I was standing in front of a pastry counter in the centre of Paris. My mind went crazy; almost like it had already ingested all the sugar it was visually feasting upon. There were pastries I’d never seen before, plus stenciled cookies, iced fingers, powdered disks, sugar coated shortbread and brioche puffs. There were rows of macaroons and small lemon tarts, sour cherry Danish, chocolate éclairs, tiny tarts filled with cream and then, I saw it, France’s amazing Croquembouche. It was covered in spun sugar like a cloud over a mountain.
Croquembouche is made from profiteroles or as we call them in Canada, cream puffs. Each cream puff is made with choux pastry and filled with whipped cream (Chantilly cream in France), custard or my favourite filling, ice cream. When you pile these stuffed little cream puffs or profiteroles high into a Christmas tree shape, it’s called a Croquembouche. Lastly, it’s covered with something seductively delicious like chocolate, caramel or in this case, spun sugar. Croquembouche is great for large parties or family affairs but when I’m standing in front of one of France’s seductive pastry counters, a single profiterole may be just what my taste buds needed.
The profiteroles were lined up like macaroons, some with caps of pink icing other with gold, some were dusted with powdered sugar and others were hatted with a chocolate coin. I pointed to the line of sugar-dusted profiteroles and watched as the woman filled a tiny little, gold foil box with two – how decadent.
Choux pastry is the lightest and airiest of all pastries. I could easily pop a profiterole into my mouth but I decide to take small bites instead. It’s like biting into a sweet cloud. With more air than dough, there is a moment of subtle sweet egginess, the custard spreads across my tongue in an elegant way and other times it’s simply sweet air, a hint of heaven with an illusive texture. I eat a profiterole with my eyes closed and my senses aware, ready for the gastronomical pleasure.
Choux pastry, choux paste or pâte à choux as the French call it, not only makes profiteroles and cream puffs, but éclairs, French crullers, beignets, gougères and other fine pastries. The magic behind choux pastry is that when it’s baked or fried, it puffs up, just begging to be stuffed with whatever your mind can imagine.
Choux is a mixture of four simple ingredients: flour, water, milk and eggs. Unlike other doughs, the pastry is pre-cooked on top of the stove before being enriched with eggs, and then baked in the oven. While it may sound complicated, it’s actually a lot less complicated than other pastries that require careful rolling or the judging of precise textures.
To make a Croquembuche, use 2½ oz (60 g) of all-purpose flour. It has higher gluten content than the softer cake flour. Sift the flour onto a sheet of waxed paper along with a pinch of salt. Optional is a teaspoon of sugar but I prefer my filling sweet so I don’t add it to the dough. Set it aside.
In a saucepan, melt 2 ounces (50 g) of butter (cubed) into 5 fluid ounces (150 mL) of hot water. As soon as the water begins to boil and the butter has completely melted, turn off the heat and add the flour all at once – just dump it all in and quickly begin to beat the flour into the liquid with a wooden spoon. Soon, you will have a smooth ball of paste that is pulling away from the sides of the saucepan. Smooth and glossy, if it is too wet, turn the heat back on, very low temperature and continue to stir the dough until the surface of the dough is dry.
With all the French hype around choux pastry, the dough that becomes mostly air was actually invented by an Italian in 1540. Chef Panterelli invented a hot, dry paste to make a cake he called Pâte à Panterelli. Throughout the years, the dough evolved through the hands of various bakers, both Italian and French, until the 18th century when a French pâtissier by the name of Avice created Choux Buns. They looked so much like little cabbages, he called it Pâte à Choux (chou means cabbage in French).
When making choux pastry the thing to remember is that you’re creating conditions for a dough that will rise without the help of a leavening agent. Instead of yeast to make the dough rise, choux is dependent on both the amount of stirring at the stovetop stage (adding air) and the moisture content you end up with in the end.
Now that you have a dry ball of dough in the pot, the next step is to enrich it with beaten eggs, (two large eggs are all you’ll need). Transfer the dough to a room temperature bowl and contrary to adding the flour all at once, the eggs should be added first by half, then a little more until the dough will hold no more. If you add the eggs all at once, the dough will be unable to incorporate it all and they’ll have trouble puffing and drying out in the oven. Add enough egg to make a creamy dough where the peaks are soft and fall easily. If the peaks are too firm, add a bit more egg.
While traditionalists will fill a pastry bag and pipe the choux pastry onto parchment paper lined baking sheets, I like to spoon the dough, it’s easier and I like the finished look better. Bake in a 400F (200C) oven on a high shelf for about 10 minutes before increasing the heat to 425F (220C) for another 15 to 20 minutes or until the puffs are a golden colour and crispy on the outside. Remove them from the oven and pierce each one on the bottom to release the steam so they stay crispy.
Choux pastry is easy to make a few days ahead and freeze in an airtight container. The pastry will keep for a month. When ready to use, defrost by heating in an oven (350F or 180C) for about 5 to 7 minutes. Now you can fill them. Once filled, they will keep for a few days in the refrigerator but they will become softer as the dough absorbs the filling.
For most preparations choux pastry is baked, but if you are preparing beignets, the French donuts, the choux pastry is fried. The same with churros, they’re long strips of fried choux pastry.
Do not consider choux pastry for only sweets; you can add a heavy grinding of black pepper while incorporating the eggs, then once the choux is on the baking sheet, top with cheese. Black pepper and cheese gougères are a lighter alternative to bread. Because choux pastry is eggy and not sweet, you can fill them with chicken salad or tuna for a light summer lunch. My favourite filling is a mixture of Gorgonzola and butter.
This simple pastry allows even the most amateur baker to fulfill their desire to create an elegant pastry while also inspiring the more advanced to explore and realize their bravest concoctions in this unassuming vehicle.
Written By: Lynn Ogryzlo