Homemade Peeps, And More Easter Treats, A La Thomas Keller

By Camila Domonoske

March 29, 2013

After 40 long days of Lenten abstention, Easter is a time for indulgence. And for those of us who don't observe Lent — well, who can resist all those chocolate bunnies? It's a time for sweets, with or without an excuse.

But if you're looking for Easter indulgences that are a little more refined than Peeps and jelly beans, take a cue from renowned chef Thomas Keller, whose Bouchon restaurants are as famous for their baked goods as they are for their bistro fare.

Earlier this week, NPR's Renee Montagne visited the kitchen of the Bouchon restaurant and bakery in Beverly Hills, Calif., for a taste of some of Keller's takes on classic Easter sweets.

Most of us can't sneak a taste of Keller's hot cross bun frosting, like Montagne did, but thanks to the cookbook Bouchon Bakery, which Keller co-authored, we can re-create some of those treats at home. Be warned, though: Keller's standards are exacting, and reproducing some of his items requires extra prep work — and maybe some shopping for new kitchen tools.

For precision baking, Keller says a scale is crucial; flour can easily shift in density, so measuring in cups is dangerously inaccurate, he argues.

"Throw away your measuring cups," Keller tells Montagne. "Buy yourself a gram scale instead."

Other items you might need that may not be kitchen staples, like acetate sheets and powdered food coloring, make cooking easier and cleanup far less stressful.

Keller led NPR through the process of making three Easter treats from his kitchen. Recipes for all three can be found farther down.

Hot Cross Buns

Hot cross buns date back hundreds of years and have traditionally been made on Good Friday. These dough rolls marked with a cross had a religious component, certainly, but they're also symbolic of another kind of devotion, Keller explains. "Eating the hot cross bun with your friend meant that you'd be friends for life, so it really signified that kind of friendship in a positive way," he says. "And then there's another myth: If you kept a bun for an entire year, it would not go moldy, and if you became sick and you ate it, it would cure whatever sickness you have."

Bouchon's version is a rich brioche roll studded with dried currants and cranberries. Pastry chefs top the brioche with a cross of white confectioners' sugar frosting, spiced with cinnamon and cardamom. Myths aside, don't let them sit for a year: They're best eaten the same day they're baked.

Marshmallow Eggs

Keller has fond memories of that springtime staple, Peeps: "They're very cute," he says, "and, you know, they remind us of when we were kids. I mean, we ate those all the time."

Bouchon's egg-shaped, homemade marshmallows turn that childhood memory into a grown-up treat. The marshmallow imparts a richness that can come as a surprise — Montagne describes it as "almost like thick cream."

Carrot Muffins

The last recipe is a little less obviously Easter-related, but Keller says carrot muffins are a holiday staple. "Bunnies eat carrots. We've got to have carrots involved in Easter, because that's Bugs Bunny's favorite vegetable," he jokes. And there's a benefit to having carrot muffins on your table of holiday indulgences: "Everybody loves it, because in many ways you think it's really, really healthy for you," Keller says. "It's a way of being sinful, but also being responsible to some health concerns."

If you're making carrot muffins at home, the key is to start with the right kind of carrots: the small, skinny ones that come in bunches, rather than the larger "horse carrots" you might use for soup. "We want to have the sweetest possible carrot that we can get," Keller says, which means carrots less than an inch in diameter.

Look below for Keller's recipes for hot cross buns, marshmallow eggs and carrot muffins. Be sure to set aside ample time for these treats — they are all multiday projects, with some sort of overnight component. After all, you don't cook your way to three Michelin stars by taking shortcuts.

Recipe: Hot Cross Buns 

Makes 12 buns

For The Buns

3/4 cup (122 grams) dried currants
1/2 cup (61 grams) dried cranberries
1/2 teaspoon (3 grams) vanilla paste
Brioche Dough For Hot Cross Buns (recipe follows)
Egg Wash (recipe follows)

For The Icing

2 1/4 cups (258 grams) powdered sugar
3/8 teaspoon (1 grams) ground cinnamon
3/8 teaspoon (1 grams) ground cardamom
2 1/2 tablespoons (40 grams) whole milk

This recipe was developed by Bouchon Bakery's head baker, Matthew McDonald. The buns are loaded with currants and cranberries and piped with an icing spiced with cinnamon and cardamom. It's the beguiling addition of cardamom to just the right amount of cinnamon in the icing, and the way the spices play off the fruit, that gives these buns their zing. Hot cross buns are an English tradition on Good Friday, but they're so good we hope you'll make them all year round. 

