Oh, the dilemma that so often stems from baking popovers — those hollowed rolls with a contrasting crunchy, flaky exterior and moist, eggy interior. They are the American relative to the British Yorkshire pudding, an evolution of the latter that disregards the use of beef drippings in the pan (and instead uses butter). The first known published cookbook recipe was in M. N. Henderson’s Practical Cooking, in 1876. Now popovers are most often served for breakfast, cut open and slathered with butter and jam, sprinkled with sugar, or stuffed with cheese.
The name – popover— implies a concept that sounds so simple. One mixes, bakes, and then (like magic) watches as their concoction actually “pops” in the oven. But, upon removing them from heat, they are often times faced with frustrating predicaments. Their popovers have popped over, but unfortunately, upon removal, they have also deflated. Or the interior – intended to be a soft, gooey, scrambled-egg-like substance – is too undercooked to eat.
Tips to avoid these popover pitfalls vary: Use a popover pan instead of a muffin pan, poke them with a knife after baking to dry them out, start with a cold oven, heat up the pan before pouring in the batter. In order to get to the bottom of this popover conundrum, the Heavy Table called on Heather Asbury (front of house manager) and Toni Luschen (pastry chef) from Lucia’s Restaurant in Minneapolis. Lucia’s to-go side has been selling popovers since its opening in 2005, and they’re a popular item on their weekend brunch menu. They go through about 150 every weekend, and sell around 20 per day during the week.
The first order of business in this popover tutorial was an introduction to Lucia’s new, smaller popovers, introduced a few months ago. Their size has recently been cut in half – from a round, massive serving that could easily be filling enough for breakfast to a smaller, tube-shaped version comparable in shape and size to a four-pack of butter. The cooking time has decreased from one hour to 20 minutes, and the cost has dropped from $3 to $1.50. (They do have at least two regular customers who come in daily for popovers and have been grandfathered in, receiving two for the price of one).
Next was the importance of batter. Popovers, like crepes and pancakes, are made from flat cake batter (versus raised cake batter – used to make pound, layer, and angel cakes). The difference between popover and other flat cake batter is that popover batter is thin and has a higher water content. Other flat cake batters have a higher flour content and are thus stickier. This difference in batter texture creates a difference in ability to hold gas. To provide a visual explanation, compare a pancake to a popover. Pancakes need to be flipped after the tiny bubbles that form in the pool of batter have popped, whereas popovers are removed from heat once the exterior has set and the small pockets of air on the inside have collapsed into one large air bubble.
Unlike most other popover recipes that rely on whole milk and eggs as the only liquid ingredients, Lucia’s calls for water as well. They mix all these liquid ingredients, along with flour and salt, in a blender. This incorporates a lot of air into the mixture, and the air acts as a natural leavening agent. Once blended, the batter is strained, ridding it of any flour lumps and thinning it out as much as possible.
The next step is pan preparation. (Lucia’s popovers are now baked in steel popover tins with deep molds instead of the wider muffin pan they were using before.) Tiny pieces of butter are placed in the bottom of each popover tin. The pan goes into the oven to melt the butter. This butter helps brown the outsides and creates crunch. After the butter melts the pan is pulled out and the tins are sprayed with non-stick cooking spray. Then each tin is filled, to the brim, with batter.
Once in the oven, the first thing to happen is the creation of the popover’s shape. The popovers don’t take long to rise above the rim of the tin and pop. The butter bubbles form on the outside during the first half of baking, giving the popovers their shiny, golden-brown texture and solidifying the outside so they are able to fill with air.
The most important tip during baking is to never, under any circumstances, open the oven door. There will be temptation, as they pop right away and turn golden brown midway through cooking. However, opening the oven door will release the heat needed to create the structured, rigid exterior that maintains their puffy shape. So, removing them too early will give you an unstable exterior that is likely to deflate.
“Getting them to set is the hardest part,” says Asbury. “Once you do that, they can last all day.” She remembers a time when they had run out of popovers and all the pastry chefs had left. “I looked at the recipe, and it called for at least 45 minutes,” she says. “I thought, there’s no way they can take that long. So I took them out early, and they didn’t turn out right. That’s why I’m not a pastry chef!”
After about 20 minutes they remove the pan from the oven. They flip the popovers out onto a baking sheet, and stick them in the oven for another few minutes to crisp the bottoms. “Sometimes they grow appendages,” say Luschen. But a misshapen popover has never been turned away. “I like to get the heaviest one,” says Asbury. “Then you know it’s really good and eggy.”
1 c water
3 c whole milk
3 c pastry flour
2 tsp salt
2 oz unsalted butter, melted
Preheat oven to 425°F (400° if using convection). Using a blender, mix ingredients in the order listed. Strain to get rid of any lumps. Place a pat of butter in steel popover tins and warm in oven. Once butter is melted, remove pan and spray tins with non-stick cooking spray. Fill tins to the brim with batter. Bake for 25 minutes (20 minutes if using convection). Do not open oven door. Once done baking, remove from oven, flip out onto cookie sheet, and bake for an additional five minutes to crisp bottoms. Serve immediately or reheat in the oven at 325°F for three to five minutes.
*To try a sweet or savory variation, Luschen recommends adding sugar, pepper, or dried herbs to the batter. She also suggests slicing them open after baking and stuffing them with wet ingredients, like cheese (they are currently experimenting with a cheesy mushroom filling). Reheat the stuffed popovers in the oven for a few minutes.