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I love making choux pastry.  To me its quick and easy and I usually have the ingredients without buying anything in.  Like most things I cook over and over again, I have strong memories attached to choux and it always reminds me of the day I got my grandmother’s adoration.

My grandmother, who lived in Athens, would spend a couple of months every winter with us in England before we joined her in Greece for the summer.  Born in Athens, she was one of nine children.  Her parents were very keen on education and sent her away to a French convent until she was eighteen.  I don’t think they did home economics because she couldn’t even boil an egg but did do the most fabulous embroidery.

She married and set up home in Athens and employed an Arab cook who she let run the kitchen.  She was very interested in food but had no interest whatsoever in cooking.  After the war, life changed and she was left in the house alone with only her maid and housekeeper.  It was only after a nasty burglary that she decided to shut up the house and move into the swishest hotel in central Athens, famous for its roof top restaurant and there she stayed for more than sixteen years until she died.

Whilst she loved good food she also had a rather unfortunate reputation for sending things back to the kitchen, for she had a very keen eye and would know if the vegetables were over cooked, or if they were old, or the meat was tough.  She was known to pay a visit to the kitchen to inspect the catch of the day before choosing the fish she wanted cooked.  God help them if they ruined it.  She was known as a very generous tipper.  Even though her regular waiter was a nervous wreck when she appeared in the restaurant, he insisted on serving her for more than twenty years, being very protective of her custom.  Many years after her death I ate in a restaurant where she was remembered fondly with respect.  We laughed at her strict ways and how nervous her waiter Spiro would be when she arrived.   Praise was something given by my grandmother only when it was earned.

So, many years ago when I returned home from school economics with a Tupperware box full of choux pastry éclairs filled with cream and covered with chocolate – she was impressed, so impressed that when I went into the kitchen to sample my delights I found she had eaten the lot.  From then on, every Tuesday when I returned from school she would be eager to know what I had cooked and would remind me how fabulous my chocolate choux éclairs were.  Sadly, nothing matched the heady delights of those first choux éclairs.  The choux éclairs  may be long gone but her praise is still remembered and cherished.

Gougères make an impressive canape without too much fuss.  I have made them plain with just the cheese folded in and a pinch of cayenne or with the addition of a filling of smoked trout pate.  Sometimes I make double the quantity of choux and split the mixture, with one half I fold in the cheese and with the other I bake plain balls which I then fill with cream and top with caramel and toasted almonds.  Savoury and sweet in one recipe.

Gougères

Choux Pastry

Ingredients

Makes about 24 balls

125 ml of half milk and half water

50 gms unsalted butter

75 gms plain flour

2 whole eggs

pinch of salt

60 gms finely grated cheese (I use gruyere)

large pinch of cayenne pepper

Method

Sift the flour and salt twice onto a plate.

Pre heat the oven to 180c/350f/gas mark 4

Put the water, milk and butter into a saucepan and heat slowly, you don’t want the water to boil before the butter melts.

Once the butter has melted bring the water to a brisk boil, remove from the heat and tip in all the flour and pinch of salt at once.  Using a wooden spoon beat the mixture until it forms a ball and leaves the sides of the pan.  At the beginning it doesn’t look like it will ever thicken up but within seconds there should be a ball of paste.  Return the pan back to the heat and roll the ball around for a minute or two to dry it out.

Remove from heat.  Don’t put your eggs in immediately, as they will scramble.

When the pastry has cooled a little start to add the eggs, one at a time, no prior beating necessary.  At this stage I use an electric mixer, once the egg has been combined add the next one and beat again.

Beat the mixture for a minute or two more, it will slightly thicken and become glossy.

Add the majority of the cheese and cayenne pepper and mix well with the wooden spoon, holding back a little cheese to sprinkle over the top of the balls.

Put into a piping bag and pipe small balls onto a baking tray lined with baking paper.  This can also be done by using two teaspoons – the results will be a little more rustic but they will taste just as good.  If there are little peaks dab them down using a wetted finger.

