I believe in miracles.
How else can you explain a process that turns just a few common ingredients — flour, milk, butter, salt and eggs — into a dough that puffs up when it cooks, leaving a large, fillable hole tantalizingly in the center?
And not only that, but the resulting baked good is as light and golden and inviting, an unobtrusive foundation for whatever filling you choose.
It’s simply miraculous.
The dough is called pâte à choux, and I have no idea how it works. But it is what you use to make any number of familiar filled pastries: eclairs, cream puffs, profiteroles and the like.
I used it to make eclairs, cream puffs and the like — in this case, the puffy, cheesy hors d’oeuvre called gougères and a light entrée, gnocchi Parisienne.
That’s another miraculous aspect of pâte à choux, or rather two. It can be used in savory dishes as well as sweet, and it can be served in appetizers, main courses and desserts.
In the highest levels of pâte à choux experts, there is a fierce battle that I just made up over whether the dough should have sugar in it or not. In other words, some sweeten their dough a little, and some don’t.
For the versions I made, I split the difference. I added sugar to the pastries that are not already abundantly sweet, the eclairs and the cream puffs. But I left it out of the profiteroles, which are also laden with ice cream and chocolate sauce.
The modern way to make pâte à choux pastries is without the sugar, but I ain’t that sophisticated. Also, it isn’t that much sugar; just three-quarters of a teaspoon apiece for the eclairs and half a teaspoon for the cream puffs.
Naturally, the savory dishes have no sugar in them at all.
Let’s be a little naughty and begin with dessert.
When I think about pâte à choux, my first thought is always about eclairs, probably because I love éclairs. They’re the next best thing to a cream-filled doughnut. If the French had given us nothing culinarily except the éclair, that would have been enough.
I next made the familiar cream puff, another light-as-air choux pastry filled with Chantilly cream.
Chantilly cream is wonderful, a dazzling complement to choux pastry and basically any other dessert. It is sweetened whipped cream with just enough vanilla to make it interesting. Biting into a cream puff filled with it is like eating a cloud — a cloud filled with sweetened whipped cream and vanilla.
But what makes these cream puffs so mouth-wateringly good is the almonds. Just a few slices of almond on top of each one adds a crisp, nutty undertone that makes the Chantilly cream dance.
I often made gougères for parties, back when there were still parties, and they were usually snatched up before I could put the platter on the table. Of course, they were always fewer than they could have been, because I gobbled up more than I should before I brought them out of the kitchen.
They’re that good. And why shouldn’t they be? They are delightfully hollow, bite-sized puffs of choux pastry mixed with cheese — I always use Gruyère, but you could experiment with many different types.
As an added benefit, you can make them a day or two in advanced and simply reheat them for a few minutes before serving.
Finally, for a nice, light meal, I made gnocchi Parisienne. Basically, they are what happens if you make gnocchi out of choux dough instead of potatoes.
They puff up wonderfully well, and are much lighter in taste and texture than ordinary gnocchi (which are a potato-based pasta). They also happen to pair amazingly well with cheese, which is naturally part of the recipe.
Shredded cheese goes into the dough, and then a little more is sprinkled on top to melt as the dish bakes, and brown as it broils.
It is an ethereally light, quintessentially Parisian dish. If you eat it, you should have plenty of room for a dessert of cream puffs.
Basic Pâte à Choux
Yield: 18 servings
1 cup milk
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons superfine sugar, optional, see note
1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
4 large eggs, beaten
Note: Use superfine sugar only if making a sweet pastry such as eclairs or cream puffs. To make superfine sugar, place granulated sugar in a blender and blend on medium or high for 10 seconds.
In a large saucepan, heat milk, butter, salt and sugar if using (to make a sweet pastry) until butter melts. Bring to a boil, remove from the heat and dump in flour all at once. Stir with a wooden spoon until it forms a ball.
Return pan to heat and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds to dry the dough; a film will collect on the bottom of the pan. Transfer to a large bowl and beat in eggs in three or four additions, mixing briskly after each one until fully incorporated. The dough will look bad after the first quantity of eggs is added, but when finished it will be smooth and glossy. Dough can be kept covered in refrigerator for up to 1 day.
Yield: 12 servings
1 quantity Basic Pâte à Choux recipe, with sugar
2/3 cup granulated sugar
3 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk
2 ounces grated semisweet chocolate
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped, or chocolate chips
½ cup whipping cream
Position racks in upper and lower thirds of your oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Draw 6 well-spaced, straight 6-inch lines on each of 2 pieces of parchment paper, turn the paper over and use to line 2 baking sheets.
Use a pastry bag with a ½-inch tip to pipe out choux dough, holding the bag about ¾ inch above the parchment; follow the lines you drew that should be visible through the parchment paper. If you do not have a pastry bag, use a resealable plastic bag with a ½-inch hole cut in one corner or simply spoon out the dough into straight 6-inch cylinders about ½ inch in diameter. You can gently straighten any irregularities with your fingers dipped in water.
Place baking sheets in oven and immediately lower temperature to 350 degrees. Bake 40 minutes until eclairs are beginning to brown; rotate trays halfway through. Lower temperature to 325 degrees and bake 20 more minutes until golden brown. Lower temperature to 300 degrees and bake 10 more minutes until the puffs are light and feel hollow. Cool completely on wire racks.
