Baking Recipes, Choux pastry, Experiments & experiences

The very long and winding road to cream puffs

CREAM PUFFS :3

Oh boy. So I’ve been wanting to learn how to make pate a choux for a while, not because they are my favourites (although of course they are yummy too!) but I find the process of making them interesting. Everyone keeps saying making choux pastry is easy, and now that I have figured out how to make them successfully, this is the conclusion I’ve arrived at as well.

Based on the photo below, you can see that it took me so many tries before I attained success! (I’m sharing the recipe at the end of this post.) As troublesome as it all seems, I’m glad all those failed attempts did not discourage me from attempting choux pastry again. I really wanted to learn this basic recipe to make it a foundation for a great many number of filled goodies.

Experimentation

I write this post not to scare, but to share my experiences; to share what I found out through all my failures that helped me succeed. I hope this post will help anyone who has not yet made choux pastry skip all the stages of failures I went through and go straight to triumph. Perhaps choux pastry is to me just one of those things I need to keep doing to learn properly, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the same case for everyone. What’s important is to at least try right?

TRIAL #1: Many months ago, during the time I was basically still clueless about most baking techniques and all I made were cupcakes and quick breads, I took a shot at making cream puffs and ended up with these hollow flat cakes which I ended up calling “Cream Poofs”, because poof! It basically turned into a flat pizza-like round. Ugh. But it was still edible and I filled it with this really great pastry cream (the recipe of which is lost!! But I’m looking all over for it at the moment). This at least salvaged it.

Failure #1

So that was that, and I decided no Pate A Choux until my “Baking Quotient” gets a wee bit higher. About 9 months later I asked my Dad for ideas on what to bake next, and he suggested one of his absolute favourite sweet treats which is the cream puff. I was dumbfounded for a bit when the memories of my previous attempt came swirling back to my mind, but I suppose it was about time I attempted pate a choux again.

More than a dozen eggs and sticks of butter went into these trials, plus a few frustrating days of my life and some inevitable bruises to the heart; but in the end, what I took away from all these were not only delicious cream puffs, but also important lessons that I should apply, perhaps not only in the kitchen but also in my life.

The following series of trials actually started with Sherry Yard’s Chocolate Whipped Cream (recipe below) from her incredible The Secrets of Baking book. I made it dead set on having it as the filling for my cream puffs, deciding that I should make her version of cream puffs from the same book as well. I guess I didn’t learn from the first time I failed, because I went head-on with this recipe with no clue about what I was doing.

TRIAL #2: I thought I was doing okay up to the point of adding the eggs. I must have had gigantic eggs, because after adding four of them as stated in the recipe, my dough was pretty much liquid and not pipeable, which is why they spread on my baking sheet like pancakes instead of standing tall.

Failure #2

And although I was pretty sure at this point that I messed up, I popped them into the oven anyway. (Can’t believe I wasted gas like an idiot too!) I guess I was hoping for some sort of miracle; that they would magically puff up into the most perfect choux pastries ever. Well, they baked into hollow pancakes as expected, and they tasted overwhelmingly like eggs, which confirms my oversized-egg theory. So I ended up tossing this batch into the trash.

{Lesson Learned: Follow your instincts. If you think something is wrong, it probably is 95% of the time (this is true from my experience anyway). So if you don’t want to waste time, effort and ingredients, troubleshoot using the Internet or your trusted baking sources immediately.}

For the record, it wasn’t Sherry Yard’s fault (I love her!), because I honestly had no idea that you could add more flour to get the thick consistency you need. And I guess I didn’t realise at the time that when the recipe called for large eggs, I actually had extra-large eggs on hand. I’m definitely going to try this recipe again once I get more confidence in making choux pastry.

TRIAL #3: Not one to be discouraged easily, I next tried out this recipe from a favourite food blog Annie’s Eats. Although it bothered me a little that I had to discard some eggs for this, I watched in anticipation as the mounds in the oven inflated into lovely puffs. I honestly thought we had a winner! But while my cream puffs did rise while it was in the oven, Annie’s baking time in her recipe sadly did not work for me. The second baking time was too short and I was too inexperienced to know how to adjust it.

