Cabbages and Cream Puffs

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Lesson 2: Pate a choux (paht ah shoo)

Literally translated it means cabbage paste. Sounds delicious doesn’t it?

Also known as choux, it is the crispy and slightly eggy pastry that plays a supporting role in all kinds of deliciousness.

I tell the kids the reason I want to teach them how to make it is because it is very versatile.  Like the brick in their lego sets, you can create lots of different things with it…cream filled puffs and eclairs, sugar topped or stuffed with ice cream and bathed in chocolate sauce; but it can also be piped and fried to make French crullers or beignets; made savory by adding cheese to make gougeres, or even boiled like dumplings to make Gnocchi Parisienne.

Fancy fancy, right?  I think mostly they hear “blah blah sugar, blah blah chocolate, blah blah ice cream.”

They will thank me later when they are in college and all they have in the apartment is a bit of flour, some eggs, and a lonely stick of butter.

So to the recipe we turn.  We quickly gather our mis en place and get down to business.

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We discuss why it’s important to measure liquid ingredients in a liquid measuring cup rather than a dry measuring cup…”because it will spill!”, and why you should always get down to eye level to measure the liquids accurately…”it looks like there’s too much!” from above.

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Then, a reminder of what the different measuring spoons mean…”1/4 means that four of these go into one of these.”

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And butter…”1/2 cup is always one stick, so if your recipe calls for 1 cup of butter you need what?”, “2!”

The water, milk, sugar, salt and butter all get dumped in the pot.

Then we get a bit messy with the flour.

This recipe calls for 1 cup, sifted, (which means measured first, then sifted). I wanted to show them that the best way to measure flour is not by scooping it with the measuring cup, (as most people do), but by placing the empty measuring cup down, then using another utensil to lightly fluff and lift out the flour, and add it to the waiting cup.  Finally, without tamping it down, just level it off with the straight edge of a knife, spoon, etc.

The theory is that no two people scoop with the same force and therefore, by measuring the first way, more often than not you will end up with more than the recipe requires.

In theory.

So I whip out my digital scale and ask one of the children to measure a cup of flour by the usual method.  Then I measure mine by this way more accurate method.  We weigh them, and…lo and behold they are exactly the same!

Um.

Ok!  So everybody is scooping and weighing and the kids are digging the scale and we have flour everywhere and nobody else comes up with exactly the same amount.

Aha! I. am. vindicated.

Back to it then.

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We sift to remove lumps. Don’t skip this step!

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Then the kids take turns cracking the eggs into a pitcher.

Only after all our ingredients are measured do we turn to the stove.  The contents of the pot are brought to a full boil and then, off the heat, we add the flour all at once, and stir rapidly with a wooden spoon.

“It looks like mashed potatoes!”

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It’s just like making play dough.

Everything goes back on the heat and cooked for another few minutes.  The pate a choux should be stirred until it comes away from the sides of the pot and forms a smooth, shiny mass, leaving a bit of film on the bottom of the pot.

What’s happening in there anyway?

I remind the kids that in our last lesson we kneaded our dough to activate and strengthen the gluten that provides the elastic structure needed to capture the carbon dioxide expelled by the yeast.  Think of it as an expanding balloon. Without that strong but stretchy exterior, the gas would just break through the dough and leave you with flat and heavy bread.

We are basically doing the same thing here, minus the yeast.  But, if we aren’t using yeast as leavening, what are we using to fill our “balloon”?

“What do you get when you heat water on the stove?”, I ask.  “Steam!”

This is where the eggs come in.  We dry the choux paste out on the stove so we can incorporate as many eggs as possible.  Not only will the protein from the eggs provide additional strength to the pastry, but when placed in a hot oven, the moisture from the eggs will create a burst of steam, resulting in a nice lofty puff.

Once the choux paste is sufficiently cooked on the stove, it should be transferred immediately to a bowl to cool for a few minutes.  The butter will seep out if left to sit in the hot pot.

Now comes the bicep workout.  This step could be done in a mixer with a paddle attachment, but I wanted the kids to be able to see the transformation of the pate a choux.  Also, I’m always looking for ways to wear them out.

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They take turns adding the eggs, one at a time, mixing each in completely before introducing the next.

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It sloshes around a bit, looks a bit, um, slimey, and gets a little more difficult with each addition, but eventually turns into a thick and supple mixture that forms a little peak when pulled up by the spoon.

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Now we are ready to form the puffs.

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The pate a choux gets scooped into a pastry bag and piped onto a parchment lined sheet pan.  (You could also use a heavy duty freezer bag with the corner cut off, or even dropped by the spoonful.  They won’t look as pretty but they’ll taste just as good.)

In order to help the kids pipe the choux puffs as close to the same size as possible, (they would finish baking at uneven times otherwise), I traced 1 1/2″ circles onto the backside of the parchment.  To keep the paper from sliding around, we “glue” it down with a little dab of choux paste between the parchment and pan in each corner.

It’s important to pipe as straight up as possible as the choux will want to expand in the direction it’s piped.

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I show them how to twist the bag at the level of the pate a choux, place that twist in the crook of their hand and apply pressure to the bag from there, not in the middle of the bag or risk choux paste coming out the top and bottom.

