Learn how to make cream puffs with this step-by-step tutorial. Cream puffs are delicate pastry shells made from choux pastry (pate a choux) and filled with whipped cream or pastry cream.
Cream Puffs Overview
Cream puffs are delicate pastry shells made from baked choux pastry. The shells are then filled with a creamy filling like whipped cream or pastry cream. The filling can be piped into the shell or the shell can be cut in half and then filled.
What is Choux Pastry?
Choux pastry, also known as pate a choux, is a classic French pastry batter used to make all kinds of things including cream puffs, profiteroles, french cruller donuts, and eclairs. Choux paste is made by cooking a mixture of milk, butter, flour, and eggs together to make a thick paste. It can then be baked, fried, or even sauteed.
What is the Difference Between a Cream Puff and a Profiterole?
Cream puffs and profiteroles are both made from the same pastry shell made by baking choux pastry. While cream puffs are filled with whipped cream or pastry cream, profiteroles are filled with ice cream and topped with a chocolate glaze.
How the Make Cream Puffs
Step 1: Bring the Liquid & Butter to a Boil
In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the water, milk, butter, and salt. Heat until the mixture comes to a boil.
The butter needs to be completely melted and the mixture should be boiling before moving on to the next step. This is why cutting it in small pieces is important.
STEP 2: Add the Flour
Remove the boiling mixture from the heat and pour all of the flour into the pot at once. Stir vigorously until it all comes together into a smooth batter.
This first mixture is called a panade, which is just a culinary term for a starchy thickener.
Step 3: Dry Out the Mixture
Once the flour is completely incorporated into a smooth batter, bring the pot back to medium heat and flatten the mixture to the bottom of the pan. Let it sit there until you start to hear it crackling quite a bit.
Once you hear crackling, push the mixture to one side and if you see a thin film clinging to the bottom of the pan it is dried out enough. If it is not, continue cooking it until a film forms.
Step 4: Stir Until All the Steam Evaporates Out
Remove the mixture from the heat and stir it until most of the steam has evaporated off. This process continues to dry out the pastry and will allow the pastry to achieve a nice golden color when cooked.
Step 5: Mix in the Eggs
Off of the heat, add the eggs in one at a time. Stir vigorously after each egg until it is completely absorbed into the batter before adding the next. Do not rush this or the batter will not absorb all of the eggs.
Once all of the eggs are added and thoroughly mixed in, the batter will have a smooth and glossy look. The glossiness is an indication of when the choux pastry is ready for use!
Step 6: Pipe the Cream Puffs
On a parchment lined baking sheet, pipe small rounds of choux pastry about 1 1/2″ in diameter each. Dampen a finger to smooth out the tails created by the piping bag.
Step 7: Bake the Shells
Bake one sheet pan of shells at a time. We will start them at a high heat for the first part of baking and then drop the temperature of the oven down to finish baking the shells.
The high heat will cause the liquid to rapidly evaporate off the cream puffs, allowing them to quickly puff up. The lower heat will finish cooking the shells and set them creating a hallow shell you can fill.
Step 8: Fill the Shells
Once the shells are baked, let them cool completely before filling them. If you will not be serving them within a few hours, hold off on filling them until closer to serving time.
The most traditional cream puff filling is vanilla whipped cream, but you can fill them with anything you like. Pastry cream, lemon curd, or ganache would all be delicious fillings as well.
Cream Puff FAQ
- Can I freeze cream puffs?: Cream puff shells freeze incredibly well! I suggest freezing the shells without filling in them and then allow them to thaw at room temperature for several hours before filling and serving. Alternatively, you can freeze them filled with whipped cream and eat them as a delicious frozen treat however the whipped cream will not thaw well.
- How long before serving can I fill the cream puffs?: Ideally, you want to serve the cream puffs within a few hours or filling for the best texture. But you can keep them in the refrigerator for up to 48 hours. The shell will just start to become much more soft as time goes on and if you use whipped cream it will start to lose its shape.
- My cream puff shells didn’t puff up enough. What am I doing wrong?: Your oven needs to truly be preheated in order for the shells to puff up properly! Make sure it gets at least 20-30 minutes of preheating time and use an oven thermometer to make sure your oven is heating to the proper temperature.
