Smoke: Play with Fire

First it was salt that took the pastry world by storm, then chilli, then the ubiquitous umami. Now, sugar’s latest ally is smoke – and it’s taking the US by storm. Australian Baking Business takes a look at the versatile smoking technique and how it can add wonderful, intriguing flavours to all kinds of breads and desserts.

Look around at the hottest international pastry menus and you’ll find all manner of smoked sweets: marshmallows, ice creams, custards, pastries and fruits suffused with the unmissable flavour of wood fire.

As barbecuing and grilling has become more and more trendy, smoky flavours have begun moving past the predictable slow-cooked meats through to cakes, buns, creams and even breads. In fact, you don’t have to dig too hard to find smoked cheesecakes, smoked peacan sticky buns and even peaty sourdough with smoked cranberries among the repertoire of the world’s top pastry chefs and bakers.

When used with care, smoke can add incredible depth of flavour to bread, pastry and sweet desserts – a richness and a sharpness that’s neither overwhelming nor acrid. It’s not new ground, of course, with spirits like mezcal and scotch having enhanced the range and depth of their sweetness with a hint of smoke for hundreds of years.

Luckily, chefs don’t have to gather around the campfire to get the effect. There are handheld smoke guns that can infuse a dish with smoky vapour with precision and finesse. There’s also such a thing as liquid smoke for the time-poor. However, none quite replicate the slow-burning richness of fresh wood smoke, which is surprisingly easy to produce regardless of your kitchen setup.


How the locals are doing it

With chef Tommy Prosser and chocolate artisan Jessica Pedemont

smoking Techniques

For Tommy Prosser, born and bred in England, it was Australia’s naïvety towards all things smoked that prompted him to purchase a cold smoke generator from the US. As a chef with a long love affair of dry cured bacon, he has put his smoker to the test on various meats, cheese, butters, oils, nuts, seeds and even fruits and vegetables.

However, it’s Tommy’s personal relationship with chocolate artisan Jessica Pedemont that makes things really interesting. Together, the pair has proven there’s benefit to be had from playing with fire, for both savoury and sweet pundits.

Is smoking a skill that needs to be learnt, practised and developed?
Tommy: Yes, definitely. People have used smoking for the best part of 80,000 years, and it’s one of the oldest ways of preserving food. But we have found in our experiments it’s more akin to an art form, where the types of wood, temperatures and cures have a massive effect on the end product. I feel a lot of old artisanal techniques and skills are getting lost with the supermarkets and mass producers monopolising the market, with a cheaper mechanised product laced with 20-30 ingredients, water retainers and flavour enhancers. So we wanted to lean and develop the skill ourselves, to do it the traditional way.

There’s clear application for this technique for those working with meats and savoury foods, but has Jess given you any ideas of how you could apply it to bakery and patisserie foods?
Tommy: There are so many possibilities in using smoked products in baking, and there are plenty on my list to try, such as a smoked tomato and caramelised onion tart with a tomato and feta panna cotta. I would also love to make a pain de champagne using some of our smoked flour. I could imagine a beautiful whole smoked apple baked and stuffed with macerated fruits and calvados sabayon, with a beautiful glass of mulled wine in front of an open fire.

Tell me about the process of smoking butter. what characteristics does it take on?
Tommy: The process is pretty straight forward, you just need to decide what end result you are after before commencing, for example, sweet, subtle or strong smoke, as this will help you decide on the type of wood to use, the time you need to smoke it for, and the amount of time mellowing the product. I like to keep the butter in the fridge post-smoke for at least a week to let the flavour develop, mature and permeate through the product. The method is simple: we get our wood chips smoking and check the temperature of the chamber (22-30°C) and the smoke flow. After adding the product, we set our timer for 20 minutes and check it to make sure it’s not getting too hot and going oily and soft. Then, we turn it over so the smoke has an even coverage – we like to give it at least 40 minutes depending on the temperature, ensuring it doesn’t get too hot and start melting.

smoking butter

Jess, you used to be a savoury chef. have you incorporated smoked products into chocolate?
Jess: I really enjoy using smoked sea salts, nuts and seeds in my chocolate and confectionery work these days. It is incredible the dynamic flavours that can shine through a simple chocolate with candy smoked bacon put through it. To take it even further, finish it with the smoked sea salt, which backs up the smoky undertone and matches it with the rich chocolaty taste and sweetness. It’s just mind-blowing!

