Oh puffy, puff,
Full of whippy stuff,
How do I love thee?
Let me count and see.
Crispy, yet light,
Oh such a lovely sight,
Pudding and cream,
Floating sugar a dream.
When it comes to spontaneous poetry, I am not your go-to gal. However, when it comes to, “What dessert will fill my love’s heart with joy?” I might just have the answer to that.
Valentine’s Day is almost upon us. A day when expressing undying love to your chosen one is, basically, mandatory. Gifts, expensive dinner out, chocolates, cards full of sappy poetry. It can be too much pressure for some; but to others, a wish that does not seem to ever come true. While I do have someone I love dearly, in my life; I do remember those lonely times of wishing and wanting. So, may I ask, if you do not mind, that if you know of anyone, who will be alone for this holiday of love, give them a surprise. Whether it is a simple card stating, “You are not alone and are loved.” Or a little gift given with the same sentiment, well, you never know, but you might even save someone’s life with that small gesture.
I began this New Year, with a declaration of conquering fear, especially when it comes to baking. First fear was making Cinnamon Rolls, and it was more fun than I thought it would be. Well, I have another recipe which I conquered, and it makes the perfect treat for Valentine’s Day, or any special occasion. That edible puff of love I wrote about in my short, but sweet, poem…The Cream Puff!
The cream puff was invented in 1540 by Catherine de Medici's pastry chef, Pantanelli, for Catherine’s husband, Henry II of France. Now here is a little tidbit that sort of points out the king as being a bit of a lecher. He wanted the pastry puffs to resemble the full breasts of a voluptuous woman. The chef, being from Florence, Italy, had no problem fulfilling the king’s request.
The pastry dough used for cream puffs, and eclairs as well, is called pâte à choux. The basic ingredients are water, butter, flour and eggs; there is no leavening, or rising, agent. So what makes them puff up? The high moisture content of the dough creates internal steam which rises, and bakes, them into round, or oblong, puffs. Once baked, they must be poked with a sharp instrument (knife, fork tine, or toothpick), so the steam can be released. Otherwise the puff will deflate, and you will be left with a flat pancake, of sorts.
Once baked, poked and cooled, the puff can be cut open with a sharp knife. Lengthwise, about one quarter of an inch from the bottom is best. Once open, there will be a layer of unbaked dough that must be removed, before filling. Now, can you simply poke open a larger hole, and fill using a pastry bag? Of course! But removing the uncooked dough will give a larger empty space which means…more filling!
A typical filling for puffs and eclairs is whipped cream which is made by whisking together two cups heavy cream, ¼ cup confectioner’s sugar and ½ teaspoon vanilla extract. Yes, different flavors of extract can be used; even a variety of flavors if making a display for an event like a wedding reception or birthday party. However, a rich custard can be made instead by simply using a one ounce package of instant pudding mix. While pudding mix asks for two cups of milk, substitute two cups of half and half or heavy cream; whisk for two minutes, and refrigerate for five minutes. The pudding will be light, airy and resemble whipped cream; use any flavor you like, or a mixture as I suggested for the whipped cream. Whatever filling you make, it will be enough for 8 to 9 large puffs.
Hint, you can also use these to make elegant sandwiches for a tea or brunch. Make up chicken, ham, or tuna salads; do not over use the mayonnaise as you do not want your puffs to get soggy.
Measuring for a large puff is about ¼ cup, but you will have to use a spatula to get the filling out of the cup. Instead, use a 2-inch diameter ice cream scoop which will release the filling easily, and retain the roundness. I also suggest using an ice cream scoop for portioning out your dough before baking; again, it retains the roundness. For miniature puffs, use a 1-inch diameter scoop for the dough, and then the filling.
Will there ever be times when your dough will not rise? Sure will; too much humidity; did not mix the liquid and flour over the heat long enough; added the wrong size eggs; used cheap margarine (too oily) instead of pure butter; did not pay attention to the directions (very guilty of this one); kept opening the oven to check on the puffs. If at first you do not succeed, do it again! First time I made these, perfection; next two times were an embarrassing fail; then perfection again as I figured out why I was flubbing.
Now for the recipe as I am sure you are raring to begin baking.
Choux Pastry or Pate a Choux
1 cup water
½ cup butter
½ tsp. salt
1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted (add 2 Tbsp. for high altitude)
4 large eggs
2 Tbsp. milk (personally use 2%)
1 large egg yolk
Preheat oven to 400 F; line baking pans with parchment paper.
In a large saucepan, bring the water, butter and salt to a soft boil, over medium heat (no roiling boil!). Immediately add the flour and begin stirring until it forms a smooth ball. Remove from heat and let cool for 5 minutes.
Add one egg at a time and fully incorporate into the dough ball. Continue mixing until it forms a smooth and shiny dough. The dough will be wet, but will retain its shape when measured out.
Drop by ¼ cup (or 2-inch ice cream scoop) onto parchment lined baking pans, 2-inches apart. Beat together the water and egg yolk with a fork; brush lightly onto the tops of the dough mounds.
Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from oven and immediately poke a hole into each puff to release steam; remove each puff to a wire rack to cool.
Makes 8-9 large puffs.
Fill the puffs before serving. If not using the same day, place in an air tight container for up to two days. Or, place inside a freezer bag and freeze for up to two months. To crisp up the puffs, preheat the oven to 300F, place on a baking sheet and heat for 5 to 8 minutes.
Garnishes: Powdered sugar; fresh fruit (raspberries (black or red), blueberries, strawberries slices and fanned out); drizzled with chocolate or caramel syrup or honey; melt chocolate and dip tops of puffs in, let harden; dollop of fruit jam on top of puff.
Now that you have these edible puffs of love down pat, make them whenever you would like to have them. Special occasion, sure; because you are simply feeling special, definitely!