- My shells burned! What happened?: Your oven is likely heating hotter than what you set it at. Use an oven thermometer to determine how hot your oven is getting and turn the dial down according.
A few Notes About Developing this Recipe…
I initially had problems with was getting the shells to really puff as much as I wanted and making sure they didn’t deflate when I took them out of the oven. You want them to stand tall with a hollow center so you can fill them with all that beautiful cream chantilly! I had a couple batches that didn’t rise very much, and a batch that fell flat. But I figured out a method that works well!
Most cream puff tutorials suggest baking the puffs at 425F or 450F for some time and then dropping the temp down to 350F to finish them off. This still didn’t give me quite the rise I was looking for.
I decided to try a method I learned from Alton Brown in which you turn up the heat once you put something in the oven to increase oven spring. The theory is that when your oven is in the active heating cycle it will more rapidly evaporate the liquid out, creating more rise in your baked good.
The rise that occurs in pate a choux pastries is all about steam. The pastry has a very high water content and we are relying on this to create the airiness in the final product.
So I tried Mr. Brown’s method hoping for better results. I preheated the oven to 425F and cranked it to 450F just as I was putting the puffs in the oven. I let them bake there for 10 mins then dropped the heat down to 350F for 15 more minutes.
This allowed the pastries to get a nice big puff and then continue cooking until completely set and dried out and hollow on the inside. The result was these gorgeous shells!
Don’t forget to check out my tutorial post for step-by-step instructions on how to make pate a choux! It will make it seem as easy as it is!
For the Shells
- 1/2 cup (120 ml) water
- 1/2 cup (120 ml) whole milk
- 1 stick (1/2 cup, 113 grams) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- large pinch kosher salt
- 2 TBSP (24 grams) granulated sugar (optional, but will sweeten them slightly)
- 1 cup (127 grams) all-purpose flour
- 4 large eggs
For the Cream Chantilly
- 1 cups (237 ml) heavy cream, cold
- 3 TBSP powdered sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
For the Shells
- Place the water, milk, butter, sugar if using, and salt in a sauce pot over medium high heat. Stir until butter is melted and everything comes to a boil. When the mixture is boiling, take it off the heat and pour the flour into the pot all at once. Stir quickly and vigorously. This mixture is called the panade.
- When the mixture becomes smooth, flatten it to the bottom of the pan and return it to medium heat. Let the mixture sit on the bottom of the pan until you start to hear it crackling. At this point pull the mixture to the side and if there is a thin film left on the bottom of the pan it is dried out enough. If there is not, let it heat for a little while longer until a film forms.
- Remove the mixture from the heat and stir until most of the steam has evaporated. This is called "evacuating the steam" and is important to further dry out the pastry dough.
- Off of the heat, add one egg at a time into the mixture and stir vigorously until it is completely absorbed into the dough before adding the next. The batter will look smooth and glossy when it is ready. Use immediately or store covered in a cool spot for up to 3 hours.
- Place batter in a pastry bag fitted with a large round tip or a zip top bag with the tip cut off. Preheat oven to 425F (we will crank up the oven heat once we put the cream puffs in). Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
- Hold the pastry bag over the baking sheet and squeeze over one area until you have about a 1 1/2 inch round (or 2" for larger cream puffs). Release the pressure from the bag and pull up to release the dough mound. You will have a little peak on the each that can be smoothed out with a wet fingertip. Keep the mounds about 2 inches apart.
- Place one baking sheet at a time in the oven and turn to heat up to 450F. This will create an active heating cycle for your oven so that the shells will puff up quickly. Bake for 10 minutes (without opening the oven) then drop the heat down to 350F and bake for 13-15 more minutes until the shells are crispy on the outside and set. Allow the oven to preheat back to 425 F before baking the next sheet.
- Fill cooled pastries with creme chantilly (recipe follows) and dust with powdered sugar.
For the Creme Chantilly
- Whip cream by hand, in stand mixer with whisk attachment, or with a hand mixer until just starting to thicken.
- Add sugar and vanilla and continue whipping until soft to medium peaks form.
- Fill a pastry bag with the cream, and pipe into the bottom of the puffs until filled.
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Amount Per Serving: Calories: 124