day twenty-four - the last class and everything you have always wanted to know about popovers

Note: For six weeks, July 5 - August 11, I will be enrolled in the culinary arts cooking and pastry/baking certificate programs at Boston University. Cooking is Monday and Tuesday, baking is Wednesday and Thursday. We have to keep a daily journal of the experience, so I'll be blogging about the class every day.

And then there were none. Classes. And then there were none classes.

Let's get this last post out of the way so we can get back to the recipes, eh? It's been a month of these journal entries. Over a month? When did these start? What's going on? How do I make corn and pepper soup? (That's the first recipe when we get back to the recipes on this blog probably).

So, for the last baking class we had to make a pre-1900 recipe as well as a modern version. We actually had to to do this for cooking as well, but times three. For that I made German/Dutch baby pancakes, Welsh rabbit and green bean soup. The pre-1900 version of the pancakes: disgusting. Plech. Like the sweetest, wettest, slimiest omelette you've ever had. The modern version? Delicious! Both rabbits/rarebits were perfectly delicious. The old time green bean soup was fine, just a little flavorless. The modern one was better.

Anyway, so I made popovers for baking. The old version was a 3-2-1 recipe, with 3 cups of flour, 2 cups of milk and 1 cup of water. They also had one egg and a bit of salt. They were...not good. They were very dense and moist and not delicious at all. There was certainly no popping over going on.

The new version: delicious! Very popovers! So we had to make the two versions in class and then everyone tasted them while each person gave a little history of the dish. Do you want to learn about popovers? Of course you do! Let me tell you about them!

As Harold McGee explains in his book Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes, “Popovers are irregular, muffin-shaped, hollow pastries made from a batter like crepe batter, but cooked in metal cups in a hot oven. The bottom, top and sides set while the inner batter forms steam and expands, pushing the top up.” The name comes from the dramatic rise of the top dome that “pops over” the top edge of the muffin tin.

Popovers are a derivative of Yorkshire pudding; the only difference being that popovers are poured into individual baking tins while Yorkshire pudding is baked in one pan. Indeed, many of the early popover recipes are savory, containing meat, meat drippings and spices. A 1903 recipe recommends baking popovers under a roast of beef cooking on a grate so that the drippings can fall into the popover batter. Those that were less savory were often found in the breakfast section of the cookbooks I researched: the recipe I used referred to popovers as “breakfast muffins.” The Journal Cook Book from 1889, on the other hand, refers to them as “Popovers or Laplanders.”

Why is a popover pan, as opposed to a muffin tin, necessary? While a muffin tin will do, McGee explains that metal pans with deep, well-separated cups encourage even heating and rising. Beth Hensperger and Chuck Williams, in their book Bread, say that the deep popover pan allows “more room for the crown to expand properly into a dramatic dome.” Popovers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries tended to be made in cast iron popover or gem pans (pans for making small cakes or muffins). Today, most of the popover pans available are made of a thick layer of steel coated in nonstick coating.

There are a few other constants that seem to have become the norm when making popovers. First: popovers must be made in a pan that has been properly heated before the batter is added. Piper Davis, in The Grand Central Baking Book, describes how her grandmother was a devotee of Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook, which called for pouring the batter into a “hissing-hot” pan, a direction with which Davis agrees. The historic recipe I used insists the pan should be “smoking hot.” This aspect of the recipe isn’t universal, however: I found many recipes that call for starting the popovers in a cold oven.

Second: one shouldn’t open the door when making popovers. As Harold McGee explains in his classic On Food and Cooking, “oven spring” is the reason why a popover “pops.” As the steam in the popover escapes from the batter, it condenses on the surface of the dough, keeping the popover from setting too quickly and conducting and transferring heat more effectively – contributions to “oven spring.” When the oven door is open, steam escapes the oven, which inhibits oven spring.

Finally, everyone seems to agree that eating them directly out of the oven is the best.

So, it was a very nice, relaxed class, with a variety of dishes, including biscuits, rice pudding, peanut brittle, bread pudding, shortbread and maybe more things or maybe I remembered all of them. It could be either one.

And how did we end? We ended the best way possible: with some Root. So, the night before I had been talking in class about how I couldn't find Root anywhere and how I ask every liquor store I go to if they have it and nobody has even heard of it and it's been a year and I haven't been able to find it. And my friend and classmate Kate said she had the same problem. Life is so tough! We can't find this liquor!

So we were talking about it and our amazing assistant chef, Chef Robyn, was like, "Bleep bleep bloop," on her cell phone, I'm pretty sure that's how cell phones sound, and 30 seconds later was like, "They are getting a shipment of a few bottles tomorrow in Framingham."

WHAT! I couldn't find this stuff for over a year and she found it in 30 seconds. And, to boot, she said she would swing by and pick some up for our final class. WHAT! I have been looking for over a year! I was sure it wasn't going to actually be Root or something would go wrong but, when we walked into class, she had it, in her possession! How was it possible! I was almost afraid to touch it!

So I waited all class long so we could taste it, finally taste it. And it was so worth it. It was amazing - so smooth, with the distinct taste of root beer, but no sweetness, just that kick of the booze. I can't wait to start making some cocktails with it. I got home and had a glass, on the rocks, to celebrate. 

Because it was all over. Six weeks, twenty-four classes, over a hundred pages of written papers and essays, over twelve hours of video lectures, so many dishes, so many cuisines, so many meals. All done!

This weekend the blog goes back to recipes!

Thanks for reading.