Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Eclair Workshop

Photo by Geni Certain

My recent post on cannoli elicited some enthusiastic reader response, particularly from Jackipdx. We agreed that while cannoli were great, a well made eclair is a thing of joy.

So, after date and transportation arrangements were emailed, Jacki bused and cabbed out to Rancho Las Cuevas last Sunday. Our friend and neighbor, Geni, was also present to observe, photograph, and especially, sample eclairs.

I called it a "workshop", rather than a "class", as I hadn't made these in many years. There are numerous variables that must be dealt with to get good results. In the end, I'd say we did well, although there were several areas needing improvement.

The following are technical details. You can skip over this if you like and jump directly to the slideshow. -below.

We first made a pastry cream using milk plus evaporated milk (I deemed the cream specified in the recipe would make it too rich.) It's necessary to make the filling first so that it may cool properly before filling the eclair shells.
There was also granulated sugar, cornstarch, egg yolks, a pinch of salt, and vanilla extract.

The recipe was derived from one in Bernard Clayton's Complete Book of Pastry. I thought some of the procedures were illogical, such as putting the vanilla in with the milk, then heating it. Usually, vanilla is added last so its volatiles don't evaporate. I adjusted according to my own experiences in making puddings, pie fillings and pastry creams.

When the cornstarch, mixed with the 4 tempered egg yolks were added to the remaining hot milk, the mixture set up almost instantly. That was very unusual. It could be that 4 yolks have one too many, or it may have been that I'd drawn out too much hot milk for the tempering. The filling was so thick that I added 1/2 cup or more milk to loosen it up a bit. I added a tbsp of butter and the vanilla, and whisked it in.

The hot mixture was emptied into a bowl over an ice water bath so it would cool more quickly. After, a little granulated sugar was sprinkled over to reduce crusting, then plastic film, and all was refrigerated.

After cleaning up the utensils, we proceeded to make the pate a choux, or cream puff paste.

That consisted of bringing to a boil water with a little milk, a stick of butter and a pinch of salt. In all my bakery years, no one ever used milk nor butter in cream puff paste. My opinion is that vegetable shortening results in a firmer and crisper, if less tasty shell. But I went along with it.

The paste looked good as we cooked it to a ball, then placed it in the mixer with the paddle attachment. A few moments of cool down, and we added the 4 whole eggs in 4 increments, incorporating thoroughly after each addition.

We were ready for the Test. Jacki had brought a couple of pastry bags and tips. We set up the bigger bag with a large, metal cone tip, and filled the bag.
We'd prepared the baking sheets by dabbing spots of shortening on, then placing baker's parchment over it. The shortening keeps the paper from shifting around as the paste is extruded onto it.

Bagging out the paste for eclairs is a learned skill which doesn't come easily. Results ranged from so-so to not bad. This really needs a video illustrating the technique. Fortunately, we have a slide show. The little end tips of paste should be pushed back with a moistened finger, not with the pastry bag cone, and after the sheet is filled. Generous spacing is important.

Into a 425º F oven, about 22 minutes, then exchange the two sheets, and 5 minutes more.

The baking sheets are placed on cooling racks, then each eclair shell is pierced with the tip of a skewer to vent steam. This helps prevent sogging.

At this stage, we broke for lunch: a large, composed Salade Niçoise. (Photo by G. Certain), and some pain du campagne, baked earlier that morning.
I believe in doing these things in style.

After lunch, we returned to fill and glaze the eclairs.
I strained the custard (usually unnecessary) as I'd seen small lumps.
The filling stage is relatively easy, but it's good to fill the shells until they bulge. Handling a pastry bag is just another skill to be learned and practiced.

After some indecision, I decided to make a simple chocolate glaze by melting semi-sweet chocolate and a little butter in the microwave oven. No powdered sugar was necessary, although that can be used.
The filled eclairs are iced/glazed simply by dipping them lightly into the warm icing, then gently removing any excess with a small spatula.
I placed them onto opened cupcake liners on a platter, and they were ready to serve.

Here's the slideshow, which illustrates the entire process in simplified form.
All photos by Geni Certain, copyright 2009.

I just found an interesting discussion of the origins of pate a choux, on

A Taste of Capula

We went today with two friends to Capula, Michoacán, where we bought pottery items. In the town itself, we sampled some "pan corriente" (regular, common bread, but hardly common to us.) We snacked on some good examples of pan hojaldre in its various forms.

It was Míercoles de las Cenizas, and fresh fish was sold around the Plaza.
But we weren't prepared to buy any to take home, so we sought lunch elsewhere.

