Here is how I remember it:
We were at the Woodland Park Zoo, late June, myself, my mom, my two youngest, and Annette.
We'd wiled away the better part of an afternoon there, and were shooting the breeze in a shady thatched spot. [Aside: I love this about Seattle's Woodland Park. It does shady thatched very, very well.] Between lists of foods Annette's better half doesn't like (olives, eggplant) and the latest, greatest game on her phone (sounds! lights!!), talk turned to four states in the lower forty-eight she wanted to see but as of yet, hadn't. New Orleans, two Who-Cares-Whatever others, and Maine.
Me: You know, I've always wanted to see Maine.
Me: Mmmmm. I've never set foot in the Atlantic.
Me: I'll bet Maine's awfully nice in August. When Ohio's, you know, incendiary. [Irony of ironies: it's been a wonderfully mild summer. But back in June? No idea. Also, I get twitchy.]
Annette: (...tapping ... swiping...) August...
Me: Did you know you can drive from Ohio to Maine?
Me: Not much farther than Montréal. Another five hours pure drive time, maybe? Seventeen, total? Maybe eighteen? We should totally do a road trip. You'd fly to Columbus, we'd drive from there.
[Aside: I was not quite half-kidding. I would have been 92% kidding, were this any ordinary mortal, the sort that would, say, call me on the sheer absurdity of flying nearly across the country, only to stop an air-travel hour's short, so as to drive twenty hours to complete the journey. With three children. Twice in one week.]
[But I wasn't. Annette's neither mere, nor mortal. So in the instance, I was only 8% kidding. Not quite half. Not really close. And not, in the end, statistically significant.]
Annette: I looooo-ve road trips.
[See? The appropriate response here on Annette's part should in fact have been a careful, hasty backing away. At least until the twenty-yard mark, whereupon she ought to rightfully have run off into the sunset without passing Go.
Me: Me, too. We could take turns driving...
[Aside: Annette exteee-eee-eeeends words like no other. The woman makes Vanna White look a lightweight. This—along with zombie jello molds, and crazy childcare gambits, and an adorable terror of basements—is a real part of her charm.]
Me: Ordinarily we're in Seattle at least part of August, but this year, the whole thing fell awfully early...
Annette: [...tapping...swiping...] First week in August. That I can do!
Me: We should totally do it.
[Aside: We both came of age in the unfortunate eighties. Totally is regrettably essential to our vocabulary.]
So, we did.
I'm ommitting a few minor details. Snails. Granite. Ferries. Forts. Puzzles. Vermont. Water. Again water. Still water. But wait, water. Gallons of coffee. All-night driving marathons. The mysterious whereabouts of New England's R's. Whatevuh.
Point is: I've wanted to see Maine a long, long while. I finally did. Which leaves me with a yen to check another long-overdue box: cream puffs.
We've spoken of cream puffs once before, which I know because I looked up the recipe last spring. Except there was no recipe. Oh, there were cream puffs, all right, all over faces years younger than today's. But only photos. Phooey on that. Time to put these puffs on record.
We make cream puffs not infrequently, and without much in the way of ado. Our method—plucked part and parcel from Cook's Illustrated—has never, ever failed me. And there have been dozens upon dozens of opportunities. From the time we first played with choux paste, years back, the simple cook-blitz-spoon routine seemed sturdy, simple, and unfailing. I didn't know it could end otherwise.
I've since heard countless tales of hard pucks and unpuffed paste and other choux woes and I'm here to tell you: look no further. Cream puffs can be child's play.
We make these for pizza nights and play dates and Tuesdays and teddy bear birthdays and similarly specious reasons. We make them with white flour and (here) whole wheat and don't bother with piping half of the time. We long ago chucked the bits we didn't love—pastry cream, much too fussy; confectioner's sugar glaze, much too sweet—and swapped in only what we did. A pillow of softly sweet, gently whipped cream. A cap of buttered bittersweet glaze. They no longer resembles the Test Kitchen original, nor for that matter, a proper French puff. But they resemble scrumptious pretty well exactly, which is plenty authentic in my book.
School starts tomorrow. Maine's a memory. But for the record, Ohio to Maine? Like cream puffs, totally doable.
Cream Puffs, Our Way
adapted from Baking Illustrated, by the Editors of Cook's Illustrated Magazine
This recipe takes twice the time to read as to make; it comes together quickly and simply. The blather is merely handholding, and foolproofery.
