Better Baking Techniques For Better Desserts, Plus The Foolproof Pie Crust
This weekend's episode of Milk Street Kitchen challenges old-school baking practices to create a better flourless cake. And Chris learns how to make a foolproof, single-layer pie crust that's fit for one of the tastiest tarts around.
In this weekend's episode of Milk Street Kitchen, Christopher Kimball goes to London’s Violet Bakery to visit with rising pastry star Claire Ptak, and learns some of her baking techniques, like under-whipping egg whites for a lighter cake. He puts the practice to work, making chocolate, prune and rum cake with Milk Street Cook Mathew Card.
Then, Milk Street Cook Erika Bruce shows Chris how to make a brown sugar tart with their foolproof single-crust pie dough. Chris learns how a Japanese baking technique coupled with a cornstarch paste ended his 30-year search for a prebaked pie crust that won’t slump in the pan.
You can watch the episode here. And we've got the recipes below. Time to get in the kitchen and summon your inner baker!
Chocolate, Prune and Rum Cake
Claire Ptak’s chocolate, prune and whiskey cake is deliciously gooey at the center. A ratio of 3:1 chocolate to butter—as well as 8 ounces of chopped pitted prunes—got the Milk Street cooks the same results. They prefer bar chocolates with 60 to 70 percent cacao (especially the Ghirardelli and Guittard brands) to chocolate chips, which contain stabilizers that changed the cake’s texture.
Ptak uses almond flour—not an uncommon ingredient in flourless chocolate cakes like this, but certainly not a common ingredient in American homes. Milk Street reworked the cake a bit to leave it out and found the results just as good.
Adding the egg yolks and whites separately made a big difference, too. Whipping the yolks helps maintain the emulsion of chocolate and butter; skipping that step produced an unpleasantly dense cake. Ptak stressees the value of whipping the egg whites to soft peaks and just barely folding them into the batter.
She originally made this cake with Armagnac, then switched to whiskey. The team couldn’t easily find the former, and the latter—while delicious once the cake was cooled—tasted harsh when the cake was warm (and this cake begs to be eaten warm). Dark rum tasted delicious both warm or cool.
Start to finish: 1 hour and 20 minutes (30 minutes active), plus cooling
- 9 tablespoons salted butter (1 tablespoon softened)
- 8 ounces pitted prunes (about 11⁄2 cups), finely chopped 1⁄3 cup dark rum
- 1 tablespoon molasses
- 12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
- 6 large eggs, separated
- 1⁄3 cup plus 1⁄4 cup white sugar
- 1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt
Heat the oven to 325°F with a rack in the middle position. Coat the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan evenly with the tablespoon of softened butter.
In a 2-cup liquid measuring cup, combine the prunes, rum and molasses. Microwave until the rum is bubbling, 45 to 60 seconds. Let sit for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the remaining 8 tablespoons of butter. Remove from the heat and immediately add the chocolate, then whisk until melted and completely smooth. In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and 1⁄3 cup of sugar until pale and glossy, about 30 seconds. Slowly add the melted chocolate mixture and continue whisking until smooth. Stir in the prune mixture.
Using a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, whip the egg whites and salt on medium-high speed until light and foamy, about 1 minute. With the mixer run- ning, slowly sprinkle in the remaining 1⁄4 cup of sugar and continue to whip until the whites are thick and glossy and hold soft peaks, about 1 minute.
Whisk 1⁄3 of the whipped egg whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it. Gently fold in the remaining whites with a rubber spatula until the batter is marbled but not fully blended.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan. If needed, smooth the top with a spat- ula. Bake until the edges of the cake are firm and cracked, 35 to 40 minutes. The center will be just set, yet soft to the touch. Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack for at least 1 hour before serving (the cake will settle and sink as it cools).
Don’t over-bake this cake. Don’t be alarmed if the center still jiggles a bit and yields to gentle pressure; the cake will continue to set after it comes out of the oven.
