Choux Pastry

Choux pastries ready to be stuffed with whipped creamBefore the exciting conclusion of Custard Week, I want to take you on a quick detour to show you some applications for the custards we’ve been making.  Let’s talk about choux pastry.

Choux pastry is a bit weird.  First of all it’s weird because it’s not clear whether it’s a dough or a batter.  Next it’s weird because it’s cooked twice, once on the stove, and once in the oven.  Then it’s weird because when you cook it the second time it puffs itself up so that it’s entirely hollow.  And finally it’s weird because its name is French for “cabbage pastry”.  To my knowledge it is never eaten with cabbage, so I’m thinking that the name refers to the bubbly sphere a dollop of choux pastry forms when baked for the second time.  I guess to French eyes this sphere looks like a cabbage.  To me it looks like a baseball.  That’s what’s funny about Europe: the little differences.

While the process for making choux pastry is bizarre, it is really easy.  First you heat water and butter on the stove until the butter has melted.  Then you whisk in some flour to make a paste.  Stir this mixture over medium heat for a few minutes to cook out the starch.

Beating the eggs into choux pastryThen you remove the paste from the heat and let it cool down a bit.  You do this because you’re about to add eggs, and you don’t want to cook the eggs quite yet: you just want to mix them into the batter, or dough, or whatever.  Once the batter has cooled enough that you can comfortably stick your finger in it for more than a few seconds, you add the eggs, one at a time, while beating the hell out of the paste.  At first it will seem that the batter won’t accept your eggs, but it will – just keep beating.

Once all your eggs are incorporated, the batter is done.  You can pipe it immediately, or store it in the fridge.

There are several classic preparations made from choux pastry.  As you can imagine, it lends itself well to being filled, as with profiteroles and éclairs.

In other applications it is left hollow: gougères, for instance, which are small, cheese-flavoured pastries, or gnocchis à la parisienne, which is deep-fried choux pastry.

For most applications choux pastry is baked in the oven.  This is usually done in two stages: a high-temp baking around 425°F that rapidly vaporizes the water content so that the pastry can puff up before the starch sets, and a 350°F stage that sets the starch.  Once the pastries are pulled from the oven and cooled, you can bore a hole in them and get stuffing.

For profiteroles (cream puffs…) simply load up a piping bag with whipped cream or pastry cream and squeeze a small amount into the pastry.

Cream puffs, some dipped in chocolate

 

Choux Pastry

Ingredients

  • 8 oz water
  • 4 oz unsalted butter
  • 4 oz all-purpose flour
  • 8 oz whole egg (4 whole eggs…)
  • pinch of kosher salt

Procedure

  1. Combine the water, butter, and salt in a heavy pot.  Heat until the butter has melted.
  2. Add the flour.  Stir until a paste forms, then cook over medium heat for a few minutes, stirring periodically.
  3. Remove the pot from the heat and let stand to cool slightly, at least five minutes.  You should be able to touch the paste without burning yourself…
  4. Beat in the eggs one at a time.  Don’t add the next egg until the previous one is completely incorporated.
  5. At this point the batter can be piped and baked immediately, or refrigerated for later use.

How to Turn Bread into Crackers

Crackers made from a stale loaf of breadI admit that this post sounds like something from Martha Stewart or Canadian Living.  I’m okay with that, because I love making these crackers, especially at this time of year.

Did you know that almost any loaf of crusty bread can be turned into a cracker?

For a fine, uniform texture use dense breads like European rye.  For an elegant open texture use bubbly breads like ciabatta or baguette.  The trick is figuring out how to slice them thin with the tools you have on hand, which is especially difficult for the open-textured breads.  If you partially freeze the loaves you should be able to slice them cleanly with a serrated knife, or a meat slicer.

Cut the bread into slices roughly 1/8″ thick.  The open-structured breads may need to be on the thicker side so that they can support the weight of whatever is garnishing the cracker.

Once cut, line the slices up on a sheet pan and brush or mist with oil.  Most spray bottles should have no problem misting oil.  Sprinkle the bread with a bit of salt then bake in a 350°F oven until lightly browned and crisp.

If you’re feeling gamesome you can even bake the loaf of bread yourself.  Consider Raincoast Crisps.  I hope that the lady who invented these (Leslie Stowe) has made her fortune, because imitations are now everywhere I look: supermarket shelves, online recipes, restaurant cheese plates, as well as my kitchen.

