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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Demistifying Choux


I admit I have abandoned this blog and used it just to read other people's posts, but this time I'm determined (well, at least for now) to diligently update my blog. Hopefully this time my determination will last longer than last time :p

For my new beginning, I want to start by discussing my love-hate relationship with pate a choux a.k.a. cream puff or eclair. My family absolutely love cream puffs so I often bake them for snacks or after-meal dessert. The mother of all cream puffs to me is Beard Papa's Japanese-style cream puff with thin crispy shell and generous creamy vanilla filling and I use it as a standard when I judge my homemade puffs. Although I think I have found a recipe for the vanilla filling that's on par with Beard Papa's, I'm still in a quest of finding the right pate a choux recipe. I have tried many recipes from books, blogs, recipe websites; some of them are okay, but a lot of them result in disappointment. They are either too flat, too dense, too doughy, or not hollow enough. I never take pictures of the failed puffs I've made, but trust me there are plenty.

How come pate a choux is so difficult to master? Actually, if you look at the ingredients and instructions for making cream puff or eclair, they all seem quite innocent. No hard-to-find ingredients or complicated baking techniques. Most recipes start with the same components: some kind of liquid, butter, flour, eggs, sometimes salt or sugar. What makes them different?

1. The type of liquid
A lot of recipes insist in using milk to get more flavor into the pate a choux dough, while others argue that the fat and protein in the milk disturbs gluten formation so using water is better. According to my experience, recipes with half milk and half water works best because you get the richness and flavor from milk while water helps with gluten formation.

2. The type of flour
Most recipes only call for all-purpose flour, but the more successful recipes use part bread flour and part pastry flour. The higher gluten content in bread flour enables the dough to absorb more eggs, which add moisture to the dough, and thus helps more steam to form during baking resulting in better expansion.

3. The amount of eggs
I think this is what makes or breaks your pate a choux. Too much egg, your dough will be too soft so it will not rise properly and stay flat, the inside will be wet and doughy as well. Too little egg will also result in improper rising and your choux will be dense and not hollow as it is supposed to be. You have to judge based on experience whether you have added enough eggs or not. Most of the times I use less than what is stated in the recipes. Remember, it's essential to add the eggs by grams, because your eggs may be different in size with what the recipe writer used. If you add the right amount of eggs, your dough should look like this (Advanced Bread and Pastry by Michael Suas)

As for the cooking techniques, here are some important points:
1. Cook the dough until a skin forms on the surface of your pan then let it cool before you add the eggs.

2. Pipe the dough straight up into a rounded shape for cream puffs or pipe 11-13 centimeter straight lines at a 45 degree angle for eclairs, dab a little of water onto your fingers and smooth out any pointy peaks. You can use either plain round tip or star tip for cream puffs, but for eclairs it is best to use star tip. The ridges created by a star tip allow the dough to expand more uniformly.

3. For cream puffs, put butter cookie disks or craquelin on top of the dough balls to prevent them from cracking and add a little crunch. This is optional, so you can omit this if you like plain cream puff shells.

4. Bake at high temperature first then lower the temperature and bake them until thoroughly cooked will prevent your puffs from deflating when you take them out of the oven.

Pheww, I guess that's all. Below are recipes for my favorite vanilla cream filling and pate a choux (so far), hopefully you will like them as much as I do :)

Craquelin (for cream puffs) - adapted from Eugenie Kitchen
28 g unsalted butter, room temperature
34 g light brown sugar
32 g all-purpose flour

1. In a bowl, mix the butter and sugar together then add the flour.
2. Place the dough in between two pieces of parchment paper and roll it out to 1/8 inch thick.
3. Put the dough sheet in the freezer until your pate a choux is piped.
4. Cut the sheet into circles slightly bigger than your choux balls and place them on top of the balls.
5. Follow the baking instructions for the choux.

Pate a choux - adapted from Chef Eddy
120 g milk
120 g water
5 g salt
10 g granulated sugar
65 g pastry flour
70 g bread flour
210 g eggs, loosely beaten

1. Sift the two types of flour together. Set aside.
2. Bring the milk, water, salt and sugar to a boil in a saucepan.
3. Turn off the heat and add the flour mix immediately until a uniform dough forms.
4. Turn on the heat and stir the dough until a skin forms on the pan surface.
5. Transfer the dough into a mixing bowl and let it cool.
6. With a paddle attachment, mix the dough on medium speed while adding the eggs a little at a time. You will probably need less or more than 210 g. You have added enough eggs when your dough looks like the picture above.
7. Pipe the dough into rounds with a round or star tip on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Place the craquelin disks on top of each dough balls.
8. Bake in a preheated oven at 200 C for 15 minutes, then lower the temperature to 180 C for another 15 minutes. FYI, I use convection oven with no upper heat.
9. Once done, take the puffs out of the oven and let them cool before filling.

Vanilla Cream Filling
2 cups (16 oz) whole milk
85 g granulated sugar
18 g corn starch
4 egg yolks
2 tablespoon unsalted butter
1.5 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
200 g heavy whipping cream

1. Whisk together egg yolks, sugar and corn starch in a mixing bowl.
2. Boil the milk and slowly drizzle it into the yolk mixture while whisking continuously.
3. Return the mixture into the pan and heat it on medium heat until the mixture thickens.
4. Strain the custard into a clean bowl and add in the vanilla paste and butter.
5. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly on top of the custard and let it cool to room temperature.
6. Whip the heavy cream until soft peak and fold it into the custard.
7. Fill the cream puffs with the vanilla filling and store in the fridge until serving.

Pate a choux is very versatile. You can modify the flavor of the shell and fill it with whatever you like, such as cream cheese frosting, fresh fruits, chocolate cream, or even brownies! The possibility is endless, so you can be as creative as you can. I hope this post is informative for you pate a choux aficionados out there. Here are some puffs and eclairs I made recently, enjoy :)