Fifteen of us showed up on a Saturday morning to learn to make caramel apple tarte tatin, eclairs and madeleines, and it was so much fun. Out of the five people in my group I had the most experience baking so the others would often want me to do something first (like folding in an ingredient). I wasn't expecting that.
Overall, it was very similar to how I cook in my own kitchen--jumping from project to project, filling inactive prep times and cook times with the next project. We started with the tarte tatin filling, then rolled out the puff pastry and cut a 9" circle from it using a cake pan; the pastry was laid over the filling (still in the skillet) and baked in the oven. When it was done, the instructor put a plate on top of the puff pastry, drained off some of the caramel so as not to burn herself, then inverted it (turning it away from her) and removed the skillet. It really was lovely.
While the tarte tatin cooked, we moved on and made the pâte à choux for the eclairs. Now this was something that's been on my list of challenges to tackle since the beginning, so I'm glad I got to do it. It was really easy, as I've read over and over, but what I hadn't read was that the raw dough tastes awful. Really, it tastes like paste. Not at all pleasant. But once it cooks up it's beautiful, the perfect shell for pastry cream. We didn't get to make the pastry cream, which was disappointing, but it was only a 2-hour workshop so I get it. The instructor quickly sliced the side of each eclair so it opened like a hot dog bun and we used a pastry bag to pipe in the cream, then closed the eclair and dipped it in a mixture of melted milk chocolate and cream. When I got home I put my eclairs in the freezer for a bit, as I like them just short of frozen.
I've never actually cared for madeleines. The only ones I've ever had were the ones from Starbucks and they're very spongy and a little on the flavorless side. So while I wasn't at all looking forward to eating these, but I was excited to make them since genoise is also on my to-make list. Imagine my surprise when I tried the finished cookie and absolutely loved it. A mini madeleine pan is now on my Amazon wish list. One of the cool things the instructor had us do was sprinkle sugar on top of the butter we used to grease the madeleine pan. It made the finished cookie a bit sweeter and helped them come out of the tin more easily.
As fun as this experience was, it was also surprising. I was surprised to realize that I actually have quite a bit of food science knowledge, more than I initially thought I did. When the instructor was talking about why we do the steps in a certain order I found myself not only knowing it, but also knowing why. (And I was the only person who knew that vanilla comes from orchids, so that was kind of cool.)
This class gave me more confidence in my personal cooking and knowledge. Since I started cooking and baking more, my goal has been more of a learning goal (knowing the food science behind the cooking and baking) rather than an achievement goal (physically making a specific cake), and after this weekend I finally feel like I'm retaining a lot of what I've been trying to teach myself over the last 8 weeks. I'm already looking forward to my 2-day Fearless Baker workshop next weekend, where we'll be making several things from Emily Luchetti's Fearless Baker. On the menu: Chocolate Orange Crinkle Cookies, Lemon Crème Brulee, Chocolate Biscotti, Brioche Rolls, Cherry Clafouti, Chocolate-Peanut Butter Mousse Cake, Lemon Pound Cake and Chocolate Hazelnut Torte. Wish me luck!
Things I learned from this experience:
- When making eclairs (or cream puffs, or anything else made from pâte à choux) you don't want any points, meaning that when you pipe out the dough and pull away the bag, if the dough comes to a point just dip the tip of your finger in cold water and pat it down. Apparently if you leave a point it will burn.
- In order to dry out the pâte à choux dough you bake it at a higher temperature (350 or 375 degrees F) to allow it to puff up, then turn down the oven to 100 or 150 degrees F to let the wet batter inside dry out.
- If a puff collapses it means the inside didn't dry out.
- After greasing a madeleine tin with butter give it a heavy sprinkle of granulated sugar (and invert it to get out the excess) to more easily remove the cookies after they are baked. It also makes them a bit sweeter.
- Almond (meal) and lemon (zest) are the traditional flavors in a madeleine.