How to Make Pâte à Choux

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I can hardly believe that Thanksgiving is next week! The fall season has been a whirlwind for our family. Matthew and I recently returned from a fantastic 10 day trip to France and Belgium. We struck a nice balance of relaxation and fun sightseeing activities. Highlights included a chocolate and beer tour in Brussels and tickets to the ballet at the Paris Opera! It seemed as though our vacation was over before we knew it, and then it was back to reality. That reality meant adjusting back to our time zone, recovering from a cold for Matthew, and both of us attending conferences out of state. Whew. It feels like we’re finally settled now!

Speaking of fall…I couldn’t be more excited that today marks our fall baking competition at work! I love brainstorming ideas and testing out new recipes. However, there is also a certain amount of pressure involved in a baking competition. I decided to think a little outside of the box with my dessert entry this year. Instead of going with the typical fall flavors of pumpkin or apples, I decided to try a LEMON dessert! I love lemon because it’s so light and refreshing.

So let’s talk about this lemon-inspired dessert. I decided to make miniature cream puffs and fill them with a mixture of lemon curd and whipped cream. I garnished them with lemon glaze and candied lemon. Cream puffs are made from a light pastry dough called pâte à choux. This dough is quite simple and contains only butter, water, flour, and eggs. There is no leavening agent, and instead the high moisture content creates steam during the baking process to puff the pastry. I really like this dough because it’s simple and you can fill it up with anything your heart desires. Since these buns are so versatile, I’m simply sharing the recipe for the choux pastry. After that, let your imagination guide the way!

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How to Make Pâte à Choux
The Pastry Cookbook by Michel Roux

Ingredients
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup water
8 tablespoons butter, diced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 medium eggs
Egg-wash (1 medium egg yolk mixed with 1 tablespoon milk)

Directions
Combine the milk, water, butter, salt, and sugar in a pan and set over low heat. Bring to a boil and immediately take the pan off the heat. Shower in the flour and mix with a wooden spoon until completely smooth. Return the pan to medium heat and stir continuously for about 1 minute to dry out the paste, and then tip it into a bowl. Add the eggs one at a time, beating with the wooden spoon. Once the eggs are all incorporated, the paste should be smooth and shiny with a thick ribbon consistency. It is now ready to use.

Place a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. For small choux buns, put the paste into a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2 inch tip. Pipe small mounds in staggered rows onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or directly onto a greased baking sheet. Brush the choux with egg-wash and lightly mark the tops with the back of a fork. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until the outside of the buns is dry and crisp but the inside is still soft. Cool on a wire rack.

Once buns are cooled use a pastry bag to fill the choux buns with your filling of choice. Feel free to be creative. Pudding, custard, whipped cream, and jam are all viable option depending on the flavor you want to achieve. If you’d like a chocolate topping, melt chocolate over a double boiler and dip buns in the chocolate to coat. Remove to a wire rack to cool.

Heather’s Helpful Hints
Cool the dough slightly before adding the eggs. If you add the eggs right away, the hot dough will cook them, thereby preventing the eggs from doing their puff job. Some bakers cool the dough in the pan off the heat, while others transfer the dough to a stand mixer and beat it on low speed for a minute or two to cool off.

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Homemade Pop Tarts

As a Minnesota girl at heart, the heat and humidity of summer can feel a bit oppressive at times. I’m usually okay up to about 80 degrees, but anything beyond that is just… hot. Add in some humidity and I’m far from a happy camper. The heat and humidity have both settled on Ann Arbor recently, and it leaves me dreaming of mild autumn days. That being said, the hot days of summer do bring some things that I love. Matt and I recently went camping which was great, and who doesn’t love s’mores cooked over a campfire?! We also went on a kayaking adventure, which (minus one tip over) was a fun time. The passing of the summer solstice also reminded me that summer never lasts forever. The change is ever so slight, but I can already tell it’s a little less light when I wake up for my early morning workouts.

