream and salt. Return the sauce to low heat to incorporate all the ingredients. Cooled sauce can be rewarmed over low heat.

Crêpe Batter

Makes about 15 crêpes

7 T unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 3/4 c whole milk

4 large eggs

1/2 t sea salt

1 t vanilla

1 1/2 c unbleached all purpose flour

Brown butter over low heat until quite dark (see here), immediately pour into a small dish to stop the cooking and cool slightly. Measure milk, eggs, salt, and vanilla into a blender and combine. Add the flour and blend until smooth. Add the butter and blend again. Set aside for 30 minutes or up to 24 hrs in the refrigerator. Strain batter before using.

To cook the crêpes:

I use an 8″ crêpe pan, but you could use a similar size skillet. Heat the pan over moderate heat and lightly butter it, (I only do this for the first crêpe). When the pan is hot but not smoking, (a few drops of water should skitter across the surface), pour or ladle 1/4 cup of batter on it near the center while simultaneously tilting and swirling the pan. It takes a little practice, and it usually takes me a crêpe or two to get into a rhythm. You should hear it sizzle. Any excess batter can be poured back into your container and the resulting “tail” can be cut off. Once the top of the crêpe is set, you can use a small spatula to loosen the sides. I use my fingers to flip the crêpe over, but you could also use a larger spatula to do so. Let it cook for a few seconds and then turn the crêpe out onto a cooling rack. The first crêpe is always a throwaway for me, well, we eat it, but it’s generally an ugly one. You can begin stacking the finished crêpes as they cool. Any unused crêpes can be wrapped and frozen.

 

 

Building Blocks, Pastry-Style

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“I remember making those!”

I had a tray of pâte à choux shells resting on top of the stove; the kids were immediately reminded of the lesson in which we made cream puffs.

“Do you guys also remember when I told you that pâte à choux is kind of like a Lego brick in the pastry kitchen? That it can be used to make lots of other things?”

We gathered around the iPad to take a look at examples of some of those things.

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“What’s a Lady’s Navel?!”

“Or a Moooor kop?”

They were intrigued by the funny sounding pastries, and even more excited about the one we would be making that day — the Religiuese.

I’ve heard a couple of different explanations of the pastry, whose name means “Nun.” The first theory is that it is supposed to represent the papal mitre; the other interpretation describes the similarity in the pastry’s appearance to a nun’s habit. I’ll let you be the judge.

I had baked the choux cases that morning so that we could have plenty of time to focus on making the filling, the chocolate glaze, and assembling the pastries.

Traditionally religiuese are filled with mocha pastry cream, but I thought it would be better if we went with vanilla. While us moms can always use the coffee, the kids definitely didn’t need any caffeine.

“Pastry cream is another building block in the kitchen. You can use it as a filling for cakes, tarts, and all kinds of different pastries. You can thin it and use it as a sauce. You can even turn it into a soufflé.”

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They measured the milk and salt into a heavy-bottomed pot, then placed the cornstarch and sugar into a bowl.

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Finally, they whisked the eggs into the dry ingredients to make a slurry.

Vocabulary word for the day — slurry.

I explained that pastry cream is a custard, which means it is a liquid that has been cooked and thickened or set by eggs. They considered other things that might be custards: pudding, cheesecake, pumpkin pie filling, and ice cream.

“What happens when you heat up eggs?” I asked.

“They get clumpy?”

“Right! They cook and become solid. But too high or too long a heat will overcook them. We don’t want clumpy, lumpy custard, so we have to treat them gently. Otherwise you get scrambled eggs.”

We checked our mise en place for making pastry cream: we had a mesh strainer suspended over a bowl that would hold the finished custard, a ladle, and a damp towel that we wrapped around the base of our mixing bowl to keep it in place.

“Like a little nest?”

“Right!” I agreed. A little nest to hold our bowl of egg-slurry.

We moved over to the stove and began heating the milk.

“Milk can scorch, or burn, really easily. And once you scorch it, the whole pot will taste burnt. So we’ll use a spatula to gently stir the milk as it’s heating.”

