I should probably give pâte a choux a rest – I’ve been off and on obsessed with it for over two years – but I feel there is still much more to harness from this understated preparation and more to refine. When it’s done well, there are few better pastry-based vehicles. But therein lies the problem: often viewed as ‘just a vehicle’ for whatever is inside of it, we don’t always give it the attention it deserves.
It’s true that the basic ratio of ingredients doesn’t vary all that much, and hasn’t really strayed from that of Carême, who is generally regarded as the author of the modern recipe use today. I went back to the only choux recipe I have in my files from Carême – an 1834 English translation of his Le Pâtissier Royal Parisien – though the quantities are surprisingly imprecise, any novice pastry cook would immediately recognize the general proportions and method:
Because the standard formula of liquid, fat, flour, and eggs is fairly constant, I get the impression that few chefs ever adapt beyond the first version of the recipe they acquire as a student or young cook. That’s a shame, because there is a lot more about the method to understand and subtle tweaks to fine tune in order to raise the bar for choux… Small adjustments in milk fat and nonfat solids can help determine texture, flavor, and color. Sugars – and sometimes salt – are omitted outright. From cake to bread flour, small adjustments in the overall protein content can affect the final structure and exterior appearance. Time and temperature of the preparation matter at each step – how long to cook the roux, at what temperature should the eggs be added…
I can’t say that I’ve worked through every variation of ingredient and procedure, but I’ve continued to improve my choux slowly but surely over time. A huge revelation came with understanding the best technique for applying a crunchy exterior to the finished piece: a sablée of sorts, but more so in proportions similar to a streusel (roughly equal parts of fat, sugar, and flour) that is ‘tender’ enough to expand with the choux, where a conventional dough would set too quickly and restrict the ‘puff’. In fact, perhaps counter-intuitively at first glance, the sablée- draped choux actually rises up to twice as much as an uncovered one – the sablée slows the drying and setting of the choux surface, allowing it to expand that much more.
Always looking to refine and streamline production along with quality, the crunchy choux also offered a unique efficiency – in part thanks to a push from my friends at the PreGel training center, run by Frederic Monti. Understanding that choux can be frozen before baking as well as after, the choux is piped into silicon molds (perfectly consistent size and shape) and frozen; the sablée is sheeted, cut into discs and draped over the frozen choux domes. The choux is then baked comme d’habitude – high heat to begin for maximum oven spring, with a gradual decrease in temperature to dry out the interior.
Below, the full recipe for the choux and sablée, with one of my favorite fillings, a chartreuse mousseline:
Finding ultra-technical, underlying science of choux is not as easy as one would think. A few of my favorite general baking science references are:
How Baking Works: Exploring the Fundamentals of Baking Science, by Paula Figoni
Understanding Baking: The Art and Science of Baking,
by Joseph Amendola, Nicole Rees, Donald E. Lundberg
Baking Problems Solved, Stanley Cauvain and Linda Young
Eclairs!, by Christophe Adam
And did you know that Kitchen Arts and Letters in NYC now sells online? Awesome!