Raincoast Crisps are made by baking a loaf studded with dried fruit, nuts, and herbs, then thinly slicing that loaf and baking it for a second time to make crackers.  Like I said, recipes abound online.  Mine is below.

The whole loaf freezes well.  I always bake two at a time and freeze one so I can make crackers on short notice.  You know: for unexpected guests.

That last part especially sounded like a Good Housekeeping line.  I’m okay with that.

 

Dried Fruit and Nut Crackers

Ingredients

  • 340 g all-purpose flour
  • 12 g baking soda
  • 5 g kosher salt
  • 460 g buttermilk
  • 40 g dark brown sugar
  • 90 g honey
  • 110 g dried cranberries
  • 60 g chopped walnuts
  • 70 g roasted pumpkin seeds
  • 35 g flax seed
  • 35 g roasted pumpkin seeds, ground up in a blender
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary (the fresh rosemary is what makes this cracker…)

Procedure

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, and salt.  In a separate bowl combine the buttermilk, brown sugar, and honey.
  3. Add the buttermilk mixture to the flour mixture and stir until just combined.  Add the dried fruit, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, flax seed, and rosemary and stir until just until blended.
  4. Pour the batter into a ceramic terrine that has been sprayed with non-stick spray and lined with parchment. Bake until golden and springy to the touch, about 45 minutes. Remove from the terrine and cool on a wire rack.
  5. Freeze the bread.
  6. Remove from the freezer and let stand five minutes at room temperature.  Slice the loaves on a slicer to a 1/8″ (3.5 mm) thickness.  Place the slices in a single layer on a bake sheet lined with parchment. Bake in a 350°F oven until deep golden brown, roughly 12 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through baking.  The crackers might not be crisp when you take them out of the oven; they will crisp as they cool.

 

Cheese and Crackers for Grown-Ups

Cheese and homemade crackers

Stuffing, or Dressing

A casserole of Thanksgiving stuffing, or dressingI say this without exaggeration: I hold stuffing as one of the greatest culinary traditions of the New World.  I know the British and French and many others make similar dishes, but stuffing, or dressing, is an indispensable dish for the Thanksgiving table.  Technically it is an accompaniment to the turkey.  I often have to remind myself of this.

So.  What is stuffing?  Stuffing is bread.  As the name implies, it was originally crammed into the cavity of poultry, absorbing the juice and fat exuded from the bird during cooking.  While this method is still common in Canadian homes, it is giving way to “stuffing” that is prepared in a casserole instead of a bird.  There are two reasons for this trend.  Most importantly: even a bird as large as a turkey cannot accommodate the volume of stuffing that is required to sate the appetite of the typical North American family.  Also, by the time the stuffing cooks through the surrounding meat is overcooked and dry.

Making stuffing in a casserole solves these problems, but the cook needs to find a way to get turkey flavour into the dish, which is why I cut up my raw bird and make stock from the carcass a day or two before Thanksgiving.

Flavour.  Essential flavours: poultry stock or jus, onion, celery, and herbs, especially sage, thyme, rosemary, and savoury.  I recommend deeply toasting the bread before moistening it with the poultry essence.

Texture.  Though stuffing is made in almost every home in North America, in my experience no two stuffings are the same.  There is in fact a broad stuffing continuum.  On one end are the highly bound stuffings which have a relatively high moisture content, and have been worked so that the bread becomes a cohesive paste.  This form of stuffing resembles an Austrian Knödel in texture.  (In a strictly academic sense I consider stuffing to be a type of dumpling, though few North Americans would recognize it as such.)

On the other end of the spectrum the stuffing has much less moisture and is not bound at all, but is crumbly, with the individual cubes of bread falling over each other.

All stuffings are located at some point on this spectrum, and a diner’s preference has a lot to do with the style that his mother made when he was young.  Some of the most impassioned conversations I’ve had about food have revolved around stuffing, and which style is best.

I think that most of the recipes my friends cook at home were written in the last twenty years, and were gleaned from glossy cookbooks and television shows.  Stuffing is one of the few recipes that people still learn from their moms.  And for some reason it almost never appears on restaurant menus.  Most comfort foods have been co-opted by even the fanciest restaurants (think: truffled mac and cheese…), but stuffing has escaped this fate, for now.  This is a special dish.

