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Choux pastry, also known as pâte à choux (paht ah shoo), choux, or eclair paste, it is not really a dough in the strictest sense, but rather a thick paste made on the stovetop from a roux with the addition of eggs. It is then formed on a baking sheet, usually piped through a pastry tip into different shapes, and baked. Choux pastry paste is versatile and used to make many items, such as cream puffs, éclairs, profiteroles, croquembouche, Paris Brest, and Saint Honoré.
Unlike puff pastry that uses fat to puff up in volume, pâte à choux relies upon the high water content in eggs as leavening to steam open the paste. When formed into a mound on the baking sheet, it bakes into the classic Profiterole or cream puff look. In fact, pâte à choux translates into "cabbage paste," referring to the baked cream puff's resemblance to a small cabbage head. The goal in making the perfect cream pastry puff is to have the finest crispy crust, the lightest interior, and an even and golden browned shape. Its round somewhat hollow center can be cleaned out and filled with whipped or pastry cream, and sometimes topped with powdered sugar or a chocolate glaze.
Cream Puff (Profiterole): Choux pastry is baked into small round puffs, which when cooled become hollow in the middle and are served with whipped cream, pastry cream or custard in the center. You will commonly see this garnished with a hardened caramel sauce (my favorite).
Croquenbouche: The Croquembouche, which translates as "Crunch in the mouth", is a delectable French dessert that is often served at weddings, in place of a wedding cake.
It is a tower made up of pastry cream-filled cream puffs, made from Pâte à choux dough, all held together with crunchy caramel cage. Many times, it is elaborately decorated with candied flowers, bows and spun sugar. You need a mold to build a very large croquembouche, but a small one can support itself, and it is not as hard to make as you might think. It is a very impressive dessert! We have a gorgeous Croquembouche Tutorial.
Éclair: A variant from the donut type dough used in many American versions of this French favorite, éclairs are a long, thin pastry made from choux pastry and is filled with cream and topped with icing (usually chocolate). In France, éclairs are made by baking the oblong choux until crisp and hollow and then filling it with coffee or chocolate flavored pastry cream. Other favorite fillings are custard or freshly whipped cream, rum-flavored custard (my favorite), almond or chestnut puree or fruit fillings. Éclairs will vary from patisserie to patisserie, but are almost always delicious. Check out our Pomegranate Pistachio Chocolate Eclairs recipe.
Paris Brest: This classic French showstopper dessert - a large ring of airy pâte à choux pastry topped with almonds - the same pastry used to make éclairs and cream puffs, that is split and traditionally filled with the richest praline pastry cream and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Resembling a wheel, this French pastry is thought to have been created by a Parisian pastry chef to celebrate an 1891 famous bicycle race from Paris to Brest and back again, in Brittany, which was the precursor of the Tour de France. Try our Paris Brest Tutorial.
HOW CHOUX PASTRY WORKS
The single most critical factor in its successful preparation is the first precooking stage. To make a choux pastry, water, butter and salt (to prevent eventual cracking) are heated on the stovetop to a rolling boil, so the fat is dispersed throughout the liquid. The pot is removed from the heat and the flour, which can be a mixture of cake and bread flours or all-purpose, is sifted over the hot liquid, and then stirred.
When the pot is returned to the stove, the mixture is stirred constantly and continuously flattened against the sides of the pan, drying the paste as much as possible. The whole process will take about 3 - 5 minutes of continuous beating. Immediately remove from heat or the fat will separate out. Note that the bottom of the pan will be lightly filmed with the paste which you shouldn't scrap while cooking.
The cooked mixture is transferred to a mixer, and the eggs are then added, and beaten into it until smooth, called a "panade". It's very important that each egg be fully incorporated before you add the next so the paste won't separate. It can be a slow process. After all the eggs are incorporated, the dough should be stiff enough to hold a peak when a spoon is lifted out of. During beating, the mixture thins and emulsifies into a stable emulsion of fat and water with the help of the yolk lecithin.
The dough is baked immediately in a well preheated oven to ensure the greatest expansion and lightness. When baked, the starches in the flour and proteins in the egg coagulate and eventually brown on the outside. Precooking on the stove also forms a gelatinized mixture, as the wheat flour absorbs water and begins to set. During baking, the crust traps steam inside, generated from the moisture in its ingredients and hot air from the oven, plus leavening from the beaten eggs. It is this principle, which causes them to become inflated, hollow and stay puffy.
A properly baked choux retains its puffy shape, with a hollow interior with an outside that is crisp and fairly dry, with an all over golden color. When broken apart, it should be somewhat hollow with a slightly moist crumb on the inside. However, if they are removed from the oven too soon, the structure of the shell has not solidified, and it will collapse. To check, a wooden skewer inserted into the center should come out dry. If wet and eggy, return to the oven as necessary. Remove when done and cool on a wire rack.