Pastry School Recap | Unit 2 – Pâte à Choux

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Pâte à choux, a.k.a. cabbage dough. The layperson usually does not recognize this term, so I also describe it as cream puff dough.

I love this stuff. And not just because it demonstrates the magic of mechanical leavening. Okay, maybe precisely for that reason. The dough is made of water, butter, bread flour, a bit of sugar and salt, and eggs. What distinguishes this dough from others is the fact that it is cooked twice: all ingredients except the eggs are first cooked over the stovetop, and then the eggs are beaten in one at a time to reach the right consistency and moisture. Bread flour has a higher protein content, allowing for greater moisture absorption (thus usually more eggs and flavor), and an elasticity from the gluten formation. During baking, the water content transforms into steam (which is up to 1600x in volume under STP conditions! nerd alert!), which puffs up the dough and creates a hollow inside that can be filled with whipped cream, pastry cream, ice cream or other fillings. Round mounds of dough when baked (i.e. cream puffs) have tops that look vaguely like cabbages, hence the French name.
This dough is so versatile and can make cream puffs, profiteroles, eclairs, gougeres, popovers, and even gnocchi! 
Yes, Parisian gnocchi (gnocchis à la parisienne), which are made by poaching the dough. I was inspired to try this after the evening culinary class prepared it for dinner one night. I overboiled some batches which made some pieces mushy, but on the whole it still turned out quite delicious with peas, cherry tomatoes, shaved parmesan cheese, and some simple olive oil, salt and pepper.
Some examples from Unit 2:

Unit Exam (Eclairs and Paris Brest):
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A Wedding Croquembouche – Congrats Stephandy!

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A croquembouche is a traditional French dessert found at celebrations such as weddings. The name of the dessert comes from the French words, croque en bouche, meaning ‘crunch in the mouth’. The dessert is basically a conical tower of profiteroles (choux pastry filled with pastry cream or crème légère), held together by caramel. A traditional base for the presentation is nougatine (caramel and sliced almonds), and decorations can include caramel, sprinkles, ganache, flowers, and more.

When my friend Stephanie saw the photo of a croquembouche we made in class, she asked if I would make one for her wedding in April. I was honored, but intimidated! After some careful planning and a little bit of practice, I’m happy to share some photos of what I hope was a generally successful attempt. My only regret is that I made this purely for decorative purposes (in part because I don’t have a commercial kitchen and in part because I had to do a red-eye drive to transport the components from NorCal to SoCal) and thus only filled the bottom two rows of cream puffs. Had I known there would be so much interest in actually eating this, and had I known that caramelized isomalt would hold up so effectively and not soften like caramelized granulated sugar often does, I might have been brave enough to fill every cream puff.

The base was the most challenging piece. After nougatine is cooked and poured, you literally have a matter of seconds or minutes to cut and shape (less when using isomalt as in my case). Once it hardens, it would have to be reheated in the oven to soften enough for molding. And unfortunately, the standard home oven is not large enough for a full sheet pan or the length of nougatine that is necessary to form the ring. Fortunately I stocked up on isomalt and almonds and got this right after a couple attempts. I also used nougatine for the decoration on top.

The flowers are a mix of hand-painted (but pre-made, store-bought) gumpaste flowers, and hand-made fondant-gumpaste roses and carnations. The color scheme for the wedding was pomegranate, citron and gold, which I think I captured in these flowers. I hope to learn how to make the wired gumpaste flowers from scratch in the near future, but given the limited time I had, these ones from Michael’s worked well.

Isomalt does caramelize but does not darken in color as much as granulated sugar does. I liked the lighter, clearer color for coating the cream puffs and gluing the pieces together, as you can worry less about drips and uniformity (just don’t eat too much of it). Isomalt is also more stable in that it absorbs less moisture and is less likely to get sticky and “melt” when sitting out. Adding a small amount of granulated sugar provides color (and control over the color). For the spun sugar, I used a greater amount of granulated sugar to get a more golden color.

This was a beast to make, but I am so glad I took on the challenge and was thrilled to share in the celebration of a beautiful young couple.

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