First, a French friend brings a spectacular homemade dessert to dinner. It's a Paris-Brest -- a large ring of choux paste sliced horizontally, filled with praline pastry cream and whipped cream and topped with toasted almonds. Next, Thomas Keller opens Bouchon Bakery in the Time Warner Center in New York City, with a whole section on the dessert menu dedicated to pastries made with choux paste, or as it's called in French, pate a choux.
Could a pate a choux revival be coming?
And what is pate a choux, anyway?
Also known as cream puff pastry, choux paste is the basis of eclairs and profiteroles -- that's on the dessert side -- and gougeres (cheese puffs) on the savory side. Though most often baked, it can also be poached (for Parisian gnocchi) or deep fried (for beignets or chichis, the French version of churros).
But choux paste is also the foundation of a panoply of other fabulous desserts. Just ask Sebastien Rouxel, executive pastry chef of Bouchon Bakery and Per Se. Besides classic chocolate eclairs, the retail pastry case at the New York City Bouchon is filled with delicate, cream-filled Chantillys, individual-sized wheel-shaped Paris-Brests and gorgeous little religieuses, named for the color of the fondant icing, which is said to match the color of the robes of French nuns, or religieuses. Irresistible? You bet.
The best news: As sophisticated and delicious as these desserts are, choux pastry couldn't be easier to make at home. Unlike, say, puff pastry, which requires hours and hours of mixing and rolling and chilling and more rolling and chilling -- and may not turn out well if the weather doesn't cooperate -- choux paste can be made in all of about 15 minutes. And it's virtually foolproof.
All you do is bring water, butter, salt (and sometimes sugar) to a boil, dump in flour, stir it in and cook it to "dry" the mixture. Let it cool, then beat in eggs one at a time until the dough is smooth and satiny. That's the choux paste.
Spoon it (for cream puffs or profiteroles) or pipe it (for fancier desserts) onto a baking sheet. Baked at a high temperature -- 400 degrees -- it puffs up dramatically, hollowing out in the process.
All that remains is dressing it up -- by filling it with pastry cream, creme pralinee, ice cream or mousse, dusting with powdered sugar, topping with whipped cream or glazing with fondant. You get the idea.
A pastry present
ROUXEL says that while pate a choux pastries may not loom large in the American imagination, they're a happy reminder of childhood for a Frenchman. "It was like a small present you got from your parents," he says, recalling treats such as Chantillys or eclairs.
Rouxel's version of the Chantilly veers from the traditional swan shape; instead it looks rather like a miniature basket. Though traditional Chantillys are made with the whipped cream that gives them their name (creme Chantilly is whipped cream), Rouxel gains tangy complexity by layering vanilla pastry cream with whipped, sweetened creme fraiche.
One of the most amusing -- and impressive -- of choux pastries is the Paris-Brest, a ring-shaped pate a choux filled with praline pastry cream and whipped cream and topped with toasted almonds. Legend has it that the wheel-shaped dessert was created by a pastry chef in honor of a bicycle race between Paris and Brest. Jacques Pepin's "La Technique" cookbook includes a definitive recipe.
Michel Roux, renowned chef at the Waterside Inn in Bray, England, has given choux paste its due in his new cookbook, "Eggs." In it, he offers a recipe for wonderful little choux buns filled with a mousse that marries the unlikely, yet delicious, combination of Drambuie and coffee. Unlike profiteroles, which are sliced open and filled, these buns get their filling piped in through a small hole, so the mousse comes as a charmingly explosive surprise inside. "These little choux buns make a lovely dessert," writes Roux, "but I also like to serve them as a teatime treat." They're finished with a sprinkle of powdered sugar or cocoa.
There are a few tips to keep in mind when making pate a choux. First, add the flour all at once to the water, salt and melted butter and stir it off-heat until it is completely blended. A very important step is to return the pot to the heat and "dry" the puff pastry while beating the paste constantly. You will notice a thin film of cooked dough on the bottom of the pot when the dough is ready. This can take three to six minutes depending on how much paste you are making.
At this point transfer the dough to a bowl. This will prevent any cooked crusty bits from getting into the dough when you add the eggs.
Let the dough cool a few minutes before beating in the eggs to avoid cooking the egg whites. Add the eggs one at a time, beating the mixture with a wooden spoon, whisk or mixer into a smooth batter after each egg is added. This will help to avoid lumpy dough.
