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My favorite old-school bakery item is, hands down, the cream puff. I love how the delicate, crispy shell gives way to the rich, oozing center, creating perfect textural harmony; a lovechild of the cannoli and a jelly doughnut.
For the longest time, I'd dismissed the idea of making cream puffs at home, assuming that they'd be fussy and complicated. Years later, in pastry school, I discovered that making cream puffs is no sweat at all, once you know how to make pâte à choux.
Pâte à choux (pronounced pat-ah-choo) is the paste-like dough used for making the crispy shells of cream puffs, éclairs, gougères, and profiteroles. Choux relies solely upon steam trapped inside the dough to make it rise, creating large, cavernous pockets for delicious fillings. Since steam is the critical element, the technique used for making pâte à choux is designed to develop elasticity in the dough (to expand and create pockets) while maximizing moisture (to generate steam when baking).
There are only six ingredients: water, milk, salt, butter, bread flour, and eggs. The first five ingredients are cooked on the stovetop, yielding a lumpy, wet dough that is ready to absorb the eggs. The cooked dough is transferred to a mixing bowl and cooled, and the eggs are beaten in slowly, one at a time. The dough transforms into a smooth, shiny paste that's ready to be piped, baked, and filled with whatever smooth filling you're craving.
Click through the slideshow above to view directions and step-by-step photos for pâte à choux perfection, or go directly to the recipe for a exact ingredient amounts and timing. And if you need some inspiration, we've got filling suggestions, too!