Pâte Sucrée and the Paucity of Pictures

February 6, 2011

The second demonstration was a “quick” apple tartlet that specifically called for the sweet pâte sucrée dough.  Though the proportions are a bit different, this is pretty much the same dough as my standard sugar cookie recipe (Hence the name). 


After I adjusted the cookie recipe to match the tart’s weight of flour I found that it used one third the sugar, one quarter the baking powder and one half the butter.  That makes it thinner, less sweet, and less rich than the cookie (Which sounds about right for a tart). 



It starts with creaming butter and sugar,

then adding eggs, flour, and baking soda. 


The dough comes together easily and is gathered into a disc for rolling:



The creaming method of batter construction is so common that I have already mastered it making many cookies and coffee cakes. 

The rest of the recipe promises to be just as fast and easy.  There is no separate construction of apple compote, you just make a basic caramel, pour it into the pan and bake the whole thing at once.

I have used both the wet and dry methods of caramel making and I have to say that dry is by far the easiest and best controlled method for me.  I know that wetting the sugar is supposed to make it easier, but I become impatient waiting for it to evaporate, and once it does evaporate the color changes too quickly to catch at the right stage.  The trick to the dry technique is to start by melting just a few tablespoons of sugar.  That way it all melts without the chance to form clumps.  Then, add a bit more and stir until it melts.  The melted sugar absorbs the solid sugar and heats it quickly, thus keeping it from forming dry clumps.  You can add more dry sugar as the quantity of melted sugar increases so it can absorb more.  The color starts darkening very soon after the last of the sugar is added and then you pull it from the heat at the desired stage.

The directions tell me to pour the caramel into the mini tart pan.



“Arrange an equal number of apple wedges in a decorative pattern in each tartlet pan”

Okay, that is simple.


Hmmm, well …


Nope …


Huh …


Sort of …

I’m not convinced the authors ever managed this either.  This is where the absence of pictures really hurts.  I like pictures of the final dish so I know what it is supposed to look like and construction is a big part of that.  I did not realize going into this simple recipe just how much it would matter.

The dough is rolled out and then a circle is cut and laid on top of the apples.


That goes into the oven.

Caramel bubbles up and spills out onto the sheet pan.


The tartlets are turned over and served warm.



The dough was much less difficult to make than the pâte brisee but beyond that the tartlets were not all that much easier to construct and the flavor was definitely lacking any complexity.  The basic caramel just did not do enough for the tart; certainly not enough to justify what little time savings there might be.


Pate Brisee and the Apple Tart

December 14, 2010

First up is Pate Brisee (French for Broken Dough) and an apple tart:


The version in my text calls for 250 g cake flour, ½ tsp salt, 125 g butter, and 65 ml of very cold water or one egg. 

I opted to do this entirely by hand, so the first step was to mix the flour, salt, and sugar, then cut the butter into the flour using a pastry cutter.


Before cutting

And after

I probably worked more of the butter into the flour mixture than called for as the texture was more mealy than flakey.  There are supposed to be numerous bits of butter the size of lentils or split peas.

I poured the egg/water mix into the bowl and mixed it just until the flour absorbed it all.  I needed a bit more water to fully wet the flour mix.  I also took care to work it as little as possible.  Once it came together I pressed it into a disk, wrapped it, and stashed it back in the fridge overnight.  The wait is supposed to let the gluten relax, but is mostly to allow the flour to fully hydrate.


Then next day I took half the disk and rolled it out.


I used this newfangled pie crust bag that zips closed.  It’s supposed to make the job easier and less messy.  It worked for me for the most part.  The shape of the bag guides the size of the disk and, unlike rolling it out on the table, you can peel the plastic from the dough without tearing.


It also makes it easy to transfer to the tart pan.  It turned out that the dough batch wasn’t quite large enough to make two tarts without thinning the crust more than I would have liked. 


The first apple tart in the book specifies 170 g of Golden Delicious apples, 75 g sugar, and one vanilla bean for the Apple Compote filling.  The dough was enough for two 9 inch tarts, so I doubled the filling.   Rather than sticking with Golden Delicious I used a mix of Granny Smith, Pink Ladies, Jazz, and Braeburn apples for a more complex flavor.


