28 August, 2013

Eclairs Anyone??!! Moi! Oooo La, LA!

Eclairs...  Oh, eclairs...  On a recent episode of Masterchef U.S.A., someone was sent home for their failed attempt at eclairs in 60 minutes.  Not only was one person sent home...none of them seemed to get them right.  Not a SINGLE contestant.  I was more than shocked at that turnout.  Eclairs are NOT that hard to make.  I sat and watched them fumbling about in the kitchen and I was in total awe.

I looked for a video of that train wreck so you could see the ginormous circus that it was to watch these people; people who can make up "masterful" dishes on the FLY for this show, totally flub on a level 1 pastry concoction.  I made my first batch of eclairs 7 years ago when we were stationed in Illinois.  I found a recipe online, looked at it for a couple of minutes and just MADE them without looking at the recipe again.  

The place where I noticed they seemed to fail the easiest was when Chef Ramsay cut into each of the eclairs and found that NONE of them got their filling all the way evenly through the eclair.  That is fairly easy in my mind, as you can FEEL the creme filling out the eclair shell as you go...  When you cut into them, they should look like this:

Chantilly Creme Filled

Pastry Creme Filled

Watching that show makes you realize just how often people put themselves in a "danger zone" in the kitchen when they archetype themselves into a SINGLE style of cooking or a single area of food.  People who only do desserts or only make fried foods...or a certain genre like Asian, are setting themselves up for upset after upset in the kitchen.  I like to branch out and learn new things, that kind of philosophy will serve you well to adopt if you ever want to be able to have a wide range of knowledge.

One thing I will impart to you is some pronunciation of this mess.  It is a French pastry so if you decide that you don't like my recipe or want to explore some others simply looking up "eclair" may not get you very far.  But looking up "pate a choux" will.  That is pronounced "pat a shoe"...I kid you not.  Pate a choux is the fancy name for the eclair dough.  The next thing you may run into is that some recipes call for a "chantilly" (which is what the chefs were charged with making by Chef Ramsay when they all had an epic fail) creme or a straight up run of the mill "pastry creme".  

I personally prefer the chantilly simply because it is airy and light and delicate.  It doesn't keep long (but hey...like these will make it more than a couple hours anyhow) either but, when I am up against a fairly delicate pastry to begin with I don't want to have something SUPER dense on the inside.  Then add to the show a rich chocolate ganache on top...I personally would be ill after eating just half of one eclair filled with pastry creme instead of chantilly.  Just to be fair, I'll show you both fillings but, most people I know seem to prefer a chantilly as opposed to a pastry creme.  Traditional French uses a rich, eggy creme; the English variation is where you tend to see chantilly.  Either way, read through the WHOLE list of ingredients and directions and make some decisions before diving in.  This can be an easy process if you follow the steps properly and know what direction you want to go in before you begin.

Let's get to it...I mean, no one really cares about the history of the eclair, do they?  I sure don't!  I just wanna eat them!


Pate a Choux
3/4 c. milk
3/4 c. water
1 stick, + 2 T. unsalted butter
2 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 2/3 c. flour
5 large eggs, room temperature

OR if you prefer a milk free dough

1 c. water
1 stick of unsalted butter
1/2 tsp. salt
1 T. sugar
1 c. flour
4 eggs

7 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1/2 c. heavy cream

Chantilly Cream
2 c. heavy cream
2 T. confectioner's sugar
1/4 tsp. vanilla


Pastry Cream
1 c. milk
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla bean paste
3 large egg yolks
3 T. sugar
2 T. cornstarch
2 T. unsalted butter, cut into pieces

***There are some things you need to decide straight away before you do anything.  Do you want chantilly or do you want pastry cream?  IF you want pastry cream you make that FIRST because it has to chill completely before it is piped inside the pastry shells.  If you use chantilly, you can make that filling while the shells cool.

