Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Pate a Choux: One Recipe, Many Uses

Ah, French recipes.  I've already mentioned that French baking recipes have a reputation for being finicky and difficult in the post on souffles, but the more baking I do, the more I find that reputation to be undeserved.  It may be true for cooking but so far it hasn't held for baking.

Much like souffles, I'd always been told that pate a choux is difficult to make - if you mess up the timing, it will never turn out right!  You must measure out the ingredients exactly or it will be a disaster!  And so on and so forth...

It's all lies: pate a choux is really easy to make, and as an added bonus, you don't need any fancy equipment.  "Pate a choux" means "cabbage paste" in French, which does not sound appetizing at all.  The name comes from one of its later uses, when it takes on the shape of little cabbages: cream puffs.  Now that sounds appetizing, right?  I certainly thought so, which is why I tried making green tea cream puffs in the last entry.

From: the Steamy Kitchen's entry on pate a choux

Pate a choux is an incredibly versatile pastry.  It's the basis of cream puffs, eclairs, profiteroles, croquembouches, crullers, beignets, and gougeres.  It can be shaped into anything that doesn't require support before baking and it will puff up to two or three times its original size.  Pate a choux is fairly flavorless, which means that it can be used for either sweet or savory recipes.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Tortoise, Not The Hare

Cookbooks and cooking websites/blogs (mine included) generally present complete recipes - the proportions of the ingredients carefully worked out and tested, the cooking time and temperature given without qualms.  But most recipes don't start out like this even if you get them from other people.  You just don't know what you're going to get the first time you make a recipe.  No matter how sure the original recipe author may have been about the recipe's perfection, it's not guaranteed that it will work in your kitchen.

There are various different reasons for this.  The one that seems to surprise people the most is that an oven's thermostat isn't precise.  The actual internal oven temperature can vary by up to 50° F from what's on the dial.  An oven heats the air inside it by some kind of heating apparatus (open flames or a heated coil), which will continue heating until it's too hot.  Then the heating apparatus turns off until it's too cold, when it turns on again.  The end result of this process is that your oven isn't sitting consistently at 325° F, it's heating up to 355 and then cooling down to 310 and then heating up to 340 and then cooling down to 295 etc etc etc.

So you should really buy a hanging thermometer for your oven and see how far off your thermostat is from the real temperature.

But that doesn't solve the real problem: you have no idea how well a recipe is going to turn out until you make it.  Less than 100 years ago, cookbooks were still pretty new fangled and recipes had instructions like "add some milk to several eggs and beat with flour until the consistency is right".  Not very helpful.  If you've ever wondered why The Joy of Cooking or Julia Child's cookbooks were such a big deal, now you know: they had explicit amounts for ingredients paired with detailed instructions.

Before I ever give a recipe to anybody else, I've made it at least five times (generally a lot more than that).  All of the previous posts on this blog were of recipes that I know like the back of my hand.  For a change, today's post is going to be about what I'm thinking when I make a recipe for the first time, and how I decide what changes need to be made for the next time I use a recipe - or if I even want to bother trying the recipe again.

Think of this as a tale of two recipes: one success and one miserable failure.