Poof! Cream Puff Pastry

Levy is a cookbook author

On a trip to Paris last month, I could not resist indulging in one of my favorite desserts, profiteroles au chocolat . It's such a simple dish--nothing more than cream puffs filled with ice cream and cloaked with hot chocolate sauce--but how heavenly it tastes!

About 15 years ago, at the height of the nouvelle-cuisine period, when chefs were developing new dishes at a dizzying pace, profiteroles appeared with fruit ice cream fillings and berry sauces. I was at cooking school in France at the time, and on weekends my friends and I would go out on field trips to taste desserts at patisseries and restaurants. Though we didn't dislike these new profiteroles , we soon decided that some dishes are best left as they are.

Somehow nothing compares to the magical combination of refreshing vanilla ice cream enclosed in tender pastry and coated with a luscious warm chocolate sauce. The only variation that is comparably delicious is the one featuring a warm homemade caramel sauce. Coffee, mint and praline ice cream also make good fillings, but vanilla is still king. For a fresh garnish, place a few strawberries or raspberries on the plate.

Actually, older renditions of this pastry featured whipped-cream or pastry-cream fillings. Ice cream isn't even mentioned as a profiterole filling in the 1938 edition of "Larousse Gastronomique." But in the last few decades, with excellent ice cream readily available, ice cream-filled profiteroles became so popular that they displaced the other versions and became a modern classic.

The good news for busy cooks is that this fabulous treat is easy to prepare. And it's convenient to keep on hand for a terrific last-minute dessert. Cream-puff dough is faster and simpler to make than any other, and the baked puffs keep well in the freezer.

Profiteroles are extraordinary when filled with homemade ice cream, but to save time you'll probably want to purchase fine-quality ice cream instead. But do make your own sauce. Homemade chocolate or caramel sauce can be prepared quickly. It reheats beautifully and is superior to those you can buy.

Ideally, you should fill the pastry puffs no more than three or four hours before serving and return them to the freezer. If you freeze them for much longer, the ice cream becomes too hard and the dessert loses its lovely texture. You'll get the best results if you keep the pastry and ice cream frozen separately until the last minute. You can still have dessert ready in no time. Simply reheat the sauce while you thaw the pastries in the oven, then fill them with ice cream, top them with warm sauce and enjoy an elegant dessert a la francaise.

If you can't choose between chocolate and caramel sauce, go for broke and make both.

CHOCOLATE OR CARAMEL PROFITEROLES

Cream Puff Shells

1 to 1 1/2 pints vanilla ice cream

Chocolate Sauce or Caramel Sauce

Fresh strawberries or raspberries, optional garnish

If Cream Puff Shells are frozen, thaw overnight in refrigerator or on baking sheet at 400 degrees 5 to 7 minutes.

Soften ice cream slightly in refrigerator. Quickly scoop or spoon enough ice cream into bottom of each cream puff to fill it generously. Replace tops on puffs. Set on plate. Cover and keep in freezer until ready to serve, preferably not longer than 4 hours.

Reheat sauce over very low heat. Spoon warm sauce over profiteroles. Garnish with berries and serve. Makes about 20 profiteroles, or 6 to 10 servings.

This quick dough is made in a saucepan. In addition to profiteroles, it is used to make eclairs.

CREAM PUFF SHELLS

1/2 cup water

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup butter, cut into pieces

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon flour

3 large eggs

1 egg, beaten with dash salt for glaze, optional

Heat water, salt and butter in small, heavy saucepan until butter melts. Bring to boil and remove from heat. Immediately add flour and stir quickly with wooden spoon until mixture is smooth.

Set pan over low heat and beat mixture about 30 seconds. Let cool few minutes. Add 1 egg and beat thoroughly into mixture. Beat in second egg until mixture is smooth. Place remaining egg in bowl and beat with fork. Gradually beat enough of egg into dough until dough becomes very shiny and is soft enough so that when some is lifted, it just falls from spoon.

Using 2 teaspoons, or pastry bag and 1/2-inch plain tip, shape mounds of dough (about 1 1/4 inches in diameter), 2 inches apart on lightly buttered baking sheets. If no beaten egg remains, beat additional egg with dash salt for glaze. Brush mounds with egg glaze, gently giving them round shape.

Set baking sheets on rack in lower third of oven. Bake at 400 degrees about 30 minutes or until dough is puffed and browned (cracks that form during baking should also brown). Using serrated knife, carefully cut off top half of each puff. Cool on rack. (Puffs can be kept 1 day in airtight container or can be frozen 1 month.) Makes about 20 small cream puffs.

This sauce requires no sugar, since there is enough in the chocolate. Using cream produces a thicker sauce, while using water or coffee results in a darker sauce with a more intense flavor.

CHOCOLATE SAUCE

12 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped

1 cup whipping cream, water or coffee

3 to 4 tablespoons butter, cut up

1 to 2 teaspoons vanilla

Heat chocolate and whipping cream in heavy saucepan over low heat, stirring often, until smooth. If thicker sauce is desired, continue simmering, stirring often, until thickened. Remove from heat. Stir in butter and vanilla. Serve warm. (Sauce can be kept, covered, 1 week in refrigerator.) Makes about 2 cups.

This rich caramel sauce, made by "deglazing" caramel by adding cream, is fabulous with profiteroles or plain vanilla ice cream and fruit. I learned how to make it when I trained at the kitchen of Millet, a Parisian pastry shop.

CARAMEL SAUCE

1 1/4 cups sugar

3/4 cup water

1 cup whipping cream

1 to 2 tablespoons milk, optional

Combine sugar and water in heavy, medium-size saucepan. Place over low heat and stir until sugar is dissolved. Increase heat and bring to boil. Heat cream in another saucepan over medium heat until it simmers. Keep cream warm over very low heat.

Boil sugar syrup over high heat without stirring until it becomes light brown. (Check color by looking under bubbles.) Reduce heat and continue cooking until syrup is rich brown. Do not let it become too dark, or sauce will be bitter. Remove from heat.

Add hot cream. It is crucial to do this gradually and standing at distance, because sauce will bubble and splatter. Mix well. Return pan to low heat and cook, stirring, until sauce is smooth. If too thick, add 1 to 2 tablespoons milk. Keep sauce warm in saucepan set in shallow pan of hot water over low heat until ready to serve. (Sauce can be kept, covered, 1 week in refrigerator.) Serve warm. Makes 2 1/2 to 3 cups.

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