Daring Bakers: éclairs

Another month has flown by and it’s time for the August Daring Bakers Challenge. Pierre Hermé’s chocolate éclairs were flavour of the month (from his Chocolate Desserts book with Dorie Greenspan). Recipe and initiator of this challenge can be found at What’s for lunch, Honey? and Tony Tahhan (their posts might appear a little later than mine, as they’re in different timezones).

Choux pastry (pâte à choux) isn’t something I do often. In fact, when my sister heard I’d made éclairs her first reaction was ‘that’s not very you’. And indeed, it’s probably 15 years since I last made choux pastry! It’s not so hard, though the process certainly seems daunting when you read recipes. The tricky bit is getting the puffed-up shapes to stay puffed up, rather than causing deflation traumas (see Thanh’s recent adventure).

Choux pastry is soft and pipeable. It’s made by adding flour to boiling liquid and butter, stirring vigorously, and then adding egg yolks (and/or whole eggs) gradually (ok, that’s just a summary). In the oven, the piped shapes swell and rise, but lose their shape easily except when very small. So profiteroles (1, 2) are usually fairly safe, but larger shapes deflate easily. You have to find a way to let the cooked dough firm up without all the steam inside causing it to go soggy and collapse. Typically you either leave the cooked shapes in the residual heat of an oven, or you puncture the shapes to let the steam out (of the side or bottom).

I was being a little impatient, so suffered about 50% deflation in the batch. (And we won’t talk about the effect of impatience on the chocolate glaze either!) But it was then that I discovered how well collapsed éclairs function as a churros substitute! Marginally healthier too;)

Choux pastry needs to be used promptly or frozen in its final shape. Cooked shapes can be frozen or refrigerated, but can be a little soft or leathery as the dough absorbs moisture from its environment. Often you would ‘refresh’ the stored shapes in the oven before use, just to bring back a touch of crispness.

I decided to make the éclairs for my parents, who had both been down with the flu all week. Mum event leant me her much-neglected éclair tin! Dad can’t eat richly chocolatey things, so I replaced the chocolate pastry cream with mandarin/vanilla whipped cream. A chocolate glaze was still used.

Hermé’s choux pastry contains more egg yolks than many typical recipes. It tasted strongly eggy and this was commented on in the Daring Bakers forums. I certainly wouldn’t use this recipe in the future, as such strong egginess needs a rich foil (such as his chocolate pastry cream) to balance it. Nonetheless, a tasty and interesting challenge!

Sydney’s macarons, Adriano Zumbo, and a few other eating observations

I was enjoying the comments on the supermarket article so much that I decided not to post until my return for a little travel interstate. Now I bring you new tales of macarons (hey, there’s been a break of over six weeks since I last mentioned them!) and cakes, and some other food observations from Sydney.

There’s a pâtissier in Sydney who has been attracting some attention for his Pierre-Hermé-esque creations, including his versions of my beloved Parisian macarons (too often called ‘French macaroons’). Adriano Zumbo has a teency little shop in trendy Balmain. Along the righthand side of the narrow space is a glass cabinet of high-end patisserie. Indeed, you could almost imagine being transported to an exclusive atelier in Paris.

I’ll start with the macarons. There was a range of about ten flavours. I tried chocolate/earl grey, lavender/blueberry, and rice pudding. The macarons had been packed into clear plastic display boxes, making it difficult for the shop assistant to remove them. A number of cracked macarons were visible.

And so to the tasting. Problem 1: some crunch. Problem 2: some hollow shells. Problem 3: hard ganaches. Success 1: well judged lavender flavour (but fleeting blueberry). Success 2: tasty rice pudding filling (but chewiness isn’t necessarily a successful idea in a macaron filling). Zumbo’s macarons are a visual success (mostly), but on the day of this sample, the product was marred by textural problems in both the shells and fillings. The only Parisian resemblance here was the appearance.

