Things a Monkey Could Cook: Cream Puffs
By Jean Stites on October 21, 2010
Well here’s a time-honored classic that doesn’t last long in our house—even if I’m the only one there. It’s that pastry cream which so reminds me of my childhood and subsequently tempts me to abandon all thought of balanced nutrition until every last one of those tasty treats is gone….
So if you live alone, I guess you might want to cut the recipe in half; while contrariwise, if you have a very large family you might actually need to double the recipe in order to get any at all.
With the quantities listed below, you should expect to end up with somewhere between one dozen big fat puffs or two dozen little ones, while making 5 x 1 inch shapes yields éclairs—something I actually still do occasionally, even though I no longer own a pastry bag designed for piping purposes, to have their unique experience. However, taste-wise there’s very little difference, and so I usually just stick with your basic blobs.
Either way, if I were you, I’d forget about counting and just try to make them all approximately the same size. If they’re too big, they may not puff properly, as the outside may burn before the inside dries out; while if they’re too small it’s harder to fill them with cream.
Better too small than too big, though, because the whole idea is to get the inside almost all dried out before the outside turns unappetizingly dark—which is, of course, a matter of opinion. People also disagree about what temperature to bake them at, and for how long—just like every recipe also seems to differ over the perfect balance of ingredients—but here’s what I usually do.
Cream Puff Pastry
- 1 cup water
- ½ cup butter
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup flour
- 4 eggs
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
Bring the water, butter, sugar, and salt to a rolling boil in the biggest saucepan you own over medium heat. If it won’t hold at least 2 quarts, you may be in for trouble.
Remove it from the heat and add the flour, all at once, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon; and there’s an actual reason that you need to use a wooden spoon instead of a metal one, and I sure wish I could remember what it is. I’ve seen recipes where people use heatproof rubber spatulas instead—sometimes switching to an electric mixer for maximum lightness when adding the eggs—but I’ve always just stuck with the spoon….
Return it to the heat, stirring constantly for about a minute, until it forms a ball. You’ll notice traces of a thin white film on the sides of the pan at this point.
Cool it down on the countertop for about 5 minutes.
Beat in the eggs, one at a time, with continued vigor, intent on incorporating as much air as possible, until it all comes together into a smooth, shiny paste; and every time you do this, it can at first cause slippery and intimidating lumps to form that will soon disappear. Some people add all the eggs at once, which also works fine, but it’s more difficult because at first it seems like a monument to sliminess.
Place 12 mounds of dough about 2 inches apart on a baking sheet, which doesn’t need to be greased, but it should be pretty shiny in order to avoid those nasty over-browned bottoms, while the whole process is of course enhanced and simplified by sheets of parchment paper.
Bake approximately 30 minutes, until golden brown and dry to the appearance. Then—if there’s no toddlers about—you might want to turn off the heat, but still leave them in the oven with the door cracked open, to enhance the drying agenda. You’re aiming for slightly crispy here, which is traditionally part of the thrill. If you take them out too soon, they may collapse and even appear squishy, but they’ll probably still taste mighty fine.
Cool them completely before filling with either the following Pastry Cream that most are going to expect—especially in an éclair—or just fill them with simple Whipped Cream if you prefer; although you could also put your favorite flavor of ice cream—or even plutonium--in there.
It’s your puff.
Make the pastry cream while your puffs are in the oven, and it should be reasonably cool when they’re at their peak. Whipped cream, on the other hand, should be made at the last minute if possible for maximum frothiness; and if you’ve never made it, I tell all at the end of my strawberry shortcake recipe.
Call it what you like, this yummy stuff is what you get when white sugar mixed with flour or cornstarch and a pinch of salt meets milk or cream over medium heat until it bubbles and binds. Then egg yolks are added for color, richness, and shine, along with various flavorings—usually starting with vanilla and, in my case, frequently continuing on to chocolate.
People argue, of course, about how much to use of what—whether to use cornstarch, flour, or a combination; how much sugar and how many eggs; whether to add butter at the end….
Well it all often depends upon what you intend to do with it next, but I find that the following works fine for the recipes to be found in my book, where you’ll also find it layered into the middle of the Boston Cream Pie. My version’s a little sweeter than some and heavy on the vanilla.
- ½ cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- a pinch of salt
- 2 cups milk
- 2 egg yolks, slightly beaten
- 1 tablespoon vanilla
- 2 oz. optional, melted semi-sweet chocolate
Combine the sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a roomy saucepan.
Gradually whisk in the milk and place over medium heat.
Bring your milk mixture to a slow boil, while constantly whisking and scraping—with a heatproof spatula—for about 3 minutes, until it thickens into something a bit more substantial that will eventually just barely hold its shape after it’s cooled all the way down.
Take it off the heat and pour in the egg yolks in a slow, steady stream while whisking constantly.
Return it to the burner and boil, stir, and scrape for another minute.
Remove your custard from the stovetop, stir in the vanilla and the optional chocolate, and then pour it into a bowl to cool. As soon as it’s lukewarm, you can put it into the refrigerator to speed things up, but don’t proceed with any larger recipes until it’s truly cool and all set up.
Plus, once it’s reached this stage it’s also a thick and simple vanilla pudding that’s tasty all by itself; and when I add the melted chocolate I’m seven years old again—literally tugging on my grandmother’s apron strings as she stirs and stirs and stirs for what seems like forever. Finally, she turns to me with a gentle smile and hands me a warm bowl of heaven: what she called her chocolate pudding, with a little bit of cold milk poured on top, just the way I loved it….
Carefully remove the top of each puff, spoon in some filling, and replace the top; and at this point perfectionists craving crispy often remove whatever still seems to be damp inside, but I’ve just never gone there. Also, those so fortunate as to own the previously mentioned piping equipment can instead neatly inject the filling through a hole, enhancing both appearance and ease of munching.
Dust with confectioner’s sugar if you like or—as is expected with éclairs—improve upon perfection by slathering on the following chocolate icing.
- 1 ounce = 1 square unsweetened chocolate
- 1 teaspoon butter
- 1 cup confectioner’s sugar
- 2 tablespoons steaming hot water
Melt your chocolate and butter in a small saucepan over very low heat.
Add half of the sugar slowly, and then half of the water until nice and smooth.
Then add the rest of the sugar, followed by the rest of the water—perhaps a little more or less than 2 tablespoons, as needed to achieve spreading consistency.