Cooking

If the Choux Fits

Master the art of pâte à choux with Dominique Ansel
Dominique Ansel's Pate a Choux
Dominique Ansel piping out spheres of the versatile pâte à choux | Photos: Lizzie Munro for Tasting Table

"Who makes pâte à choux at home?" Dominique Ansel asks as he stirs together the traditional French dough (see the recipe), used to make everything from éclairs to profiteroles, at the Tasting Table Test Kitchen.

He goes around the room, getting "yes" after "yes" in response.

"I never do," he laughs, letting the eggy mixture puff up in the heated pan.

Instead, the celebrated French pastry chef (and yes, Cronut King) spends most of his days in something of a pâte à choux wonderland at his eponymous bakery in New York City's Soho, where he whips up batch after batch of the dough to build the base for many of his whimsical desserts. But you don't need to be a dessert wunderkind to pull off making pâte à choux at home.

"For a chef in the kitchen, it's important to have good roots. And when I say good roots, for baking, I mean pâte à choux," Ansel explains. "It's one of the all-time classics in France and you can use it for so many things."

The dough is a simple mixture of milk, butter, flour, salt, sugar and water, heated up in a pan, then beaten with a few eggs, piped and baked. Ansel learned how to make it as a 16-year-old dishwasher at a little restaurant in his hometown of Beauvais, France. And using a few of Ansel's simple techniques (see the slideshow), you can master it too.

"The key is the eggs," he explains as he demonstrates his recipe from Dominique Ansel: The Secret Recipes (Simon & Schuster, $35), which hits shelves next month. "You crack them one at a time and they make the dough puff up."

Once it's thoroughly mixed, the fun part—piping—comes in. Ansel lights up.

"You can give it any shape you like," he says."You can flavor the choux base with chocolate, hazelnut, pistachio or go into the savory world of cheese, dried tomato and herbs. There are so many things you can do with it."

For Ansel, that means deep-fried panko-crusted gougères or cramming Snickers-inspired flavors into a traditional Paris-Brest. But for home cooks, he recommends stacking puffs of the baked dough into a croquembouche or lacing the dough with savory Gouda to make gougères.

"Pâte à choux is something I grew up with," Ansel reminisces. "It's something you would find in every single pastry shop in France."

And you can find it in your kitchen, too.

  • The man, the Cronut legend: Dominique Ansel. Here he is at our Test Kitchen showing us his favorite dough to play around with: pâte à choux. "You'll find it at every single pastry shop in Paris," he says of the versatile mixture. "There's nowhere you can go without pâte à choux there."

  • Since the recipe is simple and requires few ingredients, a scale is key. "We're measuring and scaling out everything," Ansel explains. "It's very important to have precise measurements so you always have constant results as well."

  • Ansel stirs together the ingredients. Surprisingly, it's not the steam from the heated-through dough that puffs the dough up but the egg yolks.

  • Then just a 16-year-old dishwasher, Ansel first learned how to make pâte à choux for the gougères the restaurant he worked for sent out for midday snacking.

  • Ansel loves this dough because you can pour it into a piping bag and draw out whatever shape you like—unlike, say, a cake.

  • The final product: perfectly globular gougères. Ansel doesn't trace circles beforehand. Instead he relies on gentle, constant pressure to pipe out even balls of dough.

  • One thing Dominique Ansel does with his finished batch of pâte à choux: A frosted, whimsical take on the religieuse.

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