At last, it's come.
The day I knew would come at last has come, at last.
I know I said Day 363 was my penultimate entry, but I lied. I'm going to write about Cream Puff night here, but I'm also going to do an overall wrap up entry later, because it's just too big a bite for me to take right now. (There's that nostalgia thing creeping back...) Plus, I'd like a few days to digest and reflect.
So for my swan song, I decided to cook swan.
No, I didn't cook swan. (Do they even sell swan?)
I saved cream puffs for the end because the recipe makes 36+ cream puffs, and I couldn't imagine serving them at the end of a dinner party. No, this called for a special event. A dedicated night of cream puffery. So I invited a handful of Jeff and Martha regulars to share in my completion celebration:
Adinah (l) and Harriet (r)
Kevin (l) and Dawn (r)
And, unphotographed, Ryan and Ken and David (who wasn't on his cheat meal, so he didn't even eat a cream puff). FYI, they're all linked above to their favorite Jeff and Martha meal.
Pastry Cream (p. 476)
I love a recipe you can make a day ahead. It takes some of the pressure off the big serving day.
I've made custards before, but this one stands apart in that the thickening agent, which is usually the egg yolks themselves, is cornstarch in huge amounts here.
First you heat milk with sugar, salt, and vanilla beans (no pod, so I took Martha's margin tip from p. 469 and I'm making vanilla sugar with it). Then you whisk egg yolks with sugar, and stir in a bucket of cornstarch. Then you temper the eggs with the milk mixture and bring it to a boil.
Now I know from pie-making that cornstarch kicks into action at the boiling point, but I've never seen it at work as plainly as I did here. The mixture was liquid, liquid, liquid, and then in one second, it came to a boil, and it was super-solid. Boom.
I took it off the heat and stirred in the butter. (The recipe says to stir in butter and vanilla, but there's no vanilla extract in the ingredients list. This must have been a holdover from a version that used extract instead of seeds.)
I was shocked at how yellow the custard turned out. It's probably a good giveaway as to whether a custard has been prepared with egg yolks (more yellow) or chemicals (less yellow). It had a nice vanilla taste. Since it was still hot, I couldn't make a determination about the consistency.
Off this went for a night in the refrigerator. To be continued....
Martha's Editor/Proofreader: B-
Cream Puffs (p. 479)
I've dabbled in the land of Pâte à Choux before, trying my hand at gougères a few times, with varying degrees of success. It's kind of amazing that pastry will do that, and by that, I mean puff up into a hollow ball. I've never been able to get the consistency just right, though. Sometimes they were too wet inside, sometimes they didn't puff very much, never quite perfect. I'm trusting Martha will show me the way....
It's really easy to make the dough. It mostly happens on the stovetop, which is so unusual for pastry. You bring water, butter, sugar and salt to a boil, then stir in flour until it really comes together and dries out a little. Then it goes into the mixer where eggs are added one at a time. Martha says to start with four eggs and add a fifth a little at a time, only if necessary. I ended up having to add the whole fifth egg to get the right consistency.
Once the batter is ready, it gets plopped into a pastry bag and piped onto baking sheets lined with mats. FYI, I didn't have the right size tip that Martha recommended, so the best option for me was just going tipless and piping right through the hole in the bag. The piping went quite quickly. It's pretty easy to match the size, once you've done one or two that you know are the proper dimensions. (Martha says this recipe will yield about 36. I piped out 42.)
Once it's all out of the bag, you flatten down the tips using a combination of your fingers and diluted egg wash, and now they're ready to bake! One tray goes in the fridge, the other goes in a 400° oven for a bit, then it gets finished at 350°. It looked to me like phase one (400°) was where the major puffing happened, and phase two (350°) was more about browning and hardening the outsides. Out comes one sheet, in goes the other. (Don't forget to raise the temp to 400° again!)
Once they're all done, they need to cool off before anything else happens. I have to say, they seem incredibly well-structured and sturdy. I like how they each have their own unique shape and character.
Martha says to fill them from the bottom, but how? I grabbed a skinny-ended knife and twisted a hole into the bottoms. Then I put a narrow tip on my pastry bag, and I was in business.
Oops, I forgot to tell you about the pastry cream on day two. After a night in the fridge, the cream was roughly the consistency of ricotta cheese. (!) Even after some hearty stirring, it was still pretty rigid. I guess that's what you get when you add a bucket of cornstarch.
