Tag: Pastry

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.7: Fatayer from Syria

For this post, we’re travelling to the Middle East – or, more accurately, to refugees from the Middle East. It turns out that when you’ve been exiled from your war-ravaged home, the one thing they can’t take from you is your food memories. Food writers Itab Azzam and Dina Mousawi have done the rounds of Syrians in exile and produced a lovely book called “Syria – recipes from home”: this recipe comes from the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut – yes, that Shatila, the site of the appalling massacre in 1982.

Out of the oven…

The recipe is for “fatayer”, which are small pasties made of yeasted dough which is rolled thinly and then shaped and pinched around a filling of your choice. There seem to be two popular shapes: I went for a simple half-moon, which gets you something like a miniature version of an Italian calzone. You’ll also see lots of images of fatayer where a hexagon of dough has been folded into a characteristic triangular pyramid: this looks complicated, so I thought I’d leave it for a second time round.

A bit of reading shows that you can fill your fatayer with pretty much anything: I tried two of the three fillings that Itab and Dina list in the recipe: a spinach-based one and a labneh-and-cherry-tomato one. 

If you can imagine miniature folded pizzas filled with your favourite yummy Middle Eastern flavours, piping hot out of the oven, you’ve pretty much got it. What’s not to like?

In what follows, by the way, the recipe in the book has been tweaked mildly to adjust seasoning, follow my usual baking drills, etc.

First, make your dough

  • 200ml milk
  • 300g plain flour, plus some for rolling
  • ½ tsp dried yeast
  • ½ tsp sugar
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 2 tbs sunflower oil (or any other fairly neutral oil)

Put the milk into a saucepan and warm it to around 45℃, add the sugar and yeast, and wait for 5-10 minutes for it to go frothy. Mix the flour and salt in a bowl.

When the yeast mix is frothy, pour it into your bowl with the flour, add the oil and mix it well. You should get a soft dough: knead this reasonably vigorously until it goes nicely springy. Brush some oil around a bowl big enough to hold the dough when it’s risen, and put in a warm place. My favourite method is to heat an oven to 50℃ and turn if off just before putting the dough in to rise – it should take 60-90 minutes.

Now make the spinach filling…

  • One onion
  • 300g spinach
  • 4 tsp sumak
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • Pomegranate seeds
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Chop the onion very finely, fry very slowly in a wok or other large pan bit of olive oil until it caramelises. (The pan has to be large enough to take the spinach before it’s wilted).

Add the spinach and keep frying until it’s wilted right down. Add the sumak, lemon juice and pomegranate seeds, season, and keep reducing gently until virtually all the liquid has gone. You don’t want the spinach to burn, but you don’t want any surplus liquid either.

…and the labneh filling

This is even simpler and, if I’m honest, the better of the two…

  • 12 cherry tomatoes
  • 2-3 baby cucumbers (or perhaps ¼of a large cucumber)
  • 5g fresh mint
  • 4 tbs labneh
  • 2 tbs olive oil

Chop the three dry ingredients as small as you can manage (or can be bothered). Mix everything together thoroughly.

Put it all together

Preheat your oven to 200℃ fan

Flour your board and roll your dough out as evenly as you can. Itab and Dina say 3mm – I’d go thinner if you can do it without breakages.

Cut out circles of dough to a size of your choice: 8cm is about the minimum. Spoon a dollop of filling into the middle of your circle, then fold the dough in half to enclose the filling. You then need to pinch it closed, taking care (a) not to let any filling seep out and (b) that you haven’t left any gaps.

The tricky part is to do this without letting liquid from the filling making it impossible for you to pinch the dough properly so that it stays closed, so two pieces of advice: (1) use a couple of teaspoons for the filling so you don’t dirty your hands and (2) don’t overfill. I ended up giving each circle a little extra roll to thin it out and give myself more margin.

Once you’ve done your first batch, you’ll have a lot of left over scraps of dough. I rolled them all into a ball, re-kneaded them somewhat and then did a second batch.

When each fatayer is made, place it on an oven tray. When they’re all made, bake them until nicely brown – everyone’s oven is different, so keep an eye on them (opening the oven won’t hurt). They took around 15 minutes in my fan oven.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.3: Spanakopita

If you’re thinking of Greece and baking, the chances are that spanakopita is at or near the top of your list. But what exactly is it? The most usual answer is “spinach and feta pie”, but the truth is, you can take pretty much any leafy vegetable, any set of alliums, your favourite dairy products to enrich it (or not, if you’re vegan) and your favourite herbs and spices: wrap that in filo pastry in a shape of your choice (bite-sized or pan-sized), bake it and you get something that’s arguably a spanakopita. There are probably as many recipes as there are cooks.

