Sometimes those darn life priorities get in the way of having an outdoor adventure. If I had my way, we would be out exploring every weekend, but those silly things like my daughter’s school projects, homework assignments (why do teachers assign so much homework on the weekends!?), volleyball tournaments and friend get-togethers are cramping my weekend style. My daughter had to finish a project for her French class a couple of weekends ago, which was only supposed to take an afternoon, but, of course, ended up taking the entire weekend.
“By the way mom, can you make 50 cream puffs for me to take to class on Monday, pleeeeaaase?”
“You mean next Monday, not two days from now, right?”
“No, two days from now, pleeeeaase, I’ll help.”
“Darn you and your big puppy dog eyes!”
As far as projects go, however, this was a fun and tasty one, and I got to bake with my daughter which I absolutely love to do. The assignment was to delve deeper into French culture, so she and her project partner chose to explore French culture through food, specifically one of their favorite desserts, cream puffs/choux à la crème. They wrote a script, made a video about how to make choux à la crème, then passed out cream puffs in class. From what I heard, the cream puffs seemed to be a big hit at school. One of her teachers let her know that they were “probably the best cream puffs she’s ever had.” Probably, woohoo!
Now, in our family, cream puffs hold a place of honor, they are a Christmas dessert tradition that evokes many memories of family time and togetherness. It’s a dessert we wait for once a year and then devour in large quantities, probably because we know we won’t have any of my mom’s cream puffs for another year. It’s not a difficult recipe, but it has a couple of components, and you do get a good arm workout from all the mixing. You also have to pay attention when baking, it’s not a throw in the oven and walk away recipe. When you’re making cream puffs for a large number of people who won’t be satisfied with just a couple, this can be quite the endeavor. The effort is so worth it though, especially if everyone chips in and helps! My mom got this recipe from a Japanese cooking magazine decades ago and I remember all of our faces lighting up after our first bite as we realized we just tasted the best cream puffs we’ve ever had. This recipe instantly became a family favorite and although it is the taste of the cream puffs we love, the tradition of making it at my mom’s house, using the same pans that she’s had since the beginning of time, and taking turns mixing, is what makes it that much more special and holiday worthy.
Why do I consider these cream puffs Japanese (called shu cream in Japanese)? First of all, the recipe came from a Japanese magazine ;), but really I think it’s the taste of the cream filling and the thin delicate puff that reminds me of Japanese shu cream. Of course, cream puffs are a French invention, so these cream puffs are actually Japanese, French-style, cream puffs. So, technically, it was ok to use this recipe for my daughter’s French project, since cream puffs were invented by the French and she called them choux à la crème using a French accent. 🙂
My daughter and I made several test batches tweaking baking temperatures and times to get the puffs to look like the ones we make at my mom’s (same exact recipe, but different ovens). So, keep that in mind if you give this recipe a try, you may have to tweak baking times to get it just right for your oven. My mom has an electric oven, while we have a gas oven. My theory for having to have a higher initial bake time (425º F) with our gas oven is because the act of opening and closing the oven door lowers our oven temperature closer to 400º F. If your oven maintains its internal temperature even when the door is open and closed, then stick with 400º F as your initial bake temperature.
If you want to give it a try, first things first, get your oven preheated (425º F or 400º F as explained in the above paragraph) and your ingredients measured out. Getting a high initial temperature is crucial for the puffs to rise. The ingredients for the puff includes only water, butter, flour and eggs. Measure out your ingredients before you start, you won’t have time to measure as you go along. We’ve had the best results when measuring the flour and butter by weight, but I’ve also included measurements by volume (recipe below) in case a scale isn’t handy.
Place a medium-sized pot on medium heat and melt the butter in the water. Bring to a boil, take off heat and immediately add the flour.
Mix vigorously until incorporated and then return the pot to medium low heat
Stir for at least 5 min (my mom thinks this step is what’s important in getting the delicate puffs, so if your arms can handle it, try to stir longer, like for about 8 min – this part is where we get everyone to stir for a couple of minutes) on medium heat pushing the dough along the bottom surface of the pot and spreading it to the sides. You will see a thin film developing on the bottom. If the butter starts separating out and sizzling, the heat is too high, reduce heat to medium low immediately.
Remove from heat and let cool for about 5 minutes. Add eggs two at a time, mix immediately after adding to prevent the eggs from scrambling. This step was much easier when there was two people, one adding the eggs and the other immediately mixing. It’ll take time to incorporate all of the eggs, and make smooth. Our arms were getting tired by now.
The batter was then dropped teaspoonfuls at a time onto a baking sheet with a silpat (at my mom’s house we use parchment paper, I’ve also used a lightly greased pan as well) to prevent the puffs from sticking. Try to round them up, so that they will be more puff shaped. You can pat down any batter that is sticking up with a finger dipped in water. We were making small-sized cream puffs for her class, so we were able to make about 36 puffs per batch. I usually can make about 24 regular (about 4 inch) sized cream puffs.
Open the door of the oven (once preheated) and quickly place your pan inside and close the door. The initial high temperature is crucial. Keep the oven door closed during the entire baking time, not even a peek. I like to put the light in my oven on and watch the puffs rise. Keep an eye on the puffs, making sure the initial temperature was high enough for the puffs to rise. If they didn’t rise as high, you might want to raise your starting temperature by 25º F. Once the puffs rise, continue to bake while reducing the temperature every 5 minutes. The low temperatures are important to let the puffs dry out. You may be alarmed at how hard the puffs are when they come out of the oven, but they soften a bit as they cool.
