Pastry 101 : Choux

So far in our French pastry odyssey, we have looked at shortcrust and puff pastries. This week, we complete the trilogy with what is perhaps the most enigmatic of the three. This week, let’s wrap things up with a look at choux (pronounced shoo) pastry or pâte à choux.

A choux dough contains the usual pastry ingredients, but the mix It starts off with butter, water, milk and sugar in a saucepan, until the butter melts and the sugar dissolves. After the mixture has homogenised, in goes the flour, which is quickly mixed into the liquid and the resultant thick, goopy mixture is stirred until the flour cooks out, the mixture forms a cohesive ball and leaves the sides of the pan.

Making pâte à choux (Courtesy : The Flavor Bender)

The hot ball of dough is then tipped out into a large bowl and allowed to cool sufficiently before adding the eggs, or else they will scramble. Choux pastry is temperamental, and one needs to add just the right amount of egg; add too much or too little, and you won’t be able to pipe it properly. Follow your judgement rather than recipes with choux, since eggs can significantly vary in size. After reaching the right consistency, the mix is poured into a piping bag, and you’re good to go.

The simplest thing you can do with choux paste is pipe logs of it directly into hot oil. The mixture puffs up and crisps up on the outside, while remaining tender on the inside, et voila! You’ve made churros. Coated in granulated sugar and served with a cup of hot, bittersweet chocolate to dip it in, this Spanish classic is an all-time favourite, with the same appeal as an American doughnut and Indian jalebi.

Churros con chocolate (Courtesy : Omar Allibhoy)

Time to return to France and get baking. Pipe dollops of the paste on a baking sheet, then bake it at a low temperature, turning it all the way up for the last few minutes. What you witness is one of the most magnificent transformations in all of cooking. The non-descript blob of yellow goop plumps up to almost three times its size, and the exterior attains a brown hue.

In fact, “choux” means “cabbage” in French, because the resultant product resembles a head of cabbage. The science behind choux pastry is simple: the small amount of water in the dough converts into a lot of steam, which puffs it up. The egg, on the other hand, allows for the gorgeous browning. What you get is a crisp, hollow shell, which can now be filled with whatever you fancy.

Mutton bheja pâté gougère from Rooh, New Delhi

A cream puff, also called profiterole or choux a la crème, comprises a crisp, hollow shell of choux pastry classically filled with crème patissiere and glazed with chocolate ganache. Like with puff pastry, you could go down the savoury route with choux as well, using with fillings like mushroom, chicken or salmon. The famous gougère, for example, ditches the sugar and adds some grated gruyère into the mixture, with a touch of pepper and cayenne. An amuse bouche in our meal at Rooh was a gougère filled with spiced mutton brain pâté and topped with parmesan cheese.

You could go crazy with the piping and make choux swans, or deck a small puff atop a larger one, snowman-style, to make a religeiuse, so-called because the resultant confection looked like a nun to some wildly imaginative pastry chefs. Pipe it in a ring, cut it into two layers and fill it with a praline flavoured crème mousseline and you’ve got a Paris Brest, created in 1910 on the occasion of the bicycle race from Paris to Brest and back, the ring shape resembling the wheel of the bicycle.

Paris Brest (Courtesy : Bruno Albouze)

One choux derivative however has surpassed the rest in terms of global popularity. The word “éclair” is French for flash of lightning, so called because it is apparently so delicious that it is eaten quickly, in a flash, and delicious they definitely are. The choux paste is piped into an oblong shape and baked, so in a way it is a cross between a churro and a profiterole. The hollow interior is filled with a pastry cream and then the entire thing is glazed, chocolate ganache and caramel being popular choices.

An imaginative pastry chef can take this simple formula and create hundreds of variations, including some savoury ones. The iconic L’éclair de Génie has multiple creative flavours like salter butter caramel, lemon yuzu, and raspberry mascarpone.This French confection is also the inspiration behind one of our favourite childhood chocolate candies, which shares its oblong shape and delicious filling.

Raspberry mascarpone éclair (Courtesy : Paris by Mouth)

Instead of getting creative with choux piping, you could use the basic profiterole to create two of the most complex and impressive creations of French patisserie. The Gâteau Saint Honoré, which we’ve mentioned in both parts 1 and 2, brings elements of the three parts of the series together. It comprises a ring of puff pastry adorned with a ring of piped and baked choux paste as well as individual cream puffs, along with crème patissiere and crème chiboust. Hard caramel is used to glue the components together.

The second dessert has fewer components but is a lesson in dessert construction. The profiteroles are arranged on a conical mould and reinforced with caramel glue, as in a Saint Honoré. When the construction is sturdy, the mould is removed and the entire structure is adorned with lacy spun sugar. And voila! You’ve got a croquembouche. It translates to “cracking in the mouth”, referring to the hard caramel that enrobes the entire confection. It is more of an edible sculpture than an actual dish, a real labour of love and deft precision.

That brings us to the end of our journey. We started with a simple mix of flour, butter and water, working all the way up to the peak of a croquembouche. It takes incredible patience and skill to create such amazing confections. Vive la Pâtisserie Française!

Croquembouche (Courtesy : Bon Appetit)

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