WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH (the tough make creampuffs)

I didn’t exactly set out to become known internationally for my creampuffs. This is the kind of fame that is thrust upon you, not the kind that you seek. I’d always thought that I’d be hanging my hat on my debonair good looks, my washboard abs, or my lightning-quick ripostes. But okay, fine, if my legacy is creampuffs, I guess I can live with that.

It started when I made creampuffs for my son’s baseball team picnic that were so good and so exotic that they made the other moms mutter, “He made homemade creampuffs.” Brought them to dinner parties and made people moan and writhe in pleasure. And then I went intercontinental creampuff. Last fall I spent an extended time in Paris scarfing down every pastry, croissant and baguette I could find, and there were lots of them. That experience became the inspiration for this blog, and many of the photos that I took during that trip have wound up in oversized versions on the walls of The Pastry Ranch.

One of the best things that I did in my time there was to attend a Sunday evening dinner at the atelier of the wonderful Jim Haynes, an octogenarian American who has been inviting strangers and friends to his beautiful apartment every Sunday evening for some 35 years now (and counting). You request a seat at the party via e-mail, get a confirmation, and on Sunday evening you can expect to break bread and rub elbows with one of the most eclectic and wonderful groups of people whom I’ve ever encountered: Polish writers and American playboys and Australian novelists and French students and Irish au pairs and American supermodels who just flew in from L.A. and Russian ladies and an Israeli bon vivant photographer named Bar. And Jim himself, of course, who sits on a stool grinning and chatting and has an uncanny ability to recall everyone’s name.

So on my first Sunday in Paris I arrived at Jim’s place in the Alesia district in Paris’s 14th arrondisement, and happily took part in the dinner (which is conducted on a suggested-contribution basis, paid in cash to Jim in an envelope that he discreetly tucks into his apron). During the course of the evening I let spill that I liked to bake and considered myself a Pastryologist. “Great,” said a cheerful Slovenian woman named Evgenia, “you’re making the desserts next week.”

So I did. I met Evgenia in the kitchen the following Saturday after having supplied a shopping list that Jim filled, and while she made vats of rice and chicken curry and salad, I whipped up five apple cakes and 60 chocolate creampuffs. The very cool digitized picture of me filling those puffs came courtesy of a guy named Morgan from Texas who helped me bring Jim’s aged mixer back from the depths of near-creampuff disaster when we couldn’t get the whip attachment to work, with a quart of cream to prepare that wasn’t going to whip itself.

Creampuffs were back on my mind a couple of weeks ago when new guests were arriving at the Pastry Ranch and I wanted to try a new recipe that appeared in the New York Times by the awesome Dorie Greenspan. I had noticed in several Parisian pastry shops that the puffs were topped with a crackly texture that I had never experienced or made, nor could I figure out how one could ever achieve that finish. The secret was craquelin, a brown sugar/flour topping that is slid onto the pate a choux before baking and creates a sweet, handsome top to the standard, workhorse puff. Now all of my creampuffs will include this topping. And I’m pretty sure there will be lots more creampuffs produced and consumed in the coming years, both at home and abroad. After all, I’ve got a reputation to uphold here.

Creampuffs are so good and so exotic that they may be daunting to make for the up-and-coming Pastryologist, but they’re actually fairly easy to do. If you use a mixer, that is. Try whipping them up by hand some day and your arms will feel like they’ve just gone through Marine Corps boot camp. Crispy and golden and feather-light, filled with pastry cream or simple whipped cream as in the recipe below, they’re one of the finer things in life. After you’ve tried fresh ones, you’ll never go back to store-bought. Unless the store is a Parisian patisserie, that is, and it has been an hour since you’ve eaten, and you’re ready for your next dose of civilization.

CRAQUELIN-TOPPED CREAMPUFFS

(adapted from a recipe by Dorie Greenspan in the New York Times)

STEP ONE:

Make the Craquelin Topping

In your food processor, pulse together 9T of cold, unsalted butter cut into cubes, 1C of lightly packed brown sugar and a pinch of salt until blended and lumpy. Add 1 1/4C of all-purpose flour and pulse, then 1 1/2t of vanilla extract. Pulse until it just comes together into a mass, and then turn it out onto parchment or waxed paper, squish it until it gathers together into roughly a ball, and then cut it in half. It will be very crumbly and want to break, so just grab pieces that break off and push them back into the larger mass. With parchment or waxed paper above and below it, roll a ball out into a flat rectangle that is about the thickness of two quarters stacked atop each other. Slide this onto a cookie sheet, cover, repeat with the rest of the dough, and then slide the whole thing into the freezer and freeze for at least an hour or until the time you need it.

