Pâte à Choux and Pilfered Sou(bise)

Some weeks ago, my wife and I were lucky enough to attend a vegetable-focused dinner prepared by Chef Justin Yu. It stands easily as one of the best meals I've had this year, and featured many moments during which either my wife or I would lament the fact that we could not have this dish, that sauce, or some other garnish again, soon. One element, a squash blossom soubise, so captivated my wife that she couldn't stop talking about it, during or after dinner.

She wheedled her way into the kitchen after the meal concluded, and somehow secured both the recipe for the soubise, as well as a leftover deli container of the stuff, from Chef Yu. The soubise, which accompanied a cucumber roasted in Yu's handmade vadouvan, likely my favorite dish of the night, was tangy and rich, yet light at the same time. It provided a counterpoint to the sweet, earthy flavors of the vadouvan, while reinforcing the cucurbit theme. I told my wife that it reminded me of a sort of vegetal cross between mustard and cheese sauce.

Gifted soubise in hand, I felt the weight of the world on me. I was so impressed by the meal, and by Chef Yu's generosity, that I wanted to honor the soubise and its spirit. I puzzled over how best to employ it, thinking up a myriad of elaborate dishes, before settling on a theme of simplicity. If I was going to enjoy the sauce in its own right, it should be the star.

I settled on savory profiteroles as a suitably simple yet elegant preparation. Not only would it allow the soubise to shine, lightened slightly into a mousse and piped into the airy pastries, but it seemed a fun play on gougeres, essentially profiteroles with cheese in the dough. Since the soubise recalled the creamy and rich elements of a cheese sauce, it seemed an apt fit. Plus, it gave me an excuse to make Pâte à Choux. Pâte à Choux is easily one of the most versatile preparations that comes from the combination of eggs, flour, water, and butter. Astonishingly simple to make, Pâte à Choux can be worked into the aforementioned gougeres or profiteroles, sweet éclairs, savory Gnocchi Parisienne, donuts called Nun's Farts, dumplings, and about a dozen other variations. With a little ingenuity, and the technique for Pâte à Choux at your disposal, you have the foundation for nearly endless variation, on both ends of dinner, and smack in the middle.

To make Pâte à Choux, heat water and butter in a medium saucepan until it reaches a bare simmer, then turn the flame down and stir in an equal amount of flour (I used 8 ounces of each). Use a wooden spoon, and prepare for a workout. Stir until the flour and butter form a paste, and it pulls away from the sides of the pan. Take the pan off of the heat and allow it to cool slightly, then beat in four eggs, one at a time. It will seem, at first, like it's never going to happen. Eventually, though, the paste will relent, and the eggs will incorporate. That's it. You're done.

For profiteroles/cream puffs/gougeres, simply scoop the paste into a piping bag, pipe onto a baking sheet, and bake. I baked mine for ten minutes at 425, then turned the oven down to 350 for another 20 minutes or so, until they were golden brown and puffy-looking. Once they're cooled, simply insert the tip of your piping bag, and fill as you will.

Filled with squash blossom soubise mousse, these were delicious and slightly decadent morsels, and (I hope) a fitting application. I had some leftover Pâte à Choux that didn't get the oven treatment, so I piped it onto a silpat-lined baking sheet in two long rows, scored them with the tines of a fork, and froze them until semi-solid. I cut them into bite-size pieces, and popped them in a freezer bag. Now, I have Gnocchi Parisenne at the ready.

Don't wait for your significant other to swipe mise en place from a talented chef (please, Houston, keep this guy around); try your hand at Pâte à Choux soon. Whether you take it sweet or savory, boiled or fried, you'll be glad you did. It's a fun and instructive technique, and yields amazingly delicious results.

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall