Thursday, Oct 8th, 2015
To hear me say it sounds like “padda shoe.” The phoenetics for the French term I’m most certainly mispronouncing, pate de choux, announces one of the most versatile recipes in classic patisserie. Somewhere between a dough and a batter, pate de choux takes it’s name from the rough, cabbage-like shape of the dough when its baked. Once in the oven, this paste of sorts performs the neatest magic trick, blowing up like a balloon, so much so the germans call these puffs “wind bags” instead.
Pate de choux was the first fundamental technique I dedicated myself to mastering. Durring my earliest role as pastry chef at Eva in Seattle, this dough was often found inflating in my oven in varied shapes; miniature wheels of paris-brest waiting for seasonal fillings, and long skinny eclaires to be glossed in chocolate. My favorite application of this dough was profiteroles. The hollow shells were toasted to order, split, and filled with scoops of ice cream, and looked like an ice cream sandwich and a hamburger had a baby.
Profiteroles were a staple on my junior-most menu, their constant presence giving me good practice at this twice cooked technique. Pate de choux requires you to cook the batter on the stove top before transferring it to a small appliance, where the eggs are added. Some use a food processor and add all the eggs at once, but I’ve always incorporated the eggs in a kitchen aid mixer, one at a time, watching the sticky mass swallow each egg, break, then come back together. This gives me the opportunity to withhold a little egg if I see the batter getting too loose.
Of all the fundamental recipes, pate de choux will offer you the most immediate success. While I won’t call them fool-proof, this dough has a wide margin of error. This doesn’t mean there is a low ceiling for perfection with pate de choux, .
I myself have chased the ethereally light, hollow, crisp cream puff for nearly 10 years. A dough that swells proud and taut in the oven, completely hollow with no webbing, and retains its light crispiness when layered between soft creams and shiny glazes.
This requires a well-balanced recipe, diligent cooking over the stovetop, and a watchful eye when adding the eggs. Once mastered, you’ll find seemingly endless applications for your pate de choux. Yes, you can bake hollow shells for cream puffs, and fill their cavities with delicious sweet things, towering them into croquembouche. The shape can be altered when you pipe, long and skinny for eclaires, round for paris brest, and more! You can also opt for savory fillings of confit duck and dried fruits, liver pates, and rillettes, or a simpler herbed ricotta. My gingerbread flavored pate de choux recipe was once borrowed to be filled with the Japanese barbecued eel, unagi. Cheese can be folded directly into your pate de choux dough to make gougeres, cheesy little poofs most often eaten warm and fresh from the oven.
But pate de choux goes far beyond the oven. The dough can be piped into boiling water to make a dumpling, called Parisian gnocchi. It can also be dropped into hot oil and fried like a dount. Small dollops of fried pate de choux dusted in powdered sugar are called “nuns farts” in france, but you can dress these abstractly shaped fritters like your favorite donut and name them after any other broken wind you desire. If you trust your piping skills, place pate de choux in a piping bag fit with a star tip and pipe round crullers, or long skinny churros. Freeze them, and when when firm, remove them from the freezer and drop them into hot oil. They will hold their shape and reward you with the lightest donut known to man.
While I have not had the opportunity to serve gnocchi on my dessert menus yet (I’ll find a way!) a parmesan crullers recently anchored a dessert at blackbird, nestled over white chocolate custard with basil and black raspberries. Served warm from the fryer and dressed like a plated dessert, this may have been pate de choux’s most elegant appearance yet.
Pate de choux next best trick is it’s ability to be cooked immediately when frozen. Once piped, the batter can be locked away in your freezer until the moment you’re ready to prepare it. Small domes pulled from the freezer line up quickly on a sheet pan and loose no quality when popped in the oven or fryer. This makes them ideal for the kind of production professional kitchens employ. It also helps the home cook with the large quantity of dough most recipes produce. It’s easier to make a full batch of pate de choux and freeze the rest for another application than reduce the batch size and maneuver a miniscule amount in a mixing bowl. Besides, you’ll look like a whiz when warm gougeres or cream puffs emerge from your oven with seemingly no effort at all.