“Sweating for hours on end in that sweltering kitchen”
Hollywood’s annual parade of smug self-congratulation, the Oscars, returns this week. Having won five awards at last week’s BAFTAs, the film that leads this year’s Academy nominees is Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (tied with Birdman on nine nominations including Best Picture and Best Director).
Anderson’s quirky, hermetically sealed pastel shaded worlds can be a little cold and distant, for all that they are clever and stylish, and the director has often failed truly to capture what made his breakthrough picture Rushmore work so well. With Grand Budapest Hotel, however, the Texan auteur has made what is quite probably his finest work. Loosely inspired by the life and work of Austrian Jewish novelist Stefan Zweig in the inter-war period, Grand Budapest utilises a sort of Russian doll structure in which the main body of the narrative takes place inside layers of reminiscence around Tom Wilkinson/Jude Law’s Zweig-like writer. The main body of the film, though, focuses on the fictional Republic of Zubrowka (named for the bison grass vodka) in a turbulent inter-war era in which Ralph Fiennes’ hotel concierge preserves an already dying way of life in an Alpine Ruritania.
Pompous, vain and often ridiculous, as in love with long-winded poetry recital as with his signature scent (L’Air de Panache), Fiennes’ M. Gustave is a delightful comic creation. Fiennes’ performance, one of the actor’s best roles and somewhat unfortunately overlooked in the otherwise generous shower of Oscar nominations given to the film, imbues Gustave with a warmth and essential decency that makes a potentially cartoonish individual come to life and enables the audience completely to understand the hero worship young protagonist Zero the lobby boy has for him.
With M. Gustave’s very particular tastes an essential element of the world of The Grand Budapest Hotel, an exquisite pâtissier by the name of Mendl features heavily as the home of Gustave’s delicacy of choice: the Courtesan au Chocolat. Mendl’s is also where Zero meets the love of his life, pastry chef Agatha (“Flat as a board, enormous birthmark the shape of Mexico over half her face, sweating for hours on end in that sweltering kitchen, while Mendl, genius though he is, looms over her like a hulking gorilla, yet without question, without fail, always and invariably, she’s exceedingly lovely”). This connection will prove vital when Gustave is falsely imprisoned and Zero must smuggle in the materials for a prison break inside Mendl’s pastries (they are far too fine looking for the prison guards to destroy in search of contraband).
Irish actress Soairse Ronan, who played Agatha (a potentially tricky role as Zero in telling the story finds mention of his lost love too emotive to dwell on their romance, meaning Ronan and Tony Revolori must imply the developing relationship in between the rest of the story), seems to have enjoyed eating the pastries more than making them. In interview Ronan said: “I used to bake little cupcakes and I made a pumpkin pie once and a cheesecake. That’s about as far as it’s gone though. I’ve never advanced to Courtesan au Chocolat…They have this baker down the road in Görlitz, in Germany where we shot, and she made all of them. I’m sure she had people who helped her but they made all these beautiful little pastries from scratch, and when we finished as well you could eat them, which was lovely. So we used to take them home and eat the props afterwards” (except for Revolori who is apparently allergic to chocolate and so was left pastry-less).
The Courtesan au Chocolat pastries were designed for the movie by Anemone Müller from Görlitz’s Cafe CaRe and the DVD provides a charming recipe as part of the extra features. For anyone who hasn’t bought the DVD (and you should, because the film is a delight), here it is:
As you may remember from my efforts at cooking the puerco pibil recipe in the “10 Minute Cooking School” feature on the DVD for Once Upon a Time in Mexico, I love it when a movie comes with a recipe. In fact, on finding such a recipe feature it’s pretty impossible to resist the temptation of following it. So, in anticipation of The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s challenge for the Oscars I decided to have a go at making my own Courtesan au Chocolat.
The dainty pastries are obviously deeply symbolic of the wider film – intricately constructed in descending layers, superficially sweet and covered in pastel colours, but concealing a darker, more bitter heart. Like the film, if the elements don’t quite come together right, the whole thing could come crashing down in a complete mess. And, while every individual element seems simple, putting it all together proved surprisingly fiddly.
Essentially a stack of slightly fancy profiteroles, the Courtesan au Chocolat is made from choux pastry. The video suggests that the recipe, apparently conceived at the peak of the funicular railway that runs up to the Budapest Hotel, varies “depending on one’s elevation and humidity”. But a simple mix of water, butter, and a little salt and sugar, with flour and eggs added, will suffice at any altitude.
Once cooked the choux of three different sizes are then filled with a chocolatey crème pâtissière, made by mixing milk and chocolate and then adding it to cocoa powder, flour, sugar and egg yolk. This can then be piped into the choux. The dough and custard are both pretty easy to do, but I’ve never been the most elegant of bakers when it comes to piping, so my choux were not perhaps as neatly shaped as Agatha’s in the film.
After this, it’s simply a case of assembling the dessert. Each ball of choux pastry is covered in an icing sugar, vanilla and milk icing, utilising the colour palette of Anderson’s film. This is actually a little trickier than the other parts, as the recipe becomes quite vague at this point saying: “prepare sugar icing of confectioner’s sugar, a dash of vanilla and enough milk to achieve the desired consistency”. That desired consistency proved quite difficult to achieve, especially alongside getting the right colour for the icing. Ultimately it meant that the icing wasn’t quite as consistent and shiny as it could have been.
Finally, all that is needed to make a towering Courtesan au Chocolat is to pile one iced and filled pastry ball on top of another and top it with a cocoa bean (hoping the whole thing doesn’t just tumble over).
And here’s the finished product. Not bad for a first attempt. With Herr Mendl looming over me like a gorilla I could probably improve a lot on this in time, especially with the amount of pastries Mendl’s seem to get through.
As for the taste, it was predictably indulgent, rich and just a little sickly sweet, just as you would assume from looking at them on screen. Most importantly, it was a far better sweet treat than anything else on offer in the other Academy Award nominees and for that added sensory benefit maybe it deserves to take home the top award. (It won’t, though, the markedly less patisserie filled coming of age drama Boyhood will undoubtedly win instead).
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: Earlier this week we were watching Comic Relief Bake Off and Jonathon Ross making pancakes instead of profiteroles. It was certainly an education in all the different things that can go wrong with choux pastry! The choux itself came out beautifully. The chocolate creme pat was rich and bitter, though hadn’t managed to make it’s way into every nook and cranny of the choux (which would probably have made it a bit much). The icing came out in the end, though there was definitely a moment when Colonel Mustard was getting a bit frustrated with it and banished me from the kitchen. Overall, the three choux buns is just the right size to make the desert indulgent without being overwhelming, and though they weren’t the prettiest courtesan au chocolat I’m sure they tasted just as good as the ones in the film.
PREVIOUSLY IN MOVIE MEALS:
“But That’s Peasant Food” – On the merits of Pixar’s Ratatouille and its fining dining take on a peasant classic.
“Julie, Julia and Me” – Following in the footsteps of Julie & Julia’s Julie Powell by utterly failing at Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon.
“Shoot the Cook” – Robert Rodriguez’s 10 Minute Cooking School and a dish that Johnny Depp would kill for.
“I Don’t Think He Knows About Second Breakfast” – Eating along with the hobbits of The Lord of the Rings
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