For pastry cream filled eclairs begin by making the cream filling by heating the milk with the vanilla bean paste until just below a simmer.  In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks, sugar and cornstarch. Ready a bowl with the butter, placing a strainer on top of it.  Gradually whisk the hot milk into egg mixture and then return it all to the pot. Whisk this constantly (switching to a spatula now and again, to get into the corners) over medium heat until thickened and glossy, about 2 minutes. Pour this immediately through the strainer, whisking it through if needed, and stir in the butter. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly over the surface of the custard, cool to room temperature and then chill completely until ready to use.

To make the pastry shells bring the milk, water, butter, sugar and salt up to a full simmer over medium high heat. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the flour with a wooden spoon, stirring vigorously until the dough “cleans” the sides of the pot (no longer sticks). Scrape this mixture into a large bowl and use electric beaters or a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium speed for a minute or 2 to cool the dough a bit.  Break your eggs into a small dish and pour in ONE egg at a time, adding these to the flour mixture while still on medium speed and mix until blended.  Wait until each egg is totally incorporated into the flour mixture before adding the next egg.  You need to pipe these onto a parchment lined pan while the choux dough is still warm.

Preheat the oven to 425 F and line two baking trays with parchment paper.  Fill a piping bag fitted with a large plain tip with the choux paste. (Or you can do what I do.  Seriously, I fill a gallon sized ziploc and cut the end off and "pipe" mine out of the corner of the bag.  Easy clean up that way!)

Pipe 12 éclairs, each about 4 inches long and 1 ½-inches wide onto each baking tray. Wet your finger in cool water and tap any points on the batter.  Bake the éclairs for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375 F and continue to bake for about 20 more minutes, until they are a rich golden brown color and are very light. Allow the pastries to cool completely before filling.  (I pierce the end of my eclairs with a chopstick.  It allows the steam to escape more quickly and ensures it all comes out so the steam doesn't remain trapped and cause the eclair shells to become moist and collapse.  No one else I know does this...so, if you don't want to, don't worry.)

Make your ganache now by either tossing the cream and chocolate into the microwave for 30 second spurts, stirring after each 30 second increment or use a double boiler on your stove and melt the cream and chocolate together that way.  Set aside until ready to assemble.

If you chose to use chantilly, now is the time to make that.  You don't NEED to use a chilled mixing bowl and beaters.  I do sometimes.  If you have a good whipping cream, it really isn't necessary UNLESS your kitchen retains a lot of heat when the oven is on at high temperatures.  If it IS you should chill the bowl BEFORE you start the pate a choux.  To make the chantilly is quite easy.  Pour the whipping cream and vanilla straight into the mixing bowl and let the machine begin to whip it.  As it is whipping, gradually add in your confectioner's sugar.  After you have put all the sugar in continue whipping until the cream becomes at least doubled in mass/size.  Set aside until eclair shells are completely cooled.

To fill, stir the pastry cream  or chantilly to soften and fill a piping bag with a medium plain tip (or an éclair or donut tip, if you have one). Insert the piping bag in the same end you poked a hole in and fill each with creme until you feel resistance.

Dip the tops of each filled eclair into the ganache and set aside on wax paper until the ganache sets.  Refrigerate what you don't consume right away.  Once they are filled though, they SHOULD be eaten within the same day.  UNFILLED eclair shells can be frozen a day or so ahead of time...no more than 3 days.

Pastry Creme Filled Eclair

Chantilly Creme Filled Eclair

A small note here, these eclair shells can TOTALLY be made into chocolate as well.  I did it, my Mister loved them and I was quite partial to them as well.  I made them completely dairy free when I did them chocolate.  I just added 3 T. of Callebaut cocoa powder to the recipe and omitted 2 T. of flour when using the "milk free" choux paste recipe.  I used a almond and cashew milk based product called "Healthy Top" from a company called "MimiCreme".  The chocolate eclair shells looked like this just out of the oven...

Another thing I will inject here is a little warning...it is VERY easy to screw up the sizing of eclairs simply because you are free form piping these babies onto a sheet with no way to quickly and easily measure them.  This is what eclairs look like when a 3.5 year old helps...