You’ve probably seen whole vanilla beans in the spice aisle of your local supermarket.  They are frequently sold one or two to a bottle for an outrageous price.  I’ve seen one bean go for as much as $10!  To make matters worse, these beans are frequently dried out by the time you use them.  Thankfully there is another source that has top quality beans for a fraction of the supermarket price.  You can buy half a pound of plump Tahitian vanilla beans for $15.50 or half a pound of Planifolia vanilla beans for $32 from “Vanilla, Saffron Imports” on the web.  Try them out if you want to do a lot of baking without spending a fortune.

The apples get peeled, cored, and diced and the bean gets sliced.  Everything goes in the pot with 100 ml of water over medium heat for 20 minutes or until the apples are translucent and moisture has evaporated.


The compote goes in the tart after cooling and another two apples are peeled, sliced, cored, and arranged in a spiral for the topping.


That goes in the oven at 350F for about an hour, then it is glazed with Apricot jam that has been melted with water and strained.


You can see that the crust was a bit thin and cracked in a couple places.  As mentioned earlier it came out tender but more mealy than flakey.  I would also use a bit more compote next time as the specified amount left it looking a bit empty.  The tart was also a bit tart in flavor, probably due to my using a mix of apples rather than the Golden Delicious called for.  Still, it turned out fairly well for a first try.

Choosing a Text

July 7, 2010

You stand with your friend in front of the skull shaped rock clutching your treasure map and shovel.  It’s been a long time getting here, but you are minutes away from being rich!  You count out forty paces North, turn and count off sixty paces West before planting your spade in the dirt.  Two hours later you and your companion have a six foot deep hole with nothing at the bottom.

“Try it again, maybe you miscounted,” he says.

So you start again and find yourself five feet from your first hole.  Newly determined, the two of you dig again only to find nothing but dirt at the bottom of the hole.

Five more trips yield five more holes scattered a few feet from the first.

Sweating and frustrated you toss the map to your friend, “OK, you try it!”

He paces off the distance only to find himself a good twenty feet from the center of your batch of holes.  Yeah, he’s a foot taller than you are, so of course he’s way over there…

You throw your shovel down in disgust.  Just how tall was the pirate who left these instructions?  Did he stride purposefully, or take more measured steps?  And why the hell didn’t he just tell you how far it was in feet?

So you head home to bake a cake instead.  At least that’s a simple task with no hidden traps.  Let’s see 2-½ cups flour…

Ah, but just as a pace is not a pace, a cup is not a cup.  Flour is a compressible solid that is every bit as variable.  Do you sift the flour into the measure cup?  Do you spoon it in?  Or do you dip the cup in the flour bin before leveling it off?  You can pack anywhere from 3-6 ounces of flour in a cup depending on the method.  And just as you ended up with dirt at the bottom of your hole, you can end up with a failure at the end of baking if you miss by enough.

 Like our pirate, a lot of cook book authors don’t bother to tell you how they measure their flour, and when that happens you are likely to fail.  Even if you know the method you may miss the mark by enough to make a difference since the amount varies a bit each time you try.  It’s just not a reliable way to measure.  Why can’t they just tell you how many ounces (or grams) of flour and eliminate the imprecision and guesswork?

 They do in Europe, but American publishers long ago decided that weight measures would scare buyers away.  In fact they are so adamant that getting weights printed alongside volume measures requires a great battle by the author.  Apparently we are all timid creatures that have to be protected from anything that even hints of math.

The irony is that the publishing industry is protecting us from the best possible method.  It:

  1. Is far more precise;
  2. Doesn’t waste ingredients;  (Instead of trying to coax corn syrup or honey out of a quarter cup measure just squeeze the amount you want directly into the bowl with your other ingredients.)
  3. Creates less mess; (How many times do you have to stop to clean your measuring cups in a single recipe?  You can zero out the display and keep adding ingredients to the same bowl.)
  4. Scales easier; (Would you rather divide 4.0 oz or 1 1/8 cups in half?  How about trying to measure half an egg by volume?  It’s just 25g by weight.) 


