I have often watched chefs on the Food Network making pâte à choux, or choux pastry. (I believe it is called pâte à choux because they were formed into little rounds shaped like cabbages, or choux). As far as I can tell, it involves heating milk and butter, then beating flour and eggs into the hot liquid until it comes together into a soft dough, which is then piped onto sheets of parchment paper and baked. In the heat of the oven the carefully piped dough rises, like magic, into air-filled pastries, waiting to be filled with whatever your heart desires. I have never been able to make pâte à choux myself, because I am completely incompetent when it comes to using a piping bag, and so must console myself with rare treats from bakeries and restaurants.
Some French restaurants bring you an amuse-bouche of gougères, perfect little rounds of cheese puffs, like eating hot cheese-flavored air. There is nothing like the taste of toasted cheese, when the cheese has melted and continued to bake until it has become crisp and dark golden, almost burnt, like a savory caramel, the flavor deepened and intensified and yet lighter than air. I have a recipe for gougères, but have never made them for fear of failure, and can only dream about those crisp-tender puffs like small suns on a white plate.
And then there is the èclair. For most of the twenty years that I have lived in Seattle, I have gone to the French bakery in the Pike Place Market for èclairs, slender batons of pastry filled with a chocolate pastry cream and glazed with dark chocolate. They have other things - perfect croissants, baguettes with a crisp crust and a bubbly, elastic interior, a dense, earthy pain au levain that makes the best grilled-cheese sandwiches, buttery shortbread fragrant with hazelnuts and rich with chocolate. But I come for the èclairs. When I was eleven or twelve - certainly too old for histrionics - my cousin ate the half-dozen chocolate èclairs which had been intended for dessert that night. I was inconsolable, and sobbed all the way home. (The tears dried only after my grandfather went out and bought more). It is hard to find the perfect èclair - the pastry not soggy from the filling, the filling not too sweet, with just enough frosting on top - and if you are going to eat èclairs you may as well find the best ones out there.
I went to my favorite bakery this morning and came away with a profiterole, a round, golden puff filled with an espresso cream and glazed with dark chocolate. Sometimes they make them in the oblong shape of an èclair, but today they are smaller, round profiteroles, and I managed to resist eating it until after dinner. It is absolutely lovely, a tender, eggy pastry cradling a cream filling that tastes deeply of espresso, perfectly balanced between sweet and bitter, rounded out with the taste of chocolate frosting. I wish I had bought two.