Monday, September 26, 2011

Versatile Pâte à Choux

Yesterday it rained.  All day.  And while the cool, dampness began stirring within me the desire to turn on the oven, the desire to curl up on the sofa with a good cookbook and a marginally interesting movie was stronger.  Today, the sun is shining.  It’s a gorgeous day.  And I turned on the oven.  It was time to make some éclairs.  I’ve been thinking about these since making the vanilla-orange curd last week.  Today was the day to put thoughts into action.

The pastry part of the éclair is made from pâte à choux, which to me seems to fall somewhere in between a batter and a dough.  I don't know why I don't use it more often, because it's truly such a simple dough to produce such elegant results.  Pâte à choux is used not only for éclairs, but also for cream puffs, profiteroles and gougeres.  As a side note, I had to look up the difference between cream puffs and profiteroles.  Profiteroles are essentially miniature cream puffs which may have a sweet or savory filling.  Gougeres are piped in the same manner as cream puffs, but have cheese (traditionally Gruyere) and black pepper added to the dough, and are not typically filled.

The recipe I used for pâte à choux today is the one we used in school.  Because of that, the ingredients are by weight versus volume.  The volume measurements I have provided in parentheses may not be 100% accurate, but should be close enough as to not affect the final product.  Also, some recipes add sugar.  The recipe I previously used from Amy Finley calls for sugar.  Either is fine.  You’ll probably have better browning with the sugar.  I think I may one day try pâte à choux in terms of a ratio:  one large egg to each ounce of milk, water, butter and flour.  That would certainly make it easy to remember, providing that it works.
An important note on the quantity of eggs:  you may not need the entire 12 ounces of eggs.  Ambient humidity and the amount of evaporation while cooking can affect the dough and how much egg it will require.  Make sure to read the recipe through before beginning.  The recipe can easily be cut in half, keeping in mind that half of 1/4 cup is usually 2 tablespoons.

Pâte à Choux
6 oz (3/4 cup) milk
6 oz (3/4 cup) water
6 oz (3/4 cup or 1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cubed
Pinch salt
6-1/4 oz (1-1/4 cups) all-purpose flour, sifted
12 oz (6 large) eggs, beaten 

Combine the milk, water, butter and salt in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.  Remove the pan from the heat, add the sifted flour all at once and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until it forms a dough.  Reduce the heat to medium and return the pan to the heat.  Cook and stir the dough for 30 to 60 seconds or until a film begins to form on the bottom of the pan. 

Transfer the dough to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.  Mix on medium speed for about one minute to cool the dough.  Gradually begin adding the beaten egg in a thin stream, adding no more than a tablespoonful at a time.  The mixture will look “curdled” throughout much of the process.  Whenever that happens, stop adding egg and mix until it smoothes out. 
The "droop" test for medium peaks.
At the point when the dough begins to look more like a thick batter, stop mixing.  Scrape the sides and paddle and test the consistency of the dough by quickly dipping a spoon in the dough.  Hold it upright.  If the dough stands straight up, you’re at stiff peaks and more egg needs to be added.  The goal is medium peaks, which is where the dough will stand up but the very tip will droop slightly.

For éclairs:

Preheat oven to 425°F.  

The narrow space is for spacing in
between the rows of piped eclairs. 

Transfer the pâte à choux to a pastry bag fitted with a large round tip.  I use Ateco 806.  You can also use a large star tip, but I prefer the more traditional, smooth tops.  On a parchment lined baking sheet, pipe the éclairs about three inches long and two inches apart.  I like to rule my parchment on the back to make sure I'm keeping the size consistent.  To keep from having a pointy end, release the pressure on the piping bag while quickly pushing the tip upward toward the piped éclair.  (This probably makes more sense when you look at the picture.)  After the éclairs are piped, run the tip of a sharp knife down the outside edge of each éclair.  Be careful not to cut too deeply.  This will help the éclairs keep their shape. 

Finishing the eclairs.

Bake the éclairs for 10 – 12 minutes, or until golden brown.  Cool slightly and then pierce each end with a skewer to make holes for the filling.  Allow to cool completely before filling.  The éclairs can be filled with pastry cream, curd or stabilized whipped cream using a piping bag fitted with a small star tip.  When filled, dip the tops in melted chocolate (or drizzle the chocolate over them).  The full recipe of pâte à choux makes approximately five dozen mini éclairs.

For gougeres:

Preheat oven to 400°F. 

Placing the pastry bag in a cup with the tip folded will
help keep the batter/dough from oozing out of the tip.
When the pâte à choux reaches the proper consistency, add one cup of finely grated cheese (traditionally Gruyere, but I prefer Parmigiano-Reggiano) and coarsely ground fresh black pepper to taste.  Transfer the pâte à choux to a pastry bag fitted with a large round tip, such as Ateco 806, and pipe quarter-sized mounds of dough about an inch tall.  Use the back of a spoon dipped in water to flatten out the peaks. 

Bake the gougeres 14 – 16 minutes or until golden brown.  Remove from the oven and let cool slightly.  When cool enough to handle, use a skewer to poke a small hole in the bottom (to release steam) and transfer to a wire rack.  I think these are best served warm, so if necessary reheat them in the oven before serving.  The full recipe of pâte à choux makes approximately five dozen gougeres.

The finished eclairs filled with vanilla-orange curd and drizzled with white chocolate.

The finished gougeres.  I thought it would be nice to do something savory for the hubs.

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