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.

Last Saturday, I decided to try making a savory pie and some cream puffs for a potluck.  I expected that the pie would turn out well and that the cream puffs would most likely not puff at all.  These assumptions were based on previous experience: the pie recipe is from Nigella Lawson (very reliable) and I had failed at making cream puffs once before.  I wasn't expecting anything different this time.

Let's start with the pie: cheese, onion, and potato pies.  The Food Network has the original recipe converted to American units here.  I did the conversions myself when I bought How To Be A Domestic Goddess.  They match this official recipe, so at least I didn't mess that up.

When I was a kid and we were in London on our way to moving to Israel, I fell in love with the British tradition of single-serving savory pies.  Cheese, onion, and potato is a standard filling combination that already knew I liked, so I was excited to give this recipe a try.

I'm not the only person who's been using this recipe - lots of people have blogged about it (12345).

The only major change I made to Nigella's recipe was to make one large pie instead of eight individual pies because a) I don't have individual Yorkshire pudding pans or tart pans and b) I was going to a potluck and I didn't know how many people would be there.

Although I've got a pie crust recipe that I like, I decided to try Nigella's crust to see how it turned out.  One of the other bloggers described this recipe as "fiddly", which summarises it perfectly.  The crust takes a standard approach of putting the fats into the flour to chill and then using a food processor to make tiny chunks of fat in the flour, and then adding the chilled liquids.  Then the crust is chilled again in the fridge, and rolled out.

Since you have to chill the ingredients for 20 minutes and then for another 20-30 minutes after combining, it takes nearly an hour before you can roll out the dough and you've got a dirty food processor to clean plus whatever other bowls are dirty from mixing.  I was not thrilled at this point.

The dough did not have enough liquids to bind.  It was a total failure.  I ended up having to handle it for about 10 minutes to melt the butter enough to get it to adhere into a coherent enough mass to roll it out.

The filling wasn't as bad as the pie crust dough.  I substituted sour cream for creme freche and added in an extra potato and more cheese to bulk out the filling enough for a 9 inch pie dish.  The main problem is that the filling is just very bland, even with the extra green onions I added.  Combine bland filling with even blander, dry crust, and you get a mess of a pie.

At least it looked pretty.  :(

So now that I've made it once, what am I going to change the next time I make it?  Is there going to be a "next time"?

This recipe has a lot of potential and could be really good.  First thing, I'm dumping Nigella's pie crust recipe.  I've got my mother's foolproof, always reliable pie crust recipe (which also uses fewer ingredients for a smaller grocery bill).  Next, I'm going to increase the amount of sour cream and cheese in the filling.  I don't know how much more cheese is needed, so I'll have to experiment with that.  Third, salt and pepper alone does not add enough taste to the filling.  I'm inclined to try flavouring with oregano, kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper.  We've got a huge pot of fresh basil growing outside the back door, but I don't think that basil would enhance the taste combination in the filling.

I'm annoyed enough with this recipe that I'm giving it one more try and then I'm calling it quits.  It's so strange - Nigella is usually very reliable with her recipes.  This is the only one I've ever had turn out so badly on the first try.

Cheese, Onion, and Potato Pies

From How To Be A Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson

I'm not going to waste your time by retyping the recipe - read it on the Food Network site.

Onwards and upwards!

While the pie was baking, I went to work on the cream puffs.  Right now I'm working with green tea as the major taste in my baking desserts.  I'm not that enthusiastic about it even though the results have tasted really great because I keep thinking of the taste of hot Japanese green tea, like you get in Japanese restaurants.  Matcha combines so well with creamy textures that aren't overly sweet and every time I make something with green tea I love it and I keep saying that I'll use it more, but then I don't.

For the last two months I've been thinking of matcha as my "taste of the month" to make myself try new recipes with it.  Last month's potluck contribution was a green tea and lychee tart, which was a fantastic taste combination.  That recipe only needs a little bit of tweaking to be perfect, which I may try this week.

This blog is turning out to be about tastes from my childhood, even though I didn't plan it like that.  I decided to try green tea cream puffs because we used to eat little green tea pastries when we lived in Hiroshima.  My tastebuds have been programmed to love green tea in desserts.

As I mentioned earlier, I've only ever tried to make cream puffs once before and they were an inedible mess.  I decided that if the cream puffs didn't work, then I'd just eat the bowl of green tea cream filling and call it a night.

I found a recipe for green tea cream puffs on a Vietnamese cooking website but ended up not using it.  Instead, I modified the filling from a recipe for French vanilla cream puffs.

The recipe for the puff pastry (pate a choux) comes from Cooking A to Z: The Complete Culinary Reference Tool by the California Culinary Academy.  The original vanilla cream filling recipe comes from the Silver Palate Cookbook, modifications by yours truly.

Unexpectedly, the choux was the easiest thing to make all night.  It worked exactly the way that the recipe said it would, and it only took about 5 to 10 minutes to put the recipe together and pop it in the oven.

I modified the pastry cream to taste of green tea instead of vanilla, but I didn't have time to let it sit 
overnight in the fridge which may be why I had some problems with liquid.

Next time I make this recipe, I'm going to have to modify the pastry cream or use a different recipe.  I really don't want to have to make the cream a day early.

I tried pouring the leftover green tea pastry cream over the puffs to enhance the green tea flavour and as a substitute for melting chocolate on top.  I didn't like the results - they tasted good but didn't look nice. Next time I'm going to melt green tea powder into while chocolate and use that as a topping.

