A test kitchen cook's tricks to master 5 of the most challenging desserts
Even if you are experienced in the kitchen, there are always a few recipes that can throw you off your game. I went to culinary school, I've worked in restaurants and bakeries, and I've been testing and developing recipes for six years in the EatingWell Test Kitchen-and still I struggle with a few things. For me, they mostly involve desserts, because a dessert is often less forgiving if you make a mistake. There's no magic fix if your chocolate mousse deflates or you overbake a meringue. Sometimes the challenges stem from trying to make dessert a little healthier-as is the case with pie crust. Fortunately, along the way I've learned a few helpful lessons from my mistakes. Below are 5 recipes that used to trip me up, but I've since learned to master. With the help of some insider tips, I now end up with spectacular results, and so can you!
What's my secret to perfect crepes? Throw the first one away. Yup, that's right. The first crepe you make has a reputation for being ugly and deformed for everybody. It's not just you. Don't flinch, just throw it away (or better yet, eat it: it may be ugly but it still tastes good). After the first one, the pan should be hot enough and well oiled for the rest of the crepe making. (If it's perfect, congratulations! Keep it and move on.) Also, make sure your batter is thin enough. It should be much thinner than pancake batter so it can quickly coat the pan with a paper-thin layer. If it isn't, add a couple tablespoons of water.
Recipes to Try: 10 Simple Crepe Recipes
2. Chocolate Mousse
The ideal chocolate mousse is smooth, silky and lump-free, but it's not always easy to get there. The challenges with chocolate mousse are twofold. First, you're dealing with eggs, which can scramble when you heat them. In mousse you're using whites and whole eggs. The whole egg adds richness to the base of your mousse and also thickens it. To avoid getting cooked scrambled eggs, whisk constantly over moderately low heat. The same goes for the egg whites that you'll be whipping up for that light, airy texture. The egg whites are cooked in a double boiler (or over a pot of barely simmering water) rather than on the stove, which helps temper the heat, but isn't foolproof. Keep the water in your double boiler at a bare simmer to prevent the egg whites from overcooking.
The second challenge of making mousse involves the chocolate. When you're melting chocolate, keep it away from any water. When melted chocolate comes into contact with water, it quickly forms a gritty, rough mass of chocolate (that's called seizing). So watch out for splashes from your double boiler-and never put a lid over the chocolate. Those condensation drops are dangerous! Lastly, keep the heat low so you don't melt the chocolate too quickly. Otherwise it can break and separate.
Recipe to Try: EatingWell's Chocolate Mousse
3. Lattice-Top Pie Crust
Making great pie crust can be challenging, but turning some of the dough into a lattice for the top of a pie really ups the ante. You're taking fragile dough and instead of just plopping it in the pan, you're cutting it into delicate strips and then weaving them into a pretty pattern. Here are a few tips: If it's hot and humid, your dough may be sticky. Keep your work surface lightly floured, but don't go overboard. You may think pie dough is easier to deal with when it's warm, but it isn't. Stick it back in the fridge for 15 minutes if it starts to sag and fall apart. That will also keep it from becoming tough when it bakes. That's because cold dough prevents the tiny flecks of butter from melting into the crust, and it's those tiny un-melted flecks that make the crust so tender and flaky. Lastly, use a pizza cutter to cut your strips. It will keep the edges sharp and neat and will make it easier to cut the dough into even strips.
Video: See How to Bake a Better Pie Crust
4. Crème Brûlée
Even though I've made crème brûlée a million times, I'm still relieved when I torch the sugar on top just perfectly. Why? Because I've screwed it up many times. There's a difference between dark, caramelized sugar and burnt-to-hell sugar that's bitter and unpleasant. And it can turn from one to the other in half a second. How do you reach perfection? Make sure you have a light coating of sugar that's evenly spread over the top so you're not burning the "crème" of the brûlée. Also, I would suggest investing in a crème brûlée torch. You could use your broiler, but it's hard to control the browning. Using the blowtorch from the workbench is fun, but the little hand-held version is much more precise and they're not that expensive (you can get one for around $20). To prevent the sugar from burning, take the flame off the sugar just as it's bubbling, before it gets dark. It will continue to cook and bubble even after you remove the heat source.
Recipe to Try: Dark Roast Crème Brûlée
This frothy, tender, meringue-based dessert is a New Zealand (and Australian) classic reportedly created in honor of the famous ballerina Anna Pavlova when she visited the Southern Hemisphere. I'd never heard of it before, but boy did I know it after we were done testing it. We made this recipe at least 25 times in the Test Kitchen for our January/February 2011 issue. It was so challenging to get the right texture of the meringue. It was either too soft or too crispy and it needed to be both. We finally got it right, but what we discovered that makes this recipe so challenging is something we have no control over: the weather. Don't make pavlova (or any meringue, for that matter) on a humid or rainy day. It makes the meringue sticky throughout.
Recipe to Try: Lemon Pavlova (pictured above)