Today, we tackle pâte à choux, the primordial goo of sweet eclairs, beignets and profiteroles, not to mention the savory gougères we Anglophones call “cheese puffs.”

Pâte à choux (pot-ah-SHOO) — and, therefore, its many manifestations — is surprisingly easy, something to have in your back pocket the next time Madge invites herself over.

Coincidentally, the method for pâte à choux is eerily similar to that of a potion I use for conjuring demons. Only, instead of summoning Satan’s minions from the hoary pits of hell, we’re making gougères. “Potato, potato,” as my fine young son likes to say. Observe:

1. The Boiling: In my demonic potion, I use clarified gnat tears, but for pâte à choux, it’s butter and milk (or water, or a combination). Bring it to a boil in a saucepan over high heat.

2. The Dumping of the Flour: Upon boiling, the flour goes in all at once. Consider doing this off heat, because puffs of flour can be flammable. It’s why people don’t smoke around grain silos: One errant spark and — here’s one for the “Star Wars” geeks — it’s like Alderaan after the Death Star.

3. The Stirring: Place the pan on medium heat, and attack with a wooden spoon. After several minutes, the dough will start to form a smooth ball as it pulls away from the pan’s sides. Also, a starchy film will adhere to the bottom of the pan. These signs portend the following step.

4. The Cooling: Remove from heat. From here, you can finish in that pan, containing your mess and making cleanup easier, although there’s more tiresome mixing afoot. Conversely, you could finish in a stand mixer, thereby dirtying another bowl, but offering sweet surcease to your aching wrist. Regardless, rest the dough for several minutes, until the temperature drops to 110-140 degrees, cool enough not to cook the eggs, which are added next.

5. The Adding of the Eggs: Stir in the eggs one at a time, incorporating each completely before adding the next. Before incorporation occurs, it’ll look crazy, like something slipping down Grendel’s cave wall. Fear not, though, as our eggy chaos will soon cohere into a smooth and lustrous paste. Lifted onto a spoon, it should stretch slowly, then break away, leaving a V-shaped tail.

6. The Baking: The hot oven turns the water in pâte à choux to steam, inflating it, then coagulating the egg proteins to hold its shape.

Speaking of shapes, here are a few ideas for how to use this mighty product:

Beignets: Drop tablespoons of choux paste gently into a deep fryer.

Cream puffs or gougères (see recipe): Spoon (or pipe) it onto a parchment-covered baking sheet in tablespoon-size blobs.

Eclairs: Pipe it into 4- to 5-inch-long lines. Bake at 375 degrees about 30 minutes, until the outsides are brown and crispy as a Triassic lake bed, with insides as light and airy as a blimp full of angels.

Gougères can be served directly from the oven. Beignets are dusted with powdered sugar, and eclairs and profiteroles can be cooled, filled with pastry cream and slathered with chocolate ganache.

You can freeze baked gougères; just warm them in a hot oven when the mood strikes.


Start to finish: 75-85 minutes

Makes: 30-40 gougères

1 cup milk or water (or 1/2 cup each milk and water)

1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) butter

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)

Pinch of nutmeg

1 cup flour

4 eggs

1 cup grated Gruyère or cheddar cheese

1/4 cup grated Parmesan, plus more for topping

6 ounces bacon, diced and crisped (optional)

1/2 teaspoon paprika

Bring the milk and/or water, butter, salt, pepper, cayenne, and nutmeg to a rapid boil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan.

Remove pan from heat, add the flour all at once and mix vigorously with a wooden spoon until combined.

Return pan to heat; cook over medium, stirring constantly, until a light starchy film forms on pan bottom and mixture pulls away from sides to form a smooth ball, 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat; transfer contents to the bowl of a stand mixer.

Mix with the paddle attachment to cool to 110-140 degrees, 1-2 minutes.

With mixer running, add 1 egg; mix until fully incorporated, about 30 seconds. Repeat until all eggs are incorporated.

Remove bowl from mixer; stir in Gruyère or cheddar, 1/4 cup Parmesan, optional bacon and paprika until just combined. Transfer mixture to a piping bag fitted with a medium round tip.

Pipe 1-tablespoon portions onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. (Alternatively, use a tablespoon to portion out the mixture.) Sprinkle tops with grated Parmesan; bake at 375 degrees until crisp and golden brown, about 30 minutes. Serve immediately or at room temperature.

Nutrition information per piece (for 40, with bacon): 53 calories, 3 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 27 mg cholesterol, 3 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 3 g protein, 77 mg sodium, 0 g fiber.