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Bonjour! C’est moi, le chat de tablier.

J'ai mangé votre pyjama

J’ai mangé votre pyjama

The first day of spring has arrived, and that can only mean one thing — it’s time to make another apron cake.

Today, I decided to tackle eclair et religieuse, which translates to a religious eclair. I could argue that most eclairs, if made well, are akin to a religious experience, but this one in particular is thought to have this name because when the little eclair is stacked onto the large eclair, dipped in chocolate, and dotted with whipped cream, it resembles a nun. That is, if we envision human body types the same way we do snowmen.

That's the way I remember the nuns from my Catholic school looking.

That’s the way I remember the nuns from my Catholic school looking.

The first clue I had that this recipe was perhaps a bit more superFrench than the Opéra cake came when I typed “eclair et religieuse” into Google. All the results were in French. When Google offered to search for results in English, correctly deducing that my French skills stopped after the first paragraph of this blog, I found a few more results, including a film titled Un éclair, une religieuse, which I can only assume is about a nun who found an eclair behind the altar, a blog with a very pretty eclair et religieuse pictured, but no recipe, and finally this recipeon the BBC’s website from something called The Great British Bake Off. Works for me.

As an aside, you may wonder why I never copy recipes directly onto this blog (other than recipes I learned from a friend or just consider a basic part of my repertoire). The answer is that I worry it can be a copyright violation or a form of plagarism. If I were modifying or making these recipes my own in any way, that would be different, but I really just make them by following the directions 95% of the time. I do, however, always try to include links to the original so if you’re interested in joining me on my French pastry adventures, it’s easy enough to do so.

The BBC recipe had the advantage of being written in English with the not insignificant challenge of using metric measurements and British terms for ingredients. Here’s a quick primer:

  • Apparently “corn flour” in British means cornstarch. I’m glad I looked that up before I dumped a pile of what I consider corn flour into my pastry cream.
  • “Double cream” means heavy cream.
  • “Caster sugar” is superfine sugar.
  • I’m still not sure what the recipe meant by “plain chocolate,” but I used bittersweet chocolate and it worked out fine.

The other main challenge was translating from grams to cups. I know that many serious bakers use scales to weigh their ingredients, and I don’t fault them for it. That being said, it’s not a direction I want to go in my own baking. I absolutely appreciate the chemistry and science of baking, but I also feel like some of the art gets lost in the quest for ultra precision. I measure, but don’t weigh, everything that goes into a cake or a pastry, but you can’t calculate the grams of panache that I also throw in. (That may be the worst joke I’ve ever made.)

I knew we were short on flour, sugar, and butter, so I went to the store to buy the basics along with the chocolate and a few other small things I’d need for the pastry. I did this before I calculated how much 75g of flour or sugar is. Let’s just say, I didn’t need to buy the two extra bags of each.

Once I was home, though, I used a combination of random Googling, my calculator, and this amazing conversion table to go through the rest of the recipe and make the changes. For the record, 75g of flour is a mere 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons. (This got complicated.)

Since I already did the work, here are the conversions for the rest of the BBC recipe in case you want to play along at home. All of these are approximate (see the bit above about science versus art):

60g butter = 4 US tablespoons (to further complicate things, during my research I learned that apparently British tablespoons are different than American ones, but I’m not clear if (a) that’s true and (b) that’s only for butter).

75g flour = 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons

500mL of milk = 2 cups

75g of sugar = 1/3 cup plus 2 teaspoons

20g of cornstarch = 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon

25g of flour = 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons

150ml of heavy cream = 2/3 cup

The eggs translate 1:1, British to American. (That was a joke. A pretty good one, actually.)

So here we are, almost 800 words in, and we haven’t even gotten to the baking yet.

The eclair pastry starts with a choux dough, which sounds super exotic, but was actually incredibly easy to make. All you do is put butter and water on the stove together until the butter melts, then stir in the flour super fast and cook and stir for about 5 minutes. I loved the way this dough looked, so springy and grabable:

I choux choux chooooose you!

I choux choux chooooose you!

After that, it’s just a matter of adding a few eggs and piping it into 2″ and 1″ circles to bake into nun bottoms and nun heads.

I drew misshapen circles and...

