Creme Anglaise, Cream Puffs & Éclairs, The Easy Way

Crème Anglaise
Here’s how you’ll remember this recipe (which is why I could make it in my sleep): Three, Two, One . . . and a half cup of fine sugar (and it doesn’t need to be anything as exotic as caster sugar). You’ll also want to flavor this yummy cream with a ½ teaspoon of vanilla, or orange liquer, or some other yummy extract. Here’s what you need:
  • 3 egg yolks (Separate the eggs while they’re cold and allow those yolks to come to room temperature. Do not rush your yolks to come to room temperature – there is no way to speed up the process so go enjoy a cocktail or read a book and just be patient)
  • 2 tablespoons of corn starch
  • 1 cup of heavy cream
  • ½ cup of sugar
  • ½ teaspoon of vanilla or orange liqueur or some other yummy-flavored extract
Place your cup of cream into a heavy sauce pan and get it hot – not boiling, but very hot. Scalded is the word. Don’t walk away. When it’s really hot (look for tiny bubbles around the edge of the pan), turn off the heat.

Now place your yolks and sugar into a stand mixer with the paddle attachment (not the whisk!). Beat on medium-to-high for about four (4) minutes until the mixture is light in color and fluffy. Stop the mixer and add the corn starch. Start the mixer on low unless you want corn starch flying around your kitchen. Bring the mixer speed back to medium and continue until the mixture is thick (about another three minutes).

Now here’s the only tricky part – turn the mixer to low and then very, very slowly add the hot cream. I pour my cream into a pitcher so that I can use the handle to control how slowly I add the cream. You don’t want scrambled eggs. When the cream is incorporated into the eggs and sugar, add some vanilla (or other flavor) and pour the entire mixture back into the saucepan. Turn on the stove to low-medium and whisk constantly for about 5-7 minutes . . . or longer. Yes, I said whisk, and don’t skimp on time . . . but seven minutes is usually plenty. Then pour that sweet, rich goodness into a bowl and place some plastic wrap directly on the surface of the cream so as not to allow a skin to form on your beautiful crème anglaise. Pop it into the refrigerator.

And that’s it. When it is completely cool (5-8 hours or more . . . even overnight) you can fill cream puffs or eclairs, or use it in anything calling for crème anglaise or pastry cream. You can also stir in some fresh berries and just spoon it into pretty stemmed glassed to be eaten with a spoon. If you want more, double the recipe. It’s that simple.

NOTE: Sure, you'll find recipes that call for milk instead of cream, or a combo of milk and cream. You'll hear "stir until it coats the back of a spoon." You may even hear tale of adding a last-minute pat of butter to the pan. I've tried all of these suggestions. They didn't work for me. You're not looking for a cream that can be poured. You want something that will set when placed into a cream puff or spread into a tart shell. You want a cream that is so thick that berries can sit on top of it. Merely coating a spoon isn't thick enough, though this recipe will certainly coat a spoon.

Pâte à Choux for Cream Puffs or Éclairs
Note and credit: This is essentially Alton Brown's recipe with only a few minor changes that work more easily for me. Thanks, A.B. Now don't be frighted by that French name, pronounced pot-ah-shoe. It's also called choux paste or even puff paste. I tried so many recipes and after eleven (11) complete failures here's what I've learned. Don't believe anyone other than a genuine professional baker who uses milk in his or her choux paste recipe . . . and if you choose to believe them, make them demonstrate it in person (no YouTube videos, please). Now get ready because this is simple and the only special equipment you need is a stand mixer, parchment paper, and a ZipLok® or pastry bag. No convection oven needed . . . no matter what you may have heard. You'll find a way to memorize for yourself this simple recipe, but I remember it by thinking one, one, one, one . . . and four eggs. Here's what you'll need:
  • Four whole eggs at room temperature, each one resting in its own little bowl. Be certain that the eggs are at room temperature and do not place all four eggs in one container.
  • Two egg whites beaten lightly with a fork, which can absolutely share the same bowl.
  • 1 cup of water
  • 1 tablespoon of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 cup of flour . . . though if you're willing to use a scale, weigh 5.75 ounces of flour.
  • 1 stick of butter LESS 1 tablespoon. So that's seven tablespoons of butter. See how I use those ONES to remember this recipe?
Preheat your oven to 425 F. You will need parchment paper -- a greased baking sheet simply won't work. Now get out your stand mixer and have it ready with the paddle attachment. Then in a heavy sauce pan (your heaviest saucepan), toss in the butter, the salt, the sugar, and the water. Heat it to high, but it doesn't need to boil. Just be certain that everything is dissolved and stirred well. 

