Cream Puff Paste (Pate a Choux)

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup water
1/2 cup sweet, unsalted butter -- cut up in pieces
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 eggs
1 egg beaten with a drop or two of water to make an egg wash or glaze

Put water, butter or salt in a large heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat (butter should be completely melted) and add the flour all in one fell swoop. Mix as quickly as possible with a sturdy wooden spoon. This mixture is known as a "panade". Return the saucepan to the stove over the lowest possible heat. Continue to stir with the wooden spoon while the panade dries out. This will take about 5 minutes, and a thin crust will form on the bottom of the pan. This is supposed to happen, so don't worry about it, and don't try to scrape it up and incorporate it into the dough, or you will have plaster chips in your pastries. The dough should be soft, but when you pinch it between thumb and forefinger it should not stick to your hand. Dump the panade into a bowl, and let it cool for at least 5 minutes. Then add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. The mixture should be smooth and creamy looking before you add the next egg. After all 4 eggs have been beaten in, the dough will be shiny and satiny yellow, thick and heavy. Butter and flour a cookie sheet. Fill a pastry bag with the dough. If you don't have a pastry bag, you can use a tablespoon to drop dollops of dough onto the cookie sheet for eclairs and/or cream puffs, but you really must have a pastry bag in order to make a cream puff ring.
For cream puffs: Squeeze out balls about the size of ping pong or golf balls.
For eclairs: Squeeze out oblongs at 3 to 4 inches long. If you are using the recipe given above, you should end up with 14 to 16 pastries. Don't succumb to the temptation to make fewer and larger ones, for they won't cook properly if you do. Brush the tops of the pastries with beaten egg, using the bristles of the brush to gently push down and flatten out the little curlicues left by the pastry bag as you lifted it off. Finally, drag the tines of a dinner fork down the length of each eclair. The resulting stripes will make for a more attractive and professional looking product.
For a cream puff ring: First mark a 10" circle on the surface of the buttered and floured cookie sheet. Then, using a pastry bag, squeeze out a 1" wide "halo" of cream puff paste right on top of the circle you've outlined. Squeeze another 1" wide ring of dough adjacent to - and touching - the first. Squeeze a third ring directly over the "crack" between the other two. Brush the whole thing with beaten egg, and sprinkle a handful of thinly sliced almonds all over the top of the ring.
Let the cream puffs, eclairs, or cream puff ring sit and "dry" for no less than 15 and no more than 25 minutes before baking. The oven should be preheated to 375F for cream puffs and/or eclairs, and to 400F for a cream puff ring. Bake the former at 375F for about 30 minutes, or until they have puffed up nicely and turned golden brown. Bake the latter at 400F for about 45 minutes, or until it is well puffed and golden brown. Then, turn the oven off, open the door, and leave it halfway open for an hour. If it won't stay ajar by itself, prop it open by wedging something in there. This is to allow steam to escape and to let the pastries cool slowly and "dry" as they cool so that they won't collapse or become soft and soggy. After an hour has passed, remove the pastries from the oven. They are now ready to be filled.

To fill individual pastries: Cut cream puffs and eclairs in half (from side to side, not from top to bottom). Fill with whatever filling you desire. Replace lids. Glaze with icing or pour sauce on top. Serve. It is wise not to fill pastries to far in advance of the serving time. The closer the preparation time is to the serving time, the smaller the likelihood that the pastries will begin to soften or get soggy.
To fill a cream ring: Use a slicing knife with a long serrated blade to cut the top off a cream puff ring. Fill the bottom with praline cream (or coffee cream, or chocolate cream) filling. Fill a pastry bag with sweetened whipped cream. use a nozzle with a zigzag edge (like pinking shears) to squeeze out a layer of fancy puff-balls of whipped cream all over the layer of praline cream filling. Finally, replace the lid and dust the top with 10X powdered confectioners' sugar. Keep the cream puff ring in a cool dry place until serving time.

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