Behind the Recipes

Cream Puffs with a Twist

A cookie-like layer of craquelin amplifies the sweetness, crunch, and visual appeal of this classic treat.

Published Feb. 2, 2021.

I’ve always loved cream puffs (called choux à la crème in France). The contrast between the minimally sweetened, delicately crisp pastry with its simple eggy flavor and the voluptuous, vanilla-scented filling makes the combination magical. I’d never considered that there could be anything to improve upon the formula.

But then I discovered choux au craquelin. These puffs are capped by a thin, cookie-like layer (craquelin translates as “cracker”) that not only helps smooth out the shape of the puffs so that they’re more uniformly round and pretty but also adds buttery taste and some extra crunch that makes this dessert even more delectable. And if that weren’t enough, the craquelin also helps the crisp, sweet pastry balloon hold its texture for hours after it’s loaded with cream.

There’s also something magical about how the craquelin creates that nubbly, delicately brittle layer. You roll out a dough stirred together from flour, butter, sugar, and a little salt and cut it into rounds that you freeze. You pipe the choux paste and then top the mounds with the hardened disks. As the puffs inflate in the oven, the craquelin melts, molding itself against their tops and sides, and then sets into a deeply golden, finely fissured shell.

All I had to do was figure out the most streamlined way to make all three components—choux, craquelin, and cream—and then put them together.

Crème de la Crème

Since the filling would have to cool for a while, I decided to make it first. Pastry cream is standard in cream puffs, but I wanted to go for something more ethereal—a crème diplomate, in which that pudding‑like filling is lightened by whipped cream.

I heated milk in a saucepan, and while it came to a simmer, I whisked flour (more than usual to ensure that the filling wouldn’t be too loose once I folded in whipped cream), sugar, and salt together in a bowl. I added egg yolks and cold milk. Then I whisked in some of the simmering milk to warm the eggs. This maneuver is called tempering, and it’s safer than adding the mixture straight into the saucepan, which could cause the eggs to curdle. I combined everything over the heat, and I stirred. And stirred

A Customizable Treat

Once you’re comfortable with making choux au craquelin, you can customize them to your taste. If you’re short on time, skip the pastry cream and fill the puffs with whipped cream or ice cream. Are you a mocha fan? Add instant espresso powder to the pastry cream and cocoa powder to the craquelin dough. Need to match a color theme for a special event? Substitute granulated sugar for the brown sugar in the craquelin and add a bit of food coloring.

When making pastry cream, it’s worth taking your time. The flour needs to fully gelatinize, which means that the granules swell with water until they burst and dissolve; it’s what makes the pastry cream thick. And the eggs need to get hot enough to deactivate an enzyme called amylase, which could otherwise break down the starch and leave the pastry cream runny. So I slowly brought the mixture to a boil, knowing that, since everything was now well combined, the starch would prevent the eggs from curdling.

Thanks to the extra flour, the mixture was very thick when I removed it from the heat. I whisked in some butter and vanilla, transferred the pastry cream to a bowl, and let it cool while I moved on to the craquelin and choux (I’d add the whipped cream just before serving so that it wouldn’t deflate).

Shell Game

Making the craquelin was a breeze. I mixed nearly equal weights of flour and sugar (I chose light brown for its warm color), some softened butter, and a pinch of salt and stirred the mixture together in a bowl. To make it easy to roll out the dough and transfer it to the freezer, I scraped it onto a sheet of parchment, placed another sheet on top, and rolled the mass into a thin rectangle. I removed the top layer of parchment; cut out 24 disks with a small round cutter; replaced the parchment; and slid the whole thing onto a rimless baking sheet, which I placed in the freezer. While the craquelin chilled, I made the puffs.

I heated water, butter, milk, sugar, and salt in a saucepan; when it came to a full boil, I stirred in flour to make a thick paste. I cooked the paste, stirring all the while, until it came together in a shiny, cohesive mass. Then I took it off the heat so that I could incorporate the eggs: two whole eggs and an extra white. We’ve found that an added white improves crispness and provides more water, which turns to steam and helps the choux puff even more.

Traditionally, the eggs are mixed in by hand, and in fact that’s how I learned to do it in cooking school, so I can tell you: Slippery raw eggs and a warm thick paste do not want to combine. It’s much easier to move the paste to a food processor and blend in the eggs there. After about a minute, the eggy dough was thoroughly mixed. I transferred it to a pastry bag and piped 24 mounds onto a rimmed baking sheet, which I’d prepped in advance with a clever trick: I oiled and floured the sheet to prevent sticking and then used my round cutter to mark circles I could use as a guide for piping. Then I retrieved the craquelin disks from the freezer and balanced one atop each mound.

Magic Mounds

Choux are baked in three stages. First, a really hot oven causes the water in the dough to turn to steam, which expands and inflates the puffs. Then the oven temperature is lowered so that the shells can finish cooking without burning. Finally, the puffs are pierced to allow any steam to escape, and they’re returned to the oven—now turned off—to finish drying out and firming up. (During the first stage of baking, I recommend peering through the glass oven door to see the craquelin do its satisfying thing: thaw and mold itself over the choux as it puffs.) When I removed the shells from the oven, they were all I hoped for: crisp, golden, and nicely rounded. It was time to fill them.

What Craquelin Does for Cream Puffs

A simple craquelin layer not only adds sweetness and lasting crunch to your cream puffs but also controls the expansion of the choux in the oven so that it’s more uniformly rounded instead of whimsically shaped. Here’s how it works: The craquelin consists of a buttery dough that’s cut into disks and frozen before being placed atop the mounds of choux. In the oven, as the craquelin thaws, it blankets the choux, helping smooth out its contours. At the same time, the butter (of which there is a large amount in the dough) melts, creating fissures in the craquelin that widen as the choux expands.

But first, I needed to turn the cooled pastry cream into crème diplomate, which was as simple as gently whisking the thick mixture just until it was smooth and then folding in a cup of cream I’d whipped to stiff peaks. I piped this airy, satiny filling into the puffs through the vent hole I’d poked in each one.

When I ate a couple of the choux right after filling them, I found that the lightened pastry cream was a perfect foil for the crisp puffs and their sweet crackly coating. I ate a couple more a few hours later—and yep, the choux buns were still good and crisp. And the next morning, after breakfast? Still delicious, inside and out.

Choux au Craquelin

A simple addition amplifies the sweetness, crunch, and visual appeal of this classic treat.
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