I have never taken any interest in making choux puffs before. However, I was assigned the very task of making choux puffs at work recently and it’s been a very frustrating journey yet! Prior to that, I attended a class on choux pastry 2 years ago and have never made them since then so I was quite nervous.
They are not as unstable as macarons but they’re not easy to master either. My success rate so far has been 70%, the 30% of failures has pretty much been unexplained but I suspect it is due to the amount of evaporation, egg content and the oven settings. There are so many factors which affect whether something goes well in a bake that one really needs to invest the time to study in order to obtain an answer.
There are pressing deadlines at work so I really don’t have the luxury of time to figure things out bit by bit, so we recipe hop until we find one that works. That being said, I think I am getting closer and closer to the answer.
Basic choux pastry recipe
Flour, salt, sugar, butter, water, milk, eggs
Bring the butter, water, sugar, salt and milk mixture to a boil then turn off the heat. Add the cake flour in one go, turn on the heat and keep stirring until the choux paste comes clean on the sides of the pot (and you can see some starch sticking to the bottom of the pan). This is when you should turn off the heat and transfer to choux paste to a stand mixer. Using a paddle attachment, mix the choux paste until it is not as hot anymore (to avoid curdling the eggs), and add the eggs very gradually, stopping after each addition to ensure it is thoroughly mixed in and absorbed. When needed, scrape the sides of the bowl also. The end mixture should be thick, glossy, flowy but will still hold its shape when a spatula or a finger is run through the batter.
Almost all recipes ask for the choux paste to be cooked on the stove once the flour has been added until the choux paste pulls away from the pan cleanly. I’ve also been taught to just pour the boiling mixture into the stand mixer with the flour already inside as it would achieve the same effect. This is probably to add to the convenience commercially but I feel that the traditional method of cooking the choux paste to be more effective as it helps evaporate the excess water content better. I find that applies especially in smaller batches that you do at home.
One of the most important things is the amount of egg that you add to your batter, and the speed at which you pour the eggs. It is simple, of course to say that it is important, but the actual execution requires experience because you’ll need to be able to determine the texture that you’re looking for in order to decide when to stop adding the eggs. I usually add my eggs when my KitchenAid is set at speed 6 because I find that the eggs get absorbed easier that way. I also make sure I scrape down the sides after each addition.
I am not entirely sure, but this is when I usually stop. It is thick and glossy but not runny (read: not pipepable).
Another indication is when you pipe the choux paste onto the lined baking tray. It shouldn’t be runny and collapse into a flat blob right after piping, it should be able to hold its shape after piping. I was taught to flatten the tips with a wet spoon.
Or if you’re using a croustillant (sugar, butter, flour) sheet on top, you can save on the step in flattening the piped choux paste.
Knowing when to start again
This is when you’ve misread the recipe, miscalculated, mis-weighed, added too much egg or just… have a bad day in the kitchen. You need to know when to start again and not waste time baking the choux puffs. I’ve had my fair share of these moments in the past three weeks.
I had a mixture that was completely off (the butter content was way too high, I suspect there was a mistake in the recipe itself). It was so greasy that none of the mixture actually stuck to the piping bag after I finished piping. It looked so lumpy and it was just sizzling in the oven the whole time. I should have read the warning signs and restarted with a new recipe.
The other times are just when I added too much egg into my choux paste. The recipe will always indicate the amount of eggs that you might need in making the choux paste and most of the time, it won’t be the amount of eggs that you actually need. I am a scaredy cat and I like following recipes to the T so for too many times, I added most, if not all of the eggs and obtained mixtures that were too runny. Of course, it didn’t pipe well, it didn’t bake well, and it didn’t rise well. Warning signs should have been taken seriously.
This is not to say that you should give up once you hit an obstacle, I am just saying that every mistake made should be learned from effectively. Once you know that there is something wrong, there is no point just going through with it and knowing that it will fail, instead you should take the chance to remake the recipe and learn from your mistake.
Three weeks later, I am slightly better at making these now. I still hit a road block every now and then, but at least they rise okay now and I am more confident in adjusting the amount of eggs I add into my choux paste every time I make choux pastry. These aren’t perfect (I hid the failed ones, of course) but they are good enough as a learning experience and hopefully one day, I will be able to share a ‘fail proof’ method here.