Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Cream Puffs and Belated Gifts

Good afternoon! It's another lovely day here in Toronto and even though it still seems too good to be true, having 15C weather in mid-March (March!), I'm enjoying it immensely.

The other day I made cream puffs because I owed my friend Sarah for Christmas. They were, in fact, meant to be her gift, but like everything else in my life of late, they were postponed in favour of work. So she gets her Christmas present in March.

It's been awhile since I've made choux paste and I'd forgotten how wonderfully easy it is. Honestly, I think cream puffs and eclairs will be my new stand-by recipe for dessert in a bind. They really are that simple. They also have the benefit of simple ingredients. You'll just want to make sure you have a lot of eggs.

And without further ado:

Choux Paste

1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup butter, unsalted
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup + 3 tbsp flour
4 eggs

Preheat oven to 475F and line trays with parchment.
Bring the milk, water, butter, and salt to a rolling boil. Remove from heat and add flour all at once, stirring to incorporate. Return to heat and stir vigorously until the mixture pulls away from the sides of the pot. (This happens relatively quickly.)
Place in a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, or transfer to a bowl and beat with a hand mixer, and mix until the dough has cooled slightly, but is still fairly hot.
Add eggs one at a time, mixing until fully incorporated after each addition.

The mixture should be a thick paste after the final egg is incorporated and still be able to hold it's shape. If it looks too dry, add another egg.
Pipe using a large straight tip (I used #309), or scoop by tablespoon, onto parchment lined trays about one inch apart. You can also pipe them into logs if you want to make eclairs.

Bake at 475F for 10 minutes and then turn oven down to 375F. Continue baking until crispy on the outside and golden brown in colour.

In the meantime, make your pastry cream. I have nothing but good things to say about pastry cream, which is simply a stirred custard. It is delightfully simple to make, can be made the day before use and refrigerated, and I would not be above eating it out of the bowl with a spoon.

Pastry Cream

2 cups milk
2 tsp vanilla extract
8 egg yolks
4 tbsp sugar
5 tbsp cornstarch
3 tbsp butter, unsalted

Place milk and vanilla in a saucepan and bring to a simmer.
Combine egg yolks, sugar, and cornstarch. In a steady stream pour scalding milk into egg mixture while whisking. Once most of the milk is incorporated, return to heat and cook until thickened, stirring with a whisk the whole time. When it starts to bubble, keep cooking for one minute and then remove from heat.
Stir in butter. Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap directly on the surface of the custard to prevent a skin from forming, and refrigerate until ready to use.

Once your choux paste shells are cool, cut them in half using a serrated knife and pipe cooled pastry cream between the two halves.

If you want to make the choux paste ahead of time, just freeze the empty shells and thaw them completely before filling them. This prevents them from getting soggy when the filling sits in them too long.

You can add any flavouring you like to your pastry cream, either in place of the vanilla, or after it's cooked if your using alcohol (such as brandy). And if you'd prefer a lighter filling, fold in some whipped cream until you reach the desired consistency. There's really no rule for this, though 50/50 is probably a good way to go. This method is called frenching (no, not that kind of frenching.)

If you're feeling really ambitious, melt some chocolate and paint it on the tops of your cream puffs. Or if you're like me, and don't feel like making more work for yourself, just dust them with icing sugar and enjoy!

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