There may have been an excuse for this prejudice years ago when your choices were between cheap spring scales or more difficult to operate balance scales, but now we have inexpensive and very easy to use digital models.  You can find them at your local kitchen supply stores and you can get them mail order.  My favorite company for accuracy, ease of use, and price is “My Weigh” (I don’t own any stock).  They manufacture their own scales which means they can react quickly to customer feedback and also keep cost down.  For years I used the slim-line model 700DX postal scale.  When the LCD started to die I upgraded to the stainless steel KD-8000 which includes bakers percentage calculations.  There are so many inexpensive yet accurate scales available that there is no longer any excuse not to own one.

Unfortunately, James Peterson is every bit the pirate with the publishing of his new book “Baking.”  Not only does he omit weight measures, he fails to mention the method he uses to fill his measuring cup.  The advertising blurb touts this not only as a baking course for the novice, but also for the experienced baker.  Well, the novice is in for a great deal of frustration because he won’t have any idea he is using half or double the amount of flour called for.  Instead he will blame himself for one failure after another, especially when the detailed descriptions of technique seem to leave nothing to chance.  Experienced bakers will likely fail the first time or two, but will then have some idea how far off they were by the end result.  After a number of trials they can dial in on the correct amount and record the weight.  However it is more likely they will note the lack of precision measures and take a pass on the book.

What makes this so surprising is that James Peterson is a professional who knows the value of weighing flour.  He wrote it as a specific tip in “What’s a Cook to do?” and repeated it in “Cooking”.  So why leave it out of “Baking,” the one book that most requires it?

I wrote him twice inquiring what the gram weight of his cup was for each of the two flours he specifies in the book.  But both times he failed to reply.  I followed up with a letter to the publisher, but they too remained silent.  Like our pirate, he seems determined to take the knowledge to his grave.*

It’s a real shame as the book has expansive (and likely expensive) photo spreads to document technique.  I will likely consult it for technique, but since I can’t use his recipes this won’t be my main text.

At the other end of the spectrum is Rose Levy Biranbaum, best known for “The Cake Bible”.  If it were up to her, she would publish only weights.  She was persuaded by her publisher to include volume measures, but not only does she take pains to describe how best to fill the cup to obtain as precise an amount as possible, she gives a very good argument as to why the baker should purchase as scale and use it.  The combination of Rose’s “Cake Bible,” “The Pie and Pastry Bible,” and “Rose’s Heavenly Cakes” might make a comprehensive course, but I’m looking for a single tome.  I will be consulting these heavily as secondary texts as I go along.

The great French Pastry Chef, Pierre Herme, sits at the far end.  His books were written for the European audience and dispense with volume measure completely.  “The Pastry of Pierre Herme” is more a destination than a guide book, so I’ll get to those recipes later. 

“The Secrets of Baking” by Sherry Yard and “Bakewise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking” by Shirley Corriher are two more books that I will consult for technique or trouble shooting, but don’t quite strike me as a good basic class text.

Bo Friberg’s “The Professional Pastry Chef” is a huge encyclopedia of recipes and technique, weighing in at just over a thousand pages.   Like the books above it isn’t organized as a pastry course, and I’m afraid that I’d be at this forever if I attempted to bake my way through it.  Instead I will use it more like an encyclopedia and consult this book as I go along.

That leaves me with “The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Pastry Arts” by the chef’s at The French Culinary Institute.  Respected author Dorie Greenspan calls it “A complete course in the classics of French patisserie,” while Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito proclaim “The kind folks at The French Culinary Institute have managed to distill an entire pastry program into one complete reference book,” and promise “It is a whole lot less expensive than pastry school and every bit as comprehensive.”

 That’s quite an endorsement. 

 This is the book that feels most likely to have a full and balanced curriculum.  It’s authored by a number of chefs at a well respected school so it’s less likely to suffer from the weakness of any single person.  It uses weight measures, and the metric system (grams) at that.

 It even feels like a text you might be assigned upon entering their program.  Instead of chapters it has “Sessions”, and just like my time at the French Pastry School the recipes are called “Demonstrations.”

 Opening my text, I find my first assignment is some background reading for the first two sessions before I get to start baking:

 Session 1:  “An Introduction to the Professional Pastry Kitchen: Basic Principles and Terms”

 Session 2: “Ingredients Commonly Used in Pastry Making”

 Pie and tart dough has quite a reputation for difficulty, but that’s the first baking task:

 Session 3: “Tartes: An Overview of Basic French Tart Doughs”

 Next up, I tackle Pate Brisee and make an apple tart.

