by Jamie Schler
MON PETIT CHOU: A Love Affair with the Perfect Treat
Chou: cream puff, a type of pastry
Chouchou: teacher’s pet
Mon petit chou: my little sweetheart, darling
It’s funny how one single food ties my old, American childhood to my new adult life in France. This one food, the perfect choux, was a favorite, one my father would make, light and airy, crispy and golden on the outside, so ethereal on the inside. He would shape them into perfect, saucer-sized rounds, bake them until they were puffed up into pillows and lovingly fill each one with thick, creamy pudding, chocolate, vanilla or pistachio. The almost flavorless choux puff was the perfect casing for the flavorful filling, tempering the sweetness and adding texture to the smooth creaminess of the pudding, and quickly became my most loved sweet treat of all that my father baked for us. My dear old dad passed away a mere two months before I married my French sweetheart (mon petit chou) and as I prepared to join my soon-to-be husband, I pulled the carefully clipped recipe off the refrigerator in my parents’ house, my childhood home, where it had been taped for decades, words and image now faded with time and handling, and tucked it lovingly and ever so carefully amongst my few worldly possessions in my suitcase and carried it with me across the ocean to France.
I nervously made the choux for my wedding lunch only a few months later, but using them as the base of a savory dish, filling the huge puffs with garden fresh, homemade ratatouille, as memorable as the sweet version. And over the years and across time and distance, I have baked choux using this same recipe, following in my father’s footsteps, over and over again from the same scrap of paper, and each and every time the choux have turned out light and ethereal, golden and just crispy bites that melt in the mouth. They are part of the profiteroles that I make for my younger son, his favorite dessert, filling the puffs with scoops of vanilla ice cream and smothering the whole under a gush of warm, rich, chocolate sauce. I have filled them with thick, sweet pastry cream, vanilla, chocolate or pistachio, as my dad filled his with the same trio of pudding, dusting them with a shower of powdered sugar. Or choux à la crème, my husband’s absolute favorite, choux puffs filled to overflowing with thick, fresh, cool heavy cream whipped into billows of just-sweetened Chantilly.
Choux à la crème
Petite patisserie soufflée, my Larousse Gastronomique describes this tiny mouthful of baked dough: small pastry puff. Cooked twice, once in a saucepan and once in the oven, the perfect puff pastry is indeed a mystery: how can something so simple, a mixture of water, butter, flour and eggs, just a thickened, dried roux moistened with eggs, something so plain and “white bread” be transformed into such a quirky, ethereal confection, becoming a dessert so ambrosial or an hors-d’oeuvre so divine? Nothing is quite as impressive nor quite so festive as the simple choux bun filled in so many ways, decorated as the occasion calls for; the choux, whether sweet or savory, makes a delicate, elegant treat, one tiny bite of crispy blandness encasing a surprising burst of flavor and texture, the perfect dessert or the ideal appetizer to accompany a favorite wine or a glass of Champagne. Pick up one single choux and pop it into your mouth, the delicate little shell keeps the fingers clean, nary a drop of creamy filling to smear across the crystal flute; break off a morsel of shell and use it to scoop up the last of a sauce or the final lick of ice cream, dessert and utensil in one delicious combination.
No modern creation, the invention of this tiny pastry is attributed to Penterelli, a pastry chef to Catherine de Medici whose Italian kitchen transformed the French culinary world in the 16th century. His successor, Popelini, picking up where Penterelli left off, assured his own fame with his creation of le popelin around 1540, a gateau based on Penterelli’s pâte à chaud (a pastry dough dried on the flame). It wasn’t until around 1760 that the recipe was perfected and the name pâte à choux (choux puff pastry or dough) was adopted. But such a creation never goes out of style, such perfection never consigned to some dark, forgotten spot in culinary history. Rather little by little, it is updated and modernized over time, inspiring the birth of so many delicacies, sweet treats and culinary concoctions.
Croquembouche: Choux-filled with Pastry Cream
For many, pâte à choux – choux puff pastry dough – like so many confections (think pastry cream, ganache, béchamel, for example) is a mystery best left unsolved, something so complicated and fussy, so temperamental that the thought of attempting it is never considered. Many imagine pâte à choux, as impressive as the end result is, to be beyond our own capacity and better left to the professionals. But as I always told myself, if my father, whose usual repertoire of baked goods started their life as boxed mixes, could master the recipe and turn out platter after platter of perfect choux puffs then so could I! And as it was for my first pastry cream, béchamel, soufflé and even macarons, making choux was one of the easiest things I have ever baked. Once one masters the recipe and the technique, the uses for choux are wonderful and endless, as one can see in the multitude of traditional French pastries based on choux: both the sweet Croquembouche, éclairs, Paris-Brest, Saint-Honoré, and the sugar-studded chouquettes, and the savory Gougères, Pommes Dauphines and Gnocchis à la Parisienne. And with one recipe, one baking tray of these little babies, I can divide them up and make each of my men happy by preparing profiteroles for the persnickety one, éclairs for the gourmand and choux à la crème for my romantic one.
Profiteroles with Warm Chocolate Sauce
Following my father’s recipe, these choux come out just as they should each and every time.
PÂTE À CHOUX
Choux Pastry Dough
1 cup (250 ml) water
1/2 cup (8 Tbs, 115 g) unsalted butter
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup (140 g) flour
4 large eggs
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Grease a large cookie sheet or line it with oven-safe parchment paper.
In a large saucepan, over medium heat, heat the water, butter and salt until the butter melts and the mixture comes just to a boil. Remove from the heat and add the flour all at once. With a wooden spoon, stir vigorously until the mixture forms a ball and pulls away from the sides of the pot. Return to a low flame and cook, drying the dough, for another minute or two.
