Sunday, June 6, 2010

A pastry by any other name...

In her vain attempt to justify shaking up with one of her families' mortal enemies Shakespeare's Juliet utters that immortal line
  What's in a name? that which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet'
As futile as her balcony mutterings may have been the lass had a point. Substance wins every time over which case we can forgive the French for their questionably titled cabbage pastry. Probably more familiar to you as choux pastry, cabbage is indeed the literal translation. Perhaps a step up from it's orginal moniker (from when it had just been imported along with it's chef from Italy) as pâte à popelini... roughly translated to breast paste. The elegance of the french language makes it perfectly ok to refer to these as little cabage puffs... and indeed it would seem you're lover too as the endearing mon petit chou is translated to my little cabbage.. or perhaps the franks are just really big fans of cabbages. My point being call it what you like but when made well desserts from this pastry are divine little puffs of heaven...

The problem is that all too often choux pastry is not made very well and I am left saddened by my soggy, eggy limp eclair or cardboard stiff tasteless chewy puff-less puff. Having been guilty of producing less than stellar choux but then on other occasions very good choux, I set myself the challenge of finding out what makes good, consistent choux. Imagine my delight when I found that the answer lay in not just in my beloved science but indeed the chemistry of the pastry! So here goes

Choux pastry's delightful lightness relies solely on there being enough steam produced as it cooks to produce aerated cavities. The high egg content ensures that the pastry does not collapse on itself because as the proteins of the egg are heated they set and so those steam driven air holes stay there, with the flour proteins supporting the taste hero: butter.

The secret to really puffy choux is in the cooking of the flour. The pastry is made by heating butter and water together until boiling and then adding the flour. It is essential that the flour is added only when the water/butter mix is boiling furiously as this causes the starch in the flour to explode and incorporate lots of water molecules in the structure of the paste so that as the pastry cooks the steam comes from within!
 The addition of the eggs is equally as important: add only a little at a time and incorporate really well so that those eggy proteins are evenly distributed to provide good support. If it's not incorporated properly you will end up with flat eggy tasting pastry. The mixture should be homogenous and glossy before each new addition of egg.

lastly DO NOT OPEN THAT OVEN DOOR! You will kill you puffs and nobody wants that!

Yay! so now I understand why you have to be so pedantic when making choux...but I'm yet to find a perfect recipe. Besides the interesting 'anatomy of a pastry' lesson above there is the all important ingredient ratio to establish. So I went hunting and I found this blog, a quick read and it seems as if they know what they're talking about. They've explained all the sciencey parts that I had learned, so I tried their recipe. At first it seemed ok but as it cooled down the cooked flour mixture it seemed very greasy, even upon addition of the eggs the mixture seemed to ooze butter. Cooking didn't help the matter and they browned very quickly, not giving them the opportunity to puff up nicely. Not a recipe I'd recommend for fail proof choux! I did manage to salvage them however (they still tasted good!) and made cheeky little dark chocolate ganache filled fingers...
So it would seem that along with the macaroons and petit fours I have made another baking nemesis on which my pride in the kitchen relies on me smiting! So stay tuned for future battles in the kitchen in the effort to make fail proof choux puffs ( and we'll celebrate with a croquenbouche!)

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