These are the little pâte à choux (cream puff) balls that, built up together, form a pièce montée—a tall, cone-shaped pastry assembly often used as a wedding cake in France. This way, they make a great edible party decoration with built-in serving arrangement (the cone is dismanteled from the top-down), however, they can be consumed separately too. This pastry and the following cream are also the basis of the éclair, the religieuse and other delights.

The following recipe makes up to 12 small choux, though what they are used for will determine their actual size and uniformity.

Pâte à choux:
2/3 cup fine pastry flour (sifted white, non-bread flour)
¼ tsp salt
a hint of nutmeg
¾ cup water
3 oz butter (about 1/3 cup, cut into bits to reach ambient temperature)
3 eggs, beaten

1. Sift (or incorporate) the flour, salt and nutmeg together into a bowl.

2. In a medium-sized pan, bring the water and butter barely to a boil and remove from the stove. Add the sifted ingredients all at once to the hot liquid and beat with a wooden spoon for a minute or until the mixture is homogenous while pulling away from the sides of the pan. Return this to low heat and cook for 2 minutes continuing to beat it. Remove from the stove.

3. Beat and set aside one egg.

4. Beat the other two eggs one at a time into the mixture warm from the stove. Do this quickly and deliberately to avoid cooking egg separate from the mixture during the process.

5. Add the beaten egg a little at a time while folding the mixture. The mixture must be smooth and shiny (by virtue of the last egg) and when lifted out of the pan by the spoon during folding, the mixture must fall slowly back into the pan.

6. Mete balls of dough out onto a lightly-buttered cookie sheet a couple of inches apart and bake in a preheated, 400° oven until well puffed out and golden brown. Open the oven ajar and permit them to cool.


The pièce montée

The cream puff pastry is prepared as noted, but little balls of differing sizes are made—large ones for the base, progressively smaller ones for the rest of the cone-shaped, hollow pièce montée. First, fill with cream.

Ingredients for the crème anglaise:
1½ cups milk
1 bean vanilla (or real extract to taste)
3 egg yolks
¼ cup sugar
2 tbsp flour
¼ cup Grand Marnier (as desired)
1½ cup thick cream

The custard or pudding must be carefully made and the ingredients scaled to the amount needed for the cream puff pastry. Heat the milk and vanilla. The temperature is determined by how hot will ruin the custard when the egg yolks are added. Beat the 3 yolks and the sugar together and incorporate them into the hot (or warm) milk Add the flour and any additional flavoring. Refrigerate. When cold, incorporate the cream. Use a pastry bag and large tip to fill the cream puff balls.

Next, the construction is assembled using a caramel glue. This is not a task for the feint-hearted and may require practice both in getting the caramel to the right consistency and pulling strands from it.

Ingredients for the caramel glue:
2 cups sugar
1 cup water

The choux must be glued together during assembly. This is done using caramel in tiny strands wound around them as they are built up. Dip the back of one fork in the caramel and use the back of another to pull strands out and spin these around the assembly. The height of the cone is somewhat imposed by gravity-it can't be too low without caving in, something the caramel strands don't do much to protect against. Of course, a jig could be made because once the whole is built, it will be self-sustaining just as an ogive arch. Another solution is to dip each ball in caramel before adding it to the assembly. This approach must be used with care for obvious æsthetic reasons.

The éclair

A variation on this cream-filled pastry, the éclair is thin and elongated as well as iced with a butter icing whose flavor corresponds in some way to the cream filling. It can be further decorated with white butter frosting, but the addition decoration should remain discrete.

The religieuse

Another variation, the religieuse, which means "nun," is made of two puffs of divergent size in the manner of two-thirds of a snowman. It is filled, usually with chocolate or coffee-flavored cream, and iced with corresponding butter frosting as it's assembled. It is topped off with squirts of white butter frosting piped through the tip of a pastry bag, 4 equally spaced around the large puff and one bigger squirt on top of the smaller one.

The profiterolle

Still another variation, the profiterolle is a classique dessert served in almost all restaurants. It's more ubiquitous than, say, the tiramisu. It is composed of three or four choux filled with crème anglaise or vanilla ice cream. If by ice cream, the choux is typically cut in half and the scoop of ice cream is ample enough that the two halves won't mate after filling. Whatever the filling, a generous ladling of melted chocolate is made over the top of each one and allowed to drip generously down the side and onto the plate. A further topping of crème chantilly is optional.