I drew misshapen circles and…

...filled them with misshapen dough

…filled them with misshapen dough

I have a serious piping bag problem at the moment, which is that I’ve lost all my tips except for the thin narrow one (this guy), and I’m out of piping bags, so I’ve been cramming my one, often inappropriate tip, into the corners of Ziploc bags. This is a situation that could be easily remedied by buying a new set, but I haven’t gotten around to it. Hence the un-round nature of my pastries.

But oh my goodness, they looked great when they came out:

I almost ate them all right then.

I almost ate them all right then.

The recipe instructed me to draw those pencil circles on the parchment paper. I was a little upset to see that the graphite circles transferred onto the pastries themselves. But I figured that a little graphite never hurt anyone (I did not look this fact up to confirm, so please don’t put any stock in it) and pushed forward anyway.

The crème pâtissière isn’t what I think of as a pastry cream, but was more like a vanilla custard. At any rate, it seemed to take forever to make, but turned out nice and thick and rich.

The real problem was filling the choux pastries. My lack of an appropriate pastry bag and tip was a problem. The recipe helpfully suggested using a “jam syringe” as an alternative, but alas I have never heard of or owned such an implement. I ended up using a combination of my one sad tip, a Ziplock bag, a skewer, and my fingers to shove the filling inside, then tested to see if I had enough filling by picking up the pastry to see if it felt heavy-ish. It was a highly precise process that ended with my hands covered in crème pâtissière.

The eclair et religieuse as a whole consists of a little eclair filled with crème pâtissière and covered halfway with ganache stacked on top of a big eclair filled with crème pâtissière, and covered halfway with chocolate ganache. Then whipped cream is piped along between the two eclairs to make a “collar” and on top to make a “habit.”

This is what my little nuns looked like when they were all assembled:

I said there was an art to baking pastry, not that my creations looked artistic when they were finished.

I said there was an art to baking pastry, not that my creations look artistic when they’re finished.

My husband’s commentary on my interpretation of eclair et religieuse: “After my first bite, a good deal of it stayed on my nose, but I left it there to enjoy later.”

Like this post? Check out A Night at the Opéra, the first in the series of apron cakes. Honestly, it’s probably funnier than this one, but I’ll let you be the final judge of that.

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The story:

One day last summer, my father called me.

“I need to ask you something important about your birthday,” he said.

“Okay,” I said.

“How do you feel about France?”

This sounded good. “I love France! Why?”

He cleared his throat. “Your mom and I found a great deal on a vacation to France and we were thinking–”

“Yes!” I said. “That would be amazing!” A free trip to France for my birthday? Why was this even a question?

Dad sounded a bit taken aback. “Oh! Okay. So it would be okay with you if your mom and I were out of the country on your birthday?”

Oh.

The gift:

All was not lost, though, as they brought me back an amazing birthday present. Behold, my French cat apron:

I can haz desserts?

I can haz French desserts?

I legitimately love this apron. Not only is it practical and something I needed, but this cat has everything right going on. The chef’s hat, the lick of the lips, and even the little bandana are all coming together. Notice the tiny paw prints on the napkins — does the double paw print mean the Créme caramel is his favorite?

Best of all, every single one of these desserts look amazing.

So I decided to make them all.

Up first: Opéra cake

Macaron not included

Macaron not included

Opéra cake can be thought of as the French version of tiramisu (although I’m sure that’s not how the French would describe it). It’s made up of three layers of a thin almond sponge cake (Joconde) soaked in cognac, stuffed full of espresso buttercream and topped with a bittersweet chocolate glaze. According to Wikipedia*, the cake was invented in 1955 by a chef working at a Paris pastry company. The idea was to show the layers of the cake and to be able to put all the cake’s flavors into a single bite.

According to this website, The Food Timeline (I have no idea if this is accurate), there are some Middle Eastern roots to every cake that layers pastry, sweetness, and liquor. The Romans spread the recipe to Europe, and it took on different forms in different countries (trifle, tiramisu, opéra, and so on). Furthermore (from the same link), “some pastry shops decorate the top with the word Opéra, written in panach [sic] with all the swirls that the French love so much…”

I used this recipe from Epicurious.** The sponge cake recipe was different than any I’d made before. It starts by combining eggs with almond flour and powdered sugar, plus a little bit of regular flour.

Then I beat the egg whites with cream of tartar, salt, and a little granulated sugar, and folded the egg whites into the original batter.

