Sunday, November 15, 2009

Baking and nothingness

Yesterday, while looking for a biscuit recipe in Mark Bittman's  How to Cook Everything, I noticed the last recipe in the quick bread section, so short it almost seemed an after-thought: popovers. For some reason, my brain (and stomach) latched on to the idea of fresh popovers, hot from the oven, pulled apart to reveal an airy, soft center that I could slather with butter and jam.

The recipe was a total cinch. I had the batter ready in minutes and stood around, tapping my foot while the oven heated up.

While they baked, I brought the husband up to to speed, since he had never tried popovers before. "My mother used to make them on weekends," I said. "They almost have a pancake-like batter and taste, but you bake them in muffin tins and they poof up, like little balloons."

My most recent experience with the popover has been at The Rotunda Room, a ridiculous restaurant on the top floor of Neiman Marcus in Union Square. For some reason I've ended up at The Rotunda Room at least three times that I can remember, usually with work friends. Since it is a public place, there are usually other civilians like me there, with our wash-and-wear hair and off-the-rack clothes, but for the most part, The Rotunda Room is frequented by well-coiffed ladies that lunch, wearing chic dresses and strappy heels, their Gucci bags weighing heavily on skinny wrists.

The Rotunda Room's defining and admittedly fabulous feature is that it's mostly windows, so you can look out over the city while you eat your $25 Cobb salad. The restaurant's signature starters that are brought out soon after you're seated are a tiny teacup of consomme and a giant, crusty popover served with strawberry butter. The popovers really are lovely, I'll give them that. They are a deep, burnished brown, with an airy, empty center. It might seem overkill to draw the comparison between the popovers and the Rotunda ladies eating them, but I'm not in the practice of being subtle.

The joke might be on me, though, because it turns out popovers are not easy to make, even if they are filled with nothing. As soon as I pulled mine from the oven, I knew I had failed. There was no popping, and definitely no popping over. In fact, they looked like squat little muffins.

Here's a close-up view.

And here's what they looked like inside. See what's missing? Nothing is missing. Instead of a beautiful hollow center, the popovers were full of a dense spongey filling.

The lack of a solid center is critical to the popover; its internal nothingness is what gives it its essence. I feel like I'm on the brink of making a philosophical connection here, something existentialist, but I can't quite bring it home. Feel free to jump in, any of you Sartre scholars.

"This isn't how they're supposed to look," I said to the husband, as I served him two little stumps on a plate. "They're supposed to be light and airy but instead they're..."

"Flopovers?" he offered helpfully.

Pretty much. I have no idea what I did wrong. It's possible my oven temperature is off, although I've never found that to be a problem with other recipes. If anyone has any ideas about where my misstep could have been, I'd love to hear them. The popover gauntlet has been thrown down, and one day soon I must rise again to the challenge.


  1. Love the description of the Rotunda Room! These popvers look similar to the English Yorkshire Puddings and to make them, the muffin pan needs to have oil in it, which is then preheated in the oven. So when you pour the batter in, the oil starts cooking the batter immediately and it rises. I think that's it, I may be wrong of course!

    Your little "stumps" look very cute though, and must have tasted good at least?

  2. I've had success with the "Classic Popovers" recipe from Sunset and use a popover pan, as much as I hate its only-good-for-one-thing existence. And I brush the cups with melted butter before filling. They come out pretty much like the Sunset picture. Those squat muffins look like they would still taste good slathered in butter and jam...

  3. "'Nothing' is missing"- that's my favorite line! Better luck next time, don't give up on popovers!

  4. Popovers have been one of those recipes that taunts me every autumn/fall season, whenever I get the ambition to do a giant roast beast of some sort and have a frightening amount of fat, but have never attempted it. I've seen Martha Stewart make them, and she of course made it seem easy watching her make them on television. Maybe compare different recipes to see what's different in ingredients and technique?

  5. Yeah, those Neiman Marcus popovers are fabulous. Keep looking for a good recipe- I make them and they turn out great. And use a popover pan.

  6. I love popovers, but am not a baker... those chubbies look good to me! once upon a time I was a big jean paul fan, your title really got my attention. I'll be following your conundrum with great attention.

  7. I was filled will anxiety the first time I made popovers. Luckily they worked. Try these:

    it might be cheating since they have baking powder in them, but they definitely 'popped' and were delicious! I used regular muffin tins, so they were very squat still, but they were hollow in the center as they should be.

  8. Oh, now I'm all curious of how a popover looks like. I think you need to go to the Rotunda Room and get a shot of one! ;-)

  9. Shaz: I think they are similar to yorkshire puddings--the hot buttter/oil is supposed to make them poof up.

    tracey: I'll look for that recipe. I'm opposed to buying a popover pan, though. now if I happened to find one at a garage sale, I could embrace it.

    Jessica: thanks for the encouragement! :)

    Denise: does Martha Stewart exist just to make the rest of us feel bad about ourselves?

    Barbara: I had no idea the popovers were part of the whole NM experience, I thought maybe they were just part of the one here. Interesting!

    foodhoe: I was wondering if people would get that reference! I took enough philosophy in college to remember tidbits like that but no real details about the various schools of thought. Pathetic.

    Hollow peas: thanks for the link! I am not opposed to cheating when it comes to popovers.

    Ben: I must leave the restaurant food photography to you, you excel at it! Put the RR on your list...

  10. My only experience is the Yorkshire Pudding one. And that requires a hot oven, a hot tin filled with fat, and batter that has rested. I will certainly try Hollow Peas link and see where that takes me.

  11. I smiled while reading your blog post. The popovers may not appear to have been successful but, I think you may be on to something. I thought your little "stumps" would be quite delicious slathered in butter and jam.
    Don't give up! I encourage you to rise again to the challenge.

  12. Did you use a popover pan? Also, I remember seeing Jamie Oliver make them on TV once before. He actuall preheats the empty pan in the oven BEFORE pouring in the batter. I wonder if that might make a difference, too.

  13. Well the sad thing is I did preheat the pan, which had been buttered, then poured the batter in, and I ended up with these little stumps. Do I seriously need to break down and get a popover pan?!

  14. I first made popovers for you in May 1984 using a Sunset recipe. Using a greased teflon muffin tin, and baked at 375 for 45 minutes. Never open the oven door! This recipe has suggestions for variations in temperature for lightly-browned to richly browned/moist vs dry interiors. You and your sister loved them, according to my notations. MOM

  15. This is really cool. I've never made a popover before - not sure if I've even had one before. Thanks for sharing!

  16. Popovers sure are tricky! I've used Joy of Cooking's simple recipe with success. It helps to have a real popover pan so the batter has something to "cling" to, and that they're well-battered. Everything should be at room temperature, too. And Nancy is right - never open the door! Also, make sure you cut a slit in them after you remove them from the pan so they don't sink and get soggy inside! Good luck! :)

    I like the recipe that HollowPeas posted - I clipped that out of Food & Wine too!!

  17. Hi nightowlchef: Thanks for visiting, and for the additional tips on popovers! My mom just gave me a popover pan, so that she greatly help my next effort. That, and using the F&W recipe.