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.

 

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A Banana Two-Stage

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No, that’s not a new dance move. We were mixing a cake using a different method — one that would require the kids to do the opposite of what I told them not to do the last time we baked a cake. Simple right?

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

First, let’s talk bananas.

Me: “When you guys go to the farmers’ market right now, what kind of fruit do you see there?”

“Oranges!”

“Tangerines!”

Me: “So, citrus fruits, like lemons, limes, grapefruit…anything else?”

“Apples?”

Me: “Do you see peaches? Or plums?”

“No!”

Me: “Well, why not?”

“Cause they’re not in season?”

Me: “Right! But the kids and I were in the grocery store the other day and we saw cherries. So, where did they come from?”

“From somewhere where the season is opposite of ours?”

Exactly.

We talked about the different foods available to us in California during the different seasons and where those January cherries and plums might have come from. I explained how, as a pastry chef trying to come up with an interesting dessert menu in winter, I would often times turn to tropical fruits…pineapples, mangoes, passionfruit, and yes, bananas. We reviewed which areas would be considered tropical, and I reminded them that our lesson on cocoa took us to those same regions.

But back to the cake.

I’d already heated the oven, so the next step was to prepare the cake pan. For a butter cake, that means greasing the pan, (we used the butter wrapper), placing a round of parchment in the bottom, and dusting the surfaces with flour.

I showed them a photo that Dorie Greenspan, (a famous cookbook author and personal idol of mine), posted on Facebook recently of a “baking fail” in which a chunk of chocolate cake clung stubbornly to the bottom of her pan; the caption read, “should have used parchment”.

I have my own “should have” stories, but bottom line, you won’t ever be sorry for taking the extra few minutes to prepare your pans properly.

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“So is this like banana bread?”

I knew they had all baked banana bread or banana muffins before, so I asked, “How do you guys make banana bread?”

“You put the wet ingredients in one bowl, and the dry ingredients in another bowl. Then you put them together.”

We remembered that this muffin method is what we used when we baked pumpkin cupcakes. The resulting texture of that method is coarser and more open than the fine crumb achieved with the creaming method we used to make butter pound cake.

The process we were using for this banana recipe, called the two-stage mixing method, would result in a similarly fine textured, very tender cake.

Therefore, the difference is the crumb and tenderness — the texture and chew of a muffin versus the texture and softness of a birthday cake.

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We placed a sifter on top of our mixing bowl and placed the whole thing on a scale.

“Don’t forget to zero it out!”

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They took turns placing the dry ingredients into the sifter.

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Then, everything was sifted together directly into the mixing bowl.

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“Hello? Is that you?”

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Cause, bananas.

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Next, the wet ingredients, also measured by weight, were added to a pitcher.

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I was very proud when they remembered, without my asking, that all the ingredients should be at room temperature.

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A couple of eggs…

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Finally, they each took a turn using the microplane to zest an orange.

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A lot of concentration was required to keep a very large orange from tumbling out of small hands.

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“It looks like an ice cream sundae!”

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With all of the wet ingredients in the pitcher, we used an immersion blender to combine them and puree the bananas.

Vocabulary word of the day: immersion.

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This is where I had to instruct the kids to forget everything I had told them about over mixing their batter.

Up until now, I’ve always warned them not to mix the batter too much once the wet ingredients were added; that flour, when combined with liquid and agitation, results in gluten development, which in a cake is not usually a good thing. Gluten development is what gives baked goods structure and chew; strong gluten development is good in bread, not as much in a tender cake.

However, in this two-stage technique, by adding softened butter and a small amount of the liquid in the beginning, we would be coating the flour in fat while the sugar would suck up the liquid that would usually promote the development of gluten.

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And because we were using cake flour, which is softer than all-purpose flour, we could mix away without worry. In fact, we wanted to mix enough to develop some structure; about a minute and a half would do it.

“I need someone to count 90 seconds.”

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They sat silently counting. It was the quietest moment of the afternoon.

We scraped down the bowl with a spatula, added half of the remaining wet ingredients, and mixed for another twenty seconds.

That’s when the chanting started.

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We repeated the scraping, adding, and chanting to “twenty Mississippi.”

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The batter went into the oven for about 30 minutes, and ta-da…cake!

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Everyone agreed that this was way better than banana bread, and just as easy.

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Banana Cake, from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and prepare a 9″ by 2″ cake pan by buttering it, placing a round of parchment in the bottom, and dusting with flour

2 large ripe bananas

1/2 c (4 1/4 oz) sour cream, room temperature

2 large eggs, room temperature

zest of one orange

1 1/2 t vanilla extract

2 c (7 oz) sifted cake flour

3/4 c +2 T (6 oz) sugar

1 t baking soda

3/4 t baking powder

3/4 t fine sea salt

10 T (5 oz) unsalted butter, softened

Combine the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a standing mixer. Set aside. Place the bananas, sour cream, eggs, orange zest, and vanilla in a pitcher and process with an immersion blender, or process them in a food processor. Add the butter and 1/2 of the banana mixture to the dry ingredients and mix on low speed until everything is just moistened. Increase to medium speed, (high speed if using a hand mixer), and beat for 1 1/2 minutes. Scrape down the sides. Gradually add the remaining banana mixture in 2 batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition. Scrape down the sides. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake 30 – 40 minutes or until a wire cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean and the cake springs back when pressed lightly in the center. Let the cake cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes before removing from the pan.