Jun 10, 2010

Le Francais Patissiere Defi (Warning: Possible crude translation)

This morning I had a midterm exam, atypical for law school since each class usually only has one final exam which determines your grade. I actually didn't mind the professor breaking up the class with two exams, but I'm glad its not a routine thing for each class. Finals week - what law students label as the week (really two) we all spend holed up in our apartments cramming for each exam - is an absolute bear and something I can only tolerate once every few months. Translation: One midterm is acceptable, having one in each class in addition to a final would justifiably be torture.

Onto the real reason for my post today. I mentioned in my first post that I joined The Daring Kitchen as a way to learn some new cooking skills and expand my culinary horizons. However, due to site rules, my membership doesn't start until July 1st and leaving me unable to participate in the June Baker's Challenge. Shame, since as of the completion of my exam this morning, I was looking ahead to a three-day weekend and a hankering to bake something that would impress my friends. I got the idea to take a stab at May's challenge, the Piece Montee (Croquembouche). It may be a little Johhny-come-lately of me, but after looking at the Baker's results, and having never tried making this sort of thing before, I thought it would be a nice warm up for what's to come in July.

The croquembouche is actually the term used for the creation made by arranging the individual profiteroles (filled pastries) in a stacked formation, then drizzled with a caramel sauce. I am only one man, in a small apartment with a few good friends who would be willing subjects, and have no use for a colossal pastry monstrosity. But, for the right audience, it could be a neat presentation. Still, I opted to cut the recipe in half and skip the caramel assembly.

The creme patissiere (filling) had to be made first since it required at least six hours of chill time. I didn't know going into it, but I was making a traditional eclair/donut filling. It was simple to do and, since I preset all my ingredients, it was done and in the fridge in a matter of minutes. The recipe was for a plain vanilla filling, but rarely do I settle for vanilla - though it shines at times, and thus I whisked in a about 1/3 cup of pre-made strawberry glaze in the creme. The strawberry would go well with the chocolate glaze that finishes the dessert.

Next came the pate a choux (puff pastry). The directions seemed easy enough, but I hit a few walls. I think this can be chalked up to me halving the recipe, which didn't quite give me the results proportion would indicate. My first attempt came out too runny, which I think was caused from not giving each egg enough time to incorporate. The batter goes through a few different stages and changes states quickly, so it becomes a question of knowing when you've hit the right stage - something I imagine comes easily after a few go arounds with the recipe. On this try, eight eggs, two cups of flour, a stick and a half of butter, and two batches later I got it rather close. The batter was still wet, but dry enough to hold its form when piped. Because me and piping bags equal a huge mess every time no matter how many precautions I take, I used a quart-sized freezer bag, sealed it and snipped a corner. So much easier to fill and left no mess. The instructions called for the batter to be piped on wax paper, but after one of my previous failed attempts started heavily smoking in the oven, I realized that the paper I had was low grade and microwaveable only - why sell that? I threw the next batch down on foil and hoped it wouldn't alter the results too much. Had I remembered to use a little cooking spray on the foil, I imagine the choux would have come out much better. They stuck to the foil a little and I lost some bases on a few. Still, and despite my multiple attempts, I was pleased with how this final attempt came out.
My attempt at food photography - with my cell phone and the help of Google Picasa.
I will get better at this!

Several hours later the filling had chilled. Realizing the potential for another piping disaster I played this safe. I used a piping bag this time since the creme was stiff and didn't attempt to over stuff the chouxs - something with a little more confidence I might have tried to do. Then, to complete the pastry - and perhaps the best part of it - I dipped the tops of each pastry in chocolate (Ghiradelli semi-sweet). For an item many view as foreboding and something better bought at a French bakery than made at home, this was quite simple and tasted great. As with any first attempt, you have to work out a few problem areas, but you learn from the mistakes - the whole point of The Daring Kitchen concept. The ingredients were all standard and nothing special had to be bought or sought out. Another great feature of the choux and creme patisserie is that both are incredibly versatile. The choux on its own is rather flavor-neutral making it the perfect base for a sweet or savory item. I'll have to experiment with this in the future. As for now, I've punched my card and am going to probably wait until the July Challenge for my next big effort. Although it doesn't officially count, I'll consider this Daring Baker Challenge, Round One complete...or maybe just a successful pre-game.

Profiteroles complet!
Note to self: be on the lookout for deals on cameras.

Vanilla Creme Patissiere (Pastry Cream)
Pate a Choux (Puff Pastry)


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