Every year, I say it will be different. I vow to plan ahead, to be prepared. And then it comes. Out of nowhere, it seems. Before I know it, I’m looking at one of the craziest weeks of my life as ill-prepared as the year before. With each passing year, you would think the subsequent wisdom that is supposed to come with age would enlighten me. But it hasn’t.
Last week I was so wrapped up in meal and dessert planning for my son’s birthday dinner, Mother’s Day dinner and an impromptu dinner with our neighbors that I didn’t account for the regular, everyday stuff like meetings, appointments and lobotomies. I entertained at my house on three separate occasions that week, two of which were back-to-back over the weekend. I don’t recommend this unless you have a fairy godmother or a really good therapist who is able to prescribe sedatives. Oh yeah, and I had a birthday too.
But let me just say that there was some serious spoiling going on around here. Spoiling with food, that is. I only wish I had enough time to photograph and post it all. The whole photo-journal process was really slowing me down, so I couldn’t do much of it with all that I had on tap. But I made time for one.
I totally spoiled myself on my birthday. I had to. Many a birthday and holiday have been celebrated without my husband at home. Both Mother’s Day and my birthday this year were no exception. Rather than despair over my lack of princess treatment for these two momentous days in history, I took matters into my own hands and made a dessert worthy of a princess.
I know. I know. I can hear you grumbling already. Before you start making excuses as to why you think you can’t make this dessert, let’s talk about why you can. Looks can be deceiving. You may think this is a super difficult dessert, out of your league even, but it really isn’t. It only looks intimidating. It is completely approachable, as you will see. No fancy techniques or ingredients needed. You just need a little time and some planning. So make the time, because this dessert will garner some oohs and aahs. It’s a show stopper, and everyone will want to stand next to you, say they know you or ask you to make one the next time you go to their house for dinner. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
There are three parts to this recipe: making the pate a chou, making the custard and assembling the whole thing. If you prep your kitchen and ingredients ahead of time, it will come together fairly quickly. Begin by melting a stick of butter into a cup of water over medium high heat. Bring it to a boil.
Remove the pot from the heat and dump a cup of flour into the water and melted butter mixture all at once. Mix well.
It will come together pretty quickly. At this point, put the pot back onto the heat and cook the paste, stirring constantly, for about 2 minutes. You want the paste to be smooth and lose its shine.
After 2 minutes, remove from heat and let it cool for a couple of minutes. The paste will be very hot.
Begin adding the eggs, one by one, mixing well to incorporate the egg into the very warm paste. The paste will have a scalloped look when each egg is added, but it will come back together as you mix.. Mix until the egg is incorporated. Repeat until each egg is combined.
This is what the paste will look like after all 4 eggs are added, one at a time, and incorporated into the water, butter and flour mixture. Your arm will get a little workout.
Divide the paste equally and place into three greased 9-inch round cake pans. I did this by putting an equal spoonful into each pan and repeating until the batter was divided. Think of dealing cards.
Using a small offset spatula, evenly spread the soft paste around to cover the bottom of each pan. It doesn’t have to be exact. You’ll see why.
After the paste has been spread in each pan, sprinkle with finely chopped walnuts and sugar before putting the pans into the oven. The sugar and walnut addition is completely optional. I like the textural enhancement, but you could easily leave it out. Same goes for the sugar.
Place all pans on the same rack, rotating if necessary for even browning, into a 400 degree F oven for 15 minutes. Reduce temp to 350 degrees F for an additional 15 minutes. While they bake it’s time to get started on the custard.
Here’s what you’ll need: whole milk, cornstarch, eggs, Grand Marnier, vanilla and sugar which is already in a pot on my stove top.
Add the cornstarch to the sugar and whisk together. Make sure to breathe in before you do this step otherwise you could inhale a bunch of powder.
Whisk in the milk. By the way, you are doing all of this without any heat yet.
Now the eggs. I strongly recommend breaking them into a bowl, one by one, to insure the egg is good and to avoid any shell fragments that so often do astray. I never used to do this, but recently I did get a bad egg, and now I am a disciple of this method. I hate to throw away food!
