KITCHEN CALL: The art of popover perfection

I am a cook. Not a baker. Not a pastry chef. I do not bake cakes, cupcakes, pies, breads or pizza from scratch. But from time to time, I am prompted by occasion, necessity, emergency — or ego. Never if the item must be kneaded, rolled or yeast risen.  

Linda Bassett, the Marblehead Current’s cooking columnist,  has mastered the art of baking popovers. COURTESY PHOTO

My pies are prepared with gluten-free pie shells from Crosby’s Market. (This has nothing to do with gluten. These New England-produced pie shells are much superior than any of the national brands.)  I soak my cakes, from a mix, drizzled with enough liqueur or topped with enough fresh fruit and whipped cream to thoroughly mask the chemical taste often present in a mix.

Several years ago, when I took my chef’s exam, bread was on the list of the requirements.  I chose to make quick bread. No yeast. No proofing.  And, it was easy to remember the recipe. I refused to waste time rolling out dough that I might need to defang a monkfish or shell a lobster.

Motherhood is a reason to bake. When my daughter turned five, she wished for a “castle tower” birthday cake, multicolored sparkles on each layer. I borrowed four graduated cake pans from a pastry chef buddy and baked a cupcake for the top.  (Actually I had to bake a whole batch of cupcakes to yield just one for the top turret.) When I put the cake together, the slippery frosting eased the layers into a tilt.  I grabbed long skewers, the kind used for toasting marshmallows, and stabbed them through all the layers to anchor them from top to bottom. Still the layers refused to stand upright, so the cake turned out to be a rainbow-hued leaning tower of Pisa. I nearly cried. But, my daughter, seeing the confection through her little girl eyes, pronounced it the most beautiful birthday cake ever!  

Today, I’ve thoroughly mastered one baked good from scratch: popovers. These large somewhat bready things emit a deliriously delicious puff of steam when opened. It is a smaller version of the English Yorkshire pudding, the recipe that traditionally partners with roast beef.  This very simple whisking together of flour, eggs and milk, cooked in a hot oven in a pan of scalding meat drippings. No yeast. Yet they rise!  

Most people think that baking popovers is a difficult project, all that fuss over whether or not they will rise. Yet, it isn’t that difficult to turn out a decent batch. In our household, we consider them special occasion brunch food. And in spite of the many mimosas guzzled during preparation, they manage to pop nearly every time.

Why do they perk up when other popovers lie listlessly at the bottom of the pan? Basically I stick to a few tricks I’ve worked out over years of practice.  

I use a pan specifically made for popovers. Those shallow muffin tins work only when the mood moves them. Maybe they’re too shallow to carry the heat upward. Even when the oven is pumped up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit!

For ingredients, I use large-size eggs (not extra) and real butter or vegetable shortening.  And always whole milk. I sit these ingredients on the countertop until they reach room temperature before starting. Popping failure can result from cold ingredients.

Batter ready, I prep the pans. Whatever amount of butter (or shortening) seems too much is not enough! Double the effort and thickness gets it into the seams. I made this discovery teaching a children’s cooking class. The enthusiastic little fingers did a thoroughly messy job “greasing the pans” and the popovers slipped out easily when done.

I pour the batter nearly to the top of each well in the pan. Not all the way, just over three-quarters.

The baking pan goes on the center rack of the 450 F oven, with lots of head room for rising. I turn the heat down immediately(!), and watch them rise through the window. NEVER open the oven door to peek. Why? Because an oven door will invariably slam closed, even a little bit,  and deflate all the nice poofy batter.


Makes 6

Serve these hot from the oven with butter and jam. Alternatively, slit them open to fill with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon or homemade meat pie filling.

Butter or vegetable shortening

2 large eggs

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup whole milk

Pinch of salt

  1. Preheat the oven to 425 F.  Grease the insides of a 6-well popover pan thickly.
  2. Blend the eggs, flour and milk in a food processor or blender until smooth.  Alternatively, hand-whisk or use a stick blender.
  3. Pour an equal amount of batter into each well, filling nearly to the top.
  4. Transfer the pan to the oven. Immediately turn the heat down to 400F. Bake for 20 minutes.  By now, they will be tall, puffed and golden.  
  5. Remove from the oven and gently pierce the tops with the point of a knife to allow steam to escape. Wait three to five minutes before removing them from the baking pan.  To get them out of the pan in one piece, run a very thin knife, a boning or paring knife, around the edges to loosen them. Serve them still hot before all the steam escapes.
Linda Bassett
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Marblehead resident Linda Bassett has worked as a cook, trained up-and-coming chefs, studied food history and led food tours. Her book, “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai,” is about local cooks and cooking.

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