By: Ryan Hodros, Pastry Arts Student
One of the questions I often get asked is “Why did you go to pastry school? You’re already great at baking!” It’s true, while we were in the Navy, my wife Tressa and I spent all our free time baking. She instituted a “cupcake Monday” in her office to start everyone’s week off a little nicer, and my work was the highlight of the Thanksgiving Pie Sale.
That being said, there is a thick, black line between being able to follow a recipe and understanding baking science.
In my previous blog entry, I mentioned that I enjoy recipe development. To elaborate, this is where you play kitchen scientist in order to come up with your own recipe from scratch, or you take an existing recipe and change it in order to create the exact product you want. So if you absolutely must know what the fish ice cream from Iron Chef America tastes like, you can make that happen.
The simplest form of this is in scaling, known as “baker’s math.” The first week of pastry school consisted of pen-and-paper drills where you take a big recipe and make it small, or take a small recipe and make it big. Sounds scintillating, I know, but it gets interesting later on in the course when you start to realize that some ingredients don’t scale precisely the way you want them to, or when you find that you have to change an ingredient for whatever reason, and suddenly the recipe doesn’t work anymore.
"There is a thick, black line between being able to follow a recipe and understanding baking science."
Let’s say, for example, you want to make buttermilk pancakes. You go to your kitchen, but you’re out of buttermilk, all you have is 2%. Whatever, milk is milk right? They’ll taste a little different, but oh well. Except the only leavener in the recipe is baking soda, and you replaced the acidic buttermilk with non-acidic 2%. Now there’s nothing for the base to react to, and you’ll have giant hockey pucks.
Understanding how ingredients interact with one another allows you to fix all these problems, which is something professional bakers must be able to do. Plus, it frees you from the mounds and mounds of recipes that aren’t exactly what you want and allows you to create precisely the dessert your client is looking for. Do they like cookies big and fluffy? Flat and crispy? Ooey and gooey? If you understand the principles of baking science, you can do all of the above and more.
Can people figure this out for themselves? Possibly. But in pastry school, you’re given the resources, the time, and the expert advice that eliminates hundreds of hours of tedious trial-and-error and saves on waste.
As an example of fun with recipe development, I wanted to make Tressa cupcakes (her favorite dessert) for Valentine’s day. But we’re both watching our diets, so I didn’t want to use the recipe we had because it makes something like 36 cupcakes. So I messed around a little bit and now have a good “treat recipe” that makes eight or nine cupcakes, tastes exactly how we like them, and saves on both waste and waist.
Ryan’s Cupcake Treat Recipe
For the cake:
3 oz butter
3.5 oz sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 egg yolk
5 oz cake flour (you can use AP if that’s what you have, but the cake will have a tougher crumb)
7/8 teaspoon Baking Powder
4 oz milk
2 tsp vanilla
With a paddle attachment of your stand mixer, beat the butter with the sugar and the salt until it’s light and fluffy. Add the egg, egg yolk, and vanilla and beat until it’s incorporated.
Then add about 1/3 of the flour and mix until incorporated. IMPORTANT: Scrape the sides of your bowl often. It incorporates the flour faster, which leads to less gluten formation, which will make your cake more tender. Then add about half the milk and mix until combined. Then add another 1/3 of the flour and mix. Then the rest of the milk and mix. Then the rest of the flour and mix.
Portion the batter into cupcake liners (2/3 – 3/4 full) and bake at 375 until the cuppies don’t jiggle in the middle and spring back when you push on their middles with your finger. It should take about 15 minutes, but check at 10 just to be sure (different ovens heat things differently, and I don’t want to set your kitchen on fire).
For the frosting:
4 oz room temperature butter
4 oz cream cheese
1 cup (plus some) powdered or confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon flavor extract (optional)
This one’s easy. Cream the butter and the cream cheese together whatever way you prefer. I used the paddle attachment of my stand mixer. Then mix in the powdered sugar. You can use this as simple cream cheese frosting if you like, but if you want to spice things up, add the tablespoon of flavor extract. I used orange extract because Tressa likes citrus flavors. It’s important to note, however, that the flavor extract will probably make your frosting a little runny. When that happens, use the “plus some” powdered sugar noted above to bring the frosting back to the consistency it was at before you added the extract. (It’s worth noting that if you’re using something with huge flavor like cinnamon extract, you might want to add the flavoring bit by bit and taste it as you go. One Tablespoon has worked in every application I’ve tried so far, but do a little recipe development of your own and dial it in how you like.)
Once the cuppies are cool, put on the frosting and enjoy. If you want to be fancy, try putting the frosting in a big ziplock bag, seal it up, and snip a dime-sized hole in one corner. This makes a decent impromptu piping bag that can give your cuppies a little panache without needing piping tips.
I also sprinkled mine with pink sugar, because that’s pretty.