Pan banging vs. science in baking

In a miserable January, when I work at a company whose fiscal year ends in January and in a city that’s in the northeast experiencing winter, this time of year is not usually fun. It’s cold, disgusting outside, work is tense, and there doesn’t seem to be much to look forward to outside of the day-to-day usual stuff and the weekend breaks. So I end up spending more time looking for new recipes to try and techniques to experiment with to be productive.

One of the interesting chocolate chip cookie recipes I found in my Instagram Discovery tab was the concept of “pan-banging chocolate chip cookies.” The goal is to get very flat, crispy on the edges and chewy gooey on the inside chocolate chip cookies that have a beautiful, almost rippled and ridgy appearance. In order to do this, once the cookie dough balls are lined up on the baking sheet, for ten minutes, every two minutes, you have to open your oven door, lift the cookie sheet up on one side, and allow it to drop, thus “banging” it to create that rippled appearance. The idea seemed so tedious but I really wanted to make cookies that looked like that. After some research, I found another blog that explained how to get the same exact effect without the banging chaos, but instead using science: have equal proportions of brown and white sugar, increase the flour to butter ratio so that there’s more butter than you’d typically add to a chocolate chip cookie recipe, and also slightly chill the dough before baking to encourage the baking soda to spread and the flour to hydrate overall. 1/2 teaspoon for just 1 cup of flour is generally a lot in most baking situations, but here it performs two important functions: 1) promotes spread – baking soda spreads while baking powder puffs, and 2) promotes browning by way of accelerated Maillard browning reactions that produce delicious nutty, roasted, caramel, coffee flavors. Maillard browning is a reaction that happens between specific proteins and sucrose (sugar). In our cookie dough protein comes from egg, flour, and trace amounts in butter.

Sounds like a delicious kind of science to me. That’s not the science I got to learn and enjoy in school, though. No wonder I hated it then.


One interesting thing we learned during the wine tours we did in the Saint Emilion region yesterday was that egg whites have historically been used in large portions to take out excess tannins from the wine barrels between individual wine storing. Once upon a time, this process had to be manually done by workers at wineries and vineyards, and they’d individually crack each and every egg, separate the yolk from the white, and then apply the mixed whites to the barrels. When one of the wine tour guides said this, I immediately thought, I wonder if they use all those leftover egg yolks for custard, perhaps crème brulee? No, I was wrong. In this region, they use it for the regional treat for which Bordeaux is famous – the canele! Although I’d had a few canele in New York from French bakeries, I’d never thought much about the way they were made and what ingredients were used to make it; I just assumed whole eggs were used. After yesterday, now I know that they are basically like a custard, heavy on the yolks, with a slightly crispy exterior in a cute scalloped and almost mini-tube like mold.

On our way back from Saint Emilion to the city of Bordeaux yesterday evening, our guide took us to La Toque Cuivree, a bakery famous for its award-winning canele. They are so famous that they only produce this one dessert – just in three different sizes – bite sized, “lunch,” and “gros.” They had recently added caramels that have little bits of canele incorporated into them to their tiny line-up of goodies sold (I’m sure they used the stale canele for these to eliminated waste).

We brought them back to our hotel and tried one each… And then immediately both went for our seconds. I hate to be cliché about this, but they were simply perfect and exactly as Henri, our guide, described they should be: slightly crunchy and crackly on the outside, with a moist, nearly gooey creamy custard on the inside. The single flavor that they came in from La Toque Cuivree was rum, and the rum flavor was very strong and forward. “You must eat them today,” he warned us, as after a day, they start becoming chewy, which is like a canele crime. Well, I’ve definitely called caneles I’ve had in New York “chewy” on the inside, which obviously means the ones I had were either old or just not made correctly.

The saddest thing about having epicurean experiences like this in far away places is that you know when you go back home, you just won’t get the exact same taste or experience again, and if you do, it will probably cost you. Those “chewy” caneles I’ve had from other bakeries in New York have cost at least two to four times what I paid today in Bordeaux, and that makes me so sad to know I would need to pay more for an inferior product just to eat something closer to him that either slightly resembles the best or just flat out insults its integrity.

