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story.lead_photo.caption Cream puffs with Chantilly Cream, made with pate a choux dough. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

I believe in miracles.

How else can you explain a process that turns just a few common ingredients — flour, milk, butter, salt and eggs — into a dough that puffs up when it cooks, leaving a large, fillable hole tantalizingly in the center?

And not only that, but the resulting baked good is as light and golden and inviting, an unobtrusive foundation for whatever filling you choose.

It's simply miraculous.

The dough is called pte choux, and I have no idea how it works. But it is what you use to make any number of familiar filled pastries: eclairs, cream puffs, profiteroles and the like.

I used it to make eclairs, cream puffs, profiteroles and the like — in this case, the puffy, cheesy hors d'oeuvre called gougres and a light entrée, gnocchi Parisienne.

That's another miraculous aspect of pte choux, or rather two. It can be used in savory dishes as well as sweet, and it can be served in appetizers, main courses and desserts.

In the highest levels of pte choux experts, there is a fierce battle I just made up over whether the dough should have sugar in it or not. In other words, some sweeten their dough a little and some don't.

For the versions I made, I split the difference. I added sugar to the pastries that are not already abundantly sweet, the eclairs and the cream puffs. But I left it out of the profiteroles, which are also laden with ice cream and chocolate sauce.

The modern way to make pte choux pastries is without the sugar, but I ain't that sophisticated. Also, it isn't that much sugar; just three-quarters of a teaspoon apiece for the eclairs and half a teaspoon for the cream puffs.

Naturally, the savory dishes have no sugar in them at all.

Let's be a little naughty and begin with dessert.

When I think about pte choux, my first thought is always about eclairs, probably because I love éclairs. They're the next best thing to a cream-filled doughnut. If the French had given us nothing culinarily except the éclair, that would have been enough.

Admittedly, with the pastry, the pastry cream and the topping, éclairs are a fair amount of work. But in the end, you wind up with éclairs. They are easier to make if you have the right pastry bag tips — I made my éclair shells with an Ateco 867 French star tip, because they look great and cook evenly —but special tools are not necessary.

For example, in the ludicrously improbable situation that you go to a kitchen store intending to buy a large, thin pastry bag tip specifically made for filling eclairs but you forget about it and buy other tips instead (including an Ateco 867 French star tip) and you have to write a newspaper food story about eclairs the next day, don't worry. You can easily wing it with a knife and a spoon.

I next made the familiar cream puff, another light-as-air choux pastry filled with Chantilly cream.

Chantilly cream is wonderful, a dazzling complement to choux pastry and basically any other dessert. It is sweetened whipped cream with just enough vanilla to make it interesting. Biting into a cream puff filled with it is like eating a cloud — a cloud filled with sweetened whipped cream and vanilla.

But what makes these cream puffs so mouth-wateringly good is the almonds. Just a few slices of almond on top of each one adds a crisp, nutty undertone that makes the Chantilly cream dance.

Technically, a cream puff is a type of profiterole, but to me profiteroles are always filled with ice cream. So I made some, and I filled them with ice cream. Then I topped them with chocolate sauce, as one does.

I had initially planned to use a chocolate sauce suggested by Ina Garten with honey and coffee in it. But why bother with that when you could just make a ganache, which is easier and richer and better because it is not diluted with unnecessary coffee and honey?

A ganache is simply an emulsion created by stirring hot cream over chopped chocolate, and it is divine. You can even use milk, if you want, instead of cream. It is my go-to chocolate sauce; I also used it for the frosting on my eclairs.

Honestly, they were the best profiteroles I've ever had. Maybe it was the ganache.

I often made gougres for parties, back when there were still parties, and they were usually snatched up before I could put the platter on the table. Of course, they were always fewer than they could have been, because I gobbled up more than I should before I brought them out of the kitchen.

They're that good. And why shouldn't they be? They are delightfully hollow, bite-sized puffs of choux pastry mixed with cheese — I always use Gruyre, but you could experiment with many different types.

As an added benefit, you can make them a day or two in advanced and simply reheat them for a few minutes before serving.

Finally, for a nice, light meal, I made gnocchi Parisienne. Basically, they are what happens if you make gnocchi out of choux dough instead of potatoes.

They puff up wonderfully well and are much lighter in taste and texture than ordinary gnocchi (which are a potato-based pasta). They also happen to pair amazingly well with cheese, which is naturally part of the recipe.

Shredded cheese goes into the dough, and then a little more is sprinkled on top to melt as the dish bakes, and brown as it broils.

It is an ethereally light, quintessentially Parisian dish. If you eat it, you should have plenty of room for a dessert of profiteroles.

CHOUX RECIPES

BASIC PTE CHOUX

Yield: 18 servings

1 cup milk

8 tablespoons (one stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons superfine sugar, optional, see note

1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted

4 large eggs, beaten

Note: Use superfine sugar only if making a sweet pastry such as eclairs or cream puffs. To make superfine sugar, place granulated sugar in a blender and blend on medium or high for 10 seconds.

