Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Pie Dough, Tart Dough, Pâte à Choux

Baking class, week nine. This week we focus on pie and tart doughs. Unfortunately we’re only preparing the doughs and won’t be filling them for two weeks, so no pie to show or take home :(. At the end of class we’ll be introduced to an unusual dough called pâte à choux, used for éclairs and similar pastries.

Baked rounds of pâte à choux, to be filled with pastry cream next week.
I'm learning a lot in this class. Pie dough, known as pâte brisée in the pastry world, can be flaky or mealy. Flaky dough delivers the classic American pie crust, with tender layers of pastry. Mealy dough results in a crust that is denser and less flaky but resists sogginess better, making it a good choice for custard or cream pies.

Both doughs begin by cutting cold, solid fat (butter, lard or shortening) into flour. The different textures are achieved by the final size of the fat particles. For flaky dough the fat is left in pieces about the size of a pea. For mealy dough the fat is cut more finely, to the consistency of coarse cornmeal, making a denser dough that resists moisture better. Voilá!

Ingredients for the pie and tart doughs, waiting for a mixer to become available.
Tart dough, or pâte sucrée, is sweeter and richer than pie dough, and bakes into a crisp, cookielike crust. Shortbread tart dough (pâte sablée) has more fat and results in a rich, crumbly crust. This week we prepare two doughs–a flaky pie dough and a mealy tart dough–but the taste test will have to wait for two weeks, when we'll prepare the fillings.

Pâte à choux dough is unusual because it is cooked before baking. Milk, water, salt, and butter are brought to a boil in a saucepan, then flour is added. The mixture is vigorously stirred for several minutes until it dries somewhat and resembles mashed potatoes. It’s then transferred to a mixer, and eggs are gradually beaten into the dough until it’s shiny, at which point it’s ready to shape and bake.

Pâte à choux bakes into a light, delicate pastry that is mostly air inside, making it perfect for filling with custard, whipped cream, or fruit purée. The dough can be piped into rounds for cream puffs or profiteroles, or into long fingers for éclairs. It can also be deep-fried, and is the basis for beignets (the New Orleans specialty) and the Mexican doughnuts known as churros.

For our exercise we fill pastry bags with pâte à choux and pipe it into rounds, which puff up into crisp little spheres. They're not sweet but have a rich, buttery flavor, like popovers. The plan is to fill the baked spheres with pastry cream (sort of a creamy custard) next week, so they go into the freezer until then. (Freezing is an oft-used technique in baking; cakes, pastry, cookies, and doughs all freeze well with minimal sacrifice of flavor or texture.)

Take home: sixteen extra large brownies (baked last week); balls of baked pâte à choux for freezing at home.

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