For Valentine's Day this year, I wanted to try making something a little extra special. I love chocolate, but my husband's true dessert love might be custard. Since he is my true love, this seemed like a good time to try making cream puffs. First I made the vanilla bean pastry cream. Crème patissière a basic vanilla cream which can be used for filling in cakes, tarts, and cream puffs or mixed with whipped cream, or flavored and taken in numerous directions. This is the easiest custard type dessert I have made because the addition of the flour allows the cream to boil without curdling. It was a pleasant surprise to find that it was not tricky, and soon it was all done and tucked into the refrigerator.
The next day I made the puffs. Good news: these aren't difficult either! Pâte à choux is one of the mother doughs of French pastry. It is used for countless desserts, but I am most familiar with cream puffs and eclairs. There are many steps involved in making this dessert but it was well worth the effort, and at no point did I feel that I almost messed it all up.
I used the recipes found in Jacques Pepin's Complete Techniques. This encyclopedic text has more than 1,000 cooking methods and recipes along with step by step photographs. Jacques Pepin was only 13 years old when he began his apprenticeship in a French kitchen. He wrote a wonderful memoir about his life in France and his move to the Unite States called The Apprentice. If anyone should know the basic formulas for a classic pastry like this, it's him. I followed his directions and was not disappointed.
2 cups milk (coconut milk may be substituted for a dairy free version)
6 egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 vanilla bean or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup flour
Place the milk in a saucepan and bring just barely to a boil. Turn off the heat, split and scrape the vanilla bean and place it in the milk to steep. Let it sit while you crack and separate the eggs and get everything measured and ready. Place the yolks in a mixing bowl and whisk, add the sugar (and vanilla extract if using) and keep whisking until it becomes pale yellow and creamy. It should form a slowly dissolving ribbon when it drips back ito the bowl. This will take 3 or 4 minutes. Add the flour and mix well. It will now look like cake batter. Turn
the heat back on and bring the milk to a boil again. Remove the vanilla
bean and squeeze out any more seeds and liquid from it into the milk.
Add a little of the hot milk to the yolk mixture and mix well. Add a little more and mix, then pour everything back into the saucepan and keep mixing. Bring to a boil on medium heat, stirring constantly to prevent scorching. The sauce will thicken as soon as it reaches the boiling point. Reduce heat and cook for 2 or 3 more minutes. Pour the pastry cream into a clean bowl and cover with plastic wrap, pressing it down so that it clings to the cream and will prevent a film forming. I actually placed a seive over the clean bowl and strained the warm pastry cream because I was worried I had some lumps. This step is optional. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Cream Puff Dough
1 cup water
1/2 stick (4 Tablespoons) unsalted butter cut into pieces
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup all purpose flour
4 large eggs
Place the water, butter and salt in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Measure out the flour by scooping the cup until it's heaping and level it by scraping the excess with a knife. When the butter is completely melted, remove from the heat and add the flour all at once. Mix rapidly with a wooden spatula. Place the pan back on low heat and continue stirring with the spatula. This will allow the flour to cook and the dough to dry out. It will look kind of like play dough. You will know it is done when it pulls away from the sides of the pan and a film has formed on the bottom.
Transfer this dough to a clean bowl and let it cool for at least 5 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously to incorporate each one before adding the next. It will appear curdled at first, but keep mixing and it will become smooth. Once the eggs are all in, the dough will be smooth, shiny, and as thick as heavy mayonnaise.
Place the dough in a pastry bag fitted with a large tip. The easiest way to fill a pastry bag is to set it into a cup or tall bowl and fold the bag down around the sides. Now you have both hands free to scoop the dough into the bag. For more tips on filling and piping with pastry, check out this great post on Brave Tart. Prepare a baking sheet by covering it with parchment paper or coating it with butter and flour. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Squeeze out puffs about the size of small golf balls. If you do not have a pastry bag, you can just scoop the dough by teaspoonfulls - no biggie. Brush the tops with 1 beaten egg, pushing down the lumps and tails and making them smooth as you go. Bake for 35 minutes, or until well puffed and golden. Turn off the heat, open the oven door halfway and let the puffs cool slowly and dry for 30 minutes.
Now all you have to do is wait for the beautiful puffs to cool so that you can fill them. I was very pleased with the traditional pastry cream filling, but you could also use sweetened whipped cream or a mini scoop of icecream or whatever you like. Make a slit in the side or the bottom of each puff and fill with pastry cream in a piping bag. Again, you could just make a larger slice and use a teaspoon to fill the puffs if you wish. Dust with powdered sugar for the final touch. Only fill as many as you can eat in one day or they will get soggy. Unfilled puffs store well in the freezer. Just put them in a warm oven to defrost and dry out.
I'm not usually crazy about cream filled desserts. I'm always suspicious of what's in the cream, and often find them kind of gluey and fake tasting. I've gotta tell you though, these are so good. I was surprised at how much I liked them ( and how many I was able to eat in a day...) When my son bit into the center of his, his face lit up and he said, 'Thank you Mom' around a mouth full.