Pumpkin Bread with Cranberries and Walnuts

One early evening this September I stepped outside, took a deep breath, and inhaled a familiar aroma that I hadn’t been acquainted with since this time last year. A feeling of excitement came over me as I continued to walk up Fifth Avenue, and I realized that this certain smell was autumn.

What does that mean – to smell like autumn? It’s hard to verbalize, but it smells light, cool, and crisp, as though the air has gradually calmed down from exposure to the summer sun’s bright rays. It is redolent of the leaves changing from deep and bright greens to warm red orange and amber shades, and it is aromatic of something that is slightly toasty and nutty, yet elusive in some way.

Autumn in the Northeast is completely unlike what I was used to growing up in San Francisco. A San Francisco autumn was unremarkable; the idea of leaves changing color was completely novel to me when I moved to the Boston area in 2004. I went to school at one of the most beautiful college campuses in the area and was able to fully experience a real New England autumn complete with Harry Potter-like Gothic-Georgian architecture in the background. The leaves slowly but surely changed color. I had no idea that a green leaf could turn into a deep magenta or purple shade, or that the same leaves that were orange could also become yellow before they crisped up and became brown. It was as though every day when I walked outside, I was constantly stunned by endless transformations and beauty.

Throughout the last seven years, I’ve watched with wonder as I’ve passed children in parks embracing autumn’s arrival. The glee with which they delight in autumn has never failed to bring a smile to my face – the way they thrash around in the leaves, rolling in them, tossing them up with their hands and kicking them and crunching them. I’m honestly not sure what warms me more – seeing the kids’ carefree delight or observing the parents watch their children, realizing how amazing it is to derive joy from life’s simple pleasures. Many times, I’ve been tempted to join in on the fun and jump up and down in the leaves with them, but then the self conscious adult side of me takes over and I decide that it wouldn’t be the smartest thing to do.

I’ve spent the last few months experiencing autumn in urban areas in New York like Union Square, Central Park, and Madison Square Park, but have also been able to see it by leaving the city and going hiking in Mohonk Preserve and wandering around the Berkshires in Massachusetts. Autumn in the Northeast is the most spectacular when you are outside of the city and completely immersed in nature. The few times I have left, it’s also helped me clear my head temporarily and just think about two of the simplest yet most complex things – love and life itself.

I always want to say that autumn is my favorite season, not just for that amazing smell that fills my nostrils as soon as September hits, and not just for the dramatic foliage, but also because it signifies the beginning of the holidays – Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas – and the traditions I embrace each year. Carving jack-o-lanterns, cutting up different types of squash for soup, getting together with family and friends for extravagant and gluttony turkey meals, decorating Noble Fir trees with my newest and oldest Christmas ornaments, and making egg nog and holiday cookies; it’s everything I love about life condensed into three short months of the year. If we just added some sun and warmth, it really would be the most perfect time of the year (I am slightly conflicted, though, because I also love watching the snow fall and lightly dust itself onto the city around me).

Autumn also means that I can get back to my favorite place in the house, the kitchen, and begin baking again. I bake the most during the autumn and winter, and one of the things I’ve been making without fail for the last four years has been pumpkin bread.

The spice combination in this bread – cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, combined with cranberries and toasted nuts, is one of the best ways to welcome autumn back into our lives. That spicy smell wafting through my apartment just conjures up all of the memories I have of every autumn I’ve spent on the East Coast.

Pumpkin bread is a really simple quick bread to make. Canned, unsweetened pumpkin is readily available at almost any grocery store, and I can speak from experience when I say that cutting up, pureeing, and straining a real sugar pumpkin for your pumpkin bread or pie is not really worth the effort. The taste will be exactly the same, so you should save yourself some trouble and just buy the canned stuff. The canned stuff is really good, so there’s no reason to dismiss it.

