Vanilla Cream Puffs
I am a child of the extravagant 1980s. ‘Twas the decade of the unforgettable mullet, leg warmers and shoulder pads, glam rock and trashy make-up, the time of ALF and the mega-popular Pac-Man, as well as bubble gum cigarettes and popping candy. But, above all, I remember it as the time of the glorious cream puff. Yes, a luscious, creamy, velvety vanilla cream puff.
In my tiny childish world, the level of awe and excitement created by a plain vanilla cream puff could only be compared to that of the Christmas Day. There was just something about their presence that turned me into a greedy little monster (over)indulging in these gloriously golden puffs of joy.
The gourmand in me, however, couldn’t help noticing even then that cream puffs sometimes fail to create the much expected feeling of comfort and satisfaction. For me, the ultimate cream puff consisted of a light and delicate but crispy pastry (over)filled with smooth, shiny pastry cream that squished out and covered your fingers the moment you took a bite, leaving you licking your fingers and sleeves long after the puff itself had been devoured.
Because cream puffs were quite popular during the 80s, they were a regular item on most household’s baking repertoire. Unfortunately, some were less sucessfull than others. Rubbery and spongy pastry, or even dense lumps of dough resembling hokey pucks filled with either runny, lumpy, sticky or overly sweet fillings, that so often had an unappetizing floury aftertaste… I’ve tried them all. But, to tell you the truth, those were still cream puffs and they made me happy nonetheless.
Later on, I learned that a good pâte à choux recipe makes all the difference in the success of the humble cream puff. About a year ago, I found what seemed to be the perfect cream puff recipe developed as a result of an extensive research followed by numerous baking experiments until satisfying and consistent results were achieved. The recipe was developed by Maja from a Serbian blog Cooks and Bakes and I guarantee it’s foolproof.
The secret behind the perfect pâte à choux pastry is the right ratio of fat, water, flour and eggs. Maja’s advice is to always use neutral oil, such as vegetable or sunflower oil, instead of butter, as it contains 20% water, which might influence the consistency of the pastry and possibly ruin your cream puffs. I’ve tried Maja’s recipe several times and the pastry was airy, light, puffy and crispy every single time. I deliberately piped my puffs a bit smaller, as I am not a huge fan of over-sized portions.
I have made some small changes in the pastry cream, though. The filling turned out slightly on the runny side the first time I made it, so I increased the amount of cornstarch and butter in the recipe. I also used a real Madagascar vanilla bean instead of vanilla flavored sugar. It makes all the difference in the flavor.
Vanilla Cream Puffs
125ml neutral oil
3 teaspoons sugar
pinch of salt
250ml eggs (about 4 large eggs), beaten
In a medium-sized, heavy-bottom saucepan, combine water, oil, salt and sugar. Bring to a boil over high heat. Remove from heat and stir in the flour. Stir quickly or the flour lumps will cook. Allow the mixture to cool down for a couple of minutes. Slowly add the eggs in three batches, mixing thoroughly with a wooden spoon or a hand mixer in between each batch, until the eggs are well incorporated and the batter is thick and shiny.
Transfer the batter into a large pastry bag fitted with a large round tip and pipe even circles, about 4,5cm in diameter each, onto the prepared baking sheet. Pipe the batter in a spiral movement with a bit of height to it. Leave enough room between each circle as the batter will puff up and rise significantly in the oven. Press the tip of every pastry round with a damp finger so that they don't burn.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until the pastry is richly golden and evenly colored on the sides and top, and is firm when tapped. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely before proceeding.
1 vanilla bean, split lenghtwise and seeds scraped out
5 egg yolks
150g butter, softened
Combine the remaining milk (900ml), sugar and vanilla seeds in a medium-sized saucepan. Heat the until the milk reaches boiling point. Set aside until it is cool enough to touch, but still warm.
Slowly pour the warm milk over the egg mixture, while whisking constantly. Transfer the mixture back to the saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with your spoon so the bottom doesn't scorch. It will quickly start to thicken to the consistency of pudding. When the cream thickens, set the strainer over a clean bowl and strain the pastry cream to get out any lumps. Press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the pastry cream and put it into an ice bath to cool.
Meanwhile, cream the butter using a hand mixer. Add the butter to the vanilla pastry cream and whisk thoroughly with your mixer until you get a smooth and shiny filling. Refrigerate until you're ready to use.
some powdered sugar (optional)
chocolate sauce (optional)
Whip the heavy cream until firm peaks form. Transfer to a piping bag and pipe over the pastry cream. Top with the other half of the pastry and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Before serving, dust the cream puffs with some powdered sugar or cover with chocolate glaze.
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