Cook for 20-25 minutes.  At 20 minutes I check to see how they are colouring, at this point they should have risen and should be firm to the touch.  I leave them in the oven until they have all got an overall golden brown colour. Usually another 5-10 minutes.

Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Serve either warm or cold but they need to be made and eaten on the same day.  Sometimes I serve them as they are or sometimes I fill them with smoked trout pate using a icing bag and making a small hole in the side of the ball I pipe in some pate.

I sometimes double up the quantity and fill a second piping bag that is left until the oven is free for the next batch.

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When I was at school we were taught Home economics which included all the basic skills to run a home.  Some of the lessons proved not very useful but others did such as rough puff pastry.  It’s a recipe that can be used in so many ways.  Savoury or sweet and is much easier and much much nicer than anything bought.

Sausage rolls made with rough puff pastry was one of the delights that returned home with me from school after a hard afternoon at the home economics hot house that was known as Santa Maria.  Home economics took up a whole afternoon and we had a choice each term of sewing or cooking.  We all looked forward to those afternoons because they were easy and laid back.

Santa Maria was a detached slightly shabby Victorian house that sat alone in woodland.  We would have to cut across a couple of playing fields to get to it and of course none of us rushed.  So, straight after the lunch register we were free to make our way over to Santa Maria on our own.  We would break up into small groups of girls and take our time finding fresh interest in the surrounding flora and fauna.  A couple of the more flighty ones would disappear off for a smoke.   There was no register taking at Santa Maria so not everyone felt obliged to turn up.

The house itself was lovely;  there was a large light hallway with a large wooden staircase, which no one seemed to go up, what went on upstairs was a mystery to us girls.  The main bay fronted room to the front was the sewing room and the cooking went on in the kitchen and pantry area.  We were split into twos and worked at little tables.  The recipe and instructions were read out to us and we would have to write this down in a notebook in pencil and then work from this.  I wish I had kept my little instruction books as everything was so precise and had a reason.  We also used to doodle hearts with our names plus the boy of the moment on the inside of the covers maybe imagining how blissful married life would be cooking and cleaning for the chosen one!!

Rough Puff Pastry

8oz / 225g plain flour

Pinch of salt

5oz / 140g unsalted butter cut into little squares

Very cold to icy water

Sift the flour and the pinch of salt into a bowl.  Add the butter squares.  Without rubbing in the butter add the water – there is no real measure you will need to add the water a tablespoon at a time.  Start by adding 4 tablespoons and if the mixture doesn’t blind together add another – remember you can add water but you can’t take it away!

Use a knife to incorporate the water and then use your hands, knead very lightly you just want to bring the ingredients together to form one ball.

Wrap the pastry and let it relax in a fridge for 10 minutes or longer.

After ten minutes take the pastry out and on a floured board and a floured rolling pin roll the pastry into a strip 12” x 4” or 30 x 10 cm.  Take this stage slowly and remember to roll away from you.  Don’t roll back and forth just press down firmly with the rolling pin and push away trying not to over stretch or break the pastry.

Now turn the pastry so it is in a long strip in front of you, fold the left side over and then the right side over this so it’s like a book.  Keeping the pastry with the fold to your left roll out again to 1/2”/1 cm thick.  Now fold this again in three and put wrapped in a freezer bag in the fridge to rest for 15 minutes or more.

Repeat the same process again by rolling into a strip and folding over twice.  Place back into freezer bag and into the fridge to rest for 15 minutes or more.

Roll and fold again one more time.  The pastry should be flexible and there should be no big streaks of butter showing.

Roll into shape and rest once more before cooking.

I prefer to cut my pastry into a pie shape or if I wanted to be posh a chapeau and cook it on a baking tray adding it on top of my pie filling when cooked.

If you use an egg wash on the top don’t brush it all the way across to the edge as this will seal the edge and stop the pastry from rising.

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