The Paradoxical Son
Winter rolls in on a wave of misty white, the fog hanging heavy and cruel over the city. The icy chill penetrates every pore of one’s body and no matter what one does, no matter how many blankets or pairs of socks, the cold has simply moved in. But the gloom and gray of an autumn day doesn’t dampen my excitement for the onset of winter and the coming of the festivities. The holiday spirit seems to have arrived and settled in, as the bustling marketplace is alive with shoppers pushing their way towards stalls overflowing with seasonal treats. Garlands of gold and silver sneak their way in, Santas pop up on velvet hills of snow and visions of sugarplums, smoked salmon and oysters dance in my head. The first strains of Winter Wonderland and Rudolph signal the beginning of the Christmas season.
I’ve been as busy as an elf, planning organizing, packing and unpacking as I unwind from one trip and prepare for the next. How did this ever happen to me? Old homebody that I am, I sit and tick off the places that I’ve been in the past year on my fingers, astonished and bemused. Husband teases me, friends laugh at my new jet-setting lifestyle and already have my name engraved in the annals of the rich and famous. As I sat and began to type this post, snuggled back in yet another train seat, the landscape sliding by smooth and silent, I chuckled to myself and wondered, once again, how I arrived here.
I have just returned home from a sensational weekend, an early holiday gift, if you will. When I opened up the email that popped up unexpectedly in my in box, something told me that it was no ordinary mass mailing, yet another “Dear Life’s a Feast” or “Hello Jamie, you have a wonderful blog” and then leading into the same old sales pitch. Delete, delete, delete. Just not interested. But once in a while an email pops up that I can just sense is different, personal, something that has heft and meaning. And it still never fails to astonish me. The last contained an invitation to speak in Oman and this, well, an invitation to discover Cognac.
Three whirlwind days, a group of fabulous bloggers, now new friends, quite a number of knowledgeable, sweet, generous, fun folks from Martell Cognac and Balistikart all made for a glorious voyage. Thoughts of the luxurious, historical surroundings and the rich, smoky Cognac filling up our hours are swirling through my head, thoughts that still must be organized and lined up like well-behaved schoolchildren, ideas that still must be matured, aged like fine cognac, that must be given time to prepare themselves, bubble up to the surface like fruit finally ripe for the picking. Or fine cognac ready to sip. A weekend brimming over with activity from that first meeting, that first Parisian meal at Les Closerie des Lilas, an evening that ended with our group crowded merrily together around old wooden tables downstairs in the bar, late into the night, clinking glasses and chattering together as old friends used to gathering together for a nightcap, to that final, sad train trip back home, sad because we wanted it to last yet another few days, so happy we all were together.
My baking has become somewhat sporadic of late. Put it down to the laziness that a change of weather engenders, the indolence that gray, rainy days of autumn provoke. Or it could simply be the general lack of ideas, the brilliance usually blazing through my brain is muddled and hazy. Or maybe I have been distracted by too much excitement; the festivity in the air, the glorious trip to Cognac, that thinking about my own blog just pulls up a blank. The holidays approach, the gift suggestions, the wishes and desires, the hints just a tad louder than a mere hint, fly through the air and bounce off the ceilings and walls, welcomed by smirks, knowing grins and faux-confused looks. I can’t sit still, can’t concentrate, I spend my time dancing through the apartment, swinging through JP’s office, rubbing my cheek against Marty’s soft, warm, confused head and then heading into the kitchen to, well, let’s bake today! My alter-ego Ilva sits on the other side of the screen, keeping me focused, making me laugh, sending me informative links and pushing me to work. And then Clem arrives home, bursting into the apartment on a whirlwind of activity, dropping bags and books, kicking off shoes, tossing coat, sweater and scarf onto the chair and scooping up Marty in one seamless movement. He finally swoops into my room where he inevitably finds me typing (and chatting) and asks, “Have you made them yet? Where are my éclairs that you promised?” So anxious has he been for me to make his favorite sweet treat that he actually bought and offered me a tiny book on éclairs. “No excuse not to make these for me now!” he chortles. But planning for my trip pushed it all out of my head….
You see, my son often goes through very long periods boycotting my baked goods, upset that I bake too often and bake what he doesn’t specifically ask for. Yet another reason that I have been baking less often. So when he desires something, ask expressly for this or that, I can’t but be pleased, I can’t but want to fulfill his request. And now with the holiday spirit having taken over my body and my brain all abuzz, now that the sun has once again burst through the dreary, bleary bleakness of an autumn grappling with winter for control, I push myself away from my laptop and head to the kitchen, laden down with bowls, whisks, scale and baking trays. I flip open the book to the page carefully marked by son and begin.
Adapted from recipes in Éclairs by Marianne Magnier-Moreno, I made éclairs filled with Frangipane Cream Filling. I followed her recipes, finding that I much prefer my own recipe for choux, which come out lighter, more delicate on the inside, crispier on the outside. Her frangipane filling was delicious but not at all adapted to a filling for éclairs, so I whipped heavy cream and beat half the quantity of frangipane into it, making a light, cool, tasty whipped filling for the choux. Perfect. Topped with slivered almonds and dusted with a shower of powdered sugar, the Frangipane Éclairs made for a delicious dessert; JP and Clem each ate two. I will be making éclairs again shortly as I am now inspired to return to my old, faithful, perfect recipe for choux and fill them with something creamy and chocolate and, most definitely, spiked with Martell Cognac.
