Cream puffs are a classic French dessert made to impress! Crispy hollow shells are made from choux pastry and baked until golden brown. Then each one is filled with lightly sweetened whipped cream and dusted with powdered sugar.
Cream puffs are an elegant dessert made using a classic french pastry technique. Mastering how to make pâte à choux, or choux pastry is really simple. It starts with cooking the flour on the stove with butter and water then whipping in eggs to create a thick, pipeable dough.
I use a special baking method to ensure the pastry rises up high and completely dries out. When heated, the mounds of dough bake into super light, hollow shells, perfect for filling. Each bite delivers a crunchy crust loaded with a silky whipped cream. The good news is these sweet treats can be made in advance!
Make the Pâte à Choux
The choux pastry (also known as eclair paste) is a simple mixture of water, salt, sugar, butter and flour that’s cooked on the stovetop. This helps to break down the starches in wheat to make it easier to absorb water.
Make sure to cool them down before adding the eggs so they don’t cook and scramble! Gradually incorporating eggs helps the pastry rise when baked. It’s important to add just enough eggs so that the dough is like a thick cake batter that holds its shape when piped.
Gradual temperature decrease method
The trick to making super round and tall cream puff shells is to use a special baking method that gradually reduces the temperature every 10 minutes. The pastries go into the oven at very high temperatures above 400 degrees. This makes the pastry cook and steam, giving it immediate lift while helping the proteins harden to create the outer structure.
Slowly decreasing the heat down to 200 degrees ensures that the pastry is golden brown, hollow and crisp without it burning. Even though it is tempting, do not open the oven door! You want to keep the heat in so that it dries out, otherwise it will take longer.
How do you know when cream puffs are done?
The outside should be golden in color and crisp in texture. Break open one of the shells and check to see that inside of the pastry is hollow and not doughy. It should be dry, some steam will release if it still warm, but it should not feel soggy or undercooked.
If the cream puffs are not ready, pop them back into the oven at 200ºF (93ºC) until they finish drying out.
Make the filling
A standard filling for cream puffs is whipped cream or chantilly cream. It’s sweetened with powdered sugar and pure vanilla extract then whipped until smooth, stiff peaks form. Make sure to use heavy cream and not whipping cream, it has a higher amount of fat which makes it more stable when piped.
I learned in culinary school that when the cream is piped through the tip, the pressure whips it more, so don’t ever beat the cream to the point where it looks curdled.
Can you make them in advance?
Yes! You can make them up to 1 day in advance for the freshest and crisp tasting pastry. Each component can also be made ahead of time. The shells can be baked and stored at room temperature for up to 5 days in an airtight container or frozen.
I find that the shells taste stale when not eaten the same day. A quick solution to re-crisping the shell is to bake them at 300 degrees for about 5 to 10 minutes, then let them cool before filling and serve the same day.
Can you freeze cream puffs with cream inside?
Cream puffs can be filled and frozen, but they will not be crisp in texture or taste as fresh. It’s best to fill them from the bottom with the whipped cream so that the dairy is not exposed. Defrost them at room temperature until they feel soft when squeezed.
Other tasty filling and toppings
- Chocolate sauce drizzled on top right before serving.
- Pastry cream also known as custard.
- Combine equal parts pastry cream and whipped cream for a light custard filling.
- Fill the shells with ice cream for a frozen treat.
- Mix the whipped cream with some fruit jam
- Top with fresh fruit like strawberries or peaches.
How to keep crisp and not soggy
I find that filled cream puffs will stay crisp when stored in the refrigerator uncovered, for about 3 days. The refrigerator is cool but dry, so the shells don’t get soggy. When kept in a container, moisture from the humidity gets trapped and the powdered sugar dissolves and the shells get damp.
