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I can recount my favorite teachers in the blink of an eye. Funny, isn’t it—how they’re in and out of our lives quickly, but leave such a lasting impression. I remember how my sixth grade teacher made us draw a map of the United States from memory every morning, to help teach us geography. My ninth grade English teacher read us Shakespeare from a big, upholstered chair at the front of the classroom with an array of spot-on character voices. But perhaps no teacher is more engrained in my pastry-loving mind than Chef Dieter Schorner. This is a man with serious professional chops (former pastry chef at Le Cirque and The White House, to name a few of his many accolades).
He managed to name drop without it seeming the least bit arrogant, simply stating facts he knew to be true, like, “Mrs. Reagan, there’s a woman who knew how to eat.” In the kitchen, he taught me everything from mixing large batches of sponge cake by hand to pulling sugar into delicate decorations. Which is to say, he taught me many delicious things—but I’ll never forget the day he rolled out a thin circle of cookie dough and placed it on top of a cream puff before baking it to golden, extra-crispy perfection.
The resulting recipe is called choux au craquelin. It’s the ultimate crispy cream puff—a perfect contrast of textures once it gives way to plenty of luscious cream inside. It’s also gorgeous, the cookie dough forming a rough, craggy top in the oven and transforming the cream puff into something that looks entirely new and different. And it allows for room to play with flavor and color to make an entirely new recipe with just a few tweaks. This year, I’m making these little balls of wonder as Valentine’s Day treat to share with friends: Vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry puffs filled with cream and fruit. If you want to get in on the action, here’s what you need to know:
- Brush up on pâte à choux.
- Make the cookie dough.
- Piping the choux.
- Use water to smooth things out.
- Topping the choux.
Brush up on pâte à choux.
You can find all the details about making pâte à choux here, but these are the basics in case you’d like a quick refresh:
So many dough and batter recipes require ingredients to be mixed effectively-yet-minimally to create a tender end product. Pâte à choux needs a significant amount of structure to maintain the proper rise and resulting crispness.
The jury is out amongst bakers about which liquid is better for pâte à choux: milk or water. I sit somewhere in the middle, and like a 50/50 mixture of both.
There are also disagreements about what kind of flour to use. I opt for bread flour, which can absorb more liquid and has a higher protein content, resulting in stronger gluten development during mixing and, eventually, a crisper cream puff.
No matter how precisely you follow a recipe for pâte à choux, the eggs are a finicky part of the equation. How much you need can (and will) vary depending on how much moisture loss occurs during the cooking process (see below), and the size of the eggs themselves. The best way to know for sure is to master your favorite recipe and note the amount of eggs you used by weight. Until then, plan on having an extra egg or two handy when you’re mixing (more on this later).
Start by cooking your choux on the stovetop (at this stage it’s called a panade). In a medium pot (leave room to allow yourself some vigorous stirring space), bring the milk and/or water, butter, and salt to a boil. Once it’s boiling, add your flour all at once. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture forms a ball around your spoon. The paste will be slightly sticky to the touch, but will resemble a dough, not a batter. In addition to the formation of the dough ball, look for a film to form at the bottom of the pan—this is the sign the starches in the flour have absorbed the water effectively and gelatinized.
Some folks like to mix the dough by hand (which is great!), but I like to use my stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Turn the mixer on low speed and mix it for 30 seconds to 1 minute to help cool it down a little. Whisk the eggs together in a container with a spout (like a liquid measuring cup), but keep your spare eggs nearby. Add the eggs in a stream with the mixer running, and then mix on medium speed until fully combined. Once the eggs have been fully incorporated, stop the mixer and take the bowl and paddle off. Dip the paddle into the choux and lift it up. It should form a "V" shape, eventually breaking off from the batter in the bowl, hanging off the paddle and holding the V. If it breaks off too quickly or is stiff, you need to add more eggs. Start with one egg, whisking it and adding it in the same fashion, then test for the V again. This will probably be enough, but if not, use part of or an entire second egg.
The cookie dough is beyond easy to make (we’re talking 3 ingredients easy). Cream together butter and brown sugar (the added moisture of the brown sugar helps contribute to the wonderful crackly texture later), then add flour. That’s it. Well, unless you want to mix it up, which I thoroughly encourage. I made a few variations myself, first substituting dark cocoa powder for a portion of the flour, and another substituting strawberry powder (finely ground freeze dried strawberries) for some of the flour. Just steer clear of ingredients that will add liquid to the batter. The ratio is already made for melting a bit in the oven and forming a craggy surface and too much added liquid can ruin the ratio and create a big mess. The one exception would be a small amount (up to 1/2 teaspoon) of extract, like vanilla or almond. Once you’ve made your dough, form it into a disc about 1-inch thick and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. Chill it for at least 1 hour, or up to overnight.