First, we went "fishing", but caught nothing.
On the way back toward Quiroga, we first stopped to check out a fine looking new restaurant, next to an even finer, yellow house, at El Puerto. That was "Mariscos El Puerto". It has been in business for about a year, but because we seldom travel that route, we were unaware of it. The stentorian owner was sweeping out the dining room, just getting ready to open. We looked over the fairly limited menu, and decided that, under the circumstances, we would eat elsewhere, but were willing to try Mariscos El Puerto another day.

The next place is no turkey.
Not too far down the road to Quiroga, we saw the more down-home-type roadside eatery, "El Jacalito de Los Pavos", also known as "Los Pavos". The first name means something like "The Turkey Hut or Coop." As soon as it came into view, I exclaimed, "This is my kind of place!"

We went into the cool, dim interior and were surprised by the ample space and seating there. It seemed a likely stop for tour buses, and when I asked, I was told that is indeed the case.

The baños are out the back door and down some stairs. They were nice looking, from the glance I made and there was a shared hand washing sink, with a bar of soap and improvised paper towels, similar to that purplish-gray paper on which tacos are served.

I sneaked a glance into the back kitchen. It's clean and well organized.

There was no comida corrida available, but the a la carte menu was moderately priced. Turkey was not available except on Sundays. So, no turkey for us! Out back, the unaware turkeys were foraging for their food.

Our selections were:
  • Costillas asadas de res, an ample, if rather chewy blade steak. It came with a bowl of nice frijoles de olla.
  • Mole de Pollo, con sopa seca de arroz. Standard, but decent mole. Chicken was a bit resistant to the fork, too.
  • Enchiladas Suizas; extremely rich chicken enchiladas in salsa verde, covered with melting white cheese and generous lashings of crema. No beans nor rice.
  • Bisteces a la Mexicana, good, homey version of Mexican Pepper Steak: diced onion, tomatoes and mild chiles.
There was a bowl of a very good dark salsa based on chile pasilla and/or negro and tomatillos. There was another bowl of coarsely cut salsa fresca of tomatoes, onions, and chiles manzanos. It was tasty but less picante than the other. (Less interestingly, it had no cilantro in it.)

La cuenta was $220 pesos. That included a jarra de limonada and a Fresca sabor toronja. Propina extra.

I've uploaded some photos of both restaurants, starting here at Mariscos El Puerto.

Update: I regret to report that three of our group who ate at Los Pavos got sick in varying intensities. The illness (traveler's diarrhea or vomiting) manifested itself the next day and grew worse for two of the group last night. This is circumstantial evidence, but the common factor seems to have been the limonada. I, who had the Fresca instead of the limonada, have had no illness.

All three have now recovered at least partially.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Redefining Mexican Cuisine

I was leafing through my tattered edition of The Joy of Cooking, when I found a strange entry for Mexican Tomato Sauce.

The writers preface it by stating:
"Just what you might expect. You will feel hot inside, down to your toes."
Back then, "Mexican" food must have been defined as "HOT!", without regard to race, creed, color or national origin.

For your culinary interest, I have written the ingredients below;
  • Canned tomatoes or fresh
  • Chili Sauce
  • Prepared Mustard
  • Grated or prepared Horseradish
  • sugar, salt, pepper, cayenne
  • Curry Powder (!)
  • Vinegar
  • Onion Juice (WTF is Onion Juice, and how do you squeeze it out?)
  • Garlic
I think this sauce would be perfect for a quesadilla made in a Santa Fe Quesadilla Maker. (My choice for poster child for the Unnecessary Kitchen Gadgets of the World.)

In the words of the immortal Don Anónimo:
"Cada Loco Con Su Tema."

Monday, February 16, 2009

Eating Our Way From NOLA to NAPOLI in One Day

Our days are full, and so are we. Yesterday was an unusual, but enjoyable example.

In the late morning, were treated by our neighbors, Geni and Larry to a lavish brunch, New Orleans style. There were pungent Bloody Marys, warm French Bread and butter; fresh strawberries and cream. Then, rich Eggs Sardou, dark roast coffee, and optional Mimosas. We agreed that the beautiful, fruit topped Pastel de Tres Leches would be best if we ate it much later in the day.

We wobbled the short distance home, where we took a necessary nap. After, we prepared a late lunch for Geni and Larry and two visitors, Didi and Barb. I made two large pizzas and Susan made guacamole and a salad. Didi brought a beautiful fruit bowl, and then, just barely, we all had some Pastel de Tres Leches.

I enjoy making pizzas with offbeat toppings. I had some daikon radish tops left from making radish kimchee. I simmered these with some salt and a little onion. Squeezed dry, the greens (really a sort of giant turnip
greens) became a topping for a half pizza, perked up with blobs of creamy requesón (ricotta) cheese, crisp bacon pieces and sliced chile serrano.
The other half was good old pepperoni plus sliced fresh onion.

I found the recipe for a pizza with greens and ricotta on the Oprah website! I don't like cornmeal crust, so I just made my regular dough. I also subbed fresh, seeded and deveined chile serrano for the red pepper flakes.

