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.
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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.
Checking for doneness
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 them 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.
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Pâte à Choux
- 1 ¼ cup water, divided
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ cup unsalted butter, cut into 8 slices
- 1 cup all-purpose flour, spoon and leveled (see notes)
- 4 large eggs
- ¼ cup powdered sugar, for dusting
- 1 large egg
- 1 tablespoon water, or milk
Whipped Cream (4 cups)
- 2 cups heavy whipping cream, or heavy cream
- ½ cup powdered sugar, or granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- Set the oven racks to upper-middle and lower-middle positions. Preheat to 425°F (218ºC). Line two sheet pans with parchment paper and set them aside.
- In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, add 1 cup of water, sugar, salt, and butter. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and stir the mixture until the butter is fully melted, about 2 minutes.Turn off the heat and immediately add the flour. Vigorously stir with a large spoon (non-metal) until the flour is incorporated. Increase the heat to medium, constantly stir until it clumps together, 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 (setting 2) 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 (setting 4) until each egg is fully incorporated, about 30 to 45 seconds per egg. Once 3 eggs are added, check to see if the dough pulls away from the bowl's sides 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. If it’s still too thick, add the fourth egg and mix for 45 seconds.
- Add a large plain tip to a piping bag (Ateco 806). Option to lightly grease the inside of the pastry bag with cooking spray. This helps keep the sticky dough from clinging to the bag.Add the dough into the 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.
- Add ¼ cup of water to a small bowl. Dip your finger in the 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 dough ball with the egg wash.
- Place the sheet trays in the upper-middle and lower-middle positions. 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! It will take about 60 to 70 minutes of total baking time.
- To check for doneness, break open one of the pastries. It should be as dry as possible on the inside and feel light in weight. If needed, continue to bake the pâte à choux at 200°F (93ºC). Transfer shells to a cooling rack. Cool completely and reserve until ready to fill.
- In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, add heavy cream, powdered sugar, and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract to the bowl. Whip the mixture on medium-low speed (setting 4) until the cream is frothy with bubbles on the surface, about 1 minute.Increase the speed to medium-high (setting 8), whip until smooth, stiff peaks form, about 2 minutes. If needed, continue to whip in 5-second intervals. Do not over whip, or the cream will become curdled.
- Working in batches, add the whipped cream in a pastry bag fitted with a large star tip (Ateco 824).
- Use a serrated knife to cut the shells in half to create a top and bottom.
- Evenly pipe whipped cream into the pastry bottoms. Gently place the lids on top of the cream.
- Sprinkle powdered sugar on top of each cream puff. Serve immediately, or refrigerate, uncovered, if not eating within one hour.
- Measuring the flour: Use the spoon and level method. Scoop the flour into the measuring cup, then level the surface with the back of a knife. This adds a few tablespoons less flour than the dip and sweep method, so the pastry is not too dense.
- Smaller cream puffs: Pipe 1 ½ inch circles for about 21 smaller pastries.
- Egg wash: Whole milk can be substituted for water for a more browned surface, but shells will be slightly less crisp.
- Storing unfilled shells: Store baked shells 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.
- Storing cream puffs: For the best taste, serve the same day. They can be refrigerated uncovered for up to 3 days.
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