But enough about the passing of the seasons. Let’s talk about revamping a classic breakfast “dessert” many of us love. When I was growing up, I never ate Pop Tarts for breakfast or even as a snack. It wasn’t until later in life that I tried one and I was far from impressed. This homemade version elevates Pop Tarts from a simple “meh” to a definite “wow” factor. While you can’t stick these in a traditional toaster, you could pop them in a toaster oven. However, I think you’ll find they are just as delicious at room temperature. I made these to bring to a brunch and I found myself wishing that I had some left over to snack on when we got back home!

Homemade Pop Tarts
Original Recipe from Smitten Kitchen 

Pastry Ingredients 
2 cups (8 1/2 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks or 8 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into pats
1 large egg
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) milk

Cinnamon Filling Ingredients
1/2 cup (3 3/4 ounces) brown sugar
1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, to taste
4 teaspoons all-purpose flour
1 large egg, to brush on pastry before filling

Directions
For step-by-step directions along with beautiful pictures, check out the original recipe at Smitten Kitchen. You will also find some suggestions for alternative fillings such as chocolate and jam.

Heather’s Helpful Hints 
There is a fine art to rolling out pastry dough that only comes with practice. I’m still learning as I go along but have found two things that always help with the process. First, always work with well-chilled pastry; otherwise, the dough will stick to the counter and tear. Second, never roll out dough by rolling back and forth over the same section. Each time you press on the same spot, more gluten develops that can toughen the dough.

Miniature Pecan Tarts

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Super Bowl 50 is right around the corner! Regardless of whether you’re a Panthers or Broncos fan, there’s a good chance you’ll be watching the big game. Although I love football and am a diehard Vikings fan, I usually feel pretty “meh” about the Super Bowl. To be honest, I get more excited about the food, commercials, and halftime show then the actual game. After I heard Beyonce was returning to the halftime show this year, it honestly didn’t matter who was playing in the actual game. Matthew was equally excited that Bruno Mars would be returning as well.

Halftime shenanigans aside, navigating the snacks at your Super Bowl party can feel like somewhat of a minefield for those of us with healthy eating New Year’s resolutions. In an attempt to lighten up one of my favorite desserts, I decided to miniaturize a pecan pie recipe. I stumbled upon some pre-shaped miniature phyllo shells at the grocery store and used this as a base for my pecan pie filling. The hardest part is stopping at just one of these little delicacies. If you’re looking for a healthier option for munching on Super Bowl Sunday, be sure to give these a try!

Miniature Pecan Tarts
Adapted from Athens Foods

Servings: 15 • Serving Size: 1 mini tart • Calories: 68 • Fat: 4.5 g • Carb: 6.5 g • Fiber: 0.3 g • Protein: 1 g • Sugar: 4 g • Sodium: 23 mg

Ingredients
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1 large egg
4 teaspoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons agave nectar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup pecans chopped
15 Mini Phyllo Shells

Directions
Preheat oven to 350°F and place rack in center of the oven.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine all ingredients except pecans. Mix well. Stir in chopped pecans. Arrange mini shells on a baking sheet. Fill mini shells with one rounded teaspoon of pecan mixture.

Bake for 10-15 minutes. Let them cool before serving.

Heather’s Helpful Hints
These miniature tarts are so easy to make, you might find yourself with some extra time on your hands in the kitchen. Homemade whipped cream is the perfect topping for this dessert. While the tarts are cooling, whip up a batch and add a dollop to the top before serving!

Tarte Tatin

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Tarte Tatin is the French name for a famous dessert invented years ago by the Tatin sisters, in their restaurant at Lamotte-Beuvron on the Loire River. It consists of caramelized sliced apples oven-baked in a skillet with the pastry on top. When done, it is turned upside-down so the crust is on the bottom and the apple slices – wonderfully brown, buttery, and glazed with caramel—remain in a design on top. The amazing thing about Tarte Tatin is how the caramelized apples are somehow transformed into something entirely new while still retaining their distinct apple taste. It’s one of the easiest desserts I’ve attempted it make, but also the most challenging. It’s easy because it’s baked upside down, which means there is no need for special decorations or even beautiful rolling of the dough. The real challenge is finding the right balance when caramelizing the apples. Julia Child captures the essence of the dessert in this quote.

