It is my birthday and I decided to make myself something fun to celebrate. Now that I am squarely in my 40s I find it especially important to make this occasion a special one. I was in the mood to play with sugar. It has been years, many years, since I have worked in the restaurant world and had the opportunity and excuse to do over-the-top fanciful things with sugar. It is more the act of creating these wisps of golden caramel that thrills me, even more than eating them. To sit on top this ethereal nest I decided I needed something creamy and decadent; cream puffs filled with pastry cream in three flavors.
The tale of two puffs:
Last week I received the long awaited sequel to Shirley O. Corriher’s wonderful book Cookwise . I’d met her at least a decade ago and she mentioned her manuscript for BakeWise , a book dedicated to the science of baking. I’ve been chomping at the bit for it ever since. Shirley writes about this sometimes weighty subject with such a fun and lighthearted way that even those who are not geeks about their food chemistry will enjoy it.
I decided to give her pâte à choux (Cream Puff) recipe a go. It is radically different than the one I have used for years so I thought it would be interesting to see how the final puffs would compare. Her recipe calls for the use of a Baking Stone  and a pan of hot water to create steam. Wow, that sounds very familiar. It is exactly what we use in Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day  to get a crisp crackling thin crust on our breads. It made so much sense that it would do the same to the puffs! She also used bread flour instead of all-purpose so the pâte à choux would have more structure and be able to PUFF even more. The theory was great but the execution was anything but exciting. In the end I ended up using my tried and true recipe, but this time substituting bread flour as she did.
On the left is my recipe baked as I show below. On the right are puffs baked on a pizza stone and with steam. Maybe it is just my oven?
After a couple of failed attempts I skipped the steam and the baking stone because the puffs made with them ended up expanding so much they lost their shape and then collapsed. In defense of Shirley’s recipe I think this failed experiment has more to do with my oven trapping too much of the steam and causing the puffs to get soggy and collapse. The other issue was that the stone seemed to retain so much heat that even when I dropped the temperature, as you are supposed to do, the oven stayed too hot and the pâte à choux got too dark. Have you baked your puffs with steam and on a baking stone? How did it go in your oven?
Pâte à Choux:
1 cup milk or water (I used milk,which makes for a darker and richer puff. The one made with water will be crisper and lighter in color)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
3 ounces unsalted butter
1 cup eggs (about 5 large, maybe 6)
1 cup bread flour, or all-purpose
Preheat oven to 425°
In a heavy saucepan bring the milk, salt, sugar and butter to a boil.
Remove from heat and add the flour all at once to the pan and
stir it until it becomes a
smooth ball. Turn the stove back on low and continue to stir for about 3-5 minutes. Do not allow the dough to color. You are trying to dry the dough out as much as possible. The dryer it is the more eggs your can add to it and the better your pâte à choux will puff.
Remove from stove and place the hot dough in your stand mixer with the paddle attachment. Mix for a few seconds.
Add the eggs one at a time to the hot dough. Mix on medium speed until the egg is completely blended in to the dough. Repeat with the other 4 eggs, scraping down the bowl after each addition.
Your dough should be very soft, but still hold its shape when piped out. If the dough still feels stiff at all you can mix up the 6th egg in a small bowl and add half of it to the dough. You want to avoid having your dough too runny or it is hard to pipe.
Place the sheet in the oven and bake for 10 minutes. Turn the heat down to 350 degrees and continue to bake for another 20-30 minutes or until golden brown and firm.
I filled the puffs with 3 different flavored pastry creams. Vanilla, ground pralines and Nutella  were my choices. You will need:
1 recipe vanilla bean pastry cream , divide the recipe into 3 bowls. Leave one as vanilla and then add ground praline to one and nutella to the other. Just add until they suite your taste.
Other flavors to try: fruit preserves, rum, chocolate, peanut butter, banana puree, passion fruit, lemon zest, and anything else your imagination can think of. If you come up with fabulous ideas let me know!
To fill the puffs, just fill the Pastry Bag  with your flavored pastry cream. Cut a small hole in the bottom of the puff with a knife and then fill through the bottom.
Dust with powdered sugar and flick with cocoa powder to create the look of little eggs.
A cup of coffee or a glass of port and you are set!
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