Pate_choux
                                                                                                                                                                                        Photos by Donna Turner Ruhlman

Pâte a choux [paht ah shoo]: A versatile dough of flour, water, butter and eggs distinguished by the fact that the flour is combined with the butter and water and partially cooked before the eggs are added to it.  The resulting dough, which can be sweet or savory, puffs when it bakes and so has a light and elegant texture in and of itself and a neutral, eggy flavor that carries more assertive savory and sweet flavors well.  Gougeres, cheese puffs, are made by seasoning pâte a choux with parmesan or other cheeses and are served warm from the oven or cooled and filled with a savory farce.  But these puffs can also be filled to make such sweet preparations as éclairs (cream puffs) and profiteroles, puffs sandwiched around ice cream and covered in chocolate sauce.  Pâte a choux is sometimes added to forcemeats as the panade, something that binds, enriches and flavors. Pâte a choux can be poached, a form of pasta sometimes called Parisian gnocchi. Pâte a choux is made by bringing water and butter to a simmer, stirring in nearly an equal volume of flour and cooking the mixture till it pulls away from the sides of the pot and dries out somewhat.  Eggs are then beaten into it one by one.  The mixture is typically piped onto a sheet pan and baked. Pâte a choux is a fundamental part of the cook’s repertoire.

I love the pâte a choux for it’s versatility.  McGee  calls it “a brilliant invention” (see page 553 of the new On Food and Cooking for his elegant overview of its workings).  It’s delicious, nutritious, and employs the cool mechanics of the egg with it’s ability to trap air bubbles and puff.  In recent demos, I’ve done pâte a choux piped into hot oil for donuts that I roll in cinnamon sugar.  They could be dusted with powdered sugar; in France this preparation (there’s a recipe in A Return To Cooking) is called pets de nonne, “nun’s farts”—how can you not love the French?)

UPDATE: Michael Pardus called me on the strike out above, and he's right.  In fact, I don't know where I got this business of whipping in air bubbles that puff (though mechanically beaten choux does puff considerably more than that stirred by hand, so this may have something to do with the puffing).  The fact though seems to be that the primary leavener in a choux is steam, from the large quantity of water you begin with. Thanks Michael. 

Among those we asked was our man Alton (who includes a choux recipe in his excellent book on baking): "Steam provides the lift but gluten provides much of the resistance as do egg white proteins which contribute to the drying as well. So there are two issues, the leavening and the thing being leavened. Hand choux is possible but it is extremely difficult. Don't forget that a choux paste is in essence an emulsion."  In the aforementioned book he writes "the addition of eggs makes for large irregular puffs."  Maybe that's where I got it!  In any case, the dough wouldn't leaven without all that water, nor without the gelling of the gluten, and the protein from the egg is a factor.  Ultimately pate a choux is a cool complex little system that all cooks ought to be familiar with.

UPDATE, 12/17, A PASTRY CHEF WEIGHS IN:

Shuna added this comment on shape and cheese, which I don't want anyone to miss:

"I taught an entire 3+ hour class last year on pate a choux. My very
favoritest thing to talk about is where the name of the pastry came
from.

"When you pipe the dough in little mounds with a rounded top, they bake to look like tiny cabbages, hence the name.

"I also like to make this metaphor: when piping pate a choux it
reacts much the same as clay does. If your hand/ piping bag are tilted
in any particular direction, thus your dough will bake in that
direction.

"Lastly, as a gougere is a French pastry, the cheese would always be
a French one (like Gruyere or Emmenthaler), not an Italian one. In fact
the cheese's moisture content is an important one when it comes to how
the gougeres bake and hold their upright position in an oven and later,
when cooling.

"I know too much about this. Just ask TK or SD."

Thanks, Shuna!

Pate a Choux basic recipe
The following is a standard recipe for basic pâte a choux.  To make gougeres, or any savory preparation, add two tablespoons of Parmigiano-Reggiano to the dough along with the eggs (top with more cheese to bake them in a hot oven for a half hour or so till cooked through).  For a sweet choux dough, add two tablespoons of sugar to the milk and butter as you heat it.

This recipe can be made all in the same pot using a stiff wood spoon, but it’s easier, and the dough puffs more, if you use a standing mixer with a paddle attachment or an electric hand mixer to beat in the eggs.

  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup eggs (4 large eggs)

1. Bring the water and butter to a simmer over high heat.  Reduce the heat to medium, add the flour and stir rapidly.  The flour will absorb the water quickly and a dough will form and pull away from the sides. Keep stirring to continue cooking the flour and cook off some of the water, another minute or two.  Transfer the paste to the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or to a bowl if you're using a hand mixer.  (If you want to mix the eggs directly into the dough in the pot, let it cool slightly, 4 or 5 minutes,
or cool off the pan itself by running cold water over its base if you
will be mixing the eggs in that pot.  You don’t want to cook the eggs
too quickly.)

2. Add the eggs one at a time mixing rapidly until each is combined into the paste.  The paste will go from shiny to furry, slippery to sticky as the egg is incorporated.  The pâte a choux can be cooked immediately at this point or refrigerated for up to a day until ready to use.

Pipe or spoon choux paste into hot oil for doughnuts and cook for 5 minutes or until done.  Spoon or pipe it  onto a baking sheet (see above, remember to press the peaks down with a moistened finger, they can burn) and bake in a hot oven (425 for 10 minutes, 350 for another half hour or so, is ideal) for cream puffs, profiteroles and gougeres.  Or pipe into simmering water for parisienne gnocchi (remove when they float, then saute in brown butter with additional garnish of your choice, excellent recipes in Bouchon for all of these preparations).

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