How 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 pâte à choux. It is what you use to make any number of familiar filled pastries — éclairs, cream puffs, profiteroles and the like, as well as the puffy, cheesy hors d’oeuvre called gougères.

That’s another miraculous aspect of pâte à 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:

BASIC PÂTE À CHOUX

Servings: 18

INGREDIENTS

1 cup milk

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces

¼ 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 éclairs or cream puffs. To make superfine sugar, place granulated sugar in a blender and blend on medium or high for 10 seconds.

STEPS

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 the refrigerator for up to one day.

Nutrition per serving (based on 18): 96 calories; 6g fat; 4g saturated fat; 55mg cholesterol; 3g protein; 7g carbohydrate; 2g sugar.

— Traditional recipe interpreted by Daniel Neman

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CREAM PUFFS

Servings: 16

INGREDIENTS

1 quantity of Basic Pâte à Choux Recipe, with sugar

1½ cups whipping cream or 1 cup heavy cream diluted with ½ cup whole milk

2-3 tablespoons superfine sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ cup sliced almonds

Powdered sugar for dusting

STEPS

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.

Nutrition per serving: 201 calories; 16g fat; 2g saturated fat; 87mg cholesterol; 4g protein; 11g carbohydrate; 5g sugar.

— Adapted from a recipe by Ginette Mathiot in “The Art of French Baking”

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CHOCOLATE ÉCLAIRS

Servings: 12

INGREDIENTS

1 quantity Basic Pâte à 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

½ cup whipping cream

STEPS

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 half-inch tip to pipe out choux dough, holding the bag about three-quarters 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 half-inch hole cut in one corner or simply spoon out the dough into straight 6-inch cylinders about a half 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 crème patisserie: Whisk together sugar, yolks and vanilla in a medium bowl for three to four 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 three minutes. Gradually add milk to egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly. Return mixture to saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly, about three minutes. Boil mixture, whisking constantly, one 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 one hour. This mixture can be chilled, covered, for up to three 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 one 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 crème 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 to dip the éclairs, simply stir in one or two tablespoons of very hot milk. Éclairs can be refrigerated for up to a few hours.

Nutrition per serving: 213 calories; 13g fat; 8g saturated fat; 75mg cholesterol; 3g protein; 22g carbohydrate; 20g sugar.

— Adapted from recipes in “Bouchon” by Thomas Keller and Food & Wine by Jacques Pepin

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PROFITEROLES

Servings: 18

INGREDIENTS

1 quantity Basic Pâte à 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

STEPS

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Pipe or spoon mounds of choux dough onto it about 1½ inches around and 1 inch high; you should have about 18 mounds. Use your fingers dipped in water gently to 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 one 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; to loosen, 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.

Nutrition 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

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GOUGÈRES

Servings: 8

INGREDIENTS

1 Basic Pâte à Choux recipe

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

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

½ teaspoon ground or cracked black pepper

1 large egg

STEPS

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

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the dough, three-quarters 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 quarter cup of cheese.

4. Bake the gougères 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. Gougères 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 seven to nine minutes, which will make them warm and crisp again.

Nutrition per gougère: 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