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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Choux Pastry (Pate a choux), manual recipe

The choux pastry or pate a choux is something you can only control better with repeated experience.  In other words, you may get it right at the first go and that is great, but if you miss, don’t drop the arms.  There are a few factors that make this pastry hard to master but not impossible.  Here is where things can go wrong:

  1. At the start of the recipe, just after adding the flour, you will be asked to combine and “dry” the dough over low heat until the dough detaches from the saucepan.  Well, the amount of water lost during this stage will strongly depend on the type and temperature of your saucepan.
  2. More importantly 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.
  3. Finally the baking.  All recipes will tell you to use a very hot oven for the first 10 minutes.  Then this is where there are differences : some recipes will 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!

That said, if you have a thermomix, it is time to use it, the outcome is guaranteed (or almost, you could always get the cooking wrong!).

Now that you know what can go wrong, you can only get it right!

choux pastry
Missed pate a choux (left), successful (right)
Ingredients:

for 18 good size choux (makes about 10 large eclairs).

  • 4 eggs (see note above on egg size), plus one yolk  for glazing
  • 150 g of plain flour
  • 75 g of butter
  • 1/2 tbsp of table salt
Method:
  1. Preheat oven to 220°C.
  2. Place the water, salt and butter cut into pieces in a saucepan.  Bring to the boil and stir until the butter is fully melted.
  3. Out of  the heat, add the flour all at once and mix with a wooden spoon.  Mix and return to a reduce heat until (keep mixing) the dough detaches from the sides of the saucepan.  If your pan is very hot, you may not even need to put it back on the stove.
  4. Let the dough cool down for 2-3 minutes.Tip:  the next stage is important, we will add the eggs one by one and mix vigorously between each of them. The mixing is critical, this is the stage where we develop the flour gluten structure. This will allow the steam coming from the dough of the choux to be trapped inside the choux and make it rise.

     

  5. Add the first egg, mix using the wooden spoon until fully combined and the dough starts to stretch a little (in other words add another 20 sec elbow oil after it is combined).
  6. Repeat with egg 2 and 3.  If you are using large eggs only add 1/2 the next egg at the time.  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 when mixing must remain 3D and not collapse.
    • 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 (tension superficielle) of a liquid is, great! Imagine it here, there need plenty to keep the shape.
  7. Place all the dough in a piping bag (I love those disposable ones you find in supermarkets these days!).Tip: if you do not have a piping bag, just use a spoon.  I have done it like this for years!

    Tip: to fill the piping bag neatly, place the empty bag inside a cylinder – my ikea cuttlery holder is perfect for that task! – turn the mouth over the edge. Fill in the bag then lift it and turn the top to close.

  8. If you are not using a large tip, simply cut the end of the plastic bag (about 1.5 cm diameter).  Pipe the shape you are willing to go on a lined (use baking paper) baking tray.
  9. Beat the remaining egg yolk and dilute with a couple drops of hot water.  Using a kitchen brush, brush over each piece.
  10. Insert in the oven.  After 10-15 minutes reduce to 170 °C and cook further for 25 minutes.  The cooking time here depends very much of your oven.  The first stage of the baking will see the shape pop up and almost double in volume (mostly upwards but also in width) to its full size or close to full size.  Once this is achieve, bring the temperature down and bake further to allow the skeleton of the choux to dry and hold the shape (or the choux will collapse).  This can be as little as 25 minutes, to as much as 40 minutes.
  11. Dry choux can be kept at room temperature before using.  Missed choux (whatever went wrong in the making) are great snack for kids, trust me!
  12. To serve, you can choose to:
    •  fill the choux with a vanilla, chocolate, coffee or other aroma creme patissiere and add an icing
    •  cut the choux open, place a ball of ice cream in it and pour melted dark chocolate on top
    • last option (which I do not like but Australian people love it).  Place whipped cream in the middle and pour over a chocolate glaze.

For a recipe of creme patissiere (filling custard), click HERE.

choux pastry
Flat choux (missed pate a choux) on the left, successful choux on the right
choux pastry
Chocolate eclairs and vanilla, nutmeg, pistachios with raspberry icing eclairs

 

 

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