Tag: Desserts

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.14: chocolate eclairs from France

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.14: chocolate eclairs from France

The French are fabulous bakers. I could have chosen any of a dozen bakes from France, but this one is the taste of my childhood – my Proustian Madeleine, if you’re of a literary mind. So let’s hear it for the “éclair au chocolat”, which brings back a flood of happy memories of small boy in Parisian patisserie.

There have been some easy bakes in this series of posts: this isn’t one of them. It’s fiddly and  requires hand skill as well as pin-sharp attention to quantities and timing. If anyone labels an eclair recipe as “quick and easy”, don’t believe them.

The éclair is a three part dish: a cylindrical choux pastry bun, a crème pâtissière (pastry cream) filling and a ganache or glaze. Each one has its choices: I’m going to write only one recipe, but I’ll give some ideas about the other options. I should also point out that I’m not a master pastry chef: if you are looking for perfect symmetry and an immaculately shiny top, you’ll need to go well beyond my skill level. But I can assure you that these tasted suitably authentic and went down very well with the family…

The crème pâtissière filling

Eclairs in England tend to use whipped cream as a filling. The French don’t do this: the filling is always some variant of crème pâtissière (pastry cream or creme pat in English), either vanilla or chocolate. You can use plain pastry cream or add some Crème Chantilly (sweetened whipped cream), in which case it’s technically called a Crème Diplomate. I went for something in between: a chocolate crème pâtissière, but with double cream mixed in to thin it down to a pipable consistency.

  • 3 eggs
  • 15g flour
  • 5g cornflour
  • 5g (1tbs) cocoa powder
  • 60g vanilla sugar (or 60g caster sugar plus vanilla essence to taste)
  • 25g dark chocolate (I used chocolate with 70% cocoa solids)
  • 250 ml milk
  • double cream as needed – perhaps 30-50ml

In the methods, I’ve sequenced things to minimise stress rather than overall preparation time. For example, if you were trying to minimise time, you’d probably put the milk on straightaway and then quickly sort out the egg mix while the milk heats up.

  1. Separate the eggs and put the yolks in a bowl
  2. If your chocolate came in a bar as opposed to chips, chop it up into small pieces
  3. Add 45g of the sugar to the eggs and whisk together
  4. Add the cornflour, flour and cocoa powder and whisk thoroughly
  5. Put the milk into a saucepan with the rest of the sugar (and vanilla essence if using) and bring to the boil
  6. Pour the milk into your egg mixture and whisk together thoroughly
  7. Return your mixture the saucepan and whisk in the chocolate
  8. Cook for a minute or two longer until there is no hint of raw flour taste in the mixture
  9. Decant your mixture into a bowl, dust it with icing sugar to stop a skin forming, cover and leave to cool; refrigerate until thoroughly cold and your eclairs are ready to be filled

The choux pastry buns

Most choux pastry recipes are pretty similar: mine mainly comes from an old Roux Brothers cookbook and therefore has a level of French authenticity. The real choice you have is how to improve the crust on the top of your eclair: I’ve sprinkled icing sugar on top, but you can use egg wash if you prefer. Some French recipes like this one from Ricardo  use a thin layer of a sweet pastry called  “craquelin”, which merges into the main eclair, caramelises and forms a characteristic cracked pattern.

  • 45g unsalted butter, plus another 5g if your milk is semi-skimmed
  • 65ml milk
  • 65ml water
  • ½ tsp sugar
  • 75g flour
  • 2 eggs
  • icing sugar to dust
  1. Preheat oven to 190℃ fan.
  2. Get your baking tray ready: lie a silicone mat over it (if you have one), patterned side up, or a sheet of baking parchment otherwise
  3. Prepare a piping bag with a 1cm nozzle. A French star nozzle is ideal: this gets you a ridged eclair with more surface area to go crisp. I don’t have one of these, so I went for plain.
  4. Sift the flour
  5. Chop the butter into small pieces and put into a saucepan
  6. Add the milk, water and sugar  (you can also add ½ tsp of salt at this stage, which some recipes suggest)
  7. Bring to the boil and take off the heat
  8. Immediately add the flour to the mixture in a single go and stir to combine
  9. When properly mixed, return to the heat and cook for a short while – perhaps a minute or two – until the mixture comes away nicely from the sides of the pan. Take off the heat and leave to cool for a short while
  10. Whisk in the eggs, one at a time, whisking thoroughly until you have a smooth mix. If the consistency is right, you should be able to pipe the mixture but it should hold its shape when piped. If it’s too stiff, you can add more egg. If it’s too loose, you’re in trouble, so an alternative to the “whisk in eggs one at a time” instruction is to whisk the eggs into a bowl on their own, and then add the egg mix a bit at a time until you are sure the consistency. For me, life was too short and I just added them in.
  11. Leave to cool for five minutes or so, then fill your piping bag with the mixture
  12. Pipe your eclairs into tubes of choux pastry around 8cm long – the recipe should get you a dozen of them. Make sure they are properly spaced out from each other: they will grow during baking. You really need to try to get an even cylinder here, which means piping quickly with a constant pressure: this takes practise. On the photos here, you’ll see that I have some way to go…
  13. Tidy up any stray bits of dough which are sticking out at the ends, doing your best not to destroy the structure of what’s left
  14. Bake for 20 minutes without opening the oven door
  15. Open the oven door to check: close it quickly and then continue baking for however long it needs for your eclairs to go golden brown (probably 5-10 more minutes)
  16. Remove the eclairs from the oven and leave to cool on a wire rack

