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.
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.
Piped inside my puffs and finished off with a simple chocolate glaze, I finally had the cream puff I'd been dreaming of since my return from Italy. Or maybe, one that was even better. As I tasted the finished creation, I was certain there was a note, a nuance, that one-upped even the Pasticceria's puff.
But perhaps all I was experiencing was the sweet taste of success.
1 cup milk
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup flour
4 eggs, at room temperature
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Combine milk, butter, sugar, and salt in a large saucepan and bring to a full boil over medium heat. Add the flour all at once and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon. The mixture will look rough, but suddenly it becomes smooth. Stir faster now, until it no longer clings to the sides of the pan and a spoon leaves a smooth imprint when pressed on it lightly. Don't stir any more at this point or the dough will fail to puff.
Transfer the mixture to a bowl and let cool for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add eggs one at a time, beating vigorously with a wooden spoon after each addition until paste is smooth and shiny. It's the proper consistency when a small quantity of the finished choux paste will stand erect if scooped up on the end of a spoon.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Fill a pastry bag or zipper-style plastic bag with the paste and pipe it onto the paper in a spiral motion. (Snip off the corner of the plastic bag to create an opening no larger than a half inch wide.) Make the bottom spiral first, then continue adding height with gradually smaller spirals while keeping the paste flowing steadily from the bag. You want a puff about 2-1/2 inches wide and 1 inch high. Continue with the rest of the dough.
Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees F. and bake until golden brown, about 18 to 20 minutes longer. Cool on a rack.
2 cups half-and-half
4 egg yolks
2/3 cup confectioners' sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup flour
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
3-1/3 tablespoons cocoa powder, sifted
Heat half-and-half in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, off the heat, whisk together eggs, sugar, and vanilla in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan until the mixture is pale yellow and fluffy and thick ribbons fall from the whisk (about 5 minutes). Whisk in flour in four additions, incorporating it thoroughly.
When half-and-half begins to bubble, pour it into the prepared egg mixture in a slow, steady stream, whisking continuously.
Place this mixture over low heat, whisking gently but steadily. Once the mixture has thickened, remove from heat and whisk in chopped chocolate and cocoa powder.
Press the pastry cream through a fine-mesh strainer into a medium bowl set over an ice water bath. Allow to cool for about 15 minutes, whisking occasionally.
After the cream cools, slice through the top layer of the puff to create a lid.
Pipe the cream into the puff using a pastry bag or a spoon. Close the puff when you finish filling it.
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/8 cup light corn syrup
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
Bring the cream and corn syrup to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat and add chocolate. Cover and let stand for 5 to 7 minutes or until chocolate is melted. (If the chocolate doesn't completely melt, return the pan to low heat and stir constantly until it does.) Add vanilla and stir gently until mixture is smooth. Cool until lukewarm, when a drizzled spoonful mounds slightly.
Drizzle generously on filled cream puffs and serve. Makes 13 cream puffs.
Source: Part of this recipe is adapted from "Joy of Cooking"