When I was in college and home for the holidays, I once attempted to make gougeres, which are savory cream puffs typically eaten, at least in the U.S., as an hors d' oeuvre. I failed miserably. For some reason, a reason I never did put my finger on, the puffs never rose. Needless to say, they were not exactly appealing to eat, even though my family graciously popped a few in their mouths and told me they tasted "fine." "Fine," when used in this rather unfavorable way, is not exactly the description a baker hopes to hear. Sadly, I have never attempted any type of cream puff recipe since, though I have often looked longingly at recipes and photographs of the little delights, dreaming of one day giving them a go once again.
A few weeks ago, I was given the nudge I needed. I typically make cakes to celebrate people's birthdays, and it rarely occurs to me to ask people what kind of dessert they want.
When my dad's girlfriend, Reka, hesitated in responding to my question of what kind of cake she wanted to celebrate her big day, however, it occurred to me that I might branch out a bit. Afterall, it was her birthday, and what could be better than celebrating your birthday with a dessert of your choice?
Cream Puffs were her response. The answer gave me pause. Did she mean the little puffs of dough which looked so heavenly but whose puffy goodness seemed to me a mystery to achieve? In the same moment that I was intimidated by the prospect of making them, however, I was excited to finally have another opportunity to attempt this classic and elegant dessert. When I made them and brought them to my dad's for the birthday dinner one Sunday night a few weeks ago, I would have described them using the same word my family used years ago but with the word's traditional meaning of elegant and perfect rather than the more bastardized meaning it has come to mean, as in "okay," or "not fabulous." These cream puffs were fine indeed.
Simply put, well-made cream puffs are enchanting. You can pop one whole in your mouth and the taste and feel seems so luxurious. A proud little cream puff with a single candle stuck in it can also make a rather charming little birthday "cake." The best part, however, is watching the little puffs rise in the oven, a mysteriously bewitching process. The dough mounds, which start off as rather limp little plops of batter on a baking sheet, rise like magic to golden puffs while they bake. The amazing part is that the dough contains no baking powder or baking soda but rises from the moisture and the eggs. For me, that is really all the entertainment I need.
These cream puffs scared me a little bit before I made them, but they were actually pretty easy to make, although they took some time and patience. The one tricky part was determining how much egg and water to add to the dough--the instructions say the dough should form a "string," and I had to add quite a bit of egg and water for the dough to achieve this while I kept asking myself, about a zillion times, "Is this a string yet?" However, when the dough finally does form a string, you will know it.
If you have never made cream puffs, or if you have tried and failed, I urge you to make these puffs. You should either rush out and make them tonight before Thanksgiving demands pies of your time, or you should wait until the real holiday season and serve these for dessert. They are fit for a fancy holiday occasion and are sure to delight your guests.
HOW TO MAKE CREAM PUFFS
When making cream puffs, you start with a dough called a Pate a Choux, or a butter and flour dough mixed in a saucepan and beaten in a mixer while adding egg and water. The dough is then piped onto cookie sheets, baked, and filled with pastry cream that has had whipped cream folded into it. While you could dust the finished puffs with powdered sugar, I like them a bit fancier. To literally top off these cream puffs, I served them with a chocolate sauce made of bittersweet chocolate, butter, and heavy cream.
Recipe for dough and assembly courtesy of Martha Stewart's Cooking School
1 recipe pate a choux (recipe below)
1 large egg for finishing
1 T water for finishing
1 recipe whipped pastry cream (recipe below)
1 recipe chocolate sauce (recipe below)
1. Prepare Your Oven and Cookie Sheets: Heat oven to 400 degrees F and place one rack in the center of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or nonstick baking mats (this is a must). Use a 1 1/2 inch round cookie cutter (or other round object) dipped in flour to make circles on pan where you will pipe the dough.
2. Make Cream and Dough: Make the pastry cream and refrigerate it. Make the pate a choux.
3. Pipe the Dough: Fill a pastry bag fitted with a plain round 3/4 inch tip with some pate a choux, and, using the flour circles as your guide, pipe 1 1/2 inch rounds (3/4 inches high) onto baking sheets. Beat together the egg and water, and use your finger to rub egg wash over the entire surface of each dough mound and flatten tips left from piping. Be careful not to let the wash drip on the sheet, because it will inhibit rising.