Filling the eclairs

  1. Take your crème pâtissière out of the fridge. Whisk in enough add double cream until you have a mixture that you can pipe easily: you want it to be rather thinner than toothpaste but not runny
  2. Transfer the crème pâtissière to a piping bag with a nozzle of around 5mm: the exact dimension doesn’t matter, but piping will be difficult if it’s too small and you’re likely to damage the choux pastry if it’s too wide.
  3. With your nozzle, make three holes in what is currently the bottom of each eclair, reasonably evenly spaced, piping filling into each until the eclair is full. Wipe off any excess and add it back to bowl – in the quantities in this recipe, you’ll have little or none to spare.

The ganache or glaze

The best tasting and easiest topping, in my view, is a simple chocolate-and-cream ganache and that’s what I’ve gone for here. But if you want that patisserie hard gloss look (or you just want something that doesn’t get quite so dramatically sticky in hot weather), there are plenty of alternatives around, involving icing sugar or glucose syrup (some American recipes specify corn syrup).

  • 75g dark chocolate
  • 75g double cream
  1. Melt the chocolate in a double boiler
  2. Cool slightly
  3. Whisk in the cream and mix thoroughly
  4. Leave to cool for 10 minutes or so
  5. Spread smoothly over the eclairs with a small knife or spatula (spread them over the side with the holes you filled them from)
  6. Leave to cool for an hour or so

If you have to, refrigerate and keep them for no more than a day or two: you don’t want to leave them for much longer, because the filling soaks into the pastry and it goes soggy. Eclairs don’t  freeze, because the pastry cream splits. So really, you’re better off just eating them on the day…

Some notes and tips

Using cornflour guarantees that your pastry cream will thicken, but you risk it setting too thick to be piped easily – which is why I needed to thin it out with cream. If you use just 20g of plain flour rather than the flour/cornflour mix, you’ll need to cook the cream for much longer – perhaps as much as five minutes more – for it to thicken, but you then won’t need the cream afterwards.

Your biggest problem with eclairs is making sure that the buns dry out properly but don’t go rock hard. Of the various ways of preventing this, the one that seems to work best for me is to bake them at a relatively high temperature and have the nerve to bake them for at least 20 minutes before you open the oven to see how they’re doing. When you take them out, transfer them to a wire rack immediately: you don’t want any moisture building up on the base.

Canadian blog “the flavor bender” has an excellent post on how to troubleshoot problems with your eclairs, with a long list of what’s likely to go wrong and what you should do about it. It’s wordy and overly long, but the information is first class. Good luck!

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.11: Ranginak from Iran

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.11: Ranginak from Iran

It’s time for a trip to the delicately balanced, aromatic foods of Persia. Strictly speaking, Ranginak isn’t a baked dish – it’s cooked in a skillet, not an oven – but it’s a dessert made from a flour/butter/sugar mixture as found in many Western baked goods, so I’ll stretch a point. Ranginak gets described as a sort of Persian date and walnut fudge, but it’s much better than that because it isn’t overpoweringly sugary: cut into small chunks, it makes for a lovely, scented, sweet-but-not-too-sweet bite of deliciousness.

Ranginak is famous as a festive dessert in Iran: the name means “colourful”, which is mildly dubious since it’s basically brown until you add garnish. There are many regional variations, the most improbable of which comes from a seventeenth century Isfahan recipe and involves dressing the completed product with  rice pudding. I’ve gone for a simple one, starting from a recipe in the lovely Persian website Turmeric and Saffron and adding in the odd bit from my Persian cookery bible, Margaret Shaida’s The Legendary Cuisine of Persia.  As usual, I’ve given some details and turned most measurements into metric: I just find it easier to measure things accurately with a set of digital scales than with measuring spoons and cups. 

I’ve halved the recipe, since we’re still in lockdown here in London and I don’t really want to make giant desserts if I’m not sure they’re going to freeze properly. The amounts here are about right for a round dish 15cm in diameter: adjust to suit whatever size dish you are going to use.

Ingredients, in order of use

  • 50g walnut halves
  • 200g dates
  • 125g flour
  • 125g butter
  • 20g icing sugar
  • 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground cardamom
  • A free pistachios, shelled and unsalted, to garnish

If you talk to anyone Iranian, they will tell you that Persian produce (walnuts, dates, melons, garlic, saffron, etc) is different from everyone else’s – and, of course, superior. This starts out by being incredibly irritating until you try things out and come to the inevitable conclusion that for the most part, they are simply stating correct information. Or nearly, anyway: Omani dates are as good as the Persian products, Chilean walnuts and Kashmiri saffron likewise. But you get the idea: if you can find a Persian food shop for your dates and walnuts, it’s a good idea.

