Thursday, March 02, 2006

Cooking School: Pastry Cream and Mini Eclairs

Pasty cream, or creme patissiere, is one of the staples of a pastry chef. It is basically a thinner, sometime richer type of custard. It is most often used to fill things like donuts and eclairs, but it can be used as the base for a fruit tart or many other desserts. Another great use for it is in pain au raisin. The key thing about the cream is that it has to be smooth, so you must sieve it. Once your cream has cooked, simple pour it into a large, fine strainer and stir it out into a clean bowl. Make sure to press plastic wrap down on to of the cream to prevent it from forming a skin in the refrigerator. The pastry cream can be made a day or two in advance of when you want to use it and stored in the refrigerator.
This recipe for pastry cream is my own, not from a cookbook. It's a bit lighter than some versions because I use low fat milk and not whole milk, but feel free to use whichever you prefer. The most important part of making it is stirring after you have returned the combined egg/milk mixture to the stove to prevent the custard from burning. It takes several minutes to thicken completely, so you have to stir continuously. This constant stirring also helps prevent large clumps from forming.
I used my pastry cream to fill some miniature eclairs. Eclairs are made from choux pastry and are light, crisp and hollow on the inside. Choux pastry is not hard to make, though it does have the reputation of being something difficult. I have made it before, but I'll reprint the basic recipe here so you will have something to put your pastry cream inside.
The eclairs are light and delicious. Pipe the pastry cream into them only when ready to eat because they will soften somewhat if sitting around filled with cream. The best part about eating the finished eclairs is how the pastry cream oozes out the sides and back. You can't really go wrong with anything that oozes vanilla pastry cream.

Nic's Vanilla Pastry Cream
2 1/2 cups low fat milk
1/2 vanilla bean
2 eggs, at room temperature
2 egg yolks, at room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch

In a medium saucepan, combine milk and vanilla bean. Bring to a simmer over medium heat then turn off heat. Scrape vanilla bean into milk.
While milk is cooking, combine eggs, egg yolks and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Beat until smooth, then add conrstarch and beat until smooth again. When the milk is done, pour a few tablespoons of milk into the egg mixture while whisking constantly. Repeat this a few times until about half of the hilk has been added. It is important to add the hot milk slowly (tempering) so you do not cook the eggs.
Add the remaining milk and return the whole mixture to the sauce pan. Cook, stirring constantly, over medium heat until the custard thickens - about 5 minutes.
Strain through a sieve into a medium bowl, cover surface of the pastry cream with plastic wrap and store in fridge until ready to use.

Eclair Choux Pastry
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup water
3 1/2 tbsp butter (1.75 ounces), melted
1 1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup flour
2 eggs, at room temperature
chocolate (for topping)

Preheat oven to 400F.
Combine milk, water, butter, sugar and salt in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat.
Add the flour all at once, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon until dough comes together in a ball. Continue to cook and stir for one additional minute.
Transfer dough to mixer or clean bowl and let mix at a low speed for 2 minutes until slightly cooled. Touch the outside of your mixer bowl and if it feels very hot, beat the mixture for another minute. Add eggs one at a time, waiting until the first egg is fully incorporated to add the next one. Increase mixer speed to make batter very smooth.
Transfer mixture into a ziploc bag or a piping bag. Snip the corner of the ziploc to create a 1/4-1/2 inch hole. Pipe mixture onto a parchment lined baking sheet, making 24-26 eclairs, 1 -1 1/2 inches long each (if you want to make large eclairs, simply increase the baking time until golden).
Bake for 20-25 minutes, until deep golden brown.
Cool completely on a wire rack.

To assemble Eclairs:
Melt chocolate into a small bowl and drizzle onto cooled eclair shells. Let chocolate set. Use a serated knife to cut eclairs in half, going almost all the way through the pastry to make a pocket. Transfer chilled pastry cream to a ziploc or piping bag and pipe inside the shells. Serve.

Makes 26 mini eclairs.