The one on the left was what I piped as my 3.5 year old was pressuring me to "hurry up" so HE could pipe some eclair shells.  The middle shell...the PROPER sized eclair in width and length, was before he walked into the kitchen to harass me.  The shell on the end...the too short, too wide shell was the one of the shells that the Sprout made.  There are some people that might prefer a mini eclair like the one on the right just to limit their calorie intake while indulging but you can't be sure those are cooked all the way through.  There also might be some folks that prefer a chantilly filling and would LOVE to bite into a HUGE torpedo of light, whipped creme filling which is what you would get with the monstrosity of a shell on the left.  But, that shell might also not be "done" when the shells like the one in the middle have finished.  The ONLY good news is, you really can't "over cook" a eclair shell unless you BURN the sucker.  But, you surely CAN under bake a shell and then they are totally worthless.

Even with all of these little idiosyncrasies I have listed out here on this page...eclairs are STILL a fairly easy dessert pastry to make.  I hope you take a stab at them at least once.  Then you can feel like a Masterchef in your kitchen and chuckle a bit when people whine about how hard these are.  Don't be afraid to try new things in the kitchen!  As always...just have FUN!

21 August, 2013

Fresh. Local. Organic... But Underwhelming.

There are only a couple of places in my hometown of Duluth, MN that bother with truly healthy food.  Most of them aren't actual restaurants either, which is highly disappointing.  There is the Whole Foods Co-op in the central hillside area that has a small deli and bakery section in their store.  They bring some things in but they make quite a bit of what they sell in those sections.  Then there is the Amazing Grace Bakery and Cafe down in the VERY popular tourist area known as Canal Park.  They make real food with real ingredients that does taste quite fabulous...but again...not a restaurant with a full lunch and dinner menu.  Lastly, there is Red Mug in Superior, WI just across the bridge.  Amazingly enough, Whole Foods Co-op has begun bringing in focaccia bread from them which is one of my absolute FAVORITE things to eat from Red Mug.  But they primarily bake and serve gourmet coffees.  So, when you wander into The Duluth Grill and sit down to a FULL menu with a cover that reads "Fresh.  Local.  Organic."....you get a bit excited.

I sat for quite a while trying to figure out what I wanted to eat, it was hard.  Their menu is HUGE...  I needed help figuring out what I wanted.  I asked our waitress what their signature dishes were and what she would recommend.  She brought up two or three dishes...none of which I was interested in.  At some point the manager came out of the kitchen when he heard I was there and did the same thing, recommended a handful of dishes that I wasn't really feeling.  It was hard skimming through the menu without feeling completely overwhelmed.  Vegan, gluten-free, vegetarian, "flex-itarian"....oy!  I have been watching my diet now that I am 3 months out of having the Sweet Pea, it is about time to lose what didn't go away in the delivery room.  

I ended up choosing the Lamb Shank with Tomato Curry.  (On their website there is a picture and a much longer title that better describes the dish and makes it sound SO much more appetizing then it ended up being.)  We both were quite interested in their Scotch Eggs as well.  My Mister spent two years living in Scotland and I have always wanted to try Scotch Eggs, so we ordered an appetizer of those as well.  It only took a short time for the Scotch Eggs to come out...

Scotch Eggs
I am a bit on the fence about this dish.  I LOVE a good plate of eggs benedict, it is my absolute favorite breakfast and I would eat it every morning if I knew I wouldn't weigh a half a million pounds in 5 years because of it.  What I have been used to seeing when I see a Scotch Egg split open however, isn't what was put in front of me.  Typically the meat layer outside of the egg is quite a bit thicker.  Topping off the list of things that made this dish odd to me was the blueberry in their sausage.  It is a FABULOUS idea...hell, I even made my own Blueberry Bacon Maple Syrup 2 weeks ago but...blueberry sausage encasing a hard boiled egg that you are meant to dip into dijon hollandaise sauce....the blueberry just didn't belong in there.  The dish felt like fat on fat dipped in fat.  It was richness to the max with a slight crisp on the outside.   I am sure the blueberry laced sausage is awesome with some LIGHT, fluffy pancakes but I guzzled my glass of water and was starting to dread what was coming next...

