But this month I saw Karen's announcement that the theme was French bakes with plenty of time to think about what to make. Somehow I still couldn't narrow it down and made two, a sweet and a savoury, just to hedge my bets.
My savoury treat was a saucisson brioché - the fanciest possible sausage roll. This is a dish that has intrigued me for years, but I have always been deterred by Elizabeth David's extremely long recipe and warnings that "One should not perhaps expect this dish to come exactly right the first time".
|Saucisson brioché having a second rise|
I decided that, as I am now a reasonably experienced baker of yeasted breads, I could have a go. I didn't follow Mrs David's recipe. Converting from imperial measurements just seemed like taking too much of a risk. So I used the Hairy Bikers' recipe with references back to French Provincial Cooking for method. Mrs David's advice that the sausage should be warm but not hot when wrapped to prevent a gap opening up around the sausage seemed like a good tip. And I saw a tip somewhere else that brushing the sausage with egg before wrapping it would also prevent the sausage splitting away from the dough.
|Just out of the oven|
I did both, just to be on the safe side.
I felt that the Hairy Bikers' recipe ended up with a very low sausage to brioche ratio, and I knew that Paul would definitely prefer more sausage. So I used two large Montbéliard sausages and left them as free-form loaves rather than putting them in a loaf tin.
And I have to say I was delighted by how they turned out. The brioche dough turned two sausages into a meal for four, and as part of a tea time spread or picnic could easily serve six. And it wasn't nearly as difficult as Elizabeth David said it was.
|The sausage clung beautifully to the brioche. A sharply dressed salad is a good accompaniment|
My sweet French patisserie treat took rather more twists and turns before it came into being.
I knew I wanted to make choux pastry. I haven't made it in years (um, possibly 20 years? I think I was a teenager last time...) and I thought it was about time I had another bash. But aside from that I was undecided - eclairs? Religieuse? A Gâteau St Honoré? Eventually I decided that the easiest thing to do would be a sort of Paris-Brest.
|That terrible moment when choux looks like shit before it all comes together|
The flavouring also took a bit of thought. A traditional Paris-Brest is filled with praline-flavoured crème pâtissière but I didn't want to go down that route. My favourite filling for eclairs and religieuse is coffee but inexplicably not everyone likes coffee.
|Piped and ready to bake|
In the end, Ocado had a "free breakfast offer" which included a large punnet of strawberries and a "bundle offer" on butter, cream and cheese, so I chose to fill my choux with strawberries and cream. And then gave it a little almondy kick to both the pastry and the filling.
|After baking I split it in half and returned it to the oven to dry out a bit more|
Strawberry and Amaretto Paris-Brest (serves 4-6)
Choux Paste (n.b I use metric cups - so 250ml)
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup plain flour
25g almond meal
1tsp vanilla extract
300g strawberries, hulled
juice of half a lemon
4 sheets of gelatine
1/4 cup icing sugar
200ml double cream
100g strawberries, extra
1/4 cup caster sugar
Bring the water, butter and salt to the boil in a medium-sized saucepan, then tip in the sifted flour all in one go. Beat like a madwoman with a wooden spoon (still on the heat) until it comes together in a smooth ball. Remove from the heat and add the almond meal and vanilla extract, then flatten out in the pan and leave to cool for 10 minutes.
At this point it will be looking lovely and you will be feeling quite smug. All that is about to change and you need to ride it out. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. It will curdle and look dreadful. It will. But continue to beat like a madwoman and it will all come together and be smooth and glossy and perfect.
Pipe a circle onto a baking paper lined tray and bake at 200C for 10 minutes, then lower heat to 180C and bake another 15-20 minutes or until well-risen, lightly browned and quite dry.
Cut in half horizontally and return to the oven for a few more minutes to dry out properly and leave a good sized cavity for filling.
Puree the 300g strawberries (I used a stick blender in a tall measuring cup) and strain. I didn't use a really fine sieve so there were still a few seeds in it. Soak the gelatine sheets in water for a few minutes. Bring the strawberry puree and lemon juice just to a simmer, then add the squeezed-out gelatine sheets and stir until the gelatine has completely dissolved. Add the sifted icing sugar and amaretto and taste for sweetness (I left it quite unsweet, you may want more sugar and a little more booze) and allow to cool and thicken. When cool but not completely set, fold into the whipped double cream and refrigerate for half an hour.
Either pipe or spoon mounds of mousse around the base of the choux ring (I had quite a bit leftover because I didn't want to over-fill it to the point where I couldn't slice it to serve) and top with the remaining strawberries, sliced. Top with the other half of the ring.
At this point you could just dust it with a bit of icing sugar but I decided to give it a bit of a croquembouche-y flourish with some toffee. I almost added some sparkly sugar pearls too but decided that was a step too far. But suit yourself.
Dissolve the caster sugar in the water over a low heat and gently bring to the boil, swirling the pan rather than stirring it. Boil until it turns a lovely golden colour, then dribble over the top of the paris-brest. As you dribble the toffee will start to harden and pull into threads, which is very pretty and if I was better at that sort of thing I would have made more of a feature of it.
Serve reasonably promptly - if you refrigerate the toffee will deliquesce, but it can sit happily in a cool place for a couple of hours.