 

Stuffing

 

Lisa’s Turkey Stuffing

Ingredients

  • 2 qt whole wheat bread, cut into 1″ cubes
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cups fresh mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 cups onion, chopped
  • 2 cups celery, chopped
  • 2 cups bacon lardons
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • a small fistful of fresh marjoram or oregano, minced
  • a small fistful of parsley, minced
  • a small fistful of sage, minced
  • 2 1/2 cups turkey stock
  • salt

Procedure

  1. Render bacon until crispy.  Remove from pot.  Sautée mushrooms in fat until browned.  Remove from pot.
  2. Add butter, the remaining vegetables, and the paprika and sautée until the onions are just turning translucent.
  3. Return the bacon and mushrooms to the pot.  Add the bread and cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly.
  4. Add the hot turkey stock and mix well.  Cover and cook over low heat for at least 30 minutes, stirring frequently, until bread cubes have broken down.  Slow cooking and frequent stirring are the keys for this cohesive style of stuffing.  Add the herbs for the last 10 minutes of cooking.
  5. Transfer to a buttered casserole and chill.  To serve, bake casserole in a 425°F until the top of the stuffing is crisp, about 15-20 minutes.

Potato Salad

The potato salad I grew up on was “creamy”,[1] that is, dressed with mayonnaise.  While I remember that dish fondly, I now make a very different type of potato salad, one closer to those I ate in Austria.

The single biggest challenge in making potato salad is having well-cooked potatoes that still hold their shape, and the most important factor in this regard is the variety of potato used.  It must be a waxy, yellow-fleshed variety.  North American varieties like Yukon Gold are okay, but there are some European varieties, like Linzer Delikatess, that are quite simply made for German potato salad.  They have the proper smooth, creamy mouthfeel, and a roughly cylindrical shape that means they slice into very consistent rounds.  Seed potatoes of this type are available from Eagle Creek Seed Potatoes.

Peeling potatoes German-style

True Kartoffelsalat using Linzer Delikatess Potatoes.  To make the real deal German/Austrian potato salad, you must simmer the potatoes whole, in their jackets, until tender.  Remove the tubers from the water, and while they are still warm use a paring knife to remove the skin (see picture at left), which should come away easily and cleanly.  Slice the potatoes into rounds.

At this point the potatoes are still warm, and they should be immediately mixed with a bit of finely diced onion and dressing.  Most traditional dressings are made from cider vinegar, sugar, mustard, and vegetable oil.

Really Good Potato Salad using Yukon Gold Potatoes.  The more common North American yellow potatoes are girthy and don’t lend themselves to quick peeling and slicing.  I prefer to cube the raw potatoes and simmer them very gently until tender, then let them cool before tossing with the dressing and garnishes.  As the potatoes cool, they firm up by a process called starch retrogradation, so they hold their shape very well.

It takes quite a bit of salt to properly season a potato salad.  I flavour my salad with a bit of onion, both red and green, and some of the honey mustard dressing described here.  To really make the salad pop it should then be garnished liberally with dill, or chive blossoms, or something else striking and flavourful.

It’s incredible to me how many folks scorn potato salad because of memories of the bland mayo-dressed version.  This punchy incarnation will cure them of their mistrust.

A bowl of potato salad, with lots of chives

 

Potato Salad

Ingredients

  • 2 kg Yukon gold, or other creamy, yellow-fleshed potatoes, skin on, scrubbed, cut into 3/4″ cubes
  • 1 1/2 cups honey mustard dressing
  • 100 g red onion, fine dice
  • 60 g chopped green onion
  • 10 g fresh dill
  • 14 g kosher salt
  • 1 g coarsely ground black pepper

Procedure

  1. Cover the potatoes with cold water in a large pot.  Bring to a boil and simmer very gently until the potatoes are cooked.  Do not overcook the potatoes!
  2. Drain the potatoes and let cool.
  3. Combine all ingredients and let stand one hour.  Taste and adjust salt and vinegar as necessary.