Fail 3

While I did follow the time stated in her instructions, once I turned off the heat and propped opened the oven door just a bit, the puffs started deflating. So I baked them a few minutes more, but they didn’t rise up in the same manner as they initially did, probably due to being exposed to air when I opened the oven door. What’s worse was that I used these cheap parchment paper because I ran out of the good kind, and the bottom of the puffs ended up sticking to the paper. 🙁

I ended up turning these things into a “Chocolate Cauldron”. It was tasty thanks largely to Sherry’s Chocolate Whipped Cream, and to be fair, the puffs themselves tasted good too– probably the best-tasting fail-puff I made. But it would have been such a memorable partnership if only I was looking to make some sort of Harry Potter-themed treat. That said, I would definitely try this recipe again with good parchment paper, especially now that I believe I know what to do to fix the baking time into one that works for my oven. I would have to experiment before writing about it though.

TRIAL #4: During this try, I used a recipe that felt really right to me. I can’t explain it other than I had a good feeling about it as I read it, finding that it had a solid balance of butter, liquid, flour and eggs. The good feeling continued as I made it, because I thought the consistency of the dough was spot on. The only problem was my oven ran out of gas! I didn’t notice until it was too late that it would no longer turn on. Needless to say my lovely dough did not rise, and instead hardened into… Flat beehives. Very tough semi-edible beehives.

FAIL 4

You can probably imagine how I was feeling at this point, when I’ve failed twice, and then my oven stops cooperating. It’s like a conspiracy between the universe and the cream puff fairy! I resentfully stalked out of the kitchen vowing I would never make nor even want to hear the word “pate a choux” again. (Yes, I get melodramatic in the kitchen sometimes.)

{Lesson Learned: Know when you should give up and know when you should not. There will always be certain things that will take more time to learn for certain people compared to others. Be patient and keep trying.}

And of course, for one who likes creating things in the kitchen as much as I do, or for people who like to challenge themselves to succeed at something they’ve failed over and over again, the feeling of resignation was short-lived. I decided to finally do a little research (which I should have done from the beginning!) and ended up watching some videos on YouTube as to how to successfully make pate a choux.

I actually appreciated this video a lot as it cleared up some things for me. A few days’ rest to clear my head and a fresh tank of oven gas later, I was once again raring to go. And besides, I just couldn’t live with myself knowing that I just gave up; or that I did not even try to find out if this could be the recipe that works for me.

{Lesson Learned: If trying out a recipe that you have failed many times, it never hurts to pull in some extra effort to learn what not to do to ruin it, and what to do to make it work. Obviously.}

TRIAL #5: The good vibes this recipe gave me only fueled my desire to fight it out in the kitchen. Normally I would be apprehensive to re-attempt something I’ve failed as many times as this, but I guess after all those bad feelings of defeat, you realise that you’ve got nothing to lose if you went at it one last time… Except maybe a couple of eggs, some flour and butter, plus gas?

But lo and behold, all the heartache and effort paid off! I can’t tell you enough how proud of myself I felt when I pulled out my first successful batch of cream puffs from the oven! Here’s a walk-through you can consult when you try out the recipe:

SUCCESS!!!

This time I was well-aware of the “dropping consistency” my dough was supposed to be in order for me to know it was ready. And once I baked them a while and they were firm enough not to collapse without the oven’s heat, I took them out and cut an X on the sides of each puff before I dried them one last time. But because I was curious about what the insides looked like, I decided to cut the puffs in half and turn them more into profiteroles really.

I piped the leftover Chocolate Whipped Cream I had onto the bottom puffs, gently set the half the puff on top, then I dusted them with some powdered sugar as a final touch. I though they looked perfect, although I would have preferred less round, smooth-looking tops. Probably shouldn’t have piped and smoothed them out.

