Wednesday, June 5, 2013


 Photos by Steve Shanahan

 First published Canberra Times 5 June 2013.

The original classic eclair has outlasted many boutique food trends. Yet, this unassuming pastry has never shoed it in to first place, playing second fiddle to the more sexy macaron, friand or tartelette.  That is, until now.  With eclairs sporting their luminous fondant coats and bold flavoured fillings they are enjoying the front row window of many boutique patisseries in Paris.

Fauchon, the Parisian specialty food store located at place de la Madeleine, parades eclairs as a changing and whimsical background to display their creations. Don’t be surprised to see the doleful eyes of Mona Lisa following you from her sweet pastry canvas.

Another couple of notable Paris patisseries, L’Éclair de Génie and L’Atelier de l’Éclair have both added savoury eclairs to their repertoire. If you plan to partake, be prepared to wait your turn for the privilege, as the locals have taken a liking to these and there is a regular line up of hungry customers on any given day.

The traditional eclair, and incidentally my favourite from my 1960s school tuckshop, is a simple affair. The case is made with choux pastry dough, piped from a pastry bag in a log shape, and baked until it is crisp and hollow inside. It is either filled by piping the filling in or split lengthwise and filled. The classic filling is a vanilla pastry cream and usually topped with a chocolate or coffee glaze or icing.

If you want to be adventurous, I have included some creative fillings for you to begin with. My choices were, cumquat, lime, strawberry and chocolate. I have also included the basic and traditional pastry cream filling, to add your fruit flavourings to. And just a warning before you start, if you plan to get creative, make sure you give yourself time to play.

For best flavour, allow the finished eclairs to be chilled for an hour or so before serving.
  • Although not traditional, this method of using an electric mixer to incorporate the eggs into the dough saves a lot of effort and produces great results.
  • If you are going to get creative and make the fruit pastes and coloured icing, there are a number of steps in the process. Prepare the fruit paste and chocolate ganache first, then secondly the pastry cream, thirdly, the choux pastry and lastly the coloured fondant icing.
  • Use a large size pastry bag with a size 13, or a 1.5 centimetre piping nozzle to pipe the pastry.
  • The consistency of the classic French pastry cream should be very thick and pudding like.

Recipe makes about a dozen eclairs.

Fruit pastes
You can use whatever fruit you like to extract maximum flavour. I used 6 cumquats, halved; 3 limes, 2 juiced and one chopped up; 1 punnet of strawberries, sliced.
4 tablespoons of sugar to each saucepan of fruit
Add water as needed

Using 3 small saucepans, place fruit and 4 tablespoons of sugar in each.
Add at least 3 tablespoons of water to the cumquats and the limes. The strawberries will need less water as they will produce more juice.

Place each pan on a medium heat with lid on.

Bring to a boil and reduce heat, lifting the lid to stir to ensure the mixture does not burn. Add the water as needed to loosen the mixture. Cook the fruit down until you have a jammy sauce. This will only take three to five minutes.

When cooked, push each paste through a fine sieve to extract a silky fruit gel. This should only produce a small quantity of fruit paste, however it should be enough to flavour the pastry cream. Discard the solids from the sieve.

Cool the individual pastes in the fridge.

Chocolate ganache
125g dark chocolate, broken into pieces
25g butter
125g pure cream

Place the chocolate and butter into a medium sized heatproof bowl.  Heat the cream in a small saucepan and bring to a rolling boil. Pour the scalded cream over the chocolate pieces. Stirring until the chocolate is melted and the cream is incorporated. Cool in the fridge.

Vanilla Pastry Cream
2 cups whole milk
6 jumbo egg yolks
½ cup sugar
1 ½ tsp vanilla paste
1/3 cup cornflour
50g unsalted butter, chopped into small pieces

In a small saucepan bring the milk to a boil. In another saucepan of medium size, whisk the yolks with the sugar and cornflour until thick and well blended.

