I Really Am Here to Help: Pastry Questions Answered, Part 1

Question Mark Cookies 1

Please click through for attribution to Scott McLeod

I tell you guys that I'm here to help. That I can help you become more confident cooks. I often share wee tidbits of baking and cooking information--stuff like how to use equipment, tricks of the trade, technique how-tos. And I answer questions either via email or the facebook page.  I have written posts in the past where I pose and then answer questions, kind of like a FAQ page.

But if I really want to put my money where my mouth is and help you with your specific questions, I have to be willing to let go of some control and Open the Floor to questions.  And that's exactly what I did a few hours ago. Over on the facebook page, I invited folks to pose their questions because I was going to answer them in today's post. That's this very post, y'all.  And you asked. Some good questions. Some questions that I didn't even know the answers to.

So, in today's round-up, I've learned stuff, too! Thanks for your questions and for making me do some research. Everybody wins.

How do I keep my Pavlova from falling? This is an interesting question, mainly because I've never had a Pav fall before. I didn't realize it was really a Thing that could happen. But obviously it does.  Since the Question Asker didn't describe the method that they'd followed, I can only guess.  I guess one of several things. Thing one:  The Pav fell because there wasn't enough structure to to keep it from falling  This could be because the heat was up too high--the outside of the shell may have gotten crisp, but the insides were still wet and gooey, causing the whole thing to collapse.  It could also be because the heat was low and it wasn't baked long enough. Same result: fallen Pavlova.  For a full-sized Pav (9-ish inches) baking time is generally about an hour at 300F with maybe some extra time in the oven after you turn it off.

Another issue could be with the meringue itself. If you beat the whites to Completely Stiff peaks, even the act of folding in just a bit of cornstarch can serve to leave your whites over-beaten. And over -beaten whites get grainy and collapse.  Whenever I whip anything that has a risk of breaking, I err on the side of under-whipping by just a tad so I still have some wiggle room when it comes to folding in additional ingredients.  As an aside, even the act of squeezing whipped cream or meringue through a pastry bag can overwork the mixture if it is already at Maximum Peakage.

Lots of the Pav recipes I've looked at call for a few ingredients, such as lemon juice or corn starch, to be folded in after the whites are at stiff peaks. Recipe for disaster, I say. Take the meringue to medium peaks and then whip in the rest. By the time you get to stiff, glossy peaks, everyone will be in the pool and all you'll need to do is spoon the meringue into a circle and bake.

And if you're wondering why there's any cornstarch in a Pav at all, it's to help soak up any water that might want to leak out.  A Pavlova shell is basically a French meringue that you bake until it's crisp on the outside. The same kind of meringue that most folks put on a lemon meringue pie. The kind that weeps. The cornstarch binds the water, keeping the whole thing from weeping and getting soggy. So if you're leaving it out, don't.

Is using a dough hook just as good at kneading bread dough as hands? While this is really a matter of personal preference, there are a few instances in which a dough hook has the edge over hand kneading.  Dough hooks don't get tired or bored or sweaty, so there's that. Also, since a dough hook doesn't have fingers or a brain, it doesn't worry about the dough sticking. So it doesn't keep obsessively adding flour until it ends up with dough heavy enough to make bricks out of.

I think one of the worst disservices a bread "recipe" can do is to tell folks to add flour "a little at a time" until the dough is "no longer sticky." I am here to tell you: if your dough isn't at least a little sticky, it's too dry.  As a matter of fact, when I do decide to knead by hand, I oil my hands and the work surface rather than dusting with flour. A minimal amount of oil won't hurt the dough and may even help it just a smidge with keeping qualities. It also will keep the dough from sticking to your hands and the counter, allowing you to focus on the feel of the dough instead of the need to Keep Adding Flour.

I do think that the mixer can get between you and what you're making, though.  Bread has been made by hand, literally, for thousands of years. It's an almost primal thing, and getting your hands into the dough allows you to be more connected to your bread. Even after kneading with a machine, give it at least a few turns by hand, just to get to know it before shaping it.

In my opinion, neither is necessarily a better method than the other, but I do think that a dough hook can help take the guess work out of kneading for folks who are new to the bread making game. Or whose arms get tired quickly.

