Decades ago I was a cake decorator and bakery manager. These days I’m lazy to drag out my equipment and spend hours creating artistic masterpieces to be devoured in mere minutes. But occasionally the skills come in handy–like when your child graduates from the traditional mom-provided themed birthday party to “I’m a teenager, now. I just want to hang out with my friends.” I still consider it my privilege to provide opportunities to expand their horizons even while they’re with their friends.
When my daughter turned thirteen we planned a gathering that turned out to be easy and inexpensive for me, and engaging for her and her friends. The day before, we mixed up a couple of boxed cake mixes and baked them in both traditional cupcake pans and a fantastic “twinkie” pan I happened to find at the thrift store.
I also made cream puffs (a little time-consuming, but not difficult if you follow my recipe and instructions below) and a small batch of cinnamon rolls (recipe in an upcoming post.) For me, prep-day was an added bonus of Mom/Daughter baking/bonding time before the party.
An hour or two before the gathering, we mixed up a batch of bakery cake frosting (see below), divided it and mixed a variety of colors, then scooped it into bags with various decorating tips. Just before the friends arrived, we spread all the baked goodies out on a disposable blue plastic tablecloth.
After a short lesson on how to get a few patterns out of the leaf and flower tips and a bit of a prompting, the kids unleashed their creativity on clusters of flowers, a bright yellow sun, clouds, bugs, caterpillars, and butterflies. They enjoyed making it, snacking on it, and all our extended family loved dismantling it piece by piece over the next few days. (Unfortunately, I can’t locate the picture today. When I find it I will definitely post an update.)
So, about making Cream Puffs from scratch. . . this old fashioned recipe is from my Grandma–the same one who knitted these baby booties. She was an amazing cook, too. I wish I had spent more time actually working with her in the kitchen. Now all I have is her printed instructions for the incredible treats she always made from scratch. The first time I tried cream puffs was after she had passed on. I didn’t follow the directions very carefully, so I ended up with something that resembled crispy flat crepes. The key to cream puff shells is that the boiling water will work with the flour to make a very stiff mass. Don’t try to skip boiling the water before mixing in the flour unless you want it to fall flat, and be sure to cool it just enough that your eggs don’t cook on contact. Now that you know the tricks, there’s nothing to be afraid of making cream puffs totally from scratch!
- 1 cup water
- ½ cup butter
- ½ tsp salt
Heat to boiling, then add:
- 1 cup sifted flour
Beat vigorously until mixture leaves the spoon easily. Remove from heat and cool slightly. Add:
- 4 unbeaten eggs, one at a time
Beat until smooth after each egg. (You will have a bit of a workout getting to this point. A wooden spoon is a good idea, as I actually broke my favorite wire utensil on this step.)
Drop on well oiled cookie sheet (Grandma would have loved parchment!) 2 inches apart. These will grow. With experience, you’ll discover your own preferred size and shape. I have used a pastry bag to place them in mounds (or long strips for eclairs) as we used to do in the bakery, but it gets kind of messy and I actually prefer spooning them in the old-fashioned method when I’m not making an industrial sized batch. (Put them in the refrigerator before dropping them on the cookie sheet for a few minutes, and they will hold their rounded shape better.)
Bake at 400 degrees F for 30 minutes then 350 degrees for 10 minutes or until firm and dry. I made these considerably smaller than average, so I adjusted the baking time to about 20 minutes at 400. You’ll know when they’re done when they look dry.
Cream Filling for Cream Puffs
This is basically vanilla pudding like they made before the days of Jell-o instant. (Of course, there’s a place for convenience foods, but sometimes I just like to know how it’s done so I can have my pudding without the box.) It calls for “scalded milk” which I usually don’t bother with. Since the advent of pasteurization, the necessity of scalding milk for health reasons is obsolete. Check here for a more complete explanation about why recipes call for scalded milk.
- 2 tablespoons butter
- ¾ cup sugar
- 1/8 tsp salt
- 1/3 cup flour
- 2 eggs well beaten
- 2 cups scalded milk
- ½ tsp vanilla
Combine butter, sugar, salt, flour, and eggs in the top of a double boiler (or substitute a metal bowl over a pan of simmering water–just don’t let the bottom of the bowl touch the water.) Check here for an explanation for using a double boiler. Add milk slowly, stirring constantly. Cook over hot water until thick and smooth. Add flavoring. Cool thoroughly and add an equal amount of whipping cream (or whipped topping.)
To fill the cream puffs, use a pastry bag with the long filling tube, if you have access to one, or simply cut them in half horizontally, spoon a dollop of filling in the bottom, and replace the top.
Traditionally they’re topped with chocolate frosting, but as we did for our “clouds” in the birthday party creation, you can also sift powdered sugar over them. Try making them bite-sized and storing them in the freezer for budget pleasing “bon-bons.”
Bakery Butter Cream Frosting
- 1 oz. evaporated milk
- 6 oz. cold water
- 2 1/2 to 3 lbs. powdered sugar
- 1 1/2 tsp. salt
- 2 tsp. butter vanilla flavor (Find this online or in a specialty kitchen or bakery store. Butter Vanilla flavor is used so you get the buttery flavor in a very white frosting.) I haven’t had to buy this for years, so I haven’t used these sources, but here are a few links for you to consider: Lorann Professional Kitchen butter vanilla emulsion or Magic Line butter vanilla flavor
Whip all together. This should be pretty stiff. Then add:
- 2 cups shortening
Whip together, scraping the bottom of the bowl, until smooth. Add food colors (paste or gel colors work best) or a few drops of flavor oils as desired.
For chocolate frosting, simply add cocoa powder to your liquids before the powdered sugar. The amount will depend on your taste, but don’t rely on the color!! It makes a very light brown frosting.
For Cream Cheese Frosting, whip in softened (room temperature) cream cheese to your finished batch of vanilla butter cream frosting. This is especially good on red velvet, carrot cake, and cinnamon rolls.