There are a few things I remember vividly about the colleges I visited with my dad when I was a junior in high school—the half-appealing, half-terrifying isolation of remote, gorgeous Cornell; the oppressive tininess of Williamstown, Massachusetts (“Some of our students live off campus,” our tour guide told us. Then: “This is the street where they live”); the awe I felt the first time I saw Low Library, a pagan temple plucked out of ancient Greece and plunked into the upper reaches of Manhattan.
I don’t recall much about the food we ate along the way, with one major exception: after touring quaint, bucolic Amherst, we stopped at a charming little restaurant that was famous for its popovers. (Turns out it’s called Judie’s, and it’s still there.) I had never had a popover before; I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know what a popover was. But I fell in love as soon as I bit into my first one—still warm from the oven, perfectly golden brown, crisp on the outside with an interior that felt lighter than air. They were hollow inside, which made them easy to fill with other delicious things—but they tasted good enough on their own that I don’t think I even bothered taking the extra step.
Then 12 years passed. You don’t see popovers much in the wild; even in an age that’s rediscovered the joys of carbs (following the Atkins-crazed aughts and the gluten-phobic early 20-teens), they remain a retro curiosity, sort of like tuna-noodle casserole or jello molds. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t have another one until the other week, when I realized that Nonnie’s cookbook holds a recipe for popovers—one that required nothing more than flour, milk, eggs, and a muffin tin.
And now that I’ve made them at home, I’m newly puzzled that popovers aren’t more of a thing. They’re eons easier to make than real rolls (i.e. the kind that require yeast, kneading, and hours of your precious, precious time). They taste about as good as more complicated breads. And as a bonus, they’re one of the healthiest bread-like items you can make at home; this recipe will work whether you use nonfat milk or something richer, and it’ll also stretch a single cup of flour to feed a whole dinner party. Although you’ll probably want to double the recipe at least, because there’s nothing sadder than depriving your guests of eating as many popovers as they desire.
1 cup sifted flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk [I used skim; other internet recipes imply that you could successfully sub in any other kind. I’m sure popovers made with whole milk would taste richer, but these were plenty tasty even if the only fat they contained came from the eggs)
[Other recipes incorporate butter as well—but Nonnie’s doesn’t, and I don’t think it made a difference at all. It’s certainly not necessary for any structural reasons]
Beat all ingredients together until smooth. [I did this step in the food processor, since I already had it out; I’m sure you could do it just as well by hand, though you’d want to be careful to beat thoroughly in order to avoid lumps.] Pour into well-greased muffin pans or custard cups (3/4 full). [There are specialized popover pans out there, designed to make especially tall and well-domed popovers; I’m sure they work great, but I don’t see the point of buying a pan that can only do one thing when you’ve probably already got a pan built to do two or three.]
Bake at 425 until golden, 35-45 minutes. [Nope! It definitely does not take that long to bake these popovers—25 minutes in a 425-degree oven was plenty of time to produce a tall, crisp-outside, soft-inside popover. Really, you just need to be sure not to open the oven door while they’re rising; a change in temperature could lead to some quick deflation.]
Serve hot. Makes 6-8 popovers. [The yield count is accurate; I doubled the recipe and ended up with 15 or 16 altogether.]
The verdict: Delicious, although I may have stacked the deck by scouring the internet for popover-baking tips and incorporating a few of them into my maiden batch. First of all, I made my batter an hour or so before I intended to bake the popovers and left it on my counter, so that it’d reach room temperature by the time I stuck them in the oven; according to popover lore, this acts as the baking equivalent of growth hormone, allowing each popover to reach its full potential height. Secondly, I preheated the muffin tin along with the oven, which is also supposed to give the popovers an early boost.
The only real downside to popovers? As you can see from the photo above, if you don’t eat them the second they emerge from the oven, they’ll deflate slightly to become weird, wrinkled, mushroomy bread knobs—although they’ll still taste the same. Now that I think of it, that’s probably why more restaurants don’t serve them; popovers are more ephemeral than sturdy, an easy recipe that feels like a special occasion specifically because they’re not built to last very long.
But really, all this means is that you have to tell your guests to devour their golden, steamy, custardy egg breads the second you serve them. Who wouldn’t want to obey an order like that?