Ambushes

I lost my mother earlier this month. It was by no means a surprise, but it hurt not one bit less.

I’ve been holding up ok, mostly, unless someone really insists on “talking about it”. I’m a crier, always have been, so it’s easy to get the waterworks going, even with the best of intentions. On the other hand, you can’t really say I bottle it up…

And then, there are ambushes. Grief hits at random moments. Last night, I was watching Salvage Hunters, and they found some porcelain eggs for broody hens. I bawled like a baby for 5 minutes because Mum collected decorative eggs.

And again this morning. I got up late to bake the Tuesday office tuck-shop goodies. I made a salted caramel, almond and dark chocolate torte, and realised I was out of double cream to fill profiteroles, so decided to bake plain old “chouquettes”, empty choux topped with a few grains of pearl sugar.

Mum’s favourite treat, one of the only things she would eat outside meal times. There go the waterworks again…

Chouquettes

Choux pastry, a sprinkling of sugar... and a lot of air.
Prep Time15 mins
Cook Time30 mins
Total Time45 mins
Cuisine: French
Keyword: chou, choux, pastry, pâtisserie
Servings: 3 dozen

Ingredients

  • 125 ml water
  • 125 ml semi-skim milk
  • 110 g butter
  • 140 g flour
  • 1 tsp salt level
  • 5 eggs medium
  • pearl sugar to taste

Instructions

  • In a saucepan, heat up the water, milk and butter over medium heat until the butter is melted.
  • Turn the heat down, dump in the flour and salt, and with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, stir vigorously. Make sure there are no lumps, and still stirring, let the flour in the dough cook and absorb until the dough forms a ball.
  • Take the pan off the heat and keep stirring for a few minutes, to help the dough cool off a bit.
  • Turn the oven on to 200 degrees, 180 fan. Line 2 baking trays with parchment paper.
  • Crack the eggs in a bowl and give them a quick whisk to mix in the yolks. 
  • When the dough (and the pan) has cooled down to hand temperature (so the eggs don't curdle), add about a quarter of the eggs and stir until they are thoroughly mixed in. Add a second quarter, mix, a third, mix. After each mix, the dough must be totally homogeneous.
  • For the last quarter, proceed with caution. The trick now is to add just as much as needed. The finished batter must hang in a V shape from the spoon when you lift it from the bowl (look up videos, there are hundreds of them).
  • Spoon the batter into a piping bag, fitted with a smooth round nozzle (or a star nozzle if you're feeling adventurous).
  • At this stage, it is possible to refrigerate the choux pastry for a while, even overnight. According to Philippe Conticini, this makes for a less bumpy item when the pastry bakes.
  • Pipe the pastry in small rounds, about 4cm in diameter. Tamp down the "nipple" on each chou with wet fingers. Sprinkle with a bit of pearl sugar.
  • Put both baking trays in the oven and let bake for about 30 minutes. DON'T open the oven door until you can see that the chouquettes are well puffed-up and a burnished colour. One of my other indicators is a strong smell of well-cooked egg.
  • Take out of the oven and place on a cooling rack. They should not sag or collapse.
  • If the chouquettes in one of the trays look paler than the others, leave them in until they are done as well.
  • Lovely with a cuppa or the coffee drink of your choice...

Notes

After a recipe by Mercotte, who wrote it after Philippe Conticini...

 

Pour toi, maman.

 

If you can’t stand the heat…

After a few weeks of hot weather, I’ve been reflecting on the influence it has on baking.

Disclaimer: I lived for 8 years near Toulouse, in south-western France. I consider it is really hot when it stays upwards of 25°C at night. At my day-job, the Brits have the air-con going on one side of the room, whereas us foreign types (Japanese, Italian and French, respectively) keep it off on our side.

Nevertheless, when it comes to baking, the effects of the current 25 to 30° we’ve been having are noticeable.

