I have always dreamed of being a master piper. Pied Piper. Although I inherited my father’s piping tools, the pastry bag, now yellowed and stiff, and the many tips, somewhat tarnished and dented, I have never had the patience or the steady hand to pipe as he did. Swirls and squiggles, elegant roses or one’s very own name piped across the surface of a cake, pink or red or blue against the very white of the frosting. Happy Birthday Piping green leaves; press the tip just under the rose, squeeze, lift and pull. Piping edges around the cake, top and bottom, piping sweet frosting shells or rosettes, zigzags or beads. Or swags of buttercream all around the sides, dotted with pearls.
I pipe out rounds of thick, creamy batter for perfectly round macaron shells. I pipe out choux dough for long, smooth éclairs. Hold the filled pastry bag at just the right angle, nose down, one hand supporting and guiding the pouch and the tip, the other hand gently, gently applying pressure, even and subtle, knowing just when to ease up, a sharp flick of the wrist and it’s done. Piping row upon row of meringue; meringue stars, meringue mounds, long, narrow tubes of meringue, gives me no trouble at all. On the contrary, I love piping, pushing out batter, dough and meringue from a pastry bag and I am pretty darn good at it.
But I have tried my hand at piping frosting, buttercream or ganache, and have failed. Oh, I can make star shapes with the star tip, plop plop plop, a piping basic, fancy in its way, but not a lot more. I pipe and although my choux and my macarons are expert, perfectly piped, I cannot for the life of me pipe anything in buttercream but a mess. Scrape it off or smear it in and finally just give up.
Morning coffee, mugs of tea. Soup. I have an odd predilection. I need my hot drinks, my hot liquids piping hot. Pop a mug of something (morning café au lait reheated and ten and again at four, a bowl of soup from the refrigerator or a box for a solo lunch at noon) and zap on high. Heat.
I was once told that my great-grandfather, an aged gentleman, educated, once wealthy then down on his luck, a man who never had the chance to leave his native Russia yet sent his son and then his daughters one by one, had this same idiosyncrasy, this same compulsion; he drank cup after cup of piping hot, boiling hot tea.
All winter long I bathe in piping hot water. Like my coffee, my tea, and my soup, I need, I require my bath water to be piping hot. Submerge my body bit by bit (for it is blazing, scorching, steaming) down into the bath water, until I am under the piping hot water, under a thick layer of bubbles, up to my neck. And when the temperature dips ever so slightly, out I climb, skin slick and pink like a newborn.
I am a woman of extremes.
Wedding cake: Pipe Dreams
It was going to be a small wedding, a quick dash to City Hall, appear before the mayor, sign the documents and leave. Head home to a small, intimate celebration. A family affair and no more. We were as poor as church mice and even if we had wanted a fancy do, well, we wouldn’t have been able to afford it. But it made no difference because we weren’t that sort of couple. Duck into City Hall, tie the knot and that was all we desired. But we had to have his family and he had invited a few friends and we were twelve in all. He found an old suit in a pawnshop for which he traded a clarinet, owner unknown. Good old fashioned bartering. I purchased a few odds and ends in white and blue and his sister created my bouquet.
All that was left was the cake. I made two. But one, a dense, dark, gooey chocolate cake, sinful as can be, would be layered and frosted with a heavenly cognac buttercream that I would make in my soon-to-be mother-in-law’s kitchen, piping on perfect flourishes I had imagined in my head, swirls and curlicues and flowers. It was nearing the end of July, a scorching July, sweltering, torrid, piping hot summer. The windows were thrown open but little air entered that long, narrow kitchen. The heat of the July afternoon was compounded by the heat of the oven as I baked my wedding cakes, increased by the heat of the stove as we prepared a wedding meal.
Cakes cooled, I proceeded to the buttercream, my hopes, my vision soaring somewhere slightly above my aspirations where the wedding itself was concerned. This was going to be the wedding cake to end all wedding cakes. A drop dead gorgeous wedding cake. I beat the eggs and sugar over a flame and the sweat began to drip down my body, beads of sweat gathered on my brow as the temperatures climbed. I tossed in butter, cube by cube, whipping that buttercream until elegant ribbons spiraled and fell from my beaters. I added espresso and cognac and then I noticed that the buttercream was melting as I was melting in the afternoon heat.
I frosted the cake, now working as quickly as I could. I spooned cognac buttercream into my pastry bag and began piping. The buttercream began to weep like damsels crying over lost love. It became sloppy, melting and separating faster than I could pipe it onto the surface of the cake, puddles of cognac appearing from within the depths of that buttercream, refusing to blend back in. Lovely loops and my attempt at piping I don’t remember what (our names? The date? Happy wedding?) were swallowed up in a sloppy sea of buttercream, my piping dissipating into a greasy disarray. What began as velvety frosty and graceful piping for a wedding cake had become a hot mess.
I gave up, never piping our names on our wedding cake.
The old piping would rattle and vibrate, clatter and jangle, seeming to come to life only at night as the lights were dimmed and the shutters closed, as we slid in between the chilly sheets, under the heavy down quilt. The silence outside magnified the noise coming from the piping within the walls.
11 Pipers Piping. Little boys given recorders on the first day of school. Everyone had to learn to pipe, although I never really understood why. Little boys standing in their bedrooms, reluctantly gripping recorders, filling their pipes with air and blowing, halfheartedly piping out tunes. Year in and year out, never piping better one year than the year before. There is still a collection of recorders tucked away in a cardboard box somewhere.
