Photo courtesy of Vanilla From Tahiti
Not all ingredients are equal. Using vanilla extract is not the same as using a Tahitian vanilla bean. Chocolate with the cocoa butter replaced by vegetable fats not really chocolate at all. Beet sugar versus cane sugar? Go cane. Your ingredients are the building blocks of your desserts. If you start with subpar ingredients, your results won’t be much better. The different facets of like ingredients are explained here so can shop wisely.
French pastry uses sugar in many forms depending on the application. The most widely used form is white granulated sugar, technically known as sucrose. Sugar can come from two sources – sugar cane and sugar beets. Although they both have the same sweetening power they preform differently in the kitchen, most notably when making a caramel. When making a dry caramel on the stove the beet sugar will give an off-putting odor and will go from light caramel to burnt caramel very quickly. It has been my experience that cane sugar caramelizes much more slowly and evenly and all you smell is caramel. Look for “pure cane sugar” on the package.
Powdered Sugar – Powdered sugar is granulated sugar ground into a powder with a small amount of cornstarch added to prevent clumping. It is used when you want the sugar to dissolve into a batter, meringue or glaze. It can be sprinkled onto desserts as decoration.
Snow, Donut or No-Melt Sugars – These sugars can be sprinkled on cakes and pastries and will not dissolve over time like powdered sugar will. This is not a substitute for powdered sugar in recipes and is only used for decoration. It is composed of glucose, vegetable fats and starch.
Brown Sugar – Brown sugar is sugar with molasses. Molasses is a byproduct from refining sugar and can either be left in the sugar during refining or added back at the end (most commonly done) to make brown sugar. It is used mainly for its flavor.
Glucose – Glucose comes in a powdered and liquid form. It is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs water from its surroundings. Because of this function it is commonly used in ganaches to keep them moist. Powdered glucose can also replace up to one third of sugar in a dry caramel to absorb any moisture and keep the caramel hard for a longer period. Glucose has about half of the sweeting power of granular sugar. Liquid glucose can be substituted with corn syrup.
Invert Sugar – Invert sugar is also hygroscopic and is used in ganaches to help extend their shelf life and in baked goods to keep them extra moist. Invert sugar is 25% sweeter than regular granulated sugar. It is also known as Trimoline.
Honey – Honey is 25%-50% sweeter than granulated sugar. It is used for the flavor it lends recipes and is also hygroscopic, guarding water in recipes to keep them moist. In can be a substitute for invert sugar if you don’t mind the added flavor and sweetness.
First and foremost, always real butter. Substitutes like margarine or other butter-like spreads do not have the same flavor, nor the same physical properties (such as melting point) as butter and thus are not a substitute. Secondly, look for low moisture or “European style” butter. These butters contain less moisture than traditional butter and more fat, about 85% (versus 81%.) Usually in pastry we want to avoid excessive moisture, as it can shorten the shelf life of many products. Plus more fat offers more flavor.
Unsalted butter, otherwise known as “sweet cream butter,” is normally used in pastry however, in most instances using a salted butter will not adversely affect the recipe.
Many recipes will call for “softened” butter. This means the butter is not only just warmer than room temperature but also a spreadable consistency. The best way to soften butter is to put it in a mixing bowl with the paddle attachment and beat it at medium high speed. You can do the same with butter cream to get it to a piping consistency, even using a torch on the bottom of the bowl to speed up the process. It is not recommended to soften butter in the microwave because more often than not, part of the butter will softened and another portion will simply melt before you know it.
Melting butter can be done in the microwave or stovetop but just keep the heat low and stir. You want the butter in liquid form but not too hot that the solids separate out.
Dairy / Eggs
With dairy, the fresher the better.
Milk – All recipes in the book were created using whole milk. Do not substitute skim, 1% or 2%.
Cream – All recipes in the book were created using cream with 40% fat content. Do not substitute half and half.
Eggs – All recipes in the book were created using Grade A large eggs. Since we are weighing all the recipes it is easy to substitute any size egg, which is nice because if you buy full flavor, fresh farm eggs the sizes in a dozen can vary, sometimes dramatically. As a handy reference, one large egg weighs 50g. (The white is 30g and the yolk 20g.) If your eggs are smaller or larger, just mix some together and then scale out what you need.
Vanilla is available in many forms, from many origins and at many price points. This books uses beans and extract.
Vanilla Beans – Beans are expensive but you get more bang for your buck in flavor. When you buy beans you are getting 100% vanilla with no added sugar, gums or alcohol. I prefer Tahitian beans for their bold, yet elegant flavor but you can use others such as Bourbon or Madagascar. When using vanilla beans, slit them lengthwise down the side and use a paring knife to scrape the seeds into your preparation. Beans are most commonly used to flavor liquids, like dairy for a ganache, ice cream or crème brûlée. In that instance, toss the whole pod in after you scrape out the seeds for a little extra flavor. Afterwards you can pull the bean part out, wash it and dry it for use as a decoration. When buying beans make sure they are fresh. Look for moist, plump beans and avoid the single packed beans in the grocery store - because of their price point they tend to sit on the shelf awhile and dry out. I recommend buying beans at a spice store or online from a vanilla producer’s website. For the very best, try Vanilla From Tahiti.
