Having a mild obssession with France since young age, (I’ve dreamt of living in France for most of my childhood, and here I am, England, pretty close I’d say :p), I’ve soon realised the many traits that was left behind by French bakers in our Vietnamese pastries and baking. Not only from the techniques and textures, we even have similar names to what they’re called in France. Take an example of cakes, in Vietnam we call cakes ‘gato’. Sounds familiar much? ‘Gateaux’, I believe, is the exact same words. And ‘choux à la crème’, we call those beautiful little things ‘bánh su kem’. That was the first pastry that I’ve ever eaten, and still my favourite so far. Back in my hometown, they went as cheap as 20 pence/choux (I’m not entirely sure about the price now, inflation, inflation, crazy inflation everywhere), so I can stuff as much as I want every summer. I tried ‘choux’ at almost every bakery I’ve been to, and it was also the first thing I baked. There, a few introduction just so you know how crazy I am about this little puff.
Here in England, I think they go by the name ‘profiteroles’ (which are filled with whipped cream), or in US, I think they’re called ‘cream puff’ (and filled with ice cream?), either way, to me they’re ‘choux pastry’, which are best filled with pastry cream/custard. As you all know, choux pastry (or pâte à choux) is a light pastry dough, often used as a shell to make desserts like profiteroles, éclairs, croquembouches, gougère. It contains only butter, flour, water and eggs, very, very basic ingredients.
Without any raising agents, yet a choux pastry could leaven so high, how? Well, the system basically works by steam. The high temperature that’s required to bake the pastry cause the huge amount of liquid in the dough to evaporate and cause the puffs to rise, while the outside is cooked into an elastic film, which is bound by the protein in eggs. And the result is a ‘ball’ with large void inside, ideal to fill with prepared cream. So, making choux is really the art of balancing eggs and gluten. Too much eggs will result in a stiff and hard outer layer, while too little would lead to a thin and fragile layer. Similarly, too much gluten will lead to a stiff dough which only expand a little while baking and too little will lead to rapid expansion and cause them to burst.
The process of making choux pastry is pretty much like this: (1) melt the fat in the water until boiled then turn off heat and quickly add the flour. This step is important as flour absorbed hot water very quickly. If we add in flour slowly, the first flour to be in the liquid would take up more moisture than the rest, while a uniform water intake throughout the paste would be much more preferable. (2) Stir the flour until they come off the side of the pan. This is also crucial, to ensure that enough water have evaporated from the dough. Too much left and it won’t rise. (3) gradually beat in the egg until a glossy paste forms. Again, I don’t need to stress the importance of beating in the eggs. (4) and lastly, do make sure to preheat well before you bake, choux pastry needs pretty high temperature to rise well.
And voilà, as soon as you have learnt the tricks, it’s pretty much no rocket science in making a good batch of well rounded pretty choux. Shall we crack on with Delia Online’s recipe?
Choux Pastry (Patê à Choux)
INGREDIENTS: (~ 20 choux buns)
- 150 ml cold water
- 50g butter, diced
- 60 g strong plain flour
- 1 tsp caster sugar
- 2 large eggs, beaten
- Pinch of salt
- Preheat the oven to 200 C
- Put the water, (milk), butter, (sugar) and salt into a small sauce pan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring for the butter to melt.
- Once boiled, take off the heat immediately. Too much boiling will evaporate some of the water.
- Tip in the flour immediately and quickly stir with a wooden spoon until it comes smoothly together.
- Return to a medium heat, continue to stir for about a minute, until the mixture no longer sticks to the pan.
- Remove from the heat and gradually beat in the egg to the mixture, little by little, incorporate thoroughly before adding some more.
- Continue whisking until you have a smooth, glossy paste. This process might take a while and require quite a bit of effort, so be patient, it will come together eventually.
- All that’s left to do is to pipe into choux buns, or simply spoon it onto the baking sheet. Use a wet finger to lightly smooth the choux surface.
- Bake at 200 C for about 10 minutes, then increase the temperature to 220 and bake for a further 15-20 minutes until the buns are puffy, crisp and golden in colour. Note: remember DO NOT be tempted to open the oven while baking.
- Once they’re done, take the puffs out and poke a small hole in the side or at the bottom of each one to let out the steam. Left cool on a rack and they’re good to go.
Crème Patissière (adapted from Raymond Blanc)
- 400ml whole milk
- 1tsp vanilla extract
- 4 large egg yolks
- 75g caster sugar
- 25g plain flour
- 25g cornflour
- Put the milk and vanilla into a saucepan, bring to a boil and let simmer for about 5 minutes. Turn off heat and left cool.
- Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolk and sugar until pale and light in colour. It took me about 6-7 minutes whisking by hand.
- Whisk in the flour and cornflour till incorporated.
- Pour the warm milk into the egg mixture, whisking continuously to avoid lumpy mixture.
- Pour the mixture back into the saucepan, bring back to a boil over a medium heat for about 1 minute, still whisking continuously.
- Take off the heat and whisk a bit more until the mixture thickens into a nice, smooth and golden cream.
- Sprinkle some caster sugar over the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Leave to cool
To assemble to choux à la crème, you could do 2 ways:
- Spoon the crème into a piping bag and pipe them into the choux pastry
- Cut open the pastry in half, and pipe the crème inside
Dust with powdered sugar and serve.
The most common problems with choux are such that they don’t rise at all, or they just collapse once taken out of the oven. In fact, I made two batches of choux pastry the other day, with the two recipes that I found, and while one rose perfectly, one simply collapsed and had burnt bottom.
So, one painful lesson: Choux pastry is really easy to make, and equally easy to fail. Mainly the reasons are:
- Too much boiling which results in insufficient water necessary for the pastry to rise. Once boiled, take off the heat immediately and at the same time, tip in the flour
- Insufficient or excess beating of flour and milk, butter before adding eggs. At this step, you only need to beat enough until the mixture comes off the side of the pan
- Not enough beating with the eggs. How do you know when the eggs are well incorporated? Well, take a spoonful of mixture and let it drop. It will drop into large patches and form a V-shape like this:
- Baking at too low temperature and remove the pastry too soon. Preheat well (about 10 minutes before) and do not open the oven door while baking. The pastry is done when they are light, crispy and golden looking.
- Bake in several batches (This was exactly what the lazy me did). The steam generated will cause the pastry to crack.
These are all the information that I’ve collected from several sites and books such as Joy of baking, The Science of Cooking (Peter Barham is a professor at Bristol Uni, all the more reason to love the book ^^), … and my own experience. It might, or might not be correct, so any comment or correction would be much appreciated : )