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The Vegan Pâte à Choux Chronicles

Posted May 14 2009 5:01pm
It's that Daring Bakers time again and I'm posting in at the eleventh hour, though I've been working on this challenge for quite a while. Lest you get too excited for the great unveiling though, let me warn you right off that this post is more an exercise in chronicling out-right failures and near-misses than it is in making with the pretty pastries. In fact, this will probably be the least appetizing, most technical post I've ever put together. Getting vegan pâte à choux right has been a proverbial pain in the behind, but every experiment, successful or not, yeilds new information and skill, so all in all I'm thankful for Tony Tahhan and Meeta of What’s For Lunch Honey? who set us this month's challenge of Pierre Hermé 's chocolate éclairs.

This picture is of my final and most successful experiment with making the pâte à choux, a traditionally eggy pastry that serves as the core of many desserts, of which the éclair is likely the most popular. As far as the éclair went, I knew it was this pastry that was going to be the real challenge. Pâte à choux is one of those things that people like to demystify, pulling back the curtain and showing you just how easy it is to be the wizard who can churn out these French delicacies. Pâte à choux, they say, is really a snap once you know how. But have they tried to make it without eggs?

This disgusting thing was my baseline, the utterly demoralizing first batch, which I share not to turn your stomach (sorry about that), but as part of my process and as full disclosure of all failures in this challenge. I started out trying to keep as close to the original Hermé recipe as I could, minus, of course, the non-vegan ingredients, including a number of very significant eggs. The chemical wizardry of the egg is really what makes pâte à choux; it is the only leavening and the primary agent of flavor, as there is very little in the way of other ingredients--some flour, a pinch of salt, a teaspoon of sugar. In this first shot, I used a mixture of tapioca starch, potato flour and water whisked hard to get a thick slurry that I thought might give the pastry some substance without making it too heavy, as I suspected that something like pureed silken tofu or soy yogurt might. I also used a little baking powder to get lift and, well, the picture is worth a thousand words, but here is what I learned: potatoes won't work, I was working with too much fat or the fat was not incorporated well enough into the choux paste, the oven was too high or the time in was too long, it was possible that I needed more leavening, and it was going to be a long haul to perfected vegan pâte à choux.

The next batch at least did not make me physically ill to look at, so mark that as improvement. It had a little puff, which again marks improvement. This time I used more tapioca starch and subbed rice flour for the potato flour, whisking those ingredients with water, increased the sugar for flavor, increased the baking soda to 1/2 teaspoon, decreased the Earth Balance, beat the paste harder with a wooden spoon and used only the top of the oven but left it at the same temperature.

As this picture reveals though, there was still too much fat leaking out of the pastry and the insides were not beautifully puffed and open wide. Rather, the inside was gummy and wet.

After two complete failures, I scraped my original fumblings and started getting serious. Playfully working my way to decent vegan pâte à choux just wasn't going to happen. A friend suggested an episode of Alton Brown's Good Eats on pâte à choux , from which I picked up the piping technique you can see above, the "lazy S" shape. This is a thing that I can't explain, but which experentially I can say is very helpful. In baking a tray of straight piped lines of pâte à choux dough along with "lazy S" shapes, the "S" éclairs had significantly better poof, which is definitely something you want for these pastries.

In research mode I also turned to my friend, Bo Friberg , hoping he could steer me right since Hermé and I weren't getting off on the right foot. (Please note, Bo Friberg is not actually my friend, though I'm sure he's lovely. In fact, he is the author of The Professional Pastry Chef, which is a great resource.) The first tip I took from Friberg was one about flour. He suggested using a mix of cake and bread flour for éclairs or profiteroles, coming up with what is essentially a custom-blended all-purpose flour for a tender pastry. However, he noted that some chefs use a "stronger" (which I took to mean more glutenous) flour for larger items. I wondered if using bread flour containing more gluten than my all-purpose mix might help the cause since I had little else to provide good structure and produce a firm shell for the éclair. The second tip was to use a stand mixer to really beat the paste well and the third, most useful peice of information, to freeze the éclair before baking them. Freezing turns out to be the eggless éclair's best friend.

Moving the frozen paste straight from the freezer to a hot oven produces a good deal of steam in a very short period of time causing the paste to quickly puff up. The thin bit of paste that is pushed up hardens in the heat and firms nicely, leaving an empty space between the base and the top of the pastry, the hallmark of a good éclair. On my first pass, this worked pretty well and I got pretty excited. Certainly, I got a higher rise than the other attempts and a nice hollow, but the middle was a little soggy, as you can see in the above photo. To remedy, I increased the heat of the oven to 425 degrees, as reccomended in The Professional Pastry Chef, and moved the rack from the top of the oven to the middle.

Then, as you can see, I got pretty great puff. So, finally, I felt able to make an éclair with my passable pâte à choux. For the filling I made a decadent dark-chocolate cherry vanilla pastry cream and topped it with a straighforward thick chocolate glaze instead of the multi-step Hermé recipe, which to be honest, at that point I had no patience for. I used a Theo Chocolate 65% Madagascar bar that was a little sweeter and fruiter than I usually like my chocolate, but which worked really nicely for this, complementing the cherry and providing some constrast to the slightly bitter chocolate in the pastry cream.

The filling, the glaze, they were all things I could be happy with, but the pâte à choux was kind of tough and flavorless and still it was the tiniest bit soggy inside. I don't think I've ever actually had a real French éclair, but this just didn't hold up to my idea of it as a wonderfully delicate marvel of the pastry world. Was I really going to make it again though? I resolved to give it a rest. I certainly had many other things to do...but it haunted me and I know myself well enough to know that this was the kind of thing that would drive me crazy if I didn't at least take one more quick shot.

So, one last try. This time I hunted down a dusty old package of egg-replacer thinking maybe, just maybe it would really work. I measured out enough water to equal the liquid mass of eggs called for in a half-recipe of the small-batch pâte à choux in The Professional Pastry Chef (240ml) . Then, I calculated how much egg-replacer powder I should add to it to going by the formula on the egg-replacer box of 1 1/2 teaspoon powder to 2 tablespoons water. I whisked this mixture and let it stand to thicken. Before slowly adding it to the slightly cooled roux in my stand mixer, I whisked it again to remove any last lumps and sediment so it was all evenly mixed as I add it "egg" by "egg" to the forming paste. In this batch, I also added a tiny bit of tumeric to give the pastry a hint of yellow since the other batches had seemed a little too albino and strange-looking, except for, interestingly, the hideous potato flour batch which had it not been so revolting might have had a good golden-yellow color.

I was happy with the color in this batch and mostly happy with the texture, especially since I was able to eliminate most of the remaining dampness inside by poking a hole in the end of the baked shell with a sharp knife, allowing the steam to escape as it cooled. I filled these with a caramel pastry cream (see first photo in this post), which went well with the leftover Theo chocolate glaze. So, this final batch of pâte à choux was better than its predicesor, but still nothing I'm really happy with. For now though, I'm taking a pass on unlocking its mystery and am looking forward to picking up again with it some other time, combining the results of my own experiments with the amazing work of all my fellow vegan Daring Bakers who I'm sure also pushed hard and learned a lot with this month's challenge.

So, to review: potatoes don't work, profanity won't help you but poking a hole in it will, definitely freeze your paste, use a stand mixer and pipe a "lazy S", add a little baking powder, a pinch of turmeric, a heap of patience and you just might make something edible!
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