Once the puffs are done, remove them from the oven and let them cool on a drying rack.
Cut the puffs in half and add the custard and whipping cream. I like equal volumes of custard and cream, but there is no right or wrong way here. In fact, if you don’t like custard like my hubby (gasp!), then you can just fill it with whipped cream and fresh fruit. Berries, like strawberries go particularly well.
There are two camps regarding when it’s best to eat the puffs. One group believes the puffs should be eaten freshly baked, so they are a bit crispy, airy and light. The other camp believes you should put the puffs in a sealed container overnight to let them soften a bit. I like both ways, but if I had to choose, I would choose the freshly made puffs. If you want to eat your puffs this way, it takes a bit of planning because you have to make your custard cream ahead of time and chill it, warm custard just doesn’t taste as good.
Speaking of custard cream, this recipe also came from the same Japanese magazine. It’s basically made of milk, egg yolks, flour, sugar, and vanilla. Again, measure out your ingredients before you start.
Start out beating the egg yolks and sugar until light in color.
On medium heat, scald the milk and vanilla (taking care not to burn the milk, don’t ask me how I know 🙂 )
Fold the flour into the beaten egg yolk mixture
Add the milk to the egg yolk mixture by tempering the eggs first (add a small amount of milk first and mix) and mix in the rest of the milk a little at a time. Pour the mixture through a strainer into a medium sized pot on medium heat.
Stir constantly until mixture thickens and completely changes consistency (no foam or liquid left)
Pour the custard into another container and let cool, cover with plastic wrap to prevent film from forming. Put in refrigerator once it’s cool enough, and chill thoroughly. This custard will retain its shape when spooned into a puff.
Another delicious way to enjoy the puffs is to fill them with ice-cream and put them in the freezer overnight (called shu ice). I like my cream puffs plain on top, but you can shower them with some powdered sugar or drizzle them with melted chocolate to make them extra fancy. You can get real creative with the fillings, making them all kinds of different flavors (chocolate, strawberry, matcha, etc…)
The puffs freeze well and we’ve stocked our freezer with many from our numerous test batches. I’m finding that mini sized ones are great to bring on our weekend trips. I mix custard, pudding, or whatever we have on hand, and cool whip together, put them in a pastry bag with a round pastry tip and fill the puffs up by jabbing the pastry trip through the bottom and squeezing the filling inside. I load them up in a tupperware and pack them in the cooler. They are a fun treat to pop in your mouth for a snack (no mess!).
Japanese Cream Puffs (shu cream)
- 250 ml water (1 cup)
- 120 g butter (a little less than 1 stick, or 1/2 cup)
- 130 g all-purpose flour (a little more than 1/2 cup)
- 6 eggs
- Preheat oven to 400º F (higher temperature if your oven doesn’t hold the heat when opened and closed).
- Heat water and butter on medium heat, let butter melt completely.
- Remove butter mixture from heat and add flour all at once.
- Mix vigorously until flour is incorporated and forms a dough.
- Stir continuously on medium heat for 5 minutes, spreading the dough with the back of a wooden spoon on the bottom of the pot every once in a while (if the butter starts separating our and sizzling, reduce the temperature to medium low heat).
- Remove from heat and let cool for 5 minutes.
- Add eggs, two at a time and mix vigorously immediately after adding the eggs to prevent them from scrambling.
- Place the batter, about a rounded teaspoon at a time on a baking sheet lined with a silpat or parchment paper.
- Bake at 400º F for 8 minutes (up to 10 minutes if the puffs didn’t have enough time to rise), 375º F for 5 minutes, 350º F for 5 minutes, 300º F for 5 minutes. Raise the temperature of the initial bake time (first 10 minutes) if the cream puffs didn’t rise enough, but beware high temperatures for a long duration will burn the puffs or turn them too brown.
Keep the time you have your oven door open to a minimum, then once closed do not open the door until the baking is done.
- 500 ml of milk (2 cup)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 6 egg yolks
- 150 g sugar (a little less than 2/3 cup)
- 60 g flour, sifted (1/2 cup)
- Combine milk and vanilla in a small pot and heat over medium heat until just before boiling point (should start to see small bubles on the edges, but not boiling).
- Beat egg yolks and sugar until light in color.
- Add the flour and fold in to the yolk mixure.
- Add a small amount of the scalded milk and temper the egg mixture (quickly stir after adding a small amount of milk). Stir in the rest of the milk.
- Strain mixture into a medium-sized pot.
- Heat on medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens (this happens pretty quickly).
- Let cool, lay plastic wrap over the custard to prevent a film from forming.
For the whipped cream, I usually add about 1-2 tablespoons of sugar to 1 cup heavy cream and whip. We’ve also tried stabilized whipped cream (allrecipe.com) which adds gelatin, but being the strange family that we are, we actually prefer cool whip.
Hope you give this Japanese shu cream recipe a try, and if you need to pass these off as French for your French class, just call them choux à la crème in your best French accent. Voilà, and bon appetit!