Choux Shine

Great Smoky Mountain Railway: Dillsboro, NC - 1:48 pm

    If you were to ask a historian, an industrialist and a physicist to vote on the most influential physical force on planet Earth, I bet they'd all say the same thing: steam. Ha-ha-ha-ha!
    So how is it steam's the stuff that gets stuff done? Well, it's got to do with water. You see, when water reaches a boil it starts turning into vapor—steam—and that means increasing in volume sixteen hundred times. That means that a single ounce of water can grow to fill a 12 gallon container. And if you don't give it the room to grow, well, you get pressure. And if you harness that pressure you can use it to do work, like, say, push a hundred-ton locomotive, or make a really great pastry.

    The French call it pâte à choux [pron: pah tuh shoe] or choux paste. And when you bake this stuff it balloons with the steam to several times normal size and then it sets, leaving a cavernous emptiness inside. This cavernous emptiness may be filled, creating cream puffs and chocolate éclairs. Mmm. Luckily, the only scary thing about pate a choux is saying the name. This stuff is easy to make, versatile to use and delicious to eat. Hey, that sounds kind of like ... [train whistles]

Pâte à Choux


    Most doughs and batters are designed to capture lots and lots of little, bitty bubbles and that's why loaves like this have the kind of texture that they do; it's where they get their very soul. Not so with pâte à choux. No sir. The stuff of chocolate éclairs and—oooo, cream puffs—is actually designed to capture one or two very, very large bubbles. How can that be? Well, it's part process and part "parts list", although the ingredients here are certainly very ordinary. Pâte à choux contains nothing but flour, a little butter, some water, some eggs. 'Course, there's a little more to it than that.

Harry's / Whole Foods: Alpharetta, GA - 9:02 am

    There are no special requirements for the water or the butter or the eggs, as long as they're grade A large. But the flour type matters. Besides being able to create that elastic network we're always talking about, gluten, this flour has got to be able to soak up a lot of liquid. Now, the more protein there is in flour, the thirstier it is. So, I'm gonna go with bread flour and I like it for machines, ok? It's always got the highest protein content of anything on the shelf here.
Oh, you're also going to need a decent bag of chocolate chips, some vegetable oil and, some of your favorite vanilla pudding mix.

Perfect for bread machines or mixers
Never Bleached · Never Bromated

Extra protein boosts mixed-grain breads

Water creates steam, and the right amount is vital to pâte à choux.

The Kitchen

    All chouxes start with a combination of water and butter. In this case, a cup of the first and six tablespoons of the last. This is also a good time to add seasoning. Now, if this were a savory choux we'd go with about a teaspoon of salt, but since we're playing the sweet side of the road we'll just go with a pinch of salt and an entire tablespoon of sugar. I'll let this come to a boil over high heat ... and use a pot that's a little bigger than what you think you would need or later you'll end up with choux on your shoes. Ha, ha, ha. Ok. 1 Cup H2O
6 Tbs. Butter

Pinch of Salt
1 Tbs. Sugar

    Um, we also need to weigh out five and three quarter ounces of flour. Why weigh? Because, unlike crystalline products like salt and sugar, flour particles can be compacted, ok, and that means you could end up scooping a cup of flour that weighs 3 ½ ounces or 6 ½ ounces and that makes kind of a big difference. 5 3/4 oz. Flour

    'Course, if we're gonna talk about scales it would make sense to talk to someone who sheds them from time to time. Heh, heh, heh, heh. [camera notes the melting butter mixture on the stove] Ah, don't worry about that. Somebody'll watch it.

Linens 'N Things: Atlanta, GA - 10:16 am

GUEST: "W" Equipment Specialist

AB: There you are, W. Funny you're here – weight has become an issue for me.
W: Hmmm. Lay off the girl scout cookies.
AB: Yeah. How come the price range on these things is wider than your mood swings?
W: Because there are three different kinds of food scales: balance scales, spring scales and digital scales.
AB: You know, that gives me an idea. Hey, come with me, ok?
W: Be afraid, be very afraid.
AB: Oh, come on!

Outside Linens 'N Things

    If you've ever stood on a scale in a doctor's office than you have first-hand knowledge of a balance scale. Now, a balance scale works by sliding a counterweight up and down the arm on the opposite side of the fulcrum from the load until the load is counter-balanced. Quite a load, I might say. Now, since they rely on physics alone, balance scales are perfectly accurate and they never wear out, but they are notoriously hard to read. They are big. They are clunky. They are expensive.

