Transforming a sticky mass of batter into a gorgeous batch of airy puff pastries can delight even the most accomplished pastry chefs. Dimples of dough sent to the oven mysteriously emerge as hollow “choux pastries” or cream puffs: beautiful, golden puffs just waiting to be filled. Perfect and versatile hosts for scrumptious ice creams, mousses, and hors d’oeuvre fillings, cream puffs also break the barrier from the dessert menu to greet us at the beginning of a meal. An anchor of French cuisine, the cream puff was overdone in the ’70s and underutilized in the ’80s; now it is resurfacing on menus at the turn of this century in a multitude of sweet and savory forms.
From simple ice cream-filled profiteroles to elaborate sugar-glazed croquembouche, cream puffs carry a magical allure–a love at first site of their golden exteriors. Richly flavored with eggs and butter and accentuated with a light toastiness, puffs can be mild on their own while playing powerful hosts to smooth and boldly flavored fillings. In fact, some would say that the merit of the puff lies in its cooperative nature–holding other flavors and bringing out the best of what’s inside. Unrivaled in texture, the crisp crust followed by a supple filling are as pleasing entering the mouth as they are going down. Whether classically served with ice cream or updated with innovative inserts, cream puffs will always have the irresistible appeal of that tender, crisp crust surrounding a velvety smooth surprise.
Choux pastry has been around for centuries, but there’s still no one foolproof recipe for producing the perfect puff. Slight variations in oven temperatures, humidity, and other environmental factors affect the end results, making this dough slightly unpredictable for most pastry chefs. While disconcerting to some, many home chefs and professionals love the challenge of the multi-step process and learn to feel their way through the recipe, adapting to inconsistencies. A paste of water, sugar, butter, salt, and flour creates the base of this batter. The chef slowly beats in eggs until it becomes glossy, soft, and sticky, but not too wet. Masters of this art sometimes even improvise with the fundamental formula, spiking it with vegetable juices and herbs for savory applications or espresso and fruit juices for sweet treats. Flavored dough or basic batter, the chef pipes small circles onto cookie sheets, brushes them with egg wash and sends them into the oven. A successful batch looks like a miracle, when, in just a matter of minutes, dollops steam up and rise. Once cooled, these poppers are ready to perform.
Crisp, golden, and fresh out of the oven, puffs can bring sheer pleasure to the chef or home baker. So versatile, chefs, caterers, and home cooks can’t limit them to one place on the menu. Stuffed with a salmon mousse or a crab salad, they’re wonderful hors d’oeuvres or creative croutons for soups and salads. They’re beautiful served at a weekend brunch, filled with fruit and topped with whipped cream. For those who stick with tradition, one scoop of French vanilla ice cream or a squirt of warm chocolate sauce can send these pastry pillows into a world of their own. Sweet or savory, morning ’til night, cream puffs make an elegant treat out of an infinite combination of ingredients.
One of the miracles of baking, cream puffs are as spectacular to make as they are to eat. As the pastries inflate in the oven, the aroma of toasty flour, eggs, and butter flows through the kitchen–a victory for the chef and the home cook. Out of the oven, there’s nothing left to do but split them open, fill them up and watch them disappear.