Pipe up. My specialty was fabric hats, cloches, berets, Borsalinos, baseball caps in cotton, linen or silk, cashmere and wool. Hats all dolled up with feathers and blooms, great big blowsy silk roses or tiny cotton and velvet buds. Sometimes I edged the brims with contrasting fabric and sometimes I added piping. Edging a hat with piping was a complicated affair; well, more fiddly, fussy and time-consuming than difficult. A length of cotton cording, more or less thin, more or less thick, would be tucked inside a length of fabric (cut on the bias), which would be folded over the cording and carefully stitched inside. This band would then be stitched to the outer edge of the unsewn brim. The layers of brim fabric would then be pinned together and then sew together, the needle bobbing up and down up and down flush with the fabric-wrapped cording so when turned right side out the piping would run smoothly and tightly all around the outer edge of the brim et voilà! Piping!
I grew up watching my father make choux, filling them with chilled pudding in a variety of flavors. Since marrying a Frenchman and raising French sons, I now take my dad’s choux and make them into éclairs. Chocolate éclairs are really the best, but I love topping them with a chocolate ganache with a touch of orange for a twist on the classic chocolate glaze.
JAMIE’S CHOCOLATE ÉCLAIRS
1/3 cup (80 ml) milk
1/3 cup (80 ml) water
5 Tbs (70 g) unsalted butter
1 large pinch salt
1 Tbs (10 g) granulated white sugar
4/5 cup (100 g) flour
2 large eggs
Preheat the oven temperature to 300° (150°C). Line a large baking sheet with parchment or oven paper.
Place the milk and water, the butter cut in cubes, the sugar and salt in a pot and heat over high heat. Bring to the boil; allow to boil for about 3 seconds. Remove from the heat and add the flour all at once. Stir to blend and then mix vigorously until it is homogenous. Return the pot to the heat and “dry” the dough by stirring vigorously and cooking for 30 seconds to 1 minute until the dough no longer sticks to either the pot or the spatula. Allow to cool slightly. Lightly beat the eggs then whisk or beat into the dough a little at a time. Add a little more than 2/3 of the egg or as much as just under the full 2 eggs (you should have at least a tablespoon of egg left), and the dough slowly falls off the spoon or spatula when lifted (not too fast).
Spoon the choux dough into a pastry bag fitted with a plain, 3/4 –inch (20 mm) wide tip. Holding the pastry bag at a 45° angle from the baking sheet, pipe even, regular tubes of dough 5 ½-inches (14 cm) long onto the lined baking sheet, slicing the end away from the tip with a sharp knife; you can also pipe out large mounds for round choux puffs. Leave space all around the choux/éclair dough to allow for puffing and spreading while baking.
Using your fingertips or a pastry brush, gently rub and coat the éclair dough with the egg, smoothing the shapes as needed. If you want to top the éclairs simply with slivered almonds, sprinkle the éclairs/choux generously with them now, pressing them gently to stick to the egg wash. Bake for about 1 hour until puffed and evenly colored a deep golden. You can prop the oven open slightly the last 5 or 10 minutes of the baking to allow steam to escape. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a rack.
Chocolate Pastry Cream:
1 cup (225 ml) + ¼ cup (50 ml), separated
3 oz (80 g) finely chopped semisweet chocolate
2 Tbs cornstarch
6 Tbs (100 g) sugar
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
2 Tbs (30 g) unsalted butter (at room temperature makes it easier)
1 tsp vanilla or half a vanilla bean, split lengthwise, seeds scraped out *
* If using a half vanilla bean/pod, split the pod down the center and scrape out the seeds. Place both the pod and the seeds and the 1 cup milk in the pot. Remove the pod once the pastry cream is made and before pouring it into a bowl to chill in the refrigerator.
Bring the ¼ cup (about 50 ml) milk to a boil in a small pan; remove from heat and stir in the 3 ounces (about 80 g) finely chopped semisweet chocolate; mix until smooth. Dissolve cornstarch in ¼ cup of milk; whisk until smooth. Add the sugar to the vanilla and milk in the saucepan. Bring to a boil; remove from heat. Beat the whole egg, then the yolks into the cornstarch mixture. Pour 1/3 of boiling milk into the egg mixture in a slow stream, whisking constantly so that the eggs do not begin to cook. Add the rest of the hot milk to the egg mixture then return all of it back into the casserole and return to the heat. Continue whisking (this is important – you do not want the eggs to solidify/cook) until the cream thickens and comes just to a boil. Remove from heat and beat in the melted chocolate, the butter, and vanilla. Pour the pastry cream into a heatproof pyrex or stainless steel bowl. Press plastic wrap firmly against the surface. Chill immediately and until ready to use, up to 3 days.
Dark Chocolate Orange Ganache:
4 oz (120 g) Dark Chocolate with Orange Zest, finely chopped (or any good quality chocolate)
½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream
1 tsp unsalted butter
Place the finely chopped chocolate in a heatproof medium-sized bowl. Bring the cream and the butter just to the boil in a small saucepan over medium heat. When it comes to the bowl, pour the liquid over the chocolate and allow it to stand for 2 or 3 minutes. Stir until smooth and continue to stir until creamy and thick enough to spread. If needed, chill the mixture until the desired pouring/spreading consistency is reached, stirring occasionally.