“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.” Julia Child
I have a problem with authority. In cooking it’s seemingly manifesting itself as a disregard for instructions. I made choux pastry for the first time this week and the results were delivered straight into the smug jaws of the kitchen bin. I was puzzled and hurt by my inability to make something so straightforward. As I had piped the oozy batter onto the sheets I felt something was awry but I had followed the instructions and, through lack of knowing any different, I waited for those sloppy golden slugs to start resembling the picture from the recipe. That moment never came.
Investigation revealed that I had failed to add any water. Water, in choux pastry, is very important. Attempt number two was magnificent and I proudly removed a sheet of puffy golden mini eclair cases from the oven, but my misdemeanours were far from over.
I made the most beautiful coffee flavoured whipped mascarpone cream to fill them with and it was truly, fluffily, silkily addictive. These little eclairs were to be topped with a salted caramel icing and the combination of light choux, dark coffee, rich cream and sweet, salty highlights were intended to be the ultimate sensory indulgence. When making the icing I threw all of the ingredients into a pan before fully comprehending that I had to melt the brown sugar in butter before adding icing sugar. The recipe instructed that the brown sugar and butter became truly liquid before the icing sugar did its job and turned the mixture into a silky, golden glaze. It would seem that boiling icing sugar, butter and brown sugar (regardless of how long or how hot) produces a grainy, liquid sauce; all right tastes and wrong textures. I covered the eclairs impatiently before I realised how distracting the mouth feel of the icing was, if I had paid closer attention I would have improvised a classic covering of plain chocolate. Behold my first real, irreparable failure since starting this journey.
I’m grateful for my mistakes; grateful that they are happening now and not once I start a course in which every dish is critiqued. As much as immediate success can build confidence, I believe that real confidence comes from knowledge and knowledge comes most authentically from failure. It’s not useful to me to make something perfect, it’s useful to me to know that choux pastry demands water and brown sugar requires dissolving.
I was left with an abundance of entrancing coffee mascarpone cream, all fluffed up and nowhere to go. I had also spent the previous day investing in some puff pastry, which was currently residing in the freezer. I thought of my too-liquid Crème Pat from two weeks ago and formulated a “what-the-hell” back up plan. I would cut and bake little rectangles of puff pastry and I would make magnificent coffee-custard Mille Feuille. I would have an opportunity to inspect the fruits of my puff pastry labour and I would have the chance to make an improved, pipe-able Crème Pat.
A recent failure became an opportunity to correct a previous error. I cooked the custard until it was thick and resembled the type of dense formula found only in bakery custard slices. Speckled with vanilla I took great pleasure in piping it onto the puff pastry (a roaring, light, crispy success) and layering it with the whipped coffee cream.
It was an intense pastry, I prefer my Mille Feuille with fresher, fruity flavours and textures but this creature was a product of a broken home and a great deal of improvisation.