The Secrets of Successful Pate a Choux, Part I.

If you’ve ever eaten éclairs, cream puffs, gougeres (cheese puffs), or beignets (fritters), you’ve eaten pâte à choux (paht-ah-shoo). It means “cabbage paste” in French.

This twice-cooked paste is probably the most versatile dough used in cooking and pastry making. Pâte à choux can be savory or sweet. It can be baked, poached, or fried. It can be piped into various shapes, including my favorite, swans.

A lot of the appeal in making pâte à choux comes from the ease with which you can make a great variety of elegant pastries with it, including Gateau Saint-Honoré, or Croquembouches, stacks of profiteroles glued together with caramel. And what kid wouldn’t love to make pets de nonne (nun’s farts)?

It achieves its puff not through leavening but through steam deriving from its high moisture content, like popovers. The cavities that result can conveniently be filled with anything from chicken salad to chocolate mousse, while the exterior remains crisp.

Pâte à choux was originally pâte à Panterelli, named after the chef who invented it in 1540. Panterelli served as head chef for Catherine de Medici, daughter of the famous Florentine family, queen of France, and mother of three kings. (Catherine is credited for a whole host of French culinary innovations, so this story can be taken with a few grains of salt)

The original recipe evolved slowly into pâte à Popelin (popelins were a form of cake made in the shape of a woman’s breasts). In the eighteenth century, a patissier called Avice named his cabbage-shaped rolls “choux buns” and pâte à choux was born. However, the recipe was “perfected” by the legendary nineteenth century chef Antoine Carême and this is the basis of the recipe we use today.

Fundamentally, pâte à choux is about only four ingredients, butter, flour, water (or milk), and eggs. Other flavoring agents, like spices, herbs, sugar, or cheese, can be added. Because of its simplicity, pâte à choux is often called fail-safe pastry dough.

I say, however, there is no such thing as fail-safe. Here are a few important principles to remember so you can enjoy consistent success with your puffs:

  • Using the correct amount of the basic ingredients is crucial in the formation of a successful choux paste. Maintaining the correct ratio of fluid and dry ingredients (flour) is also critical. If too little egg is beaten in, the dough will have a poor rise and if too much egg is added the dough will not hold its shape. If you apply a too heavy coat of egg wash on the dough it will inhibit the rise of the choux during baking.
  • The water (or other liquid) and fat (usually butter) should boil together. Never leave the mixture unattended or the water will evaporate and alter the ratio of the recipe.
  • The butter should melt at the same time as the water comes to boil, for the same reason as above.
  • To produce a nice rise, the choux items should be formed and baked while the batter is still slightly warm.
  • The choux must bake until they are completely dried out, or they will collapse when they cool. They must be thoroughly cooled before filling.
  • Most importantly, do not open the oven in the first stage of baking! The puffs will crack open, losing steam, and there won’t be enough puff.

You can use milk instead of water, which will produce a richer pastry and will have a deeper color when baked. If you want a crisper baked pastry, you can replace one or two of the whole eggs with an equal volume of egg whites. If the mixture seems to need only a bit more egg, you can beat one egg and add just part of it to the dough.

I hope you will try to make this “easy”, but interesting and “good looking” cake. It is actually a great recipe for unexpected guests, because while everybody is enjoying some hors d’oeuvres and drinks (the type depend on the season), you can do your magic in the kitchen. By the time everybody starts to be hungry, and in a situation like this, dinner is usually served as a buffet, the cake will be ready to be served in a timely fashion.

In any case, I would like to hear about your experience with the recipe. If you have made it before, how does it compare to this recipe?

