31 May 2015

Gâteau Paris-Brest

Serves: 8
Preparation: 40 mins (choux pastry) + 40 mins (filling and dressing)
Cooking: 20 mins + extra 5 mins + leave in the open oven for an extra 5 mins

If a French pastry ever were to be described as la crème de la crème (in every sense of the phrase), then Paris-Brest would be it. The gâteau is classic in style and celebratory in mood, and a piece of French culinary heritage all to itself that goes beyond anything cream cake. If I wax lyrical so readily about this particular pâtisserie, it is simply because it stands as my all-time favourite!

The Paris-Brest dates back to 1910, which despite making it a centenarian, also brings out its timeless appeal! Its circular shape is in reference to the Paris-Brest cycle race. A pâtissier from the Parisian suburbs, Louis Durand, had been tasked by the race manager to create a cake that would commemorate the event.

So here we have a gâteau whose popularity has surpassed that of the actual race. It is made out of light and airy choux pastry (cream puff dough), and sprinkled with a generous helping of aromatic roasted almond slivers, finished off with a fine dusting of icing-sugar. The filling is nothing less than a dreamy fluffy praline mousseline cream whose nuttiness echoes that of the almonds, and peers out of its fine corset of piped pastry to doom us into sweet temptation some more.

The Paris-Brest might appear daunting to bake, only if you follow some of the eccentric variants out there, that make it sound more complicated than it actually is! The best thing to do is to follow my step-by-step foolproof method, and you'll be coming back for more!

[Recipe adapted from Maxi Cuisine magazine from a few years back.]

Choux pastry:
  • 10cl (1/2 cup) milk (whole or half-skimmed)
  • 10cl (1/2 cup) water
  • 80g butter (1/3 cup), cut in small chunks
  • 140g (1 cup) all-purpose white flour, sieved
  • 4 middle-size organic eggs
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp white caster sugar
Filling (praline mousseline cream):
  • 1l (2 pints) milk (whole or half-skimmed, but not fat-free)
  • half a vanilla pod
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 80g (1/3 cup) white caster sugar
  • 25g (1 heaped tablespoon) all-purpose white flour, sieved
  • 25g (1 heaped tablespoon) cornflour 
  • 180g (1 cup 1/2) chopped French pralines (a confection of almonds with caramelized sugar)
  • 100g (1/3 cup + 1 oz) softened butter (left out of the fridge)
  • 50g (1/2 cup) almond slivers
  • 50g (1/3 cup) icing sugar

P.S: For baking ingredient conversions, refer to this.

P.P.S: PRALINES-- French Pralines are caramelized almonds. They are sold either whole as a confection, or chopped into a rough granulated texture (see above picture), called 'Pralin' in French. However depending upon which country you live in, French Pralines may not be readily available to purchase. Therefore you may have to resort to making your own, and this easy-to-follow online recipe will do the trick. If you are based in the US, you may want to opt for Glazed Pecans or Praline Pecans from Southern Candy Makers as your closest shop-bought alternative to French Pralin - and for that little Southern touch... All you will need to do is chop the whole glazed pecans/ praline pecans through a food processor until they turn to a granulated texture.

All in all, please be warned about the confusion between Pralines (as in Southern Pecan Pralines) and French Pralines, despite their common French origins. The Pecan Pralines (described by Southern Candy Makers as "similar to candied pecans, only creamier, [they] resemble a cookie, but are actually a crumbly candy patty [made] from fresh cream, butter, sugar, and Louisana pecans") are not suitable for Paris-Brest. Do aim for Glazed Pecans or Praline Pecans instead.

Now back to our Paris-Brest. Preheat the oven (200°C/ 392°F). Prepare the choux pastry: In a medium saucepan and on medium heat, combine (without whisking) milk, water, butter, salt and sugar. When the mixture starts to simmer, add the flour in one go. Then for about one minute and on lower heat, mix together vigorously with a wooden spatula so as to dry out the dough without it sticking to the pan, and you should get a thick and smooth consistency.

Then transfer the dough from the saucepan to a mixing bowl. Add the whole eggs, one at a time, thoroughly incorporating each single egg into the dough with the spatula as you mix together, before you add on the next. Carry on until the dough gets elastic and smooth and comes off the sides of the bowl.