W: [is riding the other side of the teeter-totter scale] Put me down!
AB: Ok. [picks up weight]
W: [falls] Ahhhhh!

    Most culinary scales are spring-loaded. Now, such scales don't weigh items so much as they measure the pressure required to push the spring to a particular point. The problem is, springs are not accurate across a wide range. Uh, they bounce, so they're tough to read and calibrate and, in the end, springs wear out.

W: [bouncing up and down the spring scale] I'm going to throw up ... on you.

    Digital scales are different animals because they basically don't have any moving parts, ok? The item to be weighed places downward pressure on the metal plate. This metal plate has an electrical current running through it.

AB: [turns on the voltage to the table W is sitting on]
W: Umph – Uh!
AB: Relax. It's a very tiny current.

    As the pressure changes, it creates minute fluctuations in this electrical current, ok? The scale's circuitry interprets that and displays it as weight. Not only are these scales amazingly accurate and reliable ...

W: [runs off]
AB: Hey! We're not done here.

Linens 'N Things

W: This model, which switches easily from Imperial to Metric, can handle up to about 11 lbs.
AB: Hmmm. You say 11 lbs? That's oh, 5 ...
W: ... 5.75 kilos.
AB: Yeah. That's what I got.
W: The large readout updates twice a second and the On button is also the Tare button.

    Oh. Tare button. Very, very important. Basically, it allows you to zero out the scale, thus canceling the weight of any containers or ingredients. Very useful.

W: And it's also flat, so it can store easily in a kitchen drawer.
AB: Indeed it is. You know, I think I'm gonna go weigh.
W: I'd settle for go A-way.
AB: I heard that.

The Parisian favorite, gâteau Saint-Honoré, is made from a giant cream puff.

The Kitchen

    Ahhh. Five and three-quarters ounces of flour, exactly. Our buttery water is all a-boil, so, gonna grab a spatula and dump the flour in all at once. There'll be a little bit of foaming. Now stir vigorously until it forms a paste. There. Now, once it starts to come together, we're gonna reduce the heat to low and keep working the mixture, basically kneading it so that whatever extra water the flour doesn't soak up will evaporate. The drier this is, the more eggs it will hold later.

    When the paste is no longer sticky to the touch and you've a bit of residue on the bottom of the pan, you know you're done. Kill the heat and I like to move this straight to the work bowl of my standing mixer. Now, we've still got eggs to add, but if we were to put them in now, they would just scramble. So in about five minutes or so this will be ready. Just whenever you can stick your finger in it without going “AAAAAHWWW!”.

Cool Dough 5 mins.

    Now, pâte à choux basically means 'cabbage paste' in French because some folks say when it bakes, pâte à choux looks kinda, sorta, maybe like little cabbages. I think that the origin of the word is probably really pâte à chaud, or hot paste. That would make a lot more sense. You see, the fact that it cooks before it bakes is what explains the wonderful things that pâte à choux can do.

Back Porch

    Now if a batter's gonna work up a good head of steam it's gotta contain a lot of water, right? Ok, well, let's say that we made up just a real loose batter like a popover batter or a crepe batter. When we went to form creampuffs, this is what would happen. [throws a bucket of water on the ground] A big mess.
    Ah. That's not gonna happen to our batter because we started with water, but we brought that water to a boil, ok, which is important because when you dump flour into boiling water something strange and wonderful happens. It gelatinizes. Okay. Within just a few minutes, all of the flour granules soak up a huge amount of water. Within a couple of minutes, in fact, they've drunk their fill. That's why we stir the paste over low heat so that the rest of the water can evaporate out. Now, by doing it this way we literally create a paste that has tricked the flour into carrying all of the water for us. As a result, we end up with a batter that can be molded and is nice and thick, but is still absolutely loaded full of water. A pretty great trick.

Replacing one or two whole eggs with egg whites will
produce a much lighter, crisper éclair or cream puff.

The Kitchen

    I hold in my hand 4 whole eggs and 2 egg whites, which just so happens to add up to about a cup of eggs. Now, we want to work as many of these into the paste as the paste can hold, but we're gonna have to go slowly. Why add eggs at all? Well, for one thing, we need the emulsifying power of the egg yolk to help hold the butter and the waterlogged flour together. Yeah. Same way it holds the lemon juice and oil together in mayonnaise. Thank you!