 

1. A common misnomer for for dishes with mayonnaise in them.  Mayo is cream-free.  Actually, it’s entirely dairy-free…

English Muffins: Best Toast Ever

English muffins make the best toast: much crispier than standard pullman loaves, but not overly-crunchy like rustic artisan loaves.  I think there are at least four reasons for their toasting superiority:

  1. The dough is enriched with a small amount of sugar and fat.
  2. The way they are shaped, as individual pucks instead of slices from a loaf.  A typical slice of bread is cut from the interior of a larger loaf, so the two sides are from the soft, interior “crumb” of the bread.  When you cut and toast an English muffin, one of the surfaces of each half used to be the exterior crust of the bread, making a crispier piece of toast.
  3. The way they are cooked.  Unlike most bread, which is baked by convective heat, the two flat sides of an English muffin are baked with conductive heat.  Small-scale operations might fry them on a griddle.  Larger operations might put a sheet pan on top of the muffins before throwing them into the oven.  This is what gives English muffins their distinctive, flat shape, and their golden brown, crispy crusts.
  4. The open, irregular, slightly crumbly interior.  When you cut open an English muffin and toast it, the irregular surface makes for lots of crispy nooks and crannies.

English Muffins at Home

English muffins are a very simple, straightforward bread to make at home.  Bakers typically use the direct mixing method (ie. no starter or over-night fermenting).  They’re fun to fry up on a griddle.  They freeze extremely well, especially because they are always toasted before consuming, which freshens them up.

 

English Muffins

Ingredients

  • 300 g bread flour
  • 12 g granulated sugar
  • 6 g kosher salt
  • 4 g instant yeast
  • 15 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 195 g whole milk, at room temperature

Baker’s Formula

  • 100% bread flour
  • 3.75% granulated sugar
  • 1.9% kosher salt
  • 1.4% instant yeast
  • 5% unsalted butter
  • 65% whole milk

Procedure

  1. Scale flour, sugar, salt, instant yeast, and butter in the mixing bowl of a stand mixer. Stir ingredients together with the paddle attachment until the butter is incorporated.
  2. Slowly add the milk while the paddle attachment mixes on slow speed.  Once the dough comes together, switch to the dough hook and knead for about 8 minutes.  (Or knead by hand for about 10 minutes.)
  3. Lightly oil a large bowl.  Lay the dough in the bowl, then turn the dough over so that all surfaces are lightly oiled.  Cover and let rise until doubled in volume, about 90 minutes.
  4. Line a sheet pan with parchment and dust lightly with cornmeal or semolina flour.  Cut the dough into 6 or 7 equal pieces, shape into boules, and line up on sheet pan.  Proof until doubled in size, about 90 minutes.
  5. Preheat an oven to 350°F.  Fry each boule on a lightly oiled griddle or frying pan over medium heat, roughly 350°F.  Fry until each side is well browned, about five minutes per side.  Bake the fried English muffins in the oven for a few more minutes to cook through.
  6. Cool on a wire rack.  Let cool very thoroughly before cutting open.

Draff Bread – Spent Grain Bread

A fistful of spent grain, ready to be baked into breadI’ve been doing some all-grain brewing this spring.  After the mashing process the malt has given up all its caramel earthiness to the wort, and you are left with several pounds of spent grain, or draff.

There are lots of ways to use this stuff up.  Commercial breweries commonly sell or give draff to farmers as livestock feed.  It can also be composted so long as you have lots of other, greener compostable material to balance out the mixture.

Draff is also commonly baked into bread.  Realistically the home brewer will not be able to bake enough bread to use all of the spent grain – the bulk of mine still ends up in the compost heap – but it’s a tasty way to lengthen your enjoyment of the barley malt.

There are tons of recipes for spent grain bread online, often under the German name Biertreberbrot.  These recipes are all clearly made for brewers, not bakers: they use inconsistent volumetric measures, and forgo flavour- and texture-enhancing pre-ferments. Below is my first attempt at a serious recipe for draff bread.  Basically I’ve replaced the soaker from my favourite whole-grain bread recipe (from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice) with the spent grain.

Vocabulary Break: soaker.  Many bread recipes that use whole or mostly-whole grains like rolled oats or cracked rye will have you soak the grains in a bit of water overnight.  This way when the grains are mixed with the flour and water that make up the bulk of the dough, they won’t suck up all the water and prevent proper hydration, gelation, and gluten development.

Draff is already well-steeped: during mashing it sits in very hot water for about ninety minutes.  For this reason we are able to simply substitute the draff for the grain soaker in a conventional whole-grain bread recipe.  Spent grain is more woody that most whole grains, so I slightly decreased the weight of draff from the conventional soaker.

This is a tasty bread when made right.  The malt flavour of the grain is very faint (hopefully all the malt flavour is in the wort!) but the hulls give the bread an interesting, subtle prickliness.  A new brewing tradition in my home.

