Cream puff dough, called "choux paste," has only four basic ingredients: water, butter, flour and eggs. Like all simple recipes, the trick is to get the preparation right.
The water and butter should be cooked together fast, over moderately high heat, so that the butter melts quickly, before the water evaporates. It helps to cut the butter into pieces. The water is needed during baking — the oven heat changes it to steam that makes the pastries puff.
The next step is to add the flour and salt all at once and stir the ingredients until a cohesive mass forms and comes away from the sides of the pan. A sturdy wooden spoon is a big help because the dough will be stiff.
Some recipes suggest adding the eggs at this point, but it is better to wait a few minutes. Adding eggs to hot dough can cook them slightly and the dough won't rise well. Wait two to three minutes to let the paste cool down a bit.
Then add the eggs quickly, one at a time. It might seem time-consuming, but it actually is easier to incorporate each egg than to mix them in all at once.
You can store the dough for a couple of hours. Rub the surface with butter, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. It is best to use the dough immediately, though; the pastries come out bigger, puffier and crispier.
You can make cream puffs in various sizes. Most typical are 3 inches when baked. One recipe of dough will yield about 12 to 15 pastries. As an alternative, you can form the pastry into tubes (for eclairs), or ovals (to make whimsical swans), or very small mounds of dough (that bake into profiteroles).
To puff properly, the dough needs immediate heat — preheat your oven.
Once they're baked, cream puffs sometimes deflate and soften because of uncooked dough inside. To prevent sogginess, pierce the baked puffs, then place them in the turned-off oven to dry out. Some small amount of moist, uncooked dough still might remain. It's important to slice the puffs when they're still warm and remove these portions.
After cream puffs cool, you can fill them with whipped cream, custard or ice cream. Because these fillings are moist and can soften the pastry, do not fill the puffs until you are ready to serve. You can be creative with the fillings by tucking in a few fresh raspberries or blueberries; sliced, sugared strawberries; or perhaps a bit of chopped, crystallized ginger, some crushed toasted almonds or shaved chocolate. Frostings are not needed. A sprinkle of confectioners sugar is glamorous enough.
Changing the dough to make Gougeres is a cinch: simply add the grated cheese and herbs after you mix in the eggs. Gougeres usually are made profiterole-size. They are delightful served hot (you can reheat frozen ones in a 400-degree oven for a few minutes), but you can split them and stuff them with savory fillings such as shrimp salad or curried egg salad. These are wonderful for cocktail hors d'oeuvre.
Paris-Brest is no more than a large, continuous ring of choux pastry. The mounds bake together to form a ring cake. The top is brushed with some beaten egg to give it a shiny finish, and sprinkled with sliced almonds for extra flavor and crunchiness. When fully baked, the top of the cake is sliced off to open the inside for filling. Paris-Brest, like regular cream puffs, may be filled with pastry cream, whipped cream or ice cream, with or without the addition of fresh fruit.