Without stopping, whisk a third of a cup of the milk into the egg mixture, to loosen the mixture, then still whisking add the remaining milk in a thin and steady stream. Put the pan over a medium heat and with a wooden spoon, stir continuously and vigorously. You will need to make sure you stir into all the edges of the saucepan to stop the thickening custard mixture from sticking. While still stirring, bring the mixture to a boil, still stirring for about one to two minutes. The mixture should be thickened and pudding like. Remove the pan from the heat.

Stir in the vanilla paste and let stand for a few minutes, then stir in the butter, a piece at the time. This will make the pastry cream silky.

Scrape the pastry cream into a bowl and press a piece of plastic wrap directly on top. This will stop a skin from forming and create an airtight seal. Then place another piece of plastic wrap around the top to seal the bowl. Refrigerate to cool.

To flavour the vanilla pastry cream, when cool, divide the pastry cream into smaller portioned bowls and add some of the cooled fruit paste or chocolate ganache to each portion of the pastry cream. Tasting to ensure you have enough to flavour the pastry cream. A rule of thumb is not to incorporate any more than half the ratio of fruit paste to vanilla pastry cream, to ensure the pastry cream remains stable.

Choux pastry
½ cup whole milk
½ cup water
120g unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 tbsp sugar
½ tsp salt
1 cup plain flour
4 jumbo eggs, at room temperature

Place oven racks evenly positioned in the oven. Preheat the oven to 190C and line two baking trays with baking paper. Stick the paper down with a little cooking spray to hold it in place.

Bring the milk, water, butter, sugar and salt to a rolling boil in a medium sized heavy based saucepan over a high heat. Add the flour all in one go, and lower the heat to medium. Start to mix the flour in immediately with a wooden spoon. The dough will come together, and a light crust will form on the bottom of the saucepan. This stage is meant to dry out the pastry. Continue to stir the pastry even though it will be stiff, for another two minutes. The dough should be smooth and pull away from the sides of the saucepan.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and turn the dough into the bowl of an electric mixer with a paddle attachment. Alternatively, if you don’t have a mixer, you can continue the next stage while the pastry remains in the saucepan off the heat. Let the dough sit for a minute to rest, then add the eggs one at the time, mixing between each addition. Beat until the dough is thick and shiny. Make sure that each egg is completely incorporated before you add the next. The dough will fall apart and come together during this process. The dough should be glossy and smooth and ready to use immediately.

Fit a large pastry bag with a size 13 or 1.5 centimetre nozzle. Fill the pastry bag with the dough and pipe out even strips of dough that are about 13 centimetres (5”) in length, and about 4 centimetres apart. This will allow them to spread.  When piping the dough, cut the ends with a sharp knife to keep them even and smooth.

Bake the eclairs for about eight to ten minutes, then rotate the trays for even cooking. Check them for browning. Continue to bake the eclairs for another five minutes (or so), then wedge the handle of a wooden spoon in the oven door so it stays slightly open and bake for another three to five minutes. The total baking time is about fifteen minutes.

Remove the eclairs from the tray to an oven rack to cool.

1 box of ready to roll fondant icing, Orchard brand is readily available at most supermarkets
food colouring

This stage will be the very last before assembly. Place the fondant in a saucepan for stove top heating, or a microwave proof jug for microwave heating, on low heat, only enough to melt just below blood temperature.

Once melted, separate into smaller portions to equal the number of different icing colours you plan to use. I chose, green, orange and pink. Mix in a few drops of food colouring to each portion, adding more to increase the colour intensity required.

The icing should be a runny consistency without being too liquid causing it to run off the top. You may need to reheat the fondant slightly to keep it at the required consistency.

You can either cut the eclairs in half lengthwise with a bread knife, and using a small pastry bag and small nozzle, pipe on some of the flavoured pastry cream. Alternatively you can leave the eclairs whole and make a small hole with the nozzle tip in the base of the eclair and pipe the cream directly into the eclair until it is full.  The latter is my preference.