“To be sure, a Tarte Tatin should be brown and sweet, but it needs to be more. The apples need to be cooked in sugar and butter long enough that they are not only coated in buttery caramel but also permeated with sweetness. Like what happens in jam-making, where some of the water in the fruit is replaced by sugar.”

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Perhaps the most special part of this post is the pan that I used to cook the tart. On a trip to Paris last fall, my parents visited E. Dehellerin. Tucked away on rue Coquillière not too far from the Louvre, this store has been selling cookware for professionals and serious home chefs since 1820. According to my parents, it’s a store that definitely favors function over form, boasting aisles packed with pots and pans reaching as high as the ceiling. Julia Child was a regular here purchasing kitchenware while she attended school at Le Cordon Bleu. Knowing that E. Dehellerin is famous for their copper, my dad purchased a Tarte Tatin pan which was made specifically for this recipe. I was pleased to learn that not only does copper conduct heat faster, but it also does so much more evenly. This combination is perfect for temperature control when working with the sugar at a high temperature. Thanks dad!

The following recipe is courtesy of Julia Child’s book The Way to Cook, published in 1994. A Christmas gift from my dad several years ago, this is a magnificent cookbook in which Julia distills her knowledge from a lifetime of cooking into one book. In the book, she states that this recipe is her fourth and definitive recipe for Tarte Tatin.

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Tarte Tatin Recipe

Ingredients for Pastry Dough
3/4 cups flour
1/4 cup cake flour
2 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons chilled butter, diced
2 tablespoons chilled vegetable shortening
1/4 cup ice water, or as needed

Ingredients for Tart Tatin
6 Golden Delicious apples, cored, peeled and halved
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1 1/2 cups sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, as accompaniment

Directions
Preparing the dough. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, place the flours, sugar and butter. Pulse 5 or 6 times in 1/2-second bursts to break up the butter. Add the shortening, turn on the machine and immediately add the ice water, pulsing 2 or 3 times. The dough should look like a mass of smallish lumps and should just hold together in a mass when a handful is pressed together. If the mixture is too dry, pulse in more water by droplets. Turn the dough out onto the work surface and with the heel of your hand, rapidly and roughly push egg-size blobs into a 6-inch smear. Gather the dough into a relatively smooth cake, wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least 2 hours (or up to 2 days).

Preparing the apples. Quarter, core, and peel the apples; cut the quarters in half lengthwise. Toss in a bowl with the lemon and 1/2 cup of sugar, and let steep 20 minutes so they will exude their juices. Drain them.

The caramel. Set the frying pan over moderately high heat with the butter, and when melted blend in the remaining 1 cup sugar. Stir about with a wooden spoon for several minutes, until the syrup turns a bubbly caramel brown – it will smooth out later, when the apples juices dissolve the sugar.

Arranging the apples in the pan. Remove from heat and arrange a layer of apple slices nicely in the bottom of the pan to make an attractive design. Arrange the rest of the apples on top, close packed and only reasonably neat. Add enough so that they heap up 1 inch higher than the rim of the pan – they sink down as they cook.

Preliminary stove-top cooking. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F for the next step, placing the rack in the lower middle level. Set the pan again over moderately high heat, pressing the apples down as they soften, and drawing the accumulated juices up over them with the bulb baster – basting gives the apples a deliciously buttery caramel flavor. In several minutes, when the apples begin to soften, cover the pan and continue cooking 10 to 15 minutes, checking and basting frequently until the juices are thick and syrupy. Remove from heat, and let cool slightly while you roll out the dough.

