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Pastry Cream

September 26, 2012

I recently received a request to write about pastry cream, which is one of my favorite baking & pastry basics. It requires a bit of whiskin’, but with a little TLC, it comes out perfectly every time. There are dozens of variations out there: you can use a different ratio of yolks and whole eggs to change the texture and flavor; more or less cornstarch to get a looser or firmer pastry cream; some call for milk rather than cream; some use a mixture of the two.   Once you’re really a pastry cream expert, you can decide which recipe to use based on its application: are you filling a tartlet that will be consumed in one bite?  Loose pastry cream ought to do.  Are you going to fill a banana cream pie, which needs to be sliced and hold its shape?  Better go with a firmer variation.

Whichever recipe you decide to tackle–and I’ve included a good basic recipe below–there are a few key steps that will help you turn out a non-starchy, lump-free pastry cream.

(1) Divide the sugar in the recipe in half.  Half goes into the dairy that you are bringing to a boil (be sure to stir it so that it doesn’t burn.)  The other half needs to be whisked together with your cornstarch, like so: nice and fine.  You will probably create a cloud o’ cornstarch.  Don’t panic!  Also, don’t wear a black apron.

(2) Add just one egg (or yolk, depending on your recipe) at a time to the cornstarch/sugar mixture.  Even though it will be impossibly thick at first, whisk it as best you can before adding the next egg.  By gradually combining the eggs with the previously-whisked starch, you should have a nice lump-free cornstarch/egg mixture.

(3) Once your dairy has come to a boil, pour 2/3 of it very slowly into the cornstarch/egg mixture.  Never stop whisking!  If your bowl is moving around too much, you can always stabilize it with a wet towel.

(4)  Place the remaining 1/3 of your dairy back on the heat and gradually whisk the cornstarch/egg/dairy mixture back into the pot.  For carefree whisking (which will reduce the chance of scorching) I would recommend a slightly larger pot than you see below.  Make sure you get in the corners, too!

(5) Over medium heat, while constantly whisking (do you see a theme here?), bring the pastry cream to a boil.  As it boils, whisk the pastry cream until it no longer tastes starchy; I usually let it go for at least three minutes before I bother to taste it.

And that brings me to an important point: please do taste it.  The pastry cream should not leave a chalky feeling in your mouth, even at the very end.  Once that starchy mouthfeel is gone, you can take the pastry cream off the heat.

(6) Off the heat, add the butter, as well as any additional flavorings, such as vanilla extract.  Once the butter has melted, stir it into the pastry cream until it’s well incorporated.  You’re almost done!

(7) Pour the pastry cream into the desired container–for banana cream pie, you pour it right into the pie shell–and immediately cover it with plastic wrap touching the surface of the pastry cream.  This will prevent the very worst pastry cream faux pas: a nasty film that forms on the top of the custard.

And voilà, you have perfect pastry cream, to use however your heart desires.

Enjoy!

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2 c. half & half

3/4 c. cream

6 oz. sugar, divided

1 3/4 oz. cornstarch

2 eggs

2 yolks

3 Tbsp butter

1 1/2 tsp vanilla

1. Over high heat, bring the half & half, cream, and half of the sugar to a boil.

2. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk the cornstarch with the second half of the sugar.  Gradually whisk in the eggs and the yolks until you have a nice, smooth egg mixture.

3. Once the cream mixture comes to a boil, gradually whisk 2/3 of the boiling liquid into the egg mixture.

4. Place the remaining 1/3 of the liquids back on the stove on medium heat.  Gradually whisk the egg mixture back into the pot.

5. Continue to whisk until the mixture boils for at least three minutes and no longer tastes starchy.  (Taste it!)

6. Off the heat, add the butter and vanilla.  Once the butter melts, make sure it is mixed well.

7. Pour directly into the desired container and immediately cover with plastic wrap directly touching the surface of the cream.

Lime Curd

August 26, 2012

Or, How to Turn Any Citrus Juice Into an Irresistibly Sweet-Yet-Tart, Albeit Somewhat Jiggly Substance

If I’m making curd sound less than tempting right now, it’s only because I secretly want it all to myself. Go ahead, make your claim that “curd” is an inherently unappealing word and that food shouldn’t jiggle that way. Meanwhile, I’ll be content to sit in the corner with my bowl of lime curd, thank you very much.

In the interest of full disclosure: if left to my own devices, I sometimes eat curd straight out of the bowl. I’m polite–I use a spoon instead of my fingers–but I’ll fight you over it.

