From profiteroles – or, as we more commonly know them, cream puffs – to savoury, cheesy gougeres, towers of spun-sugar caged croquembouche and chocolate eclairs – all are built on one simple recipe: pâte à choux. This pastry is airy, light and hollow – which makes it ideal for filling with delicious things. Nicole Gomes’s Paris-Brest with Apple-Rhubarb Compote and Ginger Pastry Cream celebrating Canada’s 150th Birthday. When it doesn’t work out, as chef Nicole Gomes unfortunately had happened to her in the sixth episode of Top Chef Canada: All-Stars, the pastry was dense, heavy and hard to cut. The difference here between the two comes down to technique. Anna Olson’s impressive croquembouche. Pâte à choux’s name reflects the dough’s cabbage-like appearance when baked. A fundamental part of the world of French pastry, it forms the backbone of many a dessert, including:
- Profiteroles or Cream Puffs – small puffs of choux pastry, often filled with pastry cream, ice cream or sweetened whipped cream and dipped in a chocolate glaze.
- Chouquettes – essentially profiteroles, but topped with pearl sugar before baking.
- Croquembouche – A tower of profiteroles, held together by caramelized sugar and typically encased in a spun-sugar cage.
- Eclairs – like profiteroles but oblong in shape.
- Paris-Brest – named for the famed bicycle race, it is shaped like a wheel.
- Honore Cake – A dessert with a puff pastry base that is topped with pastry or whipped cream and encircled on top with profiteroles.
- Gougeres – a savoury profiterole, the choux pastry is augmented with cheese and sometimes herbs.
So, how to ensure you’ll have a Top Chef Canada-worthy pastry? Well, understanding the science behind pâte à choux is a good place to start. Whereas cakes and cookies rely on baking soda and baking powder to give them lift – created by a chemical reaction between the leaveners and other ingredients – the puff in a cream puff comes from steam being released. The water in the dough is heated as they bake and starts to expand, but the shell of the pastry has already started to cook, so that steam creates a ballooning effect. The result is a hollow dessert waiting to be filled. A savoury treat: Laura Calder’s Gougeres made with gruyere cheese.
The ingredients are simple: butter, water, flour, eggs and a bit of salt. It’s the technique here that matters. Think of pâte à choux as a four-step process: two parts for making the dough and two parts when it’s baking.
The dough starts with one part butter and two of water – or a water-milk combination – that are brought to a simmer and then combined with flour. It’s key to add the flour all in one go and then keep stirring the mixture without stopping for several minutes to cook out that raw flour flavour and start drying the dough a bit. Good news: this is an excellent arm workout.
If you want to keep working your arms, you can transfer the dough to a bowl and add the eggs while continuing to stir, but feel free to move to a stand mixer or pull out your handheld one for the next step. The addition of eggs is where intuition needs to take precedence. Adding too much egg will lead to a runny dough and that means flattened pastries. Instead, add them one at a time while mixing and resist the last one if the dough is glossy and soft, but holds its shape when scooped.
A piping bag can be used to make the desired pastry shapes, but dolloping the dough with a spoon to make profiteroles works just as well. If piping, dip the end of your finger in a bit of water and smooth out any tips on the dough that could overbake.
Now the dough is ready for the oven. The key here is to start at a higher temperature and then reduce it. That initial blast of heat will help them puff as the water evaporates; the lower temperature will help them finish baking without overcooking. For best results, the tip of a sharp knife should be used to pierce the bottom of the pastry as soon it’s out of the oven to let any residual steam escape and keep it from getting soggy. These vents are perfect for then piping in pastry cream. The result should be a light and crisp outer shell with a virtually hollow interior. All choux pastries are best when eaten on the same day they’re made – which, really, is the perfect excuse to finish them all off.
Pâte à Choux
Cooking Time: 45 minutes
Serves: 20 to 25 profiteroles or about 10 eclairs
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup skim milk
1/2 cup butter
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. In a medium saucepan set over medium-high heat, bring the water, milk, butter and salt to a simmer. Remove the saucepan from the heat and add all the flour at once, stirring vigorously until the dough is no longer sticking to the side of the pot.
3. Transfer the dough to a bowl and, using a stand mixer or handheld beaters, mix in the eggs, one at a time, making sure they are fully incorporated before adding the next one.
4. Scoop or pipe the dough into mounds on the parchment paper-lined baking sheet for profiteroles, smoothing over any points with a wet finger. (For eclairs, pipe oblong shapes.)
5. Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 375°F and bake for another 15 minutes or so. The pastries should be puffed and nicely golden.
6. Using the tip of a sharp knife or a toothpick, poke a hole in the side or the base of the pastry to vent any extra steam.
7. Cool completely before filling with ice cream, sweetened whipped cream, pastry cream or even savoury fillings.