Musings from a Seattle personal chef
This past Christmas one of my clients — a woman VERY particular about how her food should be prepared and presented — decided she wanted popovers with strawberry butter for Christmas Eve brunch (she’s the same client who sent me home with half the foie gras and black truffles from said brunch). She had seen a chef on Martha Stewart prepare gigantic cheese popovers and wanted me to replicate them (she taped the segment so I could see what they looked like. Indeed, they looked delicious).
I’ve never made popovers before (although I did try my hand at individual Yorkshire puddings one year), but they didn’t seem too terribly difficult: mix milk, flour, eggs, salt and melted butter, pour into prepared popover tins, top with shredded gruyere and bake until puffed and golden brown. Normally I’d practice beforehand, but I didn’t have a popover pan, nor did I have much extra time given my marathon training. I’d just have to hope for the best.
When I downloaded the recipe off of Martha’s site I decided to check out the reviews. Practically all of them were negative; most people said the popovers turned out doughy and didn’t rise that much. This wouldn’t do! I then compared that recipe to others, including one in Baking Illustrated (I always trust the folks at Cook’s Illustrated). Martha’s recipe was for 12 popovers and called for 4 cups each of flour and milk and 8 eggs. The BI recipe called for just 1 cup each of flour and milk and 2 eggs for 6 popovers. Given the disastrous results so many people had with Martha’s recipe, I decided I’d take a chance and prepare the BI one, doubling the recipe.
As I was in the thick of things during the brunch I started to get nervous. I know how important my client’s Christmas Eve brunch with her family is, so I didn’t want to disappoint. I had considered fessing up to using a different recipe, but decided against it. I just prayed everything worked out.
Martha’s chef had you pour the batter to the top of the popover cup, so I did the same (even though BI said to divide the batter evenly). I knew I was in trouble as I filled up the 8th cup: I had barely enough batter left for one more. D’oh! Fortunately I’d only be serving 5 adults and 2 kids, so I thought I could get away with it (there was so much food, I didn’t think people would want seconds on the popovers). I sprinkled the gruyere over the batter and placed the tins back in the oven.
When the timer rang I looked in to see some rather lopsided popovers. They rose, but I think the gruyere kept them from rising straight up. I took them out of the pans and placed them on a rack, where they deflated slightly. I began to panic; have I just ruined my client’s brunch? Fortunately everyone seemed thrilled and no one said a word about the less-than-perfect popovers. I dodged a bullet.
Or so I thought.
When I arrived the following week for their regular service my client mentioned she wanted to get her oven checked since the popovers didn’t rise like they were supposed to. Now I’m REALLY on a guilt trip. Here I was the one to mess with her popovers and she’s blaming her oven. You’d think I’d take that opportunity to fess up, but NOOOOO. We just made plans to try the popovers again to see if they would come out better the next time. (I’m such a wuss).
However, I then came up with a plan: a white lie, if you will. The next week I told her I had looked through the comments on the site and said that many others had the same problem — basically the truth, although I neglected to say it wasn’t Martha’s recipe in the first place. So I prepared the popovers using the BI recipe again, eliminating the gruyere and making the called-for number of servings. They baked up beautifully! I did, however, neglect to divvy up the batter evenly among the cups, so I ended up with 4 very large popovers and one medium-size. But my client was happy, so all’s well that ends.
Of course, this whole ordeal got me on a popover kick, so for Valentine’s Day I asked my darling for a pan (with the promise of fresh hot popovers for him for dinner). I’ve made them several times since, and even tried them with the gruyere. Indeed, they don’t rise quite as much, but the cheese gets nicely browned and chewy on top (similar to the cheese crust that forms on the bowl of French onion soup).
(adapted from Baking Illustrated)
1 cup whole milk
1 cup (5 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups gruyere, finely shredded
Whisk eggs and milk until well combined. Mix in flour and salt until the flour is just incorporated (the batter will be lumpy). Add the melted butter and whisk until batter is bubbly and smooth. Let batter rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 450. Place 1/2 teaspoon oil in the bottom of 6 popover cups. Adjust an oven rack to the lowest position and place popover pan in oven (let heat for at least 15 minutes). When hot, remove pan from oven and quickly distribute evenly among the 6 cups. Top with the gruyere and place back in the oven. Bake for 20 minutes without opening the oven door. Lower the heat to 350 and bake until puffed and golden brown all over, approximately 15-18 minutes. Remove popovers from pan and let cool for about 5 minutes.