Cream Puffs Through the Ages

Baking is all about the magic of transformation.

When it comes to savory food, I tend to subscribe to the Alice Waters school of cooking: keep it simple and let the ingredients shine. I prefer a roast chicken to a wrapped, rolled, stuffed, and sauced chicken roulade. Give me a steamed fresh crab, a cracker and a fork, instead of a deep-fried hockey puck crab cake. But that logic stops at pastry. Not even the most dedicated purist would prefer a cup of dry flour and a side of raw eggs and butter to a beautiful cream puff.

I made cream puffs for the first time during a middle school baking jag. (Bringing in shoeboxes of sweets to school proved a good way to make friends.) I think the recipe came from Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook. At the time, I didn’t know that Claiborne was one of the leading interpreters of French cuisine in twentieth-century America. Claiborne had learned classical French cooking techniques at the École Hôtelière in Lausanne, Switzerland, which he attended on the G.I. Bill after World War II. For over three decades, he shared his knowledge of la cuisine française in the pages of the New York Times, helping to introduce Americans to roquette and crème fraîche. But I didn’t pick his recipe for those reasons. It just happened that his cookbook was one of the few on the shelf in my dad’s Brooklyn apartment.

I don’t know if I had ever seen a cream puff before I cooked my first batch. They weren’t common in the bakeries of my childhood. I probably picked the recipe because its name evoked images of sweet inflated clouds – it appealed to the girlish part of me that I had not yet entirely put away. I was so excited when I pulled the first tray from the oven and discovered that my simple paste of water, butter, flour, and eggs had transformed into big airy golden buns hiding a hollow center that could be piped full of custard. I felt that I had done something magical. It probably was magical that my first attempt at crème pâtissière for filling went equally well, and I didn’t end up with a scrambled egg custard. Biting into the finished puffs, my mouth filled with ethereal soft deliciousness. I was in love. Many batches followed before my craze for baking subsided and the rebellious teen taking form within me found other ways to occupy herself.

Twenty-five years later, sitting on the couch with the kids watching the contestants on the Great British Bake-Off struggle to make a croquembouche – a towering Christmas tree of profiteroles, as the French call cream puffs – I commented to my daughter that I had once been good at making these treats. Her sweet-crazed brain latched onto this piece of information and afterwards she began asking me, at fairly regular intervals, whether we could make a batch together.

I am a sucker for mother-daughter baking activities, even though I know my daughter well enough to understand it’s the sweets she’s after rather than the quality time together. Last week I decided that the moment had come for us to make cream puffs. I’ve been feeling guilty about not having the kids signed up for out of school activities during this year in Paris. I’ve offered, but they both prefer hanging at home. Eli at least is studying cello with a private teacher, but Maya has been left entirely to her own devices. Finally it occurred to me that I could organize a home-school baking class to take the place of the soccer-figure-skating-swimming-everything-else-she-doesn’t-want-to-do-lessons that she’s missing out on.

To make our cooking class suitably educational, we would approach our baking projects in a considered fashion, building a base of elementary techniques that Maya could carry with her into the future, starting with learning how to make the pâte à choux that’s used for cream puffs (and eclairs). And to make our class equally educational for me, I decided to select three recipes for us to attempt representing different eras of Anglo-American interpretations of French cuisine.

The first French cookbook to be published in the United States, Louis Eustache Ude’s The French Cook (1828), included a recipe for petits choux not dissimilar to contemporary variations. Ude trained as a chef in the kitchens of King Louis XVI and later Maria Letizia Ramolino Buonparate, otherwise known as Napoleon’s mother. Later he emigrated to Britain where he published The French Cook, reprinted subsequently in Philadelphia. To make petits choux, Ude directs readers to bring a large glass of water to boil with a quarter pound of butter, then add a couple spoonfuls of flour and stir the mixture into a thick paste, crack in some eggs and stir again to a “good consistence,” before baking in the oven until doré. What the recipe lacks in specificity it makes up for in the perspicacious recommendation to smell the eggs “to see if they are sweet.” One could follow this recipe to great effect and render a delicious dessert, particularly if one observed Ude’s suggestion to bind the petits choux together with caramel into the shape of a basket, then fill the basket to the brim with crème chantilly.

Louis Eustache Ude

The century’s progression brought forth additional cookbooks by French authors from American presses, with equally serviceable pâte à choux recipes, but I was curious about American interpretations of this classic dish. How did American cooks adapt petits choux for the local palate? Amanda Moniz, historian, baker, and blogger at History’s Just Desserts, recommended that I take a look at the cream puff recipe in Jennie June’s American Cookery Book (1866) for an example.

