When I bite into a strawberry cream puff, I am instantly transported to summers at my grandmother’s house in Nova Scotia. Everything about Beatrice Collins (aka “Grammie,” “Mum,” “Queen Bea”) was elegant yet practical and simple. Nothing was fancy or fussy, but everything she touched felt magical. She was a woman who knew how to enjoy life and her love of food was central to everything she did. Here she is with my mom, canning beans from her garden:
Summer visits at Grammie’s house were always graced by her classic strawberry shortcake, which we adored. But every so often, she would pull out all the stops and make strawberry cream puffs: pillowy French choux puffs filled with vanilla custard, whipping cream and freshly sliced berries. It just doesn’t get any better. It’s a recipe I especially love because it’s rich but doesn’t feel heavy, and there’s not much sugar in it yet it feels incredibly decadent. (At just over 1/4 cup sugar spread out among 8 cream puffs, that’s about 1/2 Tbsp of sugar per cream puff!)
When my grandfather was alive, the strawberries for the shortcakes and cream puffs proudly came from his garden. Strawberries were a sacred summer joy and we never really ate them at any other time of year though Grammie did make strawberry freezer jam to enjoy year round. After my grandmother died, my mom and I would take turns making the cream puffs during strawberry season. They have always felt to me like they straight up deliver my grandmother’s joie de vivre.
For my eleventh birthday, my grandmother gifted me a cookbook that she had meticulously hand written, with all her favorite recipes, family classics treasured by the family. I can’t imagine how long it must have taken her and although the cookbook now has lost its cover, and its pages bear some stains from years of usage, it is one of my most prized possessions. And one which I refer to again and again.
Choux pastry (what cream puffs are made of) is a French pastry simply made up of butter, water, eggs, and flour. It’s unusual in that the dough is cooked while you make it. It’s very similar to American popovers, and it’s the same dough used for making éclairs. Choux pastry is known to be a little tricky but really it’s not that complicated. I made it as a teenager with no problem and although my puffs were occasionally on the flat side, they were always enjoyed by everyone. Even a “failed” choux puff that didn’t quite rise enough in the baking is still delicious and beautiful once assembled with cream and berries. The dough should preferably be slightly more stiff than what was shown in the video though those turned out ok. Just follow my recipe instructions to the letter, approach it with confidence, and you should have no problem. If however you find yourself struggling with it, there are many great in-depth articles that have been written online about mastering choux pastry and they may help you troubleshoot. Main problems usually stem from an inaccurate oven temperature (use a thermometer to know your actual oven temperature) or not measuring out the flour accurately (ideally, you should weigh your flour).
A word about strawberries. Growing strawberries is hard work, but infinitely rewarding. I’m so grateful to be having a bumper crop and so far this summer, I’ve managed to put away over 50 pounds of strawberries in my freezer for year-round use. If you don’t have access to homegrown, try to find a strawberry “pick-your-own” or a farmers market near you. Local and seasonal strawberries taste so much better! And if you can, look for organic or unsprayed berries since strawberries are sadly one of the fruits most heavily contaminated with pesticide residues which do not wash off. They can contain up to 22 different pesticide residues, and are at the top of the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list.
I hope you enjoy this recipe, please let me know in the comments below. Happy strawberry season!
My Grandmother’s Strawberry
These strawberry cream puffs are the type of comfort food that transport you to your happy place.
- For the choux pastry:
- 1 cup water
- 1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter cut into cubes
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 4 1/2 ounces (1 cup) all-purpose flour, sifted
- 4 eggs
- For the custard:
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 1/2 Tbsp cornstarch
- 1 1/2 cup whole milk or half & half cream
- 3 egg yolks
- 1 tsp vanilla
- For the filling:
- 1 1/2 cup whipping cream, whipped
- 2 to 3 cups fresh sliced organic strawberries + 1 Tbsp sugar
- Powdered sugar and whole strawberries for garnish
- To make the cream puffs, combine water and cubed butter in a heavy saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil. As soon as the butter is melted, remove from heat and add in the sifted flour and salt all at once, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon until flour is incorporated. If your flour is not sifted, make sure you squash any flour lumps. Return the saucepan to medium heat and cook, stirring constantly until the dough pulls together into a smooth mass (about 3 to 4 minutes) and there is a thin starchy film coating the bottom of the saucepan. The dough should be firm enough to hold a wooden spoon upright (or register about 175F on an instant thermometer). Remove the saucepan from heat.
- Allow the dough to cool down slightly, about 5 to 10 minutes (or until it reads about 145F on an instant thermometer). Once the dough is no longer piping hot, mix in the eggs one at a time. Be sure to mix very vigorously and incorporate each egg fully before adding the next one. This can be done with a stand mixer or a wooden spoon. Once the dough is smooth and shiny, place it in the fridge for about 20 minutes. Then drop the dough into 8 mounds onto a lightly greased baking sheet. Traditionally, the dough is piped onto the baking sheet and you can use a piping bag fitted with a large tip if you have one. My grandmother always just spooned the dough onto the baking sheet, mounding it high in the centers, and that’s how I’ve always made them as well. You do want some height to your cream puffs so that they puff UP. If you need to fiddle with the dough on the baking sheet, you can use the back of a spoon dipped in water (or water-dipped hands).
- Bake in a preheated 425F oven for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, lower the temperature to 350F and bake for an additional 25 to 30 minutes. Do NOT open the oven door until after the first 30 minutes of baking. About 5 minutes before they’re done, open the door and insert a toothpick into the side of each puff, making a little hole. This will help it maintain its shape. The cream puff are done when they are puffed up and golden. Turn off the oven and jam a wooden spoon in the oven door to keep it open. Let the cream puffs cool in the open-doored oven for about 30 minutes before removing.
- To prepare the custard filling, mix the sugar and cornstarch together in a heavy saucepan. Whisk in milk and egg yolks, cooking over medium heat and stirring constantly until thickened. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Pour into a bowl and place a piece of waxed paper directly on top of the custard. Refrigerate until cold.
- To assemble, whip the cream. Slice the strawberries, place them in a bowl and stir in 1 Tbsp sugar (more or less to taste). Cut a thin slice from the top of each fully cooled cream puff, removing any moist bits of dough in the center to make a hollow space. Place a dollop of cold custard into the bottoms, then an even larger dollop of whipping cream. Then carefully spoon the sliced strawberries on top of that. Top each cream puff with its little “lid”. Sprinkle powdered sugar all over the tops of the assembled cream puffs and add a few whole strawberries for garnish. They’re ready to serve!
Tips/TechniquesIdeally make cream puffs the same day you’re going to use them so they stay fresh. But if needed they can be stored in an air-tight container for a day or so.
Yield: 8 cream puffs
Aube Giroux is a food writer, a James Beard award-winning documentary filmmaker and a passionate organic gardener and home cook, who shares her love of cooking on her farm-to-table blog, Kitchen Vignettes.