Tarte aux Épinards

This is one of my first, self-impressed French dishes I have ever made.  I learned it from ma belle-mère—yep, my mother-in-law— that's how we address our mother-in-laws in France.  It can be so ironic for many, but I got lucky; I truly do have a belle-mère. 

The kids call her "Mamie Jacotte", an affectionate term rather than the literal translation, "grand-mère";  Jacotte is shortened from Jacqueline.  She's not only a fantastic belle-mère and grand-mère, but a wonderful cook.  I have picked up many of her tips and recipes in cooking and this is just one of many. 

Ma belle-mère makes simple and intricate dishes.  I usually opt for the former recipes.

Tarte aux Épinards

• 1 puff pastry
• 500 grams spinach, frozen or 700 grams of spinach, fresh
• 1 clove garlic, minced and sauté
• 4 eggs
• 4 heaping tablespoons crème fraîche
• 100 grams of emmental cheese
• a pinch of nutmeg
• Salt and pepper according to taste

INSTRUCTIONS//serves 4-6

Take your tart or quiche pan (around 10 inches in diameter, 1-1/2 to 2 inches deep or 25 cm in diameter, 4 cm deep) and roll out the puff pastry and place it into the pan.  Press the pastry into the sides of the pan. 

Use a fork to poke some holes into the bottom of the puff pastry to release any trapped air and to keep it from puffing up when baking. 

Once your oven is pre-heated at 190° C (375°F), place it in the oven to bake for around 10 minutes or until the puff pastry changes color to a golden brown.   This step is called blind baking; It partially cooks the pastry dough to prevent a soggy crust.  Check often during the duration of this time so that if you catch your pastry puffing up, just slide it out of the oven, take a fork to poke more holes and press the pastry back down into place, and place back into the oven.  Some people use ceramic beans or dried beans to keep the pastry from puffing up. 

Take it out of the oven and place the spinach filling inside.

Spinach Filling:

If you are using frozen spinach, cook it down on low heat until it thaws.  Drain out the excess liquid.  If you are using fresh spinach, begin with the the next step.

Sauté your garlic in a pan with a half tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. 

Then add your spinach and toss it around with the garlic.  Sauté for a couple of minutes and add some salt.  With fresh spinach, sauté and then cover the pan with a lid to let cook for 5-10 minutes or until wilted.  It should be a nice, saturated green.  With a pair of tongs, take out the cooked spinach and place it in a bowl and leave it aside to cool down.  Push down with the pair of tongs or a fork to get rid of excess liquid.

In a medium size mixing bowl, beat in 4 whole eggs.

Add your heaping dallops of crème fraîche and mix.

Stir in the emmental cheese.

Then a pinch of nutmeg, some salt and pepper according to taste.

Mix the spinach in with the egg, crème fraîche, cheese batter.  Stir until the spinach is evenly mixed in.

Pour this mixture into your blind baked puff pastry and place it in the oven for 40-45 minutes at 190° C (375° F).
 

NOTE

I have used both fresh and frozen spinach for this recipe.  It just depends on what I have in my fridge.  In France, I buy the frozen spinanch with their stems (épinards en branche).  If I use fresh spinach I trim the thicker part of the stems and keep an inch or two below the leaf.  You can also use 125 grams of yogurt to replace the crème fraîche. 

Les Chouquettes

Water, butter, and salt.

Melt it down.

Mix vigorously.

Dough paste balling up.

Mix one egg in at a time.

Achieve a glossy dough paste.

Fill piping bag and squeeze.

Pour pearl sugar along the top row of your choux pastry.  Shake the tray up and down to toss the pearl sugar around so that it moves its way down to coat the choux pastry.  See the ones with the pointy tips?—I squeezed out the dough there.  You don't want that.  To achieve a nice, round choux pastry, read my NOTE at the bottom.

Shake off the excess pearl sugar.

Ready to bake.

190° Celcius for 20 minutes.

Et voilà...golden chouquettes.  Lightly crispy on the outside.  Airy and moist on the inside.

I came home from the playground one day and put this on my list to make.  I was intrigued and inspired by an acquaintance deemed a Papa Poule, an attentive, protective, and doting father, who had his child's doll and scooter in hand, along with a bag of fresh chouquettes which he had just made at home. 

I gathered my ingredients and was hit with an obstacle: I couldn't find sucre en grains or sucre perlé in any of the supermarkets nearby.  Obsessed as I can become, I ran to every grocery store and bakery in the area in search of these sugary, white pearls.  Returning home, ruffled by defeat, and saving this battle for another day in another arrondisement, I recounted my story in quest for these sugary, white pearls to Denis and Sandrine, our building's concierge and my neighbor.  Denis also happens to be a wonderful, certified baker.  He gave me a few tips on how to make the chouquettes and told me he would pop by to check on how it was all coming along once I had found all my ingredients.  

Hours later, there was a knock on my door.  I swung the door wide open to find a bag of the sugary, white pearls dangling in front of me: behind was Sandrine.  Elle est trop chou!—She is such a darling!  She happened to be in the 2e and passed by G. Detou, the well-known bakery and cooking ingredients store, and picked me up a kilo of sucre perlé

Feeling like I just won the lottery, I ran down to tell Denis that I had a kilo of my sugary, white pearls.  Denis brought over his baker's toolbox, got right in the kitchen, and showed me how it's done.  Il est chou!—He's a darling!

Denis' Homemade Chouquettes

INGREDIENTS//Yields 80

•  500 ml of water
•  200 grams butter, unsalted
•  4 grams salt
•  300 grams flour (T45)
•  500 grams egg
•  300 grams pearl sugar (a.k.a. hail sugar and nib sugar)

INSTRUCTIONS

In a medium size pot, add your water, butter, and salt.  Bring it to a boil.

Take the pot off the heat, add your flour, and with a spatula, vigorously beat it in until you get a dough paste of ball.

Place the pot back on the heat and keep stirring until the paste of ball unsticks to the sides of the pot.  Shake the pot around so that the ball of dough paste rolls around in the pot unsticking itself from the sides of the pot.

Transfer the dough into a large inox mixing bowl.  Gradually beat in one egg at a time, and keep stirring until you get a glossy consistency.  If you scoop a bit of dough up with your clean finger, the dough should pull and fall back into place.

Denis used a 15mm tip for the pastry/piping bag.  Fill it half way with the dough, and squeeze out small rounds on a baking tray lined with parchment paper leaving an inch apart between them. 

Bake in oven at 190° Celcius (approx. 375° F) for twenty minutes.

NOTE

Using a piping bag looks easier than it is.  I kept getting pointy tips on the top of my choux/puff pastry.  Denis told me it was because I was lifting the piping bag after squeezing out the dough too quickly.  To get the choux/puff pastry nice and round at the top: squeeze out the dough, keep the tip in the dough, make an escargot figure, and then sweep off to the side.  This should give your choux a nice and rounded top.

I also ran across this article on French wheat flour explaining flour types.  I used T45 for this recipe which is regarded as a pastry flour.