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Lifting a Choux

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Kitchen Mysteries is a weekly exploration of oddities surrounding cooking and food. They could be recipes that fail when they shouldn’t, conflicting advice from different sources, or just plain weirdness. If it happens in a kitchen, and you’re not sure why, send a tweet to The Food Geek to find out what’s happening.

jelly_jan asks via The Twitters:

Help is on the way! Well, not immediately. First I had to ask a couple of follow-up questions, as this was a little vague. For those following along at home: turns out that she makes pâte à choux all the time, but she recently she tried making it in Thailand. They rose a bit, but not as much as normal, and they are more dense. She questions the humidity, but I don’t believe that’s it.

Pâte à choux is a wet dough that uses steam to rise up and become hollow inside, kind of like a hot air balloon. While the dough is wet, it is malleable and light, and spreads out. As time goes on, the heat from the oven sets the dough in place before it falls, and its combination of strong protein structure with light weight allows it to stay up even when all the steam leaves. It’s useful for creme puffs, eclairs, profiteroles, beignets, and any number of similar applications.

So, a strong, light, and wet dough. Based on the description of what went wrong, it sounds like there wasn’t enough structure to support the rise. Imagine if your hot air balloon had a bunch of extra holes in it. Depending on how weakened it was, it might rise part way up, but the air is going to escape before it can inflate all the way. The steam will hold it up as high as it can while there’s water, but once the oven sets the structure on the dough, it won’t go any more. So it has to get that lift, which means those holes have to be patched, which means it has to have a structure.

Strength comes from protein, and with a dough, that generally means two things: gluten and egg white. Eggs are a common ingredient of pâte à choux, but Shirley Corriher and others recommend adding extra egg white for structure. Remember: in baking, the egg yolk tenderizes, while the white adds structure. This doesn’t explain why a recipe that used to work fine didn’t, though, unless these were crazy mutant eggs with massive yolks and wee whites.

No, my guess is the flour. I don’t know what variations of flour you had in Thailand, but I know that even in the US, the same style of flour is going to vary in protein content from brand to brand, based on the amounts of the proteins glutenin and gliadin that are present in the dough. When glutenin and gliadin are mixed with water, they form gluten. It’s not just how much total glutenin and gliadin that are in there, but the relative amounts of each, and these will vary based on the variety of wheat, the growing location, the season, and so on. A mill should be able to stabilize the relative amounts for any given brand or style of flour, but it’s likely that any new country that you’re in will have different standards of flours.

So: what you want is a high-gluten flour. Generally, high-gluten flours are used for breads rather than pastry or cake. See if you can find something like that. The higher percentage of gluten that you have in the flour, the less flour you’ll need to make the proper structure. It’s like using a space-age material to build your hot air balloon: tons more structure, lighter weight.

If you’re having trouble finding the right flour, you might want to try the recipe from Shirley Corriher’s Bakewise.

You may be happier with your own recipe working again, as you’re more familiar with it, but if not, go ahead and give that one a try. Shirley likes to bullet-proof her recipes by aligning everything towards success, so it’s a great way to go when things just aren’t working.

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