I also advised that they keep a close eye on any dairy heating on the stove, as it has a tendency to boil-over pretty quickly. I cranked up the heat for a minute to demonstrate and they watched the milk race towards the top of the pot.

“That went fast!”

We turned off the heat and let the milk settle.

“What do you think would happen if we poured the eggs directly into this really hot pot?”

“Would they scramble?”

They remembered!

“So,” I continued, “we use a method called tempering, where we introduce a little bit of the hot liquid into the eggs to heat them gradually. Once we’ve added about half of the milk to the bowl, we’ll pour everything back into the pot to finish cooking.”

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They took turns adding the milk to the eggs, using one hand to ladle, the other to whisk.

“It’s kind of like rubbing your head and patting your tummy at the same time.”

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The kids traded off whisking the mixture over medium heat.

I showed them how to work the whisk around the pot, making sure to scrape the entire bottom surface, including the edges.

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We watched for big bubbles, a sign that the custard had come to a boil.

“The starch and sugar will keep the eggs from overcooking, to a point, but if we let it go too long the custard can become grainy.”

When we were sure the cream had come to a boil, we immediately strained it into a clean bowl.

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They added vanilla and butter, one tablespoon at a time, to the pastry cream.

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“Can we taste it?!”

They all promised not to double-dip, so…

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“So good!”

I beat back the advancing spoons, placed a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the remaining pastry cream, and popped it into the fridge to cool.

Now for the chocolate.

“Ganache is another good thing to have in your baking ‘tool box’. You can use it to fill, frost, and glaze cakes or pastries, but you can also let it cool completely and make truffles.”

“What else is in it besides chocolate?” someone asked.

“Cream. That’s it. The only thing you need to worry about is having the proper chocolate to cream ratio for whatever you will be using the ganache for.”

Another vocabulary word — ratio.

“If we have 4 ounces of chocolate and need a ratio of 1 part chocolate to 1 part cream, how much cream would we need?”

“4 ounces?”

“Right! And if we needed a ratio of 1 part chocolate to 2 parts cream, we would need…”

“8!”

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I showed them how to use a serrated knife to cut small, uniform pieces of chocolate. It had been awhile since we worked on knife skills, but they quickly caught on.

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We brought our cream to a bare simmer, poured it over the chopped chocolate, waited a few minutes, then stirred it together. Easy peasy.

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It was time to assemble the religuese.

I pulled out a batch of pastry cream that I had made the night before, and we filled up a piping bag.

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“Remember, don’t squeeze it from the middle!”

They each filled two choux shells, one large and one small.

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We took turns dunking the tops in the glossy ganache.

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Finally, they piped circles of whipped cream on top of the larger puffs, then set the smaller puffs on top.

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“Can I pipe a little hat?”

“They look like snowmen!”

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I wasn’t sure about a papal mitre or a nun, but I did see a happy little clown. Sadly, we had to eat him.

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All of the components for the religuese, except the whipped cream, can be made in advance.

Pâté  à Choux recipe (Bake two sizes)

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Ganache recipe  (We used equal parts of 60% chocolate and heavy cream, see recipe link for alternate percentages)

Pastry Cream

Yield 2 1/2 cups

2 c (16 oz)     Whole milk

1/4 t               Salt

4 T                 Cornstarch

1/2 c (4 oz)    Sugar

2                    Large eggs

4 T (2 oz)       Unsalted butter, cut into 1 T pieces

1 t                  Vanilla extract

Have a bowl ready for the finished pastry cream, with a mesh sieve resting on top. Place the milk and salt in a heavy saucepan and heat to just under a boil, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, whisk the cornstarch and sugar together, then add the eggs and whisk until smooth. Wrap a damp kitchen towel around the base of the bowl to keep it from sliding around. When the milk is ready, begin ladling the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. When about half of the milk has been incorporated, pour the egg-milk mixture back into the pot and continue whisking over medium heat until it just comes to a boil, (you will see some slow bubbles that do not stop after whisking). Immediately remove from heat and pour through the strainer into the bowl. If at this point the cream looks slightly curdled, an immersion blender or countertop blender can be used to smooth the texture. Let cool for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Whisk the butter into the pastry cream one tablespoon at a time, always whisking until smooth before the next addition. Whisk in the vanilla. Cover the custard with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap directly onto the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Cool completely before using. Do not whisk the cream once it has set to avoid breaking down the starch and thinning the custard. Pastry cream will keep in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

All Mixed Up – A Heritage Potluck to Start a New Year

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It started with a book I picked up at the library called International Night, in which chef Mark Kurlansky and his daughter Talia, cook a meal from a region chosen randomly, by the spin of the globe. I thought this was a brilliant idea, and one that I would like to do one day with my own kids. What a great way to learn about the world!