This is one of the trickier parts of working with pâte à choux. Proper piping will lead to the correct shape, but it also can contribute to the evenness of finished results. Start by transferring your pâte à choux to a pastry bag. You can use a tip (a large round one is best), but I just cut about a 1/2- to 3/4-inch opening off the tip of the bag. Line your baking sheets with parchment paper. I like to trace guides using small round cookie cutters (2 to 2 1/2 inches is my preferred puff size) onto the paper to help me keep things even, but feel free to skip that step and wing it. If you do use guides, be sure to use a thick pen/marker, and then turn the parchment paper over so the ink won’t come in contact with the pastry. It’s helpful to adhere the parchment to the baking sheet by putting a small amount of choux at the corners of the parchment and pressing down firmly.
To pipe the actual cream puffs, hold the pastry bag straight up and down, perpendicular to the baking sheet. Begin applying even pressure to the pastry bag, letting the pâte à choux flow down onto the parchment. Continue applying pressure without moving the bag—the choux will pool out onto itself, creating a rounded mound. When you’ve reached the desired size, stop applying pressure to the bag gradually, then, with a quick twist of your wrist, come away cleanly. Don’t worry if you leave a little tail or point on your mound, just read on!
Have a small bowl of warm water on hand when you go to pipe. When you’re finished, if there’s a noticeable ridge, tail, or spiky point on your choux, dip your finger in the water and use it to gently smooth the dough. You can do this as much or as little as is needed, it just helps to smooth things out and make a more uniform shape (and an even surface for the cookie dough).
Back to the cookie dough, now! Unwrap your chilled dough and grab two pieces of parchment paper. I’m not always a fan of rolling out dough between parchment, but in this case it’s necessary. This simple cookie dough can get pretty sticky and just be a nightmare to work with – but the parchment makes such easy work of it! Place the dough between the two pieces of parchment and roll it out to 1/4-inch thick. As you roll, occasionally peel the top parchment away from the dough, then flip the dough over and peel away what was the bottom parchment as well. This keeps the dough from fully adhering to the parchment during rolling, and also makes it less likely that crinkles in the paper will leave lines on your dough. When your dough is nice and thin, use a round cookie cutter to cut it out. (Note: If you used a cookie cutter to trace guides on the parchment for your pate a choux, you can use the same cutter to cut the rounds of dough.) Gently transfer each round to a piece of pâte à choux—no need to press it down or anything, just lay it gently on top. You’re almost there!
The key to baking pâte à choux is enough heat and enough time. You want to make sure the eggs inside the batter do their work and create a rounded puff that’s hollow and ready to fill in the center. Bake the cream puffs at 375 °F. Any exposed choux should be very golden brown, and the topping will melt a little and form a crisp, craggy-looking crust on the surface of the puff. This usually takes 30 to 40 minutes, depending on the size of the puff. To ensure the cream puff is nice and crisp, when the puffs have finished baking, use a sharp paring knife to cut a small vent into the side or base of the puff. Turn the oven off, return the pan to the oven. and let the choux dry out for 5 minutes more. The last of the steam trapped inside the choux will escape through the vent, creating a crispier puff.
Fill your cream puffs just before serving (if you wait too long between filling and serving, they can get a bit soggy). Cut the puffs in half, to expose the hollow center. Spoon your favorite cream filling (like whipped cream, pastry cream, or a delightful mixture of both that’s known as diplomat cream and included in the recipe below), and add a few pieces of sliced fruit like strawberries. Serving these with a sauce of some sort – ganache, crème anglaise, etc.) is also lovely, but should be reserved for when you’re having the cream puffs as a plated dessert, as things can get messy to eat. Put the tops back on your cream puffs and voilà! It’s a downright perfect crispy, crunchy cream puff!
For the cookie dough
- 1/2 cup (4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1/2 cup (3.75 ounces) light brown sugar
- 1 cup (4.25 ounces) all-purpose flour
- (For a chocolate variation, use 3/4 cup or 3.18 ounces all-purpose flour and 1/4 cup or .75 ounces dark cocoa powder)
- (For a strawberry variation, use 3/4 cup or 3.18 ounces all-purpose flour and 1/2 cup or 1-ounce strawberry powder, available online or made from processing freeze dried strawberries in the food processor)
Pate a Choux (and finishing the puffs)
- 1/2 cup (4 fluid ounces) water
- 1/2 cup (4 fluid ounces) whole milk
- 4 tablespoons (2 ounces) unsalted butter
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/3 cups plus 2 tablespoons (6 ounces) bread flour
- 3 large (8 ounces) eggs (have 1-2 extra eggs on hand)
- 1 cup prepared pastry cream (my favorite recipe is here: https://food52.com/recipes/62902-honey-long-johns)
- 1 cup softly whipped cream
- Sliced strawberries, as needed
What would you fill cookie-covered cream puffs with? Tell us in the comments!