Allow Me to Troublechoux’t Your Cream Puff Problems

Allow Me to Troublechoux’t Your Cream Puff Problems

Like many foundational items in pastry, pâte à choux is made from a few simple ingredients, and the technique required is straightforward, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to make perfect choux every time.

The recipe is deceptively basic. Cook all-purpose flour, butter, milk, and water together in a pot on the stove (forming something like an extremely thick roux), take it off the heat, and add several eggs until it’s “just right.” The finished paste is a thick, sticky batter that, when cooked, explodes into an elegant pastry shell.

Like sourdough bread, pâte à choux can hardly be described as “easy to do”; there are a number of ways the paste can get fouled up. If you’ve been making batch after batch and aren’t getting the lofty, crispy, hollow shell the food blogs and reality show judges are saying you should, allow me to troublechoux’t your pastry issues.

My choux puffs are too small/too dense/have no cavity/have too small a cavity

If any of the above describes your choux, there’s not enough egg in your batter. Choux paste is a simple concoction with no chemical leavening agent, which means it gets all its rising power from eggs. That signature cavity in the middle of a choux puff is formed by a combination of the expansion of egg and the evaporation of water. If you don’t have the right proportions of either, you’ll see a smaller cavity (or maybe none at all), and a smaller puff overall.

When adding eggs to the flour, butter, and water mixture, check the consistency of the dough before you start piping. If the dough sticks straight up when you take the spoon out of it, and doesn’t sag or wilt at all, it’s too stiff and it needs more eggs. Even if the recipe calls for fewer eggs, trust your eyes, and add one more egg at a time until the paste loosens up. When you stop stirring, the batter should hold its shape for a second and then relax or wilt down by about 50%. That said, it should not be runny. If it’s runny, you’ve added too much egg.

My choux puffs are sad and flat

Where was I…ah, yes: This time, you’ve added too much egg. Perhaps after reading choux gets its “rising power from eggs,” you thought more eggs would create the most beautifully gargantuan eclairs the world has ever known. Sadly, that’s not how it works. An overly high proportion of egg will overwhelm the structural gluten from the flour, which won’t be able to support any puffing. You end up with a loose batter that you may even have difficulty loading into a piping bag without it spilling out the front end. If you manage to begin piping the batter, it won’t hold its shape, and might form more of a puddle than a ball or a ring. After baking you’ll see only low-grade puffing action from the dough, which will appear smooth instead of craggly. The texture will be soft, and maybe a bit rubbery.

To avoid this, take the egg-adding step slowly. Instead of dumping in all of the eggs at once, add one at a time and mix until incorporated. Between egg additions, check the consistency to see how the paste is coming along. If you notice the batter has reached the ideal semi-soft, glossy state one egg early, then stay your hand. Save that egg for an omelette. Recipes can work perfectly sometimes, but depending on the size of your eggs, your dough might have different requirements.

My choux puffed up in the oven but deflated when cooled

Sometimes eggs aren’t the problem. If you notice your eggs are puffing gracefully in the oven, showing all the signs of a successful cream puff shell, only to collapse later, You could be dealing with a weak gluten structure. All of the puffing and evaporation occurred as intended, which suggests the proportion of ingredients is right, but when it comes to holding onto those big, bountiful air pockets, the structure isn’t strong enough, and it collapses.

Deflating after the fact might be due to an underdevelopment of gluten during the stirring stages when creating the batter. Since there’s little else holding this bundle of air together, gluten plays a crucial role in the choux puff’s shape, so do not breeze through the stirring steps. There are two of them, and they are needed to create the requisite gluten. The first is on the stovetop; when the flour is added to the liquids, be sure to stir and cook the mass thoroughly. This usually takes a few minutes of active mixing until there is a thin layer of the mixture lining the pot. If you’re using a hand mixer or stand mixer to add the eggs, allow it to incorporate each egg thoroughly and don’t stress about over-mixing. If you’re mixing by hand, feel free to work the dough as much as you need to in order to achieve a smooth, glossy paste before you start piping it out.

