Category Archives: Sweets

Bonus Post! Our House in Gingerbread

Raw gingerbread, ready for the oven.The last two posts have included the two most important recipes for making gingerbread houses: gingerbread and royal icing.

This season is only the second time I’ve made a gingerbread house, the first being in 2010 when Lisa and I made a gingerbread church with stained glass windows.  Thanks to the nimble index fingers of Pinterest, that has become one of the most popular posts on this site.

This year I made another house in the same style, only instead of a church, I modeled the building after the one that Lisa and I live in, in McKernan.

The structure is made from these gingerbread cookies, which are bound with this royal icing.

The shingles are sliced almonds, also affixed with royal icing.

The windows are “stained glass” made by the method described in this post.  Being a residence and not a church the windows are small and don’t have as warm and bright a glow. Oh well.

A gingerbread house, modeled after the house I live in

A gingerbread hosue

Royal Icing

Royal icing used to mimic snow on a gingerbread houseRoyal icing can be used in several ways, but it is most notable as the mortar that holds gingerbread houses together.  It is decorative.  It’s certainly not unsafe to eat, but it is almost entirely sugar, and it sets very hard and brittle.  The CIA Baking and Pastry book says it best: “not intended to be consumed, at least not in any measurable quantities.”

In fact besides sugar royal icing has only one other major ingredient: egg whites.  It might also have cream of tartar or lemon juice, which strengthen the protein matrix created by beating the egg whites.

To make royal icing you add a small quantity of egg whites, say 3 oz, to a mixing bowl, then start whisking.  Once the egg whites froth, slowly add a large quantity of icing sugar, say 16 oz.  Continue to whisk until the icing is able to produce stiff peaks.

While the quantities above will yield a good, workable icing, there are some nuances of texture that can be achieved by adjusting the exact ratio of egg and sugar.  For instance, in the photo of the gingerbread house above, I used a relatively high-sugar royal icing which was a bit more stiff and matted in appearance to lay the almond shingles.  Then I beat in a bit more egg white to make a slightly more slack, lustrous icing that tapers to clean points for the snow and icicles.

After mixing the icing to your desired consistency it’s important to cover and properly store the mixture.  Seriously think about it as cement that will set hard if left exposed to air.  I transfer my icing directly to a plastic piping bag.  It can be used immediately or stored in the fridge for several days.  Be aware of hard bits of icing that form up the sides of the bowl and whisk.  If these get reincorporated into the soft icing they could block the tip of your piping bag.

 

Royal Icing

Ingredients

  • 3 oz egg white
  • 1/4 tsp cream of tartar, or 1/2 tsp lemon juice
  • 16 oz icing sugar

Procedure

  1. Whisk the egg whites and cream of tartar in the bowl of a stand mixer.
  2. Once the egg whites have become foamy, slowly add the icing sugar while continuing to whisk.
  3. Whisk until the icing is stiff and has a matted appearance.
  4. Immediately transfer icing to a piping bag or airtight container.

Gingerbread Cookies

gingerbread_dough.JPGThere are several kinds of gingerbread cookies, from the soft, chewy type with large cracks in the surface, to the very smooth, brittle sort used to build houses and men.  This post is about the latter.

Below is a very simple gingerbread recipe that I wanted to post on Button Soup for the sake of completeness, as I use it to build my gingerbread houses.  I like to cut the excess dough into other traditional shapes, like men, Christmas trees, and dinosaurs.

Tips and Tricks

  • The key to getting this dough to hold its shape during baking is to roll it quite thin, about 1/8″, and to chill it thoroughly before baking.
  • This is one of the very few instances that I prefer blackstrap or baking molasses to the fancy sort.  I really like the minerality and acidity of the cheaper stuff.
  • Lightly oil the inside of the bowl in which you will measure out the molasses.  This way the molasses with slide out and you won’t have to wash any sticky residue out later.