Then it’s just a continuous squeeze until the circle is nearly full and when it’s time to stop piping, a little swoosh of the tip in a “c” shape to break the tip away from the puff.  It also helps if you make a little “whoop” sound.

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Any “tails” or extra pointy parts are smoothed over with a slightly damp fingertip.

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A little time in a hot oven, and voila!

We rip one apart and see that there is a big space where the steam caused the choux to puff up and then baked off.

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The puffs need to cool for about 10 minutes before we fill them and dig in!

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So does it look like a little cabbage?

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Pate a choux

1/2 c water

1/2 c milk

1/4 tsp salt

1 tsp sugar

1/2 c unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 c flour, sifted

5 large eggs

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a heavy saucepan, combine the milk, water, salt, sugar and butter and place over medium heat until the butter melts and the mixture comes to a full boil. Add the flour all at once, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon. Keep stirring over medium heat until the mixture has formed a smooth mass and pulls away from the sides of the pan, about 3 – 5 minutes. A light film should form on the bottom of the pan, do not scrape it up.

Transfer to a heatproof mixing bowl or the bowl of a standing mixer and let sit for 5 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time and mix completely before adding the next. (Use the paddle attachment for a standing mixer). When all the eggs have been added, the mixture will be thick, smooth and shiny.

Transfer the choux paste to a pastry bag fitted with a ½ inch tip, adding only as much to the bag as is comfortable to work with. Pipe out rounds of pate a choux, spacing about 2 inches apart. Smooth over any “tails” with a damp fingertip.

Bake until puffed and starting to show some color, about 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees and continue to bake until the shells feel light for their size, about 12 minutes longer. They should be nicely browned and a skewer should come out clean. Remove from the oven and use the tip of a knife to poke a small hole in each to allow steam to escape. Cool completely before filling.

Makes about 30 medium size puffs

A note on filling:

You can split the puffs in half for easy filling or poke a hole in them and fill with the help of a piping bag, like so…

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You can fill the puffs with whatever strikes your fancy, classically it’s a combination of whipped cream and pastry cream.  If you decide to go that route you’ll need about 4 cups total in order to fill all the choux puffs.

I figure I can incorporate a lesson on pastry cream into the next baking series, in custards, or even an “amazing egg” sort of unit.  That could be fun.

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It’s alive!

Our first lesson was yeasted breads.  We actually made soft pretzels, but as I explained to the kids, the mixing method is the same.

Before we could begin making any dough however, we still had one “basic” to cover…how to read a recipe!  Most importantly, always read it first, and all the way through.

We went over it together…ingredient list, check, steps in order, check, how much it makes, check. Mis en place assembled, check.  At this point, my son managed to launch the filled liquid measuring cup across the table so that the child directly opposite him ended up with the first ingredient dripping down his head.

Kitchen rule #2, check.

Freshly mopped and back on track, we mixed warm water with yeast and the sugar and waited for it to bubble.

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What is yeast anyway?

I’ve found that the most kid-friendly explanation of yeast is that it is a living thing, the smallest member of the fungi family.  The powder in the little packet is just dehydrated yeast.  I guess you could say it is asleep.  To wake it up and help it grow we need to give it warmth, moisture and food.  Thus the warm, (but not hot!), water and sugar.  The yeast eats the sugar and then, like anyone who may have eaten a big meal, burps. The bubbles of carbon dioxide on the surface of the water are like yeast burps.  The kids find this funny.  Some children might go so far as to equate the burping with another way of expelling gas. This generally brings the house down.

The yeast will continue to feed off the flour in the bread dough.  This cycle of eating and burping and eating and burping, called fermentation, is what eventually leavens the bread.

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The next step in making a yeasted bread dough is to add the salt and perhaps fat, in this case melted butter.

The kids took turns adding flour, about a cup at a time until the dough became too stiff to stir with a spoon.  At this point we turned the shaggy dough out onto my floured kitchen table and began kneading it, adding only enough flour from the table to keep the dough from sticking.

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Why do we have to knead the dough?

Bread dough needs to be elastic in order to catch the gases created by the yeast, stretching to make space for the rapidly increasing bubbles, almost like a balloon filling with air.  Without this elasticity the finished bread would be crumbly rather than chewy, and unpleasantly heavy.

Each child took a turn at grabbing the far edge of the dough, pulling it toward them and folding it over onto itself, then pressing it forward and away before turning the dough a quarter of the way and repeating.

This action of kneading creates elasticity by knitting together two proteins contained in wheat flour.  This is kinda upper sciencey for young kids, but when the proteins gliadin and glutenin are combined with water and physically manipulated, they form a network of molecules called gluten. As the dough is kneaded the gluten gets stronger. This is what gives bread its structure.

When the dough is sufficiently kneaded you should be able to perform a windowpane test.

“A what?” you say.  Well let me tell you how to do it!  Take a piece of dough about the size of a golf ball and hold it, with both hands, between your thumb and last two fingers on the bottom, and between your first and second fingers on the top. Then just gently spread your fingers apart, stretching the dough out, like you’re making a Barbie-sized pizza. If you can stretch it into a thin membrane without tearing it, you’re done kneading.  If it rips really easily before you can extend your fingers then knead it a bit longer.