4 Whole Eggs &
2 Egg Whites

    Also, if our pieces are going to have any structural integrity there's gonna have to be some protein, ok? That's why we're using more whites than yolks, because whites are where the protein is. Oh, also, albumin contains a drying agent. That means that it allows moisture to leave but doesn't let it back in and that is going to keep the final pieces from getting moist and falling apart.
    I've still got a little egg left over here, but judging by looks, I'd say this is done. If you're not sure, just pull the beater, dig in for a little bit of batter and let it fall. See that? See the way it tears away and leaves a “V” shape? That is exactly what you want to see. Now you can pipe this out right now, or you could cover it and leave it on the counter for a couple of hours.
    Of course, if you're gonna shape it into, uh, either creampuffs or éclairs, you're gonna need some kind of piping bag. [a Scotsman playing bagpipes walks through the room] Now, that's a traditional piping bag I can agree with. This one I don't like so much, ok? It's fabric. It's hard to clean. It's a uni-tasker, which is never very smart. In other words, if use one of these, you're a ... [puts it on his head a la a dunce cap] Ha-ha-ha-ha! Go sit in the corner!

    This, however, is a multi-tasker. This a a one-gallon, plastic, zip-top bag. Good for a thousand different uses in the kitchen. Here we have a piping tip set, ok? These are available at almost any good kitchen store. Comes in 3 pieces. Here's how we bring them together. [places the inside-piece inside the corner of the bag, measures, cuts off the corner, assembles the rest of the tip set] Now that is a piping bag I can love! To load it, just fold back the plastic like this, take a spatula and start loading. Oh, you did turn the oven to 375, didn't you?

Preheat Oven To 375°

Remember, pâte à choux is leavened by steam so don't peek!

The Kitchen


    Behold! An average, everyday aluminum baking sheet. Now, since this contains a lot of egg, and egg contains protein, and protein sticks to things like this, I never pipe this directly on to this. Always pipe onto parchment.

HAND: [brings a copy of the U.S. Constitution into view]
AB: Not that kind of parchment!

    This kind of parchment, heat-resistant paper impregnated with silicon: very un-sticky and molecularly inert stuff. It does, however, have a tendency to slide around, which is going to make piping difficult, so I'm just going to put four little dollops of our dough at four corners of the pan and that ought to keep things a little more stable. There.
    Now, this is not like drawing out a bead of caulk, ok? We're making little lazy “S's” here. It's gonna help them to rise more evenly. The other thing that will help evenness is speed. Believe it or not, the faster you do this, the less likely you are to have inconsistencies in shape and size. And that's good, because you want the éclairs, creampuffs, whatever you're doing to be all the same size when they come out and done at the same time. There. Ooooh. If you mess one up, don't worry. Just scoop it up with a cake spatula and put it back in the bag later on. And also don't worry about the little tips that are going to be left sticking out.

    Now, professional pastry folks, they have this little snappy finish they do at the end so they'll be perfectly round. I can't do that. What I do, though, is when I get finished with a rack of these ... there ... I come back with a little bit of warm water. I just put a little on the end of my finger and just kind of pat down each one of those little points. They look little now, but believe it or not, in the oven they will grow to massive proportions. There. Straight to the oven.

Warm Water

    Slide your creations into the middle of the oven and increase your temperature to 425. That'll provide a strong source of bottom heat to the first half of the cooking and that is crucial for a good rise.

Increase to 425°

    Now there is a lot of room in here and we could probably fit, I don't know, 3 racks, but if we did that we'd have to constantly open the door and rotate them around. It's just not a good idea. I like to pipe a pan and bake a pan one at a time. Oh, and set your timer for 15 minutes.
    Perhaps you prefer creampuffs? No problem. Same dough, just a different pan. You never want to put them on the same pan with éclairs because a different size and shape means a different cooking time. Instead of a "lazy S" we'll make little concentric circles. There. Now you're going to end up with the same little dimple at the top. Don't worry. You can just flatten that down with a wet finger. There.

15 mins. Later

    Ah. They're brown. They're beautiful. But if you pull them now, they'll fall flat later. They've got too much moisture in them still. So, turn the heat down to 350 and let them dry out for 10 minutes. If you skip this step, well, don't skip this step!

Reduce to 350° For 10 mins.

Profiteroles are miniature choux pastries used in
the holiday classic croquembouche.

