Oh choux-t! Guess who learned how to make cream puffs?!
Like many who grew up in Wisconsin, I think of cream puffs as nostalgia in pastry form. My dad took my brother and me to the Walworth County Fair every year to accomplish two things: attend the demolition derby and eat a massive, messy cream puff. The crisp pastry was sliced in half, overstuffed with fluffy whipped cream, and topped with a generous sprinkle of powdered sugar that inevitably ended up all over your face, shirt and jeans. Sure, my nostalgia cream puffs aren’t the famous Wisconsin State Fair ones, but they were damn good and I could really go for one right now.
Fortunately for me (and not for my waistline), I spent some time during my days off before Christmas raiding my mom’s kitchen and learning how to make mini cream puffs – or profiteroles for those who prefer the proper French term. To be honest, my mini cream puffs probably more closely resembled the ones you can buy in the freezer section than at a fair. However, this is just the start of my growing obsession with pâte à choux pastries, and I’ll absolutely attempt my own Wisconsin fair-worthy cream puff in the future.
In the meantime, if you’re unfamiliar with the process of making choux pastries (pronounced “shoo,” for those who didn’t catch my pun attempt earlier), I would describe it as a weird paste made over the stove that magically pops up into a hollow 3D object when you bake it. It reminds me of a something a scientist in a bad science fiction movie would make – a strange goo that you put into a heated machine and it comes out in a completely different form. Like Flubber…except it’s a pastry and doesn’t dance. Anyway, the point is that I think it’s super fascinating and fun to work with.
There’s four parts to making cream puffs: 1) bake a pastry shell, 2) make a cream filling, 3) fill the shell with cream, and 4) top it off with something delicious, like a chocolate glaze or powdered sugar. It’s kind of a drawn out process, but it’s not especially difficult either thanks to the internet. I watched this very helpful Martha Stewart video (twice) to make sure I made the choux paste correctly, and then I viewed this adorably entertaining video on piping choux paste from Emeril Lagasse’s early days.
If you take away nothing else from this post, here’s what you need to know to make delicious cream puffs: measure out the ingredients for the choux paste exactly and follow the directions. Your pastries will turn out fine. And if for some reason you can’t get your pastry cream or whipped cream to turn out the way you want it to, you can always throw in the towel, buy a can of whipped cream and call it a day. Sure, it won’t be as good as the pastry cream recipe below, but the choux puffs are delicious on their own and the cream is just an excuse to serve them as dessert.
That said, here’s my recipe to make cream puffs from scratch. I also recommend checking out my notes at the end to help you navigate the world of cream puffs.
Recipe: Mini Chocolate Glazed Cream Puffs with Flavored Pastry Cream (Vanilla, Chocolate, Coffee, Peanut Butter)
Part 1: Cream Puff Pastry
(Recipe adapted from MarthaStewart.com, which includes a great video on how to make choux paste for first-timers.)
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup water
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp sugar (may exclude sugar for savory pastries)
- 4 large eggs
Preheat oven to 425 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. (See Note 1 about marking the sheet for uniform size.)
Measure out flour into a bowl and set aside. In a medium sauce pan, bring butter, salt, sugar and water to a boil. Remove from heat and quickly stir in flour using a wooden spoon until just combined. Return to medium-high heat and stir constantly until the mixture pulls away from the sides and a film forms on the bottom of the pan. (About 1-3 minutes – if you notice a film and your dough isn’t sticking to the sides, you’re good.)
Transfer dough to a stand mixer bowl (or regular mixing bowl). Using the paddle attachment (or wooden spoon), mix on low for a minute so the dough cools slightly and won’t cook the eggs. Kick up to medium speed and add 1 egg at a time, mixing thoroughly until dough comes back together before adding the next egg. The dough should turn into a pasty substance.
Fill a piping bag with the choux paste and snip off the tip to make about a 1/2″ diameter opening, or use a coupler with no tip for a sturdier end. (See Note 2 if you don’t have piping bags.) Pipe 1 1/2″ round blobs about one inch apart on the parchment paper-lined sheets. Wet the tip of your finger with water and round out pointy tops. (Nifty link: How to pipe choux paste.)
Bake one sheet at a time (unless you can fit both sheets on one rack). Set baking sheet on the center rack of the oven, then immediately turn the temperature up to 450 degrees (according to Baker Bettie, the active heating while your pastries are in the oven can help them rise a little higher). After 12 minutes, reduce heat to 375 degrees and bake for 13-15 minutes more until golden brown. (See Note 3 on baking time and temperature.) Set baking sheets on cooling racks until the pastries come to room temperature.
Part 2: Pastry Cream Filling
Base Ingredients (partly adapted from The Kitchn)
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 tbsp corn starch
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 4 large egg yolks
- 1 1/2 cups whole milk
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
Flavorings (See Note 4 on using 2-4 creams like I did.)
- Vanilla: 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
- Chocolate: 4 oz bittersweet chocolate (55-65% cocoa), melted
- Coffee: 2 tsp instant coffee or espresso powder/crystals
- Peanut Butter: 2 tbsp creamy peanut butter
In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together sugar, corn starch and salt. Add egg yolks and beat with whisk into a thick paste. Set aside.
