Friday, December 30, 2011

Chocolate Éclairs

No one makes desserts like the French. If I had to rank all the amazing sweets and pastries I had while in Europe recently, that Chocolate Éclair I had one morning in Paris undoubtedly takes the top spot.

You have NO IDEA. I actually had an epiphany when I ate it!

At first glance, it looked utterly nondescript. But take a bite and I assure you, the stars will align. It was a magical trinity of choux that was light as air, crème patissière that was pure ambrosia, and a chocolate glaze that was smooth as silk. It was to me, the perfect Chocolate Éclair.

If you are going to Paris anytime soon, this is where you can find it:

Artisan Boulanger Patissier Maison Auvray (at the corner of Rue Cler and Rue de Champ du Mars). I lifted this photo off Google Maps, actually. Pity it doesn't show the place when it is opened for business.

After that éclair, nothing else will do. Nothing. I know I will never be able to make an éclair of that calibre, but that ain't such a bad thing ... because it just means I have to make a trip to Paris every year to satisfy my éclair cravings. *silent squeal*

Still, that didn't stop me from making éclairs for my children (until such time they taste that perfect éclair themselves). If there was one thing I can bake to save my life, I would say Choux Puffs With Crème Pâtissière. The only thing was, I have never made them in éclair form, and I did a terrible job while piping the pâte à choux. Ah well, everyone's got to start somewhere. ;)

So there you go, Chocolate Éclairs, everyone!


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Making the Crème Pâtissière
You can make this the day before and keep it in the refrigerator. I like to do it this way, so that I have less to do all at one go. Besides, the custard needs to be nicely chilled before you use it to fill the hollows of the Choux Puffs.

Recipe
- 1 cup milk (236ml)
- 2 egg yolks
- 1/4 cup caster sugar (55g)
- 1 drop vanilla extract
- 2 tbsp cornflour
- 1 pinch salt (only if not adding butter, or using unsalted butter)
- 1/2 tsp unsalted butter, for additional shine and firmness
* I added about 20g of Valrhona Caraïbe into the custard to flavour it.

1. Whisk together egg yolks, 1/4 cup milk (60ml), sugar and vanilla beans. Mix in cornflour and salt (if using).

2. Bring the remaining milk to a scald* in a saucepan. Pour the hot milk in small stream into the egg mixture, whisking constantly with a balloon whisk as you pour (very important). Once incorporated, pour everything back into the saucepan.
* To scald is to heat to just below the boiling point.

3. Whisk the mixture over medium heat until it thickens and firms up. Remove from heat and whisk in butter (and chocolate, if using).

4. Pour the hot custard into a bowl and plunge the bottom of the bowl into another larger bowl of iced-water to cool, give it a whisk occasionally.
- I just continued whisking in the same saucepan until it cooled down.

5. Once it reaches room temperature, scoop the crème pâtissière into a piping bag (twist the open end to seal up the custard) or into a ketchup bottle. Keep in the refrigerator until ready to use.


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Making the Choux Pastry
I prefer to make this fresh on the day itself. Choux doesn't keep its crusty shells very well in our humid weather.

Recipe

- 1 cup water
- 55g unsalted butter
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 120g plain flour
- 3 large eggs + 1 large egg (beaten lightly)

1. Place the water, butter and salt in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil. When the butter is completely melted, remove from the heat and add the flour all at once.

2. Mix rapidly with a spatula until fully combined.

3. Place the mixture on the stove over a low heat and dry mix for about 5-6 mins. The dough should be soft and but not sticky. If there is a thin white crust at the bottom of the pan, it means the dough is sufficiently dried.

4. Transfer to a bowl and spread to cool. Let the dough cool slightly.

5. Add the 3 eggs one at a time, incorporating each fully before adding the next.

6. Add the last egg a little at the time to control consistency. You do not want a mixture that is too runny, or the choux puff will not hold its shape. If the mixture looks right to you, stop adding the egg. The pâte à choux should look smooth, shiny and have the consistency of thick mayonnaise.

7. Preheat oven to 190 degree celsius. Cover a large baking tray with parchment paper. Fill a pastry bag with the dough with a piping nozzle.

8. Pipe the pâte à choux to your desired size. Obviously, if you want giant éclairs, cut a bigger hole in the piping bag. I made mini éclairs for the simple reason that my children were the ones eating, and I did not want to deal with half-eaten éclairs if they couldn't finish. Press down any peaks gently with your finger (dipped in water). Otherwise, the peaks will burn as they bake.


After piping the pâte à choux, dip a small fork in water and gently run the tines length-wise. This will give the éclairs some rustic looking ridges (see photo above). It's totally optional, but I just like the look of it. :)
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9. Brush the top with the egg wash (mix some egg with water)*. Some recipes call for giving the puffs a quick spritz of water before baking, as steam helps the puffs rise better.
* I totally forgot about this step! Oops!