Screen Shot 2013 09 12 at 8.16.21 PM 300x243 - The very long and winding road to cream puffs
Basic Choux Pastry
Screen Shot 2013 09 12 at 8.16.21 PM 300x243 - The very long and winding road to cream puffs
Makes about 12 bite-sized empty choux pastry
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Ingredients
  1. 1/2 cup (70 grams) all-purpose flour
  2. 1/2 teaspoon granulated white sugar
  3. 1/4 teaspoon salt
  4. 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
  5. 1/2 cup (120 ml) water
  6. 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  7. 1 large egg and 1/8 teaspoon salt, for optional egg wash
Instructions
  1. 1. Preheat oven to 400°F (205°C) and place rack in centre of oven. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. 2. In a bowl, sift together the flour, sugar and salt. Set aside.
  3. 3. Place the butter and water in a heavy saucepan over medium heat and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and, with a wooden spoon or spatula, quickly add the flour mixture. Mixing, return to heat and stir constantly until the dough comes away from the sides of the pan and forms a thick smooth ball (about a minute or two).
  4. 4. Transfer the dough to your electric mixer, or with a hand mixer, and beat on low speed a minute or two to release the steam from the dough.
  5. 5. Once the dough is lukewarm, start adding the lightly beaten eggs and continue to mix until you have a smooth thick paste, or with a dropping consistency.
  6. 6. Spoon or pipe 12 small mounds of dough onto the baking sheet, spacing them a couple of inches apart.*
  7. 7. If using the glaze, beat together the egg and salt for the glaze. With a pastry brush, gently brush the glaze on the tops of the dough. (You can also use your finger to apply the glaze while evening out the tops of the mounds if a round, even top is desired.)
  8. 8. Bake for 15 minutes and then, without opening the oven door, reduce the oven temperature to 350°F (180°C). Bake for a further 30 to 40 minutes or until the shells are crisp and a nice amber color, and also dry/hollow inside. (You may want to split one open to check.)**
  9. 9. Poke a hole at the side of the puffs to allow steam to escape from within. Turn the oven off and, with the oven door slightly ajar, let the shells dry out inside for a further 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool on a wire rack.
Notes
  1. * This recipe makes small, bite-sized cream puffs, but if you would like to make bigger ones, you can easily double this recipe. Remember to space them inches apart to allow them room to spread and rise. You might need to use more than one baking sheet. Just note that it is more advisable to bake them one tray at a time to allow heat to circulate within the oven, ultimately allowing the cream puffs to rise evenly.
  2. ** Once you pop your trays into the oven, do not open the oven door until after the longer baking time. At this point, you can take the puffs out to check if they have developed a crisp hard shell, and if they feel empty and hollow.
Adapted from Joy of Baking
Adapted from Joy of Baking
The Tummy Train http://thetummytrain.com/
As it turns out, this has now become my cream puff recipe of choice, at least for the moment (or maybe until I try and succeed at Sherry Yard’s recipe, or until I find another one I like better). I was quite pleased with it in fact, that I made another batch for Christmas! This time, I used Annie’s Eats Vanilla Custard for the filling and her Chocolate Ganache to top off the puffs. (Yes I went all out!) I doubled the cream puff recipe to make bigger puffs. Instead of piping the dough, I scooped them onto my baking sheet because I was going for that gorgeously rough cream puff-look.

And now, on to the recipe for the fillings, starting with Sherry Yard’s fantabulous Chocolate Whipped Cream. It’s quite rich and smooth, largely like chocolate ice cream, only softer and less dense in its body, but no less delicious.

choco whipped cream

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If you love chocolate, and are looking for an alternative to fill between the layers of your cakes, or to fill your pastries in general, then I would recommend you try this. Heck I even used it as a topping to a chunk of green tea ice cream. It was glorious! The only thing of note is that this does require some chilling time before it can become pipe-able, preferably overnight, given that it is whipped cream.

