Cream Puffsmanship

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 15, 2006

For some reason, the cream puff has a reputation for being difficult and temperamental. Nothing could be further from the truth; it comes from the simplest dough of all to make.

On its own, there's not much to this pastry workhorse. But it can do far more than provide people with a respectable way to consume gobs of pastry cream. With a little ingenuity, cream puffs can be baked, filled, deep-fried or poached into airy, sweet and savory offerings that will stand out at any party.

The original French term for this dough, pâté a chaud ("hot paste"), devolved into the term pâté a choux because the puffs they produced resembled "little cabbages," or choux in French.

Pâté a choux contains four basic ingredients (water, butter, flour, eggs) and takes minutes to prepare. The butter and water are brought to a boil, the flour is added all at once to make a solid paste and the eggs are then incorporated one at a time.

By hand, adding the eggs requires stamina because the slithery whites don't easily bond with the flour paste. Using a food processor, however, takes the grunt work out of the dough's preparation. Thoroughly mixing in the eggs ensures a successful outcome; in a hot oven, the water in the dough's egg whites converts into the steam that inflates the shells. The renowned chef Madeleine Kamman explains this process well in "The New Making of a Cook" (William Morrow, 1997).

The following recipes are a testament to the versatility of pâté a choux. One batch of dough can make 40 colorful vegetable bhaji s (Indian fritters), 25 to 30 Asian-inspired smoked salmon puffs or 42 piquant cheese puffs. Eighteen halved plain puffs can be turned into 36 hors d'oeuvre containers by topping them with as many fillings as a fertile imagination can conjure.

Or use the dough to whip up some "gnocchi" in Gorgonzola sauce, an impressive first course that can be prepared well in advance. For dessert, cocoa puffs in vanilla sauce spoofs a breakfast staple to end a meal with a light touch.

Chef and former restaurateur David Hagedorn last wrote for Food about Super Bowl food.

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