And apparently, when you spoon it in the middle of a sugar-coated thumbprint cookie, lime curd even becomes delicious to people with a more socially acceptable capacity for citrus tang.

For these cookies, I used my family’s recipe for Russian Teacakes, shaped them into thumbprints, and rolled them in sugar before adding a dollop of fresh lime curd.  Next time,I’d like to try to bake the curd right into the cookie.  This is partially because I think it might work a little better and partially because I am incapable of leaving anything damn well alone.

People also like lime curd if you fill cupcakes with it.  Especially if you fold even more curd into your buttercream, thusly creating lime curd buttercream.

I feel confident that you will find lots of applications for this curd (could I suggest eating it atop scones?  On toast?  Swirled into your yogurt?  Really, the possibilities are endless.)  And hey, if you want to swipe a little bit directly out of the bowl… I’m not judging.

Enjoy!

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A note about customizing this recipe:  It is easily scaled up or down; keeping in mind that a little curd goes a long way, I’ve shared a small batch here.  If you have an exceptionally tart citrus fruit, you may want to add a little bit more sugar, but I would recommend trying it this way first.  Finally, if you are nervous about accidentally scrambling your eggs, you can make the curd in the top of a double boiler; it will take significantly longer, but it’s a more foolproof method for cooking your eggs without curdling them.

Lime Curd

100 g lime juice [I have successfully used the juice of lemons, grapefruits, key limes, rangpur… you name it, it will probably make a delicious curd.]

100 g sugar, divided

100 g whole eggs

1. In a small pot over high heat, bring the lime juice and 50 g of the sugar to a boil.

2. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together the remaining 50 g of sugar with the eggs.

3. When the liquid comes to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low.  Very slowly pour 2/3 of the boiling liquid into the eggs, whisking constantly so that you gradually raise the temperature of the eggs.  Return the pot to the heat and add the egg mixture back into the pot, whisking constantly.

4.  Whisk the curd constantly over medium-low heat just until it thickens.  Remove the pot from the heat and pass the curd through a fine-mesh sieve into a small bowl.  This will ensure a smooth curd and remove any eggy lumps that may be hiding in there.

5. Cool the curd and store under refrigeration.

Homemade Vanilla

August 19, 2012
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If I told you that I haven’t bought vanilla extract in years, would you think I was weird?  It started with the vanilla… before you knew it, she was baking her own crackers, knitting her own toilet paper, and churning her own butter!  What if I promised that I wouldn’t let it go that far?

In all seriousness, if you can find reasonably-priced alcohol and vanilla beans, it usually comes out cheaper to make your own.  Plus, there’s that satisfaction you can only get from making it yourself.  And it’s so easy!  It’s really worth the wait.

I’ve always used vodka to steep my vanilla, but I think I’ll spring for some bourbon next time.  I’m sure the flavor will be outstanding, even if it does mess up my price point.

You have to think ahead a little bit, as the vanilla steeps for 30-60 days.  However, it will also keep indefinitely, so it’s reasonable to make large batches.

When it’s all done, you can store it in decorative bottles–the darker the better–and use it as you please.  Heck, you might even decide to share with family and friends.

Enjoy!

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Homemade Vanilla

2 c. (375 ml) vodka  [or bourbon, or even brandy!]
8 vanilla beans
Seal-tight bottle or other container, preferably of a dark material

1. Cut a lengthwise slit down the middle of each vanilla bean.

2. Discarding the ends, cut vanilla beans into ½ – ¾ inch pieces.

3. Pour the vodka into your container.

4. Add the vanilla beans to the vodka, seal the container, and shake.  Store in a dark place.

5. Once a day for 30-60 days, vigorously shake the container for 30 seconds.

6. When the 30-60 day cycle has finished, strain out the solids and store the finished vanilla in a decorative bottle.

Cinnamon Shortbread

August 11, 2012

In addition to working a minimum of 600 hours at my externship site–a milestone I passed up long ago–I’m also required to put together an externship manual that includes writing samples every step along the way.  I’m not even done yet, and my manual must top 200 pages already.  I’ve written up so many recipes and summaries lately–not to mention calculating the cost of making desserts and the gross profit we make from them–that I’m finding my word bank to be a little empty at the moment.  So I think I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves on this one.  If you’re looking for a simple, sweet treat, this shortbread fits the bill.

Don’t forget the cardinal rule of cookie-making: don’t overmix!  Your shortbread should bake up tender and flaky, just like this.


Enjoy!

