As a kid, I always look forward to birthday parties and family gatherings because my aunt would definitely bring along two types of sweets: mini chocolate cupcakes with colourful sprinkles and mini cream puffs.
I would always stuff my face with these bite-sized treats, alternating between the two because I cannot decide which I prefer.
I grew up and wanted to make some of my own. I attempted a recipe for éclairs from Dorie Greenspan’s Paris Sweets. Unfortunately, I did not achieve the éclair that I was looking for. The results were quite the contrary; they looked pretty golden and puffed but they sunk after cooling out of the oven. Amid disappointment, I realised that making a good choux pastry is not that simple and in fact very technical.
Hence, I decided to write this post going back to the basics of making choux pastry because choux pastry is the genesis of so many French desserts like éclairs, paris-brest and croquembouche and also savoury bites like gougères (cheese puffs).
First, let’s understand how choux pastry bakes. Choux pastry leavens by steam. The huge amount of liquid in the choux paste evaporates to steam, expanding the egg protein, causing the rise in the puffs. Choux pastry must be baked well to ensure that the interior walls are dry. Even the slightest moisture will cause the shells to collapse when they are removed from the oven.
I actually bake my choux pastry at a lower temperature for a prolonged period of time unlike many choux recipes. This surprisingly works. I can assure you. They puff up beautiful, dry out and take on a lovely amber brown colour. And even after you take it out of the oven, it retains its beautiful puffed form.
My Cantonese grandma came up with her own name for these cream puffs. She can’t quite pronounce “cream puffs” and insists on calling them “Tin fa” which very loosely translates to “sky puffs/cloud puffs”. I thought that it’s funny yet very apt for these light, fluffy, cloud-like goodness.
She only loves this as much as I do. I love them best when they are simple, not when they are filled with mysterious or fancy flavours but the traditional kind filled with a smooth, rich creme patisserie speckled with vanilla bean. Those are simply the best.
Pâte à choux (Choux Pastry) Recipe
Adapted from Stéphane Glacier’s recipe
Makes 20 large choux pastries or 40 small ones.
I like this recipe as it gives me consistent results every single time. They puff well and retain their puff and not become soggy and deflated unlike some of the puffs that I see being sold. I choose to bake these at a constant (lower) temperature for a longer period of time so that they puff and then dry out nicely. They should have a even amber brown colour when they are done. But don’t use the colour of the choux pastry as the only gauge of doneness. Don’t be afraid to remove a test shell from the oven and tear it apart to see if it’s dry. Only then should you remove the entire batch from the oven.
188ml tap water
65ml full cream milk
100g unsalted butter, cubed
150g plain flour
+/- 150g whole eggs, room temperature
for the egg wash: (or use your preferred egg wash)
1 egg yolk
dash of full cream milk
pinch of salt
1. Prepare trays for baking the choux by greasing it with butter so that they would not stick on the tray.
2. Place water, milk, butter, sugar and salt into a pot and bring it to a rolling boil. It should be bubbling furiously.
3. Remove the pot from the heat or turn down the heat and pour in all the flour at once and stir immediately and vigorously with a wooden spoon/spatula. Ensure that there is no lumps of flour in the *panade. Cook out the mixture over low heat for another 2-3 minutes. You should have a glossy panade that can be formed into a ball that comes away from the sides of the pot easily.
4.Remove the panade and place it into your machine mixer bowl. Using a paddle attachment, put the machine on low speed in order to cool the panade down for about 5 minutes. You wouldn’t want to add in the eggs when the panade is still hot. You may end up scrambling the eggs. Remember that eggs start cooking at 60°C (140°F).
5. When the panade is not hot to touch, with the paddle attachment still on, start adding the eggs one at a time at medium speed (speed 4 on the Kitchenaid mixer). The mixture may look like it has cuddled and split at first but be patient and allow the machine to do its job to emulsify the mixture. It will come back together in a while.
6. Continue adding the eggs until you get a smooth, thick, glossy paste. When you lift up your spatula, it should fall after roughly 3 seconds. It should be able to fall from the spatula on its own but not be too wet that it can’t hold its shape. You may/may not require the entire amount of eggs as stated in the recipe, depending on the consistency of the choux paste.
7. Place choux paste into a piping bag with a plain nozzle/star shaped nozzle. Pipe them as evenly as you can in blobs (like a teardrop). Do not flick the piping bag or when it bakes, it will form ugly cracks and seams and it would not rise neatly and evenly.
8. Egg wash the choux pastry with a brush and at the same time flatten down the little tips. This is to ensure that the tips do not burn.
9. Bake immediately at 180 degrees celcius in a pre-heated oven for about 40-45 minutes. Choux pastry must be thorougly baked. if the sides of the walls are moist, when removed from the oven, steam will condense back into water and the still-wet walls will recoil. This will cause the choux pastry to collapse/ and flattened itself.
10. You can check if the choux pastry shells are properly baked by removing a shell from the oven and tear it apart to see if the entire choux is dry. Only remove the entire batch when they are dry.
11. Fill these choux pastry with crème chantilly or crème patisserrie only after they have cooled completely. You can either slice off the tops with a serrated knife or using toothpick to poke a hole at the bottom of the choux pastry before piping the filling.
Choux pastry tips:
*Ensure that you cut up the butter into small pieces so that they will melt evenly. If you place a whole block in the pot, the water and milk would have boiled and evaporated before your butter has melted.
*Panade is a thick paste of butter, water, and starch, in this case, flour.
*Make sure that you have cooked out the flour in the panade by mixing it immediately and rapidly over low heat. However, the longer you cook the panade, the more eggs you would need to add as you would have cooked out a lot more moisture.
*Add in eggs to the cooled panade one at a time or they will curdle. Do not skip this step. This is also because we may not need all the eggs (or maybe we need a little more eggs) in the recipe. They key is to ensure that the choux pastry is of the correct consistency. Adding too much eggs may cause the batter to be too fluid and unable to hold its shape. This state is irreversible. So be cautious when adding the last of the eggs.
*Do not be afraid of beating the eggs into the panade. You would need to beat them at medium speed for quite a while before they are well-incorporated/emulsified.
*Egg wash the choux pastry before baking for a lovely golden brown colour but ensure that the egg wash does not drip to the tray if not the bottom of the choux pastry would be burnt.
*Bake the choux pastry immediately after you have piped them. And do not open the oven door to check on your choux pastry in the first 20 minutes of baking or it may collapse as the structure of the choux pastry is still unstable.
*These unfilled choux pastry can be stored in an air-tight container in the freezer for a month. You should defrost them by heating them up in a 180 degrees celcius oven for about 5-7 minutes before filling them.
*Once filled with crème patisserie, they should be stored in the fridge and finished within 2-3 days. They are best eaten on the day that they are being filled, after which, they will begin to soften the longer you keep them.