We held our sample of windowpaned dough up to the light of an actual window so we could see the web-like gluten strands.

The kids enjoyed the kneading process and especially the soft, smooth feel of the finished dough.  It’s especially fun to see what they think it feels like.  I like to say that it feels like an earlobe.

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We placed the dough into a lightly oiled bowl, covered it with plastic wrap and left it in a warm spot to rise for about 50 minutes. Lunch break!

Upon checking the dough we saw that it had doubled in size, and if we pushed a finger into it, the dough did not spring back, but an indentation remained. We pulled back a bit of it to again see the glutenny webbing and pockets of carbon dioxide from the yeasty burps.

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We knew we were ready for shaping.

We deflated the dough and divided it into 8 equal parts.

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As we stretched the soft dough we made sure not to rip it too much and destroy that network of gluten we just worked our muscles for.

Each kid started in the center of their piece of dough and gently rolled it under their palms, back and forth while slowly working their hands apart. Eventually they ended up with long, dough snakes. Yes, some were very curvy or misshapen snakes, but I reminded them that this would make their finished pretzels wonderfully different and unique. Like snowflakes!  This seemed to calm the more perfectionist members of the group.

To make our pretzel shapes, we each took our dough snake and made a U. We then crossed the ends and brought them down to the bottom of the U, pinching each end into place.

This is where pretzel-making deviates from other yeasted breads.  Usually you would allow another rising period for shaped dough, generally until it’s 1 1/2 times the size and an indentation remains in the dough where lightly pressed.  With pretzels, as with bagels, you don’t want more volume. Additionally, you want a more chewy texture to the crust.  This is achieved by submerging the pretzels in boiling water.  This kills the yeast immediately and sets the outside crust.

The kids were woefully in need of a break at this point so I sent them outside to run while I performed this step.

After all the pretzels were back on oiled sheet pans I had each child brush theirs with egg wash.  They also sprinkled them with kosher salt.

After about 14 minutes in the oven you’ll have:

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The inflatable dolphin is totally optional.

The following recipe is adapted slightly from Alton Brown

Soft pretzels

1 ½ c warm water

1 T sugar

2 t kosher salt

1 package active dry yeast

4 ½ c bread flour

2 oz unsalted butter, melted

vegetable oil, for pan

10 c water

⅔ c baking soda

1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 T water

kosher or pretzel salt

Combine the water and sugar in a mixing bowl and sprinkle the yeast on top. Allow to sit for 5 minutes or until the mixture begins to foam.  Add the salt and butter.  Add 3 cups of the flour and mix until combined.  Place the rest of the flour on a board and knead into dough as necessary. Knead for another 6 to 7 minutes or until the dough is smooth.  Place dough into an oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit in a warm place for approximately 50 to 55 minutes or until the dough has doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Line 2 half-sheet pans with parchment paper and lightly brush with oil. Set aside.

Bring the 10 cups of water and the baking soda to a rolling boil in an 8-quart saucepan.

In the meantime, turn the dough out onto a slightly oiled work surface and divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll out each piece of dough into a 24 inch rope. Make a U-shape with the rope, holding the ends of the rope, cross them over each other and press onto the bottom of the U in order to form the shape of a pretzel.  Place onto the parchment-lined half sheet pan.

Place the pretzels into the boiling water, 1 by 1, for 30 seconds.  Remove them from the water using a large flat spatula.  Return to the half sheet pan, brush the top of each pretzel with the beaten egg yolk and water mixture and sprinkle with the pretzel salt.  Bake until dark golden brown in color, approximately 12 to 14 minutes.  Transfer to a cooling rack for at least 5 minutes before serving.

Good (kitchen) habits die hard

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I’m not big on micromanagement.  As long as the kids aren’t in danger of hurting themselves or others, I generally let them be.  However, with the prospect of several children working in tight quarters around hot sheet pans, an old Wedgewood stove and an open flame, I thought a discussion of kitchen guidelines might be prudent.

At our first gathering we talked about three rules that we would need to remember each time we worked together, and most importantly, each time they cooked or baked at home.

As always, number one is work safe.  I invoked the infamous “walking feet” rule.  This was promptly followed by the “mindful hands” rule. More specifically, grabbing, reaching over others and mindless flailing of arms may get someone burned.

The second is work clean.  The obvious answer to my “what does that mean?”, was an encouraging “wash hands!”  We then discussed keeping hands away from mouths and noses which prompted several of the kids to run off to the bathroom to rewash.  The second part of this rule is “clean as you go.” Wiping up spills and moving dirty items out of the way keeps one from trailing goo about the kitchen and keeps slipping hazards to a minimum.

The last is work smart.  Quizzical looks followed. I explained about setting up a work space with everything needed for that project.  Then I got all fancy with the French.  Mis en place.  Putting in place.  “But how do I know which ingredients and what equipment I’m going to need?”, I asked.  “The recipe!”, one cried.  And with that, we were on our way.