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Cinnamon Shortbread

Shortbread:

1 c. butter, softened

3/4 c. confectioner’s sugar

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour

1/2 c. cake flour  [I’ve had success substituting all-purpose for the cake flour, but it really is better with the cake flour, if you’ve got it.]

Topping:

1 Tbsp. granulated sugar

1/8 tsp. cinnamon

1. Preheat oven to 350º.  Lightly grease a 9 x 13 pan.

2. In large bowl, cream the butter with the sugar.  Add the dry ingredients and mix just until combined.

3. Press dough evenly into the prepared pan–the dough will be thin, but it will fit!

4. Combine topping ingredients in a small bowl; sprinkle over shortbread.  Prick the dough all over with a fork.

5. Bake at 350º for 20-30 minutes or until light golden brown on the edges.

6. Cool slightly on wire rack; cut into bars while still warm to avoid jagged edges like mine.

Raspberry Orange Pop-Ups

July 29, 2012
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Have you ever tried a recipe from an unlikely source, only to find that it’s absolutely fabulous?  There are some popular cookbooks that nearly everyone owns, but I think everybody has one cookbook in their kitchen that unexpectedly turned out to be a cache of gold-standard recipes.  My not-so-secret kitchen underdog is this Land O’Lakes Cookbook.  It’s chock full of hearty, delicious recipes like chicken kiev and chicken and dumplings; it has a recipe for deep-dish pizza cooked in a cast-iron skillet (how could you say no to that?) and the most delicious apricot-filled cream puffs you could ever ask for.

And luckily, while I am away from my treasured book, I have access to the Land O’Lakes website, which I’ve always had luck with.  I’m telling you, I never would have guessed!  That, my friends, is secret #1.

Secret #2: There is another way to cut cold butter into your doughs.  You can use two knives (a technique I’ve never used successfully); you can use a fork; you can use a pastry blender.  Or you can grate your butter directly into your dry ingredients.

Is anyone else hearing a choir of angels?  This is a trick I learned at work, and I finally decided to give it a shot at home.  Turns out it works really well!  It does create one more dirty dish, but it’s less tedious than trying to scrub bits of butter or shortening from between the blades of a pastry cutter.

If you’ve ever tried it, you know I’m right.

This dough is deceptively simple: flour, salt, butter, and sour cream.  The high amount of cold butter is the only leavening agent, but it works wonders.  So you roll the dough out thinly, cutting half of it into regular circles and the remaining half into rings.

Then you construct “pop-ups” (or vol au vents, if you’re feeling traditional), which have a convenient divet in the middle.  Perfect for just a dollop of homemade raspberry jam.

If you keep your butter cold enough and don’t overmix your dough, the pop-ups should puff considerably during baking.  Puffy, crunchy deliciousness without the tedium of lamination!

Land O’Lakes wins again.

And if you’re struck with inspiration, you might throw a hint of orange vodka into your powdered sugar glaze, which will bring a great zing to the raspberry filling.

And they’re only 1 1/2″ across, so they’d make perfect hors d’oeuvres.  Or, you know, a dangerously pop-able snack to keep around the house… I’ll leave that part up to you.  Enjoy!

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Adapted from this recipe from Land O’Lakes

2 c. all-purpose flour

1/8 tsp. salt

1 c. cold butter

2/3 c. sour cream

Water

2/3 c. raspberry jam

Glaze:

1/2 c. powdered sugar

1 Tbsp. milk

1/4 tsp. orange-flavored vodka

1. Preheat the oven to 400º.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the salt and the flour.

3. Grate the butter directly into the dry ingredients.  Using your hands, toss the butter with the dry ingredients until it is  evenly coated with flour and the butter is broken into uniform pieces.

4. Add the sour cream and mix with a spoon just until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl.  Refrigerate until the dough is firm enough to be rolled out, about 1 hour.

5. Working with only half of the dough at a time so that it doesn’t get too warm, roll the dough to 1/8″ thickness.  Use a 1 1/2″ round cutter to cut all of the dough into circles.  Place half of the circles on a parchment-lined sheet pan.  Using a 3/4″ round cutter, cut a smaller circle out of the remaining circles, making doughnut-shaped rings.

6. To assemble the pop-ups, use a pastry brush dipped in water to lightly brush the rings.  Place the rings water side-down on top of the circles.  Fill each pop-up with 1/4 tsp. of jam.

7. Bake at 400º for 9-11 minutes or until the pastries are puffy and golden brown.

8. Once the pastries have cooled, mix the glaze ingredients in a small bowl and use a spoon to lightly drizzle it over the pop-ups.

