Weekend Project: Introduction to Pâte à Choux

Do you like éclairs? What about profiteroles, cream puffs, and cheesy gougères? Aside from making us drool just thinking about them, the one thing all these pastries have in common is that they're made from pâte à choux. Think you can't make them at home? We beg to differ! What is Pâte à Choux?

Pâte à choux, or choux paste, is a paste of flour, water, butter, and eggs. After the paste has been prepared, it gets piped out into various shapes and baked. The liquid in the dough puffs up the pastry as it evaporates in the oven, creating a hard outer shell and a moist interior with large air pockets.

You never really serve pâte à choux by itself. Other ingredients get added to the dough to make it more flavorful or the baked puffs get filled with pastry cream, ice cream, or other filling.

Basic Formula

This same recipe is used for all the recipes mentioned in the intro and many others. Other ingredients, like cheese, are sometimes added to make the pastry itself more flavorful, but the base recipe is as follows:

4 ounces (1/2 cup) butter
1 cup flour
1 cup water
4 eggs
pinch of salt

This can be easily remembered as simply 4:1:1:4, and the recipe can be doubled or even tripled as needed.

Steps for Preparing Pâte à Choux

1. In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the water, butter, and pinch of salt to a rolling boil.

2. Add the flour all at once. Remove the pan from heat and stir the mixture until the water has been fully absorbed and it looks like mashed potatoes.

3. Set the pan back over medium-high heat and stir the paste vigorously to dry it out slightly. This should take about 3-5 minutes and you know the paste is ready when it glistens slightly and a spoon can stand straight up in the middle without falling over.

4. Remove the pan from heat and transfer the mash to a mixing bowl. Let it cool to room temperature. You can speed up the cooling process by stirring and folding the mash.

5. Beat the eggs together and then stir them into the mash in four separate additions. Make sure the egg has been absorbed completely into the paste before adding the next addition. After you've added all the eggs, you'll know things are good if you scoop a little onto a spoon, hold the spoon upside down, and you see the paste sliding and drooping a little. If it's still as stiff as mashed potatoes, add another egg.

How to Bake Pâte à Choux

Pre-heat the oven to 425°.

Pipe the mash onto sheet pans into your desired shape and brush them with egg wash. Put the pans in the oven and immediately lower the heat to 375°. Bake until the dough is puffed, golden brown, and hard to the touch (cooking time will depend on the shape being baked).

Lower the heat to 300° and continue baking for another ten minutes or so to dry them out. You can test this by breaking one open and checking the interior. If the interior is still very wet and eggy, bake them for another few minutes.

After taking them from the oven, poke each pastry with a toothpick so that steam can escape. Un-poked pastries will trap the steam and get soggy. Let the pastries cool completely before filling them.

Ideas for Fillings:

Pastry Cream
Lemon Curd or Tangerine Curd
Vanilla Ice Cream - or any of the other great ice creams from our archives
Fresh Ricotta with Honey
Crab or Shrimp Salad

And that's all there is to making pastries with choux paste! It's one of those things that we almost never think of making at home, but is actually pretty straightforward and easy.

Have you ever made pastries with pâte à choux at home? Any pointers?

Related: What's the Most Complicated Recipe You've Made?

(Images: Flickr members georgie_grd, The Bitten Word (second and third images), and kerinin licensed under Creative Commons)