There are three standard desserts you will find in any pizzeria in Italy: panna cotta, torta della nonna and profiteroles. The reason for their ubiquity is that they are all bought from the mass-producing behemoth – for being factory made, they are actually pretty decent. But because I know they are not handmade, I never order them.
While exchanging comments and trading emails with a reader and fellow blogger in Australia, I promised I would send her a recipe for profiteroles. I also promised they were easy to make and it is somewhat true, if you know your way around a kitchen a little bit. The base for profiteroles is pate a choux (from the French cabbage, as they do look like little cabbages). And let me boast a little bit by adding that, despite its very French name, we have, in a roundabout way, Catherine de Medici to thank for it as, when she married into the French court, she took her chef along – Signor Panterelli – who first developed the dough that evolved into pate a choux.
Eventually Antoine Careme made some modifications to the dough that is still the same we make today. Essentially, pate a choux uses the moisture of the water to create a leavening effect – a hole is formed as the dough rises, ready to be filled with all sorts of good creams or custards.
As intimidating as it might seem, pate a choux is easy to make and it is best to make it the old-fashioned way, with a wooden spoon and elbow grease. When mixing, do so very vigorously and do not leave the pot on the stove unattended even for one second. For your first couple of tries, you might want to keep the heat lower than recommended, in case you are not working as fast as required. Once the shells for the cream puffs or eclairs are baked, they can actually be frozen and quickly revived in the oven for a couple of minutes to crisp them back up.
6 T Butter
3/4 C All Purpose Flour
A pinch of salt
3/4 C Water
- Put the butter and the water in heavy saucepan. Add the salt and heat on medium-high, stirring, until the water starts to boil and the butter is melted.
- Reduce the heat to medium and dump all the flour in. Using a wooden spoon, stir vigorously until the mixture comes together – it will only take a moment. Remove from heat.
- Wait a few minutes and start adding the eggs, one at a time. After each addition, mix vigorously with the same wooden spoon. It will look like the dough is separating but keep on working and you will see it will come back together.
In the end, you should have a pretty stiff dough.
- Put it immediately in a pastry bag with 1/2” tip or in a Ziploc bag (in which case you will cut a corner of about 1/2”). Or, if you don’t mind some uneveness in size, you can just use a teaspoon.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment and heat the oven to 425F.
- Pipe small rounds (of about 11/2 to 2 inches in diameter and about 1” high), spacing them generously.
- Put the baking sheet in the oven and bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes. Turn the oven off and remove the profiteroles – use a toothpick or a skewer to poke a small hole on the bottom or sides to let the steam escape. Place them back in the cooling oven for 3 or 4 minutes – they will crisp up nicely.
- Let cool and fill them with ice cream or pastry cream or whatever concoction of your choice. Glaze them with chocolate or sugar (to fill them, either cut the tops with a serrated knife or use a pastry bags with a small metal tip which you will insert from the bottom). Profiteroles are typically filled with whipped cream, piled up like a small Christmas tree on which chocolate sauce is then poured over. It’s less messy, if doing this at home, to dip each profiterole into the chocolate sauce.