 

Spent grain dough

Draff Bread

Pre-Ferment

  • 6.75 oz high-protein whole-wheat flour
  • 1/4 tsp instant yeast
  • 6 oz water

“Soaker”

  • 8 oz spent grains, well-drained

Dough

  • 10 oz high-protein whole-wheat flour
  • 0.33 oz kosher salt
  • 1 tsp instant yeast
  • 1.5 oz honey
  • 0.5 oz vegetable oil
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten

Procedure

  1. The day before making the bread, combine the ingredients for the pre-ferment.  Stir until just combined.  Cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature to ferment 2 to 4 hours.  Transfer to the fridge and store overnight.
  2. Combine the flour, salt, and yeast for the dough.  Add the pre-ferment, the spent grain, as well as the honey, oil, and egg.  Stir to combine.  Knead by hand until a firm, tacky dough forms, roughly 15 minutes.
  3. Lightly oil the inside of a bowl.  Add the dough.  Cover and ferment at room temperature until the dough has doubled in volume, about 2 hours.
  4. Divide the dough in two and shape as desired.  This makes a good Pullman-style loaf, or it can be shaped into a free-standing bâtard.  Proof at room temperature until the dough has nearly doubled, roughly 90 minutes.  (See this post for suggestions on proofing bread at home.)
  5. Heat oven to 350°F.
  6. Bake bread for 30 minutes.  Rotate 180° and bake until done, roughly another 20 minutes.  The loaf should sound hollow when thumped on the bottom.  If you’ve used pans, remove the bread immediately and cool on a wire rack.

The finished draff bread, with butter

Egg Noodles

Making pasta using the flour well techniqueI call these egg noodles to distinguish them from the eggless, dried, commercially-produced pastas like spaghetti and macaroni.

Let’s get to it.

You’ve no doubt seen nonnas or professional chefs mix pasta dough together right on the workbench by mounding up all the flour and making a well in the centre for all the liquid ingredients.

This is more than a parlour trick.

If you were to combine all the ingredients in a bowl at once and stir them together, you would find that they don’t come together; the dough will seem much too dry, and will stay crumbly and separate.  It takes the flour a while to absorb the moisture in the eggs and milk.  Slowly incorporating in this benchtop style gives the flour time to gelate.

Slowly incorporating the flour into the eggsOnce the dough comes together it will have a shaggy countenance, like so:

The shaggy dough, ready to be needed

Now we knead the bejesus out of it.  At least ten minutes by hand.  The dough will become smooth, with a slightly tacky surface.

After kneading the dough is silky smooth

Wrap the dough well in plastic wrap to protect it from drying out and let it rest in the fridge for at least an hour.  It can even sit there overnight.

Divide the dough in two.  It’s time to roll.  I use the pasta roller attachment for my Kitchenaid Mixer.  There are several stand-alone pasta rollers available, too.  The basic principle is this: the dough is passed between two rollers that are initially set quite wide, but are set successively closer between each pass of the the dough.

Putting the dough through a roller

If the rollers turn without pulling dough through, the dough is too dry and floury.  If the rollers tear the dough, as shown below, the dough is too moist and is sticking to the metal surfaces.  Refold the dough, lightly dust it with flour, and start again.

Wet dough tearing in the roller

Every cook has his or her own rolling method.  The guy who taught me how to roll pasta would roll the dough to the thinnest roller-setting, then refold the sheet back into its original size and re-roll to desired thickness.  The theory was that this made for very smooth dough with a persistent bite.  I’ve never done any controlled experiments to evaluate this method and see if the extra passes really make a difference, but this guy makes the best pasta I’ve ever eaten, so this is now my preferred method.

Thin, silky dough coming through the roller

The pasta machine comes with cutter-rollers.  Cutting by hand it pretty simple, too, if you fold up the sheets of dough like so:

Cutting the rolled dough into noodles

If you’re going to use the noodles within a couple of days, they’ll store well in the fridge.  Lay them out on lightly floured sheets of parchment on a sheet pan.  Cover with a clean dish towel to slow the loss of moisture.

Storing the noodles

Cutting the dough will result in scrap bits.  I save these for chicken noodle soup.

Scrap pasta

 

The recipe:

Egg Noodles

Master Ratio – 1:2:4 whole eggs, yolks, flour (plus a bit more flour…)

Ingredients

  • 260 g all-purpose flour
  • 120 g egg yolks (about 6 large yolks)
  • 60 g whole egg (1 large egg)
  • 15 g whole milk
  • 5 g canola oil
  • a pinch of salt

Biscuits

Square biscuitsWhen I was little we called these savoury pastries “scones,” our pronunciation rhyming with the word “owns”, but they are much more like American biscuits than British scones (the pronunciation of which rhymes with “lawns”).