10. Bake for about 35 minutes or until well puffed and golden. The drier, the crustier, the better - you want a cavernous, not soggy, centre. Shut off the heat, leave the oven door slightly ajar, and let the puffs cool slowly. The puffs may collapse if they are cooled too fast. Some people make small slashes at the bottom of the puffs to allow the steam to escape and then put them back into the oven. I don't, and my puffs still turned out fine each time.

Now that you have your choux puffs and your crème pâtissière, you're ready to fill! Using a sharp knife, make small slits at the bottom of the puffs. Pipe in the crème pâtissière that has been chilled in the ketchup bottle or piping bag.

Making the Chocolate Glaze
Recipe
(from here)
- 50g caster sugar
- 50ml water (less if you want a thicker consistency)
- 25g dark chocolate, broken into pieces
- 10g butter

1. Place the sugar and water into a pan and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and boil for 4-5 minutes, or until it thickens. Take the pan off the heat and leave to cool for five minutes.

2. Add the chocolate and butter to the pan and stir well until the chocolate has melted. Allow to cool, stirring occasionally. When the sauce has cooled and thickened, spread it on top of the éclairs.

Place the éclairs in the refrigerator to chill before serving.


A far cry from the perfect Chocolate Éclair, but good enough for home consumption. ;)
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Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy Holidays!

Time flies when you are in a hurry. Since coming back from Europe, I've hit the ground running, getting back into the frantic pace that comes with having 3 children. Buying new uniforms, shoes, school bags, books, stationery, attending orientations ... the works!

As if that wasn't enough, I also received a mailer from my son's school, inviting me to sign up for a 2-day seminar entitled, "Parents, Ready, Get Set, Go!" And he's only starting Primary 1 next year. I promptly trashed it. It's bad enough that schools are pushing the students so hard, now they are pushing the parents too. Thanks, but no thanks.

And then, there was re-stocking of my larder, banking, catching up with friends, unpacking, fainting at the credit card bills, spring cleaning ... the works again!

Amazingly, I managed to sneak some time into my kitchen. My neglected oven and I had an emotional, tearful reunion a few days ago. Can you believe it has been almost 3 months since I touched that oven? Naturally, I was apprehensive about baking again.

True enough, I fumbled like a clueless newbie, knocking over ingredients and spilling batter. There were even a few occasions I actually threw my hands up in the air in disbelief! It was that bad.

So, what did I bake? Something French, of course! Since I couldn't be in France (*sniff*), I had to create my own piece of France here in Singapore.



First, I made some Lemon Almond Madeleines. These poor babies went through a lot just to be baked. My friend had given me a new madeleine pan recently, and in my excitement to use it, I completely forgot that it was too big for my tiny oven. When it was time to bake, I realised, horror of horrors, it was a good 2 inches wider than my oven door!

I put a clingwrap over the batter and sprinted over to my mum's. We tried her oven, and noooooooooooo, it was still too big! Desperate, we hopped over to her neighbour's, who immediately offered her oven. The pan went in with only a hair's breadth to spare! Talk about a baking emergency ... it was so, so close. I didn't even care if the madeleines developed those requisite knobbly humps. I just wanted to see them baked!

As you can see, the humps did appear. I consider that nothing short of a miracle, considering all the chilling and thawing and fiddling in the oven. Sometimes, we just get lucky. :)

And then I also made some Mont Blanc-inspired trifles. I had leftover chestnut puree but was just too lazy to make the actual Mont Blanc. So I took the short cut and did a "deconstructed" version of it. It's the cheat's way of making this lovely French treat, and taste-wise, there's no difference. If you are short of time, trifle's the way to go. Just layer everything and voila, ready to eat.



Well, that's the gist of what's been happening on my end. I will post the recipe of the Lemon Almond Madeleines another day, so watch this space.

I just did this pointless post because all I really wanted to say was:
"Happy Holidays, everyone! May all your dreams come true in 2012!"

And THANK YOU for being part of my journey here at The Little Teochew. XOXO

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Joie de Vivre - Europe 2011

Hello. :)

How is everyone? It has been a while, hasn't it? Almost 2 months! I hope you have all been doing well. Let's pick up from where we left off, shall we?

Like I mentioned in my last post, I was busy spending time with family. It was all fun and good, but truth be told, I was well and truly exhausted. It has been one heck of a trying year, and I have never felt more tired than I have in the previous years gone by. I dread to think what it's going to be like when I officially have 3 school-going kids next year, but ah, I'll cross the bridge when I come to it.

Anyway, I woke up one morning and decided I absolutely deserved a holiday (and by "holiday", I mean no children). So I booked my air ticket and was Paris-bound 10 days later. Life should be well-lived, I thought, so I'll just do it! *pumps fist*

Okay okaaay, I cried all the way from home to Changi Airport, and then all the way from Charles De Gaulle Airport to my hotel because I felt terrible without the young ones. Talk about separation anxiety!

