Who you calling a cream puff?
Delicate, airy and light as they are, those little round pastries that encapsulate cream are in no way weaklings. They’re among the most capable and dependable — and easy — elements of great cocktail and dinner parties, whether served as a savory or as a dessert.
Pate a choux filled with pastry cream for a classic cream puff.
I was reminded of this recently while helping out in the Hot Pink Cake Stand kitchen. Owner and chief pastry chef Jody Carmichael was preparing gougeres, pronounced “goo-ZHAIR” for a recent wine tasting at the downtown Wilmington bakery. The nibbles require the same dough used for cream puffs. It’s called “pate a choux,” pronounced “pat-a-shoo.” For gougeres, finely shredded Gruyere cheese is blended into the dough and sprinkled on top before baking.
Years ago, I read a book that described how a kitchen intern working in France was required to stir the pate a choux. In his memory, the task was difficult. No doubt, he faced a huge bowl. Home cooks needn’t panic at his experience. Stirring small batches takes little time and strength while still producing professional pastry chef results.
The process is simple.
Put butter and water, sometimes milk, into a saucepan. Heat until the butter melts. Stir in a near equal portion of all-purpose flour. Take the mixture off the heat and then add eggs one at a time, stirring well after each addition. The resulting dough is soft and silky. Drop or pipe spoonfuls onto a sheet pan and bake or freeze to bake off later.
Pate a choux recipes may call for small amounts of sugar. Mostly, the flavor is mild, allowing cooks to imagine all sorts of fillings, perhaps seafood salad, chocolate mousse or ice cream.
A 1970s-era Betty Crocker recipe box just like the one from my childhood. (Photo from http://wholeykale.blogspot.com/)
I feel in love with pate a choux as a child pulling recipes from a Betty Crocker recipe card box. One of my favorite recipes (because my mother liked it so much) was named Danish Pastry Puffs. Almond-flavored pate a choux gets spread atop a shortbread-like cookie crust and baked. Thin almond icing glazes the pastry and sprinkle of sliced almonds goes on top.
The pate a choux for this recipe became my go-to formula for cream puffs, which my mother loved filled with simple, sweet whipped cream and then completely covered with chocolate cream.
Danish Pastry Puffs
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cold butter
2 tablespoons ice water
1/2 cup butter
1 cup water
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1 to 2 tablespoons warm water or milk
1/2 cup sliced almonds
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place 1 cup flour in medium bowl. Cut in 1/2 cup butter, using pastry blender (or pulling 2 table knives through ingredients in opposite directions), until particles are size of coarse crumbs. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons water over mixture; toss with fork.
Gather pastry into a ball; divide in half. Pat each half into 12-by-3-inch rectangle, about 3 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheet.
In 2-quart saucepan, heat 1/2 cup butter and 1 cup water to rolling boil; remove from heat. Quickly stir in almond extract and 1 cup flour. Stir vigorously over low heat about 1 minute or until mixture forms a ball; remove from heat. Add eggs; beat until smooth.
Spread half of the topping over each rectangle.
Bake about 1 hour or until topping is crisp and brown; remove from pan to cooling rack. Cool completely.
In medium bowl, mix all glaze ingredients except nuts until smooth and spreadable. Spread over top of pastry; sprinkle with nuts.
Makes 10 servings.
Source: Adapted from a recipe by Betty Crocker.