Every year about this time I get a little sentimental. Perhaps more than a little. Fifteen years ago I arrived in Paris ready to begin a journey that changed my life. There's something about the sights and smells of late summer that trigger the memories of walking to the Metro each morning, with excited and nervous butterflies in my stomach. What amazing technique and pastry were we going to learn? Would I be able to understand the Chef? And, could I get through the day blunder free?
The day we made this pastry in class, it was an evening kitchen session. Our main chef had gone for the day and we had another chef, from another school guest teaching the class. I sound like a broken record, but once again he was very handsome and had even better cologne than the pastry cream chef. To top is off, he wasn't wearing the usual navy blue houndstooth checked pants. His pants were navy blue pin striped. Kim and I secretly called him Fancy Pants. He was very nice, and very helpful. (Can you see the crush coming?).
Our class gathered our ingredients and proficiently made the dacquoise without fail. Then came the cream de beurre, or buttercream. Since we didn't use mixers, we needed to bring the sugar and water to the soft ball stage, and somehow pour it over the egg yolks waiting in the bowl at our work station, a distance of about seven feet.
The chef, Kim and I had been chatting (in our best caveman French),trying to be welcoming to our guest. While I was bringing my sugar to temp, he walked over to make sure the next step was successful. I remembered earlier in the day that our Chef had shown us a way to measure the sugar stage by dipping a flat sieve/skimmer into the sugar and blowing into it. If you can make bubbles, out the back, your sugar is at temp. Amazing. I asked our evening Chef about it, and he said "Oui!" So I gave it a try, and to my amazement, it worked. Now I had sugar at the soft ball stage ready to pour it on the yolks. The chef stood beside me... and I froze. "Je poulet, Chef", I said. I wish I could show you the look on his face. Just think about the look a dog gets when you talk to them and they tip their head to the side. Happy, but completely confused. "Poulet?", he said. My friends across the room roared with laughter. I was trying to tell him I was chicken. Guess what? That means nothing in French. One of my French speaking classmates came to my rescue and explained to the Chef that I was afraid to pour the sugar. He smiled and chuckled. I poured the sugar, and began whisking the mixture until it cooled and then added the butter. The buttercream was quite possibly the best thing I had ever tasted. Smooth and rich with the hint of coffee. And best of all, I had just made it.
While we were working the Chef demonstrated how to make marzipan roses using the back of a tablespoon. In addition, he made a few small animals, often seen in patisserie cases.
We assembled our desserts and presented them to the Chef for grading. As we were boxing our dessert and preparing for the Metro ride back to the hotel, the Chef walked up beside me, and with the biggest smile, set a little marzipan chicken of the workstation. "You are my favorite Chicken", he said. "Merci, Chef", I replied and I'm sure blushed six shades of red. I still teach students how to make roses, dacquoise and buttercream. And best of all, when Kim and I are together we often reminisce about Fancy Pants.
I've been wanting to share this recipe with you for a long time. It's an incredible dessert. It's pure classic French pastry. Simple ingredients combined together to make compenents. Combined together, you won't believe how elegant yet understated it tastes.
Dacquoise is a nut based merengue sponge cake, which make it naturally gluten-free if that's important for you. You can use all almonds, hazelnuts or a mixture. The key is to make great egg whites.
Start with almond flour, sugar, a dash of salt, a dash of cream of tartar and eggs whites.
For the very best merengue, start with eggs whites at room temperature or just a bit above. Start whipping them slowly, then gradually increase the speed. Once they reach soft peaks, add the sugar all at once and increase the mixer speed (or find a new set of arms if you're whisking by hand), and whisk until the peaks are firm and shiny.
Fold in the nut mixture, then spread in a ring, or a springform pan ring. If you don't have either one, just draw two 10 inch circles on a piece of parchment paper.
I highly suggest waiting until the dacquoise is cool before starting the buttecream. That way, there's no chance you'll be tempted to pipe the buttercream on warm cake.
Be sure your butter is at room temperature. Heat the sugar and water in a saucepan to 238 degrees F, or 118 degrees C. Pour the hot sugar over the whisked egg yolks and whisk until lightened and cool. Then start whisking in the butter bit by bit. This is much easier with an mixer, but it can definitely be done by hand with a whisk. You may need a helper to hold the bowl while you whisk in the hot sugar so your bowl doesn't scoot away.
To finish the dessert, use a thin knife with the blade pointed toward the edge of the pan, and carefully cut the cake away from the edge. Place on a plate, and pipe several rosettes of buttercream. Be sure to pipe a ring of rosettes near the edge. Set the next layer on top and garnish with more rosettes of buttercream. If you have some chocolate coffee beans, or nuts, add one to each rosette.
Serve immediately, or chill and serve.
I hope you'll give this recipe a try. If you've never had real French buttercream, you're in for a treat!
To print this recipe, click HERE
Makes two 10 inch circles
8 egg whites plus 80 gm granulated sugar (6 1/2 TBSP) -to make merengue at the end of whipping
140 gm (1 2/3 cups) almond and/or hazelnut flour
60 gm all-purpose flour (2/3 cup) OMIT IF MAKING GLUTEN FREE, and substitute almond flour
1 dash salt
1 dash cream of tartar
100 gm (3/4 cup) powdered sugar
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Bring the egg whites, cream of tartar, and salt to soft peaks. Add the sugar and increase speed until firm, and glossy peaks. Fold in the nut flour. Spread in the rings, or spread in the circle, about 1/2 - 3/4 inch thick. Bake for 30 minutes, until golden brown. The dacquoise will rise and then settle back into the ring. Cool completely. Peel off the parchment paper, and carefully remove from the rings.
For the Buttercream:
4 egg yolks, from large sized eggs
200 gm butter (14 tablespoons), at room temperature
230 gm water (just less than 1 cup)
170 grams confectioners' sugar (1 1/3 cups)
In a mixing bowl or the bowl of a standing mixer, have the egg yolks ready. Be sure the butter is at room temperature.Have In a small saucepan, place the water, then the sugar and heat to 238 degrees F. Use a candy thermometer to check the temperature.
When the sugar/water reach soft ball stage, slowly pour it over yolks, whisking continuously. Continue whisking by hand or with the whisk of the mixer, until the mixture is cool. If you feel the bottom of the bowl, you'll feel that the mixture is cool.
Add the butter one to two tablespoons at a time, incorporating well after each addition. If the mixture breaks, keep mixing. It will come back together. Add the coffee extract to taste. The buttercream should be a rich coffee color, with a nice coffee taste.
French Coffee Extract (Essence de Cafe)
200 gm granulated cane sugar (1 cup)
200 gm water (7 oz)
100 gm instant coffee (1/4 pound or 1 7/8 cup) Nescafe is best
Dissolve the instant coffee in the water and bring to a boil. In another saucepan,add the sugar and heat to cook until very dark caramel color (very dark amber). Stop the caramel by adding the hot coffee. The mixture will bubble, spit and sputter. Be very careful to protect your hands and fingers. Add the coffee slowly, and stir lightly to dissolve any hard caramel bits. Strain the mixture and cool. Pour into bottles, and store in refrigerator.