Monday, August 27, 2012

Daring Bakers: Pate a Choux Swans!

Yes indeed, I made a pate a choux swan!  Truly, I am as shocked as you are.  

Kat of The Bobwhites was our August 2012 Daring Baker hostess who inspired us to have fun creating pate a choux shapes, filled with creme patisseire or Chantilly cream.  We were encouraged to create swans or any shape we wanted and go crazy with filling flavors allowing our creativity to go wild!

In case the fancy French words are throwing you off, pate a choux is the basis for pastry part of cream puffs and eclairs.  It is the puffy dough that you then fill with yummy cream.  Never in my wildest imagination did I ever think I could create a pate a choux swan, but looky there, I did it!  It really is much easier than it looks!

First you melt butter into water and salt in a medium saucepan.  Once it is evenly melted, bring it to a boil and then immediately take it off of the heat and add the flour.  Stir like the dickens until the dough becomes a mass around the spoon.  Then put the saucepan back on the stove and cook for another minute or so to dry out the dough a little.  You know it is good enough when there is a thin film of dough on the bottom of the saucepan. 
In the meantime, beat some eggs together until they are totally blended.

Transfer the dough ball into a mixing bowl and beat for a minute to slightly cool the dough and develop the gluten.  Then add in the eggs, a couple of tablespoons at a time, making sure it is completely blended before adding more eggs.

Pate a choux is done when it passes the "string test":  if you put some dough between your thumb and forefinger and pull them apart, it should form a stretchy string about 1 1/2 to 2 inches long.  (I look at this picture and wish I had thought to moisturize my hands that morning or something.  Ugh.)

Now comes the fun part!  Plop some of that dough into a pastry bag and get out some tips.  You can use a big circular tip for the swan body but I decided to use a big star, Wilton tip number 21.  I thought the star ridges would look kind of like feathers when it was all put together, and I think it kind of worked!  Theoretically you want the body to look like a big teardrop shape, so put the tip down on the parchment paper and squeeze while holding the tip still until you have a nice blob and then slowly move the tip back and end.

For the head/necks, I used Wilton tip 5, a medium circle.  If you have a tip a little bigger than a 5 that would work nicely.  These necks are SUPER-fragile, so making them a little thicker would still look great and would be less anxiety-producing!  Make a backwards elongated S shape first. Then go back to the top and make another small teardrop shape for the head.  I think they looked terribly weird before they baked but somehow when they baked it seemed to come together!

I made the 20 swan bodies above, the necks, and then made about 10 cream puff rounds with the recipe of pate a choux.

On to baking.  I read several recipes that had different ideas as to how long and at what temperatures to cook the bodies.  I settled on a strategy I found on the blog Hanielas Food and Photography.  I didn't actually use her recipe though it seemed similar to the one I used.  However, here is the baking strategy:
480F for 17 minutes
330F for 15 minutes
295 for 15 minutes
Don't open the oven while baking.
I actually took them out a couple of minutes early as they seemed to be getting pretty browned.  This strategy worked.  They were nice and crisp and not doughy at all in the middle.

For the swan necks, I cooked them at 400F for about 7 minutes, watching them closely!

As soon as the bodies were out of the oven, I used a sharp serrated knife to slice them in half (top-bottom) to ensure that the middles would be dry.  I cut the top piece in half lengthwise to make the wings once they were cool.

In case you are wondering, I cooked the cream puffs at 400F for 20 minutes, then at 350F for 20 minutes, and then at 300F for 10 minutes. 

Pate a Choux
adapted from The Art and Soul of Baking
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs, plus another tablespoon or two if needed

Cook the butter, water and salt in a medium saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally until the butter melts evenly.  Increase the heat and bring to a boil.  Immediately remove the pan from the heat and add the flour all at once, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon.  The dough will form a mass around the spoon.  Place the pan back over medium heat and continue to cook, stirring, for another minute or two to dry put the dough.  The pan will have a thin film of dough on the bottom.

Transfer the dough to a mixing bowl.  Beat on medium speed for a minute to slightly cool the dough and develop the gluten.  In a medium bowl, beat the eggs together until they are completely blended.  With the mixer on medium, add the eggs a tablespoon or two at a time, mixing completely after each addition.  When all of the eggs are incorporated, the dough should be shiny and elastic and stick to the sides of the bowl.  In addition it should pass the "string test":  put a glob of dough between your thumb and forefinger and stretch your fingers apart.  The dough should form a string of 1 1/2 to 2 inches long between your fingers.  If the dough has not reached this point, beat another egg and add a little at a time until the dough is finished.

