Just thinking of plump cream puffs stuffed with sweet cream as light as air makes my mouth water. Mounds of dough rich with eggs and butter expand with air like little balloons as they bake in a hot oven. When they cool, they can be split in half, their hollow shells filled with whipped cream, custard or ice cream and then sandwiched back together, the filling seeping out of the seam.
I think cream puffs were enjoying a heyday in the 1960s and '70s. I remember my mom and her friends making them often. Mom would appoint me with the important task of pulling out any soft, eggy strands of dough that could be found in the middle of each baked puff when they were split in half. Once I had finished my task, Mom would continue by filling the bottom shell of each puff with sweetened whipped cream. She stored them in the refrigerator until dessert time. A drizzle of fudge sauce would fancy them up before each family member had a light, yet decadent dessert placed in front of them. And in the summertime, the dessert plate would include some fresh berries.
If you were eating a cream puff in a Parisian restaurant, it would be called a profiterole (pro-FEET-uh-roll) and the server would explain that it is made with choux (shoo) pastry, a soft dough that produces hollow baked products with crispy exteriors.
I've made my own cream puffs over the years when I want a special treat. But along came the '90s, and cream puffs lost some of their popularity and took on a new freestyle look. When a friend gave me a recipe for her cream puff dessert, she was excited about the fact the dough could be spread in one layer over a baking pan, producing the same familiar cream puff flavor and texture. Why hadn't I thought of that? That easy-to-make flat choux pastry became a dessert I made often.
Now I've learned how to keep that same simple method for achieving a cream puff treat with a bit more drama. When choux pastry is spread in the bottom and up the sides of a springform pan, it forms a bowl for filling.
As the dough bakes in the oven, it grows to impressive puffiness. The sides will come up over the top. Don't worry though, no drips in the oven. Poking holes in the bottom of the pastry bowl near the end of its baking time allows steam to escape. When the pastry bowl is removed from the oven, it will begin to deflate slightly as it cools. The sides of the golden puffed shell will stay crisp and fairly dry. The center will be slightly moist and will settle unevenly with big bumps here and there. The filling will cover them right up.
You could very easily fill the baked Puff with whipped cream, pudding or ice cream. I often choose a not-very-sweet combination of cream cheese and whipping cream flavored with vanilla and lemon juice and sweetened with a little bit of powdered sugar. It allows the sweet, succulent berries to shine through with each wonderful bite.
The Puff bowl can be baked the day before serving and stored, covered, at room temperature. It will probably become a little soft during storage. Just crisp it up on a baking sheet in a 400-degree oven for a few minutes. The filling can be made up to a few hours ahead, then covered and chilled. The dessert can be assembled up to an hour before serving, kept covered and chilled in the refrigerator.
Now it's the 21st century. Choux pastry becomes Fresh Berry Puff, spectacular in appearance and dangerously easy to eat.
Fresh Berry Puff
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1 cup water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup heavy whipping cream
½ cup powdered sugar
Powdered sugar for serving
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly coat the bottom of a 9- or 10-inch springform pan with nonstick cooking spray.
Cut butter into chunks and put in 2-quart saucepan with water and sugar. Bring to a boil over medium heat.
Remove saucepan from heat and add flour all at once. Stir with a wooden spoon until all flour is incorporated and mixture comes together to form one smooth mass. Let the mixture cool in the saucepan for 5 minutes.
Add eggs, one at a time, beating with wooden spoon after each addition until mixture is smooth and shiny. Spread mixture evenly in bottom of prepared pan and halfway up the sides. Bake in preheated 400-degree oven for 30 minutes. Use a wooden pick or skewer to poke a dozen holes in the bottom of the puffed crust. Return to oven and bake 10 more minutes, until puffed crust is golden brown, dry and crisp.
Allow crust to cool completely in pan. Run a sharp knife around sides of crust, remove from pan and transfer to platter.
To make filling, use an electric mixer to beat together cream cheese, vanilla, lemon juice and 1/2 cup powdered sugar in a large bowl. Add whipping cream and beat until mixture is thick and forms peaks when beaters are lifted. Spread the filling evenly over the bottom of the puffed crust. Pile the fresh berries over the filling. If not serving immediately, cover the filled Puff and refrigerate for up to an hour. At serving time, sprinkle the Fresh Berry Puff with powdered sugar, cut into wedges and serve. 6 to 8 servings.
Tips from the cook
--Puffed crust can be baked in a jellyroll pan. It will take 20 to 30 minutes to bake. The dessert's appearance will be less dramatic, but will taste just as delicious as the one baked in the springform pan. If using a jellyroll pan, you will probably need a double batch of filling and use more berries.
--Elevate the decadence of this dessert by placing each wedge of Fresh Berry Puff on a small puddle of your homemade hot fudge sauce.