Q: Last time I made pate a choux for chocolate eclairs, I used the same recipe that I've used for 30 years. But for some reason, they did not puff up as expected. Any thoughts on what went wrong?
—Tom Gull, Oak Park
A: A quick call got Tom Gull's basic recipe: Heat 1 cup water, 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, 1/4 teaspoon salt; stir in 1 cup flour. Remove from heat, beat in 4 eggs. Bake at 375 degrees for 50 minutes. It's hard to say what exactly went wrong without tasting your eclairs but I did ask some sources who know their way around a pate a choux dough to take a stab at guessing what might have happened.
Dorie Greenspan, the baking authority who divides her time between New York, Paris and Westbrook, Conn., thought your water-only version may be derived from an old-time choux pastry recipe. She prefers to add milk to the dough for a bit of richness. She also questioned the 50-minute baking time, wondering if that was too long. Generally, she likes to bake choux pastry for 30 to 35 minutes but noted longer time might be needed if you make larger eclairs.
Let's take a quick moment here to define for other readers what pate a choux is and what it's used for. Pate a choux pastry is "the only one I can think of that is cooked and then baked: you make a cooked mixture of milk, water, butter, and flour before you add the eggs and bake it,'' Greenspan wrote in her book, "Around My French Table," In a telephone interview from Connecticut, she explained the water, milk and butter in the choux dough release steam during the baking, puffing the dough up. The egg, she said, adds flavor and gives structure and support to the expanding dough as it bakes.
Choux is used in a number of ways, to make desserts like eclairs, cream puffs, profiteroles and savories like the cheese-flavored gougeres. Baked choux may be stuffed with some sort of filling and/or topped with a sauce or icing.
Making a choux pastry is relatively easy but there are some tricks to consider.
Eagranie Yuh, a food writer, chemist and chocolate expert based in Vancouver, B.C., recommends making sure the batter is relatively dry after mixing on the stove top. A soggy dough won't puff as much, she said, describing the ideal choux dough as feeling like a stiff, sticky paste and looking satiny and shiny.
Greenspan said it is important to move quickly once the dough is made.
"Pate a choux is best shaped and baked while it is warm,'' she said. "Make it, pipe it, bake it. Or, make it, pipe it, freeze it. Don't let it sit." Also, make sure your oven is good and hot. Greenspan said you need a high temperature to give the dough a "spring" as it begins .
While the choux can be baked hours ahead, as she writes in an article on cream puffs in the May issue of "Bon Appetit" magazine, it's best to fill them "right before serving for the best texture and temperature contrast."
Cream puff dough
Dorie Greenspan's choux recipe from her book, "Around My French Table," can be used for sweets or savories. While this recipe makes 24 cream puffs, Greenspan notes the dough can be "spooned out small, so you've got bite-sized treats, or big, so that you can fill the puffs with enough salad to call it lunch or enough whipped cream and berries to call it a party." Place the shaped choux dough on lined baking sheets and put in an oven heated to 425 degrees. Immediately turn the temperature down to 375 degrees; bake for 12 minutes. Rotate the baking sheets in the oven, continue baking until the puffs are golden, firm and puffed, about 15 to 18 minutes more.
1/2 cup each: whole milk, water
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
1 tablespoon sugar (if you are making something sweet)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup flour
4 large eggs, room temperature
1. Bring the milk, water, butter, sugar (if you are using it), salt to a rapid boil in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan over high heat. Add the flour all at once, lower the heat to medium-low, immediately start stirring energetically with a wooden spoon or heavy whisk. The dough will come together and a light crust will form on the bottom of the pan. Keep stirring vigorously for another minute or two to dry the dough. The dough should be very smooth.
2. Turn the dough into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or into a bowl you can mix with a hand mixer or a wooden spoon. Let the dough sit for a minute, then add the eggs one by one and beat until the dough is thick and shiny. Make sure that each egg is completely incorporated before you add the next. Once the dough is made, use immediately, baking or freezing the shaped puffs.
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