June 29th, 2008

portuguese egg tarts – pastéis de nata

portuguese egg tarts 1

let me start by apologizing for my lack of posts lately. moving into a new apartment coupled with a vacation in california (including a much-needed vacation from the computer) left me with little free time to bake. but now i’m back, wooden spoon in hand, ready to take on another recipe and make up for lost time. let’s get to it.

tart batter 1tart batter 2

i had my first portuguese egg tart in america, but they did come from a portuguese bakery. during college, my old roommate’s mom came to visit for a few days, bringing with her boxes and boxes of pastries, including about 4 dozen egg tarts. let’s just say they didn’t last too long in our house. unfortunately, they’re not something you typically see in american bakeries, but if you look around a little bit, you’ll come across them.

tart pastry dough cupssfilled egg tarts

pastéis de nata are thought to have been created by catholic sisters in a convent in lisbon. the convent belonged to the belém parish in lisbon, and so they are known there as pastéis de belém. pastéis de belém is also the name of a now world-famous pastry shop in lisbon, specializing in, of course, these egg tarts. my girl was lucky enough to eat there during her trek around europe last year and can attest to their incredible and well-deserved reputation. as for my tarts, she thought they tasted more like the chinese egg tarts you can get at dim sum places, which i am still happy with.

portuguese egg tarts 3

this week i used *gasp* store-bought puff pastry instead of homemade pastry dough. two reasons – i made these on a weeknight where time constraints kept me from dedicating the proper amount of time to a pastry dough and leaving me enough light for photos. secondly, i’ll be making a homemade pastry dough in a day or two for another recipe i can’t wait to make. and while store-bought puff pastry may make some of you cringe, the real star here is the creamy and decadent filling. if you’re going to sit and eat a dozen tarts at once (which is more plausible than it seems once you eat one), just avoid looking at the filling ingredients in the recipe. i’m almost glad i don’t have a neighborhood bakery churning these out – i’d be an extra 200 lbs by next month.

continue reading and get the recipe »

June 15th, 2008

how to make braided challah

challah 1

a.k.a challah atcha girl, a.k.a challah like it’s hot.

it’s no fun to bake when it’s hot out. and right now, we’re being subjected to some ungodly death-heat that’s driving temperatures (at least here in dc) up around 110 F. but i don’t like to let anything stop me from baking, so i am forging ahead. sure, with the oven on, my kitchen might hit something like 125 F but it’s totally worth it for delicious baked goods…

challah 4

challah is the first yeast bread i ever made, and it’s pretty special to me because taking those loaves out of the oven the first time really opened up a world of new possibilities for me. like many, i was afraid of using yeast the first time. and again, like many, it was a girl that actually gave me the confidence to face my fear. my intention was to impress the girl for rosh hashanah (she is jewish and i am not, it would be my first rosh hashanah). i didn’t actually expect the bread to come out looking good, but when it did, my heart skipped a beat. then, when it actually tasted good, it was like the flood gates had opened.

challah egg wash

completing my first yeast bread gave me a rush and an incredible desire to take on every recipe i saw. i had tackled something that i considered way over my head and come out victorious. i was let in on the secret that anyone can bake anything – all you’ve got to do is try.

challah 2

now let’s get back to the challah – the bread is soft and inviting, good for any meal. in fact, after baking, i always leave one loaf for eating and freeze the other so the girl can make bread pudding later. and this time, half of the the loaf for straight up eating is going to become french toast. i’ve made the simpler three braid challah here – there are step by step photo instructions below.

challah 3

continue reading and get the recipe »

June 12th, 2008

10 rules for amateur bakers

sorry guys, no recipe or pictures this time. i just moved into my new place so i’m still getting everything set up to start baking again – but rest assured i’ll be back soon. but i didn’t want to leave everyone completely hanging, so…

i’ve never had any formal training in baking or cooking, but i’ve been doing this for fun for the past few years and have noticed mistakes that i’ve corrected as well as mistakes i continue to make. these are my thoughts on how to be successful at baking and have fun doing it.

1. don’t be intimidated by ingredients or techniques
people often consider baking overwhelming because it’s a science that requires precise measurements and temperatures. true, it is a science, but there’s no reason to think you can’t do it…and there’s plenty of wiggle room if you screw up. i’ll admit that i was afraid of using yeast the first time, but the sense of accomplishment i felt when my first bread came out of the oven more than made up for it. with the internet at our fingertips (not to mention the public library), there’s no excuse for ignorance when it comes to working with a specific ingredient. similarly, a lot of recipes call for fancy techniques – pie crusts are a common phobia. you can either a) try it, fail, and try again or b) find an easier alternative. you can’t go wrong.

