Can I be honest, guys? I don’t know how I really feel about pâte-à-choux yet. Our first interaction wasn’t that great, and then things seemed to flow a little better between us the more time we spent together, but I just don’t know if I like choux enough to really invest in it, you know? I mean, I like it; I just don’t know if I like-like it. It’s a fun medium to play with, but on its own, it’s pretty bland. Also, my hands are still cramped from all the éclairs and chouquettes I’ve piped over the last week, so I may be a little bitter.
I will say this for choux, though: it is a lot less intimidating once you realize how simple it is to make. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been so impressed by éclairs, profiteroles, and all the other choux-based pastries I’ve eaten over the years that I thought making good pâte-à-choux was akin to making good sushi rice—a closely guarded secret it takes seven years to master.
The truth is, it’s just some water, butter, flour, and eggs, with a dash of salt and sugar. I know, I know… “Just.” As if it’s really just that simple. As with basically anything pastry-related, getting it perfect is relatively difficult, but getting it good enough is a hell of a lot easier than you probably think it is. (Look, here’s a recipe for coconut cream puffs that shows you how to make a version of it, and you don’t even need any special equipment! Although a stand mixer does make it a little easier.)
Anyway, making the choux is the easy part; piping it is an entirely different story. Precision has always been one of my strengths (or at least something I’m not horrible at), but consistency has not, and when piping literally anything for class, it’s the latter that counts more than the former. Tell me to pipe a 4-inch by 1-inch éclair? You got it. Tell me to pipe sixteen of them? LOL, no. I will, despite my efforts, give you at most three identical, perfectly piped shells, and thirteen others that look like various palm trees, zombie fingers, and genitalia. And while I’m sure there’s a market for all of those things, I’m also sure the Chef doesn’t want to see any of those in her kitchen (in choux or real form). And so, over the course of our choux unit, I tried as hard as I could to pipe even, consistent, non-phallic éclairs, balls, and rings. I think I did alright, but I know there’s a lot of room for improvement.
This unit was pretty short, only about five classes, or a week and a half (I’ll come back to how intense and fast this program is in a later post, because whoo, boy, am I realizing just how intense and fast it is now). So after we did the basic éclairs, we did gougères (cheese puffs) and chouquettes, which are one of my favorite pastries, even though they’re so simple they might not even qualify as pastries. When I was living in France I would pick them up as a treat when I picked up bread from my local boulangerie. Let me tell you, there is nothing quite like the crunch of the pearl sugar and golden brown shell of a fresh chouquette followed by the eggy, custardy interior to perk you up on a crappy day. (If you want to try them but can’t find a bakery that makes them by you, try making them on your own with David Lebovitz’s recipe.) We made little ones, probably about fifty per person, and I may or may not have eaten them all myself within 24 hours.
Then we graduated to a Saint Honoré, which is supposed to look like this, and is essentially a bunch of choux with crème chiboust on and in it, with some of the puffs covered in caramel (try not to lick your screen—it won’t taste like a Saint Honoré, trust me). But mine turned out like this:
We were super rushed and our chiboust had to be redone because we overwhipped the meringue, but it was delicious all the same. If you follow me on Instagram, you already know that the pastry is named after Saint Honoré (Honoratus), the patron saint of pastry chefs, but did you also know the pastry tip used to pipe the chiboust is called a “chiboust” tip? What a coincidence!
The last project we did before our exam was a croquembouche. You might know what a croquembouche is; you may have even eaten one before. But have you ever attempted to make one of these?
These things are impressive. I was terrified of making one because a) they’re supposed to look amazing and how am I supposed to do that after only six weeks in pastry school, and b) caramel burns. If you’ve not had the pleasure of being burned by molten sugar, let me tell you: I don’t recommend it. Just… don’t do it. There’s no need. You really aren’t missing out on anything except searing pain you don’t feel until it’s too late and hot sugar has taken off two layers of skin and ruined your writing hand for a good week.
A croquembouche is, for those who don’t know, a kind of pièce montée, or sculpted centerpiece, generally served at weddings. It’s a conical structure made of (usually) cream-filled puffs glued together with caramel and decorated to look…”all fancy” is the technical term, I believe. We didn’t fill our puffs because we were really just making it for the experience, and not to be served, but we did dip them all in caramel (and I have the burns to prove it! [see note above]) and various decorative coatings.
My class opted to put together one giant croquembouche, partly because no one wanted to have to bring anything home, but mainly because we wanted to assert dominance and intimidate all the other classes. I was hoping it would be the size of a person—I didn’t measure it, but in the end, I think it probably came out to about the size of a fourth grader? We also made some decorations, and I was more than pleased that a number of mine made it onto the final piece; unfortunately my name broke, but the I made the flower on the top (and the mixer, whisk, and crown), so at least there’s that!
It was really great to work as a team to bring this together. We all did all of the work, including piping, dipping, rolling, gluing, engineering, cleaning, etc. And even though it was humid and the caramel on the extra puffs I took home got all goopy (don’t look at me that way; they’re a tasty snack!), our croquembouche stayed up for days after we put it together. I don’t know what eventually happened to it. It most likely ended up in the compost bin, but part of me hopes it was wrapped up and sent down the Hudson on a funeral pyre made of chocolate logs and spun sugar kindling, burning orange and red like the coconut flakes topping the choux puffs, with West side joggers stopping to pay their respects and watch it float by to that great pastry heaven in the sky.