Pâte à choux

Ingredients

  • 250g (8.8 oz) butter, cut into small cubes
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 340g (12 oz) all-purpose or bread flour
  • 10 large eggs
  • 475ml (1 pint) water

For the Ring Cake:

Ingredients

  • Egg wash (1 egg plus 1 tablespoon water)
  • ½ cup toasted, sliced almonds

Filling:

  • 1 pint heavy cream
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoon vanilla

Method of Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 450F (232 C).
  2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or silicon sheet, like Silpat.
  3. Combine the butter, sugar, salt, and water in a saucepan and bring to boil. Do not allow the water to boil for any length of time or it will begin to evaporate, and the proportion of liquid to dry ingredients will change, compromising the final dough. Once boiling, immediately remove the pan from the heat, dump in all the flour at once. (make sure you do not add the flour in stages) Using a wooden or silicon spoon, quickly beat in the flour.
  4. Return the saucepan to medium heat and continue beating the dough for about 1 minute. The mixture should begin to thicken, dry out and form a mass. The mixture should begin to pull away from the sides of the pan. Take care that you do not overcook the mixture, as the fat might separate out.
  5. Using a rubber spatula scrape the mixture into a bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and begin beating the paste at medium-low speed to release some steam and to allow it to cool somewhat. This is very important because the eggs will begin cooking if they are added while the paste is hot. Alternatively, you can use a food processor, again making sure you run the food processor before adding the eggs and leaving the feed tube open so steam can escape, cooling the paste.
  6. Add eggs, one at a time, to dough as the mixer/food processor is running, beating continuously until a smooth and shiny paste is formed. You will know you have added enough eggs when 1) A ribbon of dough forms and does not break when the paddle is lifted out of the bowl ; and 2) A spoon run through the paste leaves a channel that fills in slowly.

The pâte à choux is now ready to be formed into whatever shape you wish to make it. Today we are going to make a “Ring Cake”

Method of Preparation for the Ring Cake:

  1. Draw a circle of 8 inches in diameter on the parchment paper to serve as your guide when piping the choux paste or use a prepared cake round made of cardboard or parchment paper.
  2. Prepare the egg wash in a small bowl. The egg wash is made of a whole egg mixed with 1 tablespoons of water.
  3. Place the pâte à choux into a pastry bag (I like to use disposable pastry bags, but you can also use a ziplock bag by cutting a small hole in one of its corners) fitted with a #35 plain tip and pipe a ring of paste on the parchment paper (or on whatever you are using as a guide) just on the inside of the circle. Pipe another ring just on the outside of the circle so that the two piped rings touch. Finally pipe a third ring on the top of the two rings, covering the line where they meet. To keep the height as it bakes, gently push on the bag to allow the paste to fall by itself rather than be forced out. The rings should not overlap, yet there should be no gaps.

  1. Using a pastry brush, lightly coat the piped choux with the egg wash. Make sure not to use too much egg wash that may interfere with the rising of the cake; also use a very light touch with the brush; you do not want to push the dough’ s height too low.
  2. Sprinkle sliced almonds over the top of the pastry ring. Do not overload it with the almonds. If there are too many, they will just fall off during baking, anyway.
  3. Prepare a second ring the same way as you prepared the first one, but without the sliced almonds.
  4. Place both pastries in the oven and immediately turn off the oven. Leave the rings for 15 minutes, then reopen the oven to 350F (177C) and bake it for 35 minutes, or until the pastry is golden brown and baked through. You can lift the pastry and check the cracks on the bottom to make sure that they are done. The color on the inside should be the same as the color of the cake outside.

  1. While the dough is baking beat the heavy cream to medium-firm peaks, then add the sugar and continue to beat it until the sugar incorporates completely into the whipped cream. Add vanilla and refrigerate the cream until use.
  2. Remove the pan from the oven, place it on a wire rack, and allow the pastry to cool completely.
  3. Transfer the cream to a pastry bag fitted with the #5 star tip and begin piping the cream along the outside edge of the ring and then pipe it along the inside edge of the ring. Fill in the gaps between the two to completely cover the pastry.
  4. Carefully place the ring with the almonds on the top of the cream-filled bottom.
  5. Put some confectioner’s sugar into a sieve and, lightly tapping the sides, dust the cake with the sugar.

Serve within a few hours.