You'll need a quarter sheet pan and a disposable pastry bag. Buns baked in a convection oven will have a slightly higher rise and a more even color.

For The Buns 

Combine the currants and cranberries in a medium bowl and pour 2 cups boiling water over them. Let sit for 5 minutes to plump the fruit, then drain and pat dry with paper towels. Dry the bowl, return the fruit to it, and toss with the vanilla paste. Set aside.

Spray a large bowl with nonstick spray. Run a bowl scraper around the sides and down to the bottom of the bowl of brioche dough to release the dough and turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface, adding flour only as needed to keep it from sticking.

With your hands, gently pat the dough into a rectangular shape. Pour the currant-cranberry mixture onto the dough and knead it into the dough (which will be sticky) to distribute it evenly. Pat the dough into a rectangle again.

Stretch the left side of the dough out and fold it over two-thirds of the dough, then stretch and fold it from the right side to the opposite side, as if you were folding a letter. Repeat the process, working from the bottom and then the top. Turn the dough over, lift it up with a bench scraper, and place it seam side down in the prepared bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a clean dish towel and let the dough sit at room temperature for 45 minutes.

Repeat the stretching and folding process, then return the dough to the bowl, seam side down, cover, and let sit for another 45 minutes.

Spray the quarter sheet pan with nonstick spray. Line the bottom with parchment paper and spray the paper.

Use the bowl scraper to release the dough and turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface. Using a bench scraper, divide the dough into 12 equal portions (78 grams each). Cup your fingers around a portion of dough and, using the palm of your hand, roll it against the work surface to form a ball. Continue to roll until the dough is completely smooth. Repeat with the remaining dough. (When you become proficient at rolling with one hand, you can use both hands and roll 2 portions at a time.) Set the balls on the prepared pan in 3 rows of 4. Brush the tops with egg wash.

Cover the pan with a plastic tub or a cardboard box and let proof for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until the balls have risen and are touching.

Preheat the oven to 325 F (convection) or 350 F (standard).

Brush the tops of the buns with egg wash again. Bake for 17 to 22 minutes in a convection oven, 25 to 30 minutes in a standard oven, until the tops are a rich golden brown and, when tested with a toothpick, the centers are baked through. Set the pan on a cooling rack and let cool completely. (If freezing, do not ice the buns at this point.)

For The Icing

Sift the sugar, cinnamon and cardamom into the bowl of a stand mixer. Fit the mixer with the paddle attachment and mix on the lowest setting for about 15 seconds to distribute the spices evenly. With the mixer running, slowly add the milk. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl, increase the speed to low, and mix for 30 seconds to 1 minute, until smooth.

Transfer the icing to the pastry bag. Cut off 1/4 inch of the tip. Starting at the left side of the top corner bun, pipe a continuous strip of icing across the center of the first row of 3 buns. Repeat with the remaining 3 rows. Then repeat in the opposite direction, across the 3 rows of 4 buns, working in the opposite direction, to create a cross of frosting on each bun. Serve the whole pan, or cut into individual buns.

The buns are best the day they are baked, but they can be stored, before icing, wrapped tightly in a few layers of plastic wrap or in a single layer in a covered container at room temperature for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 1 week (see note on defrosting frozen baked brioche pastries).

* Note on freezing unbaked brioche pastries: Unbaked brioche pastries can be frozen after they are formed, but before they are proofed, wrapped in a few layers of plastic wrap, for up to 1 week. When ready to use, remove from the freezer and proof the dough as directed, keeping in mind that the proofing may take up to 5 hours.

* Note on defrosting frozen baked brioche pastries: Defrost, still in the plastic wrap or in the container, in the refrigerator. Leaving the pastries wrapped or in the container means any condensation will form on the outside, not on the pastries. Place on a sheet pan and refresh in a 325°F oven (standard) for about 5 minutes.

