Let’s Talk About Choux: Salted Caramel Eclairs

The Bake-Off is back. Last summer I was entranced as Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood oversaw 12 amateurs kneading, icing, whipping and tempering their way to baking glory. In this veritable cakeathon I saw things I never thought of people being able to make in home kitchens – like French Fancies and chocolate teacakes; didn’t Mr Kipling and Tunnock’s just conjure them fully formed out of their laboratories’ sugar-infused air? – and grown men reduced to tears at Hollywood denouncing their lopsided sponges. Now I learn that The Great British Bake-Off will return to our screens on August 12th, meaning that achieving a ‘good bake’ will once again be the ultimate badge of honour and a soggy bottom something that you never, ever want your pastry to have.

So for my next challenge I thought I’d tackled two things that inevitably will feature on the programme: choux pastry and the ubiquitous ‘creme pat’ (Raymond Blanc says this vanilla-infused custardy cream is to bakers what cement is to builders).

Choux is perceived as rather more technical and impressive than other types of pastry mainly because it is a) the cornerstone of lots of fancy French patisserie offerings and b) involves two stages of cooking. In fact, it contains just four ingredients – butter, water, flour and egg – and isn’t nearly as tricky as people might think as long as you follow instructions closely.

First, pre-heat the oven 220˚C and line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. Place 60g of salted butter and 130ml of water in a saucepan and bring to a steady boil until the butter is melted. Remove from the heat and sift in 80g of plain flour, beating with a wooden spoon until a dough comes together. Place back over the heat and beat the dough in the saucepan for about 40 seconds.

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Remove from the heat and set aside. Break two large free range eggs into the warm dough, one at a time, and beat thoroughly until completely incorporated after each addition. Beat a further one egg and gradually add dashes of this to your pastry until you have a consistency that will hold it’s shape when piped (use what’s left over of the egg to glaze the pastry later on). The dough should be smooth, shiny and fall from the spoon in a ribbon-like stream (if it doesn’t drop of the spoon or does so in thick clumps you need to add more beaten egg).

Using a spatula, scoop the dough into a piping bag fitted with a large round piping nozzle and pipe 10cm lines on the lined baking sheets. Leave a decent gap between each piped line as they puff up and expand during cooking. Brush each one with the little leftover beaten egg.

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Place in the oven, reducing the heat to 190˚C, for approximately 25 minutes until they have risen and are golden and crisp. To ensure your buns puff up and rise well, ensure the over gets properly hot before baking and resist the urge to open the oven door during cooking – I was a bit curious/impatient and peaked in halfway though, which caused some of mine to deflate a little.

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While these are baking you can move onto your ‘baker’s cement’. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together 4 free-range egg and 65g caster sugar. Whisk in the 15g plain flour and 15g cornflour and set aside. Heat 350ml whole milk and a few drops of vanilla essence in a saucepan to a gentle simmer, stirring frequently. Remove from the heat and very gradually pour half of the hot milk onto the egg mixture, whisking all the time (too quick and you’ll risk scrambling the eggs!).  Add this mixture to the remaining milk in the pan, bring the mixture back to the boil and whisk over a low heat until it becomes thick and smooth, like a nice custard.

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Pour into a clean bowl and dust with icing sugar to prevent a skin forming. Cool as quickly as possible, by sitting the bowl of pastry cream in another larger bowl of ice water. When cooled, refrigerate until needed.

Finally, the salted caramel sauce. Place 50g butter75g soft dark brown sugar and 2 tablespoons of golden syrup in a saucepan and bring to a gentle boil. Add 2 tbsp of double cream1 tsp vanilla extract and a generous pinch of sea salt and whisk together. Simmer for 3 minutes until the sauce is sticky and thick. When it cools it’ll thicken further to create a delicious, sticky glaze for the eclairs.

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When all the components have cooled down you can assemble by carefully slicing the eclairs in half with a bread knife, spooning the crème pâtissière into a piping bag and piping the cream onto one half of the choux bun. Sandwich the bun together and spread the cooled caramel glaze over the top of each eclair.

Serve straight away or the eclairs will keep for 1 or 2 days in the fridge.

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Nara: The New Eating-Out App

While this blog is primarily about my home cooking endeavours, from time to time I’ll come across wider gastro news and launches that I think may interest my fellow foodies – like this new app, which generates accurate, personalised recommendations for eating out. First it asks users a few questions about the kind of eateries they like, based on criteria such as food types, atmosphere and demographic. Integrated Foursquare check-ins keep track of where users have eaten already and which restaurants they regularly visit. By checking this data against the decisions other Nara users with similar tastes have made (and rated highly), the system quickly begins to intuit the sort of place you’re likely to enjoy. Pretty clever stuff…


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Foodie Inspiration No5

Foodie Inspiration No5

Maybe it’s something to do with the fact it FINALLY feels like summer, or because of last weekend’s sporting triumphs (thank you very much, Sir Andy and Lions) – whatever the reason, nothing appealed to me more today than the thought of this humble summer pudding. Few things are as quintessentially English or as seasonal as this explosion of sweet berries, their juices seeping into a layer of bread, topped with a dollop of fresh cream. I want to be sat in my garden with this, a spoon and a glass Muscat of NOW!

