One of the great secrets of the restaurant world is that many signature items, even those that appear complex and difficult, are actually quite easy to make. Take cream puffs as an example. Although the technique is unconventional, it’s a breeze for anyone with access to a mixer, and pastry-bag skills are optional. Even a novice can turn out enough puffs for a large group in less time than you’d think possible.
Theory and Practice
Other pastry preparations stress keeping your ingredients cold and not overworking the batter or dough, but cream puffs are the opposite. Known by the French name choux paste — the puffs supposedly resemble Brussels sprouts, called “little cabbages” in French — cream puffs quite literally stand or fall on your ability to develop strong strands of gluten in the dough. The gluten proteins, and the proteins from the eggs, stretch like a balloon as the puffs expand in the oven’s heat, creating the familiar crisp, hollow shell.
Making Your Dough
If you’re accustomed to making pastry with ice water and chilled butter, choux paste might come as a shock. You start by boiling your water or milk, then you add the butter so it disperses throughout the vigorously boiling liquid. The flour goes in all at once, with you stirring until it forms a stiff, stodgy paste. Stir the dough periodically for five to 10 minutes, as it cools, then transfer it to your mixer bowl. Add eggs one at a time, waiting until one is fully incorporated before adding the next. Recipes vary, but usually you’ll use the same volume of eggs as water. In other words, if you used a cup of water you’ll need a cup of eggs, or roughly four to five large ones.
Shaping and Baking
Piping the dough from a pastry bag onto a parchment-lined sheet is the most efficient way to make puffs, but you can also simply scoop them onto your sheet with a spoon. They’ll expand hugely, so keep them walnut-sized or smaller. Bake the puffs in a preheated oven at 425 degrees Fahrenheit for the first 10 minutes, until they’re well puffed and starting to show the first hint of golden-brown color. Reduce your oven temperature to 375 F and bake them for another 10 to 15 minutes, until golden and very light. Cool your puffs on their sheet in a warm, draft-free spot. If they cool too rapidly, there’s a slight risk of them collapsing.
Filling Your Puffs
If you plan to glaze or freeze your cream puffs, make a small hole in the flat underside with the tip of a paring knife or a pointed chopstick. With a fine tip, pipe your cream filling through the hole. For showier puffs, saw each pastry in half at its equator with a serrated knife. Pipe an attractive wreath of cream, using a star tip, then replace the “lid.” Dust them lightly with icing sugar, or drizzle with melted chocolate, for a bit of extra visual appeal.
Theme and Variations
The simplest filling for your puffs is whipped cream, beaten to stiff peaks with vanilla and a modest quantity of sugar. Alternatively you might opt for pastry cream — a vanilla custard thickened slightly with starch — or a blend of the two. This basic formula lends itself to infinite variation. For example, you might give the cream a grown-up touch with a splash of rum or your favorite sweet liqueur. Dark chocolate or fruit puree can give the cream a bold flavor and dramatic color, as well. If you opt to cut your puffs in half, you could also spoon a fruit puree, caramel or custard filling into the center before topping the pastries.
References and ResourcesThe Professional Pastry Chef; Bo Friberg
The Kitchn: Weekend Project -- Introduction to Pate a Choux
Epicurious: Pastry Cream
Epicurious: Cream Puffs With Lemon Cream Filling