Since her husband was the baker at the Solara pastry shop, things were done on a grand scale: there was an abundance of cream puffs, pastries filled with cassata filling, sfogliatelle, almond pastries, liqueurs, soft drinks, and dance records, from the most ordinary to the latest fashion.
My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
Mere weeks after my last Ferrante post, I am returning, once again, to my favourite novel of 2015. There are many other books on my reading list, and an endless array of recipes to create from them, but I just couldn't get these Italian cream puffs out of my mind.
In August, I raced through My Brilliant Friend and found myself recommending it enthusiastically to countless friends, acquaintances and passers-by. I picked up the second book in Ferrante's Neapolitan series within minutes of finishing the first. I'm now savouring the final two; I don't want it to end. It is such a rich series - a detailed, beautifully drawn world, inhabited by perfectly formed characters. They are people I felt I knew at once, though they have continued to surprise as the story develops. The book is an extraordinary commentary on the complexity of friendship, the love and jealously, admiration and bitterness. All set against a backdrop of post-war Naples.
I travelled to Italy earlier this year, and spent a blissful morning perusing the local pastry shops, ordering sfogliatelle, cream puffs and cannoli by weight. They were all beautiful, delicious little morsels, ideal for eating out of a paper bag while wandering through the bustling markets. These tiny shops have an air of having been in place for decades, offering the same familiar treats each day. The biscuits and sweets lining the counters looked lovely and delicate but I was drawn, again (and again), to the crisp pastries with thick custard; the silky texture of the filling contrasting beautifully with the initial crunch. And so it was the Solara pastry chop cream puffs I was inspired to recreate here - a pistachio green custard escaping its choux pastry shell.
Pistachio Cream Puffs
160g strong white flour
1/4tsp baking powder
100g pistachio nuts
1tsp caster sugar
125ml single cream
2 egg yolks
1tsp vanilla bean paste
60g caster sugar
25g plain flour
75ml double cream
Handful of pistachio nuts, finely chopped
Medium sized saucepan
Two disposable piping bags
Star piping nozzle
*If you don't have a reliable food processor, you can either leave the pistachio butter out (the choux puffs are lovely with vanilla cream) or purchase a jar of pistachio butter from a deli or specialty cook shop.
1. Start by making the pistachio butter. Heat the oven to 180C. Spread the pistachio nuts in a single layer on a lined baking tray and roast for ten minutes.
2. Tip the nuts (still warm) into the bowl of the food processor. Blitz until fine, then add the sugar and run on a medium speed for at least ten minutes, until the nuts have released some of their fat and the mixture has turned into a paste. Keep an eye on your food processor - they can overheat quite easily. Set the pistachio butter aside.
3. To prepare to choux pastry batter, melt the butter in the water over a medium heat and heat until simmering. Remove from the heat, sieve the flour, salt and baking powder into the pan and beat the mixture together until it forms a thick paste. Return to the pan and continue to cook for a minute (this will ensure the pastry doesn't taste floury) and set the pan aside to cool a little.
4. Add an egg to the cooled mixture, beating very well with the wooden spoon before adding the second egg and beating again. The dough should form a thick and glossy mixture that drops from a wooden spoon. Place the nozzle inside one of the piping bags and transfer the dough into it. Line the baking trays with greaseproof paper. Pipe one inch swirls of the choux dough onto the paper, allowing space for them to increase in size in the oven.
5. Flick the choux with a little cold water and transfer to the oven (which should still be at 180C) for 13 minutes. Remove when they are crisp and golden. As soon as you can bear to touch them, make a horizontal slice into the side of each choux bun, allowing the steam to escape and providing a place to fill them with the custard. Return to the oven for a minute or two to dry out the inside.
6. While the choux buns are baking, make a start on the custard filling. Bring the milk, single cream and vanilla bean paste to a slow simmer over a medium heat. Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in the mixing bowl until pale and creamy, and then whisk in the flour. Slowly pour the hot milk into the bowl, whisking continuously as you do so. Pour the liquid back into the washed-out saucepan.
7. Cook the custard over a low heat for around 10 minutes, stirring continuously, until thick and glossy. Keep it moving, as it can easily overcook. Pour into a bowl, cover with cling film, pressed right onto the surface of the custard to prevent it forming a skin. Leave it to cool.
8. Whip the double cream to soft peaks. When the custard is cool, beat the thick custard with half the pistachio butter. Keep the other half of the butter in the fridge for toast, baking into biscuits and/or eating with a spoon. Fold the whipped cream into the custard, then transfer this filling into the second piping bag and snip a small hole in the end. Pipe a generous amount of custard into each choux puff.
9. Sprinkle the custard with chopped pistachio nuts and dust the cream puffs with icing sugar. Serve them immediately.