Our other pizza was totally dedicated to vegetables. It had sliced sweet red and yellow peppers, onion, mushrooms (canned), capers and Kalamata plus jumbo green olives.

I was unhappy with the crust, which wouldn't brown nicely as it used to. I do use 16 inch diameter perforated pans, and I had the oven up to 435º F.
I think that next time I'll add a tablespoon or two of powdered milk, to assist browning. I have in the past tried a pizzza baking stone, with poor results. They are also a lot of hassle and limit you to baking one pie at a time.

Next post "Weird pizza toppings I have made and loved."
Here are some favorite pizzas of the past.

I'm about to have a light snack of a couple of wedges.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

"Don't Forget The Cannoli"

There's a famous line from the movie, "The Godfather", a set-up for the punchline, "Leave the gun, take the cannoli".

I promised cannoli and I didn't forget my promise.
But I'm not here this morning to discuss nuances of classic films. I didn't want to neglect cannoli after mentioning them in my post, "Melanzana alla Michoacana." My cannoli are cannoli para flojeros (slackers).

I was introduced to cannoli at an early age in my childhood in Brooklyn, NY. They became my second most favorite pastry after chocolate covered, custard filled eclairs*. The photo above shows "real" cannoli
. says:
Cannoli, (plural) in Sicilian, are Sicilian pastry desserts. The singular is cannolo, meaning “little tube”, with the etymology stemming from the Latin "canna", or reed. Cannoli originated in Sicily and are an essential part of Sicilian cuisine. They are also popular in Italian American cuisine and in America are known as a general Italian pastry, while they are specifically Sicilian in origin.

Cannoli consist of tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough, filled with a sweet, creamy filling usually containing ricotta cheese (or alternatively, but less traditionally, sweetened Mascarpone) blended with some combination of vanilla, chocolate, pistachio, Marsala wine, rosewater or other flavorings. Some chefs add chopped succade or chocolate chips. They range in size from "cannulicchi", no bigger than a finger, to the fist-sized proportions typically found in Piana degli Albanesi, south of Palermo, Sicily. Sometimes cannoli can be found with the shells dipped in chocolate, in addition to being stuffed with filling.

But we don't live in Sicily, nor even Brooklyn. If we want cannoli, we'll have to make them ourselves. Susan and I have some experience at that. We even have the metal forms for frying the tubes. But being retired (lazy), I skipped the laborious parts and bought some ready made pastry tubes. They are called "tostadas de nata". Some are flat wafers and others are rolled into crisp tubes, (lower right) somewhat narrower and more delicate than a true cannolo tube, but, as we say, "It works for me."
(Thanks to Esperanza, Mexican Kitchen Forum Moderator on for the correct terminology.)

If you want a serious, more authentic cannoli recipe and technique, I suggest looking at Il Mezzogiorno Cucina Siciliana

The tubular challenge solved, we could then deal with the filling. Ricotta cheese is not widely available in Pátzcuaro or Morelia. However, requesón, which is closely related to ricotta, is. At Mega Comercial in Morelia, I bought a couple of small containers of Cremería Aguascalientes Requesón. This is a very finely textured version of requesón.

Using only one small container, I added about a third of a bar of Philly Cream Cheese. With an electric hand mixer, I broke up the cheeses, then gradually whipped in about 1/3-1/2 cup of powdered sugar and a good dash of ground cinnamon. I continued whipping until it was very smooth; then added a few drops of orange liqueur (Controy), and folded in with a spatula a teaspoon or so of minced preserved orange peel and a a little preserved citron. (Acitrón).

Next, I finely chopped a tablet of Mayordomo Chocolate con Canela, a total of about 2 tablespoons, and folded it in. You can use semi-sweet chocolate or even mini chocolate chips.

At serving time (being particularly lazy), I spread the cannoli filling on the wafer type tostadas de nata, then heaped each with a big handful of well washed and drained, plump zarzamoras** (blackberries). A light dusting of powdered sugar finished it easily and attractively. Serves 4 or 5.

I still have the tubular tostadas de nata and a container of requesón. Once I rig up a pastry bag for filling the tubes, we'll have Michoacán cannoli.

*Eclairs. Our dear friend and neighbor, Geni, (who makes the best Key Lime Pie ever.***) would like to learn how to make eclairs. When we recover from a series of lavish home dinners here, we may do a lesson and a tasting.

**Zarzamoras. Some, small and very expensive, come from Oregon. Others, less expensive, larger and plumper, are grown locally. They are available in January. This is a miracle of climate. I last paid $20 MXP a kilo. Lástima, we weren't able to eat them all before they molded.

