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Year of Baking: Bringing back cream puffs, cheese puffs and éclairs


Macarons have had their moment as the food trend du jour, but cream puffs and éclairs, from another family of French pastries, seem ready for a turn in the spotlight.

These airy, not-as-sweet pastries are made with a thick dough called pâte à choux. That’s “pat a shoe” if you, like me, didn’t grow up hearing this word.

“A lot of our moms and grandmas made it, but it skipped a generation where it wasn’t so popular,” says Jennifer Bartos, owner of Make It Sweet, a baking store in North Austin that also hosts classes.

Inventive éclairs are popping up at upscale bakeries across the country, and a few hotspot shops in Paris sell cream puffs and éclairs exclusively. If French macarons, which are arguably more difficult to make, can sweep the country, cream puffs can, too, Bartos says.

If you need any proof that pâte à choux is making a comeback in Austin, try booking a seat at one of the pâte à choux classes at Make It Sweet. The three-hour, hands-on classes sell out regularly with enthusiastic attendees unafraid of a little cooked flour and a pastry bag.

Thankfully, it doesn’t take three hours to make pâte à choux or any of the treats you can make from the dough, from gougères (savory puffs) and éclairs (oblong-shaped filled cream puffs) to churros (Latin American fritters) or profiteroles, cream puffs that are typically filled with ice cream.

The name pâte à choux — French for “cabbage dough” — comes from the puffy, round shape of the dough when it is baked or fried. It is a thick, eggy dough that you can make by hand or with an electric mixer and then shape into balls or longer strips. Bake those in the oven and then fill with whipped cream or another pastry cream. Alternatively, pâte à choux can be used to make savory puffs, adding cheese or other herbs.

There are two crucial steps in making this dough, no matter if the final product is sweet or savory: Cooking the flour in a mixture of butter and water and/or milk, and then incorporating the eggs, one at a time.

First, heat the liquid, fat and flour: Bartos recommends using half water and half milk for the liquid, which you heat with butter to a boil and then remove from the heat. The longer it simmers or boils, the more liquid will evaporate, so don’t let it linger on the heat.

At this point, add all the flour at once, stir and then put back on the heat. Some recipes rely on using the heat in the liquid to “cook” the flour, while others, including “Modern Éclairs: and Other Sweet and Savory Puffs” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $20) author Jenny McCoy, recommend putting the dough back on the stove for 3 to 4 minutes. You can’t overstir pâte à choux, it seems, so stir away at what feels at times like a large quantity of roux.

As the dough heats, the texture changes from oatmeal to mashed potatoes, Bartos says, and you know you’re finished stirring (or heating and stirring) when a skin or film appears on the bottom of the pan. This film won’t appear if you’re using a nonstick pan, she notes.

At this point, you’ll have a hot dough that needs to cool in a large mixing bowl before adding the eggs. If it’s too hot, the dough will cook the eggs; if it’s too cool, the dough will be too stiff to stir. Make sure you can hold the bowl with your hands before you start adding the eggs.

Here’s where the second big step starts: One by one, add the eggs, fully incorporating each egg — stir vigorously, without stopping, Paris-based cookbook author David Lebovitz advises — before adding another.

Most recipes call for 1 cup — about four — eggs, and you can usually rely on that. But when you start doubling or tripling the recipe, you might need a few more or fewer eggs, depending on the hydration of your flour, how much evaporation occurred while heating the milk, etc. Look for soft, smooth-sided waves to tell you when you’ve hit peak moisture.

Too many eggs and it won’t puff as much as you’d like, Bartos says. All that moisture in the dough turns into steam and is what puts the puff in cream puffs.

Pâte à choux is a great excuse to use the freezer-bag-instead-of-a-pastry-bag trick, and Lebovitz says you could even use two spoons to drop the dough on a baking sheet. If you are using a pastry bag, use a #8 (5/8-inch) tip, either round or star shape. (When you bake them, the ridges from the star shape smooth out and will look somewhat similar to ones made with the round tip, so it doesn’t matter that much.)

It might take some practice to get the piping right, but you can always scrape the dough back into the bowl or pastry bag and try again. Bartos even calls a short spatula “the eraser” for this reason alone. Feel free to get creative with the shape and size. Some people make small sandwiches out of the larger puffs, while others make smaller puffs that they can dip into cream or a cheese dip.