1. In a large saucepan, heat milk, butter, salt and sugar if using (to make a sweet pastry) until butter melts. Bring to a boil, remove from the heat and dump in flour all at once. Stir with a wooden spoon until it forms a ball.

2. Return pan to heat and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds to dry the dough; a film will collect on the bottom of the pan. Transfer to a large bowl and beat in eggs in three or four additions, mixing briskly after each one until fully incorporated. The dough will look bad after the first quantity of eggs is added, but when finished it will be smooth and glossy. Dough can be kept covered in refrigerator for up to 1 day.

Per serving (based on 18): 96 calories; 6g fat; 4g saturated fat; 55mg cholesterol; 3g protein; 7g carbohydrate; 2g sugar; 1g fiber; 54mg sodium; 25mg calcium

Traditional recipe interpreted by Daniel Neman

CHOCOLATE ECLAIRS

Yield: 12 servings

1 quantity Basic Pte Choux recipe, with sugar

2/3 cup granulated sugar

3 large egg yolks

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 cup whole milk

2 ounces grated semisweet chocolate

4 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped, or chocolate chips

1/2 cup whipping cream

1. Position racks in upper and lower thirds of your oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Draw six well-spaced, straight 6-inch lines on each of two pieces of parchment paper, turn the paper over and use to line two baking sheets.

2. Use a pastry bag with a 1/2-inch tip to pipe out choux dough, holding the bag about 3/4 of an inch above the parchment; follow the lines you drew that should be visible through the parchment paper. If you do not have a pastry bag, use a resealable plastic bag with a 1/2-inch hole cut in one corner or simply spoon out the dough into straight 6-inch cylinders about 1/2 inch in diameter. You can gently straighten any irregularities with your fingers dipped in water.

3. Place baking sheets in oven and immediately lower temperature to 350 degrees. Bake 40 minutes until eclairs are beginning to brown; rotate trays halfway through. Lower temperature to 325 degrees and bake 20 more minutes until golden brown. Lower temperature to 300 degrees and bake 10 more minutes until the puffs are light and feel hollow. Cool completely on wire racks.

4. Meanwhile, make the chocolate crme patisserie: Whisk together sugar, yolks and vanilla in a medium bowl for 3-4 minutes until mixture is pale yellow; when you lift the whisk, the batter on it should fall back into the batter in the bowl in ribbons and leave a visible impression that lasts a few moments before disappearing. Add flour; whisk until smooth.

5. Heat milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat until small bubbles form around the edge, about 3 minutes. Gradually add milk to egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly. Return mixture to saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly, about 3 minutes. Boil mixture, whisking constantly, 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in the 2 ounces of grated chocolate until melted and thoroughly blended.

6. Transfer mixture to a medium bowl; press plastic wrap directly onto surface. Let cool to room temperature, about 1 hour. This mixture can be chilled, covered, for up to 3 days.

7. Make the chocolate frosting: Place the 4 ounces of chopped chocolate or chocolate chips in a heatproof bowl. Heat the cream in a small saucepan at least until bubbles form around the edge. Pour over chocolate and let sit 1 minute. Stir mixture until chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is a solid color.

8. Assemble the éclairs: If you have a pastry bag with a Bismark tip, fill it with the chocolate crme patisserie, insert tip into both ends of each éclair and fill with cream. If you don't have a Bismark tip, carefully slice each éclair in half horizontally and pipe or spoon chocolate filling on top of the bottom half.

8. Place the chocolate frosting in a bowl large enough to hold an éclair, and dip the top of each éclair — or the top of the top half, if sliced in half. If sliced, replace that half on top of the other half. If the frosting has become too solid do dip the eclairs, simply stir in 1-2 tablespoons of very hot milk. Eclairs can be refrigerated for up to a few hours.

Per serving: 213 calories; 13g fat; 8g saturated fat; 75mg cholesterol; 3g protein; 22g carbohydrate; 20g sugar; 1g fiber; 70mg sodium; 59mg calcium

Freely adapted from recipes in "Bouchon" by Thomas Keller and Food & Wine by Jacques Pepin.

CREAM PUFFS

Yield: 16 servings

1 quantity of Basic Pte Choux Recipe, with sugar

1 1/2 cups whipping cream or 1 cup heavy cream diluted with 1/2 cup whole milk

2-3 tablespoons superfine sugar, see note

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 cup sliced almonds

Powdered sugar for dusting

Note: To make superfine sugar, mix granulated sugar in a blender on medium or high for 10 seconds.

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Pipe or spoon round, egg-sized pieces of choux dough onto it, spaced well apart. Put in oven, turn temperature down to 400 and bake 20 minutes, until golden and well-risen. If not yet done after 20 minutes, turn off heat but keep in oven until golden and well-risen. Cool on wire racks.

3. Meanwhile, make Chantilly cream: Make sure the cream and milk (if using) are very cold. Place in a mixing bowl and mix with a stand mixer fitted with a whisk, with a mixer or by hand with a whisk until cream has soft peaks. Do not overmix. Lightly fold in sugar and vanilla. Chill until needed.

