Holiday Baking Revisited 3/3 – Mendl’s Courtesan au Chocolat

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A few months ago Asher took me out on a date. Apart from the treat of having time together, he wanted to show me a newly released Wes Anderson movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Having already enjoyed his version of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, we were again delighted by his quirky storytelling style. For me especially it was the dessert-like visuals that were a significant part of the attraction. In it’s early 20th Century heyday the hotel itself was styled like a chocolate box and the pastries produced by the lovely Agatha at Mendl’s patisserie almost claim a staring role. We bought a copy of the dvd later and, on watching it again with family, were treated to an ‘extras’ video clip to warm the heart of any baker. Agatha herself demonstrates how to make the signature pastry of the movie – the Courtesan au Chocolat! After receiving some very inspirational baking cookbooks for Christmas and my birthday I was very keen to have a go at baking something beautiful and my brother Jonno obliged by having a birthday, providing me with the perfect excuse to try the recipe out. He isn’t much of a fan of super rich chocolate desserts but loves crème pâtissière so I substituted this SBS crème pâtissière recipe as the filling. I also did a little bit of chocolate piping instead of just using buttercream for the swirls on each puff and used icing flowers rather than the coco beans I did not have at home. Although they took a concerted effort for most of the morning and a few extra hands to make, I loved creating this dainty dessert. It was also lovely that they were very well received by family and friends alike! Thanks to Rachel Sanders from BuzzFeed who wrote out the instructions from the video clip to make it easier to write this method … which I changed a little.

Pastry Ingredients (Choux pastry):
1 cup plain flour
1 cup fresh water
113g butter
4 eggs beaten in a bowl
A pinch of salt
A larger pinch of sugar

Pastry Method:
1. Preheat the oven to 180oC.
2. Bring the water, butter salt and sugar to a boil.
3. Remove from the fire (stove top) and quickly mix in the sifted flour.
4. Return to heat for a few minutes, stirring, and cook until the dough forms a single lump.
5. Allow to cool just enough to keep the eggs from cooking and stir in very gradually with a strong wooden spoon.
6. Cover your tray in parchment and pipe the dough into spoon size dollops. You will need small, medium, and large size pastry balls (large tablespoon, teaspoon and hazelnut size dollops) to make a courtesan.
7. Bake in the oven at (180oC) for about 25-35 minutes. The smaller pastries are best put on a separate tray as they will cook more quickly.
8. Remove from the oven and discreetly make a small piercing in the choux to allow the steam to escape.

Alternate Vanilla Filling (Crème pâtissière):
1 litre milk
250 g white sugar (65g and then 185g)
2 tsp of vanilla been paste (or to taste)
50 g unsalted butter
2 eggs plus 4 egg yolks
120 g cornflour

Filling Method:
1. Combine the milk, 65g of the sugar, the vanilla been paste and butter in a large saucepan. The mixture needs to be heated gently till quite hot and then removed from the heat.
2. While the milk mixture is heating, the rest of the sugar needs to be whisked (or beaten with lovely old fashioned eggbeaters like I got for my birthday, another post to come soon!) through the both the eggs and egg yolks. The mixture will become thicker and pale as it is whisked.
3. A little of the cornflour is added to the egg mixture, which is then beaten again to combine, along with some of the hot milk (the cornflour is more easily incorporated into a cold mixture).
4. The hot milk needs to be returned to the stove top at a medium heat once the egg mixture has been added and whisked through it.
5. The whole custard now needs to be stirred constantly till the whole custard thickens. It will probably take about three minutes for the cornflour and eggs to work their magic on the milk after which you will have a beautiful thick, glossy custard.
6. The custard needs to be cooled in a clean bowl before it can be used in the pastry.

Pastel Icing:
This needs to be made in three different colours and is a simple mixture of icing sugar and milk made up to a ratio of your own choosing – it does however, need to be thick enough to stick to the pastry puffs but runny enough to drizzle artistically down the sides of each puff pleasingly. One day I will meticulously develop a recipe for the perfect ratio of milk to icing sugar and until then I will continue to guess and inevitably make a runny mess up every so often! In the movie the bottom layer is iced with purple, the middle is green and the top is pink – with the smaller balls requiring less icing.

Buttercream Icing:
I chose to make this in a soft yellow, in the movie they seem to use a cream coloured buttercream icing and a pastel blue. Made of icing sugar, butter and a touch of milk I have provided a recipe that the Women’s Weekly use in their cake decorating books but feel free to use this as a start and play with the consistency to suit your needs. The ingredients need to be beaten together before being piped onto the cake.

125g butter
1 1/2 cups icing sugar
2 tablespoons of milk
yellow and/or blue colouring

To Assemble:
1. Firstly, the puffs of pastry need to be filled with crème pâtissière using a piping bag and smallish (0.5-1cm wide) nozzle poked into the ‘cooling vent’ – the hole you cut earlier.
2. Ice the pastry puffs with colours that correspond to the picture and instructions above (… or come up with your own colour scheme).
3. Allow the pastry to set before piping decorations with the yellow butter cream (I also did some chocolate piping – although managing the temperature and runny-ness of the chocolate made this more difficult) … this could also be done after layering with less risk to the pretty filigree piping but more difficulty in maouvering around a constructed pastry.
4. Use the blue buttercream (if desired) to ‘glue’ the pastry puffs on top of each other, largest ball first, followed by the medium and the smallest (we also used kebab stick cut to size to prevent collapsing).
5. Top with a small rosette of buttercream (or chocolate in my case) and either a cocobean (as per the movie) or pretty icing flower.

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