Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
Same Pastry Recipe
Cream puffs, éclairs, and gougères are three different French pastries but they all begin with the same simple, four-ingredient recipe called pâte à choux. Let's begin with that simple platform, and then explore how to use it to make each of our three focus pastries.
Who Invented Pâte à Choux?
Who invented pâte à choux, that magical batter/dough that creates lighter-than-air delicate pastries? The “who done it?” is almost as perplexing as solving an Agatha Christie novel. There are several theories—I'll let you decide.
A Master Chef in 1540
Many food historians believe that this flour-water-butter-egg dough (which was really an innovative concept) was created in 1540 by Popelini, the master chef for Catherine de' Medici. (In case you don’t remember your French history lessons, she was the wife of Henry II, King of France). Popelini is also been credited with introducing artichokes, spinach, macarons, olive oil, Chianti, white beans, sugar sculptures, and even forks to the French court.
An 1800 Pastry Apprentice
And, then there is this. Do you recall my article on “The Five Mother Sauces (And Why You Need Them)? It is there that we were introduced to Marie-Antoine Carême.
At the age of 16, Carême began an apprenticeship with Sylvain Bailly at a patisserie near the Royal Palace. Bailly’s head pastry maker, Avice, instructed the young man in the art of making pastry but he also took a personal interest in him, recognizing his talent and intellect. Avice encouraged Carême to learn to read and write. In his free time, Carême studied at the Bibliothéque Nationale Department of Prints and Engravings and there developed an appreciation for fine architecture. Using sugar, marzipan, and pastry, Carême reproduced some of the works he had seen in books.
These elaborate creations, some as large as 4 feet in height, were displayed in the shop windows of the patisserie. Carême’s work was noticed by the French diplomat, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand and this marked a turning point in the career and life of the young apprentice.
The pastry that served as Carême’s medium was pâte à choux.
Tell a tale often enough, put it in writing where it will gain credence, and in time the tale will become legend. That seems to be the case with the creation of the cream puff. Is Marie-Antoine Carême the original inventor? I think we need to look even further back in history. Here's another theory for you to consider.
13th Century Street Vendors
Étienne Boileau was the first provost of Paris. He wrote regulations for policing, guidelines for various trades and crafts in Paris, and made decisions that essentially impacted all commercial life in Paris. One of those writings mentioned petitz chouz, a pastry sold by street vendors. This, by the way, was in the 13th century.
The Taste Atlas provides a supporting story.
"Many theories exist about the origin of this dessert, but the most likely one traces it back to the 13th century when the chefs who first created the puff pastry in France and southern Germany began filling them with savory cheese mixtures and herbs. Sweet versions of the dish followed, and by the 17th century, the small pastries were referred to as choux (lit. cabbage), because the pastries were visually reminiscent of heads of cabbage."
I scoured the internet to find some verification of this claim and almost gave up until I found "An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the 13th Century, Translated by Charles Perry."
“Take pure semolina or wheat flour and knead a stiff dough without yeast. Moisten it little by little and don’t stop kneading it [p. 63, verso] until it relaxes and is ready and is softened so that you can stretch a piece without severing it. Then put it in a new frying pan on a moderate fire. When the pan has heated, take a piece of the dough and roll it out thin on marble or a board. Smear it with melted clarified butter or fresh butter liquified over water. Then roll it up like a cloth until it becomes like a reed. Then twist it and beat it with your palm until it becomes like a round thin bread, and if you want, fold it over also. Then roll it out and beat it with your palm a second time until it becomes round and thin. Then put it in a heated frying pan after you have greased the frying pan with clarified butter, and whenever the clarified butter dries out, moisten [with butter] little by little, and turn it around until it binds, and then take it away and make more until you finish the amount you need. Then pound them between your palms and toss on butter and boiling honey. When it has cooled, dust it with ground sugar and serve it.”
This, my friends, is the recipe for laminated dough, the stuff of which puff pastry is made. And puff pastry, filled with cheese, is the genesis of cream puffs.
Read More From Delishably
What do you think?
Step 1: Make Pâte à Choux
To learn how to make authentic French pastry, why would we look anywhere else but to Julia Child? Here is how she makes a perfect French pâte à choux.
- 1 cup water
- 3 ounces (3/4 stick) unsalted butter cut into 6 pieces
- Seasoning (1/8 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon sugar for sweets; 1 teaspoon salt for savories)
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- Exactly 1 cup eggs (about 5 large eggs; blend them thoroughly with a fork to combine before measuring)
- Heavy-bottomed 2-quart stainless saucepan
- Stout wooden spoon
- 3-quart round-bottomed bowl
- Measure all ingredients and have all equipment ready before you begin. This includes beating and measuring the eggs, arranging racks in the upper and lower-middle levels of your oven, lightly greasing the baking sheets; and preparing a pastry bag.
- Bring the water to boil in the 2-quart pan with the butter and seasonings. As soon as the butter has melted, remove the pan from heat, pour in all the flour at once, and vigorously beat it in. It will be lumpy at first but smooths out rapidly as you beat.
- As soon as blended, beat over moderate heat for a minute or more, until the pastry balls up, cleans itself off the sides of the pan, and begins to film its bottom. (This step evaporates excess moisture so that the pastry will absorb as much egg as possible).
- Turn the pastry into the 3-quart bowl and stir with a wooden spoon for 30 seconds to cool it off briefly. Then make a well in the center of the warm pastry and beat in 1/4 cup of the beaten egg. When blended (it will look strangely separated as first), repeat with another 1/4 cup of egg, then another, and half the final bit of egg.
- The pastry should just hold its shape when lifted in the spoon, thus you'll probably want all of the remaining egg, but beat it in by dribbles to be sure the pastry is not too loose.
- The pâte à choux is now ready to use.
How to Make Cream Puffs
Cream puffs are traditionally filled with whipped cream. A piping bag makes the task easy-peasy, but if you don't have one, you can still make our dessert. Simply scoop up the dough with a spoon held in your dominant hand, and push it off with the back of a spoon held in your opposite hand. Your puffs might not be perfectly round, but they will still taste wonderful.
Here's a video to explain, step-by-step, how to make cream puffs.
Let's Talk About Éclairs
Éclairs (ah-CLAIRS) made their first appearance on the world scene about 150 years ago at the hands of Marie-Antoine Carême (the five mother sauces guy mentioned earlier in this article).
The name is an oddity—éclair is French for lightning. Perhaps the name makes reference to the glossy shine of the chocolate coating, or maybe it's a nod to how quickly these pastries are consumed (lightning fast).
- Perfect pastry cream (filling for your éclairs)
- Perfect ganache (shiny chocolate coating for your éclairs)
What Is a Gougère (and How Do You Pronounce It)?
Wine and cheese—what perfect flavor companions. The duo of grape and aged dairy ranks right up there with peanut butter and jelly, don't you think? And of course, in the Burgundy region that creates such amazing wines, it stands to reason that someone in that area would find a more-than-perfect vehicle for that cheesy sidekick.
The gougère (pronounced GOO-zher) is a savory, cheesy cream puff. I think they are best hot out of the oven. This recipe for gougères (French cheese puffs) is adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Everyday Dorie.
- June 22 is National Chocolate Éclair Day
- January 2 is Cream Puff Day
- Leslefts Blogspot
- Gourmet Love to Know
- Curious Cuisiniere
- The Spruce Eats
- Bitter Butter
- David Friedman, "Medieval Cookbooks"
- The Taste Atlas
© 2021 Linda Lum