The Baker’s Secrets: Tips & Tricks I Learned in Professional Bakeries

I’ve been lucky enough to work in some great restaurants and bakeries, like Bakeri and Ovenly in Brooklyn, NY. I’ve worked with some great people, and I’ve learned from some really awesome people. The industry is a rough place and finding your way through it as a young baker or cook can be exhausting and unforgiving. That being said, it’s also taught me a lot of skills that I will hold onto for the rest of my life! Working in professional bakeries is truly a treat. Some of these tips and tricks you may already know… I would give you a cookie if I could. 😉

1. Scale, scale, scale. The only way you can ever rely on a recipe to produce the same product time and again is if you scale it. When I started baking, I didn’t know this. I showed up to a trail in a restaurant and was asked to scale something. I confessed my lack of knowledge regretfully, and didn’t get the job. Now, my scale is my best friend and I take full advantage of its powers. You can snag one for around $20. 

2. No room temperature butter? No problem. Over the 2 years and some change that I worked with Shuna Lydon, she taught me more than anyone has ever taught me in my life. Honestly! One day at work she was quizzing the bakers, asking “what do you do when you need to room temp butter for a recipe, but all of your butter is cold?” Various answers came up,  ranging from “microwave?” (NO!) to “top of the oven?” (NO!) and a few others. It turns out the best way to bring butter to room temperature quickly is to slice it thinly and let it sit for 10ish minutes. When you slice the butter into thinner slices, it takes much less time to warm up than if it was still one big cold block. 

3. Also while working at Bakeri, I learned the art of lifting pies, loaves, and tarts out of their pans with parchment paper. I’m not saying Bakeri invented the wheel when it comes to this technique, but this was the first place I learned it, and I cherish it for that and many other reasons. It’s simple: before lining your pie or tart, put a piece of parchment in the bottom of your pan. It doesn’t change anything – except the amount of difficulty you can sometimes face getting your pie out of the pan! When your pie is done baking, let it cool, then lift it out carefully using the parchment you so intelligently thought to place underneath your gorgeous creation. 

4. The changing of seasons affects your baking, and so does the weather. If it’s super humid or raining outside, your pate brisee might need a little less water than it does on other days. If it’s especially wet outside, good luck with meringues! This can also change the baking time of pastries. Actual changes are slight, but worth noting and being prepared for.

 
5. My very first professional pastry job was in a hotel restaurant in NYC. My chef’s name was Crystal, and let’s just say she had a LOT of patience. She also taught me the art of mise en place. Mise en place is important. In French it literally means “to put in place.” It sounds like a fancy term that maybe only professionals utilize, but it’s much more than that – it’s a roll call for all of the ingredients. You can count the ingredients and cross check it with the recipe you’re preparing. Missing one? Not anymore. When you’re preparing a complex or time sensitive recipe, measuring out all of your ingredients can be the small step that makes all the difference. 

6. You can’t always trust ovens. Crazy, right? It’s true – some ovens run hot. Some ovens run several degrees under what you set them at. If you have a sneaky suspicion that your oven can’t be trusted, buy a thermometer and confront your oven to its face. It won’t be offended. Also, all ovens are different! This makes “bake times” on recipes only a suggestion. You should always keep an eye on what you’re baking. Check on it halfway through the time you think it should be done and give it a rotation. Never hurt anything! 

7. Cleaning as you go is arguably the most valuable skill you can have in the kitchen. (I still struggle with it.) Sometimes I get too excited about what I’m doing and forget that I’m leaving a trail of bowls, pots, and pans in my wake. If you have a small kitchen, like I do here in France (I can touch both walls if I spread out my arms), cleaning is even more important. I need to practice what I preach with this one. 🙂

8. You are your own biggest critic (most of the time). That small imperfection that just ruined your day will more than likely go unnoticed by everyone else. This doesn’t just go for professionals, but for home cooks and bakers too. Don’t be too hard on yourself! 

