All Things Considered Considers Cream Puffs

As many of you know, I think of baking as magical, since what goes into the oven usually doesn’t give you even a slim hint of what will come out.  But among all the sweets that surprise me by their transformations, none seems as startling – or more magical – than cream puffs.  Make the dough, spoon small mounds of it on a baking sheet, slide it into the oven and sit glued to your oven window for a few minutes.  George Lucas couldn’t have created animation any more riveting than what you’ll see as the heat of your everyday oven causes the dough to puff and puff, grow round and, minute by minute, get lighter and lighter, until the puffs’ delicate shells are stretched to their limit, their custardy interiors are hollowed out and the balls look as though they’re light enough to lift off the sheet and go bouncing and bobbing around the oven.

Of course, if all they were was interesting, cream puffs would be nothing more than a lively science experiment.  What saves them is the indisputable fact that they’re delicious as well as fun to make, unusually versatile – they switch hit from both sides of the sweet-savory divide – and a classic in the French pastry canon.

Called pate a choux, or cabbage dough, a reference to the look of the puffs when they’re baked, the dough became celebrated when Marie-Antoine Careme, the early 19 th century chef who almost single-handedly created French pastry as we now know it, used it to make éclairs, a treat that remains elegant to this day.

Scroll down for the recipes for basic cream puffs and gougeres, savory cheese puffs most closely associated with the Burgundy region of France, but beloved around the world and especially chez moi. 

Gougeres

If you’ve ever been to my house for drinks, then you know that gougeres are one of my pet nibbles.  I make the puffs with Gruyere or cheddar or a smoked cheese or whatever bits and pieces I’ve got in the fridge, then I freeze the puffs — unbaked — pull them out of the freezer and bake them when I hear my friends’ footsteps at the door.  I love gougeres for lots of reasons: first, because they’re so good; second, because they’re so easy and so much fun to make; and third, because, while they always impress friends, they go one better — they make people happy.

Because the basic dough for cream puffs is sugarless, you can fill it with just about anything.  On the sweet side, pastry cream is classic, whipped cream is easy and good, and ice cream turns the puffs into profiteroles.  On the savory side, the sky’s the limit.  Think soft herb-flecked goat cheese, tuna, crab or egg salad, or, best of all starting Friday, turkey mixed with chunky cranberry sauce, turkey salad, turkey hash or even turkey stuffing with gravy.  Thanksgiving’s leftovers never looked so classy.

A word on practicality (always important at holiday time):  It’s not widely known, but, as I just mentioned, spooned-out, unbaked cream puff dough can be frozen and baked just when you need it, so having fresh puffs at the ready is a cinch (see the recipes below). 

I really hope you’ll have a chance to listen to the program.  Michele and I have been baking together for almost two years now — we started shortly after she first interviewed me about my then-new book, Baking From My Home to Yours — and it’s the greatest treat for me to spend time with her in her kitchen.  I think you’ll like spending time with her, too.

Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.  Line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper.
 

CREAM PUFFS

Makes about 24 large or 50 small puffs


1/2 cup whole milk

1/2 cup water

1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup all-purpose flour

5 large eggs, at room temperature


Bring the milk, water, butter and salt to the boil in a heavy-bottomed 2-quart saucepan.  When the mixture is boiling rapidly, add the flour all at once, reduce the heat to medium and, without a second’s hesitation, start stirring the mixture like mad with a wooden spoon.  The dough will come together very quickly and a slight crust will form on the bottom of the pan, but you have to keep stirring – vigorously – another 2 to 3 minutes to dry the dough.  At the end of this time, the dough will be very smooth.

Turn the dough into the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or, if you’ve still got some elbow grease left, you can continue by hand.  One by one, add the eggs to the dough, beating until each egg is thoroughly incorporated.  Don’t be discouraged – as soon as you add the first egg, your lovely dough will separate.  Keep working and by the time you add the third egg it will start coming together again.  When all the eggs are incorporated, the dough will be thick and shiny and, when you lift some of it up it will fall back into the bowl in a ribbon.  The dough will still be warm – it’s supposed to be – and now is the time to use it. 

Using about 1 tablespoon of dough for each puff, drop the dough from the spoon onto the lined baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches of space between each mound of dough.

Slide the baking sheets into the oven, bake for 15 minutes, then rotate the sheets from top to bottom and front to back.  Continue baking until the puffs are golden and firm, another 10 to 15 minutes.  Transfer the cream puffs to a cooling rack.

Keeping:  You can spoon out the dough and either bake it immediately or freeze it.  To freeze, spoon the dough in mounds onto parchment-lined baking sheets and slide the sheets into the freezer.  When the dough is completely frozen, remove the balls from the baking sheets and wrap them airtight.  They can be kept in the freezer for up to 2 months and don’t need to be defrosted before baking.

GOUGERES

 

Makes about 36 puffs

 

1/2 cup whole milk

1/2 cup water

1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup all-purpose flour

5 large eggs, at room temperature

1 1/2 cups coarsely grated cheese, such as Gruyere or Cheddar (or a mixture of smoked and regular cheese)

Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.  Line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper.

Bring the milk, water, butter, and salt to a rapid boil over high heat in a heavy-bottomed 2-quart saucepan.  Add the flour all at once, lower the heat to medium-low and quickly start stirring energetically with a wooden spoon.  The dough will come together and a light crust will form on the bottom of the pan.  Keep stirring – with vigor – another 2 to 3 minutes to dry the dough.  The dough should now be very smooth.

Turn the dough into the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or you can continue by hand).  Add the eggs one by one and beat, beat, beat until the dough is thick and shiny.  Don’t be concerned if the dough falls apart – by the time the third egg goes in, the dough will come together again.  Beat in the grated cheese.  Once the dough is completed, it should be used immediately. 

Using about 1 tablespoon of dough for each gougere, drop the dough from a spoon onto the lined baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches of puff space between each mound of dough. 

Slide the baking sheets into the oven, bake for 15 minutes, then rotate the sheets from top to bottom and front to back.  Continue baking until the puffs are golden and firm, another 10 to 15 minutes.  Serve the gougeres piping hot as soon as they come from the oven. 

Keeping:  You can shape the gougeres and freeze them for up to 2 months before you bake them.  There’s no need to defrost the frozen puffs, just bake them a couple of minutes more.

 

How To Fill Cream Puffs and Make Profiteroles

Cream puffs lend themselves to being filled with mixes either sweet or savory.  No matter what you’re going to fill the puffs with, it’s best to allow the puffs to cool to room temperature before cutting them.

Use a small sharp knife to nick the midpoints of the puffs and then slice the puffs in half with a gentle sawing motion.  Alternatively, you can cut the top third off the puff.  Spoon the filling into the bottom of the puff and top with the cap.

If you’re filling the puffs with something that should be served hot, either heat the filling before you put it into the puffs (my first choice), or fill the puffs and heat them in a 350 degree oven.

For Profiteroles, fill the puffs with ice cream and drizzle them with chocolate sauce.  Profiteroles are best when the puffs are at room temperature, the ice cream is cold and the chocolate sauce is hot, however, if you want to get a jump on preparing them, you can fill the puffs, freeze them and pull them out of the freezer a few minutes before you’re ready to serve.

Dorie Greenspan

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