Whisk everything together making sure to incorporate the eggs very well. You don’t want pieces of yolk floating around. If you are unsure of the thoroughness of your mixing, let this sit for a second. Any unincorporated yolk bits will float to the top. If that is the case, give it another good whisk and move on. Now it’s time to turn the heat on to medium, whisking constantly, making sure to scrape the bottom. This is probably the hardest part of this dessert because you do have to babysit this, but it only takes about 10 minutes or so for the custard to begin to thicken. Once that happens, remove the pot from the heat source.
I placed my pot into an ice water bath for a short time, just enough to get it cooling down. The custard is very hot and the pot will continue to cook it if left to it’s own devices, and no one wants clumps in their custard. You could easily do this with just cold tap water in your sink. Give the custard about 2 minutes or so to cool down a bit.
While you wait for the custard to cool, go take a peek inside your oven. Check out what the paste transforms into. This is why it is not necessary to stress about the even spreading of the paste. Do your best and realize that it’s going to do all sorts of crazy things once it gets into the oven. Rotate the pans if necessary for even browning and allow them to continue baking.
Then add the vanilla and Grand Marnier. Sweet heaven!
If you wanted to make the custard ahead of time, which you could totally do, you would take a medium sized mixing bowl and add 4 tablespoons of butter and 6 tablespoons of powdered sugar. Mix them together until completely incorporated. Then begin adding one spoonful of the warm custard at a time and mix until the custard is incorporated, repeating until all of the warm custard has been added to the butter and sugar mixture. I didn’t feel the need to dirty up another bowl and I was doing everything all at once, so I just added the butter and sugar by the spoonful into the warm custard and mixed until it was fully incorporated. The key here is to do this before the custard has completely cooled down. Side note: the first time I made this, I completely left this step out by accident. The custard still worked out fine. This step turns the custard into a cream filling and you could use this portion of the recipe for any cake, or unbaked tart filling. You’re welcome.
Adding the butter and sugar to the custard makes it smoother, silkier and oh so luscious. Give the custard a few whisks occasionally so a skin doesn’t form on it before you’re ready to assemble.
By now, the oven timer must be calling for you. Remove the pans and cool for a few minutes on cooling racks.
After almost 10 minutes of cooling, you should be able to easily remove the cakes from the pan by simply lifting it up and placing into the rack to continue cooling. I wouldn’t invert the pans and allow them to fall out. You don’t want to break the puffs.
In a small sauce pan, melt 4 semi-sweet chocolate baking squares and 2 tablespoons of butter over low heat. Do not mix as the chocolate is melting, simply swirl the pan around. I would strongly recommend that you melt the butter over very low heat first and then add the chocolate squares. The melted butter will act as a barrier between the chocolate and the bottom of the sauce pan. Do this because I had problems here and had to do some salvaging of almost scorched chocolate. Stir the chocolate once it is melted.
Using a rubber spatula, allow the chocolate to drizzle over each cake in a very haphazard fashion. You want to avoid pouring the chocolate right out of the pan. Let your spatula hold small amounts of chocolate and let it run off onto the cake.
Allow the chocolate to set. To speed things up, I cleared space in my refrigerator and slipped the racks into it so I could assemble the torte sooner.
Begin building. I size up each layer first to see if they would stack well. If you have one that is lopsided it is best used as the top layer. I placed a small amount of custard on the center of the cake stand to keep the torte from moving around. Place one layer on the stand and spoon half of the custard onto it. The cake is the perfect vessel for the custard. It slides into all the nooks and crannies so easily. You really don’t have to spread it much. You also don’t want the custard to ooze out, so don’t spread it out to the very edge of each layer. The weight of the next layer will help it spread a bit.
Layer number two and the rest of the custard. I had a little custard left over. And it found it’s way into my mouth without any hesitation. When you add this layer, try to get the lower layer to support this layer without causing it to lean. I do this by fitting the puffs of the lower layer into the hole created on the bottom of the next layer. I hope that makes sense. Bottom line: try to get it to not look like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Also, if any custard begins to ooze out and drip down the side, simply scrape it off with a knife. Fit the last layer on top of the other two and refrigerate for at least 2-3 hours. This is where the planning comes in. You need to allow the custard adequate time to set.
I am not one to proclaim a particular dessert as my favorite, but this one is pretty high on my list. I don’t want to hear you sniveling about your diet, the fat content, blah, blah, blah. This is enough to serve 10 to 12 people, and when you break it down it isn’t that bad. It’s health food. Mental health food, and it’s good for your thighs. I made a unilateral decision to say so. Don’t judge. Just eat.
