Wednesday, March 2, 2011

An Oscar-Worthy Sequel (Chocolate-Covered Strawberry Puffs)

As a former film nerd student, the Academy Awards has always been an evening I look forward to. I have actually cried when certain awards were given (namely when Adrien Brody won Best Actor for his performance in The Pianist in 2003 and when Martin Scorsese--my absolute favorite living director--FINALLY won in 2007 for The Departed... I love you, Marty!). Back in 2005, I worked as a production assistant on the American Music Awards which took place at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, CA, the former home of the Oscars. After those awards wrapped up, along with some other crew members, I was responsible for cleaning up the venue, packing up our supplies, etc. I remember, one day during lunch time, I was asked to run to the stage to retrieve something. I can't even remember what it was. I grabbed a Subway sandwich (yuck) from the selection we had purchased for the staff lunch (I didn't want to get stuck with one of the less desirable options... as if any of them are any good--did I mention I hate Subway?) and ran to the stage to take care of it.

As I walked across the dimly-lit stage, in the silent and completely empty auditorium, I stopped front and center and peered out at the plush red seats filling the large venue. I held up my Subway sandwich, much like I had often imagined holding up an Academy Award, and I reflected on how lucky I was to be standing in the same spot where the likes of Tom Hanks, Jack Nicholson, Julia Roberts, Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Spacey, and the Coen brothers had accepted awards. The same spot where Matt Damon and Ben Affleck won for Best Original Screenplay for Good Will Hunting, way before their careers took off. I wondered if my career would take off like theirs had. If my dreams would come true. If that crappy Subway sandwich would someday manifest itself into a radiant golden statue.

See, I've always been someone who dreamed big. When anyone would tell me I couldn't do something, I would make it my life goal to prove them wrong. I said I was going to Hollywood, and I did. I worked on a television show that has won 27 Emmy Awards, including 10 for Outstanding Animated Program (can you guess which show it is?). I met and worked for some of the most successful producers in the industry, including Scott Rudin who was nominated for not one, but TWO Academy Awards for Best Picture this year (for True Grit and The Social Network), and James L. Brooks who is one of only 6 directors to achieve the elusive "hat trick" of personally winning Oscars for producing, writing, and directing in a single year (1983 for Terms of Endearment).

My dream was to accomplish something astounding like Jim Brooks had done. When I would walk by him at work, I would avert my eyes. He was so talented and important... it made me nervous... that was until the day he overheard me telling a co-worker about how I had fainted that morning at the doctor's office, and he came up to me (Jim Brooks came up to ME!) and told me that his daughter had just called to tell him she had fainted that morning too, and asked me what it felt like to faint, to describe it to him. I think at that moment my life changed forever... If I could be a girl from the smallest state in the country, move to the city of dreams, and work with talented individuals such as these (even if I was at the bottom of the food chain), I could accomplish just about anything I set my heart to. I still believe this, which is why I've thrown caution to the wind and am starting all over again, new city, new career, new everything. Because life's too short not to follow your dreams...

This year for the Academy Awards, I whipped up a very special dessert inspired by one of the simplest and loveliest desserts there ever was. The chocolate-covered strawberry. Because the classics never go out of style, and Hollywood's biggest night deserves something timeless and seductive. Cream puffs dipped in melted dark chocolate and filled with fresh strawberry whipped cream elevate this simple, yet glamorous sweet to an Oscar-worthy level. Serve them with actual chocolate-covered strawberries to merge old Hollywood glamour with its contemporary sequel. After all, some say The Godfather Part II is better than the original...

Chocolate-Covered Strawberry Puffs
Makes about 3 dozen bite-size puffs
(Pâte à Choux recipe adapted from Alton Brown)

Pâte à Choux:
1 cup water
3/4 stick butter (6 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
5 3/4 ounces flour
1 cup eggs, about 4 large eggs and 2 whites

Fresh Strawberry Cream:
6 strawberries, hulled and roughly chopped
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup sugar

5 oz dark chocolate, roughly chopped

To make the pâte à choux: Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Boil water, butter, sugar, and salt. Add flour and remove from heat. Work mixture together and return to heat. Continue working the mixture until all flour is incorporated and dough forms a ball. Transfer mixture into bowl of a standing mixer and let cool for 3 or 4 minutes. With mixer on stir or lowest speed add eggs, 1 at a time, making sure the first egg is completely incorporated before continuing. Once all eggs have been added and the mixture is smooth put dough into a piping bag fitted with a large round tip. Pipe immediately into golfball-size shapes, 2 inches apart onto parchment lined sheet pans (hold the pastry bag at a 90 degree angle to the pan and, while squeezing, slowly lift it straight up in a fluid motion). Dab the tops of each puff with a fingertip dipped in water to smooth the tops. Cook for 10 minutes, then turn the oven down to 350 degrees F and bake for 10 more minutes or until golden brown (do not open the oven door while the puffs are baking!). Once they are removed from the oven pierce with a paring knife immediately to release steam.

Melt the dark chocolate in a double boiler, or in a metal bowl suspended over a pot of simmering water. When the puffs are cool, dip them upside-down into the chocolate to just coat the surface, but do not submerge them completely. You will need access to the holes you pierced with the paring knife to fill them with strawberry cream later on. Allow the chocolate to set and firm up before you fill the puffs. If your kitchen is warm (or you're in a rush), you can speed up the process by briefly refrigerating the puffs to help the chocolate set faster.

Meanwhile, add the chopped strawberries to a small food processor and puree until smooth. You should have about 1/2 cup of strawberry puree. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip up the cream to medium peaks. Add the sugar and strawberry puree and whip just until you achieve firm peaks, but do not over whip.

To assemble: Fill a pastry bag fitted with a medium round pastry tip with fresh strawberry cream. Pipe the strawberry cream into the holes created when piercing the puffs. Fill the hollow cavity completely (the pastry tip will gently push away from the puff when it's full). Repeat with the remaining puffs. If you have extra strawberries and extra melted chocolate, simply dip the strawberries in the chocolate and let them set on a parchment-lined baking sheet for a lovely accompaniment of chocolate-covered strawberries.

*Note*: Only chocolate-coat and fill as many puffs as you plan to serve right away, otherwise they will get soft and soggy over time. Freeze remaining puffs until needed. Thaw frozen puffs at room temperature, and, if desired, recrisp them for a few minutes in the oven to dry them back out before dipping and filling them.


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