Lamb Shank with Tomato Curry
The lamb consistency was exactly how it should have been for the way it was cooked.  It had fabulous texture, but tasted a bit gamey.  It surprised me.  I LOVE lamb...furthermore, it is my meat of choice with anything that even SOUNDS Indian in description for food so to eat it and feel like it didn't belong with the tomato curry was new for me.  The spice level was rather mild and barely there for a curry.  The carrots and potatoes were scattered in their level of "done" throughout the dish.  I was starving when I walked in...I kept eating hoping that it would make more sense to my palate and that I would start to love it.  But I didn't.  I suppose that is what I get for building up a place's food so much based on an ideal that I agree with.  

Fresh. Local. Organic....a direction of dining I wish more communities would embrace quite frankly.  Especially where their elderly population suffers so much from weight bearing ailments and diseases like diabetes and congestive heart failure.  After getting lost and overwhelmed in their menu I found myself wishing that they would pick two or three dishes in each category that they do AWESOMELY well and stick to just those...perfect them and then turn them loose on the public rather than having a 4 or 5 page menu filled to the brim with things that even your server skims past when they are trying to recommend something to eat.  If I hadn't eaten what I did I would have the Eggs Benedict and call it a day...which is what the neighbors to our right ordered.  Smart folks.

This isn't the first time my Mister and I have eaten here.  This is just the first time I went in with the intent to flog the place.  The previous times we went in we were underwhelmed as well.  I'm not sure what made us think it might be different this time.  The variety of dishes is SO vast, weeding through them to find the ONE golden winner that will please my palate in every way seems daunting and almost impossible.  Would I ever eat here again...sure.  Would I recommend it to someone else??  Yeah, the folks that are in dire need of gluten free options or vegan options in the Duluth area...that stuff is hard to find elsewhere in this town.  But, for everyone else.  I dunno....good luck trying to find something that you find to be "awesome" or a dish that you would go back over and over for.  I suppose if I meander in there again the next time I visit home I might try the Dakota Pot Roast Dinner or the Pasty.  I hear that the Pasty was one of their dishes that was highlighted on "Diners, Drive-ins & Dives" when they were featured on Food Network.

As we were leaving and I found myself actually feeling a quite SAD that I didn't fall in love with my meal I decided to take a walkabout by the area where they grow their own herbs and veggies...

Yeah, it is pretty awesome that they do that.  It is one of the reasons I keep going back.  They are even farming their own honey on the roof with hives of bees...  C'mon!....what doesn't impress you about that?  I just have this high level of self serving HOPE that the person who comes up with their menu and creates these dishes will find their compass soon and head in a direction that will be a consistent people pleasing menu.

Duluth Grill on Urbanspoon  

14 August, 2013

Arancini Di Riso

What do YOU do with leftovers??  I have always repurposed them in scrummly ways.  The other night we made saffron risotto but, getting anyone in the house to repeat more than one night of certain things doesn't happen often and I don't like to force food to be eaten.  Eating should be fun!

When I have leftover risotto I do what I have seen countless "master" chefs do with it...  I stuff it with cheese, make it into a ball, roll it in flavored crumbs and FRY those suckers UP!  Served with a loverly tomato dipping sauce, you can't go wrong with these balls of yum!  I first saw an actual recipe for this in a cookbook of Giada de Laurentis years back when I was first getting obsessed with learning more refined, authentic dishes.  I never actually looked in the book more than once until this year.  I've been missing SO much yummy food!  Use your cookbooks people.  These chefs didn't get book deals for nothin'!!

Now, the name of these beauties means "little orange rice balls"...not too creative of a name.  But they were named for the traditional saffron version of risotto because the saffron gives the risotto an orange hue.  This is a wonderful recipe and a keen way to use up your risotto leftovers.  They come out hot, crispy and I haven't fed them to a single person who didn't fall in love with them and want the recipe.

