Do you need something new to stress-eat as we hurtle into pandemic winter? I sure do. Fortunately, one of A’s friends wanted to take a virtual baking class with me at our local food emporium, which is still crushing it despite the pandemic and is willing to lift us out of our quarantine depression with cream puffs!
First up, I had to dig out my saucepan and fire up the stove to make my first attempt at pastry cream. The instructor told us that you can’t graduate from French culinary school without making a perfect pastry cream. Why hasn’t there been a sequel to Ratatouille where this is a plot point? I bet I could sell that idea to Disney+ tomorrow.
If only I could whip up pastry cream to secure the diploma that has been stalled on the runway for the last eight months. Because it turns out that I’m pretty good at pastry cream! It’s a shame that my Disney+ deal will fall through because I’ll insist on making all of the characters queer! Oh well!
With our pastry cream chilling in the refrigerator (because this was a virtual class, I had to shove everything around in my fridge and jam the pastry cream in there MYSELF like a savage), we made the pâte à choux dough that would become our puffs.
I’ve seen pâte à choux botched and botched some more on Great British Bake-Off many times, and it always seemed too intimidating and fraught with peril to try on my own. But it’s actually very straightforward—it just takes time and focus, two things the Bake-Off contestants don’t have, which is why it usually results in disaster and splattered dreams on the tent floor.
The dough has a high moisture content, so it doesn’t need a raising agent—during baking, all that moisture creates steam, which forces the dough to puff. But getting that high moisture content takes time—you have to boil and stir and add eggs one at a time and wait for it to achieve the right consistency.
This seems simple while baking in pajama pants and fluffy socks listening to a professional talk to me through a little metal box that keeps begging me to update its software (why? You don’t need it, buddy, I love you just the way you are) but would be very difficult under pressure and with a time limit and the expectations of an entire nation on your shoulders.
You also have to resist the urge to open the oven before they’re fully puffed, because if any steam escapes the oven, the puffs deflate and there’s no way to fix them.
No such thing as CPR—Cream Puff Resuscitation (thank you I’ll see myself out).
Opening the oven door too soon is the exact mistake Rowan made and why his gigantic Marie Antoinette head made of choux buns didn’t happen. And why Marc’s eclairs deflated in the pastry week technical. I could go on!
Pâte à choux has been around since the Middle Ages (you know, the time of the Black Death!). And it’s used for way more than just cream puffs—eclairs, churros, beignets, even gnocchi can be made with this dough.
You can bake it, you can fry it, you can stuff it, you can stack it, no wonder choux frequently rears its head during the Bake-Off technical challenges (Linda! HOW COULD YOU FORGET TO ADD FLOUR?).
This is an 8 foot tower (or croquembouche!) of 1,700 cream puffs! And the world record is 15 feet! Not even the sky is the limit for choux pastry!
Choux means “cabbage” in French, coined by the famous French pastry chef Jean Avice, who modified the medieval recipe in the early 1800s and made the first choux buns, which looked like little cabbages. I mean, there were only so many things around then to name things after, and you had to think fast before you died of tuberculosis.
What we call cream puffs are really profiteroles, but you can’t expect Americans to buy a dessert that they can’t spell. The instructor said we could shape our puffs by piping or with a scoop. I hate piping because I don’t have the dexterity or patience and the last time I tried it I got icing on the ceiling, so I scooped away!
“We don’t want to make huge puffs,” said the instructor. “That’s not French. They have to be dainty!”
So we used our dough to make both cream puffs topped with craquelin and gougères stuffed with white cheddar and Parmesan—they both start with the same pâte à choux dough, but if you add cheese at any point the puff becomes gougère.
Those French, they really perfected “work smarter, not harder.”
“Watch them through the oven window and judge when they’re done,” said the instructor. “They have to be dark! And if you open the door before they’re puffed, it’s game over!”
I suddenly realized that I don’t have an oven window. No wonder I’m always surprised when I take stuff out of the oven!
I was flying blind. Fortunately, the instructor was such a pro that she accurately gauged the size of my puffs over Zoom and determined the precise baking time, then recommended bumping down the oven temperature for a couple of minutes before bringing them out to be safe. They came out beautifully, I have to say—maybe not being able to see them kept me from second-guessing?
The cheese puffs were delicious straight out of the oven. I really can’t take any credit for that, add decent cheese to any bread product, it’s like jamming a tiny gourmet pizza into your mouth. The dessert puffs had to be cooled completely before filling with the pastry cream. At last, I faced my nemesis—a goddamn piping bag (why are they so MESSY?).
“Be one with the cream puff!” said the instructor. And I WAS.
A few days after class, I tried making chocolate cream and choux by adding some semisweet chocolate to the pastry cream and cocoa powder to the dough. It worked pretty well! Unfortunately, I forgot to tell A not to taste the puffs before they were filled. The instructor had warned us that plain puffs don’t taste like anything without a filling or a topping—they’re merely a vessel for whatever you want. Again, work smarter, not harder.
A waited until I went outside to walk the dog and swooped in for a sample. When I came back, she was still staring at the half-eaten empty puff, making a disappointed face.
“I thought they’d taste like chocolate!” said A. “They look like they’re chocolate!”
“That’s just cocoa powder! It doesn’t taste like anything!”
“I know that NOW!”