4. Slice cooled choux buns in half horizontally. Pipe or spoon Chantilly cream onto bottom of each one and gently cover with top. Place a few pieces of sliced almond on top of each one and dust with powdered sugar. Puffs can be kept in refrigerator for several hours.

Per serving: 201 calories; 16g fat; 2g saturated fat; 87mg cholesterol; 4g protein; 11g carbohydrate; 5g sugar; 1g fiber; 67mg sodium; 47mg calcium

Adapted from a recipe by Ginette Mathiot in "The Art of French Baking"

PROFITEROLES

Yield: 18 servings

1 quantity Basic Pte Choux recipe, without sugar

8 ounces semisweet chocolate chips

1 cup heavy cream or

half-and-half

2 pints (1 quart, 32 ounces) vanilla ice cream

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Pipe or spoon mounds of choux dough onto it about 1 1/2 inches around and 1 inch high; you should have about 18 mounds. Use your fingers dipped in water to gently make them smooth, round and as uniform in size as possible.

3. Bake 20 minutes, or until lightly browned, then turn off oven and allow to sit 10 more minutes or until they sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.

4. For the chocolate sauce, put the chocolate chips in a heatproof bowl. Heat the cream to boiling, then pour over the chocolate. Allow to sit 1 minute, then stir until all the chocolate melts and the entire mixture becomes the same color. This sauce will start to solidify as it cools; if it does, simply stir in more hot cream or hot milk.

5. Slice each puff crosswise. Place a small scoop of ice cream on the bottom of each one, replace the top and drizzle with chocolate sauce.

Per serving: 323 calories; 22g fat; 14g saturated fat; 114mg cholesterol; 6g protein; 27g carbohydrate; 20g sugar; 1g fiber; 87mg sodium; 90mg calcium

Adapted from "Barefoot in Paris" by Ina Garten

GOUGRES

Yield: 8 servings

1 Basic Pte Choux recipe

1 cup (about 4 ounces) grated Gruyre cheese, divided

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1/2 teaspoon ground or cracked black pepper

1 large egg

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees and position racks in the top and lower thirds of the oven. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the dough, 3/4 cup of the cheese, the mustard and the black pepper. Mix on low just until evenly blended.

3. Spoon 1-inch rounds of the dough onto the prepared baking sheets, about 1 inch apart. In a small bowl, lightly beat the egg to blend thoroughly. Brush a light coating of egg over the tops of the rounds, being careful it does not drip down the sides (it will glue the dough to the parchment). You will not need all the egg. Sprinkle each round with a little of the remaining 1/4 cup of cheese.

4. Bake the gougres for 20 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Switch the sheets between the racks, rotate each pan from front to back and bake for 10 to 15 minutes longer. Transfer to a rack to cool briefly. Serve warm, piled on a platter for guests to help themselves.

5. Gougres can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to three days. To serve, reheat them in a 375-degree oven for 7-9 minutes, which will make them warm and crisp again.

Per gougres: 55 calories; 4g fat; 2g saturated fat; 30mg cholesterol; 2g protein; 3g carbohydrate; no sugar; no fiber; 40g sodium; 35mg calcium.

Recipe from "The Art & Soul of Baking" by Cindy Mushet

GNOCCHI PARISIENNE

Yield: 4 servings

1 cup water

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, preferably freshly grated

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons

1 cup all-purpose flour

3 large eggs

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, Gruyre or Asiago cheese

1. In a small saucepan, combine the water, salt and nutmeg with 2 tablespoons of the butter and bring to a boil over high heat. As soon as the water boils, add the flour all at once and beat the dough with a wooden spoon until it is thick and comes away from the side of the pan. Cook, stirring to dry out the dough, about 30 seconds. Transfer the dough to a medium bowl and let cool slightly, about 5 minutes.

2. Beat 1 egg into the dough until incorporated. Beat in 1/4 cup of the cheese and another egg until blended, then beat in the last egg until the dough is very smooth.

3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Set a bowl of ice water near the stove. With a large spatula, transfer the dough to a resealable plastic bag, pressing it into one corner. Cut off the tip of the bag; the opening should be about inch long.

4. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Carefully hold the bag over the water and press out the dough, using a small sharp knife to cut it into 1 1/2-inch lengths before it drops into the pot (you can also use 2 teaspoons to form the gnocchi). Simmer the gnocchi for 3 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the gnocchi to the ice water bath to stop the cooking. Transfer the gnocchi to paper towels and pat dry.

5. Grease a 9-by-12-inch baking dish with the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Arrange the gnocchi in the dish and sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons of cheese. Bake until puffed, about 25 minutes. Preheat the broiler. Broil the gnocchi 6 inches from the heat for 1-2 minutes, or until browned. Serve right away.

6. The gnocchi can be prepared through Step 4 and refrigerated overnight before baking and broiling.

Per serving: 190 calories; 9g fat; 6g saturated fat; 23mg cholesterol; 3g protein; 24g carbohydrate; 1g sugar; 1g fiber; 583mg sodium; 8mg calcium

Recipe by Jacques Pepin in Food & Wine magazine

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