You will need to use a different pastry bag for each flavoured pastry cream.

Once you have filled the eclairs with your choice of fillings, you will need to top with the matching icing fondant.

Hold the eclair at a ninety-degree angle up over the icing and spoon the icing from the top to allow it to run down the éclair to the other end, letting the excess drop back into the bowl. The icing should settle around the top nicely without dripping off. Continue with the remaining eclairs, finishing one colour up at the time.

For the chocolate ganache eclairs, fill these with a half vanilla pastry cream, half ganache mixture. Top with the softened ganache using the same method as the fondant.

Finish off each éclair with your choice of decoration.

If you were to only make the traditional eclair, fill with the basic vanilla pastry cream, no added flavourings, and finish with the chocolate ganache for the topping.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Crunchy French toast, yoghurt and rhubarb

 Photo by  Steve Shanahan
First published Canberra Times 8 May 2013
If you’re a Mothers day breakfast-in-bed kind of family, then you could be on a winner with Mum with this easy recipe for French Toast. With some clever backstage supervision, the kids should be able to whip this one up with collateral damage such as crumbs in the sheets kept to a minimum.

While writing this, my thoughts turn to my poor Mum who, with admirable stoicism, endured a number of well meant, but horrendous breakfasts on Mothers Day.  My sisters and I, after preparing that special breakfast without Dad’s help, delivered the teetering tray to a smiling Mum, who was sitting up in bed ready and waiting. The breakfast consisted of a large bowl of cold milk, a sparse layer of rice bubbles floating indolently on the top, and lots of sugar laying in wait for the unsuspecting at the bottom. As my older sister handed the tray over, she tripped and Mum ended up with rice bubbles stuck to her eyelashes and swimming in sweet sticky milk.   

Forever scarred, I can no longer look at rice bubbles in the same way, nor any other liquid based breakfast in bed, with the mandatory, steaming hot, early morning cuppa being the total exception. My firmly held view is breakfast in bed should be toasty, fruity, not too sweet, crumbly or drippy. With this rule in mind, this crispy French Toast will work a treat for Mum; it’s low risk and with a little preparation and organisation you can have this cooked, on the brekky tray and on Mum’s lap (with the plate still under it), all within fifteen minutes.

The point of difference in this recipe is the addition of flour to the egg mixture. This increases the crispiness factor, which is perfect if you are using slices of a good sourdough or brioche loaf, as it allows the flavour of the bread to shine through.  Using day old bread also means the French toast is less likely to fall apart after soaking in the egg mixture.

I am partial to the topping of roasted rhubarb, as it’s still quite tart, without the sugar overload that’s best avoided at breakfast. Roast the rhubarb the day or evening before and leave in the fridge overnight to use the following morning. 

The leftover rhubarb can be kept in the fridge for a week and used to top porridge, muesli, ice cream or just about anything really. Top the whole dish off with a big dollop of creamy Greek yoghurt, and even some good honey to taste if you wish.

Finally, a Mums Day tip for kids and Dads; the breakfast in bed experience doesn’t finish with the breakfast on the tray. Think ahead and clean up the dirty dishes as you go. Mum will be pleasantly surprised to see that not only have you served up a delicious, gourmet brekky, but you’ve managed to leave a tidy kitchen as well.

Mum, after all that, if you still aren’t a fan of brekky in bed, well, you could always drop some heavy hints for next year. A beauty treatment or massage voucher sans crumbs, sounds awfully good to me.

Crunchy French toast

¼ cup plain flour
1 cup milk
pinch of salt
 3 eggs
½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla paste
1 tbsp sugar
6 thick slices of good quality day old bread such as sourdough or brioche

Measure the flour into a wide topped and shallow mixing bowl. Slowly whisk in the milk. Whisk in the salt, eggs, cinnamon, vanilla paste and sugar until smooth.

Heat a lightly buttered frying pan over medium heat.

