Cooks have plenty of reason to equate classic French techniques with fuss in the kitchen. At least one baker's staple, however, is easier to prepare than pronounce.

Cooks have plenty of reason to equate classic French techniques with fuss in the kitchen. At least one baker's staple, however, is easier to prepare than pronounce.

Choux paste can be sweet or savory, large or small, free-form or precisely piped. These pillowy puffs hold up to all manner of fillings, from smooth creams and cheeses to bits of bacon, mushrooms and vegetables. And their rich elegance belies the mere minutes of measuring, mixing and mounding them onto baking sheets.

"It's done in one pot on the stove," says Rebecca Hill, owner of Sweet Stuff baking boutique in downtown Medford. "It takes 15 minutes, tops."

As a professional baker, Hill would "bang out" a couple hundred of these pastry shells in an hour, either in miniature for appetizers or several inches in diameter for entrees. Plain choux (SHOO) paste is the medium for crafting cream puffs and eclairs. Flavored with cheese, herbs and other savory ingredients, the dough becomes gougeres.

"People are just amazed at how many things you can do with them," says Hill. "The choux paste is so versatile."

The baker plans to take choux paste in a variety of delicious directions at a Wednesday, July 18, class at Sweet Stuff, 301 N. Bartlett St., Medford. Despite its quick preparation, choux paste requires a "couple little tricks" that Hill shares with students.

"It's a higher temperature than what you would normally bake at," she says, explaining that choux paste can't bake with other, lower-temperature goods. "You can't pop them back in the oven."

And while the recipe easily multiplies — even quadruples if cooks have a big enough mixer — some seemingly insignificant details should be followed to the letter. Stirring with a wooden spoon is the key to gathering the dough in a mass that pulls away from the sides of the pan. And pick a sturdy one, says Hill.

"I have broken spoons before."

Once the dough goes from stovetop to electric mixer, eggs are added one at a time. The importance of waiting until each egg is absorbed should not be overlooked. The mixture may look sloppy at first but suddenly will come together, golden and glossy.

Then it's just a matter of dropping the dough by tablespoonsful — or piping — onto baking sheets. Piping with a star tip is preferable if the finished puffs will be dipped in melted chocolate, says Hill. A metal pastry-bag tip also helps poke a hole in the base of each puff to fill with whipped cream, she adds.

If serving with a savory filling, cut the tops off the pastry puffs and hollow out the airy insides. The classic flavor profile consists of gruyere cheese, maybe finely crumbled bacon. But any cheese, spice, citrus zest or toasted nuts could be added. Try the variations listed in the accompanying recipe for gougeres.

Gougeres are best served warm from the oven but can be baked, then frozen for up to a month and reheated straight from the freezer. Cream puffs and eclairs should be kept cool to safeguard their delicate fillings, but the pastry shells also can be filled with ice cream and frozen, says Hill.

"This time of year, you can do fun things with berries and fresh fruit," she says. "People just love 'em."

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email McClatchy News Service contributed to this story.