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Wednesday, May 7, 2008 04:04 am

Tasty paste

Making choux paste is within easy reach of home bakers

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PHOTO BY Luigi Anzivino

It’s used to make one of the most traditional and delectable complements for wine but also has many other guises; best known are cream puffs and éclairs. Choux paste, or pâté à choux, or — as my grandmother called it — cream-puff paste, dates back to at least the 16th century. Choux is the French word for “cabbages”; apparently they think that’s what baked choux-paste goods resemble. Or maybe it’s just that the French are particularly fond of them: a common endearment in France is mon petit chou (“my little cabbage”), used as we’d say “honey” or “sweetheart.”
Cream puffs filled with custard pastry cream were one of my grandmother’s special-occasion desserts. Even when the table was set with her best china and silver, someone always retold the old tale of a young man who’d spied a platter of cream puffs and exclaimed, “Gravy balls!”
Once they caused a dinner party fiasco. The hosts, friends of ours, had invited my husband and me to help keep the conversational ball rolling; the dinner’s purpose was to promote their business, and the other guests were strangers. Everyone was nice, but it was taking a while to break the ice. Then dessert arrived: three miniature cream puffs per plate, each with a different filling: chocolate, orange liqueur, and vanilla. As the first person took a bite, a soft but clear “ppfftt” could be heard. Conversation stopped, then quickly resumed as everyone tried to ignore what they thought had happened. Then there was another “ppfftt” — and another, and another. Every cream puff was a tiny whoopee cushion. It wasn’t really a fiasco, though: The cream puffs’ unintentional sound effects contributed a much-needed helping of laughter and camaraderie. Making choux paste is a basic part of every baker’s education and within easy reach of home bakers, too. There are some tricks to making it, but they’re easily learned. Most important are speed (luckily, because it must be made fast, it’s quick), elbow action, and keeping the mixture warm. It’s a two-step cooking process — first on the stovetop, then baked, fried, or simmered. Lightly sweetened with sugar and sometimes flavored with vanilla, nutmeg, or both, choux paste can be baked in rounds for cream puffs or oblongs for éclairs, then filled with pastry cream, whipped cream, or ice cream. Dropped into hot oil, it produces “French” doughnuts and beignets.
Leave out the sugar and vanilla, and the puffs and éclairs can be used to hold savory fillings limited only by the imagination: chicken, shrimp, or crab salad; spinach and cheese; even pâté.
Dropped by teaspoons into simmering broth, it makes toothsome dumplings for soup. Use larger spoonfuls to place the dough on top of stew for dumplings that are eggy and light, completely different in texture and flavor than typical biscuit-type dumplings. Then there are those tidbits created in Burgundy, France, especially to complement wine: gougères. Grated Gruyère cheese or its French equivalent, Comté, is mixed into the choux paste and sprinkled on top before baking. Variations can be made with the use of different cheeses. The November 2007 issue of Gourmet featured a delectable version made with bacon, roasted corn, and cheddar. (The recipe’s available at www.epicurious.com.) Good as those variations are, there’ll never
be a better accompaniment for wine than the original.


Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@comcast.net.
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