The kitchen I helmed in the summer of 2012 was chronically informal. The guests and staff of this ranch in remote Wyoming traipsed through on a daily basis, helping themselves to fistfuls of spring mix and slabs of lunch meat whenever they fancied it. At first I allowed it to bother me to the brink of having an aneurysm.
When, like a paranoid warden, I suggested we put the kitchen on lock down, I was told that’s how this place had functioned for its entire 40 year existence. I mulled it over. You couldn’t beat the view from my workspace. Out one window: the Wind Rivers and their glaciers. Out another, the jagged, stratified Absarokas. And out the door, miles upon miles of hiking trails and a lake full of hungry trout.
So I gradually shed my chef instinct to be territorial and shifted my priorities to enjoying my surroundings and just rolling with it. If we ran out of something, it was tradition. Consequently, I became a bit sluggish and undisciplined with menus, often becoming like a person in his or her own home browsing the contents of the fridge for a decision on what to serve. This approach actually worked. Along with my mountain dude Assistant, Lee, I created what many guests deemed on their comment cards, “the best retreat food, EVER!”. Hey, that may not be saying much but I do believe that the customer is indeed always right.
One afternoon, as the season was winding down and young Lee was taking a break from his hacky sack to rebraid his ponytail on the back porch, I approached from my daily hike around the lake. Lee told me everything was on track except for dessert. We were letting many of our ingredients run down to nothing as seasonal kitchens often do and Lee was stumped.
“How about cream puffs?”
“Cream puffs? I’ve never made cream puffs.”
I did an air guitar solo. It was one of those intricate air guitar solos, complete with an overbite. Lee knew that on that day he was going to learn how to make cream puffs.
Cream puffs or pate a choux is the recipe that filled me with wonder for cooking. Most people have that moment in the kitchen; that first rosette, the melting of sugar, the first perfect crust on a loaf of bread. Thomas Keller wrote in his classic French Laundry Cookbook that as a young chef, for him it was hollandaise:
“…I had no idea why the egg and clarified butter came together. I never associated it with mayonnaise. I had no idea how mayonnaise was made. Hollandaise was just a mysterious thing that had a life of it’s own…To me, hollandaise sauce was magic.”
It came together for me many moons ago in a friend’s kitchen as I was preparing myself to take my first Head Chef gig for a resort. I taught myself how to make pate a choux from a recipe written on a splattered notecard limp and tattered with age. It was typed out in stark courier font. The real deal. From an Underwood typewriter. This recipe, as well as a coveted pound cake recipe, was passed onto me by my mother through her friend, Mrs. Robinson, a beehived and cat glassed baker extraordinaire.
Auspicious beginnings are not uncommon in the kitchen. The first time one follows a recipe, they usually do it to a T. In that small oven in south Fort Worth near TCU, I watched with gleeful disbelief, as if watching a triple play or a coyote trot down Hollywood Boulevard, as these small balls of dough blossomed into glorious, hollow pastries.
It’s a magic moment when things click, when the limitless possibilities and rich past are laid out in one perfectly executed recipe. When I first made pate choux correctly, I was blown away. What simple ingredients. What the hell makes those things hollow? No leavening? Like I often wonder who was the first human to bite into a potato, I’m still in awe at how pate a choux came into existence.
It is said to have been “invented” by an Italian chef named Panterelli around 1540. Panterelli was the Head Chef in the court of Catherine de Medici. While I am certain Panterelli made Catherine make lots of yummy sounds as she took him with her everywhere, even to France where she married the Duke of Orleans, I am not sold on the notion he, alone, invented pate a choux. Food evolves. There are years, decades even generations of trial and error. And it never really stops evolving. Even now at the Chefs Center the macaron maker approached me with a concern about his delicate cookies. The macaron has been around since 1533 (or 1791, depending on who you believe) yet he wants to take them further. This will require the fabrication of a piece of equipment I cannot divulge here. While Panterelli may have branded the puff, it is difficult to say if he actually invented it.
One thing Panterelli suggested for pate a choux is something many mistakenly attribute to the champagne coupe. It is a commonly held belief that the classic champagne coupe or saucer was derived from moulds of Marie Antoinette’s left breast. While this is a nice thought, especially when one is drinking champagne, it is not accurate. Champagne was invented by monks in the 17th century, a large chunk of time before Antoinette’s reign.
Panterelli is rumored to have directed bakers of his version of the cream puff to make them the size and shape of a woman’s breast. This may be another urban myth proving nothing more that people who are prone to drinking champagne and eating cream puffs often have other pleasant things, like breasts, on the brain.
Regardless, Panterelli helped move it along to where it is today: a simple, elegant dough that seems to make its own glaze without egg wash and rises to form a hollow middle perfect for stuffing with anything from the classic custard to savory items like tarragon chicken salad.
But as the sun moved into position to sink behind the Absaroka mountains after it had popped up from behind the Wind Rivers to begin the day, Lee’s and my task was to make sweet cream puffs to please a weary crowd of hikers and horseback riders.
Examining the ingredients, Lee asked, “Powder or soda?”
“How do they rise?”
He looked at me skeptically. I treated him to another air guitar solo.
I dictated to Lee to put a stick of butter, a half cup of water and a half cup of milk into a pot over medium heat. Once the stick of butter had melted, I instructed Lee to pour a cup of AP flour into the pot.
Very important: leave the heat at medium and stir the flour, milk, butter and water mixture over the flame for at least three minutes.
Once the mixture has been stirred over flame, remove it from the heat and let it cool down enough to where the eggs to be added do not cook upon contact with the mixture.
Once it has cooled, stir in four eggs one at a time.
The dough should make soft peaks that do not remain pointy but flop over without support. Scoop this dough ( a small ice cream scoop does nicely) into inch and a half mounds onto a well greased cookie sheet or sheet pan and bake in a preheated oven at approximately 375 degrees. Caution: like a cake, cream puffs can fall. So keep that light on or find something else to do to prevent your curiosity from making this whole thing for naught.
After about 40 minutes, you can maybe open the oven. The puffs should be structurally sound enough to stay up. The puffs should be a nice golden brown, light and hollow.
Lee played with them, examining them, poking his finger inside to confirm that indeed this incredibly simple dough, this mixture of staples: flour, butter, milk, water and eggs rose without any form of leavening (other than eggs) into a beautiful, golden brown pastry.
“You’re right” Lee said, “it is magic!”
I could have explained to him that it was the constant stirring: stirring over the heat, then stirring in one egg at a time, that activated the gluten (ah, glorious gluten—I still love you). This activation of the gluten as well as cooking the mixture technically twice (once over the heat and once in the oven) turned the batter into one, big bubble.
But the western sky was the color of raspberry sherbet and Lee’s marvel at this new recipe was infectious. I was not even bothered when the Wrangler strolled through the kitchen with manure coated boots. I had taught or delegated several recipes to various people through the years. But teaching this particular one, the one that started it all, was magic indeed.