The book started me thinking about what similar things we could do within our homeschool group. Cooking a whole meal was out of the question, but the idea of focusing on the kids’ own background was interesting. Ultimately, we settled on a potluck where everyone would bring a dish from the country of their ancestors.

The kids were pretty excited about this concept, and not just because it would involve eating. I think children like to contemplate their roots, mine do anyway, and researching and cooking food is a fun way to explore their cultures even further.

We planned on each of the families choosing one or two dishes to prepare and share at a little party to kick off the school year. My kids are all mixed up, ethnically speaking, so they had plenty of food options. We floated some ideas around…Chinese? We were sure one of the other families would bring at least one Chinese dish. Mexican? We eat Mexican food all the time here in California. They passed on German and Irish, and vociferously rejected my husband’s suggestion of haggis. Finally, they committed to making a couple of the local dishes of Hawaii.

I own a fantastic book on the culinary history of Hawaii, which helped us narrow our choices. Hawaii is all mixed up too; its multicultural population is widely reflected in its local foods, which borrow and blend dishes that are of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Southeast Asian, Filipino, and Portuguese origin.

The kids chose a popular local dish called Chicken Long Rice, and for dessert, (because we had to have dessert!), they picked an east/west mashup cake? custard? confection? See, I don’t even know how to categorize the dish called butter mochi.

In The Food of ParadiseRachel Laudan theorized that butter mochi was the idea of one of the home economists employed by the gas and electric companies to increase the use of ovens in Hawaii, where most of the population had cooked for generations without them. Perhaps a Western cakelike dessert using Asian sweet rice flour might do the trick?

However butter mochi came to be, that’s what we were making.

First step: Asian market. This was a fun little trip. There were new sights and smells and colorful labels on odd looking items. We found packages of mung bean threads that were nearly as tall as my son.

“Surely these would be for a restaurant,” I commented.

“Or if you really liked noodles.”

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So, ginger and noodles for the chicken dish, and glutinous rice flour and coconut milk for the dessert. The boba were an impulse buy.

This recipe could not be easier. Wet ingredients in one bowl, dry ingredients in another, put them together, done.

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Once everything was mixed together, we poured the batter into a rectangular dish and baked it for 90 minutes.

Our friends arrived with their dishes: a Swedish beef and potato dish, some yeasted buns stuffed with sauerkraut, and a Chinese steamed cake. We added some pineapple for good measure.

The kids took turns talking about the dishes they brought and pointing out the country of origin on the globe. We chatted about grandparents and immigrants and food.

My kids’ takeaway from the whole thing? We are all mixed up. Every single one of us.

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FYI – this makes quite a bit. We’ve never had a problem with that, but you could cut the recipe in half.

*Sweet rice flour is flour milled from glutinous rice. This doesn’t mean it contains gluten, nor is it sweet. It simply means that it is made from a kind of rice that gets really sticky when cooked, rather than from a strain of non-glutinous rice.

Butter Mochi (Sweet Rice Flour and Coconut Cake) Adapted from The Food of Paradise by Rachel Laudan

1 lb (3 cups) *glutinous rice flour/sweet rice flour (mochiko)

2 cups sugar

2 tsp baking powder

3/4 tsp salt

Two 12-ounce cans coconut milk

5 large eggs

4 oz melted butter

1 tsp vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix the dry ingredients in one bowl, the wet ingredients in another, and combine both mixtures. Pour the batter into a 9 x 13 inch baking dish. Bake for 90 minutes. Cut into 24 small squares to serve.