A crunchy ball of pastry filled with light chocolate mousse, or whipped fresh cream, with two kinds of chocolate sauces drizzled over a small pile on your dessert plate - that's profiteroles, choux à la crème or cream puffs: my version.
I do believe choux pastry is due a comeback. It is an unfairly forgotten 80s relic even though it is relatively easy to make and very versatile – it makes both sweet and savoury treats.
Who invented profiteroles?
Profiteroles, invented in the 16th century in France, of course, but by an Italian chef imported in with Catherine de Medici’s entourage when she married French Henry II. ‘Profiterole’, the same word in English as in French, means a small reward or treat.
The pastry, originally called pâté a Panterelli after its inventor chef, was later renamed ‘choux’ – cabbage or sprout, alluding to the round pastry balls’ shape.
What desserts are made from choux pastry?
Plenty: there are profiteroles of course, balls of choux filled with cream and glazed with chocolate sauce; known as cream puffs in the US. There are éclairs sliced horizontally in order to fit in more cream.
There is croquembouche, a pyramid of sticky iced profiteroles, and deep-fried beignets powdered with icing sugar. The Italian version of the latter is called zeppole di San Giuseppe, traditionally made for the saint’s day on 19 March. And the Spanish churros are also made from choux pastry.
Choux pastry can be wonderfully used for ice cream sandwiches or filled with pastry cream to produce incredibly popular Polish karpatka cakes. My childhood preference though was ptysie: enormous choux cut in half, filled with unbelievably sickly marshmallow fluff, coated in icing sugar just in case it wasn’t garish enough.
What are savoury choux dishes?
As the pastry itself is neutral, neither sweetened nor salted, it happily swings both ways. Gougères of various kinds have the cheese added to the pastry and that’s what savoury choux is usually married with.
But those pastry balls can be filled with anything you like: herbed cream cheese, pâté, mushroom duxelles, egg-mayo or any other sandwich filler to produce exquisite canapés. The world is your profiterole.
How to make choux pastry
My triple chocolate profiteroles are firmly and decisively a dessert – but what a dessert! As said above, it is criminal that profiteroles have been relegated to the ‘where are they now?’ category.
As I also said, it is a relatively easy pastry – it was the first (and the only I remember) thing I made at the cookery class in primary school. Electric mixer is not needed, you can bash the mega-roux, which it practically is, with a wooden spoon. Beating in eggs can be done by hand too, and it’s fun seeing lumpy dough become glossy and lustrous.
It is just as easy to spoon onto a baking tray, made even easier if the pastry chills for a while. I do hate piping bags with a passion so I only used it here for the photography – otherwise I never bother. The secret to good choux is letting them bake well and dry better, but even if they flop and soften a little when taken out of the oven, you can pop them back in for five minutes to crispen them up.
What fillings for profiteroles?
My two fillings are Chantilly cream, lightly sweetened, and very light chocolate ganache whipped into a mousse when cold. I did take trouble to inject my profiteroles with the filling using an icing syringe, but there’s nothing at all wrong with slicing them and loading with cream.
So if the chocolate filling is the first of the triple from the title, my toppings make the remaining two. Simple chocolate sauce made by melting chocolate chips, white and dark, with a small amount of butter is really easy and rewarding when it dribbles onto and around a small pile of filled profiteroles. Absolutely gorgeous!