Cream puffs = Dream puffs

When it comes to serving a flirty dessert to your valentine, it's hard to top the voluptuousness of a cream puff frothy with whipped cream and raspberries. Dusted with powdered sugar or drizzled with your favorite chocolate topping, a cream puff provides a romantic ending without last-minute frazzle on your part.

Cream puffs are made from a classic dough called pâte à choux. "Choux" is a French word for cabbages, which is what the puffs resemble, although you needn't mention that while you're nuzzling your sweetie.

The dough requires just four main ingredients: water, butter, flour and eggs -- and a little muscle. Heat is the key to successful puffs, so the process actually moves quite quickly, mixing together warm ingredients which go into a hot oven, where the steam performs its magic.

There are several tips to ensure a lofty puff: Warming the eggs in a bowl of hot water from the tap makes them easier to stir into the dough and also keeps the dough as warm as possible. Using a pizza stone beneath your baking sheet also boosts the heat under the pastries, helping them puff.

For such a delicate result, cream puffs actually require strong biceps. Once you add the flour to the boiling water and butter, you need to start stirring vigorously to quickly incorporate the flour and avoid any lumps. Stir fast and stir constantly for one to two minutes. The dough needs to dry as much as possible so it then will absorb as much egg as possible. Eggs are the only leavening ingredient in cream puffs, so the more egg, the more puff.

Keep them dry

The technique is to press the batter against the sides, then stir into a ball, over and over until it feels drier and pulls away cleanly from the sides of the pan. Keep the dough moving in the pan so it doesn't scorch.

Now you want to add as much egg as possible, without adding so much that the dough gets soft. Start with three eggs, then do this test: Place a small spoonful on a plate. The dough should be supple enough to hold its shape, but not be "pasty." If it still seems stiff, add an extra egg white; if it seems quite soft, move on to shaping the puffs.

Make sure to leave at 2 inches between the dollops of dough to allow for expansion. One more tip: Just before you place the pan in the oven, spritz each puff with water (I use a plant spritzer). This will keep them moist longer so they'll puff as much as possible before beginning to firm up. In this dry winter, give your face a quick spritz as well.

Once they're in the oven, don't open the oven door to peek! A rush of cold air might make them collapse. The puffs can be made several hours in advance of serving, leaving you time to take a bath and get gussied up.

Don't fill your puffs until you're ready to serve them. There are a range of options: ice cream, custard or sweetened whipped cream folded together with fresh fruit. The accompanying recipe makes enough filling for four puffs, so you can each have two puffs.

Or, if you each just want one, that's fine, too. We'll let you decide how to use the extra whipped cream.

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185

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