It has been a busy month for us, and I’m sure many of you can relate. I find that the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is always jam packed, mostly with good things—planning for family trips, baking fun treats, visiting friends, Christmas parties—but it’s also finals time for me, and adding studying on top of all the holiday fun means I have to let something go. First I start stealing hours that should be devoted to sleep; then, this year, I had to stop posting recipes for all of you. This year was particularly busy, as we decided to go on a long road trip from Northern Oregon to Southern California. It actually went much better than I expected, especially considering we were dealing with 23 hours of driving, two days, two small children, and a snow storm. This combination made for a few funny moments, particularly the evening of the first day, when I was trying to entertain our four-year-old with a story during our 14th hour in the car that day. I had just finished a nightmarish final on Sales and Commercial Leases at 10:30 the night before, and I was exhausted. So it went something like this: “The little girl and George (Curious George is a requisite part of every story told in our house) headed back through the dark, happy forest … pause…then George said the market price was $250 per unit in Los Angeles on March 5, but the little girl said…longer pause…” at which point my daughter would pipe up, “Mommy! This doesn’t make any sense!” And I would start over again. At least Ryan was entertained.
So now that all the holiday preparations are over, and we are in between traveling, I am just enjoying the vacation time, and I’m excited to share some delicious creations I’ve been making over the last month. The first is an honest-to-goodness, no-holds-barred, all-out dessert. The kind of indulgent recipe I don’t make often, and won’t post often, but which I like to make for occasions like Christmas or Ryan’s birthday, where I feel like decadence is called for. It seems like an appropriate recipe for this time of year, or any time when you really want to wow someone or serve an extra-special, unforgettable treat, the type that calls for finger licking, closed eyes, and stalls in conversation.
If you’ve had cream puffs before, throw away all your preconceived notions or opinions, and believe me that if you make these, they will be one of the most amazing things you’ve ever tasted. They’re not a bit like the half-frozen, rather tasteless little balls that seem to come in big tubs from Costco-type stores and often show up on potluck tables. No, these are a whole different species. In truth, they’re really round éclairs: a delicate pastry shell, topped with a dollop of smooth dark chocolate, and bursting with thick and luscious custard.
This is the only recipe that I always follow to a tee. I don’t generally make dishes that require such precision, but this is an exception. It’s my mother-in-law’s recipe and, as you will see once you sample them, she is one of the finest dessert chefs I have ever met. So, although I usually encourage experimentation, I can’t recommend it here. However, if you follow the steps closely, you should have good results. (If I can get a delicate pastry recipe to turn out this well, anyone can.) A few things to watch out for: if your kitchen is overly warm (think hot, August afternoons) the shells will start to melt before you ever get them in the oven, and they won’t be nice and fluffy. Also, if your oven runs hot, the bottom of the shells can burn before the insides are cooked, so keep a sharp eye on them. Another note of caution: it’s hard not to eat all the filling plain, but try to contain yourself and save some for the puffs. Alternatively, just eat the filling. It won’t disappoint.
Speed It Up: Not much you can do here, but they’re lovely even without the frosting, and, as I mentioned above, the filling is dynamite on its own. When I make these, I make the puffs several days ahead, cool completely, then freeze them. A day before, I make the custard and frosting. The day of, I take the puffs out of the freezer several hours before I want to serve them, and then when they have thawed, I finish the filling (combine the whipped cream and custard) and assemble the puffs.
Special Diets and Allergies: Soy free, nut free, vegetarian.
Do you have a favorite dessert for the holidays? Please, share! I love to know what other people’s favorite holiday indulgence is.
Makes two large cookie sheets
These pastries are crammed with a light and luscious custard and spread with chocolate frosting. They will rise to any occasion—this is the type of recipe to make when you truly want to impress, or when you feel like eating something out-of-this-world delicious. Make sure to follow the recipe closely, though. It’s a bit finicky. Also, these keep quite well in the fridge (the whipped cream holds up well), but the puffs will be a tad soggy. They’re still delicious, but for best results, serve within a half hour or hour.
1/4 lb. butter, at room temp, plus more for greasing the pan
1 C boiling water
1 C minus 3 T all-purpose, unbleached flour
Pinch baking powder
4 eggs (graded large)
- Preheat the oven to 385 F with the rack in the middle of the oven.
- Line a cookie sheet with foil. Grease with butter.
- Place 1/4 lb. butter in boiling water with salt in saucepan on high heat. Stir with a wooden spoon until butter melts and mixture boils hard. Remove from heat and immediately add flour and baking powder. Stir until just combined (as little as possible).
- Put in cool bowl.
- Add an egg and beat immediately (so it doesn’t cook) until just mixed. Repeat with other eggs. Put the batter in spoonfuls on pan (about 1” across and 2” apart).
- Bake for 16 minutes. Turn the temperature down to 325 and open the oven a crack for a minute to let it cool down quickly.
- Bake for another 15 minutes (maybe a little less) until the bottoms of the puffs are golden brown and they have risen into high domes.
- Cut a slit in each puff to let the steam out, turn off oven, and either put the cream puffs back in the oven to cool, or let cool on counter. Cut them open and fill with the custard recipe below. Top with chocolate frosting.
1/2 C cornstarch
1 C sugar
1/4 t plus 1/8 t salt
3 C milk
4 slightly beaten egg yolks
3 T butter
3/4 t vanilla
3/4 – 1 C whipping cream
- Mix sugar, cornstarch, and salt, then add a little bit of the milk, a little at a time, until it makes a smooth paste.
- Heat the milk in a pan. Once it’s hot, add the cornstarch mix and stir constantly until it thickens.
- Turn the heat off.
- Beat 1/2 C or so of the milk mixture into the beaten eggs.
- Add the egg mixture to the milk in the pan. Stir.
- Turn the heat back on, add the butter. Stir and cook just long enough to cook eggs, a minute or two. Turn off the heat. Add the vanilla.
- Pour the custard into a dish. Press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the custard so that it is entirely sealed off from the air. Let it cool completely in the fridge.
- Whip the cream.
- Remove the custard from the dish and, in a separate bowl, whip with beaters for just a minute or two, just until all the lumps are gone, and it is smooth. Be careful not to overbeat.
- Fold the cream into the custard.
2 C powdered sugar
6 T butter at room temperature
3 T cocoa
1 semi-sweet chocolate square or 4 T semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/3 C water
2-3 T brown sugar
- Put the powdered sugar, 3 T of the butter, and cocoa in a food processor and blend.
- Melt the chocolate and remaining butter in the microwave, stirring frequently until melted.
- Pour the chocolate into the food processor and blend, scraping down sides.
- Heat the water until hot, add the brown sugar and stir until dissolved. Pour into the food processor, a little at a time, and blend until smooth, scraping the sides frequently. Continue adding more of the brown sugar and water until the frosting reaches a smooth texture that can be easily spread but is not too runny.
- Alternatively, follow the steps above, but mix by hand instead of using a food processor.