Baking History


Croissants

Croissant is French for crescent or crescent-shaped. Croissants are composed of a light buttery rich yeast dough that can have either a sweet (jam, marzipan, chocolate) or savory (cheese, ham, chicken, mushrooms) filling. Traditionally enjoyed in France for breakfast with coffee and milk.

Legend has it that one night during the war of 1686 between Austria and Turkey, bakers in Budapest Hungary heard Turkish soldiers tunneling under the city and sounded the alarm. This led to the Turkish defeat of the war and the bakers’ reward was the honor of making a commemorative pastry in a crescent shape (the shape that is on the Turkish flag). Later the French were credited with reinventing the croissant dough to its current form using a puff pastry-like dough. However, in the Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson, he states that the recipe for the present day croissant doesn’t appear in a French recipe book until early in the 20th century and there is no reference to it origins being from the croissant made after the war of 1686.

Whatever its true origins, the present day croissant is still credited to France and enjoyed in many parts of the world. Croissants that are made with butter are called “croissant au beurre” and any croissant containing other types of fat (usually margarine) must be called “croissants”.

Ganache

Ganache is a French term referring to a smooth and velvety mixture of chocolate and cream. Its origin is a little unclear, but it is believed to have been invented around 1850. Some say it originated in Switzerland where it was used as a base for truffles. Others say it was invented in Paris at the Patisserie Siravdin.

To make Ganache, hot cream (cream with a 35-40% butterfat content) is poured over chopped semi sweet or bittersweet chocolate, and the mixture is stirred until smooth. The proportions of chocolate to cream can vary depending on its use, but the basic form is equal weights of chocolate and cream. Dark, milk, or white chocolate can be used to make ganache and different flavorings can be added such as liqueurs and extracts. Butter, oil, or corn syrup can also be added when a dark shiny glaze is desired.

Ganache is widely used in the pastry kitchen. When barely warm and liquid, ganache can be poured over a cake or torte for a smooth and shiny glaze. If cooled to room temperature it becomes a spreadable filling and frosting. Refrigerated ganache can be whipped for fillings and frostings or formed into chocolate truffles.

The taste and quality of the ganache is primarily dependent on the quality of chocolate you start with. Remember not all chocolates are the same. It is important to use a ‘pure’ chocolate, that is, chocolate that contains just chocolate liquor, sugar, cocoa butter, vanilla, and lecithin. You do not want to use a chocolate that has vegetable fat listed as an ingredient. Chocolate begins with the beans from the tropical tree Theobroma which translates to “Food of the Gods”. There are three types of cacao beans (Forastero, Criollo, and Trinitario) and the type and/or blend of beans, their quality, and where they are grown all contribute to the quality and taste of the chocolate. Other factors affecting taste and quality are how the beans are roasted, how the beans are ground into a mass called chocolate liquor, how much extra cocoa butter is added to the chocolate liquor, quality and amount of other ingredients added, and how long the chocolate liquor is conched (processed). But most importantly, choose a chocolate that you would also enjoy eating out of hand. A chocolate with a velvety smooth texture will produce a ganache that is velvety smooth. If you like semi sweet chocolate, then you would probably want to use a chocolate with no more than 58% cacao content. The cacao percentage tells us the amount of cacao, that is, chocolate liquor and cocoa butter, the chocolate contains in relation to the amount of sugar. Therefore, a chocolate with a 58% cacao means that it has 58% cacao and 42% sugar. (As a side note, the cocoa butter gives the chocolate that melt-in-your-mouth consistently.) Some brands I have used and liked are Valrhona, Guittard, Scharffen Berger, Lindt, and Green & Black’s.

Biscotti

The Italians use the term biscotti to refer to any type of cookie. In North America, the word “biscotti” is used to describe a long, dry, hard, twice-baked cookie with a curved top and flat bottom designed for dunking into wine or coffee.

The name biscotti is derived from ‘bis’ meaning twice in Italian and ‘cotto’ meaning baked or cooked.

Biscotti is said to have originated during Columbus’s time and credited to an Italian baker who originally served them with Tuscan wines. They became so popular that every province developed their own flavored version. Because of their long storage ability they were an ideal food for sailors, soldiers, and fisherman.

Most European countries have adopted their own version of biscotti: English – rusks, French – biscotte and croquets de carcassonne, Germans – zwieback, Greeks – biskota and paxemadia, Jewish – mandelbrot, and Russians – sukhariki.