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** All of the opinions in this post are my own and have nothing to do with the persons or bakeries mentioned. **

Photos are from Bakeri, 105 Freeman St Brooklyn, NY 

Alexander’s Apple Pie

Lately I’ve had pie on the mind, and Thanksgiving only made it worse with everyone posting their pie photos. If I had made it home to North Carolina, I would have definitely made a pie to bring to dinner! Instead, Leo and I had a small Thanksgiving meal together at home with a nice bottle of wine. After dinner we chased it all down with a Religeuse au Chocolat from the bakery on our corner. A fair trade, I’d say. 

To scratch my pie itch I decided to make an apple pie. My recipe is inspired by Four & Twenty Blackbirds’ famous Salted Caramel Apple Pie. Although I’ve never had the pleasure of tasting their pies in Brooklyn, I’ve always loved the idea of pouring a cup of salted caramel into an apple pie. What could be better? A splash of whiskey, of course.  I can honestly tell you that I have never had a better piece of apple pie than this creation right here, and I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t mean it. Holy cow.

I used my own pie dough recipe, which you should all try of course, but if you don’t have time you can use store bought pie rounds. For a pie that will piss off all of your relatives because it’s so good, I would highly recommend making your own pie crust! 

For a 9" Apple Pie 

2 prepared pie crusts, 1 lined in pie pan

6 apples

Juice of one lemon 

Splash of whiskey 

3 tablespoons of all purpose flour 

½ teaspoon ginger, fresh if possible

1 teaspoon cinnamon 

1 teaspoon salt 

A generous grating of fresh nutmeg 

1 tablespoon chopped rosemary 

For the caramel (Blackbirds’ recipe):

1 cup white sugar 

¼ cup water 

1 stick of butter 

½ cup of cream 

Generous amount of salt (to your taste)

1. First, prepare your caramel. Combine sugar and water in a medium sized pot. Stir to combine, and leave over medium heat until the mixture is clear. Whisk in butter bit by bit. Continue cooking the caramel, and when it reaches a lovely copper-like color, remove it from heat immediately and slowly pour in the cream while whisking. The mixture will expand, so be careful!  

2. Squeeze lemon juice into a big bowl and add a big splash of whiskey. Peel and slice apples thinly, and mix them into the lemon juice. Add a sprinkling of salt, and all spices. Finally, add the flour and toss it around to cover all of the apples evenly.  

3. Pour apple mixture into lined pie pan. Pile it up a bit higher than the crust, because the apples will reduce significantly! You may need more or less than six apples depending on their size. 

4. Attach your other pie round to the top with your method of choice. I did a lattice with some braid work, but you could easily just put the whole top on completely if you don’t want to create a lattice. 

5. Egg wash the entire crust, and sprinkle the top with a bit of raw sugar if you have it, and some chunky sea salt. Bake on 400 degrees until the pie is golden brown. The caramel will bubble, and a little may leak out. This is normal! To test, poke an apple with a knife to check doneness. My apples had some bite left in them, which I really loved. 

Important: COOL your pie completely before cutting! Let it set, or you may encounter a runny mess. I let my pie rest for about 3 hours before slicing it up. Where I found such self control? I have no idea.

Thanks for reading! 

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The Next Recipe You Should Master: Crêpes

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Photograph(s) © David Katzenstein

A few days ago I was talking on the phone with my aunt. We talk about once a week and sometimes our talks last over an hour. In our last conversation we were talking about writing, and she told me that the most important thing to remember is “write what you know.”

I began thinking, “what do I know?!” I know cookies. I know pies. I know Southern comfort food. I also know crêpes, and I think everyone else should know about crêpes too.

When I was living in New York, I actually got three separate gigs serving crêpes at events. It was funny to imagine being a Crêpier, but I’m always up for a challenge or a new experience, so I went for it! Two of the events were for Festival Daniou (www.festivaldaniou.com). Festival Daniou is a Brittany-based summer chamber music residency for internationally recognized young musicians that engages with the history, culture, and cuisine of its region through performance. The first three photos on this post are from the first time I made crêpes at the festival! And before you ask – yes, that’s my majestic pouring and wrist swirling in action. 😉

Both events were lovely and I had the opportunity to serve miniature Kouign-amann, profiteroles and classic galettes. Brittany is well known as the place where Kouign-amann and crêpes themselves began. Crêpes were then known as galettes, which means “flat cake.” They were made with buckwheat flour, which gave the crêpe a much heartier, earthy flavor.