***Key Lime Pie: yesterday's Key Lime Pie by Geni was lighter and fluffier in texture than usual. She whipped the egg yolks for 5 minutes before adding the rest of the ingredients. The individual slices were garnished with plump strawberries. (Available most of the year at low prices, about $15 MXP a kilo.

Now, as an added Nostalgia Bonus, this 2 minute plus clip from "The Godfather". (Offscreen violence)

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Melanzana alla Michoacana

I think of all the cuisines of the world that I've tried, I like best that of Italy. Fortunately, with a bit of flexibility, appropriate ingredients can be found here in Michoacán.

Yesterday, we had our two neighbors to comida. They'd just returned from a long weekend in Mexico City.

I decided that an Italian meal would be suitable to welcome them home. The menu we decided on began with a mixed salad with bocconcini (cheese marinated in herbed olive oil); eggplant parmigiana, a simple, fusilli or rigatoni pasta, and a variation on the theme of Sicilian cannoli, with fresh, local blackberries.

Most Thursdays, and sometimes other days, we can get eggplants in the Pátzcuaro mercado, at the vegetable stand of Familia los Padilla. They also have nice basil, sweet peppers in various colors, and other specialty vegetables.

The bocconcini were based on a recipe from Joyce Goldstein's Mediterranean Cooking, with the addition of sun dried tomatoes and Kalamata olives. To make it, a cup of olive oil is gently warmed. Oregano, a bit of red chile, black pepper, crushed garlic and salt are briefly infused in the oil. When cool, it's poured over a pound of small cubes of mozzarella. I used a package of little balls of cheese from Cremería Aguascalientes. They weren't as soft and mellow as real, fresh mozzarella balls, but they were adequate. The cheese is left to marinate several hours at room temperature.

The salad itself had romaine lettuce, sweet red and yellow peppers, seeded chopped cucumber and vine tomatoes (purchased at Costco. These are really the best tasting tomatoes I've yet found in Mexico. Amazingly, they are grown in Ontario!)

The Melanzana alla Parmigiana was based on a simple recipe by Marcella Hazan. I sliced three medium eggplants about 1/2 inch thick. Unlike the Hazan recipe, I didn't peel them. The slices are salted and left to stand upright at least 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, I prepared the sauce. Two cans of S&W sliced Italian Style tomatoes (from Costco) were drained. I then coarsely chopped them in the food processor.

Next, about 1/2 cup of chopped onions and 2 cloves of garlic, were sauteed in some of the oil, over low heat in a large, wide pot. As they began to turn golden, I put in the chopped tomatoes, These were cooked briefly and
I added 1 can of Cidacos brand Spanish ground tomatoes. (Superama or Wal-Mart in Morelia). This was seasoned with a little salt, some Asian fish sauce (could have added some finely minced anchovies, but I didn't want to open a can); hot Spanish paprika and a squirt of red wine vinegar.

After cooking on a low flame some 20 minutes, I then added chopped fresh basil (from los Padilla) and a good pinch of Mexican oregano. The tastings indicated a couple of tablespoons of sugar would be a good addition.
I like to make extra Italian tomato sauce to freeze, but we used all but two cups of this batch.

Meanwhile, back at the eggplant: the slices were patted dry on paper towels, and fried of medium-high heat in a mixture of extra virgin olive oil and canola oil; turning once when brown on the underside. It was necessary to do this in two batches.
As they emerged from the frying pan, they were again blotted on paper towels.

Asssembly: in a 12 inch diameter pottery casserole, I put a single layer of fried eggplant, followed by a thorough covering of tomato sauce.
That was followed by a generous shower of coarsely shredded mozzarella, and a couple of tablespons of Queso Reggianito. (A Latin American facsimile of Parmigiano Reggiano, but much less expensive. At Costco.)

Repeated with a second layer of eggplant, sauce, and finishing wih cheeses.
This goes into a 400ºF oven for 20 minutes, at which time any surplus liquid is spooned off. Then returned to oven for another 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, a large pot of well salted water was brought to a boil, and approximately 300 grams of short pasta
added (in this instance, Barilla Fusilli. Costco, Wal-Mart and other stores.)

Back to the salad: when it was attractively assembled by Susan in a large, wooden salad bowl, I drained the bocconcini and placed them atop the salad.

With some of the marinade, I added enough red wine vinegar to make a vinaigrette dressing, correcting the seasoning.

Nostra Melanzana alla Michoacana was luscious. I'm having an eggplant sandwich for breakfast. It won't be as richly lush as this one, but it will be enough.

We had a loaf or two of Mercado Soriana Panadería's sesame Baguet. I think it was 6 pesos a loaf.
With this meal, we drank water and glasses of our everyday vino tinto, Concha y Toro Seleccíon Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend. Costco, 6 bottles for $299 pesos.

Dessert details will have to be the subject of a separate post.

Images from Internet sources.