Optionally trace a loose circle (approx. 20cm diameter) on a sheet of parchment paper with a pencil. Then lay the parchment paper onto a baking tray and lightly grease the paper with cooking oil. Then spoon the dough into a piping bag and trace a circle onto the parchment paper and then another circle inside the first (right next to it with no gaps), so that you get a one-inch wide circle. Then pipe a third circle to rest on top of the junction between the first two circles.

You may use a teaspoon as an alternative to the piping bag (which is what I did here) and painstakingly spoon one teaspoon of dough at a time onto the paper until forming a full circle of dough (one inch wide). The finished article, once baked, might not be as full and rounded as the classic (piped) Paris-Brest, but this will not impair the taste whatsoever. And eh, who said Paris-Brest couldn't look rustic round the edges? Actually, [purists, look away now!] should you find convention a tad tricky to handle, you may want to adjust the shape of your Paris-Brest to rectangular, as this will neatly fit in the baking tray (which is what I did here too!).

Sprinkle a generous handful of almond slivers all over the choux pastry. Bake in the oven (200°C/ 392°F) for 20 mins. Never be tempted to open the oven during the baking process or the pastry will deflate and never raise again! When the 20 mins are up, turn the oven temperature down to 180°C/ 356°F and bake the cake for a further 5 mins. Then turn off the oven completely and open its door and leave the cake to cool off for 5 mins before taking it out of the oven. This will prevent it from deflating too much. The pastry should be golden in colour when it comes out of the oven.

Only when the cream puff pastry has thoroughly cooled off, should you split it in two equal horizontal halves, carefully and using a bread knife. Personally I find that a serrated grapefuit knife will do the trick nicely, thanks to the fact that the centre of cream puff is hollow.

Prepare the praline mousseline cream filling: A mousseline cream is basically pastry cream (crème pâtissière) to which butter has been added. Note that the cornflour will lighten the cream consistency. However if you have no cornflour handy, then adjust the all-purpose white flour quantity accordingly, i.e. to 50g (1/3 cup OR 2 heaped tablespoons).

Pour the milk into a saucepan. Split half a vanilla pod lengthways and scrape the seeds into the milk and add the pod shell to it. Bring the milk to the brink of simmer, whisking frequently so as to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Meanwhile combine the egg yolks and sugar into a big mixing bowl and cream until white and fluffy. Then add the combined white flour and cornflour in one go. Whisk together. Strain the vanilla pod out of the warm milk.

Add the warm milk to the yolk and sugar preparation in the mixing bowl. Note that the milk must not be boiling hot or it will cook the egg yolks, which is NOT what we want! Whisk together and then pour the cream back into the pan, on medium heat, until it has thickened up and a couple of bubbles have risen to the surface, indicating that the flour has cooked. Turn off the stove. Add the chopped pralines and mix with a wooden spatula, together with the softened butter, cut in chunks.

P.S: For the purists! Some pastry chefs would recommend that you go the extra mile with the praline cream. Once it has cooked - and before any of the softened butter has been added to it - pour the cream into a mixing bowl that sits in a bigger bowl that is filled with ice cubes. Leave the bowls in the fridge for one hour. When the time is up, take the cream out of the fridge and beat it to unset it. Then deal with the softened butter by creaming it with an electric whisk. Add the creamed butter to the praline cream, a little at a time, so as to get a smooth consistency.

Pipe the praline mousseline cream onto the lower half of the choux pastry circle, or alternatively dollop it with a spoon, and then either smooth the edges with a small pallet knife or shape them with a fork (which is what I did). Carefully position the upper half of the circle (i.e. the cake lid) onto its creamed-up lower half. Refrigerate the Paris-Brest until ready to serve. Liberally sprinkle icing sugar before taking to the dinner table, and just let your guests do all the swooning for you!

Psssst! Do not throw out those left-over egg whites! Whip them into Macaroons, a sweet teatime companion.

21 May 2015

The Artichoke Season - Easy Peasy Kitchen Squeezy!

I have a thing or two for artichokes. They have always fascinated me, as early as my childhood days when I first got acquainted to them through my mum. It is a multi-layered fascination, starting off with their somewhat grandiloquent appellation itself that sounds like 'a choking Archibald' - a mouthful of a word that is more than we can chew, since in all honesty there isn't that much to eat out of an artichoke. You'll have to excuse it but it is a delicacy, and the description befits how it should be treated, daintily like asparagus or wild girolles. Thus if famished you are, and stodge you need, and starch you seek, better make a beeline for a pound of spuds than a heap of 'chokes!

