by Becky Diamond
“If a list had to be made of the articles of pastry held highest in popular esteem, cream puffs would be found somewhere near the beginning.”
~ The American Pastry Book by Jessup Whitehead, 1894
Recreating historic recipes is by no means an exact science, particularly for baked goods. Today’s ingredients and utensils are often very different – for example, eggs are larger, and the terms wineglass or dessertspoon are no longer used for measurements. So sometimes it takes quite a bit of trial and error to get things right, which is exactly what happened with the recipe for cream puffs I adapted from Anna Maxwell’s journal. Her journal actually contains three different recipes for cream puffs, but the one I ended up using seemed the easiest to translate. The others called for several more eggs and/or didn’t have very clear baking instructions.
Light and airy like a popover, cream puffs are made from a French type of dough called choux paste, which is very different from other types of pastry such as sturdy pie crust and flaky puff paste. It is made by adding butter to boiling water and then adding flour and beaten eggs, which cause the puffs to rise, creating a crispy shell that is hollow on the inside, perfect for filling with whipped cream, custard or jam. One of the recipes in Anna’s journal (courtesy of Philadelphia Cooking School instructor Sarah Tyson Rorer) described cream puffs as being “very heavy when they get into the oven and very light when they come out.” Since no sugar is added to the dough – it is the filling that is sweet, creating a delightful contrast of sweet and savory, similar to an éclair.
Cream puffs were a popular dessert and tea-time treat in America during the Victorian era. Period cookbooks often featured multiple iterations of this indulgence, with various flavors for the cream filling such as vanilla, chocolate and coffee. Different U.S. regions even started touting their own versions, including Dixie Cream Puffs (which featured a sweeter dough than typical cream puffs) and Boston Cream Puffs, which incorporated a rich custard for the filling (like a Boston Cream Pie) rather than a whipped cream. All the recipes in Anna’s journal featured this type of custardy-like filling, suggesting that it was the most popular style during the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Here’s the original recipe:
Cream Puffs – Boil ½ pt of water & 2/3 cup of Butter together, when boiling stir in two cups Flour, when cool add 5 well beaten eggs. Bake 30 minutes – Boil qt of milk add 2 eggs 1 cup sugar 1 of flour mixed together boil two or three minutes and small piece of butter – Split the puffs when baked and pour in the custard.
And here’s my adapted version:
For the cream puff shell:
- 1 cup water
- 1 stick salted butter
- 1 cup flour
- 4 eggs
- Preheat oven to 450°
- Boil one cup water in a heavy pot with deep sides.
- Add butter to the boiling water, stirring to melt the butter.
- Add flour, and stir dough continuously until it is smooth and forms a soft ball.
- Cool mixture for at least 10 minutes and then add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition until smooth.
- Drop batter onto two parchment-lined cookie sheets with a spoon.
- Bake at 450° for 15 minutes, then turn oven down to 325° and bake for 25 additional minutes. (Do not be tempted to open the oven door during the baking process or the puffs may not rise correctly!) They should be nicely browned on the outside. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
- Once cool, split each in half with a knife and spoon some custard filling inside (see recipe below), replacing top portion. Sprinkle some powdered sugar on top if desired.
For the custard filling:
- 2 cups milk
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup sugar
- 3/4 cup flour
- Heat milk in a pan on the stove over medium-high heat until almost boiling.
- Add 2 eggs, beating continuously until incorporated, and then add sugar and flour.
- Boil gently for 2-3 minutes and then remove from heat. Let cool and then refrigerate until needed.
Yield: 1 dozen cream puffs
NOTE: As I mentioned, it took me three tries to successfully adapt this recipe. For the first try, I followed the original recipe exactly, which says to use 2 cups of flour and 2/3 cups butter. Both measurements were too much, resulting in a heavy-biscuit-like roll. For the next try I used less flour and butter, baking the puffs for 30 minutes at 350° as the recipe suggests. The puffs were nice and fluffy when I took them out, but they unfortunately soon deflated, telling me they didn’t bake long enough. In fact, a 1923 cookbook by Caroline King even says to be sure “they are thoroughly baked, or they will fall when being removed from the oven.” So I consulted a Better Homes and Gardens cookbook from the 1950s, which suggested baking the puffs first in a very hot oven for a short amount of time, and then lowering the temperature and cooking for a longer time. This worked! The puffs rose nicely and were crispy on the outside and light and airy on the inside. The filling also required some tweaking – specifically using less milk and flour than the original recipe, resulting in a thick, rich custard.
Sources: Practical Housekeeping: A Careful Compilation of Tried and Approved Recipes by Estelle Woods Wilcox (1883), Larousse Gastronomique (2009), Caroline King’s Cook Book (1923), Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book (1953), A Sweet Taste of History by Walter Staib (2013),