We owe France a big thank you for the pastry known as “choux paste”. With a few ingredients you already have in your pantry and a bit of elbow grease you have the base for a number of classic French pastries that include éclairs, beignets, profiteroles, cheese gougères, gnocchi, and my favorite, cream puffs.
It’s a pretty simple technique, eggs are beaten into a hot thick paste made from water, flour and butter. The dough is piped or formed onto baking sheets and steam from the moisture in the paste creates a dramatic rise. When split, a hollow cavity inside is perfect for any filling you can imagine. Classic cream puffs are filled with either a rich vanilla pastry cream (my preference) or flavored whipped cream. Recipes for the basic puff paste and the vanilla pastry cream follow.
1/2 cup (70 grams) all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon granulated white sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) (57 grams) unsalted butter
1/2 cup (120 ml) water
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (205 degrees C) and place rack in center of oven. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a bowl sift together the flour, sugar and salt. Set aside.
Place the butter and water in a heavy saucepan over medium heat and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and, with a wooden spoon or spatula, quickly add the flour mixture. Return to heat and stir constantly until the dough comes away from the sides of the pan and forms a thick smooth ball (about a minute or two).
Transfer the dough to your electric mixer, or with a hand mixer, and beat on low speed a minute or two to release the steam from the dough. Once the dough is lukewarm start adding the lightly beaten eggs and continue to mix until you have a smooth thick paste. Spoon or pipe 12 mounds of dough onto the baking sheet, spacing them a couple of inches apart.
Bake for 15 minutes and then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F (177 degrees C). Bake for a further 30 to 40 minutes or until the shells are a nice amber color and when split, are dry inside. Turn the oven off and, with the oven door slightly ajar, let the shells dry out for a further 10 – 15 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool on a wire rack.
Rich Pastry Cream Filling
1 1/4 cups (300 ml) whole milk or light cream
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
3 large egg yolks
1/4 cup (50 grams) granulated white sugar
1/8 cup (20 grams) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons liquer (rum is very nice but optional)
In a medium-sized stainless steel bowl, mix the sugar and egg yolks together. Sift the flour and cornstarch together and then add to the egg mixture, mixing until you get a smooth paste. Set aside.
Meanwhile in a saucepan combine the milk and split vanilla bean on medium heat until boiling. Remove from heat and add slowly to egg mixture, whisking constantly to prevent curdling. (If you get a few pieces of egg (curdling) in the mixture, pour through a strainer.) Remove vanilla bean, scrape out seeds, and add the seeds to the egg mixture.
Place the egg mixture back into a medium saucepan and cook over medium heat until boiling, whisking constantly. When it boils, whisk mixture constantly for another 30 – 60 seconds until it becomes very thick and it is hard to stir. Stir in the optional liquer if using.
Pour into a clean bowl and immediately cover the surface with plastic wrap to prevent a crust from forming. Cool. If not using right away refrigerate until needed, up to 3 days. Beat before using to get rid of any lumps that may have formed. Use to fill cream puffs, éclairs, tarts, etc.