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Saturday, August 8

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Airbags

My first memory of baking was around age five when I used a fork to poke holes in homemade shortbread and crimp the edges of pie crusts for my 90-year-old Grandma Ethel. I was a fork virtuoso by age six. Twenty five years later, I still love a good fork, but I've graduated to more exotic utensils such as the wire whisk and spoonulas (no, I didn't make that up). I've also become more adventurous with my recipe choices: I'm no longer afraid of the stiff peaks that come with creating a pineapple pastry cake, nor am I put off by tedious tasks like chopping maraschino cherries into small bits for my mom's chocolate cherry drop cookies. Even my failed attempt at pate a choux this week didn't sour me on baking. (Evidently I didn't boil the milk/butter mixture long enough.)

A few years ago, I worked in the kitchen of my friend's bakery. The atmosphere was much like working for a magician who was uncovering the secrets to the most mind-boggling tricks. Cheesecakes, eclairs, hot cross buns, those lamb cakes that you only eat at Easter... all were broken down for me. I learned very quickly that with a bit of time and concentration, as well as a lot of patience, just about anyone can create beautiful and delicious desserts.

Eclairs, for example, are not difficult to make. Before you dive in, read all of the directions at least once. Also, take a look at some pictures of the process. I have a set of photos on Flickr that may help. At some points, you might look down and say, "What the hell did I just do?" Trust me, I can say with confidence that you're on the right track.

I suggest making the pastry cream first since it takes quite a while to cool. Combine any dry ingredients before starting anything on the stove top. Seriously, unless you have four arms, doing this will save you a lot of time and unnecessary stress.

If you've never used a pastry bag before, this may take a little getting used to. I always use disposable pastry bags and have purchased them from Sur La Table in the past. You could also purchase a beginner's cake decorating set, which will most likely include all the tips you'll need and a good supply of bags. I use a 1.5-inch tip for the dough and a smaller (maybe .5 inch) tip for piping in the pastry cream. After a little practice, pastry bags are easy to use. After filling the bag with dough (a spatula works well for this — and don't forget to first put the tip in place), squeeze the air out and pipe a few practice strips into your mixing bowl. You won't be wasting any dough and is a good opportunity to do what we all wanted to do as children — play with our food. (I found this pastry bag tutorial at baking911.com, which includes some very helpful pictures.) When filling the eclair, just poke the tip of the pastry bag into the bottom of the eclair and squeeze the bag. Since the shell is hollow, you can squeeze the pastry cream to the left and right to fill up the far ends of the shell. If you happen to burst through the top of the eclair, don't worry, you can either feed the chef this one or wipe the top clean and carefully dip it into the chocolate. (I all too often opt to feed the chef.)

I always store the finished product in the refrigerator. First of all, you're using a lot of dairy and you don't want anyone to get sick after eating your eclairs. Secondly, it keeps the eclair shells nice and dry. After dipping the top in chocolate, just pop them in the fridge to let everything set. If kept cool and dry, you can eat these for up to a week.

On to the recipe!

You will need: a wire whisk, a spatula or two, two pastry bags, pastry bag tips, electric mixer, glass/metal bowls

Pate a choux
1 stick unsalted butter
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch salt
5 eggs
1 1/2 cups Vanilla Pastry Cream, recipe follows
6 ounces semisweet chocolate (Ghirardelli works well), melted in a double boiler with 1 tablespoon shortening
Shaker powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 400° F. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a glass/nonporous bowl and set it aside. In a saucepan, over high heat (this is important! too low heat will cause loose, runny dough), whisk the butter and milk together until all the butter has melted. Bring the liquid up to a boil (this will look like a frothy, boiling mess). Whisk in the sugar. Slowly stir in the flour mixture and continue to stir until the mixture forms a ball and pulls away from the sides of the pan (this is going to look scary — rest assured if you keep the mixture moving, you'll be fine). Remove from the heat and turn into a bowl of an electric mixer (glass or metal works best). Beat the dough on medium speed and add the eggs one at a time. Continue beating until the dough no longer looks slippery. Remove the dough from the mixer and cool. Place the dough in a pastry bag fitted with a round tip and pipe out 3-inch logs onto a parchment-lined baking sheet, about two inches apart or use a large spoon and spoon them onto the baking sheet. Place the pan in the oven and bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350° F and continue to cook for 25 minutes. Do not remove the sheet from the oven until the rounds are firm to the touch. Cool the shells before filling.

Pastry Cream 5 large egg yolks
3/4 cup cornstarch
2 1/2 cups heavy cream (a.k.a. heavy whipping cream)
1 1/2 cups sugar

(To get the yolk on its own, break the egg in half over a bowl or garbage can and gently pour the yolk from shell to shell. This will get rid of the egg whites and keep your yolks intact. Egg whites can probably be saved for a day or so, and would make a wonderful omelet.)

In a mixing bowl, combine the egg yolks, cornstarch and 1 cup of the heavy cream. Whisk to blend well. Set aside. Combine the remaining 1 1/2 cups cream and sugar in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Whisk to dissolve the sugar and bring to a gentle boil, about 10 minutes. Slowly add the egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly and cook until it thickens, about 5 minutes. Be forewarned: the mixture will break (a.k.a. look scary). Do not be alarmed — really, don't. Pour it into a glass bowl. Press a piece of plastic wrap down over the surface of the mixture to prevent a skin from forming. Let cool completely at room temperature. When cooled pour the mixture into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a wire whip. Beat at a medium speed to combine the mixture. If it will not combine, warm another 1/2 cup heavy cream (I have to do this every time) and slowly add it to the mixture. Whip until you have a thick and creamy custard.

Place the pastry cream in a pastry bag, fitted with a round tip, and fill each shell with the filling. Dip the top of each eclair in the chocolate. Set aside until the topping has set. Place the eclairs on a platter. Garnish with confectioners' sugar. I personally do not like sprinkling powdered sugar on anything, but if you do, knock yourself out.

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Comments

carol / April 30, 2007 3:19 PM

"fill each shell with the filling" assumes more knowledge than this reader has. how? flkr show omits this, too. help.

DAD / April 30, 2007 4:48 PM

IM FAMILY WHEN DO I GET FED?

Jasmine / April 30, 2007 6:20 PM

Sorry, Carol. Take a look at paragraph five. There's a little tutorial on how to fill the shells. If you have any further questions, please email me at jasmine2677@gmail.com.

"When filling the eclair, just poke the tip of the pastry bag into the bottom of the eclair and squeeze the bag. Since the shell is hollow, you can squeeze the pastry cream to the left and right to fill up the far ends of the shell. If you happen to burst through the top of the eclair, don't worry, you can either feed the chef this one or wipe the top clean and carefully dip it into the chocolate. (I all too often opt to feed the chef.)"

 

About the Author(s)

Jasmine Skorupa resides in the Ravenswood neighborhood. In her free time, she enjoys feeding her friends and family, listening to the indie rawk, and never has fewer than three incomplete crossword puzzles going at one time.

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