The September 2009 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Steph of A Whisk and a Spoon. She chose the French treat, Vols-au-Vent based on the Puff Pastry recipe by Michel Richard from the cookbook Baking With Julia by Dorie Greenspan.
One thing I have noticed during my time in pastry school is that nearly all of the past Daring Bakers challenges are covered in the curriculum. And why not? Many of the challenges are traditional desserts made with classic elements, just like the things we made in school, which are based on a gradual progression of said elements and the different ways they can be assembled together.
So at the beginning of the month, when I was sitting in the hall at school on my lunch break, checking to see what this month’s challenge was on my phone, I wondered if it was something I had already covered in class. I doubted it was, since I was only a month into the class and had only made a bunch of tarts, cookies, pate a choux and a handful of puff pastry items.
I was actually smack dab in the middle of the puff pastry unit, and was struggling like hell through the insane amounts of rolling (the actual rolling and turning process didn’t bother me, it was the early morning rolling of the pastry that had been chilling overnight that killed me…I’m not so good in the upper body strength department and my lack of height does not give me an awful lot of leverage). I opened the forum and saw the words “get out your rolling pins!”
Oh no. Oh nonononono…
Vols-au-vent. Which I had literally made the day before. And failed miserably at, I have to mention. Mine came out flat – they didn’t rise or poof at all. It was EMBARRASSING. I decided to give the challenge another couple of weeks so I could get over my traumatic first experience with these little towers of buttery yumminess. And you know what?
By the time we hit the second week of puff pastry I was doing just fine. It still took me a little longer than everyone else to roll out my pastry, but I was getting better every day and I was able to haul ass and completely catch up by the time we cleaned up for lunch every day. And I got a 96 on my puff pastry practical, with picture-perfect palmiers and a near-flawless pithivier. My speedy vol-au-vents were slightly less than perfect but I didn’t mind. I surprised the chef who had been after me all throughout the unit to catch up and be faster. I proved that it didn’t matter if I wasn’t the quickest at the start – slow and steady, right?
One of my favorite things about making these at home on my own was that I didn’t have to stick to any recipe exactly. I could make whatever filling I liked and even a variation on the pastry itself. Which I did, quite happily.
We had made chocolate puff pastry in class, which is made by substituting cocoa powder for a small percentage of the flour by weight. Well, I thought to myself as we mixed the beurrage layer (which was going on the outside since it was an inverse base), I know something I like even better than chocolate that is powdered and pretty to boot!
Matcha puff pastry? Has it ever been done before? I don’t know but it’s unlikely. So I went for it.
I am actually very surprised that the matcha vols-au-vent got as puffy as they did – I had quite a lot of trouble with butter breaking up on the inside of the dough as I rolled it. I gave it a couple of extra turns to tuck the butter chunks on the inside and it clearly worked out fine in the end.
I had slightly different plans for the fillings of both versions. I was originally going to make a homemade mascarpone for the larger plain vols-au-vent, but just couldn’t find the time to ferment the cream. I’ve had a very busy week (and have an even busier one ahead of me – eek). I did have some leftover cream cheese from some semi-failed cupcakes a couple of weeks ago, so I just beat it with some orange blossom honey and a dash of orange blossom water before spreading it in and topping with fat, fresh figs and a drizzle of extra honey (plus some cris-crosses of honey on the plate). I actually panicked last night because I had been saving some figs a bit too long and they’d started to go fuzzy on me. I set out for Chinatown last night to find more – and my supply has completely dried up! I gave in and went to Whole Foods, where I paid a little more but got some delicious, lovely Turkish figs that went beautifully with the tangy cheese, sweet honey and buttery pastry shell.
The matcha vols-au-vent were meant to have a chocolate ganache filling to go with the tangy little pomegranate seeds and grassy, bitter pastry, but I realized a bit too late (on the way home last night) that I didn’t have any good chocolate to use for a ganache. However, I did have quite a bit of cream that was no longer going to be made into cheese, so I whipped it and added some powdered sugar. I thought about adding lemon zest and juice directly for flavor but worried about the cream curdling so I just sprinkled some zest onto the cream after piping it into the pastries, then arranged the pomegranate arils on top.
Both versions turned out very tasty but I think I prefer the matcha one – not only is it gorgeous to look at but there are few things I like better than tea, freshly whipped cream and pomegranates. It’s buttery, bitter, sweet, sour and tangy all at once, with the seeds providing a nice crunchiness.
If you’d like to try making flavored puff pastry yourself, you can use any recipe and substitute matcha, cocoa powder or any other powdered flavoring element for 10-20% of the total weight of the flour. I substituted closer to 10% because my matcha is very high quality and quite strong and bitter – I would exercise the same caution with a Dutch process cocoa which is dark and bitter.
Expect to see some tasty palmiers here soon, since I have all the lovely leftover buttery dough hanging out in my freezer!