My friends love to tell this story.
So a group of us are driving to a remote Ontario cabin. At the Canadian border, our cars face inspection by customs officials. We pull up next to four burly, plaid-wearing, Copenhagen-chewing guys, the rear of their bruiser of an SUV jammed with fishing gear and assorted outdoorsman equipment.
I pop the trunk of my sedan, and what's perched on top of the luggage? Popover pans.
Well, why not? It has been my experience that nothing elicits astonishment and gratitude at the table faster than the appearance of hot-from-the-oven popovers. Great taste aside, I love how popovers give the distinct impression that you made a major fuss, when in reality you pretty much threw together a glorified pancake batter, poured it into a funny-looking pan and then let a super-hot oven work its magic.
The search is on
After relying upon the same recipe for what seems like forever, I recently got to wondering if a better popover formula exists. Out came the cookbooks, and over the course of a few weeks, I rather obsessively test-drove nearly a dozen formulas from a pantheon of culinary headliners, including Martha Stewart, Marion Cunningham, Shirley Corrihor, Mark Bittman, Maida Heatter and Alton Brown as well as Cook's Illustrated, Gourmet and Bon Appetit magazines. Then I remade my tried-and-true recipe, lifted from a batter-splattered Dayton's Oak Grill flier that dates to at least the early 1990s.
The results ran the gamut, as my Facebook friends will attest, since I chronicled my Popover Project online. Some were flat-out failures (starting with a cold oven proved to be a major misstep, what was "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook" thinking?). Others relied upon too many futzy steps (straining the batter doesn't really pay off), or excessive gadgetry (I know I should own a pizza stone, but I don't, and I'm not in the mood to drop $42 at Williams-Sonoma).
Or they had ingredients I don't always have on hand (when is the last time you had a high-protein bread flour lurking in your pantry?). The few promising versions -- including my old reliable from the Oak Grill -- didn't quite achieve the puffed-up, golden-brown outer shell and richly tender interior that I was seeking.
That's when I started cobbling together components from various recipes and, dozens of eggs later, I think I've arrived at a foolproof solution. Variation No. 17 -- with its rested, room-temperature batter, extra egg white, ultra-wet texture, use of clarified butter and dual oven temperatures -- produced a tender popover that soared to towering heights and boasts both a gently crispy crust and a mostly-dry-but-still-eggy interior. Eureka.
Go ahead, give it a shot. You'll discover how the benefits of popover-making far exceed any challenges. Before you know it, you'll have a batter-spattered recipe all your own, and you'll be packing popover pans on weekend road trips.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757