Building Blocks, Pastry-Style

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“I remember making those!”

I had a tray of pâte à choux shells resting on top of the stove; the kids were immediately reminded of the lesson in which we made cream puffs.

“Do you guys also remember when I told you that pâte à choux is kind of like a Lego brick in the pastry kitchen? That it can be used to make lots of other things?”

We gathered around the iPad to take a look at examples of some of those things.

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“What’s a Lady’s Navel?!”

“Or a Moooor kop?”

They were intrigued by the funny sounding pastries, and even more excited about the one we would be making that day — the Religiuese.

I’ve heard a couple of different explanations of the pastry, whose name means “Nun.” The first theory is that it is supposed to represent the papal mitre; the other interpretation describes the similarity in the pastry’s appearance to a nun’s habit. I’ll let you be the judge.

I had baked the choux cases that morning so that we could have plenty of time to focus on making the filling, the chocolate glaze, and assembling the pastries.

Traditionally religiuese are filled with mocha pastry cream, but I thought it would be better if we went with vanilla. While us moms can always use the coffee, the kids definitely didn’t need any caffeine.

“Pastry cream is another building block in the kitchen. You can use it as a filling for cakes, tarts, and all kinds of different pastries. You can thin it and use it as a sauce. You can even turn it into a soufflé.”

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They measured the milk and salt into a heavy-bottomed pot, then placed the cornstarch and sugar into a bowl.

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Finally, they whisked the eggs into the dry ingredients to make a slurry.

Vocabulary word for the day — slurry.

I explained that pastry cream is a custard, which means it is a liquid that has been cooked and thickened or set by eggs. They considered other things that might be custards: pudding, cheesecake, pumpkin pie filling, and ice cream.

“What happens when you heat up eggs?” I asked.

“They get clumpy?”

“Right! They cook and become solid. But too high or too long a heat will overcook them. We don’t want clumpy, lumpy custard, so we have to treat them gently. Otherwise you get scrambled eggs.”

We checked our mise en place for making pastry cream: we had a mesh strainer suspended over a bowl that would hold the finished custard, a ladle, and a damp towel that we wrapped around the base of our mixing bowl to keep it in place.

“Like a little nest?”

“Right!” I agreed. A little nest to hold our bowl of egg-slurry.

We moved over to the stove and began heating the milk.

“Milk can scorch, or burn, really easily. And once you scorch it, the whole pot will taste burnt. So we’ll use a spatula to gently stir the milk as it’s heating.”

I also advised that they keep a close eye on any dairy heating on the stove, as it has a tendency to boil-over pretty quickly. I cranked up the heat for a minute to demonstrate and they watched the milk race towards the top of the pot.

“That went fast!”

We turned off the heat and let the milk settle.

“What do you think would happen if we poured the eggs directly into this really hot pot?”

“Would they scramble?”

They remembered!

“So,” I continued, “we use a method called tempering, where we introduce a little bit of the hot liquid into the eggs to heat them gradually. Once we’ve added about half of the milk to the bowl, we’ll pour everything back into the pot to finish cooking.”

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They took turns adding the milk to the eggs, using one hand to ladle, the other to whisk.

“It’s kind of like rubbing your head and patting your tummy at the same time.”

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The kids traded off whisking the mixture over medium heat.

I showed them how to work the whisk around the pot, making sure to scrape the entire bottom surface, including the edges.

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We watched for big bubbles, a sign that the custard had come to a boil.

“The starch and sugar will keep the eggs from overcooking, to a point, but if we let it go too long the custard can become grainy.”

When we were sure the cream had come to a boil, we immediately strained it into a clean bowl.

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They added vanilla and butter, one tablespoon at a time, to the pastry cream.

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“Can we taste it?!”

They all promised not to double-dip, so…

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“So good!”

I beat back the advancing spoons, placed a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the remaining pastry cream, and popped it into the fridge to cool.

Now for the chocolate.

“Ganache is another good thing to have in your baking ‘tool box’. You can use it to fill, frost, and glaze cakes or pastries, but you can also let it cool completely and make truffles.”

“What else is in it besides chocolate?” someone asked.

“Cream. That’s it. The only thing you need to worry about is having the proper chocolate to cream ratio for whatever you will be using the ganache for.”

Another vocabulary word — ratio.

“If we have 4 ounces of chocolate and need a ratio of 1 part chocolate to 1 part cream, how much cream would we need?”

“4 ounces?”

“Right! And if we needed a ratio of 1 part chocolate to 2 parts cream, we would need…”

“8!”