For the sake of clarity I’ve taken to calling them biscuits.  Whatever you call them, they are flaky quick breads made with butter, milk, and flour.  A little salt and a little baking powder.  That’s it.

My mom used to make a ham and cheese biscuit.  She made her dough with milk soured with vinegar (buttermilk would have been used when she was growing up, but we never had this in our fridge).  The dough was rolled into a sheet, covered with slices of ham and grated cheddar cheese, then rolled into a log.  This was baked, then sliced into rounds to reveal the spiral cross-section.  Make a salad, and that was dinner.

Anyways.

The Dough.  My preferred method is to sift together flour, baking powder, and salt, then grate very cold butter into those dry ingredients and mix to combine.  Make a well in the centre, add buttermilk, and stir together until a dough forms.

To get a very flaky biscuit you can use a rolling method similar to that used for puff pastry. Roll the dough into a rectangular sheet, then fold one third of the rectangle into the centre, then the opposite third towards the centre.  By re-rolling and repeating this procedure you create several distinct layers within the biscuit.  If you roll and fold more than twice, you should let the dough rest thoroughly before continuing.  This makes the entire biscuit-making process a lot longer, but it gives the biscuits a very distinctive, rustic layering.  Once baked they’ll pull apart effortlessly for easy butter application.

On Shaping.  Biscuit dough is traditionally rolled out and punched into rounds with a ring mold.  This leaves behind a lot of trim, which has to be reformed and punched again.  The biscuits from the second shaping never rise as high or as evenly as the first rounders.  My question is, why do we cut biscuits into rounds?  Why not roll out the dough, then cut it in a grid pattern to make square biscuits, lessen trim and get a more consistent batch?  Something to consider.

On Baking and the Even Rise.  Chefs use several techniques to ensure that biscuits rise evenly in the oven and don’t slump to one side or the other.  I don’t know how effective they are, but I do them all, just in case.  I suppose I’m superstitious.

The most common tip is to roll out the dough in all directions.  Don’t just roll the dough away from you; roll it away from you, towards you, to each side, and on the diagonals.  This way the gluten is evenly stretched and will not favour a certain direction when the dough rises.

My pastry instructor at culinary school insisted that the biscuits be lined up close together on the baking sheet.  Close, but not too close.  Maybe an inch apart.  I don’t have a clear idea of how this helps.  Maybe the biscuits don’t want to touch each other, so they’ll rise straight up to avoid leaning over and brushing against their neighbour.  Again, I don’t know why it helps, but I’ve never tried not doing it for fear of what might happen.

Usually it’s nice to have pastries with a deep golden-brown surface, but if brought to this point biscuits will be too crusty.  They should be very lightly browned, and have a delicate, crisp exterior.

With the theory out of the way, here is a formal recipe.

Biscuits

Master Ratio – 3:1:2 flour, butter, buttermilk

Ingredients

  • 12 oz all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tbsp salt
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 4 oz unsalted butter, very cold
  • 8 oz full fat buttermilk

Procedure

  1. Sift together the flour, salt, and baking powder.  Using the large holes of a box grater, grate the cold butter into the flour and mix so that it is evenly distributed.
  2. Make a well in the centre of the flour mixture.  Add the buttermilk.  Stir so that flour is slowly incorporated into the buttermilk.  Continue until the dough forms.  Knead very briefly until the dough is somewhat smooth.  Wrap the dough tightly in plastic and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes.
  3. Roll the dough out into a rectangle about 1″ thick.  Fold in thirds as described above.  Repeat the roll and fold, then wrap the dough tightly in plastic and refrigerate about 1 hour.
  4. Repeat step three two more times.
  5. Roll the dough to 1″ thickness, then cut to desired shapes.  Line the biscuits on a bake sheet so that they are about 1″ apart.  Bake in a 375°F oven until cooked through and lightly browned.

Biscuits with butter and crabapple jelly

Scallop Potatoes

Scallop potatoes: sliced potatoes, cheese, and creamI think I remember scallop potatoes more fondly than any other form of the tuber.  Maybe French fries were more highly prized when I was a child, but truth be told I ate them much more often than scallop potatoes.  Scallop potatoes, being a casserole dish, was reserved for large dinners, especially Easter.

