Choux paste is a pillar of the pastry world. It’s not made out of anything special, but this humble dough is the foundation of many sensational desserts. While you’ve surely seen it adorning bakery pastry cases, and maybe even eaten it before, it’s a dough that you should really be on a first name basis with. This choux-overview will help get you there.
Let’s start at the top. Choux is pronounced like the English word “shoe,” which is great, if only for the sake of easy pastry puns. Also referred to as pâte à choux (pronounced similarly to “pat-uh-shoe,” but more French), pâte meaning dough, and “choux” translating to “cabbage.” As fun as that would be, cabbages are in no way involved in the making of this pastry dough; the name is rumored to refer to how baked cream puffs kind of look like baby heads of cabbage.
This handy paste is made using a combination of kitchen staples—water, butter, flour, eggs, and a pinch of salt. Since choux paste is not made of much, and there is very little variation, it’s important to adhere to the standard procedure for making it to ensure success. You start by essentially making a thick roux. Combine flour, butter, water, and salt (some recipes call for milk instead of water, or a combination of the two); after a little stirring, the dough comes together into a thick mass. Easy enough, right? But this is when other choux drops—since a good paste is judged by how perfectly it puffs, and its only leavening agent is eggs, the amount of egg you add is crucial.
Of course, a recipe will give you a number of eggs to add, but this is really an estimate. Not only do eggs vary in size and freshness (impacting the water content), but the region you’re in can also affect the dough. The amount of eggs called for might be on point for someone using the recipe in New Jersey, but a person baking choux in Arizona might need an additional egg, or maybe just an extra half of an egg. Yes, it matters.
When you make this paste (I’m gonna do the annoying chef thing), judge it by its consistency—you have to look for the right amount of movement in the dough before you use it. Basically, the dough will look like it “sighs” when you stop the mixing machine. (You can also make it by hand and look for the same consistency.) It shouldn’t be stiff, nor runny. Not enough egg, and the dough won’t puff enough to create its signature cavity. Too much, and your dough will spread, and look smooth and flat.
Once you’ve made the perfect choux paste, you can pipe it into various shapes: Small orbs for cream puffs, long finger-shapes for éclairs, large rings to make paris-brest, or pipe out crullers ready to deep-fry. The dough is always cooked at a high temperature (around 400°F- 425°F) to ensure the most dramatic evaporation occurs to create big pockets, and that the gluten built up from mixing provides the structure needed to support the prized caverns inside. Be aware, the puffing action is serious. Leave space on the pan or in the oil for the dough to double in size. The cooked pastry itself is crisp and feather-light with a neutral flavor, if not a tad eggy, so most recipes will see you filling the finished dough or covering it with something irresistibly indulgent.
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Choux desserts are always impressive, even if you haven’t quite gotten the perfect egg ratio nailed down. It’s a versatile dough that works with many different fillings, and if you get in enough practice, you can make a heck of a Croquembouche for a holiday party. Choux’d you want to make it in advance, choux dough freezes exceptionally well. Bake and cool the puffs, or whichever shape, and put them on a sheet tray in the freezer. Let them freeze for about 30 minutes, then load them all into a freezer bag or large freezable container to save space. To thaw, place the frozen pastry onto a sheet tray and bake at 350°F for about 5-10 minutes. They refresh so perfectly, you’ll be choux’k. Fin.
Classic Pâte à Choux (adapted from Master Class)
- 1 cup water
- 1 stick butter (cut into approximate tablespoons chunks)
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup + 2 tablespoons flour
- 4 large eggs (room temperature)
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a sheet tray with parchment paper.
In a medium-sized pot, add the water, butter chunks, and salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat, and allow the pieces of butter to melt completely. Bring the heat down to medium-low. Add the flour all at once, and begin to stir vigorously. The mixture will begin to clump, keep stirring. Once the mixture comes together in a single mass and you see a thin film of flour develop on the bottom and sides of the pot, take it off the heat. Transfer the dough mass to a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Turn it on low speed and let the dough cool down slightly for about 3 minutes. (You can do this by hand with a wooden spoon, but make sure you get a good stretch in before and after.)
While it cools, add the eggs to a measuring cup and scramble them up a bit. This will allow you to pour a little at a time, and stop mid-egg if you need to. Add a quarter of the mixture and mix it in completely. Add another quarter and wait for the same. Add a tad more and observe the consistency by stopping the mixer. If the dough doesn’t budge, turn the mixer back on and add a little more egg. Stop and observe. Look for the dough to “sigh” off the paddle attachment. It should just settle off of the paddle but still hold upright. Add the rest of the egg if you need it. If you think the dough is still too stiff, scramble another egg up and add a half at a time, stopping to check the consistency.
Once your paste is ready, transfer it to a piping bag. Pipe out the desired shape onto the parchment lined sheet tray. Bake the choux for about 10 minutes at 400°F, give or take a few minutes to account for variation in size or shape. After 10 minutes, lower the heat to 325°F for 30 minutes. The dough has done the majority of its puffing, but during this time the dough will dry out and brown properly.
Remove the tray from the oven and, with a toothpick or a small paring knife, stab each choux puff in an unnoticeable crack or crevice. This will let steam continue to escape and ensure you have a crispy shell. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before freezing or filling.
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