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I showed them how to use a serrated knife to cut small, uniform pieces of chocolate. It had been awhile since we worked on knife skills, but they quickly caught on.

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We brought our cream to a bare simmer, poured it over the chopped chocolate, waited a few minutes, then stirred it together. Easy peasy.

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It was time to assemble the religuese.

I pulled out a batch of pastry cream that I had made the night before, and we filled up a piping bag.

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“Remember, don’t squeeze it from the middle!”

They each filled two choux shells, one large and one small.

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We took turns dunking the tops in the glossy ganache.

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Finally, they piped circles of whipped cream on top of the larger puffs, then set the smaller puffs on top.

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“Can I pipe a little hat?”

“They look like snowmen!”

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I wasn’t sure about a papal mitre or a nun, but I did see a happy little clown. Sadly, we had to eat him.

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All of the components for the religuese, except the whipped cream, can be made in advance.

Pâté  à Choux recipe (Bake two sizes)

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Ganache recipe  (We used equal parts of 60% chocolate and heavy cream, see recipe link for alternate percentages)

Pastry Cream

Yield 2 1/2 cups

2 c (16 oz)     Whole milk

1/4 t               Salt

4 T                 Cornstarch

1/2 c (4 oz)    Sugar

2                    Large eggs

4 T (2 oz)       Unsalted butter, cut into 1 T pieces

1 t                  Vanilla extract

Have a bowl ready for the finished pastry cream, with a mesh sieve resting on top. Place the milk and salt in a heavy saucepan and heat to just under a boil, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, whisk the cornstarch and sugar together, then add the eggs and whisk until smooth. Wrap a damp kitchen towel around the base of the bowl to keep it from sliding around. When the milk is ready, begin ladling the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. When about half of the milk has been incorporated, pour the egg-milk mixture back into the pot and continue whisking over medium heat until it just comes to a boil, (you will see some slow bubbles that do not stop after whisking). Immediately remove from heat and pour through the strainer into the bowl. If at this point the cream looks slightly curdled, an immersion blender or countertop blender can be used to smooth the texture. Let cool for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Whisk the butter into the pastry cream one tablespoon at a time, always whisking until smooth before the next addition. Whisk in the vanilla. Cover the custard with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap directly onto the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Cool completely before using. Do not whisk the cream once it has set to avoid breaking down the starch and thinning the custard. Pastry cream will keep in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

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When life hands you pits…make ice cream! (and a tart)

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“You want me to do what?”

My son was looking at me funny.

I repeated my request.

“I need you to take this hammer and smash open these apricot pits. We’re making ice cream.”

Hammer. Ice cream. My son was totally onboard with this. My daughter was wearing her concerned face.

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(Safety note: I did have him cover the pits with another towel as he whacked away at them to avoid flying pit-shrapnel.)

While my son continued cracking I explained, over the din, that stone fruits like peaches, plums, cherries, and apricots contain a small kernel within their seeds that the French call noyaux. They look like almonds and have an intense, bitter-almond perfume and flavor. Imagine store-bought almond extract minus the artificial undertones.

We broke a kernel in half and took a whiff.

“Ooh, that smells good!”

“Right?” I agreed. “Now imagine that in ice cream.”

Now for the intriguing part.

“Noyaux contain a very small amount of an enzyme which, when digested, becomes prussic acid (or hydrogen cyanide).”

“Is that bad?” my daughter asked.

“Well cyanide is poisonous, but unless you were planning on eating a ton of apricot kernels it won’t hurt you.”

In fact, cyanide does naturally occur in several foods: apples (in the pips), spinach, tapioca, soy, bamboo shoots, and all stone fruit pits.

“And anyway, we aren’t going to eat them. We’ll just steep them like tea leaves in our hot cream.”

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We gently warmed our cream and milk until just beginning to boil and added the noyaux. I covered the pan and we played Quirkle while the kernels steeped.

We tasted the cream every so often to make sure the flavor wasn’t getting too strong. It was to our liking at about the 90 minute mark.

We strained the noyaux and set the flavorful cream aside.

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The kids separated the eggs.

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They never seem to get bored with this process.

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The yolks went into a mixing bowl and I placed the whites in a container to freeze for a future recipe.

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They measured the sugar.

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And whisked both the sugar and salt into the egg yolks.

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Meanwhile, we reheated the aromatic milk and cream.

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I placed a damp towel on our work surface to anchor the bowl.

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When the cream had come to a boil, my son used a ladle to introduce the mixture, a little at a time, to the yolks in the bowl. My daughter whisked the two together as he ladled.

“Why do you think we couldn’t just add all the egg yolks directly to the pot?”