* I later found he specified the dip and sweep method in “Cooking”, and went so far as to mention his cup was 5 ½ ounces.  Why couldn’t he repeat this in “Baking?”  The first tart recipe is similar enough between the two books that it appears it caries over into the new book.  Given the casual disregard for such an important point I’m reluctant to use it as my main guide for fear he left out something else just as critical.

My New Project

June 26, 2010

Grand Finales Book 1

My interest in pastry was sparked years ago when I stumbled across “Grand Finales: The Art of The Plated Dessert” at the bookstore in 1997.  The cover caught my eye and the notion that a mere mortal could reproduce these wonders caught my imagination.  After all this book was in my local Borders, not in a specialty “Chef’s only” store. (Of course if I cared to look I could have found a book on how to build a two story log cabin with nothing but hand tools; however that didn’t occur to me at the time.)  Back then my baking repertoire consisted of a box cheesecake, a sour cream coffee cake, and pecan sticky buns – by no means was I up to the creations in this book.  Still, I clutched my illusions as tightly as the book and carried both to the register.  Someday I would gain the skills required and wow friends and family…

A year later the second book of the series debuted with fifty two more deserts from twenty five master pastry chefs.  I gazed at the cover, impressed with the way the chocolate cone balanced so improbably on the plate with the tuile cookie circling it like Saturn’s rings.  I flipped the book open to find separate recipes for a chocolate cone, Gianduja Bavarian, Manjari Ice Cream, Burnt Orange Sauce, Honey “Eclipse” Wafer, and Sesame Seed Wafers.  Okay, so it’s a bit complicated… I’ll eventually figure all this stuff out… 

The third volume appeared in 2000 and of course I had to buy it to complete the set.  So there I had three gorgeous books on my shelf, yet I was no closer to my goal of being able to duplicate any of the wonderful creations inside.  And that’s how it continued for a few more years.

Around that time I started getting serious about home-made ice cream.  I bought two of the best books on the subject, “Ice Cream! The Whole Scoop,” by Gail Damerow, and “The Perfect Scoop” by David Lebovitz.  I experimented, made batch after batch, and took it so far as to sign up for “Ice Cream 101: Introduction to Frozen Deserts” at Penn State.  The two day class was fun, but I was disappointed that the intent of the course was to prepare you to open an ice cream shop with commercially prepared mixes.  I was hoping to be initiated into the secrets of formulating my own special recipes.  The first day was mostly PowerPoint lectures on the basic physics and chemistry of ice cream, commercially available formulations, and the business aspects of running a shop.  That was split between different professors and industry representatives.  The second day included a tour of the Penn State creamery and a vendor fair of sorts where manufacturers demonstrated ice cream and gelato freezers that I could drool over, but not afford.  Well even if I could convince myself (and my wife) that we could afford the cost I had no idea where I could possibly put it.  I would just have to continue to make do with the freezer sleeve model we received as a wedding gift.

Also on the second day one of the students gave a presentation about their “Tasting”  team.  Apparently several schools have teams that compete to judge ice cream and detail any flaws in a scientific manner.  The judges give them samples in the small plastic tubs with paper lids that you get in the cafeteria at school complete with the wooden spoon.  Each one is labeled with a letter and has one or more flaw such as being icy, sandy, oxidized, overcooked, eggy, or too strong on whey.  Each member’s scores are totaled and the winning team is the one judged most accurate.  We were given an evaluation form and several samples to judge.  We were told that it’s a rather serious and stiff competition at the collegiate level and the teams work hard to fine tune their pallets.  I had finally found something that was even geekier than being on the forensics team in high school.  

Back home I went on to fill my tiny freezer with a score of flavors until my wife gently suggested I might want to explore another hobby and return  the use of our meager freezer space to her.

