BEIRUT: Chef Sarkis Nehme picked up the best éclair shell – 12 centimeters of airy, perfectly browned pâté à choux – and without a blink, he stabbed it three times with a ballpoint pen, blue ink tip straight into the pastry.
The nuances of making the perfect éclair are like courting a lover: Don’t stir too slowly, leave it in the mixer too long, use too much pressure or peek in the oven too soon. And after nearly two hours of amateur hiccups – including tossing out an entire batch of pâté à choux – the four students abruptly stopped talking as Nehme, their teacher, decimated a flawless pastry shell.
“Use the pen to hollow out the éclair – a real pastry chef never cuts the éclair in half, you’ll never see it cut,” he said to women staring in bewilderment.
Nehme assured his students that after working at half a dozen restaurants, he’s only ever seen this technique: Bic ballpoint pen, no cap – and no qualms, apparently.
Nehme is the executive chef at Gou Atelier near Saint Nicholas Church in Tabaris. The quaint cafe-restaurant, with its large, hedge-lined patio is one of the few places in the city that regularly offers pastry classes à la carte to any interested amateur for around $40 per person.
So how does one manage to make the perfect éclair?
It starts easy enough: Heat some water, milk and butter with a little powdered sugar and a pinch of salt until boiling; toss the flour into the pot and stir like a madman with a rubber spatula.
Nehme cautioned his students not to remove the ball of dough too soon from the heat. After a moment, he took the pot by the handle and gave it a slow shake to show that perfect dough sticks to itself in a solid moist ball.
Students then tossed the ball into the mixer along with six eggs, incorporated one at a time.
Then things took a turn for the worse. Two batches in a row proved too liquid for Nehme’s liking. The amateur chefs had let the mixer beat the pâté à choux too long, he said. The best result was when Nehme prepared his own expert batch, choosing to whisk in the eggs by hand.
Perfectly completed éclair pâté à choux should pause for a countable second or two on the whisk before oozing back into the bowl, he demonstrated.
Conveniently, Gou’s classes focus on those desserts that never seem to stop looking a little homemade – like cheesecake, French macarons, chocolat fondant and fluffy soufflé – that is, until Nehme’s thorough instruction.
The classes take place in the cafe’s own kitchen, at the end of the day when customer traffic is very low.
Classes fit an absolute maximum of six students, which allows the instructor to give them no less attention than if it were a private class. Indeed students quickly reached a rapport among themselves, the chef and even some of the kitchen staff fetching tasting spoons and cleaning up messy dishes.
Gou’s students range from curious professionals of unrelated trades to homemakers looking for new tricks in the kitchen and even young people exploring the possibilities of making a career out of cooking. Such was the case for Sarah Asmar, one of Gou’s recent regulars.
Asmar showed off pictures on her cellphone of strawberry tarts and layered Mont Blanc pastries. She was looking forward to a savory cooking class Monday – gourmet burgers, she said.
Still a student at the American University of Beirut, she takes the classes to explore her passion and get a leg up before taking off for French culinary school postgraduation, she said with a hint of glee.
Already, her experience had given her a familiarity with Gou’s cozy back kitchen. With confidence, Asmar picked up the piping bag full of pâté à choux, wrapped the end around her finger and squeezed out thin lines of uncooked éclair with ease and precision – that is compared to The Daily Star’s lumpy, odd-shaped attempts.
One of the tricks to piping perfect éclair shells is in the equipment: A flexible, nonstick baking sheet with éclair-shaped indents. Nehme even tipped Asmar off on where to buy her own professional equipment (a turn off the highway after the Mobilitop furniture gallery in Jal al-Dib – but shush, don’t tell).
Throughout the class, Nehme’s priority was to show exactly what each step should look like, even if it meant extra time and ingredients. He mixed entirely new dough only to show how it should stick to the whisk, made a third pastry filling to demonstrate the difference made by adding fresh fruit puree and allowed a student to test her knife skills on an expensive vanilla bean.
After 45 minutes, Nehme pulled the cooked éclair shells out of the oven, set at 210 Celsius for about 45 minutes. He looked over their color and gave them a soft pinch to check their firmness. They should be very crispy so as not to collapse during the hollowing process. The color should be a shade scant of coconut brown – darker than this novice expected.
These particular éclairs would be exotically flavored. For that the pastry crème could be made using two different techniques.
The first was a standard egg-custard pastry crème cooked with natural vanilla bean. Raspberry puree and rose essence were added after the crème had cooled down.
The second technique substituted the milk with regular exotic-flavor fruit juice and left out the sugar. Tempered eggs and cornstarch create the thick creaminess of the custard – so leaving out milk had little effect.
In comparing the two versions, however, the traditional custard with natural fruit puree won the taste test, and Nehme’s assistant quickly mixed up a third filling, adding to it fresh pineapple and mango purees.
After shocking everyone with his pen technique, Nehme explained that the top of the éclair is actually the side that faced the bottom of the pan, since the pan gives it a perfectly flat surface.
Pastry chefs either make holes in the rounded bottom – never noticed once the pastries are chilled and served – or carve the holes from the flat top of the pastry and conceal them with an opaque glaze.
The final steps were a cinch: Pipe the pastry filling into the holes until over-full, scrape the excess and dip the tops into a plate of melted glaze – preferably dyed a color corresponding with the crème flavor.
By the end of class, 30 professional quality éclairs in exotic flavors of raspberry rose and mango pineapple were tucked away in takeaway boxes, unlikely to make it home untouched.