Cream puffs are a delicious pastry that didn’t make their debut in the United States until the 1880s.
There is a persistent myth that cream puffs originated sometime in the 1540s when Catherine de Medici’s pastry chef created baked puffed shells for Catherine’s husband, Henry II of France.
Some culinary historians believe that long before Catherine’s chef created cream puffs, 13th century cooks in southern Germany and France were making puff pastries filled with rich cheese mixtures. A choux pastry was cooked in a hot oven until it puffed up. When cooled, the puffs were sliced open and filled with an herby cheese mixture.
Choux pastry is a dough made of flour, water, fat, and eggs. It is a simple mixture that puffs when cooked, creating an airy hole in the center that can be filled with sweet or savory filling.
The name “choux” is the French word for cabbage, and the tiny balls of dough used for cream puffs resemble small cabbages.
By the 1500s, pâté feuillettee, a puff pastry, was popular in France and England. It was made with the same ingredients as used in choux pastry and was basted with a mixture of rosewater and lemon.
Similar to cream puffs, the light, flaky pastry was enjoyed by nobles and wealthy individuals of the day.
The first recorded mention of cream puffs served in the United States is on an 1851 menu from the Revere House Restaurant in Boston.
Cream puffs are no longer the dessert of wealthy and royal folks. They can be found in bakeries and are available frozen in supermarkets. One of my favorite places to enjoy cream puffs is at Schmidt's German Restaurant in Columbus, Ohio.
But nothing compares to home-baked cream puffs. Since the pandemic has limited travel this year, I decided to recreate my own pumpkin cream puffs at home. I used a filling made with drained ricotta cheese. They were easy to make and quite delicious.
Basic Choux Pastry Puffs
¼ cup butter
½ cup water
1/8 teaspoon salt
½ cup all-purpose flour
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
In a large pot, bring water and butter to a rolling boil. Stir in flour and salt until mixture forms a ball. Using a wooden spoon, beat in eggs, one at a time.
Drop mixture by tablespoons onto a parchment-lined baking sheet.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until golden brown. Centers should be fairly dry, although some moist strings of dough will have to be removed before filling. (You can leave them in the hot oven with the door propped open for a few minutes.)
When the shells are cool, split and fill with cream or pudding, or use a pastry bag and pipe filling into the center. Dust with powdered sugar or drizzle with honey or melted chocolate.
1 cup ricotta cheese
½ cup pumpkin puree
¼ cup powdered sugar
½ teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
Whipped cream or Cool Whip*
Place ricotta cheese in a cheesecloth and let it drain for 24 hours in refrigerator.
Place drained ricotta cheese, pumpkin puree, sugar, and pumpkin pie spice in a bowl. With a hand whisk or a spatula, stir to combine.
Put the pumpkin mixture into a piping bag or spoon filling into shells. The shells will soften after they are filled. For best results, fill shells no longer than 1 to 2 hours before serving.
* I lightened the filling by mixing in a bit of Cool Whip, before I filled the shells.