Vanilla Extract – Extract is nice to have around for flavoring batters or finished creams where there is no liquid infusion. When making pastry cream you could infuse a bean into the milk in the beginning of the recipe. Or, let’s say you wanted to make multiple pastry cream flavors at once, you could make a plain pastry cream and after it was finished divide it into parts and flavor your vanilla portion with extract. Easy to use, less expensive but lacks the flavor intensity and complexity of a real bean and contains alcohol. Never buy any imitation vanilla flavoring. When in doubt, read the ingredients.
First off, never trust anyone that says they don’t like chocolate. It’s not possible! They just have yet to find the style that suits them. Chocolate comes from the cacao bean. The beans are fermented and roasted. What happens after that determines the final product. Roasted beans naturally contain cocoa butter in addition to the cocoa itself.
Cocoa Nibs – Nibs are broken pieces of the roasted cocoa beans. There is no sugar added so the flavor is slightly bitter. They add crunch and chocolate flavor to desserts and are often used as decoration.
Dark Chocolate – Dark chocolate is the cocoa bean ground and refined with an addition of sugar.
Milk Chocolate – Milk chocolate is the cocoa bean ground and refined with an addition of sugar and milk solids.
White Chocolate – White chocolate contains only the cocoa butter from the cocoa bean with an addition of sugar and milk solids.
Cocoa Powder – When cocoa beans are pressed under pressure the majority of the cocoa butter is expelled. What is left is a solid cocoa press cake with minimum fat content. This is ground to become cocoa powder. There is no sugar in cocoa powder. Cocoa powder is sold in its natural state or can be treated with an alkalizing agent to lower its acidity. Treated cocoa powders, also known as “Dutch Process” cocoa, have a darker color and a stronger cocoa flavor preferred in French pastry. All recipes in this book were prepared with dark alkalized cocoa powder. The higher acid content of natural cocoa is usually used in conjunction with baking soda, which is rarely used in French pastry.
Cocoa Butter – The fat removed from the cocoa bean is the cocoa butter. It is mostly added back to chocolate recipes to change the fat content and thus, the chocolate’s viscosity. It is also sold on its own and can be colored for decoration with chocolate work.
Percentages – Higher quality chocolate will list a percentage on the packaging. The percentage is the amount of ground and refined cocoa bean plus any added cocoa butter used. The remaining percent is the amount of sugar and milk solids. In the case of dark chocolate that does not contain milk solids, the remaining percentage would be sugar content. So an 80% dark chocolate bar would contain 20% sugar, while a 65% chocolate bar would contain 35% sugar. What we can get from this information is basically the 65% bar will be sweeter. What is not known is the portion of the 65% that is cocoa butter. Understanding how much cocoa butter is in your chocolate can be important when choosing chocolate for various applications. The more the cocoa butter, the more fluid the chocolate is when melted, but also the harder the chocolate is when solid. It is possible to contact the chocolate manufacturer to find out the cocoa butter percentage.
The recipes in this book use a 65% dark chocolate unless otherwise noted.
There are is an overabundance of chocolates to choose from these days. I encourage you to taste and experiment. My only word of advice is to avoid commercial brands found in your everyday supermarket. Buy your chocolate from a specialty store or online and never buy “chocolate” in which other fats have been added. Valrhona and Callebaut are both highly reputable brands readily available online.
Gelatin comes in two forms, sheet gelatin and powdered gelatin. Both need to be hydrated (or bloomed) in cold water before being melted to incorporate in a recipe. Most professional kitchens use sheet gelatin of medium strength (referred to as “silver”) but it is more expensive and harder to obtain for the non-restaurant owner. Thus all the recipes in this book specify powdered gelatin along with a quantity of cold water in which to bloom it in. The two forms are interchangeable by weight so feel free to use gelatin sheets.
NOTE: Gelatin sheets come in degrees of increasing gelling strength (Bronze to Silver to Gold) but as their strength increases the weight of the individual sheet decreases (3.3g to 2.5g to 2g.) For this reason you can use any strength of gelatin sheet when replacing the powdered gelatin by weight in these recipes.
Powdered Gelatin – To bloom powdered gelatin add it all at once to very cold water and stir quickly until there are no lumps and the gelatin starts absorbing the water. Let it sit five minutes to fully hydrate. The amount of water used is five times the weight of the gelatin. As the cold water is absorbed into the gelatin, it becomes a solid mass which can be melted down and added to your recipe.
