Choux pastry, or pâte à choux, is the pastry you need for cream puffs, profiteroles, and eclairs. Unlike conventional pastry, the dough is cooked in a pan before it’s baked, to allow the gluten in the flour to gelatinize and absorb more water.
I’m still keeping the tradition of recipe first, blathering later, so that’s happening.
The recipe for pâte à choux is ridiculously simple, and comprises only four ingredients: butter, water, eggs, and flour, although most variations these days also add salt (including these because salt improves everything and that is a hill I will die on). When in doubt, just remember the choux ration of 2:1:1:2 – two parts liquid, one part flour, one part butter, two part eggs, by weight, not by volume. You can add sugar for sweetness, or swap half of the water with whole milk for a more tender, richer pastry. I tend to keep my recipe to the basics because I like the crisp texture of a traditional profiterole, although I will occasionally add 1 to 2 teaspoons of white sugar if I’m not making a particularly sweet filling (in which case, I will omit the salt). As long as you have the basic four ingredients down, you can customize these tasty shells to your heart’s content.
But anyway, this recipe yields between 20 – 30 cream puffs, depending on how big you pipe them, and roughly 15-20 profiteroles/eclairs, again depending on size.
Before you start, preheat your oven to 400°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper (or two if you’re making eclairs), and brush the paper with water. This will add more steam to the bake for sturdier, more well-risen shells. I also tend to use a silicon baking mat that I use for macarons underneath just as a guide for size, but it’s pretty easy to get consistent size once you get the hang of it.
The ingredients listed below are provided with both volume and weight, and although I almost always insist on weight when baking, since choux pastry is so simple and only has one ingredient whose weight can dramatically vary even if the volume is the same (flour) and the other is determinate on other factors that can affect how much or how little you use (eggs), it’s not really necessary to measure these by weight.
- 1 cup water (or 1/2 cup water, 1/2 cup whole milk) (8 ounces/200 grams)
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced (4 ounces/110 grams)
- 1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted (4 ounces/110 grams)
- 4 large eggs, room temperature, beaten in a separate bowl (8 ounces/200 grams)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 to 2 teaspoons white sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
- Medium saucepan
- Rubber spatula or wooden spoon
- Silicone whisk or handheld beater or standing mixer
- Medium bowl, preferably glass, if you’re not using a standing mixer
- Piping bag with large open round piping nozzle (or just cut the tip off of the bag if you can’t be bothered), or a large open star nozzle for eclairs, if you like.
- Spray bottle filled with water
- Kitchen scissors, for eclairs
Preheat oven to 425°F. Heat the milk and the butter in the saucepan over medium heat until it begins to simmer, stirring so that the butter melts completely. Once the mixture starts to simmer, turn the heat down to low and chuck in all the flour at once and stir with the rubber spatula. The dough should come together pretty quickly, but the point of cooking the mixture is to gelatinize the gluten in the flour, so cook for a few minutes more, pressing the dough against the sides of the pan and scraping it back together until it leaves a thin skin on the bottom of the pan.
Transfer the dough into the medium bowl or the bowl of your standing mixer, and press it against the sides. This will help cool the dough a bit faster, which you’ll need to do for at least a few minutes before you add the eggs, or they’ll scramble before you can mix them in, which is gross.
Once the dough has cooled, it’s time to add the eggs. This is where people tend to go wrong when making choux pastry, because how much egg you add is almost entirely dependent on factors you can’t control, including humidity, temperature of the room, or if you have slightly more or less flour (especially if you went by volume instead of weight, which is totally fine). So this is when it’s imperative to add a little at a time, and mix with either the standing mixer, handheld beater, or a whisk, until fully incorporated before adding more. The dough should take on a glossy, smooth appearance, and a pipeable consistency. If you scoop up some batter with a spatula and let some drop off and it leaves a triangle shape on the batter left on the spatula where it separated, you’re ready to go. Transfer to a piping bag and fix with an appropriate nozzle.
On your prepared baking sheet(s), pipe 1-1/2 inch circles, 3 inch rounds, or 4-5 inch long tubes (use the scissors to snip off the pieces of dough). If you’re making cream puffs or profiteroles, wet the tip of your finger and smooth out the inevitable little peak at the top of each bun left by the piping bag. If you have a spray bottle, lightly spritz the buns from a height to diffuse the water and let it mist over the tray. Otherwise, with a pastry brush, brush water in the spaces between the dough.
Bake in the oven for 20 minutes, then drop the temperature to 350°F and bake for a further 10. Make sure that you can see into your oven to check them without opening the oven door, or you’re playing with fire, because the thinness of the pastry means it can burn quickly if you don’t watch it. Do not, and I cannot stress this enough, open the oven door while they’re baking, or you will ruin them. Choux pastry does not have any rising agents – the only rising agent is the steam that’s released from the water absorbed in the dough. Opening the door will cause that steam to escape, and you’ll have lost it for good – the buns will collapse and you will be sad.
Once the buns are baked to a golden brown, take them out and pop them onto a cooling rack. CAREFULLY, while they’re still hot, flip them over and make a small incision with the tip of a knife at the bottom of each. This will allow your buns/profiteroles/eclairs to dry out on the inside and crisp up, plus the incision will make it easier for you to pipe in your filling. Let them cool all the way down before filling with custard, whipped cream, or créme diplomat (my personal favorite). If you want to fill the bigger treats with ice cream, cut them in half instead, fill as usual, and sandwich back together. Cover and store for up to three days. Like they’ll last that long, amirite?
I love cream puffs. I know, cheesy clichés and what have you, but they’re absolutely a major staple of my childhood and were the pastry that made me want to become an amateur baker. There’s a bakery in my hometown of San Jose that is famous (to me) for their eclairs and cream puffs, and when my mother and I lived up the street, it was a tradition at least once a month to snag a pink box full of these whipped cream-filled delights. This bakery offered the more traditional pastry cream filling, but I preferred whipped cream, until I learned that you could combine the two and put that inside them instead. Game changer.
But far more importantly than a popular bakery, my Nonni used to make cream puffs every weekend when I came to spend them with her as a child. Even after she was diagnosed with cancer, she would still faithfully have a batch of these little treats, with some strawberries, ready for me when I arrived. She passed away when I was ten, but even now, 24 years later, I can’t eat a cream puff without thinking of my Nonni. I made my first homemade batch of these for my mom’s birthday last year as a tribute to her mother, my grandmother, with the Chantilly whipped cream filling and dark chocolate topping we’d both remembered so fondly of Nonni’s cream puffs.
I’ve learned a lot about baking since that first batch, and I’ve gotten a little bolder in my flavor combinations, but to me, a cream puff isn’t complete without a chocolate ganache topping, especially since the fillings tend to be sweet and caramel and powdered sugar just make them sweeter. But my favorite thing about cream puffs, profiteroles, and eclairs is they’re so versatile, it’s incredibly easy to customize them with whatever flavors you like, so if you’re looking for your own signature bake, this is a great place to start.