One of the problems with being an amateur baker who, unfortunately, must work to make a living, is that it’s incredibly easy to fall into baking ruts. As much as I want to try new recipes, I never know if they’re going to work, and I hate wasting my precious time and energy on a failed project. This fear drives me back to the tried-and true crowd-pleasing recipes that I know will come out perfect every time, which is why I’ve made more batches of America’s Test Kitchen Molasses Spice cookies than I can count.
But in 2009, I want to stretch my baking chops. So I decided to do an experiment. Every month I want to choose a new baked good to focus on—pie, pound cake, devil’s food cake, etc.—and try a bunch of different recipes for that item. Hopefully, this project will hone my baking skills, force me to bake things I’d never bake on my own, and, of course, have something to chronicle for my domestically obsessed readership. Plus I now have several excellent cookbooks on hand, and this is a perfect excuse to try them out.
After a little culinary soul-searching, I decided that January was going to be popovers month. Why? Well, for one thing, they’re fast and easy to make. I can serve them with dinner for two nights in a row without inciting protest from WonkthePlank, who loves them. When done right, they taste delicious, with a salty, buttery and crisp brown crust, and soft, springy middle. And there’s a certain magic in a good popover—the liquid batter looks like it’s too soupy to bake into anything at all, but the mystical force of the oven transforms it into towering brown puffs of dough. That kind of magic is why I love baking.
My first popover attempt was based on Rose Levy Beranbaum’s recipe from the The Bread Bible, which is hands-down my all-time favorite cookbook. In the book, Beranbaum explains that popovers are a type of batter bread, meaning that the dough contains a double amount of water than a basic bread dough recipe. Basic popover recipes call for mixture of flour, eggs, and milk, but Beranbaum adds melted butter, salt and sugar as well. Despite their towering height, popovers do not use yeast or any other leavener. Instead, when placed in a hot oven, the milk in the batter creates steam, creating that magnificent rise.
Beanbaum’s recipe also calls for Wondra flour, which is a low-protein, highly-processed, granular flour that dissolves instantly in liquid. General Mills calls it “quick mixing” flour that can be used for gravy or sauces, but many bakers have found that it works well in certain breads and cakes. Wondra flour is perfect for popovers because the flour absorbs the liquid instantly, so the batter can be baked immediately. Many traditional popover recipes call for the batter to sit for several hours before baking, during which the flour becomes fully hydrated.
In my admittedly small amount of research on popovers, I’ve found that there’s variation in the way that popovers are baked. Some recipes call for popover batter to be poured into a buttered muffin or popover tin and then placed in a hot oven. However, the Beranbaum recipe calls for the buttered tins to be heated for a couple of minutes in a hot oven before the batter is added. This is the traditional way that Yorkshire puddings are made—although, in that case, they are cooked in beef drippings, rather than hot butter.
The recipe below is an adaptation of Beranbaum’s Bread Bible recipe, which I made last Friday night. While the popovers did, indeed, rise to stupendous heights, I think they almost rose too much. One of my favorite parts of a popover is the spongy, soft middle that clings to the crisp, brown crust. When I made these, there was an abundance of brown crust and not enough spongy middle. Still, if you like a crusty, buttery popover, then this recipe is for you.
Adapted from The Bread Bible, By Rose Levy Beranbaum
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons Wondra Flour
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
1 cup whole milk
2 large eggs
4 tablespoons butter, melted.
Before you do anything, make sure that your eggs and and milk are at room temperature. I cheat by warming the milk in the microwave until it is just slightly cool to the touch, and placing the eggs in a bowl of hot water for several minutes.
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit, for at least half an hour before baking.
Mix together the flour, sugar, and salt with a whisk. Slowly whisk in your milk. Whisk in the eggs, one at a time, beating for one minute after each addition. Continue whisking until the batter is smooth. Add two tablespoons of the melted butter. At this point if you’re not making the popovers immediately, you can cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate the dough up to 24 hours. I suggest pouring the batter into a liquid measuring cup, as this will make it much easier to pour into the muffin or popover cups when the time comes.
With a pastry brush, coat a 12-cup muffin pan or six cup popover pan with the remaining two tablespoons of melted butter. Place in the oven for 2-5 minutes, to heat the butter until very hot and starting to brown. Really keep an eye on the clock, because it’s very easy for the butter to burn (it happened to me on Friday), especially if you’re using a blasted nonstick muffin pan, like me. The dark coating means my muffin pan conducts too much heat, and is very prone to burning my creations. If the butter burns, then you need to melt more butter while cleaning out the pan and begin the whole process over again. Trust me, it’s a pain.
Once the butter is hot, take the pan out of the oven and pour the batter into the popover or muffin cups. The cups should be half full. Return to the oven and bake for 15 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and continue baking for 40-45 minutes if using the popover pan, and 20-25 minutes if using a muffin pan.
Do not open the oven during baking! This is the route to a fallen popover. They should “pop” well above the top of cups, creating large poofs of crispy goodness. Remove from the oven, and allow to cool on a rack for five minutes. Or, if you are like me and anxious to get them to the table, drop them into a bowl lined with a cloth napkin, and serve right away.