Wednesday, May 9, 2012
I like to think I get my baking skills from my mom. When I was little she would throw parties, for which she would cook and bake over a dozen different dishes and I would help in the kitchen. My primary responsibilities were that of a sous chef, with a lot of prep work and an occasional foray into Russian salad making. Aside from making everything else, she would create magic in the oven.
While I don't have the recipes (which were themselves lost in various moves, then recreated again, mostly from memory), instead I got something else. It is how to rely not on a written recipe, but on your senses, your basic instincts. Knowing when something is done just by the smell. After you've stepped away due to a distraction outside the kitchen, sensing that the cake will already be too dry when you run in to take it out. Knowing the precise limit of the force that you can use to open and close an oven door to take a peek inside, without causing the cream puff pastries to collapse. Taking them out judging not by time, but by shape and the degree of color.
For the recipe for the puffs I turned to what can only be described as a treatise on pastries: The Professional Pastry Chef by Bo Friberg, which runs just slightly over one thousand pages. While most recipes give the time as a guide, others just give the temperature: the book recommends using your intuition and relying on the color for baking. Incidentally, Julia Child also recommends relying heavily on your senses: for roasting a bird, according to her if you can't hear it sizzling, it isn't baking.
Cream puffs (also known as profiteroles, or choux à la crème) are made with pâte à choux, or choux paste. Choux means cabbage in French, and it is thought that the pastries are so called because of the resemblance of their uneven surface to that of small cabbages.
What is unique about the choux pastry is that the batter or "paste" creates steam when baked, which helps form a hollow space within the pastry, which in turns allows the pastry to be filled with almost anything. As a result, the choux pastry is very versatile. The same base is used not only for the cream puffs, but also for eclairs, and for pastries with a savory filling (known as gougères) since there is no sugar in the recipe.
Cream puffs can be filled with pastry cream, whipped cream or any other cream you can conceive (pastry police will not prevent you from whipping up a cream cheese filling, I promise). I made the filling here with whipped cream, strawberry purée and mascarpone cheese (which is a slightly sweet, Italian cheese very similar in taste and texture to cream cheese, but creamier and slightly less sour, lending itself well to desserts). I wanted something less airy than whipped cream, but not as heavy as pastry cream. The end result is delicious, light, creamy, with a taste slightly reminiscent of strawberry and vanilla ice cream.
Cream Puffs with Mascarpone and Strawberry Filling
Cream Puff Pastries or Pâte à Choux
Adapted from The Professional Pastry Chef by Bo Friberg
You will need:
1 cup water
6 tbsp unsalted butter
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup all purpose flour
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1. Preheat oven to 425ºF. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper (or, lightly grease the sheet with butter).
2. In a saucepan, on medium heat bring water, butter and salt to a boil to allow the butter emulsify completely with the water. Reduce the heat to low and add the flour in a continuous, rapid trickle stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Continue stirring, breaking up any lumps, until the mixture is thick and separates from the sides of the pan, about 1-2 minutes.
3. Transfer to a large bowl and mix with a wooden spoon to cool slightly. Make sure the mixture is warm, not hot to the touch before adding the eggs, or they will curdle. Add eggs, two at a time, mixing quickly until well blended (the mixture will separate then come together). The final mixture should have the consistency of a thick custard.
4. Fill a piping bag with the batter. With a round tip, pipe 24 mounds of about 2 inch diameter on the cookie sheet, spacing them about 1 inch apart. (Alternatively, fill a clear plastic bag with the batter and cut a corner opening of about 1/2 inch wide.)
5. Bake the pastries at 425ºF for 10 minutes. The pastries should puff up and change color slightly. Reduce the heat to 375ºF and bake for 20-25 minutes longer, until the pastries are golden brown. Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool. Do not place in the fridge as they may collapse. Let cool completely before filling.
6. To fill the pastries, puncture a small opening with a knife on the side of each pastry to accommodate a round tip. Fill the piping bag with the filling. Using the round tip, fill each pastry with the cream through the opening, until the cream begins to overflow slightly. Wipe away any excess cream. Serve or refrigerate.
Mascarpone and Strawberry Filling
(Fills 24 small cream puffs)
You will need:
1/2 cup strawberries, cored and halved
1 cup heavy cream
8 oz mascarpone
1 cup confectioner's sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1. In a food processor or blender, purée the strawberries. Pour into a measuring cup or a small bowl and set aside (puréed strawberries will condense to about 1/4 cup).
2. In a medium bowl, whip the heavy cream with an electric mixer on medium speed for a stiff consistency, 3-4 minutes. Cover and refrigerate while working with the remaining ingredients.
3. In a large bowl, mix mascarpone, sugar, vanilla and strawberry purée with an electric mixer until well blended. Fold in the whipped cream. Cover and refrigerate until needed for filling.