The dough cover. Roll the chilled dough into a circle 3/16 inch thick and 1 inch larger than the top of your pan. Cut 4 steam holes, 1/4-inch size, 1 1/2 inches from around the center of the dough. Working rapidly, fold the dough in half, then in quarters; center the point over the apples. Unfold the dough over the apples. Press the edges of the dough down between the apples and the inside of the pan.

Bake and serve. Bake about 20 minutes at 425 degrees F. Bake until the pastry has browned and crisped. Being careful of the red-hot pan handle, remove from the oven. Still remembering that the pan is red-hot, turn the serving dish upside down over the apples and reverse the two to unmold the tart. Serve hot, warm, or cold, with the optional whipped cream or ice cream.

Heather’s Helpful Hints
After you take your tart out of the oven, you can test to see whether it’s ready be unmolded. Simply tilt the pan, and if the juices are runny rather than a thick syrup, boil down rapidly on top on the stove. However, be sure not to evaporate them completely or the apples will stick to the pan. If a few apples stick to the pan—which does happen—rearrange the slices as necessary.

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Classic French Croissants

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There is little better than biting into a flaky and buttery croissant that is just fresh out of the oven. Although several pastries try to pass themselves off as croissants, few would be worthy of gracing the shelf of a French patisserie. In fact, I think the essence of a croissant is best captured in a quote by the Association of French Bakers. They included this description in a letter to Kanye West after he lambasted French cuisine, and specifically the croissant, in one of his songs.

The croissant is dignified — not vulgar like a piece of toast, simply popped into a mechanical device to be browned. No — the croissant is born of tender care and craftsmanship. Bakers must carefully layer the dough, paint on perfect proportions of butter, and then roll and fold this trembling croissant embryo with the precision of a Japanese origami master.

One of my baking goals this year was to tackle the pastry making process. I’ve always been intimidated by the combination of yeast, dough, and rolling pins. My first foray into the pastry world was when I made mini choux buns earlier this year. With the technique for making choux pastry under my belt I decided it was time to graduate to the next level.

I signed up for a baking class with Zingermans Bakery. For those who aren’t familiar, Zingermans is a gourmet food business headquartered right here in Ann Arbor. Their slogan is: “You really can taste the difference,” and they offer baking classes to educate consumers about the products they sell. My four hour class was called Ohh La La Croissants and was complete with demonstration, in-class participation, culinary education, and a final taste testing. After class, I was sent home with 15 croissants and some dough that I could either refrigerate and use right away or stick in the freezer.

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If you’d like to make some croissants, be sure to set aside some time for yourself. These delicious morsels take some TLC to see through to completion. Croissant dough is layered with butter, rolled and folded several times in succession, then rolled into a sheet, in a technique called laminating. The process results in a layered, flaky texture, similar to a puff pastry. While making these is fairly time consuming, the results are truly worth it. You’ll never want another store bought croissant again!

Classic French Croissant Recipe

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Poolish Ingredients
1 1/2 cups whole milk at room temperature
3 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons instant yeast
2 1/4 cup all purpose flour

Dough Ingredients
2 teaspoons of salt
2 1/4 cups bread flour

Butter Block Ingredients
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter at room temperature
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Egg Wash Ingredients
1 large egg
1 large yolk
1 tablespoon water

To Make the Poolish
In large mixing bowl, combine the milk, honey, yeast, and flour. Stir to dissolve. Add 1 1/4 cups flour and mix to combine. Beat until smooth. Cover with saran wrap and let rise for 1 hour. Mixture will double in size, therefore the container you use for the poolish should be 2 times as big as the amount of poolish. The poolish is ready after about one hour. You can then refrigerate if you want, but must use within 24 hours.

Creating the Dough
To the poolish mixture, add the salt and remaining 2 1/4 cups flour and mix using a wooden spoon. Mix until incorporated. Be careful not to over mix. Press on the dough to force the moisture into it. Remove from bowl and fold over a couple of times. If you pull on the bread dough, it should rip. Form dough into a uniform square. Wrap in plastic wrap, refrigerate for at least 1 hour before enclosing the butter into the dough.