As an aside, Sydney’s seagulls have a taste for luxury goods. Halfway through one macaron I was suddenly swooped upon and a moment later my hand was empty, the macaron gone! Bastard birds! I sat, bereft of macaron and wondering if this was one of those times when a man is allowed to burst into tears in public;)

I also bought one of Zumbo’s cakes. The ‘Ed Knocked Me Up’ sounded both amusing and interesting (walnut and coffee elements). It was quite large (and heavy) for an individual cake and cost about A$8. The caramel dome was beautiful and the modest garnish of a coffee bean and a flake of gold leaf added to the allure.

Numerous interesting elements were revealed with the caramel and the nut-encrusted chocolate girdle. Crunchiness, sponge, biscuit, buttercream, mousseline cream and even a lump of a coffee-walnut ‘compote’ (if I recall the description correctly). This was a very, very difficult piece of prettiness to eat without cutlery, especially with gateauivorous seagulls swooping on helpless tourists.

I was surprised to find that the dome was almost completely mousseline. That’s a hell of a lot of sweet, light and fluffy cream to get through. Too much. For someone who clearly has great technical skill, why did Zumbo produce something that could be characterised as Paris-meets-American-excess? Sure, the high-end patisseries in Paris produce things which can be insipid, or small-delicate-exorbitant, or man-that’s-rich, but rarely do their products give rise to an impression of gratuitous-fat-bomb! I know this sounds harsh, and that tastes may differ, but I felt this was a well made, somewhat busy piece of excess. If the amount of mousseline were halved, it’d be much closer to being an outstanding piece of patisserie. I hope his other creations don’t suffer from similar problems.

Moving along now… to Lindt’s concept store in Sydney’s Martin Place. This is the city’s other well known venue for macarons. I’ve read a lot of enthusiasm for the Lindt ‘Délices’ (as well as Zumbo’s), but some correspondents have been less complimentary. I chose three flavours: coconut, blackcurrant, and something I’ve forgotten (oops). Fail. Dry and crunchy in the mouth, with a number of hollow shells. The coconut was damp and dull. The blackcurrant flavour was clean and fruity, but marred by a very hard ganache.

My conclusion on the macaron front: from the Sydney tasting and my review of Melbourne’s macarons, I’ve seen no evidence that there are seriously well made macarons in Australia. THEY SHOULDN’T BE CRUNCHY, GOT IT?! I’ve read claims that David Menard at Noisette in Melbourne can do it, but I’ve not tasted proof, nor had other corroboration of the claim.

Other food in Sydney

With the taste of Portuguese grilled meats still lingering after my travels in May, I headed for Petersham to get a refill. Silva’s (Canterbury Road) is famous for its grilled chicken, but also known for some other dishes. I ordered a bowl of caldo verde (potato, kale and chorizo soup) and a prego (steak sandwich) with chips. The soup was A$9. As I waited, I worried a little that I might not have the appetite for an enormous bowl of soup *and* the main course. No need to worry. The soup turned out to be a very pricey serving. Whilst tasty, it was distinctly meagre for the price. The prego was better, but nothing stunning. So much for the taste refill. Pity.

I ventured out to Bondi Junction for the Thursday Organic Food and Farmers’ Market. A strange market, patently not living up to its name. There was very little fresh produce (three or four stalls), of which most was non-organic and non-farm. One hot-food vendor was refreshingly honest in declaring where there were organic or non-organic inputs. The rest of the small market was a hotchpotch of prepared food (some delicious), non-food stalls and a butcher’s van. Another farmers’ market contributing to the growing scepticism about the concept. A real pity.