Homemade gingerbread cookies cooling on a wire rack

 

Gingerbread Cookies

Ingredients

  • 4 oz unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 4 oz white sugar
  • 6.5 oz blackstrap molasses
  • 3 oz water
  • 18 oz all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp ginger powder
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt

Procedure

  1. Cream butter and white sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes, periodically scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.
  2. Add the molasses and water and beat until combined.
  3. Combine remaining ingredients and slowly add to the butter and sugar mixture while stirring on the lowest speed.
  4. Continue mixing on lowest speed until dough comes together and starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl.
  5. Cover dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 15 minutes.
  6. Roll out to 1/8″ thickness (about 4 mm) and cut into desired shapes.
  7. Put on a bake sheet with silicon lining and refrigerate 15 minutes.
  8. Bake in a 350°F oven for ten minutes.
  9. Remove to a wire rack to cool.

Éclairs

Another example of how to use the custards I’ve been talking about.

Come to think of it, most of the posts this advent have been short, simple introductions to basic pastry preparations: whipped cream, for instance, and ganache.  Now we can start combining some of those building blocks to make more elaborate preparations.

Take éclairs.  Éclairs are long choux pastries filled with whipped cream or pastry cream, glazed with chocolate.

We discussed choux pastry here, whipped cream here, pastry cream in this post, and ganache in this one.  Several birds, one stone.

I ate my fair share of éclairs growing up.  My dad often brought them home on Saturday mornings from the doughnut shop in the mall.  These homemade éclairs are a bit different from the ones that have to sit in a glass display case for a few hours before consumption.  The pastry stays delicate and crisp.  The pastry cream filling with all the egg yolks and butter is much, much richer than any filling you would find at a typical doughnut shop.  And the glaze is simple, dark chocolate ganache, so it is soft, without the crystalline texture of commercial fondant.

A formal recipe, of sorts.

Éclairs

Ingredients

  • this choux pastry recipe
  • this pastry cream recipe
  • 5 oz of this medium ganache

Procedure

1.  Transfer the choux pastry to a piping bag.  Pipe the batter onto a sheet pan lined with a silicon mat into pieces roughly 1″ wide by 3″ long.

Piping choux pastry to make éclairs

2.  Bake at 425°F for 10 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 350°F and bake further until the pastry is golden brown, crisp, and hollow, roughly another 10 minutes.

Baking choux pastry for éclairs

3.  Transfer the pastry cream to a piping bag.  Once the pastries have cooled to room temperature, roughly 20 minutes, make a small hole in one end of each pastry by partially inserting a paring knife and twisting.  Pipe pastry cream into each pastry.

4.  Dip the top of each pastry in warm, medium ganache.  Consume immediately.

Homemade éclairs

Burnt Cream – Crème Brûlée

Busting into a crème brûléeWhile crème brûlée is immediately identifiable by the crust of burnt sugar on top, the custard itself has a very particular consistency and flavour.  Since it is eaten out of a ramekin, it can have a much softer, moister curd that, say, crème caramel, which is unmolded on to a plate and is therefore firmer, and eggier.

In fact crème brûlée used to be even more moist than it is now.  According to Harold McGee, crème brûlée used to be completely liquid, like crème anglaise, and was poured into a very shallow dish, dusted with sugar, and burnt. Before blowtorches became the norm the burnt crust was made by taking a heavy, metal plate out of some very hot coals and holding it over the sugar.

I have worked for a handful of restaurants that offered crème brûlée.  They each made it differently, but they were all very staunch and rigid in their methods, almost to the point of superstition.

I’d like to go over some of the details of a good crème brûlée.

 

The Recipe.  4:1:1 – dairy (equal parts heavy cream and whole milk), egg yolks, white granulated sugar

On flavouring.  I guess there’s no reason you can’t flavour a crème brûlée with whatever you want: butterscotch, mint, orange, chocolate, quinoa, and so on.

But…

Imagine that you go see a show at The Starlite Room.  You show up at 8 o’clock and drink $4 beers for a few hours.  The featured act was supposed to come on at 10, but they stagger on just after midnight, and they all have sunglasses on.  Now, if they play a good set and knock your socks off, then the sunglasses just make it that much cooler.  If they don’t nail the set, then the sunglasses are obnoxious.  What I’m trying to say is that if you can’t deliver a perfect crème brûlée with a silken mouthfeel, you have no business flavouring it with anything but vanilla.