Meanwhile, make the chocolate crème patisserie: Whisk together sugar, yolks and vanilla in a medium bowl for 3 to 4 minutes until mixture is pale yellow; when you lift the whisk, the batter on it should fall back into the batter in the bowl in ribbons and leave a visible impression that lasts a few moments before disappearing. Add flour; whisk until smooth.
Heat milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat until small bubbles form around the edge, about 3 minutes. Gradually add milk to egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly. Return mixture to saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly, about 3 minutes. Boil mixture, whisking constantly, 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in the 2 ounces of grated chocolate until melted and thoroughly blended.
Transfer mixture to a medium bowl; press plastic wrap directly onto surface. Let cool to room temperature, about 1 hour. This mixture can be chilled, covered, for up to 3 days.
Make the chocolate frosting: Place the 4 ounces of chopped chocolate or chocolate chips in a heatproof bowl. Heat the cream in a small saucepan at least until bubbles form around the edge. Pour over chocolate and let sit 1 minute. Stir mixture until chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is a solid color.
Assemble the éclairs: If you have a pastry bag with a Bismark tip, fill it with the chocolate crème patisserie, insert tip into both ends of each éclair and fill with cream. If you don’t have a Bismark tip, carefully slice each éclair in half horizontally and pipe or spoon chocolate filling on top of the bottom half.
Place the chocolate frosting in a bowl large enough to hold an éclair, and dip the top of each éclair — or the top of the top half, if sliced in half. If sliced, replace that half on top of the other half. If the frosting has become too solid do dip the eclairs, simply stir in 1 or 2 tablespoons of very hot milk. Eclairs can be refrigerated for up to a few hours.
Yield: 16 servings
1 quantity of Basic Pâte à Choux Recipe, with sugar
1 ½ cups whipping cream or 1 cup heavy cream diluted with ½ cup whole milk
2 to 3 tablespoons superfine sugar, see note
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup sliced almonds
Powdered sugar for dusting
Note: To make superfine sugar, mix granulated sugar in a blender on medium or high for 10 seconds.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Pipe or spoon round, egg-sized pieces of choux dough onto it, spaced well apart. Put in oven, turn temperature down to 400 and bake 20 minutes, until golden and well-risen. If not yet done after 20 minutes, turn off heat but keep in oven until golden and well-risen. Cool on wire racks.
Meanwhile, make Chantilly cream: Make sure the cream and milk (if using) are very cold. Place in a mixing bowl and mix with a stand mixer fitted with a whisk, with a mixer or by hand with a whisk until cream has soft peaks. Do not overmix. Lightly fold in sugar and vanilla. Chill until needed.
Slice cooled choux buns in half horizontally. Pipe or spoon Chantilly cream onto bottom of each one and gently cover with top. Place a few pieces of sliced almond on top of each one and dust with powdered sugar. Puffs can be kept in refrigerator for several hours.
Yield: 8 servings
1 Basic Pâte à Choux recipe
1 cup (about 4 ounces) grated Gruyère cheese, divided
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon ground or cracked black pepper
1 large egg
Preheat oven to 400 degrees and position racks in the top and lower thirds of the oven. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the dough, ¾ cup of the cheese, the mustard and the black pepper. Mix on low just until evenly blended.
Spoon 1-inch rounds of the dough onto the prepared baking sheets, about 1 inch apart. In a small bowl, lightly beat the egg to blend thoroughly. Brush a light coating of egg over the tops of the rounds, being careful it does not drip down the sides (it will glue the dough to the parchment). You will not need all the egg. Sprinkle each round with a little of the remaining ¼ cup of cheese.
Bake the gougères for 20 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Switch the sheets between the racks, rotate each pan from front to back and bake for 10 to 15 minutes longer. Transfer to a rack to cool briefly. Serve warm, piled on a platter for guests to help themselves.
Gougères can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to three days. To serve, reheat them in a 375-degree oven for 7 to 9 minutes, which will make them warm and crisp again.
Yield: 4 servings
1 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 large eggs
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, Gruyère or Asiago cheese
In a small saucepan, combine the water, salt and nutmeg with 2 tablespoons of the butter and bring to a boil over high heat. As soon as the water boils, add the flour all at once and beat the dough with a wooden spoon until it is thick and comes away from the side of the pan. Cook, stirring to dry out the dough, about 30 seconds. Transfer the dough to a medium bowl and let cool slightly, about 5 minutes.
Beat 1 egg into the dough until incorporated. Beat in ¼ cup of the cheese and another egg until blended, then beat in the last egg until the dough is very smooth.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Set a bowl of ice water near the stove. With a large spatula, transfer the dough to a resealable plastic bag, pressing it into one corner. Cut off the tip of the bag; the opening should be about ½ inch long.
Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Carefully hold the bag over the water and press out the dough, using a small sharp knife to cut it into 1½-inch lengths before it drops into the pot (you can also use 2 teaspoons to form the gnocchi). Simmer the gnocchi for 3 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the gnocchi to the ice water bath to stop the cooking. Transfer the gnocchi to paper towels and pat dry.
Grease a 9-by-12-inch baking dish with the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Arrange the gnocchi in the dish and sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons of cheese. Bake until puffed, about 25 minutes. Preheat the broiler. Broil the gnocchi 6 inches from the heat for 1 to 2 minutes, or until browned. Serve right away.
The gnocchi can be prepared through Step 4 and refrigerated overnight before baking and broiling.