Pâte à chouxPhotos and recipes by Katherine Costello
Several months ago, I had a dear friend stop by for the sole purpose of having me try an éclair she had purchased from a new local bakery, not usually my first pastry choice because the quality can vary so widely. But one bite and I knew it was perfection.
That taste brought back a fond baking memory — this one goes deep, circa ’77, when I was in high school making cream puffs for a pitch-in at work. I’m not sure if it was beginner’s luck or most likely a detailed recipe, but the cream puffs were visually stunning and delicious, with all the key components coming together: shiny chocolate icing glazed the top of the crispy pastry, filled with a classic French pastry cream.
I’ve been making this dough ever since for a range of pastries, including my favorite, choux, or pâte à choux, the pastry base for éclairs, profiteroles, cream puffs and those beautiful swans. The recipe is very simple, and you can achieve success if you are not rushed and examine the dough throughout the process, especially while adding the eggs as they are absorbed in the dough. I find it best to mix them in by hand using a wooden spoon or silicone spatula and a good-sized mixing bowl. I urge you to set aside some time for this, or invite a friend over and make this pastry — you will be glad you did!
Basic Pâte à Choux
Adapted from a Julia Child recipe, this is the version I’ve had the most success with to make éclairs, cream puffs, swans and the cake bases. I do not recommend doubling this recipe. You will need double the amount for the cake bases, but because of the technique, I suggest you just make the recipe twice.
- 7 tablespoons butter (brown butter optional, see note below)
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup flour
- 1 pinch nutmeg
- 4 large eggs (cage free preferred)
- Melt butter with the water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan; bring to boil. Add the flour and nutmeg all at once, stirring until it forms a ball; reduce the heat to medium and cook the dough by spreading it against the bottom of the pan with a silicone spatula, stirring and repeating for 2 minutes.
- Remove from heat and transfer dough to a mixing bowl, using the paddle attachment. Beat — and this is key — adding the eggs one at a time, scraping the bowl after each addition. Do not rush this step! Each egg should be fully absorbed into the pastry before adding the next. The dough should resemble a thick, shiny paste. Place in a pastry bag and follow each recipe’s instructions below for baking.
NOTE: To make your own brown butter, place 7 tablespoons butter in a small saucepan. Heat over medium, consistently stirring or swirling the butter around in the pan until it is light brown in color; be careful to not let it burn. Strain using cheesecloth or a fine-mesh strainer. (For the eclairs, and cake layers I prefer to brown the butter.
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 14 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
- To make the ganache, in a small saucepan, bring the cream to a boil and then remove from heat; add the chocolate and let sit for 10 minutes. Stir, stir, stir until smooth, or cheat and use an immersion blender.
- Basic Pâte à Choux, 1 recipe
- To make the éclairs, first preheat oven to 400 degrees. Using a 16-inch pastry bag, snip about 1/3 inch off the bottom. To make smaller éclairs, as I prefer, pipe the basic pâte à choux dough onto a parchment-lined sheet pan into 21/2 -inch strips, leaving 2 inches in between each. If you have any peaks on your éclairs, wet your fingers and smooth them out.
- Place in the 400-degree oven until golden brown with firm sides (about 12-15 minutes).
- Remove from oven and place on a rack. Cut horizontally and cool. Fill with desired fillings. (See note below.)
- Once filled, chill in the refrigerator until firm, and then dip the tops in warm ganache. Chill and serve within 24 hours.
NOTE: The baked shells freeze well and lend themselves to an array of fillings and toppings. I usually like to make a batch for the éclairs, and then make another batch for the swans.
NOTE: For fillings, I like to use a berry-tinged whipped cream (gently mix 2 cups whipped cream, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1/2 teaspoon almond extract; fold in 1/2 cup crushed freeze-dried strawberries).
Éclair Cake Layers
If you know you don’t have the patience for making a lot of little pastries, I’ve included this delicious éclair cake recipe. Each choux recipe should make a total of two layers, so you will need to make two batches of dough for this four-layer cake.
- Basic Pâte à Choux, 2 recipes
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- On a sheet pan, trace two 8-inch circles on parchment as a guide for your layers. Pipe the dough onto the parchment, circling from the outside into the center until the layer is filled; spread to even with an offset spatula if needed. Repeat on the other circle. Bake in a 400-degree oven until light brown (about 15 minutes).
- Remove from the oven and place on a cooling rack, cutting slits in the layers to let steam escape. You will need to repeat this to make a total of four layers.
Pastry Cream Filling
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (reserved) sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract or a 1/2 vanilla bean, split
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 4 large egg yolks
- 2 cups heavy cream (1 cup to be heated and 1 cup whipped, to be folded into the cooled product)
- 3 tablespoons butter
- In a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan, stir together the milk, 1/2 cup of the sugar, salt and vanilla bean (if using whole bean). Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
- Meanwhile, whisk the cornstarch, flour and egg yolks with 1 cup of the cream. Whisk some of the hot milk mixture with the yolks into the cream mixture to temper them, and then add the egg/cream mixture to the saucepan; bring to a boil over medium high heat, stirring constantly with a whisk until the mixture thickens (about 5 minutes).
- Remove from the heat and strain through a fine sieve. Stir in the butter and vanilla extract (if using extract). Place in a bowl to chill, and then evenly sprinkle the top with the 2 tablespoons reserved sugar — this keeps the pastry from forming a skin — and cover with plastic wrap directly on top of the pastry cream. Refrigerate until cool and firm.
- Pastry Ganache, 1 recipe (see above)
- Toasted walnuts and dried bananas, to garnish
- On bottom layer of cake, spread on about 3/4 cup ganache to edges.
- Place the next cake layer on the top and add about a cup of the pastry cream, spreading to the edge of the layer. Place the third layer on top, spread on the ganache to the edges, and let it set for about 20 minutes in the freezer.
- Add about 1 cup pastry cream and spread to the edges; place the last layer on top, and pour the remaining ganache on the top, letting it drip down the sides of the cake. Garnish with toasted walnuts and dried bananas.
NOTE: I prefer to brush the cake layers with a thin layer of warm preserves (e.g., tangerine fruit spread) before adding the ganache and filling. Use a total of 2 tablespoons per layer.
I’m pretty sure the swans are long out of fashion, but I’ve never made them without guests being in awe of their beauty, and they always get eaten up.
- Basic Pâte à Choux, 1 recipe (see above)
- 16 ounces whipping cream
- 2 tablespoons powdered sugar, plus more as needed for assembly
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Put about 3/4 of the pâte à choux dough in a large pastry bag and snip off about 1/3 inch from the end. Pipe the dough onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet and pipe out 18 walnut-sized balls, with 11/2 inches in between each (tamp down any points of pastry with wet fingers). Place in the 350-degree oven for 12 minutes. Remove and cool on a rack. Cut each ball horizontally in half, and then delicately cut the top in half (this will be the wings).
- To make the heads/necks, put the remaining dough in a different pastry bag with and snip a smaller opening (about 1/4 inch). Pipe 18 “S” shapes on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for 12 minutes, watching closely so they do not burn. Place on a rack to cool.
- To make the whipped cream filling, place the cream in large mixing bowl; with the whipping attachment, start on low speed for a few minutes, and then increase the speed until peaks are stiff. Add the sugar and vanilla. Place the whipped cream in a pastry bag with star tip, or cut the tip of the pastry bag about 1/2 inch.
- Line up all of the bottom pieces of the pastry puffs, and then heavily pipe the whipped cream into each one; place wings on each side and the necks in the center. Dust with powdered sugar and serve or store in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours.