Thursday, July 31, 2014

The recipes you crave with personalities you love

If you enjoy my content, but can’t stand my personality, I have great news. I have been chosen to beta test a technological breakthrough from Google called Personality Personalization (PP). This feature allows you to watch any of my YouTube videos in a different personality mode. For now, there are 3 personalities to choose from.  Check it out:

YouTube Link: YouTube Personalities
More Videos: Helen's Kitchen Channel

Friday, July 25, 2014


I have advice for your first attempt at eclairs or any other component based French dessert.  Don't try to do all the components in 1 day.  Bake the shells and freeze them.  They are just as good if you pop them in the oven to re-crisp for 5 minutes.  Make pastry cream some other day.  It will be happy in the fridge for a couple of days.  The day you are ready to assemble your eclairs, make sure you are equipped with at least twice as much heavy cream as diplomat cream calls for.  In case you over-whip your first batch of cream, you'll have a back up.  Now all you have left is ganache, and even I won't tell you that it's hard.  Ganache is indeed easy-peasy.

In case you are wondering what corn syrup is doing in ganache, let me explain.  We are using ganache as a glaze and although we want it to solidify in the fridge, we want it to stay soft and maintain a light sheen.  If ganache is left to its own devices it will become hard and the texture balance of the eclair will be off.

Makes about 16 eclairs, 5" long

1 recipe pate a choux baked into eclair shapes
1 recipe diplomat cream
1 recipe ganache (see below)


Note: you can buy the chocolate in chip form to save the time chopping it.

4 oz bittersweet chocolate (55%-65%), chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 Tbsp light corn syrup

In a small saucepan, bring the heavy cream just to a simmer or microwave it in a bowl.  Take of heat.  Add the chocolate and syrup and let sit for 5 minutes.  Whisk until smooth.  Make this right before using since it's not easy to reheat.  If you do have leftover ganache, warm it up over a bowl of hot water whisking constantly.

With a sharp paring knife, poke a 1/2 inch hole in each end of eclairs.  Cover one hole with your finger and pipe diplomat cream into the other hole using a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2 inch tip (or smaller).  The exact size doesn't matter.  As long as the tip fits the hole, you are fine.  You'll know you put in enough cream when the finger covering the other hole can feel the cream.  Dunk each eclair into ganache and refrigerate for about an hour to let ganache set.  Keep refrigerated before serving.  Ideally, serve in less than 6 hours to prevent the pastry shell from softening too much, but they should hold for up to 24 hours.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Medium-rare Burgers (Video)

YouTube Link: Medium-rare Burgers (grilled or seared)
More Videos: Helen's Kitchen Channel

Burgers in the oven?  Don't knock it till you try it.  I wish I could take credit for this brilliant method, but it was inspired by Kenji Alt's slow roasted steak method that was published in Cook's Illustrated in 2007.  It became a master technique for how I cook all meat to medium-rare.

How does this weird method work?
For even doneness, we want to do most of our cooking with air and not with metal or flame.  Metal is a great conductor of energy and air is not.  By transferring the energy to the burgers slowly using air, we ensure perfectly even cooking.  If we put the burgers directly on a baking dish, they'll be in touch with a metal object which will cook the bottom faster than the top.  It will also make the bottom surface damp since the moisture won't have a chance to evaporate and this will inhibit browning during the grilling or searing stage.  Since the burgers are thinner than the steak Kenji's recipe was optimized for (1 inch vs. 1.5 inches), I drop the oven temperature from 275F to 200F to ensure even cooking.

What's the fat percentage of the ground beef?
In the video, I am working with 85/15 from Whole Foods.  Ideally, it would be 80/20, but my health obsessed Whole Foods in MA doesn't carry it.  I've seen in at Whole Foods in other states.  Of course, I can stop by a regular supermarket and pick up 80/20 beef, but for medium-rare burgers, I choose my source of beef very carefully.  To tell you the truth, I think I got cheated out of some fat by Whole Foods this time.  85/15 means that it's at most 15% fat, so the actual percentage will vary batch to batch.  I could barely feel any fat on my hands as I was shaping.  Not a good sign.  But this method is so forgiving, even lean ground beef will taste good.