Choux paste, once owned, is a gem. Lengthen these and call them éclairs. Pipe one giant "O" for a slice-able spectacle. Fill them with ice cream, if you'd rather. Or whipped cream gone pink with puréed strawberries, or tarted up with lemon or lime curd. In which case replace the glaze with powdered sugar, cut with citrus juice until sludgy. Or scrap the sweet bit, omit the sugar, and add instead 3/4 cup grated gruyère and a pinch of cayenne and BINGO! gougères. Remember, too: crisped, cooled puffs can be frozen for a month; just freshen in the oven a few minutes, before using.
Cream puffs can be portioned using a pastry tube or two ordinary tablespoons. If doubling the batch (which we almost always do), add another 1-2 minutes to the paste's cook time, and another 10 seconds to the processing time. Please note that a food processor and a few hours' lead time are required.
2 large eggs plus 1 large egg white
5 Tbs salted butter, cut into pieces
2 Tbs whole milk
6 Tbs water
1 Tbs sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup (2.5 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
3 Tbs salted butter
splash of cream (or more butter)
1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 Tbs sugar
Place oven rack in middle position, and preheat oven to 425°. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment. Set aside.
Into a small measuring cup, crack the 2 eggs and egg white, and beat loosely with a fork to combine. You should have 1/2 cup. Discard any extra. Set aside.
In a small saucepan, over medium heat, bring butter, milk, water, sugar and salt to a boil. As soon as mixture boils and butter has fully melted, remove from heat and stir in flour with a wooden spoon. Mix until no trace of dry flour remains and mixture clears sides of pan. "Return the saucepan to low heat and cook, stirring constantly, using a smearing motion, until the paste is slightly shiny, looks like wet sand, and tiny beads of fat appear on the bottom of the saucepan, about 3 minutes." (This bit of instruction I've quoted exactly, as it's the best description I've come across.)
Transfer mixture to a food processor, fitted with a metal blade, with its feed tube removed. Process for 10 seconds, allowing steam to escape through open tube, to cool slightly. With machine running, drizzle eggs slowly through feed tube. When all eggs have been added, pause, scrape down sides, then process another 30 seconds, until a smooth, homogenous, thick paste has formed.
If using two spoons (two ordinary wide, shallow tablespoons work well), have a glass of cool water handy (for dipping), and dip both spoons into water before beginning. Scoop a small portion (1-2"; see asterisk at end of paragraph)** of paste with one spoon, and use second spoon to remove it to the tray. Dip spoons between portions, and repeat until all paste has been used, aiming for roughly equal-sized puffs. If using a pastry tube, snip the narrow end, fit with a wide round tip (1/2" circle), place tube in a tall glass (to support it while filling), and fold 3-4" of wide end over glass edge. Scrape choux paste into tube, nudging paste down toward tip. Remove filled tube from glass, squeeze extra paste toward tip end, and twist tube snugly around top of paste. Pipe equal-sized puffs onto parchment-lined tray, leaving 1" between each. A damp finger can be used to smooth any uneven bits on the surface of your portioned puffs (we never bother). **We favor a 2" puff, which yields roughly 12. A smaller 1" puff will yield close to 2 dozen, and require a slightly shorter baking time.
Bake 15 minutes (without opening the door), then reduce oven temp to 375°. Bake another 8-12 minutes (depending on size), until puffs are golden brown and fairly firm (if still squishy, continue on another few minutes). Remove finished puffs from oven, and with a sharp paring knife, cut a small 3/4" slit into the side of each puff to release steam. Turn oven off, return puffs to cooling oven, prop a wooden handle in the oven door to keep it ajar, and allow puffs to cool and crisp, around 45 minutes, until centers are neither wet nor dry, but just moist. (Split one in half to check.) Remove from oven, and allow puffs to cool completely before filling.
When puffs are cool, make filling and glaze. Whip cream with sugar and vanilla until fairly firm peaks form. Melt chocolate and butter in microwave for 30-seconds. Chocolate will still appear lumpy, but a few gentle stirs should incorporate everything and complete the melting. Add a splash (1-2 Tbs) heavy cream, until glaze is just loose enough to pour thickly.
To Serve: Split puffs in two, fill copiously with whipped cream, spoon chocolate glaze generously over the top, and inhale while the chocolate's still warm and the cream, cold.