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Chocolate Whipped Cream
Screen Shot 2013 09 12 at 8.23.41 PM 300x208 - The very long and winding road to cream puffs
Makes 2 to 3 cups whipped cream *
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Ingredients
  1. 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
  2. 2 cups heavy cream
  3. 1 tablespoon sugar, optional
Instructions
  1. 1. Chop the chocolate into fine 1/4-inch pieces and place in a medium heatproof bowl.
  2. 2. Bring the cream and sugar (if using) to a boil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Immediately pour the hot cream over the chopped chocolate. Tap the bowl on the counter to settle the chocolate into the cream, then let sit for 1 minute.
  3. 3. Using a spatula, slowly stir the mixture in a circular motion, starting from the centre of the bowl and working outward. Stir until all the chocolate is melted and the mixture is incorporated, about 2 minutes.
  4. 4. Pour the ganache into a medium container, cover it and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight. It should be the consistency of peanut butter.
  5. 5. Once chilled, transfer to a large bowl. Using a balloon whisk, whip the ganache by hand until it just reaches soft peaks, about 2 minutes.** Be sure to lift the whisk out of the cream with each pass to bring in as much air as possible. Do not overwhip. (Don't worry if the cream doesn't seem firm enough. It will have the consistency of mustard but will harden a little more after it sets in the refrigerator.)
  6. 6. For a more full-bodied whipped cream, let set in the refrigerator overnight. If using immediately, fill the pastry and refrigerate everything for at least an hour to let the cream set inside.
  7. Storage: Refrigerate for up to two days.
Notes
  1. * It's highly likely you will not be needing all the cream to fill your cream puffs, in which case you can do what I did and turn it into a chocolate ice cream syrup. Take it out of the fridge for a few minutes to thaw and then drizzle it all over your ice cream. Yum!
  2. ** Be careful not to overwhip. If using a stand mixer or hand mixer, it will take less than a minute to get soft peaks.
Adapted from The Secrets of Baking by Sherry Yard
The Tummy Train http://thetummytrain.com/

As an alternate filling, Annie’s Pastry Cream is not only easy to make, but also quite tasty! Although admittedly, some effort in the mixing is required, much like in making curd, the effort is well worth it.

pastry cream

The same reminders apply: do not stop mixing nor should you leave your curd unattended while it is on the stovetop. This will prevent the eggs in the pastry cream from burning or cooking (and you will taste it if it gets burnt even by just a little bit), and will keep your pastry cream thick and silky.

Screen Shot 2013 09 12 at 8.30.37 PM - The very long and winding road to cream puffs
Vanilla Pastry Cream
Screen Shot 2013 09 12 at 8.30.37 PM - The very long and winding road to cream puffs
Makes about 2 1/2 cups pastry cream
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Ingredients
  1. 2 cups half-and-half cream
  2. 8 tablespoons sugar, divided
  3. pinch of salt
  4. 5 large egg yolks
  5. 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  6. 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
  7. 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Instructions
  1. 1. Heat the half-and-half, 6 tablespoons of the sugar, and the salt in a saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar.
  2. 2. Meanwhile, in another medium bowl, combine the egg yolks and remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and whisk until the sugar has begun to dissolve and the mixture is creamy, about 15 seconds.
  3. 3. Whisk in the cornstarch until combined and the mixture is pale yellow and thick, about 30 seconds.
  4. 4. When the half-and-half mixture has reached a simmer, slowly add it to the egg yolk mixture to temper, whisking constantly.
  5. 5. Return the mixture to the saucepan, scraping the bowl clean with a spoon. Return the mixture to a simmer over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture is thickened and glossy, about 30 seconds to a minute.
  6. 6. Turn off the heat, then whisk in the butter and vanilla.
  7. 7. Strain the pastry cream through a fine mesh sieve set over a medium bowl. Press plastic wrap directly on the surface to prevent a skin from forming and refrigerate until cold and set, at least 3 hours and up to 2 days. Storage: Refrigerate for up to two days to a week.
Adapted from Annie’s Eats blog
The Tummy Train http://thetummytrain.com/

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And since I usually eat cream puffs filled with pastry cream with the chocolate glaze on top, I’ve included a recipe for that as well for a very complete cream puff experience! You can also glaze your chocolate cream-filled cream puffs for a double chocolate version. Yum!

