On the trail of the perfect recipe
She wanted to re-create the cream puffs she had tasted in Venice. Was that possible or just a pipe dream?
Sometimes a cream puff isn't just a cream puff. Sometimes it's proof that with enough recipes, plenty of trial and error, and a little perseverance, the ultimate in a food experience can actually become a possibility in your very own kitchen.Skip to next paragraph
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This gem of a pastry managed not just to skirt the usual pitfalls of cream puffs, but also to surpass my expectations. This wasn't just some dry, mutant version of a Boston Cream Pie. This was a brilliantly balanced combination of light but substantial pastry; fluffy, deep chocolate filling; and a crown of luscious glaze.
I ate one every day of our stay in Venice. And I've dreamed about them ever since.
But why dream when you can bake? Which is exactly what I did recently. In a burst of cream-puff creativity, I tested pastry recipes, frosting recipes, and cream-filling recipes by the dozen.
Re-creating a beloved recipe at home is something almost anyone can do, even without professional cooking experience. If you can analyze and compare existing recipes – and especially if you know the basics of food science – you're well-equipped to begin experimenting. If you can synthesize the results of those experiments, success is guaranteed.
Oh, yes – being unafraid to make a few mistakes along the way definitely helps, too.
One thing that's intimidating about finding the "perfect" recipe is that there are so many out there. This is what I found on the puff front: A simple recipe works best. No need for a food processor. No need for special browning techniques. A straightforward recipe from "Joy of Cooking" proved to be my favorite. I just needed to tweak the cooking times to get the puff to my version of perfection.
The trouble came when I tried to re-create the chocolate pastry cream. I started with a standard American recipe, but was put off by its tooth-chattering sweetness, and by the strong flavors of eggs and vanilla. I tried an Italian version, but was left with a sloppy, unthickened outcome, more reminiscent of chocolate soup than pastry cream.
Remembering the Venetian filling's body (but distinct lack of eggy-ness), I even went so far as to try a simple chocolate mousse. That was the biggest disaster of all. With loads of whipped cream, the chocolate flavor was muted, and the filling itself was way too ethereal.
But in spite of these failures, I was learning along the way. For chocolate depth, I'd discovered, I needed a combination of cocoa powder and unsweetened chocolate.
For thickening, I needed to rely mostly on starch (I chose flour) but not to eschew the egg yolks entirely. As for the liquid, half-and-half seemed the answer. It wasn't as rich as cream, but it offered more body than whole milk.
The last piece of my pastry cream recipe fell into place when I read food scientist Shirley Corriher's explanation of the difference between thickening crème anglaise and thickening pastry cream: When starch is in the mix, thickening only happens almost at boiling point. If you don't let the mixture get hot enough, it will simply stay liquid.
Armed with this knowledge, I put my findings together and whipped up – could it be, finally? – the perfect filling. It had an assertive chocolate flavor and the consistency I'd longed for since Venice.