Buttermilk Biscuits

July 20, 2012
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Despite the fact that I grew up solidly in the Midwest, some of my favorite comfort foods are distinctly Southern.  They even have the same cadence, which lends itself perfectly to the Southern drawl: chicken & dumplings; chili & cornbread; biscuits & gravy.  That last one in particular is a staple in my household: a simple sausage gravy made with reg’lar ol’ flour and milk is enough to make me swoon.  It’s pretty much the most satisfying breakfast you can have.  Add a fried egg and some shredded cheese, and you’ll be full until supper!

And although I’ve been making biscuits and gravy since I was ten, it wasn’t until recently that I discovered how to make really flaky, crunchy-on-the-edges, mile-high biscuits.

First, start with the advice you’ve heard a million times: use just enough liquid to bring the dough together.  Only mix it until you have a “shaggy mass.”

But when you turn the dough out onto the counter, fold it on itself 2-4 times in order to create flaky layers.  It should look about like this.

When you cut it, you should be able to see those lovely layers on the inside.  By the way, don’t twist your cutter–whether you make your biscuits round or square, be sure to cut straight down.

If they look like this on the baking sheet, you’ve done  a good job.   Just put them in the preheated oven and let the baking powder do its job.

And those few extra folds should result in a flaky, golden brown biscuit with a perfect crack around the middle where you can pop it open… perfect for sharing (if you insist) or just for ladling some warm sausage gravy on top.  Enjoy!

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Buttermilk Biscuits

Adapted from the baking powder biscuit recipe in this version of Betty Crocker’s Cookbook

2 c. all-purpose flour

1 Tbsp. granulated sugar

1/4 tsp. baking soda

2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. salt

1/4 c. cold butter, cubed

1/4 c. shortening

3/4 c. – 1 c. cold buttermilk

1. Preheat the oven to 450º.  In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.

2. Using a pastry blender or a fork, cut in the butter and shortening until they are in pea-sized chunks.

3. Add enough buttermilk to bring the dough together, just until it pulls away from the sides of the bowl.  Do not overmix.

4. Turn out the dough onto a floured counter and gently pat to a thickness of 1 inch.  Notice that for a batch this small, I don’t even bother with a rolling pin; I find that I treat the dough more carefully if I just use my hands.  Fold the dough on itself 2 – 4 times, each time patting to a thickness of 1 inch.  This will help create flaky layers without overworking the dough.

5. Cut out biscuits with a 2 1/2-inch round cutter.  Gently pat the scraps to a thickness of 1 inch as many times as necessary to use all of the dough.  You shouldn’t need to re-roll the dough more than twice.

6. Bake the biscuits at 450º for 12-15 minutes, or until golden brown.

Stone Fruit Bread Pudding

July 8, 2012

What do you do when you have stale bread and a bunch of fresh fruit lying around?  Well, I found a bread pudding recipe that called for apples, and I decided to swap in some nectarines and fresh cherries to make it more of a July Bread Pudding.  And let me tell you, it’s been a while since I’ve had such a good idea.

I used cinnamon-raisin bread because it’s what I had on hand, but it turned out to be the key ingredient in this bread pudding.  It was nice and absorbent, and it lent a little bit of extra spice.

Between the chance to clean out your fridge and the fact that this is a one-bowl operation, you should probably start in on this pudding as soon as you can.  Plus you use sweetened condensed milk as the base for the custard, which is about as easy as it gets.

I’ve been eating this bread pudding cold, but it sure would taste good warm.  With a scoop of vanilla–or maybe rum raisin!–ice cream on top, it would be impossible to resist.

Enjoy!

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Stone Fruit Bread Pudding

Adapted from this recipe on Allrecipes.com

3 eggs

1 (14 oz) can of sweetened condensed milk

2 medium nectarines, peeled and chopped

1 lb cherries, pitted and chopped

1 3/4 c. hot water

1/4 c. butter, melted

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. vanilla

6 c. cubed cinnamon-raisin bread (or other absorbent bread of your choice)

1. Preheat oven to 350º.  Spray a 9 x 13 pan and line it with parchment paper; set aside.

2. In a large bowl, beat the eggs; add the sweetened condensed milk, fruits, water, butter, cinnamon, and vanilla.  Stir in the bread, moistening completely.  Pour the mixture into the prepped pan.

3. Bake 50-55 minutes or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean.

4. Serve warm or cold, and refrigerate any leftovers.