The name of these small choux buns originally signifies a small gift – a description that does not fit well with the vast bowls of soggy, dairy-smeared pastry I remember from childhood, which is probably the last time I ate one. Profiteroles seemed to be everywhere in the 1980s: school speech days, family weddings, wakes … There was no occasion the choux did not fit and, reader, I hated them.
Fresh from the oven, however, they’re a quite different beast: light and airy shells, so soft inside that they almost melt on the tongue, filled with rich cream and served with warm, bittersweet chocolate sauce – well, who wouldn’t see them as a gift from heaven? Profiteroles are due a comeback. You read it here first.
Choux pastry (the cabbage label apparently relates to its slightly cracked, rustic appearance once baked; assuming it isn’t a corruption of chaud, or hot, referring to the unusual nature of their preparation) is, according to legendary pastry chef Claire Clark’s book Indulge, “a cross between a batter and a dough”. Indeed, I think the method is more like that of a white sauce than a shortcrust. As James Morton reassures readers of How Baking Works: “Choux isn’t complicated at all: a passable choux pastry can be made with the most reckless of recipes, and a brilliant one with just a wee bit of care.” As this is my first venture into choux, I find this reassuring.
The Leiths Baking Bible backs choux as “one of the easiest types of pastry to make”, but not everyone is so blasé: Dr Tim Kinnaird’s Perfecting Patisserie claims that perfect choux requires, on top of meticulous recipes and methods, “judgment and instinct”, calling it “a significant milestone in your patisserie journey”. Yikes.
Easy or otherwise, given that choux is certainly atypical of pastry in general, it may be helpful to run through its constituent parts. The process starts with liquid: either milk, water or a mixture of the two, as in Jeremy Lee’s recipe, heated with butter until simmering. According to Morton, “milk gives a richer, darker pastry, but it is easier to burn”. Water is also more traditional, but testers prefer the softer texture and slight sweetness of the milk used by the three Michelin-starred chef Anne-Sophie Pic’s book, Scook: The Complete Cookery Guide. They do lack a little crispness in my clumsy hands, though, so I’m going to use half milk, half water, as Lee does.Advertisement
At this point, you add the flour: plain is usual, though I try strong as well, which Morton prefers for the “snappy, crispy finish” that, he says, “helps the pastry cope with wetter fillings better”, but it is chewier, so unless you need to fill them in advance, I’d stick with plain. Once that’s stirred into the hot liquid, the mixture goes back on the heat to dry out while you beat it vigorously; the more liquid you get rid of at this point, the more egg you can add later to help it rise.
Once the paste starts to come away from the sides of the pan, you can take it off the heat and let it cool slightly before you stir in the eggs (Pic does not mention this in her recipe, but I’m pretty sure she knows it, because I doubt her starred profiteroles contain scrambled egg). If time is of the essence, you can keep whisking it to help speed the cooling process, but I found it quicker and easier to spread it out on a plate, as Leiths recommends.
The eggs must then be added little by little, while you beat the batter as vigorously as possible, both to incorporate them and to add air to help it rise. (Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham suggest electric beaters may help with this process, if you don’t mind a little extra washing-up.) This is also where judgment comes in: add too little egg, and your profiteroles will be flat and cracked; too much, and they’ll spread to pancakes in the oven. A glossy mixture that just drops off the spoon is what you’re after.
Most of the recipes I try are seasoned only with salt: the savoury pastry makes a pleasant contrast to the sweet fillings, but Pic adds a little sugar, too, and testers feel it gives her buns a more rounded flavour.
Shaping and baking
To help the batter keep its shape in the oven, I like Lee’s suggestion to chill it for half an hour before piping, though you can use a teaspoon to scoop little rounds on to the baking tray if that feels too much of a faff (“a rustic irregular rise” is, according to Morton, who is a very comforting guide, “acceptable and often desired”). I like the smaller versions in Pic and Pierre Koffmann’s recipes – they seem to stay crisper once filled, but feel free to increase the size if you like big buns and you cannot lie (sorry), though note you’ll need to increase the cooking times accordingly. You can egg-wash them if you’d like a shiny finish, but I prefer them soft and matt.
Most important of all, however, is the baking: too hot, and the outsides will burn before the buns cook through; too cool, and they won’t rise properly. Koffmann starts his in a 240C oven before turning it down once they’ve puffed up, but this is risky, because unless you catch them at just the right time, they’ll end up dry. Pic, on the other hand, goes for 165C, which leaves hers a bit pale and flabby. Putting the buns in at a slightly lower temperature, still hot enough to ensure a good rise, then reducing it further to evaporate moisture from the centre once they’ve expanded, seems a safer plan.