What’s a recipe that could be adapted to incorporate a smoking technique?
Jess: I’m a fan of the smoked salts and smoked bacon in almost anything at the moment, candied with sugar burnt praline and accompanied with ice cream. Smoked butter is incredible in pastry and pairs well with sweet and savoury. Smoked chillis in ganaches and chocolates are also awesome. But if there is something new to try, it would have to be using smoked flours and oils. We have made them, but are yet to really feature them as the star of the dish. Watch this space!

You both travel overseas regularly and are up-to-date with all the latest food trends, particularly in the us. do you see an opportunity for smoking to come into the local bakery and patisserie sector?
Tommy: In our experience, a lot of the current food trends originate from our friends around the globe, particularly in the US – take the “cronut” for an example. Now, smoking has really come into the limelight, especially in the past year in Sydney, where lots of restaurants have begun specialising in smoked goods… and for good reason. When done properly, there are amazing results that can’t be replicated by shortcuts.
Jess: For the right sort of inquisitive mind there is definitely opportunity for the beautiful flavours and textures of smoking to be showcased within the sweet world. Personally, I love experimenting and trying new things. When Tommy and I first got the smoker, we began smoking everything in sight! We’d fill it with all sorts of ingredients – the next half of the fun is what we do with those ingredients.

Why is it important for australian bakers and pastry chefs to look to trends outside their own sector to make sure consumers are constantly being given new and exciting flavours?
Tommy: If they don’t, they could be missing something truly interesting to explore. The field is always evolving and a lot of customers like to share in something new. Having said that, I think they should think of their own passions and techniques, and not compromise their own style for the sake of the public. Trends will come and go, but if you stay true to your art, and to creativity and authenticity, the rest will come naturally.

What is your advice for readers wanting to give it a go?
Jess: Smoking can be very rewarding, but it can also be dangerous if the handling procedures aren’t followed. So do your research, be diligent, remain hygienic and have fun!


For the bakers

Great for a barbecue or meat-laden sandwich, this rye bun recipe by baking blogger and author of Make Ahead Bread Donna Currie is the perfect starting point for those intrigued by the smoking trend.

“I decided rye would work well with smoke, while buttermilk offers a bit of tang,” she said.

“But what shape? A traditional loaf might allow for some smoke flavour on the crust. Buns, on the other hand, would integrate the smoke flavour into every bite.”

SMOKED RYE BUNS

Makes 12 buns. Active time: 20 minutes. Total time: 3 hours. This recipe has been adapted from Make Ahead Bread by Donna Currie and Bread Baking: Smoked Rye Buns by Serious Eats.

Ingredients:
• 1 cup water
• 2 1/4 tsp instant yeast
• 1/2 cup buttermilk
• 1 cup rye flour
• 2 cups bread flour
• 1/2 cup potato flakes
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 tablespoon caraway seeds
• 1 cup wood chips

Method:

1. Combine all the ingredients for the dough (water, yeast, buttermilk, rye flour, bread flour, potato flakes and salt) as per normal. Cover with plastic wrap and rest for 20 minutes.

2. Knead the dough as per normal, until it is smooth and elastic. Add the olive oil and caraway seeds and continue kneading until they are fully incorporated. Cover the dough and let it rest until it has doubled in size.

3. When the dough has doubled, flour your work surface and turn out the dough. Knead it briefly, then divide it into 12 equal pieces. Form each piece into a ball and place them on a single baking sheet that will fit into your smoker (a quarter-sheet pan fits most standard smokers) for pull-apart rolls, or on two baking sheets for individual rolls.

4. Cover the rolls with plastic wrap and set aside until nearly doubled in size. Meanwhile, prepare your smoker and soak your wood chips according to the manufacturer’s directions. Set the temperature for 135°C (depending on the smoker and the fuel used)

5. When the dough has just about doubled, uncover it and bake it in your smoker until the dough is lightly golden and cooked through (usually about 45 minutes). Remove the buns from the smoker, and place pan on a rack so it can cool.


Set yourself up

If you don’t have a smoker, a simple alternative is to take a couple of wood chips, put them in the corner of your gas grill, let them burn, and close the lid for a quick smoker box.

However, you can make a smoker out of anything. Wrap a wok in aluminium foil and you can smoke wood chips right on the bottom.

Or, set up a smoking chamber right on your stove top. All you need is a way to get wood chips smoking and to suspend pans of cream and ice water above the smoke.