Forming the Butter Block
Dice butter into 1 inch cubes and put in a bowl. Add the flour and salt to the butter and mix well until completely incorporated into butter. Add lemon juice to mixing bowl; beat with a wooden spoon until the butter is softened and the lemon juice is absorbed. Remove the butter from the bowl. Place on plastic wrap and form into a 6“ x 6” square with a plastic scrape or spatula. Wrap and chill for 1 hour.

Enclosing and Folding Dough with Butter
Remove the dough from the refrigerator; remove the plastic wrap and place on a lightly floured surface. Cut a cross in the top of the dough and roll out the ball of dough in 4 places (left, right, up and down) so that it looks like a 4 “petal” flower. Need to leave a mound or lump in the center of dough. Note: Every time you roll out the dough, use a pastry brush to brush away the extra flour that has clung to the dough.

Place the chilled butter square on the center of the dough. The butter and the dough should be at the same temperature. Fold the 4 “petals” over the butter, from left to right and from top to bottom, to enclose butter completely. Make sure the corners are pinched so that the butter does not ooze out.

On a lightly floured surface, start the rolling process by tapping the center of the enclosed dough with the side of the rolling pin from the center out. Center to right and then center to left. Using the same technique, tap the dough from the center to top and center to bottom. This helps the butter move with the dough without tearing. Roll the dough into a rectangle about 8“ by 20”. Brush off the excess flour from the surface of the dough. Square up the corners of the dough as you roll. With the roughest side of dough up (this will help hide any imperfections), fold the dough into 4ths (book fold) and wrap in plastic and chill for at least 30 minutes to relax the gluten in the dough.

Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator and place on a lightly floured surface. With a rolling pin, lightly tap the dough to start the rolling process. Roll the dough into a rectangle about 10“ x 24”. Brush off any excess flour on the dough. Fold the dough into thirds (letter fold) and wrap in plastic and chill. The dough will be ready to roll to the final thickness for the finished croissants.

Shaping the Croissants
On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a 10“ by 24” rectangle 1/8 inch thick. Note: It is important to get the rectangle very thin. Lift the dough gently (or aerate it) to keep it from shrinking. Take care not to spoil the shape of the rectangle. Brush excess flour from the top and bottom of the dough. Trim the edges of the dough to square it.

Starting 2 inches in from the left side on the bottom edge, with a ruler and a pastry wheel cutter, mark every 4 inches across the bottom of the dough for a total of 6 marks. You will have a scrap piece from each side. Using a pastry wheel cutter, cut into triangles, each with a 4 inch base. Cut a 1/2 inch slit in the center of each base (the wide end of the dough piece). Place the triangles in a single layer on a clean work surface.

To shape croissants, place the dough triangle on the work surface with the long point nearest to you. Stretch the case of the triangle to enlarge the slit. At this point, you can add either small bars of chocolate up by the base end, or a rounded teaspoon of almond filling.

Fold the slit toward the outer sides of the triangle, covering the filling of your choice. Press down to seal. Roll the base of the triangle up and towards you, stretching the dough slightly as you roll. Tucking the center point underneath the croissant. Turn the two ends together to form a crescent.

Arrange the croissants on a parchment lined baking sheet and brush lightly with the egg wash. Proof for up to 2 hours covered with plastic wrap. Croissants should have doubled in size. Bake in a preheated oven at 400 degrees for 12-15 minutes. Remove from oven and cool to room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes on a cooling rack.

Heather’s Helpful Hints
This is probably the most complex recipe that I’ve posted on Sweet Precision. I truly believe that the process is best learned through instruction, which is why I signed up for the baking class. I found a video on YouTube that does an excellent job of walking you through the process step by step. So before you break out your rolling pin, be sure to take a quick look here!

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