In grade two, I entered a cooking contest at our local library. My chosen recipe: a towering croquembouche, made with homemade cream puffs glued together not with wispy threads of molten sugar (too dangerous) but altogether too much chocolate sauce, which I had to stand on a stool to pour over the lofty pile, precariously and arranged free-form on a fancy plate on the countertop.
I remember the look of alarm on my mom’s face as she tried to advise me to limit my chocolate pour – too much and it will collapse under the weight of all that chocolate! – but I continued to douse.
The more chocolate the better, right? Surely the judges will appreciate the high ratio of chocolate to cream puff as much as my grade two self did. I doubt I considered how I might transport the monstrosity to the library intact, but somehow we did. And I can’t even recall if it won – it surely placed something for all that effort – and my sister’s banana cake was printed in the recipe book.
(Thanks for cleaning up after us, Mom.)
And so began my love affair with cream puffs, which continued right up to present day – it was my item of choice when we stopped at bakeries, and often took the place of birthday cakes. Last month W’s cousin B opted for birthday cream puffs too, which provided me the opportunity to revisit my mad croquembouche making skillz. (This time it was just cream puffs. No use taunting gravity – she’s a harsh mistress.)
So. Cream puffs! Not really as complicated as their name – choux pastry – makes them sound. Bring water + butter to a simmer in a saucepan, then stir in the flour until it pulls away from the side of the pot and gathers itself together, glomming into a ball.
Hey, remember last year’s croquembouche cake? Yeah – that.
Put the steaming dough into a bowl and beat in the eggs, one at a time. It will look slimy/glossy and separate into smooth blobs each time you add an egg – just stir until it comes together. Once the final egg has been added, I like to let it cool a little and thicken up a bit.
Then you drop spoonfuls of the batter onto a parchment-lined baking sheet; you could pipe them out, or spoon the batter into a zip-lock bag, snip off a tip and squeeze them out that way. Whatevs.
These are the spooned-out ones – I mostly opt to pipe because I get satisfaction out of it, not because they look significantly prettier afterward. In the end, a cream puff is a mere vehicle for whatever you want to reach your mouth in a deliciously crunchy carrier; a small scoop of ice cream or gelato or a load of whipped cream are my personal preferences.
The key to keeping them from collapsing on themselves: poke a hole in the side of each one with a sharp knife to allow steam to escape. They’ll cool while keeping their shape and stay crisp. And you’ll need to cut them open anyway to load them up with whatever deliciousness you can find.
Most often, they’ll require a chocolate bath. But age has taught me to ease up on the chocolate a bit. (Just eat more cream puffs to make up for it.)
1 cup water
1/2 cup butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
whipped cream or ice cream, for serving
chocolate sauce, for dousing
Preheat the oven to 400F.
In a medium saucepan, bring the water, butter and salt to a boil; remove from heat and stir in the flour, stirring vigorously until the dough comes together and cleans the side of the pan.
Transfer to a bowl and beat in the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Set aside for about 10 minutes and then drop spoonfuls of batter onto a parchment-lined baking sheet; bake for 20-30 minutes (depending on the size of the spoonfuls) until puffed and golden. Immediately poke a hole in the side of each one with the tip of a sharp knife or a bamboo skewer. Cool completely before filling.
Makes 1-2 dozen cream puffs.