Cream puffs, or to call them by their fancy French name, profiteroles, are simply a baking miracle. It’s the same basic ingredients – butter, sugar, water, flour, and eggs – as with most bakes. But with a different technique, each profiterole puffs ups like a balloon in the oven without any baking soda/powder or yeast! Best of all, each one is completely hollow inside!
Profiteroles are ridiculously easy to make, and because of their French heritage, become a super easy way to wow a crowd.
Profiteroles belong to a class of pastries called pâte à choux or choux pastry. Other choux family members include chocolate-topped eclairs, as well as beignets and churros (when deep-fried instead of baked).
The basic concept of choux pastry is a dough or batter that has a very high moisture content. When baked, this moisture turns to steam which puffs up the dough. When the steam dissipates, you’re left with a hollow cavity, just ripe for filling with something sweet and creamy.
90g unsalted butter
15g caster sugar
1/8 tsp salt
1 cup water
125g all-purpose flour
1 tsp vanilla extract (opt.)
1/2 tsp grated lemon zest (opt.)
Makes about 4 dozen profiteroles (depending on size).
Step 2: In a saucepan, bring the butter, sugar, salt, and water to a boil.
When the mixture comes to a rolling boil, add in the flour and stir until a dough forms.
Remove from heat and cool for 15 minutes.
Step 3: You can do this step by hand or in a mixer. Add the vanilla extract and lemon zest to the cooled dough (if using). Then, beat in the eggs one at a time, making sure each egg is fully incorporated before adding the next one. You should end up with a very thick, smooth batter.
Step 4: Transfer the batter to a piping bag fitted with either a medium-sized round nozzle or a star nozzle. (The size doesn’t really matter; large nozzles will create more pronounced patterns and small ones will give you smoother profiterole shells.) I like using a star nozzle because it creates interesting patterns in the profiterole shells. If you don’t own any piping equipment, just scoop the batter into a large resealable plastic bag and snip off a corner.
Pipe round mounds (turds?) onto your baking tray, about 1.5-inches in diameter. Imagining a circle, start piping along the outer edge and work your way in a spiral motion till you get to the centre. (Sorry, best way I could describe it. Perhaps a picture would make more sense?)
Try to overlap each round so that the centre is slightly raised. You’ll be left with a peak right at the top and that’ll burn in the oven. Simply dip your finger in some water and tap down on the peak. Make sure to leave about a half-inch space between each profiterole because they’ll expand in the oven.
Step 5: Bake for 40 minutes. After removing from the oven, transfer each profiterole to a wire rack to cool. Fill with your desired filling.
Now there are a number of filling options. Something no-frills would be a chantilly cream, which is cream whipped thick with a little vanilla and icing sugar added. A good store-bought ice cream is an even simpler solution. Or a chocolate ganache (made with equal weights of cream and chocolate) would work very nicely too.
But the most traditional filling is a crème pâtissière or pastry cream, which is nothing more than a very thick vanilla custard. Here’s a simple recipe I used that makes enough to fill the profiterole shells:
Vanilla Pastry Cream
2 cups full-cream milk
3 egg yolks
80g caster sugar
1/8 tsp salt
30g unsalted butter
1 tsp vanilla extract
Step 1: Bring the milk to a boil in a saucepan. In a bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, cornstarch, sugar, and salt until smooth and pale yellow.
Step 2: Slowly add the yolk mixture to the milk, whisking continuously. Keep whisking over medium heat until the custard thickens. (Your whisk should begin leaving trails in the custard.)
Step 3: Remove custard from the heat and stir in the butter and vanilla extract. Cool your custard in the refrigerator for at least an hour before using.
To fill the profiteroles, you can pipe in the pastry cream into each shell through a small nozzle. Or, simply slice each profiterole in half and fill with a spoon.
For an occasion, you can stack a whole load of profiteroles in a huge towering pile, glued together with some chocolate, and you’ve got yourself a very magnificent croquembouche.