Beating the eggs and sugar to ribbon stage?  Completely unnecessary, as discussed in this post.

Cooking beforehand? Some folks cook the crème brûlée mix on the stove to thicken it, like crème anglaise, before transferring it to ramekins for baking.  The truth is that pre-cooking on the stove is completely unnecessary.  Simply scald the milk to infuse your chosen flavour, then slowly add to the sugar and egg yolks while whisking.  Transfer to the ramekins and bake.

Water bath.  Very necessary.  Helps cook the custard slowly and evenly.  Put the ramekins into a shallow roasting tray, then fill the tray with simmering water so that it comes halfway up the sides of the ramekins.  Then the entire assembly can go into a moderate oven, say 325°F, but the effective cooking temperature will stay well below the boiling point of water, 212°F.

Wire rack or towel beneath the ramekins in the water bath.  Placing a towel in the water bath under the ramekins is supposed to keep the ramekins away from the thermal vicissitudes of the metal tray.  In reality it just inhibits the movement of heat around the ramekins.  Wire racks, on the other hand, let heat flow evenly under and around the ramekins.  Truthfully you can make superb crème brûlée without the use of either.  I always put my ramekins directly on the bottom of the tray and the custard comes out uniformly cooked.

Covering the ramekins or the water bath with foil.  Never, never cover the entire water bath with aluminum foil: covering will allow the water bath to come to a simmer, and the enclosed steam will raise the cooking temperature well above 212°F.  The custard will cook quicker, but the window of perfect doneness will be very narrow, so you risk overcooking the custard and making it grainy.

The logic behind covering the bath is to keep the surface of the custard moist and prevent the formation of a dry skin.  In my experience, baking custards in a conventional oven (ie. no convection fans) at moderate temperature (325°F) in a water bath, uncovered, does not develop a skin.

Crème brûlée as act of faith.  People told me this a dozen times before I actually believed it: you have to pull the ramekins out of the oven before they are done.  It’s like believing that Jesus saves, or walking through the wall at train station platform 9 3/4.  You need to believe that they will finish cooking even after you remove them from the oven, even though it doesn’t make much sense.

Periodically jostle the ramekins during baking.  Eventually the surfaces of the custard will move less like a liquid, and more like a very loose jelly.  If you wait until the custard is entirely set before taking it out of the oven, the texture will be slightly grainy.  The tricky bit is that different sizes and shapes of ramekins will all make the surface of the custard behave in different ways.

Torching.  There is a wide range of opinions on the perfect brûlée colour and texture.

The colour, flavour, and texture of the topping are determined by how much sugar is placed on top, and how thoroughly and in what manner it is torched.  I have worked at places that have you throw an entire crème brûlée out if you create any smoke.  And I have worked at others that will not serve a crème brûlée that doesn’t have at least a few black freckles.

Have a look at the photo below.  Let’s call the ramekin at the top of the page the first ramekin, the one at the bottom the fourth.  If I was eating at a bistro and received the first ramekin I would not be upset.  It is lightly coloured, and will offer a satisfying, delicately crisp contrast to the custard.  It is, however, slightly anemic.

The second and third ramekins have more amber colour and offer a more robust crust, and more dark, burnt flavours.

The fourth ramekin is an example of the far end of acceptable crème brûlée crusts.  It is mostly a deep amber colour, but has a few patches of black, truly burnt sugar.

Four ramekins displaying the varying acceptable degrees of burnt sugar on crème brûlée

Pastry Cream – Crème Pâtissière

A bowl of pastry creamTo make custard sauce we carefully cooked a mixture of dairy, sugar, and egg yolks over a double boiler so that the yolks thickened but didn’t curdle, which only occurs within a very narrow band of temperatures around 80°C.  It was nerve-racking.

It turns out that if you add starch to the mix, the eggs will never curdle, even if you boil the custard vigorously.  The starch granules absorb heat, protecting the egg proteins, and the dissolved starch interferes with protein linking.  Of course, the starch also thickens the custard, so you end up with something that is more like pudding than sauce.

