Monday 16 February 2009

It's all about choux, it's all about choux, baby

Today was purely theoretical work so nowt to report on the baking front. However, after the mater posed some questions about choux pastry on the hooter the other day I thought I would do a quick post on that front.

Of course, I am not a qualified patisserie teacher - but apart from anything else it'll be good revision for me to gather together all the choux tips I've received in the last month and let those that are interested have a sniff.

So here is as much as I can remember. There's a lot of extra guff I'll put in notes for those that are interested in the details. If anyone spots mistakes, please let me know so I can alter the misinformation.

[PS Now I have finished writing the below it turns out there's a LOT of bumpf. I wanted to be as complete as my current knowledge would allow. If you are new to choux pastry just ignore the nitty gritty and have a bash. I've found it to be much more forgiving than many other kinds of pastry.]

Essential choux
Choux pastry is characterised by its moisture. In this sense it is more of a thick batter than a pastry. It is this moisture locked into the pastry which evaporates on cooking to cause the typical voluminosity.

Another feature of choux pastry is that it is effectively cooked twice: once on the gas (or induction plate &c.) and then in the oven. A similar pastry was recorded in a Roman cookbook over 2000 years ago. It's a beast with heritage.

A typical recipe
1kg water
400g butter
15g salt
30g sugar
600g flour
900g eggs

- A little goes a long way. All this was done with half the above recipe and room to spare. Normally in class we make a 1/4 litre (i.e. a quarter of the quantities above) which will do a large baking sheet and a half of chouquettes or, if I remember correctly, 21 eclairs comfortably.

- Most choux pastry recipes will be similar but the ratios of ingredients may be slightly different.

- Some recipes replace all or some of the water with milk. Due to its fat content, milk produces a more melt in the mouth effect but it also colours more in the oven and will soften more quickly once out of the oven.

- Some recipes do not have any sugar. A non-sweetened pastry can still be used for sweet dishes like eclairs.

- Some recipes add a small quantity of cheese e.g. 50g gruyère for a savoury pastry.

Making the pastry

I recommend weighing all the ingredients before starting.

1. Bring the water, butter, salt and sugar to a rollicking boil in a decent saucepan.
  • NB This means the butter can come straight out of the fridge. Chunking it will save you time.
  • NB2 This is a good moment to sieve the flower. At school we always sieve onto a large sheet of greaseproof paper which is very practical both in terms of avoiding spillage and for later wielding what has been sieved.
  • NB3 This phase can be done directly in the metal bowl of your mixer. Just plonk it on the gas.

2. Lob in the flour and with an Exoglass spatula (or wooden spoon) mix thoroughly.
  • NB Some people recommend doing this off the heat but in my brief experience this makes no difference what-so-bloody-ever. It should be very quick, after all.
  • NB2 Some people recommend adding a little flour at a time to avoid lumps. We do the whole canoodle in one go, never have lumps and this also has the advantage of ensuring all the flour is equally cooked.

3. Dry out the mixture on a decent flame.
  • NB This is a rather crucial stage. Effectively you are dehydrating the mixture a little. Later, the moisture lost in this stage will be replaced with the eggs. The reason you have these two stages is to give the sought texture... initially, the water swells the flour and lets it cook at a temperature which would coagulate the eggs if they had already been added.
NB2 There is no exact time for this drying out. Some people say 3mins but this might be too long or too short depending on many factors such as the quality of flour, the conduction of your saucepan &c. One guide is to wait until the pastry comes away neatly from the sides of the pan. My preferred tip is to wait until a decent film forms over the bottom of the pan. There's a fair amount of leeway here.

Pastry at the end of stage 3. You can see the crusty film which lines the pan.

4. Cool the pastry. I.e. take it off the heat and stir.
  • NB If the eggs were added straight away they would start to cook in the pastry so it needs to be reduced in temperature to below 60°.
  • NB2 For this phase, I decant the pastry into the bowl of a mixer and let it turn with the leaf attachment. Not sure what the English is for leaf attachment. In a Kenwood mixer it is the one in the shape of a 'K'. In any case, that which isn't the whisk or the hook. You can equally continue by hand.
  • NB3 No need for a thermometer. Just put your hand on the base of the recipient and wait until it is warm but not hot to the touch.
  • NB4 During this stage the water will continue to evaporate. Indeed, if heating directly in the bowl of the mixer you can proceed thusly: during stage 2 add the flour but use the machine to mix it in... stage 3 will segue automatically with the residual heat in the bowl and no need for additional heating.

5. Add those eggs.
  • NB If you are doing this by hand, easier to beat the eggs a little first to loosen them up.
  • NB2 Add the eggs one at a time. Obviously, if you've just followed NB1 you will no longer 'ave eggs. Whack in the ovulars bit by bit, waiting for the last dose to be fully absorbed before adding more. This makes the absorption of the eggs much quicker nay possible at all, giving a better texture.
  • NB3 Hold back the last egg or so until you have checked the consistency of the dough (see below). The exact quantity of eggs will depend on an intimidating number of factors such as how much you cooked the pastry in step 3. You can add more egg to a stiff dough but cannot rescue one which is liquidite.
  • NB4 As for mixer speed... not too fast. If you go around incorporating air you'll get bubbles in your piping bag that will reek havoc with decent eclairs.

6. Check the consistency.
  • NB Some people find it easier to dress (i.e. pipe/shape) a firmer pastry, others prefer a sloppier (the French say more supple) one. The guide I have been taught which I like is to lift up a big dollop of the pastry on a spatula and let it drip off back into the bowl. It should leave the spatula reluctantly. However, where the pastry tears the bit attached to the spatula should retract into a neat triangle rather than leave a jaggedy edge. Does this make no sense? I'll have to try and take some photos.
Photo as promised showing yon triangle. Caught the chap in the background nicely, too.

7. Best to use the pastry straight away.
  • NB But I have heard of someone who pops it in a piping bag and keeps it overnight in the fridge. I have untried and untested this idea.

I had been going to spew forth on the tips I've received for dressing and cooking ze patte but this post is already far too long and I ain't even got any photos. So... to be continued.

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