Baking Essay Index

Dear Science,

[one_half][T]hree years ago,one of my favorite musicians produced a record whose title was inspired by a note he scrawled in the studio:

Dear Science, please fix all the things you keep talking about or shut the fuck up.

My reaction (scrawled in kid’s handwriting):


As scientists, our goals are to understand where we came from, what makes us tick, and why things work the way they work. We’ve learned a lot. But some questions—especially the really interesting ones—are big enough that we just aren’t going to answer them anytime soon.

In fact, a large part of being a scientist is
being comfortable with failure. I often find myself facing a day in which nothing is expected to work. But in order to make progress, I need to spend that day (sometimes many days) confirming it.

It can wear on a person.

Some days, I honestly do feel like shutting the fuck up. Some days it feels strange, at this point in my life, to sit and label tubes or dispense liquids, wait for water to drip, for hours at a time. But there are rewards. Rarely, the reward is a home run. A Holy Shit moment where you see something that no one has seen before. More times than I’m comfortable admitting, those moments happen by accident. A mistake that suddenly clarifies weeks of confusion.

More commonly, the rewards are modest. Figuring out that you’ve consistently been doing something subtly different from what you’d intended. Realizing that a well-meaning colleague has, with absolute conviction, advised you to do the exact wrong thing. Usually, this is a small step. Nonetheless, it’s one that can be immensely rewarding. It’s the accumulation of these small steps that drives research. To be successful, you have to be at peace with the process. You have to willingly walk into failure.

* * * * *

I had high hopes for this post. Smoke. Lasers. Art forms new to the blog. I had intended to write a valentine to my neighborhood, with a dish inspired by its ethnic identities. Quite simply, that plan broke.

I had decided to base my dish on a somewhat fussy and time-consuming quiche recipe. My suspicion, after blind-baking the crust, was that it would not hold. It felt familiar to know that I had to try anyway. As predicted, the crust leaked. I continued baking until I was left with a sadly deflated pie adorned with a leathery mane of evaporated custard. It was, at best, inoffensive. Not “sexual,” or “seductive,” as Thomas Keller describes. Further research revealed that I was not the first person to have had difficulty with this recipe.

Weeks went by, during which I summoned the energy to try again. This time, I took much greater care with the dough. I realized that I needed to scale the recipe up, work the dough more thoroughly, and let it rest longer. Sure enough, the crust behaved much more like I hoped it would. It wasn’t nearly as fragile as my first attempt. It didn’t fall apart after blind-baking. It didn’t need much patching at all.

But it leaked again.

This time, however, it didn’t leak as badly. This time, the custard was silky and luxurious. There were many things about this time, some of them subtle, that showed I’d come a long way since not being able to bake my way out of an elimination challenge. I was faster, confident, observant. Small steps.

There was a time when I wouldn’t have taken on this recipe. When I would have given up after spending the better part of the day on an ill-fated quiche. But by now, I’ve tackled far worse problems. I know I’m still learning, and I know that I can handle this.

* * * * *

If you’ve ever attempted to reproduce an experiment from a high-profile scientific journal, you know that it’s often impossible to do without further guidance. The Materials and Methods section of a paper reads like a chef’s recipe, i.e., something that needs translating. It’s usually not malicious. Like kitchens, all labs are different. More important, the hands that execute each step are different. If you’re lucky, the author will communicate with you directly. But that doesn’t always help, and it’s ultimately up to you to navigate the myriad ways to proceed.

When I’ve cracked an ambiguous protocol, I like to document my process. Hopefully, I can save a colleague from making the same mistakes I made. One of these days, that damn quiche is going to work. And if I can understand why it did, I’ll tell you about it here. In the meantime, I have a message of my own to address to Science.

Dear Science,

You can be a real motherfucker. But through you, I learned how to imagine, how to teach myself things, and how to communicate and connect with remarkably different people. I wouldn’t have become the cook, writer, or person I am today without you. For that, I’ll be forever grateful. [/one_half]




Baking Desserts Index Vegetarian

Pumpkin Pie Redux

[one_half][M]y extremely talented sister once told me that she had made a pumpkin pie, from scratch, with a fresh pumpkin, and that it tasted no different from a pie made with canned. I was in college at the time, when the idea of cutting open an actual pumpkin seemed tantamount to building your own television. The canned pumpkin seemed like a modern marvel that could possibly render the unprocessed version obsolete.

But times, and curiosities, change. I am now accustomed to seeing (presumably fresh) pumpkin shoehorned into every imaginable food throughout the fall and winter seasons. Pumpkin gnocchi, pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin crème brûlée, pumpkin soup, pumpkin flan, pumpkin ale, and of course, the abomination that is the pumpkin spice latte. In each of these cases, I find myself asking the same question: What does pumpkin taste like?

The answer invariably seems to be: Cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg. Not that I have an intrinsic problem with those flavors. But aside from the comforting, orange-brown paste we are accustomed to taking in a pie shell, what does it actually feel like to bite into a piece of pumpkin? Perhaps, as I have often suspected, there is a reason we don’t leave the pumpkin meat intact. I could imagine it being bland, slimy, possibly bitter. Perhaps, like quince, it is only palatable in paste form. I considered it a personal challenge to prove that notion wrong.

As a home cook primarily known for slow-cooking meats, I have long felt that I should learn how to make a proper dessert. Years before the genesis of Babychili, I found myself oddly drawn to the numerous pie contests I saw on television. I felt that they were different from other cooking competitions in that, despite being open to professional cooks, the contestants, generally speaking, had no formal training. They were home cooks like me, and they were surprisingly creative. I wondered whether I could win such a contest, and how long it would take to find out.