In the more likely event that you don’t have access to a Persian shop: most supermarket walnuts will be fine, but the quality of the dates is important: the rock hard ones that you often see in oblong cardboard packets will be hard to work with and yield a disappointing result. Make sure the dates are soft. If they’re pitted, that will save you effort.

Method

  1. Choose a shallow dish just large enough to hold your dates laid flat; grease it with a bit of melted butter. 
  2. In a dry pan on medium heat, toast the walnuts until fragrant but not yet burning (should be 3 minutes or so). Take them off the heat.
  3. While the walnuts are cooling, take the stones out of the dates (if this hasn’t already been done for you).
  4. In a bowl, mix the icing sugar, cinnamon powder  and cardamom powder.
  5. Once the walnuts are no longer too hot to touch, cut each piece in half so that you now have walnut quarters. Stuff a walnut quarter into the cavity of each date.
  6. In a pan on medium heat, toast the flour until it’s just beginning to go pale brown and smell aromatic (around 5 minutes).
  7. Add the butter and mix thoroughly as it melts. Now cook for around 10-15 minutes until your mixture is a medium butterscotch kind of colour. Don’t let it go as far as dark brown.
  8. Add the spiced sugar and mix thoroughly, then pour the mixture into your dish. Leave to cool for long enough that you’re not going to burn your fingers in the next step.
  9. Now lay out the stuffed dates on the mixture, and sprinkle some chopped pistachios. If you’re of an artistic bent (and especially if you’re doubling or trebling this recipe), you’ve got scope for some fun here. Sadly, I’m not, but there are plenty of pretty photos online to give you the idea.
  10. Leave to set, which should take a couple of hours at normal room temperature. If it’s a hot day and you’re in a hurry, you’ll probably want the Ranginak to spend part of the time in the fridge.

Traditionally, Ranginak is served with tea. Personally, I like going cross-cultural and serving a piece with a scoop of pistachio ice-cream. But I’ll leave that one to you…

Around the world in 80 bakes, no. 8: Brigadeiros from Brazil

OK, so I’m cheating here: the Brigadeiro, pretty much Brazil’s national sweet, is cooked in a saucepan, not in an oven. But they’re really delicious (batch 2 was demanded immediately), really easy to make and by a long way the most Brazilian thing I could find. So here goes.

Brigadeiros have a relatively short history: they were created in Rio de Janeiro in 1946 and named after a presidential candidate, Eduardo Gomes, who happened to be an army Brigadier. Gomes lost the election, but these gooey chocolate truffles won the hearts of the Brazilian people and have been a favourite ever since.

With the possible exception of some flatbreads in posts to come, I’m unlikely to provide any recipes with a smaller number of ingredients:

  • 1 can of sweetened condensed milk (approx 400g)
  • 30g cocoa powder (unsweetened)
  • 30g butter (if it’s unsalted, add a gramme or two of salt)
  • Dessicated coconut for rolling

In fact, you can roll your brigadeiros in anything you like: in most recipe photos you’ll see, they’re coated with chocolate sprinkles; some recipes go for chopped pistachios or almonds. I happen to love coconut and think it brings extra Brazil-ness, but the choice really is yours.

The steps in the method are just as simple:

  1. Put the first three ingredients into a saucepan and mix thoroughly
  2. Heat, mixing continually, until you have a sticky paste that comes away from the sides of the pan
  3. Leave to cool until they don’t burn your fingers
  4. Shape into balls around 3cm in diameter, and roll in your favourite topping

There are, however, some details worth mentioning:

  • Cocoa powder clumps. A balloon whisk is a good idea for the first five minutes or so until it’s really smooth, then switch to a wooden spoon. If you don’t have a balloon whisk, go for elbow-grease.
  • “Mixing continually” means what it says. Don’t leave the mixture on the heat for more than a few seconds without stirring it to get some off the sides of the pan, especially towards the end.
  • Knowing when to take the mixture off the heat is tricky. Too soon and you have a liquid chocolate sauce that you can’t mould. Too late and your brigadeiros are decidedly chewy. My guidelines for the best point: (1) wait until the point where, when you run a wooden spoon through the liquid, it flows back very slowly and reluctantly, then give it another couple of minutes, or (2) when the mixture temperature is just above 100℃. Or just keep practising until you can do it by feel, at risk to your waistline.
  • You want to cool the mixture enough so that it doesn’t burn your fingers. If you want the mixture to cool more quickly, dump your saucepan into cold water when you’ve taken it off the heat. 
  • If you’ve overcooked and then over-cooled the mixture so that it’s too stiff to mould, warm it up slightly – it won’t hurt. But if that’s happened, be kind to your tasters’ teeth and make smaller balls.

Having said which, this is relatively simple stuff. And the results are incredibly moreish…

P.S. For added Brazilian authenticity, pronounce the name with the “Bri” rhyming with “Me”, the “ei” rhyming with “hay” and the “os” rhyming with “louche”. If you can be bothered.

Mid-process shots follow, somewhat more boring than usual…