Sunday, August 31, 2008

Pâte à choux, I love you

Pâte à choux à la Wikipedia: a light pastry dough used to make profiteroles, croquembouches, eclairs, French crullers, beignets, Indonesian kue sus, and gougères.

Oh and let's not forget cream puffs which you might be thinking is missing from the list - but actually is the same thing as a profiterole.

The Daring Bakers tackle the Chocolate Éclair:
Ebony and Ivory - Éclairs; Master Hermé style

I LOVE choux pastry. It somehow became tradition in my family to have cream puffs (ahem - profiteroles) for Christmas Eve dinner every year for something like the last 15 Christmases. And it has always been I who makes them. One set filled with chocolate pudding and one set filled with vanilla pudding. And let's not be too snobby here - I've always used a "fancied" up version of boxed cook-and-serve pudding mixes, with a little gelatin added and whipped cream folded in. So not only do I love eating cream puffs - I love making them!

When I logged into Daring Bakers about a month ago I was TICKLED that our hosts for August, Tony and Meeta had chosen éclairs!! No cakes. No buttercream. Éclairs!! And specifically the recipe out of Dorie Greenspan's chocolate homage to Pierre Hermé; a book I actually own! This challenge would force me to try a different recipe than my trusty one and also force me to get creative about some different fillings. Hallelujah!!
Such perfect little pockets
The Rules:
Hermé's recipe was specifically for chocolate éclairs; choux pastry filled with chocolate pastry cream and topped with chocolate glaze. Tony and Meeta asked us to keep 1 of the chocolate elements (either the glaze or the filling) but could play with the other. We also had to use the choux pastry and specifically Hermé's recipe for it.

My Spin:
I made these éclairs twice in August. Once to be creative and a second time when my creative attempt didn't go so happily (nor did I end up with much time to photograph them). I seem to be eating and breathing pistachios these days. I think it started with the macarons and continued on into even last month's challenge. My friend, who has observed me shelling an abundance of pistachios lately, brought home a few pretty bags of them from a fruit stand on his way home from LA last month to support my obsession. So not only does it seem like I have pistachios coming out of my ears - now there are bags of them all over my counter-tops! (okay, really only 3 bags). So when I read that we could get creative with the filling - suddenly pistachio pastry cream flitted through my thoughts and I was AFTER it.

Pretty pistachios wrapped with a bow -- Pastry cream with so much potential

The only problem is, I didn't have a recipe for pistachio pastry cream. So I scoured the web until I thought I'd found a good one. The recipe didn't call for cornstarch but instead of making what would surely end up as pistachio crème anglaise I decided to add a couple tablespoons so that it would thicken. I obviously didn't add enough - the resulting cream was too runny. And since the recipe didn't ask for it and I was doing things too quickly with little time to think, I didn't strain it either - so it was gritty with pistachio bits. Needless to say I didn't like it. I considered my "creative attempt" a failure.

So I had to do it again... and in the 11th hour too: from roughly 11pm-3am Friday night!

Choux pastry or pâte à choux, is very simple to make. Boil milk, water, butter and teensy bits of salt and sugar together on the stove. Then you quickly stir in a cup of flour and watch it suddenly turn:

from a liquid... to a ball... and after quickly adding the eggs - to a soft and smooth ball...

The main difference between éclairs and profiteroles is that éclairs are long and profiteroles are round. To get a uniform long éclair it's best to pipe the dough onto the sheets.

Oops Silpat is upside down! -- They look like banana slugs -- Mmm warm and toasty

Since I always do vanilla and chocolate for Christmas I decided to go back to my never-fail combo and do just that for my 11th hour attempt. I used Pierre's chocolate pastry cream recipe and a vanilla pastry cream recipe that I've sort of made up over time.

Adding melted bittersweet -- Mixing it into the pastry cream -- Chocolate pastry cream completed!

Assemblage was fun - though more work than my typical "spoon and dump" method I do for cream puffs. Piping makes everything look fancier. So I piped the pastry cream into each éclair.
Some filled, some glazed, some vanilla, some chocolate
The glaze wasn't really very fun to me. I typically use a light chocolate frosting recipe that works perfectly each time. This glaze kept separating (mmm butter) and then wouldn't stick to the top of the éclair. But if I whisked it briskly between each "glazing" it would work okay. I also wasn't a fan of making a separate chocolate sauce that would then get added to the glaze. It seemed like an extra step that just wasn't worth the work - plus, some of the sauce was wasted since the glaze recipe didn't call for an entire sauce recipe.
BUT - they certainly look nice glazed!

I guess I *gasp* won't be making this recipe again. The pastry cream was too rich and dense, the glaze too much work for what it was. I made my cream puffs for my Girls Night In party this past spring and a friend at that party also got to sample these. Without prompting she said she liked the others better so hopefully I'm not just full of myself! Don't get me wrong - these were great! Comes in a very close 2nd behind the Danish Braid (of my 4 DB challenges). But since I feel like I've already mastered the cream puff - it's really hard to top it.
I loved making them, loved photographing
them - and really loved eating them!