July 22 update on safety
Ever since this post, I've been getting a lot of e-mail about the terrible danger of my burgers, so here is the scoop on safety.

There is a difference between a med-rare burger and a med-rare steak. Bacteria is only found on the outside of the muscle and when a steak is seared, they die instantly. So if you like your meat cold inside, you are not taking any risk eating it that way. However, after you grind the meat, some of that bacteria ends on the inside, so an under-cooked burger is a tad risky. The question is how big is this "tad." You take plenty of risks every day. Driving is probably one of the biggest for an average civilian. How many people do you know who were injured in a car accident? How many people do you know that were injured with a med-rare burger? Of course, you could argue that you drive more often than you eat a burger. But let's look at some numbers. An average annual death toll from E. Coli is in the low 20s. An average annual death toll from automobile related accidents is more than 30,000. So in the grand scheme of things, that burger is unlikely to significantly change your risk of getting hurt.

To reduce the risk further, you could grind your own meat. This way, the grinder touches only a few pounds instead of a few hundred pounds of meat, which will reduce the risk of cross-contamination. You could take it even further and briefly sear the meat on the outside before grinding thus killing most of the bacteria.

Besides e coli, there are other, not so dangerous bacteria that grow on meat when it decomposes. My conclusion is to buy meat at a reputable place, keep everything (meat, grinder, bowls) extremely cold, and stop worrying.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Diplomat Cream

Fold whipped cream into pastry cream and you get diplomat cream.  I don't know how this pastry filling got its name, but I can tell you that if you arm yourself with some diplomat cream all conflicts would melt away because everyone would be too busy swooning and licking their fingers.  It's one of those fabulous kitchen marriages where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Use it to fill cream puffs, eclairs, fresh fruit tarts, brioche style cakes, or just layer if with fresh fruit and leftover cake for a beautiful trifle.

Diplomat Cream

Important: Don't reuse the bowl or whisk after whipping cream to whip your pastry cream!  I once made that mistake and the remaining whipped cream that was clinging to the bowl and whisk turned to butter and made the pastry cream grainy.  

Fold about one third of the whipped cream into the pastry cream to lighten it.  Then fold the rest of the whipped cream in.  The proportions are not set in stone.  You can adjust the ratio of whipped cream to pastry cream to your liking and application.  Use immediately or store in the fridge.  Best if used the day it's made.  It will start to thin out after sitting in the fridge for more than 24 hours.

The Easiest Stabilized Whipped Cream

Whipped cream is as easy to make as it is to ruin. What could possibly go wrong with a recipe that has 1 ingredient and take about 1 minutes of work? If you over-beat it by as much as 5 seconds, it can become grainy and there is no going back. If you let it sit in the fridge longer than a couple of hours, it will become runny. 

The remedy for over-whipped cream is yet to be found, but there is a solution for the gradual thinning out.  For years I've been stabilizing whipped cream with gelatin when using it for icing, but it's a finicky procedure and a pain if you just need a bit of whipped cream as a topping. Gelatin poses another little issue. Gelatin is a meat product, and as I was testing diplomat cream recipes for my upcoming Pate a Choux class, I wanted to find a way to do without gelatin so that my vegetarian students wouldn't miss out. I've tried all sorts of tricks with variable level of success. But none were as tasty or as easy as Nancy Silverton's technique of adding a small dollop of creme fraiche.

The first benefit of this little addition is that cream became easier to thicken without over-whipping.  Most professionals use extra heavy cream.  The higher fat content helps the cream thicken before it over-whips giving you a larger margin of error.  Unfortunately, I can't find extra heavy cream in stores.  I read an explanation of this technique saying that creme fraiche helps because of its higher fat content.  This might be true, but I couldn't find a way to verify that since the differences are slight and nutritional information on the packages is rounded.  I did however notice that my cream wasn't over-whipping in a split second, which made me happy.  The added tang from creme fraiche is delightful.  It's actually a tastier whipped cream!  And after 24 hours in the fridge, it didn't thin out one bit.  It might have lasted longer, but we ate it all.

