January 21, 2011

Choux, Choux, Kachoo!

People have often asked me what the next big thing in pastry will be, especially after this crazy cupcake ride we've been on for some time now. For years (and I am not saying this because they seem in fact to be the next big thing), I've been saying it'll be the whoopie pie. Bon Appetit in fact did a feature on this recently, pitting the whoopie pie against the French macaron and having readers vote on which would be the Next Big Thing.

However, I daresay at this point, the cream puff may very well be giving all these sweet treats a run for their money. Cream puff patisseries like Beard Papa's are opening up everywhere, and the lines are out the door! And profiteroles (see the difference between cream puffs and profiteroles here) are appearing on dessert menus in everyday cafes from here to D.C. This holiday season, I catered dessert for a party where the centerpiece was a good old-fashioned French croquembouche.

I recently ventured over to Beard Papa's here in Chicago's Loop to investigate this puff proliferation. Theirs are some seriously large Marges, I must say, and I think French chefs everywhere would balk at the size of these things. Cream puffs, or chouquettes, are true petit fours and should be consumed, by definition, in one or two bites. So the fact that Beard Papa's are like burger buns is a little disconcerting to the average French pastry chef, but at least it makes them good for sharing. I got the standard "eclair" (another thing I had issue with--eclairs are the long "hot-dog-bun-like" puffs; chouquettes are the round, more "meatball-looking" puffs), which was coated in a rather hard chocolate shell for some weird reason. Since Beard Papa's version is neither round and meatball-looking, nor is it long and hot-dog-bun-like, I guess they can call it whatever they want! They are more or less bumpy and hilly, but generous in portion and nice and airy inside. I had some problems with the hard chocolate shell business. That is not at all the way it's done in France. Most typical French-style cream puffs and eclairs have a smooth, thick ganache glaze over the top that's soft and nice and drippy upon biting into them. But I will give BP some kudos on the strawberries-and-cream filling. Yum! Nice touch to add the fresh strawberries to the cream!

The other cool thing about BP is the "Chipotle-style" ordering system. You decide how many you want (single or various multipacks), order your puff (naked or chocolate shell), order your filling, and voila! It's filled fresh right there in front of you, so you're not getting some soggy, day-long-filled blob. It is a low-cost/high-return venture for these folks, so talk about a winning business plan!

Believe it or not though, these are very easy to make at home, and so you should save yourself the bucks and try whipping up a batch. Ina Garten's choux paste (cream puff batter) recipe is ridiculously easy and five-star review on Food Network's site, so you just can't go wrong with it. Use real whipping cream for your filling (no cheating and using that heart-attack-in-a-bowl Cool Whip crap). And when it warms up again, you can make them profiteroles and serve them with ice cream!