The dough can either be spooned or piped onto a buttered and floured baking sheet or parchment paper. Smooth down any peaks or points on the piped dough with a finger dipped in a little cold water so the tips do not burn during baking.
The pastries should be golden brown and crisp when they are done baking. Cut a slit in each cooked puff to allow steam to escape and the puffs will stay crisp.
Cut and fill the pastries just before serving so that the shells don't soften.
Total time: 2 hours, 35 minutes
Note: From "La Technique" by Jacques Pepin. Prepare the creme pralinee while the choux is baking.
Choux pastry ring
1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) butter, cut up
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup flour
5 eggs, divided
Butter and flour for cookie sheet
1 tablespoon sliced almonds
1. Measure 1 cup water, the butter and salt into a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil. When the butter is melted, remove the pan from the heat and add the flour all at once. Stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until completely mixed and blended.
2. Return to the heat and cook and stir over low heat 5 to 6 minutes, to dry the mixture. The dough should be soft and should not stick to your fingers when pinched. The bottom of the pan should be covered with a thin crust, which is an indication that the dough has been sufficiently dried.
3. Transfer the dough to a bowl and let it cool for at least 5 minutes. Add 4 eggs one at a time, beating carefully after each addition so that the mixture is smooth before the next egg is added. The dough should be smooth, shiny and as thick and heavy as mayonnaise.
4. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Coat a cookie sheet with butter and flour. Using a flan ring or any circular mold, mark an outline about 10 inches in diameter.
5. Spoon the pate a choux into a pastry bag. Squeeze out a ring about 1 inch wide following the outline. Squeeze another ring inside the first, then squeeze a ring on top of the others.
6. Brush with remaining egg, lightly beaten. Sprinkle with sliced almonds. Let choux stand about 20 minutes.
7. Bake 45 minutes. Turn off the oven and open the oven partially. Let the ring stand in the oven for 1 hour so it cools and dries.
Creme pralinee and assembly
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons powdered sugar, divided
1/2 cup sliced almonds
2 cups milk
6 egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup flour
Choux pastry ring
1 cup whipping cream, whipped
1. For the nougatine, combine 1 cup powdered sugar and almonds in a heavy saucepan. Stir with a wooden spoon. Place on medium low heat and cook, stirring constantly, until the sugar starts to melt. Since there is no liquid in the mixture, it will take a few minutes, about 3 to 4. As soon as it melts, it will turn rapidly into caramel. As soon as this happens, pour the mixture onto an oiled marble or an oiled tray. When cold, break into pieces and blend into powder in a food processor or blender. Set aside until ready to fold into the creme patissiere.
2. For the creme patissiere, heat the milk to boiling, then set aside. Combine the egg yolks, sugar and vanilla in a bowl and beat with a wire whisk until it forms a ribbon, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the flour and mix thoroughly.
3. Add half the hot milk to the egg mixture and return all to the remaining milk. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. The sauce will thicken as soon as it reaches the boiling point. Reduce the heat and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring constantly to avoid scorching.
4. Pour the creme patissiere into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap to avoid a skin forming on top. Place in an ice water bath to cool. Cool to room temperature. Fold powdered nougatine into creme patissiere.
5. Use a long bladed knife and cut the lid off the choux pastry ring.
6. Whip the cream until stiff. Fold in 1 tablespoon powdered sugar.
7. Fill the bottom part of the ring with creme praline. Pipe slightly sweetened whipped cream over the top of the custard. Place the lid back on top.
8. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon powdered sugar. Cut into wedges with a serrated knife.
Each serving: 354 calories; 8 grams protein; 38 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 19 grams fat; 9 grams saturated fat; 232 mg. cholesterol; 106 mg. sodium.
Bouchon Bakery's Chantillys
Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Note: From Sebastien Rouxel, executive pastry chef at Bouchon Bakery and Per Se
1/2 vanilla bean
2 cups milk
3/4 cup sugar
6 egg yolks
1/3 cup flour
1 tablespoon cold butter, cut up
1. Scrape the seeds from the split vanilla bean into milk in a saucepan. Heat the milk just to a simmer.
2. Whisk the sugar into the egg yolks and beat until pale yellow and a thick ribbon consistency. Whisk in the flour.
3. Add a little of the hot milk to the egg mixture to temper, then stir in remaining hot milk.
4. Strain the hot milk mixture back into a saucepan and return to heat. Heat and stir to boiling. Reduce the heat and simmer about 1 minute or until the pastry cream is shiny and thick.