For icing a cake, I would still use the gelatin or Rose Levy Beranbaum's corn starch technique, to ensure your icing won't start running at room temperature.  But for most other purposes, this whipped cream is my go to recipe.

Creme-Fraiche-Stabilized Whipped Cream

1 cup cold heavy cream
1/4 cup cold creme fraiche

Chill the bowl and whisk style beater in the fridge for at least 15 min.  Everything needs to be very cold. Warm cream doesn't whip.

For 1 cup or less, I prefer to use the whisk attachment of my immersion blender or some other hand mixer since the KitchenAid stand mixer is not great with small quantities of whipped cream.

Combine heavy cream and creme fraiche in a cold bowl and beat on low speed until small bubbles form on the surface.  Gradually increase speed to high and beat until the cream thickens and the whisk leaves trails in it.  Err on the side of softer rather than firmer cream.  Scrape the bowl with a rubber spatula to redistributed the cream and make sure the bottom of the bowl is not runny.  If the cream is too runny, finish beating it on medium-low speed.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

ThermoPop -- great thermometer for $25

I am not a type of cook who spends her disposable income right and left at William and Sonoma. Most students are pleasantly surprised when they find out how much my pots, pans, and knives cost. But I always get a bit embarrassed when they ask me about meat thermometers. I used to use flimsy little digital thermometers from Taylor and Maverick that cost $15. They were functional, but infuriating. The electronics were flimsy and the display would sometimes flicker. They took as long as 15 seconds to come up to temperature once you stick them into something. They have a thick probe that is hard to stick into meat.

One day, Jason surprised me with a Thermopen for my birthday. It's $100. "What an extravagance for a thermometer," I thought. But I am addicted and can't go back. The temperature stabilizes 3 seconds after you are in the meat. The probe has a slender tip that goes into meat like it was butter. The body is water resistant. Using this thermometer is pure joy.

You can imagine my excitement when Thermoworks put out a $25 version called ThermoPop. With all the features of Thermopen, but slightly toned down precision and response time. It should stabilize in 5-6 seconds and the reading should be within 2 degrees Fahrenheit. The range is still huge -58 to 572°F.  I ordered one right away.  I tested it in a glass of water against my expensive Thermopen at 40F, 100F, 120F, and 160F.  I got the same reading on both the $100 and $25 thermometers.  The difference in response time was negligible.  Thermopop was a couple of seconds behind.

Don't be surprised if the readings you get when you turn both of your thermometers on is quite different.  They are not designed to measure air temperature.  The cheapy ThermoPop stabilizes very slowly in air and was 5 degrees higher than Thermopen.  Not that I would trust Themopen with air either.

At this point, I don't know how well Thermopop will hold up.  I'll try to give you an update in a year (or earlier if it breaks ;)

12 inch Winco Stainless Steel Skillet

It took me a long time to buy a 12 inch stainless steel skills -- 5 years to be precise.  It wasn't for lack of trying.  When we moved from our little condo into our current house 5 years ago, I thought that I'll finally have space for a few large pans.  But after trying a number of 12 inch skillets, I realized that large pans came with a few unexpected problems.

Problem 1: They are not as large as they look.
Pans are sold by the size of the diameter from rim to rim.  The cooking surface depends on how sloped the sides are.  I found that many brands like to slope the sides so much that the cooking area of a 12 inch pan is barely larger than that of a 10 inch pan.

Problem 2: The bottom warps causing the oil to go to the sides.
Many large pans tend to warp a bit as they heat up forming a slight bump in the center of the pan.  This causes the oil to flow towards the sides and the food doesn't cook evenly.