Then it got weird. The last step was to pour melted, cooled butter, with the foam “discarded” over the fluffy airy batter and fold that in. I wasn’t sure how to discard the foam, so I ended up pouring the butter into an espresso cup (sticking with the theme of the flavor profile) and scooping off the frothy parts with a spoon. This seemed to work alright, but I was nervous the butter would collapse the batter.

It turns out there was no reason to worry. It turned out like this:

Shockingly good looking! (Just like me)

Shockingly good looking! (Just like me)

It’s a quick bake — 10 minutes, tops. Here’s my interpretation of baking until “very pale golden.”

More very pale in some parts than others

More very pale in some parts than others

The buttercream was a recipe I had made before, where you cook sugar and water to softball state, and then drizzle that hot syrup into egg yolks. I get it right most of the time, but have had problems from time to time with cooking the sugar too hot, creating hard, tooth-crunching chunks into the buttercream. When that happens, I usually call it a toffee buttercream and hope no one gets hurt.

This time it worked out great, though. If you’re ever making a buttercream like this and you’re afraid it’s curdling, just keep the Kitchen Aid beating. It’ll come together eventually. It always does.

And this is what it looks like when it does

And this is what it looks like when it does

In contrast to the buttercream, I had some problems with the cognac syrup. I don’t think I boiled the sugar water at a high enough temperature, so the syrup was too liquidy. Not a huge problem, though. I still poured it over the cake layers and just transferred the cake to another plate once it had solidified in the fridge.

The bittersweet chocolate glaze was also quite easy to make – just butter and chocolate in a double boiler. Hard to go wrong there.

The recipe linked above leaves out instructions about how to cut the cake, saying just to “cut the cake into strips and squares.” Modern art? One reviewer included instructions, though, and really the only point is to make it into three even squares, which I did like this:

The first cut is the deepest -- and the middlest

The first cut is the deepest — and the middlest

The second cut is... the most horizonal?

The second cut is… the most horizonal?

To assemble the cake, I started with a square layer, covered by cognac “syrup,” and some buttercream. That’s topped with the two half squares, some more cognac “syrup,” and (because I read the recipe wrong in my excitement to put everything together) the rest of the buttercream. I topped it with the chocolate mixture, and popped it in the fridge to set.

It really should have gone like this:

cake with cognac

buttercream

cake with cognac

chocolate

cake with cognac

buttercream

chocolate

Either way, I got all the layers in there, and even wrote the word “Opéra” on the top with those swirls the French apparently love so much.

The swirls!

The swirls!

It tastes real good.

When asked to provide a quote about the flavor for this blog, my husband said, “It reminded me of a tres leches cake that I would actually want to keep eating.”

See, it would look a lot better with that dark chocolate in the middle.

See, it would look a lot better with that dark chocolate in the middle.

Spam comment of the week:

What a material of un-ambiguity and preserveness of valuable know-how regarding unexpected emotions.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

*Yes, all you former students, I would never let you cite Wikipedia, and I just did it here. Haha!

**By the way, when you google, “Opera cake recipe,” one of the suggested alternatives is “Oprah cake recipe.” Fun facts from me to you.

Postscript: This is one of the rare posts I get to categorize as both baking and pictures of cats.

Bikes and Beer Torn Meniscus:

Today I was supposed to be participating in the Tour de Dane, a bike ride to three different Great Dane locations. I was really looking forward to it, mostly because of the vaguely scavenger hunt aspect to the event. Granted, the routes between the three pubs are determined in advance, and there’s not really any question of where to go, but at each location you could pick up a raffle ticket and a coupon for a free beer (for after).

But, instead, I’m sitting on the couch with ice on my knee. See, in that last post I was going on and on about all the fears that are a part of triathlon for me (and how awesome triathlon is as an outlet to work through and overcome my fears). It turns out that what I really should have been afraid of was injuring myself.

It was a normal Monday when it happened. I rushed from work to the gym to make it to one of my favorite activities, a 5:25 PM kick-boxing class. I have been kick-boxing since college, for probably about 12 years. I know what I’m doing and I have (generally) quite good form. But I was running late, the class was starting, I didn’t stretch as much as I should have, and I got all excited and into the music and the energy, and threw a roundhouse kick with poor form and tight muscles. And as my triumphant kick flew through the air, I felt my knee pop and rip, and I knew I had royally screwed up.

