Would you like to master one technique that would allow you to produce an incredible variety of lovely French cakes right in your own kitchen? The good news for those of you who love elegant cakes but are perhaps not the most talented of cooks, is that making French choux pastry is dead easy. And it truly is the basis for so many desserts – you could even invent your own.
What is choux pastry anyway? If you’ve ever had a cream puff, you have had choux pastry. It is a very simple concoction made from water, butter, flour, and eggs. The pastry dough itself is sticky and looks hopeless, but when you put it the oven it puffs up spectacularly.
The secret to the puffiness of the cream puff is in the mixing. All you need is a strong arm. Or I guess you could use your mixer if you’ve already been to the gym today. And be sure to follow your choux pastry recipe to the letter, carefully measuring all ingredients, adding them in the right order, and following cooking instructions.
I’m making this sound harder than it is! Don’t be intimidated. Like I said, it’s easy! Once you have choux pastry down, you can make all the cream puffs you could ever want in a matter of minutes.
But don’t stop there. You could try any one of these elegant French cakes now that you know how to make a choux pastry. (As you go down the list, the cakes get more complicated.)
Chouquettes: These are small puffs without the cream, topped with big grains of sugar for a little sweetness. French kids love these for snacks, and they’d make a quick-to-fix treat anytime. I even let my kids have them for breakfast.
Cream Puffs: OK these you know. Fill your cream puffs with custard, chocolate pudding, whipped cream, or whatever else you might want. You can sprinkle them with powdered sugar or drizzle them with chocolate sauce or caramel. Get imaginative, there are no rules.
Eclairs: These are small oblong cakes made from choux pastry. They are traditionally filled with chocolate or coffee cream and than iced with a fondant in a like flavor. Rum and raspberry flavored éclairs are also sometimes made in France.
Religieuse: A large cream puff, with a baby cream puff riding on top. The puffs are filled with different sorts of creams, the tops covered in icing, and perhaps a little butter cream for a final decoration;
Profiterole: You may have had these in a French restaurant. Three or four cream puffs are filled with ice cream and chocolate sauce is drizzled on top. Of course you could do this with different fillings and toppings. Yum. Now that’s an elegant dessert, that is not much work at all!
Paris-Brest: This is a wheel shaped cake that was originally made to commemorate a bike race between Paris and Brest, on the Atlantic seaboard of France. The cake is sliced in two and filled with praline cream then the top is dusted with powdered sugar and almond slices.
Saint-Honoré: Here we are getting fancier still. A base of layered pastry dough is topped with a ring of filled cream puffs then topped with a hardened caramel. Whipped cream is mounded in the center before serving.
Croquembouche: The masterpiece of French choux pastry desserts. A mountain of filled cream puffs are held together by caramel and further decorated, perhaps with dragées. It is a special cake reserved for special occasions in France and you will see it at weddings and christening parties.
Unswettened choux pastry can also be used to make French appetizers. Bite sized puffs are filled with cheese spreads, salmon mousse, foie gras or whatever else suits your fancy. Wouldn’t that be cute at your next party?
If you add grated cheese to your choux pastry you get gougères. They are also popular at appetizer time in France.