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Cream Puffs

  A crisp spring wind hit my back as I stood surveying the dinkiest of little man-made lake-ponds.  Behind me, the bars on nearly every corner of that downtown rural city were starting to liven up.  I glanced back at them wearily through the archway that marked the beginning of the descending stairs.  There was a strange kind of beauty here, and I always found it worth the 20 minute walk from campus.  Lampposts lit up the walking path, and I remember having some of my most peaceful times there.  It felt like somewhere else.

  I had a paper or two to write, but I didn't care.  It seemed like I cared about very little.  I walked to the middle of the giant compass set in stone, lights dotting its circumference.  It was one of the best features about that little park.  Slowly I turned around.  If I could go any direction, where would I go?  And how far?  I turned Southwest, and thought about Arizona.  I turned Northeast, and thought about Maine; maybe even Hyde Park, New York.  I thought about California, and Oregon.  And somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought of something that was also just a wee bit West.  Madison.

  The budding attraction I had going for that city since the beginning of the school year was undeniable, but the painfully pleasant memories I had associated with it were also there.  Little did I know that a few weeks later I'd be making some very difficult decisions.  That I'd be packing up my things and driving across the country.  That I'd be contemplating some of the most difficult text messages.  That I'd be left alone in my dorm building when everyone else went home for Easter break.  That I would try to be brave and hash out my feelings before burning out and running away from everything.  That I'd be sitting by the same pond, smoking cigarillos and wiping angry tears off my face until I felt too numb to let them spill anymore.

  But I didn't know any of this.  I just knew that I was alone, and that there was some semblance of peace here.  I sat on a bench and drew my knees up to my chest, thinking.  I didn't even know that my friend would be driving by, would see me, and stop to watch the train pass before giving me a ride home.  I didn't know that within a week I'd be running down to the basement of our dorm to excitedly spill my Arizona news, literally hopping onto the table that my dear friend and neighbor was trying to study on.

  There was so much that I didn't know.  And still don't.  

  It's amazing how much of a difference one year can make.  I felt the need to share this because I feel there's still a piece of me sitting on that bench, and another gently turning around the middle of that compass.  Waiting.

  I couldn't have told you that by this time the following year I'd be making cream puffs, picking classes, and saving up for my future rent bills.  That I'd actually be excited to to head back to school and live in the heart of the one city that has always been there for me.  I may feel just as lost as I did then, but by God at least now I'm deliberately moving instead of aimlessly circling.

Cream Puffs
Yield: 16 puffs

Ingredients for the pate a choux:
  • 1 cup water 
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, cut into pieces 
  • Large pinch kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar 
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour 
  • 4 large eggs

Ingredients for the cream chantilly:
  • 1½ cups heavy cream, cold
  • 3 tablespoons powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

For the shells, place water, butter, sugar, and salt in a sauce pot over medium high heat.  Stir until butter is melted and everything comes to a boil.  Reduce heat to medium.  Add flour into the mixture all at once while stirring quickly.  Continue to stir and cook off the moisture in the dough until it pulls away from the sides and starts to form into a ball.  This should take about a minute.  Place dough into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, or a large bowl if using a hand mixer.  Allow to cool for about 5 minutes.

With the mixer on medium-low speed, add eggs in one at a time.  Do not add another egg until the one before has been completely absorbed into the batter.  The batter will look smooth and glossy when ready. (Alternatively, you can mix in the eggs by hand. This just takes a bit longer. Mix each egg until completely absorbed before adding the next).  Place batter in a pastry bag fitted with a large star or round tip (depending on how fancy you wanna get, I like using a star tip to make them look pretty) or a zip top bag with the tip cut off.  

Preheat oven to 425F.  Line baking sheets with parchment or silpat.

Hold the pastry bag over the baking sheet and squeeze over one area until you have about a 2-inch round.  Release the pressure from the bag and pull up to release the dough mound.  You will have a little peak on each that can be smoothed out with a wet fingertip.  Keep the mounds about 2 inches apart.

Place the completed baking sheets in the heated oven and turn the heat up to 450F.  Bake for 10 minutes (without opening the oven), then drop the heat down to 350F and bake for 13-15 more minutes; until the shells are crispy on the outside and set.

To make the cream chantilly, whip cream by hand, in stand mixer with whisk attachment, or with a hand mixer until just starting to thicken.  Add sugar and vanilla and continue whipping until soft to medium peaks form.  Fill a pastry bag with the cream, and pipe into the bottom of the puffs until filled.

Dust with powdered sugar and serve.  Store leftovers in the fridge, or freezer!

Sources: adapted slightly from Baker Bettie