Saturday, October 30, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Custards

Baking class, week ten. I keep talking about how much I love this class. Despite the occasional failure (like those cupcakes from a few weeks ago), who wouldn’t love all the scrumptious desserts we turn out each week? I know my family appreciate it. But as much as I love it, I usually have a twinge of nervousness before class.

Ramekins of crême brûlée, without the sugar caramelized on top.
The one in the foreground is overbaked.

One reason for the nerves is that baking class is not a normal lecture-style class in which you slouch in a chair and listen to someone talk for an hour. It’s active and 90% hands-on. Each class is sort of a performance where you’re trying to work quickly and come out with the best product you can in the shortest amount of time. It’s easy to see why there are so many competitive cooking shows on Food Network; by nature, professional cooking is fast-paced and somewhat competitive, even if the competition is simply to serve 200 diners during a two-hour lunch rush.

Also the class is five hours long, running from 4:00–9:00 p.m. one day a week. That’s a long class, and because there’s so much to do it’s usually without a break. (The smokers manage to take ten minutes off.) It’s like plugging yourself in to an electrical socket and not unplugging for five hours. I love the class, but it’s definitely something I have to get psyched for.

Today we focus on custards, which are basically liquids thickened with eggs. Their consistency depends on the ratio of eggs to liquid: the more eggs in proportion to liquid, the thicker and richer the custard. Most of the custards Americans know and love are based on milk or cream, sugar, eggs, and vanilla, though there are many variations.

Custards fall into two categories: stirred and baked. Stirred custards include things like pastry cream and lemon curd, which we’re making in today’s class. Pastry cream is a classic custard—thick, smooth, and milky—and is used to fill pastries such as éclairs. Lemon curd is slightly sweet with the sharp flavor of fresh lemon juice instead of milk. As you might guess it’s used as a filling for lemon cream pie, and for those small lemon tarts the British like so much. Pudding is another type of stirred custard, as is sabayon, which is made with wine instead of milk.

Caramelizing sugar on crème brûlée is trickier than you might think.
The bottom center one had too much sugar on top and did not
caramelize properly. We used a propane torch for the caramelization.
Crème brûlée is a type of baked custard, and I’m very happy to be making a batch in this week’s class because it’s one of my favorite desserts. Flan and crème caramel, which are essentially the same dessert, are other examples. Surprisingly (at least to me), cheesecake is considered a baked custard. The filling for cheesecake is mostly a mixture of milk or cream, sugar, and eggs, so in terms of ingredients it falls neatly into the custard family. The addition of cream cheese makes the texture a little firmer, but soft cheesecake fillings can be very custardy indeed.

During the lecture portion of class, one of the things we’re warned about is not to make lemon curd, or anything acidic, in aluminum cookware. The aluminum will react with the acid in the lemon juice and change the color of the curd from yellow to green. I already knew this and didn’t think much about it at the time. Well, I should have listened more intently.

The green lemon curd. The French refer to this color as "goose shit" green.
The baking students are in a pinch any time we make things requiring a stovetop. For some reason there are no stoves in the baking classroom, only two small induction burners, each of which handles one pan at a time. These two burners and pans need to be shared among six or seven baking teams.

Not wanting to wait for an induction burner, I opt to make our lemon curd in the adjoining classroom, in which a cooking class is in session. The classroom is stocked with a full complement of industrial-strength gas stoves and cookware, and the chef and students are gracious about sharing the space. Unfortunately, the only pans they have are made of aluminum. I don’t realize this until I look down at our freshly-prepared lemon curd, which is pea-green (ugh!).

Now THIS is lemon curd, with a proper yellow color.
Chef Sandy, the baking chef, is happy about our error because it gives her a chance to show the class what NOT to do. She immediately takes the bowl of green curd around to show everyone in class. Understandably my partner Ned and I are less excited, and though the aluminized curd is edible, I do not want to eat green lemon tarts next week. I quickly gather ingredients and set about making a second batch. About twenty minutes later I have a lovely deep-yellow lemon curd, buttery and sweet without a hint of aluminum flavor. Good class!

Take home: six pâte à choux filled with vanilla pastry cream, six small ramekins of crème brûlée.

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