I have a friend who is on the board of the Ron de Jesus dance company here in Chicago. And he recommended me to make some pastries/baked goods for a reception they were having after one of their performances. So I agreed to do it. Clearly I love baking so it was a great chance to make stuff I really like to make. The reception was supposed to host somewhere around 70 people so I decided to make four different items because that seemed right in my head. David Lebovitz--through his blog--introduced me to chocolate caramel tartlets. Those were the first things I thought of making for this event. They are small, easy and richer than a mofo. Then I thought about eclairs because I've made them before too and I knew I could do it and make a lot of them with some confidence. Also they are kind of fancy--or look fancy and you have a plethora of flavors that you can add to them. I had a hard time at first figuring out what kind of eclairs I wanted to make but eventually I decided on two different flavors.
During my trip to Italy last year I came across Crema Pistacchi (a.k.a. pistachio spread). I had never seen, tasted, or heard of it before but with a tiny sample of it that I got from a vendor selling it out on the street, I realized that I was addicted to it. It's quite possibly the most wonderful thing you will ever taste--sent down from pistachio heaven. So obviously I had to have it and thus I bought some--just a tiny 3.8 ounce jar of it. It was amazing but it's also not cheap. Anyway, on my way back to the U.S. I figured I could just stow it in my carry-on because I wanted it close to me and I didn't want it to break which I was mega paranoid about. But then I got flagged--or rather it got flagged--at airport security and I was told that either I had to throw it away because it was just over the amount allowed or...
OR...I could go back and re-check my bag that contained the tiny--but not tiny enough to get through security-- jar of heavenly pistachio spread and go back through security. I chose the latter. I chose the latter because I figured I would clearly never come across this stuff again and it was my one and only chance to own this jar of amazingness. In the end everything worked out and my pistachio spread came home with me unfettered. I was pleased. However, very shortly after I came back from Italy, Mario Batali's Eataly opened up in Chicago. I trekked over there one day and amongst the various eateries that are contained within this mammoth establishment is also a small market. So as I was perusing the market you'll never guess what I came across... Yes, yes--jars and jars of Crema Pistacchi! All small 3 ounce jars but nevertheless I felt like I had struck gold because this stuff is splendid and I had found a local source. Praise be to Eataly!
But getting back to my eclairs. Eataly has other hard-to-find spreads that are all imported from Italy. Another one that I found was hazelnut spread. Not chocolate hazelnut spread like Nutella (which FYI they have a whole separate dedicated Nutella bar with all things Nutella) but more similar to the pistachio one and equally good. So, after remembering all of this while trying to figure out what flavor of eclairs to make it occurred to me that the higher powers at be were easily convincing me to make pistachio and hazelnut flavored eclairs with a chocolate glaze. It was so clear. Obvi.
For the other two desserts I knew I wanted one more fancy thing and then just a simple one because if I had to make four fancy ones for 70 people I might get a little too stressed. Also, I wanted to make a cake because cake is the best but I didn't think a whole cake would be appropriate at an event like this. But then I remembered financiers.
Bouchon Bakery cookbook had a recipe that I wanted to try out. Traditionally--from what I've read--financiers were made into small rectangular loaves that look kind of like gold bars after they've been baked. The fact that they look like gold bars some how relates to the origin of their name: financiers ===> gold ===> money...stuff like that I guess. I didn't investigate the issue much but I learned something, you've learned something so that's nice. Anyway, you can make them in mini muffin pans too which I had done before but I wanted to make these cool little bars and decorate them with buttercream petals.
I found a place online that's in Philadelphia that sells sheet pans with the molds for them but after ordering one, realizing it was the wrong size, then re-ordering the right sized one and having it delivered overnight I made a visit to Sur la Table and found out that they sell individual molds there that were the same price as the ones I bought online but cheaper with no shipping. So I bought them too because I was mega paranoid again and feared that my other molds that I had over-nighted wouldn't really be over-nighted and I needed a back-up. But I was wrong and needless to say I can make a lot of financiers now.
The last item was a sable cookie. In general, I think cookies are the easiest things to make. A sable is just a butter/sugar roll-out cookie. I found a great recipe on Smitten Kitchen that was a snap to make so I went with it and then pressed some pearl sugar into it. The one adaptation I did make was the vanilla bean I added. I read that if you scrape the seeds into the sugar of a recipe and rub it into the sugar crystals all that great vanilla flavor is fully and truly embedded within the sugar. I guess by rubbing different herbs and spices into the sugar of a recipe it will really enhance the flavor. More learning. As cliche as it may sound, this whole process was really a learning experience.
The biggest worry I had with this project was getting everything done on time and with my own approval. The only way I knew I could make it work was by making one or two components of recipes every night after I got home from work. I did this for a week before the event. I ended up freezing a lot of things so that they would stay fresh. The two things I felt like I could only finish the day of the event were the eclairs and the financiers. I made the eclair shells and the pastry cream a few days before and froze the shells and refrigerated the pastry cream. But I felt like if I had filled them a day or two before they would be soggy and gross. So I waited for that. Also, the financiers were a bit tricky only because I kept reading that they are really only good the day that they are baked--one source said only within a few hours... I was silently freaking out about his. But I tested the recipe a few times before I made them and decided that they tasted fine throughout the whole day. Also, one thing I read that helped was that the batter can be made beforehand and refrigerated--which apparently also helps to let all of the flavors marinade. So I made the batter the night before and baked them on the day of the event which worked out well.
As far as sprucing each of the desserts up was concerned, I wanted to keep it simple--mostly. For the cookies a lot of recipes suggest using "dusting" sugar to coat them. I found this at a few stores but I also had some pearl sugar sitting unopened in my cabinets for months--saving it for a recipe that I have yet to make. So I decided to just use that. For the eclairs, I had mixed the respective nut spreads into the pastry cream but figured I needed some sort of identifier outside of the pastry cream. This came in the form of the respective nut (hazelnut and pistachio)-- in a crushed form sprinkled over the chocolate glaze-- that each eclair housed within its doughy interior.
I actually wanted to dye some modeling white chocolate a pistachio color and a hazelnut color and overlay some fancy design on each eclair but I didn't have the time.. Nonetheless, I think they looked good. The chocolate caramel tartlets were easy with just sprinkling some fleur de sel atop. With the financiers--often people will just sprinkle some powdered sugar on them or set some fruit within the batter which I'm sure is delicious but I love cake and buttercream frosting so I wanted to pipe some butterceam on them--specifically a Biscoff flavored French buttercream. I also had a clear vision of using that petal technique that I've used before--perhaps over-used. It just seemed right...
Everything turned out well. I write that with a good amount of surety. The woman that I was coordinating with for the event sent me a nice message the day after it and said that everything went well and the desserts were a big hit. So that was nice to know.
I'm not sure what I would do differently next time. Aside from some kinks I thought I was pretty organized and prepared. I do think that working in a kitchen for hours on end it a tough job--I don't know that I could do that on a daily basis because I'm exhausted from my measly one week stint--grant it I was working my full time gig simultaneously. But still, I think baking professionally isn't an easy way to make a living. I love cake.