For such a delicious pastry, pâte à choux is pretty straight forward. You first start with a hot mixture of butter, water, sugar, and a dash of salt. Bring this mixture to a boil over medium-high heat.
When the mixture comes to a boil, add the flour to the pot all at once and begin stirring immediately with a wooden spoon with the pot still on the heat. Once the mixture forms a thick ball and pulls away from the sides of the pan, continue cooking, stirring, for another two minutes.
Transfer the mixture to a stand mixer. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until the eggs are well incorporated and the dough is smooth. You could do this part by hand, leaving the dough in the pan and beating the eggs in with the wooden spoon, but I find it a slippery, frustrating task to do by hand. It is so quick and painless in the mixer; I highly recommend using it for this task if you have one. Spoon the dough into a pastry bag fitted with a tip depending on the shapes you are preparing. I like to stand my bag in a tall drinking glass. It makes the bag so much easier to fill.
Roll the top of the pastry bag closed and pipe shapes onto a parchment lined baking sheet. You can see here that I did a wide variety of shapes in this batch. I will show you how to do each variety and show you the end results over the next few days. If you've ended up with any weird shapes, you can fix them by dipping your finger in water and pressing the dough into place. For instance, I always end up with a little tail when I pull the pastry bag away when I am piping. If I were to leave those tails there, they would bake too quickly and leave hard, over baked "horns" on my cream puffs. That's just not acceptable! Fortunately, the dough is very tractable as long as your fingers are wet.
The other concern when piping the shapes out is that any seams in the raw dough will be accentuated during baking. This means that when you are piping, you need to try and reduce seams. Use the largest tip you have available for the job. If you need to pipe a shape that is larger than the tip you have available, there are two ways to manage that task. The first is to not use a tip and simply use the opening on the pastry bag to pipe the shapes. I find when I do this that I need to use scissors to cut the dough between shapes. The other method is to not move the piping bag as much when piping and let the dough "build up" more. You can see in the photo below that seams can cause some real shape problems. Even with your best efforts, you'll probably still end up with a few that look like the one on the right, but if you're careful, they should be fairly rare.
The last consideration when making cream puffs is to be sure and bake them long enough. I always find myself wanting to take them out of the oven too soon. You want to bake them until no beads of moisture are on the sides of the pastries and they are a rich, dark golden color. The pastry on the left is the point at which I am always tempted to remove them from the oven; the pastry on the right is the minimum amount of coloring for which you should be aiming. If you don't bake them long enough, the moisture content will be too high and they will end up floppy and a little doughy when cooled.
Depending on what type of pastries you are making, there will be variations in how you treat the pastries as they finish baking and cooling, so I will address that issue in specific posts on the various types of pastries that can be made with this basic recipe.
Pâte à Choux
Yield: approx. 2 1/2 cups dough
1 cup water
1/2 cup butter, cut in small pieces
1 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup sifted flour
Heat the water, butter, sugar, and salt together in a sauce pan until it comes to a boil. Add the flour all at once and stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture forms a thick ball that leaves the sides of the pan. Continue cooking, stirring, for another two minutes. Remove from the heat.
Transfer the mixture to the bowl of a stand mixture fitted with a paddle attachment. (You can do this part by hand, but it can be a slippery, exhausting task). Beat the eggs in one at a time on medium-low speed. When all eggs are incorporated, beat an additional 20-30 seconds until the batter is shiny and smooth.
Place the batter in a piping bag and pipe into the desired shapes onto a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake at 425° F until puffed and nicely browned. Cool puffs completely as directed for each shape.