Let's get our facts right. Artichokes are no vegetables. They are in fact an edible budding inflorescence (flower buds). In effect, what we eat is no leaves but petals, plus the base. And this is how far consumption goes, because natural wastage is to be expected from the 'choke.

Artichokes belong to the cardoon family, which incorporates their remote cousin the thistle. They originated in the Mediterranean regions and became domesticated in ancient times, and by the Middle Ages were known to grace gardens across Europe, alongside angelica, chard, boragio, herbs, cress, cabbage, parsnip, turnip, juniper, oats, beans et al - and not a single potato in sight back then! And grace is the word because artichokes add great decorative value to a garden, and I have even seen stalks of them used as part of sculptural floral displays in hotel lobbies and exhibition halls, to great effect!

I love the way artichokes perplex those who are not familiar with them. Yet perplexity shouldn't deter you from experimenting in the kitchen with this great ingredient. As a basic rule, you should go for one big artichoke (or two smaller ones) per person. The sauce that accompanies the artichokes and the temptation of bread to mop it - with fresh baguette slices a must - will sate you. As a personal preference, I find the smaller artichokes easier to deal with in terms of cooking time, taste and tenderness, than the globe artichokes. All the ones pictured here are of the purple medium-sized "Violet de Provence" variety (from my parents' Corsican garden and elsewhere in Corsica).

Artichokes Served with a Mild Mustard Sauce

Artichokes are not fiddly. If you still feel daunted, just follow my easy step-by-step recipe for a basic boiled artichoke served with a no-frills mild mustard sauce.

Bring a large kettleful of water to the boil. Meanwhile shorten the artichoke stalks with a kitchen knife, if necessary (to no shorter than an inch from the base). Rinse off the artichokes, place them in a big saucepan where they will be able to 'swim' about (as per above picture), and add a splosh of cider vinegar to kill off any bug or slug that might linger, and to prevent discolouration from the cooking process. Pour boiling water all over the artichokes. Put on the stove and return to the boil. When the water starts bubbling away, turn down to medium heat and cover the pan. Leave to a soft boil for approx. 20 mins (globe artichokes will take a good 5 mins longer). The best way to find out if the artichokes are cooked is to stick a small peeling knife into the length of the stalk. If the stalk is still hard, leave to cook a few more minutes. Drain the pan and serve the artichokes. Keep additional artichokes in the pan with the lid on until ready to be eaten.

Serve with a ramekin of Mild Mustard Sauce, only two ingredients: pure virgin olive oil and mild mustard! Add as much virgin olive oil as mild mustard to ramekins (one per person) and stir with a teaspoon (or small whisk) until both mustard and oil have creamed into an emulsion. If using stronger mustard, move to a 3 to 1 ratio.

How to Eat: Discard the outer leaves at the base of the stem which naturally tend to remain hard. Then detach one leaf at a time, plunge its fleshy root tip (pulp) into the sauce and insert halfway between the front upper and lower teeth. Then gently close the teeth onto the leaf and pull it off gently, scraping the artichoke matter off the leaf. Discard the rest of the leaf. As you work your way through the artichoke, things will get easier, as the leaves get thinner and melt in the mouth. This is where they are at their tastiest! You can end up actually eating most of the leaves as you get closer to the heart.

When you are left with the peduncle (stem and flower base), scrape off any of the downy matter if any (prevalent in globe artichokes mostly). Roughly slice the peduncle and toss in the sauce. Enjoy the tasty finale!

7 May 2015

Stylelessness is Lawlessness

Take the properties that make it to The Style Files: they have oodles of charm and character and are tastefully appointed. In fact, in my latest comment on their website in relation to the lovely guest house on the Greek island of Lesvos (pictured below), I simply summed it up as: "The period features have been retained and there is just the right amount of modernity added to the interior to create that fine balance between ancient and contemporary." Balance is key - and so is respect to the fabric and soul of the property.

As featured on The Style Files

The kerb appeal is a preview, an anticipation, an invitation of what awaits inside, in a kind of "as above so below" formula (the interior being a transposition of the exterior), and in the case of our Greek abode, there was no disappointment to be had. The quirkiness is there in terms of what gives the house its unpolished charm. The period feature details that confer the property both its ethnic (i.e. mediterranean at large, and more specifically 'Greekness') and rural origins: whitewashed walls, blue shutters, paved terrace, working fireplace, wooden floors and ceilings, etc. We imagine nooks and crannies, niches and other little tidbits of charm to discover for ourselves.

