Thursday, November 02, 2006

Jour Français!

french day puffs
A few weeks ago, we had a very big day in my baking and pastry class - we did three fundamental French techniques all on the same day, Puff Pastry, Pâte à Choux, and Crêpes. It was a lot to absorb in one class, and a lot of fun.

One thing I hadn't thought much about before - the French don't use chemical leaveners, such as baking powder, like we do (ever heard of a French biscuit?) The lift in these recipes comes from mechanical leaveners, primarily steam. We used a LOT of butter in these recipes - as evidenced by the huge hunk Greg is unwrapping in this photo:
french day greg butter
We started with the puff pastry, using the "blitz" method, where you freeze small chunks of butter, then blend it into the dough. The dough is then rolled, turned and folded just like the "butter block" method, but fewer times. This photo shows Chef Foran demonstrating the proper way to fold and roll out the dough:
french day puff demo
The steam trapped in the dough makes it rise, created by the little bits of butter melting in the flour. It's essential that the dough remain cold and relatively stiff the entire time you are working with it, or else the butter will be incorporated into the dough.

It is a bit of work, but this recipe makes quite a lot and freezes well. It also bakes very quickly once it's thawed and shaped. It would be nice to have some on hand for making appetizers and desserts, like cheese straws, tarts or pot pies - especially during the holidays and winter months. Unfortunately, you will need a scale to make this recipe, because I don't have the volume conversions available. I did find this alternate though, on the Taunton's Fine Cooking website, which I would trust as a reliable source.

"Blitz Method" Puff Pastry
3.5 oz butter, melted
8 oz water, room temperature
1/2 oz salt
17.5 oz All purpose flour

10 3/4 oz butter, chopped into 1/2 inch cubes and frozen

Place salt and flour together in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix briefly just to blend. With the mixer running on low speed, gradually add the frozen butter chunks and blend just until incorporated. The dough will look very shaggy and rough at this point. Add the melted butter and water and mix just enough to bring the dough together.

Turn the dough out onto parchment paper, and shape into an 8" by 10" rectangle.
Chill the rectangle in the freezer for one hour.

Remove and allow to thaw just until the dough can be rolled, about 15-20 minutes.
On a smooth floured surface, roll out to 10"x20" and fold three times - bringing each short side toward the center (one and two), and folding the whole thing down the middle (three). Turn the dough sideways, and roll out again to 10x20, then fold again going the other direction. Mark the dough with two lines, wrap well with plastic, and chill for one hour in the refrigerator.

Roll the dough out, and do two more folds, each time folding the short sides in, and rolling the dough in the long direction. (For these last two folds, you can also fold the dough like a business letter in an envelope - bringing one short side up and the other one down and over.) If you plan to freeze the dough before using it, freeze it just after the last fold, without rolling it out. Always tightly wrap the dough in plastic before chilling or freezing.

When you are ready to use it, let the dough thaw at room temperature just until it can be rolled, and roll into an even rectangle about 1/4 inch thick. Allow the dough to rest for about five minutes, to prevent shrinkage after cutting.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. To shape, cut the puff pastry with a very sharp knife. Flipping the cut pieces over will help it rise a little higher, because the knife going through the top layers of pastry compresses them slightly. We cut the sheets into long rectangles and did pear tarts, with thinly sliced pears and almond frangipane. We used egg wash to glue thin strips of pastry to the sides as a crust, and trimmed off the rough ends after it was baked. (those were the best part!) If you have leftover scraps of dough, you can roll them in sugar and cinnamon, twist them in opposite directions (like making a snake with dough) and bake them like cookies.

Bake the pastry on a baking sheet for about 15-20 minutes, until it is uniformly brown and crisp.

While our puff dough was chilling, we set to work on our Pâte à Choux - which translates to "cabbage paste." This recipe isn't terribly complicated, but has to be done right (like most techniques in baking) or you can end up with a gluey mess. It's unusual in that it is first cooked on the stove and then transferred to a standing mixer for the addition of the eggs.

We piped our Pâte à Choux into little mounds (which can be tricky, because the dough is sticky) and baked them off - then filled them with mocha whipped cream and glazed them with chocolate. Pâte à Choux can also be deep-fried to make Beignets. I can see these for an indulgent breakfast during the holidays - with some good strong coffee or hot chocolate.

Pâte à Choux
16 oz water
8 oz butter
1 tsp salt
12 oz bread flour
1 pound 2 oz of eggs (roughly 1 dozen eggs - but weigh them. If you find that you are over, remove some of the egg white - not yolk)

Place the water and butter in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the salt and bread flour all at once, and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until it forms a ball.

Scrape the dough into a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat for about 1 minute to allow to cool slightly (so it won't cook the eggs!)

Start adding the eggs, two at a time, allowing them to incorporate each time. It will separate and look like a slippery mess each time the eggs are added, and then come back together. At the end it should be very smooth and shiny.

Load the batter into a pastry bag fitted with a large round tip, about 1/3 inch across.
french day piping
To make cream puffs, pipe into small mounds, using a sideways flick on the tops so they don't look peaked (like these!) The dough is sticky though, and this can be hard to do. You can just smooth them out with your finger or a spoon. This is a good chance to practice your piping skills.

