The versatile marvel behind eclairs, profiteroles & more
If French pastries are your thing, you’ve certainly already encountered the humble pâte à choux, or choux pastry: a light, egg and flour-based delicacy that’s as versatile as it is delicious. Used to make everything from chocolate eclairs to French-style donuts (beignets) and croquembouches— those towering mountains of cream puffs cemented together with caramelized sugar that regularly appear as nail-biting challenges on baking shows– choux pastry is an essential staple.
But where did it come from, and how did it gain such popularity among pastry chefs and consumers alike? What follows is a short history of the chewy, slightly springy, delicately egg-flavored treat, plus an at-a-glance guide to recognizing some of the most popular choux-based pastries in a typical bakery display case in France.
A Bit of History
Like many other popular French patisseries, the origins of choux pastry are likely ones that begin elsewhere in Europe. Many historians say it might have been the creation of the Italian chef Pantanelli, who worked at the service of Queen Catherine de Medicis during the 16th century.
Later, the story goes, Pantanelli’s successor Popelini created a new kind of cake he named after himself, le popelin, which was made with a dough that was gradually warmed over heat to evaporate its water, which was itself called “pâte à chaud” (hot pastry). “Popelins”, made using choux buns, were reportedly made to resemble women’s breasts.
Designed as elaborate centerpieces for formal occasions, popelins were familiar desserts on French aristocratic tables into the 19th century. Some were savory and incorporated parmesan or gruyère cheese, while others were typically flavored with orange blossom water, sugar and candied lemon peel.
However, the historical records are generally hazy and sparse, and some say these attributions may be more apocryphal (the stuff of legend) than accurate. In short, it’s difficult to say for certain who first invented choux pastry.
And of course, pastry similar to choux is made elsewhere in Europe, including in Spain (where it forms the base for churros donuts), and in Austria, where apricot-filled boiled dumplings, or Marillenknödel, are composed with a similar type of dough.
What’s the Etymology?
The term “pâte à choux” only took hold in the 18th century, after two royal chefs named Jean Avice and Antonin Carême (the latter working in the court of Marie-Antoinette) created recipes that most closely resemble the ones used today.
According to numerous sources, “pâte à choux” evolved erroneously from the term “pâte à chaud”, or hot pastry, probably related to the fact that part of the batter is pre-heated or cooked. This may disappoint some (like me) who assumed the name comes from the rounded forms of the pastry resembling little cabbages (choux).
A Brief Guide to Typical French Pastries Made with Pâte à Choux
When visiting a typical French bakery or pâtisserie, you’ll see several sweet specialties in the windows that are made with choux pastry– though some may be less obvious, like the rectangular eclair shown above.
Other creations made with the pastry are special-occasion centerpieces that are common sights at weddings, receptions, and other formal events. And a few are savory rather than sweet!
What these treats all share are the dough, made from a simple mixture of butter, water, flour and eggs and partially cooked/steamed before baking in an oven. This process gives the dough its characteristic chewy, light texture and allows it to dramatically puff without the aid of yeast or other raising agents.
A staple dessert on many French restaurant menus, profiteroles are cream-filled chou buns that are either served nature (plain), with a rich chocolate sauce drizzled over the top, fruit or other sauces. The pastry cream can also be flavored (with chocolate, vanilla, or others).
Similar to profiteroles but formed into smooth, elongated shells that are filled with patisserie cream and then topped with a glassy layer of icing (chocolate, coffee, vanilla, or other flavors), eclairs are a familiar and irresistible staple in French bakeries. They’re best served cold (at least in my opinion).
These golden-baked little choux buns topped with large, crunchy bits of sugar are popular in France as snacks or breakfast fare. It’s common to order a bag of them and enjoy with coffee.
This is one of my favorites among the “choux-set”: two rounded, donut-shaped pastry shells are filled with hazelnut patisserie cream, then topped with slivered almonds and powdered sugar. It’s magnificently simple, and usually delicious.
French donuts (beignets)
Filled or plain, French donuts (beignets) are often made by deep-frying rounded mounds of choux pastry, then topping with powdered sugar or other flavorings. They’re sometimes served with jam.
A familiar fixture at French weddings and formal receptions, the croquembouche has gained worldwide recognition thanks in part to cooking shows that show contestants catastrophically failing to get it to set. This is a grandiose tower of chou buns (generally filled with cream) dipped in caramelized sugar and mounted vertically using more sugar.
A favorite during aperitif hour, gougères are savory choux buns made with cheese (typically gruyère). They’re often served alongside a glass of wine, prior to dinner.
Similar to eclairs, these choux-based treats are composed of one smaller iced and filled chou bun carefully placed on a larger one, and interspersed with a “collar” of cream. They’re called réligieuses, or nuns, owing to their resemble to a nun in her habit. Chocolate and coffee are the more common flavors made by bakeries, but lots of creative pastry chefs experiment with other flavors and whimsical flourishes.
This elegant cake is made with a base of puff (butter pastry) around which chou buns are assembled in a ring at the edges. Profiteroles dipped in caramelized sugar are affixed to the top of the ring, and the cake is sometimes the drizzled with rich caramel sauce or adorned with more cream.
Finally, this popular, savory side dish is made by mixing puréed and buttered potato with chou pastry batter, forming the mixture into balls, then gently pan-frying them in oil. They’re often garnished with fresh parsley, salt and pepper.
More on Food History & Pastry-Tasting in Paris
For more on the mouthwatering history of French patisserie and recommendations on where to taste some fantastic examples in Paris, start by reading my previous features on the history of macarons, croissants, and brioche breads.
Then peruse my guide to some of the best places to taste pastries in the French capital (from cakes to viennoiseries) and my review of Fou de Patisserie, a bakery in Paris that allows you to choose among creations made by several celebrated pastry chefs and bakers.
Finally, if you’re looking for a bit of inspiration for a winter holiday dessert, see our guide to traditional French desserts served during the Christmas season.