Search Results for: science

The Science of Pâte à Choux

Choux is a truly ingenious invention, though it almost certainly wasn’t “invented” in the classic sense of the word. It evolved, probably through decades, maybe even centuries, of trial and error. The secret of choux is that it’s “double cooked”, a process that imbues it with some very special properties.

If you’ve made éclair or cream puff shells before, you probably recall the process. Water and butter are combined in a sauce pan and heated to the boil, at which point enough flour is added to turn the mixture into a fairly stiff paste. That paste is then cooked over low heat until it forms a ball, which is then finished by beating in several eggs, one after the other. It’s then piped and baked (the second “cooking”). Interesting. Curious. But what does it all mean?…

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Filed under:  Pastry | 16 Comments

Vanilla and Vanillin

Reader Joey asks: why do we need imitation vanilla extract, and where does it come from? Both very good questions. The reason we need imitation vanilla is because demand for vanilla flavor exceeds the total quantity of naturally-produced vanilla by something like 750%. So, if we didn’t have imitation vanilla extract, a typical $2 vanilla bean would cost about fifteen bucks. Which would make one heck of a pricey pot de crème, n’est-ce pas?


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Filed under:  Pastry | 7 Comments

On Artificial Eggs

Quite a bit of chatter these days about the all-vegetable, Bill Gates-funded artificial egg. This story and others prompted reader Rainey to ask if I had an opinion on it. I’d be very curious to test artificial eggs in a home kitchen, Rainey, since I have a strong feeling that their main utility will be in the packaged foods industry where manufacturers are forever looking to replace the functional characteristics of animal-based ingredients with vegetable alternatives that won’t spoil and won’t fluctuate as wildly in price. …

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Filed under:  Pastry | 13 Comments

Sweaty Undershirts + Hay = Mice

Watching a bread dough grow is a wonder. Or at least it is to me, a dedicated baker and consummate geek. I never fail to be startled when I peer into a cloth-covered bowl and find a completely inflated sponge, bubbly and rarin’ to go. Just two hours prior it was a lifeless paste of water and flour. What could be cooler?

Moments like this make one understand how the ancients (and a few not-so-ancients) came to believe that leavening was a miracle. Certainly no one had any concept of the tiny creatures we call microbes until the age of Pasteur. Europeans in the Middle Ages simply called fementation “goddisgoode”. Whenever I think of that I imagine two Medieval dirt farmers staring drunkenly into mugs of beer a the local mead hall. One says to the other: I wonder how this happens? The other shrugs and says: Hey, God is good!

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Filed under:  Pastry | 8 Comments

Well that was interesting.

I went to prison last night and, to my great surprise, they let me back out again. It was quite an experience to watch a group of convicts — many of them serving extended sentences for very serious crimes — perform Shakespeare. Quite honestly I’m still trying to decide what I thought of it. It wasn’t the best Shakespeare I’ve ever seen, though many of the performances and several of the scenes were jaw-droppingly good.

Over the years the Shakespeare Behind Bars troupe has performed a variety of different Shakespeare plays, many tragedies (Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Othello, Macbeth) but also comedies (The Comedy of Errors, Measure for Measure, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice). This year’s show, Richard III, was I think the first of the history plays they’d performed. You won’t be surprised to discover that the histories are generally my favorites, especially the so-called “Henriad”: Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Henry V. So…no surprise that I was keen on seeing it. …

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Filed under:  Pastry | 4 Comments

This week is camping week.

I’ll admit I’m not a big fan of camping. Oh I like the outdoors plenty, I just have bad associations with tents and sleeping bags. Being the nerd in my scout troop I was always the kid whose backpack got filled with rocks, or who climbed into his sleeping bag only to find someone had put a hundred of those little restaurant butter pats inside. Hey, you try sleeping in 40-degree weather when you’re greased from head to toe, OK?…

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Filed under:  Pastry | 29 Comments

On-the-Edge Q & A

Reader Silviu writes:

Reading [your posts on Michael Pollan] leaves me wondering what’s your approach to ingredients and food in general? Do you fit in any particular category (organic, local, etc.)? Do you have some never-touch-that rules? What do you think of sugar and pastry (I mean pastry is mostly not pastry without sugar)? I’d love to read a whole post on this.

Silviu, I try not to touch hot-button questions like this since they often lead to go-nowhere comment field combat, a lot like the trench warfare at Ypres. In the end, after all the shells and noxious gasses have been released, little has been accomplished and nothing has changed. But since you asked I’ll go for it. Briefly. …

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Filed under:  Pastry | 25 Comments

Can sugar really “cook” egg yolks?

Reader Lily writes:

Joe, the other day I left some egg yolks that I was about to whip into pastry cream sitting in a bowl with some sugar for too long. The yolk sides that were touching the sugar turned pale and hard. My instructor said that it was caused by sugar cooking the eggs because sugar and yolks together create heat. I’m skeptical, but what do you think?



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On The Physiology of Taste & Other Amusements, etc.

Reader Allen wants to know if Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste was more a book about science and physiology or more about philosophy and other intangibles/ineffables. The answer is yes. You really have to read the book to get a feel for it, Allen, or at least a few parts of it. To me it’s really about fun.

When you set out to tackle Physiology it’s important to remember that it is very much a product of its time: the mid-Enlightenment. This was a period when most learned people took a keen interest in science and the physical world, but practiced science rather informally. Yes the scientific method was around, but techniques for conducting experiments were still evolving, so more than a few of the “science” books written around the time were simple collections of observations, anecdotes and speculations. …

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Flatbread Science

Many experienced chapati makers have observed that I’m fiddling with tradition here. It’s true. Indeed I am varying the flours and the liquids in order to get to a softer, more toothsome homemade product. Don’t infer from that statement that I don’t think traditional recipes give good results, but ingredients and…ehem…the manipulators of those ingredients, vary highly from place to place. I should be using atta, traditional Indian chapati flour, but I can get any. As a result the all-whole wheat flour and all-water recipes weren’t delivering bread anywhere near as good as I remember from the real Indian meals I’ve had. …

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Filed under:  Pastry | 14 Comments