Sunday, August 31, 2008
A Story of Classic French Pastry, and of Unexpected Disappointments
When I encountered this month's Daring Bakers Challenge, hosted by Meeta of What's for Lunch Honey, and Tony of Tony Tahhan, I was both excited and disappointed. Excited because they have chosen something from pastry demi-god Pierre Herme's book, Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herme, and disappointed because that something turns out to be chocolate eclairs. I've made these at least three times in the past year, and although they are undoubtedly delicious, I don't find them particularly challenging to make.
However, in the spirit of the Daring Bakers, I decided to play along. I had initially thought of tweaking and playing with the components and to add a bit of my flair to the whole challenge, but I decided that I should give Pierre Herme's recipe a good go, just because, like many other pastry chefs and bakers out there, I worship the man.
So I set out to make the pate a choux, full of hope and expectations with what the recipe invented by the world's most renowned pastry chef would bring to my humble home kitchen. I read through the instructions and sure enough, they were very close to the recipe I had used in the past. Save for the instructions on baking temperature and times. Monsieur Herme's instructions indicated a baking time of 7 minutes at the temperature of 190 degree Celsius, then it spiralled off into propping the oven door open with a wooden spoon and continue baking for the next 13 minutes.
I have 3 problems with this. One: In my past experience, 7 minutes is not enough time to sufficiently brown the choux pastry and make it puff up to its fullest potential. Two: There is no need to prop open the oven door. All you have to do is reduce your oven temperature down to 170 degree Celcius and continue baking for...Three: a further 20-25 minutes to completely dry out the choux pastry, plus an extra 5-10 minutes sitting in the switched off hot oven.
So in total, Monsieur Herme's baking time is short by a bit too many minutes. But I gave the man the benefit of the doubt and proceeded on as per instruction with the first batch. And, just as I had expected, my choux puffs deflated into miserable little slumps a few minutes out of the oven. So unfortunately, Monsieur Herme, this girl is not impressed. I then proceeded to make the consecutive batches using the baking times stated above...and voila!! Perfectly puffed choux pastry!!
A few more things that the recipe failed to mention in relation to the pate a choux:
1. You can check the readiness of the choux pastry by either cutting one open, or by tapping the bottom with your fingers and listening for the hollow sound. I personally prefer the latter.
2. You should spray or sprinkle your oven tray with water. This action helps to create steam in the oven, aiding your choux puffs to turn out as puffy as gravitationally possible.
If you think that marks the end of my rant, you are wrong. There are few things worse than embarking on a journey ill-equipped with a bad recipe. So even at the risk of receiving threats and hate mails in my inbox from ardent Pierre Herme worshippers, I am willing to brave the odds to continue. So, first I would have to agree that the pastry cream recipe is fabulous. Other than the fact that it seems that the man enjoys making his fans go round in circles the long way about making it. For example, you do not need to put the mixture in the ice bath and continue stirring it with your tired arms. You can simply put the creme patissiere in a stand mixer and let your paddle do its job of smoothing out lumps and cooling down the cream. And then you can add the butter in chunks. Too easy.
By this time I was rightly disillusioned, but the worst was not over for me. The most disappointing part of this challenge is the chocolate glaze. I contemplated using my own chocolate ganache recipe which is 10 times simpler and had never disappoint. I again gave Monsieur Herme the benefit of the doubt and went along with his version.
Sigh. Either the stars are not aligned for me to make any of Herme's creations right, or his recipes are just not what I had expected them to be. To end in a sort of anti-climax, I find the chocolate glaze very difficult to handle. The glaze is too thin at its shiniest stage, and turned dull when cooled. Totally not what I expected. By this time I had completely lost faith and gave up. I did not even bother to decorate it or even to take proper photographs.
Don't get me wrong, I still think that Pierre Herme is one of the greatest pastry chefs in the world, and I would definitely not miss the chance to visit his famous patisserie the next time I'm in Paris. But I don't think that the recipes in his books are a true testament of the man's ability to create the exquisite pastries, cakes and desserts that he is renowned for, and thus I have struck Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herme off my to-buy list. At least for the moment, or until someone could convince me that it is actually a worthwhile purchase. So here's my second Daring Bakers Challenge, and may the third one be more of a success for me.
PS. Meeta and Tony, thank you both so much for your effort in putting together this challenge. I hope I did not offend you by saying what I said in this post. It is purely my opinion of the recipe, and not at all to put blame on the lovely hosts that have taken the trouble to make this challenge come together for the month of August.