Screen Shot 2013 09 12 at 8.30.25 PM - The very long and winding road to cream puffs
Chocolate Glaze
Screen Shot 2013 09 12 at 8.30.25 PM - The very long and winding road to cream puffs
Makes less than a cup of glaze
Print
Ingredients
  1. 3 tablespoons half-and-half
  2. 2 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
  3. 1 cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted
Instructions
  1. 1a. Using a microwave: Place the half-and-half and chocolate in a medium microwave-safe bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and microwave for 20 seconds at a time, until the mixture just begins to steam.
  2. 1b. Using a saucepan: Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, then add the half-and-half.*
  3. 2. Whisk together thoroughly, add the confectioner’s sugar, and whisk until completely smooth.
  4. 3. Dip the tops of the filled cream puffs in the chocolate glaze and transfer to a wire rack until the glaze has set completely. Serve within several hours.
  5. truffle-licious
Notes
  1. * I’m more comfortable with this method as I have more control over the chocolate.
Adapted from Annie’s Eats blog
The Tummy Train http://thetummytrain.com/

Whew! I’m not certain my post does justice to the memory of this experience in my mind, but this is already such a long one as it is without my going into the details. The important thing is that it all worked out for the best in the end. I simply could not stop myself from photographing these perfect-looking, filled puffs; and neither did I stop myself from devouring a few bite-sized ones. The puffs taste better after all that effort somehow. 😉

all-out puffs

In any case, I hope this post helps not only those who want to attempt making cream puffs, but also those in search of some encouragement to try something out for the first time. I also hope this example of the patterns in initial failure and eventual success will give you a nudge in the right direction. 🙂

17 Comments on “The very long and winding road to cream puffs

  1. I’ve been on a long journey, too, teaching myself how to make great puffs! A friend who owns a restaurant wants them so she can fill them with ice cream and top with hot fudge sauce. I have now made four batches…used the Joy of Baking recipe twice. I’ve gotten the hang of getting the shells nicely puffed and hollow inside, a beautiful amber color. But, none have been on the delicate crispy side. I would call them crispy yes, but on the tough side. Please help! What the heck am I doing wrong?!?!?! Thanks! Zia

    1. Honestly I’m probably the worst person to ask this question as I haven’t actually discovered the secret to pate a choux making yet, however I do find that my puffs are crispiest when fresh out of the oven. If I ever do find the answer, I’ll make sure to reply to this comment again so that you’ll know. πŸ™‚

  2. I’ve had a disaster this morning with two lots of puffs,feeling very dissatisfied but your long and winding cream puff road has made me laugh and laugh, I too will try again with your recipe this time

    1. I’m glad I managed to lift your spirits! I also found it very frustrating I couldn’t get it right my first few tries, but it is true you learn something from every failure. πŸ™‚

      I hope the recipe works for you as well. Do let me know how it turns out for you!

  3. Yay, read every single detail in recipe and prepared equipment, perfect puffs πŸ™‚ even weighed eggs this time to ensure they were large enough, such minor things make so much difference in making the puffs, you’ve made my day again
    Thank you πŸ™‚

  4. I did it!! They really actually did work! You have no idea how exciting that is, my first attempt looked like hockey pucks. They fluffed, then fell flat into hard little soggy doughy blobs. Gross. But these, they are cooling in the oven right now, looking all fluffy and crisp and delicate. So excited, they will be perfect with my rum custard filling,

  5. Thank you! You rescued my birthday dessert. I had attempted the pate e choux three times in a row using diff recipes and each time ending up with runny batter. Only baked the third batch, and had flat discs. Then I found your recipe- love the step by step pics – and sucess. Prev times I hand stirred batter or used hand mixer so I dont know if using my stand mixer was the solution but your detailed directions were wonderful.

  6. hi carisse!! i wana ask a question from u…u said in ur blog that ur cream puffs sticked to the parchment paper in ur previous attempts..so what was the reason behind that and how did u get rid of that problm..becoz i made them in frst attempt and also sticked to the tray..

  7. Hi, why do my cream puffs always stick on the bottom of my parchment paper? I literally have to cut and thrown the bottom part because the paper is stuck on my puff. Help pls.

    1. Hi Monica, try using baking paper instead, like Glad’s Cook n Bake. The surface of those are more slippery compared to regular parchment paper. Or better yet you can use a nonstick silpat baking mat which you can wash and reuse.

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