Bake at 400 degrees in a conventional oven (350 in a convection oven) for about twelve minutes, until they puff and start to brown. When they look done, open the oven a crack and put a wooden spoon in to vent. Turn the oven down 25 degrees, and bake about 5 minutes more. Take one out and break it open to test - it should be fairly dry and hollow - a bit of moisture is ok, but if there are strands of wet dough, bake an additional few minutes. They may look done on the outside, but if they are taken out too soon they will collapse as they cool and turn soggy.

Cool these in the pans on a rack. Once cool, they can be split and filled with chicken salad or similar for an appetizer, or filled with a pastry bag with whipped cream or pastry cream and coated with chocolate glaze. They should be used soon after baking or frozen.

Last but not least, we made crêpes. Chef Foran told us that he usually just whips up this batter in a blender at home. We did it in a standing mixer with the whip attachment. Either way, they were surprisingly easy and it was fun to spread the batter and flip them. We couldn't stop eating them right out of the pan. For a savory crêpe, I assume you can just omit the sugar and vanilla, or there are multiple crêpe recipes out there on the internet.
french day crepes
Sweet Crêpes
12 oz milk
4 oz cream
2 oz sugar
4.5 oz All Purpose flour
3 eggs
pinch salt
1 tsp vanilla

Whisk eggs with sugar, flour and salt. Whisk in milk and cream.

Heat a 8 inch skillet or crêpe pan over medium heat. Spray with vegetable oil. Using a small ladle, scoop about 1/4 cup of batter and ladle into the pan, swirling the pan to spread the batter to the edges. When the edges start to come away, and the batter starts to dry slightly - pick up the edge of the crêpe nearest to you with your fingertips and peel it backwards up off the pan, turn it over and and flip it to the other side. (Think about how you would flip over a small rug.) It's a little tricky the first couple of times, but the edges really aren't that hot, so you can play around with it a bit. You can also use a small spatula to straighten it out if you drop it in the wrong place. The trickiest part is getting the heat right, so they brown properly but don't burn. Fold the crêpes and stack them until ready to serve. This a sweet recipe, so these would be best with fruit, a flavored butter or chocolate.

P.S. - I have also sent away for some canele molds - and a set of brioche molds (from France, naturellement!) so with any luck, there will be lots of French days in our future! (and lots of trips to the gym - but I won't be writing about those!)

À bientôt!!


  1. Looks superb. Thanks for a detailed post on those delicious treats. I love them all! ;-) Including canelés! Btw, not sure whether you have a Sur la Table where you live, but they sell the canelés molds (although I bought mine in France before).

  2. Is Greg single? He IS a hunk! :) Puff pastry has been on my list of things to try for a while now - thanks for the recipe and motivation!

  3. Bea - that's funny about the canele molds - I went to Sur la Table's website first, and I didn't see them (though I might have spelled it wrong!) There's only one store here in San Diego, and it's on the other side of town, so I decided to just order them.

    And Amy - sorry, Greg is indeed taken. His wife sounds very cool too - she even likes the same antique shop I've been going to for years!

  4. Please post a picture of yourself in one of those puffy white hats and fancy apron! ;-)


  5. Excellent looking class. Very inspiring.

  6. tracy - I will be sure to wear the outfit next time you come for brunch, we'll have crepes!

    Lucy - Thanks for stopping by - I love your blog!

  7. Alice, are you taking baking and pastry classes at the Grossmont Community College? The logo on the coats of the students in the picture is a bit hazy.

    I used to go there and loved it. The instructors were so practical and trained the students for working in restaurants. They helped me a lot in learning the techniques and then improvising on the recipes.

    There was this one chef who taught the Advanced baking class who was quite fetching. He handed out entire dessert menus for scrutiny and production.

  8. Alice, are you taking baking and pastry classes at the Grossmont Community College? The logo on the coats of the students in the picture is a bit hazy.

    I used to go there and loved it. The instructors were so practical and trained the students for working in restaurants. They helped me a lot in learning the techniques and then improvising on the recipes.

    There was this one chef who taught the Advanced baking class who was quite fetching. He handed out entire dessert menus for scrutiny and production.

  9. Looks like it was great fun, and the pastries look superb! We did the same set of recipes in my pastry class last spring, and I was amazed at the crepes. Did you do Crepes Suzette? I'd always heard the name but never tried it, and flaming the sauce was quite a spectacle, particularly when I did it on my electric oven at home!

  10. Very cool stuff! I would love to take a class like that, but can't find anything of the sort offered in my area. Until then, I'll probably be purchasing my puff pastry, though a might try the pate a choux. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Wow, cream puffs, crepes, Orange Pecan French Toast, cinnamon rolls--I want to come to your house for breakfast! Looks fabulous!

  12. Remember those basics! You'll can use all of those fundamentals in all sorts of baking. None of them are too easy right away, but they're all worth practicing.

    Interestingly enough, the puff pastry you made is called 'American Puff Pastry' by the French. I guess it's because we make pie dough in a similar manner.

    If you post a puffy hat pic, I'll post one of mine from school! :)