Sheet gelatin – To bloom sheet gelatin place sheets one by one, so they do not stick together, in plenty of very cold water. If your tap water is not so cold add a couple of ice cubes. Warm water will melt the sheets instead of hydrating them. After about five minutes the sheets will be soft and bendable like a washcloth. Remove them from the water, squeeze out any excess water and place them in a bowl to melt.
If you want substitute sheet gelatin with powdered gelatin in these recipes you can do so by weight one to one. If using 4g of powdered gelatin you will need to bloom it with the listed amount of water. If you use 4g of sheets (you can break them to use a partial sheet) ignore the water listed in the recipe and use enough cold water to submerge the sheets. Excess water not absorbed will be rung out.
Fruit purées are often used for mousses and coulis. A fruit purée is just that – puréed fruit. There should be no additives such as sugar or water, thus fruit juice is not a proper substitute. In a pinch you could viably purée your own strawberries or blueberries and strain out the seeds and skins. But what you really want here are commercial purées where the fruit is harvested, processed and frozen at the source. These purées are always consistent in natural sugar content, acidity and flavor, which is important when incorporating into a recipe. Since they are frozen, you can buy several flavors to have on hand and use as much as you need at a time without waste. Also great for cocktails!
I highly recommend the French brands Boiron and Ravifruit and The Perfect Purée out of California. The problem with ordering these online is the cost of shipping, as they are frozen and need to be sent overnight. If you cannot get these frozen purées it is possible to purée your own fresh, canned or frozen fruit. Make sure to strain out all the seeds and pulp but keep any liquid that comes with them. If using canned, look for fruit canned in its own juices and not in heavy syrup.
French pastry has always been heavy on the use of nuts, specifically almonds and hazelnuts. Nuts add flavor and fat. The fat content can cause nuts to go rancid after long periods of time or if stored in a warm environment. The best storage option is the freezer. If you don’t have room in your freezer be sure you keep your stock fresh.
Toasting Nuts – Toasting nuts enhance flavors and facilitates the removal of skins. It is better to toast nuts at a lower temperature for a longer time than at a higher temperature. At lower temperatures the toasting is more even throughout the nut. Toast nuts in a single layer in a 300°F (150°C) oven for about 10 minutes or until the nuts become fragrant and lightly browned. Although most nuts are toasted before use, pistachios are usually not. To remove skins from peanuts or hazelnuts, place the cooled nuts in a tami (or drum) sifter and rub them against the wire mesh.
Blanched Nuts – Blanched nuts have had their skins removed and for that reason are more expensive than nonblanched. Skins add bitterness (sometimes wanted and sometimes not) and color. If you are making macarons or a joconde biscuit for a décor collar on an éntremet, you want to use blanched for a cleaner look without flecks of the skins.
Nut Meals – Meal is a word used for finely ground nuts. It has many uses in French pastry - in cakes, macarons, and dacquoise. The phrase “Tant Pour Tant” means equal parts by weight nuts and sugar.
Nut Pastes – Hazelnut paste is widely used in French pastry. It is available unsweetened or sweetened. For consistency, only unsweetened hazelnut paste (sometimes referred to as hazelnut “butter”) is used in these recipes and contains 100% hazelnuts. When storing hazelnut paste, the nut oils will separate out and float to the top. Make sure you mix them back together before measuring. Almond paste is also a popular ingredient. When referring to almond paste it almost always contains sugar. Look for products with about 65% almonds and 35% sugar. Marzipan is almond paste but with more sugar, therefore the almond flavor is much less pronounced. Do not substitute marzipan for almond paste. Pistachio paste is also very popular. This is more difficult to find outside of France, even on the commercial level. To make your own simply place shelled pistachios in a food processer and let it do its thing. It will take ten minutes or more to get a paste consistency and you will have to scrape down the sides of the food processor periodically. If making your own paste I suggest making more than called for in the recipe and storing any extra in the freezer for future use. You can use this method to make your own paste out of most nuts, although the pastes you buy will have a finer texture.
Color is widely used in French pastry, especially for the famed macaron! Not all colorants these days are made from yellow #5 and red #3. There are a wide variety of natural food colors extracted from plants on the market. When using colorants it is necessary to choose a type based on your application.
Fat Soluble Colors (liposoluble) – Used to color a primarily fat based solution such as chocolate. These are mostly found mixed with cocoa butter that can then be added to other fatty mediums.
Water Soluble Colors (hydrosoluble) – Used to color a primarily water based solution such as egg whites for macarons or cake batters. Professionally they are mostly in powdered form and highly concentrated (wear gloves) but are also available in paste and liquid forms that are less intense. Most food colors on the market are water soluble.
For the purpose of the book you can add color until you reach your desired look. For more consistency it is recommended to use a microscale that measures in increments of 0.01 grams for powdered colors. Note that most colors fade after being baked in the oven.
Pailleté feuilletine is essentially very thin, flaky dehydrated crepes. Its main purpose is to give texture. If you cannot find it, a good substitution would be crushed fortune cookies. In a pinch you could also substitute corn flakes.