This preparation is called pastry cream, or crème pâtissière, and it begins exactly as crème anglaise: in fact the recipes are almost identical.  The only difference is that once the starch, usually cornstarch, is added, the custard can be cooked in a pot on the stove, instead of a double boiler.  Unlike custard sauce, pastry cream should be brought to a simmer to let the starch cook out.  Typically some butter is also beaten into the custard after it is removed from the heat.

When I make pastry cream there are usually some tiny clumps in it when I’m finished.  I’m pretty sure these are rogue egg whites that have snuck into my custard by hiding on the surface of the yolks.  You can press the custard through a fine wire sieve to remove these curds.

There are several fancy uses for this custard, most notably as a filling for pastries like doughnuts (think Boston cream) and éclairs.  I would like to vouch for this preparation as something that can be eaten as pudding, in conjunction with stewed fruit and oatmeal crumble.

A bowl of custard, rhubarb, and oatmeal crumble

 

Pastry Cream
crème pâtissière

Master Ratio – 4 : 1 : 1 dairy, sugar, egg yolk plus corn starch and butter

Ingredients

  • 4 oz heavy cream
  • 4 oz whole milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla paste
  • 2 oz granulated sugar
  • 2 oz egg yolk
  • 0.5 oz cornstarch + 2 oz whole milk to make a slurry
  • 1 oz unsalted butter
  1. Heat the dairy on the stove with the vanilla paste.
  2. Meanwhile, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar.
  3. Once the dairy simmers, remove it from the heat and temper the egg yolks mixture.  Return to the stove and add the cornstarch slurry.  Continue to whisk over medium-high heat until the custard thickens, then simmer gently for another two minutes to cook out the cornstarch.
  4. Remove the custard from the heat and slow the cooking either by using an ice bath, or by simply transferring the custard to a bowl.
  5. Whisk in the butter.
  6. Press the pastry cream through a fine mesh sieve to remove any bits of curdled egg white.
  7. Press plastic wrap onto the surface of the pastry cream to prevent the formation of a dry skin.

Custard Sauce – Crème Anglaise

Some swirls of custard sauceThe French name for this custard sauce is crème anglaise, which means “English cream.”  À l’anglaise is a descriptor given to many preparations in classic French cuisine.  It is in fact mildly derogatory, as it always describes the most basic of preparations.  For instance, vegetables prepared à l’anglaise are boiled, then served with butter and parsley.  Meat dishes prepared a l’angaise are also always boiled.  And crème anglaise is the most basic of dessert sauces, a pourable custard flavoured with vanilla.

So yes: this sauce is considered very ordinary within the context of classic cuisine.  It is not usually a featured component, but an accompaniment, an afterthought.

After initial preparation, crème anglaise can go on to become a number of more dignified dishes, like crème brûlée, or even ice cream.  But more on that later.

The classic method of preparation is to scald a milk-cream-vanilla mixture, temper eggs and sugar with the hot liquid, then cook the entire mix until it thickens ever so slightly.  While experienced pastry cooks can comfortably cook custard sauce on a stove top, it is much safer to cook it over a double boiler.

A double boiler is just a pot of simmering water over which sits a stainless steel bowl containing the mixture to be cooked.  Steam rises from the water, gently heating the bottom of the bowl above.  Stainless steel is preferred for the bowl as it is a good conductor.  The double-boiler cooking method is much gentler than having the mixture directly in the pot.  As discussed in the introductory post on custards, gentle cooking gives us a wide window of time during which the custard is properly cooked and mitigates the risk of over-cooking and curdling the dish.

A double boiler for cooking custard sauce

Though this is emphatically not traditional, you can actually prevent curdling in your custard sauce by adding a bit of flour or cornstarch to the mix.  The effects of starch in a custard will be explored tomorrow when we make pastry cream.

I recommend trying to cook custard sauce without the addition of starch at least a few times.  It’s a valuable exercise in recognizing nappé consistency.  Napper is a French word meaning “to coat, or cover”.  It is used to describe the correct viscosity of sauces, whether those sauces are thickened with eggs, or roux, or a stock reduction.  They should coat the back of a spoon, and you can draw a line in the sauce with your finger that stays well after your swipe.  Like so:

Testing the viscosity of a custard sauce

Custard sauce will thicken further as it cools.  As you can see in the picture at the top of this post, the sauce should stand up when drizzled onto a plate.

