As I continue to part-time my way through the Midwest Culinary Institute, I find myself in the middle of a class on the basics of baking and pastry arts. This past Monday night was Week 4 — Pâte à Choux, also known as éclair paste, from which we made … you guessed it, éclairs. Pretty, right? Yeah, not so fast there, Sparky.
The week before, I remember my chef instructor telling us what an easy dough it is to work with. Just between you and me, I think he was toying with us as silent, sadistic chuckles echoed in the deep, dark recesses of his maniacal chef mind. I quickly discovered that Pâte à Choux may be easy to make but it is decidedly not, in fact, easy to work with. Rather it is a delicate, touchy and temperamental little beast that must be handled with utmost technical care. Or more likely, this class exists to remind some of us why we were wise not to sign up for the full pastry arts curriculum.
In any event, I found my first encounter with this vicious, viscous goo to be somewhat of a comedy of small but significant errors — piping my dough before it was fully cooled, which caused it to flop on the baking sheet; piping the lines too close together, which meant they touched as they expanded, and then dutifully collapsed; to say nothing of my Quasimodo-like ineptitude with pastry cream and fine decorative piping work. The end result was a batch of éclairs that looked like they had been prepared by someone wearing boxing gloves and a blindfold. Count yourself fortunate that there is no photographic record of that atrocity.
Imagine my profound horror, then, when the chef announced that we will have to make these again for the midterm in a few weeks. My immediate thought, since I fancy myself a rational creature, was that I would need to practice between now and then, which is what I spent this afternoon doing. As it turns out, I have a neighbor who is a relatively recent graduate of the same culinary school, who kindly offered some pointers, lent me her piping tools, and served as my guinea pig to sample the finished wares.
Thankfully I am one who tends (for the most part) to learn from my mistakes and not repeat them (for the most part). These éclairs are actually three recipes in one: the éclair paste/dough, the vanilla custard filling, and the chocolate ganache icing, so it takes a few hours to get through the whole shabang. I did two dozen of them in hopes that I would get it right this time and not have to walk around all week with a paper bag over my head bearing the ignominious inscription: “Maker of ugly éclairs.”
I am happy to report that today’s attempt went much better than the first time around, and my neighbor gave me a passing grade. She gladly accepted a third of the batch, and the other two thirds will go to my college student son and his housemates who, no doubt, will munch them down with a big happy grin on their faces. The moral of my story is that in the culinary world the learning never stops and practice does indeed make perfect. Until our next visit to the kitchen together: Eat well, my friends!