Pâte à Choux
- 1 cup (240 ml) water
- ½ teaspoon (2 g) kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon (4 g) granulated sugar
- 4 ounces (114 g) unsalted butter
- 4 ½ ounces (124 g) all-purpose flour, spoon and leveled (see notes)
- 4 large eggs
- ¼ cup (12 g) powdered sugar, for dusting
- 1 large egg
- 1 tablespoon (15 ml) water, or milk
Whipped Cream (4 cups)
- 16 ounces (480 ml) heavy whipping cream or heavy cream
- ¼ cup (12 g) powdered sugar, or granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon (5 ml) pure vanilla extract
Pâte à Choux
- Set the oven racks to upper-middle and lower-middle positions. Preheat to 425°F (218ºC).
- Line two sheet pans with parchment paper.
- Add a large plain tip to a piping bag. Option to lightly spray the inside of the pastry bag with cooking spray to help keep the sticky pâte à choux paste from clinging to the inside of the bag.
- Place water, salt, sugar, and butter in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring to a boil and stir the mixture until the butter is fully melted.
- Turn off the heat and immediately add the flour.
- Vigorously stir the dough with a spoon by hand until flour is incorporated.
- Turn the heat to medium and constantly stir the dough until it comes away from the sides of the pan, about 4 to 5 minutes. The dough should look relatively dry and should just begin to leave a film on the saucepan.
- Transfer the dough to a bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle. Slowly stir on low speed to cool to 130°F (54ºC) or just below, about 2 to 3 minutes. This prevents the eggs from curdling when added.
- Add eggs one at a time, mixing on medium-low speed until each egg is fully incorporated, about 30 to 45 seconds per egg. The dough may only need 3 to 4 eggs, too many will make it runny. The final dough should pull away from the sides of the bowl in thick threads, it will not clear the bowl. It should be shiny but firm and not runny so that it’s easy to control when piped.
- Add the dough into a pastry bag. Pipe onto the sheet pan, creating a 2-inch circular ball. Pipe at least 2 inches apart from each other, they will expand to about 3 inches after baking.
- Dip your finger in water and flatten any “tails” left on the top when piping to create a smoother surface.
- In a small bowl whisk together one egg and 1 tablespoon of water. Brush the tops and sides of each ball with the egg wash.
- Bake for 10 minutes at each temperature setting: 425°F (218ºC), 375°F (191ºC), 325°F (163ºC), 275°F (135ºC), 225°F (107ºC), 200°F (93ºC). Do not open the oven door! If needed wait until after the first 40 minutes of baking to prevent rapid changes in the oven’s temperature. It will take about 60 to 70 minutes of total baking time.
- Break open a pastry to ensure it's complete, it should be as dry as possible on the inside. If needed, continue to bake the pâte à choux at 200°F (93ºC) until dry in the center, they should feel light in weight.
- Transfer shells to a cooling rack. Cool completely and reserve until ready to fill.
- Use a serrated knife to cut the pâte à choux in half to create a top and bottom.
- In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, add heavy cream, powdered sugar, and vanilla to the bowl.
- Whip the mixture on medium-low speed, until the cream is frothy with bubbles on the surface, 1 minute.
- Increase the speed to medium-high, whip until smooth, stiff peaks form, about 2 to 4 minutes. Once 2 minutes is reached, check the whipped cream in 15 to 30-second intervals to ensure that it does not look curdled and become over whipped.
- Working in batches, add whipped cream in a pastry bag fitted with a large star tip.
- Pipe enough whipped cream into the pastry bottoms, just until it fills just above the edge.
- Gently place the lids on top of the cream.
- Sprinkle powdered sugar on top of each cream puff.
- Serve the same day, refrigerate if not eating within one hour.
- Measure the flour using the spoon and level method. Scoop the flour with a spoon and add it to a cut, then level the surface with the back of the knife. This adds a few tablespoons less flour compared to the dip and sweep method so the pastry is not too dense.
- Whole milk can be substituted for water, but shells will be slightly less crisp.
- I use a round 806 tip for piping the pastry.
- The baked pâte à choux shells can be stored at room temperature in an airtight container for 5 days, or frozen for 1 month.
- Make them crispy again: Stored shells can be reheated at 300ºF (149ºC) on a sheet pan until slightly hardened on the outside, 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool before filling.
- Once filled, the cream puffs taste the best when served the same day. They can be refrigerated for up to 3 days uncovered in the refrigerator.