I always like to add either dried cranberries and/or toasted, chopped walnuts or pecans to my pumpkin bread. Both dried cranberries and toasted nuts always remind me of the autumn, and what’s better than making an autumn sweet bread taste even more like autumn?

I got this recipe from the resident director at my dorm in college. He loved to bake and cook, and in the autumn, he made several loaves of this pumpkin bread and shared it with all of us. It was love at first bite – I immediately asked if he’d be so generous as to share the recipe with me, and share he did. Although I’m no longer in touch with him, his baking legacy lives on with me and everyone else I love who gets to benefit from the fruits of my autumn baking.

Pumpkin Bread with Cranberries and Walnuts

Adapted from the 2005-2006 Stone Davis Resident Director’s recipe collection

  • 2 C. sugar
  • 1 C. vegetable oil (canola or corn)
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 C. cooked/canned unsweetened pumpkin
  • 3 C. flour
  • ½ tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1 tsp. cloves (optional)
  • 4 C. dried cranberries
  • 1.5 C. toasted, chopped walnuts or pecans

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

Combine the sugar and vegetable oil in a large mixing bowl; mix well. Add the eggs, one at a time, until incorporated. Combine the all of the dry ingredients in a medium mixing bowl. Mix the pumpkin into the egg mélange, and when combined, gradually add in all of the dry mixture. Stir in the cranberries and nuts. Put into two greased loaf pans. Bake the loaves for 1 hour.

La Joie de Vivre et Manger à Paris

It’s been over two years since I have updated this blog. I stopped mainly because my new job at the time was forcing me to work long hours, and also because it already required me to be in front of a computer for so many hours of the day that once the weekend came, the last thing I wanted to do was be in front of a computer again.

A lot of things have happened in the last two years – lots of new experiences, realizations, and traveling. The most recent and notable travel experience I have had was my first time in Western Europe (France, Italy, Greece, and Turkey). I spent two and a half weeks this summer exploring Europe, and my first stop was in Paris. I’d wanted to come to Paris for as long as I could remember, and this past summer, it finally became a reality. When I had to chose a language to study in freshman year of high school, I unhesitatingly chose French. Although those language skills are close to dead now, during those four years studying French, I gained a deep love of French culture and ways of life. The “je ne sais quoi” leisurely lifestyle and appreciation of fine art and gastronomy were big reasons I’ve been so drawn to French culture. In my mind, the French have a deep understanding of the most important thing in life, and that is the art of living and living well.

Paris is a city that likes to enjoy a glass of wine at every meal, a city that relishes its two-hour lunch breaks, and a city that encourages seeing and walking to appreciate her complete beauty. She is a city that is somehow so green that when I look around at all the lush, vibrant shrubs and trees that have been trimmed and hedged to perfection, I sometimes think that someone just took a can of forest and pine green spray paint and had a field day running through her streets.

Our first night, we walked from the Champs-Elysees to the Tour Eiffel. Although I had seen it so many times in TV shows, movies, postcards, and photos, seeing the Tour Eiffel in person was like a revelation. I was so stunned by its massive size, curves, and light. I felt different emotions as I walked around it and along the Seine, but most of all, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude – gratitude for the fact that I was so privileged to be able to visit one of the most stunning cities in the world, gratitude for all of my life’s experiences, both painful and happy, and gratitude for the people who I have loved and who have loved me and contributed to who I am now. In a city I had never before visited, I began to feel nostalgic and introspective.

As these feelings of nostalgia and introspection fell upon me, I realized exactly how much I missed writing, and almost every day that I was in Europe, I blocked out an hour or two to write about my experiences and feelings while there. In some way, you could say that going to Europe helped me find a part of myself again. Traveling through such beauty gave me an overwhelming sense of gratefulness and happiness in a way that I’d never experienced before.

Paris is one of those places that people visit and have extremely high expectations for. We hope it will live up to all of the hype that television shows and movies have built around it. We expect every building to be stunning and colossal, every work of art to be breathtaking, and every croissant to be buttery, flaky, and melt in your mouth.