But wait, there's another step before filling the cream puffs: you fold 1/3 cup of whipped cream into the pastry cream to lighten it up! Once the whipped cream was folded in, the custard was a perfect consistency, of course. Martha, you scared me for a second, but I should have known you'd make it right.
So, now with a pastry bag full of perfect custard cream, I filled those bad boys. Filling a cream puff is tricky, because you have no idea how much you're putting in there. You can tell when there's too much in there when it comes oozing out of the hole, and you can tell a little bit from the weight of it, particularly when it's too heavy. But it's hard to know when there's too little in there.
About halfway through the filling process, I realized I was running through the cream too fast, so I started being conservative about my fills. Ergo, some of my puffs were bursting with cream, others had merely a delicate, little cream ball. If I had had more cream, I would have been more generous throughout. My advice would be to make some extra pastry cream if you like a plump cream puff.
With all the cream puffs filled, there was naught to do but glaze them. I decided to serve 1/3 plain with powdered sugar, 1/3 with berry glazed tops, and 1/3 with chocolate glazed tops.
But before I move on to the glazes, allow me to discuss my overall feeling about my cream puffs.
I think I executed them very well, and I think the recipe is as sturdy as the cream puffs themselves. The pastry was easy to make, and the results were very consistent. Everything went as described, and there were no curve balls. For a seemingly complicated French pastry, this was surprisingly straightforward. For the record, the puffs are smaller than I expected. I thought people would want one or two, but some people were eating four +. Plan accordingly.
Again, as I've said so many times this past year, this isn't a food I particularly love or cherish, so I'm not likely to revisit this, but it's a great skill to have in my wheelhouse. I'm not much for custard, however I could see myself making a slightly larger puff and doing a profiterole take with some of this amazing Coffee Ice Cream.
Berry Glaze (p. 481)
This glaze calls for 2 tablespoons of strained red preserves, but Martha doesn't tell us how to strain them. Luckily, I've been down this road before, so I knew that I had to heat them, maybe even add a touch of water, to get them to be strain-able. The strained preserves (I used raspberry) get mixed with a little lemon juice, a little salt, a little water, and a bucket of sifted confectioners' sugar, so much so that the preserves go from deep red to pale pink.
It's tricky getting the consistency of this glaze just right. When I first mixed it up, it was like peanut butter. So I started adding water, a little at a time. Then it was like tahini, and finally, I quit when it was like maple syrup. I wanted it to be loose enough to run down the sides of the puffs a little bit.
I think I might have gone a little too wet, since it was still tacky at serving time, but maybe another hour of drying would have solved that.
What surprised me about this glaze was the concentration of raspberry flavor. It was much tastier than I expected. But it's just so sugary. I'm pretty much anti any kind of sugar glaze, and this one only slips by because of its great berry flavor.
Martha: A- (there should be a mini-lesson on straining preserves for the uninitiated)
Chocolate Glaze (p. 481)
This glaze involves only three ingredients: sugar, light corn syrup, and finely chopped semi-sweet chocolate. You bring the first two to a boil with water, then you add the chocolate and stir to smoothness.
It's very sweet, and though it looks very chocolately, it tastes only somewhat chocolatey. It was not quite smooth either. Not terrible, but slightly blotchy on the cream puffs. It didn't have the dense, impenetrable black-and-white cookie chocolate glaze. This was glossier and thinner.
Not bad. Just not fabulous. I wonder if there's a way to make this glaze that uses less sugar and delivers a stronger chocolate punch. Maybe using bittersweet or even unsweetened chocolate would balance all that sugar and corn syrup....
By the way, there was a ton of it left over. I made some fruit platters, and we were dipping the fruit in the leftover chocolate glaze, a la fondue. :-)
Jeff: A- (was the not-quite-smoothness my fault?)
Martha: A- (or was it Martha's?)
Here are the fruit platters (I had to put a picture in because I thought they turned out so pretty)
Me in my chef's hat!
I got some beautiful, congratulatory presents last night, but one that I thought you should know about: Kevin and Dawn gave me glamour knives!! I'm actually going to be able to slice things well now! We laughed about how it would have been great to have had them a year ago, but I'm so excited to use them now and so grateful for the gift. Thanks, you guys!!
Until we eat again...
Stay tuned for my project wrap-up - Coming soon!