Heart-shaped choux for Valentine’s Day

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with choux pastry. A top-quality eclair promises so much, sitting there in the patisserie window, all glossy and bejewelled. However, by the time you get it home, even the most perfectly formed specimen is usually soggy and disappointing. The best way to ensure perfectly crisp pastry and a luscious filling is to make it yourself and fill just before serving.

Which brings me to my second gripe: with so many elements, they’re only really worth making in large quantities and with lockdown in full swing, it’s (sadly) not the right time for a profiterole party. However! Sometimes, you get a recipe idea in your head that just won’t go away, and for me it was heart-shaped choux for Valentine’s day. And, in the same way that you sometimes need to play that song that’s stuck in your head, there are times when you’ve just got to give in and bake that cake.

To make sure I was working with a worthwhile quantity of choux paste, but didn’t end up with 12 eclairs to eat in one sitting (tempting, but ultimately not a good plan), I spread out the work over two days and froze most of the unfilled shells for the future. I’d definitely recommend this strategy as it also means you can experiment with different shapes and sizes. With the quantity below, I made 3 choux hearts, 4 eclairs and 12 profiteroles, but you could easily make a couple of Paris-Brest or a whole order of nun-like religieuse.

I also took a couple of short-cuts with the filling and topping – when you’re juggling a toddler and home-schooling a 6-year-old, there truly aren’t enough hours in the day to make a crème patisserie and proper fondant icing, even if they are both delicious. Instead, I made a lemon and amaretto glace icing for the tops – literally just a case of stirring lemon juice and amaretto into icing sugar. In a momentary lapse of judgement, I’d bought some tooth-jarringly sweet, poor quality pistachio paste (a bit like a sort of white chocolate version of Nutella, rather than that beautiful pure green paste that is so defiantly unaffordable). To balance the sweetness, I whisked it into some good quality crème fraiche (the 40% fat kind), which made a delicious and very speedy filling. Proper top quality pistachio paste folded into whipped cream and sweetened to taste would be even more delicious, I’m sure.

To balance all that sweet creaminess, I added morello cherries. Mine are from a batch of sour cherry spoon sweets that I made from Diana Henry’s excellent preserving book ‘Salt sugar smoke’. If you’re not lucky enough to have a jar in the pantry, shop-bought griottine cherries or one of those pretty jars of Fabbri amarena cherries would do a similar sweet and sour job. To decorate the top I’ve used crushed pink praline, as I had a bag in the cupboard, but get creative: freeze-dried cherries or dried rose petals would look good, or try chopped pistachios for crunch (in which case I’d probably go for pink icing as a contrast).

It looks like a monstrously long recipe, but there’s nothing too onerous on there – it’s just me making the most of having no word count and trying to be as helpful as possible to any first-time chouxers!

Pistachio and morello cherry choux hearts

Makes 3 (plus plenty of other choux goodies for freezing)

  • 90 ml whole milk
  • 90 ml water
  • 90 g salted butter, cubed
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp caster sugar
  • 105 g plain flour
  • 3-4 large eggs, beaten

For the filling:

  • 200 g crème fraiche (the posh kind that’s 40% fat or it won’t whip)
  • 2 heaped tbsp pistachio paste
  • 24 preserved sour cherries, drained of syrup

For the topping:

  • 200 g icing sugar
  • 1 tbsp amaretto liqueur
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • green food colouring
  • 2 tbsp pink praline, crushed

Make the choux paste (up to 2 days before):

  1. Put the milk, water, butter, salt and sugar in a medium saucepan. Bring to the boil, stirring to help melt the butter and dissolve the sugar.
  2. Take the pan off the heat, then tip in the flour and beat until smooth. Put the pan back on the heat and beat until it forms a smooth ball, leaving the sides of the pan clean.
  3. Transfer the mixture to a stand mixer and leave until it’s warm, rather than hot. Set the speed to medium, then pour in about a quarter of the beaten eggs. When it’s fully incorporated, add another quarter and when it’s smooth, another quarter. Stop the mixer and scoop some onto a wooden spoon – if it reluctantly drops off the spoon, leaving a smooth ‘v’ of choux paste dangling from the spoon, it’s ready. If not, whisk in a bit more egg and try again. You’ve probably seen enough episodes of Bake Off to know that runny choux puddles will never transform themselves into buns in the oven, so go cautiously!
  4. Fit a piping bag with a large star or plain nozzle and fill with the choux paste. Twist and seal the end, then chill in the fridge for 30 minutes or for up to 2 days.

Bake the choux pastry:

  1. Preheat the oven to 220°C (200 fan) | 425°F | gas 7. Butter two baking trays, then line them with greaseproof paper and butter the paper (this will stop the buns from sticking, but will also stop the paper from sliding around).
  2. Pipe three hearts onto one of the trays – mine were about 12 cm across and swelled-up in the oven to make each heart a nice sharing dessert for two people (or a joyful blow-out for one!). Use the rest of the paste to pipe 12 cm lines (for eclairs), walnut-sized blobs (for profiteroles) or rings of any size for larger Paris-Brest style desserts. Calm down any sticky-uppy points with a wet finger.
  3. The pastry will cook most successfully on the top shelf, so if you have time, bake them in two batches. Bake for 12 minutes without opening the oven door (not even a quick peek!).
  4. Reduce the oven temperature to 180°C (160 fan) | 350°F | gas 4 and bake for another 8 minutes (still without looking, unless you’re really concerned that they might burn).
  5. As long as the buns are beautifully tanned, take them out and make a hole in the underside of each one. Return them to the oven, hole-side-up, for 5 more minutes so that the steam can escape and the insides can dry out.
  6. Leave to cool completely on a wire rack. Any that you aren’t planning to eat that day can be sealed inside a zip-lock freezer bag and frozen.

Fill and decorate:

  1. To make the filling, whisk the crème fraiche with the pistachio paste until smoothly combined and thick enough to pipe – almost instant for me, so not worth using anything electric. Transfer to a piping bag fitted with a large star nozzle and chill if not used straight away.
  2. To make the icing, put the icing sugar into a bowl (I didn’t bother sieving, as any lumps dissolve as you stir in the liquid). Stir in the amaretto, then stir in the lemon juice a teaspoonful at a time until you have a good coating consistency – it should lazily drip off the spoon. Use a cocktail stick to add a tiny bit of green food colouring – remember, you can always add more if it’s too subtle! Cover with clingfilm and keep at room temperature if you’re not using it straight away.
  3. Carefully slice the choux hearts in half horizontally with your best breadknife. I found it easiest to ice and decorate the tops separately first – spread them out on a wire rack and spoon over the icing. Sprinkle with crushed pink praline in a couple of places and leave to set.  
  4. When you’re nearly ready to serve, pipe the pistachio cream onto the bottom half of the choux shells and top with sour cherries. Add your pre-decorated tops and serve straight away.

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