In a roundabout way, we have Catherine de Medici to thank for pate a choux, the dough which is at the base of profiteroles, eclairs, croquembouche and beignets. When she left Florence to marry into the French Court, Catherine had the good sense of taking her chef along, Signor Panterelli who, seven years after the move, made a cake with a dough that eventually evolved into pate a choux. The pastry was known as pate Panterelli. About a century later, it was known in France as pate a Popelins, from the name of small cakes made in the shape of breasts.
Avice, a patissier in the 18th century, started turning out little choux buns (from the French word for cabbage) and the name stuck. Eventually Antoine Careme made some modifications to the dough that is still the same we use today. Essentially, pate a choux uses the moisture of the water to create a leavening effect – a hole is formed as the dough rises, ready to be filled with all sorts of good creams or custards.
As intimidating as it might seem, pate a choux is easy to make and it is best to make it the old-fashioned way, with a wooden spoon and elbow grease. When mixing, do so very vigorously and do not leave the pot on the stove unattended even for one second. For your first couple of tries, you might want to keep the heat lower than recommended, in case you are not working as fast as required. Once the shells for the cream puffs or eclairs are baked, they can actually be frozen and quickly revived in the oven for a couple of minutes to crisp them back up.
6 T Butter
3/4 C All Purpose Flour
A pinch of salt
3/4 C Water
- Put the butter and the water in heavy saucepan. Add the salt and heat on medium-high, stirring, until the water starts to boil and the butter is melted.
- Reduce the heat to medium and dump all the flour in. Using a wooden spoon, stir vigorously until the mixture comes together – it will only take a moment. Remove from heat.
- Wait a few minutes and start adding the eggs, one at a time. After each addition, mix vigorously with the same wooden spoon. It will look like the dough is separating but keep on working and you will see it will come back together.
In the end, you should have a pretty stiff dough.
- Put it immediately in a pastry bag with 1/2” tip or in a Ziploc bag (in which case you will cut a corner of about 1/2”).
- Line a baking sheet with parchment and heat the oven to 425F.
- Pipe small rounds (of about 11/2 to 2 inches in diameter and about 1” high), spacing them generously.
- Put the baking sheet in the oven and bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes. Turn the oven off and remove the profiteroles – use a toothpick or a skewer to poke a small hole on the bottom or sides to let the steam escape. Place them back in the cooling oven for 3 or 4 minutes – they will crisp up nicely.
- Let cool and fill them with ice cream or pastry cream or whatever concoction of your choice. Glaze them with chocolate or sugar (to fill them, either cut the tops with a serrated knife or use a pastry bags with a small metal tip which you will insert from the bottom).