Business Times - 30 May 2009
Precision and the right procedures will help bakers make the most out of their dough, says Four Seasons pastry chef and author Gregoire Michaud. By Audrey Phoon
'IT IS a sad reflection on our civilisation that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of the planet Venus, we do not know what goes on in our souffles,' the late physicist and gastronome Nicholas Kurti once said.
If he had met Gregoire Michaud, however, he might be of a different opinion. After all, not only can Michaud, the pastry chef of Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong, quote Kurti, he does know what goes on in souffles - that and nearly every other type of pastry, in fact.
The chef, who is here until next Saturday to present his creations as part of a special Afternoon Tea menu at Four Seasons Hotel Singapore, is big on understanding things 'in order to know what's happening in our foods'. He's even written two cookbooks - Artisan Bread and the soon-to-be-launched Never Skip Dessert (which includes the recipe provided here) - that feature the hows and whys of baking alongside the recipes. And, as you might expect, he believes that chemistry - especially learning about a few basic key reactions like fermentation, oxidation, coagulation, gas retention and the Maillard reaction - is paramount in pastry because 'everything revolves around the chemical process used to transform ingredients'.
He cites the example of how yeast works to make dough rise and give it flavour: 'What happens during the fermentation process in a bread dough is that the yeast converts fermentable sugars into carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is then released into gas cells and the dough expands. Lactic acid and acetic acids are generated, and flavour is created.'
Then there's how eggs, when heated, can contribute towards the resulting texture of a substance. Michaud notes that egg yolk coagulates once it reaches 82 degrees Celsius, which means eggs can serve as a thickener if you're cooking them with, say, milk to make a custard or cream.
Apart from all that brainwork, baking must also involve the use of the senses. The chef advises novice bakers to always touch their dough and stretch it out to check the elasticity if they want to be sure it's ready - that is, after the dough has been kneaded thoroughly to produce heat via friction, which in turn causes the glutenin and gliadin molecules within the dough to lock together and form a network.
'When stretching the dough, my boss used to tell me that you should be able to read a newspaper through it,' says Michaud. 'At the same time, it should remain in one piece and not tear apart, and it should look and feel like a sort of 'skin'.'
Those who are using a dough mixer, on the other hand, should eventually be able to attune themselves to hear when the dough reaches an optimal kneading point by the way it 'slaps' against the wall of the mixing bowl. Adds Michaud, who is of Swiss-French descent: 'Back home, we say that the mixer is 'calling' us!'
Once the dough is done, bakers must be sure not to leave it uncovered in an air-conditioned room. That could dry it out, which will 'limit the product development during the baking process', explains the chef. But that's not to say one should bake in a non-airconditioned room; in fact, because basic ingredients such as salt and sugar absorb moisture all too readily in Singapore's humid weather, which affects their quality, it's 'good to have an airconditioning unit in Asia'. Just make sure your dough is well-wrapped-up and use proper storage methods for all ingredients.
The final step is, of course, the baking. But what happens if you've done everything right and your cake still isn't rising in the oven? Well, you could try turning up the temperature of your oven to boost the rising effect from the leavening agent, suggests Michaud. 'If you use baking soda for leavening, for example, it will start its thermal decomposition at 70 degrees Celsius and start to release carbon dioxide at that point, allowing the cake or whatever else you're making to gain volume,' he explains.
Note that this can only help cakes that were made correctly but started off in a too-cold oven, though. 'If the recipe wasn't done properly, raising the temperature won't help,' says the chef. 'The thing about pastry is that it comes down to measurement, precision and procedures.'
'But,' he concludes, 'to fail is to learn.'
Biscotti shavings with tiramisu dip
Serves 'a bunch of friends'
For the biscotti
250g cake flour
150g white sugar
4g baking powder
1pc fine orange zest
100g whole almonds
35g whole pistachios
1. Mix all the ingredients except the nuts and knead into firm dough.
2. Add the orange zest, nuts and mix until the nuts are dispersed evenly in the dough. Roll the dough into 10cm-wide loaf and place on baking tray.
3. Bake at 190 degrees Celsius for 40 minutes until golden brown and crackled.
For the dip
1 kg mascarpone
5 egg yolks
5 egg whites
5 tbsp sugar
6 pcs savoiardi biscuits
40ml strong espresso coffee
20ml marsala wine
Spoonful of cocoa powder
1. Cream the mascarpone.
2. Whip the egg yolks with half of the sugar in a bowl. In another bowl, whip the egg whites with the other half of the sugar.
3. Fold the egg yolks into the mascarpone and finally, fold the egg whites into the mixture.
1. Lay a layer of biscuit in the bottom of a deep dish and soak it well with the coffee and the marsala wine. Spoon the tiramisu mix over and repeat this step to make a few fine layers of soaked biscuit and tiramisu.
2. Slice the biscotti as thin as possible, like shavings, and toast them briefly in an oven heated to 200 degrees Celsius.
3. Place the toasted biscotti shavings on a plate and serve with the dish of tiramisu dusted with a little cocoa powder.
Tips and tricks
1. Bake the loaf of biscotti a day ahead so that you'll be able to slice the biscotti without it crumbling the next day.
2. The tiramisu, too, should be prepared a day ahead for a more intense texture and flavour.
3. To give the tiramisu extra kick, add a dash of cognac or Grand-Marnier when soaking the biscuit.