Foolproof Single-Crust Pie Dough
Milk Street tried to speed up the chilling of the dough by popping it in the freezer, but that didn’t give the starch in the dough enough time to get sufficiently hydrated. An hour in the refrigerator was perfect. If they'd chilled it for more than a few hours it would need a few minutes on the counter to soften before rolling.
Start to finish: 2 1/2 hours (30 minutes active), plus cooling
Makes one 9-inch pie shell
- 3 tablespoons water
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 1 cup (5 ounces) plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1⁄4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 10 tablespoons salted butter, cut into 1⁄2-inch pieces and chilled 2 tablespoons sour cream
In a small bowl, whisk together the water and cornstarch. Microwave until set, 30 to 40 seconds, stirring halfway through. Chill in the freezer for 10 minutes.
Once the cornstarch mixture has chilled, in a food processor, combine the flour, sugar and salt and process until combined, about 5 seconds. Add the chilled cornstarch mixture and pulse until uniformly ground, about 5 pulses. Add the butter and sour cream and process until the dough comes together and begins to collect around the blade, 20 to 30 seconds. Pat the dough into a 4-inch disc, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 48 hours.
When ready to bake, heat the oven to 375°F with a rack in the middle position. On a well-floured counter, roll the dough into a 12-inch circle. Hang the dough over the rolling pin and transfer to a 9-inch pie pan. Gently ease the dough into the pan by lifting the edges while pressing down into the corners of pan. Trim the edges, leaving a 1⁄2-inch overhang, then tuck the overhang under itself so the dough is flush with the rim of the pan. Crimp the dough with your fingers or the tines of a fork, then chill in the freezer for 15 minutes.
To blind bake, line the chilled crust with foil and fill with pie weights. Bake until the edges are light golden brown, about 25 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through. Remove the foil and weights and bake until the bottom of the crust just begins to color, another 5 to 7 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack for 1 hour before filling. (Once baked and cooled, the crust can be wrapped in plastic wrap and kept at room temperature for up to 2 days.)
Don’t be tempted to skip the sour cream. It may seem like a small amount, but it’s key for a tender crust. Don’t skimp on the pie weights; use enough to come three-quarters of the way up the sides of the crust.
Brown Sugar Tart
Using just egg yolks in the custard resulted in a silkier, creamier texture than whole eggs, and adding flour prevented the tart from forming a skin on top. The Milk Street cooks wanted the brown sugar layer to be distinct from the custard layer but found that adding a few tablespoons of the sugar to the custard mixture rounded out the flavor. And while light brown sugar worked fine, they preferred the deep, more robust flavor of dark brown.
Start to finish: 13/4 hours (30 minutes active), plus cooling
- 1 recipe single-crust pie dough
- 8 tablespoons packed (99 grams) dark brown sugar 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
- 1⁄8 teaspoon kosher salt
- 4 large egg yolks
- 11⁄4 cups heavy cream
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Heat the oven to 375°F with racks in the middle and lowest positions. On a well-floured counter, roll the dough into a 12-inch circle. Wrap the dough loosely around the rolling pin and transfer to a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Gently ease the dough into the corners of the pan, then trim the edges flush with the pan rim. Freeze for 15 minutes.
Line the chilled tart shell with foil and fill with pie weights, then place it on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake on the oven’s lowest rack until the edges are light golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through. Remove the foil and weights, then bake until the bottom of the crust just begins to color, another 5 to 7 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 325°F.
In a medium bowl, combine 2 tablespoons of the sugar with the flour and salt. Add the yolks and whisk until combined. Add the cream and vanilla and whisk until smooth. Sprinkle the remaining 6 tablespoons of sugar over the warm crust and gently press into an even layer.
Slowly pour the custard over the sugar. Bake on the oven’s middle rack until the edges are set but the center jiggles slightly, about 25 minutes. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for at least 1 hour. Remove the outer metal ring and serve at room temperature.
New episodes of Milk Street Kitchen air every Saturday at 4pm on WGBH 2.