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.
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.
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.
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.
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 butter, 75g soft dark brown sugar and 2 tablespoons of golden syrup in a saucepan and bring to a gentle boil. Add 2 tbsp of double cream, 1 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.
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.