Well, not every building was stunning, not every sculpture and painting I saw was breathtaking, and (extremely unfortunately) not every croissant I had was flaky, but I will say that Paris lived up to all of my expectations, particularly when it comes to all things epicurean.

One of the first things I always think about when I remember Paris is Ladurée, the most luxurious and refined pastry and cookie shop in Paris. Ladurée has several locations in Paris and around the world in major metropolitan cities, and just recently (to my absolute giddy delight) opened a shop right here in New York on the Upper East Side. Everything about Ladurée is chic and exquisite, from the jewel-like decor of each shop to the elegant, posh gift boxes (which you have to pay extra for, but if you are a die-hard fan, you should probably just cave in and get one…or two). Ladurée is famous for all of their chocolates, cakes, and sweets, but they are most renowned for their macarons – a cookie made of two little almond meringues sandwiched with a filing between them. Please don’t confuse these with those American coconut cookies. What makes these little sandwich cookies so amazing? Take a look:

The perfect macaron, when you bite into it, should have a small crunch, and then as your teeth dig deeper into it, should be lighter than air. The ideal macaron is light and delicate; it is a meringue, after all, that was piped from a pastry bag, left to sit for a few hours to develop the “shell” on its top to create that tiny crunch in the initial bite. The fillings vary depending on which flavor you get. I can’t decide if I prefer the richer fillings like pistachio or hazelnut cream or the lighter ones like raspberry or orange.

In addition to getting macarons from Ladurée, we also tried them at Eric Kayser and Pierre Herme. The most unique macaron flavor we had was from Pierre Herme – olive oil and vanilla bean. The strong perfume of vanilla was unmistakable, but with the hints of fruity olive oil, the flavor was pretty sensational. You can even see the specs of vanilla bean in the cream filling here.

The Eric Kayser macarons were satisfactory, but honestly, they paled in comparison to the ones we had at Ladurée and Pierre Herme. However, their mini pistachio flavored financiers were incredibly cute and dainty with just the right amount of sweet almond nuttiness.

Oftentimes when friends have come back from France, they say that the cookies and croissants always taste better there than they do here in the States, even when they are thinking about their favorite pastry shops here. I used to think that this was just because they had such great memories of their travels and wanted to immortalize those epicurean experiences in their minds, but then I read an article a few years back that noted that laws in different countries surrounding butterfat (yes, butterfat laws; there really are regulations around this stuff) actually did make buttery baked goods different depending on where you are eating them. By law in the United States, American butter must contain at least 80 percent butterfat, while the minimum for French butter is 82 percent. Many companies in France that make butter even use 83-86 percent butterfat! A few percentage points might not sound like a big deal, but butterfat is the main determinant of butter’s flavor and texture, so every small bit counts.

The best croissant, baguette, and madeleines I had were from a bakery within walking distance of the Sacre Coeur cathedral called Le Grenier à Pain. Apparently in 2010, they won first place for the best baguette in the 17th annual best baguette contest in Paris at la Chambre de Commerce des Boulangers. The croissant was one of the flakiest croissants I’ve ever eaten, with a texture so light that I probably could have stood there and eaten 10 of them without even realizing it. The crunchy exterior was almost addictive.

Many milk and butter companies in the States, such as Vermont Butter & Cheese Company, are trying to use methods to make butter to mimic the tastes and textures of European butter. They actually make butter with 86 percent butterfat. I still haven’t tried it yet, but I intend on doing it sometime soon. Maybe if I do try it out with the next baked good I make, I will succeed at producing a madeleine that was as tasty as this one at Le Grenier à Pain:

France is a carb lover’s dream – everywhere you go, you are surrounded by the most amazing and decadent cookies, cakes, pastries, and breads. Most of the notable bread places we found were along the way to the Sacre Coeur. For our picnic that day, we bought a gorgeous loaf of olive bread from Boulangerie à L’Ancienne.

