Pate a chou - cream puff pastry - is one of the easiest and most versatile of doughs. It is nothing but flour, eggs, and butter mixed with boiling water or milk, but the chemistry causes the pastry to puff up magically when cooked.
Bake it, deep fry it, stuff it with a sweet or savory filling, mix it with cheese or potatoes, adorn it with chocolate or caramel sauce: pate a chou is captivating in any of its many transformations.
It is also a useful technique for the inexperienced cook to master. However simple cream puff pastry is to make, one can't help but feel proud of the result. Starting with the basic recipe, here are several ways to use it.
First are simple profiteroles, little round cream puffs. You can serve them as an hors d'oeuvre filled with something savory, such as chicken liver pate, seafood, or chicken bound in a cream or mayonnaise sauce, or even leftover ratatouille or mousse. Just make sure the filling has plenty of flavor, since the cream puff itself is bland.
Profiteroles also make a wonderful dessert. Fill them with sweetened whipped cream and pile them high on a dish. Pour warm, runny chocolate sauce over them and watch your guests succumb. Incidentally, in provincial France this dessert is traditionally served at wedding feasts.
Elongate your profiteroles into eclairs and dip them into a thicker chocolate sauce. Or brush the tops with a beaten egg dorure and sprinkle them with slivered almonds before baking. Then fill the eclairs with a praline cream or crushed fruit folded into whipped or sour cream.
Another variation on this theme is cheese puffs. Make the basic recipe with milk instead of water and add a generous amount of grated cheese. Bake and serve the little puffballs plain or stuffed with minced ham, or deep fry them for crisp tidbits that are moist and creamy on the inside.
The spectacular dessert, Gateau St.-Honore, is made from pate a chou, as are Paris-Brest cake and graceful cream puff swans. Far simpler but just as appealing to the eye and palate is a strawberry ring. The pastry is piped in a circle and baked, then filled with sweetened whipped cream, the top replaced and dusted with confectioners' sugar. Filled with strawberries, it is a dessert worthy of any occasion. Basic Recipe for Pate a Chou 1 cup cold water (or milk) 4 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces Salt 1 cup flour 4 large or extra-large eggs (do not use jumbo)
Put water, butter, and dash of salt in small saucepan. Have flour ready. Bring water to boil; when butter is just melted, take off heat and dump in flour all at once. Stir with wooden spoon until mixture is smooth and forms ball. Let dough cool slightly, then add eggs, one at a time, stirring to blend well after each. Pastry should be smooth, shiny, and stiff.
To make profiteroles: using two teaspoons, drop spoonfuls of batter onto greased cookie sheet (or use pastry tube for more even puffs). You may brush tops with egg dorure, made of one egg beaten with a little water, for shiny golden finish. Bake in preheated 400-degree F. oven for about 25 minutes, until puffed and golden. To make sure profiteroles will not collapse when cool, turn off oven and allow them to dry out on rack for 10 minutes.
To fill puffs, slit them on bottom with knife, pinch out any moist dough in center, and fill with whatever stuffing you choose. Replace bottom and put most attractive side up. You may also pipe filling through hole with pastry tube. Makes about 48 profiteroles.
To make eclairs: pipe dough into straight line 2 to 5 inches long, depending on size you want. You may run tines of fork along tops of each before brushing with dorure to give ridged effect, but this is not necessary. Bake as for profiteroles.
To make cheese puffs: make basic batter with milk (or half milk and half water) for richer dough. Grate 3 ounces Cheddar or Swiss cheese, about one generous cup, and fold into batter. Season well with salt and generous dash of cayenne or paprika. Bake as for profiteroles or deep fry as for potato puffs. Makes about 48 puffs.
Strawberry Ring 1 recipe basic pate a chou 2 cups heavy cream Confectioners' sugar 2 pints strawberries, washed, hulled, and sugared to taste
Butter baking sheet and sprinkle with flour, shaking off excess. Mark 9-inch circle on it. Fit pastry tube with plain 1-inch tip (or leave it empty, using plain cloth opening) and fill it with dough. Pipe two even circles one inside other and then a third on top. Brush with egg dorure (one egg beaten with a little water) to give it a golden finish. Bake in preheated 400-degree F. oven for about 40 minutes, until pastry is risen and mellow gold in color. To prevent pastry from collapsing when cool, turn off oven and leave ring on rack 10 to 15 minutes more to dry it out well.
To serve strawberry ring, when thoroughly cool use serrated knife to cut across horizontally through circle and lift off ''lid.'' Remove any moist dough in cavity. Whip cream until stiff and sweeten to taste. Using pastry tube fitted with decorative tip, pipe cream into cavity, overlapping edges slightly so ornamental piping will show. Replace top, sprinkle liberally with confectioners' sugar, and put strawberries inside and around cream puff pastry ring. Makes 8 to 12 servings.