It’s back to basics. Choux pastry, cream puffs, or puff shells, or whatever name you want to give it (like the true French name: pâte à choux), is a basic pastry that should be part of your repetoire. It’s used as the base for elegant desserts and savory appetizers and so has that sought after “wow” factor. [Setting aside the fact that “choux” means cabbage in French.]
Making cream puffs always seemed like an out of reach pastry for me to prepare. Too complicated. Risk of failure too high. When under pressure to deliver a great party dish, this would not be my first choice. But then came the family Friday home baking challenge. I gave out cookie recipes to my three kids to see how they’d fare in our home “baking class.” My twelve-year old snubbed his nose at my pick for him. Cookies? “Much ado about nothing,” he said. He flipped through one of my cookbooks and came across a recipe for cream puffs. He wanted a science experiment and cooking experience all rolled into one. The result, he put our cookies to shame with his impressive cream puff shells. No pastry bag? No problem. He took a gallon Ziploc plastic bag, filled the bag with the warm choux pastry dough, and piped the shells right onto cookie sheets. He was a little lost as to how to fill them afterwards, and came up with a butter/sugar mix. I threw in some cocoa for good measure. They were a little too buttery and sweet, but for kids, they didn’t seem to notice until the belly ache set in half an hour later. Too bad I didn’t take pictures of this adventure!
I decided to get to work on making my own cream puffs, taking some pictures along the way. They are really cool to make, so I can see why my son was excited to try them out himself.
The first part of making the dough takes place in a saucepan over heat. With a spoon (wooden is preferable), mix together milk, butter, sugar and salt and bring to a boil to melt the butter. Incorporate the flour “all at once.” Stir it in quickly. By the way, this all takes shape very quickly. Here is a picture of the dough in the saucepan just before taking it off the heat to incorporate the eggs.
By hand or with a mixer, incorporate the eggs, one at a time. I used a mixer with the paddle attachment (not the whisk attachment!). Using the mixer keeps my hands free to deal with the eggs. But take care not to over mix or there will be too much air incorporated, which is a no no.
You must use the dough while still warm. You must pipe the dough onto prepared cookie sheets. I do have a pastry bag, but in this case, it wasn’t handy, so I used a Ziploc bag, cutting off the tip–following in my son’s footsteps.
If you are a cookie/cake home baker seeking a little more adventure, try out making cream puff shells. They are cute and versatile, ready to accommodate either savory or sweet fillings. And they really aren’t so bad to make.
I recommend lining your cookie sheets with parchment paper, or you might end up having beautiful cream puffs that you’ll have to scrape off the pan! Speaking from experience . . . .
When the puffs have cooled, you need to fill them. Cut the tops off and dollop some custard or maybe, if you’d like to use a savory filling, some chicken salad. Elegant and tasty!