Arancini Di Riso
2 c. of cooked saffron risotto, cooled
1 1/2 c. dry Italian seasoned bread crumbs
1/2 c. fresh parmesean, grated
2 eggs, beaten
2 oz. mozzarella cheese in half inch cubes
oil for deep frying

In a large, heavy saucepan put enough oil in that it comes up 3 inches in the pan.  Bring it up to 350 degrees while you are making your balls.  Use a thermometer to make sure you hit 350 and it STAYS at 350 as you are cooking.  

In a large bowl stir the risotto with 1/2 c. of Italian bread crumbs, the parmesan cheese and the eggs together until just combined.  In a smaller bowl put the rest of the bread crumbs for rolling the risotto balls.  Using about 2-3 T. of the risotto mixture, cover each mozzarella cube.  Do this until you either run out of risotto mixture or cheese cubes.  Make sure that you press the risotto around the cheese firmly so the balls hold together through the frying process.

When you've finished forming the risotto balls roll them in the remaining bread crumbs and make sure they are completely coated.  Set them aside and get some paper towel on a plate for the balls to cool on after frying.

Gently place the crumb coated balls in the oil in small batches so you don't drop the frying temperature too drastically.  No more than 3-5 balls per batch.  Fry them until they are brown and heated through.  About 4-6 minutes.  When they are finished use a slotted spoon to transfer them to the plate with paper towel to allow them to drain the excess oil off.

Let them rest for 2-5 minutes and serve.  You can serve these with or without a dipping sauce.  Since the saffron risotto I used for this recipe already had so much flavor between the saffron and pancetta, I skipped a dipping sauce for mine.  But if you make a "plain" risotto there are a number of things you can use for a dipping sauce.  A nice basil pesto sauce, a marinara of any kind with a small amount of basil or even just a simple garlic aioli.

07 August, 2013

When In Rome....Eat At HOME

There are only a few Italian places on my "to eat" list that are in OUR end of town.  I have been told repeatedly that going down to Little Italy for Italian food is overrated.  Sometimes that can be true...when places are the usual "go to" for something, they start to slack off and become monotonous with their flavors and textures.  Sure, that will drive ya nuts at top speed.  Taking all of that into account, I decided to check out a local Italian spot nestled in the heart of Bells Corners; a quaint little place called Cyranos.

This is one of the first places I've gone to that wasn't recommended to me by someone else.  I drove by it so many times when we were living in the nearby hotel waiting to find our house, I figured it was high time I checked the place out.  I knew it was quite a pipe dream on my part to think we were going to make it through dinner out with the 3 year old and the 10 week old without a TOTAL Gong Show of a night, but a Momma can dream, can't she?

As soon as we were inside I got to ordering and taking pictures.  I was caught a little off guard when I looked at the menu IN house and noticed that something I saw pictured online on the menu page, wasn't actually offered on the menu.  So I asked our waitress about the lamb chops....  They definitely have them, but it isn't listed on the menu.  I put in my order for lamb chops; rare, garlic mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables, the antipasto plate for two and an order of deconstructed chicken parmesan for the Sprout then went on my walk about of the place.

Booth Seating

                               Party Sized Table                          Bar Area

Traditional Seating

Specials Board

As you can see, due to the nature of our entourage, I decided to show up before the rest of the dinner crowd did.  This was both to catch pictures of the place and to get in and out without disturbing other people's meal if our Sprout decided to get crazy...  I need to learn to stop saying "if" about that scenario.  Until further notice, I am pretty sure our son is going to garner us some dirty looks when we're out on the town.

After I was done taking my pictures the Sweet Pea started to decline in her level of contentment, this usually means there is a diaper change on my horizon.  I grabbed her and headed to the ladies restroom with a changing pad and BOY oh BOY was I glad I brought that pad...  No changing station.  Isn't that standard in restaurants these days??  I thought it was; I stand corrected.  I had to change my 10 week old on the floor of the ladies restroom.  Our night slowly got worse from there on out...

