Monday, December 21, 2015

I Hate this Pastry Bag

This adventure is brought to you by running out of cookies to bring to a Christmas party. Yes, seriously. After divvying up the many cookies, I realized that I didn't have quite enough to bring to a Christmas party. The obvious solution? Make a croquembouche, of course! The idea for this dessert came from two places: first, it was one of the challenges on Master Chef Junior and I figured that if children could do it, I surely could as well and second, my mom got a lovely dessert stand as a gift that honestly looks like it is meant to hold a croquembouche (and nothing else).

What is a croquembouche, you ask? Well, friends, it's a tower of cream puffs held together with caramel and decorated with spun caramel. It's just a lovely and festive dessert. And, conveniently enough, my mom was going to help me bake it! She's so nice. The plan was for me to make the cream puff shells the day before in CT and bring them to NJ for filling and assembly. Long story short: I didn't. No excuses here, just didn't do it. So I got to NJ around 2:00 needing to make the shells, the cream (which has to chill for 2 hours), the caramel, and then assemble everything by 7:00. No pressure, right? Oh, and if you're wondering why I got such a late start, it's because I saw Star Wars at 8:30 am. No regrets - we only paid $14 for 2 tickets.

So, it's possible that when I arrived, my mom got a bit frustrated with me for not telling her that I didn't make the shells but hey, that makes things more interesting, right? We were racing against the clock! We got to work on the pastry cream first since that needed to chill for 2 hours. And by "we" I definitely mean my mom. I'm not sure I did anything with that pastry cream except hand my mom ingredients and bowls and read the directions out loud. But my track record with custard is not the best so I was happy to cede control to my mom. Eventually, the custard started custard-ing and looked very nice so into the fridge it went. We did taste a bit before chilling and it seemed awfully sweet. Oh, I should mention that the recipe called for a really really tall croquembouche and we weren't doing that so we halved the recipe. Dividing by 2 is hard! At one point, we had to figure out the conversion for 1/3 cup to tablespoons because we don't have a 1/6 cup measure. If memory serves, it was 3 tbsp + 1 tsp so dividing by 2 made it 1.5 tbsp + 1/2 tsp. It was a lot of math and a lot of looking for the right measuring instruments. 

Custard in the fridge, time to go buy a Christmas tree! Yes, in the middle of baking, we had to go get a Christmas tree and carry it in and set it up. While I was putting water in the tree stand, my mom basically finished the dough for the pastry shells. I'm not sure I baked any of this dessert. Hmm. Anyway, I took charge of setting up the pastry bag. I hate this pastry bag. There's no other way to say it. It's the worst. It's a slippery, stiff, plastic-y bag that is hard to work with and always makes a mess. Also, I spent at least 5 minutes trying to put the piping tip on which was IMPOSSIBLE. At one point the tip flew across the kitchen. Turns out it didn't fit because it isn't for that pastry bag. Oops. Perhaps that one was user error. But the problem was that we didn't have a large plain tip for piping so we needed to use the large star tip. After a row of piping though, I figure out how to make smooth mounds and it started working out much better. Naturally, I couldn't fit all of the dough in the bag so there was a harrowing refilling process that made a huge mess. Meanwhile as I was piping, my mom was following to brush the puffs with egg wash and smooth out the spikes and scold me for piping them too close together. Joke's on you, mom, they puffed up just fine! 

Beautiful golden brown puffs. Lovely. 

Now it's time to fill the puffs! We were supposed to poke a hole, then fill the center with the cream. The problem is, piping with this bag one-handed is impossible. I had to hold the puff in one hand and pipe with the other and let's just say, it was all coming out the top. And I was getting in trouble for not filling them enough. Eventually I got the hang of that at least but my hands were shaking, my mom was telling me I was doing it wrong, and the greasy bag was just a mess. So my mom took the bag away volunteered to fill the rest. Oh, imagine that, she's having just as much trouble as I did! After a lot of laughing and calling her a smartass for thinking she could do it better, we developed a system where I held the puff while she piped two-handed. It got much easier. Our technique leaves something to be desired but we got it done. 