Tips: The original recipe calls for 3/4 cup of water or 3/8 cup water and 3/8 cup milk.  I used 3/4 cup whole milk instead and the consistency was still nice and light but with a little bit of richness.

The green tea cream was supposed to stay in the fridge overnight but we were having construction done on the kitchen the next morning so everything had to get assembled on Friday night.  I mixed the still-liquid green tea cream with whipped cream, which leaked some kind of green tea liquid over night in the fridge.

If you need some kind of rack with a tray underneath it for situations like cooling just-baked pastries or holding filled pastries, a broiling pan works perfectly.  Just make sure that it's been thoroughly washed after broiling meat.  I use our broiling pan when I drip melted chocolate over cupcakes or when I use a very liquid-y frosting on cookies, etc.  In this case, I used it to cool down the puffs, pipe in the filling, let the extra liquid drip out, and pour the green tea cream over the filled puffs.

You can make your own double-boiler with a pot and a mixing bowl.  Put about 1-2 inches of water in the pot and find a heat-proof mixing bowl that fits into the top of the pot without touching the water.  You want to heat the water until it's boiling without touching the bottom of the bowl.  You only need to turn the heat up to medium to get the water to boil.  If you put in too much water, it will boil over the sides of the pot.

Use a chopstick to make a hole in the bottom of the cream puffs if you're going to to fill them with a pastry bag instead of cutting off the tops.  I did this, and it worked like a charm.

Green Tea Cream Puffs

From Cooking A to Z and The Silver Palate Cookbook

Cream Puff Pastry (Pate a choux)

3/4 cup of whole milk or 3/8 cup milk and 3/8 cup water
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
3/4 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup unbleached white bread flour, sifted
3 eggs

1 egg, beaten for egg wash

Preheat oven to 425. Place milk, butter, sugar, and salt in a large saucepan; bring to boil over low to medium heat. The mixture should be heated slowly so the butter is just melted when the milk reaches a boil. When the mixture is boiling, remove from heat immediately and add flour all at once. Stir vigorously with a wooden spoon. Return to medium heat and stir until the mixture pulls away from sides of pan and forms a ball (about 30 seconds), leaving a white film on pan.

Remove from heat; cool 5 minutes. Add 3 eggs, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. The paste should look smooth and shiny but be stiff enough to hold its shape when piped or dropped onto a baking sheet.

Prepare a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Use medium scoop (2 tablespoon measuring spoon) to portion out 15 to 16 even scoops of pastry. Puffs will expand when baked so it's a good idea to divide the 15 to 16 scoops onto two cookie sheets. Smooth scoops and brush with egg wash.

Bake at 425 for 15 minutes; reduce heat to 400 F and continue baking for another 15 minutes. After 15 minutes are up, take out the cream puffs and make a few small slits on the side of each puff to allow steam to escape. Turn OFF oven and return cream puffs to the oven for 10 minutes. Prop oven door slightly ajar with a wooden spoon. Cool cream puffs on wire racks.

Green Tea (Vanilla Bean) Pastry Cream
2 cups milk
2 tablespoons grean tea powder (high quality matcha)*

1/2 cup granulated sugar
4 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon sweet butter

* recipe originally called for 
1 vanilla bean pod, split, and seeds scraped

Heat milk with scraped vanilla beans and empty pod in a heavy saucepan right before boiling, but at the point where you see steam rising from the milk.

While milk is heating, whisk sugar and flour together in a stainless-steel mixing bowl. Place mixing bowl over water in a pot, and bring to a boil (i.e. a double boiler).

When milk is heated, remove skin and slowly pour milk through a strainer into the flour and sugar, whisking constantly. Cook over simmering water, stirring, until mixture lightly coats the back of the spoon, about 10 minutes.

In a separate bowl beat together egg yolks. Add hot milk mixture to the egg yolks a scoop at a time, to temper the eggs. Stir the milk into the eggs quickly. Add several more spoonfuls to the egg mixture and keep mixing. After egg mixture is warmed up, then add the entire bowl to the hot milk and whisk rapidly. Stir constantly until mixture heavily coats the back of the spoon, about 10 minutes more. Remove from heat.

Add butter and mix well. Cover well and chill overnight. Makes 2 1/2 cups pastry cream.


1 cup heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup confectioners sugar

With either a hand mixer or in the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, whip cream until it begins to thicken. Add sugar and continue beating until cream holds its shape on the beaters and forms peaks. Do not overbeat or you'll have butter.

Remove skin from pastry cream (if any) and give it a good stir. Carefully fold about half the pastry cream into the whipped cream.  Add more pastry cream for a heavier texture.  Scoop mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a non-ornamental tip.

Using a serrated knife, cut the tops off of the cream puff shells.  Alternatively, use a chopstick to make a hole in the bottom of each cream puff.  Fill cream puffs with cream.

Sprinkle with confectioners sugar if so desired. Serve.

The puff pastry when it's formed a ball in the pot.

Mounded puff pastry brushed with egg wash ready for baking.
My home-made double-boiler.  Works perfectly.

Beating the green tea pastry cream in the double-boiler.

The baked puffs.

Making holes in the bottom to pipe in the green tea cream.

I drizzled the leftover green tea cream on top of the cream puffs and dusted with powdered sugar.

The final results.

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