McCoy shares several recipes for circular-shaped éclairs that look almost like bagel sandwiches, and she even has a recipe for a savory, cream cheese-filled creation topped with the same seeds, onion and garlic used to make everything bagels.

After you’ve piped your puffs or éclairs, you can place the baking sheet in the freezer and then place the pieces of frozen dough in a plastic zip-top bag. You can bake them straight from their frozen state when it’s time to enjoy them.

At Bartos’ class, she also shows how to make churro balls by frying little pieces of the pâte à choux and then tossing them in sugar and cinnamon. Cook’s Country recently featured a pâte à choux churros technique, but instead of cutting the pieces directly into the oil, risking hot oil splashes, they cooled the churro logs in the fridge so they were firm enough to touch and then place gently (and more swiftly) in the oil.

With so many possibilities with this single dough, it’s no wonder cream puffs haven’t yet taken over like macarons. There’s too much competition, even from within the cabbage patch family.

Cream Puffs

This base cream puff recipe makes a wet, dense pâte à choux that, when baked or fried, miraculously becomes puffy and light. If you do it right, you should have an airy center, which you can fill with whipped cream, mousse, buttercream or pudding. You can use a stand mixer, but I’ve had success beating the eggs into the dough by hand. If you’re making a double batch, I recommend electric.

If you are craving cheese puffs, keep a little sugar in the pâte à choux, and, when you add the eggs, add about 1 cup shredded hard or semihard cheese, such as Gruyere, Gouda, Parmesan or cheddar, and up to two teaspoons of fresh herbs, such as thyme, sage or rosemary. Pipe and bake them just as you would the sweet ones, or freeze them for a quick party appetizer.

For the cream puffs:

1/2 cup whole milk

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

1 Tbsp. sugar

1/2 tsp. salt

1 1/4 cups (155 grams) all-purpose flour

4 large eggs (about 1 cup)

For the filling:

1 cup whipped cream

1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar.

In a saucepan, bring the milk, water, butter, sugar and salt to a boil. Turn off the heat and add all the flour all at once. Stir with a wooden spoon.

Turn the heat on medium low. Cook the dough, stirring continuously, for 3-4 minutes. The flour will absorb all the liquid to make a dough that pulls away from the sides of the pan. If you scrape the dough across the bottom, it should leave a thin film or skin behind. (If you are using a nonstick pan, you won’t see this skin. In this case, cook the dough for 3-4 minutes and remove it from the heat.)

Turn off the heat and place the dough in a large bowl. Let the dough cool for about 10 minutes, stirring every few minutes, or until it’s cool enough to be able to place your hands on the side of the bowl. (If you don’t wait for the dough to cool, it will cook the eggs when you add them.)

Add one egg to the dough and stir with a handheld or stand-up mixer, or by hand with a wooden spoon. Mix on low until the egg is fully incorporated into the dough, and repeat with another egg. Mix in the eggs one at a time, scraping the bowl in between eggs. The batter will appear to separate at first, but it will become smooth after the incorporation of each egg. The mixture should be glossy and soft enough to fall off the spoon or mixers, but stiff enough to hold soft peaks.

Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Place a piece of parchment paper on a large baking sheet. Prepare a pastry bag with a large tip, either round or star, and then spoon the dough into the bag. With your pastry tip about ¾-inch from the baking sheet, pipe the dough into uniform mounds, up to a golf ball in size. Don’t pipe them so close together that they touch, but the puffs will expand vertically, not horizontally like cookies, so you can pipe them closer than you would place cookie dough balls.

If your frozen puffs have little tails or peaks on the top, dip your finger in water and press the peak down so that it doesn’t burn. Bake for 10 minutes and then lower the temperature to 350 degrees and watch closely for doneness. Small puffs will only take a few additional minutes, but larger ones could take 15 to 30 minutes. The puffs will be light, golden brown on the outsides, with a slightly darker top. Try not to move or rotate the pans too much or you might accidentally deflate the puffs.

While the puffs are baking, whip the cream and powdered sugar until it forms stiff peaks. Prepare a pastry bag with a long tip and a small, round hole and fill the bag with the whipped cream.

Remove the cream puffs from the oven and let cool before filling. Insert the pastry tip in the side of the puff and squeeze the pastry bag gently to fill the puff with cream. Repeat with remaining puffs. Makes about 24 cream puffs, depending on the size.

— Adapted from recipes by Jennifer Bartos and Jenny McCoy



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