The finished article – a view of the inside…

So I’m not in any way claiming that what follows is a definitive spanakopita. But I will claim that it’s tested, it’s absolutely delicious, it’s filling, it looks good, it doesn’t take all that long to make, it’s highly tolerant of inaccurate quantities and as long as you take it out of the oven before it starts burning, you’re unlikely to ruin it. In short, whether you’re a frequent vegetarian cook or not, it’s a winner.

…and in context, ready to be cut and served!

The filo pastry and butter is a given, and unless you’re going to opt for kale or other leaves, so is the spinach (the recipes I’ve seen recommend fresh non-young spinach, but all I have available in my local supermarket is the young stuff, and it works fine). For alliums, I like a mixture of leek, shallot, onion and garlic – but you can leave out at least two of these. For flavourings, I go for nutmeg and lemon rind, which gives a real zing, plus a mix of dill, oregano and flat leaf parsley. But again, the first time I made this, I only had parsley in the house, and it was fine. For enriching the filling, I like eggs and feta cheese with a generous dose of grated Parmesan. But you get the idea: don’t feel overly bound to my choices and quantities. Lots of variations will work. So here goes…

The recipe serves four generously as a meal on its own, or would do a starter for at least 8.

Equipment

I used a square 23cm x 23cm metal baking tin, which probably better than a thick ceramic dish, but you can adapt the instructions for whatever you have.

You’ll need a brush of some sort for spreading the butter – otherwise, you’re likely to break the filo too much – it’s very fragile.

The ingredients (minus the olive oil and nutmeg, which I forgot to put in the photo)

Ingredients

  • 400g fresh spinach (frozen is said to work well, but I haven’t tried)
  • 2 leeks – around 300g, 240g after trimming
  • 1 red onion – around 120g
  • 3 cloves garlic – around 20g
  • 1 banana shallot – around 50g
  • Bunch of dill
  • Bunch of oregano
  • Bunch of flat leaf parsley
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 200g feta cheese
  • 120g Parmesan or similar hard cheese
  • Rind of 1 lemon, grated
  • Grated nutmeg and salt to taste
  • 12 sheets of filo pastry (around 150g)
  • Melted butter for spreading – I needed around 100-120g
  • Olive oil for frying

Method

Here’s the usual collection of in-process shots:

Preheat oven to 180℃ fan.

  • Boil a kettle, put the spinach in a colander and pour the boiling water over it. Leave it to wilt and drain while you prepare the rest of the filling.
  • Chop the leeks, onion, shallot and garlic and fry gently in some oil (I add a bit of salt at this stage). Meanwhile, chop your herbs: when the mixture has gone transparent, add the chopped herbs and stir well so that everything is nicely blended. Keep frying gently for a few minutes until it’s all soft and beginning to go golden: don’t let it go dark brown. Remove from heat.
  • Crumble the feta into a large bowl, add the grated parmesan, beaten egg, lemon rind and nutmeg and mix thoroughly. Make sure the leek and onion mix is no hotter than lukewarm – you don’t want it to scramble the eggs – then combine it with the mixture. Now squeeze some water out of the spinach, add this, and stir/chop vigorously with a spoon or spatula  so that the filling is thoroughly blended – you don’t want lumps of cheese or lumps of pure spinach.
  • Spread a layer of melted butter over your oven dish or tin. Open your packet of filo and work quickly (the stuff dries out): spread two pieces across the bottom of the tin so that they hang over the sides, brush melted butter over the area lining the bottom and sides the tin now repeat this but going the opposite way. When you’ve done this, your square tin will have filo draped over each of its four sides. Repeat this twice, so you’re using 12 sheets of filo in total.
  • Pour your filling into the pastry-lined tin and even it out into a single, thick layer reaching the corners.
  • Take the overhanging edges of the last pair of pieces of filo you put in, wrap them back over the dish, and brush them with melted butter. Repeat for the remaining five pairs. Make sure you have enough butter left to give the top a good brushing: that’s what will make the pie go gold.
  • Bake for around 30-40 minutes, until a deep golden colour.

You can serve it straight out of the oven, cold for a picnic, or anywhere in between.