Please don't forget to visit all the other Daring Bakers who'll be posting their éclair blog entries today too! You can find Pierre's recipes on many of them as well. Thanks again to Tony and Meeta! I heart Daring Bakers and I especially heart that pâte à choux...
(I seem to end a lot of blog posts with that sound)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

She made bail

I realize I haven't blogged in over a week now. And this time I actually don't have any good excuse for it. Well maybe I do - I was so beat after cooking and "creating" for the shower that I basically took a break this week. I didn't cook other than for a friend's BBQ and basically spent each evening planted on my couch or at dinner with friends. It was a very relaxing week! But it then means I have nothing very exciting to share.
Look how big she's getting!
Well until tonight...

I had dinner with Andrea. She hadn't yet met Lucca but we were almost late for our reservation when she arrived, so she ran in, gave me a hug and we then left together. Well Miss Lucca was within view of us and was so excited to see a new friend. But then we left. And she was really upset (I could hear her bark as we walked away from the front door - and she really doesn't bark that much!) So Andrea and I enjoyed a nice leisurely sushi dinner just a few miles from home. We were gone for maybe an hour and a half.

As I was about to open my front door I reminded Andrea that Lucca is still a puppy and asked her "have you been around many puppies?" Just wanted to make sure she knew what she was in for.

Well - I didn't even know what I was in for!
This is what I saw when I came in the door:

Uh oh...

And there was a VERY happy puppy wiggling all over at our feet - VERY pleased with herself.

This is what she did while we were out:

It really wasn't bad - apropos that she tore up a PetEdge catalog?

I'm actually shocked and considering myself very lucky that she didn't get into more. There was a GIGANTIC pile of laundry on the couch and she only played with a couple pieces of it. No shoes will need to be thrown away.  The couch and pillows were intact. There was no poop or pee anywhere.

Is it possible that what everyone is saying is right? Do we have a really GREAT dog?
Well we do, but I also think tonight we got REALLY lucky!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A shower for Debbie

It's been quite a while since I last posted. But I have very good reason. Over the last week (and more) I've been finalizing my planning for my best friend, Debbie's, Bridal Shower. As seems to happen when I do something for someone I love - I went a little over-the-top with my planning. But ideas just started coming to me and I couldn't get them out of my head. So, if I think up 2 different favors and I really like both ideas... I do 2 favors!
Lunch was mandarin orange, avocado salad with
poppyseed dressing and Quiche Lorraine

Debbie and I have been best friends since we met on our P.E. numbers on the first day of Junior High, something-teen years ago. She is basically my sister. And while she herself has two sisters, I was granted the incredible privilege of being her Maid of Honor when she became engaged to Nick last year.

6 bunches of flowers became 10 vases

Not one to shirk my duties - especially when event planning is involved - I was brainstorming ideas for her bridal shower over a year ago. I knew I wanted to have it in my parents backyard - a BEAUTIFUL location for entertaining. I knew I wanted (and needed) to rent tables and chairs and umbrellas. I knew I needed to include potatoes (Deb's favorite food!) as much as possible. I knew I'd have to worry about [hot] weather in the summer months. I knew I'd make macarons as favors and most likely pistachio since they're Deb's favorite flavor. I knew I'd do all the cooking myself but that I'd also get a little of Mom's help - after all, I did learn most of my skills from her! So I'd essentially been planning this in my head for the last year.
Pineapple in chocolate is actually fabulous! -- I overdid it a little on the tarts,
made 4 for 20 people! -- Mashed potatoes in the rolls make them incredibly soft

Gotta drop a plug here - Stacey at California Chocolate Fountains is not only amazing, professional and completely sweet - she's also my cousin. How can you NOT have a chocolate fountain at an event when your cousin generously offers?
Did I mention Debbie loves potatoes?
Linens, china and silver immediately turn an outdoor party classy

It came together perfectly. Weather was a little hot (high 80's) - but with umbrellas and tents and lots of ice water and punch, I think I was the only one who actually had sweat running down her face!
I joke that this is about what I looked like the entire day!

I really don't like games at showers since I'd rather be visiting with friends (or heck, the guest of honor!) but I decided to include one simple game for the guests and one funny game for Debbie. First was Debbie Trivia of which her sisters and other bridesmaid present were the winners! (Apropos!) But much funnier was "How Well Does Debbie Know Nick?" Fortunately Debbie knows Nick rather well, but when I was able to stump her with a question I'd gradually dress her in a "sexy outfit" (over her clothes). Once fully dressed we took plenty of pictures of her to show Nick just how sexy she did indeed look:

Really, only Debbie would still look amazing in all that junk!

The final "shower element" I actually can't wait to assemble is Deb's scrapbook. I had something of an all-day craft project going during the shower. A table set with paper, stickers, glue, scissors, pens etc. I asked everyone to write their favorite Debbie story, advice or a thought onto a note then attach it to a scrapbook page they decorated. Throughout the day I had my trusty photographer (thanks again Mic!!) snap a picture of Debbie with each guest and I'll be printing them and affixing it to the appropriate scrapbook page.

Creative minds at work - SUCH fun!

