When I was about twelve and in sixth grade, I had the dubious privilege of belonging to the school Homemakers’ Club. You know how these things are when you’re in your final year of school (in this case, elementary): you join all the clubs that you can for the equally dubious privilege of having a rather stellar roster of participation to go with your yearbook photo. In my case, I was with the Library Club and the Glee Club. (Oh, God; if my friend Clem reads this, I will never hear the end of it.) I threw in the Homemakers because I wanted to learn how to cook – which, alas, at the time, probably wasn’t the best decision I could have made as cooking was something of a group activity where only the truly vicious girls who weren’t above bullying and pushing “lesser” girls away could shine. (No, wait; scratch that: cooking was something of a contact sport for girls. It sounds crazy, but there were threats to scald others with either boiling water or bubbling oil!)
It was only years later when I left school for good (Home Economics in grade school, high school, and university – go figure!), that I learned how to cook on my own steam, my own terms, and at my own pace. I subscribe to Banana Yoshimoto’s sentiments regarding the culinary arts: there is only one way to learn and that is by doing everything yourself.
Which brings us to today’s post: cream puffs.
I know people, unfortunately, who will tell me to cease and desist with regard to making cream puffs. These people will say that, for a beginner (said with a sneer) or an amateur (with an even bigger sneer), it just won’t do; that it’s a fiddly recipe; that my attempts will all be doomed to fail. Well, shows you what they know.
The critical thing in cream puffs is the pastry used to make them: choux pastry. Referred to in the Larousse Gastronomique as pâte à choux, it is a distinctly dense, eggy, buttery paste that is made without leavening of any kind. The basic principle is that the liquids in the dough will turn to steam in a very hot oven, causing the pastry to puff up into billowy shells that can be filled later on with either sweet or savoury fillings. The ingredients for it are simple enough, basic even: flour, water, cold butter, salt, and eggs. It does take a considerable amount of muscle power to stir in the eggs and, in doing so, build up the internal gluten structure necessary to transform a gloppy dough into a crisp-surfaced pastry shell.
Most home bakers shy away from baking cream puffs because, yes, it is a bloody fiddly recipe. However, once you get into the swing of things and you have them down pat, baking with choux pastry becomes relatively easy to do.
For those of you brave enough to take a cue from me and bake these at home, a few tips:
- Be sure to pre-heat your oven. If it isn’t hot enough, your puffs won’t rise. Fire up the oven at least 15 – 20 minutes before baking;
- Use cold butter – butter, mind you, and not margarine! I made that mistake once; the wretched puffs went all limp soon as I took them out of the oven. They were still edible, though;
- Bring the water and butter mixture to a boil. It has to be bubbling before you toss in the flour;
- Keep your puffs small – any bigger than two tablespoons’ worth of dough and they won’t cook properly; and
- Let the puffs cool completely before filling them.
Now that we’re clear with that, let me just say that my recipe for choux pastry is from Nigella Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess, specifically the one for her recipe “Profiteroles, My Way.” I haven’t made any modifications to the paste, but I have not included a recipe for the filling. Let your own preferences guide you on that score, though I can make the following suggestions:
- Vanilla or chocolate pudding like the stuff I used for the cream puffs featured today. I made mine from scratch, but you could also use Jell-O instant puddings or those ready-to-eat Elle et Vire puddings;
- Lightly sweetened whipped cream with a touch of vanilla bean or lemon zest;
- Whipped Greek yogurt with some honey swirled through it;
- Whipped Nutella or a similar gianduia product;
- Whipped cookie butter or peanut butter lightened with some heavy cream;
- A vanilla creme patisserie, or one flavoured with a touch of coffee; or even
- Chocolate mousse.
- 200 grams all-purpose flour, sifted
- 350 mL water
- 150 grams (1 stick) cold butter, diced
- Pinch of salt
- 3 eggs
- Your filling of choice
- 100 grams dark chocolate
- Olive oil
Grease a pair of lipped baking sheets. Pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees / Gas Mark 6.
Place the water, diced butter, and salt into a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the butter has melted and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and stir in the flour; work vigorously until a dough that easily pulls away from the sides of the pan is formed. Remove from the heat and add the eggs one by one, mixing well after each addition until a smooth-surfaced, slightly glossy dough is achieved.
Spoon out the dough in 2-tablespoon portions onto the greased baking sheets, making sure to space them evenly. (For smaller puffs, 1 tablespoon of dough will do.) Bake for 15 – 20 minutes until lightly browned on top and inflated. Remove from oven and set on a wire rack to cool; pierce each puff with a toothpick to let out steam lest this turns them soggy. Allow to cool completely before stuffing with the filling of your choice. You make choose to pipe in the fillings or split the puffs and spoon it in. Arrange the filled puffs onto a serving dish.
Melt the chocolate in a microwave around 45 seconds at HIGH. Stir in about a tablespoon of the olive oil to make the texture fluid enough to drizzle over. Drizzle the chocolate over the puffs. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Makes approximately 25 puffs.
Incidentally… Not in the mood for cream puffs? Heat up a saucepan of oil for deep-frying and turn the dough into churros! Pipe the dough through a star-shaped nozzle right into the hot oil. Fish out and drain well on a rack or on paper towels. Dust up with some icing sugar and serve with thick, Spanish-style hot chocolate.