2. bake often, bake cheap (at first) and pay attention
the only way to not fear baking is to do it. a lot. it could be gradual at first, but you will improve. you’ll be throwing together ingredients more quickly, you’ll know by smell when your cookies are done, you’ll improve on recipes by adding your own special touches. and you can still get great results from cheap ingredients, so if you’re afraid of failing, make sure you do it without breaking the bank. there’s plenty of time to try extravagant flours after you master a simple cake with simple ingredients. but if that simple cake doesn’t work out, do a little research and figure out WHY.

3. you don’t need gadgets
this is a hard one for most people to get over. if you’ve got an standing mixer or even a hand mixer, put it away for a week and try to make your favorite recipes. i promise: you can do it. heck, you don’t even need a real oven. i’ve made my chocolate chip coffee cake in a cardboard box tin foil oven while camping in the middle of nowhere. the two tools i rely on most are a bowl and a wooden spoon. sometimes you can even forgo the wooden spoon by using your hands. get creative and don’t rely on something expensive you need to plug in.

4. when it says preheat, PREHEAT!
i used to be guilty of this one. how many times have you gotten your cake all set to go and realized you forgot to heat up the oven? it’s easy to just throw it in there and let it slowly warm up, but for the love of all delicious baked goods, BE PATIENT! it is essential that baked goods be immediately exposed to the proper temperature. starting in a cold oven will not only extend your baking time to some indeterminate amount, but the consistency of your cake or bread will be off. oftentimes, the first 10 minutes of baking are the most important, and if your temperature is bad, it can mean hours of trying to fixed a botched recipe or starting from scratch.

5. use real butter
please. PLEASE. there is a difference between butter and oil; they are not exactly interchangeable in recipes. specifically, butter is only 80% fat, the rest being milk solids and water. there are recipes that specifically call for oil, and that’s fine, but if a recipe calls for butter, use butter. the consistency of your finished baked good depends on it. if you are concerned about health issues, moderation in everything you eat is the key. as long as you are not eating 12 cupcakes a day, you don’t need to sacrifice taste and consistency.

6. don’t open the oven until the minimum baking time has passed
i still break this rule. since i was a kid, i couldn’t wait to see when the cookies or the muffins would be done, so i’d open the oven door to check. bad move. i know it’s tempting, especially if you don’t have an oven light, but opening the oven door causes a sudden change in temperature, resulting in disaster. cheesecakes will crack, cakes will fall. you will weep.

7. the amount of love added is directly proportional to your final result
the more i bake, the more i am convinced of this. i believe it’s why my mom’s chocolate chip cookies, despite being the standard toll house recipe, surpass others using the exact same recipe. baking should be a pleasure. the process of baking itself, not just the eating part at the end. if you don’t have fun, it will carry all the way through the cookies you’re making and into the people that eat them. you can immediately tell when something is homemade instead of store-bought. maybe your cake has imperfections, but it’s those imperfections that make it special. i know it sounds sappy, but put love into your baking and you will be repaid in full.

8. uncooked dough can be delicious, but don’t eat uncooked yeast dough
you’ll get a tummy ache. trust me.

9. don’t keep your baking secrets a secret
i don’t understand why some bakers keep their recipes a secret. unless you’re planning on selling it or are worried about plagiarism, spread the word! the more good recipes and techniques we can get out there, the better all of our baked goods will be. got a “secret” ingredient? tell your friends! help each other out – baking can be a scary endeavor sometimes, so if you’ve got knowledge, drop it on us.

10. try anything (at least) once
once when i was making a layer cake, i was afraid that my layers would come out with domed tops and not stack correctly. i came across this tip on the internet: “wrap a damp towel around your cake pan when you put it in the oven. the water will lower the temperature around the edges of the pan, so it will take the same amount of time to cook as the center.” it seemed a little crazy, putting a wet towel in a 400 degree oven, and yes, i did burn myself several times trying to maneuver the whole thing, but it WORKED. my cakes were perfectly flat and even all around.

don’t fear anything. in fact, go out of your way to use ingredients and techniques you’ve never tried. you probably won’t master everything the first time, but you can add it to your list of things you’ve accomplished. go forth and experience everything baking has to offer and don’t ever turn down a recipe because it looks too complicated or takes you out of your comfort zone. thrive on recipes that challenge you and make you a better baker.

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