Puff Pastry from the Middle Ages

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, pastry lightened up a lot. Instead of making dough that was stiff enough to stand alone, French cooks whipped up a two-step pastry that starts as batter and ends up as egg-rich dough. Baked, the little dough balls resemble cabbage heads, so the chefs called it "pâte à choux" -- cabbage pastry. When fried in hot oil, this pastry puffs up into light, airy beignets.

Choux is also known as cream puff pastry, because the hollow, crispy shells are perfect for filling with pastry cream to make éclairs and, of course, cream puffs.

Basic Recipe for Choux (Cream Puff Pastry)

  • One-fourth pound (113 grams) unsalted butter
  • One-half to 1 cup (118-237 milliliters) water (or mixture of 3 parts water to 1 part milk)
  • One-fourth teaspoon (.52 grams) salt
  • 2 teaspoons (4 grams) sugar
  • 1 cup (200 grams) flour
  • 4 eggs, broken into individual cups and beaten

Combine the water, milk, salt and sugar in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the butter and stir. When the butter melts fully, add the flour, stirring vigorously until it forms into soft dough. Remove the pan from the heat and let the mixture cool slightly. Reduce heat, return the pan to the burner and beat the eggs into the mixture, one at a time, until it's smooth. Remove from heat.

In the 1500s, many innovations spread across Europe and the Middle East. See how pastry transformed from a culinary workhorse into a sophisticated delicacy on the next page.