And then abandonment. My mom had to leave for a dinner and movie and I was left to make the caramel and assemble the whole thing. The caramel was just boiling sugar and water until it turned golden brown and my mom warned me that it can turn on a dime so I was watching very carefully. And watching. And watching. It took at least 10 minutes. I probably could have taken a walk. I also prepared an ice bath to put the pot in as directed to get it to stop cooking immediately once it hit the right color. Eventually, it started to turn brown. It seemed a little light but I noticed the sides were smoking a bit so I put it in the ice bath to be on the safe side. After a quick hiss, the bubbles cleared and behold! Lovely lovely golden brown caramel.

Now to assemble. I had to dip the sides of the puffs in the caramel and place them in a ring to form the base. On the second puff, I just barely nicked the tip of my finger in the caramel. Caramel burns hurt! It wasn't the end of the world but I do have a tiny caramel blister on my finger still. Meanwhile, the caramel is still in the ice bath and is now audibly cracking and hardening very very quickly. By the third puff, it was impossible to dip in the caramel because it was so hard. But, I used my brain (for once) and tossed the pot back on low heat to warm up the caramel and after a few minutes and some stirring, it was the perfect consistency again. I ended up repeating this process several times but it worked well. I stacked up the puffs and I am REALLY proud of how it turned out. Nice and symmetric and I even added some spun caramel as decoration, basically accomplished by using the spoon to drizzle caramel on but it worked great. Apparently I was supposed to use a fork or a broken whisk (a broken whisk? Who saves a broken whisk? Seriously?) but the spoon worked just fine. It probably helped that the caramel was slightly cool. Anyway, it's not as tall and fancy as many croquembouches but I love it just the same. 

I actually made a second one (not pictured) because I had so many leftover puffs. It wasn't quite as tall as the first but was pretty easy to replicate. Not sure why the Master Chef Junior children had such problems with it. Oh, and as for the taste, apparently the pastry shells cut the sweetness of the cream and people liked them. I don't actually eat cream puffs so I wouldn't know. But so pretty! Oh, and I finished the whole thing with an hour to spare. 

I think I need a bigger challenge for the next one. What do you think?

A Disney Moment: Home on the Range

Whoops, apparently I jumped the gun on leaving the last group of five. And nobody even corrected me! Shameful. Although, I can't blame you, dear readers, because Home on the Range is a solid middle of the pack movie and ranked a 3/5 according to my notes. I actually liked this one better than I thought I would because there were a lot of pretty funny background jokes that were going on and overall, it was not taking itself too seriously. But OMG, the yodeling song! This might be the trippiest scene since pink elephants! There are psychedelic cows! The colors! I remember being unable to stop laughing the first time I saw it. You can see it here if you haven't seen it before. It's worth it. I don't really remember the rest but oh boy, that yodeling. 

A Disney Moment: Chicken Little

Apparently my notes were not as good as I thought they were. I'm writing this now but I saw this movie well over a year ago. This group of five includes Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons, Bolt, Princess and the Frog, and Tangled. Two of these are clearly better than the other three. But I don't really remember the first three! I asked my sister to remind me and we determined that Chicken Little ranked a 3/5. Then I asked her why and apparently there was an actual bull in a china shop that I couldn't stop laughing at. So hang on, let me Wikipedia this movie to jog my memory....

Aha! Apparently just seeing the picture of Chicken Little jogged my memory! I loved his huge glasses! And he has the ugly duckling friend! The whole beginning of this movie had such charm! And then...aliens? Ok, things got a little weird at that point and I don't entirely remember so I won't comment. By the way, the Wikipedia entry for this movie was clearly written by an eight year old. So, umm, middle of the road movie but overall not too bad. Maybe I'll watch it again some day and try to figure out what happens in it. 

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