Pâte à choux, or choux paste, is the dough used to make cream puffs, eclairs, gougères, and pretty much an infinite variety of other delicious things. It’s the only pastry dough that’s made with hot ingredients. (In fact, choux, “cabbage,” probably was originally chaud, “hot.”) Normally you want to keep the fat cold while you handle the dough. With pâte à choux, you start the dough in the saucepan by mixing flour, water, and butter over heat until the dough comes together. Then you put the hot dough into the stand mixer and beat it until it cools to 140℉. At that point, you begin adding eggs. The hotter the dough is when you begin adding the eggs, the more eggs you can add. The problem, of course, is that you risk cooking the eggs.
Mixing the dough is merely the first challenge. The second challenge is piping it, but that gets easier with practice.
To pipe eclairs that are the same size, you fold a sheet of parchment paper into a grid so you have some guidelines to follow.
The next hurdle is baking. Moisture in the pastry turns to steam and puffs the puffs. The puffs have to be baked completely so they dry out and become light and crisp. This also gets easier to judge with practice.
Paul, the assistant, made gougères. The dough is flavored with cheese and, in this case, garlic and parsley. Gougères can be filled or not. They’re excellent for hors d’oeuvres.
One student made swans. I intend to try making these at home.
Cream puffs and eclairs are traditionally filled with pastry cream and topped with poured fondant. Fondant is a supersaturated sugar solution that is cooled and then whipped. Before it’s whipped, it’s clear; whipping incorporates air, which makes it white.
You can add flavoring, which also typically adds color, such as chocolate. Poured fondant is soft and spreadable and sets to make a very smooth and shiny coating.
Profiteroles are like cream puffs but filled with ice cream.
Paris-Brest is choux paste piped into a ring. You split the ring and fill it with pastry cream. These were invented in honor of the Paris-Brest-Paris bicycle race; they represent bicycle wheels.
Religieuses are two cream puffs that are stacked and decorated to look like nuns.
Divorces are two cream puffs with different fillings, traditionally one coffee pastry cream and one chocolate pastry cream, set side by side. I have no idea where the French come up with these things.
St. Honoré, so far as I can tell, is an exercise in wretched excess. On a base of puff pastry, you pipe rings of choux paste; then you bake that. You also make puffs. You fill the puffs with pastry cream and dip them in caramel. Then you fill the base with more pastry cream and decorate it with the cream puffs. My teeth hurt just thinking about this.