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Status in St. Louis

The Pastry family continues to get the job done here in St. Louis. We’re all weary from a longer-than-expected stay, and we have a couple of weeks yet to go, but the hard work is paying off handsomely for the sick one among us, and that’s obviously the main thing. We couldn’t be more appreciative of the city we’re temporarily calling home. I can honestly say: I love this town.

The architecture alone could keep a history nerd like me busy for weeks. Walking the different neighborhoods, I realize how much my city of origin, Chicago, lost in terms of its history when it burned down in 1871. Mrs. O’Leary’s cow deprived us of any of the Colonial-style structures the city may have once had. But you can find block upon block of French Colonial townhouses and storefronts in St. Louis’ Soulard neighborhood:

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What’s the Difference Between Low Quality White Chocolate and High Quality White Chocolate?

If you said there’s isn’t one! then you’re one of those extreme chocolate snobs of the kind I’m married to, and right now you’re recoiling before this photo like a vampire before a sunrise. It burns! It burns! But that’s a nice question, reader Walter! Let’s get to it.

The main difference between a high quality white chocolate and a lower quality white chocolate is the percentage of cocoa butter the chocolate contains. Of course other factors play into it: the care with which it’s formulated and processed and so on. However if I had to boil it down to any one thing, cocoa butter would be it. Cocoa butter what makes the difference between a silky chocolate and waxy chocolate. Lower quality chocolates have some cocoa butter — chocolates without at least a little can’t legally be labeled “chocolate” in the US — however they can contain other types of fats, like palm oil. 

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Shiny Baking Pans vs. Dark Baking Pans

Reader Robert wants to know what the practical difference is between bright and shiny metal baking pans and dark-colored nonstick versions (other than the fact that one is nonstick of course). The main difference, Robert, is that dark colors absorb more heat. That’s as true of pans as it is of clothes, even in the lightless environment of an oven. It’s why a tent of shiny aluminum foil does such a great job of preventing excess browning in a hot oven. It reflects heat energy.

A dark pan does the reverse and that’s not usually a good thing. Dark pans can not only create excess browning on edges, they can contribute to the premature hardening of surface crusts, and that can hold in rising or crust expansion. This is not to say that nonstick can’t be a good thing, however tart and pie crusts are very buttery to begin with. As a result they tend not to have a problem releasing from pans, so in that case the nonstick surface is really unnecessary. Properly prepared, just about any pan can be made to perform like a non-stick pan, so my feeling is that in general you should prefer the lighter finishes. They’re more versatile, cheaper and you never have to worry about the coating wearing off. Thanks for the excellent question. Robert!

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Bostock Recipe

Bostock has two major things going for it. First, it’s head-slappingly easy. Second, it can be riffed upon endlessly. All you really need is the frangipane and the brioche. And while you can go full-bore and make your own brioche, but store-bought makes an already easy pastry even easier. I confess really like to use brioche hamburger bun tops. The round shape makes for a good presentation, plus bun tops are nice and thick, which is what this preparation needs.

Component-wise you can really go crazy. You can spike your syrup with spirits or extracts, or infuse it with citrus, vanilla, herbs, rose petals, whatever your little heart desires. You can swap out the jam for some other spread: preserves of any kind, Nutella, apple or pumpkin butter. Lastly, you can sprinkle on a little of just about anything with the almonds: bits of fruit, berries, maybe some edible flowers. And who’s stopping you from dusting on a bit of spice with that powdered sugar? Nobody, that’s who.

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Next Up: Bostock

The word sounds like a breed of beef cattle, but it’s actually a delightful little piece of DIY pastry just right for a minimalist kitchen of the kind we’re currently occupying. Pronounce the word “BO-stuck”, but you can also call it brioche aux amandes if that sounds more appetizing.

I think it does.

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Making Pierogi

This photo is actually a joke, because as anyone who’s had any experience with pierogi knows, no one eats just two of these things. My first experience with pierogi left me nearly comatose. One of my high school girlfriends was Polish, and when she decided she liked me enough to introduce me to her mother, she brought me over on pierogi day. Four hours and God knows how many pierogi later I was lying face down on their couch, my entire circulatory system clogged with mashed potatoes. I’ve never eaten the like since, though I have to say that these are very, very close.

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How Popular Are Pierogi?

St. Louis (where the Pastry family is temporarily residing) is not a town that’s known for Poles. Yet have a look at this end cap freezer at Global Market in the St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood. This place carries groceries from probably 30 nations, yet they make room for this 10-foot long behemoth stuffed with a dozen or more flavors of frozen pierogi. I’ve been around the grocery game long enough to know that you don’t devote this kind of prize real estate to products that don’t sell. Pierogi clearly move in Missouri!

It’s quite nice to see.

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A Little Pierogi History

Very, very little. For indeed there isn’t much formal history out there on pierogis in Central Europe, which would seem to advance my emerging knee-jerk theory that pierogis didn’t really come from there. This is not to say there aren’t any origin stories. Most of these have to do with a Polish saint by the name of Hyacinth. One of them states that Hyacinth caused ruined crops to grow overnight after a hailstorm, and with the resulting wheat fashioned the first pierogis. But then European food origin stories are filled with this sort of thing. Some days it seems like half the foods in Europe were invented when some Pope-or-other’s carriage broke down and the local peasantry was forced to throw together an insta-meal out of available scraps.

A slightly more plausible legend maintains Hyacinth brought the pierogi to Poland from Central Asia. Another has it that it was introduced to the West by Marco Polo. Both stories are quite unlikely, though they jibe with the notion that the pierogi is the European version of the borek, which is Turkic in origin. All of this is entirely speculative of course. Trying to pin down the origin of the hand pie is like trying to determine where the first noodle or boiled dumpling came from. Who can say for sure?

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Pan-Eurasian Hand Pie?

Börek. Bierock. Pirog. Pieróg. Is it just me or do all those words for a small hand pie — in Turkish, German, Russian, and Polish respectively — bear a striking resemblance to one another? Experts have claimed for some time they are not related, though there is some new scholarship that links böreks to bierocks I understand. If that’s the case, and as Poland and Germany are right next to one another, and indeed share so much common history, might not pierogis also be related to böreks?

Doesn’t seem too wacky of an idea, at least for this armchair food historian.

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Pierogi Recipe

The dough is the most important part of any pierogi. It needs to be firm enough so that it holds a good shape, but tender enough so that it doesn’t get chewy once it’s boiled and/or pan fried. This one is a nice balance I think, and is simplicity itself.

16 ounces sour cream
22 ounces (1 lb. 6 ounces) all-purpose flour
2 ounces melted butter
2 eggs
1 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle. Stir together until all the ingredients are moistened, then switch to the dough hook (or knead it by hand) until the dough is smooth and even. If the dough is too sticky, add flour a spoonful at a time until he dough is workable.

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