Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
Delightful Unfussy Pastries
Imagine: what if there were no profiteroles, croquembouches, éclairs, beignets, cream puffs, gougères, or even churros? What a sad place this world would be.
But we need not worry, because all of those delightful pastries are easy to make, and they come from the same basic dough. Just as Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris, we will always have pâte à choux.
Pâte à choux (PAT-uh-shoo)—yes, it's French, but that doesn't mean that it's fussy, complicated, or cumbersome. In fact, this amazing dough is made of just four simple ingredients: flour, butter, water, and eggs.
My first step in researching this topic was to explore the origins of this unusual pastry. Allow me to amend the expression “all roads lead to Rome.” When it comes to gastronomy, it seems that all roads lead from Florence, Italy, to Paris, France.
"Choux pastry is said to have been invented in 1540 by Popelini, Catherine de' Medici's chef."
— Larousse Gastronomique, Jenifer Harvey Lang, editor [Crown:New York] 1988 (p. 777-8)
Catherine de Medici was the only child of Lorenzo de' Medici, Duke of Urbino, Italy, and Madeleine de la Tour d'Auvergne, the Countess of Boulogne. Her noble parentage placed her (of course) in line for a royal marriage. In 1533, at the age of 14, she married the Duc d'Orleans. (In 1547 he would be named Henry II, King of France.)
So, Catherine’s baker Popelini (other sources give the name Pantarelli or Pantanelli) invented the cream puff. Dig a bit deeper and you'll find food histories proclaiming that he and his team of French kitchen wizards were also responsible for numerous other culinary creations:
- Catherine de Medici is said to have brought artichokes to France. She apparently ate a lot of them which—given the artichoke’s over-sexed reputation—scandalized the more straight-laced of the court. From France, artichokes spread to Holland and England, where the much-married Henry VIII, unsurprisingly, is said to have been fond of them.
- It was her chef who introduced spinach to French gastronomes. Dishes served with a bed of spinach are labeled “a la Florentine."
- The sound of the name “macaron” [mah-kuh-rohn] might lead you to believe these little confections are French; well, they are, and they aren’t. They were first made by French bakers for Catherine de Medici. It was her Italian chef who created the famous ethereal almond flour-sugar-egg white cookie.
- Catherine brought many Tuscan customs with her to France. She decorated her tables elegantly with flowers, small sugar sculptures, and forks (which had long been used in Florence but were almost never found on French tables) .She introduced olive oil, Chianti wines and white beans to the French culinary lexicon.
Wow. Only Escoffier has been credited with greater culinary influence. Although all of this is rather entertaining, I’m ready to hit the pause button and examine something that is better documented. 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.
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The Simplest (and Best) Pâte à Choux Recipe
To learn how to make authentic French pâte à choux, we need look no further than to the cookbook of Julia Child. This is her basic recipe for 2 1/2 cups of pastry dough.
- 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 Use Pâte à Choux Dough
In the introduction of this article, I named several foods made from pâte à choux. Here's a brief explanation of what each one is:
- Cream puff and èclair [ih-klair]: These are probably the ones with which you are most familiar. Cream puffs are round, èclairs are long and narrow (log-shaped) and quite often topped with chocolate ganache after they are filled with whipped cream or pastry cream.
- Profiterole [pruh-FIT-uh-rohl]: A cream puff which is filled with custard or ice cream and frozen (A bit of trivia: the profiterole is the national dessert of Gibraltar.)
- Croquembouche [kraw-kahn-BOOSH]: Miniature cream puffs piled into a cone shape (think Christmas tree), and then enrobed with spun sugar. (Yeah, right I'm not going to do this and you probably won't either.)
- Gougères [goo-SHZAIR]: Cheese is mixed into the pastry before it is piped to make a savory dough. Perfect appetizers, snacks, or midnight madness.
Now that you know what they are, let's look at how to shape them. I'm certain that this video is exactly as Julia would have done it.
Piping Cream Puffs
But Wait, There's More
There are two more treats that were mentioned in the introduction, and I can't leave you wondering about them. But I have separated them from the rest because they are not baked, they are deep-fried (be still my beating heart).
- Beignets [ben-YEY]: This dessert screams of New Orleans. Choux pastry is prepared and then chilled. Small mounds are lined up on parchment paper and then deep-fried. Powdered sugar on top, of course.
- Churros [CHEW-row]: The beignet (see above) is piped directly into the deep fryer to create crispy dough logs. Of course, they must be dusted in cinnamon sugar!
Do You Want More?
Were you hoping for a recipe for each or any of these delectable treats? I hate to be a tease, but this is just an intro to the amazing world of pâte à choux. In the next few weeks, I'll post articles on making cream puffs, èclairs, and gougère.
© 2021 Linda Lum