Few French pastry techniques are more versatile or more overlooked by American cooks than pâte à choux. To begin with, no one bothered translating the term pate au choux into English. We have terms for pâte brisée (pie dough), pâte feuilletée (puff pastry), but the only English translation of pâte à choux that I've seen is "choux pastry." Even if you know that choux means "cabbage," it still doesn't help you much unless you are familiar with classic French pastry repertoire. But as soon as I mention eclairs or cream puffs, people's eyes light up and they immediately recognize which dough I am talking about.
The rewards of learning to make pate a choux are numerous:
- fancy savory hors d'oeuvres
- eclairs, Paris-Brest, cream puffs, and a huge number of desserts
- container for brunch dishes (poached, sous-vide, or scrambled eggs)
- do ahead versatility -- the shells can be baked and frozen and it only takes a few minutes in the oven to defrost and crisp them back up.
The basic process is laughably simple. Pate a choux can be made, shaped, and be ready to bake in 15 minutes. Are there pitfalls? Yes, lots. This is a classic French technique, not cake out of a box. If you can weigh your ingredients and follow directions, you will produce decent results. But you know me -- "decent" has never been my ambition. Pastries are something I allow myself very rarely. If it's not the best, why even bother? When I set out to perfect my pate a choux, I combed through as many recipes and videos as I could dig up. There was no shortage of advise. The trouble was that besides the basics, no one agreed on anything. Should you use milk or water? Should you cook the panade for 1 minute or 10? Should you beat in the eggs with a spoon, food processor, or mixer? Should you pipe and bake immediately or is it ok to wait? Should you pipe straight down or at an angle? Should you egg wash or not? Should you smooth with a fork or not? The only way to answer these questions was to spend 2 days baking batch after batch of pate a choux.
By Hand vs. Mixer vs. Food Processor
When dealing with a finicky technique, it helps when you pay attention to the dough and not to the excruciating pain in your biceps. If you think beating egg whites by hand is hard, wait till you try pate a choux. No beginner should do this with a spoon in my opinion. The machines make incorporating eggs extremely easy and reliable. Hand mixer, Stand Mixer, Food Processor -- they all work equally well.
Milk Vs. Water
Milk makes the puffs more brown and tender. Water makes the puffs more crisp as it can withstand a high temperature longer without burning. Milk gives you better flavor. So where does that leave us? Using all milk for pate a choux is very uncommon for a good reason -- you are unlikely to get a crispy shell before burning the puffs. The two real contenders were 100% water or 50% water and 50% milk. I've tried both. 50/50 had better color and slightly better flavor without sacrificing the crispness. But if you don't have milk on hand, using all water is perfectly fine.
Egg Wash, Water Spray, or Both
Most of the recipes I found used an egg wash. I am not sure why. Pate a choux is naturally shiny, so it doesn't need much help. It might keep the top of the dough wet preventing it from setting prematurely in the oven and giving it a good expansion, but so would water. Julia Usher used both a spray of water and an egg wash in her video. Joe Pastry used just a spray of water with no egg wash. I tried both and found that the egg wash was completely optional, so I stopped using it. The water is very helpful in creating a huge lift. If an egg wash is used, you have to be careful not to let it drip down the sides. There is enough to worry about with this dough, so I am skipping the egg wash from now on.
Pipe at an angle or straight down
Piping is the most difficult part of working with pate a choux. No matter how much you read about it, until you pipe 100 cream puffs, it's hard to get good at it. Most professionals pipe at an angle and swipe the tail up. You can watch Jacques Pepin doing this. I am guessing on my 300th puff, I'll start to get good at this, but in the meantime, my puffs easily turn into eclairs when I pipe that way. I've had the most success with Julia Usher's piping technique where she pipes straight down.
Smooth out with a fork or just tap down the tails
No matter how you pipe there'll be tails to smooth out. Do you just dunk your finger in water and pat them down or do you take the extra step of smoothing the top with a fork? You can see the fork technique in the end of Pepin's video. I tried both and here are the results. Using a fork produces slightly less puffed, but more even final result. When left to their own devices, some puffs come out in an organic but beautiful shape and some look like they have 2 heads.
Let's start with the fact that it's hard to tell what temperature your oven really is. Even if you have an oven thermometer, the oven temperature fluctuates and is almost never the same throughout your oven. From what I've seen from my experiments, higher is safer. This dough doesn't burn easily, especially if you splashed it with water. For large shells and eclairs, I bake at 400F for 30 minutes, reduce the temperature to 350F for another 10, then poke holes in the sides and let them dry out in turned off oven. If you don't get good color and lift after 30 minutes, bake your next batch at 425F. But remember, you can't check up on them! If you open the oven door before they full puff, set, and crisp, they'll collapse. I only risk opening the door after the initial 30 minutes for large puffs and 20 minutes for small. Another crucial variable is how much stuff you put into your oven. I find that a half sheet (18x13) is the biggest sheet my oven can deal with. I made a mistake of putting a bigger sheet into my oven and the results were not as good.