 

Custard Sauce

Ingredients

  • 4 oz whole milk
  • 4 oz cream
  • 2 oz egg yolk (the yolks from 4 eggs)
  • 2 oz granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla paste
  • pinch of salt

Procedure

  1. Set up a double boiler on the stove.
  2. Combine milk, cream, and vanilla in a heavy stainless steel pot.  Bring to a simmer.
  3. Meanwhile, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, and salt in a bowl until the sugar has dissolved.
  4. Once the milk and cream have come to a boil, slowly pour into the yolk mixture while stirring rapidly with a rubber spatula.
  5. Transfer the entire mixture to the double boiler.  Cook while constantly stirring with a rubber spatula until nappé consistency is reached.
  6. Immediately transfer the sauce to another container to slow the cooking process.

Yields just over 1 cup of custard sauce

Custard

Egg yolks for making custardCustard is broadly defined as a cooked mixture of liquid and egg.  The liquid dilutes the egg protein, so when the mixture is cooked and the protein coagulates it forms a very delicate network that gives the custard structure.  In western cooking the liquid is almost always milk and cream, though stock can also be used.  In classical French cooking a royale is a custard made from stock and egg that is cut into geometric shapes and floated in consommé.

Most custards are comprised of roughly 4 parts dairy and 1 part egg.  The inclusion of egg whites makes for glossier, firmer custards, while using only yolks creates softer, creamier versions.

What’s remarkable about custard is the variety of consistencies the cook can create with the same ingredients in the same proportions simply by using different cooking techniques.  Over the next few days on Button Soup we will make a handful of classic custards that all use a 4:1:1 ratio: 4 parts milk and cream, 1 part egg yolk, and 1 part sugar.  With this single ratio we will make custards with consistencies that vary from sauce, to pudding, to crème brûlée, and finally to ice cream.

For now let’s discuss some basic custard theory.

Set custards versus stirred custards.  The simplest way to affect the texture of a custard is by stirring it while it cooks.  If we pour a custard mix into a ramekin and cook it without stirring it will form a delicate but staid custard that you could turn upside down without incident, like they do at Dairy Queen.  If we took the exact same ingredients and gently cooked them in a pot on the stove while stirring, we would end up with a viscous but pourable liquid.  Cooks often make the distinction between set custards and stirred custards.  Stirred custards are sometimes called creams.

Whether you are making a set custard or a stirred custard, the process for preparing the mixture is the same.  Usually the first step is to scald the milk and cream.  This is actually an old procedure from the days when milk quality was less certain than it is now.  Modern pastry cooks still scald their dairy so that they can infuse the cream with flavours like vanilla.  Scalding the dairy will also reduce the cooking time of the final custard, as the ingredients will already be warm.

"Ribboning" yolks with sugar

While the dairy is coming to a boil, classical recipes have the cook ribbon the sugar and egg yolk.  This just means whisk the two ingredients together until the yolks turn pale and the mixture falls away from the raised whisk in a long ribbon.  It was formerly thought that this process helped produce a smoother custard.  In reality ribboning does not affect the final texture of the dish, but is simply an indication that all the sugar has dissolved into the yolk.

Once the dairy has boiled, it is used to temper the egg mixture.  Tempering is just a fancy way of saying slowly add the hot dairy to the cold egg.  If you were to add the cold egg mixture to the dairy it would curdle as soon as a small piece of egg hit the hot liquid.  Slowly adding the hot dairy to the egg mixture quickly but gently heats the eggs to just below their coagulation temperature.

Now we must cook our custard so that the proteins set and give the dish structure.  Custards set somewhere between 79-83°C, and overshooting this range will result in a grainy, curdled mess.  The slower we cook the mixture, the longer the custard will stay in this ideal temperature range, giving us more time to recognize the doneness and remove the custard.  To cook custards gently cooks usually use double boilers or water baths.  These techniques and all the other nuances of cooking custards will be discussed in the next few posts.