I ate this dessert for the first time at a restaurant called Chatam in Los Angeles when I was a teenager. The recipe comes from a cookbook called Star Food. It’s a compilation of more than 275 recipes featuring the best from Hollywood’s Scandia and Westwood’s (near UCLA) Chatam restaurants and was written by Carole Andersen Travis, the daughter of Chatam owner and chef Carl Andersen.
Chocolate Eclair Torte
2 hours minimum chilling time in addition to prep time
Bring all eggs, milk and butter to room temperature beforehand.
1 recipe pate a chou
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts
1 recipe Quick Custard
4 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons powdered sugar
4 squares semi sweet chocolate (I used Bakers brand)
2 tablespoons butter
Lightly grease 3 9-inch cake pans. Make pate a chou and divide it equally among the pans. With a rubber or offset spatula, spread the paste evenly. Sprinkle the paste with sugar and nuts. Bake in a 400 degree oven for 15 minutes, lower the heat to 350 degrees and continue baking for another 20 minutes, or until paste is well puffed, golden brown and light in weight. Remove the layers from the oven and cool them on racks. The cake layers will be uneven, puffed more in some places than others, but don’t worry.
While the layers are baking, make Quick Custard and cool the pan in a sink or bowl of cold water, stirring occasionally to prevent a crust or skin from forming. Beat the butter and powdered sugar until smooth and add the custard a spoonful at a time, beating all the while. When the custard cream is smooth and the cake layers are cooled completely, melt the chocolate and butter over very low heat. Don’t stir the chocolate-butter mixture while it is melting. When completely melted, stir with a rubber spatula and drizzle over the three cake layers. The object is not to cover the cake layers completely, but to grace the tops of all the puffed areas and drizzle chocolate in between. If you allow the chocolate mixture to simply run off the end of your spatula, you can do a beautiful job. Allow the chocolate to cool and set. Place a layer on a cake plate and spoon half of the custard cream onto it. Most of it should go in the middle; don’t spoon any custard around the edges. Top with the second layer and spoon the other half of the custard cream mostly into the middle of it, as you did the first. Place the third and last layer of the cake over the second layer of custard and gently settle it on. If custard oozes out, scoop it cleanly off with a knife. Chill the cake for at least 2 hours. Cut it with a sharp knife in an up-and-down sawing motion.
Note: You can omit the sugar and nuts from the pate a chou cake layers. You can also pipe whipped cream up the sides of the finished torte, but it is not at all necessary.
Pate a Chou
1 cup water
1/2 cup butter
1 cup flour
4 large eggs
Put water in a fair-sized saucepan that will be good to beat in by hand. Add the butter, cut into chunks. Bring the water to a boil, and when the butter has melted, add the flour all at once. Remove the pan from the heat and beat in the flour with a wooden spoon. When the flour has been absorbed into the water and butter mixture, return the pan to the stove and beat the mixture over moderate heat for approximately 1 minute or until all is combined and of a very smooth consistency. Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool for about 2 minutes. The mixture should still be hot.
Break in an egg and beat with a wooden spoon to combine. The basic roux will break into scallop-type pieces before taking in all the egg. Just keep beating until the mixture is smooth and has lost its shine. Repeat with the remaining eggs, beating them in one at a time.
3/4 cup sugar
4 tablespoons cornstarch
2-1/2 cups milk (I used whole milk)
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier
Whisk the sugar and cornstarch together in a saucepan (not aluminum). Gradually whisk in the milk, making sure the mixture is smooth. Beat in the eggs and whisk until completely combined. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture reaches the boiling point and thickens. This is easily done if you scrape the bottom of the pan with the wire whisk constantly! Be sure to use a heavy saucepan. When the mixture begins to thicken and boil, lift the pan from the heat with one hand and continue whisking with the other. If the custard isn’t thick, put the pan back on the heat, whisk and cook until the proper consistency is reached. Remove from the heat, cool slightly then stir in the vanilla and Grand Marnier.
Note: I used a heavy saucepan that conducts heat quite well. The custard became thick before it got to the point of boiling. Remove from the heat if this happens for you, too.
If you are making the custard ahead of time you will need to add the powdered sugar and butter mixture as referenced in the first recipe instructions before the custard completely cools. To store in the refrigerator, lightly butter waxed paper and press directly onto the surface of the custard until ready to use.