PS. For a more sophisticated take on the classic, I like the sound of this version – pimped up with caramel, vanilla and sourdough bread – on the Telegraph website http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/recipes/8594361/Red-wine-vanilla-and-caramel-summer-pudding-recipe.html

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Pan-fried Sea Bass with Sauce Vierge and Fondant Potatoes

This is a great dish because it sounds rather fancy and chef-y but is in fact incredibly straightforward. The key with this one is just timings and moving quickly: both the fish and the sauce only take a few minutes so do your prep for both then toss into pans more or less simultaneously so you don’t need to re-heat for serving (no-one wants overdone fish or soggy tomatoes, after all). The potatoes need significantly longer, so we’ll start with these…

Peel 4 large potatoes and cut into thick circular slices. Heat 50g butter over a low heat in a saucepan. When the butter is foaming, add the potatoes and fry until golden-brown on one side (about 5 minutes). Turn over the potatoes and cook for a further 5 minutes or until golden-brown on both sides.

Pour in 200ml of vegetable or chicken stock (careful of the hot fat spattering!) along with 2 peeled, crushed garlic cloves and a few thyme sprigs. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cover the pan with a lid and reduce the heat. Simmer until the potatoes are tender, then remove the potatoes from the pan using a slotted spoon and keep warm on the hob until serving.

For the sea bass, score the skin of the sea bass and season on both sides (this will help achieve a crispy skin). Heat a thin layer of olive oil in a frying pan over a high heat. When hot add the sea bass fillets (one per person), skin side down. Cook the sea bass for 4-6 minutes on the skin side, depending on the thickness of the fish, and then turn over and cook the flesh side briefly. Take the sea bass off the heat and squeeze over the lemon juice.

To make the sauce, heat 100ml olive oil in a large frying pan and gently fry 2 finely chopped shallots until softened, stirring. Cut 100g tomatoes into small dice and add to the pan along with a handful of torn fresh basil leaves, the juice of 1/2 lemon, a good slug of balsamic vinegar and seasoning. Warm over a low heat for 1-2 minutes. Spoon sauce over the fish and serve garnished with fresh basil.



Finally, here are a few tips (courtesy of Nigella) for getting the fish skin properly crispy:

  • Make sure that the skin is thoroughly dry, as excess moisture will turn into steam and soften the skin.
  • Salting the skin with sea salt flakes or a coarse salt 15 minutes before drying will draw any moisture up to the surface of the skin. After 15 minutes scrape away the salt and moisture and pat the fish thoroughly dry with paper towels.
  • Dusting the fish skin with flour can also help to give a crisp finish. Use a light dusting of plain (all-purpose) flour and shake or brush off any excess as you don’t want there to be a batter-like coating on the fish skin.
  • Make sure that the pan and oil are hot enough as if they are cold then the fish skin will sweat and stick rather than sear. Heat a thin layer in a frying pan over a medium heat until it is shimmering, but not smoking. The fish should sizzle as it goes into the pan.
  • Don’t overcrowd the pan as this will also cause the fish to steam and cause a soggy skin. When the skin is crisp it will release easily from the pan, so don’t try to move the fillets too soon.
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El Bulli Comes to London

El Bulli Comes to London

The legendary Catalan restaurant may have closed its doors two years ago, but the gels, emulsions and ‘texturas’ live on as a major retrospective opens today at Somerset House. Frozen Parmesan air with muesli, Kellogg’s puffed rice paella and amber-glowing ‘shark fin’ noodles with oriental tuna foam were among the divisive dishes conjured up by head chef Ferran Adrià during his 27-year tenture in El Bulli’s kitchens – earning him the moniker the ‘Godfather of molecular gastronomy’.

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Foodie Inspiration No4: Pasta, But Not As We Know It…

Foodie Inspiration 3: Pasta, But Not As We Know It...

An ‘edible canvas’ by Nino di Costanzo, head chef at Terme Manzi Hotel & Spa. I came across this anecdote on the hotel’s website, where Nino is asked what his most moving culinary experience has been:

“In the first year after the Il Mosaico restaurant opened, a customer asked to speak to me after the meal. The man regularly ate at some of the best restaurants in the world. After he had sampled the 13-course tasting menu, we started a fascinating discussion. The evening came to a close in my kitchens at 5 a.m. around a bowl of spaghetti with garlic and olive oil and a bottle of Champagne. Three months later, I received a thank you letter from this man where he had written: ‘Dear Nino, I still remember with huge emotion and a great deal of joy that evening that we spent together which gave me the last moments of pleasure and joy in my life. Thank you for that gift…’ The man was very ill and had come to spend his last days on Ischia and died a short time after he had left our island. It is a sad story, but I am happy to have been privileged to spend this special time with him and to have managed to give him a little pleasure.”

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Foodie Inspiration No3: Smoke and Mirrors

Food Inspiration No3: Smoke and Mirrors

You know you’ve reached a certain level of gastronomy when you’ve got some liquid nitrogen going on. Yes, it may be a bit gimmicky and ‘Heston circa 2005’, but it still looks pretty cool… This lovely little assemblage is from a restaurant called Azurmendi near Bilbao, which is run by a 36-year-old chef called Eneko Atxa who now holds an impressive three Michelin stars. Food writer Bruce Palling was lucky enough to visit last year and chronicles more of Atxa’s molecular feats on his Gastroenophile blog.

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