Choux pastry: history, interesting facts and recipes

May 9 2022, 10:14 | by Michela Becchi
Beignets, éclairs, Paris-Brest: these are just some of the preparations made with choux pastry, a basic recipe for making incredible desserts. Here’s its history.

Choux pastry and cream puffs

Soft, fluffy, filled. Glazed in the traditional pastry tray, glued together with caramel in the most spectacular pyramids, or chocolate dipped for the sweet tooth: cream puffs made with choux pastry are among the timeless classics of pastry making. The same goes for macarons that, although they are immediately associated with France, have their origins in Italy. And once again there is the hand of queen Caterina de' Medici and her court cook, later succeeded by pastry chef Popelini, who discovered the recipe: a particular dough that rises in the oven thanks to heat. It was called pâte à chaud, hot dough, and it was prepared to create fancy centerpieces, very popular among the aristocratic banquets of 19th-century France. Sweet balls, yes, but also savory with parmesan or gruyère cheese, known as choux since the eighteenth century, thanks to the court chefs Jean Avice and Marie-Antoine Carême.

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History of cream puffs and profiteroles

There are many choux pastry-based recipes, starting from the classic cream puffs, filled with custard, cream or other delicious fillings. Among the most famous ones, profiteroles deserve a special mention: little mountains made of cream puffs filled with Italian-style Chantilly cream or custard and covered with chocolate: an irresistible sweet hill for the greediest, that can be enriched with other ingredients as well. Interesting is the etymology of the name: before the invention of the choux pastry, profiteroles were nothing more than balls of stale bread steeped in broth that the lords, returning from hunting, granted to their servants as a small ‘profit’. But for true gourmands, the croquembouche is even more delicious: a mouth-watering, tall pyramid of cream puffs: it literally translates as ‘crunchy in the mouth’, a sensation given by caramel which holds together the different puffs of choux pastry and makes the dessert – once again by Carême – even more spectacular.

Éclair and Paris-Brest

The choux pastry gives also rise to another dessert that has now become popular even in Italian pastry shops. It is so good that it can be eaten ‘in a flash’: we are talking about the éclair (flash in French), an elongated cream puff filled with chocolate or Italian-style Chantilly cream and covered with chocolate (in the classic version, but there are many variations). Born in France, in Italy this dessert owes its success mainly to Andrea Sampietro, a Milanese entrepreneur who, during a trip to Paris in 2016, was enchanted by the Éclair de Génie pastry shop’s window. Created by Christophe Adam, former pastry chef at Fauchon, he has made the dessert a true icon, creating a pastry shop chain that boasts about 30 locations worldwide, all dedicated to éclairs. Lastly, the Paris-Brest, a sweet tribute to cycling, a ring made of two layers of choux pastry, dedicated to the 1891 cycling event between Paris and Brest, which bears the name of the competition. The recipe was created by Louis Durand, pastry chef of Maisons-Laffitte, a small town near Paris, who took inspiration from the bicycle wheel to prepare the dessert, traditionally filled with mousseline cream, made of milk, butter, sugar, corn starch, egg yolks and vanilla.

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Craquelin-topped and Saint-Honoré cream puffs

Let's end the choux pastry-based desserts with a more modern variation of cream puffs: craquelin, classic cream puffs filled with creams, characterized by a small dome of crunchy pastry made of flour, butter and sugar that makes it more fragrant. The traditional cream puffs lend themselves well also to the preparation of the Saint-Honoré, one of the classic pastry’s most popular cakes. It owes its name to the homonymous Parisian street where lived the recipe’s creator, pastry chef Chiboust, who made the cake together with his apprentice Auguste Julien. It consists of a base of puff pastry, chiboust cream – a custard with meringue – and many cream puffs, filled with custard and whipped cream.

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Chocolate profiteroles recipe

Ingredients

For the choux pastry

250ml water

125g flour

4 eggs

125g soft butter

Salt

For the filling

300ml fresh cream

2 heaped tablespoons icing sugar

For the sauce

200g dark chocolate

½ cup milk

1 knob of butter

Start with the choux pastry: pour the water into a saucepan, add a pinch of salt, the chopped butter and bring to the boil. Then add the flour and stir with a spoon until the mixture comes away from the sides of the pan in a smooth ball. Remove from the heat and beat in the eggs, a little at a time. Line a baking sheet with baking paper. Using a piping bag equipped with a plain nozzle, pipe the mixture into small balls the size of a cherry, spacing them at least 3 cm apart. Place the baking sheet into the 190° C-preheated oven and bake for about 20 minutes. Once ready, let them cool down on a tray and cut a small opening with scissors at the bottom. Prepare the Chantilly cream by whipping the cream with sugar (the cream should be very cold) and fill the cream puffs using a pastry syringe. For the sauce, finely chop the chocolate and place it with milk into a bowl set over the pan. Heat and stir until melted. Take it off the heat and add the butter to the chocolate to make the sauce glossy and creamy. Arrange the cream puffs in a pyramid on a serving platter and pour the hot sauce over it.

by Michela Becchi

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