I don’t know how many crêpes I’ve made, but I’d guess it’s close to 1,000. When I began making crêpes in my apartment in Brooklyn, I tested several different recipes that the Festival Danilou organizer Simon Frisch had passed down to me from his family! A lot of them were still in French, and they were all handwritten. I tested, failed, burned, flipped, ate, and shared a lot of crêpes with my roommates. It took me at least a week to master the perfect flick of the wrist that would flip the crêpe over mid-air. I still mess it up to this day though! Around that same time my husband bought me my own crêpe pan as an anniversary gift, and the rest is history.

The recipe I’m posting is for regular crêpes with all purpose flour. Perhaps in the future I’ll do a post on galettes, but for now this is a good place to start. The aforementioned anniversary crêpe pan is still in the US (because it’s heavy!), but using a normal frying pan or cast iron is totally fine.

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I like my crêpes a little thinner and delicate than most, I’d say. If you want a more cake-like, thick crêpe, omit the ¼ cup of water. Or just make pancakes. You could also use only water instead of milk. Once you master the basic crêpe, you can change everything around to find your perfect recipe.

Ingredients for 12-14 crêpes*:
*depends on pan size, egg size, etc.

1 cup whole milk
¼ cup water
4 eggs, beaten
½ cup flour
½ teaspoon salt
Butter, for frying pan
1 tablespoon sugar (if making sweet crepes)

1. Sift flour and salt together.

2. Combine beaten eggs and milk.

3. Using a fork or whisk to mix, slowly pour the milk and egg mixture into the center of the bowl of flour. Mix it together gradually, and slowly add more liquid as you go. This will avoid clumps. The total mixing should take about 2 minutes – don’t rush it!

(Alternatively, you can combine all the ingredients in a blender and pulse for 30 seconds until combined and bubbly – but why get the blender dirty when you can mix it by hand?)

4. You now must let the batter rest for at least one hour at room temperature. Trust me (or overnight), you don’t want a gummy crêpe.

5.  Heat your frying pan over medium-high. When you drop a pat of butter in the pan, it should hiss and fuss. If it doesn’t your pan isn’t hot enough. You want to maintain this temperature the entire time you’re cooking the crêpes. You also want to keep adding butter, or your crêpe will get stuck. The butter also promotes gorgeous browning. I used nearly a stick of butter making 12 crêpes. I really love butter.

6. Pour about ¼ cup of batter into the pan, swirling with your wrist to evenly cover the pan’s surface. Depending on pan size, you may need more or you may need less. If it doesn’t cover the whole pan, pour in a little more in the vacant spaces.

7. The crêpe will cook on each side for 1-2 minutes, until golden brown. Loosen the edges of the crêpe with a (heatproof!) spatula, then flip it. Some people use their fingers. Some people use an offset spatula. Some people, like me, try to flip it with a flick of the wrist. Cook all the crêpes and leave them in a beautiful stack under some tin foil if you are serving them soon. If not, they’re just as good reheated in the oven.

Before the flip…

And after. Now all that’s left to do is serve your crêpes however you please!

You could add ham and cheese, and melt it together in the oven…

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You could add melted chocolate, or Nutella, if you must. 

You could smear some greek yogurt, berries and honey on them.

No matter how you serve them, they’re delicious and versatile!

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Living Abroad: 7 Things You Should Know Before Moving (From An American in Paris)

As most of my followers and friends know, I recently moved to Paris from New York City. I came over with my husband, Léo, who is French (from Orléans, France). I was fearless and excited, but four months later there are some things I wish I had known. I don’t regret moving at all, but I could have been more prepared.

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1. Save more money than you think you need. This is easier said than done, obviously, and is the number 1 tip for a reason. As a professional baker I’ve had trouble generating income in Paris. Unheard of? Not when your French is lacking. Opportunities come and go. Finding your ideal job is next to impossible, and you should be prepared. French employers often have to prove that they tried and failed to hire a French native before they can hire someone from another country. Don’t be afraid to get crafty and try alternative methods of earning money. If you’re a writer, writejobs.info is an excellent resource for remote, freelance writing work. Craigslist is also surprisingly fruitful if you use a site like searchcraigslist.org to search EVERY city’s database. FlexJobs also has some great remote work. Gumtree is a great resource if you’re in/near the UK. Au Pairing is always an option, but keep in mind that to be an official Au Pair you must meet several requirements: you’re not married, you don’t have children, and you sometimes have to fit in a certain age group.

