What a Cream Puff!
This versatile pâte à choux makes eclairs and beignets, too.
Making cream puffs only takes about 10 minutes to prepare. The recipe is simple and the technique is unique, to say the least. The cream puff batter, or pâte à choux, meaning cabbage paste in French, is a cooked batter using water, butter, flour and eggs, in that order. The batter can be piped from a pastry bag or scooped into many shapes and sizes. But while this beautiful pastry bakes, it expands and transforms itself into large, crisp, hollow puffs. There is nothing boring about this pastry and the results are impressive.
Even the recipe is interesting — equal parts water and egg, half as much flour and butter. Or to phrase it another way, 2 parts water, one part butter, one part flour and 2 part eggs. A pinch of salt is usually added to the water if the butter is unsalted.
Hints for understanding — and better results
Steam is the primary leavening agent in pâte à choux. So a high oven temperature is required for the first 10 minutes of baking -— 400 degrees in a pre-heated oven. The high temperature allows for full expansion, then a lowered temperature allows the cream puffs to dry inside for a light and airy cream puff.
Generally speaking, milk is usually preferred over water in baking in general because it provides flavor, nutrients and assists in the product being golden brown. But when making cream puffs, milk will cause puffs to be more soft than crisp and the puffs will brown too fast. All water is recommended for the liquid in the recipe.
This recipe and most recipes for cream puffs call for whole eggs, but 2 egg whites can be substituted for one of the yolks for crispier puffs and a better shine.
Don’t use cake flour or pastry flour for cream puffs. Both contain too much starch and not enough gluten for proper structure. Bread flour or all-purpose is recommended.
Steam creates the leavening as the cream puffs start baking. You created a strong gluten structure when the flour was added by stirring vigorously. This gluten structure is what holds the steam inside while the structure of the puffs are “set.”
The puffs should be thoroughly baked to a dark brown with a hollow center and a crisp outer crust.
Cream puffs freeze well. Even the batter can be portioned and frozen, if desired, and baked right from the freezer.
Pâte à choux batter is used for éclairs, profiteroles, swans, even centerpieces like a croquembouche. The batter is usually baked, but can be fried for making French crullers or beignets.
Cream puffs are perfect containers for fruit, bananas, cream or ice cream and even chocolate mousse.
Steve James, Certified Master Baker
Managing Partner, Popovers on the Square, Portsmouth
Cream PuffsThe technique is unusual because the batter is cooked before the cream puffs are baked.
1 1/2cups water
pinch of salt
1 1/2cups all-purpose flour
Simmer the water and butter together (butter must be all melted) over a medium high heat until the mixture is at a rolling boil. This is important; the water/butter mixture must be boiling. This will allow for the flour to absorb all the water quickly to create the structure needed.
Stir the flour, all at once, into the boiling butter/water mixture. Cook over medium heat until the batter pulls away from the sides of the pan. Stir vigorously to combine and to develop the proteins in the flour to provide structure for the product.
Take pan off the heat and stir in the eggs one or two at a time until all are added. The cream puffs are ready to be scooped and baked.
I prefer an ice cream scoop for portioning so consistency can be achieved. Whatever size scoop you use, remember that these puffs will at least double in size.
Scoop batter onto a parchment-lined baking pan and space about 2 inches apart to allow for expansion.
Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 350 and finish baking. Open the oven door after the first 10 minutes of baking, just for a second, to release any steam built up in the oven.
After making, allow the puffs to cool completely. Slice them in half and fill with berries and lightly whipped heavy cream. The heavy cream can be sweetened with a touch of brown sugar or honey before whipping. Ice cream is also a good substitute for whipped cream. Maybe drizzle on top a bit of chocolate sauce or ganache.
— Happy Baking, Chef James