Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The eggs and I (and some tart dough)

We have all done it, one way or another. No, I am not talking about licking our fingers and sticking them back in the bowl! I am talking about Pate Sucre. Pate sucre is the fancy schmancy (frenchy schmenchy) word for sweet tart doughs, and roll out sugar cookie dough for cut out Christmas cookies. It's a very basic recipe that everyone who bakes has come across and used.

And for such a universally used recipe, it's a shock to see the broad scope of ingredient variations recipes use. Powdered sugar Vs. granulated is a common variation. Some incorporate milk, some incorporate water. And then there is the matter of the eggs.

Recipes that don't call for eggs at all are most commonly labeled as Shortbread. These recipes are a crumbly, buttery, rich, salty cookie. They tend to keep the shape suggested to them without shrinking much, or loosing defining lines from cutters and cookie stamps. This works well with tarts as the dough doesn't shrink much from the sides of the pan.

My favorite of all the shortbread recipes I have come across so far is Fannie Farmers Scotch Shortbread. With a short list of ingredients, butter, powdered sugar, flour, and salt, this is a snap to make and the taste and texture are good.

Within the category of recipes that do call for eggs is a little used method of hard boiling the eggs and passing them through a sieve before incorporating them into the dough. This is said to be an old Austrian trick (that I learned in England from a Scottish pastry chef). The resulting texture is the driving force behind this method. The baked dough becomes very delicate, almost melt in your mouth, which is heavenly next to a soft tart filling. But there is one snag, as Nicky from Delicious Days pointed out..... Sometimes the dough crumbles too much and fails.

The benefit of the cooked yolks is their lack of moisture. The cooking process has bonded the water molecules to the protein in the yolks, so while it is still present in the yolk, it no longer has the ability to wet and bind the dough.

The down side to raw eggs is the water in them. Water, when mixed with flour activates the flours proteins called gluten. With mixing and kneading, the wet proteins begin to bond to each other building a network of strong, flexible chains. Good for your chewey baguette, bad for a tart shell. Each time the dough is gathered and re-rolled, the chains become longer and longer, and the dough tougher and tougher. So by the time you have gathered and re-rolled the entire batch of dough, you have something closer to hard tack. The Austrians were wise to this problem and boiled their eggs to eliminate the water that caused the gluten development.

But, if the recipe isn't balanced just right, you end up lacking the moisture raw eggs provided to bind your dough and your dough crumbles. Obviously you cant just take your favorite tart dough and cook the eggs. If it is a good recipe, it will be balanced to rely on the moisture the eggs provided.

What to do, what to do. On one hand, you have cookies fit for the dog's chew toys, and on the other, you have cookie crumbs. I have started to think about this in two ways.

First, you can add a minimal amount of moisture back. With a linzer dough that was crumbling on me, I found that the addition of 1 tablespoon of rum helped, but it was the addition of a single raw yolk that did the trick. The dough was still delicate but had enough strength to stand up to baking.

Second, you can think of it as a shortbread with the added richness of the cooked yolks. The recipe is balanced to lack the eggs moisture. So adding the hard boiled yolks is both flavorful, and rich without tampering with the texture. This makes for a dough that can be rolled thin and stay strong, or be left thick and still be delicate.

Third..... this has nothing to do with the eggs. It is important to remember that when a recipe calls for soft butter, it does NOT mean warm butter, or squishy butter. Your butter should be pliable, your finger should push into it easily and the temperature should be cool to the touch. (Unless you keep the furnace on full blast so you can walk around in your undies, room temp means about 65 degrees, and butter melts around 80 degrees.) If the butter is warm, and your finger slides through the entire piece with ease, you are in trouble. This means your butter is beginning to melt. If you start your dough with melting butter, it will fall apart while you are trying to roll it. Your dough will crumble whether you boiled your eggs or not. You will be amazed at the difference the butters initial temperature makes in handling and end result.

I think I may have just written the most boring blog post ever. But for those who can work through it, I hope it was informative and helpful.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh no, this is not at all boring! Actually it's this kind of food science stuff that I find extremely intriguing in the world of baking. Thank you ever so much for sharing it!

January 11, 2006 2:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! The mystery is finally solved. I really enjoyed reading this and now I know I'm not going to be leaving my butter on the counter over night. 'Cause I like my house warm enough to run around in my undies. Who knew that would be bad for my baked goods?!?

January 11, 2006 3:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No boring at all - found this very interesting....

January 11, 2006 3:34 PM  
Anonymous chefrico said...

Yay Fanny Farmer!

January 12, 2006 4:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is exactly the information I was looking for!!!! My chef loves using tart dough with cooked yolks but it almost always tears in the sheeter, now I understand why. Thanks!

April 28, 2006 10:10 PM  
Blogger savvy savorer said...

Oh my! This is useful. I made shortbread cookies and the dough was falling apart. Yes i melted the butter. I cook all the time but never bake.

thanks for your post!

July 12, 2007 2:13 PM  

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