Often when I think of adventure, I think of a trip up to the mountains – feeling on top of the world with the entire landscape below, sun and wind in your face, and if you close your eyes and clear your mind you can convince yourself you might even be floating up there. Watching the world we know look so small as we climb higher and higher, it’s such a glorious thing to try to comprehend the enormity of it all.
But not every adventure has to be quite so glamorous. In fact, at home in my kitchen, I’ve been taking myself on a bit of an adventure as well – a choux adventure.
But let’s not talk about cooking for a little bit, shall we? The heat has been nuts here (obligatory statement about the weather in my blog post? check!) and so traveling up some 2000m brought not only much anticipated stunning vistas, but also a nice reprieve from the summer that finally decided to show itself. Rochers de Naye sits atop Montreux overlooking Lake Geneva, along with a handful of Mongolian yurts – it’s a popular hiking destination, and from the train stop are some wonderful fairly flat paths walking along the ridgeline.
And the flowers, I love how the entire mountainside is covered with such little hardy flowers, stretching up out of the rock to bathe in the sunshine. There’s even an entire garden up here just for celebrating the floral alpine diversity.
But as I said earlier, not all adventures mean setting foot off to explore a new location. Sometimes, an adventure is just from the excitement of *finally* getting a recipe right. As you may probably know, two years ago, the Gluten Free Ratio Rally challenged its members to make choux pastry - yep, the kind of pastry used for cream puffs, éclairs, gougères, and the like. I gave it a valiant effort, but in the end really failed miserably unless I had some pre-packaged mix that contained modified starch in it. When I made them with my own mix, they just fell flat. I assumed it was because being in Europe and not really understanding how to navigate the allergy/sensitivity diet ingredient scene too well, that I just did not have the right flours to do the job. And partly, that was definitely it. But it was also my method.
Oftentimes when it comes to baking desserts gluten free, it’s a simple straightforward conversion – because many desserts don’t care about gluten in the slightest. Gluten is the protein in wheat, rye, and barley that allows dough to stretch and trap air – which things like brownies, cookies, and cakes certainly don’t need. But choux is different. Because it’s essentially a giant air pocket of dough, the gluten actually plays a very important role in making conventional choux pastries – the high egg content causes them to rise when baked, but it’s the activated gluten and starches in the dough that trap the air inside creating these beautiful fluffy pastries full of air, making them perfect for filling with all manner of creams and such. This certainly poses a challenge for the gluten free baker!
So now that I’ve gone through over 15 iterations of trials and errors, I thought I would share a few of my tips to successful choux:
1. First, one needs to come up with a method that helps trap air. In this case, my weapon is a finely tuned flour mix that is heavier on the starches, and guar gum. Starches like tapioca are activated in the presence of heat, and so by cooking the ball of dough on the stove, it helps to start up the gelling process of the starches. Since we dont’ have gluten helping to do the work, I find increasing the starch content and adding a binding agent seems to help. What else was finely tuned? All the other flours I used. Substituting millet for sorghum in my mix resulted in flat puffs. There is something in millet that really helps these suckers rise, maybe the protein content.
2. Make sure to cook the dough long enough on the stove before adding the eggs. This is what activates the starches – if you don’t cook the dough for a couple minutes on the stove and rush to adding in the eggs right away, you will have flat runny batter that doesn’t rise. I’ve learned my lesson the hard way here too many times to count.
3.Don’t let the dough cool too long before adding the eggs – the dough still needs to be hot – not piping steaming hot where the eggs will cook themselves before they get into the batter, but still hot. If you forget about the dough for 10 minutes and then try to add the eggs, you could also end up with flat un-puffed cream puffs. I saw this mistake happen to a contestant on the American Baking Competition, proof that timing is important.
4. Add the eggs one at a time, but not immediately all in a row. After adding each egg, it’s important to make sure that it is fully incorporated into the dough before adding the next one. If you just turn the mixer on and go 1 – 2 – 3 -4 all the eggs are now in, it’s likely not going to come together in the right way and is likely to turn into soup.
5. Let them cool in the oven. When they are finished, I poke a little hole in the bottom and turn them over to let the steam out, and then let them cool in the (now turned-off) oven – the idea here is to let the steam escape and let them dry out, but not to create so much condensed air too quickly that will collapse the puffs. I saw many many puffs rise beautifully in the oven only to collapse a few minutes later on the cooling rack, and this solved that pretty well.
6. Baking by weight/ratios helps a ton! This I already knew, but it’s exciting to see it confirmed. I ended up tweaking several of the basic ratios to get just the right kind of dough. That and the only way to guarantee my consistency was to measure the ingredients by weight. Else I’d have some batches do great, and then mystery ones that don’t do as well…
And when you persevere, you get beautiful choux puffs that rise, and subsequently fill with cream quite nicely. Ah bliss!