I said goodbye to one of my bakery girls today. She is leaving us to take a pastry position at a fancy restaurant owned by a celebrity chef. I am happy for her and the opportunities this move might bring her. As I was giving her a parting gift while making my usual speech aimed at embarrassing her and lightning up the mood, I recalled the time she asked me for a job in the Pastry Department. She had no culinary training whatsoever and on her first day of work, while we were busy catering to a large reception, I asked her to fetch some sheetpans. I got a blank stare: she had no idea what a sheetpan was, or parchment paper or even a ladle. To her credit, she stuck with it and she is now graduating to the bigger league. Everything can be learned but in pastry, more than in any other branch of cooking, either you have the instinct for it or you don’t. If it’s important to know how ingredients react together, how leavening agents work, how sugar behaves at different temperatures and all those other good things, at the end of the day it comes down to your hands having a feel for a dough and instantly knowing when it’s done, if it’s overmixed or overbaked. And it’s these details that cannot be taught but come with experience and instincts.
One of the first questions apprentices ask when shoving something in the oven is “How long do I bake it for?” and the flip answer is “Until it’s done” because it’s important to learn to recognize when a cake or a muffin or a tart is ready visually, as useful as timers are. Ovens behave differently, the weather plays a part which is why baking times on any recipe are always just indicative.
Which brings me to a few random questions I received this week, all dough related. The first had to do with American scones.
“How do you make such flaky scones?”
The answer has to do with the butter which is added still frozen to the flour, cut into little cubes. Cream is then added until the dough reaches the right consistency which is not too wet and not too dry – just slightly sticky. The scones then get baked frozen in a very hot oven which doesn’t give them the chance of falling flat.
The second question regarded Italian Carnival cakes – I call them sfrappole but they have different names according to the region they are served in. Essentially, it’s a very thin dough made of flour, eggs, salt and brandy that is cut into ribbons and fried, then dusted with powder sugar. They are absolutely irresistible and eating one leads to eating 10 more. Not good if you are watching your diet.
I gave my friend my mom’s recipe and I got an e-mail a few hours later complaining that the dough was impossible to roll, it would just bounce back like an elastic band. Well, I took for granted that my friend knew to knead the dough for 6 to 8 minutes and then let it rest for 30 minutes before rolling. Whether making pasta or pizza or any other kind of dough that needs to be rolled, kneading allows for the proteins to develop the strands that make gluten. Trying to roll a dough too quickly will result in a strenuous and frustrating effort.
And finally, most bakers will swear by shortening in making pie crust. The fat in shortening is supposed to ensure a flaky crust. Not wrong and if you are making just the one pie it will work. But shortening, as opposed to butter, warms up very quickly making the dough more difficult to handle if you are rolling, say, 50 mini pies. I personally have an aversion to shortening for reasons that only make sense to me and I like to use butter whenever I can.. My pie crust has hardly any sugar to make it suitable for sweet or savory fillings alike but if I am baking a tart with a particularly sour filling (say plum) I like to use pate sucree (which is made with egg yolks and sugar) – not so easy to work with but divinely sweet as a counterpoint to a tart taste.