Choux caramel puffs

Another day, another bake. Or more accurately: another week, another bake.

I was a little apprehensive before I started this bake, if I’m honest. My experience with pastry is limited to pies. I made cheese gougères once which I think have a similar process to choux pastry, but that being said I have never made a cream puff or croquembouche or eclair in my life.

I had seen people on The Great British Bake Off make choux pastry. They talk about it a lot. Choux pastry. Choux pastry. Choux pastry.

I never read it, though.

I could’ve sworn they were making shoe pastry.

So on that confident note, here goes.

As with most bakes, this one began with flour.

Flour that, for some reason, needs to be sifted out onto a sheet of greaseproof paper and set aside.

There are a couple issues with that. Issue one is my parchment paper comes in a roll which means when I rip a piece off, it likes to curl, which means I needed to brace the corners of my sheet of greaseproof paper lest flour tumble everywhere. The other issue is that I don’t have a lot of counter space to be able to “set aside” a massive piece of parchment. I’d like to see a cookbook for a tiny kitchen.

“Sift flour onto a sheet of greaseproof paper and put it as far into the corner of your work space as possible. If necessary, put a cutting board over your sink and do it there. Also good luck. Also the clean up from this bake will take days.”

Next up, Mary and Paul want me to measure out 75 grams of unsalted butter. I had a block that weighed about 145 grams. I sliced strategically and got it at 75 grams on my first shot. I deserve an award.

After dicing that up and plonking it into water in a pan, I added the salt.

And then I waited. And waited. And waited for the butter to melt but the water not to boil. It’s a tricky dance, gently heating something.

As I waited for that, I thought I’d prep my other ingredients because, looking ahead in this recipe, I see that things are going to happen in quite quick succession.

Mary and Paul say that I need 3 eggs, “beaten to mix” (whatever that means—I assume it means beaten more than lightly). However, they also say I may not need all the eggs. I’ll just need enough to make a “very shiny, paste-like dough that just falls from the spoon when you lightly shake it” and that I “may not need that last spoonful or so of egg.” But if you’ve been with me a while, you know that adding only bits of beaten egg is nearly impossible because beaten egg is like one massive loogie. That thing is viscous. So in my pre-planning, I decided to separate the eggs. I figured I’d need at least two and maybe a bit of the third.

Back to that gentle boil, and the butter has not melted.

They say nothing about stirring it, and I’m assuming choux is a trickier beast because it sounds French and the French make delicious, complicated things. So I wait.

Nearly there.

Now here’s where things get complicated.

Once the butter is melted, I’m to quickly bring the mixture to a boil and then tip the flour into the boiling substance. At that point, I need to remove the pan from the heat and “beat furiously with a wooden spoon.” A tad aggressive. This isn’t a scene in Jane Eyre. But I follow instructions carefully.

Cut to:

Two things about this. First, Mary and Paul tell me “the mixture will look an unpromising, lumpy mess” but I’m to keep beating it until it turns into a “smooth, heavy dough.” The second thing is I obeyed instructions and beat furiously and didn’t consider the fact that just-boiled butter and water may splash.

All across my hand and up the handle of the pot. Oops.

The good thing about tiny kitchens is I could stand at the stove and continue beating the mixture with one hand while putting my other hand under cold running water.

And it paid off! Because I ended up with this:

Then Mary and Paul tell me to put the pan back onto low heat and beat at a more gentle speed for a couple of minutes, until the dough comes away from the sides of the pan and makes a smooth ball.

I think I did that too!

So far this shoe, I mean choux, pastry isn’t so impossible!

After it’s cooked, I’m to drop it into a heatproof bowl and let it cool a couple minutes.

Then, using an electric mixture, I’m to whisk in the eggs, a little at a time, until I get to the aforementioned consistency.

As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t like my KitchenAid and don’t trust it to mix thoroughly so I use my handheld. And normally that is a great alternative.

I think I found the one bake that doesn’t work with, though:

It didn’t exactly fall from the spoon when I lightly shook it, but it did seem stiff enough to pipe.

I managed to get as much off the beaters as I could and then did an additional beat with the wooden spoon for good measure.

Also does everyone like my new heatproof glass bowl? I’m looking forward to the next recipe that requires melting chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water. Took me long enough, eh?

Now here’s where things start to get scary again. Piping. Not my strong suit. Not anything I’ve had a lot of experience with, so really how can I be expected to be good at something I haven’t practiced. A life lesson I’m still learning—it’s okay not to be perfect at something on the first try.

Now, my reason for using a plastic baggie for a piping session is twofold: firstly there’s the fact that cleanup is far easier than using a proper piping bag; secondly there’s the fact that I put my piping set somewhere really, really safe and had no idea where that was.

I twisted the top to avoid pushing the mixture out the wrong end of the bag and did my best. In my excitement to pipe, I put the first few a little too close to each other on the baking sheet. And ending a pipe is really hard to do with this dough (and in general), so I had to grab a butter knife to make sure I wasn’t dragging the dough around.

I was told to do 14 8-cm long fingers, and ended up with 18 6-7-cm long fingers. Close enough! And not bad for my first piped choux.

Now that they’re piped, Mary and Paul want me to brush them with the remaining beaten egg…

…and sprinkle chopped almonds on top. Now, I didn’t have chopped almonds, I had sliced almonds and I thought those would be “chopped” enough, but after adding them to the first finger, I realized the ratio was off. So instead of chopping, I just crushed them in my hands before adding them atop the egg wash.

Good enough!

Now I bake them in a preheated oven for 15 minutes without opening the door—a very important detail.

*15 minutes later*

After 15 minutes, I was told to turn down the heat and “quickly open and close the oven door,” which is tricky to get a photo of:

Then I bake for another 20 minutes.