Shape the dough into whatever form you desire (swan, cream puff, eclair, etc) and bake accordingly.  For the swans, bake at 480F for 17 minutes, 330F for 15 minutes, and 295F for 15 minutes.
Printable Recipe

Now for the filling!  I made the swans for a dinner party I was attending in which the theme was "spices".  I already had another dessert I intended to serve with the swans (it was totally my plan to have two desserts just in case these swans did not work!)  The other dessert was a Saffron and Cardamom Panna Cotta.  (That will appear in a later post so check back!)  So I decided to make a vanilla bean and cardamom creme patissiere.  I had to wing the cardamom part, as I didn't have a recipe for exactly what I wanted, but it worked!  I did not take any photos of this process, but here is the recipe! 

Vanilla Bean and Cardamom Creme Patissiere
adapted from The Art and Soul of Baking
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 vanilla bean (or 1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract) - I used the vanilla bean
2 cardamom pods (I could have used another)
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
6 TB sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 TB cold unsalted butter

Pour milk into a medium saucepan.  Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the seeds into the milk.  Put the pod into the milk and add the cardamom pods.  Bring just to a simmer and then remove from heat and steep covered for 30 minutes.  If using vanilla extract instead of the bean just deal with the cardamom and you will add the extract later).

Heat the milk again to just below the boiling point and remove from the heat.  In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg, egg yolks and sugar until smooth.  Add the flour and whisk vigorously until the mixture is very smooth.  Add about 1/2 cup of the hot milk mixture to the eggs and continue whisking vigorously.  Slowly pour the egg mixture into the rest of the milk and continue whisking.

Heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture reaches a boil, and then cook another minute, until the pastry cream is very thick.  Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter, vanilla extract (if using) and ground cardamom.  I added more cardamom here because I didn't feel like the flavor was strong enough.  I felt like it was drowned a bit by the vanilla beans so I added more.  Had I used more cardamom pods in the beginning, this may not have been the case!

Strain the creme into a medium bowl.  Press a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the creme patissiere and then either set the bowl over a bowl of ice and water, or put it into the freezer for 15 minutes.  After the 15 minutes, put the bowl into the refrigerator.  Once cooled, it can be used right away or stored in the refrigerator until needed.
Printable Recipe

Since these swans were for a dinner party that was NOT at my house I had to transport them all before filling.  This alone about gave me an anxiety attack.  There were 8 people for dinner so I picked out what appeared to be the nicest 12 swan bodies and necks and packaged them VERY carefully in plastic containers.  While Mr. Clever Mom drove to our friend's home, I gingerly held the container holding the swan necks in my hands, trying to make sure they didn't get bumped or shaken at all!  I was so relieved to get there!

Since I had made the dough in advance, I went ahead and reheated them at 375F for 7 minutes to re-crisp.  Once cooled, I prepared to create the swans!  I put some of the creme patissiere in a pastry bag and using another big star tip, Ateco 32, I piped some cream into the bottom of the swan body.  Then I gingerly pressed the bottom part of a neck into the cream (breaking a few necks in the process!) and put the wings on the sides.  I piped more cream into the space between the wings and then dusted the entire swan with powdered sugar.  I also put a dab of cream under the bottom of each swan so I could carry the plates to the table without the swans falling over.  That dab of cream acts like glue!  If I had intended to do all of the swans and the cream puffs, I would have had to have about double the amount of creme patissiere.  I filled 8 swans and had a tiny bit left.

It sounds like a huge process but really it wasn't so bad!  I really couldn't believe it when they really turned out looking like swans!  It was a hit!


  1. So nice, they turned out great. The Cardamom cream sounds fantastic, I must remember to give this a try. And a dinner party that is themed where the theme is spice, please tell me you are close to Austin, TX I would love to participate in something like that!

    1. I'm in Houston, Kim! Our dinner group is a random group of people my husband used to work with, who all like to cook. We formed our own group and get together periodically and someone picks a theme. It's fun! You should start one!

  2. You did a great job and swans are elegant and beautiful

  3. Your swans look beautiful - those necks look so dainty and elegant. You did a wonderful job!

    1. Thank you! The necks gave me a lot of stress... especially in transport! It was a fun project!

  4. Perfect Swans! They are elegant and gorgeous, what a great job in the challenge!

    1. Thanks for stopping by! It was a great challenge!

  5. Ok, it's official: I am not worthy! Way to go, Sharron:)

    1. Oh, Jennifer! You are so silly! Thanks for your encouragement!

  6. What a dainty swan! Great tip about the string test - definitely good to know. The vanilla cardamom combo in the pastry cream sounds dynamite!

    1. I can't take ownership of the string test - it was in a book! But I love little tips like that to let me know I am on the right track! Thanks for visiting!


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