Learning in Hudson How to Bake Perfect Pastry at Home
The do-it-yourself trend has many home cooks leaving their comfort zones. But some encounter a roadblock: fear of baking.
To fight the phobia, a cooking school in Hudson has enlisted one of Julia Child’s former baking buddies to take the mystery out of making pastry.
Nick Malgieri is enveloped in a cloud of steam as he lifts the lid of a Dutch Oven full of cabbage. “Oh, we’re wilting nicely!”
He’s making a savory pastry he says is easy to make once you know how. Simultaneously, he’s baking an apple pie and periodically tidying up his work surface. “I just have to whip up this little thing, and then, apples are done. I just need to clean this off because there’s sugar on the range top.”
Malgieri directs the baking program at New York’s Institute for Culinary Education. He was one of the experts Julia Child called in for her classic PBS series “Baking with Julia.” And he misses his friend.
“Yeah, she was a great lady, and she was a lot of fun to work with. She was a little ribald. I can’t tell you the best Julia Child story on the air.”
But Malgieri tells all when it comes to baking, sharing his tips in a dozen books. His latest is “PASTRY: Foolproof Recipes for the Home Cook.”
“It’s a little bit about all different kinds of pastry,” he says, as he prepares to demonstrate some of its recipes at Catherine St. John’s Western Reserve School of Cooking in Hudson.
St. John’s glad to have Malgieri’s help in de-mystifying the art of pastry for her students, most of them, home cooks.
“I think they are more nervous about baking in general, and I am working to up my baking game.”
St. John has 30 years of experience as a chef, caterer, and culinary educator, but even she has trouble with the exacting requirements of baking, like precise measurements.
“I’m into instant gratification so to speak. I kind of want to throw it all in a pan and have it be done.” she says. “And I think you just have to slow down, and you have to think about what you’re doing.”
When you’re baking, there’s no getting around the need to measure, but Malgieri says you can do it your own way. “People will say, ‘OH, my grandmother she made the best apple pie and she never measured.’ Well, she was measuring handfuls. And since her hands didn’t change in size over the years, she was getting the same measurement every time she took a handful or two handfuls of flour. So that’s a way of measuring.”
He claims you don’t need an expensive scale. “At home, I have a wonderful postal scale that measures up to 55 pounds. Not that I like to bake in such large quantities. But it’s very helpful.”
St. John wants a little more help than that when she’s baking. She uses a professional digital scale. “One thing that I have definitely learned over the years is invest in that scale, because everybody is going to measure a cup of flour differently, and they’re all going to have different outcomes, and a scale will never lie to you.”
Soggy no more
Satisfied with the progress of both the cabbage strudel and apple pie, Malgieri now turns his attention to a sour cherry and almond meringue tart.
He’s made a cookie dough crust for it. “Which is one of those ones which is very, very susceptible to getting a little soppy.”
But he’s not going to let that happen. Malgieri tries to make things easier for the home baker, so he’s simplified a classic recipe.
French pastry chefs keep fruit tart crusts from getting soggy by lining them with a layer of a nut sponge cake to soak up the juices.
“When I created this recipe and several others that use a cookie dough crust, I decided to approximate that piece of sponge cake by making a batter that can go right on the crust and bake along with it.”
His adaptation produces a crisp crust without having to bake a cake before you bake the pie. “It’s worked out really nicely.”
No need to get rough
He’s uses a gentle touch as he mixes the batter. “There’s not a lot of whisking, beating and punishing ingredients.”
Malgieri gets annoyed when cooks get rough with their batters. “If the recipe says only mix the dough a little bit, only mix it a little bit. It hasn’t done anything to offend you. You don’t need to punish it by over-kneading, over-mixing, and over everything else.”
But he says the worst mistake home bakers make is rolling dough too thin. ”You’d have the dough. You’ve rolled it out so that it would probably cover a significant portion of Texas. Then people don’t understand why it won’t hold together when they pick it up to put it in the pan.”
He knows another way to go wrong is common because it’s even happened to him. “Crazy mistakes with math.”
He grimaces while recalling the time he tried to scale up a recipe for brownies. “I realized to my horror that the brownies had already started to crust, but I had only put in the amount of flour for the original amount. So I figured, ‘Well, they’re baking. I’ll see what happens. If they’re ruined I’ll just have to make more.’ Well, they were better than ever. In fact they became Supernatural Brownies, one of my most popular recipes of all time.”
That was the unusual baking disaster with a happy ending. He recalls that his friend Julia Child had no such luck.
“You know the time she flipped the crepe over the stove top and it went all over the burners, when she made her famous statement, ‘You know you’re in the kitchen all alone, and nobody can see what you’re doing except if you’re on national television.’”
Taking baking easy
Malgieri’s strongest message to the home baker is to just relax. If you’re making fruit tarts, for example, take the time to do it in stages.
“Make the dough, and make the crusts the next day, and then fill them the following day and finish everything off. And people don’t think of it that way when they want to make a dessert at home. You know you go into the kitchen and turn on the light and want to do everything at one. Well, that’s crazy. It’ll take all day. It’ll take all day if I do it that way.”
Baking won’t scare you, he says, if you start small.
“If you’ve never baked anything before, try baking some cookies. And don’t make the ones that are sandwiched, and have a glaze, and then a decoration on top of that. Make the simple kind. And then you’ll say, ’Wow, this is great, and I made it,’ and you start to develop experience and confidence. That’s the secret.”