Shirley O’Corriher frightens me. Her book, Bakewise is filled with such abundant detail, such specific instruction, and such extensive scientific knowledge that it fills me with a mixture of excitement and terror. In her extensively researched recipes, each ingredient is absolutely essential, chosen because of its specific chemical makeup.
This means that small substitutions that I’d usually make without batting an eyelash, like substituting two percent milk for whole milk, are out of the question. Don’t have bleached all-purpose flour on hand? Looks like I’m not making her apple cake. Is the store out of full-fat buttermilk? Then the pound cake recipe is out.
But during the January Popover experiment I went against my own better judgement and made a big substitution in Bakewise’s popover recipe. I had started making Saturday night dinner too late, and didn’t have an hour to let the batter sit. But I remembered that The Bread Bible’s Popover recipe uses Wondra flour—a highly processed, quick-mixing flour that allows the batter to be baked immediately. What if I made a teensy, tiny substitution?
O’Corriher’s original popover recipe calls for bread flour, which is the complete opposite of Wondra flour. Bread flour is a high-protein flour, which makes it especially good at creating sheets of gluten that hold in steam, giving the popovers a tremendous rise. Bread flour also absorbs more liquid than lower-protein flour, which helps the popovers stay crisp and light. Wondra flour is on the other end of the spectrum – it has a low protein content, creates less gluten than other flours, and absorbs much less liquid.
To top it all off, I was so frazzled in the kitchen that after I put the popovers in the oven to bake, I accidentally turned off the oven! It took me ten minutes to figure out my mistake. Considering that O’Corriher is adamant that the baker shouldn’t even open the oven during the baking process lest the temperature fall, I was convinced that my popovers were toast.
But the result was much stranger than that. The resulting popovers were huge – they rose to magificent heights over the top of my muffin pan. My personal non-scientific and therefore very dubious theory is that, with no gluten to tame the rise, the popover shot up like a rocket. The popovers also had more of the springy, soft centers than my first two attempts, and the crust was very light and insubstantial.
Would I make this recipe again? Perhaps. But it’s best made by those who enjoy popover centers, more than the popover crust. Since I enjoy both, I’m still looking for my perfect popover recipe. Mostly, this should be inspiration for those cooks who are convinced that they’re not precise enough to bake. Even with my mistakes and risky substitutions, we still had a pretty great Saturday night dinner.
Mistaken Popovers (for reading only!)
Adapted from Bakewise
Note, I’m only putting in this recipe to illustrate my mishaps! For those of you looking for a real recipe, check out The Bread Bible or Joy of Cooking popover entries.
5 large eggs, in the shell
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 3/4 cups Wondra flour
1/3 cup heavy cream
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup melted butter
Preheat oven to 475 degrees.
Warm the eggs by placing them in a bowl of hot tap water. Drain and refill the bowl at least once with fresh hot water.
Heat milk in a saucepan or microwave until just warm to touch. Place flour in a large bowl and slowly add in milk, stirring with a fork or whisk and making sure there are no lumps.
Separate three of the eggs, keeping the whites and storing or discarding the yolks. Beat the eggs whites with the remaining two whole eggs. Beat in 1/2 cup of the flour mixture into the egg mixture to lighten. Then beat the egg mixture into the flour mixture.
Heat the cream in a saucepan (or microwave, but I find a saucepan leaves less of a chance of having the cream boil over) until almost boiling. Sprinkle salt over batter and whisk in hot cream.
While heating the cream, brush the popover or muffin pans with melted butter and heat in the oven until butter is hot and brown, but not burning, 3-5 minutes.
Remove the hot pan from oven. Pour batter into cups, until they are three quarters full. Place hot pan in the oven.
Mistakenly turn oven off for 10 minutes.
Discover this mistake. Scream and fuss a bunch. Then turn oven back on to 425 and bake for 12 minutes. Lower heat to 325 and bake for 25 minutes more.
Remove pan from oven. Be amazed when popovers are a little soft, but none the worse for wear. Accept Wonktheplank’s comforting that we learn the most from our mistakes, not our successes. Vow to properly make this recipe another time.