Today we tackle pate a choux — Gesundheit! — the primordial goo of sweet eclairs, beignets and profiteroles, not to mention the savory gougères we Anglophones call “cheese puffs.”
Why you need to learn this
Pate a choux (pot-ah-SHOO) — and, therefore, its many manifestations — is surprisingly easy, something to have in your back pocket the next time Madge invites herself over.
The steps you take
Coincidentally, the method for pate a choux is eerily similar to that of a potion I use for conjuring demons. Only, instead of summoning Satan’s minions from the hoary pits of hell, we’re making gougères. “Potato, potato,” as my fine young son likes to say. Observe:
1. The Boiling: In my demonic potion, I use clarified gnat tears, but for pate a choux, it’s butter and milk (or water, or a combination). Bring it to a boil in a saucepan over high heat.
2. The Dumping of the Flour: Upon boiling, the flour goes in all at once. Consider doing this off heat, because puffs of flour can be flammable. It’s why people don’t smoke around grain silos: One errant spark and — here’s one for the “Star Wars” geeks — it’s like Alderaan after the Death Star.
3. The Stirring: Place the pan on medium heat, and attack with a wooden spoon. After several minutes, the dough will start to form a smooth ball as it pulls away from the pan’s sides. Also, a starchy film will adhere to the bottom of the pan. These signs portend the following step:
4. The Cooling: Remove from heat. From here, you can finish in that pan, containing your mess and making cleanup easier, although there’s more tiresome mixing afoot. Conversely, you could finish in a stand mixer, thereby dirtying another bowl, but offering sweet surcease to your aching wrist.
Regardless, rest the dough for several minutes, until the temperature drops to 110 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, cool enough not to cook the eggs, which are added next.
5. The Adding of the Eggs: Stir in the eggs one at a time, incorporating each completely before adding the next. Before incorporation occurs, it’ll look crazy, like something slipping down Grendel’s cave wall. Fear not, though, as our eggy chaos will soon cohere into a smooth and lustrous paste. Lifted onto a spoon, it should stretch slowly, then break away, leaving a v-shaped tail.
6. The Baking: The hot oven turns the water in pate a choux to steam, inflating it, then coagulating the egg proteins to hold its shape.
Speaking of shapes, here are several ideas for how to use this mighty product:
Beignets: drop tablespoons of choux paste gently into a deep fryer.
Cream puffs or gougères (see recipe): Spoon (or pipe) it onto a parchment-covered baking sheet in tablespoon-size blobs.
Eclairs: Pipe it into 4- to 5-inch long lines. Bake at 375 degrees about 30 minutes, until the outsides are brown and crispy as a Triassic lake bed, with insides as light and airy as a blimp full of angels.
Gougères can be served directly from the oven. Beignets are dusted with powdered sugar, and eclairs and profiteroles can be cooled, filled with pastry cream, slathered with chocolate ganache, and served with conviction. Gesundheit.