Use versatile dough to prepare dishes that are both sweet and savory
It's the Puff Daddy of pastry. Bake it in little mounds and you have classic cream puffs or profiteroles, ready to be stuffed with whipped cream or ice cream. (They also make the perfect containers for escargots or, if gigantic, a Niçoise salad.) Shape it into long fingers, bake, and fill with custard and you have an éclair. Combine it with cheese, bake in a ring and you have the hors d'oeuvre known as gougère. Add mashed potatoes, shape into ovals and poach, and you have gnocchi. Beat in pureed raw fish, cook in simmering stock, and you have the delicate French dumplings known as quenelles. Bake the mixture and you have fish mousse.
It's hard to believe that so many seemingly dissimilar concoctions -- ranging from simple to complex and from sweet to savory -- all start with the same basic dough, but they do. It's pâte à choux or cream puff pastry. No wonder it's also the basis of the dessert named after the patron saint of pastry chefs, the glamorous gâteau Saint-Honoré. The dough is so versatile you can even make a pastry cream filling out of it by adding sugar and milk.
Pâte à choux (pronounced pot-ah-shoe) is a classic French formulation that translates as "pastry for forming little cabbages" because that's what a standard cream puff resembles. Even though it is a fundamental preparation (Julia Child says that like béchamel sauce every cook should know how to make it), cream puff pastry is a relatively new invention as pastries go. Whereas other pastries can be traced back to ancient times (the ancient Greeks, for instance, routinely distinguished the pastry-cook from the ordinary baker), cream puff pastry goes back only to the 16th century.
Moreover, this classic French preparation was actually invented by an Italian, Panterelli, head chef to Catherine de Medici, albeit in France where he had moved with the rest of her court upon her marriage to the Duke of Orleans. In 1540 he created the original version of the dough which he named after himself, pâte à Panterelli. Later it would undergo some reformulation and be renamed pâte á popelini after a cake made in the shape of a woman's breast. (Those French!) Ultimately it was retitled pâte á choux because choux buns were the principal thing made from it. The recipe was finally perfected in the 19th century by the famed chef Antoine Carême.
Cream puff pastry is essentially what is called a "panade," a mixture of flour, water, and butter cooked together, into which are beaten whole eggs. It's the eggs that make it puff up when baked. It has no other leavening. Though it consists of flour, butter, and liquid like other pastry doughs, unlike them pâte à choux is cooked on top of the stove before being formed and baked. It's one of the easiest pastries to make, especially with the advent of the food processor, and is practically foolproof. All you do is bring water, butter, salt, and sugar to a full boil, add flour all at once to form a ball, and beat in eggs.
Still, there are some pointers to keep in mind to insure success when making cream puff pastry. Rose Levy Beranbaum, the high priestess of pastry who authored "The Pie and Pastry Bible" offers the following guidelines:
Sift the flour after measuring to make it easier to incorporate into the liquid mixture.
Use water rather than milk for the lightest puff as milk causes the eggs in the dough to coagulate faster.
To make sure you have the right amount of liquid in the recipe, measure eggs by volume. Five large eggs equal one cup. Keep in mind too, as Julia Child advises, that it's better to have too little liquid than too much.
For the most delicate cream puff use bread flour and substitute egg whites for half the amount of eggs. Dough made this way, however, will be too delicate for large pastries.
To encourage the pastry to puff up, spray baking sheets with water to create steam during baking.
Lest it collapse, make sure the interior of the pastry is adequately dried out by letting it sit in the oven with the door ajar for a few minutes after baking.
Use herb-infused oil or truffle oil in place of butter when making savory puffs for lighter texture and better flavor with no eggy taste.
This elegant dish may well be the ultimate choux pastry concoction. Not only is it encased in pâte à choux, but it uses it as the basis for the mousse filling. Inspired by an old recipe from Julia Child, but substituting salmon in keeping with its name -- a pun on coulibiac, a fancy Russian pastry stuffed with salmon -- it is really far easier to prepare than it looks.
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 sticks butter
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 cup flour
2 3/4 pounds salmon fillet
3/4 cup cream
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
2 tablespoons capers
Trim salmon to produce one long 2 pound fillet. Cut remaining 3/4 pounds of salmon into 1/2-inch pieces. Bring the water, butter, and salt slowly to a boil. As soon as the butter melts, remove from heat and add flour all at once, beating with a spoon until smooth. Set over moderately high heat and continue to beat until mixture begins to film bottom of the pan. Scrape mixture into food processor. Turn on processor and while it is running quickly add five eggs in sequence, stopping machine after last egg is added. Remove 1/2 cup of mixture to a metal bowl and place over ice water. Put remaining mixture back in saucepan and cover to keep warm. Stir reserved 1/2 cup mixture over ice until well chilled. Return to processor, add the cut up salmon chunks, cream, and salt and pepper to taste and process until smooth. Mousse should be just firm enough to hold its shape when spread. If too stiff, dribble in additional cream until desired consistency is reached. Lay salmon fillet on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Sprinkle evenly with dill and capers. Cover top with mousse, mounding in center. Using a flexible-blade spatula, encase salmon and mousse with remaining pastry mixture, using a pastry bag to pipe decorative shapes on top. Beat remaining egg with 1 teaspoon water and use to glaze top and sides of structure. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes until lightly browned and puffed slightly. Turn oven temperature down to 375 degrees and bake for 20 to 25 minutes longer, being careful not to overbake. Serve warm or cold with hollandaise or other sauce if desired. Serves 6-8.
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