Managing your choux pastry

Managing your choux pastry can be easy for some, disheartening for others. Well, good news, I struggled with it this week and because it was not the first time, I decided to write about it and share my choux pastry secrets.

Why choux pastry this week?

This weekend was Father’s day for us in Australia. My older daughter (8 y.o.) wanted to bake a treat for her father.  To get a change from chocolate cakes (please! – I never though I would say that), I made a few suggestions and she decided to go for eclairs.  Yes, of course she knows what they are! I have gourmet kids!

nd by the way, if you are going to make the choux pastry with your kids, it is a great opportunity to teach them and get them to practice the piping technique since it does not drip all over!

A small note: if you have access to a thermomix, save all the hard work and use it. I have had the opportunity to use one for a month last year and I must say that choux pastry is one thing I would praise it for (although not buy one just for that!).

Things don’t always go to plan

Because when you cook a dessert, prepare bread on the side, manage the younger child on Reading Eggs (an interactive program for early readers) and I can’t remember what else, you tend to be a little distracted.  In the end, round one of eclairs ended up flat, very flat. Check for yourself!  So, not willing to disappoint my daughter I expedited a second round of pastry (it takes 10 minutes really), this time with my full attention.  To be honest, I knew it was not going to work before baking round 1 when I realised the dough was more than coherent and flexible, getting towards Nutella consistency.

example of missed flat choux
Missed flat choux. The dough was too wet , we also placed a double line of dough for each eclair, a bad idea.

How choux pastry works?

Choux pastry is only made of flour, butter and water really (and eggs, sure).  Well, there is no rising agent or yeast.  But there is a fair bit of elbow oil, you would remember that if you have had a go to the recipe! To make the dough rise, there is only one way: trapping the steam made by the water and butter during baking with the gluten matrix of the flour.

Here you need to think more bread making that cake making.  The flour contains gluten.  When you work the dough, we speak of gluten development and this means the development of the structure of the gluten through alignment of the strands.  Professionals speak of short mix, improved mix and intensive mix to define how much structure development is required. It is worth noting that gluten can be overdeveloped and then can lose  its structural properties, but rest assure that cannot happen with manual handling.

In brief, the steam released during baking is trapped inside the choux structure and rises the choux or eclair.  It makes the “skeleton” of the choux.  The next stage is to get it to dry so the structure can hold its own weight.

Critical steps and tips

There are a few factors that make this pastry hard to master but not impossible.  For reference, the recipe can be found on its own page HERE.

Here are the tips for you to consider before starting:

The temperature of your saucepan

Early in the recipe, you will be asked to add the flour suddenly to the water.  Then you have to “dry” the dough over low heat until the dough detaches from the saucepan.  Here the amount of water lost during this stage will strongly depend on the type and temperature of your saucepan.  Keep that in mind, but do remove the saucepan from the heat when the dough detaches well from the sides of the saucepan.

The size of the eggs

The next point of attention is the size of your eggs. The recipe calls for four eggs.  If you use 60 g eggs (700 g box of 12), you will likely need three to three and a half.  If you use small eggs, this is the other way around, you may need an extra half to one egg.

To add half an egg at the time, beat the egg slightly in a small bowl and pour half of it.   What difference does it make? The dough will not be firm enough if you put too much egg.  It will not be liquid either but will not be firm enough to retain its shape and the shape will collapse in the oven.

Mixing hard to develop the gluten structure

The gluten development happens when you energetically mix the egg into the dough.    So make sure you mix heartily, no shortcut here!    When will you know the dough is ready? This is the multi million dollar question! The dough must be firm yet flexible:

  • So the “strands” must not break when you mix it.
  • the “shapes” made by the dough when mixing must remain 3D and not collapse to 2D.
  • expect gaps between sections of your dough as the ball of dough is moved one way and another by your wooden spoon.
  • If you know what the surface tension  of a fluid is, great! Imagine it here, there need plenty to keep the shape.

 

Doing the right thing during baking

Finally the baking.  All recipes will tell you to use a very hot oven for the first 10 minutes.  Some recipes will then ask to reduce the heat while leaving the door of the oven slightly open with a wooden spoon, others will only ask to reduce the heat.  The process during that stage is the drying of the skeleton of the choux (this is assuming the choux have reached their full size which often takes more than 10 minutes I find).  What happens if you do not dry your choux sufficiently? Well, the choux will look great for 2 minutes when pulled out of the oven and will then collapse. What a pity!

choux pastry
Flat choux (missed pate a choux) on the left, successful choux on the right

Father’s day eclairs

Curious to what the colours of our artisan eclairs hide?  You would have guessed the dark ones are chocolate eclairs.  The pink one is inside a vanilla, nutmeg and grilled pistachio custard.  The icing is a raspberry (using the juice of 1/2 cup of frozen raspberries) icing: raspberry juice, hot water, drops of lemon juice and icing sugar.

choux pastry

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