Go back to the roots

Infusing desserts with a heady mix of smoky scents and tastes is not news to those familiar with traditional Thai cuisine. The tian op method employs a horseshoe-shaped, beeswax-coasted wick suffused with aromatics: piney frankincense, flowery ylang-ylang, mossy patchouli and spicy mace.

The material is lit at both ends, then placed in a dish inside a bowl, jar or saucepan with the food to be smoked. The vessel is covered, smothering the wicks, which smoke profusely and infuses the food with a complex fragrance.

“Tian op may have travelled along the spice route from Arabia, or it may have roots in north-east India, where ghee-drizzled charcoal is placed in bowls of curry to add smoky flavour. But Thai cooks perfume only sweets and desserts,” Saveur food critic Betsy Andrews said, commenting Thailand’s most fascinating dessert ingredient is incense.

“Flower-shaped kleep lamduan shortbreads; coconut milk, sugar, and flour pyramids called a-lua are made first and then smoked with the candle, whose effects grow stronger the longer it smoulders.”

After eating a slice of smoked coconut cheesecake at Spot Dessert Bar in Manhattan’s East Village, Betsy said the technique perfumed the cake with musky, flowery aromas and flavoured notes of caramel and smoke.

“Tian op is a old-time thing – and this cake is so 21st century,” author Thai cooking author Nancie McDermott told Saveur.

“But in Thailand you’d use it only with a few desserts. You come to America and there are no rules. It’s wonderful!”

The recipe for Spot Dessert Bar’s Smoked Coconut Cheesecake can be found at www.saveur.com.


For the pastry chefs

The trick to getting smoked cream, custard and ice cream right is to use smoke carefully as an accent ingredient and not to over-do it, according to pastry chef of New York’s North End Grill Tracy Obolsky.

“You smoke cream on its own, then mix that smoked cream with regular cream to control the final smokiness,” the ice cream fanatic with a penchant for smoked desserts told Serious Eats, reaffirming, “it’s all about restraint”.

“You don’t want to dull any other flavours. A smoky peach cream may taste great, but peach purée sitting in a smoker for an hour or two won’t taste as fresh and vibrant.”

The particular flavour and intensity of smoke varies from batch to batch, so Tracy recommends diluting down the smoked cream to enable you to compensate for how pungent it might become. Once the cream is diluted to an acceptably level, you’re ready to use it in any cream-based recipe you want. For ice cream, for example, simply mix it with milk, egg yolks, sugar and flavourings and make your custard.

What ice cream should you make with it? The possibilities are nearly endless, according to Tracy, who said ripe fruit like peaches, plums, and bananas are all prime smoke fodder.

“So are chocolate, caramel, and most nut flavours. Go crazy with herbs and spices: cinnamon, ginger, and coriander. Just think of smoke as an ingredient like honey, alcohol, or spice – one more way to layer flavour into your ice cream,” national editor for Serious Eats Max Falkowitz added.

“Tracey’s favourite use for smoked cream, however, is smoked honey mint chip. Few things taste better than cream steeped with a fat bundle of mint leaves, and mint goes surprisingly well with a hint of smoke. Honey adds a deep, almost juicy sweetness, and a bridge between the fresh mint and rich smoke.”

SMOKED CREAM

This recipe has been adapted from The Best Sweet Use for Your Smoker: Smoked Ice Cream by Serious Eats

Method:
1. While your coals are heating up, get your rig ready. “You want a shallow baking pan for smoking the cream,” Tracy said, “so the smoke can penetrate faster.” “Pick a pan that will nest inside the larger one, which you’ll need for an ice bath to keep the cream at a cool food-safe temperature. Smoking cream falls under the category of ‘cold smoking,’ which refers to flavouring food with smoke without actually cooking it. “I like disposable aluminium pans for convenience and flexibility. To keep sloshing cream and water at bay you can fold up the pan’s lip, and if the pan isn’t quite the right size for your smoker, its shape adjusts easily. “Get your larger pan in the smoker first and fill it with ice and water. Then add in the empty smaller pan and pour in the cream. And that’s it – now you’re smoking!”

2. Smoke the cream for 2-2 ½ hours. Note, the time it takes for your cream to get a pronounced smoky flavour will depend on the equipment, heat source and the amount of fuel. But as you are going to dilute this cream later on, it’s not imperative to nail this step.

3. Dilute the smoky cream with regular cream until you are happy with the taste and have enough cream to carry out your recipe. The smoked cream won’t look different to non-smoked cream, however, evaporation and the slow heat may make it slightly thicker.


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