food

VOILA: Sprinkle the finished Paris-Brest with one tablespoon powdered sugar, and serve. (Eric Boyd, Los Angeles Times / April 12, 2006)

First, a French friend brings a spectacular homemade dessert to dinner. It's a Paris-Brest -- a large ring of choux paste sliced horizontally, filled with praline pastry cream and whipped cream and topped with toasted almonds. Next, Thomas Keller opens Bouchon Bakery in the Time Warner Center in New York City, with a whole section on the dessert menu dedicated to pastries made with choux paste, or as it's called in French, pate a choux.

Could a pate a choux revival be coming?

And what is pate a choux, anyway?

Also known as cream puff pastry, choux paste is the basis of eclairs and profiteroles -- that's on the dessert side -- and gougeres (cheese puffs) on the savory side. Though most often baked, it can also be poached (for Parisian gnocchi) or deep fried (for beignets or chichis, the French version of churros).

But choux paste is also the foundation of a panoply of other fabulous desserts. Just ask Sebastien Rouxel, executive pastry chef of Bouchon Bakery and Per Se. Besides classic chocolate eclairs, the retail pastry case at the New York City Bouchon is filled with delicate, cream-filled Chantillys, individual-sized wheel-shaped Paris-Brests and gorgeous little religieuses, named for the color of the fondant icing, which is said to match the color of the robes of French nuns, or religieuses. Irresistible? You bet.

The best news: As sophisticated and delicious as these desserts are, choux pastry couldn't be easier to make at home. Unlike, say, puff pastry, which requires hours and hours of mixing and rolling and chilling and more rolling and chilling -- and may not turn out well if the weather doesn't cooperate -- choux paste can be made in all of about 15 minutes. And it's virtually foolproof.

All you do is bring water, butter, salt (and sometimes sugar) to a boil, dump in flour, stir it in and cook it to "dry" the mixture. Let it cool, then beat in eggs one at a time until the dough is smooth and satiny. That's the choux paste.

Spoon it (for cream puffs or profiteroles) or pipe it (for fancier desserts) onto a baking sheet. Baked at a high temperature -- 400 degrees -- it puffs up dramatically, hollowing out in the process.

All that remains is dressing it up -- by filling it with pastry cream, creme pralinee, ice cream or mousse, dusting with powdered sugar, topping with whipped cream or glazing with fondant. You get the idea.

A pastry present

ROUXEL says that while pate a choux pastries may not loom large in the American imagination, they're a happy reminder of childhood for a Frenchman. "It was like a small present you got from your parents," he says, recalling treats such as Chantillys or eclairs.

Rouxel's version of the Chantilly veers from the traditional swan shape; instead it looks rather like a miniature basket. Though traditional Chantillys are made with the whipped cream that gives them their name (creme Chantilly is whipped cream), Rouxel gains tangy complexity by layering vanilla pastry cream with whipped, sweetened creme fraiche.

One of the most amusing -- and impressive -- of choux pastries is the Paris-Brest, a ring-shaped pate a choux filled with praline pastry cream and whipped cream and topped with toasted almonds. Legend has it that the wheel-shaped dessert was created by a pastry chef in honor of a bicycle race between Paris and Brest. Jacques Pepin's "La Technique" cookbook includes a definitive recipe.

Michel Roux, renowned chef at the Waterside Inn in Bray, England, has given choux paste its due in his new cookbook, "Eggs." In it, he offers a recipe for wonderful little choux buns filled with a mousse that marries the unlikely, yet delicious, combination of Drambuie and coffee. Unlike profiteroles, which are sliced open and filled, these buns get their filling piped in through a small hole, so the mousse comes as a charmingly explosive surprise inside. "These little choux buns make a lovely dessert," writes Roux, "but I also like to serve them as a teatime treat." They're finished with a sprinkle of powdered sugar or cocoa.

There are a few tips to keep in mind when making pate a choux. First, add the flour all at once to the water, salt and melted butter and stir it off-heat until it is completely blended. A very important step is to return the pot to the heat and "dry" the puff pastry while beating the paste constantly. You will notice a thin film of cooked dough on the bottom of the pot when the dough is ready. This can take three to six minutes depending on how much paste you are making.

At this point transfer the dough to a bowl. This will prevent any cooked crusty bits from getting into the dough when you add the eggs.

Let the dough cool a few minutes before beating in the eggs to avoid cooking the egg whites. Add the eggs one at a time, beating the mixture with a wooden spoon, whisk or mixer into a smooth batter after each egg is added. This will help to avoid lumpy dough.

The dough can either be spooned or piped onto a buttered and floured baking sheet or parchment paper. Smooth down any peaks or points on the piped dough with a finger dipped in a little cold water so the tips do not burn during baking.

The pastries should be golden brown and crisp when they are done baking. Cut a slit in each cooked puff to allow steam to escape and the puffs will stay crisp.