I gave up on the idea of finding a 12 inch skillet and was happy with a few 10 inch skillets instead until I walked into China Fair in Newton.  I saw a large, thick, and heavy Winco pan with an oven-safe handle and it had my name all over it.  For $60 it was too good not to try.  Turns out I didn't need to spend $60.  It's available on Amazon for $40!  So before I tell you about the virtues of this pan, I want to remind you to do as I say, not as I do -- buy your cooking equipment on-line.  Why didn't I take it back even though I haven't even unpacked it?  Because China Fair doesn't take anything back even in its packaging.  The whole reason I was going to this store was to see what the hype was all about.  Everyone in Boston loves China fair and it's hard to get a good feel for the store without buying something.  Considering their prices, I think the return policy is unacceptable and customer service and knowledge about equipment was non-existent.

Enough about China Fair, let's talk about the pan.


  • Large cooking area that's almost twice as large as a 10 inch pan.
  • Even heat distribution.
  • Excellent browning.  By the way, don't listen to a few people on Amazon who say that food sticks.  They don't know how to cook.  The pan and oil need to be hot, the protein needs to be thoroughly dried, and it should't be disturbed until it browns.  It behaves like any other stainless steel pan
  • The handle is oven safe up to 450F.
  • Affordable price
  • The pan is heavy.  It doesn't bother me, but if you don't like heavy pans, this one is not a good option.
  • The silicon handle stops pretty far from the pan.  My guess is that it's to protect it from heat on restaurant burners.  It's not a biggie.  I just use a towel or mitt to help myself lift it when it's full and hot.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Pastry Cream

Pastry Cream is the mirepoix of desserts.  Just like the sweated mixture of carrots, celery, and onions is more functional than delicious in and of itself, so is pastry cream.  Pastry cream might not taste like much, unless you think vanilla pudding is exciting, but it's one step away from becoming a fabulous filling with the addition of chocolate, praline, whipped cream, or butter.  I have a soft spot for diplomat cream: pastry cream with folded in whipped cream.  Add a little ganache to that and it's a wicked chocolate mousse.  The possibilities are endless and can be whipped up in minutes once you get your pastry cream right.

Last week, I made batch after batch of pastry cream until I got the answer to the persistent pastry cream questions that were bothering me for years.

Flour or Cornstarch?
Cornstarch!  The pastry cream made with all flour had a starchy taste after chilling even though I cooked it for 8 minutes to help get rid of that unpleasant taste.  The only downside to cornstarch is that you can't freeze the cream, but pastry cream takes 10 minutes and can be made 2 days ahead, so I don't see a reason to freeze it unless you run a wholesale pastry business.  A mixture of cornstarch and cake flour works well too, but not everyone has cake flour on hand.

Is it ok to cut down on sugar?
Messing with amounts of ingredients is a recipe for disaster when it comes to pastry, but in this case the amount of sugar is flexible.  I cut it down a bit and nothing terrible happened.  You can even skip it completely if folding in a very sweet flavoring, like dulce de leche.  

Why does my pastry cream thin out after sitting in the fridge?
This is a classic beginner mistake.  Intuitively, overcooking a custard seems wrong, so I always waited just until my cream thickened and took it off the heat.  Turned out that was a big mistake.  Amylase enzyme present in eggs gradually breaks down the starch and thins out the pastry cream.  But this enzyme can be destroyed if the pastry cream is allowed to simmer for a few minutes.  How can you let a custard simmer without curdling it?  That's where the starch comes in.  It interferes with cross-linking of egg proteins and doesn't allow them to coagulate.  How lucky is that?

Vanilla Bean or Extract?
I know some people obsess over the little specs of real vanilla, but I don't feel that it's a deal breaker to use vanilla extract in pastry cream if it is one of many components of a dessert.  When I was doing my tests, I certainly wasn't going to sacrifice $50 worth of vanilla beans, so I used extract.  When I finally got a perfect batch of diplomat cream (pastry cream with whipped cream), I filled some eclair shells with it, dunked them into ganache and my husband proclaimed them the best eclairs even without the real vanilla bean.  I suggest you don't waste real vanilla beans on your first try, but once you get the hang of pastry cream, go for the bean.

Do you need to strain the pastry cream?
Most recipes instruct you to strain the custard before heating it up.  The reason for that is the presence of chalazae in the egg yolks.  They are white cordlike strands of egg white protein attached to the yolk that can't completely dissolve.  Straining is always the safest way to go, but unless you are making a huge batch, you can easily fish them out with a little fine mesh skimmer before cooking the sauce. 