Soak bread slices one by one in the egg mixture until saturated. Cook bread on each side until nicely golden brown.

If you want to keep the French toast warm while you are cooking the remainder of the slices, heat the oven on very low, and place the cooked French toast in the oven on an oven tray to keep warm.

When all the slices have been cooked, serve each slice with a large spoon of roasted rhubarb and a big dollop of creamy yoghurt.

If you wish, top with a drizzle of good quality honey.
Roasted rhubarb

2 cups of chopped rhubarb stalks, or 1 bunch of chopped stalks
¼ cup of honey
2 tbsp fresh orange juice
1 tsp orange zest
Preheat the oven to 180C and lightly grease a shallow baking dish.  Place the chopped rhubarb in the dish.

In a small jug, whisk together the honey, orange juice and orange zest. Pour the honey mixture over the rhubarb and mix until well coated.

Place the rhubarb into the preheated oven and bake until soft and tender, about fifteen to twenty minutes. When it is cooled to room temperature, place the rhubarb in the fridge until ready to use.

Porridge - Millet and spiced apple with chestnut cream and almonds

 Photo by Steve Shanahan

First published Canberra Times 8 May 2013. 

 It may seem a little weird, but the new food trend that’s burning through the twitter-sphere at lightning pace is porridge. This surprising trend not only includes your ordinary old Quaker’s Oats, but ancient grains of all descriptions, cooked in every which way. 

It just so happens that I was born with a porridge spoon in my hand, so I’m completely comfortable with this, but some of you, perhaps those who went to boarding school, may have an aversion to this sticky, goopy substance. And that’s okay, because in the new porridge world, there’s something for everyone. 
As a spinoff, trendy porridge restaurants are popping up in many cities with many variations on a theme, and food vans are hawking their grains to cold, grateful punters hungrily demanding steaming bowls of congee, jook and porridge. 

Café Grød, (Grød is Danish for, you guessed it, porridge) is a hip new establishment that has opened in a trendy suburb of Copenhagen. Grød is leading the way with its informal atmosphere and all-things-porridge menu. The Danes are lapping up this cheap, organic, peasant fare, and in true Goldilocks style, porridge aficionados are rolling in for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The specialty at Grød is spelt porridge with apple and toasted almonds topped with a chestnut puree.  

Open your mind to porridge and you’ll be rewarded by a huge range of grainy possibilities to inspire your creative juices, from buckwheat, rice, semolina, millet, barley, quinoa, oats, spelt, to the lesser known teff, amaranth, tapioca and all kinds of ground legumes.  Add any number of things including milk, cream, butter, water, stock, meat, coconut milk, fruit, nuts, spices, fish, sugar, honey or syrup to construct your own gourmet style creations.  

Inspired by the seasonal creamy, fresh chestnuts appearing at this time of year and with a nod to Grød, I whipped up a millet and apple porridge with chestnut cream and almonds ready to reheat for a chilly weekday morning. Pre-made jars of chestnut puree are available from delis or the Essential Ingredient for about $14, otherwise make your own. It’s a bit fiddly but not difficult.

½ cup uncooked millet
1⅓ cups water
1 granny smith apple, peeled, cored and diced
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
pinch clove
maple syrup, to taste
4 tbsp toasted almonds
¼ cup chestnut puree
¼ cup pouring cream

Combine millet, water, apple and spices together in a sauce pan. Stir and bring to a boil and cover and reduce down to a simmer. Let cook for fifteen to twenty minutes until millet and apple is cooked and tender. Stir and check occasionally while cooking, adding extra water as needed if the mixture is too thick. When almost done, add a drizzle of maple syrup and taste. Start on the low end (a teaspoon or two) and continue until you’ve reached a desired sweetness.
Place the cream and chestnut puree in a small jug and mix together. Warm in the microwave.
Remove from the heat and serve with a large dollop of the warmed chestnut cream and slivers of toasted almonds.