I explained that we needed to bring the eggs up to temperature gradually so that we didn’t inadvertently scramble them — a process called tempering.

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Once we had about half of our hot cream added to the yolks, we poured the contents of the bowl back into the pot.

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Over medium-low heat, the kids took turns stirring the mixture with a heat-proof spatula, making sure they scraped the bottom and edges of the pot.

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We took the mixture off the heat when we could feel it thickening and it coated the back of a spoon, (about 170 degrees on an instant read thermometer).

We immediately strained it into a clean bowl. The kids could see coagulated bits of egg white caught in the strainer.

“Egg whites cook at a lower temperature than egg yolks, which is why we need to strain the mixture again. You can never get all the whites out when you separate eggs, and the cooked whites would make our ice cream lumpy.”

They expressed their disapproval.

We set up an ice bath to cool the mixture quickly.

Now the hardest part — waiting. While the ice cream base was cool now, it would make much smoother ice cream if it was really and truly cold. The longer the ice cream takes to freeze, the larger the ice crystals will be in the final mix. If you start with a really cold base, your mix will take less time to freeze. Easy. Unless you are 7.

Noyaux ice cream is very tasty on its own, but what could make it better? I’m happy you asked…

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What could be better than pairing noyaux ice cream with the fruit it came from? And in the form of a warm and buttery pastry of course!

While we waited for the ice cream base to chill, we made pastry dough and rolled it out into a large circle.

The noyaux we had used earlier came from a container I keep in the freezer where we hoard our stone fruit pits. Now we could replenish those with new kernels from these babies:

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The apricots were on the riper side, so they would need something between them and the pastry dough to soak up all the juices they would release in the oven.

We ground together some blanched almonds, a bit of sugar, a touch of flour and a pinch of salt, and sprinkled that all over the dough circle.

The kids placed the apricots cut-side up in concentric circles on top of the almond mixture, leaving a border all around.

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They took turns pleating the dough. We weren’t concerned about spacing; they just folded the crust up and over the fruit where it seemed like a natural spot. Galettes are supposed to look rustic.

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They brushed the pastry dough with a little milk.

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Then sprinkled sugar all over the top of the galette.

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We popped the galette into a hot oven for about 50 minutes. The smell of hot apricots and butter does not suck.

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Later we topped slices of the rewarmed galette with scoops of noyaux ice cream. It was not even close to the pits.

Noyaux Ice Cream   makes about a quart

35 – 40 apricot pits

2 cups whole milk

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar

1/8 tsp salt

7 egg yolks

Cover the apricot pits with a towel and crack them open with a hammer. It doesn’t matter if you mash or break the kernels inside. Place the kernels in a pot with the cream and milk and heat to just boiling, taking care not to scorch the mixture. Remove from heat and cover to let the kernels steep. Check the mixture every 30 minutes or so until the flavor is strong enough. Strain the cream and set aside while you separate the eggs. Place the yolks in a bowl and whisk in the sugar and salt. Anchor the bowl to the work surface with a damp towel. Bring the infused cream back to a boil. Use a ladle to add some of the hot cream to the yolk mixture with one hand while whisking it together with the other. When you have incorporated about half of the hot milk, pour the mixture back into the pot and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until just beginning to thicken. It will coat the back of a spoon, (about 170 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.) Strain the mixture again. Chill completely and freeze according to your ice cream manufacturer’s instructions.

Apricot Galette   serves 8

pie pastry, (a little more than half of this recipe)

2 T blanched almonds

1 T flour

1 T sugar

pinch of salt

1 1/2 lbs of apricots

1/4 cup of sugar

Roll the pastry dough out to form a circle about 14″ in diameter and 1/8″ thick. Transfer the dough to a baking sheet and place in the refrigerator while you prepare the rest of the components. Grind the almonds, flour, sugar, and salt together, (I use an old coffee grinder for this. You can also just use almond meal in place of the almonds). Cut the apricots in quarters, removing the pits (save them!) Sprinkle the almond mixture over the dough, leaving about a 1 1/2″ border. Place the apricots, skin-side down, in concentric circles on top of the dough, fitting them snugly and leaving the border bare. Fold the dough up and over the galette, pleating it as you go. Brush the crust with a little milk and sprinkle the 1/4 cup of sugar over the fruit and crust. Bake in a 400 degree oven on the lowest rack, (use a pizza stone if you have one), for about 50 minutes. The crust should be nicely browned and slightly caramelized. Use a large spatula to transfer the galette to a wire rack to keep the crust from getting soggy. Cool for about 20 minutes before serving, or cool completely and rewarm before serving.