PAC man

Making pâte à choux

By
June 5, 2009

Whenever I make pâte à choux, I end up with flat little disks and not nice fluffy cream puffs or gougères. What’s the secret to making sure they don’t flop?
— Jeanne A., Nashville, Tennessee

Great timing, Jeanne, because I was just reading Michael Ruhlman's new book, Ratio, in which he calls pâte à choux “one of the coolest flour-and-water preparations in the kitchen,” but laments that “it’s not typically part of the home cook’s repertoire.”

I was thinking to myself, “That’s great, Michael, but what can I do to further the cause of pâte à choux in our cooking culture?”

Pâte à choux puffs with coarse sugar are called chouquettes, or “little cabbages.”

All I had to do was open my email, and you were there for me.

Pâte à choux (it rhymes approximately with “gotta shoe”) literally means “cabbage dough,” according to my Scotch-taped Putnam French-English dictionary. (It’s a 1969 edition and unfortunately lacks entries for “groovy” or “far out.” Like, bummer.)

When baked, balls of PAC puff up like reverse 3-D Shrinky Dinks into shapes that I guess sort of look like heads of cabbage.

Once mastered, PAC is the basis for tons of tasty baked treats, including cream puffs, profiteroles (ice-cream-filled puffs), éclairs (“lightning,” according to Putnam), French crullers, gougères (cheese puffs), chouquettes, and more. They can also be fried to make beignets or pets de nonnes, which means — and I am not making this up — “nuns’ farts.”

There’s really no end to the possibilities; there’s even a blog post about PAC sandwich buns, which prompted an epic blog rant from Ruhlman, including step-by-step PAC photos.

PAC is easy to make, and it makes you look like a fancy-pants pastry chef. And you can drop F (French, that is) bombs at dinner if you want. What’s not to like?

PAC is made by mixing flour into boiling water and butter and cooking it briefly to stiffen it, then mixing in eggs one by one. Ruhlman reports the standard ratio as 2 parts water, 1 part butter, 1 part flour, and 2 parts egg (by weight). The only arguably hard part is mixing in the eggs, and that’s only if you’re doing it by hand (as an homage to the post-Revolution French housewife, perhaps).

Then, depending on the recipe, it’s usually spooned or piped onto a baking sheet and baked. I suspect a lot of cooks are intimidated by the whole piping deal (I don’t own a pastry bag), but a zip-top plastic bag with one corner cut off does the job just fine.

To me, the magic of pâte à choux is in the rising. There’s no added leavening — no yeast or baking powder — in the recipe. So what’s going on?

When subjected to high heat, the liquid in the dough (or maybe it’s technically a batter, but that’s another column) turns to steam, which is trapped by proteins to hold the new (inflated) shape. It’s technically called “mechanical leavening,” and it’s the same trick that puffs popovers, Dutch babies, and Yorkshire pudding.

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Jeanne, to address your, um, performance issues, I turned to Shirley Corriher's book CookWise for PAC troubleshooting wisdom. You may need to tweak your recipe to get better results.

According to Corriher, eggs are like PAC Viagra (paraphrasing), so you want to get as many eggs (and their gas-trapping proteins) into the dough as possible while still keeping it firm enough to hold its shape on the tray.

To achieve this, she recommends using high-protein flour (bread flour), which absorbs more water, and thus allows you to add more eggs without over-hydrating the dough. You can also substitute egg whites for some of the whole eggs for an even airier result.

The next trick is to focus the oven heat so that most of it comes from the bottom during the early part of the cooking process. Preheat your oven to a medium heat, such as 300 degrees Fahrenheit. When you add the tray of puffs, kick it up to the target temperature (probably 450 or so). With the heating element at the bottom of most ovens, this will light a fire (so to speak) under the puffs and give them a big steam boost, while at the same time keeping the tops relatively moist and flexible so they can expand.

As the oven heats, the tops will firm and turn golden brown, at which point you should lower the heat to a more moderate 300 or so to finish cooking the insides without burning the outsides. The insides need to be sufficiently set or else your puffs might collapse when you take them out of the oven, and that’s not a fun date for anyone.

Once your puffs have cooled, you can serve them and collect accolades on the spot, or freeze them for later.

Based in Portland, Oregon, Hank Sawtelle has engineering, legal, and culinary degrees.

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1. by mrklister on Jun 6, 2009 at 6:58 AM PDT

I love PAC! Great article both fun wise and fact wise. I smell some gougeres in the near future.

2. by ruth_117 on Jun 7, 2009 at 5:57 AM PDT

I too have had complications with making gougéres (the only PAC I’ve tried) which, thanks to your article, I think I have nailed down to the oven temp. I guess I’ll just have to give them another whirl now.

3. by Jeanne A on Jun 8, 2009 at 11:47 AM PDT

Thanks Hank! I will be trying out your recommendations and will email you pics of the results! Oh the pressure!!

4. by anonymous on Jun 9, 2009 at 3:49 PM PDT

How perfect! I made gougeres last night and they tasted great but my BF asked why they didn’t puff. I was a bit deflated (no pun intended!)but now I understand why!

5. by Natanya on Jun 11, 2009 at 12:27 PM PDT

Thanks for the link back to my PCA (heh - love it) article. I agree with you and Ruhlman that it’s greatly underutilized by most home chefs. I’m intrigued by the idea of using bread flour and varying the oven temperature. I think I must test those out immediately.

6. by Linear Girl on Jun 11, 2009 at 12:34 PM PDT

You’re going to give us a recipe for pets de nonnes, aren’t you? I’d really like to make them for our Father’s Day picnic this year; I think they’ll be a big hit with the nine-year-old set. If I can bring Nuns’ Farts along with my Banana Slug Turnovers (saffron in the dough and made slightly elongated) I will be Queen of the Redwood Forest for a day.

7. by Hank Sawtelle on Jun 11, 2009 at 1:59 PM PDT

Linear, I haven’t tried this recipe but it looks legit at first glance.

8. by Linear Girl on Jun 11, 2009 at 2:34 PM PDT

Merci.

9. by PAC hungry vegan on Jun 12, 2009 at 11:48 AM PDT

Any thoughts on how to sub for the eggs and make them vegan?

10. by asides on Jun 14, 2009 at 8:50 AM PDT

I use this to make elairs every Christmas, did not realize the dough was so versatile, will have to play.

11. by Hank Sawtelle on Jun 14, 2009 at 11:29 PM PDT

@PAC hungry vegan - subbing the eggs is a toughie in this recipe because they are pretty important to the structure, leavening, and especially to taste. There are a ton of blog posts from bakers trying to perfect vegan PAC, with varying degrees of success. The best solution seems to be an egg substitute (such as Ener-G brand), plus baking powder for leavening, plus a pinch of turmeric for color. The egg (and thus only) flavor will be missing, so vegan PAC would be best with a flavorful filling or topping, such as in a profiterole or eclair role.

12. by mprice on Sep 1, 2009 at 1:17 PM PDT

Can anyone help me with my Frech Cruller problem? I have the perfect recipe for the dough but after I fry them they deflate. I’ve tried it four times. They taste great but they always deflate when on the cooling rack. Any suggestions?

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Hank Sawtelle has engineering, legal, and culinary degrees, and an intense curiosity about food and cooking. Follow Hank’s blog, Sous Vide Jones.

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