Recipe: Brioche Dough For Hot Cross Buns

2 1/2 cups plus 2 1/2 tablespoons (372 grams) all-purpose flour
2 3/8 teaspoons (8 grams) instant yeast
3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons (44 grams) granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons (9 grams) fine sea salt
1/2 cup plus 3 1/2 tablespoons (186 grams) eggs
1/4 cup (63 grams) whole milk
5.8 ounces (167 grams) unsalted butter cut into 1/2 -inch cubes

Brioche is a bread that's enriched with butter and eggs. There are different ways of making it, with different proportions of butter. Everything should be at room temperature so the dough comes together beautifully. The dough then gets folded and is fermented in the refrigerator overnight.

To mix the dough, place the flour and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook and mix for about 15 seconds to distribute the yeast evenly. Add all of the remaining dough ingredients, except the butter, and mix on low speed for 4 minutes. Continue to mix on low speed for 30 minutes. (At this point there will be some dough sticking to the sides of the bowl.) Add the butter a few pieces at a time, incorporating each addition before adding the next. Stop and scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and push the dough off the hook. Continue to mix for 10 minutes.

Recipe: Egg Wash

Break 1 or more eggs, as needed, into a small bowl and whip with a fork or small whisk to combine the white(s) and yolk(s) well. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer before using.

* Note: We use egg washes often. If you want a nice shine on a dough, give the dough two brushings of it: The first brushing acts as a sealer, and the second is more like a glaze. At the bakery, because we egg-wash great volumes of products, we put the egg wash, strained, into a spray gun, paint gun or airbrush. This not only gives us a uniform coating, it's also very gentle on the dough, which is important if it's a proofed and delicate croissant, for example. If you're only egg-washing a small quantity, use a pastry brush.

Excerpted from Bouchon Bakery by Thomas Keller and Sebastien Rouxel (Artisan Books). Copyright 2012.

Recipe: Marshmallow Eggs

Makes 12 eggs

Marshmallows, just mixed and still warm (recipes follow)
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon (90 grams) white or colored decorating sugar, store-bought or homemade (recipes follow)

At Easter, the team loves to make marshmallow eggs. When you serve them in all kinds of colors, they're a joy to behold, especially for kids. We make different flavors and colors, coat them in various decorative sugars, and place them in egg cartons. For vanilla eggs, we use plain sugar, but for the raspberry we use our raspberry sugar and for the lemon, our lemon sugar. When people first open the carton, they think it's filled with dyed Easter eggs, not marshmallows. Be sure to buy sturdy plastic eggs to use as molds; the cheaper ones are really flimsy. Note that the marshmallows and decorating sugar should rest overnight before coating the eggs.

You'll need twelve two-piece plastic eggs, a clean egg carton, and a pastry bag with a 1/2-inch plain tip.

If the plastic eggs are new, open them, wash them and dry thoroughly. Spray the inside of both halves of each egg with nonstick spray and set them in the egg carton.

Fill the pastry bag with the warm marshmallow mixture. Holding the tip close to the bottom of an egg half, slowly pull up as you fill the half completely; try not to leave any air pockets. Fill the other half and fit the top and bottom together — there will be some resistance, but they must be secure to form a perfectly shaped egg. Wipe off the excess marshmallow that oozes from the egg with a damp paper towel. Repeat with the remaining eggs. Stand the filled eggs in the egg carton and let them sit at room temperature overnight.

Put the decorating sugar in a small bowl. Remove the eggs from the molds. Toss the eggs in the sugar and then stand them in the egg carton.

If they will be served within a few hours, let the eggs sit at room temperature. For longer storage, place the egg carton in a large covered container for up to 2 weeks.

For Vanilla Marshmallows

Makes about 4 dozen 1-inch marshmallows (250 grams/8.8 ounces)

1/2 cup (5 grams) powdered sugar
1/2 cup (6.4 grams) cornstarch
4 sheets (9.6 grams) silver leaf gelatin
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (87 grams) egg whites
1/4 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (225 grams) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (112 grams) water
2 1/2 tablespoons (50 grams) light corn syrup

Marshmallows may seem mysterious and complex, but they're really easy — nothing more than meringue set with gelatin. If you can make a meringue, you can make your own marshmallows. They're playful and fun, and they can be made in different flavors. We make lemon, raspberry and vanilla marshmallows, but you could add jams or pistachio paste for different flavors (add 15 to 20 percent of the weight of the egg whites and sugar).

