When you bite into a luxurious, melt-in-your-mouth pastry such as cream puffs or éclairs, you are experiencing an amazing pâte à choux dessert. Pâte à choux is used to create one of my favorite desserts, a cream-filled éclair with a smooth shiny coat of chocolate on top.
Pâte (pronounced “pat”) means “dough” or “paste” in French and choux (pronounced “shoe”) means “cabbage.” Pâte à choux, (pronounced “pat ah shoe”) is thought to mean a “pastry cabbage” because the dough puffs up similar to a cabbage-shape when baked. Pâte à choux is also referred to as cream puff pastry or cream puff dough.
Pâte à choux is made on top of the stove. Some recipes use milk for extra flavor and browning when baked, or a combination of milk and water; however the classic recipe uses just water. Start by boiling water and butter, add flour and salt while beating to form a fairly firm and elastic ball that comes away from the sides of the pan, and then cook the mixture a bit longer over low heat to cook the flour. Eggs are beaten in last, off the heat, until the mixture becomes a thick paste with a smooth and glossy appearance.
The finished dough can be spooned to form rustic balls; however it is more commonly piped to create uniform shapes. While baking, steam forms from the liquid ingredients to expand the dough into an airy shell. Many traditional recipes use only whole eggs; however using additional egg whites provides a crisper and lighter crust.
Pâte à choux bakes into a light, airy puff almost 3 times its original size with a delicate crisp crust. The inside will be nearly hollow but with a soft custard-like webbing lining the inside.
Click here for Pâte à Choux recipe.
Pâte à Choux Tips
Butter: Use unsalted butter for pâte à choux and most baking recipes. However if you are using salted butter you should omit extra salt called for in the ingredient list. The butter does not need to be softened prior to using, but it is best to cut it into small uniform sized pieces so that it melts quickly. The quicker the butter melts the quicker you can bring the mixture to a boil, otherwise while waiting for the butter to melt some of the water is already evaporating.
Flour: I prefer all-purpose flour; however some recipes use bread flour to add extra strength and heartiness.
Sifting: Sift the flour and salt (and sugar if using) after measuring to allow the flour to incorporate more easily into the liquid mixture.
Eggs: Measure the eggs using a liquid measuring cup so that you have the correct proportion of liquids in the recipe. Whole eggs are common for most recipes, or you can replace a portion of the whole eggs with egg whites for a crisper pastry.
Water vs. Milk: Water or milk may be used, or a combination of both. Water makes a lighter and crisper puff, milk makes a softer puff that is not as crisp, provides extra flavor and will cause the puffs to brown more. Water is used for most classic-type recipes; however if you prefer a combination use 3 parts water to 1 part milk for a good ratio.
Boiling Butter and Water: When initially boiling the butter and water, as soon as the mixture comes to a boil immediately remove the pan from the heat to prevent extra evaporation which would alter the necessary proportion of liquids in the recipe.
Adding Flour: When the flour is added to the boiled butter and water mixture, it must be vigorously beaten to develop the gluten and create elastic dough. Then the mixture is cooked longer while continually stirring to further develop the gluten and cook the flour.
Cool the Dough: After cooking the flour mixture the dough must be cooled so that the eggs don’t start cooking when added. Remove the pan from the heat and either beat the dough vigorously by hand with a wooden spoon, or transfer the dough to a stand mixer with a paddle attachment and beat the dough for about 1 minute. The dough should be cooled to 180 degrees when measured with an instant read thermometer.
Add Eggs: The traditionally method for adding the eggs to the flour paste mixture is to add 1 egg at a time and then beat the mixture vigorously with a wooden spoon after each addition. Modern recipes recommend a stand mixer or food processor. I haven’t used the food processor method but using a stand mixer works wonderfully. Whichever method you use, add the eggs a little at a time, using about 2 tablespoons for each addition, beating well between each addition. If the eggs are added all at once they will just splash around in the pan and require extra effort to incorporate them into the dough.