Turn your stove to low. Now here's the crazy part -- dump in all that flour at one time. One big tump! Stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture becomes a ball. Now have some fun because you've got about 3-4 minutes to kill while stirring that balled mass. Use your wooden spoon to smash the ball to cover the bottom of the pan, and then bring the dough back into a ball. Toss your ball all around the pan with your spoon. This isn't hard and there is no secret or special method -- you're simply trying to heat the dough so that the floury taste cooks out and until you can see some evidence of a crusty film on the bottom of your pan. If you see bits of flour in the ball, smash them as you're moving around your ball. Don't scrape up that crust on the bottom of the pan, which is why you're using a wooden spoon and not metal. Turn off the heat because this part is done.

Next part isn't tricky, but it does need close observation. Toss that ball of dough into your stand mixer and turn the mixer on low to medium. Now watch the steam rise --which means you can't do this in the dark. When the steam stops rising (about 3 minutes), though the ball is still quite warm, it's cooled enough to add the eggs. Add the eggs one at a time, incorporating each egg fully before adding the next. When all four eggs are in, turn the mixture to medium/high and beat it until you see elastic dough from the edge of the bowl to the paddle. If it doesn't look truly elasticy (and there is no mistaking the stretchy appearance of the stuff), add some of the egg white (just a little). Yep, you may waste some of those egg whites because I've never needed both egg whites, though you may. Mix, mix, mix . . . about three minutes. Bam, done. Choux paste. 

When it looks like a thick batter, remove the paddle and hold it over a loved one's head. The choux paste will form a big V hanging to the paddle but will continue to stick to the paddle. This is very impressive if you have a brave loved one. Now you're ready for cream puffs.

If you've got a large chef's pastry bag, fit it with a half-inch round tip; fill it with the batter using a spatula; and twist the open end through which you filled the bag. Keep it twisted tightly as you pipe your puffs.. If you're without a pastry bag, simply place your choux paste in a large ZipLok® bag and cut off about 1/2-3/4 of an inch from a bottom corner. Again, keep the top tightly twisted close as you pipe.

Here's the fun part -- on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (Silpats® don't work as well) pipe little plump circles about 1-1/4 inches in diameter (they should be about 1/2-inch tall), about two inches apart. Don't worry if you have little peaks -- as Alton says, you'll smooth them out with your clean, wet finger. Don't worry if you need to bake in batches . . . yes, you can re-use your parchment paper and yes, your choux paste will wait for you.

Into the oven they go at 425F for 14 minutes. DO NOT OPEN THAT OVEN UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE. After 14 minutes reduce the heat to 350F and continue baking for about 12 minutes. Again, bam, Remove them from the oven and admire what you've done. Ah, but your work doesn't stop here. Immediately pierce every single one with a little paring knife or a skewer to allow the steam to escape. When cool enough to touch, cut them almost in half horizontally and look at those hollow cream puffs that you've created. All ready to spoon in your crème anglaise. By the way, you can also fill them with something savory, like minced smoked salmon and cream cheese, or goat cheese and herbs. 

For éclairs you'll pipe thick little logs on your parchment paper -- about 3-1/2 to 4 inches long. Baking temps and time remain the same. Fill them with your crème anglaise and top them with melted chocolate. Now be brave and get going.