If you’re sure you mixed the heck out of that paste, the other possibility is that the choux was underbaked. It’s important for the puffs to be thoroughly cooked before they leave the oven, so their structure is set, as with any other baked good. The good news is, if the mixture is fine then you probably don’t have to start completely over. With your next tray, adjust the time so they can dry out for 10 more minutes.

They look great, but they aren’t crispy

The humidity from the inside has permeated through to the outer crust. One of the delights of well-made pâte à choux is the textural contrast. The outside is delicate and crunchy, but once you break through to the centre, you expose a tender web of soft, eggy dough. However, in the battle between the dry and the moist, one (the moist) always wins. Eventually, the crunch will give way to humidity no matter what, but there are ways to extend this textural medley and keep the outside crunchy for quite some time.

When the choux has finished baking, remove them from the oven, and, using a small paring knife or a toothpick, poke a hole into each puff in an inconspicuous cranny. (If you made a larger shape, or a ring, poke a few holes around the shape.) Return the puffs to the oven for another two or three minutes. The hole you made serves as a vent for humid air to escape from the pastry in a controlled manner, instead of remaining trapped in the central cavity, where it will eventually soak the crust.

My choux were soggy the next day

Sorry to say, but you stored your pastries incorrectly. The freezer is the best home for baked, unfilled choux shells. In fact, because it’s such an effective way to store them, you can prep choux weeks or months in advance so you can have cream puff shells without making them day-of.

Arrange the freshly baked choux on a sheet tray, so they aren’t crushing each other and put it in the freezer for about 30 minutes, or until frozen. Once they’re firmly frozen, transfer the choux puffs to an airtight vessel (I usually use a plastic bag) and return to the freezer until needed. To revive them, place the puffs on a sheet tray and toast in a 350°F oven for 5-15 minutes, depending on the size of the pastry shell. Fill and prepare as if they were freshly baked (they’ll taste like they were).

I tried to fill choux puffs and made a mess/they were half empty

Whether you’re making cream puffs, eclairs, Paris-Brest, or a swan, there are two common ways to fill choux: through a hole in the shell, or by slicing the shell in half. You could use a long snout piping tip (aka Bismark piping tip) for eclairs, a small round piping tip for small choux puffs, or simply cut any shell in half and fill it. Both styles look equally elegant and are well practiced in the food industry. (Note that piping in the filling can sometimes be a nightmare if you’re not accustomed to it.)

To pipe in the filling, make a pilot hole in the pastry shell with a paring knife, roughly the size of the piping tip. Trying to poke through the shell with the piping tip is folly, so it’s best to prepare the entrance with a knife. Load a piping bag with the correct tip — either a Bismarck, or a plain round if the shell is small. Pack in the filling and place the metal piping tip into the shell as far as it will go without poking through. Apply slow pressure to the bag; you’ll feel the bag push back as the shell gets full. Don’t rush the process, as that’s how you end up with half-empty pastry shells.

If you’re a novice, or you want to mound in the filling decoratively, slice them in half instead and use a piping bag fitted with a rose tip or a star tip. You could also use a spoon if the filling is thick enough and you can manage it neatly. Cut the pastry in half with a serrated knife and remove the top. Fill the base with your filling of choice, and place the top back on.

Can I make cream puffs without a piping bag?

Yes. There’s been a lot of piping bag talk here, but you can shape and fill eclairs and cream puffs without the use of a proper piping bag (or even an improper one). The piping bag helps make the process cleaner, and the shape of the pastry will come out more precise, but if you use a spoon to mound little balls of choux dough onto a baking sheet, they will bake up puffy and perfect, if not a little irregular. Part of the charm is that they become cracked and craggly after puffing anyway, so spoon away!

This famous dough might drive some folks batty, but once you get the feel for it, you’ll see what all the hype is about. They’re impressive, tasty, and versatile enough to have countless applications. Even a choux puff that didn’t turn out looking quite as you planned still tastes darn delicious.

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