2. The language barrier is not waist high. It’s much, much taller than you, and it will smash you, scare you, and make you anxious. Don’t be afraid! In 2015, there are great resources for learning languages, and they are growing by the day. A few I can recommend: FluentU and SkillShare. Of course DuoLingo is also great for time spent on the metro. The moral of the story is: learn the language of the place you’re going to! It’s crucial. This has been the most difficult part of my move, hands down.

3. The second you leave your country, you are now an expatriate. Everyone knows that’s a friendly way of saying “immigrant.” You are no longer the main concern of your country, nor the priority of the new country you’ve moved to. You are very fortunate to be living in a country that you were not born in. Be prepared for complications. Have all of your paperwork organized. Do things as far in advance as possible. In France in particular, be ready to make a lot of copies. 😉

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4. You’re going to be lonely. I came here with my husband, and I still find myself feeling really lonely sometimes. The best way to cure this is to make other expat friends. Most expats are also looking for the same thing you are. There are numerous groups on Facebook devoted to Expats from Country X in Country Y. They are an incredible resource for jobs, friends, and general expat info. Example: does anyone know where can I find brown sugar?

5. There will be ups, and there will be downs. You are in a beautiful new place. You are having the experience of a lifetime, exposing and immersing yourself in another country’s culture. These experiences are priceless and will leave you changed forever, but that doesn’t mean every day is going to be rainbows and butterflies. Some of the experiences may not be so good, but you will learn from all of them.

6. Your new time zone may be inconvenient to your friends and family back home. Typically I find myself calling everyone in the US in the morning, which is my evening. This is not a deal breaker by any means, just something to consider. Also, when choosing a cellphone provider, for your own sake please look into their international calling plans. Some carriers offer it free, while some charge more than you could believe. My phone calls back home always end up lasting longer than expected.

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7. There’s no place like home. It’s true! Living abroad is exciting, adventurous, and eye-opening. But that doesn’t change the fact that home will always be there for you, waiting with open arms for a visit, a return, or just a quick message letting everyone know you miss them.

* This post is based solely on my personal experience moving to Paris. My friends have had different experiences. Some have had it easier, some have had it harder. Obviously it all differs from person to person, I just wanted to state that these are my personal opinions.

If you’re interested in following me, you may do so at http://www.facebook.com/thealexanderroberts or on Instagram: alexanderoberts 

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A Coffee Date

I’ve seen this “virtual coffee date” on a few other blogs lately. I like the idea, because I can’t have coffee with a lot of my friends and family back home, but I would love to. So, I’m inviting you to have a cup of coffee with me via the internet.

If we were having coffee today, I would mention the abrupt arrival of cold weather in Paris. It’s been in the low 40s and even high 30s at night. I’d probably complain about my careless abandonment of my favorite scarf in New York before I moved here, and I’d probably mention that I’m about to order a new cozy scarf, I am just having trouble choosing the “perfect” one. We would then discuss scarves for at least 5 more minutes. 

If we were having coffee today, and I haven’t seen you in a while, I would probably tell you that French is like, really hard. I can order at a restaurant, say “no thanks, I don’t need a bag” at the grocery store, and ask the man who works in the wine shop if the wine is too sweet or not. That’s about as far as my vocal communication goes at this point. Necessities… The good news is I learn a little more each day, I guess.

If we were having coffee today, I would tell you that I wish I could go home and see my family during the holidays this year. As I get older I’m lucky if I make it for Thanksgiving or Christmas, but this year I won’t make it to either. I miss my dog, my mom, and my grandmothers. The rest of the family too, of course. It’s easy for me to get emotional around the holidays. I will try my best to keep it together, making new traditions and memories with Leo and his family here in France. 🙂

I suppose at this point I would have to offer you another cup of coffee. I’d also offer you a piece of this toast that I topped with ricotta and clementine… It’s probably the most refreshing toast ever.