However, I am an idiot, so I finished the class. I took a few days off and it felt slightly better, so I went on a bike ride, and because I was feeling great, went for a run as well, marveling at how great it felt to brick in the off-season. That flared everything up again, so I took more days off, and then decided, “You know what? Swimming is low-impact, let’s give that a try.” Despite using a pull buoy (so I wasn’t, in theory, using my legs at all) and despite pushing off from the wall with only my right leg, and even though I was killing some 200s, that was the final straw. That evening it was obvious something was really wrong with my knee, and a doctor’s appointment the next day confirmed that I had torn the meniscus.

In the grand scheme of things, this is not the worst thing that could happen (or so I keep telling myself). The initial treatment is conservative. I’m ordered, in no uncertain terms, to do absolutely no exercise for two weeks. I’m allowed to walk (no crutches needed) to get around, but nothing else. Ice and Advil daily, plus some low-key rehab exercises complete the picture. After two weeks, I’ll need to be re-assessed, and if it’s not healing well, then I will likely need an MRI to see the extent of the damage and determine a game plan.

One further wrinkle is that I’m starting a new job tomorrow, which means different health insurance, which means I need to change doctors by the end of the month. It would be so much simpler if we all just had single payer healthcare! One of the (fake) laments I’ve heard from the GOP about the Affordable Care Act is that somehow we’re all going to have to leave our doctors. (a) That makes no sense if you actually pay attention to what the act is, and (b) I’m going to have to leave my doctor anyway, because healthcare in our country is bafflingly tied to employment.

Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled to have good healthcare, both from my previous job and my new one. I cherish that fact. More than I can put into words, really. But I also was pretty happy to have a doctor who understood how important my triathlon training is to me, who was actually interested in it, and who worked with me to be in the best shape I could for it.

I also keep telling myself that if I have to get injured, this is a good time of year for it. I would be devastated if something like this happened right in the middle of the summer and triathlon’s peak moments. So I am working hard at staying positive and embracing that if nothing else, I picked a good time to suddenly forget how to do a roundhouse kick.

And although I’m not on my bike today picking up raffle tickets and beer coupons, I do not mind at all that I already paid the registration fee for the event. The whole point of the ride was not to try to win t-shirts and have a Crop Circle Wheat at the end, but was to benefit Dream Bikes, a non-profit bike shop in Madison that gives teenagers a safe and professional place to work and helps those who may not otherwise have the means obtain a quality bike. A bicycle can provide reliable and safe transportation, enjoyment, and an opportunity for fitness, and Dream Bikes is a terrific organization doing some great work. So I’m glad to have made a donation to them, even though I’m not out riding in the event.

Next weekend, Josh will be running in a race we were supposed to be doing together, and I’ll be practicing my cheering skills. I’ll need them to be in full force by next summer when he does his first marathon! Stay tuned next week for his recap from a unique racing/beer expo combination event.

Icing my knee with a feline overseer.

Icing my knee with a feline overseer.

Ironman Wisconsin spectating:

I woke up early on 9/8/13 to go watch the start of the Ironman. I had always wanted to see it, but it just always seemed so gosh darn early in the morning to wake up and get in gear.

The bikes set up the night before.

The bikes set up the night before.

I arrived at the Monona Terrace about ten minutes before the cannon went off to start the pro’s. And yes, it was an actual cannon. My parents live within a mile of the race start, and when I told my mom about the cannon, she said, “Oh, so that’s why it wakes us up every year.”

At the start of the pro race, about 40 wet-suited men and women sprang from where they were treading water and instantaneously formed a perfect snaking line through the water, everyone drafting off of everyone else, no misdirection or lost distance between buoys. The last competitor in line was towing a raft which held his brother, who has Cerebral Palsy.

Then, ten minutes later, the second cannon boomed and the rest of the crowd took off. This was more than 2,500 men and women in bright green and pink swim caps, and the chaos was massive, even watching from shore. People swam in every direction. The buoys were not on anyone’s right or left, but went under the crowd. Ten athletes immediately swam towards the center of the lake and were chased down by kayaks. One man, swimming quite well, I will add, came directly towards the cheering crowd. After about 25 strokes he looked up to sight, realized he was almost back to shore, and had to turn around.

They looked like a school of fish.

They looked like a school of fish.

In what felt like no time, the pros (and one age-grouper from Middleton!) were out of the water, running up the helix to transition, and off on the bikes. The whole atmosphere was so positive and hyped up. The crowd was huge and everyone was cheering like mad. That experience, combined with watching some of the finishes on the live web feed, has me re-thinking my vow to never do an Ironman.

