A perfect cream puff is more about what it isn’t than what it is. A cream puff is not flashy, trending, or the momentary it-girl on the cover of a glossy food magazine. However, you’ll still find these billowy cream filled clouds in the same pastry case as today’s favorite mixed up cro-whats. It’s not a sinful flavor bomb, over the top decadence, or an appropriate replacement for sex. Made of nothing more than a whisper thin shell of pate a choux and a light creamy filling, cream puffs are understated, elegant, and timeless.
These iconic pastries are often gilded with chocolate glaze, or a crystalized shell of hard caramel, and can hold anything creamy you throw their way. However, my favorite cream puff is topped with a shawl of crumbly Craquelin. Modified from a shortbread cookie, craquelin is too tender to be baked on its own. But placed atop a lump of pate a choux, the fragile craqualin expands and separates like ice on the artic sea as the dough swells in the oven. Simultaneously, the disk of crumbly cookie adds enough tension on the surface of the growing puff to create a perfectly domed top. The resulting cream puff will look more like Princess Toadstool than the cabbage it’s named for.
Once the puffs are baked and cooled, I fill them with diplomate cream. Made by folding whipped cream into pastry cream, there is nothing finer for the center of a cream puff. The custard enriches the classic whipped cream with eggy goodness, or you could say the cream lightens the thick pastry cream. Either way you look at it, diplomate cream is greater than the sum of its parts and my go to for filling cream puffs.
When it comes to this dessert, size matters. As the size of the shell increases, the ratio of crispy shell to creamy center shifts. Too small and they are doughy, too large and you’ll have a cream bomb. I like a puff about the size of an orange. To create this, I pipe these cream puffs into domes two and a half inches wide by one inch tall. A two inch round disk of craquelin, sliced an eighth of an inch thick caps pastry before hitting the oven.
Finally, I like to line my cream puffs with a thin layer of high quality dark chocolate. This adds depth to the flavor with a hint of bitterness, a nice balance to the sweet cream filling. It also creates a protective barrier between the puff and the cream. If not eaten immediately, the pastry portion of a cream puff will begin to absorb the moisture from the filling. While not an inedible flaw by any means, a soft-shelled cream puff is a shadow of what it once was.
I like to break this project up, making the pastry cream a day or two in advance, as well as the craquelin, leaving only the pate a choux to mix, and the diplomate cream to fold together day of. If you’re tackling this in one day, here is a suggested time line. First make the pastry cream, spread it in a very shallow pan, press plastic wrap on the surface, and allow it to chill in the refrigerator while you move on. Second, make the craquelin, shape it into a log, and place it in the freezer for a quick chill. Third, Make your pate a choux and pipe it into the desired rounds. Remove the frigid craquelin from the freezer and slice disks to cap your pate a choux with. Bake the puffs, and while they are in the oven, take a minute for yourself. You deserve it. Wipe down the counters, wash a few dishes, and marvel at the proud domes that are about to emerge from your oven!
When the puffs are cooled, line them with chocolate, and quickly whip up the diplomate cream. them in a cool part of your house, your refrigerator as a last resort, and pause until your audience is ready for you and your mighty puffs. Once that moment arrives, spoon the diplomate cream into the cream puffs, press the two halves back into one, and ask yourself if there is a more lovely dessert than a cream puff.
The Ultimate Cream Puff
1 batch pate a choux
1 batch craqueline
1 batch Diplomate cream
300g melted chocolate
- Dab a little pate a choux in the 4 corners of a sheet pan, and press a sheet of parchment against them, securing it to the pan. Pipe 12 cream puffs, in 3 rows of 4. The cream puffs should be 2 ½ inches in diameter and 1 inch tall. They don’t have to be perfect. If you need to use a spoon and a moistened finger to create these mounds, don’t fret! The priority is creating the right shape, one that ensures the little blobs of dough will grow evenly. It’s what’s on the inside that counts here. As long as you create circular mounds, even lumpy ones, you should be good.
- Slice 1/8 inch disks of craqueline from the log, and top the pate a choux domes with them, resting them atop like a jaunty little cap. Don’t worry about pressing the disk flush with the entire surface of the dome, it will crack. The heat of the oven will properly melt the craquline to fit the top when it begins to bake.
- Place the tray a 425 degree oven for 4 turn 4 minutes. After 8 minutes, reduce heat to 300 and bake for 25 minutes. Transfer the sheet pan to a cooling rack and let the puffs cool completely on the pan. While the puffs are cooling, prepare your diplomate cream. Set this aside in the refrigerator, and melt your chocolate.
- When the cream puffs are completely cool, split them open by slicing them along their equators. Remove any webbing from the insides of the two halves. Now, you are going to line your cream puffs with chocolate. Spoon a generous amount of melted chocolate into the hollow top of the cream puff. Roll it around encouraging the chocolate to coat the sides while staying inside the shell. When you are confident you’ve coated the cream puff evenly, pour the remainder into the bottom shell. Repeat the rolling and coating process, until the bottom is completely coated, pouring the excess back into the bowl with the melted chocolate. Place the chocolate lined cream puff halves on a sheet pan and place it in a cool part of your home, or your refrigerator is nothing else is available.
- Repeat this step with all the cream puffs.
- Once the cream puffs are lined with chocolate, and the chocolate has cooled enough to set spoon diplomate cream into each shell, making sure to fill them to the brim. When filled, reattach the top and bottom of each cream puff. The cream will secure the two halves back together into one. Eat immediately! IF you must, store them in your refrigerator for a brief period of time, until you can devour them with company. But don’t wait more than a day! The moisture in the refrigerator will soften the shell, and the cream inside will begin to deflate.