The best Cream Puffs start out with a crisp exterior and inside is stuffed with a light, fluffy, and flavorful vanilla cream filling. Dust it with powdered sugar for a beautiful appearance. It's two bites of pure deliciousness.
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The Classic Cream Puff is dessert perfection! Made up of baked choux buns filled with fluffy, delicate vanilla cream, they are both pleasing to look at and absolutely scrumptious.
This recipe will walk you through all the steps necessary to make the cream puffs, beginning with the making of the choux pastry and ending with that delicious diplomat cream tucked inside the crisp bun.
Steps to Making Cream Puffs
There is no way to sugar coat this--pun definitely intended-- but, this recipe is a baking project. However, it will leave you with not only a delicious puff to enjoy but also a sense of accomplishment that you were able to create such an iconic dessert. Here are the steps needed to make cream puffs:
- Make and chill pastry cream
- Make choux pastry
- Pipe and bake choux pastry
- Whip cream and fold into pastry cream (diplomat cream)
- Slice open baked choux buns
- Pipe diplomat cream in buns
- Dust with powdered sugar
Making Diplomat Cream
These cream puffs call for a lightened-up pastry cream, also known as diplomat cream. However, I'm omitting the use of gelatine that is sometimes found in a classic diplomat cream to stabilize it. I did this because cream puffs are best served right away and therefore, there is no need to add a stabilizer.
To make diplomat cream, you make and chill a pastry cream, and once it's chilled, you fold in some stiffly whipped cream. This light, fluffy and flavorful cream takes the classic cream puff flavor up a notch and really makes these the best cream puffs.
Want to skip out on making the diplomat cream and instead just fill it with whipped cream? Totally up to you! Or you could fill it with a stabilized sweetened whipped cream.
What is Choux Pastry?
Choux Pastry, also known as pâte à choux (pronounced: “pat-ah-SHOO”), is a classic french pastry cooked up on the stove and then used to make many desserts such as these cream puffs or others such as eclairs, gougères (or cheese puffs), profiteroles, and more.
When baked up properly, pate a choux has a crisp and golden exterior, with thin webs of custardy pastry on the interior that bakes up largely hollow. It makes the perfect vessel for filling with something delicious.
To start, I have an entire guide dedicated to the making of Choux Pastry that really goes into the science behind what this magical pastry is and does. Don't need to know all of that background? That's fine, the recipe here tells you everything you need to know to make these cream puffs.
How to Make Choux Pastry
What I really love is how truly simple this dough is to make.
Butter, water, and milk are heated together, just until the butter melts. Then the flour is added and cooked until it reaches a temperature of 175ºF. This step takes no more than 5 minutes. The dough should smell very fragrant once it’s done. It actually smells a bit like playdough, and it will change color from very pale white to a more pale tan when it’s reached the correct consistency.
In my experience, I find measuring the temperature of the dough the most effective method of being sure it is actually done. Timing alone doesn’t suffice.
If your dough has formed a thick film on the bottom of the pot (stainless steel pans typically do) I suggest then moving your panade into a fresh bowl after the panade has been cooked. I don’t fuss about this though and just mix the eggs directly in the pot the panade is cooked in.
The dough must cool briefly before you slowly add the eggs into it. This step is where you need to make sure you add enough eggs, but not so much that you can’t pipe it. This process can be done by hand, or in an electric stand mixer if you don’t want to use those arm muscles.
Adding in the eggs can be tricky. You need to make sure you add enough egg that the dough is shiny and smooth, but not so much egg that it doesn’t hold its shape when you pipe it.
There are a few ways to tell if you’ve added enough egg. The first is that the paste should look shiny and mostly smooth. Once you’ve gotten to that point, you can check it by lifting up the dough and letting it fall back down. If it’s the correct consistency, it should gently fall down into a v-shape.
If you still aren’t sure, you can just go ahead and pipe it! You want it to be easy to pipe, but also hold its shape once it is piped. If it slumps a little, it is ok. But if it completely falls down into a puddle after it is piped, then you likely have added too much egg.