As featured on The Style Files
These old places are little gems of style and inspiration. That is because they have been compassionately and painstakingly restored, and carefully brought to the 21st century while retaining their old charm and character - thanks to their owner's common sense, good taste and vision, facilitated by a competent architect and/ or interior designer, and materialised by builders in the know and skilled craftsmen. This might end up being a costly endeavour, yet not necessarily so. I have seen some stunning restoration projects conducted on a tight budget, but on a limitless amount of passion, belief, research, patience, personal investment of time and effort, and caring.

Sadly I have also witnessed the exact opposite: the utter wrecking of style and character of an older property, either on a tight budget or on a generous amount of cash! I could not resist posting some photos that speak the horrid results better than words could. Here we go: -

Case Study - Apartment for sale in Bastia (Corsica): Judging from the kerb appeal, we anticipate the interior to be just as quaint and provincial and Italianate as the outside... Well, better prepare you for the shock!

Montmartre in the sun, looks poetic and promising! (pict source)
Oh joy, it's a nightmare! (pict source)
Ermm... A 2015 revisit of a 70s canary birdcage (pict source)
Bland and cheap and non-descript pop to mind like a squirt of mustard to a hotdog. I can only commiserate the tomettes that would have clad that floor, or the ornate walls, and maybe cornices and millwork that would have asserted the interior its bourgeois status. The current interior is as exciting as a cheap roadside motel. I just want to rip this canvas up and start again! Don't you?

I blame those fly-on-the-wall TV property programmes that strongly encourage homeowners to 'depersonalise' their interiors as a lifestyle must, or in a view to selling their property fast. By depersonalising, they mean remove (or at the very least reconfigure and blend in) any striking structural or period features from their abode, dumb down style so that it appeals to the widest array of people.

House in Doli (Mani, Greece), via My Paradissi

Secondly I blame those home improvement retail stores, as they channel mainstream products, associated to mainstream ideas and results, to a mainstream customer-base that along the years have levelled down their personal tastes to align with and match what the market offers. The convenience of those stores has taken natural curiosity away and made practicality the end-all and be-all. You end up with those mass-produced standardised fixtures repeated across towns... and countries, like a bad case of fleas. Convenience also means that there is a tendency for buying ready-made rather than make it yourself or have it made to spec and customised.

Finally I blame those cowboy builders, who take on property renovation work that goes way beyond their scope and skillset, just for the paycheck. They deliver a botched job that includes the intentional wreckage of period features - because they were incapable or unwilling to salvage them - and replacement with poor substitutes from the above-mentioned retail outlets. It's all about shoddiness and expediency and maxed out profit. Sadly I've had to deal with this sort of situation.

Exquisite! The Royal Makkum Collection from Country Floors

As a consequence of the above three factors, we get impoverishment in taste, and that leads to stylelessness. And stylenessness is the ripping up of style and the ripping off of our cultural and architectural legacy. Where we should be able to be the depositary of heritage and carry it into the future, preserved and enhanced, we witness swathes of heritage being disfigured and wrecked, and replaced by a mock-modernism of 'style' that is nothing less than styleless.

Further (visual) food for thought: How to Make an Attractive City by Swiss writer and philosopher Alain de Botton.

08-Sept-2016 Update: Since 2006 the Carbuncle Cup has been awarding prizes to the UK's latest architectural horrors to date. For a crunchy taster, check out Carbuncle Cup 2015 and 2016 !

1 May 2015

The Human Paradox

The 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp a couple of days ago, 29th April, has brought back to the fore a thought that is never afar the fore for me: the duality paradox that inhabits Man, a Yin & Yang of frightening capabilities.

Life & Death, Love & Hate, Wealth & Scarcity, Creation & Destruction, Success & Failure, Order & Chaos, Heaven & Hell. The human capability for improving social welfare, saving lives from disease, nourrishing souls, inspiring minds, elevating spirits, and soothing hearts -- overshadowed by the human capability for their exact opposite, turning the earth into a purgatory. Man is Man's own best (worst?) friend and worst (best?) enemy. It wouldn't be far-fetched to report that: -

The greatest danger and fear on earth to Man is Man.

"Arbeit Macht Frei" (Labour Brings Freedom) at the gates of Dachau (also Auschwitz).