I recently was enjoying a cream puff dessert with my sister and we were talking about how we never make them yet they are so easy and “fancy” and look like you spent a lot more time on them than you actually did.
Puff shells are made from dough called pate a choux. The French “choux” means cabbage. A patissier perfected the pastry dough in the middle of the eighteenth century and created choux buns. Because the buns were the same shape as little cabbages the name stuck.
The dough is easy to make and it’s a great recipe to make ahead, freeze, and bake as needed. You can make the dough, spoon dollops of it onto a baking sheet and freeze unbaked. Once the dollops have frozen individually, wrap them in a plastic bag and put them back in the freezer. You can bake them from the frozen state for about five minutes longer than your recipe calls for. You can also freeze them after baking and cooling then crisp them up in a 300 degree oven for five to eight minutes.
If you are working just a couple days ahead you can store the prepared dough in a pastry bag or zip-lock bag in the refrigerator.
The pate a choux can be used to make several desserts. You can fill the cabbage shaped puffs with whipped cream, pastry cream, or custard. Profiteroles are made from the same dough but are usually frozen and filled with ice cream then drizzled with chocolate sauce. Eclairs are the same dough but stretched out into an elongated shape.
The puffs do not need to be used only as a dessert. They can be used with savory fillings such as chicken salad, hummus, cheese spread, pate, roast beef with sauce, etc. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.
Cream puff dough requires only four ingredients – water, butter, flour and eggs. The only tips to remember are not to overmix when stirring in the flour and to add the eggs one at a time after you have removed the mixture from the heat, beating after each addition.
Cream puffs are leavened by eggs and steam. If you find your cream puffs have collapsed the most common reason is too little water in the recipe so there was not enough steam created to help the puffs inflate. Opening the oven door during baking and having your oven temperature too low are other causes of cream puffs collapsing.
Once you have removed your cream puffs from the oven, use a serrated knife to carefully split them open and remove any “eggy” filament that is inside using a fork. The puffs should be crisp and hollow.
Unfilled, baked cream puffs can be stored in an airtight container for two days or frozen as I mentioned earlier for longer storage. Filled puffs can be kept in the refrigerator for 3-4 days or frozen for 2-3 months for best quality.