Traditionally biscotti were almond flavored as almonds were readily available in Italy and nearby countries.

Now your imagination is the only limiting factor to what can be added to these popular cookies; dried fruits, chocolate, different varieties of nuts, seeds, spices, etc. They are frequently found iced with melted chocolate or other frostings, and topped with nuts and even colored sprinkles.

The sticky dough is first shaped into a log shape and baked until firm. After a short cooling period, the log is sliced into diagonal slices and baked again to draw out the moisture thus producing a crisp, dry textured cookie that has a long shelf life. Recipes containing butter or oil will have a softer texture and will not keep as long as the traditional recipes that only use eggs to bind the ingredients together.

Bread Pudding

Bread Pudding is an old fashioned dessert that had its humble beginnings in 13th century England. It was first known as a “poor man’s pudding” as it was made from stale leftover bread that was simply moistened in water, to which a little sugar, spices and other ingredients were added.

Fast forward to today and you will find that we still make our bread puddings with bread but the breads we use are often made especially for this dessert. The types are wide ranging; from brioche, challah, croissant, and panettone, to French, Italian and sometimes even raisin bread or scones. And unlike bread puddings of the past, we now moisten the bread in a rich mixture (really a custard) of cream, eggs, sugar, butter, vanilla extract, and spices. It is no longer a poor man’s pudding. It is now a rich, creamy, decadent dessert that has made its way onto the dessert menus of many fine restaurants.

To make a Bread Pudding the bread is first cut into bit sized cubes and the choice of whether to remove the bread crusts is yours. The cubes of bread are then placed in a 9 x 13 inch (23 x 33 cm) baking pan. Then we need to make the custard which is then poured over the bread cubes. You can add chopped nuts, pieces of chocolate, lemon or orange zest, a little alcohol, candied, dried or even fresh fruits to the pudding for more flavor and texture.

The one thing to take note of, though, is that this pudding is baked in a water bath. A water bath starts with a large shallow pan (usually a roasting pan of some sort) that is big enough to hold a smaller pan that is filled with a delicate food. It is best to place a clean dish towel on the bottom of the large roasting pan to prevent the dish from moving about during baking. Once you have placed the smaller dish inside the large roasting pan, hot water is poured into the larger pan until it reaches about halfway up the outside of the smaller dish containing the food. This is then placed in a slow oven. We do this because a water bath prevents delicate foods, like this bread pudding, from burning, drying out, or curdling (when a milk or egg mixture separates into its liquid and solid components). Just make sure to occasionally check the water level during the baking time, adding more hot water as necessary.

Clafoutis

Clafoutis (pronounced kla-foo-TEE) is a French country dessert hailing from the Limousin region. Clafoutis comes from the word ‘clafir’ which means ‘to fill’. Traditionally made with the first sweet cherries of the season and are left unpitted (kernels are said to add extra flavor while baking). An earthenware dish is buttered and then covered with a layer of stemmed cherries. A batter of eggs, flour, milk, and sugar (sometimes butter, flavorings, liqueur are also added) is then poured over the cherries. The consistency of the batter can be thin (like a pancake batter) to thick (cake-like). The assembled dish is then baked in the oven until the batter is puffed, set and nicely browned. Confectioner’s (powdered or icing) sugar is sprinkled over the top and it can be served with vanilla ice cream or softly whipped cream. It is best served warm.

Madeleines

Madeleines were made famous by Marcel Proust in his novel ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ in which he wrote: “She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines’, which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell……. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses….”.

Of course, after reading this passage we are all curious about and want to taste these little cakes. History dates their beginnings to the 18th century in the French town of Commercy, in the region of Lorraine. The story goes that a girl name Madeleine made them for Stanislaw Lezczynski, Duke of Lorraine, who loved them so much that he then gave some to his daughter, Marie, the wife of Louis XV. Their popularity grew from that point on and if we fast forward to today we know that they are now enjoyed in many countries around the globe. Madeleines are made with a genoise batter (sponge) which is a combination of butter, sugar, eggs, flour, and are traditionally flavored with lemon or orange flower water. What makes these little cakes so enticing is that the batter is poured into special oval shaped molds with ribbed indentations that gives them their classic shell shape. So whether you enjoy them plain or dipped in your tea or coffee, these small petit fours sec make the perfect afternoon treat.

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