Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Popovers: A Lot of Hot Air

I had quite the urge to bake popovers last week. Maybe it was the slight chill in the morning air that spelled the end of summer or maybe it was just my love of slathering butter on baked goodies but I had the urge to revisit a treat that I hadn't had for quite some time.

I remember looking forward to lunch at Neiman-Marcus a few years ago when I learned that popovers were always served at lunch. And not just any popovers but GIANT popovers.

Unfortunately, although they did have an impressive height, those dried out shells were not related to the popovers of my memory. The popovers I craved were tall yes, but the crisp exterior hid a custard interior that cried out for butter and sometimes jam as well.

Growing up, my mom would make popovers for the big meal of the week -- Sunday dinner. Sunday dinner was generally served around 1 p.m. on Sunday and the quantity of food prepared would ensure leftovers for the week -- even in my large family of seven.

I think part of what made popovers so special is that they really don't wait for anyone -- once they are out of the oven, they need to be consumed fast. They deflate quickly and lose any crispness that they might have had. Sure, recipes will instruct you to make them ahead for your dinner party then re-crisp them in the oven but trust me, the results dim next to popovers right out of the oven.

Mom baked them in clear custard cups set on a rimmed baking sheet. And she made just the basic popovers -- no fancy add-ins like Gruyere cheese or chives like you see in some cookbooks. Once they were ready, we all had to sit down immediately before their high hats deflated. I think there was a bit of the showman in my mom. We loved them though -- my brother and I could put away at least five each of those custardy goodies.

But big midday Sunday dinners don't happen at my house and fancy weeknight dinners don't happen much either. But I didn't want to wait for a special occasion to make them.

But one of the other great things about popovers is they are just as much at home on the breakfast table as on the dinner table.

And although popovers look like they are really hard to make -- nothing could be further from the truth -- although it is nice to blush and say, "oh it was nothing" when your dinner guests gush compliments at their appearance at your dinner party.

In fact, most popover recipes consist of just five ingredients -- flour, salt, eggs, milk and butter. It is hard to believe that a thin batter from just those four ingredients can pop up in the oven to almost triple their original height without help from any leavening agent.

The height is thanks to the steam released during baking to make what is really just a giant bubble.

Since I didn't have my mom's original recipe, I thought I would just pick a recipe from one of my many cookbooks. The first recipe I found looked pretty good but I kept looking. Then I felt like I was back in school trying to solve one of those horrid word problems (you know, "if a train leaves the station at 9 a.m and......) as I realized all the different variables that were possible.

It seems beyond those simple ingredients, almost every cookbook and every cook will give you "the secret" on just how to bake the combination of those simple five ingredients in order to achieve the maximum height.

Unfortunately, I found that the secret was different for each cook. The secret could be:
•only use a hot oven
•only use a cold oven
•start with a blast of heat in a hot oven then turn down to moderate oven
•preheat not only the oven but also the pan
•put batter in a cold pan
•all ingredients at room temperature
•it doesn't matter if the batter is chilled
•use a blender
•don't use a blender -- mix batter gently just until combined
•bake 50 minutes
•bake 20 minutes
•use a special pan made just for popovers called a popover plaque or gem pan
•use a muffin tin, no special pan needed
•only use whole milk
•use bleached flour
•let the batter stand for one hour
•use the batter immediately

You get the general idea!

As Dr. Seuss so eloquently put it in his poem, My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers,: "To eat these things, said my uncle, you must exercise great care."
Eating? Well, what about BAKING them?

Well, in the interest of once again enjoying popovers (and because I love a challenge) I tried five different batches of popovers using a combination of the above variables.

But although (most) of my popovers tasted good, they had no pop at all. Plus I had a hard time getting them to even pop out of the pan!

After scraping the last batch out of the muffin tin with the aid of elbow grease and an SOS pad, I decided to take charge and make up my OWN criteria.

Because I wanted to make these as a breakfast treat during the week, I needed a recipe that would be quick to mix and bake. To protect my sanity, I decided that my popover recipe had to have the following criteria:
•preheated oven
•no preheated pan
•ingredients would be chilled and sometimes I would even make the batter the night before then give it a quick whisk in the morning
•no special popover pan
•use unbleached flour because I always have it on hand
•use 1% milk or whatever I had on hand -- and I rarely had whole milk in the fridge
•no longer than 25-30 minutes to bake

I had glanced at the popover recipe in The Baker's Dozen Cookbook but dismissed it because the author used vegetable oil instead of butter -- that sounded unappealing to me. The recipe also called for vanilla which was unusual in a popover recipe.

But then I read the complete recipe again and read these words by well-known baker John Phillip Carroll who had created this particular recipe for this project, "The eggs and milk can be chilled or at room temperature; use unbleached or all-purpose flour. These variables won't make any difference in the popovers." And while he advocated the use of a popover pan he said, "don't let the lack of a pan stop you from bringing these delicate puffs of pastry into your life."

I liked his attitude!

And so using my criteria and his recipe, I had the chance once again to be a magician with only a few ingredients and a hot oven.

(and they really do look amazing baked in a special popover pan if you want to splurge for one!)

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