Sunday, June 19, 2011

Mon Petit Chou, Rhubarb Edition

Americans have sweetie pie and honey. Italians have tesoro. The French have mon chou.

Chou, masculine noun: 1. cabbage 2. small, rounded, hollow pastry.

Chou is commonly employed to express the cute factor of something. "C'est chou" means that something is cute, "t'es chou" means that you're adorable, and so on. Couples refer to each other as mon chou. Yes, my cabbage. But more likely the cute, diminutive pastry that shines in its versatility.

Fill a bunch of choux (oh, the wonderful specificity of French spelling) with cream, make them into a pyramid using hardened caramel, and you've got a classic of French receptions, the pièce montée. Use your choux dough to make elongated pastries and you've got the éclair. Fill little choux with ice cream and top with hot chocolate sauce and here come the profiteroles. By means of a totally non-scientific demonstration, I have just proved that pâte à choux is basically everywhere and you can run but you can't hide. It'll get to you at some point.

A little chou is like the Beanie Baby of the pastry world (flashback to 1993!), except there's no risk of it being out of stock, so you won't have to go to all the Toys R Us of the country to find one. You can make a load of petits choux right here in your kitchen. 

Even better, be seasonal about it. Create a limited-edition chou! In this case, rhubarb and vanilla crème pâtissière come together for a fun time. You wouldn't necessarily think they would end up together, but some times these things happen and you don't see them coming. 

Slight bitterness of rhubarb + happy creaminess of vanilla pastry cream = a bite-sized dessert that's on just the right side of the sweet spectrum. 

You don't have to wait around for your chou to come into your life--you can just create it at home. Better than Edward Scissorhands.

Rhubarb Petits Choux
makes approximately 20 small choux

1/2 recipe pâte à choux (below)
1 recipe vanilla pastry cream (below)
1 c. cooked rhubarb, whirled in blender

Mix pastry cream and cooked rhubarb in a medium bowl. Place in a pastry bag fitted with a large round tip.

Pierce a small hole on the side of each chou and pipe filling inside. Refrigerate until a half hour before serving.

Eat the day of, or the next day at the latest.

Pâte à choux
120g (1 c. + 3 TB) all-purpose flour
10cl  (1/3 c. + 1.5 TB) whole milk
10cl water
10g (1 scant TB) granulated sugar
1 pinch salt
80g (5.5) butter
4 whole eggs

Bring milk + water to a boil in a saucepan.

Add butter and salt.

Sprinkle flour into saucepan, beating vigorously. On low heat, "dry" the dough out by beating it until it stops sticking to the pan. Remove from heat and add eggs one by one, mixing until well incorporated before adding the next one.

Vanilla Pastry Cream
15g (1 TB) cornstarch
40g (3 scant TB) granulated sugar
18cl (3/4 cups) whole milk
2 egg yolks
18g unsalted butter (1 1/4 TB), room temperature
1 vanilla pod, scraped (or use what you have left from the crust recipe)

Bring milk and vanilla to a boil in a medium saucepan, and remove from heat. Add cornstarch and half of the sugar.

In a small bowl, beat yolks and remaining sugar until lightened in color, about 3 minutes. Add a little of the milk beat to combine.

Place egg mixture in saucepan; beat regularly on medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and remove from heat.

Keep beating until pastry cream achieves a thick but silky consistency. When the cream reaches 50°C / 120°F , add butter and keep beating until incorporated.

Let cool.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Cherry Cherry Boom Boom

Alright, yes, I am happy to admit that I enjoy listening to some Lady Gaga at times. But then again, don't we all? 

Wait, what? You don't? Oh ok. (I know you're just pretending, and you secretly want to learn the full choreography to Judas. But I won't tell anyone.) 

I may like Lady Gaga, but I'm pretty sure I was randomly referring to cherries in my sentences long before she was. 

When I was young, I would pretend like every other little girl that pairs of cherries were actually earrings, putting them around my ears and letting them dangle like I was the trendiest girl in town. I grew up a little, and put the cherries down. I couldn't seemingly live without cherries in my life, however, so I proceeded to wear shirts with cherries and draw cherries everywhere. If I had found a keychain with cherries on it, you can bet it would have been added to my collection. 

Don't even get me started on artificially-scented and flavored cherry items. Pencils, lip balms... you name it, I loved it.

Now that all I have left from that obsession is a "freshly picked cherries"-scented candle, and actual cherry season is in full swing here in France, I can get down to serious business. I.e., baking. With cherries. Namely, cherries from my uncle's garden in Saint Dié. 

Cherry clafoutis is a classic French dessert--for those unfamiliar with it, it's pretty much a baked custard, usually served family-style in a large dish. Cherries are the traditional fruit of choice for a clafoutis: the sweet tartness of the fruit is perfectly balanced by the creamy custard, making it a light and simple dessert for many occasions.