4. Bake the Dough: Bake the puffs 1 cookie sheet at a time for 15 minutes at 400 degrees. Reduce the temperature to 350 degrees and bake about 20 minutes more, or until puffs are golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack to let cool completely. Return heat to 400 degrees and repeat process for remaining batch. (The baked and cooled puffs can be kept in a sealed container for about a day until ready to use or frozen for up to 2 weeks. Let thaw before filling.)
5. Fill and Finish: Right before you plan to eat or serve the cream puffs, spoon the whipped pastry cream into a clean pastry bag fitted with a plain round tip. Insert tip into the bottom of each puff and fill with the whipped pastry cream.
6. Make the Chocolate Sauce: Make the chocolate sauce and use immediately, while warm.
7. Serve: Mound the puffs on a plate and serve with a bowl of passed warm chocolate sauce (as I did) or place 2-3 puffs on each serving plate and spoon warm chocolate sauce over them. Alternatively, you could even mound the puffs on a serving plate, cover with chocolate sauce, and pass around the table. However, I prefer one of the former two serving methods.
Pate a Choux
1 c water, plus more as needed
1/2 c (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 tsp granulated sugar
1/2 tsp table salt
1 c all-purpose flour
4 to 5 large eggs (I used 5)
Combine the water, butter, sugar, and salt in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, and immediately remove from heat. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the flour. When flour is combined, return to heat. Dry the mixture by stirring constantly over heat until it pulls away from the sides and a film forms on the bottom of the pan, about 4 minutes. Transfer mixture to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and mix on low speed, about 2 minutes, until slightly cooled. Add 4 eggs, one at a time, on medium speed, letting each one incorporate completely before adding the next. Test the batter by touching it with a flexible spatula or your finger, then lifting; it should form a string. If a string does not form, lightly beat the last egg and add it, a teaspoon at a time, until the batter is smooth and shiny. If you have added all the egg and the batter still doesn't form a string, add water, 1 teaspoon at a time, until it does.
Whipped Pastry Cream
(Makes about 1 3/4 c)
2 c whole milk
1/2 c sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped (or 1 tsp vanilla extract, which is what I used)
3 large egg yolks
3 T plus 1 1/2 tsp cornstarch
2 T unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/3 c heavy whipping cream
Simmer milk, 1/4 c sugar, salt, and vanilla bean seeds if using in small saucepan over medium heat, whisking constantly. Whisk egg yolks and remaining 1/4 c sugar in a medium bowl. Whisk in cornstarch, 1 T at a time. Ladle 1/2 c hot-milk mixture into yolk mixture, whisking. Add remaining milk mixture, 1/2 cup at a time. Pour mixture into pan, and heat over medium-high, whisking constantly, until mixture comes to a full boil and is thick enough to hold its shape when lifted with a spoon, about 2 minutes. Stir in butter and vanilla. Remove from heat and pour mixture into a bowl; place plastic wrap directly on surface to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until cold, at least 2 hours (or up to 2 days). When ready to assemble the puffs, whip the heavy cream until medium peaks form. Stir pastry cream to soften. Add whipped cream to pastry cream in two batches, folding to combine after each.
6 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped (I used Ghirardelli chips, which need no chopping)
3/4 c heavy cream
1 T butter
Place all the ingredients in the top of a double boiler (or in a metal bowl set over a pan of simmering water--water should come up the sides of the pan about 1 inch and should not touch the bowl) and mix together as the chocolate and butter melt. As soon as the chocolate and butter are mostly melted, remove from stove and stir together to form a smooth, shiny sauce. Use immediately, or refrigerate and reheat in the microwave (be careful not to burn it!) or over the top of a double boiler again.
HOW-TO IN PICTURES
1. Baking sheets are prepared with cutters dipped in flour to make circles.
2. Pate a Choux is mixed in a pan.
3. After being mixed in an electric mixer, pate a choux batter is piped onto baking sheets.
4. Pate a choux is baked.
6. Whipped pastry cream is piped into the bottom of each cream puff.
7. Filled cream puffs are served with chocolate sauce.