There are advantages: for once, it is easy to cream room-temperature butter with sugar when making sponge. The kitchen in my current home, besides having the best view (see above), is also the least insulated room – it is a narrow and deep extension with very little in the way of insulation. It can be cold, damp, hot…

Anyway. As I was saying, the hot weather helps with some aspects of baking – those that require things to be soft. Marzipan turns into a thin, flat sheet to cover battenbergs in half the time it does in “normal” weather. Room-temp butter mixes in easily into cream cheese frosting. Yeasted doughs rise faster (or, if you’re like me, of the no-knead, long rise persuasion, require less yeast).

Orange marmalade battenberg cake

On the other hand… Even with a perfectly cooled-down sponge, that same cream cheese frosting must be refrigerated to set after being spread on the cake – and there’s no hope of piping it into pretty shapes. Buttercream is chancy – depending on the recipe you use, it can collapse, split or turn unless you refrigerate the cake just after decorating it.

This weekend, I brought a salted butter caramel cake to King John’s House Tea Room with a skewer planted in the middle, to keep the two tiers together in the short distance between my kitchen and theirs… and told the ladies to refrigerate it, if at all possible, to help it set.

Salted butter caramel cake (2 layers), Spiral edition
Salted butter caramel cake (2 layers), Spiral edition

I wouldn’t want to try to make puff pastry in this weather. On the other hand, I have found you can make short-crust pastry easily if you work quickly – and preferably, with a food processor. Short-crust wants the butter to be very cold, or even frozen, and cut in small cubes. Blitz the butter, double its weight in plain flour and a pinch of salt until you reach a fine sand consistency, then add cold water almost teaspoon by teaspoon, pulsing until the dough comes together.

All that process should take less than 2 minutes – no time for the butter to melt. Take the dough, place it on cling film, shape it into a rough disc, then cover with more cling film and refrigerate immediately for 30 minutes.

Using cling film that way is very useful with other types of pastry as well. You can roll the pastry between the two sheets of cling film without adding any flour, and thus without altering the balance of ingredients.

One last point about hot weather and bakers: do check the temperature of your fridge. I do that daily, to detect a problem before spoilage happens, and as per food hygiene regulations, but a thermometer is a really cheap piece of kit that will bring you peace of mind.

Recipe: Salted butter caramel

Salted butter caramel is the food of the Breton gods.

Well, maybe not, but it’s both Breton and divine, so…

For those who, like me, grew up in a house where unsalted butter was nearly unknown, salted butter caramel is an evidence. That the whole world only twigged to it over the past 10 or 15 years is amusing.

Banana cupcake, salted caramel cream cheese icing

Salted butter caramel sauce

200 g sugar
90 g salted butter (room temp, cut in small cubes)
120 g double cream
1/2 tsp sea salt flakes (I use “fleur de sel de Guérande”, of course)

In a medium, thick-bottomed saucepan, heat up the sugar and a drop of water over medium heat. Do not stir, do not touch until it turns a rich reddish brown and smells lovely.

Take off the heat, dump in the butter. It will sizzle and splutter. Do not stir, do not touch until all the butter has melted. Now, stir well with a rubber spatula until you get a smooth, uniform paste.

Add the cream and salt, stir more until all is dissolved, and Bob’s your uncle.

Salted caramel cream cheese icing

250 g cream cheese
150 g (to taste) salted butter caramel sauce
75 g unsalted butter, soft

Put all three ingredients together in a bowl, whip until smooth and fluffy.

OR

300 g cream cheese
100 g salted butter caramel sauce
90 g icing sugar, sifted
75 g salted butter, soft

First mix all the ingredients together in a bowl with a wooden spatula (to avoid a cloud of icing sugar), then whip with an electric whisk until smooth and fluffy.

 

Recipe: Parfait au miel et au safran

I was on Twitter, as usual, and was asked what my favourite flavour of ice cream was. And my answer was immediate: Honey and saffron. It’s a flavour mixture that hits all the buttons for me.

Where do you find it? Well, you make it. You don’t need an ice-cream maker, just a good electric whisk.

I got the parfait au miel recipe over 15 years ago on Usenet, from a now sadly departed lady named Claudine Cowen. I added saffron on an impulse, and it was glorious.