The beginning of 112 miles of Wisconsin hills.

The beginning of 112 miles of Wisconsin hills.

Allergies:

My last tri was on 9/1/13. Three weeks later, I was still congested from the exposure to the lake algae. Seriously congested. So I finally went to the doctor and it turns out that my initial allergic reaction from sticking my face into the algae-laden water, topped up by watching Ironman Wisconsin next to the lake for hours, topped up by riding my bike around Lake Monona, had blossomed into a massive sinus infection. It’s finally starting to abate, but this doubles down on the fact that I need to come up with a strategy to manage my allergies next year. It’s probably as simple as taking an anti-histamine the entire summer or maybe even just for race weeks. Are there any other triathletes out there who are allergic to lakes? How do you manage to swim in training or races without imploding your sinuses?

Swimming:

I’m thrilled to be back at my Master’s Swim class, swimming three times a week and working on all four strokes. For the first time ever, I think I actually am starting to sort of get the butterfly. Breast-stroke, though, is still a conundrum.

Biking:

I received a bike computer for my birthday, so I spent about an hour one day installing it. I’ve been trying to do as much bike maintenance on my own as I can. I want to be more comfortable working with and understanding my bike and hate the feeling of not being able to take care of my own gear. Anyway, the bike computer installation was pretty straight-forward, and now I can see how fast I’m going at any time. I’m pleased to report that I was officially speeding through a 15 mph zone. On my bike, the speed limit signs seem more like a challenge than a guideline.

Note the cat toy on the ground under the bike.

Note the cat toy on the ground under the bike.

Running:

I cut my triathlon laces off of my running shoes, and although it was a sad moment, at least I got to put my neon laces back on to replace them.

Once again, cat toys everywhere.

Once again, cat toys everywhere. And a few copies of my thesis.

Josh and I are going to run the 10K at the Berbee Derby this year. This is one of my favorite races, which bills itself as “Like a Thanksgiving Day Parade, only faster.” Believe it or not, I’ve never run any race longer than a 5K, so this is something to look forward to and work towards.

In the meantime, we ran in a 5K this past weekend (sinus infection and all) which was a fund-raiser to fight ovarian cancer, and both won our age groups. Josh finished second overall and first in his age group with a PR of 20:05. I finished third out of the women and first in my age group with a time of 25:28. I still find it kind of funny that my fastest 5K time came at the end of the hottest triathlon I did this summer. Also, ovarian cancer is a bastard and you should go read about the facts and symptoms here.

Going to the race, I thought I was forgetting, well, everything. All I needed to bring was what I was wearing: no bucket full of gear, no bike, no wetsuit. What a simple thing running is!

Josh with his first place keychain.

Josh with his first place keychain.

Distraction:

I read somewhere (excellent citation, me!) that for a lot of people, triathlon is a distraction from the things they really need to do. That’s certainly true of me, as well, as I’ve spent the summer since graduation neglecting my novel in favor of geeking out and training. With fall, though, it’s time to get more disciplined about both. All last fall/winter, I was training while finishing my thesis (novel draft) at the same time, so I know it can be done. To that end, creativity in action:

use

And, finally, some gratuitous pictures of cats:

photo-82

photo-83

This past weekend, I finished our taxes, which meant that I had to delve into the rarely used filing cabinet to check something from last year’s returns. When I turned back to close the drawer, this is what I found:

File me under cute!

File me under cute!

So I went back to work on the tax returns until I heard Roxy jump out, the joys of filing apparently not vibrant enough to hold her attention for very long.

But when I turned back to close the drawer for good this time, well, you can guess where this is going:

Look, you can't just sit in a drawer and call it filing, Other Cat.

You adopted me for the tax write-off?!

It’s generally good advice not to give someone a pet as a gift. I seem to remember Abigail Van Buren saying this, repeatedly, in the era when The Capital Times still existed as a daily newspaper and I used to read Dear Abby before taking the bus to high school. But my brother and sister-in-law found a pet that was low maintenance enough that it was just fine to give me for my birthday.

Low maintenance and compact:

What exactly is in the can, you might ask?

Now with zero trans fats!

The cat was surprisingly difficult to inflate, which is probably why we didn’t do a very good job of it.

Maybe I’m supposed to look this droopy.

And how did it get along with our current tenants?

Leave me alone, please.

An inflatable WHAT?