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Puff pieces

When making raspberry cream puffs, fill bottom half with cream and replace top.
When making raspberry cream puffs, fill bottom half with cream and replace top. MCT

I have always considered cream puffs to be the province of the French, until I discovered the Japanese version last month in San Francisco.

While visiting the city, I saw more Beard Papa stores than McDonald’s. The name caught my eye first. When I saw that the specialty was cream puffs, I had to try one, and then another, and so on.

Cream puffs are made from a classic dough called pate a choux. “Choux” (pronounced “shoo”) is a French word for cabbages, which is what the puffs resemble. The dough requires just four main ingredients: water, butter, flour and eggs.

Heat is the key to successful puffs, so the process moves quite quickly, mixing together warm ingredients that go into a hot oven, where the steam puffs up the dough and makes a hollow center. When the choux is done, the puffs are injected with a rich, creamy filling. A version can also be made for savory fillings. Often bite-sized, this version is sometimes called profiteroles. I think cream puffs and profiteroles make a perfect spring dessert or light appetizer. Recipes are easy to find, but there are some tricks you’ll need to know before heading to the kitchen: „øWarming the eggs in a bowl of hot water from the tap makes them easier to stir into the dough and keeps the dough as warm as possible. Using a pizza stone beneath your baking sheet also boosts the heat under the pastries, helping them to puff.

--For such a delicate result, cream puffs require strong biceps. Once you add the flour to the boiling water and butter, you need to stir vigorously to quickly incorporate the flour and avoid lumps. Stir fast and constantly for one to two minutes.

--Using an electric mixer not only cools the dough but prevents crusty bits from forming. Some recipes recommend using a mixer or a food processor.

--The dough needs to dry as much as possible so it will absorb as much egg as possible. Eggs are the only leavening ingredient in cream puffs, so the more egg, the more puff. One recipe calls for eight eggs.

--Some recipes call for adding one egg at a time. As you add each egg, the dough ball will break into pieces and then gradually pull back together, at which point you add the next egg.

--Add as much egg as possible, without adding so much that the dough gets soft. Do this test: Place a small spoonful on a plate. The dough should be supple enough to hold its shape but not be “pasty.” If it still seems stiff, add an extra egg white; if it seems quite soft, move on to shaping the puffs.

--The dough recipe can be increased or decreased proportionately for any number of servings.

--The technique is to press the batter against the sides, then stir into a ball, over and over until it feels drier and pulls away cleanly from the sides of the pan. Keep the dough moving in the pan so it doesn’t scorch. A thin film of cooked dough will form on the bottom of the pot when it is ready. This can take 3 to 6 minutes.

--On the baking sheet, make sure to leave at least 2 inches between the dollops of dough to allow for expansion.

--Just before you place the pan in the oven, spritz each puff with water. (A plant spritzer works well.) This will keep them moist longer, so they will puff as much as possible before beginning to firm up.

--Before baking, smoothing the tops with a finger or spoon dipped in cold water evens out peaks that could burn in the oven.

--Once they’re in the oven, don’t open the oven door to peek. A rush of cold air might make them collapse. The puffs can be made several hours in advance of being served; store them in an airtight container.

--Piercing the finished cream puffs and leaving them in the turned-off oven allows steam to escape, making them crisper.

--Don’t fill the puffs until you’re ready to serve them.

Pate a Choux

2 large eggs

1 large egg white

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 10 pieces

2 tablespoons whole milk

6 tablespoons water

1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar

1/4teaspoon table salt

1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, sifted

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees. Spray large (12-by 18-inch) baking sheet with non-stick cooking spray and line with parchment paper; set aside. Beat eggs and egg white in measuring cup or small bowl; you should have 1/2 cup (discard excess). Set aside.