Aren't gelatin and agar agar supposed to be interchangeable as far as how they work? I tried making 'fake' caviar out of soy sauce but subbed gelatin for the agar agar because I can't find it locally. 2 tries. 2 fails 🙁  This particular question required me to Do Research.  What the Question Asker is talking about is spherification.  This is a process in which you add an aliginate to the liquid to be spherified (I just made up that word. I think) and dissolve calcium (either calcium lactate or calcium gluconolactate) in another liquid. Then, when you drip the alginated liquid into the calcium liquid, the calcium gels the alginate. What you end up with is like a little gel-cap of liquid. The longer you leave your drops in the calcium water, the thicker the gel cap.  The goal is usually to create a thin gel exterior that yields to a gentle bite, allowing the liquid center to burst out.

I've just described "traditional" spherification.  There's a newer kind, and I think that's what the Question Asker is referring to.  Dissolve agar agar (a type of polysaccharide derived from red algae) in a liquid and then spherify it in cold oil.  This type of spherification is more easily done in the home kitchen since you don't need any mad scientist-type ingredients.

Gelatin is made up of a bunch of different proteins derived from collagen.  It is made from animal parts. Agar agar is a plant-based gelling agent, similar to carageenan and alginate. As such, agar-agar is vegetarian while gelatin is Not.  And while gelatin and agar agar will both gel in liquid, the short answer is that they are not interchangeable for spherification which relies on an almost instantaneous chemical gelling reaction between either an alginate and calcium or a physical gelling reaction when hot agar agar encounters cold oil, allowing the outer part of each droplet to form a "skin" through rapid cooling.

(Thanks to these sites for figuring this stuff out so I didn't have to: wikipedia (agar), wikipedia (gelatin), Cuisine Innovation, Bryn's Food Blog, Cooking Issues, LA Fuji Mama, ThinkGeek, Creative Loafing (Tampa))

PS to the Question Asker: You should be able to find agar at your local Asian market, so call around. 🙂

How Do I Increase the Shelf Life of a Cookie? Honestly, I'm a little on the fence about this question.  Cookies should have an at-room-temperature shelf life of Not Very Long.  If you want a cookie with a long shelf-life, you'll have to get one loaded up with all kinds of preservatives and conditioners and emulsifiers and craziness.  And I like to bake with natural ingredients--ones with very few syllables that don't need to be synthesized in a lab.

But, there are still ways of extending shelf life by a bit by substituting some "liquid sugar"--honey, corn syrup, maple syrup--for the granulated sugar.  All sugar is hygroscopic, but liquid sugars are a bit Better At It than granulated sugar, so they'll pull moisture in and keep staling at bay a bit longer.  Also, you want to make sure that there is enough fat in the cookie to keep them soft, so cookies made with a relatively large amount of fat as compared to the sugar will have better keeping properties than doughs made with a smaller amount.

Packaging is also Very Important when it comes to shelf life. Air-tight--seriously air-tight--is the way to go.  Or freezing.  I let my cookies cool and then any that I won't be eating in the next day or so go into a freezer bag. I suck out as much of the air as possible and then seal her up and put the bag in the freezer.  When I want a cookie, I just take one or two out and let them come to room temperature or put them in the toaster oven for a minute or so.  Stored in the freezer, most low-moisture cookies will keep for several weeks.

Several more folks asked some really good questions, and I will get to all of them. This post, however, is getting a bit Long-Winded, so I'll wrap it up for now.  If you have questions you'd like answered, or if you can add to what I've already said here, please have at it in the comments.

Thanks, and have a lovely day.





      • says

        So, you’re a pastry chef and obucsre Brit graphic artist fancier eh? I saw that you visited the Great Barney Bubbles sight, and what a site is is for all you flaky pastry lovers out there. Oodles of yummy ovals, lashings of tasty type and a garnish of mixed media to tempt the viz wiz in us all. Thought you’d like to know the old Alpha Inventions wonderment continues to exert its magic tug and I found my way as a result to your electron powered mucoid arousal, if only I could eat such things… there’s a great need for diabetic friendly baked goods. Cheers. DavidP.S. Lose the justified type, square on the right doesn’t work too good for you; unjustified, ragged right, works best in this milieu.


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