Pâte à Choux. Oh la la, sounds so fancy. So French. So complicated. Complicated?
Actually, its as easy as it gets. So easy that I mastered "Cream Puff Shells" when I was about 10 years old.
I loved to cook as a kid (well, duh, I still do.) and I was lucky enough to have a mom that gave me free reign in the kitchen. Cream Puffs and Eclairs always looked so magical at the bakery. Special. A world apart from pies, cakes and cookies. And every once in a great while, my mom would buy one. Just one, and we'd all get a little taste. The crispy shell, the creamy filling, the fudgy top. Heaven! I was determined to figure out this exotic French delight. Then, one boring afternoon, while flipping through a cookbook, if found it. A recipe for cream puff shells. And the ingredients were so so simple: butter, flour, eggs. And even though my mom wasn't much for cooking, at the very least she had those on hand. So, I set to baking and low and behold they turned out on the very first try. All I had to do next was whip up a box of instant vanilla pudding to fill them and slap on some canned chocolate frosting and voila, I was a French chef who made eclairs.
OK, so these days I do a bit better than instant pudding mix, my preference is pastry cream, and I prefer a lighter chocolate glaze to the heavy fudge icing used in grocery stores; the point is they're totally easy to make. Once you master the basics of the shell, fillings (both sweet and savory) are totally up to you. You can fill them with vanilla ice cream and top with hot fudge for a special dessert. Or how about mini puffs filled with herb and salmon cream cheese for an impressive appetizer. Learn how to make the shells and you'll be on your way to infinite pastry creations. I'll also post later about filling and glazing, stay tuned!
Pate a Choux is a pretty standard recipe but you'd be surprised how many subtile variations are out there. Each of these tried and true cooking tomes has a basic recipe and the differences are so slight they're basically interchangeable. If you seek out recipes on the web you'll find some that include sugar. I usually don't because I want to keep my options open for the end use. If you're going to fill them exclusively with sweet choices, go ahead and use the sugar but unsweetened puffs work just as well. Some recipes also call for a combination of water and milk. I've never gone that route so I can't tell you what the difference, if any, would be. I'm sharing the method that I've been using from the beginning. It hasn't failed me yet so I'm sticking with it. If it ain't broke, why fix it?!
You can see right away that these are simple ingredients: AP flour, eggs, butter, salt and water.
Start by heating the butter, water and salt. You want the butter to melt and the whole thing to come to a boil. If you cut the butter into smaller pieces it speeds up the process and less water evaporates.
While you're waiting on the boil, set up the next step. A sifter, the flour and a hot pad to protect your counter.
A little more set up can't hurt. You need to line a cookie sheet with a Silpat mat, parchment or lightly buttered foil. You can either form the puffs by scooping (This is a standard cookie scoop, about 1 rounded tablespoon.) or piping. A large zipper bag works great. For easy filling stuff one corner down in a glass and fold back the opening.
As soon as the water/butter/salt mixture comes to a full boil remove it from the heat and sift in the flour. Make sure it just comes to a rolling boil but don't let it go beyond that. You don't want to lose too much moisture.
Then start really stirring. I think a wooden spoon works best for this. Keep working it until there aren't any lumps of flour and it's a smooth cohesive mass. If it's still a bit sticky you can briefly put it back on the heat, stirring constantly until you have a dry paste that cleans the sides of the pan.
Transfer the paste to another bowl and let it cool a bit. You don't want to risk cooking your eggs. Now add the eggs one at a time, and beat the heck out of it.
At first it will be kind of slimy and slippery. Just keep beating until each egg is fully incorporated before you add the next egg. You could use a mixer with the paddle attachment for this but I like the workout you get by using the wooden spoon.
Here's what it should look like once you've got all the eggs mixed in. Kind of a sticky, stretchy goo.
Here's where you can start getting creative. You can pretty much make any shaped puff you like. These will be smaller sized round puffs. I used the cookie scoop and placed them about 2 inches apart. Use a wet finger to smooth the tops.
For piping shapes, fill a pastry bag or zipper bag with the dough.
Squeeze it down to one corner and sip off the tip to make about a 1/2-inch opening.
Then pipe away. For eclairs you want to make longer, thinner shapes. These will be mini eclairs. Again, use a wet finger to smooth out the tops. In this picture just the dough in the back row has been smoothed out.
Bake them in a hot 400°F oven for about 20 minutes, then turn the heat down to 350°F and let them go another 10-15 minutes until they are a nice golden brown.
Let them cool on a rack and then let the filling begin. Just let your imagination take over. You can also park these in the freezer, in a zipper bag, for a week or so until you decide what to do with them. You can see above that my mini eclairs are a bit fat, probably should have snipped the bag opening just 1/4-inch instead of 1/2-inch. But really, who cares! Seriously, the great thing about Pâte à Choux is that it turns out great however your shapes end up. The only rule is to have fun with it.
Pâte à Choux
1 C. water
6 T. butter
1/4 t. salt
1 C. flour
4 large eggs
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Heat water, butter and salt in a medium saucepan to a full boil. Remove from heat, sift in flour and beat with a wooden spoon until paste is smooth and dry and cleans the side of the pan. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and let cool for a few minutes. Beat in the eggs one at a time until fully incorporated.
Shape dough on a lined cookie sheet and bake in a 400°F oven for 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350°F and bake an additional 10-15 minutes until outsides are crispy and golden brown.
Cool, fill and serve.
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