As this was a very brief visit to Sydney, there wasn’t much more scope for eating/dining. Thankfully the remaining experiences were positive. Lüneburger German Bakery is a chain which seems to have appeared since I was last in Sydney, two years ago. The pretzels really are very good, the bread looked great, as did many of the pastry items. I also managed to dine at Chat Thai in Campbell Street without queuing first. I’d read glowing reviews of this small, modern Thai restaurant, but it was clear I’d need to dine at an odd hour if I wanted to have a calm meal. It’s not often I eat lunch at 4.30pm, but this was well worth it. (The only downside was the waitress who coughed repeatedly into her hands, all the while making drinks and handling crockery.) The menu is long and refreshingly interesting (see the website). Many of the diners are Thai. Prices are low. I’d return in a flash. Hell, I’d even queue!

And now I’m back in Melbourne after a fragrant detour to Canberra. More about that soon…

What role do supermarkets play in your life?

Once upon a time there were no supermarkets. Most people who have grown up in Australia have forgotten or never known a life without sheds filled with neat aisles of groceries and the ka-ching! (or bloop!) at the checkout. As tourists or concerned consumers, many of us love produce markets and some of us regard supermarkets as fairly evil, but we are still largely dependent on a lifestyle with supermarkets close to the core.

What role does the supermarket play in your practical life and in your issues-driven decision-making?

I’m going to list a few of the many issues surrounding supermarkets and my own feelings, then invite comments.

It can be argued pretty well that supermarkets in Australia:

(+) brought more variety into people’s lives
(+) helped people explore new foods and cuisines
(+) give some people access to better ethical choices, such as organic food
(+) often help consumers save heaps of money

(-) are greatly responsible for the pervasive consumer obsession with low prices
(-) strongly distort the retail market, imposing restrictive supply and pricing arrangements on producers/manfacturers
(-) make massive profits while claiming to be working in the consumers’ interest
(-) often charge much higher prices for fresh produce than small retailers or markets
(-) promote convenience and price, often at the expense of quality and, increasingly, variety

It could also be argued (though opinions are more likely to differ) that supermarkets:

  • promote a self-focused lifestyle of convenience (Gobbler pointed out in a comment recently that this can be more perceived than real)
  • reflect consumer trends or what manufacturers claim are consumer trends
  • reduce the amount of thought that consumers put into food choices
  • present consumers with too many unhealthy or unethical options
  • offer a picture of food which is too distant from reality (seasonality, cost, etc)
  • only react constructively to consumer issues when they see a profit opportunity


So what do I think and do?

We’re spoilt for choice and seduced by cheap goods, sometimes so cheap that you doubt whether the supplier actually gets more than a cent, gross, for each unit. None of this is transparent – I can’t know whether a house-brand item at $1.50 is of more benefit to the producer or manufacturer than the $1.95 other brand. I don’t know whether a cut-price special is a loss-leader for the supermarket or a massive discount extracted from a supplier. In general, I make my choice based on quality or a measure of price-quality-conscience based on my budget.

I try to buy Australian rather than imported products, except where a local equivalent is too poor to compare. (A difficult decision, and different people will have different thresholds, of course!)

I have no loyalty to a particular supermarket chain because I’ve heard enough stories from suppliers about how each chain controls the availability of products and makes it hard for new products or small suppliers to make it onto the shelves (shelf space is often bought by manufacturers).

I try not to buy fresh produce of any sort from the supermarket.

I would like to be able to buy more fresh produce from quality suppliers with a good approach to their livestock, their producers and/or the environment. Often this isn’t possible because I can’t easily buy bulk. My work schedule frequently gets in the way of going to markets. And my budget often makes it impossible to go for the choices I would prefer. (For those of you with the space for bulk purchasing or looking for alternative sources, A Goddess in the Kitchen has a good post which mentions in the comments some suppliers worth considering (Rutherglen Lamb, Aussie Farmers Direct).)

So what about you?

Do you try to avoid supermarkets or embrace them? What solutions work for your ethical, environmental, or personal perspectives? Remember, the focus here is on supermarkets.

[Note: A few valuable comments on this theme after a previous article may have been drowned out at the time, so those readers are welcome to repeat themselves here if appropriate.]