Saturday, December 25, 2010

What Happens When the French Get Ahold of Ice Cream Sandwiches

I remember the first time I ever had profiteroles. I was six. My parents were having a fancy cocktail party, the sort of affair where they hired a bartender to serve guests and I was banished from the first floor of the house for the duration, sent to watch TV and movies in their bedroom. As incentive for staying out of sight for the night, I got my own plate of party food. I really have always loved hors d'oeuvres so this was a major treat, right up there with delivery pizza and Swanson's TV dinners with the square-shaped brownie. My plate that evening included something mysterious called "profiteroles." They were magic, combining everything that is great about eclairs with the best of that dessert classic, ice cream. I fell for them hard.

Profiteroles are simply pastry puffs (think cream puff or eclair - they're made of the same dough, called pâte à choux), filled with ice cream and covered in chocolate sauce. They are the elegant French answer to the ice cream sandwich. You eat them with a fork. They are dignified. Except for the times that they slide off your plate and reenact that escargot scene in Pretty Woman. But they wouldn't be authentically French if they weren't at least a little bit challenging to eat.

Profiteroles have become increasingly popular in our house as a special Christmas dessert -- partly because there's chocolate involved, and partly because we can get multiple flavors of ice cream, meaning everyone gets what they want for a filling. Vanilla is de rigeur, but I also like coffee ice cream and the pure mint flavor Haagen-Dazs makes (sans chips), which tastes like an elegant frozen Thin Mint in ice cream sandwich form. I'm also angling to try some caramel ice cream the next time I make these. I get the sense that would be excellent.

Profiteroles are really not that difficult to make as long as you have your ingredients measured and prepped in advance because the process moves kind of quickly and doesn't stop for hesitant cooks. The dough can be a bit finicky and sometimes my profiterole shells don't rise and I have no idea why. Other times they puff up perfectly. Either way, they always taste alright, even if they are less "puff" and more "flying saucer."

The recipe we traditionally use is from The Silver Palate Cookbook, but I am inclined to begin looking for new versions as the part where you beat in each egg individually with a wooden spoon is tedious, difficult, and borderline painful, especially if you overdid it with the arm and shoulder exercises at the gym the day before.

That said, I am now typing this from bed, ending a full-on kitchen blitz of cooking all day after getting up early for 7:30am mass, where all the other parishoners - all 30 of them - and by the way, our church holds something like 600 people - looked like John Slattery or Betty White because no one under the age of 50 goes to the early mass. The priest himself was a ripe 86, but at least he had a good sense of humor on him, which I greatly appreciated given that I was working on not forgetting the Nicene Creed after having run out the door without coffee.

Today's Christmas feast included but was not limited to: brunch of smoked salmon and bagels with cream cheese, dill, and capers (my favorite!), fresh berry fruit salad, amazing peppered scrambled eggs, bacon, fresh-squeezed blood orange mimosas (Thanks Jen for that bit of inspiration!), and I can't even remember what else, followed by dinner involving the most wonderful, tender, meaty beef tenderloin, kale sauteed with bacon, chestnut-mushroom soup featuring freshly roasted chestnuts (they are a LOT of work, if you ever are in the market for these just buy jarred), a lovely winter salad, haricot verts, wild rice pilaf with pine nuts and brandied currants, and, of course, pecan pie and the profiteroles. I was responsible for about half the day's menu. I am wiped out. The prospect of leaving bed to go back downstairs to grab the cookbook to retype the recipes I just read and made is not that appealing. So I'll just leave you with pictures and some thoughts and if you are really dying to make profiteroles, you can email me.

I always start this recipe by making the chocolate sauce first, because it can just sit, covered, until you're ready to serve the profiteroles. This recipe makes about 6 times as much chocolate sauce as you could possibly need. The one scary thing about the chocolate sauce recipe is that you have to keep it at a "controlled boil" for 9 minutes (I don't know why not 8 or 10), which looks like the below image. Once you've got it there, it won't boil over, but it's hard to trust that it really won't pull a Vesuvius and turn your stove into a cleanup nightmare as it bubbles so perilously close to the top of the pot.