Scrape this ball into a large mixing bowl and, stirring, allow to cool for a minute or two. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each with either a wooden spoon or a whisk, whichever is easier, until mixture is well blended, smooth and creamy.
Using a teaspoon (or tablespoon for larger puffs), scoop up mounds of the dough and carefully push the dough off onto the prepared cookie sheet, using your finger or a rubber spatula. They will rise and almost double in size, so leave a space between the puffs. If it is easier, a pastry bag with a large, plain tip can also be used.
If you like a deeper golden color to the choux, simply lightly brush and dab the tops of the spoonfuls of dough with egg wash (1 egg lightly beaten with a pinch of salt).
Bake for 35 minutes for the small puffs, up to 10 minutes more for larger puffs, until risen and just barely golden. Working very quickly, open the oven and, with a sharp knife, make a small slit in the side of each puff to allow steam to escape — I also use this opportunity to turn my cookie sheets around back to front, as my oven heats quicker in the back – then bake them for about 5 more minutes or until golden brown on top and underneath. If undercooked, the choux may collapse when cooled.
Remove the baking sheet from the oven, replacing this batch with the next if baking more than one tray, and allow to cool on a rack (if baking the puffs on sheets of parchment or oven paper, simply slide the paper off of the hot baking sheet onto the cooling rack).
These choux turn out very light and airy, moist, not hard as cardboard as we unfortunately find too often in restaurants. If you like them a bit dryer, just leave them longer in the oven.
WARM CHOCOLATE SAUCE
The best chocolate sauce you will ever taste! For profiteroles! From Recettes Faciles by Françoise Bernard.
4.5 oz (125 g) best dark chocolate, broken or chopped coarsely*
2 Tbs (30 g) unsalted butter
2 Tbs water
*70% dessert chocolate; a bittersweet chocolate sauce complements the sweetness of the ice cream perfectly!
Put the chocolate, butter and water into a small saucepan over low to medium-low heat. Stir constantly until you have a smooth, creamy sauce. Spoon this very thick sauce over the Profiteroles while still hot. If the chocolate sauce begins to cool and harden before you have a chance to serve dessert, simply reheat slowly and gently over a low flame.
Allow 3 choux per person. With a very sharp, preferably serrated knife, carefully slice through the choux a little more than halfway up, leaving a bottom “cup” and a top “hat”.
Place a scoop of ice cream on each bottom half, then cap it with the top. Arrange the three choux on a dessert plate and pour the Warm Chocolate Sauce over the Profiteroles before serving.
If it’s drama you want, pour the Sauce slowly over the choux in front of your guest (watch as eyes begin to tear up and hear the low groans of ecstasy as the anticipation mounts), drizzling the fragrant, steamy chocolate in a lazy swirl around and over each puff. Add whipped cream if you are feeling really decadent.
Pastry Cream: Vanilla, Chocolate, Coffee or Pistachio
For the Vanilla Crème Patissière:
1 cup (225 ml.) whole milk (I use 2% low fat)
2 Tbs cornstarch
6 Tbs (100 g) sugar
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
2 Tbs (30 g.) unsalted butter (at room temperature makes it easier)
1 tsp vanilla extract
Dissolve the cornstarch in ¼ cup (about 60 ml) of the milk in a large mixing bowl; whisk until smooth and there are no lumps. Combine the remaining milk with the sugar in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and remove from heat.
Beat the whole egg, then the yolks into the cornstarch mixture. Pour 1/3 of boiling milk into the egg mixture in a slow stream, whisking constantly so that the eggs do not begin to cook. Add the rest of the hot milk to the egg mixture then return all of it back to the casserole and return to the heat.
Continue whisking (this is important – you do not want the eggs to solidify/cook) until the cream thickens and comes just to a boil. Remove from the heat and beat/whisk in the butter and vanilla.
Pour the pastry cream into a heatproof Pyrex or stainless steel bowl. Press plastic wrap firmly against the surface. Chill immediately and until ready to use.
For Chocolate Pastry Cream:
Bring ¼ cup (about 60 ml) milk just to the boil in a small saucepan; remove from heat and stir in 3 ounces (about 80 g) finely chopped semisweet chocolate; whisk or stir until smooth. Whisk into the vanilla pastry cream when you add the butter and vanilla.
For Coffee Pastry Cream:
Dissolve 1 ½ teaspoons instant espresso powder in 1 ½ teaspoons boiling water. Whisk into the vanilla pastry cream with the butter and vanilla.
For Pistachio Pastry Cream:
Finely grind about 2 oz (55 – 60 g) green, unsalted pistachio nuts into either a very fine powder or a paste (depending on the power of your robot) then stir or whisk into the cooled vanilla pastry cream. Refrigerate again, allowing the pistachios to infuse the pastry cream with both flavor and color.
To fill the Choux with Pastry Cream:
Simply scoop the pastry cream into a pastry bag with a small, plain tip, pierce a small hole in the bottom or side of each puff and gently push just the end of the tip into the hole and fill with the cream.
With such a fun name as “Nun’s Farts”, who would not want to make these delicate little fried puffs? Simply push spoonfuls of the prepared pâte à choux into boiling oil (like frying donuts) and watch them puff up and float lazily to the surface. Push them gently around and up and over until they are plump and a deep golden color all over, just a few minutes, then scoop them up with a slotted spoon and let them drain quickly on paper toweling. Then while they are still sizzling hot, dust them with a shower of powdered sugar and pop them one at a time into your mouth for an incredible treat. Ah, the magic of choux dough!