Pate a choux is a relatively simple dough in terms of ingredients – flour, water, butter and minimal amounts of sugar and salt – that hasn’t changed very much in the past 100 years. The name comes from the fact that a round puff resembles a cabbage. Choux is French for cabbage.
It originated in Italy but really has become part of the French pastry lexicon. It is the base for popular desserts such as éclairs, St. Honoré, Paris-Brest, and Religieuse. In Spain, with some modification, it becomes Churros and in Austria it is boiled to make dumplings. Because it is a neutral dough it can be used for savory applications as well. Add cheese and herbs and it becomes a Gougère, which makes a nice twist on bread for a sandwich or croutons for a salad or even a palate cleanser for wine tasting.
Pate a choux uses mechanical leavening to make it puff. In other words, the moisture in the dough creates steam that causes the dough to rise. The gluten in the dough gives it structure and allows it to stay puffed up and hollow. Because it is hollow it leaves it wide open, no pun intended, for an infinite number of fillings, making it a perfect canvas for an infinite number of flavors and textures.
At Les Madeleines, we always have at least one éclair in the pastry case and an additional dessert based on pate a choux. Some of our favorites are the pumpkin pie éclair, Flight 89(peanut butter and jelly), which is a Salt Lake City twist on the more traditional Paris-Brest (hazelnut), and the Courtesan au Chocolat et pistache which we were asked to make for the premier of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Recently we also added a sandwich on a gougère to our lunch menu. We use Gruyere cheese, porcini powder and thyme in the pastry.