By Bonnie Fishman / San Francisco Bay Area
Move over, flourless, gluten-free chocolate cake! Lucious cream puffs (called profiteroles in France) and éclairs are both made from a special cream puff dough called pâte à choux. These majestic desserts have gone out of fashion. It’s past time to resurrect this delightfully light, versatile pastry dough.
Pâte à choux or choux pastry (rhymes with shoe) is a classic French pastry. Choux in English means cabbage or sprout, and it bears that name because it resembles small cabbages.. This dough dates back to the mid-16th century, when it was created in Italy by the head chef of Catherine de’ Medici. It was perfected in France in the mid-18th century.
When I opened my first shop, Bonnie’s Patisserie in Southfield, Mich. back in 1980, cream puffs and éclairs were available in European bakeries and specialty cafés. We sold a number of full-size choux pastries as well as petite cream puffs and éclairs. Both of these confections are filled with some type of cream, either whipped cream or pastry cream (custard). We used to blend the two together for the richness of the custard lightened by the whipped cream. We usually flavored them with vanilla, but they can be made with chocolate or mocha.
What always amazes me about pâte à choux is how heavy and thick the raw dough is. But the end result is so light and airy. This is one reason I think they’re fun to make. Also, you can create many different shapes with the dough, depending on which tip you use in the pastry bag. My favorite design is a delicate swan.
One clever idea for a different dessert is to make various flavors of profiteroles. For a sweet table, we used to make vanilla, mocha, and chocolate puffs. We piled them in different glass bowls or platters. We then offered a few sauces to top them with:, such as chocolate ganache, fresh soft caramel or raspberry coulis. The guests had a great time mixing and matching.
Another fun idea that you see in restaurants is to form a large cream puff and split it in half horizontally. Fill the bottom with a scoop of ice cream. Replace the top, and coat with chocolate or caramel sauce. There are lots of (caloric!) possibilities here.
The most regal presentation of profiteroles is a croquembouche, a pyramid of cream-filled puffs stuck together with sticky caramel. This show-stopping dessert is served at weddings and on Christmas. Each guest pulls off as many profiteroles as they desire.
Now, let’s talk about savory puffs. A French favorite is the gougère, in which grated cheese is blended into the dough. They are either served plain or stuffed with a savory filling. You can also use plain puffs and fill them with savory purées, such as chicken liver mousse, shrimp mousse, or mushroom duxelles.
Make sure these purees are very smooth. Back in 1978, when I catered my youngest sister Cindy’s first wedding, we made shrimp-filled puffs. I gave my sister Nancy the task of stuffing the puffs. I made a big mistake. My purée wasn’t smooth enough and it was a disaster. The shrimp pieces kept getting stuck in the nozzle and Nancy struggled with every other puff. Plus we were under time pressure to have the appetizers ready right after the wedding ceremony.
Note to everyone: purée the filling thoroughly or you’ll be swearing up a storm! Reheat these savory puffs on a cookie sheet at 350° for about 12-15 minutes.
Last weekend, I helped host my daughter Hanna’s jewelry pop-up trunk show at Urbn Ranch, a lovely boutique in Morgan Hill. (And yes, that’s a unique spelling, not a typo!) I provided an assortment of petite pastries; I split the mini-profiteroles with a vanilla and custard-cream combination and then inserted a fresh raspberry for a tasty treat plus added color. They were a big hit!
Pâte à choux is not difficult to make but forming the puffs and éclairs can be tricky. Practice makes perfect, though. Fortunately, this batch in my recipe makes dozens of minis so you can try it over and over again. French pastry shops often bake them to a dark color. This is so they don’t get soggy once filled with cream. I like to bake them more lightly because I reheat them shortly before stuffing time. Re-bake them on a cookie sheet at 400° for 10-12 minutes to dry them out and darken a bit.
It is not possible to give a quantity yield in my recipe because the size and shape of each pastry determines the total number. I promise you that it does make lots of minis, though.
Let us know here at The Insider the size, shape, and flavor of the cream puffs you decide to make. Was there a lot of huffing to your puffing while stuffing?!
Cream Puffs (Pâte à Choux)
Yield: Depends upon shape and size
1 1/2 c. water
6 oz. butter, cut into pieces
1 1/2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
5 lg. eggs
1 scrambled egg for brushing the tops
In a large saucepan, melt the butter in the water. Bring to a boil. Add all the flour and salt at once. Stir with a wooden spoon. Continue to cook over moderately high heat until the dough comes together and pulls away from the sides of the pan, about 2-3 minutes. Put in the bowl of a stand mixer. (If you don’t have one, empty the dough into a large bowl and stir with a wooden spoon until it cools.) Using the paddle, beat the dough until it cools down.
Preheat oven to 400°. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper. Reserve.
Add the 5 lg. eggs, one at a time, waiting for each one to incorporate before adding the next. Put the dough into a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2”-3/4” round top.
Drop the dough into @ 1” balls or the size/shape of your choice. Leave a 1” space between them. Brush the tops with the beaten egg, smashing down the tip of the dough.
Bake for @ 20 minutes or until golden brown. Cool completely before filling.
If you make the dough a day or two ahead, store in a plastic bag. Reheat the puffs at 400° on cookie sheets for 10 minutes. Cool completely.
Either fit a small round tip into a pastry bag and stuff with cream by inserting the tip in the pastry
Slice the puff in half horizontally. Fit a star tip into the pastry bag and fill the bottom half with cream. Place the top pastry on the cream. Dust with confectioners’ sugar or top with chocolate glaze or caramel glaze. A raspberry can also be inserted in the puff.
1 1/3 c. whole milk
4 lg. egg yolks
scant 1/2 c. sugar
3 Tbsp. flour
1/2 tsp. vanilla
In a small, heavy-bottom stainless saucepan, scald the milk.
Whisk the yolks and sugar until lightened. Slowly whisk in the flour. Temper the yolks with the hot milk, slowly adding a bit of milk at a time, whisking constantly, until all the milk is incorporated. Pour back into the pot.
Bring the cream to a boil, then turn down to a light boil. Cook 3 minutes, whisking constantly. The mixture should be nicely thickened. Whisk in the vanilla. Pour into a bowl. Lay cling film onto the surface so no skin develops. Chill completely.
Chantilly Cream (sweetened whipped cream)
1 c. heavy cream (not ultra-pasteurized)
2 Tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla
Place bowl and beater in the freezer before whipping the cream. When very cold, whip the cream on high speed until soft peaks form. Add the sugar and vanilla and continue whipping until stiff.
Blend the pastry cream and whipped cream together in a bowl using a spatula.
Bonnie Fishman attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London. Later, she owned and operated Bonnie’s Patisserie in Southfield, Mich. and Bonnie’s Kitchen and Catering in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She has taught cooking for over 35 years and created hundreds of recipes. She is now living in Northern California.