Pastry Basics: Pâte à Choux
I'm officially in pastry school! To say this is a dream come true is an understatement - I've been imagining this moment since high school! Although life in my humble home kitchen hasn't been all that shabby, spending my days in a professional kitchen is just so much more satisfying. Every minute feels so productive, rewarding......and so natural.
Did you know that a lot of pastry chefs actually get "burnt out" by years of tasting their own creations, and don't properly eat desserts anymore? I didn't want to believe that until talking to several pastry chefs recently, and I was so upset! Obviously, that's not what I'm trying achieve, but I'm sure dealing with sugar everyday takes away some of its pleasure.
For me, it's the other way round. Since pastry school, I actually started trying a lot of desserts that I don't normally enjoy. Things like choux and puff pastry, which I know has a soft spot in so many peoples' hearts, never really tempt me that much.
Speaking of eclairs, one thing I never understood is what the classic texture is supposed to be like. Eclairs found in display cases in bakeries and cafes are more often that not soft, something that its appearance doesn't suggest. Even the fancifully glazed and adorned eclairs at high end eateries tend to disappoint. A classic eclair should have a buttery, crunchy shell that contrasts the thick, creamy filling. In an ideal world, they should be filled, glazed, and eaten right away.
Here are the steps to perfect choux pastry:
Pâte à Choux
Makes 12 cream puffs or 20-24 eclairs. Adapted from ICC.
1 cup water
125g unsalted butter, cubed
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon granulated sugar
175 g bread flour
1. Heat butter, water, sugar and salt in a saucepan, till it reaches a rolling boil.
How? Melt butter first, don't let it boil. When most of the butter is melted, add the rest of the ingredients. The residual heat will melt the rest of the butter. Bring to a rolling boil aka even the center of the pot should bubbling vigorously.
Why? if you boil the butter, water from it evaporates and affects the flour/water ratio.
2. Turn off the heat and dump in the bread flour all at once. Stir vigorously with a wooden spoon, making sure there are no flour lumps.
How? Scrape the edges of the pot so you don't burn bits of flour. Make sure there are no flour bits before turning on the heat again, or they will stay as flour bits.
Why? Cooking the flour on the stove top activates the gluten, which gives choux dough structure when baked.
3. Turn on the heat to medium again and continue cooking the dough, turning with the wooden spoon.
How? Use the wooden spoon to press the dough into a mass, and allow time for the surface to touch the bottom of the pan. If it sizzles, turn down the heat. Turn the dough around every few seconds so it dries out evenly. A skin will start to form on the sides of the pot. If you shake the pot and the dough comes together in a mass, it's ready.
Why? This step is called dessécher, meaning to dry out the dough. Evaporating excess water will allow the dough to absorb more eggs in the next step, which gives it structure.
4. Turn the dough into the bowl of a mixer with a paddle attachment. Turn on the mixer and let the dough cool. When steam starts to die down and the dough is not hot to touch, add eggs Slowly, and paddle until fully incorporated.
How? The dough from step 3 should easily roll off the pot and plops into the mixing bowl. Start by adding two eggs as the mixer is on low-medium speed, until fully incorporated. As you get to the 6th egg, add eggs one at a time, making sure to scrape the side of the bowl. When the dough is shiny, falls down the paddle like a ribbon, and forms a smooth "V"-shaped edge, it is ready.
Why? The doneness of the dough depends on it's temperature and the cook's perception. scrape up enough dough onto the paddle to see if it flows like a ribbon, but not too much that it will just fall off because of the weight. If the dough is still warm after your 10th egg, it may appear runny. Resist the urge to add more eggs. Sometimes you may just need an extra half an egg.
5. Fill a piping bag with choux pastry and pipe into fingers, around ¾" x 5" on a sheet of parchment paper.
How? Before piping your eclairs or profiteroles shell, smear a little dough on the bottom of you parchment so it doesn't move around when you pipe. Fill a piping bag fitted with a #2/#3 star tip and twist the top tightly until a bit of the choux dough pushes out of the tip. Hold the piping bag tightly, and pipe by applying equal pressure while moving along at a steady pace (counting helps). After piping, apply a thin layer of egg wash and smooth out any tips with wet fingers. Score with a fork along the length of the eclair.
Why? Choux dough is very unforgiving, meaning everything you piped will show when it's baked. Use egg wash tp hide some of the flaws or just scrape it up and pipe again. This dough relies on gluten formation so there's no need to "handle it with care" - you can practically scrape and reuse it many times and it won't affect the dough texture. Scoring gives eclairs an attractive appearance, and also controls where the eclairs expand when they are baked. Piping with a start tip also creates a similar effect.
6. Bake in a preheated oven (350F) for 35-40 minutes, rotating halfway.
How? Checking for doneness: choux Pastry should be puffed up, the bottom and cracks should be golden brown, not pale. It should feel quite light.
Why? Choux dough will puff up due to oven spring, but don't open oven doors too early because it takes time for the dough structure to stabilize. When in doubt, break open one of your choux to check, the inside should not have gooey and pasty bits. The hollowness also shows whether the dough has enough eggs in it. The more hollow it is, the more egg protein, aka structure, it has.
7. Remove eclair shells from the oven and let cool. Pipe with filling of choice.
How? When eclair shells are cool enough to touch, poke two holes on on the bottom with a skewer. (or the needle of a thermometer, chopsticks, etc) Wiggle the skewer around to break any networks of dough that may get in the way of your filling. Fill a piping bag fitted with a star tip and pipe with the tip facing the other end. You will feel the shell getting heavier. Rotate the tip to the shorter end and fill it before you release pressure. Repeat with the other hole until the entire length of the interior is filled. Wipe off any excess filling on the exterior. After piping, place the eclair bottom side up, so you know which ones are filled and which ones are not. This is especially helpful when you are filling them with different fillings.
Why? Instead of a soggy shell that you find in the display cases of most cafes and bakeries, classic eclairs have a slightly crunchy shell that contrasts the smooth, creamy filling. It is also important to completely fill it, so there are no empty pockets if you cut through the middle lengthwise.
8. Dip eclairs in glaze and let dry.
How? Make sure the glaze is not too thick or runny, it should be similar to the consistency of melted ice cream. Gently hold on to the bottom of the eclair and dip it into the glaze, ensuring the entire length is submerged evenly. Lower into the glaze for a couple seconds, right before it reaches the widest part of the eclair, around a third of the way. Hold it over the bowl to allow excess glaze to drip off. Rotate the eclair quickly (like the motion when you end the pour of a glass of wine) and set the eclairs upright on a parchment-lined tray. Rest for 5-10 minutes, or until the glaze has set. Serve immediately, or cover and refrigerate up to 1 day.
Why? In a perfect world, they should be filled and glazed to order, and done as quickly as possible. This takes practice, so make them often!