Egg Yolks or Whole Eggs?
I've tried pastry creams with all yolks, all whole eggs, and a mixture of the two.  All yolks didn't make it much tastier, but required more work to separate all those yolks.

How careful do I need to be when tempering the eggs?
Most pastry cream recipes starts by scaring you into thinking that the eggs can scramble if you look at the them crooked.  And most recommend to pour the hot dairy in slowly.  The conscientious person that I am, I drizzled all of my milk/cream mixture in a tiny little stream thinking better safe than sorry.  Turns out this was creating a problem.  The dairy cooled off so much during my drizzling that it took 10 minutes to return it back to a boil.  No matter how carefully I was to stir the cream, it would often start to ooze out fat and look like broken mayo.  The reality is that unless you dump the entire pot of boiling dairy into fridge cold eggs without stirring, they won't scramble -- the cornstarch won't let them.  You should warm the eggs up with a splash of hot diary, but from then on, proceed without fear.  Dump the eggs into the boiling dairy all at once and you'll be 1 minute away from nice thick cream.  

Pastry Cream
This is the most foolproof recipe for pastry cream that I found.
Adopted from Rose Levy Beranbaum's Pie and Pastry Bible.

2 large eggs (100 grams weighed without the shell)
4 Tbsp corn starch (32 grams)
242 g whole milk (1 cup)
242 g cream (1 cup)
1/2 cup sugar (100 grams)
1/2 Vanilla bean, split lengthwise (or 1 and 1/2 tsp vanilla extract added in the end)
Pinch of salt
3 Tbsp unsalted butter (42 grams), cut into 3 pieces
  1. Line a small baking sheet (roughly 13"x9") with plastic wrap.  Have a fine mesh strainer set over a bowl ready near the stove.
  2. Whisk the eggs and cornstarch in a small bowl until completely smooth. 
  3. Place the milk and cream in a heavy 2-quart saucepan. It's best to either use a pan with rounded sides or get a French whisk (also known as Piano whisk) -- it's more narrow and gets into the corners of the pot better.
  4. Whisk ¼ cup or the milk/cream mixture into the egg mixture until smooth and the cornstarch is dissolved. 
  5. Add the sugar, vanilla bean if using, and salt to the saucepan with cream/milk. Bring the mixture to a full boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. 
  6. Whisk 3 tbsp. of the hot milk/cream mixture into the egg mixture. Strain this mixture through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl. 
  7. Remove the vanilla bean and return the milk/cream to a boil over medium heat.
  8. Quickly add the egg mixture to the milk/cream mixture and whisk rapidly. The sauce should thicken. Bring to a boil while whisking. Once in a while pause for a couple of seconds to see if you got a boil. Then cook whisking vigorously for 30 seconds. 
  9. Remove from the heat. Whisk in vanilla extract if using instead of vanilla beans and the butter 1 piece at a time until completely incorporated.
  10. Immediately pour the pastry cream into a plastic lined baking sheet and lay a piece of plastic wrap on the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Allow the pastry cream to cool to room temperature, about 1 hour, then refrigerate overnight. 
  11. Before using, beat with a whisk to smooth out, but don't over-do this step as the cream can thin out.

My pastry cream is grainy
This doesn't happen with this recipe, since we are tempering the eggs.

My pastry cream is greasy and looks like broken hollandaise
This is usually due to the cream overcooking in places.  The usual culprits are: 1) the heat is too high 2) not enough sauce in the pan -- choose a pan that will result in a thick layer of cream 3) not bringing the sauce to the boil quickly enough -- once you tempered the eggs, don't be afraid to dump them into the boiling milk/cream mixture all at once

My pastry cream thins out after sitting in the fridge
You didn't cook it long enough.  After the bubbles start breaking the surface, it needs at least 30 seconds of cooking (a bit more is always safer).  Otherwise the eggs break down the starch.

My pastry cream is very stiff and not creamy after it sits in the fridge
This is perfectly normal.  Remember that it needs whipping before use.