It is better to add too little egg than too much, so be sure to add the egg in at the end judiciously.
Tips for Piping Cream Puffs
The best setup for success with piping choux pastry is making sure your choux pastry is the proper consistency to start with. It should be easy to pipe, but not so thin that it won’t hold its shape.
Once you've gotten the correct consistency, you want to go ahead and fill a piping bag fitted with a ½" tip.
Then, get your tray ready. You should be able to fit this recipe all on one baking tray. Dot 4 tiny mounds of choux on each corner of the baking tray, and then place a piece of parchment on top and press it to the choux pastry This keeps the baking sheet in place.
Hold the piping bag directly vertical with the tray. Gently apply even pressure to the piping bag until the choux pastry hits the sheet tray. Just slightly, pull the bag up as the choux comes out, so it forms a mound about 1” up.
Once you've done that, stop the pressure and gently flick your wrist in a circle around the mound, to prevent a peak from forming. If a peak does form, no worries. Use a wet finger to gently push it down. This prevents the peaks from burning in the oven.
You want to keep at least 1" of space between the mounds of choux pastry on your sheet tray, as they will expand slightly.
Don't want to pipe it? Instead of piping, you can scoop the pastry it with a scooper! This will produce a more rounded dollop, which will bake up a bit more like an irregular tall choux bun.
How to Bake the Choux Pastry
You want to create a consistent source of heat, especially at the start of the bake to help that choux pastry rise up.
This recipe starts with the oven at a higher temperature, to ensure the oven is hot and there is a big burst of heat as the choux enters the oven. Once the choux pastry is in the oven, the temperature is lowered to the temperature you plan to bake it.
Once the dough is set on the outside, you want to make sure the interior of the choux dries out. Sometimes, it can be useful to poke a hole in the choux at the end of the bake to allow the steam to escape. But for smaller choux pastry bakes, such as 1-2″ cream puffs, I do not believe that is necessary. However, if you are after a super dry interior choux, you should definitely do this.
Finally, one last trick is to let the choux dry out in the oven for 15-30 minutes after the bake. Yes, this means a few extra things you need to pay attention to when baking this choux, but the end result is worth it.
Options for Filling Cream Puffs
As stated above, this Cream Puff recipe uses diplomat cream for a very light, yet super flavorful filling.
You can use just that to fill your cream puffs, or you can take it to another level and add in a berry or even a small scoop of jam. That lovely contrast of flavor and texture here is certainly a welcome addition.
Want to just fill them with pastry cream? That's fine too! This pastry cream recipe will make enough to fill this batch of choux buns.
Make Ahead Tips
Choux buns can be baked and frozen up to 1 month in advance. Defrost at room temperature, and then place them back into the oven at 350 to crisp up and dry out an excess moisture from the freezer.
The pastry cream can be made two days ahead, but the diplomate cream must be assembled no more than 3 hours before you plan to serve.
Here are some of the pitfalls you can come up against when making choux buns!
Keep going! This is especially true why it's important to add the egg slowly, so it is more easily combined. It might seem like it won't ever come together, especially if you are making it by hand, but it should, unless you added all the eggs in at once.
First off, it's better to add too little than too much. But you'll know you've added just enough when the dough is shiny and mostly smooth. Once you’ve gotten to that point, you can check it by lifting up the dough and letting it fall back down. If it’s the correct consitency, it should gently fall down into a v-shape.
The short answer is, probably not. Or at least, it might bake up, but then collapse after it is baked. I don't recommend adding in raw flour to your choux if you've added to much egg. I unfortunately recommend you start over and make sure not to add too much egg in the next batch.
A few reasons are possible. The first is that there was too much moisture in your dough to start with. Did the flour get cooked correctly in the first cook on the stove? Did you add the correct amount of eggs? If you think you made the choux properly, it might have to do with the bake. If you open the oven door too early in the baking process, it can cause the choux to collapse. Or similarly, if your oven wasn't at a high enough temperature it can cause the choux to collapse after it comes out of the oven.
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