The Legacy of Pâte à Choux
Pâte à choux, the foundation for delights like chocolate éclairs, cream puffs, and chouquettes, is a pillar of French pastry. Originating from Italian cuisine, it was brought to prominence by Catherine de Médicis’s chef, Popelini. French chefs like Antonin Carême evolved it into the treats we savor today.
Mastering the Pâte à Choux
The key culinary term for pâte à choux is “dessécher” or “to dry out.” After boiling milk (or water), butter, and salt, the critical step is adding flour off the heat, then returning it to the heat and stirring vigorously until it forms a ball and pulls away from the pan’s sides. This process removes excess water. Eggs are then incorporated one at a time, ensuring homogeneity after each addition. Once ready, the dough is piped onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or silicone mat and baked in a preheated oven.
For a non-cracking surface, top your choux with craquelin—a thin sugary crust, flour, and butter that acts as a protective shell, ensuring your choux are not just beautiful but also deliciously crunchy and moist. Or use a French star pastry tip, it eases steam to escape during baking. Choux pastry can be egg washed or dusted with powdered sugar prior to bake. As for baking, opinions vary: some maintain the temperature throughout, while others turn off the oven minutes before finishing. Yet, convection oven offers best results.
Modernizing Choux Pastries
Once you’ve mastered the dough, shape it into éclairs or vary the sizes for treats like religieuses. To modernize these centuries-old pastries, consider these twists:
- Chouquettes: Egg wash choux and sprinkle pearl sugar.
- Gressins: Shape chouquettes like breadsticks for a creative take.
- Cream Puffs and Éclairs: In my opinion, the best cream puffs are the ones filled with diplomate cream and eclairs filled with pastry cream/crème pâtissière.
Savory Choux: Gougères
Served as amuse-bouche, gougères—cheese puffs made with comté or Gouda, and filled with béchamel sauce—are a delight. Gougères stuffed with a mushroom duxelles filling are equally excellent. Egg wash gougères and top with grated parmesan before baking.
In summary, whether sweet or savory, the versatility of pâte à choux allows for endless creativity, ensuring this classic pastry remains a beloved and evolving art form.