Cream puffs were a specialty of my mother's, and every year she prepared a huge amount to serve at her sorority's Alumni Style Show. I can remember looking at the trays of large puffed pastries with yearning, hoping that she'd make some extra for us to enjoy at home. She always did, to our delight.
Cream puffs are a basic French choux pastry made with butter, water, flour and eggs to form a paste that is thicker than a batter but lighter than a dough. From these humble beginnings, a simple dollop of the paste is magically transformed, through baking, into a delicate puff of golden, airy deliciousness.
Betty Crocker is often my mother's go-to source for classic desserts, and the recipe from my 1950 "Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book" is a proven winner. Cream puffs are easy to make and practically foolproof, and a few helpful tips can make the process even better.
To begin, place one cup of water and a half-cup of butter (one stick) in a saucepan and bring to a rolling boil. Next, reduce heat to low and vigorously stir in one cup of sifted, all-purpose flour until the mixture leaves the sides of the pan and forms a ball. Remove from heat and beat in four eggs, one at a time, until the mixture become smooth and velvety. With each egg, the paste will become loose and gloppy and will need to be made smooth again before adding the next egg.
My mom recommends using a wooden spoon to beat in the eggs, and I agree that this is the best tool if you're going to mix the eggs in by hand, which is how we've always done it. However, as the eggs are added the mixture becomes thicker and more difficult to stir, so feel free to use a hand or stand mixer at this stage if desired.
Another tip from my mom is to use jumbo-sized eggs, as their greater volume creates a puffier puff than large or extra-large eggs. I recently made a batch using large eggs, and the puffs turned out seemingly perfect having nearly doubled in size. I then tested my mom's theory by using jumbo eggs for this week's photo shoot, and the puffs appeared to have tripled in volume. The taste was the same for both versions, but the puffs with the jumbo eggs were so much more impressive.
Once the paste is ready, I use an ice cream scoop to form the balls and place them on an ungreased baking sheet, 2 to 3 inches apart. A 2-inch scoop is perfect for this recipe, which yields eight large puffs; however, you can use a smaller scoop to create bite-size puffs, or even a regular spoon.
The puffs bake in a 400-degree oven for 45 to 50 minutes until golden brown and dry to the touch. Once cooled, I use a serrated knife to cut off the tops, and then my hands to remove the soft dough filaments inside.
With no sugar or salt included in this recipe, the puffs can be used for either sweet or savory dishes. For this occasion, we've filled them with vanilla ice cream and homemade hot fudge sauce, and then covered the top with more hot fudge and a smidgen of whipped cream sprinkled with sun brittle dust. Your favorite sauce and toppings will also be perfect.
With their old-fashioned charm and whimsical presentation, these cream puff sundaes are large enough to share and a sure-fire way to impress your sweetheart this Valentine's Day.
Betty Crocker Cream Puffs
1 cup water
½ cup unsalted butter (one stick)
1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
4 eggs, jumbo size for best results
In a saucepan over medium heat, bring water and butter to a rolling boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to low and vigorously stir in the flour until mixture leaves the pans and forms into a ball, about 1 minute. Remove from heat.
Use a wooden spoon or electric mixer to beat in the eggs, one at a time, until smooth and velvety. Use an ice cream scoop or spoon to drop paste onto an ungreased baking sheet, 2 to 3 inches apart. Bake at 400 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes, until the puffs are golden brown and dry to the touch. Allow to cool slowly, away from drafts.
Once completely cool, use a serrated knife to cut off the tops of each puff, then your hands to remove the filaments of soft dough. Fill with ice cream, whipped cream or jam and replace tops. Dust with powdered sugar or sun brittle dust and serve.
Store in an airtight container at room temperature for 2 days. These puffs freeze beautifully for at least 1 month. To freeze, wrap each puff individually in plastic and store in an airtight container. Thaw at room temperature.
If needed, the puffs can be "crisped up" by heating in a 300-degree oven for 5 to 8 minutes. Cool completely before filling.
"Home With the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 11-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them firstname.lastname@example.org and their blog at www.thelostitalian.areavoices.com.