This shower was my wedding gift to Debbie. How does one select a wedding gift for their very best friend? This is one wedding for which I could not merely purchase off the registry or write a check. My gift had to be from the heart. I perhaps selfishly rejected assistance from bridesmaids and friends. I held this gift close to my soul and refused to give any part of it away. At the last minute - upon insistence from them; I let a few friends help me during the shower (thanks again Ames, Andrea, Liz, Ali and Connie!). And of course my family helped, both immediate and extended (Mom, Dad, Mark, Auntie Betty, Stacey). But overall I am still bursting with pride that I basically pulled it off all on my own.
And you might be wondering - how does one "gift" a bridal shower? She will most definitely have my neck for the photo I am about to post, but it is a Classic and captures the true longevity of our friendship. There is a photo taken of Debbie and I roughly 17 years ago. Debbie looks like a different person while I just look - younger (this is why I love that photo - it's only really embarrassing for her!) I wrote up the poem I'll be posting below, printed it on the back of this photo and cut it into 6 smaller pieces. I then bought her 6 small gifts and wrapped a piece of the poem with each gift. Over dinner last week Debbie had to unwrap each gift and tape the photo together; only to then flip it over and read what her gift actually was.
Your wedding gift by now, may seem anti-climactic
but blame it on me, and how I go spastic,
And yes, I realize that creative, it's not
but from my heart and mind it was completely thought,
Cuz Deb you're truly like a sister to me
without you I don't know what life would be,
I wanted to give you the absolute tops
nothing was too good or too fancy; no stops,
As usual I needed total control
in order to give you a gift that was whole,
So finally I've come to the point of this rhyme
I can't wait for you to have a fabulous time,
Therefore, your wedding gift is - to the best of my power
the absolute entirety of your bridal shower!!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Olympic Peaches

I am proud to say that this is my very own pie recipe. Not like it was that difficult; I basically used my family's existing peach pie recipe and dumped a couple boxes of raspberries into it. But it's still very satisfying to say it is my own creation! Especially when it looks this good!!
My very own Peach Raspberry Pie

My parents drove out to Brentwood to do something my mom loves more than your average person: pick fruit. She returned home with about 100 pounds of peaches, I kid you not. Fay Elberta and cling to be exact. She doled some out to her sisters (as they always do when one comes upon a large stash of fresh fruit/veggies) and is keeping a lot to herself for various things: canning, eating, jamming, fruit-leathering. She generously gave me about 12 and since they're LARGE peaches I decided to use some for this pie.
I love peaches!

All I had to do now was come up with an excuse to make the pie. I was having some friends over to watch the Beijing Opening Ceremonies last Friday night - what a great excuse!

Pretty pretty! --- Just a spoonful of sugar!
My sous chef

I even found myself with a little kitchen helper. And by helper I mean "I'll help eat any bits of crust dough that fall on the floor!!!"

I mentioned it in this post how often times I'll "theme" my pie vents depending on the occasion. So here I was making a pie on 8-8-08 in preparation for the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics, but I certainly didn't have an Olympic rings cookie cutter. So I went a different (less exciting) route:

Going in ---- Coming out
3 minutes after cutting and 9 people later

Saturday, August 9, 2008

A pear of scoops

That free ice cream maker attachment showed up on my doorstep a couple weeks ago; right in the midst of all this life changing puppy-ness. It's as if it arrived to glare at me and taunt me and challenge me, and say "you KNOW you want to make ice cream even though it will mean keeping one eye on the kitchen and one eye on Lucca running around eating pillows, shoes and magazines!" And I'll be damned if that blasted ice cream maker attachment didn't win! But come now, who can say no to new kitchen appliances and a recipe [torn from a waiting room magazine - it was very old, I didn't feel so guilty] waiting patiently in my recipe box? Certainly not I.

I saw this Pear Stracciatella Ice Cream recipe in a Martha Stewart Living mag from a few years ago and decided to give it a go.

Simmering pears ------ Pureeing the pears ----- Adding pears to
crème anglaise

Stracciatella is ice cream with chocolate shavings in it. So technically I just made Pear Ice Cream, 'cuz I didn't have the time to deal with adding melted chocolate to the freezing ice cream. But the resulting flavor (while perhaps not my first choice) was very clean and fresh and VERY pear!

Ooohh ice cream maker -- Firing it up for the first time!!

After cooking pears in a vanilla bean syrup, you make a crème anglaise and add a portion of the pears to it after puréeing it smooth. Then freeze this mixture and add the remainder of the (diced) poached pears to the ice cream when it's almost done freezing. One thing I'd forgotten about making ice cream is that ice cream isn't the greatest served immediately after making. It's still rather soft:
A little soft, but still tasty!
I don't think my dinner guests minded it's soft texture - but I recently read somewhere that when ice cream is frozen firm, the sweetness is not so strong. I couldn't help but notice that the "soft" ice cream was VERY sweet. But maybe I only noticed that because I had those words in my head.

Two scoops of pear ------- Want a bite?

Though, after freezing overnight it was PERFECT. It tasted like "real" ice cream! And the attachment went right back into the freezer after I washed it. I'm preppin' for more!!