Using a sharp, round tool (I used the wide end of a large pastry tip) that is about 2 inches in diameter, cut circles out of the frozen craquelin dough and store them again in the freezer, separated by waxed paper squares, until it’s time to make your creampuffs. They will keep for weeks in an airtight container.

STEP TWO

Pate a choux

Preheat the oven to 350 and have two baking sheets lined with Silpats or parchment ready.

Sift 1C of all-purpose flour onto a piece of waxed or parchment paper (or a bendable cutting board, which I use) and set aside.

Break 4 eggs and 1 additional egg white into a bowl, stir them up and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, add 1/2 C milk, 1/2 C water, 1 stick (4 oz.) unsalted butter cut into chunks, 1T sugar and 1/4t salt. Bring just to a boil over medium heat, stir until the butter is all melted, and then dump all of the flour into the pot at once. Now quick, reduce the heat to low and start stirring the whole thing into a mass in the pot with a spatula or wooden spoon Continue to stir and move the lump of dough around in the pot for 3 minutes as it leaves a film on the bottom of the pan. Don’t stop or it will scorch. Dump the dough into your mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, (and then throw the pan into your sink and get some water onto that film of flour that is clinging to the bottom), and begin to mix the dough on low speed for two minutes to take some of the heat off it.

With the mixer running, add the egg mixture a third at a time, turning the mixer up to medium after each addition. The dough will break apart into curds, but keep mixing until all of the egg is incorporated and the dough will become smooth again. You may need to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Once it has come together into a smooth mass, repeat with the next egg addition. It will break apart and then reform again. Continue until all of the egg mixture has been incorporated and you have a smooth, sticky mass. Thank your lucky stars that you have a mixer, because adding the eggs to this sticky dough by hand is a grueling experience (I’ve tried).

Fit your large pastry bag with a plain, round tip with a large opening (a small tip would be impossible to squeeze this sticky dough through), and spoon the dough into the bag. Squeeze out mounds that are, well, the size of creampuffs, about an inch and a half in diameter and an inch and a half high, with 2 inches between each mound. Larger, higher mounds will make for larger, dessert-sized puffs; smaller mounds make bite-sized puffs. Pull the pastry bag up and away from the top of the puff after finishing each mound, which will leave a little tail at the top of the puff. After you’ve piped them all out, wet your finger and push the tail down of each puff.

At this point you could freeze the puffs as they are on the baking sheet, collecting them once they’re frozen solid and storing them in a Tupperware or freezer bag in the freezer. When you’re ready to bake, arrange them again onto the lined sheet, at least 2 inches apart from each other.

Top with a circle of craquelin that will perch atop the puff at this stage, and will melt and enrobe the puff as they bake. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, rotating the sheets in the oven halfway, until the puffs are golden and the tops are crackly. They will feel firm when gently squeezed and make a hollow sound when tapped. Remove to cooling racks immediately and let cool completely before you fill them.

STEP THREE

Fill Your Puffs

Now you have a choice of how to fill and finish your beautiful little golden orbs of creampuff goodness. You could fill a bag with pastry cream (recipe included here, but omit the cinnamon), poke a small, star-shaped tip into the side of each puff and squeeze in filling until you feel the puff swell and get heavy in your hand. You could do the same thing with simple whipped cream (see below). Or you could even make a combination of pastry cream and whipped cream and squirt them into your puffs.

To make the puffs that are pictured above, I made whipped cream by whipping up 1C heavy whipping cream, waiting until it had begun to set in the mixer and then adding 1/4C sugar and 1T vanilla, and then whipping to firm peaks. I spooned this into another large pastry bag fitted with a large star tip, cut the cooled creampuffs in half, and then piped out big, generous circles of whipped cream before replacing the top half of the puff.

Served with blackberries picked in our backyard that afternoon. Which is another story altogether. Enjoy your creampuffs, and enjoy becoming known in your neighborhood as the Creampuff Queen or King. You deserve it.

 

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