Pâté à choux
One dough, many possibilities
It’s used to make one of the most traditional and delectable complements for wine but has many other guises both savory and sweet; probably the best known to Americans are cream puffs and éclairs.
Pâté à choux, or – as my grandmother called it – cream-puff dough, dates back to at least the 16th century. Choux is the French word for “cabbages”; apparently they think that’s what baked choux 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 a custardy pastry cream were one of my grandmother’s special-occasion desserts. Even when the table was set with her best china and silver, one of my grandparents always retold the tale of a young man at a box social. Old-timey and, today, totally outmoded, box socials were fundraisers. Unmarried young women would make complete dinners for two and put them in elaborately decorated baskets or boxes. At the social, the boxes would be auctioned off to bachelors. Who made which basket was supposed to be a secret, although it was common for a girl to give her beau clues so that he could recognize her box. Winners of each box would then eat its contents with the girl who’d made it. The story concerned a bachelor who upon opening his box, which contained beautifully made cream puffs, exclaimed, “Gravy balls!”
More recently, cream puffs 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 a struggle to keep the conversation going. Then dessert was served: three miniature cream puffs per plate, each with a different filling: chocolate, orange 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 dough is a basic part of every baker’s education and within easy reach of home bakers, too. There are a few tricks involved but they’re not difficult. Most important are having all the choux dough ingredients measured and at hand, elbow action, and keeping the mixture warm. Making the dough itself is quick – in fact, it has to be quick. Then it’s ready for the second step in its cooking process: it can be baked, fried or simmered.
Here are suggestions for all three:
- 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.
- Leave out the sugar and vanilla, and the puffs and éclairs can be used to hold savory fillings limited only by your imagination: chicken, shrimp or crab salad; spinach and cheese; even pâté.
- Dropped into at least 2 inches of oil in a deep pot of hot oil (375 F), pâté à choux makes delectable “French” doughnuts and beignets which can then be iced, glazed or sugared. Use a scoop or two spoons for beignets. Doughnuts need to be piped directly into the oil with a large, star-tipped pastry bag.
- 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. The dumplings are especially good with lamb stew. For either soup or stew, adding 3/4 cup grated cheese, as for the gougères below is a delicious option.
- Last but not least are those tidbits created in Burgundy, France, especially to complement wine: Gougères. Grated Gruyère cheese or its French equivalent, Comté, is both mixed into the choux dough and sprinkled on top before baking. Variations can be made with the use of different cheeses and ingredients, such as one utilizing smoky bacon, pan-roasted corn and extra-sharp cheddar. Or how about blue cheese and bits of roasted pear or apple? I have to admit, though, that good as those variations can be, there’ll never be a better accompaniment for wine – or even just by themselves – than the original.
Pâté à choux – master recipe
- 1 c. water
- 1 tsp. salt
- 6 T. (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- 1 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
- 4 large eggs
Put the water, salt and butter into a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, and place it on the stove over high heat. Have the flour ready and the eggs ready to be added nearby.
Stir the water and butter mixture with a large wooden spoon. As soon as the mixture comes to a boil, remove the pan from the heat and dump in the flour all at once. Beat vigorously. The mixture will form a smooth dough.
Return the pan to the heat for a minute or so, beating constantly. The dough will cook over the heat and pull away cleanly from the sides of the pan.
Remove the pan from the heat. Quickly transfer mixture to an electric mixer or continue to beat by hand. Add the eggs one at a time, continuing to beat until the eggs are thoroughly incorporated and the dough is shiny and smooth.
The pâté à choux dough is now ready to be made into whatever form you choose.
Cheese puffs from Burgundy
- 1/2 tsp. finely minced garlic
- 1 tsp. unsalted butter
- 1 1/4 c. freshly grated natural Gruyère cheese (not processed) or equivalent, such as Comté, divided
- 1/2 tsp. ground white pepper
- Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Before beginning the master pâté à choux recipe, in the same heavy-bottomed saucepan you’ll be using to make the dough, sauté the minced garlic in the teaspoon of butter over moderately low heat until soft but not browned. Add the water, pepper, nutmeg and the rest of the butter and proceed as above.
After the dough is made, beat in 3/4 cup of the cheese.
Use either pastry bag fitted with a 1/2 inch plain tip, a small ice cream type scoop, or two spoons to put small mounds of dough (about a tablespoon each) onto ungreased baking sheets. Sprinkle the tops with the remaining grated cheese. Bake until the puffs are an even golden brown, about 20 to 25 minutes. Serve warm, straight from the oven.
Makes about 40 puffs.
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.