How long to dry
Everyone agrees that you should poke holes in the sides and return the choux shells into the turned off oven to dry out. The question is for how long. Recipes suggest anywhere from 10 minutes to overnight. I found that if you are planning to cut the shells in half and scoop out the leftover wet dough, 10 minutes is sufficient (that's the ones in the picture). If you want to stuff without cutting in half (this is sometimes done for eclairs through a hole), 45 min to an hour will completely dry the inside out for large eclairs (will probably only need 30 minutes for miniature eclairs). Of course, my "large" might be different than your "large" eclair, so the only way to be certain is to break one and take a look.
Now that I've answered all the question you never knew you had about pate a choux, here is the recipe
Pâte à choux
1/2 cup water (118g)
1/2 cup whole milk (121g)
1/2 tsp table salt or 1 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher (2.8g)
1 stick butter at room temp (113g), cut into 8 pieces
142g unbleached all-purpose flour, sifted (1 cup scooped and leveled, then sifted)
4 large eggs (200g), beaten with a fork in a liquid measuring cup with a spout
Preheating the oven and preparing equipment
- Preheat the oven to 400F with the rack in the middle of the oven.
- Fit a pastry bag with a coupler (that's the plastic thing onto which other attachment are added) or a 1/2 inch round tip. If no pastry bag is available, you can use a large zip lock bag (only cut the corner off after you fill the bag with dough).
- Invert a half sheet (baking sheet that's roughly 18"x13") and grease with butter or line with parchment paper (I prefer using parchment paper). Baking on the back of the sheet makes it easier to pipe and easier for the heat to circulate evenly.
Cooking Panade (flour butter paste)
Put water, milk, butter, and salt into a small saucepan and heat on medium heat until butter melts and the liquid comes to a full boil. Take off heat. Immediately, add all the flour at once and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until all the flour is incorporated. Put back over medium heat and cook stirring constantly for 5 minutes. This helps evaporate excess moisture. The bottom of the pan will become covered in a film of flour. This is normal. Make sure no part of dough sits on the bottom of the pot for long so that it doesn't scorch. If a little fat oozes out, that's normal too. In the end, you should have a shiny ball.
Option 1: Incorporating Eggs with a Stand mixer
Fit mixer with a paddle attachment. Place the dough in a mixer and cool for 5 minutes, turning the mixer briefly on low speed for a few seconds couple of times to release the steam. Turn the mixer on medium-low speed (4 for KitchenAid), pour in roughly a third of the eggs. The dough will break and gradually become creamy again. Pour in the second third. Wait for it to become creamy and pour in the last third. Beat until consistency slightly thinner than creamy peanut butter at room temperature. If at any time during the addition of the eggs the dough on the bottom of the bowl is not being mixed evenly, stop the mixer and scrape up the bowl with a rubber spatula.
Option 2: Incorporating Eggs with a Food Processor
Place the dough in the food processor and run it for 10 seconds with an open tube to release the steam. Keep the processor running and pour the eggs through a feeding tube. Run the processor for 10 seconds and stop. Scrape up the sides of the processor with a rubber spatula and run it for 30 seconds to incorporate the eggs.
Piping the Dough
Move the dough into a prepared pastry bag or zip lock bag. If using parchment paper, dab the baking sheet with dough in the corners and then put the parchment paper on it. This will hold the parchment in place and make it easier to pipe. Pipe the dough into desired shapes. This is easier said than done. Watch Pepin's video for eclairs and Julia Usher's for puffs. Dab up the tails with a wet finger. Spray the whole sheet with water. If you don't have a spray bottle, wet your hands and shake them all over the baking sheet. Run a wet fork through each piece if desired. You will only be able to bake half of the dough at one time, but it keeps beautifully at room temperature for hours. Just put plastic wrap over the tip of the pastry bag.
Place in the middle of the oven for 30 minutes (20 minutes for miniature shapes). Don't open the oven door during this first stage of baking or the puffs will collapse. Check for color. At this point, the puffs should be risen and golden. If not, continue at 400F. Otherwise, turn down the oven to 350F and bake another 10 minutes. At this point the puffs should be firm and brown. Remove them from the oven and turn the oven off. Prop the door open with a wooden spoon for 2 minutes. Poke 2 holes in the sides of each puff or eclair to release steam (I like doing it with a meat thermometer) and return to the turned off oven for 10 minutes to dry (you don't need to prop the door at this point). This will yield puffs with a bit of wet dough inside that you'll need to scoop out when serving, but I find the shell consistency to be most pleasant. If you want no wet dough at all. Dry the puffs and eclairs for 30-60 min depending on the size. This will produce slightly tough shell. Not a problem if filling with soft filling (like eclairs) and letting it sit in the fridge for a few hours to soften.
Cool completely on a wire rack and use that day or freeze in a zip lock bag. Defrost frozen puffs for 30 minutes and re-crisp in a 350F oven for 5 min.