It can seem daunting, but once you know the trick to choux you'll be able to create light, perfectly puffed pastry shells for savoury and sweet affairs.
Choux pastry takes a deep breath and holds on, creating a seemingly magical hollow shell that's just right to fill with custard or cream. While the French word choux refers to the cooked pastry's cabbage-like appearance, the perfect choux should be light, airy and crisp - which is not very like a cabbage!
Choux pastry contains a large amount of water in the paste or dough, which turns to steam when baked, puffing the pastry. The first stage of cooking is to create a paste by boiling together butter and water, to which flour is added. It's important the butter and water mixture be boiling rapidly when the flour is added so the starch cells in the flour burst open, allowing them to accept more water, which in turn creates more steam and consequently more puff. When the flour is added, the mixture needs to be vigorously stirred to incorporate the flour evenly and prevent lumps.
Once you have the paste at this lump-free stage, you're home-free. Now the paste needs to cool slightly before adding the eggs, which must be stirred in one at a time. A little perseverance needs to be observed at this stage because you'll find at first the egg doesn't want to co-operate, sloshing around the pastry before it surrenders and combines to give the pastry a glossy sheen. For large quantities, the eggs may be added - again, one at a time - and combined in an electric mixer.
Some recipes advocate the use of sugar in a choux paste if it's to be used with a sweet filling, but this can lead to the pastry browning too quickly. Allowing the pastry to be browned by the flour's natural sugars means they can be cooked longer, which dries out the centre. If it's not properly dried out, choux pastry will soften and become soggy in a matter of hours.
A piping bag is generally used to distribute and shape the choux paste onto a baking tray, but if you find this fiddly and don't require a specific shape, it may be spooned onto the trays. This gives a more rustic shape, which can look beautiful for cream puffs, especially when they're dusted with icing sugar. Ignore the temptation to open the oven door for a peek while you're baking. It's hard to resist, especially the first time when you can't believe the transformation from dense, sticky paste to light fluffy puff, but the loss of internal steam will prevent your choux pastries from becoming all they could be.
When your puffs are nearly done, cut them open or prick them with a skewer and return them briefly to the oven. This allows the puffs to dry out and stay crisp in storage. When cooled, the choux puffs should be stored in an airtight container. If you find the puffs have softened in storage, they can be crisped up in the oven before filling and serving.
Choux can be used for savoury snacks: gougères are choux pastry that have Gruyère cheese incorporated into the paste, and they make great canapés when split and filled like a sandwich. No sweet tooth can resist choux in desserts: profiteroles filled with custard, dipped in toffee and formed into a tower become a celebratory croquembouche; when piped into a circle, topped with flaked almonds, then filled with raspberries and Chantilly cream, it's Paris-Brest. Best of all, the ultimate crowd pleaser, the chocolate éclair.