The other day, while visiting a chef I had wanted to meet for a long time, Chef Charles Knight, owner of Health Craft Cookware Company, also a friend of many years with my brother-in-law Chef Tell, I found out how to make an Italian pastry delicacy with a mere four ingredients: water, butter, flour and eggs.
The base of this unexpected treat, choux pastry or pâte à choux, interested me, but the work involved in mixing the ingredients came as a complete surprise. I came away with real respect for the muscled arms and shoulders of sous chefs everywhere. When I remarked – my upper arm muscles tightening up — to my new host, “Now I understand why executive chefs hire sous chefs to do this,” he retorted with, “You mean ‘sue’ chefs.” (Because they’ll sue you, if you make fun of them.)
photo attribution: http://en.wikipedia.org
You see, when heated butter and water mix with flour a chemical reaction takes place, and the resulting mix requires kneading.
In our case, we used a round-bottomed pot and stirred the whole thing with a large wooden spoon. Interestingly, as I stirred the mixed ingredients, they began to withdraw from the edges to form a rounded dough ball, which the spoon coaxed into being. The result was essentially the same as a pizza dough, minus a rising agent (typically yeast). (For the exact steps to take, read on.)
Now the hard work began. When the eggs were introduced, one at a time, another chemical reaction took place, separating the kitchen weak of muscle from the strong. The arm strength required to move the process along was quite intense, because the initial mixing created a thickening dough.
On the other hand, the advancing reaction eventually turned the thickened paste into a softened, lighter and more-pliable dough that, once shaped, could be deep-fried or baked, and then dusted with a final, sweet or savory topping of our choice.
photo attribution: http://hintofvanilla.blogspot.com
For our taste buds, Charles and I mixed freshly ground cinnamon and granulated table sugar, sprinkling this combination onto over a dozen of our newly made, palm-sized puffed pastries popularly known as “Zeppole.”
photo attribution: http://imalittle.com
Before we bit into the warm delicacies, a little history lesson was on tap, and my host explained:
“People believe, and 16th century records purport, that a chef, Pantarelli, who was Catherine de’ Medici’s head chef of her court in 1533 when she moved to France, created the new dough in 1540. He used his invention to make a light gateau (cake), giving his creation the title of ‘Pâte à Pantarelli.’ The popular confection’s reputation among other chefs spread widely. With the addition of each new chef’s imagination and tinkering with the dough new twists popped up. Even the name evolved to ‘Pâte à Popelin,’ when it took on characteristics associated with another popular dessert, popelins, which were small cakes made in the shape of women’s breasts.
“When an eighteenth century pastry chef, Jean Avice, pushed the creative envelope further, he created what came to be known as “choux buns,” which in turn became pâte à choux (cabbage in French), since they resembled the look of cabbages.”
“Later, in the nineteenth century, Antoine Carême modified the recipe and made profiteroles with the light pastry dough. A parade of chefs added croquembouches, éclairs, French crullers, beignet, St. Honoré cakes, Indonesian kue sus, and gougères to the fast-growing list of items that could be produced with the desirable dough mixture and its high moisture content that employs steam to puff the pastry as it cooks.
“Though usually fried, choux pastry in the hands of chefs of other nationalities are baked (beignet), or fried, dried, filled, and then baked. Spanish and Latin American churros consist of fried choux pastry, sugared and dipped in a thin chocolate blancmange for breakfast. Austrians make Marillenknödel, a denser, sweet apricot dumpling, by boiling it. Choux pastry filled with a light cream or pudding makes cream puffs or éclairs.”
photo attribution: http://www.ackerl.at
We filled our cups with freshly ground and brewed coffee, to which I added coconut milk. My host poured cream into his brew, and we waited and watched.
The medium-sized saucepan half-filled with Extra Virgin olive oil heated to a gentle 350 degrees, took only a few minutes to come to a boil because of the inductive cooking heat source we used. The rolling oil accepted the dough that we dropped into it five individual pieces at a time – enough to let them cook but not so many that they were too crowded to fully puff out, after we scooped them up with a small spoon and shaped them with another spoon repeatedly. Knowing when to remove the individual pieces from the hot oil was easy: they puffed up and browned from the reaction inside and the hot oil outside right before our eyes.
As the second batch rolled in the heated oil, the first group already scooped out shed its excess oil with the help of paper towels placed on a small plate under it. Sprinkled with the cinnamon/sugar blend, the zeppole were now ready to eat — a real treat with our freshly brewed coffee.
Step-by-step instructions for making the pastry, accompanied by visual aids at each stage of development, make prepping and cooking your own Zeppole fast and easy:
Cut the butter into pieces so it melts by the time the liquid comes to a boil.
Bring the liquids to a boil, uncovered, over medium heat. Stir once to ensure that everything mixes, and that the butter is all melted.
Remove the saucepan from the heat. Add the flour all at one time.
Quickly incorporate the flour with a wooden spatula.
Beat the paste until it becomes homogenous and pulls away from the sides of the saucepan.
Return the saucepan to the heat. Cook the paste, stirring continuously, over medium heat until it dries out, about 3 minutes. The paste is dry enough when it leaves a thin, dry film on the bottom of the saucepan.
Remove the saucepan from the heat and allow it to cool for 5 minutes or so. Some chefs will transfer the dough to a separate bowl at this point so that none of the film becomes part of the dough. When the dough cools a bit, add the first egg.
Stir the egg into the paste. Initially, the egg and paste will seem not to blend, but after a while they will start to combine. Stir until the paste is smooth and even in texture.
Continue adding the eggs, one at a time.
After each added egg, the mixture will appear loose and separated.
With continuous mixing, each egg will become incorporated as before.
When finished, the pâte à choux is a pale yellow, smooth, moist, sticky and slightly elastic.
Attribution: photos and accompanying instructions: Pâte à Choux.
Chef Knight and I stopped making more zeppole when we had about 20 to eat between us. Let me tell you, they are impossible to eat only one! Our zeppole were the perfect accompaniment to our coffee and our conversation!
And the fillings and variations one can add to the basic ingredients are limited only by the imagination.
Although it was hard to do, we managed to save a few leftovers at the end of our meeting for travel home with me to surprise my wife.
If you are looking to outfit your kitchen with a new saucepan or other pots and pans, consider Chef Charles Knight’s Health Craft Cookware Company as your source for excellent individual items and cookware sets. Ask about the inductive heating pads for time-saving, less-costly inductive cooking that uses less heat and energy than conventional sources.
Mention my name, Ronald Joseph Kule, and tell them you heard about their company through this blog. Use “CODE CTG,” and I’m pretty sure Chef Knight is going to take good care of you.
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© 2014 by Ronald Joseph Kule. All Rights Reserved.