Pate-a-choux is the stuff of magic in the kitchen. Pipe a soft, sticky dough onto a baking sheet and slide it into a hot oven. In mere minutes the dough puffs up — practically exploding to double, even triple, its original size — right before your eyes. Out of the oven, pate-a-choux cools to a golden-brown shell, crisp yet delicate and lighter than air. It’s downright mesmerizing.
Maybe you’ve never heard of pate-a-choux, but you’ve no doubt savored it at one time or another. Also known as cream puff dough, it’s the magic behind crisp éclair shells and towering cream puff pastries, savory profiteroles and cheesy gougères.
Even better? Pate-a-choux is really simple to make. All it takes is butter, water, flour and eggs, perhaps a touch of sugar and salt, to get you started.
Combine water, butter, sugar and salt in a pot or saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, then add some flour. Stir the mixture quickly — this part of the recipe does require some elbow grease — to evenly combine the ingredients and hydrate the flour. Move too slowly and the flour will cook up in lumps, just like dumplings. Stir the mixture just a few minutes over low heat to cook out any extra moisture and develop the gluten needed for good structure.
As it’s stirred, the mixture will come together in a single mass, and you’ll notice a thin film forming on the bottom of the pan. At this point, it’s time to add the eggs.
Most recipes call for adding the eggs one at a time using a mixer or stirring by hand to properly develop the dough (simple as it may sound, constant stirring can really tone an arm). But for the best volume, skip the mixer and the workout, and pull out the food processor. I learned about the trick in Rose Levy Beranbaum’s classic “The Pie and Pastry Bible.” It’s the fastest and easiest method I’ve tried (all of the eggs are added at once rather than one at a time), and it increased the volume of my pate-a-choux by a third.
And where most pate-a-choux recipes call for adding whole eggs, Beranbaum also mentions substituting some egg whites, something I’ve seen in a few other recipes, which helps to increase the overall structure and crispness of the baked pastry.
Use the pastries in a day or so, or freeze until you need them (they keep well frozen; simply refresh them in a warm oven). Fill them with pastry cream and top with chocolate glaze for eclairs, or stuff them full of chicken salad or a mousse for profiteroles. Adding grated cheese to the dough will give you classic gougères, or be creative and fold other spices, even herbs or citrus zest, into the dough for other savory or sweet notes.
In the summertime, my favorite is a classic cream puff. Halve the puffs (I like mine on the generous side) and fill with freshly whipped cream. Spoon over fresh fruit — cherries, berries, figs, perhaps thinly sliced nectarine ribbons macerated with a little sugar and liqueur — and serve. It makes for a dramatic presentation — magical even.