Now here’s where things get additionally complicated. I had a friend coming over and this is the same friend whose fun chats may or may not have distracted me whilst making the walnut coffee cake and I forgot to add the walnuts. I wanted to enjoy her company so I was trying to get most of this bake done before she arrived. Which means that instead of waiting for the fingers to be baked before starting the caramel, I started the caramel during this 20-minute portion of baking.

Slight pressure.

But it had to happen.

To make the caramel, I was to combine water and sugar in a pan and heat gently.

“Heating gently” is a real time-consumer. I should’ve started this during the 15-minute portion and before the opening and closing of the oven door.

As that heats gently, I sneaked a peek at the choux through an embarrassingly dirty oven window.

They’re puffing up! How exciting!

Back to the caramel. (Also at this point my friend arrived and I told her that I may need to stop talking and ask for complete silence. She was going to get caramel choux puffs out of the deal, so she didn’t mind.)

Once the sugar dissolved completely, I had to add lumps of butter and, again, melt gently.

So much gentle melting!

With the butter melted, I could then turn up the heat and leave to boil for 7-10 minutes “until the mixture turns a good caramel colour.” I’m also discouraged from stirring as it boils, instead encouraged to swirl the pan to keep it from sticking to the edges.

Even when I wasn’t baking and was just reading the instructions, I asked for silence. (Thanks for your patience, friend!)

It was at this point that I could chat, keeping one eye on the choux pastry timer and one eye on the colour of the caramel.

It became a bit of a nail-biter situation. (Not literally. I mean that is my vice that I combat with painted nails, but I’d never bite my nails whilst baking. That’s disgusting.)

Not much difference. Maybe my timing will be okay. When the choux is done its 20 minutes, I need to take them out, poke holes in them to release steam and pop them back in for another 10-12 minutes.

But then I remembered the fickleness of caramel and how quickly it goes from nothing to SOMETHING . It was around the time it turned into its golden caramel colour that the timer went off, but I figured the choux could wait while I dealt with the next caramel steps.

Mary and Paul tell me that when it’s reached the right colour, I’m to remove the pan from the heat and, terrifying, “cover your hand with a cloth and carefully pour in the cream” because “the mixture will froth up and splutter.”

What?

Also which hand do I cover? Do I cover my cream-pouring hand or my hand holding the pan handle? I went for both—I had an oven mitt on the pan handle hand and a tea towel covering the cream-pouring hand, with my friend nodding in agreement that I made the right choice.

Update: the cloth note was unnecessary. This step was the most anti-climactic step I have yet experienced in baking.

No sputtering, some frothing when I swirled it, but no need for safety precautions. (At least for me, please don’t come at me if you burn your hands with frothing and spluttering caramel.)

With the cream added, I could return it to a low heat and stir gently with a wooden spoon.

And now deal with those choux.

Eighteen puffed choux, lightly stabbed to release steam. My friend was impressed that I was handling them with my bare hands. But I had already burned my one hand and figured, Who needs fingerprints? Also you cannot do anything with oven mitts on. They’re so cumbersome.

With those back in the oven, I could focus on the caramel again.

Caramel that was taking it’s sweet time to turn smooth and silky.

Later in the recipe, once everything has cooled, I’m going to need to use a star tube to pipe the whipped cream. But remember how I lost my piping set? I’ve only got like 8 cupboards. I don’t know how this happened. And then I had a brainwave!

My decorative tin! Aha!

Also second piece of good news: the caramel turned smooth and silky!

With that cooling in a heatproof bowl (read: soup bowl), I could turn back to the choux.

Mary and Paul told me that the fingers should be “really firm, crisp and dry, and a good golden brown” and they warned me that “under-baked choux if flabby rather than crunchy” so I was not supposed to rush it.

These still didn’t seem done. But at least I could focus on conversation with my friend better. Waiting for pastry to turn golden brown takes less mental energy than making caramel.

Those look pretty good, if I do say so myself.

Now to let everything cool.

*one frozen pizza dinner later*

With everything cool enough to assemble, I started on the whipped cream (with icing sugar)

And got to whipping with the thoroughly cleaned beaters.

With everything ready to assemble, I sliced off the top third of each pastry puff…

…and assembled with a layer of caramel followed by a scoop of whipped cream:

Then topped with the lids and a dusting of icing sugar:

You may notice the lack of piped whipped cream, but I decided it wasn’t worth the work. I’m all for pretty bakes, but I’m also all for simple and delicious ones. No one is going to be taking the time to see if it’s piped with a star tube. They’re just going to want to eat them.

And I was right.

My friend and I had two each and then I decided I should probably save the rest for work and family the next day.

Me oh my these were amazing. I usually don’t like cream puffs because the whipping cream is always frozen when I eat them. And I usually don’t like caramel because it’s too sweet and hurts my teeth. But somehow this caramel was perfectly sweet and was a nice surprise. You bite into the choux puff thinking it’s just yummy pastry and cream and then find out there’s this caramel layer of surprise. It’s the gift that keeps on giving!

*the next day*

Out of the remaining 14, I brought nine in to work to assemble there for my usual group of fans and they were eaten up record time.

Then I brought the remaining five to my sister’s because I was babysitting her kids that evening. I didn’t think about the timing though, and got there as they were all brushing their teeth and going to bed. I let the three kids smell the choux and then told the they would have them the next day with Mom and Dad.

I left everything with my sister and brother-in-law (including the bowl of caramel I did not need in my house), and got a text the next day:

Turns out shoe/choux pastry isn’t so scary after all! It’s totally doable and, bonus, absolutely delicious.

Plus, I find it fascinating that the choux itself has zero sugar in it. So if I didn’t put sugar in the whipping cream, this could be a sugar-free dessert. Interesting!

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