Half way into our eleventh cup of coffee, I would ask you: what are your plans for the holidays this year? What are you most looking forward to creating and sharing? What’s your favorite thing to eat this time of year? I’m excited to make a beautiful pie and share it, even if it’s just with one person.

Thanks for having coffee with me! 

Pâte Brisée (Pie Dough)

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Brisée and I have had a long, tumultuous, on and off relationship. Simply known to most as “pie dough,” this dough can make or break a quiche or an apple pie. If you know a few basic points about pie dough, you can easily make some at home that will rival the pies of your favorite bakery.

Important Tips To Remember:
– Warmth is your enemy when making this dough. If your dough gets too warm, the butter will melt right out (or right in, making a more dense dough).
– Keep all ingredients cold. Your water (ice cold!). Your flour. Your butter. Even the bowl you are mixing it in should be refrigerated!
– Work quickly and confidently. 

This recipe is versatile and can be used in a multitude of ways. I choose not to add any sugar to the dough, but if you must, you can add a sprinkle. It’s nice to have a bit more sugar if you’re making a sweet pie, but if you’re making a quiche or something similar I would avoid it. 

Making pie dough becomes a lot easier when you have the correct tools, such as a bowl scraper or bench knife. This recipe will make enough for two 9 inch pies, or one double crusted pie.

Ingredients:
400 grams all purpose flour (3.25 cups)
200 grams butter (2.25 sticks)
1 teaspoon of salt
Approximately 150 grams of ice cold water (½ cup)

1.  Measure out all of your ingredients and refrigerate them until they’re nice and cold. Cut the butter into small cubes, or slivers. Add the salt to the flour.

2. Work the butter into the flour using a fork, pastry blender, your fingers (quickly!), or a bench knife on a work surface. You want small, scraggly pieces of butter in the flour – not big chunks, but not completely invisible either.
Once all of your butter is blended into the flour, pour the flour out onto a clean work surface. Form a circle shape with a hole in the center, like a big donut. 

3. Pour the water into the hole in the middle and using a fork, mix it carefully to combine the liquid with the flour. Don’t let the water out of the center!
Using your hands, press all of the ingredients together gently until it sticks together. Too dry? Add a little water at a time by sprinkling it from your fingertips. You can also add flour if you find your dough is getting to wet. 

Depending on the day and the weather, you may need more or less liquid! You will understand after making the dough a few times.

4. That’s it! Refrigerate the dough overnight, or at least 1 hour until it’s completely cold. Take care of your dough and it will take care of you!

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Serious Note: Do not over mix or overwork. This photo shows right about where my dough is when it’s finished. I only pack it together enough to hold. Remember, this dough is not going to be completely cohesive. It’s going to be scraggly and shaggy looking. It will not be as wet as you probably think it should be, and you may still see chunks of butter. That’s great! It means your dough is going to be beautifully flaky. In the same sense, really large chunks of butter will disappear and leave a hole in your pastry if it’s too big!

Chocolate Chunk Banana Bread

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I’ll admit that I’ve been making a strange amount of banana bread lately. It’s because I’ve been testing and tweaking a recipe that I can depend on time and time again. I also had to finally admit to myself that I do, in fact, have a chocolate problem. My past two weeks have been full of chocolate, just like this banana bread. Nothing’s wrong with that!

A few banana bread tips:
1. You can just use all white sugar if you don’t have any brown sugar on hand.
2. Riper bananas are better for banana bread, because the starch in the banana breaks down into sugar over time.  This makes for a stronger aroma as well as a more moist and sweet final product. Yay!
3. Don’t over mix! Once you add the flour, work it as little as possible. You don’t want a tough or dense bread.

*Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

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Ingredients:
114g (1 stick) melted butter, cooled
100g (½ cup) sugar
100g (½ cup) brown sugar
250g (2 cups)  of flour  
2 eggs
150g (1 cup) chopped chocolate or chocolate chips
2 ripe bananas
1 tsp salt
½ tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda

Mash bananas and combine with sugars. Whisk in the butter, followed by the eggs, salt, and vanilla.

Add the chocolate, and stir to combine.

Fold in the flour along with the baking powder and baking soda. Do not over mix.