When I got back to the table I cheered up a bit to see a basket of dinner rolls on the table and the Sprout had already dug into them.  Better to have him satiated and quietly munching rather than bouncing off of the ceiling.

Dinner Rolls
The dinner rolls were pretty awesome.  Beautifully crusty on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside.  It gave me high hopes for dinner but those hopes rose and fell like the tide in the midst of a hurricane...

Antipasto Platter for Two

By the time this platter made it to our table we were out of dinner rolls and I was S-T-A-R-V-I-N-G, so that didn't go over well with my inside my head...or my tummy.  My Mister and I blew through this platter pretty quickly, but mostly out of hunger and desperation.  There wasn't anything remarkable about it, in fact I could have made that at home myself NO problem.  The cheese and prosciutto were passable but the olives and the rest, I could have gotten from the grocery store and plopped on a plate and had the same thing for much less money.

I started to wonder if our waitress was ever going to refill our dinner roll basket...  That antipasto platter wasn't very filling for two adults.  I could HEAR our entrees being cooked, but they were nowhere to be seen.  Our Sprout was getting close to out of control and I was losing my patience...  That of course is when our entrees showed up.

Lamb Chops, Garlic Mashed Potatoes & Mixed Vegetables

I made this picture extra large so you could clearly see the chopped garlic on top of my mashed potatoes.  Not something you would want to order on a date night unless your toothbrush was stowed away in your purse!  I've never ordered "garlic mashed potatoes" and been given mashed potatoes with the garlic roasted and simply chopped and thrown on top as a garnish.  Typically the garlic is roasted and while it is still warm they squeeze it right out of the bulb like a paste and fold it into the prepared mashed potatoes with butter and cream.  So this presentation mystified me...and then disappointed me after I tried it.

Somewhere along the line I could hear my Mister complaining to himself.  "It's all fat..."  *poke, poke* with his finger.  His steak had a HUGE ribbon of fat in it that was never trimmed off.  I explained to him that the fat is where the flavor comes from.  He shot back quickly that he would be fine with that concept if it had worked and shoved his fork towards my gob to give his food a try.  *shoved fork in and chewed*  I looked at him with an apology in my eyes...  I hadn't tried my lamb chops yet, now I was quaking in my boots.  I reached for a chop and sliced into it.  Same thing.  I was so angry.  I grabbed another chop and sliced into it.  That one was fine.  To the chef's credit they were all cooked to the right temperature; rare.  But there was absolutely NO detectable seasoning on ANY of my chops anywhere.  There wasn't even sea salt or pepper that I could taste.  I was getting pretty angry.  Our son was misbehaving, the place was starting to fill with customers.  When the waitress came to refresh our water again (but not bring more dinner rolls...) I just threw in the towel and asked for containers and our check.

Why did I bring that food home, you may wonder???  Let me tell you...  Because it cost me 115 loonies plus tip.  THAT'S WHY!  There is no way I was leaving it there.  We hadn't fed our dog yet that night, I figured we might as well give it to him.

My Mister and I left and discussed this dinner the rest of our night.  The WHOLE night.  It was all we talked about.  We were so disappointed.  We started to wonder if perhaps pasta was the "thing" to order there.  Perhaps that was their specialty.  But if pasta were their specialty, you'd think the waitress would have steered me in that direction when I started asking about their menu.  She didn't.  The service was okay, I mean no one was rude at all; on the contrary.  They were very gracious and kind whenever we interacted.  Quite frankly I felt like I was in their way sometimes when I was up and about changing the Sweet Pea, etc. but they always just smiled and kept on with their work.  However, kindness doesn't make me overlook the constant empty bread basket and the seriously under seasoned meat.

Once I got home, I tried the Sprout's leftover chicken parm.  The only thing worth noshing on was the breaded chicken filet, but there again...totally under seasoned right along with the red sauce on the noodles.  


Will I be eating here again??  No.  Did I like it...?  Nope.  No amount of kind staff can make up for a seriously overpriced menu that totally misses the mark on flavor.
  Cyranos Restaurant on Urbanspoon