Born in England in 1829, “Jennie June” (the nom-de-plume of Jane Cunningham Croly) emigrated to the United States with her family in 1841, and began a writing career in New York at the age of twenty-five. In 1866 she published her cookbook, replete with wide-ranging instructions for middle-class American women about how to manage a household. Rather than go into “the mysteries of French dinners,” June promised readers that her cookbook would offer instructions on preparing unpretentious everyday dishes.

Unfortunately, unpretentious cooking in mid-nineteenth century America made frequent use of an ingredient never called for by French chefs in their choux recipes: lard. Early American colonists used pork leaf lard as their most common cooking fat, with the traditional British beef suet a distant runner-up. A surfeit of lard undergirds many of the dishes most commonly associated with American cooking, such as fried chicken and hush puppies. According to Jennie June, lard worked equally well for making cream puffs. Indeed she said, if one followed her recipe faithfully, the results would be fit “to set before a king.”

So Maya and I went to the boucherie, not the place that I imagined beginning our pâte à choux training, and picked up a package of saindoux, creamy white lard. The first step of June’s recipe called for boiling the fat with a cup of water. Although Maya was supposed to be responsible for each step of the process, when the fat started spitting she wisely chose to step back and let her battle-scarred mother take over.

I was less worried about burns than I was about the strong piggy odor that began to fill the kitchen as the lard melted. The next step was to dump in the flour and stir. Here Maya took control again. She stirred, and she stirred, and she stirred some more. “It looks like apple sauce” she commented. Peering down into the pot, I realized she was right: the fat had failed to suspend properly. Our paste was split. Still hoping to redeem the project, we add the eggs and stirred some more. June directs her readers to drop the finished paste from a spoon onto the baking tray. By the time Maya had measured out 20 scoops, the oil was running out of the paste and pooling on the pan. Bravely we soldiered on, putting the pan into the oven (June suggests a “quick oven,” we settled for gas mark 5.5, which is a little below 400 degrees fahrenheit.) Twenty-five minutes later I pulled the pan out. There were no puffs, just squat little lumps, the same size as they had been going into the oven, but with golden brown crusts. After a moment to let them cool, I bravely bit down – and after a moment of bravely chewing, I spit it out again. The crumbly, fatty, piggy, mushy mouthful bore no more resemblance to a cream puff than I do to a king. Strike one.

Not a cream puff, not even good.
Not a cream puff, not even edible.

At the other end of the spectrum from Jennie June’s historic lard puffs, I found a twenty-first century recipe on the internet that promised perfect choux through the test-kitchen approach to baking made famous by Chris Kimball. The measurements were specific: 85 grams of butter, 115 grams of flour, 200 ml water, you get the drift. (Confession: the recipe came off the BBC website, hence the metric measurements.) This ultra-modern approach complicated things further by demanding that the flour/butter paste rest for ten minutes before the addition of the eggs. Then, for the coup de grâce, came the innovative direction to pour a cup full of water into a baking pan  on the oven floor when the pâte went in, to provide steam and make the pastry rise better. Surely with such a detailed set of instructions we could not go wrong! But I had my suspicions when the pâte pooled like macarons on the baking sheet rather than holding its shape. Maybe Maya measured wrong, maybe she stirred too little, maybe we took the pâte off the heat too soon. Unfortunately, the end results weren’t profiteroles. At least they were tasty. Maya named them profiter-pancakes.

A cross between the profiterole and the macaron.
A cross between profiterole and macaron.

Like Goldilocks, we finally found a happy medium between the ultra-modern and the archaic. Who came to our rescue? Who but the goddess of twentieth-century French cooking, Mrs. Julia Child. Following each of Child’s clear instructions herself, Maya measured, stirred, and beat her ingredients into a beautiful, smooth, firm, choux paste that we knew, going in, would come out perfect. Twenty minutes later, out of the oven came a tray of golden puffy profiteroles, crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, and absolutely delicious through and through. They tasted good with cream inside. They also tasted good, Eli discovered, with a piece of cheese tucked inside then zapped in the microwave for fifteen seconds. After preparing the recipe, It was easy to agree with Child that pâte à choux is “one of those quick, easy, and useful preparations like béchamel sauce which every cook should know how to make.” We have to make another batch soon, for practice, and so that we have somewhere to pipe the next recipe that Maya and I will be tackling in our homeschool baking class: crème pâtissière.

Julia Child's cream puffs: as good as they look.
Julia Child’s cream puffs: as good as they look.

Author: Rachel Hope Cleves

Professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America (2009). My new book about the notorious writer, Norman Douglas, will be out in October 2020. Now working on a project titled "Good Food, Bad Sex."

2 thoughts

  1. I absolutely loved this post (which I read a day or so ago but was too tired at the time to comment on, so was glad that you brought up the subject of lard on my site and reminded me to come back). For some reason, I have never tried choux pastry though I always mean to. But I’m glad to know that, once again, Julia wins out. And I look forward to following your and Maya’s further baking adventures!

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