At its core the dish is potatoes, cut into rounds (scalloped), then baked in cream and cheese.  There are obviously countless variations; I know some mothers who bake their scallop potatoes in mushroom or onion soup mix.  There is a classic French dish called pommes à la dauphinois that is identical to scallop potatoes.  The addition of grated cheese to the top of the dish would make gratin dauphinois.  Sometimes eggs are included with the cream to bind the dish, though if you use starchy potatoes and bake the dish uncovered so that the cream reduces, the egg binder is unnecessary.

Thomas Keller has popularized a version of this dish called pavéPavé means simply block, or square, and is related to the English word pave, as in paving stone.  It is therefore applied to a number of dishes that take a blockish shape, though most famously sweet sponge cakes smooshed together with buttercream.  Over the last few years most every fine dining restaurant in Edmonton has offered Keller’s potato pavé at some point or another.

Seriously the only difference between your mother’s scallop potatoes and Thomas Keller’s pavé is that she cut the potatoes to 1/4″ thickness with a knife, and Tom cuts them to 1/16″ or finer with a mandolin.  I like leaving the skins on the potatoes.  There’s a lot of flavour in the skins.  And the sliced potatoes look nice with the dark perimeter.

You can use any type of potato, but the more starchy the potato, the tighter the layers will bind.  When you cut into a casserole made with thinly sliced Russets, it will hold its shape very well, and each block can be extricated cleanly.  Sweet potatoes, which have very little starch, will not bind and will slide over each other.  If you want an especially tightly bound dish, you can weigh the pavé down after it comes out of the oven, pressing the potatoes together and exuding some of the excess cream.  What a graphic image.

I use a cheese that blends the good melting characteristics of youth with the complex flavours of aged.  Sylvan Star medium Gouda or Gruyere  or six month Pecorino from The Cheesiry, for instance.

Bake at medium heat for a long time, uncovered.  This will let the cream reduce, and the cheese on top brown and form a crust.  The dish is done when a paring knife slides easily into the cooked potatoes.

Scallop potatoes with a hearty crust of baked cheese

My Ideal Hash Browns

When you order hash browns at a diner, you’re liable to get any number of things.  In my experience, all hash browns can be broken into two broad classifications:

Hash Browns Made from Cubed Potato.  Also called home fries.  This is the less interesting of the two classes.

Hash Browns Made from Grated Potato, bound to varying degrees.  Highly bound and cohesive varieties include McDonald’s Hash Browns, Tater Tots, and Jewish latkes.[1]  Loosely or not-at-all bound varieties would be found in corned beef hash.  Hash browns made from grated potato are similar to several traditional European potato dishes, notably the Swiss rösti.  They are superior to those made from cubed potatoes because they have a much higher ratio of crispy brown exterior to soft, potatoey interior.

Hash browns are a simple preparation, the only ingredients being potato, salt, and oil for frying.  They are quick, and don’t require any par-cooking.

When cooking highly bound grated potato hash browns at home, high heat is key.  When I say high heat, I’m talking about more than the control dial on the stove.  That’s only part of the equation, because to have constant high heat you also need a heavy pan.  The thin, damn-near-flimsy non-sticks that most folks have can get very hot, as long as there’s nothing in the pan.  As soon as the potatoes are pressed within, the temperature drops dramatically and will take a few minutes to recover.

We want to aggressively brown the potatoes.  Heavy stainless steel (or cast iron) is key, and if the pan is hot enough and well-oiled, I promise that the potatoes won’t stick.  Use abundant oil.  Maybe 1/8″ or even slightly more.

No need to add any binder, like flour or egg: grated potato will stick together just fine.  Grate the potatoes using the large holes in a box grater.  I leave the skins on.  There’s flavour in there.  Some recipes recommend squeezing excess moisture from the grated potato before frying.  I don’t really understand why you would do this.  The hash browns turn out just fine without wringing.  Sprinkle the potatoes uniformly over the pan, then gently press with a spatula so that the patty is about 1/4″ thick.

I make a single hash brown as big as my pan will allow and pile any “garnishes” such as eggs on top.  My favourite breakfast:

Two poached eggs atop a large hasbrown1.  Latkes are not usually considered hash browns because they include flour and egg, making them “potato pancakes”.  However, most commercial hash browns contain some kind of binder (corn starch at McDonald’s).  The distinction is arbitrary.