Pour into a butter/greased loaf pan and bake for approximately 1 hour, or until a knife comes out clean and the banana bread bounces back if you poke it with your finger. Note: melted chocolate on the knife doesn’t mean it’s raw! 

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Wrap in plastic once cool to store. This bread will stay moist for nearly a week!

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The Chocolate Chip Cookie

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A person’s favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe says a lot about them. It’s taken me a while to perfect my recipe, but I think I’m finally in a position to share my favorite. It’s finally getting cold outside, so naturally I jump at any excuse to turn on my oven. 

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Ingredients:

1.25c all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon salt
1 stick of butter
½ cup of brown sugar
¼ cup white sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg

1.5-2 cups chopped chocolate 

1. Combine melted butter with both sugars, salt, and vanilla. Whisk it.
2. Add egg, whisk until fully incorporated.
3. Switch to a spatula or wooden spoon and fold in chocolate, flour, and nutmeg. Cut into the dough with the spatula and fold just until all the flour is absorbed and you see no more streaks.
4. Portion cookies and bake on 350 degrees until golden brown but still a little raw in the center. Approx. 10-14 minutes depending on the size of your cookies and your oven.

I tend to portion my cookies a bit smaller since I have a small oven. Keep in mind that the size of your cookie is directly proportionate to it’s texture and baking time. For more tips, here’s a really helpful article about the chemistry of a perfect cookie: http://sweets.seriouseats.com/2013/12/the-food-lab-the-best-chocolate-chip-cookies.html

A Birthday Cake

Today, October 15th, is my husband’s birthday. Léo loves chocolate, so obviously chocolate was going to be part of the equation. I had some aging figs on hand that I turned into a jam-like filling, and some almonds that I roasted to use as garnish. 

I found a recipe on The Kitchn, which you can find at the bottom of this blog post. For the frosting, I followed a simple recipe of melting 2 sticks of butter with one cup of chopped dark chocolate, cooling it until it hardens, and whipping it until it’s fluffy. Essentially a whipped ganache. This method is super fast, but you must work with it quickly in a warm room or the butter will begin to melt out! Chill after frosting, or else. 

Oh, chocolate. So easy to photograph. 

Cake recipe: http://www.thekitchn.com/recipe-weeknight-layer-cake-bu-80097

Peach Cobbler

Hello everyone! This is the first time in a few weeks I’ve really felt like writing anything. I’ve been in a bit of a rut here in Paris, but I am pushing myself out of it. It’s been a tough ride and I’m still figuring a lot of things out (like the entire French language), but I’ve decided to take a different approach and things are already looking better. I haven’t given myself enough time to absorb the greatness of the new city I live in. That changes now.

About two weeks ago I snagged the last of what I thought might be nice white peaches. I got lucky; they were. Produce can be tricky around here. They sat on the counter for a few days before I finally decided to do something with them. I wanted to make dessert for two, so I decided on a quick cobbler! Oh, how I miss the Southern United States and it’s delicacies. This took me back. 

You’re really free to use any fruit for this. Just take into account the amount of liquid it’s going to produce when it’s baked. A juicy peach will produce enough liquid to make a crust soggy, so to avoid that I tossed about ½ a teaspoon of flour into the diced fruit. 


What You Need (for 2 mini cobblers):

75g butter (about ¾ stick)
100g flour
1/2t baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
1 egg yolk
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tbsp cream
3 peaches, medium diced or 2 cups of any fruit

1) Butter 2 small ramekins. Combine flour, salt, baking powder and sugar. Mix peaches in a separate bowl with 1 tablespoon of flour, 2 tablespoons of sugar, and a pinch of salt.

2) Blend butter into flour using your fingers or a fork. Don’t melt it! 

3) When butter is broken down almost completely, stir in the yolk and the cream. Just bring together, do not overmix. Chill for at least 10 minutes. 

4) Since I used mini ramekins, I quickly shaped my dough into a disk shape and put it over the top of my peaches inside of the ramekin. You could also take a spoon and just drop spoonfuls over the peaches in a baking pan. 

Bake on 350 degrees until golden brown. 

*If you wish to make a regular sized cobbler in a square baking dish, multiply this recipe by 3.