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In Pursuit of the Popover (and other lessons)

This blog is the third in our series on the connection between cooking and learning. To see previous posts, click here.

Many years ago, a friend passed on her recipe for No Beat Popovers, and I have now made them dozens of times. Unlike other popover recipes I have tried that are very fussy, No Beat Popovers come together in about 3 minutes. I don’t need to preheat the oven, preheat the pan, let ingredients come to room temperature, or pull out the mixer. (One recipe I have experimented with insists on all of the above and has the mixer going for about fifteen minutes.) Don’t worry about lumps, this delightfully simple recipe assures me, just stir four ingredients together with a fork or slotted spoon. There’s just one small thing. What I pull out of the oven is always a bit of a surprise. “Did they pop this time?” my son will call from upstairs. Sometimes they do. Beautifully. Sometimes they don’t. Mysteriously. I described this perplexing popover situation to Sara, and she was game to give my recipe a try. Because we have been finding cooking to be so full of interesting learning opportunities and observations, we thought we’d each write about our experience with my recipe. So today’s blog is all about popovers, with thoughts from someone who has made the recipe many times (Kris), and someone who is seeing it for the first time (Sara). Sara’s Experience My 18-month old has taken a keen interest in the oven recently. We make a lot of bread (at least two loaves a week and much more in the past month as my sourdough starter has finally produced enough gas to leaven bread), and he loves putting his little hand on the tea towel to push it aside and see what’s going on in there. It happens so frequently that I’ve learned that keeping the oven light on whenever there’s something in there keeps him from being tempted to open the oven door (that and a baby safety lock). Once I’d put this popover batter in the oven and set the timer, I followed Sully into the living room. But halfway through the baking time, he wanted to see into the oven. He moved the tea towel to the side but didn’t seem particularly interested in the contents. When there were just a few minutes left, we wandered back into the kitchen and stationed ourselves on the floor to watch. It was disappointing. And even a toddler who loves watching bread bake was unimpressed. These popovers did not pop. One looks like it thought about popping but then saw that none of the others

were, so it didn’t. In my mind, this is an unequivocal failure, and my husband can attest to the fact that I was mad about how they turned out. It didn’t matter that they tasted fine; they were supposed to do a thing that they didn’t do, so I failed. But the next day, I started to wonder why popovers even work. I understand that there’s a lot of liquid and that they pop when the liquid becomes steam, but then this recipe doesn’t make any sense to me. Why would I ever put popovers into a cold oven if I’m looking to create steam to get them to rise? How does the rising temperature of a warming oven affect how much a popover pops? Why wouldn’t you just change the liquid/solid ratio of other recipes to try and get a good rise without a leavener? Here’s the most valuable thing I gleaned from this process: My failure made me interested in chemistry. Ever since the eleventh grade, I have hated chemistry. I’ve found it confusing and uninteresting (those are probably related), but the questions that I’m asking about how this reaction works make me think that it’s more likely that I’ve never seen a meaningful way to approach chemistry than that I actually believe it’s uninteresting (though I still find it confusing). Kris’ Experience I made the recipe twice in a two-day span, and my results were much less frustrating than Sara’s, but perplexing in their own way. This was my first batch: four popped beautifully, five popped reasonably well, three said, “not today.” (Those three had clearly conspired with the mutinous bunch in Sara’s oven.)

I had two hypotheses about my results. The first was that my oven heats unevenly. If I were baking muffins, I might have tested this hypothesis by turning the pan part-way through. But since popovers are all about steam, opening the oven door mid-bake is a complete non-starter. Plus, I’ve never noticed any of my other baked goods having a problem with uneven cooking.

So I moved on to my second hypothesis. Were the last muffin cups to be filled getting a slightly different mixture than the others? Had I not stirred the batter quite enough? So for my second attempt, I stirred in the flour a little more gradually and a little more thoroughly, despite the recipe’s encouragement to not worry about the lumps. I then filled the pans in the same order as I had the first time. My results were encouraging, but not entirely conclusive. The popovers on the right in the

second batch were improved, but still not as popped as the ones on the left. Is it possible I hadn’t stirred enough and that my oven heats unevenly? I think the question calls for a third test, one in which I repeat the more careful mixing, but fill the tins in a different order. What if I fill the pan from right to left? Or fill a middle column last? Now that I’ve dived in, I’m keenly interested in figuring it out. The benefits of limited success and failure As I reflect on our experiences, a few things jump out. One clear lesson is that failure can cause us to think about things more deeply. Why didn’t Sara’s pop? Why did some of mine pop and not others? Neither Sara nor I took these setbacks to heart and thought, we can’t do it. We are just not popover people. Rather, both of us had our curiosity sparked as we struggled to make sense of what was happening. (Sure, Sara was briefly mad about her results and she may revert to a recipe she likes more, but that didn’t stop the curiosity. She may well have given popover alchemy far more thought than she would have otherwise.) In the classroom, it’s also okay to have some lousy results (that applies to both teachers and students). It’s okay to feel frustrated. In the kitchen, Sara and I both have enough competence and confidence that we can move past failure and keep going. That’s what our students need, as well. Another lesson is that recipes don’t always tell us everything we need to know. “Stir with a fork or slotted spoon. Don’t worry about the lumps” leaves so much room for interpretation. What size lumps? How long do I stir? This is not so different from a lesson plan. We may think it is clear and thorough, but we don’t know for sure until we’ve tried it and then checked for understanding. And then there are those lessons that work beautifully for some students and fall flat for others. Why were the experiences different? What adjustments can be made? And a final thought: most teachers probably have a record of success with their lessons that it not unlike the popovers in my first batch. A few lessons go perfectly according to plan, the majority are somewhere in the middle, and a few others just don’t pop. And in those lessons that just don’t pop, there is so much to learn and be curious about. If you’d like to try your hand at these finicky popovers, just comment or send us a message. We’ll pass the recipe on. Images by Kristin Blais & Sara Bailey


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