It’s become cliché for savory cooks to say that they are intimidated by baking, but that has certainly been the case with me. Eventually, work, “real life,” and various other excuses took over, and I never did try making a pie. Sometimes you need to get pushed into the pool. So I committed, this Thanksgiving, to executing my own version of pumpkin pie (actually a tart). And dammit, you were going to get pieces of pumpkin if it killed me.

* * * * *


The crust

Regular readers of this blog have heard me say this several times now, but I’ll repeat it for the newcomers: If you are a neurotic perfectionist, or perhaps just like to have things explained to you in pedantic detail, a highly recommended way to learn any new technique in the kitchen is to consult The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers. I have rarely attempted a recipe from this book that did not subsequently result in the best version of that particular dish I have ever had. So when it came time to learn how to make a pie crust, I did not turn to any number of classic tomes on baking. I went straight for the Basic Rich Tart Dough, by Rodgers.

But even a recipe as informative as Zuni’s does not necessarily make for a perfect first try. The prominent eyebrow-raiser in this recipe is its inclusion of salted butter. The salt, as I understand it, plays an important role in both the flavor and texture of the dough. Rodgers recommends butter containing 90 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon, which is near the high end of the range for salted butters. I neglected to remember this detail, and simply bought “salted butter,” which, in my case, happened to contain a whopping 115 milligrams per tablespoon. This was, in my opinion, too much salt for my recipe. I made three different crusts, and settled on using the European Style Lightly Salted Butter by Straus. In addition to being lower in sodium (45 milligrams per tablespoon), this butter was also significantly lower in moisture than the other two brands I tried. The lower moisture butter behaved with flour exactly as described in the book, while the other two butters (though they worked perfectly fine) were significantly stickier.

* * * * *

The filling

I imagined slices of caramelized pumpkin enveloped in a base of toasted pumpkin seed frangipane. Frangipane is a baked cream, typically made with almonds, that rises upon baking and assumes the consistency of a sticky bread. My first attempt at this was an unqualified failure. The frangipane did not rise, and the butter, all 13 tablespoons of it (which turned out to be only 9 tablespoons too many) leaked out of my poor tart and left it sitting in a pool of molten fat. I made several more versions of the frangipane before arriving at this version, found at Dessert First by Anita Chu. I made two ingredient substitutions: in place of almonds, I used pumpkin seeds (raw, unsalted, and hulled) which I pan-toasted over medium-low heat for 5 – 10 minutes until they became fragrant and slightly brown. So that my pumpkin seeds would not compete with the flavor of almonds, I used vanilla extract instead of almond extract.

One practical piece of advice I can offer in making any frangipane is to make sure that the sugar/pumpkin seed (or sugar/almond) mixture is processed or ground to the point where you cannot imagine the pieces of seeds or nuts being any smaller. Before adding wet ingredients, you should arrive at a sandy-colored sugar. There may be flecks of skin from the pumpkin seeds, but there should be no detectable grit from the meat of the seeds. This is apparently essential for allowing the seeds to incorporate into a smooth cream that will rise during baking.

* * * * *

The pumpkin

Finally, we arrive at the $64 question: Do pieces of pumpkin belong on a tart? I maintain that the answer is yes. My treatment of the pumpkin is inspired by calabaza en tacha, traditionally served during Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico. The challenge here was to prepare slices of pumpkin that were attractive, preferably caramelized, had a distinct pumpkin flavor, and could be cut easily with a fork. But how thick can I cut the pumpkin? Should I parcook it? Marinate it? Allow it to cook completely on the tart itself? I struggled to arrive at the product I suspected (but was not certain) was possible, and experienced a key aha moment when reading this recipe for butternut squash tart by Matt Armendariz. Roast it in oil first. Then season and bake. Here is the winning method:

Candied pumpkin

1 small sugar pumpkin*
grapeseed or vegetable oil
kosher salt
1/4 C granulated sugar
zest and juice from 1/2 of a small orange
2 T maple syrup
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground allspice

*Note: The pumpkin should be small, young and heavy for its size. Its flesh should provide a fair bit of resistance when cutting with a sharp knife. If the flesh is light or spongy, then too much of the starch has been converted to sugar, and it will wind up tasting more like a radish than a sweet potato. A kabocha or butternut squash would also work nicely here.

Peel and quarter the pumpkin and thoroughly scrape out the pith and seeds. Cut into uniform slices about 1/2 cm thick. Lightly toss in neutral oil with a sprinkle of kosher salt. Roast in a preheated, 400F oven for 15 minutes or until tender, turning once to ensure even heating.

While the pumpkin is roasting, combine remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly. Taking care not to damage the cooked pumpkin slices, arrange them in a single layer on a large plate and coat both sides with mixture. Allow the slices to marinate for about 15 minutes.

* * * * *

Assembling the tart

Spread the frangipane evenly in a frozen tart shell and carefully arrange pumpkin slices in a fan (or other desired) pattern. Bake in a preheated, 375F oven for about 40 minutes, or until both the frangipane and crust have begun to brown. About halfway through cooking, the frangipane should rise considerably, then relax. Allow the tart to cool completely on a wire rack before ravaging.

* * * * *

Needless to say, over this past week, I became extremely adept at peeling and seeding pumpkins. The tart shell, once a terrifying prospect, quickly became manageable. The pumpkin seeds yielded a rich, nutty frangipane. And the roast pumpkin slices married with orange to offer a fragrance reminiscent of marmalade. Did I mention that my tart didn’t last long?