String Test: The amount of eggs needed isn’t exact due to variances in flours and eggs. Although the ingredient proportions are pretty standard (1 stick butter, 1 cup water, 1 cup flour, 1 cup eggs) test the dough to ensure it is ready with the “string test.” Place a bit of dough between your thumb and forefinger and pull them apart. The dough should form a stretchy string about 1 to 2 inches long. If the dough has not reached this stage beat in 2 or more tablespoons of whole egg or egg white, adding a little at a time until the dough is finished.
Using and Storing: Pâte à choux dough is best used immediately after it is prepared. However if necessary it can stand, covered, for 30 to 60 minutes before using and baking. The covered puffs may also be refrigerated for up to 2 hours before baking, and the un-piped dough can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days. After baking the puffs will keep for 24 hours, covered, at room temperature before filling. Once they are filled they should be served the same day.
Piping: Pipe the dough to ensure each puff is the same size, except for gougeres which are a cheese-flavored appetizer dropped by spoonfuls onto the baking sheet to form rustic mounds. When piping the dough leave about 2 inches of space between each puff to allow the heat to circulate around each puff. To pipe each puff the same size, create a template by drawing the desired shapes on parchment paper with a pen or pencil. Turn the parchment over, with the marked side down on the pan before piping, so the dough doesn’t touch the markings. You can pipe using a pastry tip, however I simply insert a standard ½ inch diameter coupler into the bag and pipe without using a metal tip.
Baking: While baking, the puffs are leavened from the steam created from the liquid ingredients which expands the dough into an airy shell. The puffs need a blast of high heat to create the steam. The starting oven temperature is normally 425 degrees for about 10 minutes of baking, and then reduced to 350 degrees to finish the baking and browning while drying the insides and crisping the outer pastry.
Steam: For a crisp pastry the residual steam needs to be released from inside the puffs. Some recipes recommend slitting the puffs open after baking and then returning to a turned off oven with the door propped open for about 1 hour to allow the puffs to dry out.
Cleanup: Pâte à choux is sticky. If using a non-disposable pastry bag such as a canvas pastry bag, it should be washed and dried immediately after use, before the dough has a chance to dry. I prefer to use a disposable bag for this recipe to avoid having to clean sticky dough from the bag.
Pâte à Choux Desserts
Many classic desserts made with pâte à choux are baked, poached, or fried. The dough may have added ingredients such as cheese or folded in egg whites, fruit zests or other flavorings, or be wrapped around fruit. After cooking it is often filled with a sweet or savory filling or are just finished with a dusting of powdered sugar.
Cream puffs - small round shaped puffs that are split open and filled with either a sweet or savory filling.
Éclairs - finger shaped pastries normally filled with pastry cream and topped with a chocolate glaze.
Croquembouche - miniature cream puffs stacked in a tall pyramid and decorated with spun sugar.
Gâteau Saint-honoré - aclassic cake made with a base of puff pastry or pâté brisée and pâte à choux dough piped in concentric circles on top. The middle of the cake along with small puff shapes are filled with rich custard called Chiboust Cream. The small puffs are glazed with caramel, and then attached to the outer rim of the cake with additional caramel.
Paris-Brest - formed into a large ring, brushed with egg and topped with sliced almonds, and then after baking split and filled with pastry cream or buttercream.
Profiteroles - small round cream puffs that are split open and filled with pastry cream or ice cream and covered with chocolate sauce.
Religieuse - two pâte à choux puffs are baked, one large and one small, filled with chocolate, vanilla, or coffee pastry cream, stacked with the small puff on top of the large puff, and then decorated with fondant and Buttercream. The finished pastry is meant to resemble a nun in her habit.
Gougeres - a savory appetizer created by adding shredded cheese to the dough. The dough is then normally spooned onto a baking sheet to form rustic-shaped balls.
Fritters - the dough can be deep fried and dusted with granulated or confectioner’s sugar.
Cannoli - the dough is wrapped around a cannoli form and deep fried, then filled with a sweet mixture made with ricotta cheese.
Dumplings – the dough can be filled with a fruit mixture and poached in flavored syrup.
Beignets - the French word for fritter, and normally made with doughnut-type yeast dough that is deep fried and then heavily dusted with confectioners’ sugar. Beignets can also be made with Choux dough.