    As soon as they are just cool enough to handle, I like to pierce the side or end with a paring knife or skewer to let any extra moisture out. And you've got to do this while they are warm because if that moisture has a chance to condense you're gonna have to warm them again to drive it out. There. Now, once they've cooled to room temperature, you can bag, tag 'em and store 'em on your counter for up to a week or freeze them for up to a month.
    Now let's have a look inside, shall we? Just slice this down the side. There you go. Empty as a cave. You know what? It'd be a real shame not to fill that with something.

    Traditionally, éclairs are filled with pastry cream, a kind of stirred custard that's stabilized with starch. But, vanilla pudding from a box will do just fine, especially if you're short of time, or, like me, lazy. You want it to be a little on the thick side, though, so only use three-quarters of the liquid that the instructions call for, ok?

Instant Vanilla Pudding With Reduced Amount of Liquid

    Now, to deliver this inside we turn again to a piping bag. This time it's outfitted with a small star tip to make a smaller hole and the serrations actually help punch through. Now, squeeze gently until the pudding starts to come out the hole, like that. Now, as we do this, be a very good time to contemplate chocolate coating.

    Simply melt a cup of chocolate chips with a teaspoon of vegetable oil in a metal bowl suspended over a pan of simmering water, being very careful not to get any water in the chocolate lest it seize. The resulting coating will set up hard but because of the added fat, not too hard. Mmm.

1 Cup Chocolate Chips
1 tsp. Vegetable Oil

    Once your éclairs have chilled, and while your coating is still hot, it's time to frost. Now, there are two ways to do this essentially. You can take your éclair and just dip it in the coating. Yum. You get nice total coverage that way. Or, you can go Jackson Pollack on the whole rack at one time. I have to admit this is a lot more fun, but you don't get quite the same amount of coating, so it's kind of up to you. And, of course, because you're doing this on a rack you can save the chocolate and re-use it later.

[Lavender Mist, by Jackson Pollock]
[More Info on J.P. at Artchive ]

[Died. Jackson Pollock, 44, bearded shock trooper of modern painting, who spread his canvases on the floor, dribbled paint, sand and broken glass on them, smeared and scratched them, named them with numbers ...; at the wheel of his convertible in a side road crack-up near East Hampton, N.Y.

--Time Magazine
August 20, 1956]

The French pastry, reliqieuse, consists of chocolate
mousse surrounded by chocolate and coffee éclairs.

The Kitchen

    Important point: there is a correct way to eat a chocolate éclair. Ok. Everybody grab one. Now you want to turn it so that the piped end is in your first bite. That way the pressure of your bite doesn't jettison cream all over your shirt. Oh. I bet you thought I forgot about those creampuffs, huh? Ice cream sandwiches, anyone? Always popular. Of course, if we had left the sugar out of that batch of paste we could have filled the resulting puffs with chicken salad, always popular, too.

    Of course, I think the very best thing about pâte à choux is that you don't actually have to bake it. I mean, let's say you have a wide pot with about an inch worth of 375 degree vegetable oil. And let's say you had a baking pan with a cooling rack that would fit on top of it, a spider or some other strainer, a sifter full of confectioner's sugar and, of course, a frying thermometer. Then you'd be able to make the best thing that ever came out of a carnival, funnel cake.

1" of 375° Vegetable Oil

Besides deep frying, the dough can be made into gnocchi and
pan fried, or dropped into boiling water to create dumplings.


Zip-Top Bag Fitted
with #12 Piping Tip

[AB pipes about the choux into the oil going around about 5 times]

Pipe Pâte à Choux In  Circular Motion

[he flips funnel cakes over using a fork when the bottom is brown]

Cook until Golden Brown
Brown Other Side

[cooling rack is placed over the sheet pan]

Remove with Spider to Cooling Rack

[knocks the sifter loaded with the sugar with his hand as he goes over the cakes]

Cover With Sifted Powdered Sugar & Voilà! Funnel Cake!

    Well, we hope that we've given you the desire and the confidence to try your hand at some of our favorite steamed eats, pâte à choux. Despite the fussy French name, it is as much fun to make as it is to eat and I assure you, it is fun to eat. See you next time on Good Eats.

Scene 2 Outtake: Bakery

    Most doughs and batters are designed [goes to point to the bread in the glass case, but the glass door is still closed] ... ahheeee.

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Proofreading help from Sue Libretti

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010