The Impressive Baking Technique That's Shockingly Simple

If you want to impress friends with baked goods that not only taste amazing but also look like they took years of practice to master, we've got some advice courtesy of a veteran professional baker. According to Amy Emberling, one of the original bakers and current managing partners of Zingerman's Bakehouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan, some of those impressive treats are actually quite elementary to master. Although a few immediately come to mind, she tells Tasting Table, "The most compelling one is pâte à choux," also known as choux pastry or choux paste.

Choux becomes the shell in eclairs and cream puffs. "It looks impressive and a little mysterious, which often makes people think it's difficult," Emberling explains, but it's really not that complicated. One reason is that choux is more forgiving than pie dough, which demands minimal handling for ideal results. Nor does choux rely on yeast, which always adds an element of complexity to any baking project. Finally, the fact that choux is more of a paste than a dough means you don't need to start with the work-intensive step of cutting ice-cold butter into flour — rather, choux begins with melted butter.

"I love teaching it to people for this reason," says Emberling of the baking technique required for choux. "They feel so accomplished after they learn how to do it."

The simple baking technique for choux

The baking technique for choux requires just four ingredients, namely butter, milk, flour, and eggs, along with some water. It starts with adding butter to a mixture of milk and water and heating at medium until the butter has melted into a liquid. Then the heat is lowered, and the flour is stirred in until the mixture takes on the consistency of mashed potatoes. Finally, the eggs are beaten in, but only after the mixture has cooled to room temperature — this will keep the eggs from scrambling.

For exact ingredient proportions, you can refer to our surprisingly easy recipe for chocolate cream puffs. Since the precise moisture content is what makes the choux pastry capable of holding cream, custard, and other gooey fillings without losing its integrity, it can be reassuring to measure the ingredients by weight (i.e., using a kitchen scale), which tends to result in more precise measurements than using measuring cups.

You'll also find in the chocolate cream puffs recipe some useful tips on how to pipe your puffs directly onto baking sheets. The same principles can be applied to piping eclairs. In either case, even if you have no prior experience with piping, you may well find the process significantly easier than what's required for rolling out pie dough and transferring it into a baking dish. When your puffs have cooled, all that's left is to pipe or spoon in the filling.