What We Learned This Week: June 29-July 3, 2015

How to cut watermelon, bake perfect cookies, and make a tastier tart crust

byJake Cohen| PUBLISHED Jul 3, 2015 6:00 PM
What We Learned This Week: June 29-July 3, 2015

With the 4th of July approaching this weekend, it is peak fruit tart season. We're all familiar with the different kinds of dough—pâte brisée, pâte sucrée, and pâte sablée—but we realized that we needed to brush up on the differences between the three. By definition: Pâte brisée is a savory pastry crust, most commonly known as a basic pie crust, distinguished by its lack of sugar. This flaky crust is commonly used for sweet fruit filling (think apple or peach). Pâte sucrée includes sugar in the pastry dough, making for a sweet and tender crust. This is typically used for less-sweet tarts like those filled with custard or ganache. This week, we were using a pâte sablée for an upcoming frangipane recipe. Pâte sablée is a shortbread-like cookie crust that literally translates to "sandy dough"—it is crumbly and typically pressed into the pan. Some chefs prefer it to pâte sucrée because of its higher sugar levels (and who can blame them?).

Testing cocktail recipes is always a fun change for us, switching our brains from thinking about food to thinking about drinks. When I read a recipe for a bright red aperol-based cocktail that was supposed to have a layer of white absinthe on top, I was skeptical because absinthe is clear; why wouldn't it just blend into the aperol? The recipe called for stirring the absinthe with ice before pouring it on top of the cocktail; lo and behold, the clear liquor turned milky white. I was amazed and intrigued, so I did some research. Turns out that anise, one of the ingredients in absinthe, contains an essential oil that dissolves clear in alcohol, but not in water. As you stir it with ice, water dissolves into the liquor, causing it to become cloudy. This process of adding water to a liquor containing anise (absinthe, pernod, and ouzo) is called louching, and is commonly done to help develop the spirit's aromas.

We shot a segment for New York Live this week, and the lovely Sara Gore came to talk to food editor Ben Mims about having the perfect picnic. While Ben was prepared to demo how to cut a watermelon, Sara, a line cook before becoming a television host, asked if she could demonstrate her method. Starting with a quartered watermelon, she makes a series of vertical cuts through the flesh, but not the rind, perpendicular to the long edges, one inch apart. Next, she makes a series of horizontal cuts parallel to the long edges and pushing all the way through the flesh, one inch apart. In other words, she cubes the watermelon while it is still attached to the rind. Then she uses a spoon to scoop out the perfectly uniform pieces. This easy method is our new favorite technique.

Chef Tariq Hanna from Sucré, a New Orleans bakery, came by the test kitchen to teach us how to make marshmallows. He graciously arrived with treats for the office, including a package for what he called the greatest chocolate macaron. However, when I opened the package I found a chocolate covered patty. Chef Hanna explained that his is an inside-out macaron: The smooth ganache on the outside contrasted perfectly with the chewy almond macaron shell in the middle. Truly, our new favorite sweet treat.

We were having some issues making cookies this week. A recipe called for scooping tablespoons of dough on a sheet tray and baking at 350° F for 15 minutes. However, the resulting cookies spread into each other. After an initial round of ugly cookies, we then tried rolling them before baking. This second batch was perfect in shape, but thin and extremely pale in color. Finally, we realized the issue was that the dough was too wet due to a hot kitchen, a common problem in the summer. The final batch was rolled and chilled for 20 minutes before baking. By chilling your dough, you allow the butter in it to firm up, so when it enters a hot oven it takes longer to expand. Et voila: perfectly golden cookies that did not spread too much.

In making pignoli cookies, I noticed the recipe actually called for adding an almond paste in the dough. I was a little confused about why you would not use pine nuts instead almond. The first reason I assumed was that pine nuts are expensive to use in such high quantities. However, after some research I discovered that eating large quantities of pine nuts can result in a one having a bitter metallic taste in their mouth. Referred to as “pine mouth”, this condition is still a mystery as to why it happens, and can happen by eating them both raw or cooked. It may be for the best that we use mainly almonds for these cookies.

Every staff member went crazy for the rainbow layer cake sent by Sugaree's Bakery in Mississippi. Each colorful layer reminded me of just how hard it is to make a layer cake with evenly-sized layers. The best tool to use: a ruler. Once you have the cake that you are going to slice into layers, measure it where you would like to cut, use toothpicks as markers around the sides of the cake. Use a long serrated knife to cleanly cut each layer, and let the toothpicks guide your knife. After the layers are separated, you can ice and assemble your cake.