An illustration of The Price is Right maxim "closest without going over." 
After that's done, the sauce has to cool 15 minutes before you can add the liquor flavoring (so you don't accidentally flambe something, like yourself). The recipe calls for a tablespoon of rum but I always use Grand Marnier because I like the combination with the chocolate.

Next, I get started on the pâte à choux. As the name indicates en Francais, it's a dough that looks like cabbages. Don't let that sidetrack you, the French call potatoes "apples of the ground" and I really think that's a bit of a stretch, too.

I always start this recipe, after having prepped my ingredients, by taking a deep breath. Because at some point, this always gets ugly. Then, I boil some basic ingredients - water, butter, sugar, and salt.

So far so good. I manage not to screw up the basic task of melting butter in water and bringing it to a boil. This concoction gets removed from the heat and a cup of sifted flour gets added. Yes, it has to be sifted. This is no time for lumps.

"It looks like a disaster, but it will come together, I promise"
is what my internal monologue sounds like at this stage.
Eventually, with some serious mixing, the ball of glue will form itself into a neat lump in the middle of the pot, cleaning all dough off the sides. Isn't that nice of it?

Well, this dough is about tough love and that lump is about as nice as it gets. Let it cool for a couple of minutes and then you get to deal with the egg situation. This tends to be where my annual breakdown happens, 2010 being no exception. The dough is quite elastic and it doesn't really like to mix with the eggs, like the boys and girls at a 6th grade dance. So you really have to work for it. I sometimes talk to the dough. Sometimes I try to coax it with loving words into submitting to my will. Sometimes I am mean. This year I decided to rise above that (Christmas spirit and all) and use a handheld electric mixer.

Here's what that looked like, two out of four eggs into the process:

Do you see the bits of dough all over the stove, counter, and cookbook? I couldn't also get the ones on  the floor or myself in frame, so you'll have to use your imagination. I later found some in my hair. This is not what I was aiming for.

While I was busy spraying Mom's lovely kitchen with dough, Mom herself was at the adjacent counter trying somewhat unsucessfully to peel freshly roasted chestnuts, accompanied by the kind of cursing you might hear at a Tourette's Convention. It was not our best kitchen moment of the day.

I went back to the painful wooden spoon method (possibly one of the torture methods used during the Spanish Inquisition) and beat the hell out of the dough to incorporate the last two eggs. When you do this right, you are rewarded with beautiful, smooth, shiny dough, and one very sore arm. At last, success.

C'est magnifique!
 There's no time to gloat over your shiny dough, though. You've got to hop to it and get this stuff in the oven before it sits too long. My personal theory is that delays actually affect the rise.  My cousin is a pastry chef, so I'm going to press her for details on this when I see her Monday and will report back.

I like to spoon the dough into a TSA-quality quart-sized zipper bag and then cut off one of the corners so it lets out about a thick stream of dough. All the better to pipe with, my dear, right onto your prepared parchment-lined cookie sheets.

When piping, the idea is to aim for a rounded shape, maybe the size of a silver dollar, if anyone even knows what that is anymore. The sheets go into the oven ASAP at 450 degrees for five minutes; then the oven temperature gets dropped to 350 and they bake for another 15 to 20 minutes. No door opening during this time!

Newly introduced to the oven. Had to snap this quickly and shut the door fast!
 When the timer goes off, here's what emerges:

Golden puffs of pastry goodness

You could, at this point, treat these like eclairs or cream puffs and fill them with pastry or whipped cream, if you were so inclined. But I think those options pale in comparison to the magnificence of the ice-cream-sandwich-meets-hot fudge-sundae mashup that is the profiterole. Just slice the puffs in half, add a small scoop of ice cream, pour a little of the sinfully rich chocolate sauce on top, and voila! Profiteroles!

This is one of those times when a picture is worth a thousand words.

And here's another one of those times.

Yes, Rocky is using the gifts as a pillow.

A very, very merry Christmas to everyone!

1 comment:

Kathleen said...

Oh, I missed seeing you (and having profiteroles) over Christmas!