You'll need an 8-inch-square baking pan, an 8-inch-square piece of acetate, and a Thermapen or other candy thermometer.

Mix the powdered sugar and cornstarch together. Line the baking pan with plastic wrap and sprinkle the plastic wrap generously with the powdered sugar mixture; set the remainder aside.

Place the gelatin in a bowl of ice water to soften.

Spray one side of the piece of acetate with nonstick spray; set aside.

Remove the gelatin from the water and squeeze out excess water. Place the gelatin in a small metal bowl set over a small pot of simmering water and melt it (do not let it simmer), then reduce the heat and keep it warm.

Meanwhile, place the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean and add the seeds to the egg whites.

Combine the granulated sugar, water and corn syrup in a large saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar, then simmer for about 5 minutes, until the syrup reaches 250 F/121.1 C.

Letting the syrup continue to cook, turn the mixer to medium speed. The goal is to have the whites at medium peaks when the syrup reaches 281 to 284 F/138 to 140 C. Should the whites reach stiff peaks before the syrup reaches the proper temperature, reduce the mixer speed to the lowest setting.

When the syrup reaches 281 to 284 F/138 to 140 C, remove it from the heat. Turn the mixer to medium speed and slowly add the syrup to the egg whites, pouring it between the side of the bowl and the whisk. Pour in the gelatin, increase the speed to medium-high, and mix for about 5 minutes, until the mixture is thickened, glossy and warm but not hot.

Spray a spatula with nonstick spray. Spread the marshmallow evenly in the prepared pan. Top with the acetate, sprayed side down, and gently press it against the marshmallow to make the top perfectly smooth.

Set a piece of parchment paper larger than the marshmallow on a large cutting board.

Remove the sheet of acetate. Coat the top of the marshmallow with some of the reserved powdered sugar mixture. Flip the marshmallow onto the parchment paper, remove the plastic wrap, and sprinkle with more of the powdered sugar mixture as necessary.

It can be difficult to cut marshmallows evenly. Spray a large chef's knife with nonstick spray and trim the sides of the marshmallow square, then cut into 1-inch cubes (or other shapes), using a ruler as a guide. Clean and respray the knife before each cut. If the marshmallows are sticky when you separate them, dust them lightly with additional powdered sugar mixture.

The marshmallows can be stored in a covered container at room temperature for up to 3 days.

For Raspberry Marshmallows

Omit the vanilla bean. If desired, add 2 drops red food coloring, preferably Chefmaster Red Red, to the warm marshmallow mixture and mix just to combine. Remove the bowl from the mixer stand and gently whisk in 12 grams/2 tablespoons raspberry powder. Spread the marshmallow in the pan and proceed as directed.

For Lemon Marshmallows

Omit the vanilla bean. If desired, add 6 drops yellow food coloring, preferably Chefmaster Lemon Yellow, to the warm marshmallow mixture and mix just to combine. Add the grated zest of 2 lemons (12 grams/2 tablespoons) and mix to combine, then spread the marshmallow in the pan and proceed as directed.

Recipe: Colored Decorating Sugar

For Raspberry Sugar

1/4 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons (100 grams) large-crystal sparkling sugar
6 drops diluted citric acid (see Note)
1/2 teaspoons (1 gram) dehydrated raspberry powder, or as needed
Powdered oil-soluble red food coloring

For Lemon Sugar

1/4 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons (100 grams) large-crystal sparkling sugar
6 drops diluted citric acid (see Note)
3/4 teaspoons (1.5 grams) grated zest of 1/2 lemon (use a rasp grater)
Powdered oil-soluble yellow food coloring

Don't be tempted to use liquid food coloring; it won't work here. If you'd like, wear a pair of plastic gloves to avoid staining your hands.

Place the sugar in a small bowl. Stir in the citric acid, raspberry powder or lemon zest, and just the amount of food coloring that fits on the tip of a small paring knife (less than a pinch), then use your hands to work the mixture together. If you'd like, add a little additional powder and/or food coloring. Spread the sugar on a baking sheet and let it dry overnight at room temperature.

* Note: To make diluted citric acid, combine 3/8 teaspoon (2 grams) citric acid and 3/4 teaspoon (2 grams) water in a small cup and stir to dissolve the citric acid. 

