Cream Puffs, Eclairs and Tart Doughs

Week Two.

The second class of Pastry Techniques 101 (PT 101) began with a review of pâte à choux (again [paht ah shoo], which in this case meant chef and the class made it…again. Sadly, I could probably make choux paste a hundred times and still wonder if I did it correctly.

The delightful thing about choux paste, though, is that its main purpose in life is to serve as a vehicle for such wonderful things as pastry cream and chocolate glaze which, when combined with the choux bun, become cream puffs and eclairs. The only difference between the two is the shape: cream puffs are round and eclairs are like long, fat fingers. Better still, add to the dough some cheese (Gruyere, Comte or Parmesan), some herbs (think rosemary, thyme) and a little bit of spice (a couple of dashes Cayenne pepper, salt, pepper, nutmeg), and voila! You now have gougeres. [Goo-zhairs, goo-jeres]. One simple dough, yet so versatile.

After each team made its own batch of choux buns (I need to clarify this with Chef, but I think regardless of the finished product – cream puffs or eclairs – the baked dough is called a choux bun), we tackled pastry cream and chocolate glaze. Like pâte à choux, each recipe has only a handful of ingredients, but the screw up factor runs high. In pastry cream’s case, the potential for failure lies in the cornstarch, the amount of whisking and time on the heat. I’m convinced that pastry cream also enjoys deceiving its makers. My partner and I were patting each other on the back, thinking we were looking down at a perfect bowl of pastry cream. When we retrieved it a bit later, it had turned into a gelatinous mess. While still usable, it makes filling a pastry bag a particularly arduous task. It did the same thing to me when I made it at home. Oh well, I used it anyway both times, and in each instance the cream puffs and eclairs were quite tasty. At least that’s what my neighbor said about the ones I brought home from class and what my friends said about the ones I made for them (although the chocolate glaze on those was a bit bitter. More on that below).

Chocolate glaze. I need to take back something I said: actually, the screw up factor with this recipe is fairly low. I think I was still angry about the pastry cream when I lumped them together above. The key to chocolate glaze, though, is that a chocolate with a minimum of 28 percent cocoa butter must be used. When I was shopping for the chocolate so I could practice the recipe at home, I reasoned that 85 percent certainly fits that bill. Oops. Way too bitter. So, don’t make that mistake. Yet another thing I need to confirm with Chef, but I think I won’t go much above 60 percent cocoa butter next time I make chocolate glaze.

One final word about pâte à choux, pastry cream and chocolate glaze: Despite the somewhat finicky nature of these recipes, they come together quickly. This means wonderful, beautiful desserts and hors d’ouevres can be made without a whole lot of fuss and muss and with items typically on hand in a well-stocked kitchen.

But wait! Class was not over at this point. Even though we had watched Chef make choux paste, pastry cream and chocolate glaze, and we made our own choux paste and pastry cream and assembled cream puffs and eclairs (using Chef’s glaze), we still had two tart doughs to conquer!

In the French fundamentals of pastry, there are two tart doughs that must be mastered if one really wants to consider oneself educated on pastry: Pâte brisée and pâte sucrée.  A few words on each:

Pâte Brisée
[paht bree zay]
The literal French translation is “short pastry.” If Chef explained in class why it is called this, I wasn’t listening. What I did hear, though, is that this is a flaky dough that is typically used for savory tarts, such as quiche. Adding to that with my expert Googling skills, pâte brisée has a high ratio of fat to flour which accounts for its flaky, rich nature and also allegedly makes it easy with which to work (remember, though, the French can be sneaky in their recipes. Until I make it at home without Chef’s instruction, I’m going to be leery of it.). Pâte brisée is made with all purpose flour (APF), butter, salt and cold water (and everything must be cold when assembling the dough). That’s it! I’m embarrassed to admit now that I ever sunk so low as to buy and use a pre-made pie crust. Damn you, Pillsbury, and that cute little dough boy.

Pâte Sucrée
[paht soo-KRAY]
Now this translation makes more sense: “sweet pastry.” Also a tart dough, this one is used for sweet tarts, or what Americans traditionally think of as a tart – pies, jam tarts, custard tarts and so on. It also contains only a few common ingredients: butter (lots), sugar, vanilla, lemon zest, eggs, APF and salt (everything should be at room temperature when assembling the dough). Again, that’s it!

You know, I think I’m on the verge of solving the mystery of basic doughs. Once the word gets out and more people realize how easy it is to make one’s own dough, pastry chefs everywhere are doomed! In fact, the whole French economy could collapse due to Sugar Talk. Seriously, keep your eyes on world news and the financial markets.

After Chef lectured on these two basic tart doughs, he demonstrated making them. Each team then made its own version of each dough. We wrapped up our doughs to be used during Week Three. The doughs can keep in the refrigerator for a week or more. In fact, both should be used only when well-chilled.

There you have it: two different doughs made with very few ingredients, so simple! Although maybe I should reserve judgment about how easy are these doughs until I use mine made in class or make mine at home. The joke may be on me after all.

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