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How to Cook With a Water Bath

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WaterBathI admit it. I don’t always read recipes all the way through before I start cooking. That’s not advisable, because you can get into all sorts of kitchen trouble before you know it. I remember trying a recipe one time that called for a bain-marie shortly before the end. There was no explanation as to what that was, and in those days, there was no Internet to answer my questions.

Luckily, I had a copy of Auguste Escoffier’s “A Guide to Modern Cookery” on hand, which begins with a glossary of French cooking terms. The culinary genius defined the term as “a hot-water bath in which utensils containing various culinary preparations are immersed to keep warm, or for the purpose of poaching or cooking.”

[amazon-product]0471290165[/amazon-product]OK, that sums it up fairly well, but it doesn’t really tell you what to do, does it?

So, I did the next best thing. I called a friend, who, fortunately for me, knew what I was babbling about.

In a matter of moments, I had water heating on the stove and I was covering the bottom of my already full springform, so I could bake the dessert properly.

The technique, to put it simply, has you set that aluminum foil-covered springform in a larger pan. You then pour boiling water around the sides, careful not to let any seep into the batter. And then you bake it.

The warm water coddles the dish, letting it cook gently until the center is as done as the sides.

What was I making? A crème brulée, maybe. I don’t remember the dish. But I do remember the technique, which has come in handy thanks to the number of pastry chefs who use a bain-marie with their intoxicating flourless chocolate cakes as well as the pesto cheesecakes that I wrote about earlier this summer (click here).

I have since learned that setting a water-proofed pan in a larger pan filled with boiling water is not the only definition of a bain-marie. It also refers to a way of cooking on the stove top as well. In this case, a smaller pan with a long handle is set inside a larger pan and is completely surrounded by simmering water.

Some call this a double boiler, but I think there’s a slight difference. With a double boiler, two pots are stacked on top of each other. Water in the bottom comes to a boil and steam rises, cooking the food in the top container. The two are related, but the bain-marie is a little more forgiving when it comes to melting chocolate because the temperature is easier to control (at least on an electric stove). I have scorched far less chocolate that way.

Here is Chocolate Queen Alice Medrich’s recipe for a truly decadent treat that uses both methods of bain-marie. It has become my default chocolate cake recipe in recent years:

Ultimate Flourless Chocolate Cake

If you like a really dark chocolate cake, mix 100 percent unsweetened chocolate with 70-80 percent chocolate. If you’re using a liqueur, think of one that brings out the best in chocolate, such as frangelico for a hazelnut flavor, kirschwasser for cherry, Chambord for raspberry or Grand Marniér for orange.

8 eggs, cold
1 pound bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1/2 cup strong coffee or liqueur (optional)

Sauces and toppings:
1 package (10 to 12 ounces) frozen raspberries, thawed, or 8 to 10 ounces fresh raspberries
Granulated sugar, to taste
Powdered sugar, for decoration (optional)
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

To make the cake, line the bottom of an 8-inch or 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper and grease the sides. Set the pan on a wide sheet of heavy-duty foil  and wrap the foil up the sides without tearing it. Set the pan in a larger baking pan or a roasting pan. Bring a kettle of water to a boil.

Preferably using a hand-held mixer, beat the eggs at high speed until the volume of the eggs doubles to about 1 quart, 5 minutes. If you have to use a heavy-duty mixer, use the whisk attachment and speed 6 and beat to the same volume, which will take about the same amount of time. Melt the chocolate and butter, with coffee or liqueur, if using it, in a large heatproof bowl either set in a pan of barely simmering water.

Gently fold one third of the egg foam into the chocolate mixture with a large rubber spatula until just a few streaks of egg are still visible. Fold in half of the remaining foam in the same way. Fold the remaining foam into the batter until completely incorporated.

Scrape the batter into the prepared springform pan and smooth the surface. Set the roasting pan on the oven rack and pour enough boiling water into the pan to come about halfway up the side of the springform. Bake until the center has risen slightly, the edges are just beginning to set, a thin glazed crust (like a brownie) has formed on the surface, and an instant-read thermometer inserted halfway into the center of the cake registers 140 degrees, 22 to 25 minutes. Remove the springform from the water bath and set on a wire rack. Cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate overnight to mellow. Cake can be kept covered and refrigerated up to 4 days.

To make the sauce, if using frozen raspberries, drain them and reserve the juice. Place fresh or drained frozen berries in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse briefly but not until perfectly smooth. Press the purée through a strainer to remove the seeds. Add some of the reserved juice if desired. If the purée seems too tart, sweeten it to taste. Cover and refrigerate until serving.

[amazon-product]0446526649[/amazon-product]About 30 minutes before serving, remove the springform pan sides, invert the cake onto a sheet of waxed paper and peel off the parchment liner and turn the cake right side up onto a serving platter. (Do this quickly.)

To serve, sieve the cake lightly with powdered sugar if desired. Whip the cream with the vanilla and 2 teaspoons of sugar or more to taste until nearly stiff. Serve slim slices on a pool of raspberry sauce with a dollop of whipped cream on top.

From “A Year in Chocolate” by Alice Medrich

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2 Responses to “How to Cook With a Water Bath”

  1. Pingo says:

    Hello John,
    Nice article. I know what “bain” is, but I always wondered, who Marie was. So my curiosity looked it up.
    Here is Webster’s version:

    bain-marie |ˌban məˈrē|
    noun ( pl. bains-marie pronunc. same)
    a container holding hot water into which a pan is placed for slow cooking.
    • chiefly Brit. a double boiler.
    ORIGIN early 18th cent.: French, translation of medieval Latin balneum Mariae ‘bath of Maria,’ translating Greek kaminos Marias ‘furnace of Maria,’ said to be a Jewish alchemist.bain-marie |ˌban məˈrē|
    noun ( pl. bains-marie pronunc. same)
    a container holding hot water into which a pan is placed for slow cooking.
    • chiefly Brit. a double boiler.
    ORIGIN early 18th cent.: French, translation of medieval Latin balneum Mariae ‘bath of Maria,’ translating Greek kaminos Marias ‘furnace of Maria,’ said to be a Jewish alchemist.

    So, now we both know. – Pingo

    • John Griffin says:

      Thank you for doing that research. Things can certainly be alchemical when cooked in a bain-marie. The attached chocolate recipe is one I have made on numerous occasions, and real chocolate lovers get weak in the knees tasting it.