She encouraged me to make the switch with the gift of a small chocolate tempering machine that marked the beginning of a multi-year odyssey to tame chocolate.  Back then there just weren’t any good books on chocolate for the layman.  [Now you can buy “Chocolates and Confections” by Peter Greweling and get everything you need to know in one very affordable book  It has the most useful description of tempering you will find anywhere,  as well as clear instructions for molding, dipping, and a good number of great recipes.  I could have saved myself years with this book.]   I joined the eGullet food board and picked the brains of the chocolatiers there, followed up with a good deal of experimentation, and finally a three day course on “Advanced Chocolates” at the French Pastry School in Chicago taught by the master chocolate ambassador for Callebaut, Jean-Pierre Wybauw.   The class clarified a number of concepts and gave me quite a bit of concentrated practice.  Over time I mastered the theory and practice of tempering (or more accurately “pre-crystallizing”) chocolate.  I also accumulated a library of chocolate books, two 6 kg chocolate melters, a small fortune in professional polycarbonate truffle molds, a mold vibrating table, an air brush, and various and sundry tools.  In addition I taught a few introductory hands on classes to spread the knowledge of artisan truffles, experimented with colored cocoa butter for dramatic presentation and designed and constructed my own guitar cutter to achieve perfect squares of ganache for dipping.  Now I order 100 lbs of chocolate at a time and ship boxes of truffles as holiday gifts to family and friends. Thanks to my wife I have fans as far away as Sydney, Australia and Los Angeles, California.

The first trip to Chicago worked out well, so a couple years ago I returned to the French Pastry School for a three day intensive “Chocolate Decorations, Petit Gateau and Entremets” taught by Master Pastry Chef Norman Love.  I was a bit nervous going in since I was one of the only two students who weren’t professional chefs or current students of the French Pastry School, and the other non-professional was a very experienced home baker.  The liberal use of French terms spooked me during the first lecture, but I calmed down upon learning that “Anglaise” was just a fancy term for the custard base I made by the gallon for ice cream and Pate a Bombe is just a term for egg yolks beaten with sugar syrup and aerated for use as a base for mousse and butter cream.  The biggest obstacle was that I had to take copious notes as our class books were basically lists of ingredients with the recipe steps omitted.  I suppose professionals might already know what to do given the ingredients, but I was left to scribble furiously during the demonstrations.  The same assumptions were made to a lesser degree in the “Grand Finales” and other professional level books and magazines.  Part of learning pastry seems to be becoming familiar with the lingo along with the techniques.

The class improved my skills, but the most important benefit was the knowledge of how complex deserts are assembled and confidence that these seemingly difficult techniques aren’t all that hard to learn.  That gave me the courage to attempt more advanced deserts.   The class also gave me the chance to get Norman Love to sign book three of “Grand Finales.”  Yes, he is one of the Master Pastry Chefs who contributed to the series.

Despite all that training I haven’t done much pastry in the time since then.  Instead I continue to amass a formidable library of books, including several more high end books like “La Patisserie De Peirre Herme” and “Sweet Seasons” by Reichar Leach.  My library also includes technique books such as “BakeWise, The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking” by Shirley O Corriher, “The Secrets of Baking” by Sherry Yard, “Baking” by James Peterson, “The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Pastry Arts” by the French Culinary Institute, and “The Professional Pastry Chef, Fundamentals of Baking and Pastry” and “The Advanced Professional Pastry Chef” by Bo Friberg.  I think the problem is that the course was just too compact and I haven’t spent enough time practicing the various techniques to get comfortable.  Cramming everything into three days gave me a good deal of information but not enough experience.  Some of these techniques need to be practiced many times to be fully absorbed.

I figure what I need to do is make a systematic study of pastry techniques.  Unfortunately, as much as I would like too I can’t afford to take a six month sabbatical to move to Chicago and enroll in the French Pastry School’s professional program.  Much closer to home Schoolcraft College offers a well respected professional culinary arts program; however, even that runs during the workday and demands far more time than I have at my disposal.  So that leaves “home-study” with a self-designed course using the books I already own.

I am going to pick one of the books to follow as a main syllabus and bake one item a week.  I don’t want this to be just another “bake my way through a book” blog so I will use the other books as supplements to compare and contrast recipes and techniques as I go.  I may also run off on a tangent from time to time.  Then when I’ve got a firm grasp of the fundamentals I can go back to the three books that started it all. 

So, next up:  Choosing the main book.