A common misconception in baking is that it is difficult to make profiteroles or éclairs. This stems from the use of choux pastry as the base of these delicious goodies. Choux is famously finickity and problematic to bake but this is just not true. As long as you follow the recipe, it should work every time!
Unlike most other baked goods, no specific raising agent is used in choux pastry, rather the high moisture content results in a lot of steam being created in the oven which inflates the pastry as it cooks. The reason the flour is added to boiling water when creating the paste is that it starts to cook and the bursting of the starch granules traps even more water which helps the paste to rise in the oven. This leads to a very light shell which is hollow inside and ready to be filled with all the yummy things that we love to eat – cream, chocolate, caramel.
Once cooked, choux buns are surprisingly sturdy and can be stacked up leading to desserts like the stunning croquembouche. These are giant towers of choux filled with crème anglaise or Chantilly cream and held together by melted sugar. They are adorned with webs of spun sugar, glazed almonds and edible flowers and are really something to behold. Much as they are fun to make, I would recommend becoming more familiar with baking choux before you attempt one!
Although associated with French cuisine, the man who allegedly invented choux pastry came from Florence. He worked for Catherine de Medici and left Florence with her when she travelled to France to marry the Duke of Orleans (who later became King Henry II of France). Originally called pâte à Panterelli after its creator, the pastry had several incarnations before arriving at the pâte à Choux we know today. It is called this because of the resemblance of the cooked buns to cabbages (and choux is the French word for cabbage).
I am a massive fan of choux pastry. I first made it a seven or eight years ago and in 2011 (when I was fifteen) made my first croquembouche. Looking back, it was quite an achievement that I came out of that with only a minor burn from the melted sugar so if you do try this yourself, please be very, very careful. Having said that, I made one three years ago in a house where the power failed and I was assembling it by torch light as the sun set because I’m stubborn and don’t learn from my mistakes. Luckily I survived that one unscathed but hopefully when you try making choux pastry, it will be a little less eventful!
100g strong white flour
1 tbsp sugar
Pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to gas mark 7 (2100C).
Line two large baking trays with parchment paper.
Sift the flour onto a piece of baking parchment.
Heat 150ml water in a pan with the butter, sugar and salt until the butter is melted and the mixture is boiling.
Once the mix comes to the boil, pour in the flour and beat the mixture over the heat until it starts to form a ball and come away from the sides of the pan – it will look very lumpy and curdled at the start but I promise it will come together.
Once the paste starts to come away from the sides of the pan, continue to cook it – still beating it – for another minute.
Pour the mix into the flour bowl from earlier (so fewer things are made dirty) and leave the ball to cool for five or ten minutes. You can speed this up by spreading it up the sides of the bowl.
Although you can do the next stage by hand, its far faster to use an electric beater. Add the eggs one at a time – it is fine if the flour mix is still a little warm at this point.
After you have added the eggs, you should have a smooth, glossy, sticky paste.
For profiteroles, pipe into circles an inch and a half across (or just dollop it onto the tray if you can’t be bothered with all the posh stuff. If any of the profiteroles have a tip on top from the piping bag, use a damp finger to flatten it out to prevent the tips from burning.
For éclairs, pipe lines of paste four inches long onto the paper. Remember that they will expand a lot in the oven so space them out by an inch or so!
For gougères, add some grated cheese to the mix and then treat as you would for profiteroles.
Sprinkle the tray with water (not the pastry) and place in the oven for 15-20 minutes. Try not to open the oven until this time as it will result in the choux deflating before it is finished cooking.
Check that the choux has puffed up, is golden and hard when you take them out of the oven. If not all the puffs are cooked, rotate the tray and give them another few minutes.
Once you remove the pastry from the oven, use a sharp knife to make a small hole in the bottom of each one and place them upside down to let the steam escape.
You can also place them hole side up in the oven for another minute to help dry them out (this is particularly useful when making a croquembouche as the choux buns have to be sturdy.)
Gougères are served plain or can be filled with mushroom duxelle (see my beef wellington recipe), or meats like beef, ham or pate.
For éclairs and profiteroles,
400ml double cream
4 tbsp icing sugar
Vanilla (½ tsp vanilla paste or 1 tbsp vanilla extract)
For the ganache:
200ml double cream
250g dark chocolate (chopped)
For the filling, whip up the double cream with the sugar and vanilla to just lest than stiff peaks.
Pipe a generous amount through the hole in the bottom of each profiterole/éclair until they feel heavier and start to bulge.
For the ganache, heat the rest of the cream until just before boiling and pour it over the chocolate.
Leave for two minutes and then stir until the chocolate has melted and combines to make a glossy ganache.
Dip the top of each profiterole or éclair into the ganache and place onto a tray to set.
I hope you enjoy the recipe. If you fancy a nice comforting main, check out my recipe for Spinach and Ricotta Lasagne or for another chocolatey dessert, why not make yourself some melt in the middle chocolate fondants?
Have a good one and I will be back next week with a delicious stir fry recipe.