15 December 2016

I Think This Just Might Be My Masterpiece

Those 15 pounds I lost while in Texas? They're back. Still, 'tis the holiday season, and one anticipates a certain amount of weight gain . . . except perhaps in this land of year-round beach-going and tiny bikinis.

Some people enjoy participation in competitive sports. I am not one of those people. Well, I do enjoy golf; but arguably golf is more of a game than a sport, and a drinking game at that, which explains my love of the game. Baking constitutes my new competition.

My friend Becky introduced me to The Great British Baking Show. It’s baking, not cooking, my friends. Need I explain further? Those Brits . . . unlike so many U.S. Food Network competitions, the bakers of The Great British Baking Show speak with politeness and humor . . . not to mention that delightful accent. You’ll not find aggression – no hostile rivalries as with the U.S. shows. What you will find is pastries and breads galore, beautiful in appearance and with almost unbelievable flavor combinations. Cardamon, masala chai, and basil . . . together in a single dessert -- what genius home-cooks think of this stuff? Nevertheless, while watching in Texas I wanted to scamper away from the T.V., raid Becky’s pantry, and prepare items such as malt-cream and ginger-lime cream horns or marula liqueur and coffee crème brûlée. Then there are the classics: éclairs and cream puffs, for which one needs the pastry dough known as pâte à choux (or choux pastry). Pronounce it with me: pah-ta-shoe.

I’ve never been a baker. Even box cake mixes presented a challenge in my youth. Years ago I tried all that French and Danish and Viennese pastry stuff and became well acquainted with the term epic failure. Why I waited until moving to Costa Rica to perfect my baking skills remains a mystery. I’m baking in a country without good quality (I’m not seeking great) butter, flour, and sugar. And then there’s the challenge of making meringues in a land of high humidity. Adding to the challenge is the absence of seemingly simple items such as bread flour, cake flour, and those items that surely you always keep in your own pantry, muscovado and caster sugars. It gets worse. Recipes from The Great British Baking Show are easy to find, but what on earth is strong white bread flour? Is there a weak white bread flour? Is icing sugar the same as confectioner sugar? [Yeah, it is.]

Today I'll prepare ginger-lime cream horns. Well, at least I'm preparing for the assembly of the cream horns. Today we're preparing the candied lime peel and ginger-lime curd. These items can (and in my opinion should) be made ahead to avoid last-minute panic and too many must-be-perfectly-timed tasks for one afternoon. So the ginger-lime curd will be mixed with marscapone to fill the cream horns, and the candied lime peel will garnish and adorn the cream filling. Sounds great . . . both the peel and the curd are easily prepared . . . what could possibly go wrong? Well, how about this: The PBS's translation of the BBC's recipe calls for 150 grams of lime juice. Now any 8th grade science student knows that liquids must be measured by volume, not by weight. Will 150 grams of honey have the same volume as 150 grams of water? Of course not. Mass, people . . . mass. To quote Alton Brown: Science, it's what's for dinner. Better yet, from Breaking Bad: Scieince, yeah! So I'm all over that metric thing, but give me the amount of lime juice in milliliters or even CCs . . . not a weighted measure such as grams.The curd's texture was perfect (my best ever); but the tartness of the curd clearly indicated that there was too much lime juice in 150 grams of liquid.

Here at Mil Colinas our stove top runs on a small propane tank. When the propane goes there is no stove-top cooking. Last week we ran out of propane . . . naturally right in the middle of preparing a meal. Now this empty propane tank couldn't have been due to the fact that I tried making pâte à choux no less than three times over two consecutive days, and this process involves considerable stove-top preparation time. Surprising is the fact that so many baked items, let's just say desserts, require some amount of stove-top preparation. Creme anglaise, pastry cream, crème brûlée, why even a simple two-ingredient chocolate torte (which I could make in my sleep) requires scaled cream . . . and thus propane.

But today we procured propane, so I'm back in business. Back to that pâte à choux. Now pâte à choux, for those of you who don't know and do not care, involves a very simple process of melting butter, a tablespoon of sugar, and a pinch of salt in a cup of boiling water. That's it. It's sounds too simple. To the boiling water one tumps in, all at one time, a cup of flour. Within moments the mixture balls-up as you stir with your wooden spoon. Then in goes the ball to your electric mixer to cool a bit. To that simple ball of floury dough you add, one at a time, four or five eggs. And that is it, my friends: pâte à choux! It's not rocket surgery. After mixing until it holds its shape on the mixer paddle, you simply place it into your preferred shape on a baking sheet -- round blobs for cream puffs, little logs for éclairs. What they should do in the oven involves some science of gluten that only Alton Brown can explain; but the gist is that they more than double in size with a crispy, golden crust leaving an empty pocket of air in the center to be filled with anything from jelly, to pastry cream, to savory goat cheese with caramelized onions.Yes, that's right -- bring on the chevre and caramelized onions!

So Becky and I were watching some Food Network competition in which an experienced pastry chef, Duff Goldman, coached/judged our contestants' éclairs, and thus their pâte à choux. I remarked to Becky that years ago I made, unsuccessfully, cream puffs at least seven or eight times. And then it happened: Duff remarked to the contestants that often his staff bakers make up to thirty (30) attempts at pâte à choux before perfecting the technique. Becky calmly turned to me and stated that I had 22 more tries to get it right. No, no, no, no, no! Thus the competitor in me returned to Costa Rica determined to make perfect cream puff and/or éclairs in only one or two tries.

The first batch failed to rise - weren't even worthy of tasting. What went wrong? Humidity (obvious answer) . . . that quick-as-a-wink peek into the oven that allowed a wee bit (but just enough) steam to escape . . . too many eggs . . . Costa Rica's questionable flour . . . flour not being strong enough to create mysterious gluten science . . . my Fahrenheit to Celsius conversion? For such a simple recipe, there are still too many variables to identify my error. Over the cliffside they went. With the second batch I saw an improved rise, but those little éclairs totally lacked any inside hole into which I could pipe my beautiful creme anglaise. Though the crust was golden and crispy, the inside remained still doughy. Over the cliff they went. We have very plump and happy pizotes and mapache. They leave us Thank You notes.

Batch three required our old pal, Alton Brown.-- the go-to for a scientific method; and indeed Alton's recipe is just enough different that it could work. I used weighed ingredients instead of cups/volume measurements. I saw a marked improvement, but the interior around that beautiful, yes-it-was-indeed-fillable hole was still a bit doughy. So close . . . yet so far. You guessed it -- over the cliff. I'm on attempt number eleven.

Now if you've made it this far reading this post and haven't slipped into a coma from boredom, you might ask: what has this to do with living in Costa Rica? Well I've described the challenges of Costa Rica's ingredients, or lack thereof, and its humidity. But the real take-away of this experience is: I will not be defeated by some flour, eggs, and water! It's a metaphor for life, I suppose . . . though I refuse to get on a philosophical or existential rant here. Suffice to say that I'm happiest in the kitchen creating even epic failures of pastries, cakes, and custards. Perseverance . . . my pal Rob knows all about it, as does Peter. As for me, I sleep well knowing that our mountain wildlife are plumping up for dry season. . . as am I. Lo que hay.