This place churns out baguette, madeleines, and other pastries and breads all day long. We even saw a man in the front of the shop shaping baguettes. If I had timed him, it probably took him about 15 seconds per loaf to shape and throw each baguette onto the industrial-sized baking sheets. We used our olive bread to make sandwiches that day, and it was probably one of the best olive breads I’ve had. The olives had just the right amount of saltiness, and the bread was soft yet springy. With our pâté and cheeses, these sandwiches made the perfect lunch.

In the midst of all of the croissants, baguettes, and macarons, we still needed to have some real meals while in Paris. To be honest, while we did eat at a few good places with great steak frites, creme brulee, and charcuterie, none of them were particularly memorable or worth writing home about. The one exception to this was our visit to the much loved Mariage Frères Maison de Thé.

For our last lunch in Paris before jetting off to Rome, I knew we had to visit one of the best tea houses in the world. Mariage Frères has several locations in Paris, as well as in Germany and Japan. Mariage Frères is known by tea connoisseurs for its large selection of teas imported from around the world. Each store is laid out in an apothecary style that makes you feel like you are about to make a purchase that might heal an ailment of some sort that you have. We visited the location in Rive Gauche, which is quietly tucked away on a side street in the area.

If you visit one of the tea salons like we did, you can have the privilege of enjoying your own pot of their spectacular tea in a relaxing, beautiful setting. In addition, you can also have breakfast, brunch, or pastries and cake here. Of the prix fixe brunch selections (all in French, so practice your reading and speaking skills!) listed, we choose the Green Line and the Lucky Melodies.

The Green Line came with a beef filet tartare, a gazpacho, and a salad of long, elegant romaine leaves and roasted, marinated tomatoes, a glass of Mariages Frere’s very own namesake champagne. Lucky Melodies came with a chicken salad that redefined chicken salad for me – a mix of beautifully cut romaine leaves, radicchio, large slices of chicken breast, red beets, with an intensely fruity olive oil and nut dressing. This salad was like a work of art. Both sets came with freshly squeezed grapefruit and orange juice, a buttery berry scone, and a fruit muffin with Mariage Frères tea-infused fruit jellies and butter.

For tea, he had a Sweet Shanghai – a subtle green tea with lychee notes – iced, and I had the Rose d’Himalaya, a first flush Darjeeling tea perfumed with rose petals. The deep red color of the Rose d’Himalaya was so gorgeous in my little tea cup. For dessert, we shared a slice of the matcha green tea tart, which was intensely green tea flavored and silky, and a yuzu tart, which was extremely tart. I don’t think there was a single thing that we did not enjoy the taste or presentation of in this meal. Even the service was impeccable.

The highlights for the meal were the fruit and tea-infused jams, the chicken salad, the beef tartare, the flute of champagne, which had more depth and complexity than any other glass of champagne or prosecco I’ve ever tasted, and the green tea tart.

The jams we had with our scones and muffins were amazing. Both had citrusy, floral notes and were infused with tea, and the texture resembled more of a thick jelly than a jam. Every aspect of this meal at the tea salon was memorable, and when I look back on Paris, this was definitely one of the most unforgettable parts of the trip.

Writing about Paris makes me miss it even more and want to impulsively book a flight to go back there just to sit and linger in the tea salon, enjoying a cup of tea and a scone with one of those succulent fruit gelées. In some ways, my outlook on life has been changed by the time I spent in Europe. There are a lot of little joys in life that we take for granted, and sometimes when things get very chaotic and busy, we tend to forget those little things that make life so amazing. Maybe we would all be a little bit happier and more satisfied if we could just take a short break from this everyday life we live, jet off to Paris, and experience an afternoon of respite in a tea salon as tranquil and beautiful as Mariage Frères’.

Whatever you do when you go to Paris, make sure that you indulge in as many croissants, macarons, baguettes, and tea (if that is your fancy) as possible. Eating in Paris is an experience in itself that everyone should embrace. I certainly did.