The sky outside was grey, but my kitchen was bright and filled with the laughter and joy of Pontelandolfo’s Carmela Fusco. Disclaimer – Carmela is my talented cooking cousin. Was Carmela literally in my kitchen? Nope, we were testing the concept of a virtual cooking class. From sunny Italy, Carmela led students thousands of miles away through the process of making bignè, the airy pastry you need for profiteroles!
I felt like a cooking idiot when, during the process, I realized that profiteroles – I had only ever seen stacked in a pyramid and covered with dripped chocolate – were literally the favorite dessert of my youth. Chocolate covered cream puffs! My mother, bless her soul, used to make them for special occasions. I never tried, but when I needed a mom hug, I would buy a box of Boston Cream Pie mix and get almost the same creamy taste. It wasn’t the same but I could feel the love.
Something else I learned, was that bignè is also called choux pastry. There isn’t any yeast or raising agent in the dough. It has a high moisture content that creates steam and that puffs the pastry. Isn’t the science of food grand?
Carmela’s daughter Annarita Mancini, as she does for our Cooking in the Kitchens of Pontelandolfo program, was there to translate. Those of us gathered around our tablets trying to make bignè study Italian with Annarita and vowed not to ask for her help. Gulp, I needed her help. I mean, I have only been trying to learn Italian for twenty years, cut me a break. This wasn’t just a cooking class. This was a chance to use the Italian we had been studying in a real-world situation. What could be a better place to practice our language skills than Cooking in the Kitchens of Pontelandolfo? (Admission – when we obviously didn’t quite get what Carmela was saying, Annarita jumped in.)
I am only going to talk about the first step towards the light, cream filled profiteroles – making the bignè. This is the small pastry of a cream puff. Carmela told me that the neat thing about her bignè is that you can stuff it with sweet or savory fillings. She doesn’t add sugar, as I think my mom did, into the pastry. The ingredients are:
150 grams acqua – water
80 grams burro – butter
150 grams farina – flour
5 – 6 uova – eggs
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius .
Prep a cookie sheet with a piece of parchment paper.
Even though we got the ingredient list sent to us, there was a wee dilemma changing the metric measures into the British Imperial System on the fly. Correct, I had no idea that cups, ounces and pounds were part of something called the British Imperial System. Cripes, it even sounds like empire building. One learns something new every day. Time to work on my math skills or have the conversion app open on my phone.
We put the water in a big pot on the unlit stove and added all the butter. Then we turned the heat on high and melted the butter. It takes a long time to melt that much butter. When it finally melted and had little boiling bubbles we added the flour a little at a time. (Other recipes on line said dump all the flour in at once – Carmela was meticulous about drizzling the flour in.) KEEP STIRRING. This part requires a strong arm. Who needs a gym – you have a kitchen! When the dough started to cling together in a ball and no longer stuck to the pot, we turned off the heat. We stirred the dough a bit more – with Carmela warning us, “not too much we don’t want it to cool. Now, crush it so it isn’t a ball.” What?? We just stirred until our arms ached and made the bloody ball – now I have to crush it? We smooshed our balls.
This next part was kind of magical and required eyes that saw the nuances of color. We added an egg and blended it into the dough until the color of the dough was the color it was before we added the egg. When your arm starts to scream, get someone else to take a turn stirring. Finally, the color will be same as it was. Then add the second egg and repeat the process. Yup, it is a long process but the results – delicious. Once again, when the color was the same as it was before the second egg we tossed in egg number three.
No, you are crying not again! Why didn’t we just toss all the eggs in at once? Carmela pointed out it might seem easier to add all the eggs at once but the secret for a cloud like bignè is to do it this way. The dough needs time to absorb each egg. I think this should be a team sport – like a relay with someone else there to take a stirring turn. They could also keep the Prosecco glasses full.
We were laughing out loud as we tried to show Carmella our dough by tilting our iPads and phones towards our pots without dropping them in. Stop laughing! Add egg number four! We repeated the process and then added the fifth and final egg.
Whew, this was the hardest part. Where is that prosecco?
Using a spatula we cleaned the sides of the pot by drawing all the sticky dough to the center in a ball like pile. Now, taking two tablespoons, we attempted to drop the dough in cute balls on the prepared cookie sheet. Carmela is a master at this, she rolled the dough back and forth and created balls. She pointed out they didn’t have to be perfect. Misshapen was fine – except all of hers were perfect and all of mine looked a lot less than perfect.
Carmela said, “Make sure you leave space between the globs. With all those eggs the pastry will rise. When our nonnas made this pasta they used their hands to mix the dough – even though it was really hot.” Hmmm, maybe that is where I got my asbestos hands.
Almost done. Put the tray of bignè into the pre-heated oven for about 20 minutes. They will grow and get a warm toasty color. They really do grow! Well not everyone’s grew we did have a batch that kind of looked like tasty hockey pucks.
When you take these lovelies out of the oven and they have cooled you can slice them and use them for light little tea sandwiches or invite me over because you are filling them with a decadent cream and topping them with chocolate. Yummy.
We all had a great time giggling, groaning and cooking with Carmela. Can’t wait until the pandemic is over and we can really be with her in her kitchen!