Saturday, January 14, 2017

Pâte à Choux

Pâte à choux - making it, at least - entered my life back when I was fifteen and in the Culinary program at my highschool. Unbeknownst to me, I had been eating it in various delicious forms since I had teeth - French crullers (still a favourite), churros, and cheese puffs. Ironically, I quite detest the best known use for the dough - eclairs and cream puffs. The few I've had over the years have always been bland and either dry or soggy, and I'm not a fan of either plain whipped cream or industrial "whipped filling".  Likewise, the ones we made by the hundred in class were rather anaemic-looking and, well, mass produced in appearance as well, with the same disgusting filling. More than that, the stench of the cooking "roll in fat" (which, at my best guess, is some sort of margarine-shortening hybrid) and steaming dough while we added egg after egg was awful - it truly did smell of (gym) shoes, earning it the name "shoe paste" amongst us Grade 10s. After three years of churning out the mixture (along with chocolate chip cookies for 180, with 10 kilos of flour and 4 kilos of chocolate chips per batch), I graduated with the mentality that cream puff dough was anything but worth my time and nasal receptors, and swore off making pâte à choux. 

More Choux!

Eventually, in baking school, I was introduced to the "real" stuff - using nothing more than butter, flour, water and eggs. The quality of each ingredient - from European high-fat butter to filtered water and the freshest flour and eggs - was impressed on us as paramount to achieving a successfully crisp, rich-tasting and airy shell post-baking, and while we did learn a "large quantity" method on a stand mixer, we were encouraged to make individual batches for 12-24 by hand, with a wooden spoon and old-fashioned elbow grease. Rather than smelling of a gym locker room, the batter smelled of a cross between Challah and brioche dough - pleasantly eggy and buttery, with a hint of sweetness in batches intended for profiteroles and a slight air of pepper and salt in those turning into cheese-topped poppers. When our instructor demonstrated how to make pastry swans - which looked impossibly difficult - I was taken aback by the simplicity once again. 

Choux Paste Swans

When it came time for me to plan my own lessons for Home Ec, I knew I had to somehow incorporate this ridiculously simple, elegant recipe. We also did it the "old school" way - pot, burner, wooden spoon and arm strength - and while a small amount of complaining occurred over beating the fairly stiff "roux", they enjoyed piping the puffs onto the sheets and imagining what we were going to do with them in the future. I've planned a lesson on Crème Diplomat next week, after trying out both it and a standard chocolate pastry cream (used in the swans) over the holidays and finding the diplomat version more impressive (looks are everything to pre-teens). However, this sweet recipe for choux can also be filled with ice cream, whipped cream, whatever! 

Prefer savoury? Drop the sugar to 1 tbsp, use ½ tsp salt, a pinch of pepper (white or black) and either fold in or sprinkle over some cheese and smoked paprika. Like I said before, the quality of ingredients here matters - don't skimp and use margarine or shortening. They will work and puff the dough, but I won't be blamed for the offensive smell and absent taste. Don't be afraid to make the whole batch of these, either, even if you're only serving a few right away. The baked puffs freeze like a dream!

Manchego and Smoked Paprika Choux Puffs


Pâte à Choux
Makes ~24 cream puffs, 16 eclairs or 12 swans
220 g (slightly less than 1 cup) water
113 g (½ cup) salted butter, cut into pieces
¼ tsp Kosher salt
36 g (3 tbsp) granulated sugar
141 g (1 cup + 2 tbsp) all-purpose flour
4 large eggs

  1. Combine the water, butter, salt and sugar in a sauce pot over medium high heat.
  2. Cook, stirring, until the butter is melted and everything comes to a boil.
  3. Reduce the heat to medium and add the flour all at once, stirring quickly with a wooden spoon.
  4. Continue to stir and cook off the moisture in the dough until it pulls away from the sides, leaves a film on the bottom of the pot and starts to form into a ball around the spoon. This should take about 1-2 minutes.
  5. Remove the pot from the heat and allow to cool for 8 minutes.
  6. Meanwhile, line 3 baking sheets with parchment.
  7. Crack eggs into a small bowl and place near your work surface.
  8. Start beating the dough with a wooden spoon and begin adding eggs one at a time. Do not add another egg until the one before has been completely absorbed into the batter. The batter will look smooth and glossy when ready.
  9. Scrape batter in a pastry bag fitted with a large round tip.
For Swans:
  1. Heat the oven to 450F.
  2. Pipe the neck using a small plain round tip (I used an Ateco 804). Form an S shape with the batter. Use damp fingertips to shape one end into a point.
  3. On another parchment-lined tray, use a pastry bag with a large plain or star tip (or no tip) to pipe a large oval (this forms the bodies and wings). For my swans I used an Ateco 829. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and place in the fridge while necks bake.
  4. Bake the tray of "necks" for 15 minutes, without opening the oven.
  5. Remove the tray of “necks” and reduce the heat to 375F
  6. Bake the “bodies” for 40 minutes, until the shells are crispy on the outside and set.
  7. As soon as the bodies come out of the oven, use a small serrated knife to cut an oval out of the top of the body, leaving enough of the sides to have form a “bowl”.
  8. Slice the cut away part into two lengthwise (for the wings).
  9. Cool completely, then fill the base with Chantilly cream, pastry cream or whipped cream and assemble. If holding more than a few hours, paint the inside of the shells with melted chocolate and let set before filling.
For Eclairs or Cream Puffs:
  1. Heat the oven to 375F and line 3 baking sheets with parchment.
  2. Pipe out "finger length" lines or 2” “mounds” of dough 2” apart on the baking sheets.
  3. Place the baking sheets in the oven.
  4. Bake for 35-40 minutes, without opening the oven.
  5. Immediately after pastries come out of the oven, poke a hole in the top of each to release excess steam.
  6. Cool completely before filling.
Amount Per (Cream Puff) Serving
Calories: 72.9
Total Fat: 4.7 g
Cholesterol: 41.3 mg
Sodium: 39.1 mg
Total Carbs: 6.1 g
Dietary Fiber: 0.2 g
Protein: 1.7 g 

Recipe and method created based on tips from The Flavor Bender