5. Transfer the hot pastry cream to a mixing bowl. Beat on medium speed, adding 1 tablespoon cold butter bit by bit until the custard is cooled. Cover tightly and chill until cold.
Pate a choux
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 1/3 cups flour
1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Bring 1 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons water, the salt, sugar and butter to a boil over medium high heat.
2. Remove from heat and stir the flour in all at once. Mix well and put back on the stove over high heat. Cook and stir to dry out the paste, 3 to 4 minutes.
3. Transfer the paste to a bowl and let it cool at least 5 minutes.
4. Beat in the eggs one at a time, beating well after each egg is added so it is completely mixed in.
5. Pipe 5- to 6-inch lengths of paste, using a half-inch tip, onto parchment-lined sheet trays. Bake about 30 minutes, until golden brown and crisp.
Chantilly cream and assembly
3 cups cold creme fraiche
9 tablespoons sugar
1 vanilla bean, split in half
1. When ready to assemble, combine the creme fraiche and sugar. With the tip of a knife, scrape out the seeds from the vanilla into the creme fraiche. Beat to firm peaks, 2 to 2 1/2 minutes.
2. Slice one-third horizontally off the top of each choux pastry. Set aside the top parts. Pipe the pastry cream into the bottom of the shells using a small, plain tip. Then, pipe in the Chantilly cream using a medium French (fluted) tip.
3. Cut thin strips from the pastry tops and place one strip on top of the Chantilly cream on each filled pastry shell.
Each serving: 260 calories; 5 grams protein; 25 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 16 grams fat; 9 grams saturated fat; 145 mg. cholesterol; 78 mg. sodium.
Choux buns with coffee and Drambuie mousse
Total time: 2 hours, plus overnight chilling
Servings: 46 buns
Note: Adapted from "Eggs" by Michel Roux. Make the creme patissiere the day before so it can chill overnight.
6 egg yolks
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons superfine sugar
1/4 cup flour
2 cups milk
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, seeds scraped out and reserved
1. Combine the egg yolks and one-third of the sugar in a bowl and whisk to a light ribbon consistency, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the flour and whisk it in thoroughly.
2. In a pan, heat the milk with the rest of the sugar and the vanilla bean and seeds. As soon as it comes to a boil, pour it onto the egg yolk mixture a few tablespoons to start, then all of it, stirring as you go. Mix well, then return the mixture to the pan.
3. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly with the whisk. Allow the mixture to bubble, still stirring, for 2 minutes, then tip it into a bowl.
4. To prevent a skin forming, cover tightly with plastic wrap on the surface of the creme. Chill in an ice-water bath, then refrigerate overnight. Can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Remove the vanilla bean before using.
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup butter, cut up
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup flour
4 large eggs
Egg wash (1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon milk)
1. Combine the milk, butter, salt and sugar in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Bring to a boil, then remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the flour all at once with a wooden spoon until smooth.
2. Return the pan to medium heat for about 1 minute, stirring constantly, to dry out the paste. Tip it into a bowl.
3. Add the eggs one by one, beating with the wooden spoon until each egg is fully beaten in. Once they are all incorporated into the mixture, it should be smooth and shiny, and thick enough to pipe. The choux paste is now ready to use. (If you are not using it immediately, brush the surface with egg wash to prevent a crust forming.)
4. Pipe small mounds, about 2 teaspoons each, onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper in staggered rows, using a pastry bag fitted with a half-inch round tip.
5. Brush the buns with egg wash. Bake 15 to 20 minutes, until dry and crisp, but soft inside. Cool on a wire rack.
Coffee mousse and assembly
1/3 cup whipping cream
1 1/2 tablespoons superfine sugar
1 recipe creme patissiere, chilled
4 tablespoons instant coffee powder
2 tablespoons Drambuie or to taste
46 choux buns
1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Whip the cream in a chilled bowl with the sugar to stiff peaks and fold into the chilled creme patissiere. Dissolve the coffee in the Drambuie and fold into the mixture.
2. Make a small opening in the side of each bun with the tip of a knife or skewer. Using a pastry bag fitted with a plain eighth-inch tip, pipe a generous amount of coffee mousse into each bun.
3. To serve, dust half the filled buns with a little powdered sugar and the rest with cocoa. Arrange on individual plates or a platter.
Each of 46 buns: 74 calories; 2 grams protein; 7 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 4 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 59 mg. cholesterol; 40 mg. sodium.