Excerpted from Bouchon Bakery by Thomas Keller and Sebastien Rouxel (Artisan Books). Copyright 2012.

Recipe: Carrot Muffins

Makes 6 muffins

For The Batter

1 1/4 cups plus 2 teaspoons (180 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 plus 1/8 teaspoon (3.11 grams) baking soda
1/4 teaspoon (1 grams) baking powder
3/4 plus 1/8 teaspoon (2.3 grams) ground cinnamon
1/2 plus 1/8 teaspoon (2 grams) kosher salt
1 cup plus 2 teaspoons (207 grams) granulated sugar
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (142 grams) canola oil
1/4 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1/3 cup (80 grams) eggs
1 3/4 cups (212 grams) shredded carrots
Generous 1 1/4 cups (180 grams) Oat Streusel Topping
(recipe follows)

You'll need a 6-cup jumbo muffin pan and muffin papers.

This is a good basic carrot muffin, and we sprinkle it with a great oat streusel for even more flavor and texture.

Carrots — and other vegetables, such as zucchini — add moisture to muffin and cake batters. Carrots are so plentiful that we often take them for granted, but all carrots are not alike. I hope you'll pay a little extra for bunch carrots, carrots still with their tops, rather than the ones in plastic bags. The quality makes a big difference when they're a major part of the recipe.

This recipe uses vegetable oil, not butter, and if you omit the streusel, it is dairy free.

Place the flour in a medium bowl. Sift in the baking soda, baking powder and cinnamon. Add the salt and whisk together.

Combine the sugar and oil in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and mix on low speed for about 1 minute. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean, add them to the sugar mixture, and mix for 30 seconds to distribute the seeds evenly. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl, add the eggs, and mix on low speed for about 1 minute, until just incorporated. Add the dry ingredients in 2 additions, mixing on low speed for 15 seconds after each, or until just combined.

Remove the bowl from the mixer stand and scrape the bottom of the bowl to incorporate any dry ingredients that may have settled there. Stir in the carrots. Transfer the batter to a covered container and refrigerate overnight, or for up to 36 hours.

To bake the muffins: Preheat the oven to 425 F (standard). Line the muffin pan with the muffin papers and spray the papers with nonstick spray.

Spoon the batter evenly into the papers, stopping 3/8 inch from the top (135 grams each). Sprinkle 30 grams/3 tablespoons of the streusel on top of each muffin and press gently into the batter. Place the pan in the oven, lower the oven temperature to 325 F, and bake for 40 to 43 minutes, or until the muffins are golden brown and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Set the pan on a cooling rack and cool completely.

The muffins are best the day they are baked, but they can be wrapped individually in a few layers of plastic wrap or stored in a single layer in a covered container at room temperature for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 1 week.

For The Oat Streusel Topping

Makes 4 cups (544 grams)

1 cup (142 grams) all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon (107 grams) old-fashioned oats
1/4 cup plus 3 1/2 tablespoons (106 grams) toasted wheat germ
1/2 cup plus 2 1/2 teaspoons (lightly packed) (50 grams) light brown sugar
2 tablespoons plus 1 1/4 teaspoons (29 grams) granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon (1.2 grams) ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon (0.5 gram) freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon (0.4 gram) kosher salt
1/4 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
4 ounces (113 grams) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4 -inch pieces

Combine all of the ingredients except the vanilla bean and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and mix on low speed to combine. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean, add them to the dry mixture, and mix until evenly distributed. Toss in the butter and mix for about 1 minute, or until the butter is incorporated, with no large chunks remaining.

Transfer to a covered container or a resealable plastic bag. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or up to 2 days, or freeze for up to 1 month. Use the streusel while it is cold.

* Note on mixing muffin batter: When mixing a muffin batter, it is important not to overwhip the eggs, as that could cause the muffins to expand too much during baking and then deflate. The mixture may look broken after you whip in the eggs, but that is fine.

* Note on defrosting frozen baked muffins: Defrost the muffins still in the container so any condensation will form on the outside of the container, and not on the muffins. Place on a sheet pan and refresh in a 325 F oven (standard) for about 5 minutes, if desired.

Excerpted from Bouchon Bakery by Thomas Keller and Sebastien Rouxel (Artisan Books). Copyright 2012.

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