Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Pate a Choux: One Recipe, Many Uses

Ah, French recipes.  I've already mentioned that French baking recipes have a reputation for being finicky and difficult in the post on souffles, but the more baking I do, the more I find that reputation to be undeserved.  It may be true for cooking but so far it hasn't held for baking.

Much like souffles, I'd always been told that pate a choux is difficult to make - if you mess up the timing, it will never turn out right!  You must measure out the ingredients exactly or it will be a disaster!  And so on and so forth...

It's all lies: pate a choux is really easy to make, and as an added bonus, you don't need any fancy equipment.  "Pate a choux" means "cabbage paste" in French, which does not sound appetizing at all.  The name comes from one of its later uses, when it takes on the shape of little cabbages: cream puffs.  Now that sounds appetizing, right?  I certainly thought so, which is why I tried making green tea cream puffs in the last entry.

From: the Steamy Kitchen's entry on pate a choux

Pate a choux is an incredibly versatile pastry.  It's the basis of cream puffs, eclairs, profiteroles, croquembouches, crullers, beignets, and gougeres.  It can be shaped into anything that doesn't require support before baking and it will puff up to two or three times its original size.  Pate a choux is fairly flavorless, which means that it can be used for either sweet or savory recipes.

Pate a choux has only a few ingredients: water, butter, flour, and eggs.  There is no rising agent: the steam released by the water and eggs cooking is what raises the dough.  The water and butter is heated together until they boil, and then the flour is added to cook it partially. This activates the gluten in the flour.  Once the mixture cooks, the raw eggs are added.  The final consistency of the dough is like modelling clay, and it can be spooned or piped into various different shapes.  Cream puffs are just small balls, and eclairs are short, narrow pipes of dough.

Because pate a choux has been around for so long (since 1540), there are many different recipes out there.  So far, I've tried three different ones and they've all turned out basically the same.  The Steamy Kitchen's entry on pate a choux talks about a 1:1:1:1 ratio for all four ingredients (1 cup of eggs == 4 large eggs).   The recipes I tried used that general set of proportions with a little variation.

I've made gougeres (cheese puffs), vanilla cream puffs, and green tea cream puffs using the same basic process: make the dough, and flavor it either before or after baking with whatever taste you want it to have.  For gougeres, you add the cheese and spices before baking so the cheese will melt. For cream puffs, profiteroles, eclairs, etc., you make the dough plain and then add the fillings and toppings afterwards.  The same approach works for savory filled puffs (mushroom, spinach, etc.).

Tips: the eggs must be raw when you put the dough in the oven.  If you add the eggs too quickly to the hot flour/water/butter mixture, they will cook and your puffs won't rise.  Be sure to add the eggs one at a time.

Using a food processor to mix the eggs into the dough will produce bigger puffs than if you beat by hand because it will activate the gluten a little bit more.  But then you have to wash the mixer bowl and attachment.  Choices, choices.

Adding in egg whites instead of complete eggs will also make the dough puff up more because the steam released from the egg whites is what causes pate a choux to rise.  I haven't tried substituting one of the eggs for egg whites only, so I can't tell you how well that would work.

Pate a choux will lean in the direction that you pipe or spoon it in.  It can't support itself when it's raw so make sure that you put it into a smaller version of what shape you want it to turn out as.

Don't butter the parchment paper you put the dough on - it will leak into the pate a choux and keep it from rising properly and it will stick to the butter.  The cooked dough will peel easily right off the parchment paper.

Pate a choux is the basis for many baked goods.  Here's a list of the most common ones:
  • Eclairs - one log of pate a choux, covered with chocolate sauce and sometimes filled with pastry cream
  • Cream puffs - a ball of pate a choux, filled with pastry cream and sometimes covered with a topping
  • Gougeres - the French name for a cheese puff.  A ball of pate a choux, where the dough has been mixed with a sharp French cheese such as gruyere.
  • Profiteroles - a ball of pate a choux, cut in half, filled with ice cream, covered with chocolate sauce
  • Croquembouche - a pyramid of profiteroles, glued together with caramel
  •  Beignets - fried balls of pate a choux
  • Churros - a thin log of pate a choux, fried and sugared, sometimes dipped in chocolate
  • Pets de nonnes/Marillenkn√∂del - the French version is fried and the Austrian version is boiled, but they're both balls of pate a choux with apricots
Pate a Choux (from Cooking A to Z)


3/8 cup of water and 3/8 cup of milk OR 3/4 cup of water (same amount of liquid - just using half milk and half water or all water)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
3/4 cup unbleached white bread flour, sifted
3 eggs
3/4 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt

1 egg beaten for egg wash (NOT to be put into the pastry)

For savory recipes, omit the sugar. For gougeres, add 3/4 cup finely grated cheese such as gruyere and spices such as thyme and rosemary to the dough after the eggs are incorporated.


Preheat oven to 425 F. Place water, butter sugar and salt in a large saucepan; bring to boil over low heat. The butter should be chopped so that it is just melted when water reaches a boil. When mixture boils, remove from heat immediately and add flour all at once. Stir vigorously with a wooden spoon. Return to medium heat and stir until the mixture pulls away from sides of pan and forms a ball (about 30 seconds), leaving a white film on pan.

Remove from heat; cool 5 minutes. Add eggs (3 total), one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. The paste should look smooth and shiny but be stiff enough to hold its shape when piped or dropped onto a baking sheet.

Prepare a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Use medium scoop or a teaspoon to portion out 15 to 16 even scoops of pastry. Alternatively, you can use a pastry bag fitted with a non ornamented tip and pipe the pastry onto parchment Brush with egg wash.

Bake at 425 for 15 minutes; reduce heat to 400 F and continue baking for another 15 minutes. After 15 minutes are up, take out the cream puffs and make a few small slits on the bottom of each puff to allow steam to escape. Turn OFF oven and return cream puffs to the oven for 10 minutes. Prop oven door slightly ajar with a wooden spoon. Cool cream puffs on wire racks.

There are two ways to fill pate a choux puffs.  Either use a chopstick to make a small hole in the bottom of each puff and fill using a pastry bag, or cut off the top of a puff, fill, and put the top back on.  Which method you use depends on what you're making.  For profiteroles or savory fillings, you should cut the top off.  See the entry on green tea cream puffs for assembly pictures.

Gougeres: I couldn't find gruyere on short notice so I tried using Swiss emmentaler.  The result was just okay - needed more cheese flavor.
From the last entry: my version of green tea cheese puffs.

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