Bring butter, milk, water, sugar and salt to boil in small saucepan over medium heat, stirring once or twice. When mixture reaches full boil (butter should be fully melted), immediately remove saucepan from heat and stir in flour with heat-proof spatula or wooden spoon until combined and mixture clears sides of pan. Return saucepan to low heat and cook, stirring constantly, using smearing motion, for 3 minutes, until mixture is slightly shiny with wet-sand appearance and tiny beads of fat appear on bottom of saucepan (the temperature of the paste should register 175 to 180 degrees on an instant-read thermometer).

Immediately transfer mixture to a food processor, and process with feed tube open for 10 seconds to cool slightly. With machine running, gradually add eggs in steady stream. When all eggs have been added, scrape down sides of bowl, then process for 30 seconds until smooth, thick, sticky paste forms. (If not using immediately, transfer paste to medium bowl, cover surface flush with sheet of plastic wrap sprayed lightly with non-stick cooking spray, and store at room temperature for no more than 2 hours.)

Fold down top 3 or 4 inches to form a cuff on a 14- or 16-inch pastry bag fitted with 1/2-inch plain tip. Hold bag open with one hand in cuff and fill bag with paste. Unfold cuff, lay bag on work surface, and, using hands or bench scraper, push paste into lower portion of pastry bag. Twist top of bag and pipe paste into 1 1/2 to 1 3/4-inch mounds on prepared baking sheet, spacing them about 1 to 1 1/4 inches apart (you should be able to fit about 24 mounds on baking sheet).

Use back of teaspoon dipped in bowl of cold water to smooth shape and surface of piped mounds. Bake 15 minutes (do not open oven door), then reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees and continue to bake until golden brown and fairly firm (puffs should not be soft and squishy), 8 to 10 minutes longer. Remove baking sheet from oven. With paring knife, cut 3/4-inch slit into side of each puff to release steam; return puffs to oven, turn off oven, and prop oven door open with handle of wooden spoon. Dry puffs in turned-off oven until centers are just moist (not wet) and puffs are crisp, about 45 minutes. Transfer puffs to wire rack to cool. (Cooled puffs can be stored at room temperature for as long as 24 hours or frozen in a zipper-lock plastic bag for as long as 1 month. Before serving, crisp room temperature puffs in 300-degree oven 5 to 8 minutes, or 8 to 10 minutes for frozen puffs.)

Source: Cook's Illustrated

-- The Wichita Eagle—04/21/10

Fresh Whipped Cream Filling

2 cups heavy cream

1/2 cup powdered sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Whip heavy cream until semi-stiff. Add powdered sugar and vanilla, and whip until stiff. Do not overwhip cream. Refrigerate until ready to fill cream puffs.

Cocoa whipped cream: Follow whipped cream directions above, and add 3 tablespoons cocoa with the powdered sugar and vanilla.

-- The Wichita Eagle—04/21/10

Curried Chicken Puffs

Pastry:

1/4 cup butter

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

Pinch of salt

2 eggs, room temperature

Curried chicken filling:

1 1/2 cups sliced almonds

1 tablespoon butter, softened

1 pkg. (8 oz.) cream cheese, softened

1/4 cup mayonnaise

2 cups cooked, diced chicken

3 tablespoons chopped chutney

2 teaspoons curry powder

1 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease two large baking sheets. In a medium saucepan, bring butter and water to a boil. Add flour and salt all at once. Using a wooden spoon, stir vigorously over low heat until mixture leaves sides of pan and forms a ball. Remove from heat. Add eggs one at a time, beating vigorously after each until mixture is smooth and glossy. Drop dough by rounded teaspoons onto prepared sheets, making 32 small puffs. Bake until puffed and firm to the touch, 15 to 20 minutes. Cool completely. Cut off top of each puff and fill with chicken mixture.

Curried chicken filling: Saute almonds in butter until lightly browned. In a large bowl, blend cream cheese and mayonnaise. Stir in almonds and remaining ingredients and chill. Makes 32 pieces.

-- The Wichita Eagle—04/21/10

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