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Pate Choux for a Parisian Picnic

August 7, 2011
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Last Sunday Lori and I sat down to discuss our next party and came to a surprisingly quick agreement over the theme ‘Parisian Picnic’.  For some reason I can’t get my mind off of tarts (both sweet and savory), and she had just finished ‘A Sweet Life in Paris’ by the pastry chef David Leibovitz.  So, we were both excited to start researching more French recipes and planning a menu of French picnic fare.  I have had my nose buried in cookbooks all week and I have to say I am getting a little worried about our butter budget!  I also know that we are going to have a really hard time sifting through recipes and making the final cut for our menu.  How do you choose from so much chocolaty, buttery and almond-y goodness?  It will be hard.  Anyway, I had thought this weekend, visiting my family, would be a great time to revisit some of my favorite French pastry techniques.  I know my family appreciates dessert and a family party seemed like a great excuse to practice making eclairs, made with a paté choux, which is a really easy but rewarding recipe.  I guess I didn’t take into account that my family contains two relatively recent arrivals and even a simple recipe might not be so easy to finish.  With one child glued to my hip I struggled to get all the components of my eclairs together.  Babe in arms, I measured and stirred, beat and piped the choux pastry and managed to get it in the oven.  What would have normally taken about 20 minutes took over an hour and I still had to prepare the basic custard for the filling and a chocolate ganache to drizzle over the top.  The choux pastry puffed beautifully (which it always miraculously does) and I got  them out of the oven in time to avoid burning them.  The custard and the ganache were a different story, though.  We left the house with warm, not quite set custard and nothing but a bag of chocolate chips and the fading hopes that I would be able to make a ganache topping.  In the end the eclairs were a hit even if the custard wasn’t quite set and I had to resign myself to using plain old melted chocolate chips instead of ganache for the topping.  In fact, they were such a hit that I could barely snap a photo before they disappeared.  So, sorry about my less than perfect picture of my less than perfect eclairs!  I figure it is a great opportunity, though, to encourage those of you who have never attempted to make a paté choux to give it a try.  It is easy and adaptable.  But if you are a parent you might want to fore go the custard and ganache in favor of store bought ice cream and Hersheys’s syrup the way my mom did when I was growing up.

Paté choux is the pastry base for eclairs, cream puffs, and gougerés and is similar to the dough used in French crullers and Spanish churros.   The proportions for the ingredients are so easy that they are hard to forget.  For each one cup of flour, you use one cup of water and/or milk and one stick of butter, seasoning accordingly with salt and/or sugar.  To this you add four eggs, one at a time.  If you are making savory gougerés you can add up to a cup of grated cheese along with chopped herbs.  If you haven’t made any of these before, the process may seem a bit unusual, but it is fairly simple.  The dough starts on the stove top rather than a mixing bowl, where milk or water (they are fairly interchangeable) is brought to a boil with butter and a bit of salt and maybe sugar to taste.  The boiling mixture is removed from the heat and you dump the flour in, stirring rapidly to incorporate the flour into the liquid.  The dough comes together, forming a smooth ball, not at all unlike homemade playdough.  Left to sit and cool just slightly the dough is ready for the eggs.  As you add each egg the dough will look a bit curdled as it is incorporated, but  it will become a smooth paste in the end.  Different recipes will give different directions as far as how much to beat the eggs, whether to use water or milk, and how much to let the mixture cool before adding the eggs.  I have found the recipe to be fairly flexible.  Baking times and temperature vary from recipe to recipe as well, with some recipes directing the reader to leave the puffs in the receding heat of an over that has been turned off.  Other recipes just have you lower the temp half way through.  400 degrees the whole time seems to produce reliably good puffs.   The recipe can easily be doubled, even tripled, though don’t quadruple it because it may be too hard to beat in the eggs.  You can scoop or pipe mounds of the dough onto a parchment lined baking sheet (or pipe long fingers for eclairs), leaving plenty of room for their airy expansion.  They have a tendency to burn on the bottom so you need to rotate the sheets between the top and bottom rack of your oven.  Take care not to rotate them before they are all the way expanded, though,  because they can deflate. Once they are removed from the oven and cooled they are a vehicle for almost anything you can dream of, sweet or savory.  Cut off the tops and fill them with your favorite taste combo.  These are great for parties too, because you can freeze the cooked and cooled puffs and reheat them just before serving.   For a holiday party a few years ago, Lori and I cooked up hundreds of petite puffs.  Half contained lemon curd and were topped by a dark chocolate ganache.  The others were filed with pumpkin custard and covered with a caramel pecan topping.  They all disappeared quickly.   So make these for a special party or for a family dessert, either way they will be a simple treat.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Kristin Richards permalink
    August 7, 2011 9:37 pm

    I am extremely upset I didn’t get to try the eclairs. You made them sound delish! Your direction and encouragement have me thinking about trying to make them myself. I will let you know what happens 🙂

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