It also did not help that upon arrival, I had to sit through a painful 1-hour traffic standstill. After getting out of the jam, it abruptly changed to F1-style driving laced with colourful swearing, impatient honking and fist-shaking, all thrown in for good measure. It took me 2 whole hours to get into Paris, by which time I was giddy and nauseous.


Early morning, crazy traffic in Paris. Finally made it into the city!
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When my "F1" taxi driver handed me my bag at the hotel, he shrugged and said, in a tone loaded with resignation, "Paris can be crazy." You're telling me, monsieur. He must have assumed my red, swollen eyes were the result of crying over the astronomical €90 fare.

Anyway, Welcome to Paree! I could not have arrived on a better day, so I was told. It had been grey for the past few days, but on that morning, all that greeted me were pretty azure skies with the faintest streaks of wispy whites.


I stayed in the 7th arrondissement, just a stone's throw from the magnificent Eiffel Tower. As I walked and turned the corner, I saw it ... and it took my breath away. There was hardly anyone in the street at that hour, and it felt as if it I had the Eiffel all to myself. Certainly a moment to remember.
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Soon, I received messages from home that all was well and the kids were - I quote - "in high spirits" (read: unlimited online games, unlimited Youtube, unlimited cold drinks, unlimited everything). Who wouldn't be high? Shed those tears for nothin', darn it.

From that point, my blues were quickly replaced by the sudden gleeful realisation that I was in Paris without a care in the world. For once, in a long, long, looong time, I could do all the things I wanted to do ... eat, drink, do nothing if I so desired, or everything if I so fancied. It was about being in the moment, and I embraced it with wide, open arms.

My first meal in Paris was with an ex-classmate I hadn't seen in 23 years! She lives there now, and in her words, "love it". We had a wonderful lunch at a charming place - her treat - where we mused about old times over delectable French food and toasted to friendship with Kir Royale.

Joie de vivre were the 3 words that kept popping up in my head. I could get used to this, I remember telling myself.


(Left) One of my favourite dishes - seared Saint Jacques, with truffles in a rocket salad, (Right) Kir Royale.
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(Top) Prawns and more Saint Jacques, with truffles, on a bed of sautéed fennel, (Bottom) Café gourmand that was sublime! Oh, and the baguette they served here at Truffes Folies was the best I ate throughout my trip!
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And that was only the beginning. After Paris, there was Barcelona, Lyon and London. It was such joy to revisit old places with new eyes. In Barcelona back then, we were fresh graduates on our "big" European tour before the corporate world beckoned. I vividly remember us sipping coffee on a lazy Sunday and wondering where life would take us. What divergent paths we have chosen!


The Sagrada Família. So impressive, but why are the construction cranes still there after all these years?!
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The Casa Batlló. Personally, I wanted to see this more than the Sagrada Família. There's something about whimsical things that speak to me.
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Or in London, where I spent many a happy summer as a young child. My father may be gone, but in so many familiar places, I saw and remembered how he used to hold my tiny hand in the daunting crowd. Ah, memories ... some happy, some poignant, but nonetheless, all precious.


Peaceful and picturesque Lyon. I will be back.
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And Lyon. Beautiful Lyon. It was a magical time, as the entire city was celebrating its annual Fête des Lumières (Festival of Lights). In every little quaint street, in every nook and corner, you would see lighted candles that flickered daintily in the chilly breeze of the night. And that amazing dinner at a bouchon? Undoubtedly, hands-down, my most memorable meal of 2011.

We were turned away at so many bouchons - all fully booked for the Festival - and as we tried our dwindling luck at yet another, I will never forget how - after my friend earnestly pleaded for a table - we remained on tenterhooks until the chef edged his way out of the kitchen, pursed his lips and heaved, "OK!" We could hardly contain our excitement! We later learned that it required a 6-month reservation to secure a table during this time of year. That night, as we heartily tucked into the rich and rustic dishes, we counted our every blessing.


(Left) My Quenelle de Brochet Sauce Nantua - a Lynonnaise specialty. I loved it! I tried 3 versions at different places, but this one at Cafe des Federations was in a class of its own. Light, airy, eggy and in a sauce that had the most intense flavour of crayfish. Incredible!
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Suffice it to say, I. Had. THE. Time. Of. My. Life.

The 2 weeks away gave me the clarity and serenity that can only be gotten when you disengage yourself from the daily grind. I realise inertia can be a powerful thing: a lot of people settle into their comfort zones, and they never ever get out. Sometimes, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to press the refresh button on your life.

I just did and I can't thank myself enough for that.

PS: All photos, with the exception of the 3rd and 4th, were taken using my iphone4S. Long live the iphone! DSL-who?

PS again: Wine is food, darn it! And food should not be so expensive! Why does it cost so much more to drink wine in Singapore? Why?! Everyone should be given the right to good, affordable wine at every meal! *end of rant*