This is the first dispatch from Meredith’s new baking column, Nothing Fancy.
Shame on me: I did not meet my goal of getting this, my first post as Nothing Fancy, ready for National Donut Day. But of course, these aren’t really donuts, though they look a lot like donut holes. Well, they’re basically donuts. Technically they’re profiteroles, pâte à choux, sort of like eclairs, um... OK, I don’t really know what to call them.
I do know, without a doubt, that they were inspired by Jaime Vitolo, who made it ridiculously far on the last season of Master Chef. Despite being the most talented pastry chef on the show, she was brought down by a towering croquembouche, judged too harshly by food television’s preeminent croquem-douche, Chef Gordon Ramsay.
The croquembouche is a pastry pyramid that rivals anything on Ancient Aliens—how do they build them? I’m in awe of people who can compose visually remarkable pastry. I had to know how she did it. And so, my research and subsequent experimentation sparked my interest in doing the column you’re reading now: Nothing Fancy. As in: looks fancy, is not fancy. As in, I am a total boner with chronic butterfingers who can barely dress myself, but apparently, even I can make profiteroles.
The thing about baking is that, with a lot of patience and a very close reading of many recipes, you can make just about anything—and as long as you pay careful attention, it will probably come out looking really good. Once you do it for a little while, patterns will begin to unfold. You’ll subconsciously understand why a recipe would call for butter instead of oil, or cake flour instead of all-purpose. Dumping little spoonfuls of whatever into a steaming saucepan of one thing and whisking it until it turns into something else will make you feel like Tesla, or a cool witch casting love spells, or a science-doctor-magician. You’ll feel ok adjusting recipes based on intuition alone. You will feel like you know secrets, and it will feel good.
Plus, you will make friends and meet babes. People who think baking is very hard (that is to say, most people) will be impressed as hell. Were I to rewrite How To Win Friends and Influence People, it would be a cookbook. “I couldn’t do this,” they’ll say through a mouthful of pastry cream, high as hummingbirds, their eyes full of love for you. Dead serious.
My goal here, and in every subsequent Nothing Fancy, is to demystify complicated baking techniques through majorly formal and totally scientific research* to develop recipes that anyone, regardless of skill level, can execute.
(*Googling whatever it is I want to make or checking out books from the library, then attempting a hybrid synthesis of the most popular recipes available, tweaking it over and over until I have a largely foolproof result)
Pâte à choux is the base for an endless number of French pastry possibilities. I’m not at all surprised that my first three attempts resulted in totally fucked-up hockey pucks. The basics are often the hardest thing to master. Most people pipe their dough onto a baking sheet, bake at one temperature for 10 minutes, then lower the temperature for another 20. Had I continued that method, I would be up to my ears in tiny, inedible UFOs.
My way involves a mini donut pan, but since most people aren’t freaks like me who sense a growing void in their soul that can only be filled by something as useless as a mini donut pan, know that you can put big tablespoons of dough on a baking sheet for a very similar result.
Make the pastry cream first, as it needs to chill fully in the refrigerator before you pipe it into your profiteroles. While the cream sets in the fridge, you can bake your pastry. By the time the pastries are cooled, the cream will be, too. Everybody wins.
Ingredients for the whole project (which will take about 2 hrs)
- Vanilla extract
- Powdered sugar
- White sugar
- Whole milk
- 2 sticks of butter or other solid fat (more on this later)
- 8 eggs
To make pastry cream
1. Separate 4 of your eggs into whites and yolks. Save the whites for some freaky hippie health omelette, we don’t need them for this.
2. Whisk four yolks, half a cup of white sugar, a quarter cup of cornstarch, and a pinch of salt in a medium saucepan. Then, whisk in one and a half cups of milk.
3. Turn the stove on to medium heat. Whisk constantly until the mixture starts to thicken to the consistency of a custard. It will go from zero to pudding surprisingly quickly once the stove heats up.
4. Remove the pan from heat and transfer its contents into a large bowl. Whisk in a teaspoon of vanilla extract (I add a little more than that, because vanilla is good. Naturally, you could add other extracts if you want to flavor your pastry cream something other than vanilla.
5. Then, whisk in about half a stick (4 tablespoons) of butter, or another solid fat, such as coconut oil. What you see above is coconut oil infused with weed. Yes, today we’re making cream puffs that will get you stoned. Trust me, this recipe is just as good if you use regular butter, but I like to think we’re doing something to repair the long, sordid history of gritty, poorly-made college pot brownies.
6. Press a piece of parchment (mine is backed with foil) onto the surface of the pastry cream to keep it from developing that creepy skin thing. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge to chill.
To make profiteroles
1. Preheat the oven to 375.
2. In another good-sized saucepan, melt a stick of butter, a cup of milk, and a pinch of salt over medium heat.
3. Once the butter is totally melted, add a cup of flour and mix it up until it forms a dough. Let it cook, stirring it constantly, for a minute or two to thicken up.
4. Transfer your dough from the hot saucepan to a mixing bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer if you are rich and/or fancy. Using a hand mixer (you could do this with a whisk if you have powerful muscles), beat in 4 eggs, one at a time.
5. Fill the holes in your (spray-oiled, lightly floured) mini donut pan (or make rounded blobs of dough on a baking sheet at even intervals) and bake for 20 minutes at the aforementioned 375 degrees.
Bonus: Take a second to contemplate the meaning of life (or the bird repeatedly bashing its head against the skylight).
Your choux should come out of the oven looking a bit like these—fluffy blobs that are hollow in the middle! Nothing like a hockey puck! Hooray for you! Poke a tiny hole in the side or bottom of each pastry with a sharp knife to let the steam out.
Then, when both your pastry and your cream are fully cooled, use a piping bag and a small tip (or a ziploc bag with a tiny hole cut out of the corner, we don’t have to get too fancy now) to squish about a tablespoon of cream into your pastry. If you’re using a mini donut pan, a tablespoon is about all it will take before the pastry cream starts to ooze out. Voila.
Dust the tops with powdered sugar, or if you’re feeling frisky, you can go the eclair route with melted chocolate. Drizzle them with honey and crushed pistachios, or sugar glaze and sprinkles—basically whatever you could do to a donut, you can do to these guys. Here are instructions on how to make a real croquembouche if you’re some sort of weird pastry masochist with a thing for Sofia Coppola’s version of Marie Antoinette.
And there you have it. Tiny, golden hors-d’ouevres sized cream puffs that get you stoned (or not), made in less than two hours.
All photos by Matthew Ismael Ruiz
Meredith Graves runs a small record label called Honor Press, writes about feminism and culture for many places (but mostly Rookie), and is the frontperson of Perfect Pussy. Right now her favorite things are tuna salad sandwiches, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, and wearing party dresses to the grocery store. She’s writing a solo record, which will be out eventually on Captured Tracks.