Pate à Choux to Profiteroles 101
A letter of gratitude to Jacques Pepin.
As I embark on teaching a French cuisine course for the first time, I want to say “Thank you, Jacques Pepin.” You are the teacher of all teachers when it comes to so many things French, including a great pate à choux.
Your recipes always work, and for that I’m eternally grateful. As my Saucy Guy partner always says, “His recipes are foolproof.” They are perfect for me, a self-declared non-baker, who bakes only what she likes to eat and only as part of a practice in the discipline of measurements and mental clarity. Your recipes always give me confidence and calm reassurances at every stage. The final products always look good enough for any local patisserie.
If Julia Child was the “queen of French cooking in America,” you are the king. You probably already know this. I’m looking forward to using your books in French Cuisine class.
In teaching at a culinary institute, I’ve learned that so many things can go wrong with pate à choux:
- I can pick the wrong recipe.
- A student can execute the recipe poorly by any number of means. Common errors are: (a) not having flour pre-measured and ready to go after the butter melts, (b) dumping the flour imprecisely or not with enough speed, (c) not drying the dough paste (cooking it enough results in a thin coating on the pan), (d) adding the eggs without letting each one incorporate fully before adding the next, and (e) general piping problems. My own piping shown in this post is far from perfect. I’m sure there are more things that can go wrong.
- A student can also fail to let the pastries dry out enough after baking, if the pastries aren’t given enough “hang-time” in an open oven. The outside can lack structure, and the inside can be undercooked or mushy in this scenario.
The thing that I love about you, Jacques Pepin, is that we can trust you. Your cookbooks show step-by-step instructions. The same is true of your videos. You never hide your techniques, even though you learned them through years of experience that brought you to a place of culinary wisdom.
You’re also practical and not wasteful. I love that.
Thank you too, because your pate a choux recipe made my Mom’s birthday. It wasn’t easy this year for her or for any of us. Her birthday is also her anniversary. Her husband, my Dad, died in December of 2016, and we haven’t quite fully recovered.
A family friend baked a cake for her birthday and served it the weekend before. It was beautiful, but Mom didn’t really feel like celebrating. After graciously accepting and eating the cake, Mom adamantly told me that she did not want or need another cake on her actual birthday. As with the previous year’s anniversary that marked a birthday without her youngest daughter, she said, “There’s nothing to celebrate.”
I imagine she can’t think of her birthday without thinking about the fact that it’s her 48th anniversary, but the first one without Dad. Her birthday definitely isn’t the same.
Profiteroles seemed like just the right thing, something to lighten all of our moods, to celebrate a little, but maybe not too much, and to share memories of birthdays and anniversaries, just a little differently, a way to re-emerge from a certain darkness.
For me, making and baking the profiteroles was therapeutic. How is that? I can hear your French voice coaxing me along at each stage. I trust that this recipe in my hands will turn out, because it has to turn out, because we have to get through this birthday-non-anniversary together. The unexpected thing was that the profiteroles were fun on the plate, and we had joy that night in sharing and remembering. Thank you for that.
We even joke that we were visited by my Dad; and we half believe it, half hope for it. Festival cream puffs and Belgian waffles were family favorites. Our doorbell rang out several times while we ate our profiteroles. This is a doorbell that functions wirelessly and often doesn’t work well enough on a daily basis. Most people end up knocking after ringing.
We opened every first floor door in search of kids playing ding-dong-ditch-it only to find no one. The doorbell continued to ring even with the doors wide open. It was exactly the kind of sign that our jokester Dad (who loved supernatural anything) would send us, both to cheer us and to spook us. We were at thirty plus ‘ding dong’ sounds and almost expected that the bell would ring 48 times, but we pulled the plug on the bluetooth receiver before that could happen, only because it was enough to think it might.
For the general public, I have tips to add about pate a choux generally. If you buy Jacques’ books and use them, you don’t need these tips.
How to spot the wrong recipe
Some recipes are a bit “eggy” in the ratios. They call for the use of yolks and whole eggs. When you see the final product, it looks just a little too yellow.
Take time to mise-en-place
Measure and set up your ingredients in easy to handle containers. Use parchment paper as a chute to power your flour into the melted butter and water at once.
Go ahead and use the food processor
Sometimes we think that making things from scratch means making it by hand. A food processor can make the recipe easier to manage and will give you a homogenous dough paste quickly. With a dishwasher at hand, it also makes for easy clean up.
Size matters on the piping
A quarter-sized, piped round will puff up to a mini-sized cream puff. A half dollar will get you a nice-sized cream puff that isn’t super-sized.
Understanding the perfection of the right recipe
What’s so right about Pepin’s recipe? He uses the whole egg and provides practical tips for using modern kitchen equipment that saves time and doesn’t change the lightness of the final product. Pepin’s recipe is just about perfect in terms of ratios and method, except maybe that you should double the recipe for a family. The recipe below does that for you.
Have patience, hang out
Let your pate a choux dry out a little in the oven as per the recipe. This step is missing in some recipes. When you tap the puff on the bottom, it should sound hollow. A dullish thud may mean a mushy or undercooked interior.
Pate à choux can only be helped by chocolate and ice cream
While pate à choux pastry can be used with savory and sweet fillings, the sweet use in profiteroles is my favorite.
In the U.S., we use sweetened, whipped cream to fill our cream puff made from the pate à choux dough. In many bakeries, the dough is piped into an elongated form to create eclairs that are filled by pastry cream.
In Italy, this same puff is filled with gelato and topped with a chocolate sauce and whipped cream. The dessert is called a profiterole. It’s a perfect dessert to make someone feel loved and special, especially in the summertime.
Make a loose chocolate ganache and pipe it over the top when you serve your profiterole.
Celebrate, just a little, à la Pepin!
- 2 cups water
- 8 tablespoons butter (medium dice)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups all-purpose organic flour
- 8 large eggs
- Egg wash
- 1 whole egg, with half of the white removed, and then beaten
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- Place flour on parchment paper.
- In a medium sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter in it as you bring the water to a boil. Once the butter is fully melted, remove it from the heat.
- Immediately, add all the flour by holding the sides of the parchment paper to create a steep paper "slide" into the saucepan.
- With a wooden spoon, mix quickly until the dough gathers and forms a ball.
- Place saucepan back onto low heat to remove moisture for up to two minutes which will leave a thin residue of dried flour.
- Transfer the dough paste to a food processor and cool for at least five minutes.
- Mix the dough.
- Add eggs one at a time into the dough until incorporated fully.
- The dough should be smooth, shiny, and thick.
- Fill a star-tipped, pastry bag with dough and pipe onto a sheet pan lined with a silpat or parchment paper (be sure to "glue" the corners down by piping a spot of choux dough under each corner of the parchment sheet).
- Brush piped dough with egg wash.
- Let the piped choux air dry for at least 20 minutes before cooking.
- Bake dough for 35 minutes or until they have puffed up and are golden.
- Open oven door. Let the puffs cool down and dry for 30 minutes inside the oven.
- If filling puffs, use a skewer to puncture a hole in the bottom of each choux, then pipe and fill.
- Note that Pepin tells you to use a fork to create the striping achieved by the star tip I used. I'm of the mind that it isn't necessary to put ridges in your puffs unless it makes you happy. They will taste just as good without. It will, like a good pasta with ridges, hold the chocolate just that much better.