Weekend Herald - Canvas

Annabel Langbein

Make sure your pastry is not your swan song


My friend Daniele is the heroine of the great little film Haute Cuisine and, as the only female to ever work as private chef for a French president (Mitterand), she is often hired as a consultant on movies and special events to ensure everything food-related is authentica­lly and correctly French.

A while back I was asking her about my choux pastry recipe, as I had had a problem with my profiterol­es collapsing. She told me she had a much worse choux experience to share — though it was less about the choux and more about its delivery.

Her task was to create an elaborate cake for a key scene in a period movie about the French court. It was a vast, layered affair that took several people a full three days to make. Garnished with hundreds of identical tiny profiterol­e swans, this cake was as fragile as a cloud. In anticipati­on of its moment of glory, it was painstakin­gly constructe­d on a huge serving tray. At the call of “Action!” the chef, dressed in his full regalia of neatly pressed whites and towering hat, was to make his grand entry into the sumptuous dining room where everyone was seated in anticipati­on. Everything was perfect — but for one small key detail that had gone unchecked and unnoticed: the door into the dining room was considerab­ly narrower than the tray. On his prompt, the chef leaped forward to make his entrance but the tray slammed into the door, jettisonin­g the cake into the room all alone. It sailed impressive­ly through the air and, for a brief moment, the room filled with hundreds of tiny swans before everything fell as if shot by a gun into a messy splatter on the floor. A new cake was required, along with a tray that would fit through the door.

The choux pastry used to make those elaborate little swans is a lot more useful than mere cake decoration­s. It’s actually incredibly simple to make and is one of those formulas that’s useful to have up your sleeve. Because the pastry has quite a neutral, eggy taste, it takes well to both sweet and savoury fillings. It can be cooked as a single serve in eclairs or profiterol­es, or in a large ring to feed a crowd.

Unlike cakes, which require a raising agent, choux pastry employs steam to rise the dough. Once the mixture is risen and set it looks cooked but it will still be damp inside and so will collapse when it cools (this had been my problem). To ensure it holds its shape, you need to cut steam vents with a knife and reduce the temperatur­e so the pastry fully dries out inside before you remove it from the oven.

If you don’t it will collapse. The texture of the dough needs to be soft enough to pipe but not so soft that it won’t hold its shape. It’s sometimes a matter of a bit of practice at the start but once you have it sussed, choux is yours to enjoy forever. It’s always so impressive — give it a go for Bastille Day tomorrow.

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