Chocolate Truffles

Homemade chocolate trufflesChocolate truffles are bite-sized balls of ganache, usually rolled in cocoa or nuts, or coated in a thin layer of hard chocolate.

Though most think of truffles as a luxury item sold in boutique chocolaterie, they can actually be made at home without fuss or artistry.  All you need is good dark chocolate, heavy cream, and some garnishes of your choosing.

First, make the medium ganache described in this post.  Let it cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until firm.

Use a measuring scoop to portion the ganache into bite-sized pieces.

Roll the pieces between your palms into uniform balls.  I use nitrile gloves for this.  Besides forming the round shape of the final truffle, this process also melts the outermost layer of ganache so that your garnishes will adhere.

While the outer chocolate is still partially melted, roll the truffle around in the garnish of your choice.

Notes on Garnishes

Nuts.  Always toast the nuts first.  A small amount of salt is usually welcome.  The most important part of nut garnishes is crushing the nuts to the correct size.  Too fine and the nuts become flour.  Too coarse and they will look awkward clinging to the side of the truffle.  I use a food processor, then sift out the nut flour, and then use a perforated pan to remove large pieces.  The nut flour can be reserved for other baking projects, the larger pieces of nut returned to the processor.

Chocolate.  Rubbing a bar of chocolate with a peeler will create tiny, elegant curls of chocolate that make great truffle garnishes.

Dried Fruit.  You can create some interesting garnishes from dried or candied fruit.  The challenge is in busting the fruit into small enough pieces.  I use a food processor and add a good pinch of granulated sugar which prevents clumping.  The same can be done with candied ginger.

Interior Garnishes.  Hide a whole, roasted nut or a piece of dried fruit inside the truffle.  In the photo below, the truffles in the centre contain a dried cherry that was soaked in kirsch.

Applying the Garnishes.  I just toss the rolled chocolate balls into a bowl of the garnish, then gently shake the bowl to jostle the ganache.  I don’t roll the ball in my palms any further, as this would press the garnishes into the chocolate; I prefer the garnish to “stand up” on the chocolate.  When removing the truffle, don’t use chocolatey hands that will smudge the garnish.  Below are some sloppy truffles.  The one on the right has the garnishes pressed too far into the chocolate.  The one on the left was handled with chocolatey hands.  Not a great picture, but hopefully you get my meaning.

Poorly made truffles

They don’t have the same visual appeal as these little beauties.  From left to right: pistachio, sour cherry and kirsch, candied ginger and orange.

Homemade chocolate truflles

Ganache

Scooping ganacheGanache has two ingredients: chocolate and cream.  They are combined in a way that transforms the hard, brittle chocolate into a soft, perfectly smooth, workable substance.

Types: Soft, Medium, and Hard.  I most commonly make medium ganache, which is one part chocolate and one part cream by weight.  It is firm but workable at fridge temperatures, and very soft but not fluid at room temperature.

Hard ganache is two parts chocolate to one part cream.  It is much firmer than medium ganache and holds it’s shape well.  It is, however, less stable: the concentrated solids in the chocolate slowly absorb moisture from the cream, then swell, clump, and make the ganache grainy.  Hard ganache is often used as a glaze for cakes.

Soft ganache is roughly two parts chocolate to three parts cream.

A General Procedure.  Weigh out your cream.  Heat the cream in a heavy pot on the stove, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching.  Keep an eye on it so that it doesn’t boil over.

Meanwhile, weigh out your chocolate and put it in a container with a tight-fitting lid.

Once the cream is simmering, immediately pour it over the chocolate.  Cover the container tightly and wait a few minutes to let the chocolate melt.

At this point the ganache will look like chocolate milk with nebulous splotches of dark chocolate throughout.  You can whisk it or even blend it, but usually pastry chefs try to avoid incorporating air.

You have now made ganache.  It’s best to let it cool at room temperature.  The gradual cooling encourages the development of crystals in the chocolate that will slow the melting process, whether the ganache is in your hands or on your tongue.

Uses.  There are countless uses for ganache, but the supreme application is chocolate truffles.  Stay tuned.