Changes I would make to this recipe: I would use my own choux recipe. Beating the cookbook’s Frangipane into whipped cream was a fabulous decision, creating a cool, creamy and light filling tasting of Almond Frangipane without being heavy at all.
From Éclairs by Marianne Magnier-Moreno
2/3 cup (165 ml) whole milk (I used half whole, half lowfat)
2 large egg yolks
2 Tbs + 2 tsps (35 g) granulated white sugar
1 Tbs + ¼ tsp (8 g) flour
1 Tbs + ¼ tsp (8 g) cornstarch
Small pinch salt
5.5 oz (155 g) finely ground almonds
5.5 oz (155 g) powdered sugar, sifted
5.5 oz (10 Tbs + 2 tsps / 155 g) unsalted butter, softened
2 tsps dark rum
1 tsp vanilla
1/3 cup (80 ml) milk
1/3 cup (80 ml) water
5 Tbs (70 g) unsalted butter
1 large pinch salt
1 Tbs (10 g) granulated white sugar
4/5 cup (100 g) flour
2 large eggs
Large handful slivered blanched almonds for decorating
Powdered sugar for serving
7/8 cup (200 ml) heavy whipping cream
Prepare the Frangipane (Pastry Cream and Almond Cream):
Preheat the oven to 325°F (160°C). Spread the finely ground almonds on a large baking sheet.
Begin by preparing the Pastry Cream: Vigorously whisk the egg yolks with half the sugar and the salt in a large mixing bowl until blended and thickened. Whisk in the flour and cornstarch until a thick, smooth, lump-free paste is formed. Heat the milk with the rest of the sugar in a medium pot over high heat until the first bubbles appear. Slowly pour the hot milk into the egg mixture in a stream while whisking vigorously to prevent the eggs from cooking. Once the hot milk has been whisked into the eggs, pour it all back into the pot and return to the heat. Whisking continuously, cook the pastry cream over high heat until it comes to the boil and then allow it to boil, whisking nonstop, for 1 to 2 minutes until the pastry cream is thick and luxuriously fluid. Remove from the heat and scrape the pastry cream into a small heatproof/Pyrex bowl or mixing cup, cover with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic directly onto the pastry cream and refrigerate until chilled.
Prepare the Frangipane: Slide the ground almonds into the preheated oven and allow them to roast for 10 minutes; remove them from the oven and scrape into a bowl or platter and allow to cool. Place the butter in a pot over low heat and when the butter is only half melted, pour into a heatproof mixing bowl, whisk in the powdered sugar until smooth and then whisk in the roasted ground almonds, the rum and the vanilla. Remove the now chilled pastry cream from the refrigerator and whisk into the almond cream until well blended and smooth. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator to chill.
Place the heavy cream in the refrigerator to chill along with a medium-large mixing bowl and the beaters from an electric mixer/beater to chill as well.
Prepare the Choux for the Éclairs:
Preheat or reduce the oven temperature to 300° (150°C). Line a large baking sheet with parchment or oven paper.
Place the milk, the butter cut in cubes, the sugar and salt in a pot and heat over high heat. Bring to the boil and allow to boil for about 3 seconds. Remove from the heat and add the flour all at once. Stir to blend and then mix vigorously until it is homogenous.
Return the pot to the heat and “dry” the dough by stirring vigorously and cooking for 30 seconds to 1 minute until the dough no longer sticks to either the pot or the spatula. Allow to cool slightly.
Lightly beat the eggs then whisk or beat into the dough a little at a time. Add a little more than 2/3 of the egg or as much as just under the full 2 eggs (you should have at least a tablespoon of egg left), and the dough slowly falls off the spoon or spatula when lifted (not too fast).
Spoon the choux dough into a pastry bag fitted with a plain, 3/4 –inch (20 mm) wide tip. Holding the pastry bag at a 45° angle from the baking sheet, pipe/push out even, regular tubes of dough 5 ½-inches (14 cm) long or into large mounds, slicing the end away from the tip with a sharp knife. Leave space all around the choux/éclairs as they puff up and spread while baking.
Using your fingertips or a pastry brush, gently rub and coat the éclair dough with the egg, smoothing the shapes as needed. Sprinkle generously with slivered almonds (pressing them on if necessary). Bake for about 1 hour until puffed and evenly colored a deep golden. You can prop the oven open slightly the last 5 or 10 minutes of the baking to allow steam to escape.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a rack.
Finish the Cream Filling:
Using the chilled beaters and bowl, whip the chilled heavy cream until thick and peaks hold. Beat in up to half of the Frangipane, about 2 tablespoons at a time, until blended. This should leave you with a deeply almond-flavored whipped cream. Using a serrated bread knife, carefully and gently slice each éclair lengthwise in two and pipe Frangipane Cream Filling onto the bottom half, cover with the top half, carefully move to a plate and dust generously with powdered sugar and serve and eat immediately.