I try not to make it too often, as it never stays long in my freezer. But go ahead, do it and share it: it’s definitely worth it.

Parfait au miel et au safran
(serves 6)

4 eggs
25 cl very good honey
1 pinch of saffron threads
1 tsp lemon juice
1 pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
25 cl double cream

In a mortar, grind the saffron to a powder.

In a medium-sized, thick-bottomed saucepan, slowly bring the honey to a boil. Crack the eggs into a large bowl. Whisk them with the pinch of salt until foamy.

When the honey boils, pour it very slowly into the eggs and keep whisking. Once you’ve mixed in all the honey, pour the mixture back into the saucepan, add the saffron, and return it to a medium heat. Keep whisking until the foam thickens.

Pour back into a bowl (preferably a clean one), and whisk on until cooled (that goes much faster if you put your bowl in an ice bath). Add the lemon juice and the vanilla extract.

Now, whisk up the double cream into soft peaks, and fold into the honey foam. Pour into a container and freeze for at least 4 hours.

Note: I think the saffron here could be replaced by cardamom with good results.

Recipe: Snickerdoodles

I first encountered the American author Jean Johnson online through her very steamy Harry Potter fanfiction. Yeah, I know. So sue me.

She and I happen to have the same birthday. I became one of her beta readers for her fanfiction, then for her fantasy/romance novels. Despite having a 9-hour time difference between us, we chatted online through my mornings and her late nights. We finally managed to meet for real a few years ago during the World Science Fiction Convention in London.

But back to our subject: to celebrate chapter 100 of one of her fanfictions, Jean included a recipe for her favourite biscuits, I mean, cookies: Snickerdoodles. These are nicely rounded, rather soft in the middle, and covered in crunchy spiced sugar.

Snickerdoodles

Here is her recipe, translated to British English:

Snickerdoodles

3 ¼ cups sifted plain flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon bicarb of soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 ½ cups light brown sugar
3 eggs, well beaten
1 cup hazel nuts, coarsely chopped (optional)
1 cup butter

½ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 dash of nutmeg

Preheat oven to 180° C.
Thoroughly sift together flour, salt, bicarb of soda, and 1 tsp cinnamon. Set aside.

Melt the butter, add the sugar and mix. Beat the eggs into the butter-sugar mixture thoroughly. Stir into the flour until you get an homogeneous dough.

Mix together the remaining ½ cup sugar, ½ tsp cinnamon, and dash of nutmeg in a shallow dish.

With a teaspoon, take a walnut-sized lump of dough. Roll it between your hands  into a ball, and dredge in the sugar mixture. Cook 10 to 13 minutes on a greased baking tray (or non-stick baking parchment). Cool on a wire rack.

 

 

Simple pleasures

You know a recipe is simple when you can describe it in a single tweet, as I just did. In French, which is generally longer than English.

“Langues de chat” are simple French butter biscuits, like tuiles, but without almonds. Their name mean “cat’s tongues”, and their shape is appropriate:

Langues de chat

They’re a staple in French homes – my parents often have a couple to go with their after-lunch coffee, for instance. They are as ubiquitous in French shops as rich tea biscuits are here.

For bakers, they’re known as a simple way to use up egg whites – in this case, to make a dent in the processed egg whites I bought for the “croquants aux noix”.

So, to my recipe: Preheat your oven to 180°C (160° fan), and line at least one baking tin with non-stick parchment.

Weigh your egg whites. Weigh out equal weights of caster sugar, lightly salted butter (soft) and plain flour. In a large bowl, whisk together butter and sugar until they turn pale and fluffy. Whisk in the egg whites, then the flour. Add the flavour of your choice (here, for nearly a kilo of batter, 1 tsp of vanilla paste).

Put in a piping bag, pipe short lines (about 5 cm) on the lined baking tin, making sure you leave enough space for the batter to melt and spread.

Bake until the edges are brown, but the centre remains pale. Slide the baking paper off the tin onto your counter top, leave to cool off a couple of minutes, then place the biscuits on a cooling rack. Once cold, either eat quickly or place in an airtight box.