Cooking

TT Culinary Institute: Popovers

Make perfectly puffed popovers your new party trick
Photo: Lizzie Munro/Tasting Table
Popovers

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Lisa Donovan, former pastry chef at Husk in Nashville and Charleston, paints the portrait of a perfect popover: "It's airy and moist, like a gougère almost, where the steam inside is contributing to the moistness and airiness, and the high heat and butter has created a beautiful outer crust that is both determined and delicate. It's a divine coming together of the elements."

Well put, and we can't help but agree. Much like a soufflé, it's impossible to resist the dramatic rise and then the rush to eat one before it deflates.

Let's get popping.

The Setup
At Boston's Clover Food Lab, the team uses a popover for their renowned breakfast sandwich, and owner Ayr Muir is adamant about them. You are not making a muffin, he tells us, and you need to give them space. "The tall sides give them somewhere to go. Put the oven rack on the lowest possible shelf, so the popovers don't bump their heads on the ceiling." Muir believes in a pure, naked popover. "No on savory and sweet. This is a beautiful pure thing. You can add toppings, but please don't mess with the popover."

Point taken, but we still wanted a sweet and a savory option. Our approach? Instead of folding in any additional ingredients, we topped one batch with a rose-cardamom sugar. As for savory, we created a Parmesan-lemon-thyme mixture and sprinkled it into the pan before the batter, and then topped the batter with it before being baked (see the recipe).

The Ingredients
There are only five of them, and chances are you already have them in your kitchen: butter, flour, salt, eggs and milk. Each plays a critical role, so listen up.

Flour provides the gluten that is necessary for structure; the eggs are for leavening and more structure; and the milk creates steam to make them rise. Butter is nonnegotiable, as it adds flavor (along with salt) and a crispy crust. Donovan agrees: "Butter is always the best route. And that's a life rule, not just a baking rule."

Eggs should be at room temperature, butter melted and the milk slightly warm. When you whisk room-temperature eggs, the whites and yolks combine easier, which means the eggs disperse more evenly into the batter, creating a light and airy texture. This also ensures your melted butter won't turn into hard pellets when you add it in at the end.

The Pan
Remember, you aren't making muffins, so you should invest in a popover pan. We love the Chicago Metallic Non Stick 6-Cup Popover Pan, because it's cheap, light and does the best job keeping the popovers moist and filled with pockets.

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The Procedure
You'll definitely want to whisk by hand. As does Donovan: "I fully believe this is why God gave us paws." Yes, a few lumps will be in the batter, but this is more than OK. Don't use a blender ("terrible results," Muir warns), because it will form too much gluten, killing those precious air bubbles before they have a chance to become fluffy pockets.

Next, put the oven rack on the lowest shelf level and preheat to 450°. The high temperature is critical for a maximum puffy pop and deep golden crust. Countless recipes say to preheat the popover pan, but we tested them without doing this step, and our popovers came out tall and beautiful almost every time. The only time they didn't was when we baked them in a 425° oven (and the crust didn't brown as well).

The Finishing Touch
On any weekend morning, you'll likely find a handful of city dwellers at the Hudson House Inn in Cold Spring, New York, who've fled the concrete jungle for brunch at this waterside spot. Whether they're there more for the giant fluffy popover that replaced traditional bread service or the sweet strawberry butter that comes with it is hard to say. We took note and gave our popovers their own pop of sweetness with a rose-cardamom sugar. We also went the savory route with a cheesy lemon-thyme mixture. But when in doubt, keep them plain. There's nothing like pure and simple.

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