In a medium sauce pan, heat milk until you see whips of steam (do not simmer or boil). Pour 1/3 of the milk into your egg paste and immediate whisk to combine. Continue whisking and slowly pour in remaining milk. Once it’s all combined, pour everything back into the sauce pan. Set a mesh strainer over a separate medium (preferably glass) mixing bowl and keep it near the stove.
Return the sauce pan to medium heat and whisk constantly, being sure to gently scrape along all sides and bottom of the sauce pan as you do so. The milky mixture will be frothy for a while, and then it will begin thickening into a pudding-like cream after a few minutes. When you notice the pudding is thick enough that lines are trailing from your whisk as you stir, pause for about 10-20 seconds and see if big, gloppy bubbles have started boiling up. Once they do, whisk vigorously for 10 more seconds all along the sides and bottom and remove from the heat. Immediately pour through mesh strainer into glass bowl, gently stirring the cream in the strainer to get most of it through (there will be some tiny cooked bits left in the strainer). Stir in your flavor of choice until thoroughly combined and smooth (the coffee/espresso crystals may take an extra minute).
In a separate bowl with an electric mixer, whip heavy cream to soft/medium peaks. Gently fold whipped cream into pudding mixture with a spatula until just combined. Lay plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pastry cream (to prevent forming a “skin” on the cream) and set in the refrigerator to chill completely for at least 2 hours. Tip: If you’re looking to speed up the chilling process, stir every 30-60 minutes to redistribute distribute heat.
Part 3: Assemble
When the pastries have cooled to room temperature, poke small holes in the bottom of each (about 1/8″ to 1/5″ diameter – my mom’s roast thermometer did the trick). Fit a small round icing tip on a pastry bag and fill with the chilled pastry cream. Then use the pastry bag to fill each pastry with a gentle, even squeeze, using the weight of the cream puff to help judge even filling. Return each pastry to the baking sheets on their side to prevent the cream from spilling back out. Chill in the refrigerator for 15-20 minutes to set the cream.
Part 4: Glaze the Tops
- 6 0z bittersweet chocolate (55-65% cocoa)
- 1 tbsp corn syrup
- 2 tbsp butter (plus more as needed)
- 1/2 cup white chocolate chips
- Gel food coloring of choice (Must be gel or candy melt-specific food coloring. Liquid causes a chemical reaction that hardens the chocolate and ruins your life. Ugh.)
Add chocolate, corn syrup and 2 tbsp butter to a double boiler or other heat-proof bowl over boiling water to gently melt ingredients together. If the mixture seems too thick for dipping, add 1/2 tbsp butter at a time until it’s a better consistency. (Alternatively, melt ingredients in the microwave on high for no more than 30 seconds at a time, stirring with a fork in between, until the chocolate is almost melted. Then continue stirring until the chocolate finishes melting.)
Dip the tops of each cream puff in the chocolate and return to baking sheet. Put finished cream puffs in the refrigerator for at least 20 minutes until chocolate tops harden completely.
If you are adding a drizzle on top, melt white chocolate chips using the same instructions as the chocolate glaze. Stir in food coloring if desired. Fill a small pastry bag with melted chocolate, snip the tip to create a very small opening, and gently drizzle on top of hardened chocolate glaze. Then return for the refrigerator for another 15-20 minutes until white chocolate has hardened completely.
Serve immediately to maintain crisp pastry shells, or refrigerate for up to 3 days. The pastry will soften in the refrigerator by the next day, but it still tastes delicious.
Tip: If you want to fill the pastries just before serving, you can make your pastries a day or two in advance and keep them in a covered container in the refrigerator. They will soften, but you can pop them in the oven at 350 degrees for 10-15 minutes to crisp them back up – just be careful not to overdo it. Then cool completely before poking holes and filling.
Note 1: If you’d like to make sure your cream puffs are uniform in size, or you’re terrible at eye-balling that kind of stuff, mark off 1 1/2″ diameter circles about one inch apart on the parchment paper using a cookie cutter dipped in flour or other small circular object in your kitchen, like a shot glass.
Note 2: If you don’t have piping bags or want to buy them, you can try the parchment paper or plastic bag methods, or just dollop your choux paste 1 tbsp at a time on the parchment paper. The dollops probably won’t look as pretty, but it works fine.
Note 3: There are so many methods for baking choux pastries! I thought I was going to go crazy when all I needed to know was how to bake the damn things. For my first round, I baked them for 20-25 minutes at 425 degrees, and turned the pan halfway through. They came out great. Then I tried the multi-temperature method described above and they also came out great, and arguably a bit better because the inside seemed a little less doughy than my first round. I guess my point is that there’s a lot of ways to bake these. I put what I think is the best method in my recipe, but if it’s a step too far for you, just bake them to your heart’s desire at 425 degrees. They’ll be fine.
Note 4: I made all four flavors for my mini cream puffs because I like variety and, frankly, I’m an overachiever. But it was pretty simple to do. I made the base of the pastry cream and strained it into a bowl. Then I poured the cream equally into four separate bowls and added 1/4 of the flavorings to each. Likewise, I divided up the whipped cream into four parts and folded into each bowl separately. It’s a few extra steps, but it totally paid off.