- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Years ago in the Oak Room, a great, dark, old dining room that had been a men-only room at Dayton’s Department Store in Minneapolis, I had the most spectacular popover that I had ever seen. It was a huge explosion of crispness.

It was delicious. It was wonderful. I had never had anything like it. I never knew that a popover could be so big. The only popovers that I had seen were large, puffy muffins — nothing like this.

Susan Dietrich, a Minneapolis food professional who works in many areas of natural products, was leading a group on a tour of great food finds in Minneapolis and took us to the Oak Room. Dayton’s was later Marshall Fields and now is Macy’s, but — hurrah — the Oak Room still makes those great popovers.

I spoke with executive chef Marie Harris, who assured me that popovers were not only thriving at the Oak Room, but that they also have been expanded to a suburban store as well. Miss Harris said they serve hundreds and hundreds of popovers during the holidays.

After experiencing the Oak Room’s, I had to learn to make big popovers. I discovered early on in my popover journey that the recipe was only part of the secret to huge popovers.

Popovers are steam-leavened. You have to get the batter hot fast to produce steam to inflate a strong, balloonlike protein structure of eggs and flour.

You also have the great oven fight. The batter or dough needs to get warm fast to rise before heat from the top of the oven causes a crust to form and hold the batter down. In years gone by, fail-safe popovers were put into a cold oven and then the oven was turned up. The heating element in stoves of the past was in the bottom of the oven. So, with a blast of heat from the bottom and no hot top oven to hold the dough down, the popover exploded to good heights beautifully.

Nowadays, however, the heat comes from all over in modern ovens. They are designed to preheat fast — like in 10 minutes or less. If you put something in a cold oven and turn the heat up, heating units in the top and bottom and anywhere else that the oven has them come on full blast and can burn any food in the oven to a crisp. So what can we do to get heat from the bottom?

My solution is to use a baking stone and absolutely never open the oven door until the popovers are totally done. Large rectangular baking or pizza stones are available from cookware shops for less than $40.

I place the stone on a shelf in the lower third of the oven. I want as much distance from the hot top of the oven as possible. I preheat the oven to 475 degrees and get the stone really hot. The even heat of the stone prevents the popovers from burning on the bottom.

I turn the oven down after 9 minutes to 425 degrees; the stone stays hot, but the heating elements go off. Then, after another 7 minutes, I turn the oven way down to 325 degrees and let the popovers stay in 25 minutes to dry them so that they won’t fall when you take them out of the oven.

Having the batter as warm as possible is another secret of success. Popovers expand best if the flour is fully hydrated.

The proteins and starch in the flour take a little time to fully soak in liquid, so most popover recipes tell you to let the batter stand for 30 minutes to an hour. This means that your batter will be at room temperature going into the oven.

To get a warmer batter, I let the flour and the milk stand for an hour — not the whole batter. Then I stir warm eggs in well, and finally I heat the batter by pouring in boiling cream. This won’t make the eggs cook because of the starch (in the flour) in the batter.

I have heated my pan — so I have a hot pan, hot batter and a hot stone in a hot oven. The batter builds up steam fast. I have used high-protein bread flour so I have a strong protein network with the flour and the eggs to hold the steam.

I have also used milk instead of water for a little extra protein and beautiful browning (and, with the cream, great taste). The puffs explode to great heights.

I also replace some whole eggs with egg whites, which are a great drying agent for drier, crisper puffs.

With these cooking times, the heat stays on long enough to firmly set the puffs.

I love these popovers. I hope that you do, too. Bring on the butter and let’s eat!

This following popover recipe and many others are coming out in my book “BakeWise” in October.

WHAT THE RECIPE SHOWS

The milk and flour need to stand about an hour so that the flour is fully hydrated.

Adding hot cream to warm the batter just before it goes in the oven helps the batter to heat quickly, producing steam for a great rise.

A high-protein flour is crucial for a strong egg-flour network to hold the steam.

The hot stone is vital in providing instant even heat from the bottom to make the batter explode into great puffs.

Egg whites make drier, crisper puffs.

Shirley’s mile-high popovers

These are magnificent and delicious popovers. They are deep brown and crusty and oh, so good. These deserve the best butter that you can buy. The true big secret of popovers is to make sure that everything is as warm as you can get it — the pan, heat from the bottom (the hot baking stone), the batter, everything.

5 large eggs

1½ cups whole milk

13/4 cups, spooned and leveled, Pillsbury bread flour

1/3 cup heavy cream

3/4 teaspoon salt

Place the 5 eggs in a bowl of very hot tap water to warm. After a while, drain and cover again with very hot tap water.

In a heavy saucepan, warm the milk until it feels warm to the touch. Place the flour in a large mixing bowl (if you have a large measuring cup with a spout, that is great for pouring the batter later). With a fork or whisk, beat in the milk a little at a time to prevent forming lumps. Allow flour-milk mixture to stand at room temperature for at least an hour.

After the flour mixture has been standing for about 15 minutes, arrange a shelf in the lower third of the oven with a baking stone on it and preheat the oven to 475 degrees. If you think that your oven is low, turn it to 500 degrees. It is important that the oven be very hot.

After the flour mixture has stood for over an hour, place the popover pan in the oven on the stone to heat.

Separate 3 eggs, saving the whites and discarding or storing the yolks. Beat the 2 whole eggs and 3 egg whites together. Beat in about ½ cup of the flour mixture, and then beat the egg mixture into the flour mixture.

Heat the cream almost to a boil. Sprinkle salt over the batter and whisk in the hot cream.

Pull the hot popover pan out of the oven. I like to place the pan over the sink. Spray one cup of the popover pan well with nonstick cooking spray and immediately pour batter into that cup, filling over 3/4 full.

This 6-cup batch of filling is exactly enough for 6 cups. Repeat spraying and then filling each cup.

Place the popover pan on the hot stone and bake for 9 minutes. Do not open the oven. Turn down the heat to 425 degrees and bake for 7 minutes more. Do not open the oven. Turn down the oven to 325 degrees, and leave the popovers in 20 to 25 minutes more for the popovers to dry out.

Dump popovers out on a rack to cool briefly. Serve immediately with really good butter and preserves. You can make these several hours ahead and rewarm at 300 degrees for 5 minutes.

When they are completely cool, you can seal them in heavy-freezer zip-top-type bags and freeze.

Reheat in 300-degree oven for about 5 minutes.

Makes 6 large popovers.

Food scientist Shirley O. Corriher is author of “CookWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking” (William Morrow).

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