Julia Child reckons “you cannot fail” with choux as long as you take the proper final measures”, which means releasing the steam that will have built up inside the buns during cooking, before it has a chance to do any damage to the thin, crisp outer walls. Making a little hole in the base of each and turning them uppermost to cool seems to do the trick; I find that putting them back in the oven afterwards, as Leiths suggests, dries them out too much.
When it comes to the filling, you can be as simple (Leiths’ sweetened whipped cream) or as fancy (Koffmann’s chocolate, pistachio and vanilla crème patissière, Lee’s vanilla version with matching ice-cream, and Pic’s mint ice-cream) as takes your fancy. Much as I love custard (and I really do), here I agree with most of my guinea pigs: a plainer filling, such as minimally sweetened cream, makes for a more pleasing contrast with the accompanying sauce, while ice-cream has a tendency to melt and make things a bit wet, though you can always serve it on the side, if you like. Note that if you make bigger buns, you can slice them in half and fill them that way, but smaller ones will require you to pipe the cream in through the base. It’s a little bit fiddly, but worthwhile.
Leiths serves the profiteroles with what I think of as a fairly traditional sauce, thick enough to cling to the top of the buns – almost more like an icing. This is a good move if you’d like to add it before serving, because it won’t run down and make the rest of the pastry soggy, but we all prefer the decadence of the runnier warm sauces recommended by Koffmann, Pic, Lee and Hopkinson and Bareham in their book The Prawn Cocktail Years.Advertisement
A creamy filling seems to suggest a water-based sauce, and Hopkinson and Bareham’s version fits the bill perfectly: intensely chocolatey, but not overly rich. Bear in mind that if you’d like to flavour it with anything more than a pinch of salt, you could add mint leaves, as Pic does, or perhaps some citrus zest or sweet spice, or even pink peppercorns, if you’re feeling particularly retro.
Last, heed Lee’s sage advice: “Choux pastries are the Cinderella of French pastries: their spell lasts only a short while” – so make them as soon before serving as possible, and fill them while people are still arguing about politics over the remains of the main course. Inconvenient, perhaps, but trust me, you’ll profit.
Prep 15 min
Cook 35 min
60ml whole milk
60g soft butter, cut into small pieces
70g plain flour
¾ tsp salt
½ tsp caster sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
For the chocolate sauce
100g dark chocolate
60g caster sugar
1 pinch salt
For the filling
250ml cold double cream
1 tbsp icing sugar, sifted
1 dash vanilla extract
Bring the milk, water and butter to a boil in a medium pan, stirring to melt the butter. Meanwhile, sift together the flour, salt and sugar.
As soon as the liquid comes to a boil, take off the heat and tip in the dry ingredients. Stir or whisk until you have a smoothish paste, then put back on a medium heat and keep stirring until the dough is smooth, comes away from the sides of the pan and is beginning to stick to the bottom. Tip out on to a plate and spread out to cool (unless you’re in no hurry, in which case you can put it in a bowl).
Once the mixture is warm, rather than hot, put it back into the pan (or keep it in the bowl), and vigorously beat in the eggs, a little at a time, with a spoon or electric beaters. Test the consistency as you go, because you may not need to use all the eggs (or you may need to add a drop of milk if they’re not quite sufficient): the batter should be glossy and reluctantly drop from the spoon when it’s lifted out. Cover and chill for at least 30 minutes, if you have time. (You can use the choux dough immediately, but the shape will be better if it’s cold.)
Meanwhile, heat the oven to 200C (fan 180C)/390F/gas 6 and grease a baking tray. Pipe walnut-size rounds of the mixture (for small buns) on to the baking sheet, spacing them out well (or spoon them on instead). Smooth any pointed tops with a wet finger.
Bake for 10 minutes., then turn down the oven to 170C (fan 150C)/335F/gas 3 and bake for another seven to 10 minutes, until well risen, crisp and golden.
Take the tray out of the oven and immediately cut a small hole in the bottom of each bun, to let out the steam. Arrange the buns, hole uppermost, back on the baking sheet, and leave to cool.
To make the chocolate sauce, put the chocolate and water in a small saucepan. Heat gently, stirring occasionally to help it melt, and once it has done so, stir in the sugar, until dissolved. Turn up the heat and simmer for five to 10 minutes, until thick. Add the salt, take off the heat and keep warm.
Whip the cream to soft peaks, then sift in the icing sugar and add the vanilla, and fold together. Carefully enlarge the holes in the bases of the buns, so they’re just large enough to fill with cream, then pipe in, generously.
Serve four profiteroles per person, with the warm chocolate sauce on the side.