Baking basics and beyond

Chef Norman Hart knows more than a thing or two when it comes to baking.

Chef Norman P. Hart, Chef Director of the American Academy of Culinary Arts

He heads the new baking and pastry program at the Pittsburgh Technical College’s American Academy of Culinary Arts in Oakdale. The program, which launched on Oct. 18, teaches everything from the basics of baking cakes and breads to tempering chocolate to cooking, casting and blowing sugar to communicating professionally. At the end of three terms, students will get a certificate of completion and walk out as masters of knife and piping skills and recipe developers.

The certified executive chef is a member of the American Culinary Federation, an inductee of the Honorable Order of the Golden Toque (a group of accomplished culinarians where one has to be asked to join) and was bestowed “educator of the year” in 2007 by the ACF.

Here are his answers to questions that home bakers often encounter:

When an angel cake calls for 10 to 12 egg whites, what I do with all those leftover yolks?
You can use them to make ice creams, custards and the frothy zabaglione. Or you can make a sauce like bearnaise by emulsifying clarified butter with the yolks, and adding vinegar and herbs. Hollandaise is another classic one with yolks. You could freeze the yolks up to six to eight months. But cover the yolks container tightly with a plastic wrap because you don’t want the yolks to dry out and get a film on them. Nor do you want air to hit the protein.

Should I buy a wooden rolling pin with handles or the French kind that come without them?
If you get a pin with handles, it may look nice but your knuckles will hit the dough and get in the way. Also, you exert more pressure if there are handles. When a pin tapers down in the ends, it’s good for speed. Remember, the longer the pin is, the more dough you can roll out.

What’s the best way to clean a wooden pin?
There’s a secret to how you clean a pin. First dampen a towel in soap water and wipe it down. Then rub oil on the pin. Don’t ever float it in water for it will get warped. You do need to clean it immediately.

How do I know the cookies are done? Should I go by sight or smell?
It’s OK if the cookies are soft because the sugar has just melted before you take them out. As the cookies cool, they will get harder. You need to use both your senses. There should be barely enough color around the cookie. When the cookies smell good, it indicates they are cooked. But remember, after that first batch, if you smell them, it means they are burning.

How do you prevent a cookie from spreading and invading its neighbor’s space?
Typically you need a three-finger space between cookies. If they are spreading on you, you are mixing the dough too much. You need to mix it just enough to incorporate the butter and sugar. You’ll have too much air in it when you overmix. The dough also needs to be cold when you put into the oven as it will take time to get to the temperature and won’t spread.

Can I substitute the fats used in cookies and cakes — say butter for shortening or butter for oil?
Don’t substitute; you should follow the recipe. Butter has more flavor than shortening, but it also contains water, and when you add water to a cookie dough, it will become cake-like. Oil is preferred in cakes as it mixes better in the batter. Oil also keeps a cake nice and moist as when it cools, oil stays as a liquid. If a cake recipe calls for butter, make sure you melt it.

How do you keep bananas from turning brown for a banana cream pie?
Coat the slices with sugar — granulated sugar. Powdered sugar will weep on you.

Why does my cheesecake always crack on the top?
It will if you are baking the cake at a high temperature and not in a water bath. After it’s baked, don’t immediately take it out but instead crack open the oven door. This way there is not immediate change in the temperature to crack the top. Also buffer the cake pan with an outside pan so that it doesn’t get heated directly.

How do I know if my baking powder is still fresh and useable?
Add vinegar to the baking powder. If it just fizzles, it’s no good, but if it blows up, that’s good. Remember it’s time to dump the powder if you have had it since last Christmas.

Why do recipes call for unsalted butter and then call for salt to be added?
Salted butter is not good quality butter as it is made with a poorer quality cream. Moreover, you want to control the amount of salt. Salt also is added later as it acts as a binder to help with the emulsion.

How do you avoid getting line marks on top of a cake when you pop it out of the pan onto a cooling rack?
To get rid of the line marks, place the cake on a turntable, and trim the top off with a long serrated knife all the way around. Don’t put a kitchen towel on top of the rack before flipping the cake because the steam from the cake will make it stick to the towel. It’s a good idea to remove cake tops in general because they are tough.

Is it really important to alternate the flour and milk when making a batter? After all, they are both going to be mixed together anyway.
You want to have a smooth batter and that’s why you alternate the flour and milk. If you don’t, the batter will lump up on you. The alternation also adds air to the batter. You need air to make a cake light and airy like a chiffon or genoise. But you don’t want air in a pound cake because you will have bubbles. Also, don’t forget to sift the flour as it helps to keep the batter smooth.

What’s the best way to hold up whipping cream?
Don’t use ultra-pasteurized cream; it will break down too much. Also, always whip cream over ice. You want the cream to have a soft peak. If you whip the cream too much, it will turn to butter.

How do you make a perfect meringue?
For a French or common meringue, use pasteurized eggs and get them to room temperature. In a clean bowl, whip egg whites to a soft peak. Then add sugar until it forms a stiff peak, like shaving cream. If you overwhip the whites, the meringue will become soggy. The last step should be to bake it, and so make the meringue at the very end. Bake it at 475 degrees for 3 to 4 minutes, until it is golden brown. It should be spongy. For a lemon meringue pie, make sure the lemon-filling part of the pie is at room temperature. If it’s too warm, the meringue will weep on you.