There are a lot of ways to prepare a clafoutis, the tastiest ones including the addition of cream. For the one I made last week, skim milk was what I used in an attempt to pretend like I'm "watching what I eat". "Attempt". Although skim milk isn't cream, surely, it makes for a darn good clafoutis. 
Another subject that truly divides the masses here in France is whether or not to pit the cherries. If you do, it'll make the clafoutis easier to eat, but you'll lose the juice. Unpitted cherries may be a hassle when you're chomping down on your share of dessert, but nothing beats a juicy cherry, so go for it. 

So good you'll feel like singing Pokerface with cherry earrings--and that's something to thank Gaga for, too.

Cherry Clafoutis
serves 6

1 lb. cherries, washed and stems removed
3 eggs
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
pinch salt
1 1/4 c. milk

Place cherries in a bowl and mix in with half of the sugar. Let sit for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350°F/180°C. Butter a round 10-inch pan or equivalent, or 6 individual dishes.

Beat eggs in a medium bowl and set aside. Sift flour and add sugar and salt. Incorporate eggs and mix. Add milk and mix until homogenous.

Place cherries in pan and pour custard on top. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until golden. Cool in pan and place in refrigerator. Serve cool or cold.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Milk, Milk, and Milk: Tres Leches Cake

"Are you getting enough calcium?"

I hear that a lot.
Somehow, people around me seem to to worry that perhaps I'm not drinking enough milk or eating a sufficient amount of yogurt on a daily basis.

Let's get things straight: I drink nearly two liters of milk per week, and usually have at least one other dairy product each day. Happy?

Oh, and also: I've been making tres leches cake. I think I'm on the safe side, calcium-speaking. Sounds like I just heard someone add "on the saturated fat level, you're not so bad either" but pssh! Cows are my friends. My friends are not cows, however--that only works in one direction.

Tres leches cake has the most descriptive yet simple name you could possible think of. Three milks. Got it.

What the name fails to capture, however, is the sheer addictiveness of the cake both in taste and texture.
The process by which you achieve this incredible feat of putting three types of milk into one single cake makes it akin to a tea ceremony, crossed with a strange Halloween remake.

Carefully, you prepare each ingredient for the moment the cake is removed from the oven. Sweetened condensed milk, heavy cream, and normal milk (in this specific case) stand, aligned, ready for their sacrifice. The cake is greeted at the oven door by a knife, and at this point, it's time to give way to all your secret murder fantasies.

I personally stabbed my cake fifty times, and trust me, it felt really good.

After the cake gets drenched in milk and cream, let it sit in the fridge for a few hours if you can--that's the hard part. Once you suspect it just might be perfect, take a spoonful straight out of the pan. Don't bother with a plate.

The cake is dense yet melts in your mouth, leaving behind the sweet, creamy taste of condensed milk. It's more than that, though: vanilla mingles with a soft caramel, intensifying the impression that you've just landed on a pillow of perfect cake.

Please, help me get the word out to my entourage that calcium is back on the team: tres leches cake is becoming a regular around here.

Tres Leches Cake
serves 6 to 8

for milk mixture:
1/2 can (7 oz.) sweetened condensed milk
6 oz. whole milk
1/2 c. heavy cream
1 TS vanilla extract

for cake:
2 c. all-purpose flour
1 TS baking powder
1/2 TS salt
1/2 TS cinnamon
1/2 c. milk
1/4 c. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 TS vanilla extract
2 eggs
3/4 c. sugar

Prepare milk mixture: Heat sweetened condensed milk in a double boiler over medium heat until slightly thickened. Whisk in milk, cream, and vanilla. Set aside to cool.

Prepare cake: Preheat oven to 350°F / 180°C. Grease and flour a 8x8 in. square baking pan, or any other pan of comparable size.

In a medium bowl, whisk flour, salt, baking powder, and cinnamon together. In a saucepan over low heat, mix butter, milk, and vanilla extract until combined.

In a large bowl, whip eggs on high speed and gradually add sugar, until thickened and whitened, about 5 minutes. On low speed, add butter mixture and whip until combined. Next, add flour mixture until incorporated and smooth.

Pour into prepared pan and bake approximately 30 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center of the cake comes out with a few crumbs attached. Let the cake cool in pan about ten minutes.

Poke around 30 holes in the cake using a knitting needle, skewer, or knife. Pour milk mixture over cake and let cake cool at room temperature. When cool, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until mixture is fully absorbed and cake is cold, at least two hours.

Serve, alone or with whipped cream. Or simply eat the whole thing straight out of the pan on your own (recommended).