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December 16, 2015

advent: day 16
posted by soe 5:03 am

One of the things I’ve been doing this holiday season is watching the Great Holiday Baking Show, an American spin-off of the highly successful Great British Bake Off. Each week, contestants are tasked with creating 3-5 baked goods tied to three themed tasks, culminating in the “show stopper” challenge. This week’s episode centered on pastries, with the final task requiring bakers to use cream puffs in a sculptural dessert.

I can offer you no pointers on creating reindeer or Christmas trees with cream-filled pastries, but I can help you out if you think you might be interested in just taking on the puffs themselves.

This is my grandmother’s recipe. I don’t know where she got the recipe, but my guess would be a women’s magazine, unless Mum tells me otherwise in the comments. Cream puffs weren’t a Christmas dessert, but tended to be one she made in the summer, I think because my grandfather particularly liked them. She kept them in the fridge, filled, but if you’re going to make them ahead of time, I’d suggest storing the puffs unfilled at room temperature and then filling them at the last minute to avoid the sogginess that comes with leaving them in the refrigerator. (They still taste just fine; it’s just a less-enjoyable mouth-feel.)

While I love the idea of extraordinary desserts at Christmas, many of them just take a ton of time and energy to make or a lot of fancy ingredients you don’t have around the house. Cream puffs are surprisingly easy to make (although they do require an hour to bake, which is usually what does me in), and you probably have most of the ingredients on-hand already. Add cream and instant pudding to your shopping list, and you’re all set.

Cream Puffs
(makes 8 large puffs or 12-16 smaller ones)

Pastry dough (pâte à choux):
1/2 cup butter
1 cup water
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup flour
4 eggs

  • Preheat the oven to 375°F.
  • In a pot on the stove, heat the butter and salt in the water until the butter melts and the water boils. Remove from heat.
  • Add the flour all at once and stir until the mixture leaves the side of the pan and forms a ball.
  • Beat in the eggs one at a time.
  • Grease a cookie sheet and, using large spoonfuls, drop your dough in 8 balls (or more, if you want smaller puffs). (You may, like me, be tempted to taste the dough or lick your fingers in an unhygienic fashion, as if this is cookie dough. Do not waste your dough on that. It really isn’t fantastic raw.)
  • Cook at 375°F for 60 minutes. (When they’re done, they’ll slide right off that pan without even the need of a spatula.)

Immediately put the dough pot in the sink to soak with some soap. Baking shows never include clips of the poor grunt who has to chisel the pots clean at the end of the episode.

  • Cool completely. (This is another step I often skip, but, like refrigerating filled puffs, filling still-warm pâte à choux makes them a little soggy and tends to cause them to deflate a bit in an unflattering, if still tasty, way.)

(This is the part that makes me suspect a magazine was the source of the recipe. I’ve never made my own pudding or pastry cream to fill these, but you certainly could if you want to do something more fancy, although you’ll want a cream that’s pretty thick if you go your own way. You could also abandon this filling altogether and substitute ice cream, which would probably be delicious.)
1 small box chocolate (or your favorite flavor) instant pudding (I can’t find a box in my cupboard right now, but I think it’s 2-4 oz, depending on the maker; it will say that it makes 4 half-cup portions)
1 1/4 cups milk
1 cup cream

  • Beat pudding using 1 1/4 cups milk. (This will likely differ from the instructions on the box. Ignore the box.)
  • Beat cream until thick and then fold into pudding mixture.
  • Return to your now cooled pastry. You can either poke a hole in them and squeeze your filling in with a pastry bag (harder, but prettier) or you can go my grandmother’s far easier route and just cut each puff in half (using a sharp knife) and dollop in a good quantity of filling before putting the tops back on.

Today’s musical selection was performed 50 years ago today, when Gemini 6 astronauts Walter M. “Wally” Schirra Jr. and Thomas P. Stafford informed Mission Control they’d sighted what might be a UFO:

“We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably in polar orbit…. Looks like he might be going to re-enter soon…. You just might let me pick up that thing…. I see a command module and eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit.”

They then surprised their counterparts on the ground with this musical interlude, performed on harmonica and jingle bells:

This marked the first time musical instruments had been performed in space. (The instruments are on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum here in D.C. as part of the “Apollo to the Moon” exhibition.) You can read more about the event in the Smithsonian Magazine.

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