Be it, Cabbage Paste, Puff Paste, Choux Paste or Pâte á Choux, this twice cooked dough is responsible for such heavenly desserts as Eclairs, Profiteroles (Ice Cream Puffs), French Crullers, Beignets, Creme Puffs, Croquemboches, and Kue Sus, not to mention delectably savory items like Gougères.
Pâte á choux has had many lives under many names as it has morphed over the centuries.
Beginning with Pâte á Panterelli, named for the Italian Chef of Catherine de Medici's entourage, upon moving to France. This then evolved into Pâte á Popelin (used to make small cakes of the same name). In the 18th century Pâte á Popelin got a makeover by Avice and was used to make his Choux rolls (Cabbage rolls), which is where the current name comes from, although I think is also means "Snail shell", but I am gonna stick to the former explanation. Antoine Carême is responsible for modifying the paste, yet again, into it's current form, but the name remained the same. Thank goodness, I don't think I could handle one more name change.
What's with the history lesson? Honestly, I have no idea. Because it really has no bearing on this recipe... What I am really here to talk about is the WHAT the process is and WHY the process is in place.
You see, the secret to mastering this paste lies in mastering the element of water.
First we must cook the flour so it absorbs water, then we must cook out some of the extra water, so we can load it with more water, so we can bake out the water.
Sounds funny, huh? Let me explain.
The flour must be cooked in hot water, like polenta, but in order to ensure every grain is exposed and the starch and gluten contained within can absorb the water, you actually use more than is necessary. Thus there is actually too much water in the resulting paste, and it must be cooked out. But you are going to cook it even longer, and dehydrate it slightly, because you are going to add eggs. The protein in eggs, albumen, is necessary for expansion and the yolk enriches the paste, but eggs contain water, so in order to not flood the paste with excess water, a little extra water needs to be cooked out of it first. Still with me?
OK, so once the paste is made, then it is all about exploiting the water locked within. For the explosion potential is tremendous. Starting off in a hot 425 degree oven heats the water up quickly causing massive initial expansion via steam. The albumen in the egg starts to set along with the initial burst of steam, creating the "Puff" pockets. Then the oven is turned down to 375 to finish the baking, without burning, and allowing the gluten in the flour to set and strengthen the already puffed paste as well as to foster browning.
There will still be steam inside those little puffs, so if you want them particularly dry, because you are going to be filling them with something (which I will touch on tomorrow) then remove them from the oven, and poke a whole in the bottom, laying them back down on the sheet, upside down and return them to the oven for an additional 10 minutes. This allows all the steam to escape and dries out the inside to prevent them from becoming soggy and prepare them for a creamy filling of... Oh, say Sauce Duxelles.
About lining the baking sheets:
OK, this is just my personal experience here, but most recipes state that if your puffs are small, use a bare ungreased baking sheet or if large grease and flour the sheet first. Maybe it's because I have kitchen gremlins, or the fact that Murphy's Law runs rampant through my life in SO many areas, but they ALWAYS stick anyway... SO, I always line the sheet with parchment regardless of the size of puffs I am making.
Mixing in the eggs:
I usually do this in the pan with a wooden spoon, because I can feel the tension of the paste as it gets thicker. But for these, I went ahead and used the stand mixer, just to see if it would work. It seemed to work very well I must say. I don't think I am a complete convert, as I like having more contact with my food during preparation, but it was a definite time saver. A word of caution, I don't think a hand held mixer has the power necessary to do this, so if you are sans a Stand Mixer, I would go ahead and just do it by hand with a wooden spoon.
Sneaking in a little extra punch of flavor:
Classically Gougères are made with Gruyère cheese. A very savory cheese indeed. But since I was not going to run to the store for 1 thing, I decided to use my Pecorino Romano instead. While P. Romano is a deliciously savory cheese, it does not contain the same notes as Gruyère. I had originally though of exchanging some of the butter for Bacon Fat, but "Chickened Out" at the last minute. Literally... I used Chicken Stock instead of plain water to give it a little more savoriness.
OK, Long dissertation aside, lets get the the recipe and pics... shall we? Here we GO!!!
Oh, one last thing. Realizing that the U.S. is the only place left on the planet that uses Imperial volume measurements for cooking and baking, I have tried to provide Imperial weights as well as Metric weights and measures. If you are familiar with these conversions and find that I have made a mistake.... Please let me know. All ingredients weigh different, 1/2 cup + 1 TB Flour may be 70g or 2.5oz, but 1/2 cup + 1TB Sugar does not weigh the same. Volume to weight conversions can be a little difficult.
Pecorino Romano and Thyme
Pecorino Romano and Thyme
1/2 cup (4oz) (125ml) Chicken Stock
3 TB (1 oz) (28g) Unsalted Butter; Cubed
1/4 tsp Kosher Salt
And your choice:
A healthy pinch of Chile powder or Cayenne Pepper
or a few turns of freshly-ground black pepper
1/2 cup plus 1 TB (2.5 oz) (70g) AP flour
2 large Eggs
1 to 2 tsp minced fresh thyme (mine came from my herb garden)
3.25 oz (90g) grated hard cheese; Divided
optional 1 Egg Yolk; beaten
Preheat the oven to 425F (220C.)
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or silicone baking mat.
Heat the Chicken Stock, Butter, Salt, and Chile or Pepper in a heavy saucepan until the butter is melted and the mixture begins to simmer.
Add the flour all at once and stir vigorously until the mixture begins to pull away from the sides of the pan, forming a smooth (almost) ball.
Continue cooking for another minute or 2, to remove any excess water, then remove from heat and let rest 2 minutes.
Move the paste to your stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment.
Turn the mixer on medium speed and begin adding eggs 1 at a time, waiting for the paste to "break"
and then reform before adding the next.
Add about 3/4 of the P. Romano and the Thyme, and stir until well-mixed.
Scrape the mixture into a large pastry bag fitted with a plain tip and pipe the dough into little mounds onto the lined baking sheet.
Keep them evenly spaced about 2 inches apart and making the mounds slightly larger than a Cherry Tomato; pressing down the peaks with a damp finger.
You can either glaze each mound with beaten egg yolk and then top with a sprinkle of reserved P. Romano, or skip the yolk glaze and simply top with a little sprinkle of cheese.
Move the sheet to the oven and bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375F (190C) and bake for an additional 20 to 25 minutes.
They should be completely Golden Brown and Delicious.
During the first 25 minutes of cooking (10min at 425 and the first 15min at 375) you CANNOT open the oven, if you let any heat escape quickly, the steam inside will condense back into water and they will fall.
For extra-crispy puffs, five minutes before they're done, poke the side of each puff with a sharp knife to release the steam (they should be "set" by then) and return to the oven to finish baking.
These can be cooled and filled, or frozen on the baking sheet in the freezer and moved to a freezer bag and stored for 2 months.
Simply rewarm them at 300 for 10-15 minutes.
Savory little bites of deliciousness.